Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Capitalism's crisis: why Mike was right

Economic crises always bring out the retrospective prophets. During the Great Depression, the grim years of global 'stagflation' in the 1970s, and the short but sharp shocks of the late '90s, and now the crisis of 2008, self-proclaimed experts have come out of the woodwork to insist that they'd seen trouble coming all along, but been ignored by governments and investors. The left as well as the right has liked to claim the mantle of Cassandra: there's an old joke that says that Marxists have predicted seven of the last two recessions.

One man who can justly claim to have foreseen the present crisis is Mike Beggs, the unreasonably clever graduate of Auckland University's sociology department who is currently studying and teaching in Sydney. Back in 2002 and 2003 Mike and I used to enjoy long boozy lunches in Auckland bars: I would lean back and slurp my Newcastle Browns, and Mike would discourse with remarkable fluency about the enormous bubble that he saw growing around the world economy. Mike was working on a Masters' thesis on the so-called 'knowledge economy', and he seemed to relish poring over vast printouts of the latest economic data from the United States and Europe. He was also interested in what academics like to call the 'microstructural' aspects of the economy, which meant that he would trawl the media and the blogosphere to find out how individual workers and households invested money and consumed goods, and how their choices were affecting their lives.

Soon after beginning his research, Mike had been struck by the ease with which credit was being made available, in the United States in particular. In tones which combined wonder and fear, he told of how struggling American families were receiving credit cards and cheques for thousands of dollars in the mail from banks they had never even patronised. All they had to to use the cards and cash the cheques was fill in a form and post if off. Mike explained that all this easy credit was an unsustainable attempt to to keep the economy gowing by stimulating demand artificially. Back when real estate moguls were still talking about an endless boom, Mike was warning of a day of judgement.

You don't have to rely on my testimony for proof of Mike's prescience: over the past couple of years his Scandalum Magnatum blog has regularly forecast trouble for the economy. Over the last year, Mike found more and more people who were inclined to take his pessimism seriously. Last year, when he gave a public lecture on Marx's economics and the state of the global economy, Mike recognised a wealthy Sydney stockbroker in his audience.

It's puzzling that Scandalum Magnatum has gone rather quiet now, in what should be Mike's hour of vindication. Instead of proclaiming himself Cassabdra, Mike is posting about Jimi Hendrix and Brian Eno. Perhaps, though, Mike has too much integrity to join the 'I told you so' game being played out in so many corners of the internet. Read the archives of his blog, anyway.

Near Onewhero

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

To the moon again

I'm grateful to Raewyn Alexander for writing this review of my book for the fifth issue of her publication Magazine. You can read other reviews of the book here, here, here, here, and here.

To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps - Scott Hamilton
Titus Books RRP $19.95 ISBN 978-1-877441-02-8

The moon is a symbol of illusion, confusion, and romance, while poetry's a machine to suspend the everyday. Captured by images and phrases we float towards places we usually only dream we could visit.

Hamilton understands how many moods flourish within people, what dazzling aims we reach for, and how to convey the sense of this. On the way to the moon or to beautifully fooling ourselves could lie through reading these poems and collections of texts with curious additions.

Hamilton's writing takes in history, interruptions, lost poets, God, ordinary life complete with tea cups, travel, political theory...and through it all an urgent desire to know oneself. The poetry shows that, no matter what we trick ourselves with, we are always there. 'Self': a complex arrangement of experiences, ideas and feelings jostling for attention, or jutting in with chnages, then evoking lovely images to beguile and divert. Urges and thoughts drive any steps taken and the poet stays aware, uncomfortably at times, of their presence. Poetry releases us from language's usual rules, is a kind of holiday or sidestep for the mind. To the moon indeed, out into freshly written, surprising words, exploration at their core, the weight of the everyday lifts off you and a new place appears where strangeness is ordinary.

Reading poetry like Hamilton's may give a much-needed boost to your own creativity or simply form a way to exercise the mind, away from the expected and usual. Adventure is the main theme, even if it involves going to the moon.

'He needs only half an hour alone with the moon to produce a poem. He has been receiving neither letters nor newspapers. He ghosted his own memoirs. It was as though another eye had opened in his head.'
- from 'My Life'

Hamilton's first book could possibly be two volumes, there's so much going on, as illusions are shown to be part of life. Maybe the moon stepped down here to earth?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The times they are a changin' - back?

My first taste of political activism came in 1991, when I tagged along on a few of the angry marches against benefit cuts and the Employment Contracts Act that regularly closed Queen Street to traffic that year. Along with a couple of mates, I was a member of my high school's journalism class, and I justified skipping school by telling dubious teachers that I was collecting material for the next issue of the school newspaper.

Those weekday excursions to central Auckland ended when TV One's evening news bulletin showed footage of my friends and me being chased down Queen St by a group of angry cops. The morning after our television debuts we were summouned to the deputy principal's office - it always the deputy principal we were asked to see, presumably because the principal himself liked to preserve an Olympian detachment from the sordid business of crime and punishment - and given a series of after school detentions as punishment for our journalistic curiousity.

Over the next few days, a number of staff members approached my friends and me to ask about our adventures in Queen Street. Some of them were curious as to whether we were seriously interested in politics, or merely 'doing it for fun'; others were sympathetic, because they were active members of the teachers' union, and had taken part in a huge demonstration against the Employment Contracts Act earlier in the year.

A number of our interlocutors, though, were hostile, and I remember trying to improvise arguments against the deep cuts in benefits and the rollback in union rights which the National Party was presiding over, in flagrant violation of the pledges that had helped the party win election in 1990. I found myself running off to the library to research these subjects before daring to cross the quad, where a right-wing Economics teacher lurked. Students always learn more from arguing than from listening.

In retrospect, 1991 perhaps marked the zenith of the influence of neo-liberal ideology in New Zealand. National was continuing the neo-liberal 'reforms' which Labour had pursued with such energy between 1984 and 1990, the Soviet Union and its satellite states were dying, and two-bit Hegelians like Francis Fukuyama were rushing to proclaim the end of the history and the economic and ideological hegemony of the United States and free market capitalism. National's benefit cuts and anti-union laws were, it seemed, an historical inevitability.

Although neo-liberalism was viscerally unpopular amongst many New Zealanders, there seemed to be little serious intellectual opposition to the doctrine. The unions organised huge demonstrations against National's industrial relations legislation, but seemed uncertain about what to advocate in its place. As soon as the legislation had passed through parliament, Council of Trade Unions leader Ken Douglas proclaimed that his organisation would 'have to accept it'. The Labour Party could not act as a focus for opposition to National's agenda, because it had just spent six years implementing a very similar agenda. The breakaway New Labour Party/Alliance began promisingly but soon fell under the iron control of Jim Anderton, and began purging or disciplining its most clear-headed members in the name of 'electability'.

I certainly felt very bold, back in 1991, arguing that unions deserved the right to negotiate national awards, and that solo mothers deserved to receive something resembling a living wage, rather than a few handouts from a foodbank. The teachers that I argued with in the quad and on the field found these positions absurdly unworldy: they called me an anarchist and a communist, as well as many less charitable things.

Looking back, though, I realise that I was making very simple, social democratic arguments against government policies which had been borrowed from the playbook of the radical right. If I had been arguing in 1981 rather 1991, then my points would have been taken as boring truisms. Until the onslaught of neo-liberalism began in 1984, all mainstream New Zealand politicians had been committed to the welfare state, negotiated settlements between employers and unions, and heavy government intervention in the economy. Class compromise and Keynesian economics had been a feature of Kiwi life since 1935, when Michael Joseph Savage and his mates took over the Treasury benches for Labour.

In a few short years, though, economic policies had changed radically, as a section of the New Zealand capitalist class and their friends in government ruthlessly globalised the economy and chipped away at the welfare state. The ideological climate had changed as the facts on the ground changed, and what had been common sense had come to seem absurd.

Ideological transformations of this sort are not, of course, peculiar to New Zealand. They occurred in many different places in the twentieth century. I'm reminded of the story of the Soviet soldiers who pushed into Germany near the end of World War Two, and were amazed when they were told that the bombed-out factories they found there were owned by individuals, and not by the state. Raised in a society that had done away with capitalism, they could not believe that such an archaic system could exist in the middle of Europe. In only twenty-odd years, the Soviet system had been 'naturalised' in the minds of many of its subjects.

I think back to the arguments I had in 1991 when I read about the new crisis of the global finance system, and observe the sudden conversion of the likes of George Bush and Gordon Brown to the nationalisation of banks and mortgage firms. Bush's takeover of Freddie and Fannie was not motivated by any sudden lurch to the left, but by necessity. Nevertheless, it has the form, if not the content, of the policies of the Keynesian era. Brown's takeover of the Northern Rock bank appears, on the surface, like the sort of 'ultra-left' measure that smug Western commentators have scolded Hugo Chavez for implementing in Venezuela over the past few years.

The appeal of neo-liberal ideology has been badly damaged by recent events. Will we therefore be seeing the re-emergence of the sort of social democratic policies that dominated politics in the Western world through most of the second half of the twentieth century? That seems to be the hope of commentators like Bryan Gould, who has a piece in today's Granny Herald condemning the reforms of the '80s and '90s.
It is naive, though, to believe that emergency bail-outs of a few banks and finance companies can compare to the complex set of institutionalised compromises between a powerful labour movement and the capitalist class which made the Keynesian era possible. Despite their populist rhetoric about protecting ordinary people from the excesses of the finance markets, what Bush and Brown are delivering is a sort of 'socialism for the rich' that protects a few big firms from collapse whilst ignoring those further down the food chain.

An important underlying cause of the current crisis is the lack of spending power of working classes in the West. Despite the economic boom of the late nineties and early noughties, the average real wage remained flat in a number of Western countries, and actually declined in some places. In New Zealand the real average wage declined slightly between 1981 and 2001. The real average wage in America today is a third lower than it was in 1973.

The gutting of the industrial sector and the decline in trade union membership and power helped reduce the ability of workers to win better wages. Over the past decade demand has been sustained by borrowing, not genuine increases in wealth. Private debt has soared, as people borrowed to pay the bills and took dodgy mortgages. Reckless borrowing has been encouraged by banks that mail credit cards to families picked randomly from the phonebook, and sign clients they nickname 'ninjas' - as in 'no income, no job, no assets' - up to sub-prime mortgages. It is hard to believe that those in power did not know what was going on: after 9/11, George Bush urged Americans to do their patriotic duty and go shopping, so that the economy would stay afloat.

Now Bush is bailing out the companies that behaved so irresponsibly for years, but socialism for the rich will do nothing to improve the incomes of American workers. The left and the union movement have to demand that ordinary victims of economic crisis receive relief. These folks have got the right idea.

I'm off to go bargain-hunting in the discount aisle at Pak 'n Save. If I bump into my old economics teacher there I must ask him whether he still believes in historical inevitability.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Twenty big ones

After sparking a debate with his list of the twenty best novels of the twentieth century, Jack Ross has turned his attention to poetry. His list of the twenty greatest long poems of the twentieth century doesn't deserve to go unanswered: here, then, are my thoroughly subjective picks, in no particular order:

Alun Lewis, 'The Jungle' (1944)

Forget about that booze hound Dylan Thomas - poet and short story writer Alun Lewis was the greatest Welsh scribbler of the twentieth century. 'The Jungle' is Lewis' last and greatest poem, written just weeks before he blew his brains out beside the latrine of a British army base on the Burmese-Indian border. 'The Jungle' is an elegy for Lewis, and for an entire generation of idealistic young men whose belief that the Second World War could remake the world for the better evaporated during the long years of the conflict. During his deployment in India, a country whose strange landscapes and almost-impenetrable cultures bewildered and thrilled him, Lewis exchanged utopian socialism and Welsh cultural nationalism for a sort of cosmic nihilism:

But we dream beside this jungle pool
prefer the instinctive rightness of the poised pied kingfisher
deep diving for a fish
to all the banal rectitude of states,
the dew-bright diamonds on a viper's back
to the vituperations of the just...

Paavo Haavikko, The Winter Palace (1959, translated by Anselm Hollo)
Paavo Haavikko wrote this sequence in the Helsinki of the late 1950s, but it has a timeless, allegorical quality, as the landscape and myths of northern Europe come to stand for experiences common to all human societies. Like a number of Scandinavian writers, Haavikko has the ability to combine the most acute observation with an almost cosmic contemplation. His lines are at once concrete and general:

the Emperor is an image,
darkness is descending,
the fallen trees on the slope are like an eagle's nest, the dense dryness of branches,
and the Emperor is alone, and he is clear,
he is in his pleasure palace, cold in winter,
he is the one you see most clearly in the dark...

the Empire is built and destroyed by the blinking of an eye.

Ezra Pound, Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII (1969)

I can't read most of the Cantos - I find them chaotic and cacophonous, and at the same time oddly fey and bookish, and the intermittent anti-semitic rants don't do much for me, either - but I do like these very late poems, which try to bring the curtain down on Pound's bungled epic. The ugly rhetoric is gone, as haiku-like images float on the page. Pound seems to have found a measure of peace by reflecting back on his long and strange life:

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.

TS Eliot, The Four Quartets (1943)
I spent a good part of September 2007 huddled beside Bill Direen's Dunedin fireplace, listening to a very crackly recording of the elderly Eliot reading this set of meditations on time, space, and nothingness. I was astonished at the hypnotic quality that the poem's rhythms attain, when they are given voice - who would have thought that such a dour character with such an understated way of reading could generate such incantatory power? Others like Jack prefer The Waste Land, but for me the Quartets is the more consistent, mature work. Those long, measured, repetitious lines remind me of The Book of Ecclesiastes, the only part of the Bible I could read for pleasure.

Geoffrey Hill, The Mercian Hymns (1971)

This is the poem Pound should have written instead of The Cantos. Like Pound, Hill travels through time, moving from the ancient Mercia of the semi-legendary King Offa to the austere yet peculiarly surreal England of the 1940s and

Unlike Pound, Hill anchors himself in a place - the Shropshire district that AE Housman made famous with his sentimental poems about 'blue remembered hills'. There is nothing sentimental about the Shropshire of the Mercian Hymns.

Hill's sequence has a very English compression, which Pound could have learnt from: There are only thirty of 'hymns', and each runs for no longer than four prose paragraphs. Hill doesn't waste a word.
Gunnar Ekelof, Emgion (1960, translated by WH Auden and Leif Sjoberg)

I posted about Gunnar Ekelof last year, but I can't remember if I mentioned that the father of modern Swedish poetry was fascinated by the occult, and often held seances. He claimed that this late sequence of poems was dictated to him by a medieval Kurdish prince, and it's hard not to believe him, such is the skill with which another time and place are evoked.

Allen Curnow, 'Moro Assasinato' (1979)

All the seas are one sea,
all the blood is one blood...
Ever is always today.

Nuff said, especially since I've already posted in praise of this astonishing meditation on political fanticism, terror, and the nature of eternity.

Anthony Barnett, North North I Said No South Oh I Don't Know: 148 Political Poems (1984)

Anthony Barnett is possibly better known as an avant-garde musician than as a poet: this is a pity, because his work has qualities unsual in Anglo-Saxon letters. Barnett has lived in Norway and translated Norwegian poets into English, and it is tempting to believe that his exposure to Scandinavian literature has helped shape his aesthetic. The short poems which make up the North North sequence are at once brusque and oblique, gnomic and concrete. Perhaps this piece sums up Barnett's intentions:

When the
language is stretched
to the last
of irreverence
then this
is the time
when last needs
turn to latest
and through
a few leaves
a last fruit

Isaac Rosenberg, Moses: a Verse Drama (1916)

Isaac Rosenberg was one of the few English-language poets who tried to create a new vocabulary and new rhythms to express the terrible experience which was World War One, or the First Great Imperialist War, as sensible people like to call it. Rosenberg is remembered today for his short poems about life in the trenches, not his unfinished attempt at a verse-play, but Moses also registers the shock of war on a sensitive and intelligent young man:

I am rough now, and new, and will have no tailor.
As a mountainside
Wakes aware of its other side
When from a cave a leopard comes...

Kendrick Smithyman, 'An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia' (1970)

We can't leave old Smithy off our list, can we? Many Kiwis think that there's nothing beyond Kaitaia except Cape Reinga, but the 'sly old fox of New Zealand verse' proves them wrong in this poem:

...inconstant air implicates farmlands
in a conspiracy of nation, utility,
populist myth. You must change
your life, Rilke’s archaic Apollo urged.
They have done so. They have put by.
Between a sea and an ocean
the farmlands lie low
without a hill to comfort them...

tanned, earnest
Slavic Polynesian faces,
all the men wearing dark
suits. Perhaps they are going
to a wedding beyond
the dairy factory...

It is nice to see 'An Ordinary Day' being discussed in Senka Bozik-Vrbancic's new book Tarara: the cutural politics of Maori and Croat identity in New Zealand.

Eugene Guillevic, Carnac (1961, translated by Teo Savory)

Guillevic was a stolid Breton who spent weeks on end staring at the sea off the northern coast of his native land. The result was this sequence of quiet, often beautiful poems:

A whole system of arithmetic
died in your waves.

Max Jacob, The Dice Cup (1917, translated by John Ashbery)

At the time he was writing many of the pieces in The Dice Cup, Max Jacob was sharing a tiny apartment with Picasso. The apartment had only a single bed, so the two struggling artists worked out a routine: Picasso painted while Jacob slept, then Jacob wrote while Picasso slept. Picasso created a Cubist style of painting by breaking through the traditional laws of composition and coming at his subjects from strange angles; Jacob did something very similar in the strange prose poems that fill this book:

There are upon the night three mushrooms that are the moon. As brusquely as the cuckoo sings from a clock, they rearrange themselves at midnight each month. There are in the garden rare flowers that are small sleeping men, one-hundred of them. They are reflections from a mirror. There is in my dark room a luminous censer that swings, then two... phosphorescent aerostats. They are reflections from a mirror. There is in my head a bumblebee speaking.

Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat(1975)

After finding himself at a loose end in London in the early '70s, Iain Sinclair scored a job mowing the lawns in the grounds of the mysterious churches that Nicholas Hawksmoor built in the aftermath of the plague and fire that struck the city in the seventeenth century. Alternating between verse and prose, Lud Heat is at once a journal of Sinclair's experiences on the job, a visionary exploration of the history of the Hawksmoor churches, and a series of hallucinations:

What cosmic order does he affront, or do we affront, by raking over these old wound paths in this Year of the Tiger? Breaking the code of the churches gives us twin fears: fire and inundation. These holy places are tombs of the sacred crocodile...they demand sacrificial flame. Consume, consummate: God's place. Possession of the hollow body by demonic, multi-tongued fires.

St Anne was gutted by fire on the morning of Good Friday, April 6, 1850...

Martin Johnston, 'The Blood Aquarium' (1971)

Martin Johnston, who died of alcoholism at the age of only forty-two in 1990, was the Jorge Luis Borges of Australian literature, an extraordinarily erudite and slightly otherwordly intellectual who made literary games into exciting and profound things. 'The Blood Aquarium' is a guided tour of the history of Western culture, from a man aware of both the riches and limitations of that culture.

Selima Hill, The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness (1988)
'Accumulation' is a word that suits Hill, who builds her poems up out of short, tight sentences and simple but resonant images. This book-length poem is presented as a series of entries in the diary of a teenage girl who has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and it frequently makes for unnerving reading:

I had to cross the day room on my hands,
a silent rabbit foraging for fruit...
I think I have swallowed a rabbit.
It keeps wriggling.

Peter Reading, C (1984)

Peter Reading became a hero for fifteen minutes in the 1980s when he lost his factory job for refusing to swap his 'civilian' clothes for a company uniform. Reading's poems can be read as defiant protests against the seedy, slowly decaying Britain that decades of Thatcherism and (more recently) Blarisim have created. Like BS Johnson, another avant-garde British writer with strongly left-wing views, Reading is detrermined to bring social realism and literary experiment together. His poems are unconventional, but they are full of the minutae of fin de sciele Britain. Despite the odd shapes it often forms on the page, Reading's writing is always subtly formal: C, which tells the story of writer slowly dying of cancer, is made up of one hundred units of one hundred words each.

Roberto Sanesi, Information Report (1973, translated by William Alexander)

Sanesi revolted against the 'hermetic' school which dominated Italian poetry after World War Two. Against the hermeticists' insistence that poetry should be 'purified' of all references to 'reality', Sanesi raised the banner of a 'dialectical' poetics which would engage relentlessly with the world in all its messiness. Information Report ranges over Italian history, and includes some eerie evocations of Mussolini's rule and the anti-fascist resistance which eventually prevailed against Il Duce, but Sanesi is also able to find poetry in something as simple as the movement of a bird, or the shadow of a curtain in an empty bedroom.

WH Auden, Spain

You know a poem must be good when you can study it for months, write a PhD chapter about it, and perform it live with a last-minute put-together boogie band, and yet still not despise it.

Burns Singer, 'Sonnets for a Dying Man' (1957)

Burns Singer is not so much undervalued as unknown. This is a shame, because his poems fuse the scientific outlook and terminology he learned as a marine biologist with that pearly, pastoral beauty familiar in traditional English verse. Singer died young, and this sequence occurs near the end of the only collection of poems he published in his lifetime. It is hard not to read Singer's sonnets as a valediction:

The life I die moves through the death I live...
I do not want to go. I will not give
The death I live in to the life I die;
Or trust it will reveal what I deny:
And will not die although I cannot live...

Ken Bolton, Untimely Meditations (1997)

I know what some of you will be thinking: 'fifty pages of a drunken Aussie writing whatever comes into his head - is this some kind of joke?' The answer is yes, this poem is, like all of Bolton's work, a sort of extended joke, and it's often rather funny:

In the mid-70s
I became aware

of an irritating irregular din,
becoming quite insistent

- things beginning with 'I'

It was Les Murray.

Les told us
the beef?'

as if poems were a sandwich...

Tua Forsstrom, The Snow Leopard (1994, translated by David McDuff)

A book-length poem by a Swedish-Finnish writer? The word 'snow' in the title? How can we go wrong?

Aussie grit

As some of you have noted so ruefully, I have been posting a fair few photos to this blog lately. I could never be bothered messing around with darkrooms and negatives and trays full of that funny red liquid, but now that the advent of the digital camera has transformed photography into a lazy person's artform I can't help having a crack.

I only realised how far off the mark my efforts with the camera have been when I looked at this set of new photographs by trade unionist and labour (or should that be labor?) researcher Kirsty McCully, who has been snapping merrily away in her new hometown of Sydney. The photos reproduced in this post were taken on Cockatoo Island, which was for decades the hub of Australia's boat-building industry.

Many of the Australian navy's gunboats, frigates and submarines were built on Cockatoo Island; ironically enough, the site was also a major power-centre of the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Australia. During the early stages of World War Two, party members on Cockatoo Island organised industrial action which slowed down the construction of new naval vessels and provoked consternation in Canberra. After the Soviet Union was attacked the party made a U turn on the war, and its cadre began setting up 'production committees' and urging workers at Cockatoo to turn out more and more weapons of war. In 1989 the Hawke government annnounced that the dockyards on Cockatoo Island would close; in response, the workers and their supporters occupied the island, demanding the preservation of their jobs. After fourteen weeks they were defeated.

Now Cockatoo Island is a world heritage site, and tourists flock to walk its rusting staircases and photograph its galleries of ancient graffiti. Fading advertisements for the 'Party of the future' have an ironic ring today, but the Australian trade union movement is stronger than it has been for decades, thanks to the successful campaign of resistance to John Howard's anti-union industrial relations legislation. Today, of course, the heavy industrial sector symbolised by Cockatoo Island accounts for only a very small fraction of the Aussie workforce; the fastest-growing parts of the union movement, like the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union that employs Kirsty, represent the service sector.

In a hundred years or so will our descendants be traipsing through ruinous call centres, photographing the graffitti on the walls of claustrophobic cubicles and workstations?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rick and Syd in the Beechwoods

As a fan of the original incarnation of the Pink Floyd - I mean the freewheeling psychedelic band that the legendary Syd Barrett founded and (for a short time) led, not the massive stuttering rock machine that churned out albums like Dark Side of the Moon - I was saddened to hear about the recent death of Rick Wright, whose electric organ graced tracks like this:

Like some of the best work of the early Floyd, 'In the Beechwoods' has never been officially released - we only have this version of the song because drummer Nick Mason played it in the background while giving a taped interview to a fan who knocked on his front door one day. Rick Wright's playing near the end of the track, in particular, is extraordinary - he seems about to suck the listener into a vortex of swirling organ notes.

Richard reads

Back in the nineties Richard Taylor was one of the loudest voices on the Auckland live poetry scene; in more recent years, though, he has lain low in Panmure, writing incessantly and making complex and beautiful posts on his unique ongoing blog-poem, Eyelight. Tomorrow, though, Richard will be emerging from East Auckland to give a low-key reading at Blockhouse Bay library. Richard writes that:

I will be giving a poetry reading at the BLOCKHOUSE BAY LIBRARY at - 578 Blockhouse Bay Road - (Auckland NZ) this Thursday (18th Sept) at 2 pm as a part of The NZ Book Week.( Ph for Library 374 1311.)

All welcome - free. It will probably be a small event. I will read poems from various stages of my "age and life" and from my three books.

Perhaps it could be an opportunity to discuss what literature is and what poetry is etc in light of my EYELIGHT (" 'infinite" poem' " based) project (and the many developments of other writers - "postmodern" or political, lyrical, nihilistic, sad happy, deluded, or philosophical - or just
"beautiful, (how do we define "beauty"?)), or other - and the shifting nature of art or literature in the "modern" world or an opportunity to catch up, abuse me, or be nice to me; have a cup of tea or whatever and so on...

Titus and possibly Maps will be there or there in spirit if not substance - and my latest book "Conversation with a Stone" should be there...

The Immortal Jack Ross will be there in spirit and glory of his great (if absent) personage - and will caste his Great Beneficence on the event...

Giordono Bruno, Raymond Lull, Eva Android, Marx, E P Thomson, Eros, Levinas, Derrida, Barthes, Sam Hunt, Bill Manhire, Hitler, John Key (he is a great poetaster I am told), Orwell, and Ovid - or their shades - all may also put in an appearance...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Pt Chev and thereabouts

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Skyler and I recently made a flying visit to Wellington, where we found time for the ritual trek through Te Papa. Although I have many criticisms of Te Papa - I tend to agree with that old curmudgeon Hamish Keith - I am always able to find things to enjoy there. I think Te Papa displays far too few Maori artefacts, and doesn't take conservation and research as seriously as it should, but I do appreciate the way that it sets aside separate areas where artefacts from different iwi are shown. It is really instructive to be able to look at a group of Kai Tahu artefacts, for instance, in isolation, and see the unique features which South Island Maori culture developed.

I also like the fact that Te Papa has a permanent exhibition on the culture and history of the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands. By contrast, Auckland museum has kept its Moriori artefacts - many of them extraordinarily rare and quite beautiful - out of sight for well over a decade now. The photo at the top of this post (I apologise for its poor quality - it's tricky taking snaps through glass with lights shining behind you) shows two carved posts from a Moriori building. I'd looked at reproductions of the carvings in books, but it was only when I saw them 'in the flesh' that I realised how extraordinarily different they are from the wood carvings made by Maori. If their broad, meandering motifs recall any sort of Maori art, it is probably the limestone paintings of the southern South Island.

We also managed to catch the Rita Angus retrospective at Te Papa. Angus suffers, I think, from the fame which a few of her portraits have gained. I remember writing undergraduate Art History essays on her 'Goddess' self-portraits and her picture of Betty Curnow and dutifully noting the various symbols and their meanings, without really feeling very moved. The same old portraits are prominently displayed in the retrospective, but so are some of Angus' less well-known works, including some wonderful paintings of the landscapes of Hawkes Bay and central Otago. I was familiar with Cass, Angus' famous picture of a lonely train station in central Otago, but I was much more impressed with another painting of the same landscape, which featured layer upon layer of hills and seemed to glow with a light the colour of Cromwell apricots (I can't find the image online, alas, but the painting reproduced at the bottom of this post is another of Angus' central Otago landscapes).

Once again, I think I agree with Hamish Keith, who claimed in his recent TV series on New Zealand art that Angus' landscapes are superior to her portraits. Am I becoming an old curmudgeon?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Mission Bay

Friday, September 05, 2008

'Don't you think we look a bit silly sometimes?'

I often think that EP Thompson would have loved blogging. Thompson loved the sort of ding-dong arguments that the blogosphere seems to inspire, and he was a prolific polemicist, able to write thousands of words in dozens of letters over a few hours. During my PhD research on Thompson I came across a large number of his eloquently grumpy polemical letters; some of them are quoted into my thesis, but others couldn't quite be fitted in.

The following letter was sent to me by Carey Davies, a young researcher from Sheffield University. Visiting the archives of the Communist Party of Great Britain at the Museum of People's History in Manchester, Davies discovered that, in the fateful year of 1956, the party had begun collecting Thompson's correspondence and monitoring his activities. 1956 was, of course, the year when Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev denounced Stalin and issued a selective, but still shocking, list of the recently-deceased tyrant's crimes. Krushchev's revelations destabilised Communist Parties around the world, as activists who had come to see the Soviet Union as a beacon in a dark world were forced to confront realities like Stalin's bloody purges of his political rivals.

The leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain tried to stifle discussion of the Krushchev speech and the revelations of Stalin's crimes. Party theoretician Palme Dutt responded to the charges against Stalin by declaring blandly that 'we should not be surprised that there are spots on the sun'. The young EP Thompson quickly became a leader of the many dissidents in the party who wanted a full discussion of the 'Stalin question', and the party leadership began to take a particular interest in his correspondence and movements. By the beginning of 1957 Thompson had left the party's fold, after being further provoked by Krushchev's decision to send tanks to crush the dissidents of Hungary. Even after Thompson's departure, though, the Communist Party sometimes sent spies out to monitor his political activities, and Davies’ discoveries include some detailed, fly on the wall reports of Thompson’s appearances at political meetings and rallies, scribbled by bitter old Stalinists hiding in the back row of drafty halls in St Pancras and Sheffield.

All sorts of ironies attend the discoveries Carey Davies made in Manchester. In his trailblazing studies of plebian and peasant resistance to the ruling class of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, EP Thompson sometimes used the reports of government spies as raw material: he would read between the lines of accounts of Luddite meetings or food riots, to discover information that official histories of the era had either ignored or repressed. Now we can use the reports of spies to study Thompson himself. When I wrote about Thompson's role in the 'New Left' that emerged after 1956, I was able to mine the reports of the Stalinist spies for all sorts of details.

The Communist Party of Palme Dutt was obsessed with security, and guarded its 'internal documents' carefully. With the demise of the party, though, this very thoroughness has meant that some of the dubious activities of the leadership and its hacks have been preserved on paper for any interested scholar to find. Carey Davies himself is an activist as well as a scholar: in fact, he belongs to a group which calls itself the Communist Party of Great Britain - Provisional Central Committee, and claims descent from anti-Stalinist dissidents in the old party.

I wanted to put the following letter on this blog because it's a fine example of Thompson's epistolary style, and because I wanted to say a sort of thankyou to Carey Davies, who was very generous in sharing his findings with me (I've acknowledged him, as well, in my PhD thesis). Thompson wrote the letter to Joan Maynard, who was first a councillor and later an MP for the Labour Party in Yorkshire. Maynard had a good relationship with the leadership of the Communist Party, and was nicknamed 'Stalin's Granny' by the right-wing papers. In the aftermath of the Krushchev speech, Maynard had written to the party's Daily Worker newspaper, acknowledging Stalin's crimes but arguing that debate about them should be put aside in Britain where, after all, workers endured explotiation and lacked real democracy.

Thompson's letter is, by any standards, a remarkable political document. Thompson is a member of the Communist Party, yet he is urging a member of the Labour Party to be less complimentary toward the leadership of his own party. And Thompson makes his plea in the name of the rank and file members of the Labour Party, amongst others! Yet Thompson's arguments are less contradictory than they appear, and his defence of civil liberties as the fruit of the past struggles of the workers and their allies rings especially true in an era when democratic rights are being steadily eroded in the name of the defence of democracy.


Dated 3rd June, 56.

Dear Jean,

I very much appreciate your action in writing to the D.W. and this is a practical and important action for democracy, which the bans etc. have seriously limited. Since you will get brickbats from the Stanley Woods for doing so it seems unfair for me to join the critics: but I know you are the sort of person who thrives on criticism and does not like false praise, here I go!

Not a bad article: well written: at another time very valuable. But really - do you think it the sort of contribution to the discussion on democracy needed just now?

Do you follow the news closely? Or do you only have time to read the D.W.? During the last few weeks the following facts have been uncontestably revealed. 1). Stalin's regime was in effect a dictatorship, via the party, the political police, and the army. 2) 100s of 1000s of political dissidents, including thousands of Communists, have been silenced, put in concentration camps - some executed. 3). For years no opposition piece of any kind - even literary journals - have been allowed: potential critics, such as the Jewish writers, have simply been eliminated. 4). No real controversy has been allowed even within the Russian C.P.

This could go on indefinitely. The point is, all this concerns democracy as British people understand it.

Now it may be true that the ordinary labourer of Thirsk has no positive say in running the country, that in this sense our political democracy is a sham: it may also be true that he gets a poor sort of justice in the courts.

But he is protected from arbitary arrest: there is such a thing as the "rule of law", habeas corpus and all the rest. He is able to express his views: to attend political meetings: to elect Labour Councillors. And if he cannot run a paper or write in one, he can give support to voicing his grievances by supporting you.

Your analysis in the article is more Stalinist than Stalin: economic democracy is the whole - political democracy, the rule of law, does not matter; or can come later.

But the British people - your labourers at Thirsk - will never bring a C. Party to power if they fear it will lead to the destruction of liberties: and the point is that we should not deplore this as a sign of their bondage, but see it as a positive and mature aspect of the outlook of the British people.

You Stalinists, who think you can dismiss as "bourgeois democracy" all that British people - and mainly working people - have struggled for for centuries, make me wild. John Milburne, Jack Wilkes, Carlile and Hetherington, Tolpuddle and Peterloo - all "bourgeois democracy" - RUBBISH! By agitation, sacrifice, and organisation, the British people have won many democratic rights (negative perhaps, but you and I have much to thank for them) which they are right to value: and we are betraying their traditions if we write about them in this half-hearted way.

Bourgeois democracy (capitalist press, fake parliament, state machine) is a different thing altogether than these definite democratic rights and liberties (right to publish, right to organise, rights at law, etc).
We want to change the first and keep the second.

What makes me wild is that you should write in the D.W. as if there was no problem: as if the Communists have been right all along, and all the Labour workers have been wrong.

Communists (of the unrepentent sort) write this every day.

What was needed from you was an article saying, a) Communists have the aim of Socialism - and therefore of true democracy - at heart, but (as recent revelations show) have been lazy or dishonest in their thinking about democratic rights. b). There are many in the Labour P. who also have the aim of Socialism at heart, but who have been alienated from the Communists by their fear of losing democratic rights. c). The admission of these things in Russia now makes it possible for us both to get together, start discussions, and see how we can get real socialism without purges, false confessions, and trials, concentrations camps, etc.

I quite agree with what you say about the Tories' fundamental hatred of liberties. The important thing is that the Tories can't get away with it, can't behave as they like. If our democracy was only a facade, then they could. Their "belief in democracy" may be a "myth", but that is not the same thing as saying that our liberties are a myth.

Your article has two effects, one good, one bad. Good - it helps to get the discussion flowing: is an action of solidarity against the bans. Bad - it plays into the hands of the unrepentent Stalinists, who are so bemused with all things Russian, that they do not know the British people, bo not value their traditions, and consequently cannot win their trust.

At a time when some of us are doing our damndest to try and make our own version of Transport House (King Street) learn that this concern for democratic rights of the British working class is real, deep-seated, and positive, and is something we must pledge ourselves to guard and extend - is not all done by mirrors and by the bourgeoisie - but was done by the workers themselves at Peterloo and Trafalgar Square - at such a time we want good friends like you in the L.P. to be honest and tell King St why the workers don't trust and how we look from outside. Don't you think we look a bit silly sometimes? Well, then, SAY SO!

Very best wishes,

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Story of Stuff

This production is by friends of mine - go and see them, they are the most exciting contemporary dancers and choreographers in Auckland! - Skyler :-)

BackLit Production's latest dance creation, The Story of Stuff, transforms the Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall into a world of extravagant desire.

Be drawn into this opulent terrain where eccentric characters roam through travelling doors and illusory mirrors. Caught in a haze of uncontrollable consumption, they are oblivious to the destruction that looms.

Can the inhabitants pull back from the precipice or will consumerism reign supreme?

The Story of Stuff is told on multiple levels where energetic contemporary dance combines with intricately designed costumes and an eclectic mix of locally crafted music.

Wednesday 1 - Saturday 4 October 8.00pm
Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall

$25 waged, $22 student & group 8+, $18 unwaged
tickets through The Edge

Carnival Time

I wanted to thank Jim Jay, who runs Daily (Maybe), for featuring my post on Usain Bolt in the 27th Carnival of (Blogging) Socialism. Check out some of the other goodies in the Carnival, especially BobfromBrockley's obituary for the remarkable Leo Abse, and Stroppyblog's post on polyamory, which explains why committed relationships don't need to be monogamous. Skyler was impressed...

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Notes in the Kaipara

This is by way of a reply to Richard Taylor's recent explorations of the religious side of Panmure. I drove through the lower Kaipara region with Skyler and Muzzlehatch last week.

I want to study the ecology of barbed wire
I want to plot the flight of the fertiliser plane
I want to write a PhD on ditchwater
to follow one ditch after another,
find a tributary for each tributary,
to go from dairy farm
to deer farm, to sheep station
to DOC campsite,
until I find the source of this scummed green water
in the clear bleb of an icicle
dripping in a mountain cave

Kaipara Tavern

'Most people, listen, they make a mistake, they make a mistake and think that all the animals actually went onto the Ark, walked on in pairs, strolled on, easy as you like, up a nice big gangplank, just before there was a giant fart of thunder in the clouds and it started to piss down for forty days and nights. Imagine it: two elephants, with massive blisters on their feet, because they've walked all the way from fucking Africa, then two bull ants, in the shadow of the elephants' arses, then two waddling ducks, then two whateverthe fuck else...an orderly procession, that's what the Sunday school teachers told you, I bet, an orderly procession, walking into the smell of wet pine and straw, walking with the quiet grace of the silversmiths of Vienna, boarding a train to Auschwitz, except this Ark is taking you to a new life...put another coin in the jukebox, man. Buy another round, put another dollar in the slot. Literalism, that's what it is. Literalism. Just take a look at your figures. Four hundred and fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide. That's about the size of one of your sea lorries, of the big one that goes down to Taharoa to get the Japs a meal of ironsand. So what did God put in this Ark, in this lorry, man? God filled his Ark with mud - clay, you can call it if you like, the stuff the colour of dogshit, the stuff the kids bring up in bottles from the bottom of the Kaipara. Mud, the stuff you can mould a little, until it sits on your windowsill in the shape of a cup or a withered tree. God can breathe life into the mud, into clay, into dogshit. God doesn't needn't flesh. God filled the lorry with enough clay, then let it float for forty days and nights, while the things of flesh went under the waves. Then God got his hands dirty again, moulding the clay, breathing life into the dogshit. He didn't need elephants or ants or that old pisshead Noah. He should do it all again -'

He carried the cross now
the cross carries Him

'Michael told me that he dreamt of sneaking back, after the service, after the last confession, and kneeling before Him, kneeling beside the little icon and putting his mouth to the wounds, to the terrible wounds, and sucking the nails out of the feet, out of the palms, the way he had sucked blackberry thorns out of his thumb and forefinger. He confessed the dream to Mr O'Shanessy, who lowered his voice, who told Michael that his thoughts were sinful, who whispered that Christ had to suffer, that His power and glory were His suffering, that all men had to suffer, that all men had wounds, that Michael could see his, Mr O'Shanessy's wounds, could sucks the thorns from his flesh, beside the icons, in the dark, after the service -'

Kau ka pa kau pa ka pa kau kapa kap a

your tongue trembles the prayer

a kau u au u a

you take off your socks
and jump
into the creek,
let your toes wriggle
like huhu grubs,
til the mud turns smooth
and cool,
and your feet can read
the bottle's braille:


You're a drinker, not a collector.

A couple more of these will buy a dozen VBs.

No decorations on the side windows
except for frost,
fingers of ice as warped
and spindly
as the prayer candles inside.

the faithful kiss the cross
the cross is the broken bones of a thief
the faithful sip wine
the communion cup brims with scummed ditchwater
the carved rafters speak to the glory of God
the rafters lie under rubble
the House of the Lord is a ruin
a slaughter shed with a caved-in roof
a scrubcutters' hut with a blown-out wall
a dunny house whose door blew off

tweed jackets, floral dresses:
the faithful dress well
the ruin lies inside them

I stand where the back door
used to blow,
on the hill
where barbed wire grows as thick
as blackberries.

The air breathes me
the air drains through me
slowly, heavily
the way an undercurrent
goes through an eel trap
in the Kaipara River.