Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Smithyman's Christmas riddle

I was looking for some sort of festive communication to pass on, and felt challenged - most of the odes to the season are awful, and though The Pogues' 'Fairytale in New York' is a decent track, if I have to hear it one more time - when I had the idea of visiting Kendrick Smithyman's online Collected Poems and using the search engine. Old Kendrick seemed to find the time to write about every conceivable and inconceivable subject under the sun, from the angels in the thinner layers of atmosphere to the stones of the pavement, so I thought he'd have something to say about the time of Yuletide. I wasn't disappointed. This poem comes from his 1974 collection, Seal in the Dolphin Pool. Explications in the comments box.


Say that I talk in riddles.
We shall, Caesar Augustus, if I talk
to you this Christmas Day, passing
by way of Jerusalem.
Shifting camp,
we travelled fast so shot through
Jerusalem, without recognizing it.
A school, but the school of course
was shut. A meeting house where nobody was
to meet or be met. We kept watch for water.
The courses weren’t good for much.

Settled, on a foreshore
littered with griefs, widows’ weeds
salt-blackened, sunburnt. Dream of
empire, and its drama throws up
latterday saints beside would-be
colonial capitalists hunched unsmiling
on totara rails at the auction yard.
Fishermen’s birds juggle what spoils
below iron shacks at the haul-out ramp,
smokehouse fumes taint a half mile
of air which no one wants. On groynes,
supplejack crayfish pots are
skeletal roses, so much junk.

So much junk, of the unprincipled
Mother, crossgrained cantankerous
ocean – dried out dories, timber workers’
cottages, warped plans for some dividend
seeding future, weathered carnal
reminiscences. Ocean sulkily fingers them,
euphoric vessels of powerfully malign
abrasive corrosive outpourings
hoisting and foaming over the scoured reefs,
skidding them to the slant of the beach,
muddling fine gravels with boulders,
sand with rivermouth silt, and jetsam
woods carrying into poplar groves.

Pioneer oaks higher comport themselves
fittingly. Obsolete, paper
mulberries peculiarly shimmer
lit by winds fined to their essence
which flow seaward from valleys
where total hillsides shake
down to their base streams, Caesar.
Here’s Christmas Day. Not yet have you
entirely, insolently, lost out,
miscounted the world, overtaxed
its resourcefulness.
I stood melancholy for that other Hiruharama,
west across ranges and desert,
thinking of Jim who chose to settle,
iconoclast among Catholics, catholic
in an otherwise hermetic faith.
Friend of the junk heap, and its people.

7. 2. 71

Friday, December 19, 2008

No cardigan required

One of the dissident readers of this blog has left an interesting comment under my most recent post about pseudo-history:

I thought poets were supposed to believe in the imagination? Hullo, we live in a barren boring age where there are too many facts: why do we need to make the past as boring as the present where there are no facts we can argue about!!? At least with prehistory we can let our imaginations 'run wild'. At least we can believe in visions of the past that are poetic and not the boring tracts of academics.

I am in favour of imagination not cardigan wearers.

The pseudo-historians who believe that Celts or Chinese or little green men were the first settlers of New Zealand sometimes accuse their critics of 'taking the mystery' out of the study of the past. If you listen to the likes of Martin Doutre and Kerry Bolton, then Kiwi historians, archaeologists, and museum curators are a bunch of killjoys, who want to substitute a dry, straightforward narrative of the past for the poetry and wonder of books like Ancient Celtic New Zealand and New Zealand's White Warrior Tribe.

But real history is always much more interesting than the counterfeit item which Doutre et al offer for sale. Where the works of pseudo-historians tend to rely on wild speculation and the sort of paranoid, racist rhetoric found on the far right throughout the world, the writings of trained scholars of the past are rich in detail, and are often tremendously suggestive. A very detailed historical narrative, or a quite technical write-up of an archaeological dig can throw up all sorts of intriguing questions, even as it rattles off facts and figures in dry, functional prose.

And it's not just facts but interpretations which can be a source of mystery and questioning: the basic outline of twentieth century New Zealand history, for instance, has a clarity which seventeenth century New Zealand history will never have, yet it raises just as many questions.

In a piece for Landfall last year, I discussed the debates which have raged over whether or not New Zealand came close to revolution during the Great Strike of 1913. During the strike workers and police fought gun battles on the streets of Wellington, a group of miners on the West Coast proclaimed the formation of a revolutionary government, and 'special policemen' - in reality, drunken farmers on horseback, armed with long batons - charged the picket lines that blocked access to the wharves of Auckland.

Commentators agree upon the basic facts pertaining to the violent confrontation between the 'Red' Federation of Labour and the right-wing Massey government, but they differ over whether the Federation's members were determined revolutionaries seeking to overthrow capitalism or moderates who sought only a better deal within the existing system.

Michael King always argued strenuously for the latter interpretation, insisting that the Federation's most radical leaders were born and bred overseas, and out of touch with the opinions of the average Kiwi worker. In his fine book Coal, Class and Community Len Richardson disagreed, and called 1913 a year of 'revolutionary turmoil'.

More recently, James Belich has also insisted that 1913 was a year of revolutionary convulsions. In his book Paradise Reforged, he even likened the Great Strike to the revolutions that shook Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918.

Like most scraps about the past, the debate over 1913 is of more than antiquarian interest.

The way we see our past helps determine the decisions we make about our future. If New Zealand's working class has never displayed the revolutionary qualities glimpsed in nations like Russia, Germany, and Venezuela, then local advocates of ideologies which look to workers to transform society seem to have a difficult task ahead of them.

On the other hand, if there really was a time when workers were at one with the slogans of the radical left, then one of the oldest rhetorical props of the social democratic left - the appeal to the moderate, commonsense nature of the 'average Kiwi worker' - is endangered. It is no coincidence that Michael King was a long-time member of the Labour Party, whereas Len Richardson is a long-time Marxist.

On the ninetieth anniversary of the Great Strike in 2003 the tensions between the positions represented by King and Richardson burst into the open in Auckland. When trade union leaders like Unite's Matt McCarten teamed up with police to commemorate the anniversary of the great battle between capital and labour many rank and file trade unionists were angered.

McCarten's critics felt that the brutal behaviour of the police during the strike, and the murder of Federation of Labour member Fred Evans a year earlier at Waihi, meant that a police presence at commemorations was inappropriate. More generally, they felt that trade union leaders should not be too chummy with the people who are charged with the state with protecting employers' property and - on occasion - breaking up workers' picket lines. Dissident members of Unite and other unions organised an angry picket of the commemoration. They produced a leaflet laying out their own interpretation of the events of 1913 and handed it to the union leaders and academics joining the police at the event.

Studying the past does not mean swallowing some imaginary academic orthodoxy: it means entering into a series of debates which are are still very much relevant. And, so far as I know, the cardigans are optional.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Who says political graffiti is dead?

I photographed these odd creations on a recent trip to the nation's capital, and I'm still trying to work out exactly what they mean, both singly and in concert.

My adventures with EP Thompson

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mykeljon's choice

Seemingly undeterred by the implosion of his collaborator Martin Doutre, who was last seen denying the Holocaust, complaining of Jewish conspiracies, and praising the genius of David Irving, Franklin E Local editor Myklejon Winckel has popped up at the Scoop Review of Books discussion board to heap curses on those of us foolish enough to doubt that an advanced civilisation built vast observatories on the hills of Auckland thousands of years ago.

Mykeljon claims to have authored the articles in Franklin E Local, albeit with the help of Doutre, yet he seems curiously unaware of the central thesis of the texts when he writes that:

You obviously did not read and still have not read the eLocal articles. NO where in the article does it suggest the arrival of Celts or white guys are on LSD!

Mykeljon and his mate Martin Doutre certainly seem to read texts differently to me. I'm sure it's the effects of acid, postmodernism, and politically correctness, but I tend to interpret passages like the following in a pathetically literal sense:

Despite long denials by entrenched historians that European travellers ventured as far south as New Zealand, there is ample evidence to the contrary...

Maori themselves have been ignored when they speak of the “fairy people” with pale skin, pale eyes and reddish hair who were in Aotearoa long before the arrival of the first Polynesian travellers...

There is ample evidence that branches of the selfsame family tree of nations that built the great megalithic sites of Britain, Continental Europe or earlier edifices around the Mediterranean Basin, were also living for many thousands of years in New Zealand...

These quotes all come from the first couple of pages of the first of the three articles Mykeljon published in Franklin E Local . How can Mykeljon hope to interpet the past properly, when he can't even read what are supposedly his own writings?

Mykeljon also complains about the way that critics of the articles in Franklin E Local have highlighted the connections that proponents of the Celtic New Zealand thesis have with neo-Nazism. Mykeljon is quite right when he says I’m trying to associate the articles with racism, Holocaust denial and other irrational and dangerous ideas.

I make no apologies for using an ad hominem argument against Mykeljon and Doutre. Ad hominem arguments are sometimes misused, but they can be very valuable when the competence and trustworthiness of a person making a truth-claim is being discussed.

I have no qualms about arguing that a person like Martin Doutre, who by his own admission denies the Holocaust, believes the convicted neo-Nazi David Irving is a great historian, and believes 9/11 was an ‘inside job’, is unlikely to have anything useful to say about history. Getting advice from Doutre about history is a bit like getting a lesson in evolutionary biology from Brian Tamaki.

Doutre and Kerry Bolton have absolutely no support for their theories amongst New Zealand’s scholarly community. There is no historian who believes that white people became the tangata whenua of Aotearoa thousands of years ago. There is no archaeologist who thinks that the stones scattered around on One Tree Hill are the remains of an ancient Celtic observatory. There is no museum curator who believes that Celts rather than Maori carved the hei tiki and meeting houses displayed in places like Te Papa. There is no kaumatua who agrees with Doutre and Bolton's claims that ancient Polynesians were incapable of making long sea voyages, and had to rely on white 'God-men' to guide them safely from island to island as they crossed the Pacific.

The question, then, is who does one believe - a man who can’t even recognise blatant historical facts like the Holocaust and Al Qaeda’s role in 9/11, or a community of hundreds of careful, dedicated scholars? It’s a pity that Mykeljon made the wrong choice.

Radio Bill

If you didn't get to see Bill Direen and The Bilders on their recent national tour, don't despair - the suite of songs Bill recorded live for National Radio is online, along with an amusing dialogue between the great man and veteran jock Trevor Reekie. Tune in here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Through the keyhole

My response to Ian Carter's fine tome British Railway Enthusiasm has been published at the Scoop Review of Books this week. Before you ask me why I'm so warmly recommending a four hundred page study of train spotting, model railway building, and similar phenomena, let me repeat a point I made in my review:

Is a mind as supple as Carter’s wasted on a subject as modest as railway-related hobbyism? Should this senior scholar not be devoting himself to an analysis of the crises of capitalism, or a study of the social implications of global warming, or an examination of the state of Western democracy? Questions like these have been muttered by sociologists who mistake grand research subjects for important research results. Such people misunderstand the method at work in British Railway Enthusiasm, and in many of Carter’s other books. Like his heroes, the American sociologist C Wright Mills and the Welsh cultural historian Raymond Williams, Carter likes to select a single, relatively limited subject as a sort of ‘keyhole’ through which he can view a whole society and era.

You can take a peek at the rest of my review here.

From Irving to Doutre

The discussion about New Zealand pre-history at the Scoop Review of Books has ended with a long, self-destructive post by Martin Doutre, chief advocate of the Celtic New Zealand thesis. As Matthew Dentith says in his wrap-up of the debate, 'Martin Doutré has had his last words, and they seem to be `Holocaust Denier'.

The editor of Franklin E Local has been huffing and puffing about my use of the term 'Nazi' to characterise contributors to his magazine like Doutre; I doubt whether he's feeling quite so litigious now.

After noting Doutre's defence of Holocaust deniers like David Irving and Joel Hayward (who, to be fair, has since recanted his views), Matthew makes what I think is a mistaken distinction between the world's most famous neo-Nazi and the author of Ancient Celtic New Zealand :

Of course, the difference between Doutré and someone like Irving is that Irving should (and probably) does know better. Doutré is unqualified and shows a lack of critical thinking skills. Irving was a highly-respected academic whose early works were greatly acclaimed...Doutré does not advance his thesis because he is a cunning and malevolent mastermind trying to undermine the indigenous people of the Pacific. He does it because he knows no better.

I think Matthew's portrait of Irving is in some respects innaccurate. Irving has never studied at a university, and (more importantly) even his early, commercially successful work is tainted by neo-Nazism. The young Irving clearly had some aptitude for archival work and for popularising history, but the fact that he was so successful reflects the strong undercurrent of World War Two revisionism in European society. One of Irving's early 'breaks' was writing for an extreme right publication in Germany, and many of his early supporters were neo-Nazis.

Irving was able to disguise his neo-Nazism for a time by choosing subjects - the bombing of Dresden, for example - which show Hitler's enemies in a poor light. But there was deliberate distortion even in Irving's early work - his book on Dresden, for instance, greatly exagerrated the number of people killed during the fire bombing of the city. This exaggeration went largely unnoticed, because Dresden was undeniably a war crime, and because Kurt Vonnegut had made a similar exaggeration in his acclaimed novel Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut's exaggeration was understandable: he lived through the horror of the bombing and was writing as a novelist, not a historian).

When he turned his hand to more wide-ranging accounts of the World War Two period, Irving was unable to disguise his profound sympathy for the Third Reich. Irving's biography of Rommel, which condemned the 1944 plot to take Hitler's life as an act of treachery, disillusioned many reviewers and readers. As he lost the support of academics and mainstream readers, Irving was forced to rely more and more on the largesse of the extreme right to fund his research and his extravagant lifestyle. In return, he was obliged to make ever more strident defences of Hitler and National Socialism.

I think Matthew is also mistaken when he represents Martin Doutre as an essentially apolitical fool, stumbling about the backclocks of New Zealand with his theodolite and his diagrams of stonehenge. As I showed in the open letter which prompted the debate at Scoop Rebiew of Books, Doutre has a history of direct involvement in the One New Zealand Foundation, whose leader uses expressions like 'thank God I'm not a Maori' in his press releases. For reasons which I explained in my letter, Doutre's pseudo-scholarship has been used on the website of the One New Zealand Foundation, and also in the election propaganda of the Nationalist Alliance, the grouping which includes New Zealand's best-known neo-Nazis.

If Doutre were merely a fool, then it wouldn't be so important to criticise his contributions to Franklin E Local. But the man's connections to the racist right make his appearance in a Franklin periodical particularly sinister. In the twentieth century, Franklin was the heartland of organised far right politics in New Zealand: it was in Pukekohe, the commercial centre of the district, that the White Defence League, this country's first serious organised racist group, was founded in the inter-war years, in response to an influx of Indian and Chinese immigrants. The League had prominent supporters throughout Franklin, and it was able to impose a de facto system of segregation in parts of the district. Longtime residents of Franklin can remember how Maori and Asians were banned from sitting upstairs at Pukekohe's movie threatre, and how some of the town's hairdressers refused to serve non-white customers.

In the early 1990s, the New Zealand Defence Movement emerged to carry the banner of anti-Asian and anti-Maori racism. The Movement, which contested the 1993 elections before entering New zealand First en masse in the mid-90s, had its largest concentration of support in Franklin. The librarian at my secondary school was its local candidate; she lived on the edge of Pukekohe. Given all this history, I don't think it is a coincidence that Doutre and his friends managed to foist their articles on the editor of a magazine in Franklin. The confluence of pseudo-scholarship and racist politics is dangerous, which is why I am pleased that Matthew Dentith has done such a good job of countering the Celtic New Zealand thesis over the last few days.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Matthew's mythbusting

Matthew Dentith has taken time out from his busy schedule to answer the twenty-nine questions that Ancient Celtic New Zealand author Martin Doutre posted to the Scoop Review of Books discussion board last week. After patiently working through Doutre's distortions, fallacies, and mischief-making irrelevancies, Matthew concludes that the claim that white people discovered and settled New Zealand millenia ago is not only unsupported by evidence but intellectually incoherent.

Matthew's dissection of Doutre's claim that the famous statues of Easter Island are depictions of white men is impressive for the way it combines anthropological knowledge with the analytic rigour of a philosopher. His rebuke to Doutre's claims about a connection between the Orpheus myth and Maori folklore is also important, because it reveals the Celtic New Zealand's circle's willingness to use doctored translations of old texts. You can read Matthew's reply to Doutre on his blog, as well as on Scoop's discussion board.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Bill Direen's notes from the road

Tonight Bill Direen and the Bilders play the last gig in their epic tour of the Land of the Long White Cloud. They're finishing up in Lyttleton, after fighting their way through the North Island, down the wild West Coast of Te Wai Pounamu, and through the student bars and country pubs of Otago and Canterbury.

Bill has just sent me this off-the-cuff account of his adventures, which I've interspersed with some photos from the band's pre-tour rehearsals and their gigs in Auckland and Raglan.

Dear Scott,

One concert to go and I finally have an hour or so free to tell you more about the tour. It's been great. After we parted at Raglan the band headed south to New Plymouth where there were a few fun and games with a semi-operable P.A. As at the PR Bar last year there was a lot of experimenting and messing around with
cables and speaker combinations and, as has happened many times in this new Bilders life, we got a workable PA a-happening minutes before the gig. No sound man, so we had to regulate it ourselves, but a fine gig. We could all hear ourselves and the others on stage.

Many people don't realise how hard that is sometimes. Some bands are literally working in mute mode, just going through the drum patterns or bass lines and not hearing the finished mix. We usually manage to get a good onstage sound. And the results on this tour have been just fine.

Happy punters. Not many punters in New Plymouth, but a tight set. We slept on floors or mattresses on floors or couches and took off in two vehicles next morning. Brett and Richard and I went around the mountain and visited Parihaka Pa, paying homage to Te Whiti. I sang a song I wrote twenty years ago
about passive resistance, based on the words of a later passive resistant, and a more famous one, Gandhi:

When the black hand rages
when it uses brute force
we must fight it with peace
with truth force

If it spits out our names
and reverts to insult
we must fight it with silence
it will never exult

We may have to endure
bitter harm bitter cold
our houses pulled down
our properties sold

but we must never engage
in crime or outrage
we must never engage

we will never engage
in crime or outrage
we will never engage

Palmerston North Public Library extended its hours so that Andrew McCully and I could play a set for the patient audience. Andrew played the library's in-house piano and I played a quiet guitar. We played a mix of songs from the new album and older Bilders material. We were invited to stay at local musician Rob Thorne's house where we practised in the evening.

Thorne arrived with his orchestra of hand-made percussive and wind instruments, all made out of local shells or bones, or wood. There was a conch shell, seal bones, and a flute drilled by a puriri moth. He played them all for me in a sort of private concert...and it was spell-binding.

We hit Wellington and met up with many old friends. Some had travelled from the middle of the North Island to catch the show. We were joined by Mary Anne Bourke for this show, who sang on a couple of songs from Dial a Claw, the theatre show that was performed at BATS Theatre in Wellington in 1991. Some members of the original cast turned out.

The band set was free but tight in Wellington. Some think it was the best set of the tour. Local musician Vorn joined us in Wellington and would help out with an opening set at most of the venues to follow. He also helped the tired band with carrying and sweeping. Who was it told me you should never act on a stage that you haven't also swept?! We didn't have any choice about that, but everyone carried his weight.

A presence that I haven't mentioned yet, and one that had been with us since Auckland, is Campbell Walker, who asked if he could film the gigs on tour. He conducted some interviews along the way and hopes to turn the footage into a film. Though he and I had some communication difficulties at the beginning, we have reached a good understanding now.

Next gig was the ferry crossing, where Andrew McCully and I again performed as a duo, including some entertainment for some very small children. I drew out some old folk songs and the voyage sped by. We drove over to Takaka for an evening of wonderful hospitality. The local beer, the exquisite cuisine, the hand-built exotic timber houses, and the Mussel Inn, an old venue which holds a special place in our memories.

The following night we performed in Nelson in a theatre situation that contrasted with the wild experience for all that was the Mussel Inn. I was happy to be in a theatre space again and felt quite at home. A few problems with the PA were resolved in time. The audience was quiet and attentive and the evening carefully structured like a theatre event.

I told a few anecdotes about my theatre experiences with the likes of Ngaio Marsh and alternative collectives in Wellington and the owners of the Independent warmly invited us back next time we are in the area.

Greymouth (Frank's) was wild. A dramatic electrical storm hit outside just as we were playing 'Red Sky', and really, the entire evening seemed to have been planned by the gods. There was a broad mix of people, young, old, NZ and foreign, those who liked my acoustic work and those who preferred the 'Accident' phase of freer freak-outs.

Andrew Maitai (drummer and tour economist) stayed up till dawn with a couple of local fannettes but Brett and Richard and I retired early. This great night was set up by Rex Bourke who played a stunning guitar set before us. He and Ellen and Mark (of the venue) saw us off in the morning on an eight hour drive to Wanaka.

More notes to come...

Friday, December 05, 2008


Last year I blogged about my recurrent fear that Mt Taranaki - or, rather, the summit of Mt Taranaki - does not really exist. Everytime I had gotten close enough to take a peek at the peak it had been covered in a turban of dirty clouds. I wasn't sure whether Taranaki's recalcitrance was due to an Olympian haughtiness or a strange sort of modesty, but I could understand the paranoia behind the decision by a couple of artists to institute permanent CCTV surveillance of the great mountain. During a recent flight to Wellington, though, I was able to get a God's eye view of the summit of Taranaki, and I can confirm to sceptics that it is quite as beautiful as all those postcards and calendar covers make out.

The flight from Auckland to Wellington often seems to traverse a tundra of cloud, so it was a pleasant surprise to be given a generous view of the South Taranaki plains, as well as the famous mountain.

The flight home was even better - as soon as we'd climbed free of windy Wellington I found myself gazing down at Kapiti Island, the last remaining piece of the ancient land-bridge between the North and South Islands and the bastion of that great warlord Te Rauparaha. Better still, I was given a view of the rugged, western coast of the island - the side you can't see on that drive along the Kapiti Coast - as my Virgin Blue Flight moved northwards. It felt like I was looking at the dark side of the moon, but the 'Stay Seated' light was still on, the captain was warning us not to use electronic devices yet, and I didn't fancy a dip in the Tasman, so my camera stayed in my bag. You'll have to wait for the CCTV.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The ironies of pseudo-history

Matthew Dentith has a difficult job: the University of Auckland philosophy student and part-time lecturer is writing his PhD thesis on conspiracy theories. Matthew grew up in Devonport, in the shadow of the earthworks and navy barracks of North Head, and his interest in strange ideas was piqued by the persistent speculation that the Head's network of tunnels and caves contained secret, sealed-up rooms filled with dismantled Boeing aeroplanes and live explosives.

Matthew has gradually complemented his investigations into cryptoarchaeology with studies of other weird pieces of flora and fauna found deep in the forest of conspiracy theory. UFOlogists, Obamaphobes, and anti-semites have all been grist for Matthew's blog, and for The Dentith Files, the Sunday morning show he runs on BFM.

Early last month on BFM Matthew discussed the outbreak of anti-semitic conspiracy theory on Karyn Hay and Andrew Fagan's talkback show, and referred to the vigorous debates between Hay and her detractors which filled the comments boxes of this blog.

Last Sunday Matthew and I discussed my open letter to the editor of The Franklin E Local about that magazine's attempts to persuade its readers that white people are the real tangata whenua of Aotearoa. You can listen to the interview here.

While Matthew and I were gasbagging, proud ancient Celt Martin Doutre was nailing twenty-nine questions to the discussion board of the Scoop Review of Books, in response to my open letter and to other criticisms of his ideas. Doutre wants to restrict other participants in the Scoop discussion to 'Yes/No' answers, presumably because he yearns to cry 'Gotcha!' when he finally forces participants in the gigantic anti-Celt conspiracy to answer 'Yes' to the questions from the prosecutor's bench. Really, though, answering 'Yes' to many of Doutre's questions proves nothing about the Celtic New Zealand thesis, unless one also accepts a series of premises which Doutre holds.

Take, for instance, Doutre's question about whether the Auckland War Memorial Museum holds red hair samples found in rock shelters in the Waitakeres. A 'Yes' answer to this question doesn't necessarily support the claim that Celts lived in the Waitakeres in ancient times: it is not only Europeans who can have red hair, and in any case the colour of an individual's hair can change after death. (I would point out to Martin that the hair of a lot of the Egyptian mummies is red, but I fear that he would simply reply to this by asserting that the ancient Egyptians were Celts.)

Another pointless Doutre question concerns the possibly non-Maori skull recently discovered in the Wairarapa and dated at three hundred and fifty years old. As I noted a couple of months back, it's possible, though not probable, that this skull came from a European who arrived in the North Island before Cook.

But how exactly does the fact that a European woman might have been knocking round in the North Island in the 1600s prove that Celts arrived here in massive numbers five thousand years ago and built a huge advanced cilivisation, complete with universities and observatories?

It's interesting to reflect on the Wairarapa skull, because the case actually undermines Doutre's claims about a gigantic conspiracy to suppress New Zealand history. The skull was discovered, examined by a coroner, and sent off for radiocarbon dating and examination by three specialists. It is now being looked after by a museum curator in the Wairarapa, who is consulting with local iwi. Further tests are likely.

The curator who is holding on to the skull is quite open-minded about its origins - he has cited the legend of Rongotute, a European ship which is supposed to have been wrecked somewhere on the south coast of the North Island a few decades before the arrival of Cook, as possible support for the idea that the skull really did belong to a white woman who lived here three hundred and fifty years ago. On the other hand he acknowledges that radiocarbon dating does not deal well with the relatively recent past, that the craniologists were divided on whether the skull is Maori or non-Maori, and that even if the tests were accurate and the skull is European that doesn't prove the European was living here in the 1600s - after all, it was reasonably common for better-off nineteenth century European settlers to keep old skulls as ornaments in their lounges and studies.

All in all, we don't have a very effective conspiracy here, do we? If Martin Doutre's view of the world were at all accurate, then a crack team from the United Nations/Ministry of Maori Affairs would have turned up at Masterton Museum in the ninja suits, confiscated the skull, and buried it in some obscure place, or better still blown it up. Radiocarbon tests would never have been allowed, and craniologists would never have been permitted to inspect the skull.

There are numerous other examples of controversies about Kiwi prehistory which would never have been allowed to happen, if the conspiracy Doutre complains about so often really existed. Doutre is keen to point Scoop Review of Books readers towards a rambling article on the One New Zealand Foundation website written by his mate, 'Dr' Kerry Bolton.

Bolton's piece is supposed to be a discussion of the controversy which has raged since the radiocarbon test Richard Holdaway did back in the nineties on some kiore bones found in the Hawkes Bay. Holdaway's bones were found to be about eighteen hundred years old, upsetting the idea that New Zealand was not settled until about one thousand years ago.

If Doutre and Kerry Bolton were right about a huge conspiracy to suppress history, then the debate about Holdaway's findings would never have occurred. The reason why Holdaway's tests have proved controversial is not because they challenge a politically correct team of control freaks, but because they contradict a lot of the hard evidence we have that shows humans made little or no impact on the environment of these islands before about a thousand years ago.

Kerry Bolton is keen to associate himself with Richard Holdaway, but he doesn't seem to realise that Holdaway actually accepts the evidence that no significant population of humans existed here until about a thousand years ago. From the time he first published his test results, Holdaway has said that he thinks that the people who brought kiore here in the third century either died off quickly, or else 'dropped their rats off and left'. Holdaway's writings on the rat bone controversy give no support at all to Bolton and Doutre's thesis that white people arrived here thousands of years ago in large numbers.

There is a certain pathos in the way that Bolton and Doutre on the one hand condemn academics and museum workers, and insist that these people are part of an enormous conspiracy, and on the other hand try desperately to associate themselves with any scholar they think might be halfway sympathetic to the Celtic New Zealand thesis. In my open letter I pointed out the way that Doutre and co. misused the writing of Paul Moon and the archaeological work of Michael Taylor to suggest that both these people are in some way supportive of the notion that Celts are the tangata whenua of New Zealand. Bolton's attempt to associate himself with Holdaway is no less pathetic.

The Celtic New Zealand circle also seems to have a curious desire to associate itself with Maori oral tradition and contemporary Maori opinion, in spite of its members' frequent outspoken attacks on Maori.

Doutre argues that Elsdon Best somehow endorsed the theory that whites settled New Zealand thousands of years ago because Best believed that a Melanesian people populated New Zealand hundreds of years before Maori. (How exactly, I wonder, would this follow, even if Best had the authority Doutre claims for him? The last time I checked, the peoples of places like Vanuatu and the Solomons didn’t look a great deal like folks from Ireland and Brittany.)

Best’s claim that Melanesians got to New Zealand first, and were then driven to remote regions of the North Island and to the Chathams, was based upon a misunderstanding of Maori oral history and physiology (unlike Doutre, Best had the excuse of being a pioneer in New Zealand ethnology; we shouldn’t, then, treat his failures in the way we treat the wilful ignorance of the Celtic New Zealand circle).

Best mistakenly thought that the the ‘Maruiwi’ tribe, which existed hundreds of years ago in the North Island but later morphed into other groups (Maori social organisation could be quite fluid) was the same thing as the ‘Moriori’ people who are the tchakat henu (tangata whenua) of the Chatham Islands (Rekohu and Rangiaora).

In fact, Moriori were a group of early Maori who left the northern South Island around the fourteenth century and lived in isolation on the Chathams until 1791, when the first Europeans visited the island. In that time, they developed a distinct culture which both harks back to and extends the achievements of archaic Maori culture.

David Simmons dissected Best’s erroneous use of Maori oral tradition in his 1975book The Great New Zealand Myth. Like Doutre and Kerry Bolton today, Best tended to select bits and pieces of oral tradition that suited his preconceptions and interpret them literally. Thus he accepted the part of the Maruiwi story that said the tribe were the first people in New Zealand, but ignored the part which said that the Maruiwi came from a homeland to the southwest of New Zealand, where there is nothing but water. Maori oral tradition is fascinating and rich in insights, but it should not be treated as a literal guide to the past, anymore than King Lear should be taken as a straightforward guide to ancient Britain.

Today, Doutre and Bolton are happy to trumpet some aspects of some oral traditions as literal truth, but ignore others that obviously don’t fit their claims about a white tangata whenua. For example, they refer to legends of a pale-skinned fairy folk as literal truth, but ignore the legends which say that Maori were preceded in parts of New Zealand by hairy half-men. If Doutre and Bolton were consistent, they would have to argue that bigfoot, as well as Celts, inhabited New Zealand in ancient times.

There’s also the inconvenient fact that some iwi have traditions which say they emerged straight from the earth in their rohe, and are therefore autochthonous as well as indigenous. It’s hard to square such stories with claims that Maori arrived a few hundred years ago to find an advanced Celtic civilisation which had been flourishing for millenia.

Perhaps the most bizarre expression of the Celts' 'love-hate' attitude to serious scholarship and to Maori tradition comes in Kerry Bolton's booklet Ngati Hotu: the White Warrior Tribe. This text repeats all the usual stories about a conspiracy to suppress white history by politically correct academics and troublemaking Maoris, and then segues into a celebration of the fact that the Waitangi Tribunal's Pouakani Report has supposedly acknowledged that white people lived in the central North Island in prehistoric times. At one moment the scholars who make up the Tribunal's research team are anti-white racists, and in the next they are revealing the hidden history of the white race to the world.

What the Pouakani Report actually does is discuss Ngati Hotu as an early tribal grouping in the central North Island. The Tribunal does not offer one word of support for Bolton and Doutre's belief that the Ngati Hotu were a remnant of a Celtic people who sailed to New Zealand thousands of years ago, invented the hei tiki and the carved meeting house, built observatories and established universities, and were eventually driven into the hinterlands of the country by a few wakaloads of arrivals from Polynesia.

On the radio last Sunday Matthew and I kicked around the idea that the Celtic New Zealand thesis is a sort of ironic unconscious homage to the cultural achievements of Maori and the political achievements of the Maori renaissance of recent decades. Bolton's attempt to associate himself with the Waitangi Tribunal he despises shows how weird and ironic the homage can be.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Towards the free-fire zone

Blogger isn't letting me post even a single hyperlink today, so I'm going to paste up some images taken several weeks ago during an expedition to the south head of the Kaipara Harbour, where the privately-owned Woodhill Pine Forest, a large and rather empty public park, a weapons testing range, and a very muddy lagoon all seem to overlap.

A friendly Department of Conservation ranger eventually sold us some oil and got us back on the road. DOC obviously didn't show the same kindness to the poor bloke who got stuck in the lagoon and ended up having to donate his car to the air force for target practice. ;)