Monday, March 30, 2009

Singing to Sri Lanka

At his last public poetry reading, Osip Mandelstam was challenged by an audience member to explain why he wrote so much about antique Greece and contemporary Western Europe. Mandelstam, who had already been weakened physically and mentally by years of harrassment by Stalin's culture police, and would soon disappear forever into the vortex of the gulags, defiantly replied that he had 'a homesickness for world culture'.

Kiwi-French musician and writer Bill Direen would surely blush at being mentioned in the same breath as Mandelstam, but he shares with the ill-fated Russian genius the conviction that internationalist politics are of no use if they are not grounded in an internationalist cultural outlook. Direen's journal Percutio is a bold and perhaps bloody-minded attempt to open a dialogue, or a series of dialogues, between cultural milieux that are too often separated by ignorance or outright prejudice. It is hard to think of another publication that would have the nerve to put poems about the nineteenth century Maori prophet Te Kooti into French, to reprint a long essay about ancient Sri Lankan graffitti by a French scholar, to reproduce the eerie images of Dunedin free noise musician and artist Nigel Bunn, and to still find room for an English-language summary of the latest action in the avant-garde theatres of Paris.

Direen is always interested in going where others fear to tread, so it is appropriate that the unfashionable conflict on the island of Ceylon will be part of the next issue of Percutio. In a recent e mail, Direen told me about an intriguing work he is preparing for print:

I have received a song lyric (and the sheet music is about to be scanned) for the next Percutio (2009) which might interest your readers. 'I long for peace in Sigiriya and Pidurangala' is a song by Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, who wrote an essay on translating the Sigiriya graffiti in Percutio 2008. These graffiti were actually poetic lines of appreciation by visitors to the painted images of women over the course of several centuries.

Dr Coulardeau has collected all descriptive elements of these famous Ladies of Sigiriya and recomposed them into his song in English (which has its own musical accompaniment in Sri Lanka) and in French. A project exists to bring together the most striking graffiti into a poetic show with musical and theatrical setting, but it seems to have encountered some resistance (Sri Lanka not being as fashionable as India right now).

As readers of your blog will be aware, Sri Lanka has been incapacitated by the ongoing struggle for secession by the Tamil Tigers. Dr Coulardeau believes that "the Ladies of Sigiriya should inspire us to believe that a political solution integrating a Hindu Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is possible. The condition is, naturally, that both sides detach themselves from their narrow nationalistic approaches. Such detachment, which is quite Buddhist in inspiration, can only occur when the weapons of war fall silent."

Whether or not the conflict in Ceylon lends itself to such an easy solution is, of course, very much open to question. Anybody who has read about the long history of oppression of the Tamil minority by Sri Lanka's Sinhala ruling class may doubt that Sinhala and Tamil nationalism should shoulder the same responsibility for the current crisis on the island. Bill Direen is to be congratulated, though, for trying to bring the history and cultures of an unjustly neglected part of the world to the attention of parochial Kiwis like myself. I look forward to reading Coulardeau's lyric in the next issue of Percutio.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The conspiracy grows

The controversy over Uncensored magazine's plans to use the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall on Anzac weekend has reached the mainstream media, with the New Zealand Herald running an article called 'Anzac Day Shame?' in its Thursday regional supplement The Aucklander.

In one of his rambling, semi-coherent monologue-press releases, Uncensored editor Jonathan Eisen claimed that my criticism of the Jew-baiting and Maori-bashing in recent issues of his magazine was a reflection of 'psychosis', and a Zionist plot to boot. Jonathan is evidently used to imagining vast conspiracies, so he'll probably have no trouble incorporating a number of new figures, including Eden Albert Community Board chairman Christopher Dempsey, into the plot against him. Dempsey, who was elected on the left-wing City Vision ticket, has spoken out against Uncensored, telling the Herald's Joseph Barratt that the prospect of the War Memorial Hall being used for 'anti-semitic activities' is an 'outrage'. The other members of the Eden Albert Board have backed Dempsey up by asking the Auckland City Council to review the permission it gave Uncensored to use the hall.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dialoguing with history

What follows is the text of a guest lecture I gave yesterday for the Life Writing paper taught by Jack Ross at the Albany campus of Massey University. Over the last week or so the comments boxes at this blog and several related sites have been inundated with the ungrammatical, mispelt fallacies of Holocaust deniers, 9/11 'Truthers' and other conspiracy theory addicts. It's easy to see these people as a lunatic fringe, but the truth is that they do not exist in a vacuum. My lecture argued that Western societies are too often forgetful of history, and of the proper way of investigating the past.

I'm delighted, though, to report that the audience at Albany was wonderfully enthusiastic about historical research, and committed to approaching the past thoughtfully and reverently. My lecture was followed by a discussion that lasted a good half hour, and saw several students revealing complex and fascinating research interests of their own. I look forward to reading their work.

Dialoguing with history: some very rough notes for a talk

I’m going to talk about my PhD thesis – that great, one hundred thousand word weight which was lifted off my shoulders last year. My thesis is a study of the deeds and works of the English historian, peace activist, cricketer, and middling poet EP Thompson. Parts of it have been published in the academic journal Thesis Eleven, and (in very flowery, non-academic form) in To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, the collection of my prose and poetry that Titus Books published in 2007. I hope to publish the thesis in full eventually.

A PhD thesis is a major undertaking: these days students are somehow expected to complete it in three or four years, but in the University of Auckland’s sociology department there were legends of students who had been at work for fifteen or even twenty years on their tome, and who had last been seen wandering the labyrinthine depths of the Human Sciences Building with unshaven cheeks and bloodshot eyes, clutching pages of reading lists.

I was lucky to get some good advice during the period when I was choosing my thesis topic. A friend who was part-way through his own thesis told me to choose a topic that I loved – that was only way, he insisted, that I would be able to maintain my enthusiasm. I chose Edward Palmer Thompson, not because I was in love with him on a personal level, but because he was a multi-talented, protean figure who was interested in many of the things I love – things like history, poetry, unpublished manuscripts, riots, and political polemic.

Edward Palmer Thompson was born in Oxford in 1924, and died in Worcester in 1993, when he ignored his doctor’s advice and tried to pick the blackberries growing in his garden. Thompson drove a tank during World War Two, took a degree from Cambridge after the conflict, and became an adult educator in Yorkshire. He belonged to the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Great Britain from the early forties until 1956, when he left in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Thompson became famous in
1963, when he published a massive book called The Making of the English Working Class, which described the riotous period between 1790 and 1820, when England was undergoing industrialisation, fighting the Napoleonic Wars, and dealing with peasant revolts and the Luddite sabotage of factories.

The Making of the English Working Class helped popularise a new style of history – it was often called ‘people’s history’ or ‘history from below’ – which focused on the lives of ordinary people, not Kings and Queens and Presidents. After the success of his book Thompson became first a fully-fledged academic and then a full-time writer. Before his premature death he produced many more histories, as well as books of literary scholarship, chapbooks of poems, and a fat sci fi novel.

Unlike a few of my peers, I managed to get to the end of my PhD thesis. I’m thankful for that, but I’m also thankful that the finished product is very different from the text I imagined writing when I began back in the second half of 2002. When I began the project I had a rather judgmental attitude toward my subject. I considered myself an objective and rigorous intellectual inquisitor, who would survey EP Thomspon’s act and works, and differentiate the good acts and works from the bad, in the same way that a farmer separates wheat from chaff.

With the arrogance of youth, hindsight, and dogmatism, I decided that Thompson had some great achievements to his credit, but that he had also made some great and easily avoidable blunders. I couldn’t understand, for instance, how a man insightful enough to write The Making of the English Working Class could have belonged for a decade and a half to the Communist Party of Great Britain, an organisation that saw Stalin as a demigod and the Soviet Union as a land of milk and honey, not gulags and the unmarked graves of Trotskyists. It was lucky, I thought, that someone of my discernment had arrived to distinguish poor old EP Thompson’s errors from his insights.

The perils of reading

With PhD research, as with life in general, I seem always to learn valuable lessons too late, and one of the most important lessons I learnt after starting my research is the importance of choosing a topic with an authoritative bibliography. As I stumbled upon more and more texts they didn’t mention, I soon realised that the standard Thompson bibliographies were sadly inadequate. I noticed, as well, that much of the vast literature on EP Thompson was far more circumscribed than the bibliographies – all too often, studies of Thompson zoomed in on a small number of ‘key’ works, and even in these works the same passages were singled out for attention, again and again. I was reminded of New Zealand labour historian Erik Olssen’s comment that everybody knows about The Making of the English Working Class, but that very few people have read past the book’s preface.

I found this neglect of Thompson’s full body of work frustrating and exciting – frustrating, because it left me with a lot of donkey work to do; exciting, because it gave me the sense of being a pioneer. Thompson is one of most influential historians of all time, and the examination of his whole back catalogue might yield all sorts of discoveries. I was determined, then, to read all of Thompson’s work. I kept thinking of Louis Althusser, who in the 1950s and 60s insisted that French Marxists like Jean-Paul Sartre actually had to read Marx, and not just glosses of Marx. (They didn’t take his advice.) Althusser likened Marx’s writings to a forest, and talked of the need to cut a path through this forest. I suppose I saw myself trying to hack a path through the forest of Thompson’s writings. Not all of my path-cutting was particularly useful – there was, for instance, a work with the intriguing title ‘Glue by Candlelight’, which had showed up on a database search. After quite a bit of effort I managed to locate this text on a dusty shelf, only to find that it was the title that had been given to a short letter that Thompson had written to the journal New Society back in the 1970s. New Society’s book reviewer had claimed that Thompson’s collection of essays Writing by Candlelight suffered from bad glue binding, and tended to fall apart quickly. Thompson strongly disagreed, suggesting that the reviewer must be at fault, and ought to handle books more carefully. All in all, I didn’t think 'Glue by Candlelight' was worth the hours of effort I put in to tracking it down. Luckily, other discoveries were more fruitful.

As I kept cutting my path, I gradually became aware that a large amount of Thompson’s writing had never even been published. No amount of interloaning, orders from storage, and purchases from Amazon Secondhand could hope to plug the gaps that existed. This might not have worried me – there ought to have been enough published material to keep me busy – if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the best studies of Thompson referred to unpublished texts. Usually, these studies had been turned out by old friends and comrades, who had been able to refer to their own copies of unpublished manuscripts. Thompson was both a gregarious and a disputatious man, and over the course of his life letters, internal political discussion documents, internal academic memorandums, and thesis examiners’ reports all became vehicles for his insatiable need to argue with friend and foe alike. I began to realise that this corpus of unpublished, polemical writing had been a sort of quarry for some of Thompson’s most important published texts. The unpublished Thompson cast a long shadow over the published works.

I only began actively seeking out Thompson’s unpublished work after reading the autobiography of his old friend and comrade John Saville in 2004. In his book Saville mentions that Edward’s letters to him are preserved in the Saville papers at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones library. I knew then that I had to visit the majestic city of Hull.

Before I visited the archive in Hull I met and stayed with Dorothy Thompson, Edward’s widow and an important historian in her own right. Dorothy lives in a lovely three-storey Georgian house on a small hill with a view over Worcester – in the distance you can see the cricket ground where Glenn Turner used to bat for Worcestershire. Inside the house photos of Edward and his brother Frank cover the walls, and Edward’s books sit on the shelves.

Dorothy was pretty unimpressed with the drinks I’d brought over to have with the dinner she'd been cooking for me. I’d wanted to bring some New Zealand beer, but I hadn’t been able to find any in Worcester’s shops, and had had to settle for XXXX, which I figured was at least Antipodean. Dorothy was horrified at this offering, and gave me a lecture on how important it was for researchers to develope a taste in wine. As the evening wore on, and a good deal of her wine was consumed, I was able to ask Dorothy about Edward and his work. Dorothy was, and has remained, very supportive of my research into her late husband.

I moved on to Hull, and met John Saville. I was looking forward to talking to John, partly because the autobiography is so full of fascinating stories. It tells of how, posing a salesman, he used to smuggle messages from the Communist Party of Great Britain into Hitler’s Germany, and of how on one mission he was shipwrecked in the English Channel and had to swim ashore at Dunkirk. Then there are the stories about Saville’s war service in India, where he used his leave time to work secretly with the independence movement, and the story of how at the end of the war he got a job at the fledgling University of Hull, and helped establish oral history and labour history as important fields of academic study in Britain.

It soon became apparent, though, that I was not going to be able to conduct a very fruitful interview with John. He sat down to talk with me alongside his wife, who soon proved to be an indispensable intermediary. When I explained to John that I was from New Zealand – he had repeatedly referred to me as ‘the boy from Tasmania’ – he turned to his wife, and said ‘Constance, have I ever been to New Zealand?’ John’s memory has been severely affected by his advancing age.

Matters were not helped by the way that I had prepared a brace of absurdly detailed questions, about such burning issues as editorial decisions that Saville made forty years ago. (Being immersed in research makes me lose perspective, and believe that everybody is as interested as me in the minutiae of my subject.) Even when I asked John more detailed questions he tended to answer: ‘I’m sorry, I know I should remember, but I don’t.’ My hopes rose briefly when I asked him about George Orwell, whose path had crossed with his on one or two occasions. John nearly jumped out of his chair, exclaiming ‘George Orwell – he was a shit! A real shit!’ But when I asked why Orwell was a shit, John could only reply ‘I’m sorry, I know I should remember why Orwell was a shit, but I don’t. He was a shit though.’

The Brynmor Jones library is a curious place – one of Hull’s few pieces of avant-garde modernist architecture, it looks on the inside like a shrine to its former manager, the ultra-conservative Philip Larkin. Larkin’s famously grumpy face stares at visitors from photos, paintings, and sculptures. The small archives reading room was virtually empty, apart from a few desks and two supervisors whose job seemed to be to stare silently and intently at me as I took notes and filled out photocopying requests. A day in the room felt a bit like sitting an exam, for eight hours on end.

In Hull I worked my way through the Saville papers, moving from the 1950s through the ‘60s to the '70s. It was exciting to be handling some of Thompson’s own manuscripts and letters, which were often yellow, stamped by coffee mugs, and covered in corrections, exclamations, and curses in his wild handwriting. In all, I found about a dozen unpublished essays or articles, the longest of which ran to 15,000 words, hundreds of letters from Thompson to John Saville and others, and a smaller number of letters from Saville to other collaborators discussing Thompson and his work.

Because Saville had edited journals which had published Thompson, I was able to observe the composition, submission, and anguished revision of several classic texts, simply by following the letters between editor and writer. Each time I observed this process, I felt a little like I was peering over the shoulder of a midwife, watching the troublesome birth of a beautiful baby.

Learning to listen

After I returned to New Zealand late in 2005, I found myself unpacking folder after folder of photocopies and notes, and pondering the complexity of Edward Palmer Thompson’s life and works. As I read my through more of his unpublished oeuvre, I began to lose some of the dogmatic confidence I had brought to my PhD.

There are many examples that could illustrate my change of heart, but I’ll use only one. I’d been inclined to judge Thompson harshly for belonging for a decade and a half to the pro-Stalin Communist Party, but then I read letters from Edward talking about the stark political situation of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, when the party seemed to be the only organisation in Britain that was prepared to oppose Britain’s brutal efforts to hold on to its empire in places like Kenya and Malaya, and when communists were the only trade unionists with the courage to stand up for causes like equal pay for women workers and the right of women schoolteachers to keep working after they married. I started to understand why Thompson stayed in the party so long, and how wrenching it must have been for him to leave his old comrades in 1956. Instead of imposing my own preconceptions on Thompson I listened to his voice.

I didn’t quite realise it at the time, but I was following in the path of Thompson himself when I began to listen to the voice of the archive. I still thought I was sitting in judgment of the man, but I was actually learning from him.
It is hard to believe now, but EP Thompson never intended to become a historian, and didn’t even consider himself a historian until at least halfway through his remarkable life. As a young Communist in the years after World War Two, Thompson joined the party’s literary organisation, not the legendary group of historians that included Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and John Saville. Until the late 1950s, at least, Thompson considered his main vocation to be poetry. Thompson came to history accidentally, as a result of his research into the great English painter, poet, and designer William Morris.

Thompson was a huge fan of Morris, and in the late '40s and early '50s he was appalled by the way that both sides of the Cold War were turning the man into a weapon in the battle between Moscow and Washington. Moscow’s allies in the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain claimed Morris as a communist, even though Morris advocated a decentralised, democratic form of socialism that had little in common with the society Stalin was creating in the Soviet Union. Conservatives in the West, on the other hand, saw Morris’ socialism as a childish mistake, which should be discussed separately from his art and literature.

The fight over Morris reflected the politicisation of the past during the Cold War. When George Orwell wrote 'he who controls the past controls the present' he might have been describing the mindset of the ideologists of Soviet communism and Western capitalism, who were determined to reinterpret the past to justify their poliical positions.

Thompson dived into the archives, and found the real William Morris there. The result was a nine-hundred page biography, which was published in 1955, at the height of the Cold War. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary failed to satisfy either communists or conservatives, but in the more tolerant climate of the 1970s it was adjudged a classic, and reprinted. Today it remains a much-loved book.

‘When I wrote William Morris...the material took hold of me’ Thompson once said. Throughout his career as a historian, Thompson emphasised the importance of careful research amongst primary sources - of 'listening' to the voices left in letters, diaries, court records, and even the reports of spies. In a 1976 interview he explained that:

I think it is like being a painter or a poet. A poet loves words, a painter loves paint. I found a fascination in getting to the bottom of everything, in the sources themselves...[the scholar] has got be listening all the time. He should not set up a book or a research project with a totally clear sense of what he is going to be able to do. The material itself has got to speak to him. If he listens, then the material itself will begin to speak through him. And I think this happens.

Thompson’s argument that the scholar should not begin a research project with a completely clear idea of where he or she wants it to go is an important clue to his practice as a historian. For Thompson, documents like letters, diaries, and court transcripts mustn’t just exist to furnish prefabricated arguments with convenient examples and quotes - they must be allowed, or rather enabled, to speak to us, to challenge the prejudices we bring to them and, where necessary, to force us to change our interpretations of the past.

Thompson was a ferocious book reviewer, and he liked to put hatchets deep into the backs of historians and social scientists who didn’t share his passion for dialoguing with the past. He disliked historians who tried to approach their subjects scientifically, using tables of data and computers. He also tired of more conventional historians who filled their books with too much detail, and forgot that it was the job of the historian to dialogue with the past. In his review of Religion and the Decline of Magic, a very influential book by the distinguished historian Keith Thomas, Thompson complained that:

[Thomas] proceeds, again and again, by the accumulation of instances, presented in rapid sequence…it is like flicking through a card index, when every now and then one glimpses an unusual card and wants to cry ‘stop!’…

To boil down 20 instances to a line or two apiece must, after all, entail much selectivity and the suppression of much attendant evidence. The reader must still place his confidence in the historian…

In the end, however ‘scientific’ our pretensions, we must make an act of faith…in the judgment of the historian…

History today

What relevance does Thompson’s concept of a dialogue with the past have for us today? The Cold War finished long ago, and Thompson has been dead for fifteen years. Thompson’s biography of William Morris and The Making of the English Working Class may be classics, but are they not the classics of another age? As you’ve probably guessed, I think that Thompson’s ideas about how to do historical research have a great deal of relevance for us today. The Cold War may be over, but the societies of the West still have trouble with history.

In our digital twenty-first century capitalist world, the past is all too often forgotten, as we succumb to the lure of the eternal present created by twenty-four hour news broadcasts and continually updated fashions. If the past does figure in our lives, as a source of entertainment or information, it is often presented to us in terms of the present.

We are arrogant enough to see our market-driven consumerist society as the culmination of - perhaps the consummation of - all history, and we judge history by our own standards, rather than submitting ourselves to its standards, or simply wondering at the otherness of distant epochs and societies. Some of us who are unhappy with the society of the twenty-first century show a strong interest in the past, but these people tend to treat history simply as an escape from the present. They try to vanish into the past, instead of setting up a dialogue between the past and the present.

(An analogy might be made here with our attitudes to the environment. All too often, we treat the environment as a sort of standing reserve – a mere resource, subordinated to our needs. We cover indigenous grassland with quick-growing radiata forests, which we harvest and turn into toilet paper. We turn hilltops into wind farms. We dam rivers so that our carparks can have all-night lighting. There is a reaction against this blatant subordination of nature to humanity, but it tends to involve a veneration of ‘virgin’ nature – that is, nature apart from humans. The importance of relating humans to the environment in a balanced way is forgotten.)

I want to use a couple of quite well-known biographical films from the past decade to help make my point about our problem with history. The first film I’ll mention is Richard Eyre's Iris, which tells the story of Iris Murdoch, the novelist and philosopher. I did a bit of research on Murdoch, because she was a lover of EP Thompson’s brother, and I was fairly unimpressed with the picture of her presented in Iris. Much of the film focuses on the young Murdoch’s adventurous sex life, ignoring her writing and her philosophy. This is not in itself bad – many people would say sex is as least as interesting as literature and philosophy - but the context in which the young Murdoch’s flings are portrayed was all wrong, because it assumed that a bit of playing around had the same meaning in the staid 1950s as it does now, when we have TV programmes like Sex and the City and much more tolerant attitudes to female sexuality. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Iris Murdoch’s casual sex with men and affairs with women were very rebellious; now, they would be almost mainstream. Certainly, they wouldn’t have the political edge which they had in a much more repressive society. Rather than present Irish Murdoch as a daring rebel, who was a young communist, a career-oriented woman, and a sexual libertine in a sexist, repressive society, Eyre's movie shows her as an apolitical hedonist. Iris views the fifties through the prism of the noughties, and consequently fails to do its subject justice.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a very different movie. Those who have had the dubious pleasure of watching it will know that it is a very long drawn-out and bloody depiction of the last hours of Christ. On the surface, the film appears to be painstakingly historical: in the interests of authenticity the actors have gone to the trouble of learning the now-dead language of Aramaic, and no expense has spared on period sets. Gibson espouses an extremely conservative brand of Roman Catholicism, and regards the modern world, with its sex shops and strip malls and mini-skirts, as an abomination. His movie’s versilimitude reflects his desire to escape into a purer past. And it is just this feature of Gibson’s film which prevents it from being truly historical, despite all its period pretensions. Gibson’s Christ is a collection of pious details, not a flesh and blood character, and his crucifixion does not move us. The Passion of the Christ won’t help Christians grapple with any of the problems they face today, because the film is designed to have nothing at all to do with the world of today. It deals in absolutisms that are alien to those of us who live in a complex and contradictory world. It is an escape into the past, not a dialogue with the past.

In their very different ways, then, both Iris and The Passion of the Christ fail to deal properly with their subjects, and with history.

How do we dialogue with the past? How do we dialogue in ordinary life – with a friend, for example? Creating a dialogue may seem like an easy thing to do, but in fact it takes skill. If I sit down with a friend and talk a great deal about myself or my interests, dominating the conversation, then I am are not taking part in a dialogue. Conversely, if I withdraw, and let my friend dictate the subject and tone of the conversation, then I am not dialoguing. I can only create a dialogue if I find the correct distance between myself and an other – if I let the other be an other, yet also engage with him or her.

We need to find the same sort of balance when we deal with the past. We can’t withdraw from the past – we have to interrogate it, and the questions we ask it have to reflect the problems and preoccupations of the present. At the same time, we have to acknowledge the distance and the otherness of the past, and make an effort to understand it in its own terms.

Technical points

You’re probably thinking that this talk about hearing the voice of the past and respecting the mighty dead is all well and good, but also rather vague. How exactly do we apply such talk, as researchers and writers? I want to discuss a couple of techniques which EP Thompson used in his historical research, and which I found useful in my PhD research. Both techniques can help us to escape from the arrogance of the present, without falling into mere antiquarianism.

The first technique was pioneered in Germany in the nineteenth century, and imported into Britain by the left-wing sociologists Sidney and Beatrice Webb at the beginning of the twentieth century. It involves the scholar writing out the information gathered in research on a series of cards; often, just one fact, event or name is kept on each card. Once scored or hundreds of cards relating to a given topic of research have been accumulated, they can be shuffled and viewed in many different orders.

I know it sounds rather old-fashioned, in this digital age, but the card method of research allows us to reassemble reality in all sorts of interesting ways. By letting us mix up different people and events and dates in arbitrary orders, it helps us to escape the teleogical tyranny of chronology, and to ignore conventional ideas about what is important. Beatrice Webb, who was normally a rather dour woman, wrote of the fun that she and Sidney had on long winter evenings, sitting beside the fireplace and playing what she called ‘games with reality’ with their piles of cards.

EP Thompson loved to play games with reality, and some of his most famous works had their origin in a pile of dog-eared research cards. His essay on the sale of wives in nineteenth century England, for example, had its origin in a set of cards he began keeping after reading a description in hardy novel of a man taking his wife to the market and selling her for a few shillings. Over twenty years, Thompson repeatedly bumped into references to wives being sold as he worked away in archives and old books researching various other subjects. Every time he found a reference to a wife sale, he wrote it on a card. Eventually he had a fat pile of cards, and as he shuffled them about he realised that the traditional interpretation of the sale of wives, which said that the practice was a barbaric expression of male chauvinism, was badly flawed.

Thompson noticed that often the wife consented to being sold, that the sale usually involved only a small, symbolic amount of money, and that it tended to be followed by a party. Looking closely at the reports he had gathered, and ignoring famous but fictional cases like the incident in Hardy’s novel, he realised that the sale was a way that a married woman who was unhappy with her husband could leave him for a new man. Thompson concluded that, far from being a sexist barbarity, the wife sale was a working class substitute for divorce, in an age when an official divorce was only available to the wealthy.

I wrote the outline of each of the hundreds of letters I found in the archive at Hull on cards, and then arranged and rearranged them. As if by magic, unexpected correspondences and new avenues for research emerged.

The other technical trick I wanted to mention is sometimes called the 'keyhole effect'. It has been used very effectively by my PhD supervisor Ian Carter, who moved in the same scholarly circles as EP Thompson in the 1970s and was powerfully influenced by the man.

Last year Carter published a book called British Railway Enthusiasm, which investigates the mysterious world of train spotters, builders of model railways, rail line preservationists, and others for whom rail is much more than a means of transport. Despite its author’s labours in the archives, British Railway Enthusiasm is not the work of a detached academic observer: Carter admits to having spent much of his youth chasing trains, and suggests that his academic research into railway enthusiasm can perhaps be considered ‘an indulgence’. In a long, elegant introductory chapter he mixes a narrative of the history of British railways with memories of his own adventures on the station platforms and in the rusty repair sheds of post-war Luton.

When does indulgence become self-indulgence? 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 some of EP Thompson’s finest works. Thompson and Carter both like to select a single, relatively limited subject as a sort of ‘keyhole’ through which he can view a whole society and era.

What can we see through the keyhole that is British Railway Enthusiasm? On one level, the book is a series of studies of different aspects of the railway enthusiast’s ‘life world’. Carter documents the explosion of train spotting in the forties, and the rise of a sophisticated railway modelling hobby in the same period. He laments the decline of these and other railway enthusiasms in more recent decades, and casts a cool eye over Britain’s burgeoning ‘railway heritage’ industry.

Carter is not content simply to describe milieux that have frequently been shrouded in mystery and misrepresentation: he also has something important to say about the Britain of the second half of the twentieth century. His book shows that, far from being the product of some odd English quirk or a mass outbreak of Asperger’s Symdrome, the rise of railway enthusiasm was a product of the particular qualities of post-war British society. Despite being superseded by the United States as the world’s pre-eminent capitalist power, post-war Britain remained an industrial superpower, with a huge, highly skilled working class. The ‘brief flowering of social democracy’ which began with the election of the Attlee government increased the spare time, job security, and incomes of many workers. What is sometimes called the ‘leisure sector’ of the economy increased enormously, absorbing workers’ free time and disposable income. Carter notes that railway modelling, in particular, represented a way that Britons could use their work skills for pleasure, away from the demands of the market and managers. The ‘keyhole’ technique but can be an important tool in study, and also in exposition. Often when we consider a subject – the whole life of a person, or a whole historical era – we can become intimidated by the amount of detail available for study. Where do we start? Where do we end? By choosing a particular area through which to view the whole, we can find ourselves a research foothold. A ‘keyhole’ view can help us when we write, as well – rather than spending thousands of pages describing an enormously detailed subject, we can filter that subject through an interesting angle in a few hundred or few dozen pages.

I used the 'keyhole' technique by focusing my PhD thesis on four texts that Thompson wrote between 1959 and 1978, and collected in his book The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. By filtering Thompson's extraordinary life and vast body of writing through the prism of four relatively short texts, I was able to deal with a wide range of subjects, from World War Two to post-nationalist Indian politics to William Blake's religious beliefs, wthout becoming one of those unshaven, red-eyed spectres shuffling down the endless corridors of the Human Sciences Building.

I wish you all the best of luck with your own adventures in research.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Patriot games?

Like me, Maia of the Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty blog is horrified by the anti-semitism on Uncensored and some of the magazine's supporters. Maia doesn't completely agree with the way I go about criticising Uncensored's plan to use the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall, though: in fact, she suspects that I'm playing a very dogearered card called Kiwi nationalism against the anti-semites. I've replied to Maia's criticism in her comments box - go and see whether you agree with me or not.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Karl Stead's got it right - let's reject the anti-semites

Back in mid-January I took part in a large rally and march held in central Auckland to protest Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip. The protest drew a sharp distinction between opposition to the Israeli government and anti-semitism, and John Minto, one of the organisers, got a loud cheer when he spoke about the ten thousand members of Israel's Jewish and Palestinian communities who had joined forces to march through Jeruslem in protest at the assault on Gaza.

Despite the protest's repudiation of anti-semitism, an ad hoc group calling itself Kiwis for Israel issued a press release which claimed the event was an exercise in Jew-bashing. Kiwis for Israel ignored the words of Minto and other protest organisers, and instead focused on the presence of Jonathan Eisen, the leader of a group of conspiracy theorists that publishes a widely distributed colour magazine called Uncensored. Eisen attended the rally wearing a T-shirt claiming that '9/11 was an inside job', and distributed copies of the December-March issue of Uncensored, which claims that Barack Obama is the tool of Jewish conspirators and that Mossad was responsible for bringing down New York's Twin Towers. Eisen is not the first anti-semite to try to infiltrate Aotearoa's peace movement. Veteran neo-Nazi Kerry Bolton and a group of followers took part in some Wellington protests against the invasion of Iraq, where they distributed anti-semitic literature. Bolton was thrown out of the anti-war movement as soon as organisers realised what he was up to.

The latest issue of Uncensored employs the same tactic that Eisen and Bolton used on peace rallies - it mixes genuine criticisms of Israeli and American foreign policy with anti-semitic conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial.

Uncensored reproduces fragments of commentary on the recent attack on Gaza from the London Review of Books, the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz, and the website of the Swiss Red Cross. All of these publications have made justified criticisms of Israel's bloody and futile incursion into Gaza. But the April-June issue of Uncensored includes not only rational critiques of Israeli foreign policy but a series of rambling and paranoid articles pulled straight from neo-Nazi websites. Consider, for instance, the article 'The Diary of Anne Frank: some Honest Questions' by Jeff Rense, who is a frequent contributor to Uncensored. Rense often uses his website and a radio show he runs in the US to promote the views of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers. One of the more frequent and notorious guests on Rense's radio show is Mark Weber, a senior figure at the innocent-sounding Institute of Historical Review, an organisation which specialises in producing claims that the Jews started World War Two and invented the Holocaust after the war.

Rense's article in the latest Uncensored claims that Anne Frank's diary was written by her father. Rense relies for 'evidence' against Anne Frank on Robert Faurrison and Arthur Butz, two of the most notorious Holocaust deniers alive. Butz and Faurrison's claims that the Frank diary was hoaxed have been demolished time and time again. Faurrison has repeatedly claimed that the attic where the Frank family hid was too small for them, ignoring the fact that the SS officer who arrested the Franks in the attic later confessed to the crime. Butz's claim that Otto Frank wrote his daughter's diary after World War Two was comprehensively discredited by forensic tests two decades ago.

Predictably enough, Rense's article slides from baseless claims against the Anne Frank diary into wholesale denials of the Holocaust. According to Rense, the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other death camps were actually showers, and the Zyklon B which killed Jews in the gas chambers was actually used to cure them of lice. According to Rense, conditions at Auschwitz 'couldn't have been that harsh at all', because Anne Frank's father emerged from the place alive in 1945. Rense neglects to mention that no other member of the Frank family was so lucky.

Rense believes that the Nazis' 'well-intentioned efforts' to look after Jews at places like Auschwitz were turned into 'the most transparent lies' by the 'Holocaust industry' that was set up after World War Two when the Jews realised that 'Zionism must be propped up'.

In the past, Jonathan Eisen has sometimes responded to criticisms of material in Uncensored by saying that he does not necessarily agree with everything he prints, but is only circulating it so that 'people can make up their own minds'. But the Rense article and the other anti-semitic pieces in the new Uncensored are full of deliberate distortions of the historical record, which make it harder for readers to develop well-informed opinions, and no attempt is made to balance the views the anti-semites advance.

It is not as though it would be hard for Eisen to locate material which refuted the ravings of the Holocaust deniers. There is a broad and straight road leading from Hitler's earliest pronouncements, to the genocidal rhetoric in Mein Kampf, to Nazi actions during their early years in power, when Jews were excluded from public life and harrassed, to the massacres of Jews and Slavs by SS units working in the rear of the German advance into Poland at the beginning of the Second World War, to the beginning of industrialised slaughter at camps like Auschwitz in the early forties.

Holocaust deniers cannot explain why five or six million Jews went missing in Europe during World War Two, if there was no campaign to exterminate them. They cannot explain the tens of thousands of Jews and gentiles who have testified to the existence of the death camps. They cannot explain the thousands of documents - plans and photographs of camps and gas chambers, deportation orders, notebooks in which deaths were recorded by the thousand, memoranda from camp commanders - which the Nazi bureaucracy secreted during its war against the Jews. The Holocaust deniers also struggle to explain why there were vast piles of bodies lying about at camps like Auschwitz when these camps were liberated in 1945. If, as the Jeff Rense claims, Auschwitz was a hospital, then it clearly didn't do a very good job.

In most courts of law, the eyewitness testimony of a single witness to a crime is sufficient to bring a conviction. The crime of the Holocaust had innumerable witnesses. Why do the Holocaust deniers and the editor of Uncensored completely ignore these voices? We can only answer this question by referring to anti-semitism. For the likes of Rense and Eisen, Jews are not capable of giving reliable testimony, because they are by nature duplicitous and conspiratorial. Hitler was right to hate and fear them.

Eisen himself shows his hand when he appends an editor's note to the sequence of anti-semitic articles in the latest Uncensored. In his note Eisen makes a series of utterly false claims about Jewish and European history. He asserts that, by the time that Zionism began to emerge as an ideology in the second half of the nineteenth century, 'Jews had largely assimilated into the mainstream cultures' of Europe, and 'persecutions has passed into history, at least in Western Europe'.

In fact, in many nineteenth century European nations Jews were still subjected to laws that prevented them from assimilating - in Russia, for instance, they were banned from entering vast areas, and from working in certain occupations. Even in relatively liberal Britain, Jews were still barred from parliament, the leading universities and the law profession for most of the nineteenth century.

The meaning behind Eisen's false claims about assimilation and an absence of persecution is clear: he is suggesting that it was Zionism that was responsible for the prejudice that Jews encountered in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like Jeff Rense and so many other contributors to Uncensored, Eisen appears to believe that the anti-semitism of the Hitler regime was a response to the evil machinations of Zionists. Such a view bears no relation to reality: whatever we think of Zionism as a political ideology, it posed no threat at all to the German people in the 1930s and '40s.

Eisen, though, seems determined to endorse the neo-Nazi argument that Jews, and not the Hitler regime, were responsible for World War Two. His editorial dwells on the Rothschild family, long a bugbear for anti-semites, and claims that they 'helped to engineer' the war of 1939-45. Eisen's own words, then, condemn him as an anti-semitic conspiracy theorist. It is good that his paranoid pronouncements met with no discernable support at the peace rally a couple of months ago.

In a recent, semi-coherent interview that one of his followers has posted to youtube, Eisen complains about the 'stupidity' of the protesters who refused to accept the ideas in Uncensored. Eisen is particularly angry at senior New Zealand writer Karl Stead, who attended the rally against the attack on Gaza but bluntly refused Eisen's offer of a free copy of Uncensored.

Eisen raves about Stead's 'blindness', but the author of Smith's Dream should be commended for clearly distinguishing legitimate criticism of Israeli policies from rabid anti-semitism. People like Eisen do a disservice to genuine critics of Israel, and give succour to the right-wing argument that all critics of Israel are anti-semites. The entire left should follow Stead's example and blackball Eisen and Uncensored, in the same way that it has rejected Kerry Bolton and his neo-Nazi friends.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Anti-semites don't deserve our War Memorial Hall: a letter to Cathy Casey

Dear Cathy,

I am contacting you about the day-long symposium which Uncensored magazine has announced it will be holding on the 26th of April at the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall. Uncensored is selling tickets to the event for fifty dollars, and promising a range of speakers.

magazine is edited by Jonathan Eisen, who is one of New Zealand's leading conspiracy theorists. Eisen believes that events like the 9/11 attacks, the economic crisis and global warming are the work of a sinister and secret international cabal. Many of the contributors to Uncensored equate this cabal with the Jewish people.

The January-March issue of Uncensored offers examples of the magazine's anti-semitism. The cover of the issue shows Barack Obama with a star of David on his sleeve, suggesting he is a tool of Jews. An article inside called 'The Unspeakable Truth of 9/11' insists that the Israeli spy agency Mossad orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and another article called 'The Real Agenda behind the Monetary Crisis' calls the world's media 'Jewish-occupied' and claims that Jews control the American Federal Reserve. Yet another article claims that Monica Lewinsky was a Mossad agent, and calls her 'President Clinton's chunky Jewish girlfriend'. The new, April-June issue of Uncensored takes the anti-semitic theme even further - it includes an article alleging that the diary of famous Holocaust victim Anne Frank was a hoax.

Many of the contributors to Uncensored have strong connections with the neo-Nazi movement. The author of the article that attacks Lewinsky is Christopher Bollyn, who regularly writes for the Barnes Review, a publication which exists to deny the Holocaust and rehabilitate the Nazi regime. In the Review's July/August 2004 issue, for example, Alex S Perry jr argued that Adolf Hitler was a good man who should have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Uncensored also features the work of local bigots. The January-March issue, for instance, includes an article called 'Suppressed Ancient History of New Zealand' by Martin Doutre, a man who has become notorious for his claims that ancient Celts arrived in New Zealand thousands of years ago, before being conquered and eaten by the ancestors of the Maori in relatively recent times. Doutre believes that Maori lacked the intelligence to create the culture commonly associated with them, and insists that taonga like hei tiki and carved wharenui were actually created by white people. Doutre is an outspoken defender of the jailed Holocaust denier David Irving, and is a leading member of the One New Zealand Foundation, which opposes all forms of Maori culture.

The keynote speaker at the Uncensored symposium is Lloyd Pye, an American researcher who claims that human beings interbred with alien thousands of years ago. Pye's ideas have been promoted by many people on the extreme right, because they provide an excuse for disregarding the evidence that all humans come from the same ancestors in Africa.

In his advertisement for the Uncensored symposium, Jonathan Eisen encourages the public to visit the website Red Ice Creations to find out more about Lloyd Pye's ideas. Red Ice Creations is a large, slickly produced clearing house for conspiracy theories. It regularly features the work of Holocaust deniers and other bigots. On the third of this month, for instance, the site's owners posted and recommended a new video by the Adeliade Insitute, an Australian neo-Nazi organisation, called 'Judea Declares War on Germany'. In the video, Adelaide Institute leader Frederick Tobin argues that Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps never had gas chambers, and says that the Jews rather than Hitler were to blame for World War Two.

Martin Doutre will be giving a talk on his interpretation of Maori history at the upcoming Uncensored symposium. Jonathan Eisen will be chairing the conference, and the money from ticket sales will go to his magazine. Some of the speakers at the symposium plan to address less political subjects, like the New Age fad of naturopathy, and it is possible that they do not realise the nature of Uncensored magazine and the politics of people like Martin Doutre and Jonathan Eisen. I will be contacting these people to ask them to withdraw from the event.

I accept that Jonathan Eisen and other contributors to Uncensored have the right to free speech and assembly, but I don't think that they should be able to use the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall to promote their views and make money. The hall is a public asset that is supposed to commemorate the loss of New Zealand life in war, and to serve the needs of the community around it. I don't believe that our community needs Jew-baiting and Maori-bashing. I think it is particularly inappropriate that Uncensored plans to use the hall on an Anzac weekend, when New Zealanders will be remembering the thousands of their countrymen and women who died opposing the same Nazi ideology that so many of the contributors to Uncensored promote.

I hope that you will use your influence as a City Councillor for the Eden-Albert ward to prevent Uncensored from misusing the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Organic yohurt, tofu - and neo-Nazi nutbars?

Harvest Whole Foods is more than a store – it’s the hub of a community. Situated at the leafy, liberal end of Richmond Road, a few minutes’ stroll from the ostentatiously scruffy Grey Lynn Community Gardens, the large retail arm of the organic-only Huckleberry Farms Company caters to a distinct set of inner-city subcultures. The flyers and brochures left near the doors of Harvest Whole Foods reveal some of the social, political, and spiritual features of the milieu the store attracts – alongside advertisements for ‘Advanced Yogic Sex’, one finds calling cards for organisations like Greenpeace and Save Animals from Exploitation, and appeals for donations to help emancipate Turkish dancing bears.

I have been paying occasional visits to Harvest Whole Foods ever since I met my beloved civil union partner, Skyler. Like many of the store’s most enthusiastic customers, Skyler considers herself a part of the amorphous but strong ‘green alternative’ community represented by those leaflets beside the doors. I blame her parents, who are Steiner teachers and veterans of the folk music scene of the sixties. They deprived the poor girl of meat (it was murder), plastic toys (dangerous chemicals), and Dr Who (too many cheap scary BBC monsters) during her formative years.

Luckily for me, the excellent Time Out bookshop is located across the road from Harvest Whole Foods, and I’m normally able to make my excuses and leave Skyler to do the shopping after putting a token organic banana in our basket. A couple of weeks ago, though, I found myself morbidly attracted to Harvest Whole Food’s magazine rack. I’d always avoided looking too closely at the rack before – I was afraid that it might contain cooking magazines that Skyler would insist on buying for me, in the hope of broadening my repertoire of dishes beyond burnt bangers and mash and greasy burgers.

I was intrigued, though, when I realised that the only periodical on the rack that covered current events and politics was Uncensored, the magazine founded by the well-known pornographer Steve Crow. The genius behind Boobs on Bikes offloaded Uncensored a year or so ago, and the magazine is currently published by a collective based in Point Chevalier. Uncensored is stocked by a number of newsagents and bookshops around Auckland, but in these outlets it is only one of many periodicals devoted to current events and politics that are offered for sale. The fact that Uncensored was the only political periodical at Harvest Whole Foods suggested, to me at least, that the proprietors regarded it as more interesting than others, or at least as more in line with the philosophy of Harvest Whole Foods than others. The location of the magazine rack in the middle of Harvest Whole Foods and the placement of Uncensored at eye-level on the rack meant that most visitors to the store must have seen it.

I duly added a copy of the latest issue of Uncensored to Skyler’s basket. I’d never actually bothered to open the magazine before, and I was soon dismayed to see that many of the contributors appear to believe that a conspiracy of Jews controls world events, and is responsible for disasters like the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq. The cover of the magazine presented President Obama as the tool of a Jewish conspiracy; an article called 'The Unspeakable Truth of 9/11' insisted that the Israeli spy agency Mossad orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Centre; and a piece called 'The Real Agenda behind the Monetary Crisis' claimed that the world's media is 'Jewish-occupied' and that Jews control the American Federal Reserve.

Uncensored appeared to have an obsession with Jews: certainly, the magazine's writers missed no opportunity to slip anti-semitic language into their texts. The anti-semitism could be pathetically petty, as well as grandioisely paranoid: in one article, for instance, Monica Lewinsky was described as Bill Clinton's 'chunky Jewish girlfriend'. A quick internet search revealed that the author of that piece, one Christopher Bollyn, writes for an American publication called the Barnes Review, which regularly praises Hitler and denies that the Holocaust ever took place. Other contributors seemed to have similarly impeccable pedigrees. More disturbingly, perhaps, Uncensored also featured work by local members of the far right.

 Near the back of the issue I found a rambling article called 'Suppressed Ancient History of New Zealand' by Martin Doutre, a man who has become notorious over the past decade for his claims that ancient Celts arrived in New Zealand thousands of years ago, before being conquered and eaten by the ancestors of the Maori in relatively recent times (the idnefatigable Matthew Dentith has taken Doutre's latest article apart here). Doutre denies the Holocaust, maintains close ties with notorious Kiwi neo-Nazi Kerry Bolton, and is a leading member of the One New Zealand Foundation, whose leader Ross Baker is fond of making statements like ‘thank God I’m not a Maori’.

Harvest Whole Foods, with its organic food and its rhetoric about the environment, likes to represent itself as an 'alternative' to the cultural mainstream of New Zealand. But not everything that poses as 'alternative' is necessarily good. Uncensored certainly presents 'alternative', minority views of events like the 9/11 attacks, the Holocaust, and New Zealand history, but this does not mean it contributes anything useful to discussions about those subjects.

After wading all the way through Uncensored, I decided to e mail Dave Spalter, the chief executive of Huckleberry Farms, the company that supplies and runs Harvest Whole Foods and several similar shops around the country. I pointed Spalter in the direction of the article I wrote about Martin Doutre and his circle for the Scoop Review of Books last year, and the lengthy, vitriolic, and very revealing debate the piece had prompted.

In a matter of hours of Spalter replied. He said that he had already decided to stop stocking Uncensored, and that my e mail had reinforced his decision. Spalter said that he had ‘never looked’ at Uncensored properly until very recently, but that he was now aware that it was ‘a disgraceful and harmful publication’ that did not deserve any favours. Spalter revealed that he is Jewish, and admitted that he was ‘a little embarrassed’ that it had taken him ‘until now to discover the content of the magazine’. Spalter did not explain how Uncensored began receiving such favourable treatment at Harvest Whole Foods in the first place.

Harvest Whole Foods’ decision to dump Uncensored might seem like a no-brainer, but it raises some interesting questions about censorship, responsibility, and the power of retailers. As I read Spalter’s e mail, I began to wonder whether I had made a mistake in contacting him. Why had I accepted that a business owner had the right to decide what his customers read, by directing my concerns about Uncensored to him, and not to the customers themselves? Why had I expected moral leadership from a man who made punters pay ridiculous sums of money for tiny tubes of funny-smelling shampoo and organic tampons? And wasn’t I becoming a censor, by reinforcing Spalter‘s decision to remove Uncensored from his store?

Although I’m happy that the Jew-baiters and Maori-bashers in Uncensored will no longer get most favoured magazine status at Harvest Whole Foods, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that retailers should be the arbiters of what the public can and can’t read. I think that publications reflecting the full range of political thought, from the far left to the swampy centre to the extreme right, should be stocked by bookshops and newsagents. I wouldn’t be in favour of attempts to remove Uncensored from NZ Post shops or Borders Bookshop or Magazinno. At Harvest Whole Foods, though, Uncensored was the only political publication on display, and its mere presence seemed like an endorsement. I think that, instead of removing Uncensored, Dave Spalter might have legitimately decided to complement it with a range of other journals – journals from the sane parts of the right, as well as from the left – whose contents contradict the paranoid confabulations of Doutre, Bollyn, and co.

Doutre and his co-thinkers tend to conflate the defence of critical standards, the making of formal complaints, and outright censorship, but it is important for us to understand the difference between these measures. During the recent debate at the Scoop Review of Books, Doutre repeatedly complained of being the target of ‘witch hunts’ and ‘persecution’. With a certain unconscious irony, Doutre segued from a defence of Holocaust denier David Irving to the claim that I was a ‘bellowing fascist’ because I called on editors not to embarrass themselves by publishing his exercises in pseudo-history. Suggestions that Doutre might be the subject of complaints to the Press Council and the Race Relations Conciliator only confirmed him in his beliefs that his critics were ‘Marxist control freaks’ who wanted to consign him to a gulag somewhere in the wastes of Waiouru.

Criticism is not censorship. It is not censorious of me to suggest that Doutre’s claims that New Zealand was once inhabited by greenstone-carving leprechauns do not meet the standards set by serious scholars of our history, and therefore don’t belong in journals that want to discuss our history in a serious way.

Nor is there anything repressive in suggesting that Doutre and other contributors to magazines like Uncensored would be fair game for the Press Council and the Race Relations Conciliator’s office. The Press Council is a non-governmental body which allows journalists to reprimand their peers; the Race Relations Conciliator is on the public payroll, but he is just as independent of elected politicians as the Ombudsman. Neither the Race Relations Conciliator nor the Press Council has the power to ban a publication or silence an author. What both can do very effectively is damage the credibility of a writer or publication, by exposing rampant mendacity.

I’m currently part of a small group which is investigating the possibility of making a formal complaint against Doutre and some of his publishers to the Press Council. We’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Skyler and I arrived in Taupo late on Saturday afternoon, just as the fittest competitors in the Ironman competition were storming home, down the main street of the city, to the polite applause of gaggles of spectators. After a meal and a long, languid conversation with two old friends of Skyler's who live in a delightful fifties bungalow a few streets from the lake, we wandered back into the town centre, and discovered a huge boozy crowd celebrating the Ironman stragglers who were hobbling over the finishing line in groups of twos and threes.

'IRON-MAN, IRON-MAN', the crowd chanted, as Queen's 'We Will Rock You' thrashed away in the background. The chant seemed particularly inappropriate when a frail woman in her sixties collapsed through the ticker tape into the arms of ambulance staff. I was touched, all the same, by the way the inhabitants of Taupo celebrated competitors simply for finishing their event. Men and women who had swum three kilometres, cycled one hundred and eighty kilometres, and ran - or, more often, limped - a marathon were visibly moved by the numbers of people who were waiting for them in the drizzly dark. Like the spectators who cheered Eric the Eel and Eddie the Eagle on at the Olympics, the crowd at Taupo seemed to appreciate effort and enthusiasm more than natural ability. It's hard to imagine a crowd of Aucklanders with a similar bias.

On Sunday morning we visited Opepe, the place fifteen kilometres down the Taupo-Napier highway which was the starting point for one of New Zealand's earlier endurance runs. In the middle of 1869 a small group of volunteer cavalrymen occupied the abandoned Maori village at Opepe, and prepared to turn it into a redoubt. The men had been ordered to defend the track between Taupo and Hawkes Bay from Te Kooti, the Maori prophet and guerrilla fighter who had been hiding from government forces in the Urewera ranges in the northeast.

After suffering several punitive invasions by armies of Pakeha volunteers and Te Arawa kupapa, the Tuhoe people of the Ureweras had been forced to ask Te Kooti to leave the shelter of their forests. The government feared that Te Kooti would move west, and try to link up with the Tainui King Tawhiao, who was living in exile in the rugged central North Island after his defeat in the Waikato War of 1863-64. Tawhiao had already established relations with Titokowaru, whose army was waging war on the settlers of the Taranaki, and the Crown was deeply worried by the prospect of a three-front war.

For reasons that are still unclear, the cavalrymen who moved into Opepe in early June 1869 were assured of their immediate safety by the commanders who sent them. Colonel St John, who had ridden down to Opepe with the cavalrymen, told them that the place was 'as safe as London', and then mounted his horse and rode back to his heavily fortified base at Galatea. Whether St John knew it or not, Opepe was in the path of Te Kooti's army, which had begun to move out of the Ureweras towards the great lake in the centre of the North Island, where the rebels hoped to gain some support and recruits from the Tuwharetoa people.

On the late afternoon of June the 7th, 1869, most of the volunteer cavalrymen were resting in their huts at Opepe, recovering from a day spent hunting for sheep in the bush around the settlement. Several of the men had taken their sodden clothes off, and hung them over an open fire to dry. The soliders had not bothered to post a sentry, so they were surprised when a tall Maori dressed in the blue and white uniform of the Te Arawa kupapa strolled into the midst of their camp. Seeing the man's clothing, the cavalrymen emerged from their huts to greet him, and offer him some food and drink. None of them knew what Te Kooti looked like, and none of them knew that the feared rebel had captured a number of Te Arawa uniforms during a raid on Whakatane earlier in the year. While Te Kooti stood in the centre of the campsite smiling, his arm outstretched, his followers crept out of the surrounding bush, and aimed their muskets at the naked, unarmed cavalrymen.

The bodies of the cavalrymen were covered with strange hieroglyphic cuts, and left exposed to the elements. Te Kooti gave his own mounted followers the uniforms of the slain men, and left a letter stuck to the point of a sword at the centre of the campsite:

These men fell. They were mine. That is all.

This is another subject. You will wonder who were the fighting party. God was the fighting party. This is a judgment of God to show his might to the world and especially to the wicked...

George Crosswell was one of the men who escaped the attack on Opepe. He ran naked into the bush, hearing musket balls strike the trees around him, and kept running for forty kilometres, until the he reached the safety of Galatea. Despite his lack of clothes and the mid-winter weather, Crosswell was relatively unharmed by his ordeal. After resting a few days to allow his swollen and cut feet to heal, he resumed his duties. When James Cowan was researching his massive history of the 'Maori wars' in the early 1920s, he was able to call upon Crosswell in the little Bay of Plenty town of Opotiki, where the old soldier had settled down on a piece of land given to him as a reward for his service.

After Te Kooti's victory at Opepe, the Crown built a network of eleven redoubts between Taupo and Napier. In a sense, Te Kooti was the founder of the town of Taupo: today's central business district grew up around the redoubt that was built beside the spot where the Waikato comes out of Lake Taupo. (If you ever wind up in the police cells at Taupo, just take a look through the bars of your window, and you'll see the remains of the redoubt, including a little pumice-stoned storehouse and a couple of trenches.) Opepe was reoccupied, and for a while a small town grew up around its redoubt. Today, though, the area is once again uninhabited, and visitors can walk over the site of the redoubt, the detritus of the town, and a gravesite that houses some of the men killed by Te Kooti, as well as soldiers who died of less violent causes in the 1870s. A group of pines planted around the graveyard in the 1870s stand like sentries, but elsewhere the Department of Conservation is posioning and removing exotic vegetation, so that native podocarps like rimu and matai have more room to spread their branches. Even in early March, walking on a well-established and carefully maintained path, I found the bush cool and damp. By the time I'd looped around the cemetery, crossed a ditch made by an ancient lava flow, spotted a morepork on a branch of an ancient rimu, and stepped back into the carpark, my shirt and the soles of my shoes were soaked. How must George Crosswell have felt on the night of June the 7th, 1869, as he ran naked away the burning huts of Opepe and the bodies of his comrades, through the trackless freezing dark?

George Crosswell ran almost a full marathon, and he ran naked, like the ancient Greeks, in the less than Mediterranean weather of the central North Island in June. Whereas Pheideppides had the exultation of victory to carry him, Crosswell had nothing to report to his commanders but disaster. Unlike his Greek predecessor, who died of his exertions, Crosswell lived to a ripe old age. He may have been fighting on the wrong side of the New Zealand Wars, but the man surely deserves a cheer or two.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Between hot and cold

A few years ago University of Auckland sociologist Bruce Curtis gave an interesting paper on New Zealand's nineteenth century history. Curtis distinguished between 'hot' (unstable) versus 'cold' (stable) societies, and suggested that this country had gone from being a hot to a cold society between the 1860s, when war was raging in several parts of the North Island, and the 1890s, when Maori had been pushed off the best land in the island, and the invention of refrigerated shipping had made large-scale exports of sheep and dairy products possible.

Curtis' formulation undoubtedly has merit, but it seems to me that there is a period between the radical instability of the war years and the beginning of Pakeha hegemony which deserves our scrutiny. Historians like James Belich have made us aware of the scope and implications of the dramatic events of the New Zealand Wars, but we are less informed about the enigmatic series of incidents that occurred in the aftermath of the wars, when Pakeha were still to consolidate the gains they had won and Maori were still resisting being pushed into the margins of the North Island.

I'm thinking of incidents like the numerous clashes on the border of the Rohe Potae or King Country - the independent Maori state that Waikato retreated into after being invaded by the Crown in 1863. Both the Waikato people and their Ngati Maniapoto hosts defended the boundaries of the King Country determinedly through the late 1860s and 1870s, and only gradually opened the area up to Pakeha in the 1880s.

I have been slogging through a rather badly written and constructed book called Raglan County Hills and Sea: A Centennial History 1876-1976, by CW Vennell and Susan Williams. Despite its authors' best intentions, the book manages to convey a number of fascinating stories about interactions between Maori and Pakeha in the late nineteenth century.

Vennell and Williams discuss not only relatively well-known incidents on the King Country's borders, like the killing of a surveyor at Pirongia and a farmhand near Maungatautari, but also the tension in the Aotea Harbour region, where the friendly chief Hone te One was encouraged by the government to construct a pa and make himself into a buffer between the embattled settlement of Raglan and the Ngati Maniapoto stronghold of Kawhia. Occasionally the tension on this obscure section of the border of the Rohe Potae boiled over - in 1867, for instance, there was a Maori attack on a European home in Kawhia, and in 1869 a Maori party pulled up survey pegs at Aotea.

I was also struck by Vennell and Williams' casual mention of a series of events that occurred a long way north of the King Country, in a year when we might expect Pakeha hegemony over most of the North Island to be well and truly established. In
1894 Maori of the Pukekawa area, which lies just south of Pukekohe, launched a campaign to prevent the building of the road from Tuakau to Raglan that we nowadays know as Highway 22. Survey pegs were pulled up, and roadworks were sabotaged.

According to Vennell and Williams, the Crown reacted by sending three policemen to Mangatawhiri marae near Mercer, where a large group of women armed with paddles fell upon them and fought 'like wild cats'. The forces of the law beat a hasty retreat. Two days later, though, forty armed policemen turned up at the marae, and succeeded in arresting about fifteen men and women after lengthy scuffles. The prisoners were taken by boat across the river to Mercer, and then put on the train to Mt Eden prison. Predictably, Vennell and Williams trivialise this incident as a 'colourful day for the Maoris', and neglect to explain exactly what happened to the prisoners.

Dick Scott made the resistance movement focused on Parihaka famous, and in his biography of Princess Te Puea Michael King revealed to non-Tainui audiences the massive campaign of civil disobedience centred on Mangatawhiri marae during World War One - a campaign which was only ended by mass arrests. But what of the campaign at Pukekawa in 1894, which seems to have echoed the struggle at Parihaka, and which provoked a raid which presaged the mass arrests at Mangatawhiri during World War One?

It seems that there are many incidents in our late nineteenth century history which still await careful study. Does anybody want to volunteer?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Pay Equity Faxathon

This is just a quick post to alert people to the Pay Equity Faxathon that is going on today. The union I belong to, Tertiary Education Union (TEU), supports this action and has an ongoing campaign for all working women to have the same pay and employment opportunities as men.

Displeasure at pay-equity cancellation grows

Women’s groups and unions have expressed ongoing concern following the government’s decision last month to discontinue two pay and employment equity investigations which would have looked to address the pay gap between men and women in the public sector.

CTU president Helen Kelly said after the state sector minister’s announcement:

“It is one thing to urge pay restraint in the public sector but quite another to endorse the unfair underpayment of these workers. The Government is effectively telling its own female employees that it doesn’t care if it is discriminating against them.”

“Women deserve better treatment than this. The Government’s actions send out an unacceptable message to other employers in New Zealand. We say that the economic situation cannot be used to justify discriminatory pay and conditions.

The cancelled investigations do not affect the tertiary education sector, where a programme to investigate pay and employment equity is continuing to progress in almost all institutes of technology and polytechnics, in one wananga and at least one university. However, it does undermine the comprehensive ambitions of the pay and employment equity programme, which may require government support to address specific findings that emerge from the pay investigations and work to date.

Feminist group, the Hand Mirror, has organised a “faxathon” for tomorrow encouraging working women to organise a morning tea at their workplace and send the minister faxes expressing their displeasure at his decision to cancel the two pay and employment investigations and “immediately re-instate this important commitment to fairness and equality.”

TEU national secretary Sharn Riggs is supporting the faxathon saying it is important to let the new government know that pay and employment equity is an important issue in the tertiary sector:

“The pay and employment equity programme in the tertiary education sector is expected to show up some areas of inequality and bias against women, similar to the public sector. The government needs to support the programme fully and challenge this discrimination in our workplaces. Now is not the time for it to be signalling that it does not value pay and employment equity.”

For more about pay and employment equity and the “faxathon” visit TEU’s Pay and Employment Equity page

Updike and Upward

I've written the latest Picks of the Week column for the Scoop Review of Books: faithful readers of this blog will recognise a few of my references.

Update - I've just added posted this statement at the Scoop Review of Books: as anyone who has read my deathless text will no doubt have already noticed, I have somehow managed to conflate Martin Amis and Ian MacEwan. Amis made the wonderfully quietist claim about death being a great career move for writers, but MacEwan was the bloke who wrote the recent appraisal of Updike. In my defence I can only say that:

a) MacEwan and Amis are both rather haughty Pommy novelists whose politics have drifted disturbingly far to the right in recent years and

b) I wrote this week's This Week's Picks in two minutes flat in a cybercafe on Lorne Street, whilst thinking of nothing but the cold beer which awaited me at Forde's Bar as soon as I got the task out of the way.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The virus mutates

Sir Peter Buck holds the stocky, dark-skinned man firmly and eyes him suspiciously. 'It is as though Buck believes that the man is a rare piece of wildlife, who might take flight at any moment', wrote Michael King, in a comment on the famous Ngati Mutunga anthropologist's demeanour in the this strange photograph, which was taken in Dargaville in the early 1920s, and published shortly afterwards in HD Skinner's groundbreaking The Morioris of the Chatham Islands.

Buck probably deserves the faint look of triumph that can be detected in his face: by the time he located the man we now know as Matene Totara Te Retimana in the upper Kaipara, he had spent years investigating rumours that a full-blooded Moriori had settled in Northland after being taken to the region as a slave in the nineteenth century.

Buck was a scholar of great probity, who undertook his research in a humble rather than inquisitorial manner. In his poem about the man, Kendrick Smithyman reflects on this humility:

Buck had questions. Wherever he went
he mightn’t ask outright - he knew how to behave -
of this one and that one, or of this one and that knew
alright to say directly "Tell me . . . Show me".
Said "Show me how they tie a knot and I’ll tell you
something worth knowing about these people."

There is nevertheless something disturbing about this photograph. For all his gentle professionalism, Buck was a member of one of the two Taranaki iwi which shattered the Moriori world by invading the Chatham Islands in 1835. His ancestors had eaten many Moriori, and enslaved others. Buck was barely removed from the era of Ngati Mutunga hegemony on the Chathams: he was born in a small and improvised settlement near Urenui, in the north Taranaki heartland of his people, set up by hapu which had hurriedly abandoned the islands because they were worried that their own traditional lands might be threatened by a new invader - the Pakeha.

Buck grew up with stories of the ruthless prowess of Ngati Mutunga taua, and even some of his most distinguished contemporaries imbibed their parents' contempt for the indigenous people of the Chathams. Maui Pomare, who was the first Maori to gain a medical degree and eventually became Minister of Health, harboured a lifelong disdain for Moriori, whom he considered 'slaves' and 'the offspring of slaves'.

By the time Michael King discovered the photo of Buck's Moriori, the man had once again become a mystery. In the notes to his magisterial 1989 book Moriori: A People Rediscovered, King laments that extensive research in the Dargaville area had failed to turn up any information about him, or any descendants he might have had. It was matter of conjecture, King concluded, whether the man in the photo was even named Te Retimana.

In desperation, perhaps, the historian fell back upon a anecdote from his friend Kendrick Smithyman. King's book quoted 'The Last Moriori', a poem Smithyman had written in the late 1970s, more than fifty years after his father had pointed out Retimana as the unfortunate man wandered down a Dargaville street:

Reputedly last of his kind,
quite surely one of the last
not crossbred but (as They said) pure
as pure goes, a Chatham Island Moriori
taken for a slave when a boy, taken
again in some other raiding, passed
from band to band, from place to place
until he washed up on the River.
This was the story, anyway, which is
as may be. He was

very old, he did not belong,
some chunk of totara which lay too long
in acid swamp.
He was kumara left on the pit’s floor,
sweetness dried, its hull drawn small.
He was what you found in caves but did not
mention, travesty gone
beyond human. A tatty topcoat, bowler hat,
blanket which seemed to look your way
without seeing you from the stoop of a hut
at the Pa. A few weak hungers,
he survived. He endured,

already myth, beyond legends of his kind,
a poor fact.

As I noted last year, in my review of Rhys Richards' fine book about Moriori dendroglyphs, Smithyman's poem deserves to be placed alongside TS Eliot's 'Gerontion' as an eloquent expression of ethnic prejudice. Smithyman's view of Te Retimana almost certainly owes more to Pakeha and Maori stereotypes about an inferior, immoral, doomed people than to any insight into the man himself. In 2005 the first modern Moriori marae opened on Chatham Island. Named Kopinga, the building stands near a cliff in the north of the island, and is shaped like an enormous albatross; its centrepiece is a huge carved pole on which the names of all the Moriori who were alive at the time of the 1835 invasion are inscribed. The name Te Retimana appears several times in the list, so when in 2007 Matene Totara's grandson Steve Te Retimana contacted Moriori historian Maui Solomon about his family history he was assured of a warm response. Together, the two men were able to establish that Matene Totara Te Retimana was taken from the Chathams as a boy by the islands' Taranaki conquerors, before coming north and assimilating into Nga Puhi society.

Late last year a three-day hui was held in Ruawai, a small town south of Dargaville, where descendants of Te Retimana were joined by Solomon and other Moriori. The event at Ruawai was ignored by the national media, but reported in the Dargaville News, in the Northern Advocate, and on some Maori news sites. This scant coverage was enough to bring another man who claims to be Moriori out of the woodwork and on to the internet.

Unlike Steve Te Retimana, John Wanoa has no connections to the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands. His surname does not figure on the carved pole at Kopinga marae, and he has made no effort to contact Moriori historians. Despite his lack of credentials, Wanoa has spent much of the last few months spamming a bewildering range of websites, forums, and e mail lists with the claim that he is not only Moriori, but a spokesman for a 'nation of Moriori'. Wanoa hails from the northern Kaipara, and he is indignant that the hui at Ruawai did not include him.

Wanoa's wild claims derive not from any knowledge of Moriori history, but from a reading of the voluminous pseudo-histories of this country written by Pakeha cranks like Noel Hilliam, Barry Brailsford, Kerry Bolton, and Martin Doutre. Wanoa is Maori, but the fact that many of the creators of these pseudo-histories are motivated by an anti-Maori political agenda does not appear to faze him. In foam-flecked statements like this one, which was posted on several websites and at least one email list, Wanoa recycles some of the most outlandish claims of the pseudo-historians:


TAKE NOTICE THAT YOU ARE ACUSED THE NAMED PERSONS SEVERALLY MUST REBUTT ALL OUR MORIORI PUPONGA MANUKAU CLAIMS HISTORIC LAND CLAIMS before 4pm on the 30th September 2008 or earlier as our MARAE COUNCIL so determines TAKE NOTICE THAT the 20 SOVEREIGN STATE GOVERNMENTS who signed AGREEMENTS with each other including ERU MANUKAU Minister of Security Intelligence MAORI CROWN SOVEREIGN GOVERNMENT Representative under the PARAMOUNT by right of Inheritance MOHI WIREMU TE MAATI MANUKAU the 4th Members of the Order of the ST JOHNS and Her Majesty the Queen most Honorable Member...

Wanoa claims to be a descendant of a group of pre-Maori Moriori who lived at Puponga, which is the peninsula on the Manukau Harbour often nowadays known as Cornwallis. He claims to speak for these people, and for Moriori who lived on the Auckland isthmus, on the Kaipara, and in the Waikato. Wanoa claims that the Moriori of the North Island were conquered by Maori and then Pakeha, and that traces of their existence have been systematically hidden by a conspiracy embracing both groups. Now, though, under the leadership of a shadowy exile from New Zealand named Eru Manukau, the 'Moriori' are about to make a comeback, and execute a series of complicated legal manoeuvres which will somehow lead to their taking control of these islands.

It is easy to dismiss Wanoa as a crank. But his views are perhaps significant, because they represent the assimilation and adaption by a Maori of the anti-Maori propaganda which the likes of Kerry Bolton and Martin Doutre pump out. The virus has mutated. Wanoa is ashamed to be a Maori, and has identified himself with a fictional pre-Maori people. Wanoa gives this people the name Moriori, perhaps in deference to the long-standing myth that the Moriori were pre-Maori inhabitants of the North and South Islands, but he allows them many of the qualities of the ancient Celts which Bolton and Doutre believe resided here. Wanoa's mainland Moriori were a technically advanced people, not hunter gatherers, and they maintained extensive contacts with other parts of the world, including the mythical ancient civilisations in South America that so fascinate Pakeha pseudo-historians. Wanoa's claims about a conspiracy of silence and his reference to a mill grinding up the bones of his ancestors are clearly sourced from the Celtic New Zealand circle.

The only authentic part of Moriori culture which Wanoa invokes in his statements is the pacifism which made the Chathams so easy for Maori to conquer in 1835. Wanoa's mainland Moriori were peace-loving folk, who apparently refused to use their advanced technology to defend themselves against savage Maori invaders.

How can we understand Wanoa's conversion to and indefatigable advocacy of a profoundly racist mythology? I find it hard to believe that Wanoa has been moved only by the eloquence of Martin Doutre's prose, or the logic of Kerry Bolton's arguments. I think that his decision to repudiate his Maoriness is also related to a far more subtle and widespread tendency in contemporary discourses about New Zealand history.

The old myth of the Moriori as an autocthonous people driven from the North and South Islands by savage Maori invaders has been in decline for two decades, as the 'Moriori renaissance' symbolised by the opening of Kopinga marae helps to clarify the origins and the history of the indigenous people of the Chathams. But the longevity of the myth is nonetheless remarkable, given the lack of the scholarly suport it has commanded, and this longevity has to be related to the political usefulness of the idea that Maori were, like Pakeha, a people who had displaced another to take control of the North and South Islands. 'We only did to them what they did to the Morioris' is the sort of statement that can still be encountered occasionally on talkback radio shows and in the letters columns of newspapers.

Although the myth of the Moriori as a pre-Maori people has become harder and harder to advance, many Pakeha still feel a need to legitimise the conquest of Maori in the nineteenth century by finding a moral equivalent for this conquest in Maori history. For many of the more intelligent apologists for colonialism, the Maori invasion of the Chathams in 1835 has become a sort of justification for the Pakeha treatment of Maori later in the century. In her fine study of the history of the Moriori myth, Canterbury University's Jacinta Blank identified the danger of making a simplistic interpretation of the events of 1835 into a new version of that myth.

Blank's research helps us to see how the undeniable brutality of the 1835 invasion and the contrast between 'warlike' Maori society and peaceful Moriori society are now sometimes held up as reasons why Pakeha were justified in imposing their laws and government on Maori at the point of a gun in the New Zealand Wars. The actions of two small Taranaki iwi in a very specific historical situation - a situation largely created by the coming of the Pakeha, with his guns and his insatiable need for food and building materials - are used to condemn all of Maori. The diversity of Maori societies is ignored, and Moriori pacifism and egalitarianism are idealised, rather than treated as the pragmatic choices of a people forced to inhabit two small, isolated islands with limited resources. Moriori, who were once condemned as a degenerate race, are now patronised as utopian innocents, and Maori are cast in their familiar role as savage opportunists.

Perhaps the self-deluded, self-hating John Wanoa is the victim of a new chapter in the history of the Moriori myth, as well as the fantasies of the Celtic New Zealand circle.