Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Samoa's disaster zone

I was incredulous when I turned on the TV this morning and saw Oliver Driver announcing that Samoa had been hit by an earthquake and a tsunami. Located securely in the middle of the Pacific, far from the unstable rim that brings so many quakes to Chile and Japan and the Hawkes Bay, Samoa is not a place where we expect the earth's crust to shake and crack. The earthquake which occurred last night off the American-controlled island of Tutuila was easily the most severe in living memory.

The tsunami seems to have thrown much of its force at the southeastern coast of Upolu. Upolu is the most populous island in the Samoan archipelago, but most of its people live on its northern coast, in and around the city of Apia. By comparison with the villages that cluster around Apia, the settlements in the east and south of the island feel isolated, and a little neglected.

The road which circumnavigates Upolu becomes potholed as it approaches Lalomanu, a village in the island's extreme southeast which boasts a couple of magnificent but rundown churches and a view of the bush-clad and almost uninhabited Aleipata Islands, which sit a few kilometres to the east, beside the path that ferries and cargo ships take to Tutuila. (New Zealand colonial administrators used Nu'utele, the largest island in the Aleipatas, as a dumping ground for lepers.)

This photo shows the coastline near Namua, the closest of the Aleipata islands to the coast, and perhaps gives some idea of the exposed nature of the extreme southeast of Upolu:

The coast is low-lying, dwellings sit across the road from the water, and the reef which can be seen behind Skyler is located only a short distance from the shore.

After Lalomanu, the road passes a series of surf beaches that face south across the open Pacific. Good beaches are relatively rare on Samoa, and several resorts have been constructed in this area. Eventually the stretches of sand turn to shallow bays and mangrove-fringed estuaries, and the resorts give way to villages like Poutasi and Safata. The cyclone which descended in 2004 hit these villages especially hard, and when Skyler and I visited them earlier this year we saw corrugated iron rooves lying in mangrove forests.

Samoa is very vulnerable to tsunamis, because an extraordinary number of its people live close to the coast. Archaeologists have found ruined villages and signs of ancient cultivations in the centre of Upolu, and oral history tells of people living inland to escape the Tongans who conquered coastal areas in the Middle Ages. With the advent of contact with European traders and missionaries, though, much of the population moved toward the coast. Today, only a handful of the villages in Samoa's two main islands are sited inland.

The relatively flimsy nature of many Samoan dwellings is also likely to have worsened the effects of the tsunami. In the villages that dot the southeastern coast Western-style houses with four solid walls are much less common than traditional fale, which have thatched rooves and use mats or thatch for walls. The fale is well-suited to the hot and humid conditions of an equatorial country like Samoa, but it is not likely to offer much defence against giant waves.

As the death toll from the disaster in Samoa rises, the need for foreign aid becomes clear. New Zealand has a particular duty, and not only because of its huge Samoan population.

As every Samoan knows, New Zealand let Samoa down badly when the archipelago was visited by a previous natural calamity. In 1918 New Zealand administrators allowed the Spanish flu into the island on a ship that should been quarantined, and then refused to take the resulting epidemic seriously. A fifth of Samoans died as a result of the incompetence and racism of the Kiwi colonists. A generous response to today's calamity might help to balance memories of 1918.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Titus turns twenty-one

Last Friday night Titus Books launched its twenty-first and twenty-second volumes, though whether the publisher Claudia Westmoreland once described as 'the naughty infant of New Zealand literature' has reached the maturity often signified by the number twenty-one is surely a matter for debate. Titus' founder owner Brett Cross has made it his mission to 'shake up' and 'subvert' the small world of Kiwi letters, so he may like to think of his enterprise as having some of the spirit of a rebellious child.

As a writer and a person, Richard von Sturmer is a fascinating mixture of rebellious energy and mature calm. In the late '70s and early '80s, when he fronted legendary avant-punk outfits The Plague and The Humanimals, von Sturmer thought nothing of tearing off his clothes on stage and painting his entire body bright blue. After he discovered Zen Buddhism in the mid-80s, von Sturmer learned new, quieter ways of expressing himself, but the calm that is a feature of the string of books he has published since then has not come at the expense of punkish energy.

Richard may have kept his clothes on last Friday night, but he read passages from his new prose memoir On the Eve of Never Departing which mixed plain statement up with surreal imagery, and moved suddenly between calm and incantatory rhythms. Richard began by treating the eighty-odd punters who had filled Fordes Bar to a story about a night in the late '70s when he and a bunch of teenage cronies broke in to the Auckland zoo and went from cage to cage greeting the animals in the moonlit quiet. After impressing his listeners with the tranquility of the scene, von Sturmer suddenly recounted the decision of a beefy ape to reach out through the bars of its cage and put one of the teenagers in a choker hold. Rapture had given way to terror, and things got even stranger before Richard's story was over.

On the Eve of Never Departing ranges widely in time and space, and von Sturmer read other passages from the book which took readers out to the American desert, where a rattlesnake in a cave reminded the author of the nature of infinity, and into a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation, where he got up close and personal with an angel. Intense without being histrionic, and ever-alert to the shifting moods and rhythms of his texts, von Sturmer must be one of the finest performers in New Zealand's literary community. If you missed last Friday's gig, though, don't despair - the man is just as good on the page. Rogalia Guedea couldn't attend last Friday night's launch, but the acclaimed Dunedin-based Mexican poet will be taking Free Fall with him when he tours the United States later this year. In Guedea's absence Brett Cross found the perfect vehicle for the fastidious, querulous, faintly neurotic prose poems of Free Fall , in the form of that permanently querulous, faintly neurotic long-time scholar of Spanish-language and Lusophone literatures, Hamish Dewe. Otis Mace bookended both von Sturmer and Dewe's performances with his fingerpicking.

Titus Books may be in rude good health, as it celebrates passing twenty-one, but some other, older New Zealand publishers are feeling distinctly queasy right now. During the booze-up that followed the formal part of last Friday's launch, I chatted with a very senior Kiwi writer about the decision of the new owners of the Whitcoulls chain of bookstores to cancel many of the block orders the company had previously placed for the work of local novelists. Large prepaid orders from Whitcoulls have often underwritten the costs of the print runs of some of New Zealand's bigger literary publishers. Whitcoulls' decision compounds the misery caused to Kiwi publishers by this country's deregulated book market and by the increase in online reading and book downloads.

My interlocutor suggested that, in the dangerous conditions of twenty-first century publishing, Titus was employing the right set of tactics. The company's emphasis on producing small first editions, covering costs through sales at launches, and mobilising the paraphenalia of the digital age to get around the hostility of some large booksellers may yet become a model for publishers with more financial resources, he said. Will the rebellious child end up teaching the old heads of New Zealand publishing a trick or two?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

An annotated Guide to Mungo National Park

[This piece, which records a part of our recent trip across the ditch, mixes the text of a brochure up with my own notes...]

Welcome to Mungo National Park, a World Heritage Site. When Lake Mungo was full, Aboriginal people camped on its shores. They fished and hunted the many large animals that came to drink at the lake. The shifting sands of the lunette on the eastern shore of the lake have revealed many well-preserved skeletons, artefacts, footprints, and campfires. The oldest evidence of human cremation and art have been found at Mungo.

When I worked at Auckland museum, I heard archaeologists talking about Lake Mungo as a place of pilgrimage, a place where enlightenment might descend, or at least be excavated from the mud and sand. Mungo was a huge, open-air archive, where a scholar could, with a little guesswork, turn a file of dried mud or smooth bone into a discovery, a theory, a theoretical paradigm. For a long time I imagined that Mungo must exist deep in Australia’s red centre. Opening an atlas one day, I discovered that it lay only a day’s drive from the Mallee farms where I had spent part of each of the summers of my childhood.

Please take care in our park. All roads become impassable after rain, and in the summer the heat can be extreme. Be aware that the distances between settlements are much larger in Australia than they are in most other Western countries.

Space and time relate strangely to one another in the Outback. There sometimes seems to be too much space, too many hectares and survey blocks and shires to decorate with stumped eucalypts and scruffy wattles. Fencelines march confidently away from the roadside toward the horizon, coated in fresh paint and strung with taut shiny wires, but in the bare middle distance they collapse in piles of rusty wire and termite-ridden timber.

Time slows, crossing this gross excess of space. As we skidded and glided down the dirt road to Mungo, a line from one of Dino Campana’s last poems kept occurring to me. ‘I leap out of time, into space’, Campana wrote, in a text that was probably truncated by the onset of the madness he would never recover from.

Would you like to observe Zygomaturus, the buffalo-sized marsupial, grazing at the edge of the water? Sorry – you are fifty thousand years too late, but there’s a life-size replica in the Information Centre.

Like my mother, my Aunty Thel has that special love of ocean views and cool hilltop breezes that only a childhood in the interior of Australia can bestow. Thel grew up in the Mallee, the dogear of Victoria, and she still checks the window sills for dust on dry windy city days. Thel urged us not to travel north past the Murray River to Lake Mungo. "With all the droughts we’ve been having, this lake of yours probably even won’t have any water in it” she warned us. I didn’t dare tell her that Lake Mungo has been dry for eighteen thousand years. The landscape out here is not empty - in fact, it is full of detail. It is a subtle landscape, and needs to be interpreted carefully.

The interior of Australia encourages fantasy. Forced to haul logs through swampland and lay the bricks of their own punishment cells in forty-degree heat, the convict-settlers of Sydney dreamed of a country on the far side of the Blue Mountains. Some of them imagined that China lay on the other side of the impassive peaks; others were convinced that the interior hid a nation of free and enlightened whites. In the first two decades of the colony scores of convicts slipped their chains and fled toward the mountains. Most of them vanished without trace, and therefore confirmed the existence of the sanctuary.

Some of the early, conjectural maps of Australia show a broad body of water in the centre of the continent: pursuing this mirage, Charles Sturt and his followers slogged north, out of the safe settled coastal strip of the continent, hauling rafts and skiffs behind them. Sturt returned years later on a stretcher borne by a skeletal horse. Blind and delirious, he begged for water even as his rescuers emptied a pitcher over his pursed blistered lips.

The silence and absence of detail found in parts of the Outback seems to overstimulate the imaginations of visitors. Sensory deprivation is known to provoke hallucinations. Before his eyes failed him, Sturt was convinced he could see waves breaking amidst the rocks of the horizon. The Mungo Woolshed was built in 1869 using locally cut cypress pine. Note the unique drop-log wall construction. Spend some time here and take a photo.

The woolshed was built by Chinese who arrived in Australia too late for the gold rush of the 1850s. After docking at Melbourne and paying a poll tax of ten pounds each, the aliens spent the last of their savings on trains to Ballarat and Bendigo, and found both towns encircled by abandoned trenches and pits full of scummed water. All the easy gold was gone, but there was work in the north, on the ancestral lands of the conquered Wergaia and Barkindji peoples. There was a labour crisis at the Gol Gol station at Mungo: the expropriated Aboriginals who had learned to shear sheep and ride cattle had just been herded into mission stations by men of God.

The rafters of the woolshed are made from cypress trunks no thicker than a man’s spine. Looking up from their half-finished work, across the mirage-water that covered the lake bed in midsummer, the Chinese were reminded of home by the barrier of mud and sand on the horizon. The Lake Mungo lunette soon became known as the Walls of China.

You are now dropping into the depression where the early settlers established Allen’s Plain Tank. Prior to the concerted eradication programme, this area contained huge rabbit warrens in its rich lime sediments. The warrens were used by bettongs and bilbies, species which are now extinct in this area. During the great flood of 1956, Allen’s Tank overflowed enough to enough to allow for water skiing.

Prehistory is popular, in the twenty-first century: French archaeologists fret about the damage done to their Lascaux Caves by tourist crowds, and the two million year- old skeleton Lucy draws sell-out audiences whenever she leaves her native Ethiopia to tour Europe or America. Lake Mungo, though, remains one of the least-known World Heritage sites, even amongst Australians. No one I talked to in Melbourne, Ballarat, Wycheproof, or Swan Hill had heard of the place. The hotel manager at the Murray River port town of Mildura, the closest settlement to Mungo, had heard of the site, but never visited it. ‘Never been on a paddlesteamer either, mate, and I’ve lived here all my life’, he told me as he handed Skyler and me our teabags and my towels. How can Australians be so incurious? If the archaeological stash at Mungo were located somewhere else – on the side of an African volcano, or in a Javan cave – then Aussies would watch programmes about the place on the Discovery Channel as they balanced microwave meals on their laps.

For the last kilometre you have been crossing scalded areas and small rises. Bluebush with its solid form and tiny, thick, succulent leaves has dominated the rises, and rightly so – it is a hardy, reliable plant. Ahead is an excellent view of the lunette on the far shore of the lake, the so-called Walls of China. Notice the distinctly coloured layers in the eroded pinnacles. Each colour denotes a different epoch.

Mungo is neglected because it threatens Australians – or, more accurately, threatens the 98% of Australians whose forebears arrived on the continent in 1788 or thereafter - with the vastness of history. The timescale that white Australians have deployed in their local histories and public memorials begins with the coming of a few Godlike ‘pioneers’ and runs a hundred and fifty years or so through wars, floods, droughts, and sporting triumphs to the brink of a fondly-imagined future. The epic pretensions of this narrative are mocked by the charred and broken bones of Mungo Lady and the smooth, articulated skeleton of Mungo Man. The pink soil at the base of the lunettes was laid down between one hundred and twenty and one hundred thousand years ago, and is known as the Gol Gol unit. The brownish cream and white sands are the upper and lower Mungo units, and are between thirty-seven and sixty thousand years old. The grey chaps which cap the residual pinnacles comprise the Arumpo/Zanci unit, and are between thirty-seven and eighteen thousand years old. During this period the lake filled and dried out several times. Extensive evidence of human occupation can be found in the Mungo and Arumpo/Zanci units. Above the main lunette with its three ancient layers of soil are the white dune crests which have formed over the period since the lake dried for good.

When Maning Clark wrote the first, casually racist sentence of his six volume history of Australia at the beginning of the sixties, he was certain that the continent had not been settled for more than a few thousand years. Even as Clark laboured over his paean to the ‘civilising’ of Australia, though, other scholars were extending the history of barbarism on the continent backwards in time. By the end of the sixties, thanks partly to the discovery of Lady Mungo, humans had lived in Australia for at least thirty thousand years; a decade later, ten thousand new years had been added to the past. The inhabitants of Mungo have themselves been ageing rapidly: a series of radiocarbon tests pushed their history back to forty thousand years, and in 2000 archaeologist Alan Thorne used uranium series, electron spin resonance, and optically stimulated luminescence tests to decide that Mungo Man, who had been discovered in 1974, was sixty-two thousand years old, give or take six thousand years.

In 1996 a Northern Territory rock shelter called Jinmium was excavated by two archaeologists, who dated some stone flake artefacts they found as one hundred and sixteen thousand years old. At about the same time, scientists were probing soil samples taken from Lake George, near Canberra, and deciding that they showed evidence of a drastic change in vegetation patterns about one hundred and twenty thousand years ago. Were humans already moving into the southeast corner of the continent then, sowing the eucalyptus forests with fire, and harvesting the silver fern roots they found amidst the stumps and ashes?

Filed according to an obscure but rigorous logic by the dunes and mud, the bones and stones and campfires of Mungo mock the pretensions of white Australia, in the same way that the Buddhist ruins of northern India mocked the British colonisers’ claims to represent an ancient civilisation.

Note the old boundary fenceline between Mungo and Zanci stations. Mungo station operated as a unit until it became parkland in the late 1970s, but Zanci was divided between military settlers after World War One. In the dry conditions of the Outback, the new farms were too small to be economic. I have seen ruins before – old miners’ settlements sliding down impossibly steep Coromandel hills, a circle of gum diggers’ shacks sinking into a swampy estuary to the north of Herekino harbour, a nineteenth century utopian village rotting into regenerating forest in the English Midlands – but the ruins of Old Arumpo are different, and differently disturbing. In New Zealand and in Britain, ruins are quickly overtaken by vegetation and undermined by rot: it is as though nature is trying to ease the burden of human failure by erasing its material legacy. At Old Arumpo, where soldier settlers tried to run a sheep station in the twenties and thirties, the dry climate and slow-moving, low-rise vegetation mean that the symbols of failure - an upturned chookhouse, the pine frame of a shearing shed, the fireplace of a smashed homestead - are preserved indefinitely. The flat landscape around Lake Mungo compounds the misery of the old settlement, by making it visible for many kilometres. Seen from the road to Lake Mungo, the Old Arumpo water tank resembles the classical pillars that stand above so many obscure ruins on the shores of the Mediterranean. Please remember that any Aboriginal artefacts you may find are protected by law. Do not pick them up. Do not disturb them in any way. If you meet an Aboriginal, remember that he or she may communicate differently from you – English may be his or her second or third language.

Sometime in the 1860s, a young Barkindji man named Harry Nanya led his two wives into the scrubby country to the east of Lake Mungo, away from the rest of his people and the white man’s mission station. For decades Nanya was a story to scare children with, a excuse to give the stationmaster when sheep and cattle disappeared into depressions or impenetrable eucalypt thickets, a shadow glimpsed on the scrubby side of the water tank at dusk. Aboriginal trackers recorded the growth of Harry’s family, as new pairs of small footprints began to cross the red dunes behind the lunette, and the cold campfires in the gullies grew larger. When Harry Nanya was finally persuaded to ‘come in’ to a mission station in 1894, he brought a tribe of thirty-four men, women, and children with him. A photo taken shortly after the ‘capture’ of the ‘wild blackfellas’ shows them in perfect physical condition, with muscled limbs and torsos devoid of an inch of fat. A photo taken two years later shows legs and stomachs already thickened by the mission station diet of damper, sugar, and prayer.

Today Harry Nanya’s tribe fascinates demographers, who argue about whether or not the group’s rapid growth proves that the population of Australia could have expanded quickly once the ancestors of the Aboriginals arrived in the continent. The dominant winds are westerly. The eastern side of the lunette is the deposition zone for wind-borne sediments. The dunes are moving east, towards the Pacific Ocean, at a rate of up to three metres a year.

As we drive across the lakebed, slowing occasionally to avoid lizards – slow-moving shinglebacks, and nimble but erratic bearded dragons – the lunette grows larger and hazier. A breeze is blowing sand down from the dunes. I remember the popular name of the lunette, and begin to imagine a huge fortification, built by an Eastern potentate afraid of the unconquered peoples at the edges of his domain. As the road turns and runs alongside the lunette, I see the mud and sand pillars as towers on a great wall. The trees that cling to some of the pillars are flagpoles topped by the emperor’s green ensign. I can see the defenders of the wall, moving as swiftly as gusts of sand around their battlements, glancing down with incurious hostility at the barbarians who dare to approach them –

I am deceiving myself, the way Charles Sturt deceived himself. I am looking at layers of sand and mud piled up over one hundred and twenty thousand years, not the masterpiece of a lost martial civilisation. This landscape has seen enough romancing. The wind picks up, and a hunk of tumbleweed surges down the side of the lunette and across the lake bed towards us, through the yellow-gray air. For a moment I see a shadowy galloping horse, ridden by the emperor’s messenger.

After the lake dried, Aboriginal people continued to live beside soaks along a nearby river. They also quarried the rocks on the lake bed. No known area outside Africa was continuously inhabited for as long as Mungo.

Alan Thorne and Colin Groves work alongside one another at the Australian National University in Canberra, and joust good-naturedly in academic journals and on television, yet each man must surely believe that the other has wasted his life and deceived a generation of students. Thorne is an advocate of the theory that human beings evolved out of homo erectus in several different parts of the world, and eventually interbred; Groves holds to the more popular view that humans evolved in Africa and then spread around the world.

For Thorne, Lake Mungo is a vast laboratory in which the ‘Out of Africa’ thesis is being tested and found wanting. Almost a decade ago, Thorne announced that he had extracted and analysed DNA from Mungo Man’s remains. Because of the great age of the skeleton, and the very dry environment in which it had survived, Thorne’s announcement surprised the scientific community. His next piece of news was more surprising still: an analysis of the salvaged DNA showed that Mungo Man carried a genetic lineage which has become extinct. Mungo Man’s DNA sequence differs from that of 'Eve', the hypothetical ancestor of humans made famous by the Out of Africa theorists. Thorne has more provocations to hurl at believers in the Out of Africa thesis. His analysis of the remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady shows they were hypergracile – that is, exceptionally slight and fine-boned– individuals. By contrast, ancient skeletons found in northern Victoria’s Kow Swamp belonged to the most massive, heavyset modern humans yet discovered by science. How is it, Thorne asks, that the ‘Kow people’ have the same DNA as living humans, despite their apparently archaic features, while Mungo Man has different DNA, despite his ‘modern’ appearance? Thorne believes that Mungo Man and the Kow Swamp tribe represent two different groups of humans who immigrated to Australia separately, and eventually interbred and became the Aboriginal people.

Colin Groves and other proponents of the Out of Africa theory accuse Thorne of ignoring alternative explanations for the peculiarities he has discovered. What if the extraordinary appearance of the Kow Swamp people was caused by ritual deformation of the skull, a practice that was not unknown in Australian prehistory? What if the people who lived at Mungo simply represent a piece of human genetic diversity that got lost? What if their ancestors brought a genetic sequence out of Africa, but this sequence got isolated around Mungo and disappeared, as the lake dried up, bush tucker drifted away out, and the area’s inhabitants perished?

The Barkindji people play an important role in managing the Lake Mungo site, and supply the Rangers who staff the Information Centre and dig rented SUVs out of the road around the lunette whenever it rains. Many Barkindji were upset by the high-profile debate about prehistory that Alan Thorne’s study of Mungo Man prompted at the beginning of this decade. They felt that Thorne’s talk of two types of prehistoric Australians undermined their claim to indigenity, and the publication of photos of the remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady as illustrations to newspaper articles about Thorne’s discoveries only made them angrier.

You park your car on alluvial fans, formed on the eroding lunette. The rounded bright green bushes you can see on the dunes are sandhill wattles. Keep an eye out for kangaroos.

The western grey roos follow on either bank as we walk up a streambed from the eastern shore of the lake. The creatures stand silently on their hind legs and stare. Are they planning an ambush? Do they have an inherited memory of an ancient stream of cool water, a memory that compels them to attack us and drive us from their drinking spot? These are, of course, absurd thoughts: kangaroos rarely act aggressively toward humans, and two centuries of pastoral agriculture have provided them with so many water tanks and troughs that their herds have reached pestilential proportions in parts of Australia. The sight of a roo on its hind legs is, nonetheless, disconcerting: standing above the scrub staring steadily, the creatures seem almost human, in the way that chimpanzees scrabbling round trees never could. I wonder how many of the sightings of Yowie, the Outback’s mythical Sasquatch-like creature, are actually misrecognitions of kangaroos?

The lunette is best crossed in calm weather.

I left my sunglasses in the car, so I have to close my eyes for minutes at a time when we walk into the wind, over the lunette. When I open my eyes I look down to avoid the gusts of sand, but the whiteness of the dunes dazzles me, and I become more disoriented. For a moment I imagine I am walking in Antarctica, over a huge bank of snow, into the sort of howling, mocking wind that tormented explorers in the movies I loved to watch as a child. As my feet sink deeper into the snow, I open my eyes and see that Skyler, who didn't forget her sunglasses, has turned to laugh at the blind, stooped polar explorer struggling along behind her. The other lunettes in the Willandra Lakes region are still covered in vegetation. The spectacular dunes and eroded mud of the Walls of China are the product of overgrazing and rabbit plagues. Ironically, though, without these environmental problems the ancient bones and artefacts that have made Mungo famous would never have come to our attention. We would never have gotten to know Mungo Man.

The precise site is kept hidden. He had been covered in red ochre. The ritual indicated a belief in an afterlife, and also, arguably, a belief in the efficacy of art. His hands were clasped together, and laid over his penis. I like to imagine that he died that peacefully in the place where he was found, above the inland sea that had sustained him, surrounded by his tribe, who stood in a quiet circle and waited to cover him with the red earth of the Outback.

The wind has dropped. It does not matter that we do not have coordinates to a grave site or a set of ancient footprints or a cache of adzes. It is enough that we wander randomly on the lunette for an hour or so, take our photos, and head back towards the car.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It couldn't happen here - or did it?

As if their reputation as the nation's premier sheep shaggers were not enough, Lincoln University students recently decided to descend on a fancy dress party dressed as Nazis and as concentration camp inmates, and to play all sorts of jolly drunken games with batons and gags. As images of the weird sadomasochistic prank flash around the world and prompt apologies from Lincoln's vice chancellor, New Zealand Jewish Council president Stephen Goodman is suggesting that Kiwis need to be better informed about the Holocaust, so that they no longer feel able to trivialise the event.

The murder of six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps is something which humanity should never be allowed to forget. Fortunately, the Holocaust has not been forgotten: hundreds of books, movies, and television programmes attest to a continued preoccupation with the subject. Even treatments of the Holocaust and Nazism which leave much to be desired, like Stephen Speilberg's excessively stylised Schindler's List or Ian Kershaw's massive but insufficiently contextualised biography of Hitler, play their part in keeping the subjects in our consciousness. The story of the Holocaust is taught in many New Zealand schools, and is remembered by a museum in Wellington and a permanent display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

I am not sure, then, whether we can attribute the Lincoln students' appalling error of judgement to simple historical ignorance. The students obviously knew enough about Hitler and the Holocaust to stage their dismal joke. It is not ignorance of the Holocaust so much as a feeling of distance from the Holocaust which seems to have been behind the students' insouciance. For them, the Holocaust seems to have happened far away, in a very different world, like the obscure atrocities that Genghis Khan or Tamburlaine committed many centuries ago in vanished Asian empires.

It is possible that the Lincoln students' attitude is related to a tendency common to white settler societies like New Zealand. Whether it is American, Canadian, Australian, Caldoche, or Kiwi, the white majority in these societies has always resisted the importation of the concept of genocide from the Old to the New World. In his important book Telling The Truth About Aboriginal History, Bain Attwood argues that the descendants of colonists 'are happy to talk to talk about genocide in Europe', but that they erect 'temporal and geographical boundaries' to keep the concept out of their own societies. Genocide happens 'over there, not here'.
Yet Europeans have never been in doubt about how to characterise the bloodier parts of New World history. In the 1920s Hitler praised the way that the United States had dealt with its 'Indian problem', and promised to use similar methods to dispose of the degenerate peoples of Europe. When he created the first definition of genocide in the 1940s, the Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin cited the Tasmanian Aborigines as early victims of the policy.

Australia offers an appalling number of choices for would-be scholars of colonial genocide. Although John Howard and a coterie of second-rate historians have mounted a rearguard action against what they call the 'black armband view' of their country's past, the facts are hard to deny: of the roughly seven hundred Aboriginal nations which existed in 1788, when the colony of Australia was founded, less than two hundred existed a century later. Michael Mansell, a modern leader of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, has noted that, in statistical terms, the indigenous peoples of Australia suffered even greater losses during the nineteenth century than the Jews of Europe did during Hitler's reign. Hundreds of punitive expeditions, many of them prompted by incidents as minor as the theft of stock, claimed thousands of lives. Mayors and newspaper editorials spoke openly of the necessity of 'exterminating the black race'. In the twentieth century the massacres slowly tapered off, as more bureaucratic measures like forced sterilisation and the removal of children from their parents were employed in the quest to 'whiten' Australia.

Other parts of the Pacific have also seen genocide, or something approaching it. On Kanaky, the Caldoche responded to repeated rebellions by driving the indigenous people into isolated mountain cantonments where they were allowed to starve in huge numbers. Many small Pacific islands which never experienced full-scale colonisation were nevertheless devastated by the raids of blackbirders, who dragged the healthiest young men off to work as virtual slaves on plantations in South America and Australia.

White New Zealanders are not fond of discussing events like these. In some cases, we have constructed narratives of Holocaust denial to account for the side-effects of imperialism in the Pacific. Instead of acknowledging the decimation of the population of Easter Island/Rapa Nui by blackbirders and pirates in the nineteenth century, for instance, we have embraced Thor Heyerdahl's absurd and racially-motivated theory that the island was reduced to near-ruin by its prehistoric inhabitants' contempt for their natural environment. Jared Diamond's fatuous bestseller Collapse has given this theory renewed public credibility, so that Green Party co-leader Russel Norman thinks nothing of citing the supposed irresponsibility of the people of Rapa Nui as a warning to the world in his speeches.

Pakeha reserve their keenest resistance for attempts to use the concept of genocide to understand aspects of their own country's history. In 2000, when she was still a Labour Minister, Tariana Turia spoke of Maori suffering genocidal policies during the nineteenth century; talkback radio phonelines rang hot for weeks, letters flooded in to newspapers, and fellow Ministers felt compelled to distance themselves from her. Turia's statement was a broad one, and it certainly did not describe the experience of every iwi in the nineteenth century, but it could have marked the beginning of a mature discussion about New Zealand history, rather than the beginning of the Pakeha equivalent of Ingsoc's Hate Week.

If Maori generally maintained more of their land and independence than the Australian Aboriginals, then this had much to do with their performance in the wars that punctuated nineteenth century New Zealand history, and little to do with the morality of the Pakeha. At least one of the invasions of Maori-controlled areas of New Zealand - Colonel Whitmore's incursion into the Ureweras in 1869, which saw villages being torched and crops being pulled up in a successful attempt to create mass starvation - resembled a larger-scale version of the punitive expeditions which were used to 'teach the natives a lesson' across the Tasman. Others military adventures, like Chute's brutal march around Mt Taranaki and Cameron's descent on the Waikato, involved unsystematic but persistent attacks on civilians and civilian property.

Government policy towards Maori was governed by the same toxic mixture of Social Darwinism and Christian civilising zeal found across the Tasman, and by the last decades of the nineteenth century the Pakeha colonist was as certain as his Aussie cousin that the indigenous peoples of Australasia were quickly dying out. The obelisk on Auckland's One Tree Hill, with its elegy for the doomed Maori, is evidence of the curious mixture of guilt and pleasure that the colonist felt at the prospect of inheriting Aotearoa from its vanishing natives.

The one alleged case of genocide which Pakeha do like to discuss relates to the conquest of the Chatham Islands by two Taranaki iwi in 1835. It has become fashionable for Pakeha opponents of Maori nationalism to argue that the enslavement of the indigenous Moriori people of the Chathams by Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama is an illustration of the genocidal nature of traditional Maori society.

While the Moriori certainly suffered genocide at the hands of the Taranaki tribes, who slaughtered and ate hundreds of their distant relations and worked hundreds of others to death, this genocide owed more to the social and economic system that settlers had brought to the Pacific than it did to any features of pre-contact Maori society. Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama had arrived on the Chathams after losing their own homelands to invaders armed with European weaponry, and they used their Moriori slaves to grow huge amounts of potatoes for the settler cities of Wellington, Sydney, and San Francisco. Although slavery was a feature of pre-contact Maori society, it did not normally occur on a large scale. Only the arrival of a cash economy in the Pacific made a permanent army of slave labourers economically desirable.

We should not remember the past in order to feel guilty about it, but in order to understand it. As Hans-Georg Gadamer pointed out, we only understand a past event or idea by relating it to something we already know - something that is closer to our own experience. The students at Lincoln University have not understood the genocide of Europe's Jews because this event seems to have nothing in common with the society in which they live. The Holocaust is something that happened 'over there', something that is unimaginable 'down here'. It is not part of their history. If we want to make the Lincoln students and others like them understand the genocide of the Jews of Europe, then we should talk about the bloodier parts of the history of our own part of the world.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Eviscerator Returns

Six and a half years ago, as the deadly fireworks display called Shock and Awe was brightening the skies above Baghdad, I helped to run an anti-war poetry reading at a small pub in Ponsonby. The event attracted political activists, whose staccato verses perhaps needed to be shouted through a megaphone and repeated by a crowd of thousands to attain their best effect, plus a few uncompromising avant-gardists like Richard Taylor, who insisted on performing a particularly long and particularly recondite pasage of his notorious Infinite Poem, and a gaggle of apolitical Bohemian hipsters, who recited the sort of sub-Kerouac kitsch which seems to be the stock in trade of the live poetry 'scene' in Auckland.

The evening was saved by the money collected for the anti-war movement, and by the unexpected appearance of Hamish Dewe, a talented young Auckland poet who had departed for the wilds of China at the beginning of the noughties. Apart from his fierce love of Ezra Pound and his impeccable craftsmanship, Hamish had been renowned in nineties for the enormous Panama hat he would almost always wear in public.

'One form of war is economics', a bare-headed Dewe told the audience as he took the stage, 'and one type of war booty is cheap labour'. Perhaps noting the puzzled looks on the stoned faces of the wannabe Kerouacs, Dewe explained that he had 'exchanged time for money in China, which is now a capitalist hellhole'. Hamish read several short, caustic poems that drew on his experiences attempting to share the pearls of English literature with the bored, spoilt children of a brand new bourgeoisie in the universities of Chinese cities mutilated and polluted by out of control capital accumulation:

disgust engendered

in the human mechanism

——what is there to

keep you from

doing away with

it, altogether?

——the call of the


though bestial

cannot be ignored


'As Marx said', Dewe muttered, while fossicking about in a folder for one of his poems, 'capital comes into this world oozing blood and sweat from every pore. China is blood and sweat.'

When the audience was asked to vote for the best performer of the night, they gave Hamish the honour by a solid margin. The lefties had responded to his evisceration of Wild West capitalism, the literary crowd admired the careful, high modernist construction of his poems, and the hipsters were impressed by his cool, almost detached delivery.

Later in 2003 Hamish Dewe returned to China to exchange more of his labour-time for money, but he sent home regular poem-reports on the country he hated. 'Shanghai', which was published in the the journal brief earlier this year, exemplifies the controlled fury of Dewe's despatches:

our backs, minds, like

our streets,


with the force of acquiescence







and crowded round the effluvia of

the Huangpu

studded with hairdressers

that don’t cut hair, staffed

with the cream of Anhui

‘virginity’, like our




So much to revile and so little time.

Hamish Dewe recently returned from China for good, and I am pleased to announce that he was resumed his early habit of producing short, caustic commentaries on Kiwi society. I am also pleased to announce that Hamish be will be taking the mike during next Friday night's Titus Books launch for Richard von Sturmer's memoir On The Eve of Never Departing and the acclaimed Mexican poet Rogelio Guedea's collection Free Fall (you can read a preview of each book here). Dewe is a fan of Latin American poetry and an accomplished translator from Spanish and Lusophone literatures, so it is appropriate that Titus Books boss Brett Cross has invited him to read some of Free Fall's lapidarian prose poems. Just don't ask Hamish whether he had a good day at the office.

Here's the formal invite for what should be an exciting night:

Titus Books

is pleased to invite you along with friends, family &c.
to the launch of

On the Eve of Never Departing
by Richard von Sturmer

Free Fall
by Rogelio Guedea

Friday Sept 25th
Fordes Bar, 122 Anzac Ave
Central City from 6.30pm

Introduction by Tony Green

Readings by Richard von Sturmer
and Hamish Dewe

MC: Scott Hamilton

Live music by Otis Mace

Thursday, September 17, 2009

W(h)anganui: why Laws and Turia are both wrong

When I was across the ditch recently I kept complaining about the lack of attention the Aussie media gave to New Zealand politics. Now that I'm back, and I've discovered that the burning political issue in this country concerns the spelling of the name of a provincial town, I can understand the lack of enthusiasm of Aussie newspaper editors.

To an outsider, the dispute over whether or not Wanganui should add an 'h' to its name must seem absurdly pedantic. Anybody who understands New Zealand history, though, should be able to see that the arguments between Wanganui mayor Michael Laws and his Maori opponents concern matters weightier than mere linguistics.

The Whanganui district was a frontline in the lengthy struggle between Pakeha and Maori for control of the North Island. Tribes at the mouth of the Whanganui River initially adopted a friendly attitude toward Pakeha colonists, trading with them and allowing them to establish a town, but Maori further upstream always took a very different stance. When war broke out in the Taranaki in the 1860s, the upper Whanganui peoples sided with their cousins to the north, and laid siege to the fledgling town of Wanganui. Though Maori ultimately lost the Taranaki War, the upper Whanganui remained for many decades a zone where few Pakeha dared to venture.

In his important new book The Policeman and the Prophet, Mark Derby refers to the upper Whanganui as one of a number of parts of the North Island where a state of 'rival sovereignty' existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Maori communities ignored the laws made in Wellington and attempted to administer their own affairs. Derby describes the repeated expeditions which police based in Wanganui were forced to make into the upper Whanganui, as part of their attempts to enforce Pakeha property rights. Remote river communities remained bastions of Maori culture and mana, and when the Maori protest movement began to revive in the 1970s the politics of tino rangatiratanga travelled downstream to the town on the coast. The epic Moutoa Gardens occupation of 1995 showed up the racial divisions in Wanganui: the town's Maori minority wanted the gardens returned, and resented the fact that a statue and monument celebrating their military defeat had been built on land stolen from them. The Pakeha majority took a diametrically opposed view, and applauded right-wing MP Ross Meurant when he said that the Maori protesters should be thrown into paddy wagons and dumped on the side of the remote Desert Road.

The Geographic Board's declaration that Wanganui ought to be spelt Whanganui has quickly divided opinion in the town along racial lines. Michael Laws, who has won repeated mayoral elections by appealing to anti-Maori sentiments, has attacked the Board's decision as 'racist', because it 'only reflects the culture of one group' of citizens. Many angry Pakeha in Wanganui and elsewhere have spoken out in support of Laws.

It is rather hard to see how the scholars who sit on the Geographic Board could have decided the proper spelling of a Maori name without focusing their enquiries on the Maori language and Maori history. As Maori Party leader Tariana Turia has pointed out, the word 'wanganui' is meaningless in Maori. 'Whanganui', by contrast, has a very clear meaning: 'whanga' refers to the mouth of a river, and 'nui' means big. The spelling which Laws is so keen to defend is a bastardisation of traditional Maori usage and, as the Geographic Board has noted, Maori have never ceased trying to correct the distortion.

While Laws vows on national television that he will fight any attempt to change his town's name, Turia is urging the government to act quickly to junk Wanganui for Whanganui. Like the rest of the population, Kiwi bloggers seem to be lining up behind one or the other of these two starkly opposed positions. Good liberal blogs are demanding the 'h'; Tory sites seem convinced the sinister letter would be the harbinger of a new race war.

It seems to me that both Laws and Turia base their positions on unrealistic pictures of the state of race relations in W(h)anganui, and elsewhere in the North Island. Laws is fond of talking about how 'we're all one nation now', and how all the residents of his town except a 'few extremist stirrers' identify as Kiwis, rather than as Maori or Pakeha. This sort of rhetoric is an implicit denial of the real history of the Whanganui region, and of the North Island in general. Laws should be reading Mark Derby.

For her part, Turia claims that only a few 'rednecks' will be riled by the junking of Wanganui in favour of Whanganui. Such a view grossly underestimates the level of Pakeha anxiety about Maori attempts to right the injustices of the past. Laws has built himself a substantial base by appealing to the fears of impoverished provincial Kiwis that Maori are getting a 'better deal' than them. A generation has grown up since the neo-liberal 'reforms' which gutted industry and infrastructure in provincial New Zealand. In a town like Wanganui, where the trade union movement and the organised left was decimated by the closure of the railway workshops and other key industries in the eighties and nineties, rational, politically progressive explanations for low standards of living and poor services have often been unavailable.

In these circumstances, Laws' claims that the problems of towns like Wanganui are the result of the fleecing of the taxpayer by Maori dole bludgers and the 'Treaty grievance industry' fill an ideological vacuum. Although Laws defends Pakeha privilege, he appeals to a real sense of victimhood amongst his poorer supporters. By seeming to over-ride the wishes of most Pakeha, Turia risks reinforcing this sense of victimhood. Laws stands for the hegemony of Pakeha culture over Maori culture; on this issue, at least, Turia simply inverts his position.

The Pakeha of Wanganui are not about to flock to Treaty of Waitangi workshops and te reo classes; nor, though, would a majority of them necessarily agree with Laws' hardline opposition to any acknowledgement of the fact that Maori continue to exist as a people separate from Pakeha. If Turia argued for the use of the names Whanganui and Wanganui, then she would do a lot to defuse the fear and anger that Laws feeds upon.

When he was questioned by a journalist about the idea that his town could have two official names, Laws seemed rattled, and claimed that no town anywhere in the world adopts such a 'ridiculous' policy. Anybody who has travelled in the Celtic parts of the United Kingdom knows better than that. Instead of being allowed to play the victim on behalf of his Pakeha constituents, Laws should be exposed as the racist he is. Let's demand a two name policy for W(h)anganui, and watch him try to defend his blanket opposition to expressions of Maori culture and mana.

[Footnote: long-suffering readers of this blog will see a connection between my views on placenames and my attitude to proposals to give New Zealand a new flag.]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The modernist Outback

In his cult novel The Plains, Gerald Murnane describes the rise of a secessionist movement in 'Inner Australia', a region which seems to begin on the inland side of the Great Dividing Range. Murnane's characters feel little kinship with the residents of the coastal cities and resorts of 'Outer Australia', and decide to raise their own army and establish their own government. The Plains may be a fantasy, but the book does express something of the coolness which 'inlanders' feel towards the 80% of Aussies who live on the coastal strip of their continent.

After I made some possibly injudicious claims about the historical hostility of Aussies to modernism in literature, architecture, and painting, I received an irate e mail from a bloke who seems to have taken Murnane's strange novel as his manifesto:

Don't confuse us with Sydney and Melbourne. We have our own culture and our own traditions. The galleries in the big cities don't represent us. We are like another country out here, thank you very much. I hope you will get to see the real Australia and do not judge us from the coast.

As someone who bangs on about the multi-regional nature of New Zealand society and culture on an almost weekly basis, boring even his friends into silent assent, I can hardly complain when an Aussie criticises my use of Melbourne and its art galleries as a random sample of Australian culture. And, having taken the advice of my anonymous critic and ventured over the Dividing Ranges into secessionist territory, I must admit to being both surprised and delighted by the variety and strength of culture in Outback Australia.

I remember how, a few years ago, the New Zealand literary community fought a doomed battle with the city fathers of Hamilton, over the latter's refusal to allow a statue of their native son Frank Sargeson to be grace their main street. Instead of honouring the father of modern New Zealand literature, the Hamiltonians erected a grotesque tribute to a foreign bloke who lived in their city for a few months and later co-wrote the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Several prominent Hamiltonians explained their refusal to honour Sargeson by saying that that they didn't want a memorial to a writer they couldn't understand. Seven decades after they debuted in our literary journals, the laconic sentences and elliptical plots of Sargeson's stories were still, it seems, too avant-garde.

I thought about the brouhaha over the Sargeson statue when I stumbled upon a portrait of Patrick White in the middle of the Outback mining town of Broken Hill. The grumpy bugger is depicted in late middle age, beside the name of his great novel about Australian exploration. With their slow pace, their lapidarian periodic sentences, their surreal imagery, and their brutal exposure of the ugly aspects of Aussie life, White's novels make Sargeson's stories look accessible and optimistic. But the difficulty of White's prose and the darkness of his vision hasn't stopped Broken Hill celebrating him.

The mural is particularly appropriate in an Outback town, because Voss tells the story of Ludwig Leichhardt, the egomaniacal German who attempted to lead a tiny, poorly provisioned party of white men from the east coast of Australia to Perth, across the unmapped landscapes of the continent's centre. In White's hands, the doomed expedition becomes a lesson in the grand folly of European colonialism. Unable to reconcile his dream of conquering Australia with reality, Leichhardt propels his comrades to their violent deaths. The pigheaded German is only redeemed by his own suffering and death, and by the love he feels for a woman he has left behind in Sydney.

The history of Broken Hill can be read as a struggle to subdue the same sort of brutal environment that took Leichhardt's life. The town was built in a frenzy in the 1880s, after a handful of adventurers discovered a lode of silver seven kilometres long in the arid far west of New South Wales. The profits of Sydney investors were disrupted by the weather, which brought constant storms of sand and dust, and by the militancy of the miners who flocked to the new town. It was not until the 1920s that a measure of stability was brought to Broken Hill, as the mine owners buckled and gave the miners a contract which became a model for workers elsewhere in Australia. In the same decade a green belt of gardens was established around the town, in a successful attempt to end the incursions sand and dust. In 1932a pipeline brought a regular supply of water for the first time, and today Broken Hill feels like an oasis. Sited on the summit of the enormous slag heap which divides Broken Hill in two, the town's Miners' Memorial is a triumph of modernism and of historical memory: between huge sheets of rusty iron the name of every man to have died in the town's mines is recorded. The memorial deliberately echoes the monuments to dead soldiers which are scattered all over Australia, but the red flag rather than the national flag flies beside it. The memorial's iron reminds us of the humble iron cottages which still stand all over Broken Hill, and its rust is the colour of the earth that has swallowed so many lives. The memorial's formal austerity and industrial building materials mark it as a work of high modernism, but this has not made it unpopular: in fact, the structure has become Broken Hill's leading tourist attraction. Who said that Aussies were resistant to modernism?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Warning: poetry for next 1500 km

This poem - if I can call it a poem, and not a series of truncated attempts to approach the same theme from different angles - was written on Wednesday and Thursday, when Skyler and I covered fifteen hundred kilometres of Outback roads. I composed its stanzas to try to stay awake, and Skyler encouraged me with comments which ranged from 'that's really bad!' to 'that's not quite so bad'. As you may have guessed from recent posts, I'm becoming obsessed with the nineteenth century 'explorers' of Australia, whose exploits fill me equally with awe and horror.

The Inland Sea

Look at the gulls,
shoals of them,
steering over the Barrier Ranges,
aiming for the tip
behind the Miners' Arms -
aren't they symptoms
of an inland sea?
Sturt thought so.
A water truck goes west,
over the range,
past a station where the camels throw tourists
for a fee.


The mulgas on the creekbed
are flowing south.
The boulder on the bank
is busy thinking.


What if Burke returned, filled with time and space?


Leichhardt went into the wilderness
the way Hegel went into his study.


The space builds rather than relieves
pressure. The air hugs you
too tightly, the way the water hugs
a deep sea diver. You look up at
the sun, which is tiny
and bright, the way it looked
from the sea-floor.


Sturt entered the wilderness
the way a vicar enters his wife.


Burke found the wattle cowering
in a creekbed. He swung the axe,
slew the shrub, flicked it roots first
into the fire.
The world was a little larger.


Sturt's horses pulled his skiff up Dolo Hill.
Stones scratched, dented the oak hull.
Two of Sturt's officers marched behind
leaning oars on their shoulders like rifles.


On the edges of clearings
Abos and roos stand on hind legs
and stare, holding their young against their torsos
so we won't fire.
We fire at their heads.


Becker and Wills fiddle
with instruments, scribble
calculations, trick insects
into bottles, disembowel toads,
pursue the sun and moon
across muddy paper -
fools, both of them.

The sores on my legs calculate distance
better than a chronometer.
My mouth and nostrils collect insects
every minute.
My body is the laboratory
in which nature is known.
I, Robert Burke, am scientist, sample, and experiment.


They called it Dieri.
You call it the inland sea.


Leichhardt married a bluegum
west of Coopers Creek.
He clung to the tree, climbed it,
carved L L L on its voluptuous trunk.
The upper branches shook with pleasure.
Leichhardt groped at them,
grasping seeds he would bury
in the scrub, so that his wife
might bear a child.


In the rear view mirror
a vein of silver,
flowing west
to Broken Hill.


In the bush behind Menindee
Burke met a blackfella called Karl Marx
and asked him where
they kept the water, up north.
Marx drew two circles in the dust
then traced a line across them.
Bull ants crawled
in the old man's beard.

This is the big snake, Marx said,
in Barkindji, the language
of political economy.
And these, he gestured, are the circuits
of capital, as money passes
from miner to publican to bank. Sometimes

when the creek has crawled up
into the ranges
and the cockatoos have flown away,
the snake gets hungry,
and curls up, and begins to chew his tail.

Burke wiped his brow, drew his pistol, fired
into the air.
The cockatoos flew away.


Sturt sat in his skiff
and waited for a creek
the way he had waited
for a horse and buggy.
The officers leaned on a gum stump and smoked.


On the road to Wilcannia
a galah flashes like a distress flare
out of the scrub.


It takes three days to sail
to Broken Hill, steering north,
across the red swell
of the Mallee, guided by
the great mullock heap,
the two rusty sails
of the miners' memorial.


Sand leaked into the skiff.


Burke's camel was nothing unusual
to Marx, just an overgrown emu
with four legs. He watched the beast bolt
as Burke emptied his pistol.
He watched a bull ant mount the sheer face
of Burke's left boot.
He watched capital circulate through the dust.


Sturt fell off his horse, which was already
becoming a statue, and began to swim over
the stones and dunes. He scooped up fish
ribs, otoliths, fossilised
oysters, as he worked his way north,
across the great Inland Sea.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Big in Coombah

In her efforts to persuade Skyler and me not to visit Broken Hill, my Aunty Thel warned us about the outback mining town's isolation. 'There's nothing between the Murray and the Hill', she told us, 'nothing at all. If you break down on that road you're in trouble.' Like my mother, Thel has a horror of the more arid spaces of Australia that stems from a childhood in the Mallee, a region of northwest Australia which would be a desert if it were not for the turbid intervention of the Murray River. If the tight little towns, irrigated fields, coffin-shaped barns, and Methodist churches of the Mallee are the last fragile outposts of civilisation, then the scrubby country north of the Murray - country as rich in silver, lead, uranium and prehistoric artefacts as it is poor in grass and water - is an irredeemably barbarous place.

I can report that Aunty Thel was wrong, and that there is something - I use the word 'something' rather loosely - on the 'Silver Highway' that connects the Murray River with Broken Hill. A mere hundred and fifty kilometres from the river town of Wentworth, the settlement of Coombah offers visitors tea, petrol, booze, maps, and insect repellant, as well as one or two unexpected literary treats. Coombah consists of a roadhouse, a couple of petrol pumps, and a toilet block whose stained doors flap in the wind that blows perpetually over the flat far west of New South Wales. A large board mounted beside the toilet block reprints the work of an anonymous 'local poet':

Most come here to shit and stink,
Others come here to sit and think.
Please make your stay in our dunny short
Or pull off some paper and take a walk.

As I approached the Coombah roadhouse I noticed a spectacularly fat man sitting on the verdandah of the building, resting his feet on a filthy brown rug. As I climbed the roadhouse steps, I noticed that the rug was a German shepherd. Man and beast snored and wheezed in tune.

Like many establishments of its kind, the Coombah roadhouse attempts to function as a store, a petrol station, a cafe, and a news agent in a space the size of the beer fridge of an average big city liquor store. As Skyler tried to pay the preoccupied attendant for some petrol, I wandered to the back of the dusty room, where a rack of fishing and auto magazines, maps, and paperbacks stood under a large sign that read THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY!

I was about to give up any attempt to browse when I discovered that Coombah's second literary treasure - a pristine copy of The Supply Party, Martin Edmond's account of the last months of Ludwig von Becker, the German artist and collector who met an obscure death on the famous Burke and Wills expedition.

Since The Supply Party appeared last year, courtesy of the Aussie outfit East End Publications, I have slogged my way from bookshop to bookshop, seeking it out. I'd dismissed the absence of Martin's tome from Auckland's bookstores as a symptom of the national chauvinism of Kiwi booksellers, but The Supply Party had proved elusive in Melbourne as well. Now, though, I was staring at the exquisite Orange and black cover of the book at the back of the Coombah Roadhouse. It looked great beside Big Tits Downunder.

Shouldering a sweaty bloke with a slab of XXX out of the way, I slammed Martin Edmond on the counter and began to thank the roadhouse's puzzled manager for her taste in literature. 'I admire Martin's writing greatly, and know him a little', I gabbled. 'You know Becker?' she replied, gazing down at the cover's blurb. 'No, not von Becker - Martin Edmond' I said desperately. 'Oh - I didn't realise it was him who wrote it. There's his name right at the bottom though. Lots of people are buying it as they come through. We've sold a few this week.'

As we drove away down the superbly straight Silver Highway toward Broken Hill, I realised that the presence of The Supply Party in Coombah was not as odd as it seemed. The Silver Highway runs parrallel to the route that Burke and Wills took, towards the end of the first stage of their trek across the Australian continent. It was at Menindee, a Darling River settlement a couple of hundred kilometres east of Coombah, that Burke paused to purge and split his expedition party before plunging into the conjectural landscapes of northern Australia.

Burke was an incompetent bully, but he became posthumously famous in an Australia desperate for martyrs. Every town in Victoria and western New South Wales seems to have commemorated the man with the name of a street or a primary school or with a poorly constructed statue. Even those who are left cold by the jingoism surrounding the official commemoration of Burke are fascinated by the whittling of the massive, handsomely resourced expedition party that left Melbourne down to a handful of skeletal men paralysed by beri beri in a corner of the continent's far north. To many of us, the fate of Burke and Wills seems like a lesson in imperial hurbis, and in the power of the outback, rather than as an inspiring example of sacrifice.

The continued fascination with Burke and Wills is reflected in the bookshops of Victoria and New South Wales. Even in the newsagents of small country towns, Sarah Murgatruyd's thorough 2002 book The Dig Tree: the Story of Burke and Wills is prominently displayed. Murgatroyd was dying of cancer when she wrote her bestseller, and it is hard not to read her precise but sympathetic descriptions of the agonies of men like Burke and von Becker as autobiographical.

Martin Edmond is a more adventurous writer than Murgatroyd, and The Supply Party forsakes the linear narrative of The Dig Tree for the sort of digressions that made books like Luca Antara and Chronicles of the Unsung so rewarding. The popularity of the book's subject, though, seems to have allowed it to share the Coombah literary spotlight with the anonymous bard of the bogs. The question is: why don't the booksellers of Auckland have the same good taste as the Coombah roadhouse?

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The victory of earth over sky

[Once again this has been typed quickly in an internet cafe. Apologies for the inevitable infelicities...]

Australia has been a hard homeland for modernist writers, artists, and architects. In 1944 two determinedly neo-Augustan poets submtted a slew of hurriedly composed, 'deliberately nonsensical' verses to Angry Penguins, an Adelaide-based journal which had been defying the dominant tastes in Aussie culture by flying the flag for modernist art and literary movements like Surrealism, Expressionism, and the New Apocalypse. Penguin-in-chief Max Harris hailed Ern Malley - the ghostly man James McAuley and Harold Stewart had credited with their scribblings - as a genius, and dedicated a special issue of his journal to him. When the hoaxers revealed Harris' 'mistake', Angry Penguins folded, and modernism was mocked on the front pages of Australia's newspapers.

Today, the sixteen poems that were published in Angry Penguins under Ern Malley's name are better-known and more highly regarded than anything McAuley or Stewart published under their own names. At the Heide Museum of Modern Art, a series of boxy galleries built on a north Melbourne artists' commune that once harboured Max Harris as well as key Aussie modernist painters like Sidney Nolan and Alfred Tucker, a new exhibition is honouring Malley, and adumbrating the more absurd details of the controversy he ignited. Manuscript pages, old copies of Angry Penguins, correspondence between Harris and the hoaxers, and paintings by Nolan and half a dozen other Aussie artists inspired by Malley all adorn the limestone walls of the Heide.

Why did the Malley oeuvre constitute such a collection of sins and blunders, for McCauley and Stewart and their many backers in the Aussie literary establishment?Malley, and the modernist movements whose strenghts and excesses he embodied, represented a creative response to the breakdown of traditional social forms and traditional belief systems in an era of crisis and war. Modernism was eclectic, fragmentary, and multiperspectival. With their abrupt shifts of view and tone, their leaps from Australia to Europe and back again, their mockery of traditional rules of meter and argument, and their pervasive sense of space and potential, the Malley poems were modernist masterpieces that mocked their authors' intentions.

McAuley and Stewart wanted to take poetry back to the eighteenth century, the pre-industrial era when men like Pope pronounced confidently on the world in limpid couplets. Both of the hoaxers had a desire for order and tradition which was political and personal, as well as literary - McAuley was tormented by agnosticism until he converted to Catholicism and became a leader of the furiously anti-communist Democratic Labor Party; Stewart's search for order in his writing and his life led him to the austerities of the haiku and Zen Buddhism, and ultimately to exile in Japan.

Many of the supporters of McCauley and Stewart shared their mania for order. AD Hope, the poet and critic who helped to get the Malley 'scandal' into the papers, earned notoreity in the literary community for his brutal reviews of modernist fiction and poetry. In one particularly infamous piece, Hope decided that Patrick White's classic novel of the Australian backblocks The Tree of Man was nothing more than 'preliterate verbal sludge'. Hope's own scrupulously metered poems are his alternative to the free-falling images and stream of conscious monologues which White learned from the great modernist writers.

The problem of the Australian landscape has obsessed many of the contintent's reactionary writers. In an interview he gave near the end of his life, Stewart remembered screaming and crying and begging to go home when his parents took him on holiday out of the city into the Australian bush. For much of his life AD Hope was tormented by a nightmare in which he found himself in a barren part of the Ausdtralian outback, surrounded by wild animals, with only a cage for protection. In his most famous poem, Hope raged against the vastness and apparent lifelessness of Australia:

A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey
In the field uniform of modern wars,
Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws
Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.

They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry...

The desire for the order of foreign, pre-modernist culture which is evident in the work of Australia's anti-modernists is a reflection of their horrified response to the size and perceived physical and cultural barreness of Australia. The same sort of response can be seen in many aspects of white Australian society - in the grid-like streets of towns set on huge plains, in the English names of hot streets where tumbleweed blows, and in the faux-Oxbridge exteriors of the country's oldest universities.

Australia set its colonists unusual challenges. In New Zealand, which was manageably sized, lush, and exceptionally fertile, their counterparts could present their new society as a 'better Britain'. The Australian landscape would not allow such reassuring comparisons. The Treaty of Waitangi, the relative dignity which many Maori iwi retained after the wars of the nineteenth century, and the lip service which Pakeha politicians gave to Maori aspirations, meant that Pakeha intellectuals could legitimise their own presence in Aotearoa by appealing to biculturalism. In Australia, where Aboriginals only became citizens in 1967, such a manoeuvre was not available.

Australia presented its writers and artists with an intellectual challenge as great as the physical challenge nineteenth century 'explorers' like Burke and Wills faced. Like Burke and Wills, who perished because they were unable to reconcile European dogma with the realities of Australian's landscape and with the behaviour of its indigenous peoples, many Aussie writers and artists have failed. McAuley and Stewart are merely the most pathetic examples of a more general default.

At first glance, the Melbourne of 2009 might seem to have rid itself of the old Aussie aversion to modernism. The streets of the city's central business district are festooned with bright red banners advertising a massive exhibition of Salvador Dali's work at the National Gallery of Victoria's International Gallery. Inside the gallery, which is an almost windowless fortress of black bricks, punters queue for a hundred metres to see the canvases and sculptures of the man whose shocking behaviour and images might seem to make him the epitome of the Bohemian modernist artist.

Yet the 'mad Salvador Dali' that the National Gallery promotes was an essentially conservative artist. His imagery is provocative, in the way the lyrics of Ozzy Osborne and Alice Cooper are provocative, but he always insisted on very bourgeois standards of 'good draughtsmanship'. His canvases are far easier on the anti-modernist eye than those of Cezanne or Van Gogh, let alone those of Malevich or Mondrian. Dali's Bohemianism was so self-consciously exaggerated, and his public statements were so infantile and inconsistent, that he appeared to middlebrow audiences like a delightful clown.

Like the museum that throws together an exhibition on ancient Egypt, complete with bad-taste mummies and fake hieroglyphs, an art gallery which adorns its walls with Dali is likely to be thinking about filty lucre. Just as the cliches of Egyptology supply a part of the public with a satisfying simulacrum of a 'historical experience', so the canvases and anecdotes that Dali provides in such quantities provide a simulacrum of 'subversive' avant-gardism. Over the last fifty years the very word 'surreal' has degenerated from a revolutionary slogan into a pretentious synonmym for 'way out, man'.

If the patrons of the International Gallery are not satisfied with Dali's well-packaged weirdness, they can always peruse the building's collection of European art,
which includes an entire room of Rembrandts, a selection of Italian Old Masters, and a very mediocre sampling of 'Twentieth Century Modernism'. Perhaps the gallery has spent so freely on pre-modernist art that it is content to show the history of modern art through the work of second-string members of movements like Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. Wyndham Lewis does poor service for Picasso, Seignac is no match for an absent Seurat, and an isolated, relatively small Rothko canvas stands in for Pollock.

Lucio Fontana's Spatial Concept 1964-65 is unimpressive visually - imagine a field of gold metal covered in the sort of wounds that the slugs of a low-powered air rifle might inflict - but its intent resonates with the best work of the Australian modernist painters interned up the road and over the Yarra River, in the National Gallery of Victoria's Ian Potter Centre. A half-reluctant heir to the Italian Futurists, Fontana created his own art movement, which he called Spatialism, and which he charged with 'exposing and exploring the infinte nature of space'. Fontana blasted holes in his canvases not to protest against the 'bourgeois' nature of traditional art or to valourise industry and war, but to allow 'infinite dimensionless space' into his work. There is a refusal of limiting notions of order and a lust for vastness at work in paintings like Spatial Concept 1964-64.

If the National Gallery's International Gallery is like a fortress, securing the Old Masters of Europe against the barbarian hordes of Oz, then the fragmented, self-consciously postmodernist Potter Centre, which resembles nothing so much as a series of corrugated iron sheds, is an expression of a lack of confidence in the work it holds. There are no crowds, let alone queues, at the Centre, even though it sits on Federation Square, in the centre of Melbourne. Skyler and I are almost unaccompanied, as we move from floor to floor and room to room, observing the struggles and victories of Aussie modernism.

The development of a mature Australian art can be considered as a struggle between the sky and the earth. In the work of hack colonial painters, not to mention genteel faux-nationalists like Hans Heysen, the horizon marks the point where the artist's imagination ceases to function. All too often, the sky is painted with more energy and flair than the landscape it looms over: sunsets and storms become exercises in Turneresque abstraction, opportunities for the artist frustrated by the flatness and dull colours of the Aussie countryside to indulge him or herself.

In the work of the great Australian modernists, though, the horizon begins to retreat, as the surface of the earth becomes more important than the sky. In the paintings of Fred Williams the landscape is tilted against the picture frame, so that detail seems to pile up in front of the viewer. The horizon retreats, and once or twice disappears altogether. In Brett Whiteley's huge studies of the flux and flow of Sydney harbour on sunny afternoons in the 1970s, the sky has vanished, except as reflections on the water's surface. Whiteley's harbour paintings have the same luminous mystery as Monet's studies of waterlilies, and they show an absorption in place which is passionate and unselfconscious, but they are still portraits of the edge of a continent.

It is in the work of the Aboriginal artists of central Australia that we find the final triumph of earth over sky, of Australian reality over European ideas of order. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri's canvases are at once maps of vast landscapes and half-painted close-up photographs of the earth of Australia's red centre. When I look at Tjapaltjarri's massive paintings I might be a crow riding a thermal vent high above the desert, or a snake inspecting the few square feet of dirt around me. There is no horizon to give the painting a definite scale, and thereby allow the viewer an escape. Space is infinte, because it cannot be quantified.

Tjapaltjarri's absorption by the landscape he paints is the realisation of the dream of generations of Australian modernist artists and writers, yet it is also the achievement of the world's oldest living culture. Perhaps Hope, McAuley, and Stewart should have looked for inspiration to the Outback, rather than the eighteenth century.