Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Life as an uncle

In On Certainty, an unfinished book he composed between pints of sherry in the last months of his life, Ludwig Wittgenstein created a series of thought experiments designed to show what apparently strange beliefs human beings can hold. In one of the most famous experiments in On Certainty, Wittgentstein tried to rebut his friend GE Moore's claim that simple 'common sense' teaches each of us that the world certainly existed before we were born:

Men have believed that they could make rain; why should not a king [of some distant country] be brought up in the belief that the world began with him? And if Moore and this king were to meet and discuss, could Moore really prove his belief to be the right one?

If the example of Wittgentein's king resonates with us, it is perhaps because many of us have sometimes had difficulty in quite believing that the world ever existed without us. We know, of course, that the earth is four billion or so years old, that humans have walked the earth for hundreds of thousands of years, and that each of us has innumerable ancestors. Yet when we are young, especially, we find it difficult to appreciate properly what latecomers we are, and how much natural and human history has backed up behind us. Like the photos of the quaintly-attired great grandparents mounted on mantelpieces or in old albums, the time before we were born seems colourless and faded. It contrasts sadly with the vivid colours and giddy vistas that we remember from our early childhoods. We know it is absurd, but when we are in the flush of youth we can never quite dispel the idea that the years and decades and centuries before we were born were a sort of prehistory, a period designed to prepare in some obscure way for our birth. We create our own teleologies.

On Monday night, at about half past nine, I became an uncle for the first time. While my niece was making her slow but calm way into the world, or into the austere antechamber of the world that is a hospital birthing room, I was wandering around west Auckland, looking for a bottle of champagne and a fat smelly cigar to offer to her father. Because of the bizarre liquor licensing arrangements of Waitakere City, I ended up buying myself a packet of chewing gum instead. When I reached the hospital with Skyler, though, I was pleased I did not bear intoxicants. Nurses and midwives moved up and down the cosily panoptic spaces of the maternity wing with a quietness that seemed almost reverential; occasionally one of them paused, turned, lowered her head slightly, and disappeared into one of the dark rooms that opened off the proliferating corridors, as if she were ducking into a chapel to pray. It must be strange to spend five days a week witnessing an event which still, in our secular age, seems somehow miraculous.

A couple of friends have asked me whether I feel older, now that I am uncle. I can understand such queries. When I was a boy, the word 'uncle' summouned up images of frayed cardigan sleeves, sagging paunches, carelessly trimmed moustaches, and RSA lounges that smelt of stale cigarettes and the dregs of beer jugs. Uncles were old, slightly terrifying figures who told war stories, berated the All Blacks selectors, and lamented the advent of one-day cricket. They seemed to have existed forever, but it was hard to imagine that they had ever been young.

My niece is only one of a succession of children born to friends and relatives this year. For these kids, I will be a prehistoric figure: an obscure face in a faded, poorly-composed photograph, or a tipsy windbag who traps them them at a barbeque or a wedding reception and reminiscences about Richard Hadlee or the 1987 World Cup or the marches against the Iraq war. I find the idea of my own obsolescence liberating: it is, after all, a burden being young, and suffering from the delusion that one's life is consequential.

I don't have a poem for my niece yet, but I did write a piece a while back for Martin and Lou, two Franco-Spanish kids whose parents are old friends of mine. Martin and Lou lived with Skyler and me for a couple of weeks in September 2008. Lou was very small, and tended to communicate in hisses and slaps; Martin and I, though, created a barbarous patois, composed of the dozen French phrases I knew, the hundred or so English words he knew, and the five or six Spanish words we had both mastered. We talked endlessly in our impoverished language, becoming steadily more confused at one another's meaning. I suspect that my attempts to impress the nobility of cricket and the drama of the Spanish Civil War on Martin made me seem like a typical old windbag uncle. This poem celebrates the sense of irrelevance that children like Martin make me feel:

The Boulder at North Head

I kneel beside the boulder,
whisper in its mossy ear.
I instruct the boulder
in its solemn task.
I instruct the boulder
to stand still, and let the earth
the elephant grass
the gravel shelf
the tunnels and caves
the layers of andesite
roll under it -

to stand still,
as Martin and Lou forget about
their father's car, and the airport, and the plane aimed
home, to the land of schools and snow -

to stand still, as Martin and Lou chase their echoes
into the sunlight
and over the crest of North Head,
away from the gunpit
and the flat blue gulf,
and the gulls that blow about
like the paper that wrapped our chips -

to stand still, and to shudder
invisibly, at the first kick
from Martin's sandal,
to shudder secretly again
at Lou's friendly slap,
to take both children on its smooth black back
without sagging, without sighing
to know that one day this boy and girl will return
as an old man and an old woman
to find a boulder standing in the same place,

standing still,
letting the earth roll under it.


Anonymous Keri H said...

O, lovely! Maps!
My two remaining sisters are midwives (I'd include my s-i-l gyne/obs GP if I'd got her prior permission): they do approach the job with considerable reverence, as well as their considerable skills (and both of them have also bourne children.)

I've never watched any human give birth (i have seen both a chimp (P.trog) and an elephant give birth, and I dont imagine there is a huge difference.)

All I know, as someone who has 5 nephews and 2 neices (and 5 grand-nephews & 2 grand-neices) is-family never goes away.

'Ohana means...nobody gets left behind.'

Like yourself, there other young people growing up that are part of the wider whanau and whether the relationship is long, deep, continuing or - just one of those years - it adds to our humanity.

No reira - ka mihiora ki to whanau katoa-

8:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you will be a *responsible* uncle.

9:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and I would like to say, "j'accuse! communist! vlaaa! jaa! vlaa! raaa!"

9:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey it...

9:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scooooottt!!!! That was hilarious!
I can imagine you and Isabel in just a few years (I'll sent you cigars from La Palma, they are reknowed by true connoisseurs to be among the best in the world, meeting Cuba's high standards... If you wish, we'll send also Cognac (that you sons of Albion call "brandy") or, even better, armagnac, so you'll be the absolute (and smelly) uncle for her. And I know she will hear you complaining about cricket and politics!
Congratulations for the photo, it matches so perfectly your words. This is art.
I'm sorry it took me ages before I got time to post any comment on your blog, but we are finally more settled now, and coincidence decides that you just post a poem about Martin and Lou.
I knew the poem, but the actual "uncle context" is excellent!!! Oh sure Martin found you were weird with all your dreary (Drury? ... I found that place on a map... A map!), incomprehensible and somewhat shivery ramblings. Though I remember how much Martin appreciated you, he said things like "That old man is strange but quite funny".
I can tell you he missed you a lot.
I am so pleased for Amy and Ivan. Welcome Isabel!!!

11:20 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Great Maps! And a good poem as always - the children will remember you - I used to like hanging round older people quite a lot when I was small boy - I felt they all had some deep knowledge of the world I could perhaps never attain..hmm...

I recall even my teachers at school and I feel indebted to all of them.

Children seem to take little notice but they actually take in a lot about older people and less disrespectful than one thinks -even with teenagers it is bravado if they are "smart"and so on...
And I had quite a few older friends in my 20s also.

I have quite a few nieces and nephews...actually I don't know how many...

I have one grandson.

I saw my wife giving birth twice - at best it is exhilarating - in fact it is quite awesome.

1:11 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Keri H - By the way - I started re-reading "The New Fiction" by Michael Morrissey (I found an extra copy) and your work in their also - it is fascinating. Regards.

1:14 am  
Blogger Richard said...

The Uncle picture is very funny! From one of those cards - birthday or whatever?? !

1:17 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Magnificent poem, Scott. And congratulations on becoming an uncle.

At my own daughter's birth, I couldn't help hearing in my head the lines from Macbeth:

Despair thy charm, / And let the angel whom thou still hast served / Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped

Not a process for the faint-hearted!

9:24 am  
Anonymous Jono said...

I tautoko the other commenters regarding the poem; I felt it keenly as a (still relatively new) father and it swells with a slow surging wash of parental feeling no less intense because it is from a temporary care giver (And now, uncle. Congratulations!).

Due to some interesting family dynamics I was an uncle before I was born and now, at 32, feel myself drifting into 'streange old man' territory for the youngest of my nieces and nephews (and the 'grands' which have started to follow). I feel your age!

10:02 am  
Blogger maps said...

It's fascinating how in some societies the roles of uncle and father can merge. I'm sure you know all about this, Jono, having worked so much in the Samoan archipelago.

When Skyler I wandered around Tonga and Samoa, we were continually asked the question 'How many childen do you have?' by the people we encountered. When I lowered my head and mumbled 'none', the response was always 'Oh, I'm sorry'.

Once I tried to explain that it was 'hard' to have children in New Zealand, 'because you have to be financially secure'. My interlocutor, who was standing in the front yard of a house that lacked electricity, shook his head in what I assume was disbelief.

I eventually discovered, though, that the lines between uncle father, aunt and mother, and cousin and sibling are blurred in Tonga, and that it is acceptable for an uncle to claim to be the father of his brother or sister's kids. Cousins are frequently as close as siblings, because they move between the homes of their biological parents and their uncles and aunts.

Bearing all this in mind, Skyler and I eventually started answering the dreaded question with 'None - but we're having one later this year', a statement which prompted replies like 'Oh - well, it is good you will have at least one' and 'At last!'

I do want to be a good uncle, but I must confess that I'm hoping to avoid changing the nappies of my beautiful niece too often. (Skyler will flay me alive for admitting that...)

12:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband changed diapers but doesn't clean up vomit!! It makes him sick himself. I can live with that LOL I had a c-section with all three of our children, so he didn't really have a choice the first few days!!

12:22 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

Changing nappies isnt so bad, its washing the cloth ones because its more environmentally friendly to use the washing machine than pile the little disposable buggers up in landfill that gets on my proverbials


I can look forward to several hours a week washing out, hanging out and then folding up the multiple components of our locally made NapNap (tm) cotton nappy system.

I am sure there is an evolutionary explanation for the cousin/brother mother/aunty thing and the ease of children and adults moving in and out/within and between whanau via whangai - makes life much more bearable if you are blown off course and end up on an islands of strangers.

Its great to see it become a more obvioust part of the cultural landscape in 21st century NZ too - I think I first heard it used in the media in the last six or eight years which seems surprising given its such a common practice. A (pakeha) relative has recently whangai'd and now adopted his first son with the support of the boys whanau, and now has a new (biological) son too! I am pretty clucky around babies (for a dude) in general but that whole situation fills me with such joy and pride in my family and the better angels of NZ society.

As for Samoa, thats a whole 'nutha story :-)

12:55 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

Congrats on becoming an uncle Scott, and nice poem!

12:57 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Despite the sorta-official TRONT stance, Kai Tahu has always had whangai (there's several in my whanau, dating generations back.) As Jono wrote, there's good evolutionary reasons for island-hopping people to have a wide relationship net...

Richard T - o goodness, that Morrissey volume goes back so many years...I must go - urr-find somewhere - my copy (my library is now split into 3 different locations. Help!)

No "Lilo & Stitch" fans out there it seems...

5:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:30 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I think it is a kind of classic of critical writing - although perhaps it is "dated" but I think a lot is relevant - Morrissey is controversial, but that book was good and excellently written -

I like a lot in it also (there is a lot of interesting and challenging writing in it) - including of course Ted Jenner's work. (And Morrissey's "Phosgene"). But there is Chris Else's "Mess of Pottage" and I just read your "story" and also Fable by Jennifer Compton (I wonder what happened to her and some of the others?); but I really enjoyed what you wrote. It is as close to great writing as any I have read in NZ. Frame is mentioned but you are easily in her league - despite everything there is a certain depth in that kind of writing that cuts through all the others.

Of course there is place for the other writers - who have more irony and so on. I also really liked your readings on the mroe recent CD - I think the poems were about fishing - something I don't do much but I can make the "leap" to it.

In your 'story' someone dies in child birth but it is not clear if the story (inside the story) is real, but it adds greatly to the overall work. But your writing there is so good. Amazing.

11:22 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Richard T- thank you for those comments - on a low ebb they make for a high-

still havent found "The New Fiction" (so, shudder, must be in storage) but I think the story was "Kiteflying Party at Doctor's Point."

Janet Frame is, of course a southern writer. My mother went to school (at Waitaki GHS) with Janet's two younger sisters. (My Mum still lives in Oamaru, having returned to the house she was brought up in, in the early part of this century.)

One of the things I am proud of, in my writing life, is Janet spontaneously giving me 2 gifts - a cheap but wonderful Garuda ring she wore from a time she spent in India (after her reading in Wellington when she, Jacqui Sturm,Jean Watson, Marian Evans and self had a neat Indian meal together) and a jade Chinese burial cicada (which, quite spontaneously,
she offered to me, when self and my mother encountered her coming out of a lift in a rather posh Wellington hotel. "Would you like this? I've got an old tiki if you'd prefer?" As a Kai Tahu, I'd rather not take an unprovenanced piece of pounemu...) Michael King mentions the latter (but calls it 'ivory'.)
And, he also mentions the fact that (I am quoting from memory so it may be inexact) 'we quietly respected each other's writing.' Yep. We did. As we truly appeciated MK too-

For what it's worth, anyone wanting to know how I esteemed Janet Frame can read pp.193 onward of "The Inward Sun" pub. Daphne Brasell Associates 1994.

The verification word is 'iness' - Framism!

8:56 pm  
Blogger Richard said...


That's the story - I and my mother both read Frame. I especially loved her autobiography.

Great that you met her and so on!

When I first read The New Fiction I didn't pay as much attention to your work - I think - as I was interested more in the formal experimentation etc and Chris Else's thing...

But I really dug that the Kite story the other night...

Does the kite kill the child?

Don't have to tell me!!

I find your stuff so strong.
Beautiful poetry of writing.

Scott is good too but - we don't want to swell his head too much!

I respect your allegiance to Maoritanga and so on...

My parents are English and this "whanau" thing was simply not on - we were not "high class" or exactly snobby as such or anything -but we totally lived in a unit and we were basically quite English...all my relatives were English. But I have never been to England!

I thus felt somewhat alienated (I was a mother's boy though (I still worry about my health all the time and wear lots of clothes .. I'm still frightened of bullies, dogs and spiders!! also - and very introverted and probably a brat!!) from others when I was growing up as this was a working class area - although there weren't as many Polynesians as there are now - but there were some Maori - actually one of my (few) mates was in my last year of school at Tamaki College was Maori where we were both in the top class...both he and I liked studying Latin of all things - but he also liked rugby (which I hate, or dislike) - but in some ways I can see the extended family is a mixed blessing - in some ways I feel it is very powerful - but family anywhere is
problematic...hmm...thinking aloud as usual... you and Frame seem to have that mix of the "internal" and also in your case that other back ground of the whanau I suppose...Frame was more introverted perhaps?

I hope you and yours are as well and as warm as can be - winter is coming on. Richard.

PS.Yeah those verification words are hard case - I was going to collect them and add them into a big poem or something...I suppose someone has done that already...Jack Ross or maybe a latter day Langpo!... someone...

1:10 am  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Richard Taylor, I'd really like to continue literary talk, but I think we'd be OT so much it wouldnt be funny
Email me at kaituhiATihugDOTCODOTNZ if you wish to talk further. Cheers n/n Ker

8:52 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Keri. I agree. It certainly seems we are way off the subject of Uncles!

I'll email when I have some more brainwaves - which is a rather rare event but who knows.


10:33 pm  
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10:23 pm  

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