Thursday, July 29, 2010

From Red-baiting to Islamophobia

Ron Ramsey, the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee, created controversy in the United States, and ripples of interest in many other parts of the world, by suggesting earlier this week that Islam might be a 'cult', rather than a religion, and thus not worthy of protection under US law. Ramsey, who is running a poor third in the race to be the Republican nominee for Governor of Tennessee, made his remarks after a man stood up at one of his election meetings and asked what ought to be done about "the threat that's invading our country from the Muslims". In a rambling, ungrammatical response to this ungrammatical query, Ramsey avowed that:

I’m all about freedom of religion. I value the First Amendment as much as I value the Second Amendment as much as I value the Tenth Amendment and on and on and on...We are a law - we live under our Constitution and they live under our Constitution. But it’s scary if we get there...I’ve been trying to learn about Sharia law, I’ve been trying to learn about what going on - it is not good if that’s what’s going on. Now, you could argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality way of life, or cult whatever you want to call it. But certainly, we do want to protect our religions, but at the same time, this is something that we are gonna have to face.

Ramsey's argument has been advanced rather more elegantly by a number of high-profile Western politicians in recent years, including most notably Geert Wilders, a man tipped by some commentators as a future Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Wilders, whose Party of Freedom holds nine seats in the Dutch parliament, considers the Koran a 'fascist book', which ought to be banned from his country, in the same way that Mein Kampf is banned. Wilders wants to pay the Muslim community of the Netherlands to emigrate.

For Wilders and his co-thinkers, Islam is distinguished from religions like Christianity and Judaism by its supposed insistence that all its followers adhere to the same rigid, inhumane code of beliefs and practices, and by its alleged insistence that the rest of world be converted, by foul means or fair, to these beliefs and practices. Where Christianity and Judaism allow believers to interpret their holy books, disregarding passages that have become irrelevant and sometimes even dangerous with the passage of time, Islam supposedly insists that all of its brainwashed followers live in the seventh century, and that they try to make the rest of us live there, too. Wilders has become a hero to right-wingers around the world, and Ramsey seems to be winning similar acclaim this week.

Critics of Wilders and Ramsey have pointed out the long and fractious history of Islamic theology, the many varieties of Islam that exist today, and the lack of interest of the vast majority of Western Muslims in forcibly converting their fellow citizens. Wilders' critics have quite correctly likened his demonisation of Muslims to the anti-semitic propaganda campaigns of the European far right in the 1930s. Although Wilders holds liberal views on certain subjects, like women's rights and gay rights, his desire to portray Muslims as an undifferentiated mass of fanatics bent on controlling the rest of humanity echoes Nazi presentations of 'der ewige Jew'. Contemporary Islamophobia seems like a new strain of an old and deadly virus.

But there is another precursor to anti-Muslim ideology which has gone largely unrecognised by commentators. During the decades after World War Two an hysterical anti-communism was part of the daily life of the United States and many of its Western allies. Newspapers and other media warned continually about the sinister designs of the Soviet Union and its supporters, politicians denounced the 'red menace' in a manner that was both fervent and ritualistic, and both alleged and actual communists lost their livelihoods and, in some cases, their liberty. If anybody wants to understand the ideological underpinnings of postwar anti-communism, they could do worse than study the film My Son John, which emerged from Hollywood in 1952, when the Korean War was raging and Senator Joe McCarthy was an American hero. The movie shows how the youngest son of an all-American family is exploited by a cell of evil communists. Unlike his two brothers, who are former football stars and military heroes, John is bookish, introverted, and a little arrogant. He lacks a girlfriend, and makes fun of his mother's wholesome Christianity. An unbalanced youth like John is easy prey for the commies, who brainwash him and set him to work as a spy. Before he is arrested by the FBI John is persuaded of the error of his ways by his parents, and tape records a warning of the perils of communist mind-control, which is played to an assembly at his old school. My Brother John reflects the widespread belief in 1950s America that communism was a cultish ideology which took over the minds of its adherents, prevented them from thinking and acting rationally and humanely, and made them into tools of a vast conspiracy.

A couple of years before My Brother John appeared, the philosopher Sidney Hook published an article in the New York Times called 'Heresy, Yes - Conspiracy, No'. Hook had been a communist in the 1930s, and had published a lucid study of the connections between the thought of Marx and that of American pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey. After becoming a critic of Stalin and a supporter of Trotsky in the late '30s, Hook had travelled rightwards, and ended up as a determined Cold Warrior. 'Heresy, Yes - Conspiracy, No', which was expanded into a short book in 1953, can be considered a highbrow rendition of the view of communism expressed in My Brother John. Hook argues that, because American society thrives on the 'free trade of ideas', all forms of intellectual 'heresy' ought to be tolerated. But communism cannot be tolerated in America, because it is a 'conspiracy' based upon secret organisation, manipulation of gullible minds with untruths, and the undermining of democratic institutions. If they are not shut out of public life and discourse, Marxists will inevitably make America resemble Stalin's Russia.

Portraying himself as a 'realistic liberal', in contrast to outdated 'ritualistic liberals' like his old mentor Dewey, Hook calls for universities and similar institutions to purge themselves of communists, and of anyone who sympathises with communists. (In one passage of the full-length version of his text, Hook seems to call for the exclusion of all opponents of the Korean War from university teaching positions.)

It is easy to see why 'Heresy, Yes - Conspiracy, No' became a Cold War classic. For university administrators and senior civil servants wanting to rid themselves of politically 'unreliable' staff, Hook furnished the perfect set of excuses. Because all Marxists, everywhere, in any age, inevitably engage in the same dishonest, dangerous tactics, it was not necessary for bosses to consider the actual practices of individual employees who were communists. The mere fact that an employee was sympathetic to Marxism ensured that he or she would inevitably engage in evil activities.

The Communist Party of the United States and its Kremlin bosses unwittingly helped the likes of Hook to construct an image of Marxism as a monolithic, teleological ideology. Like Hook, the Kremlin and its satellite parties in the West were keen to emphasise that Marx had produced a single, consistent body of ideas, that Lenin had developed these ideas in a logical manner, that Stalin had continued in Lenin's footsteps, and that around the world communists were a united force. Like Hook, the dogmatists of the Kremlin and its satellites relied on a few decontextualised quotes from Marx and Lenin to make their case, and ignored both the complexity of the vast bodies of texts Marx and Lenin had left behind and the divisions between different groups of Marxists, some of whom worshipped Stalin and some of whom despised the man and all his works.

Unlike communism, Islam is not, for the vast majority of its adherents, a political ideology. There are conservative Muslims, centrist Muslims, liberal Muslims, social democratic Muslims, even Marxist Muslims. An analogy can be drawn, though, between the method at work in Sidney Hook's famous attack on communists and the method used by Islamophobes like Geert Wilders. Like Hook, Wilders creates a narrow, essentialist, and highly negative definition of what is in reality a complex, changing set of ideas and practices. Like Hook, he claims that the ideology he has defined will inevitably lead its adherents to act in certain negative ways. And on the basis of his definition and the prediction contained within it, Wilders calls for the removal of the rights of a vulnerable minority. We should all hope that the Islamophobes of today do not gain the sort of influence that Red-baiters like Sidney Hook enjoyed in the 1950s.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Nuking Sheffield - and the North Shore

I was born in the middle of 1974, and Skyler was born near the beginning of the second third of 1976, but I sometimes wonder whether we belong to different generations. Because she is a couple of years younger than me, and because of the sheltered atmopshere in which she grew up - her parents sent her to the Steiner school where they taught, and deprived her of television - Skyler never knew the anxiety about nuclear apocalypse that was an important part of my early adolescence.

Inspired by news reports of nuclear arms races and superpower proxy wars in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, by rambling but vivid stories about 'the last big one' from elderly relatives, and by a long series of movies as different as Red Dawn, which showed a bunch of all-American teens taking to the hills and waging guerrilla war after Soviets parachuted into their school, The Day After, which presented the results of widespread radiation poisoning in coruscating detail, and Konstantin Lopushanky's Letters from a Dead Man, which showed that nuclear war wouldn't be much fun for the Russkies either, I spent my twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth years waiting for the outbreak of a Third and - I assumed - final World War. By the time I'd reached my mid-teens, the departure of Ronald Reagan from the White House and the reform of Soviet domestic and foreign policies under Gorbachev had taken much of the chill out of the Cold War, and made the prospect of nuclear armageddon seem suddenly remote. It's no wonder that members of Skyler's 'generation', let alone children of the eighties and nineties, find my youthful anxieties so hard to understand.

After an idealistic but callous teacher showed our Standard Four class Peter Watkins' classic docu-drama The War Game, which imagined the effects of a quickfire 'nuclear exchange' on an almost comically unprepared 1960s England, my friends and I began considering the specifics of the coming conflict. We debated whether or not the nearby Papakura Military Base, a set of semi-derelict huts thrown up for American troops during World War Two, would be a high or low-value target for Soviet missiles, and wondered which parts of the Drury Hills might make useful bases for guerilla warfare. Weekend adventures in the Hills, which were a short bike ride from my parent's farm, were soon filled with our earnest arguments about military strategy and tactics. When we encountered a series of horizontal shafts left in the side of the gorge of Waihoehoe Stream by nineteenth century coal miners we debated whether or not they would make useful ammo dumps, and when the tracks we followed out of the gorge narrowed we talked about the possibility of 'ambushing the Soviets', and discussed the relative merits of the kalashnikov, which we assumed all 'Soviets' carried, and the slug guns, .22s, and deer hunting rifles we had access to. I find it obscurely comforting to know that my obsession with nuclear warfare wasn't only shared, in the mid-80s, by gung-ho playing companions and the entertainment industry. One of the pieces which I will be including in Private Bestiary, the selection of Kendrick Smithyman's unpublished poems Titus Books plans to launch later this year, is full of the same fears that I remember feeling in the chilly last years of the Cold War. On the 24th of September 1986, the sixty-four year old senior Kiwi poet sat down at his typewriter and produced the following text:


The living room is
almost entirely glass. In event of
a nuclear attack, walls of this room
will melt like milkbottles, we are not all
that far from
our unstrategically
situated naval base which must, we like
to think, be designated as a prime
target in the event. Household cats sleep
fronting up to a heat source
beside the television set showing
a film of what would happen to
- well, Sheffield's the place they fixed on.
Cats of Sheffield in the event,
they...I don't want to recall what happened
to Sheffield cats. It was
convincing and I am
remembering going
to Sheffield, very cold, very cold indeed,
burning cold, met by

an academic Australian poet,
went to stay with him a night or two.
Sheffield is/was not an exciting to be in
but reasons may be advanced for destroying it.
At the environs, a lot of garbage.
Which no doubt came in handy.

How improbable, to be met by and go to stay with
an Australian academic in Sheffield who was
a poet who had been (putting himself through
college) a randy boundary rider
back of the black stump,
how more probable
what was on the screen: at prospect's end
between tongue-by-jowl Victorian
housings a mushroom

cloud tumour burgeoning,
such imaginable chaos coming into bloom
while household cats slept.
Counter-strike jets flared away from some
where near Doncaster, remembering

this is
fiction, remembering how
when I went back to what we for a time only called
"home" each night, about ten, the flat sounded
to late-night-to-dawn bomber flights going
over, climbing from take off.

'Sheffield' was inspired by the BBC docu-drama Threads, which imagined the effects of a nuclear war on a group of people living in the Yorkshire city. The first episode of Threads, which was made in 1984 but did not reach Kiwi screens until September 1986, showed milk bottles melting in the heat released by a nuclear blast, and cats and dogs dying in agony admist the fires and radioactive fallout that folowed the blast. To my twelve year-old mind, Threads seemed yet more evidence for the imminence of the 'next big one'.

As he worked away at his typewriter, Smithyman's mind moved between memories of the time he spent in Sheffield during his 1969 visit to Britain and anxiety about the proximity of his home in Northcote, on Auckland's North Shore, to the Devonport Naval Base. Historically, Devonport had been a stopping-off point for American nuclear-powered (and, probably, nuclear-armed) warships visiting New Zealand, and therefore a magnet for anti-nuclear and anti-imperialist demonstrators, who warned that the ships made New Zealand a potential target in any war between Eastern and Western blocs.

Although the Labour government elected in 1984 had effectively banned nuclear warships from visiting New Zealand, the prospect of nuclear war still worried many Kiwis in September 1986. Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan were due to negotiate face-to-face at a major summit in Iceland in October, and commentators feared that if the meeting went badly there would be a greatly increased chance of nuclear conflagration. In the event, the Reyjkavik summit was a failure, and a grim Gorbachev left Iceland warning of the danger of war.

It is notable that, like The Day After, The War Game and a number of other visions of nuclear apocalypse, Threads is set in an unglamorous provincial city. In a curious way, the era of superpower nuclear confrontation sometimes drew popular attention away from centres of economic and political power, towards regions that were remote, or politically insignificant, or both - places like the American cornbelt, the deserts of New Mexico, the Aleutian Islands, or the despised towns of Britain's rusting steelbelt. It was in these unheralded regions where nuclear weapons were often stored, and where the planners and war gamers of the rival blocs tended to focus their attentions. It is hardly a surprise that the rulings classes of the West and East preferred to silo their missiles under the corn of the Midwest and the snows of Siberia, rather than in Washington or New York or Moscow.

Although New Zealand was never permanently home to any nuclear weapons, it did, on account of its peculiar location, form an important link in the Cold War-era defences of the West. While liberal peace activists around the world were applauding the New Zealand government for blocking visits by nuclear ships, they were ignoring the role that the US-run Harewood Air Base outside Christchurch played in connecting bases in Antarctica with the rest of the American war machine. Arguably, the closing of Harewood would have been a greater blow to the American imperium than the ban on nuclear ships. America's navy had many ports of call, but there were few alternative stopover points for the planes that supplied the country's outposts in Antarctica. Smithyman was always fascinated by the obscure, unglamorous parts of New Zealand, and of the world. He wrote hundreds of poems about the Hokianga but almost none about Wellington, despite making many visits to that city. The poems he produced in Britain in 1969 focus on the villages and towns of Yorkshire and northwest Scotland, and largely ignore the metropolis of London and the dreaming spires of Oxbridge. Smithyman's negative and rather cliched view of Sheffield as a place 'not exciting to be in' seems, though, to fly in the face of his tendency to celebrate the regional and the unglamorous, and would be strongly contested by anti-traveller Carey Davies, who told me in an interview earlier this year that he was grateful to have gone to university in a 'sprawling post-industrial city urgently and uncertainly trying to reinvent itself', with 'an independent northern spirit contemptuous of London fashions'.

Smithyman's view of Sheffield would also be rejected by Owen Hatherley, the left-wing British psychogeographer whose fondness for the ruined monuments of utopian modernist architecture has drawn him again and again to the beautifully-designed sink estates that adorn Sheffield's gently rolling hills. On a blog with the fascinating name of The Sesquipedalist, a mate of Hatherley's writes about a trip to Gleadless Valley, an estate on the edge of Sheffield filled with magnificent architecture, 'shirtless louts', and 'piles of scenic rubbish'. It looks like the garbage that Smithyman reported finding in large quantities on the edge of the city never got picked up.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Smelling (and seeing) rats

After I posted the enigmatic image that graces the front cover of Mike Johnson's forthcoming novel Travesty, I received a series of messages, some of them straightforward and some of them enigmatic, about proper and improper ways of looking at said image. I had seen a large, playful bear on the cover of Travesty, rather than the sinister 'super-rat' which the book's illustrator Darren Sheehan claimed to have placed there. Other, equally puzzled viewers reported a 'good-looking labrador', a 'grey man', and a 'traitor named Vosko'.

It was Hamish Dewe who was able to locate Darren's rat: after studying the image on the cover of Travesty with his customary rigour, he announced that it consisted of 'two horizontal portraits of the same rat, arranged vertically'. To recognise the creatures we simply had to 'disengage the rat, or rather rats, and rearrange them in their original horizontal pose'. There is the odd viewer who has been unable to see the rat, or rats, even after attempting to follow Hamish's directions.

The enigmatic nature of the cover of Travesty is not necessarily a problem, of course: many of the most memorable works of visual art have been ambiguous. People with nothing better to do still argue about whether Mona Lisa is really smiling, or whether the Sphinx's serenity has a hint of arrogance. In a comment on this blog, Jack Ross reported being haunted by the mysteries of Darren Sheehan's creation:

The real trouble with that "super rat" image is that once you've seen it, you can't unsee it - which I suppose was the original intention. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this troubling work, I must say...

In a contribution to the same discussion thread, Richard Taylor stated that 'Some of the most fascinating chess struggles are draws'. I choose to believe that Richard's words were a cryptic response to the 'super-rat' image, rather than a departure from the topic being discussed.

Titus Books has evidently been undisturbed by all the discussion about the cover of Travesty, because it has used Darren Sheehan's 'super-rat' image on the poster being circulated to advertise the launch of the book, which promises to be a good night out, complete with free booze and a reading by Mike (click on the poster to read all the details). I haven't yet been able to find the rat on the cover of Travesty, but my failure may have less to do with the subtlety of Darren Sheehan than with what some philosophers of science like to call the theory-dependence of observation. A morbid fear of rats saw me regularly humiliated during my childhood in a leaky, nineteenth century farmhouse, and these days sees me retreating in sudden jerky movements from the television every time one of those awful pest control advertisements defeats Skyler's channel-surfing talents. Like Orwell, whose description of the pair of murderous, barely restrained 'grandfathers of the sewers' who wait for Winston Smith in Room 101 of the Ministry of Truth gives Ninety Eighty-Four its most coruscating pages, I regard rats not only as vehicles of disease but as symbols of evil. I've tried to analyse the creatures - to break them down into a series of physical attributes, movements, and habitats - in the hope of finding the root of the terror they cause me, but it is not so much the individual rat-traits I have observed - the old pink-grey face uplifting, as its scabbed nostrils fiercely sniff the breeze, or the tail trailing across a cracked linoleum floor where stale milk has pooled, or the babies suckling their mother's tiny diseased tit at the edge of the barn, on hay the colour of leprous flesh, or the elaborate death of a black Norwegian monster strong enough to lift the steel trap off the kitchen floor with its broken back - as the sheer continuity of rat-life that terrifies me. The thought of them scavenging and feasting and breeding and birthing, night after night, in hay-lofts and cellars and abandoned cars, multiplying and waiting on the margins of human existence, waiting for some terminal increase in human folly, like a global thermonuclear war, or a pandemic escaped from some lab, that will hand them the best parts of the earth: waiting like some infinitely evil, because infinitely patient, army...

Given all this, I'm wondering whether I should be personally offended by the fact that my friend Ted Jenner seems to have gone out of his way to honour my enemies on the back cover of the fortieth, and latest, issue of brief, New Zealand's most consistently avant-garde literary journal. Ted, who threw the issue together with such efficiency and rigour that he threatens to embarrass certain previous, rather less enthusiastic editors, has adorned his front cover with photographs of apparently human skulls. Ted's choice of decoration might seem slightly eccentric, but it is at least in keeping with the front of Writers in Residence, the 2009 collection of his verse and prose. The photo on the cover of Writers in Residence was taken atop Mount Zomba, one of the highest points in Malawi, the country where Ted taught and wrote for a decade, but it does not, contrary to what certain over-excited Titus readers have claimed, furnish evidence of comrade Jenner's cannibalistic urges. Ted's grin may remind you of Hannibal Lecter after a few whiskies, but he is showing the camera the skull of a long-dead monkey, not some unlucky African baby.

I find the rats Ted has placed on the back cover of the latest brief more suspicious than his skulls. Since I rang him up a couple of years ago pretending to a police officer, and demanded that he report to the local station to explain his heavy consumption of whiskey and the obscene passages in the book he was assembling for Titus, Ted has attempted a series of revenge jokes on me. I have two texts in the latest brief - a record of my adventures on Hamlins Hill last year, and my convoluted CROSTOPI Manifesto - and so Ted could be reasonably sure that I would read his issue, vain creature than I am. Are his rats supposed to make me jump off the couch and pour myself a stiff drink, in the same terrified, involuntary way that my call from the Balmoral Police Station made him jump off his couch and pour his glass of whiskey down the sink? You might think me paranoid for raising this possibility, but what other reason could Ted have for adding rats to his issue of brief? You're not going to tell me that the drawing, which came from the pencil of Ted himself, warranted inclusion on aesthetic grounds, are you? I smell a rat or two, I tell you...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A preliminary report on the end of the world

Despite our best intentions, Skyler and I arrived at Sky City too late to join in the rowdy trade union demonstration outside the National Party conference's Sunday morning breakfast. I noticed a couple of cops still hanging about the building's southern entrance as we slipped inside - one of them was nodding sagely as the other made a series of vigorous motions with his arms, as if he were illustrating one of the more vicious moves he had used earlier in the morning on a protester.

The John Key fan club had retreated into a closed session, though one or two puffy-faced Young Nats hung about the bottom of the stairs, their delegate ID badges prominently displayed on their expensive Tory-blue suits. (Were they hoping that some stray journalist might mistake them for backbench MPs, and take their photos?) Next door to the vast room where the National faithful had assembled, overweight shabby men banged away at pokie machines which hummed and buzzed and flashed obediently, and slim, suited men barked orders at dealers, whose arms moved backwards and forwards robotically over sea-green tables, dropping cards and scooping up chips.

As we reached the third floor of Sky City, leaving the buzzing machines and barking blackjackers behind and walking into a performance by Polynesian dancers and drummers, I was struck by the incongruity of the location that Auckland Film Festival organisers had selected for the New Zealand premiere of There Once Was An Island: Te Henua E Noho, Briar March's film about the people of the remote and imperilled Polynesian atoll of Takuu.

Over the past few months Takuu, a collection of islets on a reef two hundred and fifty kilometres north of Bougainville, far to the west of the Polynesian heartland, has suddenly become famous, as climate change activists and journalists use its battle with a rising sea to symbolise the dangers many low-lying parts of the world face from global warming. In more than a few newspaper articles, including a long feature which appeared in the New Zealand Herald a couple of months ago, the people of Takuu, who do not have electricity, let alone a carbon footprint, are cast as the innocent victims of a decadent developed world, which has put its hunger for economic growth and consumer goods ahead of ecological considerations, and ended up raising seas so high they threaten to drown low-lying Pacific atolls.

It would be hard to pick a better symbol of the decadence of twenty-first century capitalism than Sky City last Sunday, where National Party staffers on a quarter of a million a year salaries sat in well-stuffed chairs and discussed new ways of disciplining beneficiaries and the poorest workers, while nearby the psychic victims of previous attacks on the working class poured their benefits and low wage jobs into machines that robbed them with noisy efficiency. Was Film Festival supremo Bill Gosden perhaps trying to underscore the moral as well as physical distance between our decadent city and the pristine subsistence society of tropical Takuu, when he booked Briar March's film into the theatre on Sky City's third floor?

When I reached the third floor I was pleased to see that there were far more people in the foyer outside the theatre, listening to the dense, almost claustrophobic drumming and watching rows of dancers shake their hips violently while miraculously keeping their feet firmly planted in the carpet, than there were in the casino downstairs. When the performance was over the theatre filled to capacity in a few minutes; the improbably young Briar March, who runs her own film production company and has two other movies showing at this festival, looked genuinely surprised by the turnout as she thanked a variety of people who helped with the film, including 'the many boyfriends' she and her co-producer Lyn Collie have had 'over the past four years'.

The opening frames of There Once Was An Island were unpromising: a camera half-submerged in water approached the islands of Takuu slowly, while faintly menacing music sounded. Was I the only one of the five hundred viewers who was reminded of one of the more famous, and more naff, scenes from Jaws? (Perhaps, though, March is too young to remember Jaws, and realise the absurd connotations her camerawork has for old fogies like myself?)

After the worrying beginning There Once Was An Island soon found its feet, as March's small crew introduced us to some of Takuu's four hundred residents in a series of sensitive, unhurried shots. In this place where almost every meal comes at least partly from the sea, we met a young fisherman who grinned and confessed to using the traditional canoe he had fashioned from driftwood to escape regularly from the demands of his wife and his small children. We followed him to a remote part of Takuu's warm, calm lagoon, and watched as he collected a meal using techniques which have not changed in many generations.

We met a series of other islanders who exhibited the range of skills that a subsistence lifestyle on a remote atoll requires, and who talked of their pride in their history and culture. We heard how steadily rising sea levels are making the task of survival on Takuu harder and harder. A middle-aged man took us to one of the reef islets reserved for farming, and showed how brine is leaching into the soil there and slowly killing the enormous taro he grows. A group of men struggled to improvise a sea wall out of coconut trunks, in an attempt to protect the beautiful but fragile homes they build from pandanus leaves. Another man lamented the loss of a beach of golden sand to the waves that wash relentlessly over the reef. The islanders denounced the Papua New Guinean government for its failure to provide them with a regular shipping service, and for its attempts to persuade them to resettle on the unfamiliar island of Bougainville far to their south. With its Melanesian culture, its recent history of warfare, its rocky, unsafe coastline, and its malaria, Bougainville seems an uninviting place for many of the people of Takuu.

Maps in textbooks and on museum walls often illustrate the extent of Polynesia with a triangle that begins in the central Pacific, near Samoa and Tonga, and extends south to New Zealand, east to Rapa Nui, and northeast to Hawaii. Although the 'Polynesian triangle' covers a vast area of ocean and many hundreds of islands, it excludes the peoples of the so-called Polynesian outliers, who live far to the west of Samoa, in island groups dominated by non-Polynesian peoples like Melanesians, Micronesians, and Papuans.

The outliers were once thought to be 'stepping stones' that bearers of Polynesian culture crossed, as they moved out of southeast Asia towards the vast spaces of the central and eastern Pacific. In the last half-century, though, scholars have come to recognise that Polynesian culture was not brought to Polynesia from anywhere else, but rather developed within Polynesia, and in particular in the central region that includes Samoa and Tonga. It is likely that the outliers were settled by Polynesians who, having reached the central Pacific and established a culture and civilisation there, turned back to the west, in search of lands that had been bypassed during the earlier movement east. Over hundreds or even thousands of years, the outlier colonies have developed their own cultures. Takuu's inhabitants have a tradition that their forefathers arrived from Samoa a thousand years ago, and ethnographic and linguistic evidence supports this, but their language and their customs long ago became distinctive. Some of the Polynesian outliers, like well-forested Rennell Island in the Solomons, are large and robust; many, though, are tiny, flat atolls, environments as vulnerable as the isolated cultural fragments they support. A decade and a half ago Richard Moyle, a long-serving anthropologist and former editor of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, arrived on Takuu to do some research, and realised that the atoll's isolation, which is extreme even by the standards of the Polynesian outliers, had made the culture of its people distinctive and significant.

Moyle was particularly excited when he discovered that, unlike every other Polynesian society, Takuu had never been comprehensively Christianised, and still hosted all sorts of 'pagan' practices. Moyle was also struck by the lack of hierarchy on the islands, and by the way that resources were shared out equally in good times and bad. Moyle served as an advisor to the makers of There Once Was An Island, and his series of books and monographs about Takuu - works produced at the request of the islanders, who have been anxious to have their culture documented - remain the only scholarly studies of this piece of the Polynesian diaspora.

Briar March's film eventually introduced us to a Takuuan who had a radical and unusual attitude towards the plight of her homeland. A woman who left the island in her youth, married a Papuan, and made a success of herself in Port Moresby, the large and chaotic capital city of Papua New Guinea, she had returned to the island of her birth to spread the creed of Christianity, and to urge her kin to take the advice of the government and resettle on Bougainville. At a meeting in an improvised, pandanus-walled church close to the breaking waves, she led a group of other women in a series of songs and prayers, and then preached against the evil of the traditional religious rituals that are still so widespread on Takuu, claiming that these practices were responsible for many of the islanders' woes. Only by settling on Bougainville, swapping their subsistence lifestyle for wage labour, and exchanging traditional beliefs for fundamentalist Chrisitianity can the Takuuans survive God's wrath, she claimed.

While the evangelist we met represents a minority viewpoint, it would be wrong to dismiss her chances of winning over her fellow islanders. In some other Polynesian outliers, a history of isolation and the absence of competition between different Christian denominations has meant that conversion to Christianity has been an extremely fast and extremely thoroughgoing affair. Rennell Islanders, for instance, remained pagan until 1938, and then converted to Seventh Day Adventism in a matter of weeks, junking much of their traditional culture in the process.

When two scientists - John Hunter, an English oceanographer, and Scott Smithers, an Australian expert on atolls - were brought to Takuu by the film-makers there was hope that a solution might be found to the problems caused by rising sea levels. Probing water tables, measuring tides, and inspecting sea walls, Hunter and Smithers soon established a rapport with the Takuuans. Despite their isolation and their relative lack of education, the islanders quickly assimilated the complex theories and research findings Hunter and Smithers shared with them. One islander joked that he had learned so much from the scientists that he almost felt like one of them himself.

Hunter and Smithers decided that the impact of rising sea levels can be lessened, and that Takuu can remain habitable for a long time, if certain measures are taken. Some measures, like the relocation of homes to higher ground and the dismantling of sea walls that prevent the build-up of new beaches, can be understaken without great expense. Others, though, like the construction of a sophisticated sea wall in deep lagoon water, require funds that seem unlikely to come from the Papua New Guinea government. The work of Smithers and Hunter made the Takuuans more optimistic about their future, but this optimism was soon washed away by a series of surge tides that sent large dirty waves through homes and into the island's school, ruining foodstores and soaking textbooks. In the aftermath of this disaster islanders began to go hungry, as they waited for emergency food supplies from the government. Although the surge tide and its after-effects claimed no lives, they were a major blow to morale, and There Once Was An Island ended with many Takuuans thinking seriously about resettling on Bougainville, even if doing so meant losing the way of life they love.

After being treated to two prolonged rounds of applause, Briar March invited us all down to the Wintergarden room, at the bottom of the Civic theatre, to watch a panel discussion about her film. I joined the crowd heading down the hill, partly because I wanted to hear from Smithers, Hunter and Richard Moyle, but also because I have fond memories of the Wintergarden, and of the Civic theatre in general, from my childhood, when its Orientalist interiors, shadowy staircases and corridors, and impossibly deep blue, star-sprinkled mock sky would make me feel like I had stepped into some alternative reality. The Civic's interior was more exciting than many of the films my parents took me there to watch, and I'm always happy to revisit it. When I arrived at the Wintergarden the room seemed stranger than ever, because Polynesian drummers and dancers were swaying amidst the mock-Moorish pillars and frescoes.

The panel discussion and the question and answer session which followed it were sometimes as strange as their setting. Sitting between the lean, serious Hunter and the affable Smithers, the silver-haired, suited Richard Moyle looked distinctly unimpressed with proceedings. When Smithers cracked jokes, Moyle's thin mouth barely twitched. When he was given the microphone, Moyle gave a sober, prepared speech, instead of the animated, improvised talks offered by his fellow panelists. At one point an audience member politely interrupted Moyle to protest that she couldn't hear him. 'Well, I can't hear you', the veteran anthropologist responded, before continuing at the same volume.

It is a pity that Moyle couldn't be heard by everybody at the Wintergarden, because he had some fascinating things to say. Moyle paid tribute to Takuu culture, saying that it is as rich and as vibrant as the culture of any Polynesian society. He said, with a certain amount of pride, that the islanders are famous throughout Bougainville Province for their refusal to abandon their traditions in the face of the dubious charms of Christianity and capitalism. Moyle, who had the honour of publishing the first dictionary of the Takuuan language, noted that the islanders' word for 'different' is the same as their word for 'danger'. Because of their long seclusion, the threat which faces them now seems positively apocalyptic: the destruction of their island 'equals the destruction of the world'. But Moyle believes that the Takuu people may be able to draw on the great journey they made a thousand years ago from Samoa as an inspiration, and undertake a new migration without losing their identity. He thinks that the expatriate Takuuan population in Papua New Guinea will give vital assistance to the islanders if they resettle on Bougainville.

Moyle's words might have seemed overly optimistic, but there have been other Pacific peoples who have been forced, in modern times, to abandon their home islands, and yet have succeeded in preserving their culture in a new setting. The Micronesian people of Banaba Island had their atoll torn up by phosphate-hungry Britons in the middle of last century, and were dispatched to the volcanic island of Rabi in the Fijian archipelago, thousands of kilometres to the south. Despite their minority status on Fiji, they have held on to their traditions and identity. At the beginning of this year I spent a few days on 'Eua, the southernmost inhabited island in Tonga, where hundreds of people from the island of Niuafo'ou far to the north were resettled in the 1950s after their villages were covered in lava and volcanic rocks. The people of Niuafo'ou did not abandon their heritage, but instead gave the new settlements they built on 'Eua the names of the villages of their beloved homeland. In more recent times, a couple of villages of Tuvaluans have successfully relocated from their low-lying homeland to Niue, an island depopulated by decades of migration to New Zealand.

After Moyle finished his presentation, an elderly woman rose determinedly to her feet and aimed a question at him. 'If global warming is such a concern to you, why you don't do something about it yourself?' she demanded in a barely controlled voice. 'Why don't you stop flying and using up carbon and stay at home instead of going off to this island?' It seemed a remarkably aggressive question, but it elicited a shy smile from Moyle. 'That is my beloved wife' he said slowly. 'I am going back to Takuu on Tuesday. I have promised her this will be my last trip.' The rest of the audience burst into laughter, but Mrs Moyle wasn't even smiling as she sat back down.

After they were asked about Takuu culture, Scott Smithers and Briar March both talked about how impressed they were by the happy egalitarianism of the islanders. March said that, after the cashless economy and rigorously fair distribution of food and other essentials on Takuu, she suffered culture shock when she travelled to the Gold Coast to do some technical work on her film. The inequality and conflict of capitalist society upset her. Smithers said he experienced a similar sense of dislocation when he returned from Takuu, where children play contentedly for hours with rubber bands and seem never to quarrel amongst themselves, to his home in the suburbs of Australia, where he found his children fighting over lavish Christmas presents.

Smithers' and March's reflections prompted a couple of contrasting contributions from audience members. In a voice that became progressively more agitated, a woman asked whether Takuu culture was worth preserving, given that it seemed to be 'rooted in the past' and incompatible with the 'global culture' that those of us who live in the West supposedly enjoy. Wouldn't it be better, she asked, in what seemed intended as a rhetorical question, to remove the Takuuans from their homeland and bring them into the modern world?

In a sensitive response to these rather insensitive remarks, Lyn Collie argued that the Takuuans themselves ought to be able to decide the shape of their society. Many of them, the producer of March's film suggested, might want to 'have a foot in both worlds', by maintaining their culture whilst also opening it up to new influences, and by maintaining elements of a subsistence economy at the same time that they earned more cash, and thus better access to the modern world. The advocate of 'global culture' was undeterred by these words, and launched into another broadside about the need to abandon 'traditionalism' in order to enjoy the 'fruits' of modernity. For her, the cultures of the Takuu islanders and of other indigenous peoples seemed to be static things, wholly incapable of changing and incorporating the new and the useful. They had to be cast away, like old clothes.

Another member of the audience advanced a very different, yet equally one-sided, interpretation of Takuu culture. A young man with the sickly, tofu-grey skin and evangelical manner of a vegan, he announced that he was working on a Masters thesis which would explain that the cause of global warming and most of the rest of the world's ills was 'consumerism as an identity'. Capitalism, he explained in a voice that managed to be at once high-pitched and grave, was a product of the desire of ordinary people to 'define themselves as consumers'. The world could be cured of its ills if its inhabitants learnt from the people of Takuu island, and abandoned their 'consumerist identities' in favour, presumably, of a subsistence lifestyle.

I hope that the earnest young vegan's thesis supervisor pushes him in the direction of a classic study of the origins of capitalism like EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, or Marx's chapter on primitive accumulation in Capital. As both those authors showed, the working class which forms a large majority of the population in advanced capitalist societies did not 'choose' capitalism because it had developed a fetish for consumer goods. In nation after nation, capitalism was established as peasants were forced to abandon their land, get jobs in noisy, dangerous factories, and stay alive by buying commodities like bread and shelter. If the people of Takuu have to leave their home for Bougainville, they may well become labourers on one of the island's cocoa or palm oil plantations, and have no choice but to survive by purchasing commodities. In a capitalist economy, people have to buy and consume goods. Why they should be chided for this necessity is not clear.

To present the people of Takuu as across-the-board opponents of a cash economy also seems wrong-headed. Discussing the situation of the islanders, Briar March said that they would like to have more sources of cash, so that they could more easily pay their children's tuition fees. Could we possibly condemn the Takuuans for wanting their children to consume the commodity that is education in Papua New Guinea?

It seems to me that the two members of the audience I have been criticising offered versions of two very common Western responses to indigenous societies. The aggressive advocate for 'global culture' and the abolition of Takuu identity had the the teleological view of history and the uncritical admiration of modernity that was endemic amongst the nineteenth century missionaries who were so determined to 'civilise' Pacific peoples, and which is often today found, in a secular form, amongst the 'experts' on Third World 'economic development' employed by organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The earnest young opponent of consumerism, on the other hand, seemed intent on recycling the romantic image of the Pacific islander as a 'noble savage' which so captivated European intellectuals like Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson in the nineteenth century, and which still influences popular perceptions of the region today.

It is to Briar March's credit that her film avoided the sort of cliches that I have been criticising. Like the texts of Richard Moyle, There Once Was An Island did not try to diminish the complexity and dynamism of Takuu society. Instead of siding with one faction on the island over another or paternalistically lecturing her subjects, March has allowed the people of Takuu to tell their own stories.

Footnote: you can contribute to a fund set up to help the people of Takuu through this page, which is a part of the official There Once Was An Island website.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Smithyman's apocalypse

I have to apologise for the lack of action on this site over the past few days. I've been working ridiculously long hours making Kendrick Smithyman's Private Bestiary: selected unpublished poems 1944-1993 presentable enough to show to Creative New Zealand. I'm not sure if Titus Books will be successful in getting a grant to help with the costs of publishing the book, but the application process has certainly given me a kick up the backside. Before Titus boss Brett Cross put the hard word about a deadline to me, I'd been content to dig ever deeper into Smithyman's vast collection of unpublished manuscripts, discovering lost masterpiece after lost masterpiece, and becoming less and less mindful of the need to make a selection and whip a book into shape.

I thought I'd post one of the poems that I've been considering putting into Private Bestiary here, along with some notes I've made on it.

‘Phases of absence, I explore...’

Phases of absence, I explore.
I go out from the city where men are
always saying, "The heart is here
dying", meaning "Bring back
business, into Queen Street."
They talk hard about arteries of commerce.
I go out, where radios tell:
Northland and Coromandel are exposed
to hostile forces; later, attack will be
mounted upon the city. Comes two or three
o'clock, rain or winds arrive
as predicted. You close the kitchen
door of an almost empty house.

Some body artlessly moans in her bedroom.
A vein left in her foot throbs
under burnt skin. 'It's my nerves', she claims.
'Let me sleep. I must go on sleeping.'
If I stand, because I shall stand
at a window not altogether shut,
I may look into a fig tree
where the figs ripen and split,
ravished by delicate white-eyed birds.
Gutted, the spoiled fruits wave
as branches move. New summaries report
troubles in New York, Pennsylvania
bankrupt, Michigan no longer can afford
expense of justice or learning.
This is a repeat broadcast.

I met a class for the first time.
Finishing with them I asked,
'Any questions?' Yes,
from a boy with a purple sweater.
'What is your name?'
I knew
there'd been something I'd forgotten.

c. 1966-67

Smithyman married his fellow poet Mary Stanley in 1946. As Peter Simpson explains in 'Sinfonia Domestica', the fine essay he contributed to Between the Lives, the collection of studies of Kiwi 'artistic couples' published by Auckland University Press in 2005, the marriage was troubled by the memory of Mary's first husband, who had died in Italy during the Second World War, by Mary's chronic health problems, and by the contrast between Smithyman's productivity as a poet and the bad case of writer's block that came to afflict his wife. The last years of the relationship were particularly miserable, as Kendrick struggled to care for an increasingly immobile Mary.

In a number of poems he wrote in the second half of the 1960s and in the '70s, Smithyman's gloomy reflections on the state of his marriage and on Mary Stanley's health mingled with misgivings about the state of New Zealand and Western society, and fears about an apocalyptic future.

The second half of the sixties saw the gradual end of the 'long boom' that had brought unprecedented levels of prosperity to New Zealand and other Western countries in the aftermath of World War Two. In New Zealand and in many other places, economic troubles coincided with the emergence of new protest movements inspired by causes like opposiiton to war, racism, and cultural repression. In New Zealand, the late sixties saw the rise of a movement against the Vietnam War, the first signs of the re-emergence of Maori nationalism as a political force, and the beginnings of the modern feminist movement. The period also saw the brief flowering of a massive youth counterculture which alarmed many older New Zealanders with its advocacy of drugs and its disdain for 'straight' society. The seventies and early eighties would bring deepening recession, strike waves, Maori land hikoi, and fighting in the streets over New Zealand's links with apartheid South Africa.

In 'Phases of absence, I explore...', Smithyman's attention shifts from his home on the North Shore, where his wife has been driven to bed by a severe attack of arthritis, to the national and international news, which report economic and political turmoil, to his job at the University of Auckland, where he struggles to communicate with a new generation of students. Sensing that all the things that trouble him have some obscure but terrible connection, the poet fantasies about a war or an apocalyptic storm hitting New Zealand. Smithyman's vision of an army arriving from the countryside to menace the cities seems to foreshadow the action of 1970s dystopian novels like CK Stead's Smith's Dream and Craig Harrison's Broken October.

In 1971 Smithyman revised 'Phases of absence, I explore...'removing most of its autobiographical references and giving it the title 'From the City Where Men Are'. Although the revised piece was published in the 2004 Collected Poems, it lacks some of the crucial lines from Smithyman's original draft.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Viva tiki-taka!

Update: after seeing off an astonishingly brutal challenge from the Dutch, who have comprehensively besmirched their proud footballing history by winning ten yellow cards, Spain are lifting the World Cup this morning. Has anyone noticed, though, that the World Cup is not actually a cup? Sorry to be difficult, I just thought it needed pointing out. Another notable fact: the All Whites are now the only unbeaten team from the 2010 Fifa World Cup!

I must apologise to the more serious-minded readers of this blog for turning away from the debate that has unfolded underneath my recent post on the teaching of history and instead discussing that trivial pursuit known as football. I promise to get back to history in a day or two, but the World Cup is about to shut up shop, and I feel that I need to say one or two words about tonight's final, if only to qualify my earlier, rather reckless posts in support of the All Whites and of Maradona's ill-fated Argentines.

I realise that I probably have little credibility, now that I've decided to throw my weight behind yet another World Cup team. New Zealanders who are my old age or older may remember a politician named Gilbert Myles, who was elected to parliament on the National Party ticket in 1990, defected to the short-lived Liberal Party about half-way through his term, joined the newly-established Alliance Party a few months later, and then dumped the Alliance for Winston Peters' New Zealand First outfit shortly before the 1993 election. Myles was drummed out of office by an electorate which felt that a man who had belonged to four parties in three years probably didn't possess the best judgement in the world. By switching from the All Whites to Argentina and now, at the last minute, to Spain, I'm probably making myself into the sports fan equivalent of Gilbert Myles.

Skyler certainly reacted cynically when I told her that I had become a Spain supporter after watching that team dismantle Germany on Wednesday night. 'Let me guess - you like their uniforms?' she sneered. In the hope of proving that my attitude to the beautiful game is not quite that shallow, I'd like to offer some more or less serious reasons why the footballing world, and perhaps the world in general, will benefit if Spain overcomes the Netherlands tonight.

Of all the world's sports, football is surely the one most firmly subordinated to the law of profit. Sports like rugby union and league are only now beginning to see the emergence of the sort of autonomous club-corporations that have dominated the round ball game for decades, buying and selling players and bullying national football federations. Today, for the typical football capitalist, the maximisation of profits demands that a team wins, and also that it features several stars who can perform feats in front of the goal mouth that will look good when they are flashed across the evening news. Over the past couple of decades, especially, the income that clubs derive from 'brand' players - the Beckhams, and Ronaldos, and Ronaldhinos - has begun to rival the income they can get from their 'team brands'. Teams need to win regularly, and to keep some championship silverware in their cupboards; at the same time, elite players need to be differentiated clearly from their team mates, if their 'brands' are to be maintained.

At many clubs, and in many national sides, these twin imperatives have bred a style of football which sees most players in a team subordinating themselves to one or two superstar strikers. Defenders and midfielders are taught to play an unambitious game, as they claim the ball and transport it upfield to the show ponies at the front of the formation.

In many ways, the current Dutch team exemplifies the style of football I have been describing. The Dutch have a set of rugged midfielders and backs who play a dour but aggressive game together, shutting down opposition attacks and delivering the ball to four star strikers - Schneijder, von Persie, Robben, and van der Vaart - who are allowed to 'express' themselves in front of the enemy goal mouth. Where the legendary Dutch teams that reached the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals played a 'total football' that obliterated the distinctions between attackers and defenders, stars and supporters, the 2010 model relies upon these distinctions for its success.

The style of football the Dutch are playing is not new. It won the 2006 World Cup for a deeply cynical Italy, and the 2002 World Cup for a muted Brazil. It was employed at this tournament by at least a dozen teams. If anything, the Dutch have been playing in a more expressive, attacking manner than most the teams they share their method with. At least they deploy four men 'up front', unlike Portugal, who left Ronaldo stranded as a lone striker in the opposition half, or the almost sublimely dull Swiss, who parked eleven men deep in their own half for long periods of their games.

The subordination of so many members of so many World Cup teams to an elite of branded 'stars' is part and parcel of the increasing stratification of professional football. While the Rooneys and the Ronaldos enjoy unprecedented salaries at the summit of the game, thousands of professionals are shunted from club to club on short-term contracts, and find themselves living hand to mouth. The pre-World Cup careers of All Whites heroes like Rory Fallon, who has jumped from one struggling English club to another, vainly searching for a Premier League contract, or Shane Smeltz, who has drifted across Europe, sleeping on the couches of friends, trialling for small-time club after small-time club, illustrate the lot of many of today's full-time footballers.

It would be foolish to deny that the style of football employed so successfully at this World Cup by the Dutch, and rather less successfully by teams like England, Brazil, and Portugal, can provide passages of entertaining play. Players like Robben and Rooney are wonderful athletes, who combine an almost balletic grace with bursts of pace worthy of Usain Bolt and the kicking power of Don Clarke. But the isolated seconds of brilliance that extravagantly gifted strikers can provide must all too often be earned by long passages of dull, dirty play, as defenders shrink back towards their own goal lines, limiting the space the opposition has to manoeuvre, and midfield thugs like the Netherlands' von Bommel bring proceedings to regular crunching halts with fouls.

This World Cup has seen a reaction, on and off the field, against the excesses of the megastars and the pattern of play that has been created to cater to their needs. With the global economy in trouble, austerity programmes being imposed on unhappy working classes, and once-mighty corporations on welfare, the vast salaries and pompous behaviour of elite players have bred disgust, not admiration, from the footballing public. When the pampered mega-stars of England and France launched insurrections against their managers during the group stage of the Cup they earned the contempt of their own fans. The weak performances of Ronaldo, who has proudly worn the label of the world's most expensive player, saw him mocked in his native Portugal and abroad.

There has been a stylistic as well as an emotional revolt against the reigning model of football. A number of World Cup teams have come up with alternatives to the dominant strategic paradigm, and have won enthusiastic support for doing so. The German coach Joachim Low took a team of young relative unknowns and taught them how to play an exciting brand of counter-attacking football which relied, not on the skills of one or two superstars, but on cohesion and speed. Low's players would defend robustly, claim the ball, and surge forward in numbers, using long, fast, precise passes to bypass the resistance of opposition defenders. Where the defenders of teams like England and Portugal were virtually prohibited from entering the opposition's half, the German backs were allowed to play like forwards whenever they could get away with it. The exuberant fluidity of Germany's play won them millions of fans outside their country's borders.

Before they were knocked out of the tournament by Germany, the anarchic Argentines also won a place in many World Cup fans' hearts. Under the genial but erratic leadership of Diego Maradona, Argentina revived the 'samba football' of the great Brazilian teams of the 1970s and early '80s, as Lionel Messi and co. set out on fearless dribble runs from all corners of the field, taking on packed and well-drilled defensive lines.

The most compelling alternative to the status quo has come, though, from the Spanish team, which has, in the face of a string of thuggish and negative opponents, preserved and developed the 'tiki-taka' style of play that won it the 2008 European Cup. As paradoxical as it might sound, a win for Spain in tonight's final will also be a win for the Netherlands. As Raphael Honigstein has explained, 'tiki-taka' is a creative development of the total football the Dutch invented back in the '70s and eventually abandoned:

Spain play the most difficult version of football possible: an uncompromising passing game, coupled with intense, high pressing...In 2006, Spain took a decision: they weren't physical and tough enough to outmuscle opponents, so instead wanted to concentrate on monopolising the ball...'Tiki-Taka', the constant passing and going, is such a devastating tactic because it's both defensive and offensive in equal measure. You don't have to switch from attack to defence or vice versa because you're always in possession. It's a significant upgrade of the Dutch 'total football', a system that relied on players changing positions. The Spanish don't have to do that anymore since the ball does all the hard work.
Like total football, tiki-taka requires both high skill and selflessness from its exponents. Ball-hogs and show ponies are ill-suited to the style, with its demand that a team holds possession for as long as possible, and its expectation that players be able to pass the ball dozens of times in a single movement.

The collectivism of tiki-taka restores some of football's traditional values. In a recent interview, the former Liverpool and England player John Barnes decried the influence of overpaid superstars on football, and insisted that the game had to be played in a 'socialist' way:

Football is a socialist sport...Financially, some may receive more rewards than others but, from a footballing perspective, for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end...

The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful. Or if there are superstars they don't perceive themselves to be that...England gets by on the individual ability of a Rooney or a Gerrard or a Lampard, rather than collective method or strategy. Now if that individual either isn't playing or he doesn't play well, that means you can't win...

Spain has an identity. If you black out the faces and don't know who's playing, you can still say this Spain because of the way they play...

But even if it values collectivism, tiki-taka does not rob its exponents of their individuality. Because it allows players to roam up and down the field, and because it requires so many 'touches' from them in a single passage of play, tiki-taka allows a high degree of self-expression. Instead of seeking obsessively to send the ball up the field, toward some waiting superstar striker, defenders and midfielders are able to experiment with light touches and horizontal passes.

In the interview he gave to announce his retirement from cricket in the early '90s, the great New Zealand opener John Wright bemused reporters by telling them that he wished that it had been possible for him 'simply to bat', and not to worry about his score, or his career statistics, or the state of the game, or the position of his team in a tournament or championship. Arguably, Wright was expressing a frustration common to top sportspeople, who want to lose themselves in the pleasure of playing, but who find their performances subjected to over-rigorous, instrumentally-focused analyses by coaches, pundits, and administrators. The sheer joy of play can be lost, amidst the performance graphs and tables of statistics which are such a part of today's sports industries. With its contempt for chains of command and utilitarian game plans and its baroque structures, tiki-taka perhaps signals the return of a certain playfulness to the beautiful game.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Britain's history war

David Osler is one of the very best left-wing bloggers in Blighty, so I was disappointed by his rather superficial response to the debate about the teaching of history which has been spreading across that country over the past few weeks.

The decision of Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education new Tory-led government, to ask Niall Ferguson to revise history programmes in British secondary schools has alarmed both historians and teachers. Ferguson has invited controversy in both his British homeland and in America, where he holds a high-profile, low-maintenance academic post, by publishing a series of books which have sought to rehabilitate the British Empire, and European imperialism in general, and by writing opinion pieces for mass-circulation newspapers in support of Bush's invasion of Iraq and against the Obama administration's economic policies.

Ferguson's views on the teaching of history are as provocatively reactionary as his opinion of British colonialism. He favours imbuing secondary students with a grand 'connected narrative' of the past, rather than the more fashionable practice of focusing on a few exemplary events and showing students the various viewpoints and arguments which surround these events. If Ferguson has his way, then the old-fashioned recital of Kings and Queens and battles will return to British classrooms, in place of earnest discussions about the different ways history can be interpreted. Teachers and historians have warned that Ferguson's ideas would lead to a great leap backwards in British classrooms.

In the post he knocked off last week, David Osler deplores Ferguson's 'boosterism for the time when Britannia ruled the waves', but declares his sympathy for the revival of a 'grand narrative' approach to history teaching. Osler can still remember 'all 44 kings, queens, and Lord protectors in order of reign', and he wants the next generation of British kids to have the same skill.

Osler does not make the reasoning behind his position explicit, but in the comments thread under his post a fellow with the very English name of David Duff does the job for his host, when he asserts that:

‘Kids’...are not trained historians, indeed, they are not even trained human beings – that surely is the point of educating them! General history, that is, non-specialised history, is a narrative and the story should be told in those terms, embracing as many of the ‘facts’ as it is sensible to include in any particular syllabus. Complaining about the use of dates in teaching history is equivalent in dopey-daftness to complaining about the use of measurements in teaching science...For the purposes of teaching children, the narrative, in correct chronological order, is all.

David Duff's argument would surely be greeted as mere common sense by many members of the public, in New Zealand as well as in Britain. Fifteen year-old history students are not writing PhDs, but grasping the basics of their subject. Isn't it natural that they should have to acquire a few facts, before they venture into the dangerous realm of theory? Shouldn't history teachers focus on inculcating in them 'the narrative' of the past, 'in correct chronological order'?

The problem with Duff's argument is that it assumes there is a single, natural narrative which makes itself readily available when we look at the past. The reality is that history consists of an enormous amount of phenomena - events, ideas, objects, people - whose causal connections and relative significance are not easily discernable. Even worse, we must apprehend these various pieces of the past using concepts which come wrapped up in language and in cultural assumptions. There is no 'pure' past waiting for us in a simple, theory-free narrative.

In case that last paragraph sounded a little windy and abstract, let's consider an event, or set of events, which David Duff would no doubt want to include in any historical narrative taught to British kids. The Second World War stands at the centre of most histories of the twentieth century. Scholars agree that it claimed more lives than any other war, and that it redrew the map of the world. Aren't there a few things about the Second World War which are self-evident? Can't we provide youngsters with a few basic facts about this most famous of conflicts, without worrying about the tiresome business of interpretation and argument?

Yet when we consider even the most apparently obvious facts about World War Two, we quickly see that they are based upon interpretations of an array of historical phenomena. World War Two is normally taken to have broken out in September 1939, when Britain and France and their allies declared war on Germany after Hitler's invasion of Poland, but it is not as though the world was a peaceful place in August 1939. Eight years before Hitler invaded Poland, Japan attacked China's northern province of Manchuria; two years before his stukas began to level the towns of eastern Europe, Hitler unleashed his forces in Spain, in support of Franco's fascist uprising against a left-wing government; almost a year before they marched into Poland, German armies entered Austria and Sudetenland. If we choose to date the beginning of World War Two to September 1939, it is not because we have looked at the past and discovered some grand, self-disclosing narrative, but because we judge that September 1939 was the time when conflicts which had been expressed in various ways and places for years became sufficiently serious and interconnected to deserve a general label. To claim that even the most seemingly obvious historical events are tied up with the practice of interpretation, and need to be justified with argument, is not to become a relativist. We can insist upon the necessity of interpretation without claiming that all interpretations are equally legitimate. I think there are sound reasons for considering that World War Two began in Poland in September 1939, and not in Manchuria in 1931, but sound reasons are not the same as the self-evident truths which David Duff and his ilk claim to find in history.

In the thread under David Osler's post on history, a commenter named LabMike defends the current practice of British teachers from David Duff:

Facts are facts but to link facts together to form a narrative you would have to pick an interpretation and present it as if it’s the indelible truth. To grade students on how well they can memorise one narrative isn’t useful, it’s dishonest. History isn’t about accepting what authority figures say happened, whether those authority figures are sources or teachers or anyone. It’s about critical engagement.

Who won what battle is trivia. It’s the critical process that is important, not the actual events - they are just useful for actively applying the critical tool of history. It doesn’t build any skills for a student to memorise the dates of military victories. Inquiring sceptically into the causes and consequences of such events is history.

LabMike is quite correct to point out the naivety of Duff's position, but his apparent opposition to the presentation of any narrative of the past to students seems to me to be mistaken. Different historical events can only be understood properly if they are related to one another, either by narrative, comparison, or some other cohering device.

Even as they deplore the philistinism of Niall Ferguson, British historians and teachers are complaining about the way that impositions like national standards tests prevent them from introducing students to a broad enough sweep of the past. Increasingly, teachers are forced to focus on one or two important historical figures, like Henry the eighth or Hitler, at the expense of the rest of the past. How, though, is it possible to arrive at a reasonable interpretation of one period in history without a good working knowledge of other periods? Is it possible to understand Hitler, that extreme example of German imperialism, without knowing about the unification of Germany under Bismark in the nineteenth century, and the new nation's bloody adventures in Africa and the Pacific at the beginning of the twentieth century? Can we put Henry the eighth's confrontation with the Papacy in sixteenth century Britain into perspective without understanding what Luther was doing at the same time, across the ditch in continental Europe? The study of history demands an understanding of what Fernand Braudel called the long duree, as well as the interpretation of specific events.

But there is a perhaps more fundamental problem concerning the teaching of history which both sides of the debate at David Osler's blog fail to address. In Britain, not to mention New Zealand, there is evidence of a widespread lack of interest in and knowledge of 'official' history amongst younger sections of the population. A recent poll found that one in three Britons aged between eighteen and twenty-four don't know that Darwin was English, and that most don't know who Oliver Cromwell was, and therefore, presumably, don't know a great deal about the English revolution. It is easy for bloggers and newspaper columnists of a certain age to blame such ignorance on the perfidy of youth. Is it possible, though, that young people have good reason to be uninterested in the history lessons they receive at school?

It is interesting to note that more and more Britons of all age groups are becoming enthusiastic about the study of the history of their families. Genealogical societies are flourishing, and the television programme Who Do You Think You Are?, which traces the ancestry of famous Britons back into the distant and often disreputable past, has become a massive hit. At its worst, the 'DIY history' offered by the genealogy industry can be an exercise in narcissism, as ill-informed researchers blunder about searching for distinguished antecedents - aristocrats, or victorious generals, or glamorous criminals - that they can mount on their living room wall in a stylish family tree. History becomes a status symbol, like the new car or the plasma screen telly. At its best, though, genealogical research can be a profound exercise in self-education, as distant ancestors become windows into strange and strangely instructive times and places. Would it be possible for history teachers to harness some of the enthusiasm for research which the genealogy industry has stirred?

Genealogy is nowadays often considered a middle class pursuit, but fifty years ago it was left-wing historians and teachers who promoted the practice. EP Thompson worked from the end of the forties until the early sixties as a tutor for the Workers Education Association in Yorkshire, and regularly asked his working class pupils to use family memories and yellowing documents to dig into their past. For many of Thompson's students, the idea that their experiences, and the experiences of the forbears, could be the stuff of history was both radical and exciting. Thompson explained to his students that the lives of their ancestors, and indeed their own lives, could be 'keyholes' through which larger pieces of the past could be observed and studied. As long as it was careful and theoretically informed, there was no contradiction between the sort of 'history from below' which focused on the lives of 'ordinary', marginalised people, and the attempt to interpret historical epochs and great events.

Thompson's classes were soon full of stories about life in the pit and the pub, and when he published his masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class in 1963 the historian thanked his students for their contribution to the book. Thompson's radical approach to pedagogy inspired a new generation of scholar-teachers, like Raphael Samuel, who founded the History Workshop movement to allow non-academics to research, write, and publish history.

A left-wing approach to the teaching of history has to regard students not as mere receptacles for prepackaged loads of information, but as active collaborators in research. Although a history curriculum should acknowledge both the inevitability of interpretation and argument and the necessity of acquiring a knowledge of the broad sweep of the past, at least some of the subject matter it considers and the primary materials it uses should be determined, not by civil servants in London or Wellington, but by students and their communities. It is odd that David Osler and the contributors to his comments box haven't grasped what EP Thompson knew fifty years ago.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Remembering Leicester Kyle - and thinking about Roger Lambert

This week sees the fourth anniversary of the death of Leicester Kyle, the biologist, Anglican vicar, environmental activist, coalfields historian, and late-blooming but prolific poet. In the obituary I wrote back in 2006, I tried to explain the extraordinary effect that Leicester had upon the many literary friends he made in the last decade of his life, after he gave up ministering and began counting syllables.

My tribute to Leicester describes his complex and often tragic life, and lists the attributes of his poetry, but I'm not sure if it communicates the peculiar wisdom that was an essential part of the man, and remains an essential part of the man's poems. Leicester had an unflagging interest in the world - his obsession with detail made walks with him slow-paced affairs, and his poems are relentlessly concrete, even when they consider allegedly abstract philosophical or theological questions - but he seldom allowed himself to become outwardly excited by the places and events he observed so closely. When he commented on the affairs of humans - and he was seldom short of an opinion - he did so in a dry, analytical manner, as if he were discussing the behaviour of beetles or snails (and Leicester knew a great deal about beetles and snails: near the end of his life he even discovered a new sub-species of snail, during one of his forays into the forests of his beloved Buller).

Leicester was not a cold, let alone cruel, man: on the contrary, he was generous and good-humoured. His distinctive way of engaging with the world seemed to me to come not from any sort of self-centredness, but rather from a profound equanimity. He had seen and experienced his share of human suffering, and the existential facts that trouble many of us - the shortness of life and the threat of death, our lack of control over many aspects of our lives, the limited amounts of time we have in which to make difficult choices - did not seem to hold any terror for him. In his last decade, at least, Leicester had a clear-eyed view of life because he did not feel entirely implicated in life.

The authenticity of Leicester's life was shown by the way he dealt with his own final illness and death. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer on the anniversary of the death of his wife Miriel from the same disease, Leicester refused chemotherapy, and calmly put his affairs in order. Auckland friends who travelled to the South Island to say goodbye to Leicester were profoundly impressed by the way he had accepted death, and yet maintained a keen interest in life. Looking through my e mail, I find a message Leicester sent me in the last weeks of his life:

Dear Scott

My heartfelt apologies for my general lack of recent communication. Unfortunately it is not something I can easily rectify,as I am at present so overwhelmed by illness that my personal and business affairs have grown quite out of hand. An immense pile of unanswered correspondence awaits my attention, and I doubt if it will get much; I lack the energy and the self-control to attend to it.

In the meantime, until my health improves (which is not forecast as likely) please accept my thanks for your kind wishes, and, if I cannot keep you informed about myself, please at least give me your own news.

Yours sincerely,

Leicester's equanimity had varying effects on his poetry. The poems he wrote about family and friends could sometimes seem patronising, because of the way he categorised and dissected his subjects. At other times, though, Leicester's distance from the conventional ways we think and feel could give his poems a visionary, almost Blakean quality. In Leicester's long poem Heteropholis, which Jack Ross hailed as a work of genius, an angel is turned into a lizard and dumped in a tank in a snazzy inner-city Auckland apartment, from where it composes a series of strange meditations on the mores of its owner and his fellow humans:

My caregiver has no female. From obser-
vation of his ways (behold they
are so various) I have learned
of pleasures denied my reptilian

He grows amorous as the barometer falls,
which is often at full moon. His
thighs taughten. Sensing from
my wooden perch I see him fes-
tinate as the day goes until at
dark he rings for a Working Girl

Leicester's religious beliefs remain something of a mystery. Although he had enjoyed a long career as a vicar, first in South Island parishes like Okains Bay and later in the Air Force, he gave little indication that he held conventional Anglican doctrine in high regard. Some of his friends wondered whether he had lost his faith, or whether he had perhaps become a vicar because he believed that religion served a useful social purpose, even if it were not literally true. Last year I got around to reading John Updike's novel Roger's Version, which tells the story of an ex-priest who has become a professor of theology in Boston. Roger Lambert left the ministry under a cloud of scandal, and has grown steadily less enamoured with the certainties of his church's doctrine. He has become an expert on the Nestorians and other exotic heretical sects, and an enthusiast for the ideas of Karl Barth, the depressed Swiss theologian who described faith as 'a cave in which God hears the echo of his own voice'. Lambert mocks his earnest students, who want to use Aquinas and computers to 'prove' the existence of God, by telling them that God is defined by his indefinability. To describe the divine, then, is to blaspheme. Lambert often fails to obey some of the ten commandments, but he argues, with wonderful irreverent zeal, that sinning is a form of homage to God, because it allows God to prove his sublimity by showing us his forgiveness.

Although Roger Lambert is in some respects a darker character than Leicester Kyle, his mischievious attitude to theology, his distance from petty-minded morality, and his knowledge of both the pleasures and miseries of life all remind me of the author of Heteropholis. When I tried to write a poem for Leicester recently, I found myself combining some of the details of his life with the story of Roger Lambert.* I hope I won't get in trouble by posting the poem here, as a sort of tribute to Leicester's unique contribution to New Zealand literature.

The Vicar

But life is just,
Reverend Lambert. We die.
The road into your parish
intercedes between poplars
as upright and as bare
as the cross of our Lord,
or the cane you walked daily
from the manse to the pub.

You went about this kingdom
laying hands, distinguishing the evil
from the tolerable.
A split infinitive on the back page
of The Press, the empty belly
of a Hornby schoolboy -
these were evil.
The tan lines of widows
were tolerable.

Locals offer different reasons
for the lack of custom in your chapel.
Some say the manner of your leaving
made it tapu; others say the tapu came
after decay, to keep the kids away
from a fire trap.

Either way, I'm told, it's too dangerous
to visit. This totara beam might fall
and smite me as suddenly
as your cane. The weather might enter
through these arches,
blowing Paul and Samson
back to atoms of glass.

You would approve.
Dereliction is the world's duty,
you said, the gift God gives us
instead of grace.
A rat rummages under the pulpit
in homage to you.

*I should emphasise that the poem isn't supposed to be a piece of biography. Unlike Roger Lambert, Leicester Kyle certainly did not leave any of his parishes under a cloud of scandal. He was far too well-mannered ever to be the cause of scandal!