Saturday, October 30, 2010

Critical support: a paradox, or a practice?

My post on the reluctance of some leftists to support Actors' Equity has generated a great variety of responses, but I have been surprised that a number of people have interpreted it as a call for unthinking support for union policy and leadership. Over at the Public Address blog Peter Cox, who is apparently the head of the Kiwi screenwriters' guild, offered a response which appeared to come perilously close to violating Godwin's Law:

I'm not about to say Scott's suggestions or Simon Whipp's actions are in the same league as the nastiness we've seen in National Socialism or Stalinism, because obviously that would make me a complete fool. But the ideals of 'strength in collectivity' being more important 'the truth', whether it be nationality, religion, or class, is the root of all those movements.

At another blog a commenter said that I reminded him of a Christian fundamentalist who believed in unthinking obedience to God and to church hierarchy.

I had thought that I was arguing, not for the worship of union leaders or a Nietzschean veneration of power over truth, but for the practice socialists often call critical support. In the context of the current conflict between Actors' Equity and Peter Jackson's shady friends, critical support could mean combining criticism of flawed union leaders and flawed union policies with acts of solidarity with a union being attacked by bosses, the media and the state.

If I don't find the idea of critical support contradictory, or even very complicated, it may be because I always seem to be in a very small minority in whatever organisation or milieu I join. A few weeks ago I was lecturing some mates, including the brilliant but very sardonic Hamish Dewe, about the state of New Zealand literature and art, and about the tendency within New Zealand literature I see myself as belonging to. "Ah yes", Hamish interjected to much amusement, "Scott and his merry band of one".

It's not only in the literary world that I tend to feel somewhat isolated. Within political organisations I seem always to have views on particular issues which don't quite fit those of most other members, and which compel me to write long internal documents and argue obscure points at meetings.

When we think about it, though, aren't we all members of a series of factions, declared or undeclared, in any organisation we belong to? We might each share a certain number of views with everyone else in a group - why else would we belong to it? - but we'll each usually hold some beliefs which are shared only by a minority of other members, and we'll each have some ideas which are unique to us. Surely that makes us each, in a sense, a faction of one? What other option do we have, given our inevitable dissidence, but to offer a sort of critical support to the groups to which we belong, working beside our fellow members on various projects but at the same time promoting, with more or less fervour and impatience, the views unique to us?

Auckland's Anti-Imperialist Coalition, which I was involved in from late 2001 until about 2004, was a United Front whose members were brought together by some strong commonly-held beliefs - the view that Bush's wars in the Middle East should be opposed, a belief that the UN was just a figleaf for imperialism and therefore couldn't be trusted, and a belief that mass direct action, especially by workers, can be the key to stopping wars - but who nevertheless had a wide range of political affiliations. Inside the outfit there were Trotskyists of various flavours (Trotskyism has, of course, a lot of flavours to offer the punter), Maoists, 'old school' social democrats, old school Iraqi communists, radical Christians, radical feminists, and people who identified politically as well as religiously as Muslims. (As I noted in a book review written about a year ago, we also attracted the rather clownish attentions of a now-notorious spy.)

I remember helping to produce a newsletter for the AIC in which the various views of group members jostled for attention, and realising how much more entertaining the publication was than the normal 'party line' material of left-wing outfits. I also remember a day school at which the viewpoints of Islamists, Marxists, social democrats, and radical feminists competed, and were not really reconciled (things became particularly difficult for me when I gave a talk on Marxism, said something positive about Marx's analysis of capitalism, and immediately attracted the criticism of a young woman whose family had been tortured by Soviet troops during the occupation of Afghanistan). Whenever I organised an AIC barbeque I had to be careful to buy some halal meat as well as the obligatory tofu patties for the vegetarian minority. As an unreconstructed carnivore raised on a dairy farm, I found such dietary subtleties new and rather confusing. I don't think the AIC worked too badly, and I think it can claim some small credit for helping build the anti-war movement in Auckland and for giving that movement an orientation towards organised labour and towards the western and the southern suburbs of the city. The key to the group's relative success, I think, was unity in action: even if we disagreed with each other about the existence of God, or the proper definition of the social structure of the Soviet Union, or some other similarly weighty matter, we were generally willing to go out leafleting and postering together on a cold and rainy Friday night, instead of having a few beers at the pub or watching a DVD beside the fireplace at home. And the AIC generally worked quite constructively within the wider anti-war movement: certainly, we religiously promoted not only our own events but the events of the larger and better-resourced Global Peace and Justice Auckland group, with whom we sometimes disagreed quite sharply about strategic and tactical matters.

Another exemplary group with which I was involved, though more briefly, was the Waitemata branch of Unite union. Composed mostly of low-paid workers and long-term beneficiaries with strongly left-wing views, the Waitemata branch was dominated by the extraordinary, and at times quite difficult, personality of the late and much-missed Roger Fox.

Roger became involved in scraps with the Unite hierarchy, and in particular with Matt McCarten, after he horrified head office by getting elected to the union's national executive. Roger and most of the other members of the Waitemata branch were determined that Unite should keep a strong focus on the recruitment of beneficiaries, and often took the side of other unions in disputes over McCarten's poaching activities at big worksites in Auckland. But Waitemata Unite's criticism of the union leadership never stopped them supporting that leadership against its right-wing detractors, or participating in pickets organised by comrade McCarten.

Back in November 2003, Waitemata Unite was a key player in an event which demonstrated some of the ambiguities and conundrums that the practice of critical support can create. To mark the 90th anniversary of the Great Strike of 1913, which pitted the 'Red' Federation of Labour against the bitterly reactionary government of William Massey, and which saw unions seizing power on the West Coast and fighting pitched battles with the police in the streets of Auckland and Wellington, a number of historians and trade unionists decided to organise an exhibition and a day of lectures. Unfortunately, they decided to invite the police along to their party. During a debate at indymedia, the veteran Wellington trade unionist Don Franks summed up the dismay the invite to the cops created amongst a section of the left:

Let's have a big reunion to mark the next anniversary of the 1981 Springbok Tour and invite the police to come along and celebrate alongside the activists they beat up. Silly idea isn't it? And this event is just as silly. The police are the enemies of the union movement. They have fought on the wrong side of every industrial dispute in our history. Being all friendly with them is an insult to the strikers of 1913.

Inevitably, visitors to Comrades and Cossacks had to negotiate their way through a rowdy protest in which members of the Waitemata branch of Unite were prominent. A very large number of young uniformed cops kept an eye on the protesters, while older cops in suits slipped in to sample the finger food and wine and look over artefacts of the 1913 strike. Apparently the boys in blue were particularly excited to see one of the infamous long batons that their predecessors had wielded from horseback when they charged the picket lines at Auckland's wharves.

One of the visitors to Comrades and Cossacks was Matt McCarten, who was blocked for some time from entering the event by a former leader of the firefighter's union. McCarten's critic called him a "scab", and much else beside, as the police looked on, uncertain of whether to intervene. Several senior trade unionists who visited Comrades and Cossacks wandered out after a short time and apologised, explaining that they had felt obliged to put in an appearance. Some attendees were unapologetic, and accused the protesters of being "stuck in the past" and failing to realise that the "police have changed". I didn't enjoy the angry division that Comrades and Cossacks created in unions like Unite and on the left, but I have no doubt that the decision to make a fuss about the presence of the police at the event was the right one. As the arrest and harassment of dozens of activists during the tragicomic 'terror raids' of 2007 has since shown very clearly, the police have not 'changed' from the days of 1951 and 1913. Even though many cops, then and now, are perfectly nice people, they inevitably find themselves on the wrong sides of picket lines and protests. Looking back to November 2003 now, though, I do wonder how the protest outside Comrades and Cossacks fits with the notion of critical support. My comrades and I may have been right in our opposition to the cops attending a union event, but did we violate the tenets of critical support by taking such an openly confrontational approach to leaders like McCarten? Or were we actually showing solidarity with the best parts of the history of the union movement, when we protested the desecration of the memory of the Red Feds of 1913? These questions probably have no simple answers.

But the Comrades and Cossacks controversy was an isolated event, and my experiences in both the Anti-Imperialist Coalition and the Waitemata branch of Unite helped convince me that the notion of critical support makes sense, and that the old left-wing slogans 'diversity of opinion, unity in action' and 'march separately, strike together' can be more than mere rhetoric.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Off the fence, comrades!

I've been both a Tolkien-basher and a Peter Jackson hater for many years now, and I was meaning to have a crack at the rather pathetic spectacle of Kiwis taking to the streets to beg American capitalists to allow their country to remain 'Hobbiton', but Brian Rudman stole my thunder yesterday with a wonderfully splenetic piece for the Herald.

I thought I'd comment, instead, on the refusal of some leftists to support the actors' union in its struggle with Jackson, his Warner Brothers chums, and the National government. Actors Equity's campaign to win a decent contract for its members has suffered from the decision of many of the technicians who hope to work in The Hobbit to side with Jackson and his American backers. For right-wingers in the media and the Beehive, the spectacle of technicians rallying angrily outside a union meeting was a gift. The actors' union has been criticised for failing to consult properly with its members before taking on Jackson, for failing to win over the film workers outside its ranks, and for communicating poorly with the public. Council of Trade Unions leader Helen Kelly has conceded that these criticisms have at least some justification.

Over at Chris Trotter's place, a blogger and trade unionist named Lew has explained why he's not supporting the actors in their stoush with Jackson:

Elementary Leftism 101 might dictate that you side with whatever bunch of fools decide to call themselves a union, but Elementary Commitment to Democracy 101 requires that you assess the quality of their mandate before taking sides. If Actors Equity wanted legitimacy, the route to it was to attract the consent and support of the constituency of film workers before holding their careers to ransom.

Lew's argument reminds me of the positions of the left-wingers (or, in some cases, former left-wingers) who sat out a couple of famous industrial disputes of the past.

In Blighty back in 1984, Arthur Scargill threw his National Union of Miners into a strike and a major confrontation with the Thatcher government without first balloting his members. Although there was solid support for strike action in the union, a minority was dubious about it.

It would be fair to say that Scargill, who learned his trade in the Stalinised Communist Party of Great Britain of the 1940s and '50s, was an autocratic leader. It was certainly reasonable for miners to be unhappy that they had not been balloted about an industrial struggle which would force them put their bodies on the line against one of the the most viciously right-wing regimes in British history. Thatcher threw the full force of the state at the miners, flooding small pit villages with tooled-up riot police. As weeks stretched into months and union funds began to dry up, resentment about the NUM's failure to ballot its members grew. An all-out confrontation between a trade union and the state always makes the more moderate sections of the left uneasy, because the ideology of social democracy relies upon using the state to reconcile workers and employers. In a social democratic society, the state is supposed to mediate between capital and labour through measures like arbitration, and to take back a share of employers' profits and use it to pay for social services like health and education for the proles.

When the state is deployed by the capitalist class to smash a union, then the ambitions of social democracy begin to seem rather quixotic. As riot cops charge through picket lines on horseback and helicopters fire tear gas at corralled demonstrators, it becomes clear that the state and its institutions are not neutral, and that, as the old malingerer Marx said, every society is in the final analysis a dictatorship of one or another class.

For the the leaders of the British Labour Party, for many career-minded self-consciously 'moderate' trade union leaders, and for a few left-wing intellectuals hitting middle age and losing the political zeal they had felt in the '60s and '70s, the legitimate criticisms of Scargill from grassroots members of the NUM who had been denied the right to a ballot served as an excuse to avoid standing with those same miners as they faced down the British state. Because Scargill was a Stalinist, and because proper democratic procedure had not been followed when the strike was called, it was only right, Neil Kinnock and co. insisted, to sit on the sidelines of a struggle that would determine the future of British society. During the 1951 Waterfront Lockout the local Labour Party and a number of prominent liberal intellectuals refused to support the Waterside Workers Union and its militant allies. The refuseniks justified their position by citing the influence of the Communist Party on the WWU, the sometimes chaotic style of the union's leader Jock Barnes, and the well-known phenomenon of petty theft on the docks.

Reasonable criticisms could indeed be made of Barnes' leadership of the wharfies, which was at times sectarian and pointlessly provocative, of the policies of the Communist Party, which had often put the interests of Stalin ahead of the interests of Kiwi workers, and even of the disappearance of goods from the wharves. For many of the leftists who refused to take sides in the struggle between the wharfies and the alarmingly authoritarian regime of Sid Holland, though, the flaws of the WWU and some of its allies were nothing more than a pretext. The real aim of men like the unctuous Labour Party leader Walter Nash, who declared himself 'neither for nor against' the wharfies while the police batoned their marches off Queen Street and 'emergency' laws banned them from distributing leaflets, was simple self-preservation.

Of course, the current stoush over a spoiled nerd's plans to film the infantile fantasies of a reactionary English don looks rather ridiculous compared to the massive confrontations of 1951 and 1984-85. The state is not under pressure, and John Key is not banning the actor's union from meeting, or restricting media coverage of the dispute, or sending soldiers to protect Weta studios from insurgent proles. A parallel can nevertheless be drawn between the arguments that people like Lew are making today and the arguments of the fence sitters of 1951 and 1985.

The fence sitters were wrong back then, and are wrong now, because they do not recognise the necessary relationship between solidarity and debate inside the labour movement. It is not only acceptable but laudable for members of a union to disagree with the policies or actions of their organisation. Without constant grassroots dissension and internal debate unions are liable to become top-heavy and bureaucratic, and to let their members down. The worst periods in the history of the unions in this country - the reign of the corrupt thug Fintan Patrick Walsh in the years after 1951, and the years of the virtual abandonment of industrial struggle by the Ken Douglas-led CTU in the '90s - have been periods when grassroots activism was at a low ebb.

But criticism means nothing if it is not combined with solidarity. The critics of Scargill inside the National Union of Miners were not able to sidestep the confrontation with Thatcher because of their opinions of their leader: they faced the same riot cops, and the same threatened pit closures. Like the critics of Stalinism inside the Waterside Workers Union and the Trade Union Federation in 1951, they made their arguments from the inside of a movement which they had neither the desire to leave nor the option of leaving.

Many of the people who criticised the union movement from the sidelines of the 1951 and 1985 confrontations were on their way out of the left, either because of middle-aged disillusionment or because of career opportunities elsewhere. Lew, though, is apparently a young trade unionist with fire in his belly. Why hasn't he grasped a basic principle of the movement he enthusiastically belongs to? The answer lies, I think, in the erosion of traditional sorts of class consciousness in New Zealand in recent decades, and the widespread adoption of a very voluntarist approach to politics, where individual issues are examined in isolation from any structural and historical context. A whole generation has grown up thinking that opinions can and should be worn and discarded as easily as clothes, and that it is horrific for an individual to have to help to implement tactics or a strategy with which he or she disagrees. Old socialist slogans like 'march separately, strike together' and 'diversity of opinions, unity of action' seem suddenly ridiculous in the era of facebook polls and debate-by-twitter.

In the twenty-first century, though, we are still often defined most tellingly not by the clothes we wear or the friends we keep or the ideas we choose to hold, but by our relationship to the economy. If we are workers, then we have, whether we acknowledge it or not, a common interest with others who sell their labour-power to employers. If my employer wants to cut the lunch hour or get rid of overtime, then I am just as affected as my workmates, no matter how much or how little I disagree with them over their sartorial sense, or their taste in music, or the virtues of JRR Tolkien, or which party they intend to vote for at the next election. If a Tory government responds to the recession its mates in the financial sector created by slashing state spending and further depressing the economy, then the spectre of unemployment haunts all workers.

Trade unions are not debating societies or social clubs. They exist not because all their members agree about everything, or even most things, but because their members have, on account of their status as workers, common interests. The actors' union may have mishandled parts of its campaign against Jackson and failed to consult its members properly, but it must be supported in its confrontation with employers, the media, and the state. Actors Equity and the CTU are under attack from the media and the government not because Paul Holmes and Gerry Brownlee care about internal democracy in the unions, but because they see an opportunity to strike a blow against the labour movement as a whole. They want to paint striking teachers and radiographers, as well as campaigning actors, as agents of radicalism and economic ruin, and they want to soften the public up for new anti-union laws. If Actors Equity is destroyed by the combination of demonisation in the media and legislation made to satisfy Warner Brothers, then the union movement as a whole will have suffered a defeat.

Lew may not agree with the way the actors' union is fighting, but as a trade unionist he ought to support their fight, even as he argues for the improvement of their strategy and their tactics. Would he have abstained from the struggles of 1951 and 1985, just because the tactics of the Waterside Workers Union and Scargill were in various ways flawed? It is better to fight for a good cause using flawed tactics than to sit on the sidelines and see the bad guys and girls win.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Auckland and the xenophobes

Back in 2004 the Sociology Department of the University of Auckland pulled together a book of essays about New Zealand's largest city called Almighty Auckland? Two of the most interesting texts in the book came from a couple of department members who disagreed strongly with each other about the relationship between the northern metropolis and the rest of New Zealand.

Bruce Curtis, who moved from his native Canterbury to take up a job at Auckland and has never wavered in his support of the Crusaders and other southern sporting outfits, used his essay to argue that Auckland enjoyed a parasitic relationship with the rest of New Zealand. By using empty slogans like 'what's good for Auckland is good for the country', the city's business and civic leaders routinely manage to extract an unreasonable amount of cash from central government for their often-dodgy projects, and also manage to dominate events like the Rugby World Cup.

Curtis' argument was a convincing indictment of the arrogance of Auckland's tiny, super-wealthy elite, but it didn't seem very relevant to the behaviour of the vast majority of the city's inhabitants. Dave Bedggood's essay, which opened Almighty Auckland? and seemed to me to be the best thing he had published since his canonised book Rich and Poor in New Zealand a quarter century earlier, dug deeply into sociology and history to argue that Auckland is not some sort of parasitic aberration, but rather an expression of the nature of New Zealand capitalism.

Dave argued that Auckland has always been a sort of portal between New Zealand and the rest of the world, and a city where major structural changes in New Zealand society first become evident. He cited a number of key transformative moments in Kiwi history - the conquest of the Waikato Kingdom and the establishment of an export-oriented Pakeha pastoral economy there in the nineteenth century, the creation of the welfare state and a state-managed form of capitalism by the first Labour government in the '30s, and the brutal globalisation of the economy by Roger Douglas and his mates in the '80s and '90s - and argued that Auckland was in the vanguard of each. Dave insisted, though, that Auckland did not impose radical change on the rest of New Zealand: change came as a result of economic contradictions and political struggles which occurred throughout the country, and in many other parts of the world too. Auckland was simply the part of New Zealand where the future first became reality.

Although I didn't and still don't agree with the teleological, 'the future is already written' undercurrent I found in it, Dave's essay did strike me as a very good argument against the notion of Auckland as some sort of inexplicable parasite living off the rest of New Zealand.

As I noted in a recent post, the view of Auckland as a massive parasite, filled with alien cultures which are either decadent or dangerous, supplies the fledgling New Munster Party with a good deal of its policy programme. The Munsterites want the South Island to secede from New Zealand, and thus reject both Auckland's economic parasitism and the hordes of brown people it apparently threatens to send to the fair cities and towns of the south.

A number of supporters of the aims of the New Munster Party left comments under my post on the outfit. Reading these messages, I was struck by the way that the image of Auckland-as-parasite is being modified in the light of recent political events. Where Auckland's detractors used to present the city's inhabitants as a bunch of yuppie stockbrokers who took the hard work of real Kiwis and turned it into dodgy bonds, quick cash, and flash yachts, they now seem to want to identify the city with a sinister brown-skinned underclass. Auckland has gone from being a city of arrogant suits to a city of dole-bludging crims. Here are a few of the comments the Munsterites left under my post:

We'll stay down here and be white and right-wing and successful and everything else you hate, and you can decay into a third-world banana republic riddled with brown rot...

I think you'll find it's the brown rot itself...brown whining, brown entitle-itis, brown moaning about the past, brown welfarism, brown laziness, brown crime, brown bitter and twisted ness, brown lack of educational achievement, dumb brown rap music, brown bad diet, brown child beating and molesting, and a sucky-up dumb white liberal press who constantly tell brown people that all these things are cool and OK, as well as brown people breeding faster and all the whites moving to Aus or the SI...

You stupid JAFAs have been so busy discrediting us as racist rednecks that you haven't seen what was coming... New Munster can survive without Auckland but the "Super City" will be fucked without us!

The apparent transformation in the perception of Auckland by out-of-town bigots probably reflects the towelling that Len Brown has just given John Banks in the Super City mayoralty race. Brown attracted huge support in South Auckland, where he had everyone from Samoan pastors to Labour Party functionaries to trade union firebrands out door-knocking for him. The growing assertiveness of Pasifika and Maori communities in South Auckland and other working class parts of Auckland has also been reflected in trade union campaigns. Thirty years ago, immigrant Britons were so active in the unions that Tories like my old man liked to attribute every industrial dispute to 'those flaming Pommy trouble-makers'. Nobody who witnessed last week's big rally in Auckland against National's anti-union legislation could have taken such a stereotype seriously.
With Rodney Hide's plans to create a corporatised Supercity in disarray, the trade unions apparently revitalising themselves in South Auckland, and Labour seemingly keen to emulate Brown's success by moving leftwards and rebuilding some of its activist base, Auckland has suddenly become, for some right-wingers, a city of menacing proles.

The notion of Auckland as an undifferentiated sprawl of high-end restaurants and yuppie condominiums was always ridiculous. As the varied and excellent contributions to Almighty Auckland? showed, New Zealand's biggest city is itself a set of regions, some of which are just as neglected by central government and New Zealand's economic elite as Reefton or Tuatapere.

The new attempts to argue that a brown-skinned worker in South Auckland is somehow a threat to a white-skinned worker in the South Island are equally irrational. A bus driver from Otahuhu has far more in common with a forestry worker from Tuatapere than he has with a company director from either Remuera or Avonhead. And, as the global economic crisis and the campaigns in a score of countries against brutal austerity measures show, both North and South Island workers have more in common with their counterparts in Aussie or Europe or South America than they do with the wealthy of any nation.

But it's not only the international working class which has a web of connections and a set of common interests. Employers, as well, are bound together in the global economy of the twenty-first century. Munsterite rhetoric about an autarkic South Island capitalism is bound to collide in all sorts of ways with reality.

Kym Parsons, the most active spokesperson for the New Munster Party, offers a lesson in the economic limits of nationalism. The blogger LJ Holden has pointed out that a company Parsons owns and runs, Southlink Refrigerated Transport, has a registered office on Ponsonby Road, in the heart of the decadent metropolis of Auckland.

The Southlink website names the company's headquarters as Nelson, and reveals that it specialises in delivering goods to various parts of the South Island. Where, though, do these goods come from? Given that New Zealand is such an import-dependent country, I'd assume that many of them come from distant lands - and I'd also assume that many of them have reached the South Island via North Island ports and the Cook Strait ferry link. Even if the goods Parsons is moving were unloaded in the South Island, how many of the ships which supplied them would have made visits to North Island ports before or after reaching the south? Given the cost of long sea journeys to New Zealand, how many ships would be prepared to service ports in one island but not the other? Does Parsons' business not depend, in a variety of ways, on the integration of the economies of the North and South Islands?

I wonder whether Parsons might owe aesthetic as well as economic debts to the world outside the South Island. One of the stranger aspects of the New Munster Party is the flag it has designed for the independent South Island it wants to create. For reasons I am wholly unable to fathom, the party has used a Nordic cross, a symbol found on the flags of nations like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and territories like Aland and the Faroe Islands, to decorate its banner.
How could Parsons and co they have created such an alien banner, if they were truly in tune with South Island culture? How can they lay claim to the land where painters as original as Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, and Ralph Hotere have worked, and offer up such a feeble symbol?

The logo Parsons has created for his company is pretty enough, but I notice it bears a certain similarity to the logo of a South Australian bus company which also uses the name Southlink.

Did Parsons pinch his logo as well as his flag from abroad? Aren't xenophobes supposed to be less attracted to foreign symbols?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Amidst taonga

The ongoing discussion about the rules surrounding the viewing of taonga at Te Papa and other museums has reminded me of the time I spent knocking about the Maori Court at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and of the extraordinary power - aesthetic, political, and (according to some) spiritual - that the Court's huge collection of taonga exerts on many of the people who spend time in its presence.

I thought I'd post a poem I published in the literary journal brief back in September 2008, shortly after I'd finished working at Auckland museum. Like the piece I published earlier this year in Landfall, 'Te Kakano Information Centre' has been mistaken, on account of its first person narrative and use of prose, for a piece of autobiography, or for an autobiographical short story. I'd argue that it is a poem narrated by a character who is considerably odder even than me. As I understand him, the protagonist-narrator of 'Te Kakano Information Centre' has grown so attached to the taonga of the Maori Court, and so alienated from the rest of humanity, that he has come to feel closer to the carved Gods and archetypes he spends his working hours with than he does to his contemporaries. He sometimes actually resents visitors to the museum, because they interfere with his communion with the taonga of the court.

Although he - why do I say he, and not she? - probably believes he has a very profound understanding of the taonga, and of Maori culture in general, the narrator of the poem arguably has an attitude which owes more to European fantasies than to the lives and worldviews of the people who produced the artefacts he helps protect. Perhaps he is a fan of writers like Paul Bowles and Bruce Chatwin, who have a tendency to contrast idealised indigenous cultures with the supposedly decadent modern world, or of a painter like Gauguin, who pioneered the same attitude when he fled Europe for Polynesia in the nineteenth century?

With his alienated, individualistic view of the world, the protagonist of the poem is a little like a highbrow version of the tourists I observed making exclusive use of little pieces of the Tongan coast earlier this year. Each of the tourists had paid to acquire, for a week or so, their own little fale, their own hundred square metres or so of sand, and their own fragment of sea. Both locals and other tourists were forbidden to intrude upon these private kingdoms. When I talked to a couple of the beach-hirers on the boat taking them to their island, they enthused about how much they enjoyed the 'Tongan way of life'. That phrase struck me as bizarre, because the real Tongan way of life seemed to me to be relentlessly social. Tongans seemed to go about in noisy crowds; I seldom saw one standing alone, let alone lazing about alone on a piece of beach cordoned off from the rest of the world.

For all his self-delusions, the narrator of the poem does seem to have established a genuine, and powerful, relationship with the taonga around him. He reveres the taonga, after a fashion, and watches over them. Should we chastise him for his misunderstandings, or admire his fervour? Or am I wrong completely, and is the narrator's alienation from his fellow humans an understandable reaction to the society he lives in? Is he right in seeking solace from his society in the artefacts of an age untarnished by modernity?

Te Kakano Information Centre

It’s a good idea to check the Frequently Asked Questions file, before your day’s work begins.

I like to get there early, to knock on the small red door in the museum’s east wall and to wait for the sound of the custodian’s keys climbing the stairs. The feather cloak puffs its chest as I detour around the listing waka to the smoked glass wall of the Centre. I flip the switches, watch the screens fade from black to blue, slide Hirini Melbourne into the player, listen to a flute’s notes picking their way through deep bush, like fantails leaping from stump to branch, making for the clearing and the raw morning light. Here come the first intruders. The small boy skipping ahead, a scout, his sisters either side of Mum, unfolding identical maps, then Dad, whistling silently, looking hopelessly around, turning the wallet over in one hand. They are the dead. We are alive. Now the older girl reaches toward a pou dragged from the drained swamp at Paterangi, strokes the head of Tane, his gouged eye and split jaw, the smooth wood where an ear was, the three webbed fingers that cover his mouth. She stops, turns on her heels. ‘Don’t think we’re supposed to touch the carvings, Mum.’

Can I take a photo of my kids in the waka?

Sample answer: Kao. If visitors get into the waka they will diminish its life force.

They look old, they look tired, like the faces that lean out of doors and windows on the main drag through Selwyn Retirement Village, whenever the ambulance or the hearse backs quietly out of the hospital gates. They look older, they look more tired now, in the middle of pneumonia season, even though the small window seventy-three feet away has been permanently sealed, and the temperature is never more or less than twenty point five degrees. Did they look younger when they posed for Goldie, squeezing into those old cloaks, sucking those stinking pipes?

The kids would ignore them, if it were not for the thick rope barrier, and the sign in big red letters, and the man in a cheap blue suit reading Best Bets. And the alarm. Usually the man in the powder-blue suit looks up in time, and they scatter, but sometimes he is slumped back in the chair, snoring silently, and
one of the bolder boys is able to sidle past, dangle a foot under the rope, and run away squealing as the alarm sounds. Now the Americans stumble out of the meeting house, out of Hotunui, acquired by the museum in 1929, gifted by Ngati Awa to Ngati Maru, on the occasion of a wedding linking the two tribes, with big pink hands over their ears, and skip across the Court, and stop, and stand beside the waka in their socks.
‘Is there a fire?’
‘Is that a bomb, gaddam it? Royce, we gotta get outa here.’
‘I know. I’m going back for my shoes.’
‘Shoes! Get your shoes later. Let’s go. To the cafe, at least. Find out
what’s happening here.’

Where are the shrunken heads?

Sample answer: Te Moko Mokai are not accessible to the public.

‘Heard you answer a question, about carving. Ka pai. But it’s a mistake, to talk about making an image. The image is already there. The shape is slumbering in the wood. Like a child, inside the belly.’
He pulled up his shirt, rubbed the gut, grinned.
‘We believe that the wood is waiting.’
Waiting for the axe, waiting for the carver’s drill? Waiting for the paint - red ochre, a little black ochre, mixed with the spleen of the shark a storm beached at Orere Point? Waiting for the archaeologists with their sterilised shovels and dirty toothbrushes, for the tarpaulin teepee at the edge of the dig? Waiting for the dirty glass case in the ethnology storage room, for Spotless Enterprises casuals who drop to their knees twice a week, wiping the cases in the Maori Court automatically, efficiently, the way they clean the porcelain bowls at the bottom of the stairs beside the entrance?
‘We believe that the wood always knows its fate.’

Can you really make bacon out of Kiwis?

Sample answer: Kao. You have been misinformed.

I was checking my e-mail when the wailing began. I thought it was a part of one of the shows they run twice daily, in the theatre beside the meeting house. What is that haunting melody? Sample answer: that is ‘Pania’s Lament’, a traditional Maori song, performed as it was hundreds of years ago. The wailing came closer; I closed my inbox.
‘I lost my little boy. I lost him. Please! I’ve been looking everywhere. I lost him.’
We hurried past cases of taiaha and godsticks.
‘His father brought him brought him here last Christmas, he loved it, he’s been nagging me to bring him back. I’ve looked everywhere.’
He was standing in a patch of shadow, between the feather cloak and Tane. When he saw us coming he bared his teeth, then poked his tongue out ferociously. She blew her nose then picked him up.
‘Don’t touch! You can’t touch me Mummy! Says on the sign. Says. Says ON DIS-PLAY. ON DIS-PLAY! Says DO NOT TOUCH! DO NOT TOUCH!’
He kept on screaming as his mother carried him out of the Maori Court.

Are all of the exhibits real?

Sample answer: Ae. All of the objects are real.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Voltaire's bastards and Te Papa's tapu

The suggestion by Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum, that pregnant and menstruating women should refrain from joining a behind the scenes tour of the institution's Maori taonga has caused outrage on talkback radio, and on a number of right-leaning blogs.

Te Papa, which issued the advice on behalf of iwi who act as guardians to taonga that would be featured on the tour, has been criticised for letting religious beliefs influence its policy-making, and for compromising the rights of women. All too often, though, the would-be defenders of the legacy of the Enlightenment have slid rather quickly from lofty rhetoric about the values of secularism and universal human rights to something rather more familiar to observers of the right wing of Pakeha politics. Here are a few of the comments of the latter-day Voltaires who queued up to denounce Te Papa in the comments box of David Farrar's very popular Kiwiblog:

You’ll find the only families Maori families who still observe these quaint customs are those who fatten their slaves for the table...

It seems a bit paradoxical that while a culture can maintain these savage ideas they can at the same time claim ownership of airwaves...

Seriously, do any actual maori people still believe this steaming old horseshit in the 21st century or is it just put about by politically correct wankers looking for new ways to get offended on someone else’s behalf?

There is a long history of the use of the rhetoric of secularism and universal human rights to justify the repression of aspects of Maori culture. The Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, for instance, was justified by the claim that traditional Maori religion, with its belief in tapu and its role for supernaturally-empowered healers and seers, was incompatible with modernity, and therefore a violation of the rights of the gullible Maori who supported prophets like Rua Kenana. The banning of the Maori language from many Kiwi schools for much of the twentieth century was also seen as a campaign for Enlightenment values. By speaking and reading English rather than their language, Maori kids would be liberated from the benighted culture into which they had been born.

The desecration or outright destruction of many objects and sites important to Maori culture was also often excused on the grounds that these sites and objects represented a culture which 'held Maori back'. The determined and violent attack earlier this year on Te Rongomai o Te Karaka, a sacred Maori site in the King Country, shows the continuing contempt of some Pakeha for physical symbols of Maori culture.

Fifty years ago, the only Maori working at most New Zealand museums were cleaners. Many Maori saw institutions like the Auckland War Memorial Museum, with its magnificent but poorly-displayed collection of waka, potaka, hei tiki, korowai, and other artefacts, as a place where their looted treasures were displayed to foreigners.

Three of the less-noticed results of the 'Maori renaissance' of the last forty years have been the placement of Maori curators and ethnologists deep inside New Zealand's museums, the training of Pakeha curators and ethnologists in Maori tikanga, and the involvement of Maori communities in the administration of the taonga their ancestors created. Laws like the Auckland Museum Act of 1996 and the Te Papa Tongarewa Act of 1992 have helped to embed these positive developments. (Of course, as regular readers of this blog will know, progress has been uneven, and curators at some of this country's privately-owned museums still have some large lessons to learn about Maori tikanga.)

I've disagreed at length with a number of his articles about Maori-Pakeha relations and New Zealand history, so it's only fair that I should say how much I enjoyed Chris Trotter's response to the controversy at Te Papa. In an article called 'Grandfather's Sword', Chris appreciates the power that taonga associated with war hold for many Maori by remembering the story of an old Trotter family heirloom:

On the wall above our beds, as we were growing up, my brother and I could see the Mauser rifle Captain William Marshall had brought back with him from South Africa...I can’t tell you how often I stared at that weapon, wondering about the man from whom my Grandfather took it as a trophy of war. Was it someone he had killed with his own hands? Or, did he prise it from Herr Van Rijn’s lifeless fingers in the aftermath of some forgotten skirmish on the High Veldt? The spirits of both men seemed to me to linger in that rifle...whenever I lifted the weapon down from the wall, the hairs would rise on the back of my neck...

Where the keyboard warriors for Enlightenment values in the comments boxes at Kiwiblog have used the controversy at Te Papa to portray Maori culture as something alien and possibly dangerous to Pakeha, Trotter has made the effort to find an analogy between his own experiences and those of the iwi and hapu who have guardianship of the taonga in our national museum.

When I worked in a very junior position at the Auckland War Memorial Museum whilst finishing my PhD, I initially found the belief of both Maori staff and Maori visitors in the supernatural qualities of taonga difficult to comprehend. I've always been an instinctive atheist, and so couldn't share the metaphysical beliefs that made some staff don gloves before they handled certain particularly 'potent' artefacts, but I did come to recognise, I think, the role that reverence and ritual can have in organising and intensifying human experience.

Even if they are ultimately the product of human choices, not the dictates of the universe, the strict bans on eating, loud conversation, and various other types of behaviour in the museum's Maori Court do help to direct our attention toward what is significant in the place, and to intensify our perception of the taonga which are displayed there. Even if we're not religious, we can appreciate the sense of sacredness that certain prohibitions give the Court. Something very similar could be said, of course, for the prohibitions we feel when we enter the Hall of Memories on the museum's second floor, which acknowledges New Zealanders who have died in overseas conflicts, and when we step into the small permanent memorial to the Jewish victims of Hitler on the same floor.

Having said all that, I do find Te Papa's suggestion that pregnant and menstruating women avoid its tour of taonga to be problematic. The language the museum used in the e mail it sent out to advertise the tour of taonga was stark:

Wahine who are either hapü (pregnant) or mate wähine (menstruating) are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them.

There seems to me to be an important difference between excluding a section of the public from a part of a museum and merely asking all members of the public to avoid certain types of behaviour while they are inside a part of the museum. I can understand how Te Papa's directive to pregnant and menstruating women upset at least some people who had been intending to take part in the tour of taonga. I may support the right of indigenous people to decide for themselves how to present their own history and taonga, but I reserve the right not to always agree with every aspect of their presentations.

There is also something troubling about the way that some defenders of Te Papa's advice have implicitly accepted the claims by right-wing bloggers that Maori culture sees women as impure and inferior, and the way that both sides of the debate have presented Maori culture as monolithic and unchanging, rather than as contradictory and dynamic.

It is true that Maori culture has tended traditionally to use tapu to separate women from activities related to war and to the construction of waka and wharenui. There is also ethnographic evidence that many iwi barred women from preparing food while they were menstruating.

Yet a tapu is not necessarily something fearsome and eternal. Maori tikanga makes provisions for tapu-lifting, and in many iwi women traditionally had a key role in tapu-lifting ceremonies. In one traditional ceremony, for instance, a woman would eat the first potato from a harvest, and thereby remove its tapu.
Scholars like Elsdon Best have argued that women were able to defuse tapu because their association with the 'lower' parts of existence revulsed the Gods, and drove them away. Other scholars, though, like the American F Allan Hanson, have suggested that women were able to lift tapu because they had a special affinity with the Gods. In a trenchant essay published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1982, Hanson argued that, far from being gynophobic, Maori and Polynesian societies valued women as intermediaries between humanity and the Gods:

[A] review of the evidence suggests, however, that for both eastern and western Polynesia the long-lived and widely held theory of female pollution is incorrect. It is true that women were deemed to be dangerous, that their association with disease, misfortune, and death injected distinctly negative connotations into the set of meanings connected with them. But none of this is to be explained in terms of an idea that women polluted other people and the gods. On the contrary, the position of the female in Polynesia, including its negative component, is more fully understood according to a special affinity which was thought to link women with the supernatural.

Roger Neich, the long-time senior ethnologist at Auckland museum whose recent death has saddened thousands of Kiwis, offered a fascinating account of some tapu associated with women in his classic study of the Whakatohea meeting house Tutamure. At one point in his essay Neich discusses the tapu involving women and the construction of meeting houses. In a story he cites, a team of men hauling the ridge-pole of a meeting house cannot make any progress until one of their number confesses to having recently had sexual intercourse, and then drops out of the hauling party.

Neich's text goes on to explain the different conceptual spaces inside and around meeting houses, and the role of tapu in delineating these spaces. Because the interior of a meeting house is usually associated with the deep past and ancestors, it is seen as conceptually distant from aspects of the quotidian world like the preparation and consumption of food. A pare (lintel) typically marks the passage into the meeting house, and the passage from one world to the other. Women may have been kept away from activities like the construction and carving of the buildings, but Neich notes that, in most traditional meeting houses, the highly tapu pare at the entrance to the house were decorated with carvings of female genitalia. The vagina mediated symbolically between the quotidian and spiritual sides of existence.

I do not have the knowledge to be able to decide between the claim that Maori saw women as a source of pollution, as argued by Best and others, and the view that women were seen as having a special affinity with the Gods, which Hanson and (seemingly) Neich express. It might be impossible for anybody far better informed than me to decide which analysis is finally correct, because Maori culture, like every culture, is composed of ideas and practices which are both constantly changing and always less than perfectly internally consistent. Because no culture can reduced to a few generalisations, every culture must constantly be reinterpreted by its practitioners. A culture offers us a set of ideas and practices; members of the culture choose which ideas and practices they wish to sustain and develop.
A number of defenders of restrictions on menstruating and pregnant women viewing taonga have argued that Maori tikanga is unchangeable, and that tapu have historically served a functional purpose, by protecting Maori from real dangers (the ban against swimming while menstruating, for example, is explained as an attempt to protect Maori women from shark attacks).

It seems to me that claims that Maori tikanga is timeless and unalterable as well as dictated by functional considerations owe little to Maori history, and a great deal to colonial ideology. It was nineteenth century Pakeha poets and ethnographers who created the myth of Maori as a people outside history, with an inflexible culture. Such a view has no basis in fact, and only became popular because it allowed Maori culture to be characterised as incompatible with modernity, and therefore worthy of destruction.

The functionalist approach to culture reflected in claims that tapu were always made for practical ends also belongs to European ethnographers. Victorian scholars like James Frazer, author of the monumental and obtuse The Golden Bough, believed that the supernatural beliefs and magical pratices of indigenous peoples like the Maori were primitive approximations of science and modern technology. Functionalist anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski took up Frazer's theory, and tried to show that cultural practices were dictated by a desire to manipulate the natural world in the pursuit of rationally-explicable ends.

Although the best functionalists did achieve some useful insights into the cultures they studied, they erred in assuming that all peoples think in the manner of European scientists. The European preoccupation with means and ends and what is practical is in many ways a modern phenomenon, and it is impossible to reduce any culture to a set of rules dictated by reason. In a famously withering attack on functionalism, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that cultures had to be understood in terms of their own internal logic, not rules made in Europe, and complained that George Frazer was 'incapable of imagining' anyone who did not think like him.

There is a long history of Polynesians reinterpreting the concept of tapu in the light of new knowledge and new circumstances. In the nineteenth century, for instance, the Kai Tahu prophet Te Maiharoa went across his people's lands lifting tapu which had become oppressive, and assuring his people that they would suffer no ill effects from performing acts which had once been tapu.

In the twentieth century, religious leaders like Rua Kenana and Wiremu Ratana took a similarly radical approach to many traditional tapu. Ratana denounced a number of old tapu as 'superstitions', and disposed of them using prayers developed by his new religion; the iconoclastic Rua went so far as to organise feasts inside the meeting houses raised by his followers.

More recently, Pita Sharples has tried to help craft legislation which will strike a balance between recognising traditional tapu about the removal of parts of the body and encouraging more Maori to become organ donors, and Tapu Misa has argued that the use of DNA testing by researchers into Polynesian origins is fully compatible with the tikanga of different Polynesian peoples.

Is it not possible that, perhaps inspired by the sort of traditional, mana-enhacing practices involving women that scholars like Hanson and Neich have noted, the guardians of taonga at Te Papa might eventually decide to lift their tapu on pregnant and menstruating women?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cats, poetry, and left-wing polemic: a sort of reply to Keith

One can reasonably expect a man with a name like Keith the Crowbar to have a fair idea of what is 'fluffy' and sentimental and what is not. I must, then, defer to Keith's verdict on Kendrick Smithyman's poem 'Sheffield'. After I blogged about Smithyman's text, which dwells on the effects a nuclear attack would have on the cats of the unfashionable northern English city, Keith left the following comment:

It is pretty offensive that he worries about cats but not about the PEOPLE of Sheffield. I also think that writers who dwell on cats and other fluffy things are sentimentalists. So sorry, but this poem fails my test. In fact I think it is very bad.

If Keith was disgusted at Smithyman's decision to make cats subjects of his poem, what might he think about EP Thompson, who let a cat share the back cover of one of his books, and cited the creature inside? At one point in 'The Poverty of Theory', his two hundred page polemic against the 'Stalinism in theory' of Louis Althusser, Thompson claimed that his cat knew more about ideology than his bete noire at the Sorbonne. Given that Althusser was widely considered, in the 1970s, to be the world's leading Marxist philosopher, Thompson's claims for his cat's knowledge may have seemed rather bold.

As if to support his appeal to his cat's authority, Thompson posed with the creature for the photo which graced the back cover of The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays when the book was published for the first time in 1978. The photo might have looked like a bit of fun to most readers, but it did not escape the stringent eye of Terry Eagleton, the young English lit scholar who was, in the late '70s, one of Althusser's leading British disciples. In the long and critical review he wrote of The Poverty of Theory for the short-lived left-wing journal Literature and History, Eagleton gave pride of place to an analysis of the portrait of Thompson and cat.
More than three decades later, Eagleton still seems exercised by the back cover of The Poverty of Theory. In The Task of the Critic, a book-length interview with Matthew Beaumont published recently by Verso, the reformed Althusserian remembers his review, and the peculiar communication that it prompted from Thompson:

I [encountered] him at a political meeting at All Souls, of all places, when he came to give a lecture on Marx at roughly the time The Poverty of Theory appeared. On that occasion his polemic against Althusser turned into a polemic against Eagleton. He had a vastly appreciative audience. I stood up and asked Thompson a question - I can't even remember what I asked him - and in the course of his response he used the phrase 'We must oppose Terry Eagleton!'

I then reviewed
The Poverty of Theory fairly negatively...I made a reference in the review to the photograph on the book's cover, which was of Thompson with a cat on his shoulder. I wrote about the semiotics of the photograph. He's buried his head in his hands, there's a great shock of grey hair, and this small cat is looking out at the camera on his behalf. To my surprise he sent me a postcard that said 'My cat is not small: look at the other shoulder.' And sure enough the cat's behind can be seen perkily protuding from the other shoulder. This was the last, highly intellectual exchange we ever had.

I sent this passage from The Task of the Critic to Thompson's widow Dorothy, who is a distinguished historian and a very capable polemicist in her own right. Dorothy sent me her own explanation of the back cover of that first edition of The Poverty of Theory:

Edward was very attached to his cats and taught them a trick which he learnt from me and my brothers. We would let our cats sit on our shoulders and reach their paws down and snatch the food from our fork as it went to our mouths. A disgusting habit but very funny and we mainly kept cats for laughs. The picture on the back of the Poverty of Theory was one I took of Edward with his large furry cat across his shoulder. Terry interpreted it as a piece of post-modern symbolism.

Dorothy also sent me a scan of the dedication on the title page of her copy of The Poverty of Theory. Is the whiskered face beside Edward's name perhaps evidence of the co-authorship of the book?
Just to add to Keith's annoyance, I wanted to post a text which is going, along with 'Sheffield', into the selection of Kendrick Smithyman's previously-unpublished poems Titus Books will be publishing in November. 'Knocking at the Family Tree' was written on the 21st of March, 1973:

Drunk again by noon, come Sunday
(on Hawkes Bay white wine which for once
in anticipation I chilled) I move to ask,
could anybody conceivably want me
to redeem them? Just,
help them a little?

I am in love
with a poplar which, as a cutting,
was given me, to be heeled in
to provide cuttings. Those, transplanted
would (they do) stand along the bank of our contentious
creek. These umpteen years the tree grew
too small. It sends out roots, which manifest
themselves where my wife wants to grow roses.
They trespass under the bed
of dahlias. Rumour raises them
on the far side of the house. Insidious -
that's a good word, kids -
they are insidious.

Each man kills the thing he loves.
That's Oscar (you know) doing it hard
rhetorically, cricket cap and all and all,
invidiously. I am not queer, if not like Oscar.
I fall for trees. This poplar now,

which has its moods, has its ways
especially with breezes from the right
sector, and with moonlight.
But it's a bloody nuisance.

Expensive, to have a surgeon wing it low.
So I begin to do it myself. With a saw
borrowed seven or more years back
from Maurice, who gave me the cutting
in the final place. Lop the lower
branches, at the outset. I recite

deaths of friends: of Susy,
silver-grey-blonde miniature Sydney Sily
whose father was an eccentric behaviourist
dropped heart-struck in Ontario, loving
Henry Vaughan and hermetic doctrine. Of
Mister Music, who had to be put down
because of kidney stones. The elegant
coat-of-many-colours, Miss Friday,
her son Tum Tertius Tyger, both killed
by cars beyond the trees' range.

Nice to think that there could be
another kingdom far, far beyond the stars.
Eternity is not a ring of light
only a tree, a sectional nuisance
not good for much but cats' climbing.

'Knocking at the Family Tree' might confuse as well as annoy Keith, because it manages to be at once fluffily sentimental and agonisingly honest. The poem certainly confused as well as thrilled me, when I discovered it deep in Smithyman's archive.

Smithyman was both a gregarious and a private man. Although he loved to talk and write, he was a ranconteur rather than a conversationalist, and a poet who preferred inventing personae to confessing secrets. The frankness of 'Knocking at the Family Tree' is, then, exceptional in Smithyman's oeuvre. In the poem's very first lines, Smithyman makes a very rare acknowledgement of his drinking habit. As Ian Richards shows in great detail in his excellent biography of Maurice Duggan, the postwar Kiwi literary scene was fuelled by large amounts of alcohol. Smithyman may have drunk a little less than legendary boozers like Duggan and the young James K Baxter, but he was hardly a teetotaller. In a 2003 interview with Jack Ross, Kendrick's widow Margaret Edgcumbe remembered how her husband could, even in his last years, drink 'cardboard chateau' all day, without showing any obvious ill effects.

The rare confession of heavy drinking in 'Knocking at the Family Tree' may have something to do with the desperate situation of one of Smithyman's best friends in March 1973. A little less than a month before 'Knocking' was written, a judge committed Maurice Duggan to the care of mental health professionals at a closed session of a Takapuna court. Duggan's drinking had been escalating for years, and by the end of 1972 had gotten completely out of control. Richards describes one typical incident from the months before the writer's commital:

Duggan had been driving home in an utterly drunken state. After leaving the motorway and managing to cross the wide intersection, he had driven onto and off the curb several times, then run completely off the road. Fortunately he still had the capacity to negotiate his way along the footpath between fences and lamp-posts. He destroyed several letterboxes before at last coming to a halt. [His wife] Barbara [and son] Nick got hurriedly into Barbara's car. They found the cortina near the intersection, with Duggan lying across the passenger seat asleep. Carefully they lifted him out and into the other car. Barbara scribbled notes to place in the smashed letterboxes, apologising for a failure of brakes and promising to pay for the damage...

Duggan was taken to Oakley Mental Hospital, whose fortified yet dilapidated red brick buildings had been part of the backdrop to Smithyman's childhood in Point Chevalier. It would hardly be surprising if Duggan's fate prompted Smithyman to worry about his own drinking, and his own state of mind.
'Knocking' starts with Smithyman drunk in the middle of the day, and goes on to lift the lid on other aspects of his troubled life in the early '70s. The messy state of the back yard of Smithyman's house at Nile Rd on Auckland's North Shore becomes a metaphor for the state of his marriage to his fellow poet Mary Stanley, who by 1973 had been suffering from debilitating arthritis and a mentally debilitating writer's block for more than a decade and a half. The back of the section on Nile Rd was marked by a series of sizeable poplars, and the roots of one of them were an obstacle to frustrating Mary's desire to grow roses. Smithyman revered poplars: the species features in a number of his poems, and there are many photos of the row of specimens at Nile Rd preserved amongst his papers.
Poplars may have fascinated Smithyman partly because of the varied cultural associations they enjoy in New Zealand. Because of their height and grace, they make regular appearances in the canon of English nature poetry that Smithyman, along with other Pakeha writers of his generation, imbibed as a young man, but they have also been assimilated into Maori culture in various ways. In the 1870s, for instance, Te Kooti, a man who was one of Smithyman's great preoccupations, decided that Christ's cross had been made from a felled poplar, and declared the tree sacred. In his journeys around the North Island the prophet planted poplars, which were carefully nurtured by members of his Ringatu church. Some of the trees Te Kooti planted still stand today.

Cutting into one of his beloved poplars with a saw he has borrowed from Duggan,who is hardly likely to need the tool for some time, Smithyman bathetically recalls the phrase 'each man kills the thing he loves', which Oscar Wilde used in his 'Ballad of Reading Gaol', a poem inspired by the case of a man condemned to death for cutting his wife's throat. Smithyman then remembers, in a passage which manages to be at once mawkish and moving, the lives and deaths of a succession of his household cats, from 'Susy' to 'Sydney Sily' to the marvellously-named 'Tum Tertius Tyger'. 'Knocking at the Family Tree' was not the first poem Smithyman had written about the high mortality rate that his pets suffered: during his six month sojourn in Yorkshire in 1969, he had found the time to lament the loss of Miss Friday in distant Auckland:

On an instant I’m seized by grief,
grief for some least of things –

dainty Friday, black and white mother cat,
a lightweight cat of three kittens,
neurotic, but very feminine.
She ran, playing, in front of a car.
Words do not work, will not speak.

Because Smithyman preserved labelled photos of his pets, we know that Miss Friday was a fluffy black and white moggie, and that Mister Music was a large, dark, short-haired creature. By 1973 Smithyman's affections seem to have been taken claimed by the Siamese cat which features in a long series of archived photos, including the one reproduced at the top of this post. Writing to the Scottish literary scholar Tom Crawford on the second day of 1974, Smithyman confessed that:

[L]etters don't come easy these days. Many of those which I begin, I rip up. They grow too dismal too soon...Tonight may be more felicitous/auspicious, a still night with a moon...and the cat, my so dear Siamese fellow who's been going in and out, who is now in, snuggled over my left arm and part of this paper, who's been my main hold on sanity and stability these past two years...

How do we read a poem like 'Knocking at the Family Tree', which seems, on the surface at least, to want to elevate the felling of a poplar and the death of cats to a greater level of significance than the sufferings of humans like Mary Stanley and Maurice Duggan? By making references to Smithyman's tragic marriage, his heavy drinking, and (obliquely) his friend Duggan's fate, and then sliding into a lamentation for a tree and for a series of fluffy creatures with silly names, Smithyman seems almost to invite our unease, and our criticism. Keith the Crowbar would certainly not be amused by the poet's decision to dwell on the fates of Tum Tertius Tyger and Mister Music, rather than those of Mary Stanley and Maurice Duggan.
Keith will no doubt disagree at the top of his voice, but I think it might be argued that the pathos that complements the fluffiness of characters like Miss Friday and Mister Music offers us a perspective on some of the more absurd features of human existence. Some critics have condemned Thomas Pynchon for using characters with comic book names and personalities in his books, claiming that such figures make a mockery of real human beings and their sufferings. At least some of Pynchon's defenders, though, have asserted that the silly names and clueless behaviour of many of the characters of novels like Against the Day and V is supposed to make us pity rather than scorn them, and also to make us consider whether our lives might not, when viewed from an appropriate distance and perspective, appear equally misdirected and thwarted.

Perhaps the absurdly-named, ill-fated creatures which dominate 'Knocking at the Family Tree' have more in common with the humans who share their environment than we would like to admit. Are we humans not all, whatever our titles and pretensions, ridiculous creatures like Miss Friday and Tum Tertius Tyger, rushing about, pursuing our small appetites and enthusiasms within the small ambits of our lives, and attracting the amused affection, at best, of those who dare to observe us with some objectivity? And do we not meet our ends with the same innocence and inevitability as poor Miss Friday?

After several stays in Oakley and much struggle, Maurice Duggan finally beat the bottle, returned to his North Shore home, rebuilt his relationship with his family, and resumed writing. After a few months of hopeful happiness, though, he was diagnosed with a cancer that would prove incurable. Duggan spent most of 1974 housebound, and died at the end of the year. In his narrative of Duggan's last months, Ian Richards reveals that Smithyman, whose 'much-loved cat liked to be taken for walks', was a frequent visitor to the Duggan household. Perhaps Maurice, as well as his old friend, found some comfort in the company of the 'so dear Siamese fellow'.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Bill Direen's notes for the Underground

I seem to have spent a bit of time lately working in the nascent, not-very-academic field of Bill Direen Studies. I interviewed Bill on this blog in the middle of the year, after he'd learned that he'd scored a six month residency on the windy slopes of Mt Victoria at the Michael King Centre, and would therefore soon be steering his way from Paris to Auckland. Last month I talked to and about Bill at the Going West literary festival in Titirangi, and helped him negotiate his way home across the alien city afterwards; this week I chatted to him in the film studio at the back of the Depot, Devonport's cosy arts centre.

During this week's interview, which will become part of a series on New Zealand 'Cultural Icons', I asked Bill about the bands which inspired him to pick up a guitar and make a fuzzy noise for Flying Nun in the early '80s. In response, Bill discoursed at length about the Velvet Underground, a group which seems, despite or because of its brief lifespan, small output, and uncompromisingly uncommercial ethos, to have played a part in the musical education of several generations of Kiwi musicians.

With their taste for black rather than tie-dyed clothing, their songs full of imagery from dog-eared bondage and discipline magazines, their Audenesque delight in the industrial ruins of New York, and their aurally brutal rebuke to the good vibes of late '60s Californian hippy acts like Love and Jefferson Airplane, the Velvets were a band that Bill could relate to in the late '70s and early '80s, when he and punk mates like Chris Knox and the Kilgour brothers were waging a guerrilla war against the domination of New Zealand's seedier pubs by Doobie Brothers covers bands.

The Velvets' drummer Maureen Tucker provided some of the defining features of both their sound and their image. Cutting her hair short, scorning dresses and skirts in favour of dark trousers, stripping her drum kit down to almost nothing, and refusing to look at audiences, Tucker provided a mean, minimalist backdrop to songs like 'Heroin', 'Venus in Furs', and 'I'm Set Free'. For scores of Kiwi kids who wanted to play drums but were bored by the self-indulgent histrionics of the likes of Keith Moon and John Bonham, Tucker was a heroine. But while Bill was singing the praises of the Velvets this week, troubling reports about their legendary drummer were circulating through the internet. Maureen Tucker appears to have been featured, more or less by chance, in a news report from a recent rally by the Tea Party, the right-wing movement which is protesting noisily across America against outrages like affordable healthcare, the erection of mosques, and the government bailout of the auto industry.

The Tea Party is riding particularly high at the moment, because it recently got a number of its favourites selected as Republican candidates for November's elections to the House of Representatives and the Senate. Christine O'Donnell, a critic of masturbation and the theory of evolution as well as big government, is rivalling Sarah Palin as the movement's unofficial leader, after edging out an unacceptably moderate Republican in a selection battle in Delaware. In the news clip which has circulated around the net, Tucker says that she is "furious" at the way the Obama administration is leading America "towards socialism". In another statement endorsing the Tea Party that has turned up on the internet, Tucker claims that Obama has a secret "plan to destroy America from within".

Over at the Guardian website, groups of shell-shocked Tucker fans are struggling to make sense of their heroine's transformation from cool, taciturn rock chick into apparent wingnut. Some accuse Tucker of apostasy, others question why they ever considered that she stood on the left politically, and a few wonder whether they can still enjoy her music. One fan suggests utilising new stereo technology and listening to those classic Velvet tracks without the drums.

I'm not disappointed that Tucker has outed herself as a conservative, but I am a little sad that she has thrown her lot in with the Tea Party, a movement which seems to rival our own Paul Henry for intellectual substance. If Tucker wants to be a right-winger, why can't she echo the arguments of, say, Hannah Arendt, or Karl Popper, or Michael Oakeshott, rather than the inanities of Palin and O'Donnell, people insufficiently worldly to realise that Obama's policy agenda, not to mention his continuation of Bush's wars in the Middle East, would put him on the right of the political spectrum in almost any Western country except the United States? There have been plenty of great artists with atrociously right-wing politics - TS Eliot, WB Yeats, and the older Coleridge all spring to mind - but did any of them get so excited about a political movement as downright dumb as the Tea Party?

It is difficult to argue that the Velvet Underground, with their songs about narcotics, electric shock therapy, and sado-masochism, enunciated any sort of political programme, let alone a left-wing political programme. It might well be argued, though, that the Velvets, with their mixture of gauchely shocking images and clever literary allusion, and their unashamed fusion of techniques borrowed from avant-garde classical music with rock and roll rhythms, possessed a subtlety and discrimination which is foreign to the ravings of the likes of Palin and O'Donnell. I think that Tucker might be accused of cultural rather than political apostasy.

If Maureen wants to rethink her political trajectory, and also reflect on her musical legacy, then she could do worse than listen to Mean Time, the album Bill Direen will launch with a gig at Auckland's Kings Arms Tavern on November the seventh. In a statement written to accompany Mean Time, Bill explains that the work is supposed to evoke those Velvet-tinged years of his youth:

This album is very personal but that doesn’t mean it’s an exercise in navel gazing. It is dedicated to the memory of a friend who died ten years ago this year, someone who used to go to see bands play during the proto-punk period (1975-1977) and followed my groups through to their time of mild popularity in the mid-1980s. He moved all around Christchurch and all around the country visiting his friends and listening to music with them.

Punk/Hard/Soft/Folk Rock, honest words and electric guitars from the Velvet Underground to The Sex Pistols, from Question Mark and the Mysterians to Mark E. Smith provided the sound track and inspiration for our thoughts, adventures and quests for a life. Sometimes I think the world was too mean a place for him and other amazing personalities like him.

These songs are a tribute to them all and to a period in time and in New Zealand’s history that was a curious mixture of desperation, anger, long discussions and pure affection. Records and books were at the centre of it all, inspiring everybody, but it was the personalities who kept it going.

A note on the sleeve of Mean Time announces that the album is 'for Tom, who left the gig early'. Direen aficianados will know the part that Tom Scully played in the creation of Beatin Hearts, the Chris Knox-produced album Bill, aka The Builders, cut during a frenetic visit to Auckland in 1983. Early that year Bill had startled the Christchurch musical establishment by entering a Battle of the Bands competition with a pick-up group of buddies, and winning the top prize with ease. As a reward, and perhaps as an inducement to leave town, Bill was given funds to travel to Auckland and record some tracks there. Tom Scully tagged along for the ride, but he had, initially at least, things other than music on his mind. An acute political thinker, a voracious reader, and a man who was both fascinated and disturbed by the human potential for violence and authoritarianism, Scully spent much of the drive up to Auckland telling Bill about his study of the bloodier aspects of Aztec politics and religion.

Impressed but perhaps also wearied by Scully's tales of endless human sacrifices on the altars of stone temples designed according to arcane but rigorous mathematical formulae, Bill encouraged his friend to write down some lyrics about Aztec civilisation. The result was a text called 'Aztec Hearts', which Bill turned into the disturbing, enthralling first track on Beatin Hearts. With a spare, Tuckeresque drum beat and a slow, sinister bass line keeping time in the background, Bill delivered Scully's ode to blood sacrifice in a voice that began by sounding weary, even disgusted, but gradually rose to a pitch of fanaticism. Bill sang the frenzied conclusion to the song again and again, overdubbing each new effort onto the original track, until his voice sounded awful and monumental, like the voice of a God-priest holding a beating heart aloft in the light of a rising midsummer sun:

A million hearts we tear,
the suns behind the sun,
we wield obsidian blades,
reach for the pulsing heart,
the sun inside the sun,
and we shriek, in agony,
and we shriek, in ecstasy
rip out the pulsing heart!
under the pulsing sun
rip out the pulsing heart
the sun behind the sun!
more light! more life!
the sun behind the sun!

'Aztec Hearts' is the only song Tom Scully ever wrote, but it is not an easy song to forget. It sounds, in retrospect, like a reaction, albeit an obscure and eccentric reaction, to the unravelling of New Zealand society in the early '80s, as much as a depiction of the violence of Aztec society. Tom Scully was a fierce opponent of Rob Muldoon, whom he considered responsible for the bloodshed that marked the Springbok rugby tour of 1981. Like Bill and many other young Kiwis, Scully feared that Muldoonism might be a harbinger of fascism downunder. But many of Muldoon's young and radical opponents seem to have been weirdly excited, as well as terrified, by the escalating social conflict in New Zealand in the last years of the strongman's reign. The final conflict between left and right, capital and labour, seemed to be at hand. Perhaps the wave of antipodean violence that the Springbok tour, the assaults on Maori at Bastion Point and Raglan Golf Course and the endless bitter industrial disputes seemed to presage would not be as pointless as the violence of the Aztec priests. Mean Time is Bill's first studio album since Chrysanthemum Storm, a collection of rock songs he laid down with a four-piece band on the eve of his November 2008 tour of New Zealand. A few years earlier he had released the much quieter, much more recalcitrant Human Kindness, which he had recorded solo in a studio high in Switzerland. If Chrysanthemum Storm was a jaunty rocker, Human Kindness was a collection of aural textures and tones.

Bill's new album arguably finds a middle ground between song and atmosphere, noise and quiet. The fact that Bill recorded Mean Time alone in his Paris flat, yet made use of bits and pieces of music mailed electronically from old bandmates in New Zealand, may account for the album's alternating moods of eerie loneliness and loud bonhomie, and for the way it moves between recognisable song-structures and expressionist stretches of abstract sound. Guitars and keyboards squall and drone, and then suddenly come together to form exquisite, delicate melodies over which Bill sings in a frequently distorted voice about exile, loss, and the torment and comfort that memory can provide. Several of the songs on Mean Time offer narratives that are perhaps meant as fantastic allegories for personal experiences and contemporary events, after the manner of 'Aztec Hearts'. On 'Bryon and Eve', for example, Bill sings:

To know the thing before them,
they would have to travel far.
Byron navigated,
she steered the nematode.
His hair was dark, archaic,
she was biblically unkempt:
He was tall and comely,
she was a manly Eve...

The curl of his lip
was no stranger to contempt
The war was over oil
when they ran out of road...
The severed head of Orpheus
floating down from Thrace.
The rest of his belongings
on a sexless ass.
Tribute fell like tears
Eurydice's face on 10,000 golden coins...

The balance Bill has struck between structure and ambient noise on Mean Time is exemplified by his extraordinary version of 'I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night', the oft-recorded folk song which pays tribute to a left-wing trade unionist framed for murder and executed during the First World War. Bill lets the famous tune emerge slowly out of a haze of distorted guitars and keyboards, so that the defiant quality of the lyrics that accompany it is emphasised:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead,"
"I never died," says he

Mean Time is an album loud and wild enough to recapture the youth of men like Bill Direen and Tom Scully, but quiet and thoughtful enough to offer some perspective on those now-distant years in the late '70s and early '80s, when life was lived for the next gig, the next single, and the next political protest. With its blend of rock and roll and musique concrete, the album has the subtlety of the Velvet Underground records that inspired Bill and his friends to begin making music. Maureen Tucker may have lost the sense of culture and history that made the Velvets so unusual, but one of her greatest admirers is keeping the band's legacy alive.

[You can pre-order Mean Time from Powertool Records. And in case Mean Time isn't enough, Bill has yet another album, a collection of spoken word pieces backed by music improvised by some of his European mates, on the way. Bill will launch Mindful with a performance at the Depot on the twentieth of this month.
I can't resist posting this eleven minute clip of my favourite Velvet Underground song, which has nothing to do with drugs or bondage and discipline or New York chic...]