Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Decline and defiance at the Athens of Tonga

We turn left, past the Royal Tombs at the centre of Nuku'alofa, into the southwestern part of the city, then turn again down a narrow unpaved road. The speed limit in Nuku'alofa and many other parts of Tonga is forty kilometres an hour, but on roads like this one motorists must travel even more slowly, as their vehicles stutter over potholes the size of large kava bowls. We are less than five minutes' drive from the famous kauri timber tower of the Royal Palace, and from the streets of expensive houses - old colonial villas renovated and rented out to Western diplomats, and the ugly concrete piles of cashed-up nobles - which adjoin the palace, but the homes that line this road are squat wooden things that mould has painted grey and dull green. An unskinned pig turns on a frontyard spit, and the smell of charcoal blows through the air, along with the sounds of a flute and a violin.

When we reach the end of the road, we find several marquees sitting on a piece of rough turf, in front of an ungainly two-storey building. In the shade of one of the marquees, a group of mostly palangi men and women sit in the darkly flowing robes and elaborate hats that make academics look a little silly at the best of times, and especially silly in the middle of a hot day on a tropical island. Under another marquee, two young Tongan women are singing in impossibly high-pitched Italian voices, to the accompaniment of the instruments we first heard earlier.

The largest of the marquees holds sixty or seventy Tongan observers - grandmothers wearing necklaces made of chocolate bars, fathers in dark suits, mothers in dark dresses, dabbing their brows with tiny handkerchiefs, and clusters of little girls and boys conversing in giggles and whispers. Nearly everyone has donned a ta'ovala, the mat Tongans wrap around their waists on formal occasions. We have arrived at the 2010 graduation ceremony of the 'Atenisi Institute, Tonga's oldest, most influential, and most controversial university.

As the singers and musicians take their seats, one of 'Atenisi's most distinguished graduates, Dr 'Opeti Taliai, steps forward to address the graduands, their families, and 'Atenisi's staff. Taliai gained his first tertiary qualifications at this tiny campus, and later acquired a PhD in Anthropology from New Zealand's Massey University. After teaching overseas for years, Taliai has returned to 'Atenisi to take charge of the institution's Pacific Studies Programme.

Taliai announces that he has "thought carefully" about how to make his address. He says that he "cannot begin" without "paying tribute" to his "first professor" and "intellectual light", but when he tries to name this teacher his voice breaks, and tears fill his eyes. 'Atenisi's simple PA system seems to echo Taliai's distress: the microphone crackles, and the amplifiers on the hot turf suddenly sound like they are filled with crickets.

As I wait for Taliai to continue his address, I notice that many other people here - academics in their uncomfortable costumes, graduands, the mothers and fathers of graduands - are also wiping their eyes, and coughing, and trying to compose themselves. The death last February of Futa Helu, the founder and long-time Director of 'Atenisi, continues to sadden Tongans who have studied at this unique and frequently fragile institution.

Born in 1934, Helu was one of a generation of young Tongans sent to foreign universities by Crown Prince Tupou IV, who wanted to use them to modernise his country's economy and Tonganise its civil service. Helu studied a range of subjects at the University of Sydney in the second half of the '50s, and eventually fell under the influence of John Anderson, the Scottish-Australian philosopher and political provocateur.
A Trotskyist in his youth, Anderson migrated to the political right in the postwar period, but he never abandoned his contrarian love of controversy and his opposition to superstitious and repressive strains in Australian culture. In place of the religious orthodoxies and narrow-winded nationalism he delighted in attacking in his seminars, public lectures and newspaper articles, Anderson advocated a faith in reason and science. Anderson was a philosophical as well as a political controversialist: he rejected the work of virtually all modern philosophers, and championed instead the notoriously obscure pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus.
When Futa Helu made his long-awaited return from Sydney to Tonga, both his relatives and Tupou IV expected the talented young man to accept one of the more senior jobs in the Kingdom's civil service. But Helu refused to take a government job after his return to his homeland. Instead of mixing with Tonga's elite, he formed a kava circle which met in an unglamorous part of Nuku'alofa.

Intrigued by Helu's behaviour, and keen to find out what the young scholar had learned abroad, many Tongans paid visits to the new kava circle. They soon found that discussions over kava with Helu differed from the gossip, politicking, and joking that passed for discourse at many other kava circles around the Kingdom.

Helu's kava sessions were an attempt to recreate the spirit of both John Anderson's university seminars and the Socratic dialogues of the ancient Greek philosophers. Without being either pretentious or glib, Helu would introduce his fellow drinkers to exotic subjects like Greek tragedy, or dialectics, or Freudian psychology, and then challenge his interlocutors to relate these subjects to Tongan culture and history. In a small, isolated and conservative society like postwar Tonga, Helu's exercises in free thinking were something of a sensation. Soon his kava circle was crowded with guests, and he was being asked to tutor his fellow Tongans in a range of subjects.

Helu's renown as a pedagogist made it possible for him to found the 'Atenisi Institute in 1966. Along with a group of prospective students, the philosopher acquired sixteen hectares of swampy land on the western fringes of Tonga's capital, travelled to the forested island of 'Eua, felled a few tall trees, and then raised a series of classrooms and lecture halls. 'Atenisi at first focused on educating Tongans in subjects like English and maths, but in the early 1970s Helu began to experiment with the first-ever Tongan Studies programme. Tongan song, poetry, dance, and material culture was soon being taught by Helu and his small staff, in spite of the fact that almost all Tongan public schools considered such subjects incompatible with 'serious' education.

By 1977, 'Atenisi was offering some university papers, under an arrangement which allowed its most successful students to finish their degrees at Sydney University or the University of Auckland. 'Atenisi began to attract teachers from overseas universities, who accepted massive salary cuts in return for the opportunity to experience life at the institute. In the 1980s and '90s, a generation of 'Atenisi graduates gained Masters degress and Doctorates at Australian and New Zealand universities, and a number of them became notable intellectual figures in those countries. A performing arts troupe based at 'Atenisi toured the world.

'Atenisi's political significance came to rival its intellectual importance. Helu had learnt to distrust both religious and political authoritarianism from his mentor Anderson, and it was not long before he became a critic of Tonga's monarchy and its clerical establishment. He denounced the influence of the Free Wesleyan Church on Tongan schools, and criticised the tendency of some Tongans to accept automatically the decisions of their monarch.

In the 1980s and early '90s, 'Atenisi hosted a series of seminars designed to promote Tonga's fledgling pro-democracy movement. In 1992, Helu presented a set of proposals for democratic reform at a major conference at 'Atenisi; in response, the increasingly kleptocratic and authoritarian Tupou IV announced that no graduates of the institute would be allowed to work in the public sector (this spiteful and damaging prohibition would persist until Tupou IV's death in 2006). In the mid-'90s, Helu and the now-famous pro-democracy activist 'Akilisi Pohiva helped organise the Tongan Growers' Federation, which represented small farmers producing crops for export, and then guided that organisation into an alliance with the Tongan trade union movement.

Helu's duties as a teacher and an activist did not prevent him from producing a considerable amount of scholarly writing between the 1960s and the early years of this century. As an intellectual pioneer working in an isolated society, Helu felt obliged to consider an intimidating range of subjects, from philosophy to sociology to literature to psychology to educational theory. In the collection of Helu's academic papers, essays, and lectures issued at the end of the '90s by the Journal of Pacific History, a densely sociological consideration of 'Identity and Change in Tongan Society Since Cultural Contact' rubs shoulders with a careful study of 'The Thinking of a Psychotic' and a frankly celebratory paper on 'Laumatanga, Pride of Locality, in Tongan Poetry'. Helu's idiosyncratic worldview gives a unity to his diverse writings. He was an internationalist, who believed that cultures separated by space or time, or by both, could enrich each other, if only they were allowed to enter into respectful dialogue. Helu honoured Polynesian culture, and was acknowledged as an authority on Tongan song, poetry, dance, tapa, and genealogy, but he believed that the tradition of rational enquiry and argument he identified with the ancient Greeks needed to be imported into the Pacific. By giving his school the Tongan name for Athens, Helu expressed his desire for a dialogue between European and Polynesian intellectual traditions.

Helu was an inveterate critic of the late twentieth century intellectual fashions of postmodernism and cultural relativism. He accused postmodernists, with their scepticism about 'grand narratives' of history and notions of truth, of being enemies of reason, and he believed that cultural relativism, with its claim that different cultures were intellectually and morally incommensurable, is an insult to indigenous peoples like the Tongans, who have shown themselves quite capable of interpreting and adapting Western ideas and practices.

But if Helu rejected fashionable postmodernists like Derrida and Foucault, he was also scornful of thinkers who promoted overly narrow conceptions of reason and science. Like his old teacher at Sydney University, Helu rejected the attempts of logical positivist philosophers and positivist social scientists to reduce the complexity of human life to 'verifiable propositions' and tables of statistics. Helu believed that the sciences included subjects like sociology and psychology as well as physics, and that the proper exercise of 'reason' depended on the sort of improvised, partially subjective judgments common to aesthetics and ethics, as well as on the calculative thinking of mathematicians and physicists.

Helu's enthusiasm for Heraclitus lies behind all of his thought. Like John Anderson, he saw the inventor of dialectics not as an isolated, somewhat eccentric thinker but as the unacknowledged father of many of the most radical and important ideas to emerge in the West. In the book he published on Heraclitus under the 'Atenisi imprint in 1996, Helu claims that the philosopher's emphasis on contradiction and change - an emphasis summed up in his famous maxim that 'one does not step twice into the same river' - makes him the father of intellectual projects as apparently different as Einsteinian physics and Freudian psychology. Helu believed that Heraclitus' recognition of the complexity and fluidity of reality was more important than ever, in the globalised, frequently chaotic world of modernity.

Helu's interpretation of Heraclitus represents a slap in the face for Martin Heidegger, who famously tried to enlist Heraclitus in his battle against modernity and science, and also contradicts the cautious approach to Heraclitus taken by most Greek philologists, who tend to emphasise how fragmentary the textual remains of the philosopher are, and how little we know about the details of his thought. Helu's reading of Heraclitus might resonate, though, with Marxist thinkers, who have, from Marx onwards, tended to honour the ancient Greek as the founder of their dialectical method of investigating the way human societies develop and change. Did Helu perhaps acquire his interpretaion of Heraclitus from the Marxist tradition, via John Anderson? Could a subterranean Marxist current run through the thought of the leading intellectual of this fiercely anti-Marxist nation?

Some of Helu's most distinguished students have carried on his intellectual project. Commentators sometimes talk of a 'second generation' of 'Atenisi scholars, many of whom live and work in Western nations like New Zealand. 'Okusitino Mahina, who taught for many years at the University of Auckland, is perhaps the best-known member of this 'generation'. Like Helu, Mahina is a wide-ranging and very ambitious thinker: he writes poems, polemics about the state of Tongan society, interpretations of Tongan oral history, and treatises on the Tongan language. Where Helu wanted to fuse aspects of European and Tongan culture, Mahina seems, in some of his work, to want to use Tongan intellectual resources to reinterpret the history of European thought.

In the PhD thesis he produced at the Australian National University, Mahina argues that the stories Tongans have used to record their long history possess an implicit 'philosophy' - that is, an epistemology and a method - which can be recovered, made explicit, and used as a perspective from which to interrogate and, if necessary, to criticise the ideas of the great philosophers of the West. In the anthology of Tongan Proverbs he produced earlier this decade for a New Zealand publisher, Mahina again presents his country's vernacular traditions as a vast intellectual storehouse.
It is hardly surprising that the death of Futa Helu should shake 'Opeti Taliai and the rest of the 'Atenisi community. But Helu's death is only one of several misfortunes to befall 'Atenisi in recent years. Competition from the Suva-based University of the South Pacific, which has far greater resources and offers its students a curriculum much more focused on economic advancement, has robbed 'Atenisi of some potential students.

Even more seriously, officials from Tonga's Ministry of Education have been threatening to remove 'Atenisi's university accreditation, and thus the ability of its ablest students to finish their degrees in Australia and New Zealand. 'Atenisi's small size, meagre resources, relaxed, Socratic methods of teaching, and lack of interest in pleasing the private sector all help make the university a target for intolerant bureaucrats. Like the teachers of New Zealand, who are fighting the imposition of incoherently philistine 'National Standards' at their schools, and the students of Britain, who have been taking to the streets in their tens of thousands to protest huge fee hikes, the 'Atenisi community has found itself at variance with a global tendency towards the homogenisation and corporatisation of education.

The crisis at 'Atenisi is easy to observe. Parts of the campus have begun to resemble the classical ruins of Futa Helu's beloved Greece. One building has lost its roof and most of its walls, others have lost the glass from their windows, and the series of ornamental ponds Helu and his staff created are weedy and stagnant. I am told that this graduation ceremony is the first for three years, and that it is only a third of the size of some previous events.

After wiping his eyes and clearing his throat, 'Opeti Taliai relaunches the address he has prepared for the ceremony. He praises Futa Helu's "self-sacrifice in the name of 'Atenisi", and notes the "charisma" which enabled the late leader to "attract many international scholars" to these few swampy hectares on the outskirts of Tonga's scruffy capital. Admitting that "some say Futa's methods breed economically impoverished scholars", Taliai attacks the direction of education in Tonga, claiming that other institutions reject the "internationalism" of 'Atenisi, and instead cater to local political and religious interests.

Taliai's complaints are amplified by Marilyn Dudley-Rowley, who is Visiting Professor of Social Science at 'Atenisi. In a speech which ranges from Tonga to the Middle East to her home in the United States, Dudley-Rowley attacks the influence of the "religious right" on the contemporary world. She remembers an essay on education Futa Helu wrote in 1990 to warn about the effects that religious fundamentalisms and 'free market' economic fundamentalism could have in a post-Cold War era. Dudley-Rowley believes that, in the age of the 'War on Terror' and out-of-control financial sectors, Helu's warning has been borne out.

Dudley-Rowley reveals that she served as an advisor to the 'humanitarian' arm of the United States-led 'reconstruction' effort in Afghanistan, but left her post after encountering "more war profiteering than peacekeeping" there. She sees 'Atenisi as a "bulwark" of critical thinking and civil liberties in a "unique corner" of a world threatened by unconstrained capitalism and imperialist military adventures. Dudley-Rowley vows to help "restore 'Atenisi to its former glory", and calls on teachers and students everywhere to "fight for their rights".

Dudley-Rowley's words make most of the graduation ceremony speeches I have heard over the years seem dull indeed. Sitting amongst the families of the young men and women waiting to graduate, though, I wonder whether the sociologist's attacks on capitalism and philistinism have really resonated. I can hardly hear parts of her address, as the PA system continues to rebel, and some of the Tongans around me chat and giggle. Are the noble ideas of Futa Helu and his academic supporters doomed to meet with indifference in this strange new era in Tonga, when democracy is a complicated reality rather than a beautiful idea, and when American popular culture is a rather more potent force amongst many of the young than either Greek philosophy or Polynesian poetry?

Suddenly, though, the people around me begin to applaud loudly, and cheer, and jump out of their seats. The speeches are over, and the graduates have begun to accept their degrees. After certificates have been handed over and hands have been shaken, Tongan pop music pours out of the speakers, and an extended family hauls an enormous tapa cloth onto the turf between the marquees. The cloth is spread out, and family members - children, muscular teenage boys, podgy Mums and Dads and Uncles and Aunts, and slow-moving grandparents - begin to dance around its great dark fish and elaborate flowers.

At the centre of the dancers is a young woman showing more of her body than one would normally expect to see in Tonga; older females spread some sort of oil - is it the sweet-smelling stuff made from sandalwood? - on her legs, and her arms, and her shoulders, and then attach money to the moistened skin. The tapa and the money are presents to 'Atenisi. Family after family repreats the ritual. I have never seen exuberance like this at a graduation ceremony in New Zealand, and I realise that Futa Helu's reverence for education persists, in spite of all difficulties, on these sixteen hectares near the edge of Nuku'alofa.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A 'e fakapikopiko!

The title of this post means (I think) 'what idleness!' in Tongan. We've just gotten back from the Friendly Islands, but after a couple of days of storms that left us waiting for a way off a relatively isolated island, a pre-dawn ferry ride that saw me sharing a handrail with an equally queasy goat, a bumpy journey in the rather more salubrious surroundings of an Air New Zealand jet, and hassles at Auckland airport, I am feeling too idle to post anything more than a few vaguely politically-motivated, yet nevertheless rather naff, photos (click to enlarge 'em) from the first part of our trip, which saw us hanging out on the Kingdom's crowded and sometimes chaotic main island of Tongatapu in the lead-up to last week's general election. I'll put something more serious up tomorrow.

I do present one conundrum with these photos: how could King George's favourite electoral candidates have been routed at the polls on Thursday, when such an elegantly persuasive case for the monarch's rule had been advertised on a Nuku'alofa billboard in the weeks leading up to the vote? How could anyone reject the recommendations of an 'icon to the globe and world history'?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Instead of a report from Tonga

I swapped Smithyland for Tonga on Thursday night, but I can't yet post a photo, let alone a report, on the state of this strange and splendid country, which is due to experience its first relatively democratic elections next week. I'll have to blame heat, Tongan beer, and rather erratic internet connections for my silence.

It's not that I lack subjects to blog about. I spent yesterday wandering across Nuku'alofa, the rambling capital city I fell in love with last January, photographing election billboards and Lapita ceramics, and talking about the state of the global economy with barbeque shack owners, and Skyler and I have spent most of today at a graduation ceremony on the grounds of 'Atenisi Institute, the private university founded in the 1960s by Futa Helu, the classical scholar, opera fan, and father of Tonga's pro-democracy movement. Although 'Atenisi (the word is Tongan for Athens) played a key role in building Tonga's civil society and its trade union movement, the university has been in decline in recent years, partly because of unsympathetic education bureaucrats who insist on querying whether its fusion of the Socratic method and South Pacific culture are compatible with commercially-influenced twenty-first century definitions of higher education. The graduation ceremony at 'Artenisi was both saddening and inspiring, and I plan to blog about it in detail when I can access an internet connection that doesn't crash every two and a half minutes.

In the meantime, I thought I'd reproduce part of a rambling e mail I recently sent to some of the editors of the Aotearoa Independent Media Centre. The IMC had been looking for a journalist to cover Tonga's upcoming elections; I'm not a journalist, and as a palangi blow-in I find the intricacies of contemporary Tongan politics highly confusing, but I do find the history and sociology of this extraordinary country irresitably interesting, even if I struggle to get a handle on them.

The argument reproduced below is rather abstract, but I discussed the Tongan islands of 'Eua and Tongatapu in a more concrete, less pretentious way here and here, in the aftermath of my January visit to this country.

Hi R,

leaving aside the various personalities involved in Tongan politics and in the upcoming election and looking at the bigger picture, I think that one question which is crucial for the future of Tonga is whether existing laws and customs governing the use of land are maintained or replaced by legislation and practices more compatible with the growth of Western-style capitalism.

The International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank and similar institutions certainly seem keen to make the alienation of Tongan land, and therefore of the whole Tongan economy, possible, and either the present King's 'party' or the pro-democracy forces could be captured by such an agenda. Tupou IV became a firm believer in neo-liberalism in his later years, and his son is probably a believer too. Certainly, the government of Tupou V has cut company taxes, created a commission to consider changes to the Land Act, and talked of the importance of foreign investment in building the Tongan economy.

The pro-democracy 'party' can't necessarily be relied upon either: we only have to look at the history of Latin American nations like Argentina in the 1980s to see the way that democratisation can be turned into an opportunity to 'open' an economy up to foreign investors from Western nations, and to do away with national ownership of assets.

The roots of Tonga's present situation lie, I think, in the extraordinary reign of Tupou I, who kept the country free from colonialists and set it on its modern course. Tupou was a strange combination of Old Testament prophet, merciless warrior, and enlightened statesman - when talking with Kiwis, I've described him as a cross between Hongi Hika and Wiremu Tamihana.

I think that the legal code Tupou established in 1862 and the constitution he published in 1875 saw a big reduction in the power of the chiefs who had run a basically feudal economic system for (at least) several hundred years.

Under the terms of the 'new deal' introduced by Tupou I, the chiefs were made nobles, were brought under the rule of law, and lost their serfs and their right to tax the harvest of small farmers. Small farmers got the right to security of tenure on their land, which was effectively nationalised by Tupou, and the right to pass the land on to their offspring. The nobles got their own estates, which they ran on a semi-feudal basis, as a sop, and also the right to administer the tenure system on behalf of the state.

I think that, in many ways, Tupou's reforms represented an unusual social compromise, and defied the dominant patterns of modernisation seen elsewhere in the world in the nineteenth century.

In European countries and in Japan during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, land reform hastened a transition from feudalism or semi-feudalism to capitalism. There was land reform 'from below' in places like revolutionary France, where the peasants broke up the big feudal estates and became small farmers free to sell and buy land. Inevitably, this led to the speeding up of capitalist development, because some farmers ended up swallowing the lands of others and becoming a rural bourgeoisie that employed the landless as workers. There was land reform 'from above' in places like Germany and Japan, where the old feudal class rationalised its holdings, embraced modern technology and turned its serfs (or semi-serfs) into agricultural workers.

In some parts of subjugated Pacific nations like Samoa and Fiji, a third model of capitalist development was seen, as Europeans established plantations on land they had acquired, turning the local peasant people into workers for (appallingly low) wages. This was, of course, imperialism in action.

What is fascinating about Tonga is that Tupou's reforms did not encourage but rather almost froze the development of capitalism in his country. Tupou neither smashed the power of the old feudal class, as the French had done, nor allowed that class to transform itself into a bourgeoisie, as Bismarck did in Germany and the Meiji reformers did in Japan. Tupou I imposed an odd sort of ceasefire, and Tonga developed a hybrid economy, which featured a feudal mode of production based in the nobles' estates and a traditional Polynesian lineage mode of production based in the small farms and in the villages.

I think that Tupou I saw this trade off as what was best for his country. He was no democrat, but his interpretation of Wesleyanism led him to regard serfdom as an abomination, and he he hated the idea of Tongans losing their land to Westerners. The Tongan historian Sione Latefutu tells that us that, during a visit Tupou I made to Sydney in 1852 to see how Western societies worked, the King was shocked by the sight of people sleeping rough in parks, and realised that capitalism wasn't all it was cracked out to be. Tupou I also followed the New Zealand Wars closely, and worried about his nation suffering the same fate as the Waikato Kingdom.

Tupou's first successor was ineffectual and decadent, and almost ended up giving the country away to Britain, but Queen Salote steadied the ship in the twentieth century and maintained national independence. Salote wrestled with the problem of how to develop the economy, and decided not to let market forces into Tonga. During the Depression she urged Tongans to forget about trying to buy Western goods, limited imports of 'luxuries' like tinned food and tobacco, and praised subsistence agriculture. When she did attempt to develop the economy, Salote promoted co-operatives rather than private businesses as models for her people.

Capitalism only really arrived in Tonga when the Americans occupied the country during World War Two. Their ready cash and demand for all sorts of goods and services led to the establishment of a range of private businesses which Salote had little choice but to accept.

Salote's successor Tupou IV has often been presented as an overweight buffoon, but in the early years of his reign he was a dynamic reformer, who sent Tongans off to the West to get university educations and who talked about adding a strong, ultra-modern capitalist sector to the economy. Tupou IV wanted to see the rise of a big private sector, but a mixture of the constraints left in place by the 1875 constitution and the lack of profits to be made in Tonga meant that private capital was hard to find, and the state ended up driving economic expansion. Tupou IV thus bequeathed Tonga a huge public sector, complete with a thriving union movement and a pro-democracy university-educated intelligentsia.

Tupou's eagerness for foreign investment and the growing population of Tonga meant that the nobles, who were in still in charge of the mechanics of distributing land, were increasingly able to take a cut of the cash economy in the last decades of the twentieth century. In a fascinating essay about land use on the island of Vava'u in the '80s and early '90s, the sociologist Paul Van der Grijp shows how the nobles exploited the demand of growing numbers of farmers for land by soliciting bribes to speed up the allotment of this land. Even though the formal sale of land remains illegal in Tonga, and the distribution of land is still usually determined by genealogy and history of occupation, nobles are now making good money out of oiling the wheels of the land allotment machine. They often invest this money in various ways, and are thus probably well on the way to transforming themselves from a semi-feudal into a capitalist (or petty capitalist) class.

Because private investors have not been attracted to Tonga in large numbers and state-driven capitalism has been the norm, there have been numerous opportunities for the aristocracy and the nobility to engage in capitalism. Tupou IV's children have become famous, or rather infamous, for the way they have appropriated state-funded companies like Tongan Royal Airlines and Tongan Royal Beer.

Before Tonga can become fully capitalist, though, the barriers of the 1875 constitution must be broken, so that land can be freely bought and sold and the security of tenant-farmers disappears. This 'opening' of the economy is what the IMF and Western government continually urge on Tonga, and on other partially capitalist Pacific societies like Samoa and the Cooks. A few years ago Rarotonga decided, after loud debate, to allow the alienation of its land; in 2007 similar proposals were defeated in Samoa after staunch protests.

If Tonga's economy were ever opened up, then I think the proto-bourgeoisie represented by the nobles and by Tupou IV's offpsring would soon be swallowed by the sharks of international capitalism, that small farmers would lose their land to foreign plantation owners and resort developers, and that Tonga would eventually become almost totally foreign-owned. This would, of course, be a disaster.

I object to a lot of the coverage of the situation in Tonga by the New Zealand left because it focuses on political democracy and on the question of the role of the monarchy, without considering the much more fundamental question of the Tongan economy in general, and of land ownership in particular.

Even left-wing Kiwis seem inclined to mock Tonga as a backward society, without understanding the progressive features of the 1875 constitution.

It's fairly obvious that the Tongan monarchy, like the Kingitanga here in New Zealand, has outlived its historical usefulness, and either needs to be overhauled very radically or replaced with something better. Tawhiao and Tupou I may have been staunch anti-imperialists who helped their people stand up to rapacious Westerners, but Tupou V, like our own present Maori monarch, is all too happy to do business with dodgy multinational companies and ignore grassroots sentiment amongst his own people.

But even if the Tongan monarchy is no longer useful, other aspects of the order established by Tupou I ought to be preserved. The ban on land sales and guarantee of security of occupancy are crucial to Tongan independence, and should also be crucial to any progressive vision of Tonga's future. Kiwi leftists need to understand this, or they could end up supporting the pro-democracy movement as it goes over the cliff, in the same way that so many Latin American pro-democracy movements went over the cliff in the 1980s when they embraced all-out capitalism as well as democratisation.

I remember talking to one Tongan from 'Eua who said that "A lot of us don't mind the monarchy, because we remember that Tupou gave us land and kept our country independent". Who could really disagree with him?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Time for a shave

I shaved off my moustache early this morning, in the aftermath of last night's successful launch of Private Bestiary, my selection of long-lost poems by Kendrick Smithyman. Skyler had tolerated the bristling thing on my upper lip for several long weeks, after I'd assured her that it was an important part of my attempts to 'get in character' while I prepared the eternally mustachioed Smithyman's texts for publication, but there are limits to her patience.

The launch party at Old Government House attracted about seventy punters, whose ages ranged from seven months to eighty-eight years. There were Emeritus Professors, controversialist bloggers, retired politicians, trade union troublemakers, and much-published poets in attendance, but one of the most distinguished guests was an overweight, middle-aged Jack Russell named Pippy. The hound is the near-constant companion of actor and muso Richard Anderton, who took the stage near the end of the launch and added his falsetto to Bill Direen's performance of a specially-written adaption of Smithyman's poem 'Inheritance'.

Pippy may appear perfectly amiable and move about in a slow waddle, but the dog can, at the right moment, be brutal: during the Christchurch leg of Bill Direen's national tour a couple of years ago it took to one of a senior Kiwi politician's prize bantam roosters with a ferocious glee, and only a couple of days ago it apparently disposed of one of the chooks of a neighbour of Vincent Ward while Richard was visiting the film-maker's home. A friend of mine happens to be Ward's personal assistant, and when she turned up at Old Government House and saw Pippy waddling in her direction she felt a rush of fear. 'Hide the roosters!' she urged me. Fortunately roosters were not much in evidence at Old Government House, and Richard was soon visiting the bar of the grand old building to request a large saucer or two of water to help sustain his beloved companion. It's probably fair to say that the bar staff don't often get that sort of request from the academics and senior public servants who are their normal customers...
I got an e mail a couple of days ago from Gerard Smithyman, Kendrick's youngest son, who lives in Britain. Gerard hadn't heard about Private Bestiary until I'd contacted him and asked if I could send over a copy, and he confessed that he 'didn't expect the old Dad to be still publishing'. Still, Gerard mused, 'if anyone was going to be telling stories from beyond the grave, it would be Kendrick!' And it seems that Kendrick is not about to shut up any time soon: after Yvonne Sutherland and Peter Simpson had helped me plug Bestiary last night, a sweaty (check out that photo!) but funny Jack Ross took the mike, and announced, in between a series of self-deprecating jokes, that his collection of the two hundred or so poems Smithyman translated from Italian is about to be reissued in a bilingual edition by a prestigious Italian publishing house. When Jack offered to send a free copy to anyone who promised to review the book, either in the offline world or in the blogopshere, there was an immediate surge in the direction of the literature table, where Titus Books boss Brett Cross found himself taking down names and addresses on his old mate's behalf. The literature table was also the locus for a competition we ran through the evening, as Brett distributed copies of an unpublished poem called 'Randall', which Smithyman had written about one of the more eccentric students he encountered when he worked as a schoolteacher in the 1950s. Brett had removed the last line of 'Randall' and challenged punters to guess it, promising a selection of Titus titles as a reward for the most 'literally correct guess' and the 'most imaginative guess'.

Here's 'Randall' without that final line:

Something about a fire engine
gets at you, it's special. How they come
howling, flashing and such
better than ambulances or cop cars.
Randall was really turned on by them.
That's why he turned in alarms.
Eventually somebody noticed: all those false alarms,
time and again the same kidding hanging around.
He was grabbed. They put the fear of God into him.
No more false alarms, get it?

He got it. Next time was for real,
biggest turnout ever, appliances from all over.
Timber yard, chemical stores depot,
gum trees at the railway siding, a garage and repair
shop, everything going up with a bang,
with sirens and flashing lights.

Psychs muttered about aversion therapy.
They weren't hopeful, "Wait and see".

[ mystery last line ]

Punters tried a variety of gambits in their efforts to guess the final line of 'Randall'. A couple of cool, rational types apparently figured that there was a good chance the final line of the poem would echo, or even repeat, an earlier line or lines. Here are the guesses of one 'Ivan V', Sarah Bogle, and an anonymous punter:

Ivan V:

See how they come howling, flashing and such
better than ambulances or cop cars...


Eventually somebody noticed,
all those false alarms.


"Wait and see."

Paul Litterick is noted for his satirical blog posts, and the final line he supplied had a hint of satire:


Richard Taylor, Jack Ross, and 'David M' supplied gothic final lines:

God was whimpering in electric and fiery alarm [Richard]

Randall just smiled. Somewhere inside he burned. [Jack]

Electrodes on the ready, no gel. [David]

Should we be worried that, according to the e mail address he supplied along with his entry, David works for a health board?

Lisa Samuels is often seen as one of the most uncompromisingly avant-garde poets at work in New Zealand, but the series of final lines she supplied for 'Randall' all involved rhyme:

He'll burn the Statue of Liberty...

Plangeant emissary of you, of me...

With their glass-blowing, as another possibility...

The real final line of the poem was 'We waited. Maybe we're still seeing'. Anna Forsyth, who wrote "Yes we will see" muttered Randall, fondling his lighter' and Sarah Bogle are joint winners of the prize for most accurate guess, and Genevieve McClean wins the prize for most imaginative guess after submitting these strange lines:

Frightened, inquisitive, slapdash and blue,
freaking out at the wind, the people's thunder, Mao Tse Tung
watching the mosquito
Peter Simpson's erudite and eloquent address to the launch has been reproduced at Beattie's Book Blog, and will surely be used by Titus Books to help promote Private Bestiary. Over at her Timespanner blog local historian Lisa Truttman, who knows Smithyman's long-time home of Point Chevalier better than almost anyone alive, has written a generous response to Bestiary, and has discussed the image on the cover of the book.

My sincere thanks to everyone who came last night, and my special thanks to Margaret Edgcume, Kendrick's widow and marvellously helpful literary executor, and to the wonderful Graham Perkins, Kendrick's lifelong friend and wartime writing partner.