Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Through longest corridors

When Lenin said that sometimes decades happen in the space of a week, he was thinking about wars and revolutions, and not about the sort of domestic, or at least semi-private dramas - broken limbs and other health scares, the protracted and bloody birth of a niece, the insane pettiness of a real estate agent, a moving truck driving at full speed into trees and a phoneline outside a new home - which have devoured almost all of my time over the last seven days, and prevented me from posting on this blog.

As a bathetic egoist, though, I can't help wondering whether there might be some strange parallel between the tumult in my own life and the state of the wider world. When I've had a moment or two to scan some headlines or eavesdrop on a radio broadcast over the past week, the news has seemed unusually dramatic. The chain reaction of revolutions which commentators have dubbed the Arab Spring, the deepening global economic crisis, massive demonstrations in Greece and other southern European nations, plans for something approximating a general strike in Britain, the long-overdue, rather spectacular and altogether unforseen launch of a robustly left-wing mass membership political party in New Zealand: all of these events seem to be part of the sort of quickening of history which Lenin's famous phrase was supposed to capture.

And it's not only in news headlines that I find evidence of chaos and change in the outside world. Several months ago I decided to try to make this blog a little less egocentric by conducting a series of interviews-by-email with artists, writers, and activists whose work I admired. After getting the thumbs up from half a dozen subjects, I fired off half a dozen e mails full of the sort of bothersomely pedantic questions I like to ask talented and unusual people. Not a single one of my would-be interlocutors has found the time to reply to me, but none of them is guilty of indifference, or even rudeness: instead, the likes of earthquakes, redundancy notices, student occupations of universities, strikes, and infectious diseases have separated them from their keyboards for weeks or months at a time.

Stumbling through the wreckage left behind by that ill-fated moving truck yesterday, I came across an untitled, unpublished and almost unknown poem by Kendrick Smithyman. The text was knocked out on in May 1969 and posted to Andy Gurr, an expat Kiwi who taught at the University of Leeds and had been influential in bringing Smithyman to that institution for a six month sabbatical in 1966. Gurr kept the poem for more than four decades, then handed it to me during a visit to his homeland last summer, after hearing that I had been busy compiling a volume of unpublished Smithyman texts.

Andy Gurr is best-known today as a Shakespeare scholar, but in the 1950s and '60s he was a committed left-wing activist, and in 1956 he played a leading role in the little-known but ultimately important 'New Zealand New Left' which emerged at the University of Auckland in response to the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Smithyman had espoused Marxism as a young man, but by the time he befriended Gurr in the early '60s he was less interested in economic and political tumult than in the secret existential crises of individual human beings. The two men had many good-natured but intense arguments about the meaning and value of political commitment, with Smithyman apparently ribbing Gurr about his socialist sympathies and interest in the Bolshevik revolution.

Smithyman's poem seemed somewhat obscure when I read it for the first time last summer, but its movements between revolution in the outer world and private adventures and transformations resonated clearly with me yesterday.

Everyone has a short story
which he does not write. Some call it
My Life. Others, An Adventure.

All of us have lives to leave.
Some of us have adventures.
We leave them to others.
To this one I leave an adventure.
To that one, I bequeath a life.

As from this very now, astonished moment,
diagrams of nervous pain between
the horizon's urban limits, and a cloud.
I look across an impoverished tradition,
an industry mechanically blocked out,
to reflect as the lightning displays again
that this is an adventure. I am at
a window on the other side of your world,
audience of a brawling difference
earnestly sensitive to a change of climate.

No more of that. Through longest corridors
advance the outcries of revolutions.
The Winter Palace is stormed. For a moment,
enlarging, a Czar of all the Russias,
I participate, resolved that I must write
this down: I lived, and ventured.
A flash of conviction, a theatrical
accelerated heartbeat. In Mount Priory Street
some jingling arms of passing, with a bell
which should have been a troika.
You sympathise and you participate;
then comes the monster of responsibility
before which windows close against the gale.

To you, I have to say, Please take
my life. And you, Accept, sir, my short story
about when I seemed to matter as a state,
burden of much threatened culture. Little
Father, they wail; the thunders deafen me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Graeco-Polynesian culture in Paris?

Over the last six months or so this blog has several times discussed the attempts by the late great Futa Helu and other Tongan intellectuals associated with the 'Atenisi Institute to fuse classical Greek with Polynesian culture.

Futa Helu was a man of considerable imaginative powers, but I'm not sure if he ever envisaged the confluence of Greek and Polynesian cultural motifs which Bill Direen recently witnessed in a Parisian theatre. Here's an e mail Bill sent me last week:

Perhaps your blog visitors might be interested in something that took me by surprise last night. I went to see a local production of Lysistrata by Aristophanes. By local, I mean a professional troupe in a theatre near where I am staying in Paris. The theatre has an English name, Sudden Theatre, but 99% of its works are in French. There was a lot of singing: I'd say about half the cast was hired for their singing skills. The key roles were filled by professional actors and the difference showed.

After the women established the situation and made clear their intentions to deprive their menfolk of sex unless they stop making war, the men arrive (half-masked) and proceeded to do a haka. It was a copy of the best known All Blacks haka, intended to display their warring frame of mind, their readiness to fight, and their inability to find peaceful solutions. It was not done disrespectfully, but it certainly took me by surprise. To further emphasise the unity and teamsmanship of their bellicose mind-space, not long after, the men formed a scrum, with all of the genital grabbing gestures rugby fans take for granted. The whole thing was more of a satire on rugby, than on the All Blacks or Maori culture...and yet....

So there you have it. Ted Jenner would have enjoyed the production, I suppose. It used a traditional setting, with polystyrene columns and a raised framed strusture centre stage, which led to more mysterious places. The robes and masks were Greek in flavour. Aristophanes' sense of mischievous fun prevailed. The sex-starved men eventually appeared with gigantic phallic attachments pushing out from under their robes...
I wish I'd been able to see Lysistrata with Bill. I had the good fortune to be introduced to Aristophanes' crusty comedies by a seventh form Classical Studies teacher, and I instantly preferred them to the tragedies of Sophocles, let alone the endless lines of the Aeneid.

I was excited by the way Aristophanes threw chunks of aggressive political polemic into his plays, and I was fascinated by his ability to mock and at the same time honour Gods like Dionysus and heroes like Ulysses. When an old man wants to escape from the home where his family has imprisoned him in Aristophanes' The Wasps, he clings to the belly of a smelly donkey, and thereby reminds us of the way that Ulysses escaped from the lair of the Cyclops by clinging to the belly of a ram. Although the old man's escape is rather pathetic in comparison to Ulysses' heroic exploits, its very pathos somehow ennobles it, and also somehow humanises the legend of Ulysses. James Joyce must have learned a few lessons from The Wasps and Aristophanes' other plays.

The folks at Sudden Theatre might enjoy Marian Maguire's elegant collages, which often fuse Polynesian and Greek scenes, and which sometimes dwell on the martial qualities the two cultures share.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

New Zealand's slaving history

[This post is a sort of successor to my discussion of the white headhunters of the 1860s and '70s...]

Murray Deaker’s recent use of the phrase ‘working like a nigger’ on Sky Television won him many detractors and a few defenders. The Race Relations Conciliator and a slew of media commentators have damned Deaker for using the phrase; Michael Laws and a few other inveterate opponents of the nebulous but sinister phenomenon of ‘political correctness’ have presented the sports show host as a sort of martyr to homespun plainspeak.

It is interesting how both critics and defenders of Deaker have assumed that the phrase 'working like a nigger' is drawn from a context very foreign to New Zealand. They have associated the phrase with slavery in America, and have either insinuated or openly assert that slavery is something quite alien to New Zealand history. Deaker's critics charge him with importing an unsavoury saying that could damage race relations in this part of the world; Deaker's defenders ask why we should be offended by a phrase with no real relation to our society.

The fact is, though, that many New Zealanders were engaged in a Pacific slave trade years after the abolition of slavery in the United States. In the 1860s and 1870s, at least thirty-two New Zealand vessels carried slave labour from various Pacific islands to plantations and farms in places like Fiji, Queensland, Samoa, and Tahiti. New Zealand's involvement in slavery eventually prompted mass public protest meetings in our major towns and cities and legislation from our House of Representatives. Yet the memory of the Pacific slave trade and New Zealand's involvement with it has been almost erased from our national consciousness.

Even in the 1860s and '70s, when it was impossible to ignore slaving in the Pacific, Kiwis took a curiously schizophrenic attitude towards the trade, condemning it and simultaneously denying the seriousness of their nation's involvement with it. To understand this attitude we have to understand the ideology which white settlers brought to this country in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

For the mass of ordinary settlers and for much of the colony's political and economic elite, New Zealand was a blessed country, where a benign climate and rich soils would enable the building of a nation of prosperous small farmers and tradesmen. New Zealand would become a farm for the world and a jewel of the British Empire, a place where even men and women of humble birth could achieve economic independence on plots of their own land. The country would be a sort of yeoman’s utopia.

The belief in New Zealand's glorious future was often tied up with an antipathy towards both European rivals to the British Empire and the indigenous peoples of the Pacific. As Angus Ross showed in his excellent book New Zealand Aspirations in the Pacific in the Nineteenth Century, Kiwi newspapers and politicians liked to counterpose the British Empire's supposed love for liberty, fairness, and small farming with the superexploitative 'plantation capitalism' that the French and German Empires were allegedly introducing to the Pacific, and to the barbarous pre-capitalist societies of Polynesian and Melanesian peoples. New Zealand colonial governments frequently urged a reluctant Britain to annex nations like Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga, and thereby ‘save’ them from both native backwardness and the threat from oppressive continental European plantation owners.

From the start, the ideology of the settlers was out of tune with reality. The isolation of the new country, the lack of a decent transport infrastructure, and the awkward presence of an indigenous people made the dream of plenty hard to achieve. Even after the conquest of much Maori land the colony struggled economically. At first a series of gold rushes and the whaling and sealing industries swallowed up some of the thousands of frustrated men who had been unable to make a living, let alone a profit, from farming. By the 1860s, though, the gold rushes were over and whaling and sealing were in decline.

At the same that New Zealand was facing an economic crisis, other colonial projects in the South Pacific were suddenly looking very promising. In Queensland, which was a self-governing British colony, and in Fiji, which had no coherent government but did have an aggressive and steadily increasing white population, settlers were beginning to grow large quantities of cotton and sugar in response to the global shortage of those crops created by the American Civil War and its aftermath.

As prices for sugar and cotton went higher and higher and production expanded faster and faster, growers began to employ the services of so-called 'labour recruiters', popularly known as 'blackbirders', who unloaded cargoes of men, women, and children at ports like Levuka and Mackay and offered them for sale. Many of the blackbirders were former sealers and whalers; others were farmers or tradesmen who had fallen on hard times. A blackbirder could commonly sell a man or an attractive woman for between nine and thirteen pounds to a plantation owner; children generally fetched about five pounds.

Polynesia and Micronesia were initially favoured by the blackbirders, but the New Hebrides and Solomons had become more popular hunting grounds. The isolation and relative size of these islands and the disunity of their populations made them especially vulnerable.

The blackbirders used a variety of tactics to acquire their cargoes: sometimes they would lure islanders on board their vessels with the promise of trade, and then put them in chains; sometimes they would raid islands and take captives at the point of a gun; on other occasions they would use deceit, promising to ferry islanders to some destination, or to employ them for a brief period for good pay, or to take them to a missionary station. On larger Melanesian islands like Malaita in the Solomons and Efate in the New Hebrides, coastal tribes were sometimes paid to hunt down and deliver labourers from inland tribes.

Blackbirders commonly claimed that their captives had agreed to labour on a plantation for a certain number of years, and sometimes they produced contracts to support these claims. While a few islanders undoubtedly went willingly aboard the blackbirders' boats, out of a desire for adventure or Western goods, few of them could have understood the details of what awaited them. Coley Patteson, the first Anglican Bishop of Melanesia and a relentless campaigner against blackbirding, ridiculed the notion that islanders had signed fair contracts with the blackbirders, telling the New Zealand government that:

I do not believe that it is possible for any of these traders to make a bona fide contract with any of the natives of the northern New Hebrides, Banks and Solomon Islands. I doubt if any one of these traders can speak half a dozen words in any one of the dialects of those Islands; and I am sure that the very idea of a contract cannot be made with a native of those islands without a full power of communicating readily with him. More than ten natives of Mota Island have now been absent nearly three years. The trader made a contract with them by holding up three fingers. They thought that three suns or moons were signified. Probably he was very willing that they should think so, but he thought of three years.

After being delivered to a plantation, a blackbirded islander could in theory expect to work for three to five years for six days a week before being handed a tiny sum of money - ten pounds was a typical figure - and being sent home on a ship. In practice, many labourers died of neglect or overwork before finishing their contracts. Those who lived long enough to leave their plantations were often placed on a ship and dropped on the nearest convenient island, where they faced being ostracised or killed by locals. Labourers who deserted their plantations were hunted down and beaten.

By the end of the 1860s at least fifty ships were working full-time to supply the plantations of Queensland and Fiji with labourers. In addition, a handful of ships supplied labour to the smaller cotton farms which had been established in Tahiti and on Samoa. In 1870 the little island of Fortuna in the New Hebrides alone received more than forty different visits from blackbirders, and lost nearly half its population of nine hundred. In an account of blackbirding published in 1888, a former slaver described the devastation that the trade brought to one island:

After travelling about two miles, we came right in front of a long clearing, and sticking out of it were a lot of what we took to be black poles. The skipper, as soon as we saw them, swore worse than ever, and said "We'll get no men in this place; somebody has been here before us'...there was an awful stink, which grew stronger and stronger...Here, there, and everywhere - in twos and three, and bunches, with limbs all twisted and stiffened, blocked and blistered, in the scorching sun - were the bodies of a lot of natives, men, women, and children...In the middle of them was a drove of wild pigs, scarcely able to move after their horrible feast. I began to think I had had quite enough of blackbirding...

Coley Patteson quickly noticed the effects of blackbirding on Melanesia. The Bishop had once been welcomed by large peaceful crowds on his journeys through the islands, but after the beginning of large-scale blackbirding he found shorelines and villages suddenly deserted. When Patteson did make contact with islanders, he frequently found them hostile; not unreasonably, they associated all white men with blackbirding.

By the end of the 1870s Queensland, with its huge sugar and cotton plantations worked by imported blacks, had earned the nickname 'the second Louisiana'. The similarities between the vanquished American Confederacy and the colonial plantations of the South Pacific were not entirely coincidental. After the defeat of the Confederate army and the emancipation of southern slaves in 1865, plantation owners in the south faced ruin. Thousands of them fled to Mexico, South America, and the Pacific and sought to recreate the society they had lost. By the end of the 1860s more than two hundred Americans were living in Fiji; many of them were ex-Confederate cotton farmers. Other former Confederates became blackbirders.

James T Proctor was typical of the ex-Confederates who shifted operations to the South Pacific in the late 1860s and early 1870s. A nephew of the famous Civil War general PGT Bureauregard, Proctor lost one of his legs in a battle with the Yankees, and later lost all of the two hundred and twenty slaves who worked his Louisiana sugar plantation. These injuries did not stop him setting up a cotton plantation in Fiji and leading blackbirding raids on the New Hebrides.

In his book The White Pacific the African American scholar Gerald Horne describes how Proctor and other ex-Confederates established a section of the Ku Klux Klan in Fiji, and used the organisation to terrorise indigenous Fijians and agitate for the American annexation of the islands. The Klan soon won the support not only of Americans but of the many Australian, New Zealand, and English settlers in Fiji. But men like Proctor can hardly be blamed for the whole of the Pacific slave trade: along with the Australian colonies, New Zealand was deeply involved from an early stage. At the end of 1868 John Thurston, the British Consul in Fiji, wrote to Wellington to report that nine New Zealand ships had recently called there with human cargoes. A year later Thurston's successor, Edward March, provided details of another seven blackbirders' vessels active in Fiji. March noted that the number of blackbirders in Fiji was increasing in 'proportion to the steady arrival of settlers'.

At first relatively small ships - cutters, and ketches, and schooners - from New Zealand's more northerly ports made up the bulk of the Kiwi blackbirding fleet, but as time went on, and the profits to be made from the trade in humans became clear, businessmen from New Zealand's wealthy south funded larger ships. In 1871 JR MacKenzie, one of the richest men in Dunedin, launched a steamship called the Wainui, which was soon busy 'recruiting' labour in Melanesia.

Although missionaries like Coley Patteson produced detailed exposes of the trade, governments in Wellington were at first very reluctant to take any sort of action against blackbirding. Frustrated by their own failure to create prosperity in New Zealand, the country's political elite hoped that the sugar and cotton booms in Queensland and Fiji would spread. Auckland might become a profitable 'depot' for Fijian exports destined for Europe, and the newly-wealthy planters of Fiji and Queensland might import large quantities of consumer goods from New Zealand.

New Zealand's involvement in blackbirding was a reflection of the failure of the promise which lured so many settlers to the country. Men who had dreamed of winning their own economic freedom in a new country were instead enslaving and transporting Pacific islanders; shipowners who might have expected to export wool or beef found a different product to move.

In May 1870 the slave trade reached the shores of New Zealand, as the schooner Lulu arrived in Auckland with a cargo of twenty-seven men from the New Hebridean island of Efate. In an account of his blackbirding expedition published in several newspapers, the Lulu's captain noted that the many of the New Hebrideans were 'timid and distrustful' or else openly 'hostile', and revealed that he had paid 'douceurs' (bribes) to chiefs to help acquire labourers. The Lulu's mission had been organised by Edward Brissenden, a wealthy Auckland businessman who wanted to cheap labour for a flax mill he co-owned in Waitakere. Brissenden's 'contract' promised his labourers ten pounds each for three years' work.

In an editorial that mixed sympathy with condescension, the New Zealand Herald described the arrival of the labourers from Efate, and noted that 'these niggers are at present entirely in the hands' of their 'importers'. 'Experience and common sense should tell us', the Herald said, that 'the niggers' were not in New Zealand voluntarily.

In 1872, after blackbirding had become a political issue, the New Zealand government sent a policeman to report on the situation of the men from Efate. Constable JB Thomson discovered that the labourers had worked for a while at the mill in Waitakere and then been split up, with some of them being sent to a flax mill at the Hokianga harbour heads and others being sent first to a mill in Thames and then to work on estates in Kohimarama and Epsom. Thomson recorded that one of the men had died, and noted that the others were unhappy about their long stay in New Zealand:

They assert, and in this they are unanimous, that…they were to be engaged for one year only, for which they were to receive a musket and ammunition, a tomahawk, a knife and blankets, and at the end of that time were to be returned to Efate…They brought to me a notched stick, on which they had recorded the number of months (lunar) they had served, and upon counting the notches I found their calculations to be twenty-three months.

By 1871 blackbirding had brought chaos to large parts of the western Pacific. Across the New Hebrides and the Solomons, missionaries, whalers and legitimate traders as well as blackbirders were being attacked by peoples angry at the depopulation of their islands. Fiji was in a state of war, as islanders tired of the expropriation of land by cotton and sugar growers and the arrival of more and more outsiders took up arms against the white settlers, and the Ku Klux Klan responded with atrocities.

In September 1871 Coley Patteson and two of his staff were killed on Nukapu Island in the Solomons. The master of the bishop's ship The Southern Cross blamed the slayings on the Wainui, which had allegedly raided Nukapu and taken several islanders away by force shortly before Patteson's arrival. Another New Zealand ship, the Nukulau, was also suspected of raiding Nukapu in 1871.

Patteson's death received enormous publicity, and made blackbirding into an important issue in New Zealand. Large crowds attended memorial services up and down the country, and a particularly large gathering in Auckland, the city where Patteson had begun his missionary work, produced a resolution:

That this meeting is impressed with the conviction that the death of Bishop Patteson and the Rev J Atkin is attributable to the so-called labour-trade carried on by British subjects and others in the Islands of the South Pacific, and respectfully urges the Imperial Government to take measures in concert with the Australian and New Zealand Governments to place that trade under effective control.

There was a curious quality to the sudden outcry against slavery. Newspapers condemned the 'labour trade' at length, but usually avoided discussion of New Zealand's involvement in the phenomenon. Instead of connecting the trade to British imperialism and its ideology of racial superiority, the media and public called for the elimination of blackbirding through the expansion of British imperial power and New Zealand colonial authority. The annexation of Melanesia and Polynesia by Britain and New Zealand was held up as the best way to 'protect' the peoples of those regions.

New Zealand's deep involvement with blackbirding completely contradicted the ideology of progressive imperialism which had legitimated, in the eyes of both the colony's elite and its ordinary citizens, the dispossession of the Maori and the establishment of a settler nation. For that reason it had to be denied.

In November 1871 both houses of New Zealand's parliament passed resolutions mourning Patteson, and urging Britain to take action against blackbirding. London responded the following year with the Pacific Islanders Protection Act, which made ships registered in Britain or British colonies legally liable for kidnappings and other abuses committed outside the borders of the empire. In the aftermath of Patteson's death Britain also gave colonial governors the power to license the 'labour trade'.

The reforms of 1872 institutionalised rather than abolished blackbirding. Although armed raids on islands by blackbirders became less common, labour was still often acquired through duplicity, and labourers were still paid virtually nothing for years of work. New Zealand ships still took part in the trade, though in smaller numbers than before. In a report for the Queensland government in 1882, Commodore JC Wilson of the British navy listed six ships licensed to carry human cargo by the New Zealand government between 1772 and 1881.

Finally, in the 1890s, the Liberal governments of John Ballance and Dick Seddon ended New Zealand's involvement in blackbirding. In an 1898 despatch to the British Colonial Office, Governor Ranfurly explained that the Seddon government regarded 'the labour traffic' as 'debasing' and believed that it was 'depopulating...many of the islands'.

Despite the example of Edward Brissenden, New Zealand employers never resorted to the use of blackbirded labour in any quantity. Their reluctance to employ the services of 'labour recruiters' may have had less to do with moral scruples than with the fact that a large pool of very cheap local labour became available to them in the 1860s and '70s. Dispossessed of much of their best land by postwar confiscations and then the mendacities of the native Land Court, many Maori suddenly found themselves obliged to work for Pakeha farmers and businessmen. Because they usually still had access to enough land to provide them with a subsistence living, Maori could be made to work for sub-starvation wages on tasks like roadbuilding, scrubclearing, fencing, and logging. When the advent of refrigerated shipping made the export of beef and lamb to Britain possible in the 1880s, Pakeha farmers and businessmen had a continuous supply of super-cheap labour to exploit. A modified form of 'plantation capitalism' came to New Zealand.

The shallowness of the debate which has followed Murray Deaker’s recent faux pas is a symptom of the continued forgetfulness of Pakeha New Zealanders about their country’s role in the nineteenth century slave trade. We continue to repress this part of our past because we continue to hold on to the illusion that our country is somehow different from and more civilised than others. The evidence suggests otherwise.

[Posted by Maps]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Politics and coffee

The blogger known as Snowball has given my recently-published book on EP Thompson a plug at his Adventures in Historical Materialism blog, and written a longer response for a forthcoming issue of Britain's Socialist Review.

I'm very pleased that Snowball enjoyed my tome, because he's an expert on CLR James, a man who can in many ways be considered the West Indian equivalent of EP Thompson. James and Thompson both tried to see history 'from below', rather than through the eyes of diplomats and Kings and Presidents. Just as Thompson's masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class humanised the study of the industrial revolution, so James' famous book The Black Jacobins told the story of the Haitian revolution and war of independence from the perspective of slave rather than European master. Thompson and James were also united, of course, by a ferocious love of cricket.

One of the more inconsequential passages in my book describes the rise and fall of the Partisan Coffee House, which was a creation of the 'first New Left', the unstable but highly creative movement comprised of communists who left their Stalinised party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and students and other young people politicised by the British government's invasion of Egypt in the same year.

Billed as 'London's first anti-expresso bar', the Partisan Coffee House was established in Soho in 1958, close to offices used by New Left activists. The cafe featured very long tables that could be used for the meetings of political committees and clubs, and was spacious enough to be a venue for film screenings, art shows, and folk music gigs. It also became known as a place of refuge for London's down and outers, who could sit for hours over free cups of coffee.

The Partisan may have served a few too many free coffees, because financial problems caused it to close down in 1961. In the persistently wry autobiography he named Interesting Times, Eric Hobsbawm looked back at the demise of the Partisan and wondered how any coffee house could possibly have made a loss in the prosperous and increasingly hip London of the early '60s. Many of the ex-communists in the New Left lived in the coal and steel belts of northern England, and seldom visited London, where the movement was dominated by students and the young. Some of the old commies grumbled about the fecklessness of youth when the Partisan shut down and the New Left encountered other financial problems; EP Thompson was particularly indignant at what he saw as the lack of discipline in the south.

I was thinking about the Partisan Coffee House because I recently posted about the cafe in Riverhead where a Titoist, or perhaps a Titoist-Harawiraist, may have been lurking. I don't know of a cafe or restaurant in this part of the world run by the left, but there are a few establishments which deploy imagery associated, justly or unjustly, with the left. I blogged a few years about Auckland's Shangri La restaurant, which serves very hot Hunanese food and uses a weird mixture of Maoist and Tibetan motifs. More recently, I took photos of a couple of central Melbourne eateries with interesting names: the Engels Expresso Bar, which sits at the swanky end of Collins Street, and the Post-Mao Restaurant, which is located somewhere in Chinatown. The comrades of the first New Left wouldn't approve, but perhaps there's a certain historical authenticity in Engels, who was a very successful businessman, lending his name to an expresso bar haunted by bankers and stockbrokers. If only the suits of Melbourne would follow Engels' example, and use their profits to fund left-wing scholarship and activism.

The Post-Mao Restaurant confuses me: does its name represent support for the Dengists who currently run China, and their dictum that, contra Mao, 'to get rich is glorious', or is it supposed to suggest some sort of anti-authoritarian critique of Mao's rule, of the sort that the anti-Stalinists of the first New Left would affirm? Can anybody help me out?

[Posted by Maps - blogger is still locking me out of my own account...]

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ezra Pound and the wrath of Ted

It seems I just can't please Ted Jenner. After I wrote about the Tongan philosopher and classicist Futa Helu last year, Ted e mailed and phoned me to register his disapproval at some of the comments my essay had made about Heraclitus, and about the ancient Greek academy. As one of New Zealand's foremost scholars of ancient Greek texts, and a particular expert on the gnomic texts of Heraclitus, Ted was someone I had to listen to carefully.

Ted is also an expert on Ezra Pound, and he called the other night to tell me he was very irritated at some of the remarks I had made about Pound in my essay 'Crossing the Plains', which was published on this blog last year and has been republished in revised form in the latest issue of the long-running Kiwi literary journal brief. My text is an account of a car journey across the Hauraki Plains, one of the least picturesque and therefore - for me, at least - most interesting regions of New Zealand, but it finds the time to mention the poetry and politics of Pound. I was too cowardly to talk to Ted in person, but after Skyler fielded his call the great man explained to her that he was upset by my essay's comparison of The Cantos, the epic poem Pound spent fifty years writing, to the messy and sometimes ugly antique shops of Paeroa, the little town on the eastern edge of the Hauraki Plains.

Like Heraclitus, Pound's work exists only in fragments. But where Heraclitus' texts are fragmentary because so much of his work was lost in the centuries after his death, Pound's are deliberately fractured. As a young man moving on the Bohemian fringes of the London literary scene before World War One, Pound invented a new way of composing poetry. Influenced by the Cubist painters and by his eccentric understanding of the Chinese ideograph, Pound stopped filling his poems with linear arguments and narratives and instead began to juxtapose fragments of imagery. Here is the complete text of the 1913 poem 'In a Station of the Metro':

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough

Pound forces our minds to leap from a crowded Paris railway station to the branch of a peaceful tree, and to consider the relation between these two images. After Pound's innovation, much of the poetry of the later half of the nineteenth century suddenly seemed long-winded and affected.

At about the same time that he was liberating other poets, Pound was imprisoning himself in fascist ideology. After he moved to Italy in the early '20s, the poet began to praise Benito Mussollini, and to rant about usury, that ancient obsession of anti-semites. Pound spent World War Two giving increasingly incoherent lectures in praise of Hitler and Mussollini, which the Italian authorities dutifully broadcast by radio to his native America. After the war he was deported to America and kept for a dozen years in a mental hospital, before emerging and returning to Italy. Through all of these years, Pound worked away at The Cantos, a poem which attempts to use the technique he had discovered before World War One to explore and elucidate human history. Juxtaposing scenes from Confucian China, revolutionary America, Napoleonic France, and dozens of other eras, The Cantos has been called the greatest long poem ever written, a dangerous anti-semitic polemic, and a fearful mess.

Ted does not in any way share Pound's fascist politics. In conversation with me he has defined himself as a non-Marxist socialist, and he is proud of the broken tooth he suffered on a protest against the Springbok tour back in 1981. While conceding that parts of The Cantos are ruined by Pound's politics, Ted still finds many stretches of beauty and wisdom in the poem. I'm not sure if I can agree with the second part of this judgment: while there are undeniably pages full of resonant phrasing and luminous images in Pound's poem, they all too often give way to explosions of bigotry and to demented raves. The poem's passages of beauty seem to me like the leafy countryside which surrounds some of Hitler's old death camps: how can their beauty be enjoyed, when it sits so close to evidence of something so sinister? I'm dismayed, as well, when I see that a number of contemporary neo-Nazis, including New Zealand's own Kerry Bolton, cite Pound as a political inspiration.

Although I find it difficult to celebrate The Cantos, I can agree with Ted that Pound was one of the most important and influential of all twentieth-century poets. Even if Pound's writing ceased to find readers, his influence would remain, because the technique that he showed off in poems like 'In a Station of the Metro' has become a part of the way we think as well as the way we write. Back in the '60s, Marshall McLuhan noted that the modern newspaper, with its many separate stories juxtaposed with one another, resembles the sort of poem Pound pioneered. In the internet era the hyperlink frequently operates in a Poundian way, by making our minds leap suddenly from one piece of information to another.

Most of today's poets are instinctive Poundians. The first entry in the new issue of brief is a poem called 'Stutter won't' by Sarah Bogle, an undergraduate student in law and English at the University of Auckland. I first met Sarah almost a decade ago, when she was in her early teens, and when her mother, who is a well-known Auckland trade union activist, dragged her along to a political function held at the house where I lived. In those days Sarah haunted a website where fans of Harry Potter would publish unofficial prequels and sequels to JK Rowling's tomes; I remember her working on one of her own Potter novels. I'm not sure whether Sarah has ever read Pound with as much fervour as she read about Potter, but 'Stutter won't' shows a certain grasp of the technique Pound invented:

remember lips like
and hair, words on paper-pillow, scrawled, untidy...

remember, underwear black like the caves at Bethells
remember trees behind glass - palms scratched from climbing them...

When Sarah writes 'underwear black like the caves at Bethells' she brings together two images - one of them suggestive of intimacy and domesticity and comfort, and the other drawn from the wild west coast of Auckland, with its wave-gouged cliff-faces and fatal rips and uninhabited horizons - and asks us to hold them both in our heads, and to consider what they might mean together. 'Stutter won't' has some of the same quality as 'At the Station of the Metropole'.

I'm not sure if these words of measured praise for Pound will placate Ted Jenner, but I'll soon find out: he's writing a reply to 'Crossing the Plains' which he intends to submit to Hamish Dewe, who is guest editing the next issue of brief.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Apologies for the break

My apologies for the lack of action on this blog over the past couple of days. As some patrons of the frightening phenomenon known as facebook will already know, Skyler broke her arm on the weekend whilst mountaineering.*

*The word 'mountaineering' sounds impressive, doesn't it? Am I allowed, though, to refer to a gentle stroll around the rim of Mount Mangere, the long-extinct volcano that rises a few hundred feet above South Auckland, as 'mountaineering'? I remember Janet Frame talking in her novel State of Siege about how ridiculous Aucklanders and other notherners make themselves, in the eyes of their southern compatriots, when they call small green hills 'mountains'.

But I'm not alone in trying to aggrandise Mount Mangere: on the day of the break we were walking the mountain with Hamish Dewe and his wife Sabrina, and when Sabrina had hesitated, during one of more precipitous parts of the crater rim track, Hamish bellowed something like 'Where's your Kiwi mountaineering spirit? Where's the spirit of Sir Ed Hillary?'**

We'd made it down the steep sections of the track, which some kindly soul had laid with bitumen, and were almost back to the car, when Skyler slid on a small piece of mud, and instinctively threw out her left arm to break her fall. She broke the arm as well as the fall, and since then I've been rushing about bringing her pillows and cups of tea and painkillers...

**In a typically laconic comment deposited under this post, Hamish staunchly denies this attribution. I am not sure, though, whether he wishes to distance himself from Sir Edmund Hillary in a general sense...

Saturday, June 04, 2011


This blog has paid attention lately to some of the more paranoid members of the political right, and to their belief that the Mana Party is a collection of commies and Maori radicals united by a desire to recreate Pol Pot's 'Democratic Kampuchea' in New Zealand.

The idea that Maori in general, and radical Maori in particular, represent a sort of fifth column in Kiwi society is not a new one, and one of its most energetic and long-standing proponents is Trevor Loudon, the former vice-President of the Act Party and an inveterate commie-hunter. Loudon, who insists that the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War were merely commie stunts designed to lull the West into a false sense of safety, has over the years linked every Maori activist from Syd Jackson to Tame Iti to one far left conspiracy or other. He also found the time, back in the '80s, to launch a campaign against the owners of Ladas. Loudon apparently regarded Kiwis who purchased the Soviet-made car as politically suspect, and would sometimes confront them in person as they parked their vehicles outside his local supermarket in Christchurch.

I have a couple of sinister photographs to show to comrade Loudon: they were taken recently outside a cafe in Riverhead, on the western edge of Auckland. Unfortunately, I missed out on identifying the owner of the personalised numberplate TITO: he or she nipped up out while I was preoccupied with my oversized rhubarb and lemon muffin.

Riverhead is an old gumdiggers' village, and the gumdigging industry was dominated, at the point of production if not the point of sale, by Dalmatians and Maori. In many parts of Northland, the two peoples intermarried, and in his great poem 'An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia' Kendrick Smithyman celebrates the 'Polynesian Slavic' identity such alliances created.

Some people regarded the confluence of Maori and Dalmatian cultures less happily than Smithyman. In his handsome and disturbing book The Policeman and the Prophet, Mark Derby shows how members of the Anglo-Saxon establishment saw members of both groups as dangerous aliens, who had to be controlled with force. Derby describes, with admirable coolness, a plan by New Zealand's Police Commissioner to intern all of the country's Dalmatians in a giant prison camp on low scrubby land near Cape Reinga.

Could the number plate I spotted in an old gumdigging settlement, with its trumpeting of the name of Yugoslavia's late communist leader, be a sign of a residual danger to the forces of capitalist civilisation? Is there perhaps a danger of an alliance between old-style Yugoslav commies and the hotheads of the Mana Party? The term Tito-Rangatiratanga has a certain ring, doesn't it?

Footnote: this was posted by Maps rather than Skyler. Blogger has locked me out of its site, for some reason I can't, in my primitivist ignorance, even begin to comprehend.