Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The black and white world

When Skyler and I set out for the southern greenbelt of Auckland last weekend we decided to travel down the Great South Road, with its semi-permanent roadworks and spiteful traffic lights, rather than on the smooth fast Southern Motorway, which is insulated from the suburbs it bisects by brown noise walls and by great earthen banks covered in huddling shrubs. Perhaps because of its languid pace and its lack of necessity, our journey down the Great South Road began to take on a curiously luxurious feel, like some cruise down a slow-moving river.

My old PhD supervisor Ian Carter liked to argue that the first movies were not shown on a silver screen, but rather on the windows of trains. The passengers on trains and in early automobiles experienced the reality they passed through as a sort of film, with each piece of landscape being a new 'scene' in an exciting if plotless drama. Supposed pioneers of film like Eisenstein merely found ways of simulating what train and car passengers had already been seeing for decades.

I grew up in the suburbs near the southern edge of Auckland, and I associate the journey up the Great South Road with my own journey into adolescence and into adulthood. As a kid I would catch a Cityline bus up the Great South Road, past places with strange names like Otahuhu and Wiri, to the movie theatres, spacies parlours, and comic shops of central Auckland. Later, as a teenager, I'd make the same journey to the bars of the central city on Friday and Saturday nights, returning with a turbulent stomach on the eleven-thirty bus. Eventually I enrolled in university, and moved permanently up the Great South Road.

Because of this personal history I sometimes see a journey away from the city down the Great South Road as a journey into the past. As one suburb gives way to the next I recognise places of significance, and these historic sites become more and more frequent the further south I get. It is as though some film of the past is playing backwards.

Last Saturday I annoyed Skyler by pointing out a series of significant sites on the Takanini Strait, the long and rather ugly stretch of road that connects Manurewa with Papakura. As we passed the turnoff to Conifer Grove, New Zealand's first gated community, I told Skyler about the thrills of stuffing circulars into letter boxes on silent thoroughfares with names like Syntax Place, and when I spotted a semi-derelict warehouse I was reminded of endless bloody games of Laserstrike.

At the southern end of Takanini Strait, on the right hand side of the road, behind a row of tall oak trees and a field of tallish grass, is another site of significance: Selwyn Oaks Retirement Village.

I have never visited Selwyn Oaks, but as a small child I always seemed to know someone - a classmate's great-grandfather, or a friend of the family, or a distant relative - who was an inmate there. Selwyn Oaks was a place where the past was kept. The men and women there - mostly I heard about the men - had lived through what I imagined, on the basis of my preliterate examination of encyclopedias and history books, was the 'black and white' phase of history.

In the black and white era the average man lived a simple, predictable life. He came of age, walked into the bush with an enormous axe, swung the axe, built his own house out of logs he had felled, cleared a farm around the house, and later left his home and his farm to fight black and white Germans in the black and white mud of black and white Europe. His black and white wife stayed at home and darned black and white socks besides a black and white fire.

I'd hear stories, from schoolmates and from relatives, about Mr So-and-so at Selwyn Oaks, who had killed two hundred and eighteen Jerries during the battle of Jutland, or Mrs So-and-so, who had darned the socks of every member of some early incarnation of the All Blacks. My five year-old self was intrigued by these stories, but also slightly afraid of their mighty and ancient protagonists. I wondered what the inhabitants of Selwyn Oaks did all day, now that they had been coaxed out of their handbuilt homes into a retirement village, and been made to exchange their ancient gumboots for fluffy slippers. What would happen if they escaped from Selwyn Oaks, and were restored to their former influence? I didn't particularly fancy a return to the glorious past, with its dour faces staring out of black and white photographs.

Now that I'm in my mid-thirties, and thus staring down the barrel of retirement home life, I have a much more sympathetic view of the inmates of Selwyn Oaks. I suppose that, for many of them, the transition from a fairly raw rural life to an urban retirement village must have been difficult, and that a certain amount of self-mythologising might have helped them cope with their changed situations.

Here's a poem which I might try to weasel into the film which Paul Janman and I are making about the Great South Road:

Eeling at the Retirement Home

The gong sounds
again. To remake the summer
of forty-four, the gorse burning
in slow motion
under Maketu pa,

to make a morning moon
as full and sharp
as the peephole he cut
into the wall of the shithouse
at Drury School,

to save a childhood as long
as the eel that basked
on the mud at the bottom
of the pool at the bottom
of the waterfall at the bottom
of Maketu pa:

he steps over thistle-sentries
into a shallow ditch,
tugs at the handle
of the carving knife he kept
there. That blade is still as silver
as water on the fall.

He cuts off the head. He cuts the tip
of the tail. Lunch is served
while he sleeps. He stows the knife,
hurries back, tears out the backbone
by hand. The longer the eel has been dead
the more slippery it becomes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Still loathed, after all these years

Over at Kiwblog David Farrar has confessed to attending the ceremony held recently to bestow the Prime Ministers Award for Literary Achievement on James Belich, Fiona Kidman, and Peter Bland. If Farrar's account is any guide, the function at Premier House was full of legal and political bigwigs, and punctuated by cosy Wellington in-jokes.

Unfortunately for Farrar, the fiercely philistine inhabitants of Kiwiblog's comments boxes have taken umbrage at the gifting of sixty thousands dollars each to Belich, Kidman and Bland. A regular commenter with the rather worrying moniker 'Big Bruv' evidently considers the awards an unforgivable interference in the free market:

How the hell can anybody make a “significant contribution” to poetry?, it is only significant if enough people buy the poetry, receiving tax payer money to write crap that nobody wants to read is hardly significant...The market (people who pay for non fiction, fiction and poetry) recognise “excellence”, this is just a bunch of middle class wankers giving away my money to people who do not produce anything that the public wants to buy...This sort of rubbish just has to stop.

Another commenter contrasted the works of Belich and Bland with the mighty oeuvre of Stephen King, and concluded that:

Handouts...encourage, at the margin, all the non-Stephen Kings into the market (result: warehouses of crap, as witnessed in Europe)...Stephen King ain’t short of funds. Stephen King got to be Stephen King without any handouts. His secret is to write books that convince people to buy them in huge numbers.

It's a bit of a worry to hear about distinguished New Zealand writers and scholars hobnobbing with the country's political and legal elite, but reassuring to find a venerable forum of the people like the Kiwiblog comments thread full of hostility towards them.

Where a plumber or electrician relies on popularity, seeking as many customers as possible, the true writer should always be more interested in bewildering and angering his or her contemporaries. Socrates was put to death by his fellow Athenians for telling them home truths; numerous other intellectuals have suffered persecution for being out of tune with their times.

Any good writer should be alarmed by the thought of enjoying the esteem of his or her contemporaries. Writers who are adored by their own generations tend to be forgotten by future generations. Like Enid Blyton and Captain WE Johns before them, Stephen King and Wilbur Smith will fade from popularity in a few decades.

Many of the greatest writers have never been and never will be bestsellers, but remain in print perennially, influencing a minority of each new generation and finding their way into popular consciousness by indirect paths.

James Joyce has never been and never will be a bestselling author, but it is hard to disentangle his crowded and strange books from modern Irish consciousness. Despite or because of the fact that he exiled himself from his native land and saw his books banned there for decades, Joyce has become as much of an Irish icon as Guinness beer.

If we pick up any anthology of English poetry we can find the names of numerous writers who worked and died in disgrace or in obscurity. Blake and Hopkins were virtually unknown to their peers; Byron, Shelley, and Wilde were objects of contempt. Frank Sargeson, who virtually invented modern Pakeha literature, was persecuted by the state for his sexuality, lived for long periods on the dole and on his vegetable garden, and left a couple of dollars in his bank account.

The hostility at Kiwiblog to Belich, Kidman, and Bland suggests that, in spite of a bit of (well-deserved) public money and the odd handshake from unctuous politicians and judges, New Zealand writers remain healthily unpopular with many of their contemporaries.

Don Brash hasn't been leaving comments at Kiwiblog, but he has been thinking about reading and writing lately. After failing to lift Act's poll ratings with assaults on Maori nationalists, Brash appears to have turned his sights on that other favourite bogey of the hard right, schoolteachers. In a speech he gave at Act's Wellington regional Conference last weekend, Brash complained that New Zealand's public and integrated schools are run on 'communist' principles by teachers who are interested not in literacy but in indictrinating their charges with anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and the the doctrine of anthropogenic global warming.

I argued last month that Act's crack at Maoridom was vitiated by the way it contained contradictory messages aimed at the two contradictory parts of the party's social base. Act wanted to use libertarian arguments to dismiss the notion of a Maori collective identity in the twenty-first century, but these arguments clashed with its attempts to appeal to the ancient redneck fear of 'Maoris' in general.

Brash's speech on education seems as contradictory as his party's anti-Maori ads. He argues that we ought to be able to compare the performances of different schools, in the way we compare the performances of athletes. It is in theory be possible to do this, if all schools use similar curricula, and the same or similar examination systems.

But Brash also wants to abolish the requirement that schools which receive state funding have common curricula and similar exams. He says that parents and teachers ought to be able to set up any type of school offering any type of curriculum and exam system – 'Montessori, Steiner, Muslim, Marxist, Objectivist, or Buddhist' – without being regulated by the state that funds them. A Christian fundamentalist school would be free to teach the Book of Genesis in biology classes; a radical Steiner school would be free to dispense with the troublesome business of examinations. How can the demand for strict comparisons between schools be reconciled with the demand for the abandonment of any sort of state-sanctioned standards?

It seems to me that the contradiction in Brash's new argument stems from his usual desire to appeal to both the libertarian and socially conservative wings of his party.

To the urban, socially liberally, wealthy voters who have traditionally dominated Act, the destruction of all state regulation of education and the prospect of a plethora of educational options is very appealing. For the backward-looking redneck voters Brash is trying to win over, though, a monolithic education system is not objectionable, as long as it offers a return to the rote learning and strict discipline of 1950s and '60s schools. For these latter voters, the notion of subjecting students to identical exams and comparing schools as if they were rugby teams is very appealing.

By trying to appeal to two socially and politically contradictory groups of voters Brash has once again fashioned an incoherent and eccentric argument.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Politics and history on the Canaries: a chat with Sebastien Bano

[Regular readers of this blog may have seen Sebastien Bano popping up from time to time, either in the comments boxes or as a subject of posts. I met Sebastien, who works as a botanist but is almost equally passionate about history, economics, and politics, during a visit he made to New Zealand fifteen years ago, and I've kept in touch with him, his wife Severine, and their growing family ever since, getting postcards and e mails from places like New Caledonia, Clermont-Ferrand, the Azores, and southern Spain.

One very cold night last week I called the Canary Islands, where the Banos have lived for several years now. As he sat enjoying another balmy Canarian morning, Sebastien described some of the peculiar politics and history of his adopted home. I've long wanted to interview Sebastien about the Canaries, because I'm interested in the differences and similarities between their history and the history of the cold southern archipelago on which I dwell.]

Sebastien: The Canaries are geologically very much a part of Africa, and are of course physically much closer to that continent than to Europe. The vast majority of Canarians, though, have white skins. After the descendants of Iberian, the descendants of white Latin American (with different waves of Venezuelans and Cubans of different types, usually white or occasionally “mestizo”, in the last decades) comprise one of the largest groups. The Canaries and Venezuela have actually had a long and warm relationship - at times of turmoil in one place, refugees have taken shelter in the other.

I live with my family on La Palma, one of the less developed islands, where agriculture is more important to the economy than tourism. Bananas are particularly important. Like many tropical islands divided by a mountain, La Palma has a wet sheltered side and a dry, leeward side. You drive through a tunnel in our mountain and emerge in a different country. I live on the dry side of the island, where the original thermophile woodland has been replaced by exotic species. It was a classical tropical-subtropical forest, dominated by dragon trees, palm trees, wild pistacio, marmulano...only a few pieces of this ancient forest exist today. Plants which were restricted to cliff faces in ancient times, like the cactus, are now much more widespread...on the wet side of the island large tracts of rainforest are still found... Scott: The archaeologist Patrick Vinton Kirch wrote a very fine book called The Wet and the Dry about the French-administered island of Futuna in Western Polynesia. Futuna has a wet, irrigated side and a dry side, and traditionally these two areas were organised into different chiefdoms. Kirch shows how the different natural environments led to different social structures and cultures - the dry chiefdom was very hierarchical and warlike, while the wealthier wet chiefdom was more egalitarian and inward-looking. Kirch's conclusions, which he tries to generalise across much of Polynesia, fly in the face of Wiffogels' hydraulic hypothesis, and Marx's concept of an Asiatic Mode of Production. Both Marx and Wittfogel thought that irrigation led to greater social complexity and to authoritarianism -

Sebastien: There are many parts of French Polynesia, and Polynesia in general, which I wish I could visit. I have fantasised about going to Rapa Iti, and to the Chathams! On La Palma the system of irrigation is quite modern and efficient: water is directed from the highland to both sides of the island. There are of course arguments about how the water should be distributed - we have four acres of land, where we grow many fruits, and we must lobby for our share...

There are noticeable differences between the wet and dry zones of La Palma. The wet side of the island has many ornamental gardens, and is almost devoid of litter - our side, by contrast, is much messier, and less immediately attractive. This island resisted Franco's takeover during what is called the 'Red Week', but decades of his rule appear to have changed the consciousness of many residents...

Scott: What sort of changes did the Franco period bring to the Canaries?

Sebastien: One of the most important of the many negative effects of Francoism on the Canaries was the erosion of the sense of Macaronesian identity. Macaronesia is the name of the region which comprises the Canaries, the Cape Verde Islands, the Azores, and Madeira. These islands were all settled by the Spanish or the Portugese, or by both, and there were close connections between them for centuries. I have visited, studied and lived in different parts of Macaronesia, and it is easy for me to see all sorts of similarities between these places - there is a common style of agriculture, a common style of architecture, and the same native flora (and to a lesser degree) fauna. There are also linguistic connections. For example, people here call maize (“maiz” in Spanish) “millo” which is the Portuguese name for it. Chickpeas are called “arveja” instead of “garbanzos”, which again comes from the Portuguese “ervilha” (pronounced er-vi-ya). “Cachimba”, for a pipe (“pipa” in Spanish), again comes from the Portuguese “cachimbo”...

It goes without saying that these strong cultural links were accompanied by marriages and mixed lines of descent. After the Spanish, the Portuguese come second in terms of their impact on the genetic and cultural makeup of Canarians. This is why I said “descendants of Iberians” after your first question, rather than simply “descendants of Spanish”. Many family names confirm it: Acosta, Castro, Abreu, Brito, Marrero, are all distinctive Portuguese names, though they are sometimes considered in the Canary as “typically Canarian” (as they are obviously not Spanish).

I'm not sure what the exact causes of the erosion of Macaronesian identity were. Was the emnity between Franco and the Portugese dictator Salazar a factor? Was a decline in communications and trade between different parts of Macaronesia important?

I am not saying that there aren't differences between the regions, or sub-regions, of Macaronesia. Cape-Verde, for instance, is quite distinct in the sense that its inhabitants are mostly creole, with a brown skin, having both African and Portuguese origin...The Azores, Madeira, and the Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited before the arrival of Europeans, while the Canaries had an indigenous people, the Guanches -

Scott: It seems extraordinary that islands so close to Europe, not to mention Africa, avoided settlement for so long -

Sebastien: It is extraordinary! It is hard to believe that the Chatham Islands, those very isolated and bleak land masses so close to the bottom of the world, may have been settled before the Azores, a warm and fertile set of islands midway between two huge and heavily populated continents! But the Azores are guarded by very dangerous sea currents. Aquatechnology did not allow their conquest until the fifteenth century...

Back to the subject of Canarian identity. During Franco's long rule the Canaries were isolated from the rest of Macaronesia. Links forged by centuries of trade and friendship were severed. Only recently direct flights and maritime routes have been been opened again to Madeira. Unfortunately, most of the people who go there are either the learned Canarian upper class, or tourists. During the Franco era all but a small minority of Canarians began to identify as a distinct people, rather than as part of a larger society. And they began to look back to the distant past, and to appropriate the identity of the Guanches, the indigenous people of their islands.

Scott: Could you tell us a little bit about the Guanche people?

Sebastien: The Guanches were related to the Berber peoples, and probably settled the Canaries from that part of the world two or three thousand years ago. Like the Basques, in nearby South-Western Europe, the Berbers lived in Northern Africa before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. They survive in large numbers in North Africa, and have long suffered oppression at the hands of governments dominated by Arabs. Some say the situation is better today, but I can't honestly tell from myself...

The Canaries were settled in the fifteen century - well before the Enlightenment made Europeans - some Europeans, anyway - aware of the humanity of non-European peoples. The Guanche people were subdued by a series of wars, and also fell victim in large numbers to exotic diseases. They were effectively extinct within a couple of hundred years. There was interbreeding with the Spanish settlers, of course, but the Guanche language and the cultural practices were largely lost, even on relatively remote islands like La Palma.

It is important to be clear that Guanche culture was lost. History offers many examples of minorities who suffered oppression for centuries (sometimes even for thousands of years) yet survived. In the Canaries all was lost, apart from what was documented by observers and scholars. The Canaries population is in key respects a Catholic Latin community. Their music, their arts in general, their architecture are typically Hispano-Portuguese (or shall I say northern Macaronesian, because it also includes other influences - from Flanders, from Normandy, from other places - which give it its specificity?)

In the second half of the twentieth century, some Canarians started to identify themselves as Guanche or African. They began to give their children Guanche names, which is in fact quite a nice practice, I think. Some had more political motivations, and began to use Guanche symbols on their flags, and some even travelled to North Africa, where they met with Berber nationalists. In the 1970s self-proclaimed Guanche nationalists launched a number of terrorist attacks in the Canaries. The worst air disaster in history, the collision of two 747s at Tenerife in 1977, occurred after a group calling itself the Guanche Armed Forces phoned in a bomb threat to an airport. Today the claim to a Guanche identity is a cornerstone of the ideology of the Canarian nationalist parties. These groups advocate independence for the Canaries and claims that the supposed descendants of the Guanche should have more rights than Canarians of merely Iberian descent.

Scott: The sort of reinvention of identity that you are describing has occurred often in different parts of the world. Some of my ancestors came from the Protestant community in Northern Ireland - they were, in all likelihood, the descendants of Gaelic-speaking Scots who came to Ulster when the English were consolidating their control of the province, but they identified not as Celts but as English. In fact, they thought themselves more English than the English!

How do we deal with this sort of cultural confusion? If we accept that culture is something fluid, and that people have a certain amount of choice over their cultural identity, then do we have to allow Ulster Protestants to be English, and Canarian nationalists to be Guanche? Does their historically dubious claim to an identity become, over time, legitimate, if it is repeated often enough, with enough conviction?

Sebastien: The problem is that people claim to be Guanche, hence Berber, but the Berber peoples have a very distinct culture, cosmology and set of languages. I have Berber friends, and I know Canarians who claim to be Guanche. The two groups have little (in fact nothing) in common...and it would be dishonest to pretend that this is the fault of a colonial domination...

People can forget about their culture, the central government can make them forget about their identity, but some roots always remain alive! The proof is in all the words, the music, the architecture, the plants, and so on. The problem is that the Canarian culture is not Guanche/Benahoare, but Macaronesian/Hispano-Portuguese!
Only names of rocks, mountains and (recently) those given to streets, companies, and so on, are Guanche...This is anecdotical evidence, I know, but I think it is significant. Most Canarians have simply forgotten where they mainly come from. But even if the ancient cultural common“wealth” shared with Madeira and consorts is ignored, it's still here! Everywhere! And it is a delightful, magnificent heritage, I can tell you.

Scott: In a sense, then, the would-be Guanches of today aren't trying hard enough?

Sebastien: Culture is about more than what name you give your child. Imagine someone who only went to church for weddings and funerals and yet stood up and claimed to an authority on theological matters, and you'll have some sense of the confusion on the Canaries...

Here's another analogy: imagine if the Pakeha of the Chatham Islands suddenly began to claim to be Moriori, and to use this claim to try to separate from the rest of New Zealand. Would you accept such a distortion of history?

Scott: In many parts of the world, separatist movements have tended to find their politics on the left. Why has Canarian nationalism taken a right-wing trajectory? How close is the Canarian Coalition to the right-wing parties of Spain?

Sebastien: Xenophobia is the root of the problem. Nationalist parties are not necessarily on good terms with the European right. The Popular Party, which is main opposition party in Spain, has little time for the myth of Guanche nationalism. They are committed to the maintenance of the Spanish state. Some of their supporters, here on La Palma as well as elsewhere, look back to the days of Franco, who hated separatism and regionalism and even banned languages like Basque and Catalan, as a time of unity and stability...And there are also partisans of the Popular Party who are not nostalgic for Franco but still defend the unity of the nation.

Scott: So two myths are colliding, the myth of a unified Spain and the myth of a Guanche nation?

Sebastien: One prejudice is confronting another prejudice. Though I am definitely on the side of Spanish unity. I'm not keen about division, I fear that with such an ideology, we may all end with minuscule territories, fighting county against county, like during the Middle Ages. And even inside these tiny small territories, there would be fights between one clan and another. The “good old times” were hell. Learning to live in a society requires the acceptance of some differences. As long as there is no abuse, of course. I hate cultural disdain for minorities...even democratic countries could do better in order to save local cultures. In France, for example, the Occitan identity diminishes a little more every day, and on peninsular Spain it is sad to see the Asturian, Aragonese, and other cultures vanishing. But maintaining a language and an identity (which requires the help of the national government) does not necessarily mean segregation, independence nor any violent rejecton of all that is related to the dominant culture. Is Cervantes responsible for the mess made by some conquistadors? Would loving Catalan culture mean detesting Castillan heritage? No way!

Every part of Macaronesia has lost its bonds with the others...and here, as elsewhere, people adopt a consumerist way of life, lose their rich, exceptional heritage and, on top of that, venture into misleading myths. To come back to the Canarian political situation, it is interesting to note that the Socialist Party, which is in power in Madrid, lost many regions during last spring's elections, and yet won effective control of the local government of the Canary autonomous region by taking part in a coalition with the main (but relatively moderate) nationalist party.

Scott: Are there some non-political reasons for the adoption of what we might call the neo-Guanche identity? Are some of the Canarians who claim today to be Guanche in search of a greater sense of belonging? Are they in the game for existential rather than political reasons?

Perhaps a comparison can be made between the neo-Guanche and the so-called Lia Pootah people, who claim to be the descendants of Tasmanian Aboriginals who hid in the interior of their homeland and avoided deportation to Flinders Island in the 1830s. Historians believe that all of Tasmania's surviving Aborginals had been removed to Flinders by 1833, and doubt that any 'lost tribe' could have existed unnoticed in the forests and mountains for decades. For their part, the descendants o
f the Aboriginal communities established on Flinders after the deportations say that they are the only indigenous Tasmanians. Yet the Lia Pootah people insist on their identity as Aboriginals, and respond angrily to anyone who doubts their claims...

Sebastien: We all need roots. Perhaps we need roots more than ever at a time when a globalised capitalism is in crisis. I had a Spanish father and a French mother, and spent part of my youth in France and part in Spain. In France many people saw me as Spanish, and in Spain some saw me as French! But I would like to think I can be French and Spanish! And I feel a close connection to New Zealand. As you know I spent long periods in New Zealand in 1996 and again in 2008: perhaps if I had been able to settle in New Zealand permanently with my family then I would have begun to identify as a Kiwi.

I am not opposed to people having roots - I just object to the distortion of history and to those cultural identities which imply the marginalisation of other cultures...

One of the reasons I am enthusiastic about the Macaronesian identity is that it does not rely upon appeals to bloodlines and on the exclusion of immigrant communities. I recently talked with a man, a white Canary Islander, who had visited the Cape Verde Islands, where most of the population has brown skin and speaks a Portugese Creole. He told me "I thought those people were foreigners, but they are quite like me, though their skins are darker". I like that attitude.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A new broadcast from Id Radio

Some months ago, in a warm, dry, almost windless Auckland that now seems like it must have existed in the middle of a distant continent, not on this dark and snowy island, I described, in what might charitably be called a prose poem, one of the long and peculiar dreams which are a side effect of the unglamorous drug called tramadol. In the comments thread under my post Keri Hulme recommended dark chocolate to those seeking especially vivid dreams, and Richard Taylor described his unpleasant encounter with tramadol.

Over the past week or so I've commandeered hot water bottles and cats as well as Skyler's half of the duvet in an attempt to sleep warmly. I've been sleeping for longer than normal, and I've noticed that I've been dreaming, night after night, about falling, often with the aid of a parachute or wings, and often out of a very cold sky towards a bright but not necessarily inviting earth. Am I right in guessing that the new recurrent dream is a sort of simulation of my cold and creaky body's collapse into the warmth of bed and the relief of sleep, or should I be getting out Jung and Freud and finding symbolic explanations for those silk chutes and Icarus feathers, not to mention the giant tortoise which seems, for no immediately obvious reason, always to be falling out of the sky beside me?

I wrote the following poem - in bed, of course - about the latest recurrent dream, and added an epigraph from Tomas Transtromer, who was voted the world's greatest living writer by readers of this blog back in 2006. Tomas is still alive, and I'm pleased to see that he's made the bookies' shortlist for this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. Tomas has written wonderfully about cold winter nights, but his fellow Swede Gunnar Ekelof probably has the spookiest poem on the subject. Ekelof's text thrilled and divided commenters here back in 2007, and it still makes my toenails curl up, especially when cold winds are blowing from Antarctica.

The Parachutist

'Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams'
- TT

amongst your squadron
a giant war tortoise
as a dud radio
its leather armour ripped off,
revealing red lines
of the enemy city

for millennia
a moment
you are motionless
then you fall
out of heaven's
humming fuselage

the city's slabs
of darkness
canal boats
barrage balloons
rickety pylons

the chutes snap
open, puff like frogs
the squadron will land
in seventy-three seconds
the tortoise will be turned on its side
the tortoise will be mounted on poles
the tortoise will become
a battering ram

(the bombs came earlier
the bombs come later
the bombs are reduction
the bombs are perfection
the bombs fall
on Byzantium
on Goddodin
on Rekohu
on Rome

(Byzantium is reduced
to a single brick
Rome is reduced
to one wing
of its sewer
Goddodin reduced
to Aneurin's
nipped voice
Rekohu reduced
to a wash-through raft

in the cargo hold in the jumping bay
you were at war
on the ground you will be at war
but while you fall you are neutral
while you fall you are unnatural
like hailstones
like moonlight
like the swan that fires its afterburners
to escape this shrapnel

you close your eyes
you close your eyes to keep the cold
the rising city out
this is a dream you pray
this is a dream
this is a broadcast
from the Id
a secretion
of the pineal gland

you will land from the dream
in your childhood bed
you will wake to find horses
leaning over you
horses nibbling and nuzzling
the patterns on your quilt
patches of moonlight will lie
like saddles on their backs
you will have three minutes to clear
the landing area
before the first bombs fall

Monday, August 15, 2011

Questions from the Bill

After viewing the promo clip and introductory statement for Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road, a documentary Paul Janman and I plan to make over the next few months, the distinguished Franco-Kiwi musician and writer Bill Direen fired off a series of challenging and important questions. Here are Paul's replies to the Bill's queries...

Bill: Hearing about the publication of dozens of faces of riot suspects today I am wondering if your film addresses the matter of the invasion of privacy. Who are you talking to? To the people you film, like the guy in the back seat of the car who gestures, then smiles, then isn't sure what the heck you are doing? Or are you making the film for posterity? Or to advance your own status as (highly informed, at times eloquent, I agree) commentator?

Paul: These are the sort of questions we hoped our project would provoke. We have prepared a list of places on and around the Great South Road to visit and invited certain key people to be interviewed, but we don't want to predetermine the outcome of our investigations. We want to leave space for our subjects, and our audiences, to shout back at us. We'll ‘go to the street’ see who’s there, film them, screen them, in a series of 'webisodes', and discuss them and their ideas.

Let's consider the image of the young man in the car, which occurs in our promo clip, and which has gotten Bill thinking about questions of consent and security. I find the image highly ironic. Did Bill notice the sign pasted to a wall behind the young man? The sign says Remote Monitored Surveillance Cameras In Operation.

There were about ten thousand CCTV cameras watching rioters in London. What the rioting kids have been doing is, arguably, no more opportunistic than what bankers in the City of London have been doing for ages. Think of the bankers' irresponsible speculation, their fat bonuses, and the way the state has bailed them out. Unlike the bankers, the rioters will probably be brought to account because of CCTV and mobile phone surveillance footage. The camera is, in London at least, the enemy of the criminal poor and the friend of the system which protects the criminal rich.

As the sign in our promo clip shows, CCTV cameras are not unknown in Auckland. We can assume that, in this city as well as in London, these devices detect certain types of criminal activity whilst missing others. Am I acting like a cop, by filming South Aucklanders without their consent? Is the modest camera I wield another piece of the surveillance machine?

I may be filming some of the same scenes as the CCTV cameras, but I ask Bill to trust, provisionally at least, that I operate according to a code of ethics that differs from that of the security guards and cops who stare through CCTV cameras.

The young man captured in our promo clip is not doing anything incriminating. He is a bit bemused, but he is not aggressively resisting being filmed. He is being filmed without his consent, but perhaps he reclaims his stolen agency by giving us the finger to his own head right before our promo clip fades to black.

Writing a century and a half ago, Baudelaire noted the 'forest of eyes' which was a feature of the nascent modern city. In the era of CCTV, Google Earth, and cellphone cameras the forest grows thicker than ever. I believe that by calling attention to and commenting ironically on the level of surveillance in the modern city film makers can help to prevent the abuse of surveillance.

I don't want to pretend, though, to be morally pure or straightforwardly politically motivated. I think that any documentary that is more than completely prescribed and inane will sometimes verge on exploitation. I often think of the Maysles brothers’ ambiguous relationship to the Beales or Micha Peled’s deception of the factory boss in China Blue. The subject of Errol Morris’ film Tabloid is seriously pissed off with him. The point is that everyone suffers a little bit for art but sometimes the results are worth it.

Having said that, I would love to find a way to get the guy filmed in the promo back into the discursive process of our film – maybe I should have held up a link to a website or handed him a card? This is a problem...but I think car-to-car shots will be exceptional: most of what we will end up shooting will probably be on foot and face-to-face.

Bill: Do you not run the risk of being a modern equivalent of the safari hunters, only you are hunting human misery? Anyone can be made to look as if he or she is in a cage, even you, perhaps.

This is a matter of perception. I don’t immediately see misery in the images in our promo clip. Great South Road is certainly one of the ugliest places in Auckland but it’s also beautiful – and the idea of discovering beauty in places bypassed by our tourism industry is a part of our project.

Perhaps misery is built into stereotypes of places like the Great South Road and urban Polynesia, but I have had quite a lot to do with such places (I spent a couple of years in Nuku'alofa, my wife works in Otara, my kids go to school in Otahuhu). I get close enough to see some of the mundane as well as the ‘terrible’ beauty in them. I actually see more misery in places like the North Shore...

Bill: Your blog, could it not be a kind of cheap economic trap? Is your film not yet another attempt to own the Auckland area, to use it for your own career ends, or to mark it as your intellectual territory?

Someone once asked Albert Maysles if he found it hard to make a living, and all he could say as he looked around his spartan office was 'Do I actually make a living?' And Maysles's subjects were far more marketable than ours.

To the extent that we might want to further our careers as artists then of course we’re furthering our careers! What’s the alternative? In terms of ‘owning Auckland’, we’ll leave that to Google and the CCTVs. If ‘marking our intellectual territory’ means transforming the image of our lived environment through poetic selection then yes, we seek to recuperate the people and the stories we find from the grip of capitalist space and time. Read the CROSTOPI Manifesto.

If we have to piggyback on the universal recording instruments of Google, of CCTVs and whatever personal footage people send us in order to do it, then we will. But we are subjects too...we exist in our own cages and if we’re aware of our limitations, they’ll be apparent in our choices. Questions like Bill's help us remain aware of our limitations...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The long war

As a militaristic child, who learned about history through Battle Picture Weekly comics, I was fascinated by the failure of many Japanese soldiers to acknowledge the surrender of their country and the formal end of World War Two in August 1945.

As my comics reminded me, fragments of the Japanese Imperial Army fought on, for months or years or even decades, on isolated islands in the Philippines and Indonesia, refusing to heed demands for their surrender, even when these demands came from their own postwar government. Instead of handing in their battle swords and shipping back to the home country, the Japanese 'stragglers' waged quixotic and increasingly feeble guerrilla wars in the hills and forests of their host islands, creeping into the villages of incredulous locals to shoot pigs and burn piles of harvested grain. Hiroo Onoda, the last of the 'stragglers', did not give up the cause until 1974 - the year I was born.

There is something about the sheer incorribility of the typical conspiracy theory that reminds me of the long war waged by Hiroo Onoda and his comrades. No matter how often and how patiently they are debunked, claims that 9/11 was an inside job, that whites were really the first people to reach New Zealand, or that vaccinations cause autism seem to resurface, again and again, on the internet or on talkback radio or in conversations at the pub, complete each time with new elaborations and distortions.

Here's a chain e mail which I received a couple of days ago, together with the reply I wrote to it:

When I was a kid, I couldn't understand why Eisenhower was so popular. Maybe this will explain why.

General Eisenhower Warned Us.

It is a matter of history that when the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, found the victims of the death camps he ordered all possible photographs to be taken, and for the German people from surrounding villages to be ushered through the camps and even made to bury the dead.

He did this because he said in words to this effect:

'Get it all on record now - get the films - get the witnesses - because somewhere down the road of history some person will get up and say that this never happened'

This week, the UK debated whether to remove The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it 'offends' the Muslim population which claims it never occurred. It is not removed as yet.. However, this is a frightening portent of the fear that is gripping the world and how easily each country is giving into it.

It is now more than 60 years after the Second World War in Europe ended. This e-mail is being sent as a memorial chain, in memory of the, six million Jews, 20 million Russians, 10 million Christians, and 1,900 Catholic priests Who were 'murdered, raped, burned, starved, beaten, experimented on and humiliated' while many in the world looked the other way!

Now, more than ever, with Iran , among others, claiming the Holocaust to be 'a myth,' it is imperative to make sure the world never forgets.

This e-mail is intended to reach 400 million people! Be a link in the memorial chain and help distribute this around the world.

How many years will it be before the attack on the World Trade Centre


because it offends someone???

Do not just delete this message; it will take only a minute to pass this along.

Hi folks,

the message you are forwarding around the net is a hoax invented by far right anti-Muslim groups in Britain. The British government has not issued some sort of edict banning the discussion of the Holocaust in the schools of that country. There's a BBC story on the subject archived here.

Xenophobic groups like the English Defence League and the British National Party have been alleging for a while that Muslims and Western governments are conspiring to 'Arabise' Europe, and the charge that the Holocaust is being removed from public discourse in the UK as a concession to Muslims has been peddled as part of this conspiracy theory. (I blogged recently about the 'Eurabia' conspiracy theory, and the way that it inspired Anders Breivik to go on his killing spree in Norway.)

There are four things which ought to strike you as fishy about the message you are forwarding.

In the first place, the notion that the Holocaust should be some sort of offensive or sensitive subject for Muslims is absurd: it was, after all, Christian Europe rather than the Muslim Middle East which committed the Holocaust. Some parts of the Muslim world - areas in North Africa, for example - actually functioned as sanctuaries for Jews during the Holocaust.

The total absence of references in the message you have forwarded should also have struck you as suspicious. If a group of people wants to make an extraordinary and inflammatory claim then, if it wants to have any credibility, that group ought to identify itself, and provide links to some piece of primary material - a news report, a press release, a speech - which supports its claim.

The message's claim that 'ten million Christians' died in the Holocaust is very odd. The Holocaust is normally defined as a genocide suffered by Jews and Romanies at the hands of the Nazis. While many victims of the Nazis were Christians - Poland, for instance, suffered terrible losses during World War Two - I have never heard anyone allege that the Nazis set out to exterminate Christians.* The claim that Christians as well as Jews were victims of the Holocaust seems to me to be part of a bizarre attempt to reframe the event as some sort of Muslim-sponsored atrocity against Europeans.

The very unpleasant closing sentences of the message you have sent me should also have raised your hackles. The authors of the message suggest that, after banning discussion of the Holocaust, Muslims will next try to ban discussion of the 9/11 attacks. Such a claim is based on the premise that all Muslims are somehow responsible for and supportive of the 9/11 attacks. In reality, large numbers of Muslims died in the twin towers and few Muslims support Al Qaeda's campaign of terror.

The irony of all this is that the groups which peddle nonsense about Muslims wanting to ban the Holocaust are themselves filled with anti-semites. Both the English Defence League and the British National Party have their roots in Britian's neo-Nazi movement. The BNP has a very long history of Holocaust denial; the EDL is a much younger group, but its members have been seen giving Nazi salutes and waving swastika flags. The BNP, the EDL, and other far right groups have sniffed the breeze and realised that there is more anti-Muslim bigotry than anti-semitism about in today's Europe. They have therefore tried to pose as defenders of Jewish and Christian civilisation against the Muslim hordes which are supposedly taking over Britain and other European nations. We should not be taken in by them.


*It is true that large percentage of Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to concentration camps, but their persecution was a result of their refusal to do military service, not the simple fact of their religion. Jehovah's Witnesses could be released from the camps immediately if they pledged to do military service, though very few of these courageous people ever made such a concession to Nazism.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Anti-travelling south

At the end of last week I blogged about the anti-travel film Paul Janman and I plan to make down Auckland's Great South Road, and asked for suggestions about possible scenes and interview subjects. Here's a promo for our project.
Send us your own clip (feel free to make it using your cellphone, or your laptop, or some other handy gadget) and we'll see if we can squeeze it into our opus...

Monday, August 08, 2011

Outside the machine: notes on Ruairi O'Bradaigh

[Several months ago I was asked to contribute to a proposed book about the history of the British left since 1956. My contribution was to take the form of a very short abstract, which could be expanded into a chapter if the book were accepted by a publisher. I suppose that I could have written something about my mate EP Thompson and the 'New Left' movement he helped to create in the late 1950s and early '60s, but I've just published a book which dwells on that subject, and I worried that I'd end up repeating what I'd already written there.

I decided to write something about Irish Republicanism and its impact on the British left during the Troubles. It might reasonably be asked what possible insights a thirty-something Kiwi who has never visited Ireland could have about such a subject. I certainly agree that it would be quixotic for me to try to recapitulate the story of the Troubles in great detail, or to analyse in definitive detail the effects of the Good Friday Agreement from the other side of the world.

I'd like to think, though, that someone who examines a very complicated and parochial society and political scene from a great distance and an unusual angle can occasionally see something which eludes locals. My friend Carey Davies, who admits to being a Yorkshire national chauvinist, argues that one of the best things about living in New Zealand is the odd angle this place provides for observers of northern hemisphere societies.

In the introduction to my book on Thompson, I argued that I might have been able to see some of his preoccupations - his identification with obscure and provincial cultures and societies, for example, and his sympathy for peoples fighting the enclosure of their land by capitalist 'modernisers' - with a certain clarity, because of my residence in the South Pacific. I'm sure there are things that I missed because of my location, things that Carey and others northerners can pick up.

I'd like to think that the oft-remarked parallels between New Zealand and Irish history, and between the Maori and Irish fights against imperialism, offer a potential way into Irish Republicanism for a Kiwi.

It's impossible to read about the decision of the Irish Republicans to set up a parrallel, anti-colonial state in 1919 and not think about the separate parliaments, police, and dog tax collectors of the Kingitanga movement. The arguments of Irish Republicans about whether or not to abstain from imperialist institutions like Stormont and Westminster resemble the difficult debates within Tainui over whether or not to recognise Pakeha local and national governments in the early twentieth century, and similar debates going on now in parts of Tuhoe Country, in Northland, and on the East Cape. The story of the revolt against conscription in Ireland during World War One reminds us of the resistance to the same policy in the Waikato and Tuhoe Country at the same time.

But the connections between the fight for tino rangatiratanga and the fight for a free Ireland don't have to be deduced by academics or left-wing theorieticians: they've been grasped by the fighters themselves. It was a group of Irish Fenian miners calling themselves the tribe of 'Aorihi' who supported Te Kooti during his war with the New Zealand state, selling him ammunition during secret meetings in Karangahake Gorge. It was Maori members of the Patu Squad jailed in Mt Eden in the aftermath of the 1981 Springbok Tour who wrote to Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers in Long Kesh prison to express their solidarity with the Irish cause.

I settled on the veteran Irish Republican Ruairi O'Bradaigh as a subject about a month ago, because he seemed, like EP Thompson before him, to be a man whose ideas are profound enough to transcend the political circumstances which prompted them. That doesn't mean, of course, that his ideas are necessarily correct.

O'Bradaigh's involvement in an armed struggle inevitably makes it more difficult to discuss his work in a detached way. In countries distant from a national liberation struggle there is always a danger of either romanticising or automatically condemning the protagonists of that struggle. My father-in-law is a veteran of an Irish band which played the Auckland and Waikato pub circuit in the eraly 1990s, and he recalls how he'd often be asked to play a song celebrating some IRA raid or bomb in the middle of happy hour or a raucous function. He always refused, because he was disgusted by the idea that the bloody details of war could be fitted snugly into a song and a good night out on the other side of the world.

I can understand my father-in-law's criticism of the easy romancing of the Troubles, but the kneejerk condemnation of the IRA and Sinn Fein in the media and amongst my schoolteachers during the 1980s was surely just as smugly self-righteous.

Looking back, I can appreciate how differently the wars in South Africa and Ireland were presented in the media and in classrooms during the '80s. Both the IRA and the ANC were killing people with bombs, organising riots, and engaging in peaceful politics by holding rallies and distributing propaganda, but the media and my Social Studies teachers seemed always to emphasise the violence of the Irish, and the peaceful actions of the Africans. Nelson Mandela, who with every justification had waged a bombing and shooting campaign against the South African state, was presented as a second Gandhi, while Martin McGuinness and other IRA leaders, who were waging a similar sort of campaign in Nothern Ireland, were likened to Nazis.

Of course, both romancing and demonising are ways of avoiding investigation and reflection, and the sort of uncomfortable ambiguity which is such a common result of investigation and reflection.

I have been intermittently lost in the forest of literature on the Troubles over the past month, and what follows is an appallingly long draft of an abstract for an essay about Ruairi O'Bradaigh and the British left. It represents a hunch rather than a firmly-held point of view. I apologise fulsomely to the unfortunate pair of scholars who made the mistake of asking me to write something for them. I'll list and discuss some of the sources on O'Bradaigh in a later post.]

Outside the machine: notes on Ruairi O'Bradaigh

Historians of left-wing politics in the British Isles tend to associate the year 1956 with two seminal events: the neo-colonial Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, which prompted huge demonstrations and helped politicise a generation of young Britons, and the exodus from Britain's Communist Party caused by Hungary's anti-Stalinist revolution and the obscene sight of its repression by Soviet tanks.

There is, however, a third important event of 1956 which has seldom attracted much attention from scholars of the left. On the 12th of December 1956 one hundred and fifty Irish Republican Army volunteers descended on a variety of targets across Northern Ireland. A radio transmitter was bombed, a courthouse was burned, and a police post and army barracks were attacked. The assaults marked the beginning of the IRA's 'Border Campaign', which involved more than three hundred violent incidents in 1957 alone and would not end until 1962. In response to the campaign, both the British and Irish governments interned hundreds of their citizens without trial. Some of the internees were held for years. In its early years, especially, the Border Campaign aroused great support in Ireland. Fifty thousand mourners turned out for the funeral of the first volunteer killed in the campaign, and a number of IRA fighters were elected to parliament in southern Ireland’s 1957 general election.

On the 12th of December 1956 a twenty-four year-old named Ruairi O'Bradaigh was the deputy commander of the IRA's Teeling Flying Column, which crossed the border into the north looking to ambush armed police and attack police posts. During the Border Campaign O'Bradaigh would quickly rise to prominence in the IRA and in the Republican movement as a whole. On the last day of December O’Bradaigh was arrested by southern Irish police after returning from a raid. O’Bradaigh was incarcerated, but in March he was elected to Ireland's parliament, and in September of the following year he escaped from internment and rejoined the IRA, which made him its chief of staff. O'Bradaigh returned to his job as an Irish teacher in County Roscommon after the end of the Border Campaign, but he remained very involved in the Republican movement. After the outbreak of mass violence in Northern Ireland in the middle of 1969 he co-founded the Provisional IRA, and in 1970 he became President of the army’s political wing, Provisional Sinn Fein. He held this post until 1983, when he was pushed aside by Gerry Adams and a group of younger men from the north.

In 1986 O’Bradaigh left Provisional Sinn Fein in protest at the party's decision to abandon its policy of ‘abstentionism’ and recognise the legitimacy of the southern Irish state. He founded Republican Sinn Fein, a relatively small organisation which has been connected with the 'Continuity IRA', a splinter group of the Provisional IRA. Both Republican Sinn Fein and the Continuity IRA have been outspoken critics of the Good Friday Agreement and the role of Adams' Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland's post-Good Friday government. O’Bradaigh led Republican Sinn Fein until 2009 and continues to represent the group at many public events.

During his early years as leader of Provisional Sinn Fein O'Bradaigh travelled frequently, explaining the party’s ideas and seeking support in Europe and America. Despite the war in Northern Ireland and its rhetorical commitment to anti-imperialism and confrontation with the state, Britain's radical left was often very dismissive of O'Bradaigh and his cause. The far left of the Labour Party, the Communist Party, and Trotskyist groups like the International Socialists all distanced themselves in various ways from both the methods and the message of the IRA and Sinn Fein. In the years since his split with Gerry Adams, O'Bradaigh has dropped off the radar of most of Britain's radical left. Active condemnation has given way to what Bordiga called 'the critique of silence'.

Irish Republicans have had a more ambiguous attitude towards O'Bradaigh. He is almost universally admired for his feats as a soldier in the 1950s and ‘60s and for his reputed integrity and selflessness. Many Republicans, though, have come to see O'Bradaigh as a quixotic figure, out of touch with modern Irish life and politics and wedded to noble but dangerously outdated notions of an endless armed struggle against 'the Brits'. Even some of the Republicans who reject the Good Friday Agreement and regard Adams' Sinn Fein with contempt see O’Bradaigh as a man of the past.

O’Bradaigh’s critics have frequently accused him of a ‘mystical’ and ‘legalistic’ attachment to the policy of abstentionism, and a ‘militarist’ hostility to progressive politics.

Under O’Bradaigh’s leadership first Provisional Sinn Fein and then Republican Sinn Fein maintained the traditional Republican refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of both the six county statelet of North Ireland and the twenty-six county state in southern Ireland. Although they sometimes stood successfully for election to the Dail in Dublin, Stormont in Nothern Ireland, and Westminster in London, Sinn Fein members never took seats in these parliaments. Nor did members of O’Bradaigh’s organisations accept the legitimacy of the armies and police forces employed by the governments in Dublin and Belfast.

Abstentionists like O’Bradaigh look for inspiration to 1919, when more than seventy Sinn Feiners were elected to the Westminster parliament during an all-Irish election. Instead of travelling to London and taking their seats, the new MPs established a rebel parliament in Dublin and, eventually, a rebel state with its own army, police force, courts, and taxes. The abstentionist MPs saw themselves as representatives of the Irish Republic proclaimed during the 1916 Easter Rising, and helped direct the Irish Republican Army’s war against British authority in Ireland. After the partition of Ireland in 1922 many Sinn Fein members remained loyal to the Republic of 1916. The old Dail elected in 1919 continued to meet, and claimed to be the real source of authority in Ireland, even after the anti-partitionists had been defeated in the Irish Civil War of 1922-23.

In 1938 the surviving members of the 1919 parliament vested their ‘powers’ in the IRA’s Army Council. Since then, abstentionist Republicans have considered the Army Council to be the true government of all of Ireland. Under O’Bradaigh’s watch, volunteers who carried out bombings and shootings were told that they were acting on the orders of the Irish Republic established in 1916 and maintained by the IRA.

Ruairi O’Bradaigh has argued indefatigably against Republicans opposed to the policy of abstentionism. He co-founded the Provisional IRA in 1969 after a split over abstentionism, and he broke with Gerry Adams over the issue seventeen years later. O’Bradaigh’s critics accuse him of a romantic attachment to the events of 1916 and 1919, and a legalistic rather than realistic attitude to the contemporary Irish states. In the 1970s, even the more radical parts of the British left urged the IRA and Sinn Fein to abandon abstentionism and engage with the Dail and Westminster. Today, in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement and attempts to reform the Northern Ireland state, many Republicans see O’Bradaigh’s continuing rejection of Ireland’s actually existing parliaments as perverse.

But O’Bradaigh’s abstentionism has never been quite as ridiculous as his critics claim. O’Bradaigh has opposed participation in the Dail, Westminster and Stormont partly because he has been convinced that any Republican who enters those bodies becomes, in his words, ‘a part of the machine’ of imperialism and capitalism. O’Bradaigh believes that the careers of men like Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, and Gerry Adams show the perils of entering ‘the machine’.

O’Bradaigh harks back to the Dail of 1919 because he admires the way that its members established their own revolutionary state alongside the British colonial state.

In an internal Sinn Fein document written in 1983, during the struggle with Adams over the direction of the organisation, O’Bradaigh argued that Provisional Sinn Fein and the IRA needed to organise a ‘big successful heave to topple the system’, rather than entering mainstream politics and ‘tinkering with the system’. O’Bradaigh suggested that Provisional Sinn Fein and the IRA emulate the Republicans of 1919 by creating ‘an alternative mechanism of government’ and thereby bringing about the ‘dual power situation which is the essence of revolution’. O’Bradaigh’s advocacy of abstentionism is not, then, a simple act of rejection. As well as opposing compromise with ‘the machine’, O’Bradaigh advocates a revolutionary alternative to politics as usual.

O’Bradaigh’s critics have also accused him of being hostile to left-wing politics, and of substituting military action for a rational political programme. It is true that, during the infighting which split the IRA and Sinn Fein at the end of the 1960s, O’Bradaigh opposed the faction of self-proclaimed socialists grouped around IRA leader Cathal Goulding. But O’Bradaigh’s objection was not to socialism so much as to Stalinism. He disliked the Soviet Union, seeing it as a ‘totalitarian’ society which oppressed nations on its fringes like Hungary and Czechoslovakia in much the same way that Britain oppressed Ireland. O’Bradaigh knew that Goulding and other leading members of his faction like Roy Jenkins had close connections with Moscow’s allies and apologists in the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of Ireland. He feared that Goulding and co would try to turn Irish Republicanism into a tool of Soviet foreign policy.

Critical of both 'Western capitalism' and Eastern bloc ‘state capitalism', O'Bradaigh has attempted since the 1960s to develop a distinctly Irish form of socialism. After the IRA’s Border Campaign ended in failure in 1962, O’Bradaigh had realised that Republicans needed to talk about economic and social questions as well as British imperialism. When he stood for Westminster parliament on behalf of Sinn Fein in 1966 O’Bradaigh emphasised not only his commitment to a thirty-two county Ireland and to abstentionism but his support for policies like the nationalisation of large Irish companies, controls on credit entering and leaving the country, and limits on the size of farms. In his articles for the Republican press O'Bradaigh began to quote James Connolly’s warning that Irish independence would be 'in vain' if it were not accompanied by the establishment of a 'just social and economic system'. O’Bradaigh did not only look to Connolly and other left-wing Republicans for inspiration, as he developed his ideas: he kept a close eye on the world beyond Ireland, and in was able to study in some depth subjects like the Algerian anti-colonial struggle and Tanzanian leader Julius Nyrere’s experiments with ‘African socialism’.

In his 1970 article 'Restore the Means of Production to the People', O’Bradaigh argued that the decentralised, communal nature of the pre-capitalist Irish economy could be a model for a modern system which avoided the individualism of capitalism and the authoritarianism of the Soviet bloc societies. O'Bradaigh repeated his argument for the nationalisation of strategic assets and industries, but he favoured placing small-scale industries under the control of local cooperatives. He advocated limiting the power of central government, and giving considerable autonomy to Ireland's regions.

O'Bradaigh argued that Ireland suffered from a 'triple minority' problem, pointing out that the Protestants, the nationalists trapped in Northern Ireland, and the Irish-speakers of the west of the country were all vulnerable groups whose rights needed to be protected. A decentralised state and economy were the way to do that. In the 1970s, as he struggled to negotiate a peace deal in Northern Ireland, O’Bradaigh repeatedly insisted that the Protestants of the north were 'part of the Irish nation', and criticised Republicans who wanted to subject them to the rule of the 'confessional' state which had been established in the south after 1922. O’Bradaigh’s vision of a multi-polar Ireland enabled him to meet and dialogue with Protestant politicians who usually refused to go near Republicans. Many of O'Bradaigh's ideas became Provisional Sinn Fein policy. His vision of a decentralised Ireland was reflected in the Eire Nua policy, which called for the country to be split into four self-governing provinces, including a twelve-county Ulster. A federal government based not in Dublin but in the small County Westmeath town of Athlone would have responsibility for Ireland's foreign policy and defence.

When Adams and his allies pushed O'Bradaigh out of power they did so partly by attacking his vision of a postcolonial Ireland. Adams and his supporters appealed to sectarian hatred of Protestants in an effort to discredit O'Bradaigh's Eire Nua policies. They characterised the notion of a self-governing Ulster province as a sop to Orangemen, and insisted that Ireland's Protestants should have to accept domination by a Dublin-based government. Cynically employing 'orthodox' Marxist language and appeals to the authority of the Soviet Union to win over left-wing grassroots members of Sinn Fein, some of O'Bradaigh's opponents condemned his proposals for workers cooperatives and an agrarian socialism as reactionary and utopian.

In recent decades the end of Cold War historiographical orthodoxies, the publication of long-unseen manuscripts, and the efforts of scholars like Karl Anderson and James D White have helped bring attention to the later Marx’s belief that socialism could be built on pre-capitalist foundations in agrarian or semi-agrarian societies on the periphery of the global economy. Marx’s late claims about the revolutionary potential of the Russian peasant commune and the Iroquois Federation contradict the dogmas of Stalinism, and resonates with some of O’Bradaigh’s ideas.

O’Bradaigh’s political vision has not been realised in Ireland, but in other places there are signs that it might not be as quixotic as some critics have made out. The rural-based development schemes and state-sponsored cooperative movement in contemporary Venezuela might almost have been based on the blueprint O’Bradaigh laid out in ‘Restore the Means of Production to the People’. O’Bradaigh’s notion of a decentralised postcolonial society finds a parallel in Evo Morales’ Bolivia, which is experimenting with what indigenous activist and scholar scholar Jose Aylwin calls a ‘multinational state’ in an effort to reverse the centuries-long oppression of the Aymara and Quechua peoples.

O’Bradaigh’s ideas may have considerable value for indigenous peoples' movements in regions like Polynesia, Melanesia, and North America, where abstentionism and the construction of institutions of ‘dual power’ have been common tactics amongst peoples faced with powerful colonial and postcolonial regimes. Some of O'Bradaigh's ideas may well transcend his location and the complicated and sometimes tragic story of his career. He is thinker who deserves serious attention rather than ridicule.

As it discusses how to deal with the success of nationalism in Scotland and Wales, and confronts the problem of how to advocate socialism in a deindustrialised society, Britain’s radical left could do worse than consider the thought of Ruairi O’Bradaigh.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Stepping down the Great South Road

[I've been busy this week working with Paul Janman on a proposal for a documentary film about Auckland's Great South Road. I first encountered Paul last November, at the graduation ceremony of the 'Atenisi Institute, that beleagured stronghold of Graeco-Polynesian culture on the swampy outskirts of Nuku'alofa. As 'Atenisi's graduands rubbed themselves with coconut oil, unrolled vast tracts of tapa, and danced in the sun, Paul scampered around with a film camera, and I scribbled in my notebook.

A few months after I posted a report on 'Atenisi's ceremony at this blog, Paul completed his feature-length film Tongan Ark, which offers a languidly impressionistic, wryly affectionate account of the institution and its extraordinary founder Futa Helu (you can see some previews of Paul's film on his website).

Paul and I have given our film the very rough working title Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road. In a sort of test shoot last week, Paul captured me ranting and raving about our project. Paul and I are hoping to do dozens of interviews as part of our project, and we're keen to hear suggestions about aspects of the Great South Road's history which need coverage. Reproduced below is a rough draft of an introduction to Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road.]

Like Los Angeles and Belfast, Auckland is a city defined by its roads. Auckland's harbours may look good on picture postcards, but they play little role in the daily lives of most of the city's residents. Auckland has hundreds of kilometres of rivers and creeks, but these waterways have long since ceased to be transport routes, and are now often obscured by overpasses or diverted into underground drains. Auckland's train network remains underfunded and underused. Almost all Aucklanders use roads to get to and from their workplaces and their favourite leisure spots, and to enter and leave their city.

The Great South Road is perhaps the most historically and sociologically significant of all Auckland's traffic routes. The road was built in 1862 and 1863 to carry troops from the fledgling town to the northern border of the Waikato Kingdom. The colonial government, which was still based in Auckland, was filled with fananciers and property speculators frustrated by the refusal of the Waikato's King Tawhiao to allow the sale of Maori land to Pakeha. The Great South Road was conceived as a route to the riches of the Waikato, and a route to Pakeha domination of the North Island. Mileposts were raised to mark the progress of the road, and camps, redoubts, inns, and churches grew by its side.

As soldier-engineers imported from Britain pushed the road south through swamps and undulating bush, Maori began to seize their theodolites and shovels. Soon warriors sent north across the Waikato River were emerging from the bush to shoot at troops and settlers alike. Finally, on the 12th of July 1863, six thousand British troops left their redoubt in Pokeno, at the southern end of the Great South Road, and crossed a small tributary of the Waikato into Tawhiao's territory. The conquest of the Waikato had begun.

With the end of the Waikato War in 1865 and the confiscation of a million acres of Maori land, the Great South Road's military usefulness was largely exhausted. But the road quickly became important as a link between the farmer communities founded by Pakeha in South Auckland and the adjacent Franklin County. Milkcarts and herds of cattle took the place of marching armies.

As the New Zealand economy grew in the late nineteenth century, the Great South Road became part of a new trade route that connected Auckland with Wellington and other important North Island centres. The road also became a thread between new suburbs like Ellerslie, Penrose, Otahuhu, and Papatoetoe.

As New Zealand became more urban, and Auckland became a portal through which new ideas and new cultural trends reached the rest of the country, the farming communities south of the city increasingly defined themselves in opposition to their neighbours. The Great South Road was once again perceived as a route taken by invaders.

After the opening of Auckland's Southern Motorway in the early 1960s, the Great South Road ceased to be the main traffic route between the city and the rest of New Zealand, and increasingly became the preserve of South Aucklanders. Many residents of Auckland's northern and eastern suburbs used the motorway to bypass the south of their city completely.

In the 1940s and '50s Maori from the Waikato and Northland began to settle in significant numbers in the new suburbs beside the Great South Road. In later decades of the twentieth century, South Auckland became the main destination for new immigrants to New Zealand. In the 1960s and '70s tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were drawn by the promise of jobs in the area's burgeoning economy.

Despite the neo-liberal restructuring of the economy in the late 1980s and the '90s, and the closure of railway workshops and factories in South Auckland, the flow of new citizens from the Pacific has continued, and has been complemented by immigration from Asia and the Middle East.

With their linguistic and cultural diversity, the new communities along the Great South Road offer a glimpse of New Zealand's future. Too often, though, South Auckland has been presented in a negative and stereotypical light by the mass media and by politicians. In the imaginations of many Kiwis who live outside its borders, South Auckland is a frightening place, where English is a foreign language and gangs patrol the streets.

The widespread disinterest in or hostility to South Auckland can be related to the image of New Zealand promoted by successive governments and by the propagandists of our tourism industry. A big majority of Kiwis live in urban areas, but New Zealand has been presented, in the speeches of politicians and in the advertising campaigns of the Tourism Board, as a land of pristine forests, snow-capped mountains, and clear blue lakes. In recent years the Lord of the Rings movies, with their repetitive presentation of a Kiwi countryside carefully cleansed of signs of human habitation and history, have only reinforced the vision of New Zealand as a pleasant wilderness.

With its views of endless car yards and fast food bars, abandoned factories and unglamorous housing developments, and mangrove swamps and flat blocks of farmland, the Great South Road starkly contradicts the 'official' image of New Zealand.

Director Paul Janman and writer Scott Hamilton propose to journey slowly and deliberately down the Great South Road in search of pleasure and enlightenment. Like Iain Sinclair's accounts of his epic walks around London and Daniel Kalder's reports from the unglamorous corners of Russia, Hamilton and Janman's adventure will be a contribution to the burgeoning genre of 'anti-travel' art.

Scott Hamilton grew up close to the Great South Road, and his investigations will mix scholarship with autobiography. As he travels by bullock cart, bicycle, Morris Minor, Bedford van, and Shank's Pony, Hamilton will talk about history and the future, meet old friends and new acquaintances, revisit the sites of major humiliations and minor victories, point out beauty spots and eyesores, and celebrate and berate twenty-first century New Zealand. Standing beside ancient earthworks and historic mileposts, breathing in the fumes from courier vans and busy slaughterhouses, arguing with diehard rednecks and Maori Trotskyists, poring over old war maps and the apocalyptic literature of Destiny Church, Hamilton will ponder the conflicts and agreements, connections and disjunctions, and flukes and misfortunes that have created the rich, confused history of the Great South Road...