Friday, September 30, 2011

Thompson in Oceania

I had lunch yesterday with Skyler, Paul Janman, and 'Okusitino Mahina, the distinguished Tongan scholar and creator of the 'ta va' theory of space and time. During the course of the meal I gave 'Okusi a copy of my book on EP Thompson and tried gamely to convince him that the tome, with its protracted discussions of internecine feuding in the British New Left, had something to do with the situation of twenty-first century Oceania.

I have a go at making the same argument over at the Reviews in History website, in a response to the long and generous reception Penelope Corfield has given my book there. Is Thompson a musty old Pom, of interest only to left-wing trainspotters and scholars of the English Industrial Revolution, or a man who can contribute something important to twenty-first century thought and politics? I'm probably not the most objective judge of this question, of course...

[Posted by Maps]

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Liahona attitude

Liahona is one of the stranger places on Tongatapu, the capital island of the Kingdom of Tonga. Named after an ancient compass which Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, supposedly discovered in that gold-plated hill in upstate New York, the village was established in the 1950s, in a small clearing made amidst the agroforest plantations which take up most of Tongatapu.

With its modern houses, streets named after American states and landmarks, English-language signage, and absence of wandering pigs and chickens, Liahona resembles a suburb of Salt Lake City dropped in the middle of Polynesia. The village's temple is the largest Mormon structure in Tonga, and is used for especially important rituals. Thousands of coconut trees crowd the edges of Liahona, shelling its backyards and streets when the wind gets up.

Futa Helu, the founder of the 'Atenisi Institute and an inveterate critic of dogmatic religion, predicted that Mormonism would become the most popular religion in Tonga by the end of the twentieth century. Helu's prediction hasn't quite come to pass, but Mormonism is an undeniably powerful force in the Kingdom. The church is widely identified with American-style material prosperity and with high-quality education. It is wealthy enough to offer members loans to start up businesses, and to run free primary and secondary schools for the children of believers. In a country with a creaky and sometimes expensive public education system the lure of Mormon schools should not be underestimated.

Much of Liahona is taken up by the largest of all the Mormon-run high schools in Tonga. I was looking at the outside of the school, and wondering whether a smartly-dressed young man or woman might emerge from the depths of the institution to proselytise me, when I spotted a large sign, nailed up beside the bus stop which sits on the main road through Liahona. The sign read ENGLISH ONLY HERE.

I knew that Mormons taught in English in their Tongan schools, but I wasn't aware that the church was attempting to ban Tongans from using their native language in a public space in the centre of the largest island in the Kingdom.

It is easy to be shocked by the neo-colonial arrogance of the Mormon church in Tonga - by the way that the Utah-based palangi who fund the church and who direct its operations assume that the heirs to an ancient Polynesian culture need to be separated from their language and their traditional way of life, and shown that the road to the Kingdom of Heaven runs through middle America.

But Liahona is not the only part of Polynesia where the Tongan language is officially discouraged. Just before my trip to Tonga I blogged about the Pacific Leo Bilingual Coalition, which was formed in response to the decision of the New Zealand government to stop producing books for schoolchildren in Tongan and other Pasifika languages.

As Coalition activist Judy McFall pointed out in a recent speech, New Zealand schools are treating languages like Tongan as obstacles to learning, rather than as a means by which children from Pasifika nations can engage with the world. Fifty years ago Maori children were forced to study in English rather than in their native tongue, and the results were disastrous; the research compiled by McFall and others suggests that today's attempts to force Pasifika children to forget their native tongues at school are having similarly negative effects.

I thought about that sign at the bus stop in Liahona today, when I got this e mail message from the Pacific Coalition:

...Currently we already have 33 Bilingual units in primary schools: Three Tongan, Two Cook Island (Tokoroa), and 30 Samoan, most of them in Auckland. We look forward to Tokelau and Niue bilingual programmes. We have 110 ECE Pacific language centres but this Petition is about primary school programmes that need to follow on from ECE.

All the extra costs of running these primary school bilingual units are currently paid for by the schools and communities ourselves.That is we are allowed to do it IF WE PAY THE COSTS OF DOING SO...

The NZ Ministry of Education cut The TUPU and FOLAUGA reading materials for our children WHO ALREADY UNDERSTAND and SPEAK a PACIFIC LANGUAGE. It has replaced them with materials designed only for beginner learners.

Literacy and academic achievement in both English and our family & community languages is our goal.

You can find out how to support the Pacific Coalition here.

[Posted by Maps]

Friday, September 23, 2011

A few shots from Tonga

[Click to enlarge them. Apologies for the lack of text: we only got back this morning. I've written about previous trips to Tongatapu here and here, and about a sojourn on 'Eua here.]

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ae e fakapikopiko! (redux)

I have to apologise for the lack of action on this blog over the last week: I've been scrambling along the paths of 'Eua Island, a place where internet cafes are as scarce as glaciers. I was back in Nuku'alofa last night to watch the World Cup clash between Tonga and Japan, a game which left roosters and dogs, let alone drunken Tongans and palangis, in a state of supernatural excitement. I'll be home tomorrow, so normal service will soon resume.

In the meantime you could always check out the previews of Tongan Ark, Paul's Janman's film about 'Atenisi University in particular, and about the messy genius of Tongan society in general. Unlike yours truly, who is always a tourist, no matter where he goes, Paul spent two years in the warm welcoming belly of Tongatapu, teaching Faust and Don Quixote in a sort of palangi Tongan pidgin to the sons and daughters of vanilla farmers.

Here's a quick poem:

Ode to 'Eua

not to the mountains
to their broken-backed creeks
their herds of fattening banyan

but to the lowlands,
to the coconuts shelling
black broken soil,
the pigs impaled
over backyard fires


not the royal Red 'Eua parrot
but the common ground dove

Monday, September 12, 2011

Derek March's ghosts

[Regular readers of this blog will know that the Hauraki Plains region of New Zealand is one of my obsessions. I irritate friends and family by insisting that they drive slowly across the Plains, and I wrote about the region in this 'anti-travel' essay, which was republished in a recent issue of the literary journal brief. I was delighted, then, to visit an exhibition about the Plains by Derek March and his daughter Briar, whose film about Takuu Island was reviewed on this blog last year...]

When I was a small boy I was given a large book about the history of the world. The early chapters in the book were adorned by small black and white images - copies of engravings and line drawings, and a few primitive photographs. When it reached the middle of the twentieth century, though, the book suddenly offered large, glossy colour photographs.

I don't think the bias of the book I pored over as a boy was unusual. Partly because of the development of photographic and film technologies, and partly because of the arrogance which the living habitually display towards the dead, we are used to thinking about the modern era as one of the colour and sound, and the past as something murky and silent.

In Landscape of Ghosts, an exhibition at Titirangi's Lopdell House gallery, Te Henga-based painter and photographer Derek March tampers with the ways we normally think about the relationship between the present and the past. On a large screen attached to one of the walls of Lopdell House, a film shot by March's daughter Briar in an apparently pristine forest plays ceaselessly. Birds call out from tall, ancient kahikatea and float over the clear water of a swamp lagoon. This bright, noisy scene, which was apparently filmed somewhere in the Ureweras, contrasts with fifty-eight small black and white photographs of pieces of the Hauraki Plains, that region of sodden dairy farms which separates the southern fringes of Auckland from the Coromandel peninsula. The photographs are arranged in a horizontal line, so that they resemble, from a distance, a reel of negatives from a black and white film. When James Cook visited the Hauraki Plains two and a quarter centuries ago the region was an unremitting swamp where kahikatea grew as tall as seventy metres. Cook's praise for the 'lofty trees' of the 'great forest' eventually drew the attention of loggers, and after the invasion and conquest of the Waikato Kingdom in 1863-64 the axemen were followed by settler-farmers, who began work on a system of canals and drains that turned swamp into plains.

In the mid-'90s the late great naturalist and writer Geoff Park paddled his way through the Hauraki Plains' plumbing system, pushing past thickets of willows and woolly nightshade and searching dolefully for remnants of the indigenous ecosystem that Cook had admired. Park wrote up his journey in a chapter of his masterpiece Nga Uruora, and it seems to be this book which led Derek March to the Hauraki Plains. March exhibited a series of paintings of the Plains several years ago, and the photographs on display at Lopdell House were taken between 2003 and 2007.

In all of his depictions of the Hauraki Plains, March is preoccupied with the chasm between the region's present and its past. In the photographs at Lopdell House he focuses on the small number of kahikatea which survived the fires, axes, and drains of colonists, and which today provide some visual relief amidst the paddocks, cattle races, and milking sheds of the Plains. Some of the kahikatea stand in heroic solitude, but most are part of the small groves which Environment Waikato has in recent years been working to ringfence. March apparently took his photos while parked beside roads through the Plains, and at first glance they appear casual, even desultory, with their views of tatty kahikatea, mucky paddocks, sagging sileage heaps, abandoned machinery, and traffic. On closer inspection, though, the images reveal all sorts of subtleties.

Like Peter Peryer, March is fond of discovering large structures made up of incongruous objects. He shows how indigenous and exotic trees can form a single pattern against the horizon, despite their different histories and often contradictory needs; he finds odd echoes between the shape made by a grove of kahikatea and the outline of a distant dairy factory; he shows us the carcass of an old car or tractor, decomposing into the long grass beneath a tree.

At other times, though, March counterposes the exotic and the indigenous, the natural and the human-made. A solitary power pole is shown surrounded by native trees, which seem to be advancing on it like hunters; cows shun a grove of kahikatea.

In a number of photos March uses angles which ennoble the Plains' kahikatea groves in an almost surreal manner. By disguising a bend in a road, one photo seems to show traffic disappearing into a distant grove of trees; another image makes a farmhouse look in imminent danger of being swallowed up by kahikatea. Perhaps, like the relict oak forest of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood novels, the kahikatea groves of the Plains have certain ancient magical qualities, in spite of their modest size and precarious existence.

While Briar March's film brings to life the prehistoric Hauraki, with its loud birds and kahikatea pillars and endless water, Derek March's small colourless photos give the present-day region a curiously distant feel. We have to squint at his images, in the same way that we squint at the small murky photographs near the beginning of old family albums. The Marches seem to be asking us whether the old Hauraki might be, in some mysterious yet essential way, more real than the landscape which has been constructed in its place.

Near the end of his journey across the Plains in Nga Uruora, Geoff Park pondered the future of the region, and wondered whether its dairy farms might be ecologically if not economically unsustainable. Farmers had lived for more than a hundred years off the rich soils the kahikatea had left behind, but soil fertility was likely to decline disastrously, given the near-disappearance of trees from many farms. Would the Plains become some sort of wasteland, denuded of forest and yet unfit for farming? If Park were revising Nga Uruora today he might be tempted to discuss the dangers that global warming poses for the Plains. The region already experiences regular floods, and it barely rises higher than the choppy, muddy waters of the nearby Firth of Thames. Will the rising sea levels and increased rainfall foreseen as consequences of global warming turn the Plains back into a swamp?

In his classic novel The Drowned World, which showed reptiles recolonising large parts of a suddenly wetter and warmer world, JG Ballard showed that a vision of the deep past could also be, for an artist with sufficient daring, a credible vision of the future. Can we interpret Briar March's film not as a sumptuous vision of prehistoric Hauraki but as a look at a future that would be - for human beings, at least - apocalyptic? Do Derek March's photographs show us a landscape and a civilisation which are less robust than we imagine? Will humans become the ghosts, the next time the Hauraki is transformed?

[Posted by Maps]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

From party politics to Party Central

Back in 1987 I watched the first game of the first Rugby World Cup with my father at Eden Park. We arrived late, because Dad had only decided on the day to go to the game, and because we'd made a detour to drop my mother on Queen Street to do a spot of shopping.

We parked close to the ground, paid thirty dollars - twenty dollars for Dad, ten for me - pushed through the creaking turnstiles in the gloom underneath the old concrete terraces, and emerged into the light to find the All Blacks defending an early Italian sortie in a front of a very modest crowd. Being late, I missed the World Cup opening ceremony, which lasted half an hour or so and was apparently dominated by marching girls.

Times have changed, haven't they?

Chris Trotter recently blogged about the change in Kiwi politics during the quarter century since the fourth Labour government began the radical restructuring of our economy. Back in the 1970s and early '80s we were a nation of political activists: we joined political parties in huge numbers, formed committees and campaigns in response to every new political issue, and regularly staged political strikes. Today, Chris notes mournfully, we treat politics as a spectator sport, cheering or jeering as gladiators like Key or Goff make or take big hits. Politics is something we consume, not something we create.

Chris' points are indisputable, but we might complement them by observing that sport, as well as politics, has changed over the past quarter century. Back in 1987, New Zealand rugby was organised like an old-fashioned mass membership political party.

Just as the leaders of the old National and Labour parties used to sit on top of a massive structure that began with grassroots local branches, passed through regional councils, and then took in full-time staffers and elected MPs, so both the playing and administrative elites of New Zealand rugby were nourished by and answerable to a complicated network of local clubs and committees.

Just as a Prime Minister like Muldoon or Kirk occasionally had to drop into local party branch meetings, and listen with at least a pretense of concern to the complaints or advice of the retired sergeant or union delegate who did leaflet drops in the rain at election time, so the bosses of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union had to drop into the clubhouse at Taumaranui or Drury for a few beers every now and then. All Blacks like Andy Dalton and John Kirwan might have been superstars, but they still turned out regularly on poorly-drained pitches for local club teams, alongside blokes with beer bellies and dodgy ankles.

Over the past quarter century the professionalisation and commercialisation of rugby has proceeded alongside the globalisation of New Zealand's economy. Just as popular participation in politics has declined, as more and Kiwis come to doubt the ability of a weakened state to act to improve their lives, so involvement with grassroots rugby has declined, as young fans of the game realise that superstars like Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu are more likely to be found partying in a nightclub in the South of France than tucking into a mince pie and downing a beer at the local rugby club in Waiuku or Wainuiomata. The sheer otherworldiness of the All Blacks, in the era of vast salaries and short-term contracts and rides on private jets, continually undermines grassroots rugby in this country.

Interest in rugby remains vast in this country, but with the decline of the old infrastructure of clubs and provincial unions fans have to be organised in new ways.

The 'Party Zones' which have been set up in New Zealand's big cities are designed to soak up a few of the hundreds of thousands of fans who can't afford World Cup ticket prices and don't belong to a rugby club. I visited Auckland's Party Zone yesterday afternoon, and was impressed by how perfectly it reproduced the symbolic order of twenty-first century New Zealand.

Located on Auckland's waterfont, the 'Party Central' zone is billed as 'a place for the fans', but it can only be entered through a series metal gates where courteous but thorough security guards examine bags and question their owners. A series of large screens provide Party Zoners with live coverage of games, but there are no chairs or benches where audiences might make thesmelves comfortable. The only way to sit down and watch the action is to enter a bar or cafe, and spend money. The only beer fans can enjoy is Heineken, and a small plastic glass of the stuff costs seven dollars and fifty cents.

Inside 'The Cloud', a huge metal and glass tent which backs onto the rubbish-strewn waters of the inner Waitemata harbour, a series of stalls advertise a simulacrum of New Zealand to World Cup tourists, showing mountains covered in snow as thick and smooth as ice cream, and alpine lakes coloured light blue, like warm tropical seas. A bar near the far end of The Cloud ostentatiously rips off one of Colin McCahon's late religious paintings. Sick, drunk, and close to despair, McCahon painted I AM in huge shaky letters on a canvas, and left audiences to decide whether he was speaking in the voice of a deity suddenly revealing itself or else merely asserting his own lonely and tenuous existence. The bar in The Cloud takes McCahon's lettering and declares I AM ON THE GUEST LIST.

Auckland's Party Central symbolises the paranoia, uber-commercialism, and cocky philistinism of twenty-first century urban New Zealand, but it is not a joyless place. Even in these inauspicious surroundings, some rugby fans manage to have a good time. When I visited the Zone yesterday, the game between Namibia and Fiji was being beamed in live from Rotorua, and fans with ties to both countries had gathered in front of the big screens. They may have been forced to sit or stand uncomfortably on the tarseal of the waterfont, and they may not have been able to afford to get drunk on tiny glasses of Heineken, but they whooped and waved flags and chatted excitedly anyway.

Like the Tongan fans who celebrated wildly after losing the opening game of this year's Cup, the fans from Auckland's Fijian and Namibian communities seem to have a lightness of spirit which contrasts with the white knuckle mentality of too many All Blacks supporters. All Blacks fans tend to gnash their teeth or jeer when the opposition scores; the Fijians and the Namibians didn't even stop smiling. It is the supporters of Tonga and the other Pacific Island nations who have enlivened the build up to and the first days of the Cup. While neurotic All Blacks fans have plagued sports talkback shows and internet fora with their premonitions of doom and their pre-emptive attacks on Graham Henry, members of island communities have taken to the streets waving flags and partying. Could it be that the unconditional support that these peoples give to their teams, and the pleasure that they take even in losing, are somehow related to the fact that rugby has not, in their countries, undergone the commercialisation seen in recent decades in New Zealand, and rugby fans have not been distanced and alienated from the men who play in their name?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Language lessons

Aucklanders have been getting a lesson in vexillology over the past week or two, as rugby fans gear up for the World Cup by displaying the flags of their favourite nations. Down at Henderson mall I was startled by the medieval design Georgia recently placed on its national banner, and intrigued by Romania's version of the tricolour. All Blacks fans often seem uncertain about whether to use the silver fern flag or our rather dreary official banner. I've seen a few cars flying the national flag from one window and either the silver fern or the unofficial 'tino rangatiratanga' banner from the other.

By far the most ubiquitous flag, though, has been the symbol created for the Tongan nation back in 1875 by Tupou, the country's first modern king, and his long-time advisor, the Wesleyan missionary turned anti-imperialist Shirley Baker. Tonga's flag was part of a series of gestures Tupou made to demonstrate his country's unity and sovereignty as he struggled to deflect the attentions of colonial powers like Britain, France, and the United States.

The continuing strength of Tongan nationalism is reflected in the thousands of red and white flags fluttering from car windows and television aerials around Auckland, in the enormous crowd which turned out to meet the Tongan rugby team at the airport last Monday, and in the rather hopeful predictions that the Ikale Tahi will defeat the All Blacks in the opening game of the World Cup on Friday night.

The first-ever Tongan Language Week has been organised to coincide with the build-up to Friday's big game, and its launch on Sunday night in Mangere attracted a big and enthusiastic crowd. It was perhaps not a good idea, though, to schedule a celebration of the Tongan language at the University of Auckland for Monday afternoon, when almost every Tongan in the city was heading for the airport. Only thirty-five people made it to the university's Fale Pasifika for the celebration, but the event included important speeches by two influential figures in the Tongan language community.

After her mother Kakala had led a prayer and a hymn, Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau, who heads the Tongan programme at the University of Auckland, spoke about the development of academic studies in the language. Taumoefalau explained that Tongan, like Samoan and Cook Islands Maori, can be studied inside Auckland's Pacific Studies department, as the 'minor' component of an undergraduate degree. Many students in Pacific Studies choose to study all three languages, and a number of Samoan scholars of Tongan were part of the audience at the Fale Pasifika.

Taumoefolau emphasised the importance of language acquisition and preservation to Pacific Studies students, observing that there were important features of Tongan culture which could only accessed, let alone analysed, in the Tongan language. She called the Tongan language "part of the being" of Tongans, and warned of the necessity of "holding on" to it.

Librarian and researcher Judy McFall expanded on Taumoeolau's argument when she took the stage at the Fale Pasifika. A Samoan of part-Chinese descent who is fluent in a variety of Pasifika languages including Tongan, McFall is a leading member of the Bilingual Leo Pacific Coalition, an organisation pushing for New Zealand to give official recognition to the Cook Islands Maori, Niuean, Tokelauan, Samoan, and Tongan tongues. The Coalition was founded last March, after the National government decided to stop funding a range of educational books in Pasifika languages.

McFall and other members of the Coalition argue that young members of the Pasifika community are experiencing the same linguistic discrimination that Maori suffered fifty or sixty years ago, in the era when Pakeha governments pursued assimilationist policies towards their country's tangata whenua. Deprived of early reading material and of the opportunity to use their languages at school, many Pasifika youngsters are today struggling to express themselves in a foreign language, and becoming disillusioned with both the education system and with New Zealand society. The Coalition has taken a petition to Wellington, and won support for its demands from the Labour Party.

In her speech last Monday McFall warned that less than half of Tongan-born Kiwi children were fluent in the language of their homeland. These children sometimes felt trapped "between two worlds", and risked becoming part of a "Polynesian underclass". Moving easily between English, Tongan, and Samoan, and citing a series of academic studies, McFall argued that knowledge of Pasifika languages was too often treated as a "learning deficit" in New Zealand schools, when it could be a "learning advantage". Instead of losing the language which is their birthright, Tongan kids should be using that language as the launching pad for their academic adventures.

The Pacific Coalition has so far flown beneath the radar of New Zealand's mainstream media, and its proposals have received little comment from members of the country's Pakeha community. It is possible, though, to imagine a likely criticism of the group's demands. Many conservative Pakeha are still struggling with the concept of Maori immersion schooling and Maori-language broadcasting, and the prospect of giving official recognition and substantial state support to another five Polynesian languages might seem to them dangerous to the unity of New Zealand. How, conservative Pakeha might ask, will Kiwis be able to communicate with each other, if they are divided into separate linguistic communities? Won't the country become divided into a series of ghettos, if the Pacific Coalition has its way?

Last Monday both Judy McFall and Melenaite Taumoefolau emphasised that an enthusiasm for Tongan and other Pasifika languages does not have to come at the expense of support for other languages. McFall pointed out that children who know one language find it easier to learn another, and argued that Tongan kids who are comfortable in their own tongue will also be more comfortable using English. Taumoefolau noted that New Zealand Tongans commonly identify with their adopted country as well as their homeland. "We'll support Tonga against the All Blacks, but we won't worry if the All Blacks win, because we support them too", she said to laughter. The message of the Bilingual Leo Pacific Language Coalition deserves to be considered without prejudice across New Zealand. A couple of days ago I chatted by e mail with a man who knows a great deal about the contemporary situation of Pacific languages. Vaughan Rapatahana is a poet, editor, and linguist who lives in Hong Kong, travels widely in the Pacific, and is preparing a book about some of the region's endangered languages for publication. I asked Vaughan a few questions about poetry, linguistic imperialism, and his recent visits to Palau and Guam.

Scott: In this country the Pacific Coalition, which was formed last year in response to a government decision to cut funding for Pacific-language publications, is calling for the recognition of Samoan, Cook Islands Maori, Niuean, Tokelauan, and Tongan as official languages. The Coalition has received relatively little attention from the mainstream media, but has won wide support from the Pasifika community in South Auckland and taken a petition to Wellington. How do you feel about the Coalition and its aims?

Vaughan: Ko taku tautoko tinu nui mo tenei. Ka nui te pai nga hoa. Kia kaha, kia toa, kia manawanui. The Pakeha uses his English language to enforce his weltenshaaung, his episteme, his power-knowledge: as Nebrija once wrote, albeit about Spanish: '...a tool for conquest abroad and a weapon to suppress untutored speech at home... language has always been the consort of empire and forever shall remain its mate'

All the more reason, then, to hold fast to indigenous tongues. Taku reo, taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria (My language, my awakening, my language is the window to my soul).

Scott: You have in recent years been active as an advocate for the preservation and advancement of Pacific languages, studying the struggles of tongues like Nauruan to survive, and criticising the arrogance of English-language users. How optimistic do you feel about Pacific languages? Are there some tongues which you feel are likely to become extinct or moribund in the next few decades?

Vaughan: If the swaggering pirate of English linguistic imperialism continues to maraud through such nations, then yes, Pacific languages will become extinct - we lose a language every week the Terra Lingua website, read Tove Skutnabs-Kangas discussion of linguistic genocide, read Tove's husband Robert Phillipson's seminal book Linguistic Imperialism.

Scott: Are you in a difficult position, as a critic of the imperialism of the English language who often writes in English? The great Welsh poet RS Thomas felt angry about writing in English, likening the language to a poison he imbibed with his mother's milk. Do you feel a similar anger? Have you considered writing more of your essays and poems in Maori?

Vaughan: I do write quite a few poems, especially, in Maori - some will be published later this year - and much of the rest of my work has some te reo Maori in it. I also write some stuff in Bahasa Melayu and Tagalog - that gets published here in Asia...I do indeed feel the anger of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, amongst others, and I wrote a recent letter to New Zealand Books lamenting the lack of Maori as a people and a reo in that journal...the poem in te reo Maori accompanying my letter was not accepted for publication...

It is important to note that there is a distinct Maori form of English through which more and more Maori express themselves, after Tuwhare, and that of course there is the massive traditional Maori oral literature, which not only survives intact (see Charles Royal), but also impacts on the way many Maori write now...

Scott: How do you feel about contemporary Maori and Pasifika literatures? Are there writers that palangi like myself should be paying particularly close attention to?

Vaughan: More and more and more. Apirana Taylor, Doug Poole, Serie Bradford, Mariana Isara, Alice Sommerville, Brian Potiki, Rangi Faith, Roma Potiki, Hal Hovell, Iraia Bailey, Robert Sullivan, Marewa Glover, Reihana Robinson, Terence Rissetto, David Eggleton, Tracy Watson, Tracey Tawhiao, Hinemoana Baker, Phil Kanawa, Briar Grace-Smith, Tina Makereti, Selina Marsh, Briar Wood, Tusiata Avia, Mike O'Leary, Meri Marshall, James George, Alice Tawhai, the list is endless, and - of course - will grow exponentially as Maori prosper more and more (prosper not just in an economic sense - engari ka kite te manawa ngaro, nei...As the poetry editor of a Maori and indigenous peoples' review journal I see screeds of excellent poetry - in Maori, in Maori English, in a mixture...

Scott: You recently visited Guam and Palau, places few Kiwis get a chance to explore. Some commentators have worried that the Chamorro culture of Guam is being overwhelmed by American influences, and left-wing observers have accused the US of a long and sordid history of involvement in the internal politics of Palau, a country which outraged Washington by adopting a nuclear-free policy in the 1980s. What were your impressions of Guam and Palau?
Vaughan: I first travelled to Guam in 1980 and my concern is that it will become even more of an American battleship than it was even back then, especially as Japan is throwing the Americans out of their military base on Okinawa. Chamorro culture is indeed under severe threat from Western qua American influences (the 'English' language for example) and there is a visible rage against this perceived threat...Just read the local newspapers and speak to the youth of Guam...(I see the same sort of thing in the Philippines, where we travel several times a year). I really like Guam and would probably live there if I could score a job there!

Palau shows Television New Zealand Pasifika programmes from about two years ago and is scratching around trying to find enough money to stay afloat, thus the Taiwan embassy and influence there. The Americans have a big new embassy hidden away on the 'big' island of Babeldaob, where Palau's own new - and empty - government buildings are sited. You will see from the photos I sent that both Guam and Palau are naturally compelling. Because Palau is an ostensibly free nation, its future is far more clouded than that of the American territory of Guam, which is far richer. Because Guam has an American military presence, while Palau does not, Guam gets more American money. Palau bends over backwards to try to get money from the Americans - it is the only nation besides the US and Israel which supports the US embargo on Cuba, for example! And it took a group of prisoners which the US had to release from Guantanamo Bay... Scott: You have strong connections with Aotearoa/New Zealand, and yet you have chosen to take up residence in Hong Kong, a city which is both geographically and culturally very distant from your old home. Do you consider yourself an exile?

Vaughan: In exile - probably yes. Aotearoa is not an easy place to live in, for economic and some social reasons ('racism', narrow-mindedness, population size).

Scott: It's Tongan Language Week here, and I'm off to the country on the 15th. I wish I could learn some Tongan, but time keeps precluding this! How's your knowledge of the language?


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Bad commies and good boys

I'm grateful to Mike Beggs for giving my book on EP Thompson a plug in Jacobin, an online journal of left-wing thought founded recently by a group of bright young students and academics in America, Britain, and Oz.

In his contribution to a survey of the reading habits of contributors to Jacobin, Mike confesses not only to consuming The Crisis of Theory, but to reading the excessively annotated selection of Kendrick Smithyman's poems that I brought out last year. EP Thompson always insisted that social scientists should be as interested in literature as they are in statistics, so he'd be delighted that a hardboiled Marxist economist like Mike was reading a notoriously recalcitrant poet like Smithyman.

My study of Thompson also rates a mention in the new issue of the Socialist Standard, the publication of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its sister parties in various parts of the world. I had a bit of a crack at the Socialist Party a year or so ago on this blog, after encountering a wonderfully utopian piece of their propaganda in an old railway station on the bushy edge of Auckland. I objected then, and still object now, to the party's refusal to dirty its hands with involvement with any real-world political issues.

Where other Marxist groups, no matter how tiny and marginalised, tend to join in campaigns against war and imperialism and in favour of workers' wage and salary demands, the SPGB has earned itself the nickname 'the Small Party of Good Boys' by confining itself to calling in completely abstract terms for the replacement of capitalism by socialism.

The party's strategy, which it has pursued without noticeable success for more than a century, is to win workers over one by one to the cause of socialism, and to get them to vote for the SPGB in such numbers that parliament can pass some sort of legislation enabling the 'legal' dissolution of capitalism and the peaceful passing of the economy from the hands of the bosses to the hands of the workers. Any socialist organisation which rejects this rather utopian road to the future, and instead takes to the streets or the picket lines with anti-war demonstrators or striking workers, is denounced by the SPGB for 'reformism'.

During the short debate which followed my earlier crack at the SPGB, I noted that the party's sister organisation in New Zealand had refused to take part in the massive protests against the 1981 Springbok tour of this country. While tens of thousands of New Zealanders were putting their bodies on the line to stop a tour by the sporting representatives of apartheid, and inspiring the people of Soweto and the inmates of Robben Island with their courage, the SPGB's local followers published a denunciation of the 'reformism' of anti-apartheid protests.

The rather sniffy review of my book on Thompson in the new Socialist Standard reflects the same detachment from reality which kept the SPGB away from the action in 1981. The Standard's reviewer concedes that Thompson was a fine historian, but he can't forgive the great man for belonging to the Communist Party between 1942 and 1956:

Thompson's own politics however are less admirable. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1942 and was an active member until 1956 when he resigned as a result of the Russian military invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s 'secret speech' which denounced Stalin. To a significant extent, the rest of Thompson's political career can be seen as distancing himself from Stalinism. He later tried to justify his CP membership by claiming it was part of a 'Popular Front' against fascism. But Thompson did not appreciate that his CP membership would lend legitimacy to Stalin's reign of terror. His concern for the lives of ordinary workers did not extend to the Russian working class.

These charges seem to me unjust, because they do not take into account the context in which Thompson joined the Communist Party, and the reasons why he delayed leaving the organisation. Growing up in the 1930s, Thompson had seen the unwillingness of Britain and other Western powers to challenge fascism in Spain and Germany. While Thompson's friends went off to Spain to fight Franco's fascist insurrection, the British government refused even to sell arms to the country's Republican government.

The Soviet Union seemed to Thompson the only ally of anti-fascist fighters. Faith in the Soviet government's anti-fascist credentials might have been shaken by the Hitler-Stalin pact, but it was renewed in 1941, when the Soviet Union became the main front of the Second World War. Thompson fought fascism from the inside of a British tank in the last years of the war, but he knew that the defeat of Hitler was largely the work of the Soviets.

Thompson was disoriented by the beginning of the Cold War, and distressed by the increasingly heavy hand that Soviet bureaucrats laid on the British Communist Party in the late '40s. As he explained later, though, it was hard for him and for thousands of other young men and women to leave the organisation, because the communists seemed the only people in Britain willing to stand up for a range of vital causes.

It's easy to remember the depredations of Stalin in the 1940s and early '50s, but harder to remember that during the same period the British Empire was locking up thousands of political opponents in its far-flung and restive possessions, and fighting half a dozen small but dirty wars against local peoples who wanted to take down the Union Jack. For Thompson and for many other idealistic men and women, the Communist Party's steadfast and - in the imperial homeland at least - very unpopular stand against the British Empire was an inspiration. (For its part, the Communist Party of New Zealand was the only majority-Pakeha organisation to support tino rangatiratanga and Samoan national independence in the 1930s and '40s.) It is perhaps significant that Thompson's departure from the Communist Party came when the Soviet Union showed its own imperial, or at least expansionist, qualities by invading Hungary in 1956.

It is reasonable enough to criticise Thompson for his membership of the Communist Party. We might plausibly ask why he did not learn something from the Hitler-Stalin pact, or why he didn't follow Edward Upward and others out of the party in the late '40s, when Stalin was showing his true colours by purging Tito and the Yugoslavs from the Comintern.

To present Thompson as some sort of unthinking Stalinist simply because of his time in the Communist Party, though, is to miss the complex reasons people became communists, and the equally complex factors that kept them communists. It seems to me that the Socialist Standard's criticism of Thompson is as abstract and pedantic as its supporters' criticisms of the anti-apartheid campaigners of 1981.

The distinguished British historian and old friend of Thompson Penelope Corfield has written a long response to my book which will be published shortly in the online journal Reviews in History.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Travel time and time travel

The recent opening of the Hobsonville Motorway attracted only a few hundred Aucklanders, and received only cursory coverage in the national media. Much of the online discussion about the motorway has focused not on the two hundred million dollars it cost, nor on the commuting time it will save West Aucklanders, but on the colour of the noise barriers erected along its edges. The barriers have been painted bright orange, a colour which some blogging motorists evidently consider garish, if not downright ugly.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for Auckland's newest motorway. Roads in general, and motorways in particular, have for some time been out of fashion in this country. The protracted campaign against the Wellington motorway bypass symbolises the suspicion with which the motorcar and its habitat are now regarded by many Kiwis. At best, motorways are an irritation, with their obnoxiously monumental architecture and staccato music; at worst they are, in the words of one leader of the anti-bypass campaign, "a dire threat to the planet".

New Zealanders used to feel differently about motorways. The openings of successive stages of Auckland's Southern Motorway in 1953, 1956, and 1965 received massive media coverage, and brought excited crowds onto the fresh tarseal. The opening of the harbour bridge on Auckland's Northern Motorway generated even greater excitement, as a hundred thousand or so people took the opportunity to walk across the water.

For Aucklanders of the fifties and sixties, motorways represented much more than transport routes. Like supermarkets, television sets, and jet aeroplanes, the motorway symbolised the excitement and optimism of a time when technological innovation and economic growth seemed ineluctably linked. With their soaring overpasses and perpetual hum, motorways were seen as twentieth century monuments to rival the great railway stations of the Victoria era. It is appropriate that Julia Gatley included Auckland's motorways in the celebration of New Zealand's twentieth century architectural heritage she published in 2010 under the defiant title Long Live the Modern.

But even in those postwar decades the new motorways made some Kiwis nervous. One evening in the winter of 1965 Kendrick Smithyman found himself driving home from the Waikato along the new stretch of the Southern Motorway which extended into the dairy farming and horticultural country of Ramarama and Drury. In the poem he called 'First Steps Into a Private Bestiary' Smithyman described the new route into Auckland:

Dismembered, the Beast — not comfort to see
the City discharged into fragments,
the fragments severally broken as in nightmare:
Reason cannot cope with this. Nor may faith...

Saw: the Beast articulate again, segment by segment,
car by car, hurtling from, carrying
its own darkness. Eyes of pain impersonal
but the lights, of menace.

For Smithyman, a critic of many features of modern society, the massive traffic flows of big twentieth century cities seem to have symbolised a chaos that was private and psychological, as well as social and political.

Smithyman's attitude might have seemed eccentric in the mid-sixties, but it is widespread today, in New Zealand and in the rest of the West. The boom years of the fifties and sixties, with their low unemployment rates and steadily rising wages, have long since gone, cars are expensive to run and hazardous to the environment, and in the era of CCTV and government databases the sinister applications of technological advances have become clear. A widespread longing for a return to an idealised pre-industrial society has replaced the old belief that modernity would bring ever greater prosperity and happiness.

A couple of days after the opening of Hobsonville Motorway, Skyler's parents arrived in Auckland for a short holiday. We made the mistake of trying to drive them from the west of the city, where they had holed up, to the Wallace Arts Centre in Mount Roskill. A series of roadblocks made from slabs of orange plastic and manned by men in orange vests held us for three quarters of an hour on Stoddard Road. As we sat in the traffic, smelling the meat cooking in kebab bars and hearing the call to prayer wafting from Auckland's largest mosque, Skyler's father took inordinate pleasure in contrasting the efficient traffic flows of his adopted home of Hamilton with the "utter chaos", "dangerous drivers", and "hopeless congestion" of the city where he raised his kids. For Skyler's father and for countless other Kiwis, the roads and motorways of Auckland have come to symbolise frustration and fear, rather than prosperity and modernity.

After struggling along Hillsborough Road and avoiding a series of motorway on-ramps, we reached one of the grandest of Auckland's grand old homes. Pah Homestead's tower offers views north to One Tree Hill, and southwest across the Manukau to the Awhitu Peninsula. Magnolias, oaks, and Moreton Bay fig trees are arranged across its undulating grounds. For Skyler's parents the homestead was an overdue respite from the roar and blur of Auckland's traffic.

A year ago Pah Homestead became the rather unlikely location for New Zealand's largest display of contemporary art, as a trust created by long-time collector James Wallace opened a gallery and a cafe there. Looking about the place with Skyler and her parents, I wondered whether the groups of pensioners taking tea on the homestead's vast verandah had been attracted by the Victorian architecture and bucolic surroundings or by the McCahon and Cotton canvases that hung inside. James Wallace has always been better at buying art than displaying it, and the walls of some of the rooms of the old homestead seem almost to sag from the weight of all the canvases hung from them. It would be all too easy, then, to miss the relatively small painting by Robert Ellis that currently sits rather too close to a grand wooden door in one of the homestead's downstairs rooms. But Ellis' painting, which is part of the Motorway series he created in the sixties and early seventies, does not deserve to be overlooked. Despite its inauspicious location, it can tell us a great deal about the place that Auckland has become in recent decades.

Robert Ellis was born in Northampton at the end of the twenties. He was drafted into Britain's armed forces at the age of eighteen, but the Second World War was by then over, and he found himself attached to a photographic unit of the RAF and riding unarmed bombers over German cities in broad daylight. Ellis, who had already spent a couple of years at art schools, was charged with snapping photos of the ruined factories and cratered roads of modernist metropolises like Berlin and Hamburg, so that postwar cartographers had something to work from.

A decade later Ellis came to New Zealand to teach and paint. He took a job at Elam Art School, bought a car, and learned to drive on Auckland's new motorway. Although Ellis' photographic raids on Germany had given him a fascination with the 'God's eye view' of landscape that aviation makes possible, he only began to paint 'from the air' after visiting Australia in the early sixties.

In the years after World War Two a number of young Australian artists had begun to take to the air. Sidney Nolan, for instance, flew across vast areas of the Outback with mail service planes in the late forties, and then brought the orange and red spaces of the Outback to Bohemian Melbourne and Sydney in a series of exhibitions.

Excited by Nolan's work, and perhaps also by the mythological cartography of traditional Aboriginal painting, Ellis began in the sixties to produce aerial views of his adopted hometown. He was particularly preoccupied with Auckland's new motorways, and with the networks of smaller roads which fed and drained them.

Ellis' portraits of Auckland were remarkable not only for their aerial perspective but for their monumental quality. With its thick orange and red and black lines and its obscure tracts of white, Ellis' Auckland reminds us of the Australian Outback's dry riverbeds and wastes of salt, or the ruins of some ancient Middle Eastern city viewed from a great height. In the painting on display at the Wallace Art Centre, a number of dark-coloured roads - are they 'ordinary' roads, or full-blown motorways? - flow close to one another, like the channels in a river delta. They appear to drain into, or perhaps collide with, a mysterious white suburb or wasteground.

Ellis' vision of Auckland was particularly audacious at a time when many Pakeha artists were still depicting human settlement in New Zealand as something fleeting and small-scale. Ellis' monumental Auckland looks strange indeed beside the shearing sheds and hunters' huts that Woollaston and McCahon occasionally located on the margins of their landscapes. Critics have disagreed about the tone of Ellis' Motorway paintings. Some have seen the works as celebrations of Auckland's postwar expansion; others, though, have found in them prophecies of turmoil and ruin. In the catalogue essay for the first exhibition of the works, Hamish Keith presented them as evidence that the 'arteries' of the young city of Auckland were already 'hardening', and would one day become dangerously clotted. Keith was writing in the same year that Smithyman had his vision of Auckland as a 'beast'.

Painting from an Olympian height, and preferring broad outlines to details, Ellis left space for both readings of his works. Looking at these paintings we can move between the optimistic vision of the future that was dominant in the postwar decades to today's fearful scepticism about industrial society. Like Monet and Magritte, Ellis is a painter who can make us into time travellers.