Monday, July 30, 2012

Is the writing on the girder for Smithyman's detractors?

In the 1930s a group of young British poets led by WH Auden started to introduce industrial imagery and left-wing rhetoric into their work, and earned the nickname 'the pylon poets' from conservative reviewers. Now Auckland has seen the birth of girder poetry, as eight of the new concrete supports of the northern side of the harbour bridge have been covered with the work of writers associated with the Shore.

It is interesting that the New Zealand Herald chose to give prominence to Kendrick Smithyman when it reported on the decoration of the girders. The Herald showed a photo of the girder covered by Smithyman's 'Building Programme', which was written in 1966 and published in his monumental posthumous Collected Poems, and quoted two lines from the text.

Kendrick Smithyman produced a huge number of poems and won a cult following during a career that lasted from the '40s until his death in 1995, but he never attracted a large public audience. Reviewers like Lauris Edmond, Peter Crisp, and Iain Sharp condemned him as a mandarin intellectual who produced intolerably obscure texts.

In the seventeen years since his death, though, Smithyman has attracted more and more attention from essayists, anthologists, and editors. Book after posthumous book has appeared, critics like Gregory O'Brien, CK Stead and Peter Simpson have celebrated the work, and the distinguished Nga Puhi painter Shane Cotton has given Smithyman's epic poem Atua Wera a nod in his Blackout triptych. My own annotated selection of Smithyman's previously unpublished poems appeared in November 2010, under the title Private Bestiary. Lauris Edmond, who used a review in The Listener to claim that Smithyman was not even a poet, let alone a good poet, would not be impressed by all this activity.

My fellow Smithymaniac Jack Ross has suggested that the very complexity of Smithyman's poems - their weight of geographical and social detail, their layers of historical reference, their hidden meanings waiting to click shut like possum traps over the toes of impatient or thoughtless readers and reviewers - makes them increasingly attractive as the decades go by, and as poets who were more popular than Smithyman in their lifetime, like James K Baxter, seem to have been adequately explored and explicated by critics.

Where a poet like Baxter tends to build his poems around himself, making their images and rhythms into direct expressions of his ideology and his psychic state, Smithyman's poems move away from their author, out into the world. They may sacrifice the directness and eloquence that Baxter had, but they offer their readers much thicker slices of life than Baxter could provide. Peter Simpson perhaps made the same sort of point as Jack when he said that, like Walt Whitman, Smithyman's poems 'contain multitudes'.

Does the Herald's decision to focus on Smithyman, rather than on traditionally more famous writers like Robin Hyde, Janet Frame, and Frank Sargeson, reflect the growing interest in a poet once dismissed as unreadable, or is it simply a coincidence? Of course, literature is not an Olympic sport, and it is neither possible nor desirable to rank writers like Sargeson, Frame, and Smithyman as though they had run a one hundred metre sprint against each other. Nevertheless, I find the idea that an increasing number of New Zealanders might consider Smithyman as a writer in the same class as Sargeson or Frame exciting.

'Building Programme' is one of a number of poems in which Smithyman uses the changes to Auckland's skyline in the second half of the 1960s as a metaphor for crises in both his own life and New Zealand society. In Private Bestiary I published a poem called 'Letters Fall Like Feathers', which Smithyman wrote in 1966, and which features some of the same imagery as 'Building Programme'. Here's 'Letters Fall Like Feathers', along with the commentary I gave it in Bestiary.

Letters Fall Like Feathers

A fashion of wildness,
supporting an alley way of mirrors.

By the Central Post Office
I sat down and slept.
The new hotel is a biology;
horror has many cells.
Disposed around a rigid frame
they swell, in limits of their capital.

The alley stores keep mirror faces
clean, but trade in conscience.
Look through, and see the good you cannot buy
that waits behind the form that is not you
yet seems to be, part glass, part vision,
part illusion, mixed up with words
to tell you what was special of the day -
‘One hundred and seventy-five permanently
reduced lives.’ One of them is yours.

So by the steps I sat and slept
while letters fell like feathers to appoint
a time of meeting, terms, and some regret.
Wilderness howled in the Fun Fair.
People eat desolation, played machines,
screamed in the Room of Horrors,
voices rising to assume a place
in darkness, twinned to steel.

Time scarcely matters. The hotel
is memories before the workmen quit.
You use hotels, for sleeping, if you can.
Some people claim they live in them.

September 1966


This is one of a series of poems which record Smithyman’s wanderings through Auckland’s central business district, which is bordered on the east by the university where he spent so much time. At about the time that ‘Letters Like Feathers’ was written, the French philosopher and political provocateur Guy Debord was popularising psychogeography, which he defined as the ‘study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment’ on ‘the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. Whether or not Smithyman was familiar with Debord, ‘Letters Fall Like Feathers’ could be considered one of the first psychogeographic poems to be written in New Zealand.

The lines ‘By the Central Post Office/ I sat down and slept’ allude to the Anglo-Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart’s book-length prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which in turn alludes to the famous phrase ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept’ from Psalm 137 of the Old Testament. Smart’s poem records the breakdown of a relationship in extravagantly melancholy language; Psalm 137 laments the exile of the Jewish people in more solemn language. Smithyman’s marriage was in trouble by the time he wrote ‘Letters Fall Like Feathers’ in 1966, but he was too ironic and self-deprecating to channel Smart’s furious regret. Where she weeps loudly, he is content to sleep.

Moving toward the university, Smithyman observes the brand-new Hyatt Hotel on the corner of Princes Street and Waterloo Quadrant, but is unimpressed by the building. For him, it symbolises the inauthenticity of Auckland, a city which prioritises the interests of ‘capital’ and offers its visitors ‘mirror faces’ rather than genuine encounters with other human beings. Some people may claim they can ‘live’ in hotels but, as Smithyman’s favourite philosopher Martin Heidegger liked to point out, there is a difference between living and merely ‘dwelling’. Heidegger dismissed modern cities as ‘machines for dwelling’ rather than places where people could feel genuinely at home; in ‘Letters Fall Like Feathers’ Smithyman seems to agree with him, at least so far as New Zealand’s largest city is concerned.

When Smithyman writes ‘The hotel/ is memories before the workmen quit’ he seems to allude ironically to TE Hulme’s one-line poem ‘Old Houses’, which reminded its readers that ‘Old houses were scaffolding once and workmen whistling’. A pioneer member of Britain’s modernist movement, Hulme was a man who took an almost futurist delight in modernity and its technologies. If Hulme’s poem ennobles the messy business of construction by reminding us that it is a prerequisite for the beauty buildings may acquire in their maturity, then Smithyman’s poem seems to condemn the Hyatt as doomed to ugliness and a kind of obsolescence even before it is completed.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Heraclitean lesson for Te Radar's team

TV One's Good Morning show had never seen anything quite like it. Good Morning screens on weekdays between nine o'clock and noon, and tends to be dominated by infomercials for skin and hair products, earnest panel discussions about the latest career moves of cultural icons like Justin Bieber and Paris Hilton, and carefully rehearsed 'jam sessions' by light jazz bands that look like they earn their living noodling in the bars and restaurants of cruise ships.

Yesterday, though, Good Morning's pair of schmaltzy hosts found the time to interview Paul Janman about Tongan Ark, the profile of the Tongan intellectual and pro-democracy activist Futa Helu which will premiere on Saturday week at Auckland's International Film Festival. Like the salesmen for shampoos and face lotions who appear so often on Good Morning, Janman was supposed to smile, tell an inane joke or two, and plug his product with a couple of cliched soundbites.

Instead, though, Paul launched into a discussion of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whose ideas were one of the inspirations for Helu and his colleagues at Tonga's 'Atenisi Institute. After a few seconds of Paul's discussion, one of the hosts of Good Morning leaned back on his heavily cushioned couch with an expression of bewilderment and pain. You could almost feel his brain hurting, as it tried to deal with the unaccustomed demands of thought.

Heraclitus is hardly a marginal figure in the history of philosophy. Although his writing survives only as a set of tantalising fragments, it has excited scores of important thinkers besides Futa Helu. Heraclitus' view of the universe as a place of constant, uncontrollable change - a perspective summed up in his claim that 'we do not step into the same river twice' - alarmed Aristotle, who wanted to tidy reality into categories and laws, but appealed to revolutionary thinkers like Hegel and Marx. Lenin turned to Heraclitus to try to understand the chaos of the First World War. Gerard Manley Hopkins thought that the Greek's fragments expressed the wildness and grandeur of God. Bob Dylan put Heraclitus' line 'The way up is the way down' into one of his most famous songs. For the Good Morning show, though, which normally associates philosophy with tacky self-help books and the psychobabble of celebrities like Justin Bieber, Heraclitus was strong and strange stuff.

Even after he'd been steered onto other aspects of his film by his panicked hosts, Paul Janman refused to play the normal game of Good Morning interviewees. He talked about Tonga's dramatic recent political history and its place in his film, but declined to offer any pat explanation for events like the 2006 riot which destroyed half of downtown Nuku'alofa. Perhaps hoping for anecdotes from the set of Shortland Street, which has been a refuge for many Kiwi auteurs in need of a fast buck, one of the presenters of Good Morning asked Janman about his experiences "in front of the camera". In reply, Janman explained that he had studied the tradition of street clowning with a Brazilian master of the art, and that he and his teacher had wandered the streets of Auckland disguised as vagrants, putting on shows for the public. Once again, the hosts of Good Morning appeared bewildered.

It is hard not to compare Paul Janman's performance on national television yesterday with some comments left on this blog last week by Peter Bell, the boss of the New Zealand Directors' Guild, a scriptwriter for Shortland Street, and the producer of the just-concluded television series Radar Across the Pacific.
Bell had been drawn to this blog by the posts I'd made describing the factual errors, oversights, and racist cliches which were a part of every episode of Radar Across the Pacific. But Bell wasn't interested in rebutting any of my charges against the show and its presenter, the comedian Te Radar. Instead of denying the faults of the series he produced, he argued that they were all that could be expected, given the severe demands which television imposes upon documentary makers. It was simply not possible, Bell insisted, for Radar Across the Pacific to tell the true story of New Zealand's interference in societies like Samoa and Kiribati in any detail, or to avoid cliches about happy-go-lucky Islanders:

Yes it would be great to do an in-depth programme looking at the issue of colonialism in the pacific. But could you get someone to fund it? Would you get it on at 7:30 pm? I doubt it. 

A few hours after Bell made his comments the Cook Islands instalment of Radar Across the Pacific was broadcast. As he pottered about the islands of Rarotonga and Atiu, Te Radar didn't make a single reference to the sixty-four years the Cooks spent as a colony of New Zealand. He didn't mention the attempts by Kiwi administrators to break up customary land titles on the Cooks, to destroy the traditional role of chiefs, and to turn the country into a plantation for palangi capitalists, and he didn't, of course, mention the campaign of resistance that the Cook Islanders waged - a campaign that Dick Scott decribes in his book Years of the Poo-bah.
Te Radar did, however, find time to complain about the 'appalling' corruption of the Cooks' post-independence governments, and to suggest that the country is not capable of looking after all of its own affairs. Te Radar and Pter Bell might as well have made a documentary about the problems of contemporary South Africa which avoided all references to the apartheid era.

Paul Janman was one of several commenters who were unimpressed by the self-defence Peter Bell made on this blog. Replying to Bell, Janman complained that:

  The worrying thing though is as President of the Screen Director’s Guild, Bell nonetheless seems to be quite unaware of the tropes that he has been wielding in the Radar series. Not only were there omissions but there were also damaging stereotypes. You only need to see the TV Guide front page of Radar in a lei and pretending to play the ukulele in front of a Pacific beach to realise that there is very little serious reflection on the complexities of the contemporary Pacific...The best thing for Bell to do at this point is to acknowledge the errors and damage done, learn and move on... 

Janman's refusal to dumb down his act on Good Morning was clearly consistent with his criticisms of Peter Bell last week. But an artist's talk is only as good as their walk, and we have to turn to Tongan Ark to discover Janman's alternative to Bell's sort of documentary.

It seems to me that Tongan Ark's non-linear narrative, uncompromising focus on difficult ideas, and commitment to biculturalism make it a very different beast from Radar Across the Pacific. Peter Bell and Te Radar spent a few days in each of the Pacific islands their series discussed; Janman spent years in Tonga working on his movie. As 'Okusitino Mahina noted when Tongan Ark was previewed late last year, the film's radical use of space and time shows the influence of both Heraclitus and traditional Tongan culture. Where Te Radar steered away from Pacific Islanders who used their own languages instead of English, Janman's film is saturated in Polynesian speech and song.
According to Peter Bell's logic, Tongan Ark should be unpalatable to New Zealand audiences. But Paul Janman's constant appearances in the media suggest that a mood of excitement is building ahead of the film's premiere. By contrast, Radar Across the Pacific has had a tepid reception, despite the prime time slot Peter Bell won for it on TV One. The few reviews that the series has won have tended to focus on Te Radar's crop of ginger hair, rather than the places he visited.

We should not be surprised if Tongan Ark does win a large audience in New Zealand. Despite Peter Bell's claims, Kiwis have a history of tuning in to documentaries which treat them like thinking adults. Back in the mid-'70s Barry Barclay and Michael King introduced huge numbers of New Zealanders to Maori culture and history for the first time with the television series Tangata Whenua. Barclay's later masterpiece The Feathers of Peace, a feature-length docudrama that told the tragic story of the Moriori people, also won an enthusiastic audience. James Belich's 1999 television series The New Zealand Wars became a hit despite its host's liking for military detail and his refusal to simplify nineteenth century race relations.

One of Heraclitus' most famous fragments says that 'those who seek gold dig up much earth and find little'. Peter Bell could worse than consider Heraclitus' words. By seeking commercial gold at the expense of historical truth and artistic merit he is wasting his time, and doing a disservice to New Zealand television and film audiences.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tonga's mental athletes

Update: Paul Janman will be appearing on TV One's Good Morning programme at half-past ten today (that's Wednesday) to talk about Tongan Ark. Check it out!

Tongan Ark is getting plenty of publicity ahead of its premiere on August the 4th. Paul has been interviewed on Australian public radio on Radio New Zealand, and on Triangle TV, and both the Pacific Media Centre and the TV 3 website have given his film a plug. TVNZ's Tagata Pasifika programme will profile the movie next weekend.

What's less well-known is that August the 4th will see the launch of a book, as well as the premiere of Tongan Ark. Here's a press release which is going out today.

A new film and book celebrate Tonga's mental athletes

 A joint press release by Public Films and Atuanui Press

 July the 23rd, 2012

Last year Tonga's rugby players impressed World Cup audiences with their skills and flair. Tonga is famous for its athletes, but few New Zealanders know that their closest neighbour also produces many distinguished intellectuals. Saturday the 4th of August will see the launch of a film and a book honouring the late Futa Helu, Tonga's most important modern thinker and a man with a message very relevant to twenty-first century New Zealand.

Paul Janman's film Tongan Ark is a portrait of 'Atenisi, the private university Helu created in a swamp on the edge of Tonga's capital city Nuku'alofa in the 1960s. Helu believed that European and Polynesian cultures needed to learn and borrow from one another, and the staff of 'Atenisi put his ideas into practice by offering courses in grand opera and English literature as well as traditional Tongan music and dance. 'Atenisi is the Tongan word for Athens, and Helu wanted to emulate ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates by promoting reasoned and open debate, even when such debate touched on controversial political issues.

Although it has always struggled for funding and resources, 'Atenisi has had a huge influence on Tonga and on the wider Pacific region. Because of its emphasis on freedom of thought, 'Atenisi was the cradle of the pro-democracy movement which swept Tonga in the nineties and noughties. Many of the school's graduates have enjoyed distinguished careers inside and outside Tonga.

Tongan Ark shows the joys and tribulations of 'Atenisi's staff and students, as they celebrate learning and battle against poverty and political persecution. The film ends by showing Helu's funeral in 2010, and by noting the determination of his colleagues to keep 'Atenisi open.

August the 4th will also see the launch of On Tongan Poetry, a collection of essays Futa Helu wrote in the 1980s. In these texts, which have been published by Atuanui Press with the help of Creative New Zealand, Helu not only describes the style and function of traditional Tongan poetry but takes readers on a series of fascinating detours, as he discusses the ancient history of the Pacific, compares the work of English literary giants like Milton, Wordsworth, and Blake to that of their Tongan counterparts, and comments wittily on the politics and morality of the modern world.
The new film and book reflect Futa Helu's widening influence in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

One of the central characters of Tongan Ark is Michael Horowitz, an American sociologist who left behind the fat salaries and creature comforts of First World academia to teach at Helu's poverty-stricken school. "Futa Helu has something to teach the West" says Horowitz. "Our education systems are in danger of becoming cogs in the machine of commerce, but Futa criticised commercially-focused schooling, and insisted that students should be taught to criticise rather than conform to their societies. He believed in the free play of the mind, and that's why so many Western scholars like myself travelled to Tonga to work with him, despite all the sacrifices involved."

This year education has become the subject of intense political debate in New Zealand, as unions, parents and the government argue over ideas like national standards, school league tables, and school zoning. By showing us Futa Helu's bold experiment in schooling, Tongan Ark can help broaden and enrich discussions about the New Zealand education system.

The Kiwi scholar and poet Scott Hamilton has written an introduction and afterword to Futa Helu's essays about Tongan poetry. Hamilton admits that, until a few years ago, he didn't think much about Tonga, and had never heard of Helu. Hamilton's attitude changed, he explains, when he realised that "Tonga, with its history of successfully resisting colonisation in the nineteenth century and remaining independent, and 'Atenisi, with its empahsis on the fusion of the best of European and Polynesian cultures, had a lot to offer New Zealanders. In New Zealand we talk a lot about biculturalism, about reconciling Maori and Pakeha cultures, but Futa Helu made biculturalism a reality" Hamilton says. "He is able to say fascinating things not only about Tongan but about palangi poets, because he understands both traditions, and because his double understanding gives him an unusual perspective."

Tongan Ark will play at the Sky City Theatre at a quarter past four on August the 4th. After the film has finished, a function will be held in the Wintergarden lounge of the nearby Civic Theatre, where Tongan dancers and singers will perform, a discussion of Futa Helu and his ideas will take place, and copies of On Tongan Poetry will go on sale.

Public Films
Atuanui Press/Titus Books

Visit the Tongan Ark facebook page at
to follow discussions about the film.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Peerless in Wigan

In February and March of 1936, a young journalist and novelist named George Orwell left his adopted home of London and travelled through the northern counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, staying in boarding houses in Wigan, Sheffield, and Barnsley, tramping through the poorest streets of those cities, and meeting and interviewing miners, small businessmen, and unemployed workers. After returning from the slums and slag heaps of the north, Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, a book which considers the impact of the Great Depression on England's working class with a mixture of sympathy, disgust, and anger.

The Road to Wigan Pier was written very quickly, because Orwell was preparing to travel to Spain and fight for the anti-fascist side in that country's civil war. The book's descriptions of England's depressed north are relatively brief, and much of its second half is given over to a vituperative and rather strange polemic against 'vegetarians, feminists, pacifists, fruit juice drinkers' and other reprobates who have, according to Orwell, tried to hijack the doctrine of socialism. The Road met with mixed reviews when it was published in 1937.

In the seventy-five years since its appearance, though, Orwell's book has become established as a classic portrait of the effects of the crisis of capitalism in the thirties on ordinary people. Certain passages in the book, like Orwell's description of 'a slum girl of twenty-five' with 'an exhausted face' kneeling on an embankment and poking a stick up a frozen waste pipe, or his tribute to the 'black and naked' coal miners whose 'hacking and shovelling' is the unacknowledged basis of modern life, have seemed to sum up the misery and injustice of what WH Auden called 'a low dishonest decade'.

Orwell's book has inspired a number of sequels over the decades since its publication. In 1984 the journalist Beatrix Campbell surveyed the damage that Thatcherism was doing to Wigan and other parts of the north in her book Wigan Pier Revisited. When Campbell made her journey through the north, the long boom which had raised living standards in Britain and the rest of the West after World War Two had ended, and Thatcher's government was trying to restore the profitability of business with a programme of privatisation and deindustrialistion. The 'New Labour' regime of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would maintain the essential policy planks of Thatcherism.
Thatcherism and Blairism turned parts of the cities of the north into wastegrounds, but they seemed, in the late nineties and for much of the noughties, to have created a mini-boom for business. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, though, the British economy is once again in recession, and unemployment is once again rising. In retrospect, the good times of the fin de siecle years seem to have been based upon cheap credit, rather than on the success of Thatcherism.

With Britain once again in crisis, it seems appropriate that the freelance journalist Stephen Armstrong has made a new journey to Wigan, and turned his encounters with the people of the city into a book he has given the inevitable title The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited.

In a review written for the Guardian, Stuart Maconie praises Armstrong's intentions, but contrasts his methods and style with those of Orwell. Orwell focused much of his attention on miners and other parts of the traditional industrial proletariat, while Armstrong studies the low-paid, casually employed service sector workers who are part and parcel of post-industrial Britain, but both men rage against the deprivation and class divisions which disfigure their society. Yet where Orwell's book is a series of portraits made in spare, poetic language, Armstrong's is full of statistics and citations. Maconie complains that Armstrong has taken more trouble with his data than he has with his language:

[S]tylistically, the two writers are worlds apart. While we know what Armstrong means when he says that the social reformer Seebohm Rowntree "cut people the same kind of slack as Orwell did", or when he says of the concept of relative deprivation "you can sniff at the label and consider it way too generous a definition of poverty", you can sense Orwell bridling from beyond the grave at the slipshod expression. This may seem harsh, but if you're going to borrow the title and the concept of one of the finest pieces of social reportage and documentary social history by one of the greatest modern English writers, you need to be on your mettle in every sentence.

Stephen Armstrong seems to regard Orwell as a faultless figure, but Beatrix Campbell used her book about Wigan to take a few cracks at the great man. She argued that Orwell idealised male workers like the coal miners of the north, but treated the women of the region as passive victims of the Great Depression. Female trade unionists and other strong women were ignored in favour of miserable, helpless characters like the 'slum girl' poking a stick up a frozen pipe. Campbell tried to rectify Orwell's bias by doing interviewing scores of Wigan women and by writing about women's institutes and clubs in the city.

Some of Campbell's charges against The Road to Wigan Pier have been backed up by recent scholarship on the book. Since the publication of Orwell's twenty-volume Complete Works in 1998, we have been able to compare the text of the journal he kept during his journey to the north with The Road, and to note the numerous discrepancies between the two works. A lot of the most famous details in the book don't appear in the journal, and there are reasons for thinking that they are invented. Orwell claimed to have observed the famous 'slum girl' at work with her stick early in February 1936, for instance, at a time when the weather in the north of England was unusually warm, and pipes would not have been frozen.
We should not be surprised if parts of The Road to Wigan Pier were invented, because biographers and commentators have long conceded that there are fictional details in many of Orwell's ostensibly non-fictional works. There is no evidence that Orwell ever shot an elephant in front of a crowd of villagers or observed a hanging during his time as a colonial functionary in Burma, and some of the most memorable characters in Down and Out in Paris and London are fictions.

Orwell is a writer who divides opinion on the left, and Stephen Armstrong and Beatrix Campbell in some ways represent two opposed views of his achievement. For Armstrong he is a saint and a prophet; for Campbell he is a shyster who knew a lot less about working class culture than he pretended, and whose work has been embraced by the right.

What Armstrong and Campbell arguably have in common, though, is a radical misapprehension of the method Orwell used when he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier and many of his other works. In this day and age, when the poorer corners of societies like Britain are crawling with social scientists doing all sorts of quantitative and qualitative research for government departments and universities, it's all too easy to treat The Road to Wigan Pier as a pioneering work of sociology. In reality, though, sociology only really took off in Britain in the seventies, and was virtually non-existent in the thirties.

In his classic 1965 essay 'Components of the National Culture' Perry Anderson argued that the long absence of sociology and most other social sciences from Britain meant that the country's academics tended to work in a piecemeal fashion, without the broad vision of their society that a discipline like sociology could provide. As a result there was, Anderson suggested, an 'absent centre' in British culture, and for a century or more literature had tried to fill that centre. Writers like Arnold, Lawrence, Leavis and Orwell had all tried to describe the broad outlines and diagnose the major ills of their society. They had stepped into the vacuum created by the absence of a British Durkheim or Marx.

Orwell's books have to be considered, then, as part of a tradition of literary commentaries on and critiques of British society. The Road to Wigan Pier falls easily into a sub-tradition within this tradition, in which socially concerned writers leave the comfort and safety of their studies and set out on journeys that will give them a first-hand understanding of their nation's ills. Cobbett's Rural Rides, Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, and JB Priestley's English Journey are members of the same species as The Road to Wigan Pier.

The 'state of the nation' travel book differs markedly from the work of most sociologists. It doesn't feature either conscientious qualitative research or number-crunching quantitative research, but instead relies on first impressions and intuitions. It doesn't proceed in arguments so much as anecdotes and images. And it relies for its credibility not on its footnotes and bibliography but on the extent to which its narrator manages to impress us with their personality, and with the snap judgments they offer on the people and events they encounter on their travels.

We might understand the difference between a book like The Road to Wigan Pier and the work of most social scientists by invoking Hans-Georg Gadamer's distinction between judgement-based and calculative thinking. Where calculative thinking aims at certainty and tries to fit data with general theoretical laws, judgement-based thinking proceeds on a much looser basis, and owes more to the methods of the arts than the sciences. Gadamer argued that in our era calculative thinking has largely superseded judgement-based thinking. The computer, with its ability to crunch vast amounts of data and its illusion of precision, is the model for all thought.

Today works like The Road to Wigan Pier are sometimes subjected to pedantic criticisms by people who misread them as attempts at social science. The fact that Orwell invented this or that detail of a text, or emphasised this social group at the expense of another, is held up as proof that he failed to produce a properly rigorous account of his subject. The fact that Orwell was working by a different set of rules is missed. For their part, Orwell's defenders often mistakenly seem to feel that they have to fight tooth and nail against some of the more pedantic criticisms of their hero, and attempt quixotically to deny his habit of inventing characters and events, his biases towards certain groups at the expense of others, and the speed with which he made and revised many of his judgements.

 Because both Orwell's supporters and detractors ignore the tradition he was working in and the method he was using, they are incapable of learning from the achievement of books like The Road to Wigan Pier. Both Beatrix Campbell's and Stephen Armstrong's accounts of their journeys to the north substitute plodding empirical research for Orwell's intuition, and give us dull, cliche-ridden prose instead of Orwell's succession of uncanny images. Where Orwell haunts us, Campbell and Armstrong bore us, despite their good intentions.
The tradition Orwell belongs to may have been marginalised, but it nonetheless persists. Iain Sinclair, who has spent much of the past thirty years walking the less desirable parts of London and writing about his discoveries there, is the most prominent contemporary British exponent of the method Orwell used in The Road to Wigan Pier.

Sinclair's book Ghost Milk has made him into something of a media celebrity this year, because of its relentless attacks on the impact of the Olympics on East London. In Ghost Milk Sinclair wanders through the sodden fields and abandoned industrial sites of Essex, and likens their imminent transformation into shopping malls and stadia to the enclosure of common land in early modern England. Like Orwell, Sinclair works in an intuitive rather than analytic manner, and produces images that lodge themselves in our minds in a way that statistics never could. Stephen Armstrong and Beatrix Campbell could do worse than read Ghost Milk.

 [Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Greek crosses and invisible cats

Ellen Portch has designed this cover (click to expand it) for the selection of Futa Helu's writing I have been helping prepare over the past few weeks. On Tongan Poetry is being issued by Atuanui, a new branch of Titus Books dedicated to bringing distinguished writing from the past back into print in the twenty-first century. The book has been funded by Creative New Zealand, and  will be launched on August the 4th, the same day that Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's study of Helu's life and work, enjoys its premiere at the Auckland International Film Festival. Titus will be selling the volume, in fact, at the post-screening function Paul is holding in the Civic Theatre's Wintergarden lounge.

Ellen spends most of her time painting and teaching painting at Elam School of Fine Arts, so it is not surprising that her book covers are marked by a painterly sense of colour and space. She favours subtle rather than garish colours, and is fascinated by the mists and vacuums that haunt old photographs. Her covers often seem to want to create a sense of intrigue, rather than to act as simple advertisements for the texts behind them.

The image on the cover of On Tongan Poetry was apparently pulled by Paul Janman from an old Helu family photo album, and is shown for a few seconds during one of the more tranquil, nostalgic passages of Tongan Ark
During my first couple of visits to Western Polynesia I was startled by the way cats and dogs were allowed to behave there. In New Zealand, of course, cats and dogs are either privately owned and pampered or treated as strays and placed in pounds. In Tonga and Samoa, by contrast, cats and dogs seem to be neither pets nor strays. They are not privately owned and pampered, but they are not persecuted and driven into pounds either. In cities like Nuku'alofa and Apia moggies and mutts wander about perpetually, searching for chickens, rats, and appetising piles of rubbish. Packs of dogs can be a menace at night, and cats have a way of inveigling their way into tourists' bags and disposing of anything remotely edible they find there.

Cats and dogs in Western Polynesia might have to forage for their food, but they seem to have certain rights unknown to their relatives in New Zealand. They seem to be able to go anywhere, and to be able to bark or meow as loudly as they like without ever being shushed up.

One of Jorge Luis Borges' stories describes a society where a man can, if he draws the right number from a lottery, be deemed invisible for a week, and thus wander wherever he pleases and do almost anything he likes. Because nobody is allowed to admit seeing him, a man who has been deemed invisible can go to the market and steal as much food as he or she likes, without fear of arrest and punishment. 

I thought about Borges' story when I attended a service at the largest Catholic church in Apia, and watched a pale, skinny, scabby dog trot down the aisle between pews packed with worshippers, sit for a while at the foot at the pulpit where an extravagantly robed priest was giving a sermon in impassioned Samoan, then yawn and bark and trot back down the aisle and out of the church. Although a couple of palangi trourists like me guffawed at the dog, none of the Samoan worshippers so much as looked at the creature.

Futa Helu enjoyed winding up his countrymen by adopting odd foreign practices, and it's possible that he decided to keep a pet cat to raise the eyebrows of his neighbours. Given the extreme mobility of cats and dogs in Tonga, though, the moggy on the cover of the new book may have been a stranger that wandered into the frame with Futa for a few moments.
The crosses that Ellen has used on her cover allude to the Tongan national flag, which was created back in 1864, thirty-eight years before New Zealand's banner went into service. In his biography of Shirley Baker, the Wesleyan missionary turned anti-imperialist who was the main advisor to Tupou I, Tonga's first modern king, Noel Rutherford tells an amusing story about the making of the flag. As part of his efforts to see off the attentions of land-hungry would-be colonists from nations like Britain, France, and New Zealand, Tupou created a set of symbols of Tongan independence, as well as institutions like courts and a parliament. After he'd decided that any self-respecting nation needed a flag, the king asked some of his political allies for suggestions about designs and symbols. According to Rutherford, one senior chief suggested that Tupou put a rat on his flag, because the rat was Tonga's only indigenous animal. After he learned about this proposal Shirley Baker became alarmed, and persuaded Tupou to make his flag into an advertisement for the Christian faith that almost all Tongans had adopted by the 1860s.

The flag adopted in 1864 showed a red cross at the centre of a field of white. After Tupou's flag began to be mistaken for the banner of a certain charitable organisation, though, a field of red was added, and the cross was moved.

When I saw a draft version of Ellen's cover I worried that its crosses might send out the wrong message about Futa Helu. Here's an e mail I sent to Brett Cross, the boss of Titus Books:

The cover looks great...The only potential problem that occurs to me is the use of the cross. Futa Helu was seen as a secularist foe of the intersection of the Tongan state and church - an intersection which is perhaps symbolised by the national flag - and the pagan poems, songs, and dances he championed sometimes raised the hackles of conservative Tongans. The poetic forms being discussed in the book all have their origins in pagan times. Given all this, is there an incongruity in the use of the cross on the cover, or am I being pedantic?

But Futa's daughter and literary executor Sisi'uno Langi-Helu approved of the cover, and I've come to realise that those crosses have more complex associations than my e mail admitted. As Brett pointed out, the symbol on Tupou's flag and Ellen's cover is a Greek cross. Unlike a Latin cross, which represents the crucifixion, a Greek cross has its origins in paganism and in the ideas of certain ancient Tongan thinkers. The cross's four arms of equal length can symbolise the four corners of the earth to which the Christian gospel must spread, but they have also meant, for pagan religions, Aristotle, and medieval alchemists, the elements of water, fire, earth, and air into which the universe is supposedly divided.

Futa Helu revered both the ancient Greeks and the ancient pagan culture of his own society. He gave the famous school he founded in the slums of Nuku'alofa the Tongan name for Athens, and in the essays Titus is republishing he celebrates bawdy pre-Christian songs and dances. Perhaps, then, the Greek cross, with its pagan and Aristotlean overtones, is the perfect symbol to place on the cover of Helu's book!
There is an intriguing connection, as well, between the Greek cross and a legendary Polynesian thinker from my part of the world. At the same time that Tupou was struggling successfully to preserve Tongan independence, a prophet, songwriter, and architect named Te Kooti was waging a guerrilla war against a New Zealand government which had unjustly imprisoned him. As he led his army through the forests and mountains of Te Ika a Maui, Te Kooti carried a series of banners adorned with symbols of the Ringatu religion he had founded. The greatest of these flags was Te Wepu, or The Whip, which was fifty feet long and got its name from the sound it made in a stiff breeze. Along with various other symbols, Te Wepu featured a Greek cross.

The Greek cross has remained one of the symbols of Te Kooti and his Ringatu faith. At Te Porere, the site of the last major battle of Te Kooti's war, a Greek cross adorns the grave where dozens of Te Kooti's followers lie together.
Te Kooti was seen by many colonial journalists and historians as a bloodthirsty anti-Pakeha maniac, but both the religion he created and the meeting houses his followers raised tell a different story. The Ringatu faith mixes traditional Maori practices with Jewish and to a lesser extent Christian theology, and the paintings which fill great Ringatu houses like Rongopai combine Maori and Pakeha imagery and techniques. In his own way, then, Te Kooti was perhaps an exponent of the the sort of fusion of Maori and European cultures and ideas which Futa Helu advocated.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, July 13, 2012

Te Radar finds goldfish, but misses the nukes and the strip mine

There was a telling moment in this week's episode of Te Radar's television series about the Pacific.

The Kiwi entertainer had tramped into the forested mountains behind the Samoan capital of Apia with a local guide. When the two men emerged from the forest and stood on the shore of a small green lake called Lanoto'o, Te Radar's companion began to talk about the history of this beautiful spot. He explained that, during Samoa's struggle for independence from New Zealand, groups of nationalists had taken refuge from Kiwi military forces in the area around the lake.

After New Zealand police opened fire on a peaceful pro-independence march and killed eleven Samoans at the end of 1929, Wellington sent hundreds of marines to its restive colony. Soon the troops had marched out of Apia into the mountains of 'Upolu, where they burnt down villages associated with the anti-colonial Mau movement and arrested known nationalists. Samoans responded by fleeing through the forest to remote spots like Lanolo'o, where they raised rough huts and waited for fatigue and malaria to send their pursuers back to the barracks and bars of the colonial capital. Despite its tranquility, then, Lake Lanoto'o had played a role in one of the most tragic periods of Samoan history.

As he sat beside the little green lake, though, Te Radar didn't want to take the hint offered by his guide, and turn his attention toward New Zealand's disastrous colonial rule of Samoa. Instead, Te Radar wanted to talk about goldfish. He began to quizz his bemused companion about a colony of goldfish the Germans had established at Lanoto'o during the couple of decades that they ruled Samoa, and he became excited when he was told that the fish were still living in the lake. An important if awkward subject had been rejected in favour of a piece of trivia.

Te Radar had dealt with December the 29th, 1929 in a very cursory manner early in his Samoa episode. After describing the events of the date Samoans still call 'Black Saturday', he had noted that no monument sat on the spot where protesters were gunned down. This lack of a memorial stone meant, Te Radar decided, that Samoans wanted to 'move on' from the tragedy of 1929. Instead of discussing the causes and consequences of Black Saturday, then, he was happy to shift his attention to matters like the goldfish of Lake Lanoto'o.

Te Radar's inadequate treatment of the colonial history of Samoa was not surprising. In episode after episode of his television series, he has shown little or no interest in the colonial history of the Pacific, and in the continuing economic and political domination of the region by Western powers. As a result, he has struggled to understand the societies he has visited.
In last week's episode about the Micronesian nation of Kiribati, Te Radar visited the overcrowded atoll of Tarawa, where shantytowns have taken the place of coconut groves, and raw sewage poisons a lagoon that once seethed with fish. Near the end of this week's episode, Te Radar visited Apia's downtown foodmarket, where he found fried chicken, mutton flaps, and some alarmingly big bellies.

Unlike the goldfish of Lake Lanoto'o, the squalor of Tarawa and the poor health of Samoans are important subjects. Unfortunately, Te Radar's refusal to acknowledge the impact of colonialism on the Pacific made his discussions of these subjects misleading and patronising.

During his visit to Kiribati, Te Radar observed that Tarawa has become overcrowded because of mass emigration from other, more remote atolls. Young I-Kiribati buy one-way tickets to their nation's political and commercial capital, despite the fact that four out of every five of the people already living there are unemployed. All too often, emigrants end up living in shacks beside Tarawa's fetid lagoon.

Te Radar clearly considered the movement of I-Kiribati to Tarawa to be both foolish and environmentally irresponsible. What he didn't mention, and quite possibly didn't know, is that the distribution of Kiribati's population was affected disastrously by the detonation of more than twenty nuclear bombs over its largest atoll in the 1950s and '60s.

Kiribati was a British colony until 1979, and in 1957 and 1958 the British tested nuclear bombs in the skies over the eastern Kiribati island of Kiritimati. New Zealand was an enthusiastic supporter of Britain's tests, and sent the frigates Pukaki and Rotoiti to observe them. In 1962, at the invitation of the British, the United States detonated twenty or so of its own nuclear weapons over the island.

Kiritimati's three hundred and twenty square kilometres make it larger than Kiribati's other thirty-three islands combined. The island has a vast lagoon, and much arable land. Kiritimati should have made an ideal place for emigrants from small and overcrowded atolls to settle, but after 1957 I-Kiribati were understandably reluctant to make it their home. 
Although most of Kiritimati has now been decontaminated, its population remains small, partly because it has no ferry or air service to the rest of Kiribati. The government in Tarawa has repeatedly asked Britain, Australia and New Zealand to help fund a shipping service to Kiritimati, and repeatedly been turned down. Without the option of continuing their traditional fishing and farming activities on Kiritimati, landless I-Kiribati from overcrowded atolls often feel they have no choice but to depart for Tarawa.

During last week's episode of his series Te Radar profiled a New Zealand aid project which provided water tanks and purifiers for the inhabitants of the slums of Tarawa. Admiring some of the new tanks, Te Radar paid tribute to the generosity of Kiwis.

It can be argued, though, that New Zealand has taken far more from Kiribati than it will ever give to the country.

At the end of the nineteenth century a New Zealander named Albert Ellis discovered phosphate on Banaba, the westernmost island in Kiribati. After persuading the locals to cede their sovereignty to the British Empire, Ellis began to mine phosphate by the tonne and send it to New Zealand, where dairy farmers valued it as a fertiliser. Like Nauru, another Micronesian island which had the misfortune to possess phosphate, Banaba was mined unmercifully, and came to look like the surface of the moon. When the Banabans protested about the loss of their gardens to the mine, British administrators moved them thousands of kilometres to Fiji. Ellis' mine finally closed in 1979, but little has been done to regenerate the Banaban landscape or bring the Banabans home.

New Zealand's ten billion dollar dairy industry was established on the back of the strip mining of Banaba, but this country has never offered the island's people any compensation for their travails. If Te Radar were aware of the history of Banaba he might not be so convinced of the munificence of his countrymen.

Te Radar's discussion of the shortcomings of Samoan diets seemed as bereft of context as his laments about the squalor of Tarawa and his celebrations of Kiwi generosity towards Kiribati. The entertainer bemoaned modern Samoans' penchant for fired chooks, mutton flaps, and corned beef, and lamented the loss of their traditional, healthy diet of lean meat and vegetables. He introduced viewers to a palangi nutritionist from New Zealand, and lauded the attempts of this latter-day missionary to warn Samoans away from sinful foods.

But Te Radar didn't mention the way that New Zealanders have fostered Samoans' taste for unhealthy food.

For decades now Kiwi companies have been exporting their fattiest portions of meat to Samoa and other Pacific nations. Mutton, corned beef, and chicken that is judged unfit for New Zealand consumption is bagged or canned and sent to the islands, where it is sold cheaply to locals who can afford nothing better.
In 2010 the New Zealand Medical Journal ran an article describing the 'causative relationship' between exports of cheap meat from New Zealand and 'endemic obesity' in places like Samoa. Dr Nick Watson, one of the authors of the article, has condemned New Zealand for 'giving development assistance' to the Pacific with one hand, only to spread 'heart disease epidemics' with the other.

Te Radar might want to 'move on' from the days when New Zealand and other Western nations had formal colonies in the Pacific, but many economic and ideological threads connect the colonial era with the twenty-first century. Britian exploded nuclear bombs over Kiritimati, and now refuses to help restore the island's connections with the outside world. New Zealand dumps second-rate and hazardous products in Samoa in the same nonchalant way it used to send dangerously incompetent administrators and soldiers there. Because he doesn't recognise the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism on the Pacific, Te Radar ends up blaming people like the I-Kiribati and the Samoans for problems created by others.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Hitchcock and the lanternfish camera: or, an experiment with drugs and dreaming

Yesterday a reader of this blog upset by my criticisms of that Kiwi cultural treasure Te Radar and by my use of the words 'imperialism' and 'New Zealand' in the same sentence accused me of lacking any sense of my own absurdity. Rather than reply directly to such a serious charge, I thought I'd get around to posting about a rather absurd experiment I made a couple of months ago.

I've blogged occasionally about the opioids I use to help control the pain from an old nerve injury, and about the strange dreams these drugs sometimes produce. After I described the very light sleep that the opioid tramadol gives me, and the dreams of floating on or flying above the Pacific Ocean that seem to accompany this light sleep, a numbers of readers discussed their own experiences with drugs and dreams. Richard Taylor confessed to a fear of tramadol-induced states of consciousness, Keri Hulme recommended dark chocolate as an aid to dreaming, and a chap named Sven revealed he used opioids solely for their dream-inducing effects.

Three months ago I abandoned tramadol in favour of another opioid called dihydrocodeine. Where tramadol kept me on the borderland between waking and sleep, dihydrocodeine makes me sleep very deeply. Skyler is less than impressed with the drug, because it makes me sleep right through the occasional night-time cry-fests of our baby son. While she's forced out of bed to comfort the poor little lad at two or three in the morning, I'm snoring away contentedly in the land of dihydrocodeine.

Like tramadol, dihydrocodeine gives me vivid and extraordinarily detailed dreams, which are often repeated night after night. But where tramadol sent me flying and floating over land and seascapes, my dihydrocodeine dreams often have an oddly pedagogical quality. All too often, they keep me indoors, in a  classroom or the corner of a crowded room at a party, and make me listen to someone's academic lecture or drunken confession. These orations seem profound while I sleep, and then either nonsensical or tedious, or both, after I wake.
I assume that the dihydrocodeine dreams occur while I am descending into and rising from the depths of sleep, and I guess that their length and detail might be due to the length of time it takes me to descend to and ascend from such depths.

At about the time I started to use dihydrocodeine I came across a copy of Graham Greene's posthumous book A World of my Own, which is a selection of entries from the dream diaries the novelist kept for twenty-five years. Greene describes dreams about a Nazi invasion of Britain, a journey up a Colombian river with a cheery Henry James, and spying missions for both Mi5 and the KGB. In the introduction to A World of my Own, which was written in the last months of his life, Greene looks back over his career and reveals that he often used dreams to determine the course and outcome of his novels and short stories. He would go to bed thinking of a story he was trying to write, and find whatever he needed - the right twist of a plot, the necessary supporting character, the essential setting for an event - in a dream.
One night when I was having a few beers with Paul Janman I mentioned Graham Greene's way with dreams, and suggested half-jokingly that we might use the same method to generate the themes and course of the film we have been meaning to make about the history of Auckland's Great South Road. Because of other, more pressing projects, rather than any lack of enthusiasm, Paul and I hadn't been able to give as much time as we would like to the Great South Road film. We haven't had time, for instance, to sort out the itinerary for my journey down the road, and the list of people I should interview. What would happen, I asked Paul, if we tried to work on the movie in our sleep? Perhaps we could drive the project forward without even blinking an eyelid? Paul was enthusiastic about the idea, and I promised to try to dream some of the details of our Great South Road film.

A few nights after my chat with Paul I took my regulation dose of dihydrocodeine, watched fragments from several of my favourite movies and from Paul's documentary Tongan Ark, flicked solemnly through my collection of old photos of the Great South Road, and resolved, as I was drifting off to sleep, to work imaginatively on our stalled documentary. I dreamt nothing so coherent, and so tried the same formula a couple of nights later. The dream that resulted from this experiment is recorded in all its curious detail below.

I thought the dream was probably meaningless, except to some Freudian or Jungian psychiatrist able to find significance in the silliest images, but Paul seems convinced that Alfred Hitchcock was offering us an obscure message, and wants to repeat the experiment.

[Great South Road Project Dream Log Entry # 1 5/5/12, 2:37 a.m.]

I was standing at the lending desk of the University of Auckland library, watching a young man with skin so white it was almost translucent run some kind of sensor over my library card. The young man squinted at the dreadlocked twenty-something version of myself on the library card, looked up at my bald, middle-aged head, then turned his attention to the screen of his computer. After a silence that might have lasted a minute, he began to recite, in a sonorous, solemn voice, a list of books my younger self had borrowed and then forgotten or lost, and the fine that was due for each of these books.

As the librarian went on and on, giving the author, title, publisher, and fine for each book, I imagined him as a pedantic priest reciting one of the lists in Deuteronomy to a dismayed congregation.

I realised how foolish I had been to believe that I could return, even after an interval of years, to this scene of my old crimes, especially when I was wielding the same library card I had used to commit those crimes.

As the young man's litany continued, I remembered that my wallet was empty, and began to wonder whether I would be allowed to leave the library without paying at least some portion of my fines. What non-monetary service might I provide, to compensate these policemen and women of the printed word for the losses I had caused them? I remembered a scene in a movie where restaurant patrons could not afford to pay for their meals, and had to wash stacks of dishes before they were allowed to go home. Perhaps I could put in a few weeks work in the library's bindery, gluing maroon-coloured replacement covers onto copies of Foucault for Beginners and Zizek on Film?

I was about to suggest a period of penance in the bindery when a shoal of students - I knew they were students, because the males amongst them had hair on the crowns of their heads - begun to move towards the building's exit, pushing through turnstiles and waiting noisily for large glass doors to slide open. "It's Hitchcock" the librarian said, interrupting his litany. "He turned up half an hour ago - he's giving a guest lecture".

Taking my opportunity to escape, I pushed my way into another crowd of students surging towards the library exit. In a few seconds I was outside the building, and following the crowd across Princes Street, into the steel and glass ruin-in-waiting that makes an admirable home for the Owen Glenn School of Business. Alfred Hitchcock had, I gathered, commandeered the largest of the half-dozen lecture halls in Glenn's building.

The hall was very dark, but I could hear the sucking and sighing of hundreds of lungs in the rows of seats that fell away to a small stage lit dimly by an invisible source. I stood in an aisle and watched Hitchcock, who was dressed in a powder-blue suit, begin his oration.
"I have come to talk about zoology, not film studies" Hitchcock announced, as giggles and whispers spread through the audience. "I want to talk, in particular, about the ecology of the camera. It is common for us to imagine, in the era of modernity, that technological change inevitably accompanies the passage of time - that one increasingly powerful and efficient device inevitably replaces another, as years and decades pass. That the gramophone and its heavy disc begat the record, which begat the compact disc, which begat the MP3. That the wet plate begat the polaroid, which begat the digital image. But what if technological change worked the other way? What if species de-evolved?"

I noticed that two tanks filled with dirty-looking water sat on the stage behind Hitchcock. In one of the tanks, a large fish with a single, dull green eye and a jutting jaw full of ill-fitting teeth swam motionlessly.

"This is a mutant lanternfish" Hitchcock announced, gesturing at the appalling creature. "Now look in the other tank, where one of my cameras swims. Look at its eye, which has turned green with slime. Note the way that the buttons that control its various functions have fallen off it, and drift about like pellets of fish food. See how the creature's leather sides are rotting, like the boots of drowned sailors. This camera barely works, when I rescue it from its green ocean. And yet it works."
Lights flickered in the tiered seats, and for a moment I imagined that the young men and women who had gathered to hear Hitchcock were holding cigarette lighters aloft, like fans during a ballad at a U2 concert. But the lights belonged to cellphones. The great film-maker was being filmed by a hundred hands.

"This morning, before any of you knew I was around, I shot some footage in your school." As Hitchcock spoke a screen slid into place behind him, and a film began to play on it. We watched shaky footage of one of the long narrow corridors of the Owen Glenn building. After a few seconds a door onto the corridor began to open slowly, as though the person behind it were pushing against a great weight. As the first of a series of students emerged, the air seemed to ripple. When the students walked up the corridor, towards the camera, their bodies became strangely elongated. Necks and shins stretched, exposing inch after inch of pale green skin. The creatures on the screen opened their mouths to speak, and then to laugh, but all we heard in the hall was a single prolonged gurgling noise, like the sound a bath makes when it drains.

"I regret Psycho" Hitchcock said quietly, as the images on the screen behind him faded to a green fuzz.
"All that panicked editing, all those shots, those endless changes of view. Seventy-two shots for the shower scene alone. I cut time into little pieces, like a child torturing a worm. And the subdivision of consciousness has followed the subdivision of time. The brain's attention span is getting shorter and shorter."

Hitchcock paused for a few seconds, then continued. "Put away Psycho and study The Rope, the film I made with a single shot. The camera has to de-evolve, lose its speed and range and focus, lose its digital memory. The camera has to be a primitive, ancient eye, the eye of a lanternfish, an eye that operates ten thousand feet under the surface of the sea, where the sun is a splinter of green light strained through layered nets of seaweed. The lanternfish generates its own light, green and bacterial, and hunts by it - "

I had taken the silence of the audience to be a sign of its reverence for Hitchcock. Now, though, boos and jeers were falling on the little man on the little stage, and balls and darts of paper followed. The lights of the hall flicked on, and a handful of students began to run down an aisle towards the stage. "Grab that camera!" one of them shouted. "You've made us into monsters! Get that fish!"

Before his critics could reach him, though, Hitchcock flicked his wrist, and sent the screen behind him flying up to the ceiling. Behind the screen a dark grey internal wall of the Owen Glenn Building had been replaced by a rough slope of limestone where a green rivulet ran. In the centre of the limestone outcrop was a huge, ochre-coloured fish with a single staring eye. I wasn't sure whether the fish was a massive fossil, or a crudely executed cave painting. The lecture hall was silent again.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Taking the Ark to Australia

As the premiere of his Tongan Ark at the Auckland International Film Festival approaches, Paul Janman is busy talking to journalists about his celluloid portrait of the Tongan educator and pro-democracy activist Futa Helu.

On the weekend Paul and Sisi'uno Langi-Helu, Futa's daughter and literary executor, travelled to Pukekohe, of all places, to do an interview with Triangle Television, and this morning Paul will be picking up the phone and telling listeners of Australia's ABC radio network about Tongan Ark. You can catch Paul's interview, which will be broadcast at twenty to twelve in Australia and twenty to two here in the Shaky Isles, on the ABC's live stream.

In between all his gasbagging, Paul has found time to cut a promotional trailer for Tongan Ark. You can watch his mash-up of key scenes and phrases over at Vimeo. How many other film-makers would include a fragment from Heraclitus in their promo?

Sunday, July 08, 2012

From the backrooms

Research libraries have sometimes been called the collective brains of humanity. It is certainly true that, like a brain, a research library tends to have both well-lit rooms where information is efficiently organised and clearly labelled and dark, distant chambers where materials lie waiting to be sorted and studied.
Just as a brain requires both its conscious and unconscious parts to function properly, so a research library needs both  its shelved, easily accessible secondary literature and its stacks of unpublished manuscripts and cases full of of rare and fragile books. Without the obscure primary material - the letters from soldiers and the diaries of explorers and the memos drafted by long-dead politicians - the confident judgements of new textbooks and the fashions of academic literature cannot be tested and, if necessary, overturned.   
Many Kiwis assume that the bunkers of Wellington's Turnbull library are this country's sole repository of unpublished documents and rare books, but most of our university libraries and many of our larger public libraries have interesting and important collections of primary material stashed in their backrooms and basements. The University of Auckland library has a particularly large archive. Over the years I've made a habit of turning up in the library's special reading room and pestering the staff there by asking them to fetch this or that document from the dark recesses of their domain. I've asked for, and received, crumpled communist newspapers from the 1920s and '30s, grumpy letters from eminent New Zealand poets to their patrons, unpublished novels by unknown authors, private archaeological reports on artefacts discovered in the swamps of the Kaipara, and confidential memos from the leadership of the New Zealand Legion, the proto-fascist organisation which grew with frightening speed during the early 1930s before mercifully imploding. 
In our era of economic uncertainty, steep student fees, too-short semesters, and distracting digital technology, many university students adopt an instrumental approach to research. They advance dutifully through textbooks and fashionable texts, making bullet point summaries on their i pads, but rarely stray from their prescribed reading. Explorations of old and strange books and unpublished documents must seem an impossible luxury, when essay deadlines are pending, rent payments are overdue, and loan money is running out.
In recent years the University of Auckland's librarians have set up a blog to remind students and the general public of the institution's archives, and staged a series of small exhibitions on the ground floor of the library to show off taonga from the storage rooms.   
I made a rare trip to the library last Friday, in an effort to hunt down an obscure text by Futa Helu for the book of the great man's writings I'm helping to launch on August the fourth. I couldn't find the text in question, but I did discover a large glass cabinet filled with old books and pamphlets, unpublished manuscripts, posters, and other material related to Samoa's epic struggle for independence from New Zealand in the first half of the twentieth century. An open letter in which Olaf Nelson, an 'afakasi trader and leading member of the Mau movement, addressed the League of Nations about his country's plight sat close to The Revolt of the Samoans, a pamphlet by Harry Holland, the first leader of the Labour Party.
As well as old documents like these, the exhibition showed off some recent academic research into colonial Samoa, like my friend Alex Wild's Masters thesis "There is no War Here: German portrayals of the New Zealand occupation of Samoa, 1914-1920". Alex wrote her thesis after sitting down in the air-conditioned backroom of Apia's Olaf Nelson library and reading her way through the diaries and letters of German colonists who were stranded for years in Samoa after New Zealand troops arrived early in World War One. Alex discovered, in these long-neglected texts, an unflattering portrait of Kiwi colonialism. I've published an excerpt from "There is no war here"  in the new, Oceania-themed issue of brief.   
Next to the cabinet a slide show played on a computer screen, and a pair of headphones dangled in the air. I put the headphones on while I watched the show. As sunburned Kiwi soldiers with bayoneted rifles escorted surly men in lavalavas down a road between banana palms, one of the anthems of the anti-colonial Mau movement began to pour into my ears.
 I was so preoccupied with the sounds and sights of Samoan history that I didn't notice when Judy McFall-Taligau, the university's Pacific librarian and an expert on the history and languages of Western Polynesia, approached me from her nearby office. Judy is closely involved in a contemporary protest movement, the Leo Pacific Bilingual Language Coalition, which has been campaigning for the official recognition and proper funding of Pasifika languages by this country's government. Together with her husband John McCaffery, she wrote a complaint to the Human Rights Commission over the neglect of Pacific languages, and I've republished some of this long and angry text in the new brief .   
After I'd finally taken my headphones off, Judy explained that she'd created the exhibition about Samoa's freedom struggle to coincide with the recent fiftieth anniversary of the country's independence from New Zealand. Judy said that, because most of Auckland's students were away on holiday, she was thinking of taking her exhibition down. I persuaded her to hold off for a few days, because I was sure that a few readers of this blog would like to pop in and take a look at the taonga she had collected from her library's archives.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

From my lounge to the big time

There's a long road from my lounge, with its piles of half-read books and its artfully stained couches and its dinky pre-digital television, to the Sky City and Civic theatres, with their plush seats and vast screens and intricate sound systems. It has only taken six or so months, though, for Paul Janman and his movie Tongan Ark to make the journey from a shabby suburban room to the film temples of central Auckland.

Last January Paul hung a white bedsheet on the wall of my lounge and aimed an early version of Tongan Ark at it, while half a dozen or so of my dodgy mates nibbled sausages and pork chops and sipped beers.

Now Tongan Ark has been accepted for this year's Auckland International Film Festival, and will screen on August the 4th at the seven-hundred-seat Sky City Theatre. Paul plans to hold a post-screening function featuring opera singers, dancers, anthropologists, and poets in the Civic Theatre's lustrous Wintergarden lounge (check out that poster for more details). Paul's film has also been selected for Wellington's International Film Festival, which is held a little later in August.

After deciding to tell the story of the 'Atenisi Institute, a private university built in Tonga by the visionary intellectual and pro-democracy campaigner Futa Helu, Paul shot hundreds of hours of film. He managed to get hours of interviews of Helu in the can before the great man died in 2010, he talked to other staff and to students at 'Atenisi, and he shot a whole hour of electrifying footage after being caught up in the riot that levelled much of downtown Nuku'alofa in November 2006.

And Paul didn't only have his own footage to draw on: while working at 'Atenisi he discovered piles of VHS cassettes mouldering in a cupboard there. After taking these ancient artefacts home and cleansing them of cockroaches and dust he discovered music, poetry, and dance by the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts, as well as old graduation ceremonies full of oratory and laughter.

Although Paul had held a successful preview of Tongan Ark at the Auckland Film Archive near the end of 2011, he was still spending hours in the cutting room at the beginning of 2012, and he wasn't ready to accept all of the praise that was offered to his film after its lounge room debut. Paul was worried about the length of Tongan Ark.

Now and then a very long film makes a splash. Last year, for instance, a group of Helsinki artists won plaudits after their movie Modern Times Forever, which runs for ten full days, was played at a local film festival. Paul, though, doubts that Kiwis have the patience of Finns, who after all are used to waiting out weeks of midwinter darkness and symphonies by Sibelius, and has worked hard to reduce his film to what he considers a watchable length. The version of Tongan Ark he showed on my lounge room wall was shorter than the version which had played at the Film Archive; the version which has been accepted for the Auckland Film Festival is tighter still.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about Paul's success in breaking into Auckland's film fest. The generous part of me is delighted for him, but my selfish side is annoyed at the extra work he's causing me.

Early this year I helped Titus Books get funding from Creative New Zealand to publish a volume of Futa Helu's essays about Tongan poetry. I'd spotted Helu's essays in an old magazine called Fai Kava, and had thought they'd make an excellent introduction not just to traditional Tongan verse but to Helu's ideas about the necessity of culture-crossing and the superiority of the 'play of the mind' over dogmatic thinking. I loved the way that the essays leaped without warning from Polynesia to Europe, as Helu invoked one of his beloved Greek philosophers, or compared an ancient Tongan poet to Milton or Blake.

After Creative New Zealand had given On Tongan Poetry the thumbs up, Titus boss Brett Cross had planned to bring the book out near the end of the year. Once Paul's film cracked the festival, though,  Sisi'uno Helu, Futa's daughter and literary executor, felt that it would be nice to have the book in August. Brett agreed with her, and for the last week or so I've been scrambling to help him prepare Helu's texts for publication by hunting down typos, commissioning forewords and a cover, and tidying up my 2010 essay about 'Atenisi so that it can act as a sort of afterword.

With Brett cracking the whip, On Tongan Poetry will be available at that Wintergarden function on the evening of August the fourth. We hope that it will complement Tongan Ark, and help to introduce more Kiwis to Futa Helu. We'll see you at that Wintergarden kava bowl...

[Posted by Maps/Scott]