Thursday, August 30, 2012

Neil Armstrong, and other relics of a bygone future

Television One commemorated Neil Armstrong's death by sending its reporters into the streets to ask folks how they had reacted to the news that men had walked on the moon back in 1969. There were memories of excited gatherings around blurry television sets, and of late night trips into backyards to stare up at the moon and wonder at the ingenuity of humanity.

It's a pity that the reporters didn't talk to Kiwis too young to remember the moon landings of 1969, because for the generations after the Baby Boomers Neil Armstrong and his comrades sometimes provoke different emotions.

During my 1980s childhood, the Apollo mission to the moon already seemed like something from a glorious but bygone era. Armstrong and Aldrin's joyful hours on the lunar surface, which saw them cracking jokes and playing a game of mini-golf as well as doing serious scientific work, contrasted with the endless, pointless journeys that astronauts of the eighties made into the boring stretch of space between the earth and its satellite. The dour space shuttles which navigated near space looked more like the jumbo jets of passenger airlines than the dramatic rocket which took Armstrong to the Sea of Tranquility.

The journey to the moon had been only one of scores of dramatic, history-making events of the late 1960s and early '70s. While Armstrong had been rehearsing his moon walk, millions of his countrymen had been demonstrating against racism at home and war in Vietnam, workers had been staging the largest general strike in history in Europe, and dozens of nations had been liberating themselves from colonialism in Africa and Asia. The Beatles had been reinventing music and Goddard had been reinventing film.

Many of the people who lived through the late '60s and early '70s found those years chaotic and aggravating,  but by the time I was a kid events like the American Civil Rights movement and the strikes of May 1968 had become the stuff of history, and had acquired a peculiar glamour. In the World Book Encyclopedia I loved to thumb as a child, photos of Martin Luther King and handsome young Parisian rioters sat beside images of the moon landing and the Beatles in an article called The Modern World.

The sixties had been a time of relative prosperity as well as glamorous disorder. As a glum Philip Sherry broadcast the latest rise in unemployment on the six o'clock news during the dreary and austere Rogernomics era, my father loved to tell me how plentiful jobs were in the New Zealand of his childhood. Back in the sixties, he assured me, workers didn't apply for jobs - employers applied for workers. Graduates from high schools and universities had the pick of almost any career they wanted, and a job on the docks paid as well as a job in an office.

The year that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon was the year before capitalism's longest boom ended. From the forties 'til the end of the sixties, Western economies grew continuously, and unemployment fell to historic lows. In the seventies the long boom gave way to an era of stagnation, as the contradictions inherent in capitalism awoke from their long slumber. In the eighties the economic crisis saw a nasty shift to the right, as politicians like Thatcher, Reagan and our own Roger Douglas tried to restore the profitability of business by cutting state spending and letting state-subsidised industries go to the wall. In the late nineties and early noughties economies expanded again, and Thatcherites claimed that the tough policies of the eighties had created a new era of prosperity. But the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession which has followed it have shown that the boom at the beginning of our century had more to do with accounting tricks than real growth.

Neil Armstrong and his era made a child of the eighties like me feel faintly melancholic, as though I'd missed out on some great adventure. For Ross Wolfe, who is a generation younger than me, the prosperity and optimism of the sixties are a torment. Wolfe is a New York graduate student, a dissident member of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the author of a long, angry polemic called 'Memories of the Future', which excoriates the fin de siecle West for its economic stagnation, romantic anti-modernism, and low political horizons.

Like Two Dollar Stores, the Tea Party Movement, and the Jerry Springer Show, 'Memories of the Future' is a product of the exhaustion of American capitalism. As he ponders the rusting factory towns and philistine politics of contemporary America, Wolfe is haunted by earlier, headier times:

The society of the present has for several decades now been “post-futurist"...existing literally after the future historically came and went...In the absence of any viable future, the gaze of all humanity turns impotently toward the past...Hidden in the otherwise freakish sideshow of the Republican primaries this past winter, there would seem to have been a slim sliver of truth — a truth concealed in the opportunistic campaign slogans and Super PAC fundraisers of Romney and Gingrich: “Restore Our Future” and “Winning Back Our Future,” respectively.  Obama’s campaign from four years ago, despite its many promises of “hope,” “progress,” and “change,” was implicitly built on comparisons to MLK, JFK, and FDR (i.e., three figures from the past).  But then again, who today can be bothered to remember all the unkept promises and cynical electioneering of just four years ago?

Besides Obama and Romney, sixties leaders like Kennedy and King seem almost otherworldly. Where Kennedy's talk of technological revolution and King's speeches about social transformation seemed not only plausible but prophetic to their audiences, Obama and Romney recite words like 'hope', 'change' and 'progress' in the visionless, superstitious way that medieval peasants used to recite fragments of Latin prayer.

The moon landing of 1969 now seems so distant from us that it has acquired some of the qualities of fantasy.

In his famous first words from the moon, Armstrong presented his adventure as another step, albeit a large one, in humanity's steady forward march. Contemporary pundits predicted that voyages to the moon would quickly become routine, and that America would establish colonies there before the end of the century. In our 'post-futurist' era, though, the journey of 1969 increasingly appears as a magical, unrepeatable event, the greatest feat of a lost civilisation.

Last year the American fantasist Jonathan Mitchell  produced a radio play which imagined the adventure of 1969 ending in disaster. Mitchell's drama, which can be downloaded from the Guardian's podcast page, includes a reading of the 'contingency speech' that Richard Nixon was ready to make if Armstrong and Aldrin had not returned from their journey. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Nixon's 'disaster' speech, with its vision of the astronauts lying dead beside their landing craft, seems less fantastic than the success of the mission to the moon.

I've also been guilty of reimagining Neil Armstrong's journey to the moon. Here's the title poem from my first book:

To The Moon, In Seven Easy Steps

1. You’re right: a small spaceship could be shot from a great gun. A hollow shell, for instance, could be fired from a nine hundred foot cannon. Unfortunately, the astronauts would be killed the second the shell was fired: they would be thrown against the floor of the shell and have every one of their bones broken. Quite apart from that, the shell itself would be destroyed by the determined resistance of the air residing in the barrel of the gun. Imagine for yourself the melancholy fate of a hollow shell hurled, at thirty five and a half times the speed of sound, against an air wall confined to a nine hundred foot tube – against a barrier quite impossible to part or push aside. We shall never get to the moon by giant artillery.

2. Nor shall we get to the moon by giant aeroplane. An aeroplane uses the sloping  surfaces of its clever propellers to lever itself through the air. Around the moon, though, there is no air. Nor, let us be clear, can swans, whirlwinds, wings of eagle or vulture, or balloons lift us anywhere near that mysterious, silently moving light.

3. Perhaps the problems we face are perennial. Problems, problematic views recede from the centre of concern, only to dominate later on. Aeroplanes take off, circulate, then fall out of the sky. Moons wax and wane, pass from palm to palm. Why won’t theories stay refuted? Why won’t problems dissolve, in this upraised glass?

4. Perhaps we have never been to the moon. Perhaps we should shut windows and doors, and leave the floor undusted, and sit, silently, on the dirt, reading old newspapers in the dark. Maybe then we’ll forget that we’re at home, and be able at last to leave?

5. I have deceived you. Let us proceed to our proper business, now that the wise men have nodded themselves to sleep. It is not likely that you will ever stumble across a frozen lake, an automatic machine gun, and a light sled all at the same time, but if you do, you should amuse yourself by strapping the gun to the sled, pushing the sled on the lake, and setting the gun firing. The bullets will fly in one direction (not yours, I trust), the sled will slide in another direction, and you will know how a rocket works!

6. As you will by now have gathered, the first spaceship was simple enough: just a box with a number of rockets fastened to it. The first astronaut sat in the box, lit the rockets, and was shot away into the sky in his little carriage. The sled cuts across the lake, its stupid silver face. Now the landscape is generalised by your height. Soon it will become a map.

7. Where does the atmosphere end? There is no definite boundary. It just thins away and disappears, as our eyes lose interest. At the edge of the atmosphere we would be like people at the edge of a racing day crowd - able to move freely away, to leave behind those excited nervous persons jammed into the centre. We would be hydrogen become so thin that its molecules fly away, into space. The atmosphere ends here.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Monday, August 27, 2012

Answering with Rotuma

The blogger known as baruk* has scored a copy of Futa Helu's new book and some titles by Titus Books, after tackling the quiz posted here on Friday. Richard and Christel also breezed through the quiz, but were a little slower out of the starting blocks than baruk.

The sixth section of the quiz claimed that the people of one Fijian island have been able to vote in a series of national elections since 2006, at a time when other Fijians have been denied their democratic rights by the military regime of Frank Bainimarama, and asked for the name of the island and of the group which lives there.

When I framed the question, I was thinking of Rabi Island, which is a refuge for exiles from Banaba, an atoll in Kiribati which was hollowed out by British and Australasian phosphate miners in the twentieth century. The Banabans were removed to Rabi by British administrators decades before Kiribati won its independence, and few of them have returned to their ravaged homeland. But the five thousand Banabans on Rabi are entitled to Kiribati passports, and elect a representative to that country's parliament.

Neither baruk nor Richard nor Christel mentioned Rabi Island and its Banaban inhabitants. They all named Rotuma as the island of democracy in Fiji, and the Rotumans as the people with the right to vote in national elections in spite of Bainimarama's autocratic rule. And after I saw their answer, I realised that they were making a good point.

Rotuma is a small island which sits six hundred and fifty kilometres north of the rest of Fiji. With their Polynesian culture and unique, famously complex language, the Rotumans differ from Fiji's Melanesian majority. After Britain acquired Rotuma in 1881 it lumped the island together with the rest of its Fijian colony, angering the Rotumans. In 1987, after Sitiveni Rabuka seized power in a military coup and steered Fiji out of the Commonwealth, Rotumans created an independence movement. Although Rotuma remains a part of the Fiji, its people retain a feeling of independence from Suva, and elect an island council to run their  domestic affairs.

Given Rotuma's independent spirit and local elections, can't we call the place an island of democracy in Fiji? Shouldn't we consider the elections to Rotuma's island council national elections, given the nationalism of many Rotumans? Point taken, folks.

*Can you send your details to me at, baruk?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A quiz for Atuanui

At the beginning of this month Atuanui Press published its first book, a selection of the late Futa Helu's essays about Tongan poetry, at the premiere of Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's cinematic tribute to Helu.

Atuanui is an offshoot of Titus Books, the imprint which has, under the leadership of the genial but determined Brett Cross, given New Zealand and the world nearly thirty stylish volumes over the past seven years. Where Titus has published contemporary novels, short stories, poetry, and art, Atuanui is intended to explore the literary treasures of the past, and to bring deserving works of both non-fiction and fiction back into print. Brett is particularly interested in tracking down unjustly neglected writing that deals with New Zealand and the Pacific.

When Brett Cross made a rare journey south from his farmlet on the shores of the Kaipara harbour to the decadent city of Auckland last weekend, he proudly informed me that he'd just set up a website for Atuanui, and explained that punters could shop there for both Futa Helu's new book and a series of other volumes from small presses, like Helu's 1996 monograph on the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and Michelle Leggott's Pania Press chapbook Northland. I suggested that we celebrate the new site by having a competition at this blog.  Here, then, are ten questions about the literature and history of New Zealand and the Pacific. I hope they are vaguely related to the sort of subject matter than Atuanui Press hopes to deal in.

The first person to leave seven correct answers to these questions in the comments thread will win a copy of Futa Helu's On Tongan Poetry as well as a pack of books from Titus.

1. In 1972 a group of right-wing Americans landed on the previously uninhabited atoll of Minerva and announced that they were setting up a libertarian, no-tax state there. They were soon chased away by the navy of which nation?

a) Australia
b) United States
c) New Zealand
d) Tonga

2. Which sport became popular amongst Samoa's pro-independence Mau movement in the 1930s, because of the opportunities it presented for clandestine political meetings away from the attention of the colonial New Zealand police?

a) cricket
b) rugby
c) curling
d) bowls

3. In 1995 the distinguished anthropologist and satirist Epeli Hau'ofa published a novel called Kisses in the Nederends with University of Hawaii Press. Was Hau'ofa's book about:

a) a romantic sojourn in the Netherlands
b) the hierarchical nature of the world of academic anthropology, and the tendency of those lower in the hierarchy to flatter those higher up
c) the hierarchical nature of Tongan society, and the tendency of those lower in the hierarchy to flatter those higher up
d) a bad case of hemorrhoids

4. After dancing and singing at the Auckland and Wellington screenings of Tongan Ark and on national television, the members of the 'Atenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts were about to head home to Nuku'alofa on the 13th of this month, when they learned that all flights to and from Tonga had been cancelled. What was the cause of this temporary cessation in services, which forced hundred of passengers to rebook their flights?

a) high winds
b) drifting ash from the eruption of White Island
c) drifting ash from the eruption of Mt Tongariro
d) a fire lit to flush a wild boar out of the bush on the Tongan island of Tofua

5. In the 1980s and '90s Maurice Shadbolt won a lot of attention by publishing three novels about the New Zealand Wars. But Shadbolt was not the first novelist to make the nineteenth century wars in Taranaki, the Waikato, and the Ureweras into a trilogy. Who was Shadbolt's undeservedly neglected predecessor?

6. At the end of 2006 Frank Bainimarama installed himself as leader of Fiji with a military coup, dissolving the country's elected government. Since then there have been frequent calls from various foreign governments for Bainimarama to stand down and allow democratic elections in his country. On one island in Fiji, though, people have been able to vote freely in repeated national elections, despite the coup of 2006. Who are these people, and what is the name of their island?

7. At the end of the 1860s Te Kooti's armed uprising against the government in Wellington alarmed many colonial politicians and newspapermen, who worried that the withdrawal of British imperial troops from the country earlier in the decade meant that Pakeha might find themselves unable to win a new war against Maori. In late 1868 and early 1869 numerous papers and some politicians called for the importation of a 'fighting' foreign 'race' which would, in return for being allowed to settle in New Zealand, defeat Te Kooti and other Maori rebels on the battlefield. Who were these supposedly warlike foreigners?

a) the Sikhs
b) the Prussians
c) the Gurkhas
d) the Americans

8. Which of these Pacific islands is almost exactly the same size and shape as New York's Manhattan Island?

a) Great Barrier
b) Rapa Iti
c) Rapa Nui
d) 'Eua

9. Which of these indigenous languages was officially approved for use in the services of the Presbyterian church of New Zealand until the 1930s?

a) Maori
b) Bislama
c) Gaelic
d) Manx

10. Which of these Pacific political leaders is revered as a great poet in the country he or she ruled?

a) Robert Muldoon
b) Sitiveni Rabuka
c) Robert Rex
d) Salote Tupou III

Footnote: Brett comments: those questions are geeky. Who are you picking to answer correctly first?

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

New Zealand, old Lemuria

I've been writing a review of Jack Ross' book Fallen Empire  for the forthcoming 46th issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief. Fallen Empire was produced to accompany a recent exhibition by sculptor and draughtsman Karl Chitham, who is the creator of the Museum of True History, a sort of pretend-institution which has for several years now been offering up pieces of pretend-history to bemused gallery audiences. 
Jack's book collects fragments of three plays that initiates of a mystical sect called the Society of Inner Light supposedly performed in a private theater above a rundown storehouse in the small North Island town of Raetihi last century. In his introduction to Fallen Empire Ross sketches the ideology and history of the imaginary Society:
There's a lot about Atlantis and Lemuria in their surviving writings. They held some very revisionist ideas about the accepted chronology of world history...Polynesian culture was, to them, primary and almost inconceivably ancient. The emissaries of civilisation (for them) emanated originally from the Pacific - specifically from the lost continent of Mu, which now survives only in the form of scattered islands of the Oceanic archipelago...The main body of members came to New Zealand after WWI...The last one standing turned out the lights, leaving everything in situ, sometime around 1973... 
The lost continent of Lemuria, or Mu for short, was a popular fantasy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Madame Blavatsky, the con artist creator of the hyper-syncretic creed known as Theosophy, claimed that Lemuria had been the home of a technologically and spiritually backward, dark-skinned people who had managed to emigrate to Africa and Australia before the waters rose and drowned their villages. Rudolf Steiner, the  hallucinationist who set up a breakaway from Blavatsky's movement called Anthroposophy in Weimar Germany, claimed to have made astral journeys through space and time to Lemuria. In fin de siecle Australia a slew of fantastic novels imagined pale-skinned refugees from a drowned, technologically advanced Lemurian civilisation surviving deep in the Outback, despite the fierce climate and attacks by bands of Aboriginals.

Creeds like Theosophy and Anthroposophy may be in decline, but the myth of a sunken continent in the southern hemisphere is not going away. In recent years the cult known as the Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha, whose scams have been discussed on this blog before, has taken to offering tours of sites in New Zealand associated with 'ancient Lemuria'.
The Waitahans claim to be the descendants of extraterrestrials who arrived on earth from the star system of Sirius tens of thousands of years ago and built a technologically advanced civilisation in Egypt, South America and the Pacific. The Waitahan insistence that New Zealand is a surviving fragment of Lemuria would have seemed to strange to nineteenth and early twentieth century mystics, who tended to locate the continent beneath the waves of either the tropical Pacific or the tropical Indian oceans.
Here is the Waitaha cult's advertisement for its 2012 tour of Lemuria, aka New Zealand:
We will have the honor of spending time with the Waitaha elders. We will visit some of their most sacred places. We will be invited to stay in their Marae, where they greet their family members and dream with them. We will learn about their ancient traditions and witness through our hearts their deep connection on the physical plane to our Lemurian ancestors...A dedicated group will be formed to join this special journey energetically or physically. Your heart will know how deep is the calling in your awakening DNA layers to join. The codes of MU are ready to reveal themselves to us. It is indeed the time to reconnect fully to the wisdom of the most ancient civilization with our reawakened collective conscious Heart.
For the credulous foreigners who take the cult's tours, Lemuria is evidently a heady place. Here is an excerpt from one tourist's record of his peculiar pilgrimage through this country:
We are to attempt something which hasn’t been done since 1735, namely to revive an ancient pact with dolphins whereby they drive an ample amount of fish into the bay to feed the people, who agree not to disturb them in return. A ritualist has prepared the scene for our arrival. We direct our gaze into the centre of the bay and send forth the vibrations of our sacred sounds. This also restores an ancient mode of communing and stimulates us to remember the inner depths from which we call. We maintain our chant for roughly twenty minutes. Next day, word has it that the fishermen report a record catch.
That night we engage in further ceremony under the elders’ direction. This involves us men honouring the women of our group by painting their face and hands in a ritual setting of heightened consciousness and expectation. This empowers them to embody and us to serve the Sacred Feminine. The accord seals our collective adoption into the ranks of Waitaha.
A number of New Agers with no obvious connections to the Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha have also used the internet to proclaim New Zealand a surviving fragment of the ancient continent of Lemuria.  There is a certain irony to the tendency of twenty-first century mystics to associate New Zealand with humanity's antiquity. Except for Antarctica and a few Arctic islands like Svalbard, New Zealand was the last sizeable piece of dry land to be settled by humans. It is unlikely that people lived here in significant numbers even a thousand years ago.
The newness of New Zealand has fascinated and troubled generations of Pakeha Kiwis. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, poets like Charles Brasch and Allen Curnow were disturbed by the 'empty hills' and 'silent plains' they perceived in their underpopulated homeland, and sometimes longed for the deep history and big cities which are taken for granted by Europeans. 
But not all Pakeha were so melancholy. As James Belich and other historians have shown, the notion that New Zealand was a sort of divine gift to the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic races - a 'better Britain' or 'God's Own Country' in the South Seas - was widely and intensely held by early Pakeha settlers. 
For the new wave of believers in the Lemuria myth, though, New Zealand is a sacred country because of its supposed antiquity. 
I suspect that the willingness of the latest generation of mystics to associate New Zealand with an ancient civilisation has something to do with both the rebranding of this country in recent decades and the mood of Romantic anti-modernism which has been a feature of Western popular culture during the same period. 
At the same time that tens of millions of Westerners have become disillusioned with industrial society and the modern idea of progress, and begun to vote for Green Parties, buy organic veges, and idealise rustic societies like Tibet, movies like Lord of the Rings and advertising campaigns by our Tourism Board have seen New Zealand branded as some sort of antediluvian paradise, full of cheery hobbits, goblin forests, and pure cascading streams. It is surprisingly easy, in this sort of atmosphere, for romantic foreigners to imagine New Zealand as an ancient rather than a very new society - as a surviving fragment of Lemuria, rather than a better Britain. If ancient human societies were paradisal, and if New Zealand is a verdant, pre-industrial paradise, then musn't New Zealand be some remnant of the distant past?
[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mahuki's last home

I visited Unitec last week to talk to a group of third-year students who are taking a course in Community Drama with the playwright and clown Pedro Ilgenfritz.

Pedro had given his students a series of essays about the nature of theatre by his fellow Brazilian Augusto Boal, and asked them to make these texts into short performances. "Boal took up where Brecht left off", the teacher explained, as we sat in Unitec's Long Black Cafe before his class convened. "Boal tried to dissolve the fourth wall of theatre - the barrier between audience and performers. He criticised classical and Shakespearean tragedy, because it creates a catharsis in its audiences, instead of asking those audiences to seek catharsis outside the theatre, in the real world. Boal invented newspaper theatre, by sending actors into poor communities in Brazil's big cities and getting them to perform the stories they heard there."

In the 1990s Pedro belonged to a theatre group which worked for Brazil's trade union movement. They toured the worksites and slums of cities like Rio De Janeiro, performing denunciations of the privatisation programme of Fernando Cardoso's neo-liberal government.

I have mixed feelings about Augusto Boal. I must confess to enjoying the way that, in many forms of art, maker and audience are separated. I love sitting in the dark chewing popcorn and letting a movie wash over me; I love lying on the couch, opening a novel, and letting John Updike or Don De Lillo entertain and instruct me.

And I don't think that art has to merge with life to become political. I agree with Herbert Marcuse that art can be subversive when it is radically unlike life. By showing us a world unlike our own, a painter like Magritte or a novelist like Herman Hesse can show us how our own world might be changed.

But there are other parts of Augusto Boal's creed which appeal to me. I might enjoy lazily consuming a movie, but I also enjoy arguing about the meaning of that movie afterwards over a beer. I'd never watch a movie alone, because that would mean missing out on the fun of arguing about it.

One of Boal's aims was to incorporate discussions about art directly into art. As we finished our coffees, Pedro told me about a play inspired by Boal in which the audience was encouraged to intervene. The play told the story of an impoverished black woman who worked as a cleaner in a luxury apartment populated by wealthy white Brazilians. A cleaner in the audience was soon on her feet, condemning the arrogance of the apartment's residents, and directing her counterpart in the play into a confrontation.

Unitec's drama studios sit on a ridge in the northeastern corner of the campus, close to the brick buildings of what was, for more than a century, the Avondale Mental Hospital. The studios' windows offer wide views across the south of the campus. A tree-lined creek and a rambling organic garden made the scene look pleasantly rustic, until I saw the low rooves and high wire fences between the gardens and the creek, and realised that they belonged to the Mason Clinic, a surviving fragment of the old mental hospital.

I sat in one of the spacious studios and watched Pedro's students perform a series of pieces inspired by Augusto Boal. One group of students simulated a banal edition of the television news, then staged a domestic dispute that drowned out its headlines; three female students negotiated the adoption of a teenage mother's child in surreal language; the members of another group read aloud a series of subtly varying newspaper accounts of the same industrial dispute between garbage cleaners and the Auckland City Council.

Pedro has instructed his students to go into the hinterlands of Auckland, collect stories there, and turn those stories into performances. When he asked me to talk about the sociology and history of Auckland, and about routes that adventurous anti-travellers might possibly take through the city and its past, I pointed out that both Unitec and the nearby suburb of Point Chevalier have histories worth exploring. I talked about the large Chinese gardens which once existed in Point Cheavlier, about the suburb's working class history and the state houses that were built there by the first Labour government, and about Kendrick Smithyman's childhood and adolescence in the suburb back in the '30s and '40s.

I couldn't help thinking, as well, about the generations of remarkable men and women who were confined in Avondale hospital. Robin Hyde was an inmate in the 1930s; her fellow writer Maurice Duggan was treated for alcoholism in the late 1960s.

Hyde and Duggan both eventually left Avondale, but for the King Country prophet Mahuki there was no way out of the institution.

I told Pedro's students about the path-breaking study of Mahuki that Mark Derby published in the recent Oceania issue of the literary journal brief. Derby describes how Mahuki's persistent opposition to Pakeha encroachment on the King Country in the 1880s and '90s saw him branded as a 'madman', and eventually consigned to Avondale. In an interview reproduced on this blog several months ago, Derby compared Mahuki to the dissidents who were imprisoned in the mental hospitals of the Soviet Union.

Here is the part of Mark Derby's essay which describes Mahuki's last years:

In October 1897 he again rode into Te Kuiti at the head of a group of 30 followers, now known as his 'angels'. Using a tomahawk, Mahuki broke the windows of Green and Colebrook’s general store and tried to set fire to it. The store’s co-owner, Percy Colebrook, and his friends armed themselves with fence-posts, shovels and axes to resist the raiders and Colebrook knocked Mahuki unconscious.

The aging prophet appeared in court with two black eyes, but continued to display Te Whiti’s plume of white feathers in his hat. Once again he declined any legal representation and conducted his own defence on religious principles. He invoked the spirit of Te Whiti as his only witness and objected to the all-European jury, saying, ‘I know none of these pakehas.’ He declared that he had gone to Te Kuiti, ‘for the purpose of overturning the tables of the money changers for the land purchasers.’

These were genuine grounds for protest since the town’s storekeepers were still involved in forcing sales of large acreages of Maori land. Judge Connolly responded by describing Mahuki as a dangerous man, ‘capable of almost any act of violence’, and sentenced him to seven years’ hard labour.

Before passing this exceptionally severe sentence, the judge asked for evidence of the old chief ’s mental health. Ever since his first arrest in the 1870s, Mahuki had been routinely described in press reports as a ‘lunatic’, a ‘madman’, and a ‘fanatical fool’ (terms also applied to Te Whiti and other opponents of state coercion, including many union leaders). By 1897 Mahuki’s reputation as a madman was practically unquestioned so the judge may have been surprised when his jailer, who had spent the previous five weeks observing Mahuki, replied that he was perfectly sane. He was committed to Mt Eden Prison but 18 months into his sentence, in April 1899, he was transferred to Avondale Mental Hospital.

This news must have confirmed in the minds of the public that Mahuki’s actions and utterances were prompted by mental instability rather than principle and today he is generally remembered, if at all, as a religious fanatic. It is instructive, therefore, to consider his final medical records. On his admission to the mental hospital, the head warder at Mt Eden reported that Mahuki masturbated, an activity no longer believed to cause or necessarily to indicate mental illness, and that he ‘cries out to spirits and makes great disturbance at night’. This may simply indicate that he continued to practise his Pai Marire faith, which requires adherents to pray aloud at sunrise and sunset. In April the Avondale staff noted, ‘General condition good. He looks happy’. However by August Mahuki showed signs of advanced tuberculosis and his file reported, ‘Physically condition deteriorating. He is wasting rapidly’. On 18 August he was described as ‘Mentally depressed. Today he expressed a wish to go out in the yard to see the sun (“te ra” as he calls it), to which he frequently makes loud invocations.’ Mahuki died the following day of pulmonary tuberculosis.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On the other side of the lagoon

Paul Janman and the 'Atenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts took Tongan Ark to Wellington last weekend, building on their success at the Auckland International Film Festival. The historian Mark Derby, who spent time in Tonga as a young and hungry journalist in the late 1970s, sent me this report from Wellington:

 As you may have heard from Paul J, his film screened to a capacity and rapturous audience here last night. Its final seconds, as gleaming and muscular young men moved down both aisles towards the screen in perfect sync with the soundtrack, were in themselves a dramatic triumph. Paul spoke afterwards in his measured and very effective manner, and those I have spoken to who heard him were deeply impressed with the whole production and wish to support its further distribution.

While my friend Paul has been continuing his conquest of the world, I've been pacing about our house in West Auckland with a thick blanket wrapped around me like an ugly ta'ovala and a head full of dihydrocodeine, complaining about the winter weather which agitates the old injury in my left arm, and fantasising about flying north into the tropics. The other day I decided to write a sequence of poems about the land and seascapes of Tonga - about the lagoons and coconut trees and hot mudflats - in the hope that it would transport me north imaginatively.

In his recently published book On Tongan Poetry Futa Helu, the hero of Tongan Ark, describes a genre of poem called laumatanga, which is dedicated to praising the beauty of particular places. Helu notes the intense focus of the laumatanga:

Tongan nature poetry differs from many other poetical traditions in that it is never generalised Nature, never Nature in the abstract, that the poet speaks of or addresses, but it is always a particular manifestation of Nature, concretised Nature, an actual island, a particular beach, a specific lagoon, and so forth. And well it should be, for the Tongan is noted for his concrete-ness (which in some cases is taken to be a weakness in conceptualisation) and his sense of oneness with his locality - his localness.

In one of the many fascinating asides in On Tongan Poetry, Helu contrasts the particularism of the laumatanga with the 'subjectivism' of English Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Blake, who allegedly lost sight of the outer world because they were so preoccupied with their ideas and feelings. Helu argues that in the nineteenth century Tongan poets developed their own 'classical-romantic' style, which allowed them to express some of the same cosmic sentiments as the English romantics without succumbing to subjectivism. If Wordsworth and co. could only have learned from their Tongan contemporaries, Helu sighs, their careers might have taken a different and healthier course.

The poem reproduced below began as an attempt at a laumatanga-like celebration of Fanga'uta, the great lagoon which eats into Tongatapu, the largest island of the Kingdom of Tonga, but soon went astray. I can't, I confess, keep 'subjectivism' out of anything I write.

Tonga's modern and ancient capitals of Nuku'alofa and Mu'a stand on the west and southeast edges of Fanga'uta, but the swamps, plantations, and small villages of the northeastern side of the lagoon feel remote, and are regarded as part of the 'uta' ('bush') regions of Tongatapu.

Thousands of American troops occupied Tongatapu during World War Two, annexing plantations for their camps and airfields and turning locals into their porters. Most of the Americans were whites from the racist deep south of their country, but a few were black. This oppressed minority was dispatched to the northeastern side of Fanga'uta Lagoon, far from the bars of Nuku'alofa.

In more recent times the far side of Fanga'uta has been a favourite playground for archaeologists investigating the Lapita people, who sailed east from Melanesia three or four thousand years ago, settled along the coasts of Samoa and Tonga, and eventually evolved the culture we call Polynesian. The Lapita people left fragments of their pottery, with its delicate white patterns on violent orange grounds, in the mud of Fanga'uta, and a few years ago the Canadian archaeologist David Burley annoyed a lot of Samoans by arguing that Nukuleka, a modest village on the eastern side of the lagoon, was the 'birthplace of Polynesia'.

Field Work on Tongatapu

Can you imagine the Japs landing today
on the eastern side of Fanga'uta lagoon?

Seventy years ago black Yanks were dug in there,
looking through binoculars for the promised migration,
for flocks of Zeros
and humpback-sized subs.

To the north, beyond the lagoon's yawning jaws,
a fleet of islands - Pangaimotu, Fafa, Fukave,
'Atata - performed manoeuvres in the heat-haze,
as another tide made a tactical
withdrawal. Coconut trees shook their learned heads

Today Canadian archaeologists are camped in the east,
at Nukuleka, 'birthplace
of Polynesia'. They dig even deeper
than soldiers.

If a cruise ship arrives from Vava'u
and unloads a battalion of the enemy
armed with deckchairs and slabs of beer
then the archaeologists will defend their trench
to the last toothbrush
and the last stone-shard.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, August 10, 2012

The real reasons for mission failure in Afghanistan

In a column published in the New Zealand Herald this week called 'Get Our Soldiers Out of Afghanistan' Brian Rudman expresses a common attitude to this country's longest-ever overseas military deployment.

Rudman argues that the two Kiwi soldiers killed last week in Bamiyan province were fighting for a hopeless cause. The decade-long American-led occupation of Afghanistan has brought, Rudman reckons, only 'misery and mayhem', because of the resistance it has provoked from locals. Rudman acknowledges that the Kiwis who were killed last weekend were engineers involved in humanitarian 'reconstruction' work, but he predicts that the fruits of such work - schools, roads, and so on - will be 'obliterated' by Afghanistan's ongoing war. The Herald's veteran columnist thinks that the Kiwi military does excellent humanitarian work in other parts of the world, but that it was bullied into the hopeless Afghanistan mission by an American government which had lost its reason in the aftermath of 9/11.

Like many opponents of the deployment to Afghanistan, Rudman contrasts the normal, supposedly healthy operations of the New Zealand army with the fatal and futile mission in Bamyan province. If only we could stick to doing good deeds in other, saner parts of the world, Rudman suggests, all would be well, and our soldiers wouldn't be coming home in bodybags.

It can be argued, though, that the Afghanistan deployment is not an aberration, but the continuation of a pattern in New Zealand's recent military history. The mission in Afghanistan can be considered the most high-profile and costly of a series of 'humanitarian military interventions' which began with the deployment of Kiwi troops to East Timor in 1999.

To understand the phenomenon of humanitarian military intervention we have to remember the long history of New Zealand military adventures overseas. Over the past one hundred and fifteen years New Zealand has repeatedly sent troops abroad to fight alongside its British, American and Australian allies. At first, these adventures were presented as crusades in defence of the British Empire, which was held to represent liberty and progress; later, they were justified as part of the struggle of the American-led 'Free World' to resist communism.

Popular enthusiasm for foreign military crusades collapsed in the 1970s and '80s, as tens of thousands of Kiwis took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War and visits by American nuclear-armed vessels. In the mid-'80s the Lange government responded to public pressure and made this country a nuclear-free zone, irritating its ally in Washington.

Many Kiwis saw their country's nuclear-free status as evidence of its neutrality. In reality, though, the Lange government and its successors maintained close military ties with America. Nuclear-armed ships no longer visited our ports, but an American air force base and spy base remained on our soil. In the 1990s, American and New Zealand troops resumed large-scale exercises, and Kiwi Prime Ministers made pilgrimages to the White House.

But New Zealand governments were loath, after the protests of the 1970s and '80s, to join in new American-led military crusades. In 1991, the Bolger government contributed only three aircraft and a medical team to the massive international force that reconquered Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. Even this meagre contribution prompted large protests on the streets of New Zealand's cities.

In 1999, though, a crisis in East Timor offered New Zealand's political and martial classes a way to defuse popular opposition to overseas military deployments.

With the support of America and Australia, Indonesia had invaded and annexed East Timor in 1975. The locals responded by launching a guerrilla war, and over the next quarter of a century a quarter of the Timorese population died. When their ally in Jakarta was overthrown in 1998, the Americans and Australians decided belatedly to support East Timorese independence, and forced the new Indonesian government to organise a referendum on the subject.

After East Timorese voted for independence in August 1999, Indonesian militia began to rampage through the Timorese capital of Dili, killing and burning indiscriminately. The leaders of Fretilin, East Timor's main nationalist movement, called for foreign intervention, and large demonstrations echoed their demand in Australian and New Zealand cities. In September 1999 Kiwi troops joined an Australian-led mission to East Timor. The peacekeepers broke up Indonesian militia, brought medical aid to Timorese victims of violence, kept law and order on the streets of Dili, and began to build roads, bridges, and other pieces of infrastructure.

The Anzac deployment in East Timor was hugely popular, because it seemed so different from the old crusades New Zealand had fought under British and American flags. Instead of going into a country against the will of its inhabitants to quell an uprising or knock out an enemy army, Kiwi troops were being deployed at the request of East Timorese, and acting as guarantors of peace and stability.

Since 1999, New Zealand's defence forces have made one 'humanitarian military intervention' after another. In 2001 they shipped out to Afghanistan; in 2003 they went to Iraq and the Solomons as peacekeepers; in 2006 they were sent on a fresh mission to East Timor and assigned duties in Tonga. Both the Clark and Key governments have cited New Zealand's involvement in places like Afghanistan and East Timor whenever they have attempted to win economic favours from Australia and America.

From the beginning, though, New Zealand's 'humanitarian military interventions' have been troubled by a contradiction. No matter how many uniformed doctors and engineers they bring with them, and no matter how noble the intentions of their rank and file soldiers, the Kiwis have been part of much larger occupation forces controlled by America or by America's close ally Australia.

Neither America or Australia has had any hesitation in using the occupation forces they control to further their economic and political interests. In Dili and Honiara as well as in Afghanistan, humanitarian intervention has become an instrument of imperialism. As local peoples have resisted this imperialism, New Zealanders have been amongst their targets.

The 1999 intervention in East Timor succeeded in guaranteeing that country's independence by defeating the murderous Indonesian militia, but thereafter ran into trouble. The Fretilin leadership's call for an intervention had been opposed by some of their members, who believed that the Indonesians could be defeated without outside help. These dissidents set up a new umbrella organisation called Council in Defence of the Democratic Republic of East Timor-Real Fretilin (CPD-RDTL/F), and began a campaign of protest. In response, the Fretilin leadership, which had become East Timor's government, used Australian and New Zealand troops to hunt down and arrest dissidents. Fretilin's establishment justified the persecution of the CPD-RDTL by claiming that the group was funded by Indonesia and opposed to Timorese independence.
Although Anzac troops supported the official Fretilin leadership against its opponents, there was little love lost between Mari Alkatiri, the first Prime Minister of independent East Timor, and his Australian counterpart John Howard. The two men argued angrily and repeatedly about the rights to the rich oil and gas deposits under the sea between Timor and northwest Australia. Alkatiri further angered the Australian government by refusing to implement neo-liberal 'reforms' to the East Timorese economy. He put restrictions on foreign investment in his new country, and refused to borrow any money at all overseas.

By 2006, John Howard and his ally in the White House had had enough of Mari Alkatiri. They joined with Alkatiri's jealous rivals Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta and the Catholic church and launched a campaign to bring down his government. Alkatiri's authoritarian style had made him many enemies, and soon rioters were setting Dili on fire. Using the pretext of restoring order, Anzac troops returned to East Timor in the middle of 2006. Alkatiri was made to resign at the point of an Australian gun, and Ramos-Horta took his place in what John Pilger described as 'the coup the world missed'.

As Australian and New Zealand troops struggled in late 2006 and 2007 to prop up Ramos-Horta's new government, their clashes with Alkatiri's supporters and other dissident groups became increasingly violent. In February 2007 Australian troops led by a tank attacked a refugee camp on the edge of Dili, killing two of its residents. In August 2007 anti-Anzac riots broke out in Dili and Bacau, East Timor's second largest city, after Ramos-Horta ignored an election result which gave a plurality of votes to Fretilin. New Zealand army trucks were burned, and Kiwi troops were stoned.
In the Solomons as well as East Timor, the imperialist strategy which underwrote humanitarian intervention led to conflict with locals, and saw Kiwis come under attack.

The Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) arrived in the Solomons in 2003, after fighting had broken out between rival ethnic groups on the capital island of Guadalcanal. RAMSI proclaimed its independence from the laws of the Solomons, and set up its own police force and judicial system.

Some of the peoples of the Solomons welcomed the intervention, but others, like the Kwaio people of Malaita, protested against the outsiders. The Kwaio are a pagan people with a long history of resisting European missionaries, slavers, and administrators. In 1927 the Kwaio killed an Australian official working for the British colonial administrators of the Solomons; in response, a collection of Britons and Australians organised a punitive expedition which slaughtered scores of Kwaio. The role of Australians in the 1927 massacre helped ensure Kwaio hostility to RAMSI's mission.

In April 2006 Solomon Islanders' anxieties about foreign influence over their country were expressed in a riot that levelled much of downtown Honiara. RAMSI forces were one of the first targets of the rioters, and New Zealand police came under attack outside the Solomons parliament.
In the aftermath of the riot, Manasseh Sogavare was elected Prime Minister by the Solomons parliament, and made efforts to restore the autonomy of his country. Sogavarae expelled Australia's local High Commissioner, on the grounds that the official was interfering in Solomons politics. In response, RAMSI raided Sogavare's office. In 2007, after intense Australian pressure, the Solomons parliament passed a vote of no confidence in Sogavare. In September 2011 diplomatic cables published by wikileaks revealed that the campaign to unseat Sogavare was run jointly by Canberra and Washington. The cables also reported that RAMSI forces had protected the property of some foreign businessmen during the April 2006 riot while letting other businesses burn.

In Afghanistan, New Zealand soldiers have been enmeshed in the same contradictions as their comrades in East Timor and the Solomons. After the conquest of Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002, New Zealand troops were despatched to Bamiyan province, where it was announced that they would be doing humanitarian 'reconstruction' work. Because Bamiyan is home to the Hazara, a Persian-speaking, Shia Muslim people which had been persecuted by the Pashtun-speaking, Sunni Muslim Taliban, New Zealand's presence has had considerable local support. But any credit which Kiwis have won by building schools and bridges in Bamiyan has been lost elsewhere in Afghanistan.

America has tried to run Afghanistan through Hamid Karzai, a leader with strong links to the warlords and drug traffickers who dominated the country in the years between the departure of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s and the victory of the Taliban in 1997. Karzai has been accused of electoral fraud, drug running, and the assassination of political opponents. During his rule, thousands of civilians have been killed by American bombing. Although Karzai is a Pashtun, his government is made up almost entirely of Afghanistan's non-Pashtun groups. According to Matthew Hoh, a former top American official in Afghanistan turned critic of the occupation, the growing membership of the Taliban in recent years has come mainly from Pashtuns who feel they have no choice but to fight with their own people in what has become an ethnic war.

By backing Karzai's corrupt, anti-Pashtun government, America has made all of the occupying forces in Afghanistan, including New Zealand's humble reconstruction team in Bamiyan, into targets for angry Pashtuns. As war intensifies in the rest of Afghanistan, New Zealand troops face more and more attacks from Pashtuni infiltrators into Bamiyan. Pashtun bands cross the mountainous borders of the province with mortars and heavy machine guns, and take potshots at Kiwi bases or ambush their convoys. The engineers who came to Bamiyan with building on their minds are spending much of their time wielding guns. Like the New Zealand soldiers and police who were attacked by East Timorese and Solomon Islanders during the riots of 2006 and 2007, the Kiwi soldiers team in Bamyan have become, for many Afghans, a symbol of oppression.

Over the past decade, New Zealand's political leaders have enlisted this country's armed forces in a series of old-fashioned imperialist adventures, using humanitarian rhetoric as a smokescreen. The failure of New Zealand's mission in Afghanistan is not, as Brian Rudman imagines, some aberration which can be attributed to the unique conditions inside that country. The deployment in Bamyan has failed for the same reasons that the earlier deployments to East Timor and the Solomons failed. It is not possible to balance humanitarian deeds with imperialism.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, August 09, 2012

A close encounter with Te Radar

Paul Janman and Te Radar have both been frequent subjects of discussion on this blog over recent weeks and months. Janman has been getting the thumbs up for his film Tongan Ark; Te Radar, by contrast, has been repeatedly criticised here for what I see as the shortcomings of his television series about the Pacific.

Janman has joined in some of the attacks on Radar Across the Pacific, so I was intrigued when I learned that he'd had a close encounter with the presenter of that series in one of the corridors of the labyrinthine Auckland headquarters of Television New Zealand.

Here's Paul's account of his meeting and impromptu discussion with Te Radar:

Yes, the conversation with Radar was very interesting. It turns out that he is, as I expected, a very nice guy with deep concerns about penguins, global warming, virtually uninhabited atolls and many other things.

On the subject of representations of Pacific island societies in the context of the contemporary TV industry, he was also very concerned.

In the process of creating Radar across the Pacific, he was disappointed that there was some important footage that didn't make it into the series. There was an interview with an historian, for example, on the site of the 'Black Saturday massacre of 28 December 1929, where New Zealand police gunned down 11 and wounded 50 Samoan independence activists.

Although Radar didn't want to say too much about it, I think we agreed that there were some serious questions about why the decision to cut that material was made. Who was pulling the strings here? Was there a feeling that the event had already been covered adequately? I think Scott’s blog entry on the subject would negate that. Or was the Director of the series, Peter Bell, responding to pressure from other directives higher in the food chain?

I told Radar that I was determined to keep our discussions in the realm of objectivity and to steer far away from conflicts of personality or the unfortunate influence of ‘spin’ and dogma. I tried to emphasise that this was necessary if we were to continue our critical discourse, flesh things out and become transparent about what we do as artists, journalists, comedians or whatever.

I also agreed with Radar at this point that kiwi audiences don’t like ‘being told what to think’ and prefer having everything laid out on the table for them to make up their own minds about it.

I felt that I did need to point out, however, that there are largely unseen psychological and political forces at work here.

As the unwitting American philosopher Donald Rumsfeld once said, “there are things that we know, we know… and there are things that we know we don’t know. There are also things that we don’t know that we don’t know…”

I would like to add one more category to this formula, namely that there are things that WE DON’T KNOW THAT WE KNOW. In other words, there are things that influence our decisions to cut this or that interview in a TV series, or make this or that supposedly humorous comment about people living in a polluted ghetto in Tarawa.

On the other hand… sometimes the executives just tell us what to do.

A study of the post global warming ecology of the TV industry would be very interesting indeed. Is there an apocalyptic virus, which seeks out the more strident ideas and shoots them down? Does this happen by a process of osmosis or is it simply a case of chase, kill and eat or be eaten?

How are decisions made? Educate us Peter Bell! You know we went to different schools together!

I also attempted to ply Radar (rather unsuccessfully I think) with ideas that I have picked up over the years from people like the Brazilian theatre Director Pedro Ilgenfritz about ‘poetic indirectness’ or what Tongans call ‘heliaki’. I think such strategies could be very usefully employed in getting more challenging ideas on primetime TV.

The only caveat is that self-awareness, vision and research of the truth already has to be in place before any such strategies will work at all.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Monday, August 06, 2012

The Ark premieres: a dog's-eye view

"What a couple of sly old dogs" someone commented, when this photo turned up on facebook yesterday. I'm not sure if that remark was intended as a compliment, but it could have been worse. It is better, I suppose, to be called a sly old dog than a gullible old dog.

The photo shows the hirsute Brett Cross and the less-than-hirsute author of this blog manning a bookstand in the bowels of that monstrous temple to philistinism, the Sky City Centre, last Saturday night. As fruit machines clanged and buzzed and punters howled and barked with glee or disappointment in the distance, we were busy selling On Tongan Poetry, a collection of five essays by the late Futa Helu which Atuanui Press, an offshoot of Brett's Titus Books imprint, has just published with the help of Creative New Zealand. On Tongan Poetry was supposed to arrive in late October, but we brought the release date forward after Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's celluloid portrait of Helu, was accepted for the Auckland International Film Festival. The afterword to On Tongan Ark is a revised version of a post I made to this blog near the end of 2010. We sold On Tongan Poetry alongside two books Helu published near the end of his life - a study of the pre-Socratic philosopher and father of dialectics Heraclitus and a set of short essays in Tongan about the poetry of Salote Tupou III.
I'd like to believe it was a sort of righteous mischievousness which motivated Bill Gosden, the boss of Auckland's International Film Festival, to arrange for Tongan Ark to screen in the Sky City Theatre last Saturday night. Helu was an inveterate critic of the hyper-commercialism and mindless consumerism which are part and parcel of late capitalism, and 'Atenisi, the university he established in a swamp on the edge of Nuku'alofa, has always preferred to teach its students philosophy and poetry rather than business studies. Perhaps, then, Gosden intended the denunciations of 'banal corporate culture' and 'corrupt financial systems' which pepper Tongan Ark to seep through the beige walls of the Sky City Theatre into the cavernous casino nearby, and to inspire the punters there to spend some of their money on books of philosophy and poetry rather than on pokies?

On the other hand, Gosden might simply have been looking for a movie theatre large enough to cope with the appeal of Janman's film. Tongan Ark was watched by a capacity audience of seven hundred; when dancers from the 'Atenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts stormed onstage at the end of the movie, and the crowd rose, clapping, roaring, and stamping its feet, I thought I was at a rock concert rather than a movie.
Tongan Ark has been one of the undisputed hits of this year's Film Festival. While movies by veteran, high-profile directors like Paolo and Vittorio Taviani failed to pack out theatres, Paul Janman's low-budget, unapologetically intellectual film became one of the hottest tickets in town. Part of the Ark's popularity has been due to the heavy media coverage given to Janman and to the 'Atenisi staff and performers who flew in for Nuku'alofa in preparation for the film's premiere. Tongan Ark has been the subject of no fewer than four extended discussions on TV One, as well as profiles on Radio New Zealand and in the Sunday Star-Times.

But the selling of Tongan Ark hasn't only been achieved by exposure in the big media. Enthusiasm for the film has been building amongst Auckland's huge Tongan community for weeks, with volunteers going door to door selling tickets in areas like Otahuhu and Mangere. Pasifika websites and social media have spread the word, and demands to see the movie have flowed in from Sydney, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and other colonies of the Tongan diaspora.

Brett Cross and I were sly indeed, then, to hitch our rickety literary wagon to Janman's speeding train. As copies of On Tongan Poetry sailed off our table I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd which had come to see Tongan Ark. There were former staff members and students of 'Atenisi, with their anecdotes about the role of the school as a sort of liberated zone in the tense, autocratic Tonga of the 1980s and '90s; there were young Tongans who had been born in New Zealand and had grown up learning little about their homeland, but who were now proud to learn that Tonga was a land of distinguished intellectuals and poets as well as rugby players and clergymen; there were palangi Kiwis, who had heard about the film through the media, and who wanted to know what Futa Helu could teach them about alternatives to commercialised education or to Western-style capitalism; there were palangi writers who had had their appetites for Tongan literature whetted by the special Oceania issue of brief which appeared earlier this year; and there were veteran scholars of the Pacific like Wendy Pond, the legendary ethnographer and translator who back in the '70s took up residence in the Niuas, the fearsomely isolated island group colonised by Tonga centuries ago but never quite pacified, and who set about translating the work of the dissident local poets she found there.

After the screening of Tongan Ark and the dance by the 'Atenisians, movie-goers reconvened in the Wintergarden lounge of the Civic Theatre. The Civic was built in the late '20s, at a time when the newly-discovered death-mask of Tutankhamun was exciting architects and interior designers around the world, and the lapis lazuli sky and golden walls of the Wintergarden are supposed to evoke the splendours and mysteries of a romantically imagined Orient.

When an 'Atenisi concert party armed with guitars, log drums, and a huge bowl of kava occupied one end of the Wintergarden, though, the room's deep blue desert sky suddenly became the deep blue sky of a tranquil evening in the tropical Pacific. As the guitars played and the voices rose, I forgot about the cold rain blowing outside down the concrete and glass canyon of Queen Street. I could feel a soft humid breeze on my face, and hear the waters of the Fanga'uta Lagoon, the inland sea of Tongatapu, lapping in the distance. When I left the Civic, at the end of the evening, the wind seemed a little milder, and the glass facades of Queen Street a little less oppressive. Tongan Ark and 'Atenisi had brought something important to Auckland.

Wellingtonians should get their tickets, and get ready to party.

Footnote: I've pinched three of the photos in this post from the splendidly monikered Karen Abplanalp, who works for the Pacific Media Centre.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Dancing, paddling, and poeticising: AFPA hits Auckland

Like many males of my generation, I was turned against dance by my experiences at school discos. After repeatedly tripping on my own shoelaces at the Drury School Form Two Blue Light Fancy Dress Disco - my decision to turn up dressed up as a cricket batsman, and thus wearing pads and carrying a bat, didn't help my coordination - and being shunned by even the kindest girls, I decided that dancing was something akin to undressing in public.

Although I later developed an interest in literature and several related artforms, it never occurred to me to take a new interest in the art of dance. I was able to be wilfully ignorant because of the way that different varieties of art - poetry, music, dance, painting, and so on -  are separated from one another in contemporary Western societies like New Zealand. It is easy, in our society, for a poet or painter or musician to spend a lifetime working away in their field, without so much as peering over the fence at an adjacent field of artistic endeavour. I always assumed that I could write about poetry, novels, and various other types of literature without having to learn the most rudimentary facts about the strange artform known as dance.

When I recently began to learn about Tongan poetry, though, I got a shock. In traditional Tongan culture, poetry is usually fused with song, instrumental music and dance in a single genre known as faiva. Poems are composed to be sung or chanted, and to be accompanied by music and dance. While a modern Western poet tends to worry only about how his or her words will look on the page, his or her Tongan counterpart is expected to be a choreographer and a melodist as well as a wordsmith.
With his or her focus on performance and proficiency in multiple artforms, the punake has some similarities to the ancient Greek poets, who often sang or chanted their lines while a lyre played a tune they had written, or with the Elizabethan Thomas Campion, who coupled his poems with music for the lute.

Futa Helu's posthumous book On Tongan Poetry, which  be launched on Saturday alongside Paul Janman's film Tongan Ark, is necessarily a study of dance and music as well as words. When I was helping Atuanui Press prepare On Tongan Poetry for publication, I kept lifting my eyes from Helu's discussion of this or that poem, and trying to hear the music and visualise the movement that accompanied the words of the piece. I became an enthusiastic viewer of the Youtube channel Janman established to document the work of the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts.
AFPA was created by Futa Helu, the hero of Tongan Ark, so that students and staff at his 'Atenisi Institute could show off both Tongan culture and Western classical music. Its dancers, singer, musicians, and punake have travelled to Australasia, North America, and Asia, using their performances to raise money for their impoverished Tongan university. An AFPA troupe arrived in Auckland last weekend, and is preparing to perform at the premiere of Tongan Ark.

Yesterday the 'Atenisians dropped by Television New Zealand's studios in central Auckland, and performed on TV One's Good Morning show. Brandishing stylised paddles, seven AFPA members executed a dance known as the me'etu'upaki; in the background a group of supporters sang along and played drums made from hollow logs.

In an essay published in the Nuku'alofa-based literary journal Faikava in the early 1980s, and about to be republished in On Tongan Poetry, Futa Helu argues that the me'etu'upaki, which translates roughly as 'paddle dance', was created by ancient mariners to celebrate their arrival on an island after a long voyage. Helu quotes the lines of poetry often associated with the dance and, after translating these lines into modern Tongan, suggests that they include both a prayer of thanks to the ocean deities Kalulu and Latu and an account of a journey from the northwest Pacific to Niuafo'ou, the spectacular volcano-island in the far north of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Helu, who was a critic of both the moral conservatism of Christian Tonga and the philistinism of Western capitalism, praises the pagan, sensual qualities of the me'etu'upaki:

This [piece] affords us an interesting insight into ancient Oceanic societies - the modern puritanical division between the religious and the secular did not exist for them, and art penetrated every aspect of life...They danced their prayers...

Helu's interpretation of the me'etu'upaki was provocative, because it threatened the group of Tongans who had become, in the twentieth century, the custodians of the dance.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the Ha'apai chief Taufa'ahau waged a holy war to unify Tonga and make it a Christian nation. Taufa'ahau, who eventually succeeded in becoming the first modern king of Tonga, was a fervent Wesleyan who considered much of the traditional song and dance of his country sinful. Many of Taufa'ahau's enemies lived around the ancient Tongan capital of Mu'a (a place known in modern times as Lapaha), where a sacred king known as the Tu'i Tonga had traditionally been honoured by pagan festivals and the raising of stone monuments.

After losing a series of small wars against Taufa'ahau, the pagans of Mu'a reluctantly accepted his authority, and converted to Christianity. But rather than embrace the new king's severe Protestantism, they turned to the Catholic creed which had been brought to Tonga by French missionaries. Where Tonga's Wesleyans abandoned many pre-Christian songs and dances, the Catholics of Mu'a preserved much of their traditional culture.

The me'etu'upaki was a particularly important dance for the people of Mu'a, because in pre-Christian times it had often been performed in the court of the Tu'i Tonga to celebrate events like weddings and harvests. As the Catholics of Lapaha continued to resist assimilation to Tonga's Protestant majority in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the me'etu'upaki became a symbol of their cultural independence. The dance became  esoteric and highly ritualistic, as knowledge of its choreography was restricted to fewer and fewer people and its performers were discouraged from any attempts at improvisation.

Futa Helu had a long and mostly friendly association with Tonga's Catholic minority. The pro-democracy movement he helped to found attracted enthusiastic support from the Catholic church, which felt marginalised by the Wesleyan royal family that had ruled Tonga since the time of Taufa'ahau. When Tonga's pro-democracy forces held an historic conference at 'Atenisi to draft a programme for reform in 1992, many Catholic priests came as delegates.

But Helu was never afraid of controversy, and by arguing that the me'etu'upaki was, in essence, a pagan celebration, he contradicted those inhabitants of Lapaha who considered the dance an emblem of their Catholic identity.

The AFPA performance of the me'etu'upaki reflects Futa Helu's reinterpretation of the dance. The performers step quickly, smack their paddles against their open hands, and chant loudly. The music which accompanies them rises in tempo until it reaches a climax, then stops, then rises to a new climax. The 'Atenisians' me'etu'upaki is supposed to evoke the danger and exhilaration of a long journey across the open ocean in small boats, and the pleasure of finding safe landfall at the end of such a journey.

By contrast, the me'etu'upaki traditionally performed in Mu'a features slower movements and more restrained music and singing. Instead of exuberance, the Mu'an me'tu'upaki communicates a feeling of solemnity.
It is tempting to compare the approach of Futa Helu and AFPA to Tongan cultural tradition with the procedures of some of the great modernist artists of the West. Early last century modernist poets like Ezra Pound revolted against the sentimentality and stuffiness of much of the English-language poetry of their day by discovering and translating the work of ancient Greek, Chinese, and British poets. Pound was excited by the ferocious energy and vivid imagery of Dark Ages Anglo-Saxon poetry, but he hated the way many nineteenth century translators had tried to tone down and prettify this energy and colour.

Pound produced his own translation of 'The Seafarer', a long Anglo-Saxon poem with the same sort of subject matter as the me'etu'upaki. In the same way that the 'Atenisians have broken with Mu'an courtly tradition and given the me'etu'upaki a raw and wild interpretation, Pound ignored Victorian convention and gave 'The Seafarer' rough, heavy rhythms. Both the modernist poet and the 'Atenisian performers have rejected recent cultural tradition by turning to an older and more vital tradition.

[Posted Maps/Scott]