Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Coming soon on Tongan telly

If you happen to live in the Friendly Islands, or live elsewhere but got a satellite dish installed on your roof because you need a regular fix of Tongan Television, then you can turn your set on today at five o'clock and see 'Opeti Talia, Sisi'uno Langi-Helu and me discussing the 'Atenisi Institute and the intellectual and cultural tradition it represents.

In the course of our talk, which was recorded yesterday while we sat on handsome wooden chairs with royal red padding in the cramped green-walled studio of the state broadcaster, names like Tongan Ark, Paul Janman, Heraclitus, Ted Jenner, 'Jackson' Ross, Dave Bedggood, and David Howard were brandished. I sat quietly and tried to look knowing whenever 'Opeti and Sisi'uno spoke in their native Tongan, and chimed in occasionally in Kiwi English. Our broadcast lasts three quarters of an hour, and was made to let the Tongan public know that 'Atenisi is up and running this year. We're hopeful that a minute or two of it might be featured on the national news, which is broadcast in Tongan at seven o'clok and in English at eight o'clock.

Tonga has only three television channels and a relatively small number of radio stations, so the chances of the masses catching a broadcast are higher than they would be in a nation like New Zealand, where there are often scores of channels on offer. When I talked to Brett Cross, the boss of Titus Books, last night, he got excited by the idea that our broadcast might help him to sell titles by the likes of Jack Ross and Ted Jenner in Nuku'alofa's Friendly Islands Bookshops. Little did he know that FIB, which exploits its monopoly on the book trade here, was flogging Titus volumes for eighty-three pa'anga a pop...

Friday, February 22, 2013


Generalisations can be dangerous. We made our first visit to Tongatapu at the beginning of 2010, and enjoyed a week of temperatures in the low twenties, thanks to cooling breezes that came off Nuku'alofa harbour. Our subsequent visits to Tonga all occurred during the winter, when conditions were similar, and I rashly concluded that temperatures here did not very vary significantly through the year. The summer of 2013 would be, I thought, no sweat.

As soon as we stepped onto the melting tarmac of Fua'amotu airport last Saturday I realised that my confidence had been misplaced. The heat and humidity were so bad that by the time I reached the little airport terminal fifty or so metres away I felt like ducking into the toilets and exchanging one of my recently purchased Hawaiian T shirts for another.

Tongatapu has been suffering through a hot and sticky summer, so that even locals are going about under umbrellas, and dabbing their faces with bright sweat rags. I've been helping my bosses at the 'Atenisi Institute meet the demands of the recently established Tongan qualifications authority, which has an unrelenting appetite for policy documents and other pieces of paperwork, and when I sit typing on our Financial Controller Mele's laptop I feel myself melting like a candle. As I typed an amendment to one particularly long document the other night I began to fear that all the liquid I was producing would shortcircuit my boss's computer.

Because it can only be ensured by air conditioning units, and air conditioning costs serious pa'anga, coolness if a prized commodity in Nuku'alofa. The smartest shops are also the coolest. Digicel, the Carribean-based phone company that has billboards up all over Tonga, keeps its central Nuku'alofa shop so cool that some staff are forced to go about in long sleeved shirts and pants. Molisi, a new apparently Tongan-owned supermarket chain, offers its customers the delights of a walk-in fridge. Yesterday I found myself milling in the fridge with half a dozen other punters; all of us were pretending to agonise over the half-dozen varieties of watery lager available for purchase.

The most glamorous eating places, like the aptly named Escape Cafe, offer chilled air as well as sodas and sandwiches at ambitious prices. I retreated to Escape Cafe yesterday, and discovered cliques of palangi businessmen in suits and ties lunching with Tongan civil servants in dark heavy shirts and thick ta'ovala. Observing their faces, which were miraculously free of the rivulets of sweat which ran down my forehead and chin, I wondered whether the Escape had a special room where distinguished guests could change from shorts and T shirts into suitably formal attire before they began negotiations over trade tariffs and aid packages. Surely no one could survive the humidity outside in a pinstripe suit?

I sat sipping my Diet Coke and tried to eavesdrop on the wheelers and dealers sitting all around me, but I was frustrated by the cafe's sleek air conditioning units, which purred as loudly and smoothly as the engines of a cruising jumbo jet.

I'd better sign off for now, before I shortcircuit Sisi'uno Helu's laptop, but I'll give another weather report soon.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The expanding world

We're off to Tonga today. Back in the nineteenth century, travel across the Pacific involved the packing of a  schooner, careful examination of half-finished charts, so that reefs and sudden volcanic islets could be avoided, battles with winds and tides, which saw sails being raised and lowered and raised again, and the danger of encounters with pirates. Travellers arrived exhausted in Apia or Papeetee or Nuku'alofa, and recovered by drinking rum and gambling away their money on a hotel verandah that looked out on a winedark sea.

Today travellers to the tropical Pacific are still liable to exhaust themselves. Instead of packing a ship, they must unpack their houses, junking or boxing the innumerable useless items which attach themselves to us in this age of consumer capitalism. Instead of callousing their hands hoisting and lowering sails on the high seas, and being made to wait for hours or days on a still, windless sea, they are forced to cover scores of forms in the inscrutable language of bureaucratese, and stand in listless queues for hours on end, as they seek a Visa or a new passport.

We like to imagine that new forms of communication and faster methods of travel are connecting the various regions of the world, and making places like the tropical Pacific more accessible. But looking at a super-fast train or a billionaire's private jet and talking about the shrinking of the world is a little like pointing at Usain Bolt or some other elite athlete and calling them proof of the physical fitness of the world's citizens.

The truth is that, whilst certain parts of the Pacific have become more easily accessible, thanks to cheap flights and the rise of a tourist industry, much of the region has become, for anyone short of a superyacht or private jet, more rather than less remote. The rarity of travel through the Pacific by ship, and the tendency of airlines to descend only upon one or two destinations, and ignore other centres, means that many of the region's islands go unvisited for long periods. Where once schooners and steamers would call regularly, disgorging trade goods and sightseers, now 747s pass heedlessly overhead, somewhere above the clouds. In the major Pacific nations, from Fiji to Tonga to French Polynesia, more remote islands are being depopulated, as young people, especially, emigrate to the main island, where the capital city and most of the jobs and excitement are located.

We had considerable trouble finding a company that could send a crate to Tonga, because Reef Shipping, which was for years the best-known of the diminished number of shipping companies plying the Pacific, recently went into receivership. We'll be based in Nuku'alofa, on Tonga's capital island of Tongatapu, but we were planning on revisiting nearby 'Eua Island, and visiting Tonga's northern archipelagos for the first time. That may be difficult, because the air links between Tonga's forty-odd inhabited islands are once again in jeopardy, after Chathams Pacific, which had been operating domestic flights in the Kingdom for the last few years, decided abruptly last month to pull the plug.
I recently read Gregory O'Brien's account of the journey he made to the Kermadec Islands in the company of a number of other distinguished Kiwi artists and writers. O'Brien and co got a lift on a New Zealand navy vessel, which was heading on beyond the Kermadecs to Tonga.

As they watched Auckland disappear over the horizon of warm gray waves, and watched the northern horizon, imagining the rocky peaks and coast of Raoul Island, the largest of the Kermadec archipelago, the hitchikers seem to have become immoderately excited. Used to jumping on planes and travelling passively over vast abstract reaches of the Pacific toward Sydney or Los Angeles or Tokyo, they had suddenly been confronted and delighted by the watery reality of the space which surrounds New Zealand. As their vessel churned the six hundred or so nautical miles to Raoul, they felt like explorers, entering a dimension of reality which is closed to almost all twenty-first century travellers. Like Epeli Hau'ofa famous essay 'Our Sea of Islands', O'Brien's account of his voyage insists on the fact that the Pacific connects its various peoples, rather than isolating them from one another. He attempts, in language that is self-consciously poetic, to turn the Pacific from the set of distances and calculated arrival times familiar to air travellers into something sensuously real.

I'll look out the window of my plane today, and try to imagine waves building and breaking somewhere far below the tundra of tropical clouds.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ten years later

The tenth anniversary of the million-strong march through London against the invasion of Iraq has been marked dutifully by a number of newspapers and blogs. Despite the impressive size of the anti-war protests in London, and in many other cities besides, Bush and Blair went ahead with their plans to depose Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq in March 2003. After the fall of Baghdad in April, the anti-war movement dwindled. The tragic shambles that Bush and Blair presided over for years in Iraq did not prompt the sort of mass protests the world saw in March 2003. 

In the 2006 British movie Children of Men, which is set in a dystopian future, a man recalls that he met his wife on the great London demonstration of March the 15th 2003. He refers to the event with the sort of wistful awe old hippies use when they talk about the protests in the 1960s against the Vietnam War or for Civil Rights. By the 1980s, at the latest, these protests had been made, by historians and by the entertainment industry, into historical landmarks and symbols of human progress. Only the most reactionary or contrarian individuals have been prepared to defend segregation, or the bombing of North Vietnam, and face accusations of standing on 'the wrong side of history'. 
But the Iraq war has not yet become a safe subject for sentimentalists and generalisers. The failure of both the anti-war movement and the Anglo-American occupation has, for many Westerners, left the war's place in history and moral status unclear. Anti-war protesters certainly did not succeed in defeating American imperialism, nor even in discrediting the notion of Western military intervention in the Third World. On the other hand, the neoconservative promise that Iraq would be the shining model for a democratic, secular, prosperous Middle East, and the harbinger of a 'new American century', seems as absurd today as David Lloyd George's claim that the defeat of the German Kaiser would put an end to all wars. 

Against the firm advice of my PhD supervisor, the great Ian Carter, who seemed more interested in model railways than in left-wing politics, I spent much of late 2002 and early 2003 writing leaflets for the Auckland-based protest coalition Direct Anti-War Action. Reproduced below is a text I wrote in the middle of the night, with a typically excited Roger Fox standing over my shoulder. Roger, who was a vital and vocal part of Auckland's left-wing scene until his sudden death in 2007, had persuaded some members of the Seafarers' Union to distribute anti-war leaflets on ships they were working. 

In the aftermath of the great demonstrations of March 2003, DAWA and many similar groups believed that momentum would continue to build against Bush, and that an historic defeat for imperialism was possible. We were disappointed, and it now takes an effort of historical imagination to understand the energy and optimism of the text Roger and I so hurriedly prepared. 


 Direct Anti-War Action (DAWA) is a United Front of various groups and individuals formed to organise direct action to stop the New Zealand government's involvement in the war on Iraq. We support the building of a broad anti-war movement in New Zealand, and think the big marches recently seen around the country were brilliant. But, let’s face it, we can't rely on pressuring Helen Clark and the UN to act as forces for peace - we need to take things into our own hands and revive the proud tradition of direct action which made the anti-Vietnam War and anti-Springbok Tour protests such a powerful force in this country.

Workers around the world are showing the way to stop the war with their own direct action - in Britain, train drivers have refused to move ammunition bound for the war, and their union, which has an anti-war resolution on its books, has backed them up. In Western Australia, 75,000 workers from nine unions have pledged to go on strike the minute any attack on Iraq begins, whether or not it is sanctioned by the UN. In Ireland, mass pickets have forced the US government to stop using the Shannon Air Base to move troops and supplies to the Middle East. Unions representing 130 million workers, from Australia to the Philippines to Togo, have now signed an anti-war resolution drafted by the US group Labour Against War. In Auckland, the Council of Trade Unions has moved from opposition to unilateral war to opposition to a war rubberstamped by the UN.

Many workers recognise that Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ is a war on workers in the West, as well as a war on the peoples of the Middle East. The warmongers want to boost their flagging profits by making Western labour as well as Middle Eastern oil cheaper. Bush used the war as an excuse to attack the West Coast longshoremen when they tried to strike last year, and is trying to use his post-S 11 ‘Patriot Act’ to strip hundreds of thousands of state employees of their right to union membership. In Britain, Bush’s best friend Tony Blair has used the war as an excuse to threaten to ban the right of firefighters to go on strike for higher wages. Helen Clark will pull the same ‘national security’ card out of the pack the moment she is threatened by major industrial action. The Seafarers’ Union has a proud history of opposing unjust wars: it opposed the Vietnam War, and it was one of the few New Zealand unions to take a stand against the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

It’s up to staunch unions like the Seafarers to take the lead in turning anti-war resolutions into anti-war action, by supporting calls for strike action and blockades of military facilities linked to Bush’s war drive. On March the 2nd at 12noon DAWA plans to picket the Whenuapai Air Base, in protest at the sending of Orion planes to the Gulf as part of the Clark government's commitment to George Bush's War of Terror. On the same day, Christchurch activists will be picketing the US air base at Harewood. We call on the anti-war movement in other centres to stage similar actions as part of a national day of direct anti-war action.

A planning meeting for the Whenuapai action will be held this Wednesday 26th of February, 7.30pm at Trades Hall, 147 Great North Road.

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Flags and the politics of fantasy

Every now and then I stop at a shop window and gaze at a shirt, wondering whether it might be shapely enough to disguise the bulge in my belly, and perhaps give the illusion that I have muscles rather than flaccid man-breasts on my chest. Whenever I buy a shirt, though, my hopes are disappointed. Reality is no match for illusion.

I thought about my problems with shirts when I read the other day about proposals to give New Zealand and Australia new flags. Kiwi Republicans are convinced that the fondness of our sports fans for the silver fern reflects a desire to dump the current ensign, which cedes a quarter of its territory to the Union Jack, a flag that isn't even acceptable in large parts of the British motherland these days. For his part, Australian historian John Blaxland has redesigned his country's flag, replacing the Jack with a boomerang, and filling a large star with two hundred and fifty dots, each of which, apparently, represents a language spoken in Oz. On both sides of the Tasman, Republicans have long argued that a change of flag will help to consolidate a new national image, and ameliorate some of the problems created by colonialism and cultural cringe.

But a new flag can no more transform a nation that a new shirt could transform my torso. The economic and political inequality, racism, and cultural conservatism which are features of Australasian societies are the product of history, sociology, and economics. They can't blow away in the wind that puffs the chest of a new national flag. A flag can't feed poor kids, or pay steep tuition fees, or find anybody a job.
Because of the nobly quixotic intentions which motivate them, the designers of alternative flags tend to make a mess of things. They begin by wondering how they can best represent the diverse populations of Australasia, and the differing values and interests of those populations, and then try to squeeze symbols representing as many sectors of the population onto their banners. Blaxland's flag, with its dots that resemble termite bites, cheesy, banana-like boomerang, and gauche colour combinations, is a representative mess.

National flags exist not to express but to dissolve differences. A successful flag features a symbol or pattern which is simple and shapely enough to be immediately identifiable, and vague enough to sponsor a range of positive interpretations. The red sun of Japan's famously elegant ensign might symbolise that country's emperor, but it also represents, for many of its admirers, life, summer, authority, and - sitting as it does on a field of white - purity. Because it symbolises a landscape they all claim, the maple leaf can charm indigenous, Anglo-Saxon, and Quebecois Canadians.

One or two of the alternative flags invented by New Zealanders avoid an over-prescriptive clutter. The silver fern might seem a suitably simple and open symbol, but the black field behind it runs the risk of connoting mourning, piracy, Al Qaeda, and anarchism. The fern itself becomes, at a certain distance from the flagpole, a white feather, which many cultures consider a symbol of cowardice.
The flag proposed by Dick Frizzell is better, because it preserves what was effective in the old banner, while discarding the fusty Union Jack. Frizzell has centred the southern cross, and added red strips to his banner. Best of all, perhaps, Frizzell has retained the deep blue which dominates the official New Zealand flag.

With its combination of depth and brightness, and its association with those two ancient symbols of infinity, the sea and the sky, blue can be a heady colour. The visionary canvases of Yves Klein, and the final film of Derek Jarman, which offered audiences an unrelentingly blue screen, are evidence of the effect the colour has had on artists. The red strips on Frizzell's flag reinforce its illusion of depth: they might be the frame of a window through which we are staring at an endless sky on a January evening. The blue field of our flag communicates a feeling of space and possibility which, however counterfeit, resonates with the people of a sparsely populated colony at the edge of the world.

But the aesthetic success of Dick Frizzell's banner does not score it political points. Four stars on a lustrous blue background tell us little about twenty-first century New Zealand, with its myriad ethnic and religious groups, its yawning class divisions, and its sourly competitive islands and regions. The adoption of Frizzell's flag would do nothing to address, let alone solve, the problems of this country. Like me when I gaze through a shop window, the Republican movement is guilty of wishful thinking.

Flag design becomes more fun, and perhaps also more enlightening, when it focuses not on the propaganda needs of states but on iconoclastic visions. The British Republican flag was designed in the 1830s, when the Chartist movement threatened to bring the democratic spirit of the French revolution to cities like London and Manchester, and was apparently flown for the last time from a handful of windows during the silver jubilee of of George V in 1935.
To look at this flag, with its echoes of the banners of republican states, is to imagine a Britain where the Windsors met the same sort of fate as the Habsburgs and the Romanovs, where continental nations like France and Italy are seen as siblings rather than as inscrutable aliens, where May Day is a public holiday, where cafes have taken the place of ale houses, and where the social sciences and philosophy enjoy as much esteem as natural history.
The Martian tricolour is another exercise in speculation, a glimpse of what its creators believe to be the 'future history' of the Red Planet. Its red panel represents the colours of the arid and airless plains and mountains that presently cover our nearest neighbour, but its blue and green denote the meadows, lakes and rivers which might be created the sort of experiment in 'terraforming' that would-be colonists advocate. Unfortunately, Armenian nationalists seem to have first claim to the Martian ensign.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, February 08, 2013

Rhubarb and custard verses

My life is a chaos of boxes and suitcases today, so I thought I'd post something which (tries) to make a virtue of brevity, rather than the sort of long-winded essay with which I began the week.  This is one of a sequence of poems called 'Urban Legends' which Alex Wild has accepted for publication in the forthcoming 47th issue of brief. Reading over it this morning I realised, with an all-too-familiar sagging feeling, that I'd filched one of the images from the great Tomas Transtromer, a poet I read about as often as I brush my teeth.

In Hyde Park

at the bottom of that wishing well:
the gold and silver
of Hadrian's Londinium

I feel like a pilot staring down
at the lights of a city
where I cannot land

Whiney East End rapper The Streets made a more memorable homage to Britain's Roman past on 'Turn the Page', the first track on his first album, Original Pirate Material:

That's it, turn the page on the day, walk away
'Cause they're sensing what I say I'm 45th generation Roman
But I don't know 'em or care when I'm spitting
So return to your sitting position and listen, it's fitting
I'm miles ahead and they chase me
Show yer face on TV, then we'll see
You're can't do half, my crew laughs at yer rhubarb and custard verses
Yer rain down curses but I'm waving, Yer hearse is driving by...
In the afterlife Gladiators meet their maker 
Thrown through the wind fields and lakes of blue water 
To the next life from the fortress 
Away from the knives and slaughter 
To their wives and daughters 
Once more before the law judges over all of us 
Cos in this place you'll see me 
Brace yourself, cos this goes deep 
I'll show you the secrets the sky and the birds 
Actions speak louder than words 
Stand by me my apprentice 
Be brave, Clench fists. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Shakespeare and the Greek tragedy of capitalism


Late last year I walked into a party in a Parnell flat to find a tanned and smiling Ted Jenner holding court. Ted had been missing from the Auckland literary scene for months, after announcing that he was travelling to Greece to continue his research into the short poems that have been found on pieces of papyrus in ancient graves across the Hellenic world. Called 'gold leaves' because of their shape and colour, these artefacts have puzzled tomb-robbers and archaeologists alike for centuries.

Encouraged by Titus Books, Ted had been busy translating leaves and writing commentaries on them. He had thought that a few quiet weeks in the libraries and museums of Greece would help him finish a book, but today's Greece is not a quiet place. In town after town Ted discovered libraries and museums closed by strikes, or budget cuts, or both, and smelt tear gas in the air.
The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 pushed Greece into recession, because of the country's big debts. As successive governments have surrendered to European Union pressure by privatising assets, cutting social spending, and laying off workers, the Greek economy has steadily shrunk.

Greece's trade union movement has a long and proud history, and it has responded to economic crisis with a series of general strikes, as well as innumerable street protests. Last year working class voters almost gave Syriza, a coalition of radical left-wing parties, control of the Greek parliament. At the same election an explicitly fascist party called the Golden Dawn entered parliament. Despite its contempt for democracy, that old Athenian invention, and its fondness for Hitler, the man whose armies occupied Greece for three terrible years, the Golden Dawn claims to embody all that is noble in Hellenic culture and tradition. Its members besiege the homes of black and brown-skinned Greeks, and wage street warfare against the left.

It was perhaps inevitable that Ted Jenner, with his left-leaning politics and his loathing for pseudo-history, would be provoked into polemic by the Golden Dawn. In exchanges with ultra-nationalists on the streets of Athens and in a letter to a Greek periodical, he condemned the Golden Dawn for ignoring, because of ignorance or bigotry, the non-European - that is, Phoenician, Babylonian, and Egyptian - influences on ancient Greek civilisation, and for exaggerating  the military achievements of the Greeks in their conflicts with Persia. These indignant rebuttals were the beginning of an extraordinary essay, a mixture of prose and poetry, reportage and invective, called 'Plato's Academy', which will be published in the forthcoming 47th issue of the New Zealand literary journal brief. The eeriest passage in the essay describes Ted's pilgrimage to the site of the legendary institution of learning which was inspired by Socrates and founded by Plato:

A ‘sacred wood’ covers most of the ground embraced by the Academy. The wood is an extensive and entangled grove of olive and myrtle trees; so extensive and so entangled that it seems to have been chosen as a shelter during the summer by the homeless and the unemployed, for I kept coming across hastily constructed cardboard ‘beds’ and abandoned piles of clothing amongst the undergrowth. The ‘sacred wood’, now hemmed on all sides by housing estates but throbbing still with the strident ‘songs’ of the last autumn cicadas, has apparently become a fair-weather refuge for the homeless and the illegal. 

The crisis in Greece, and the global economic troubles that created that crisis, have prompted interest in one of Shakespeare's most neglected plays. Timon of Athens was written with the help of Thomas Middleton, and doesn't seem to have been staged in Shakespeare's lifetime. Some scholars have pointed to the play's undeveloped subplots, idle minor characters, and pair of epilogues, and argued that it was never finished.

Shakespeare's protagonist is a wealthy spendthrift who holds elaborate dinner parties where he offers his guests, who include unctuous artists as well as dodgy men of capital, absurdly expensive gifts. Timon is also generous to his many servants, helping them to pay off debts. But Timon has accrued debts of his own. When his servant-cum-financial advisor Flavius warns him he is facing bankruptcy, Timon is unconcerned; he believes that the friends who have dined so often at his table will come to his aid. But when Flavius visits the homes of these friends to ask for cash, he is turned rudely away.

Enraged by the meanness of his alleged friends, Timon holds a final dinner party, at which the guests are welcomed with a pretend-bonhomie, then offered a meal of stones and water. After this mock-banquet, Timon strips off his clothes and abandons Athens for a cave on an obscure and closely forested piece of the Greek coast, where he lives on roots and water.

One day when he is digging for his next meal, Timon the anchorite uncovers a stash of gold some bandit or exiled prince has buried and forgotten. Hearing rumours of this flukish find, Timon's old flatterers pay visits to his cave. Instead of gifts of gold, though, they are treated to denunciations of their greed, and of the sinfulness of humanity in general:

That nature, being sick of man's unkindness,
Should yet be hungry! Common mother, thou,
Whose womb unmeasurable and infinite breast
Teems and feeds all; whose selfsame mettle,
Whereof they proud child, arrogant man, is puffed,
Engenders the black toad and adder blue,
The gilded newt and eyeless venomed worm,
With all the abhorred births below crisp heaven...
Ensear they fertile and conceptious womb;
Let it no more bring out ingrateful man.
Go great with tigers, dragons, wolves and bears,
Teem with new monsters...

After giving his new fortune to Alcibiades, a rebellious general who is preparing to turn his soldiers against Athens, Timon dies in his cave, an irredeemably embittered man.

Most Shakespeare scholars have considered Timon of Athens a poor relative of King Lear and Hamlet, but a number of great thinkers and artists have been preoccupied with the play. Herman Melville thought Timon of Athens superior to Hamlet; in his Paris Manuscripts and in the first volume of Capital, Marx used the play to explain the alienating effects of money; Vladimir Nabokov took the title of Pale Fire from one of Timon's tirades.
Last year London's National Theatre brought Timon into the era of the Global Financial Crisis and the Occupy movement. In a production which toured England, National Theatre Director Nick Hytner showed Timon as a wealthy financier ruined by a lurch in the market. After being spurned by his old dinner guests, the National Theatre's Timon ends up not in a forest cave but in the rubble of an abandoned building site, where he sleeps rough beside a shopping trolley filled with his possessions. Timon's fall is paralleled by the rise of an army of protesters led by a self-proclaimed revolutionary named Alcibiades, who ends the play by cutting a deal with the establishment and selling out his supporters.

The 2012 incarnation of Timon of Athens was filmed, and has been shown this summer in a number of New Zealand cinemas. In both Britain and this country, Nick Hytner's work has impressed reviewers. Writing in the New Zealand Listener, economist Brian Easton summed up the response to the play when he claimed that it demonstrated that 'money can't buy true friendship'.

It is easy to understand why Ted Jenner went to watch Timon of Athens shortly after his return to New Zealand. In an e mail to me, he praised the play:

Yes, I saw Timon of Athens last week and have read it twice (thanks to Wyndham Lewis whose superb drawings of Alcibiades got me interested in the play). The acting in Timon was brilliant (this is after all THE National Theatre) and it was in modern dress which I always prefer (after all, the plays in the 16th-17th were in Elizabethan-Jacobean dress, they wouldn't have put on Roman armour for Coriolanus). The early scenes of the play were somewhat truncated; Alcibiades' name is mentioned but you don't see him till about half-way through the play. The worst thing about watching these filmed National Theatre plays is the advertising that comes with it.

I can't help thinking that there is something rather backhanded about all the praise for the new Timon of Athens. The Timon of 2012 is at best a fool, and at worst a vain, spoilt fool. Like so many of the 'big swinging dicks' of Wall Street and the City of London, with their permanent tans and permanently maxed-out  gold cards, he is man who has forgotten the stubbornly real world outside his mansion, the world which gives and - on occasion - deprives money of its value. The National Theatre's Timon would have fitted snugly into the boardroom of Lehmann Brothers.

By making Timon into a fool, though, the National Theatre arguably violates Shakespeare's text and deprives his play of much of its tragic grandeur.
The great Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight would certainly not have recognised the Timon of 2012. In his 1930 book The Wheel of Fire, Knight argues that Timon is a noble, even saintly man, whose story has a 'tragic scale...even more tremendous than that of Macbeth and King Lear'. Knight notes that Shakespeare emphasises Timon's goodness, and refrains from sneering at his troubles. Knight can see, in a way that the National Theatre and reviewers like Brian Easton apparently cannot, that Timon intends his gift-giving as a model for all human behaviour. He is, in Knight's words, a 'supreme lover of humanity' who wants to build a 'heaven on earth' by encouraging humans to give freely to their fellows. His motto might be Marx's 'from each according to his means, to each according to his needs'. Timon's tragedy is that he lives in venal, predatory Athens, which sees his his generosity as something to exploit rather than emulate.

Shakespeare vouches for Timon's goodness in the very first lines of his play. Before their benefactor has stepped onto the stage, the poet and painter who are his regular dinner guests discuss his 'good and gracious nature'. If this pair had been speaking in Timon's presence then their words of praise would have been worthless, but they have no reason to flatter their patron in his absence. As Maurice Charney noted in his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of Timon of Athens, the poet and painter's discussion is a revelation of Timon's essential nature. Sadly, Nick Hytner omitted the first lines of Timon of Athens from his version of the play.

When he flees Athens for the countryside, Timon reminds us of the adventures of some of Shakespeare's most remarkable characters, like Lear, who exchanges the castle of his evil daughters for a stormy heath, Guiderius, the prince who spends most of his youth in a Welsh cave, and Orlando, who swaps the dangerous politics of court for the delights of Arden Forest. As Raymond Williams showed in his masterpiece The Country and the City, English writers have a long tradition of contrasting the venality of urban life with the supposed tranquility of the backblocks. In the speeches he makes from his cave, Timon explores a series of ideas about the natural world, and its relation to humanity. Timon is perhaps briefly tempted by the notion of the countryside as a place of refuge, but soon insists, in what are his most famous lines, on the moral continuity of the human and non-human parts of the universe:

The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea. The moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears. The earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n
From gen'ral excrement. Each thing's a thief.

Timon the cave-dweller is preoccupied with nothingness, and longs for death, which he sees as a door to nothingness. G. Wilson Knight argues convincingly that this nihilism is not the metaphysical tantrum of a spoilt man who has gotten his comeuppance, but the justifiable response of a disappointed idealist to the real and terrible flaws of the world. Timon's 'disillusioned hate' is the 'measure of his original love' for the world.

By ignoring Shakespeare's positive presentation of Timon the National Theatre has done its audiences a disservice. The tragedy of a good man in a fallen world has become a shallow satire of bourgeois credulousness; the cosmic meditations which a wilderness of waves and leaves inspired in Timon have become the irrational ramblings of a derelict who has no one but himself to blame for his fate.

There are many Timons in today's Greece. The men and women sleeping rough in the groves of the Academy are only a few of the hundreds of thousands of Greeks impoverished by the crisis that began in 2008. The nouveaux poor protest their fate in different ways. Some march and chant and confront policemen kitted out like American Football players on city streets paved with broken glass and illuminated by burning rubbish bins; others turn their anger inwards. Greece traditionally had one of the lowest suicide rates in Europe, but that has changed over the last four years. Dimitris Christoulas, who shot himself in the main public square of Athens last April, is perhaps the most famous of the hundreds of Greeks who have preferred death to the miseries of extreme poverty. Christoulas' suicide note is reproduced on his grave:

The government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid into for 35 years with no help from the state. I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life so that I don't find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.

In the media and parliaments of more prosperous European nations, there has been a tendency to attribute Greece's crisis to the supposedly intemperate and profligate character of its citizens. Greeks are blamed for borrowing too much money and buying too much during the good times that preceded the 2008 crash. Now that debts are being called in Greeks must, they are told, learn to be less greedy and to work harder.

But this sort of rhetoric ignores the role that Greek consumers played in making profits for banks and manufacturers in Germany and Britain and other wealthier nations in the first eight years of the noughties. Now that the debt bubble has burst, the banks are being bailed out and the manufacturers are being subsidised, while the workers of Greece and other nations are made to suffer.

The portrait of ordinary Greeks as greedy and lazy is also unjust. Many of the men and women who borrowed heavily before 2008 were intent on buying homes for their families. If they spent beyond their means, and ended up with mortgages they could not service, then it can be argued that, like Timon, they had honourable reasons for their profligacy. They may be guilty, like Timon, of underestimating the ruthlessness of financiers, but this failing is surely forgivable.

There are parallels, then, between the National Theatre's apparent distaste for Timon and the widespread contempt, amongst the establishments of nations like Britain, for the plight of today's Greeks. As much as I admire Ted Jenner's essay about his time in Greece, I can't agree with him about the latest Timon of Athens.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, February 01, 2013

Facebooking 'Atenisi

Although the 'Atenisi Institute has been open for business for nearly five decades in the western suburbs of Nuku'alofa, it has also existed as a sort of loose international intellectual movement dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking, Tongan democracy, and cross-cultural exchange. Former students and staff of 'Atenisi are distributed around the world, from Auckland to Sydney to Salt Lake City to London, and are active in universities, publishing houses, art galleries, and trade unions. Other supporters of 'Atenisi have never made it to the little campus on the edge of Nuku'alofa, but have become enthusiasts after discovering the writings of Futa Helu, or seeing Paul Janman's acclaimed movie Tongan Ark, or encountering an 'Atenisi-trained teacher like 'Okusi Mahina or 'Opeti Taliai in a seminar room or lecture theatre.

Recently I suggested to Sisi'uno Langi-Helu, Futa's daughter and the head of the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts, and 'Opeti Taliai, the new dean of the 'Atenisi Institute, that there ought to be an online forum where everyone interested in 'Atenisi can gather. Although a number of websites, including this blog, have hosted some interesting discussions about 'Atenisi-related subjects, especially in the wake of the release of Tongan Ark last year, they are the property of solitary individuals. With its decentralised, reader-driven character, a facebook group would, we decided, be a fine way of bringing together everyone active or interested in 'Atenisi.

I hope that some readers of this blog will join the new Friends of 'Atenisi facebook group. Here's the blurb I've put on the group's homepage:


This facebook group has been created to unite supporters of the 'Atenisi Institute, no matter where they live. We'll be posting news about events at 'Atenisi as well as old photos and texts by Futa Helu and other distinguished 'Atenisians. We're up for discussions about subjects like Tongan culture and society, the possibilities and problems of relating Polynesian and European traditions, the politics of Tonga and the wider South Pacific, Greek philosophy, Italian opera, Romantic poetry, and anything else related to the Institute, but it doesn't all have to be serious. Feel free to gossip and reminisce!


Nearly fifty years ago a young scholar named Futa Helu founded a school in a swamp on the edge of Nuku'alofa, and gave it the Tongan name for Athens. Despite poverty and persecution, the 'Atenisi Institute grew in the 1970s and '80s into one of the Pacific's most important intellectual centres, and in the '90s became the headquarters of Tonga's burgeoning pro-democracy movement. Young Tongans tired of the rote learning and authoritarianism of more traditional schools have gravitated to 'Atenisi's high school and tertiary courses, and palangi scholars excited by Futa Helu's vision of a fusion of European and Polynesian traditions have also flocked to the school, despite its meagre resources.

Without adhering to any single intellectual position, 'Atenisi's teachers and graduates have produced a large body of writing on subjects as different as Pacific sociology, physics, and Greek philosophy. The 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts has wowed audiences around the world with its mixture of Tongan and Western music, dance, and poetry.

Futa Helu died in 2010, but the school and tradition he founded live on. Paul Janman's new movie Tongan Ark, which tells the story of 'Atenisi, has been acclaimed by critics and audiences around Australasia and the Pacific, and a fresh selection of Futa Helu's writings was recently published in New Zealand.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]