Saturday, March 09, 2013

A message from Venus

When I was a kid one of my favourite books was an illustrated novel called Kings of Space, in which WE Johns, the incorrigibly jingoistic but occasionally visionary creator of that arch-imperialist schoolboy Biggles, sends a team of doughty Britons to Venus and Mars in a flying saucer cobbled together by an eccentric inventor.

Johns depicts Mars as a desert world of empty cities and red winds, but his Venus is a realm of steaming swamps, endless rain, and very muddy dinosaurs. When the Brits emerge from their saucer onto this febrile world, they are almost knocked down by the size and force of the raindrops that strike every inch of their bodies. The rain is so heavy and so relentless that Johns' characters fear they will drown if they spend too long on the green planet.

I've been thinking about WE Johns' Venus for the last couple of weeks, as rain has fallen, morning, noon and night, on Nuku'alofa, and on the rest of the soggy island of Tongatapu. At first the rain, which is amplified very effectively by Nuku'alofa's corrugated architecture, was an exotic novelty, a reminder that we had left the dry summer of temperate New Zealand behind and arrived on an accredited tropical island. After three or four days, though, the rain had become oppressive, like a melancholy but talkative friend who insisted on hanging about.

After five or six days, the rain had become a normal, predictable feature of life in this city, like the utes that speed up from the docks in the early evening full of fresh fish and salesmen blowing whistles, or the evening prayers on public television. After fourteen days, I am disinclined to believe in the finitude of the storm falling on us. The notion that the rain will stop falling and the sky lighten to blue seems theoretical, at best.

If this storm were falling on a New Zealand city, then a state of emergency would long ago have been declared. The puddles the size of Olympic swimming pools that cover roads and yards would have been drained like wounds; the houses where dirty water waits at the door, like a sinister and persistent salesman, would be defended by sandbags. In Nuku'alofa, though, people adapt to the weather, rather than resist it. I'm sitting at my dining table, while 'Opeti Taliai delivers a lecture on Karl Marx's theory of history to a group of 'Atenisi students who have sloshed down deluged streets to get to our lounge. This morning I offered lectures on Creative Writing and Modern Pacific History in the same cosy space. The campus of the 'Atenisi Institute is underwater, and closed until further notice. Sisi'uno and Atolomake Helu, who live between lily-covered ponds on the outskirts of the campus, have decamped with their five lovely kids to the upstairs section of our house. Other refugees are settling into a church hall down the road. 'Aikilisi Pohiva, the long-time leader of Tonga's pro-democracy movement, has been spotted driving his modest car through the drainless flooded streets of Nuku'alofa's low-lying suburbs, and newspapers have begun to criticise the government for allowing so much of its capital to turn into a lake.

Humans may be suffering from the storm, but hogs are prospering. Tonga's hogs have always been arrogant and intractable. In the Vava'u Code of 1839, the country's first written set of laws, Taufa'ahau, who was soon to be the first king of the modern unified state of Tonga, insisted that hogs be kept in pens, and thus prevented from blocking thoroughfares and rampaging through plantations. Fines were prescribed for Tongans who failed to restrain their pigs. One hundred and seventy-four years later, hogs still roam unhindered through Tonga's towns, villages and countryside. The current storm has emboldened the beasts, so that they slosh impudently into the path of vehicles, rub their tusks against church fences, and grunt lasciviously at passing humans. I fear open insurrection.

Here's a sort of rain-journal I've been keeping:

Notes in a Rainy Season

you're trying to teach me Tongan, Lose,
but all I've heard, for a fortnight,
is the iron
of rain
on Kolomotu'an rooves


"all this bad weather see
it comes from
Samoa, along with a
a fleet


when the rain changes gear
the taxis change gear


rain filling potholes
the government wouldn't mend


potholes like
licked clean
by Kolomotu'a's


at three o'clock
onto the wrong side
of the mosquito net,
hearing the wind land its waves
on our bedroom wall
I wonder:

what happens
to the floodwater
in old newspaper photos,
to the mint-green oceans
on a wall-chart
in a derilect school:

do they ever drain?


days! on
like that drunken
Wesleyan deacon
Deuteronomy -


Folaha's church fights back,
fires pigeons
from its cannon-spire
into an enemy cloud


lying on our porch
looking out at the rain
the 'Atenisi boys play AC/DC
Van Halen
in the lamplit distance
coconut trees shake their heads
like metallers in a mosh pit


half-asleep, kept
by mosquitoes,
I dream
that the creatures
are not malevolent,
not even neutral,
but allies,
buzzing from one wound
to the next,
as well as looting,
mixing the blood of men
and women
of brown
affirming the oneness
of humanity:


later, fully asleep,
I dream
I am awake,
swinging a stone
axe, esiki,
at the insects,
who swarm
and disperse
in my study,
briefly shaping
the characters
of an unknown language


this church is like a sick man
trying endlessly to clear his throat:
water goes noisily through its gutters,
then falls six feet
onto consecrated ground -


into a mudpool
where hogs rear
like rampant lions

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

kia ora ra,great to read about your new life in Tonga. You and Atenisi sound like a match made in heaven! learning doesn't stop even with the deluge, you just move Karl Marx to the dining table. Look forward to reading more. Nga mihi, Leanne

5:02 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Good post - good poems Scott. Strange it is so dry here and so wet there.

I used to read Biggles as a boy. Never knew W. E. Johns wrote Sci Fi.

Mosquitoes kill more people than any other animal by the way. Especially in the tropics etc

Good you are over there, easy to talk about others in other places but harder to actually live in similar circumstances to them and where they are.

Karl Marx and Orwell are abroad it seems - when you hear a chant of "Two legs good..." etc then watch out!

Sounds as though, before Jones is overthrown, you could have bacon and eggs for breakfast or lunch now and then!

Regards, Richard

11:24 pm  
Blogger Rachel Fenton said...

Beautiful description of rain on iron roofs, Scott. Really enjoyed this poem and post.

I wish I could spend time there myself, though doubt the place needs a pondering pomme any more than another mosquito.

1:11 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks folks. The rain has finally stopped, and today we have near-perfect weather in Nuku'alofa - the temperature must be in the mid-twenties, a breeze is blowing off the sea, and the vast puddles are very slowly shrinking, though most of the 'Atenisi campus is still underwater. Fingers crossed this fine spell lasts...

3:34 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

And come on up Rachel! You can talk with my Creative Writing class about writing in a minority language!

We have Murray Edmond heading up in the second week of June, and I'm hopeful that Richard Von Sturmer and one or two others will also make the trip...

3:35 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Your posting reminds me of the books my brother used to read fifty-odd years ago.

They had titles like "Doctor From Tanganyika" - and were quite possibly the last literary gasp of a rapidly shrinking British Empire.

Even so, they inspired him to join the Volunteer Service Abroad scheme - which promptly sent him to Thailand, where he taught children English and watched black, unmarked B-52s heave themselves into the sky from the nearby US airbase en route to their secret bombing targets in Cambodia.

He would send the family back letters that contained the same combination of familiarity and exoticism as your marvellous posting.

He didn't give us poerty though, Scott.

Looking forward to the next installment.

10:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the poem. Your poems always surprise. Iron dialect is lovely, and the church clearing its throat. Keep on poemizing through the rains ... cheers this St Paddy's Day. the (bill direen)

11:16 pm  

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