Thursday, January 29, 2015

From Rushdie to Catton

After condemning New Zealand's National government at the recent Jaipur Literary Festival, Eleanor Catton has been called a 'traitor' by talkback radio host Sean Plunkett, and has been the target of a creepily avuncular open letter from National Party psephologist David Farrar.

Like Plunkett, Farrar thinks that Catton ought not to have brought her politics to Jaipur:

We don’t tend to mind criticism at home, but we do get worked up, when people knock their country overseas...Your choice of forum to talk politics is perhaps not the best. A campaign launch is an excellent choice to talk politics. A global literary festival seems rather inappropriate for you to rage against the so called neo-liberal agenda in New Zealand...

If an All Black in 2008 had got up at an international test match and devoted his after match comments to how much he hated the nanny state policies of the then Labour Government, well they would have been criticised greatly also.

Catton became widely known in New Zealand when her novel The Luminaries was awarded the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is perhaps the most famous of all the novels to win the Booker, and there’s an interesting similarity between the responses that the young Rushdie got in the aftermath of his victory in 1981 and the criticism that Catton is copping now.

Midnight’s Children led readers through the modern history of India, and as soon as it took out the Booker Prize Rushdie was being asked for his opinion about the political situation of his homeland. Then as now, Rushdie was not afraid of offering opinions. In an impromptu speech at the dinner where the Booker was awarded, he mocked the Congress Party regime of Indira Gandhi and suggested that she and her diplomatic representatives in London should not try to associate themselves with his success.

Long before he upset Islamic fundamentalists with The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had become a hate figure for the Congress Party and the Indian political establishment. Like Catton, he was condemned as a traitor, because he criticised his country's government in front of foreign audiences.

But Rushdie kept expressing his opinions, whenever he turned up to a book festival or gave an interview, for the same reason that Catton will surely keep expressing her opinions. Despite what Farrar implicitly claims, literature is not some some sort of harmless and meaningless game, like rugby or chess or marbles, that can be pursued and discussed in isolation from the rest of the world. Ever since Aristophanes attacked the political establishment of Athens and Petronious satirised Rome’s ruling class, literature has been a place where the world is examined and judged, and where ideas, including political ideas, contend and quarrel.

Eleanor Catton was invited to the Jaipur festival to discuss the long and ambitious novel she wrote about New Zealand. It is hardly surprising that the festival's organisers and audiences were interested in her opinions about New Zealand society. When he suggests that Catton should have avoided any discussion of her homeland's political and economic situation, and instead offered up some of the cliches and platitudes that dominate speeches at sports awards dinners, David Farrar shows how little he knows about literature and the men and women who produce and read literature. 

New Zealand’s writers have long been critical of their society and its various governments. James K Baxter called New Zealand a ‘sick society’, and Auckland a ‘great arsehole'; RAK Mason denounced this country as a ‘far-pitched place’ where poets had a ‘perilous existence'; Frank Sargeson compared his studies of Kiwi life to reports composed for a sewage board. When they scrutinise and criticise their own society, our writers show loyalty to the critical values nurtured thousands of years ago by scribblers like Aristophanes, and their disloyalty to political elites and their shibboleths.

In 2012 Salman Rushdie was forced to cancel an appearance at the Jaipur festival after his Indian enemies once again denounced him, and eventually threatened violence if he were allowed to take the stage. It is sad that the aftermath of this year's festival has seen prominent and powerful New Zealanders aiming denunciations at one of their own writers.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Josiah Firth made an estate in the conquered Waikato; his folly has the narrow paranoid eyes of a watchtower.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Road works

The machines at Rangiriri are as neutral as well-trained beasts. Herds of bulldozers have been ordered to expand the road through King Tawhiao's old fortress, and the site of the Waikato War's decisive battle, into a four-lane expressway, and so they work through the afternoon heat, uprooting daisies and fenceposts, burying ancient musketballs and infant snails. An asphalting machine follows them, grunting and oozing a thick black liquid; my son perhaps mistook it for a wounded dinosaur.
One hundred and fifty-one years ago, in the aftermath of the battle for Rangiriri, work gangs pushed through the gaps that artillery and infantry charges had made in Tawhiao's earth walls, flattened the earth, and emptied bags of gravel. The Great South Road moved further south. Only a few metres of the Maori fort were preserved, close to the Waikato River. On the other side of the new road, beside the hotel that had opened for travellers, a cemetery holding the remains of Maori and Pakeha killed in the battle - the Pakeha got individual headstones, while Maori were put into a mass grave topped by a grassy mound - was tolerated.

In New Zealand, the destruction and preservation of history often occur simultaneously. The construction of roads and large buildings adds to our knowledge of the past, because surveyors and builders are obligated to call in archaeologists before they begin their depredations. The interesting thing is carefully recorded, and then efficiently destroyed.

A team of archaeologists excavated the land where the new freeway will flow, and discovered a pa built long before the battle of Rangiriri; another layer has been added to the history of the site. The small reserve around the remnant fragment of earthworks has also been tidied up, and given a new set of signboards and a ceremonial arch.

Despite all these enlightened activities, I can't help but feel there's something barbarous about the way our nation's most important road runs right over the fortifications built to stop the roadbuilders and landgrabbers who started the Waikato War. It is as though the men who pushed the road through Rangiriri wanted the invasion of the Waikato to be repeated endlessly, by generations of bullock wagons and Morris Minors and Sunny Datsuns.

The bulldozers, though, are neutral. If their orders only changed, they would contentedly plough up the expressway, and gouge new rifle and kumara pits in the riverside soil, and dig new trenches in which a new army of invaders could stumble and bleed.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Crossing a border

On the edge of the Maungakawa Hills a secret border can be crossed. To the west of the border are the dairy and horse farms of the central Waikato, and the oak-lined streets and picket fences of the meticulously fabricated town of Cambridge. To the east of the border are plantations of ragwort and sickly radiata, scrubcutters' huts shedding weatherboard panels, unvisited parks filled with convalescing forests, and small quarries, with their rows of empty graves and piles of lime and shingle.
On one side of the border is the flat land that was confiscated after the conquest of King Tawhiao's realm a century and a half ago; on the other side is the rougher country where Tawhiao's supporters repaired to build a parliament, which was almost powerless outside the Maungakawas, and to print their own money, which went unacknowledged by Pakeha stores and banks. 
To cross this border is to exchange one sort of geometry for another. The conquerors of the Waikato made the straight line into a tool and symbol of their rule. Ancient paths that curved cautiously up hills and around swamps were replaced by relentlessly straight roads, just as the scruffy stone walls that had demarcated and heated fields of kumara were replaced by hedges of hawthorn and blackberry so straight and neat that they might have been rows of soldiers standing at attention. Even water was made to march in straight lines, as creeks and rivers were demoted to drains and canals, and given the same routes as roads. Theodolites were set up like canons on the ruins of captured pa; forests fell and swamps retreated before their fire. The panoptic geometry of Descartes, with its windswept horizontal lines and its escape-proof rectangular ceilings, was raised over the empire's new conquest. 
Beyond the confiscation line, though, roads and fencelines that had been stubbornly straight become kinked and curved. Bands of kanuka and karaka sneak into paddocks, reconnoitring for the forests that have their strongholds on the summits of the Maungakawas. Creeks that had been as still as goldfish ponds on the plains suddenly roar like unmuffled motorbikes.
We were travelling in a two car convoy. I was sitting in the navigator's seat of the lead vehicle, brushing potato crisps into the margins of my father-in-law's road atlas and arguing with him about the best road - the slowest, most elaborately curved, least travelled road - to take over the Maungakawas, when we were beeped by my wife and mother-in-law, who were following sceptically with the kids. The youngest member of our party needed breastfeeding, so we all parked near a bridge at the bottom of one of the first sizeable hills in the range. Kanuka and karaka scrambled halfway down the slope towards us, then seemed to lose their nerve. A homemade sign at the end of a gravel drive offered access to a maze-garden for a price that must have been designed to maintain the owner's privacy.
I walked with my older son to the bridge, so that we could throw stones into its creek, which had found its voice as it poured excitedly over boulders. Aneirin was most interested, though, in the vehicles that were curving their ways out of the plain and into the hills. A tour bus, empty except for its grinning driver. Two late model SUVs, so pedantically clean that they must belong to daytrippers from Hamilton. A vintage Chevrolet, whose new engine and shiny purple paint job seemed, like the lycra-clad septegeneurian cyclists who clog Auckland's waterfront roads, like vulgar denials of the passage of time. "Cars are brooming like the water" Aneirin said, as he added a stone to the creek. We had crossed a border. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Charlie Hebdo in ancient Greece

In the aftermath of the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a number of right-wing commentators in the West have faced a dilemma. On the one hand, these commentators hate Charlie Hebdo for the cartoons it publishes poking fun at nuns and priests and Christianity; on the other hand, they also hate Muslims, and can see that the massacre offers a good opportunity for a bit of anti-Muslim propaganda.

It's always fascinating to see one prejudice battling another, contrary prejudice in the mind of a bigot.

In an online magazine (mis)named American Thinker, Selwyn Duke has tried to reconcile his distaste for the godless liberals who publish Charlie Hebdo with his contempt for Muslims. According to Duke, the attack on Charlie Hebdo showed the true nature of Islam, and should be condemned. But we shouldn't, Duke insists, forget that Charlie Hebdo 'was an enemy of Western civilisation'.

Duke's words might be true, if we equate Western civilisation with religious authority. But if we understand Western civilisation in terms of reason and argument and art and freedom of speech, then we need only look to the ancient Greeks to find parallels with the provocations of Charlie Hebdo.

In their different ways, philosophers like Diogenes and Socrates and writers like Aristophanes ridiculed the gods of their own society as relentlessly as Charlie Hebdo has attacked the religions of the twenty-first century. At a festival in the fifth century BC, Aristophanes presented his play The Frogs, which made audiences laugh by putting the god Dionysus onstage in a costume of buskin boots, a saffron cloak, and a lion skin, and sending him on a bumbling adventure through the underworld.

Aristophanes would surely be amazed that, nearly two and a half thousand years after he staged The Frogs, so many human beings spend so much time worrying about the proclamations of religious fundamentalists.

When he founded a school called ‘Atenisi, or Athens, on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa fifty years ago, the Tongan philosopher Futa Helu argued that his society needed to learn from the free thinking of the ancient Greeks. Today, I would argue, the whole world needs the spirit of Aristophanes.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Caching in the sunshine

Who needs to lie on the beach this summer, when there's geocaching to be done beside the roads and on the bridges of our largest city? Here's Paul Janman giving my oldest lad a lecture about the occult science known as GPS, during a recent geocaching mission down Auckland's Great South Road. Paul and I were replenishing the treasure boxes we stashed along the road as part of last year's A Sense of Place exhibition.
As well as filling ice cream containers with goodies and hiding them under convenient bricks and bridges, Paul showed Aneirin how to locate other people's geocaches. Under his avuncular gaze, Aneirin pulled a small box from a hollow tree on Pukekawa, the green and pleasant volcano in Auckland's Domain. The box contained a tiny replica of Mercury; its distance from Auckland's central business district was supposed to simulate the distance of that planet from the sun. At Mutukaroa, the vast traffic island just north of Otahuhu, Paul and Echo's kids Cosmo and Linton helped stash a cache; you can find coordinates for the treasure, and the comments of a few treasure
hunters, on this page.
Further down the Great South Road, Paul and I stopped to check on the geocache we left at Southdown Park, a rat-ridden maze of overgrown shrubs that sits between half-demolished slaughterhouses and the mud of the upper Manukau harbour. The park's entrances had been sealed, after asbestos was detected amidst its greenery. The ruins of the future have turned toxic. We've had to abandon our Southdown box, but the cache that we left on Mangere Bridge as part of the recent Other Waters festival seems to be doing good business.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, January 05, 2015

Mi go long skul Bislama

Here's the cover of Terry Crowley's Bislama Dictionary, which my parents-in-law very kindly gave me for Christmas. Bislama is a creole that was invented by ni-Vanuatu labourers who were put to work on Queensland sugar plantations in the nineteenth century; today it is used as a sort of lingua franca in Vanuatu, a nation whose quarter of a million inhabitants speak at least one hundred and ten different autochthonous languages. 

Most of the vocabulary of Bislama comes from the English that was spoken in the Queensland bush and on sailing ships - 'savvy', which was a favourite word of the Carribean pirate and Johnny Depp lookalike Jack Sparrow, has found its way in - but the language's grammar is, linguists say, distinctively Melanesian. Words are spelt as they are pronounced, so that, for instance, Queensland becomes Kwinslan, and intricate metaphors are common - 'basket blong pikanini' (basket belonging to a child), for instance, is Bislama for womb. 'Mi go long skul!' means I'm going to study!
I'm going to study Bislama because I want to visit Vanuatu later this year, and meet some of the descendants of the ni-Vanuatu who were taken to New Zealand as indentured labourers in 1870. With help from the marvellous genealogist Christine Liava'a, I've been tracking these men through the newspapers and government archives of colonial New Zealand, and hope to include them in the book about blackbirding that I'll be writing this year.

Thanks to the erratic magic of the internet, it is now possible to visit even some of the fustiest documents of the nineteenth century from the comfort of a living room couch. While my older son has watched cartoons and recovered from his Christmas chocolate binge, I've been diving into newspaper archives like Papers Past and Trove, and pursuing leaky schooners and febrile, rum and blood-stained planters and traders across the Pacific of the 1870s.

There are uncanny parallels and contrasts between the piece of history I've been exploring and the present I inhabit. I look up from an account of the kidnapping and killing spree of Bully Hayes, the Pacific's most notorious pirate, to find my son watching a cartoon about a loveable old mariner with an eyepatch and a parrot on his shoulder. I read about the Melanesians found naked and dying in the locked and waterlogged hold of an Auckland schooner abandoned in the Gulf of Carpenteria, then check a news site and see photographs of scores of Africans adrift on a glorified lifeboat in the Mediterranean.

As William Morris said, the past is not even past.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]