Friday, April 24, 2015

The other von Sturmer

Since the early nineties, when I found a copy of Moments of Invention, Gregory O'Brien and Robert Cross' big, magical book about New Zealand writers, in my school library, I've known the name Richard von Sturmer. In Moments of Invention Richard was shown feeding ducks on the edge of Lake Pupuke and talking about the book of surreal prose poems he called We Xerox Your Zebras. His short yet spiky hair made him look like a punk, which he had been for a decade, and a Zen teacher, which he was becoming.

For the last twenty years I've followed Richard's career as a writer, actor, film maker, musician, and proponent of Zen, collecting small books with the exotic and resonant surname von Sturmer on their spines. Recently, though, I encountered a new von Sturmer.

Spencer William von Sturmer emigrated from Britain to New Zealand in 1855, and was soon performing a variety of administrative duties for the rickety colonial state. By the end of the 1860s von Sturmer was one of a small set of white men living beside Northland's Hokianga harbour. The government in faraway Wellington had appointed him the district's magistrate, coroner, customs officer, inspector of native schools, and chemist.

Von Sturmer was soon sharing drinks and books with Frederick Maning, a pioneer turned respectable gentleman and Native Land Court judge who is remembered today as the author of the memoir Old New Zealand, and John Webster, a survivor of Ben Boyd's psychotic attempt to build an empire in the tropical Pacific who had become improbably rich by milling the Hokianga's kauri forests.

I encountered Spencer von Sturmer during my research into the schoonerload of ni-Vanuatu who were, in 1870, removed from their homes on the island of Efate, brought to New Zealand, and put to work in the colony's flax mills. By 1871 at least twelve of these ni-Vanuatu were working at a mill in Waiarohia, near the southern head of the Hokianga harbour. As keeper of the district's drugs and inspector of its dead, Spencer was responsible for supplying an ailing ni-Vanuatu worker nicknamed Kuri with medicines, and for recording the man's eventual demise from consumption. Von Sturmer's services are mentioned in a report by the Auckland policeman John Thomson, who was sent to the Hokianga to investigate the welfare of the islanders after newspapers and the Governor of New Zealand had complained about the arrival of 'slavery' in the colony.

Von Sturmer, Maning, and Webster were all prolific epistolarists, and over the past few weeks I've been holing up in the Auckland's museum and its public library, and searching their texts for references to the ni-Vanuatu toiling at Waiarohia. Surely, I thought, John Webster, a man who once tried to conquer the Solomon Islands, would take an interest in the Melanesians who had arrived in his neighbourhood? Wouldn't Frederick Maning, who had a fascination with Maori culture, have been keen to report on the dances that the ni-Vanuatu apparently performed for their hosts? And wasn't it likely that Spencer von Sturmer, a man with a fondness for gossip, would have been intrigued and worried about the investigation that the colonial government launched into affairs at Waiarohia?

Unfortunately, though, I haven't found, in all those letterbooks, the briefest reference to the mill at Waiarohia, let alone an account of its inhabitants.

I e mailed Richard von Sturmer recently, and asked him whether he acknowledged Spencer as an ancestor; Richard explained that Spencer was his great-grandfather.

I'm not sure whether I'd want a famous great grandfather. Ancestors can, after all, be troublesome. Like small children, they make us feel responsible for their errors, even when we know we cannot correct their behaviour. Faced with the follies of their forebears - with bar brawls or wars started by a bout of pedantry or a drunken boast, and fortunes gambled and lost on a flax mill or stump farm - genealogists must learn the patient but critical manner familiar to parents and kindergarten teachers. It is easier to study someone else's ancestors.

I hope Richard won't mind too much if I post my favourite text from the oeuvre of Spencer von Sturmer. It was sent in 1871 to William Fox, the Premier of New Zealand.

My dear Sir,

I take the liberty of again troubling you -

The fact is that the inhabitants of this place, with very few exceptions, are given to excessive drinking, and of course all sorts of evils follow in its train. So bad has it become, that unless some change takes place in the habits of the people, I shall be compelled to leave the District, even though my living depends upon my remaining here, as my family are subject to every sort of annoyance from drunken people; as, though they never leave my own premises, still, it is impossible to drown the shouts and noise of thirty or forty, and sometimes more, drunken natives and Europeans, wrangling and fighting together.

The enclosed letter, from Mohi Tawhai, is just to hand. He requests me to caution - J.R. Clenden, J.P.; Capt. Rowntree, J.P.; and John Eryson, and other sellers of spirits, not to sell in large quantities to the natives, naming one in particular) belonging to his settlement.

Could not a J.P. be removed from the Commision of the Peace when he takes to selling spirits? or something be done to shame him? Capt. Rowntree does not himself hold a Licence, but the spirits are sold in his house by his brother-in-law.

Can nothing be done to alter the state of things here? I have spoken to Mr. Webster, and other J.P.'s in the District; and they would gladly assist in anything to prevent spirits coming into Hokianga, were it possible. Perhaps it would be in your power to assist us in some way, to bring about a better state of things here.

Should you think it possible that anything can be done to improve matters, would you kindly, when you have the opportunity, give me some appointment elsewhere, (keeping a Lighthouse would be better than staying here). I am not ambitious. Any situation in any Office that you think I could perform - anything to get away from this place; not so much on my own account, as on that of my wife and family.

I have no right to complain of the people here, either white or black. All are very kind - in fact, more so than I have a right to expect. The shocking dissipation is what I complain of. The Websters and Manings will, I am satisfied, corroborate all I say. They themselves live in isolated spots, so are not so much troubled. I should not have written to you, as I imagined you would have visited this place, in company with Mr. McLean; but Mr. Maning, (just returned) tells me you will not come, and so will not be able to see this delightful spot for yourself.

Please excuse this, and hoping that Mrs. Fox and yourself are well,

Believe me, dear Sir, 
Yours very faithfully (Signed) 
Spencer von Sturmer.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Facing south with Andrew Dean

[My spies tell me that Andrew Dean, who has been studying literature in Oxford since winning a Rhodes Scholarship in 2012, recently returned to his native South Canterbury, where he is once again wondering at the wide skies and contemplating the work of great southern scribblers like Charles Brasch and Kames K Baxter.

Dean has returned to New Zealand to launch his first book, Roger, Ruth and Me, which promises to examine the impact of the neo-liberal 'reforms' of the 1980s and '90s on a generation of young Kiwis.

I thought it was about time that I excavated and digitised an interview I did with Andrew in 2012, when I was guest editing an issue of the literary journal brief. I'd given my issue of brief the theme of Oceania, and I wanted to see how Andrew, as a son of the south, would respond to a word so often associated with lagoons and palm trees. The interview appeared in brief alongside Andrew's essay 'The Seeing Men: Paul Theroux and William Pember Reeves'.]

SH: You’re probably best known as the main contributor to keaandcattle, a Canterbury-based blog that features original literary work as well as some interesting analyses of New Zealand culture, but recently you’ve also distinguished yourself academically, by winning a Rhodes Scholarship and a major American scholarship on the strength of your researches into Kiwi literary history. How easy is it to reconcile academic work with blogging?

AD: At the moment, unfortunately, the scales are tipped in one direction – I last updated keaandcattle a month ago. Recently I’ve been holed up editing papers and working as a Business Analyst for the Digital Humanities project, UC CEISMIC (, which is the digital earthquake archive at the University of Canterbury.

I find it hard to write well on literary and political topics when I’m not involved in direct research. It’s out of close reading that I find the material for blogging. Yet blogging does have a special place for me: it’s engaged with a community, in a way that sitting in my office carefully unmixing my metaphors just isn’t. If research is at home in the office, blogging is at home in the pub: research and blogging, for me anyway, are part of the same academic and literary ecosystem.

It’s more than that, though. Academics in the humanities have a duty to be public intellectuals. We’ve been asleep at the wheel, I think, for a long time, while the society we thought we were responsible to has been dismantled around us. Publicly discussing history, literature and history – speaking back to Mark Sainsbury, in other words - admits at least one dark, fusty corner where considered analysis is still possible, where the possibility of change is still considered.
SH: You’ve written often from a distinctly South Island perspective, expressing an affinity for southern landscapes and for the work of southern writers like Charles Brasch. In one particularly interesting blog post you described holing up in a high country hut and reading through a pile of early issues of Landfall. Do you identify as a regionalist writer, and for that matter reader? Kendrick Smithyman once said that, for him, the South Island was a “foreign country”. Do you feel that way about the north?

AD: You’re using your (north-of-the-bombays) imagination – I couldn’t carry all those Landfalls up to a country hut! I’d break my (already fragile) shoulders!

To answer your question, I definitely identify as a southern reader. How can I not? When I was a child I never read New Zealand literature, and I was worse off for it: I didn’t have the literature bowling into a nor’wester at the close of play; I didn’t have the language to describe the oncoming front in July. What I was lacking was a literature of loneliness and isolation – the South Island Myth, in other words, however problematic its ideological operations.
As a writer – well that’s very much a work-in-progress. Inevitably, I am influenced by what I’ve been reading – everything from Pynchon to Curnow, Carver to Frame. Now all I’ve got to do is learn to write. And as for the North Island? It has a lot to answer for. People up that way eat in cafes rather than tearooms. I find it hard to orientate myself up there. Where are the mountains, which normally stare down at you from the end of the main road? Where are the soggy out-of-season asparagus rolls? It’s a different place alright, and I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable up there.

SH: How does the notion of the Pacific, or Oceania, look from the south of New Zealand? Can an alternative version of the notion perhaps found in a place like Christchurch, which has historic connections, through sea and air ports, with Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands? Do southern writers like Graham Billing advance a different understanding of the Pacific, when they describe the sub-Antarctic seas, and visits to Antarctica?

AD: How does it look? We don’t look north from here. That’s why our cities are built facing south. I mean how else can you explain Invercargill? Our understanding of the Pacific is very different. I remember reading a truly bizarre narrative by John Caselberg, which won the Landfall prose prize, in which he followed a water molecule from creation into eternity. The water headed south, into the wind and cold; it was swallowed by a skua; it turned into ice. It’s this constant troping of the environment as inimical to human habitation that marks southern literature, and, inevitably, that marks southern representations of the Pacific.
Of course, this aesthetic is deeply political. Heading south entails heading away from human habitation. Moving away from the Pacific, in which Pakeha are implicated in the history of colonialism, allows us to fantasize about a great southern terra nullius where these problems seemingly evaporate. If the South Island won’t do (those pesky Ngai Tahu keep getting in the way), then look at Antarctica instead, where the only indigenes are penguins.

The anxieties of settlement are pervasive in the south, and our literary energies are displaced upon the landscape – Allen Curnow, no less, commented upon the ‘Awareness of what great gloom / Stands in a land of settlers / With never a soul at home.’ The northern Pacific, in the end, doesn’t get much of a look in as we busily produce our myths about the south.

SH: You’re off to Oxford later this year, to take up your Rhodes scholarship. What lines of research do you hope to pursue there? Do you feel an affinity with some of the Rhodes scholars of the past, like the group of young men whose fateful lives were described in James McNeish’s Dance of the Peacocks?

AD: At Oxford I have applied to undertake an M. St. in English (1900-present), which is a one year taught masters. This is a preparation course for the D. Phil., which I intend to undertake immediately upon completing the M. St. I plan to focus upon the life-writing of women writers, such as Janet Frame, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. My interest is in the way that writers with such a high autobiographical quotient to their fiction work through experience; I’m not an essentialist seeking to locate the ‘skeleton in the oedipal closet’, rather I want to find sensitive ways to read and write about writing subjectivities.
I actually read Dance of the Peacocks when I was preparing to fly to Wellington for the Rhodes interview. Jim Bertram, Geoffrey Cox, Dan Davin and Ian Milner went over Rhodes Scholars, while Charles Brasch and John Mulgan went over separately. They were all very influential in New Zealand letters. They are an inspiration. In getting such an incredible opportunity I feel that I have a responsibility, not only to New Zealand but those who have gone before and who, with the exception of Milner, achieved so much of value, and who, again with the exception of Milner, showed such integrity.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, April 13, 2015

A gun turret, an airplane, and an imaginary obelisk

My mates Paul Janman and Ian Powell will be appearing on a panel between six and eight o'clock tomorrow evening at Papakura Art Gallery, as they help Martin Langdon and Jonathan Jones discuss an exhibition called Shared Endeavour. Paul and Ian shot some of the film that accompanies Shared Endeavour along the Papakura stretch of the Great South Road, and Paul will apparently talk tomorrow night about some of the studies of the road and its history that he and Ian and I have been doing over the past couple of years.

Paul sent me some of Ian's marvellous photographs of the Great South Road and its environs this morning, and told me he was thinking of showing them tomorrow night. Here are three of the photographs (click to enlarge them), along with my annotations.

The Mercer memorial
The Pioneer was a paddlesteamer that spent parts of 1863 and '64 shelled the fortresses of Meremere and Rangiriri from the Waikato River, and supplying the British and colonial troops who had invaded the realm of the Maori king Tawhiao. The ship was wrecked shortly after the end of the Waikato War, but its turrets were preserved, and one of them was eventually planted in the middle of Mercer, a settler town built close to the border that Pakeha forces had crossed at the beginning of the conflict. The names of local men who fought in the First World War were carved into a plaque, and the plaque was welded to the turret. A badly carved and unhealthily pale soldier, clad in the functional khaki of twentieth century warfare, slouches over the turret like some exhausted sentry. 
The Mercer memorial embodies some of the contradictions of New Zealand history. It was made from a relic of the Waikato War, yet it names and celebrates the veterans of another, distant war. 
This country's contributions to the global wars of the twentieth century are remembered with ever-increasing piety on Anzac Day. Like Papuan storekeepers and loggers donning old masks for a festival or tourist ship, accountants and Kiwis who have never handled rifles stand to attention in their grandfathers' medals. 
But New Zealand would never have joined the famous battles of the twentieth century if it were not for the skirmishes and sieges that were fought on half-forgotten ridges and riverbanks in regions like the Waikato. The first Anzacs died not at Gallipoli but at Mauku, a settler village near the mouth of the Waikato where Australian volunteers joined colonial troops in a shootout with one of Tawhiao's guerrilla units. The New Zaland army was built during the New Zealand Wars, and the men who joined its ranks in the twentieth century were often sons and grandsons of the soldier-settlers who founded towns like Mercer on land they took from Maori. 
Just as the struggle between Pakeha and Maori is the half-acknowledged foundation of modern New Zealand, so the gun turret at Mercer is the barely acknowledged foundation on which one of the sacred events of modern New Zealand history is recorded. 
Paul Janman, Ian Powell and I had gone to Mercer looking for the Railway Hotel, where the prophet and guerrilla warrior Te Kooti spent a night in 1889, during his police-supervised journey between Auckland and the backblocks of Te Ika a Maui. Te Kooti, who had just been released from Mount Eden prison, was old and sick; as he left Mercer local Pakeha children chased his carriage, gawking at his heaving chest. 
We soon learned that the Railway Hotel had been removed across the Koheroa Hills to a former farm - a flat, treeless place - where parachutists like to land. Backpackers recovering from skydives have inherited the room where Te Kooti tried to sleep. 
After the departure of the hotel, Mercer's drinkers resorted to the Last Post Tavern, which seems to have been less a tavern than a few bar stools propped against the back of a liquor shop. When we visited, the Last Post had just been renamed Podge's Place after its new owner, a fat and joyless migrant from the somewhere south of the Waikato. Paul asked whether we could photograph of the signboards of the old pub, before Podge repainted them; Podge sneered and shrugged. 
Ian Powell's photograph makes Mercer's war memorial suddenly strange. He ignores the list of war veterans and the khaki soldier, and instead shows us the metal of that forgotten gun-turret curving away towards those soon-to-erased words Last Post. Powell makes us wonder whether the name of Mercer's boozer referred to the old British tune that buglers play beside war memorials every Anzac Day, or whether it might have held a memory of Mercer's history as a settlement on the borderlands of the British Empire. 
The grounded airplane at Ardmore 
Whenever I see Ian Powell's photograph of this air freighter, which was born too late for the greatest conflagrations of the twentieth century and had to content itself with carrying diplomats and politicians between the occupied cities of Japan, I think, a little sadly, of the Italian Futurist Marinetti, and his belief that modern engineers and aviators had created mechanised and aerodynamic incarnations of the angels described in the Bible. 
Ian, Paul and I found this obsolete angel in an unkempt paddock near the main runway of Ardmore airport. Kendrick Smithyman arrived at Ardmore in 1942, shortly after that runway had been laid. The young poet was supposed to learn how to shoot down planes, but after watching a silent, savage film in the base's rec room he converted, and requested a transfer to the air force. In a poem written four decades later, near the end of his life, Smithyman remembered that the film had been made by pilot who strapped a camera to his plane and then flew into a dogfight. As the camera jumped excitedly and the sky filled with flak and falling planes, beauty and horror suddenly fused, and Smithyman, like Marinetti before him, imagined war as a new and superior form of art. 
Smithyman would soon witness a series of deadly crashes, and develop a lifelong fear of the air. After retirement, the freighter was apparently used for the meetings of a group of Air Scouts, but was eventually abandoned. Ian's photograph contrasts the stolidly rusting metal of the grounded angel with a sky where clouds are performing manoeuvres. On internet fora, the sort of folks who show off microlight spitfires and mosquitoes at air shows have sometimes discussed the logistics of restoring and relaunching the plane. 
Today it is antiquarians rather than Futurists who enthuse about flight. 
The 'Bombay Obelisk'
Using the infinitely flexible unit of measurement he calls a 'geomancer's mile', Mormon missionary turned 'archaeoastronomer' Martin Doutre discovered that the 'Bombay Obelisk', a pile of volcanic rocks that adorn a hill on the southern edge of Auckland, was part of a chain of ancient and supersophisticated solar observatories that covered the length of New Zealand and extended to Easter Island and South America. The 'obelisk' was raised, Doutre insists, by the whitefolk who were New Zealand's true tangata whenua, and who were later driven from their cities and farms by a few vakaloads of Polynesians. Doutre's ancient and erudite New Zealanders supposedly gouged and scratched the sides of the 'obelisk' with the letters and words of their inscrutable language. 
Ian Powell's photograph deflates Doutre's speculations as surely as any archaeological report. Where Doutre's photographs of his 'obelisk' tend to remove it from its surroundings, and make it appear impressively tall and wide, Powell takes several long steps backwards and shows the object in its context. Instead of the monument of a lost civilisation Powell gives us a few stones on a low hill. The 'obelisk' is scarcely more impressive than the telephone poles that stride down the hill toward a shard of motorway. 
Powell's photograph has a pathos that reminds me of Laurence Aberhart's portraits of the decaying halls and churches of New Zealand's countryside. Like the colonial architects who gave mock pillars and miniature gothic spires to their modest wooden buildings, Doutre is desperate to see Europe in New Zealand. With their age and scale and white authors, the monuments of Europe comfort him, especially when they are imagined against the strange hinterland of New Zealand, with its razorback hills and silent bush and brown swamps and inscrutable, rain-eroded earthworks. But colonial replicas of the Old World only emphasise the colonial's distance from that world. They are as sad and fragile as the diorama villages of museums. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Grunge pastoral: six photographs in lieu of a post

Action has been sparse on this blog because I've been enjoying Easter in the farmland, swamps, harbours, and forests that surround Auckland like some vast and patient army.

The kids and I have spent some of our time on my parents' farm, where I took these photographs. Every year, Fonterra publishes a calendar filled with shiny photographs of the landscapes and machinery of New Zealand farms. Why, I wonder, do they never send their cameraman to my parents' place?

I've thrown in a sneaky, poor quality snapshot of Charles Tole's 1981 masterpiece Power Station, which is part of Waikato Museum's exhibition of artworks temporarily liberated from the collection of Fletcher Challenge Ltd.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]