Saturday, February 27, 2016

Who speaks for Ruatoria?

A couple of weeks ago I included Ngati Dread, Angus Gillies' three volume account of the murderous clashes between Rastafarians, conservative farmers, and cops in 1980s Ruatoria, in my list of great New Zealand works of non-fiction. 

Ngati Dread took a decade to research, and includes long, often unexpurgated interviews with numerous survivors of the violence of the '80s, as well as many pages lifted from court transcripts. 

Steve Braunias read Ngati Dread, and was excited enough to celebrate it over at The Spinoff. Braunias did a long and fascinating interview with Gillies, commissioned a review of Ngati Dread by Talia Marshall, and ran an excerpt from the book's first volume. 

As Braunias concedes in a new post at The Spinoff, though, not everyone shares his enthusiasm for Ngati Dread. In a series of messages to Braunias, the Ruatorian Kiri Dell questioned Gillies' probity and prose style, complaining that:

Clearly this whole thing lacks a concern about people and is a focus on book sales...This is not your story to tell, it is our story. These books are terribly written and the interview skills weak, bias and leading...Why do white people write about us? Ask yourself Angus, who are you serving by writing these books? 

Braunias had commissioned a piece about twenty-first century Ruatoria, but its unnamed author got cold feet, explaining that: 

I've seen a range of reactions from locals to the Angus interview, some negative but some less so. I'm not sure it's culturally insensitive - just basic human dignity insensitive and unethical, it's really no one else's story to tell, so if the community doesn't want to tell it, then leave it alone until they are ready to share it - or not.  

Here's a comment that I left at The Spinoff

According to the anonymous writer who withdrew a piece from The Spinoff, the story of the Rasta uprising of the 1980s should only be told when 'the community' of Ruatoria and surrounding areas is 'ready' to tell it. According to Kiri Dell, the Ruatoria community should be able to be able to tell its own story, 'in its own words' and from 'its own eyes'. 

Both of these comments imply that the community of Ruatoria has a single perspective on the past, and a single way of talking about that past. Both commenters suggest that, simply because some inhabitants of the area disagree with what Angus Gillies has written in Ngati Dread, Gillies' book must be untruthful and his methods unethical. 

What Ngati Dread and other accounts of the Rasta uprising of the 1980s surely show us, though, is that Ruatoria in particular and the East Coast in general are not communities whose people think alike, but rather sites of long-running conflict. 

The Rasta uprising was a conflict inside Ngati Porou, as much as between Maori and Pakeha. As Angus Gillies notes in his interview with The Spinoff, the leader of the Rastafarians was killed by his own cousin. 

When they hailed Te Kooti as a prophet of their religion, the Rastas invoked the memory of the Ngati Porou civil war of 1865-66, which saw adherents of the anti-colonial Pai Marire faith defeated by a conservative faction of the iwi intent on making alliances with the colonial government and the British Empire. Te Kooti became identified with the Pai Marire rebels, and began his own war against Ngati Porou's conservatives after escaping from the Chatham Islands, where he had been imprisoned with other rebels. 

In the twentieth century conservative leaders of Ngati Porou like Apirana Ngata had immense influence over government policy toward Maori. They worked to stymie new rebels against colonial authority, like Rua Kenana in the Ureweras. Only a decade ago Ngati Porou's leaders helped to weaken the pan-iwi movement against Labour's seabed and foreshore legislation by making a deal with the government. 

The Rastafarian movement can be considered, in part, as a renewal of the nineteenth century revolts against Ngati Porou's leaders. It is significant that some of the mentors of the movement, like Sue Nikora, have been involved in the attempts of dissatisfied hapu to secede from Ngati Porou. In Potaka and around the East Cape, near the edges of Ngati Porou authority, rebellious hapu have over the last decade declared their independence not only from the iwi leadership but from the state of New Zealand. These rebels have made their own Treaty claims. 

Given their place in a long and continuing history of conflict, is it really reasonable to expect that the events of the 1980s would be interpreted in a single way by the Ruatoria community? Do other communities with a history of conflict view and discuss their history without disagreement? 

The list of fifty great books about Maori compiled for The Spinoff by Te Roopu Haututu included Redemption Songs, Judith Binney's epic biography of Te Kooti, and Michael King's famous account of the life of Princess Te Puea. But when Redemption Songs was published twenty years ago it was received with anger as well as acclaim, because Maori as well as Pakeha descendants of some of the victims of Te Kooti's military campaigns considered that Binney had been too sympathetic to her subject. And although King's portrait was admired by many supporters of the Kingitanga, some of the hapu of the lower Waikato were very upset by the historian's decision to take the side of Te Puea against their more conservative, pro-Crown ancestors. 

It is not only in Maori communities that conflict over the interpretation of the past persists. I grew up in Franklin, down the road from the farms of the Crewe and Thomas families, and remember the bewilderment and anger that the murder of the Crewes and police frame-up of Arthur Alan Thomas caused in a small and conservative rural community. 

Steve Braunias discusses the murders and their psychic effects in a chapter of his book Civilisation. I admired the chapter, and showed it to my mother. She liked it too, but another local disliked Braunias' tone and assertions. The different opinions of Braunias' text did not surprise me: Franklin is still divided by the Crewe killings, with different families favouring different theories about the event, and the families of the cops who framed Thomas still trying quixotically to rehabilitate their kin. None of the many books about the Crewe murders has been received with unanimity in Franklin.

If the rules that Kiri Dell and the anonymous would-be writer for The Spinoff suggest were adopted, then the writing of history would become impossible. No community speaks with one voice, and interprets its past in one way.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Cruising the Point

Last Thursday I rode a bus up and down Point Chevalier with thirty or so local historians. Jenny Wilton, a secretary of the Point Chevalier Local History Society, had asked me to take her members on a tour of sites associated with the set of brilliant young men who swam, fished, and thought at the Point in the 1930s and '40s.

Wilton had contacted me because of Private Bestiary, the collection of Kendrick Smithyman's writing I'd annotated and published in 2010. When I was working on Bestiary Cerian and I were renting a flat near the end of Point Chevalier; I remember tiptoeing past the thousands of pages of unpublished Smithyman I had stacked in the hall and kitchen, stepping outside, and searching the streets and parks of the Point for the poet's sacred sites. I was guided by Smithyman's poems, and by Halfway Round the Harbour, the haphazard but often rhapsodic autobiography that Keith Sinclair wrote at the end of his life. Smithyman and Sinclair were born in 1922; the third member of their set, Bob Chapman, was born a year later.

I found a house on Boscawen Street where the Smithyman family ran a failing dairy, and the bungalow on nearby Johnstone Street the young Sinclair shared with seven siblings. Hip-high grass grew in front of the old Sinclair home, and paint flaked from its verandah. Halfway Round the Harbour described the stained glass boat that sailed across the front window of his childhood home; in 2009 the vessel was still afloat, but its bright sail had been dulled by dust.
If Sinclair's prose and Smithyman's verses can be believed, then the children of the Point knew a strange mixture of deprivation and plenty in the 1930s. Many fathers had been pushed out of work by the Great Depression; some children went to school with nothing to eat but stiff bread smeared with condensed milk. When Indian hawkers steered their carts down the Point's streets, shouting offers of a few pennies for bones and rags, children would dig like dogs in front yards, and their parents would pounce on the carthorses' freshly laid turds, which made good fertiliser for vegetable gardens.

Sinclair remembered that, in the weeks after the riot of 1932, twitchy men knocked on doors up and down the Point, offering watches and other treasures pulled from the smashed windows of Queen Street for sale.

But even the poorest children on the Point had continual access to the warm waters of the upper Waitemata harbour, and to the equally hospitable parklands and market gardens that fringed their suburb. They caught piper fish off the white rocks at the end of the peninsula, and ripped mussels off the black rocks of Meola Reef. Gardens and vacant houses were plundered. The Labour Party and the trade union movement were hegemonic on the Point, and their picnics, dances, and raffles were continual diversions.

When Sinclair, Smithyman and Chapman returned from the adventures of World War Two to Point Chevalier in 1946 they had work to do. In the evenings, after their classes at the University of Auckland and the Auckland College of Education, the three young men wrote poems, swapped quotes from Lewis Mumford and WB Yeats, and railed against New Zealand's literary establishment.

By the end of the Second World War a loose group of writers, journalists, and painters, many of them from the South Island, had defined New Zealand as a remote and bleak place where humans had lived only briefly and uneasily. Charles Brasch had heard our hills 'cry out for meaning'; Allen Curnow had prophesied that only 'some child born in a marvellous year' would 'learn the trick of standing upright here'.

Smithyman and his comrades weren't so glum. With its ancient pa, harbours and islands and beaches, scores of pubs, and fecund Chinese market gardens, Auckland seemed to them neither ahistorical nor bleak.

Nor did Auckland feel impossibly remote. Keith Sinclair's father was a wharfie, used to greeting ships and ships' crews from around the world, while Smithyman's father had crossed and recrossed the Pacific as a seafarer. As Sinclair explained in Halfway Round the Harbour, the sea that almost surrounded Point Chevalier was a pathway rather than an obstacle:

At the bottom of the street...lay the mudflats of Meola Reef. They led from the cliffs and the pohutakawa trees to the channel, to the reef, to the Waitemata harbor, to the Hauraki Gulf, to the Pacific Ocean, to South America…
Smithyman, Sinclair, and Chapman took to calling themselves the Mudflats Poets, and liked to contrast their work with the output of the 'Mountain Poets' of the South Island. By the time he had died in 1995 Smithyman had published a dozen books of poetry, and was represented in every important anthology of New Zealand verse. Sinclair became the country's best-known historian, and Chapman founded and for many decades helped run the Political Studies department at the University of Auckland. 
As the bus Jenny Wilton had hired farted down Point Chevalier Road, bound for the childhood homes of Sinclair and Smithyman, I stood in the aisle and tried to convince the passengers that something very special had emerged from the working class seaside suburb of the 1930s. 
By the time we'd turned down Johnstone Street, which runs a hundred or so metres to the eastern shore of the peninsula, I was talking about the Great Strike of 1913, when wharfies and seafarers occupied Auckland's port, and drunken farmers on horseback came to chase them away with long batons. After 'Massey's Cossacks' had broken the strike, the name William Smithyman appeared on a blacklist drawn up by employers and cops. Kendrick's father had been a member of the Auckland chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World, and was an enthusiastic striker in 1913. The bosses wouldn't offer him a job; the cops wanted to offer him a cell. 
According to the story that Kendrick recounted in Imperial Vistas Family Fictions, a book-length series of poems about his ancestors, William Smithyman was smuggled out of Auckland by sympathetic foreign seafarers, and served on a series of vessels that connected the ports of the tropical Pacific. (At one point in his odyssey Smithyman senior acquired a large bag of pure opium, which he hid in a hollow tree on the Apia waterfront. When Kendrick was sent to the tropics during World War Two father urged son to retrieve the bag.) 
While I was talking about antique class struggles the bus driver was steering his craft to a halt near the end of Johnstone Street, then sitting quietly and scratching his beard. Like his comrades across Auckland, he would be taking Friday off; the Tramways Union had called a strike to emphasise its demand for longer breaks and more toilets for its members. Eventually I stopped talking, and my hostages were allowed to disembark from the bus. Many of them leaned on canes; one pushed a zimmer frame; a couple balanced on spouses. 
When we reached number thirty-three, Johnstone Street, I had to apologise. The Sinclair home had disappeared, and in its place was a quarter acre of muddy gravel and those scattered melancholy objects - an orange cone, a lounging shovel, a few metres of aluminium wire coiled like a sleepy snake - that warn of the imminent arrival of diggers and lorries and a very loud radio tuned permanently to 99 FM. 
'I'm sorry, lad' one of the historical society's younger and jauntier members chuckled, putting a hand on my shoulder. 'We've come too late.' But another local historian, a tall thin man with a permanent smile, explained that he lived on Johnstone Street, and knew of a house that resembled the old Sinclair citadel. At number twenty-one we found the same overgrown front lawn and flaking bungalow I remembered from 2009. 'A single bloke lives in there' the smiling man explained. 'Nice, but getting on. He's holding out, I expect, against the land agents. I won't stand here too long, case he recognises me. He might think I want to buy his place.' 
'There were bungalows up and down this street' a woman in her eighties told me. 'Californian. Beautiful. But the developers have gotten rid of most of them.' I saw a black, dazzlingly clean BMW purr along the street; its Chinese driver looked incuriously at us. Auckland's protracted property boom has turned the Point from a working class suburb into a westerly outlier of Herne Bay. 
'John A Lee corner, that's where a few of the oldest people are living' a male voice somewhere in the crowd was saying. 'He was a great man, John A Lee. A god on the Point.' 
'John A Lee was a character' a woman agreed. 'Only had one arm, but that never bothered the ladies.'
The mansion at the end of the street had once belonged to John Fletcher, the right-wing MP who was defeated by John A Lee in 1931. Fletcher had moved out, and left the house's three stories for local kids to den and pillage. Today the house has been restored, rather than demolished. 'A businessman lives there' Jenny Wilton told me. 'He had a Russian wife, but she left.' 
At Boscawen Street, which runs between Johnstone Street and the park at the end of the peninsula, we looked in vain for the Smithyman family home. The cottage I remembered from 2009 had been usurped by a large beige townhouse.
I hoped for better results at Joan Street, on the western side of Point Chevalier Road. As Kendrick explains in Imperial Vistas Family Fictions, his parents ran a small dairy here for a year or two during the Great Depression. Perhaps because they lacked 'a right touch with ice cream cones', the venture failed. As we struggled off the bus again, I explained that I'd never known the exact location of the Smithyman business on Joan Street, and appealed for help. 
Mist and drizzle had established a bridgehead at the end of the peninsula, and the houses and trees of the North Shore had disappeared. A Ford Escort slithered past with one headlight on, relic of the Point's past. A score or so steps connect Joan Street with Point Chevalier beach, a popular bathing spot since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 1920s an entrepreneur named Frederick Rayner built a nightclub called Dixieland beside the sand. Keith Sinclair remembered Dixieland:
The height of sophistication for local youth, and delight for the children, was to go 'spotlight bathing' at Dixie. Spotlights on top of the cabaret would light up the water. The lovers, the lovely, and the lovely and young swam and disported. Some would swim out to two rafts anchored a hundred yards or so out. It was a wonderful, a primitive, a joyous scene, almost unrestrained.
When I mentioned Dixieland a man chuckled, put his hand on a female shoulder, and said, with mock solemnity, 'I have to be careful how I phrase this, because we have ladies amongst us, but historians should record that there were two distinct types of dancing practiced on this shore. Inside Dixieland there was vertical dancing; outside, in the dark, under the trees, there was a more horizontal style of dancing.' The shoulder squirmed mirthfully. 
The Smithymans probably hoped to profit from the popularity of Dixieland. In 1936, though, the club burned down. Keith Sinclair's father built a chookhouse with timber salvaged from its wreck. 
Several of the local historians remembered an ice cream shop that was located at the bottom of the steps from Joan Street, close to Dixieland; a woman pointed to a squat villa at the top of the steps, and recalled her mother buying cups of tea there; another woman knew that a dairy had traded from the corner of Joan Street and Point Chevalier Road. 
It was almost noon, so Jenny and I asked the busman to head back up Point Chevalier Road, away from the remembered paradise of the 1930s. I persuaded the driver to pause at Unitec, whose brick buildings once belonged to the Auckland Mental Hospital. After I had described the terms that Robin Hyde and Maurice Duggan served in that institution we returned to the Horticultural Society building at Western Springs, where Point Chevalier's historians have established a den. Near a black and white photograph of yet another famous local, the lily collector and compulsive memoirist Robert Muldoon, we sat and drank tea and talked about history. 
By the time I'd drained my third cup, and heard stories about long-razed dancehalls and obscure pub brawls and slit trenches dug to stop the Japanese but eventually conquered by blackberries, I realised that Point Chevalier's local historians didn't share my distress at the destruction of the physical reminders of their suburb's mid-century history. They didn't know my neurotic need to chase after unpublished manuscripts and unloved bungalows in pursuit of the past: the past lived, whole and vivid and indestructible, in their heads and in their words. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Great non-fiction: another spinoff

Steve Braunias and the other editors of The Spinoff have published, in two parts, a list of the hundred greatest works of New Zealand non-fiction. A few of their inclusions and omissions are baffling (how could they honour Bob Jones, but neglect Judith Binney?), but many are astute, and some of the thumbnail sketches attached to the books are marvellously apposite (the Treaty of Waitangi is 'as mysterious and profound as the Dead Sea Scrolls, at once enigmatic and dead simple').

A group of Maori scholars has taken issue with the lack of tangata whenua on the Spinoff's list, and come up with a supplementary top fifty which includes more fine books.

But there are still many great New Zealand works of non-fiction that haven't been publicised at The Spinoff. I've made my own list of fifty titles, which I'll give in three instalments. Here are numbers fifty to thirty-four. Their order is, of course, rather arbitrary.

50. John Pascoe, Unclimbed New Zealand, George Allen and Unwin, 1939

Pascoe's paean to the 1930s bohemians who caught Friday trains from Christchurch and spent their weekends slogging cheerfully up Canterbury's mountains, reciting Coleridge and arguing the merits of Marxism and Douglas Credit on the way, is one of the classic texts of Pakeha cultural nationalism, as ambitious as Curnow's 'Landfall in Unknown Seas' and as anarchic as Mulgan's Man Alone. Why has it been forgotten?

49. H. Guthrie-Smith, Tutira, William Blackwood, 1921

The Greeks have the Odyssey; the Portugese have the Lusiads; Pakeha New Zealanders have Tutira, WH Guthrie-Smith's epic account of the history and present of a sheep station in the Hawkes Bay hill country. Guthrie-Smith's prose is both sensual and precise, and his determination to make the geology, flora, and fauna of his small kingdom as heroic as his humans might remind us of Braudel and the Annales historians, who were warming up on the other side of the world when the first edition of Tutira appeared.

48. John Gorst, The Maori King, Macmillan, 1864

Gorst is the most famous of a series of Pakeha writers who anatomised and criticised the wars that the British Crown and settler governments waged against Maori in the nineteenth century. As a sometime aide to Governor George Grey, Gorst had a front seat view of the early stages of the Waikato War. The Maori King describes Grey's expulsion of the tangata whenua from their ancient homes around the Manukau harbour, the burning and looting of kainga, and the cynicism of the Auckland businessmen who persuaded Grey to go to war. In one of his book's poignant flashbacks to pre-war years Gorst describes the wealth and harmony of the doomed utopian community that Wiremu Tamihana, the architect of the King Movement, created at Peria, deep in the king's domain.

47. Bronwyn Elsmore, Mana from Heaven, Reed, 1999

Elsmore's survey of Maori religious syncretism teems with angels and demons and revelations. She describes not only famous religious leaders, like Te Kooti and Ratana, but seers and miracle workers and theologians whose followings never grew beyond a village in the Hokianga or Horowhenua.
46. Roger Neich, Painted Histories, Auckland University Press, 1993

Painted Histories is Roger Neich's study of the painted meeting houses built by the devotees of Te Kooti in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Influenced by the paintings and photographs they had seen in Pakeha magazines and newspapers and by Te Kooti's turbulent theology, the painters Neich surveys broke with the timeless motifs of classical Maori art and produced realistic portraits of individuals. Sometimes their images combined the traditional and the new: the head of a tiki might be attached to a body in a neatly buttoned coat. Neich was a structuralist, fond of categorising and charting the images he found on rafters and pou, but he also had an intense empathy for the artists and communities he studied. More than any other ethnographer, he has influenced New Zealand's fine artists: both the Nga Puhi painter Shane Cotton and the Tongan-New Zealand sculptor Visesio Siasau have cited him as a guide.
45. Dennis McEldowney, The World Regained, Chapman and Hall, 1957

When he was still a very young man McEldowney was driven to bed by a weakening heart. Too tired to read his beloved books or even to listen for long to the radio, he spent years gazing out a window at a Taranaki garden. The World Regained is the story of his resurrection at Greenlane hospital, and his joyful struggle to cope with the vastness of the sky, the strange solidity of suburban houses, and the hum and roar of 1950s Auckland. A gentle masterpiece.

44. Robin Hyde, A Home in this World, Longman Paul, 1984

Early in 1937 Robin Hyde abandoned Auckland Mental Hospital, where she had been voluntarily living, with the intention of taking a boat for the tropics. After discovering she could not afford a ferry ticket to Rarotonga or Samoa, Hyde headed for a guesthouse at Waiatarua, near the top of the Waitakere Ranges. She wrote A Home in this World in a few weeks, whilst listening to rain and possums on the roof of the hut she had rented in the guesthouse grounds. Hyde's text is too brilliantly erratic to be called an autobiography: it moves from one memory to another with the rigorous and secret logic of a dream.

43. HD Skinner, The Morioris of Chatham Islands, Bishop Museum, 1923

In the aftermath of World War One travel to the Chathams was carefully regulated, and HD Skinner had to sneak aboard one of the few vessels headed for the islands. By the time he returned from the chilly archipelago, New Zealand's first professional anthropologist had seen enough artefacts and bones and heard enough stories to destroy the Victorian theory that the Moriori were the remnants of a Melanesian people chased from the North and South Islands to the Chathams by Maori. Skinner proved that Moriori were an Eastern Polynesian people, like the Maori, and that the Chathams - or Rekohu, as they called it - was their longtime homeland, not some relatively recent refuge. It's a shame that, more than ninety years later, many New Zealanders still haven't assimilated the arguments Skinner made so powerfully.

42. Spiro Zavos, Crusade, INL, 1981

The Social Credit Political League was the only anti-capitalist movement to win mass support in postwar New Zealand, but its weird mix of populism, crank economics, and anti-semitic conspiracy theories has made it unattractive, and perhaps even incomprehensible, to scholars of both the left and the mainstream right. Writing in the early '80s, when Social Credit was winning the support of a third of New Zealanders in opinion polls, Zavos both documents and critiques the movement.

41. John A Lee, The John A Lee Diaries, 1936-40, Whitcoulls, 1981

John A Lee was the Trotsky of New Zealand: a brilliant and erratic man, who could never decide whether he preferred to stay in his study and scribble or address the masses from a podium, and who eventually fell victim to an inferior but more single-minded rival. Lee's diary covers his career in the first Labour government, when he was one of a group of radicals trying to push the party's increasingly otiose leader, Michael Joseph Savage, into confrontations with New Zealand landlords and British bankers. Near the end of the book Lee celebrates Savage's death from cancer, calling it the man's first useful political gesture.
40. Te Ua Haumene, Ua Rongopai: the gospel according to Te Ua, 1860

In the fateful year of 1863 a Taranaki man named Te Ua Haumene began to hear the voice of the Angel Gabriel. The angel dictated; Te Ua wrote a gospel, which was passed from hand to hand by his followers, and eventually published, with an English translation, by Lynley Hood. Te Ua writes like a Polynesian William Blake, as he damns the Pakeha, identifies his beleagured people with the Jews, and promises his enemies apocalypse and his friends paradise.

39. Home Guard Manual, Hawkes Bay Home Guard, 1941.

Want to know how to blow up a bridge on the main trunk line, stage an ambush on Highway One, or snipe from the rooftop of the typical Kiwi farmhouse? There's advice on matters like these in the Home Guard Manual. Inspired by the texts of Tom Wintringham, the British communist and Spanish Civil War veteran who had founded and trained a British Home Guard after the fall of France, thousands of New Zealanders began to prepare themselves in guerrilla warfare in 1941 and 1942, as the Japanese imperial armed forces moved ever closer. Secret tracks were cut through the bush, and backcountry huts were filled with gelignite and cans of bully beef. A series of noisy but mysterious events - an artillery training session near Waiuku, a plane crash at Whenuapai - prompted rumours that the expected invasion had already occurred. To read the Home Guard Manual is to open a door into an alternative version of New Zealand history.

38. Len Richardson, Coal, Class, and Community, Auckland University Press, 1995.

Richardson's sympathetic but scholarly book follows the struggle of New Zealand's coal miners for better conditions, unionisation, and eventually the nationalisation of their worksites between 1880 and 1960. Richardson describes the great industrial conflicts of the early twentieth century - the fatal Waihi Strike of 1912, and the Great Strike, with its cavalry charges and chaotic shootouts, of the following year - but he is at his best recreating the culture of study and discussion groups that thrived amongst increasingly politicised miners. He takes us inside the unheated huts where weary West Coast miners would gather after their shifts to pore over the Communist Manifesto and Capital, and by doing so reminds us that some of the most interesting and important parts of New Zealand's intellectual life have unfolded far from university seminar rooms and research libraries.

37. Errol Braithwaite, The Companion Guide to the North Island of New Zealand, Collins, 1970

Poor Errol Braithwaite. He wrote a trilogy of novels about the New Zealand Wars, but the better-known Maurice Shadbolt did the same thing, for a much larger audience. Braithwaite also wrote a superb guide to the North Island, but his achievement was overshadowed when, a few years later, Shadbolt published his inferior but widely distributed Shell Guide to New Zealand. The editors of The Spinoff have compounded the insult by including Shadbolt's lousy book in their top 100, but snubbing Braithwaite. The Companion Guide to the North Island is propelled by Braithwaite's obsession with the wars Maori fought against Pakeha in the nineteenth century. He cannot bring his readers through the Waikato without pausing at pa, redoubts, old fortress towns, and riverbends where ironclads once shelled waka. He salutes the dead warriors lying anonymously under maize or cowpats, and searches the thick walls of old church-forts for the indents left by musket-shells. Braithwaite's book is at once a travel guide and a classic of New Zealand psychogeography.

36. Peter Munz, The Shapes of Time: a new look at the philosophy of history, Wesleyan University Press, 1977

Peter Munz was one of the Jewish intellectuals who took refuge from Hitlerism in New Zealand in the 1930s and '40s, and by doing so raised the country's collective IQ and improved its cuisine. Most of Munz's books are exercises in history, but The Shapes of Time ventures into the chilly realm of philosophy. Steering between the Scylla of naive realism and the Charybdis of postmodern relativism, Munz argues that no historical event can be accessed outside the categories and timelines created by humans. Historians construct as well as document the past, and have more in common with novelists than practitioners of the natural sciences. Munz's text was received respectfully overseas, but local historians couldn't cope with it.

35. Frances Hayman, King Country Nurse, Blackwood and Janet Paul, 1965

A middle class Pakeha heads into Te Rohe Potae, historic fortress of Maori nationalism, on a mission to help the benighted and unhygienic natives. She arrives at the same time as emissaries of the Ratana movement, which is surging through Te Ika a Maui with a message of renewed resistance to Pakeha authority. What could go wrong?

34. Angus Gillies, Ngati Dread, Rogue Monster Books, 2001

Thirty years ago a young employee of the Gisborne Herald began to hear stories about a series of strange events in the rough country north of town. Farmhouses and barns were being burned; an independent Maori state had been declared; a headless body had been found on a sacred hill; dreadlocked men were proclaiming a new religion, and citing Te Kooti and Bob Marley as its prophets. Angus Gillies' investigation of the Rastafarian movement of the East Coast and the Pakeha landowners, Ngati Porou elders, and police that opposed it took him through pubs and courtrooms into prisons and mental hospitals. When publishers baulked at the huge manuscript of Ngati Dread, and suggested cutting the court transcripts and interviews with killers, Gillies self-published his text in three volumes. South Pacific Pictures has bought the rights to Ngati Dread; I hope they put the astonishing story Gillies tells on every screen in the country.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, February 08, 2016

Ducking and debating

When I typed a short and hurried guest post for the popular blog YourNZ about the Treaty of Waitangi and the New Zealand Wars, I didn't know I was about to be hit by a volley of dozens of testy replies. I've been ducking for cover and debating here

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Strange beasts on Queen Street

Early this week Aucklanders began to share a blurred photograph on facebook and twitter. The photograph seemed to show several large military vehicles - were they armoured personnel carriers? - riding through the city's business district on the back of a truck. Some of the people who saw the photograph believed that the vehicles had been brought to Auckland in preparation for the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement on February the 4th. Trade ministers from a dozen Asian and Pacific nations would be gathering for the signing at the Sky City convention centre, in downtown Auckland, and opponents of the agreement had promised to not only march down Queen Street but blockade Sky City. Could the Key government be planning to clear a path through central Auckland with steel and guns?

As it turned out, the sinister vehicles belonged to the army of Singapore, and were en route to the vast and bleak forbidden realm in the central North Island known as the Waiouru Military Base. Soldiers from the city state have long visited Waiouru to drive tanks and armoured personnel carriers on uncongested roads and fire mortars and machine guns into empty spaces.

Some commentators might chuckle at the panic that blurred photograph prompted on social media, but I wonder whether the sight of strange vehicles moving through Auckland streets didn't induce collective memories of 1913, the year that hundreds of farmers armed with horses, long batons, and booze stormed into the centres of New Zealand's cities and attacked the striking wharfies who had occupied and blockaded ports. The farmers, who were given the half-satirical, half-honorific nickname 'Massey's Cossacks', were supported by police armed with pistols, rifles, and the odd machine gun. The wharfies and their fellow members of the 'Red' Federation of Labour had a few guns of their own, and shots were heard for days in Auckland and elsewhere.

When the industrious James Belich slogged his way through the archives of New Zealand's hospitals, he discovered that in 1913 folks with gunshot wounds were suddenly occupying beds. Belich likened the New Zealand of 1913 to the Russia of 1917; his fellow historian Len Richardson talked about 1913 as a year of 'revolutionary turmoil'.

In 2013 a few middle-aged men attempted to reenact the great clashes of 1913 in central Wellington. They grew long moustaches, put on uncomfortable clothes, climbed laboriously onto the backs of a few bemused horses, and made half-hearted lunges at equally bemused tourists and journalists. In twenty-first century New Zealand the horse has become an absurdly anachronistic machine; when dropped into the middle of a large city it looks either cute, or vulnerable, or both. In 1913, though, the horse still had some of the majesty and menace that made it a protagonist of so many classical and myths and martial songs. Massey's Cossacks used horses every day on their farms, and could ride and guide the animals at high speeds. Many of them belonged to hunting clubs; a few had ridden down Boers and blacks on the African veldt.

The police who confront protesters in Auckland today will not be riding horses, but they will be wielding long black batons that are descended from the weapons Massey's horsemen used to break the ribs of wharfies in 1913, and they have access to tear gas and plastic bullets. The sense of menace that the wharfies knew in 1913 remains, and accounts for the response to that sinister blurred photograph.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]