Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Human, all too human

Covid19 & anti-semitism are both dangerous viruses: one damages the lungs, the other the mind. I found this graffiti in Glen Eden's toilets yesterday.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Light reading

I wonder whether someone in the Beehive's coronavirus crisis team is reading these tomes tonight. They were commissioned after World War 2, & describe, in almost overwhelming detail, the radical bureaucratic & economic improvisations the Labour government made to deal with a global crisis.

Romantic leftists are fascinated by the years 1913 & 1951, with their strikes & streetfighting, but it was arguably in the '40s, under the dour leadership of Peter Fraser, that modern NZ moved the furthest left. War forced Fraser to intervene in every part of the economy.

The Fraser government appropriated large parts of the private sector & dedicated them to the war effort, put strict controls of capital movements, banned many luxuries of the rich, & let many unions run de facto closed shops.

I suspect that when she announces emergency measures to protect the economy from coronavirus in a couple of days, PM Ardern will dip into Fraser's box of tricks.

Fraser was a pragmatist; he took radical measures because of the demands of war & because of protest at home. As Japan advanced south a vast grassroots movement called Awake NZ demanded the total mobilisation of the economy. The Home Guard was a largely spontaneous phenomenon, as rural Kiwis banded together to discuss guerrilla war against a Japanese invasion.

Workers had potential power during the war, because of the nation's labour shortage. Wildcat strikes forced the nationalisation of the mines.

Not all of the interventions of the Fraser government were necessarily socially useful. Fraser commandeered virtually the entire building sector, as he constructed forts & bunkers along NZ's coast. By the time the war ended, NZ had a serious housing shortage.

And there was a dark side to the popular pressure for radical measures during World War Two. Some of the same grassroots groups urging the appropriation of wealth & capital demanded severe measures against aliens & conscientious objectors. Fraser often acceded. Thanks to the NZ Electronic Text Centre, you can read Taylor's book about the Home Front and Baker's study of the war economy online.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

On Henderson

On Monday we blew a tyre on the southern motorway. With the determined grip one might use for a senile relative or a recalcitrant child, my wife turned our decelerating vehicle onto a shelf beside the median strip. I thought suddenly of the indigenes of Henderson Island.

I surveyed our new home. The island had a maximum height of two and a half feet feet. Gravel fringed its coral-coloured concrete spine. Traffic roared like the ocean on both coasts. In the distance I could see the Rainbows End rollercoaster; it resembled the reconstructed fossil of a diplodocus.

The people of Henderson - we do not know their name for themselves, or their motu - lived for centuries in caves beside the sea, waiting for canoes from Pitcairn, Mangareva, the Marquesas. The canoes stopped coming. The islanders, who lacked timber to build their own vaka, died.

Our new island home seemed as remote as Henderson. My wife called the AA, the cops, posted on facebook. But no one stopped for us; none of the thousands of passers by even looked up from the steering wheels of their vaka. The hiss and blur of the traffic-waves became a rebuke.

When buses & trucks passed, our beached vaka shook. I thought about the caves of Henderson, which resemble mouths mutely screaming. Loneliness only exists in the midst of other people.

I had never been so happy to see a cop. He closed the road, steered us to a safe anchorage, beside a berm, a bank. Like Melville returning to land after months on the barren sea, I could see every blade of grass about me.

Return of the silver bees

As the drought went on, the elderly couple talked about their water tank using the slightly hushed tones and technical vocabulary they usually reserved for medical matters. The tank was almost empty, like a leaky heart valve; its water was cloudy as cataracts. Then the sky grunted. They hobbled towards a window. Drops clung to the pane like a flock of miraculous silver bees.