Sunday, March 18, 2018

Quigley's withdrawal

[Quigley - I chose to represent him with a single name of my own invention - is another veteran of the Great South Road who hasn't made it into my forthcoming book. I wrote up one of his adventures; the publisher has mollified me by promising to use it in his promotional material for the book. I believe that Quigley is currently enrolled in that most august New Zealand institution, the methadone programme.] 
Quigley was withdrawing; so were thousands of other Aucklanders. It was six o'clock, and the traffic on the Great South Road and the Southern Motorway had coagulated.

As it waited on an on-ramp, Quigley's Vauxhall shivered like a junkie queuing for methadone. Rain sweated down the track mark on his windscreen. The red light at Greenlane was a tablet, fifteen milligrams of aprotinin.
By the time Quigley reached the pharmacy it had been closed for an hour. He leaned his forehead against the pane. 
The big bottles of opiates sat in the distance, on the top shelf, close to the ceiling, like the most sacred gods in a temple. Below them were the rungs of lesser medicines: the cold cures, which had been useless since they lost their pseudoephedrine, ointments meant for stinking feet, antipyretics with names like ketoprofen, nimesulide, names that sounded like rare and deadly diseases.
As he left through the hole his boot had made, Quigley noticed the blood. It covered the white tiles of the pharmacy in bold but clumsy strokes. It was his note of apology. The roads were dark and empty, waiting like veins. He drank a bottle of opiates, another, and steered back down the Great South Road, back onto the Southern Motorway.
Quigley drove down the motorway, into his head. The Vauxhall was a blue pill, Sevredol. His neural pathways flared; the lamp posts blurred. Now he was dissolving, dispersing, speeding down off-ramps, side roads, flashing capillaries...

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Another hero of the Great South Road

[There's a distressing number of wonderful people who haven't made it into my forthcoming (May the 17th; final proofing at the moment) book about the Great South Road. One of them is Stowell. This is a fragment of his story. I'll post tomorrow about another hero, whose name is Quigley.]

Stowell refused to resent his task. He knew that the other photographers at work on the calendar had tickets to Rotorua, to Queenstown, to Haast Pass. He imagined Renee and her Canon EOS, the wide dopey eye that ogled and flashed models and rugby players’ wives, as a chopper dragonflyed them over the mountains, as it landed on a glacier. He imagined the after-shoot party in the ski resort, moonlit snow out the windows like free cocaine. He saw Chris in Rotorua, getting a few lazy shots then wrapping, and heading out on the lake for lunch.

He had no ticket, no room in a resort. He had been sent to the Great South Road, to Takanini Strait. The editors wanted an ‘urban’ shot, to sit amongst the glaciers and lakes and geysers, to make, through its very dullness, its ugliness, the rest of the calendar resplendent.

But Stowell refused to resent his task. Anyone could photograph the vulgar architecture of the Alps, Rotorua's erotic mud. Takanini roundabout, though, required discernment, craft, inspiration. He wiped the drizzle from his camera's lens, in the careful way a father wipes tears from a son's eye, then knelt again. The puddles on the Great South Road resembled a series of silver trays, abandoned by distracted waiters.

Thursday, March 08, 2018


The other night Cerian insisted on filling in my census form; I dictated any answers that weren't obvious to her. When I struggled with the question about religion, she became impatient. 'You're a boring old left-wing atheist', she said. 'Stop trying to think of something romantic & enigmatic to say.'
Many New Zealanders object to the census question on religion; some also dislike having to list their ethnicity or ethnicities. I disagree: I think both questions are vital. The answers we give to them are a sort of gift to the future.
The folks at Statistics NZ talk about the role census data plays in planning the future, but I'm preoccupied with the past, & the numbers from old censuses can open doors into many rooms of NZ history. The data on ethnicity and religion helps us remember liminal, marginalised people & communities.
During our study of Great South Road, Paul Janman & I became fascinated by the presence of Assyrian hawkers, refugees, on the road of the late 19th century. We used census data to corroborate newspaper reports about the hawkers, & ended up talking about NZ's semi-secret Syrian past on national TV, & linking it to contemporary debates about refugees.
After waiting ten minutes for me to declare my religion Cerian became fed up. 'Give me your answer', she threatened 'or I'll call you a Mormon'.
'Alright' I finally said. 'Put me down as a pagan atheist.'
'Don't be silly!' Cerian replied 'There's no such thing!'
'Pagan atheist isn't as silly as you think' I countered, in a voice that was leaking confidence. 'I'm an atheist because I don't believe in god, but a pagan in the sense that I tell my kids Greek & Polynesian myths, and support people like Sio Siasau, who are trying to recreate the ancient shamanic religions of the Pacific.'
Cerian was unimpressed. 'You just like drinking kava and staying up all night talking to Sio, that's all. It's not a religion.'
Cerian eventually relented, and let me be a pagan atheist. She called herself agnostic, and told the census that our kids follow a religion called 'Magical'. Aneirin is interested in a range of Pacific & Mediterranean gods, & recently told me that his favourite deity is Zeus, 'because Zeus fires electrical bolts, & electricity makes TV'.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reports from a failing system

I rode Auckland's collapsing train system yesterday, from Glen Eden to Newmarket. Fourteen stations, on the western line. Each stop was announced, well in advance, by an electronically distorted voice, a voice so slow, so solemn, that it might have been listing the stations of the cross. I was not riding Auckland's rails to get anywhere. I was riding just to ride. I knew there was trouble - rolling strikes, wildcat walkouts, unseemly arguments - at Britomart Station, the headwaters of Auckland's rail lines. I wanted to feel the system slow down, break down.

The trains and train systems are not supposed to break down. The train was, is, the vehicle of modernity. It taught humans the pleasure of acceleration, the thrill of speed, the shock of deceleration. When we sniff cocaine or inject heroin, we seek the same ecstatic transport as ancestors who bought tickets at King's Cross, St Pancras. Long before television, before movies, trains created moving images: their passengers were the first cinemophiles, watching plotless epics filled with cornfields, smokestacks, cacti, as they rolled across Europe, America.

The stops at each station on the Western line lengthened, until they became pauses, then delays, then extended delays. Shorthanded by their comrades' rolling strikes, crews struggled to inspect tickets, tracks. At each station there were crowds, coagulations.


At Newmarket, at five o'clock, I found a huge, glum crowd: yawning schoolboys from the western & southern diaspora of Auckland Grammar, suited commuters punching out anti-union tweets on their phones, Japanese tourists with tiny i pods hanging around their necks like dogtags.

I became preoccupied with one of the fellow stranded, a man I could not quite see. He had a blurred, hairless head, a too-small suit the colour of an old urine stain. He held his suitcase with a shivering, reluctant hand, as if it were the black box from some crashed plane.

By six o'clock I was suddenly desperate, like the old rail riders, for authority, for a blue uniform stamped AUCKLAND TRANSPORT. I wanted a strongman or woman, a leader, someone with a loud hailer & a timetable, someone who could conjure a train, fashion a queue from the chaos.

The escalator to Newmarket's ticket office had stopped in mid-flow, like an Alpine waterfall in winter. A dispensing machine took coins, but held its drinks. Auckland Transport had tried to replace workers with machines, but now machines were rebelling, & joining the strike...

Monday, February 26, 2018

Thiel and sticky ends

Billionaire Peter Thiel's purchasing of New Zealand citizenship has become global news. I've written for The Spinoff about the slavers, anarcho-capitalists, and island-builders who have shared Thiel's dream of making a dystopian utopia in the South Pacific, and who have tended to come to sticky ends. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018


A lot of people on the left are calling for the US to enact strict gun control laws in the aftermath of the terrible shooting at a Florida school. They should ponder some of these photographs.

The history of the US suggests that gun control would be a bad idea for the country's most marginalised groups.

Historically, African Americans have armed themselves for protection against lynchings, racist cops, and pogroms. America's first gun control laws were enacted in the nineteenth century to try to stop freed slaves from acquiring arms. For decades blacks in the south struggled for the right to bear guns, knowing that a rifle was the best defence against the ropes of lynch mobs and the burning crosses of the KKK. The Black Panthers are famous for patrolling American cities with guns, but even the pacifist Martin Luther King kept a huge arsenal of weapons for self-defence.

Not only the civil rights but the trade union movement was built with guns. Early America labor leaders carried guns wherever they went, and coal miners and railway workers fought pitched battles with police and soldiers, as well as armed strikebreakers hired by bosses.
Today African Americans have begun to form armed self-defence squads to defend their neighbourhoods from both out of control cops and criminals. In Dallas, for example, the Huey P Newton Gun Club, named after a famous Black Panther leader, patrols inner city streets. If a ban on assault rifles were enacted, groups like this could be criminalised, just as armed black civil rights groups were once criminalised in the southern states.

American cops will always be heavily armed; so will rednecks and criminals. Gun laws will disarm only vulnerable groups like African Americans. Is it really safe, in Trump's America, for the left to give the state, criminals, and white racists a monopoly on arms? The American left needs to arm, not disarm itself. The Huey P Newton Gun Club should be made into a model, not a target for the state.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, February 19, 2018

Seleka has fallen; Seleka will rise again!

A few months ago a Hollywood star visited a lagoonside shack in Nuku'alofa. Sam Neil wanted to meet members of the Seleka club, whose kava-fuelled paintings and surrealist provocations have made them one of the twenty-first century's significant avant-garde cultural movements. (I have written about the club here, here, and here.)

Poverty, a lack of paint and canvas, and condemnation from Tongan conservatives couldn't stop the artists of the Seleka Club, but Cyclone Gita is another matter. Seleka's legendary clubhouse, with its disco ball and psychedelic murals and cryptic inscriptions, has been levelled. Virginie Dourlet took this sad photo of the ruined clubhouse. But Seleka will rise again. I know I won't be the only Kiwi fundraising for these incredible Tongans over the coming months.

You can keep up-to-date with Seleka's rebuild plans by following Virginie on twitter