Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Darkening the past

Paul Janman has spent a bit of time lately trying to explain the process called posterization to me. I don’t quite know what the words ‘conversion of a continuous gradation of tone to several regions of fewer tones’ mean, but I can now recite them by heart, in the way a pious medieval peasant could recite the baffling phrases of Latin he heard on Sundays. And I can observe the results of the posterization of thousands of images, as I trawl the massive online archive of New Zealand periodicals called Papers Past. 

Paul and I have been using Papers Past as we research our film about the Great South Road. The website's software automatically posterizes the photographs, sketches, maps, and cartoons of old papers like the Auckland Star, the Southern Cross, and the Maoriland Worker. Shades of grey are eliminated, and regions of undifferentiated black and white come to dominate the images. Faces that had looked out of pools of ambiguous shadow are blanked or blacked; soft rolling hills become harshly contoured; lakes that had been several shades of grey look like oil has been poured over them. 

The other day Paul explained to me, in the impatient but not unsympathetic tone teachers use with recalcitrant children, that posterization was a trick photographers and designers used to know, but that it is considered anachronistic in the era of the high-quality, infinitely manipulable digital image. Papers Past would, Paul predicted, soon acquire new software that would enable it to dispense with posterization and restore newspaper images to their original, nuanced glory.

I was not entirely happy at Paul’s prediction, because I have begun to find something compelling about the dark, distorted images that Papers Past currently offers its users.

Posterization might seem, on the surface, like an enemy of historical research, because of the way that it destroys, or at least obscures, information about the past. It can give exultant or miserable faces the same unreadable darkness, and conflate a forest with a field of wheat. A posterised photograph is an artefact that resists explication and classification. 
But the obscurity posterization produces runs interestingly counter to our society's acquisitive and over-confident attitude towards the past. All too often we tend to see history as a commodity: as an old villa we can purchase or renovate, or a vase we can display on a mantelpiece, or as the plot for an entertaining film or television series. Simon Schama has complained about the way that films ostensibly based upon historical events – even well-intentioned films, like Spielberg’s Amistad – forget about the strangeness and otherness of the past, and make men and women who lived decades or centuries ago, and held beliefs very different from our own, into vessels for contemporary preoccupations and prejudices.

As Schama might have pointed out, the study of history depends on a paradox: in order to understand the past, we must accept that some of the past is beyond our understanding.
I have been trying for some time to drag Paul and his cameras down to the National Military Museum, which sits amidst tussock and snow at Waiouru. The museum boasts the thick stone walls of a fort, and is ringed by well-preserved field guns. Inside, though, it has a surprisingly open structure, and in one rambling ground floor room scores of dummy soldiers wearing the uniforms of different countries and wielding the weapons of different wars are allowed to mingle. A Boer guerrilla with a carbine rifle shadows a defenceless dummy dressed in the dune-coloured outfit favoured by Rommel’s Afrikacorps, while a veteran of the Vietnam War flashes a machete. Walking through this strange room, I felt like I had been shrunk in size and dropped inside the box of toy soldiers I treasured as a child.
In one corner of the room an empty picture frame stands. The caption under the frame explains that ‘Historians cannot agree whether an authentic portrait of the Maori prophet and guerrilla fighter Te Kooti exists. Therefore we have chosen to represent him in this way’*
Te Kooti was a contradictory figure: a loyal native subject of the Crown who became a violent rebel; a student of missionaries who founded his own, proudly autochthonous Maori religion; a military genius who could not design a serviceable pa; an arsonist who inspired and in some cases oversaw the construction of some of the most beautiful buildings in the country, a drunkard who preached sobriety. It is perhaps not surprising that the reports held in the Papers Past archive cannot agree on what such a complex, protean man looked like. Some describe him as a large man; other insist he is slight. Some give him a flowing white beard; some claim his beard is brown and well-trimmed; others describe the tattoos on his bare cheeks.
The competing images of Te Kooti could be linked to competing perspectives on his life and works. A photograph that shows us a man with wide, slightly demented eyes looks good alongside sensationalist accounts of the prophet’s violent deeds. Cartoons that show the prophet affected by alcohol reflect a popular nineteenth century explanation for his rebelliousness. 
Some scholars have found Te Kooti in a photograph of a group of ‘hauhau’ awaiting deportation to the Chatham Islands in the aftermath of the Ngati Porou civil war of the mid-‘60s. The prisoners huddle at the bottom of a cliff, clinging to blankets. If we acknowledge Te Kooti in this photograph, then we must recognise him as a victim of the Crown: as a young man who fought against rebellious Ngati Porou, yet was accused of treachery and deported without trial to a distant land.
The military is an institution that values values efficiency and disapproves of imagination, and the Waiouru museum’s ‘solution’ to the problem of representing Te Kooti seems to me both efficient and depressingly unimaginative. It could be argued that the Waiouru curators have a healthier attitude to history that the film makers Simon Schama criticises, and other commodifiers and appropriators of the past. They appreciate the complexity and otherness of Te Kooti. But by refusing to engage with this complexity – by refusing to make and justify a choice between the competing pictorial and historiographic versions of Te Kooti – they frustrate efforts at historical understanding just as surely as Schama’s targets. 
As Te Kooti’s legend burgeoned after his death in 1893, the people who had been close to him – his wives, his soldiers, his secretaries – were sought out, interrogated, and photographed by Pakeha journalists and historians. These aged men and women were, in an almost religious sense, relics; they had felt the gaze and touch of a man who had done extraordinary, unrepeatable things.

There is an element of derision, as well as awe, in many of the Pakeha accounts of meetings with old associates of Te Kooti. Pakeha were troubled as well as fascinated by the wars of the 1860s and ‘70s, when Maori had briefly seemed capable of throwing the invaders of their islands back into the sea. The fin de siècle and early twentieth century journalists and scholars who travelled to remote parts of the country in search of Te Kooti’s soldiers and lovers wanted to experience, however, voyeuristically, some of the violent drama of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but they also wanted to reassure themselves and their readers that the threat to Pakeha power had passed. By mocking the old men and women who had known the legendary Te Kooti as relics of a distant past, Pakeha sought to reassure themselves that the era of rebellion the prophet represented would not return.

In 1927 an unnamed photographer travelled to Ruatahuna, one of the islands of cultivation in the ocean of the Urewera forest, and encountered the Tuhoe elder Paitini Wi Tapeka. Sixty-three years earlier Paitini had been one of hundreds of Tuhoe who marched west to the Waikato Kingdom after hearing about the invasion of that state by the Auckland-based colonial government. Paitini was one of the last men to leave Orakau pa, where King Tawhiao’s supporters fought until the last bullet and beyond, firing peach and plum stones from their muskets at the encircling British army. After that final battle of the Waikato War Paitini returned to Ruatahuna. In 1868, though, he joined the army Te Kooti had improvised in the foothills of the Ureweras.
In April 1869 Paitini was part of the force that Te Kooti threw at the Pakeha settlers and kupapa of Mohaka, a rivermouth village in the northern Hawkes Bay. After tomahawking a couple of Pakeha families, Te Kooti’s men lay siege to the twin pa of Mohaka. They captured one after making a rongo patipati, or false promise of peace, but were frustrated at the second fort, and retired into the bush to binge for a few days on the liquor they had looted from Mohaka’s hotel.
In 1911 New Zealand Herald reporter named J Drummond visited the Ruatahuna cottage of Paitini. Drummond portrayed the old man and his wife Margaret, who was once part of Te Kooti’s harem, as picturesque rustics, living ‘the simplest of simplest lives’ in a land where ‘Tane was still god of the forests’. Drummond was surprised when Paitini remembered Te Kooti as a handsome, exceptionally tall man; he had heard others describe the prophet as ‘ugly, undersized, and ill-favoured’. 
The photograph that appeared in the Auckland Star in 1927 was accompanied by a caption:
A LINK WITH TE KOOTI – This interesting picture shows ancient Paitini, already 103, who was one of Te Kooti’s lieutenants, and fought against the British in the ‘sixties. He is still living at Ruatahuna, in the Urewera country, where the Auckland Automobile Association will call on their three-day excursion into this wild and rugged country a fortnight hence.
The Star’s image and caption work together to present Paitini as a man who is both impressive and pitiable, hardy and obsolete.
By showing Paitini on a horse, the Star perhaps reminded its readers of the famous white steed that Te Kooti rode when he raided Pakeha and kupapa settlements. The ancient Paitini could still ride, but his mode of transport was subtly mocked by its juxtaposition with news of the forthcoming expedition into the Ureweras by the Auckland Automobile Association. By 1927 the car had become a powerful symbol of modernity in New Zealand. Bridle and bullock trails were turning to gravel and tar, and motorists, organised and resourced by the evangelical volunteers of the Automobile Association, were conquering ever more remote regions. By driving deep into the Ureweras, an area that had been closed to most foot traffic only decades earlier, the AAA was making a statement about the strength and potential of its machines. 
Lingering in the region where Te Kooti once hid from Pakeha, and relying on a horse to get about, Paitini is, the Star implies, a fascinating but sad anachronism.  
But to think about the elderly Paitini as a pitiful relic is to forget his otherness, and to impose the values and worldview of Pakeha New Zealand on him. It is to forget that the Ureweras, and not Auckland or Wellington or London, were the centre of his mental universe, the place where great and foundational events had occurred. 
Indigenising the stories of the Old Testament, Te Kooti’s Ringatu church made the Ureweras, along with many other parts of Te Ika a Maui, into sites of religious significance. Ringatu theology holds that, when they stole a boat and escaped from the Chathams, landing south of Gisborne at Whareongaonga, Te Kooti and his followers were re-enacting the corssing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, whom they claimed as their ancestors. The years Te Kooti and his dwindling, hungry army spent in the forests of the Ureweras were a recapitulation of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert.
Posterization has obscured many of the details of the 1927 portrait of Paitini, making the old soldier’s face as unknowable as the landscape he is riding through. Paul Janman will call me perverse, and point out I am responding not to human agency but to an emotionless computer programme, but I find something moving in the way that posterisation has defeated the voyeuristic intentions of the Star’s photographer, and restored some of the privacy and dignity of Paitini. 
The posterized image at Papers Past suggests the distance between Paitini and us, and between the world of Ruatahuna in 1927 and our own. Instead of being given an image we can assimilate and appropriate, we are forced to think and imagine. 
Perhaps the museum in Waiouru should posterize the competing portraits of Te Kooti, and put them all on display.
*These aren’t the exact words of the museum’s caption. I haven’t visited the National Military Museum for several years. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, February 21, 2014

Pseudo-history at the zoo

I hope that nobody reading the discussions with Tongan Mormons that I posted here last week got the impression that fantastic and politically motivated interpretations of the past are confined to the Friendly Islands. As the more long-suffering readers of this blog can attest, the sort of myths that my Mormon interlocutors were tossing about - myths of a white race settling Polynesia from the Americas, and claims about the bias of university-trained scholars of the past - originate not in the tropical Pacific, but in Europe and Australasia.

At about the same time I was arguing fruitlessly with my new Mormon friends I got involved in a discussion about New Zealand history at Kiwiblog, one of New Zealand's most popular websites. Founded and run by National Party pollster David Farrar, Kiwiblog has, like many of the most successful political blogs, a Janus-faced character.

Farrar is an urbane and relatively moderate man, who moves easily through Wellington's tangle of politicians, journalists, and senior civil servants. Every he day he gathers a few pieces of news reportage that interest him, salts them with some terse commentary, and posts them on his blog. Although Farrar is relentlessly defensive about  the Key government and critical of its opponents, his manner is generally polite, and his arguments are generally rational.

In the comments threads that grow like mushrooms on the soil of Farrar's posts, though, a very different tone and set of arguments can be found. Kiwiblog discussions are dominated by angry and often aggressive blokes, for whom Farrar's National Party is little better than the despised Labour and Greens opposition. For these inveterate commenters - some of whom use their real names, and some of whom choose piquant handles like 'Redbaiter' and 'gulagbound' - New Zealand is being perverted morally and politically by overlapping conspiracies involving Maori radicals, Muslim terrorists, feminist man-haters, communistic public servants, politically correct academics, and, frequently, the United Nations.
Kiwiblog's angry blokes seize on the tidbits of news offered by David Farrar like crocodiles seizing the meat thrown by a zookeeper. When Farrar passes on an interesting piece of research about the prevalence of religion in different parts of Auckland, the Kiwiblog commenters find in it nourishment for their theories about the Islamisation of Auckland and the atheistic conspiracy against Christianity; when Farrar links to an article about former trade unionist Labour MP Darien Fenton's youthful struggle with heroin, the Kiwibloggers take the opportunity to restate, in appropriately graphic language, the evils of unions and lefties; and when Farrar notes that several Treaty of Waitangi settlements have been made under National, the angry blokes go into overdrive, warning of a Maori conspiracy to ruin New Zealand.

Like a mild-mannered zookeeper impressed but also embarrassed by the ferocity of the creatures he feeds, Farrar keeps well clear of most of the discussions his posts provoke. Occasionally, if one of the wild animals he hosts become particularly voracious, or begins to sink his teeth too deeply into the flesh of the National government, then the zookeeper intervenes.

Although Farrar keeps up assiduously with political events in New Zealand, there is a curious timelessness to much of the discussion under his blog posts. When I revisited Kiwiblog recently after a year away in Tonga, where the internet connection is too erratic to waste on rednecks, I discovered many of the same themes being rehashed, by the same commenters, in much the same language. The Kiwibloggers inhabit a static, dichotomous universe, in which the manifold forces of left-wing evil are perpetually threatening, but somehow never quite overcoming, right-thinking New Zealanders.

I wasn't surprised to find a recent Kiwiblog thread about Treaty settlements quickly degenerating, in time-honoured fashion, into the recapitulation of myths about ancient white settlers of New Zealand and the extinction of the Moriori people.

Here are some excerpts from my fight for raw meat with the Kiwiblog crocodiles. David Garrett is, of course, the former Act MP whose ventures into Tuhoe and Indian history have been criticised before on this blog. Anyone wanting an account of the history of Pakeha misrepresentations of Moriori history should read Jacinta Blank's excellent Masters thesis on the subject, which can be found at Canterbury University's online Research Repository. I've blogged about the Moriori myth here, and written about Moriori art here.

Dead Right Kev wrote:

Chris Finlayson is a traitor in my books. He has no justification handing over the legitimate birth rights of all New Zealanders to a small group of Iwi elite via the corrupt Waitangi Tribunal on the basis of compensation. It is a disgrace. If there was a proper independent legal process to analyse these treaty scams based on fact none of them would pass muster. One day this whole fraud will come back to haunt the National Party…

Its time people removed their “we must settle any just and genuine claims of the past” tinted glasses and woke up. There simply are not any justified claims beyond the template grievance model manufactured by the WT industry. They are simply all lining up for a feed on the basis that “the other tribe got some so why shouldn’t I get some too”.

Kiwis don’t like what is going on and every poll related to Maori issues gets over 80% against. Is there a political party that will rise up against it? I won’t hold my breath. Which party stands for upholding property rights?

David Garrett wrote:

I would like to think you are right…but the youngsters coming behind us are now indoctrinated from about year 6 (standard 4) in “grievanceology”…how much we owe the dispossessed brown proletariat for what “we” have done to them…in 15 or 20 years, those kids will be in positions of power…already you and I and the sensible commenters here are minority voices in the wilderness…think what it will be like in 20 years?

Ben Dover wrote:

Let’s see Rat DNA that pre dates Polynesian settlement two distinct breed of “Native Dog” Hmmmmm so who were they? Kupe having red hair in polynesian records? All sorts of references all through their oral records of the Patupaiarehe, also referred to as Turehu, Ngati Hotu and Urukehu (red heads), were said to live in large guarded communities. Yeah no kidding. How much DNA evidence was left of the Mori Ori – who were proto polynesian? What 1 or two survive – if you didn't know what actually happened there the DNA would not tell you the story exterminated DNA does not live to tell a story does it.

Scott wrote:

I suspect there is quite a bit of DNA evidence left, Ben, since there are over nine hundred Moriori living in New Zealand, according to the 2006 census. If you find yourself in Rekohu you could always visit their marae, and if you’re in Auckland you could go down to Clendon Park and watch their softball team play most summer weekends.

The irony is that the Treaty and the Tribunal you’re trying in your blundering way to criticise actually gave the Moriori some of their land and fisheries back, one hundred and seventy years after the Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama invasion. Go and read the Tribunal’s 2002 Rekohu Report. And Moriori were thought in the nineteenth century to be Melanesian, not proto-Polynesian. The academic view changed after HD Skinner visited the Chathams in the twenties and took measurements of bones, collected artefacts and words, and noted the obviously Polynesian nature of Moriori culture and physiology.

Jack5 wrote:

Yet the Taranaki Maori invasion of the Chathams, and their brutal genocide of the Moriori occurred before the Treaty of Waitangi, though apparently the Maori invaders retained Moriori slaves well after the treaty. So the non-Maori majority in New Zealand paid the lion’s share of reparations for pre-treaty genocide by Maori.

The Tribunal also concluded that “Moriori were Maori, of the same Polynesian stock, but a unique tribe through the development of a distinctive culture as a result of their isolation”.So the Tribunal made mainly non-Maori pay for tribal warfare by Maori before the Treaty! If the British had landed troops in the Chathams in 1840 and freed the Moriori slaves and seized land to return it to Moriori, doubtless at the cost of many dead Taranaki Maori (the Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga), New Zealand non-Maori would now be paying reparations for the confiscation of the Taranaki Maori invaders’ land.

Scott wrote:

The Moriori who took their case to the Waitangi Tribunal argued that the Crown colluded in the Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama occupation and genocide by first failing to intervene after 1840, when they allegedly had a legal responsibility under the Treaty to protect Moriori, and then awarding virtually all of the land on Rekohu to those groups, and thereby rubber stamping the dispossession of the Maori.

I don’t know that the Crown had much influence in Northland, let alone the Chathams, in 1840, but I can certainly see how Moriori might be bitter about the way the 1868 – 1874 Land Court hearings ended in the rubber stamping of the Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama occupation, and the provision of only a few acres of swampy land for the remnant of the Moriori population. That decision probably guaranteed that the decline of the Moriori would continue.

Barry Barclay’s film Feathers of the Peace gives a very interesting account of the whole process of Moriori enslavement and the collusion of the Crown with Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama. Ironically, by the time the Crown got round to deciding who owned what land on the Chathams, both those iwi had been won over to the pacifism of Te Whiti, and were riding round the islands wearing white feathers. Barclay suggests that the Crown approved the dispossession of Moriori because it was worried that, if they had the land they had occupied were taken from them, Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama would head back to Taranaki and make trouble there with Te Whiti.

I think Chathams history is fascinating because it turns the pattern of the rest of New Zealand history upside down. In the Chathams Maori were the third people on the scene, not the first, and they played the role of the coloniser rather than the colonised. Reading about the Chathams is like reading an alternate history novel. I think that a lot of British historians are fascinated by the World War Two history of the Channel Islands for a somewhat similar reason. As the only part of Britain to be conquered by the Nazis, it lets us explore a lot of ‘what ifs’.

The group of Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama that invaded the Chathams in1835 had been pushed out of Taranaki by the inter-iwi Musket Wars. The Musket Wars, and the tremendous upheaval of Maori society those wars were both caused and influenced by, have to be understood as the necessary background to the invasion of Rekohu.

Iwi like Ngati Mutnga needed guns to survive, and to get guns they needed cash, which they could only acquire by offering agricultural goods and other primary produce to the new palangi settlements in the Pacific. To grow sufficient quantities of crops like potatoes they needed slaves in unprecedented numbers. After taking Rekohu and enslaving the Moriori, Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama exported potatoes in very large quantities to Wellington, Sydney, and even San Francisco. So the invasion of Rekohu has to be set in the context of the explosive impact of modernity on early nineteenth century New Zealand. That’s why I disagree with Paul Moon when he characterises the Musket Wars and events like the invasion of Rekohu as windows into pre-contact Maori culture.
King’s book Moriori: a people rediscovered is possibly, along with his biography of Te Puea, the best thing he ever did, and an essential introduction to the history of the Chathams/Rekohu/Wharekauri. He does a fine job of synthesising and explaining in plain terms the masses of research on Moriori and Chathams history by people like Skinner and the team of archaeologists who dug the islands up in the seventies. It’s a pity that so many Pakeha, including Ben Dover, still haven’t gotten their heads around the fact that the Moriori are a living Polynesian people, decades after the publication of King’s book.

Ben Dover wrote:

No if there were small populations of white people – how do you fancy their chances and given the fact we know the moriori existed you could barely prove that scientifically could you what is left – some carvings…So now like the NZ racist you are you expect us to accept that what happened in the Chathams is OK So what you are saying is because they are polynesia the Farming of them like Sheep for Food for cannibalism is ok You people twist everything anyones SAYS to YOUR OWN AGENDAPolynesian OR NOT They lived a life style that was more advanced than BOTH MAORI and PAKEHA THAT IS THE TRUTH THAT YOU DO NOT WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW isn’t it

Adze wrote:

The genocide in the Chathams seems very rarely mentioned in public discourse except in the most mitigating of language; that it was an occupation and not a true genocide, that some Pakeha were involved (so it was mostly their fault), and so on.
By contrast, I spent much of my early life assuming that some dreadful massacre must have taken place at Parihaka. I still remember Tariana Turia in parliament referring to the event as a holocaust. Yet it was only later I discovered what actually took place; still an atrocity, to be sure. But if we were to compare the two events, I’m not sure their respective treatment in public consciousness has been proportionate.

Scott wrote:

I think the controversy over the notion of a Taranaki holocaust offers an interesting example of the way history can become overly politicised, and debate about the past can go down a blind alley.

If I remember rightly, the Waitangi Tribunal published a report on Taranaki which characterised the destruction of Parihaka and its aftermath – the sequence of events that included the confiscation of land, the evictions of Te Whiti’s followers from their homes, the imprisonment of many Taranaki Maori in the South Island, where they were held in bad conditions and suffered a high mortality rate, and the marginalisation of Taranaki Maori in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – as a ‘Holocaust’. The Tribunal’s use of this word was controversial, and Tariana Turia attracted criticism from her own Labour colleagues when she defended it.

I can certainly appreciate the argument that the word ‘holocaust’ overstates what happened in Taranaki to Te Whiti’s supporters. If we treat holocaust as a synonym for genocide, and define genocide as the organised attempt to wipe an ethnic group off the map, or even the pursuit of policies which have as their inevitable result the wiping of a people off the map, then the Tribunal seems to have made a mistake. We can say that without denying the injustice at Parihaka and the cruel treatment of Te Whiti’s supporters (I visited the damp and cold cave in Dunedin where many of them were kept: it was a sad experience).

Unfortunately, Maori-bashing politicians have tended not to make a responsible counterargument to the Tribunal’s and Turia’s points, but have instead accused them of saying that the Crown attack on Parihaka – that is, the operation by state forces that saw Te Whiti and other arrested and the settlement destroyed - was itself a ‘holocaust’. Since it is a fact that nobody died during this attack – there was burning and looting but no killing – the effect of this distortion is to make Turia and the Tribunal seem either ill-informed or duplicitous. The whole ‘Turia said that the raid on Parihaka was a holocaust’ line has developed a life of its own, and turns up often on conservative blogs. It’s sad that public discourse on New Zealand history so often follows this kind of road to nowhere.

Ben Dover wrote:

If you people really are interested in these things and polynesian history read the journals of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and all the reference to  Red Haired Gingas Sailing the Pacific slowly being edited out of NZ oral History (and worse denied)…People who are eaten – like the moriori leave little or no trace of DNA – DO they…

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hanging my head in shame

Which fool wrote these words on Facebook a little over a year ago, when Brendon McCullum had just ousted Ross Taylor as boss of the Black Caps? 

 It is just that Brendon McCullum should acquire the captaincy of the New Zealand cricket team. McCullum exemplifies the values and aesthetics of 21st century cricket: he's loudmouthed, self-promoting, money-conscious, flamboyant at the wicket, capable of passages of spectacular batsmanship, and utterly incapable of the gritty, sometimes dour, characterful play for which his distinguished twentieth century preedecessors in the New Zealand team were famous. 
If players like John Reid and Bert Sutcliffe were made for the three month tour and the five day test, then McCullum is built for the week-long 20-20 tournament, where a few massive sixes hit against Bangladesh or Kenya on a flat track will win applause, and speedy, sloppy dismissals against the attacks of top nations like South Africa and England can quickly be forgotten. It is not surprising that McCullum has confessed to have no interest in, and little knowledge of, the history of cricket: his attitude and his style of play are the negation of that history.

Ouch. It was me. Sorry, Brendon. Your triple century at the Basin Reserve was as dourly determined as any epic innings by Turner or Wright. In a curiously Freudian analysis of McCullum's series-winning knock, Abishek Purohit argues that the famously aggressive batsman has 'triumphed over' his 'essence'. Just as Freud argued, in that famously dour little book Civilisation and its Discontents, that repression was essential to the construction of large-scale societies, so Purohit suggests that McCullum has had to restrain his cricketing id to build a large innings:
He has battled what he has stood for, and what the world has known him for. He has overcome his own essence...What it must have cost the man we will never be able to tell. For how many of us can say we have militated against our own nature and succeeded? 
McCullum's triple century was so impressive that Purohit's solemnities seem profound, rather than pretentious. Now I'm going away to hang my head in shame.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 

Friday, February 14, 2014

After Odd Future, shall we ban the Rolling Stones?

After complaints from lawyer and anti-misogyny activist Denise Ritchie, New Zealand's Ministry of Immigration has agreed to ban the hip hop group Odd Future from New Zealand.* Odd Future had been scheduled to support Eminem at a concert in Auckland this weekend.

Ritchie charges Odd Future with celebrating sexual violence, and it isn't hard to find images of girlfriend-bashing, adbuction, rape, and even necrophilia in their work. A typical Odd Future song features minimal, erratic beats, distorted samples, and lyrics that are alternately sad, absurd, and sick:

Product of popped rubbers and pops who did not love us
So when I leave home keep my heart in the top cupboard...

I'm Dracula bitch
Don't got a problem snatching a bitch
Kidnapping, attacking, with axes and shit
'Til I grab them throats and start smacking the shits

But if Denise Ritchie and her supporters think that the Odd Future should be banned from New Zealand for promoting sexual violence, shouldn't they also be calling for the Rolling Stones to be turned around at Auckland airport?

The Stones are scheduled to play in Auckland in April, and their set is sure to include an old favourite called 'Brown Sugar', in which Sir Mick Jagger narrates, in a joyous voice, the torture and rape of a young black girl by an elderly slave master:

Gold coast slaveship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver knows he's doin' alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.

Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good.
A-ha brown sugar just like a young girl should...

I'm no schoolboy but I know what I like,
You should have heard me just around midnight.

'Brown Sugar' gleefully documents the sexual predation that was endemic in America's slave trade. The song's lyrics are as explicit and as apparently pitiless as anything by Tyler the Creator, the leader and main lyricist of Odd Future.

But neither Denise Ritchie nor anyone else will object to the upcoming Stones concert. The Stones will be welcomed almost as reverently as that other venerable British institution, the Windsors, and tens of thousands of Kiwis will sing along to 'Brown Sugar'.

If we do not treat 'Brown Sugar' as a defence of slavery and sexual violence, it is because assume that Sir Mick is wearing a persona when he performs the song. We recognise that he is giving his voice and mannerisms to a character, a monster who belongs to a monstrous period of history.

We show a similar ability to distinguish between the subject matter and message of a work of art when we read novels, or watch movies, or enjoy television. Last year huge numbers of Kiwis enjoyed the final series of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan's TV drama about a chemistry teacher who reacts to a cancer diagnosis and a financial crisis by becoming a methamphetamine manufacturer and a gangster. Like its predecessors, Breaking Bad's final series was full of drug making and taking, stabbing, shooting, and misogynistic language. Neither Denise Ritchie nor anyone else, though, has accused Vince Gilligan of inciting violence, or demanded that his programme be pulled from our screens.

But the tolerance that we give to a song like 'Brown Sugar' or a drama like Breaking Bad is not extended to the work of Odd Future. Unlike the fans of the Rolling Stones or Breaking Bad, the young, working class, mostly non-white audience of Odd Future and similar bands is apparently incapable of distinguishing between art and life, and of differentiating an artist's personae from his or her opinions. Denise Ritchie and the Ministry of Immigration consider the lyrics of Odd Future straightforward statements of the views of the band's members, and deem fans of the band to be too feeble-minded to resist its supposed message of hate and violence. If Tyler the Creator raps about being Dracula he isn't adopting a persona, but instead suggesting, in deadly earnest, that his fans follow his example by sleeping in a coffin and drinking blood from the throats of his victims.

Odd Future is only the latest hip hop act to be targeted by censors. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the outcry against the dominant cultural expression of African Americans is linked to the dehumanisation and criminalisation of that community by successive American governments.

As Eugene Jarecki showed memorably in his recent documentary film The House I Live In, the 'War on Drugs' that the Reagan administration began in the 1980s has seen generations of young black men branded as crazed, conscienceless animals by law enforcement agencies, the media, and politicians. The police siren that features so prominently in so many classic hip hop tracks has become a permanent accompaniment to life in cities like Lose Angeles, Detroit, and Baltimore, as the same police force that ignores white drug users locks down whole black neighbourhoods.

In a 2011 article called 'Why You Should Listen to Odd Future, Even Though It's Hard' Frannie Kelley argues that the bloodthirsty, absurdist lyrics of the band are a sort of ironic response to white prejudices about young African Americans. Kelley thinks that the criticisms commonly made of Odd Future 'might say more about the people making them' than they do about what the band. The latest campaign against Odd Future underlines Kelley's words.

*In an interview with Radio New Zealand this morning, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Immigration argued very unconvincingly that the ban was motivated by Odd Future's history of 'inciting violence' in public, rather than on the content of its lyrics. I'll discuss this argument in another post.

Footnote: this very interesting report from Britain, which features interviews with fans of Odd Future, adds to my feeling that there is an irony to the band's music that has escaped many of those who decry it from a distance.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

'More delusional than Darwin': arguing about the past with Tongan Mormons

A researcher from Maori television’s Native Affairs programme called me last week to ask for some help with a feature on the gang of politically motivated pseudo-historians who insist, against all of the evidence, that white people – Celts, or Vikings, or Phoenicians, or even immigrants from some distant planet - settled New Zealand thousands before the ancestors of Maori, and created a technologically sophisticated and peaceable civilisation here.

From 2008 to 2012 I wrote a number of pieces on the pseudo-historians for this blog and other sites, and even appeared on radio once or twice to discuss the phenomenon, but because I lived in Tonga I lost touch with their activities. I warned Native Affairs that Matthew Dentith, whose meticulous and perhaps masochistic investigations into all manner of curious beliefs have been rewarded with a book contract by a top academic publisher, was probably a better source on the recent antics of the ‘whites were here first’ crowd.

I have to admit that a year in Tonga has made me resigned to, if not sanguine about, the phenomenon of pseudo-history. For reasons I can’t now remember, I had imagined that the malady was confined to my white-skinned, traditionally imperialistic tribe, and that once I’d despatched myths of pyramids in the Waipoua Forest and observatories on the hilltops of Auckland it would be more or less cured. After a year of sitting around kava circles hearing stories about drowned cities in the Pacific, ancient UFO bases in the Tongan countryside, and the Lamanite founders of Polynesia, I no longer imagine that fantastic and imperiocentric versions of history are the preserve of palangi culture.
A couple of weeks ago I discovered a discussion about the history of the Pacific at the Tonga Topix site, after one the participants in the discussion mistakenly cited a post on this blog as evidence for his views.
Many of the people arguing at the Tongan Topix site appeared to be Mormons from Western Polynesia, and I doubted whether they’d have much sympathy for a monolingual palangi atheist who turned up to tell them that their narrative of the past, with its epic migration to the Americas and the Pacific by the people of the Old Testament, was wrong. At the same time, I didn’t like the idea that my blog had suddenly become a cog in the vast and creaky machine of Mormon historiography.
Here are some excerpts from the long and less than fruitful argument I ended up having at Tonga Topix.
Uiha wrote:
we polynesians r seed of Joseph that was sold to Egypt…we r part of da 12 tribes of Israel, point blank folks ,if we come frm asia wouldn't we be lookin slant eyed…we look more like native americans
Scott wrote:
Nobody claims a close connection between Han Chinese or Japanese and Polynesians. Have a look at an Ainu person or at one of the indigenous people of Taiwan. They look rather like Polynesians. There's overwhelming genetic, linguistic, and archaeological evidence to support the idea that Polynesians are, like the Ainu and the indigenous Taiwanese, descendants of the Austronesian people who emerged from Asia four or five thousand years ago. The evolution of Polynesian culture took place in the region we now call Polynesia.

Samonga wrote:
I don't think original Polynesians were Asians...however, they did mix later on... you can't really rule out migrations from South America as some of our myth migrations kinda fits in with what Uiha is talking about? The mayans believe in a descending God...so do Polynesians...Maybe it’s a mayan belief that we believe in a descending God from the heavens? Maybe the descending God is Jesus?

Uiha wrote:
mr hamilton no body knos wer polynesian people originated frm ,u n sum scientists claim we came frm asia, a slant eyed culture ,how absurd is that POLYNESIANS DON"T LOOK ASIANS…u all delusional ,frm theorizin n guessin wer polys come frm ,jussa like da numnut darwin dat say man come frm apes…u all more delusional than darwin

Scott wrote:
Once again, Uiha, the ancestors of the Polynesians, the Austronesian peoples who came out of mainland Asia and Taiwan five thousand or so years ago, are not the same people as the Han Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, and so on. Google some images of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, or the indigenous peoples of Taiwan.
David Burley has dated Lapita pottery pulled from sites along Tongatapu's Fanga'uta lagoon at close to three thousand years old. Are you suggesting that the people who settled at Nukuleka and elsewhere on the lagoon were the same people in the Bible, which records events which are supposed to have occurred about three thousand years ago? How did they travel across the world, develop a distinct material culture, and set up shop in Tonga?
The sad thing is that Tongans who buy into this stuff are recycling the myths concocted by discredited white men like Heyerdahl and the early Mormons. They've internalised a false version of their history, and ignored the data unearthed by both palangi and Polynesian scientists over the last century.
You claim that people only arrived in the Americas about three thousand years ago. It's hard to know where to begin replying to such a notion, but it might be worth mentioning Monte Verde, a site in southern Chile which has become famous for being the oldest known human settlement in the Americas. Monte Verde has been extensively excavated, and scientists have dated it using radiocarbon techniques, the analysis of pollen spore, and stratigraphy. They estimate it was settled about twelve thousand years ago. 

Tongagodz wrote:
I looked into this Mormon claim to descendants of the ancient people of the Americas voyaging to the isles of the Sea and their time frame would have been about 550 AD and there were more than one voyage there and back and these people were coming to live it wasn't an expedition... from what we know to be true about our ancient people, that came from the Gods and we were fair skin folks w a bridge to our nose n t average height for a man was 6ft. So, of science can improve upon all that we welcome it.

Samonga wrote:
Anything is possible? Polynesians in early days were noted to be fair skinned people? I’m just stating possibilities n questions as we wont know the truth until we depart from this life. With Asians going into Tonga these days,4 generations from now and the next DNA sample will have Tongans under Asia n their descendants will be taught they came from Asia...

Scott wrote:
We can observe the histories of many Pacific societies and see evidence of migrations changing the material culture and ideas. For example, we can look at Kiribati and note the names of Samoan mountains that turn up there, despite the flatness of the landscape, or we can look at the way that a Tongan vocabulary has overwhelmed the substrate of a non-Tongic language in Niuafo'ou.
It is reasonable, on the basis of evidence like this, to suppose a Samoan migration to Kiribati and a Tongan migration to Niuafo'ou. But where are the thousands of American words in Tongan and other Polynesian languages? Where are the tools made in American styles, out of American stone? Where is the DNA?

Tongagodz wrote:
tonga has pyramid tombs for the ancient kings…pyramid building for interning deceased royals is not an Asian fang, it reeks biblical…Lapita people were water folks they weren't into building these type of structure…There's no way that these ocean folks could evolved on they own into these types skills necessary to accomplish out pf nowhere in the middle of the ocean such remarkable accomplishments. 
Scott wrote:

The notion that some cultures are static, and can’t change without contact with superior people from distant regions of the world, belongs to nineteenth century European thought. Whether or not they receive stimulus from outside, cultures change continually in all sorts of ways. Aotearoa had very little if any contact with the rest of Polynesia, and yet Maori society in the North Island evolved profoundly in a few short centuries, moving from a virtually hunter gatherer basis to a sedentary basis and seeing the construction of monumental sites. In the Chathams things moved in the other direction, as the Moriori evolved a simpler culture to deal with an extreme environment.

In his classic book The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms Patrick Vinton Kirch tries to create a theoretical framework in which the changes that Pacific societies went through can be understood. He emphasises the growth of population and the depletion of resources on small islands, and links these events to the growth of hierarchy and to warfare. It's no surprise Tonga, with its fertile soil but limited area, became very hierarchical and martial over the centuries.

If you're going to claim that the Lapita people didn't develop into Tongans, but instead were helped out by a migration of American people, then you need to show us the material, genetic, and linguistic evidence for such an event. The shoreline of Fanga'uta lagoon has been extensively excavated, and we have a clear picture of the layers of materials found there. Where is the layer of materials - tools, weapons, and so on - that hails from the Americas? Where are the American words in Tongan? Where is the non-Austronesian DNA?

Samonga wrote:
So what if they didn't find anything in Nukuleka? There’s evidence but still hidden under ground n evidence at the bottom of the seabed...pity uz cant get there, like getting to the bottom of the waters between Eua n Tongatapu… Tonga didnt have the resources or tools say what the Americas had...but they adapted with what they had? They had no massive rock slabs so they got it from Uvea...they wanted bigger boats so they chop the trees in the Lau group...who taught dem? Obviously some foreigners came with this knowledge, they were also sun worshippers...

Uiha wrote:
not only do we have physicle evidence ,but spiritual evidence, JESUS CHRIST appeared to da people of da americas,n established his church among them n the LORD taught them of the FATHER IN HEAVEN ,n ordained them with the HOLY PRIESTHOOD ,n da HOLY CHOST,n wen JESUS ascended to da sky,the LORD promised dat he will return,the native americans speak of da great white spirit wen da europeans came to da north americas ,n da actec montezuma made a fatal mistake by mistaking Cortez as da great white god dat promised to return frm da sky, n in Tonga captain was told of da OTUA dat lived in PULOTU(HEAVEN),daannngggg we all jussa conected da dots n proved we originated frm america ,n da BOOK OF MORMON is a true account of da people of da americas,n THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST AND OF THE LATTER DAY SAINTS is da true church of CHRIST that was established by JESUS here on da americas n was written on GOLDEN PLATES that GOD gave to JOSEPH SMITHin the name of JESUS CHRIST HALLELUJAH praise da LORD amen

Jestr wrote:
Tongans are mixed, many of us got mela and poly blood, due to karate kung fuing all over the pacific. It is mainly Sa's that claim to be pure polys. Evidence is evidence buddy, you came from down through south east Asia.

Scott wrote:
The idea that Tongans had to wait around for some pale-skinned South Americans to turn up and teach them how to create monumental architecture is not credible. There are numerous examples of societies developing such architecture on their own. There was no need to go to 'Uvea, because of the supplies of beach rock in Tonga. The quarries on Pangaimotu, Fafa, and Hihifo beaches show that plenty of rock was taken locally. Some stone might have come from 'Uvea, but by that time monumental architecture would have been well and truly established.
Samonga claims that the excavations of archaeologists at Nukuleka and other places in present-day Tonga are worthless, because the ancient people that came from the Americas settled on islands that have since sunk to the bottom of the sea.
There are two problems with this idea. In the first place, a lot of study on the geology of Tonga has been done, and we know which islands were where thousands of years ago. Maps of the palaeoshoreline of Tongatapu, for example, show how much of present-day Nuku'alofa was underwater when the Lapita people arrived close to three thousand years ago. There was less, not more, land in Tonga thousands of years ago, because sea levels were higher, so the only way an island could have existed then and sunk since is through some sort of volcanic eruption or earthquake. I'm not aware of any evidence for such an event. If it occurred then it would surely have left a tephra, or layer of debris, in the soil for excavators to find.

Let's assume, though, for the sake of argument, that a large number of Americans came to Tonga long ago, built a civilisation on an island, and then saw that civilisation disappear. The problem of the lack of evidence for any sort of influence from the Americans on Tongans remains. Where is the American DNA in Tongans? Where are the American artefacts? Where are the American words? Perhaps it could be argued that the Americans stayed on one remote island, had no contact with Tongans, and then disappeared without a trace under the water. But even if that outlandish scenario were assumed to be true, the fact would still remain that there is no discernible trace of American influence on Tongan culture or in Tongan blood.

I can only assume that those who want to make Americans into the ancestors of Tongans have religious reasons.

Tongagodz wrote:
l will make a claim that upon discovering Tonga some witnesses inquired about a set of stones steps found right on to Nuku'alofa warf, that was really high and it turns out they were remnants of a pyramid t size of t ones in S America it was said it was made in a zigzag form exactly like ancients Americas n Egypt. Bcoz of natural disasters it sustained damage n t natives slowly took the stones for personal use and later it was probably destroyed.

Maorigurl wrote:
Hi Scott, I'm reading through a lot of your comments & blogs & what I wanted to ask you is; You put a lot of emphasis in theories from scholars & discoverers, papers & journals but I see nothing from traditional polynesian methods. We are all cultures which hand down our skills & history by word of mouth, stories, dance, song, folklore & teaching none of which you mention, does this mean it is not a valid source for you?
Just so you understand my point I have learnt everything I know about my culture in the first instance in this way & continue to learn by this method & now papers, theories etc in which I try to align what I already know. How is it that our most powerful source of knowledge handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth (which could essentially describe journals are but read generations later with no one to fill in the questions or the small details) not also be included in our assumptions, validations of how we come to be?

Uiha wrote:
foreigners need to stop theorizin about our proud heritage

Scott wrote:
Hi Maorigurl, you make a fair point. I accept that there is a disconnect between the motives and methods that many Polynesian have when they talk about their history and the motives and methods of most academics investigating the ancient history of the Pacific. Academics often want dates, and like rigorous empirical methods, whereas folks telling stories round the kava bowl rely on oral history, songs and so on, and are less interested, in my experience, in getting some precise date for an event than in making some sort of point to their listeners.

But I don't think this is necessarily an ethnically-based difference, because some of the key academics studying Pacific history are Polynesian, and the fact is that many palangi - the palangi who live in the rural region of NZ where I grew up, for instance - also have little interest in academic study of the past, rely on oral tradition, and are less interested in getting the dates right than making some practical point.

The Tongan historian Sione Latukefu did a lot of oral history in Tonga, but wrote a famous essay insisting that this evidence had to be backed up with other types of evidence, like the written record or archaeological data. And Te Rangi Hiroa/Sir Peter Buck seems to have taken a similar position.

I think that oral history can help us understand a culture, but I am sceptical about how much we can rely on it for facts. It seems to me that when people tell a story they are telling you about how they see the event they are describing, and that this is what is valuable. Whether the event occurred in the way they describe, or occurred at all, is another question. I think there are particular problems with trying to use oral history to establish chronologies of past events. It's amazing how quickly dates get muddled when stories pass from mouth to mouth.

A student of mine was doing a history of his village of Kala'au, and some of his informants discussed the visit of a group of scientists interested in the huge rock that sits near their homes. The scientists visited in 2008, but the villagers, when talking to my student last year, thought they had turned up in 2004.
Last November I visited the village Kolomaile on 'Eua and talked with some of the elders there about the raid on 'Ata by slavers, which occurred in 1863. The elders dated the event to 1887.
I think that people like Uiha show the importance of getting the facts of the past right, even if, as you point out, the facts aren't all that matter when we think about and talk about the past.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, February 07, 2014

Growing maize: a letter to Paul Janman

Hi Paul,
now that we’re living in the same country again, and might have some time to work on that documentary about the Great South Road, I wanted to tell you about an image that deserves a place in the film.
A couple of years ago Auckland’s central public library filled its exhibitions room with a few of the thousands of books, images, and artefacts that George Grey hoarded during his long and peripatetic career as administrator of Britain’s nineteenth century empire. In between the original editions of Blake’s illuminated manuscripts and the shaky sketches Grey made of Aboriginal rock art during the deadly expedition he made into the Kimberleys as a young man, I found a small, blurred, astonishing photograph.
Taken on a primitive camera somewhere in the Waikato Kingdom in the first years of the 1860s, when the Mangatawhiri Stream at Mercer still represented the border between Maori sovereignty and British colonialism, the image showed a ‘native church’ set amidst fields of what looked like maize or wheat.
With their wooden materials, gothic structure, and stained glass windows of fort-building and dragon-slaying Englishmen, the churches that Augustus Selwyn’s Anglican church raised after the invasion, conquest, and confiscation of the Waikato Kingdom have become favourites of Auckland daytrippers and wedding parties.
It is easy to forget – I confess I had forgotten – that, well before the invasion of 1863, Maori religious leaders like Wiremu Tamihana were raising their own, very different churches south of the Mangatwhiri. The church in the photograph was long, and low, and rectangular, like the dozens of wharenui that stand today on the archipelago of Maori-owned land in the Waikato, but it was made with provisional, fragile materials: raupo logs, fern, reeds, and what looked like flax. It was a building thrown up quickly, by a society in motion.
In the 1850s and early ‘60s, under the leadership of Tamihana and his allies, the hapu and iwi of the Waikato had begun to grow wheat and corn alongside traditional crops like kumara, and had planted dense and profitable forests of plums and peaches. A fleet of Maori-owned schooners took these goods to the hungry settler city of Auckland, and returned with cash and trade goods. The Waikato boomed, and new kainga were established beside the ever-growing cultivations.
The crops behind the church seemed to sway, and I imagined a wind blowing down the Waikato, from the hills at Bombay where Grey’s troops were felling trees and laying gravel, as they built the Great South Road, or the ‘road to war’, as some land-hungry Auckland settlers apparently called it. The road would soon run all the way to the border at Mangatawhiri.
In the decades after 1863, the landscape of the Waikato began to change. Swamps were drained like wounds, forests of kahikatea and puriri were felled for fenceposts, and cows and sheep grazed over razed wheat and corn fields. After the invention of refrigerated shipping in the 1880s, and the beginning of a large-scale trade in beef and mutton with Britain, these changes to the landscape hastened.
In the twentieth century the region became synonymous with dairy farming – it was commonly called, by sarcastic Aucklanders as well as proud Hamiltonians, ‘Cow Country’, and its rugby team, which had inherited some of the martial spirit of the soldier settlers sent south from Auckland by Grey, was nicknamed the Mooloos, after a Jersey cow.
Sometimes remembering must involve imagining. Because of the destruction of the old landscape of the Waikato, and the rarity of images of that landscape, it has taken historians and artists an effort of imagination to conjure the world of the 1850s and early ‘60s.

With its fields of wheat and maize wedged between forested wetlands and a broad, turbulent river unharassed by dams and flood gates and pumping stations, the Waikato of Wiremu Tamihana’s era would inevitably seem exotic, even alien, to New Zealanders born after the 1860s. It might have more in common with certain Asian landscapes – with the tilled floodplains of the Mekong River in southern Vietnam, for instance, or the lowlands of Java – than with the place we recognise as New Zealand.
In recent years, though, the landscape of the Waikato has begun to change again. The new middle and upper classes of a booming China have decided, for reasons that are perhaps obscure, to make the consumption of dairy products one of the symbols of their prosperity. The milk, cream, yoghurt and cheese produced in regions like the Waikato is devoured in Shanghai and Dalian. The dairy boom has inevitably increased the size of dairy farms and cow herds. Hilly and scrubby land that was long abandoned to sheep and beef farming is being deemed fit for dairying, and new supermarket-sized milking ‘sheds’ are being raised.
The burgeoning dairy herds of the Waikato have an appetite as hard to satisfy as the consumers of China. Farmers have long fed their cows maize, to supplement their diet and increase their milk yields, and the new dairy boom has vastly increased demand for this crop. In the past, many dairy farmers would set aside a paddock or two for a maize crop to feed their stock; increasingly, though, cropping specialists are growing maize on large blocks of land and selling it to dairy farmers. Much of the maize is being grown on low reedy acreage close to the Waikato and Waipa Rivers.
When I travelled down the Great South Road into the Waikato recently, I was amazed that, in the year I had been away, so much cropland had appeared alongside the river. The luxuriant and lost fields I had seen in that ancient photograph seemed to have returned, though in the twenty-first century they are more likely to be owned by an Auckland or Australian-based company than a hapu.
I am not sure how Auckland’s librarians regard the man who founded their institution. Like so many treasures the colonial past has bequeathed us, Grey's hoard of books and images smells of gunpowder and blood. When they retrieved those photographs and notebooks and war charts from their basement, the librarians were exhuming a corpse. But I think that, even if it means annoying the custodians of Auckland’s past, we need to find the photograph I saw in the library’s exhibition room, and put it in your film.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A cold wind from the south

Hamish Dewe and I had been struggling with the atlas for half an hour, as we kneeled on the floor of my living room. We'd turned page after page, marched our eyes across mountain ranges with homely or carefully factual names - I liked Raggedy Range, whereas Hamish, always an enemy of subjectivity, was impressed by the dour moniker Rock and Pillar Range - we'd forded rivers with our fingers, and we'd followed roads and rail lines hopefully, until they petered out in marshes or on high plateaux.

We were looking for a town - was it a really a town, with a solid brick hall and a pub and a supermarket and a KFC, or was it more like the sort of village where an old black labrador sleeps on the main street at noon, and local farmers who have driven in for their rations of gossip have to resort to standing about in front of the dairy? - named Middlemarch, and we were lost.

I was embarrassed by my ignorance of South Island geography, but Hamish was defiant, even after one of our journeys left us stranded on the cool shores of Fouveaux Strait, and forced us to resort to the atlas' index. "I don't want to know too much about the South Island" he said. "I want it to hang down there vaguely and emptily, as a possible sanctuary, if Auckland ever gets hit by a pandemic or another rugby world cup. It's my insurance policy."

Hamish and I had gotten down the atlas and set out for Middlemarch after getting a  message from Bill Direen, the legendary musician, songwriter, and translator. Bill has lived for most of the last twenty years in Europe, a continent he treats like an archipelago of cities, as he moves by train and plane from a home in Paris to other built-up islands like Berlin, making music and teaching and writing.
During his regular but relatively brief visits to New Zealand, Bill has kept to our country's urban spaces. Once, when Bill was staying in Auckland, I asked him whether he fancied a journey into the spacious and lonely Limestone Country that begins south of the heads of the Waikato River; he declined my invitation, and explained that he found extended periods in the wilds unsettling, because decades of exposure to loud guitars had given him a serious case of tinnitus (he did eventually agree to travel as far as Port Waikato).

Bill's pale, almost translucent face, which might belong to a snooker champion or a technician at a nuclear power plant, made me guess that, even in sanctuaries of noise and bustle like Paris, he avoided the open air.

Bill's art has always seemed as urban as his lifestyle. The songs he has performed and recorded, with the ceaselessly changing lineup of his consistently raucous backing band The Bilders, are full of creaky bridges and vandalised walls and chaotic tube stations, and short on forests and mountains. The video at the top of this post, which accompanies a song The Bilders cut in 2011, takes us on a fast journey through Direen's world.

I was surprised, then, when Bill announced that he had recently acquired a house in a little South Island town called Middlemarch, and that he intended to live there, in between jaunts to Europe and Auckland. When I passed the news onto Hamish, we began to argue about the exact location of Middlemarch. Hamish insisted that, with its echoes of George Eliot, the town must lie somewhere in that antipodean England known as the province of Canterbury; I bet on a more southerly location, and wondered whether Middlemarchers might have a view of the Clutha. After our grudging resort to the atlas' index, we discovered that Middlemarch lies in central Otago, northwest of Dunedin and southwest of Oamaru.
Bill Direen is not the first artist to settle in the interior of New Zealand's coldest province. Brian Turner, who has for decades now enjoyed strangely complementary careers as a sports biographer and a poet, moved many years ago from the comparative comfort of Dunedin to Oturehua, the coldest settlement in all of New Zealand. But Turner is an ostentatiously rugged character, who enjoys cycling and hiking through subzero weather and treats a heavy frost as a sign of favour from the heavens. How will Bill Direen, with his urbane habits, deal with life in Middlemarch? Can we now expect tussock and snow in his songs? Will he sing about potatoes that come from the earth, rather than from the dumpsters his characters like to dive?

Bill's fans might be able to answer questions like these next Saturday, when he plays a gig at the Wine Cellar with The Bilders. I'll be there in my tupenu and my Hawaiian shirt.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]