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PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog

Neat and tidy

I remember visiting a farm in the Hakataramea Valley during the crisis of the 1980s, when farming subsidies were dropped. The valley had experienced a drought and a Greenie renegade had sold his sheep after the first year because the land needed a breather. He’d  invested the money in the booming share market, then sold his shares just before the 1987 crash and returned to sheep. Smart cookie. He didn’t bother with weed control. Sheep will eat weeds, he told me. He was of the belief that the average Kiwi farmer had a suburban neat-and-tidy outlook. A lot of farming was about having everything looking under control. It’s a continuation of the need-to-conquer-nature attitude of the colonist.

Blackball has a high rainfall and back in the day, the miners dug drainage ditches along each street in order to get rid of excess water.  The network of ditches flows into the creek systems below the plateau and they work remarkably well. Sometimes they need cleaning of debris. Kids love them, for there’ll be crawlies and there’s mud. Occasionally some watercress grows. Backing out of driveways requires some caution and ‘ditch parking’ as it is colloquially referred to, has been known to occur, especially with visitors. Drunks have also had an intimate relationship with a ditch. So there is history and stories attached.

But now, with the approaching Paparoa Great Walk, the Council has decided the ditches are untidy and archaic. Visitors need to be greeted with something more upbeat as they arrive along the main entrance road, something smooth and tidy. Ranginui’s excessive tears need to be hidden. Accordingly, a team of workers have been digging out the ditches and inserting pipes and manholes. Layers of fill and gravel are compacted by diggers, graders, rollers and trucks working in a sort of frenzy to eradicate detail and story. I’m not criticising the work crew, they’re doing their job efficiently and in good heart – it’s the ethos behind this endeavour: to make it neat and tidy, to put things underground and lay the surface with tarseal and concrete, to conquer the earth so that human beings feel untouched and omnipotent.

Luckily, the exercise is expensive, $100,000 or thereabouts and will be reserved for the main road and the tourists. The rest of us will continue to enjoy our ditches and the stories of a bygone era.

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On not meeting Barack Obama

I saw a French film a long time ago about the Sun King, Louis XIV, also known as Louis the God-Given or Louis the Great. There was a scene of Louis as a child being told sternly to never touch his face. The incident has stayed with me. Here was a boy and then a man who never touched his face in public. Touching of the face is usually a childish act of reassurance, to make contact with the oral centre. A king doesn’t require reassurance. There would be other behavioural matters of speech, dress and so on, and to be king required Louis to learn this public image.

Obama became, and remains, a public image, that of the first Afro-American (albeit a recent migrant) to become president. This required him to be extra presidential, to stay calm, to never, no matter what the provocation, no matter what the failures, to show grief or anger. And the provocations and the failures were huge: Netanyahu humiliating him, the Republicans refusing to be reasonable, Palestine remaining a mess, Guantanamo not closing, having to bail out the bankers rather than the mortgagees, Syria erupting, Afghanistan remaining problematic, Medicare scraping through in diluted form, gun control failing… And he killed a lot of people through drone strikes and expelled more illegal immigrants than his predecessor. But he stayed cool. He never touched his face. He was obedient to the system. (His successor, Trump, is a disobedient lunatic, losing the plot on every occasion.)

Now Obama has become a charismatic figure. He can’t speak about politics or judge his replacement. Instead, he has become royalty, above it all.  The playing of golf by these leaders, is, it is reported, a chance to escape the immediate presence of their security people, who, given the spaciousness of the golf course, have to resort to hanging out in trees and other possible places of concealment.

Obama and John Key seem to genuinely get on. They were both brought up by their mothers and both have a migrant parent. John Key as well, never got angry or sad, never touched his face as it were. He’d learned not to need reassurance. Obama has written two books and is a literate man. Both books are explorations of the migrant child. In the first he searches for his Kenyan father and details the struggles of the white solo mother with a coloured child. The other book is a study of senate politics and I was impressed by the migrant boy’s willingness to learn the ropes and play the game. Key’s mother was a Jewish refugee and he in turn learned to play the broker game, then the political game. I suspect that neither, in fact, had a particular ideology to push, neither had  a passion. They suspected such extremity. Obama, as writer, enjoyed the oratorical and oratory plays a role in US politics far more than it does in NZ. Key never indulged in verbal flights of fancy.

But having done their stint they now stand, like royalty, above the fray. Earning big bucks is easy: $400,000 an appearance for the orator; the broker can sit on boards. Not touching the face has its rewards.

It’s interesting to compare this with the experience of the Cuban revolutionaries who earned their mana though fighting in the mountains, through long marches in rain and mud, tormented by mosquitoes and asthma, depending on the peasantry for a meagre diet, wounded and exhausted but finally victorious, driven by anger and grief at injustice. Touching the face was not an issue. Liberty or death was the issue.

Royalty disdains such melodrama.

Easter Journey

We went north for Easter, myself, Caroline and Te Whaea, drove to Picton, left the car, caught the ferry, had a night in Wellington, hired a car, drove to Ohau to scatter my brother’s ashes, then dropped Whaea off at her Mum’s in Palmerston North, before continuing to Napier to spend a night with my nephew from my adopted family,  whose mother recently died.

It was great not to fly.  Airplanes and airports are tedious, a fatal disaster the only possibility of excitement. On a car and boat journey, you experience change in the landscape, you see things and people: are disturbed as the procession of churchgoers with their cross walk through the pleasure-seeking crowd in Picton, over hear conversations, have time to ponder the blind girl and her friend, watch the white stick unfold and snap open, wonder about the man incessantly pacing the terminal, doze as you traverse the strait, watch the ramp come down ever so slowly and the bright light of the capital intrude.

The family gathering was healing. For the first time my brother and sister spoke their stories of the family disintegration, their middle-aged children weeping as the traffic on SH1 flowed past in the distance. The ashes were heavy and ready to form clay.  For the first time we seemed to exist as a family unit, a disjointed and edgy one, but that was okay. We’d  had to wait until old age for it to happen, but that was also okay.

From there to one of those Californian houses, large and lush, the adopted family having progressed from an ex-state house to this in two generations. It’s why Mexicans keep crossing the border, for they can see that the dream can happen; for these are ordinary working people living in these suburbs. I pondered the recent photos of my sister in law. She’d shrunk into the physical archetype of an old lady on a marae, become a kuia. They’d bought this house so she could have the flat that was attached. She was already frail and an infection in the pancreas quickly invaded and they’d had to make the painful decision to switch off the life support.

I remembered her first appearance at the ex-state house in Palmerston North. She’d been a girl with life in her and as she refused Pakeha puritanism, was a welcome change. I remembered the loving, close physical relationship she had with her infant son. I remembered her sadness when she witnessed my daughter’s growing facility with te reo and her telling us of her regret at not learning the language from her native-speaker father when she was a child. I remembered these things. I hadn’t seen her for ten years and now she had become memory. Remnants of my brother will still lie in the river bed.

My nephew and his wife took us to the local Indian restaurant for dinner. In the morning he showed me his Harley and I took their dog for a walk. The last night of the trip we stayed with Omar and Serena in Wellington. On their wall is a map of Palestine before the creation of Israel, a document lovingly prepared, the Arabic writing a graceful commentary.

It was the most political image I’ve seen for a very long time.

Core Business

Back to rehearsing. Core business. It makes me feel alive in a way nothing else does: to find the emotion, the thought, the gesture, the shape of a story, to go behind the mask, to be the other and therefore more oneself, the interaction past daily chat and routine, to tell the truth or at least endeavour to do so. And it is innocent, for it leaves no mark on the planet.

It takes me back to directing my first play at university and thinking, I can do this. For some reason I know how to do this.

And all those places where I’ve rehearsed, often odd places, for rehearsal space can be an expensive issue so it’s a matter of seeking spaces that are under-used. For years, it was the Kelburn Scout Hall, nicely situated in the Wellington Botanical Gardens near the top of the Cable Car. It was only used one evening a week and otherwise free. A couple of memorable incidents. Once, during the voice exercises there was a knock on the door and a Japanese man bowed and gestured that he wished to enter. He did so, sat and watched for a while then got up and performed his own voice exercises (he was probably a Kabuki actor). Afterward, he bowed and left. On another occasion, policemen with a dog burst in the door, it having been reported that someone was in distress.

The Scout Hall became unavailable so we moved to the derelict NZ Players Building in Newtown with its multitude of memories for NZ theatre. Then it was bought for apartment development and for a period we had a space in a short-lived artist’s co-op which rented an old woolstore with lovely lanolin floors from the sheep wool. Then we started slumming it, using the abandoned Mataraunga School in Aro Street, an old factory in Dixon Street, before finally acquiring a studio, the gracious ballroom of the old Working Men’s Club in Petone. Each place had its stories and its ghosts. Each place was marginal. One rehearses on the margins.

In England we found a Girl Guides Hut in Haslemere, Surrey. Once again the police turned up, this time a Bobby on his bicycle. And then there was the time Karlite Rangihau took us to Ruatahuna to rehearse – a life changing experience. Twice I’ve had the privilege of working on a play at Tapu Te Ranga. Now, in Mawhera, we have the luxury of a big school room without desks. It has a heat pump for winter, is generally available for evenings and weekends and is on a koha basis – there is less pressure on space in the regions. Last night there were a couple of young people there, learning to improvise, slightly startled by their seasoned elders still capable of erupting into emotion. We seemed to enjoy each other’s company, and the process.

As I said, Core Business.

The Writer

Reading Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water again, reminded me of how elemental she is to NZ writing. For she was just a writer, whose sole task is to find the words to describe people and environment. Her madness, which is unexplained except as a nervousness, an anxiety about the world, gave her the content. It forced her into contact with society as madness, made up of the patients and the staff of the looney bin; the asylum as microcosm.  She is not interested in politics except as a sort of class system among the mad, which led to patient distribution to this ward or that. The patients and their peculiarities, the staff and their’s, the natural world – that’s it. The writer’s task is to write. There is no explanation, no Freud or Jung here, the madness just is. ECT is administered to enable forgetting. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, best to forget it. ECT will help the process. If that doesn’t work, a leucotomy.

We know the story of her being saved from that by a story, by publication, the doctor realising she was a writer and therefore it was a mistake to fry her brain permanently.

Writing, once she was out of the bin, was a restoration of memory through writing. She lived reclusively, for the shyness, the anxiety presumably remained. But as pure writer, as writing as a singular vocation, she has no peers. The genius in the attic, or in this case, the provincial town suburb is a correct paradigm.

There is one description that remains with me: of her getting on the wrong side of one of the staff through perceiving an empathy for the patients lurking behind the brisk nurse’s mask. She is caught watching, caught understanding, becomes a caught-out consciousness, possessing the power which consciousness brings. Thereafter the staff member hates her and punishes her, for she has been exposed. It remains the writer’s dilemma: to shut oneself away and just write or to reveal her knowledge in the public arena and become threatening or foolish.

I can have that dilemma in the village in which I live. Consciousness is threatening, a negating of daily routine, of daily mask. To know can be an act of unkindness, even arrogance. Bill Pearson made no friends locally when he wrote Coal Flat.

There have been a lot of diggers operating in the area lately, so let me finish this post with a poem.

The mechanical arm

The compressed power

Of hydraulic fluid

The bucket scraping and lifting

The man in the cab

A strange animal

A beast of prey

Devouring the earth.

Time stands still –

Green leaf, insect life,

Worms, caterpillars

Aphid, grub,

Stone and rock

Powerless.

Flat and tidy the result

Ready for concrete or asphalt

Those lifeless materials

Of modern man

 

A strange evening

I was called to a person said to be having a heart episode at the camping ground in the small coastal settlement of Rapahoe, north of Runanga. But upon arrival, the elderly couple who manage the site knew nothing about it and there were no obvious candidates in sight. It’s a small camping ground nestled in bush. I went down to the beach, a rock strewn part of the Coast but one of the few spots safe for swimming. People were dotted along the shore but no one in trouble. A couple crouched over a small driftwood fire, forming a primitive image in the fading light.

Searching for a foreign person having a possible heart attack is a strange activity. I went to the motel and the manager was excited by the possible drama but had no guests in difficulty. I tried the pub but it was deserted apart from two elderly  locals. The puzzle remained. I went to the other end of the beach, across the river and the place where I occasionally go for a summer swim. No sign of life. Or death for that matter.

But meanwhile I had become aware of the small clusters of tourists dotted through the settlement for the night, like a band of nomads, off hunting and gathering in family groups during the day and then coming together as a band, that most primitive of human social structures, at night, for protection and sharing of food.

Rapahoe is vulnerable to climate change and the consequent rising seas and extreme weather events. It was recently inundated by Cyclone Gita and the erosion is serious. A sea wall might provide a temporary respite but is expensive and the few ratepayers can’t afford it. It could well disappear.

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As night fell, wandering through the vulnerable settlement searching for a tourist in need, I could imagine the future chaos of climate change, of people returning to a much less structured existence, of disparate bands wandering the Coast in an eco-fiction world where nature is teaching the human species (and unfortunately other species as well), a drastic lesson.

Ironic that the locals in this small community have erected a monument celebrating its coal mining past, a display that features two of the machines that used to operate at the now flooded Spring Creek mine, digging out the coal, the fossil fuel that enabled the industrial revolution but which has  helped cause the planet’s eco systems to become volatile once more.

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I never found the tourist in need. A work of fiction might have them lying in a cave, or washed out to sea, but most probably they recovered and drove off to Greymouth. All that remains is the digital trace of a phone call to the emergency services.

The wind blew strongly as night fell and I headed home.

 

Command Systems

bureaucracy

There is an article in the latest NZ Architects’ magazine arguing that the new government’s house building ambitions will be sabotaged by the local body permitting system, which in the writer’s opinion, has become a regulatory penal system. This has resulted from an overreaction to the leaky home saga, which saw councils bearing the ultimate responsibility. Currently, every application to build is peer reviewed and fine tooth combed to the point of idiocy, with a garden shed being treated the same as a multi storey building. The traffic jam that results and the expense, is giving the system sclerosis. As well, architects are no longer treated as trusted professionals.

I would have to agree. We’ve currently in the process of getting a permit to add a toilet to the museum complex. It’s the simplest of buildings, 2.5m square, and based on the somewhat notorious single men’s huts, which were built by the mining company at the beginning of last century. We employed an architect who understood our historical joke and drew up the plans. Then the problems began. Some unknown person (the council no longer processing  permit applications) began to question everything. Eventually I tracked her down to Christchurch and arranged a meeting.

She’d never been to Blackball, so had no context (Blackball still has open ditches and only a couple of bad footpaths in the whole town).  This could be happening on Mars or central Auckland, it makes no difference. She was insisting on brand names and model numbers for every fitting and nothing the architect came up with was accepted. We also needed to tar-seal the carpark (something we can’t afford to do), yet, previously, the hard metal surface that a local gravel mix produces had been judged compliant for the approach to our other wheelchair ramps. I got one concession out of her, that the council departmental head had ultimate authority.

So we went to see him and after an hour of debate got a concession: as long as we concreted a pad for a disabled person to unload, that would do. We inspected the council’s toilets and noted the brand name, It would seem madness if they rejected the product they themselves use.

I was struck by the fact that each of these dialogues had a psycho analytic quality, with obvious transference occurring and a moment of crisis, after which a resolution could begin to occur. And this is of course, the problem with  command systems. Individual psychology energises the system and childhood patterns inevitably come into play. This patterning is more widely coloured with psychological energy as peer groups with their horizontal and vertical power plays amplify the syndrome. Anyone who spent time in the old USSR would have experienced this phenomenon in a sometimes  extreme way, There was a story of a visitor to Russia who had a coat with a fur collar. When they came to leave, the official cut off the collar because you weren’t allowed to take fur out of the country.

In contrast, I remember in the 1980s the possibility of  neighbourhoods in Wellington having the ability to write and help administer their own town plans, in order to keep local characteristics. Since then, we’ve moved across the wall to the USSR system.

This is of course, the argument of anarchism, that the local should have control. For at the local level, the psychology can be confronted and worked around. We know Jack can be a bit uptight and bossy but he hasn’t got any greater authority than Jill or Bob or Edith, so it can be sorted. We see this on the marae.

Eventually we’ll be able to build the toilet, but after a delay of six months and an additional cost of about 20%, so the article in the architect’s magazine was right; this could be the undoing of the Labour-led government’s housing initiative. Homelessness, home ownership as a privilege and inequality will continue.

 

Waiting

 

The last couple of days have been a time of waiting for Cyclone Gita to turn up; a little different from Waiting for Godot – we know Gita will arrive. Now it’s Tuesday morning, the day it’s supposed to occur. Nothing yet. A gentle rain, that’s all.

I spent yesterday in Greymouth at the ambulance station. It was a day devoted to preparing for disaster: getting fuel for the generator, deciding where to park the ambulances in case garage doors get blown in – that sort of thing. The service stations were busy, as were the supermarkets.

It made me realise how appalling it must have been in Iraq, waiting for the Coalition to begin its bombardment.  Or any other war situation for that matter. Crouching in trenches waiting to attack.

I brooded on other forms of waiting. Waiting through the Cuban missile crisis as an adolescent.  Waiting in refugee camps for some door to open and the growing hopelessness as nothing happens. Or waiting for the SS to arrive and cart you off to a death camp.

Waiting to die if terminally ill and the different quality of waiting for family and close friends.

Fundamentalists waiting for the second coming.

Pregnant women waiting to go into labour.

The waiting time when you know a relationship’s finished but no one quite knows how to end it.

Parents of young children waiting for the child to fall asleep, or wake up.

Waiting for the toddler to catch up. Caring for a young child taught me to wait.

Village people know how to wait. When we performed in Tokelau the audience might turn up an hour before the scheduled start. And happily sit there, waiting. On Sunday waiting for the sermon to finish. A lot of waiting on Sundays. Perhaps the waves on the reef cancel time.

Coral atolls waiting to be inundated.

The extraordinary waiting time of the galaxy. Light that began a  thousand light years ago falling on the retina. Unbelievable.

The waiting time on a bank or government department’s phone line. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. A busy time but we value your call…

The rain gets a little heavier. A neighbour’s got a funeral to go to.

Will the Yanks attack today? Will the SS arrive? If we charge will I die?

The Frank’s family extraordinary wait. Julian Assange in the Ecuador Embassy.

The first gust of wind. The rain’s a little heavier. Will the houses in Granity survive? Will the power system dissolve? Better locate the candles.

Waiting to hear about the job, or the grant application. Or the test result. Waiting to go on stage.

A hungry baby crying for the breast. The dreadful waiting in Gaza each night, as the drones hover.  Anxiety.

John Metekingi once said to me, ‘Those fullas sitting on the beach in the old days, staring out at the empty Pacific, were waiting for something to turn up.’

The sail on the horizon? Or the cyclone of climate change?

The air stirs. Something’s happening.

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Branding

The etymology of the word, brand, is complex. In the beginning it was a simple mark of ownership, burnt into the skin of an animal or slave.

branding

Then it became a make of product. We would talk of a brand of butter or car. Marx wrote of commodity fetishism, pointing out the projection of human emotions and entanglements onto commodity items: the boy and his modified car, the girl and her shoes. This is of course the basis of commercials, to turn a product into a fetish.

Late last century, there was a shift from the brand naming a certain product to the brand as a more abstract and encompassing thing: Nike or Apple or Coca Cola or Levi. The brand became detached from the product and became the fetish and the fetish then encompassed all the commodities made by that brand.

Coca Cola stands for having a good time. Nike stands for fitness and achievement.

The impulse spreads. It’s not just makers of commodities but suppliers of transport (Air NZ),  or electricity (Mighty River Power), or banks (Opportunity) – even governments (Clean Green NZ), and sports teams (the All Blacks).

The branding moves into every area of life: individual sports people, actors and singers become brands (Lorde, Sam Neill, Dan Carter), able to sell their brand to other brands.

Some churches become brands.

Discussing this with Leigh Cookson she pointed out that not just political parties but even activist movements have become brands: Greenpeace, Black Lives Matter, Me Too.

It is rumoured that Trump stood for president as a way to increase the strength of his brand and was aghast when he actually won and now has to do the job.

As brands interweave and penetrate every aspect of life, there is no escaping the system. If you’re not a brand or attached to a brand you don’t exist.

And now writers have been drawn into the game.  Victoria University Press lists its authors as brands, with the books they write as the product attached to that brand. E.g. (http://vup.victoria.ac.nz/brands/Eleanor-Catton.html)

eleanor-catton-by-victoria-birkinshaw-smaller-2017-use-this

Photo Victoria Birkinshaw

VUP presumably provides quality control and helps to publicise the brand(s) through the usual means of performances and appearances. When I read the following checklist from a marketing website, I can see why the Press and presumably its authors found it an attractive proposition. Does your brand relate to your target audience? Will they ‘get it’? Does your brand show the uniqueness of what you offer and why it’s important? Does your brand reflect the values that you want to represent? Does your brand emotionally connect the target prospects with your product and motivate the prospect to buy and thus create user loyalty. In other words, will the reader, like the slave, bear your mark (perhaps your signature) as proof of ownership? Isn’t that the business of being a writer?

At this point I begin to feel like Hamlet. There’s something rotten…

Is there anything that resists this hegemony?

Well, the working class is not a brand and labour continues to resist being a commodity. There have been attempts to make revolution a brand and revolutionaries a brand (Che Guevera) but without real success. And then there is the ethical or creative individual. James Joyce as a brand? Thomas Mann? T.S. Eliot? Bertrand Russell? Freud? Karl Marx? It’s a ridiculous proposition.

Dare I say then that Victoria University Press has entered dodgy and demeaning territory?

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