Search

PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog

Dean

Easter Saturday saw the unveiling and memorial gathering for Dean Parker; family, friends and colleagues being able to finally express their aroha for this much respected playwright and activist − some would use the expression cultural worker. There were many tributes and on the journey home I reflected on the occasion. In the midst of an overwhelming feeling of solidarity, there was nevertheless a certain discomfort, almost embarrassment at the fact that Dean, both in the UK and in New Zealand became for a period, a member of a communist party – a card carrying member as they used to say − rather than merely a sympathiser. What was the meaning of him doing so, as a writer, even if, after a period, he left? Having been similarly a member of a communist party – in my case I didn’t leave, rather the organisation folded − the matter interests me.

To be a committed communist means, firstly, that you share the belief in the working class taking over, sometimes violently, the means of production of a society. There is no accommodation with capitalism. The means to the takeover vary, from a syndicalist alliance of co-ops, unions, community and rural organisations replacing the state, to the Leninist version of an advanced proletariat, with the party’s guidance, taking over the state apparatus and using that as a means of taking control of production.  There are other variants: Mao’s emphasis on the peasantry; Fidel and Che’s guerrilla interventionism, but it is a totalising belief, rejecting mystification and compromise.

And having joined, what is the creative worker’s role and how does the party discipline – once an analysis has been worked through of, for example the women question or the national question, collective commitment is required − how does this commitment affect the content of a work – or the form? The creative process and the creative worker are unreliable in this regard, story and characters assuming a life of their own and the writer usually going along for the ride.

And then the creator has to grapple with the issue of the mode of production. Is she going to produce works with the correct line for the middle class audience characteristic of most of the art forms, or try and take art to the working class in their own venues? If so, how does the latter happen and who pays for it? Is the creative worker in capitalist society a worker working for a boss or is she someone who has independently produced a product which she is then selling to an outlet; or being guided by an intermediary (agent/publisher/producer). Are they then working for the theatre or simply selling something to the theatre? And how is the price determined? Or is it a co-op of actors, writer, director, designer producing the work? How are the shares determined? The closest we get to a binary worker-boss relationship would be writing for a soap opera, in which case is a union required? And finally, what is the role of the private or state patron – sometimes both – and what is the relationship with the worker?

Complex issues, which, being a party member, creates some clarity and often a whirlpool of contradiction, for does the party have an analysis of these issues? Unfortunately, in New Zealand anyway, that has often been unlikely. Dean experienced this complexity and it informed his work and his career, And that energy rubbed off onto others. It would be a grown up moment for NZ theatre for a biography of Dean to be written within this framework. That is one task. Another of course would be the publication of a collection of his best plays with a lengthy and conscious introduction. We’ve done the praising, and in many ways, that is easy. But the real challenges remain.

And finally there is the wit to keep alive as well and it seems to me the Bloomsbury nights could continue as an annual event, someone putting together moments from Ulysses with short extracts from Dean’s plays, plus some songs.

Let’s keep the praxis of Dean Parker – that’s the task.

Te Kore

The Auckland Art Gallery is, at the moment, given over to Maori artists. A few classic European works linger − as artefacts of a marginal culture. The situation of the 1960s and 1970s where a few Maori works would have been shown on the margins of a predominantly Pakeha collection is neatly reversed and a Maori cultural hegemony exists. We see, quite possibly, the future Aotearoa.

The centrepiece is a collection of work by Peter Robinson called Te Kore, which investigates the nothingness of beginnings, from which Te Po will evolve and then Rangi and Papa follow. The void is a resonant concept, encompassing both myth and science – the big bang, dark matter and so on. Light and dark feature with neon coils leading to nothing other than one’s own reflection; a piupiu woven with the thin wires found in the old telephone cables is beautifully lit, a flattened staircase in a mirror glows – it is powerful conceptual art.

Thereafter there is the Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art exhibition, a pot pouri of images, some craft, some protest art, some sculpture, some pottery… As I wandered I realised that this is religious art, repeating, as Christian art does, key stories and themes. For Christianity the virgin birth, the crucifixion, Lazarus; in this case, the separation, the children, the waka, whanaungatanga, whaikorero… In this context Robyn Kahukiwa is a major artist, for she brings the realistic human form to this religious content, in the same way as the Renaissance artists brought the realism of the human form to the previously ascetic symbolism of medieval art. There is a digital attempt to capture the physical presence of the demigods, which is both muscular and curiously coy in its hiding of the sexual organs. The careful drapery of some European art is repeated. Is there, more generally a lack of sensuality, a puritanism revealed? Similarly, other than reliefs devoted to Tangaroa there is a surprising absence of the natural world in this collection. Nevertheless, this is a major exhibition, an indication of a new normal.

But there is an issue, for a tedium begins to be felt, the tedium of religious art, which is in essence, prehistorical. Man has not yet become subject to the historical narrative and the complexities of economic, social and cultural journeys taking place dialectically, revealed by a consciousness which refuses religious certainty. This tedium could become a cultural issue mirroring the self satisfaction of the Pakeha ‘God’s Own Country’ syndrome of the 1950s.

Sex

A week of sexual politics. First of all there was an Aussie film, Ten Canoes – a charming story-telling form and a fictional cum anthropological glimpse of pre-colonial Australia. The plot revolved around young men’s lust for the patriarch’s wives, a kidnapping of a woman and a ritual murder followed by ritual retribution. Polygamy produces silly men and bitchy women and it felt like Year 9 culture in the provinces to be perfectly honest, apart from great scenery and a moving death scene. It certainly wasn’t a romanticised portrait of the indigenous way of life.

And then there was the documentary on Mervyn Thompson, kidnapped by a group of radical lesbians in the early eighties and tied to a tree with his trousers around his ankles, for being reputedly, a rapist. Mervyn was an obsessive Oedipal case whose directorial need to create the emotionally authentic actress included bedding said actress. The director philanderer is slightly different from the producer philanderer: the former is process based, the latter involves ‘rights of ownership’. Mervyn responded very badly to his kidnapping. Rather than learning a lesson and keeping his head down and zip hoisted he proclaimed himself victim and things went steadily downhill. I was on the Depot committee when the banning of his work was discussed and I felt torn about doing so. The work and the writer shouldn’t be conflated. As well, Mervyn, as Downstage director had opened up the theatre to diverse voices. Ever the contradiction, he was determined to put his eyes out.

I also mused about the extremely popular, sixties film, The Graduate, and the issue of seduction (to lead astray, to tempt…) around which it was based. Probably not allowed any more, except on the web, which brings me to the final viewing: a very well-made dramatized documentary, Tender Trap, based on the real life seduction of a middle-aged woman via a dating site. The main character has had a high profile job − Maori Language Commission or something like that − been made redundant, and even though surrounded by whanau, is persuaded to register on a dating site. She is picked up by a South American gang who improvise a text-based romantic relationship with consummate skill and eventually entice her to Buenos Aires to pick up a suitcase with a hidden stash of cocaine bound for London. She is caught and the story told in flashback from the prison. The acting was authentic (even without Mervyn’s help) and I remain in awe of the skilful operating of the conmen and women, able to create what was virtually a play, in a booth somewhere. But one also becomes aware of the vulnerability of those feeling past their used-by date and their ability, like Mervyn and the young men, to become obsessive.

Freud would have it that sex is the basic motivator of human behaviour and this makes us very messy creatures indeed. Perhaps sex should have remained a finite and simple act of reproduction, but that statement makes one sound like a fundamentalist. Just have to remain messy I suppose.

Caring

There’s a lot of interest in ‘care’ at the moment. And justifiably so. I suspect young people faced with a world which threatens to dissolve into chaos are feeling stressed at a deep level. So there’s discussion about care and systems of care. Cassie Thornton, for example, has her hologram project (http://feministeconomicsdepartment.com/hologram/) and there’s a ‘museum of care’ looking at alternatives globally (https://museum.care/).

Of course, there can be a psychosomatic element to illness, the pharmaceutical industry is invasive and profit driven, the gene-determined analyses are over determining, the health system is often something of a production line, the data collection is frightening, and the current government control of movement and interaction through regulation, is, at least, tedious. Compliance is the order of the day and people react.

I am of the belief that I can do something about my own health through daily exercise, awareness of the natural world and its rhythms, being careful not to get clogged up with unexpressed emotion, monitoring the effects of the depressive/neurotic/bureaucratic encounter, protecting the child within and holding on to improvisation, play and the ideal of the common sense of the organic group. I’m not faced with twelve hour shifts or immersed in dense bureaucratic systems so this could be critiqued as privilege, but it costs no money and only takes half an hour each morning and then again at the end of the day. While I will talk about this to friends and family I find it mainly my own business and don’t preach.

But currently, some wellness, mindfulness, holistic, natural health advocates, who might be saying something like the above, have formed an alliance with conspiracy theorists. And then, marketing and profit comes into the equation, branding takes place, and the guru stares from the screen with intent eyes. The whole notion of self-determination and freedom become absurd. The web creates an intensity, so that a hesitant impulse can be magnified and marketed into something resembling a cult, like a virus invading and amplifying itself.

The debate becomes then, a three way one between the neo-feudal state capitalist system in all its variations, the communalists cum anarchists, and the new age/conspiracy theorists morphing into neo fascists, played out on the net and sometimes in the streets. It adds up to a struggle that makes the playful investigations of Freud and Jung feel from another world.

Journey

Driving to Picton, bike on rack, is a lot easier than biking, although, because I’ve biked it several times, I know the road and the landscape intimately. I park the car, $6 a day is very reasonable. The ferry is late so I take the bike into town and pop into the library, but the populist selection of books is somehow terrifying. I delve into the latest version of Mills and Boon, printed on the thinnest of paper and wonder if I could write such stuff if paid enough to do so. Probably not, so I head to Waikawa Bay, getting a look at the back streets of Picton.  Pretty flash. Only a couple of remnants of the old days.

Back at the terminal a group of middle aged bikies talk rough, in contrast to a bevy of the performative Nelson middle class in loose garments and designer hats. Trucks get bigger by the year, become terrifying, in a different way from the Picton Library. Maybe terror is the characteristic of the modern age.  I read Portugese author, Jose Saramajo for the first time. He writes a working class stream of consciousness – a potter, his daughter, a dog and a security guard son in law who works in a massive mall complex live in a village on the outskirts of an industrial slum. The relationship with the dog is beautifully described and there is a delicate humanism to his work.

On the ferry I become aware of the retired gentleman’s uniform of short sleeve chequered shirt, shorts and neat socks, in contrast to the billowing hair and tee shirt of a Chinese lass at the prow recording a video. People settle, the truck drivers have gone to their cabins, a man studies sheets of technical data, someone talks loudly about their trip to Queenstown, two toddlers move around with the intentness of maintaining balance, a little like hyper old men.  As I get something to eat I am still shocked at waving my card at a screen and somehow, magically and instantly, money is transferred. It feels like it will lead to no good. What happens if you lose your card or it’s stolen? In an era of security it feels ridiculously insecure.

The previous day’s Covid announcement means no one’s wearing a mask, yet I thought wearing masks on public transport was mandatory? Not on ferries it seems. It’s been reviewed and changed? Our being in the world is being regulated minutely. Yesterday, perhaps everyone was masked, but then cabinet decided. I get an email message. The PSA where we are having the seminar to which I’m going have decided to be sterner than cabinet and won’t let us use the venue. Panic. But then the Anglicans will provide. It’s all a bit nuts.

The rocky hills float past and it’s easy to imagine a whaling station. There seem to be a number of marriages of convenience on board, the Pakeha men always older, the wives contained. The technical manual has sent the reader to sleep. He sits, hands together as if praying. An elderly couple say the obvious. Perhaps that’s what happens, like children you end up saying the obvious : dog, cat, moo cow. I try and assess which of the blokes are in their eighties as opposed to the seventies. Is there a difference? Something in the legs perhaps?

A ferry passes, going to Picton. Heads crane. An event. Look, there’s a ferry. Rest homes must be hellish. Although most likely, consciousness is reduced. We reach the open sea, another event, but it is exquisitely calm, Te Ika a Maui a sliver of land, like a drawing on an old fashioned map. An old man in a cap reminds me of another old man−a certain irascible quality…who is it I’m reminded of? Tip of the tongue… it doesn’t matter. All is calm. A woman walks past in a green tee shirt with Huffer Huffer Huffer written on the back. What on earth does it mean? And then a man with the biggest beer belly I’ve ever seen. The young staff seem genuinely happy in their work. Another elderly gentleman reads a book called The Compassion Project .Tell that to Samuel Beckett. Although there was a line in Endgame: A sort of compassion. It comes to me. The irascible one: one of our councillors. Spagnum Moss grower.

People go out to stare at the approaching city, the bare hills of southern Eastbourne on the  right, the perched houses of Seatoun on the left. Memories of the Wahine disaster. There’s a sense of anticipation now. The drivers will be waking up and getting ready to fire up their rigs and drive through the night. My daughter sends me pictures of the Sydney park where she walks her dog and a photo of her growing puku. She’s blooming. A heavily built man in shorts sits, massive legs vibrating, first one, then the other, then both, a stern expression, a sergeant major type. Worried about something. I’m glad I don’t live with him.

A ship is pretty amazing, able to carry all those trucks and cars, all these people, all these stories, simply because it’s a container of air. I eat the last of my bag of chips, read the final pages of my book. The Portugese family  go to live in the mall, but it doesn’t work out. Accepting precariousness, they head for the road. The final sentence: Coming soon, public opening of Plato’s cave, an exclusive attraction, unique in the world. Buy your ticket now. I don my pack and head for the lower deck.

Encounter

I’ve just had an intense week of theatre. I’ve always liked the European’s concept of ‘encounter’, different from ‘meeting’ or ‘festival’ – it involves contamination, moving outside one’s safe space, no matter how complex that space may be, in order to have a dialogue with ‘another’ at a deep level. So I had thought to spend a summer holiday week in Blackball having an encounter: with other practitioners, with a classic text as the focus, and to use the old miners’ bathhouse as a venue. The actors would need to start ‘off script’ and we’d go from there.  The bathhouse is both a bleak concrete-walled space (and is semi derelict, having lost its roof, windows etc), yet is surrounded by beech forest and evocative light and cloud. It was also the place of relaxation, banter and after-work dialogue. The initial idea of Hamlet failed to get funding but Beckett’s Endgame seemed do-able. Free theatre’s Peter Falkenberg and Marian McCurdy were keen, as was a great niece, Emily, recently graduated from NASDA, plus three of us Kiwi/Possum elders.

We assembled at the Brian Wood cottage on a beautiful summer day and then it began to rain, and rain, and rain. We rehearsed in the garage and then when that became overcome by thunderstorms, in the Working Men’s Club. Beckett’s a strange one. Freud discussed the similarity between the artist and the schizophrenic. The play is absurd, a series of inkblots in a way (those random patterns used by analysts to begin clients free associating), so the text was both very difficult to learn by rote and it began to generate personal associations: adopted family, invalids I have known, retirement… and the text is constructed with transition pieces of pure psychosis- or is it simply fine art trickery – make a proposition, negate it, negate the negation. The mysteries grew- with suddenly a child abuse reading possible. And then the biblical allusions. The plot is remote but one can piece some things together: a decrepit gentry family on some Russian steppe presumably took in a peasant boy and groomed him for higher things, but when the master becomes a cranky invalid, the boy is abused. Master and servant now play out a daily sado-masochistic game. When will it end? Toss in a post nuclear holocaust environment, remove any logic and it is a bleak yet comic piece.

An intense week’s rehearsal tested memory and resolve. Thunderstorms and lightning struck the house, but there was finally a lightening in the weather and a dress rehearsal in the bathhouse was possible, accompanied by a setting sun and rising moon. For the first performance the rain returned more gently, but we had tarps for a brave audience and a special encounter took place. A second more normal night and then to a theatre in Hokitika. I got out the lighting gear to find the old cat had been shitting in the corner – I had been wondering what the smell was. Playing inside was easy. It was like a marathon runner being given a mile to run. We were tired but that can lead to a greater focus. It was a smart audience and we had the satisfaction of achieving the whole art object.

And Emily, the graduate, had flowered as a performer- from song and dance to this. From timid to certain. She has learned the most important acting lesson, to have a through line and to tell her story as a performer.

We drove back through the night, feeling that moment of plenitude that real encounter brings.

Moving

A poignant moment as my daughter and her partner walk through the airport departure gate on their way to Sydney, after living down the road for a decade so that we were a part of the characteristic Blackball extended family. Even more poignant as she is hapu with the baby due in May. At the same time it’s absolutely right for them to explore some change – she’s established herself professionally and needs time to herself; he has family and work in Aussie; it is only three hours away and as I helped them pack and organise things we felt closer than ever… nevertheless.

Meanwhile grandchildren from another part of the family have been staying with the insistent energy of children, the dog’s got a buggered knee, we went to the last Tui Folk Festival where the nostalgia of folk music could be given full reign; the Zapatistas issue an extraordinary manifesto for the world to sign up to; the US is as politically crazy as ever; viruses rule and I learn a part in Beckett’s Endgame, Beckett being a writer who does absurdity remarkably well. We will, with suitable absurdity, be performing the piece in the old Blackball bathhouse.

At a loose end reading wise I picked up from the bookshelves Knight’s Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (a relic from student days), to find myself immersed in the story of early capitalism: of land becoming commodified, of the riches brought to England by early colonising ventures, of sheep farming leading to enclosure and the wool trade which in turn led to the industrial revolution, of early entrepreneurs with crazy schemes, of the breaking down of the manor house subsistence where an estate could provide for a thousand people and where money was irrelevant.

My daughter’s shift has involved the selling of house and cars. I had an ugly experience getting an assessment at Turners: ‘Scruffy and over capitalised’ was the verdict – it’s carried dogs around a bit and to keep it going involved the spending of four grand a couple of years ago – but it carries a lot of memories. Their house had a couple of dogs buried there… you can’t sell a life, but that is what we have to do.

In Europe there is a movement to take land and houses and culture out of the marketplace. A land trust buys up land with the promise that it will never be sold. People may build upon it and ownership of built property can change hands but the land is sacrosanct. Another trust is buying houses and apartments with the same promise – these properties will never be sold.

Meanwhile my daughter and partner have their worldly possessions in a storage container – goods extracted from the market. So we enter and leave the market place, some people stay there all the time, buying and selling as a life purpose. Perhaps the market and the virus are one and the same paradigm.

So, one strange year has run its course, another begins and one day Beckett’s prophecy will be fulfilled: ‘Time was never, time is over, reckoning finished, story ended.’

Journey

I went up to Kotare, north of Auckland, for a workshop, so travelled seriously for the first time this year. As I waved my card at the ticket machine in order to enter the parking lot at Nelson Airport I realised I had embarked on a digital journey which had begun with the booking of a plane ticket then a rental car. Algorithms had immediately begun to generate messages and last night I could check in online. The rental car booking had produced a hiccup when I read through what the algorithm had produced and realised the insurance cover had been issued by a company in Greece. Dealing with Greece could prove difficult so I changed that, and immediately received a message of regret, once more produced by an algorithm.

Now for the mask, which, like one’s shoes I realise, reveals one’s class – designer or mass produced; it seems someone has produced a transparent mask but I didn’t see any. More algorithms at Auckland airport as I message the rental car shuttle which then carries me to their base tucked away in the warehousing zone. More card waving. Now it is time to pay a toll for the toll road, otherwise the algorithm will bill the rental car company and another algorithm will be called upon. Switch on google maps which accurately predicts traffic congestion and a 20k/hour crawl along a motorway created in order to solve the congestion problem. Everyone’s checking their phones wherever I’ve been and the algorithms know where we are.

I spend a couple of days in the temporary autonomous zone of Kotare (no cell phone coverage) before the return journey.

I get to the rental car base early on a Sunday morning and have time to wander around the area which is filled with vast featureless buildings storing and then transporting goods ordered by algorithm. There’s one for lease and I imagine it populated by the homeless. My thoughts turn to my daughter who is hapu and transformed by the nesting instinct. Like a bird she is intent on creating a safe space for the newborn. It’s lovely to witness.

The rental car crew arrive and enter my information for the algorithm to process and take me to the airport. The airport is a paranoid place and the cabin crew brusque. In this complex digital world, birth, sickness and death or the threat of sickness and death become the signifiers of reality. The virus hovers, seeking a host.

On the ground in Nelson, I wave my card at the parking machine, the barrier arm lifts, I switch off my phone and for the next three hours will be out of the zone. But the algorithms sending messages of thanks and requests for feedback on service are already being sent

When I reach home I am amazed at how fast the grass has grown.

Commodification

The Croesus Track, which begins near Blackball, was established by goldminers who found a reef of gold bearing quartz. With the usual Victorian energy, they carted a stamper battery up the hill and had a brief bonanza, with two pubs springing up to ease the journey. Then it faded. The operation was briefly re-established during the depression before being finally abandoned. Trampers took over the track, extended it over the hill to Barrytown and one of their number organised the building of a hut at the top. It’s named after him. The track and hut became then, part of the local commons.

Then the Paparoa National Park was established and DOC began to administer the commons. The hut remained free to use and we put up with the signage, banning of dogs etc. However, Pike came along and government guilt led to the recent building of the Paparoa Great Walk, both as a tribute to the dead but also being seen as a means of invigorating the local economy.

Te Puawai Co-operative Society had been established as an incubator for local co-ops in the necessary economic transition for the Coast, so it seemed logical to set up a shuttle and vehicle relocation co-op in Blackball. There was a lot of competition from ‘the  market’ and we formed a partnership with the biggest enterprise, a South Island wide provider. It has worked well. They provide the van and booking service, and the co-op provides a way for the local labour to organise itself in an equitable fashion.

It is interesting to observe the dynamics of a Great Walk (which is also open to mountain bikers). The vehicle relocation service is more popular than the shuttle. Why? Presumably the same reason that the private car is more popular than public transport. Flexibility – and you don’t have to relate to ‘the public’. Those who cycle are often on a mission to do the track quickly, to ‘conquer’ it. Some do it in a day. One bloke drove from Christchurch, parked his car in Blackball, cycled up the hill, rode the track and we picked him up at 3pm, wet, muddy and exhausted, brought him back and he was returning to Christchurch that evening. An extreme experience. Walkers take their time and it is often a social experience for family members or to meet up with old mates and to do something together. Both cyclists and walkers are generally middle class pakeha and the walk has become a commodity. You have to book and pay to stay in the huts and ‘our hut’ has become part of the deal. It is no longer part of the commons. But there is some money circulating locally and that’s the trade off for accepting enclosure.
There’ll be some stories, mainly of stuff going wrong. Probably some cyclist will die of exposure on the tops one day. We get to drive some flash cars and keep a wary eye out that we don’t get into a zero hour contract syndrome. And co-op members can think about a new roof or tyres for the car or a visit to the dentist.

If there were a socialist and climate crisis solution it would be to cut out the vehicle relocations (they are logistically problematic) and have a singular and regular shuttle service operated via an electric van. But that would mean limiting the providers to local people who agree on this strategy and culling the market impulse. Unfortunately, that sort of logic can only exist in a country like Cuba. Meanwhile, we have to play the market game.

And we no longer go for a walk up Croesus.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑