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PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog

Somewhere in Sydney

The suburb of Holsworthy where I’m staying has evolved from it’s original army base function in order to support a housing development. The development is well designed as an interlocking maze of courts, each street containing around fifty houses. There are small parks or common areas dotted throughout, there’s a child-friendly speed limit of 40kph and the houses are generous, three to four bedrooms, sometimes condominiums with a small back lawn and a garage in front. The planners have even left a patch of wilderness, a scraggly piece of gum-tree bush for older kids to play in. There’s a small scale shopping centre with a supermarket, a liquor outlet, a couple of takeaways and a community centre and there’s a train station nearby with regular trains to the airport and the city. The inhabitants are overwhelmingly first generation migrants, from the Middle East or Asia; the occasional elderly Australian registering as a museum piece.

But despite this competent planning for community, the people seem resolutely cut off from one another. No one looks and no one talks. The front door of where I’m staying is 5 metres away from the neighbour’s front door but the concept of dialogue is, by some unwritten agreement, out of the question. People exit, get in their car and drive away. The nearest to a public event is someone washing their boat. Of course children have to go to and from school so there is morning and afternoon movement, but overall, a considerable alienation reigns and I realise that inside each house  memory of, and maintaining contact with home, is the important thing and achieved via social media, reruns of Iraqi soap operas, Bollywood movies and television on demand from the home country. Locally there are perhaps visits to mosque or church and a network of extended family who have similarly migrated.

These people are, above all, here for material reasons, to live the Australian Dream. And it must be working out, for the cars are new, the houses are air conditioned, there are abundant bathrooms and the tv, fridge and stove will be smart. But this fundamentalist materialism produces a cultural sterility. This is another wave of capitalist settler culture. The indigenous culture, a time when different relations with the land were formed, is totally absent. These new settlers are achieving the immediate dream and for the next generation, an even greater dream begins: to be an NRL star, or a rapper or a model, or simply to head up the IT ladder, to become a fair dinkum Aussie. Or maybe to, in turn, head to LA or New York.

Outside the suburb, as you enter the link roads and highways, crammed with trucks and other traffic, lined with service centres, takeaways, light industry and warehousing, an intense ugliness exists. Here as well, the traffic gridlock begins.

But there is, with Covid, a great irony, for in a place which denies contact, contact now needs to be able to be traced with thoroughness. The virus joins people, crossing ethnic, material and geographic boundaries with great ease. The virus becomes the community which capitalism has eradicated − except in the mind of a nostalgic town planner. And in a further irony, once contact has been found, people need to be even further isolated.

I suspect the climate emergency will have a similar effect; re-moving the migrant yet, at the same time, leaving some behind, to relearn other types of relationship. The Aussies, like the Americans, will find this hard. At the moment there are only a few marginal, small countries on the edge of the global catastrophe who seem capable of adjusting in a reasonable manner: Aotearoa, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries, maybe southern Ireland.

But enough. There remains, in every situation, the wonder of the new-born child, slowly opening his eyes and gazing, with a slight frown, on the world he has inherited. This morning, at 4am, he babbled for the first time and language was once again created. That first babble produced in me a feeling of immense love.

Encounter

The second Blackball Readers and Writers Festival, run by the Bathhouse Co-op, was very successful. People are happy and thinking, was Nicky Hager’s comment at the final dinner. It’s a small event, around 70 people all up and held in the library of the local school. There’s a single program so everyone attends everything – so no choices and no rushing from place to place.  The theme was ‘activists, renegades and recluses’. People like the small scale and the mingling and the conversations that take place over kai. European activists have the concept of radical hospitality − the change that can take place around the dinner table − and something of that nature occured.

On the first day we ‘resurrect’ a West Coast writer, someone who wrote while living here for a period at least. This year it was the turn of poet, Peter Hooper, who worked by day as a teacher and who lived a lonely life – was most probably gay – but a man who had a big influence on students with a literary bent. He was also an early environmentalist. Cold Hub press have gathered his poetry for the first time and it is an evocative read.

Becky Manawatu proved a humble yet committed person, seemingly young, yet she has teenage children, and after a huge debut with Auē, is joining the whanau of established Maori writers.

And then another honouring occurred as Elspeth Sandys spoke of her uncle, Rewi Alley, the subject of her book, A Communist in the Family. As she spoke we became fully aware of Rewi as a significant figure in 20th century history – a leading activist in the Chinese revolution and a tireless worker for social justice, held in high honour in China, yet here? − an information panel off the main road in Springfield where he was born. Our communist phobia is ridiculous.

Nicky Hager is another activist who has impacted significantly as a writer. I had the task of interviewing him, which required a reading of his seven books. In doing so I was struck by the depth of his study of the NZ role in the US Afghanistan adventure, a book called Other People’s Wars. It is the least read of his books but perhaps the most important as he details the stupidity and the consequences of a country like Aotearoa following the Americans in their imperial interventions, of spying on their behalf, and of equipping our military, at great expense, so that we can join their deadly games. And this happens partly because of the top brass in the defence forces and in MFAT leading the politicians by the nose because they like the kudos of mixing with the big boys. As he points out, this continues a tradition of ‘tagging along’, from the Boer War onwards and is sold to the public through the sentimental ANZAC tradition. Our role should be very different.

There were other contributions, from the more traditional story teller, Sandra Arnold to the growing work from within the environmental and climate emergency movement by writers like Tim Jones and Kathleen Gallagher, where we begin to imagine life within this framework.

And as I said, people enjoyed the event as an encounter not based on marketing and commodity (there was zero dollars spent on advertising), but based on community tradition.

As Gaza burns

As Gaza burns – once again – an important essay turns up in the New York Book Review. It happens with this conflict: a piece of writing that penetrates the hopeless evil. Last time it was Rachel Corrie’s emails; this time its Nathan Thrall’s One man’s quest to find his son.

Nathan Thrall is a journalist who has been based with a human rights organisation in Jerusalem and who has gradually realised the hopelessness of monitoring abuses in the West Bank and Gaza. Instead he has written this long essay, based around the death of a kindergarten-aged boy on a school bus which suffered a head on collision with a settler-driven vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road. When the news of the accident reaches his father, Abed, a tortuous journey begins involving detours, checkpoints, confusion as to possible hospitals the boy may have been taken to, ID problems of access, until he eventually discovers the charred corpse of his son.

The author uses the incident to unpack the dense bureaucracy of the apartheid regime that Israel has imposed on Palestinians. We can forget that (as in South Africa) the running of an apartheid state requires bureaucracy at every level of society: ID cards, residence permits, travel permits, work permits, building permits, school systems, health systems, policing, tax, roads, walls and borders, checkpoints, judicial and prison systems… it becomes immensely complex, absurd  and oppressive.

But as well as revealing this, the essay articulates the history of the desire behind the system: the desire to rid the land now called Israel of Palestinian Arabs, a desire, in fact, for ethnic cleansing. In 1948, four out of five Palestinian inhabitants were made refugees. In 1967 one in four of those remaining were expelled. Nevertheless, the higher Palestinian birth rate means half the population are Arab. The Israeli dilemma becomes then, ‘ On one hand the inability to erase the Palestinians; on the other, the unwillingness to give them political and civil rights.’ The compromise solution to this dilemma has been  the building of Jewish settlements, walls and roads, in order to fragment the Palestinian population, so that it lives in scattered pieces and cannot organise as a collective. And then to impose various decrees, laws and restrictions onto these Bantustans. And the contrast of wealth and infrastructure between the settlements and the Palestinian fragments is huge. Anger and despair builds. In a final irony, the task of administrating daily life in these areas of extreme oppression is given to a local Palestinian ‘authority’.

But the traditional task remains: Jews must take over the land and while that task is being achieved, international efforts to resolve the conflict must be ‘parried and delayed’. As Thrall relates, there is now a historical narrative to the attempts to realise this desire, expressed by the 19th century Zionists as follows: To take possession in due course of Palestine and to restore to the Jews the political independence of which they have been deprived for two thousand years.  This entailed firstly an infiltration of settlers and then the lobbying for a state. But how to justify a small number of Jews, mainly from the Russian Empire, taking over Palestine against the will of the majority?  Jews may have deserved a safe haven , but that does not give a right to dispossess, and even so, the original Zionist agenda was not a response to persecution but rather a resisting of the assimilation of Jewish identity.

Partition was accepted as a step toward obtaining the whole of Palestine and after the establishing of Israel the project of colonisation really began. Land and houses were confiscated, curfews imposed, political parties banned and Palestinians constantly humiliated. Because it had become an absurd contradiction, there was a change from a secular, semi- socialist vision of ‘Jewish redemption within the salvation of humanity’, to a religious nationalism based on the bible.  And this vision had to be fundamentalist for it would be undermined by any acceptance of a Palestinian right to self determination, which would also mean the acceptance of the refugees’ right to return and that a minority has not the right to impose on a majority.

The basically fantastic claim that the bible constitutes a land deed and that a group has the right to reclaim a territory after a two thousand year absence has to be maintained at all costs. All the secular ethical arguments have to be rejected. Accordingly, the state of Israel has never recognised the existence of an Israeli nationality. Israel is, instead, the state of the Jewish people, viewed as a single nation and spread throughout the world. The children of a non Jewish mother and a Jewish father are not Jewish, are not citizens, and whoever disconnects Jewish nationality from its religious foundations is a traitor. Israel cannot therefore entertain a liberal, secular, democratic agenda. It is necessarily an apartheid state, financed by the US government

And Abed mourns for his son.

The essay can be read at: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2021/03/19/a-day-in-the-life-of-abed-salama/

Tap tap

The grandkids are here for the holidays and Wendy at Red Books lent them an old portable typewriter in working order, ribbon and all.

Immediately the ancient sound filled the house, as the digital world, with which they can often feel obsessed with, and addicted to, disappeared. Here was something simple. You press a key, an action occurs involving a key pressing an inked ribbon against paper and making a visible letter which you can both see and touch. There are no screens and Google is not involved. Nor is your work stored on some server in Arizona.

Lily began writing a story about a girl who sees a ghost in an old house. Tap, tap, first page done, onto the second. That night she read the story she’d started and I could comment and discussion begin as to why a ghost hangs around – the life disturbance that is involved. A bit of an argument, the boy listening intently. She stuck to her guns, so did I. Nanna commented that this is a part of the writing process and I bring in the concept of the reality check. More tap, tapping then to bed. She wants to sleep on a sofa – her brother sleeps on the other one. Sleeping on your own can feel creepy sometimes, she says. A sort of whareiti has been created. The typewriter stays on the floor.

In the morning they’re back on the typewriter, the physical act of typing somehow very satisfying.  The boy is often aggressive first thing in the morning so we get out the boxing gloves. To have his aggression matched leaves him with a puzzled look. The tap tapping continues. I explain carbon copies and the gestetner machine. I’ve never seen her this involved and I begin to wonder, Have we been totally sold down the drain by Google, facebook, zoom etc.?

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.

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