PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog

Blackball Readers and Writers Festival

A fifties classroom, windows each side, neon lights, a veranda outside, a crowd of chairs, a sound system and a small dais, two people talking, sometimes three, about writing and life and projects, men and women, gay and hetero, Pākeha and Māori, words and laughter, occasional despair or puzzlement, politics and justice, in between dashes through rain for tea and cake, soup and croissant and a pee; snow threatens on the Pass but tomorrow is another day and tonight we will eat together and plot a future in these uncertain times.

The writers: Bill Nage;kerke, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Nic Low, Jane Carswell, Sam Duckor-Jones, Paul Maunder and Paddy Richardson (absent: Jane Kelsey).

The readers: Kai at the Club


There’ve been some melodramas occurring on the political scene with the defections of Meka Whaitiri from Labour and the resignation of Elizabeth Kerekere from the Greens. Journalists are wary of comment as are the Labour and Green hierarchies. Yet it has been strange behaviour, with ambition, envy and opportunism poking their heads in the door. Meta Whaitiri was on the wrong side of an employment dispute five years ago, was demoted to the back bench, reinstated to ministerial ranking, but lower than some younger Māori women MPs who have been promoted. She suddenly decided to move to Te Pāti Māori, forgot to tell her leader or colleagues of her intentions and fudged the issue with the speaker to stop her possible expulsion from parliament. Instead she is portrayed as victim by her new party, as someone casting off the shackles of the colonist. After a week of silence she proclaims that she had ‘a feeling in her puku’ that it was the right thing to do. Hard to discuss that.

It seems that Dr Kerekere got miffed when her private member’s bill wasn’t pulled but Chloe Swarbrick’s was and pushed the wrong text button and the well-mannered Greens reacted. It was rumoured that she hadn’t been nice around the office either and other allegations surfaced. A long winded enquiry began, taking place during the list ranking process; she being surprisingly high on the recommended list. She had been recruited because she was Māori with strong rainbow connections. The Greens meanwhile had tiriti-aligned their constitution with the new structure giving a sprinkling of Māori members quite a lot of say, unsettling some of the older hands. In a closed zoom call arranged by her supporters within the party, Dr Kerekere made the case to members that she was being shafted by the co leaders and a colleague-leaker. Once again she was victim. There was no room for question or comment and immediately afterward she resigned. Don’t mess with me was the message.

The good old persecutor/victim/rescuer pattern is in play, that pattern which is at the heart of warrior cultures, mythology and the major religions; an elemental pattern but one that causes an awful lot of grief. If there has been any enlightenment it is to realise that the pattern needs to be sidelined if the human species is to realise some form of social ecology.

Rather than promoting tino rangatiratanga and resourcing Māori driven structures, this drive to tiriti align mainly Pākeha organisations is, from my experience, a minefield; for you have the trickster syndrome to cope with, plus a robust confrontational style but with no grudges at the end of the day – something Pākeha need to learn; plus a tolerance of pushing-past-the-boundaries behaviour. And then there’s the religious acknowledgement of higher forces which takes me back to a childhood where grace was said before a meal, prayers said at bedtime and the bible referred to for guidance. But what of Marxist or Freudian rational enquiry (which in turn has its problems)? These questions, this debate, is facile unless the driving force of capitalism is made articulate and acknowledged as the major issue – with its tolerance of anything – as long as a buck is being made.

The final shenanigan was the gob-smacking coronation, where a 16th century ritual (when oaths of fealty muttered reluctantly by recalcitrant princes would have been riven with tension, when the surrounding of the king by Anglican clergy in order to make sure he didn’t fall into the hands of the Papists would also have been highly charged, where one of the princes was turned into something remote and symbolic as an act of God), was re-enacted five centuries later without any attempt to take into account current cultural and political realities. Quite extraordinary. All those soldiers in comic uniforms, the gold coach, the robes, the table of symbolic objects, the kitsch screens for the anointing, the bass profundo, the angelic choir boys… what did they currently signify? A lack of intellect? A final gasp from a broken imperial nation?

I preferred the prologue, a documentary about the soap opera love of melancholic Charlie and jokey Camilla, which has prevailed through divorce, scandal and parental frowns – but without the trials of poverty.

Sometimes things turn out…

Sometimes things turn out well. After a year of hard slog, the repair and upgrade of Jack’s Mill School situated at Kōtuku drew to a conclusion so that a residential centre for the exploration of social change, as well as a community resource, now exists.[1] There was a final drive required to meet the funding deadline but builder and plumber came to the party and a gentle opening took place a week ago. The school had become close to derelict and the site of the children’s cottage a little desolate of purpose so it was lovely seeing people gathering once more.

The whole exercise could have been a disaster and as project manager for Te Puawai Co-operative Society, whose project it was, I was terrified it might go over budget for there were no organisational reserves to call upon. But all was well financially and the funder, Manatū Taonga, Ministry of Culture and Heritage signed off a final report and I could have a moment of great satisfaction. Such moments are experienced on the completion of a play or book, but a physical resource like a school feels of greater import for the physical world has changed for the better.

I came out of the project full of admiration for the tradespeople who have been involved: Mike the builder resolving building issues in an old building where nothing is level or square, the plumbers and electricians installing modern systems in a matter of days, the vinyl layers neatly solving problems – without our brain and muscle not a single wheel will turn is a an absolutely truthful line from a union song. And it helped that a matter-of-fact, problem-solving architect was involved, pleased that the building will be around for another hundred years.

[1] The school saw a progressive headmaster, Edward Darracott, institute a first exercise in hands on, technical education when he got the children to design, build and furnish a model, child-sized cottage, which still stands and which caused the site to be designated a category one historic site.


In the 1990s I was privileged to work with the Hutt Valley Tokelauan community and helped them devise a couple of plays, which, after performances locally, we took to Tokelau, spending a month on the three atolls. It was a time of exploring often complex community relationships.

At the end of the trip, on the last atoll, we came across a man who was entrepreneurial, having established a sort of nightclub. As well, anticipating the tourist (Tokelau has no tourism), he’d trained up a dance group who could entertain the visitor. After a month free of entrepreneurialism, it was a shock to come across the phenomenon, which in this context seemed both mad and dangerous as he pursued the commodification of social and cultural relations.

I write of this because as Covid recedes, the entrepreneurial urge seems to have intensified. It has become the engine of the hegemony, that web of consciousness created daily which Gramsci first described. Every facet of life is required to be entrepreneurial, from services to schools to business to charity. Even that which resists has to do so in entrepreneurial terms. The climate crisis will only be solved by the entrepreneur. Meanwhile the refugee count daily increases, inequity increases, natural disasters occur weekly and anxiety infects the young at an alarming rate. But it is considered that these will only be solved by the entrepreneurial impulse, the teaching of which generates a whole industry in itself. It is preached in every ad, in education, and of course is the life blood of the social media with its mania for self promotion.  It partners happily with the pornographic impulse which commodifies desire.  It is akin in density to the triumphant working class clichés of the old USSR, which infected every facet of life, at the same time as the more articulate members of that same class were being sent to the Gulag.

As we begin to ponder a programme for a school for social change, it presents a central dilemma. How to circumvent it or confront without seeming eccentric or marginal?


Almost two years ago my daughter had her first child in Australia. Recently, when it was obvious they would not be coming back to Aotearoa as soon as they thought, she asked me to bring back the boy’s whenua and bury it. It had been in their freezer since his birth. It needs to be in Papatuanuku, she said to me. Where they were living, a suburb adjacent to an army base, was not Papatuanuku. It had another mythology, but the dreaming had been sorely disrupted.

You’re happy for it to be in the bush near the creek? She agreed. So I rang the airline and there was no problem with bringing a placenta back.

As I packed for leaving she brought it to me. It was in a sealed plastic pot with the hospital label on it. It was surprisingly light. I placed it in my suitcase and packed clothes around it, caught the plane, declared it at customs, who were mainly concerned with Indonesian food products because of an outbreak of the dreaded foot and mouth disease in that country.

When I got home I walked down the track to the creek with the secateurs. In three weeks the blackberry would probably have thrown out wild tendrils.  I walked over the bridge I had made, and cut my way through tendrils but it wasn’t too bad and I could eat some late fruit.

Once in the trees I veered off the path to a moss covered mound where I’d buried a dog ten years ago. It’s a peaceful spot and I wondered whether this was the place for the whenua? Next I looked at the base of a tall beech tree which has shot up over the last sixty years or so. That would be more of a male place, whereas the moss covered mound was feminine. No need to immediately decide.

As I walked down the track to the creek bed and paddock I realised that burying the whenua would make this place even more resonant than it has already become from almost daily wandering. I’d often learned scripts on these walks, pondered issues, thrown sticks for the replacement dog, watched the creek water rise and fall and the pond level fluctuate. Each day the dog swam in the pond or chased a stick thrown into the creek. I’d watched children play on the rocks, disturbed kereru, been fluttered at by pīwakawaka, the dog had chased weka and hares and ducks had given birth, gorse had grown then fallen over after heavy rain and I’d sawn my way through branches to keep the track clear. I’d realised that the timber at the bottom of the pond was from an old gold dredge, and I’d researched the geology of the area. But now there would be a genetic connection to the earth. It was a different sort of thought, a humbling thought.

It was a compliment that my daughter had entrusted this task to me and that this village where I live and where she lived for a period was the place to receive the whenua.  I had sometimes thought I would like to be buried in the mound next to the dog. I decided I would bury the placenta at the base of the tree and find a marker rock to place on top. This would slowly become sacred ground. Papatuanuku.

But what of a karakia? I went home and found suitable words from Fairburn’s Dominion, a poem that always speaks to me: ‘Land of mountains and running water, rocks and flowers and the leafy evergreen. O natal earth, the atoms of your children are bonded to you for ever.


Hanging out with a grandchild, I become aware of the extraordinary market for products related to child rearing, with every age a target, from napkins to baby clothing to cribs to front packs to back packs to silhouette books readable by unfocused eyes, to prams, to car seats, to surveillance devices, to mobiles, to teethers, to first toys… And then it really takes off, to balls that glow, to teddy bears, to various rattles and toys that beep and whistle and sing nursery rhymes, to buggies, to sleep noise and whales singing, to lotions, to special play facilities for a rainy day and organisers of first birthday parties. And now trucks and trains and cars and diggers and dolls that speak and wee, and animals, all with built in sounds, ten different lego systems, indoor swings and slides and a huge range of books, subscription television channels with every rhyme and game in the annals of childhood animated, plus series with infinite episodes, some of which are very skilful. Meanwhile there is a library of parenting books constantly updated, play dates and play groups, creches for those returning to work, whose equipment will be more sophisticated and robust. Museums, libraries and art galleries donate a floor to interactive and tactile activities for little ones, with pram parks and little cafes. On the toy front now, whole systems of motorways or railway are available with each vehicle an electronic marvel of sound and song… there must be teams of researchers, designers and marketers out there.

Whatever happened to kids floating sticks in the creek? Or climbing a tree? Or building a castle with river stones? I feel Neanderthal as I ask the question. And have the thought that this market of stuff will possibly stop the mechanism of symbol formation and replace it with the human algorithm. That’s my hunch. That’s my fear.

Reflections on the state


I’ve been reading a study of how the ANZAC concept has been used as a tool in forging national ideology in New Zealand and Australia.[1]

After the Gallipoli military disaster, with its considerable loss of life, commemorations were held annually to honour the veterans and the fallen. The dominant theme was that of the colonies proving their valour and their maturity and thus establishing their place in the Empire. For Maori, participation was a claim to full citizenship. It is worth noting the intertwining of war and the ideology of the nation.

Fifty years after the Gallipoli event, the concept of the commemoration (as a symbol of the nation), became stressed and fragmented by the passing of the veterans, the countercultural rejection of the Vietnam war, the looming possibility of nuclear catastrophe and the feminist movement which emphasised the suffering of women through war. A rebranding was required and the ANZAC experience was recast as one of colonial innocents being betrayed by imperial masters in an ill-founded war, but nevertheless performing with valour and sustained by a culture of mateship. These good humoured and rugged victims, supported by a contingent of nurses, could not be blamed for imperial crimes and fought for the liberal values of freedom, democracy and equality. The WW11 struggle against fascism had produced a new cohort of veterans who shared these values.

Seventy five years after the event, the indigenous struggle had become energised and needed to be incorporated through honouring the deeds of the Maori Battalion and the Aborigine and Torres Strait contribution to the war efforts. National war memorials were built to provide a central shrine in each nation. The need to persuade younger generations without direct experience of war into accepting the national mythology was met through films and literature, Peter Weir’s film, Gallipoli being incredibly popular. Services were held at Gallipoli, with backpackers participating as part of their OE and ANZAC Day in the Dardanelles became a special, sacred tourist experience. The young began to flock to local services as well.

And then, with the Gallipoli centenary, Te Papa and Weta workshop produced a larger than life diorama and the ANZAC myth justified the NZ and Australian role in the South Pacific, with indigenous media given a major role to play. An unknown soldier, in NZ an unknown warrior, was brought home and entombed to complete the circle. All along, prime ministers have been keen leaders of the myth making and the sharing of the myth has covered over any potential disruption of fraternal relations between the two countries.

It is a very useful study of how national ideology is built, the investment required, the role of politicians and cultural workers and the violence at the core of the state.


The modern state requires three elements: sovereignty – the right of the ruler to do what they wish within the defined territory (that right being given through majority vote in a democracy); a bureaucracy which enforces the wishes of the sovereign power throughout the territory; and charisma: the willingness of the population to go along with it all through respecting/admiring or simply having to put up with the leadership – and in a democracy justified through the electoral process.

The violence of the state and sovereignty is disguised but nevertheless experienced as an irritation at the bureaucratic level, which can grow into anger. It is often an intricate business of command as we know from such formats as the Resource Management Act. On a lesser level, we have authorities such as the Teachers Council which looks after teacher registration.  It could simply check qualifications, citizenship, work record and criminal record and perhaps gauge the comparative merits of qualifications earned in other countries. But it has, instead, entered the business of defining the aspirational values of the profession. When there is the issue of people qualifying, working and then taking time out, this aspirational judgement proves problematic.

I know of a case of a teacher who qualified, taught for a decade then took time out to have a family. When she returns to the profession, there is a possibility she will need to spend a year retraining because it is assumed that serious aspirational changes will have occurred within the time she has been absent. Her previous experience of the training year was that it was largely useless in terms of preparing for the classroom. And aspiring to the aspirational is a mystifying process, a part of ‘nation building’, similar to militarism and increasingly invaded by digitalisation. The result will be a return to the profession with a layer of the bitterness and weariness which accompanies much dialogue with the bureaucracy.

This tendency toward aspirational nation building rather than more simply providing a public service is beginning to infect many areas of the bureaucracy e.g. the Charities Commission, Culture and Heritage. CNZ, MBIE, WINZ, DOC and reforms such as Three Waters… Where aspiration is required, as in Oranga Tamariki, the failure is profound. Add a growing remoteness and difficulty communicating with ‘the powers that be’ and the disenchantment with the state becomes explicable.


A more positive story of the role of the state and empire is provided by a beautifully composed and recently published history of NZ nurses, from 1880 to the end of our dominion status in 1950.[2]

During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale established the role of the nurse as part of the health system. The vocation of caring for the sick and invalid became a profession and this model spread through the Empire. NZ played a very progressive role: the first country to have a system of nursing registration, the first country to have a nurse within the Department of Health looking after the service, at the forefront of establishing district and rural nursing services, and not doing too bad at establishing a Maori nursing service to provide care in remote indigenous communities. These nurses had to deal with the tension between traditional practices and modern medical practices with their emphasis on hygiene. They were supported by the Young Maori MPs keen to change traditional ways. There was a nursing magazine from early on and during the wars, NZ nurses were able to compare their skills with practitioners from other countries, which led to a reassurance that they were as good as anyone. Mainly middle class women, these early nurses were stalwart, hard working and articulate, some even calling to account slack doctors. This story is part of NZ being considered the social laboratory of the western world at the turn of the century. But the patriarchy nevertheless considered it necessary for them to retire upon marriage. As well, the service was not unionised during this period, with the vocational and professional mythology standing in the way. Nevertheless, with its oral history component providing personal accounts, this is a positive story of state organisation.

So, we have the state as a war mongering creator of identity via violence; the state as a mystifying bureaucracy and lastly, the state as an effective organiser of essential services, by providing the means for the people involved to do the organising. It’s relatively easy to choose between these options.

[1] Anzac Nations: The Legacy of Gallipoli in New Zealand and Australia, 1965-2015, by Rowan Light, OUP 2022.

[2] NZ Nurses Caring for our people 1880 to 1950 by Pamela Wood, OUP, 2022


I had a couple of cycling Wellington bureaucrats in the van. They got talking, swapping life styles. One worked for the council – social housing, looking for alternatives sort of thing, the other a reserve bank man.  Both had moved south during covid, working remotely, keeping the Wellington house but beginning afresh in a South Island city. They discussed the commute, having to spend four days in the capital once a fortnight, the travel involved, finding accommodation in Wellington, the stress on relationships – getting home from the capital and wanting to crash but the partner keen to go out and socialise – the frenzy of team meetings when in town, not being able to be part of the new community, a certain money juggling in order to buy the second house, the joy of the koru lounge when a flight is delayed… They obviously earned good money and were confident discussing the issues of well- being, but also locked into a bubble of public service culture involving policy and team culture, team loyalty and managed access for the public. I expressed a certain historical knowledge of alternative housing schemes in Wellington, but that was like the butler farting. There was no possibility of joining the conversation. The shuttle driver is a servant, not part of their world.

I intuitively sensed that grassroots knowledge or articulation would have no credence in their world. They will do lots of online surveys which never allow the coherent story. All they operate on is the data collection story. They would, I suspect, vote Green and be great recyclers, but their carbon footprint is problematic. As double home owners they will continue the housing crisis. They appeared to be childless with perhaps a dog. If they belong to the PSA it would be simply a further insurance policy. They had some sentimental notion of community, but their knowledge of history would be minimal. As we know they are incapable of solving any of the big issues.

The dream that covid would bring in a more benign work culture has simply resulted in the fly in fly out lifestyle of the miner extending into the middle class, with the similar extensive carbon footprint, disrupted families and communities, for who knows when dad or mum or partner will next be at home?

And the covid concept of people sticking in their bubble was more resonant than we think. With Spotify, Netflix, Youtube etc., people have their playlists, with some algorithmic assistance. There is no longer the surprise of being confronted by something outside one’s bubble. Identity (user name and password) becomes the means of access to oneself. The IRD’s appalling term: realme was actually a statement of fact and all the current identity obsession perhaps stems from this. And the anxiety that something monstrous: a home invader, a terrorist, a predator, a natural disaster, an illness, a serious accident, will prick one’s bubble and destroy identity. Victimhood waits in the wings and easily becomes a retrospective story of bubbles being pricked by malevolent forces and the need for retribution.  

So, an interesting van ride. Little did they know that the driver was doing some research of his own.

On receiving an honour

Having received an honour, that is, a ‘mark of respect’ made to a person who has also paid ‘allegiance to a code of conduct’; and the honour involving becoming a member of the NZ Order of Merit, an order made up of those whose work has been of meritorious worth to society, it is a significant pat on the back.

It’s an interesting process. Basically, someone has to feel the need to nominate and to then diligently spend time getting together a case, which also involves gathering referees. This is then presumably reviewed by the department before going before a panel of some sort. They then make an offer which one accepts or declines. I was surprised at how correct the citation was; this was well researched, and then the subtlety of the grading and the difference between meritorious work and loyal service.

There were ironies in accepting a pat on the back from the king – a la mainstream society – but after consulting with a reliable mate, we agreed it was worthwhile for a career in the arts and community which has always taken place on the margins of the mainstream and been critical of that mainstream, to be recognised as having merit. It was a good precedent, for so often this space of work is dismissed as therapy, do-gooding or propaganda – not fulfilling the goal of excellence. For it to be mainstreamed in this way was a positive thing. As well, allegiance to a code of activist conduct should be recognised as a worthwhile alternative.

More generally, it could be argued that it would be a good thing for the left to start nominating activists, unionists, researchers… so that they begin to appear in the list, to balance the business people, military and judiciary members and sportspeople, as contributors to the social good.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑