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PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog

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taipoutiniblog

Playwright, writer and cultural activist living in Blackball on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.

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.

Knots

The Greens and Labour agree to agree to disagree – one of those R.D. Laing knots that afflict the schizophrenic mind. James Shaw continues as Climate Change Minister and Associate Minister for the Environment focusing on biodiversity and Marama Davidson becomes the Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence plus Associate Minister for Housing (focusing on homelessness). Both parties will co-operate, presumably in the above areas but also on electoral reform – to make the parliamentary term four years rather than three and to lower the MMP threshold. The Greens have no economic portfolios or control of big spending ministries and no representation in the budget setting process, They have no fiscal voice so the economic establishments will be placated: no wealth taxes, no capital gains taxes, no guaranteed minimum income, no getting at the farmers – incremental change only for Brand NZ.

Instead of polluters paying, fossil fuel subsidies disappearing and us taking responsibility for our Pacific neighbours, instead of social equity and just transition, we will have agricultural change research, will clean up waterways, have better waste management and will phase out fossil fuels with regard to process heat (drying milk powder). Housing policy will remain aspirational with a curious emphasis on getting rid of rheumatic fever.

When it comes to Domestic and Sexual Violence, Jan Logie’s private members bill actually did something by enabling paid leave and flexible working arrangements. Now there’ll be working groups and reports, perhaps programmes in prisons and schools and better funding for refuges.

As for the homeless, there is already an action plan which includes supporting people coming out of prison and mental hospital and drug programmes and a scheme to replace motel accommodation with transitional housing. But never bring up the economic causation of generational poverty. Never bring up the tension caused by the daily performance of success in the media and more generally, the glare from the bright lights of stars and celebrities, the beaming faces of athletes and the consumer aspiration in every ad. The Greens brought this up and have been put in their place.

But hopefully, Marama will continue to speak this contradiction and Jacinda will continue to interject, Not on my watch. It could become an interesting skit.   

Spotlight

I’ve been doing further reading on the kaupapa of some cultural worker activists from the northern hemisphere and been both startled, stimulated and grateful that the energy and analysis that arose in the 1990s and then had seemed to dissipate, even disappear, has returned – stronger and more coherent. It leaves me with a ‘I can die happy’ sort of feeling.

They are saying something like the following: We have to admit the crisis and realise that all the crises are connected. Rather than put our energy and tolerance of risk into surviving individually within a decaying capitalist system, let us put our energy into and take the risk of establishing relationships of solidarity.

And then a set of questions:

  • Given unstable incomes, unstable housing and an unknown future how do we organise within this set of completely unstable conditions?
  • Can we organise without money, space, stability and experts?
  • Do we trust ourselves?
  • Can we disentangle our nervous systems from the habits of capitalism?
  • Have we the courage to be disobedient in terms of energy and time?
  • Can we look at wishes not problems?
  • Can we understand that reciprocity is complex and that post capitalist reciprocation looks different? (By this they mean that relationships of gift and reception, work and payment are not simply binary.)
  • Can we understand that difference and change are our greatest powers?
  • Let us understand that what we are doing and making is done and made by workers, for the community.
  • Whatever we do has to be such that it cannot be colonised by google, has to outlast capitalism and doesn’t replace the government’s work.
  • Radical change is no longer about a singular confrontation or revolution, but rather a complex integration of multiple responses operating in a precarious manner – indigenous, gender, worker, hunter and gatherer, sexual orientation, national, ability, age, environmental, with often the conflict being between this diversity and the imposers of regularity. 

One of the activists, Cassie Thornton, who describes herself as a feminist economist artist, has modelled a system of care, based on what she saw happening in Greece during the austerity crisis. She calls it the hologram (giving a picture of a three dimensional person). The person who is the hologram gathers three people who interview the hologram  – one focusing on physical health, one on psychological health, the third on social and relationship health. They meet perhaps once a season or if there is a big decision to be made. It becomes a system of caring outside the mainstream. And then each of those listeners become a hologram, getting three people to form the triangle. And then those people meet etc. A network of different relationships spreads, like a virus. In this way, new systems of relationships could be built up, subverting capitalist relations.

Thornton is also active in a Canadian organisation called RiVAL (Reimagining Value Action Lab), which operates ‘at the intersections between art, research and social activism.’ The organisation mounts projects around three themes: Post extractive futures which requires an expanded imagination of ‘the economy’; Decolonising the settler imagination through establishing new communities of risk and relation and storytelling solidarity; and Investigating what comes after revenge politics (falling out of love with authoritarian institutions, transcending capitalist neurohacking(facebook etc) to establish a new radical humanism. The hallmarks of a project they would support is that it is about collaboration and relationship, has a radical imagination, is challenging conventions and power, and is in dialogue with struggles for social justice.

Another woman, Sibylle Peters of Fundus Theatre in Hamburg does this amazing theatre work with children based on the children’s wishes. If they want to be astronauts they build a spaceship, but then the sense of flying through space? – lie on your back and stare at the sky and imagine. You want to be rich? – start a children’s bank. Projects also involved finding the spirits within a school and inventing rituals to relate to them. You want to destroy something? Work out what and why and go and do it. Amazingly enough, schools (from low decile areas) go along with it. Once again art is used as a means of research.

There are other groups in the states and obviously a network which is building. I’ve started circulating people here. The question remains, Is this just arty-farty ideas? Well, at the moment, the shuttle co-op we’re running is proving popular as an income earner for locals who are under-employed and in some cases unwilling to go back to 12 hour shifts and 60 hour weeks. Put simply, they want a life. I have a feeling this is more generally the case, and the choice: over employed and stressed out. or under-employed, broke and stressed out. I begin to see the possibility of a ‘virus’ of co-ops solving this, meeting the outlined ideology. The one thing stopping it is access to capital. How do we organise without money?

Debate?

The final leaders’ debate was a saccharine affair, the set belonging to an ad for colour schemes, the costumes carefully chosen, Jacinda’s earrings bouncing light, Judith’s eyebrows arched and her costume dowdier, the moderator a head prefect presence, the ads in the breaks particularly surreal, the discussion superficial. A moment of crabbiness over the wealth tax, with no mention of the Guaranteed Minimum Income for which the wealth tax is simply one of the tools to raise the money. Too deep. So, reassurance for the rich, but ignore meaningful solutions to poverty. School lunches are hardly transformational. Housing reform is impossible because no one will prick the high price bubble – too much personal equity at stake. Build affordable houses, but how? Increase the housing supply? I would’ve thought that brings prices down? Climate crisis – don’t panic, link to brand NZ. So, Climate crisis NZ- no – clean green, Covid free, God’s own country. Be nicer to Maori. And be stable. Aspirations? To make politics a friendlier and more diverse space, a more bearable staffroom with the children playing safely outside. Closed borders and who do we let in other than our own? Well, Hollywood first, America Cup participants second, sports teams third, farm contractors fourth, fruit pickers fifth. Faith? Judith a liberal Anglican, whatever that means, Jacinda a lapsed Mormon and curiously disturbed by the question. Unions and workplace relations? Not a mention. It would bugger up the colour scheme.

I recently read a book: Workers without bosses, which revisits the stroppy Australian unionism of the late sixties and seventies when shop floor committees insisted on closed shops, on workers input into hiring and firing and into health and safety, when workers continued working when factories tried to close, had green bans, rainbow bans, stopped gentrification of working class housing areas, got involved in foreign policy, in fact ‘challenged the foundations of the capitalist employment relationships in which bosses govern and workers obey… challenged all aspects of the power, authority and control of the employer class.’ Attempts to introduce penal controls were ignored with further bans. It was only stopped by neo liberalism and the creating of unemployment.

Those were the aspirational days, my friends.

Demo by building workers to save the urban environment
Unionists save a working class heritage area

Glimmers of Light

It’s a world of magic realism. Because of a Certificate of Public Use running out, a toilet is legal today, illegal tomorrow, the event taking place presumably at midnight. No physical change has occurred, simply a regulation kicking in. In the UK, six is suddenly the number for legal gatherings. A family of seven becomes illicit. Darcy, a fly in fly out miner turns up at the airport with paperwork that allows a workmate standing beside him in the queue to fly across the Tasman but the same paperwork proves inadequate in his case. Different immigration officer. A headache perhaps, a relationship breaking up?  This begins a bureaucratic process that is truly Kafkaesque. Similarly, the Assange trial is pure Kafka. The go-to epidemiologist, with shocking pink hair, seems a character out of Alice in Wonderland. National’s team of ‘competent business people’ get their figures wrong. Floods, hurricanes and bush fires rage. We have entered the time of crisis. The centre will try and hold, with the margins collapsing. I video a local candidates meeting and it’s all predictable, Labour keeping things moving, Greens kindly and idealistic, NZ First full of policy, National preaching competence for recovery, the rest a bit loopy and nationalist with the anti money party having the insight of extremity. A drunk is embarrassing and no one can ask a simple question. Given the opportunity, people start raving. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZER-Ss7gFg

I read a book, The mushroom at the end of the world, which posits a strange hope on the margins of precarity, as war vets, refugees and ferals gather matsutake mushrooms in the degraded pine forest of Wyoming. A complex supply train gets the mushrooms to Japan where they are a delicacy offered as gifts. The point made is that in a post human, intersectional, contaminated world, a community of outsiders can still find a rough praxis, different species interact and nurture one another and capital accumulates on the margins. I wonder whether the wilding pines are hiding this mushroom delicacy and in our lust for purity we forgot to notice.

In another book, Cassie Thornton, a feminist economist artist (that’s a mouthful) makes an interesting proposal: ‘How can we let go of what we know are false and deadly dreams of individual success within this murderous system to construct a yet unimaginable social world?’ she writes. ‘Instead of constantly risking everything to survive as individuals we might use our energy to take risks to make collective experiences of steadfast and deep solidarity where success is measured differently.’ And she is not preaching new ageism which she describes as a ‘middle class, saccharine, self congratulatory, individualistic, crypto masochistic, quasi activist rhetoric of healing, self care, pleasure, generosity and kindness.’ Not bad.

Thornton mounted an interesting dance project with dancers entering a large bank trying to find some dirt; which, if it existed, would be the only real thing in the building. A Hamburg colleague, Sybelle Peters, works with children and their wishes; one project involved the kids finding miracles in their neighbourhood – which sounds a worthwhile exercise well outside the National Standards testing regime.

Reading about these women’s work there is a sense of entering a space which is real, a space where people have taken a scalpel to the dark clouds of mystification to let through a glimmer of light.

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