PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog



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


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.

Something hopeful

Having dinner with friends and after a second glass of wine, reflecting on the sixties and some dodgy (in current frameworks) flirtations, I was suddenly aware of stern looks. I immediately self censored and sank back into the current milieu of puritanism. Freud proposed sexual desire as the prime motivator of the human species. Adler wondered about power, but was outvoted. But that fundamental drive is always disciplined by society, and late capitalism is perhaps the most disciplining of all; in the West through commodification, in Muslim cultures through a paranoid fear of women, in China through surveillance. It is an age of puritanism.

In that reflective mood I had the urge to watch the movie, The Graduate after a lapse of fifty years. It was a film that revolutionised Hollywood in recognising the changing mood of a young audience, and was extraordinarily successful at the box office. Ignoring Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, it focused on a desire for something different from the privileged WASP lifestyle, with the young protagonist experiencing an American version of existential despair, with the sexually deprived wife on the cusp of middle age wanting satisfaction, and with the daughter having a will ‘to live’. For all three a breaking of the web of puritanism is necessary. And revolution always leads to a freeing of sexual energy and the modes of coupling. The film, with its almost European angst, still reveals the alienation at the heart of capitalism and the sixties urge to establish different social relations – no matter how clumsily. Of course, The Graduate operated within a heterosexual and binary culture and current identity fluidity makes for lesser and at the same time greater, angst.

In a similar vein, I attended a programme of webinar workshops on the hologram model of anti-capitalist care, which I admit sounds something of a mouthful. US artist activist, Cassie Thornton, who had realised as an art student that she was not creating art but debt (via a student loan), witnessed in Greece during the austerity period (when the country was disciplined by the banking system) some progressive GPs establishing a different model of care from the norm. They weren’t being paid and the health system had collapsed so why not do what they had always wanted? Your visit to your doctor, instead of a ten minute rush to prescribe one pill or another, saw you have a conversation with three people: the GP focusing on physical health, a psychologist focusing on your mental health and a social worker focusing on your social relations. At the end of the hour of talking things through, with some questioning and feedback, you were asked to proscribe what was wrong with you. And by that time, you knew.

Cassie Thornton seeing this as establishing anti-capitalist relations at an intimate level, now promotes, with others, a similar protocol and programme of care that can take place between non professionals, with three people (each focusing on an area, as in the Greek scenario) supporting the fourth (which she called the hologram). Obviously if you have cancer or a broken leg you still need traditional medical help, but this establishing of care between people she sees as potentially revolutionary. And once one hologram is set up, those support people should set up their own hologram and the system of care can spread, like a virus spreads. While it could sound like another new ageist fad, the programme facilitators were determined that it be couched in anti-capitalist terms and that there is a radical proposal underneath the practice, which is ‘that many people simultaneously create an infinitely expanding network of people who are healthy and stable enough to survive through the end of capitalism, and to make new ways of organizing human cooperation with what is found in the rubble.’ It becomes then a sort of entry level communism and during each session, my skepticism vanished as a type of autonomous zone was set up – and they were registering the Zapatista and Rojavo movements as touchstones. It was a smart counter cultural experience, and I have to admit, since the sixties I have been looking for another sixties. The interim has been somewhat fraught in spirit.

The Hologram

The seed of inequality

I’ve been rereading an interesting book on The History of Everything, whose authors, David Graber and David Wengrow rebut the accepted narrative of the evolution of human society: that hunters and gatherers lived in small egalitarian bands; that the move to herding and agriculture enabled surpluses which led to hierarchy and patriarchy; as that increased in complexity, kings, courts, priests and serfs arrived on the scene; finally merchants and trade allowed the accumulation of capital that funded the industrial revolution and the modern state.

The authors argue that recent archaeological research has revealed complex social and political patterns amongst hunters and gatherers, with gatherings of thousands for ritual and trading purposes and the building of some monumental structures and residential complexes resembling small cities. But their life was always flexible and autonomous, which prevented any social or political structure becoming embedded. There are three basic freedoms: the right to move around, the right to say no to authority and the right to create social and political structures. The foragers had all three rights. If someone started to get stroppy, they either ridiculed them or moved on. (The Chinese, at this moment, have none of these rights. Nor do most of us have these rights in the workplace).

The move to agriculture took millennia with much ‘play farming’ taking place on flood plains which were easy to work, simply to supplement the foraging diet. They discovered early on that farming is hard work. The authors also argue that the Western ‘enlightenment’ and the demand for liberty, egality and fraternity was actually greatly informed by dialogue with Native American foragers. So, if our ancestors were so savvy, how did inequality come about?

It is a puzzle, but the authors find a germ of an answer, surprisingly, in the working of charity. There were chiefs amongst some foraging tribes but their role was mainly theatrical or spiritual and as long as people could say no or move away, their power was nominal. Except that one of the chief’s obligations was to provide shelter to orphans, widows, the disabled, captured warriors… those without means of livelihood. In doing so they built up an entourage that was unequal, reliant on his or her charity and therefore obedient and hard working and they couldn’t run away. The theatrical role became more powerful economically and politically. We are still a long way away from the autocrat with an army and a bureaucracy to enforce his or her will, but the seed of inequality has formed.

So, be wary of the next grant application

A troubled day for collectivism

Labour Day, created as a public holiday to celebrate the eight hour working day and other achievements of the worker movement has become just another holiday. To restore a touch of authenticity the Blackball Museum of Working Class History mounted two events in the village. Last night we held a debate on the topic that Blackball workers (those employed in the village) should be unionised and covered by a multi employer collective agreement. It proved to be an intense ‘conversation’.

Those on the affirmative argued the proven benefits of a collective agreement for wages and conditions, the more general benefits of collectivisation in times of crisis and change, as well as the benefits of having a collective voice and a sense of belonging, plus the hypocrisy of a village whose main heritage story is that of worker activism not currently living its union story – except as a brand.

The opposing stories were revealing and based mainly on the blaming of unions for failing to provide solutions in often complex situations. For example, a local school is down to one teacher because of a falling role so the teacher aide inevitably assumes, by default, a teacher role yet is not paid accordingly. Teacher aides were created when mainstreaming of disabled or neurologically different children was brought in. But the position has been paid from a school’s bulk fund so has always been competing with other needs. The drop in roll is caused by a combination of demographic factors: retirees from the cities attracted by cheap housing so as to have a retirement nest egg or to add to the Mum and Dad bank; investors buying houses for Air BnB now the great walk is up and running; further holiday houses now the village is becoming trendier… None of this can be blamed on the union, it is simply the incoherent saga of the market. In fact the teachers union have supported teacher aides’ struggle for better wages and conditions and advocated that they be paid from the department salary budget rather than competing with general school expenses, yet it still somehow gets the blame for the situation. Another story of feeling let down in a redundancy/restructuring situation led to a skilled worker advocating for individual bargaining. A third opinion was simply for peace and harmony – local employers are kind hearted so why create friction; the battles have been won and unions are no longer necessary?

It is strange that anger and bitterness should be aimed at unions rather than at the capitalist system, yet, in reflection, unsurprising, for there was in the Muldoon era a concentrated government and employer campaign to discredit unions, leading to the Trades Hall bombing. And then the Employment Contracts Act era of the 1990s saw another onslaught on the ‘bloody unions causing trouble.’

A second event is today’s opening of an exhibition on the midwife story, a story of women achieving an independence from the patriarchal and hierarchical medical control of birthing practice. The Lead Maternity Carer (LMC) system introduced in the late 1990s was celebrated internationally as a progressive model to be emulated. But in setting it up, the midwife representatives failed to include regular negotiation of pay and conditions in the agreement with the Ministry of Health. This has led to a failure of payments to keep up with inflation and a further failure to recognise inequities for rural practitioners and the need for paid time off. A return to union advocacy is required and underway.

As usual I dream of a working class museum existing and these sorts of face to face discussions taking place, in villages and towns throughout the country over Labour Weekend.

Mark me, the hour has almost come when I to sulfurous and tormenting flames must render up myself.

Once a year the Shakespeare Globe Centre NZ runs a Sheila Winn Festival whereby secondary school kids in a school get together and select a scene from a Shakespeare play, and direct, design, costume and perform the piece at a festival. They have a lot of fun and it can push some of them in a career direction. Shakespeare is generally considered the genius English playwright, bridging the movement from an oral to a written culture in an Elizabethan age which saw the beginning of capitalism proper and a burgeoning individualism. Shakespeare articulated with a unique skill this Renaissance, one of the key moments in European history. It would seem a good thing that kids of any ethnicity, citizens if you like, can independently grapple with this cultural moment. Nor is it surprising that kids from Māori or PI cultures, with their lingering oral traditions, participate with enthusiasm (I once directed Hamlet with Jim Moriarty and Don Selwyn playing Hamlet and Claudius – they could improvise Shakespeare – but that’s another story).

This kids’ Shakespeare festival should be something that Creative NZ gently support? Nope. Assessors decided this year that the whole thing is an imperialist exercise, part of a continuing cultural colonisation. Rather than Romeo and Juliet kids should learn the story of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. But where’s the great play about Hinemoa and Tūtānekai? I’m sure there’s a Macbeth in tribal lore- perhaps Te Rauparaha, but where is the play? What about King Lear? Generally, Māori playwrights have been writing in the 3 act realist tradition. Let’s take this impulse into the other arts. Kids should not learn Mozart or Beethoven when there is Hirini Melbourne?

Are we suddenly living in Mao’s cultural revolution, with students encouraged to place a placard around Dawn Sander’s neck (who’s kept the festival alive for nigh on thirty years) and have her kneel and apologise? Has CNZ been taken over by a gang of four? Watch out Leonardo and Van Gogh, you running dog colonisers. Let’s rip up Gaugin especially. Let’s have CNZ’s little pale-pink book with the separation myth dotted throughout together with the karakia and whakatauākī  to be read from the screen before each webinar. And let’s invent history. The apologists are quoted as saying that colonisers came with the bible and Shakespeare. I am aware of missionaries but had not realised from my own knowledge of NZ theatre history that there were theatre troupes wandering around the new colony performing Shakespeare in order to befuddle the locals. But if it is said often enough, I am sure the rewrite will become accepted.

There was this other good idea called Arts on Tour whereby one or two person shows could travel the small places, keeping some rural venues alive and country folk with a hankering to leave off the screen for a night, stimulated. Keep funding it? Nope, that’s presumably colonial as well. The venues are usually Pākeha run and you just turn up and pay at the door. They should all have a sign placed around their necks and made to apologise as well.

Meanwhile US cultural imperialism rages on 24/7 in every cultural area, including academic publishing. Have the gang of four noticed that? I’m thinking it’s time to pull the plug on this particular cultural revolution with its kiwi flavour. It promises all the dullness of 1950s insularity with knowledge reduced to ‘as you make your bed so do you lie on it’ (one of my adopted mother’s favourite sayings) and the sermon on the mount.

Anyway, our good leader has sorted this embarrassment, inveigling the money required out of the Ministry of Education. Try and get a teacher aide sometime, Jacinda.

The lengthy funeral of feudalism

The Queen’s complex and lengthy funeral reminds me of the long journey away from feudalism and the fact that we never quite put it to rest as a political and social system. It seems there is no mausoleum big enough.

It is of course nonsense that because someone is born into a particular family that they have characteristics which make them suitable for leading positions in society. At its zenith it was considered an act of God, hence the divine right of kings (and occasionally queens) to have autocratic power. Economically, for those on the next level (the lords etc), land ownership was involved because it brought with it indentured labour in the form of serfs and bonded peasants. Along with that ownership came civil and legal positions which often brought financial reward. Once again this was justified by birth and a natural right to leadership.

With the advent of capitalism and the merchant, manufacturing and service classes, entrepreneurialism and subsequent wealth in the form of capital rather than land, acquired in a lifetime and not being attached to birth, confused things. But often marriage into the aristocracy or buying a feudal estate from a bankrupt lord brought a pretence of birth right and the blessing of religion.

The nonsense of birth right has been whittled away, yet remains resilient, for capitalism produces little graciousness or formal pageantry. So royal families have persevered and continue to impress – celebrities don’t quite make the grade of princesses when it comes to ribbon cutting. And there are feudal values of service, obedience and faith which contrast with capitalist values of ambition, greed, individualism and consumerism.

Join the queue.

And of course, birth right is at the heart of indigenous cultures. But once an indigenous people become a nation, the concept of nation and nationality comes onto the agenda. For example, Samoan nationality exists both through birth, but also through citizenship via marriage or naturalisation after a period of residency, so that being a Samoan citizen is not totally dependent on birth.

Māori nationality doesn’t exist in the same way, for there is no Māori nation. If one is not born Māori you can’t be Māori. You can’t ‘become’ Māori through marriage or residency.  There would seem to be an issue here with the treaty, in that it is not a partnership between two sovereign nations, and to become a sovereign nation means giving up the primacy of whakapapa. So, what is the legality? A partnership between a sovereign nation and the iwi leaders who have feudal rights over areas of land. But then co-governance at a combined level over issues and resources which involve all citizens obviously does create some controversy, as we are finding.

Complex issues, able to be pondered on during an eight hour wait to file past the Queen’s coffin. Except prime ministers don’t have to wait, can jump the queue with the aid of a curtsy. Although the Saudi king is dodgy so maybe he won’t be allowed. But that’s another issue. What if the bloodline produces some dodgy characters unfit to rule? We’d need to go back to the beginning of the queue to have the time to ponder that one. And why not get rid of the whole concept of birth right? Pension off the royal family? They don’t even need a pension, they’ve got enough money and lots of castles – 700 rooms in Buckingham Palace, plenty of space for the homeless.

Will this never end might become the motto as we shuffle forward?


As the aspirational concept filters through from Treasury and it becomes one of the required outcomes of more generally oriented programmes, ‘wellbeing’ has become a buzz word for government departments and their programmes. Suddenly one has to consider it, for departments holding the purse strings are considering it. What comes to mind if I free associate is firstly the Wordsworthian sentiment (which I can occasionally share on a spring morning) that, ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world’, followed by the memory of first falling in love, followed by the gentlemen’s club custom of a pre-dinner brandy and a good cigar, followed by the more modern chemical addiction of a joint with friends…if you google wellbeing images you find yoga poses and flowers.

But once the bureaucrats get hold of it, it is more complicated, with always the problem of measurability. The following list is from Statistics NZ. Under the heading, ‘Subjective wellbeing’, there is the ‘Ability to be yourself, Family well being, Hope for the future, Life satisfaction, Sense of control, Sense of purpose’. Each of these is pretty complex I would have thought. We move to, ‘Cities and settlements’ and under that heading we have, ‘Access to natural spaces, Commuting time to work; Homelessness; Housing affordability; Overcrowding; and Resilience of infrastructure’. That might seem a little simplistic as well. And then there is ‘Active stewardship of land’ – presumably that means having a garden. When it comes to ‘Health’ there is the startling concept of ‘Amenable mortality’, which proves to be premature deaths; ‘Health equity; Mental health status; Spiritual health, Suicide’. How do they measure a person’s spiritual health or the reasons for suicide? We move to ‘Economic standard of living’ and find: Child poverty, low income after housing costs; Child poverty, low income before housing costs; Child poverty material hardship; Income adequacy; Income inequality; Low income; material well being; Net worth; Value of unpaid work’. After digesting those, we move to ‘Social connections’: ‘Contact with family/whanau/friends; Loneliness; Social support’… The list then moves to ‘Work’, ‘Culture’, ‘Air quality’, ‘Identity’, ‘Leisure’, ‘Waste’…

We’re a long way away from that spring walk and I imagine it keeps government departments in Wellington and elsewhere very busy trying to report on the above. There’s probably some IT wizard designing the algorithm. Union membership doesn’t feature, and given that is a way toward achieving many of the above, including a sense of belonging and identity, it would seem a notable absence. There’s also the conundrum from the 1960s when children (white children mainly) brought up under a new time of relative affluence and full employment rebelled against the suburban wellbeing that was their lot. And a further conundrum: the connectivity and general vitality of the less well off in the developing world.  

A further irony: a friend works for Statistics gathering information for the above. It’s casual work on the minimum wage. To avoid the accusation of zero hour contracts, they’re guaranteed 17.5 hours work a week. I pondered that figure then realised it was set to just below the 20 hour a week which would allow a worker access to Working with Families. That’s pretty mean minded and blinkered I would have thought for a government that is concerned with wellbeing. Not to mention penalising those poor bastards who still need a smoke to cope with the anxieties of being at the bottom of the heap. Or the kids living in motels. Or the rest homes short of 12000 nurses…

Some time during the 1990s, bureaucrats were writing units of learning for NZQA and NCEA. I sat in on a few panels considering drama units and would suffer a headache from the mystification being imposed. Occasionally I would analyse a draft unit, word for word, sentence by sentence, pointing out that it was illogical, often tautologous and bore no relationship to the realities of acting or directing. I would be met with blank stares and that crinkling of the eyes when faced with the recalcitrant. They signed them off and then exemplars were produced. For the practitioner it was a matter of choice: either ignoring it all, getting on with the job and then making up some reporting at the end, or, as newcomers often did, being obedient and teaching nonsense.

As someone wrote in the Spinoff last weekend, this government is brilliant at being aspirational, and rather hopeless at achieving anything very much, with the notable exception of Fair Pay Agreements.

The growing insanity

In 2014 the Swedish writer, Henning Mankell, after being diagnosed with cancer wrote Quicksand, a meditation on life and fate, in which a central obsession was the storing of nuclear waste, the potency of which lasts thousands of years.

Eight years later, a nuclear power station is used as a pawn in a European war and considered a ‘safe’ place from which to lob rockets.  When the UN is unable to intervene, the prospects for the planet are exceedingly grim.

Why isn’t NZ vehemently protesting and expecting others to do the same?

In Norway, a walrus that became a tourist attraction was put down ‘in a humane manner’ because the public were disregarding the recommendation to keep a safe distance. Therefore, according to the director of fisheries, ‘the possibility for potential harm to people was too high’ and the walrus is not an endangered species, there being 30,000 of them. I would have thought that any universalising of the proposition, once considered a useful part of ethical consideration, would have pointed to the obvious abundance of the human species. The walrus had no say in the matter.

Why not let the walrus gnaw at a few people to teach them a lesson and then take her to the nuclear power station in the Ukraine to chase off the soldiers. Any refusing to go should be humanely euthanised.

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