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The future

The future

Driving home from rehearsal and listening mindlessly to National Radio I suddenly found myself in the middle of a rather astonishing half hour of women discussing the Brazilian Butt Lift or BBL, a cosmetic operation which reshapes the body into an ‘ideal’ form:  big bum, narrow waist and with breast implants as well, big tits. It seems that African, Afro-American and South American women seek the operation for ‘cultural reasons’. Snapchat and Instagram are the social media villains for spreading the desire for this particular craziness.

Unfamiliar with these apps I spent an hour before bed trying them out. After BBL and a plenitude of before and after photos of bums I tried the Californian fires and had a somewhat terrifying glimpse of the future apocalyptic times – as the planet wreaks revenge. Endless photos of fires were interspersed with prayers, praise for the first responders, information about welfare centres for those forced from their homes or whose homes had been razed, photos of the threatened Ronald Reagan Museum, photos of planes dropping water bombs, instructions about the use of face masks to prevent damage from smoke inhalation, plus ads about whatever – a chaos of information about chaos. The Los Angeles Times digital edition was free for a day, but pleaded for donations.

From there I turned to Greta Thunberg’s progress through North America in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s electric car and her retweeting of images of climate strikes from around the world, resolute fighters of chaos, led by ‘the woman from heaven’, the name the Native Americans have given her. And always in the comments section a hate filled rave: ‘go home bitch’, ‘a rubbish dump of lefties’, ‘yachts have been known to sink’, from bitter and twisted men who I hope don’t have access to weaponry.

NZ seems particularly placid in comparison, apart from a section of the farming sector who seem intent on creating hysteria.

But as things fall apart, the left in the States seems increasingly left. The next morning, having a pee in the museum toilet, I examined the slogan in the 1920s Buffalo Lodge Certificate on the wall: ‘In things certain, unity; in things doubtful, liberty; in all things, charity’.

Not bad really.

THE SPECTACLE

The French philosopher, Guy Debord wrote a famous book, The Society of the Spectacle, in which he described the way spectacles have taken over reality. ‘The SPECTACLE’, he wrote, ‘ is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.’ He also wrote that the SPECTACLE replaces the faculty of encounter with a social hallucination.

Since 1967, when the book was first published, the level of SPECTACLE has spectacularly increased. There’s a world cup or yacht race or world title fight or grand prix every week. Fans travel the world to attend. Countries and cities compete for the hosting rights. Digital platforms fiercely compete for transmission rights. Capital becomes image. National pride becomes a social hallucination, for players and competitors are mercenaries.

The current Rugby World Cup is a perfect example of the SPECTACLE.

world cup

Yet suddenly, NATURE intrudes. A typhoon bears down on the host nation. Citizens are evacuated, rivers flood, seas pound coastlines, winds howl, infrastructure is destroyed and worst of all, the SPECTACLE is interrupted at a crucial moment.

Immediately a new theme emerges, aligned with the climate crisis, a theme which is loosely called climate justice. The wealthy northern countries start moaning. Why was the tournament held in a country prone to natural disaster, that is, a country situated in the central portion of the globe most vulnerable to the climate crisis? Two northern countries, Italy and Scotland, who might now miss out, play victim. How good they are at sulking. Fans’ travel schedules are turned topsy turvy.  But already there had been complaints of the injustice experienced by second tier nations from the Pacific or marginal European countries at their unfair treatment by world rugby. The world cup becomes themed with injustice.

Firefighters patrol on a flooded road due to heavy rains caused by Typhoon Hagibis at Ota ward in Tokyo, Japan

But above all, there is fear and outrage that NATURE is bigger than the SPECTACLE, and that it refuses to be, in itself, a SPECTACLE. NATURE will destroy capital, NATURE breaks through the social hallucination to produce the implacable encounter with the wind, the rain, the earth,  the river and the sea.

We’d better get used to this sort of thing, because it isn’t going to stop.

Greta

Late last year I wrote a remake of Waiting for Godot, called Waiting for Greta. The prospect of climate extinction seemed to match the existential angst of Becket’s original (which was perhaps influenced by Hiroshima and the subsequent threat of nuclear holocaust); the Swedish girl had just appeared on the scene and I was impressed by her address to the Climate Change Summit.

Since then, especially since venturing into New York, the heart of the beast, Greta Thunberg has become a prophetic (Naomi Klein’s description) force. Millions of kids have taken to the streets and now workers have been called in to support the movement. She is in the media as much as Trump or Johnson. She addresses parliaments, talks with the Pope, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Obama… and is subjected to the outlandishly intense scrutiny of the modern media and the lunatic babble of social media.

She seems to survive, unphased. Most of the time she gives the floor to her admirers. When in the midst of her peers she seems shy and marginal. Yet when she speaks the message is crystal clear and very repeatable by others of her generation:

  • We need to listen to the scientists who are telling us that the planet is under extreme threat of warming to the point that human life as we know it will be impossible.
  • Young people and future generations will pay the price. The leaders for the last thirty years, despite knowing the situation, have done nothing. The current leaders remain hesitant or are bent on destruction.
  • The least fortunate in the world will suffer most because rich people hang onto their privilege.
  • Continual economic growth is not the answer. The system has to change. Young people need to take to the streets and make that change.
  • No one is too small to make a difference.

There’s been nothing this clear and succinct since the Communist Manifesto of 1848. And the message is being forged, and the movement led, by this prophetic sixteen year old with Asperger’s.

Both the conservative right and the liberal left try and cut her down to size, either by dismissing her as a hysterical, mentally ill teenager, or by patronising her. Conspiracy theories abound. She’s in the employ of a PR firm. What’s the story with her parents? Some adults must be behind this. She’s a communist figurehead…

But then, she herself increased the intensity when she addressed the UN in New York. She took off the mask to show the anger, grief and pain of a generation. It became a poor theatre moment which created a frenzy. ‘She’s hysterical. She’s making young people anxious and suicidal. Why don’t her parents rein her in?’ For politicians don’t do this, nor do adults when in public. They can pretend anger and abuse one another, but only the mad reveal themselves in this way. Yet, in actual fact, she was on script. Here’s a quote from a book, The Uninhabitable Earth, a story of the future, by David Wallace-Wells:

‘Rhetoric often fails us on climate because the only factually appropriate language is of a kind we’ve been trained, by a buoyant culture of sunny-side-up optimism, to dismiss, categorically, as hyperbole. Here the facts are hysterical and the dimensions of the drama  incomprehensibly large – large enough to enclose not just all of present day humanity but all of our possible futures as well.’

Greta suddenly acted out this enormity (and immediately a Death Metal band turned it into a song). The adults are terrified at being called to account. Is this going to be something like Mao’s cultural revolution? The honest ones, like Michael Moore, are willing to admit failure. Obama? – no wonder he wants to be seen shaking her hand.

Greta’s secret of course is her Asperger’s, which means she doesn’t ‘play the social games you folk are so fond of’, to use her words. She’s focused, obsessed perhaps, sees the issue without compromise, doesn’t chat, remains a vulnerable figure physically. Prophetic because in this situation, to quote Wallace-Wells again, ‘there is no analogy to draw on outside of mythology and theology’.

She is also remarkably astute. In a sweet interview with a Swedish talk show host, safe in her language and culture, she talks about her Papa – she won’t let him go shopping in New York, he’s untidy and probably sick of having to follow her around (having to pick her up from the UN rather than the school disco). She will keep assessing the public exposure and withdraw if it gets too much. I’m sure she’ll be capable of disappearing for a while just as effectively as she appeared. And she’ll have a remarkable knowledge of the way the political world works.

So far she has survived the maelstrom of the Empire. After all, it’s nothing compared to what the planet’s going to throw at us. And to copy her in three simple ways would change the world: stop flying, stop stupid shopping and become vegan. Let the whole human race do that, starting tomorrow. Whew! Yet it is possible. That’s the point she’s making.

A dramatic weekend

A wet and dramatic weekend; a good first performance of Waiting for Greta, our reinterpretation of Godot a la climate crisis and a lovely story telling circle for The Survival of Thomas Brunner.

But drama on the home front as well. Friday night Harvey and his mates over indulged and decided on a practical joke: kidnapping our rooster and depositing him in Austin’s house bus, thus giving him a rude awakening. The traumatised rooster was ejected by a disgruntled Austin and was reported later in the morning to be wandering disconsolately in the empty section next to Wendy’s. It was pissing down with rain and I went searching to no avail. It seems that Wendy’s rooster, now sheltering under an old truck. had chased him away.

BY now the story had spread through the village and Harvey was protesting innocence, but the sack in which the rooster had been transported was found and traced back to its source.  I had a talk with Harvey about the concept of utu. ‘I’ll find the rooster for you,’ he promised. But it continued to rain. Our hens began to wander. ‘Without a male, they lack boundaries,’ Gaynor, our next door neighbour told me.  She’s a woman so could get away with that statement.

Our rooster had had a stroke a couple of years ago: classic symptoms, falling over, dopey look on his face, but amazingly it forged new circuits in the brain – apart from lust – it stopped bonking. Anyway, come Monday I was off to Wellington, but got a message from Cynthia: Someone’s taken over your facebook identity and is sending around a begging letter. I had no idea what to do but Carl in Westport rang to tell me he’d contacted facebook.  And then Paul from the shop drove in to tell me the rooster was on Mike’s section. It was suddenly a classic story structure – all these gatekeepers blocking my ritual journey.

Caroline and I went around to the section: old bus sitting in mud, a sheep tied up. plus, incongruously, a red sports car – and the rooster sheltering under a flax bush. Using the African hunting walk technique (learned off Grotowski, the Pole) I crept up and got close, but the beady eye decided I was danger and the rooster hopped over a ditch. The game went on but eventually I caught him in a desperate and vulgar Kiwi tackle. Back home the chooks had wandered off but we locked the rooster in the pen and he crowed three times in biblical fashion.

I told our neighbour to tell Harvey the rooster was back but utu was still on the agenda before cleaning sheep shit out of the treads of my boots and heading into town to catch the bus. Still pissing down we drove the Buller Gorge with a strutting driver I could imagine at a Mussolini rally. Next day, via the flash new Nelson airport, I entered the sophistication of the city.

A footnote: Greta Thunberg continues to amaze. Not only does she begin a movement which in six months can have four million young people take to the streets; she can, with one look, destroy Donald Trump. Her superpower? ‘I don’t play the social games you people are so fond of.’

Suicide

I watched a fascinating drama doco on Maori suicide called Maui’s Hook. A whanau whose mother has killed herself, go on a hikoi, calling in at marae to meet other families who have had a similar experience, before the cohort of whanau reach Reinga, where those who have passed are farewelled.  A magical presence is introduced into this realism in the form of Maui and Hine nui te Po figures – Maui seen, I suppose, as having committed suicide in his attempt to kill death, but also having fished up the island along which the hikoi passes. What would have been  a simple record of a group counselling and healing process becomes then a testing of the culture as a spiritual system for dealing with the suicide phenomenon which is accompanying the Maori renaissance. For, in a bizarre contradiction, the suicide rate is growing, along with economic and cultural success.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon, with chemical abuse, prescribed chemicals, poverty, relationship dysfunction, romanticism, revenge, despair, imitation, guilt, all playing their part. Quite possibly a belief in an after-life is a factor, as is the fact we live in a success-based performative culture where failure is keenly felt.

Watching the tikanga framework interact with this complex motivation and then, the simple act of someone killing themselves, which, in the words of one young woman, ‘leaves a mess for the whanau to clean up’, I realised that my own unsentimental reaction to suicide, something along the lines of, ‘Your choice, ‘bro,’ comes from the philosophical work done in Pakeha culture last century. Once it became obvious that God was dead, the spiritual and ethical framework that Christianity had provided collapsed and man was faced with a meaningless universe, with consciousness becoming an absurdity.

According to the existentialists, as these philosophers were called, a person was faced with a choice. Suicide was an obvious way out, and the motivation simple: Life’s absurd so why put up with the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when one may end it…’ to quote Hamlet.

However, if continuing to live is the chosen path, a complex earning of meaning without the help of god(s) in any shape or form has to take place. An essence has to be forged from the existence so far lived, free from all the shackles of convention, in order to create a meaningful project from the rest of one’s life. I suppose the Maui figure can be seen as something of an existential hero who broke the shackles of convention, yet at the same time, to rely on heroes and magical thinking, immediately gives a way out from this hard and commonplace task of making one’s life meaningful and, at the same time, ‘cleaning up the mess.’

The American Musical

I haven’t seen an American musical for a while, but being invited to her class’s performance of 42nd Street by a niece attending NASDA , whanau duty was involved.

The experience was one of psychosis: a noisy energy, a chaos of plot, masked faces, skilful dance and choreography, engaging in a way, never a dull moment, nor an authentic one. It is also a musical about a musical so has a hint of formal reflection. The show has a history: a depression-era, feel-good pulp novel about a girl from the sticks seizing an opportunity to become a Broadway star, became the basis of a feel good depression movie – lots of starlet flesh on show to provide fantasies in the soup kitchen queue – and then, in the 1980s the film gave birth to a musical, reasserting the bimbo female role in the midst of the rebirth of feminism. The depression context had long gone by then, other than as a costume statement. There’s a lot of skilful tap dancing to give a vaudeville edge and a sub text of a girl has to do what she has to do – no use sitting on it, baby.

42nd street pic1

Still from the film

I was impressed at how much this is propaganda, akin to the old USSR and Chinese spectacles, there’s the same skill set, the same mask, the same necessary energy to convince and captivate the masses; except this is propaganda for the capitalist system. Instead of taking place in Red or Tiananmen Square it takes place on the hallowed ground of Broadway.

To get through the evening I imagined staging it in Guantanamo Bay, my friend wondered about one of those bombed out Syrian cities… the culture of the US empire is certainly akin to a decaying Ancient Rome.

I was wondering what to say to my niece the next day but thankfully, she was also critical – not keen on playing the bimbo or ‘the dame’, had been a little horrified by the film with its tracking shot through the legs of the line-up of chorus girls. But at her age it’s all experience.

Before 42nd Street, there’d been time to catch Mike Leigh’s film, Peterloo, where his usual seeking of authenticity is focused on a historic action, the parliamentary reform movement of 1815 and its repression. The acting was superb but I was also struck by the costuming, where the same seeking of the real had been taking place. The film put to shame most costume drama you see – only the Russians have managed this before. At the same time, the effort required to capture the real was also apparent, so that the now existed as well.

peterloo

Still from Peterloo

Home through the snowy alps, all the dross momentarily cleansed and happy families sliding around the geological playground, no more important than the insects and the birds.

The digital sphere

Having heard a talk about e-publishing at a workshop, I thought I’d have a go at publishing a trio of novella manuscripts I’ve had sitting around for a while. It’s been a fascinating experience to enter the digital world as producer rather than consumer.

For a start the publishing programme, Smashwords is democratic; it’s free, there is no mediation (although they’d probably pick up porn), the only censorship is compliance with the processor that turns word into html, and this becomes largely a matter of getting rid of formatting. Simplicity is the key and initially that does seem a virtue, although there can be hidden corruptions one had no idea existed and these can torment. They’re not at the level of viruses but something more like allergies, to be got rid of by switching formats, word to notepad to open office back to word. It’s a little like switching governments. Time consuming as well. And if sales take place, the writer is paid a good percentage. A brave new people-to -people world, bypassing editors, publishers, censors, arts councils…

But then there is the question of marketing to the unknown global, English speaking consumer? The cover is everything one is told. Best to get a professional. And there are a list of people making a living designing book covers, not covers so much as images. Bright, simple and garish seems to be the requirement. Genre steps in and romance (soft porn) and crime are the sellers – go to the local library and see the same phenomenon. Suddenly democracy is very prescribed: Trump or Clinton, Stormy Daniels or the mafia and the underworld of desire and ambition. Key marketing tools are linked in, facebook, twitter, blogs, plus platforms I know nothing about. Suddenly it’s all very familiar: family, friends, neighbours, reviewers, libraries, a push here, a shove there, hope, and often a box of unsold books under the bed, or in the cloud.

It’s a milieu as dense as the Holy Roman Empire, accessible yet absolutely impenetrable except by luck, accident or misfortune. Above all, it’s a world without texture. There’s nothing to touch other than a keyboard. There are no pages to spill coffee on, or bend to mark a spot, nothing to put on a bookshelf to gather dust or to pack away when shifting house. There’s no deterioration, nothing for mice to nibble, no physical transaction like borrowing or lending a book, no physical market place. Everything remains untouched.

Of course great for aeroplanes and backpacks and cyclists, for those on the move and travelling light. And there’s immediacy. Gertrude Stein – remember? That’s right. Download all her work for a couple of dollars. I can have a reasonable library on my kindle or kobo or iPhone. It’s just this need for something to touch, to retreat from a world where actually everything is free but nothing has value. I find one of those old hardbacks with no image at all on the cover, just the title and author on the spline, open it, begin to enter the mystery of what these pages of words might be about… And even more extremely, the memory of the zamisdat method of publication in the old USSR where the reader laboriously made a further copy, often by hand, a labour of love and a gesture of freedom.

Ultimately I belong in the rehearsal room: real people, real floor, real walls, working toward a performance which will then disappear into the going home night of winter wind and summer rain.

Oh, almost forgot the marketing:

The Moments in Time trilogy – an exploration of the way historic and personal conditions intertwine.

Peace and Goodness – 1861, Taranaki at war and the wreck of the mail ship on the Maori-held Coast, the arising of the prophet and the journey of a French nun.

Cover Pai Marire cropped

Big End – 1962, coming of age in Palmerston North during the Cuban missile crisis. Adam is reconditioning the motor of his Ford 10 before heading off to university; his girlfriend, Sarah is off to RADA to study drama; Adam’s mother suffers from the nerves but has a visitation from God; his brother turns up with a Maori woman he intends to marry – as the ships head to Cuba…

cover Big End

Out of here –  2018. Two of Greymouth’s precariat meet at the pub, realise they share an emptiness, fall in love, steal a boat from Iveagh Bay and head south for the remote bush, watched over by some of the lesser gods.

out of here - cover ebook

 

Find them wherever you find these things.

 

Ihumātao

What a complexity is Ihumātao, a site of early Maori settlement, confiscated as part of the 1860’s land grab of the Waikato and Taranaki, abused over the years, finally made a reserve, but with an adjoining farm remaining in private ownership dating back to confiscation. Because it was in private ownership it could not be part of the Mana Whenua’s Treaty Settlement. The Auckland housing crisis brings into being the concept of Special Housing Areas where subdivision can be fast tracked and the Council and previous government targeted the farm, which was subsequently bought by Fletchers, keen to get into housing after losing money on commercial developments. There was consultation with Mana Whenua who gave it the go ahead after a sweetener of 8 of the 32 hectares going into iwi ownership and 40 of the 480 houses being reserved as affordable homes for iwi members.

But younger members of the iwi protested at the idea of a suburb being built next to the sacred site – and where does a sacred site begin and end? A 480 house suburb with its infrastructure, mortgages, insurances etc is an intensive development and this will be another car reliant suburb. There is resonance with the original confiscation, but this is where it gets tricky. Treaty settlements always bypass privately owned land, otherwise the Waikato and Taranaki would be up for return, quite justifiably of course, but politically untenable. And the kaumatua agreed. This is where it gets trickier. Traditional leaders willing to collaborate with the coloniser have often been available. Feudal/tribal power structures are not always virtuous or inclusive; yet the treaty was a deal between these power structures and the British government and the honouring of the treaty has to honour these structures and it’s not for Pakeha to question unless some blatant corruption is apparent. And Mana Whenua believe the deal is a good one – they get a parcel of the land in their name (for the first time since confiscation) and some iwi members living there.

Leftish and environmentalist Pakeha are drawn to the side of the young tribal protestors, with the sacred-site, anti-corporate vibes resonating and a line of cops is always a challenge, conjuring up past struggles. The kaumatua don’t seem willing to budge and there is criticism of the protestors trampling on the mana of the elders, but the numbers grow, we haven’t had a stoush for a while and it is becoming an event with a growing celebrity list. Direct action does cut through complexity and confusion. Representatives of the Hawaiian anti telescope movement arrive and it begins to focus on development versus the spiritual desire to leave some places alone. It could be useful to peer into outer space and a Hawaiian mountain top is the perfect spot but it is our sacred maunga. We know there’s a housing crisis but this is a sacred site. Leave it alone. On the Coast there is a similar rebellion by communities over an incinerator proposal. These incinerators seem relatively benign environmentally, better than landfill and the Coast needs economic development, but no one can quite accept the idea of an endless stream of rubbish being burnt in their backyard.

Somewhere, in our heads, is the felt impulse of the need to stop. Just stop for a while. We’ve proved we’re a clever species but right now the clever thing is to stop. There is no technological fix for the problems we’re faced with. We need to listen to the earth, heal and nurture what we’ve got, sing to the gods and have a long look at one another. And out of that might come some different methods of housing ourselves, of feeding ourselves, of constructing society.

How about a papakainga on the land, housing 40 iwi families in a co-operative manner, with some equity in the houses for individual families, but the land owned by the iwi. Add some food growing and out of this might come a model of a different world, paying homage to the past and the future – as the planes fly overhead..

Ditches

In an age structured by google, facebook, an increasingly dense health and safety culture, surveillance cameras on every dashboard and street corner, and (despite a climate crisis) a general preciousness and paranoia about comfort, children are starting to wear high viz jackets to brush their teeth.

Looking after two grandchildren during the school holidays on a very wet West Coast – it has rained all day every day forever it seems – could have made for a difficult time.

We’ve been saved by the ditch.

Let me explain. Given the high rainfall the miners early on dug ditches along each side of the Blackball roads. They’re a metre or so deep. Culverts of various degrees of sophistication cross the ditches at each driveway. The miners probably never got resource consent. The ditches are untidy but they work, becoming small creeks in times of rain. They can be a threat to unskilful reversers of motor vehicles (‘ditch parking’ being a local term for driving your vehicle into a ditch) and a drunk falling into a ditch has led to the occasional ambulance call out, but they are also a wonderful playground.

The five year old has spent hours creating a mine in the ditch. Armed with shovel and pick he created bridges and found various treasures buried in the mud. Then he and his sister made boats from cat food tins and raced them along the ditch, under culverts and so on. I joined in but my boat sunk. There were often whirlpools at the end of a culvert, requiring some expert jibbing to escape. We explored the ditch to where it entered the surrounding scrub on the way to the river, but were turned back by the blackberry.

There was no risk assessment management involved except at a sub conscious level – the water wasn’t deep enough for him to drown and he seemed sensible enough not to crawl into a culvert and get stuck. There were no high viz jackets, no checks on the state of the water or the constitution of the mud, no scouring of the ditch for sharp objects beforehand, no need for adult monitoring – if they started screaming we’d hear them. They just said, We’re going to play in the ditch. And unbelievably, it cost nothing. There was no branding involved, no commodification. Nor is the ditch named after a famous children’s author. The ditch is without character or culture. The only genealogy is the vision of practical men on the ends of picks and shovels doing something practical, with the women bringing some scones for morning tea – and I’m not going to judge the ditches as an act of patriarchal oppression.  Thank God the council is not wealthy enough to fill them in or send out an officer to banish the children from playing in them.

At the end of a potentially very long two weeks of child minding, with a raised and clenched fist I shout, Long live the Blackball ditches.

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