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PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog

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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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On the road

Travelling up to Wellsford for a workshop at Kotare, with shuttles and planes and cars, inevitably some foot slogging and some waiting around in between, was a big enough trip to jiggle the thought patterns.

Sunday morning at Britomart, waiting for the Skybus, I suddenly experienced the feeling of homelessness, what it must be like, but at the same time realising that homelessness is a state of mind more generally as we are cut off from anything that might be described as turangawaewae. The airport, the aeroplane, the car, the shuttle, the smartphone become a stand in, with routines of leaving and arriving and the consumer paraphernalia. But the real homeless have a sort of stability. They can’t go anywhere, they don’t have access to the screens or the routines, there is little to distract them, they must wait and let time pass. They’re like village people as they used to be.

homeless

As I had left the Grey Lynn house to walk to the bus stop at 8am on a Sunday morning, I expected a deserted street. Instead there was already a market, and a woman waiting anxiously for the dairy to open. The market stuff looked pretty bedraggled to me but nevertheless, these well off people were pouring over it and there was a queue for the ATM machine. Commerce was alive and well at 8am on Sunday morning. At the workshop I had become aware of the way precarious employment is shaping people, even the educated. It requires a certain anxious energy, a need to network, a willingness to seize the opportunity when it arises, a sort of exhaustion. It’s the mindset of the market stallholder, the barrow boy or girl, the small business owner, but is now becoming universal.

Finally, on the shuttle home, I pondered the generation gap. I was brought up in a counter cultural era where it was expected that a person was skeptical of the system and of social norms. The government was crap, capitalism was crap, suburbia ridiculous, normal aspirations questionable and there was an alternative, with Che the hero. And full employment meant you could earn a living when you had to. Of course, many of my generation sold out when things got tighter, but I feel a certain schizophrenia as I try to be enthusiastic, positive, performative, even when addressing the wrongs. Set your goals and go for them. This comes from ads, reality tv, sports spectacles, education, celebrity role models… the only skeptical ones are the hungry and we can help them, and then they can be enthusiastic as well.

 

Positive

 

Life and death

I watched a talk by an Indian woman where she describes the production of food and its consumption as the central process of life.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzPyN_lAX6c#action=share

She argued that agribusiness, with its land and seed colonisation, fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides, global distribution chains and waste, moving into ‘digital food’ controlled by Amazon, Google etc., creates death rather than life. Until we return to growing our own food  there is no hope for life. It was a talk backed by research and remarkable in its clarity.

It’s easy enough to transpose the model into other fields, including writing and the production of literature, where there is the increasingly restrictive genre model and the production of books as commodities by global supply lines. They will often look attractive, be well made, involving even a gentle, feel-good catharsis; and then they are spat out, washed out, removed – leaving, like fast food, no memory. It squeezes out the ‘peasant’ production for the local market, this latter production telling the local story (seed) which defies genre classification, and which will often be about contradiction as experienced locally/domestically/tribally… the local product will require some chewing, leaves fibre between the teeth and requires some greater digestion.

Instrumentalism is a word used to describe production derived from the splitting of process into segments – the factory production line is the primary example. As the product moves along the line it is assembled by people or machines each doing one small task. It is more efficient than one person making something by themselves. But it also means technology is in control. This division of task, and thought and learning processes into segments is now very widespread and described as a culture of efficiency.

The only times I worked on a production line it proved soul destroying because I couldn’t think about anything. I couldn’t imagine.

And the loss of imagination becomes, I think, a widespread phenomenon.

Life versus death.

Increasingly that seems to be the issue.

Can we regain control of the central processes of life?

 

 

Cuba

I feel a growing outrage as the Trump regime increases its persecution of Cuba. Outrage at the absurd resurrection of old language – ‘communist’, ‘dictators’, ‘spreading revolution to neighbouring countries’, portraying the American continent as ‘their territory’ and one which they must control economically and politically. Outrage at what it produced in the past and what it will produce now: the training of torturers, the arming of contra gangs who became mass murderers, the bombing of presidential palaces – all in the name of ‘freedom’.

trump2

So they will persecute the Cuban citizenry, starve them, torture them slowly, for that is who sanctions hit, the ordinary folk who are supposed to then rise up and welcome Hitler and his gang (sorry, a slip of the tongue) as they march in as saviours. It is the worst sort of theatre of the absurd, for sado masochism is always absurd.

I’ve been to Cuba. Cubans don’t shoot one another with monotonous regularity, they seemed to have very little domestic violence, they don’t have anorexics or teenagers exposing their genitals on social media, – in fact the kids were wonderful, they still plough their fields with oxen and don’t do factory farming, they supply doctors to disaster zones, there was no overt military or police presence, they dance very well and sing beautifully in complex rhythms; education and health care is free and they rate high on well being indices. They’re freeing the economy from state control and encouraging co-operatives, there were no beggars or homeless, they have a civil society, have elections and they have respected elders who forged a revolution and kicked out the mafia, the gangsters and the American corporations. They live at a humble level economically and there can be a lack of consumer items because of the sanctions, but it is a country that copes and is resilient. When I was there I decided the world could live at the Cuban level economically and things would be fine.

cubanschoolkids1

Hence the outrage when these mendacious and ugly bullies start kicking the other kid on the playground because they are bored with their own stupidity, their paranoia and the toxicity of their banal and greedy lives.

Could the NZ government have the gumption to kick out the US ambassador? Or at least, Winston, call him in and give him a dressing down?

Meanwhile the US government will inspect one’s social media output before granting a visa. I suspect, if I were ever wanting to go there, this missive will count me out.

Teachers’ strike

Mike Treen of Unite Union sends me a link: A South African couple, newly graduated with teaching degrees, are hired by a South Auckland school but are refused residency visas because  their pay is too low for them to qualify as skilled migrants. Bizarre.

But the government’s intransigence over teachers’ pay and conditions is increasingly bizarre. Instead of meeting the demands – especially the condition demands – they are throwing money at general categories of mental health and domestic violence. Both are globally causative – where do you start? Well, let’s have an advertising campaign…

Already, schools and teachers are in the thick of these issues, together with nutrition, equal opportunity, gender equality, inclusiveness, physical fitness, value formation, resilience, bullying prevention, tiriti education, environmental education, numeracy, literacy and creativity, technological preparedness … and are overworked and underfunded. That minister(s) is the point.

I know a young teacher who’s been teaching for a decade, A great teacher, active in the union as well, works six days a week, ten hour days, sometimes twelve; hopeful that Labour would bring some changes, and now the realisation that the industrial action is going nowhere without something extreme, like an indefinite stoppage (which many teachers can’t afford). It leaves a bitterness – I can sense it – a central hurt, a disenchantment, which will make it harder to face the daily encounter with twenty seven kids in the process of becoming citizens. This in turn will lead to a withdrawal, a look for some other employment – and the loss of yet another teacher.

Why is the government being so bloody dumb. And so bloody pompous? Are they simply jealous that teachers are more effectively involved in government than they are?

Perhaps the answer is that, at heart, this government have chosen to be philanthropists. Philanthropy and capitalism go hand in hand. Leave capitalism to the capitalists (with some minor adjustments) and let a left of centre government be philanthropic – it’s a smiley, feel good impulse. But it will run out of steam, become increasingly shrill, before disappearing into the celebrity wastebasket and the mafia will take over once more.

Whereas socialism is a re-ordering of economic and social relations, with the state playing a central role. Of course that re-ordering can take place at arms’ length, with the state providing the funds, but it is different from the philanthropic urge, which is proving so inane in the field of housing, so intransigent in education and so ineffectual in the field of health.

Only with the climate crisis, thanks to the Greens, do they seem willing to try and tackle an issue …

Baxter’s letters

Baxter pic

photo: stuff.co.nz

A child can be born into ‘a family system that generates a fantasy master narrative, an unstable or contradictory structure restaged again and again, with different actors and on different levels, demanding repetition, permutation and the ceaseless generation of various structural resolutions which are never satisfactory…’

The critic, Frederick Jameson wrote this with regard to the French author, Honore de Blazac, but it can be true of any number of artists. It certainly sprang to mind reading the letters of James K. Baxter, collected by Father John Weir. The two volumes contain every letter preserved that Baxter wrote in his quite short life and one is aware of a fantasy master narrative operating in the above manner.

But to make this observation requires some identifying of the narrative. It seemed to involve a seeking of the omnipotent relationship to the female enjoyed by the very young child. But this in turn required an Oedipal challenging of the father figure. Baxter’s mother, Millicent, was the daughter of McMillan Brown, a key figure in the setting up of Canterbury University. She took her degree at Cambridge and I imagine there were certain tensions in her becoming a mother and housewife. She is certainly not portrayed as a cuddly type. And then Archibald, the father, was a conscientious objector during WW1, tied to a stake in no man’s land, crucified in a way, but survived, honour and integrity intact. He would be a hard one to challenge and remained ‘Daddy’ all through Baxter’s life.

The master narrative was played out initially with Baxter taking on the role of bohemian poet drunk, a prodigy as he wrote very good poetry as a late adolescent, in the same way that a prodigal composer can create symphonies. Here was a young man who’d absorbed all the poetic techniques.

And then the narrative was played out through a troubled marriage to Jacquie, Maori but adopted by Pakeha (a lost generation figure), scholar and puritan it seems. She kept her distance, insisting on being a home body as children arrived and the drunk and the womaniser eventually joined AA and found a higher spiritual force. He became a teacher then an editor for School Publications, but the suburban life chafed. He was sexually needy, continued to have affairs, swore fidelity, turned to seducing young woman writers  through letters, and eventually switched from high Anglicanism to Catholicism. And here the romance was better embodied because of the Marian factor. Mary as nurturer permeates everything, as womb; and then the male can play the martyr figure.

But his conversion produced new marital tensions centred on birth control. Jacquie refused the unreliability of the rhythm method, chastity became the only answer and the sexual energy turned toxic. He spent time in India, absorbing the social intensity of that society, returned to become a postie and began the daily plod, absorbing the complexity of the Catholic faith, with its mystics and intellectuals. There were also, through Jacquie, connections with Ngati Poneke, and a beginning awareness of Maori as tangatawhenua, embodying different relationships to land and people.

A period as Burns Fellow meant a return to childhood haunts and a cementing of his literary reputation. But the children reaching adolescence and proving volatile (including a teenage pregnancy),  created new tensions in the marriage. Jacquie left him and in a period of despair he had a vision, a ‘nudge from God’, was told to go to Jerusalem (Hiruharama), the small village on the Whanganui River where Mother Aubert had established a convent in the 19th century, but which was now becoming uninhabited because of there being no work in the area. He was instructed by God to establish a community there. This would involve giving up money, books and reputation. A new structure for the master narrative was thus created.  The church leaders must have been a little perplexed – how do you verify a personal vision? – and persuaded him to take a few months to think about it, hoping I suspect, the fancy would fade.  But the by now bearded and barefooted Baxter (Hemi) was determined to take on the role of prophet.

The nuns and the local Maori at Jerusalem were equally perplexed, but gave him an old cottage to live in. His initial plan for his whanau (wife, kids and now grandchild) to join him to form some Old Testament cluster didn’t work out – Jacquie sensibly opting for running water when there was a baby to care for – and he became something of a hermit, wrestling (including flagellation) with various devils and temptations before going to Auckland and connecting with a drop in house for drug users. He began to mentor the young, as well as getting a couple of them pregnant (which tested the support of his mentor priests).

Back in Jerusalem he hosted nga mokai, the forsaken ones. This created tensions with the locals and the nuns in particular – issues of nudity, sex and language etc. He was given a bigger derelict house. People came and went, including cops looking for drugs, irate parents looking for their children, council inspectors looking at the drainage, and reporters looking for a story, as he began to preach against capitalism, consumerism, alienation and materialism, and as he began to use te reo. He continued to write and his writing was spare and committed. Jerusalem Sonnets and Autumn Testament are two very fine collections. But the commune was a disorganised shambles, lacking funds and practical people. There were mental health and social issues but Baxter was preaching of values that remain resonant: aroha, sharing, non violence…

The locals firmly requested he downsize, so he had to close the doors, but still had a quartet of more practical and together young people living with him and he enjoyed a contented couple of months, before going to Auckland where he died suddenly of a heart attack.

This biography can be written in a page or two and the detail of his life is contained in his poems, so what lies behind this determined collecting and publishing of every one of his letters, many of which are an unpleasant and repetitious bitching about his wife? There is also the question of publishing letters not written with publication in mind. Nowadays, school children are warned about facebook etc; nothing disappears on the digital media, but previously letters could be private to sender and receiver. More formal business-type correspondence expects public scrutiny. His letter to his parents are usually boundaried and are even sweet and childlike as he encourages them to convert to Catholicism. But then there are the cursing letters to fellow male writers – blokes in the pub stuff; the seduction letters to woman writers where he is both giving writerly advice and screwing them – casting couch stuff. These have rightly raised some hackles and will colour his reputation, especially when he writes of marital rape.

I still then search for the motivation behind this task, and can only return to the original master narrative, but this time wondering about the priestly master narrative, with the church as family which generates the unstable and contradictory structure (as the recent and ongoing troubles demonstrate), which is staged again and again – and Baxter’s place in this? This becomes a tendentious thought without any simple answer.

But as well, on a more positive note, reading the letters made me aware that Baxter’s push toward Maoridom, trying to soak up the culture in that naïve way that Pakeha did (including myself) in the seventies and eighties before being told to bugger off and stop being parasites, yet nevertheless, knowing  it was a necessary stage in order to move settler culture out of its comfort zone (if it ever was comfortable) and to begin the journey toward treaty partnership.

From Thoreau to Enid Blyton

Quite by accident, after reading Walden, I began reading Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Farm – the grandchildren had been here during the holidays – and was struck by the similarities. As she takes these sickly city kids and immerses them in the ecology of the countryside, Blyton had to have read Thoreau. There’s the same detailed descriptions, the magical skip of the seasons and so on.

But as well there was some sub text to Walden concerning human relations, mere suggestions of known visitors, passers by dropping in, long talks into the night, a quiet sense of social ecology which mirrors the ecology of the natural world and which reminds me of Murray Bookchin’s belief that until we have a social ecology we will not solve environmental issues.

In Cherry Farm these social relations centre on the local ‘wild man’, the recluse who prefers the natural world and who lives in a cave during winter and a tree house in summer. Upon hearing of his existence the children seek him out. They all have a good time in the presence of the recluse, but are generally too boisterous for the animals he has befriended. But one of the children, Benjy, a quiet boy who is fond of flora and fauna, is taken under the Wild Man’s wing. When Benjy’s birthday comes around his special present is being allowed to spend a night with the man in his tree hut. Uncle and Aunt send the boy off with an oilskin sheet to keep out the damp and a large slice of birthday cake.

At this point the alarum bells are ringing. Better take the book off the library shelves. Are the uncle and aunt quite mad? What if the Wild Man is a paedophile and all along has been grooming the children? Didn’t he remove their clothes when they got wet and give them a blanket while the clothes dried? And to send off the boy alone, for the night, without a police check. And where is Benjy’s high viz jacket? Where his hand sanitiser? Where the risk assessment? Where the cell phone with the app which allows the adults to trace his whereabouts, even listen in to what’s going on? Blyton’s innocence and naivety is ridiculous. What is she teaching the reader?

Or is it? What if we’ve imposed and continue to impose, a paranoia on social relations which mirrors commodification, which mirrors the alienation of the spectacle, that pollutes child care and leads to abuse, to domestic violence, to shootings, to the degradation of life? What if this paranoia is at the core of identity politics, so that every advance is inevitably undermined?

Hard questions. Too hard for Cherry Farm. Anyway, the night went well. The Wild Man enjoyed the cake. After some interaction with a fox, they went to sleep. Benjy got a pet squirrel to take home. He didn’t get lost, nor was he run over by a truck.

Maybe we can leave the book on the library shelf?

Visiting Walden once more

Unable to face delving through the density of genre crap – romance, crime, celebrity, war, new age- that now makes up the local library collection (and it’s not unique in this – try any provincial library), I was about to stumble out when I spied a new edition of Thoreau’s Walden, that classic tale of the mid 19th century American ecologist who lived in Connecticut and went bush for a couple of years, building himself a small house in the forest by Walden Pond and leading a reclusive life. He spent his days observing the weather, the flora and fauna and the seasonal changes on an intimate level and writing about the experience in a unique way, using it as a means to comment critically on the industrial and commercial milieu of mid 19th century capitalism – the growing commodification, the alienation of man from his work and the meaninglessness of the routine social life.

He touches on Native American culture, theosophy, on yoga, on anarchism (he was later to write a highly influential tract on civil disobedience) and Thoreau, of course, anticipated the modern ecologist (deep or shallow), who sees that the only solution to man’s current dilemmas lies in us becoming once more, obedient to natural rhythms.

Reading Walden I was particularly struck by the following: That tasks in touch with the natural world have their own rhythms – they simply are, one just does e.g. in making and placing shingles; in hoeing two acres by hand; in collecting nuts for winter… It seems an essential lesson in this time- driven world (have to get this done by five o’clock sort of thing).

His lack of preciousness. Much of the forest around Walden was second growth, the train could be heard, men came to cut ice… there is no pretense that this is ‘untamed natural wilderness’, to quote the current West Coast brand which achieves the surreal in three words. This other life goes on, he has a dialogue with it and will one day return to it (he took over his father’s pencil making factory).

Finally, he is not an extremist, is content to relate to this patch of ground. In this age of increasingly frenetic travel to see new sights he suggests we get to know our own backyard, heal it if necessary, adapt to its seasons and learn respect. This resonates  for me as each afternoon I walk the dogs down to the creek and see the small changes, the ducks coming and going, the blackberry growing each year…

And as the Croesus Track becomes no longer a backyard but a tourist commodity with contractors, road closures, concessions, poisonings, monitorings, helicopters, out of town corporations arriving – the whole circus focused on ‘untamed natural wilderness’ – I feel the contradiction, and alienation, of the ‘national park’.

First nail in the coffin?

The cancellation of any consideration of a capital gains tax struck at a deep level. It was one of those moments of seeing behind the mask, as a loud chord of hypocrisy was sounded. After the Christchurch shooting , a time of encompassing, of unity, of compassion celebrated internationally, the cold sinews of family capitalism clenched and booted the football of collectivism out of the ground and the coalition government ran off into the dressing rooms, not even willing to draft a bill and take it to the select committee stages.

I stayed with a relative at Easter and she told me of the unpleasant family feuding that accompanied a second late marriage when inheritances were felt threatened. And this is what the capital gains tax was threatening, that passing on of private equity to descendants, that generational accumulation of capital disguised as ‘hard work’, ‘taking risk’, ‘a lifetime of endeavour’, but its result is a society of inequality that will not be able to make the hard decisions required for planet sustainability. For there is the catch 22 of speculative investment requiring growth, inflation of property values, ever increasing technological innovation, and an increasingly difficult race to catch up, to get a foot on the ladder and the accompanying meanness, also the accompanying waste, producing a banal, universalised ‘aristocracy’ of befuddled consumers,

A capital gains tax would have been a small stake in the ground signalling a questioning of this systemic greed portrayed as ‘survival’. Instead, the hypocrisy will work its way through the social fabric providing a host for the virus of alienation that produces ultimately the Christchurch aberration. Closed circle. Dead eyes. Grief.

It was a relief then to see Woman at War, the Icelandic movie that cleverly unpicks the clichés, that creates a gap in the circumference of the closed circle of neo-liberalism, that shoots an arrow not only over the power lines leading to an aluminium smelter, but into the heart of 21st century capitalism. It is a movie that could only come from a very small country which found itself somehow central in the Global Financial Crisis and eventually told the big boys to go to hell. That produced sufficient ethical capital to enable an artist to tell the truth.

Unfortunately we’re not going on a similar journey. Instead, will grace the cover of Time magazine.

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