PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog

A strange evening

I was called to a person said to be having a heart episode at the camping ground in the small coastal settlement of Rapahoe, north of Runanga. But upon arrival, the elderly couple who manage the site knew nothing about it and there were no obvious candidates in sight. It’s a small camping ground nestled in bush. I went down to the beach, a rock strewn part of the Coast but one of the few spots safe for swimming. People were dotted along the shore but no one in trouble. A couple crouched over a small driftwood fire, forming a primitive image in the fading light.

Searching for a foreign person having a possible heart attack is a strange activity. I went to the motel and the manager was excited by the possible drama but had no guests in difficulty. I tried the pub but it was deserted apart from two elderly  locals. The puzzle remained. I went to the other end of the beach, across the river and the place where I occasionally go for a summer swim. No sign of life. Or death for that matter.

But meanwhile I had become aware of the small clusters of tourists dotted through the settlement for the night, like a band of nomads, off hunting and gathering in family groups during the day and then coming together as a band, that most primitive of human social structures, at night, for protection and sharing of food.

Rapahoe is vulnerable to climate change and the consequent rising seas and extreme weather events. It was recently inundated by Cyclone Gita and the erosion is serious. A sea wall might provide a temporary respite but is expensive and the few ratepayers can’t afford it. It could well disappear.


As night fell, wandering through the vulnerable settlement searching for a tourist in need, I could imagine the future chaos of climate change, of people returning to a much less structured existence, of disparate bands wandering the Coast in an eco-fiction world where nature is teaching the human species (and unfortunately other species as well), a drastic lesson.

Ironic that the locals in this small community have erected a monument celebrating its coal mining past, a display that features two of the machines that used to operate at the now flooded Spring Creek mine, digging out the coal, the fossil fuel that enabled the industrial revolution but which has  helped cause the planet’s eco systems to become volatile once more.


I never found the tourist in need. A work of fiction might have them lying in a cave, or washed out to sea, but most probably they recovered and drove off to Greymouth. All that remains is the digital trace of a phone call to the emergency services.

The wind blew strongly as night fell and I headed home.



Command Systems


There is an article in the latest NZ Architects’ magazine arguing that the new government’s house building ambitions will be sabotaged by the local body permitting system, which in the writer’s opinion, has become a regulatory penal system. This has resulted from an overreaction to the leaky home saga, which saw councils bearing the ultimate responsibility. Currently, every application to build is peer reviewed and fine tooth combed to the point of idiocy, with a garden shed being treated the same as a multi storey building. The traffic jam that results and the expense, is giving the system sclerosis. As well, architects are no longer treated as trusted professionals.

I would have to agree. We’ve currently in the process of getting a permit to add a toilet to the museum complex. It’s the simplest of buildings, 2.5m square, and based on the somewhat notorious single men’s huts, which were built by the mining company at the beginning of last century. We employed an architect who understood our historical joke and drew up the plans. Then the problems began. Some unknown person (the council no longer processing  permit applications) began to question everything. Eventually I tracked her down to Christchurch and arranged a meeting.

She’d never been to Blackball, so had no context (Blackball still has open ditches and only a couple of bad footpaths in the whole town).  This could be happening on Mars or central Auckland, it makes no difference. She was insisting on brand names and model numbers for every fitting and nothing the architect came up with was accepted. We also needed to tar-seal the carpark (something we can’t afford to do), yet, previously, the hard metal surface that a local gravel mix produces had been judged compliant for the approach to our other wheelchair ramps. I got one concession out of her, that the council departmental head had ultimate authority.

So we went to see him and after an hour of debate got a concession: as long as we concreted a pad for a disabled person to unload, that would do. We inspected the council’s toilets and noted the brand name, It would seem madness if they rejected the product they themselves use.

I was struck by the fact that each of these dialogues had a psycho analytic quality, with obvious transference occurring and a moment of crisis, after which a resolution could begin to occur. And this is of course, the problem with  command systems. Individual psychology energises the system and childhood patterns inevitably come into play. This patterning is more widely coloured with psychological energy as peer groups with their horizontal and vertical power plays amplify the syndrome. Anyone who spent time in the old USSR would have experienced this phenomenon in a sometimes  extreme way, There was a story of a visitor to Russia who had a coat with a fur collar. When they came to leave, the official cut off the collar because you weren’t allowed to take fur out of the country.

In contrast, I remember in the 1980s the possibility of  neighbourhoods in Wellington having the ability to write and help administer their own town plans, in order to keep local characteristics. Since then, we’ve moved across the wall to the USSR system.

This is of course, the argument of anarchism, that the local should have control. For at the local level, the psychology can be confronted and worked around. We know Jack can be a bit uptight and bossy but he hasn’t got any greater authority than Jill or Bob or Edith, so it can be sorted. We see this on the marae.

Eventually we’ll be able to build the toilet, but after a delay of six months and an additional cost of about 20%, so the article in the architect’s magazine was right; this could be the undoing of the Labour-led government’s housing initiative. Homelessness, home ownership as a privilege and inequality will continue.




The last couple of days have been a time of waiting for Cyclone Gita to turn up; a little different from Waiting for Godot – we know Gita will arrive. Now it’s Tuesday morning, the day it’s supposed to occur. Nothing yet. A gentle rain, that’s all.

I spent yesterday in Greymouth at the ambulance station. It was a day devoted to preparing for disaster: getting fuel for the generator, deciding where to park the ambulances in case garage doors get blown in – that sort of thing. The service stations were busy, as were the supermarkets.

It made me realise how appalling it must have been in Iraq, waiting for the Coalition to begin its bombardment.  Or any other war situation for that matter. Crouching in trenches waiting to attack.

I brooded on other forms of waiting. Waiting through the Cuban missile crisis as an adolescent.  Waiting in refugee camps for some door to open and the growing hopelessness as nothing happens. Or waiting for the SS to arrive and cart you off to a death camp.

Waiting to die if terminally ill and the different quality of waiting for family and close friends.

Fundamentalists waiting for the second coming.

Pregnant women waiting to go into labour.

The waiting time when you know a relationship’s finished but no one quite knows how to end it.

Parents of young children waiting for the child to fall asleep, or wake up.

Waiting for the toddler to catch up. Caring for a young child taught me to wait.

Village people know how to wait. When we performed in Tokelau the audience might turn up an hour before the scheduled start. And happily sit there, waiting. On Sunday waiting for the sermon to finish. A lot of waiting on Sundays. Perhaps the waves on the reef cancel time.

Coral atolls waiting to be inundated.

The extraordinary waiting time of the galaxy. Light that began a  thousand light years ago falling on the retina. Unbelievable.

The waiting time on a bank or government department’s phone line. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. A busy time but we value your call…

The rain gets a little heavier. A neighbour’s got a funeral to go to.

Will the Yanks attack today? Will the SS arrive? If we charge will I die?

The Frank’s family extraordinary wait. Julian Assange in the Ecuador Embassy.

The first gust of wind. The rain’s a little heavier. Will the houses in Granity survive? Will the power system dissolve? Better locate the candles.

Waiting to hear about the job, or the grant application. Or the test result. Waiting to go on stage.

A hungry baby crying for the breast. The dreadful waiting in Gaza each night, as the drones hover.  Anxiety.

John Metekingi once said to me, ‘Those fullas sitting on the beach in the old days, staring out at the empty Pacific, were waiting for something to turn up.’

The sail on the horizon? Or the cyclone of climate change?

The air stirs. Something’s happening.



The etymology of the word, brand, is complex. In the beginning it was a simple mark of ownership, burnt into the skin of an animal or slave.


Then it became a make of product. We would talk of a brand of butter or car. Marx wrote of commodity fetishism, pointing out the projection of human emotions and entanglements onto commodity items: the boy and his modified car, the girl and her shoes. This is of course the basis of commercials, to turn a product into a fetish.

Late last century, there was a shift from the brand naming a certain product to the brand as a more abstract and encompassing thing: Nike or Apple or Coca Cola or Levi. The brand became detached from the product and became the fetish and the fetish then encompassed all the commodities made by that brand.

Coca Cola stands for having a good time. Nike stands for fitness and achievement.

The impulse spreads. It’s not just makers of commodities but suppliers of transport (Air NZ),  or electricity (Mighty River Power), or banks (Opportunity) – even governments (Clean Green NZ), and sports teams (the All Blacks).

The branding moves into every area of life: individual sports people, actors and singers become brands (Lorde, Sam Neill, Dan Carter), able to sell their brand to other brands.

Some churches become brands.

Discussing this with Leigh Cookson she pointed out that not just political parties but even activist movements have become brands: Greenpeace, Black Lives Matter, Me Too.

It is rumoured that Trump stood for president as a way to increase the strength of his brand and was aghast when he actually won and now has to do the job.

As brands interweave and penetrate every aspect of life, there is no escaping the system. If you’re not a brand or attached to a brand you don’t exist.

And now writers have been drawn into the game.  Victoria University Press lists its authors as brands, with the books they write as the product attached to that brand. E.g. (


Photo Victoria Birkinshaw

VUP presumably provides quality control and helps to publicise the brand(s) through the usual means of performances and appearances. When I read the following checklist from a marketing website, I can see why the Press and presumably its authors found it an attractive proposition. Does your brand relate to your target audience? Will they ‘get it’? Does your brand show the uniqueness of what you offer and why it’s important? Does your brand reflect the values that you want to represent? Does your brand emotionally connect the target prospects with your product and motivate the prospect to buy and thus create user loyalty. In other words, will the reader, like the slave, bear your mark (perhaps your signature) as proof of ownership? Isn’t that the business of being a writer?

At this point I begin to feel like Hamlet. There’s something rotten…

Is there anything that resists this hegemony?

Well, the working class is not a brand and labour continues to resist being a commodity. There have been attempts to make revolution a brand and revolutionaries a brand (Che Guevera) but without real success. And then there is the ethical or creative individual. James Joyce as a brand? Thomas Mann? T.S. Eliot? Bertrand Russell? Freud? Karl Marx? It’s a ridiculous proposition.

Dare I say then that Victoria University Press has entered dodgy and demeaning territory?

Hunting and Gathering


Blackberry season, and I return to the ‘primitive’ task of gathering. It’s the best way of relating to a landscape. Firstly knowing where the bushes are: along the track to the creek, around the pond, along the creek bank, along the museum fence, along the road to Roa, Blaketown beach… (I’m giving away secrets here). Then keeping an eye on these places through winter and spring, watching the flowers blossom, then the berries form, hard nuts of green slowly expanding, beginning to ripen, hoping for sufficient sun and rain. Then the searching begins, for they don’t ripen all at once. Maturation is dependent on the relationship to the sun’s trajectory.


I taste the first ripe berry, experience that burst of oral pleasure, before harvesting a few and stewing them for breakfast.  The numbers increase. There’s the threat of other gatherers getting in first so I take a container down to the creek. It’s time consuming work. There are some covered by grass, others just out of reach. On the creek bed the vines spread across the boulders, the plant seeming to be almost a different species. It’s necessary to resist the temptation to eat as I pick.

I carry home the container with a feeling of plenitude and a pie to look forward to when we host a nephew and his family who are passing through (a sort of ceremony). Above all, I glimpse for a moment the world as it once was for people reliant on hunting and gathering. This could be about survival of the clan. How busy they must have been. How aware of the natural world they must have been, with this act of gathering blackberries multiplied a thousand fold. Add to it the necessary knowledge of insect and animal life and invest this patch of land with gods and spirits… Hard yakker, a short life and occasional starvation, yet a people in touch with the specific. And in touch with the gods.

A world so far from agribusiness and supermarkets that the distance could lead to madness, which of course it does for so called ‘primitives’ when they encounter ‘civilisation’. The ‘primitives’ did some harm to the environment when they acquired fire, but generally they were one species among many and as a species they were as sustainable as a blackberry bush, or a lizard. No more, no less. Except they had consciousness, could detect patterns past the patterning of evolution. Language followed, then the written word and the ability to write this down.

For what it’s worth.

Meanwhile the apple tree which provides enough fruit to last through the year is almost ready for harvesting. But for the apples to last I need the use of a freezer, making for contradiction and the judgement that much of the above could be viewed as sentimentality.


Ahakoa he iti kete, he iti nā te aroha
It is the thought that counts


Youth and Age

It’s been a varied seven days. Last week I co-facilitated a filmmaking programme for young people (10-18 years) with Alun Bollinger. We introduced them to a rigorous and disciplined process and out the other end came 5 minute films, most of which were very good. I would say that the sub text of the films revealed kids living in an anxious, threatening and cynical world – that’s not surprising. But there’s a contradiction: they are also  offered entitlement and their comfort is worried over, can even become pampering. As well, the perceived threat arrives via the media so is curiously unreal. I think this contradiction is behind the mental health issues. At the same time they responded well to the rigour and discipline, negotiated their group culture (with often a range of ages) with skill and found their way around digital systems with ease. The programme also gave them time and space to hang out together and we didn’t have to worry about RAMS (risk assessment management strategies) and high viz jackets- all that stuff that bedevils schools. It was then, a rewarding role to play, that of elder handing on knowledge of process.

From there I went to the Waihopai spy-base protest in Blenheim and afterward to a gathering to possibly launch a movement for an independent Aotearoa. This was one of those predominantly grey-haired events with a small leavening of younger people. Despite Corbyn and Sanders, it was hardly the stuff of movement building. As well, sovereignty is a contested concept, so it was sensible to put the project to one side. Yet there were fine presentations from Keith Locke and Bill Rosenberg, which surely belong on the website of the left wing think tank which Sue Bradford set up. Alas, this has somehow disappeared into an Auckland University Department and Sue is no longer involved.

In Blenheim that 1960s determined critique was present in aged form, but the best idea came from a young woman who felt that the gathering had the potential to become a forum for activists from many quarters. The spy station is a resonant symbol of the system and the fact that the protest  has taken place for thirty years is really something. Tell the story to the younger generation and let them get on with it, was her message. But the baby boomers find it hard to step aside, are fearful the critique will get lost, as oppositional movements continue to fragment into fervent  struggles for an ever more complex diversity, leading to a sort of speaking in tongues.

The US philosopher, Fredrik Jameson, wrote a seminal essay on post modernism as the culture of late capitalism. In the essay he describes a hotel in LA. The exterior is made of that mirror glass which reflects back anything from outside, for it is only concerned with its own interior self. If you make it inside the building the foyer is lavish and striking, soaring through each floor. But the shops and service centres are confused in terms of layout and there are few points of reference to enable the visitor to find her way around. And when it comes to the bedrooms where people stay and which are the functional reason for being there, they are mean of scale, mediocre of design and generally crap. A precise model of the culture we live in.

From Blenheim I drove to Nelson to visit my writing friend, Eva Brown (known also by her Hungarian name, Panni Palasti). Eva, who is in her eighties and fled Hungary in 1956, received an invitation to publish a Hungarian translation of her poems. It was a taxing project, poetry being the most difficult of translation tasks, but last November she flew to Hungary for the launch of her book, A tongue is not for lashing – Nyelvunk nem ostor, each poem printed in English and Hungarian. To have her fine work thus recognized in her native land was a healing experience. An honouring took place and the old deserve to be honoured. Yet must honour in turn the new generation.

Finally, on the way home I stopped in Murchison for a swim in the Buller. A top of the south country and western festival was being held in the adjoining camping ground and I floated blissfully in the cooling water listening to a sentimental love song sung slightly out of tune.

A moment out of time.

Rain, rain and more rain

Back from a wet bike trip: Blackball-Reefton-Westport-Charleston-Punakaiki-home. It rained every day. Biking in a soft drizzle is pleasant, but as it becomes heavier, one is torn between donning the rain gear which makes one sweat and suffering the drenching. The Lower Buller Gorge seemed particularly malevolent and I felt for Thomas Brunner on his dreadful journey. And then there’s the business of a wet tent, which inevitably leads to a damp sleeping bag. It was one of those weeks when the rain refuses to budge, like a dementia patient. The sky almost lightens, a patch of blue, but then another shower arrives.

Nevertheless, cycling, as well as massaging the cardio-vascular system, unclogs the thought patterns.

Visiting these tourist spots gave me a chance to think about tourism and tourist towns (or visitor towns – an interesting difference perhaps?). Reefton does the visitor town well – it’s on a good scale and it has managed to dramatise itself tastefully.  The shopfronts are all painted, each with a flag above the veranda. There are good cafes, a quality art gallery run by a co-op of artists and splendid second hand shops spread among the more functional day to day shops for the locals. There’s heritage in the mining school and the Blacks Point Museum. What do visitors need?  To pass the time by eating, drinking, looking at interesting things and sometimes  venturing on a walk or a cycle. Hokitika has a similar culture, with locals taking advantage of the increased market that visitors provide. There’s no singular attraction in either place and this is, I suspect, an advantage.

Westport tries, but lacks the artists and the second hand shops, so the visitor is stuck with the everyday (other than a couple of art nouveau buildings) and an awareness of marginality. Charleston is a potpourri: limestone caves and a fine bay, the business headquarters for a national company, a camp ground and the smallest club in New Zealand, which made me feel at home when I popped in for a beer. Wet through, I hired a cabin, the tiniest of rooms but absolute luxury, especially as there was access to a drier.

Punakaiki is a tourist spot, cursed with the Pancake Rocks attracting thousands for the photo op, before  most move on. There’s immense infrastructure pressure for sixty rate payers and a confusing array of councils and DOC to deal with. The water has to be boiled, the accommodation is booked out and there’s no space for expansion. The glacier towns are the same. There’s not a lot of point in this meeting between nature and capital, the photos have all been taken and a gormlessness sets in. But cycling along the Coast Road I appreciated the attraction for those life-stylers tucked away in the bush with a resplendent empty ocean in the foreground.

Greymouth lacks just about everything: there’s a couple of decent craft shops, but little art, no second hand shops, nothing to look at other than Shantytown which is on the outskirts, some tolerable cafes, but hard to kill time in a place locked into franchises and suburbia, with an inability to dramatise itself. To do so, it would have to adopt a tangatawhenua/turangawaewae framework, but instead holds on grittily and determinedly to a 1950s settler culture.

Where is Blackball in this? Puzzled I suspect. It’s possible, but difficult to dramatise an activist past – it requires  cultural and historical understanding and an ongoing political sympathy for the progressive (participatory democracy, co-operatives and the like), which is asking a lot of a small West Coast village. There’s  some craft, an excellent salami company, an iconic pub, a working men’s club that survives, a museum that does dramatise the activist past on a shoe string budget, and now a suburban infrastructure (a car park and a dunny) being overlaid to provide for the walk. There will be some local opportunism around the edges, but coherence?

The racks of bikes will pass through, someone might build a motel – maybe, as in Punakaiki, staff will come from Greymouth. In the past it has been a discreet visitor town, now it will become a minor tourist town.  Locals will keep to the back streets and wait for winter. Or am I being overly pessimistic?

As I write, the sun has come out – briefly.

Back to the Sixties

In the world of the market, Christmas arrives as theatre of the absurd; for the story of God becoming human, of challenging the system, honouring the poor, driving the money changers out of the temple, being betrayed by a member of his band of guerrillas and crucified by the colonial rulers in league with the local power brokers, takes place within a tsunami of consumerism.

A homeless man appeared in Greymouth on Christmas Eve. We’re not used to this phenomenon. He sat crouched against the Warehouse wall, his bag of clothes beside him, a sign requesting a couple of hours work leaning against his knees. Maybe from the UK? His physical appearance suggested drugs and his youth was worn out.

The Boxing Day sales came and went and for the first time, we took the grandchildren to Tui Farm Folk festival. It was a lovely occasion, two hundred people camped on Carol and Steve’s farm near Tapawera. For four days the kids and adults played, the masks slowly dissolved, the banjos strummed and the violins meditated in an Appalachian sort of way. The kids became a village and no one wore a high viz jacket (how I am coming to hate high viz jackets), or worried about health and safety. One shower served 200 people. I am sure it met none of the statutory requirements for such events, but a winding gravel road kept the bureaucrats away. It would have been good for the homeless man to have been there.

Of course, the folk music movement has its complexities, especially in a colonial culture – who are the folk?- but a South Island rural group singing Poi E dissolved contradiction.  New Year’s Eve almost had its meaning restored. If this sort of event can still take place and not be taken over by entrepreneurs and event managers, there is hope for the future. The vehicles remained static, and the rhythm of the strolling adult or skipping child took over, as in a Pacific village. The bush poetry session on New Years Day was often touching. A German read a lovely piece comparing life in Berlin with life at Tui. Her hands shook with nervousness as she expressed this vital thought in a second language. It would have been good for the homeless man to have been there.

I remembered the impulse behind the sixties: we need to sabotage capitalist culture, overthrow it, bury it, for it does too much damage. It is no good negotiating levels of compliance. Let’s really do it.

And avoid the tragedy of the sixties, of letting the impulse degenerate into another consumer item.

I arrived home to find a letter from the PM replying to a submission I had made to her as Minister of the Arts regarding a more equitable deal for the regions. She’d obviously read the submission, considered it, and will take the viewpoint into discussions with Creative NZ. After years of brief formulaic dismissal of attempted discussion, this was rather amazing.

All the best for the new year.



Comes in waves, doesn’t it? Like the sea.

My brother died last week. He was ready to go. Was a working man all his life. The body gets worn out. He liked a smoke, had been diabetic for a while. When you can’t do stuff with your hands there’s not a lot to motivate. He had lunch at the rest home, lay down on his bed and died.

A wave lifts, then breaks, head up, water streaming.

He had the politics of a working man. ‘I’m Labour, always have been.’ He had Ken Douglas to tea once, knew the bosses were generally arseholes. As a youth I went with him up to Waipukurau when he applied for a farm labourers job on one of those stations. The owner was gentry and we were given a cup of tea on the veranda- weren’t invited inside. I’ve never forgotten.

With grief the physical world becomes dislocated, unreal. The void threatens.

He couldn’t drive anymore (he always loved his car), but got a cheap mobility scooter and would go down to the main road and sit and watch the trucks go by.

For a while the funeral was threatening to be messy, he had a funeral fund but no Will – how could his son access the money? Another son in jail down here. I was in Christchurch trying to get to see him, went to the wrong prison, had to drive down Blenheim road on a hot day – all that stuff for sale, all that signage – like driving through hell – through Rolleston to the ultimate gated village – someone must make a fortune building the fences. Disembodied voice: Visiting is not possible. Distant laughter.

As I chose the songs for the undertaker to play at the service, I wept. Music is the conductor of feeling. Next Easter we’ll have a memorial service in Manakau where he was brought up and everyone will have time to come. We’ll scatter his ashes in the sea.

I watch the news. Jacinda seems to be caught in some celebrity bubble – a photo shoot for Vogue?  Ten, or is it twenty thousand children are no longer in poverty? How do they know? Have they got names? It’s a bizarre world. I am reminded of Sartre’s Nausea.

If I stop the thoughts, the void is there. Te Po. Slightly scary.

After a month of rainless days there’s a downpour. The creek fills, the gorse falls over, the trees drink in the words. Life continues. I’ll take it gently for a few days.

Graham photo

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