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Paul Maunder's blog

Easter

The Easter story is a remarkable one, but overshadowed in Alexandra (where we were visiting grandchildren) by the annual rabbit hunt ending in a corpse-strewn domain, a fair, the Clyde food and wine festival, and an Easter egg hunt for the children where it was reported an aggressive child could score a pillowslip of Easter eggs.  Faced with this, the story of a crucifixion and resurrection occurring 2000 years ago had an uphill battle to be heard.

I’m not a religious person but, nonetheless, one of my favourite books is a study of mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, first published in 2011 and reprinted several times since. The book was gifted to me by Malcom Yockney, who I went to school with and who wrote in the front cover, Love and friendship always. It’s a scholarly but beautifully written work in which Underhill claims that mysticism is the essential religious experience. She collates the recorded experiences of the great Catholic mystics: Francis of Assissi, Catherine of Siena, St Teresa among others, as well as drawing on William Blake and Walt Whitman. She sees the artist and the mystic as bedfellows and reading of the mystic way offers solace in an increasingly crazy world.

I happened to be reading it for the third time this Easter and was struck by the simplicity yet complexity of the process. The mystic, after sensing God’s presence (the Real), embarks on a journey. The first stage they call Recollection, but it is actually the first meditative experience, the focusing on a single external object in order to cut out the noise of the mind – the fragmented thoughts, worries, anxieties etc.; the rabbit hunt, the wine and food festival, the Easter egg scramble, Donald Trump… The single object could be a flower, a tree, a creek, some representative of the creator. After practice in this discipline, the mystic enters a period of Quiet, where the relationship with God is established, with God being both external and internal. Underhill believes Christianity has produced mystics in relative abundance because of the complexity of the trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost- which enables rich relationships to be forged.

Finally, a Unity, a oneness with God is experienced, not as a passive state, but as an active relationship which then spills over to an active relationship with society.  She despises the passive ascetic.

It seems to me, that this model is useful to the 21st century dilemmas. For behind it is the quest for the Real, the authentic, the vital. Surrounded by an extraordinary flood of the unreal, that quest is indeed a useful one. And to then develop a relationship with the Real, in whatever form that might take, is again, useful. Finally, to live in harmony with that Real. And the Real could be a narrative of social justice, it could be whanau, it could be community, it could be the creative project. And to energise that relationship with love.

Anyway, that seemed to be the hidden pattern of Easter for me. I was reminded of a moment in the 1980s when after spending Easter rehearsing Te Tutakitanga I Te Puna at a marae in Ruatahuna, we were driving back to Wellingotn and stopped for a break on the shore of Lake Taupo. Surrounded by motels, boats, cars, it was like glimpsing the Pakeha world, this overlay of capitalism, technology and alienation, from a traditional Maori perspective.

The search for the Real remains fundamental.

High Art

Living on the Coast it is a relief to be able to avoid the middle class art event. But just occasionally it is useful to remind oneself. Having a gift voucher for the Regent, we went along to a video recording of the National Theatre Production of Harold Pinter’s, No Man’s Land. It proved to be a Hunger Games sort of event. Here we were in the remote provinces having a look at what people in the centre are up to. There was the extraordinary atmosphere of importance which the initial spin gave: the skill of the set, the props – even the butter, the lighting, the makeup, the actors talking of how great it had been working together… all this introduced by a woman of Middle Eastern appearance to make this very white event politically correct. This was high art, mate, and we in Greymouth were having a peak- thanks to modern technology.

The chatter ceased, the lights dimmed and we watched  two old men stuck in a room talking past each other, inhabiting what Raymond Williams calls, ‘the negative group’. At a certain point in bourgeois society, the alienation that capitalism produces became so severe that communication was no longer possible.  Fair enough, but in that case, better shut up and let the working class have a go. But if you own the theatre, then no, better keep trying to speak of how important you trying to speak, is.

The acting was not that good, the actors playing their adjustments (in Stanislavski’s term). If I drank that much whisky that quickly I would be in hospital, so a sense of reality was not useful. Two young blokes turned up and provided a bit of threat, but one of them didn’t know what to do with his hands (an amateur theatre problem). Pinter once said, I take people I don’t know and put them in a room and try to think what they might say. It’s a strange writerly experience – I tried it once and won a prize. Anyway, the experience was all so English – the Europeans would have made something philosophical or political of this, but the English just maunder along, assured of a previous imperial importance.  I was reminded of Tony Blair. Meanwhile, the audience tittered occasionally at rather obvious jokes and were having a cultured experience.

I suspect the budget for the production would have been something in the vicinity of the cost of Greymouth’s new town square, which we went along to after Act One, to have a more pleasant cultural experience sitting on the grass in the afternoon sun, listening to a local lass sing, very humbly, a few of her songs.

Changing Cultures

I was on a jury recently, for a sexual assault case in one of the glacier towns. The trial revealed a tawdry lifestyle: precarious work, transient population, the only belonging to be found in the smartphone screen, the dvd, the facebook message, the porn… Identity is a series of uniforms- the hotel, the bar, the Warehouse clothes, the rugby league shirt, the All Black scarf… They eat a diet of takeaway or bar food. Somewhere in there is a desire for affection, even love and it all goes wrong. Meanwhile the tourists pass through in their thousands, for there is a natural wonder here which they all must photograph.

All pretty grubby and a long way from the culture of the mining towns in their heyday, the Labour-voting, union-belonging, men and women with their sports teams, the camaraderie of the bathhouse, the need for trust, the stories of past struggles for economic and social justice, some of them church goers, a few of them communists, providing their own infrastructure when necessary. Of course I mustn’t idealise the culture – there was a lot of booze involved and it was patriarchal, but compared with the tourist town it had considerable integrity…

Mawhera/Greymouth is in transition, slowly becoming a tourist town. As I hung around for a few days, that was the impression – tourists were probably outnumbering locals. There are signs of greater liveliness. The town square is happening. Stewart Nimmo’s was busy (and he deserves that, after hanging in there for so many years as a local gallery), the Chinese restaurant was full of Chinese – a nice image, a young woman was playing the ukulele outside the library as she learned a new song, there seemed to be more posters advertising shows, and I could sit and have a conversation with a UK couple about Brexit.

The question becomes one of maintaining the local, and not becoming tawdry and transient. This is where there are crucial things to be quickly learned and I’m not confident of this happening. To maintain that integrity while changing requires trusting the local values, building with local materials, involving the community not just to provide feedback but in doing the work, and thus to respect local skills and local craftspeople. So far, that hasn’t happened. The Miners’ Memorial has been literally made in China, and it shows – when the money could have generated half a dozen local sculptures along the flood wall. The start of the cycle trail is boring mock heritage. The town square could have been made locally, with roof supports and furniture made by local artists and craftspeople, the tiles made via community workshops as has been done in Harihari. It could have been beautiful. Instead I’m betting it will all be brought in from outside. Behind this, unfortunately, is a sort of mid Californian aesthetic accepted by councillors and officers as ‘the norm’. It’s the design aesthetic of shopping barns, fast food outlets, sporting complexes, used car lots, prisons and airports.  And it is expensive.

The issue, really, is one of culture. There needs to be a design committee made up of locals with art skills and knowledge of cultural processes, and this committee needs to be led by tangatawhenua. But how is that going to happen? There’s the rub, as Shakespeare might say.

Rapanui: The Song of Stone

On Thursday we had something of a visitation in the form of a story telling show by Nelson actress, Lisa Allan. Great for the show to come here, and it also christened a new intimate venue (something Greymouth lacks), an upstairs space in the Regent complex whose only disadvantage is the lack of disabled access.

Rapanui, The Song of Stone, has to be considered from two angles: as a performance and as a content. Lisa Allan is an experienced and very competent performer, always a pleasure to watch. Movement, voice and choice of costume and props were all graceful. There was a touch of the cute little girl in her acting, but that was forgivable.

When it comes to the content, things became more complex. Solo performance is often closely linked to the performer who has devised/written the piece, often as an expression of self, so that the boundary between objective and subjective content is seamless.

Home and belonging provided the theme. Each member of the audience was greeted by Lisa, offered a small stone and asked, Where is home for you? She then proceeded to explore the topic for herself, using stone as the symbol of absolute foundation – of the planet, the universe, the soul etc. Where to from there? A bit of intergalactic travel, an encounter at a Reiki workshop, and it was threatening to become a new age ramble until we hit the real story: the Waitaha project.

This is a contentious project, which has led to something of a cult. Waitaha were a tribe living in the south who were conquered by Ngati Moemoe and then by Ngai Tahu. The cult belief is that they were the founding people of Aotearoa, here before the Northern tribes turned up. They were a peaceful folk, in touch with the strong spirits of the island – hence the cave drawings. The mythology has been taken up by some Pakeha, for it fits into the noble savage paradigm. It is also a way of avoiding the more earthy and challenging Tiriti and colonising dramas and their impact on Maori and the subsequent need for reparation. Instead, Pakeha can join Waitaha in a retrospective new age, leaving behind the hurly burly of the 21st century for a more spiritual time. This cult is a curious South Island phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the next day I was feeling a spiritual connection with the extraordinary landscape that is Te Wai Pounamu, a different landscape and a different sort of connection from that which one has with the more intimate and softer Northern island. So, I thank Lisa and her storytelling for this.

Kia ora.

Sport

Sunday: Stiff, but happy, after the annual cricket game between Blackball and the Christchurch Larrikins, a team cobbled together once a year by Dave, who owns a holiday house here.

It made me realise yet again, how far away we have moved from the true function of sport, defined by the OED as ‘amusement, diversion, experiencing life as a game…’ And ‘to play’ is ‘to move about in a lively fashion, frisk, flit, flutter and frolic’ (a lot of f words).

Instead, sport has become a commodity, the players are ‘brands’, with agents seeking their millions before the body gives up. Game plans are analyzed by coaches, psychologists, strategists – the whole thing a military operation, with the public bemused and mystified consumers as players troop around the world like mercenaries, selling themselves to the highest bidder. At the same time, followers of teams are supposedly rooting for local pride and tradition. It’s as mad as Donald Trump.

But on Saturday, down at the domain, sport and play existed for an afternoon. The field had been lovingly mowed and we marked out the pitch with a paint brush and some house paint. The gear was ancient, no one was particularly skilful, everyone had a bowl (so there were lots of wides), the pitch was surprising (despite a modicum of rolling), there were many spectators, a lot of beer was drunk and children tossed the newly-mown grass at one another. Nevertheless, competition was keen.

The Larrikins, having urban pretentions,  brought with them a short section of picket fence so that they could enter to bat through a gate. They scored a miserable 126. Blackball had a perhaps fatal runout early on, but put their heads down. By 5,30pm the Larrikins were somewhat staggery after the fourth drinks break and Blackball seemed to have it in the bag until a ball skidded along the ground to hit the wickets of in-form Michael and the last batsman had to be shown how to hold the bat – not a promising sign. Two runs to go and Jerry struck the ball hard at a stout fielder at close mid-wicket. It stuck in the flesh as it were and his hands enfolded the hurt and fatefully, the ball. Much amusement – and it had been serious enough to be a contest. The sun had shone and everyone was content. No money had changed hands.

As one of the spectators said, ‘It’s lovely to do nothing for a day. ‘ Meanwhile another was going through the feelings of the last year – his wife having died – a soft murmuring. The kids continued to frolic, and a nice story was told at the group photo, of this bloke who used to surreptitiously expose himself on such occasions, until taught a lesson through a cigarette lighter being equally surreptitiously applied.

There was much shaking of hands, pride at it having gone so well, a wheelbarrow of empty bottles loaded onto a trailer to be taken to the dump and everyone would have some new images in their head.

There is a phrase, cricket was the winner. On this occasion, community was the winner. And it hadn’t required any government intervention, or NGOs, charitable funding bodies, advisors, criteria, visions, missions, objects or outcomes.

Just some people experiencing life as a game.

Changing behaviour

The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, observed that as the state imposes restraints on what it considers dysfunctional behaviour, the behaviour being restrained bubbles up in new forms and with new energies. Thus, child abuse, paedophilia, sexual violence, sexism, homophobia and chemical abuse should have disappeared by now, but in fact continue to be issues.

The problem lies in the state (sometimes disguised as ‘community’) campaigns, via which the behaviour being negated is actually given a starring role. Starring roles are about time on stage. You give them time on stage, even while negating them, and they are given power.

This was perfectly illustrated in the last two weeks with the case of the Wellington College boys who posted boastful comments on a social media site about raping comatose teenage girls at parties. Something of a media frenzy resulted and counselors are knocking on the school doors. There’s been a flurry of despairing commentaries on the seemingly ineradicable patriarchal fantasies of the male adolescent, these commentaries articulated within the persecutor, victim, rescuer model.

But there’s been something missing; questions not being asked. Is it okay for adolescent girls at parties to get drunk to the point of unconsciousness? What are we doing with regard to this? When I talked to my daughter about whether this occurred during her teenage years (and I’m sure I’d asked her at the time), she said, ‘Occasionally, but we looked after one another.’ Which makes total sense. Handling booze is a learned skill. When someone is still acquiring that skill, their mates look after them. Should the national media stage not have been given over to the need for girls to look after their mates, given over to the value of solidarity among teenage girls? Should not counselors be knocking on the doors of schools to talk to the girls about the need for such solidarity? And this is not a ‘blame the victim’ line, but rather how to prevent victimhood. And not relying on the educated young male with whom the power is still assumed to lie?

Of course, the media wailing took place within the sphere of scandal: disgust, prurience, class envy (Wellington College is an elite school), subconscious images of the rape… the usual stuff. Solidarity on the other hand, is not scandalous, nor prurient; nor envious. The core value is simple: An injury to one is an injury to all. Imagine the effect of a line of girls picketing the gate of Wellington College with Solidarity signs. Imagine the mass distribution of a badge saying, ‘My mates are looking after me’ to be worn at parties. Already social change is taking place, a movement forming that gathers energy, moving into other areas like pay equity, like representation, like proper funding of organisations dealing with crisis…

Finally, the question was not asked regarding the swamp of pornography through which the young wade. When watching the occasional sporting fixture on Prime, it is easy to switch to the music channel during ad breaks. Virtually every music video is soft porn. And this is mainstream television, itself floating in the ocean of porn on the web. Adolescents will always have sexual fantasies, but now these are colonised by the digital empires. Collective resistance from the colonised must be the first step in getting rid of the empires.

Tweets

I’ve never tweeted, having a deep aversion to the idea. Of course there was once, the medium of the telegram, where one paid for each word and which was delivered to the door by telegram boys. They were used to mark emergencies, deaths, births, or celebrations: telegrams from absent friends and family would be read out at weddings. The knock of the telegram boy during the war was a feared occasion. But tweets have none of that. They are chat. Yet they seem to be ruling the world of communication. So, here’s a first attempt.

Tweet 1: In Saturday’s Press there was an oddity: one of the columnists, instead of being witty or ironical about ‘whatever’, wrote of her current bout of depression.

Tweet 2: I had to read it twice, but yes, this was real – a cry from the heart. The context still overwhelmed- after all, we are generally represented by consumer desire…

Tweet 3: … desire for house, car, phone, clothes, holiday or achievement of goals or good works, perhaps temporarily handicapped by an injustice of ethnicity, gender or sexuality.

Tweet 4: The selfie is me somewhere interesting or with someone, preferably a celebrity, or doing something – exciting!!! The rest of the paper was still pushing these things.

Tweet 5: But me on Freud’s couch, where acting out is frowned upon as a barrier to self realisation? Where desire is a dream filtered through repression?

Tweet 6: Forget it. Uncool. This is a culture based on acting out. Desire is desiring an attractive object or being an attractive object to be desired (often the easier option).

Tweet 7: Who owns the words Trump speaks or with which he thinks? Who gives him the words? The images? Sony Corp? Google? Face book? Twitter?

Tweet 8: Actually, we give him the words which are our words fed back to him via algorithms. Some agency set up by yet another billionaire analyses social media for key words, themes, concerns.

Tweet 9: They then change the message or reinforce the message via banks of robotic twitter accounts. This explains Brexit. Trump.

Tweet 10: If our words are no longer our words but disembodied words owned by someone else who is not even a person but an algorithm, that is a description of psychosis.

Tweet 11: But psychosis is a matter of badly behaving synapses, a chemical imbalance. Even the words expressing alienation are alienated from themselves – as meaning.

Tweet 12: No wonder she’s depressed.

 

Community secrets

In a post-truth world filled with the cacophony of the digital media, community becomes a secretive affair, most potently symbolised by the Zapatista in their balaclava.

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Here we are less extravagant, but I love the mysteries that occur. Someone has taken their scrub bar and cleared the track down to the river. I often take a pair of secateurs with me and keep it open, but this kind soul has made it safe for another year. Who was it? And then, equally mysteriously, a piece of conceptual art has appeared in the beech trees. Someone managed to toss a cord over a high branch and then secured both ends with rocks. Kids over summer? But you’d have to tie it to something and have a strong arm to get it that high. Definitely a mystery and better than the Venice Biennale.

But community, as well as being secretive, has to be wary of the official providers of ‘community’, NGOs with fanciful names making a buck, corporations with their competitions, officialdom with its rules and regulations. Quietly slip around them, occasionally confront.

And then there is the blending of ‘democracy’ and consumerism; the call centres with their scripted enquiry, a culture which political parties seem to think is the answer. I suspect all it does is add to the cacophony.

As John Berger wrote, resistance is a pocket – but what is the shape of the pocket? p1050759

Is it the assertiveness of a newborn chick, the mysterious piece of art in the trees, the goodwill of the track clearer, the assembling of the theatre group to begin another project; the quiet and humble passing of Vicky, a woman who didn’t take up a lot of space, but made her contribution to the community?

 

It’s a hard task visiting the dying if you can’t offer the solace of an afterlife or of reincarnation. One talks about daily happenings which are of no relevance, almost an insult. When really, one should be singing Pete Seeger’s perfect song:

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing, And you who stand nearby, I do charge you not to cry
Guard well our human chain
Watch well you keep it strong

As long as sun will shine
And this our home
Keep pure and sweet and green
For now I’m yours And you are also mine

Green dilemmas

The Greens have the aim of becoming more than a minor party stuck at around 10% of the party vote. In order to do so they have to become more of a broad church, covering a number of tendencies. Occasionally they have the dream of supplanting the Labour Party which, as the working class becomes fragmented consumers or clusters of identities (women, Maori, PI, Gay, Lesbian…), can seem nostalgic. For the Greens encompass social justice issues –  have workplace and social policy that is progressive – as well as being focused on the environmental issues that resonate with younger generations. They also see the possibility of growing their Maori vote, their role seamlessly linking  with the concept of kaitiakitanga.

Yet growing the vote proves a stubbornly difficult task. What are the problems? The first is a cultural one. Typically, Green party members will be middle class pakeha (with more than a smattering of Europeans, Brits and Americans), politically correct, healthy out door recreationalists, well-travelled, vegetarian, versed in conflict resolution, smile a lot and have a PhD. There’s nothing wrong with any of the above, and perhaps everyone should be like that, but somehow there are a lot of people who aren’t. They didn’t get their PhD, they work with their hands, they can have strange beliefs, they eat meat, go in for chemical abuse, get angry and sad and sometimes obese, stuff up, have arguments, blow the budget, watch crap on television, scowl and curse, drive diggers and dump trucks and deliver the junk mail, and find transgender a difficult concept. It’s not easy to get them to the Green church because they’re not going to feel comfortable. And like any church community, the Greens are capable of closing ranks and intuitively promoting their own kind.

The second issue is the default position of most Greens and the public perception that results. Green = environmentalist = jumping up and down over proposals for development, whether it be buildings or mines or factories. A miner once said to me, You can’t do anything without digging a hole. The perception becomes that whenever anyone wants to dig a hole, or build a building, the Greens will start jumping up and down. This widens to forestry, farming and fishing – there’s always an environmental impact. Of course this perception of the Greens as anti everything that provides a living is not true, for what they are advocating Is sustainable production. But with that concept, the issues are even more difficult (and the PhD starts to become useful). Will a sustainable economy produce enough food for the present level of population? Will the same number of jobs be available? At what rate of pay? Who funds the transition? Is this transition possible under a capitalist regime?

Probably a revolution is required, rather than a reform of the system. Yet the Greens want a broad appeal. The result is the mystification that religion produces: a wished for world which can only be achieved in the after life. Meanwhile, in the real world, the congregation continue to worship the ideal and do some good works. This position is not easily shared, requiring moments of revelation to energise it.

The third issue stems from playing the modern parliamentary political games: of branding, identification of voters as consumers- of politics as marketing, which doesn’t sit well with the Greens. It doesn’t sit well with Labour either. It’s politics as commodity rather than process or praxis, but the only game in town. It produces the false smile and leads to disenchantment. The people at the bottom know about disenchantment and they don’t want any more.

At the same time, disenchantment of gigantic proportions looms in the form of climate change and species loss. We are burning up, flooding up, freezing up, cycloning up at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, the infrastructure is still working, or being rapidly repaired, so the same old shit continues. 21st century capitalism seems to be able to cope with extraordinary stresses – so far. And the Greens oscillate between trying to resolve conflict with a smile and playing a Cassandra role by issuing dire warnings. The prophetic role has the energy, yet is a marginal one.

Are there any solutions to the above problems? It is essential to attract a broader range of the community and to adjust the culture accordingly. And then what? What do party members do? Any political party has an inevitable hierarchy and a sado- masochism that accompanies this: the leaders pleading for money and voluntary labour (pleasure and pain) and the members giving money and voluntary labour (pleasure and pain) – the goal the orgasm of power (and often a melancholic aftermath). This is not a comfortable fit either, even though the Greens pride themselves on their democratic processes (processes which generate a reasonably dense bureaucracy).

It’s possible that a healthy parliamentary party is actually impossible. Yet the current mess in the US points to the need to maintain something resembling functional representation.

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