Friday, May 29, 2015

Running through the jungle

I've blogged before about the prescription narcotics I sometimes use, when I'm trapped in a New Zealand winter, to deal with an old nerve injury, and about the recurrent and very detailed - sometimes vividly detailed, sometimes tediously detailed - dreams that these drugs give me. In 2012 I watched Alfred Hitchcock show a curious movie at the University of Auckland's School of Business; the year before that I flew from the mountains of the South Island to an island that resembled Hawai'iki, stopping for a drink on the way in Northland.

Here's my latest recurring dream. As usual, my subconscious is behaving oddly: it has connected Napoleon Chagnon, a man I detest, with Margaret Mead and Marshall Sahlins, two scholars I admired, or at least thought I admired. (This superb article by David Moberg describes Sahlins' long and righteous battle against Chagnon, and explains why Chagnon's ideas about indigenous peoples are dangerous for the West, as well as for the Third World). The banyan forest in my dream comes from 'Eua, the Tongan island that James Cameron reputedly turned into a moon called Pandora.

The Fierce People

After dinner, on the lounge room
couch, I run through a banyan forest,
pursued by a noisy tribe
of anthropologists.
I don't turn my head
but I know, because I have studied the secondary literature,
that Napoleon Chagnon is waving a spear
as sharp as a syringe, and tipped
with syphilis; that sweat has melted
Jared Diamond's facepaint;
that betel juice dribbles out
Margaret Mead's puffing mouth.

"You will not find refuge
in any impenetrable forest"
I hear Marshall Sahlins explaining,
in his best lectern voice.
"The impenetrable forest
is a colonialist fantasy
abolished by ethnobotanists.
You must surrender
to analysis."

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The perils of blurbing

A couple of months ago I got an e mail from a frustrated Paul Janman, who was preparing his feature length documentary film Tongan Ark for DVD release. Paul had been working hard, and he had almost everything - subtitles, special features, cover design - ready for the manufacturers. But he couldn't, despite hours of effort, come up with a short blurb to slap on the back of his DVD case.

Paul had spent years making Tongan Ark, had talked about the film repeatedly on television and on the radio, and had travelled with it to festivals around the Pacific. He was bewildered that now, at the final stage of his project, he couldn't find a handful of sentences to sum up his masterpiece.

I volunteered to draft a blurb, thinking that I could finish the task in the time it takes me to write a short e mail, but quickly became as flummoxed as Paul. I filled a couple of pages with words, then realised that I had written far too much, and hadn't described more than the opening scenes of Paul's film. I started again, determined to summarise rather than describe, and soon found myself using the sort of cliches - 'dazzling images', 'piercing insights' and so on - that infest the book and film review sections of Time magazine.

I shouldn't have been surprised that it was so difficult to write a blurb for Tongan Ark.

Anecdotes I've heard from Masters and Doctoral students, as well as my own painful experiences, suggest to me that the most difficult part of a thesis is the abstract that must precede the text. Thesis writers seem invariably to leave their abstract until last, when the torments of the chapter on theory and the survey of previous literature and the straggling bibliography are out of the way. By then, though, their very familiarity with their subject makes a quick summary of that same subject remarkably difficult.
An abstract or blurb should be like an aerial photograph of a landscape, showing outlines and especially important details - the shape of a coast, the dark sprawl of a town, the bend of a river - and avoiding the cluttered views of the earthbound. By the time they finish their labours, though, writers and film makers too often feel like they are sinking in a swamp of detail, rather than soaring above their subjects.

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I was often involved in promoting Tongan Ark, and often contributed to the discussions that the film began. I wrote a rambling review of the rough cut of the movie, hosted a test screening and discussion in my living room, and sat on a panel organised for the premiere of the final cut at the 2012 Auckland film festival. Like Paul, I was probably far too familiar with the film.

The normal difficulty created by familiarity was perhaps compounded by the complexity of Tongan Ark. Like Tongan society, the film is beset by paradoxes, and prone to swift changes of mood. Its hero is an opera fan as well as a connoisseur of traditional Tongan dance, a monarchist and a republican, and an otherworldy aesthete as much as a political activist.

Here is the text that I produced for the back of Tongan Ark after a good deal of scratching. Paul has coupled my blurb with short quotes from the New Zealand Herald film critic Peter Calder, and from some bloke named Giovanni Tiso.

Tongan Ark is a film about tiny islands and big ideas. It takes us to 'Atenisi, a poor but vibrant university in the Kingdom of Tonga, where the veteran philosopher and opera buff Futa Helu and his talented but eccentric staff teach Greek philosophy alongside Polynesian dance, and advocate both freedom of thought and a concern for tradition. 

Helu founded his school to help reform Tongan society, and his work as a social critic has earned him the nickname 'the Socrates of Tonga'. But when a riot erupts outside the school gates, the crises of contemporary Tongan society become the crises of 'Atenisi. State repression, poverty, and violence all threaten the future of Futa Helu's school. 

Tongan Ark is a film for the senses, as well as the mind. Director Paul Janman introduces Western audiences to the lush and troubled landscapes of the Kingdom of Tonga, and also to the richness of Tongan intellectual life. 

You can buy a DVD copy of Tongan Ark here. You can watch a trailer for the film here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Where are the mothers' awards?

Last night, after my wife went into hospital to have her gall bladder removed, I became a mother. It was, I must admit, a chastening experience. As my eight month old son pawed and bit at my chest, hysterically searching for his lost supply of milk, the three year old turned our bed into a trampoline, and shouted his demand that I help him test the engines of the fleet of toy cars he keeps in the lounge room. I spent hours rocking the baby in aching arms, feeling a little like a miner panning endlessly and hopelessly for gold. At about two o'clock, when the evening had begun to seem endless, I filled a water bottle with milk from the fridge, stowed it under my shirt, then revealed it to the crying baby. He wasn't fooled.

I realised last night that the rituals I had associated with parenthood - making bacon and eggs for breakfast, kicking a ball in the park, running after a balance bike - call for far less stamina than breastfeeding and lullabying. Thank goodness for relatives, and for the fact that my wife is home today.

How odd it felt to rise this morning from the lounge room floor, where I had eventually coaxed that baby boy to sleep, shamble to the mailbox, and find my photograph inside the latest issue of our local newspaper.

The Western Leader has run an article about my receipt of the inaugural Mayoral Literary Award, and allowed me to describe the book and film I'm making about Auckland's Great South Road. I am grateful to see the paper giving coverage to my writing, but after the experiences of the last eighteen or so hours I have decided belief that the mothers of small boys should permanently be celebrated on the front pages of every newspaper in the world, and allotted awards of their own.

I'm off now to drink a glass of milk and take a nap.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, May 15, 2015

Getting it all arranged

I was grateful to receive the first Auckland Mayoral Literary Award last night, during a ceremony at the Town Hall timed to coincide with the Auckland Writers Festival. In his speech at the Town Hall Auckland mayor Len Brown noted the city's absurdly rich literary heritage, observed that its writers deserve more support, and hoped that the prize he had established would be offered annually for at least a century.

I got the Award after promising to produce an illustrated book about my journeys through space and time along Auckland's Great South Road, and to advance the documentary film about the road on which I've been working intermittently but intensely with auteur Paul Janman and cinematographer Ian Powell. The book will be ready for publication by the middle of next year, and Paul hopes to have our film on the festival circuit by then as well.

The other two finalists for the Award were Renee Liang, who proposed creating a play about a Chinese family living in Ponsonby during the 1940s and '50s, and Courtney Meredith, who promised a book-length sequence of poems that dealt with the history and present of South Auckland. Unlike the one hundred metre dash or tiddlywinks, literature is not a sport that allows the precise and definitive comparison of its competitors' performances, and it would be ridiculous for anyone to suggest that Liang's and Meredith's projects have less importance and potential than my own. My best wishes to them both.

Paul Janman and Ian Powell have already produced thousands of photographs and tens of hours of film footage during their journeys with me along the Great South Road. On the day before the Awards ceremony, Paul brought me to a huge blank room in central Auckland, and poured hundreds of images - discrete photographs, as well as film stills - onto a long table that ran down the middle of the room. For the rest of the day the two of us took turns picking an image and pinning it to one of the room's walls. Juxtapositions were made, and patterns formed and dissolved. Ian Powell and Paul's wife Echo Zeanah-Janman wandered into the room occasionally, chuckled, and wandered out again.
A few months ago Paul and I worked out a reasonably tight structure for a film about the Great South Road, complete with recurring scenes and phrases and a complicated historical argument, but he had become concerned that we were proceeding too intellectually, and not letting our images associate with one another freely, without the rules imposed by narrative and logic. It wasn't a matter of abandoning order, Paul explained, but of giving intuition its due. We needed intutition if we were to finish the film.

On the high walls of that empty room we tried to let the images wander where they wanted. I discovered the visual and emotional parralels between an abandoned railcar at the Otahuhu workshops and a drab war memorial in the lower Waikato; I realised, as well, that Paul's infrared footage of Newmarket caryards was as sinister and obscure as the primitive photographs that pretended to document the wars of the 1860s.

During my acceptance speech at the Town Hall I talked about Kendrick Smithyman, whose psychogeographic wanderings around the bleaker suburbs of Auckland and the weedier backblocks of the North Island are one of the inspirations for my travels along the Great South Road. The experiment with Paul in that big blank room reminded me of the wry poem that Smithyman called 'Peter Durey's Story':

A notable social scientist used to teach
in a boarding house not now remembered clearly.
He was brilliant at seminars, his lectures were
off the cuff, publishers sought him,
students ran scared, he was so much in command,
                  One day at his office
he was very proud of himself.
Sleeves rolled, glasses dazzling, he stacked
oh it must have been close on a hundred
biggish flat boxes, the kind which dress shops used.
"Look at that now, years of it! At last,
I’ve got it all arranged." Each box, labelled.

The first said Field Notes, Classified.
The second, Field Notes, Classified.
The ninety-plus others, Field Notes, Unclassified.

That’s how people think
university people work, bringing to order,
all the time collecting, finding out, systematising.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, May 08, 2015

Making monuments

Over at EyeContact I've written about Sione Faletau's attempt to reconstruct the most famous of Tonga's ancient monuments.

While a video camera looked on serenely, Faletau and two of his brothers contorted and strained their bodies until they had made the shape of the Ha'amonga 'a Maui, or the burden of Maui, three coral slabs that stand near the northeastern corner of the island of Tongatapu.

Some of the first palangi visitors to Tonga likened the Ha'amonga 'a Maui to Stonehenge, because its shape echoes the sections of England's most famous ancient monument. Today a few pseudo-historians use the internet to claim that the Ha'amonga was actually built by blokes from Wales or Britanny, rather than by Tongans. Curiously enough, these Celtic irredentists never bring their arguments to the kava circles or seminar rooms of Tonga.

If there is any parallel between the Ha'amonga and Stonehenge, then I think it relates to the place of the two monuments in the consciousness of the descendants of their makers. Stonehenge is one of the most widely disseminated and easily recognisable symbols of Britain. Its pillars and lintels decorate teacups and biscuit tins as effortlessly as Black Sabbath and Hawkwind album covers.

But Stonehenge is mysterious as well as ubiquitous. Its origins, function, and symbolism are the subjects of protracted and sometimes comical debates (the latest attempt at an explication comes from Julian Spalding, who thinks that an enormous altar might have sat on top of those famous stones).

The mysteries that hang about Stonehenge remind us of the depth and oddness of Britain's history, and the arbitrary, improvisational nature of what we noawadays consider British culture.

Like Stonehenge, the Ha'amonga 'a Maui is a famous monument with a contested past. Neither Tongan nor palangi scholars can agree on whether it was a political monument, a tomb, an observatory, or a sculpture. The monument is a reminder of the long pagan history that only recently gave way to Tongan versions of Christianity.

At EyeContact I argue that Sione Faletau's version of the Ha'amonga 'a Maui embodies one of the oldest and most powerful contradictions in Tongan society.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Andrew Little, my father-in-law, and New Zealand's housing crisis

[Over the past few weeks a series of politicians, media commentators and academics have discussed New Zealand's overheated housing market, and suggested ways of making homes less attractive to speculators and more affordable for families. Fran O'Sullivan has urged John Key and Andrew Little to get together and craft a capital gains tax that might prick the housing bubble; Bernard Hickey has suggested a tax on land, rather than capital gains; and Penny Hulse has called for rent controls and a massive housebuilding programme in Auckland. 

New Labour leader Andrew Little has not played a prominent role in the debate over housing. Little is aware of the intensity of the debate over housing, and the frustration of so many New Zealanders at runaway prices, but he believes that Labour lost the last election partly because the public disliked its proposals for a capital gains tax. He wants to throw away that policy, but has not yet devised anything to take its place. 

Recently my father-in-law, the educationalist Alan Wagstaff, e mailed Andrew Little to outline a policy that he believes might help alleviate New Zealand's housing crisis. I've reproduced Alan's e mail to Little, Little's reply, and I comment that I sent to Alan that tries to put his proposals into an historical context.]

Dear Mr. Andrew Little

Assuming you deal with many hundreds of messages I’ve expressed myself in minimalistic terms. The high cost of land holds many New Zealand families in poverty. There are approximately 1,265,000 families living in New Zealand in 2015. In 2015, about 19,000 NZ families live in poverty. LINZ manages over 1.5 million hectares of pastoral land in the South Island on behalf of the Crown.

The idea:
Give 800 square metres of land to 19,000 families. 
This would be 15,200,000 square metres or 1,520 hectares
The Crown would still manage 1,498,480 hectares of land. 
Who gets which parcel of land could be determined by chance. 
What poor families do with their land would be up to them.
Alan Wagstaff

After Andrew Little sent a quick and interested reply, Alan explained his idea in more detail:

Hello Andrew
I’m grateful and amazed you were able to respond so promptly.

To elaborate further:
  1. The land would not need to be accessible – or necessarily/even used by the new owners - it would be an asset that might be sold by them or used as collateral.
  2. The system would not try to be ‘universally fair’; merely 19,000 lots would be given away and thus would impact some struggling families in NZ – but not all.
  3. The system might impact (slow the rise or even lower the cost) the high price of land in this country via reduced demand.
  4. The allocation could be by random lottery type numbers to families only identified by code.
As you are aware young New Zealanders – even those in employment – are finding it increasing difficult to get on the property ladder. I suspect we are in danger of creating a dispirited generation of young families. I suspect that such a bold and unexpected move might inject a wave of hope into young NZers.

Food for thought!
Alan Wagstaff

Here's my message to Alan:

Hi Alan,

thanks for sharing that fascinating exchange with Andrew Little. It is encouraging to see him engaging with a voter who offers some policy advice. I've got my head in the nineteenth century right now, because of a research project, and I can't help but think of some precedents for the scheme you advocate.

I'm sending this message from my parents' place in Drury. A couple of kilometres away, at the edge of a forest, are a few dozen old and untended graves. They are the only visible remains of Peach Hill, one of scores of communities established by soldier-settlers and assisted migrants in the years after the Waikato War. 

After invading and conquering the Waikato in 1863 and '64, the colonial government in Auckland needed to settle its new territories with loyal members of the British Empire. It gave blocks of land away to thousands of soldiers, and offered free passage as well as free land to Australians, Britons, and Irish willing to settle the Waikato.

Peach Hill was the new name for Te Maketu, an ancient pa and village that had been used as a lookout by Maori guerrillas during the early stages of the Waikato War. Te Maketu was part of the two million acres confiscated by the colonial government after the war. Its groves of fruit trees and terraced fields were divided into small plots and handed to a group of assisted emigrants from southwest Ireland. The emigrants raised dozens of houses and a Catholic church, took over the orchards Maori had established, and ran stock in their fields. Without a port or a good road, though, they struggled to find a market for their produce. Their settlement soon declined, as families left for the Coromandel, where gold had been discovered, or Auckland, where jobs could sometimes be found. The departees sold their plots for tiny sums to the Auckland moguls who had fomented the Waikato War.

Peach Hill was only one of a dozen or so settlements that were abandoned in the 1870s and '80s. Some of these settlements have been forgotten; others persist as misleading names on maps. Camerontown, which was named after the elderly British general who reluctantly led the invasion of the Waikato, is a few acres of bush behind Pukekohe; the blocks of nearby Harrisville, which bears the name of one of Cameron's subordinates, are filled with onions and potatoes rather than houses and shops.
You might argue that the Waikato settlements I've been discussing are not really relevant to the scheme you advocate, because you don't foresee the families who receive small pieces of land from the state actually having to occupy that land. These families might lease their plots, or use them as collateral for loans, or sell them outright.

But I think there is a second piece of New Zealand history that shows some of the difficulties involved in handing isolated fragments of land to people with few resources to develop that land. 

In 1906 the Seddon government guided the South Island Landless Natives Act through parliament. The Act gave four thousand members of Kai Tahu, the main iwi of the South Island, ownership of nearly sixty thousand acres of land. These 'native reserves' were supposed to provide an economic base for South Island Maori, who had lost almost all of their land in the nineteenth century. But the land handed over in 1906 was inaccessible and often infertile, and much of it lay unused for decades.

Kai Tahu's reserves included a few pieces of the rainforest in the Caitlins region of Southland. When the iwi announced plans to log its forests, though, environmentalists protested, and the government intervened to protect the trees.

Only when Kai Tahu signed a Treaty settlement in 1998 did it win some genuinely valuable pieces of South Island countryside from the Crown.

I suspect that families who were gifted small pieces of land in remote parts of New Zealand would suffer some of the same frustrations as twentieth century Kai Tahu. If a family's plot of land could not be reached by a road, then it would surely be useless for most purposes. Even if it could be connected to a road, then zoning laws and environmental regulations would make its economic exploitation difficult, and make it impossible to use as collateral. An acre or so of scrubland on the side of a Fiordland mountain is not likely to fund the purchase of a house in Auckland.

I think that the examples of the postwar Waikato settlements an the Kai Tahu reserves show that the gifting of land is not the same, in New Zealand, as the gifting of economic security. (I could use other, and more recent, examples to try to make my point - the famous ohu scheme that saw Norm Kirk and Matiu Rata handing remote scraps of land to hippies who wanted to found communes, for example - but I'm sure I've gone on long enough already.)

I think that the housebuilding and buying schemes run by the Massey government after World War One and the first Labour government in the 1930s and '40s offer better models for a government serious about dealing with the housing crisis in Auckland and other New Zealand cities.
Although William Massey was a very conservative leader, he was afraid of the industrial conflict that poverty and poor housing conditions helped create in pre-war New Zealand. The Housing Act he introduced in 1919 saw local governments being paid to build low-cost houses that could be acquired without deposits. The first Labour government softened the pressure of market forces on the housing sector by building tens of thousands of state homes. Even the Key government seems belatedly and reluctantly to have admitted that it needs to intervene in the housing market: this week it offered two hundred million dollars to build low-income homes in East Auckland.

New Zealand history suggests to me that building in the cities, rather than gifting remote pieces of land, is the way to help families into homes. 


[Posted by Scott Hamilton]