Wednesday, 24 January 2018

So I'm on my way to hospital, and I'm starting to laugh ...

I've had explosive diarrhoea for six days, and I'm doubled up in my seat, but not from the impact of my malady. I'm on the remote Tongan island of 'Eua and it's 30 degrees and 90% humidity. My ambulance driver, the lovely Seini, is weaving her way through the potholes on the road, with a majesty that seems to come naturally to 'Euan women. We're in a broken-down transit van with no windows, and mangled upholstery.

Tongan king's palace
My blood pressure is plunging through dehydration, but my spirits are rapidly rising.

On the local radio station, there is an item about the reception, in Moscow, of the new comic movie 'The Death of Stalin'. The Duma is outraged, and an international incident is in the offing.

The Kremlin accuses the UK writer / director Iannucci, of 'driving a wedge between the Russian people.' Yes, that's right, a nervy, Scottish comedy writer is threatening the very stability of the Motherland. He is unquestionably 'an enemy of the state'.

The officials at the premier in Moscow have walked out. As if relations between Russia and the West aren't at a low enough ebb anyway, after the election-hacking scandal, this new insult to the Motherland has not gone down well.

Sexy beast
I am laughing for several reasons. Firstly, according to the US intelligence services, the Russians generated ingenious fictions on a massive scale to scupper Clinton's campaign against Trump. Now the Russians have had their own defenses breached by a low-flying Scottish comedian. Next, the woman news reader, in a beautiful thick Tongan accent, is giving every last detail of the outraged Russian response.

I keep thinking: Why is this news on a remote Tongan island?

I'm also laughing with mad pleasure that someone has had the chutzpah to write a comedy about the death of the greatest tyrant the world has ever known. (Many Russians still revere him, and venerate his memory.)

I thought of the hilarious and terrifying radio play 'Master Class' by David Pownall, about a meeting between Stalin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, in which Stalin advises these geniuses on how to adjust their music to Soviet ideals. He sits at their piano and bashes out a couple of tunes. Unless they conform, they may be executed.

At the time of his death, Stalin was surrounded by various other tyrants - the police chief Beria, Molotov, Khrushchev ... all of whom were struggling for power. The events in this new film are based on the factual, farcical events that attended his sudden demise, with a bit of poetic license thrown in. (Fact: Stalin's cronies were too terrified to touch his corpse, so he lay in a puddle of his own urine, untouched for many hours.)

But I'm really laughing because I suddenly get the local interest.

The Tongans know a bit about capricious autocrats.

A line of Tongan kings have plundered the country's wealth and helped keep much of the population in poverty. The extent of this corruption is extraordinary (see link at bottom of this post). Beside the potholed track my ambulance is taking, people live in rusty corrugated iron shacks with dirt floors, frequented by wandering pigs.

In 2006, riots in Tonga's capital killed eight people, and struck a chill into the elite. In response, the king began to tamper with his feudal structure a little, and some 'commoners' were admitted to parliament.

King Tupou IV plus court jester Bogdonoff
Recent Tongan kings have been involved in a variety of scandals; including the employment of a court jester who ran off with the nation's super fund; the selling of Tongan passports to the highest bidders (including the Philippino dictator Marcos), and an expensive scheme to turn seawater into diesel. Yes, that's water into diesel. Forbes Magazine ranked Tonga as the third most corrupt nation on earth. The current king, hailed as a reformer, recently sacked the entire government, only to have those pesky commoners re-elect the same government.

The people who suffer, as always, are the ordinary folk.

And as the Guardian bureau chief in Moscow for four years, Luke Harding, shows in his brilliant recent book 'Collusion - How Russia helped Trump Win the White House', these are the very people who in Russia, will continue to suffer as their masters plunder the wealth of the nation.

For these kleptocrats, oligarchs and Kremlin apparatchiks to have flounced out of Ionucci's movie, is ... well, kind of funny. Even if you have explosive diarrhoea.

Postscript: For an account by journalist Michael J Field of some of the most bizarre incidents of royal corruption in Tonga click here 

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

A surreal, Orwellian circus

The catastrophe in America right now must lead us all to question democracy. After several thousand years of human of civilisation, the best political system we can come up with delivers us a world leader animated primarily by hatred, fear, and mendacity.

And with a very average hair-cut.

How could it have come to this?

George Orwell's novels, and their brilliant depiction of the way our rulers manipulate truth, contain a dark vision of how this slide into chaos can come about.

If you look at the evolution of political systems over the last several thousand years, starting with the Greeks, you can make a convincing argument for progress.

The Greek concept of democracy; one citizen, one vote, although founded upon a sub-class of slaves, and forbidding women from taking part, nonetheless formed the template for most political systems to come.

It formalised the notion that power should be spread among the populace, and that the citizenry should be able to regularly revoke a mandate given to its rulers. Not a bad start.

With the Magna Carta in Britain further enshrining the rights of citizens against the powerful, and the Westminster system of government side-lining monarchs (destined thereafter to largely shrivel away) humanity managed to come up with a system that seemed to be reaching a kind of humane equilibrium.

Enter imperialism, on a global scale.

It became clear in the 19th century that the next major impediment to civility, peace and justice for all, was the rivalry of nation states in competition for global colonial dominance. After two world wars, and nearly 100 million dead, humanity devised an international order and protocol - the UN - for preventing further such catastrophes.

The problem of warfare became even more pressing, with the advent of a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, capable of wiping out all of humanity, several times over.

Communism seemed to have been a historic aberration, and after the collapse of the Soviet system, its manifestly corrupt and tyrannical aspects appeared to have condemned it to a footnote to history. Putin, seizing on the historic affection among Russians for 'strong leadership' exploited the post-Soviet chaos to establish a malign populist oligarchy, which has aptly been described as a 'mafia state'.

Paradoxically, we now trust the political leader of an officially communist state, China, to behave more responsibly than we do the leader of the world's most powerful democracy.

China has radically tempered its communist theology with a practical state-sponsored capitalism that delivers increasing material rewards to consumerist hungry citizens. Again, its authoritarian past lends it to models of top-down rule, and appears for now, to be keeping most of its citizens happy, or at least pacified by increasing standards of living.

To what do we ascribe the bizarre paradox of a 'communist' state, China, being a more stable force for world peace than America?

The damning answer, in my view - is the American education system.

The incapacity of 53 million Americans to see through the subterfuge; the manipulated Facebook posts; the flagrant falsehoods being propagated on the presidential campaign trail is truly remarkable.

And it points to an abysmal failure of the American education system. Systematic, critical thinking - the capacity to see through the lies of the powerful based on a shrewd assessment of the facts available and the credibility of their sources, is the cardinal role of a schooling system in a democracy.

George Orwell wrote his classic novels 'Animal Farm', and '1984' to warn the populace against malign fictions propagated by a nation's leaders. These books were a ruler to the blackboard of democracy. Double-Think, a term from '1984', refers to the habit of autocrats to repeat a lie so often it begins to resemble a truth.

The American President and his officials (and his allies in the Kremlin) have developed this Double-Think to a whole new level, never before witnessed in a mature democracy. The spectacle of a string of senior officials exiting from the White House, while trying to square the circle of falsehoods has the appearance of a surreal, Orwellian circus.

Until an urgent diagnosis is done of the American education system, and what grievous short-comings in its priorities and curricula has lead to this stunted critical capacity in so large a proportion of its populace, we are likely to have the USA continue to lead the world's democracies catastrophically off-course.

George Orwell's novels, and their brilliant satire on the corruption of political rulers, need to be urgently re-instated at the core of Western education systems.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Blade Runner & the pornography of violence

The Hollywood remake of the classic movie Blade Runner, which I saw last night, begins with a scene in which one replicant, the Blade Runner of the title, kills another, and messily removes his eyeball in order to provide ID for his masters. A replicant scalp.

Despite the lavish sets, the ravishing 2049 urban wastelands, the designer hologram babes in black leather ... the whole movie revolves on the armature of killing; graphic, premeditated, bloody killing, and in that sense it is very much a movie a clef for the American 21st century.

Top eye-gouger
Movie ratings website Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie 8 out of 10. I give the movie a Rotten Tomato.

To me, the ritualised violence of Hollywood movies is a symptom of artistic bankruptcy - and a deeper malaise to boot.

During my ten years in Kings Cross, London, which at the time was the nation's premier red-light and drugs hub, I saw a lot of violence, and experienced a little myself. Violence up close isn't like Hollywood's stylised pornography.

There's no beauty in it ... no discernible aesthetic; no victory for the good guys; no rapid re-mending of torn flesh by advanced self-healing replicant technology. The sterilised violence delivered to us by Hollywood's art directors and production designers is intended to boost box office; to provide a jag of adrenaline and testosterone (for the boys) regardless of the effect on the countless young minds who witness it.

It's also designed, in my opinion, to impart a predatory thrill. In Blade Runner we get to see beautiful, half-naked women being slit open like cadavers on a coroner's block.

Men rule, ok?
As if violence against women wasn't a big enough problem in every nation on earth, we continue to have the most powerful men in Hollywood depicting women (and men) like animal cadavers on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse.

Do I sound a little annoyed?

We go after the National Rifle Association for their stubborn and obdurate defence of the free availability of lethal weaponry in the US. But we rarely condemn the Hollywood moguls for peddling gratuitous imagery of violence that desensitizes our children - particularly - our young men. I have little doubt that the Las Vegas killer, Stephen Paddock, viewed many blockbusters in which macho warriors of the American Dream settled their grudges with prolonged and indiscriminate automatic weapon fire.

I have no doubt that tens of millions of young men and women around the world (including jihadis) unconsciously absorb the implicit message - violence is thrilling, beautiful, taboo ... and kind of ... cool ... y'know?

For those of us with a real and intimate relationship with violence ... soldiers returned from wars; women who have been beaten up in the home; the police ... we know a secret and harrowing truth. Violence - all premeditated violence - is a form of evil, and to present it as some kind of ravishing artistic tableau is corrupting of the soul.

Recent events in the Weinstein brothers' company have shown us one more facet of Hollywood's toxicity. It came as no surprise to me to hear the tsunami of allegations about the abuse of power at the top of the US film industry. Contempt for the common humanity of people - a kind of brutalized and blunted sensibility - radiates from many of the movies disgorged by the most powerful and uncontested myth-making engine on the planet.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

"Can you believe that such beauty exists?!"

You don't know what genuine fear is, until you perform solo with a musical instrument in front of a sizable live audience.

On Saturday night, I played part of a J.S Bach flute sonata to an audience at the Grey Lynn Community Centre in Auckland. This was my third public performance, and trust me when I tell you that it was a pretty terrifying experience. There were about 100 folk there, and it was part of a fund-raiser for the Auckland Buddhist Centre.

J.S. Bach is one of nature's true mysteries. A humble man from a family of musicians whose parents both died when he was ten ... he went on to become the greatest musician the world had ever known. His life was stitched with tragedy - ten of his children died in infancy ... and yet he created a vast body of music that transfixes with its power.

His flute sonatas are finely-wrought puzzles of intricacy. As a musician you play them in a state of awe, hoping to offer some kind of fidelity to the precision and beauty revealed there.

The flute uses both its own body and the skull of the flautist as resonating chambers ... so you find that your entire head is echoing with this sublime music.

I first started playing these sonatas long ago with my pianist father, who asked me why I chose the most difficult pieces in the baroque repertoire. 'Because they're there!' I shouted, modesty repeating the words of George Mallory when asked why he attempted Everest. We would often finish the fiendish first movement of the B Minor sonata - all 118 bars of it - a couple of bars apart, and this was accompanied by quite a bit of laughter.

Sarabande: JS Bach's A Minor flute sonata
To a fairly shy person like myself, the notion of playing this kind of music to an audience of skeptical Aucklanders kept me awake at night for some time before the event. During the actual performance, my fingers kept slipping off the keys with perspiration.

I asked myself why I did it, and I came to the surprising conclusion - surprising to me at least - that I got up in front of that audience because I found it so frightening.

But there was something else, more profound in this offering that helped me stand up there on that musical cliff edge ... something to do with the mystery of the music itself; its astonishing vitality and power after 300 years. It was chance to get up in front of a room of 100 people and exclaim in exhilaration ...

"Look! Listen!"

"Can you believe that such beauty exists!!"

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Deep diving a sea cave

Today we descended to a depth of 75 feet and eased our way into a sinuous sea cave beneath the limestone cliffs of 'Eua ... entering this place provokes a thrill that courses through the whole body and creates a galvanising sense of fully living each fraction of a second. The quiet at this depth is profound ... just the hoarse rhythm of my own breathing, and the echo of my companion's bubble stream. Above us, the roof of the cave steadily closed in, a sensation of increasing entrapment. High overhead, in a breach of the cave roof, we could see sunlight filtering down towards us.

The seabed was littered with piles of rubble from the cliffs above. Over the aeons, spurred by the frequent earthquakes on 'Eua, sections of the ceiling had tumbled into the cave, a reminder of the unstable nature of the geology in these parts.

'Eua sea cave
In the distance we could hear the singing of hump-back whales in the straits of 'Eua. My dive buddy, Tani, a stocky Tongan, was waving a torch, which lit up the black interior of the cave, and we moved steadily into its depths, hoping to find rare fish, buried treasure, perhaps a skeleton ...

The whole experience was made more surreal by the fact that it was Tani who had discovered the body of my friend Wolfgang tied to the seabed a short way up the same reef (see 'Wolfgang's Last Dive' below).

At this depth the body burns oxygen at a fair pace, and I was aware as we penetrated further into the cave of the diminishing supply in my tank. On a previous dive on this reef I had run out of air due to a faulty indicator and come to the surface too quickly - something I didn't want to repeat: Nitrogen bubbles can form in the blood and result in crippling and agonising injuries.

'Eua is on the edge of the Tongan Trench, a deep rift in the earth's crust that plunges south to Antarctica, and up which the humpback whales migrate each year: a whale super highway. 'Eua itself was thrust up by seismic activity 40 million years ago, and its elevated coral reefs are honey-combed with caves and sink holes, some of unimaginable depths.

The reefs are encrusted with a smorgasbord of corals ... candy pinks, chrome yellows ... delicate lavender blues ... like the execution of a divine sculpture garden. I have been diving these reefs for years now, and they never cease to amaze with their improbable perfection.

Just the hoarse rhythm of my breathing
As much joy, is being taken diving by a bunch of magnetic Tongans, I have grown to know and love. Finau, a stocky forty year old, whose gentle eyes belie his immense knowledge of the sea, marine diesels, diving, carpentry, engineering and ... tropical cuisine. Sam, a former commander in the Tongan navy ... a massive man, built like Jonah Lomu, who like Finau disguises his equally impressive expertise with a quiet-spoken humility.

Afterwards, devouring pizzas created in the home-made pizza oven at Ovava Tree Lodge, even allowing for the effects of post-dive euphoria, I realised this was one of my favourite spots on earth.

Sex ballet for humpbacks

This morning we were in the open ocean, and below us, three massive humpback whales were locked in a mating dance ... their flippers stroking each other's bodies in a tender display of fore-play, cetacean style.

Sex at a depth of twenty metres is a languid affair, without obvious passion, but with a balletic grace that belies the 40 tonne weight of the animals. Their great white ribbed bellies were turned upwards towards us, a group of humans splayed out on the ceiling of their cerulean world in wet-suits and snorkels.

Love in the deep blue
We had left the Tongan island of 'Eua an hour before, and the first whales we came upon were skittish and left the scene as soon as we threw ourselves into the water from our aluminium runabout.

But this menage a trois, two males and a female, seemed unphased by our presence. Occasionally they surfaced, perhaps ten metres away, bodies as big as a bus - obsidian black on the upside, shimmering white beneath.

Their heavy-lidded, seductress eyes seemed half-fixed upon us, and half-fixed on the ballet they were executing in clear blue water. On the occasions they rose to the surface, their great tail flukes smacked the water like a crack from a pistol. Several times a male - intending to impress the female, leaped from the water ('breaching') with an exhibitionism that seemed truly mammalian.

The males sing complex, extended songs while mating, signalling their credentials to the female, who listens to the call, and makes her choice accordingly.

Incredibly, this trio rumpty-tumpteed for three-quarters of an hour beneath us, an apparent exercise in playfulness that seemed as human as it was cetacean.

Humpback migrate every year from the Antarctic regions, where they feast on krill, fattening themselves for the fastening months in the warm waters off Tonga. In these regions, they mate and give birth.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Wolfgang's Last Dive

There are not many scuba instructors who tie themselves to the sea bed on an incoming tide, but then Wolfgang Borner was an unusual man.

Today I visited his grave, an unadorned block of concrete, without inscription, in a graveyard full of the elaborate, flower-covered sand-mounds of local Tongans.

When I first met him, he had just begun construction of a row of chalets on a coral ridge above the ocean on the island of 'Eua. He had a sawmill from Sears and Roebuck on his back lawn, and fashioned tens of thousands of planks from off-cuts of the island's logging industry.

He had persuaded the loggers to give him the wood for free. Each of the chalets featured minutely worked wooden shutters, and hand-carved doors and lintels. Between 2009 and 2015 this stylish row of red cedar huts extended further along the escarpment overlooking the harbour. He also built a large dining room, and a vast shed to cover his sawmill. When he finished this project, he immediately began construction of a 21 foot catamaran in which he would 'sail into the sunset'.

I returned every year for four years to 'Eua, as the row of fale crept along the ridge above Ohonua Harbour, sometimes camping on the floor of a half-completed hut, while I learned scuba diving from Wolfgang. He was an impatient, exacting teacher, who reprimanded me for my tendency to float to the surface. Only by girthing me in many pounds of lead, could he get me to stay on the bottom.

He kept bees on the escarpment next to the huts, and presented comb honey to his guests. Almost as good was his papaya and passion-fruit jam; his oven-roasted arabica coffee; his cinnamon and chocolate pancakes, and the elaborate pizzas he made in his home-cast pizza oven. Friday night was pizza night, and locals, including a bevy of Mormon missionaries, would converge from around the island to feast on Wolfgang's fare.

Wolfgang had been a wealthy man in the former East Germany under Soviet rule, where he ran a commercial sawmill, and owned a multi-story house. Visiting an aunt in the West, he had been tempted to escape, but drank a litre of vodka and steeled himself to return to his wife and daughter.

When the Wall came down, Wolfgang fled Berlin for Honduras to run a dive centre, where his problems really begun. He ran out of money, his dive boat was damaged, and he began to have hallucinatory dreams. His wife and daughter, soured by this precarious life and his pungent, prophetic visions, abandoned him and returned to Germany. His place in Honduras was infected with demons he told me, who appeared in the guise of a wild red dog, and it was only through Jesus that he was able to keep them at bay.

As well as being a scuba instructor, Wolf was also an adventurous sailor, a gifted and creative mechanic, and a relentless pursuer of the hump-backed whales that came to 'Eua each winter to breed and give birth. One year, I brought him a suitcase stuffed with fins and snorkels. Another year I gifted him a computer, which he cast in the ocean when he discovered his young Tongan assistant watching pornography.

Around a fireplace made out of rough blocks of coral, Wolfgang would open a bottle of whiskey, and in passionate tones, explain how the promise of eternal life brought him profound joy and exaltation. Thus was ordinary life made bearable. Often, in the midst of these speeches, his guests would get up and leave. It was when the monologues began over breakfast, that I realised things were moving to crisis point.

Final opus - 'Kleines Boot' is complete
On my final visit in winter 2015, he sported a biblical grey beard, and his hand shook when he poured my coffee in the morning. He was putting the finishing touches to 'Kleines Boot', the ornate catamaran that was his final opus.

The Tonga Times reported the Wolfgang had indeed sailed the 41 kilometre stretch of ocean to the main island of Tongatapu. He told reporters that the boat was too small for ocean transport, and he planned a monster craft for the hundreds of kilometres to the island group of Vava'u. Two months later, he was dead.

His employee at the Ovava Tree Lodge, Tani, told me that Wolfgang had disappeared at Xmas 2015, and three days later, fishing for a New Year banquet, he had found the German on the seabed, in flippers, snorkel and mask. He had tied his feet to a large rock.

It was a typically flamboyant gesture from a man who lived by extremes; a Berliner who rarely compromised in the execution of his plans ... and a man who brought to the tiny island of 'Eua, a memorable cargo of skill, passion and eccentricity.