Sunday, 22 November 2020

The Tale of the Black Poodle

In which John looks at the temptation to sup with the devil ... 

It is Easter in Germany, a chilly spring night, and sounds of celebration are in the air. Faust is out walking, and a stray poodle follows him along the street. To his surprise and pleasure it accompanies him all the way home to his study. There, the poodle turns into a demon - a particularly talkative demon, with a notably seductive verbal style. He makes Faust an attractive offer: 'I will use my supernatural powers to provide you with everything you want here on earth while you are alive - but on one condition.' 'And what is that?" asks Faust. 'When you die, you will pledge to serve the devil in Hell.'

Faust and the poodle
So goes the opening of one of the greatest ever works of literature to come from Germany - 'Faust' by Goethe. 

The play was published in the early 1800s, but has had a curious resonance for Germany throughout its history. In 1914, a hundred years after its first performance, the people of Germany pledged their allegiance to Kaiser Wilhelm, their last emperor. The Kaiser promised to make Germany great, to restore pride in the face of the other superpowers of the day - France, Britain, Russia. He had a pathological hatred of foreigners, and was, in the words of a German historian of this era: "unsure and arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off ..."

He was the reality TV star of his day.

Almost every New Zealand town, however small, now hosts a marble or granite monument bearing a list of the names of young men who died as a result of this particular Faustian transaction. 

Twenty-five year later, the German people did the same once again, with another charismatic populist leader, and with an even more catastrophic war. 

Erich Fromm
Thus was born the notion of the Faustian Pact - something that arose from German literature, and was enacted by its peoples in the most calamitous and literal way.

It was as if this great German writer had discerned something in the soul of his countrymen that made them vulnerable to this kind of obedience - and had issued a chilling warning. 

In 1941, at the height of WWII, another great German writer, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm published 'Fear of Freedom', in which he explained how at a time of uncertainty and economic chaos, the people of a nation may willingly give up their freedom and autonomy and blindly follow an autocratic leader - largely out of fear. 

Rather than embrace their own power and agency, the populace may voluntarily surrender their democratic and tolerant principles, for the illusion of stability promised by a 'strong man'. A truly Faustian bargain, because such a leader brings repression, chaos and collapse as he pits himself - and his subjects - against symbolic and imaginary enemies at home and abroad. As a psychoanalyst, Fromm saw this behaviour in the population as a regression to a childlike state, an abrogation of the responsibilities of adulthood and maturity.

'Please look after me ... and make my decisions for me, because it is too troubling and difficult to make these decisions for myself.' At its core, the Faustian pact is an act of cowardice. Every day, throughout the world, vast numbers of people retreat from the chance to determine their destiny, and instead delegate this responsibility upwards to authoritarian leaders.

In 1885, three years before Kaiser Wilhelm came to power, an illegal emigrant left Germany for the USA. He had avoided compulsory military training - he was a draft dodger - and was stripped of his citizenship as a punishment. He worked as a barber for six years, then gathering his life savings, he bought a piece of property in Seattle - a restaurant - with a particularly resonant name: The Poodle Dog. 

This was the grandfather of the current American president, and it was the first of many pieces of property acquired by the dynasty that followed; which developed into a massive empire riddled with fraud, dishonesty, corruption and labour violations, and financed by loans that were never repaid.  

Right now, we are at a cross-roads in history. 

Right now, the three most powerful men in the world, the Presidents of the three most powerful nations, are strong-man leaders, whose instinct is to humiliate, denigrate, imprison ('lock her up!') - and even kill (nerve agent in perfume bottles) those amongst their populations who dare to oppose them. In the last few weeks, a great nation, perhaps the most influential nation on earth, has teetered on the brink of forming a Faustian Pact with its leader, and has narrowly stepped back from the brink.

No wonder that some historians have seen the recent US elections as the most consequential since the German presidential elections of 1932. 

Our best writers have illustrated the price a populace pays for entering such an agreement. In his timeless tragedy, 'MacBeth', Shakespeare laid bare the anatomy of such leaders, men whose 'vaulting ambition o'erleaps itself' and whose exercise of power is delivered with the explicit or tacit collusion of their followers.

MacBeth, a man animated by an insatiable desire for power, and who refused to recognise the legitimate authority in the land, is driven to deceive and murder the sitting king of Scotland. To cover his tracks, and cement his victory, he must execute a string of additional murders. By sheer force of character and - like Faust - after consulting demonic figures, MacBeth moves from one act of evil to the next, all the while demanding slavish loyalty from his court.

Eventually, spurred by their repugnance and horror at MacBeth's deeds, the opposition coalesces against the tyrant: he is held accountable for his crimes and brought to account.

In these fictional narratives, Goethe and Shakespeare invite their audience to contrast the better angels of their nature with the seductive demons that may beset them - loyalty to a leader who may deceive, lie, or establish tyrannical power over them. Since WWII, there has been little doubt that in the West, at least, these better angels have been in the ascendancy.

What is astonishing and unprecedented in post-war history, is that a major Western power, a nation looked to as a beacon of democracy around the world, has come so close to stepping out of that arena and into the realm of chaos. 


Saturday, 1 August 2020

Autumn of the Patriarchs

Death threats, erotic whippings, far from ordinary scenes  ... eminent historian Michael King interviews PEN President and poet Kevin Ireland on writer politics in 1990. Why did Lieutenant-Commander Alistair Paterson, poet, threaten to kill the National President? Why did C.K. Stead, Professor of Literature want to beat up Creative Hub director Cranna? Was it over a woman? Was it the London flat affair? Hear the full recording here. Below, John Cranna offers a lightly fictionalised version ...

When he was sober, which wasn't that often, the National President-In-Waiting had some chilling news for me. We were hunched over the bar at Wellington airport, waiting for our flight north.

'Old Baldy would like to take out Young Baldy. Or to put it another way: Stead wants you dead,' he said.
Emeritus Professor C.K. Stead. Assassin in waiting? 
'Onomatopoeia,' I said.

'Assonance,' he replied.

He was a poet, I was a fiction writer. He knew about these things.

'Does he have a preferred method of dispatch?' I asked.

'Strangulation, suffocation, electrification. I don't think he's bothered.'

'The French have a term for that. Rime couee.'

'Yes. Very good. End rhyme. God knows why Stead came clean on this. The aggressor professor became a confessor,' he said.

Why an eminent professor of literature at Auckland University, and internationally lauded poet would want me maimed or dead was puzzling. I had just published my first book, a collection of short stories. I was something of a literary nobody, who had just been elected Chair of the Auckland branch of PEN aka The Society of Authors.

'And Alistair Paterson wants to kill me,' Kevin Ireland went on lugubriously.

'Lieutenant-Commander Alistair Paterson, Royal New Zealand Navy? The man who turned up to our meeting the other night in full ceremonial dress to recite his poetry. With a sword?' I asked.

He nodded. 'Yes. Have you seen the photo on his first poetry collection? He's holding an antique firearm. I'm taking the threat very seriously.'

'Why do these people want us dead?' I asked.

Kevin Ireland shook his head. 'Because we're changing things. It's the Autumn of the Patriarchs. They don't have long to live, and they can see it.'

We had just finished a harrowing four hour meeting of the writers' national executive (PEN) in the bowels of the National Library in Wellington, which Kevin likened to a meeting of the Central Presidium of the Soviet Union. In the chair was another rogue academic, a Professor of Russian Literature oddly enough, who had ruled the meeting with a bull-whip, and given us all thoughts of the Gulag.

Lnt-Commander Paterson (rtd). Poet & pugilist.
'What is it about these academics,' said Ireland thoughtfully. 'They all seem so unhinged.'

I pondered that one.

'But Alistair isn't an academic. He was in the Royal NZ Navy.'

'Another total institution,' said Ireland. 'Into which light rarely penetrates.'

'Yes,' I said. 'Those nematode worms that live in caves underground. They don't develop eyes of course. They're stuck there for life, so they get about by rubbing against things. They have a great sense of smell, however. Outside the caves they would be completely lost. But they're amazingly effective in their niche.'

Ireland nodded again. 'That's it. Niche-dwellers. The sooner we can get them out of our organisation the better.'

As it happened, left to his own devices, the Emeritus Professor got himself out of the organisation with amazing speed. That summer, operating under clandestine instructions from the Minister of Culture, and without telling any other writers on the national executive, Professor C.K. Stead flew to London and purchased a very expensive flat in Bloomsbury, in which he briefly installed himself, before advising New Zealand authors of his triumphal act.

Kevin Ireland. President. Extreme poet. Bibulant.
The short-coming in this admirable scheme was that he had written scathing reviews of the work of many of his peers, particularly a cadre of senior Wellington women writers, including Fiona Kidman and Lauris Edmond, and had shown regal contempt for the emerging Maori and Pasifika writers who were beginning to flourish at that time.

Stead, in short, had zero credit rating with his peers. Actually, his credit rating was lower than a nematode's tummy.

The result, from Wellington, was instantaneous. How dare the eminent professor make this purchase at the seat of Empire without consultation? How dare he ignore the many pohutukawa-ringed inlets on our own fair coastline that would make far more suitable retreats? This was cultural cringe of the most abject kind!!

Marshaling their impressive media resources, the Wellington matriarchs issued a stinging press release, dissociated themselves from this reckless act of colonial obeisance, and causing the Minister to have to answer some very tricky questions in Cabinet. The Minister, Michael Basset, was appalled, decided in the quiet of his own heart to exact long-term revenge on writers for his humiliation, and promptly sold the flat. The nation's journalists, always a little envious of their literary siblings, covered the debacle lavishly, and with smirking schadenfreude.

Michael King: Pacifier. Giant.
A little later, I chaired the meeting of Auckland PEN where the white-faced Stead was called to account.

He sat at one end of the room, ringed by the giants of the literary scene - Michael King, Maurice Shadbolt, Kevin Ireland, Dick Scott. Even journalist Sandra Coney, scourge of the patriarchs, was hovering in one corner, her notepad at the ready.

It was like Mount Rushmore made flesh. Granitic profiles abounded. Also present, so far as I could discern it, were the ghosts of Bloomsbury-dwelling Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, and John A. Lee. The court went into session.

'Um. Welcome, Karl,' I said. 'Now that Pandora's Box in Wellington is open, and the demons have been released, I wonder whether you would like to say anything?'

'Could we discuss this matter without resorting to dire literary cliche?' he said, fixing me with his ireful brows.

'Ok,' I said. 'I'll keep it simple. You've fucked things up. It's hard to imagine a more stupid act. You've infuriated the Minister of Arts and Culture, who will undoubtedly exact a terrible revenge on literature funding for decades to come. And through one act of hubris, you've created a lurid media carnival that has touched every writer in the country. I also understand from our President, that you have threatened to maim or kill me. Are there any other plans you'd care to share with us?' (Actually I only said one or two of those things.)

Mount Rushmore. Noble, granitic faces.
There was a deep quiet in the room. Stead looked surprised. No one had called him to account before. This was outside the domain of recognised natural phenomena. Beyond the academic cave system, into which no light penetrated, there were strange events that he barely comprehended.

Michael King coughed, in the tactful way that only he could. The country's pre-eminent historian spoke: 'I do think you have some explaining to do Karl,' he said. Michael's gentle, reedy, voice on that fateful evening still haunts me to this day. He had the capacity to settle any gathering of writers with his soulful, conciliatory manner. A couple of years later he was killed in a fiery car crash with his wife on the road from Coromandel, ending the dream of writer unity forever.

I could see Karl looking at Alistair Paterson in the corner, splendid once again in full naval dress regalia, complete with ceremonial sword. I could see Stead's eye alight on the weapon.

I thought to myself, 'Hari-kari, or murder?'

Sensing Stead's interest, Paterson quickly moved his hand to the hilt of the sword, securing it in its scabbard.

Dick Scott. Defender of the Chair.
I saw Dick Scott, who had witnessed his share of mayhem, and whose account of the invasion of Parihaka Ask That Mountain, had changed our view of our own history, edging around the room, to cut off a possible sally for the sword of the Lieutenant-Commander. I had tipped him off to intervene in the event of imminent violence. He was a friend, and I knew HE didn't want me dead.

Stead began his defense. 'Only the churlish would decline this opportunity,' he said, polishing his glasses furiously. 'How often does a Government offer writers a flat in a world centre of literature? We've chewed the hand of the Minister and shot ourselves spectacularly in the foot.'

'Mixed metaphor,' I shouted, and Stead visibly winced. This talk of fire-arms caused me to glance at the Lieutenant-Commander again. Dick Scott was hovering at his elbow.

The National President-In-Waiting got to his feet. Kevin Ireland was a tall man, with a deliberate, statesmanlike manner. Again, amazingly, he was sober.

'Baldy,' he said. 'Your pukeko have come home to roost. If you hadn't shafted Lauris and Fiona so often in the pages of the nation's review journals, you callous and calculating old c*** ...'

Lauris Edmond. Poet. Spear-carrier of the Matriarchs.
'Consonance!' I cried out from the Chair.

'Sub-case of consonance,' corrected Ireland, turning to me. 'Alliteration.'

He went on:  'If you hadn't riled every second writer in the land with your heartless, sulfuric reviews, you might have got away with it. As it is, by proceeding with this mad undercover scheme you have turned everyone against this organisation.'

The heads on Mount Rushmore all nodded sagely. It was like a mountain range springing to life. Stead looked around him desperately for allies. Paterson's jaw was jutting. Would the Navy intervene?

'Look Karl,' said the Lieutenant-Commander, his eyes smouldering orbs behind his tinted spectacles, 'Why didn't you take the time to get some dirt on Lauris and Fiona - extra-marital affairs, illicit bond-trading, off-shore accounts? You would have been in a safer position. To rile them in this way without leverage, without having something over them was, frankly ... ' the Lieutenant-Commander shook his head, sorrowfully, 'Negligent.'

I looked around the gathering. There was tacit consent. To enrage other writers so blatantly, without having some means of keeping them silent - blackmail - legal leverage - shockingly personal kompromat, as the Soviets called it ... was the height of foolishness. How could Stead, who was renowned for his cunning, wily ways, have made such a miscalculation? It was truly baffling.

Historian Dick Scott was holding his station: standing so close to the Lieutenant-Commander that I began to relax. Scott was a veteran of numerous bitter trade union struggles. It was unlikely the ceremonial sword, commandeered by an infuriated author would be used to assassinate the Branch Chair (me) or the National President (Kevin Ireland) despite the flurry of violent threats that was wracking the literary community that month.

I cleared my throat. I felt a little giddy. I stood up and spread my arms, feeling briefly like the statue of the Redeemer Christ overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro.

'Perhaps this is an opportunity to heal some wounds,' I said.

I extended a hand to journalist Geoff Chapple on my left (he was about to conjure up a national pathway Te Araroa out of nothing and knew a thing or two about bringing a nation together) and to the tiny piano virtuoso and poet Denys Trussell on my right. Denys had a huge white beard and always wore a panama hat.

I faced Mount Rushmore. I bowed respectfully, avoiding Stead's eye.

'I would like us all to sing Kumbaya,' I said, and in a sudden moment of inspiration, 'But in Maori.'

I saw Michael King perk up. As a champion of the mana whenua, this bi-cultural gambit was right up his alley. And then I realised, with a sickening feeling, that he and I were the only two people in the room of forty-odd writers, who knew any Maori. (I had learned the tongue during three tumultuous years living in the head-quarters of Nga Tamatoa, the Maori Black Panther movement.)

But it was too late to pull back. As Branch Chair I had made my gambit, and to retreat now would signal a major loss of authority.

I struck out on the first few lines, in what I hoped would be a rich baritone voice, but which went soprano with apprehension. I was hanging onto Chapple on my left and Trussell on my right with a grim, claw-like grip. I saw them both wince with pain. Michael King came in behind me, in a deep, husky bass. The other writers in the room, taken by surprise, gripped the hands of those next to them, their eyes clouded with panic, their mono-linguality horribly revealed to themselves and to the others present.

Stead took this opportunity to bolt for the door.

I still remember him cannoning into the frame, so desperate to escape from the onslaught of a Stone Age Language Without a Written Literary Tradition. He put both hands to his ears, trying to block out the sound of the song, as Michael King and I began to ramp up our volume to compensate for our mute colleagues. With his hands to his ears, he couldn't open the door and fell against it repeatedly, in the end, collapsing in a heap.

'For God's sake someone let him out,' cried Kevin Ireland, and stumbled over to the door, which gave onto Stead's home patch, the English Department at Auckland University.

At the end of this grotesque recitation, there was sporadic applause. Sweat was running down Michael King's face. Dick Scott looked like a man frozen in time, still hovering by Paterson's sword. Maurice Shadbolt had disappeared in a cloud of fine blue smoke from his pipe, utterly baffled by proceedings. One of only a handful of women in the room, Sandra Coney was hunched in the corner, trying to stay away from this effluorescence of testosterone. Trussell held his panama hat against his chest, like a man at a funeral.

'Autumn of the Patriarchs.' Our President-In-Waiting's fateful words came to mind, the words that had been uttered with such prescience so many months before in the bar at Wellington airport as, refugees from the Professor of Russian Literature and alleged KGB admirer, we waited to fly north. I looked at the tweed jackets, the naval dress uniforms, the florid, avuncular faces and redolent pipes. The half-drunk glasses of horrific cabernet sauvignon. Only Shadbolt's shoes were visible now, such was the incredible volume of blue smoke surrounding him.

How had it come to this? An era was coming to an end; an era of jackets with leather elbow patches; elegant volumes of verse printed on embossed cartridge paper; web off-set presses and fanatical literary duels. I felt torn. In a way, I had helped bring it about: "The crisis consists of the fact that the old order is dying and the new order is not yet born. In the interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms occurs." Antonio Gramsci's famous quote from his Prison Notebooks pounded in my ears.

Although they had not yet disappeared, I felt an intense nostalgia for the craggy monumentalism of these titans; their sheer Mount Rushmore-ness. It was my very respect, which they sensed, that had helped propel me to leadership. They had put their trust in me, as a young upstart with only a couple of books of fiction to my name. And then I had betrayed them, by helping usher in the new feminised world order. Within a decade, these Olympians were in wheelchairs, their pipes and tweed jackets hocked off to Opportunity Shops for Breast Cancer Fundraising, their slim volumes of arcane verse and dusty novels of men anguishing alone in the bush, relegated to the Deep Stack in libraries, below ground water level.

Michael King and I looked at each other, squinting through the atmospheric blue haze of Shadbolt's effluvium. We knew we were the Trojan Horses in the room ... 'A variety of morbid symptoms ... '

Men can read each other. We know who our enemy is. A hundred thousand years of evolution has trained us to identify our foe.

The room was in consternation. A schism had opened up. I glanced across at Sandra Coney. She looked down at her notebook, and then up at me. There was a glint of triumph in her eye. She knew which way the tide was running. She had seen the future of literature in this country, and indeed across the Western World. The colossi were being toppled. The Monstrous Regiment of Women was on the march and a thousand novels of unshackled domesticity, of omnipotent oestrogen beckoned. The future was fecundity.

Testosterone, at least in its Steadian manifestation, was toast.

Author's note: This is an extract from an upcoming novel, Palsy of the Patriarchs

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Two years living with Maori activists ...

In which John discovers how much he doesn't know

At the end of my degree, I moved into the headquarters of the Maori brown panther movement, Nga Tamatoa, and my education really started.

The house, a rambling old Victorian villa, was perched at the top of the Dixon Street steps in Wellington. A wooden totem pole, or manaia - phallic, upright and weather-beaten, stood on the front lawn. Next to my room on the first floor, lived Hiria, recently arrived from Tuhoe country in the depths of the Urewera range, fixedly watching TV all day. In an ironic mirror of my own journey, she was wrestling, through the television, with this alien European culture she had been plunged into. Fluent in Maori, she struggled to understand my English.

Potiki centre, JC far right
Her boyfriend, the Maori singer and poet Brian Potiki, posted cryptic poems on the wall of our upstairs hallway each week, in the elegant calligraphy of black ink.

He gave me three novels which revolutionised my view of the world: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude; John Fowles' The Magus, and Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow. I suddenly saw that literature didn't have be exhumed from the dusty morgue of Eng Lit, but could be magical, wild, and contemporary.

Below me, on the ground floor lived Tiata Witehira and Liz Marsden. Liz was the matriarch of the household, a kuia descended from the first missionary, Samuel Marsden, and she sternly convened the monthly meetings of Nga Tamatoa in our living room, next to a huge web off-set printing press. The press was weighty, black and red, and smelled faintly of machine oil.

It was tended like a massive inert pet by Mark Derby, eccentric and ecstatic, a man who boasted like Potiki that he never wore underpants, and he used it to print off classics of left-wing literature, like historian Dick Scott's account of the 1951 waterfront lockout in Auckland, '151 Days'.

Prior to our moving in, the house had been home to a Black Power motorcycle gang, who had driven their bikes up and down the capacious hallway, and left large oil stains on the floor.

Dun, characteristically unclothed, at Parliament, 1976
Dun Mihaka, when he wasn't being hosted at Her Majesty's pleasure in Mount Crawford Prison, would often be crouched in our living room. He wore shorts in the middle of winter, exposing massive kauri thighs - but never the muscular naked buttocks he displayed to Prince Charles and Princes Diana at Wellington Airport in an insult or whakapohane that gave him international notoriety (and put an indelible curse on their match).

Dun had about him an intense, pugilistic manner, and he was the only visitor I felt genuinely fearful of.

After his return to Mount Crawford we would go to watch his occasional appearances in the Supreme Court on Lambton Quay, where he would defend himself from the dock against charges of assaulting prison guards in rambling, oracular monologues.

He was invariably found guilty.

Tom Scott's famous cartoon of Dun's whakapohane
The most gentle, charming person who ever graced our hallway, was Tamati Kruger, a magnetic, laughing 21 year old, who became the leader of the Tuhoe tribe, and their Chief Negotiator in their watershed $170 million settlement with the Crown in 2012. His good nature shone off him like a beacon.

One of his quotes:

"Tuhoe love to fight first and then get down to business later. They test a person's character and resolve by getting them frustrated and angry to see how they operate under pressure, what their humour is like and if they think themselves precious and pious. That way they judge their usefulness."

Others called to the high council meetings of Nga Tamatoa, to discuss the Maori occupation of Bastion Point in Auckland, and the attempt to reclaim the Raglan Golf Course, were Eruera Nia, always sporting a copy of U.S Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver's 'Soul On Ice' and the film-maker Merata Mita who when she stayed with us, brought a retinue of impossibly handsome German movie makers, Gerd Pohlmann and the Strewe brothers, who with Merata were making a documentary on the historic Bastion Point occupation.

In volley-ball games played on the street outside our house, the Germans cleaned us up, because of their height, athleticism, and because, well, Germans have a certain clinical attitude to these things that our disparate, anarchist household simply couldn't match.

Merata Mita: queen of Maori film-makers
Merata made the defining movie of the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, Patu! which when I saw it in a London cinema two years later, had the entire audience on its feet, cheering and weeping.

I was nearly evicted from 143 Dixon Street - not because of some failure to understand the take of the Maori activists - but because of my stereo speakers, which I had constructed out of two massive stolen concrete drainpipes, and which stood two metres tall on their ends in my bedroom.

Having grown up in a family of classical musicians, I would play J.S. Bach through these colossal improvised speakers late at night, and at the prodigious volumes that 23 year olds believe everyone wants to hear.

One night, the matriarch of the household, Liz Marsden, who was heavily pregnant at the time, stood at the top of the stairs and screamed at me to: 'Turn down your degenerate Western music.'

There ensued a furious argument on the merits of the Western musical tradition, with the two of us shouting at each other over the deafening sound of the Brandenburg Concertos. Within an hour, Liz had gone into premature labour with her first child, and had to be rushed to hospital. It was my facetious suggestion to her white-faced partner, the brawny rubbish collector Tiata Witehira, that they name the baby after me, that nearly got me the bum's rush.

They were a motley bunch, the Nga Tamatoa crew, but I had no illusion that history was not being made around me in that strange, hybrid household, full of laughter, ferocious debates, and occasional tears.

There was something about the place, and its eccentric energy that attracted the most unlikely people.

One night, the violin prodigy, Donald Armstrong, now the Concert Master of the NZ Symphony Orchestra, a slim nervy man, was playing a Beethoven sonata in our living room. Also improbably, Murray Chandler, at the time the world's youngest international chess master at 16, moved in for the summer of 1977. At the annual Dixon Street party he played a 'simul' with fifteen different players on a trestle table outside while blind-folded - and beat all but one of them.

But what struck me generally, was the good humour of the Maori I lived with, despite their revolutionary understanding of what we had done to their land, their mana, and their history. Everywhere in Aotearoa, Maori had been driven into marginalised, and often poverty-stricken communities, and the Maori renaissance was in its infancy.

Although I had grown up only a stone's throw from the site of the first Maori Parliament, established in 1917 at the Rukamoana Marae in the Waikato, I knew nothing of its history or significance.

The Parliament, which was modeled on the House of Commons, was set up in response to land confiscations after the Land Wars in the 1860s, a time when more than two million acres of prime agricultural Maori land was confiscated by the government. In my ten year's of education in Morrinsville schools, its history was never mentioned.

Until I moved into 143 Dixon Street, I, like most other New Zealanders of that era existed in a state of what can only be called 'militant ignorance'.

My first response, after I realised how deep was my ignorance, was anger.

And after that, a growing humility and sense of shame at what had been done to the indigenous culture of our land. This was a very visceral demonstration of the truth that the victors write the history books - and it lead me to a deep distrust of the official version of events, and ultimately, into a career as a journalist and writer.

It was another ten years before the NZ Court of Appeal under Sir Robin Cooke made a momentous decision in favour of Maori in 1987, recognising the systematic alienation of Maori land, and paving the way for hundreds of millions of dollars of compensation to be paid to the tribes.

What I realised at 143 Dixon Street, with a sense of shock, and dawning gratitude, was that these Maori had shattered the notion I had of the identity of my own nation; of its history and of its much-vaunted 'fairness'. In doing so, they brought about a determination to do what I could, however insignificant, to help change things.

This lead me to spend three years working with Maori as publications and media manager at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, and then in 1993, I was privileged to help set up Mana Magazine, the first four colour glossy magazine to celebrate the emerging Maori cultural renaissance.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

We are all Milanese

A blind man stands outside a cathedral in the deserted central square of a great city and sings.

And the whole world weeps.

Around him, in a city once vital and proud, men and women are dying.

Bocelli's Easter concert to a deserted piazza in Milano
They are dying alone, in the middle of the night with no-one to touch their hands, or to press a last rosary between their fingers. They are dying alone at dawn as their husbands and wives pray in solitude, a few kilometres away in shuttered houses and apartments.

They are dying at midday, as the April sun reflects off the stainless steel and glass of the wards in Milano's great hospitals.

Their spouses pray in the hope that their beloved of fifty years will be spared, and that a reassuring voice on the phone will quell their fears.

Throughout this city, white and orange ambulances thread their way along narrow streets and alleyways, bringing their cargo of the mortally ill to the doors of the Ospedale Luigi Sacco, the Ospedale Niguarda Ca' Granda, the Ospedale Pio Albergo Trivulzio, the Ospedale San Raffaele.

Alone, in the square, the duomo a towering, ornate backdrop, testament to the vision and brilliance of man's artistry, the solitude of this blind man reminds us of our own fragility and impotence before nature, of our own mortality. Of our brief passage on this earth, and of the fact that death can come to any one of us at any moment.

The world watches, transfixed, at the unfolding tableau.

Because we know that this is only the beginning; that the anguish of Milano is a glimpse of the future; of the suffering of many great world cities to come. That in the months ahead, we will all be Milanese, united in a brotherhood and sisterhood of grief.

And so this scene is as poignant as anything seen on earth since the 8th May 1945 - Victory Day at the end of World War II - because here we get our first glimpse of the unimaginable number of deaths to come.

And the blindness of Bocelli before the catastrophe, is the blindness of the world before nature.

The population of this great city and the towns around it are dying in such numbers because now and then nature, which we have subjugated to our will on a grand and ruthless scale, flexes and stirs, and reminds us that we are mortal, that we are here as her guests, and that our dominion over the earth is a tenuous, arrogant, and temporary thing.

When the earth slowed down, two months ago, and held its breath, the traffic stopped, and we started again to hear birdsong. We noticed the sky, suddenly blue, and its miraculous heart-stopping patterns. We started to listen to a new rhythm, and it was the rhythm of nature, that we have suppressed at our great cost. As men and women died in their tens of thousands all over the globe, at dawn, we saw light flooding the horizon, and that light was an invitation to a new beginning.

Perhaps the earth was waiting to tell us something. Perhaps at the heart of this catastrophe is a small still voice from the natural world that speaks to us if we wish to hear. It says: Your attack on nature; your relentless extinction of other species; your encroachment on the natural world of animals and their habitats; your expansion into vast cities, has brought you to this.

Take note.

As we witness the steady spread of the virus into the cities of the developing world; in Africa, India, and Latin America, into nations which have one ventilator for a million citizens, we are reminded once again that our fate is the fate of all humanity; and that in the century to come, our destiny will be indivisible from that of everyone on the planet.

And so every decision we take from now on; whether in our own lives, in the lives of our communities, or those of our political elites - will impact someone, somewhere, on the other side of the earth.

In 1624, as he was recovering from typhus fever, the English metaphysical poet John Donne wrote:

No Man is an Island:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 



Sunday, 8 March 2020

Chinese engineered Covid 19 to destroy my presidency, says Trump

John pays homage to Jonathan Swift and George Orwell

President Trump today alleged that the Chinese had genetically engineered the coronavirus to infect America, bring down the stock market, and thus undermine his presidency in election year.

He said he was initiating massive legal action against the virus, which would 'bring it to its knees.' He said that no expense would be spared in 'wide spectrum litigation' and the first law suits had been filed in the San Francisco Circuit Courts. His personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, who had been so effective during the Mueller Enquiry, would be leading the legal team arrayed against the virus. 'We will hound this organism. There will be no respite. We expect to have massive damages awarded against it,' said Sekulow.

Covid 19 - Unfairly maligned
In a remarkable about face, Professor Allan Dershowitz, who had previously represented Trump in the Senate Committee hearings against his impeachment, said that he would defend the coronavirus pro bono.

'This organism has been misunderstood,' he said today, from Harvard University, where he teaches. 'It was quite content to infect the bat populations of central China, but then was dragged out of its obscurity by circumstances beyond its control. It is basically a law-abiding, peaceable fragment of RNA, which has been maligned by the Establishment. Without quality legal representation, which I have offered the virus, it will simply not get a fair hearing.'

Dershowitz said his defense would rest on a new interpretation of the 'ignorantia legis neminem excusat' legal dictum. He said that the virus, being a primitive organism, could not possibly understand the damage that it could do, and thus any legal sanction against it was ultra vires.

Professor Dershowitz: 'The virus is innocent'
Sekulow's team, by contrast, are expected to argue that China's Military Agency of Genetic Warfare implanted a form of primitive intelligence in the virus, which is behind its rapid spread, and which renders it both responsible for its behaviour and culpable before the courts.

'This is one canny organism,' said Sekulow today. 'There is clearly malicious intent in its behaviour, and we intend to establish that it is a living, breathing entity that must be held accountable'.

Independent commentators point out that the virus has already done massive damage to China and the Chinese economy, and that this undermines the President's case.

In response, Jay Sekulow alleged today that the Chinese military lost control of the virus, that it 'went rogue' and that the intention to infect America was always evident.

The independent commentators say the case will probably rest on the crucial question of whether the virus is a 'self-aware, autonomous entity, capable of understanding the import of its actions.'

The head of the National Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, Robert R. Redfield, said he felt that the legal action against the virus was a diversion from government's primary responsibility - which was to protect the lives and health of citizens. 'We regret that this pre-occupation with punishing the organism in the courts, diverts resources and time away from a much more vigorous medical response that the government could be pursuing.'

NVA: Represents a range of pathogens
A conservative lobby group, the National Viral Association, which said it represents a range of biological agents, is backing the Dershowitz defense. The group, based in Des Moines, Iowa, said it supports a group of pathogens, from the H1N1 virus, to SARS and even MERS, which kills a third of those it infects. 'These so-called pathogens have a place in our community,' they said in a media release this week. 'We believe the American Constitution protects them. In the right hands they are often quite benign. Viruses don't kill people. Compromised immune systems do. Most deaths result from weak individuals who have allowed themselves to go to seed, or strayed from God's path.'

The White House said it was planning a range of counter-measures against the Chinese, including banning the consumption of noodles in U.S. restaurants; imprisoning pandas in U.S. zoos, and placing a massive tax on chop-sticks.

Dershowitz specialises in defending high profile clients, including the wealthy Danish socialite Claus von Bulow and football star O.J. Simpson, both of whom were charged with the murder of their former wives; Mike Tyson, Donald Trump and the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Covid 19 is the latest among a string of clients whom Dershowitz maintains have been the victim of unreasonable prejudice.

The battle between these legal forces is hotting up, as the virus continues its spread throughout the world.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Waiting for the Barbarians ...

In which John rashly pursues some thugs in a half-blind state.

When a group of men tried to kick down my front door in the small hours of Friday, 13th December in the seaside suburb of Bayswater, Auckland, it brought on a strong whiff of nostalgia for my former life on the other side of the world.

A colossal hammering woke me at midnight, and levitated me out of my bed, convinced I was having a nightmare. Then it came again. I ran to the door. 'What's up?' I called. No response. The noise intensified. 'What the hell is going on?' Peering through the stained glass window of my front door, I could see several moving shadows. This didn't seem like a friendly visit.

I rang 111, and my call was answered by an operator reassuringly called Wyatt.

In the comic books of my youth, Wyatt Earp was the sheriff of bad-ass Western towns terrorized by criminals. Wyatt wasted no time in racing to the scene, and dispatching the low-life with his Colt 45.

Wyatt Earp played by Kevin Costner in 1994 movie
This Wyatt didn't have such good news for me.

'All our cars are tied up on other incidents right now. But if things escalate let me know.'

'If things escalate, it might be a bit late,' I pointed out.

'We'll get there when we can.''

The hammering on the door came again. 'Did you hear that?' I asked.

'Yes, I did,' said Wyatt. 'It sounds a bit extreme.'

'That's how I would describe it.'

The police arrived two and a half hours later.

Twenty minutes after I got off the phone, one of the men ran at my door and gave it another huge whack. Through the stained glass window, I saw him run off.

The fact that he had turned his back triggered some primal instinct. I grabbed my squash racket, wrenched open the front door and, clad only in my boxer shorts, sprinted after the intruders.

I heard the sound of feet running rapidly down the street, and a flash of a yellow hoodie, barely visible, given I was half-blind without my contact lenses in. I raced after the men, waving the racket in an intimidating manner. After a few hundred metres of the chase, the intruders disappeared into the darkness.

I got into my car and drove around the neighbourhood, then staked out my house. After an hour, I went back to bed.

Half an hour later, the crashing on the door came again. They were nothing if not persistent, I thought. This time, I ignored them, which seemed to be what I should have done the first time. I had looked back at the end of my chase to see my front door wide open, light blazing into the night. A perfect invitation.

For the next hour or so I lay in bed, gazing at the ceiling and casting my mind back to my first job after leaving university in Wellington, which was as an estate manager in London's red-light district, Kings Cross.

My responsibility was to try to manage the heroin dealers and pimps on my estate - 'Kings Cross Estate of Shame' as Hillview was known in London's Evening Standard. Perhaps the most notorious estate in Camden, if not London. The estate acquired its name from the fact that it was located next to a vast ash-heap that had stood by the station in Victorian times.

I had a large metal box bolted to the back of the letterbox in my front door, as a precaution against a visit I anticipated from Sparky, aka Mr William Patterson. Sparky lived in the next stairwell and had acquired his name from his firebomb attacks on the homes of his competitors in Kings Cross.

He had flat eyes, a Glaswegian accent, and a pudding basin haircut.

His name was engraved on a large metal plaque that he had fixed to his front door. A stylish attempt to confer respectability on Kings Cross's most notorious and violent pimp.

I had a rope ladder under my bed, tied to the bedposts, so that I could scale down the side of my apartment block in case the metal cabinet failed to contain the anticipated inferno.

A dozen dealers and pimps, lead by Sparky, ran a network of prostitution and drug commerce on the estate, and my strategy was to watch the flat in question over a period of time, and then when the criminal was out, swiftly bring in a gang of workmen, and bolt a thick steel door to cover the existing one, and add steel shutters to the windows.

The dealer would return, find his squatted flat inaccessible to him, and go off to find fresh pastures. That was the theory at least. I deliberately spaced these evictions a few months apart, to lure the criminals into a false sense of security. I was keen to avoid them banding together to plan reprisals.

Sparky's right-hand man, Big Jo, was a cashiered member of the SAS who had served during The Troubles in Northern Island, and got about the estate in summer clad only in a pair of lurid green running shorts, with a machete tucked into his waistband.

The interior of Big Jo's flat was painted bright pink, to simulate, I imagine, brothel-like ambience. Unlike Sparky, who was ominously uncommunicative, Big Jo was a garrulous, friendly man, and I sometimes got chatting to him in the courtyards. He was quite open about his business activities, and I never knew whether he knew that I was plotting his demise. He once confided in me: 'I'm like a vampire, I only go out at night.'

Estate of shame
So it was at night that we made our move.

It took five years and a couple of trips to hospital before we got rid of these men. During that time I became acquainted with violence. Very acquainted. Anyone who enjoys violence on screen hasn't seen it up close. Up close it is messy and unpredictable. And profoundly corrupting of the human spirit.

Now, here in Auckland, Friday 13 December, I lay in bed unsleeping, alert to any new sound, smartphone and squash racket beside me, remembering those years with absolute clarity. I recalled that the most extreme violence could happen quite suddenly and was often over quite fast. You had to pay attention.

At 2.30am the police finally arrived.

'Do you have any enemies?' enquired the teenage bobbies.

I laughed in a hollow kind of way. 'How well do you know the literary scene?' I asked.

They looked a bit perplexed. 'Also quite a few in Kings Cross, London,' I went on. 'But I don't think they'd come this far.'

We discussed an ex-flatmate who I had evicted because of his drinking. They checked him on the police national computer and noted his drink-driving conviction. 'Hmm,' I said. 'I don't think its him. There was more than one.'

In fact, as I found out the next day from my neighbour Chris, who has witnessed the whole incident from his second story house, albeit also without his contact lenses in, there were four of them. One quite large, who had operated as look-out. My counter-charge with squash racket suddenly seemed about as smart as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The large one had operated as a look-out, who clapped his hands as a signal for the gang to scarper.

I had once been the editor of a magazine with a lot of readers, and during that time had had one or two adversaries. I recalled, for instance, a furious letter from the head of the tow-drivers' association after I had run a series of satirical cartoons at the expense of the tow drivers' fraternity.

Towies are large men, who have been known to bear grudges.

I recalled, also, the outraged owner of a car and plane museum, which had accidentally filled a 1947 Studebaker with high octane aviation fuel for a road trip across the Southern Alps. As a result the car burst into flames at the pinnacle of the range, nearly incinerating me.

When I wrote about this, the museum owner angrily denied they had done any such thing, and threatened dire reprisals if the story was not withdrawn.

Even the most sweet-natured person can acquire a few enemies over a life-time. And regrettably, I couldn't recall anyone ever describing me as sweet-natured.

Death of a 1947 Studebaker
The next day a key piece of information came from another neighbour, Anthony a hundred metres away on Balfour Street. He had heard a similar hammering on his downstairs door the same evening. This suggested I hadn't been personally targeted, but rather that it was a random attack.

It was a relief to know that I could now sleep easily - easily, that is, until my next book review was published.


Monday, 23 September 2019

Unscheduled night up a tree ...

John gets lost on the remote island of 'Eua

There are only a handful of sign-posts on the Tongan island of 'Eua, and these are in pretty poor state after the 2018 tropical cyclone Gita, which damaged most houses on the island. On the vast majority of the island that is uninhabited jungle and farmland, there are no sign posts at all.

I had set out in the morning for the Fangatave cliffs and caves on the north-eastern tip of the island. I had done this hike a number of times, and on this occasion, as so often before, I was picked up by a Tongan family returning from church, and given a lift to the end of the Houma Road. After that, it is about a three hour walk through jungle and farmland to the spectacular cliffs and caves looking out to the Tongan Trench - the second deepest point on earth.

'Eua sign-post
It had been raining for the previous few days, and when I scaled down the cliffs to the cave system using a series of fixed ropes, I found myself stuck. Rain sluicing through the caves had made them slippery and dangerous, and any attempt to navigate them without a fixed line would result in me being spat out through caves to a ten-metre drop onto the rocks below.

I reluctantly turned back, because Fangatave Beach is pristine, deserted and miles from habitation - a truly beautiful location. It was late afternoon, and as I made my way back through the jungle and farmland, I noticed that logging of the forests had changed the topography, and paths I had previously recognised had gone. And then it began to rain.

I was clad in shorts, parka, and hiking boots, and soon my GPS smartphone got wet, and stopped working. After an hour or so, I realised I had taken a wrong turn and when my GPS briefly sputtered into life, I could see I was far to the south-east of my destination. Night was coming on, and no matter how much I looked for a track to take me to the west, I was drawn inexorably away from towns, to the uninhabited coast of the island.

Night time temperatures, mid-winter, on 'Eua had been about 17 degrees, and as the rain was getting stronger, and I didn't have a tent, the situation was looking unpromising. In the last half hour before darkness fell, I would need to find shelter. I had with me a bottle of water and a can of tuna. I would save the tuna for breakfast. The smart thing to do meanwhile was to wedge myself up a tree, away from the soaking ground, and trust the canopy to protect me from the relentless drizzle.

Top of the Fangatave cliffs
As night fell, I thought how rare it is to spend time in pitch darkness. In urban life, there is always a glimmer of light. In a forest, if there is no moon, the darkness is absolute. You cannot see your hand in front of your face. So black, that if I got out of my tree, I might not find my way back up it. So I wedged myself between the branches, and settled down. It was 6pm. Dawn would be in twelve hours.

Because I was wet, I curled into a ball. A drop of as little as two degrees centigrade in the core body temperature can be dangerous: Exposure is the biggest risk to wayward hikers. I also knew that I wouldn't be able to sleep; by moving all night, my muscles would generate heat and prevent my core temperature falling.

The first few hours were spent in an obsessive review of my situation … How had I been so stupid? Why hadn't I brought waterproof leggings? What would my buddies back at the Ovava Tree Lodge be thinking? It was a hike I had done many times before, so I hadn't even told them my destination.

Hotel 'Eua
I had only a few minutes of battery life left on my smartphone, and wanted to conserve that for a GPS reading in the morning - assuming it had dried out by them. But by midnight I knew that my friends at Ovava would notice my absence. I also knew they rarely answered their phone: A very 'Eua way to live. I reluctantly called 111, not because I wanted a police search - they would never find me - but because they could visit Ovava Lodge and let my friends know I was OK.

111 rang for a long time, then a woman's voice, with a thick Chinese accent said: 'This line is under maintenance. Please call back at a later time.'

I burst into laughter. I could imagine a Chinese company, contracted to supply emergency services, late in receiving kick-backs, deciding to withdraw services until whichever official in the local bureaucracy was responsible paid up. Tongans had told me the government is riddled with corruption.

Around 2am in the morning, I entered a trance-like state; a kind of meditation, in which I was detached from an anxiety that otherwise might have exhausted me. The next four hours were spent in this reverie, interspersed now and then with violent singing of tunes I composed specially for the occasion.

The keys I invented for my songs were new to mankind, and I hope never to hear them again. Small animals in the forest ran away in terror. My songs included a passionate hymn of praise to the sickle moon (which finally emerged around 3am); an appreciative song for the tree I was in - its bounty and gracious hospitality; and a wild and tuneless ditty about the importance of taking a sanguine view of things.

My biggest concern, aside from exposure, was that I would be too disoriented by sleep loss in the morning to find my way to the coast. An hour or two before dawn, I got out of the tree and lay on the soaking ground and tried to get some sleep.

Light flooding over the horizon at dawn was the most beautiful sight I could imagine. I carefully ate my can of tuna, using the lid as a spoon. Before it abandoned me, the GPS had signaled I needed to move due west ... I knew that if I started out at dawn, with the rising sun directly behind me, I would have a true compass direction.

After half an hour of dead ends, but having enough mental freshness to retrace my steps, I began to make steady progress westwards until I topped a ridge, and saw the sea – the 30km strait between ‘Eua and Tongatapu.

Moving towards the ocean, which was about three kilometres away, I came to successively bigger tracks, like tributaries. Finally I stumbled upon a workman’s hut, with oily abandoned overalls in it (warm clothing!). The sense of exhilaration I felt was indescribable - a surge of joy so deep, I felt giddy.

Buddhists say: 'Live with the Prince of Death at your shoulder at all times.' We should think about death daily, because only through this familiarity will we truly live each day in the present. While far from death, I had had enough of a glimpse of my own mortality to unleash in me the most profound gratitude for being on the earth - and simply breathing. I knelt down by the workman's hut and kissed the damp, sweet-smelling grass.