Thursday, 4 July 2019

My grandmother ... artiste with a shotgun

Elsie was a small, bird-like woman, a former London school-teacher, whose house in Saunders Avenue was marked out with a large warning cross on the maps of the Waikato chapter of the Jehovah's Witness Church.

Something in her past had left her with a deep animosity to fundamentalist Christians, and when they came to her door, she would trap them on the porch, and deliver to them a harangue of such ferocity that they were often left white-faced and trembling, before she ushered them from the property.

In those years, before the Mormon Church sent its crisp-white-shirted emissaries door to door in small Waikato towns, the Jehovah's Witnesses enjoyed a prolonged ascendancy ... hawking copies of their magazine The Watch Tower, which was illustrated by terrifying cartoons featuring lurid threats of eternal damnation to the unbeliever.

(Israel Folau is their spiritual heir.)

Elsie Beswetherick  had endured many things, including the death of two of her children in infancy, the death of her mother at the age of ten, and Zeppelin airship raids over London in WW I. She was known to have exterminated the rat population on her property in England with a shotgun, a weapon that was taller than she was, when she posed beside it with a sorry gaggle of slaughtered rodents.

Her son, Roger: "A single-barreled full choke 12-bore shotgun ... stood by the window in their bedroom, close to the hand of anyone overlooking the chicken run ...  The hens and their food attracted the occasional rat ...  One day I was mooching about in the chicken run, obscured from the house by apple trees ... there was the roar of the gun, a swish of shot and a stinging sensation in my forehead and arm.  A few flattened ricochets had struck me with just enough force to lodge in my skin.  What are you doing? Says I.  I’ve just shot a rat, shouts Mum! On another occasion, a plague of jackdaws was infesting the run at feeding time, accounting for a proportion of the chicken’s grain.  Mum caught the jackdaws clustered in the Victoria apple-tree ... The old gun roared, and nine jackdaws flopped to the ground."

She was a music teacher, had perfect pitch, and I still have her elegant Bannerman piano in my bedroom. A shot-gun-toting music-teacher seemed to me to be an ideal model for a grandmother - a perfect balance of yin and yang, of the masculine and feminine principles. Although ferocious in her attacks on rodents, jackdaws and Jehovah's Witnesses, to me, her oldest grandson, she was always gentle, unassuming and fun.

She had Cornish ancestry, and once a year, she would import fine red threads of saffron from Spain, and make a ceremonial batch of saffron buns; a Cornish traditional dish ... pale yellow, doughy and delicious.
Elsie and Stanley
When my grand-father, a man wrecked by WW I, an arduous life as a blacksmith, and grief for the loss of his home country, began crying eight hours a day, seven days a week, and was incarcerated in Tokanui Mental Hospital for a savage round of electric shock treatment, she maintained an imperturbable calm, as if he was on a prolonged business trip, and rarely if ever mentioned his absence.

When he returned, all Stanley could manage was to do was sit in the porch and knit scarfs, an incongruous activity for a massive ex-blacksmith, and in order to cheer him up, I would tell him my twelve-year-old's jokes, which sparked uncontrollable laughter, laughter that wracked his body until once again he broke into violent sobs, the tears falling onto his half-completed knitting.

Elsie, London school teacher to the core, wasn't keen on these open displays of emotion, and would chide him on misbehaving in front of his grand-children. I remember feeling a mixture of sorrow, pity, and a certain fascination at this spectacular disintegration of masculinity.

By coincidence, my own father, Elsie's son-in-law, was also a music teacher, and the whole question of what constituted real masculinity became a pressing question in our home in Morrinsville, stamping ground of the renowned All Black Don 'The Boot' Clark, and his famous brothers.

I compensated for this lack of masculine credibility in our men-folk by becoming a ferocious rugby enthusiast, playing at No 13 and was known for my kamikaze attitude to tackling. Sometimes, Elsie, a firm proponent of the principle that men should be men, would come to see me play, a tiny figure standing on the side-line and cheering me on - something my own father never did, lost as he was in his Bach fugues and Beethovian caprices.

Elsie with my brother, Andrew. c 1980
When Stanley finally died, and Elsie was incarcerated in a rest home in Hamilton with alleged Altzheimer's disease, I remained convinced during my teenage years, that her dementia was an act, that she had decided 'not to be a nuisance' and had gone quietly to the zombie domain of the aged and infirm rather than be a burden on the family, and that behind her octogenarian demeanor her school-teacher's mind was just as sharp as ever.

I shared this thought with my mother, Elsie's daughter, who looked first horrified, then strangely impressed, as though perhaps I had hit upon something. There was an element of self-abnegation among the women-folk in my family, as though conscious that their intelligence, self-awareness and complexity was not too highly valued in a woman in that era, and that it might just be smarter to play the game and go quietly into that good night.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Christchurch terror attacks - writers must respond

On John's election as national president of the NZ Society of Authors

Tēnā koutou katoa

We send love to our Muslim brothers and sisters at this terrible time.

New Zealand writers will always stand for tolerance and understanding in the face of barbarity and ignorance.

Writers through their work, can spread understanding of other cultures and faiths. They can celebrate the dignity and mana of these faiths and cultures. They can dispel hatred and fear.

They can show that the 'other', the foreigner, the immigrant, is just like us, with the same hopes, struggles and dreams. This can help combat the anti-immigrant rhetoric of political leaders who set people against each-other for their own ends, and who encourage and give legitimacy to racists and haters.

They can shed light on the corrupting role of violence and the glorification of violence.

The Ponsonby mosque in Auckland is opposite the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Two days after the attack, the mosque was a fortress guarded by a huge Maori policeman and a tiny pakeha policewoman with loaded M4 carbines. A telling metaphor for the way Muslim communities in the West have often lived - islands in an alien sea. I could only leave my flowers outside the high walls.

A week later, things had changed. I passed the heaped up mountains of flowers left by Aucklanders, pungent but decaying, and was ushered into the domed room of the mosque by a smiling young man. I sat cross-legged on deep red carpet while the bearded imam, a Koran in one hand, reminded his flock, seated before him, that we are all living on borrowed time. He alternated Arabic with English. Above him, a huge red digital clock underlined his words.

I was aware of my own 'otherwise' in this holy place; how alien, how foreign I felt, a striking reminder of how awkward and out-of-place Muslims must often feel in our cities. I was inside the fortress looking out. I listened to the oratory for half an hour then left.

As I exited the mosque, another imam, Habib, stopped me and took my hand. He spoke of his long journey from Bangladesh, to Thailand and on to New Zealand. When I told him I was a Buddhist, he grasped my hand more firmly and smiled. 'In Thailand,' he said, 'Our friends the Buddhists lived such simple lives. They were very generous.' Perhaps out of tact, he didn't mention the genocide being perpetrated by the Buddhist majority against Muslims in neighbouring Myanmar.

Still, here were a Muslim and a Buddhist holding hands on a street outside a Catholic Church in a small country which has just been torn open by an unthinkable act of barbarity. In the wake of such terrible events, perhaps this was a little progress.

We can use these attacks to cross the moats between cultures and faiths. And we can take action as writers, too.

The greatest books of the last hundred years have opened our minds to the complexity of humanity, its miraculous variety and richness. Novelists in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and our own Maori writers have shown us how to understand and appreciate the marvelous diversity of humankind.

In 'Midnight’s Children', Salman Rushdie reveals in magical prose, the moment when the Indian sub-continent freed itself from the shackles of British colonial rule, and ran helter-skelter down a new, riotous and uncontrollable route to independence.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the great Kenyan writer, writes from a jail cell, on toilet paper, and reflects on the emergence of a new democratic Africa from the rule of despots and tyrants.

Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Albert Wendt have shown how grievously neglected our own Pacific identity has been until recent decades, and how this marginalisation and neglect has diminished us all. Their books strike a rich new vein of cultural complexity that we New Zealanders can mine for our genuinely Polynesian future.

These books are narratives of emancipation and enlightenment. Of cultures emerging from the past and establishing something precious and new.

In the face of this richness, poetry and diversity, the writing of white supremacists is shown to be arid, impoverished, and destined for the dust-bin of history.

For ten years I lived and worked with immigrants in a poor and violent part of a foreign city. Many of them, Ethiopians, Chileans. Nicaraguans, Iraqis, had fled oppressive and cruel dictatorships. They were regularly vilified in the local media and by politicians as outsiders, parasites, free-loaders.

They were among the most brave, resilient and cheerful people I have ever met. They were thankful for the relative safety of their new home. They were grateful for the smallest generosities and the kindness of their host communities. Our Muslim countrymen and women here in Aotearoa remind me of them.

The Christchurch mass-killer posted an 87-page, 16,000 word manifesto on the libertarian website 8chan. It was lucid, spell-checked, and persuasive for those who desire to hate. It was a paean to medieval notions of racial superiority that informed the Christian crusades and animated a generation of Nazis in 1939.

Racist writers around the world, egged on by a new wave of populist politicians, echo Tarrant's message on their websites and in their chat rooms.

We must use our own skills as writers to counter these messages.

Writers are opinion makers, culture bearers and influencers. The best writers aspire to the highest standards of humanity. To what we all have in common. To our brotherhood and sisterhood with other nations.

We have much work to do in 2019.

Ngā mihi 

John Cranna

Monday, 24 December 2018

Tigress of tango

Gisela in motion
Two days before Xmas, and I descended into a dark and musty dance studio in Newton. A humid day, with rain falling outside in Myers Park. This subterranean venture was a Xmas present to myself - an expensive tango lesson with international performers ... Ariel and Gisela from Buenos Aries.

My last lesson from an international dancer was a couple of years before in Berlin, with the lovely Laura, an expatriate Italian. Although I have been dancing tango for many years, the Auckland tango ecosystem is sheltered and small, and stars - and teachers - of this calibre are rare visitors. At a mere $160 for an hour lesson, I leaped at the chance.

Tango embodies all the delights and anguish of man-woman relationships in highly concentrated form. Although lead by the man, the intention is to showcase a woman's grace and panache. And leave her feeling emotionally and physically satisfied. Sound familiar? Yes - tango is often described as the vertical expression of horizontal desire.

Gisela enveloped me - a total stranger - in a very Latin embrace. Vivid, animated and charismatic, she charmed me immediately despite my mounting terror. She nestled her head into my neck and demanded I hug her close. She was clad in a very large grey cardigan.

'John!' she said. 'When we met I can tell you are a nice person! But now, I feel nothing.' She frowned. 'You are a many miles away! Give me some warmth!'

Here was a sensual woman with glistening hair and animated brown eyes, demanding I avidly embrace her in front of her - equally frowning - and statuesque partner.

Gisela and Ariel - sensuality and panache
Fighting decades of Anglo Saxon emotional reserve, I opened my heart, and stepped out into the basico, or basic eight steps, in which the man brings the woman to a cross on the fifth step. Years of experience evaporated, and I stumbled along like a man sleep-walking through a bog. Never had I felt so incompetent on the tango floor.

When they asked what I wanted to focus on during the lesson, I said: 'Please strip my technique right down to basics. What am I doing right. What am I doing wrong.'

Well, it turned out that I was doing just about everything wrong.

'You are moving your arms like a mad conductor,' said Ariel. 'Keep them still. You must maintain the frame of your embrace intact.' And then there was my walk, 'Like a little penguin,' chortled Gisela, rolling her eyes in mirth. No-one had described my gait as penguin-like before. Somehow, coming from Gisela, I wasn't offended.

Next we tried the backward ochos, one of the first steps a tanguero learns. It seems my weight was in the wrong place, and I was both failing to maintain my axis and to turn the woman with my torso. By now my brain was writhing with rapid-fire Latinate instructions and I begged for respite. 'Is so much wrong?' I cried despairingly. They both smiled and laughed, 'Of course,' they said. 'We always have to start again. Before you break the rules, you have to learn them. You must do the simple things right.'

It was my turn to laugh - this was a line my writing students hear several times a week, and is true of any art form. I was getting the same lesson in humility that my own students were obliged to absorb. And continual lessons in humility are what life seems to be all about ...

I thought back over my life of professional successes, and how frequently they seemed to be followed by abject and sometimes humiliating failures. We seemed destined to go on aspiring to the greatest heights, and spectacularly falling short.

At the end of the hour I was humming with energy. Both Ariel and Gisela clasped me in a fond embrace ... they were flying back to Buenos Aires is a few hours. Their charm was palpable, like a thousand watt light bulb. I felt immensely privileged to have been their student. To connect with such talent, such excellence, is galvanising.

As I left, I found myself skipping down the street - backwards ...

"Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows; by being defeated decisively by constantly greater things."                                                    Rainer Maria Rilke: 1875-1926

Monday, 15 October 2018

A drunk in a wheelchair is never a pretty sight ...

... and cartoonist John Callahan made an uglier sight than most. Prone to rocketing around the suburbs of his home town, abusing social workers and passers by, he found redemption in acerbic cartoons that were very black, and chokingly funny.

Oddly enough, Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the benighted Callahan in a brilliant new movie, 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot' has also had his struggles with alcohol and was also almost killed in an auto wreck of his own making.

In real life, Callahan's drinking accelerated after the accident that crippled him, until a miraculous vision of his mother appeared at his bedside and told him to sort his shit.

Next stop, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the most hilarious (and touching) scenes in this movie are set in the home of his wealthy hippie sponsor, who guides Callahan along the perilous road to sobriety.

We could all do with a stretch in AA - not necessarily for substance abuse, but because of the ruthlessly sane philosophy it propagates. Self-pity and self-serving whinging are very much off the agenda, and the heart of the AA philosophy is an invocation to the alcoholic to take complete responsibility for his life.

After pouring out his woes, and receiving scant sympathy from the group, Callahan abuses an obese young woman for her heartlessness: 'How can you know what I'm going through?' he whines.

'Actually,' she says, 'I have cancer of the heart.'

It's a salutary moment: 'If you keep on with this poor me shit,' she goes on, 'You'll end up saying 'poor me another glass'.'

As the scales (more or less) fall from Callahan's bloodshot eyes, he embarks on a series of chaotic adventures - botched sexual encounters, spectacular humiliations, no-win gambits - all of which are executed with a kind of manic zeal that leaves you laughing and crying by turns.

And what art!

His cartoons, published widely throughout the USA, at first glance appear to mock the plight of the disabled, the marginal, the despised, but in fact are unerringly accurate about the patronising way minority groups are treated.

In another cartoon, a large and threatening perimeter fence, topped with barbed wire, is sign-posted: WARNING, AREA PATROLLED BY LESBIANS.

What offended Callahan most, and what Gus Van Sant's movie clearly depicts, is the way marginal or minority groups are handled with social awkwardness and embarassment, but rarely treated with the brusque equality and respect he craved.

Callahan's cartoons teeter on the brink of the repugnant, and it's this very high-wire act that makes them so compelling. He would delight in publishing the (copious) hate mail he received ... and it is precisely this mischievous iconoclasm that makes him such a riveting figure.

Now dead, after a mishandled operation for his bed sores (something he would have cartooned with glee), Callahan's story is an unmissable look at a truly gifted artist with a fanatic's heart ... a man who rushed in to zestfully occupy the zone that angels fear to tread.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Helpless seal pup blues

Hiking from Whatipu to Karekare this weekend, one of the wilder and more isolated parts of the Tasman Coast, during which I never see another soul on the seven kilometre beach, I came across a lone seal pup, marooned a hundred metres above the surf line. Unschooled as I am in seal wrangling, I started a conversation with Nathan (instantly coined), asked him where the hell his mother was - the kind of thing that happens when you spend time alone in the wilderness. Frankly there wasn't much response ... just a bit of wriggling, whimpering and when I came too close, rearing up on his hind flippers and barking at me.

At this time of year, seals give birth on remote parts of the coast, and leave their pups to rest on the sand, and to warm up, as the Tasman is still pretty cold. However there was no sign of life for kilometres in either direction, and I assumed his mother must be out at sea, cruising the coast for mackerel and kahawai to feed the little tike.

Flies had started to settle on his eyes, which didn't seem like a great thing, and I briefly considered carrying him back to the water, as he was incapable of moving more than a metre or two in any direction.

Such a picture of helplessness! And so far from anywhere.

The New Zealand fur seal was ruthlessly hunted in the 19th century (sealing was one of our first major industries) and almost wiped out ... a few colonies survived in the south of the South Island and on off-shore islands.

Since these beautiful animals became protected, their population has rebounded, they have spread north again, so that there is now a seal colony on Oaia Island just off Muriwai Beach, a little further north of where I found Nathan. If he was from the Oaia Island colony, he was a long way from home for such a tiny creature.

The stretch of water at Oaia Island was the site of the fatal great white shark attack on Muriwai film-maker Adam Strange several summers ago, and it is likely that the explosion in seal numbers has caused the huge great white shark community at Stewart Island to send emissaries north up to the coast.

Aucklanders' favourite West Coast swimming spots at Piha, Muriwai and Karekare may be a little riskier than they used to be in the summers to come. However this seems a small price to pay to have these frisky creatures frequenting our beaches again.

As for Nathan, I figured the sooner I left the area, the sooner his mother could revisit with whatever sustenance he needed. But the sight of his tiny body covered in flies stayed with me for days afterwards.

Whatipu to Karekare beach - 7 km of wilderness                                           Photo: John Cranna

Thursday, 13 September 2018

When Prime Ministers drink with poets ...

Heads of State aren't known for hanging out in bars with writers, so when Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi, revealed to me quietly at the recent Creative Hub Trust Launch that he had spent a bit of time in Wellington's St George Hotel with the legendary James K Baxter in the 1960s, I was taken aback. Baxter was a revolutionary force in New Zealand literature, and many of his views have permeated our culture. Writers of radically different cultures are often drawn together, and Baxter was known for his spiritual connection to Polynesian ways. Tupua was Samoa's Head of State for ten years until last year, and got to know the poet, a notorious drinker, when he was a student at Victoria University.

Tuiatua Tupua - Samoa's former Head of State

Baxter, our most charismatic and radical poet, went on to establish the commune of Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, where he forged strong links with local iwi, railed against social inequality and injustice in the Pig Island Letters, before alcoholism killed him at the age of 46.

Tupua, a tall, elegant figure now aged 81, had flown in from Samoa to grace the launch of our Creative Hub Charity. One aim of the Trust is to create scholarships for Maori and Pasifika writers, and Tuiatua Tupua has published three books of his own.

With the number of Samoans living in New Zealand almost equaling the population of Samoa itself, the preservation of Samoan cultural identity in Aotearoa is pressing: new generations of Samoan writers, such as Selina Tusitala Marsh are staking out their own vivid hybrid identity - and we were thrilled to have Selina, NZ's Poet Laureate, execute her galvanising verses at the launch.

Selina - Warrior Poet Princess
Selina is a statuesque figure, with the charisma and verve of a warrior princess ... a warrior of the word, and her hypnotic incantation lifted the night and challenged us all with its invocation to write as though the world is about to end.

Also present was Al Wendt, perhaps the best-known of all Samoan writers, renowned for his humility ... so much so that he declined to speak his own poetry on the night, despite several attempts to get him to do so.

To me, the most delightful moment of the evening was the opening karakia, delivered by singer Soulsista Aotearoa, which chilled and thrilled us in equal measure with its force and beauty.

Her website says: "With lyrics that bleed truth and a voice that reflects the name, Soulsista represents a modern culture of New Zealanders influenced by traditional funk and soul. Based on Waiheke Island, Soulsista is of Maori descent ... Ngāti Rangitihi & Te Arawa Ngāti Porou, & Ngāpuhi. Kai Tahu & Te Ati Awa. She looks to the environment to provide inspiration, as well as ... Bob Marley, Jill Scott, Sade, Ben Harper."

Soulsista - on song
Creative New Zealand chief Stephen Wainwright delivered part of his speech in Maori to the gathering, which also included Brian Morris of Huia Books, the country's premier Maori and Pasifika publisher; some of our successful graduates (including the publishing collective Eunoia Books); a number of their tutors, and a variety of others from Auckland's humming literary world.

When I spoke, I lamented the death of many great Auckland publishers in recent years - and the pressing need to partner with Creative NZ to create fresh new publishing outlets for the rising talent in the literary gene pool of Tamaki Makaurau.

The future of writing in Aotearoa will be the story of the creative cross-fertilisation of many cultures - the great adventure of Western literature colliding with the epic story-telling and voyaging traditions of Polynesia. History teaches us that the most propitious periods in literature have been at the points when the tectonic plates of culture collide. It is a truly thrilling future in prospect ... and we hope, here at the Creative Hub, to play a small part in conjuring it into existence.

You can read Tuitua Tupua's speech for the launch of our Trust here

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Our Brilliant Friends - Life Under the Volcano

Lenu is serious, bookish, nerdy ... and Lila something of a femme fatale, even at the age of 18. Lila 'has eyes like a bird of prey' and embarks on a mission to bed the most eligible man in their impoverished Neapolitan neighbourhood - with ruthless success. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante has been a run away best-seller, and this is the first book in her series set in Naples.

The two girls in HBO's rendition of My Brilliant Friend
Lila is both fascinating and repellent … in her superficiality and glamour she is like a minor refugee from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita,  also set in the 1960s, and she seems to be a rare creature quite well adapted to the harsh Neapolitan post-war world, with its working class kids striving for success, wanting to ‘marry well’ … obsessed by status, by clan honour and by family loyalties.

The novel was also a reminder – to me – of how much more socially adept women are than men … how extraordinarily calibrated they are, at least in this world, to status, alliances, secrets, slights, desperate hidden loves.

In some ways My Brilliant Friend is reminiscent of Marquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its feuding families, passionate Latin grudge-bearing, and doomed romances … but Marquez focuses on the poetic grandeur rather than the status feuds of these sprawling families wrecked by machismo, so his book feels much more profound.

I have stayed in these working class areas of Naples, and this novel is a compelling glimpse of the desperation of that supremely dysfunctional city in the shadow of the volcano Vesuvius.

Those of us who like Lenu were readers and good at school, often had a friend like Lila … someone shrewd, glamorous, cunning, but unwilling to turn those native gifts into academic success.

Working class, or with parents who had no particular professional ambitions for their child, such a person helped burnish our more mundane lives – and such people are attracted to bright nerds because of our seriousness, professional aspirations, more expansive ambitions.

Perhaps this story is the tale of the working class suburbs of great European cities more generally: Kings Cross, London, where I spent ten years in my 20s and 30s was notable for its wars between clans, beatings between family members … feuds that could only be settled with shocking savagery. The Cockneys and Neapolitans have quite a bit in common – spontaneous, affectionate, quick to anger – prone to settle grudges with breath-taking violence.

Lenu on children ...

But what holds this massively best-selling book together is the narrator Lenu’s intelligence … she is prodigiously attuned to social nuance … an astute and wily observer … she is also the nerd made good and something of a Cindarella ... and that has its appeals.

In our atomised, alienated urban centres, My Brilliant Friend creates a nostalgia for cities that used once to be collections of fiercely loyal neighbourhoods – urban hamlets – where everyone knew everyone else’s business, and gossip was king.