Saturday, April 18, 2015

Facing south with Andrew Dean

[My spies tell me that Andrew Dean, who has been studying literature in Oxford since winning a Rhodes Scholarship in 2012, recently returned to his native South Canterbury, where he is once again wondering at the wide skies and contemplating the work of great southern scribblers like Charles Brasch and Kames K Baxter.

Dean has returned to New Zealand to launch his first book, Roger, Ruth and Me, which promises to examine the impact of the neo-liberal 'reforms' of the 1980s and '90s on a generation of young Kiwis.

I thought it was about time that I excavated and digitised an interview I did with Andrew in 2012, when I was guest editing an issue of the literary journal brief. I'd given my issue of brief the theme of Oceania, and I wanted to see how Andrew, as a son of the south, would respond to a word so often associated with lagoons and palm trees. The interview appeared in brief alongside Andrew's essay 'The Seeing Men: Paul Theroux and William Pember Reeves'.]

SH: You’re probably best known as the main contributor to keaandcattle, a Canterbury-based blog that features original literary work as well as some interesting analyses of New Zealand culture, but recently you’ve also distinguished yourself academically, by winning a Rhodes Scholarship and a major American scholarship on the strength of your researches into Kiwi literary history. How easy is it to reconcile academic work with blogging?

AD: At the moment, unfortunately, the scales are tipped in one direction – I last updated keaandcattle a month ago. Recently I’ve been holed up editing papers and working as a Business Analyst for the Digital Humanities project, UC CEISMIC (www.ceismic.org.nz), which is the digital earthquake archive at the University of Canterbury.

I find it hard to write well on literary and political topics when I’m not involved in direct research. It’s out of close reading that I find the material for blogging. Yet blogging does have a special place for me: it’s engaged with a community, in a way that sitting in my office carefully unmixing my metaphors just isn’t. If research is at home in the office, blogging is at home in the pub: research and blogging, for me anyway, are part of the same academic and literary ecosystem.

It’s more than that, though. Academics in the humanities have a duty to be public intellectuals. We’ve been asleep at the wheel, I think, for a long time, while the society we thought we were responsible to has been dismantled around us. Publicly discussing history, literature and history – speaking back to Mark Sainsbury, in other words - admits at least one dark, fusty corner where considered analysis is still possible, where the possibility of change is still considered.
SH: You’ve written often from a distinctly South Island perspective, expressing an affinity for southern landscapes and for the work of southern writers like Charles Brasch. In one particularly interesting blog post you described holing up in a high country hut and reading through a pile of early issues of Landfall. Do you identify as a regionalist writer, and for that matter reader? Kendrick Smithyman once said that, for him, the South Island was a “foreign country”. Do you feel that way about the north?

AD: You’re using your (north-of-the-bombays) imagination – I couldn’t carry all those Landfalls up to a country hut! I’d break my (already fragile) shoulders!

To answer your question, I definitely identify as a southern reader. How can I not? When I was a child I never read New Zealand literature, and I was worse off for it: I didn’t have the literature bowling into a nor’wester at the close of play; I didn’t have the language to describe the oncoming front in July. What I was lacking was a literature of loneliness and isolation – the South Island Myth, in other words, however problematic its ideological operations.
As a writer – well that’s very much a work-in-progress. Inevitably, I am influenced by what I’ve been reading – everything from Pynchon to Curnow, Carver to Frame. Now all I’ve got to do is learn to write. And as for the North Island? It has a lot to answer for. People up that way eat in cafes rather than tearooms. I find it hard to orientate myself up there. Where are the mountains, which normally stare down at you from the end of the main road? Where are the soggy out-of-season asparagus rolls? It’s a different place alright, and I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable up there.

SH: How does the notion of the Pacific, or Oceania, look from the south of New Zealand? Can an alternative version of the notion perhaps found in a place like Christchurch, which has historic connections, through sea and air ports, with Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands? Do southern writers like Graham Billing advance a different understanding of the Pacific, when they describe the sub-Antarctic seas, and visits to Antarctica?

AD: How does it look? We don’t look north from here. That’s why our cities are built facing south. I mean how else can you explain Invercargill? Our understanding of the Pacific is very different. I remember reading a truly bizarre narrative by John Caselberg, which won the Landfall prose prize, in which he followed a water molecule from creation into eternity. The water headed south, into the wind and cold; it was swallowed by a skua; it turned into ice. It’s this constant troping of the environment as inimical to human habitation that marks southern literature, and, inevitably, that marks southern representations of the Pacific.
Of course, this aesthetic is deeply political. Heading south entails heading away from human habitation. Moving away from the Pacific, in which Pakeha are implicated in the history of colonialism, allows us to fantasize about a great southern terra nullius where these problems seemingly evaporate. If the South Island won’t do (those pesky Ngai Tahu keep getting in the way), then look at Antarctica instead, where the only indigenes are penguins.

The anxieties of settlement are pervasive in the south, and our literary energies are displaced upon the landscape – Allen Curnow, no less, commented upon the ‘Awareness of what great gloom / Stands in a land of settlers / With never a soul at home.’ The northern Pacific, in the end, doesn’t get much of a look in as we busily produce our myths about the south.

SH: You’re off to Oxford later this year, to take up your Rhodes scholarship. What lines of research do you hope to pursue there? Do you feel an affinity with some of the Rhodes scholars of the past, like the group of young men whose fateful lives were described in James McNeish’s Dance of the Peacocks?

AD: At Oxford I have applied to undertake an M. St. in English (1900-present), which is a one year taught masters. This is a preparation course for the D. Phil., which I intend to undertake immediately upon completing the M. St. I plan to focus upon the life-writing of women writers, such as Janet Frame, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. My interest is in the way that writers with such a high autobiographical quotient to their fiction work through experience; I’m not an essentialist seeking to locate the ‘skeleton in the oedipal closet’, rather I want to find sensitive ways to read and write about writing subjectivities.
I actually read Dance of the Peacocks when I was preparing to fly to Wellington for the Rhodes interview. Jim Bertram, Geoffrey Cox, Dan Davin and Ian Milner went over Rhodes Scholars, while Charles Brasch and John Mulgan went over separately. They were all very influential in New Zealand letters. They are an inspiration. In getting such an incredible opportunity I feel that I have a responsibility, not only to New Zealand but those who have gone before and who, with the exception of Milner, achieved so much of value, and who, again with the exception of Milner, showed such integrity.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, April 13, 2015

A gun turret, an airplane, and an imaginary obelisk


My mates Paul Janman and Ian Powell will be appearing on a panel between six and eight o'clock tomorrow evening at Papakura Art Gallery, as they help Martin Langdon and Jonathan Jones discuss an exhibition called Shared Endeavour. Paul and Ian shot some of the film that accompanies Shared Endeavour along the Papakura stretch of the Great South Road, and Paul will apparently talk tomorrow night about some of the studies of the road and its history that he and Ian and I have been doing over the past couple of years.

Paul sent me some of Ian's marvellous photographs of the Great South Road and its environs this morning, and told me he was thinking of showing them tomorrow night. Here are three of the photographs (click to enlarge them), along with my annotations.

The Mercer memorial
The Pioneer was a paddlesteamer that spent parts of 1863 and '64 shelled the fortresses of Meremere and Rangiriri from the Waikato River, and supplying the British and colonial troops who had invaded the realm of the Maori king Tawhiao. The ship was wrecked shortly after the end of the Waikato War, but its turrets were preserved, and one of them was eventually planted in the middle of Mercer, a settler town built close to the border that Pakeha forces had crossed at the beginning of the conflict. The names of local men who fought in the First World War were carved into a plaque, and the plaque was welded to the turret. A badly carved and unhealthily pale soldier, clad in the functional khaki of twentieth century warfare, slouches over the turret like some exhausted sentry. 
The Mercer memorial embodies some of the contradictions of New Zealand history. It was made from a relic of the Waikato War, yet it names and celebrates the veterans of another, distant war. 
This country's contributions to the global wars of the twentieth century are remembered with ever-increasing piety on Anzac Day. Like Papuan storekeepers and loggers donning old masks for a festival or tourist ship, accountants and Kiwis who have never handled rifles stand to attention in their grandfathers' medals. 
But New Zealand would never have joined the famous battles of the twentieth century if it were not for the skirmishes and sieges that were fought on half-forgotten ridges and riverbanks in regions like the Waikato. The first Anzacs died not at Gallipoli but at Mauku, a settler village near the mouth of the Waikato where Australian volunteers joined colonial troops in a shootout with one of Tawhiao's guerrilla units. The New Zaland army was built during the New Zealand Wars, and the men who joined its ranks in the twentieth century were often sons and grandsons of the soldier-settlers who founded towns like Mercer on land they took from Maori. 
Just as the struggle between Pakeha and Maori is the half-acknowledged foundation of modern New Zealand, so the gun turret at Mercer is the barely acknowledged foundation on which one of the sacred events of modern New Zealand history is recorded. 
Paul Janman, Ian Powell and I had gone to Mercer looking for the Railway Hotel, where the prophet and guerrilla warrior Te Kooti spent a night in 1889, during his police-supervised journey between Auckland and the backblocks of Te Ika a Maui. Te Kooti, who had just been released from Mount Eden prison, was old and sick; as he left Mercer local Pakeha children chased his carriage, gawking at his heaving chest. 
We soon learned that the Railway Hotel had been removed across the Koheroa Hills to a former farm - a flat, treeless place - where parachutists like to land. Backpackers recovering from skydives have inherited the room where Te Kooti tried to sleep. 
After the departure of the hotel, Mercer's drinkers resorted to the Last Post Tavern, which seems to have been less a tavern than a few bar stools propped against the back of a liquor shop. When we visited, the Last Post had just been renamed Podge's Place after its new owner, a fat and joyless migrant from the somewhere south of the Waikato. Paul asked whether we could photograph of the signboards of the old pub, before Podge repainted them; Podge sneered and shrugged. 
Ian Powell's photograph makes Mercer's war memorial suddenly strange. He ignores the list of war veterans and the khaki soldier, and instead shows us the metal of that forgotten gun-turret curving away towards those soon-to-erased words Last Post. Powell makes us wonder whether the name of Mercer's boozer referred to the old British tune that buglers play beside war memorials every Anzac Day, or whether it might have held a memory of Mercer's history as a settlement on the borderlands of the British Empire. 
The grounded airplane at Ardmore 
Whenever I see Ian Powell's photograph of this air freighter, which was born too late for the greatest conflagrations of the twentieth century and had to content itself with carrying diplomats and politicians between the occupied cities of Japan, I think, a little sadly, of the Italian Futurist Marinetti, and his belief that modern engineers and aviators had created mechanised and aerodynamic incarnations of the angels described in the Bible. 
Ian, Paul and I found this obsolete angel in an unkempt paddock near the main runway of Ardmore airport. Kendrick Smithyman arrived at Ardmore in 1942, shortly after that runway had been laid. The young poet was supposed to learn how to shoot down planes, but after watching a silent, savage film in the base's rec room he converted, and requested a transfer to the air force. In a poem written four decades later, near the end of his life, Smithyman remembered that the film had been made by pilot who strapped a camera to his plane and then flew into a dogfight. As the camera jumped excitedly and the sky filled with flak and falling planes, beauty and horror suddenly fused, and Smithyman, like Marinetti before him, imagined war as a new and superior form of art. 
Smithyman would soon witness a series of deadly crashes, and develop a lifelong fear of the air. After retirement, the freighter was apparently used for the meetings of a group of Air Scouts, but was eventually abandoned. Ian's photograph contrasts the stolidly rusting metal of the grounded angel with a sky where clouds are performing manoeuvres. On internet fora, the sort of folks who show off microlight spitfires and mosquitoes at air shows have sometimes discussed the logistics of restoring and relaunching the plane. 
Today it is antiquarians rather than Futurists who enthuse about flight. 
The 'Bombay Obelisk'
Using the infinitely flexible unit of measurement he calls a 'geomancer's mile', Mormon missionary turned 'archaeoastronomer' Martin Doutre discovered that the 'Bombay Obelisk', a pile of volcanic rocks that adorn a hill on the southern edge of Auckland, was part of a chain of ancient and supersophisticated solar observatories that covered the length of New Zealand and extended to Easter Island and South America. The 'obelisk' was raised, Doutre insists, by the whitefolk who were New Zealand's true tangata whenua, and who were later driven from their cities and farms by a few vakaloads of Polynesians. Doutre's ancient and erudite New Zealanders supposedly gouged and scratched the sides of the 'obelisk' with the letters and words of their inscrutable language. 
Ian Powell's photograph deflates Doutre's speculations as surely as any archaeological report. Where Doutre's photographs of his 'obelisk' tend to remove it from its surroundings, and make it appear impressively tall and wide, Powell takes several long steps backwards and shows the object in its context. Instead of the monument of a lost civilisation Powell gives us a few stones on a low hill. The 'obelisk' is scarcely more impressive than the telephone poles that stride down the hill toward a shard of motorway. 
Powell's photograph has a pathos that reminds me of Laurence Aberhart's portraits of the decaying halls and churches of New Zealand's countryside. Like the colonial architects who gave mock pillars and miniature gothic spires to their modest wooden buildings, Doutre is desperate to see Europe in New Zealand. With their age and scale and white authors, the monuments of Europe comfort him, especially when they are imagined against the strange hinterland of New Zealand, with its razorback hills and silent bush and brown swamps and inscrutable, rain-eroded earthworks. But colonial replicas of the Old World only emphasise the colonial's distance from that world. They are as sad and fragile as the diorama villages of museums. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Grunge pastoral: six photographs in lieu of a post

Action has been sparse on this blog because I've been enjoying Easter in the farmland, swamps, harbours, and forests that surround Auckland like some vast and patient army.

The kids and I have spent some of our time on my parents' farm, where I took these photographs. Every year, Fonterra publishes a calendar filled with shiny photographs of the landscapes and machinery of New Zealand farms. Why, I wonder, do they never send their cameraman to my parents' place?

I've thrown in a sneaky, poor quality snapshot of Charles Tole's 1981 masterpiece Power Station, which is part of Waikato Museum's exhibition of artworks temporarily liberated from the collection of Fletcher Challenge Ltd.


[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why we shouldn't censor the books we hate

[With the support of many other parents, Eileen Joy has been demanding that Auckland public library remove American evangelists Michael and Debi Pearl's book How to Train Up a Child from its shelves. Joy points out that the Pearls' book advises parents to punish their offspring by whipping them with willow branches, forcing them outside in cold weather, and denying them meals. 

Auckland's library has defended itself by pointing that it holds a single copy of the Pearl's book, that the copy was requested by a patron, and the book is classified as a religious text rather than a manual on parenting. Here's a comment I left on Giovanni Tiso's blog, where an interesting debate about censorship and libraries has begun.

Some of the people condemning How To Train Up a Child on Facebook seem to want it banned simply because it offends them. That troubles me. 

If New Zealand's libraries begin to cut books from their shelves because of campaigns by offended patrons, then I fear that they will quickly become clear felling zones. I suspect that Paul Moon's This Horrible Practice, which deals problematically with Maori cannibalism, would not last long in the Kaikohe public library, and that James Belich's revisionist histories of the Maori-Pakeha wars would be cleared efficiently from the library shelves of conservative cow towns in the Waikato. 

I can imagine opponents and proponents of Nicky Hager starting their own petitions, and some unfortunate librarian being forced to tot up signatures and make the decision least offensive to library patrons. 

I suspect that, once they knew that their book choices could be vetted and corrected by offended members of the public, librarians would return to their old practice of unhappy self-censorship. In 1929 Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin's public libraries banned Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, despite the fact that the book had been cleared for sale in New Zealand by censors, because they feared its gross account of life and death in the trenches of World War One would upset too many patrons. Scores of other important books suffered the same sort of pre-emptive strike in the first three quarters of the twentieth century. 
Like the Cantabrians who recently demanded the removal of an offensively anti-Christian T shirt from their museum, the Aucklanders calling for the cutting of How to Train Your Child from their library on the grounds that it is offensive show a misunderstanding of the role that public cultural institutions play in free societies. 

Just as a museum does not endorse or denounce the artefacts it exhibits, but rather uses them to tell true stories about humanity and its past, so a library does not endorse or denounce the books it holds, but rather uses them to show something of the range and intensity of opinions held by the human species. Museums and libraries should be sites of debate, where both popular and unpopular ideas can be heard and judged, rather than places that reaffirm the values of a society's dominant group.

I visited a large library in South Auckland a couple of weeks ago to hear a friend give a talk on Pacific history. While I was waiting for the lecture to begin, I grazed the shelves of the library's Pacific section. Amidst Albert Wendt's novels and Adrienne Kaeppler's homages to Tongan dancers and sculptors I spotted an ugly black and white cover stamped with the words The Parihaka Cult

The book was written by Kerry Bolton, a former member of the New Zealand Fascist League and the National Front, and the author of such classics of contemporary conspiracy theory as The Holocaust Myth and The Banking Swindle. In the introduction to The Parihaka Cult, Bolton compares the movement led by Te Whiti and Tohu to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and the American Civil Rights movement. For most people, such comparisons would imply a compliment, but for Bolton they are meant to show that Parihaka's protesters were part of an enormous, centuries-old conspiracy to defraud and demean the white race. 

I have personal as well as ideological reasons for disliking Bolton. A few years ago he complained about some references I made to him on Radio New Zealand, and a long, complicated, and well-publicised court case followed. Bolton's complaints against me were eventually dismissed, but I had to waste time and nervous energy helping Radio New Zealand defeat him. 

When I saw Bolton's defence of the Aryan race sitting in the middle of the Pacific section of a large library in South Auckland, I had a great desire to pull the book off its shelf and drop it in the nearest rubbish bin. But I didn't do this, for the same reason that I don't want Auckland libraries to rid themselves of Michael and Debi Pearl's equally grotesque book. Both texts represent part of the spectrum of opinion in our society, and both were requested by library patrons. 

Instead of fearing that our fellow Aucklanders will turn into child abusers or fascists because they encounter To Train Up a Child or The Parihaka Cult, we should have confidence in the ability of our libraries to help win arguments against child abuse and fascism. I certainly don't think that Bolton's beliefs about the inferiority of Polynesian to European culture will impress anyone who encounters Adrienne Kaeppler's meticulous and passionate studies of Tongan carving and dancing, or Albert Wendt's brilliant fusion of Albert Camus and traditional Samoan storytelling. 

I hope Auckland's libraries go on offending their public. 

Footnote: Russell Brown has pointed out that Giovanni Tiso and Eileen Joy do not rely simply on the offensiveness of How to Train up a Child when they argue against stocking the book. They note that the book advocates and describes illegal activity that has harmed people, and suggest that it should be removed from libraries on these grounds. Here's a response I've made to them in the discussion thread at Giovanni's blog:  

If a principle or precedent is set saying that books which promote and describe illegal activity that has a history of harming people shouldn't be stocked by libraries, then the door is opened for challenges to any number of volumes.

Let me give a couple of examples. 

It's not hard to imagine somebody like Colin Craig or Bob McCroskie or the Taxpayers Union issuing a demand that a new edition Mike Haskins' popular Drugs: a user's guide not be purchased by Auckland Public libraries. Haskins' book talks enthusiastically and in detail about how to manufacture and consume various drugs that have, over the years, harmed or killed considerable numbers of people. 

Sadie Plant's brilliant book Writing on Drugs does the same thing, in more elegant prose. 

It is all too easy to imagine a wave of public opinion building in support of a campaign against these books. Who would want to read them, Colin Craig et al would ask, except meth manufacturers and cannabis growers looking to upskill? And why should public money be spent promoting books that promote illegal and harmful activities?

Although I don't use any illegal drugs, unless you count strong Fijian kava, I am fascinated by the history of hallucinogens and opiates, and by their relationship with creativity in both European and Pacific societies. I've used Plant's book as a reference in some of my writing on Tongan shamanism, art and drug-taking.

I fear, though, that if the principle that a book which advocates and describes illegal and sometimes harmful activity should not sit in a public library were established, then it would be very difficult to resist a campaign against Haskins' and Plant's books. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, March 27, 2015

Slow reading, and slow tweeting

I've added a widget to the front page of this blog which shows my most recent posts to twitter, that overcongested superhighway of the internet.

I don't think that Michael Lambek has a twitter account. An anthropologist who divides his time between the London School of Economics and the University of Scarborough, Lambek has written an essay for Savage Minds to lament the decline of 'slow reading' in twenty-first century universities. Lambek argues that many of today's students are either struggling with or avoiding altogether the heavy and heady books that excited earlier generations of scholars.

Lambek explains that, in many anthropology departments, instructors have stopped prescribing classic texts of ethnography, or else have offered these works to students in measured doses. EE Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Amongst the Azande, for example, is given in an abridged paperback edition. Distracted by social media and other epiphenomena of our digital age, students apparently find it difficult to penetrate the forests left behind by scholars like Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski. They cannot do the sort of careful, reflective reading that generates ideas and helps get essays written.

Lambek blames not only social media but the 'substitution of images for text' for the decline in students' reading. He notes that many students are now more accustomed to powerpoint displays, with their reassuringly steady flow of easily identifiable images, than to purely verbal seminars and lectures. The 'traditional classroom arts' of 'listening and note-taking' are, he fears, disappearing.

When I feel the same sort of melancholy as Lambek, I try to banish it by visiting Hookland, the twitter feed run by David Southwell, a British journalist known for his interest in conspiracy theories, gangsters, and the Angry Brigade. Southland's tweets pose as despatches from a sort of alternative England, a place of restless gargoyles, blood-stained power pylons, babbling vicars, and overfriendly UFOs. Like Mortmere, the alt-England invented by boarding schoolmates Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward in the 1920s, Hookland seems simultaneously celebratory and satirical.

I was excited when I discovered Southwell's tweets, because they suggested to me that twitter could be used to create mystery, and to detain a reader's attention, rather than as a lubricant for what Michael Lambek calls 'rapid fire and simultaneous online communication'.

Southwell's tweets frequently combine a text and an image, but the relationship of these parts is not always straightforward. Where the images in a powerpoint presentation normally exist as mere illustrations of the presenter's argument, the blurred or broken photographs, scraps of old maps, and covers of imaginary books that Southwell tweets often seem to contradict, or at least qualify, the lapidarian fragments of text that accompany them. In the space between their meanings an ambiguity alien to much of the twittersphere, but familiar to anyone who understands modernist and postmodernist poetry, appears and prospers.

Sometimes Southwell takes photographs of pages of books or magazines and posts them, alongside cryptic commentaries. Devoid of their contexts, these pages become artefacts that ask to be examined and catalogued. They can only be read slowly.

Hookland is an almost hermetic twitter feed. Its author never joins the high-velocity debates that regular shake the twittersphere, and seldom even acknowledges the twenty-first century world. And yet his tweets are often reposted scores of times. I'm obviously not the only one who thinks David Southwell is inventing a new artform, and suggesting a new and more intellectually important role for social media.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, March 20, 2015

Marching on the frontier

[This post started as an e mail to genealogist and military historian Christine Liava'a, who has been very generous in helping me with my research into blackbirding.]

Dear Christine,

I wanted to apologise for leaping out of my seat and running away from your talk about the Pacific front of World War One last Tuesday at the Papatoetoe library. I hadn't been offended by the old photographs and maps you'd been powerpointing, or by your discussions of warships and digging works and influenza. I simply needed to restrain my oldest son, who had decided, against the evidence offered by his mother, that he was a blue racing car, and that the carpark outside the library was his racing track.

Before my departure I was fascinated by your photograph of the Fijian members of the King's Royal Rifles. As I looked at the earnest and very white faces of the Fijian troops, I remembered the surprise I felt as a kid, when I flicked through a book about the history of test cricket and discovered a set of photographs of the teams the West Indies sent to England in the 1920s and '30s. Instead of the ancestors of mighty Windies players of the '80s, like Viv Richards and Mike Holding, the photographs were full of tall, stern Anglo-Saxons with white ties and thin moustaches. Like cricket, war was obviously considered a white man's sport by administrators of Britain's empire.

You noted how indigenous Fijians were carefully excluded from the King's Rifles, even though many of them were keen to fight the Kaiser. When you mentioned the tests that white Fijians had to pass before they could serve, though, I wondered whether they too might have been victims of imperial prejudices. When recruiters ran measuring tape over the men's chests and checked their height, were they guided by the belief that the inhabitants of the tropical Pacific, whether black or white or somewhere in between, were all susceptible to frailties uncommon in the colder parts of the world?

Until the middle of the twentieth century, many Europeans and Australasian whites were convinced that the heat and humidity of the tropics made their inhabitants decadent and sickly. For decades, Australian politicians and planners debated how they might settle the northern part of their continent without creating a race of 'degenerate whites'. New Zealand advocates of the annexation and colonisation of societies like Fiji and Samoa insisted that Kiwis who emigrated there should be helped to take, every five years or so, a long, restorative holiday in their cool mother country, so that their bodies and souls could be rid of tropical languor, lasciviousness, and depression. After German Samoans declined to resist New Zealand's invasion of their colony, Kiwi newspapers attributed their surrender to the effects of too many years of heat and humidity.
It is certainly true that, in the cooler parts of the British Empire, volunteers for World War One were not tested as stringently as the men from Fiji. Ronald Blythe has revealed that many of the men who fought for Britain on the Western front and in Gallipoli were slight and prone to fatigue, because of the poor diets they had suffered as children and young adults in the working class and rural districts of the mother country. I wonder how many of these men would have passed the test administered to the Fijians?

It seems, though, that a dozen members of the Fijian section of the Legion of Frontiersmen avoided the testing and drilling that were the lot of the colony's regular soldiers. You noted how, in August 1914, the Frontiersmen were welcomed onto one of the ships New Zealand sent to conquer Samoa, and you powerpointed a photograph taken shortly after the 'liberation' of Apia, in which they pose with a captured German flag.

Although it was founded in 1905 by a Boer War veteran who believed that the British Empire needed a massive, disciplined, and battle-ready paramilitary force, the Legion struggled to convince generals and politicians of its usefulness. Its direct involvement in the expedition to Samoa seems, then, surprising.
Last Tuesday you joked about not understanding the purpose of the Legion. I agree that the group has seemed, for a long time, quixotic. I consider it one of a panoply of organisations - paramilitary forces, mystical orders, thwarted political parties, lobby groups - that were created early in the twentieth century to celebrate and defend the British Empire. By the beginning of the century, the empire was both mighty and imperilled. It covered more than a fifth of the world's land surface, but the ambitions of rivals like Germany and America and class and racial conflict had made its supporters uneasy. Novelists and newspaper polemicists had begun to imagine German invasions and conquests of Britain, and revolutions that replaced the Union Jack with the red flag of socialism.

British Israelites and neo-Arthurian mystics looked to the Bible and to pseudo-archaeology for reassurance that British pre-eminence was divinely ordained and permanent; the Frontiersmen believed that God's will might have to be enforced with bayonet charges.
The word 'Frontiersmen' must have resonated with New Zealanders. As Jock Phillips and James Belich have shown, Kiwis liked to contrast their improvisational, often rough lifestyles with the supposedly effete ways of Britons. The over-elaborate vocabularies and overstuffed suitcases of new arrivals from the old country were ridiculed by newspapers. Like the anxious Britons who founded the Legion of Frontiersmen, many Kiwis believed that the true spirit of the empire could be found on the edges of the British world. On the frontier of the empire, exposed to Antarctic storms and Maori raiding parties, New Zealanders had been forced to preserve the manly qualities that had been lost in metropolises like London and Manchester and Calcutta.

It seems to me that the invasion of Samoa might almost be the high point in the military history of the Legion. The thousands of Frontiersmen spread around the empire appear to have done a lot of flag-waving, marching, and saluting, but very little fighting, unless they also belonged to the regular armed forces. The Frontiersmen's role in the invasion of Samoa seems almost unparalleled in the organisation's history.

In the years between the wars the Legion seems to have stayed busy, and even to have impressed the odd observer. In an article written at the end of the 1930s for the People's Voice, the communist poet and polemicist Gordon Watson included the Legion in a list of organisations that were planning to use the coming war with Hitler as an excuse to impose a right-wing dictatorship on New Zealand.

Watson's claim might not have been as absurd as it looks. In 1930s Britain Frontiersmen were often mistaken for Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists, because of their dark uniforms, angry anti-communism, and penchant for marching. During a strike on the Vancouver waterfront in 1935, Frontiersmen as well as members of local fascist parties were recruited as special policemen and encouraged to charge at picket lines. A couple of years earlier, during the most depressed period of the Great Depression, an anti-communist and anti-democratic movement spread briefly but spectacularly from Hawkes Bay through the rest of the country. Is it a coincidence that this movement was called the New Zealand Legion?
Like the empire it wanted to defend, the Legion has declined and almost disappeared in the decades since the Second World War. You mentioned finding a few middle-aged Frontiersmen working as ushers at some public event in South Auckland; the South Taranaki Star reports that even this sort of activity is nowadays too difficult for the Legion's four elderly members in New Plymouth, who have decided to retire.

I wanted to return to 1914, though, and ask: is it possible that the Frontiersmen were allowed to seek glory in Samoa because of the intervention of New Zealand's Prime Minister? William Massey grew up in northern Ireland, a place where British had always been embattled, and as a fervent British Israelite he considered World War One a struggle for the survival of God's chosen people. The commanders of New Zealand's professional army may well have been suspicious of the Legion's part-time soldiers, but Massey would have admired the group's ideology. Might he have considered that, in the midst of a holy war, faith and patriotism would be more important than training and equipment? Perhaps a letter somewhere in Massey's archive can answer these questions.

'Ofa atu,
Scott

Monday, March 16, 2015

Taken over

A couple of seconds after this photograph was taken a wave came over Waiwera's sea wall and drenched me, much to the amusement of my brother-in-law and his kids. We'd driven to Auckland's northeast coast to meet the remnants of Cyclone Pam, which had done so much damage to Vanuatu a day earlier.

Even in a weakened state, the storm could raise winds and water disconcertingly high. It reminded me of a poem I dug out of Kendrick Smithyman's archive and published as part of a book called Private Bestiary in 2010. In Smithyman's text, heavy winds and rain make the normally murmurous Waitemata Harbour into something ‘monstrous, incalculable' and 'contemptuous’, and cause random landslides on the edge of the neat new suburbs of the North Shore. The safety that New Zealand's largest city seemed to offer the poet becomes ‘unreal’, and the suburbs are suddenly a place where humans ‘test’ their ‘limits’.

Conspiracies 

Today, roads blocked,
Four slips on Albany hill
with subsidings predicted.
Any prospect west is rained out,
More rain is headed that way.

A view of our circumstance is narrowed: this
side, unreal safety.
Down in the valley men console
in a thoroughly public bar.

Wind roves easterly, sea’s
quarter where nearest the gulf.
Beyond is Ocean, a dominion
known to be monstrous, incalculable, contemptuous
of our offering, not entirely indifferent to us.

We are a myth of our making.

Locally there’s a record of slipping.
At the crest drivers are advised
to watch for edges falling out.
Oil drums and a wooden frame -
limits of safety, with a view
denied to farmers and foresters.
We test the limits. We project.
Speaking in figures we are taken over.

[August 28th 1965]

The ‘thoroughly public bar’ mentioned in the poem is probably the Albany Hotel, which was, along with Smithyman’s beloved Puhoi Tavern, a popular watering hole for the North Shore literary community in the decades after World War Two. In his biography of Smithyman’s friend Maurice Duggan, Ian Richards reveals that Smithyman and many other writers held a whiskey-drenched wake for ARD Fairburn at the Albany Hotel in 1957. I needed a couple of whiskeys of my own after yesterday's dunking.

If the storm was disconcerting for Aucklanders, then it must have been terrifying for ni-Vanuatuans on islands like Efate and Tanna. I was very sad when I checked the website for the Vanuatu Daily Post this morning, and found that the paper hadn't been published for three days. You can help ni-Vanuatu by donating to the Red Cross.