Monday, June 30, 2008

Time for what?

“How did the Government sink so low, and National soar
so high, when the economy is sound and unemployment is
probably as low as it can get?” This question was asked by
Dominion Post political journalist Vernon Small back on
February 28; and if it was a valid question then, it’s 10
times as valid now. But there’s still only one possible
answer, which is that regardless of the state of the
economy and society in general—a condition that can be
summed up, broadly, as “Most of us don’t really have very
much to complain about”—the Clark Labour Government is
trapped in the headlights of an oncoming steamroller called
"Time for a change, let the other lot have a go." It’s the
weakest reason in the world for changing a government but
it works nearly every time a government has been in office
six years or more. Labour itself benefited from it in 1999,
when the Shipley National Government was written off
months before the election that year. Wouldn’t it be nice if
we as a nation could beat this kneejerk reaction, assess the
actual political situation as it is and vote accordingly?
Because if we did, we’d return a Labour/Greens/Maori
Party government in November. There's no real reason at
all for putting National into office other than sheer
bloodymindedness: as if nine years of the same party in
power had overtaxed our attention spans—even when that
party can be shown by most criteria to have done a pretty
good job of running the country. For proof of that, look no
further than the National Party’s own policies, such as they
are: most of them amount to agreeing with Labour's
policies (KiwiSaver, student loans, nuclear ship visits, paid
parental leave, Kyoto Protocol, Treaty settlements, you
name it). At least Clark, Cullen & co had earned the right to
govern by 1999, after several years of hard graft in
opposition; National under John Key, one feels, has done
nothing to warrant election, unless coasting in neutral
qualifies as some weird new form of moral stature.

Thanks, Nandor

Politics is a toxic process for draining the life juices
from human beings and reducing whole souls to
stick figures. With luck and self-care you may be
able to survive the experience with some shreds of
integrity still clinging to your hide. On the basis
alone of his very fine valedictory speech, you’d have
to say that Nandor Tanczos achieved a lot more than
that: after nine years as an MP he walked out of
Parliament still recognizably human. Possibly no
other politician has ever done it so magnificently
as he did, smashing his watch on the desk in front
of him, saying that when he looked at the state of
this country he didn’t need a watch to know what
time it was. Well done, that man. I never agreed with
him about drug use but he enriched Parliament by
his presence, proving, again, the blessings of MMP,
which has given us a far healthier diversity of people
in the House and—possibly, just possibly—made
politics a tad less toxic in the process.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Seminal moment

Reading Diana Wichtel on the Bloomsbury trail in the latest
Listener recalls for me the memorable account in one of
Virginia Woolf's journals or letters of the moment when
civilization shifted on its axis. It was a spring evening in
1908, and Virginia and her sister Vanessa were in the
drawing-room at 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London.
Wrote Woolf later: "Vanessa sat silent and did something
mysterious with her needle or her scissors. I talked
egotistically, excitedly, about my own affairs no doubt.
Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure
of Mr Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed
his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress.

‘Semen?’ he said.

Can one really say it? I thought & we burst out laughing.
With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve
went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to
overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation. The word
bugger was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation
with the same excitement and openness that we had
discussed the nature of good. It is strange to think how
reticent, how reserved we had been and for how long."

This seminal moment is also the subject of a poem by Anne
Stevenson, "The Fiction-Makers."

Friday, June 27, 2008

I am no military historian but

I know Bernard Freyberg has been criticized strongly
by military historians for the bombing of the Cassino
monastery in Italy during the Second World War,
but otherwise I thought he had a pretty good rep. Not
so, according to veteran British journalist Max Hastings;
at least not in the Italian campaign. Reviewing a new
book called The Day of Battle in the New York Review
of Books (April 3, 2008), Hastings writes of Freyberg:
"He exemplified a key principle about command
appointments: any man possessed of the suicidal courage
to win a VC [which Freyberg did in the First World War] unlikely to possess the judgment or imagination to
make much of a general." Urk. Hastings also attributes
to Sir Bernard, as he later became, the nickname of
"Spadger," which I must say I've never heard before: can
anyone throw light on this? Without, that is, labouring
the point that the word has acquired a more recent new
meaning in Australia for an intimate body part entirely
unconnected with military judgment or valour.

One world

I was surprised to hear Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples,
in a parliamentary speech, say that some New Zealand
children are suffering from “Third World diseases.”
Whatever they're suffering from, the term "Third World" is
is part of an historically loaded and ethnically skewed
worldview that also encompasses meaningless labels like
“the West” and “the developed world.” One might expect
the Gerry Brownlees of this world to toss off phrases like
“Third World,” but not Sharples. He would know by now
that, however clumsy the alternative terms might be,
anything’s better than a terminology that inherently ranks
people in European and Europeanized countries ahead of
those elsewhere on the globe. The poorest nations on
Earth (in terms, say, of income per capita, if we must talk
league tables) didn’t get that way in spite of the “Western
world” getting lucky but because of it. We're all one world.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Glory box

I woke debilitated by dreams—not nightmares, not even
unpleasant dreams, but dreams so sustainedly set in my
childhood that it seemed as though they were trying to
tell me something, trying to get a message through: like,
here are the props and the scenery, surely you must guess
the script? You might think that you further away you got
from childhood the less prominently it would figure in
your thoughts and dreams; on the other hand, the older
we get, the more the past piles up behind us. Day by day
we make fresh past, adding to the pile. In certain frames
of mind one’s consciousness of this mountainous heap
can outweigh one’s ability to live comfortably in the
present (always a hard ask anyway).

Why turn over and over these stones?
What good does it do to dig up old bones?
Because your childhood remains the one thing
That no one but you ever owns.

Among jigsaws with missing pieces
And outgrown clothes mismatched socks
You keep your childhood in a glory box
In which you are always discovering more
And never quite knowing what for.

Memory may be truth or a lie—whatever.

A lie may be all that is holding a life together.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mal de vivre

The French call depression mal de vivre. In a book about
it (Histoire du Mal de Vivre: De La Melancolie a la
), Georges Minois concludes that it has got
worse among us in the "West" because of historical
pessimism and the loss of good authority. “He also cites,”
says Anita Brookner in a Spectator review of the book,
“the consumer society, the infantilizing effect of popular
culture and consequent absence of catharsis, the lack of
intimate satisfaction, and the medicalization of what is
essentially a metaphysical condition.”

Hm. Another French writer, Philippe Labro, fell into a
sudden and mysterious depression that left him at times
virtually unable to move. Somehow he came through it,
however, and wrote a book about the experience called,
wonderfully, Tomber Sept Fois, Se Relever Huit (to fall
seven times, to rise eight).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In front of our lives

The future presses upon us. What we imagine to be the
consequences of a past event may equally be the ripple
back from an event in the future. There is a reverse echo
there that we can’t quite hear.

"It would seem as though coming events, gathered in
front of our lives, bear with crushing weight upon the
uncertain and deceptive dike of the present, which is no
longer able to contain them. They ooze through, they
seek a crevice by which to reach us."—Maeterlinck

Or, Maeterlinck imagines, it might be a giant force
outside the walls of our prison. But all that reaches us is
a "vague disquiet, an indistinct murmur that is
sometimes translated to us by a half-awakened gaoler
who, like ourselves, is a lifelong captive."

Only in dreams can we remember the future, and then

A word from Freud, though, suggesting that the giant
force is not the future but the past: "It would seem as
though each one of us has been through a phase of
individual development corresponding to that animistic
stage in primitive men, that none of us has traversed it
without certain traces of it which can be reactivated,
and that everything which now strikes us as 'uncanny'
fulfils the condition of stirring those vestiges of
animistic mental activity within us and bringing them
to expression."

Ouspensky maintained that art was the language of the
future, for it "anticipates a psychic evolution and divines
its future forms." Take your pick.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Credence bathwater revival

To paraphrase Shakespeare, the media coverage men get
lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
So has it been with the unlucky Bill Sutch, one of the great
New Zealanders of the 20th century, who did more to
promote equality, justice and prosperity for all than most
politicians have ever done, yet whose reputation in
posterity now seems to rest entirely on an alleged act of
espionage with a Soviet agent on a rainy night in
Wellington 35 years ago. Phooey to that. Sutch was a good
man, a loyal New Zealander, and if any more charges are
to be pressed in this case, they should be brought against
those of us ready to give a moment's credence to such
rubbishy allegations. It's profoundly depressing that a
lifetime's nation-building should be given less prominence
than a moment's indiscretion, if it was even that. The best
remedy now would be a seminar devoted to recognizing
and remembering Sutch's achievements; it might go some
way, at least, towards righting the record.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Uncommon sense

You’ve got to love those politicians. “Common sense tells
you that the more petrol goes up, the more people will
think about alternatives,” says Wellington Regional
Council chairwoman Fran Wilde, reacting to reports that
the city’s “creaking” public transport system is feeling the
pressure of greater use by people less inclined to drive
their cars. Right. And the same common sense should
have told the council and other public bodies 20, 30 years
ago that this was coming, and to plan accordingly. They
can’t say they weren’t warned at the time. But instead of
putting the planning emphasis on public transport in the
1970s, 80s and 90s the Wellington regional and city
councils preferred to lavish millions of dollars on
motorway extensions, traffic tunnels and new roads,
principally for the use of private cars. Even now, Wilde
and mayor Kerry Prendergast are talking up the need for
a second Terrace tunnel and a second Mt Victoria tunnel,
plus widening of major roads, as if car use will go on
growing indefinitely. Hopefully such vehicular visionaries
will recover from the dizzying effects of petrol fumes one
day soon and realize what planet they are living on; if not,
Wellingtonians should elect representatives who do know.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Life revisited

According to the Russian Orthodox religion, when you die,
your soul remains on earth for three days revisiting the
places where you spent most of your life. Your guardian
angel accompanies you on this pilgrimage, pointing out
the true meaning of your acts and choices. The soul is then
taken on a tour of heaven and hell. Forty days after death
comes the hour of judgment, "when everything the soul has
learned on its journey becomes real, when it begins to face
the consequences of actions that it might have chosen to
forget, and when it faces the genuine prospect of torment
stretching onwards to the end of time." (from Night of
Stone, by Catherine Merridale)

In the Tsarist era, anyway, the soul was seen as a "fragile,
timorous thing, always described as pale, a doll-like copy of
a person perhaps, as delicate as a newborn child. Some
people imagined it with wings, flying out of the body with
the last breath."

Good luck, mate

I am not sure how pleasant it is going to be watching
Barack Obama's progress from here on. He has had
a dream run so far, without his policies (such as they
are) being subjected to piercing scrutiny, but nobody
wins the Democratic or Republican nomination for
US President without owing a huge number of favours
and without being hostage to powerful vested interests.
If he really can deliver "change we can believe in," then
good luck to him; but I fear that, if he's elected in
November, his range of policy movement will be sorely
restricted and his inspiring rhetoric will run into a wall
of resistance from those who control the levers of the
American economy. Bill Clinton, when he was
President, is said to have been shocked and frustrated
by how little room for manoeuvre he really had,
notwithstanding his supposed power. The truth is that
US Presidents in themselves generally can't and don't
change much; the amount of media coverage they get is
way out of proportion to their actual significance.

I still think Hillary Clinton would make a better President
at this time; Obama would have been perfect as her
Vice-President and successor. He clearly has outstanding
qualities but I rather think that the Democratic Party has
gotten too carried away by him. Such is the evangelistic
fervour of American politics. He can also thank George
W Bush for his phenomenal rise to the top: just as
Muldoon's extreme interventionism produced a sharp
counter-reaction in New Zealand in 1984, so Bush's
brutal neoconnery has led to a liberal revulsion so
excessive that even a moderate liberal like Clinton has
been swept aside by it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Well-known fact

“It is a well-known fact that the 'Close the door' button
in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo,
placed there just to give the individuals the impression
that they are somehow participating, contributing to
the speed of the elevator journey—when we push this
button, the door closes in exactly the same time as when
we just pressed the floor button without 'speeding up'
the process by pressing also the 'Close the door' button.
This extreme case of fake participation is an appropriate
metaphor of the participation of individuals in our
'postmodern' political process.”—Slavoj Zˇizˇek, senior
researcher, Institute for Advanced Study in the
Humanities, Essen, Germany

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Raised voices

At last the Greens have seen red. The tough talking at
the weekend by co-leaders Jeanette Fitzsimons and
Russel Norman was long overdue, though Norman may
may have gone an epithet too far in calling the
Government’s cold feet on the Emissions Trading
Scheme “disgusting.” As well as castigating both major
parties for their political pusillanimity in the face of
global warming—"Her scathing denunciation of Labour’s
record on climate change and other environmental
matters would take some beating in terms of its savagery
and sarcasm,” wrote John Armstrong in the New Zealand
Herald l
ast week—Fitzsimons also seized the initiative on
the issue of rising food prices, in particular drawing
attention (as other opposition parties have failed to do) to
the fact that we in New Zealand pay far more for our dairy
products than seems fair or justified.

This is good politics, because it puts the Greens on a
broader footing in election year, not just pigeonholed
under E for Environment. With Labour weakening, the
Greens should do very well this year, so long as they’re
more pro-active and less inclined to play the doormat for
the major parties to wipe their (cold) feet on. The country
is crying out for strong leadership on climate change and
its consequences; Fitzsimons is the logical candidate for
the vacant position, but till now her voice has seemed
relatively muted. She has nothing to lose by speaking
truth to power; it is impossible to be too bold in these
matters when the planet is burning.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Thomas Hardy

June 2 is Thomas Hardy’s birthday. The gloomy old bugger
was born in 1840 and died in 1928 after 60 years of writing
a series of doom-laden novels and hundreds of poems that
give the impression of having been ground out rather than
dreamt up. Yet I loved reading him in my youth: his gloom
called to my gloom as I languished in the melancholia that
seemed, at 20, a suitable response to life’s vicissitudes. At
the morning teatime of my life I was deeply into twilight
and shades of grey.

This year, mainly out of curiosity, but also for something to
read that’s as unlike contemporary New Zealand politics as
I can find, I’ve gone back to Hardy: first, Far From the
Madding Crowd, and now, The Return of the Native. The
pessimism that once seemed romantic, in a subgothic sort
of way, now verges on the absurd; an almost wilful
perversity, you’d think, drove him to such gratuitous
pronouncements as (in The Return of the Native):

The view of life as a thing to be put up with, replacing
that zest for existence which was so intense in early
civilizations, must ultimately enter so thoroughly into
the constitution of the advanced races that its facial
expression will become accepted as a new artistic
departure…a long line of disillusive centuries has
permanently displaced the Hellenic view of life, or
whatever it may be called.

There was so little to be happy about, Hardy further
concluded (in 1878), that physical beauty in men and
women would probably come to be an anachronism.

Cheer us up, why doncha! But the sheer consistency of
Hardy’s philosophy, and his sustained dramatization
of it on the fictional stage of Wessex, compels admiration
and even affection. And although his prose, like his
poetry, almost strangles itself on its own contortions at
times, he tells a great tale. His four greatest novels—Tess,
Madding Crowd
, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude
the Obscure
—are stories that will be read again and again
so long as there's an English language. As his best poems
will be, or ought to be, too. His Collected Poems, bought in
1970 for $NZ5.70, remains to this day one of the most
treasured books on my shelves.

Born three years after Queen Victoria came to the British
throne and inaugurated the Victorian age, Hardy lived long
enough to have his pessimism confirmed by the Great War
of 1914–18, thus earning the right to dismiss Christianity
in four withering lines written at Christmas 1924:

"Peace upon earth!" was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.