Sunday, November 30, 2008

War in peace

Seeing Vera Drake again on television tonight, I'm
reminded of what a very good film it is. Quite apart from
its intrinsic dramatic value, it captures convincingly the
reduced quality of life in postwar Britain. Well, it looks
convincing to me. And how semi-militarized society
remained: this was true of New Zealand too. Public life
up to the 1960s was so orderly—all those hats—because
the habits of war stayed strong in peacetime. For at
least 15 years after 1945, New Zealand carried on as if it
were still at war: only now the enemy was ourselves.
Marching in step was the thing, with polished buttons.
The average suburban home was an armed encampment,
the maternity hospital a barracks. Babies were fed to
order; mothers presented arms on command. We never
went so far, though, as the regimented fun routines of
British holiday camps. We had the hi but missed the ho.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The cupboard

Along the living-room wall opposite the fireplace was
a very large cupboard with tall matchlined doors and
a little snibby catch. In this cupboard, which had about
it a whiff of the 1920s and 30s, were rows of long
shelves on which were dumped household detritus:
bolts of cloth, balls of string, hot-water bottles, towels,
linen, old magazines, newspapers, discarded tools and
toys. Scissors. Sewing kits. I cannot begin to tell you
how this cupboard comes into my mind. It had, and has,
an undiminished quality of being. To call it inanimate
would be an insult: it knew stuff that we didn’t know, its
interior had a palpable presence in which was embodied
the knowledge of every item that had passed in and out
of those doors and rested on those shelves. The doors,
which reached almost to the ceiling, watched everything
that went on in the room. They stood tall guarding us,
watching over us, keeping their counsel but ever-patient,
ever-wise. I felt them at all times to be a comfort.

Not for one second did I imagine that through the back of
the cupboard lay a magical land. The cupboard itself was
world enough.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

On the border

"It takes so little, so infinitely little," writes Milan
Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,
"for a person to cross the border beyond which
everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith,
history. Human life—and herein lies its secret—
takes place in the immediate proximity of that
border, even in direct contact with it; it is not
miles away, but a fraction of an inch."

And yet, John Cheever says in his journals, "The
most wonderful thing about life seems to be that
we hardly tap our potential for self-destruction.
We may desire it, it may be what we dream of, but
we are dissuaded by a beam of light, a change in
the wind."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Key's moment

I find it hard to see John Key flushed and grinning like a
schoolboy at realizing his boyhood dream and not smile
too. Other people’s happiness can be contagious, and he
is so manifestly happy at getting the job of Prime
Minister. Good luck to him. So far, 10 days on from the
election, he has not put a foot wrong; he seems to be
putting into practice exactly what he planned to do,
namely, govern as inclusively as he can; and he has
clearly learnt a thing or two from Helen Clark, who pretty
much laid down the template for political management
under MMP. I have no illusions about the direction in
which a National-led government will take New Zealand
(see previous blog) but it would be churlish to deny Key
his moment and not to wish him well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nia and Jhia

I’m sure John Key and the members of his new government
would be shocked to be told that, before they even take
office, they’re already condemning several infants and young
children to violent deaths at the hands of family members.
Yet when a government comes to power emphasizing above
all the importance of economic growth, business efficiency
and increased profit, it is making its priorities very clear. It
betrays itself constantly as an administration beholden to
numbers, not human beings; monetary values, not moral
ones. Defenders of that kind of politics will say "Yes, but
greater economic prosperity equals higher living standards
equals happier people equals less stress and strain equals
less domestic abuse and violence." That might just possibly
be true if Keysian economics delivered equal benefits to all;
but we know from experience (just look at the recent reigns
of Bush, Blair and Howard) that centre-right governments
inevitably favour those at the richer end of the scale, leaving
those at the other end on the same old roundabout of
poverty, unemployment and welfare dependency—the very
conditions in which domestic violence is likelier to occur.
What John Key and friends have to understand is that the
true price of unlimited economic growth—or rather, of a
political commitment to that chimera—is invariably paid by
children, women and those less able to protect themselves.
The chain of causation may not be easy to see, especially
from behind the mirror glass of a 25th-floor boardroom,
but it can be traced. This is an argument not against some
people making more money than others but against some
people making obscenely more money than others, and
against money being the measure of all things. The most
passionate pledges one hears from Key and co are along
the lines of getting New Zealand back into the top half of
the OECD rankings or matching Australia's productivity or
removing restrictions on commercial development. Yet on
the day of the general election the New Zealand Herald ran
a story revealing that violent assault has become the main
cause of facial surgery in this country. Eighteen years ago,
road accidents accounted for 33 percent of such operations;
that figure is now just seven percent, while the percentage
attributable to violent assaults has risen from 31 to 42. It
would be a tremendous thing—we can dream, can't we—if
all the combined energies of a new administration could be
brought to bear on stopping the torture, murder and sexual
and physical abuse of children and women in New Zealand,
in the same way that a really dedicated campaign has
succeeded in bringing the road toll down by more than half
and saving thousands of lives. In the names of Nia Glassie
and Jhia Te Tua, and all those who have suffered and
continue to suffer and die brutally, needlessly like them,
I call on John Key and his new government to make this
their supreme goal.

"A world must be overturned, but every tear that flows and
might have been staunched is an accusation; and a man
hurrying to a great deed who knocks down a child out of
unfeeling carelessness commits a crime."—Rosa Luxemburg

Monday, November 17, 2008

No nook unshot

Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, Sea of Poppies, is a wonderful
read. Since being lucky enough to have the opportunity of
interviewing Ghosh (rhymes with “bush," by the way) a
few years ago, I have pounced eagerly on any books of his.
Like Mister Pip, this one was on the final shortlist of six
for this year’s Booker Prize, so The Gathering, which beat
them both, must be a remarkably fine piece of work. Sea
of Poppies
weaves together the stories of several people in
19th-century India in such a dashing Dickensian way as to
leave you hungry for more—which, I’m glad to say, will
come, as it's the first of a planned trilogy. It also plays as a
savage though never heavy-handed satire on the British
Raj, embellished by the colourful use of Anglo-Hindi, an
almost forgotten patois that Ghosh has swotted up. You
have to work it out for yourself as you go along but the
context usually provides clues enough: a rootie in the
chola, for instance, can only be a bun in the oven. There
is also delight in coming across that totally forgotten
word “nook-shotten,” celebrated by Cyril Connolly 70
years ago in The Unquiet Grave and, before that,
probably used only by Shakespeare (in Henry V).
Applied to a coastline, it means much indented with
inlets and bays. Astute readers of this blog will
undoubtedly find a way of dropping it into conversation
before long, especially if planning a trip to Fiordland.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gidday, mate

Something wants to destroy me. It comes in the night and
sits on my chest. Heavy. Stifling. Oppressive. But it has no
power itself to kill me; its job is to raise the idea, put it on
the agenda, so to speak. At three in the morning it can do
a pretty good job of convincing me of the uselessness of
existence. Which is dirty work, but I guess someone’s got
to do it. No doubt we each have our own version of this
charming character. Doris Lessing calls it the self-hater; or
it might be said to be our death, which, as Maeterlinck says,
comes into the world with us when we are born and goes
with us everywhere. Maybe, instead of fearing it, I should
make friends with it. Gidday, mate.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From Westland Row

Forty years ago today I arrived in Dublin, set on seeing
Ireland as part of my OE but with no other aim in life
unless it was to write poetry. I had come across the
Irish Sea by ferry from Wales overnight, and caught a
train from the port of Dun Laoghaire. It was 8 o'clock
on a Sunday morning when I stepped out of Westland
Row station and into a dank dark Dublin. It seemed to
me then like a medieval city. I was quite alone, perhaps
as alone as I have ever been in my life. I knew just one
person there, and when I had walked to Stephen’s
Green, and found him gone from the address given,
I was even more alone. I'd been counting on him to pay
back some money he owed me.

Not sure what to do, I wandered through the deserted
streets to the sound of church bells proclaiming mass.
Here and there, a black-shawled woman hastened along
the pavement to prayer. I must have walked back to the
station, looking like easy prey for hustlers, because a
man approached me and recommended a bed-and-
breakfast place where I might stay. I did so, spending
money I could not afford while trying to find my lost
and hopefully well-funded friend. This I did by hanging
around the gates of Trinity College, where he was a
student, waiting for him to turn up. After three days, I
think, he did; he had little to spare himself, but possibly
feeling responsible for this indigent Kiwi who had
turned up out of the blue, he put me up in his rooms at
Trinity for a few nights.

If the city seemed medieval, this ancient university was
like something out of the Dark Ages. It was very, very old;
very, very cold. I huddled shivering in my friend's rooms
while he went to classes; looking for something to read, I
came across a paperback: The Magus, by John Fowles.
I had never heard of it. I started to read. I read for nine
hours straight, got some sleep, then finished it in four
more hours. It set my imagination on fire. I almost
physically devoured that book—for once in my life, the
cliche was true. I was absolutely ripe for this novel that
seemed to peel back the layers of life, mystery by
mystery, until...another mystery was revealed. It was
written, Fowles has said, for people like I was then:
callow young men with heads full of poetry and inflated
ideas about themselves. I shall always be grateful to it,
though. The life-wisdom it taught me and the imagery it
implanted in me have never gone away.

No doubt everyone has a book or perhaps a film that did
something like that for them when they were young.
The Magus
was mine.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Meet the new boss

Power has passed from Labour to National as seamlessly as
a Piri Weepu pass to Dan Carter. No fumbles, no falls. Are
we surprised? Are we transfigured? Are we transformed?
No, because in a sense Labour still won the election. Helen
Clark’s final victory was to force National to fight on
Labour's ground—such has been her and Michael Cullen’s
success in moving government back towards the centre and
away from the right-wing adventure playground of the
1990s and 1980s. John Key denied jokingly on television
that he was Clark’s boyfriend, but as Steve Braunias
observes in a superb piece for the Sunday Star-Times, it’s
hard to tell. In order to get elected, Key has had to become a
more voter-friendly version of Clark. He certainly judged
correctly that there was no future in trying to be a voter-
friendly version of Don Brash, if such a beast is conceivable.

On the other hand, it is perfectly arguable that the main
reason Labour held power for nine years was its retention
of the financial reforms instigated by Roger Douglas and
supported enthusiastically by the right ever since. In short,
the difference between the two main parties is not so great:
they are almost identical, in fact, as far as the economic
fundamentals are concerned. Power has merely shifted
from one faction of Party New Zealand to another. And, as
entrepreneur Selwyn Pellett told Tim Hunter of the Sunday
Star-Times, the faction that has just taken over is a “tired
old party. Apart from John Key, what’s behind it is 1990s
thinking—and the world’s moved on.”

Sure has. New Zealand voters have made a timid, cautious
choice at this election. This may provide short-term
comfort but beyond that, it fails to address the ecological
credit crunch, a crisis far more urgent than the one putting
the global financial markets in a spin. Appallingly,
ecology barely got mentioned by any party except the
Greens during the campaign. Beyond the bubble of petty
politicking and ostrich economics, it was as if the Earth’s
atmosphere didn’t exist. The campaign was virtually a
planet-free zone.

And now we have Key lustily singing “What the world needs
now is economic growth.” Yeah right. Like it needs a hole in
the ozone layer.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

All in the same vote

Across the road from where I live, on this sunny Saturday
in Wellington, there’s an orange sign with an arrow that
says VOTING. In my romantic not to say sentimental way
I find this deeply reassuring. As is the busy hall where the
the voting is taking place, with people—metamorphosed
for the day into citizens—on all sides doing their
democratic business. For this one day in three years we
can at least allow ourselves the happy delusion that what
we as ordinary people do has some consequence in the
greater world; that we can make a difference, however
fleeting. It’s a sentimental view because (a) sluggards like
like me need to do more than tick a piece of paper once
every three years if we want to make a genuine democratic
difference and (b) elections leave fundamentally
unchallenged the institutions that shape and direct
societies like ours. Still, I won’t say no to a vote. Across
the road I go, tra-la, tra-la. The sky is blue, the sun is
yellow, the leaves on the trees are green.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes but

It’s impossible to overestimate the symbolic value
of Barack Obama’s election to the US presidency,
particularly to African-Americans. Joy is utterly
justified. The positive impact of his victory will
resonate in a multitude of ways for years to come.
For America, and probably for the rest of us on
this planet, this is a turn for the better.


Let’s not get too carried away here. What really will
change? The United States has only changed leaders,
not the fundamentals of its economic system, nor its
gargantuan military-industrial complex, and the
chances of an Obama administration making a
profound difference to either are not great. As some
charismatic liberal-left leaders do, Obama will put a
nicer face on capitalism till the next right-wing
warmonger comes along. He will do good,
undoubtedly; that wouldn’t be hard after the harm
done by George W Bush. But the revolutionary
change that many of his his ecstatic followers seem
to think will happen won’t.

It feels mean saying that at such an historic moment,
but expecting the Earth of him is not doing Obama
any favours. Nothing but the most rigorous realism
will serve him well now.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Oh yes, the people. Them

I see Mike Moore banging on again in yesterday’s Dominion
Post about the iniquities of MMP. I laughed outright when he
said that, when coalitions were being negotiated after an
MMP election,“squalid and sordid deals” are reached. Like
they never were within major parties under the first-past-
the-post system? Come on. Pull the other one, Mike. This
harking back to a supposed golden age of democracy when
parties were able to govern purely and wholesomely is
wearing thin. Politics is all about deal-making: Moore
knows that better than anyone. The difference with MMP is
that the deals are much more out in the open instead of
being hidden away inside parties, which then present the
results of these "squalid and sordid" transactions as if the
party were gloriously united.

As for first-past-the-post, the virtues of one party governing
alone, untrammelled, regardless of whether it gets a
majority of the vote, are apparent only to members of
Labour and National, who stand to gain most by such a
system. The rest of us see clearly that whatever
combination of coalition partners an MMP election delivers
by way of a government, that's because the people voted it
that way. And, pathetic though it may be, some of us still
cling to the idea that democracy is fundamentally about the
expression of the people’s will, not what’s convenient for
party A or party B.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day of the Dead

In Mexico today it's the annual Day of the Dead, when
people celebrate the lives of family members and friends
who have died. According to my advisers, there is still
some kick to the ancient belief that the souls of the dead
return on November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and November 2
(the Day of The Dead) to receive offerings from the living.
So, in the hope they'll come to your home, you lay out
food and drink, light candles etc, and aim to show them
a good time before they head back whence they came.
Imagine the dead and the living exchanging memories.
The nearest we have to that in New Zealand culture is the
school reunion.