Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Name it

In Encircled Lands, her new book about Tuhoe between
1820 and 1921, Judith Binney finds ‘evidence of the
inability of human societies in general to accept that
different forms of tribal, or even communal, self-
government can coexist with the nation state, without
challenging national sovereignty. This,’ she goes on, ‘is
the essential, and repeated, issue in the relationship of
indigenous communities to the larger polity within which
they live.’

Frankly, it would be nice if the larger polity could even
accept that correctly spelt Maori placenames can coexist
with the Pakeha nation state. The resistance to the correct
spelling of Whanganui speaks volumes about that. Now,
thanks to a report in today’s Dominion Post, we learn that
some people—including the ubiquitous Michael Laws
bleating inanely ‘Where does the political correctness
end?’—are scoffing at the Waitangi Tribunal’s
recommendation that Rimutaka, the long-established
name of the range of hills between Wellington and
Wairarapa, should be corrected to Remutaka.

'The story behind the area's name,' writes reporter Tanya
Katterns, 'is that a Maori chief, Haunuiananaia, an
ancestor of the Te Ati Hau a Paparangi people of the
Whanganui region, left his home in southern Taranaki to
pursue his errant wife Wairaka, who had run off with a
slave. During his journey, he sat down to rest on a
mountain and think about his quest. He named the
mountain Remutaka—which means to sit down.'

Fair enough. Good story. As a Wairarapa boy who has
crossed those hills hundreds of times in his life I’m
ashamed to say I never gave a thought to why we called
them ‘Rimutaka’ or, more commonly, ‘the Rimutakas.’
I guess I thought it had something to do with rimu trees.
Doh. So if Remutaka is what it should be, then bring it on.

Incredibly, this simple, sensible and unarguably right
idea is too much for former South Wairarapa district
councillor John Tenquist, who is quoted as calling it
ludicrous. 'Once again we are pandering to a minority,'
he says. 'We have some European heritage in this country
and, rightly or wrongly, it has been Rimutaka for over
150 years, so if it ain't broken, don't fix it.'

Rightly or wrongly? I guarantee that if people went
around persistently spelling Masterton (named after a
real historical person called Masters) Mawsterton or
Mesterton, Mr Tenquist would soon have something to
say about it. But of course I'm forgetting: all rights are
equal but majority rights are more equal than minority
rights. Doh.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Advice for beginning mystics

'Be sober, be intelligent, be educated, rely on the
tangible reality as long as you can. Remember that
the act of writing is a tiny part of a bigger something.
Defend the value of the spiritual experience and if
somebody tells you it’s an old-fashioned notion,
laugh loudly and serenely. Don’t trust priests of the
postmodern religion of absolute playfulness.'
—Adam Zagajewski

Friday, June 25, 2010

Oaths of office

What can one say by way of encouragement to incoming
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (keeping in mind
the experience of her predecessor)?

Well, Julia, let’s just say that the career of anyone taking
top office consists of two phases.

First you’re sworn in.
Then you’re sworn at.

Good luck.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

Out there in talk radio land, Russel Norman is getting a
roasting for his part in what happened outside
Parliament last week. The mood has unquestionably
turned against him, as those who never liked the Greens
anyway use the incident as a fresh excuse for venting
anti-Green spleen, only this time with a fine ring of
self-righteousness. As if they’d been waiting for Norman
(that insufferable prick who keeps making sense, damn
him) to slip up, and now it’s Gotcha! Yes, a merry sense
of Schadenfreude pervades the scorn of talkback calls.

There’s a rich irony, too, in the frequent citing of how
well behaved Rod Donald was when he protested at a
previous Chinese state visit. He got permission, he stood
well back, he didn’t shout. Nice Rod. Good Rod. As if he
wasn’t regarded with equal contempt when he was alive.
The only good Green’s a dead (or retired) Green?

It’s also amusing to the point of hysterical laughter that
critics are calling what Norman did a ‘publicity stunt.’
Well, yes, if you like. So? Everything in politics is a
publicity stunt of one sort or another. Rodney Hide has
built a career on being one. You could just as easily say
that the entire visit by Xi Jinping was an elaborate
publicity stunt, orchestrated so delicately that the least
ruffle, like a man standing holding a Tibetan flag, could
threaten to send it spinning out of control.

As an aside, has anyone noticed that Vice-President Xi
did not utter a single word in public during his three-day
visit? Certainly not one recorded by the media that I can
find. Nor did anyone attached to his entourage, except
for the briefest statements. Naturally not a squeak came
from the guards who manhandled Norman; nor has the
Chinese government even deigned to respond publicly
to John Key’s ingratiating apology for what over the past
four days has somehow, by a rather sinister process of
Beltway elision, come to be called a 'scuffle.'

In all this, and by no means accidentally, the serious
question really raised by the incident—namely, how come
Chinese security guards were able to do precisely what
they liked on New Zealand’s Parliament Grounds and not
be called to account for it?—has been swept under the red
carpet, while the focus swings onto Norman, who has
gloatingly been scapegoated for doing something that
would scarcely have crept in at the bottom of a news item
had he not been assaulted by members of an official
foreign state entourage.

Let me get this clear. When our politicians go to China on
official visits they have to conform to the Chinese way of
doing things, out of politeness if nothing else. And when
Chinese politicians come to New Zealand, we have to
conform to their way of doing things here as well—and
apologize to them if we don't. Have I got that right? Just
so we're all on the same page about this.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Far from the land

A good article by Amanda Cropp in yesterday's Your
Weekend magazine about the employment of migrant
workers, mostly from the Philippines, on Canterbury
dairy farms. It's clear from what Cropp writes that the
bigger the farm and the less linked to the land its
owners—ie, if it's a foreign-owned 'corporate farm'—
then the more likely that workers will be exploited
and the animals ill-treated and neglected. She quotes
a farmer saying that '500 to 600 cows is still a family
operation, but once it's 1000 it's a completely
different ball game.' Some of the new farms being
proposed for places like the Mackenzie Basin are for
thousands and thousands of cows. What I found
most chilling in the article, though, was a passing
reference to a '14,000-cow indoor dairying unit' in
Saudi Arabia. Unit? Unit? That is battery farming,
plain, simple and barbaric.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Changing your books

Coming across a reference to ‘changing your books,’ I am
intensely reminded that when I was growing up in
Masterton in the 1950s and early 1960s, we didn’t go to
the public library to borrow books or take out a book, we
went (every Friday night, as a rule) to change our books:
the unspoken understanding being that you would always
have one or two books on the go, there would never be a
time when you weren’t reading one, and that therefore
you would change them regularly (it may have been that
you were only allowed to have them for a week in those
days, I can’t remember). And Friday night, late shopping
night, a special, almost magical couple of hours each week
in the life of a provincial town in the sequestered 1950s,
was invariably when it happened—the changing of at least
one book for another (I'm fairly sure, actually, that there
was a limit of three allowed at a time—for kids anyway).

The public library wasn’t the only one in town, though.
The big department store, the WFCA (Wairarapa Farmers'
Cooperative Association), later Wright Stephenson, had a
small lending library in its basement. This would be
inconceivable now—though video shops are the modern
equivalent. The WFCA’s poky little library stocked mostly
thrillers, romances and crime fiction, and you paid for
what you took out, of course—possibly threepence or
sixpence a book. In my teens I must have borrowed
hundreds of detective novels, working my way through
writers like Anthony Gilbert, Miles Burton and Erle
Stanley Gardner, as well as virtually all of Agatha Christie
and most of the Saint books by Leslie Charteris. I even
read westerns. Hundreds of books a year, gobbling them
up with the indiscriminate appetite of the young. In a way,
I'm appalled—why wasn't I into Dostoyevsky at 14?—but
on the other hand it got all that stuff out of the road early
on, so that I've never felt the need to spend time on it
again. Yeah right. So how come I still haven't read Proust?
And didn't I, for the sheer nostalgic comfort of it, revisit a
Biggles book earlier this year? Some books never change.
Maybe some readers don't, either.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I am not sure about writers any more. I begin to think
they make too much of themselves. It’s not entirely their
fault, the poor sods: publishers and publicists are at
them all the time, demanding that they do tricks, jump
for fish and balance balls on the ends of their noses. The
book is in danger of being supplanted by the writer,
because the book qua book is just too hard for us to take.
As Rilke said, beauty is only the beginning of a terror we
can barely endure. Art, unmediated art, is a tough call in
these times: we need the backstory, the creative process,
the press release, the launch. We have to know that an
individual who could have been us did this thing. Thus
the writer, a cringing creature at the best of times,
someone who, as Colm Tóibín says, ought never to get
out of their mental pyjamas, is thrust forward blinking
into the light and told to hustle product. Some do it well,
of course, but the inexorable effect of writerization is the
diminution of the work.

We readers (consumers) are also terrified of our own
judgments and crave guidance on what to like and what
not to like. Imagine the sheer horror of picking up a new
book and knowing nothing at all about it. Panicking, we
turn to the flap for information on the author; rush to the
internet and google up some reviews; anchor ourselves in
the sheltered harbour of the already. Whew. Could have
got drowned out there.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

All White on the night

So. The whole world will be watching tonight when gallant
little New Zealand, the nuggety no-hopers from nowhere,
take on mighty Slovakia in the World Cup in South Africa.
Showing a shameless lack of national chauvinism, I must
admit to feeling somewhat dispirited about the All Whites’
chances till I read yesterday’s editorial in the New
Yes. The Herald, in its magisterial way, has
seized on the English goalkeeper’s fumble in the game
against the United States—an error that, observers say, is
already up there with Hitler’s invasion of Russia and the
maiden voyage of the Titanic as one of history’s most
shocking blunders—as a beacon of hope for Kiwi fans. It
proves, according to the Herald, that ‘once a team make
it to the World Cup, they can upset predictions with grit,
teamwork and undeserved luck.’

This is the spirit, by God, that allows New Zealanders to
hold their heads high in the world: the unswerving belief
that Kiwi pluck, skill and ingenuity will prevail just so long
as someone else cocks up somewhere. Never doubt it. Did
Hillary get to the top of Everest on nothing more than
guts and determination? No: he got there first because
had failed to do so before him. Why did Russell
Crowe become a Hollywood superstar? Because, in a
once-in-300-years phenomenon, several American
producers simultaneously had a brain explosion that
momentarily prevented them from detecting real talent.
Anything of note that any New Zealander ever achieved in
the world has been the result of accident, screw-up or
undeserved luck. I need hardly mention the famous case
of Ernest Rutherford, who only split the atom because he
accidentally dropped one on the lab floor while trying to
put it in a test-tube.

The All Whites, then, deserve all the undeserved luck they
can get. A 4-1 thrashing of Slovakia is perfectly possible,
given freakish atmospheric conditions, a mid-European
existential crisis 10 minutes from time and a sniper in
the top row of the stands. As the Herald, in its wisdom,
says: ‘Stranger things have happened.’

Monday, June 14, 2010

Prep talk

I’m not sure I agree with my old colleague Terry Snow,
who expostulates fulminatively in last week’s Listener
about the tendency to drop prepositions from news
reports, eg, ‘The high exchange rate has impinged their
profit’ and ‘British families are grieving loved ones lost
in Iraq.’ The English language didn’t get where it is today
without tightening, abbreviating, welding, fusing two
words into one, shedding wasteful words, getting ever
cleaner and crisper. ‘Grieving loved ones’ seems just as
good to me, if not better, than ‘Grieving for loved ones,’
and I also have no problem with ‘He appealed the verdict’
instead of ‘He appealed against the verdict’ and ‘They
protested the decision’ without the need for ‘against.’ If
the meaning is indisputably clear, as it is in all these
cases, then let’s not fret if the odd preposition misses the
cut. They still have a pretty good life, those preps, with at
least a walk-on role in just about every sentence ever
spoken or written.

By the same token, I've long been a fan of the American
custom of dropping superfluous letters from words, eg,
program for programme and traveler for traveller
(though, perversely, Americans cling to fulfill and willful).
I think also that the inventive abbreviations of txting
enrich, not impoverish, the language. A good acronym
gives me untold pleasure. The only form of abbreviation
that irks me is the growing media tendency to run the
initials of people's names together, so that C K Stead,
say, becomes CK Stead. Instead. As it were.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bloody foreigners

‘Tonight is about democracy in Auckland where we are
presenting for the good people of Howick.’
—Botany MP Pansy Wong

‘This is a good day for Howick, Pakuranga and Botany.
They have a government that listens.’
—Local Government Minister Rodney Hide

—front-page headline, Howick & Pakuranga Times

What was being trumpeted here last week was the success
of an amendment to the Auckland super-city legislation.
For the south-eastern ward of the new council, the Local
Government Commission had proposed the name Te
Irirangi, but local people (some of the non-Maori ones
anyway) rose up in wrath at what one of them called an
‘appalling name’ that was difficult to pronounce. The
Howick & Pakuranga Times ran a campaign against Te
Irirangi, promoted a petition that went to Parliament and
won the day: the ward will be known as Howick.

The name is that of a 19th-century English aristocrat, the
third Earl Grey, who before he succeeded to his father’s
title was known as Viscount Howick, that being the name
of the family’s stately home in Northumberland. Grey was
Colonial Secretary in the British government at the time
eastern Auckland was being occupied by white settlers.
He never came near New Zealand, let alone the part of it
that bears his name to this day.

Tara Te Irirangi was the paramount chief of Ngai Tai, the
tangata whenua at the time the settlers arrived. According
to Brian Rudman in the New Zealand Herald he was a
‘friend to the newcomers, learning their language and
supporting the new settler government.’ Nice of him. He
got a street named after him, and Otara’s name derives
from him too. But the Local Government Commision’s
proposal was clearly a suburb too far for some. ‘The name
has come from nowhere,’ thundered the editor of the
H & P Times
. ‘It doesn’t mean anything to people who
have lived here for a long time.’

Go figure. Rudman wrote an excellent column about it here.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, the Invercargill
City Council has roundly rejected the idea of calling a new
street Ti Kouka Way, as suggested by a council officer, and
opted for Kakariki Way instead. Not so egregious, you
might think, but Ti Kouka (the cabbage tree common in the
area of the street) missed out because, according to the
Southland Times, ‘councillors agreed it might be difficult to
pronounce.’ One said it sounded like ‘coconut.’ Another said
it would be a hard one to explain to a call centre in Delhi.

That's the trouble with these pesky foreign languages, which
is what te reo still clearly is to many Pakeha: they're just
not English enough.