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Monday, March 11, 2019

Something New


 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“BECAUSE A WOMAN’S HEART IS LIKE A NEEDLE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN” by Sugar Magnolia Wilson (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99); “THE MOON IN A BOWL OF WATER” by Michael Harlow (Otago University Press, $27:50) ; “UNDER GLASS” by Gregory Kan) Auckland University Press, $24:99)

The title of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s collection Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean is, according to an end-note, a Chinese proverb – or at least it is when you subtract the word “because”. It is referenced in a poem of the same title. But what does it mean and how does it announce the focus and intention of this collection? Does it mean a woman’s heart is like something tiny in something vast – a mere speck in the universe? Or is it like our term “like finding a needle in a haystack”, perhaps signalling that a woman’s heart is inscrutable and hard to locate? And yet a needle can prick and strike, so maybe it’s also suggesting that, small and inscrutable though it may be, a woman’s heart [= feelings, motives, emotional thought patterns] is capable of striking out at the world.
My apologies for making such heavy weather of a title, but I do think these suggestions take us somewhere near to what the poet is on about. Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean has poems suggesting women’s isolation, emotional responses to nature and (perhaps) vulnerability. But it also has more bolshie poems striking back at men and at any assumptions about women’s weakness. The prick of the needle.
The nine-page prose poem “Dear Sister” opens the volume and in some ways is its manifesto, or at least its announcement of coming attractions.  In a country setting, a woman addresses her “sister”, partly about the nastiness and insensitivity of men (apparently all men are guilty of destroying the environment) but mainly in myth-related images, referencing Lilith, of a woman asserting herself in her own way and even in solitude. Much of its night-time imagery draws upon Romanticism, even if the vocabulary is contemporary. Much also resembles a dream-state, which recurs later in the poem “Dear X”.
Indeed the “Dear Sister” sequence anticipates a number of keys later struck by the poet. Similar night-time imagery appears in the poems “Moon-baller” and “Spent”. Similar ideas of a lost Edenic innocence, and of the lost childhood security of a protective mother, occur in the poem “Home Alone 2 (with you)”, despite its quite different idiom, which says  for a while you let me be a kid again, / a kid who got lost and can’t seem to / find her mother anywhere, / no matter how hard she looks.” In the poem “Final 80s expose” there is desire for a painting of a mother in which “the wispy brown / quarter moon of a / child’s head can be / seen to rest against / her knees”. The collection closes with a 15-part sequence “Pen pal” (apparently it was published separately as a chapbook five years ago). It is a free-verse sequence written as if by a child (or young teenager) in a rural area. The girl plays at being a witch so there are “spells” in it – as well as the assumption of the female’s special, and possibly magical, powers. Of course “Pen pal” presents an adult poet’s perceptions and sensibililties, and not those of a child. But the assumed child’s voice is yet another harking back to innocence.
Oh to be a protected child again… and yet the adult world doesn’t allow such an option.
In fact the world can be a fairly brutal place, and so can much of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s imagery. The poem “Anne Boleyn” gives a harsh anatomical vision of a woman become monster to preserve herself, with the tone struck in the opening lines “Anne Boleyn had reptilian creatures / dwelling in her ovaries / eating all her eggs”. Meanwhile “The Monster”, referencing Frankenstein’s monster, plays on the paradox of the masculine blending tenderness with brutality. (Obviously there is the added irony that Frankenstein’s monster was invented by a woman writer, so the monster is to some extent a woman’s view of the male.) You will also find in this collection incidental reference to male domestic violence in a poem about two half-sisters (“Betty as a Boy”) and in an evocation of 1980s Auckland and children negelected by parents, but again, with a hint of violence (“Newton Gully mix tape”).
I could resort to the tired term “surrealist” to describe the imagery in some poems here (such as “Pup art”). But I am more taken by Wilson’s tendency to anthropomorphise nature as a way of delineating the human condition. In “Glamour”, birds building nests are anthropomorphised to suggest women trapped in domesticity. Something similar happens in “Mother” where birds’ fertility is clearly linked to the concept of motherhood in general. As for “The lake has a long memory”, “Muddy heart”, “The Sleep of Trees” and “Town” – all give a sort of nature description which really comments on human nature, human memory, the human psyche.
What I regard as the stand-out poem in this collection steps aside from these preoccupations. “Conversation with my boyfriend” is a tour de force that has to be read stanza by stanza, alternating between two poems – one expressing a Korean’s thoughts on the same things as the other speaking an Anglophone’s thoughts. I have often seen this double-poem structure before, but rarely as well-handled as it is here, with its suggestions of both understanding and misunderstanding between two cultures. For the record “Bathhouse night chat” is another exercise in the incomprehension between cultures and there are other poems which seem to reflect the waxing and waning of an affair with a Korean.
I would not describe this collection as wistful, although it has its wistful moments. More significantly, its imagery and ideas show a collision of tenderness and hard destructive reality. It has teeth, and they are very sharp. A very significant debut.

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Individual poems always have to be read carefully and treated with respect – and this is the hell of reviewing collections of poetry. Unless I were to give a cogent analysis of each individual poem, which would make for an incredibly long review,  I have to make generalisations about a poet’s work. And essentially this means seeing and commenting on patterns and repeated motifs in poems.
I am saying all this carefully before I launch into my remarks on what is, I believe, Michael Harlow’s twelfth collection of poems The Moon in a Bowl of Water. One of the three epigraphs to this collection is George Serefis’ statement “It would be very useful if our poets learned to use prose for poetic purposes.” Picking up on this statement, Harlow has produced a volume of prose poems.
 In 2016 I reviewed positively on this blog Michael Harlow’s Nothing For It But ToSing, noting how often Harlow’s poems read like psychodramas and how he conceives of joy as a brief consolation for life’s wounds. Born in 1937, Harlow is a Jungian therapist. He is also, says his on-line bio., of Greek and Ukrainian heritage. The psychodramas are here in The Moon in a Bowl of Water with one poem, “On black or white, or both”, specifically referencing psychotherapy. The ethnic connections are here too, with poems drawing upon Greek mythology, as in “Odysseus to his son Telemachus”, “Merz poem, dreaming of Delphi” and those alluding to Persephone. “Artemis for Alcibiades”, with an Eastern Orthodox setting, suggests the therapeutic power of some church-related customs.  “Weaving, and the serenity of her laughter” has a Greek setting and is simply an expression of the serenity that can be found in work, as if it were a sacrament. As for the title poem “The moon in a bowl of water”, it contrasts the ways of the “old country” with the ways of the new, particularly in the matter of having children.

What is more dominant in this collection, however, is the matter of ageing and death. Harlow is now in his 82nd year and inevitably many of these poems are an old man’s reflections. Of course there are poems about death, coffins and funerals, as in “Contingency plan”, “Undertaking” and “The real estate of heaven”; but even the poems that do not address death directly tell us something very sad about facing old age. Perhaps life has not added up to what we expected. “Ex Libris” says that a life of writing may lead to the realisation that it is better to be without words. “Telling darkness” and “Our ruby anniversary” both imply that noise, words, and chatter end in silence anyway. Harlow’s reference to Saint Augustine, “The Bishop of Hippo and Time” suggests that the best thing about time is that it moves on and comes to an end. But something wry can be wrenched from the march of time. One of the collection’s best, “The weather in Mallorca and Tennessee” concerns aged people trying to connect with youth and discovering that growing up is not an endless process of maturing:  And lately he feels the call of philosophy. He thinks hard about walking. Even if walking forward is always the way of getting somewhere, still, it’s good to remember that striding out on one foot, the other is always going backwards.”
The collection’s poems about unhappy psychological states are as frequent as its poems about ageing and death. “Cloudy Sunday” is the portrait of a girl damaged by grief. But what intrigues me is how often psychological stress seems to be related here to connections not made and relationships that did not work out. A wedding does not take place because the couple are mismatched even if they enjoyed flirting (“A matinee special”). A romantic connection may happen, but probably never will (“Swimming lessons in Spanish”).  A woman lives on her own after being thwarted in love (“The gardeners”). The poem “Short talk on walls” concerns what literally separates us. Twins are “strangers of almost a close kind” (“Sister’s keepsake box”).  While “Short talk on Cezanne, Switzerland and lemonade” is mainly about the artist’s special way of seeing, it too segues into the story of a mismatch and deals with how different his tastes are from his wife’s. At least in the poem “On never meeting Samuel Beckett”, the idea of the lost connection is given an ironical and funny twist.
If death is near, if connections are not made and human beings apparently live as isolated souls, then (as was apparent in Harlow’s last collection) joy can never be heartfelt but is always a brief consolation. A clutch of poems say this directly (“A glancing smile”, “Waiting for the basket-of-gold girl”, “Three times blessed”). A poem about a photographer (“The eye of the day”) sees life as, at best, a mixed blessing, or  a way of living… inside the light and dark.” The mood is clearly expressed in the advice given in “One hundred laughters”: “say you are a window-washer rising out of a dream, wanting to give a small but bright celestial shine to this umbrous world.”
If I were to get censorious, I could say that some of Harlow’s poems seem to play on the stereotype of sad and stuffy single women - “Reading between-the-lines, Miss Flora Florentine”, “A small magnificence, just buzz me Miss Blue”, “Taking care of your own” and “Miss A returning”. The last-named concerns a woman teacher who hits children and asks the poignant question  Why is it we sometimes end up  paying for the unhappiness of the unhappy one?”). Or perhaps these are like real people whom the poet has observed in his practice? Some poems seem to force their conclusion, such as “Counting backwards” where a tale of povertyy-wrenched misery concludes: “The truth is I was born with a hole in my heart / In my heart a real hole they said. And it’s still there.” Humour does not always work. It’s hard to tell whether “His career, a pilgim’s progress”, about a strict and possibly violent policeman, is satire or sneer.
On the other hand “Little song on the Hit parade” is a neat sardonic comment on rampant egotism. And “His acting career, getting a life”, one of the best in the collection, is genuinely funny, though in a melancholy way.
You can see that I have damaged my head trying to corral into neat categories  of dominant ideas all the poems in this book. I am now vexed with the thought that they are probably more various than I have suggested. Whatever misgivings I might have about some of Harlow’s work here, however, let me praise the calm reflection of the book’s coda – the perfect six lines called “Short talk on the ‘far more near’ ”, which concisely conveys both the transformative power of poetry and its eternal imperfection.

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Go to this link, Gregory Kan, and you will find that three years ago, in early 2016, I reviewed the Singapore-Chinese expatriate poet’s first collection This Paper Boat. I was impressed by Kan’s ability to link past with present in poems that acknowledged the deadness of the past, while at the same time showing the ongoing influence of the past. Kan often referenced, and was in conversation with, earlier authors.
Gregory Kan’s new collection Under Glass is also in conversation with other authors, as a note at the end lists many (mainly very recent) works which Kan has “sampled”.
Under Glass is all one poem –  not a collection of poems – and has to be read as such. Most of this one poem, printed in sparse and widely-separated lines, is gnomic – both in the sense of brief and pithy and in the sense of requiring very close scrutiny to interpret. Call it a soulscape – the cartography of a lost or bewildered soul. On its opening page (also cited on the back cover) it declares: “Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun is eating its way out from inside me.” We at once have an image of the external world (material reality) and the inner world (mind, thought, feeling), objectivity and subjectivity, empiricsm and rationality.
Read literally, Under Glass takes a journey through a landscape of river and jungle towards the coast and a lighthouse. Like the sun, a lighthouse is a clear symbol of clarity, elucidation, an explanation of things. But the explanation of life is not so straightforward, and the lighthouse proves not to be a place of clarity and elucidation. It has a trapdoor leading to a labyrinth of caverns in which lies “a giant, mouldering pile of letters and notes” (p.55) which may be a judgment on literature. As this poem (book) progresses, it is the inner sun, the subjective, that burns more brightly. But “everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.” (p.40) Even the subjective is driven by material reality. We are in the world of uncertainty where there are no neat answers to the problem of existing.

Strung through Under Glass are direct addresses (“you”) to somebody, so the ontological and epistemological questions are also wedded to the fragility of relationships and it is easy to infer that this set of reflections has been provoked by a relationship that has broken down, or that is at a crisis stage.
There is in this poem that quest for clarity and simplicity, as in “I wanted what happened to be something / I could know / and I wanted what I knew to be something / I could describe” (p.2). The quest is emphasised thus: “I want fixed terms by which to measure my experience. / I must be either high, or dying. / I don’t want to know many small things. / I want to know one big fucking thing / and call it either shame, or home.” (p.12) We also note that “I thought that the things I loved / were places I could always go back to / but the spaces between things become places themselves / and threaten to swallow me whole” (p.6). This concern with the influence of the past links Under Glass with Kan’s earlier collection This Paper Boat.
I found something very refreshing in Under Glass. Perhaps it is the forthrightness of its ideas. Parhaps, for all that I have said about its gnomic quality, it is the poet’s candour in dissecting very personal thought patterns. But most important, it is a work that gives a sense of wholeness and completeness. Under Glass is the expression of one unified inspiration.

Something Old


 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“BLOOD AND MISTLETOE – The History of the Druids in Britain” by Ronald Hutton (first published 2009)

            You might have picked up from earlier postings on this blog that I have fairly firm views on the matter of History. I am aware that much historical evidence is uncertain and that there are many things about the historical past which we simply cannot know. I am aware that every history book ever written was written from a particular viewpoint, but this fact does not seduce me into the false assumption that therefore any one viewpoint is as good as any other. I know that historians are reliant on sources, and that the best histories are written after the historian has consulted as many relevant sources as possible.
But taking all this into account, and knowing that history will always be revised as new sources come to light and as attitudes change, I still maintain that it is the firm duty of the historian to be a spoilsport. Whenever there is a demonstrably untrue popular belief about history, it is the historian’s duty to call it out, no matter how much it may offend some people’s sentimental view of their historical past. This does not mean that the historian is a reckless iconoclast. Nor does it mean that the historian is disdainful of views and beliefs that were held in good faith in past ages. It simply means that the historian is bound to show where real evidence ends and where unverifiable legend and fabrication take over.
 Forgive this pompous introduction (come now! you’ve read this blog often enough to know how pompous I can get). But it is really relevant to Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe which I recently had the great pleasure of reading. Ronald Hutton, distinguished Oxbridge graduate and Professor of History at the University of Bristol, has written a history of Druids in Britain which never belittles or ridicules those who call themselves Druids, or who imagine that they belong to some very ancient religion with a continuous tradition. But he is very clear about the two facts, viz: (a.) we know very little indeed about who or what the orginal Druids were 2,000 years ago; and (b.) all groups that now call themselves Druids, and most images we have of Druids’ beliefs or customs, are fabrications of the last few hundred years, with no real connection to the ancient world.
In his first, long chapter, which he calls “The Raw Material”, Hutton points out that the only ancient documents we have about Druids come from Roman sources, and comprise at most about 12 written pages. Worse, these few pages are clearly re-hashes of one another, repeating the same few facts. Caesar wrote about Druids, for a very few pages, in his Gallic Wars. What he said was basically plagiarised and re-used by Diodorus Siculus who was in turn plagiarised by Strabo and Pomponius Mela. And that’s it for ancient documentation. These very few, and probably inaccurate, pages are the only contemporary documents we have on Druidry. Later historians like Tacitus wrote a few sentences on Druids in Britain, and declared that Druids led Briton resistance in the first century AD when the armies of the Roman general Agricola (Tacitus’ father-in-law) defeated them in a “last stand” at Anglesey in Wales.
The very, very few Roman sources, says Hutton, have a very self-contradictory attitude to Druids. On the one hand, they are the enemies of Roman civilisation which, naturally, Roman writers regard as the acme of human achievement. Druids are depicted as sinister figures indulging in human sacrifice. But then, as Hutton fairly points out, it was common for Romans to suggest the inferiority and barbarity of other peoples by accusing them of human sacrifice. Romans said the same thing about Carthaginians. On the other hand, Romans also depicted Druids as “wise men” who congregated in oak groves, studied the stars, and took over twenty years to train their acolytes by getting them to memorise all the wisdom they knew. (As they had no written language, the Druids have of course left us no accounts of themselves and we do not know what exactly their beliefs were.) These two contradictory images – malign sacrificers of human beings or benign mystic scholars – were, as Hutton shows in his book, to influence different fictionalised versions of the Druids in recent centuries.
These few scraps of Roman writings are our only historical records of ancient Druids – and we have no physical evidence of them either. Says Hutton “not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids” (p.23). Of course this also means there is no archaeological evidence to connect them with Stonehenge or other neolithic monuments, no matter how much modern imagination places them there.
Having forthrightly established this, Hutton then proceeds to show, through the rest of his capacious and well-docmented book, how and when the myth of the Druids grew. When Shakespeare wrote plays supposedly set in ancient Britain (King Lear, Cymbeline) he made no mention at all of Druids because Druids did not yet loom large in the popular imagination. It was only in the 1650s that amateur “antiquarians” like John Aubrey  began to associate Stonehenge and Avebury with Druidism – on no evidence that would now be considered credible.  By the eighteenth century there was a rush to identify stone rings and megaliths as Druid temples – again with no credible evidence. Much of this had to do, as Hutton sees it, with a chauvinistic British desire to create a “civilised” ancient past for Britain not dependent on Mediterranean people such as Romans. The growing image of Druids was also conflated with the myth of the “noble savage”. More pervasively, pre-Christian Druids were conflated with medieval bards of the Christian era. An English “Ancient Order of Druids” was founded towards the end of the eighteenth century, but as Hutton notes, it was more in the nature of a self-help club like the Oddfellows, with little use for rituals supposedly related to the mystic past.

The man who really got modern bogus Druidism going was a Welshman, Edward Williams, who rebranded himself as Iolo Morganwg. Between the 1790s and the 1830s he produced genuine translations of medieval Welsh bards, but he interpolated among them forgeries of his own, which he claimed showed a secret tradition of Welsh Druidism that had persisted since ancient times. From this basis, he devised a religion which he claimed was the authentic monothesitic religion of the ancient Druids. It may disappoint some ardent Welsh nationalists to learn this, but it was Williams who invented the whole concept of the bardic Eisteddfod, which is not an ancient tradition at all. As Hutton shows, the true Welsh bardic tradition was Christian and medieval, had nothing to do with Druidism, and had died out by the 16th century.
Even in Williams’ time, there were scholars who realised that his work was imposture. But this didn’t stop the newly-invented image of Druidism from having a huge cultural impact. Romantic poets (such as Blake) presented Druids in the same way that Williams did. As nationalism began to rumble in Ireland, English writers chose to identify more with their Anglo-Saxon forebears and to denigrate the “Celtic fringe” as culturally inferior. In response, in Ireland, Scotland and Wales there was a rise in national consciousness and a desire to build up distinctively non-English national identities. This often took the form of a created past. In Wales the “traditional” Welsh women’s costume – including the high hat – was invented in the early nineteenth century by Augusta Hall (an Englishwoman!). The fiction that there was a link between medieval Welsh bards and Druids was perpetuated with the creation of the National Eisteddfod. Sometimes real stone megaliths were set up where the Eisteddfod was held. As Hutton remarks ironically “they became permanent monuments to modern Welsh nationalism… and probably the first megalithic structures ever erected by Druids.”
In great detail, Hutton charts how many rival Druid groups, and many cranky theories, flourished in the Victorian era. He also notes that by the middle of the nineteenth century, real archaeology was developing and fewer experts believed there was any connection between Druids and the ancient stone monuments. However, there was a time lag in the acceptance by the general public of this new scientific consensus. Even in the early 20th century there were still popular books and pamphlets asserting that Stonehenge was a Druidical temple.
By this stage, no respectable scholar believed in the antiquity of Williams’ made-up 18th century Druidical religion as it was then acted out, with its “Archdruids” and Druids in long white garb, and sickles and oak branches and rubrics and mid-summer performances. But ironically it was in 1905 that, for the first time, one of the Druidical orders took over Stonehenge for a day. Hutton remarks waspishly “it is a great, and potentially uncomfortable, irony that modern Druids had arrived at Stonehenge just as archaeologists were evicting ancient Druids from it.” In 1912 a crank called George Watson Reid, claiming to be a modern Druid and the head of a universalist religion that united all religions, held a “service” in Stonehenge on midsummer’s day. Even though official guidebooks now said ancient Druids had nothing to do with the monument, Reid had aristocratic backing and was able to continue his performance for a number of years. In the process, he often quarrelled with other groups claiming to be more “authentic” Druids. 

On and off, and sometimes with opposition, “Druids” did their thing on midsummer’s day at Stonehenge. By the 1980s, Profesor Glyn Daniel of Cambridge University was denouncing what he called “alternative archaeology, lunatic archaeology and bullshit archaeology”. Along with a new generation of archaeologists, he was eager to debunk the validity of new Druidical orders and possibly to have them expelled from Stonehenge. But increasingly the general public saw the Druidical mummery as harmless “heritage”. Unfortunately for the Druids, midsummer was now celebrated on the site by large crowds of New Age pagans, hippies and other lost souls as well as the Druids. It all became an increasing danger to the archaeological site itself, and finally both Druid and New Age rituals were banned from Stonehenge. At the time Hutton’s book was published (2009), there had been no Druid perfomance at Stonehenge for nearly 20 years.
While Hutton gives a comprehensive history of how modern Druidism was fabricated, he also discusses in detail why it flourished at the time it did. At first, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was the patriotic desire to prove that Britain had a “pure” monotheism, a sort of ur-Christianity, before Catholic missionaries arrived in the late Roman Empire. This played to dissatisfaction with the awkward fact that Protestant England was demonstrably built on a Catholic foundation. More recently, whatever survives of Druidism is more allied to the various neo-pagan groups that have sprung up. Druidism is one of many desperate attempts to “prove” that there was an ancient, stately, ethical religion in Britain before Christianity in any form arrived. Antiquity is connected with respectability, hence the desire to invent antique foundations for a newly-devised sect. In this, Druidism is on the same page as the equally fabricated New Age religion of Wicca (mainly devised in the 1950s and having little to do with any known ancient religion).
In the current age of fashionable hostility to Christianity, there are many fictions about the Christian era and especially about the Christian Middle Ages. Nonsense books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code tell credulous readers that “about five million” witches were burnt in the Middle Ages. The most reliable sources tell us that very few witches were executed during the Middle Ages, but that about 60,000 were executed in the Reformation era (between c.1580 and 1650). Another nonsense theory (see my post Faggots Fakery andUp Yours) claims the homosexuals were regularly burnt at the stake in the Middle Ages. Again, this is egregious bullshit. Modern Druidism isn’t as vindictive or malign in its effects as these fabrications. It is essentially harmless crankery. But it is still an example of a fiction that has warped many people’s views of the real historical past.
An image of the Druid as the benign village shaman, clothed in white with a long white beard, cutting oak-leaves with his golden sickle, concocting magic potions and dauntlessly defying the power of imperial Rome? But of course – this is the image of the Druid Panoramix in the delightful “Asterix” comic books (in English translations he is called “Getafix”). This comic book invention is just as historical as those orders which describe themselves as Druids.

Something Thoughtful


Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

LIMITATIONS OF GUILT



Not too long ago, I was hanging out the washing when my eye was caught by the label on the collar of one of my shirts. It said “Made in Bangladesh”. At once my heart was pierced by the arrow of guilt. Bangladesh? Didn’t that mean that my shirt was produced in some appalling sweatshop where child labour was exploited and workers were paid a pittance? The very name evoked all the images we have seen so often on TV documentraies about Asian wage-slaves, slums, child prostitutes and callous international corporations who make millions out of misery.

Of course, all the counter-images kicked in too. Perhaps my shirt was produced in some ethically-designed factory (there are some) whose employees were paid decent wages. Perhaps there was some truth to the neo-conservative argument that entrepreneurship always begins messy and exploitative, but this is a necessary stage societies go through before humane captalism can emerge. Even so, it was the negative images that dominated, and the existential distance between me – middle-class Western consumer – and the impoverished people who probably made the shirt.

In an earlier post called Confessions of aHeartless Capitalist Exploiter, I’ve touched jocularly on the matter of Westerners taking advantage of Asian traders and producers – but that post concerned a very brief visit to Shanghai, and China is now a country more in the exploiting than the exploited mode, with a growing state-controlled capitalist, profit-based economy. But Bangladesh? That is a different matter. So there was a real twinge of guilt.

All of which brings me to the questions I pose today.

How much guilt should we feel about enjoying the fruits of the labour of people far more impoverished than we are? Are we, in effect, like new versions of those people who once lived comfortably off the slave trade?

My part in the cycle is a very small one. I bought the shirt from a New Zealand retailer who, presumably, has to honour New Zealand labour laws about wages and conditions owed to employees. As a consumer, I didn’t directly exploit anybody in buying my shirt. But (assuming my shirt was made in the worst conditions I have imagined), doesn’t this still make me part of the general pattern of exploitation? Somewhere before the shirt reached me, it would have had to be bought by an importer who profited directly from underpaid workers. At this point, I think,  left-wing people would start talking about systemic exploitation and – as they always do – would neatly by-pass the problem of individual guilt.

But here is the problem. Are there not degrees of guilt? There is a big difference between somebody who knowingly and directly exploits and underpays workers, and somebody who has no conscious role in such exploitation. This is not an argument for blissful ignorance, where I base my innocence on conveniently “not knowing” how the system works. Once we are adults, we have a duty to find out as best we can how the world works. But it is an argument for recognising that guilt is a relative thing. If, as some ideologues say, guilt is a systemic and general thing, then we are all guilty. And if we are all guilty, then nobody is guilty.

Let me give you an example of how the idea of collective guilt can work – and can quickly become very dishonest. In occupied France during the Second World War, at most about 2% of the population were involved actively in the Resistance. That is quite a number of people when you think about it, given the dangers involved; but it is still a small proportion of the population. The overwhelming majority of the population did what people in all occupied countries did. They didn’t like being controlled by a hostile force, but they kept their heads down, went about their daily business, and just hoped these horrible times would pass. And then there was a small minority who actively helped the occupying force – joining paramilitary groups who assisted the Nazis in rooting out resisters, joining the Waffen SS, coordinating round-ups of Jews etc. After the war was over, such active collaborators would sometimes use the face-saving slogan “Everybody Collaborated”. They meant that those people who didn’t actively resist were also collaborators, because they kept society running under occupation. This was a claim of collective guilt. But there is no way that I can see a teacher or postman or truck-driver going about his business under such conditions as sharing the same guilt as a French volunteer for the Waffen SS.

And there is no way that I can see a Western consumer buying a shirt as sharing the guilt of an exploiter of underpaid women and children.

            Guilt has its limits. The idea of collective guilt can be a neat avoidance of individual responsibility. But we still have a duty to understand how the world works.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Something New


  We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“SEE NO EVIL” by Maire Leadbeater (Otago University Press, $NZ49:95) “LET’S GET LOST” Text by Nicola McCloy - photographs by Jane King (Penguin / Random House, $45)



            When a book is subtitled “New Zealand’s betrayal of the people of West Papua”, you know it is a book of advocacy – that is, a book arguing a case. In See No Evil, Maire Leadbeater, veteran activist in many causes, is not concerned to tell a general history of modern Papua or Indonesia, but to indict the complacency and complicity of New Zealand in Indonesia’s take-over of the western half of the land we used to call New Guinea. (Indonesians prefer to call it West Irian or Irian Jaya).

As her friend, former Green MP Catherine Delahunty says in her Foreword: “There is no claim here that New Zealand is a global superpower with the ability to turn the situation around single-handedly, but it is a wealthier neighbour whose self-interest has aligned it with state violence, torture and structural genocide.”

Leadbeater sets out her argument succinctly in her Introduction. As the Dutch decolonised in the 1940s and 1950s, and as the Dutch East Indies ceased to be, New Zealand’s government at first favoured a united and independent Papua / New Guinea. But this was the era of the Cold War, so New Zealand agreed with Australia and the United States that Indonesia would be a helpful buffer against Communism. Hence by the 1960s it joined others in giving Indonesia a free hand in West Papua.

Having set up this argument, See No Evil then delves into more detailed history. The Papuan peoples were labelled “Melanesian” by Europeans and have accepted that appellation. Racially, culturally and linguistically they are quite distinct from the Malay peoples who became Indonesians, and very few Indonesians lived in West Papua. When Papua was colonised by Europeans, the eastern half was divided between the Germans and the British. Then after the Second World War – and after brief Japanese occupation of some areas -  it was administered by Australia. Meanwhile the western part was a Dutch colony.

The Dutch were apparently more benign colonisers than the British or Germans and, when they resumed control after the Second World War, they were a great improvement on the Japanese occupiers.  But after 1945, the world admired the Indonesian national liberation movement, and Indonesian nationalists lay claim to all of the Asian empire from which the Dutch were withdrawing. New Zealand and Australia at first supported continued Dutch control of West Papua until such time as Papuans themselves could vote on independence. Those West Papuans who could make their wishes known were opposed to an Indonesian takeover. But by the 1950s, the US saw Indonesia as suffering from too much communist influence, hoped the Indonesian nationalist leader Sukarno would be a bulwark against Communism and therefore did not want to thwart his expansionist ambitions.

As Leadbeater sees it (in Chapter 4) the Dutch administering West New Guinea were more humane administrators than the Australians administering East New Guinea. They mixed more easily with Papuans on social occasions and were genuinely trying to form a cohort of Papuans capable of ruling the country, even if at that time, in the central highlands, there were still many Papuans beyond western influence. Walter Nash, New Zealand’s prime minister at the end of the 1950s, advocated one united and independent Papua / New Guinea. The Netherlands set out a 10-year timetable for ceding independence, under UN supervision, while continuing to train Papuans.

In 1961, a New Guinea Council was inaugurated, the Morning Star flag (of Papuan independence) was raised and local elections were peacefully and successfully held in coastal areas. But at this moment of hope, there was increasing Indonesian infiltration of West Papua. The United States, wishing to accommodate Indonesian ambitions, brokered a new “agreement” between the Netherlands and Jakarta. This New York Agreement involved allowing Indonesia to take over administration from the Dutch in 1963, after seven months of United Nations supervision, and then only after another 6 years, in 1969, to “consult” the Papuans on the question of independence. In New Zealand, the academic Kenneth Cumberland was one of the few to protest publicly against this arrangement and to still hope for a united, independent Papua.

The New Zealand government by now had very mixed feelings about Indonesia, and in 1963-65 New Zealand forces were among those who fought against Indonesia in its “confrontation” with Malaysia. America was also now worried that Sukarno used too much anti-colonial rhetoric and sometimes welcomed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a major ally. It also seemed clear that as 1969 approached, Indonesia would not honour the planned plebiscite on West Papuan independence. Indonesia had already made Indonesian the only official language in West Papua.

In 1965, in Indonesia itself, some generals were assassinated. Leadbeater says this was not a communist initiative, and its perpetrators had nothing to do with main PKI, but it gave the military strongman Suharto an excuse to crack down on Communists. Between 500,000 and 1 million suspected communisits were killed by the Indonesian army and police and there was also a purge of ethnic Chinese. From this point on, Suharto was clearly taking over from Sukarno, though it was was Sukarno, with his incoherent foreign policy, who referred to 1965 as “The Year of Living Dangerously”.

By now, Indonesia was moving both troops and settlers into West Papua. Despite moneys that the Dutch had contributed as they left, Indonesia did little to improve West Papuan infrastructure or health services. There was little international protest. Increasingly New Zealand, Australia and others saw friendly relations with 112 million Indonesians as being more important than the needs or wishes of a few million Papuans.

In the central West Papuan highlands, there was a rebellion against Indonesia’s gradual takeover, but it was put down with great brutality. Finally in 1969, the Indonesian government and troops used coercion to rig a supposed “Act of Free Choice”, forcing Papuans to accept their overlordship. Western and Arab and Asian nations (such as India) accepted Indonesia’s position. In 1975, (Eastern) Papua New Guinea ceased to be under Australian control and became independent. In West Papua, there was continued guerrilla resistance throughout the 1970s, but the Papuan independence movement (the OPM) suffered factionalism and split. A dirty war was carried out by Indonesia, in which napalm and the strafing of villages played a part. Villages in the highlands were forcibly “modernised” by being re-aligned to break up tribal and family connections. By 1984, there were about 220,000 sponsored and unsponsored Indonesian migrants in West Papua and the Papuan population was being “swamped” in coastal areas and ports.

Not to be overlooked in all this were matters of economics and international investment. In the 1930s, a major oilfield was found in West Papua by an American team (Leadbeater says its existence was not revealed to the Dutch colonial government) and large seams of gold were found in the interior mountains.

By the 1990s, having bought a major concession from the Indonesian government, the Freeport-McMoRan company was controlling huge copper and gold mines, paying massive kickbacks to corrupt Indonesian officials. Freeport-McMoRan was the largest taxpayer on West Papua and the source of over half West Papua’s GDP. But it was also a major polluter and none of its profits found their way to the West Papuan people.

There were internal challenges to the Suharto regime by the 1990s. In 1997, Suharto was persuaded to step down and there was some liberal reform in Indonesia itself – but not very much, as the military still had great power. There was hope for a “Papuan spring”, with Indonesia proposing “special autonomy” (as opposed to independence) for West Papua. But this proposal was never really followed through, and the behaviour of the Indonesian army did not augur well for the future. Indonesia had lost East Timor after a popular, UN-supervised referendum there. In revenge, the Indonesian army went on a rampage in East Timor and killed much of the population before UN forces were able to take over. Such “punishment” could be West Papua’s in similar circumstances.

So far, in a bland and boring fashion, I have simply summarised the relevant history as it is narrated by Maire Leadbeater. But this ignores the main target of her criticism, which is the way successive New Zealand governments have complied with Indonesia’s absorption of West Papua. Her comments on this matter tend to come in self-contained paragraphs.

Of the massacre of communists in Indonesia in 1965, she writes: “Western nations, including New Zealand, were influential actors in the drama. From the documentation available it cannot be concluded definitively that the US or any other Western government played a direct role in fomenting the events of 1 October, but there is plenty of evidence that officials were waiting in the wings for the PKI to misstep or mount a coup so that their friends in the Indonesian military could move against them. New Zealand, as a junior partner in the Western alliance, was kept well informed.” (p.120)

Similarly, of Indonesia’s “Act of Free Choice” in 1969, she says: “The New Zealand Department of Foreign Affairs prepared a briefing paper for the New Zealand UN Mission in September. There was no attempt to disguise the fact that the Indonesian authorities used coercion, bribery, intimidation and indoctrination to achieve the desired result. But it was now done and dusted.” The New Zealand report said there was no “practical” alternative to what the Indonesians had done, Indonesians had in effect been in control of West Papua for six years, and New Zealand would therefore not protest in the UN should there be a debate on the matter. (p.157)

She notes that in supporting the Columbo Plan, New Zealand allowed Indonesian military pilots to train in New Zealand, as well as welcoming over 500 Indonesian students. In 1972, Suharto visited New Zealand and was given an effusive state reception by National Party prime minister Marshall. The same friendly attitude towards Indonesia continued with Norman Kirk’s Labour government and the later Lange government. New Zealand governments were mainly interested in trade and regional security, with little thought for the Papuan people.

Leadbeater’s final chapter has the self-explanatory title “New Zealand chooses the wrong partners, but West Papuans find Pacific allies”. In the last two decades successive New Zealand governments (National-led and Labour-led) have endorsed a  common defence strategy with Indonesia; and New Zealand had programmes training Indonesian pollice.  But, says Leadbeater,  “The strategy of engaging with Indonesia’s security forces in an effort to improve their practice has failed. It is time for a re-evaluation, especially in the light of claims that the West Papuan people are experiencing a slow genocide.” (p.232) Leadbeater here defines genocide not as methodical extermination, but as deliberate imposition upon West Papuans of appalling living conditions, limitations of medical aid, and especially the huge influx of non-Papuan Indonesians, ensuring that the island’s culture and traditional identity are wiped out.

As a slight sign of hope, she refers to some positive news coverage of Papuan independence-seekers at times when Indonesia has eased censorship a little. She is impressed by the way churches and other humanitarians have continued to support West Papuan aspirations and the favourable media coverage Papuan leaders receive when they visit New Zealand. But in her “Conclusion”, she still notes that the current Labour-led government of New Zealand has essentially continued the same policies of preceding governments, making trade and good relations with Indonesia their priorities.

I might have a very few little quibbles with this book. The tone is lowered when that old charlatan Rewi Alley is quoted as a reliable source (pp.126-127). The survey of Indonesian events probably underplays the upsuge of popular Muslim feeling that was a major factor in the anti-communist movement – and the fact that Indonesia now is a very Islamic country aligned with some questionable forces.

These are, however, quibbles only. This is a detailed work of polemic. I ended it thinking how similar Indonesia’s gradual and often brutal conquest of West Papua has been to another, and even more lethal, conquest by a totalitarian nation. Just as Indonesians “swamp” Papuans, so do Han Chinese “swamp” Tibetans as China has taken over Tibet and suppressed its culture. And the pile of corpses there has been even greater. Now the Chinese are apparently following the same policies among the Uyghur people of its westernmost province.

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Compared with what I have just been discussing, the book that follows might appear trite and frivolous – but I hope you good readers will indulge me as I make this odd juxtaposition. Subtitled “Great New Zealand Road Trips”, Let’s Get Lost is a travel guide, but not one of those dreary compilations that simply list places to stay, prices and the most popular sights to see. Author (Nicola McCloy) and photographer (Jane King) certainly make recommendations, but they have also produced a real travel book with its own quirkiness.

Their technique is to regard journeys in New Zealand as real road trips – not just hops from A to B, but long, leisurely drives with many stops on the way, following those road signs that take you off main routes, lead you up side-roads, and bring you to those local attractions that more hasty tourists miss in their rush. The attractions may be an unexpected vantage point from which to view spectacular scenery or a neglected historical site, or one of those low-tech tourist attractions like somebody’s collection of teapots or a well-restored country pub.

Their itineraries are five North Island trips and four South Island trips – viz. Northland, Coromandel, the North Island’s East Coast, Taranaki and the Central Plateau, Manawatu and Wairarapa; and on the South Island the north-west (Marlborough, Tasman etc.) , the West Coast, North and Central Otago, and Queenstown to Southland. In each case, we are provided with driving times between desired destinations and suggestions as to the number of nights each trip should probably take. The assumption is that we will linger and spend whole days at one destination before moving on.

I will admit that Nicola McCloy’s prose style is often gushy. Apparently she has never been disappointed in any destination she has aimed for. In Let’s Get Lost quirky local attractions are always fascinating, the scenery is always wonderful, and keepers of pubs, cafés, and bookshops are always charming, helpful and hospitable. Well, the book is an incitement to a form of tourism, after all.

Woolgathering among the photos is naturally one of the main attractions of Let’s Get Lost and for me personally it is a reminder that the one part of New Zealand I have never explored is the North Island’s East Coast (sorry, but I’ve never visited Gisborne or the East Cape). I will take this book with me when I go there.