Monday, April 22, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“MY BODY, MY BUSINESS”, recorded, edited and introduced by Caren Wilton (Otago University Press, $NZ45)
[I must preface this review with an apology. My Body, My Business was published in November 2018, and only six months later am I getting around to reviewing it. Why should this be so? Because I put this blog on hold for three months, when I was holidaying in Europe, and I am therefore only now catching up with books which publishers, in my long absence, were good enough send me for review. Sorry.]
I am sometimes acccused of having a dry, descriptive approach to reviewing, whereby I catalogue in detail what a book contains. But there is a good reason to follow this approach when I consider My Body, My Business. I want to be as objective as possible. This book is about prostitution in New Zealand, upon which many people have definite views, ranging from acceptance to indifference to repugnance. I have my own views on prostitution, but I will save such views until I have finished this review proper.
Oral historian Caren Wilton began her research in 2009 and did not produce this book until nine years later. She interviewed in depth and detail seventeen New Zealand “sex workers” (she notes that the term was first coined in America). Six of these interviews remain in archives for future researchers to find, and only eleven are reproduced in My Body, My Business. All but three interviewees included here chose to be known by pseudonyms.
These eleven personal memoirs present a variety of views. Four of the eleven interviewees are transgender (male-to-female) prostitutes. Is this representative of prostitution in New Zealand? Do transgender people make up over a third of New Zealand’s prostitutes? I simply do not know. I note too that most of the interviewees are middle-aged, being born in the 1940s or 1950s or 1960s. All were interviewed six or seven years back, so they would range in age from those in their seventies to those in their forties. There is only one comparative youngster, “Stevie”, born in the 1980s. Does this suggest that younger prostitutes preferred not to be interviewed or were considered too young to tell life stories? Again, I do not know. It’s also worth noting that, while we hear some prostitutes express discontent with their way of life, this collection does not include those who never wanted to be prostitutes in the first place, or who felt their lives had been wrecked by the trade. Could it be that such people did not volunteer to be interviewed? No migrant (non-New Zealand-citizen) prostitutes are interviewed in this book, and most have some sort of connection with the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC), a sort of trade union and advocacy group for prostitutes.
Most of the prostitutes represented in this book came from families in straitened circumstances – not necessarily dirt-poor, but not comfortably affluent either. Only two seem to be more middle-class – the dominatrix who calls herself Mistress Margaret and Dame Catherine Healy, founder of the NZPC. Mistress Margaret is a university-educated Englishwoman. Catherine Healy, also university-educated, spent nine years as a school teacher and, she says, moved into prostitution only after working as a receptionist in a massage parlour which she at first did not realise was a brothel. (As an irrelevant sidelight, I should add that the supervisor of my doctoral thesis in History, the late Professor Hugh Laracy, told me with a mixture of pride and amusement that Catherine Healy was his cousin.)
The most strident (dare I say shrill?) voice in this collection belongs to the prostitute who calls herself Misty and who says many negative things about her clients, not in terms of their violence or mistreatment of her, but in terms of their values. I found the most nuanced and, from my perspective, the most sympatheric contribution came from the lesbian Jeanie, who admits that servicing men was very draining for her and who comes close to saying that for her sex is better when it's part of a real commitment.
Caren Wilton’s preface and introduction emphasise that the stories in this book are invdividual stories, personal and unique testimonies. I accept in good faith that what the eleven interviewees say are their stories as they remember them, while also noting that we all have a tendency to elaborate things a little and memory is not always a reliable recorder of events. Twice I met things that I found hard to believe, but I’ll have to pass them over in silence as I am, of course, in no position to contradict them.
The introduction gives a very handy brief history of prostitution in New Zealand, from the first Maori women who sold themselves to Pakeha whalers and sailors to the decriminalisation of prostitution in 2003, which is seen as a watershed and a moment when the law began to give some real protection (from harrassment or blackmail) to sex workers. Wilton sees alternative recent initiatives to deal with prostitution as retrogressive. She characterises (p.28) as “neo-abolitionism”, and as an unlikely alliance between feminists and fundamentalist Christians, the push to criminalise prostitutes’ customers rather than prostitutes themselves. This is the model which has been adopted in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Canada, Ireland and France. I admit that I have always considered this model as questionable. Such an approach says, in effect, that a product is not illegal, but you are a criminal if you attempt to buy it. I would also add that such an approach does, in effect, punish prostitutes because it deprives them of their income – as well as being almost impossible to police.
Now I come to the more questionable part of Wilton’s Preface. It is very much pushing the idea that prostitution is simply a job like any other – in other words, normalising it. Wilton quotes with approval (p.14) a psychology lecturer’s view that there are “parallels between sex work and traditional marriage, another area in which women’s sexual, emotional and domestic labour is exchanged for financial support from men.” This old canard goes back at least to the 19th century anarchists’ slogan that “prostitution is short term marriage; marriage is long term prostitution” – and while this view may be true of some marriages (“gold diggers” marrying millionaires, for example), it is woefully inadequate as a description of marriage per se. Committed, mutally respectful and loving marriage is not prostitution. It is a partnership.
Wilton rejects the idea that prostitutes are victims, or that they are all the products of childhood sexual abuse. She claims that the overwhelming majority of customers are not desperate or violent, but very nice, ordinary men. Setting aside the males in this story, she wants to characterise prostitutes as strong, independent women, autonomous and making their own decisions. She also says that prostitution is an area where women can earn more money than men and become financially independent. Certainly this last assertion has some truth. Many of the interviewees say at some point that making easy and plentiful money was a main inducement to become a prostitute.
But reading my way through the eleven interviews, I find much that implicitly contradicts Wilton’s view of prostitution as a career like any other. “I didn’t really enjoy selling myself. It’s business…” says the transgendered Shareda. “I didn’t want to be a hooker”, says transgendered Dana de Milo, who claims that prostitution was the only way he/she could make money to afford a sex change.
Despite the preface’s assertion that not all prostitutes come from desperate or abusive backgrounds, it is clear that these things lurk in the backgrounds of at least a considerable number of prostitutes. Shareda speaks of lots of drinking and physical [not sexual] abuse from his stepfather. He says he started prostituting himself to men in Myers Park at the age of 14. Dana de Milo says he serviced schoolboys sexually at a very young age, and was servicing sailors on the streets of Auckland at the age of 13. Poppy, also transsexual, was sexually abused at the age of eleven and underwent shock treatment and other brutal procedures in a psychiatric hospital to be “cured” of his gender dysphoria. Allan, at the age of 12, was pretending to be older, going to nightclubs and getting money for sex with men in public lavatories. It can be noted that these four sex workers are either gay or transgender, and it is possible that their lives are radically different from those of women prostitutes. But it still belies the image of confident prostitutes rationally entering the game as a career choice. One of the women, Misty, never knew her father, got messed about in foster homes, was bad at school, had a factory job for a short time but was quickly on the skids and finally took to prostitution as a desperate means of getting an income.
As well as revealing more desperation than the preface suggests, many of the interviews betray great defensiveness.
Mistress Margaret the dominatrix says “a very refined, honourable man” taught her about domination and she claims loftily “I’m an escape valve to the men who have got things they’d find hard to raise with their wife – not sex, just domination.” Kelly says “I don’t believe that children get tainted from the sex industry. It’s a job. I’ve not associated with the drug scene, and not everybody is a drug addict in the sex industry” (p.112) – which, of course, suggests that some are. Similarly Kelly says “Women who have been abused – sure, they’re there; they’re also in offices, they’re in every kind of job in the world.” (p.116) Jeanie – as I said earlier, probably the most nuanced and sympathetic voice in the book – claims “you’re not choosing to be degraded. From a feminist perspctive you’re choosing to be empowered, because you’re saying, I can do this, it doesn’t water down any of my other strong passionate feelings about women or anything.” (p.222) This statement seems very much in line witth Caren Wilton’s assertions in her preface. But then in the very next paragraph, we find Jeanie talking about her alcohol problems and about how she was immature when she began doing tricks, and she later says “I felt it was sad that men needed to buy sex, and that… there wasn’t work I could do that involved a better use of my talents and skills.” (p.231)
Indeed, going through the whole book, the only interviewee I can find who says she had enjoyed unequivocally being a prostitute is (66-year-old and retired) Anna Reed, who says such things as “I’ve always been addicted to love in whatever form it takes.” (p.45) and “I always get bored with predictability” (p.46) and “I love great sex, no commitment. Brilliant. Great combination. I always had a really good body.” (p.59)
Despite the (sometimes inadvertent) defensiveness, I don’t doubt the sincerity of (most of) the participants. But in the end, I did not find these personal stories inspiring or particularly stimulating as reading. In fact most are drab and dreary – like much of everyday life for all of us, of course.
However, I’m sure My Body, My Business has its sociological value and will be mined by future historians and sociologists when they produce more statistical, representative and inclusive books about prostitution. And as I read my way through this volume, I admit to finding some factual details very interesting. For example, I was not aware that, until very recently, the antique charge of being a “rogue and vagabond” was still being used by New Zealand police when they hauled prostitutes before the courts. And I was interested to read about the disappearance of “boat girls” – prostitutes who would walk the wharves and go on visiting ships to service the sailors. Apparently the appearance of container ships means that now there is a quicker turnaround and cargo ships are in port for much shorter times, meaning the girls (and boys) no longer get a chance to ply their wares.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There now, the above is the “review proper” of My Body, My Business. Of course in parts of it I’ve expressed my own opinions (it’s a review, remember?) but these are opinions about the book. They are not opinions about prostitution itself.
So here are my own opinions on the subject.
First, I admit my ignorance. Having never sought the services of a prostitute, I obviously don’t know their world close up.
Only four or five times in my life have I been aware of being in the presence of prostitutes. About twenty years ago, my wife and I took a night-time walk through Sydney’s King’s Cross, and were once or twice addressed, unaggressively, by (quite obviously transgender) prostitutes lurking in doorways. We walked on.
Once, in Shanghai, we passed a very tired, jaded and probably much worked-over woman standing, smoking a cigarette outside a massage parlour which clearly had a euphemistic designation.
Once, my brother, his wife and I were coming home from a movie on Queen Street. For some reason my brother, puffing on a pipe, was walking ahead while his wife and I dawdled some steps behind chatting. A young man in drag obviously thought my brother was a single guy on his own, and addressed him with the time-honoured come-on “Have you got a light?”, to which my brother replied heartily “Sure mate” and lit the profferred cigarette with his big cigarette-lighter before the three of us walked on, with my brother remarking “That’ll give him a surprise.”
On my own in Rome about fifteen years ago, I was walking, in a bustling crowd, back from Stazione Termini to my stay. I glanced up and saw an ageing woman, in a fur coat, standing at the top of some steps. “Ciao, baby”, she called to me, in what is apparently the traditional mating cry of Roman prostitutes. I hurried on with the crowd, thinking “She looks like somebody’s grandmother.” Then I reflected that, at that time, I was already somebody’s grandfather myself.
And finally the very interesting one. Three months ago, my wife and I were making another trip to Paris. We decided to spend a morning taking a walk through the Bois de Boulogne, which we had never done before. So along the Rue de la Madeleine, up the Champs Elysees, under the Arc de Triomphe and down the Avenue Foch we walked to get to the huge forested park. On a clear winter day, it was fun rambling along deserted paths, mainly under bare deciduous trees. As we approached a T-junction where our path joined a main road, the Allee de la Reine Marguerite, we saw a fleshy woman with pancake makeup, wearing black boots and a short black skirt and exposing much bosom, standing on the other side of the road. “She looks like a hooker waiting for customers”, I said. “Surely not,” said my wife, who thought nobody would be doing such business so blatantly in broad daylight. But when we reached the Allee de la Reine Marguerite and turned left, we discovered that every fifty yards or so, there was parked a white van, with windows only in the cab, in each of which sat a woman with low-cut dress, ample flesh on display and a crafty come-hither look. Some of the parked vans had nobody in the cab, but in those cases there was a bright scarf tied to the outer wing-mirror, as plain signal to passers-by that business was currently being transacted in the windowless rear of the van. And there were indeed passers-by – namely single men in cars, moving along the road at slow-cruise speed through this mobile brothel to find which goods were available. We counted twelve vans and, given that they were all of the same make and design, we could only conclude that the working girls belonged to a syndicate.
A major thought occurred to me. In France, it is the customer who is criminalised, not the prostitute; but there was no sign of any police observing the cruising cars. Given its organization, the mobile brothel must, surely, have been a regular feature of this part of the Bois and its location would presumably have been common knowledge. From this, I adduce that, as in so many jurisdictions, police can’t really be bothered pursuing prostitutes and their clients, unless they don’t have more important things to do.
And there you have my complete first-hand knowledge of prostitutes.
Now what are the reasons why I would never seek the services of a prostitute? First, there is the important matter of infidelity. Regardless of much of the chatter in My Body, My Business, a married man who resorts to prostitutes will be aware that he is cheating on his wife, and this can only weaken a marriage and create a pattern of deceit. Second, prostitution reduces sexual intercourse to a loveless monetary transaction. I cannot imagine real love being a part of sexual intercourse outside a committed, loving relationship. Sex as monetary transaction is a species of masturbation, making use of somebody else’s body. Those are my main objections to prostitution – the infidelity that it involves and the lovelessness. There is a third consideration, which is more a matter of safety and prudence. Despite talk of the “professionalism” of prostitutes, their health-awareness and their use of condoms, I think one would be more likely to contract an STD from a prostitute who routinely sleeps with many men each week than from one’s spouse or partner.
As you will note, I have not said prostitution as bad or immoral, but I have given three reasons why I shun it.
Despite this, I think the decriminalisation of prostitution has been an intelligent step. It has made life safer for many sex workers, freed them from much harrassment (from police, among others), made it easier for them to seek medical attention when it is needed and allowed them to be heard when they complain of unreasonable or unfair practices by their employers. Do I think prostitution is a positive good for socety? No. But my bottom line is that prostitution is inevitable, having been practised in some form in all times and all known societies. There’s a good reason that it is called “the world’s oldest profession.” As no laws will expunge it, it’s better that it is out in the open, known, and that its practioners have legal protection.
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.
“J” by Howard Jacobson (first published 2014)
Six or seven years ago on this blog, I reviewed Howard Jacobson’s travel book Roots, Schmoots, a wry view of his own Jewish heritage which questioned the whole idea of canonising a particular ethnicity.
At the time, I took the opportunity to remind readers that Howard Jacobson is a Jewish, Manchester-born, Cambridge-educated prolific novelist, columnist and writer of non-fiction, who won the 2010 Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question. I have a soft spot for Jacobson, a convinced and polemical atheist who can nevertheless call out the zealotry and potential bigotry of much current anti-religious rhetoric.
Jacobson has been known to criticise (as he did in Roots, Schmoots) what he called “the Holocaust industry”, meaning the way memorials of genocide are sometimes sentimentalised and misused for ideological purposes rather than simply being reminders of, and warnings against, mass-murder. But he has more recently spent time calling out insidious and pervasive modern versions of anti-semitism. Yes, there might be a “Holocaust industry”, but it is not as dangerous as this mental virus. In 2013, Jacobson gave a lecture which was turned into a pamphlet called When Will Jews be Forgiven for the Holocaust? Its essential argument was that non-Jews, feeling historical guilt for the Shoah, resent the Jewish people who make them feel guilty and therefore become anti-semites. The victim is blamed with ingenious justifications. (“I am anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish.” “I am only criticising the state of Israel.” etc.). It is perfectly legitimate to criticise the state of Israel and its foreign policy, as it is to criticise any other sovereign state. But such justifications are often mere subterfuge.
Jacobson has never written a novel dealing directly with the Holocaust (his forte is satirical, and often very funny, novels about Britain’s Jewish community), but the year after When Will Jews be Forgiven for the Holocaust? appeared, his novel J was published. It was short-listed for, but did not win, the Booker Prize.
I approached J eagerly but, with the deepest of regret, I have to report that I was disappointed by it. I can see what Jacobson intended. He is attacking historical amnesia, the tendency to wipe away, not talk about and not directly confront historical realities – in this case the Holocaust. And part of his technique is to set his story in what is a strange sort of alternative version of Britain.
The novel opens slowly. We are in a country where everyone is aware of something designated “What Happened, If It happened”, but what this phrase really means is never discussed. Most of the novel is set in an isolated community, or village, Port Reuben, which reminds me very much of the sanitised, but still sinister, village in the 1960s TV series The Prisoner. People are soothed with syrupy music and only good news is broadcast on the radio. Things are not exactly banned, but they are no longer available. Sentimental ballads are fine, but rougher-edged jazz, with all its improvisations, has disappeared. Again, it could be seen as akin to the world of drugged, soothed people in Huxley’s Brave New World, except that, unlike Brave New World, characters are still able to think, even rebelliously, and there are sometimes outbreaks of violence.
Now what is the J of the title? It could be Jahweh or Jahuwa or Jehovah, the unseen but dominant and controlling god of the Jews - or some parody thereof. There is the convention in this novel that every time people utter a word beginning with J, they have to put their fingers to their lips, which sounds like an echo of the older Jewish convention that one should not speak the [tetragrammaton] real name of God. Or could it be J for Jude (= Jew) as sewn on the yellow stars Nazis made Jews wear? Or is it simply J for Jew and Judaism? Obviously it is all of these things, and we soon suspect that “What Happened, If It happened” is really Jacobson’s satire of those gentiles who accept the reality of the Holocaust, but still somehow want to deny it. And perhaps the tendency of some Jews to avoid the topic and be polite about it.
Characters all have Jewish-sounding names, or names that are odd conjunctions of Jewish and Irish, but it is uncertain if they are really Jews. Kevern Cohen, a wood-worker in early middle age, is thrown together with Ailinn Solomons, who doesn’t know who her parents were, has been raised by nuns, and doesn’t understand Kevern’s sense of humour. Esme Nussbaum is a researcher who is rebuked by Luther Rabinowitz for enquiring too much. Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky (“Phinny”) butts into the narrative every so often with reports on how Cohen and the other characters are behaving. Could these be official reports? Could he be part of the mechanism that keeps this community soothed and ignorant of recent history? After all, “Phinny” (= finny = slippery as a fish, maybe?) runs a Benign Arts Faculty which is in the business of ensuring that art is uplifting, anodyne and comforting. In this society “hoarding” is a crime (which chimes with a society not wanting reminders of the real past) and there are women who take courses in Credibility Fatigue, when they find it hard to cope with unpleasant realities should they surface anyway.
In this case, I will not burden you with one of my notorious plot summaries. Suffice it to say that at a certain point, Kevern Cohen is suspected of harrassing an eccentric woman called Lowenna Morgenstern and is interrogated. Kevern and Ailinn Solomons take off for a while to the larger settlment of Necropolis (is this a version of London?), and are uneasily aware of the cosmpolitan society there, so unlike the blandly homogenous Port Reuben. Later Kevern is investigated over the killing of Lowenna Morgenstern. The love of Kevern and Ailinn may be a sign of hope and something that breaks the pattern of denial of the past. But the arc of the narrative leaves plenty of room for the sense of a daunting and controlling authority in a society that is outwardly calm and peaceful. Death and suicide come into it.
I found this novel intriguing, but also very confusing with its tangled family relationships and the very vagueness of the way its imagined society is delineated. But of course this could be part of Jacobson’s intention. He is presenting a world in which a real view of the past is expunged and real history is smothered in euphemisms. Lack of common memory leads to the very vagueness and uncertainty of which I am complaining.
I would also take it that part of Jacobson’s inspiration was to make a British readership see the Holocaust in British terms. I’m reminded of Humphrey Jennings’ short film The Silent Village (made in 1943), which aimed to bring the Lidice massacre home by giving it a British setting. Jacobson is also taking on the corrosive effect of sentimentality. I have often thought about Keats’ line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. The sentimentalist takes it to mean that only beautiful things are true. Whatever the boy Keats may have intended, I personally take it to mean that only the truth is beautiful – and the truth includes the negative, nasty, sordid aspects of reality and history. You should not fetishize or wallow in these ugly things, but if you ignore them, the “beauty” you create is sentimentality, which is always a lie. In J, the professor purveying “Benign Art” is purveying escapism and sentimentality, as well as ignoring the violence that burns under the sentimentality…. And when he is thwarted, he himself turns psychotic. Also underlying the novel is the sad truth that class or racial or social or cultural antagonisms are necessary for some people’s self-esteem. Few things are as bracing as feeling superior to another group of people.
I think all these things are intended in the novel, and I have absolutely no quarrel with what Jacobson is saying. But I still found J an obtuse novel and therefore very difficult to read.Sorry.
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.
HOW GUILTY SHOULD I FEEL?
It is over five weeks since the Christchurch barbarity happened and I have deliberately held off writing anything even peripherally associated with it. The Prime Minister, very eloquently and very appropriately, has had her say, to the admiration of the whole country and much of the world. The TV commentators, editorialists and op-ed writers have had their say. So have the relatives of the victims and all the people who have attended peaceful rallies and memorial services in support of New Zealand’s Muslim community.
There is very little I could possibly add to what has already been said and written about the horror, but the essence of it is very simple. A deranged fanatic murdered 50 people and seriously wounded as many more – an extreme right-wing, white nationalist, who had been encouraged to hate Muslims by many sources (the growing white nationalist exclusionism in Europe and America and all its spokespersons; the anti-religious rhetoric of Richard Dawkins etc.). We could find bleak comfort in the fact that the mass-murderer was not a New Zealander and nearly all of us agreed at once that it was time to crack down on the open sale and use of rapid-fire automatic weapons. After all, what legitimate purpose could any civilian have in possessing such firearms? We could also all agree that extreme-right white nationalism – like all fanticisms - is a destructive thing and should be monitored more closely.
So far, all these things have been the consensus. And I did perceive that for a brief moment, in the national outpouring of sympathy and solidarity with the Muslim community, in the awareness that 50 people worshipping peacefully had been slaughtered, the voices who claim that religion “causes war” and is the “root of all evil” all went very silent. We briefly believed that such a terrible event had changed the country permanently, and in some ways it has. We have been told forcefully that New Zealand is not immune to terrorism, nor a safe little island country far from the major acts of violence in other parts of the world – but then teaching us that lesson was part of what the mass-murderer intended. We briefly believed that this terrorist attack would shock us into being more humane, understanding of diverse ethnicities and religions, and ready to live by the virtues of care, respect for others, the “fair go”, and toleration of ways of life that are not our own. These are virtues that the prime minister rightly encouraged as being at the heart of what it is to be a New Zealander. “Men of every creed and race / Gather here before Thy face / Asking Thee to bless this place”, as it says in the national anthem.
But then the chattering classes got to work, and the old, familiar, sectionalism got back on its feet and started barking.
Far from abhorring only extremists, and in this case the extreme right-wing, some voices started telling us that, if we were white, if we were evenly slightly and reasonably conservative in some of our attitudes, then we were just as guilty as the mass-murderer. After all, didn’t our “white privilege” and our attitudes tend towards the attitudes of the mass-murderer? Charts were produced, purporting to show how racism has small and apparently insignificant beginnings. The implication was clear. That mildly racist joke you laughed at in primary school – it proves that you too could have pulled the trigger in the mosques. We were told that New Zealand was built on colonialism, the suppression of the Maori language and culture, and much violence – including massacres – in the New Zealand wars of the 19th century. Therefore white New Zealanders should study the real history of this country more closely and live with a legacy of guilt. The notions of the “fair go” and of the general openness and tolerance of New Zealand society were a sick joke, denied by our history.
As one who has taught New Zealand history at both secondary and tertiary levels, I am all in favour of people learning about, and confronting honestly, all the realities of colonialism and its evils. But at a certain point I will always ask “Am I personally responsible for events that happened in my great-great-great grandparents’ time? Am I involved in the killing at Rangiaowhia or the forcible evictions from Parihaka?” To say that I am is very akin to old European anti-semites who would say that all Jews were, forever, guilty of killing Christ. “You’re white, so therefore you’re guilty of all the evils in our history, no matter how long ago they occurred.” At a peaceful rally in Auckland in support of the Muslim community, many people began to walk away when one speaker made a speech along these lines.
Much of this resonates with me because once, when I was delivering a lecture on the New Zealand Wars, one student accused me of being “racist” when, after speaking of British atrocities in the New Zealand Wars, I also mentioned Maori atrocities. I did not argue with the student but – after a brief pause – continued with my lecture. Of course I did and do continue to consider how systemic racism might now still be, and how it is the challenge of all of us to fix it as best we can. But the lecture-room incident did lead me to examine my conscience repeatedly and consider how “racist” I am.
Here are some notes from my personal life.
My next-door neighbour on one side is Cook Island Maori and a good friend (we go to the same church among other things). My next-door neighbour on the other side is a Chinese woman married to a Kiwi bloke. They’re only recent arrivals in the neighbourhood and we don’t know them very well; but I’m sure that in time we’ll get on just fine. My GP is Chinese. My dentist is Chinese. The last time I visited an optometrist, she was Indian. The last time I had a colonoscopy (yes, I’m of an age to have such things) the surgeon was Syrian. They are all good people.
But apparently I’m racist.
Four of my children are married. One is married to an Englishwoman, one to a New Zealander of Indian descent (mother Hindu, father Parsee), one to an Italian and one to a Croat. So I rejoice in having five half-English, three half-Indian, four half-Italian and two half-Croat grandchildren.
But apparently I’m racist.
At the church I go to, the parish priest is Filipino and his curate is Sri Lankan. The most recent parish survey showed that of the parishioners in whose company I rejoice, 54% are Pakeha and the other 46% are Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, Samoans, Syrians, Iraqis and New Zealand Maori. For those who are unaware of this, Christian churches in New Zealand (and especially in urban areas) are among the most ethnically-diverse institutions in the country.
But apparently I’m racist.
The last secondary school I taught at before retirement was a Catholic one. Not only did it have very active Kapa Haka and Pasifika groups, a Confucian Society and compulsory tuition in the Maori language at junior levels, but every year, all our Year 10 students were taken on visits to centres of religious worship around Auckland. The imam of the mosque in Ponsonby would explain Islam to them, the rabbi of the synagogue on Grey’s Avenue would explain Judaism to them [having been clued up on the Hebrew Bible in Year 9 the boys would already know something of this] and out in west Auckland a Tibetan monk would explain Buddhism to them. These lessons were reinforced in Year 12 when all boys spent half the year’s Religious Education programme learning about Judaism and Islam. To put it simply, the boys at this school had already learnt in considerable and sympathetic detail more about Islam than some New Zealanders began to learn only after the massacre.
What I am saying in all this is that, with the proviso that all obey the democratically-agreed law of the land, I am perfectly happy to live in a multicultural society with all its ethnic diversity and various religions. I am at ease with it, and accept multiculturalism as our current reality – the sea in which we all swim.
But you see, I have just used a very dirty word. Multiculturalism. Only a few years ago, some were decrying multiculturalism as a cruel stratagem by Pakeha, designed to destroy what should be the biculturalism of Maori and Pakeha. Multiculturalism, went this trope, was created intentionally to smother Maori concerns and ultimately leave Pakeha in charge in a divide-and-rule manner. I remember also, alas, that not too the long before the recent massacre, members of what is now the governing party were decrying Chinese immigration and the current deputy-prime minister, mercifully tactful and silent during most of the recent crisis, has built much of his career in calling for limitations on immigration.
In the end, the finger-pointing, the attempt to extend guilt about the actions of a mass-murderer, is an opportunist attempt to advance a political and social agenda – not an agenda of peace, harmony and the “fair go” among all New Zealanders, but an agenda of sectionalism. This always means an agenda in which one group is claiming moral superiority over others, simply by virtue of belonging to that group.
I have long admired the British Muslim writer and commentator Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Islamicist and jihadist whose experience led him away from extremism and back to a respect for open societies with democratic values. (For my review of his recanting book, which I reviewed on this blog 6-and-a-half years ago, look here = Radical). I am not a plagiarist, so when I repeat here a comment Maajid Nawaz made just after the Christchurch terrorist attack, I acknowledge that I first saw it in Graham Adams’ eminently level-headed article “The Perils of the Blame Game”, which I found on-line at Noted.
Of the Christchurch massacre, Maajid Nawaz said: “A mere day after 50 of my fellow Muslims were so publicly and tragically killed, while the blood was still wet and the bodies remained unburied… the ideologues had circled like vultures. Opportunistic Islamist and far-left extremists began calling for a purge of people whose politics they disagree with, and started publishing McCarthyite lists of personae non grata to target.”
Quite so. I particularly agree with that use of “McCarthyite”. Just as, in the Cold War, McCarthy and others accused liberals and the mildest of socialists as being “Commies”, so now we have opportunists accusing white people of the mildest and most reasonable of conservative views of being white-nationalist extremists, or at least on the path to becoming such.
I apologise for the length of this post, but I have had a lot to say. In the end, one fanatic’s actions should at least make it clearer that we should respect the ways and beliefs of our fellow citizens whose origins lie in other parts of the world, just as we should respect Maori culture and beliefs. The atrocity should not be an inciter of guilt. Nor should it make us construct sectionalist walls to hide behind as we throw verbal bombs at people who do not share, exactly, our own identity or opinions. Yes, there should be no fanatical white racism and yes, there should be no opportunistic comments relating to a whole people. Similarly, in all our fellow-feeling for our Muslim fellow-citizens, we should not lose our powers of reasoning. I am sorry to tell you this but, just like white extremist racism, radicalised jihadist Islamism is still a major problem in the world. A little of its influence infected this country in the aftermath of the terrorist attack when a Muslim speaker at an event in Auckland blamed it on Zionism and local “Jewish businessmen”. And if we’re going to pluck at old wounds, as the sectionalists do, might I point out that nice Cat Stevens, who sang about the “peace train” when he appeared in Christchurch at a memorial event for the Muslim dead, is the same Cat Stevens who once merrily sang the homicidal ditty “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun” and who, (though he later tried to deny it), after he had become Yusuf Mohammed, endorsed the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. (See on this blog my review of Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton).
I say this only to suggest, a little wearily, that manufactured guilt, sectionalism and opportunism are no way to respond to an atrocity. And (like you, I hope), I grieve along with all peaceful Muslims and for the 50 who were murdered, the many who were injured, and all their families.
Monday, April 8, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“COLLECTED POEMS” by Fleur Adcock (Victoria University Press, $NZ50); “SELECTED POEMS” by Brian Turner (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)
I’ve expressed this view before on this blog, but there’s no harm in repeating it: reviewing poetry can be a chore, not because the poetry is bad or unwelcome, but because it is hard to do justice to any collection of poetry. If each poem is worthy of the name, it demands a careful and thoughtful reading on its own, and it should bring forth from the reviewer a detailed exposition and critique. But, alas, reasons of space, and the patience of readers, make such an approach impossible. So the reviewer is left with a choice. First, there is what I would call the bibliographical approach (of which I admit I have often been guilty). The reviewer neatly checks off and name-checks as many poems as possible, says how often the poet does or does not use certain forms of imagery or versification, notes dominant themes of the poet (with examples) and then draws a conclusion. This can be good, factual reportage, but as reviewing it is often bloodless and sounds like the schoolroom. The alternative is the emotional approach. The reviewer swallows the collection of poetry whole, then makes a broad statement about what sort of poetry it is, and what emotional effect it has had. This can make for robust personal criticism – a statement about the poet’s successes and failure, perhaps - and can be lively in showing the reviewer’s engagement with the work. But just as often it can lead to vague, windy generalisations about the poet’s work - the type of thing that often ends up being quoted in puffs for the poet’s later works.
This reviewing problem is especially difficult when the two books under review are by familiar and well-established poets. Fleur Adcock’s Collected Poems and Brian Turner’s Selected Poems gather together work that has already been reviewed often. In each case we are now getting the retrospctive of a whole writing career. How can a review, which is itself less than book length, possibly deal fairly with this? I shudder, grit my teeth, and resign myself to my usual mixture of dry bibliography and (probably) windy generalisations.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I will take the more formidable example first. Fleur Adcock, now in her 86th year, had been publishing poetry since the early 1960s and has garnered much applause and many literary prizes along the way. Over fourteen of her collections have appeared in more than half a century. A fine hardback tome with a reader’s ribbon, her Collected Poems run to over 550 large pages. I assume that she has chosen to omit some of her earliest poems as we get only poems “from” her first two collections The Eye of the Hurricane (1963) and Tigers (1967). Otherwise, we can reasonably assume we are getting all 54 years of her oeuvre, right up to her two most recent collections The LandBallot (2014) and Hoard (2017) both of which you can find reviewed elsewhere on this blog. To make an obvious point, Fleur Adcock is as much a British poet as a New Zealand one. Probably our most famous living literary expat, she has spent most of her life in England. Most of her collections have been published by either Oxford University Press or Bloodaxe Books.
So much for reportage stuff. What about the poems?
I spent a week reading – generally with great pleasure and admiration – these Collected Poems, and I can find no better way of accounting for them than by dealing with them decade by decade as the poet has matured and aged.
In the 1960s (the collections The Eye of the Hurricane and Tigers), Fleur Adcock in her 30s is already the strong master of stanza form who makes judicious use of rhyme and shows she is fully conversant with both the great tradition of poetry and the Classics. One of her most constant themes is relationships with husbands or lovers, but she has a cool, pragmatic way of dealing with them. There are no romantic rhapsodies, but a dissection of emotional facts ex post facto. Children are addressed or mentioned, but in a way that is meant to nudge them into the real world, pushing against illusions and fantasies. This is already a poet fully formed.
In the 1970s (the collections High Tide in the Garden, The Scenic Ride, The Inner Harbour and Below Loughrigg) Fleur Adcock in her 40s still deals with lovers – there are a number of poems addressed to “you”, being presumably somebody with whom she is in a relationship, and many poems have the “do you remember?” trope. But she shows more assertiveness in dealing with male authority figures and imposed male images like the bogeyman. There are poems recalling her discontent, being a mother of two at the time and wanting to leave New Zealand. Then there is a major shift to specifically English scenes and talk of travels further afield (Northern Ireland, Asia etc.). Her poems explore the Lake District extensively and there are the beginnings of one of her most constant preoccupations – the search for ancestors. Poems such as “Going Back” and “Instead of an Interview” give her reactions to returning to New Zealand on a visit, but also her confirmation that England is now her real home. She still makes classical allusions and can use traditional stanza forms, but she is now more likely to use looser forms, moving towards free verse.
In the 1980s (the collections Selected Poems, the ballad Hotspur, and The Incident Book), now approaching, and in, her 50s, Adcock displays a growing sense of the perspective given by age. Some poems do indeed refer to cuurrent affairs or relationships, and she does dissect the relationships of other people – but her personal confessionalism of such matters in mainly seen through the medium of memory. There’s now the arrival of grandchildren and more poems both about children and about her memories of being a child at school in England. There is a flowering of sometimes quite light-hearted wit, often deploying rhyming couplets for more jocular verse.
In the 1990s (the collections Time Zone and Looking Back) Adcock shows an increasing interest in British fauna (poems about toads, wrens, house-martins) and “the ploughed fields of Middle England” (in the poem “Turnip-heads”). She makes reconnections with New Zealand and Australia and parts of Europe. Settling into grandmotherly mode, she writes poems about friendship being more enduring than blazing love affairs and assiduously continues her interest in ancestors, mainly with 19th century forebears but sometimes digging much further back. Many poems are first-person confessional (at their worst, like diary jotting or ghosts of Edgar Lee Masters).
In the 2000s (the collection New Poems and Dragon Talk – the latter dedicated to her recently-deceased nonagenarian mother) Adcock presents a long sequence of poems – “My First Twenty Years” - about her childhood and youth in New Zealand and England. She gives us a familiar paradox here – the further away from childhood poets get, the more likely they are to dwell upon it. There are poems in which she consciously confronts age (a wry poem about getting used to computers). Increasingly there is the sense that, having paid her debt to urgent issues, she is now, “all passion spent”, lighting candles to the past. When she was younger, she struggled with husbands and lovers. Now she snuggles grandchildren.
Now, in the 2010s, the poet of Glass Wings (2013) is in her 80s and writes quite a few “in memoriam” poems about deceased contemporaries, as well as poems about the irony that some oldsters are still living. The ailments of old age are addressed in poems like “Nominal Aphasia”, “Walking Stick” and “Macular Degeneration”, and there are more poems [some heavily ironical] about specific ancestors. In this phase, we are far from the young sexual rebel. A selection of poems about insects often recalls childhood, but just as often adult encounters with wasps, fleas, bees, dragonflies, ants (and the “crabs”). Her two most recent collections are The Land Ballot and Hoard. The former is a reconstruction of her grandfather’s and father’s lives in trying to make a go of an unpromising farm in the King Country, together with some memories of the poet’s own earliest New Zealand childhood. The latter combines memories of childhood and early marriages; recalls to ancestors; poems of the English landscape and – more fully than anywhere else in her work – observations on what New Zealand is now, often in the form of evoking what it once used to be.
What has all my dutiful chronicling of the decades told you, apart from the fact that – like all of us – the poet has grown older? Or that the perspective of a woman in her 80s is not that of a woman in her 30s? Yes, the things Fleur Adcock chooses to deal with have changed, but the poet has essentially remained the person she is – observant, unsentimental, witty, well-read, a little acidic and presenting her own view of the world
Inevitably, there will arise the question of whether Fleur Adcock is a “feminist poet”. Personally, I think it is wrong to pigeonhole a poet of such variety with such a limiting label. Adcock writes about many things. She is never a proselytiser or preacher for any cause or ideology. Nor is she primarily a political poet or satirist, though in The Incident Book there is a clutch of poems called “Thatcherland” and she has written a poem on the negative effects of insectidices.
But I can see why the label “feminist poet” has sometimes been invoked. She expresses a strong awareness of the female body and is ready to deal with it in all its physicality (see the poem “The Soho Hospital for Women” in Below Loughrigg in 1970s; and precise memories of childbirth in “Counting” from 1991’s Time Zones). She shows scepticism of some men’s motives and asks hard questions about real (heterosexual) relationships. There is much sexual frankness, especially in earlier poems like “Against Coupling” (from High Tide in the Garden), advocating, with some irony, a preference for masturbation; or, from the 1960s, “Advice to a Discarded Lover”, which basically tells men to stop whining when their time is up. Poems about stalkers and threats to women’s safety are found in 1983’s Selected Poems. And in other hands, some of the issues she touches could have been the occasion for preachiness – a fault she scrupulously avoids. In “Witnesses” in The Incident Book she broaches the matter of domestic violence. “Central Time” in Time Zones is about the exploitation of a prostitute. Regarding Adcock’s specifically female experience, I should note how she refers to the two husbands from her marriages in early adulthood. In “Letter to Alistair Campbell” (1977) and “Elegy for Alistair” (2013) she writes about Campbell affectionately and respectfully, recalling good times even if the marriage did not work out. In contrast, the second husband, Barry Crump, is referred to as “that anecdotal ape” in “Poem Ended by a Death” from the collection Below Loughrigg in the 1970s; and Crump is also the subject of some bitter verses in her most recent collection, Hoard.
Picking out poems like these – and only poems like these – one could readily call Adcock a “feminist poet”, and she is clearly sympathetic to feminist causes (note, for example, her admiring verses about the radical English Labour Party MP and feminist Ellen Wilkinson, in Hoard). But her feminism is simply the feminism of expressing what it is like to live a woman’s life, as daughter, wife, lover, mother, grandmother and independent woman. Any adoptable “messages” are implicit only, and for readers to work out. No banners are waved.
Away with solemnity. Adcock has an excellent strain of wit and the ability to banter in verse. I chuckled at her “Proposal for a Survey”, when she was reconnecting with England in Below Loughrigg. I guffawed at her “The Prize-Winning Poem” from 1983’s Selected Poems. I smirked at her poem resenting anti-smokers in Time Zones. (Though – sorry! – the wit can become a little catty, as in “Festschrift” in 1997’s Looking Back.)
I must add a few personal notes before I hit my peroration. I’m glad Fleur Adcock wrote “In Memoriam: James K.Baxter” in her 1974 collection. For me, seeing such a measured farewell to the man takes away some of the sickly taste of Allen Curnow’s smug and self-important “Refusal to Read Poems of James K.Baxter to Honour his Memory etc.” I love it when Adcock goes historical and corrects Shakespeare’s fictitious version of Harry Hotspur in her ballad Hotspur. And I delighted in “Leaving the Tate” (in The Incident Book), one of the best articulations I’ve yet encountered on the way art influences the way we see things.
So what’s the peroration? Simply this. I know one week’s reading is not due attention to a whole life’s writing, but my week of reading the Collected Poems was a week of enjoying poems written so clearly and so pungently. Away with the ranks of obscure acrostic-mongers, who think they are writing poetry when they are only signalling their superiority to bewildered readers. Fleur Adcock writes clearly and unambiguously. You know what she is driving at and why. This certainly does not mean that everything can be extracted from one of her poems in a single reading. No worthwhile poem can be read that way. It simply means that she connects with her readership, without condescension. This reader was delighted to be carried along.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Okay, comparisons are odious and, apart from this brief bibliographical note, I’m not going to make comparisons between two very different poets. A decade younger than Fleur Adcock, Brian Turner is in his 75th year. Also a handsome hardback with reader’s ribbon, his Selected Poems is a more modest volume that Adcock’s Collected Poems, being about 220 pages of poetry. His selection covers 38 years from his first collection Ladders of Rain (1978) to his most recent Night Fishing (2016), and includes 21 previously uncollected poems. (Reviews of his Elemental  and Night Fishing can be found elsewhere on this blog.) As a final comparison, Turner is unlike Adcock in that he is firmly attached to New Zealand, and very few of his poems stray outside this country. Only from the collection Inside Out (2011) do we get “Easter Monday, Hampstead Heath”, conveying a New Zealander’s return to the country of his ancestors and his reactions to London, with all his baffled expectations. There are also, in the concluding 21 hithero-unpublished poems, references to visits to Athens, Oregon etc.
Now I move away from reporting and look at the poems themselves.
Nearly all Turner’s poems deal with the South Island landscape, fuana, flora, mountains, rivers (especially boulder-filled one), rocks, winds, deer, wild pigs, harrier hawks, the blue of the sky and those baffling creatures called human beings. There are frequent references to the poet’s pleasure in fishing (sometimes specified as trout fishing) and in cycling.
This is not to say that Turner has never changed as a poet. While the physical milieu is fairly constant, the tone and focus have gradually modulated over the years. Human interface with nature is often harsh in Turner’s earlier works. In his 1978 debut volume, the poem “Four Seasons” has a cruel and dispiriting ending where “like wilting plants / we fight a slow death by depredation”. “Hawk” has a touch of the Ted Hughes with its vision of the bird as a death-bearer. But by the time we reach the collection Footfall (2005), Turner is able to set aside some of his solemnities. In the poem “Cycling in the Maniototo” “I baa at sheep / shout at magpies moo / with cattle, marvel at / the panache of hawks / riding the air…” The very picture of a poet being gay in such a jocund company, even if in the next collection The Six Pack (2006) there are many poems about the howling winds.
As a poet who started publishing only in his mid-30s, Turner has always had an awareness of ageing and of a younger generation pushing behind him, as in the 1983 volume Listening to the River with the poems “The Age of Descent” and “Riding High”. He has also always had a strong streak of confessionalism. The collection Bones (1985) touches on such intimate things in the poems “The Visit” and “Chestnuts on a Mantelpiece”, that we seem to be eavesdropping. Even so, these Selected Poems are, throughout, always discreet about the mother of the poet’s son and other intimacies. These things may be suggested by the poet’s declared feelings, but they are not spelled out.
On the personal level, childhood and the family into which Turner was born loom very large - especially Turner’s relationship with his parents. These things began to be examined in Ancestors (1981) and became a major focus in the volume All That Blue Can Be (1989), with a tender poem of childhood memories relating to his mother (“The Mixing Bowl”). The title poem of Beyond (1992) deals with the tragedy of parents ageing. In later collections Turner produces empathetic poems about his father in “Monte Cassino”, “My Father in Autumn” and “Memories of War”, in all of which the father is seen as a man of another generation, doing his duty in time of war, but having his own sensitivities under a rough exterior. The detailed poem “Case Notes” concerns parents’ influence on children, while in Inside Out (2011) “Conversations with my son” looks at the same issue from another angle. The examples of childhood recall are many, with “Taieri Days” (from Just This, 2009) being almost Wordsworthian in its recall of innocence meeting a benign variety of nature.
If I invoke Wordsworth, it’s also of note that, along with the direct experience of nature, Turner also has his poetic and artistic mentors. As early as Ancestors in 1981, he is referring to Eugenio Montale and Denis Glover – joined in Listening to the River by Richard Strauss, from whose “Four Songs” Turner gleans the sad knowledge that “nothing bores deeper than the knowledge of loss”. Naturally, as for any South Island landscape poet, there is the influence of James K. Baxter. In “The Rocks Below” (All That Blue Can Be, 1989), Turner declares “On this wild exposed coast the young Baxter / mooched and meandered and grappled / with the anguish of wondering if he would ever grown up / someone of consequence.” As I’ve said before on this blog, one can’t help wondering if Turner’s “Abandoned Homestead” in the same collection didn’t take a nudge from Baxter’s “The Fallen House”. Later in the Selected Poems, Turner often expreses his pleasure in listening to classical music.
There is also a strain of sophisticated wit in Turner’s work. It really comes to the fore in the 2001 collection Taking Off with “Semi-Kiwi”, about not being a handyman, and the linguistic fun of “Take Heart”. Going aphoristic (as Turner often does) there is in the 2011 collection Inside Out, the one-line poem “New Zealanders, a Definition” which reads in its entirety “Born here, buggered it up.”
As you can see, I have gone bibliographic in this notice so far, and have foolishly ignored Turner’s craft while counting off his most constant themes. If pithiness and aphorism are often his forte, we cannot ignore the aptness of his imagery. If I began quoting this in detail, I would continue to tedious length. I’ll satisfy myself by quoting, from 1985’s Bones, the melancholy lines of “October in the Otamita” which yield up the arresting image “the hot October sun / bastes a glaze on the water / that shines like shellac” Yes!!!
Nominating favourites from a poet’s life work is usually verboten in reviews of volumes such as this one, but I can say that I kept coming back to, and re-reading, the heart-stopper “Firstborn”, about what truths one can tell a child (from All that Blue Can Be, 1989) and the equally affecting “Beyond”, dealing with the tragedy of parents ageing (from Beyond 1992). Like them, “Easter Monday, Hampstead Heath” (from the collection Inside Out, 2011) is a densely-written and meaningful poem, carefully wrought, and saying much about the Pakeha New Zealander condition. For some reason, too, the delightful “Alp” (from All that Blue Can Be) sticks in my mind. It is one of Turner’s best poems giving a personality to nature.
As I said at the top of this notice, comparisons are indeed odious, but I can’t help setting Turner beside some younger poets who have also dealt extensively with the South Island landscape. DavidEggleton has a broader vision, a greater sense of humanity in the landscape and a very strong sense of how the different cultures have had an impact on it. His verse bounces and is often wildly satirical. Unlike Eggleton, but like some South Island poets (Owen Marshall, for example), Turner shows very little awareness of Maori in the landscape. Richard Reeve creates more chiselled verse out of the South Island, and is our moralist of the scene, always aware of the deleterious effect of human impact upon the environment. Turner makes a few gestures to environmentalism in later poems such as “Dry River” and “As We Have Long Been Doing”, which are somewhat preachy about ecology. But he is more often the solitary man contemplating the wilderness, relating this to how his heart feels and frequently – very frequently – expressing a sense of loss. Is this the loss of childhood, or love or solidarity with the dead or a sense of the eternal decay of things? All of these things perhaps. The wind blows, the tussock moves, the mountains loom, the hawk circles and the poems stick in your mind. What more can one say?