Monday, November 7, 2022

Something New

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

“THE DARK CRACKS OF KEMANG – The Bajaj Boys in Indonesia” by Jeremy Roberts (Interactive Press, Brisbane, $NZ33 ; $NZ16 e-book); “CULT TRIP – Inside the world of coercion and control” by Anke Richter (HarperCollins, $NZ37:99)

            In 2013, Jeremy Roberts, teacher, poet and traveller, was for various reasons a little low in spirit. He wanted a different sort of life after some things had gone wrong for him. So, aged 53, he sold his house and signed a contract to teach English in Indonesia. For over a year he taught, together with other New Zealand, Aussie and British expats, in a school in the Kemang area of Jakarta. As he explains (on pp.170-171), the book’s title The Dark Cracks of Kemang is also the title of a poem he wrote about the poverty he observed. Roberts quotes the poem in full, as he does with many of his poems.

There was a lot of adjustment to make. Bear in mind that the great island of Java has a population of nearly 275 millions. Bear in mind that Jakarta alone has between 20 and 30 millions. It is very different from New Zealand’s comparatively dwarf cities. Also the population of Java is almost exclusively Muslim. Yet Roberts notes of visitors such as he: “The new arrivals gradually catch on to the basics. It’s a surprise to realise that we don’t appear to be restricted by Islamic culture at all. You intuit straight away that locals are remarkably tolerant. The consistently friendly vibes can make you feel giddy…   Gradually, you form a generalisation about Indonesia. It is a combination of poverty, extreme wealth, and police/military muscle – with nationalism and religion holding the whole thing together.” (p.33)

There are everyday things to be aware of. In an extremely busy city, choking with cars and fumes, there are no marked road-crossings. You have to find a way of virtually dancing across busy thoroughfares. Then there is the oppressive tropical heat, the sweat, the stench of rubbish, the attacks of mosquitoes, and interaction with the police, especially when passport and visas have to be checked. On top of which, right next to the Kemang area, there is a notoriously noisy and criminal-filled red-light quarter.

Yet for all the negatives, Jeremy Roberts comes to love the place. He loves the teaching he has to do, especially as the kids are extraordinarily well-behaved in comparison with New Zealand school kids – helped by the fact that classes are very small. The kids are imaginative, enjoy verbal games their teacher plays, and take part in fun activities as well as diligently learning English. He is also aware that while expat teachers such as he are paid what might be regarded as a modest salary in New Zealand, it is a fortune on Indonesia. Late in the book, he expresses what could be called at least a twinge of shame when he recalls an Asian woman in Auckland telling him off when he said he was going to work in Indonesia because, she said, he would be just another privileged white person in a country where so many poor people would not have the privileges he would have. Roberts comments “many expats on contracts in Southeast Asia are not white Westerners at all. They are Asian professionals out to make a buck like everyone else. As long as professional jobs keep being advertised, people will leave their home countries and take up the contracts. Naturally, many working expats decide to keep it going definitely.    In our own little Jakarta bubble, we know we are privileged compared to the average ‘poor’ Indonesian. (But definitely not ‘rich’ compared to monied Indonesian families.) It can be argued that there is a power imbalance, but we [teachers] are working professionals. You can give back something if you want. It might be helping somebody to get a good doctor after a motorcycle accident. It might be helping a poor family out with overdue school fees. It might be paying a little more than the going rate to your maid. It’s up to you.” (p. 140)

The other thing that grabs him is of course the opportunity to write more poetry and perform it in front of an audience. Now that he’s in Java, his mind buzzes with images of Arthur Rimbaud who was, for a short time, in the Dutch army that once, in colonial days, patrolled the “Dutch East Indies”. But more often, he’s likely to reference the American “Beats” ; lyricists of rock songs, American, British or New Zealand; and Jim Morrison. Of course he also admires Charles Bukowski, doyen of American hobo and bum-life writing. [Okay – not this reviewer’s taste in poetry but de gustibus non disputandum est.] And he does take a few justifiable swipes at constipated academic poetry. Might I add that he also gives an hilariously accurate account of pub poets at Auckland’s Karangahape Road Thirsty Dog poetry readings (pp.34-35). [I know Roberts' account is accurate because I heard a lot of poetry-reading there in the days when Jeremy Roberts was the convenor.]

He teams up with an English chap, Derek, who plays guitar while he himself recites poetry. They call themselves The Bajaj Boys. As he explains, while telling us how perilous it is to cross busy roads in Jakarta: “A bajaj is a local variant on the three-wheel motorised rickshaw found in most Southeast Asian countries, imported from India.” (p.12) So the boys perform in smoke-filled pubs, cafés and other locations. He writes a lot, performs a lot, but has time to scrutinise the audiences who are sometimes uninterested or bemused and sometimes grateful. In the end, he is slightly rueful about their impact as poets: “We may have tired of being dubious and confusing ‘entertainment’ in a series of dying cafés or bars frequented by old white guys… We would have played anywhere, for anyone. We didn’t manage to hook up with any Indonesian poets, but we did stretch ourselves beyond seeing out our teaching contracts, and spending the surplus coin on endless, luxurious holidays.” (p.302)

He himself enjoys such holidays from work – some trips to Singapore and return visits to NZ. Once he brings back his teenaged daughter Eden and together they visit Bali. It’s  very different from Muslim Java with its Hindu and Buddhist legacy; but in the era of mass tourism in Bali, Roberts also notes Bali’s very seedy and sordid side.

Speaking of which, there is the seedy side of Jakarta and Kemang as well. Among the expats (including some of the teachers) there is a wild yahoo-ish life with eating competitions and Beer Pong competitions and sometimes drunken brawls and of course almost endless talk about  sex and the (apparently) ready availability of it. Prostitutes or otherwise, young Indonesian women, sexily dressed, hang around on the streets and in the bars and clubs, often giving the big eye to foreigners. Roberts reports verbatim many bar-room conversations thanks to recording them with his “Dictaphone”; and so often such talk consists of young, horny jocks boasting about their sexual exploits (see especially  pp. 56-58; and pp. 162-164). Doubtless much of this is bravado and bullshit (young jocks are not known for publicly reporting their sexual failures), but their interests are obvious. However, Roberts also refers to Indonesian women who are really looking for marriage and permanent expat spouses, but who first have to hawk themselves around. He gives some cautionary tales (especially on pp.262-263) of Westerners who have misjudged the nature of their female Indonesian partners and then find too late that their relationship was supposed to be permanent. Getting into more sleazy territory, there is also the phenomenon of “ladyboys” – young male transvestites who often take in less observant men.

Under-riding much of the sexual activity, there is booze. As lads are on the make looking for available young Indonesian women, the bar-keeper scrutinises eagerly who is paying money to drink their fill and who isn’t. It is of course ironical how freely booze is available in a Muslim country and how huge the rate of consumption is –  although (as Roberts reports on p.210) the trade is shut down during the festival of Ramadan. As a poet, Roberts raises the question - does booze inspire creativity? Despite his admiration for Charles Bukowski, he gives a guarded response “… writers are not infrequently associated with alcohol abuse. Alcohol is almost a working tool for some… Many famous books have been written by pissheads. I met a poet once who said that there was a poem inside every bottle of wine. Is that cheating a creativity? That truth is probably balanced by the fact that much of what is written while intoxicated is often crap.” (pp.165-166)

I have told you in an orderly way what this book is about, but I’ve missed something important, to wit, the style. Roberts writes exuberantly, engagingly, with a spring in his step, and always focused on the poetic nature of things. Much of what he writes seems to have been built upon either diary entries or regular jotting down of events and observations. Often it builds up to a sort of urban lyricism. Take, for example, this description of a street in Kemang. Its profusion of detail reminds me of the likes of Emile Zola describing (in Le Ventre de Paris) Les Halles, the huge market in old Paris: “Daily, we watch Kemang in action: people eating strange, spicy food from street stalls – food we were initially advised to stay away from (and with good reason, if what happened to Tyrone is anything to go by); curious looks from non-hijab-wearing women (hijab-wearing women remind us that we are indeed walking in a different universe – the hijab, we learn, is to hide the hair from non-familial people, and it is striking how different women look with their hair hidden); small children playing barefoot in the dusty streets, often wearing English Premier League shirts; the incredible sight of a shirtless ‘rubbish-picker’ hauling his wooden cart loaded with several hundred kilos of trash, barefoot in driving rain – with lightning overhead – straining uphill into oncoming rush-hour traffic; young homeless women zooming up and down Kemang Raya on their motorbikes with parted thighs and black hair flowing behind them; an ‘ice-man’ using a pick-axe to break up an enormous block of ice in the shade of a bush beside his delivery bike; lazy, ostentatious demonstrations of wealth – one of the contradictions you tick off….” And many more details, this being only part of Jeremy Roberts’ precise observation. (p.59)

I enjoyed this book immensely, for all its exuberance, for all Jeremy Roberts’ willingness to report things candidly, for all his enthusiasm for poetry and the common world, no matter how flawed it can be.

Personal note to Jeremy Roberts: Dear Jeremy – much as I enjoyed your book, I have to take you up on one matter. On p.186, you dare to say that rock music is a better form of music than jazz. This is of course blasphemy. Jazz is the greatest form of music that the USA ever devised, compared with which rock is monotonous. Fie upon you sir!!! Next time I see you, it will be pistols at dawn.

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            German born-and-raised journalist Anke Richter is now a New Zealander. For the last ten years, she has been investigating cults and how they work. Her interest began when she took part in a “new age” festival in Australia and found others who, seeking some form of enlightenment, had been damaged when they joined coercive cults. So she set about investigating such cults. In her introduction to Cult Trip she is very careful to note that not all communes,  intentional communities or dedicated small settlements are cults. Many are open, allow members to come and go, freely engage with the wider world, and are models of openness.  But regrettably others really are cults, forcing followers into a very restrictive code and often physically or sexually abusing them while practicing a form of brain-washing.

            Richter was originally going to focus this book only on the malign “therapist” Bert Potter’s Centrepoint; but her focus expanded and (after writing many articles on the matter for various journals and magazines) she decided to examine three separate types of cult – Centrepoint, the Asian “neo-tantra” phenomenon, and Gloriavale.

Richter spends 116 pages on Centrepoint. I am sure that her research is accurate and she has read relevant documents and interviewed many survivors as well as perpetrators. Indeed her narrative takes the form of her interaction with [especially] survivors. Survivors are either enduringly angry or still traumatised, recalling the warped childhood or adolescence that was imposed upon them. Those perpetrators who agreed to be interviewed are occasionally regretful, but more often are cagey and have conveniently “forgotten” the abuse of children. Some even try to present Centrepoint as a haven of true worth and enlightened therapy. Of course the investigated story is horrific. There was much child abuse – literal rape and other forms of degradation and physical constraints visited upon young teenagers, pre-pubescent children and in some cases babies. The guiding pretence was that there was no difference between children and adults and therefore - especially in sexual interaction – children could be treated as adults. This of course meant coercion of children by adults, all in the name of sensuality and sexual enlightenment. “They all thought they were overcoming hang-ups from Christian conservatism and were at the forefront of the sexual revolution, that it was just a matter of time before everybody else caught up.” (p.123) Many of those who bought into Centrepoint were affluent middle-class people who should have known better and who foolishly thought that a self-proclaimed, unlicenced therapist like Bert Potter actually had all the answers. As in so many cults, the guru was an autocrat, his decisions being unchallengeable. Centrepoint was organised as a sort of prison. Adults joining had to hand over all their assets and money to a Trust; and if they chose to leave, they were given back $100 dollars and nothing more.

The next 100 pages Richter designates “Toxic Tantra”. At heart, the phenomena she examines were very similar to Centrepoint, in this case appealing mainly to gullible Westerners who thought they were getting a “religious” experience and the authentic wisdom from the East. As often as not, what they were really getting was newly-devised cults having only a passing connection with genuine traditional Asian teachings. Richter traces the progress of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who re-branded himself as Osho . For some reason, his cult attracted a disproportionate number of Germans. As with Centrepoint, many who signed on were affluent middle-class people. “Two thirds had college degrees, good incomes and highbrow careers; more than half of them were women.” (p.133) “Osho” ran an ashram in Pune (formerly known as Poona) in India. He claimed to be giving “tantric” healing and encouraging “spirituality” through sexual experience. But stories leaked out of the sexual exploitation of women under the guise of healing their inhibitions. “Osho” and his supporters formed a closed, coercive hierarchy, with strict rules, but scandal gradually became publicly known. The fake “Osho” himself died in 1990. Law suits whittled away the massive fortune he had amassed. At one point in her narrative, Anke Richter visits what is left of his corporation in India and finds it is now more strictly controlled and has retreated from manipulative sex, but is still a cult and is heavily monetised. She sees much of it as pure brain-washing. She then turns her attention to the Agama yoga cult based on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. Again it attracts Westerners who think they are getting authentic yoga when in fact they are getting a bastardised version of yoga focused on sex, and its chief guru is a European. The Agama cult is not tantra but “neo-tantra”, meaning newly-devised. It is very anti-feminist, teaching women to be submissive and again claiming to “heal” women by sexual experience. In practice this means male “therapists” sexually-exploiting women.  Says Richter: “The #MeToo movement also kicks off a golden era of cult revelations. Like the film industry before it, the wellness and woo world finally came under scrutiny. With celebrities and powerful moguls like Harvey Weinstein called out over their sexual assaults, #MeToo finally catches up with spiritual leaders.” (p.154) She also makes a general comment on what happened to “alternative” cultures over time: “a few years on, more came off than just masks. The shiny new world of love, liberation and learning that enticed me and also improved my relationship revealed its first cracks. There was a covert harem culture that felt predatory. Male pioneers of the movement surrounded themselves with young female lovers, often from their trainings, who were then accelerated to apprentices and facilitators…” (pp.162-163) Once again, all this led to scandals, protests and law suits. Many things of both the Osho cult and the Agama cult resemble Centrepoint – not least the charismatic leader who controls an inner-circle as his enforcers.

So Richter comes to Gloriavale, the closed and coercive fundamentalist Christian foundation near the West Coast of the South Island. It was founded by Neville Cooper who rebranded himself as “Hopeful Christian”. Before he set up Gloriavale, Cooper had already indulged in coercive sex with adolescent girls in his first attempt at a Christian commune called Springbank. He was later to serve jail time for his sex crimes. What he taught, in his large and well-funded new foundation, was that women’s first duty was to serve men and bear children. His teachings were reinforced by an exclusively male inner circle known as Servants and Shepherds – which Anke Richter handily refers to as the SS. Women in the community were encouraged to have as many children as possible and did not need higher education. Cooper is now dead, but other men have taken over his role. Despite its ostensibly Christian philosophy, Gloriavale has been rife with child abuse, sexual mistreatment, forced labour in the guise of young people “volunteering” to work twelve-hour days, and a process of shunning and shaming any member of the community who dared to question the regime. Those who choose to leave are regarded as heretics and in many cases are not allowed to visit or see such members of their family who have stayed behind. At time of writing this review, a detailed legal investigation of Gloriavale is underway. Once again, as with her investigation of Centrepoint, Anke Richter has interviewed many escapees and some perpetrators, although the latter hardly admit to any misdemeanours. In this case, however, she shows great sensitivity, being aware that many of those who have left Gloriavale have immense difficulty in adjusting to the world outside the cult; and many who have rejected Gloriavale’s teaching are still searching for a more enlightened form of Christianity.

One interesting contrast between Centrepoint and Gloriavale – Bert Potter’s son still writes apologia for his father and promotes his father’s teachings and practices; Neville Cooper’s son publicly rejects and denounces his father’s teachings and practices.

I have confidence in Anke Richter’s reportage, though maybe I would challenge some of the few comments about sexuality which she makes en passant.

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