Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Visit to Colville

The Colville General Store
(August 5th, 2001)

"Colville" is one of Kendrick Smithyman's most iconic small-town New Zealand lyrics. (And, yes, I know - I hate that word "iconic," too, and agree that it's overused. It's difficult to find a good alternative in this instance, though).

Here's the poem in its entirety, from his online Collected Poems.

The editors, Margaret Edgcumbe and Peter Simpson, comment:

Colville: first published in Westerly 3 (October 1968), 33; also in Earthquake Weather [1972] and Selected Poems [1989]; a town on the Coromandel Peninsula

Succinct and accurate, but somehow not the full story. For one thing, on his Stout Centre recording of the poem, Kendrick remarks that the poem caused quite a lot of fuss when it first appeared, and that people kept on assuring him that "it's not like that now." As a result (presumably), when it was included in Ian Wedde & Harvey McQueen's 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, the title had been changed to "Colville 1964". Subsequently he seems to have gone back on that decision, though, and the title reverted to its original form.

So is it still "like that"? "That sort of place where you stop / long enough to fill the tank, buy plums, / perhaps, and an icecream thing on a stick / while somebody local comes / in, leans on the counter, takes a good look / but does not like what he sees of you"? Is it still "intangible as menace, / a monotone with a name, / ... an aspect of human spirit / ... mean, wind-worn"? It's not exactly a pretty picture he paints.

Anyway, in the winter of 2001 I decided to find out. I'd been discussing and poring over the poem for years in class, so I felt it was high time to go and check it out for myself.

[Simon & camera]

I went with my friend Simon Creasey, which may not (in retrospect) have been such a good idea - but then he couldn't be said to have stuffed up any worse than I did, so I guess I'd better just stop blaming others for my own shortcomings.

Colville Store (interior)

The trouble began shortly after we first got into town, about mid-morning. I'd been snapping away with my camera, and just naturally lifted it up and took a picture as we walked into the store. There it is above, in fact.

Well, the way the guy glared it me, I realised at once that this went far beyond any conventional faux pas. And fair enough, too! I hadn't actually realised until them just how much people resent flash photography, when they haven't been asked permission (which I suspect he would have refused, in any case).

It was a supremely vulgar, touristy act, and the fact that I was desperate to get a shot of the counter to illustrate those first lines of the poem was neither here nor there. Mea culpa, that's for sure.

What's more, when I looked at the postcards he had on sale (one of which I bought - you can see it there below), it became obvious that the picturesque nature of his shop was part of his stock in trade. Basically, what I'd done was the touristic equivalent of robbing him at gunpoint.

Colville: the sunny side of the street

How do you recover from a thing like that? The obvious answer would have been to get the hell out of Dodge, but it was a misty, moisty morning, we were both pretty frozen, and since the general store doubled as a café, we decided that forking over some cold hard cash for a coffee and a muffin might help restore matters to an even keel.

Simon in the café

Lo and behold, it seemed to work! The coffee was good, the muffins were tasty, and we even found ourselves getting into conversation with some locals at an adjacent table, which almost never happens - to me, at any rate. Everything was going swimmingly, but then ...

The conversation had been cycling generally around Colville, the people who lived there, tall tales of the bush and the communes, and then Simon asked:

"Has Colville always been this small? I mean, you read about it as one of the big trading ports on the Coromandel ... has there ever been more to it than this?" (with a lofty sweep of the hand, indicating the four or five buildings in sight).

Man, you could almost hear those people stiffen! You treat a couple of random Auckland tourists as if they were human beings, and the next thing you know they're taking liberties. I hastily ushered him out of the café and into the car before he could say anything else, and tromped on the gas pedal.

"What's wrong?" persisted Simon. "What did I say? Is there a problem?"

I'm not sure he got it even when I stopped on the outskirts of town to read him a brief lecture on small town etiquette ("Rule 1. Never look around with a sneer and then comment on how small things are here; Rule 2. Never reveal that you hail from Auckland and that your beverage of choice is latte in a bowl; oh, and of course Rule 3. Never take photos of locals without their permission, especially if you have to walk right inside their dwellings to do so ...")

But maybe I'm just paranoid - perhaps they were just a bit surprised by the question, or genuinely didn't know the answer. One mustn't overreact (after all). We'd almost persuaded ourselves to believe that by the time we roared back into town, many hours later, after having been up to the tip of the peninsula and even taken a dip in the icy cold water.

To give you a slightly better idea of the context, here's a panorama of pictures I took just a bit out of town, with suitable captions from Kendrick's poem:

[Thames Estuary Panorama (1-10)]

Face outwards, over the saltings

the bay, wise as contrition

shallow as their hold on small repute,

good for dragging nets

which men are doing through channels

disproportionate in the blaze

of hot afternoon’s down-going

to a far fire-hard tide’s rise

upon the vague where time is distance?

I don't remember too much about our return to town. We were starving by then, and had (as I mentioned above) persuaded ourselves that there was nothing to worry about. So we went back into the café ...

The coffee was lousy this time round. That can happen anywhere, of course, but it had been quite good on the way up. I couldn't help thinking that something had been done to it. One thing's for certain: that latte wasn't made with love ...

these have another tone
or quality, something aboriginal,
reductive as soil itself – bone
must get close here, final
yet unrefined at all. They endure.

A school, a War Memorial Hall

the store, neighbourhood of salt and hills

The road goes through to somewhere else.

That last line rather sums it up, I'm afraid: "Bleenk and you missed it," as the Australians say. But, then, someone has to live there, maintain the petrol pump and the dairy, organise the dances at the War Memorial Hall.

The poem ends rather equivocally:

Not a geologic fault
line only scars textures of experience.
Defined, plotted; which maps do not speak.

How is that sentence to be construed? Is "scars" to be taken as a verb? "It's not only geological faultlines which scar you - creating textures of experience"? Or is "scars" a noun: one of the items in a list (with commas omitted)? "Not a geologic faultline only, scars, textures of experience" ...?

One thing's for certain, he's positing a close link between the character of the inhabitants and the nature of their surroundings - or, at any rate, speculating (as an urban/e outsider) that such might be the case. I can't help feeling that he was onto something there, or is that just me being crass again?


That sort of place where you stop
long enough to fill the tank, buy plums,
perhaps, and an icecream thing on a stick
while somebody local comes
in, leans on the counter, takes a good look
but does not like what he sees of you,

intangible as menace,
a monotone with a name, as place
it is an aspect of human spirit
(by which shaped), mean, wind-worn. Face
outwards, over the saltings: with what merit
the bay, wise as contrition, shallow

as their hold on small repute,
good for dragging nets which men are doing
through channels, disproportionate in the blaze
of hot afternoon’s down-going
to a far fire-hard tide’s rise
upon the vague where time is distance?

It could be plainly simple
pleasure, but these have another tone
or quality, something aboriginal,
reductive as soil itself – bone
must get close here, final
yet unrefined at all. They endure.

A school, a War Memorial
Hall, the store, neighbourhood of salt
and hills. The road goes through to somewhere else.
Not a geologic fault
line only scars textures of experience.
Defined, plotted; which maps do not speak.

11. 1. 68

[No wonder they gave me a bit of a hard time ...]

Friday, April 23, 2010

Children Of Earth

I suppose like most nerds brought up on hard sci-fi - that trinity of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, shading off into new wave: Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin and Stanislaw Lem - I've always regarded film and TV as the poor cousins of "real" science fiction.

Star Wars on the big screen and Star Trek on the small screen set the tone: fatuous space-opera with spectacular (but mindless) special effects in the former, self-serving imperialist hogwash in the latter. There were exceptions, of course: the psychedelic insanity of Kubrick's 2001, the noir ambiguities of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, but for the most part the real action in speculative fiction seemed to lie elsewhere: mostly in those anthologies of "Best Sf stories" I devoured all through my youth.

Of late, though, I've had to revise this attitude. Far from being the impecunious relative, filmed SF is beginning to assume a more dominant role. I put up a post a while ago about how surprisingly impressive the remake of Battlestar Galactica was turning out to be, but I guess I still saw that as a bit of flash in the pan. Now I'm starting to wonder. The main reason for that is Torchwood.

[Doctors to Date:
Query: How can there have been 10 Doctors already
when Gallifreyans are only supposed to go through
9 cycles of metamorphosis?]

Now I've been a Doctor Who fan for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest TV memories consist of crouching over a black-and-white set where an old white-haired sage was combatting strange monsters in a set which seemed smaller than the average broom-closet. After that came the fey, Chaplinesque Patrick Troughton, the mod Dandy Jon Pertwee, the sublime Tom Baker, and so on and so forth. There were some pretty fine ideas in some of the stories - some exciting moments - but one has to confess that they were never really good in any objective, demonstrable way. There was always an element of camp about the show, a need to suspend judgment in order to enjoy them. That's been as true of the latest, Welsh-based series as of any of its predecessors. David Tennant was a good Doctor, to be sure - even a very good Doctor - but there's only a limited amount that can actually be done with the role.

So the idea of watching a mere spin-off from Doctor Who never really attracted me much. There've been spin-offs before: the dreadful K-9 and Company comes to mind. Infantile was scarcely the word.

But then we were in the video shop the other day, and there was Children of Earth on the shelf, and I remembered having been assured by another hardcore Doctor Who fan that Torchwood was the bee's knees, so we succumbed to temptation and took it out.

Many hours later, tousle-haired and sleepless, we looked at each other and concluded that we'd have to persevere to the end - that there was no way we were going to get any sleep until we'd got to the end of this particular story.

It's not that the characters are particularly lovable. On the contrary, Gwen, the female star, is quite irritatingly self-satisfied and bossy (in my humble opinion), and I even find Captain Jack rather less than charismatic. There's a certain frisson in the homosexual subplot: boys kissing boys on prime-time TV! But that's not it. The star of this show is the writing.

It's exciting, action-based stuff, to be sure, but what really grabbed me about it - and reminded me strongly of the new look Galactica - was the disenchanted timeliness of its message. You might call it cynical, but I prefer just to see it as terrifyingly credible ...

[The Kiss]

[WARNING: plot spoiler!]

I don't want to wreck the show for those who haven't seen it, but I do have to specify that an alien power has come to earth and is demanding a tribute of children: 10% of the world's population of children, in fact. "Absurd!", you say. Well, of course. But mark how the writers deal with this somewhat improbable premise.

First of all, it turns out that these particular aliens have been here before. That time - in 1965 - they only demanded a ransom of twelve children, in exchange for a promise not to release a virus which would kill an estimated quarter of the world's population. Twelve lives against over a billion? Pretty good deal. The children (orphans, whose absence wouldn't be noted) were duly handed over by Captain Jack Harkness of the Torchwood institute himself.

Now they've come back - with a vengeance. What's the reaction of the British government? To try and cover up that earlier transaction by ordering the judicial murder of everyone involved in the 1965 operation. Then, to try and persuade the aliens to play along by not mentioning the reason why they've returned to the UK, rather than anywhere else on earth. Lies, prevarication, covering their own arses precede by far any instinct to try and actually combat this invasion.

But what do the aliens need the children for? Well, it turns out that they secrete a chemical which makes them "feel good." In short, this alien embassy is here to ensure that their supply of drugs is secure. The children, we're assured, "feel no pain" - they're simply strapped to a pump so they can give out the alien equivalent of crack cocaine. And, best of all, they can survive for decades like that! Hmmm.

Of course the government's first thought is to keep this secret. What would be the point of causing a panic? And how could you persuade people to hand over ten percent of their children if they know what their fate is going to be? This time the aliens say they'll destroy the entire population of earth if their demands are not met - pour encourager les autres, one supposes: to make sure that no other subservient species get too uppity in the future.

This is dark stuff. But it gets darker. There's a long - and fascinating - conversation around the cabinet table. How to choose the ten percent? Which children should go? A lottery is clearly the only fair way of selecting them ... but of course the children (or, rather, grandchildren) of cabinet ministers must be exempted from taking part!

"But what about nephews and nieces?" shouts one of them.

"Don't try your luck," growls the Prime Minister.

"If you think I'm going to try and explain to my brother what happened to his kids ..." she replies.

The meeting dissolves into bedlam.

But then it turns out that the nephew-and-niece question was meant solely as a debating ploy. Actually her point was that all of them are ready to make exceptions for children they know personally - but that's because these are good, worthwhile children: "the kind who become doctors and teachers and lawyers - who run our schools and our hospitals." What would be the point of wasting children like that? We all know, she goes on, that there's another kind of child: the yobbo, the dole-bludger. Children who'll grow up to be a burden on the state, worthless mouths to feed. Everyone is nodding solemnly by this point. They know the kind of kids she's talking about.

But how could one make sure that it's only this kind of untermensch kids who get handed over to the aliens? Simple. You exempt all the posh schools sight unseen, and just send the army round to the poorer schools, the slum schools - collect all of their kids for an "inoculation" programme.

Does this sound implausible, melodramatic? I really wish it did. I could hear behind them, all the time, the cringing, cowardly voices of those French cabinet ministers at Vichy, explaining how the alternative to rounding up Jews to be handed over to their neighbouring Nazi overlords would be far, far worse: "If we don't do it somebody else will."

And, as the aliens made their pitiless, disgusting demands, I could hear distant echoes of the Opium Wars of the 1840s, when Britain declared war on China to ensure the maintenance of its drug-trade with the celestial Empire. How dare the Chinese government attempt to stem the growth of commerce (meaning, in this case, the creation of vast armies of opium addicts in all their major trading ports)!

Then, at the end of it all, after our heroes had pulled out their somewhat unlikely deus ex machina solution to the alien menace, how implausible that the politicians' first order of business was to decide who to blame it on in order to avoid suffering electorally for having literally rounded up ten percent of the nation's children to be sacrificed to Moloch. How unlike Blair and Bush and their disgusting, lying toadies! I don't where people come up with such strange, unwholesome ideas! By waking up and looking around them, I guess.

[END of plot spoiler]

[Lynley Hood: A City Possessed (2001)]

I don't know. The other thing I've been reading lately is Lynley Hood's terrifying book A City Possessed, about the Christchurch creche debacle in the 1990s, and I couldn't help but see the analogies:
  • The immediate instinct, on the part of those in authority, to shut up dissent, to ignore inconvenient truths, to look for a powerless, vulnerable scapegoat.
  • The incredible effrontery of the establishment (legal as well as political, in this case), who concluded, at the end of one of the various whitewashing "inquiries" into the whole affair, that if it could be proved that there were a large number of miscarriages of justice in New Zealand, then there might be a need to overhaul a system which virtually never reverses a vedict once arrived at. But since the Arthur Allan Thomas case was such an "aberration", according to this looking-glass logic, there's clearly no necessity for such radical steps to be taken. Justice? schmustice ...
  • The instinctive, unquestioning closing of ranks by the ruling class who know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the maintenance of order in society - i.e. the continuation of their own peculiar privileges - requires a few sacrifices to be made from time to time. Because the alternative (we're constantly assured) would be far worse.

I guess Torchwood and Galactica still have to be classified as light entertainment. But I have to say that what the public will tolerate in their TV dramas has certainly changed a lot of late. It's clear that nobody was expected to feel surprised at watching these venal, slimy British politicans paying with their children's lives for their own political futures.

Galactica had a rather more brutally functionalist agenda. "Every woman adores a fascist / The boot in the face" as Sylvia Plath famously asserted. Perhaps one could rephrase that to say that the American system of governance has always had a sneaking sympathy for - and uncomfortable resemblance to - fascism: the insistence on social conformity, the profusion of emotive flag-waving and symbolic reenactments of nationhood ... Galactica was interesting because it examined such attitudes - at length, with pellucid, dispassionate logic - rather than simply embodying them (unlike Star Trek and its innumerable sequels).

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that we've entered some kind of golden age of TV SF - that everything on that medium is now worthy of serious attention. What I am saying is that a few select TV shows have somehow managed to creep under the radar and say some very hard-hitting things about the nature of our civilization: the way we live now. For every Torchwood, there are still a number of fatuous, pointless miniseries like V and its ilk, but at least now the word is out. Where pulp fiction - in the hands of masters such as J. G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick - once led the charge, now it's the TV writers: mostly, to be sure, the Balzacian creators of such sprawling realist epics as The Wire or Deadwood, but also the humble, ill-funded script-writers of science-fiction TV.

[The Wire (2002-2009):

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Wildes Licht / Wild Light

[Dieter Riemenschneider: Wildes Licht (2010)]

It's weird seeing yourself in a foreign language. Last night I was at the booklaunch of Wildes Licht: Poems / Gedichte aus Aotearoa Neuseeland, a bilingual English / German anthology of New Zealand poetry, translated and edited by Dieter Riemenschneider, and available from Tranzlit publishers (or from a bookseller near you).

The title comes from Michele Leggott's poem "Wild Light", and you'll find a really fascinating assortment of poems old and new in there. Why I'm in there is a little harder to say (you'll have to ask Dieter), but I have to say that I certainly value the opportunity to see my words through the transverse lense of his careful translation:

Situations ii: CBD

Auckland nach dem Regen

at the “City of Sails” motel.
It’s hard to convey how strange that is:
dark, skid-marked streets; day after day
of grey …
Who the fuck’s there?

Two loonies
standing by the road
(blue parka, beige kagoul)
not waiting for anything
– just waiting.
By a roundabout.

It’s ten at night.

Rain-slick streets are cool.

has become:

Ortsverhalte ii: CBD

Auckland nach dem Regen

das “City of Sails” Motel.
's ist schwer zu sagen wie
merkwürdig das ist:
dunkle Schleuderspurenstraßen; tagelanges
Grau …
Wer verdammt ist da?

Zwei Verrückte
stehen am Straßenrand
(blauer Parka, beiger Anorak)
warten auf nichts
– warten nur.
An einem Verkehrskreisel.

’s ist zehn am Abend.

Die regenglatten Straßen sind kühl

The title (in the unlikely event you hadn't noticed) makes reference to Max Ernst's apocalyptic "Europe after the Rain" paintings from the 1940s - which seemed very appropriate to me in 1998, when this poem was written, as the whole city was blacked-out and diesel generators were chugging away in every shop door in the CBD.

[Max Ernst: Europa nach dem Regen II (1940-42)]

Beyond that, I particularly like the way that my loonies have become Zwei Verrückte [two crazies], and my "Who the fuck’s there?" has been transformed into the equally-heartfelt: Wer verdammt ist da?

Oh, there are joys innumerable to be found in this anthology. You owe it to yourself to read Allen Curnow's "Das Skelett des Großen Moa in Canterburymuseum, Christchurch":
Nicht ich, ein Kind kommt wunderbar zur Welt
und lernt den Trick, wie man sich aufrecht stellt

(Pretty clever, getting it to rhyme as well), or Hone Tuwhare's "Keine gewöhnliche Sonne" [No Ordinary Sun], or Apirana Taylor's "Trauriger Witz auf einem Marae" [Sad Joke on a Marae] ...

Why is it so appealing to see these familiar poems in such a new guise? I have to say that I hope this is the first of many such anthologies. There was a bilingual French selection of New Zealand poets included in the journal Europe a few years ago: No 931 (Novembre 2006) – Écrivains de Nouvelle-Zélande, but that doesn't really compare with the epic breadth of Dieter's fascinatingly various sampling of historic and contemporary New Zealand poetry to date.

Anyway, check it out if you get the chance. The initial booklaunch in Auckland will be followed by a road-trip during which Dieter and Jan will launch the book at various venues in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. I'll put up more exact dates and details as soon as they come to hand.

In the meantime, though, I'll leave you with some lines from one of my favourite Curnow poems, "Man wird es wissen wenn man dort ist" [You Will Know When You Get There]:

Hinab geht mann allein, so spät, in den wogenschwarzen Bodenriss.

Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure.

Isn't that word wogenschwarzen wonderful? "Fissure" still wins out over Bodenriss, though, I think: such a weight of implication in just the sound of those last few words ...