Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Terror

The Terror
[2018 TV series created by David Kajganich, based on Dan Simmons's 2007 novel]

Friday, 28th June, 1850

A curious thing. We were in our small boat examining a piece of flotsam spotted by Abbot in the hope that it might have come from one of the ships. There was ice all around us, but being in deep water this neither obstructed nor threatened us in any way. The flotsam gave no indication of its origin, and as I inspected my pocket watch to note the time of our sighting for Pioneer's log, Abbot warned me against losing it overboard, pointing out to me that such was the depth of the water upon which we rowed that had I been careless enough to drop the watch it would have been telling yesterday's time before it struck the bottom.

Lt Sherard Osborn R. N.
Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal, 1852

That's not a quote from either David Kajganich's TV series The Terror, or even from Dan Simmons' book of the same name. Instead, it stands as the epigraph for Robert Edric's earlier novel The Broken Lands, which also attempted, a couple of decades earlier, to recreate the horror of Sir John Franklin's famous 'lost expedition.' Franklin set out in 1845 in the two (appropriately-named) ships Erebus and Terror to find the North-West passage, and not one of the participants, officers or crew, was ever seen alive again.

Robert Edric: The Broken Lands (1992)

There's a kind of poetic trippiness about Edric's version which perhaps befits what seems, in retrospect, a somewhat statelier time (not that the 1990s felt like that to us then). Evocative vistas, carefully honed epiphanies, and a general emphasis on style above substance distinguished much of the fiction of that decade.

I do still love that idea of the pocket watch sinking rapidly into the icy water, down and down and down, far enough down to strike "yesterday's time before it struck the bottom," though. I suppose it's as good an image as any for the art of the historical novelist - painting a vision so detailed and psychologically acute that it convinces all who experience it that that's how it must have been.

Edwin Landseer: Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864)

Not that Edric was the first to attempt it, by any means. There's always been something about the Franklin expedition which has appealed to myth-makers and psychogeographers. Edwin Landseer, better known for 'The Monarch of the Glen' and The Stag at Bay,' was much criticised for his vision, above, of polar bears gnawing at the exposed ribs of frozen sailors, when he showed it at the 1864 Royal Academy exhibition.

Perhaps, indeed, that was the motivation behind Millais's even more famous painting 'The North-West Passage' - promoting a message of imperial derring-do and bulldog intrepidity more acceptable to the Victorian establishment:

John Everett Millais: The North-West Passage (1874)

It seems only fitting that the figure of the Old Salt in Millais's picture should have been modelled on Lord Byron's old friend Edward John Trelawny. Trelawny, author of the novel Adventures of a Younger Son (1831) as well as the almost equally fictional memoir Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858), wrote a famous account of plucking the unburnt heart of Shelley from that famous bonfire on the beach after the latter was drowned at sea. Whether he really did risk the flames in that reckless manner is anyone's guess.

Louis Édouard Fournier: The Funeral of Shelley (1889)
[l-to-r: Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and Byron; Mary Shelley, seen kneeling, was actually not allowed to attend]

All of which brings us back to The Terror. My own interest in the whole subject of the many, many expeditions in search of the North-West passage probably goes back as far as my childhood reading of the 'Classics Illustrated' comic below (which I'm glad to say I still own):

World Illustrated: Story of the Northwest Passage (No. 531)

A rather more sophisticated - though actually just as dramatic - account is given in Glyn Williams' more recent Voyages of Delusion (entitled, in America, Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage):

So you can imagine that as soon as I saw those images of poor old Ciarán Hinds contemplating his end in the snow, it was only a matter of time before I watched the whole series. It might have been nice if it'd been possible to do so on some convenient streaming service, but never mind, I'm now the owner of a brand spanking new DVD of the whole thing.

The Terror (2018)

Is it a masterpiece? Too early to say, I suppose, but certainly the mise-en-scène looks brilliantly, hauntingly real - as befits any production under the supervision of Ridley Scott, or at any rate his production company Scott Free. The performances from all the various principals - Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier, Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames, Paul Ready as Dr. Harry Goodsir, and Ciarán Hinds as Franklin - are flawless. It also contains the slimiest, most reprehensible villain since Shakespeare dreamed up Iago as the ideal foil for his hero Othello.

I don't really want to say too much more about it, for fear of ruining the suspense for those of you who haven't yet watched it. Suspense and mystery are, after all, the lifeblood of stories such as these. Suffice it to say that all is not as it seems in these frozen wastes, and that David Kajganich's vision is probably closer to Edwin Landseer's (above) than to John Millais's.

If you'd like something more decorous and meditative, stick to The Broken Lands. This particular version of Franklin's story is as violent and bloody as anything I've ever seen on TV. It's more for fans of H. P. Lovecraft's lurid melodrama At the Mountains of Madness than for admirers (if there are any still left) of the 1948 film version of Scott of the Antarctic.

Jared Harris (1961- )

The presence, in the cast, of Jared Harris, has the effect - or so I would imagine, at least - of reminding us of his more recent star-making turn in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The pompous inanities and downright lies of such people as Sir John Franklin and his allies back in London seem not too far away from the rather more serious untruths promulgated in the latter series. In both cases, it would seem, if you want the craggy face of integrity, you go to Jared Harris (a long cry from his role as the most villainous villain of all in the TV Sci-fi series Fringe).

[2019 TV series created and written by Craig Mazin, directed by Johan Renck]

'Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.'
- Craig Mazin, Chernobyl (2019).

I wrote this poem some time ago, as a response to the (so-called) 'Polar-Bear-gate' scandal. It now seems to me strangely appropriate to the themes and atmosphere of the magnificent Chernobyl and the gut-wrenching The Terror alike:

Peter Gleick: Stranded Polar Bear (2010)

Stranded Polar Bear

The ripples imply
a boat’s passed by

or something larger
like a whale

the islet’s small
and artificial

like the bear

enduring exile
Augustus sent

his family
to islands

small enough
to terrify

even the young
willing to die

until you realise
it’s a fake

that bear
was never there

even his shadow
clouds and drift ice

carefully placed
to make the point

that lying is okay
when the legend becomes fact

print the legend
said John Ford

by saying it
he showed

he didn’t mean it

Paul Nicklin: Polar Bears (2010)

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Mike Johnson & Leila Lees - Booklaunch on Waiheke Saturday 14th December

Mike Johnson & Leila Lees: Ladder With No Rungs


Mike Johnson & Leila Lees:
Ladder With No Rungs
Community Room - Waiheke Library.
Saturday 14th December @3 pm.


Mike asked me to come along on Saturday to say a few words about his new book, but unfortunately I'm unable to make it. Once before, in 2007, I did make the trip to Waiheke to speak about one of his books of poetry, and this is what I had to say on that occasion.

That was a lot of years ago, though. Since then his rate of production has, if anything, increased - as you can see from the bibliography I've included below. Nor has he allowed himself to be pigeon-holed as a novelist who occasionally writes poetry (or, for that matter, as a poet who's gone over to prose ...). Both modes seem equally natural to Mike, and he's continued to produce distinguished work in each genre.

I'm told that there's a substantial new novel in the offing, and I'm very much looking forward to reading that. In the meantime, though, this latest book of poems seems quite ambitious enough. The poems themselves are short, "haiku style" verses charting the way of a soul in the world and (in particular) through relationships with nature and with each other.

Ladder With No Rungs: Blurb

Leila Lees' graphic works do indeed seem like the perfect accompaniment to Mike's words. The book would be well worth having just for those, in fact. There's yet another technical innovation - albeit quite a light-hearted one - to recommend it, though. I'm referring to the final section, where lines and words surplus to the main text have been presented in a graphic extravaganza of colour and experimental form.

This is what Mike had to say about this part of the book on Facebook (25/9/19):

Ladder With No Rungs: Rejects (1)

What qualifies a poem as a reject? My next book of poetry, LADDER WITH NO RUNGS is in preparation, with the last section entitled REJECTS. Instead of the rejects going into the trash, I suggested to Daniela Gast, our book designer, that she 'mangle them up' in contrast to the rest of the book. Like you'd screw up a piece of paper. And what a wonderful result she achieved. So these are my words, suitably mangled, Leila Lees' art work, suitably mangled, and the work of Daniela, Mangler in Chief. Enjoy!

Ladder With No Rungs: Rejects (2)

I hope that everyone who's able to attend has a wonderful time. I'm sure they will. Though I can't be there in person, I'll certainly be lifting a glass to Mike and Leila in spirit. This is probably the most delightful books of poems I've read this year - moreover, it's a truly collaborative work between artist, designer and poet, something much rarer than it should be.

Lasavia Publishing is quitting the year 2019 in style. Bring on 2020, and the bumper crop of new books it no doubt has in store for us!

on the seventh hour they lay down
to rest
their words hung in the ruby air

first ever dawn chorus
making a fuss

[Ladder With No Rungs, p.24]

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson

Select Bibliography:


  1. The Palanquin Ropes. Wellington: Voice Press, 1983.
  2. From a Woman in Mt Eden Prison & Drawing Lessons. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1984.
  3. Standing Wave. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1985.
  4. Treasure Hunt. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996.
  5. The Vertical Harp: Selected Poems of Li He. Auckland: Titus Books, 2006.
  6. To Beatrice Where We Crossed The Line. Auckland: Second Avenue Press, 2014.
  7. Two Lines and a Garden. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2017.
  8. Ladder with No Rungs. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.

  9. Fiction:

  10. Lear: the Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1986.
    • Lear: the Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2016.
  11. Anti Body Positive. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1988.
    • Zombie in a Space Suit. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2018.
  12. Lethal Dose. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1991.
    • Lethal Dose. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.
  13. Foreigners. Auckland: Penguin, 1991.
  14. Dumbshow. Dunedin: Longacre Press, 1996.
  15. Counterpart. Auckland: Voyager, 2001.
  16. Stench. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 2004.
  17. Travesty. Illustrated by Darren Sheehan. Auckland: Titus Books, 2010.
  18. Hold my Teeth While I Teach you to Dance. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2014.
  19. Back in the Day: Tales from NZ’s Own Paradise Island. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2015.
  20. Confessions of a Cockroach / Headstone. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2017.

  21. For children:

  22. Taniwha. Illustrated by Jennifer Rackham. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2015.

  23. Non-fiction:

  24. The Angel of Compassion. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2014.

Leila Lees

Leila Lees

Select Bibliography:

  1. Mike Johnson: Two Lines and a Garden. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2017.
  2. Into the World: A Handbook for Mystical and Shamanic Practice. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.
  3. Mike Johnson: Ladder with No Rungs. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Behrouz Boochani and Kyriarchy

Behrouz Boochani: No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2019)

"The sovereignty of the waves has collapsed the moral framework."
- Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountains, p.16

You know how it is when everyone's telling you that you simply must read a particular book? How a certain reluctance starts to set in? A refusal to be herded, to walk in their footsteps in order to repeat some pale simulacrum of their experience?

Unreasonable, perhaps, but that's how it is. One of my colleagues, Rand Hazou, lent me his own copy of Behrouz Boochani's prison memoir, so I thought this might be a good way to sample it before actually deciding whether or not to add it to my already overcrowded bookshelves.

Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales (1995)

I have read a number of prison memoirs in my time: I date from the era when every dissident memoir from the Soviet Union was there to be appalled by: Evgenia Ginzburg (Into the Whirlwind & Within the Whirlwind), Natalia Gorbanevskaya (Red Square at Noon), Anatoly Marchenko (My Testimony), Irina Ratushinskaya (Grey is the Colour of Hope) - not to mention the collected works of Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov (if you haven't read him, you really should: Kolyma Tales is a great work).

As well as those, there were books from Latin America (Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without a Number, by Jacobo Timerman); Africa (The Man Died: Prison Notes, by Wole Soyinka); not to mention - going back a bit - Nazi Germany (I was Hitler's Prisoner, by Stefan Lorant); and the Spanish Civil War (Dialogue with Death, by Arthur Koestler). Let's just say, in summary, that it's not an entirely unfamiliar genre to me.

Much of the interest around Boochani's book has focussed on its extraordinarily convoluted mode of composition and transmission to the outside world: it was sent in fragments through text messages, then converted into blocks of pdf text, and finally passed on to his translator, Omid Tofighian.

Actually this is probably the least interesting aspect of the book. Certainly this method has had an influence on the extraordinarily close relationship between translator and author which characterises it, but possibly this would have grown up organically anyway.

Stephen King: The Plant (2000)

All in all, it reminds me a little of Stephen King's somewhat abortive experiment with online publication twenty years back, when he published his then-latest short story, Riding the Bullet, as the "world's first mass-market e-book, available for download at $2.50."

King complained later that everyone who wanted to talk to him about it focussed on the method of publication, while none of them seemed to feel the slightest interest in the story itself. Frustrated, he gave up on his follow-up plan to issue a serial novel, The Plant, in digital form. It remains to this day a magnificent fragment.

In other words, to paraphrase King's own motto: "Trust the tale, not the one who tells it." If you do decide to read Boochani's tale, you'll immediately notice a few things about it:

  • First of all, it's very 'poetically' written. In other words, the prose passages are interspersed with more focussed passages of free verse. What precisely this echoes in the original text, it's hard to say, but it's certainly very effective in English.

  • Secondly, Boochani has the soul of a novelist, as well as that of a poet. His character studies are brilliantly biting and witty.

  • Thirdly (and perhaps least palatably for many readers), he is an intellectual of the deepest water: prepared to argue theoretical definitions of oppression and perception to the n-th degree. Principal among the concepts he uses is that of Kyriarchy.

Anthony Haden-Guest: The Resistance to Theory

To my deep shame, I have to confess that this term did not immediately ring a bell with me. Now, of course, I've googled it and am getting ready to sound like I knew what it meant all along. But no, don't believe me. I didn't.

Or rather, I thought I didn't ...

Countdown Supermarket (Mairangi Bay)

Since it was first built in the 1970s, we've been living next door to a supermarket which started out as a SuperValue, then became a Woolworths, and is now a Countdown. Originally it had two entrances, one at the back and one at the front, but at a certain point, a couple of decades ago now, they decided to make the back carpark a loading area.

This didn't stop us walking through there. Once or twice it was necessary to dodge the front-end loader, but I never heard of any accidents or problems with that (though cars were only allowed through when no unloading was taking place).

Last Christmas we were rolling a trolley full of goodies towards the loading area when a young uniformed fellow started shouting at us. "You can't go through there," he said. The fact that we claimed to have been doing so for years did not sway him. We were forced, instead, to take the long way round and roll the trolley back through the rest of the shopping centre.

Alas, this was an augury of things to come. We continued to walk through, but we could see the signs of construction work beginning. Eventually this culminated in a pair of gates, at either end of the loading zone, which have made it impossible for anyone without a key to get in or out.

These were not just any gates: they were topped with barbed wire, padlocked and chained, and surrounded on all sides by extra razor-wire extensions to stop anyone trying to slip in or out unobserved. If you imagine something like the prison camp in that old TV series Hogan's Heroes, that should give you the general idea.

Nor is the process of getting them open and shut a trouble-free one. We frequently see lines of trucks stalled in the alley leading up to the first gate, honking their horns and cursing the absence of anyone to let in and unload their goods.

The gates at the other end, however, are even worse. They were wrongly balanced to start with, and could not be closed without immense effort and much cursing. Eventually they just left them open most of the time, until they could be removed and an entirely new set of gates installed.

To what end, exactly? The one thing they didn't try, over all the years we roamed freely through this loading zone, was a sign to the effect that people shouldn't walk through there - "for health and safety reasons." There's a sign there to that effect now, but given the simultaneous presence of the barbed wire and padlocks, it's not really necessary any longer.

I can see that the job of manning the loading area has become at least fifty percent more onerous since the great gates were installed. They have to be opened and closed, with much ceremony, many times a day - the truck drivers clearly hate them, and so (one suspects) do the supermarket staff. Sometimes I've been inside buying groceries when the call comes over the tannoy: "So-and-so to the loading area," generally accompanied by loud honkings and shoutings from outside.

The analogy may seem a trivial one, but this is the best I can come up with as a running definition of kyriarchy: a completely unnecessary set of extra rules and regulations, reinforced by physical barriers and new holding areas, which transforms lives by adding an extra level of inconvenience and time-wasting, on order to achieve a very debatable end.

Why didn't they try asking us not to walk through? It might not have worked, but putting up a couple of signs to that effect would surely have been easier than going the full nine yards with the locks and the razor wire?

The idea that there's nothing accidental in such decisions, whether they concern the detention structures on Manus Island, the roads and barriers around West Bank settlements in the Middle East, or the management structures in large institutions, is (as I understand it) the idea behind this theoretical construct:

In feminist theory, kyriarchy ... is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, xenophobia, economic injustice, prison-industrial complex, colonialism, militarism, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, speciesism and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.
Once you start looking for it, you spot it everywhere. They just announced the introduction of a new scale of parking charges at work, without any consultation with staff, just after we'd finished a long set of negotiations over pay and conditions with them through our Union delegates. Merry Christmas to you, in other words - don't think you can get us because we'll get you.

Is kyriarchy too large and all-encompassing a concept to be useful for critical analysis of these structures? Not really. The point is to try and encompass the protean slipperiness with which power structures adapt themselves to each new change to the status quo.

I wish Behrouz Boochani well, and think his book a narrative masterpiece, but I think he would be the first to say that this is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation. The mere existence of places such as Manus Island raises uncomfortable questions. If we fail to see them as the extension of the petty power structures all around us designed - with more or less success - to keep us in line, then we've missed the whole thrust of his argument.