Northern Advocate Column

A holiday to celebrate Matariki, yes!

12 June 2018

When it comes to our public holidays I range from passable participation, boredom, to cynical disbelief―why are we celebrating that? Queen’s Birthday definitely the latter.

A paid day off is always great, but I want something more from a holiday. I want to feel. 

Christmas and New Year come closest. Who doesn’t like reaching the end of the year and enjoying a relaxing time with family. I get that. 

Northland Anniversary Day? Meh. 

Waitangi Day? I’ve enjoyed days at Waitangi itself, but despite attempts to establish the Treaty as a founding document for this country I’m too aware that it really was a calculated attempt by the British to claim dominion over this land. Too much post-colonial guilt for it to feel like a holiday should. And not everyone in the country seems to be uniformly celebrating the day, so it feels awkward, like a work function where there are unresolved tensions between management and staff. You just can’t quite get into it. 

I like the length of Easter, but chocolate eggs and bunnies mashed-up with the biblical story of Christ’s death on the cross and rising a few days later doesn’t do much for me. 

I understand that Anzac Day means a lot to some people. It’s the kind of holiday – commemoration is a better word – that I’m looking for, something with a depth of feeling. It’s just that the nationalist myth-making, the ties it still reinforces to Western powers, the uniforms and hierarchies, don’t sit well with my anarchist-inclined tastes. 

Labour Day is an interesting one. We got that in 1900 to mark the struggle by unions to achieve an eight-hour working day. But not much is made of it, really. A symptom perhaps of New Zealand’s working-class history being so successfully removed from our everyday consciousness. A kind of collective lobotomy, as if we’ve all been playing Mike Hosking through headphones at night. 

Our line-up of public holidays just feels tired and stale to me. Traditions and continuity are all well and good, but change is necessary too. So I’m joining the chorus of people calling for Matariki, the Māori New Year, to become our newest holiday season. A chance for reflection, hearty dinners and public festivals of art and entertainment. 

It should be two days off, one either side of a weekend in June. Replace the outdated Queen’s Birthday and then increase our public holiday count by one to 12 (still behind Australia’s 13). 

I have in mind a truly internationalist holiday. Yes, with a perspective indigenous to this land, but mid-winter celebrations are common to most cultures around the world. Under the umbrella of Matariki, celebrations could reflect the full diversity of communities that have come to Aotearoa. Some by following the stars long ago, others more recently watching movies on the backseat of the airline passengers in front of them.

It should be a holiday season that combines local belonging with a global consciousness. A holiday fit for that purpose is something I could embrace wholeheartedly. 

Matariki, it’s in the stars. 

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Poetry

Feeding the soul

In a small room,
a window to all I need,
my soul—yes, it has returned

—will be free
of policy and committee,
headlines and opinion.

I’ll cook away
at little children,
pulling recipes

down from the shelf,
adding in combinations
and portions,

tasting each child,
sucking its bones,
before throwing them

to the window, the discards
of an inner life
I’ll feed to overflowing.

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Poetry

Johnathan by the water

It’s Johnathan by the water
Flopping his hair like a seagull’s shiver.

His eyes are honest, so honest
He’ll tell you how it is
Hit you between the yellow and the blue.

He’s got you leaning into the wall
Waiting for you to fall.

He’ll smile and lead you on
His eyes are honest, so honest.

He’s Johnathan by the water
Flopping his hair like a seagull’s shiver.

He’ll hang you in the elevator
You won’t reach for the button
Because it’s right
Because it’s right.

He’ll tell you not to cry
It’s America and it’s built to last.

He’s Johnathan by the water
Flopping his hair like seagull’s shiver.

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Poetry

Me and the tulips

I guess I’m here like the tulips are here,
somewhat against their nature, cut from the stem. Fate,
I’ve come more often to appreciate. Her
hard turning of the wheel used to throw kings
aaaaaaaaaaaaaand peasants and bishops in buckets
around the hemispherical heavens,
each taking their turn at the midday top
before falling off just after nine.

The tulips though aren’t waiting for anything,
fate or otherwise, not like I’m waiting,
with only the concept and the feeling of waiting
but not the what for.

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Uncategorized

Let’s keep trying to eliminate Covid from New Zealand

daily-cases-25aug20

Democracy is a flawed, frustrating and messy business, but in New Zealand, I’m pleased to say, it’s in fine form.  The Government’s handling of coronavirus has been under intense scrutiny from the media, opposition parties, unions, academics, lobby groups, and most importantly, an engaged citizen body. Journalists are doing their job and exposing the gaps between Government intentions and reality on the ground. Better systems and policy will result.

Democracy is also working because our political parties are so poll-driven. Both Labour and National will be regularly polling to find out what New Zealanders are thinking. That there’s consensus between the two main parties, on the surface at least, to continue an elimination strategy, should reflect the majority view. 

But it’s a fluid situation, events and circumstances will shift opinions. Time is a factor too. There are already growing calls for a more liberal border policy and a strategy of “living with Covid” for the sake of the economy. 

I’m still very much in favour of elimination, however. Here are my seven reasons why. 

Reason 1: We can hold out until a vaccine is available. Maybe a vaccine is a year away. Hope is alive when there’s a realistic timeframe. An elimination strategy can last this long. 

Reason 2: We don’t yet know enough. Will a vaccination be needed every year, like for the flu? Do people who get Covid-19 develop lasting immunity? Within a year we’ll have answers. Staying the elimination course until we know just what we’re dealing with would be sensible. 

Reason 3: Self-preservation. As I close in on 50, I don’t really want to take my chances with the disease. I’ve a history of chest-heaving coughs that last for months from just a simple cold. The black humour at our family dinner table consists of jibes pointing out I’ll never make it if I catch Covid. Thanks, family.  

Reason 4: Protecting the old people I know. More than my own chances up against Covid, I worry about my parents in their mid-seventies, who are full of life and looking forward to more good years. For my mother, who has an existing health condition, catching Covid would put her at extreme risk. I’d prefer they didn’t have to live in fear and isolation. 

Reason 5: I want freedom of movement. If we have to “live with Covid” I’m not going to be out in public much. My entertainment dollar won’t be spent at cafés, restaurants or sporting events. To maintain contact with my parents, I’ll have to limit contact with other people. That’s why the economic effects of Covid spreading through the community are severe. Many people will choose to isolate for a longer stretch than a lockdown lasting weeks. 

Reason 6: Our economy has to change. I’ve sympathy for people who’ve lost their jobs and livelihoods, but my perspective on the world tells me that Covid is just one of the “disruptors” the economy is going to face in coming years. Climate change, an inevitable financial crisis, increasing energy costs – these things were going to challenge the status quo anyway. By continuing to pursue an elimination strategy, we have an opportunity to reshape the national economy into one that’s more self-sufficient, sustainable and responsive to the needs of people. 

Reason 7: Common purpose is easily lost. Fighting coronavirus at the border, with occasional temporary lockdowns, coupled with mass-testing and tracing, is easier to unite around. Suppressing Covid or preventing the health system from being overwhelmed, is a less clear-cut goal. Evidence from overseas suggests that people start thinking more individually in those circumstances. If we give up on pursuing elimination, then I fear we’ll also kiss goodbye to the “team of 5 million.” 

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Northern Advocate Column

Some thoughts on Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

Taylor_Swift_-_FolkloreThe cover of Taylor Swift’s new album folklore is a black and white photo of the singer-songwriter in a long coat standing in a forest of tall, slender trees. Swift is small, barely recognisable, her head tilted slightly, looking up at the nearest tree.

Taylor Swift isn’t small though. She’s a global pop star, one of the biggest. Yet the conceit of the cover is that even Taylor Swift is tiny compared to the majesty of nature.

While there’s no back-to-nature roots music on the album, the songs are more humble, less ego-driven, not so much caught up in the swirl of celebrity culture. The pop glam, the brash put-downs, the revelling in self-mythology that were part of Swift’s recent catalogue is largely missing here. Most of the songs are about characters other than Swift herself. Whatever past experiences she’s drawing on from her own life, these are seamlessly woven into narratives and character sketches that we ordinary folk can identify with.

Many of the songs have the narrator recalling the past. As in the lost love of a woman’s “roaring twenties” in the opening track ‘The 1’; and the teenage love dramas in ‘Cardigan’, ‘Betty’ and ‘August.’ There are memories of being seven years old in the gorgeous ‘Seven’, with its aching poetry of nostalgia and never to be regained innocence and wonder. A bittersweet melody accompanies these opening lines: “Please picture me in the trees/ I hit my peak at seven/ Feet in the swing over the creek.” We can picture Swift as a child on a swing, but we also picture ourselves. We all have such moments from our childhood that we remember and cherish.

Swift develops the scene with the lines: “I was high in the sky/ With Pennsylvania under me.” Then switching registers, a sudden question: “Are there still beautiful things?” And it’s in this one line that we have a connection to the bigger picture of our lives amid a global pandemic and whatever is to come. Are there still beautiful things? Yes there are, and ‘Seven’ is one of them.

Most of us have a history of failed relationships with people. We look back with some regret and maybe a little maturity. Hoping we won’t repeat past mistakes. This is the key to the album’s title. The folklore here is not the rural tradition of folk music, but our own past lives and what we can learn from looking back on them.

There’s often a double-sided nature to our reminiscing though. We might hope we’ve grown and gained insight into ourselves, but there’s still the lingering sense that our youthful dramas were the best of times. Falling in and out of love with people and places (and even ideas or political creeds) had an emotional intensity that we can look back on with envy. There can be regret or sadness in recalling our past, but part of us wishes we were still there. Taylor Swift understands that contradiction, like when she sings in ‘August’: “Back when we were still changing for the better/ Back when I was living for the hope of it all.”

In ‘This is me trying’ she likens herself to a once flash new car or bike: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting/ I had the shiniest wheels/ Now they’re rusting.” There is no going back. That’s accepted. Contentment, if not drama and adventure, can be found in the present. As in these poet-worthy lines: “Time, mystical time, cutting me open, then healing me fine.”

Musically, the album doesn’t stray far from slow piano ballads, with textured and subtle, mood-amplifying guitar. There are accompanying electronic effects, and the album sounds very produced, but it’s intimate in a way that past Taylor Swift albums are not. For all its layered production, the album still feels like musicians making music in a cabin somewhere in an untouched forest in a mythical place called America. To understand, perhaps, what this album feels like to listen to, go back to that cover photo. If the photo speaks to you at this time of coronavirus, then so might these 17 songs.

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Poetry

Sigh

Another day with no name,
no number, before or after

the black sands burn
a black smoke

*

I’ll throw a hammer at the window…
just to see the glass fall

with sharp flashing anger that (maybe)
you’ll notice… because why
aren’t you angry?
Why isn’t your anger balled up
in a grimace
of bitter conviviality?

*

Who are these people I see each day
walking the path to the Parthenon?

They smile and wave in step…

do they still believe in state
and society?

better (is it?)
than sitting here
watching the dust
and dirt
pushed into corners

as time rushes
stalls awake

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Art, Poetry

His journey through art

after Zbigniew Herbert

A long time ago the gallery attendant
believed in art

his paintbrush thrummed
an irresistible beat

and the rhythm of colour
filled the canvas

what was beyond the edges
was lazy and unfocused

he doesn’t remember being hungry
but compared to the empty fullness now

it was not the fault of chiaroscuro
of perspective
of depth of field

that his passion stopped
at winter’s grey

(he doesn’t know why sometimes
love just ends)

the gallery attendant
began to make arguments against art
thought he could tear apart

the harmonies of complementary colours
rip the rainbow with a blade

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaabut he’s a slave
locked inside, serving a dead master

history’s orbit moved on
and the gallery attendant’s inner axis
settled on its present rotation

while he waited the changing
of the ocean currents

there’s nothing just or unjust
in the operations of the universe
and there’s no value in objects alone
in dusty space.

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