AWF17: Pakeha Oral Poetry, with Glenn Colquhoun

I first encountered Glenn Colquhoun as a school performer, so it was a pleasure to sit in on a schools session with him. His self-deprecating humour and judicious use of the F- word made him a hit with the students, and added to the already-great reputation as a speaker that meant he needed to move from the ASB Theatre to the bigger Lower NZI Room.

glenn colquhoun
Glenn was the first poetry writer in New Zealand to sell 5,000 copies of a poetry book, with his collection Playing God (Steele Roberts, 2003). I’m sure that Hera Lindsay Bird has now well and truly joined him on that parapet. Glenn is a medical doctor, children’s writer, poet, and an astonishing speaker and thinker.

Have you ever thought about the way in which the poetry traditions of the Pakeha and Māori differ? Glenn has, and he is here to bring them together. He noted that the Pakeha tradition is “a written poetry taught in school, while the other is sung, chanted and intoned. Performed with the body, punctured in the skin.” He was inspired by this to write oral poetry, sung poetry – and so he promised to sing to us, “Not that I can sing.”

Glenn says, “If you look at a written poem, inside it is a sung poem. Like when I look into your ear, there are three bones from a reptile inside it.” He suggests picking up the study of oral poetry in schools to teachers – why not do a close reading of KaMate?

Glenn explored the traditional song-formats for Europeans, and has written a series of songs about characters from European history that intrigued him, writing them into a combination of Māori and European formats.  He wrote these oral poems to tell his European stories, his migration stories. “My experience of Māori is that they are waiting for pakeha to sing them their songs. When you sing a song you reveal something right at the heart of what you are.”

Glenn then invited students up to choose a character from his set of around 20, for him to sing about, bribing them with chocolates (these are teenagers after all).

Ernst Dieffenbach was the first to be chosen by a student. Dieffenbach was one of the first scientists to live in New Zealand. He surveyed the land for the New Zealand Company. He collected rocks, flowers, plants. He renamed the plants, he named stones; he was the first Pakeha to climb Mt Taranaki – and he kept a pet Weka which followed him around like a chicken. He was also one of the first Western doctors in New Zealand – he treated people after a battle on the Kapiti Coast, where Glenn now practices. Glenn’s interest in Dieffenbach was extended when he realised he was treating descendants of those treated by Dieffenbach after this battle.

Dieffenbach also wrote the second grammar of the Māori language – and Māori thought he was the strangest Pakeha they’d ever seen, collecting rocks and hiring them to carry them for him. Glenn has written a sea shanty for him, in the form of a haka: he calls it a ‘Shaka’. Listening to Glenn sing is a pretty unique experience – his daughter is right in thinking the tune doesn’t always hold, but he really can sing. And he does so from the heart.

The second character chosen was a skeletal character called William Strong, the Master of the Orpheus, which stranded in 1860’s on the bar outside Manukau Harbour, within about 500 metres of land. None of the sailors and soldiers could swim, so 60-70 soldiers died that day in the worst maritime disaster in New Zealand’s history. These soldiers were intended to support the NZ government in the Māori Land Wars, so one would assume there wasn’t anybody on shore prepared to help. Anyway, 17–18 years after the Orpheus drowned, as the story goes, a whole skeleton washed up on the beach: it was identifiable as William Strong, because it had a captain’s jacket on. This song was a pure sea shanty.

All of his characters have stories that are tied with New Zealand history, and they form part of a collection he is working on called Myths and Legends of the Ancient Pakeha. Colquhoun says, “We can look at our written poem and find the oral heart of it, yet our poets have rarely ever crossed over.” This is what he is doing: he wants to make the poetic forms talk to each other.

Students at the high school sessions were a lot more hesitant in coming forward for questions, but there was an excellent question from a person who writes their own spoken word poems. Glenn’s advice to them was to play – play around, like a kid does playing with toys and telling stories: “If you use your imagination, the thing is alive. Tell the stories of your own life, be playful.”

The final song was Glenn’s choice, and it was a song about Jackie Price, a Pakeha man who married a Maori woman, but turned out to be a rogue. He stole a lot of sealskins, and as punishment he and his wife were stranded deliberately on the Solomon Islands in Foveaux Strait (with the expectation they would die there). Price created a coracle and made it back to New Zealand, and we joined in with the chorus, urging Price on through the Foveaux Strait.

I’ll leave you with Glenn’s final words: “If you want to write, don’t ever let it die. Don’t let anybody tell you it is a frivolous thing to do. It is more important than accounting. Don’t give up.”

If you have the opportunity to see Glenn: do it. He is on three more times at the festival: at the Gala Night – True Stories Told Live on Thursday night; at Walk on High on Friday night; and with Dr David Gellar and Sue Wooton talking Matters Medical on Saturday.

Attended and Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Glenn’s latest book is:

Late Love
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492892



Book Review: Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, by Jonathon Boston

Available now in bookshops nationwide.cv_safeguarding_the_future

Given the context of our world, with its 24/7 news cycle and incessant need to be ‘current’, the rise of populist politics that pander to reactive tendencies, a desire for quick ‘fixes’ (whether this be wall-building or oil drilling), and ‘perpetual election campaigning’, one could argue that we live a little too much in the now (which, as it happens, passes pretty quickly). The ever-widening gaps in society (both ideological and economical) and climate change mean that how we think about time and subsequently plan for the future could result in unprecedented consequences.

It follows that good governance is vital for keeping short-term thinking in check. In Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, public policy expert Jonathon Boston makes a well-argued case for wise stewardship and ways to achieve this with economy and clarity. He starts by asking ‘How . . . can the chances of short sighted policy decisions – ones that threaten or undermine citizens’ long-term wellbeing – be minimised?’.

In response Boston proposes a design-based approach – one that is ‘more practical than ethical and more applied than conceptual’. He lays out the concept of safeguarding the future and does not shy way from the difficulties involved in achieving such an approach in the face of competing interests, before examining ‘The attributes of anticipatory governance’.

He goes on to assess how New Zealand is faring in light of this; it is a performance that is cause for both ‘celebration and lament’. Although there are some good frameworks and structures in place to protect long-term interests, such as Treasury publishing a report (independent of the Ministry of Finance) on the country’s long-term fiscal position, Boston emphasises that attempts to address environmental and socials issues have failed, grounding his argument in research and analysis.

The major hurdle he identifies is the ‘presentist bias in policy-making in the democratic world’ and the ‘excessive weight given to short term considerations’. This presentist bias plays out in a series of ‘Politically salient asymmetries’ or the time difference between the flow of costs and benefits. Yet this presentist drive is not the reserve of politicians alone, but shared across society: ‘On the whole, when individuals are confronted with intertemporal choices . . . biases tilt their preferences and behaviours towards the present.’

Both citizens and politicians find it difficult to pay for something now, when they personally might not see the benefits later. This might not matter as much for something like roading, which can be fixed at some point in the future, but it does matter for those long-term impacts that cannot be undone, such as the extinction of a species. This seemingly wilful refusal to heed massive long-term costs ‘reflects deeper pathologies within our democratic institutions, civil society and political culture.’

He illuminates the discord in our accounting, and what we, as a society and through our representatives, attribute value to. The types of costs and benefits typically reported on have the same old themes: capital, manufacturing, finances. But natural resources, as well as human and social cost-benefits, are not given the same treatment. Auditing these assets is important to ‘affect how policy-makers and citizens perceive the world, assess progress and judge governmental performance.’ Accountability is key. As Boston points out there are currently no requirements for government to consider whether their policy frameworks are intergenerationally fair – even when long-term impacts are highly likely.

In his agenda for reform, where the ‘aim is to shift the political context in which decisions are made by incentivising forward thinking and countering the presentist bias’, Boston sensibly advocates for change that is ‘evolutionary rather than revolutionary’ because this is cheaper, politically more expedient and less time consuming.

Crucially there is a need for durable, cross-party agreements for any meaningful change in policy and institutions to take place (otherwise things are undone, done poorly or stalled) – Boston cites superannuation as the most successful to date; political leaders need ‘to frame policy problems and proposed solutions in ways that can attract broad public support – perhaps because they appeal to long-standing cultural narratives and deeply held values’. Our parliamentary system needs examination (ones similar to ours show a similar lack of resolve) – he recommends commitment devices, the stating of long-term goals, and the strengthening of monitoring. And extending the term of governance to four years.

As Boston himself concludes in the book, the aim is not perfection, but betterment and this certainly available to us, not to mention critical. There is an implicit call to action for citizens within this – after all, citizens in a democracy have not only rights but obligations too.

Boston’s case for an intergenerational duty of care and ways to enable and better this are convincing and clear. Future generations are not able to advocate now, so we should. After all, as the philosopher Rawls is quoted in the book, ‘The mere difference of location in time, of something’s being earlier or later, is not in itself a rational ground for having more or less regard for it.’

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World
By Jonathon Boston
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518257

Book Review: The Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata, by Scott Hamilton

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_stolen_island.jpgThe Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata, relates the untold story of a tiny Polynesian island near Tonga, whose history seems to have been forgotten, largely due to the booming slave trade in the 1800s that resulted in a tragic incident for the island’s inhabitants.

In 1863, an Australian-born whaler, who decided that the slave trade was more profitable then whaling, lured 144 ‘Atan men, woman and children onto his boat under false pretenses, only to sell them as slaves. No one knows exactly what happened to these people after they had been sold, but it is certain that they never made it back to their island home, ‘Ata. The Stolen Island relates how the author, Scott Hamilton, came across these stories of the now-deserted island and his journey in finding evidence to support the legends handed down through generations of story-telling among families and tribes.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the book but it surprised me. We don’t have to go back too far in history to see slavery being practised all over the world, and yet somehow realising the extent of it in New Zealand and the Pacific which the The Stolen Island pointed out, shocked me. The story of the natives of ‘Ata being captured would have been saddening enough, but that, along with the other accounts of kidnappings and exploitation that Scott Hamilton outlines in his findings, made it all the more appalling. Many were tricked into signing contracts that gave them little or no remuneration for years of servitude and labour. Others were forced into hard labour, some even left to die on abandoned ships, and almost all had very little hope to ever making it back home.

While what happened on ‘Ata in 1863 is the main focus of the book there are many more interesting points relating to ‘Ata or slavery that the author notes and discusses which makes The Stolen Island that much more intriguing and well-rounded. The way he progressively relates his experiences made me feel like I was right there too, seeking out whatever information was linked to this mysterious island, and feeling a mix of eagerness, desperation, at times disappointment but also satisfaction.

Scott Hamilton did a commendable job of tackling this topic; clearly it was something that intrigued him and piecing the puzzle together satisfied much of his own curiosity about the island, but to put his journey and findings into a book means that people are able to know a bit more about the history of slavery in New Zealand and the Pacific, but also the history of a little uninhabited island between Tonga and New Zealand, ‘Ata.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata
by Scott Hamilton
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518110

Book Review: The Big Smoke – New Zealand Cities 1840-1920, by Ben Schrader

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_the_big_smoke_nz_citiesTraditionally, New Zealand historians and the books which arise from their studies, deal with the close relationship between the land and the establishment of a new colony. Perhaps it is this focus which has clouded the reality for many settlers. Ben Schrader begins The Big Smoke with an account of his own family. His great-great-Grandfather arrived from London in 1862. This was the start of his family of urban dwellers with no close ties to a farm, or region.

Schrader explores the very limited research dealing with urban centres: their establishment, their growth and the features of such areas. To better manage this huge topic he has limited the book to the period 1840-1920 and made a focus of those towns which met the early criteria for being declared a city.

1911 was an important year in New Zealand, although the date is not often recognised as such. In the 1911 census, more people were identified as living in cities and boroughs than in rural areas. This trend has continued with the 2014 census showing 86% living in cities. Schrader has identified a lack of research, reflection and writing on this very important aspect of life in New Zealand. Apart from an early report based in South Dunedin (the Caversham Project), we have very little accessible information on the growth of cities. Schrader has provided a response to this lack, with a book which is both scholarly and readable.

Scrader focuses in his book on eight aspects which are chronological but also thematic. These include foundations of the cities, material concerns, culture, sociability and conflict on the street, Maori and environmental concerns. He also touches on religion and the role of women. This is no dry tome. The pages are illustrated with maps, early photographs, sketches and documents. I was particularly taken by a sketch of Holland Street, Wellington in 1892. It was drawn by the Medical Officer and shows the sewer which leaked and contaminated the surrounding soil. This was the site of a typhoid outbreak. This attention to detail makes the book more than a dissertation for academics.

I was a student of Human Geography at University, but found myself looking to distant shores for my studies. The focus was on older established cities with quality data to support ideas. Schrader points out that his book is a starting point and there are many possibilities for further research and reporting on our own situation. In light of the recent housing crisis and pressure to expand our urban areas, this book is a timely reminder that we must take care to grow in ways which reflect our past as well as our future.

While too bulky to be a coffee table book, this is a great read for anyone with an interest in urban New Zealand and how we got to be where we are now.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840-1920
by Ben Schrader
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492434


Book Review: Playing for Both Sides: Love across the Tasman, by Stephanie Johnson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_playing_both_sidesThe relationship between New Zealand and Australia, is like that in an extended family. While we love and support each other because we share so many things, we also pick at the differences, accentuate and ridicule them. It is a classic love-hate relationship.

In this BWB text, Stephanie Johnson explores at a more personal level her own experiences. As a writer, a wife and a mother, she shares her own journey and the way her crossing the ditch has influenced her writing and her feelings.

Johnson’s family have lived in New Zealand since the 1840s but she has lived in Australia as an adult, married an Australian and is often described as an Australian writer. She introduces the reader to other Kiwis who made the move, many never to return. However, she also points out that while they physically resided in Australia, they regarded New Zealand as home.

Johnson explores race relations, migrants, women’s rights, artistic freedom and the weather. But this is really a personal view because the telling is centred around the tour her musician son makes with his Mum as a roadie. This allows her to reflect on the places and people she meets, on their reaction to her son and his music and her own reflection on similarities and differences in the two nations.

I enjoyed the honesty of her writing. Her research added an historical element and the timing of the book is right. We are only now brave enough to look at our bigger, richer, stronger neighbour and ask if we are the same or we are different. I can see some robust discussion in a book group arising from this slim volume.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Playing for Both Sides: Love across the Tasman
by Stephanie Johnson
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492991

WORD: Being Chinese / White / Other, with Helene Wong and Alice Canton

Event_Being-ChineseWhiteOtherBeing Chinese / White / Other is the fullest session I’ve been in so far, and began with the fullest Maori greeting I’ve heard so far this festival. Alice Canton was born on the West Coast, grew up in Canterbury, and has spent much of her life battling being ‘othered.’ Helene Wong was born in Taihape, and grew up in Lower Hutt. She has worked in social policy, and is currently a full-time writer and occasional actor. We are talking today about Helene’s book Being Chinese, and the session is sold out.

The book is looking not only at the notion of Chinese as an ethnic group – but that of being Chinese in New Zealand. What is it to be a Chinese New Zealander? Helene says, “The same thing as it is for everybody else – about shared values we try to practise.” Most relevant to settlers is the idea of a fair go, not only in fair play, but in giving things a go too – rolling up your sleeves and just doing things.

Helene was born in New Zealand in the 1950’s. Her family assimilated as kiwis – Helene was brought up as a New Zealander. And New Zealand allowed it through the 1970’s: she was being cast in plays as a daughter within a white family; as a French princess. She went into the 80’s feeling pretty relaxed about her Chineseness. And then came the 90’s, when the new immigrants came in. She suddenly became Chinese again: that is when she realised that she needed to write this book. She is wondering whether we have to go through this all again: do we have to turn it upside-down again? Helene then went back and examined the history. There is a cycle of racism that has gone up and down, and back up again.

NZ has, right now, stopped giving immigrants a fair go. Chinese have been set aside and othered more than once before: New Zealanders need, now, to monitor ourselves through our commentary to bring us back into the equilibrium we would like to have. The fact that Alice is again encountering what Helene encountered trying to work in theatre 30 years ago, is disturbing and wrong.

What role does the media have to play in moving this discourse forward around equality? Helene sees the media playing negative role at times, shown in the way that stories are presented and written with all sorts of insinuations – eg. The ‘Chinese Real Estate Agent’ that wrote what Winston Peters wanted to hear. “Anybody who read that letter could smell a dead fish. Yet the NZ Herald got the ‘Agent’ to write an opinion piece.”

And the equality issue isn’t only about race, it’s about gender. The stereotypes of women and vixens, prostitutes, grumpy mothers, tiger mothers, oversexualised bookish nerds, are still being perpetuated. And the race issue is overarching – a role for a Chinese person must be specifically for them. There is no such thing as colour blind casting at the moment in New Zealand.

Alice and Helene discussed the trouble of how to talk about racism without drawing negative attention to yourselves – it is easier to try to be invisible, but that allows it to continue unchecked. I am horrified to see this growing again – every time I see a new media editorial about immigrants being responsible for the insane Auckland housing market, I flinch. It seems xenophobia is alive and well and living in New Zealand. Helene says, “It’s scary speaking up in this world.”

Another side of being Chinese in New Zealand is trying to recognise your own Chinese-ness as valuable. In 1980, Helene went to her parents’ “home” village, and it was utterly alien. She describes the effect it had on her in Being Chinese. The shock of realising where she might have ended up, and realising also that she was part of this world – her world was much bigger than she had considered, was hugely emotional and physical. Alice has also travelled to Borneo, to her mother’s home. She never learned to speak her mother tongue so she was confronted with people who undeniably looked like her, were part of her, but whom she felt had to make an effort in communicating with her.

In writing the book, Helene recognised that her primary identity now is as a New Zealander. But she’s no longer ashamed of being a Chinese person ancestrally. “I see my identity as a pie chart, with wedges that represent certain part of your identity. I no longer step tentatively into my Chinese wedge.”

Helene’s response to this time in NZ history is that we all need to accept it is time to make something new. “There is no one superior culture. I have always seen culture as sky and clouds. Once, all the clouds were non-white, with the white culture as the sky. She now sees the white culture as just another cloud. When you butt up against one another yes there is conflict, but in the collision of two quite different things is creativity.” When artists bring their different interests together, they will come up with something unique, which reflects the unique NZ identity.

Alice ended by talking a little about the word ‘diversity’. She sees it on a page and automatically replaces it with inclusivity. “We don’t want to all go for the same goal – it is the difference that is the most joyful part of that inclusivity.”

This session has forced me to take a look at how I can help a change in New Zealand culture happen. Like one of the audience members who asked the question how do I reach out to these new Chinese immigrants, I am considering this myself, in the context of how I read the world. I bought the book.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Being Chinese / White / Other, with Helene Wong and Alice Canton
Friday 26 August, 12.45 – 1.45pm

Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story
by Helene Wong
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492380


Book Review: Christchurch Ruptures, by Katie Pickles

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_christchurch_rupturesThe Christchurch earthquakes were a devastating physical phenomena which have continued to cause upheaval across Canterbury to this day. While we are all familiar with the land and buildings being forever changed by this process, we are less conscious of the implications for history and society.

Katie Pickles is a History lecturer at the University of Canterbury. In this short BWB text, she looks beneath the surface at the long term implications of the quakes on the perceived image of Christchurch. To do this adequately, she first explores the history of the city. This includes Maori settlement, the European arrivals, education, transport, architecture and many more aspects which helped mould the city prior to the quakes. In itself, this is a fascinating read showing the radical feminist groups, the artists who saw Christchurch as the centre of innovation and the educational experiments in early communes.

Her in-depth analysis then shows the impact of the earthquakes on the future image of the city. With the loss of so many of the colonial landmarks, it has become possible to reclaim the sites and landforms which pre-dated European settlement. To this end, she dwells on the part Ngai Tahu are playing in the establishment of areas of interest, names and purposes of certain sites.

I found the 170 pages a deep but satisfying read. While I might not agree with all of her conclusions I can follow the arguments and appreciated the accessibility of this pocket history of Christchurch. It has stimulated much discussion among Christchurch residents and it will be interesting to see if her predictions unfold. I would suggest this as a great book club read. The debates would be lively.

While we are still repairing the cracks, sinking foundations and rattled nerves, we are also excited to watch the new city rise from the rupture.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson (Christchurch resident)

Christchurch Ruptures
by Katie Pickles
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780908321292