Monday, 7 September 2015

Symmes Roll

In breaks at work these last weeks I've been dipping in and out of James McGonigal and John Coyle's fine and generous selection of Edwin Morgan's letters. They're a treat.

A lovely surprise, this Friday last, stumbling across an account of Morgan reading Ian Wedde's masterpiece Symmes Hole. The Scottish Pacific rises up again! The contact was via - who else? - Alan Riach.

Morgan takes a while to warm up to the novel, writing to Riach in April 1987:

“Well I finished that extraordinary Symmes book and have now passed it on to Dr McCarey from whom you will doubtless receive a ‘second opinion’. I must admit I skipped here and there, finding the ubiquitous triple dotting … extrememly irritating …. And the disconnectedness that might be a virtue in poetry … somewhat worrying in a prose story. I think I was also a mite disappointed that the title promised more than ever appeared; perhaps I was misled by Verne/Poe/ERBurroughs expectations; the hole, in fact, seemed to be fairly peripheral as holes go. Like your father, I enjoyed the ‘sea’ parts of it best, especially such longish passages as escaped the plague of dots. The great virtue of the book is in what it brings together; you’re forced to think and rethink. Its weakness, no it’s not exactly a weakness, its problem for most readers I imagine is simply its density, and the very difficult of perceiving a goal. Anyhow I’m very grateful to you for shooting it across my bow.”

He continues to other subjects, before finishing:

“Dan Sweigert, of Batavia (Illinois, not Indonesia) is busy setting my ‘Message Clear’ to piano roll music (for player pianos). Letters become holes in rolls. Symmes Roll, and a vicus of recirculation from the northern periphery –“

* * *

Saturday, 18 April 2015

ANZAC: they'll remember it for us wholesale

I hadn’t expected the shift from pomposity to kitsch to be so sudden, or so vertiginous. Gesturing at its own hyperreality the opening this morning of Pukeahu National War Memorial Park – a bipartisan project of nationalist reaction planted in the middle of Wellington – things moved from the physical to the digital, from actors marching in front of us to footage of history as consumer spectacle on the big screen. The same performers, the same script, the move seamless. A woman in red prancing about the tower until, above us, the War Memorial threw out billows of the same fabric, the same symbol. Blood? Memory? Poppies? Intoxication, certainly. It was Leni Riefenstahl meeting the Feebles.

“in face of the massive realities of present-day social existence, individuals do not actually experience events. Because history itself is the spectre haunting modern society, pseudo-history has to be fabricated at every level of the consumption of life; otherwise, the equilibrium of the frozen time that presently holds sway could not be preserved.” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 200)

Who better to package and present our pseudo-history than Peter Jackson, kitsch master and union-buster of the Wellington ‘creative’ class? There’s an obvious – and essential – political point to make about memory and forgetting, the traces suppressed (dissent, sedition, resistance, revolt) in the recording of this particular story. But this morning something deeper seemed at work – full fantasy, full consumption, ANZAC as video game and branding exercise and empty spectacle. Join #theshadowbattalion, care of your local bank! Keep your memories fresh in the crisper over the ditch at Woolies!

A "new depthlessness...a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum." A “society bereft of all historicity, whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles." (Who else? Jameson back in 1984, and still making the case today.)

This is New Zealand nationalism, however, a different package to the brasher and more direct boosterism of the rather more ambitious political culture across the Tasman. The volume’s down low; the emphasis is on commemoration, compassion, tributes. The tone is sober. The message is the same nonetheless; gathering for our protest this morning we had a plain-clothes police officer waiting to try and intimidate us and to threaten our right to assembly. Dissent gets stifled in low key ways in this country perhaps, but it gets stifled all the same.

And that red! The price of nationhood, some polite voice on Nine to Noon called it earlier in the week. Workers’ blood, wasted invading Turkey a century ago. What relevance has that to now, and what forces are served in this aestheticization of politics? The resonances were somewhere between Marvel comics and European fascism. 

That, of course, isn’t a question you’re supposed to ask. They died for our freedoms, so make sure you don’t try and use those freedoms. Debord again: “The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute.” Or, as the man said to me this morning, there’s a time and a place for everything: the Prime Minister might be there, but no politics at this war ceremony please.

I’m glad we did a little to disrupt the spectacle, and I’m dreading the coming years in this carnival of reactionBut I wonder this morning too if ‘peak brANZAC’ might be on its way. They can remember it for us wholesale. Capitalism can commodify everything – even memories – but there’s a risk in that for our rulers. Video games sometimes give you the controls.

[Images: the photographs of our protest I took, and the others are from the twitter feed of the British High Commissioner, who declares himself 'moved' by this tribute to sacrifice.] 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Jottings from Marxism in Melbourne

Back yesterday from a week in Melbourne, and four days at Marxism 2015. I’ve been travelling across, on and off, to Marxism for a dozen years now; I think this year’s conference was the best and most rewarding I’ve been to yet.

The stand-out sessions, for me, were talks by Marjorie Thorpe and Noel C Tovey AM. Both I’m sure I’ll be telling my children about many years from now, as moments I was near enough to History to feel it shivering. Thorpe, in sharing stories of her family’s times in Fitzroy, managed to recreate a whole social world of Aboriginal resistance, survival, struggle and celebration. A revelation. Noel C Tovey AM is one of Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal dancers, actors, directors and performers. I hadn’t, to my shame, heard of him or his achievement before the conference – sitting through the excerpts he performed for us of Little Black Bastard, the story of the suffering early years, was one of the most moving theatrical experiences I’ve had in years. How often do you listen to the memories of a man who was at the Stonewall Riots, and has performed on some of the most distinguished stages of the world? He was Young, Black, and Gay in 1950s Australia and he has survived to teach us all. A mind-bending life. Liz Ross’s interview with him in Red Flag gives just a little sampling of a richer feast.

What else? Khury Petersen-Smith was eloquent and wise on the struggles against racist state murder in the United States and the #BlackLivesMatter movement; a series of talks on philosophy and theory (on Lise Vogel; on Spinoza; on Hegel’s Phenomenology); an eye-opening and absorbing account by ETU militant Strawbs Hayes on organizing FIFO workers. This last talk was as much a cultural experience as a political one for me – who knew unionists in the Northern Territory can hold meetings under the shade of the gum tree?

The organization I’m a member of was able to host Nadia Abu-Shanab, from Auckland Action Against Poverty, as one of the speakers over the weekend. There are connections to be made.


My own talk on the poets in World War One went well, I think, although the stage is usually the worst place to judge those kinds of things.

It was a particular pleasure to be able to do the Australian launch of Writing the 1926 General Strike as a part of the conference, and so nice to have a dear friend and comrade James Plested do the launching. Thanks to the organisers for making this possible.

And the books! My budget, as usual, blown: Bryan Palmer’s biography of James P. Cannon; Cannon’s own Notebooks of an Agitator; a collection of essays by Alan M. Wald on Writing from the Left.

Stutje’s biography of Ernest Mandel.

(I've learnt more from Mandel than a love of what Americans call "sweater vests", but I won't pretend that isn't part of the education too.)

Otto Braun’s account of being A Comintern Agent in China, covering his time journey with Mao and the Party through the Long March and after. This I picked up for $1 on the sale bin, and am not sure what to expect: the introduction mentions that Braun “suffered from the disadvantage of being ignorant of the Chinese language, culture, and history.” Let’s see.

There are lots of new friends met each time I go over for the conference, and that youth and energy are inspiring. But important for me too are the old faces – people I met a decade ago who are active still and in a range of different campaigns and questions. We’re building something real.

[The conference photographs I've taken from the Marxism Conference tumblr and Facebook pages -- both accessible via]

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

Teach the free man how to praise. What is there to say about the writers who settle in and become part of your everyday life, co-habiting in ear and mind? Most of the time, as a critic and teacher, the texts that set me writing are the ones I can’t fully assent to, books that lodge themselves in my memory in ways that can feel stuck or misplaced; texts to worry to and with. Other writers, other poems, sink so deeply in the mind I reach for them all the time, but wouldn’t know how to say why. Auden, Bishop, Glover: their lines, learnt in adolescence, I’ve detached from poems and worked in to personal vocabulary.

Seamus Heaney was one of these writers for me. His poems are a continuing source of joy and sustenance, to be sure, but many of them feel so familiar – and so right – the brilliance of their achievement threatens to end up obscured. Isn’t that how I’ve always described such things, even if “that last / gh” isn’t mine at all? There hasn’t been a week, in the sixteen years since I first discovered him in sixth form,  I haven’t read or remembered or gone back to a Heaney poem, all the time thinking that somewhere or other his own voice has been going on and new works were still to come. A companion, and part of an introduction to poetry, as with the names evoked in Auden’s ‘Thanksgiving.’

The first Heaney I bought, the inscription reminds me, was his New Selected Poems on my seventeenth birthday. ‘The squat pen’ and the showily terse equivalence of writing and ‘digging’ in the early poems were what drew me in, that gorgeously physical imagery – of peat and field, a ‘straining rump’ labouring ‘among the flowerbeds’ – and those terse full rhymes feeling like a kind of anti-poetry, an assertion of the place of labour and community and commitment against abstraction. History was there, too, and resistance: ‘And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.’ The words were what they talked about. How my adolescent reading combined this ‘phenomenalisation of language’ with Heaney’s supererogatory word choices and reach in vocabulary I can’t remember; I suspect I skimmed over the more thrawn lines in search of further sensuous particulars. There were plenty of those. The poems sustain that kind of naive reading – and Heaney, in his critical writing allowed himself the occasional anti-Theory jibe – but only to let you settle in and then ask from you more. These are poems that, eventually, teach pleasure in dictionaries, and I’m grateful for that.

The Spirit Level was a gift, later that year, fraught with the usual teenage baggage of unequal, unrequited exchange, and still means more to me, I imagine, than it ever did to the giver, if only in a kind of residually self-pitying and maudlin bitter way: ‘A deep mistaken chivalry, old friend. / At this stage only foul play cleans the slate.’ (The ‘Invocation’ to MacDiarmid’s ‘far-out, blathering genius’ would have meant nothing to me then; ‘endure / At an embraced distance’ feels right now.)

Some lines I memorised on first encounter for their sound and feel as if I’m only now learning how to grow into. All those very Irish punning terms for good conduct (‘govern your tongue!’) helped, and Heaney’s clear-sighted risk-taking in registering particular kinds of sadness without giving in self-indulgence or ‘expressiveness’:

When I went to the gents
There was a skewered heart
And a legend of love. Let me
Sleep on your breast to the airport.

Living in Tokyo, and travelling a split shift between teaching jobs, I’d often stop at the Oshima Book Store, picking up cheap copies of Heaney second hand. Station Island; Wintering Out; Seeing Things; Sweeney Astray – I re-discovered these either down the road in Ochanomizu, reading Heaney while drinking vodka and eating borscht at Russia Tei, or on the train home. 

‘They seem hundreds of years away,’ those days, but re-reading the lines now brings an almost physical sense of the joy and personal help the encounters brought. Coping with the poems’ intellect and range and formal loveliness better now, and not in such a hurry to force them into adolescent patterns, there were new delights. 

The refusals of Heaney’s poems from the 1970s, the way the poems turn eloquently in on themselves, marking false phrases off in quotation and worrying through, feel to me like his best work. ‘Whatever you say say nothing’ still astonishes:

Is there life before death? That’s chalked up
In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
We hug our little destiny again.

Poems make good companions. I bought District and Circle and Human Chain around about this time last year, in Dunedin for the funeral of a dearly-loved friend. They were good, helpful choices:

It was your first leave,
A stranger arrived
In a house with no upstairs,
But heaven enough
To be going on with.

The whole of you a-patter, ‘alive and ticking like an electric fence’: that’s the Heaney sensation, and I wish there could be more of it still. But this is no bad word-hoard at all.

I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-black,
polished sloes, bitter

and dependable.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

I think I'd give a kingdom

A realization, reasonably early in life, and so far a useful one: I’m a provincial. No point pretending to any sophistication, and less point still in trying to adopt the pose that you’re not one of the tourists. It’s straight to the gift shop with me, along with everybody else. (Last weekend to get to the Gift Shop at the Museum of Contemporary Art I had to walk past Guan Wei’s angry and beautiful mural ‘Journey to Australia,’ particularly timely given the latest racist disgrace perpetuated by the ALP).

And what we small town people still get to wonder at is that giddying rush the metropolis offers:

Oh, blank confusion! true epitome          
Of what the mighty City is herself,          
To thousands upon thousands of her sons,          
Living amid the same perpetual whirl          
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced          
To one identity, by differences          
That have no law, no meaning, and no end--          
Oppression, under which even highest minds          
Must labour, whence the strongest are not free.

The bits Wordsworth hated – ‘anarchy and din’! – I love about the big city, and can love only because I don’t live in one. All the alienations of crowding, bustling trains, stress are felt, visiting, as the promise of another life.

So this wide-eyed provincial adores Sydney. It’s a city unlike anywhere else in Australasia – older patterns of European settlement are reflected in the twisting chaos of the inner city.

Sydney’s contradictions – ones that make it a very difficult place to live for working people – fascinate me, too. It is marked by an open kind of violence and, from street brawling to the menacing style the cops cultivate, this is a rough place and has always been. I feel an aggression in the atmosphere of the official city. They – the powerful - are used to getting their own way, and seem less concerned about being seen to force their way through. The poverty and harassed status of Aboriginal people on the streets still shocks me, and I remember the story of Juanita Neilsen murdered by the agents of developers in the 70s for her campaigning.

Wandering around the streets on your own too gives you a chance to think of all the struggles and stories of the workers’ movement in NSW, though, from the revolts around Lang to the New Left to the Green Bans.

I was in town for a conference last week. Gould’s Book Arcade doesn’t feel the same anymore after the death of its founder. Bob Gould was a veteran Trotskyist and campaigner on the Sydney Left. He didn’t know me at all but, whenever I went into his store and he heard my accent, would shout questions at me about New Zealand labour history and politics from all corners of the store. He was irascible and irrepressible. I came out of those arguments still convinced in my own positions, but more confident in it for the books I’d bought at the store. It’s just a bookstore now, but an extraordinary treasure of one. You need hours, and a budget prepared. (This visit’s purchases: two Simon Leys’ collections on China; Rothstein’s When Britain Invaded Soviet Russia; Turner’s Sydney’s Burning).

Just before I left on the Sunday I was able to join a rally condemning the ALP’s PNG ‘solution’ to the non-problem of refugees. It was a relief to be able to join a public condemnation of the policy, after spending a weekend becoming the more appalled the more I read in the paper. It was nice being able to march with old comrades and friends.

[My friend and comrade Alma, who was one of the chairs of the rally]

[John Percy has been a socialist activist in Sydney for over forty years]

* *

A note on the text: It’s been almost five months since I posted anything up here. I had a plan, reasonable enough I thought at the start of the year, to blog more regularly and more in-depth; keep up my work at Overland; finish my General Strike book; play more of a role in editing and writing for Socialist Review…. Somewhere between March and now I realised this wasn’t going to work.

I’m going to keep this blog running, but will be writing in it more informally and loosely, more for jottings I’d like to put down and personal responses than for the longer essays I worked on last year.

Reviving an even longer-dormant project, I’ve put up some photos of Sydney food here.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Till I was angry, said I was pleased

Rob Gilchrist I never knew personally, or never any more than as a familiar face at protests, a figure at meetings, someone amongst the eccentric pattern of the Wellington left. I disliked him in passing, certainly, but that’s hardly significant given the number of people one ends up irritating or being irritated by in the course of a political campaign and, besides – given what I’ve learnt since about his foully misogynistic behaviour – this was the right enmity for quite the wrong reasons. A whole anarchist social-political sub-culture in Wellington in the early to mid 2000s cultivated an air of hostility and righteous snobbery. Being told one time too many by a group of identikit vegan anarchos dressed all in black that my political philosophy was conformist and authoritarian produced certain automatic responses, none all that helpful or edifying.

So the revelations, when they came, were both very surprising and unpleasantly affecting. The years-long betrayals of trust, the entrapment, the personal abuse, the carefully-organised poisonous interventions; this was state-funded wrecking on a significant scale, and damaged individuals’ lives as well as social movements.

People are right to be angry, and anger and outrage feel like essential starting points and registers; the supposedly hard-headed retort that things like this happen all the time, and that it’s to be expected that the state will spy on dissent is really little more than a capitulation to the ways of the world, a resignation parading as worldliness. I’m not ready just yet to check into Grand Hotel Abyss. But more systematic answers are harder to formulate.

Plenty of responses come to mind, naturally, almost all of them bad. Spy-baiting is the most natural, and the worst of all. This kind of undercover surveillance and provocation – a global trend, as Eveline Lubber’s new book from Pluto documents in worrying detail – succeeds as much in the atmosphere it creates as in the specific details it gleans. The movements Gilchrist floated within were, after all, legitimate and established parts of the democratic culture we’ve won, no much how much those in power may dislike this achieved legitimacy. The sense of suspicion, and of motives questioned, however, creates its own fears: a movement torn by ‘accidents and incidents, hints and allegations’ comes apart as we all start to undermine each other. Political action relies, in the social movements, on voluntary work, constructed solidarities, negotiated areas for trust. Suspicion destroys all of that. The outed spy, in some senses, achieves as much for the police as the active agent.

But ‘nothing can be sole or whole’…learning isn’t often pleasant. A now-known spy in Australia I worked with closely for a brief period, and he never aroused the slightest concerns for me. Charming, attentive, calm, I liked this agent, and realise now that some of the flattery involved in that kind of political exchange was what made me so open. We talked about family, friends, pasts, and all the usual beginnings of an intimacy. The discovery of his betrayal means I won’t ever be as open again.

Sometimes there’s a place between secrecy and openness, the space in which the old joke about the fact you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you has real and practical uses. For the first months of the war in Iraq a number of protest organisers were routinely followed by police from demonstrations, and accompanied, at a few metres’ distance, through protests. Nothing much came of this, and it stopped after a while, but the intended intimidation was clear. The best way of coping was to recognise the attempt and, consciously, to remain in the public and democratic spaces the movement created – it ought to be a source of pride and satisfaction that you were on anti-war demonstrations in 2003 (as Tony Blair himself half-admitted recently), and anything that encourages an attitude of secretiveness and counter-surveillance works against the chances of that kind of feeling being shared and spread.

[SIS agents collected notes on the young Keith Locke attending public meetings.]

Spies are well-trained in what targets to aim for, and it’s here that the reasons for upset become more complicated. The COINTELPRO case in the United States makes for fascinating reading now; for decades the FBI infiltrated and disrupted the US Socialist Workers Party, fomenting splits, encouraging damaging behaviour, working to undermine the party. Their methods weren’t particularly complicated, but they recognised the weaknesses of the left perfectly. Agents would either start rumours about other members’ racist and sexist behaviour, or behave in racist and sexist ways themselves, and it was the Party members’ responses to this that then prompted further conflict. The FBI didn’t always create the conflict so much as foster and develop contradictions already existing, and hone in on the weaknesses and hypocrisies of personal politics. That all this was an assault on the most basic democratic rights to organise should go without saying. What might offer itself for current reflection, however, are the ways in which the assault targeted and intensified weaknesses. If the left organisational cultures we have created are hospitable to bullying and sexism there is bound to be wide spaces there for provocateurs to operate within.

Gilchrist worked in much the same manner, it seems, although with less subtlety and with a approach fitting his own status as a fantasist possessing rather poorer human qualities. The tragedy in the United States is on an altogether greater scale, too; Black Panthers died as a result of covert work within their ranks. Still, this is the kind of moral company Gilchrist finds himself amongst.

Informants and spies have been employed for as long as working people and the oppressed have organised to challenge the existing order, so it is possible to draw some themes and lessons from diverse experiences of betrayal. Victor Serge’s What Everyone Should Know About State Repression retains a queasy contemporary relevance. And openness, across everything I’ve read and seen, returns as a keyword. Growing up in Dunedin, this makes sense; down there, even on the coldest winter mornings, you need to open your windows. Mould grows in rooms that are not aired, and in people like Gilchrist we find a human equivalent of that process.

Openness, to me, means above all occupying the democratic spaces we’ve created; for all the many problems with the liberal discourse of rights, it remains true that if enough people believe and act as if a right is theirs they can make it a reality. Organisation, activity, demonstration, protests; no matter how much the police may want to make this dissent impossible, it persists. This sense of openness as a necessary condition for the possibility of action is why I see the wearing of masks – in a country like New Zealand, certainly – as at best pretension and at worst wrecking. Does anyone really believe, given what we know of police surveillance, that masks grant anonymity from the state forces? Of course not. What they do grant, dangerously, is anonymity from each other, and from the communities we work and protest within. That freedom from others removes the kind of face-to-face communication, and challenge, occasionally, out of which real solidarity can be built. Anonymity online functions in much the same way (although I’ve no time for chest-beating about ‘cowardice’, and do wish some commentators could learn the difference between pseudonymous and anonymous) – the longer we can attach names to arguments, and the longer we can keep dissent normal and public, the stronger we are. Campaigning in Wellington I often meet public servants who tell me they are not allowed to sign petitions, a clear nonsense. But this is a nonsense which comes from somewhere.

The hardest openness, though, is the most essential – a openness in the cultural and political sphere, and a corresponding generosity towards others’ views and stance. An example: George Fraser worked for the Police and SIS in the 1950s in Wellington, infiltrating the Communist Party and campaign groups around Wellington and the Hutt Valley. A fervent Christian, Fraser believed the Cold War mythology of the time and sincerely hoped to combat Communism. His experience of the Wellington Left was disillusioning in two ways. The first, most prosaically, was that he got bored; a life of meetings, paper sales, discussions, and more meetings made for dull reading for his SIS managers, so he started making things up. The wilder his stories, and the more sinister his scenarios, the happier his managers were to receive them. The reality, naturally, was rather plainer, but better for that:

In the days that followed, Dave Patterson gave instructions on picking up communist reading material at subsequent meetings, on making myself known to kerbside sellers of the People’s Voice – the official party newspaper – and on delving into the bookshelves of Modern Books Ltd in mid-city Manners Street, which was run by the Wellington Co-Operative Book Society, but where manager Ray Nunes (later to become the CP’s district secretary) held sway.

Although the Special Branch referred to the premises as the ‘Communist bookshop,’ I soon realised that such a label was an assumption only and had never been investigated. I found that Ray Nunes was the only person connected to the shop who had any Communist Party connections. It could more accurately have been called an alternative bookshop, as it imported books not only from communist countries but most countries of the world and on subjects that covered most religions and dogmas of the world. The shop belonged to the book society, which had about 3000 members until it folded in 1967.

Fraser’s real undoing – and here he reveals himself as rather better human material than Gilchrist – came after contact to openness of another kind. He was invited to share the house of Conrad Bollinger, a leftist in the English Department at Victoria and well-connected with Communist circles around Wellington. The strain tells, in Fraser’s memoirs, as he accepts Bollinger’s hospitality and sorts through his mail, enjoys nights on the town on Friday and then reports the proceedings to SIS on Monday. Drink plays a more and more central role. The silly puritanism of the Communist circles (they won’t let Fraser sing jazz, and drown him out with ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’) is deflated by Bollinger’s rather surer grasp of cultural life, and then diligently fed back to Special Branch minders.

It becomes an impossible situation. Fraser, concluding that the SIS were ‘not worth a cracker’ to New Zealand, sees his life begin to break apart. He leaves for the United States, promised various vague new lives by the security services. Upon arrival there is no one to meet him at the airport. He’s served his uses for power, and so now is just so much waste. The memoirs, unsure whether they’re aiming at comedy or bitter exposure, rattle in their prose, unsure and drifting much as their author must have been in the last decades of his life.

Gilchrist’s self-pitying confessions in recent stories have a similar quality. Deception hurts, obviously, and it can’t be easy being a moral wreck. He’s a symptom, and a not particularly interesting one, of a wider anti-democratic course, and of what goes on in a society like ours all the time. This is what they would like to see happen to dissent.

But it hasn’t happened, has it? We’re still here.


George Fraser’s memoir Seeing Red: Undercover in 1950s New Zealand was published by Dunmore in 1995.