Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The road of infection

[This is a draft chapter from my tome Ghost South Road, which will be published by Atuanui Books at the end of October. Ghost South Road will be illustrated by Paul Janman and Ian Powell.]

1.

We do not know his name, or his age. We do know, thanks to a report in the Waikato Argus, that he and a male companion had left Otahuhu, and had been working their way down the Great South Road. It was the winter of 1913, and there was trouble in Auckland. The men who loaded the ships at the city's port were threatening to strike; the government of William Massey had denounced them  as reds and anarchists, and had threatened to send police and soldiers to work the waterfront. On the farms outside Otahuhu men who relied on exported meat for their income discussed cavalry tactics in their cowsheds, and sniped at magpies and pukeko.

For anyone who could not afford a train ticket, the Great South Road was the easiest escape route from Auckland. The swagger and his companion walked south, through the village of Woodside, which is today preserved under Manukau City's concrete, through Papakura, where a new post office had just opened, and through Drury, where skinny horses waited patiently on their leashes outside the tavern. At Bombay, just before the road struggled over the Razorback Hills, the swagger and his mate found work for a few days.

For decades swaggers had been walking New Zealand's roads. They had an unwritten contract with New Zealand's farmers and country constables. Swaggers were allowed to wander, but forbidden to stay too long in one place without jobs. They could ask for food, for accommodation, and for work, but they could not ask too aggressively. If farmers did not offer a few days' work, then they would usually provide a night's accommodation in a barn or a cowshed or a stable, and a few scraps of food. Swaggers were expected to show their gratefulness for these gifts by chopping some firewood, or by milking a few cows.

The pair of swaggers moved on, over the Razorbacks and into the Waikato, where the river and the road ran beside each other, and were both lost in mist for hours each morning. The road was flat again, and still busy, by New Zealand standards. It is easy to imagine a farmer or a hawker pulling up, and offering the swaggers a place on his wagon, amidst the rubble of a potato harvest, or bottles of patent medicine, or leaky sacks of flour.

The going should have been easy, but it wasn't. The mornings were cold, but the swagger could not stop sweating. The road was flat, but his calves and shins ached, as though he were still climbing the Razorbacks. He stopped to catch his breath, and found himself kneeling at the edge of a drainage ditch, vomiting up the pumpkin stew or lamb's fry some farmer's wife had spared for him. Going to bed in another barn he felt colder than usual, but hours later woke with his skin on fire. He stripped off his blanket and his stinking clothes, but soon woke again, shivering.

Eventually the swagger and his companion were on the brink of Hamilton. Motorcars approached them, like emissaries from the Waikato's largest town. I imagine the swagger's companion stopping, and looking at him queerly. Pebble-sized pustules had grown from the swagger's forehead, from his cheeks. By the time the swagger had reached Victoria Street, with its pubs and cattle drovers holding up motorcars, the boils had spread to his forearms, to his torso. I imagine him breaking one of the growths with a jagged thumbnail: the pus would have been grey, and sticky, and streaked with blood.

2.

Hamilton's hospital had been built on the low hill overlooking Rotoroa, the lake soldier-settlers had stocked with swans and ducks and rowboats. The doctors and nurses were used to treating swaggers. Most of their visits went unrecorded, but in 1904 newspapers had discussed the case of an Irish veteran of the New Zealand Wars named Michael Barry, who had arrived at Ohaupo, a small town on the Great South Road just beyond Hamilton, and ordered a beer. Barry could hardly 'walk or breathe', so the hotelier 'served him some schnapps and housed him in the stable'. A constable arrived to take Barry to hospital, and found him in a 'filthy condition'. Barry explained that he hadn't washed for six years; the policeman 'could not approach him without a disinfectant'. Barry was allowed to linger and die in the hospital on the low hill above the ornamental birds and boats.

But Dr Hugh Douglas, the chief surgeon and de facto manager of Waikato Hospital, quickly realised that the new swagger was special. He was not sweating and shaking because of delirium tremens or alcohol withdrawal; the marks on his face had not been made by dirt or a fistfight. The swagger had smallpox.

There were already half a dozen smallpox victims in a quarantined ward of Waikato hospital, but all of them were Maori, from the village at Maungatautari, twenty or so kilometres away. Dr Douglas had travelled to Maungatautari in July, and watched one of the Ministry of Health's inspectors raise a yellow flag above the kainga. The swagger was the first white victim of the pox to appear in the Waikato. The disease had crossed a racial boundary.

Douglas contacted Hamilton Health Inspector Bennett, who had been devoting all of his time to smallpox, and the town's mayor Arthur Manning. Manning composed a statement, which was printed and handed to Hamilton's hoteliers and restaurateurs:

[I]t is advisable that no persons who appear suspicious (from a disease point of view) be allowed in your establishment. Will you, therefore, in the case of any person applying for accommodation or meals, or in the case of any lodger who appears 'off colour' in this respect, at once notify [Inspector Bennett]...so that steps may be immediately taken to prevent the disease getting a footing in the town...This particularly refers to that class of person termed 'swaggers', as they are very difficult to keep in touch with.

'Off colour', 'footing': the mayor's words betrayed his anxieties about race and vagrancy.

3.

In April 1913 a Mormon missionary named Richard Shumway had arrived in Auckland for a hui organised by New Zealand's Saints. Maori from around the country had to come to korero and hongi with Shumway and other missionaries. Shumway was sweating and sneezing, but he struggled through the hui. He thought he had measles; he was suffering from smallpox. After the hui Maori returned to kainga with Mormon devotional literature, and with a deadly disease.

Soon the Ministry of Health's inspectors were isolating the Maori villages on the southern and eastern fringes of Auckland. The yellow flag of quarantine was raised over Mangere and Orakei.

Smallpox travelled through the air, and through human fluids. A cough, a kiss, a tear: all were vehicles for the virus. It took about a fortnight for the infected to sicken. At first they might have been suffering from the flu. Then boils, hundreds of them, began to grow, and fill with pus and blood. When the boils burst they left scabs. If the victims lived long enough the scabs would flake off, to revealing pitted scars.

By September 1913 a consensus had developed amongst New Zealand's politicians and journalists: smallpox was, in the words of the Dominion, a 'Maori malady', caused by the unhygienic homes and immoral habits of the country's indigent indigenes. If the movements of Maori were not restricted, then they would spread the disease to their white neighbours.

Alexander Young, the MP for Waikato, told parliament that it was fortunate smallpox had not broken out in the summer, when the 'flies' and 'crowding' in kainga would have spread it even faster. George Elliott, a businessman organising an international trade fair in Auckland, demanded that 'filthy' Maori settlements like Orakei and Mangere be torched, and called for the deportation of every last Maori from the city.
Young and Elliott were not only prejudiced but wrong. When in 1914 Joseph Frengley, New Zealand's National Health Officer, analysed the smallpox epidemic and composed a report for parliament, he was unable to find a link between unsanitary housing and smallpox infection. 'Natives living in comfortable homes' suffered 'as much as the others', Frengley told parliament.

If any Maori fell ill, then the Health Department punished his or her kin and kainga with quarantine. Once the yellow flag had been raised over a Maori community, its members were prohibited from travelling, unless they carried a certificate of immunisation. In some places, not even such a certificate would do.

The Waikato Hospital Board had insisted that the Maori of Maungatautari could only travel as far as Victoria bridge, which crossed the Waikato River and separated their community from the white town of Cambridge, and that they must carry a yellow flag if they journeyed even this far. An improvised militia waited on the Cambridge bank of the river, ready to enforce the ban with bullets. The Maori of Mangere were forbidden to cross the bridge that crossed the Manukau harbour, and connected their village with Onehunga and the isthmus of Auckland.

There was no effective treatment for smallpox, but the first vaccine had been invented at the end of the eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries New Zealand's government had made some desultory attempts to immunise its people against the disease. By the end of the winter of 1913 demand for vaccination far exceeded supply. The Ministry of Health and hospital boards tended to vaccinate city dwellers before rural New Zealanders, and whites before Maori.

By September 1913 there were more than a hundred patients, almost all of them Maori, in the Auckland hospital devoted to infectious diseases. But most Maori infected with smallpox had to struggle with the disease at home, or in the tents of 'isolation camps' set up on the edge of kainga by teams of health officers, nurses, medical students on leave, and doctors. The young Dr Jessie Scott, who would later nurse both Allied and German soldiers in World War One, volunteered for service in an isolation camp, and was sent to Hokitika. In a letter published in Kai Tiaki, the magazine of the nurses' union, Scott described one of the victims under her care:

One woman here is just turning the corner after a very severe attack. She was a fine handsome native, and at the worst she was absolutely repulsive, with immense adema of the face, lips, nose and tongue worst...[Her] odour has been almost overpowering and still is offensive. She will be horribly marked.

In some communities there was no medical help, only a quarantine enforced by the state and white militia. Isolated from advice about the strange disease, Maori found their own desperate tactics to prevent its spread. In one Northland village an entire family became sick, and eventually died, one by one, in their home. Too afraid to retrieve the bodies and organise a tangi, neighbours set the whare and its decomposing corpses ablaze.

4.

While Hugh Douglas was tending to his smallpox victims and Arthur Manning was searching Hamilton's pubs and boarding houses, Health Inspector Bennett was driving slowly up the Great South Road in a government car, with a pair of assistants and a load of formaldehyde. Using a statement that the swagger had given from his hospital bed, Bennett revisited the places that the man and his companion had stayed. He sprayed formaldehyde over barns and cowsheds where the swaggers had slept, burnt any mattresses they had touched, burnt the clothes of anyone unfortunate enough to have shaken the men's hands. Bennett had already sprayed gallons formaldehyde onto Maungatautari, and the Maori village at Whatawhata.

In 1913 formaldehyde was commonly used as a decontaminant. The chemical's role in causing cancer was not known until the 1980s. Inspector Bennett was spreading a new disease as he travelled about the Waikato and up the Great South Road.

5.

At the beginning of the twentieth century many New Zealanders saw Auckland as a place where disease flared and festered. Auckland was New Zealand's largest port; crews from around the world rioted in its bars and brothels, and left diseases and rats behind when they sailed away past Rangitoto.  The working class suburbs that had grown up just west of Auckland were regarded, like the East End of London, as citadels of filth and illness, and the Maori villages on the city's fringe were considered even dirtier and more dangerous. Like the railways, the Great South Road was a route for infection to spread from Auckland to the rest of the country.

In 1900 bubonic plague had emerged in Calcutta, and been exported by ships' rats to Noumea and Sydney. Residents of Sydney's waterfront slums began to die, and borough councils employed squads of rat hunters. Reports of rats behaving strangely began to circulate in Auckland.
In April 1900 Reverend Hugh Kelly preached a sermon on bubonic plague at Auckland's Knox Church. Kelly had grown up in the Presbyterian south of the South Island, before being sent to minister to the souls of the northern city. He warned his audience at Knox church that plagues were 'God's commentary on evil habits of life', that men 'run down by sin' were 'most accessible to plague, and that 'filthy physical habits and filthy moral habits' went together.

For Reverend Kelly, it was no coincidence that the latest plague had begun in India, a society 'stricken' by dirt, 'heathenism and vice'. The almighty was using rats and bubonic boils to 'preach' to the Indians. As they watched their kin die, the heathens got 'most impressive proof of the mind of the living god'. Kelly prayed that god would not preach with the plague to the unclean and sinful city of Auckland.

When an Auckland newspaper runner was diagnosed with the bubonic plague in May 1900 the rest of New Zealand feared that the disease would spread. Although only a handful of Aucklanders caught the disease, millions of the city's rats became its carriers. An army of bubonic rats mustered in the cellars and drains of central Auckland then, in the early autumn of 1900, began to move south, into the Waikato.

Rats stopped traffic, hung like rotten fruit from the orchardists' branches, ate their way through sileage heaps, and climbed the legs of terrifying carthorses. The pack disappeared for a few days, then reemerged, in even larger numbers, on the north bank of the Awakino River, close to the coast of the King Country.

The people of Mokau, who lived a few kilometres south of the Awakino, hammered corrugated iron across the windows of their homes and sealed the cracks in their granaries. But by the time the rats reached Mokau they were moving slowly, and without enthusiasm. The animals looked drugged, as they wandered through the town's streets. Soon they began to die in their thousands. The people of Mokau ventured out of their houses, and began to make huge piles of rat corpses. The bubonic plague had killed its carriers.

6.

In the first week of October 1913 Wellington's wharfies were locked out of the city's port. Their employers demanded that they submit to arbitration of industrial disputes and put up a bond to cover the cost of future strikes. The wharfies refused, and their comrades in Auckland, Lyttleton, and Port Chalmers staged sympathy strikes. Soon coal miners and seafarers had also folded their arms.

At the beginning of November Wellington's wharfies stormed and seized the city's waterfront; their comrades in other port cities threatened to do the same. Massey's Liberal government responded by asking its supporters to volunteer for work as 'special' policemen. In canvas camps farmers were issued with batons and revolvers, as well as hard liquor. Hundreds of 'Massey's cossacks' from the farms of South Auckland massed at Otahuhu, then rode unsteadily to the Waitemata waterfront, where they charged into the ranks of picketers who threw stones and bottles. Businessmen, bank tellers, and students were enlisted as 'foot specials', and joined the battle.

Some of the men who volunteered to fight reds in New Zealand's cities had already served together, in the militia that defended the Waikato's white towns from the 'Maori malady'. Cambridge, which had been on the frontline of the war against sick Maori, sent one hundred and thirty-three specials to Auckland.

By the end of the year the wharfies had gone back to wharf; the coal miners followed them in January. 'Massey's cossacks' had won. Many of them would soon be fighting together again, in Europe and Turkey. 

The smallpox epidemic had petered out by the end of 1913, but the restrictions on Maori movement were not dropped until the autumn and winter of 1914. Suspicion of Maori lingered in some communities. When Maori volunteers for the war against the Kaiser camped at the Avondale racecourse late in 1914, locals worried that they might be carrying smallpox.

By the time the soldiers were returning and the Kaiser was defeated a new epidemic was spreading through their whanau. Smallpox killed fifty-five New Zealanders, all of them Maori. Influenza would take eight and a half thousand lives, a quarter of them Maori. In 1918, as in 1913, the Great South Road was a vector for infection. Maori villages were once again sealed off, and white militia reappeared.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]



Sunday, March 19, 2017

Howling empire

'Vogel and Seddon howling empire from an empty coast' wrote the young Allen Curnow, in the long poem about colonial misadventures he called Not in Narrow Seas. It is one of the great lines in New Zealand poetry, and it skewers the tub-thumping politicians who wanted to turn Wellington into the capital of a Pacific empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

When New Zealand's parliament was in recess Dick Seddon enjoyed cruising the tropical Pacific, and stopping at towns like Nuku'alofa and Avarua to tell the locals how much better off they'd be under his leadership. Seddon eventually won control of Niue and the Cook Islands for New Zealand, and later Samoa and Tokelau were added to the fledgling empire. 

Allen Curnow laughed at the distance between Dick Seddon's dreams of empire and the reality of the isolated, thinly populated country he imagined as an imperial homeland. 

Seddon might have been smiling in his grave last week, as geologists announced that New Zealand is the heartland of the world's eighth continent. As Michael Daly wrote:

It turns out that New Zealand isn't a couple of islands at the bottom of the world. It's actually a continent - most of which happens to be under the sea...Zealandia and Australia come remarkably close to each other across the Cato Trough, off the coast of Queensland. At that point, the continental crusts are just 25km apart. 

Apart from Te Ika a Maui, Te Wai Pounamu, and Rakiura, the other fragments of the continent that remain above sea level are Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Lord Howe Island, and a couple of uninhabited atolls. It is perhaps ironic that New Zealand should have a geological kinship with these places, when we have had relatively little to do with them historically, in comparison to Polynesian islands like Samoa, the Cooks, and Tonga. 

It is intriguing to imagine how different history might have been if the mass of Zealandia had avoided inundation. Zealandia would certainly have been settled tens of thousands of years ago, because Australian Aboriginals would have been able to cross the strait that separated the continent from Queensland. The fin de siecle ethnographers Percy Smith and Elsdon Best wrongly imagined that the first settlers of New Zealanders were a dark-skinned people who were eventually joined by the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori. If Zealandia had remained above the waves, then Smith and Best's theory might today count as history, rather than pseudo-history. 

I live a short distance from the Tasman, and it always seems to me like a wild, recalcitrant sea, entirely different from the warm and placid Waitemata harbour, where pleasure boats are at home and buoys bob helpfully over rocks and sandbars. The notion that the space the Tasman covers might ever have been dry land seems absurd.

Here's a poem I wrote recently: it's part of a sort of a sonnet sequence in which I badger my mate Sio Siasau. 


Chapter 84

But the Tasman has no islands, Sio!
Yeah, sure, there's the pathetic archipelago
of fisherman's rocks, off beaches like this one:
not only reefless but stained green
by seagull shit. There's Ball's Pyramid, 
the stump of a mouldered volcano, 
with its civilisation of stick insects.
If you want to get technical, then there's Tasmania,
but that island is too close to a continent:
it holds to Australia, like a moon
to its planet. 

Here at Karekare I listen to Reverend Curnow's voice, strong
as the back of a broken wave. The world, he says, is charged
with the glory of god, the world is charged
and found guilty

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The lost book of Tonga

[I regularly bother Brett Cross, the publisher of Titus Books and Atuanui Press, with proposals for far-fetched literary projects. This is an e mail I sent Brett last year, when I was deep in Tongan research. I won't have time to take up the project it suggested, but perhaps somebody else can investigate William McKern's lost book...]
Hi Brett,
I'm always casting around for interesting unpublished manuscripts, as you know, and I've discovered an immense collection of pages that is preserved - as a photocopy; the original is in Hawai'i's Bishop Museum - at the Turnbull library. The manuscript is referred to, again and again, in published texts about Tongan supernatural beliefs, healing, and spirit possession, but is almost never discussed at length, or quoted. The author is a man named William McKern, who was part of a 1920 expedition to the Pacific funded by a Wall Street millionaire fascinated by lost civilisations. The Bayard Dominick Expedition saw a large group of scholars steaming to the central Pacific, then breaking into small teams and heading in different directions. 
McKern and Edward Gifford were both young students in anthropology at Yale University when they were dropped on Tonga shores and left to work without supervision. Gifford went through the archipelago collecting stories, and eventually turned his research into three valuable books (the interviews he did with survivors of the slave raid on 'Ata Island have been particularly important to me). 
William McKern became the first archaeologist to break the soil of Tonga. He dug in many locations, and should have made a significant discovery when he found pottery of the Lapita people, the first settlers of Tonga and the ancestors of Polynesians, on the shores of Tongatapu's lagoon. But the young scholar misinterpreted his find, and decided that the pottery had come from Fiji, where a tradition of pottery survived from Lapita times, and was a couple of hundred rather than three and a half thousand years old. 
After he returned to Yale McKern published a small monograph called Archaeology of Tonga, which has become notorious for its apparent blunders and lacunae. In a famous essay on the perils of Tongan oral history, Sione Latukefu noted that McKern gave scatological names to some of the sacred sites he surveyed; these names were supplied by local Tongans who knew the young American didn't speak their language and perhaps enjoyed making fun of him.
In 2013, when I was teaching at the 'Atenisi Institute, I showed my students McKern's book. I remember them being particularly bemused by the descriptions of Anapusi, or the Cave of the Cats, a site where, McKern solemnly reports, a group of ancient pussy cats with telepathic powers once lived. Since cats only arrived in Tonga with palangi, McKern's history is rather suspect. 
And yet some parts, at least, of McKern's book are accurate. On the atoll of Pangaimotu I used McKern's map and descriptions to locate the overgrown foundation mound of an ancient pagan godhouse. Pangaimotu's godhouse is particularly important, because it was described by Wiliam Mariner, the castaway and memoirist who was one of the first palangi to put Tonga on paper. Mariner watched as his captor-host Ulukalakala consulted a delirious shaman-priest in Pangaimotu's sacred fale. 
And there are Tongans who insist that ancient kings and queens did sometimes have scatological and otherwise obscene names. According to the linguist Lose Jenner-Helu and the artist Ebonie Fifita, such names were meant as a mark of their owners' mana. Only someone of great prestige, they say, could possibly have such an unsavoury handles! Ebonie regards the ancient obscene names of Tongan rulers as a partial, and perhaps half-conscious, inspiration for the scatological antics of the Seleka Club. 
Was McKern a dupe, or just an assiduous researcher who took down names and recorded sites that had become embarrassing to conservative and powerful Tongans like Sione Latukefu? Did places like the Cave of Cats come from his imagination, or from the stories of Tongans, or were they traps into which he wandered? 
McKern wrote a much longer book called Tongan Material Culture, which he could never get published, even after he graduated from Yale, got a good job at a museum, and became an important figure in the study of American Indian culture. Tongan Material Culture runs to nine hundred and fifty pages, and a succession of scholars have come to drink from its waters. If the Turnbull's catalogue entry can be believed, the book describes almost every facet of Tongan life.
I've been thinking about the idea of getting a copy of McKern's book and studying it in the light of the politics of the 1920 expedition, the ideologies that McKern and other palangi scholars carried around, and the situation in post-war Tonga. 
I'd love to take the book back to the people, by letting Tongan artist-artisans like Sio Siasau and scholars like 'Okusi Mahina respond to its details, and by revisiting the places it describes, and the descendants of the people who gave McKern information. 
I've gotten particularly interested in faito'o faka Tonga, or traditional Tongan healing, and related beliefs about the supernatural and spirit possession, and McKern reputedly gives a lot of attention to these subjects. (Incidentally, there is a whole genre of Tongan book, pepa faito'o, which consists of remedies and spells designed to deal with illness and possession. Pepa faito'o are normally kept secretly in families, like the tohi hohoko (genealogical and historical books) that also reputedly hidden in many Tongan villages.)
What do you think of all this? There would be worse reasons for escaping an Auckland winter! 
Cheers,
Scott

Monday, March 13, 2017

Far out at sea

We studied Ted Hughes' poem about a storm in Seventh Form English at Rosehill College. Its magnificent line 'This house has been far out at sea all night' kept coming to mind during Auckland's wild weather this weekend.

If you're studying 'Wind' for NCEA, then this page might be useful. 

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Great Smash Road


1.

Other people flee natural disasters: Geoff Mackley hurries towards them. He has chased hurricanes across the plains of America, donned a silver, lava-proof suit and abseiled down the crater of a Vanuatu volcano, and waded through the tsunami-flooded ruins of a Sumatran city, avoiding sea snakes and infected corpses.

Mackley's risks have brought rewards. He has never won an Oscar, or even shown his work in a movie theatre, but Mackley is one of New Zealand's most successful film makers. His images have led at least five hundred news programmes; he was the star of Dangerman, a series produced by the Discovery Channel; Fox News and the Independent have run admiring accounts of his adventures.

When he talked with the New Zealand Herald's Viki Bland in 2005, Mackley explained that he was not frightened by volcanoes or tsunamis. What worried him more, he said, was the prospect of 'dying staring at the ceiling'. Mackley remembered how, as a child growing up in Christchurch, he had been fascinated by the 'violence of nature'. He watched the storms that blew across the Canterbury Plains from the Southern Alps, and began to photograph them.

Towards the end of the 1980s imported scanners made it possible for New Zealanders to listen to the shortwave radio calls of their police, firefighters, and ambulance crews. The Radiocommunications Act, which parliament passed in 1989, legalised this eavesdropping. Mackley bought a scanner, and followed the directions emergency workers gave to burning houses and smashed cars.

At first the police were startled by Mackley's alacrity; he was often accused of being responsible, in some obscure way, for the tragedies he was filming. Media bosses were also sceptical. When Mackley offered TV3 news director Mark Jennings footage of a fire in the early '90s, Jennings wondered whether the cameraman was also a pyromaniac. TV3 was used to showing the aftermath of fires: blackened buildings and drifts of ash. How could Mackley have filmed a fire in media res, if he were not an arsonist, or at least the confidant of an arsonist?

Eventually, though, cops and journalists accepted Mackley's work, and he achieved the invisibility that all voyeurs crave. He had begun his career in Christchurch, but by the late '90s he was often filming in Auckland, where there are more people and therefore more tragedies. Mackley began to follow the police and other emergency workers to the sites of stabbings and shootings, as well as fires and crashes. His shots of glass-covered tarseal and speeding ambulances appeared week after week on television news broadcasts. The Great South Road, with its traffic clots and recondite intersections and open-late booze barns, was a favorite hunting ground. Mackley's overseas adventures were funded with the help of his footage from New Zealand's roads.

2.

When he is filming natural disasters, Mackley's camera moves rapidly and excitedly, as it follows a surge of lava or a rising wave or a strengthening tornado. Viewers are constantly aware of Mackley's closeness to death; we wonder whether he will become a part of the disaster he is filming, and are relieved when he withdraws, at what seems like the last moment, to safety.  The clips are filled with noise: lava bombs explode, waves smash buildings, skies thunder.

By contrast, the films Mackley makes on the Great South Road seem silent and almost still. His camera moves slowly, if at all. Many of the clips were made late at night, when the road is quiet.

In his most famous works, Geoff Mackley shows us natural disasters as they are unfolding; in most of his clips from the Great South Road and its tributaries, though, he shows us the aftermath of human-made disasters. His scanner can lead him to car wrecks, but he inevitably arrives after the glass has shattered, after the wheels have stopped spinning. Mackley documents the rituals that follow disaster: ambulance officers feeding their vehicles prone bodies; cops muttering into transmitters and opening notebooks; transport workers with orange vests sweeping glass off the tarseal. He show us roads reopening, and oblivious traffic flowing over the site of another tragedy.

In 2015 Mackley uploaded a clip called 25 years of Geoff Mackley adventures in 2 minutes to his youtube channel. It shows footage from a dozen or so of the cameraman's adventures: there are volcanoes and storms and big waves. But Mackley's summary of his career excludes the hundreds of films he has made on the roads and berms of New Zealand. There are no smashed and smouldering cars, no bored-looking cops, no plastic cones.

3.

In 1898 a Wellington businessman brought the first two cars into New Zealand. In 1906 Janet Meikle was driving to her farmhouse near Timaru when she rolled her eight horsepower car and became the first New Zealand victim of the internal combustion engine.

The O'Rorke family owned one of Auckland's first motor vehicles. George O'Rorke was a businessman, veteran member of parliament for Manukau, and a patron of Auckland's university and libraries. His son Eddie was a leading member of the city's horsing and hunting set, and by 1910 he had acquired a car and a chauffeur. But O'Rorke was not in his car when it sped over the Razorback hills stretch of the Great South Road, missed a bend at Bombay, and smashed into a ditch. The New Zealand Herald reported that O'Rorke's chauffeur had been taking four of his 'personal friends' for a 'spin'. The chauffeur was knocked out; his playmates were 'considerably shaken', but able to return to Auckland using older methods of transport. They caught a coach from Bombay to Drury, then a train north.

In 1921, when the government began to count, 69 New Zealanders were killed in motor accidents. By 1930 the death toll had more than tripled to 246. Newspapers ran photographs of buckled Morris Cowleys and Model T Fords submerged in hedges.

The road toll fell slightly during the Great Depression and greatly during World War Two, when hundreds of thousands of young men and women were overseas and petrol was rationed, before reviving in the 1950s and reaching a high of 843 in 1973. In the late '70s and the '80s the toll remained high, but in the last years of the century it began to fall, and by 2011 it had dropped below 300. Police and Ministry of Transport campaigns against drink driving and speeding, better quality cars, and the widening and smoothing of roads were all credited with slowing the slaughter. Since 2011, though, the road toll has begun to rise again.
4.

The clip that Mackley calls Car versus tree, Papakura persons trapped shows black metal buckled against one of the row of ancient trunks that give Selwyn Oaks Retirement Village its name, and protect the village's residents from the Great South Road. The oaks mark the southern end of Takanini Strait, which runs for a couple of kilometres between factories and hardware stores and fast food joints, connecting Papakura with Manurewa. Because it is almost unmarred by bends or undulations, the Strait is a favourite of boy racers.

The car in Mackley's clip has been encircled by orange-vested men and women. Two fire engines and a police car sit with their engines running; their flashing lights make psychedelic patterns on the road's glossy deserted dancefloor. Ambulance officers stretcher a body - we do not know its gender, or its age, or even its injuries, because of distance and darkness - into their van.

5.

In interviews Geoff Mackley emphasises his difference from ordinary people, his special mission. He defies the 'fleeing masses' and travels towards disasters; 'nothing else in life' could compare to the 'rush' he gets from his adventures. Besides his youtube channel, Mackley runs a website with the domain name rambocam.com. The phrase 'Life is either an incredible adventure, or its [sic] nothing at all' is pasted across the site's homepage, above a photograph of Mackley facing a wall of lava. In his silver suit he looks like some astronaut set down an alien planet.

But it is hard to believe that Mackley gets much excitement from his journeys up and down the Great South Road in search of wrecks. The clips he has brought back from the road and its tributaries are filled with ennui rather than awe; they catalogue routine rather than extraordinary deaths. Violent death is a necessary condition of every functioning road network; it must be planned for rather than denied. Ambulances must evacuate the injured and dying efficiently from crash sites; police must complete rapid analyses of those sites; tow truck drivers must remove obstacles to traffic; firefighters must wash away slicked blood; the Ministry of Transport's workers must sweep the road clean of glass.

By showing us the routinisation and bureaucratisation of tragedy on our roads, Mackley tells us something important about our society. The dull and unpleasant footage he brings back from the Great South Road is more valuable than his famous clips from exotic locales.

6.

The administrators of New Zealand's roads have to anticipate and analyse accidents and wrecks, injury and death. Every year the Ministry of Transport publishes a report into Motor Vehicle Crashes in New Zealand, in which the appalling details encountered by emergency workers - the whiplashed necks and glass-filled eyes and headless babies - are transmuted into data.

Land Transport New Zealand is the branch of the Ministry of Transport charged with monitoring traffic accidents. Like intra-Maoist polemics and electricians' manuals, Land Transport's reports and analyses teem with acronyms. Its 'Guide to the Treatment of Crash Locations' is only fifty pages long, but begins with a guide to abbreviations that runs to three double-columned pages. Sometimes one acronym breeds another: the guide to abbreviations explains that CAS stands for Crash Analysis System, then tells us that this system consists of various pieces of software and a collection of 'TCRs'. TCR, we soon learn, stands for Traffic Crash Report. Like the technical language they compress, the acronyms seclude us from the smashed dashboards and amputated limbs on our roads.
For the anonymous authors of Land Transport's documents, abstraction is the supreme aesthetic virtue. From report to report Land Transport's language becomes more anodyne, less evocative, as new terms and acronyms are minted and repeated. For years Land Transport used the vernacular phrase 'black spots' to describe stretches of road where accidents are especially frequent. Besides its literal meaning, the phrase has rich and ominous connotations. It reminds us of the fatal markings of the bubonic plague, of the scabrous 'black sites' where trade unionists refuse to work during strikes and lockouts. In 'Guide to the Treatment of Crash Locations' and other recent documents, though, Land Transport has substituted the bloodless term 'crash clusters' for 'black spots'. Land Transport's authors cannot do without 'crash',but they try to render the word abstract and painless, by defining it as a 'rare, random, multi-factor event'.

7.

In 1840 the Anglican missionary Richard Taylor raised a basalt column beside a dirt road in Northland to commemorate his ten year-old son Arthur. Richard and Arthur had been riding toward Kerikeri when Arthur whipped his horse and the creature bolted. The boy fell from his saddle and got caught in his stirrups. Arthur's horse dragged him down the road for one hundred metres, kicking him repeatedly in the head. Arthur's Stone, as it has become known, is an ancestor of the thousands of memorials - crosses, wreaths, white bicycles, piles of toys and teddy bears - that have risen over the last quarter century beside New Zealand roads.

The first modern roadside memorials were created in 1990, when residents of the Bay of Plenty town of Katikati placed white crosses along a stretch of road where their kin and friends had been killed. Despite opposition from the Ministry of Transport, other communities began to imitate Katikati. Bruce Horrox, a volunteer firefighter, nailed together crosses in the basement of his Huntly home, then raised them at crash sites he attended on the Great South Road, aka Highway One, between Taupiri and Rangiriri. By the middle of '90s white crosses stood like strange plants along grass berms and gravel banks across New Zealand.

Memorials became increasingly baroque. Grieving parents left teddy bears or dolls where their children had been hit by cars; a father mourned his cyclist daughter by painting her last bike white, and attaching it to a fence; motorists crossing the Hauraki Plains were astonished by a cross made from empty beer bottles.

But the roadside crosses and relics act as warnings, as well as memorials. They tell motorists to slow before a bend, or change gear before a ridge runs down into a gully. When Abigail Fox and Welby Ings wrote about the memorials for New Zealand Geographic they remembered the crosses that early feminists sprayed onto city streets to mark sites where women had been raped, and the black crosses on pink triangles that activists of the 1980s painted on public toilets where gay men had been bashed.

The white crosses that stand beside many roads recall the decorations on the graves of New Zealand soldiers. The flowers laid beside roads remind us of the rituals of Anzac Day. There is an affinity, mourners seem to be saying, between the slaughter of war and the slaughter on the road, between the New Zealanders who fell on battlefields and those who die amidst the wreckage of cars.

For years the Ministry of Transport deployed its orange-vested workers against roadside memorials. Crosses were uprooted; flowers were swept into plastic bags. But the memorialists were stubborn. At Katikati they planted new crosses again and again. The Ministry of Transport now generally tolerates crosses, especially when they stand beside rural roads. More elaborate memorials still risk removal.

It is not hard to see why the Ministry of Transport was antagonised by roadside memorials. The administrators of New Zealand's roads seek to de-emphasise crashes and to turn their hideous details into statistics and acronyms; the creators of memorials insist on the significance of individual tragedies.

8.

Mackley shot the clip Fatal Accident, Karaka, South Auckland in daylight, on Blackbridge Road, a rural feeder for Karaka Road, which in turns flows into the Great South Road near the edge of Auckland. A white Toyota Altezza has stopped in the middle of the road. The car's roof is missing, and its front seats have been lifted partway into the air. It is as though the car were an aeroplane, and its pilot had pressed a button marked EJECT.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, March 06, 2017

Strange cousins

[Here's a piece of my recent e mail interview with Steve Braunias that the Spinoff didn't use. Perhaps somebody will take up the research project it suggests.]

Arguably, there were two men who revolutionised Tongan consciousness in the 1970s - Futa Helu and Senituli Koloi.

Futa Helu's 'Atenisi University attracted hundreds of students, and trained a generation of pro-democracy politicians and journalists in free thinking.

Senituli Koloi studied not at 'Atenisi but at the Free Wesleyan Church's Siatoutai Theological College, where he founded a secret society called the Knights, whose members met in secret locations in the Tongatapu bush and prayed for their country. After he became the minister of a Nuku'alofa parish at the beginning of the 1970s Koloi became famous as a miracle worker. Members of his flock would come to him with an illness; he would explain that it had supernatural causes, and pray silently but fiercely for them. Koloi began to denounce his fellow Free Wesleyan ministers for their worldly habits, like feasting and drinking, and for their proximity to Tonga's ruling elite. He was expelled from the church, and took thousands of members with him.

Futa Helu was a sensualist as well as an intellectual. He liked to discuss Greek philosophy and English poetry and Tongan dance over a good meal and a few cups of kava or wine. Senituli Koloi was a wiry ascetic, who fasted for days on end to prove his faith, and urged his followers to do the same.

Futa Helu celebrated learning, and told his students to use science and critical thinking. Like some medieval gnostic theologian, Senituli Koloi taught that the world was an evil place, that only the spirit of God was pure, that books and science were less important than inner illumination. He refused to raise churches for his followers to worship in, considering bricks and mortar too worldly, and instead gathered his flock under banyan branches.

Koloi died at the beginning of the 1980s, after weakening his body with an epic fast. His movement became institutionalised as the Tokaikolo Fellowship, and lost many of the distinctive features he had given it.
If Futa was the godfather of Tongan democracy, then Koloi was perhaps the inspiration for the kingdom's pentecostal movement.

I've always considered Helu and Koloi irreconcilable opposites, so I was astonished to discover that they were cousins, and that they grew up a few metres from each other on the little island of Foa, in the Ha'apai archipelago.

I wondered, and still wonder: how could such dissimilar people come from the same island, the same time, the same blood?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, March 03, 2017

Rambling

Over at The Spinoff Steve Braunias and I have had a discussion about Pacific slavery, the lost island of 'Ata, the Seleka Kava Club, cemetery etiquette in Tonga, Futa Helu's ghost, the loneliness of Karlo Mila, and many other subjects.