Kava, squid rings, and tall but true tales
I'm going to have to insist that the Oceania issue of brief was launched at the Onehunga Workingman's Club last Saturday night, despite having a paucity of images to support my claim. If their memories aren't too badly affected by a very strong batch of Tongan kava, then the forty-odd punters who turned out for the event should back me up.
I thought I had the documentation of the launch party organised, but the estimable Jack and Bronwyn, who were going to supply high-quality photos, succumbed to the flu on Saturday, and Paul Janman, who was supposed to shoot some moving images, got mobbed by guests enquiring after tickets to his festival-bound film Tongan Ark, and Skyler, who was carrying a modest camera in her handbag, was often busy attending to the whims of our three month old baby.
(I did notice a duffelcoated figure in a dim corner of the Workingman Club's functions room wielding that absurd artefact of the pre-digital era, a Super 8 mini movie camera. If you have any footage, comrade, I'd be grateful for a look, even if you were working for some sinister force, like the dissident, irredentist Alan Loney faction of the brief literary tradition. Slap your work on youtube for us to see!)
Skyler did manage to snap a rather fetching image of Michael Horowitz, the sociologist and novelist who is a former Director of Tonga's 'Atenisi University and current chancellor of its fledgling Vava'u Academy, showing off his new tala'ofa to the guests at the Workingman's Club. Along with Sisi'uno Helu, the current Director of 'Atenisi and daughter of the institution's legendary founder Futa Helu, Horowitz flew down from Nuku'alofa especially for the launch of the Oceania issue of brief. Horowitz's speech at last Saturday night's party celebrated the fact that brief has opened its doors to writers and thinkers from the 'Atenisian tradition, and to other intellectuals from the tropical Pacific.
Murray Edmond's forty year career as a poet, playwright, and critic may make him one of the grand old men of New Zealand literature, but he still has more energy, more imagination, and a lot more hair than writers decades younger than him. As Murray followed Horowitz into the spotlight and recited his classic poem 'Von Tempsky's Dance' I gazed enviously at his fine ungreying mane. In an essay published in the new issue of brief, Murray explains that 'Von Tempsky's Dance' was inspired by the visions of New Zealand and Pacific history he had as a young man living amongst revolutionary students and drugged-up Jimi Hendrix lookalikes in a grotty Grafton flat in the early 1970s.
As Horowitz and Edmond addressed the audience, the band led by Futa Helu's son Niulala was tuning up the guitars and pouring out the kava. Niulala is an expert on Tongan dance and song, and his band performs on a weekly basis at kava circles around Auckland. When the music began some of the audience headed for the kava bowl at Niualala's feet, while others wandered over to a corner of the room, where fragments of Janman's Tongan Ark were playing on a large screen.
Kendrick Smithyman, and in the 1970s he and the great poet were part of a loose circle which shared the excitement of exploring Kiwi and Pacific history.
People who knew Smithyman describe him as an indefatigable storyteller with a taste for strange anecdotes, and Hugh Laracy seemed to have the same qualities. After I'd told him I'd spent some time on the high island of 'Eua, Laracy launched into the story of a Canterbury sheepfarmer who moved his three thousand stock north to 'Eua near the end of the nineteenth century. After Tonga's King George the second tried to tax the earnings he was making on his herd, the farmer apparently went out to his pasture with his dogs, mustered his sheep, and drove all of the unfortunate animals over a cliff into the deep and wild waters around the island. As Hugh Laracy told one tall and true tale after another, I was reminded of a book reviewer's description of the nonagenarian British historian Eric Hobsbawm as 'a walking research library'.
Later in the evening I chatted with Sefita Hao'uli, another man with an arsenal of fascinating stories. Hao'uli grew up on Foa, the home island of Futa Helu in Tonga's isolated Ha'apai archipelago, before following Futa to boarding school in Nuku'alofa. He remembers Helu as a young nonconformist, who baffled and intrigued his countrymen by quoting Heraclitus and Plato at kava circles, and by talking about the necessity of critical thinking and ruthless criticism to a healthy society.
Hao'uli returns regularly to Foa, and I asked him about the petroglyphs which were discovered on the island late in 2008, after a storm ripped tonnes of sand off one of its beaches and left ancient stone exposed. With their simple forms and fluid lines, the Foa carvings resemble the art of eastern Polynesian societies like Rapa Nui and Rekohu rather than the western Polynesian aesthetic of Tonga. Archaeologist David Burley, who has been excavating Tongan beaches, fields, and forests for decades, hurried to view the petroglyphs, and decided that they were probably made by Hawaiian sojourners on Foa, and were thus evidence of ancient contacts between distant parts of Polynesia.
'Our Sea of Islands', an essay I quoted in my introduction to the new issue of brief:
It should be clear now that the world of Oceania is neither tiny nor deficient in resources. It was only so as a result of a history of colonial confinement that lasted only a hundred of a history of thousands of years...Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding...
[Posted by Maps/Scott]
Footnote: I forgot to mention the collection of books for 'Atenisi which took place at last Saturday's launch. I'll post about the results of our book drive later: right now, baby duties call!