Monday, 20 February 2017

A History of the Township of Kawhia

An Historical Interlude
in which
the Author Presents
the Histories of
the Township of Kawhia
and Its Harbour,
Poorly Imitative of the Manner of the
Grand History
of the
French Revolution
by Thomas Carlyle, Esq.

It is well to remember this—that the Present is no more than all the happenings of the Past bundled hurriedly together and viewed at a single glance. So what Fancy to think that had but one moment of the Past been altered, that the Present would itself be seen to be so very different—verily a thing beyond any cognisance! If this man here or that one there were to have spoken differently, if that storm had blown with fuller fury or if night had been day, then what might have been now? Who can say—but all can conjecture!

And so it is with the history of the vast and lonely waters of this cove-covetous harbour. So it is with these hills without habitation, these byways without footsteps. How different might it all have been if history had turned left and not right at that fork along its way! How might the hills now be hidden beneath the sprawling anywhereness of house upon house, street upon street, neighbour upon neighbour! How might the silent and somnolent village be a noisy, riotous, bustling city! And how might that drowsy and solitary old wharf that reaches ever hopeful into the waters barren of ships be instead a multiplicity of wharves upon which would be concentrated all the endeavours and industry and toil that modern man can bring to bear, a receiver of cargoes from far-flung lands, a dispenser of merchandise to worlds beyond the horizon! Ah, yes, Grand Inquisitor that seeks ever the Truth, so very different could it all have been!

So let us peruse awhile the facts to see how the Past is bundled together to form the Present, to understand the Great Contingency of All Things, to comprehend the Truth that the Vision of the Present is no presentiment of the Future. Let us wind back Time’s Great Clock, lo, it is the early years of the eighteen hundreds, and here we are on the Kawhia harbour as it stands in its epochal springtime. The great and indomitable—for now they are indomitable, unvanquishable, undeniable in their sovereignty—Maori tribes rule ruthlessly over the sacred land and sea. Their settlements are scattered in every nook and cranny, their number, if not legion, then very great. They sit here as if upon the pot of gold, upon a wealth of riches comprising the sacred land and sea and all they contain of creatures that crawl and swim and beat in futility their miserable stunted wings. They sit upon the pot—but for how long? For now, yes, but for ever? What thing under God’s Heaven lasts for ever? So for now, and as for the rest, we must wait to see.

But who is this who comes in the year eighteen hundred and twenty four? Why, it is the wily captain Amos Kent, come to do business with the Maori overlords! Greetings! he calls and lays down his goods. A shift of excitement is seen to run through the native watchers—for the mighty Kent brings muskets! Give me your flax, says Kent, and I will give you my muskets. And so it is done and done and done again, until the natives can stand no more under the merry burden of death and can bend their backs no more to the bone-aching toil of harvesting, dressing, bundling and hauling all that flax. But no matter, for the wants of the white man are many—it is not only the flax he wants. So now Maori take to slaughtering pigs, roasting the succulent juicy bloody meat and then barrelling it up in fat so to send it to the hungry spittle-soaked mouths of the convicted multitudes waiting across the great sea dividing this land from Terra Nullius. But man does not live by suckling pig alone! No, he needs must have his bread, so in no short order Maori tear down the trees that are now a useless burden lying heavy on the harbour’s hills—these trees make us no money, they must be gone!—to make way for waving fields of golden wheat! See how they shimmer in the noon-time sun, from north to south and all to the east, a shimmering, moving, swaying, softly soughing land of wheat! It is dreamy and golden, and the natives dream of gold when they watch the wheat in the noon-time sun!

Yes, the fields are full of golden wheat, but it is not wheat that is wanted—it is flour! So now mills spring to life as Maori set to grinding their wheat, they grind and grind. Some labour with their backs to the wheel, but some are more enterprising—they enslave water to the task! And so the hills resound with the cracking and smashing and grinding, grinding, grinding of the husky wheat until all that remains is the dust of the harvest. 

But all this flour, all these pigs in barrels, and let us not forget the potatoes and even still the toil-heavy flax, it all must go elsewhere if Maori are to realise the fruits of their endeavouring. It must go to Australia, it must even go to South America! So now they are needful of big ships, and lo, the big ships have come. It is the middle of the century and great, gold nuggets are being pulled from the ochreous Australian earth. Adventurers and traders, vagabonds and harlots, all manner of humankind is finding its way there, and all manner of humankind wants pigs and flours and potatoes and flax. So they send to Kawhia with big boats laden with all the paraphernalia needful for the keepers of the little shops, they send boats heaving with clothing and trinkets and gewgaws to delight the native eye, they deliver up tobacco to dull the native nerves and, o sleepless death!, they send ships heaving with arms so the natives can slaughter and be slaughtered.

Now the harbour is filled with ships, the streets—as yet but muddy paths, but streets all the same—are filled with traders and all manner of folk—everyone is being drawn to Kawhia by the sticky, sweet smell of success, the good and the doubtful and even those who are just—‘no thing in particular’. The Great Governor of all these Lands himself, Sir George Grey, even he comes a-visiting and declares this to be the Grandest of Ports, for which he orders a Survey be made for a Railway to run through the troublous hills that keep the still-to-be-born town from the places beyond. And now they are even building boats here—it is become the Centre of the Universe, or at least—a Place of Note! See there goes Curly Jack Grundy, captain of the cutter Maid o’ the Mill. Put out to sea already is Captain Hellfire Jack, he of the barque Tory. And now here comes Captain Pumipi—look how even the natives are getting in on the import-export racket!—under whose watchful eye sails the schooner Nebuchadnezzar. But surely not everyone can gorge themselves at this banquet? Are there not always the quick and—the dead? Must not some sink while others swim, some live while others—drown? Never a truer word spoken! So Captain Black Jim sails cheerfully with the ill-fated Karewa, only to strike the shifting, swirling, vanishing, avenging sands of the restive, merciless bar and—he turns like a turtle!—over he goes with a great big splash! And there is, too, the iller-fated Thistle, whose passengers and crew, each and every last one of them, King Neptune will drag down into his heaving briny deep.  

But what of God, where is He in the midst of this infernal stew of commerce and industry, truck and barter, profit and loss? Is there no accounting for souls in Mammon’s theatre? Is the Word not to be recited on this gaudy Stage? Lo, Salvation is at hand! The Men of the Cloth have been here all along, their voices ringing high above the sound of money changing hands. Look, see here is the good and hopeful Reverend John Whiteley, preaching in earnest to the natives concerning the City of God, a city so much grander than any that might be raised on this fiendish earth. Regrettably, if this be true, then the Reverend Whiteley will walk that City’s streets soon enough, when his heart stops a projectile fired from a native gun, while he, on bended knee, the better to pray to his God, seeks in vain to establish lasting peace between the native and the white man. That truculent and fractious Warlord Wi Kingi declares that he will blast the white plague into the sea—perhaps he has a point? ‘Go back my children, go back’ Whitely will plead with them—if Kingi has a point, Whiteley will not see it—and in time go back they will, or at least, they will be forced back down the rabbit hole from which they dared to poke their faces. But God’s minions are many, and when one falls, another rises—the Eternal Truth of the Perpetual Resurrection. So here comes the good and hopeful Reverend Schnackenberg to take Whiteley’s place—take comfort, Friend, for God’s Word will endure For Ever and Ever, and no number of projectiles will ever be sufficient to render It silent!

So, it is well in this happy land! There are riches to be made and there are souls are to be saved—the soothsayers and the augurers, peering with their narrowed eyes and furrowed brows at the curling, bulging, stinking entrails, they all prognosticate the Future to be—Good!

But then what is this? Why are the shop doors clanging to a close? Why is the Customs Officer, just lately appointed by Her Majesty the Queen to ensure She receives Her fair slice of this richly gooey pie, why is he hurriedly leaving town? Where are the big boats whose comings and a-goings were as the pumping of blood through the body, that is, were—Life itself? Where the traders and merchandisers, the proprietors and the hoteliers? Why are they all leaving when the Future is—Good? Even the drunkards and the ne’er-do-wells are rousing themselves enough that they might up and leave! What calamity is unfolding before us! What calamity, my friend? It is the Calamity of all Calamities, it is—War! The natives, always somewhat wilful, are now become obstreperous and belligerent. They will not hearken to the plain and perfidious words—o wilful natives!—the British speak that give Reason and Sense to the despoliation of the native lands. So now the despoliators will make them understand—by other means! And so now it is not only the shops that are being closed—now the natives will close—even the land itself!

For nearly twenty years it is better, if your skin be white, that you not enter into the lands of the Rohe Potae, the Country of—the Maori King! If you do, you will be politely told to leave, or else you might be—shot in the back. The country is divided, the country at war. So gone now are the fields of wheat waving softly in the noon-time sun. No man is here to till the fields, to work the sod, to hold back the past. All are gone to war, gone to kill and die. Just boys and old men remain—the boys play at killing, the old men dig up their past glories, revel in imagined victories and then? and then suffer the torments of Death foreseen. And meanwhile, like the Shadow of Death itself creeping coldly across the land, the Past returns, the dark forest returns, it swallows up the remnants of wheat that waved softly in the noon-time sun, it plunges the land into darkness. And the town? What of the town? What else but that Kawhia now lies bereft of that feverish getting and spending that seemed to have no end! All the traders and the merchants and the harlots and the boarding-house ladies are gone, even the men who were no thing in particular have left. In short—Mammon has gone in search of quieter climes. 

But what’s done is done! And the past is done, only now is now, and many terrible and splendid things have happened since the white man arrived. So the past returns but it is not the same. And because Nature abhors a Vacuum, when Mammon scampers, in comes what? for the vacuum needs must be filled. And so, the land is closed, the past is dead, the white man gone, but here are Four Horsemen to fill this Vacuum—Penury, Hunger, Misery and Disease! Above all, Disease, for Death wears many Masks, and it is not only wars that kill. A gift from the white man to the native, along with the trinkets, the baubles and the gewgaws, and not a penny asked for it! The Maori knows not what ails him, he feels feverish, he throws himself for relief into the cooling waters of the harbour, the sacred waters of the harbour, and in the cool clasp of the waters—he dies. The past is done, only now is now, and many indeed are the terrible and splendid things that have happened since the white man arrived.

It is an Age of Darkness across much of the Land. Here and elsewhere, so much killing, so much destruction of crops, burning of villages, hunting to the death, heads removed, torsos dismembered, mothers without sons, daughters bereft of fathers. But even the darkest night must have a morning. So now the war is done, and the King declares, ‘Let the Door to this Land be opened once more!’ And so Mammon returns its gaze of flinty green to these darks hills, to this vast and sprawling harbour, and—smiles. 

But not so fast, ye men of trade and commerce, truck and barter, first the Government must make things right, put things on a proper footing—before the war, there had been too much Chicanery, too much loose trading with the natives. Now settlement will proceed according to right Order and sound Regulation, and all will be treated with Justice and Fairness. Probity shall be the Cry! And so the Government offers the natives a right fair sum for forty acres of prime land for a township. Later the Government will sell this land for ten times the sum it paid—it is a good thing to do Business when you establish the Rules! And it is Fair and Just, Probity is still the Cry! Who else could buy from the natives? No one! But who can buy from the Government? Anyone! So the deal is done and the deal is Fair and Just! The past is the past, now is now and please step aside for here comes Progress!

Life again is bustling through the town, the port is pulsing again with energy—the resurrection is at hand! But there must be right Order and sound Regulation, so the Government sends in the Marine Department to erect Beacons, lights of hope and symbols of prosperity, to welcome ships to the hungry port. Yet now, in the year eighteen hundred and eighty-three, the light does not seem to be falling on the natives. Disgruntlement, disaffection, disturbance of the Mind—the natives are troubled! So they tear down the beacons, symbols not of hope and prosperity, they declare, but hated emblems of destitution, pillage, robbery and dispossession. Such a bewailing will not go unanswered. The Rule of Law will speak in the voice of the Armed Constabulary, one hundred and twenty men under the sturdy command of Major Tuke, one hundred and twenty men who will build a redoubt in Kawhia to Keep the Peace! Mammon will not be hindered by truculent natives, trade, thy will be done, even if in the deadly shadow cast by one hundred and twenty muskets! 

But after so much Closeting with Death, few there are who are eager to die. The natives retire and the muskets stay silent. But now work must be found for the hands holding the muskets, lest they become idle and begin to serve—the Devil! The constables put down their muskets to take up ‘stead spades and shovels—they will serve not the Devil but Mammon by building a road, for what good is all the gold in the world if it cannot travel! For the next several decades, this clay pass travailing its way up and over and around the serpentine hills of the harbour will be the only road in and out of the township. The only road? But one dusty, muddy, falling-from-the-hills road for a place marked out by Destiny? Marked out, certainly, but marked out for what?

The weighty Hands of Time now raise themselves up and over to tumble heavily into a new Century! It is the Twentieth since God appeared in the Form of Man to walk among us—what do the Augurs say? Optimism! Progress! A century of Unbounded Success! That is what they say and so let us be on with it! 

Kawhia again hums to the tune of commerce and trade! All manner of men and women again return to the town! It even hums to the tune of a piper who arrives by steamer to play his pipes on the black sands and bemuse the on-looking, hard-listening natives. Most of those who come to settle here are from Great Britain—Home as they dub it when deep in their cups and nostalgia has them by the throat. They left behind them the soot-stained cities of Home to discover their milk- and honey- soaked paradise in the Southern Seas! Here, for instance, comes the good Dr Campbell Jenkins, an Englishman who arrives by way of having tended to the bullet-broken and bloodied bodies of the brave Redcoats fighting the unruly Boers. Truth be told, the Hippocratic ministrations of the good doctor are seldom wanted. Time is not given the people who come here to indulge themselves in a Malady—that is to say, the sort of person who comes here is not the type to lie down until—dead. But when, as does happen occasionally, the doctor is wanted, then he will take up his bag of magic potions and mount his horse or board the launch and render what care he can with spell and incantation. And when his potions and mystical phraseologies are not needed, there are other things a doctor might do—for instance, he can stack bundles of flax in preparation for transport to distant ports. Often he is found of an evening talking and arguing at the St. Elmo’s boarding house, that wholesome establishment tended by the compassionate Mrs Walter Morgan, who flings its doors open to all-comers, feeds them a restorative supper and then beds them down with a snug blanket in every space imaginable, until there remains not even a corner nook into which a man might crawl to pass the night.

And who else do we find? Why, there’s Tom Scott, the storekeeper, and Turnbull, who owns the other store. Later a third store will be opened by Shiewery, who will come from the Balkans and desire to build himself a mausoleum on Motutara Point in which to spend all eternity—it is a fair spot indeed in which to pass such a length of time, but he will not get his mausoleum—the people instead will get a reserve. Now, if we turn down this side-street, here we will find the chemist, Wilson, who perhaps needs his medicaments more than his customers, on account of his wheezing, asthma-laden lungs. And as Time grinds on, Percy and Dick Ward will come to town and raise a great two-storey building to house their plumbing and engineering store on one floor, and a place for dances and entertainments on the other. And here comes the town policeman, Jack Morgan, a genial man of easy-going disposition who is happy to lock up the town drunk for a night in a lean-to without a lock—a wheelbarrow against the door works just as well! And the town now even has its own man in the Parliament, the more or less Honourable W.W. McCardle, who can speechify to the town’s interest and serve up its sausage and pork both, for the Member of the Upper House is also—the town butcher!

So now the town is again thriving and the men of business and the women of leisure must have news of the world, and so they turn the pages of Kawhia’s own newspaper, ‘The Settler’. Under Pettit’s punctilious eye, ‘The Settler’ offers a sober rendering of events both domestic and international. But then Pettit finds his talents demanded across the Tasman and so sets off to run his rule over the ‘The Melbourne Herald’, no less! The vacated editorship is filled ably by Schnackenberg. Descended of a man of the cloth who came to preach the Word of God, Schnackenberg has inherited the gifts needed to print the Word of Man.

But all this spending and getting is productive of one thing in particular—wealth! But where is a man to put it? For with wealth comes fear! With nothing to lose, a man fears nothing. With everything to lose, a man fears—everything! But a rich man need not fear where there is secure bank vault into which he may deposit his gains, well- or ill-gotten as they may be. The Bank of New Zealand sees there is business to be done—it throws open its doors and says ‘Welcome—all ye with gold!’ It comes complete with a manager and two or three keen, young fellows ready to husband the town’s wealth. Surely no better sign exists to proclaim the health, happiness and prosperity of a town than this, the open doors of a bank! It is the town’s barometer. And its forecast?—fair weather!
Yet clouds are spied on the horizon, dark and ominous. But fear not, for they portend no rain! They are clouds of progress, clouds in fact not at all, but smoke, the smoke of a million trees going up in flames! The once-cleared land that then was lost is now found again, silently awaiting the sweat and labour of man. And as the year nineteen hundred and seven drowsily perambulates into the year that needs must follow, the sun shines with particular vigour and the burning is especially fierce. The work is hot, dirty and—dangerous. Men are hurt. Men even—die. Progress! A hospital is needed but funds are needed first. So an annual ball is got up to raise the funds. It is the finest and grandest event of the year and all the people of Kawhia, from north, south and to the east hasten to dance and be merry and to forget the daily hardships and sufferings and doings-without. Some come by horse, some on foot, many by boat. One boat will run aground on a sand-bank and be stuck there till the early evening when the beneficent tide will grant it its liberty. But no matter, the cheery folk on-board keep their smiles, for the dancing goes on until early morning and they will not miss out.

But wait, for what is that which gathers darkly on the horizon? Are they not clouds, real clouds, clouds full of rain and ruin? Clouds they be, clouds of an uncommon variety, for they encircle the very earth. The whole world has gone to war and again is heard the trumpet blast of vengeful Death! Let us look to our vaulted barometer to send our gaze into the futurity of undone doings. Alas, the glass makes for unhappy reading. Storms, tumult, collapse and decay. Silence. Somnolence. A futurity of nothing. How does a barometer, a bank, signal such things? It closes its doors and only opens them again—never!

And so it ends. Silence. Somnolence. This is how it will go now for Kawhia—for the next hundred years. The promised road to carry the wealth of ships will come too late. The railway will come not at all. Like the knelling of Death, only the far-distant lament of the train carrying goods to distant, prosperous Auckland will be heard here. The town slips slowly into the deepest slumber. In the year nineteen hundred and twenty-three, the judicious and sober ‘New Zealand Herald’ will observe, ‘There is probably no part of the Auckland province which has failed to fulfil its predicted future so markedly as the district and seaport of Kawhia’. But why? Why, when Fortune made such promises? Why, when the Cup of Hope had so sweetly over-spilled its rim? Why? Just ask that man who sits morosely on the silent, barren, do-nothing wharf. He will tell you sure enough. Jealousy. Envy. Machiavellian machinations. The slippery merchants and the double-dealing politicians of Auckland, they are to blame for Kawhia’s plummetous collapse into early senescence. That hideosity with its green-eyed stare could stomach no rival, so Kawhia was put to bed. The road will come too late, the railway not at all. The ships will cease their traffic, and the merchants and the traders will pack away their goods and do their money-making elsewhere. The town sleeps. So it ends.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

An Inferno of Noise

Humankind is to be congratulated. With much sacrifice, much ingenuity, we have painstakingly created for ourselves an inferno of noise. 

There is a din that greets us when we’re born. It ushers us out when we die. And in the days and nights between, that relentless, unceasing clamour is always with us, even in the sanctity of our homes—the noisy world slips in as we close the door and it hounds us even as we try to sleep.

And it is not only the literal noise of our age. Worse, yet, is the noise of anxiety and fear, the noise of hurry and haste. It is the noise of all the endless demands for our attention, our thoughts, our—souls.

And the result of all this noise? The result is that we hardly ever hear ourselves, hardly know ourselves, and live lives that are anonymous even unto ourselves. The world whirls faster and faster and faster, and we are spun, in the depths of the cacophony, into the deepest silence.

True enough that all this noise, this incessant doing, making, earning, losing and winning, it doesn’t bother everyone. Some would even be terrified at the prospect of a world so still, so quiet, they might actually hear their own minds, discover their own thoughts, contemplate the absurdity of their own existence.

What was it that Pascal said, that the eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrified him? Precisely.

And yet, and yet, some there are who would hear their own voices, whatever the cost. And, for that matter, however banal, trivial, mundane or inconsequential the utterances their voices speak to them might happen to be. But that’s beside the point. It is not profundity that is at issue here. No, what is at issue is simply this—the possibility of being meaningfully alive.

Thy will be done. (But only if thy voice is heard.)

If you cannot hear your voice, you cannot hear your will. If you cannot hear your will, you cannot—be.

It may be an illusion that our wills have been liberated from the bonds that hold the physical world in subjection. But it is a precious illusion nonetheless, and one which is difficult to maintain if our own voices are never heard above the din.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

I am that I am

We lived for a time in a place without limits. At least, that is to say, each and every day was our own to do with as we wished. It sounds like a blessing. It was. But it was also an effort. Each day had to be made from scratch.

I suspect many people would prefer boundaries and limitations of some sort, rather than be left contemplating a void that passes itself off as freedom.

But I was talking then about our daily world, with its need for daily bread. What of our spiritual world? Can we live without boundaries there?
Tolstoy said that faith was one of the forces by which we live.
So only with some difficulty then.
And so it is that most people on this earth retain their faith, despite the unflagging efforts of the proselytisers of reason.
The proselytisers of reason are left baffled by those who insist on retaining their communion with a spiritual reality.
The proselytisers of reason have small minds.
A life based on the answer ‘I don’t know’ to the question ‘Why?’ is hard to endure. Why are we here, to what end, for what purpose? Why must there be so much struggle in life—even in the midst of plenty—why so much suffering, so much pain? Why are my days filled with so much I care nothing for? Why so much drudgery? So much tedium?
‘What is missing from the misery of the world, as well as from its moments of happiness, is some principle by which they can be explained’—Camus.
Looking up at the countless stars of the heavens may well give you a sense of stupendous awe, but it will never give you a sense of meaning.
There is a certain irony, methinks, in all this, because we only have ourselves to blame—we have disturbed our own sleep by digging around so much in the earth, by insisting on prising open the secrets of the heavens. The more we have understood this universe and our place in it, the less secure we have become in it—and in ourselves.
We have reasoned ourselves into a state of terrifying doubt.
‘For humankind’s chief malady,’ Pascal once suggested, ‘is its uneasy curiosity about things it cannot know—and it is not so bad for it to be wrong as so vainly curious.’ John Stuart Mill said he’d rather be Socrates, sad but wise, than a happy yet ignorant pig. I think most would opt to be the pig.
But then the prophet of reason exclaims, now look here, I offer you freedom from superstition and myth, I bring light where there was darkness, I give you your liberty!—and the sane response of most is to curse the prophet of reason (who is too stupid and vain to understand why) as a destroyer of the foundations on which alone a tolerable existence might be constructed.
So much freedom, so much burden.
Better, they say, to pass our days according to precepts that tell us why we live as we do, suffer what we must and die as we will, than to believe that our lives and all that is attendant on them, the good and the evil, have no real meaning at all, or at least none that we can discern.
It does not matter in the slightest if what you believe is entirely fanciful—there need be no congruence between belief and reality for belief to be wholly real for the believer. And, if real, in that sense, then the dulling of the psychic pain such belief brings will be as real as that which a dose of morphine gives to the dying.
It is preferable, in other words, to live a life hemmed in, both from without and from within, than to be burdened with a life the entire responsibility for which lies with no one but one’s own self.
I read once of an Epicurean whose epitaph simply read NFFNSNC. It stands for non fui, fui, non sum, non curo—I was not, I was, I am not, I care not. I’m fine with it all until I reach non curo.
God telling Moses who He is.
I Am that I Am, announced the Lord to Moses, thereby setting the template for all of us (which, I suppose, is as it should be—we are, after all, made in His image). And so I am that I am, and I had no say in who I am—no one ever does, it is simply the fate of everyone that we must be someone—and so I am a devout unbeliever, an ardent atheist, who sometimes wonders if it wouldn’t be a fine and pleasant thing to have faith in a benevolent maker who watches over all of creation. But I have no such faith, and no means of conjuring it into existence—I am, perversely, to that extent exactly like that unbending believer Luther—‘Here I stand, I can do nothing else’.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Bully Hayes the Blackbirder

If I were inclined to become a smuggler of contraband—which I’m not, as the whole thing strikes me as being too much like hard work—this would certainly be the place to do it. It’s so isolated, so remote, so uninvolved with the rest of the world. And yet it’s also just a hop, skip and a jump to the voracious metropolis to the north. Provided you navigated the bar without mishap, all you’d need do is pull up at the jetty and off-load whatever goods you were importing. The only policeman in town would most likely be elsewhere—fishing. I swear you could deposit a boat-load of elephants on that jetty and there’d be hardly anyone around to notice, and anyone who was around would just offer to help you get them off. Of course, I’m not recommending anyone do this. Smuggling contraband, including elephants, is a low and disreputable occupation, with the exception of smuggling whisky during the Prohibition—then it was a point of honour and just plain good sense. Rather, my musings along this line are just a way of emphasising the beautiful, lonely remoteness  of this place. Also, it puts me in mind of W.H. Hayes, better known as ‘Bully’ Hayes. And I’ve been meaning to speak of him for some time.

Bully was born in 1827. Or 1829. You see, right from the get-go, Bully was mysterious and romantic. He died in 1877 when his cook, ‘Dutch’ Pete, shot him with a revolver, hit him on the head with an iron implement (a skillet, presumably) and then threw him overboard, to the very great distress of absolutely no one (indeed, Pete may well have been the recipient of rousing applause). Bully also died before then, but we’ll come to that in due course. Bully was someone you might describe as an adventurer. Also a liar, a cheat and a generally repellent sort of character. As a smuggler of contraband, his choice of cargo was mainly people, although he wasn’t averse to taking coconuts as well. He was, to use the nomenclature of the time, a ‘blackbirder’. He would visit the Pacific Islands and persuade, cajole, threaten, promise, lie and kidnap until he had enough  ‘recruits’ on his brig. Then he’d haul them off to plantations where they provided cheap labour. I don’t know if he enjoyed his work—sometimes we just have to take whatever’s available.

Still, to be fair, he hadn’t always been so bad, although he was probably never very good. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His dad plied liquor, an honourable enough profession provided you sell more of the stock than you drink. When Bully grew up, he went to make his fortune in Australia during the 1850s gold-rush. But while others found nuggets in the ground, poor old Bully just found dirt. With debts mounting as high as his dirt pile, Bully decided that it might be easier to find gold in New Zealand, so off he went to Otago. Instead of gold, though, Bully discovered the stage. He joined a troupe of vaudeville artists and toured the country. And he found love, a treasure much richer than gold, even if without the same utility. He married a widow, Rosa Buckingham, whose four sons were also vaudeville artists. In those days, it seems you were either looking for gold or doing vaudeville. He and his new wife opened a hotel in Arrowtown and called it ‘The United States’, but sensing that local sympathies tended more towards the Crown than the rebellious colonies, they renamed it ‘The Prince of Wales’.

Now, at this juncture, Bully might reasonably have expected to have settled into a pleasant and entirely unexceptionable life, seeing out his days serving up ale and the easy wisdom of a publican. And had he done so, he would surely have disappeared entirely from the pages of history. But anyone who’s been around the block more than once will tell you that you can have all the reasonable expectations in the world, but if Fate has something different in mind, you might as well relieve yourself into the wind for all the good those expectations will do you. And so it was with Bully. Although history doesn’t record the precise details, some happenstance set Bully at odds with the four vaudevillian Buckingham boys. Bent on vengeance, they wanted their pound of flesh, and they went after it in a particularly cruel manner—for a reward of £5, they invited anyone who could to cut off Bully’s . . . hair. Now, as history does record, the only noteworthy time that such an act, maliciously conceived, has been performed concerned the locks of the mighty Samson. It is, that is to say, an uncommon practice, but in the present instance it fit the bill—there was method in the madness of the Buckingham boys. Certainly, Bully’s hair, as far as we know today, was of little moment to his strength. Nor is there any suggestion that his hair was especially handsome, such that cutting it off would might have profoundly hurt Bully’s sensitivities. Rather, it was the case that Bully’s long locks concealed a dreadful secret—he was missing an ear! And why was he missing this most useful of appendages? Because it had been sliced off in California after he had been nabbed cheating at cards. O Bully, will your sins never be forgiven!

Humiliated before the world, made mock of even in the theatre, Bully gathered up the shabby remains of his reputation and left town. Finding his way to Port Chalmers, he acquired a brig and so began his wicked career as a blackbirder, a venture he got underway by abducting and then ravishing a young girl from Akaroa. By the late 1860s, Bully was, in the words of one report, ‘wanted by the police of nearly every country of the South Seas, on charges of almost every indictable crime on the calendar, from murder to common piracy.’ An exaggeration, possibly, but you get the idea. Then, in May 1868, it was reported in all the newspapers that Bully had met that most terrible of deaths—which is to say, an ‘untimely’ one. After a quarrel with his first mate, it was said, Bully had challenged him to a duel. Going ashore for this purpose in Fiji, the first mate had reportedly shot Bully, foolish enough to have gone ahead, in the back. The extent of honour among thieves and brigands and all the rest is well known, so no one would have been surprised by this. The only real surprise was that it wasn’t true. It seems it was just a story cooked up by Bully to throw the law off his tail. Indeed, it seems Bully quite enjoyed propagating tales of his own demise—a newspaper later wryly noted that Bully had turned up once again, in spite of the various reports of his ‘death by violence, shipwreck, and sundry other causes received from time to time’.

Now, you might reasonably say, this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Kawhia? Well, Bully wasn’t averse to trading of a more legitimate kind, and one day, finding himself in the vicinity of this port, he determined to offer the wares he was carrying to the local Maori. As the country was then in the grip of war, he knew there would be a healthy demand for what he had to offer—firearms and liquor, both of which, any soldier will tell you, are essential for the successful carrying on of warfare. Then, when business was done, Bully decided that this quiet little spot was just the place to give his Leonora a much-needed scraping and cleaning. So the boat was hauled from the water and his men set about removing the barnacles.

You can imagine, as a man wanted in several jurisdictions and known to be missing an ear, Bully must have been at least a little uneasy about having his means of maintaining his liberty immobilised in this manner. And, as it turns out, he would have been right to have felt such unease. Fleet of foot, as ever, word of Bully’s presence in Kawhia soon reached the military authorities in the Waikato. Less fleet but still admirably fast, the authorities dispatched a sizeable company of militia to bring the wicked Bully Hayes to justice. Admirably fast, but not fast enough. The men of justice had barely broached the crest of the hill whose great height affords such a vista of the harbour when they saw a boat, all its sails raised and trimmed taut, tearing through the waters towards the harbour mouth and its promise of freedom eternal.

And so the brigand Bully Hayes lived to scheme, cheat and steal his way around the Pacific a few more years yet. Until, finally, in 1877, Bully really did die, at the hands of his cook, ‘Dutch’ Pete, and no one really did lament his passing, for he really had been a proper scoundrel and now the world was a better place.


Thursday, 1 September 2016

Logical to the bitter end

Before the dawn, as another front roared over us, I lay awake thinking about those men and women who came to make their lives on this land, and before them, the Maori who had lived for centuries on this land. I thought about how they would never have asked themselves why they did what they did. When almost everything you do is necessary for life, when the failure to do something means personally suffering the consequences and very often immediately, the question ‘Why do I do this?’ doesn’t even make sense. Even we, here, in a limited fashion, live like that—when we climb into the hills in search of dry firewood, we don’t stop to ask what the point of it is. There is an immediacy and a self-evident relationship between what we do and the life we live.

But today that is not how most people in the modern, industrialised world experience their lives. How many spend their days wondering what the point is of what it is they do, day after day after monotonous day? By far the greater portion of most people’s lives is spent working, and so it must be, if we are to live, but when that work is so divorced from living, when we spend our days merely doing the bidding of others, a bidding which all too often is patently absurd and merely emphasises with astonishing cruelty the pointlessness of it all?—cursed with self-awareness, what a torment it is to observe your life passing purposelessly in this way, and yet feeling helpless to escape it. We have unthinkingly made for ourselves a monstrous and exquisite trap, a maze from which we can never escape, into which we are born and in the midst of which we must die. We tell ourselves we are blessed with all manner of freedoms—and undoubtedly we are, in some senses, freer than our forebears—but for all our freedom, we remain enslaved nonetheless, compelled like the Red Queen to run and run without getting anywhere, chasing status, chasing wealth, chasing our tails.
There yet?

But we are idiots and fools, too, for we will not help ourselves. Instead, we drive and push our children like cattle so they can join us in this mad and endless pursuit of nothing, we compete ourselves into a state of stupor, worn out, numb, confused because when we lie down at the end of each day in exhaustion, we cannot understand how we find ourselves in this condition, confused because we constantly assure ourselves we can make of our lives whatever we will, only to discover we have almost no control over them at all—we simply wake up one day and find we are in a place we don’t recognise, as if we have stepped blindly onto a train heading who knows where and then slept throughout the entire journey. The masterful Russian storyteller Mikhail Bulgakov observed precisely this reckless squandering of life: ‘This, of course,’ he wrote, ‘is something that happens more often than not in life. A man may be engaged in some occupation for twenty years, such as studying Roman law, and then in the twenty-first year it suddenly transpires that Roman law is a complete waste of time, that he not only doesn’t understand it and dislikes it too, but that he is really a born gardener and has an unquenchable love of flowers’.

If flowers are your thing, go and tend them, but how many will?

Of course, of course, these observations are hardly new. People have been saying much the same thing for millennia—‘How much this fierce condition of eternal hurry . . . is likely to defeat the grandeur which is latent in all men’ (de Quincey), ‘Believe me, it is the sign of a great man . . . not to allow his time to be frittered away’ (Seneca), ‘It’s all a nonsense, and a man who at the behest of other people and not for his own passion or need works himself into the ground, for money or status or whatever else, is always a fool’ (Goethe), ‘To preserve his freedom he was prepared on countless occasions to throw away or reject things the world at large saw as advantages or blessings’ (Hesse)—I could pile quote upon quote, the wisdom is so old. But that is not the point. This is the point: for all we know it, for all our awareness of our situation, however much we regret it, we seemingly remain incapable of doing anything to remedy it. For all we claim to have freedom to make our lives as we wish, we act as if we have nothing of the sort. We pause only long enough to wring our hands and lament the miserable condition of our existence before we start running again, fearful lest we have fallen already too far behind.

We have not helped ourselves, of course, by killing God. He gave both reason and promise. Now we have neither. And so we spend our lives coming to terms with the fact we have lives to spend. Once we had answers, but now, with our reason—the reason we esteem so highly, the reason we congratulate ourselves on possessing, oh magnificent reason! oh wondrous reason!—with this we have stripped ourselves bare and wonder why life feels so cold. In this way, how many lives have become miserable and cheap and devoid of all substance! How many lives have contracted into little more than a series of conveniences paid for by days of monotony, one hardly distinguishable from the next!

And I needn't be reminded there was no Golden Age to which we might return. That is not the point either. Nothing is gained by romanticising the past. But there is something in the idea that when we are engaged in doing tasks that bear immediately on life, then we need not ask ourselves why we do them. If we would live, then we do them; if we would rather die, then let us be idle, and let that be our choice. But to spend your days at meaningless labour, enriching others at your own expense, without even the promise of a better life to come, there can be no surer way of skewering your own soul.

These are not uplifting thoughts, I grant you. But this is merely doing what Camus called being ‘logical to the bitter end’, something, he said, which it is almost impossible to be, because so often we find the end abhorrent, the more so because it was given us by logic, and logic will never take it back. But there remains this to be said. Our lives are not governed by fate. We do have a certain degree of freedom, some of us at least—it is merely a question of whether or not we wish to use it.



Thursday, 18 August 2016

Sauve qui peut

The modern world, this world we have so painstakingly created for ourselves, it is a terribly noisy place. There is an eternal din that greets us when we’re born. It ushers us out when we die. And I don’t simply mean, although it is loud enough, the literal noise of modernity. I mean, also, the noise of anxiety and fear, of hurry and haste. The noise of all our precious devices and newspapers and magazines and billboards, all with their endless demands on us, that constant bombardment we are forever subject to and which we can never escape, even in the sanctity of our homes—the noisy world slips in as we close the door and continues to hound us even as we try to sleep. And the result is that we hardly ever hear ourselves, hardly know ourselves, and live lives that are anonymous even unto ourselves. The world whirls faster and faster and faster, and we are spun, in the depths of the cacophony, into the deepest silence.

True enough that all this noise, this incessant doing, making, earning, losing and winning, it doesn’t bother everyone. Some would even be terrified at the prospect of a world so still, so quiet, they might actually hear their own minds, discover their own thoughts, contemplate their own existence. What was it that Pascal said, that the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me? Precisely. And yet, and yet, some there are who would hear their own voices, whatever the cost. And, for that matter, however banal, trivial, mundane or inconsequential the utterances their voices speak to them might happen to be. But that’s beside the point. It is not profundity that is at issue here. What is at issue is the possibility of being meaningfully alive. Just as we cannot be fully human if we are deprived of all autonomy, we cannot be autonomous if we cannot hear ourselves think. It may be an illusion that we are blessed with wills liberated from the bonds of cause and effect that enchain the physical world, but it is a precious illusion nonetheless, and one which is difficult to maintain if our own voices are forever drowned out. For some of us, at least, if we are not to go entirely mad, there must be some moments in each day—however few and however fleeting—in which we consciously choose this and not that.

Ah, but these are deep waters, and frankly, I might just as well say that Catherine, the dog and I, we were simply tired of all this noise, tired of rushing from one thing to another, and tired of doing the bidding of others. Quite simply, we wanted to turn our backs on it all, to walk away, to go to a place where we might, if we wished, spend our allotted hours pointlessly staring into the middle distance doing precisely nothing, a place where we would know nothing of what was happening in the world beyond our own little patch of existence. And, as it happened, we knew of just such a place, a place which the hands of fate had kindly delivered up to my family some decades ago. It hadn’t been lived in permanently for over thirty years, it was now only ever used as a temporary retreat from the world, but now it would do us perfectly as a permanent—or at least temporarily permanent—place of retreat, of exile. We knew it couldn’t be absolutely permanent—for one thing, the place belonged to the family, not to us, and for another, we planned on being gainfully unemployed, and the money we had stashed away would only last so long, even in a place so far removed from all the getting and spending with which we fill our lives today. So, it would not be forever, but it would be for a time, a year let’s say, a year in which we could be still and hear ourselves think, however terrifying—or banal—that might turn out to be.

For over two years we talked about doing this. And for over two years we found reasons for not doing it. Except they weren’t reasons, they were excuses, excuses for holding to the lives of safe predictability we had made for ourselves. They may have been lives that were growing a little stale, perhaps, stale while increasingly frantic, but most of us will tolerate considerable discomfort in exchange for security—the regular pay-check, the familiar faces, and all those routines that can be gone through effortlessly, automatically—thoughtlessly. And, to be fair, it’s reasonable enough to live like this—the great struggle of humanity, after all, has been to achieve a state of security, and the pay-off for having achieved it, the pay-off for all the dullness it brings, is a mind freed from anxiety and worry, a mind free to pursue more noble ends. That, at least, is the theory. But the practice? Minds that are too worn out by all that incessant haste and hurry our secure, predictable world foists on us. We never want for food on the table or a roof over our heads or clothes on our backs, but the price we pay is to be made slaves of our security, made slaves of the great machine we have created that delivers up to us our security in exchange for our freedom.

After all, if we asked ourselves, who is it that has the most secure, the most predictable life of all, the answer would have to be—a man chained to a wall.

So perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.

Perhaps it has, you say, but then what is the alternative? We can’t all just throw up our jobs and turn our backs on it all to go and live the good life somewhere far removed from the madness. The chains aren’t broken so easily, we have no Moses to lead us from captivity. True enough—but then I’m merely diagnosing the condition, I don’t have a treatment to cure it. Sauve qui peut, I’m afraid.
Eternal silence, infinite space.

Ah, but again, I can’t seem to help myself, off I go, straight into the deep waters where I’ll end up drowning myself one day if I’m not careful. So, let me just say this. I’m no Luddite, I’m not suggesting we break the machines and return ourselves to a lost golden age of the past. There was none, for one thing, and you can’t, as we know, repeat the past, for another. And it would be absurd to deny that our age confers all manner of genuine blessings upon us, the likes of which past generations would never have dared dream of. But the pendulum, as I said, it has swung too far—we can, as we know, have too much of a good thing.

So I am not suggesting we break the machines and hang the captains of industry from gibbets—although lord knows the temptation to do so is often strong—yet nor am I presenting this as a tonic for everyone. As I said, humanity has worked long and hard to attain the degree of luxury it now enjoys—at whatever cost and however few actually enjoy it—and most would think it madness to turn your back on all that luxury to live in remote, isolated, primitive seclusion, in a place so endlessly quiet you might actually hear your own mind.

I willingly concede—it is not for everybody.
But it was, most assuredly, for us.