Monday, August 31, 2015

They have been chosen

Patriotic Matinee

The matinee, to be given at the Grand Opera House on Saturday, commencing at 2.30 pm, promises to be the biggest thing of its kind ever held in Wellington. The programme to be submitted will be one that in itself, and apart from patriotic sentiment, should attract a crowded house. The first part will be provided by the members of the Brenman-Fuller company, after which the Prime Minister will speak for five minutes. Then will follow the second act of of “Never Say Die” by the Fred Niblo-Josephine Cohan Company, one of the most laughable farces ever seen in Wellington. the Hon James Allen (Minister of Defence) will then speak, and the third part will be provided by the gifted “Smart Set”. During this part Mr Ernest Parkes is to sing “Britons All”, a new song written by Mr Bert Royle, and composed by Mr Frank Crowther (of His Majesty’s orchestra). Mr Fred Niblo is also to give us a taste of his talent as a monologuist. The box plan is now open at the Dresden, where seats are being book with great patriotic fervour.

During the matinee there will be an auction of the first-grade two-yard Union Jack, which has been preserved for this purpose. This flag will have an historic interest, and should bring a substantial addition to the Patriotic Fund. The flag will be auctioned by Mr Fred Niblo, who has spent some of his happiest years of his life under the old flag.

Call for Men and Horses

This morning the first batch of Wellington volunteers for the main Expeditionary Force will leave for the concentration camp at Palmerston North. The number will be about 100, and will consist only of Territorials now serving. To the number of about 50, including a score from the Post and Telegraph Corps, the men paraded at the Drill Hall, Buckle Street, last night. They comprised artillery, infantry and a small number from the Army Service Corps. Four concentration camps will be held before the Force is dispatched – at Dunedin, Christchurch, Auckland and Palmerston North.

Applications are still flowing in to join the Force, and yesterday just on 100 handed in their names at the drill hall. It is said that more have already applied than will be needed, and probably a selection will be made.

Not Selected

The case of certain members of the railway service who came to Wellington to join the Expeditionary Force and who have not been selected for the railway corps was referred to ion the House of Representative last night.

Sir Joseph Ward said his attention had been drawn to the fact that a considerable number of young men had been brought from all parts of New Zealand to serve in the railway section of the Expeditionary Force, and he understood that some eighteen of them had been ordered to stand aside on the ground that their services were not required. In some cases these young men had been farewelled by their friends, and he would ask the Minister whether it would not be possible for them to go away with the contingent. Would the Government say what their position was? He had been informed that if the men joined another contingent they would not get their half-pay, and their positions would not be kept open for them.

Dominion Forces of 20,000 Men

(Rec. August 13, 11.15 p.m.)

London, August 13, morning.

“The Times,” in a leader says “The imperial force will number 75,000 men, including Australia’s 20,000 men and New Zealand’s 8,000. New Zealand’s warship is already one with our own in the defence of the Home seas: Australia’s battleship and cruisers have been freely offered, and German possessions in the outer seas will have to yield to the Dominions’ forces. The test has come and the result has been a spontaneous advance towards Imperial consolidation.”

Boy Scouts’ Help

When the Boy Scouts made their offer to the Defence Department last week the Department probably did not realise how thoroughly they were going to carry out their self-appointed task. About four of them have been kept constantly in attendance at headquarters, two at the Commissariat, two at the stores, three at the Area office, while the others are at the beck and call of any member of the Expeditionary Force who might want a message sent or purchase made in the city.

Rather a curious difficulty that has to be faced sometimes is when they receive a few pence change when sending a telegram, as a scout is not allowed to take money for any help which he may have given. One scout was left with 4½d which was promptly spent in biscuits for the patrol, as no owner could be found.

Young at 51

Applications for enrolment with the Expeditionary Force are being received from volunteers of all ages, from youths of 17 to men of over 50 years. As the age limit is set at 35 many are apt to be disappointed. Yesterday a tall, well-set-up man had his name put on the list at the Drill Hall, and in reply to the question as to his age, said that he was 51 years. The enrolling officer expressed surprise at this, and questioned two spectators, who gave their estimate of the man’s age at 33 and 36 respectively. The volunteer had served for many years with the Royal Army Fusiliers, and for 14 years was stationed in India. He does not drink, and thought that he was entitled to go down on the roll as 30 years of age. “There’s an example for you,” said the sargeant-major, as he put the name down.

All the text in this post is from The Dominion of 14 August 1914.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Godfather: Part IV

A gilded carriage pulled by six black plumed horses, followed by anything between 250 and 600 cars. And then, upon arrival, a church covered in giant images of the deceased, a low-flying helicopter dropping thousands of rose petals over the mourners, and a brass band playing ‘Speak Softly, Love’ – better known as the theme from The Godfather. This was the funeral in Rome last week of Vittorio Casamonica, head of the Casamonica family which oversees drug trafficking, prostitution and racketeering in the so-called ‘eastern quadrant’ of the city.

Vittorio Casaonica, King or Rome

You conquered Rome – Now you will conquer Paradise

The parish priest explained that he didn’t know anything about it, that he was just asked to celebrate a funeral mass, as is his duty. He claimed not to have noticed how the façade of his church had been festooned, and anyway he’s not responsible for what happens outside, in the square. As for the municipal police, which was accused of having stopped traffic to allow the procession through and to have escorted the hearse, they were also apparently unaware, and they couldn’t very well be expected to shoot down the helicopter, now, could they? Speaking of which: it took off from Naples, veered off the authorised flight path and dipped under the minimum allowed altitude to deliver its floral homage. The pilot has had his licence suspended and looks to be the only individual who will suffer any consequences for the inability of the Italian state and local institutions to prevent the very large and very public apotheosis of a mafia boss from taking place in the nation’s capital.

Not that this kind of thing is unprecedented, even in recent times. There was the case last year of the festivities in Oppido Mamertina, Calabria, when the statue of the Virgin Mary carried on the streets of the town was made to ‘bow’ in front of the house where the elderly local boss Giuseppe Mazzagatti is spending the remainder of his life sentence, having been spared incarceration due to his deteriorating health. Or that time in 2011 when the popular Festa dei Gigli in Naples was turned into a public celebration of the heads of the Cuccaro family, Angelo and Antonio, who paraded in a white Excalibur to the acclamation of the crowd before asking that a minute of silence be observed ‘in memory of their dead’.

Here, too, the band played the theme from The Godfather. Here, too, local authorities were left scrambling to explain how a public event, which by its own nature requires planning and organization so that people be a part of it, could come as a total surprise to public officials.

Back when I was a young man, a leading figure in the governing Christian Democratic party famously declared that ‘the mafia doesn’t exist’, or that if it ever did it had long since been defeated. That was the dominant strategy for decades after the war: not to celebrate but to subsume and normalise; not to emphasise but to quietly integrate organised crime into the machinery of the state and of consensus, even against the truculent backdrop of daily killings in the epicentres of clan war. For the populous South was always, among the many forms in which it was exploited, a ‘reservoir of votes’ to be mobilised by the ruling centre-right, Christian coalition.

The soundtrack to these modern celebrations – be they festivals or funerals – symbolises a shift that runs parallel with the crumbling of the old, monolithic power structures. Playing a song that was never local or traditional, yet ensures the instant global recognition of a national anthem, signals that the mafia is no longer interested in hiding, but demands to be acknowledged, respected and celebrated for what it is. Accordingly, all of these events involve a power struggle, with the mafia attempting to exert its control over local institutions – church, police, politicians – against their centres.

The bowing of the Virgin Mary in Oppido Mamertina, for instance – which was played down by the local Mayor but caused representatives of the state police to leave the procession in protest – was seen by some as a response to the Pope’s calling two weeks earlier for the excommunication of the mafiosi. On the same day, 200 convicts in the Larini prison went ‘on strike’ against the Church by refusing to attend mass.

Vittorio Casamonica’s funeral shines much the same light on Italy’s institutions: a priest who failed to notice how his church had suddenly been redecorated, versus the Pope; representatives of the municipal and state police versus the mayor and the Minister of the Interior. And if you think that the Pope, the Mayor and the Minister are more powerful, consider who it is who actually exercised power: who it is who stopped the traffic, and played their anthem in a public square; who it is who bent aviation rules so that they could perform a grand, theatrical gesture, and drop flowers on their people.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Light of other days

I know this house. I have seen it like this, in the early afternoon sun, more times than I can remember or count. I have seen it without looking, as you do with your surroundings and the all-too-familiar.

This is an ordinary day: the air is still, the sky is sunny but without depth, as it is so often on this vast plain encircled by the Alps, and so instead of looking up you look down and around, at the road, the trees, the houses and the fields. There are few cars and even fewer people out. The lowered blinds on the sun-facing side of most houses tell you it is a hot day. It seems that everyone in this village of 2,000 is inside.

I turn right and proceed down the long stretch of road that leads towards the railroad tracks. There used to be ditches on both sides, and here by the bend frogs used to congregate in the summer and with my friends sometimes we would catch them.

The ditch has been covered now and the road no longer crosses the tracks, ending instead before a clump of trees. The old keeper’s house, which hasn’t served its original purpose since my childhood when the level crossing was automated, seems now completely abandoned. I would like to walk up to it but I can’t push my way forward. It’s like this is a videogame and I’ve reached one of its hard boundaries.

I turn back. Back to another house, the one my grandparents built and that in my memory is always intact, unchanged. In my memory, it’s nearly always summer as this is when I stayed with them the longest, and it’s nearly always sunny. And hot, hotter than on this day (I can tell). In my memory I am older than this, closer to ten years of age. But still I’m on the street in front of that house.

Here during the summer at night we used to play football. Two teams both aiming at a single narrow goal marked by the lamp-post directly across from the house and the big blue barrel for the recycled glass, which made a rather wonderful noise whenever the ball hit it. Under the cone of light from the lamp above you could see the swarms of mosquitoes, because there used to be marshes here and five miles to the north-west, along the river, there are marshes still.

From down the street as we played football came the sounds of the café, of the adults playing pool and cards. Always in summer those sounds would be loudest, as everyone kept their windows open. Sound of laughter and swearing. I ‘walk’ towards the café now: it’s still there. But as I reach the end of the street, the picture changes. It’s a grey day now, and the trees have suddenly gone bare. I look again down my grandparents’ street, through the invisible curtain of a changed season. We’re in late autumn or early winter now. I’m looking back, or forward, through time.

I cannot say that I miss this place, in the sense that there is no place for me there. Not in my grandparents’ house, that was sold over twenty years ago; not in the village, where I couldn’t build a life if I wanted to. I have a fondness for it that is reserved to distant things and for the past. I miss the people in it, but especially those who are no longer there. I miss my childhood, or maybe more precisely the idea of it: those interminable summer days and weeks, all identical to one another yet always charged with the remote possibility of adventure. I do not subscribe to the current fashion for romanticising boredom, but I wouldn’t trade that sameness, my few friends, our games for excitement and travel.

To visit now, if only electronically, to see that light again and the shallow sky, is to relieve the migrant’s grief for places and a life left behind. This may not be exactly what Google intended when they set about mapping the world at street level (or maybe they did), but in spite of its pervasiveness and consumer appeal I’ve never ceased to be awed by the technology. I love that I can do this and I marvel at the convergence of factors that made it possible to conceive of such a project: its scale, the sheer hubris of it.

I say I love that I can do this, yet each visit is a source of melancholy comfort. It is not like looking through old pictures, which are static objects. To move through space makes me feel as if it might be possible to connect through time. It is enough to create for the briefest moment the illusion that I might turn a corner or peer through a window and see a loved face, still present. But that is the boundary and I can’t push my way through.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Becoming a Person

Don't assume that because we have an intellectual disability we do not know what you think about us.

(Robert Martin)

The story of the closure of institutions for mentally ill and disabled people is one whose last chapter, in many countries, has yet to be written. Even where such institutions no longer exist, the next necessary step – that is to say, the meaningful inclusion of the previously segregated – is far from achieved. Society continues to disable, as well as to both define and produce abnormality and madness.

Robert Martin experienced both worlds, the old and the not-yet-new. Having suffered brain damage at birth following a forceps extraction, the Whanganui-born Martin spent the first fifteen years of his life in the care of various institutions, and the following four decades fighting for inclusion and the right to self-determination of people with disabilities. His contribution to self-advocacy in New Zealand and overseas has been extraordinary, and is now the subject of a biography by author and documentary film-maker John McRae.

Before the extraordinary, there was the ordinary, meaning protracted imprisonment and abuse: this was the common experience for disabled children in a country that, McRae tells us, placed them in facilities for the ‘mentally impaired’ at four times the rate of the United States or the UK. In what is a recurring motif of the book and his advocacy, Martin doesn’t place the blame for the treatment he suffered on individuals, including his parents.
I don't blame Mum. I don't blame the family. I was a victim of circumstance. That's the way I see it. Even the Kimberley stuff- I don't blame the staff. I blame society and how it was then.
‘Kimberley’ is a reference to the Levin Farm and Mental Deficiency Colony, later renamed the Kimberley Centre, the first institution to which Martin was sent, aged eighteen months, as well as the last in the country to be closed, in 2006 – a historic outcome to which he contributed. The arc between Kimberley opening its doors to Martin and closing them to everyone mirrors the trajectory of the book and of his ‘becoming a person’: that is to say, going from passive object of (alternatively) care, neglect and mistreatment, to full human being, with passions, aspirations and the capacity to both partake of society and contribute to transforming it.

This is, manifestly, the story of a struggle, and Becoming a Person deserves a place among the biographies of New Zealand’s pre-eminent political figures. From the strike at Sunnyvale Farm in 1981, through his leadership role in the seminal self-advocacy organizations Whanganui Client Committee and People First, to his important contribution to shaping the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Martin must rank among our most successful organisers and campaigners. That he had to overcome a set of extraordinarily challenging circumstances to do so should rightly impress us but hides a more important lesson, which both McRae and Martin are careful to articulate.

Thus of Alison Campbell, a social worker instrumental to the activities of the Client Committee, Martin says:
She knew that we couldn't be handed the power over our lives. We had to seize it for ourselves. You cannot give power. You can try, but the power always remains with the person who is giving it. Alison showed us how to take it for ourselves.
Equally, we are reminded time and again of Martin’s own concern for those less outspoken and capable of self-advocacy than himself, and of the work he did to expand the organizations and train more people to take on active roles. In his work to change the culture at the IHC, he might say:
This is all for people who can talk and who can discuss things. What about those who can't get involved and don't talk? What are we going to do about them?
While speaking in New York at one of the meetings that led to the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, he said:
This Convention can't just be about those of us here today. It has to be meaningful for the people who aren't in the room; to my friends who aren't always seen or heard by others because they don't communicate in the same way as us here. It has to protect their rights and speak about their lives.

This widening of the perspective includes viewing disabled people as part of their families, and the families as part of their communities and the wider society – perhaps to restore the fabric of care and belonging that was denied to him. There is a passage that describes very plainly and eloquently our own experience:
Robert talks about how families struggle to manage when their child has an intellectual disability; how meeting the child's needs can become the entire focus for the family. Life becomes a battle to find quality services, to access the extra funding that the child requires, to find the right pre-school, primary and secondary schooling. He explains how families very often become isolated. ‘They become disabled families.’
You could take that idea, the notion of a disabled family, and expand it to include the whole of society, as a way of making visible both disability and struggle – as McRae’s book does most admirably.

Ultimately inclusion, seen through the radical work of Martin and his contemporaries, becomes an always unfinished project, an impossible demand that must nonetheless be advanced: because settling for anything less would mean denying people like Robert Martin their personhood.

John McRae. Becoming a Person: The Biograhy of Robert Martin. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2014.

With thanks to Beck Eleven, who also reviewed the book.

Monday, August 3, 2015

On criticism as a form of living

The phrase belongs to Masha Tupitsyn, in the dedication of her 2011 book Laconia to the late film critic Robin Wood, for whom she tells us that ‘criticism was a form of living’. Tupitsyn’s book – a collection of 12,000 tweets about film – is a mirror of that life, and an exploration of the daily practice and discipline it requires. And because she crafted each entry ‘as though it was for and part of a book’, it is also a critical meditation on the nature of our mediums, new and old. What does it mean to tweet about film or literature or art? What kind of act it is to string the resulting tweets into a book, and how does one text differ from the other, if at all?

Criticism as a form of living, or the idea that the conversation we entertain with the art forms we consume shapes our lives. But why just art? If – as Matthew Arnold claimed in the nineteenth century – poetry is ‘a criticism of life’, the twentieth century has broadened the domain of the critic to include all forms of human expression and, ultimately, expression itself – that is to say, how we communicate experience to one another. Criticism becomes therefore an attitude as much as a practice. A way of being. A form of living.

Sometimes I like to pretend that everyone on social media is writing his or her own book. If you attempt this exercise, say, on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll find that the genre of most of these hypothetical books is a mix of memoir and critical diary. Criticism and life. This suggests to me that Tupitsyn’s explicit structuring of her social media stream as a book-in-the-making may not be a necessary condition for what she calls ‘an architecture of thinking’, like Laconia, to exist. The blueprint is implicit in every social text we produce.

The internet as it is currently deployed is not a technology for command and control but rather a vast rhetorical engine. It has made writers – public, published writers – of tens of millions of individuals that at no other time in human history would have had the opportunity to find within themselves such an inclination, let alone the means to realise it. Therefore the internet, or more specifically the World Wide Web, has effectively produced an entire generation of critics. Their output includes the conventional review – think Goodreads, Amazon reviews, the Internet Movie Database, Rotten Tomatoes and innumerable others – and participation in boards devoted to the close reading and in-depth discussion of products of popular culture, especially television programmes. Some websites, such as Letterboxd, provide templates for keeping a film or book diary, thus promoting criticism as a daily practice or ritual. (The tagline of Letterboxd is ‘Your life in film’.)

Beyond these formally constrained and relatively conventional forms is the social media stream and ongoing conversation that so many people have with so many others. It’s not Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or whatever else to which you’re subscribed: it’s all of them, separately or at once, depending on your preference or the time of the day or what enables you to say what you want to say most effectively. Many, if not most, of the utterances recorded on this continuous stream are acts of criticism, often indistinguishable from acts of autobiography (‘I’m listening to a great song by …’ or ‘This book reminds me of …’). Criticism in the act of living.

To those (Tupitsyn among them) who contend that all of this expression lacks the necessary economy – or awareness of the need for economy – that makes the critic a critic, I would respond using Georges Perec, the poet of the infra-ordinary. For where do you draw the line between an attention for life and its pathological excess? Perec once published a piece entitled ‘Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and the Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four’, a functionally unreadable list of ingredients, dishes and drinks that extends for multiple pages. If Arnold is right and literature is a criticism of life, then Perec’s ‘Attempt’ is an act of criticism. It’s also a partial but faithful record of being in the world, not unlike the kind of thing that one might attempt to document on social media. Either way, it’s the writing that counts. That is where the selection happens, for good or bad, and you get to say: this matters.

‘Criticism as a form of living’ is a sentence fragment, an incomplete aphorism, yet for some time it has helped me organise my thinking about digital media and its social configurations. Old-fashioned books might need to be written about what this criticism means and what its categories are. If it is good or bad, even. But for now I am optimistic. For now I think our attention is being sharpened and we are learning together to practice an old craft.

This was my column for Overland 219. Speaking of which, we have assembled a special digital issue to complete the wonderful experience that was Overland 220. It features essays by Naomi Arnold, Murdoch Stephen, Megan Clayton and David Young. Go read. It.