Unter den Deutschen – amongst the Germans: 2. Gib Gummi.

It feels a little strange to write a blog with a title that tells you to where to put your chewing gum (“Gib Gummi”), but this was small moment of triumph on a bad day for my language learning. We had been studying the emphatic form, where an order is given and as I walked down Barbarossa Strasse on my way to meet some friends,  saw this bright orange rubbish bin with that same form of words used to say, “do this!”

2014-11-29 11.51.53Using the polite form in the second line, “bitte”.

So from a public message about where Berliners should dispose of their chewing gum, I was given a small boost after a lesson that had begun badly and gone downhill. It is not wise to be responding to Viber messages from home as the teacher begins speaking in German with the first volley of instructions for the day (this applies even if a loved one is locked out in the rain, and asks where is the spare key, and you can’t remember). I was, in a word, distracted.

Of course, this was not the cause of my struggles: I am not as good as I thought I might be at this language learning today, seventeen years after starting to learn Maori at the age of fifty. I have lost a bit of top edge since then and three years plus of earthquake-related PTSD, which has re-activated my childhood stuff, leaving me a little the worse for wear in the retention of new knowledge, viz, complex German grammar formulations.

 Our teacher believes – probably quite rightly – that German is a more logical language than English (yes, we were learning the Komparativ form today). Sadly, my aging brain learned that illogical language as I drank my mother’s milk; it seems that these neural pathways deep in my brain actually consider that German is illogical and continually attempt to push Deutsch into Englisch. As well, Maori in there too slides in helpfully and provides conjunctions etc, in a process known as “code switching”.

It’s all a bit bewildering at times and I know I’m not the only one having a few problems; but with only two weeks left, it is a bit late to accept the offer of switching to a one-to-one coaching class and anyway, I like my fellow students and I don’t want to be a quitter. I managed to buy my Monatskarte for December travel at the Hauptbahnhof yesterday in an exchange of Deutsch which seemed to satisfy the teller (he didn’t switch to English, which is what happens as soon as you stumble).

2014-11-01 12.40.44Berlin Hauptbahnhof – main station.

One of the most helpful things that has happened however has not been the injuries to my ego, which are salutary, but the experience of feeling lost, confused, angry at times and at others, wanting to give up and go home. Yes, I am a adult leaving middle age, but no,  this does not mean I have no access to child-like states of mind if I am reduced to a vulnerable state by circumstances.

This was especially true at the start of the course when I was jet-lagged and for the first fortnight, sleep-deprived. I could barely concentrate in the first week and only at the end of the second, did I begin to feel remotely human. Mix in culture shock and these were not ideal conditions, followed in the fourth week by a nasty cold that drained me and is still in no hurry to leave.

To all this, add now freezing temperatures and a knife-edged wind and there is good cause to  make a few allowances for oneself – except that my habitual default setting is to beat up on my “failings”. Nature took over last week and I became so overwrought I had to leave the class and flee to the toilet where I surprised myself by bursting into tears.

2014-11-22 11.45.29Statue on fence near children’s playground, Eisenacher Strasse.

I am placing this sequence of events under the microscope not to elicit sympathy – while of course not refusing any – but to make a point about some other language learners whose plight became much clearer to me as a result of these experiences. I’m talking about the generations of Maori children in New Zealand from the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth who in rural areas where most of them lived after the Land Wars went to school speaking their native language and were forbidden to use it, and often punished when they did.

I had read about this many times and was well aware it had happened; I was also aware of the downstream effects of the colonial culture on Maori society and gave intellectual assent to the sins of my forefathers and my own, as a benefactor of colonisation. What I had never felt however, was what it might feel like to sense yourself a fool trapped in your mother tongue, unable to comprehend the language of power.

2014-11-29 11.35.40 HDRPaora Tuhaere, 1985, by Gottfried Lindauer.

In this painting of a powerful chief, the Bohemian painter Lindauer has captured a vanishing world and certainly, the subject would have dressed in traditional garb for the portrait and then walked out of the studio in his usual clothes. But his children and grandchildren, if any, were being educated in the Native Schools; they would have walked into those places as themselves and left as somebody else.

The experience of feeling overwhelmed, unable to understand the voices controlling the classroom, confused, feeling anger and wanting to leave, withdrawing into passivity and finally, experiencing a lasting sense of failure and worthlessness – all these were carried from the schools to the homes to the wider society. It is called internalised oppression and it can be seen  at work throughout the colonial cultures of nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This set Maori on a course of generational failure in Western educational cultures which is only now being reversed and whose wounds still blight New Zealand’s image in an indictment that shows up in the statistics on imprisonment rates for Maori on a per capita basis compared to the Pakeha population: 15% of the population make up 50% of prisoners.

2014-11-16 13.41.19Electric fence, Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Germany.

A prison is a prison is a prison after all, and while there is no direct comparison between the camps in Germany during the Nazi era and New Zealand prisons today, there is still a political element in this grossly unbalanced incarceration rate of Maori prisoners that speaks to me of the undeclared war on Maori language and culture that was prosecuted by the settler government on behalf of the European inhabitants who largely dispossessed and displaced the indigenous people of New Zealand in the second half of the nineteenth century.

That this process can be seen to be ongoing and not yet resolved, in spite of the many worthwhile and positive steps taken in the recent history of Treaty settlements, is an effect of all those children entering all those schools; leaving feeling defeated and second rate, then passing on to their children – and them to theirs – a deep seated distrust of the Pakeha system and a belief that they could not succeed in a society ruled by the English language that plainly had no respect for theirs.

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How amazing then that since the 1970s and 1980s, Maori have fought back against this demoralisation and discrimination to set in train a true renaissance, a resistance to loss and assimilation. I can never feel what they have felt, but my experience in this language class in Berlin over the past five weeks has opened my door just a few inches more, helping me to imagine what it must have been like to have your own words stolen right out of your mouth.

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Unter den Deutschen – amongst the Germans: 1. Sachsenhausen.

It’s been over three weeks now since I arrived and began to fall in love with Berlin  and enjoy the street life and style of the Berliners. As I struggle with their language in my classes, I live a little like one of them: catching the S-Bahn, arriving at my station Hackescher Markt, buying a coffee at the Steinecke Backen shop on the corner and making my way down the street to the Goethe-Institut for another day of my studies, staggering out after five intensive hours of Deutsch lernen, grabbing a donor kebab and maybe joining the shopping crowds at Alexanderplatz under that phallic rocket-age former Communist spire, the Fernstehturm, a television tower built between 1965 and 1969, still the tallest building in Germany at 368 metres, complete with a beacon to warn low-flying aircraft and of course a revolving restaurant.

2014-11-07 08.10.00The tower from Hackescher Markt.

It hardly seems an act of appreciation then to begin my reflections on being here with an account of a trip to Sachenshausen concentration camp, the first of a deadly series of prisons, interrogation centres, work camps and finally, extermination factories designed to eliminate anyone the Nazis chose as undesirables  and un-German.  From the moment Hitler gained power in 1933 and quickly dissolved the Reichstag, declared himself sole leader of the German people and began to persecute and murder the Jews, his political opponents and a range of other victims from church leaders, intellectuals, gypsies and the gay community, a total revaluation of values was set in motion and the rich inheritance of German culture was all but dissolved.

 I had previously been to Theresienstadt/Terezin in what was still Czechoslovakia back in 1993, so it was not as if I needed proof – as if proof were needed – that the Holocaust deniers and the neo-fascists of today required me to gainsay them. I went because like anywhere, history is always present and a people and a culture cannot be understood if that present past is ignored. It was really all about our shared humanity, of what we all might do, given the right set of circumstances. I am going to let the pictures, mostly, speak for themselves.

P1020773Arriving at Oranienburg, as the prisoners did from 1933 onwards.

P1020776At the gates under grey, drizzly Sunday skies that seemed apt.

P1020780The original welcoming committee.

P1020778The survival kit and the star.

P1020785Archaeological traces of imprisonment.

P1020788The death march when the camp was cleared in April 1945.

P1020795Detail from a memorial to victims from Luxembourg.

P1020804Falling human sculpture in memorial forest.

P1020824The deadly irony of the entrance gate.

P1020828The electric fence.

P1020831A wash handbasin in the deserted infirmary, a former mortuary.

P1020835Smoke from the present boiler room has an ominous echo.

P1020853A local boy from the town is groomed for Hitler’s war ahead.

P1020855A neolithic adze found by a slave labour work gang outside the camp.

By the end of my time there, I felt like a tourist in a past hell I would never comprehend, yet must approach and come as near as I could to what was, in case it once more became what is, right next door to me.

In the Visitor Centre, amongst the books for sale I was drawn to a very remarkable memoir by Otto Dov Kulka, an 80-year old survivor of Auschwitz who as a ten year old Czech Jew was taken to Auschwitz from Theresienstadt and survived seven months in that hell and the death march when the camp was liquidated.

I have not yet finished it but it is a remarkable and chilling first person account by a man who as a child lived in what he now calls ‘The Metropolis of Death’. His testimony also brings the reader face to face with the obvious: no one who knows what he knows and has been haunted by since 1944 could be other than alienated by the writings of others – like me – who really know nothing.

When he reads the conference papers of fellow academics (he moved to Israel postwar and became a respected historian), he writes,  “The only response I feel able to express is alienation; all that is authentic is the authenticity of the alienation”.  He cries out to us, “Therefore I ask: in what am I different? Something is wrong with me!” (80).

The opening epigraph is a paraphrase of a parable by Kafka: “there remained the inexplicable landscape of ruins. – History tries to explain the inexplicable. As it comes out of a truth-ground it must in turn end in the inexplicable”.

From Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, Otto Dov Kulka, Penguin (London: 2014).

He is right: history is ultimately inexplicable but in the present, I seem to need to make the attempt. For me it was never about ‘bad Germans’, more about damaged and damaging humans, human cruelty given full permission and absolute free rein. We could all – given the right training and opportunity – become SS guards. That we do not is more of grace than will.

Perhaps my journey to Sachsenhausen today was to find this man in his book, to hear a voice from that silence otherwise broken only by the calls of the black-and-grey suited jackdaws that strut over the waste spaces like the ominous guards of an ancient tomb.

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The Road to Berlin #3: on German soil.

I found myself in the company of Germans before I could get out of Singapore: a bunch of teens on a school trip surrounded me like a flock of boisterous chirping German birds. On the midnight flight they soon roosted while I dozed like some wary owl as the great Airbus 380 carved through both still and turbulent airs to land us safely and efficiently in Frankfurt. It was simple enough to find the Fernbahnhof and get a ticket to Frankfurt Main Station.

2014-10-27 08.26.57Frankfurt Hbf.

The journey from Frankfurt worked well once I found my seat; the ride wasn’t cheap at €120 even with the Goethe Institut discount. I had a conversation with a woman called Christine who works selling food handling equipment to airlines. She asked me what I did and so eventually she got the Hasenburg story. I was helped on the Berlin station by another guardian angel who showed me where to go and how to buy a ticket. People were so kind.

Only two S-Bahn stops to Hackescher Markt and I was at the Institut in ten minutes. Humping my suitcase on cobbles made me think of a visit to Prague 1999. I told the interviewer at the school that I was a raw beginner and was too jetlagged to sit the test so he gave in and put me down for Level One. I spoke to Petra in accounts about paying the travel repayment in cash and she agreed it would have been better to have given me the money in my bank in New Zealand, but some emails crossed. I hope to get my online German bank open soon; I sent away the documents today and once it is approved she can put the money in there.

I emailed Konrad my host that I was coming and he met me halfway down the street outside Grunewald station. He’s a lovely man of 72 with good English but he struggles to understand me unless I speak slowly. He made me coffee and we had some homemade biscuits. I will be living separately in this comfortable private upstairs room with a view of the large tree-lined garden in an old established well heeled area.

2014-11-07 16.40.40Konrad Kutt at the Rathenau Memorial, Grunewald.

He took me walking to Gleis 17, the memorial platform and tracks next to the present station where from October 1941 to March 1945, 50, 000 Berlin Jews were transported. He and his wife Gaby had pushed the railway company to do this against years of resistance, 1977-1998. They have a plaque on the wall outside my room, showing that six palms are planted for them in the Itzhak Rabin gardens in Israel. Truly they are righteous Gentiles.

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Konrad and I got on very well. I was absolutely buggered, but had to keep going and meet Gaby when she came home and cooked us a meal. She is lovely too, very warm and friendly and like Konrad a little less than fluent but hey, I have to learn German to make it easier for all of us! She cooked us a chicken and potato meal as a welcome, but from now on it is mostly self-catering.

I hit the sack soon as I could, crashed, woke at 2.30pm, went back to sleep, woke at 5.30 and had to stay awake as I needed to catch a train at 7.30 to get to the Institut at 8.15. I worked out the bathroom in my fog but with no coffee or any food up here, I had to go cold turkey till I got to the local Kaiser superette.  The Kutts were still asleep when I left. I had a coffee at the station to kick my batteries over (average, but mead of the gods to me by then).

I spoke German to the girl in the cafe and she understood. I asked a commuter which train was coming even though I knew the answer, because I mean to speak German as much I can. I got to Berlin early and had another coffee at the station (latte, below average). I made it to Goethe and found my name on the class list. In the classroom the teacher didn’t read my name out with the others (she wasn’t the teacher on the list I was on and so I’d been sent to the wrong room). It was like being back in the primers.

2014-10-31 08.14.26Goethe-Institut Neue Schonhauser Str 20 Berlin.

I found Room 102 and a met my new teacher, Nicole Braeuer who is very professional. This is a class of people from India to Benin, Brazil to Italy. Jacopo at my table was from Genoa: I think he’s Jewish and so I think is Rebecca from London (also at the same table). Jacopo is a rocket scientist (true!!) who resigned his job in Turin as he was bored. He wants to retrain in Berlin in sustainability engineering, the big thing here it seems.

The class is run very like the ones my wife teaches in New Zealand: lots of preparation, handouts, pairs and groups, intense and interactive. Damn near killed me! I was gasping by 10am at coffee break. We survived. At one point Nicole was watching me trying to do an exercise and I said, ‘Please go away, you are making me nervous’! I was just soooo tired.

I went to Alexanderplatz afterwards and posted my bank application, took in all the cycles (just like Holland, no helmets, all very casual). I looked at a cellphone to use here (this has way cheaper texts if you are using prepay) but the cashier refused Visa and MasterCard. Cash or American Express. Weird. Big store too, Saturn, Dick Smith on steroids. Will have another look when I get my €€ cash situation sorted.

I headed back to Grunewald and visited the memorial at the station for a second time, on my own in the light of day. I walked slowly, trying to take it in, as I took photographs of the fallen leaves on the plaques and the wilting roses left by pilgrims.

I went home via Kaisers again and shopped for some food for the night. I wasn’t hungry really so just snacked on cheese, crackers and toast. Hard to have an appetite after what I’d just walked over.

My visit to Gleis 17 is turning into a draft first chapter, The Jews of Grunewald. Walking along the station platform, with every transport to the east recorded, it is too hard to explain. What number of post-mortem words written by unrelated strangers can do justice to that number of deportations and deaths?

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You say it so easily, it slips off your tongue, fifty thousand, fifty thousand. You have reached the point where words fail and only silence has the power to speak.

2014-10-29 07.52.20“Stolpersteine” (stumbling block) cobblestone street memorial, Berlin.

These commemorate individuals outside their homes: in this case, Gisela Niegho, an infant who briefly lived near where I now study German and was deported to Auschwitz a babe in arms in 1943 and murdered.

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The Road to Berlin #2: The trail of the rubber seeds.

2014-10-24 14.42.48The Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Today was time to get on the trail of the rubber seeds that were brought here to Singapore in the 19th century after they’d been taken from Brazil years earlier, raised in Kew Gardens and then the seed of those seeds came here to be the progenitors of the world rubber industry and a vital strategic resource in the wars of the 2oth century.

2014-10-24 15.03.38Some of the original trees.

I’d been told that the trees were planted right here, before their seeds in turn were taken and planted in Malaya and what became Indonesia, in plantations that could be bled and milked like tame herds of cows. The trees in their natural state in Brazil’s rain forest were scattered and while they were tapped for rubber, it was on nothing like the scale that happened here. By the early 1900s, Malaya was producing 40% of the world’s rubber. No wonder the Japanese made sure they secured the supply in 1941.

2014-10-24 15.05.25Early plantation workers bleeding latex.

I took some pictures of the history on the panels and set off through the humid air into a garden of equatorial delights. There were plenty of diversions and distractions along the way to the Information Kiosk in the centre of the garden where I hoped to get some directions.

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It took me about half an hour of sweaty wanderings to find the man I needed to help me and yes, he assured me, the original trees were planted nearby and there was another ancient grove at the far end near the Tanglin Gate. I set off with his handy map.

2014-10-24 16.18.22Site of the first plantings.

I got to the place and as I didn’t quite know what a mature rubber tree looked like, I had to wait until someone from the Park staff came along. In the meantime, I watched two Indian workers clearing around some palms and baking in their uniforms with rubber boots to cook their poor feet. The man running the weed eater was dressed up like a bee keeper armoured against stings and he must have been roasting.

2014-10-24 15.57.22Roasted.

Finally, I saw an aged Chinese gentleman approaching with a broom and asked him where the tree was; he pointed it out and I confess I wouldn’t have guessed. A slow lazy lizard scuttled across my path as if to say, “Here be dragons”.

2014-10-24 16.04.49Once I got up close to the tree, there was an immediate giveaway: the angular slanting cut in the old bark, healed up now but a sure sign this rubber tree had at one time been bled of its latex riches and started a whole new industrial revolution that enabled motorised transport to encircle the globe on land and in the air.

2014-10-24 16.05.21So this was the natural resource, the wonder material that had brought my grandmother and my great aunt into contact with a German rubber company manager in Liverpool in 1898, Carl Hasenburg. Both of them would – according to my mother – bear him a son, my grandmother out of wedlock, my great aunt in.

2014-10-24 16.10.07A stroller takes time out to cool off by the lake.

This was the same substance that ruined my great grandfather’s fortunes during the great war. My grandmother told me often how they had lost their money when her father’s shares in a German Indonesian rubber company had been made worthless by the outbreak of hostilities. This is the trail I am following to Germany on Monday: it is pretty certain that he took these shares in some way connected to his German son-in-law’s presence in the Bywater family.

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The equatorial jungles have brought down many venture capitalists in their time and when men and nations fight over strategic resources, there must be losers. Here in this lush and well manicured park, it is hard to imagine that we would kill each other for a substance as harmless as latex, or risk our life’s savings on the produce of trees in far off gardens in somebody elses slice of the globe.

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But it is as the song says, Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the Midday Sun. I was past any more wanderings and deliberations and headed for the gate, catching an air-conditioned bus back to my air-conditioned condo with its cool radiant pool for the expatriate colony that lives here, I suppose, as the early rubber barons did. Jenny the Filipino maid was there to greet me; my Nanny too had a life with maids, before the Great War rubber crash.

2014-10-24 16.37.55Henry Ridley, the man that got the seeds to grow.

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The Road to Berlin #1: Singapore stopover.

After two days near the equator, I’m getting used to the heat and catching the rights tides of sleep. A trip into the town centre by bus on Tuesday was enough to persuade me I was still a bit too jet lagged for shopping, but you have to love the public statuary.

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This fiery lion caught my eye and is only one of many works of art that compete for attention with the supercharged power of the neon brands on shop fronts. Wednesday was going to be different, as I planned to find and visit the Changi Memorial Museum and chapel to locate a plaque I believed was sited there. This is a memorial to two of the nine airmen executed by the Japanese in August 1945 on Changi Beach.

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Sub Lieutenants Baxter and Haberfield were Kiwi pilots with the Fleet Air Arm, men of the RNZNVR who had flown off carriers in the British Pacific Fleet and were shot down and captured in the attacks on the Palembang oil refinery late in 1944. Haberfield was a relation of a Māori friend in Christchurch and Baxter had flown in 1833 Squadron off my Dad’s carrier, HMS Illustrious.

The taxi ride found me there quickly and cheaply – taxis here are really an extension of public transport rather than a luxury – and there it was. The chapel was there with its altar and wartime cross made by prisoners from an artillery shell. It was an outdoor site of worship and a living memorial to those prisoners who had lived and died under the Japanese occupation.

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To one side was a sandbox with sand from the beach where the men were beheaded, their bodies dumped at sea. There was note paper for messages to be placed on the memorial board opposite. I wrote a mihi mihi for the dead and lit two candles.

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There were a few tourists coming into the chapel including Japanese and their children. There were Tsuru garlands, peace offerings hung there sent by school children from Japan.

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After a quiet prayer and giving my poroporoaki to the mate, I left them to their rest and toured the museum. A man came out from a door behind the chapel as I left the memorial and walked past me with a sheaved samurai sword wrapped in cloth. I had a flashback to Japan and Hideaki Nishida offering me the sword of his dead kamikaze brother, Hisashi.

In the museum I learned of the suffering and the bravery of the Singaporeans and the Allied prisoners. I found the plaque I was looking for. His sister had come in 2002 and laid him to rest with comrade Baxter.

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E te rangatira, maua ko to hoa, rere atu, haere atu ra!

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The Last Goodbye: Blackball Mine Closure 50th Anniversary, 27.9.2014.

'08 banner 1

The Worker’s Memorial Banner, 2008 centennial ceremony.

It was a wet and wild day traveling over to the Coast last Saturday for a very special hello and goodbye: fifty years ago, the historic closure of the famous Blackball mine took place and all but succeeded in killing off the community where I grew up. But in the long run, so far, it has failed to extinguish the memories of those who were there and were now coming together to celebrate the coal mining culture that formed us.

I was never a miner, but a miner’s son – Dad worked at Roa, nearby – but as a school kid I went down the mine and with my father later, in my high school years, went with him up into the Paparoa Ranges and down into his daily place of toil. It was hard working getting to the mine mouth up there let alone the walk into the face to start hewing. They were brave and hardy men and we owed them a debt of respect.

1a The Club

Blackball Workingmen’s Club.

It is that debt I have been dealing with for many years in my writing and one of the reasons I was going – apart from seeing old hands and old friends – was to respond to a request from the organising committee to read some of the Blackball poetry I’ve written over the years. I was also taking along some work related to the Pike River disaster of 19 November 2010 when twenty nine men died in a completely avoidable tragedy, had they been properly protected by legislation, officialdom, strong unions and sound management.

All this of course has been a source of strife and struggle since mines were first mined: when Les Neilson, a grandson of Blackball miners, a miner’s son and the father of a miner got up to open proceedings, he began by listing the twenty eight men who had died in the Blackball and Roa mines since coal was first won from those brooding ranges with their deep twisted layers of coal and stone.

1b.Les Neilson

Les Neilson reading the roll of the miners’ dead.

This was a very sobering way to begin the evening, a reminder of what it cost to extract that black gold from the mountains to fuel the nation’s appetite in war and peace. The mood lightened as some of the old hands – still on the surface with the rest of us – sat in a circle and told their tales. Hank Hines, Digger Howden and their wives as well as Walter Shaw all held our attention with tales of derring do, close shaves and practical jokes. It was a rich sharing of memories that with their passing away will fade from sight.

3.The elders

The elders speak.

After they’d all had their say, there was a gathering for a group photograph with other miners and elders from the community, a reminder of some great times and memorable characters no longer with us. The last time I can recall anything like this was the 1995 Blackball School Centennial, when hundreds came to join together to remember what community and shared hardship meant: the bonds formed through work, play, sport and recreation, politics and trade unionism, education and creativity. Now, there was only a handful of those of those us present in 1995 but here, on this night we had returned and rejoiced all over again.

2.The elders 2

The elders pose for posterity.

The next act was the cutting of the 50 Cake and then it was almost time to eat – except they still had not asked me to step up. I was quietly hoping they might have forgotten, as I could see that people were getting a bit weary and restless. Performance anxiety looking for a way out.

4.The cake

Mrs Howden and Mrs Hines cut the cake.

No such luck: the call came so I stepped up to read having cut the programme down to three, maybe four pieces. The first was a feisty ballad called The First Church of the Socialist Millennium (RIP) where I remember the great Blackball Miners Hall and what it meant to us as a place of community life: union meetings, films, dances, socials, boxing matches, a hub of activity and pleasure.

6.reading check inspector

Reading Check Inspector 29 for the Pike River men.

That got a thumbs up from Les, my fiercest literary critic – “that’s the best bloody poem you’ve written”, he observed – so I knew I was surfing the zeitgeist. Anyone who tries to read literary arty-farty clever dick verse in this kind of environment deserves a kicking anyway. I read one of the Blackball sonnets then launched into Check Inspector 29, an angry rant that lets the powers that be have it right where it hurts. That connected, so to bring things down I finished with a a more tender lament written for the families: “Mine”.

Mine.
i.m. The Pike River 29, November 19th 2010.

Son, there was a time when you were mine.
Brother, when the shining day was ours.
Friend, there was an hour when all went well.
Darling, for a moment we were love.
Father, you were always close at hand.
Human, we were people of the light.

And now, the mountain says ‘he’s mine’‚
And now, the rivers say ‘he’s ours’‚
And now, the darkness says ‘my friend’‚
And now, the silence says ‘my love’‚
And now, the coal says ‘father time’‚
And now, we wait for the day to dawn.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

I’m glad I’ve been able to give something back: as I said to everyone there as I began, I’d never been a miner and those trips underground I’d found scary. I could never have done what my father did for all those years. I told those few remaining how grateful I was for the way they had put bread on the family table, clothes on our backs, educated us, paid for health care and pensions for the older ones past working, risking their lives daily to build a world which even now, dark forces were attempting to undermine, to dismantle and roll back the world of shared resources and shared power men like the miners had tried to build for present and future generations.

That is why I stand with these men, because they deserve our respect and our wholehearted gratitude. I may not be wearing the helmet of underground experience, but in their honour, the wives and the mothers too, I will wear the cloth cap of my poetry until finally, I too go under the ground.

8.Miner JPH

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The Wild, Wet, Wonderful Going West…a festival of words, Sunday (2).

Sunday morning dawned a little finer and we breakfasted then checked out of our misty hideaway. First time I’ve ever stayed in a place with a helipad! Recommended if you have the readies. We were heading in for the day’s events and my reading of The Lost Pilot at midday. I was nervous as always but excited, just glad the book was finally getting a chance to be read in public as we’d missed out on the Auckland and Christchurch gigs for the memoir.

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It was going to be a bit of a swan song too as the book goes out of print with this final event and lives on solely as an e-book in cyberspace. The realities of modern publishing dictate that when a book slows down in sales to a crawl, then warehousing copies for orders that might trickle in slowly just ain’t going to happen. I wanted to make it a special farewell event to my dear friend, this book that is way more than just my writing at work. Whatever happens now the life and the journey that provoked it goes on.

Hideaki TLP Grab

Hideaki Nishida of Osaka with his copy of The Lost Pilot. His uncle died in the attack on Dad’s ship.

So we kicked off the morning with Robert Sullivan introducing four of his MIT poetry course students: Michelle Bolton, Amber Esau, Annaleese Jochems and Kirsti Whalen. Amber had just the night before won the packed house Poetry Slam and each of them gave a reading from their works in progress. It’s heartening to see the kind of support and encouragement writers starting out can get in the world of letters today. We had to come a different way in the 1960s and onwards – not better, not worse, just different. The potential and the sheer talent on display was impressive.

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The following session on yachtsman Johnny Wray’s classic seafaring book – South Sea Vagabonds with Andrew Fagan and Debbie Lewis discussing Wray’s homebuilt yacht, Ngataki – was delightful and kind of scary. Debbie now owns the vessel and as a solo mother with her son in the 1970s had sailed all over the Pacific, the Indian and South Atlantic oceans in feats of seamanship that were to say the least, epics of courage and steely determination.

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After another delicious morning tea came a much anticipated session with Tina Makereti and Selina Tusitala Marsh discussing Tina’s new book Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings – a novel set on the Chathams/Wharekauri. This was a rich and fascinating account of Tina’s journey towards the book and her experience writing it, including visits to those windswept islands where her whakapapa calls to her. I was on next and it was a bit hard to concentrate at times but breathing deep got me through.

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As my name was called I got up and walked up the steps to the lectern: thirty minutes to make this story count. I had given Wayne on the sound booth a Powerpoint to run behind me with images from the book on a continuous loop, thinking that this would give the audience another entry point as I read. I made a start with a mihi to my God, to the dead of the attack and to the living present, mana whenua, manuhiri – then began.

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I’d chosen four short readings and practiced the timing: opening with my Dad’s death sentence; on to a section on the kamikaze and a poem, The Departed; a section on my host Neil Hall and our lost fathers; finishing with the epilogue where in a kawe mate at the sailors’ marae in Devonport, I carry my dead into the meeting house, my sailor parents and the six kamikaze. It was hard at times as the emotion hit me and I knew I had to hold it together for the people out there listening. As soon as I finished the last word of the final mihi to the dead, Murray cut the lights and there was silence. A perfect ending.

Kamikaze 1945

What happened next was evidence enough that literature can carry emotion from heart to heart if we steel ourselves in its making and its telling. I was to meet a number of people who not only wanted to have a copy of the book signed, but also to tell me their stories. More than that, the first couple that came up to me as lunch was served and the people began moving about were both weeping. Sean (whose name I did not find out until I asked him later) hugged me sobbing for at least a whole minute while his wife Victoria stood beside us, her tears flowing. It turned out her father had been a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain – young and fresh like those kamikaze pilots most of them, sacrifices to war gods on both sides.

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It is always a privilege to sign books, as if it were not enough just to write them; to inscribe to an individual is something special, whatever the cynics might say. It has more to do with our need for connection with each other: everyone who asked me had some link to the war and its losses. Like Tyl, who was at the war’s beginning a young German boy born in Kobe in 1937, growing up in the German embassy compound in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of China, spared the horrors of his peers, Allied children captured with their parents, by virtue of the Germany’s Axis accord with Japan. He later was taken for a ride in a C-47 transport by the incoming victorious Americans, transport pilots who had flown over the Hump from Burma to supply the Communists and the Nationalists. Histories miraculous and ironic.

We were ready after that to take off for a while and share a coffee with Margaret before sitting in on the marvelous and entertaining session given by Robin Robilliard on her life at Rocklands farm in Golden Bay: Hard Country. Then it was time to get the taxi to the airport – or at least, order another as ours had been pinched – and fly home into the gathering evening, going south from the pleasures of Going West.

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