Hubris as Nemesis this John Key’s fall beginning?

TPPA Protests, Auckland. Photo: Stu Kakowski.
My good friend Patrick Evans remarked to me 18 months ago that he could not see John Key’s nemisis on the horizon, the one who would bring him down.

He noted how when Norman Kirk appeared for Labour in the early ’70s, a tired 3-term National was doomed; the same applied when Muldoon followed and did for Bill Rowling; David Lange for Muldoon in 1984; then Key for an out-of-touch Helen Clark in 2007.

None of the leftwing opponents of Key have been able to burst his bubble so far; yet perhaps he is right now doing that himself? The flag fiasco and the scornful TPPA signing in Auckland this week, along with his backdown on going to Te Tii Marae for Waitangi Day speak to me of a man who is finally misreading a wider national mood.

He doesn’t get that opponents of the TPPA are not his imaginary ‘rent-a-mob haters’, but thousands of ordinary New Zealanders who feel patronised and plain lied-to.

The anti-flag change camp (of which I am a member) has now linked the two: sovereignty and trade help to define identity more than does a branding exercise, because who we are is in some large part what we can do about it. If we lose power over our destiny, we give up the freedom to make our own kinds of community.

Helen Clark misread the meaning of the Foreshore and Seabed protests and wrote the hikoi off as spun by ‘haters and wreckers’. She preferred to greet a straggler sheep of media inanity. Hubris: the kind Key is now displaying.

The man who challenged Andrew Little to “get some guts” in relation to sending troops to Iraq can’t find enough in himself, to stand on his mana and that of the office and go to Waitangi. I sense his fall has now begun.


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When lightning strikes: David Bowie and mining identity.

Paparoa's Blog



In the tidal wave of emotion that has swept the world since David Bowie’s death was announced on Monday, I have found my myself in a curious position: saluting a great artist who I never really got know, or cared enough about. Certainly I knew of his music and songs in the 1970s when many of my young druggie friends would turn up at my place and play them, but they were a good 5-10 years younger than me. They had been struck in the heart by his lightning: my electric shock had happened a fews years before in the early-to-mid 1960s when I first heard Bob Dylan and those powerful bolts of energy –  where a 14-16 year old mind is transformed by such an encounter – had already surged through me.

I was born in November 1947, in London, Kingston-on-Thames, not terribly far away from Brixton where…

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When lightning strikes: David Bowie and mining identity.



In the tidal wave of emotion that has swept the world since David Bowie’s death was announced on Monday, I have found my myself in a curious position: saluting a great artist who I never really got know, or cared enough about. Certainly I knew of his music and songs in the 1970s when many of my young druggie friends would turn up at my place and play them, but they were a good 5-10 years younger than me. They had been struck in the heart by his lightning: my electric shock had happened a fews years before in the early-to-mid 1960s when I first heard Bob Dylan and those powerful bolts of energy –  where a 14-16 year old mind is transformed by such an encounter – had already surged through me.

I was born in November 1947, in London, Kingston-on-Thames, not terribly far away from Brixton where the ten month old David Robert Jones was about to endure his second English winter in the chill of a battered post-war England. In May 1950 when he was three years old, my mother and my brother and I stepped aboard an immigrant ship to New Zealand and my ways and Bowie’s were geographically set apart. Both of us were born into a lower middle-class-cum-working class suburbia and it would stand to reason that being peers in age, I might have had more in common with him than a descendant of European Jews brought up in a comfortable middle class America of the 1940s, way up in the mining town backblocks of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota.

Not that reason or sense has a lot to do with our choices and even less when it comes to others’ moves. Even though I heard Dylan first, it could be argued I should have had more in common with Bowie by birth and temperament and even my natal culture. My parents remained English, and I lived a working class life; I was something of an outsider who didn’t fit but desperately needed to belong. But I was not in London now, I was in New Zealand and that 1950s macho culture had done its work. I could handle Dylan: he had something of the frontier about him in those early records and even when he went urban electric, he held me in his thrall.


The truth is, I’d been struck by lightning almost ten years before Bowie hit me and for some people, in adolescence, that only happens once. Sure, there were the Beatles and the Stones, I loved Procol Harum, the Yardbirds and plenty more – but it was only Dylan that made me want to be something I wasn’t yet. He woke the urgent need to write, to write poetry – and it’s never gone away. He’d been shaped by the James Dean imagery of his day which was still around when I hit high school and later, in my callow sixth form cynicism. I’d found in this man a strong ancestor; even though I lost him as I went through various incarnations in search of a self I could be – failing to escape from the bully jocks of my childhood by doing the kinds of jobs they did, to fit in – I never lost his example, his following of a road his own.

Thinking about it now, in the 1970s when I first saw the album covers of records like Aladdine Sane and Diamond Dogs, it was too weird for me and the music never took hold; it was just there in the room while we got stoned. I don’t think my Kiwi conditioning machine from the ’50s would have allowed me out of its straight jacket back then and I don’t think I’m alone. Come the 1980s, I was deeply into a conservative evangelical Christian change and so Bowie – along with a whole lot of others – was off my radio. Dylan turned up Saved too, so he was an artist from my old life that kept getting through. A return to England in 1987 and ten years there, with six of them bookselling in central London gradually shifted the gravity of  my Kiwi identity into some kind of neutral. I became more open while retaining a working faith, pivoting more and more around my recovery from alcoholism.

Bowie Daily Mail

I guess I could say I ended up in London working with a lot of David Bowies: people on the edge, booksellers who wanted to be writers, actors, musicians, artists – anything in fact but bloody booksellers. For many of us, it was all we could find to get by; but I did get to meet a lot outsiders who affirmed the outsider in me, the leftover rebel who’d dropped out of high school and university (twice), the wanna-be-poet still held down by the great New Zealand clobbering machine of Depression and World War Two experiences that had shaped our elders. I saw great writers read and heard poets you would cross rivers to encounter: Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky, Ivan Klima and Jeanette Winterson. I stood before Salman Rushdie as he signed a book for my son; I made a cup of tea for Tony Benn. I had found my tribe at last.

I would write drafts of poems in a little cafe across the road from my Waterstone’s branch on 121-125 Charing Cross Road, while in another cafe on the other side, Dylan Horrocks would be drawing his Pickle comics. I had published nothing for nearly twenty years, but I was home. In 2012, writing finally took me to Berlin: Bowie’s Berlin, it would turn into for me, as I traveled on the S7 from Grunewald to the Goethe-Institut in Neue Schönhause Straße for my language lessons, with his new song, Where Are We Now haunting me in the headphones – “The moment you know, you know, you know…”. David Bowie had caught up with me and I with him; this wasn’t like the Dylan lightning strikes of 1965, more the rich melancholy of a grateful old age.

And now I know this, I can return to his huge catalogue and explore;  it is always too late, it is never too late, it is always now. I’m going to start with the German version of Heroes in the link below and see if I can find a new hero by the fallen Wall, where I have since 2012 in awe and honour stood.

“Dann sind wir Helden für deisen Tag/Then we are heroes for this day”


i.m David Bowie 1947-2016

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The Blue Outboard, by Nick Williamson. Review.

Blue Outboard

Those of us poetry readers and writers around Christchurch over the past twenty years will have come across Nick Williamson’s work in a variety of venues: readings, haiku competitions, anthologies and his previous lone entry into the single volume lists, The Whole Forest (Sudden Valley Press, 2001). That lovely and lonely work – published by the late godfather of the Canterbury poetry culture, John O’Connor who died last year – has now been joined by a second small press collection, The Blue Outboard (Black Doris Press), the imprint of another Southern poetry man, David Howard. I learned of its existence through a Facebook post and made sure of a copy soon after by visiting Nick and his partner, the poet and fiction writer, Frankie McMillan.

The cover – one of Nick’s magical childlike artworks – bespeaks what is contained within. He has always been good on the shadows and lights of childhood, captured earlier in the poetry of The Whole Forest, growing up in 1950s Auckland, looking out to Rangitoto. His ability to encapsulate a moment or a mood – his haiku training – as the child viewer (typically) ponders the tall, distant world of adults, gardeners and fishers, gives these poems a lasting presence and resonance. We have been somewhere like this and he takes us back there, with him.

My father’s eyes drift towards the window.

He stares at the buffalo hill and the macrocarpa

hedge, the shimmering line of bamboo.

Time to put in the silverbeet, he observes,

and the broad beans.

(Father comes home).

This is of course a 1950s’ baby-boom childhood world that Nick Williamson evokes, turning its edges over and over in poem after poem to see what the light reveals; yet it is also outside of a specific time in its truth to universal experience. Children are ethnographers in their own right as they make their own kind of sense of themselves in their parents’ world.

He isn’t limited to any one life stage, chronicling as well his adult journeys, relationships and obsessions. He knows that less is more and has a deft touch with voice and character: “He said he was on the Sickness./Nerves”. (Repairing the head). The head in view is that of a BSA Bantam motorbike, but as his friend does a running repair in curtained lounge, cutting head gaskets from Weetbix packs, we see without being told that the subject is really the friend’s condition and not the bike, his glasses held together with sellotape, his fingers “engraved in oil”. In the background a TV blares, there is talk of a ghost and how this guy “knew Norm Kirk”. You’re back in the drug-raddled 1970s with one of its wounded.

These are poems of deep humanity and often great beauty. Nick deserves a wider  audience and as a friend and a reader, I wish it for him. We both know there’s no money in poetry but we are working now as superannuitants on a wider project, what I think Osip Mandelstam called “the eyesight of wasps”.

Nick Williamson brings to life what he sees, what touches him and gives it back in his poetry in a form others can see and feel. It’s a book you should seek out, if you care for poetry and especially poetry made in the South, in cities and towns where poetry took root in this country.

Tonight Chagall is coming

to sing a Russian hymn

& charm the blackbird in our pear

tree with his yellow violin.

(Tonight Marc Chagall)

Blue Outboard Humber Hawk.jpg

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The ablation of John Philip Key

A recent article by the journalist Rachel Stewart – where she throws up her hands at our Prime Minister John Key’s apparent self-immolation during another humiliating appearance on the aptly, crushingly named radio station, The Rock – has finally convinced me that yes, he is deliberately throwing himself under a bus. That bus is his insatiable desire to be loved, the vacuum every fatherless child tries to fill; when Key was six or seven years old, his father left his mother Ruth and she never remarried.

Little is known about George Ernest Key (1914-1969), or little has been made known of what is out there. An article published in the Western Leader in 2010 reveals something of what lies behind the emotional enigma that has many of us wondering about why Key behaves in the way he does and yet manages to surf a remarkable wave of popular approval.

Every child who loses a parent loses a role model, and while that loss may sometimes seem the best result when the modelling given is destructive, or negative, nevertheless the wound and the absence remain. I’m speaking here from experience: an alcoholic father, an emotionally unstable war veteran, a bully who damaged his wife, his children and himself. He was there, but not there and when he was there, often it would have been better if he wasn’t. I’m still cleaning up the mess sixty-plus years on and so are my siblings.

John Key’s problem in my view is different. Like me, a State House kid from Bryndwyr, he had – along I assume with his other now publicly invisible siblings – the job of looking after his solo mother, in his case from the age of seven. Where does a boy in that position get his affirmation as a male, how could he – as Jesus said – do the things he saw his father doing? We all need both approval and correction as we mature; these are the two black holes that skew the psychology of our present Prime Minister. He can’t get enough love and he doesn’t know when to stop.

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This is how he gets himself into the spotlight and into trouble: all those nagging unmet needs. Who am I really? How do I know what to do? Where is my role model? Where is my father? Key’s mother Ruth, sanctified in his accounts as a hard working, loyal and dedicated mother certainly had role model credentials as an Austrian Jewish escapee from certain death in the Holocaust to have given her youngest a backbone and a sure moral compass.

Yet somehow, her influence has not proved enough to save him from the nagging self-doubt that sees him flinging himself at all manner of flaky opportunities for self-promotion. In fact, they are proving a self-ablation, eroding every last vestige of dignity as he places his reputation in the hands of vacuous radio hosts who must secretly enjoy their power over his weakness. The play is Shakespearean in its implications: not who is his nemesis, no Norman Kirk, no David Lange waiting off-stage to dethrone him, but how long will it be before his inner conflicts bring him down?

The uncomfortable corollary of all this is that we, the people – or enough of us anyway – have been seduced into meeting his needs, mistaking the openness and blokiness for a sense that he is one of us, he belongs to us and we to him. That’s a mistake: Key is aiming higher than the middle class barbie next door, he is aiming at Remuera love and Hawai’i love and Obama love, all the love he can get at the top table. The Richie love, in case you hadn’t noticed: “See how loved I am? See how much I matter?”

We need to stop giving Key what he doesn’t need and give him what he does: a reality check, as a good parent would. Tell him the game is up, invite him to get help and more than anything, get him out of the Beehive, stop him doing so much damage to himself – and to us.




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Dirty water? Post-ban thoughts on Ted Dawe’s INTO THE RIVER.

Ted Dawe

Now that the dust has settled after the banning and un-banning of Ted Dawe’s novel, Into The River, it might be a good time to reflect a little on what the fuss was all about. I might never have read it, if not for its detractors and defenders; once the ban on sale was lifted, I decided I should even though the book was not aimed at mature adults, but the YA market – teenagers, in other words.

Coming to the end of it, I did wonder just what it was that had so exercised the minds of its critics- or indeed if their minds were truly on the job of literary judgment, rather than policing morality. I don’t reject the idea of censorship classifications per se, but this seemed to me a case of gross over-reaction.

Zeroing in on the two sex scenes in the book (heterosexual encounters), the implied sexual relationship between a schoolboy and a teacher that hovers in the background, along with the use of drugs (mainly marijuana and alcohol) did not say a great deal about the real intent of the storytelling. These were things any teenager could read about in a newspaper, see reported on television and in some cases, be involved in at the weekend. In other words, a familiar world.

The real intent of the author, from my reading was to show what it was like for somebody who was different, from a marginalised background, to leave his safe rural nest, then be dropped into a den of bullies in a city boarding school for boys.

Some have made a lot of the fact that the protagonist, Te Arepa was Māori and  of the theme of racism underlying his experience, but I didn’t find that aspect of Dawe’s characterisation so central, or even convincing. What came through was the dreadful sub-cultures that can exist in elite schools which still behave as if the twentieth century never happened: Tom Brown’s Schooldays and every clone of that book ever since.

Dawe’s experience as a teacher comes through here and his ability enter that world and represent the minds of boys-into-men. Does sex happen at this age? Of course it does. Should fiction written for teenage readers ignore this? I can’t see why, no more than it should ignore the other realities we have to face from twelve to twenty. Were the few sex scenes gratuitous? Not for me. Can we protect teenagers against erotic literature, even if the sex is there just to titillate? Probably not.There is worse out there at the click of a mouse. Some might even say, “Thank goodness for books boys might want to read”.

Dawes is pretty damn good on cars and racing too, something for petrolheads to enjoy as Te Arepa aka Devon (he gets a new name at the school) goes through another rite of passage, learning to drive and to indulge in risk-taking behaviour that doesn’t just involve his body and one other.

The book – if its banners only knew – is in the long and well tried tradition of the Bildungsroman, the novel of formation, the coming of age genre epitomised in such books as The Catcher in The Rye. We all go through these changes and Dawe tracks them ably enough. I read far worse in my early teens: The Scourge of The Swastika and Knights of Bushido, adult histories of war crimes. I learned of genocide and mass rapes, unspeakable cruelties; nobody protected me from those truths about the world I was growing into.


My non-fiction books were “worse” in the sense that they alerted me to the depths of human depravity and I have never been able to expunge the images and the stories from my mind. If I had read Ted Dawe’s book at the age of fifteen, I think I would have forgotten it long ago; but at the time, it would have been comforting to have learned that there were other “different” boys in the world somewhere, getting a hazing most days and learning to hide who they really were.

Yes, I would have found the two sex scenes horny, but corrupted by them – no. For good or ill, my family had formed me long before that. I was allowed to read anything I could and I did so. I formed my own tastes and learned discrimination. My parents trusted me that far and I salute them. It was all about the journey into self-awareness and self-knowledge, the slow and tricky formation of identity and a socialisation that does not kill the spirit.

I think that is what Into The River is all about; its benefits to a teen audience – a chance to see themselves in a book – far outweigh any imagined corrupting influence. Teenagers will take drugs and have sex, in and out of literature. I just wish that the people who wanted to stop this book reaching teens would remember what their own growing years were like and try a little to identify with Te Arepa/Devon and his band of brothers.

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Unter den Deutschen – Among the Germans: 4. Standing on Hitler’s Grave.

These are my last two days in Berlin: by this time Wednesday 28 January I will be in the air en route to Frankfurt to catch the flight home. It’s been a quite a ride and no more so than this last week when I bussed to Dresden, took a 100-year old US flag back to the city from which my great uncle Ulysses Bywater had removed it from the roof of the American  Consulate in 1912, and presented it to Holger Starke, a surprised and delighted historian at the Stadtmuseum in Wilsdorfer Strasse.

The 45 Star Old Glory.

I also got to sit in the magical restored Frauenkirche and have my soul and all my senses drenched in the most celestial organ music I have ever felt. I say felt and not heard as its sublime power went right through me and rendered me silent and still, like all the other visitors. If ever a city underwent a resurrection, it is this one, burned rubble in February 1945 and strewn with charred human remains; today, an island of peace, even amidst the rumblings of the anti-Islam and anti-immigration activists, Pegida.

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In the Frauenkirche

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Lovely old Deutsche Post box, Dresden.

Back in Berlin on Thursday, I was getting ready for a trip on Saturday to Wolfenbuttel with Konrad and Gaby, who wanted to show me around the famous August Herzog Bibliotek and the Lessing Museum nearby. I was probably a bit worn out for another big day on the road and it did prove stressful, but well worth the journey. We even saw the sun and blue sky after passing through what were the two checkpoints Berliners had to get through until 1989, if they wanted to visit West Germany.

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August Herzog under snow, Wolfebuttel.

My hosts remember the Cold War only too well. Konrad was hired to work in the Ministry of Education in Berlin in 1969, the first Federal German agency inside the encircled city. The Russians responded to this “provocation” by flying Mig jet fighters over the city and above the Ministry building, breaking the sound barrier high above as well, in a pointed message that they were not to be trifled with. We forget this time now, when so many fingers were on hair trigger.

Back from the Bibliotek – a bibliophile’s heaven of ancient printed and handwritten manuscripts,  delighting also in snowfall that whited the town – I was ready for Sunday and a trip to the Grunewaldkirche with my new friends, Rainer the veterinarian and Alexandra, his pianist wife. The service was being recorded for radio and the priest had emailled everyone to come and fill the church.

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Rainer and Alexandra on Teufelsberg.

During his sermon he mentioned the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer several times and questions to Rainer and Alexandra revealed that the young Bonhoeffer had been confirmed there with his sister in 1921, the family living nearby in Wagenheimer Strasse 14 (where I determined to go if I could). Here was a man who confronted the Nazi evil head on and paid the price, suffering death by hanging in 1945 when the war was all but over. His memory is a shining star in that long night of darkness.

The next – and last – visit to a site of great interest was to be Teufelsberg, the famous mountain and Cold War spy station run by the American NSA to track Soviet bloc communications. A graffitied ruin now, in those days it kept watch over what Moscow and its satellites in the East were up to. Abandoned and sold to developers after the Wall fell in 1989, it proved to be a major commercial failure as none of the projected apartments were completed and sold and its promoters went bust – then the spray can tribe moved in.

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There is a locked gate there now and a couple who act as caretakers. Rainer has privileged access as the vet who looks after the three dogs that guard the fort these days, a Rottwieler, a Dobermann and a little Schnauzer. We drove straight in and took a guided tour through a labyrinth of dark concrete corridors and cold bleak stairways, every available surface so choked with graffiti that it resembled the set of some dystopian epic, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

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We made it to the top, freezing, looking out not on Berlin but on a blanketing canvas of swirling mist. It was time to go and find the dogs and give them their injections. The caretaker and his partner live inside the Minotaur’s cave like postmodern techno-hippies. You really would have to love the lifestyle to survive up there in winter. Confidences preclude any further revelations of their privacy, but the coffee was great and the atmosphere in the bunker – out of this world.

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As we left, Rainer pointed out to me a small series of what looked like porcelain figures, white flowers on the wire that upheld them. He told me it was a memorial to the Trummerfrauen, the German women of Berlin wh0 cleared away the millions of tons of rubble that the Allied bombing campaign had  reduced their city to.

This then was not a natural rise. It consisted of 20 million tons of bomb-broken stone, brick and concrete that was trucked to Teufelsberg from the war’s end until 1972. The Americans had built their spy base on top of it, on top of a site where Hitler himself had laid the foundation stone of a never to be completed military school. This was Berlin’s wartime graveyard and the grave of Hitler’s dreams.

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This was a good place to end my journey, overlooking a city and a people I have come to embrace in the past three months, upending my old stereotypes,  showering me with goodness and human stories.  Berlin! Berlin! as Tucholsky saw it was a place not to be resisted or ignored. Standing silent today before Bonhoeffer’s house in Grunewald, my prayer was for them, as much as myself. The good Germans.

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Konrad and Gaby Kutt, Grunewald, my peerless Berlin hosts.

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