June 2009


I thought I’d take the opportunity presented by the pause between preparing/eating dinner and now to put a few words together and fulfil “a meaning to do”.

Reading Tiso’s now not-so-recent post on the return of Italian Fascism I was returned to my own study of politics, and reminded that although there is a tendency to see something like the development of a political movement as a discrete event, it is better expressed as a coalescing of already extant attitudes and norms within a society. I’ll try to unpack that slowly within the limited time I have.

A “becoming” is likely the best description of the rise of any movement, whether it be fascism, communism, or economic liberalism, because a political movement cannot exist without the support provided by followers, adherents, and leaders. There’s nothing new in saying that politics do not exist in a vacuum, right? Further, there is nothing new in saying that government and governance is a way of restraining people’s natures, and of preventing the more extremes of inhumane behaviour people routinely exhibit. What’s interesting to me is that within both these ideas is the kernel of what people and their societies can become.

It is a usual stereotype of conservatives that they fear other people. They worry about the protection of their property and act in accordance with the need to protect it, even at the expense of personal freedoms. Liberals on the other hand are frequently stereotyped as worrying about their rights and freedoms, and act to prevent society from limiting them. While these are both caricatures of modern left and right, and could do with substantial elaboration, they both serve the purpose of exhibiting in XKCD-style simplicity the potential for a society to pick two poles between which it will acceptably change to become something other.

The thing is, while these two poles have been the predominant political forces at contest in the West since the collapse of Soviet Communist, they are far from Fukuyama’s claim of being the only game in town. Varieties of political meme range across the spectrum, and although Communism and Fascism don’t feature very high on the popularity stakes, they are still present and active within our society, and many other societies. What Tiso’s post and ongoing commentary shows us is that something like Fascism is actually not too far from the top of the menu feeding popular appetites, and that if other alternatives are not satisfying the people, then… Hello, Mr Roman Salute.

My metaphors are starting to head west here, but the body politic is not a coherent object. Any body politic is necessarily a pastiche of distinct parts, each with its own utility. This means that some are Frankensteins, others are clay golems, and some are cosmetically super-enhanced whores; with all offering the opportunity to become, to transform, into something other that what they were designed to be, or serve. The word itself reveals why this is the case. Be-Come. Be-ing, the static but continuous present, and come-ing, the continuous future. Any body politics is both what we desire it not to be, while also not being that thing.

Hold on… just ducking off to put the potatoes on.

Right. Back. So… where were we? Ah, yes. Fascism. Like any political movement, Fascism exits because it is component part of the construction of the body politic. You don’t (yet) find or hear of many genuine Fascist movements in the African nations or in the Pacific Islands because the ideology, and its necessary memes, don’t find a home in the way those societies organise themselves (I stand to be corrected there). But were these places to adopt the right types of precursor, for instance industrialisation and consequent strong socio-cultural separation of worker and owner of means of production, then the possibility for Fascism to become present could exist.

It is not a commonly known fact that there was in the 1920s and 30s every chance that either the UK or the USA could also have assumed Fascist regimes. Both could have become Fascist had historical events not prevented the emergence of this body politic out of the turmoil of the Great Depression. That they did not is a quirk of history for the buffs, and an object lesson on what to look for when your nation is becoming something other than what you would wish it to be.

I think where all this is leading me is the statement that I am unsurprised by the continuing rise of fascism in Italy, just as it appears to be doing in modern Germany. Further, there remains the possibility that, while contemporary OECD countries continue to own the precursors of Fascism within their body-politics, the movement could rear its head anywhere in what are currently liberal democracies. Because, as George Mosse has shown, it was a liberal democracy that gave us “the worst” Fascist regime the world has seen, so far.

You might recognise Harrison as the author of the famous Stainless Steel Rat series. I read them 20 years ago and have positive memories, but now very much associate him with the title “teen author”. A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! was a title I picked up in my back-reading of old steampunk novels, and… it is boring as sin.

In fact, I’m completely unconvinced that it actually is steampunk. Sure it has a babbage engine in one part. It has the British Empire as a world leader in an alternative world history. And it has some coal-powered stuff.

But… the flavour is wrong. Unless you can clearly tell me that it influenced steampunk? I’m not believing it.

Did I mention boring? I gave up about halfway through.

I think it may well be that my grandmother was merely born a generation or two too late. She seems to have thought it unlady-like to drive, for example, and never learned. My mother has a story of sitting in the backseat of the car with her brothers and giggling as Ngaire clutched the dashboard and waved her fist at a car who had overtaken another a good mile or so ahead of them, all the time yelling, “BLOODY FOOLS!!” So maybe her being hopped up on bennies wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Moreover, Ngaire had peculiar attitudes about the right and wrong way to live one’s life. Though she was in no way genteel, I remember her New Zealand accent being pronounced, though not broad, gentility was something to which she aspired. Her fascination with Elizabeth the Second for example, a young Queen with whom she obviously identified, as evidenced by her near-identical dress over the years, sans expensive hats. And I saw this, despite her slipping on occasion and demonstrating that see saw through the minefield of pretence old money and gentility all-too frequently garbs itself with here in Godzone.

Ironically, the first lesson she taught me? We were on a day-trip to the Waikato to visit old friends of theirs. It was a palatial place and as we drove up to the house I remarked that, they must be rich! She simply stated to me, “Having money doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Some of the richest people are the most miserable.” If there was something further I was to have noticed on that trip it escaped me, with those words being almost all that remains.

I’m uncertain to this day who instilled this quiet reverence of her social betters in her, but have a suspicion it may have been her father, who she apparently adored, and to whom my grandfather seems to have never measured up. Ngaire was uniquely one-eyed about him in a manner befitting a loyal daughter, for example condemning my grandfather for the vice of gambling on the horses, something he adored (in fact, when they were doing well in the late 1970s Mervyn almost purchased a race-horse), and something a gentleman like her father would not indulge in. But, I’m informed that my grandfather’s habit was stoked by Ngaire’s father slipping him money to place a quiet bet, a trust-bond kept secret from the ladies…

These bundles of hypocrisy pervade my memories of Ngaire. She was devoutly Christian, but condemned my mother for following my lead and becoming a Baptist (with consequent “tidying up of act” and dropping numerous… bad habits…). She respected my mother’s wishes in our house, but would routinely abuse those wishes in her own – I clearly remember my mother fuming while my grandmother played “Stairway to Heaven”, or “Hotel California” (whichever was considered the more “Satanic”, I forget which) on the stereo, much to my brothers’ and my delight.

But finally, I remember her finally losing her cool a little too much one Christmas. We were seated at the table and conversation turned to the past, with Ngaire loudly accusing my mother of “being seen walking down the main street of Te Aroha… holding HANDS WITH A MAORI.” You’d imagine this to have taken place some 25 years previous. My mother dropped everything and left, taking my youngest brother with her. To this day I regret not leaving as well.

You know? I think that may have been the last time they ever really spoke? It’s can’t have been long after that Ngaire died, Mervyn finding her on the floor of the kitchen of the small RSA retirement flat in which he still lives, a beatific smile on her face, glory come to save her from this life; the sorrow, the shame, the disappointment, her heart finally having failed, and given up a ghost.

And so her second and only other true lesson to me. That there is no fear of death. That there is something beautiful there beyond the veil, even if it is only lasting peace.

F,FLP

The last mix tape I found in the tape box I found in the top of the cupboard dates from 1999, conveniently, last millenia!

When I first moved to Melbourne I made the extremely stupid idea of living in a halls of residence, and turned out to be one of the seedy old geezers living in an ocean of freshers. The upside was that the accommodation had cheap bills, and I was on a limited income from a scholarship. The downside was the ocean of freshers continuously running, yelling, puking, running, yelling, puking.

Luckily I was living in a separate dwelling (read: house) with two other “adult students”, and even more luckily there was a raft of other older students in the form of international types in Melbourne to study. A few of us formed a drinking circle that still stays in contact though we’ve long since given up boozing and have settled down to lives of domesticity.

One day while discussing music with a Japanese student she wanted to make me up a tape of “not popular” Japanese music. It turns out that “not popular” translates well into “alternative”. And whaddya know, that’s my favourite kind.

Note the unconventional arrangement of songs on this side of the case liner, with bands on the other side, thusly.

Naturally this made for endless flipping backwards and forwards trying to figure out which track meant which artist.

Ah, what larks.

The nature of the mother-daughter relationship is a complex one, and something I am decidedly under-qualified to broach here in these few pages while also excluding the possibility of blunder. I can however state that the relation of my mother and grandmother was without doubt, fraught, and complex in ways that strike me as deeply personal, while also essential to understanding the history of my family. Naturally this leaves me in something of a bind, because while my grandmother has been taken to her rest, my mother lives on in a place where the exposure of her personal life to the entire world via this medium is not something to be taken lightly.

So perhaps we could begin by stating that it is no secret that my mother thought my grandmother to… dislike her. Precisely why she felt that has not always been apparent to me. In fact, my opinion is that my grandmother wanted to love her, but was constrained by events beyond both their control. Or, put another way, because of the lack of control that became all too apparent in my grandmother’s life, she herself – though we need to be reminded yet again that “she is the cat’s mother” – she herself found my mother becoming things that she both disliked, and desired.

“Conflicted” is the pop-psychological term you hear bandied about concerning people like Ngaire. While my mother was no great beauty, the pageant-winner’s title fell to a cousin from Taranaki (who followed a life’s river a polar opposite to my mother’s), she was without doubt fair enough to instil jealously in my grandmother. Moreover, while my grandmother found herself in an age where increasing social and cultural freedom for women contrasted starkly with the chains of domesticity and the atomisation of community behind suburban fencing, my mother dropped out of the gender compact, and began with so many thousands of young women like her to find her own way.

It was a strange age, and one from which my grandmother never really recovered, and never really adapted to. The differences it threw up between them became in many ways irreconcilable. This meant that while they were and are remarkably similar in the way in which mothers and daughter inevitably are, the moral and cultural differences that resulted in simple but cherished things like my two brothers and I also produced remarkably different world-views that would, had they been in other lives strangers, precluded any possibility of friendship.

And it is perhaps that which my mother has never been able to see. As they say, you can’t choose your family. While family ties people to us, because we are them, and they us, our very language learned from their lips and our nourishment taken from their fingertips, friendships are nurtured out of choice, and the immediacy of family removes the right to make that choice.

So it was with great sadness that over many years I saw my grandmother punish, in her indominably Catholic manner, my mother for that lack of friendship, of similarity. And as each remarkable incident in their shared life pushed the crevasse of difference a little deeper, the ability to become friends, and to to embrace one another, became a little more difficult; forgiving and forgetting prevented by culture, and simple conversation undermined by an age, a revolution, and its price.

F,FLP

After reading some preliminary steampunk in the form of Mainspring and Escapement (which is also called “clockpunk”), I thought I’d better go back to some of the old masters. And you can’t do better than Gibson really.

Next on the list is Harrisons’ A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! the tone of which pretty much sums up The Difference Engine. The bulk of the novel is devoted to a palaeontologist surnamed Mallory who accidentally finds himself embroiled in a scandal, one that threatens the very state of Great Britain itself! This requires ample supply of huckle buff and the wearing of proper gentlemanly attire! And the exclamation of near but all sentences in an indignant tone!

In other words, great fun.

The premise of the novel is the discovery of steam-driven computing power during the industrial revolution. This leads to a world sharply diverging from our version of history, one in which the USA becomes a socialist power, and Britain and France firm allies. One could go on!

What I found most interesting about the novel was the nesting of Mallory’s story within a broader narrative of the difference engine itself. Mallory’s story is in effect an escapade, and one that only provides character to the alternative London. I’m unsure whether Gibson or Sterling wrote the Mallory character, but the sandwiching of the tale within the tale works fairly well, but provides something of a diversion from what is otherwise a fairly esoteric tale of an attempt to create a self-aware artificial intelligence.

You can be certain both authors had a tremendous amount of fun writing this one.

Actually, Slice of Heaven isn’t on this one.

Back in late 1989 I was mooching about wondering what in the heck to do. I’d been back from the US for awhile, and was at a bit of a dead end.

One day I hitched down to Rotorua to catch up with a mate, an he said, “You need some decent sounds, that’ll help you while you think.”

So we made this tape, full of classic New Zealand tunes.

If you’re interested, you can download some of these bands here.

I think the two Boogadagas songs were Einstein, and PetrolHead.

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