History


Having more than a passing interest in history this book jumped out at me as part of a peruse of the interweb. Meso-American and Andean cultures seem to be something many people are interested in, but finding books that move past the usual tropes are hard to find.

Mann really lifts the game in relation to enabling greater understanding of what the Americas were like before European intrusion, primarily by addressing the greater myths and demolishing them in order. The concern with this type of book is that the mythbusting can sometimes stray far too close to explanations that end in “because aliens”. For example, “how could nomadic, semi-conscious tribes build the step pyramids?” Answer – aliens did it.

1491 uses the latest research to demonstrate that the Americas were home to a succession of advanced urban civilisations, demolishes the “population by land-bridge” argument, undermines the “Western wilderness” fallacy, and brings a detailed, but not obsessively undue amount of attention to the scale and number of cultures displaced by Europeans.

All in all, it’s a fascinating read, and highly recommended.

I came to The Iron Heel from a list of “Dystopian Fiction” I found on the interweb, a list also including such classics as 1984 and A Handmaiden’s Tale. It was interesting then to later discover that The Iron Heel is cited as an influence on Orwell, because the similarity in the authoritarian nations that emerge in London’s alternate-history USA and the industrialised world of Oceania is obvious, despite the two authorities being respectively Fascist and Communist.

The similarity in the nature of the authoritarianism depicted by London and Orwell reinforces for me the ease with which any imaginer can foresee their own system of government slipping into a future distinguished most strongly by control, with the machinery of this control only differentiated by favoured contemporary political philosophies. The potential to garner authority (and its exercise by an oligarchy or plutocracy) imagined by these authors is also exhibited the recently-read Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things (1987).

Of course, it is nothing new to claim that all dystopia are marked by authority-masquerading-as-utopia. What is interesting to me is the manner in which dystopia is so readily imagined to emerge as a consequence of contemporary events, and the suggestion that the here and now may, by virtue of being the opposite of that dreaded  future, in fact be the utopia we have long sought. This is especially the case when reading other contemporary fiction such as Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003, which I’m currently in the middle of) and by Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009), where the marvels of the C20th and early C21st are remembered as halcyon days.

The placement of utopia in the here and now, instead of placing it as a future to serve in contrast to a dystopia we need fear, a heaven and hell, is an idea in which I have become increasingly interested. In a manner of speaking, we do currently live in London’s  “wonder-city of Asgard”, and our capitalists do operate an oligarchy in which a great many wonders are possible. It was strange therefore to be reading The Iron Heel as the Occupy Movement began to unfold across the US, and to see the authorities in Oakland begin to come down on protest. Part of me wondered if what London calls ‘standing on faces’ might not have continued and expanded had there been a different President in the White House.

While The Iron Heel degrades into a fantasy of class-, or caste-based warfare, the initial exposition of the failures of capitalism are very interesting, presenting as they do a critique of an economy in which monopoly and resource exploitation are rife, and in which competition to smother smaller players is both necessary and acceptable. While reading of absorption of the petite bourgeoisie by the corporations I was easily able to see the expansion of the mega-malls across the US, and the migration of the small-business-owner into minimum-wage jobs, and in the transformation of farmers to serfs I was reminded of the growth of gigantic monoculture industrial farming.

So does this mean that I think the US is slipping into authoritarianism, with London writing a vague script to a gathering revolution? No more than I think 1984 is likely. As it is The Iron Heel sits alongside the great dystopian works as a reminder of the paths on which no rational humanist would want to find themself. Moreover, what The Iron Heel and 1984 have in common is an imagined world in which resource-exploitation continues to be feasible. If you contrast those worlds to more recent works such as the aforementioned Oryx and Crake, Far North, or even Bruce Sterling The Caryatids (2009), all of which feature the collapse of the nation-state system under stress from resource shortages and environmental change, things start to get a little more real.

They say that to end a tale you need start from the beginning, but it was never going to be like that with me. And so it is that we’ve wandered to and fro, meandering through the many years of lives that have flowed together to make up the foundations of mine. But they say to know a man you must walk a mile in his shoes, no?

That said, this story was never truly about me, only mine for the retelling. Many many nights spent sitting up embracing the past, unpicking its fibrous strands and laying them open to the sunlight, waiting for the new growth to fill out and refresh a torrid history. In truth this tale was always hers, and needing explication it has sat festering indoors for all too long.

It’s just a pity that I couldn’t have explained it in detail, from start to finish. Or perhaps that I was just a better writer…

And so we have a woman alone with three children. One partner is deceased, another too violent and long since fled to Australia where he will hide in the desert for 40 years, and a third trapped in his home country.

That is the final chapter of this long winding stream of thought. My stepfather didn’t return with us from Greece after we had travelled there to settle in ’78, and so it was that we were in effect stranded between two places, my mother wanting to be there but unable to return. The specific details of this are stranded behind 30 years of retelling and hence difficult to know exactly. But, as I should have said many times before, this tale belongs to others, but is intermediated by its effect on a small boy.

In essence, we had taken a family friend with us to Greece. A friend who was, to all intents and purposes, a thief. I remember clearly  my middle brother encouraged by him and to climb into the trees of a local peasant and steal her citrus. He stood by the roadside behind a stone fence and kept watch, while my brother and I scampered up into the branches to take oranges.  I remember the arid landscape and the deepest blue of the Aegean skies. The white chalk cliffs and whitewashed buildings.

It was this friend who was the reason we left Greece and had to leave Yannis behind. Jeff, the thief, had been returning (wasted) from somewhere one evening and attempted to steal the donation box from the front of the local orthodox church. This was of course in plain sight of the local taverna, the patrons of which were sitting outside eating and drinking, and who promptly had him arrested and thrown in jail. You should know of course that “Greek jail” in the 1970s was of course a byword for squalor, the kind of place a country boy from New Zealand shouldn’t really find himself.

And that, as they say, was that. We were despatched home to New Zealand, our brief hiatus in the idyll ended, and Yannis stayed in Greece to help Jeff out of jail. The fool.

F,FLP

Setting out on this journey I was not intending to uncover half of the information I have. The intent was always instead to provide an exploration of how and why people arrive where they are, an examination of the depth of history that lie within the events people judge one another for. And to a degree I think I have succeeded.

But that is not to say that this tale is ended! Not yet. There is still our small boy in a field, lost, holding the horseshoe nail of history, a small thing upon which great events turn.

It is the end of the line for my father though. I’ve stated many times that he was sick, his body wracked and ruined. He has withdrawn from society, and rants at his carers about ‘the system’, ‘parental authority’, and other symbols of control. He is within the counter-culture, but not of it, for the cynic in me sees the counter-culture as yet another aspect of the status-quo, a mere playground for the leaders of my own adulthood, an exercise in rhetoric for a nascent baby boomer political front. And so he becomes a foot soldier, expendable.

I wonder if he turned back to his Catholicism in those last few days? For his mother his death was a object upon which she hung a renewed faith, and a reason to seek solace in the church. Though being much like his mother, what Howard felt in those last few days is a mystery.

We know that he took to travelling by rail, and that he spent several stints either at the attention of the police and in Oakley Hospital, but that is all. Records from this time are extremely limited, and the only letter I have read is Howard making a request to come and stay with my aunt on the East Coast, which I have mentioned.

And so it is that he is discovered in September of 1972, long deceased, beneath a tree in the Auckland domain. A passer by finds the body, and reports it to those same authorities, who collect it and begin an investigation. It seems that he had spent his last night in a doss house somewhere downtown, and it was there that he passed. He must have had companions, because they removed his body from the city, alive or dead, and in some ritual, laid him to rest at the base of a tree.

Again, I often wonder about his Catholicism in those last moments. I wonder if He at last called for you Old Boy? Did he at last lift you from the arms of Magdalene, to embrace you, to comfort you? To wash away the sins of a petty rebellion, the wounds you made to smother pain? Did he lift you from the speckled shadows, and raise you at last into the light? Did he lay you upon his lap as Mary laid the Christ upon hers, prostrate? Did he call for you at last, Allehlujah, my child come home?

I hope you too saw beyond the veil Old Boy, and found that world of peace.

F,FLP

We can each of us look backward to a snapshot of who we were at a moment of our own personal history. We can see what it was that made us who we were by looking at the tangled skein that wove us into the tapestry of which I’ve spoken. But at the time, while we each pull together the strands of daily life it is impossible to know the patterns we weave.

So naturally this was the way of it for my mother. My father having abandoned her after 3 days of trying to make happy family, his own daemons continuing to harry him, she moved out of the house she had been sharing with my aunt, and began to seek her own way. I was the cute appendage to her new life.

It was then that she took up with my middle brother’s father, Eddie, and following closely in her own mother’s footsteps was quickly pregnant to a man who could care for her.

She speaks of him being a delivery driver, which implies he took her on the road, and suggests his mischievousness was a key part of her attraction to him.

How their relationship formed I’ve never known. Eddie was also absent from my life from about age 4, Liz having escaped the East Coast and travelled to the Bay of Plenty to stay with my uncle. But like all the men in her life prior to our settling in Mount Maunganui he left a strong impression and child before their paths parted permanently.

It is again strange in retrospect how quickly all this took place. In what I now consider the blink of an eye my mother has left home, borne two children, experienced untold difficulties, and travelled across the breadth of the North Island. A whirlwind is all you could call it, with Eddie being just one more vortex into which she fell.

I’ve only met the man twice in my memory. Once at my brother’s wedding in 2004, and once after he came back to New Zealand briefly. Consequently there is no strong association between us. Had we stayed with him for longer in my childhood he may have made an impression, but the flight to the Bay of Plenty ended the possibility of that.

And why? Alcohol and alcoholism runs strongly in his family. What I’m uncertain of is whether he took to the drink before or after the death of his own mother, tragically taken in a car accident around the time of my brother’s birth, and with the drink came a violence, and an apparent meanness.

I learned that he beat her long after I had become an adult. She tells of holding my brother, an infant, while he laid into her, she thinking that the presence of the child would prevent what befell her.

How badly she was beaten I don’t know, and likely never will. What I do know is that she took a step not many women in the 1970s, or the 1980s for that matter, did and left him. And for that I can only commend her. Growing up with an alcoholic is one of those contributing factors you hear people speak of when making excuses for their present, and it is one I and my brother was best well away from.

And so it was that it was her and I, alone again, my little brother a joy to us both.

F,FLP

How my father fell completely out of society remains much of a mystery to this day. After his departure from Tokomaru Bay in what must have been very early ’72 he appears to have returned to Auckland and continued to seek help with his illness, but in a society completely unprepared for the type of rehabilitation he required.

New Zealand in the early ’70s was, like many of its contemporaries, still uncertain whether drug addiction was a health or criminal issue, and from what records I’ve been able to secure it was to the attention of both these types of authority that my father was brought. You can imagine then the shame of his parents, your stereotypical hard-working suburban family, who found itself in possession of a son unable to pull himself together.

My earliest inquiry into the period between the East Coast and his death resulted in an interesting titbit of information that has taken a number of years to slot into meaning. Some time in mid-to-late ’72 the mother of a friend of Howard’s came home to find him sitting on the couch in her lounge. Surprised to find him there, she did not give him a particularly warm welcome (as you would expect), and he left, in what I myself see as another incident of running away.

I always interpreted this encounter as a plea for help, and more recent discoveries in official documents have confirmed this for me. Howard apparently got on well with his friend’s mum, and it was probably to her that he was attempting to turn, in an effort to find some sort of comfort the rebellion against my grandparents precluded.

It is a pattern I have seen several times among personal contacts with heavy drug dependence, a spiral downwards into increasingly anti-social behaviour while also clinging desperately to the normality and safety of society itself. For many this hypocrisy strikes very deeply, and is key to their inability to ‘pull themself together’; a counter-veiling force acting to distance them from the ones they love, while simultaneously increasing the yearning for succour. And so their psyche sheers, often irreparably.

For this reason I now know what he must have been experiencing when taken off a train in Putaruru in May 1972. He is wandering the North Island, seeking who knows what, perhaps Jerusalem and Baxter who has helped others, perhaps nothing more than comfort in the distance from home. He is drunk and in a ritalin stupour, so the guards remove him and hand him to the police. The police in turn hand him to Tokanui Mental Hospital, and it is there than another chapter of his rehabilitation begins, in a place many now speak of with hushed tones. He is sick, covered in tracks, emaciated, alone, lost. A specimen under a benevolent gaze.

F,FLP

Well my boy, I’ve been writing this history, your history, since before I knew you. Actually, since just slightly before I knew of you, and I’ve kept in mind that there will come a day when you will read these many dreamed pages yourself, and wonder.

For me you’ve become something of a lodestone within this tale, it’s unravelling, and my understanding of the many whys it has helped me understand. And pivotal to that understanding is the question, why did he leave?

I know for certain now that discovering the fact of my Father’s demise in the years I first thought I needed to return to his family would have been a mistake, and too much information for my young mind to assimilate. While the plasticity of youth is a boon, it also offers opportunity for partial knowing to deeply gouge rows into which future misunderstanding is sown, the crop of adulthood become a weed.

Sitting here experiencing the gentle frustration of the adult with a child who will not sleep, I have wondered many times how I would cope had I a monkey on my back, and it is that single thought that has many times explained to me the why.

To find yourself sick, but tied to a family you did not expect, with a woman you would barely have known, would be impossible. Knowing that fact makes it easy to not blame him for leaving, and more importantly, to not blame myself. But the teenager? It is a very different knowing.

But my aunt with whom he lived, and my mother herself, were teenagers, the effect of his departure into the unknown and what became the very last time either of them saw him, was profound. My aunt laid the finger of blame on my mother I know, but in the confusion who can be certain.

My mother’s last memory of my father is his making his way along the road away from the house, abandoning them all. My aunt stands on the street, yelling, telling him to never return if he makes the choice to leave. My mother moved away from her too shortly thereafter, herself making a fateful decision.

I see this time now as the harrowing of paradise. The last glimmer in the illusion of peace my Boomers held onto, and it is an important part of our history. Their falling away from each other after the discovery that nothing was easy, and that they themselves were the greatest enemies of peace, must have been profound.

Thinking all this does not make the burden of knowledge any less my boy, but the gift you have given me, unwittingly, is the experience to see with clarity, and is something you should know I will long be grateful for.

F,FLP

Having only approached my Father’s family in my early twenties, I have found myself lightly equipped with small amounts of information about his full tale. Not wanting to further disturb an uneasily resting memory, and finding myself having a considerable degree of difficultly assimilating the details I did have, the bandage has been slowly removed over the last (near-) twenty years.

In large part the long duration of this tale and it’s unfolding, layer by layer, has been a ploy to enable the exposure to air of each small part of the greater wound to heal, or at least dry, before the next small cut can be revealed. But such is the way with writing histories of many living persons. There are many tales I would recall but for my conscience of the ripples the telling would cause. As I say, such is the way.

As a consequence, the discovery of details pertaining to the last few months of my Father’s life have been difficult. My understanding is that he found himself in a slipping downward, and was seeking a way off the heights upon which he found himself, a problem to which anyone who has experienced the noose of addiction will relate.

It was a time when surveillance of youth, and drug users in particular, had become a concern to Auckland Police, and early efforts were being made to ‘combat’ what was understood as the seamier side of the counter-culture (although, truth be told, to comfortable middle-class New Zealand the entire culture was pretty seamy).  And with surveillance comes intervention, and to 70s New Zealand intervention meant institutionalisation.

My impression then is, that in an effort to escape Auckland and his life there, my Father followed his younger sister to the East Coast, a place these days far from everything, but then a complete world away. And so it was that when my Mother returned from Australia my paternal Grandfather was enlisted to drive her from the airport, to collect me, and we joined him in early 1972, Tokomaru Bay.

In a confession made many years ago my Grandfather admitted that he was dubious about the likelihood that I was his grandson, but being the man of his generation he is, he did the right thing and drove back to the Coast, itself something like a return journey for him – his family having farmed the country before the Depression. I imagine he must have driven from Auckland, to Te Aroha to collect me, and from there to Tokomaru Bay, a drive of perhaps 10 hours on some of the worst roads in New Zealand, with a complete stranger.

I’ve often wondered what they spoke about, my Mother and he, assuming they spoke at all. My own recollection of what it was to be a young adult leaves no doubt that the gulf between them would have been enormous, the generational difference likely insurmountable. And in turn, he would have arrived in Tokomaru Bay to find the same gulf between himself and two of his children, themselves living the idealised life of the flower-powered, turned on, and tuned in, long since dropped out.

F,FLP

Back when I thought I might try to string this story together, an effort to understand a history and unravel my own subconscious both, I approached my mother and asked her permission. Whether she knew the depths of our joint past to which I would plumb is questionable, but she must have had an inkling, because she gave me a story of which I was completely unaware, and was a considerable surprise to me. A shot across the bow, as it were.

When we returned from Greece I remember living in another now long-demolished bach in what is today ‘downtown’ Mount Maunganui. It was a couple of street across from my grandparents, and it was one of those halcyon summers you remember as a child. Apparently this story started there.

For some reason we had moved from that place, which was ‘close to the action’ as it were, to Arataki – the suburb I would spend the remainder of my childhood. Arataki was the edge of the world in Mount Maunganui, with lots of state housing, and the general appearance of what they call these days ‘nappy valley’. The skies had circled to the near-perpetual grey of a New Zealand winter, and we were sharing a place with some other people. To this day I don’t remember who they are. But I do remember it being the place that my youngest brother took his first steps.

One of my most keen memories of that house is many adults turning up one day, and everybody disappearing into a back room. The lesson I took away being that children see far more than you might realise, and are more keenly aware of adult behaviour that you might expect. I knew then, as I knew as early as age five, the something specific involved in their secrecy.

From that place, we moved to what became our home until the late 1990s, a state house on the very edge of town, although these days it is buried in wealthy suburbia.

So why all this moving, I hear you ask. Well, it seems that my mother had become involved in some sort of Police investigation into the explicable adult behaviour I had mentioned. Her role has long been something to which she has admitted limited liability, but her tale to me (the one indicated at the start of this wee ramble), made something very clear to me. She was playing an extremely dangerous game.

Discovering the exact ins and outs of what happened is likely to never happen. This was an event of 30 years ago, and is likely buried deep in people’s memory. What I do know is what she told me, which was simple, and which I’ve come to regard as a moment of particularly lucid truthfulness in her retelling to me of the past.

Some local guys became convinced she was assisting the Police, and decided they would put a stop to it. They’d been making threats for a fair while, and must have decided to act.  They came to the house while my brother and I were at school (though where my youngest brother was, I do not know). They took her to a house in the country, and there, with her petrified at what they might do, they took out a kit, and began cooking up a dose. By now she’d figured out what they were doing. She had initially thought they were either going to scare her, rape her, or kill her, in ascending order of awfulness. But watching the guy with the spoon and the lighter, and wondering where the other guy was, she intervened. He must have been dithering with the spike, because she claims she looked him in the eye, pulled up her sleeve, dumping it on the kitchen table and just stated, “For Christs’ sake [Jimmy], just fucking do it. I can’t live like this anymore, and you can’t live like this anymore. Just fucking do it.”

He let her live.

F,FLP

I think if you had the impression that this story was mine and mine alone, you would be mistaken. While I have become the narrator, in truth this story is the tale of all my family. My thinking is, while we have become so very used to seeing ourselves as individuals, we cannot truly see ourselves in isolation. All the things that make up this fabric of individual lives are woven out of the threads of the lives of our forebears. Nothing is new or magical, though many may attempt to convince themselves otherwise.

My mother finds herself then, parent to a child she had not expected to have, a mirror of her own mother, except in the comfort of her situation. She tells a story of bringing me home from the hospital. She had received the customary baby-shower from her workmates (she worked until she was perhaps 8 months pregnant), but was too ashamed to admit that she would be adopting me out, and so secretly gave away my baby clothes and the things she had received. As a consequence I was brought home in clothes from the hospital, several sizes too small, a big 10-pound lad in a 6-pound bonnet.

We made do for another 18 years, she and I. Never bereft or missing the things we needed, but never completely fitting or comfortable.

I cannot say that it was an easy childhood, but it was far far from the hell some children are put through. I learned many things; such as thrift, the emotional value of objects as treasures, the value of a true friendship, not to want too much (for it only leads to dissatisfaction and anxiety, a lesson I had to re-learn many many times), to accept difference with calm, to see the world from the bottom looking up, and finally, to accept that everything is a veneer – true colours lie beneath the appearance.

It’s appropriate that my very first memory is from my return to New Zealand, in what must have been November of 1971. Strangely, it is a view of me being taken from a Sydney to Auckland plane. I am being brought out of the doorway of the plane, and carried down the gantry to my Grandparents, who will look after me until my mother can afford the airfare home. The perspective of the memory is external to me, meaning that I see myself swaddled in blankets being carried ‘towards myself’.

But this memory is so old that it has become genuine, a tale told to me when I was very very young, impressed for so long that I cannot shake it, and see it as how the event unfolded. In a way, I remember what someone else saw, imagined and etched into the mind of a pre-schooler. This means that my first memory is not my own, but is collectivised, a shared past and a reference point imparted to me by someone who had an entirely different picture in their own mind. And which is the more true?

F,FLP

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