Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

37

Tell You What: A Nonfiction Giveaway!

When Susanna Andrew and I sat down to write our proposal for that old-fashioned thing, a book on paper, we wanted to make the book we wanted to read. What we wanted was to sit down each summer to a collection of powerful nonfiction from the year that was: an annual scoop of fresh hot words, salty and strong. Like the Best American Essays series (and its more eclectic spin-off, The Best American Non-Required Reading), but – well, our own. 

We knew there’d be more than enough material – New Zealand has so many fabulous writers, journalists, and essayists – and we knew we’d find much of what we were looking for online. New Zealanders are nothing if not adaptable, and with diminishing paper venues for our writing, we’ve been quick to populate the web niche with personal blogs, online journals, and collective enterprises like this one.

It’s no coincidence that three of the pieces Susanna and I selected for our book – by Keith Ng, David Haywood, and David Herkt – were first published here on Public Address. From the start, Public Address has been a sanctuary for great writers and a way to connect with great readers. (Also, Russell’s own 2005 collection of a century’s worth of speeches and essays, Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas About Ourselves, is – if not the daddy, then certainly the benevolent beardy big bro of our own brainchild.)

With the idea of an annual collection in mind, we decided our first one should dig a little deeper, to begin with. So we made the September 2010 quake our temporal starting point, and then read and searched and consulted widely. We found so much more than we could fit in one collection, and we still wish we could have doubled the size of this book – but what we did fit in, we chose because it somehow stuck with us. We aimed for a couple of dozen; we ended up with 29 pieces by 29 writers.

In Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015 (published by Auckland University Press, available in all good bookshops!) we’ve got household names and new discoveries; literati, Twitterati and the arty-farty; locals and expats; magazine writers and bloggers and poets and novelists and scientists and more, from all over New Zealand and abroad. We have stories that are comic, some tragic and some that are both; all of them guaranteed to engage you from the word go.

Eleanor Catton writes New Zealand from the ground up, taking a trip with her dad over the Southern Alps on a tandem bike that’s as sublime as it is ridiculous. Giovanni Tiso meets a New Zealander in Edinburgh, then finds his way to the country itself through the written word and the screen, before finally arriving in person.

Our writers come and go. Ashleigh Young chronicles the view from her bicycle seat in London and Wellington and all kinds of weather, the wheels of her questing mind turning along with the wheels of her brave bike. Jemima Diki Sherpa went to university in Wellington, but her home and her heart is in the mountains of Nepal, where climbing Everest is a local industry, guides are paid by the weight they carry, and disaster hovers constantly over each village. 

Writing from Australia, Nic Low paints a historic, personal mural of his hometown, Christchurch, that collapses a thousand years of upheaval and repair into one deeply haunted space. Reporting from a tent outside his destroyed Avonside house, David Haywood makes you cry and then laugh, in that order; and Lara Strongman time-travels through books and buildings in pursuit of a legacy for the broken city.

Home is at the heart of many of these pieces. Naomi Arnold’s mum moves in unexpectedly, with the linen and the good knives, and all heaven breaks loose. Rachel Buchanan revisits ancestral land in Taranaki and plunges into the archives to confront a buried forest of whakapapa and bureaucracy and loss. Simon Wilson’s grandparents, long gone, come alive again on the page in a graceful, gritty portrait of rural Pākeha striving… and mutton.

Our writers take a close look at the natural world. David Winter offers a quick read about a slow subject that’s rich in metaphor: indigenous snails and their cannibal invaders. Claire Browning gets to know a small corner of New Zealand intimately, as she creates a half-wild, half-tame garden from scratch.

There are bloody rites of passage and debates about their value: Gregory Kan visits the jungle of compulsory service and voluntary education. Alice Te Punga Somerville explores the intricate layers of meaning in a single tattoo on a single hand. Megan Clayton takes a small test and ponders the huge weight of a prospective human life.

And there are portraits of characters: Elizabeth Knox recalls her profoundly whimsical literary relationship with the late, great Margaret Mahy. We visit Kim Dotcom and his domestic excesses, in the company of adventurous humourist- anthropologist José Barbosa. A creative genius architect uncle is glimpsed across the years by Allan Smith. We meet Paul, an intellectually challenged drama queen captured with love by his friend David Herkt. And up-and-coming novelist Paul Ewen’s story of his mate, Steve, is plainly unforgettable.

Speaking of Steves, we have a classic shaggy dog story from the legendary Steve Braunias that captures suburban gentrification in... an eggshell? Steve’s yarn chimes nicely with Greg Bruce’s chilling horror story about property auctions (quoth the Raven: 'Sold!') and Leilani Tamu’s kaleidoscopic perspective on the other side of gentrification and growing up in the octopus/ feke that is Auckland. 

In short, sharp pieces, Anthony Byrt converts to nonfiction overnight, Keith Ng fast-forwards to a world without us, Sarah Bainbridge makes the human heart visible, and Chris McDowall takes us for a walk that is anything but simple. Meanwhile, Alice Miller logs off Facebook and back into real life, and Tina Makereti offers a language lesson with lasting resonance about the words we use every day.

 

There you go. Something for (almost) everyone; something from (almost) everyone, and all of it guaranteed to be great. Susanna and I have read each piece a dozen times or more, and still they have a palpable effect on us. Our hope is that the book will grab you too: that it will tell you things you didn’t know, but also tell you what you knew all along – that we’ve got some bloody great writers. And more to come. 

--

Right. To business. To celebrate the end of the working year and the beginning of reading season, we’d like to give away a copy of Tell You What – but wait, there’s more! – in a double package with a copy of Russell’s Great New Zealand Argument. Two deliciously chewy reads bundled together, for one lucky commenter selected at random.

All you have to do is tell us, in the discussion below, what great nonfiction you’ve read this year, from anywhere in the world.

Links encouraged! Pile on in - we’d love to mail these handsome books out to one lucky reader before Christmas.

 

60

Beware of the Leopard

Democracy is a funny old thing, an exercise in trust. We concentrate expertise and execution into the hands of the few, in the expectation that they will be steered by the will of the many. Hence town hall discussions, regular invitations for feedback, and public hearings on matters of note.

Hence also the deeply rooted distrust of the process and its occasionally wilful opacity, as captured by the late, great Douglas Adams:

"But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."

"Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything."

"But the plans were on display ..."

"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."

"That's the display department."

"With a flashlight."

"Ah, well the lights had probably gone."

"So had the stairs."

"But look, you found the notice didn't you?"

"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'."

There’s no leopard in my story, but there is a nearby zoo, a spacious park, a golf course, an old museum, and a stand of spectacular native trees that are at least eighty years old. There is also a “very worthwhile and splendid” road-widening scheme, that when it is completed, will feature 19 – yes, nineteen – contiguous lanes of tarmac.  

For some background to the saga of the St Lukes/Great North Road project, see Transportblog in February 2014 and June 2014, and Russell’s discussion here.  

The bridge-widening and road-reshaping are largely a given (although I could grumble extensively about the inadequacy of provisions for people on bikes and on foot), but what’s currently at stake is a stand of six venerable pohutukawa trees, plus a poplar and a white pine. Here's some footage that gives a sense of how those trees fit the larger context: Patrick Reynolds and Stuff deployed a drone to give us a birds-eye view of where the birds will no longer be able to nest, at least if the tree-cutting part of the plan goes ahead. 

Here are the trees from above, with the motorway to the left and Motat to the right. 

Here's another view, showing the bridge that will double in width.

This shows you how the easterly stand of pohutukawa (nearest the viewer) connects with the roadside pohutukawa on the westerly side of the intersection, to form continuous a green street frontage that runs along Great North Road opposite Western Springs Park.  

Looking back towards the east; with the trees (and the poplar and pine) on the right. 

Here's how the pohutukawa look and feel at street level, looking west...

And looking east:

As Patrick puts it, they're "the only bit of civility in this area", in the midst of an increasingly traffic-choked environment.

They're also on the verge of flowering right now. 

The news about the fate of the trees – for the sake of projected worst-case traffic flows in one direction during a two-hour afternoon weekday peak in 2026 – has been slow to get out. As has the fact that there's at least one workable alternative. I’d wager that most of the people who pass through that stretch of road every day have no idea whatsoever that these trees are potentially for the chop, to save them a few minutes a decade hence (assuming we're all still driving cars and not biking or bussing, or indeed swimming to work down the Great North Canal).  

Still, there has been gathering opposition to the proposed destruction of this stand of 80-year-old pohutukawa, and an online petition currently has 1475 signatures.

Signing an online petition is one thing; making a formal submission is next level. Luckily for those who’ve never done it before, the Tree Council set up a page offering guidance, links, dates, and a template of talking points for those who aren’t good with words.   

At the last minute, I made a submission, with my own heartfelt multi-page letter attached. I filed it online -- from my dining table, on a Friday afternoon, while children rattled around me asking about dinner. And in a fit of civic-mindedness, I ticked the box saying yes, I would like to speak to the hearing.

--

A few weeks ago, a giant wodge of paper arrived in the mail: this was the Hearing Agenda.

Flipping through it, I was heartened to see pages of submissions from ordinary people like me. Also, a few submissions on behalf of larger groups – the Western Bays Community Group; the Tree Council; Nikki Roberts and the many signatories to her online petition.

Notably, the Waitematā Local Board is there too: it has hired its own lawyers and consultants to oppose the tree removal (yes, that's one wing of the council taking the other to task). And there are strongly worded internal memos from two council departments -- Community, Policy, and Planning; and Parks, Sports and Recreation -- opposing removal of the trees and urging a reconsideration of the plan inside the larger picture of the “Western Springs recreation precinct”. Meanwhile, Motat submitted a slightly anaemic thumbs-up to the prospect of more parking, with a few cautions around foot safety where pedestrians encounter the tramlines. 

I’d been given a speaking slot of 12.30 on Thursday. On Wednesday afternoon, I was making a few notes, trying not to get too nervous, when I got a message from the council’s Democracy Advisor, Matthew Foster – a perfectly nice chap, helpful at every step of the way ­– explaining that there was a problem with many of the submissions, including mine.

It has come to the commissioners attention from the hearing today that your submission has been lodged on the wrong process (there were two for this hearing - A resource consent and a notice of requirement) and the Commissioners will be unable to take it into account when making their decisions.  This is addressed in the Council's report on the applications which was included in the agenda circulated before the hearing.

The Commissioners think it's fair to advise each of the submitters concerned in advance of their attendance so they can elect whether to attend or not given that they will have to travel into the city and pay for parking etc.  They are happy to hear from you, however it is not legally possible to switch a submission from one of the processes to the other.

The commissioners will be happy to explain this more tomorrow if it doesn't quite make sense as this effects a number of submitters, they just feel it's fair to let you know before showing up.

 --

This didn’t make sense to me, so I asked for more information. I was told that the mistake had been mentioned in the Hearing Agenda. Sure enough, there on page 921:

It is also noted that a number of submissions have been incorrectly lodged against resource consent application ref R/VCC/2013/4724/1 (which is the s127 variation to conditions of the regional consent for Stormwater Management – Quality, pursuant to Rule H.4.14.3.1 of the PAUP). All submissions should have been lodged referencing the Notice of Requirement for Alternation to Designation Plan Modification PA371. In any case, all submissions have been reviewed and reported on the project jointly.

In other words, a number of submissions had mistakenly used the reference number for a stormwater issue (specifically, how to handle the stormwater issues from the extra 762m2 of impervious area created if the trees are removed), instead of the reference number notifying intent to remove the trees. Moreover, “Resource Consent” was the wrong phrase, “Notice of Requirement” the correct one.

In other words, Beware of the Leopard.

Nonetheless, a speaking schedule had been made and citizens had been asked to show up -- until suddenly we weren’t. This didn’t seem quite right.

 --

So I went back to the giant wodge of paper, and flipped through the 64 submissions just to see where, exactly, the legal impossibility inhered. I am not a lawyer. I am, however, a good reader, and I can count.

Of the 64 submissions:

  • 6 had the correct reference number to PA371. (Supportive submissions from Motat and Vector; opposition from the Waitematā Local Board and three private citizens).
  • 4 gave no case number, but described the location (820 Great North Road), mentioned the trees, and/but used the phrase “resource consent.”
  • 54 submissions, including mine and the one from Nikki Roberts and her thousand-plus signatories, had the wrong case number, R/VCC/2013/4724/1 – but supplied an accurate description of the location (820 Great North Road) and the issue (removal of the big old pohutukawa).
  • Of these 54, 22 had requested the right to speak at the hearing.

Presumably, I was among that 22. Presumably, also, the entire 54 submissions (and possibly the 4 that gave no case number) were “unable to be taken into account.” Again, including the thousand-plus signatories to the online petition.

So, of 64 submissions made, accepted, read, summarized, and recirculated, only six would actually count at the hearing.

--

Again, this doesn’t seem quite right. How had the wrong reference number become attached to so many of the submissions? My best forensic guess: most likely a small clerical error or transcription mistake had become amplified as a useful link or document was circulated with the wrong number in it.

Thus a bunch of people unfamiliar with the system, but determined (by crikey!) to be heard, acted in good faith and made their submissions accordingly – submissions they might never otherwise have made.  The irony is that a tiny flaw in a democratic impulse designed to encourage participation has had wide ripples that may render that increased participation invalid.

But are the submissions invalid? Again, I’m not a lawyer, but can these voices be ruled out on a technicality when the intention of the submitters is otherwise clear? Even when they’ve unwittingly got the reference number wrong, they’ve gone to great pains to get the subject right:

“[Auckland Transport’s plan to] cut down 6 mature and invaluable pohutukawa trees.”

“Removal of 6 mature pohutukawa trees. ”

“Regarding removal of pohutukawas at St Luke’s Rd/ Great North Rd Interchange, Ref Resource Consent Application “R/VCC/2013/4724/1 820 Great North Road.”

“For the construction of an additional left turn lane from Great North Road onto St Lukes Road including the removal of six mature Pohutukawa trees (Metrosideros excels) from the site at 820 Great North Road.” 

Notably, one submitter who entered the wrong reference number has added after it, in a nervous parenthesis “(as far as I can judge)”.

In another partly handwritten submission by a local resident who wishes to speak at the hearing, the wrong reference number is carefully transcribed in his handwriting, and a typed list of objections is appended. “These trees have been there for 80-90 years and will still be there in another 200-to-300 years from now,” he writes. “In that time span the motor car will be extinct.”

Another handwritten submission also uses the wrong reference number, except that in this case, the number alone has been carefully typed -- presumably by someone other than the citizen. (Someone at Auckland Council? Who knows?). Nevertheless, she makes her case crystal clear: she opposes “removal of pohutukawas to widen road.”  

--

My question is this: why has the Council, in the face of what’s evidently a good-faith transcription error magnified several times over, decided to prioritise its own arcane numbering system over good plain English words? Which is more legible to the people trying to make their voices heard?

 --

Submissions are a funny beast. You wonder whether anyone actually reads them; I like to think so, but they come with a built-in sense of futility. The forms are daunting, even the user-friendly ones. You fill in the boxes with names, dates, descriptions, and then at the last hurdle, you’re given a brief moment of expertise and eloquence sufficient to win hearts and change minds. The shift in registers can be a challenge to even the most engaged citizen.

Most of the submissions from people like me were made via the online form. Reading through them, you can see the uncertainty about how to speak, the right words to use, how to phrase things so as to be heard and taken seriously.

After the space for your name, the next question is “I am a:”  The answers are eloquent:

[Person who] lives within walking distance of the 6 Pohutukawa trees. Interested party in the full notification. Concerned citizen at the lack of tree protection. Community member. Property owner and concerned ratepayer. Concerned Aucklander. Concerned citizen. New Zealander.

As someone who is all of those things, I’m flummoxed by many aspects of this encounter with Council and its ways.

That the pohutukawa along the boulevard were not (as I’d imagined, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone) protected on account of their age and native status.

That the grandness and cohesion these huge trees lend to the space -- to a broad road that can’t decide whether it’s a throughway, or a friendly gateway – wasn’t taken as a given in the design process, a creative constraint around which to shape a transport solution.

That the Hearing Agenda proudly and ironically bears the supercity logo for Auckland Council: a stylised pohutukawa flower. 

That this same council, just eight years ago, fined a property developer a total of $100,000 (plus costs) for destroying a protected century-old pohutukawa in Royal Oak that was cherished by the community. As part of the restorative process, he was not only made to replace the tree, but obliged to sit and listen as his neighbours described what the tree had meant to them.

I do trust Auckland Council and Auckland Transport can find a way around the supposed “legal impossibility” of listening to their neighbours on what these trees mean to us. Let's hope this leopard is prepared to be flexible in the matter of its spots. 

14

Good as gold

Everyone should have read the book by now. No, not Dirty Politics (although you should have read that too). The other one that came out quietly at the end of last year and has become the silent witness to this entire election campaign: Max Rashbrooke’s Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. The one you probably feel, at this point, like you have read.

Last July, I went to the Auckland launch. It began with a lecture by Professor Robert Wade that was so popular, the lecture theatre overflowed. Inequality was evidently an idea people were itching to talk about, to see treated with seriousness and care.

At the party after the lecture, I waited some time for a word with the book’s editor, Max Rashbrooke. He confessed he was new to this book-signing business and sometimes accidentally scribbled “Love, Max”. I suggested he practice a few feistier salutations so they came naturally when he reached for the pen – like, I dunno, “Smash the state,” that sort of thing. 

He didn’t miss a beat, and signed my copy: “For Jolisa, with best wishes! Smashing the state… with love... Max Rashbrooke.”

Golden.

I’d been commissioned to review the book, which was a bit of a challenge as I’m neither an economist nor a sociologist. But I read it carefully, took notes, did my best. It was a pretty dense review, so I was asked to make it a bit, well, sexier. Something for the general reader.

So I wrapped my take on Inequality in a mention of another book that came out at the same time: Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart’s gorgeous collection of advertising imagery, Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising.

For various reasons my review never saw the light of day, so here it is now, a year later (but better than never).    

--

Inequality and Prosperity: A Delayed Review 

Turns out, there was a golden age. You can see it all over the pages of Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart’s Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising (Craig Potton Publishing, 2013). The artistry in the commercial art is spectacular, but what’s even more striking is the quotidian nature of the things being marketed so lovingly.

A solid house, a good night’s rest, a strong pair of shoes. Hats, tobacco, apples, bacon (“sit down to the nicest breakfast possible”), all surrounded by a halo of health and happiness.  A pound of Anchor’s finest sits on the good china in the middle of the table, glowing like a gold brick.  This is our shared patrimony: democracy on toast. Because after all, who doesn’t like a little bit of butter on their bread?

Which is not to say that in the good old days, everyone had everything they wanted, or even needed. But I’d wager that a huge part of the nostalgic pull of this book is that subliminal egalitarianism: New Zealand’s idea of itself as a basically fair and decent sort of place. These ads capture a time when prosperity, once the province of the very few, was being promoted to the many.

And was being enjoyed by the many, too, according to a collection of essays edited by journalist Max Rashbrooke, Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis (Bridget Williams Books, 2013). Across the developed world, during this mid-century “long boom”, the gap between wealth and poverty shrank considerably – until the 1980s, when aggressive deregulation sent money flying back from the poor to the rich.  In the same period, New Zealand went from punching above its weight, equality-wise, to punching the poor in the face, policy-wise. 

In a sense, Inequality, from its title onwards, is the photographic negative of Promoting Prosperity. No alluring full-colour pictures, just serious black and white words and sobering graphs confirming what anyone with eyes and ears suspects – that the rich are getting way richer; the poor are getting screwed; and this is bad for all of us. It’s a timely and useful read, a book with heart designed to engage the mind.

For the lay reader – and perhaps inevitably, given the academic and policy leanings of both content and contributors – it might feel a little Weetbix-without-milk. Thankfully, Rashbrooke has interleaved shorter personal “viewpoints” between the crunchier chapters, stories and interviews.

These accounts of ground-level encounters with inequality are instantly readable, and enraging and encouraging by turns. If you just read those fourteen pieces, you’ll have gotten value for money. But they also provide useful ways back into the denser discussions, inspiring the reader to join the dots.

As a whole, the collection argues that while a certain amount of imbalance is unavoidable, inequality on the current scale is dehumanizing all of us. It’s bad for those who are struggling, of course. But it’s also terrible for those who can no longer imagine what that struggle might be like – creating an “empathy deficit” that’s as dangerous as any fiscal one.

And it’s becoming geographically entrenched: with rising socioeconomic segregation in our biggest cities, and extremes of poverty and wealth hiding out in the provinces, we literally no longer see each other.

Putting the filter of education over the book pulls together a compelling picture. School zones function more than ever like the Hogwarts “sorting hat”: fast-tracking alpha kids to greater heights, while concentrating poorer students together, which amplifies the impact of patchy attendance and health and behavioural issues. Lower decile schools have higher student turnover, as poorer families are much more likely to rent than own, and renters (whose housing is more often of poor quality) move more often than home-owners do. Children who move more often do less well at school, and so on. Do the maths: what’s the radius of a vicious circle?

And yet, as Cathy Wylie reminds us in her chapter, children do better at school when they know what the goal is and can see their place in the data. A little transparency goes a long way, a lesson that can usefully be applied outside the classroom: if we can lay bare the scope and the mechanisms of inequality, perhaps we can act before it reaches a tipping point. But how best to do this?

Contributor Mike O’Brien points out that the rich are incentivized by giving them more money to play with – tax cuts, family trusts, etc – so why do we assume that a punitive, money-snatching approach will have the same effect on the poor? (Also useful to know: the poor are proportionately more charitable with what little they do have; the little widow’s mite goes a long way).

This distancing and othering of the poor is a big part of the problem, argues Linda Tuhiwai Smith. She suggests that instead, we take a close look at the workings of privilege: turning the lens on the luckier lot, to reveal how they get that way and, crucially, how they make sure they stay that way.  These are the people who “get to speak to power as an equal rather than as a supplicant. They know that public servants are actually their servants.” (This approach chimes with the almost too-true-to-be-good research from Berkeley, which reported that people primed to think of themselves as rich are more likely to help themselves to free candy – even after they’ve been told it’s being collected for children).

Giving the poorest kids a leg-up – even if it’s just “the nicest breakfast possible” – is a great start, and a relatively easy sell – but the book offers many other practical suggestions, from micro to macro. A universal, unconditional basic income.  Free childcare for people earning under $25,000 p.a. Capital gains tax; inheritance tax. A work-placement system that works “with (not against) the realities of life on a benefit [and] today’s workplace.” Plus, y’know, all that other stuff Scandinavian countries do.

The book also suggests a shift in the national mood, back to a culture of restraint. How much is enough, at the personal and structural level? How much more should the boss earn than the person who cleans their office? What if businesses refused to race to the bottom, when it comes to minimum wage? “Excessive inequality is a product of market failure,” writes Paul Barber, in a call for greater regulatory oversight to ensure that the wealth we all help generate doesn’t concentrate at the very top.

In the final chapter, Tuhiwai Smith issues a “call for concepts”, because “compelling stories need new language that moves people to act collectively and with will.”  I am neither an economist nor a sociologist, so I may have missed some of the nuances of this collection. But it certainly feels like a helpful invitation to a conversation we should be having across all media, in many voices and registers.

At the sitting-in-the-aisles-room-only Auckland launch of the book in July, Professor Robert Wade mentioned the surprise bestseller The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better. It was an encouraging sign that it was so popular, he said – and then lamented that sales were still wildly outstripped by a certain shady-grey trilogy. Well, there’s a fun challenge. How to sex up the no-nonsense yearning for a more equal and just society?

Maybe that’s where the visual, witty, dart-to-the-heart language of advertising – as captured by Alsop and Stewart – might step back in. Promoting asperity, but integrity as well. If we want real traction in promulgating a more democratic definition of prosperity, then for every academic book and heartfelt editorial and pithy tweetfest, let’s have some posters, slogans, lesson plans, songs, kick-arse graffiti. And some tasty shining symbols to remind us what it’s all about. Share the love. Pass the butter. Spread the word.

--

And in fact, it’s as if someone read my unpublished drafts folder. Because that’s exactly what’s happened over the course of the last year: an explosion of witty, arresting visual and creative work, much of it done for free. Amidst the TL:DR morass of daily discourse, these gems cut through the discussion and show us in a flash what we’re talking about. 

Just off the very top of my head:

And so much more. 

After the votes are counted, there’ll be time to sit and read the books, to sift through the commentary, to figure out what’s next. But for now – for today - what’s been your singular, shining image of what’s at stake right now? Which picture or metaphor – satirical or serious – has been worth a thousand words, or a thousand retweets? Post or link to it below (including source and author if possible).

It may rain on Election Day, but it’s up to us to keep things golden beyond that. 

179

School bully

When the National government introduced National Standards four years ago, I didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing.  I’d been watching our older son acclimatise to public schools in New Haven, Connecticut, where kids and teachers alike struggled to breathe freely in the toxic atmosphere of No Child Left Behind.

You can read that story – my long, slow realisation that the testing-tail was wagging the educational dog – here, if you haven’t already. Go on. I’ll wait. It’s a good one.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked at the time.

I was pretty confident of two things:

a) that the US model, or something like it, was indeed where the National/ACT policy was eventually headed (with the side effect -- some would say ultimate goal -- of disrupting the professional educational organisations)

b) that New Zealanders would never fall for something so transparently second-hand, dodgy, and unkind to children.

Over the past four years, the jigsaw pieces slotted into place; and each time they did, I retweeted the heck out of that original piece. At times, I wondered: am I being too suspicious? Am I drawing a line where others would see random dots? Are the National Party and their ACT colleagues really disingenuous enough to serve New Zealanders these warmed-up leftovers and think we won't notice?

Hey, maybe it’s just a coincidence that the Prime Minister had a cup of tea with a Minister who suddenly got all excited about charter schools, and it’ll just be a nice surprise when they bring their corporate mates - running out of options overseas, keen for fresh markets for their educational snake oil -  into our schoolyards under the cover of “lifting achievement”. It’s just, y’know, pollies making policy. Flying a few kites, sinking a few cuppas.

Then, in an interview with the Herald published yesterday, Education Minister Hekia Parata blurted out her plans to link school funding to student “progress.”

Even the Herald was amazed that she should champion a “policy [that has] served only to increase the gap between the top schools and the bottom ones, penalising children at the latter.” Ms Parata, they wrote in an editorial, has “revealed the Cabinet's firm conviction that freemarket ideology is as applicable to purchasing school education as it is to buying a BMW or a nice dinner at one of Simon Gault's restaurants.”

The Minister’s advisers are apparently scrambling to correct any misapprehensions. Or as the Herald has it: “her advisers are unhappy because she has been caught out - caught out telling the truth.”

This morning, the Minister fronted on National Radio to say that she'd been mischaracterised. She conversationalised, conversationally:

“I think that at the point where a longer conversation is held on how we fund into our system there will be a whole range of factors that need to be taken into account - but they will be part of a conversation with the profession itself."

(Did I hear a loud snort from Christchurch at the notion of a "conversation" with the Minister?)

Ms Parata further clarified her position, which is to say, smokescreened mightily with:

“I think that when we’re having a discussion about funding there will be a range of factors that will need to be taken into account. But we’re not having one at the moment.” 

Although even a child can translate that as "Just you wait till after the election." If you're still in any doubt, she followed up with this blanket statement:

“There is no review of funding.” 

The meaning of which, as a far wilier politician once reminded us, depends on the meaning of what "is" is. 

I’m no longer doubtful about whether I’m drawing a long bow here.

--

It's always fascinating to me to see how stories like this take shape and sneak into our discourse, one step at a time. Especially intensely ideological stories that present themselves as series of commonsense logical notions, which is something this government and its advisers are generally very good at. (Help me out if I’ve missed any steps here; relevant links appreciated).

The first move is to point out, quite reasonably, that some children are failing in most schools. It's a truism, but a reliable one for setting the citizenry on edge. Ignoring all relevant socio-economic factors, quickly rephrase this thought as “some schools are failing our children.”

Which ones? Well, let's introduce a testing/assessment regime, y’know, just to measure the scale and scope of the problem. 

Reassure parents that this is “just to reassure parents.” When you get pushback from schools who already carefully assess children and their progress, ask them what they’re trying to hide.

Remind the people that numbers don’t lie. Lie to the people about which numbers are important.

Look a bit surprised when this data is used to assemble “league tables” that rank schools in order of average achievement on a variety of tests. Say that wasn’t at all the intention. Look even more surprised if it should happen that those who can afford to start flocking to more well off schools, tilting the achievement numbers even further. Goodness. Look at the failing schools failing even harder! What's wrong with them? 

Look very surprised indeed if any schools that can get away with it start filtering out special needs children – not actively, just passively discouraging them from being there. 

Meanwhile, casually introduce the notion that some people just do teaching better than others. Hard to argue with, right? Because everyone has a story about that one crappy teacher; encourage them to extrapolate.  (NB avoid the corollary, which would be that some kids just do learning better than others, because that wouldn’t fly - you’d have to ask why. Hunger? Poverty? Racism? Moving around too often because housing is insecure and unaffordable? Whoa whoa, too-hard basket. Hush.)

Start musing about where all that taxpayers’ money goes. Start murmuring about exciting, new, alternative ways to deliver education, which is quite a trick when you're simultaneously yammering on about back to basics. Maybe, if we really loved our children, we’d try different kinds of schools, and “Oh, look: here’s one I prepared earlier.”

But do make it a surprise by not mentioning it during election campaigning. People love surprises.

Call the proposed schools something friendly and disarming: how about “partnership schools”? Who doesn’t like partnership? Not even lefties, LOL! Fudge the fact that New Zealand legislation already provides for different kinds of schools, and that many such schools are doing measurably brilliant things, notably the kūra kaupapa. Emphasise that you’re just adding options. Only the churlish will object to options, or ask why those options can’t be offered inside of the existing system, or point out that the new options look strangely similar to ones that have failed overseas.

Invite applications to run partnership schools before you even pass the legislation, so you can get off to a flying start.  This will be easy, as you’ve been in talks with them all along, including those nice people from America, and you’ve removed any barriers to entry, like pesky teacher registration. While you’re at it, rule out the public being able to have a look at the school’s books, financial or otherwise. Speed, efficiency, are the name of the game. No need for local representation on the school board, either: what do the locals know about what they need? Hurry up: open the schools, get some kids in. Remember, you’ll need to be harvesting a year of demonstrable student “progress” just in time for the upcoming election.

If the partnership schools run into trouble getting started, give them more money, because that’s what struggling schools need. No, silly. Not all struggling schools, just these ones. (Meanwhile, chuck some more money at schools that are Doing Well – the private schools. The more resources they have, the better they do, right? Just those ones, though). When the partnership schools can’t find a way to teach all the subjects, let them “borrow” teachers off the other schools. You know, the bad schools. Presumably they’ll borrow the good teachers.

(Meanwhile, just for giggles and distraction, have a hack at intermediate schools. What a waste, eh, putting those kids into their own special space for a breather between infancy and adolescence? What could they possibly learn with two years in their own bubble, apart from social skills, time-management, open-mindedness, confidence, speaking skills, technical subjects, water safety, art, drama, music, sports, the nicely compressed opportunity to experience being junior and then senior in a given situation, and a chance to figure out who they are and what they’re interested in without the pressure of Choosing Subjects and Thinking About Careers? Jeez, who needs that kind of woolly nonsense, especially at that age? Go on, close some intermediates and set up a few mega-schools in a city that’s not in a position to fight back – do it quick, you’ll need to be harvesting those “progress” results in time for the election, too.)

Then, ever so casually, reintroduce the idea (you were knocked back on this before, but don’t let it stop you) of linking school funding to student achievement, thus "incentivising" achievement. Kids doing well? Here’s some extra dosh. Kids failing? No more money for you, fail harder. Laugh merrily when asked if this could possibly lead to any of the following:

  • teaching to the test
  • a curriculum based on learning answers rather than generating questions
  • the steady loss of “non-testable” subjects, except in private schools and high-decile ones (art, music, sports, water safety) (even in high-decile ones like Lorde’s old school) 
  • a culture of cheating and tricks and fudges (at the worst, the Atlanta teacher pizza parties, where teachers spent weekends erasing “wrong” answers and putting in right ones, because otherwise their schools would lose funding.)
  • the government closing “failing schools” and bringing in, oh for example, outfits like KIPP to run them. 

WHOOPS! WAIT! Mistake! Pull up! Don’t mention the funding thing before the election! Because if you do, voters might actually join the dots! Especially if they’ve watched The Wire, or House of Cards. 

And if you go off half-cocked on this one, voters might even get to wondering what other nasty surprises are being held in readiness for after the election in all the other sectors that matter to them.

--

That’s the trail of stale breadcrumbs – well, some of them anyway. Follow the path, children, deep into the corporate-education forest. All the way to the rotten gingerbread house. 

I mean, what could possibly go wrong? 

--

Of course, mine is just one way to tell this story. Having brought our kids back to New Zealand two years ago in large part because of what we were observing in US schools, it’s been horrifying and disappointing to watch these developments unfold here, one step at a time, each step cloaked in disingenuous denial about the destination.

Teachers in all sorts of schools would tell the story from slightly different angles. Parents of children with particular learning needs would tell it another way.  Māori, Pasifika, immigrant parents would ask different questions about the way this is playing out. Citizens of Christchurch would certainly have their own version of this narrative.

And kids will tell you how it feels for them, if anyone will take the time to ask.   

The child described in my earlier blog post is now a well-grounded Year 8 who is punishingly articulate on the subject of his own education, among many other things. He’s been reading over my shoulder this morning, and his initial response was largely unprintable. Then he started talking more calmly, and I started transcribing.

“They’re going to ruin the schools. How do you pass these tests of “progress”? By doing worksheet upon worksheet upon worksheet. But what do you learn from that? You don’t learn how to manage yourself and your time. You don’t learn how to think your way around a problem. It stifles creativity. Maybe you do better on your test score, but how are you going to manage in real life? Sure, I got high scores on those stupid tests in America. But when I got back to New Zealand, I had to learn how to cope with everything else. And the everything else is really important.”  

Really important.

And yet like every schoolkid in New Zealand (except for half of the top class – commonroom voter registration drive, anyone?) he is voiceless when it comes to the polls. Which is where you come in. 

Education is a universal election issue: in the recent Colmar Brunton poll, it was the top issue for voters regardless of political orientation.

It’s an easy issue to push voters on, and it’s an easy one to bamboozle them on with persuasive talk of the "long tail", and lifting student achievement, and so on.

If “education” is indeed the first thing that pops to mind when you’re asked what you care about this election season, I’d encourage you to re-read my original post, and then read more widely on the subject. I’d ask you to think about what it is you really want New Zealand schools to do, and look like. Which is also to say, what you really want New Zealand to do and to look like.

Even if you’re of a mind that the New Zealand education system needs fixing – and heck, everything has room for improvement, that’s sort of the point -- ask whether the answer is really more secret plans and cronyism and a perverse system of “incentivisation” that punishes children and teachers for factors beyond their immediate control and encourages prioritising numbers over human beings.

Ask how these policies think of schools: as a key part of the democratic social fabric that binds us together, community spaces, collectively funded, open to all and open to inspection? As places where every one of us can learn not only what we're capable of for ourselves, but how to play our part of the bigger story?

Or as vectors to individual advancement, easily consolidated and trimmed like so many factories, judged by their balance sheet, with "failing" schools - or students - handily bundled together for sale to the lowest tender? 

Ask, too, what it means when even the US poster child for charters -- Amistad Academy, a school that has spent a decade and a half demonstrably lifting test scores for underachieving kids by dint of long school days, no excuses, and a culture of hard work and tireless passion - is now starting from scratch and redesigning its approach entirely. Why? Because they say "charter schools have focused too much on teaching to low-rigor standardized tests and are ready for a “disruptive” change" -- to a model that embraces precisely the "everything else" my son articulated above.  

Here's some numbers: if a National coalition is re-elected and allowed to plod down their pre-ordained path in the footsteps of their corporate education idols, expect to see NZ partnership schools pulling a similar 180 away from drilling for test scores in 2029, at which point my 12 year old will be 28, an entire generation of our children may have been schooled in the No Child Left Behind manner, and we'll look even sillier for playing catch-up with those guys when we had something so good in the first place. 

Look at the kids you know -- and the ones you don’t know yet, but who’ll be running this place when you’re old and dependent. Look very closely at this government’s track record of dissembling about their plans. Do your homework. And then vote accordingly.

54

“Glory! Glory! There’s the salt!”

The news that Margaret Mahy has written all her stories – for that is what her death means to us as readers, while for her family it is a whole other dimension of inevitable, unfathomable loss -- came to me via Twitter. At first a whisper, then a rustle, and then suddenly words and sentences tumbled down the page as we shared the shock of it. Shock turned to sorrow, which steadily transformed into tribute. People recalled not just indelible lines from life-changing books, but the circumstances of reading them. We remembered where we were, who we were with, and who we were when Margaret cast her spell on us -- as children, as young adults, as parents, grandparents.

I think this is her most powerful gift: to have told stories for everyone. Not for everyone separately, but everyone all at once. The list of her works -- a hundred picture books, twenty volumes of short stories, forty novels –- looks at first glance like a graduated reading programme for a lifetime, one you might work your way through as you grow up. But if you’ve ever read one of her picture books aloud to children – A Lion in the Meadow, say – you know that even her simplest stories carefully make space for the adult alongside the child. The mother in A Lion in the Meadow (an antipodean sister to the mother in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came for Tea) is integral to the story: she paces alongside the child’s creativity, amplifying it, misreading it, defending it, sometimes overmastered by it, but above all bearing witness to it.

Best of all, this adult presence and perspective is not delivered in a winking, over-the-shoulder aside to the adult reader. For as well as making a plea on behalf of the child to the adult reader, it’s Mahy’s great gift to reveal the secret life of grown-ups to the child reader. She dramatizes their flaws, their silliness, their hidden passions, their childish wishes (oh, the dad in Down the Dragon’s Tongue!). No matter how big we are, her books say, we’re still growing up. And no matter how small we are, we matter.

This embracing, inclusive sensibility persists in her novels for pre-teens and adolescents, which make a point of rendering small children, siblings, parents and other grown-ups as real, fully-rounded, plausibly particular people. A teen may be the heart of the story, but each person she meets has a story of their own. Whatever rung we currently occupy on the ladder of time, we all leave the book a little more empathetic, a little more understanding of others, a little more aware of our common humanity and life’s implacable unfolding logic.

Any one of her books thus works as a magic mirror that reflects its readers as they are, as they were, and as they will be -- and with a subtle nudge, as they could and should be.  If there is a moral argument in Mahy’s fiction, it’s a radical, unfettered imperative to be true to your dear, messy self  -- your daring, inquisitive, forthright, brave, forgiving, passionate, loving, and a little bit bonkers self. And to relish it when others do the same.

So you’re a beautiful and slightly stern librarian called Serena Laburnum, and he’s a hairy brigand by the name of Salvation Loveday who’s come to kidnap you. (“What is it when our librarian is kidnapped?” asked a councillor. “Is it staff expenditure or does it come out of the cultural fund?”). Take events in your stride, while insisting on the rules of the library, and soon enough your unlikely ruffian suitor and his gang of robbers will “then and there [swear] that they would cease to be villains and become librarians instead.” This not only leads to a “remarkably well run” library, but gives you permanent secret pleasure, since you’re “more of a robber at heart than anyone every suspected.”

Or you’re a former free spirit, trapped in a respectable suit in a day job, prone to “turning green and going all limp” on account of a large family and money troubles and the ennui of modern life: “I don’t think parties are what they were. I remember parties that went off with a bang and seemed to fill the air with rainbows and parrot feathers.” Suddenly you’re called upon to host a Great Piratical Rumbustification. Rise to the occasion, Mr Terrapin – grow easy in your mind, welcome the chaos, reap the reward and feel “contentment pour into [your] heart like creamy milk into a porridge bowl.”

Always, the answer comes from within, but catalysed by events and encounters from without. A cat crunches down a poetic mouse and unexpectedly discovers a knack for versifying and philosophising. It's a bit hard for the mouse, and a bit of a poisoned gift for the cat, who's not sure he likes this new way of thinking and speaking.

He felt as if his head was full of coloured lights. Pictures came and went behind his eyes. Things that were different seemed alike. Things that were real changed and became dreams.

That's Mahy's face in the mirror, peeking out from behind her character's whiskers. The cursed cat -- "I don't want to make poetry. I just want to be a cat catching mice and sleeping in the catmint bed" -- finds that poetry has its charms: he talks his way out of trouble with a dog, and makes his peace with the cosmic fortune of his new talent.

The cat went on thinking. “I became a poet through eating the mouse. Perhaps the mouse became a poet through eating seeds. Perhaps all this poetry stuff is just the world’s way of talking about itself.” And straight away he felt another poem coming into his mind.

“Just time for a sleep first,” he muttered into his whiskers. "One thing, I'll never eat another poet again. One is quite enough." And he curled up in the catmint bed for a quick kip-and-catnap as cats do.

(NB All three of these stories, at least in the versions I have, were illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, whose anarchic blotchiness strikes just the right chaotic, kinetic tone. Tempted to post a picture or two.).

I love the hidden depths of the stories for younger children, but it’s in Mahy’s teen fiction that things get even richer. The Catalogue of the Universe is one in particular that keeps pulling me back. Angela and Tycho, dreamy girl and geeky-astronomer boy, roaming Christchurch after dark -- what can I say, it’s a catalogue of my universe at a specific point in time and space.  It’s also a spectacularly well-made story.

Nobody can start a story like Margaret Mahy. Here’s how it begins:

One hot summer night Angela woke up and found she could not go back to sleep again for, beyond her closed eyelids, the room was infected with disturbing silver.

Hot… infected… disturbing… it's a subliminal invitation to surrender to a fever-dream disguised as life. We discover that it’s not the moon that woke Angela, but a swishing sound, “a sound like a whispered word.” Out of bed, she fumbles her way around her moonlit bedroom with her eyes closed, a marvelous writerly device that tells us a great deal about her and her world, as she encounters her treasures, an old teddy, an ominous doll, a desk full of exam notes. She opens her eyes and confronts her own beautiful naked self, “for she refused to wear a nightgown in the summer.” Then comes the sound again: “a whispered word, come and gone before it could be understood.”

Now, unlike some of the plainer, more intellectual heroines of the Mahy canon, Angela knows her power lies in her beauty. “She was her own currency and, being desirable, was able to pay her own way in the ferocious world beyond the fox-faced teddy and the smooth stones.” She knows she’s inherited this beauty from her unknown father, about whom her eccentric single mother won’t speak. With Angela on the cusp of adulthood, this “wonderful dowry” is a time-bomb.

And a third time the sound comes, “a sound as gentle as a hand brushing down a velvet curtain.” Angela moves to the window to discover the source: an arresting vision, for her and for us --  her mother, Dido, “scything the lawn by moonlight… like Mother Time herself.” Absurd, marvellous! Angela says as much herself. "I can't think of one other kid I know who'd wake up at two a.m. and find her mother scything the grass."

I can't think of one other writer I know who'd put that scene in a book set in New Zealand. And look what she's smuggled in. Mother Time. Mother, time. Time for Angela to confront her mother, time to whisper the words she’s been sitting on all these years. Who am I? Who is my father?  Thus the quest begins, both universal and particular; a daughter’s story and the story of a mother, a story of strangeness and estrangement, escape and return.  

And that’s only a tiny, tiny part of what Mahy manages to weave into her scene-setting – there’s so much more in that first short chapter, about the universe, about family, about location, about danger, about Angela's "home that had never quite got as far as being a proper house" (not the other way around, note), before we even get to the second chapter which throws us into Tycho's own disorderly, star-gazing life. Every time I read this book, I linger over that opening. I’m both bewitched by the story and dazzled by the writing. It’s a master class in how to write a first chapter. The chapters that follow only get better.

And then you stumble across a time-warp passage like this, as Angela and Tycho make their way up Colombo St in Christchurch, 1985 or thereabouts:

They were in a street where people had once come to shop, and indeed some of the old shops were still there, hanging on in an insecure and seedy fashion, even the new stock in their windows looking out-of-date and unwanted. All around them the street was changing. Old buildings were beaten down to rubble during the day, vanishing entirely overnight. High wooden fences sprang up, set with little windows so that curious passers-by could peer through them and watch the birth of car parks, drive-in liquor stores, and office blocks. Heavy trucks drove up with huge revolving drums on their backs, and began spewing out grey porridgy torrents of concrete, which waiting men immediately began to spread into place. Suspended above the new surfaces, which were in the process of being created, were walkways of wood, heavy planks along which men could push barrows – a maze hanging above the tender new crust of the city.

A maze, hanging. Amazing. Not just poet, but prophet.

--

So this morning, I put on a silly hat covered with leaves and flowers (the next best thing, me not being in possession of a rainbow afro wig), and talked to a classroom of six year olds about the legend who had just passed. The headline in the paper, which some of them had seen, called her a “giant”, which they found persuasive.  When I asked them to guess how many books this giant woman had written, they shouted “A THOUSAND!!!” -- which felt close enough.

I read them The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate. I’d grabbed it off the shelf that morning in a rush to get to school. It’s not an easy book – Mahy doesn’t write down to children, she writes up to them – but it seemed a suitable choice for a seaside school, a little man and his mother on an optimistic pilgrimage towards the ocean despite various obstacles and doubters."The wonderful things are never as wonderful as you hope they'll be," grumbles a philosopher. "The sea is less warm, the joke less funny, the taste is never as good as the smell."

The robust pirate mother isn't having any of that. She knows where she's going, and her downtrodden son looks perkier the closer they get. “Yes, it’s blue in the sunshine,” she rhapsodises, “and it’s grey in the rain. I’ve seen it golden with sunlight, silver with moonlight and black as ink at night. It’s never the same twice.” She’s talking about the sea, of course, but she might as well be talking about the book itself. Even though I know it’s coming, the moment when they finally see the sea gets me every time.

“Glory! Glory! There’s the salt!” cried his mother triumphantly.

Suddenly they came over the hill.

 

Suddenly there was the sea.

Whoever designed the book knew that you need a double-page spread of Margaret Chamberlain’s gorgeous illustration at that point. Not just to demonstrate the “BIGNESS of the sea”; not just to capture the transformative effect of it on the little man in his brown suit -- “He opened his mouth, and the drift and the dream of it, the weave and the wave of it, the fume and the foam of it never left him again.” But also by way of a pause, so that the adult reader can take a deep breath and stare very hard at something for a minute or so, in order to be able to keep reading thereafter.

Every damn time.

(An aside: the only other New Zealand book that regularly does this to me is Bob Kerr’s magnificently simple, simply magnificent and inexplicably out of print After the War. It has one particular page that’s like a bayonet to the belly, which thankfully usually bypasses the younger readers. I was glad to discover via Google that Mahy and Kerr collaborated at least once).

After reading the story, I told the kids to be sure to look around at home for gold earrings and shiny cutlasses and silver pistols, just in case their own mothers were also secretly pirates. There was a pause and then several hands shot up and a little voice asked, point-blank, with just exactly the right amount of suspicion and scepticism, “Are YOU secretly a pirate?”

Suddenly I stared back at them, not quite sure myself.

Suddenly, I was.

 

Thank you, Margaret Mahy, poet, pirate, writer, mother, giant, for your magical, transformative gift.