Up Front by Emma Hart


Fringe of Darkness

Content Warning for child sexual abuse.

Last year wasn't an easy year for me. I was starting to come out of the worst, but still struggling, when I saw a message from my friend Anke Richter looking for someone to do some transcription work for her. Perfect. Not too intellectually demanding, but enough to make me feel occupied and useful. I offered, and she was happy to accept. 

I was introduced to Anke by David Haywood, whom I seem to remember quietly slinking off as the conversation took in sex work, pornography, and possibly female ejaculation. I'm not sure, it was a long time ago now. In any case, she had reason to believe that I could cope with the material she was about to give me. Anke was working on a book about Centrepoint. Metro is now hosting her article on the process. It's a long read and not an easy one, but worth the time. 

I was transcribing hours of interviews with people from Centrepoint: victims, abusers, people who'd been deeply scarred, people who'd been to prison, people who were just around. Anke was trying to get a broader picture of what had happened, a more nuanced one; 

As a reporter, I wanted to explore how a utopian dream could turn into a collective nightmare and normal people end up as convicted paedophiles. My aim was to help the reconciliation of former Centrepoint families by sharing their memories.

We weren't talking about a story of unreasoning evil suddenly springing out of nowhere. There was none of the insulation of self-righteousness, but a search for understanding that inevitably leads to empathy. 

The odd thing about transcription work is that it happens at such a pace you can't really take in what you're transcribing until you stop. Then your brain starts to process the words that just went in your ears and out your fingers. I'd be cooking dinner and think, "Wait a minute, did she really say that?" 

Some reactions were strong enough to cut through that insulation. I was dealing with unfiltered interviews, people were using real names who were intended to have the protection of anonymity. Someone in an interview used a name, and I realised that person was someone I knew of. I hadn't known they were connected to Centrepoint. It was a shock. There is much in the interviews that doesn’t come across in the transcripts: the sound of poured drinks and hospitality, cicadas and sunshine, tone of voice. 

One interview in particular had a very strong effect on me. From that point, I started to talk to Anke about my impressions of these people, my reactions to them. I started asking her how they came across in person. We started talking about the effect the material was having on both of us. 

I won't name the woman, or use any direct quotes from the interview. She was one of the senior women at Centrepoint. Talking about one of the victims who'd gone to court, her tone was scathing. The woman used her body to get power, she said. If she didn't want to sleep with Bert, or other men, why would she? No, she enjoyed the status it gave her. She was tough. 

Anke's gentle German accent on the recording. "She was twelve. She was a little girl." 

I had to stop the recording, and go outside. I was shaking with rage and pain. She was twelve. 

The next day, about half an hour of interview later, I was sitting at my keyboard with tears running down my face listening to the same woman cry as she talked about some of the other victims, as she expressed genuine remorse, as she said, I had no right to do that. As she talked about wanting to see those girls again, to apologise. The woman I had hated the day before was breaking my heart. She cried again, talking about her parents visiting her in prison. 

I got sucked into the story. I started working out the maze of connections. I stopped being just a transcriber and listened actively to the people telling these incredibly personal stories. I would hear someone recount something incredibly personal, and the next week hear someone else say, "That never happened. I don't remember that." The longer it went on, the less there was to be sure of. 

Then one day there was an email from Anke. Stop the transcriptions. We're not sure what's happening with the book. After a few weeks of uncertainty, it emerged. A threat of legal action has stopped publication. 

What I went through was simply brushing up against the edges of what Anke was living for years. She has shown extraordinary courage in writing not just about what she learned, but about the profound effect it had on her as a human being who was also a journalist. We send writers and journalists into these fraught situations, to come out with the story, and expect them to be unscathed. To bear witness, and be unaffected, neutral observers. It’s little wonder the occupation is famed for its drinking.


So Farewell Then, UCSA

When you move away from a place that's meant a lot to you, it stays unchanged in your head. You don't see the flow of life change it. Particularly for people who've left Christchurch, a memory of a building can be more permanent, more immutable, than the building itself. 

For those of us who've seen the University of Canterbury Student Union building standing empty and derelict, fencing leaning ineffectually on it the way so many of us have over the years, the news of its impending demolition was unsurprising. Like so much here, we only wonder why it's taken so long. When the building is still pristine in your memory, it's rather more of a shock. 

All right, 'pristine' is completely the wrong word. Intact. Concretey. Orange. Drear and blocky and completely impractical. Okay, I'm not a big fan of Brutalism. The easy-hose-down decor was at least understandable, but the rabbit-warren of little hallways and windowless (or far too windowed) rooms? Those orange couches with the sloping backs? I was there in the 90s. Why was everything so relentlessly 70s? 

Warren and Mahoney themselves describe the building as "a skeletal encrustation", and it's hard to argue. "The building’s predominant materials of robust fairface concrete, concrete block and timber have survived vigorous student use." 

To be fair, I'm sure there were thousands of UC students who only set foot in the Student Association building to have their ID photos taken. My social group lived there. We had, long before I arrived, somehow commandeered some of the best real estate in the building: the bit of the Lower Common Room that overhung the amphitheatre. It would have been beautifully sunny if not for those massive trees which also ensured the amphitheatre was always damp except in the height of summer, when no-one was there. It was easy slouching distance to toilets, the Upper Cafe and its lethal filter coffee, and a bar. Everyone had the number of the phone just outside. 

So for those of us for whom that building was home, or at least a second lounge, we should take a tip from our far-flung bretheren and take a moment to mourn the passing of that great concrete shithole. Those were the days of our lives, vomited all over its constantly slightly tacky carpet.


It's the tiny little things I remember. The time someone stuck a gherkin from a McDonalds cheeseburger onto the window, and we left it there to see what would happen. And left it, and left it... The spot in the stairwell where someone had tried to put their fist (I hope) through a pane of safety glass. The sea of bags outside Bentley's when they made us leave them in case we were smuggling in even cheaper booze. The eponymous cat himself, who once followed me and a Lovely Young Man through campus in the middle of the night when we were sneaking off for a quick shag because I still had the key to the English Department. The migration to the Upper Common Room on a Friday for Happy Hour, on account of cocktails and the LCR filling up with Normals. 

So many games of 500, played on those orange couches around those low coffee tables. Endless games of Scum that people would drift in and out of as they had lectures. Talking Shit and Playing Cards: those were our things. Those walls heard so much utter bollocks. 

KAOS had a relationship of beligerant affection with the cafe ladies. They would watch us dump a spoon of instant in a coffee cup and top it up with filter coffee without a flicker. There was only a slight hesitation before they gave us fifteen cups of cafe coffee with which to carry out a public execution. The crumbed fish was perfectly edible, the frozen yoghurt was lovely, and more than one of my friends ate at the cafes so much they got scurvy. 

Falling in the river. Well, "falling" in the river. Drying off on the sunny bit of concrete in the amphitheatre. Always being mildly curious about the Go club because their noticeboard was right next to ours. Never realising how English a phrase "common room" was. 

If you ever went there late at night, or in the holidays, the emptiness of the building was weird and wrong. It's been empty and silent for years now. I've found, oddly, that in all my photos of my time at uni, I have none of the UCSA building itself. If you do, please share them, and your stories too. Time to drag those plastic jugs back out of our cupboards, pour one of those tiny glasses, and maybe sing one last chorus of "Black Betty". Bam-ba-lam indeed.


Well, Read Women

Frequently, men write to Captain Awkward complaining that they can't get women to go out with them. One of her staple pieces of advice for them is 'consume art by women'. This might seem like a fairly strange bit of dating advice, but it serves two purposes. One, it's something they can do, themselves, that isn't dependent on other people. Two, it's about seeing women as people, and seeing things from their perspective. 

Works by men, with male protagonists, dominate popular culture. We all grow up on stories and messages where men go out and do great deeds and they rescue and/or win the love of women. They pursue women. They acquire women as decorative objects. If you aren’t good at acquiring these objects you are a loser or a failure. These are the messages you are swimming in, and they are affecting your life.


Take love poetry. When written by men, women are the objects of men's desire. I mean 'objects' in the grammatical sense. So, "he sees her": 'he' is the subject of the verb, she is the object. Only subjects can do things, objects can only have things done to them. Women become passive. Christopher Marlowe wrote The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, a famous piece of male longing after an uncooperative woman. The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd was also written by a man, Sir Walter Raleigh. Even when women did get to speak, it was with men's voices. 

"Hold on, Emma, that's a bit heteronormative, isn't it?" Good, I'm pleased you noticed, a lot of people didn't. And yeah, the broader message is, consume art by as many different kinds of people, listen to as many voices, as you can. Sometimes those voices can be hard to find. The thing about "read books by women" is that it's easy. It's actually easier than avoiding reading books by women, if you're a reader. I can't actually fathom how people do that. Every time you go into a bookshop or a library, there they are, hundreds of books by women. Yet I know there are men who only read books by men, because I've met them, spoken to them, been whined at by them. 

Women have been writing novels since before novels really existed. They helped shape the form. There has never been a time when you couldn't find novels by women. It can be hard to find movies written or directed by women, or television under women's creative control, but it's never been hard to find novels by female authors. If you read, there really is no excuse for not reading women. 

And yet. Some men get so upset. They're not sexist! The fact they hardly ever read books by women is just a matter of taste. Or accident. Or women don't write the kind of books they like to read. 

I have read the odd book by woman authors(sic) but they have failed to inspire the loyalty I feel towards writers like Saul Bellow, Henry Millar and David Foster Wallace, some of whom have no doubt been criticised for being chauvanists of the highest order. I like Zadie Smith but she does not come close to a cigar.

No, I have no idea what that last sentence means either. 

So, some common objections. Yes, J.K. Rowling 'counts'. She counts as 'a woman'. I said, books by women. Fortunately, no female author carries the burden of being required to speak for all women. Part of the point of the exercise is realising that women are all different, and have vastly different opinions and points of view.   

No, the fact that I can't name a woman off the top of my head who writes exactly the sub-sub-genre that's apparently all you'll read does not invalidate any of this. That's not my job, it's yours. Like urban fantasy? Look for an anthology like this. Maybe you'll find a female writer in there. But it really, really isn't my job, or any woman's job, to find them for you. 

Yes, there are men who write women very well. Yes, there are women who write women very badly. How is that relevant? I'm not saying women are better writers than men. 

In fact, I'll let you in on a little secret. It's not really about whether you read women. I mean, you should, and I'm going to raise an eyebrow and probably not sleep with you if there are no books by women on your shelves. It's really about how you react when you're asked to read books by women. It's a very small thing. Try reading only female authors for a month, just a month. If that seems like a ridiculous, onerous task, an unreasonable request that should never be made, there may be a problem. If you find the implicit accusation of sexism to be the Worst Thing in the World, it's probably dead on the mark. 


Not Uniform

This is one of my kids' class photos from primary school. You may notice that everyone is dressed the same. I'm not big on uniform, as you may know, but if a school has to have one, this is a good model. Track pants, polo shirt, sweatshirt. It was cheap, a big factor at a Decile 3 school. It was practical, easy to move around in, didn't require a separate sport uniform, and accommodated the needs of the school's Muslim families. 

It was also gender-neutral. 

I'm not sure why the suggestion on uniforms has been plucked out of the Ministry of Education's new sexuality education guidelines as the hot issue. I'm even less sure why people thought we should care what Bob McCoskrie thought about it. It's a perfectly easy and reasonable thing to do. You don't say "girls can wear trousers and boys can wear skirts", you just have one uniform, with trousers, which are unisex wear in most cultures. Then you can stop worrying about how short the girls' skirts are, and girls can bike to school without getting their ridiculous box-pleated kilts caught in their wheels. 

The underlying premise of the new guidelines is that all students, of whatever gender or sexual identity, should feel safe at school. They're about removing discrimination from school practices. We stop pretending that we don't have gay, bi, lesbian, trans* and intersex kids in our schools, and start protecting them. 

Of 8000 New Zealand secondary students questioned, 1.2% identified as trans*, and 2.5& as 'unsure'. Even if you take a low '1 in 100' rate of trans* pupils, that means the odds are there are a couple in every state school. It's not ridiculous to accommodate them, it's ridiculous to go on pretending they don't exist. 

The MinEdu guidelines think it would be a good idea if they had somewhere safe to go to the toilet. 

The section on 'whole of school engagement', which appears to be the only page many reporters have had time to read, recommends: 

 - schools consider gender-neutral options when uniform code comes up for review 

 - reviewing options around toileting facilities so all students have choices of safe spaces 

 - schools should demonstrate valuing diversity by allowing same-sex partners at school events such as balls 

 - sports procedures and practices should allow participation of all students, regardless of gender or sexual identity. They should combat bullying. All extra-curricular activities should be open to all students. 

 - bullying involving gendered or homophobic slurs should be recorded specifically and separately and monitored. 

The suggested changes to uniform code seem to be the least controversial of those proposals. Consider the impact of those changes to sport practices. (At my co-ed high school, we were never divided by gender for PE, but we played soccer, hockey and volleyball, never rugby, cricket, or netball.) 

The really scary stuff is right in the curriculum. 

All young people need access to information and opportunities to think about, question, and discuss issues related to relationships, gender, sexual identities, sexual orientation, sexual behaviour, sexual and reproductive health, and societal messages. Sexuality education provides a framework in which this can happen.

This is not 'how to not make babies'. For instance, at Years 4-6 (upper primary school): 

They will describe how social messages and stereotypes about relationships, sexuality, and gender affect well-being, and will actively affirm the rights of themselves and others. They will identify risks and issues in online and social media environments and question messages related to gender, sexuality, and diversity. 

This is not so much "but a 'boy' might wear a skirt!" as "We may teach your nine year old to smash the patriarchy, okay?" Imagine, trendy lefty liberals, sending your kids to school and not having them coming home with a whole bunch of gender-conforming sexist bullshit. 

By Years 9-10 (early high school): 

Programmes will affirm sexual diversity and gender identity. Students will learn about the physical and emotional effects of sexual identity, sexual attraction, and sexual maturation. Students will critique dominant cultural messages about sexual behaviour (including those in mass and online media) and identify skills for positive and supportive intimate relationships. Human rights, consent, and the importance of choice and agency in relationships will be discussed. 

Imagine the PE teacher at whatever over-privileged single-sex rugby-head school comes to mind "affirming sexual diversity and gender identity". 

I could go on, or I could let those of you who care read the report yourselves. There's only one place where I have a serious problem with this whole thing: it's not compulsory. The schools who will do this will be the schools who would do it anyway. 

Schools are required to consult with their 'communities' about sexuality education every two years. Consultation isn't defined, in terms of form or duration. The report does note that consultation does not require agreement, and that parents can opt their children out of sexuality classes. (It's opt-out, not opt-in.) It's the school's job to find a way of balancing the curriculum with the 'values' of their community. It's just as well it's not my job, because I would always say, "The rights of the students to safety, respect, and quality information are paramount. Suck it." 


Stand for... Something

Recently, I was Pub-Talking to an acquaintance, an American guy who's been living in New Zealand for a few years now. One of the things that really struck him about New Zealand was our lack of patriotism. You see it on ANZAC Day, he said, but where is it the rest of the time? 

I mulled this for a while after I staggered home, because I think it's a more interesting question than it seems on the face of it. Stripped of its jingoism, patriotism is 'pride in your country'. I think it also extends to an idea of a national character, and pride in that. 

Our pride in our country isn't militaristic, and why would it be? We've always gone into wars as followers. When we do talk about our military history, we concentrate on defeats. This is both a tipper to our national character, and part of the reason our patriotism is invisible to an American lens. Those days when we're told we should be celebrating our country, ANZAC Day and Waitangi Day, are days many of us find complex and conflicted, and there's nothing wrong with that. 

That doesn't mean we don't have a strong sense of national pride, most visible when it's offended. Try telling anyone my age that Split Enz is an Australian band. Leave us off maps. Pavlova. Flat whites. He might have had a point when he said, "The things you do get upset about are so stupid." 

Here's the essential conflict, I think. We're pretty proud of our national character, mythological as it is. But part of that character is being Humble, so we can't ever mouth off about how great we are because part of being a Kiwi being great is not mouthing off about things. Not like those fucking Aussies. This tweet of Stephen Judd's from the Cricket World Cup about sums it up perfectly for me. 

 We're not those arseholes abusing batsmen when we get them out, and we don't want to be. 

This also comes with a sense of fair play, the idea that if we're going to kick someone, we kick up. We're proud of punching above our weight, after all. We were the first country to give women the vote (technically), and no matter their politics people seem proud of that. So too the nuclear ships ban, majestically giving the fingers to a world super-power. Not everybody cried all over their faces at the singing in Parliament after marriage equality passed, but give it a few more years, and it'll be one of those things almost everyone is proud we did. 

These are not, still, my favourite things about our national character. A couple of years back, I took great pride in doing something that to me epitomised what it means to be a New Zealander. I had a conversation, on Twitter, with the leader of a major political party, about giant robot dinosaur vaginas. (There are no prizes for guessing which leader it was.) We live in a country where she could have that conversation, publically, with no repercussions. We also live in a country where she could be the kind of person who would have that conversation. 

So, with the flag debate comes a discussion of our national character. Standfor.co.nz was supposed to provide a forum for that discussion; who are we? In a way, completely unintentionally, it's done that. In typical New Zealand social media subversion, the site is now displaying hundreds of messages basically saying that changing the flag is a fucking stupid idea. The flag design submission process has been similarly undermined, because that is who we are. As a country, we are giggling up the back of the class because we think you're a dick. I love that about us. 

In the end, though, I'm just another middle-aged middle-class Pakeha shaping my view of New Zealandness through the filter of my own experience. Does the way the internet allows us to group in communities of interest rather than geography undermine a sense of nationhood, or highlight national differences? Is our major source of recent pride that we've made John Oliver practice his New Zild accent? Are we too divided for there to be any point in having this conversation? 


Also, America? We are way better at democracy than you. Sorry.