The Cycle of Life

At home, the colour of the grapes has changed rapidly. In December they were a wistful light green and now, swollen with juice, they are rich burgundy, potent with sweet promise and ready to be picked. It’s a metaphor for the cycle of life: birth, growth, maturation, and eventually death. And death is where we’ll start. I know, I know, I’ve said before I don’t want these columns to become like the book of the dead, but, on the other hand, the kawa of the marae has the panegyric at the beginning of korero, and we have lost some notable people since we last met as reader and scribe.

I will start with the lofty mountain who, since his conquest of Everest, has towered over the consciousness of the nation. Of all the speeches made in Parliament about the late Sir Edmond Hilary the most poignant, in my view, was the poroporoaki from Pita Sharples. Pita spoke of gathering the memories of all those that have recently passed, as he paid tribute to this extraordinary New Zealander and global citizen, and softly farewelled him into the arms of Hine-nui-te-Po, who waits for us all.

E koe, e te kaumatua o te roopu Pakeha no Aotearoa, Ta Ed, haere, pikia atu te ara ki Te Reigna, haere ki te Maunga o te Ariki, ko Ihoa, haere atu ra.

Sir Ed; extraordinary New Zealander and global citizen Image from fyd.org.nz

So in farewelling Sir Ed, let me also gather for us some memories of other friends and other leaders who have passed into the night, other New Zealanders you may not have known but who, each in their own unique way, add their own strand to the mat that weaves us into the nation of Aotearoa New Zealand.

E nga mate, nga tini mate, haere, haere, haere.

Pita included in his lamentations that fine 85 year old communistic kaka, te manu tioriori o te Taitokerau, Hone Tuwhare. It was Tuwhare’s words, spoken by Sir Ed’s mokopuna during the latter’s requiem service, that symbolically connected these two natural human features, giants in our young nation.

Hone Tuwhare

E Ta Ed, e Hone, haere ra korua.

If Sir Ed was about lofty physicality, Hone was focused on the earthy body of the land. My friend Roger Steele reckoned that Hone’s life was a tribute to the recuperative powers of a diet of mussels, mutton birds, wine, and women.

Te Pipiwharauroa e tangi nei, rere pouri i konei

Barely an hour before Hone passed, also in Dunedin, so did fellow poet Victor O’Leary, a fellow Marist, and lesser known member of the so called ‘Glenco group’, along with James K Baxter and Anton Vogt.

Moe mai e koe Victor, taku tuakana o te whanau a Maria.

And another contemplative southern man who sleeps in perpetuity is ‘Brother Francis’, Francis Roberston, a monk who was part of Baxter’s commune movement and who fostered our southern most commune, ‘Wharemanuka’, out at a headland near Lanarch’s Castle I seem to remember.

E koe, e Pa, kua ngaro koe ki te po

Remember too Del Adams. Del was of a different ilk from most of my friends, a good guy from my early days on the streets of Wellington. He was straight up and I enjoyed his company as one of the town boys with Spinner (‘Spin a Yarn’) McMahon, Martin Joiner and Ray Johns and other names not wise to mention. Del was a wrestler who fought under a range of monikers including, in 1978, as ‘Delicious Del’ when he fought at Madison Square Gardens in New York and beat Johnny Rodz in front of 22,000 screaming fans.

Del Adams


Farewell brother, you were a good, staunch, family-conscious man.

And, in another world entirely, as chalk is to cheese, there is the kaumatua Ben Dalton, a father and grandfather from Nga Puhi, with a touch of the green, Dalton being the clue. Ben Dalton nama tahi (not to be confused with his son Ben Dalton nama rua who is very much alive – although Derek Fox argued at the tangi that Ben Dalton number two has now become Ben Dalton number one by dint of his dad’s death). I met Ben Snr on family occasions and only once otherwise, at his home in Mangere. Through his natural intelligence and applied effort, first on the land, and then in the cities, he nurtured and grew a fine line of educated, informed, Maori New Zealanders, who are making their mark on and for our nation. This was attested to by the continual flow of mourners to his tangi at Ohaewai, including judges and chief executives and stroppy whanaunga like Dun Mihaka

Haere ki te po e te rangatira, takoto mai e runga i te rangimarie.

At his tangi I read these lines of Hemi’s

Because you stand
For country pride and gentleness, engraved
In forehead lines, veins swollen on the hand;
Also, behind slow speech and quiet eye
The rock of passionate integrity

There are other chiefly figures who have also passed into the night. I include our sister and mother, Shirley Smith, who died in late December as she turned into her early 90’s. Shirley was the daughter of Sir David Smith, a distinguished jurist and, eventually, Chancellor of the University of New Zealand. In turn she was one of those bright young New Zealanders who went to Oxford around the 1930’s. She graduated with a degree in Classics when Europe was on the brink of war. Like many of her fellows at Oxford she joined the Communist Party, apparently, in a stand against the rise of fascism in Germany and Spain. The milieu of the time was tumultuous. I’m fascinated by how these bright young New Zealand minds – people like Shirley Smith and Paddy Costello – ended up being influenced by all the forces at play amongst and between the English and European intelligentsia and the opinion leaders of the day. In turn they synthesised and contextualised ‘what’s be happen’ and in their own ways helped form a New Zealand position, a stance in the politics of the world, which in the main we still hold today.

Shirley Smith

Shirley reportedly ended her association with the Communist Party after the invasion of Hungary in 1956. Her husband, Dr. Bill Sutch, another renowned thinker and highly ranked public servant, was the architect of our system of ‘social security’ as opposed to our current notions of ‘social welfare’. In 1974 during a particularly paranoid period of the cold war in the South Pacific, Sutch was at the centre of spy allegations with alleged goings on between him and Soviet agents. Although in 1975 he was proved to be innocent of the charges the matter took a heavy toll on him and he died soon after. “My husband was never a Communist, but I was”, Shirley would say. Shirley went on to undertake a Law degree. Besides being a leading academic – she is credited with having broken the glass ceiling for women in New Zealand law – she went into private practice in the early 1960’s as a barrister sole. It was in this context that I first got to know her. She was small, feisty, bright, and non-judgemental. Her clients were often people from the Black Power and Mongrel Mob. It looked really incongruous at the old Magistrates Court with this little Pakeha lady standing in the middle of a large circle of leathered up gang members organising defences and preparing statements. Shirley eventually teamed up with George Rosenberg who was also a community oriented lawyer and she put her efforts into a wide range of issues consistent with her beliefs. She was a driving force behind the establishment of the Human Rights Organisation and the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties. She also served as the National Secretary for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Shirley had wanted the Black Power brothers to be at her funeral, and even though she had not been in practice for many many years her mana was such that the Wellington Chapter of the Black Power turned out in numbers to say farewell. Harry Tam represented the Mongrel Mob whanau.

Respect for community effort is intergenerational. Even though many of the brothers present at her funeral had not even met her she had represented members of their whanau and had consistently gone the extra mile to get justice for their communities. She had been a friend and leader and families pay respect to families. And so, there, sitting in the front rows of St Andrews on the Terrace she had gang members alongside the high, mighty, and powerful of the land who had come also to bid her farewell. There were songs and music drawn from the Classics she loved. Her daughter, Helen Sutch, spoke of a loving mother and grandmother as did grandchildren and friends. Keith Ovenden, Shirley’s son-in-law, gave a fittingly erudite and witty eulogy. During the poroporoaki I quoted these lines from the Hemi’s ‘Ballad of the Third Boobhead’

“And the third man said
It will take more than talk
To make this a country
Where the men who were treated like slaves will be able to work
For other things than money,
Then the four boobheads caught on the horns of the beast
Saw on that dark morning
Above the town, like lightning in the east
The bones of Lenin shining”

Ovenden later said to me, “Denis, Lenin’s body has been so well preserved you’ll be waiting a long time for that”. Anyway, following good form, the Wellington chapter of the Blacks saluted the whaea with a thunderous rendition of ‘Rongo Toa’ recognising that Shirley Smith was indeed wahine toa, that the Law was her taiaha, and that the Courts, that have served them so unfairly, were her field of battle.

So along with Sir Ed farewell to all these New Zealanders

E nga mate haere haere haere
Koutou kua wehe atu ki te po
Nga roimata aroha e maringi mai nei
Haere koutou haere
Haere, haere ra.

And so now we come back to the living and to our daily toil and goddam its all fast and furious. January saw another fantastic Parihaka Peace Festival. These guys are on to it. Numbers were up on last year and yet the advertising was virtually nil, all word of mouth, networking, and website. Majority of tickets sold on line. Mix Maori and technology and whoopee! On music, I went to listen to Warren Maxwell as Little Bushman. He was playing with Don McGlashan and the Seven Sisters at Trinity Hill as part of a summer tour. The place was stacked with people Metro used to refer to as ‘visitors from Hawke’s Bay’, early blue rinse matrons with picnic hampers full of fine foods and superior cheeses to match the wines. There was dissonance and consternation. These people had come to hear Fat Freddy’s Drop type stuff from Maxwell and Dominion Road and Bathe in the River from McGlashan. They got some, but the boys were more interested in playing retro late 1960’s early 70’s psychedelic bluesy rock, with overtures of Cream and Hendrix. McGlashan was on the euphonium. Something really nice is going on here so watch this space for some breakthrough music coming from these most creative Kiwis.

I went too to Ragamuffin in Rotorua. Actually the bros were doing the security and I ended up being dispatched to look after the VIP lounge where I was able to hook up with old friends from the Wailers and the homeland bands. It was an awesome event, 30,000 people and only 3 arrests – compare that to the 7’s! The music was just great. I was really impressed with House of Shem, a Wanganui based band formed by Carl Perkins (ex Herbs) and his boys Joshua and Te Omeka. Katchafire were good as always. It will have been a long time since Maxi Priest played in front of 30,000 people but he and his son built up a new fan base that day, and when they collaborated with the Wailers to play “I shot the Sheriff” it was like we had all died and gone to heaven. Arrested Development brought a touch of hip hop with energy to burn and UB40 on their ‘final appearance in NZ’ (yeah right!) were silky smooth as the final act. Finally, in another world of music altogether, my kaumatua Ian Prior got me to go to Zarzuela, a “composite operetta in Spanish with old favourites, such as El duo de la Africana (from La Africana) and Por el humo se sabe (from Vives)”. Ian acts as patron to a budding mezzo soprano Anna Pierard who, with her partner Jose Aparicio, a tenor, both study at the Guildhall. Anna will appear in Hansel and Gretel for New Zealand Opera in June. I took two of the brothers with me and a nephew who is fluent in Spanish. It appears that Spanish opera has a lot to do with bonking and two timing, and, despite the language barrier and unfamiliar genre the bros caught on fast.

The Wailers Image from wailers.com

Waitangi Day has come and gone. There was much hysteria from Shane Jones MP who claimed that gangs were using the event at Waitangi to recruit members. This was on the basis that the Tribesmen had a tent with gleaming bikes and were giving away lollies to kids or such. Now that’s gangsta! Gangs had no place on the marae he said. I respect and like Shane and generally he demonstrates more persicapacity than on this occasion, although, I concede it is an election year. Again, let me be clear, being in a gang, like being in jail is a waste of time. Where I differ with Shane is that reconnecting with one’s true culture is an essential step in the route to rediscovering yourself as a human being and thus as part of the community. What I saw at Waitangi was this. I saw gang leaders, Roy Dunne and his team from the Mongrel Mob and Sooey and a crew from the Blacks minding and caring for a crew of young Bloods and Crips who had been at each others throats in Auckland. They had them staying together at Te Tii Marae and being exposed to all of the acculturating elements of Waitangi like the waka crews under the leadership of Wiremu Wiremu, the sequential powhiri, the hard work in hosting and feeding manuhiri, and the debate and waiata in the big tent. I didn’t see any of these gang leaders in patches – actually it’s the first time I’ve ever seen Roy without a patch. In any case these young guys were all being lined up at the gates ready for the powhiri and I heard one of the Mob leaders say to a young guy who had a red scarf tied across his face, speaking to him firmly, but not disrespectfully, “take your scarf off, this is a powhiri, these people will look you in the eye and they will want to see your face”. I thought that was great.

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t moan at these kids for mimicking north American gangsta culture and then criticise those who would expose them to their own roots. And another thing, there has been a big blow up around graffiti. The young taggers were interviewed on TV. What do you want? they were asked, why do you do this? We want fame they said. So what do we do? We give it to them in the most negative way possible. Shane attacked the Killer Beez, so what happens? Every TV channel chases Josh Masters, their leader, and features him on ‘exclusives’ and ‘special behind the scenes’ feature programmes. And what do we see? Josh is a good looking, big, fit, Polynesian guy, an NZ champion kickboxer, a rap artist and a businessman. When asked what he wanted he said “to be the best I can be” and his aspirations were around business success. We shall see. Regardless, if you are a 15 year old kid who you gonna follow? Josh or Shane?

On the same point. So called ‘left wing’ media commentator Chris Trotter got all enthusiastic about the new anti-graffiti legislation. At last, he wrote in his Dominion Post column, Helen Clark is listening again to the core Labour voter. What! Is this is good as it gets? Is this the vision – lets get the little bastards? In a time when 50% of Maori boys leave school without life essential education credits, when our prison numbers are already at projected 2011 levels and when there are more Maori in prison then ever before in our nation’s history how dare we focus on this peripheral crap. I really wish Shane and his colleagues would really apply their intellects to this matter rather than indulge their venal political instincts. I can handle Ron Mark relentlessly going on about declaring gangs as terrorists because he absolutely believes he’s right in the same way as the man that stands at the bottom of Cable Car Lane and hands out pamphlets inviting us all to come to Jesus and save ourselves for eternity. But I expect better from leading public policy thinkers like Shane who are likely to mould the shape of our nation in the 21st Century. I offer only the words of the first Maori to speak in the House

“This is the only word that has occurred to me to say, that when it is good and when it is evil that lies before you continue to do that which is good. That which is evil is not so powerful as not to be overcome by good, and that which is good is the only thing that you need spend your powers upon…..” (Tareha Te Moananui MHR, New Zealand Parliament Parliamentary Debates, 1868, Second Volume:270)

In Wellington, where we have some successful community based initiatives going, graffiti is down by at least 25% (against national trends) and city based crime is down. On that, there is some new research from Auckland University that finds that in the last decade crime is down in NZ, down on a per head population basis, and down in severity. The thing that is up is our intolerance of crime and that’s no bad thing either. Why then all the moral panic, hype, and hysteria? Oh damn, I forgot again – election year. There is also another matter of grave concern. Body snatching! It’s a new twist on the consequences of miscegany and it highlights our differing world views between Maori and Pakeha. The mainstream Pakeha mind seems to be fixated on a sense of property right. Who owns the body? Shaun Plunket demands on Morning Report. Its not really clear. ‘Who owns the coffin then?’ he asks, missing the point that there are entirely different perspectives at play, and it is the understanding of these that we reaffirm the culture of the nation. Arguing over the place of interment of a body is, in Maori terms, a respectful thing, an honour. And, I would have thought that being able to connect with or be connected with a marae would be the eventual privilege of every New Zealander. No matter the turmoil amongst the living, the dead are at peace. God bless them and God bless us all. I’ll be back soon with some more thinking and a few stories to tell. I’ve got rid of the monkey on my back in terms of having finished and submitted my dissertation and the next time I write I hope to be able to tell you that I am a duly conferred ‘Master of Social Practice’. Ooh I’ll be writing in big flash words then. Arohanui, keep well, despite all the hassles we live in a great country amongst great people.
Drink it in!


Tags: Denis O'Reilly  Edmund Hillary  graffiti  Waitangi Day