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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

North and South - Cat and Mouse


One of the ways in which I have reconciled the different strands of my background over the years is through geography. As the limited oral history of my father’s family suggested that he had been brought up in Salford as Harry Johnson - and my stepfather’s family were long-established in not so distant Cheshire, there was a link there.

As for my mother’s family, although her maternal grandparents were immigrants to Nantwich in Cheshire in the late 19th Century, strong roots had developed such that their offspring regarded themselves as true locals or ‘Dabbers’. And, on the other side, grand-mother Clarke was a Kenyon from Oldham – you can’t get much more North Western than that.

Cheshire of course is a bit dodgy if you want to be a Northern Nationalist. It is on the edge and can equally be counted as part of the Mercian Midlands – it is somewhere between Maryland and Virginia in its standing.

Anyhow, if a prominent Irish Republican who started life as John Edward Drayton Stephenson (born Leytonstone, London, 1928) can reinvent himself as Seán Mac Stíofáin, I don’t think that you can argue too much about the rights and wrongs of my case.

Years back, when I was a lecturer at the University of Bradford, I had a firebrand spell in the Liberal Democrats and gave a wildly implausible speech to the Annual Conference on regionalism and the need for the South to give greater respect to the North – I sat down to resounding whistles and yells of support.

I guess the main reason for the acclamation was that, unlike most of the other speeches, mine was not that boring. And I think that people were genuinely amazed to be told that the Yorkshire and Humberside Region had a GDP that was larger than that of New Zealand.

[Incidentally, modern New Zealand has a population that is larger than that of the free population of the core states of the Southern Confederacy at the onset of the US Civil War – something I’ll pick up in another article].

Anyhow, having spent more than half of my life now in exile, I have largely given up on the possibility of being invited back to the Independence Celebrations in Harrogate.

But I still follow the subject and have been amused at the row that has broken out about the artistic merits and cultural standing of L.S. Lowry. To me, it is really rather simple. He probably wasn’t all that good an artist but he is ours’ – and, chuck, as they say in Cheshire, ‘a cock fights best on his own bank’.

So I’ll let Gandalf lead the charge.


[by Mark Wainwright, The Guardian, 17 April 2011]

The Tate has been challenged to put its collection of paintings by LS Lowry up for sale if it intends to continue to exclude them from its London galleries.

The actor Sir Ian McKellen threw down the challenge in a joint attack by leading figures from the art world which questioned whether the "matchstick men painter" has been sidelined as too northern and provincial.

Although many artists from the north of England enjoy metropolitan critical acclaim, including David Hockney and Damien Hirst, none assert the character of northern people and landscape with Lowry's dogged persistence.

"Over the years, silly lies have been thrown around that he was only a Sunday painter, an amateur, untrained and naive," said McKellen, who narrates a highly critical television programme about Lowry's "exclusion" to be screened by ITV1 on Easter Day.

"His popularity needs no official endorsement from the Tate, but it is a shame verging on the iniquitous that foreign visitors to London shouldn't have access to the painter English people like more than most others."

The film sees others line up to condemn the fact that the Tate has shown only one of its 23 Lowrys – Industrial Landscape, painted in 1955 and owned by the gallery for 50 years – and then only briefly.

Noel Gallagher, of the Manchester band Oasis, said: "They're not considered Tateworthy. Or is it just because he is a northerner?"

The controversy reached a crunch point when the Tate was refused permission to copy Industrial Landscape to form part of a temporary mural on the work of landscape artists. Lowry's estate, which has donated much of his unsold work to the Lowry centre at Salford Quays, has made no secret of its irritation at the continued storage of his work.

The Tate denied any deprecation of "northern-ness" in Lowry's work, pointing to its record of establishing Tate Liverpool and supporting new Hepworth Wakefield gallery, which opens next month. Henry Moore, the Yorkshire sculptor and contemporary of Barbara Hepworth, has also been much feted by the gallery, whose founder Sir Henry Tate, the sugar mogul, was one of Lowry's fellow-Lancastrians.

The Tate said it planned to give Lowry space when its galleries are extended in 2013, but Tate Britain's head of displays, Chris Stephens, said in the television programme:

"What makes Lowry so popular is the same thing which stops him being the subject of serious critical attention. What attracts so many is a sort of sentimentality about him. He's a victim of his own fan base."

McKellen said: "If the Tate feels no responsibility to give the art-viewing public their favourite painters to view, perhaps they could let their stash go elsewhere. They could pass them on to a gallery like the Lowry, which shares its visitors' tastes. Or perhaps a touring retrospective, with a twist – the exhibits would be for sale."



Of course, Chris Stevens is just the sort of poncey Southerner who we of the flat vowels love to hate.

I looked him up and found his comments on Tate Britain’s 20th Century Memorial by Michael Sandle:

"As you walk into the gallery, the skeleton-ness and the Mickey Mouse-ness and the machine gun are all immediately apparent, and I think the aggressive tone of the piece is obvious even before you properly discern what it is and what it’s about. It packs a visual punch first of all, and then it’s compelling because there’s enough to it that you stop to think, 'what’s going on here?’

It’s a very confrontational sculpture – it really does stop people in their tracks. Well, apart from children, who seem to have an urge to walk straight across it.

I've met Michael Sandle, and he’s very passionate about this piece. He conceived it in response to the Vietnam War, and was originally going to call it ‘Mickey Mouse Machine Gun Monument For Amerika’, but he changed the title to make it more general after learning the extent of British culpability in that conflict. He sees that as a sort of precedent for what happened with Bush and Blair in Iraq.

Changing the title to ‘Twentieth Century Memorial’ makes it much more about a century of conflict. A century of conflict nevertheless dominated by the US – the mouse is unavoidably a symbol of a rotten and decayed America.

I like how Sandle uses the contrast between the materials – the beautiful polish on the gun, the black skeleton and the head. It all works particularly well in a huge space like the Duveen Gallery, with its shifting daylight. He worked on the sculpture over the best part of a decade, casting each part himself. The gun is not simply cast from a gun, because it’s larger than life-size, so he’s cast the individual components in bronze from moulds.

I’m not sure whether we should call Michael a traditionalist or not, but certainly he believes in painting and sculpture as a craft. He’s very hands-on and proud of the fact that this sculpture is hand-cast”.

Well that’s all very well – but how about the Tate commissioning a new work called a ‘Memorial to the Nineteenth Century North of England’?

It could be built up from shuttles shone by underage mill girls and old coal pit machinery plus a Blackpool Pantomime Cat.

Or, heaven knows, it could draw upon some locally painted images of homely stick people dwarfed by a ghastly, ghostly heimat.

Lighting up the Present


If I do ever get to buckle down to paying to buy New York Times stories online, it will be primarily for the human interest stories and not for the economic and political commentaries.

And, if I need an example, I can’t find one that is more personal, in making me suck back a deep choke of tears, than the review by Susan Cheever of Robert Darnton’s recent book about his father ‘Almost a Family’ (see below).

It is not that Susan’s writing is particularly profound – it is the subject. A subject that Robert Darnton and I know very well – and one that we have paid for many, many times over during the years of our lives – the loss of our fathers in World War II.

I trust that Susan will enjoy the career fruits of her byline though she would be foolish in that regard to be too trusting of her editors and the newspaper’s owners over the longer term, given their commitment to commercial returns. After all, she notes that it was the NY Times, which employed Robert’s father Barney Darnton, which ‘failed again and again to provide professional or emotional support’ for Robert’s widowed mother Eleanor.

I started on publishing my family history online in no small part because I wanted to honour my own father Cyril ‘Jay’ Johnson who died in the RAF on 14th October 1943, some seven months before I was born. Like Barney, Jay was the victim of a wartime accident – in his case he was a member of the crew of an Avro Anson trainer bomber that disintegrated over Whitehaven in Northern England.

Reading even the review of Robert’s book has me stumbling again around the misty, jagged shoreline of reflected grief. It is very hard to grieve for someone that you never knew – but hard though it is, it hurts the more.

So what are the parallels in my own case in coming to terms.

Well, I have never ever looked for villains. I suppose that I could have sought to blame the mechanics who serviced the planes at Millom airbase, the Base Commander who insisted on yet another practice bombing run, or the Germans who caused the bloody war in the first place. For some reason I have never done that.

On a trip back to London once many years ago, I called in to St Martin’s in the Fields in Trafalgar Square. Quite by chance, I started to talk to a late middle-aged German woman who was visiting England and the conversation drifted onto WWII. Both of us came close to tears in exchanging our sorrows.

Well, I have already written up a good deal about Jay in earlier stories and I won’t repeat the material. Suffice to say that the story is sufficiently sad – it seems that it even made one of my ex-wives weepy.

I was struck though in Robert’s case with the emphasis on the emotional disintegration of his mother Eleanor. And it raises the issue of how my own mother coped.

Well, to Meg’s eternal credit, she did not take to the booze though she very much enjoyed a Scotch or two, along with a ciggy.

But while Eleanor went about creating a Barney myth that embodied ‘a noble aspiration and provided a source of courage and moral sustenance’, Meg by contrast seemed to see Jay’s death as a betrayal. And like a spouse wronged by infidelity, she sometimes set about undermining any affections or ideals that her children might have with respect to their lost father.

In part, this can be understood I think in terms of her reaction to the death of her own father Captain David Clarke in a WWI shipping accident, when she was three years old. She just could not forgive the two most important men in her life for deserting her.

But if growing up with a myth “is a dangerous business, because fiction is not a solid foundation on which to build a family’s life”, growing up without a myth can be even more problematic. I had to backfill and create my own myth before I could move on.

Like Robert, I was always been a bit of an outsider as a young man. I travelled widely and threw myself into relationships and adventures, partly because I had little confidence in surviving past my mid-30s, given the early deaths of my father and grandfather (though there must always have been some measure of hope as I joined the Army Cadets, thinking that his might be luckier than re-runs with the navy and the air force).

But part of my healing has been to try to get some balance between the stories surrounding my father, my stepfather and my mother.

The dream that my mother in part ‘concocted’ was not the dream of a cozy house with Jay, it was of the farm where she fought with her ‘tensions’ and where I started to grow up. Turbulent desperation saw her cling tightly to her new role as a farmer’s wife in the Cheshire countryside, in the quaint and partly grand old house that had plum trees trained against the wall near the front door.

And having a son who grew up to be quite a lot like his dead father, created a particular stress for Meg, stirring again the ebb and flow of unresolved grief.

So I survived I think by getting away, and looking back to my lost land – a mythologized farmstead and its acres, with the diesel engine chugging away in the dark wintry afternoons to power the milking lines.

‘Each of us wrestles with the past — miserable or not — and each of us finds our own way to heal’.

The shadow of the past does not have to darken the present. We can’t change the subject but we can change the presentation of the picture, not least by reframing it and holding it up to the light.

Nowadays I have two fathers who happily co-exist – and with a bit more refocusing I might just be able to get my mother to stay still long enough smile properly at the camera – and resist that annoying squint that both of us are prone to.


[by Susan Cheever, New York Times, March 18, 2011]

We are all familiar with the five stages of memoir: myth, trauma, revelation, redemption, book contract. In his wonderful memoir, “Almost a Family,” John Darnton has taken this modern form to a new level.

His story is excruciatingly personal, with painful drama and dreadful sorrow, but as a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize when he was reporting for The New York Times, he calmly researches the narrative of his life detail by detail. His heart was broken, but his focus is on the facts.

There are many villains in the story: the Japanese who are pushing against the Allied forces in World War II on a remote coast of New Guinea; the American pilot who mistakenly bombs a friendly ship in October 1942 and kills Darnton’s father, Byron Darnton, known as Barney, who was also a respected writer for The Times; the misogynistic editors at The Times who fail again and again to provide professional or emotional support for Barney’s widow, Eleanor Darnton (known as Tootie), herself a brilliant and innovative journalist.

But the real villain of the story is alcohol: the booze, the drink, the sauce, the hooch. From the glamorous cocktails of the Roaring Twenties, when Barney Darnton was living the sweet, adventurous, womanizing life of a swashbuckling newsman, to the warm, sad gin drunk by a disintegrating Tootie Darnton in the 1950s, alcohol is the destructive force against which each character is measured.

The book begins with a notation made by Barney in the margin of the copy of Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” he was reading while waiting for the birth of his second son, John. “Dr. Heaton came into the waiting room and said: ‘You’ve got another boy,’ ” he scrawled.

The story continues through the heartbreaking facts of Barney’s death, after a piece of shrapnel hit his head; John was less than a year old. It details the increasing desperation of the family as Tootie tries, and fails, to raise two sons the way their father might have wanted — or the way anyone might have wanted.

One night the 14-year-old John sleeps with a spoon nearby so that when his mother’s withdrawal seizures strike, he can force her tongue down and keep her from asphyxiation.

The story ends on the same New Guinea beach where, 65 years earlier, Barney Darnton’s body was brought after he died:

“I felt a tug on my shirt and turned. It was Alexander, the old man who had witnessed the bombing. He gestured for me to follow and we walked down the beach until he stopped. He pointed to a spot in the sand. We did not have a translator — and besides, there was nothing to say — so we just looked in silence for a long while at the place where my father’s body had lain.”

In some ways this book is an hommage to the father John Darnton never knew — a double portrait of the hero his mother talked about and the careless man who set aside family obligations when the war called and neglected to wear his helmet on the morning of his death.

“When I was growing up, I learned about fathers through my friends, but I don’t believe I ever envied them,” Darnton writes. “The reason was simple. I couldn’t imagine having a father any better than the one I didn’t have.”

The father Darnton didn’t have was a handsome devil with a heart of gold and a will of iron, a man dedicated to the right and the good but also able to make everyone laugh. In short, a myth.

Created by Tootie Darnton, this myth was the father she provided for her boys as she went about raising them on her own.

“There is, of course, a problem with a myth, any myth,” Darnton writes. “While it may embody a noble aspiration and provide a source of courage and moral sustenance, it is, by its nature, founded on a kernel of fiction. And so living a myth is a dangerous business, because fiction is not a solid foundation on which to build a family’s life.”

As the Darnton family’s life without father spirals downward, as Tootie loses job after job, as they move to ever smaller and more squalid houses, Darnton struggles to make sense of all this awfulness. At the time, as a kid, he can do little more than refuse to go along.

After he is expelled from Andover for drinking, he feels a sense of exhilaration. “My expulsion would complete my résumé — I was now typecast in the role I coveted: the rebel, the troublemaker, the outsider.”

Now, half a century later, as a veteran journalist he can express his grief and rage by doing what he does best: reporting the story of his ruined family down to the last detail. “Finally I ¬mourned for the whole dream they had concocted together,” he writes of his parents, “the cozy house in the country and the Tom Collins under the tree and the jeep to drive to the railroad station, the loss of it all, so ¬unimaginable.”

History becomes personal in this story, which is made richer by the many men and women who generously share their experience of Barney Darnton, from the old newspaper guys who worked with him to the New Guinean who shows John Darnton the beach where his father’s body lay.

There is also the historian Robert Darnton, a generous and loving big brother who turns over amazing notes on a book he was thinking about writing, so that John can write his own book. There are the friends from Alcoholics Anonymous who visit Tootie and help her stop drinking permanently.

There is the passage of time, time that makes it possible for an older man to understand and forgive the angry young kid who managed to blow off his opportunities. Most of all, there is the possibility of some kind of redemption through research and knowledge.

Each of us wrestles with the past — miserable or not — and each of us finds our own way to heal. John Darnton, happily married with children and a new profession as a novelist, is evidence that the shadow of the past does not have to darken the present. Luckily for us readers, Darnton’s way of coming to terms with his life and his family’s life was to write a gripping, moving and fascinating story about it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Abbé Breiul's 'Scenes from the Old Stone Age'


The biffing out before the shift continues – and deeper strata from my life have been uncovered revealing my very early interest in Prehistory.

Sometime around 1954, I must have badgered my mother to spend an extra shilling to buy me a copy of ‘Beyond the Bounds of History’ by Henri Breuil. The book had been printed in 1949 and sold for 3s 6d at the local W.H. Smith’s branch in Nantwich Square, Cheshire. This is where I used to hang around on our Thursday afternoon market day visits from the farm, eying up the printed treasures that I could buy for my half a crown pocket money.

The book is remarkable as a milestone in the evolution of our understanding of prehistory.

Abbé Breuil who was born in 1877, grew up in era when fossils were ‘dated from the time of the Flood’ and the polished stone axes found in his grandparent’s property in the Soissonais country were accounted ‘Celtic or Gaulish’. By the time he died in 1961, prehistory and anthropology had become exacting, well-established and exciting sciences.

And even though there is only a decade or so of overlap in our lives, I identify deeply with his nerdy, self-absorbed wanderings in the neighbourhood of his aunt’s farm in Picardy, collecting and sketching items of interest from natural and human history.

I too was an observer and collector on my 'expotitions' across the damp pastures of South Cheshire with my faithful sheepdog - but sadly my sketch books, rock samples and the biscuit tin of fossils from a later more formal expedition in the Weald are no more.

As a Catholic priest,archaeologist, anthropologist, ethnologist and geologist, the Abbé went on explore and popularize the cave art of the Somme and Dordogne valleys, and later to conduct expeditions in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, China (with Teilhard de Chardin), Ethiopia, British Somaliland, and especially Southern Africa.

His delightful naïf drawings of prehistoric settings and events have a haunting and very personal quality and I have pasted in a selection.

But the Abbé was also a clear thinker about the requirements for good social science.

It is worth quoting his prescription:

1. The first essential is the ‘spirit of curiosity’ – that is we must look beyond our material life and ‘concern ourselves with what does not otherwise concern us’
2. The second is the recognition of the ‘spirit of limitations’ – that is that ‘it is better to dig a few deep furrows than scratch a wide surface’
3. But limitations must be balanced by broad interests in wider human culture – where an exposure to variety freshens the mind
4. A ‘spirit of analysis’ must be cultivated – not only looking at objects steadily but touching them with your fingers
5. This must be matched by a ‘spirit of tenacity', involving obstinate effort and an untiring patience that is never beaten or satisfied
6. Only an ‘unprejudiced spirit’ is capable of enlightenment through failure and the development of ‘synthetic explanation from which the mind starts off to plunge ahead’
7. To make progress in developing new concepts, a ‘spirit of meditation’ is also essential because ‘chewing the cud’ can concentrate thought
8. Finally, one needs to ‘let yourself think’ freely by throwing forward ‘the reins of nature’ and spending time in the garden, fishing, shooting etc.

Leafing through the book once more, I am struck by both the array of knowledge that has become validated - and the areas where new avenues of understanding have been developed and errors have been corrected over the last 70 years. In the latter case, and perhaps most glaringly, the Abbé was still unaware in 1949 of the ‘Piltdown Man’ hoax.

For all that, he would have readily considered and embraced new thinking:

‘Do not bemoan differences of opinion. Criticism, even if unjust, spurs on to more perfect work he who does not lose time in disputing with vain words. All personal controversy is a waste of time and strength, except when the scientific world must be enlightened about spurious work and the truth vindicated. The searcher has better use to make of the limited time he is given’.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

X-Factor has us wondering Y


[Yahoo! April 7, 2011]

Scientists say that they have uncovered the first known gay 'caveman' 5000 years after his death.

Archeologists have uncovered the grave of a man they believed to have died between 2900 and 2500 B.C. and was seemingly buried in a way that suggests he was homosexual.

The skeleton of the man, found during an excavation in the Czech Republic, was found on his left side with his head facing west, buried with household jugs and no weapons.

An oval-shaped jug was also found near the feet of the skeleton.

During that period, men were traditionally buried with weapons, hammers and flint knives, and their bodies were placed on their right side with the head facing east.

Women were interred with their bodies on the left, head facing west, and buried with necklaces made from teeth, pets, and copper earrings, as well as domestic jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.

Scientists are certain that the body placement was not a mistake, as customs were very strict on burial and funerals at the time.

"From history and ethnology, we know that people from this period took funeral rites very seriously so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake," said lead researcher Kamila Remisova Vesinova.

"Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transvestite. What we see here does not add up to traditional Corded Ware cultural norms."

There had been previous skeletons discovered where a female warrior had been buried like a man, and Siberian shamans, or witch doctors, had been buried in a similar way to the "gay" caveman, another member of the archaeological team, Katerina Semradova, said.

"This later discovery was neither of those. We believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a transvestite or third-gender grave in the Czech Republic."

Friday, April 1, 2011

World's greatest voyagers reclaim the Pacific Kumete


The Pacific Ocean is being reclaimed by the heirs of its original explorers, using the technology of their master mariner ancestors.

Over the two and a half thousand years from 1,500BC to 1,000AD, Polynesian explorers conquered the world’s largest ocean with superb seamanship and dauntless grit, voyaging east from Vanuatu to the Marquesas by 500BC, to Hawaii by 300AD and to Aotearoa-New Zealand by around 1,000AD.

This process of exploration is surely one of the most remarkable in prehistory.

Now fleets of traditional-style, double-hulled, ocean-going vaka / waka are once again traversing the vast spaces of the Pacific - and the Pacific Voyager's Network is reuniting the descendants of the Polynesian diaspora, as vessels from New Zealand, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Tonga, Vanuatu and Western Samoa convene.

The modern wakas are double-hulled vessels (22m in length) constructed from e-glass and foam but raditional boat building techniques are still visible with the hulls being bound together using wooden beams and rope lashings.

Authenticity is maintained with the vaka adorned with customary carving, colouring and insignias of each nation. Traditional flax sails and modern sails are used and two of the vaka include a solar power system for auxiliary propulsion.

The ventures are being support of Okeanos, a German-based philanthropic organisation formed with the objective of protecting the world's oceans and marine life, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which has initiated the Pacific Ocean 2020 Challenge.

The IUCN brings together 181 countries in a global partnership to help societies to ensure the use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable. The target of the Challenge is to achieve a healthy, sustainable and productive Pacific Ocean by the year 2020.

Last year, waka or traditional Pacific ocean-going canoes were the centre piece of the Te Kumete O Te Moana Nui regatta in Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour.

Te Kumete means bowl – the bowl that is shared (particularly for the ritual drinking of kava) – and in a sense the bowl also represents the great ocean itself – Te Moana Nui – which is shared by those of Polynesian origins.

The original four waka were:

• Te Matua a Maui (New Zealand crew)
• Hine Moana (Western Samoa, Vanuatu, Tongan crew)
• Uto Ni Yalo (Fijian crew)
• Maramaru Atua (Cook Islands crew).

They left on 14 April 2010 for a successful voyage to French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji and were joined in Tahiti with a local crew sailing 'Faafaite'.

This year’s fleet is larger and more ambitious and seven waka plan to voyage as far as Hawaii via Tahiti.

The aims of the voyages are to re-establish cultural links through traditional voyaging and to raise awareness of the key environmental issues threatening the Pacific Ocean - including ocean noise, pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing, acidification and de-oxidation and climate change.

The crews are also rediscovering traditional sailing and navigational knowledge, skills and customs, setting the platform for safeguarding the technology and culture for future generations.

I’ll let the Hawaii Star take up the story of the impending departure of the 2011 fleet:


[from Hawaii Star, March 29, 2011]

Green power will take seven traditional vaka, or canoes, on an epic expedition of re-discovery across 15,000 nautical miles of the Pacific Ocean. Powered solely by the sun and the wind, the double-hulled, 22-meter vaka will leave their Pacific home countries over the next month and sail to Hawaii via French Polynesia in the wake of their ancestors.

The vaka make up a pan-Pacific network of voyaging societies which aim to raise awareness of environmental issues — including ocean noise pollution, acidification and anoxic waters — in tandem with recapturing traditional Pacific voyaging and navigational skills and re-establishing cultural links between Pacific neighbours.

The network is supported by Okeanos, a German-based philanthropic organization which promotes the protection of the world’s oceans and marine life.

Four of the vaka took part in a shorter voyage in 2010, sailing from New Zealand to French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. Among those on last year’s journey was Mr Barclay Kerr, vaka expert and curriculum manager at the New Zealand tertiary institute Te Wananga o Aotearoa, Hoturua.

Mr Barclay-Kerr, who will ‘celestially navigate’ the Haunui, describes this year’s event as a full performance after last year’s dress rehearsal:

“Despite having to organise seven canoe loads of people, preparations are going well, probably because the logistics were worked through last year. This journey will take up a large chunk of our lives, but we are taking a strong environmental message that impacts on all of us across the Pacific, so it is important that people see our commitment in carrying that message.

For me, doing another voyage means being able to bring a canoe into islands where people have only heard stories about their ancestors doing this sort of thing. We are able to reinforce the stories told in these different Pacific cultures about the knowledge and abilities of their ancestors. To see this on their faces is a great thing.”

Mr Barclay-Kerr says that not only do the crews need to be good sailors who are able to work together in a confined space for a long period of time; they must also be able to deliver articulate messages about being responsible guardians of their environment.

“We have to ensure the oceans and our world are being taken care of.”

After having arrived in Hawaii, the crew will attend a conference addressing the costs which ocean climate change will have for us all if we don’t change our behaviour.

The journey of the vaka will continue to North America to teach young people about the voyage and the environment.

They will return via the Cocos Islands, Galapagos, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, with the ultimate destination of the Solomon Islands for the 11th Pacific Arts Festival in 2012.

The New Zealand-based contingent of this extreme voyage will depart from Auckland’s Viaduct harbour on April 12th (weather permitting).

These four vaka – Gaualofa (Western Samoa crew). Uto Ni Yalo (Fiji), Haunui (Pan Pacific), Te Mataua a Maui (New Zealand) and Hine Moana (Pan Pacific) – rendezvous with the rest of the fleet, Marumaru Atua (Cook Islands) and Faafaite (Tahiti) at the Tuamotu Islands, French Polynesia, in late April for the first part of the project.

Once the fleet is underway the public can follow its progress via the official voyage and project website, which will carry daily blogs from crews, as well as on Twitter and Facebook.

The voyage will also be the subject of documentary film produced by Okeanos and its subsidiary, the New Zealand company Oceanic Nature Film Productions.

The Maori waka will be retracing the keel-furrows of the Kupe, who discovered Aotearoa-New Zealand from his mythical homeland in Hawaiki, and his descendants, the ancestors of Maori, who settled the country via the Cook Islands.

According to tribal narratives, Kupe was the first Polynesian to discover the islands of New Zealand. His journey there was triggered by difficulties with fishing in Hawaiki, his homeland. Apparently the problem was a great octopus belonging to Kupe’s competitor, Muturangi.

Kupe set out in his canoe to kill the octopus, and such was the length of the pursuit that it brought him to New Zealand. With a companion known as Ngake (or Ngahue) in another canoe called Tāwhirirangi, he pursued the creature all the way to Cook Strait (known as Raukawakawa), where it was finally destroyed.

Most Maori tribes claim some affiliation with Kupe, and it is said that his wife, Kuramārōtini, devised the name of Ao-tea-roa (‘long white cloud’) on seeing the North Island for the first time.

In one account Kupe travelled down the west coast from the Auckland region to Taranaki, and then to the Cook Strait region. Here the two birds (i.e. waka), which he had brought from Hawaiki, set off to the South Island to survey the new lands.

One, a ‘cormorant’ named Te Kawau-a-Toru, became ensnared at Te Aumiti, a narrow stretch of water off Rangitoto (D’Urville Island):

‘Te Kawau-a-Toru proceeded … he put one of his wings into the water and the other was above but he did not have a sound footing … Friend! The wing broke … and Kupe’s champion perished’.

So the breaking of the wing formed the passage (now known as French Pass) through which vessels can now sail, while the unharmed wing remains an obstruction - the rocky reef known as Te Kawau-a-Toru.

The Maori tribal canoe / waka traditions or stories describe the arrival in New Zealand of Māori ancestors from their initial place of origin Hawaiki.

The oral history that recounts the exodus to a new land has cascaded down through successive generations of tohunga (wise elders. It is, like the Old Testament, a mixture of fact, myth and commentary - that it is likewise hard to completely reconcile with the archaeological evidence).

Some ancestors are said to have been nine feet (2.7 m) tall, while others are said to have flown, swum or travelled on taniwha (sea monsters) to New Zealand. The Aoaonui is a poetic image of a canoe transporting newborn infants into the world, and Rangikēkero and Rangitōtohu are also metaphorical vessels that convey the souls of the dead to their final rest in Te Ao Wairua (the spirit world).

According to the Great Fleet theory, Kupe first discovered New Zealand from Tahiti in 925 AD, and was followed by another explorer, Toi, in 1150. After this, in 1350, a fleet of seven canoes sailed from Tahiti and Rarotonga, bringing the ancestors of Māori to New Zealand. The science so far points to the first settlers arriving in the 1200s.

As the Maori tribes became established and jostled for territory and dominance, the canoe traditions became important to their identity. Whakapapa (genealogical links) back to the crew of founding canoes served to establish the origins of tribes, and defined relationships with other tribes. For example, a number of tribes trace their origin to the Tainui canoe, while others such as Te Arawa take their name from a founding canoe.

When identifying themselves on a marae (meeting place), Maori mention their waka first and foremost.