Breaking bread

Yesterday a few things happened altogether that made it a memorable day.  I went to Te Papa  to see the exhibition on Pompeii, I went to the Town Hall with my mother to hear Simon Schama, and a storm passed through town.  In the dark, weird bit of my mind that likes to find connections, I woke up this morning and decided that all of these things were emblematic of something quite grand, and something quite small.

The reason that I started thinking this is that when I read Richard’s blog he had written about the storm, and when I read Fflur’s blog she had also written about the storm, and I realised that we had all shared a moment in a larger event.

When the storm came I was driving along the Petone Esplanade and I noticed that water was getting sucked up off the surface of the sea and whipped up into low, dark clouds shortly before a rolling bank of wind and sand and beach towels slammed into the side of my car.  It had a slightly surreal quality.  There were two girls on the Petone beach running about trying to gather what remained of their belongings, and cyclists cowering behind trees and public toilets, and a sudden switching on of lights and windscreen wipers on all the cars on the road.  All the dull day was suddenly sharpened into a memorable moment.

By the time our little group of cars had made the motorway I couldn’t see beyond my bonnet.  There were cars stopped along the road, and one car had simply given up and was parked in the passing lane with its hazard lights blinking feebly.  Later, National Radio quietly informed me that every fire engine in the region was out dealing with roofs and trees and the police had taken 200 calls.

It reminded me of waking once, in the middle of the night, in my old bedroom in Karori.  There was thunder, and the thunder in the bowl of Karori Park rolls, and reveberates around the hills like a kettle drum finale in a Beethoven symphony.  For a second when I woke up in the pitch black with these huge, terrifying sounds I felt pure terror, as if the end of the world had come, as if the sky and the Earth were being torn apart.  It lasted for a second but I remember it 15  years later quite clearly.  I think it is the closest I have come to understanding completely the medieval vision of the Apocalypse, or knowing what it must be like to live in the instant before the onslaught of some grand disaster.


We took our Classics class to the Pompeii exhibition at Te Papa.  We sat and watched the 3D film of the dramatic event in 79AD, we looked at the artifacts in the display cases, and we listened to our guide explain a little of the society of Rome.  For me though the most affecting part of the exhibition were the plaster casts of the people who perished.  I have seen photos of these people and animals before, but standing a foot from them was quite moving.

It must have been an extraordinary moment on the original dig when they decided to pour plaster into one of these pockets of air they kept discovering in the layers of hardened ash in Pompeii and found that it was the shape of a person.  The details are chilling and upsetting.  A dog chained to the wall straining to keep it’s head above the rising ash, and the folds of cloth clutched to the mouth of a woman.  By far the most emotional cast though was the man and the woman found together.  The man was lying flat on his back, he looked by the shape of him to be a bit passed middle age with a little paunch.  His head was against the side of a woman, who was sitting up a little on her side with her hand resting gently on his head.

The hand of that woman resting on that man stirred me up.  The students were elsewhere, and I was able to push back a tear without them noticing.


In the tail of the storm I tried to drive to the Town Hall to hear Simon Schama.  Town was grid locked.  Eventually I had to abandon my car in a park down by New World on Chaffers Street and run.  I got there with two minutes to spare.  My mother was waiting in the foyer with a whole group of people anxiously texting their delayed companions. 

We found a seat near the back and shortly afterwards Sean Plunkett and Simon Schama ambled out onto the stage to a very warm welcome.  I was surprised to find that Mr Schama was a very funny, and a very warm speaker.  He even told us a joke (“A Catholic priest, a baptist, and a rabbi go into the forest to convert a bear…”).  Amongst the many things discussed there was one that dominated quite a bit of the discussion: the idea that the big, epic narratives of history can be accessed through the small, personal stories of those who lived in those times.  Schama said that when he wrote Citizens about the French Revolution he was interested in the big idea of how a society can suddenly become so politicized, because he kept reading about people who had lived through the revolution, whose private lives had suddenly been forced up against this massive, dangerous force.  How had they coped?

The final question from the floor was from a young man who was a design student.  He was rather awkward and gushing.  He said how he’d had a hard time at school because of dyslexia, but how he had watched over and over Schama’s History of Britain series and how much it had meant to him.  He asked what place he thought the teaching of History had in schools.

Storytelling.  If we don’t have our stories we don’t have much Schama replied, and then he quoted Auden.  History is, in part, “breaking bread with the dead”, sitting down with the people of the past and listening to them and finding our bonds.  I like that.  Telling stories and breaking bread.

You can talk about the storm as a meterological event, or you can share stories.  You can study Pompeii as a vulcanologist or you can feel pity and compassion for the people who died there. 

The hand of the woman on the man let me break some bread.

Socrates and Afghanistan

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Winston Churchill

I’m teaching my Year 13 Classics class Socrates.  Even though I thought it was a cool topic, I’m still a little surprised how much the students seem to like it.  Last  week we looked at the Athenian court system, and Athenian democracy, and ended with an essay about the flaws of democracy written by Emily Wilson. 

The play [The Knights] suggests that democracy need not mean freedom. It may mean that the people sometimes choose bad masters. The personality politics created by today’s media risks taking us closer to the demagoguery and ruin of the Athenian political scene.

Emily Wilson

I remembered the article when I saw this at a meeting on Friday:

A total of 73.2 per cent (399) of respondents – all of whom live in Auckland – said they supported the introduction of standards for reading, writing and maths in their children’s primary schools.

However, just 11.9 per cent said they had “a full understanding” of the policy; 61.8 per cent said they had a partial understanding, and 26.2 per cent admitted not understanding it.

Herald, 6 Feb. 2010

73% of people surveyed support something that 88% of them don’t understand.

This kind of surveying is close to the direct democracy that Athens had where the citizens of Athens would vote on every issue concerning the city (rather than representational democracy where we vote in the election and our representatives do whatever they want for three years).  Sometimes it seems like direct democracy is a good idea, and sometimes when you hear what the man and woman in the street actually has to say in the pointless, time-filling vox pops in a news item you really begin to worry.

Actually I worry about two things: (1) what people think, and (2) how badly the media let us down when they shape these thoughts.  On reflection I find (1) a lot less worrying than (2). 

I am not nimble minded.  Ask me a tough question about an issue of the day and I will say something ill-conceived.  I imagine if a guy with a microphone and a TV camera asked me something I would also say something inane.

Reporter: “Bananas… good or bad?”

Man of Errors: “KILL EM ALL!”

Watching the clip below makes you realise that perhaps half of what makes news news is the way it is delivered, and if you say nothing at all but use the accepted format and tone you can create the illusion of news.

This idea feeds into my other class which is doing Afghanistan.  This class is about 14 years old on average, and what they know about Afghanistan has been formed by half listening to the news (and by being 14).  When we started the topic they were pretty ill-informed and we had such cheery views expressed as: “Why don’t they just bomb all the Muslims?”, and “Is Afghanistan a city or a country?”  Five weeks in I am relieved to see a better informed bunch of individuals debating difficult issues with better balance.

Today we looked at a newspaper article about the New Zealand SAS in Kabul, and at the end I asked them if they thought we should be fighting in Afghanistan.  It was an interesting discussion.  Most believed we should be in Afghanistan, and some of those supporters thought we should be there because of what the Taliban had done, and wanted to carry on doing.  I wanted to know if they believed there were such things as universal values and that other countries should intervene if they saw those values being broken.  On this they were less sure and moved on to the idea that we should only be involved if a group does something to us first.  One kid mentioned 9-11, but the rest of the class felt that this was done to America, and not to New Zealand.  What about the idea that if we help America, then one day America might help us?  We ran out of time for that question.

It was a good discussion, and reassuring.  14 year olds do care, and have opinions, and the issues we were discussing are pretty complicated.  Personally I can see both sides, and I am unsure about our involvement.  Nowadays I think people like to suggest New Zealand is in  Afghanistan to help put it back on its feet and deal with the Taleban, and Osama has sort of slipped down the radar.  At the time the Taleban were in power though I remember the main outcry over their rule being when they blew up the ancient rock Buddhas in Bamiyan, and not so much about their appalling treatment of millions of women (and others).  Did I miss this, or wasn’t I told?

In Emily Wilson’s article she makes this point about the death of Socrates:

An obvious lesson was that democracy allows ignorant, uneducated citizens to have power over the lives of the few who might teach them.

On the whole though, I think I agree with Socrates that people only do bad things when they are ignorant, and that in some respects it must be the fault of teachers if they end up getting slaughtered by the masses, or being led by bad leaders.

I extend “teachers” to include “the media”.

It is only recently that I have begun to realise what people mean about a free and open media being crucial to a democracy.  To free, and open I would like to add: informed.  The New Zealand media seems pretty free and open, but to be honest they rarely seem to know what they are talking about.

Democracy does not, in itself, ensure that human rights will be protected. Restrictions on intellectual and religious freedom, along with torture, unfair trials, and unequal access to education, work, money and political power are features of democratic societies, ancient and modern.

When 73% of people surveyed support something that 88% of them don’t understand you get the feeling that someone’s not doing their job very well.  Emily Wilson is right, democracy is a guarantee of nothing.  Giving people the power of the vote alone does not ensure informed decision making.