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June 28, 2007

Book Reviews: Aug 07 issue

In association with The Nile


Michael Morrissey writes of infidels, painted ladies and the ghost of Elvis


INFIDEL by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Free Press
(click title for more information)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born woman who rose to be a member of the Dutch parliament and became world famous (in the case of Islam, world-notorious) for her scripting of a short film that showed the words of the Quran on a woman's body. The intention of the film was to criticise the treatment of Muslim women. It was anticipated the film would create a furore but on its initial release nothing happened.

However, in 2004, a Muslim assassin murdered the film's maker, Theo Van Gogh, who also happened to be a descendant of the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh. His dying words were, “Can't we talk about it?” A letter pinned to Van Gogh's chest promised that Hirsi Ali would be killed next. So far, thanks to the protection of the Dutch and American governments, she has managed to survive.

This autobiography traces Ali's mental, social, political and religious evolution from being a member of a Somali tribe to a non-believer - hence the title, Infidel. Apart from the blasphemous nature of the film she scripted, according to Muslim religious law, she merits death as an apostate. Officially therefore, Islam is a religion that is easy to join but very difficult to leave. This is a moving and courageous book but one calculated to anger and even enrage Islam rather than make peace with it - if indeed that were possible. Obviously, Hirsi Ali's conscience and newly acquired beliefs will not permit any reconciliation.

This review began with the book's conclusion but necessarily this account starts with Hirsi Ali's childhood. It begins movingly with her grandmother asking “Who are you?” This is the prompt for the five year old Hirsi Ali to recite her blood lines going back 300 years.

The psychological effort required to leave such a deep inheritance cannot be underestimated. Her grandmother tells them history and stories as she cooks. Some are stories of how to survive against wild animals, others are tales of treachery, bloodshed and revenge - a rich brew in other words. When Hirsi Ali's liberal father was in prison and her mother was away, the grandmother, who could not read or write, arranged the children's circumcision. When one reads of the trauma, bleeding and infection, and the resultant sewing up of the wound, the word has a euphemistic ring. Though circumcision predates Islam, Hirsi Ali states that Islam reinforces it. Imams do not discourage the practice because it keeps girls pure.

Hirsi Ali relates how her mother, a frustrated and angry woman, often beat her children. Though thankfully a reconciliation occurred in later life. The book's odyssey sees Hirsi Ali growing up in several other countries – Saudi Arabia (which she and her father hated for its oppressive practices) and Kenya and Ethiopia. Despite his pro-democratic attitude, her father enthusiastically arranges a marriage for her to a man who is not to her liking. Her rejection of the marriage proposal alienates her father and her departure from the Islam faith makes that alienation permanent. By now Hirsi Ali has fled to Holland and this is where her gradual secularisation really begins. She observes that the more provocative dress of the Dutch women does not produce the sexually aggressive reaction she had been told to expect; that Holland is better and more fairly run than her own country; that the government is fair and liberal and not tyrannical and corrupt; that women have rights and are free citizens. In a word, Hirsi Ali becomes pro-Western and pro-democratic. Her “conversion”, so to speak, is of her own free will.

Hirsi Ali is no saint. She admits she told lies to gain entry to Holland and these later rebounded on her when her citizenship was annulled – though later reinstated. From the cover of the book, Hirsi's steady unflinching gaze must strike any who pick up the book as a woman who is resolute and defiant. Though her actions have been provocative in the extreme, she can only be viewed as a woman of extraordinary courage.


RAW PLACES by John Horrocks, Steele Roberts, $24.95

John Horrocks is a new, confident and mature voice on the over-crowded New Zealand poetry scene – over-crowded it must be said with much prosaic mediocrity and chopped up banal prose masquerading as poetry which often reads - and indeed may be – random
line-breaked regulations copied from the back of bus tickets. In other words, dried-up wheat biscuits masquerading as caviar. Horrocks gives us a full banquet and leaves the reader's palate still moist.

This collection of honest, honed poetry is from a man who has not only worked the land – sixteen years farming north of Auckland and in the Wairarapa – but has written an impressive complex PhD thesis on William Blake called “Imagining the Tiger”. Horrocks also lectures on psychology and in a former life was headed for a PhD in the now more or less obsolete school of Skinnerian behaviorism. In other words, the still handsome Horrocks, scion of the distinguished Auckland Horrocks family, is somewhat of a Renaissance man - a concept that has increasingly become anomalous in today's world of contemporary specialisation.

Horrocks sees the landscape not only with a local eye but with a historic perspective

The sky over Waitaha
mimics those ostentatious sunsets
the Chinese saw two thousand years ago.

The reference to Chinese history isn't just dropped as a one liner but is pleasurably extended:

Those courtiers in their brocaded gowns
looked fearfully at trumpet flames
and dusts of strange vermilion light

Steele Roberts is to be congratulated on publishing some interesting new voices which might otherwise have not seen the light of day.


RAINFOREST by Thomas Marent, DK, $68

Just as you think photography has reached its zenith in warm detail of that far-off organic cranny another book happenstances along that caps the last one. In other words, as far as my eyeballs are concerned, Rainforest tops anything I've previously irised.

Take the orange-magenta explosion spreadeagled over pp178-179. It could be a galaxy giving up the ghost, a psychedelic utility belt, but actually it's a Peruvian caterpillar with finely erect hairs that make it difficult for parasitic wasps to land and lay their eggs.

Or take the eye of the fruit-eating toco toucan on pp 110-111, it could be closeup of a deliriously expensive Van Gogh or the eye of a marooned alien from one of Saturn's moons, but it's clearly terrestrial, a wild shock of colour.

The fallen flowers of a sea poison tree resting on the black volcanic sand of a Sulawesi beach could be bursts of refined lava mushrooming out of fumaroles.

Yes, New Zealand is here but rather modestly and rather disappointingly in a few Fiordland ferns. It's a shame really - for the author could have caught a giant Mahoenui weta or a pohutukawa blossom being raided by a tui or a tuatara basking in the sun.

Apart from the less than satisfactory inclusion of New Zealand – not a major flaw given the ambitious scope of the book – this book would be ideal as a Christmas gift or a boon to school libraries.


PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: Mistress of Modernism Mary Dearborn, Virago, $32.99

Any culturally-minded visitor to New York will probably have the Guggenheim museum in mind as a place to visit. And they will not be disappointed – the building is unique, its giant conch design spiraling ever upwards, and the art collection is impressive. Alas, for my temporary ignorance, this Big Apple gallery was created by Solomon Guggenheim, Peggy's uncle. Never mind. Having read this absorbing biography I am equally if not more impressed with Peggy Guggenheim's own bona fide achievements in the art field.

Peggy Guggenheim came from a rich German-Jewish family with strict social and marriage expectations of their daughters - they should marry a banker or lawyer of similar background. Peggy decided to rebel. She went to Paris and got involved with a handsome, dashing, golden-maned poet called Laurence Vail. Unfortunately, Laurence was also an alcoholic and an abuser. He regularly beat and humiliated Peggy in public. Peggy seems to have been somewhat of a masochist because several of the men that figured in her life were physically abusive. The sadistic Laurence goaded her with the assertion that she had only been invited into the art-bohemian scene because of her money and that without him she would have no such entry. Yet despite humiliations, drunkenness and general indulgence, Peggy was making her way in a milieu that she preferred to the safer more sedate world from which she sprung: “They're full of wonderful ideas and fantasies, they are so much more alive than stockbrokers and lawyers”.

Though rich, Peggy was not nearly as wealthy as her hangers on supposed. On the death of her father, she received an inheritance of $450,000 or about five million in today's money. However, she gave steadily and generously to many artists and writers such as Djuna Barnes, the talented but alcoholic author of Nightwood, the anarchist Emma Goldman, Dorothy Holms, Eleanor Fitzgerald as well the abusive Laurence plus donations to a relief fund for out of work coal miners in West Virginia – and yet she was accused of stinginess! Whatever her faults, Peggy had a kind heart and a conscience..

Being part of the bohemian whirl of Paris, Peggy was able to throw a sumptuous party for Isadora Duncan, famous modernist dancer. Included among the guests were Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Andre Gide, plus Marcel Du Champ. One hand grenade would have destroyed many of the giants of modernism. When a fracas occurred in a cafe (as they often did), the artistically witty Du Champ would suggest turning on the charm of which he had a ready supply. Despite her large nose, which an early attempt at plastic surgery failed to improve, Peggy also had her share of charm, attractiveness and wit (and money too of course). Among her many amours were Du Champ and Samuel Beckett, who at the time was a struggling writer and not the world-famous author he was to become.

As the clouds of war descended on Europe, Peggy fled back to the United States. And as war peaked in Europe, she began her financial and artistic support for the stormy artist Jackson Pollock who became the most noted painter of his time. For this alone, she might have found a place in art history but there were grander things to come. When she set up her own gallery in New York, Peggy truly entered the history books. This was a bold move for a woman to make at the time – there was one other woman art dealer in New York. As Dearborn puts it, “her gallery would change the course of art history in the twentieth century”.

She achieved this by creating a gallery that was not sedate and stuffy but “vibrant and innovative”, “a real experience to visit, which drew guests in and encouraged them to interact with the art and any artists or critics they might meet there”. She was greatly assisted in this enterprise by Frederick Kiesler, a diminutive but brilliant Viennese architect. Under his direction, all manner of unusual viewing strategies were put in place such as unframed art for immediate impact; showing as many paintings in a small space as possible; lighting devices that would switch off, but could be turned on by the viewer pulling a lever plus an eyepiece attached to a large spiral like ship's wheel to view one of Du Champ's creations - all of these devices were part of Kiesler's Kinetic Gallery allowing the viewer to interact with the art.

Following the end of the war, Peggy acquired a famous palazzo on the Grand Canal of Venice. Previously occupied by Browning and Henry James, Peggy assembled within its wall a famous collection of Surrealists and modern American artists which can still be viewed by visitors to the watery city.

This biography is a well-focused study of a lively woman who helped change the way art is displayed. So vivid is the portrait of the subject with warts, big nose and all, I felt a twinge of sadness at her parting - a tribute to Mary Dearborn's carefully detailed study, rendered in flowing highly readable prose.


IN SEARCH OF ELVIS by Charles Connelly, Little Brown, $39.99

It was 1956, year of the Suez Crisis. Waikato had resoundingly defeated the Springboks, and the country was in a Mooloo delirium.

Not this Mt Roskill state house boy.

I was reading Foundation by Isaac Asimov and my mind had been blown by the notion of galaxy containing a quintillion human beings – 40 billion alone on Trantor, eg Earth.

I turned on the radio and heard Heartbreak Hotel sung by a young Memphis boy called Elvis Presley. He sounded as though he was singing from the bottom of a well but that just added to the thrill of the new. He was singing about loneliness and love - common themes in songs at the time. Other artists popular at the time included Connie Francis, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Pat Boone, the Four Preps, and the Four Aces. Generally, a wholesome bunch. Elvis wasn't wholesome – he was indefinably bad, from the wrong side the tracks, singing the Devil's music – this latter charge turned out to be ironic because Elvis cut his teeth on gospel singing and recorded several gospel songs himself. Apart from his Brylcreemed swagger, mobile hips, brooding gaze, Elvis had an extraordinary voice. It oozed a confident, alley-smart sexiness never since equaled or surpassed.

It seems the world concurs because according to Connelly's charming account, the world is being overrun with Elvis Presley lookalikes. (“In 1977 there were 185 impersonators in the world. In 2005, there were 186,000. At that rate of growth, by something like the year 2060 one in four people in the world will be an Elvis impersonator.”) No other artist is copied or mimicked as much as Elvis. Actually there are two types – serious Elvis impersonators who try hard to look and sing like the King - including his skillful body gyrations - and playful imitators (usually fat guys) who just pretend to be imitating Elvis.

Some of the Elvis worship is close to that given to saints. So quite soon, don't be surprised if someone with a lame foot claims to have had it straightened by praying to Elvis. One could say his posthumous adulation is a sort of secular miracle. But let us go on a journey courtesy of Elvis enthusiast Charley Connelly – and he, by the way, claims to be a mild case of the genre.

It seems the Presleys come from Scotland. Andrew Presley emigrated from Lonmay, forty miles north of Aberdeen to North Carolina in 1745. This Scottish origin has led – have you guessed already? - to the creation of a Presley tartan though not thankfully a Presley haggis. Alas there is a dark side - like the woman in Australia who shot her husband for playing “Burning Love” over and over again.

How about Elvis in Uzbekistan? Uzbekistan has the privilege of being one of the only two countries that are double-land locked. This geographic remoteness doesn't mean they are sufficiently out of the way to escape Presley mania however. The Guli-Bonu Producer Center is swathed in Elvis memorabilia and there is an Elvis Cafe. In Porthcawl, Wales a black Elvis lets loose on the stage.

Connelly's Elvis odyssey necessarily takes in Sun Studios where Elvis cut his first disk - the same studio that kick-started the careers of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash - and Las Vegas where the King reigned supreme for several years. Canada has Dan Hartal, better known as Schmelvis, the world's leading Jewish Elvis impersonator. And perhaps most exotic of all is Dr Jukka Ammonds who perform and records Elvis songs in Latin and Sumerian. Most lavish of the tribute spots is the Elvis diner in Israel which has displayed on the ceiling “a fantastic painted mural that depicted Elvis's life from start to finish and ran the length of the room in a distinctly Sistine manner”.

After a book filled with light-hearted banter about the peculiarities of Elvis obsession, Connelly closes on a moving note. He was given a hand-signed picture of Elvis by a German fan and entrusted to deliver to the diner in Israel. He does just that then he realises something deeper is going on – two members of formerly enemy nations are being linked by a shared obsession. Elvis here becomes a sort of peace maker uniting people more effectively than politicians have done - not only German and Jews but Arabs and Jews have been blissfully united by Elvis enjoyment. Quite simply there was nothing more for Connelly to do than sip his beer, watch the sun set and listen to Elvis singing “I Just Can't Help Believing”.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 09:16 PM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2007

Under the Tuscan sun: July 07 issue



Take it slow: Do nothing and savour it, writes Lisa Hotchkiss

For the record, we decided to go to Tuscany months before "Under the Tuscan Sun" opened in movie theaters. Why not go to a small Italian town and hang out for two weeks - no itineraries, no museum must-sees, no plans? Nicholas and I had both already done the manic "if it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" kind of European vacation. But was two weeks of nothing except reading, eating, walking and writing, with a man who had just become my roommate, a recipe for romance or disaster?

On a whim I checked out a website for house rentals, and sent an e-mail asking for availability of small homes or apartments in the autumn. We got a reply that, indeed, Benincasa, a two-person apartment in Montepulciano, was available and would we like to reserve it?

Six months later we were standing in front of a 16th century palazzo, its door adorned with a bust of the original owner, Gian Gastone de Medici, last male heir of the Medici family.

Our apartment was at the top of the three-story palazzo. The heavy wooden door welcomed us with a loud slam as we headed up a massive well-worn stone staircase to the third floor.

There were windows everywhere, views from every angle. Large wooden beams framed the main living area. Our landlord, Piergorgio, had restored the apartment a few years earlier, so we were treated to the comforts of a dishwasher, washing machine, DVD and CD player in our 400-year-old home.


The kitchen was small, but soon Nicholas was making me very happy to be traveling with a former chef and newspaper food editor. Fresh mozzarella with olive oil and salt, espresso, duck, polenta, gnocchi - soul food by anyone's definition.

Our bedroom was sponge-painted an ocean blue. The view looked down the hill to San Biagio, a 16th century cathedral. Bells from the various village churches rang often.

We had arrived at our Tuscan palazzo, and now we stared at 14 days of no plans. Spending two weeks in a foreign country with a relatively new love sounds terribly romantic, and it was.

However, though we'd been living together at home for three months, there's a huge difference between sharing a house and being together all day, every day, and being one another's main conversation buddy for 14 days straight.

And there was a potential conflict. Nicholas' natural state is horizontal, usually on a couch, either reading or sleeping. I confess that I'm generally not good at relaxing for long periods and like to be active. An interesting contrast of styles that needed some careful blending if we were to enjoy two weeks of intense togetherness.

So we agreed to have "Nicholas time," defined as eating, reading, playing Scrabble or cards, and napping, and "Lisa time," which included long walks and exploring, plus a little shopping.

Every day we tried to get a balance of both. Lucky for me, Montepulciano is a hilly town, and Benincasa is at the top of the hill, so anytime we set out, we had to trek back up the steep hill to our welcoming wooden door.

One of our favorite routines was to spend mornings at Caffe Poliziano, an almost Parisian-looking cafe with the best cappuccino and pastries in town. While Nicholas ordered, I would make a visit to the nearby shop to purchase an International Herald Tribune.

We'd settle at a round cafe table near the window, sip our espresso and tackle the day's crossword puzzle, as we checked out the locals and tourists passing through.

Any trip to Italy is certain to focus on eating, and traveling with a chef tilts the scale in more ways than one. With his fearless enthusiasm, Nicholas shopped at small neighborhood grocery stores and butcher shops, using an odd combination of Italian, French, Spanish and sign language to communicate.

But food is a universal language, and Nicholas filled our apartment with sumptuous smells day after day - making "Lisa hiking time" all the more necessary.

One day we walked along the busy main road to the Terme di Montepulciano Spa, about three miles outside of town. The area around Montepulciano is known for its thermal springs, the main draw being Chinchiano, a resort town that draws thousands to the healing waters and ancient Roman and Estruscan bath sites.

But the Terme di Montepulciano Spa is more convalescent hospital than resort - the guests were decades older than us. As a recent graduate of massage school, I wanted see what an Italian rub was like. Antonio, my masseur, led me down a hospital wing and into a sterile massage room. Lesson one: Italians are much less modest about covering themselves during a massage. None of those elaborate draping exercises we had practiced in massage school applied. Italians utilize a very small towel that barely covers one's torso. But when in Rome…

We took two walks to distant hill towns we could see from our apartment. Montefollonico was a six-mile hike on a mostly unpaved road through olive orchards, vineyards and terra-cotta farmhouses.

Along the way, we sampled leftover wine grapes on the vine, selected an abandoned farmhouse as our new home-to-be and very often stopped to gaze at our surroundings, laughing giddily that we were really here.


Serendipity landed us that day at the door of La Chiusa, a famed restaurant that critics either loved or loved to hate. It was 2:30 p.m., and we were in dusty jeans and sneakers, but soon were in an almost empty dining room feasting on stuffed zucchini flowers, duck with wild fennel, rabbit and sinful desserts.

We waddled from the table up to the village proper - a near-Disney rendition of a Tuscan town - geraniums in every window box, laundry hanging outside windows, miniature Italian nonas dressed in black conversing across balconies. The sun was starting to drop, so we headed back to our little home, across rolling hills lighted by amber sunlight.

Clouds threatened another long hike, but we managed the 12-plus miles to Montechiello without a drip. We once again found our reward as we entered the village at Osteria La Porta, a cozy eatery owned by a charming woman who offered us a ride home if we chose not to walk. A dumbwaiter delivered plates of porcini mushroom carpaccio, Burratta mozzarella, rabbit and wonderful grilled lamb chops. Nicholas' Panna Cotta was terrific, but my dessert, a twist on Tiramisu, was spectacular. After that meal, I insisted we skip the car ride and walk off lunch.

Over the days, we walked every alleyway and staircase of Montepulciano, meeting residents and getting nods of recognition. The town had developed a warm familiarity for us - something one misses when passing quickly through to the next tourist destination.

Because the weather turned wintry during the second week, we were forced to spend less "Lisa time" outdoors and more "Nicholas time" reading and eating. I devoured too many wonderful calories and every book I'd brought. Fortunately, previous visitors to Benincasa had left a few books, and I soon found myself savouring Frances Mayes' "Bella Tuscany." In it, she not only describes the area we were visiting, but the Italian approach to life - dolce far niente, the sweet to-do-nothing.

It was a perfect theme for our trip - for me, learning to appreciate doing nothing - savoring a nap and not feeling like I was missing out on something, spending hours reading and playing cards, and feeling satiated.

We spent our last night in Rome and experienced a jolt as we exited the train station. Vespas whizzed by, angry drivers honked, crowds of pedestrians poured across busy intersections. In two weeks at Montepulciano, we'd been shielded from cars and ambient noise.

We found respite in a swanky sidewalk bar/cafe at the Hotel Exedra. As we sipped our pricey water cocktails (mineral water, herbs and fruit) from martini glasses, we talked about what we had learned from this trip, about each other and ourselves. Would we do another unplanned vacation? Definitely, but next time bring more books.

I brought home a clearer appreciation of "Nicholas time" - enjoying the sweetness of doing nothing - and have since spent many a Sunday afternoon napping on the couch at home with a smile on my face and my Daytimer well-hidden in my briefcase.


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Posted by Ian Wishart at 11:09 PM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2007

Radical 'moderates' squash real moderates: Jun 07

Documentarians battle America’s PBS TV to get Islam film on the air, reports Karoun Demirjian

The film features grainy footage and dramatic music, presenting itself as a stark look at the way fundamentalist Muslims in America and Europe crush dissent by their more moderate co-religionists.But the very production of “Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center” has highlighted sharply different views about the state of Islam in the United States and showcased how intensely sensitive that subject remains.

PBS, which commissioned the project, is delaying airing the film after protests that it is anti-Muslim. Now its creators are launching a public campaign against PBS to get it shown.

The hourlong documentary is one of 22 episodes funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for PBS’ “America at a Crossroads” series, which examines post-Sept. 11 subjects such as terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the experience of American troops overseas and global perspectives on U.S. foreign policy.

“Islam vs. Islamists” follows the efforts of socially liberal Muslims in America and Europe to reclaim their religion from political extremism by speaking out against ultra-conservative imams in a sort of modern-day Muslim reformation.

But the film never made it into the initial lineup of 11 shows that aired recently. A film about widespread discrimination against Muslims, “The Muslim Americans,” did air as part of the series.

The producers and subjects of the “Islam vs. Islamists” film, who began to show it in private screenings last month, say that PBS began to demand what the producers saw as unrealistic editorial changes after the series’ advisers, acting on criticism from such Muslim groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Nation of Islam, claimed the documentary unfairly portrayed Muslim religious leaders. They say their experience with PBS proves the point of their film: that moderate Muslims have no platform from which to criticize extremists in their own religion.

“I can’t see what they object to, except that they don’t want to see the true plight against modern-day Muslims,” says Hedieh Mirahmadi, a representative of a moderate imam who spoke at a screening in Washington that was organized by the film’s producers. “Not being able to see the political reality means that it may come to root in a very dangerous way.”

Mirahmadi argues, for example, that the Saudi-based Wahhabist movement, a fundamentalist form of Islam, has spread across the U.S.

Mary Stewart, a spokeswoman for WETA, the PBS station in Washington, and executive producer for the Crossroads series, said in a phone interview that even though the film hadn’t made the cut for the first 11 parts that were broadcast, it would be aired as soon as PBS feels that it has been satisfactorily edited.

“It is a film with a lot of promise,” she said. “But every film that comes through PBS goes through editorial standards. They have received notes on what editorial changes would need to be made to bring it up to standards for PBS.”Producers and hosts of the Crossroads series have publicly accused the production team for “Islam vs. Islamists” of showing an editorial slant by being overly alarmist and demonizing imams.But defenders of the documentary say it merely portrays, in realistic terms, the divisions within the Islamic community in the West.

The Muslims portrayed in the movie - including Naser Khader, the Danish parliamentarian who spoke out against Imam Ahmed Abu Laban and others leading the riots over last year’s cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad - say that PBS does not want to consider Western Muslims as a variegated group.

“In my opinion, we don’t have a crisis of civilizations, we have just one clash,” Khader says. “It is in Muslim society, between Islamists and those who say `yes’ to democracy and modernity.”

Speaking for the film’s production team, Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, a Washington national security think tank, insists that the film is finished and says PBS’ refusal to budge on editorial demands meant that the film’s relationship with the network was finished too. “They’re insisting on structural changes that would essentially eviscerate the message of the film,” he says.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided $675,000 for the production of “Islam vs. Islamists,” nearly all federal funds. Some members of Congress saw the film at a showing late April. A Corporation for Public Broadcasting spokesman said it is committed to finding a way to publicly show the film.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:52 PM | Comments (0)


Back in the 1970s, some of the world’s richest oilmen came prowling the coast of New Zealand. According to popular rumour and conspiracy theory they struck it big, but chose not to tell the NZ Government. Now the official documents have been released, and they confirm the Great South Basin is one of the biggest unexplored conventional oilfields in the world. IAN WISHART has more

Once upon a time, in the tradition of all the best legends, there was a land that we now call New Zealand. Only, back then, it didn’t have a name and it looked and sounded very, very different from the way it currently does. A land of lush jungles and grasslands, peppered by volcanoes but no Southern Alps, ancient New Zealand was also much bigger than the current version.

Residents of modern New Plymouth, for example, who currently step off the footpath virtually into the sea, would have faced a long walk to the beach back then – something in the region of 140 kilometres further west. It was a dangerous walk, Jurassic Park-style velociraptors lurked behind pretty much every second bush, and dragonflies practically the size of small dogs would have made the journey interesting as well.

When they finally reached the coast, our travelers would have crested the ridge to see a sweeping delta, with herds of dinosaurs on the plains and a massive river winding like a silvery ribbon through the deceptively tranquil-seeming countryside.

Something happened, however, not just in New Zealand but around the world, and not only did the Age of Dinosaurs come to an end but so to did the layout of the planet as we currently know it. Land was swallowed by the sea, never to emerge again, taking with it the animals and vegetation.

Cut forward 60-odd million years, and a boat carrying a gaggle of kiwi oil geologists is heaving in the swells rolling in across the Tasman sea; their instruments and seismic gear tell them they’re several hundred metres above the dinosaur delta.

And where the ancient river carried debris and silt to an ancient sea, there’s buried treasure, they tell themselves.

One of those expressing excitement is Chris Uruski, a geoscientist at New Zealand’s Crown research institute, Geological and Nuclear Sciences. Uruski has been studying the figures, and reckons the Taranaki Basin oilfields are similar to those of Australia’s Gippsland Basin, off the Victorian coast.

“Both basins,” Uruski told a petroleum conference in Melbourne four years ago, “were formed in similar climates about 100 million years ago, occupy the same latitude, and are mostly offshore. But the important feature they shared was a large delta – where ancient river systems and the sea met millions of years ago.”

Prime conditions, he added, for the presence of huge volumes of oil. “We estimate that the Deepwater Taranaki Basin may contain as much as 20 billion barrels of trapped oil.”

If 50% of that trapped oil can be found, he says, maybe half of that again, “perhaps five billion barrels, may be produced from that basin.”

What’s that worth in today’s petro-dollars? The correct answer is another question: “How many zeroes would you like on the end of that cheque?”

Many oil industry pundits now believe we’ve reached “Peak Oil”, the point where most of the easily accessible black gold, Texas tea – call it what you will – has already been discovered and extracted.
With the massively populated China and India now demanding Western-sized oil deliveries, there’s increasing pressure on prices at the pump worldwide as demand outstrips supply.

All of which makes frontierlands like New Zealand suddenly flavour of the month in boardrooms across Texas, New York and Europe. We may not have the “bubbling crude” of Jed Clampett and the Beverley Hillbillies fame that seeped up out of the ground, but we have submerged oilfields that would make Rockefeller weep.

How much would five billion barrels in the Taranaki Basin be worth? On today’s rates, somewhere just under the half-trillion dollar mark. By the time the wells are drilled, the rigs are in place and the stuff is refined, petrol prices might well have doubled.

Which is why the opening up of the mythical Great South Basin, off the Southland coast, this year, is creating so much excitement. In the words of Uruski, while Taranaki is potentially huge, the South may yield three times as much crude.

“The Great South Basin probably has larger potential,” he told Explorer magazine last year, “so we’re talking perhaps of 15 billion barrels”.

For those old enough to remember, the legend of the Great South Basin began in the early 1969 when Hunt Petroleum, founded by Texas oil billionaire H L Hunt, came knocking on New Zealand’s door, looking for oilfields away from the Middle East.

The TV series Dallas was based on the lives of Hunt and his children, and in fact the scriptwriters had to leave out much of the wilder exploits because no one in TV-land would have believed them.

“During the initial years of exploration activity, 1970-73, several phases of seismic shooting were undertaken,” notes an official evaluation released on the Crown Minerals website just before Christmas.

International pressures from the first OPEC oil shock in 1973 stepped up the pace – the Hunt firm had been stung in Libya when its assets were nationalized by Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi in 1972. Drilling began in the Great South Basin in 1976, and was big news for a while in lil’ ol’ New Zealand.

“It started back with Hunt Petroleum of course,” says Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt, “the biggest Texas oil company in the world, a family company, and they came down here in the late 70s early 80s and drilled a series of about eight bores. But they did find oil, and there’s all sorts of people like that fellow Todd – he’s an auctioneer down here – he’s got a little canister of oil. Bill Todd, he’s got a canister of oil that he proudly shows everyone, beautiful oil – it’s not black crude, its golden oil, a bit like the old Singer sewing machine oil we used to have when I was a kid. Very fine, looks like you could almost put it into a diesel car and run it.”

How much oil? In a 1981 appraisal for the NZ Government, the oil exploration consortium reported, “The Great South Basin has the potential to contain up to 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil.”

Twenty five years later, in March 2006, the Government carried out fresh seismic surveys and, as NZPA reported, found signs that the Great South Basin was “far larger and more extensive than previously thought”.

For officials to be estimating a 15 billion barrel yield, that could mean potential reserves of up to 40 billion barrels. Add that to Taranaki’s 20 billion, and you’re getting close to the Iraqi total of 80 billion. Admittedly, both Iraq (surprisingly) and New Zealand remain underexplored. Only 2000 wells have been drilled in Iraq, whereas 1 million were sunk into Texas, and New Zealand has 360 abandoned oil and gas wells, according to GNS figures.

Of course, there are vast differences in the Iraqi and New Zealand oilfields. It is one thing to sink a hole in the desert and simply start pumping. It is entirely another to send a drill bit 1.2 kilometres below the surface of the Southern Ocean, and then to drill for another kilometre or two through rock, all the while being pounded on the surface by the Roaring 40s and the massive swells of the frigid south.

“No, it wasn’t easy going for them,” says Shadbolt of the Hunt venture in the seventies, “because the theory was that in the Southern Ocean there wouldn’t be waves bigger than 10m or something, and there were waves of 15m coming in. So poor old Penrod 78 [the drilling rig], which was huge for its day, got smashed to pieces and had to retreat up to Stewart Island, so it was pretty hard going for them. At least we established that we need the really big rigs to have a chance down here.”

And therein lies part of the problem. With oil exploration surging as the big companies strive to find replacement fields before the cheap stuff runs out, getting a major drilling rig to come down to New Zealand is nigh on impossible, as Crown Minerals group manager Adam Feeley explained on National Radio last year.

“The biggest problem though , is actually just finding drilling rigs…in some cases you can’t get access to a rig at any cost – at least, not for 18 months. Right now, the demand for rigs is outstripping supply.”

It wasn’t just a damaged oil rig that prevented the Hunt brothers from taking advantage of the Great South Basin back in the 1980s, however. The impact of the oil shock had led them to diversify away from oil:

“But the [Hunt] sons took over, and they came up with a cunning plan,” remembers Mayor Tim Shadbolt. “They thought that if they could get one product or one resource, and have the world monopoly on it, then they would be the richest family in the world, instead of the richest family in Texas. So they looked at diamonds and various other options, and eventually they came up with silver. They decided to give the world a monopoly on silver, and therefore they would control the price and therefore they’d be multi-multi multibillionaires. And the cunning plan worked for a while. They bought up all the shares in silver mines, silver outlets and silver distributors, and once they got control – I don’t think they had total, but I think they had around 90% – of the world re sources, then they started jacking the price up of course.”

They began their little adventure in 1973, when silver was just US$1.95 an ounce. In early 1979, at the peak of their NZ oil drilling, they’d pushed the silver price up to US$5, but in 1980 it exploded, topping out at US$49.45 an ounce.

“Of course there is always a flipside,” chuckles Shadbolt, “and the flipside was that all the users got together, with the shock of the price increases, and the biggest user of silver in the world at that time was the photography industry. Silver was part of the processing of photos, so they got a lot of scientific boffins and worked out a way to recycle the silver that is used in the photographic process. So overnight, the Hunts lost their main customer, and the second thing that happened of course was the American stock exchange, which worked out that this was happening and it was not a good thing for competition, and it started bringing in all kinds of regulations to close them down. Or at least make them pay. So overnight, they went from being multi-multi-multi-billionaires to being in not quite such good shape, and they fire sold a lot of their properties in New York.”

The losses for the Hunts kept mounting, and by 1987 had hit US$2.5 billion against assets of only $1.5 billion. The oldest son, Nelson Bunker Hunt, declared bankruptcy in 1988.

The Hunts had bailed from New Zealand in the early 1980s, even though they struck oil, and lots of it, on the sly. It was a confusing picture for a while, because the National Government of Rob Muldoon had declared that nothing of note was found in the Great South Basin. Yet despite that declaration and the disappearance of the Hunts, rumours grew. A young Radio Hauraki news journalist, later to become a magazine editor, was contacted in 1984 by an oil worker who claimed to have worked on the Hunt exploration when they struck big oil.

“They simply cemented it up, put a cap on it, and sailed away. We were all sworn to silence,” he added, “but don’t let them tell you there’s nothing there. It’s a huge field!”

In his recent book, “The Lost Oilfields of New Zealand”, Southland author and former oil worker Brian Jackson recounts a similar story, saying workers on the Hunt rig were locked inside when they unexpectedly hit an undersea “gusher”, 50 or 60km east of Stewart Island.

Jackson claims the Hunts didn’t want New Zealanders to see the oil or get a bearing on the location.

“The anchors were pulled and the rig was put under way,” he told journalists at the time of his book launch, and “when it had moved away from the oil slick, the New Zealand crew members were unlocked.”
Tim Shadbolt, who can see the boomtimes for his region if this all comes off, has met Jackson to discuss the Great South Basin.

“I’ve met with him, and he has got all sorts of theories about how [the Hunts] deliberately left, how they stalled the government – they’re supposed to have a government engineer with them every time they are drilling, and on this day they deliberately gave him the wrong time to meet at the wharf. So he didn’t get there, and that was the day they had the gusher that they supposedly cemented up. It could all be true, and none of it could be true. Oil is like gold, it creates this huge emotional drama for everyone involved. New Zealanders are great gossips.

“The rumour is,” adds Shadbolt conspiratorially, “that one of the basements in these properties in New York [sold by the Hunts] contained all the South Sea oil basin research and seismic information – it sounds ludicrous, but it is a bit like grandma dying and the kids, who are not that interested, throwing out all her Queen Anne furniture into a rubbish skip or something.

“There is no doubt at all, that it is the biggest unexplored oil-field in the world – or virtually unexplored – but we all know there is oil down there and it is very good quality oil, so it is definitely going to happen.”

But at what price? Apart from losing the shirts off their back in their ill-fated silver venture, another reason the Hunts apparently upped stakes was because of a royalty spat with the New Zealand Government, which wanted the standard OPEC rate of around 20%. In today’s dollar terms, assuming 15 billion barrels at US$60 each, that’s a total field value of NZ$1.3 trillion. Twenty percent of that would be a cool $260 billion for the NZ economy, and that’s not including the money spent on infrastructure and bases in Southland.

But while the citizens of Southland will enjoy the economic trickledown, the revenue for New Zealand overall won’t be anywhere near $260 billion, because the Government is asking for royalties of only a quarter of that.

Tim Shadbolt sympathises with those who claim it’s a sellout, but says they’re ignoring reality.

“I’ve been to several meetings with people who were involved at the time [of the Hunt exploration], and had several meetings in my office with key players, and down here the general consensus seems to be that Muldoon was playing hardball with these guys and wasn’t happy with the percentage shares. They felt that because the conditions were so rough that the government should be getting less, and that’s why – when they pulled out – Muldoon didn’t want to sort of lose face and admit that he mucked up, so he tended to emphasise that no one knew. And he was right, I mean, you can’t say whether there is significant oil there or not, after drilling only eight holes. Nobody knows – to me, that is the reality. It is basically an unexplored field.

“Because of the conditions, it would be like North Sea oil, it would be the toughest conditions in the world to actually work in. They say, in round figures, that it’s around $1 million a day to keep a big offshore rig drilling. So there is a huge risk factor in there, and I think that is why the present government is accepting a lower royalty percentage, whereas Muldoon was holding out for 20 or so per cent the usual rate.”

But there are other jewels up for the finding in the Basin. Natural gas reserves are now estimated to be ten trillion cubic feet, or around three times larger than the Maui gas fields that supplied New Zealand for decades. The Government is hoping the combined oil and gas yields will lure Seven Sisters companies like Royal Dutch Shell or Exxon Mobil – major players with the financial grunt and big rigs at their fingertips. There’s even speculation Hunt Petroleum might come back – according to one Investigate source the company has been sniffing around for land near Bluff and making other inquiries with local industry.

Some oil industry veterans are privately voicing the prospect that the Taranaki and Great South Basin finds could be enough to catapult New Zealand into OPEC, the oil production cartel.

Others, however, argue that while we may have the resources, New Zealand currently still doesn’t have a high enough profile on the world stage. There is, GNS scientist Chris Uruski told Explorer magazine, “A perception that New Zealand is gas prone”. It is oil that is sexy, not gas.

“Explorers have told me…New Zealand is much too nice a place to find oil! Really, it is not proximal to anything much, apart from Australia and Antarctica, which also have small populations.
Our remoteness is a definite disincentive, particularly for those who still think they are in danger of finding gas here.

“The main barriers to exploration are financial and will,” he argues. “So far, explorers have played it fairly safe. Generally, exploration companies like to expand exploration efforts incrementally from land to shallow waters, further offshore, gradually getting deeper. New Zealand’s potential lies mostly in deep water, so it needs someone with deep pockets to take the plunge.”

Still, with oil prices hitting record highs last year and fewer new fields being discovered, Uruski believes New Zealand’s time has come. The only alternative for the major oil companies at the moment is the even more expensive option of extracting oil from shales and other rocks in North America and Venezuela. The two-largest known oil reserves in the world are locked up in those shales, around three to four trillion barrels of oil. But the technology involved in extracting oil from rock is a whole lot more expensive than deepwater drilling for underground oil lakes.

In the meantime, Invercargill is gearing up for the boom.

“The tenders will be closed on second of April,” says Shadbolt. “We had a meeting in Invercargill last night of various companies that are involved in the oil industry, and we asked guest speakers from local companies like L. and M. Mining – who have been doing a lot of testing in the area – Crown Minerals sent a spokesman as well, and they have said yes, there is a significant interest from the main players, the big companies, who have uplifted all the data that they have available. They will be in negotiations with the companies who have tendered, and it will be announced in August who has got them.
“From council’s point of view, we just want to make sure that the oil companies are very aware of how many good engineers we have got down here, and try and make sure that once again we become the centre for the testing that is done. So we have set up a website, www.oilgasmineralsnz.com, and it lists everything that you would need for oil exploration.

“We are also running a series of workshops, just to let local businesses know what oil companies are like, how they operate, what their expectations are. For example, they run 24/7 all year, there is no such thing as after hours or anything like that when you are dealing with the oil industry. They are insistent that everything has to be – if you say you are going to do something it has to be done, because it is such an intense operation and such an expensive project to do.”

Is Southland ready to be the new Emirates?

“They are already calling me Sheikh Shadbolt down here, they are teasing me. But oil does seem to flow in the most adverse environmental conditions. It is either deserts or the most ferocious oceans imaginable, but nobody knows, at the end of the day, no one can say for certain what’s down there. All we know is, it definitely is oil.

“The mood of the city is quite excited actually,” continues Shadbolt, “and although you don’t get a huge benefit compared with the wealth generated, you certainly get the guys on rest and recreation with big wages – they come into town with big excitement, so it’s almost buzzing. And we are on a bit of a roll anyway at the moment, everything we touch seems to work out really well, so there seems to be quite a lot of interest all right.

“Every time a big block of land now gets sold around Bluff or the coast down there, it immediately unleashes a wave of speculation, “oh, that’s Shell, Shell’s bought that!” I just take everything with a grain of salt, it is possible, you don’t know because they do it through agents, and we have tried to track down who is behind some of these things, it is possible but we just don’t know.”

And that, in a nutshell, sums up the mystery of oil: until you strike a gusher, you really just don’t know.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:55 PM | Comments (0)