Gaza 2009

Holiday Reading 2009

On holiday in the Far North, we all had our books. One son was reading I, Claudius. The Emperor Caligula, as Graves tells it, wore dresses and high heels, enjoyed orgies, and challenged Neptune to fight him in battle. His soldiers marched in and attacked the waves. Neptune did not retaliate, and few casual­ties were sustained: one soldier was nipped by a crab; another was stung by a jellyfish. This was a lighter moment, my son reported. Most of the book was a Roman blood­-bath.

We read, we swam. Out in beautiful Doubtless Bay dolphins and stingrays drifted by. Each night we watched the television news, as the bombs rained down on Gaza. Hundreds of Gazan civilians were being maimed and killed. Thirteen Israelis were dead, only three of them civilians.

On the beach, I was reading about Italians too. My book was Gomorrah, by journalist Roberto Saviano, about the Mafia stranglehold on the city of Naples. We were in Naples last year. It was drowning under rubbish, the result of a Mafia-­related stall in waste disposal. It was hot, chaotic, wild; a place where, as Saviano describes, 14­year­olds in bullet­proof vests work the drug supermarkets, where to speak out against the Mafia is death, and no one is safe from its reach.

Campania, the region most paralysed by the Camorra, has the highest murder rate in Europe. Illegal waste­dumping by the Camorra has left large tracts of land polluted.

In a town outside Naples my daughter gained an admirer: a cobbler who made her a pair of golden sandals. He grew fond, and kissed us every time we passed. He had an extraordinary personality, the most handsome, sinister and power­packed cobbler I've ever kissed. I wondered how it went with him and the Camorra. Did he only have to pay them? What were the secrets in this small, ancient town? I read on about his crime-­soaked country; the murders piled up on the page. Each night on TV, Gazan children screamed and panicked and died.

In Kaitaia Pak'n'Save, buying supplies, I met Tuhoe Isaacs, an ex-­member of the Mongrel Mob. He sold me his book, True Red, abut his life as a "dog". I took it back to the bach and read it. Of gang life, Isaacs writes,"The greatest idol to rule my life was the image of the dog, the mongrel I wore on my back... I identified with the dog; I called myself a dog; I greeted my brothers as dogs... The dog took many forms... I bowed down to everything that was the dog and I made him my god – the mighty bulldog in the sky."

I found this strange, harsh and appealing in abstract, the whole-­hearted worship of the anti-­deity. But the reality was brutal, and the life he describes was squalid beyond belief. Isaacs grew tired of savagery. He left the Dog and found God. God was good for him, although for the reader His arrival somewhat lowers the interest. From barking to praying; you wish there was one more stage — after Dog, beyond God, how about Freedom, or just Life? But he's come admirably far already, and life is very short.

The Camorra would be appalled by the dogs (such bad manners and poor grooming, those outfits) and the dogs, despite their ferocity, would be overwhelmed, trounced, routed by the Camorra's ultra­-violence. The Camorra have God, but He hasn't made them give up crime. He watches over them while they dissolve people in acid, or kill them with a grenade and throw them down a well.You occasionally get a sense of something ancient, complex and cruel in Italy, not least in Italian churches, with their paintings of writhing devils, their hair-­raising mixture of menace and kitsch. Mafia, church, violent ancient history — think of Caligula, that blood­soaked maniac, in his high­heeled shoes.

A theme had developed. I dug another book out of my luggage: The Devils Are Here. I met the author Cam Stokes at a book launch last year. His novel is about an Auckland bike gang. An ex-­cop and Westie, Stokes knows gangs inside out. I read his book and formed one conclusion: I would not last in a motorbike gang. I would be thrown out for insubordination.

Stokes's bikies, it seems, form a stolid, laborious middle order. As a framework for their work in drug-dealing and violence, they have a strictly enforced system of rules. They hold meetings, raise funds. They elect sergeants at arms, treasurers, national secretaries. Prospects are grimly addressed as "Prospect". As in, "Prospect, clean the toilet. Prospect, go on guard duty." The clubhouse groans with male humourlessness and pomposity. It's like an endless PTA meeting with beards and drugs and guns.

I finished the book and laid it on the pile. Three books, three different classes of criminal gang. And a fourth: on TV that night, the death toll in Gaza reach­ed a thousand, 400 of them children. An apologist repeated the lie,"This is a religious war."

It's not religious. It's not even a war. Those to whom the Warsaw Ghetto was done are doing it in return. This is more age­-old violence: tyranny, subjugation, and plunder of land. The Israeli Government wear no insignia, no jackboots. But the whole world sees, from the carnage in Gaza, what kind of a gang they've become. 

First published in Metro Magazine NZ