Watering down debate, Simon Upton

The Water Thieves
Sam Mahon
Longacre Press, $34.99,
ISBN 1877361518

New Zealand is a largely debate-free zone.  A couple of years ago, I co-authored an article on the Resource Management Act. Three of us – a partner in a national law firm, a resource management consultant and an out-to-pasture political hack – were moved to reply to what we thought was a very questionable piece by a couple of Lincoln University academics. So we wrote a long article for the irresistibly titled Resource Management Law Association Journal.

We were on our best scholarly behaviour – carefully measured arguments, under-stated conclusions, meticulous footnotes, scrupulously polite disagreement with our adversaries. But we didn’t temporise. It was, we thought, a robust attack.  We even said a key provision of the Act was totally incoherent – a pretty frank statement when one of us was ultimately responsible for drafting the clause in question. That alone seemed worth a cheap shot from the stalls if nothing else did.

Silence. We’re still waiting. Years have now passed without so much as a text message by way of rejoinder. The profession is busy wallowing in the status quo and raking in the fees. And the legal realm glides on, untroubled by any doubts. This is, evidently, not the way to spark a debate.

Sam Mahon has tried another tack. The Water Thieves is a brilliantly polemical, wilfully partisan and mercilessly personalised assault on water development interests in Canterbury. There are goodies and villains. Richard Johnson, Environment Canterbury’s then chairman, comes in for particularly excoriating treatment. The personal roots of the vendetta are laid bare in the opening pages as Mahon juxtaposes the calm and avuncular hearings chairman whom he invites to share a glass of polluted river water, with the Cantabrian squire who 18 years earlier had tried to turn him, his partner and six-month-old baby out of a hut – “Sorry, old boy. Can’t stay here, you know. Private hut. You’ll have to camp up in the trees.”

There is an equally splendid cast of minor characters with whom Mahon settles a slew of scores. Dennis Dutton makes a bizarre walk-on appearance as the Christchurch Press’s apologist for the US invasion of Iraq. Like the holy martyrs of modern day Baghdad, Mahon takes no hostages. Sir Kerry Burke and Alec Neill are swiftly assassinated.

Even allies aren’t safe. With all the fraternal solidarity of a fissiparous Politburo sub-committee, Mahon puts his fellow campaigners on trial. The unfortunate Mojo Mathers, fellow activist and professional meeting dominator, is found guilty of slogans that were “too prosaic or so ambiguous as to be counter-productive”.  But even at his most deadly, Mahon is never vicious. He is a very good writer – a deft character-sketcher and a hilarious raconteur in turn.

Mahon mines an old vein of prejudice against class and property that has always seemed so quintessentially Canterbury. He flaunts a full-blooded, bolshie leftism that exists today only on desiccated celluloid. The Christchurch of yore re-screens in glowing rosy tints:

It was a time when the university was still a place for dissent, creative thought and free education. It was the time before Roger Douglas, before everything was sold and we were delivered into the inhumanity of the free market. It was long before Stephen Tindall, who, in the name of Christ, delivered us into mediocrity, and before OSH attempted to deliver us from the clearest and most present danger of all: ourselves.


Time and again, indulgent litanies are rescued by the rapier being turned on its wielder. And despite the rebel outsider persona that is carefully cultivated, it is clear that Mahon has all the social fluencies and stud-book touchstones to navigate the treacherous shoals of Canterbury society.

There is a seam of high moralising at work throughout – the artist as social critic and activist, the scourge of moneyed smugness and caste brutality. Shelley would have approved. I am not often given to quoting dust jacket blurbs, but Longacre Press is not far wrong when it trumpets: “poetic, passionate, provocative: Sam Mahon weaves the world of the artist and the activist with skill and immediacy.”

In fact, one suspects that it was not just in the book that Mahon wove these worlds together but in his entire approach to the campaign. And here, one suspects, the contact horizon between art and the world may have been less than seamless. Like so many artists, Mahon sees the world of politics in theatrical terms. Indeed, the book’s action revolves around a series of increasingly elaborate stunts designed to penetrate the condign imperturbability of the ruling elite: launching the campaign at a neatly set dining table in the middle of the Avon River, an elaborate “river wake” at which a coffin is paraded through the city and down the river to the ECan offices, the detonation of a “poor man’s nuclear bomb” in Hagley Park.

No activism is truly subversive without the conspiracy of official surveillance. In politically correct 21st century New Zealand, it is as vapid and farcical as the political emotions it arouses: policemen worry about the need for kayak rescue teams in case a protester falls over in the two-foot deep Avon; the Civil Aviation Authority finds it will need to invent new rules if the protesters wish to tow a banner behind a microlight.

As the drama unfolds, one becomes increasingly aware that whatever the case for or against increased water abstraction in Canterbury, it isn’t going to be disclosed within the pages of this book. If you’re interested in understanding the (increasingly intense) pressures that are coming to bear on the province’s scarce water resources, you will not find them in The Water Thieves. The absence of anything scientific or technical means that the sort of case that might influence the future of Canterbury’s claims on water is yet to be made. (A major study being funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology is likely to be completed in 2010.)

But this detracts in no way from what is essentially a literary achievement and a fine one. The best passages in this book are descriptive. Take for example this final portrait of the book’s only spirit of goodness, Deryck Morse, Mahon’s mentor and tramping partner, dying in the arms of a nurse:

There is a sculpture by Michelangelo, the ‘Pieta’. Christ’s mother holds her dying son in her arms and the expression of combined love and grief in her eyes is what makes it a masterpiece. It touches the humanity in us all; it is part of the common thread laid bare and in that room, in that intimate halo of soft light was the echo of that genius; all the suffering of mortal man in the presence of unconditional love.


Despite its subject matter, this is a book filled with beautiful images. Christchurch in the distance lies “flat as a flounder, sparkling with phosphorescence”.  On the banks of the Waitohi River one May night, Mahon encounters “a still, starry night, a night for taniwha and the soft footfall of ghosts, the invisible passage of old people following their map in the sky.”

It was perhaps reasonable, then, that when I lost my review copy and had to purchase another, Borders Bookshop sent me to the Art section where we searched for Mahon alongside Mantegna and Matisse. But his ability to challenge a society that has immunised itself from debate must be doubted. When I asked at the same counter for a copy of The Year of the Horse, I was told it was in Fiction. Such is the capacity of contemporary consumer culture to lionise and at the same time neutralise its critics.


Simon Upton lives in Ngaruawahia and takes his own water from his roof.


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