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The Underman as Cultural Icon:
The Saga of “Blanket Man”


Anarchist print of Blanket Man as revolutionary hero

2,055 words

“Blanket Man,” known in a previous life as Bernard (Ben) Hana, was a filth-ridden alcoholic, given to drinking methylated spirits attired in nothing other than a blanket and a loin cloth. He shouted or mumbled abuse at passers-by, as he squatted on the streets of Wellington with others of his ilk. He seemed harmless enough, and this writer has nothing personal against him or the way he chose to lead his life.

What I do find of socio-cultural interest is the manner by which others have turned him into a cultural icon. Such elevation to the presently esteemed status of Anti-Hero says something about the mentality of those who have revived the “Cult of the Noble Savage” that became the rage of effete upper class French society prior to the Revolution. It is a symptom of what Lothrop Stoddard called “the menace of the underman” and “the revolt against civilization.”[1]

Mr. Hana has a Facebook page [2] established by his admirers. There one can learn the fundamentals of his life; a hagiography, one might say. He was born February 8, 1957 and died as the result of his celebrated lifestyle choice on January 15, 2012. He was a “homeless man who wandered the inner city streets of Wellington, New Zealand. Ben was a local fixture and something of a celebrity and was typically on the footpath in the precincts of Courtenay Place which has 24-hour activity.”[2]

When the scribe of Saint Bernard alludes to Courtenay Place’s “24-hour activity,” what this means is that the nightlife brings out lowlifes who engage in drinking, vomiting, excreting in the doorways of shops, and other expressions of societal rebellion.

[3]But what makes Saint Bernard especially esteemed by the champions of the generic Underman is that he was a Maori, complete with matted, filthy, dreadlocked hair, and perhaps the epitome of what liberals, nihilists, and anarchists see as the living vestige of the Maori as he was, prior to European colonization: the “noble savage,” existing in the midst of a modern Western city.

Saint Bernard, despite sizzling his brain with alcohol and marijuana, was no fool, and on the few occasions the City Council attempted to do something about his plight, he had a ready answer for the Courts, exploiting the deference New Zealand society is obliged to show for all things “Maori,” whether real or contrived:

Ben was a self-proclaimed devotee of the Māori sun god Tama-nui-te-rā, and claimed that he should wear as few items of clothing as possible, as an act of religious observance. As a result, he was also tempted from time to time to remove all his clothing, which resulted in the consequent attendance of police officers.[3]

Another blogsite devoted to “Brother,” as he called himself, euologizes his contempt for authority, including his squatting with others of like state, at Wellington’s Cenotaph near Parliament Buildings.[4] On this blogsite one can read comments by, for the most part, admiring youths, aptly expressed in pidgin English, who were in such awe that they could only admire Saint Bernard from afar, as if a Christ-like figure too divine to be approachable, but an individual around which myths and legends can be spun:

Such is the “evolution” of New Zealand “English” under several decades of liberal education, where grammar and spelling are not corrected by teachers lest the “creativity” of the child is ruined and s/he is left with a feeling of having failed.

[4]However, Saint Bernard became an icon to more than just ill-educated youngsters. Many of the artistic, intellectual and scribbling classes see him as “a carefree spirit,” rather than an individual who became unbalanced after killing his best friend as the result of drunk driving and died through alcoholism. Marcelina Mastalerz in an interview with “Brother” relates her first impressions of his countenance:

He has become an iconic figure of Wellington’s Cuba Mall and Courtenay Place. Wrapped in a purple blanket, nearly naked, with his long dreads and carefree spirit, to many he is an annoying homeless man who simply won’t go away and who is destroying the beautiful, clean image of our city.[8]

At least this was my opinion of him when I first arrived to Wellington. I would see him, make a sour face and above all avoid eye contact as I quickly crossed the street. After all, his lifestyle and that of mine seemed to illustrate two contrasting worlds, which neither of us would ever understand.

But I started to wonder, who is this ever-present figure, who has no shame in living a lifestyle that society finds unacceptable and degenerating? Surely he must be either an alcoholic, drug addict, insane or all of the above, right?

No. “Brother,” what he likes to call himself, is neither an alcoholic[9] nor an unhappy man. He likes his lifestyle, and above all the freedom, which it gives him.[10]

Ms. Mastalerz was surely blinded by the Light, not to have perceived Saint Bernard as an alcoholic, if not a drug addict. What she saw was a Tolstoyan visage of a man who had succeeded in throwing off all the encumbrances of Civilization, and returned to the “state of Nature” that is heralded by effete intellectuals and bourgeoisie who could not last a day in such a state, but who envy those who seem “happy” to live in filth, rationalized as living an “alternative lifestyle,” or as Ms. Mastalerz and her type insist, living “carefree” and in “freedom.” It is what Lothrop Stoddard called “the lure of the primitive.”[11]

In the course of the interview Saint Bernard relates the gospel of the Underman quite articulately, and one readily sees why he is so irresistible to those who feel the burden of Civilization.

M: I saw the documentary Te Whanau o AotearoaCaretakers of the Land. In it you set to establish a “village of peace”– Aotearoa. How is that plan going?

B: It’s getting better. We established a political party “Te Whanau o Our Tea Roa.” There’s one million of us.[12] We live love, peace, harmony, equality at the top irrespective of age or gender.

M: If you had the power to do anything, what would you do?

B: I don’t want power. Power belongs to the people.[13]

Saint Bernard, beneath the filthy façade, worn like a halo, articulated the very ideology that is upheld by the multitude of purveyors of Western decline, from the denizens of the streets to Green Party Members of Parliament, the Secretary General of the United Nations Organization, or the President of the United States: “love, peace, harmony, equality at the top irrespective of age or gender,” the present-day catch cries of Western decay; the contemporary counterpart to “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

It is no wonder that Saint Bernard became such an admired figure: This is the Age of the Anti-Hero. In bygone days, our heroes were great soldiers and explorers. Today, a hero can be a filthy drunk who lived, cussed, smoked, and crapped on the city streets. A figure who would be one of a multitude in Calcutta; a figure who will perhaps one day also be one of a multitude in all the cities of a bygone Western Civilization: the Fellaheen.

Another scribe for Saint Bernard, Nyree Barrett, provided a class conflict analysis of “Brother”:

Hana pervades the experience of Wellington, whether we like it or not, he is one of the most visual men in the city and because of this he carries a certain amount of celebrity status. He is the protagonist of Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright’s documentary Te Whanau o Aotearoa, the subject of a Wikipedia site, the inspiration for photographic assignments and poetry (albeit bad poetry), and a “character” to be dressed up as. During the recent rugby sevens tournament I saw a group of young men wearing fake dreads and versions of Hana’s distinct purple blanket.

He is imitated, yet when he discusses his many political ideas through his movement Te Whanau o Aotearoa, they are deemed unimportant. This quasi-political party seeks a reclamation of Aotearoa, from its current state as a bureaucratic colony to an egalitarian and racially non-exclusive land. The alienation and inequality in New Zealand is, for Hana, only going to be solved through a complete upheaval of the current system. This sounds an impossibility in a society so entrenched in hierarchy and class. Despite this, Hana’s ideas do deserve to be heard without his homeless status stifling our reception of them.

If the homeless and mainstream society are ever going to be able to live in one space in harmony, as Hana suggests we do in his ambitious vision of Aotearoa, we must first question and change the mainstream perception of life on the streets.[14]

Here again, Saint Bernard is perceived as a great philosopher and political leader, rather than as a wretch who squatted in filth. He is the New Zealand liberal’s version of the most famous “blanket man” of all: Gandhi. He is extolled as the leader of a “political movement,” which seems never to have amounted to to more than a half-dozen other homeless pot smokers who squatted about him within the central business district.

The latest eulogy to Saint Bernard is a play which we are told will further “immortalize” him. “The Road That Wasn’t There,” to be performed at the world fringe festival at Edinburgh, Scotland, was “inspired” by Hana. Playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell, now resident in Britain, wanted to write something about New Zealand “while taking inspiration from folktales.” “Who better to draw on than a man who became a legend within his own lifetime?”[15]

The play is aimed at children, using puppets, and Hana has been made into a puppet of what is — presumably unintentionally — monstrous visage. Other tributes include a song created in 2012 in tribute to Hana, recorded and released by ZM Radio;[16] and a 2007 Victoria University presentation on Hana by sociology lecturer Mike Lloyd and Doctoral student Bronwyn McGovern.

When Hana died of alcohol poisoning in 2012, a makeshift shrine was created at Courtenay Place, where messages were written on the walls of the ANZ Bank building, and flowers, candles, food and other items were left in tribute. Cecilia Wade-Brown, the Green Party’s Mayor of Wellington, were among those who paid tribute to Hana.

[5]The local Anarchists — a melange of pot-smoking street people and mentally aberrant, histrionic bourgeoisie — quite naturally proclaimed Hana as one of their own and produced a signed, limited edition run of prints depicting the frail, doddering “Brother” as a heroic, strident revolutionary. To the Anarchists, “Blanket Man led quite and [sic] extraordinary life and will be missed by many Wellingtonians and New Zealanders alike following his recent death.”[17]

Where once bards wrote of Knights they now write of Blanket Man. He is an archetype of civilization’s decay, and as such is instinctively embraced by those, whether journalists, lecturers, street kids, or artists, high and low, who feel that civilization is an imposition. I saw the future visage of the Fellaheen West, and it squatted in filth on the streets of Wellington.


1. Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Underman [6] (London: Chapman & Hall, 1922), republished 2012 by Wermod & Wermod [6].

2. “R.I.P. Blanket Man,” “About,” http://www.facebook.com/pages/RIP-BLANKET-MAN/273891829339723?sk=info [2]

3. Ibid.

4. “Blanket Man,” http://www.bebo.com/BlogView.jsp?MemberId=3895594292&BlogId=3895641359 [7]

5. Dr. Stevo, Ibid.

6. Nirvana, ibid.

7. Minta, ibid.

8. Wellington has long since stopped being “beautiful’ or “clean.” I have to question the aesthetic sensibilities of Ms. Mastalerz.

9. Apparently drinking methylated spirits is not to be regarded as a sign of alcoholism.

10. Marcelina Mastalerz, “A Different Way of Life: Interview with ‘Brother’ (a.k.a ‘Blanket Man’),” http://www.bebo.com/BlogView.jsp?MemberId=3895594292&BlogId=3895641359&PageNbr=2 [7]

11. L. Stoddard, chapter IV.

12. Probably an exaggeration.

13. Marcelina Mastalerz.

14. Nyree Barrett, “Perceiving homelessness in Wellington,” http://www.bebo.com/BlogView.jsp?MemberId=3895594292&BlogId=3895641359&PageNbr=2 [7]

15. Sophie Speer, “Myth of Blanket Man takes time trip at coveted Fringe,” The Dominion Post, Wellington, June 26, 2012, http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/culture/performance/7172069/Wellingtons-Blanket-Man-immortalised-in-play [8]

16. http://www.zmonline.com/player/ondemand/blanketman-song [9]

17. Wellington Craftivism Collective, http://wellingtoncraftivism.blogspot.co.nz/2012/01/blanket-man-limited-edition-prints.html [9]