Sunday, June 18, 2017

How to read a letter.

Or rather how to get as much information as possible from an old letter.

The date stamp is crucial. All stamps were 'franked' which means a legible outline was stamped in black ink over the existing stamp with the whereabouts the letter was being posted from and the date, including the year. The stamp also gives information wider than itself. In this case the letter is franked 16 April 1942, New Plymouth, NZ.  The stamp is of a Maori whare (house) and is finely etched.
In 1940 it was one hundred years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. New Zealand effectively dates itself from February 1840 when the Treaty was signed between Maori and Queen Victoria.
In 1940 there was a celebration of New Zealand being one hundred years old. Hence the picture of a Maori house: it evoked the early world of New Zealand, its 'authentic' origins. But it was also made 'antique' by being so finely etched. This meant it belonged in another world. It was not strictly speaking contemporary.

But there was a problem in 1940. The world had erupted into global war. New Zealand as a British Dominion as it was called - this means an independent state that was in the British Empire - sent troops to Europe and the Middle East to fight for what was conceived as 'the motherland' - Britain.
This was partly because most New Zealanders of European descent were originally from Britain and Ireland. They were part of one of the great tidal movements of people in the 19th century, when the Anglophone world (people who speak English) spread out all around the globe in a desperate hope of making a better life than that in an overpopulated industrial Britain - or famine-struck Ireland. In some ways it was not unlike the great movements of population today.

But one hundred years on New Zealand sent its army to Europe to fight. It was relying on British imperial power to protect it, especially from Japanese fascism. However the British army had the most resounding defeat in its history in 1942 when the British army surrendered without a battle to the Japanese in Singapore.

This is popularly considered the date that the British Empire, in effect, ended. It left New Zealand and Australia undefended. Their armies were away from home. One could call it an hallucination arising from displacement, but at the time it seemed more important that Britain was saved than New Zealand.

New Zealanders got a rude awakening in 1942 when the Japanese air force bombed Darwin in Australia, sinking 11 ships and killing 235 people. Japanese submarines sank a ferry in Sydney Harbour. Waves of panic swept through Australia and New Zealand as people realised they were essentially undefended.

So that is the back story behind this date, and that stamp.

The letter was sent by my mother's elder sister to her in Auckland, recommending that she abandon Auckland and try and get down to New Plymouth, a rural area on the West Coast. There she had friends who had a farm. The idea was she would be safer there.

As it was the Americans entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. The Americans came to New Zealand which became a base for the war in the Pacific.

Many women's lives were changed forever when they met American servicemen. To many of the women the men seemed to have stepped out of a film and into their lives. They were used to New Zealand men who were awkward and little given to social polish.

So while this appears a very simple stamp, with a clear franking on it, there is a story to be told if you delve just below the surface. Dates are not neutral things, especially in terms of people communicating to one another. When horrible things happen friends get in touch with friends, family members reach out to family members. In this sense a date becomes like a lynchpin joining everyone together.

So that is the story behind this very simple image.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Message in a bottle

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it.’ – Rebecca Solnit.

‘In or around June 1995 human character changed again,’ Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2014. This was a reference to the profound changes in all our lives as we transitioned from the analog world (letters, movies, books, conversation) into the digital world (emails, Facebook, Google, cellphones, the internet.) Solnit, like me, knew the analog world profoundly – her quote even references an author - Virginia Woolf ’s famous comment that human character changed about the time of the post-impressionist exhibition in London in 1910, unleashing modernism into our lives.

Solnit applauds the changes brought by technology – ‘Many people now have voices without censorship’. She links 1989’s Tiananmen Square protest to the fax revolution; Facebook was instrumental in the Arab Spring’s initial phase in 2011; Occupy Wall Street was originally a Twitter hashtag. At the same time she wonders whether we haven’t lost something really important. ‘Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it.’

Part of the problem is that none of us can concentrate any more. We’re too busy jumping from site to site, device to device, worrying that we’ll miss out. I know this myself. I’m a writer whose future is entirely dependent on people continuing to read. But I find it hard to settle with a book these days. I’m anxious that I’ll miss out on the zeitgeist which keeps flickering and shimmering and ever changing just before I can apprehend it. So in a trance I just have to keep going.

Recently however I’ve ordered myself to stop sitting looking at my iphone and spend some time in the evening reading. And to my surprise I succumbed to the long distance pleasure of a good read. What do I mean by ‘long distance pleasure’? Well you have to go back to an older form of transport it’s true. I’m thinking of a long train trip that took you through all sorts of territories, vistas, mountains, plains, snow, heat. The high point of the novel actually sits in tandem with the development of the railway – think of Anna Karenina and how the train is so key in that novel. But what I mean is reading something really immersive can have the sense of a developing dream or meditation. You read what’s on the page but you somehow also have a parallel narrative in your own head. What you read on the page sets off rockets in your head – associations, images, parallel thoughts. (I’m reading Hannah Rothschild’s ‘The Improbability of Love’ at the moment. It’s a commentary on the high art world of contemporary London, both comic and discerning. It’s an enjoyable read.)

Of course I am an author so I have a financial interest in spruiking reading as a pleasurable activity. (Well, barely financial really, marginally financial on the level of a joke.) But the fact is I am about to launch off onto another book. So I have to sort of gather my energy together to commence the long journey. The strange thing is with writing a long-term book you have to believe there are readers at the other end of it. They’re the people you’re addressing, talking to, murmuring to. You have to think of not merely what interests you – obsesses you – but what interests them.

I want to write a book which is a voyage round some family letters. None of the letters is in any way remarkable. My mother wasn’t a poet, my ancestors were ordinary people trying to make sense of their lives. I don’t think there is a single philosophical concept enunciated in any of the letters. But this is what makes them so interesting to me. They are literary byproducts of life as it was lived. I’m interesting in seeing how much juice you can get from an ordinary letter – how much social history, gender politics, expression or unawareness of racism, how they express a time and a place. So in a way it's a book about a love affair with letters.

Solnit reflects back to some of the lost pleasures of the analog period. ‘That bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time’. Human contact and continuity of experience were a given. You read a book. You spoke on the phone. You wrote a letter. And if you got a letter it was exciting –‘the paper and the handwriting told you something.’ If the letter was from a lover or a particular friend you could carry that letter round with you in your bag. Your fingers might touch it when you were feeling tense. You could get the letter out and find another meaning in a sentence. The very handwriting was the signature of a soul.  So my book is about that strange lost world of letter-writing - of stillness, maybe even silence.

I think we all need silence in our lives.

I suddenly feel excited about this project. I can see its possibilities. It's both biography and autobiography, social history and something even looser. For ages I’ve been ‘maundering and globbering’ as a writer friend so accurately describes the mood – chewing on something unappetizing in a slightly depressed frame of mind. But now I suddenly feel the excitement of invention. (Maybe I’ve spat that unappetizing thing out?) So, even though I’m aware I’m still operating in the analog world by writing a book (or a long form complex document made up of words and images) I’m also aware I exist in this fractious, exciting, fragmented, slightly dazed, demented, dirty digital medium which is obsessed with what is happening just beyond the now. I’m not sure if I believe Solnit when she says technology has contracted communication. But I am sure it’s changed it forever. Or maybe another way of viewing things is that this piece of writing itself is a letter - to you, the reader.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Katherine Mansfield, a visitor to Hawke's Bay.

I'm aware it's an age since I posted anything on here so I thought I would begin posting occasional articles that I write, reviews etc. 

Below is a review of a rather interesting book that has come out on Katherine Mansfield's most indepth experience of New Zealand landscape. 

This was when, as a 19 year old, she went on a 'tiki tour' (meaning a journey) in the area of Hawke's Bay, going up towards the Ureweras and Lake Taupo. 

This was before she left New Zealand never to return. 

So the journey is of great importance - it gave her an insight into landscape, the wairua (soul) of place. 

And as she crosses over what I might call 'my territory' which is Hawke's Bay the book had special resonance for me. 

The book below is based on the scribblings Katherine Mansfield did as she journeyed along.

The review appeared on this site if you want to look at it with pictures (not always well chosen in my view.)

The Napier Taupo road has the high status of being one of those roads on which you lose cell phone coverage. This means you leave behind the 21st century. You plunge into the uncertainties of real time, presented naked of technology to the landscape. And the landscape itself is powerful. There are still very few ‘amenities’ along this twisting, tormented and lonely road. In fact the only  amenities attempts at hostelries offering hot coffee and toilets - echo the four stages that horses and stagecoach could reach in a day. There is none of the effluvia of contemporary life – no McDonalds, no Huntervasse toilets, no car yards. In fact there are no petrol stations.

This is by way of saying the Napier Taupo road is still a dramatic setting. And it was on this seemingly mysterious stretch of nowheresville that Katherine Mansfield found her one and only completely New Zild Gothic story,  “The Woman at the Store”. This is a story that is at least as much Ronald Hugh Morrieson as fluttery fluting Mansfield. It is realist, twisted and vicious. And sad. It has the melancholy of lives left behind that have curdled – in other words a typical New Zild narrative arc.  And this little pearl of a book, “The Urewera Notebook”, edited by Anna Plumridge, tells us it was based on one Helen Himing (date of birth unknown) who was the wife of a roadman who tended a lengthy and lonely stretch of Napier-Taupo Road.

Anna Plumridge is one of those literary terriers to whom you give a simple and seemingly banal fact and she will thrash it back and forth until the poor fact leaks out its origins and everything it can divulge by way of information. This is code for saying this rather prim hardback is a doctoral thesis warmed up for publication. I hasten to add it isn’t trussed up in that clunky university-speak that shows no respect for language. It is fairly speckled all over with insights both large and minute.

The book is based on Plumridge’s intensive research into the 3 week voyage into “a heart of darkness” that Katherine Mansfield made as a sulky 19 year old in November 1907. The road trip went from Hastings, along the Napier Taupo Road, branched off towards the Ureweras, headed up towards Rotorua, down to Taupo and back along that dismal road to Napier. This took place in between her first introduction to life in London, a return to the tiny town antics of provincial Wellington, and her swift removal to the Centre of it All (London in 1908) where she stayed for the rest of her life. In a way the notebook has the interest of a major artist confronting essential Aotearoa, scribbling in her notebook as she went. It is kind of apprentice material in which “Kathleen Beauchamp” tries on a thousand and one costumes before the admiring mirror of a self. “I look completely charming” she notes at one point, taking a snap of herself as she sat on the train from Woodville. 

She also records vivid glimpses of what she sees. And as it is 1907, she sees an awful lot.
It was, after all, a slim forty years since the land wars, with all this meant in terms of appropriation, loss and damage. It was also less than a century since the dystopian “musket” wars that had effected a kind of tribal ethnic cleansing from one end of the North Island to the other. Kathleen Beauchamp was looking at and travelling through a disruptive landscape – but one that she found extremely fascinating and beautiful – mysterious, and “other”. And like that experience of suddenly losing cell phone coverage – it felt very real.

The party was made up of middle class people with enough cash to allow them to take time off work and go off on a gypsy caravan tour.  It was made up of three men, three women and two girls.  They travelled with a coach and a dray that held all their camping equipment. They did their own cooking and slept in tents or houses if they could find them. (This revealed that the spoilt Miss Beauchamp did not know how to cook, or even how to make a cup of

Katherine Mansfield, as she later became, was always a master of disguise. She fastforwarded through personae, trying on personalities – the vamp, the aesthete, the slut, the Bloomsbury wicked wit, the suffering tubercular woman facing death. Sexually she had the same transience as she went from teenage lesbian love with a young Maori woman, promiscuous heterosexuality which landed her with gonorrhoea before finally settling on a strategic heterosexual marriage with a husband in another country and a lesbian love slave in the same room. She was a lot of things to a lot of people, not least to herself. The question of who “Katherine Mansfield” really was is a never ending quest, with many pilgrims lost and confused along the wayside. Mansfield was an assumed identity anyway and in these notebooks it is an apprentice Mansfield we are looking at. She is plain Kathleen Beauchamp and the rather dim photographs reveal a dumpy teenager under a big hat, rather too sharply corseted for her own health. (It is the one major defect of this book that all the photographs are reproduced in exceptionally poor quality. I guess literary people have severed visual nerves but for me, the photographs of Mansfield standing or seated among Maori and fellow travellers are so rare that I really want to zoom in on the details. The poor photographic reproduction was probably a result of budgetary caution but it also will curtail sales of the book.)

One of the larger questions Plumridge looks at is whether Kathleen Beauchamp was the nightmare teenager frumping round Wellington, hissing like a cat when she wasn’t scratching the furniture in her fury at not being back in cosmopolitan London. This has been a pretty standard trope for a long time.  But the evidence supplied by Kathleen’s own diaries is that she was that quintessential kiwi lass – a good sport. She walked in the dust up mountainous roads when the horses couldn’t cart the humans any longer, she went “in her nakeds” into hot pools, she looked, she laughed, she wrote. Her companions on the tour - who could have dobbed her in - talk of her humour, kindness and interest. It may be a fact that Kathleen Beauchamp was a 19 year old having the time of her life roughing it in old Aoteoara.

This brings me to the writing. The first three quarters of Plumridge’s book is a rather protracted entr’acte looking at the various interpretations of  “The Urewera Notebook”. This relates to the fact that the notebook is itself, a little like Mansfield, full of possible interpretations. There is Mansfield’s famously difficult-to-decipher handwriting for a start. Add in the fact most of the notebooks are written in pencil (a sign of roughing it – no fountain pens at this stage.) But then Mansfield really did use the notebook as a kind of verbal sketchpad. She gave no dates, she often simply went back and filled in an empty space with more verbal doodlings. (In fact if I made an analogy to another art form I would parallel this entire diary to the pad of a plein air impressionist painter, quickly doing sketch after sketch after sketch. The aim is to capture something on the wing. A tint of light, a look in a face, a way of holding a baby. Nothing is “improved” or “worked up”. The artist quickly moves on, trying out language in this case, seeing what works, what can be evoked. The notebook also has lists – Tea, lunch, wire [meaning telegram], milk, flour, walnuts – and an affectionate sketch of a letter to her mother.)

I sometimes thought with this book that Mansfield herself was a kind of unkempt landscape that various voyagers travelled into and brought back interpretations which were only ever approximations of something inherently undiscoverable. She remains, a little like the landscape of Aotearoa itself, wild, mysterious, other.

The first “discoverer” of the notebook was that cad Middleton Murray. It is hard to think of a man with worse press than the unfortunate repository of Mansfield’s amatory writing. She needed a romantic object to whom to send her immortal letters about love and marriage. She created a fictional Murray who so often disappointed her bitterly either in person or in his failure to understand just how terrible her predicament was – a young woman in her early thirties facing death in a foreign hotel room. Her disease – tuberculosis – was notifiable and needed to be hidden if possible. If discovered she could be ejected from the room on the spot and might even have to pay special cleansing costs. He really wasn’t interested.

 After her death of course Middleton Murray minted the Katherine Mansfield that became a 1920s legend. She was in a way his greatest literary production. He culled her lovely bitchyness, he tidied away the mess of a pregnancy. Certainly gonorrhoea was not a saintly attribute. Murray didn’t know anything about NZ and apparently didn’t even bother to look at a map. His understanding of the notebook is full of gaffes so bad – from this end of the telescope – as to be laughable.  His knowledge of Maori was nil.

The next intrepid explorer of terra Mansfieldiana was Professor Gordon of Victoria University. He sought to create a happier Kathleen Beauchamp than the furious termagant Middleton Murray created, the girl who hated low rent Wellington. (It is possible that is how Mansfield may have talked to her husband about her adolescence. It would have made her transition to Bloomsbury so much more gratifying if you posit that she came from ‘nothing’ to the centre of ‘everything’. The distance travelled is greater.)

Professor Gordon dusted down the notebook and applied his own magic. It was he in fact who fictionalized these scrappy doodlings into the rather formal and impressive title “The Urewera Notebook”. Fact: the notebook had no such title. It is my assertion that conferring such a weighty moniker on these slight impressionistic jottings risks overwhelming them with connotations of the Clytemnestra of NZ history, Dame Judith Binney. It gives the notebook a gravitas, a sense of tragedy that is too consciously nationalistic, too embedded in the fraught weightings of contemporary political correctness. Fact: Kathleen did indeed go to the Ureweras on her trip but it was only a small part of the journey. It took three days. The notebooks could have as easily been called  “My Summer Hols!” as this is probably closer to the teenage narcissism and slightly jejeune and jolly tone that underlies much of the writing. But of course that is really not a good marketing ploy and it underplays the goddess role that Mansfield occupies at the very apex of our national literature. Everything the goddess touched becomes sacred.

Seriously though. When the curtain finally goes up on the actual diary (a mere 20 pages at the end of a 118 page book) the writing is immediate and crisp. Writers have often commented on the cinematic speed of Mansfield’s writing. Well, here it is in genesis, sped along by dashes which connect flares of images – thoughts – feelings. (In fact she mentions an early form of cinema in passing.) Any quote is as good as another.  “I stand in the manuka scrub – the fairy blossom – Away ahead the pines – black, the souring of the wind.” It isn’t exactly a connected train of thought – it is image leapfrogging over image. There is a theory that the sparkling novelty of Mansfield’s greatest short story, “At the Bay” gets its music from her experiences on this trip. And indeed in the notebooks one comes across, again and again, extremely vivid glimpses, as swift as a camera lens opening and shutting, of essentially New Zealand sounds, smells, sights.  “–It is a queer spot – ramshackle & hideous, but the garden is gorgeous – A Maori girl – with her hair in two long braids, sat at the doorstep – shelling peas - & while we were talking to her – the owner came & offered to show us the shearing sheds – You know the sheep sound like a wave of the sea -.”

Plumridge has done a stellar job hunting down the merest hint of a detail and supplying information that may explicate it. She also supplies some context for throw away remarks by Mansfield which may have been misunderstood. Her infamous dismissal of Pakeha as “the third rate article” seems to point to an infinite disdain. “Give me the Maori or the tourist – but nothing between”. This makes more sense if you relate it her rampant colonial snobbery. The “real English” article she fawns over is actually an individual with the unglamorous moniker of Prodger. Prodger’s great virtue is his father was an aristocrat and his younger sister managed to snavel the 18th Lord Sempell and the 9th baronet of Craigievar (the same person, she wasn’t a bigamist). We all like a good title.

In fact Kathleen, with her lower class Irish sounding Christian name, had ‘the taint of pioneer’ in her own blood. Her grandmother came from a pub in the Rocks in Sydney, a notoriously rough area. Her family were upwardly mobilizing bourgeois and her own insecurity about her ‘third rate’ origins is projected onto fellow Pakeha in an attempt to point out her own distinction. (To Virginia Woolf however Mansfield was always ‘cheap and common’, stinking like a civet cat.)  

Perhaps a truer note here for Kathy the good sport is when she writes home to Mum and lets slip that “I’m quite fond of all the people – they are ultra-Colonial but thoroughly kind & good hearted & generous – and always more than good to me.” This is probably a saner assessment of what Mansfield really thought about the people who were, ethnically and culturally, of exactly the same background as herself. She dropped the lorgnette and got real.

It is notable that on the whole the 19 year old colonial had a refreshing openness to Maori that she met. Given this was the highest arc of imperialism and hence patronising ways of looking at non-British races, she is nearly always looking at the human, the individual, the person. Part of this is her openness to physical beauty. She especially loved handsome or striking Maori women and Maori men. There are many descriptions of their physical attractiveness, the way they distinctively dressed, that sudden rapport which is not part of Anglo-saxon cultural etiquette. She commented on the greenstone jewellery worn, the clothing, the long luscious curls of men of the followers of Rua. She tried to write down Maori sayings and showed an openess to tikanga Maori that is surprising given the period. She did hate the commercialisation of Rotorua. Yet in fact it was just the kind of setting she later deployed in a masterly fashion – hotels – alienation - transience – the sale of love. Mansfield’s ambivilance towards her NZ identity is often seen through her complicated family relationships, her defeats, her own betrayals. Yet the evidence in these free-flowing jottings is that she was a rapt inhabitant of Aotearoa, lens wide open, fresh to impressions and storing away information for later deployment.

In the end that is the interest of this notebook. Nowhere else do we have a record, made on the spot, of how she responded to her native country. It is as real and close as it could get. It wasn’t Aotearoa as she looked back with longing, after the shock of her brother’s death. Here she is not trying to reclaim it, as a loving testament to memory. It is as it was lived. Vivid, real, moment by moment, closely observed. That is its great virtue.

In the end the gypsy caravan traipsed back along that endless Napier-Taupo Road. It was on the return journey that Kathleen came across the setting for “The Woman at the Store”.  Plumridge reconstructs the scene through the words of fellow traveller Elsie Webber (aged 12 to Kathleen’s 19).  They knocked on the door of a cottage “at a very lonely, isolated spot” to ask if they could pitch their tent on the property. The door was opened by “a cheerful blowsy woman” who was thrilled to see some humans. “Come in and sit down. I’ll make a cup of tea. I haven’t got me drorin room boots on!”[drawing room boots]. Kathleen’s sharp ear for dialogue was captured by this. But it was the crushing sense of isolation, the lurking menace of the landscape which spoke to Katherine Mansfield and so she constructed her gothic story with its hints of violence, madness, repressed sexuality and death.

It is to Plumridge’s credit that she completes the story for us. Long after Kathleen’s party had disappeared Helen Himing vanished. “…several days after being reported missing, her body was found in the hill country near Rununga.” In her own way Helen Himing provides a small footnote for this larger journey of a writer apprentice who, having passed through her native land, looked at it sharply - and never came back.


The Urewera Notebook
Katherine Mansfield
(edited by Anna Plumridge)
Otago University Press

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Thumbs up, thumbs down

A rather funny thing happened to me last night. I was browsing through Facebook when I came across a friend saying he had given up on reading The Luminaries, the current winner of the Man Booker Prize. In fact he was giving up on his second attempt.
 I saw there was a comment below it, so I opened it up. 
The contents were rather startling. 'I also find all of Peter Wells' writing boring,' someone said. 
I felt myself go into that curious reversal known as shock. Immediately I asked myself - God, is my writing boring?
Incorrect. Is 'all my writing' - every bit of it - written over 20 years - boring? I felt crashing self doubt. (I also became obsessed with finding out more about the person who made the comment. Amazingly when I googled him, I found his street address. He lived in Point Chevalier where I grew up. I wondered if he had read my memoir, Long Loop Home, which looked at the strange potency of place, sexuality and time. I also found he was a real estate agent, an assistant to David Shearer, the Labour MP and he also seemed to work in local government in relation to state housing. I was astonished at how much I could find out about him so easily.)
This at least gave me some context. 
But it didn't change my sense of self doubt.
Maybe I had become a boring writer over time, I wondered. But then he implied I was a boring writing from the very start.
This morning however I was very pleased to receive a  positive addition to the commentary from a woman who wrote 'If the comment (Eleanor Catton's writing) is anything like Peter Wells' work, that's a good sign - one of my very favourite NZ authors.' I felt intense relief. I could go on living - and writing. (Somehow the two are completely interwoven in my life.)

But the two completely different opinions point out how different people see the same thing. (Or do  they see the same thing? Aren't they seeing something quite different?)
Reviews tend to follow the same pattern. I think I've only had one book that had universally excellent reviews and that was 'The Hungry Heart', my book on William Colenso. In my earlier writing life, when my books were much more concerned with the landscape of homosexuality, the reviews tended to be much more polarised, depending often on the reviewer's own attitude to gayness. 

Here I'm including some of the reviews for my latest book, Journey to a Hanging.
I should say first of all, the reviewing pattern was very unusual. I had an early, and excellent, review before the book was even in the shops. (Metro). But this was followed by a long - and for me, worrying - silence. This went on for weeks, until it reached a point whereby I no longer raced down to get the Saturday papers and wrenched open the book pages. I only felt disappointment.

In the end I succumbed to melancholy. The book 'had sunk like a stone' I told myself.
Instead of controversy, which I had expected, there was just an unending silence.

A wise writer friend of mine counselled me by saying it is a big book to read and it will take reviewers time to respond. This in the end turned out to be true. The reviews in the major papers all came out in the same week - apart from one startling anomaly, The Herald which has still not reviewed the book - and may not be doing so.

The reviews went from as good as I could hope for (as I said to a friend, I couldn't have written a better review if I'd written it myself) through to a doubting review. I have to admit to reading the favourable review and not reading the unfavourable. I will read the latter in due course, when its sting is less.

What does a writer draw from reviews? On a basic level, they are a thumbs up or a thumbs down. But on a personal level, they tend to be more challenging. Most writers have insecure egos and live with self doubt. Self doubt tends to be very destructive and I know it crippled my earlier writing career. My manuscripts from my apprenticeship period were like 
battlegrounds scarred with constant crossings out and rewritings. I have to say that the
invention of the computer and the fact you're always working with a clean copy made me get over a chronic indecisiveness.

With 'Journey to a Hanging' I did question myself deeply about what appeared or even appears to be its lack of momentum with its reception. I felt that CNZ had interfered with my project with (well meaning but nevertheless destructive) political correctness concerns, altering the emphasis of the story.

If I had been given free reign it would have been less 'historical' and more weighted to the fictional. The true heart of the book, anyway, lies in the last part of the book- a dissection of the final days of Kereopa Te Rau framed by the small town of Napier. (One reviewer called this part of the book 'masterly'. Perhaps this was because I was writing the book I actually wanted to write.) 

But there is a further aspect. I feel New Zealanders have turned their back on the NZ Land wars. They have, psychologically, abandoned any connection with this fraught territory, consigning it to a well-paid Waitangi Tribunal bureaucracy who can be relied upon to divvy up money, land and - importantly - guilt. In this way one need not face guilt or even adopt it, except in a distanced sort of 'I know nothing' way but accept completely the Waitangi Tribunal findings. This does not involve real knowledge about the realities of interaction, which the Waitangi Tribunal is not good at (and I would argue its role is really one of processing 'justice', even manufacturing 'justice' even in an ahistorical way.)

But in a larger sense, for the dominant Pakeha public, it is just a turning of the back onto the past, preferring silence and obliteration - allowing the Waitangi Tribunal to enact justice, sort of behind the back of the general public.

And of course the subject matter of 'Journey' is disturbing. This is an important factor.
Readers of books tend to be women. Women do not like books about wars (men's business) - nor do they like, generally speaking, books about physical violence of a grotesque sort. (Well, who does, I suppose you could ask.)

These are all factors in how a book is received by the general public. As a writer you become aware of this belatedly, looking backwards.

I also question some smaller aspects of the book production. I didn't like the title and wanted 'A Walk At Night Without Stars'. I was told this was uncommercial. Its cover also tends to imply a boring historical book, a fact I argued at the time. I also disliked intensely the subtext, about 'race relations'. Personally I would always avoid a book which is 'about race relations' - a dated terminology which seems to evoke a pathological political correctness. I was over-ruled on these almost subconscious choices which nevertheless remain very important. (The look of a book, the sound of its title. Its feeling. How it reaches out to you…) I was told I was 'uncommercial' in my concerns and that the publishing 'committee' knew better.
These are smaller details, but not unimportant ones.

I will put the image I would have liked at the front of this blog. I like the image as it suggests a contemporary take, a kind of parallel reality which goes with the way of writing in the book.

And here are some of the reviews of the new book...






Thursday, September 11, 2014

The sound of the waves

Below is an illustrated talk I gave recently in Auckland. It's a precis of a longer talk, at times a bit vague, but it covers my journey in writing 'Journey to a Hanging' in its varying moods - pensive, worried, pleased, and in the end, feeling a sense of infinite relief.

Alas, while giving the talk, I left out a beautiful quote from Mark Twain on the sound of the waves in Napier which he noticed when he visited Napier in 1895. He was staying in the Masonic Hotel which faced the beach and he woke up in the night and noted down the very special melancholy of these waves, which he also decided were a great solace.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Controversy, a media storm and a meeting.

Below is a chapter from 'Journey to a Hanging' that I decided to edit out. I'm putting it on the blog as I believe it raises some interesting questions about political correctness/political interference in Creative New Zealand grants and the nature of intellectual freedom in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Originally this chapter was in the first third of the Volkner part of the book. 

The conclusion of Wittgenstein's Tracatus: 'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.'

I had underestimated how controversial anything to do with Kereopa Te Rau was. I found this out when I had my first media interview about this book.  
This is what happened. 
I was doing a telephone interview with a stringer for the Dom. Post. He was struggling to understand what was the area of my subject. (I hadn’t managed the sound bite then.) I suddenly had what seemed like a bright idea. I thought I could animate the ‘deadness’ of a past historical issue by paralleling the search for Kereopa Te Rau and his being brought to Napier with the-then recent feelings of Americans when they captured and killed Osama Bin Laden. (Fresh in my mind were television images of Americans who had spontaneously gathered outside the White House at night to – bizarrely, it seemed to me – celebrate eliminating a terrorist. It looked eery as Halloween or those hangings in the Deep South.) 

When I opened the following morning’s paper in a cafĂ©, I saw – to my horror - the headline ‘Writer on trail of historic Maori ‘Osama Bin Laden’. There was my photo alongside the only known existing photograph of Kereopa Te Rau – a particularly plaintive image. I let out a small gasp of shock, closed the page quickly, as if trying to slam shut a Pandora box. I went on and read the rest of the newspaper quietly, in an attempt to calm down (surely I didn’t see that?) 
I returned to the page.
Yes, there it was, for all time.

I thought I could hear doors slamming all over the country. Doors into Maoridom. It was a disaster.

That evening I become caught up in a small media storm. Maori radio and television were ringing me for ‘clarification’ and I was deeply aware of the tenuousness of my situation. I was introduced on National Radio as ‘the biographer of Kereopa Te Rau.’ It didn’t matter that I said I wasn’t his biographer at all. I decided I needed to do something so the following morning I composed a letter to the Dom.Post –-

Dear Sir, 
I would like to make it clear that I wish to disassociate myself from the headline - as I am sure any reader who persevered and read the article in its entirety would understand. I am not looking for an historic Maori 'Osama Bin Laden.’ I am on the trail of empathy, understanding and insight.’

The letter wasn’t printed.  The fact was the situation was so fraught I had only been given the Michael King Fellowship to write the book on signing a Treaty-inflected document which asked for ‘an outline on your approach to working with local iwi or hapu on the project’. I went back and checked my application again and decided to answer in this way. 

‘Naturally I am very interested in the oral history of people close to Kereopa Te Rau (Ngati Rangiwewehi of Te Arawa) as oral histories held within hapu and iwi are often the repository of fascinating insights. But I do think the panel needs to acknowledge the project is what is today called creative nonfiction. Ie it is not an attempt to create a kind of eloquent Dame Judith Binney-type history in which I attempt to right historical wrongs. To quote from my application notes ‘I do not want to write about Kereopa Te Rau, the justice or injustice of his hanging or the political events which led to his trial. What I want to write about is virtually everything apart from that (accepting at the same time that everything is inflected with its proximity to this key highly politicised  event.)  I propose a voyage round the subject, looking at all sorts of ways to contextualise, to place in parallel, to open surprising windows into the past and hence understanding.’

 ‘The heart of the project is actually an essay about the nature of intellectual freedom which Colenso wrote called Fiat Justitia. Colenso’s essay, in which he looked at Kereopa Te Rau’s capture and imprisonment, was written within the tight confines of a society which had its own form of political correctness, its own attempts to curtain intellectual freedom by insisting on a portrayal of only ‘acceptable’ sides of truth. 
   The project is actually about the slipperyness of truth and the way two Pakeha people, Sister Aubert and William Colenso, went against the current orthodoxies to present their own entirely human - and humane - response to a situation which contrasted with the accepted ideas of their time.’

I did not add something I believe in, a quote from the remarkable nonfiction writer Janet Malcolm,  ‘The pose of fairmindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses.’p176
 I knew this was asking for trouble.

Then out of the blue I received what felt like a reprieve. This was a phone call from a young man who identified himself as Benedict Taylor from the Office of Treaty Settlements. He was an historian, he introduced himself, and he talked about the ‘unfortunate’ publicity for my new project. I burst out laughing. ‘You could say that.’ He kindly said if I found myself in Wellington on such and such a date it could be good timing. Ngati Rangiwewehi, Kereopa’s iwi, were signing off a Treaty document and they would be in a receptive mood.
Gratefully I accepted the olive branch. 

The meeting was timed for 2pm. And here I reproduce a letter I sent immediately afterwards to an Australian friend much interested, if bemused, by the contradicitons and vociferousness of New Zealand’s racial politics.
‘I entered a vast building - every floor identical and hence confusing. A name tag. Then into a conference room.
Eventually the small deputation arrived, four men and two women, all of middle to late middle age. All in black, dignified and happy (some had been to the pub.) The men hongi-ed me (I was relaxed, somehow channeling Colenso and my brother who had been solicitor for the Maori Affairs Department in the 1980s and an able speaker of te reo.) I in my naivety went to hongi the women, who ducked around and presented a cheek to kiss. (Oh dear…ok, got that…)
Then the Treaty people entered, fresh as newly minted dollar bills, two in their late twenties, one of Asian origin. They asked to 'minute' the meeting. 
A formal opening speech by a younger man, large, humorous, human. Of course I understand one word in every thousand but gathered it wasn't abusive or horrid.
I somehow summoned the ghosts of my Napier grandparents to stand behind me, and then my brother who had been so active early in Treaty politics before it became a gold plated chariot…
I stood up to reply, but they ushered me downwards. 
So I talked about how Colenso had led me to the project (how he did a brilliant defence of Kereopa)…and then I read out my letter to the Dom Post. This seemed to move them.
I felt them listening.
Then the discussion broadened with the elder woman speaking, Mrs Te Rangikaheke Bidois. I heard things I had never heard before: the Kereopa name was shrouded in so much shame – whakama - that there was an unusual degree of mayhem and suicide among the young men descendants. It was a surname that was rarely used these days.
They also said that the cannibalism was contextual to the times. (Well, of course…but then again…)
They said if I wanted to take it further I would need to come to the marae and consult the elders but as far as they were concerned they would like me to go further with the story.
I immediately said it would be wonderful if Benedict could accompany me (to his visible surprise.) They liked that idea. He is obviously a favourite son (and can speak Maori.) 
Anyway at the last moment a glam model appeared, female, a sequinned bag and I thought 'here's trouble'. It turned out to Donna Hall, one of the highest paid legal minds in the country. Anyway she was sweet and gave me her number and said to come to dinner.
So….all terribly surprising, my dear.
I know from ‘X’  they lull you in and then freak you out.
But it ended with them virtually thinking they had commissioned me to tell their story.
This made me a little uncomfortable as I cannot do that. I can certainly tell their side of the story - but as I said to them I want to tell 'all the stories'.
So, Ian, I found myself, this semi-elderly Pakeha mandarin, knocking fists and exchanging bro handshakes with the men, and kissing the women on the cheeks. One of the men (an ex teacher…) said I had performed 11 out of ten. 
One thing I noted in the midst of the glitter though. My nametag came off and fell on the floor. I was stooping down to retrieve it but it had glued itself to the sole of young Asian woman's foot and she walked off. I prayed it wasn't a presentiment….
It was left that I was to contact Mrs Te Rangikaheke Bidois in the near future and ‘present myself.’
We went down in the lift together…then separated at the bottom and went out diametrically opposed doors.

(I will follow this up with what happened eventually.....)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Korero on 'Journey to a Hanging' - Wellington talk on Wednesday 27 August

Journey to Tauranga....

  • I'm just back from a tiki tour to Tauranga. I gave a talk at the Tauranga Library on my book. I wanted to go to Tauranga as CS Volkner taught at the Tauranga Mission for three years from 1855-58. And somehow the historical proximity seems productive. (Going to the spot where there is still some remnants left - in this case the beautiful Mission buildings, today called The Elms.)

  • I was in two minds about whether I should go. I had a terrible cold and felt listless and faintly depressed, as you do with a cold. But I told myself I had a responsibility to turn up.

I decided to catch a bus to Tauranga. I haven't been on a long bus ride for years. I felt a little sceptical about how bad it would be. It turned out to be ideal. It forced me to be idle for long periods. (When at home I am magnetically drawn to my computer and endlessly fiddle round with bits of writing.)

But the fact is I am deeply tired - as you are when you come to the end of a long and massive project. So it was ideal just to sit still, not reading, not doing anything at all. 

The driver was polite and professional and everyone on the bus was similarly chilled. There was plenty of space - nobody sat beside anyone else, unless they knew them. So I caught the bus down to Tauranga, daydreamed away in a very idle manner and in the early evening gave a talk.

It wasn't one of my best talks - I was still feeling very low energy but I was pleased with the questions at the end of the talk. They were all interested and clued in, I thought.

One person said to me later she thought New Zealanders simply didn't want to engage with the land wars and the effects. They had decided to place it in the 'too hard basket'. Interesting point of view, I thought.

My next talk is at the National Library in Wellington. I promise to give an interesting talk.

Below are the details. 

If anyone is in Wellington, please come along and introduce yourself. 

  • Date: 27 August2014
  • Time: 
    12.10pm – 1.00pm
  • Cost: 
  • Location: 
    Tiakiwai (lower ground floor), National Library, corner Molesworth and Aitken Streets
  • Contact Details: 
    For more information, email
In April of this year, the Crown pardoned Kereopa Te Rau for his role in the killing of the Reverend CS Volkner in March 1865. Author Peter Wells revisits what he calls 'contaminated ground' to look at the controversy, placing it with the context of the Age of Apology.
Peter will discuss his book 'Journey to a Hanging', which looks at the events in an in-depth yet surprisingly personal way.
Millwood Gallery will have signed copies of the book available for purchase on the day.

About Peter Wells

Novelist, film maker, and biographer, Peter Wells uses these skills to summon up the ghosts of the past – to make them real, to allow them to speak to us in a personal, contemporary way. 'We need to enter the past as a vivid reality, recognising that people understood, and misunderstood things just as we grapple today with uncertainties and ambiguities, trying to make sense of what only makes sense many years later.