Sunday, December 27, 2009

After being knocked down by Susanna Mailolo, the Holy Father wakes up....

In a shock annoucement today Pope Benedict XVI said that he wished to change the meaning of Christmas. In a global message he said next year’s Christmas would be a celebration of the single person. The time-honoured version of Christmas celebrating the family had revealed itself to be bankrupt. Christmas has basically devolved, he said, into a pagan festival in which the worship of consumer items and the search of alcohol-driven oblivion had taken over from any religious meaning. 

He acknowledged for the first time that Christmas was simply a replacement of the more ancient Roman ceremony known as Saturnalia and that the idea that 25 December marked the birth of Jesus was a tidy fiction completely unrelated to fact. Nobody knew when or where Jesus was born, he now admitted. The twentyfirst century called for some degree of honesty, he said, even in such a time-worn institution as the Catholic Church.


As for the popular belief that Christmas, in the end, was all about children, The Holy Father acknowledged that Christmas has simply become a means of training children in the way of greed. It also became a form of purchasing love. Christmas had become, he said, a way of grooming children for capitalism. It was an exploitation of innocence. Children had become the worst victims of Christmas. The Church, he said, would consider forms of compensation. Perhaps even the entire body of the Church, its Swiss accounts, land holdings, art and antiques, might be liquidated and donated to the poor children of the world. This was entirely possible, he said.

The old idea that Christmas was all about family had also proved to be a fallacy. In fact every year the festival was dictated by guilt, fears of loneliness and the need for shaky economies to spur on consumer spending. He acknowledged the festival of Christmas was a complete sham. People who were related to each other simply by birth spent time together reliving ancient traumas. It was not healthy for the human race. It was time to take a break.

It was time, he said, to appreciate the radical role of the single person. Without the single person overpopulation, a form of global pollution, would be crippling. The future of the world, of humans, depended on the single person. In such a radical step against orthodox Catholic doctrine, which believed that women should breed as much as possible, to produce more Catholics and also remain in their proper subervient state, he said he had looked into his heart and found he must speak out for the rare value and beauty of the single individual. Those who did not breed deserved the highest praise. 

An entire festival would occur next 25 December in which the single individual would be highly praised. Those in families would fast for the entire month of December, to acknowledge their guilt in placing undue demands on the earth’s slender resources. On the 25 December, it was the role of families to locate single persons in their community and worship them. This did not involve gifts or alcohol, carols outside their windows or invitations to ‘parties’. It involved silence. 25 December would become, for the first time in history, a real day of contemplation. Silence would be enjoyed around the world. Humans would listen to the sound of birds, the loveliness of a blade of grass slowly growing. It would be as it was, in the beginning. It was a beautiful idea, he said, whose time had come.

When asked by a journalist how he was feeling after being knocked down by 25 year old Susanna Maiolo, he shocked his audience by saying it was this which had brought him to his senses. She was a single person, just as he, in his heart, was a single man. He wished people to understand that the information that she had ‘psychological problems’ was a way of diminishing the real import of her action. She had been a bearer of the word. And the word had reached him. And now he understood. 

He proposed that Susanna Mailolo join Australia’s Mary McKillop as the Catholic Church’s newest saint. ‘What we once believed to be heretic turned out to be simply the bearer of the Truth’.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The new book goes fishing...

I’ve been trying to put my thoughts in order about The Troweena Sea. You see, I even resent writing the title as I feel this only adds publicity to a best-selling book. Yet I’m equally unwilling to use Witi Ihimaera’s name, as this appears to ‘make it personal’. My urge to make sense of the situation comes from the fact this book, which was going to be withdrawn, when the plagiarism allegations first came out has not been withdrawn at all. It is now the best selling fiction book by a New Zealander, within New Zealand.

My question is: what does this say about us? First of all, there is the cynicism of the publishing company. Penguin have obviously decided it is better to make money rather than adhere to its announced principles that it would seek to withdraw the book. Similarly the author himself made a great deal of the fact he himself would be personally paying for the stock of the book which remained in the warehouse. One could ask now: has this actually happened? Or did the author collude with the publisher in cynically allowing more books out into the shops?

Or is this incorrect thinking? Perhaps the publisher just decided to leave those books already out in stock, in bookshops., to remain there. Perhaps booksellers pleaded with the publishers to allow the book to remain in stock.

Ihimaera has long been one of New Zealand’s best selling literary authors. The fuss apparently has not stopped people buying the book. Indeed there is every evidence that the fuss has aided the sale of the book.

These thoughts were partly prompted by two friends who had bought the book.

One is an archivist, the other an arts administrator. Both are women. And both reported that the book was not a plagiarised text but a fantastic read. This  appalled me. I have heard of people buying the book on the belief that it will become a collector’s item. (Unfortunately already too many have been sold.) But I would have expected people who were knowledgeable about the arts would have understood the issues.

What are the issues? I believe they are complicated by contemporary art’s use of sampling, of copyng, of ‘appropriating’. This is widespread through the visual arts (‘quotation’) and through the musical arts (‘sampling’.) Why should the literary arts be any different? Or does the difference go to the heart of the way in which writing differs from other art forms. Writing can use quotes, but in books of any quality, these quotations are sourced. It is a way of honouring the work other people have done before you. Not to do so is to appropriate someone else’s work. Cultural appropriation, by pakeha people, of Maori subject matters is a very hot area.

What do we have then when a Maori kaumatua, for Ihimaera is such, is found out appropriating by and large pakeha sources without any acknowledgement? We have the strange kind of muffled crisis we have experienced. Maori have been singularly silent on the situation. They are used to seeing their own people constantly attacked. It does not do to attack your own kind. But pakeha writers, with some notable exceptions, have also been discretely silent. The problem is partly personal. Most writers know Witi Ihimaera. He is capable of great charm. But I would not be the first person to say he is also capable of considerable malice. He’s a rounded character, after all - not the demi-plaster saint he was in risk of becoming after the popular success of the film ‘The Whale Rider’.

Witi Ihimaera’s role of cultural ambassador is something worth looking at in more detail. Ever since his first, stunningly simple and eloquent stories emerged he has had what can only be called a very good ride. He became a diplomat, that most carefully judged of silver tongued careers. Latterly, when the hard work of gay liberation had been done, he came out as gay. He also became more vocal about Maori rights once the hard work of Maori radicalism had been done. In one way New Zealand has needed a man like Ihimaera - charming, personable, bicultural. Adaptable. He has been heaped with richnesses. A man who has not got a particularly illustrious academic record is a professor at a leading university where he himself teaches writing. Only this year he was given a laureateship - perhaps the final poisoned gift to a man heaped with honours, aroha and mana.

Has this crisis changed anything? Not according to the people who have rushed out to buy the book. I have heard one author say that the book was unreadable, lurching from style to style awkwardly. But Ihimaera’s writing style is not the point. People buy his books to hear from a bicultural ambassador, a charming man who knows ‘how to tell a good story’. And pakeha people like hearing Maori stories. And after all, telling stories is what authors do. Or rather writing them. This is where we get into difficulties. Unacknowledged appropriating is really just theft. It appears to have been a careless, unthought out act, by someone who presumably assumed he was untouchable in New Zealand culture. There was a huge demand for another book. He gave in. It’s not the end of the world, but it tends to dent the charisma, the mana of the man. It’s not a good look. Every book he produces from now on will be tainted by suspicions of intellectual theft.

People say, of course, Shakespeare borrowed. Recently Ian McEwan, a writer of real talent and originality, has been accused of plagiarism at least twice. But I don’t think in either case we are talking of actually taking literal chunks out of someone else’s research and writing, then plastering them over into the main body of the work. Or have we, as Ihimaera himself suggested, just arrived at a postmodern moment when intellectual theft is a chic form of experimentation? Would Maori think the same thing if, for example, I simply took something oral and ancestral, then put it into the main text of my work, as if I had originated it? I don’t think so.

Is it a case of double standards - the cultural double standards that bedevil New Zealand life. (Hone Harawira, loathing white people, but needing to go to the centre of white culture, Paris....) 

In the end this cultural event says alot about contemporary New Zealand: Ihimaera’s outing as a plagiarist by someone who lives overseas (who within New Zealand would have dared dent the mana of the plaster saint?) Ihimaera’s misjudging of the severity of the crisis by appearing in public receiving a large sum of money even after the plagiarism was public knowledge: surely the diplomat within him would have dictated a discrete professorial holiday at some welcoming overseas university (Hawaii comes to mind)...a public statement that he would not accept the laureateship this year...a little modesty in the situation would have been a sign of atonement.  The university which so desperately needed a bicultural ambassador - what was once called a friendly Maori - that they would accept plagiarism as something intellectually acceptable and even negligible - surely a nadir in the annals of universities becoming thinly disguised moneyshops. The book still stays in the bookshops. People are buying it probably at this very moment for a Christmas present. Some people believe, like money in Hanover Finance, it will be a good investment. Other people just like a good story. Shame that significant parts of it were written by other people - who remain unacknowledged. But that’s not a problem, is it? 

Is it?

Of course Witi Ihimaera will be reborn. The phoenix which has lived through such staggering social political racial and sexual change, always morphing at an appropriate moment, will, I am sure, re-emerge in an emotion-drenched scene some time in the future. He is one of the characters of twentieth-century New Zealand. When a friend of mine, who had a history of heroin addiction in his twenties, but then went on to become one of the leading ad men in New Zealand - before being found with heroin again - said blithely: it only adds to the story. The adman knew something. Witi’s story is not finished. We can perhaps expect a few tears on Mark Sainsbury, or whoever is around at prime time when Witi, like Coco Chanel, makes his inevitably dramatic tear-wrenching re-entrance. The crowd will weep. Then, barely stopping to mop up their tears, this largely pakeha audience will feel that twitch in their being which indicates: it is all over.  Their fingers will be blindly feeling for their eftpost and credit cards before they line up obediently to buy the new book.

The new book goes fishing....again.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The beautiful anarchy of thought

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s - part of a baby boom generation which, ironically,  had severely limited information on sexuality. 

These are some of the pamphlets my mother, through a veil of embarrassment, passed to me - much as a visitor to a prison might slide family photos over to a prisoner who did not know of the existen

ce of a new family member. 

I remember the mass of grey print, the dull diagrams - the complete absence of information on matters which were chaotically, pressingly important to me - questions so vast they could barely be compressed into words and language - and this was, because, in that time, the language did not yet exist: it had yet to 

be invented. 

So one existed in a strangely darkened landscape in which certain things had a spherical power - a power which is hard to evoke in these days of global pornography, when the net has created a virtual-reality in which anyone can find the most graphic images of every form of sex at the touch of a button: an overabundance of information seeming to neatly echo the period in which I grew up, which was a starvation of information.

But like all people who live in oppressive situations one learnt to search for signs of life. 

My mother believed in education. She believed in the efficacy of art institutions. She also had a busy social life and knew that the kiddies could be dropped off at the Auckland War Memorial Museum or the Auckland Art Gallery and we could spend three to four hours maximum for the price of half a crown. 

We would be unmolested, self patrolling, carefully rationing our money - half a crown was a beautifully heavy coin, having a heft and weight in your short’s pocket -  as we walked along the dim passageways and vast rooms - knowing that the worst excesses of boredom would be mediated by that most crucial moment of decision 

: a Coke versus a Fanta. 

But inbetween times my brother and I had the beautiful anarchy of thought. We could gaze at whatever fascinated us. 

And in the echoing chambers of the Museum, where you heard distant voices and the sound of footsteps echoing against marble - in an atmosphere which aurally was always special and even faintly votive and church-like - we found ourselves inevitably, as before a predestined spot 

- coming to a complete lull of stillness before something which shocked us both into silence.

This was Laocoon - in those days having its own special niche on the ground floor. This plaster statue did something to us. We feasted our eyes on the drama - a family - a father and two boys - just like Russell and myself - but somehow enmeshed in a life and death Freudian drama - a snake coiling round their  - and this is what really fascinated us - their beautiful naked limbs. 

In time my brother and I would recognise we were both seperately and together gay. At the time all we knew was the deep lurch into silence - that soundless fall - that immense move into silent close-up.

Did these statues offer us what we could never have in life? That was stillness of an object of desire. We lived near the most popular beach in the unfashionable western suburbs - we haunted the changing sheds, as most of the local kids did. But what we saw there were random glimpses, sudden and startling protuberances hastily buried in ugly woollen togs. Here was a naked abandon, a refusal to be clothed

. The very stillness of the statues opened themselves up beautifully to our gaze. They were as immobile as the stillness and fervency of our desire. 

And what beautiful bodies they had.  They could be seen in physique magazines - but here they were, for free, sanctified by antiquity, raised up by being in a temple of art. We two small boys copped an eyeful very gratefully, at the same time somewhat queasily aware that other people passing by found our stillness unnatural - out of the ordinary - queer, for lack of a better word. 

Other people drifted by, their glance not caught on these statues of male beauty. 

  Yet we were also aware that before us had come other wanderers, other seekers - even today, in June 2009, I was startled - and pleased - to see the vine over the bulging Fallen Gladiator’s crotch was darkened by touch. 

This good luck token, this desire to actually cop a feel, broke all the ordinances of art: look don’t touch. Whereas in your mind you were constantly substituting LOOK for TOUCH. 

And as such, these beautiful statues, arising from cultures in which male beauty was held in such a high regard - passed on their silent message to travellers in a darkened and ill-lit landscape - a landscape with too few lovers (but with a startlingly high teenage pregnancy rate) - a land in which information was lacking and touch was mediated by the law.

((This is part of a talk I gave this year on the absence of eroticism in New Zealand art....))

Sunday, November 29, 2009


The midday news has just announced that Glenn Mills has died in Mt Eden Prison. It’s impossible not to feel in the newsreader’s even tones that she is inferring a sense of natural justice. He is, after all, the man who knowingly infected a large number of men and women with HIV-Aids. It’s a terrible thing to do but unfortunately it is a human thing to do.     

Let’s untie the bundle a bit. Glenn Mills was genuinely bisexual. In the early days of gay liberation we believed two mutually incompatible things. One was that everyone was inherently bisexual - that all humans existed on a continuum of sexuality and most people could be responsive to people of both the same and different gender. This was a radical idea, a beautiful idea. It posited the concept that nobody was one thing. It implied flexibility, motion, accessability. 

But at the same time, in our inner hearts, I think we disbelieved this. We believed all bisexual men were actually closeted homosexuals too timid to come out. Bisexuality, after all, was a useful transfer station for men who were in public positions. Secretly they could be gay. They would have sexual relationships with other men. Publically they were ‘engaged’ or had a ‘long term relationship’ with a woman. Or sexless marriages.

Society rewards heterosexuality in so many ways both legally and in terms of approval that this kind of closetry used to be widespread and to a degree still is. On Brothers & Sisters, there was the witty line from the gay brother about someone allegedly bisexual which went ‘Bi now, gay later.’ (as in ‘Buy now, etc.’) It was funny and bitchy and encapsulated a gay point of view. 

But as I’ve gone on in life I have come to the conclusion there are many men who are genuinely bisexual. They have an erotic response to both men and women. It’s not surprising after all. And in the morality-free zone of the net, this kind of experimentation has flourished. The public necessity for declaring sexual preference has almost vanished. It has certainly lost its dreaded taboo status, and as such has accrued a kind of so-what neutrality. 

But in the end, men prefer to keep their erotic response to other men private, secret. Unlike lesbianism, which enjoys a strong tillation factor with heterosexual men, homosexual sex is seen as publically unacceptable. So bisexual men tend to not be out publically. 

Why would you? The net delivers what you want to your door, a kind of take-out sexuality, entirely private. What you do in your own space remains your own business. But it does mean that bisexuality, genuine bisexuality, tends to go uninspected in general society - as in this case, with desperate results. 

But what’s this to do with the very sad death of a man in prison?

I suppose I am thinking of the essential loneliness of Glenn Mills. There isn’t a bisexual support group that I know of. Bisexuals tend to be, as wise old Edmund White has said, disliked and distrusted by both homosexuals and heterosexuals. This is because they don’t fit in either camp and, at certain moments, betray both forms of sexual preference. (If you are genuinely bisexual, your response is going to keep shifting all the time, I assume. If you love a woman, you will also, at some point, want to have sex with a man. If you love a man, you’ll want, at some point, to have sex with a woman.) It’s not quite the ideal world we at one time believed in.

And I think it gets very complicated. Heterosexuals don’t use condoms on the whole for casual sex. Young gay men fool themselves into believing that HIV-Aids has an age-category and they are fool proof. Anal sex is fun. It has also eased out of being an entirely homosexual pleasure. It is as much on the heterosexual pleasure menu as oral sex (at one time also an almost exclusive homosexual pleasure.) So it seems very easy for one good looking bisexual man to infect a large number of eager, unsuspecting and - unquestioning - sex partners.

I am not excusing the knowing transmission of Hiv-Aids. That is callous and a terrible human mistake to make. I know raising the word condom in the quick blindess of lust is difficult - but the difficult fact is use of a condom has to be mandatory, I’m afraid, in casual anal sex until the virus disappears. 

So I guess I am asking the people infected: you need to also bear some responsibility here. Hiv-Aids has been around a long time and everyone in a sexual encounter, no matter how hot has to think

I could have a long disabling illness from this. I could suffer from something for which there is no known cure.

I remember the photos of  Mills, a train driver. He looked handsome, personable, possibly, even probably a good lover. Being a good lover is one of the joys of the world. Finding a good lover is a great thing. Obviously Glenn Mills was a player. I don’t have an attitude on that. Why not enjoy what the world has to offer? At different times we want different things - marriage, a stable partnership, love are only one way to be human. 

So I can’t help but feel a kind of sadness to hear today that Glenn Mills committed suicide. Suicide is always unbearably sad. And perhaps more so, when a person feels it is their ‘natural duty’. 

There is no nature, apart from variation.

But there is shame, an everlasting shame which all people who diverge from the norm experience at some moments in their lives. 

At times this shame can be so suffocating that there appears no way out.

Unfortunately, for Mills, he found a way out. 

But there are larger unanswered questions here. He dies in prison while his ‘victims’ who colluded in the act of irresponsibility live with the after-effects.

Meanwhile there is a lack of awareness of the degree of bisexuality and sexual experimentation occuring in society. Right now. Right here. While we speak.

I question whether prison is the right place for someone in Mills’ position.

I don’t think so.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Biographer’s Doubt 2..

‘Most biographers have an infantile fixation on their hero/subjects, and want to idealise them and turn them into their fathers.’ - Hermione Lee on why Freud thinks people write biographies.

Was I seeking an ideal father? I have been pondering my relationship to Colenso, this quirky, difficult man, wondering if I have over-invested in resuscitating Colenso’s historical reputation. Why, I wondered, did I feel a companionship with this strange, isolated man? Or does this answer the query? 

Was this search for an alternative father the Freudian basis of my interest in him however? It was a disturbing thought. My own father was nothing like Colenso - in fact I think Colenso would have been a nightmare of a father in some ways - overbearing, impossible, too opinionated, too needy - and too generous. Both his sons - Latimer, the legitimate one and Wiremu - the illegitimate son - both became English gentleman, living on the money William endlessly gave them. He spoiled them. Literally, perhaps. Latimer always strikes me as a rather narrow-hearted man, a shard of a person. Wiremu - well, there is another story there, probably an entire novel....or work of nonfiction. (I understand a Canadian relative, a female academic, is writing a book on Wiremu Colenso, a fascinating enigma of a character.)

So - am I seeking a substitute father? I can’t answer that. What I can say is what I value in William Colenso: that is a hot witness, an agitated voice, an almost impure subject - someone who is not slow to speak, have an opinion. He also saw and thought and wrote at a key time in New Zealand’s history. He changed his opinions over his life time. He was versatile. He was, I suppose, when you get down to it, an eye witness.This for me - a person who loves the smell and density and darkness and strangely shaped corriders and underground tunnels of history - is what I really like about William Colenso. He leads me into the past, shines a torch over things which might have otherwise remained unseen, unknown - even unthought of. 

And finally, his own moral complexity - his ‘fall from grace’ - makes him a good companion. A man uneasy in his own skin is an interesting person, a contemporary person. He was vivid, gabby, opinionated, often wrong, often right. But he was never neutral, cautious, prim. He was an individual. So probably I’m not so much seeking a father as a guide/companion as I walk backwards - or is it forwards? - into the past. 

Oh, and a rather nice daddy wouldn’t hurt....thanks, Mr Freud.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Anna Kavan's eternal journey....

It may seem like I am obsessed with a strange missionary who got thrown out of the church after he fathered a child by his Maori servant. I’ve visited various places up North where William Colenso lived in an attempt to put myself into his head. But recently I travelled in another direction time-wise. 

Over spring some of the large country houses in Hawke’s Bay throw their gardens open to the public. Noblesse oblige and all that. But every old mansion I approach I think of literature - and Anna Kavan in particular.

One of the most brilliant passages in Jennifer Sturm’s ‘Anna Kavan’s New Zealand’ concerns a visit to Hawke’s Bay. It is war time and the Kavanesque narrator - a woman not unidentitical to the author Kavan - is making her way out of New Zealand - one of the few places, ironically, she felt at peace. But she’s bursting to get away. Kavan was also a heroin addict, so probably New Zealand in 1942 wasn’t much chop.

Regardless, she finally gets on board on old tub. It calls in at Napier on its way out on a tortuous trip across the ocean, evading Japanese and German submarines at the height of the war.


She knows Napier a little from her friend, Ian Hamilton. But on this day - a day without time, lost to time, a day in which she can feel time filtering away - she goes to a garden party at a large Hawke’s Bay house. It’s raising money for the war effort.

Here the unreality of the scene, its Englishness, placidity and underlying madness, strike her. 

But it’s when she leaves she finds herself without transport. She has to catch a bus back to Napier.

And on this bus she sits, surrounded by strangers - all of whom must know each other at least by sight. But nobody speaks. And it is this strange silence which permeates her hearing. She feels she is suddenly on some eternal trip - one which will never end. A trip through eternity. 

This story struck me as especially powerful. It feels like mescalin, but not in Mexico - in Hawke’s Bay. 

I know it’s not real - it’s uber real.

And as a pleb allowed to go into the big gardens of Hawke’s Bay’s one-time aristocracy, I look at each house and wonder: are you the setting for Anna Kavan’s surreal tale?

The three houses shown here are, in numerical order, one owned by the Gordon family, at the very edge of Cape Kidnappers. Its setting is superb. The big old house looks directly into the sea. The Gwavas house, once owned by the Carlyons is in central HB, is surrounded by a forest of beautiful airy trees. It's the second house. And Washpool, owned by the Glazebrooks, is a fantastical 1930s house, rebuilt after the earthquake.

I particularly loved the old bowser at the Glazebrooks, so redolent of country station living. 

I felt I was moving through a Douglas Sirk film there.

The other houses made me think of ‘Little Foxes’ and William Wyler’s ‘The Heiress’.

I appreciated them as architecture, as place - but I was also alert to other echoes, other ways of ‘owning’ them - or disowning them. Through watching films and reading literature.

Which one, I wonder, was the house which Kavan herself visited...or did not visit...but wrote about....

And is that bus still travelling through eternity, with its silent strangers? 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

All at sea and feeling nauseous...

I found myself sending an email to the NZ Arts Foundation which undoubtedly means I will never be chosen as a ‘laureate’. This is the email below.

I am writing to say how disappointed I was to read that the Arts Foundation had given an award to Witi Ihimaera at this moment in his career.

You have made the Art Foundation look tarnished by giving an award to someone mired in a very real issue - plagiarism.

We look for a lead from people such as yourselves - not a feeble brushing under the carpet of something key to the production of art - authenticity.

It is not a good look.

It is a serious mistake.

You should have had the courage to withdraw the award before it became public.

Alternatively, it is shameful of Witi Ihimaera to have accepted the award, knowing it would bring the entire award into disrepute.

All round - muddied reputations, compromises and an issue of the greatest importance to the production of art ignored.

Peter Wells MNZM.

I also feel a sense of deep embarassment that the University I attended - the University of Auckland - has gladhanded the issue, exonerating Witi of any wrong-doing. This attacks the very basis of the integrity of a university education. In the end it boils down to a very cynical embrace: a university needs a much lauded and popular/populist Maori writer more than it needs integrity. 

The University could at least have issued a statement saying they were taking the issue seriously and were looking at Witi’s novel in more detail. 

Witi is a friend but in this case I feel there is a horrible shabbiness which speaks very loudly about the state of our culture - and our cultural relationships in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The kindest thing one can say is that Witi made a mistake. But then to accept an award - with significant money attached - seems to indicate that Witi has lost - or shall we say misplaced - his moral compass.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Elizabeth Colenso's tree...

This is the tree that Elizabeth Colenso planted. It is on the foreshore at Paihia. Her descendant Gillian Bell told me to look out for the Norfolk Pine.

I felt filled with a sense of pleasure that there was something so tactile, so powerful left by a woman who is largely marked by absences from the narrative. It seems to express something about her - doughty, strong. 

She was Elizabeth Fairburn when she planted the tree -  a missionary's daughter - born in New Zealand in the 1820s - so a very early NZ born Pakeha woman. Her first language was really Maori. And Paihia was pretty much her entire world until her marriage to William in 1843.

There is no acknowledgment to say Elizabeth planted this tree. 

In a way it's like her own narrative - you read her in obverse, from what's not there, the absences. Almost like the reverse of a silhouette. 

But it's fortunate in this case that the silhouette is so powerful.

As I suspect she was in life.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Smell of a Just Baked Cake


This is William Colenso’s birthday cake. He is 198 on Saturday. 

The recipe is from his old nemesis Marianne Williams who never thought Colenso good enough, reliable enough - she saw something in him which didn’t quite fit. 

Shame she was the boss’s wife.

The recipe is adapted from Alexa Johnston’s highly reliable book Ladies, A Plate. Though I have to admit, as I stood with flour all over the floor, flour on my teeshirt, a sink full of dirty sticky dishes - nothing is as sticky as Golden Syrup - I felt like a Chaplin clown let loose in the kitchen. 

I started off by trying to cream the butter and sugar in the blender. This ground to a halt pretty soon. So - resignedly - feeling it was a step too far in terms of gender role - I put the butter and caster sugar in an old Crown Lynn bowl and went out and sat in the sun. 

I used to have a wonderfully bitchy friend, a woman, who said NZ women’s forearms were brawny, based on the amount of creaming of butter and sugar they once did. (As well as beating air into egg-whites for pavlovas.) Now I understand why. It’s quite the gym workout. 

Finally it took on the consistency of rather moist mashed potatoes, when you’ve put in a touch too much milk.

Another crisis was cutting up the ginger. How small? How large? The book for once let me down.....I sort of imagined raison sized.

Then the stickyness of golden syrup and molasses. I licked the spoon with the residue of molasses and shuttled down a hole back to childhood with its abrupt, tart,overwhelming taste. 

It’s good for you.

But it was when the smell of the cake started permeating the house that I thought I’d done a good thing. 

My grandmother, who was dangerously diabetic, used to bake a cake if she was feeling low. 

I understand why.

It’s like you’re reconnecting with some essential nectar.

Good old Marianne Williams. Good old bad old funny old sweet old William Colenso. (Thank you Alexa too, for making it all so simple.)

I’ll take some of this cake away with me and on Saturday I’ll have a piece, to celebrate - just being alive in the twentyfirst century. 

It’s something I never thought I’d see.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Driving & thinking...

I find driving incredibly stimulating. And because I am about to go on a relatively long drive - up North, I guess 400 or 500 kilometres - I’m trying to sort out an audiobook. This is more important than you might think. You don’t want something so strong that it interferes with your freedom to think. By this I mean - roam in your own mind - get out of the rut. I had David Sedaris on cd - Naked -but I found him so funny and charming and pert that it’s an overwhelming experience. 

Also - I’m trying to sink into a ninetenth century frame of mind and Sedaris - a generation younger than me - is so very contemporary in his voice. I couldn’t think. I had to turn him off.

I’ve got some other options. Rose Tremain’s The Darkness of Wallis Simpson. This is a collection of short stories. I’ve already listened to the title story - narrated by the fabulous Eleonor Bron. It’s a wonderful fiction - Wallis, ancient and faintly cretinous is in bed, bullied by the ghastly Maitre Blum to remember a certain man.... But Wallis’s problem is she can remember all the horrible - and ok - men in her life but can’t recall the man who gave up a throne and an empire for her...

I picked up Fraser’s Mary, Queen of Scots - thought a biography might be useful - hopefully not depressing in its brilliance. Nothing like being undermined by another writer’s total command of a field you feel you’re just creeping along, on your belly...barely upright and walking.

We’ll might just have to be music...

I’ve written to Jinty, the highly spirited commandant of the Elms, to see if I can have a closer look at the way the Tauranga Mission Station there was built. I’d also like to look more closely at whatever remains of its original furniture. But there’s a resounding (to me) silence from this quarter. (See Wed 7 Oct ‘To Collect is to Gaze into the Future’ for some context.) Maybe she - and the other woman I sent an email to at the Elms - are on holiday. Like in Iceland. 

I gathered when a friend of mine, Stephanie Johnson, visited the Elms to do her own research, they were highly offended by my blog. It’s a shame they can’t see that I was praising someone for saving what is a treasure. It’s obviously a very culturally sensitive area - who is praised, who saved what. I know this from being involved in saving an old picture palace and a small art deco town. You tend to get written out of the story over time. So I guess I understand. Not.

This Saturday is William Colenso’s birthday. Now I realise this makes me sound like some kind of loon. But I am actually baking a cake to take up north with me (‘upstairs’ as I inadvertently called it to Douglas, my partner.). The cake is allegedly the oldest cake recipe in New Zealand. It comes from the missionary battle-axe, Marianne Williams, mother to millions and staunch ally of her rather daunting husband. 

The recipe is in Alexa Johnston’s brilliant first cook book on page 88. I have never baked anything with molasses in it. It sounds very House on the Prairie, which is a high recommendation to me, as this was a book which I loved above all others as a little cissy. 

We’ll see how the cake goes. (It’s not a birthday cake so much as....well, a little celebration for setting off on another part of my journey....)

This journey isn’t to a place so much as inwards to a definition, a further sense of clarity.

As if to reward me for succumbing to slackerdom, I saw some great little vignettes today.

1/As I drove through Clive, which is right beside where Colenso’s mission station was, a waka was on the river. The people on it - it looked crowded - were practicing. The day was perfect - warm - the sea, which has up to now, been surly and grey, switched into that classic Hawke’s Bay ultra marine - as glittering as the Riviera. 

I thought looking at the waka: so that’s what it was like. Impressive.

2/ By the mission station site, there were cows grazing. I was staggered. It is just a thin thin viel of earth - more like dust - leached with salt from the sea. And this dry dust sits on burningly hot pebbles.

I wondered if they’d wandered there by chance. It seemed surreal, a glimpse back into the time when William had cattle roaming freely round...and it was even more hopeless then. But we must have milk.

3/I ran into the supermarket to get some butter for the cake. The butter has to be room temperature - I’m not baking the cake till tomorrow. (I’d be interested if anyone else has made this cake.) But outside was a young man in striped shirt, collecting money. His booth had a single word on it WORLD VISION.  As I came closer to him, worrying whether I’d be hassled for money - I was trying to work out which one ‘World Vision’ was - but he didn’t look up. He was too busy texting. 

It seemed a perfect metaphor for the contemporary world.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I said to a writer friend recently that I was just about going mad with the intensity of the research. In the last few weeks I’ve read so many dense texts that I suffered from reader fatigue. I felt like some kind of word borer that had got into big heavy tomes and ate its way through, digesting and shitting at the same time - trapped in a claustrophically small space . But I also felt obese. I had lost use of my legs, or rather they had shrunk and multiplied so when I looked down they were centipede-like and horribly white, as befits an insect which shies away from light. I lost all sense of perspective: instead I laboured along, ricocheting from end of line to end of line, caught in some infernal game which did not stop even when I slept. 

Instead I awoke to special moments of anxiety when I realised this unsleeping centipede was still working, still eating, still digesting, a horrible smile on its lips - very close to a leer. I knew Kafka had been there before me and expressed this horrific state superbly. But I had lost sense of an overall view: all I could see was how much further I had to go and I felt like lying down and having ‘a little nap’ - a dangerous thing to do in this state...

Maybe for this reason I’ve staged an escape. I am running away, up North. I am going to look at the remains of missionary life at Waimate North, Paihia, Kerikeri. William Colenso lived there in the 1830s. He met Darwin there. He also had one or two other adventures....and I hope to have some myself...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Things You Are Not Meant to Like 2

Recently someone said to me they no longer read books. They said it kind of wonderingly, as if it was a novelty still but also with an air of pride. This person was once a journalist on the Listener.

I thought about it afterwards. I wished I had said: well, it’s like walking. If you don’t do it, you fall out of the way of doing it. And soon enough you’re driving to the shops, you never walk anywhere and you lose the beauty of the act of walking - which is, in its own way, a form of meditation.

I said nothing at the time. I wasn’t sure how to reply.

Today in town here in Napier I noticed the second hand book shop’s sign - and it seemed a sign of the time. ‘SALE. All novels $5.’ Is nobody reading novels any more? But then, when I gave away about 2000 books to a charity I believe in, it was novels more than anything I parted with. I kept nonfiction, history especially. I also kept anything which seemed important in my intellectual development. Because the map of reading is the map of a self. But novels like Middlemarch I relied on the library having.

But yesterday in the Hastings Library, where I’d driven to, to pick up Helen Garner’s cracklingly good read, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and an audiobook of David Sedaris’s droll essays into nonfiction and memoir, I came across the cast-offs table. This is the table where the books the library is ejecting are placed. Books were 50 cents each. 

I drifted towards it, full of complicated emotions. One part of me hoped to find an overlooked first edition. Most libraries seemed to go through a period of chucking out rare NZ fiction and poetry with gross abandon. But also I felt something more protective. I wanted to take home some books with me, as if I could offer some kind of longevity. 

There was a beautiful rancid cover on Orson Welles’s first and as far as I know only novel, very forties and B-grade. There was a collection of Trollope’s Barchester Towers novels. My heart sort of shrank. How many other copies of these books did the Hastings Library hold? Or would it be like Edith Wharton - the Auckland Public Library jettisoned so many copies in the end they didn’t have some key works at all. 

It’s a kind of loss of cultural capital. Or is it? These works aren’t dependant on being within book covers, you might say. You can read them on line. But seriously - reading anything more than 3 pages on line, for me, is a form of slow drip torture. It isn’t how the eyes and mind work - flicking back and forth, roaming the field of the page, pausing for a longer view. Looking into a screen is compulsive but also mind numbing. You are entrapped as much as free. I go back to the act of meditation. I believe reading a book is closely attached to meditating.

I came across these two books which I couldn’t resist buying. One is  Confessions of Zeno, a book which appeared in the NYer a while back and I couldn’t find a copy anywhere. The other is a book by Stendhal I haven’t read - and it’s translated by Scott Moncrieff who I got to love in the Proust’s translations (and whose florid Edwardian English had a very very very bad effect on my writing style when I was in my twenties.)

I felt virtuous buying them, but also somehow undercover. I was ‘saving them’. I was a version of Fahreinheit 451, a film I still remembered. (People memorised a book in a world in which books had been eradicated for ideological reasons.) I was also setting aside some delights for those inevitable - I don’t have anything to read moments - a wierd moment of panic for an inveterate reader.

But I would also love to know the decision making librarians go through before deciding to biff a book. Is there some set scale of values? The number of times someone got it out in the last twenty years versus its rarity and cultural value. Silly boy. Whose cultural value? What cultural value?

Things we are not meant to like.

I carried my trophies away proudly. And as I slid out the doors I noticed a big sign up saying HAWKE’S BAY AUTHORS. I nervously checked for my own name. I noted some authors who had less links to the region were there. My name wasn’t there. I was half way to eradication myself.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Things You Are Not Meant To Like

- the shrill colour of new oak leaves in spring, outlined against a blue sky. If you look intensely at the leaves it soon becomes impossible to tell whether the sky is green and the leaves are blue. But it’s the translucence of the green. Each spring it’s astonishing, and new, like a furiously intent green storm.

- pine trees. Macrocarpas. When I was a kid we lived two houses up from a park. In the park were huge pine trees. In winter and late at night the pine trees roared. They were talismanic. Nightmarish. And intimate. The smell of the pine needles. The amber gum coming out of the bark. Dark and black too, like a 3B lead pencil scrawled on white paper.

Over time these awkward strangely beautiful trees came to seem to me a sign of pakeha occupation in the landscape. Perhaps for this reason they are being removed. (For example the trees around Wellington). You only see the occasional startling kabuki shape of a macracarpa on a farm these days, whereas once you saw them everywhere. Those strangely amputated trees which the wind had blown into a frozen shape. 

I mourn their absence. They are part of a tapestry of history here. But they are becoming ‘unseen’ - invisible - things to be removed. (Like the old oak trees in Auckland’s Domain, which arborists say have reached the end of their life cycle. They may live for hundreds of years in Britain. But in New Zealand they fast forward to mortality in a mere hundred. Allegedly.)

Maybe for this reason I was very pleased to see these old friends. They are macrocarpas planted over one hundred years ago as a shelter belt round a grand house in Tikokino, in Hawke’s Bay. I love their shapes. Even better, here they mark the entrance to an entrancingly private family cemetery. It is enclosed within a brick wall and has an elaborate ironwork gate of some style, dating from 1928. There was something shrouded, obscure and private about it all. A tinge of Edgar Allan Poe....

But most of all, for me, I felt overjoyed to find the enduring familiarity of these old gnarled trees. Here they attain some kind of majesty. 

They occupy the unfortunate niche though of a cultural blindspot.

And like all things which become invisible, it is very easy for them to be removed. 

After all, nobody would notice...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Surfaces, patina and palimpsest

  One of the things which fascinates me and keep me going as a biographer is siting the places that Colenso passed by. One of these has been tantalisingly out of reach - because so near - for a long time. This is the house down the road, where William used to live - after he left behind the disastrous Mission Station in the early 1860s. The original house has gone, although they economically used the floor structure. What does remain along the road is the small shed to the side of the house, in which William kept his library. I believe he lived in this shed or cottage before the house was built. 

  I’ve been walking past it now for more than a year, curving my neck round at an awkward angle so I could peer in. It’s hard to look at, because the older part of the cottage is tucked away from the street. There’s an unsympathetic 60s addition to the front. It is advertised as boutique accomodation of a classy sort.


  I had contacted Helen the owner ages ago but somehow the place was always rented out. I began to think this touchstone would prove elusive. And like anything you’re kept from doing, it became more and more fidgity-attractive.


  I don’t know what I thought I’d find in there - some sense of William, some faint aura? Or maybe just some kind of touchstone to put my anxieties at rest. Anyway, long story short, I got a message from the owner, Helen, to come round last Thursday afternoon at 4.30pm. I arrived and brought along Gail Pope who is the archivist at the HB Museum. 


    This was deliberate. Having someone with me meant I could snoop while the other person talked to the owner. Not that I was snooping for anything in particular. But I get to be quite intent on these almost hidden and spy-like reconnaisance trips.


   As it was, I was pleased and moved by what I saw. I was worried that the make-over into up-scale accomodation might have wrecked the sense of the cottage being an old space. I had looked on line ( and seen it was very ‘clean’, very ‘white’, very ‘contemporary’. My heart had sunk.

   But inside the room, its shape took over. It’s like being inside a ship cabin - it’s all tongue and groove and the shape of the ceiling is coved - like a lantern. The boards are so strictly horizontal that any changes are apparent. In fact the walls take on the quality of that lovely word - palimpsest. (‘Writing material or manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for a second writing’ - the Concise Oxford Dictionary.) I could see where doors had been and what had been altered.

   I looked around and instantly decided this would have been a good cave for the hurt heretic to hide in. Once it was papered by his beloved books and objects, it would have been a great man-space. I could sense how it might be at night, with the lilt of a candle or light from a lantern. I could hear him humming to himself ‘unmusically’ (apparently he was tone deaf to tunes). The pain of the past could diminish a little. 

   He would be ‘in his own space.’

   It had a kind of peace to it.


  I couldn’t see the window where he had etched his name and where Wiremu his son had etched his name. The glass had been replaced at some time. This seemed more thsn a shame. Tragic.

  I took lots of photos, probably more than I needed to, in a vain attempt to ‘capture’ something. Of course it was elusive.

  I’ll include up above a picture of what the interior might have looked like in its own day. The dark atmospheric wood is from the walls of the old Mission Station in Tauranga (1847). I think the unpainted wood has a concentrated beauty, like the sound of a mellow cello. Over time this extreme woodiness became very unfashionable. 

In fact when Bishop Selwyn’s wife shifted into the mission at Waimate North in the early 1840s she curled her nose up at so much wood. Coming from England she thought it common. The word used was Irish. She had wallpaper up as fast as she could manage. The walls must have seemed appallingly naked to her. Yet for me, as an inhabitant of these islands, I love nothing more than the extreme woodiness of New Zealand’s old houses and villas. It’s like living inside a tree. Older marae buildings have this beautiful woodiness too. They seem of this country.


    It strikes me that palimpsest is what this book is all about - looking at the way things have been effaced, ‘to make room for subsequent writings.’ Of course my writing in turn will be writing over the earlier writings. I suppose that’s why I’m always checking back, to the physical spaces - I want to get at least the spaces - the spatial shape that he occupied - that most elusive of qualities - now he’s vanished forever - right. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A message left...

The night was still. We had finished dinner and we were sitting there. Comversation had died out. Willie, a good friend from 20 years ago, was visiting from Miama. He’s a New Zealander. He’s interested in the isoterica of NZ history and we had talked back and fro about Colenso.  I suggested a walk - a short walk, nothing too strenuous. 

Already I knew where we were going. It was along Napier Terrace, a flat strap-like road which lies along the very top ridge of one of the hills which make up Napier Hill. It’s an old road. 

It was somewhere between late twilight and night. There was nobody about -or rather we passed the last stragglers - three women on their way home from a late walk.  

We came to the empty site where Hukarere School once was. This was  or rather is a Maori girls school. It had been set up by the Williams family who gave the land. It is a brilliant piece of real estate - like a large man’s hankercheif laid out on the brow of this magnificent hill. It gazes towards Cape Kidnappers, across the bow of the bay. 

Through some process of malfunction, the school sold the site for a relatively paltry sum to a developer. The school shifted out to a damp valley, ironically just beside the granite monument which marks the victory over marauding/visiting Hau Hau. It’s the sign of a defeat.

At this time of evening, the night sky was marbled like the flesh of some just killed beast. A family living in the neglected care-taker’s house were moving round. Willy wanted to walk onto the site, to have a better view of the Bay. I commented on the way the developer (whose plans to exploit the site with over 60 townhouses had been momentarily stymied by local opposition) had dumped a huge pile of earth right in the middle of tbe vista. To me, it was like someone taking a dump. It ruined the panorama. It said: you may look but this is mine.

  We walked on. I wanted to show him the beautiful little folly which is the Ormand chapel. This is a brilliant piece of wooden Gothick, as crisp as if a pair of sharp scissors had cut it out of white paper. It’s the Anglican church my mother and family went to in the 1920s. It dates from 1863 and sits right beside the cemetery in the way an animal curls up beside a hearth.

   We slid in through the cemetery gates. By now the light was beautiful, with just enough aura for us to see each other’s faces and for the white speckled marble of tombs to swim to the surface.

   ‘Here,’ I said,’ is the tomb of General Whitmore from the wars of the 1860s - completely ignored.’

   ‘And here....’

   I was about to point out William Colenso’s grave a few along. But I saw something I had never seen before.

   Leaning against the cross was a beautiful ruddy wreath of flowers. The flowers seemed unusual, not the artifically spright flowers you usually get from a florist. They looked full-blown, beautiful, even passionate.

   ‘This is where William lies,’ I said, ‘and I’ve never seen this before. Ever.’

   It was as if out of the stone and marble, flowers had burst forth.

   I felt an unreasonable happiness.

   We walked further and deeper into the cemetery. I showed him where McLean was buried - the skyscraper monument. And where my family lay, just around the corner. 

   A late tui sent out very clear, precise notes.

   We slowly walked out of the cemetery and made our way home.

   And I wondered: who the stranger or friend or family was who had left this beautiful note.