Monday, September 28, 2009

The Biggest Erection in the Graveyard

I was shocked today when I was in the Napier Hill cemetery to realise that Jane Williams is buried just along from her old enemy, the fallen missionary William Colenso. She was a bishop’s wife who thought Colenso presumptuous to think of marrying her neice, Marianne. She saw Colenso as a lowly mechanic.

Ironically her neice went on to marry a surgeon, a Mr Davis who himself was accused of adultery with a Maori woman. Davis’s sister bore an illegitimate child to Maori man by the name of Toa. This is all mid nineteenth century NZ. (In short, everyone was at it, or almost everyone.) 

But at the stage Jane wrote to her friend about how shocked she was at Colenso’s cheek, she was in hoity-toity heaven, looking down a long telescope to the insect Colensois. 

Strange to see her buried just along the aisle from a man she so despiced. She’s buried with all the other Williams - quite a few Anglican bishops - massed like battleships in an ocean formation - but seemingly neglected, the face of the graves mossy and damp and without any sign of a flower or recent attentions. 

By contrast, their old adversary enjoys a sunny place and his grave generally looks well tended: more so, it is brightly lit and, ironically, Rinso-white.


The Williams became an aristocracy of sorts in New Zealand but now suffer a malodorous name. The irony is contemporary people are infinitely forgiving and even interested in sexual pecadilloes of the sort that ruined Colenso in his own life time: but crimes against indigenous people rank as a supreme sin in the contemporary moral order. 

The Williams became seen as ‘land grabbers’ (regardless of the truth) in popular postcolonial imagination. The same is true of Sir Donald Mclean, Native Minister. His truly monumental grave sits ignored in the Napier Hill cemetery. (The biggest erection in the cemetery, I call it.) When we did our recent tour of fifteen interesting graves in the cemetery he was left out. This was by common consent. So there is something melancholy about Maclean’s immense Celtic cross, rising into the sky like a skyscraper vacated by people. It appears a monument to vanity.

But my shock was real, almost physical, sighting Jane William’s grave. I had just been reading her waspish, lively remarks that day. I seemed to carry a sense of voltage from a living person. But there she lay, seemingly forgotten. 

In death, Colenso and Jane Williams, nearby neighbours, seem equals. 

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Noise and the necessity of silence

It felt like a helicopter had come down, taken me away, high into the air. I lost my bearings and felt a delightful sense of weightlessness. As with all flying, the future and past sheered off me and I seemed to exist within possibilities so tantalising I did not want the trip to end. As long as I was up in the air, I could be better, more intelligent - even younger as the weight of years was being lifted off me. This intoxication lasted days. 

During this time I talked in a light and breezy way about a book which did not yet exist. I knew, I sensed this was dangerous. The gods do not like noisy voices entering the dark chamber from which creativity comes. It is rude. Yet I continued talking, evoking something which is not yet there.

Finally I woke up. The helicopter had long been landed. In fact, when I came out, it was just one of those old models parked up in a transport museum. Maybe I was a vagrant and all my dreams were the result of a cheap bottle of plonk....? I stumbled off into the daylight which pierced my eyeballs. I knew I had to refind that dark chamber in which silence reigned. I had to shut out all the echoing voices, many of which showed a suspicious resemblance to my own. 

It was time to begin the hard work. And it could only be taken up with a correct attitude of modesty and alertness. Privacy and anonymity beckoned me and like a familiar set of clothing which I recognised as my own, I reached down and began, gratefully, to put them back on.

Other blogs on William Colenso...

The Right Key - Sunday Sept 20 

Alive or Dead? -Thurs Sept 10

The Biographer’s Doubt -  Wed Aug 5 2009

Driving by the Mission - Sat July 11 

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The right key

These two images just about sum up what I’m doing at the moment. One is the contents of the top right hand drawer of William Colenso’s desk. It is held in the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, behind the scenes. The drawer is full of keys. As a biographer I am spending my days trying to find the right key to the right drawer.  At night I do it in my dreams.

The other image is the lining of the drawer. It is soaked in ink, from this inveterate writer of letters. I look at these blots and see them as a landscape I need to read. It appears at the moment unintelligible or at least the blots and splashes remain unconnected. I have to ‘read’ them into a picture. 

I am also following on behind the physical evidence of someone who is no longer here. So for me, last Thursday, finding the desk Colenso used to write on, then opening the drawers, was to experience a strange, almost kinetic feeling of connection.

Now all I need to do is find the right key...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Beautiful Lies

I knew the journey would be long and we were in a rattling old van. There was no sound sytem apart from an old tape deck. Ninety minutes later we stopped n Taupo and I said to Douglas we should choose two tapes each from a charity shop. Sure enough, there they were, down the back, past the old pillows and discoloured linen. They seem so antiquated now. There was a penciled sign -‘50c’. 

The range wasn’t that great. Taupo is a place old people retire to and come to die. It’s a great place to get good quality dressing gowns. As for music....well, in a noisy van, you can’t go for finesse. Sing-along songs are best - things that can be heard over the roar of the motor. It’s kind of like karaoke, without anyone seeing you make a fool of yourself.

Douglas quickly chose a Rod Stewart tape. I chose Caruso - then hesitated over Neil Diamond. Douglas lost interest so I also selected South Pacific on a hunch I’d quite enjoy re-hearing the songs of my childhood. At 50 cents a toss I got greedy. I also picked up Elgar’s Cello Concerto. 

When I checked what was on the Rod Stewart tape I quietly left it behind.

The Neil Diamond never made the cut. In the van, his highly orchestrated, emotion-drenched songs sounded too heavily-laden. Besides I’d never listened to him or liked him. But I was astonished at the visceral recall his songs created. Somehow I was back in my body and I was about 23. I was sunbathing at the beach, with quite a strong-smelling suntan lotion on. This was in the time when we all baked quite unconsciously for hours. I was lying on my stomach, my head resting on my crossed arms. I had my eyes closed. And from a holiday house somewhere quite close this bumptious, overly optimistic, promiscuous music played. I didn’t mind it but I didn’t like it. It seemed part of somebody else’s life, not mine. It still did. After a few songs, I took it out.

South Pacific was different. For anyone born in the 1950s the LP of South Pacific was an ikon. It was in everybody’s parent’s radiogram, along with My Fair Lady. The LP was a big shiny square, a picture of Mitzi Gaynor the actress in cute little shorts sitting beside the handsome and saturnine Brazzi. Her hair is still wet from singing “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair’ but she’s already stiffening for the clinch with Brazzi -  raising her face to him so she can feel the heat of his lips as he bends down to kiss her.

The shininess and extreme colour of the LP cover evoked American power. This is when America was unchallenged and very self satisfied. And the music, syrupy, lush and evocative, took me back to a kind of willed belief, a happy eclipse of self. But it also reminded me of all sorts of sexual tensions in myself - even as I sang along now, as a vanished child. I can still recall the kind of instability in my attractions, in positioning who I actually was as I listened to each song and imagined myself, song by song, in a new persona, even a new gender. 

At times I was as pert as Mitzi Gaynor, the ingenu American - I was corny as Kansas in August/normal as blue-berry pie. I too thrilled to the erotic attraction of Brazzi who played a worldy wise older European man. But then I was in love with him too. Even as I got older I longed for a worldy wise older man to scoop me up in his arms and make love to me. Teach me how things were erotically, as much as philosophically. Brazzi’s deep voice thrilled me as a child and I loved his blue-grey hair. But then I also felt deeply attracted to the muscular sailors, half naked  - some of them in primitive drag - as they boomed out their hymn to women - ‘There Aint Nothing Like a Dame!’. 

Maybe the fact the actors could camp it up meant they put special energy into this number. Regardless, there was a definite frisson for a little gay boy, seeing all these men locked on an island without women, emoting about how they desperately needed relief.  Without knowing what it meant, I knew something was up and it mystified me and excited me. But I also probably wept a little over the doomed love affair between the handsome young American and the beautiful Polynesian woman. This was real love. Real Romance because it was tragic. (Thanks Rodgers & Hammerstein, you really fucked me up.) 

I would have been eight or nine at this time, very romantic and unconscious about the meaning or power of sex. But during the film - and reliving the film through listening to the LP again and again and again, I relived this shuttle of attraction from feminine to masculine to ultra-masculine/drag, all the time positioning myself differently - flexibly, I suppose you would say. But hearing the songs now, so many decades later, I was amazed how I still knew the words. They seemed to be lifted out of my soul, line by line, as if there was a fishing line dangling back into my past. I relived the drenched romantic belief of it all, at the same time secretly scoffing at it to myself. Or was I?

I recalled how my brother when he was dying of HIVAids got the VHS out of a video shop and forced me and my mother, whose sanity at that time was very tenuous, to watch the film. When he went out of the room, rushing off to the toilet, I fastforwarded through what seemed an achingly slow operatic and leaden film. (He didn’t notice.)

Was he trying to search down that same path that I was? Sitting in the van, rushing through landscape.  Was it all true? The phenonemum of falling in love is a real enough experience. God knows, I know. Or was it here we learned all the lies? The lies about love, about romance, about finding some enchanted stranger....across a crowded room. Because they were lies. They were scented, cheap, stupid lies. (Beautiful lies). Life wasn’t like that. If you were gay, it was particularly stupid to believe in this kind of romance. It was dangerous. Your life wasn’t like that. It was more complicated. The choices were different. This kind of dewy romance set you up for a particularly harsh fall. 

But then I was suddenly struck by the fact I actually did meet the man who was driving the van... years ago now.....I did meet his gaze across a crowded room. Just like in the song. It was some enchanted evening. That made me think.

It’s just that, well, that meeting of the eyes was the beginning - whereas romance always posits this as being the end. Or as it is written in the movies THE END. It’s when the curtains swish close and the audience rises to its feet and dusts itself down and goes off out into the daylight or night, returning to the small intricacies, intimacies and little murders of daily life. So one enchanted evening is the departure point rather than the arrival. Because falling in love isn’t the end at all, it’s only the beginning.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Alive or dead?

In a moment of inspiration, closely allied to a form of madness, I bought a climbing rose to plant near the grave of William Colenso. (His tombstone is a Celtic cross - he was Cornish.) I have this urge to be physically close to him at the moment, or traces of him while I am researching his life. This probably makes me a wierd kind of grave-hugger? Or some sort of wierdo that hangs out by the dead. 

The only thing is....I don't think of him being dead. Because I am reading his letters, journals and writings at the moment, I feel he is like this cloud of combustible matter. Lively. A kind of swarm of thoughts....

His grave is right inside the gates of the Napier Hill cemetery - a 'good address'. He is surrounded by generals and bishops - people who thought they were much more important than him. Yet his grave is a more visited site. In the past the graveyard was full of old roses. But the graveyard became looked after by a group of volunteers. Now they're old men. They're nice kind of blokes, genial. You come across them sitting on a grave, having their lunch. 

But I suspect their idea of a 'garden of the dead' is like a suburban front lawn - with nothing higher than an ankle. The roses were all killed and prickly evergreens planted - the sort that you saw a lot of in the 1970s. They're called 'labour saving'. They're also ugly.

The idea is the rose will grow along the graves immediately behind William's and form a soft green blaze of colour when in leaf. The roses are pale white with the faintest touch of pink and are scented. The rose is called Madame Alfred Carriere and is a noisette (not sure what the implications are of this) and dates from the 1880s. In other words it is a rose from the time when William was still alive. 

I went along yesterday and planted it, surreptituously. Since it eventually grows to six metres and is a sprawling thornless rose, it should look good. 

Of course if I was being really true to the spirit of William Colenso the rose would be so completely covered in thorns it would be hard to touch. He was a thorny difficult bastard. Who also sent out some beautiful flowers.

Then I suddenly remembered that Colenso was mad on botany and was one of the great namers of NZ plants. He would surely like some isoteric NZ fern or plant. He used to go into swoons at seeing some tiny little fern never seen before by a European. When he was washed up on an isolated beach, the only white man there, the ship sailed on. He was left behind. Cold and desperate. In this dark night of the soul, he suddenly found a fern he had never seen before. And immediately he felt better. He felt he was doing something right. He met Darwin when he sailed through New Zealand in 1835 and it changed his life. Many of his specimens are kept at Kew Gardens, the sort of ultimate plant museum. He was made a member of the Royal Society on the basis of his botanical genius. 

I wondered what he would think of a somewhat demented gay man planting a rose nearby. 

I decided in the end he would probably like it. Anyone would, more than one hundred years after their death. It’s called longevity.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Identity Theft

When I first thought of the idea of a blog, I was shocked to discover all the other Peter Wells’s in the world. Not that I should have been. Both Peter and Wells are relatively common names. (Peter especially in the post-war period. My class at school was full of Johns, Peters, Davids. ) And it’s not like I thought I would be the only ‘noteable’ PW. It was just that there turned out to be much more famous Peter Wells’s than me. And in this strangely associative yet jostling world of the web, it matters. 

There’s PW the New Yorker whose every whim on food and restaurants is listened to with awe. There’s PW the Australian rock musician who, although dead, continues to have a presence on the web. 

I had trouble getting elbow room.

It gave me a strange sort of greyness of feeling, as if I was a colour photograph slowly fading away to black and white. And then that definition dimmed till my features grew indistinct. It was as if my personality - my identity - was under assault.

I’d always wanted to smuggle my highy individual middle name - Northe - into my identity. But I had left my run too late. My publisher wouldn’t be happy now if I suddenly perked up with a new identity. It would lead to buyer confusion.

Not that Wells is an ideal name for an author. You’re always on the very bottom of the shelf. Way below people’s knees. More like, at their ankles. This means more than it sounds. It affects sales. Nobody is likely to be looking at books on the floor. But a good surname with a middle-range alphabet - that’s where Northe (my mother’s maiden name) comes in. This would put me at eye-level on the shelf. Spatially, I would come into existence. I would be seen. Peter Northe Wells would also be a unique name, having a sort of isoteric literary quality hinting at unusual origins. (Think Ivy Compton Burnett.) I could start a new career. Become a crime writer or start that highly successful romantic novel about a newly discovered Boleyn sister called Ada. 

But what really interests me here is how disturbing I found this slippage, this possible loss of identity. It’s absurd on one level. I had been Peter Wells for over fifty years. I had wrestled with people on the phone who always seemed to plump for ‘Willis’ or ‘Wills’ (the New Zild accunt?). I had stood in a queue as a young man and felt the dread when my name was called in a military call up. I had become accustomed to sitting on stages in front of an audience and having that peculiar sense of alienation - a feeling that someone else was being talked about - when my name was mentioned in an introduction. (Always a moment of identity crisis. When you feel most like an impersonator of yourself.) 

But at night, that time when things unloosen in the subconscious, I became most troubled about those other thieving Peter Wells’s. They were after my very essence. If we were all in a subway car and the name was called out, who would stand up? Who would fight to be the definitive Peter Wells? Which of us would have to slink out the door, like unsuccessful contestants in America’s Top Model - the ones who have to pack their bags immediately, confess tearfully to the camera that they do have something the world really needs to know about - then vanish into perpetual obscurity.

That’s what really worried me. I was being introduced to the uncomfortable notion of losing my passport in a foreign land and fading away into facelessness. I had often had the daydream - amounting to a nightmare - of how I would fare if I was like those people in the 1930s who had to flee their country then try and reestablish themselves in an entirely new environment, where all their old credentials and possessions were invisible. Where all you could rely on was your surface, or your ability to dissemble and hustle. I didn’t like the idea. I had the sense I might end up on the bottom of the heap. 

My past couldn’t save me.

So I still find these other more famous Peter Wells’s faintly troubling every time I go to this blog. I eye them anxiously, wondering if they will try and annex and nullify me. Or whether, in a happier circumstance, someone seeking Peter Wells - the man who gives definitive tips on where to eat in Manhattan  -strays onto this site. I guess this is the upside.

But in a strange way I anticipate being at a passport barrier, somewhere deeply paranoid like the US - and as I move forward there is my doppelganger - someone ironically who looks nothing like me - but someone who confidently claims my name. And I’m seized by those passport Nazis who convey me to an office, turn on a light...and ask me: why did you think you could use this name?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Empty Suitcase...

As well as looking at lampshades in films, I have a thing about suitcases. I always fret during a film when I see a character carrying a suitcase. Given that it is nearly always a dramatic moment, ie a new character arriving into the narrative or someone hurriedly leaving a horrible relationship, I always note that the suitcase has nothing in it. 

  I know this instinctively as I loathe carrying heavy luggage, regard it as a personal insult against dignity. Yet these actors seething with emotion, stocked to the gills with Stella Adler hysteria, never think to say to the costume department or props: put an encyclopedia in it.

   Then at least the character would have the true burdan of shifting: which is the deadweight of your past life being schlepped into a new situation. It’s full of horror and hope. It’s a ball and chain around your leg. It’s also a very particular physical reality which expresses something deeply psychological. 

   Yet I challenge you, in the next film you see: look carefully at the body language of the actor carrying luggage. You will inevitably see someone holding a completely empty suitcase.

   Or is this a metaphor for the lost power of cinema? Its failure to connect with reality and just re-issue tired old cliches? Possibly.

   Or else it’s a failure of the props dept, sitting out the back, enjoying a quiet fag.