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.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On being unprepared.

‘People don’t realise how quickly they’re going to get old’ - Doris Lessing.

I thought this looking round a room at an opening in Auckland. There was a friend whose daughter had died - there a friend fighting cancer. Both people’s faces, in a crowded room, looked harrowed. Newly defined by a battle off screen. Of course you live with your own face. Only in photographs, which sometimes show you in a sort of 360 degree way, do you receive the unwelcome news that you too are trapped in the undertow.

It’s like from late twenties to late forties, there is a slow change happening - a thickening, a furrowing, a whitening - a calcifying - as well as a sort of sediment happening in your ideas. 

But strangely the opposite force of this is a clarifying - in the rest of the glass. Things which once appeared perplexing suddenly change into startlingly ordinary and matter of fact. (Love, sex, the great mysteries - tend become very straight forward, less shrouded in a mist of unknowing.) 

But from late forties onwards the changes become swift. As swift as at the other end of life, with children growing into teenagers and then adults. It surprises me that I’m so unprepared. I never thought of my generation growing old. (I wonder if the Stones, as young men, ever thought they’d be dragging their sorry arses onto the stage at their advanced age? But maybe even as young men in revolt they would have commuted the dollars and that hard glint in their eye would have accepted the exchange - loss of dignity for the security which billions of dollars must illusory protection maybe.....but still welcome.) 

But it’s happening, all around me. And I’m caught in the undertow like everyone else.

And it’s as wise old Doris said - you never expect it to happen to you. But then it starts happening fast. And the strange thing is you see it first in the faces and bodies of your friends and acquaintances. It’s like you’re all going down in the ship together. Or rather - we’re all going down in the ship together. This is when it suddenly does appear that you belong to a generation. And you can’t escape. 

Alternatively, as a human animal, I am much happier now than I was in my twenties. I am more at home, for better or worse, in my own skin. If one looks at a glass and sees it as either half full or half empty, I’m more tempted to see it as less cloudy, more clear. 

Of course, as for what one is being clear about...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

To collect is to gaze into the future

Here let me give praise to collectors. This is the room of the strange little man who effectively ensured that the extraordinarily beautiful building of the Elms survived. (The Elms is the old Mission Station in Tauranga.) His name was Duff Maxwell and I understand he worked as a nightwatchman. I could be wrong, but I imagine the Elms by the 1950s had become decayed - probably magnificently decayed, its paint rough, the garden wonderfully overgrown. (In fact the garden still bears remnants of the magic sovereignty of Duff Maxwell) There are exotic palms he planted. But it was he who occupied the house, loved its walls and floors and ceilings - its secrets, the whispering voices that come out at night, at 4am in the morning. It was here in the 1860s the British officers dined before going off to die at the disastrous and foolhardy Battle of Gate Pa. It was here where Maori wounded were brought the next day, many to die. It was here where the missionaries came, clustered, prayed and probably felt degrees of failure, joy and sorrow.

But in the 1950s and 1960s these would have been just the faintest echo and of little interest to anyone - except a strange obsessive collector like Maxwell. A man out of his time, in the wrong time: the past which is also a future invisible to everyone around him.

That is why I love this room. His bedroom. The narrow bed of an old time bachelor. The beautiful arrangement of objects on the wall - like musical notes. in an imaginary sonata.  He slept in this chamber of memory. I especially love the slim bed - the bed of an obsessive.

The guide said to me they asked kaumatua to come to look at the objects which should ‘by rights’ be returned to the people who gave them as a koha. But the kaumatua on seeing the room - and recognising certain objects - said, no, this room is the right resting place for them. The right waka, one might say.

I loved the neat line of National Geographic stored over the doorway on a special shelf built to contain his collection.

What a beautiful nest for the dreaming sleeper. 

And it is to eccentrics like this that wonderful, apparently archaic, apparently useless taonga like this building, this site, are carried into the future. So I see this room as the insides of a cabin. The interior of a waka. A great cubby. And this too is coursing its way home on the dreaming sea.