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. 


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