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...