Tuesday, March 16, 2010


  In the days of early colonisation, Pakeha-Maori were people who were basically low-status people within a tribal situation who happened to be of European origin. Often they were tattoed and assimilated into a Maori world. Occasionally this assimilation was so indepth they couldn’t make the transition back into the European world from whence they came.

I mused on this yesterday when I was on a Department of Conservation walk into the wetlands round Waitangi River, in Hawke’s Bay. This is right beside the Colenso Memorial site, where Colenso had his Mission Station 1844-1853. The ‘walkabout’ was a ‘family-friendly’ trip to the wetlands where we would be guided by the HB Regional Council and DoC staff, ‘and learn about Whitebait, birds and the importance of estuaries’. Note the absence of history from this summation. 

I went along hoping to get a better sense of what the area had been like when Colenso lived there. Though I’d already done my own research, when Colenso described the area as a ‘delta’, with what he also described as a ‘jungle’ of cutty grass so immense you got lost in it. It was the highest he had ever seen on his travels (which were extremely extensive in the North Island). He said it meant, in the heat of summer, the slimey mud underfoot stayed cold. He himself was lost in the ‘jungle’ more than once. As he described it, you could not see him from the highest ladder, or chimney. 

In my mind’s eye I saw his wife at the Mission Station mounting a ladder trying to see if she could see her husband who had gone worryingly missing. Everything was flat around there - for miles.

As it was, the party of people was quite large - about sixty altogether, made up of the elderly who wish to stay informed, young couples with children, the occasionally younger person and a single Asian young woman, possibly a student. She had a tiny koala bear attached to her backpack.

I was fascinated when we got to where the Mission Station had been: Kathryn Barr, an archeologist gave us a breif summation of information. (Already she had said to me ‘ he only lived there a brief amount of time’.) I felt shocked as the time there was so action-packed emotionally for William Colenso: it was the alpha and omega of his hopes and dreams. It’s such a vivid story. Then I realised she was thinking archeologically, in which millenia is probably a blink, or maybe a wink.

Her summation was adequate but of course to a fanatic like myself it missed out the guts: the illegitimate child, the fall from grace, the inter-hapu rivalries. She described his house as a ‘cottage’ whereas WC is always very assertive about its grand size and unique bicultural style.

The thing which stunned me was when she asked if anyone had any questions. There was a moment’s muffled pause - that pause familiar to any teacher who asks a question. Is this silence peculiar to New Zealanders, I wonder? That brew of modesty, low self esteem and even a quiet kind of hatred for those who ‘speak up’. But then the silence broke. I braced myself to hear what the crowd thought of Colenso. But the woman, early middle-aged, Pakeha, sun-glasses, wearing blue asked the quinessential contemporary question: ‘Do you know of any areas of black mud which Maori traditionally used for dyeing purposes.’ Kathryn opologised and said she did not. 

But what interested me was that swift ellipsis of New Zealand - it is as if Pakeha history meant nothing, had no weight, no substance, almost no narrative. It seemed not to catch on anything meaningful, so that it slithered away into silence, inconsequence: meaninglessness. Meaning came from something Maori. This was how Pakeha people now tried to position themselves. They tried to adopt all things Maori. They also, coincidentally, rejected any ownership of their own past.

I was aware of various people in the group wearing Maori tattoes. There was  a middle-aged Maori woman with a moko on her chin. But these were Pakeha people. One had a tattoo on her back, one on his leg. Of course there’s nothing new in this - it’s become a fashion cliche. But like conventions, it says something: Pakeha wish to become Pakeha-Maori, they wish to ‘identify’. Probably in their innermost hearts they would like to wake up Maori one morning, the whole nightmare of colonial appropriation over. To put it another way, they want the skin of the Maori and if they cannot get the colour, they will get the design.

I spent the rest of the walk looking and listening. We crossed the busy road and we found a man-made lake I had never seen before. It was quite beautiful, almost like an early painting by those artists who flatten everything out. There was the vivid green of pond-scum (?), the blackened shapes of flax spears, a sheen of water - black swans - and in the distance, the kind of dsytopia you expect today - the Ravensdown fertiliser works, its chimney smoking on a Sunday.

The department of conservation people used the tongue of today - ‘providing wildlife values’ - and we learned about the brief and brilliant life of whitebait (the best breeding ground ironically was a drain nearest the fertiliser works): how birds like godwits, white fronted terns, common black gulls used the area, especially during winter: how the landscape had changed rapidly, as you would expect at a river mouth with a vast delta behind it, and mountain ranges feeding into the delta: how there was a weekly collection of rubbish because ‘huge volumes are dumped’ - it’s a ‘fact of life’; how they wished to obtain ‘a positive outcome’ by creating more wetlands, or rather turning the rough pasture back into a simulacrum of what it had been like. 

I didn’t think anyone there had an idea of the ‘jungle’ that Colenso talked about - its fierce otherness, its hostility to human traffic. (Colenso said it was furrowed by the tracks of wild pigs.) It was a tapu area tribally.

As Steve Cave, the good natured DoC official said, this was ‘a good era - so much energy is being devoted to conservation.’

At one point I looked at the young Asian student standing beside me. She looked vague, distant. She was biting the ends of her hair. She alternated this with looking down at her sneakers with a great deal of interest. 

I thought of how some things don’t catch, mean anything.

The occasion finished with an invitation to join in the ‘lights out’ symbolic moment on Saturday 27 March 2010 when, we were told, even the lights of Las Vegas would dim. An impressive coloured postcard had been printed, though I noted it could not be used as a postcard. 

It invited the public to a family event at the Hastings Opera House. There would be kapa haka, bongo drums, fire poi, a Samoan choir, bagpipes, music from Mitch Wade, poetry from Keith Thorsen and - we were asked - ‘don’t forget your torch!’

Somehow this evoked village fetes and dramas of old - the strange mixture which I guess represents the state of contemporary NZ culture. 

It also seemed to be about contemporary pieties - those horrible half-truths made up dreams and illusions. Like ‘peace in our time’.

As for those harsher messages, burnt into flesh, with fire and agony, of fierce intellect, of ugly truths and more radiant meanings - these are best left outside.

Like the story of Colenso’s mission.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Exit Ghost...

Every bend I drove round, the road ahead was empty.

Exit Ghost is a late novel by Philip Roth. I’ve just been listening to it on audiobook as I drove back to Napier. It was late afternoon, and after overtaking some stragglers I managed to get into that ideal space - a vast landscape with no traffic ahead or behind. Every bend I drove round, the road ahead was empty. This for me is the most perfect space within which to think. And Exit Ghost is a speculative work of fiction.

The novel muses on aging, on love, on lust. 

In it Roth’s alter-character, an aging novelist, a womaniser, is now so old he has had his prostrate removed and he wears incontinence pads. He no longer achieves erection. He has lived in isolation but on returning to a post 9/11 New York, he falls in love - in lust - with a young Texan beauty. She’s in her late twenties. 

Roth very cleverly writes a semi-sexual affair which only happens in the writer’s head. This gets round the yuk factor. But wrapped within the novel, to ensure that the novel is not read autobiographically, is an almost splenetic dialogue about biographers who seek to read fiction in the most simplistic  biographical terms. 

A cri de couer from a man who had once been highly sexual.

I chuckled to myself as I listened to him describing biography as a kind of rancid theft. But I also mused that the novelist was almost desperately trying to ensure that the reader did not identify the lead character with Philip Roth. On the other hand, the entire novel seemed a deeply felt personal cri de couer from a man who had once been highly sexually active, but who was now mourning his passing into a life of shade, of darkness. 

I didn't care too much who survived.

The theme of aging is probably going to emerge as a huge one for the current baby boom generation. (Roth of course precedes my own generation by twenty, thirty years.) But we are all living longer and all around me I see people living into an unthought of older age. I include myself in this. As a young man in my twenties, I confidently expected the world to undergo some kind of apocalypse. I didn’t care too much who survived. Confidently, I assumed neither my own survival nor my death. 

Instead, with noteable exceptions of Aids, cancer and suicide, most people have survived. I even had the extraordinary experience of finding an early lover, from the 1970s, alive. (He was interviewed in Nine to Noon. He is English. A Londoner. I had tried to contact him in the early 1990s. I could not find his name in any telephone book. I assumed, unwillingly, that he had died. Aids was unknown when we were sexually active.) 

...the urgency of desire in a body which is no longer protected by the armour of youth.

So now we face something different from what any of us had imagined.

A longer life, and perhaps something else - the urgency of desire in a body which is no longer protected by the armour of youth.

I compare Roth’s careful, artful fiction with Edmund White’s much more straight forward, almost confessional nonfiction. Which is better? Which tells the story of the plaint better? Gide said that each age has its own gifts - and it is true, when I was actually young, I wasted time by diffidence, uncertainty and an almost tidal wave of neurotic anxiety. I was Totally Fucked Up. At the same time I appeared probably very driven, over-confident, assertive - I always thought I knew where I was going.

One always wants what one doesn't have.

At the moment I am writing, or trying to write nonfiction. Yet as always, one wants what one doesn’t have. Suddenly I feel the impulse of fiction again....it seems so fascinatingly tangential and protective. With someone like Roth it becomes an intricately layered narrative. Edmund White, on the other hand, almost prosaically, tells the story of his loss of looks, his abnegation of self, the men he hires for sex, his liking for masochism. He evades the mask, hiding only behind the assertiveness of a seemingly limitless truth. I saw this described in the NYer perjoratively as a gabby gay man’s talkativeness, telling things that nobody wants to know. 

The young are beautiful and stupid. 

Really both men are talking about the urgency of desire in a body which no longer evokes desire. The young are beautiful and stupid. The young think they know it all but really they know almost nothing of what lies ahead of them. Their careless beauty has about it a kind of terror. A vulnerability which ensures their protection (in some circumstances it opens them to exploitation and destruction.) I don’t have children to observe and love endlessly. But looking at the students I had for six weeks I ended by identifying that seemingly hard carapace they all had - a jaunty defiance against the odds, an assumption that somehow they’d all survive. I recognised its blindness - its almost animal dumbness - from my own youth. Does this sound harsh? Judgmental? Well, I include myself in this. 

What do you learn as you age?  

Different terrors and uncertainties. But there’s also those nuggets of knowledge, hard gained. 

But like most people, I would abandon those nuggets in a second if I could go back into the body of youth for a day, even an hour....

But would I go back to the confusions of that age? The very real not knowing?  


It’s very hard to learn what Van Vogh wrote.

‘One must seize the reality of one’s fate and that’s that.’