Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Colenso Reads the Future...

I’m back working on my Colenso book of essays at the moment, trying to make up for lost time. I’ve been sifting through all my notes, especially the xeroxes I ordered bulk from the different archives.

The situation is this: you arrive for several days at an archive - you suddenly comprehend the vast amount of material you’ll need. There isn’t time to type it into your computer. So you make a quick calculation - and end up ordering pages of what turn out to be, usually, rather difficult-to-read xeroxes of what is faded hand writing anyway. 

I’ve been trawling the ocean of Colenso’s writing. It feels like this at times - he wrote so much. There are different versions of the same thing, sometimes contemporaneously. Other times it is a different period entirely when he goes back and reinterprets an earlier part of his life ( an example here is his Autobiography, where he ‘reinterpretated’ his marriage and the reasons why it didn’t work. Also this segued into why he ended up having a child with Ripeka Meretene. (His wife cold and distant, Ripeka, warm and confiding, according to Colenso as an older man, writing to both his legitimate and illegimate son.) 

Yesterday I felt a distinct sense of nausea from reading too much William Colenso. The period I’m concentrating on is his low point: his ejection from the Church Missionary Society, following the discovering of the existence of Wiremu, the son he had with Ripeka. 

He’s scalded, self pitying, grandeoisly paranoid. Like many opinionated people he has a lot of enemies. And his downfall gives them the chance to put the boot in big time. He’s also sending off so many letters they become like shards flying off from an exploding bomb. But he’s the one who ends up covered in shit, blood and other viscera. But he’s also relentless - he just keeps on writing on. 

It’s one of the things I usually like about him: his refusal to fit the male stereotype of the period. He is furiously emotional. He weeps, he throws himself on the floor. He accuses, he loves his children in an almost overwhelming way. (He was used to looking after his brothers and sisters when he was a boy growing up. He cooked, cleaned and decorated his house when he was a bachelor. He is a very feeling sort of man.)

But yesterday, nearing the end of yet another shreiking epistle, I felt I’d had enough. 

Just the night before a Hawke’s Bay local, a pleasant man who had once been a history teacher, said to me, almost dismissively” are you finding out anything new about him? Is there anything new to find?”

I took note of the attitude. So often Hawke’s Bay people have this inbuilt attitude towards Colenso which is little short of contempt. But there’s also this thing that people think they know everything about him there is to know.

My thing is: you can ‘know’ the same facts but the facts need to be re-evaluated. You have to ‘read’ them differently.

And this morning when I grumpily entered my usual cafe for my morning latte - the barista called out ‘good morning young man’ which should have earnt her a large tip - I opened the Dom/Post and read a little about the new report to the Waitangi Tribunal. It’s about the land dealings relating to the sale of the Wairarapa. 

The headline was that the report recommends reverting to an earlier version of the spelling of Rimatuka. A Maori spelling. (Interesting when you consider Maori was not a written language.) Anyway I thought: I don’t give a fuck. But when I read further the basis of the argument for restitution was this: too much land was bought too quickly for too low a price. 

I thought: bingo! I felt a warm surge spread all over the surface of my skin. I thought: William Colenso, I love you! 

Because this is exactly what Colenso said again and again and again, to anyone who would listen during this period. (A period when many Maori were overwhelmingly eager to sell land, to get money, to buy the version of the latest ipod and wide-screen tv and tickets to the World Cup.) Colenso could see the maelstrom happening all around him.

He had quite a large degree of moral authority pre-fall. Te Hapuku, a major local chief, called him (either insinuatingly or not) ‘our Governor’. And Colenso was adamant that the careless sale of Maori land by its ‘owners’ was ‘the very railroad to ruin’, to use his own term. He thought the most Maori should do is lease land, and then for a limited period. He also thought they should seperate out wide areas which were never to be leased.

His downfall was providential - for McLean and others interested in opening up the land for financial rape. Maori leaders colluded in this, of course. As did the  Roman Catholics, so eager to chop Colenso down in the hope it would get a few more punters in the pews. 

But the end effect was this: Colenso’s moral authority collapsed completely. His voice, a voice of sanity and reason, of deep insight gained over his six years of living in NZ pre-Treaty, was silenced pretty much completely. 

But of course Colenso didn’t finish there.  He re-invented himself and once again became a bantering, unsilenceable voice, talking, talking, talking....

In some ways he became the conscience for pakeha culture - a culture which really didn’t want to listen.

But this brings me back to this wide-spread disdain for Colenso, which is even shared by historians who should know better: (Colenso doesn’t do hiumself any favours by being so thin skinned and eager to insert himself into the historical narrative at every opportunity.) 

But I think its source was the visceral hatred pakeha settlers felt for missionaries who tried to advice Maori not to sell their land. This hatred was raised in volume when the missionaries themselves bought land or obtained large tracts of land. 

But at the time I am writing about - 1853 - Colenso owned no land. (He later owned quite substantial amounts of land within Napier town, but that is another story I’ll look at in more detail later.) 

I sometimes wonder whether this visceral dislike of Colenso, remnants of which still exist, relates to his refusnik activities at this time: when land was slipping out of the grasp of one group of people and rushing and gushing into the grasp of another group. He tried to slow it down. He tried to ensure it wasn’t chaotic.

In the end he got trampled by the mob.

Various people, pakeha and Maori, really enjoyed dancing on what they thought was his political grave.

But this morning, as I closed the newspaper, I felt a sense of gratitude as I returned to my writing and researching: this is why Colenso is such an interesting person to write about: he was often insightful.

At times he saw the future. 

A future we’re only just arriving at today. Like today. Now.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


The Humiliation of Chris Carter

I watched Chris Carter being chased down the corridors of parliament last night on tv. It was on Close Up and the segment was called GET CARTER. Inwardly I felt extremely uncomfortable. Carter was obviously in a state of panic. He was harrassed and chased into rooms, ambushed and chased again. It was like seeing a stag brought down by hounds thirsty for the kill. 

I noted the journalists all looked young. They had that bright ambition of the very young. Carter, by contrast, suddenly looked older. His skin seemed to have developed deeper pimple marks, as if his rocky adolescence had swum to the surface  and he had instantly returned to being an unstable, moody young homosexual. But ironically he also looked suddenly a lot older. His shoulders had a perceptible stoop. Normally good looking, even preternaturally young, he had hurtled into old age, carrying the sack of his humiliation. He could not escape.

The following morning, the totally mediocre politician, Tau Henare, with as many scruples as he has hairs on his head, clambered aboard Carter’s corpse and began hacking bits up. Carter should resign as an MP. He - Henare - the slippery switchblade of politics - was a suitable candidate to replace the disgraced Carter. 

What had Carter done? Ostensibly it was over a tiny bill of approximately $265. But in a larger sense it is about ‘entitlement’. But in a larger sense again, it is public anger about the current financial mess and the inability of our financial system, ie capitalism, to deliver villains over for punishment. Someone like 'developer' Mark Hotchin can rook people out of their savings - builders can create houses which ruin peoples’ lives literally - the entire world financial system can be played by billionaires who emerge unscathed: but nobody is to blame. So this miniature debacle - MPs and their expenses - has to serve as the auto de fe for a public rooked of its real villains. 

Carter as a homosexual is an excellent candidate. Shane Jones, Maori, was for a while fingered but, astute politician that he is, he knew he only had to ‘man up’ to a ritualistic public humiliation, lay low for a year and then he can emerge again, renewed by his newly gained ‘wisdom’. 

Carter, normally a rather slippery and politically astute man, somehow lost the plot. He no longer had the protection of big sister Helen in the playground that is parliament. He was naked. He also failed to ‘man up’.

Was this part of his homosexual nature? Or was it something which took him back to the playground - those bully kids crowded round the door. Something slipped and for a moment he fled back to being the lowliest kid in school.

He had also been arrogant. He didn’t understand that he needed to do that meaningless gesture ‘opologise’.

Just yesterday in the student part of the Herald a schoolkid did a long parody of the meaninglessness of ‘saying sorry’. We’re the sorry generation alright. So long as you say sorry for (colonisation, Bloody Sunday, killing someone while drunk driving, sleeping a with prostitute etc etc) you are absolved. It’s that easy. It’s a kind of cosmetic truth suitable for the thin nature of our televisual times.

It’s about gesture, not about truth.

Watching Carter being chased through parliament made me deeply uncomfortable. One of my formative experiences as a human took place in primary school. I was in primer four (seven years old?). There was a girl who was chosen as a victim. The whole primer school banded up on her. She was remorcessly hunted down. It was horrible to see. It was pack mentality at work. She was utterly terrfied and humiliated and probably scarred for life. 

I was an observer, not a chaser. (Did I sense that it was only luck that delivered her rather than me to the mob? I don’t know.)

She was taken out of the school. I don't know why she was 'chosen' as victim material. In a largely Protestant working class school, she was Catholic. She was also a little backward. 

People talk about ‘the wisdom of the crowd’. I don’t believe it for a second. And I have to be honest and say, when at literary dos and I face a large audience I always have to suppress a very real sense of rising horror: I have to look at individuals very closely and identify normal, friendly faces to shuck off this feeling of fear and distrust.


I seem to recall that was the exact term used at school to rouse the mob. 'Get....so and so.' 

We're only animals walking upright.