Monday, November 22, 2010

Expired historical visa.

Just today I felt the lap of time.

I was attending a wreath laying at the grave of Sir Donald McLean. His erection is the largest in the Napier Hill cemetery, perhaps not mistakenly: as in many ways he is the greatest grandee there. His is a towering celtic cross. Only closer inspection reveals the ravages of change and time. There are two neat incisions where the cross cracked and collapsed during the 1931 earthquake.

Otherwise the cross is an impeccable piece of funerary ornament - a granite monument covered in the same Celtic tracery, ironically, as Colenso’s much smaller Cornish version.

There were ironies everywhere today: most of all, for me, in the absense of a crowd. I don’t know what I had been expecting.

The laird of the McLean clan was visiting Napier and he was going to be laying a wreath at the grave of Sir Donald McLean.

There was an elderly man in a kilt playing the bagpipes when I arrived - but I was unsure whether the tune was a lament or something confirmatory.

A few days before I had spent a couple of hours tidying up the gravesite in preparation for the visit.

I was unsure why I did this - to a friend I jokingly compared myself to an old Indian retainer who years later is found sweeping leaves lanquidly off a tomb that everyone else has forgotten.

Perhaps it could be encapsulated as ‘respect for the past’.

Yet I was aware of a glaring anomoly. When I and Gail Pope put together the information board for the Napier Hill cemetery, we left Sir Donald McLean off. This was omission by silence if anything. I cannot remember if we talked about it - or maybe the susurration of a few comments, gentle as the afterwash of some more monumental boat passing by, addressed the situation - consigned him to some eternal silence.

We would not celebrate his life: this man so notorious now for ‘stealing’ Maori land. He had to stand in for all the ignomy of our pakeha ancestors - much as the Queen had to do. So we chose to leave him off (and even in our tours of the cemetery, we directed attention away from him. It was amazing how few people turned, gazd and asked about this enormous cross: people do not notice what they choose ‘not to see’.)

Walking towards us through a strangely Scottish mist of early summer rain were three elderly men in kilts. There appeared to be no crowd. I wondered about this - the absence of whanau, of younger people especially to whom this visit could have been full of significance and connection. Instead small disconnected groups of Scots-identified people - everyone over fifty - wandered through the graveyard: the visit of this historic laird was judged so unimportant that the gates of the cemetery were kept locked.

I introduced myself to the laird: he was elderly, seemed to be finding it cold and had the distinctive husky voice of Prince Charles. His clothing, I noticed, was impeccable.

I was unsure how he felt about the commemoration, or even how aware he was of Sir Donald’s expired historical visa. He did comment to me, looking into my eyes, about the perplexing absence of Sir Donald on the board of noteables by the entrance.

I prevaricated: the board was about incidents of local history, I lied - ‘people falling under trains’ I said laughing awkwardly.

I am unsure why I didn’t explain to him, quickly, that McLean was now seen, rightly or wrongly, as an evil man - a man we all wanted to forget - a joint ancestor we - and Maori too - wanted to elide from historical memory.

Yet there, in the gentle antipodean mist, with the wail of bagpipes filling the air- there remained his vast historical sepulchre.

He asked me about my mother. (I had told a counciller she could recall Sir RD McLean’s funeral (the son of Sir Donald): she recalled the drone of bagpipes as the cortege came up Milton Road in 1929, then the fresher sharper sound as the cortege walked along Napier Terrace into the cemetery.

There would have been crowds.

My mother was aged 13 and she said, it was probably a Saturday (because she was at home and could vividly recall the sound entering the windows of the house:that frisson of history brushing by.)

I wanted her to be there - for a sense of history’s recall: for the presence of an eyewitness. And she was missed.

We were all aware of something missing: some essential piece of the jigsaw we could not put our fingers on (historical memory).

When we got closer to the grave I was interested in what form the wrerath laying would have. There was no minister present, no layering of the christianity our culture had brought to these islands. So there was, in effect, no discernible ceremony.

A lot of elderly people stood round, identifying the names of the people on the tombstones but this had a kind of deracinated effect: they were reduced to the meaningless of names and they had the sad clatter of cutlery being tipped out of a drawer.

The laird took off his Scottish hat, and stood back. The wreath was laid: but nothing was said or addressed and so the vast central mystery of our history, McLean’s role in it, controversial or wicked or instrumental, was left silent.

We all drifted away at the end inconclusively. It seemed something had happened, we were not sure what it was. Perhaps something had. A wreath of flowers had been laid.


Sir Donald Mclean died on the 5 January 1877. Ten days later, 800 Maori presented themselves at Sir Donald’s Napier house (which was situated just across the road from where I sit writing these words.)

They came to mourn, to celebrate and to pay their respects.

A 170 strong party fired off five volleys in honour of the departed man.


Ten days previously between 2000 and 3000 people crowded into the Napier cemetery, including rangitira like Te Hapuku, Tareha and Renata Kawepo - Hawke's Bay chiefs who had eagerly signed the land purchase agreements - and now joined in greiving for a man who had, as Renata Kawepo said, ‘guided the canoe safely through the sea of strife.’

‘Shall we hereafter move into a world of darkness?’ he asked.

Among the mourners was William Colenso.

He was not asked to speak.

In 1877 he was still consigned to the shame of silence.

As - it seems - are we.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

in the exhilerating presence of danger....

At the moment I’m concentrating on my book. I feel I am in the heart of the book at the moment.

How do I know this? There’s a sense of time slipping away. I have a deadline looming just over the horizon. But also there’s something else.

I’m already wanting to set off on a new project. I feel a little nausea with the existing book - I’m sick to death of it (usually a sign it is about to time to bring it to a close.)

But there’s also something more: there’s a kind of intensity to the writing which is actually physically exhausting. It must be to do with concentration.

In some ways it’s not unlike going through a period of danger. You have to remain preenaturally alert. This is because the book at this point could go off in any direction. It could - easily - slip through your fingers. Or you could nail it.

So you spend just the same amount of time at your computer as you normally do.

But somehow when you get up you are exalted, exhausted, disoriented and somehow phased by everything else.

You don’t seem to fit and your subconscious is only slumbering - waiting till you connect with the material again.

Anyway that’s how I feel at the moment...

The photo is of my second desk, where I lay out material to browse through.

It is a xerox of Colenso the missionary talking about the fire which destroyed his raupo mission hosue in January 1853.

The small card is a photo of the museum that Colenso effectively created here in Napier later in his life.

The photo behind is my grandfather’s mullet boat yacht in 1910. The boat is loaded with my grandmother in courting attire - a large hat tied on by a scarf, a stiff high collar and cotton and linen clothing, probably in cream and white.

They are sailing on what was the inner harbour. This raised up in the 1931 earthquake and became land. So it’s an ordinary picture and an extraordinary circumstance.

The roses are from my garden and emit a beautiful scent I catch every so often when I move round the room.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The life of Flounce the cat

(adept at sensing a photographer in the house, she chose her moments well....)

her names slid from phoebe

a first attempt

hurriedly rushed in

to annoint a stray

who burst into our duet

she then settled into

a deeper engraving

on our my hearts

Flounce became her

verbal presence

adroit and annoyed

at having to perform

her catness

before applauding humanoids

claws helped

sharp as glass

and a yowl

called ‘common’

by hifalutin trainers

she leapt to the attack

kamikaze dressed in fur

venus swooned

before her wildcat act

she - a stray - reliving

life & death battles


unstable and likely

to fly off the handle

as much as blink

followed by something

almost human

a sense of shame

at her performance

attempts to show regret

and a delicate hop

onto the lap to secure

her credentials as an

adorable pet



if slightly manky

on hot days looking

distinctly moth-eaten

cool air fluffed her

out into ‘what becomes

a legend most? ‘

thick as mink

luxurious to rub

the nub of your worry

into where it dissolves

like caramel in the mouth


she never learnt to purr

till we had been together

several years

then it emerged

faint as a sewing machine

echoing over arctic wastes

where it took up its magic

leaving long artful pauses

like some kind of contemporary music

where sudden drops into silence

counted as much as broken fragments


she could be a looker

when she tried.

Introduce a camera

and she hussied out

a look so convincing

it took in any touring

paparazzi so she featured

in glossy magazines.


the stray


and abandoned

now as luxuriantly

comparisoned as

an emir’s queen

tricked out

in arctic fox

the dark well of

her eyes the only

indication inside

lay an anarchy

a wilderness

never quite conqueured.


so my heart

bruised to pulp

leapt up and did

a fandango when she,

just before the lethal

prick, unbared her

claws and practiced her

final hiss

take this


and get the fuck

out of my face

was her cancelled thoughtbubble

before she


unbelievably quickly



leaving me


my secret name

the shameful stigma

of all cat owners in such

life and death situations


at being left





she progressed royally

onto different names

and folderoles of titles


as in some member

of a french royal house

madame as a hoitytoity

bitch in a hat shop

sweeping out of plateglass


leaving an unpaid bill

madame for her determination

to get everything her way

all the time

for all time


which became extended to


to cover her possibly

eastern european fits

of improbable glamour

and the mystery of her origins

half cardsharp

half fallen aristocrat

with more than an air

of street mongrel

who had slithered onto the

silken cushion of being

the pet of a pouf

every stray cat’s dream

she realised

with casual disdain

as being her due.

greedy bitch.


like all such tricksters

you were first

out the door

having stolen

my heart.


so fare-thee-well

ninelived monster

of much cherished wonder

with your claws

your silences

and your leaning into me

when i came back

from being far away

and gently sniffing me

several times

as if drinking in

the most pure liquor

that had ever been

invented in the world

that is why we have pets

to make us special

you made me special

and this palsied rhyme

is the shape of my design

to single you out

as individual

which you remained

till the last.

I salute you

noble beast

stray cat


fading as I write

into the ur-cat

no different to

anyone’s feline


your individuality

as I speak.

hence these words here

to secure your rare self

and mark your passage

through my world.


Friday, November 12, 2010

the death of a cat..

On Thursday my cat Flounce died. I should say, I had her ‘put to sleep’. This caused me great grief. Her kidneys failed - she was sick for two days - then dead.

At the moment I am writing through my feelings. This below was the beginning.


farewell to flounce the magnificent

found in a hedge

feline and mad

desperate for a home

a bowl of food

i fed her sardines

it was all i had

her weight on my knees

as she slept

occasionally shivering

as a gust of terror

swept down her backbone

then she woke up

glanced into me


settled down to the

long dream of life

with a pouf.


every instinct

catered for with abandon.

such conversations!

insights! secrets we shared

such as I would never risk

with a mere human

so what if occasionally

she lost the plot


even as I unhooked her claws

from my flesh

she felt shame

glanced back

to assess the damage

then approached with caution

awaiting her treats


the desert bowl

was hers every night

to lick out

she calibrated the tap

of spoon on plate

to the last scrape

sitting up picture perfect

awaiting the camera.


so now she lies

in her dark silent box

under the earth

the rose we planted on her

waiting to press its roots

through her bones

gather her up into the air

and open out as flowers

of memory.


they say as with lovers

do you have a pattern

in your abandonment?

are you always

treated the same?

dumped the same?

after a furiosa of love.

of course there’s no sex

but that’s a relief

instead the

beautiful confidentiality

of two animals


not exactly a language

but a sort of tangential space

outside of our shape

such longing and luscious

tremeloes of love

lost now

i am the one evicted

from grace.


fuck the design of the universe

which made cat’s kidneys

carry such defects.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In depth...

The image is entirely misleading and unintentionally amusing, given the title.
It is the local graveyard and shows the wild flowers growing there.
The council poison these each year in their search for tidiness.
It is predicated on 'low maintenance'.
But each year these beautiful flowers come back.
I added it as an image as I like pictures and hate blogs that only have 'words'.
But this blog is actually all about words.
Below is the link to an in-depth interview which Siobhan Harvey did with me last year. It is published in an online journal of some substance. I have to confess though the literate comments I make are the result of proofing and rewriting. I was shocked by my own stumbling grammar and inability to complete a full sentence when the proof of the verbatim conversation was initially sent.
I had had several coffees before the interview so maybe I can blame Good Sister Caffeine for my jittery lack of conversational logic.
I have to thank Siobhan for looking back at my earlier work. The fact is, as a writer, all earlier work vanishes in a haze beside the bright obturate problem of what you are attempting to write at present...which appears as confusing and blinding as looking into a mirror catching sunlight....