Thursday, December 22, 2011

A small mystery....

Who is "Miss Colenso"?

Today a friend got in touch and asked me whether I knew who the 'Miss Colenso' was in a lovely Victorian album which is on display in the Sir George Grey Room in the Auckland Public Library in Lorne Street.

I was very excited as one always wants to see more pictures of past historical characters, as if one can somehow
bring them alive again. Take away the chilly aura of the dead. (They live in our imaginations and somehow seeing a photo or a new drawing means they leap alive again, wonderfully. One reads them with a special kind of urgency, looking at all the information of 'nose' 'eyes' 'expression'.)

I know this is a hectic and distractingly busy time of year but the second link is the whole album digitised and is a lovely thing to look through when you have a quiet moment and want to forget about the present.

The link immediately below is an easy-to-read essay about Sarah Mathew's album contextualising it. (She was the wife of the first surveyor-general in New Zealand. She was not a starched shirt but one of those typically insightful
wives of a colonial adventurer, adept with the pen. She also stayed with the Fairburns when Elizabeth (later Colenso) was unmarried.

It is definitely worth a gander.

So who was......'Miss Colenso'?


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Good adjectives...

I have been incredibly lucky. Or something. But  - so far - touch wood - I have had excellent reviews for ‘The Hungry Heart’. This began with Geoffrey Vine in The Otago Daily Times giving me the best review I’ll probably ever have in my life. I wasn’t sure if this was the one ‘good review’ so held my breath. But the positive reviews just kept on coming.

I said to a writer friend the other day it is amazing - the ability of the writer’s eye to sprint down a column of print - in a review - to pick out the adjectives.
This is fine when the adjectives are good, but in a writer’s life, you’re unique if you don’t have bad reviews or indifferent reviews or even, at times, malicious reviews by people who hold a grudge against you on some other ground (their career isn’t going so well, you didn’t smile at them when they said hello. It can be anything.) Or maybe even your work that time wasn’t so coherent - despite all your best efforts, it doesn’t quite work.
Like some miser I have tidied away the good adjectives and in private I caress them. They seem some kind of incredible luck - because the truth is I haven’t worked any harder or more carefully on this book than other books I’ve written. 
Some things hit the zeitgeist. As I saw on the back of a van the other day ‘timing is everything’ (I didn’t notice what it was advertising.) It was at the lights. The van drove away. 
But here’s the thing. If I am going to accept these good adjectives - ‘warm’ ‘exhilerating’ - ‘gripping’ - I have to accept the truth of the bad adjectives. 
Isn’t that a fair deal?
But the fact is to survive as a writer, as an ‘artist’ (I hate this word - ever since rock stars became artists it seems the wank factor went through the roof) - but as a working writer you need some sort of defence system to sustain you through the hard and lonely grind of producing work. In the past when a bad adjective arrived I always thought: they just didn’t get it. Or: the book isn’t for them. It takes a long time for me to accept some of the truth of the criticisms. Besides, the fact is during the writing, there is almost nothing you haven’t berated yourself with at times. Self doubt. Exhaustion. Moments when you turn off the project.
So when the bad adjectives come you feel curiously exposed. Publicly exposed.
As for the good adjectives...well, this is sort of like a dream universe in which suddenly ‘everyone likes you’.

 I’ve seen ‘Carrie’, Brian De Palma’s 1976 film...I know one minute you think you’re the prom queen and the next.....

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to read a book....

I've been reading a lot lately on libraries and whether in fact a personal library does reflect someone's mind or only their aspirations (call that delusions.) I'm not sure, really. But this is a book from R. Coupland Harding's library. 

People who have read 'The Hungry Heart' know Coupland Harding as a kind man who did much to make Colenso's later life pleasurable. He was a remarkable typographer - internationally outstanding really - and it was one of those strange historical combination of circumstances that he lived in Napier. (See D.F.McKenzie's sympathetic biography of Coupland Harding on

Needless to say life in Napier was not easy for such an intellectual giant. He must have felt pleased to know someone like Colenso - 'New Zealand's first printer' as he was known. The two men often talked about the history of printing in New Zealand. But they also talked laterally and emotionally and in depth. In many ways Coupland Harding was the kind son Colenso never had.

I bought the book at a Bethune's auction purely because of its bookplate - and its subject matter.

Only later did I learn that the old man in the plate is meant to be Colenso himself (although bald which Colenso never was....) Like all writers I cursed the missed opportunity of having it as an illustration in my book, especially as it seems to epitomise that aspect of Colenso which was so important to him: the collector. (I love the way the image is bedecked with such wonderfully decadent end-of-the century imagery - the skull, the flowers, the seeming drift of a opiate….)

But I also loved the subject matterof the book - the life of the circus.
I have an extremely vivid memory of a circus at Western Springs in Auckland when I was a child. It was one of my great formative experiences, along with seeing my first film - a b&w Mickey Mouse short.

These are some of the beautiful fin de siecle images from the book, sort of Degas in print form, I think. They are done by Jules Garnier.

It thrills me to think that Coupland Harding once had this in his library. But did he ever look at it? It appears well worn, with a line on the beautiful cover which would seem to intimate something had been spilled on it.
But did he read it? Or was it just a vanity production, an impulse purchase?
In fact I know he read this book. Because on page 305  there is a small note, in almost chaste pencil. It says (In Wellington, N.Z. 28 II 1902)    

In other words he was recording in the margin that "the Craggs, gentlemen acrobats" who performed at the Folies Bergere and had a mad success in New York before 1890 had visited Wellington in 1902, in perhaps a slightly less electrifying moment in their career.
But wait, there's more!
Coupland Harding (and I believe it must be him since it is done so professionally) has 'customised' the book by adding two choice photographs of female performers. Whether he had seen them or whether they had pin-up value I leave to your judgement...

So this is my kind of Christmas present really - the beauty of these images.

I like to think the characters on the pages came to life in Coupland Harding's fertile brain and the acrobats swung off into a beautiful infinite space….where they revolve still, every time the book is opened...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Portraits, faces, aspects....

This is William Colenso in the form of a pou (post). It was made for Maraenui School here in Napier. It is a te reo school, ie a school devoted to the flourishing of the Maori language and this photo was taken by Gillian Bell, a direct descendant of William Colenso when she visited the school recently. (See her moving account of the visit at the end of this post below) 

The pou was carved by person or persons unknown who were on periodic detention. The conception behind the pou is of William Colenso as a bearer of knowledge. 

What fascinates me about this visualisation of William Colenso is its feeling of both sadness and endurance. I don’t know if I am reading this into the representation - I could well be. But the downward inflection of his eyes and curves of his face seem sad to me. 

Yet there is a real power in this realisation. In particular I love the way his body morphs the lower down you get until by his legs he has effectively changed into something Maori, a taniwha rooted to the earth and to place. 
It is, in its own way, very powerful and probably an insightful commentary into the way Colenso became rooted to place - in more ways than one.

I wondered if the carver had seen a photo of Colenso in a book - perhaps the Lindaeur portrait (though this pou-Colenso, while elderly, appears to me to be younger than the 81 year old man who Lindaeur painted.)

What also fascinates me about this is the way it contrasts and complements the most recent re-imaging of Colenso. This was by contemporary artist Gavin Hurley who did the sensationally large painting of Colenso for the Hawke's Bay Museum Trust - a preparatory version of which is on the cover of my book. 

There’s a real power in Hurley’s portrait too - a sense of almost blind force in the wide-awake eyes. This image of Colenso comes from a conversation the first photographic image of Colenso that we have: this was from a time before he knew disaster and defeat. (I have included the minister of arts, Chris Finlayson and Douglas LLoyd Jenkins in the photo so you can get some sense of the sensational scale of this contemporary portrait. Colenso really does seem to peer over their shoulder and is Mao-sized.)


Gavin Hurley's Colenso could keep going, regardless of what obstacles lay in his path. In a way, Colenso's own obstacles were part of his personality - like all of us really, he was flawed. But as both these representations show - he was highly memorable and - worth remembering. 

I guess, my book is another version of a portrait, each in their own way different and differing in perspective and understanding of this remarkable man.

I think too the perspectives from this time on will multiply...which is how history - the telling of stories - works.

But this is what I like - the dynamism of a portrait, the way a historical character keeps changing. I think personally this is a salute to William Colenso’s density of thought and dynamism. 

If he were static and uninteresting, we would  feel we know everything there is to know about him. Interest would fade away. But as these portraits show, the representations just keep on multiplying and changing...

By Gillian Bell written for the extraordinarily enriching Colenso emagazine edited by Ian St George.

I met this William while in Napier recently at Te Kura Reo Rua o Maraenui (school). He stands as a two metre tall, intricately-carved pou (pole), passed by pupils on their way to classes. The imposing carving in a golden wood, was created some years ago & resem- bles the Lindauer portrait in that
this is the benign elder Colenso with hair to his shoulders, a broad brow, kindly blue eyes & a gentle mouth. There is a hint of jacket lapels, creases in cuffed sleeves, a finely-patterned stave, & carved on one leg, an open book. The skill & care that has gone into this depiction is truly amazing.
Gwilym Colenso & I stood awestruck until urged to touch him, stroke him & finger the carvings whilst unbeknown to us, we were being watched by a group of 10 to 13 year olds. Their kaiako (teacher) came out of their whare (classroom) & invited us in.
She told the class of our connection to William Colenso & invited us to talk about where we came from so Gwilym explained his Welsh name & London base while I told of growing up in Otaki opposite Rangiatea Church. The kaiako said the children would sing for us &, as she picked up a guitar, the children quickly stepped into lines, girls in front, boys at the back.
Suddenly, miraculously, voices burst forth strongly in a waiata, bodies swayed, hands fluttered, feet moved. I saw before me the descendants of Colenso‘s pupils— &, without embarassment, large quiet tears slid from the corners of my eyes. At the conclusion, my small very sincere voice said ―Thank you. Thank you SO much, that was beautiful.
We left Maraenui School quiet & reflective. Surely, to honour this ―Bearer of Knowledge with his passion for education & the written word—this, THIS is where it starts, in a school in Te Awapuni.
And the response from these children to our visit, ―that little old lady, she was beautiful, she cried for her tupuna (ancestors).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A cat with...eight lives.

This is a picture of a cat which was, last night, lying apparently dead in the middle of a road.

Her name is Narky, the derivation of 'narcoleptic' as she has a defence position of apparently falling asleep in your arms. She was one of two stray kitten Douglas and I adopted after my cat died last year. She is one year old.

When someone knocked on the door at half ten last night and asked if we had a black and white cat - one had been hit by a car and was lying on the road - we ran outside and to our horror, it was Narky lying very still. She lay on her side, her legs stretched out and she was right in the middle of the road.

She appeared dead. Douglas brought her inside, wrapped in a towel. He was crying bitterly. I went to call a 24 hour vet. Suddenly she awoke. She licked Douglas's fingers then got up and - startlingly - ran away at high speed. This was followed by highly erratic behaviour - vertical climbing of curtains, jumping at windows in an attempt to get out. She showed no sign of any recognition of us and had reverted to blind animal behaviour - just as humans do in certain situations.

A 24 hour vet - we drove out in the ghostly silence of a town asleep - felt all over her body, her limbs, her skull, her jaws. Her eyes were looked into. Astonishingly she had sustained only the injury of a broken incisor and lacerated gums.

The vet, a pleasant young woman, said we should buy a lotto ticket.

Narky today displays all the joy of an animal, human or otherwise, delivered back to life after a life-threatening experience. She wanders along, her tail lazily thwacking, purring and sniffing things. We kept her inside but she managed to get out and this is where I took this photo: she is sitting on top of her favourite place - the compost heap.

It is hard to keep proportion on these situations, but what is the correct proportion, I wonder.

Memo to self: buy a lotto ticket.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

24 Hours: Panic attack, remove all traces of history, then we can relax....

1980s art deco bites the dust in Napier. It didn’t last all that well. This was a building designed during the resurgance of interest in Napier’s genuine art deco architecture which was all built following the disastrous earthquake and fire of February 1931. 

This postmodern building is being demolished, not for aesthetic reasons, but because Farmers wish to erect a contemporary building on the site. In turn this will require the demoliton of some rather sweet examples of small town deco - at most their facades will be integrated into a 2012 building. Facadism - the compromise of the 1980s - strikes again.

(Paxies was the cool hang out place in the 1950s and 1960s when it had an espresso machine and was run by a Greek family. Probably when you landed in Napier it was the one place to get something decent to eat. Vale culinary history...Greetings facade...)

But there is a looming crisis for all of art deco Napier - and every old building in New Zealand over two storeys in height. 

Ironically, or not so ironically, this was brought about by the subsequent Christchurch earthquake of this year.

This has led to a panic attack among planners and people charged with making buildings safe. 

Now everything in NZ above two storeys will have to be earthquake strengthened to astonishing degree - way beyond, for example, Los Angeles. 

It is hard to work out the degree to which a sort of hatred of old buildings is behind this (or simply aesthetic blindness, a numbness to issues of heritage) - or just plain old fashioned panic disguised as 'practicality'.

The Billy Bunterish commissar of Christchurch Jerry (built?) Brownley has a hatred of heritage. He described Christchurch’s sometimes amazing old architecture as a collection of ‘dungers’.
He is an adult man reduced to the intelligence of a boy delighted by a grader.
Old Christchurch has vanished.
There was little debate, little questioning.
Understandably the people of Christchurch, suffering a terrible trauma, have been incapable of mounting a defence of their own past. (Let's face it, they can't even get into the central city zone.)

This is just the sort of populist exploitation of a situation in which people quite genuinely feel fear that is most reprehensible.

Now we have its coda: earthquake strengthening which is so over the top nobody with an old building will be able to afford to keep it, so the only viable response is  - demolition.

Already, in the past day, we have seen a series of buildings declared unsafe and people given a slim 24 hours to find alernative accomodation. (Even though the planners knew for a long time it was distinctly possible this might be the outcome. And we are talking of major civic buildings - courtrooms.)

All this spells panic underwritten by a distaste for heritage.

Duncan Fallowell when he came to New Zealand and wrote his subsequent ‘Going As Far As I Can’ talked of his shock of seeing photographs of our Victorian cities: shock because they were so handsome. 

Many of these buildings were however constructed without any notion of the reality of earthquake so they need strenghtening.

But the question now is very stark: will Aotearoa New Zealand have all its built history scraped off its surface?

I have always been intrigued with Pakeha who had the astoundingly novel idea that humans can live without a sense of their own past. There has been no race in history which has pioneered this point of view - that is, any cultural group which has survived. Maori of course understand entirely how integral the past is to survival. It’s the compass you use to guide you - invaluable when you feel you might be lost.

We are about to throw away the compass.

There is no doubt there need to be hard questions asked about safety and buildings. But the questions need to be the right ones. We need more information about how other societies on the Pacific Rim face parallel situations. We have lived in these buildings, some for over one hundred years.

Over reaction is as dangerous as under-reaction. 

Over-hasty decisions cannot be revisited. 

Once a building has gone it has gone forever.

We are at the beginning of another step into a very dangerous void - in microcosm art deco Napier could be demolished as either unsafe or too expensive to make safe. 

But you have to widen this out to take in just about every pleasant building in every small town and city in New Zealand - anything which smacks of character, of place, of a continued existence in these islands - outside of a prefab.

(Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery, designed by Louis Hay and opened in 1937, a long six years after the 1931 catastrophe.)

Can we expect John Key to contribute anything to the dialogue? I doubt it. His granting of carte blanche to Jerry-built Brownlee in Christchurch - Key’s own home town - indicates he has no interest at all in a careful working out of the difficult problem of creating safe buildings and keeping a hold of the compass. 

24 hours. This is our crisis. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A mystery house....

In one way a book never ends...My book was probably being printed in China when an acquaintance kindly got in touch and gave me an astonishing piece of information. There was a building at Hohepa Farms which might be linked to Colenso’s original mission station. For those of you who have already read my book you will know how the entire book is framed round the mysterious absence of any ruins of this mission station at Waitangi. 

The thought of something surviving both excited and depressed me. Excited me, because it has something about it of the magic carpet. (Could something have survived, essentially from the 1850s intact?) Depressing, because the news had arrived too late to be caught in the net of my book. But then is a book ever really finished?

Regardless I wanted to see the place, to test the hypothesis that the building at Hohepa was linked to the most potent time in Colenso’s life.

I went out there as soon as possible. Gail Pope came along with Eloise Taylor from the HBMAG (I like to think that Colensoitis is catching...and it is...)

First we went into an office. A bird was captured behind glass, struggling to get out. A helpful man showed us a black and white photo, which I have reproduced above. The b &w photo came from the 1950s or 1960s, from a time when colour photography was an expensive luxury.

To me it appears like a building from the colonial period - but perhaps later than the 1850s. To me it looks more like the 1860s and even 1870s. (Could it be, however, the ‘unlined store’ into which William, Elizabeth and Wiremu and their household dragged themselves, weary and stinking of smoke, the night of the terrible fire in the Mission? This was January 8th 1853? The possibility flared behind my pupils as I looked into the photo.)

I noted the french doors ('French casements' as Colenso called them in the main mission house. These were the doors he opened so the floods could rush through the house unimpeded.) The french doors in this building did look old. There was also a charming-looking series of windows to the side....what were they?

When we came out of the office, I was pleased to see the bird had escaped...

We went to look at the building. I always gazed at the trees at Hohepa as I drove past. I wondered how old they were - when they were planted - whether they had some connection with Colenso. 

As I say in the book, I always hoped that the Mission was on the Hohepa side of the river, rather than the Te Awatoto, where the huge fertiliser works was...

Now we walked through the small village of buildings towards the possible house. (It now houses men and women who are intellectually handicapped and who live on site. The place has a calm atmosphere, though that day I noted a police car parked on site. It had driven past us, lights flashing, earlier...Looks can be deceptive.)

The cottage was inevitably disappointing. This happens when you come across the past lodged in the present, like a splinter of wood buried deep in wax. Unsympathetic additions had been made in the 1970s-1990s, so one saw an old building, as it were, buried in the changes, a bit like a person who has had advanced and not very good cosmetic surgery: one looks  in dismay to see what ‘is original’. 

Clearly the french doors had survived. And the front door. But what about the pitch of the roof? Was it like the 1850s? Inside we walked from room to room, eagerly looking for signs. (I noticed a manhole was open. Inside it showed tongue and groove, broad planked.)

Someone who lived at the farm post war had a memory of the building being floated across the river to the site. Word of mouth was that it had been ‘Bishop Colenso’s’. But just like the inflation of a defrocked deacon to a bishop, there is a lot of imprecision in oral history. Or there could be. (Just as a specialist in local history, on the tramp out to the Ruahines, proposed the theory - which he believed to be fact - that the mission station site was actually further up the river than any site I had talked about. Alas, this conflicts directly with what Colenso himself wrote. He often talked of how there was only a shingle bank between the mission station and the raging open sea. On days of violent storm - of which there would have been many - he feared the sea would sweep over the bank. McLean also said the same thing in his diaries - the mission station was right by the sea.)

Oral history is a bit like toffee, it can stretch in either direction. Oral history has a different urgency in traditionally orally based cultures, such as Maori. But in the Pakeha world, oral history is like a counterfeit currency, lowering in value as it passes from hand to hand.

I want to go back with Douglas Lloyd Jenkins who is more knowledgeable about construction methods and have another look around. I am also going to have a cup of tea with someone who remembers the site from an earlier time. It's always interesting what chards of truth catch on the fabric of oral history.

I like this sort of thing: the detective story.  Watch this space. (Which space?)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Walking & Talking with William Colenso - my keynote paper at the recent Colenso Conference...

Everybody has their own Colenso

I have been wrestling with presenting this paper ever since I dreamt up the title 'Everybody has their own Colenso' which is self evident, I feel, in the brilliant expanse of papers we have before us in the following two days….I know I'm looking forward to sitting down and listening…knowing I will inevitably suffer that moment of author's remorse, when one thinks, oh if only I had known that when I was writing the book….but the fact is, like a ship sailed, the book is written……

Anyway, in an attempt to be a conscientious contributor, I sat down and huffed and puffed and created half a paper which I read through and then threw away in disgust. I couldn't work out what the problem was. Then I realised what was troubling me. 
I'd just written a book which took four - pleasurable - years out of my life and I seemed to have run out of energy to re-spin the yarn. So I decided to go back to basics and frame my talk by looking at how the book came about. Because in some ways, it seems to me, I had to make the dangerous leap from being a writer of fiction - someone who dreams up things which aren't strictly true - to being a writer of what is called 'creative nonfiction' which is a way of speaking about things which are true. That's to say, one takes a fact for a ride, a drive, a spin, a walk

I had had some experience with this in writing a memoir in 2001. This was comparatively easy in that I knew all the 'facts'. Or did I? The territory of a person's own life isn't necessarily straight forward. Certain aspects which one may wish to forget about dim down into darkness and obscurity. One forgets for a reason. There's also the question of 'treatment': how does one go about looking at phenomena so that it is best explained and illuminated.

What is essential is grasping a way of talking, of speaking, what one might call the 'true ring of a voice'. This seems so obvious it hardly needs stating yet writing isn't talking, it is something much more consciously made and fashioned. But with 'The Hungry Heart' - and I was fortunate the title came early - I wasn't writing about the territory of my own life. The landscape was radically different. The landscape was the distant past and it could only be evoked through words which had been recorded over time. Whereas the landscape of my own life seemed (trackable) - although even here at times it felt infinite in depth because I believe our own experience of time and place isn't finite or even fixed but has a numinous frontier which shimmers with impermanence - but at least in looking at one's own life you can rely on familiarity with characters, places: associations are immediately clear.

My walk alongside William Colenso was immediately different. Obvious fact: we were not contemporaries. We weren't even citizens of the same country. He came from Cornwall and was born at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I was born midtwentieth century in a country to which he came and which he adopted, it seems, very early on in an act of passionate engagement.

I suppose the notion of landscape and movement through a landscape - a walk, a treck, a voyage - is inescapable with both Colenso and the subject of biography. My own understanding of my project was, at the beginning, dim. I knew I could rely on my long apprenticeship as a writer to believe I could bring the project to completion. (I also knew I could rely, I think, on the same obsessiveness which Colenso had about so many things, to spur me on over the vast territory which lay before me.) Because I have to admit, at the beginning, the territory - I can only use these physical terms - seemed exhaustingly enormous. 

I'm not talking here so much of physical space as psychic travel. It was as if, at the beginning of my quest, I glanced into the future and saw an endless tunnel - this tunnel was made up of  black lines moving along a white page - my journey was along a narrow path made up of letters formed into words -  an endless snake leading me along through document after document, pamphlet after pamphlet, thesis to thesis, essay to essay, journal to journal, letter to letter. The trail of words seemed endless.
At the beginning I had a frank lack of knowledge. Talking to experts, they would sprinkle the conversation with names which meant nothing to me. I was hearing them for the first time. They had no resonance, no inner biography. I would sit there, nodding and dumb, feeling both bleak and resolute. Bleak, in that the landscape ahead of me seemed to represent impossible odds. Resolute in that I knew I would, in time, become more knowledgeable. But very early on, almost unwittingly, I lucked onto a way of talking - or walking, since the two seem interrelated. Because it seems to me now that my book is finished and published, I have finally found out what I was writing my book about. This is the truth with all authors, You write the book to find out why you were writing the book. The riddle lies in the middle of the maze and you have to get there in order to find the key which will allow you to get out….. 

I found I was writing the book as a way of a conversation with William Colenso. I wasn't writing a book so much about the inimitable controversialist, as writing a book alongside, in tandem, with this questing, strange, barbed and highly emotional man: hence the subtitle - journeys with WC - the original title of The Hungry Heart & The Enquiring Mind losing its last half for reasons of brevity.

I believe this sense of accompaniment is why we are all here…It is not only to celebrate and test his achievement, which I am sure this conference will clarify - exactly why should Colenso be a living presence in 21st century culture, why does he still have important things to say to us, why do we need to listen and discuss his ideas- but also there is something more - something he himself called 'the strange occult power of personality'. For the fascinating fact is with William Colenso he was not neutral, he was a man who attracted ambivalence, anger, dispute and disquiet. Even in the Dominion Post on Monday ,Bob Brockie in the science column described Colenso as variously  'haughty and intolerant' and 'a figure of ridicule'. These adjectives are as honey to the biographer. If Colenso had been described as calm, humble, accepting and benign, most of us, let's face it, would have passed him by with a polite yawn. Instead here is a character full of chasms. Here is a brightly opinionated man who lives up to the epithet often ruefully awarded at funerals, with a slight shake of the head and a bitter-sweet smile- he or she was 'certainly a character'. 

What fiction writer can resist such a lure? A character is just what a writer most desires - someone with emphatic, even better - contradictory - impulses, a man or woman with some kind of mystery embedded in their life. Colenso himself, looking back at his life, said to his confidante, the marvellously understanding Coupland Harding, that his had been  'a strangely chequered journey'. It is the chequering, the sudden dappling, the dive into darkness, the strangely flecked nature of Colenso's journey which is so deeply fascinating. 

On one level, it is all about person and personality: the uncomfortable marriage, the questions of sexuality, of fatherhood, of family, of ego, of love and refused and refuted love, of power and patriarchy, of wounded feelings, of, finally, that most compelling of all pictures, 'the Old Solitary' as he came to call himself, sitting on Napier Hill, endlessly spinning out his web of words, as if he himself knew he would end when the pen ran dry of ink. (One thinks of him on that Christmas Eve in the 1880s when he knew he would spend the time alone so he set out to do a piece of writing on memory and Cornwall and so he wrote himself into the night, and into the dawn, writing, endlessly writing, as if the sheer act of self creation, of feeling the company of words and thought, would of itself disarm the brutal facts of time: he was part of a family but his family was absent. He was alone. But not alone, for he had for company words, a swarm of thoughts and that restless ever enquiring mind.

It is one very powerful story on one level, and in some ways, an entirely contemporary story: the abandoned male, the father who tries to buy love, the human who only latterly comes to comprehend the foibles of his own personality - comes to some essential self-understanding.

But when one looks at Colenso in a broader context, of the enquiring mind, there is so much more. He was not merely a contradictory personality or, as the Dom Post science writer said, along with many others, 'a haughty or intolerant' human.

He was also endlessly intellectually curious. Essentially self taught, he was a polymath in the best sense - his interests spread out tentacular-wise into such diverse areas as language, religion, eduction, biology, print-as-a-medium, history, anthropology - most of which areas we have fascinating papers on in this conference. I always felt when Colenso evoked a tohunga as 'a living cylopedia' in the sense that the person carried the knowledge of all ages within, having the widest index of various pieces of information, both scraps and densities of knowledge, from the seeming trivial to the deepest and most profound - he was in fact describing himself. For along the journey through those endless sentences, one constantly came across fascinating insights. 
In sending his marathon locutions to the Hookers at Kew, he often sandwiched in amazing information about Maori life and customs which were, effectively, raw pieces of information, much as a journalist might reveal when something startled him and which he felt compelled to include as basically 'news' - meaning the 'new', the unknown, the extraordinary - to a European mind. This is not to say these pieces of information were received with gratitude at the other end - one often sensed an almost brutal impatience on the part of Sir William or Joseph Hooker whose thought bubble might read - For God's sake cut to the chase.  As Jim Endersby says in his fascinating book, JD Hooker preferred what he called 'curt diagnoses.' Colenso preferred the shaggy dog tale of an almost biblical length.
  Yet it is these seeming lapses or diversions - these sudden and abrupt change of focus - of focal depth one might almost call it - when one came in touch with a powerful other, a reality Colenso himself needed to register. Often it seemed to me there were several levels of discourse happening - (and often, given his journals were addressed, essentially back to a corporate headquarters who only wanted to know what they wanted to promulgate - mirror answering mirror) he also kept including information which often stood in a strange contradictory position, even though he himself might attempt to dress the information up in disapproving rhetoric. 

    Yet the fact is, for we contemporaries alive in the banal and brightly overlit present, his reportage - his endless nonstop written banter, chat, bilge and rage, poetic plight and patter, his guttural moans and nightmarish cleaving, his toenail shavings and moustache clippings, his dried sweat and semen stains, his sighs and absent-minded whistlings, his angry denunciations and calmer reflections, his ponderings and imaginings - this is a wonderful landscape of the imaginative past which any reader can enter and, as a foreign landscape, explore.

It seems to me this is what this conference is all about: we are all here as explorers of the strange continent known as William Colenso. There is something about him which is so gigantic, so vast, so enormous that no one person can encompass the continent which is William. Hence my view that everybody has their own Colenso - the maligned husband, the adulterer, the prince of humbugs, the seer, the Pakeha tohunga, the over-eager splitter of species or the man whose botanical traces allow us to recreate entire regions which today are stripped of their indigenous fauna. There is the intrepid explorer and the man who kept close to home and gardened intensely. There is the angry prophet and the man who is an eternal outsider. The passionate educator and the elderly man who offered fruit from his orchard to hungry children on their way home from school.

What we can say about William Colenso is that he was never an impartial witness: you can always reply on him for an emphatic opinion. He was all light and shade, all contrast, all emphasis, all passion. There are worse things to be.

I felt, during my own wanderings around and through some of the secret corridors of his psyche that I did feel, indeed, his 'occult' power. He came, after all, from Cornwall, the land of Lancelot and the ancient Druid. Possibly his own passionate interest in Maori history and thought was activated by his own feelings for similarly prophetic strains in the culture in his Celtic past. He was unusual, extraordinary, eccentric. As a biographical companion, I can only say: I felt lucky that we met. I talked earlier about how I approached the vast continent which is William. How did I make my own voyage and return to stand before you here, at least notionally sane?

Well, as I said, I developed a way of walking, or talking. This was finding a small subject and 'going for a walk with it' as I called it to myself. So, if you will, I would like to   include here some gentle rambles of my own. Very early on in the process of conceptualising the book - while I was trying to work out a way in to the subject - I began a blog, which helped me locate 'a way of talking'. That is, by taking a fact, an aspect for a spin. It is a kind of personal take, and it is about a relationship with information as much as anything else. So, with your by and leave, I would like to ask you to loosen your academic stays and settle down for a tiki tour through my own journey towards an understanding of the vast continent known as William Colenso: think of this as a 21st century slide show….

((in here I used some earlier blogs I did on the writing of  the Colenso book, querying the nature of memory and how it interlocks - or doesn't - with landscape))

To recapitulate - I think William Colenso is a wonderfully broad landscape which we can all in our own ways explore. I think it is the delight of this conference that we are, over the next few days, going to explore his nooks and crannies, his high points and deep buried valleys. It seems a timely moment for William Colenso who spent so much of his life and future under a dark cloud that he should emerge at this time in our culture. We need everything we can to survive as humans. He locked away information which nobody else actually has. Amid the exclamations, the detours, the borrowings and quotations, there are gems. 

If I can close by saying this: all through his later life Colenso eagerly sought to add letters to his name. He was, after all, a lad who left school at fifteen. He looked around him and saw many other contemporaries garnering letters. He led a determined campaign to obtain these glittering prizes, all the more important to a man who had been so blatantly written out of historical records - as for example with William William's record of the Anglican church in Hawke's Bay which startlingly managed to elide Colenso completely from the record - so recognition meant to a lot to a man with a hungry and battered heart. But early on when I began my researches I came across a fellow pilgrim, if I can so use such a charged term.

This was Ian St George and fittingly we met in the tiny archive room of the old Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery. This seemed fitting because it was an echo of an institution Colenso himself was so important in creating. Soon enough we were in email contact, sometimes on a daily and often on a many email a day when we had a mystery we wished to chew over. But very soon William Colenso got, what I feel would have been the most pleasant letters he could obtain. This was O.M.F. Our Mutual Friend. With these kind letters I would like to end my keynote talk by hoping this conference will further extend the act of friendship so this eternal outsider is finally welcomed back.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

I am less intelligent than the book I have written.

Susan Sontag once said she was ‘less intelligent than her essays’. I understand this. In person I am much less knowledgeable than my book on Colenso. 

I am less intelligent than the book I have written.

 This is, I think, the wonder of book culture - or of linear thought. One erects a ladder and then climbs it to a certain point. Arduously one creates another ladder and climbs to another point and again creates a ladder. And so on. 

You can end up somewhere quite different to where you started off just as your knowledge of the subject deepens and grows in complexity. 

Ironically however you still remain the same person who eats the same things for breakfast and has trouble remembering things in the supermarket. 

To me this ladder building is the glory of book culture - people producing work that is so much more intelligent than the individual. This is the difference between, I suppose, a world made up of tweeting - instant responses in which people luxuriate in being ‘themselves’. It is all about being in the instant, feeling proximity, revelling in what one might almost call a glorious promiscuity of scattergun thought. 

The making of a ladder, then the making of another ladder is laborious and possibly antique as an occupation. But it can lead you to places you didn’t even know existed. You can also produce something which is, in effect, more intelligent than you are in daily life. And this was, until recently, how human society evolved.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

coffee, talk, wine, talk, thought, talk, excitment...

I am writing this in a blur of exhaustion and pleasure. The Colenso conference ended - well, I was going to say yesterday (Friday 11th) but there are still two events today: the tramp into the Ruahines and the all-bells-and-whistles church service at the Napier Cathedral tonight wherein Colenso is the central topic. ( I feel he will be listening intently - perhaps most intently of all...)

I am also on National Radio this morning, being interviewed by Chris Laidlaw at 10.06am.

The events of the past few days - the book launch on Thursday night, the revealing of the new Colenso portrait by Gavin Hurley, the two day talkathon on Colenso - have all been so momentous that I didn’t really sleep for the intervening nights...too much coffee, talk, wine, talk, thought, talk, excitment....and one of the fascinating things was meeting more of the Colenso family who came from as far away as...Australia, Canada and Britain.

On the final day of the conference, there was the most powerful sea. 

The conference took place in the war memorial building which is perched like a gull on a shingle bank, right by the seashore. The waves were volcanic, the most splendid vision of white-grey spuming force. The whole town became covered in salt spray and for a beautiful day the city turned into a kind of black and white film, highly atmospheric. One seemed to be cutting through muslin veils as one walked.

Perhaps this was a metaphor for what we were all doing: moving back through time, moving forward through time, cutting a way through...hopefully revealing something new, or at least working towards a better definition.

One thing I loved about the conference was the ready talk of people being Colensophiles, people catching ‘Colenso-itis’, or being bitten by the ‘Colenso bug’. This happened to me a few years back so virulently it led me to write...a book....which somewhat astonishingly is now a physical object...real...while my mind is an echo chamber of further thoughts, other people's ideas and perceptions of Colenso...

Once I calm down and get a chance to collect my thoughts I'll put in some more info here about the conference, which is such a boring word to convey what is really a 'thought jamboree'...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sunshine white, sunshine bright

When I was a child there was a washing agent called Rinso. It  had a tag line which was sunshine white, sunshine  bright

This was my thought last evening when I went along in the gloaming to see what progress, if any, had been made on cleaning WilliamColenso’s headstone and grave for the bicentenary celebrations.

I had cheekily asked the Mayor, Barbara Arnott, if the city council would pay for the restoration. I did not hear back and thought the plan had come to nothing. But it turned out the Mayor was on holiday. She graciously granted my request.

Kim Stops from Headstone World Hastings, who is the best restorer of historic graves in NZ, was given the job and hey presto! what did I see but a magnificently cleaned up monument.

I had no idea the old marble could emerge so pristinely white. The veins in the marble were lilac like the throat of a pigeon. The lead-lettering had been restored and the overall whitening has made the words legible.

I was thrilled and came back this morning to take some photos.

It occured to me there was a kind of symbolism in both this cleansing and whitening. Reputation, dirty linen, teeth. 
For a man who has been mired for so very long, it feels like a fitting thing to do.

And I could not help but feel the ‘Old Solitary’ himself would be secretly thrilled. 

This is the rose that I planted several years ago, when I began this project. It is Madame Alfred Carriere. In the warm wind it has a faint spicy scent.

And these are the cracks which opened up at 5 minutes to 11 on the morning of the 3rd of February 1931.
The cross cracked and toppled.

Now it has been completely restored.  What further symbolism does one need, I wonder...

I am sure something will happen, develop during the events next week...

Something or someone will come out of the woodwork for sure...

In the mean time contemplate this lovely shade of white...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sitting pretty

The book as decor item. I know this is very superficial but the book as object has many different uses. Here it functions as an object of beauty, surrounded by an early Paul Hartigan painting (1979) aptly called ‘Dictionary’. To the front is the best prize I ever won (the most practical), a Waterman ‘cigar’ fountain pen which I won for my first book. Twenty years and a new nib and I am still using it.

On the evening of November 10th I am launching ‘The Hungry Heart’ here in Napier. I am eager for people who have been following the progress of the book on this blog to have the opportunity of being present. Send me an email with name and address to and I’ll send you the details of where and when. 

To those who aren’t in Hawke’s Bay, I have to say writing this blog has been amazingly helpful to me in thinking aloud and in terms of giving me an idea of what people might be interested in (I hope!) 

Anyway, I’m getting nearer to the book coming out and becoming real, which is both a bewitching and...nervous moment.