Sunday, April 24, 2011

One week to go....Random House awaits....

I have one more week before I hand in my manuscript to publisher Random House. Given I have been working on the book for about four years it is a time of....I wouldn’t say tension exactly. It is something closer to fatalism, as each day is ticked off.  I have one week to comb through 33 essays. Some are a page or so long. (I love those ones.) Others are so many pages I decided to grant independance and make an independant state of an essay.

I have never read them all through and will do that this coming week. I am not exactly looking forward to this. I am one of those writers who winces almost before I open the first page. Something in me is pre-set to criticism and an underwhelming response. I suppose this is the other side of an inordinate self belief, which any writer needs to survive (especially today when so many things seem to be moving against careful writing.)

It is only the lovely monastic repetition of habit - of sitting down at my desk, of looking at the computer - that carries me through all these indecisions, fatalistic moods and other indifferences. 

Well, I should also add in the passion for my subject. It has pretty much carried me through the four years with only the occasional tiff between me and ‘William’ (Colenso). 

I am very aware that the book will be my own individual take on him. But it is written specifically in my voice, so there’s no mistaking this.
Maybe I hope my eccentricity is an avenue into his undoubted individuality.
Do I know his secrets?
I don’t think so.

I do know a lot about him, or rather I know a lot about some small areas of his life. It’s like I’ve lived inside a freckle, or pore, or hair. It’s that small. But hopefully the sample will be more universal in its application.

And oh yes, I have a terrible cold. Somehow this ‘gift’ arrived at the worst of all possible times. I am usually a very enthusiastic hypochrondriac and I regard it as one of the beauties of being ‘self employed’ (that lovely vague term) that I can take to my bed in demi-tragic circumstances and announce I am just an inch away from death.

Alas, under the lash of Mr Colenso I have to stagger on...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The aura of history...

Today I had an intensely pleasurable experience.

 I was running late, between appointments down in Wellington. I was at Te Papa looking at Colenso’s botanical specimens. I wasn’t sure what they’d be like or even what they’d reveal. 

As it turned out I was a little late getting inside the bunker. But eventually I was in the lift and being taken through the curiously impersonal interstices of the beast. The polite young man from Te Papa and I wandered through a corridor so wide a vehicle could drive down it.  Somehow it was as if the drabness of the exterior was reproduced in its most intimate parts. 

I was led into a room and introduced to the ‘protocols’. This was to do with showing me on a map where exit routes were. I thought this meant I would have to find my own way out. But it was in case of a ‘natural disaster’. (And actually when I was led to the lift at the end of my appointment, I felt completely confused about where we were heading. In a natural disaster I wouldn’t have recalled the exit routes which were shown in the abstract on paper....)

Anyway finally I was taken into the room where the botanical specimens are stored.  This is a large impersonal room with a number of blue metal shelves which slide along. Each shelf, approximate two to three metres high? - is packed with the miniature dynamite of specimens. 

But I felt an almost incredible sense of delight to find a photo of William Colenso looking over the collection (the only decoration in the whole room.)  It was an historical photo, in an old frame which made it even better. (I think the photo was taken around the 1880s, when Lindaeur portrayed him.) I loved to think of Colenso as a kaitiaki of the botanical collections and felt how thrilled he would have been.

I mentioned to the polite young man  how recognition was a complex journey for Colenso. He seemed surprised. He told me the Colenso collection was the most important part of their botanical collection - ‘over 4000 items.’

I did not tell him about Colenso’s self doubts and the way contemporaries delighted in portraying him as a blundering amateur.

But  it was when the young man opened up one of the small brown paper packages no bigger than an envelope I felt another burst of pleasure. 

Inside was a twig which could have been cut yesterday. It was covered with a vivid yellow lichen and the cut, through a branch approximately 3/4 inch thick, showed evidence of an extremely sharp knife. 

At the bottom of the packet was some little bits of grit and dirt.

It was as if it was still living. (It was called Monegazzia Sticta if I have the spelling right.)

But written in pencil was Colenso’s handwriting, as always very specific: Te Houtotara 9th April 1850.
So I was looking down at a piece of wood which he had collected one hundred and fifty one years ago, almost to the day. 

I realise to most people this would mean very little. But to me it was so exciting that I felt the past almost tangibly, as if the stick had an aura all its own.

I took some photos which I can't show you for copyright reasons (fascinatingly Te Papa want to own all copyright of photos taken in the museum. I wondered if this applied to casual tourists, who take snaps of exhibits. Ownership of image is a deeply complex issue, it seems, in the contemporary world - which is flooded with images.)

But it felt good to be inside Colenso’s private hidden museum.