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...