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.

end

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