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.