Friday, December 21, 2012

Meeting at the crossroads of history

At the moment I am combing through the Hawke's Bay newspapers of 1871 to get an idea of what Napier was like as a town, as a psychological atmosphere almost, when Kereopa Te Rau was brought here for trial in December of that year.

It's fascinating - and boring, almost in equal hypnotic parts. I find myself snuffling the stale smell of newsprint almost like a drug. But overall I'm beginning to get a sense - a take - on the period. 

When Carl Sylvius Volkner was killed in 1865 New Zealand was in a period of unparalleled instability, almost amounting to a form of civil war. There were the colonial and imperial forces, backed up by kupapa. They were called Queenites. 
On the other side were the Maori forces called 'kingites' and 'rebels'. They fought fiercely and often without quarter.

This was happening at the same time as the American civil war, a battle to end slavery but also a war in which modern killing techniques led to an extraordinarily high death toll. There was a kind of viciousness in this war which the war in New Zealand shared. (Perhaps all wars are vicious by nature.) 

Some Afro-Americans began to identify with the Israelites in the Bible, just as some Maori did at the same period, especially Pai Marire. It wasn't a uniquely NZ response, it was a kind of global phenomenum, based on an intense reading of the Old Testament.

By the time Kereopa Te Rau was brought to Napier , however, in November 1871, it is an entirely different local - and global - picture. By 1871, what Volkner feared would happen had happened. 'Rebel' Maori were defeated by the great imperial power of the 19th century. They would suffer the bitter fruits of defeat - confiscation and diminishment. All over the North island different iwi began suing for peace, laying down arms - accepting in so many words - defeat. 

Te Kooti was still uncaptured but much diminished as a threat. And Kereopa Te Rau was such a problem for the Tuhoe he himself began to realise he had to hand himself in. It was the end of one kind of road.

Globally the picture was different too. In 1871 Prussian Germany became a bristlingly powerful global player after defeating France.  This opened the way to the Paris Commune - an uprising and the assertion of a collectivist, communist ideal which went down in blood and starvation. 

In effect the modern world was being formed by the early 1870s. What happened then would be played out, with a remorseless destructive logic, right through to the mid-twentieth century.

And it was the same within Aotearoa New Zealand. The modern assimilationist world was being created in the 1870s - one which ran on, pretty much undisturbed, till the 1970s. 

Assimilation for Maori became the way to progress, or, as it was seen, co-exist and somehow survive psychological defeat. By 1871 Aotearoa New Zealand was an entirely different world to that of 1865, when Carl Sylvius Volkner was made a sacrificial victim - a kind of guy atop the flaming bonfire of anti-Pakeha sentiments. 

By 1871 it was Kereopa's turn to become a sacrificial victim. This ' new' world had its own stern logic too.


I thought of this while I was reading an article about Karaitiana, a Hawke's bay rangatira, and new Maori member of the House of Representatives. He was reported as saying it would be good if Maori schools taught students how to read and write and speak English. The newspaper editorial thought this was an excellent idea.  

Interestingly it accused missionaries of trying to do the same but they had 'supplied the party among them who were hostile to the interests of the Europeans with leaders of a higher degree of cunning and capacity.' By this they meant leaders like Te Kooti who was actually educated at the Williams' missionary school at Waerenga-a-hika, outside of Gisborne. (In fact it is quite possible, in one of those weird intersections of history and fate, that Te Kooti was actually taught English by Volkner himself. How's that for an extraordinary meeting at the crossroads?)  

The Hawke's Bay Herald saw the use of language as a tool of assimilation. If English had been taught from the start, it said, 'we should, no doubt, have witnessed by this time something like an amalgamation of the two races.' Maori youths could become clerks in 'warehouses' and obtain employment in 'the public service' while 'Maori maidens, especially if they were in many cases wealthy heiresses,' might have become 'suitable helpmates for their English compatriots.'

(It's one of the ambiguities of this period that intermarriage could be easily accepted whereas, as time went on, Pakeha-Maori intermarriage became more controversial, not less.) The Herald looked forward to a time when 'really acute and clear-headed Maori could articulate their own interests 'instead of  'Europeans who have been either from an official or other reasons, brought into intimate connection with the natives.'  

As I read this I was aware of a Maori boy and girl, probably in their mid teens, sitting on a couch not too far away from me. They had been engaging in a muted but extensive conversation nonstop for a long time.

In one way it was rather touching. There were two couches placed in a nook of Maori books and somehow they had found themselves a home there. I tried to concentrate on my research, at the same time keeping an ear open for what they were talking about.

Mostly it was chat about friends and acquaintances, a sort of extensive entertainment of unmalicious gossip. I noted that neither thought of picking up a book or looking at it. In the same way I noted the way Maori kids -and lots of Pakeha kids too - on the whole didn't understand ways of behaving in a library. They enjoyed talking too loudly. They did not obey the general rule, which went in the direction of silence more than sound. They always looked pleased to be disobeying rules. And in keeping with the world we live in, nobody felt it was right to point out that libraries, just as marae, have rules.

At one point I registered they were silent. Were they reading, I wondered? No, they were texting, both their faces looking down as their fingers clicked.

I thought about Karaitiana's idealistic premise: that education could change Maori and help them go forward into the modern world. This was true of course, to a degree. The wealthiest Maori today were those well educated enough to make a very good living out of working Treaty issues. But this was a long way from these kids.

Now some friends came to join them. They were all taken with an outsized, somehow Alice in Wonderlandish chair - actually a mayor's chair from the past, I think.

The kids looked at the chair, appreciatively. It was the king's chair said one. The queen's chair said another. They posed by it, sat on it, then restlessly, like a wave, moved on. 

In some way they were absolutely harmless. It was good, too, they were in a library. There was always the chance that one of them, finding him or herself on their own, might actually pick up a book and let their eyes be entranced by the tiny symbols which collectively made up the wisdom of the world - the written wisdom of the world.

But what was the value of the written wisdom of the world beside the tiny universe they lived in - of teenage gossip, of love and jealousy and fun. The girls would become pregnant fairly soon. Hawke's Bay after all had appalling rates of teenage pregnancy for both Maori and Pakeha, so that poverty was embedded in their fertility. I knew there were classes for teenage mothers who went back to high school to try and get back into the educational loop. 

I wasn't too sure how the uses of English had helped them. Or the degree to which they had grasped the potential of the only truly global language which history had sent their way.

I turned the page and went on reading. I knew I was reading about the birth of modern Aotearoa New Zealand...

And I had begun to scent the 'psychological atmosphere'...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Was the past in black-and-white?

 Was the past in black and white?

I was in the Municipal Theatre in Napier the other day buying some tickets. While I waited I gazed at a fascinating photo which adorns the vestibule. It is a wide shot of Napier taken in its infancy, 1872. As usual the photographer (un-named) positioned himself up on the Hill, to get the best sense of scale. 

The camera looks down at the infant town which had sprung up with that mushroom-like rapidity of colonial settlements everywhere ( and just like mushrooms, they could vanish as quickly.)

The bigger settlement in Napier at this time was round at the Port, on the other side of the Hill.

But what interests me with this photo is it is almost contemporaneous with the imprisonment of Kereopa Te Rau in Napier….so this is what it looked like, I told myself.

But did it? 

I loved the small details a blown up photo delivered - the washing on wooden fences, the horse tethered in a backyard. 

The Athaeneum which William Colenso helped set up.

But the determined black and whiteness somehow creates such a stern barrier.
It's like the cliche in film language, when the colour vanishes and the past is shown in either black and white, or sepia. 

Yet the fact is the past was, of course, full of colour, and it being the Victorian period, there was an ebullient sense of high colour among colonials, revelling in the triumphs of new dyes and industrial processes which delivered colours never seen before by the human eye (that is, reproduced in a manufactured form.) 
Mauve is a well known example  of a 'new' colour which became highly fashionable.
The Victorians actually liked quite garish combinations of colours.

The fact is when one looks at these black and white images, which are quite forbidding in their own way, you have to translate in the other senses - sound, smell and colour.

For this reason I am including two shots of recent skies above Napier Hill. Their rhapsodic colouring changes understanding of place in an instant.

In 1872 there is no reason to believe that the skies were not as entrancing on the day this photograph was taken.

So you need a mind altering sense when looking at these black and white images. 
In your mind's eye you have to return them to lovely volatility of…what the eye sees

I would love to be able to do this with my new book. In a sense, change black and white back into the fluency of colour. The aliveness. The volatility. 

We'll just have to wait and see…

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Riddle

For a long time you operate on a kind of hunch. You've written books before, so you know a little about the rollercoaster of hope, which winds up to the heights before plunging down in through the ghost tunnel, wherein you encounter your fears and low feelings. But in the end, having written other books, you feel confident in the end it will work out. This is the result of spending thirty years on writing. But the point at which you feel it might - just possibly - work out varies.

With this book, which I have been researching and writing now for more two years, it's taken quite some time to cohere. It got so bad that in the end I decided to take off and stay in some motels for a while, just so I could escape my over-packed study and concentrate on what I'd written. 

This was very helpful. I sat in strange rooms and just read what I had done so far.
Some of it seemed vague, some of it overloaded. But at the end of it I got a certain feeling. I felt I knew - well, that I could somehow shape it. And strangely enough I got a better sense of what the story is.

I have spoken to other authors and most say they write a book to find out the riddle at the very end: which is what the book is actually about. This seems especially strange with nonfiction which should be pretty straight forward. But 'creative nonfiction' is a bit of a weird piebald beast, being both nonfiction and taking advantage of some of the skill-sets of fiction - imagination, leaps in time, maybe even introduction of the author into the text (which is dangerous, I know.)

With this 'story' I am still shaping it, getting a feel for its kinks and shallows, views and meandering detours. But I can see going away and staying in a series of arid anonymous motel rooms helped. In fact I began writing 'The Hungry Heart' in that way - sitting at a kitchen table in a motel room in Hamilton. I began with the chapter called 'A Horse Called Caesar' and also a chapter on the marital life of William and Elizabeth Colenso. 

With this current book I am struggling against a series of physical complaints - but I wonder at times whether they are simply a response to the harsh terrain of this story - its unforgiving nature. Yet probably at the heart of the story is a strong element of forgiveness - the very aspect which attracted me in the first place. This is the actions of those two heretical outsiders (in a Pakeha world) Suzanne Aubert and William Colenso, both of whom acted with a strong sense of clemency towards Kereopa Te Rau as a condemned man. 

This part of the story, the silver lining you might call it, still seems a long way away. But it's something to aim for. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

the restoration of character, mana and reputation bill

Yesterday I caught the tail end of the parliamentary 'debate' on the above bill. It relates to Mokomoko, who was hanged for participating in the killing of the Rev Carl Sylvius Volkner. This was in 1866.

As it turned out, his participation was a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He also had in his hand the rope which was allegedly used to hang the missionary.

Today his whanau say he was trying to help the missionary.

The deep ambiguity comes from the fact that the Mokomoko family had to suffer from loss of name.  This was because Mokomoko's alleged action led to widespread confiscation of land and other disasters and he was, perhaps naturally, blamed for being the lightning conductor of misfortune.

Hence the bill today.

This is the link below to the parliamentary words which are worth glancing at, for the current state of apology calisthenics, especially the heartfelt or alternatively self abasing apology from Catherine Fitzgerald, a member of the Green Party and a Pakeha with a yearning for self mortification. 

She is well meaning but doesn't really have a handle on the complexities of history. For example chief among the accusers of Mokomoko were fellow Maori. Their testimonies formed the entire case for the prosecution. 

So it isn't a simplistic case of evil Pakeha and eternally noble Maori - like all history, it is complicated, smudged and more human in the way that things are mixed and messed up.

Interestingly not one member of parliament (but then let's face it the intelligence level is pretty low) referred to the Pakeha  businessman who passionately believed in Mokomoko's case and tried desperately hard to defend him.

These human 'untidinesses' have to be deleted to fit the cartoon simplicity of evil and good - alarmingly to me, arranged on the basis of the colour of your skin. In other words, it comes dangerously close to reverse racism.

This is quite separate from the merit of the case.

I also have to be honest and say I find the terminology of the bill more befitting a Stalinist state. I mean - a bill to 
'restore character, mana and reputation' is a little like something from the personality trials of the 1930s. It shares the same root branch: that the state can obliterate a human and the state can also revivify a human's reputation. 

There is misery here, and poetry and a deep human need. But I am personally unsure whether this is the way to handle the situation. I guess that is the writer in me, the historian. I prefer the mingled truths - the fugutive truth - not the public declarations with breast-beating, trumpets and waiata.

This link:  is to the draft Hansard transcript of the first reading of the Mokomoko Bill.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Carpal Tunnel op, left hand this time...

Normal transmission will resume after current interruptions...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dotcom, German accents and Volkner.

I have often wondered what Carl Sylvius Volkner's voice sounded like. Given he was German by birth, but a naturalised British/New Zealand citizen he must have sounded - well, German, to Pakeha ears. (Though probably not to Maori who may have just considered his English a variation on many different regional English accents - Cornish, Yorkshire, 'received' English - as well as Scots, Irish and their regional variants.) 

Maori of course was spoken with different regional variants as well, so Aotearoa New Zealand in the 19th century was a true polyglot of sounds. A clatter of accents, you might say. 

The strange thing is when concentrating on writing, your mind expands and becomes this amorphous blotting paper-like substance. Subconsciously you are always listening. I think this is what makes writing a long piece so exhausting in the end. Even while sitting with your partner, vegging out watching crap television - some part of your mind is in this darkened room, in which you are staring at a page.

I actually like this addiction to thinking and at the moment I feel really engaged in writing this current book. (This is despite the fact the physical act of stooping and writing is physically damaging my body. I have to have another carpel tunnel operation next month.)
But I thought to myself yesterday I actually love spinning out the yarn of this story.

But in this every-present 'listening' mode - you become frightened of missing a clue, a hint, a mere fragrance of thought - I began to hear Dotcom's accent and suddenly, when I read some of Volkner's letters, I started hearing Dotcom's use of English. 

By this I mean its literal nature - he speaks English in a more literal, even carefully enunciated way than many slack 'English' speakers. But there is also the flock wall of a Germanic inflection. It is not unpleasant at all but requires a careful kind of listening to interpret. (Compare John Key's effeminate enunciation of 's's - a sibilance which has become a generic male way of speaking in NZ, as well as his constantly swallowed vowels: this is a man embarrassed at speaking the intensely powerful and muscular language of English.)

But suddenly I understood: Dotcom's English was how Carl Sylvius Volkner's voice would have sounded. The actual timbre may be different. For example Dotcom has that airy elephant footprint of an overweight person - a tiny voice, thin and silvery. Volkner's voice may have had more lower keys to it. But look at this letter, written in December 1863 by Volkner.

Ms-0069-03 Volkner to William Williams Alexander Turnbull Library

Here he is describing - from a letter written in Opotiki - how he believes the missionaries at Tauranga have unnecessarily evacuated from the site during the vicious land wars. He believes they could have stayed, and that local Maori wanted them to stay and would have defended them. (This may have been so but it was also a misreading which had fatal consequences on his own life.)

But what interests me are three misspellings.
One is 'entreaded' for entreated.
Two is 'prodection' for protection.
The other is 'defent' for defend.

All these words, I believe, he was writing down following on the sounds in his own head.
If you say them over using Dotcom's accent you will get a pretty accurate inflection of the way Carl Sylvius may have talked.
Big deal, I hear you say.
But to the omniscient mind of the writer - the eternal blotter - it is of some importance.
Just as the pronunciation of Volkner itself. (I am sorry I cannot put the two dots over the 'o' which should belong there.)
I was talking online to a new acquaintance, Wendy French who is also very interested in the whole Opotiki tragedy and she said she understood Volkner was pronounced "Fuurlk - ner - very subtle rather than the Kiwi puke-gulp."
This fascinated me, as we attribute feelings to sounds - and names, especially personal names, can take on a whole inflection of feelings, moods - distaste or warmth. So the choice with Volkner is to produce a softer sound, almost like the whirr of a wood pigeon's wings in flight - fuurlk-ner. Or you can choose the ugly 'puke-gulp'.

For myself to get the right accent I think you have to hear in your head the fairy elephant footprint of a certain naturalised German New Zealand citizen….Thanks Dotcom (a man whose naturalised birth-name is removed from our sight.) 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Going on the Journey....

I was asked to give a keynote talk on the opening night of the Going West Festival, which is held at Titirangi. Going West has been 'going' for 17 years and is remarkable in New Zealand as its content is '100% pure New Zealand'. That is, its content is made up of New Zealand writing and writers, with a strong underscoring of New Zealand music.

The restriction to NZ content tends to build on itself to create a surprisingly rich sense of culture in Aotearoa New Zealand. The fact it is held in Titirangi too, the beautiful treed village high up in the Waitakeres, deepens the resonances as this was where writers like Maurice Shadbolt and artists like Colin McCahon congregated in the 1950s. So there's something very special about this boutique festival.

I was given four words, 'almost always, never quite' and I could riff in whatever way I wanted.

After feeling thrilled and honoured at being asked, I went blank and then panicked. But something about the equivocation in these words seemed to suit the predicament of the Pakeha.

Damaged bridge Hawke's Bay following flood of 1897 

What is this predicament?

I would define it thus: Pakeha by being the dominant cultural group in the most isolated islands in the world have had trouble creating a sense of their own 'journey' - simply because up until recently they have had nothing to rub up against. They simply 'were'.

However following the cultural revolution of the 1980s, with the growth of a strong Maori voice, Pakeha have had their 'journey' redefined for them. 

The journey became that of people who were suddenly changed into being racist colonials who did their best to destroy a noble Maori race who-can-do-no-wrong. This was the total narrative and the unique journey of Pakeha people became hollowed out and to a degree removed from public consciousness and replaced by an endless diet of guilt and mortification.

I wanted to put forward another journey....

And this was - just how hard the journey was for Pakeha coming to extremely isolated islands which lacked any kind of material or industrial infrastructure, islands too where a people had been dominant for a long time (actually just getting over killing one another and turning defeated fellow Maori into slaves) and whose broader concepts were completely different.

I put forward the view that the first few generations of Pakeha probably experienced a pretty profound sort of culture shock.

To give this point of view clothing I looked at it through the lens of the 1897 Clive Flood in Hawke's Bay.

Stopbank near Clive today.

This was when a drought broke and incessant rain began falling over Easter weekend. This led to stopbanks collapsing and basically the 100 square miles riverine basin of Hawke's Bay became a river 60 square miles wide removing ruthlessly anything in its path.

50,000 sheep were washed out to sea.

In the township of Clive, near the rivermouths, the water rose to a depth of more than 3 metres. Clive is spectacularly flat and everyone abandoned their houses and made for a wooden bridge - the only raised thing in Clive.

The last telegram out of Clive in the early evening was 'For God's sake help us.' 

In Napier the mayor got the train steamed up and he put on two boats with ten volunteers to go out and rescue the beleaguered men women and children.

But when they got to Waitangi, the river next to Clive, the two boats, with the ten men on it, were barely in the water when the final stopbanks collapsed. 

With a vast roar and the force of a tidal wave the two boats were swept far out to sea. 

The men were never seen again. 

Only four bodies were ever found.

The ten men included many family men, with children. These families were immediately plunged into poverty, as the breadwinner had vanished. Life was extremely tough.

There was no social security. So these families were reliant on charity. The country raised money for them and also built a magnificent memorial which to this day exists on Napier's Parade.

But up at the Napier Hill cemetery is where the four bodies lie.

And these are the reality: budget headstones, just a name and a date of death. 

Not even a mention that these men were heroes.

This is a particularly poignant head stone, as John Rose was only a visitor
to Napier.

He just happened to be there.

He was actually a commercial traveller selling furs. He was resident in Brunswick, in Melbourne, a married man with two children.

For whatever reason, on the night of the storm, he put up his hand and offered himself.

Like the other men, he believed in a general good which was more important than that of the individual.

He wanted to help.

And now John Rose lies forever here in Napier, 'a stranger in a strange land' as the dean of Waiapu said at the unveiling of the fancy memorial.

There seems something so poignant in this, yet something moving too.

It seemed to talk of another reality to the one we are so often knocked around the head with.

When I was constructing my talk, with slides, I said to Douglas my partner, I have no idea whether people will get this. 

But I was tremendously moved by the response. People came up to me over the rest of the Festival and told me how much they had enjoyed it. 

For some people it was like a lightbulb had come on. 

Everyone has to redefine and name their own journey. I regard it as part of my cultural
responsibility to reframe the journey of my ancestors in a way which honours the past, its conflicts and nightmares - but also its complexity and reality.

I felt it was this that people responded to. 

And I felt glad.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Unfamiliar Territory

Unfamiliar Territory

Recently I met Jessie Munro who wrote the excellent biography of Sister Aubert, 'The Story of Suzanne Aubert'. Suzanne Aubert was a feisty French nun who worked in Hawke's Bay in the 1870s , then Jerusalem in Whanganui then finally in Wellington.

Aubert was famous for her use of Maori herbs, her tending to the poor and sick and disenfranchised. She had a close relationship with Maori. And she spent the final night of Kereopa Te Rau's life in his cell, comforting him.

Jessie Munroe was taking me to the Home of Compassion where she kept her research material. This is a Roman Catholic (as my mother would have called it) place.

I had to confront my own quite strong anti-Catholic feelings. It's an interesting one. Partly it is an inherited Protestant prejudice, more a reflex really. I never knew what was at the basis of this, except difference. 

In Point Chevalier, for example, I remember having a fight with a boy, the basis of which - ostensibly - was religion. (Actually it came closer to sublimated homoeroticism, on my side.) But then my closest friend at grammar was a Catholic - not that we ever talked of religion. Like many people religion had ceased to be a reality to me once I escaped direct parental control. 

Probably it was in my twenties, when I came out, that Catholicism again became perceived as a negative force (which it has remained, due to its stance on homosexuality and other issues.) It's hard to love an authoritarian structure which is closely allied to a lifetime dictatorship. The recent entanglement in paedophilia has only emphasised the ambiguities in a church which believes in the evils of consensual sex between men but, in practice, protected adult males having sexual relations with children. 

But it's more than this, something deeper. My anti-Catholicsm is something akin to racism, in the end, reflexive, 'spontaneous', unreasoning.

Yet within the Catholic church there have been some remarkable people, Sister Aubert among them. (There was also Dom Felice Vaggioli whose book 'History of NZ and its Inhabitants' is remarkably insightful for its time - although equally prejudiced about Anglicans who he saw as the devil incarnate.)

It is this sighting of the other as 'the devil' which fascinates me. Was it that they were so similar, broadly, yet different in minute particulars?  Or was it more basic - something akin to parallel corporates fighting for market share? Both promulgated myths about the other corporate and both were paranoid, anxious and fundamentally unChristian in their attitudes to 'competition'. 

In many ways it's kind of like Coke versus Pepsi, but it was very real to the Christians of that time.

As it turned out, Jessie Munro was splendidly charitable when I met her. She allowed me to xerox a whole lot of research which she had done on Kereopa Te Rau.  This showed a generosity of spirit I have met elsewhere - been blessed with on my 'pilgrimage' by my fellow pilgrims (Ian St George with his Colenso researches for example.) I felt humbled by this and my residual feelings about the nature of Catholicism had to meet with my experience of humans who were devout Catholics and good people. In the end I was invited to stay for lunch.


While I was at the Home of Compassion at Mt Cook I looked through the Sister Aubert Exhibition. I had the uncharitable insight that it was an exhibition created in anticipation of Aubert being made into New Zealand's only saint. 

Then it would become the site of another form of pilgrimage: and the meaning of these simple items, which to me are quite eloquent, will change and become charged with something else altogether.

What remains with me is the modesty of the clothing, its clumsy stitching, as well as its quite beautiful colour range, from indigo blue to pink. But nothing sums up this humble yet fiery woman more than the slippers she wore on her own long pilgrimage. 

I don't believe in saints and in fact I find the whole concept faintly nauseous. If you have saints you also have to have sinners and devils. 

Many people believed Kereopa Te Rau, the man most associated with the killing of the Reverend Volkner, was 'a devil'. Ironically Sister Aubert believed him to be 'the good thief' - that is, a man who had sinned but who had some possibilities of repentance and hence goodness.

It is typical of this tale I am trying to tell that goodness, the devil, and saints (considering 
the Reverend Volkner was for a long time considered a Protestant martyr or saint) are on some sort of perpetual roundabout, anxiously turning into shades of darkness, before individually the characters emerge into their moment of light (forgiveness). 

It seems to me that history is involved in understanding, part of which is forgiveness. 

In the end it boils down to: what can be forgiven?

Are there some acts which are unforgivable?

As the "Beast of Blenheim" shows, there are still a few things which the general public find unforgivable today. At the same time it also believes in contemporary versions of saints. Valerie Adams has become a secular saint in a country to whom sport is the closest thing to a religion. So here you have a contemporary version of devils and saints - The Beast of Blenheim and St Valerie the Shot putter. 

Whether there is some unreal and over-excoteable sort of pulley system in operation I leave to your imagination. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

NZ Post Book Awards

6 August 2012

This is a pic of me at the NZ Post Book Awards. 

It was pretty much as good as it got.

When judge Reina Whaitiri came on to the stage and described Colenso, among other more positive things, as a man who "bullied Maori", "was an adulterer" and ended up "very rich" I knew I wouldn't be winning in what suddenly seemed the politically-correct-awards - not awards for excellence in writing.

I was probably very naive thinking any biography of a dead white male could win an award.

When I finally got back to Napier the weather was surly and the sea that strangely browny-yellowy distempered grey of deep winter. It reminded me of the weather when Colenso, Elizabeth and Fanny arrived here, even though that was in December.

I remember thinking when I was writing the book Colenso had his own personal weather pattern: storms seemed to move along with him, wherever he was.

I drove past the Waitangi Mission site memorial and once again it was under water.

Poor old Colenso, I thought to myself - it's 2012 and you're still being 'judged', still being 'wrong', you're still under water. 

Or was that just me?

One of the bad things about awards is that, when you don't win, you can't help but feel it is a statement about the larger worth of your work as well as the particular book which is up for an award.

In the end though awards are about who is on the judging panel and it's a completely random thing: if you're lucky you have judges who like your work and its approach, or if you're unlucky….you end up getting a paper certificate and feeling like you're some kind of loser. 

The only thing is to slowly pick yourself up and go back to work and find some kind of trust in your own intuition.

But before I did this, I visited my favourite place - a place of consolation. Not only is the Napier graveyard beautiful but, well, it's larger story is that all things pass.

I looked at Sir Donald McLean's towering cross and thought of how he had a very high reputation when he died - among Maori as well as Pakeha - but today he is all but ignored. 

Time is a strange sliding scale.

I took some arum lilies along to plant on the grave of a Chinese man. There are only two Chinese graves in the cemetery (and given that Chinese people thought their souls never rested unless their bones were returned 'home' it is no small thing.)

What I like about this grave is that it was only sheer chance that we found out it was for someone Chinese. As you can see it has been wrenched off its podium, during the '31 Earthquake probably. 

But also the writing has faded away.

Then one day when Gail Pope and I were in the cemetery doing our researches a wan wintery sun played over the surface. And suddenly we could see Chinese characters. 

It felt like magic.

I thought I would honour this stranger to our land by planting lovely old arum lilies on his grave.

They are only tiny at the moment but with time, they"ll grow.

The headstone rests against the one behind...

It is like thought itself, or work on a project. You take it step by step. And if there is an occasional storm, you withdraw indoors and wait for the storm to pass.

And then you go out again, and you begin planting all over again, confident that what you are doing now will - in time - bear fruit (or flowers, in this case.)

A baby's grave we also planted.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Different strokes...

I found this cover the other day and couldn't resist buying the book. It shows Bishop Selwyn in the middle of a conversion, telling spellbinding bible stories to a clearly entranced Maori audience.

The only doubter seems to be the man standing behind him, his arms symbolically crossed. He seems to have devil's horns in his hair and he is the only one standing 'outside the circle' - the doubter in any audience.

Selwyn, dressed in clean clothing, is speaking Maori and his audience, silent and observant, are listening carefully. It could be a car salesman describing a new form of tyre.

But the light of the fire suggests something other. Light stands for illumination, understanding, belief, knowledge while the encroaching darkness represents lack of Christian knowledge, the darkness of 'barbarism' or traditional beliefs.

So it is a heavily coded message, in some ways laughable, in some ways touching in its naivety. (It dates from the 1940s, when things seemed 'simpler'.)

Bishop Selwyn was seen in many different ways in his own lifetime.

This is a cartoon dated 21 November 1861 and is from the Taranaki Punch. In it Bishop Selwyn with his well known profile and hooked nose, stands in between a Maori (who literally thumbs his nose) protecting him from the soldier trying to shoot him. It is during the NZ Wars.

One of the interesting things is the way a cross is formed by the rifle and a baton the bishop is holding - but the cross is in an ambiguous area - right by the gun of the soldier.

Selywn got too close to colonial and racial politics.

By the 1860s Maori were disillusioned by Selwyn because he seemed to be on the side of the British army.
Pakeha settlers disliked him because he seemed an apologist for all things Maori.

'Oh, how other things have changed!' Selwyn wrote about this time. "How much of the buoyancy of hope has been sobered down by experience! When, instead of a nation of believers welcoming me as their father, I find here and there a few scattered sheep, the remnant of the flock which has forsaken the shepherd!'

It was dangerous being a shepherd on his own, distrusted by both sides.

Below is a Maori cartoon but again it shows Selwyn as being in the middle (this time of two devils, both representing Governor Grey.)

The killing of the Rev Volkner in March 1865 was a crisis for the Anglican church and for Selwyn. The church knew it would arouse the fiercest reaction from Pakeha people - as Volkner himself sensed and knew as he was being led to his death. His death was a political disaster for Maori, almost a form of political suicide.

Selwyn again tried to speak up for Maori - at a time of extremely heightened feelings. He was accused for being an apologist for cannibalism and laughed out of the room.

Above is a photo of five churchmen immediately after Volkner was 'butchered' as the press put it. They were men in a state of acute trauma. 

Volkner's death broke a fundamental tapu which had been in place ever since Christianity had come to NZ: a missionary was to be protected and treated as a man of peace.

A corner had been turned.

In the photo above Bishop Selwyn, who was clearly a short man with a powerful physique, stands at the extreme left. 

He had got on a boat immediately he knew of Volkner's death and went immediately to Opotiki where he tried to negotiate the release of the Rev Grace, who had been imprisoned alongside the Rev Volkner. Then Selwyn moved on by ship to Poverty Bay where Bishop Williams was also facing eviction by the Pai Marire, or Hau Hau.

It was the end of an epic, of an endeavour.

Nothing would be the same again.

Bishop Selwyn would go back to England with a palpable sense of failure. 

And the man to the right in the photo above, Bishop Patterson, he would go off to Melanesia and meet the same fate as Volkner.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

And the beautiful optimism which this book cover tries to evoke a puff of smoke.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Kupapa - sympathiser or collaborator?

Ihaka Whaanga, Ngati Kahungunu. Photo by William James Harding.

I was mulling over the Dom Post with my morning coffee when I came upon a startling discovery.

In my research into the land wars of the 19th century NZ I had been using kupapa to mean Maori iwi and hapu who were called Queenites or even 'friendlies' in popular Pakeha parlance.

This meant Maori who for whatever reason joined Pakeha and other Maori and British forces to fight Maori who they regarded as either 'Kingites' or 'rebels'.

Often kupapa did this along the fracture lines of much earlier grievances between iwi arising from the horrific
Musket Wars of the 1820s.

This left such a backlog of ineradicable hatred between tribes that it is historically false to imagine there was a strong sense of an overall "Maori nation" in most of the 19th century. There wasn't.

For example the word 'Aoteraroa' was never ever used to describe New Zealand as a whole. This is as modern an invention as cellphones and about as authentic as tiki-covered tea towels. (I don't mind its usage today but people shouldn't fool themselves it is authentically old.)

In the Dom Post of Saturday 14 July 2012 an article referred to Labour MPs, at the time of the doomed Foreshore Legislation, 'being heckled as kupapa (collaborators.)'

There can be few uglier words in the English language than 'collaborator'. It is redolent of betrayal. I am most familiar with it in the context of World War 2, when 'collaborators' were people who accepted and benefited from Nazism. It seemed to arise from France, in particular, which had both an official and a puppet Nazi regime.

On the other hand there was the heroic 'resistance' that allegedly most French people belonged to. (In fact historically the resistance was tiny. Most French people passively accepted occupation.) So collaborator is not a neutral term.

I would term it 'hot', marginally offensive.

To use the concept of 'collaborator' in the context of the New Zealand past is, to me, extremely sloppy, even offensive misuse of language.

Historically kupapa aligned themselves with the Crown for all sorts of reasons, many of them self interested, or out of a desire to survive a period of maelstrom. Alternatively they did it to harass traditional enemies.

Travelling up the beautiful, weirdly empty East Coast from Napier to Gisborne I came across various monuments (and I have a love of monuments - it seems to me they are kind of like fossils of feeling left behind after powerful emotions have swept by...)

This monument is to Ihaka Whaanga, the distinguished gentleman whose photograph ornaments the front of this blog. He was a chief at the Mahia Pensinsula where whalers set up whaling stations in the early 1840s.

Perhaps this experience helped him to intuit and empathise with Pakeha and all that they could deliver. (You can find out a much more detailed biography of Ihaka Whaanga by Googling him and selecting the Awa dictionary entry.)

Throughout the following period, he sided with Pakeha against the invasive Pai Marire forces, even coming down to Napier to fight the 'foreign' Pai Marire invaders when they came to Hawke's Bay. He also fought alongside Rapata Wahawaha and colonial forces against Te Kooti.

Hence this monument, erected after his death, to thank him. (It is on the main highway, near Nuhaka.)

This is a beautiful old photograph of what it once looked like - much more elaborate. (It is from the Alexander Turnbull Library Collection Ref 1/4-a7493)

I reflected on how today we are asked to believe that all Maori were 'resistance' fighters during the 'Pakeha occupation'. This fiction has been helped along - perhaps unwittingly - by the historical works of Judith Binney and James Belich.

My analysis is this: both Binney and Belich were 'children of the revolution', that is 'old lefties' and both unconsciously searched
NZ history for a Che Guevera role model among Maori. Binney came up with Te Kooti and Belich with Titokowaru - both 'heroic' models of resistance fighters.

However the story of Pakeha and Maori interaction was a lot more complex than that.

And in many ways kupapa stories are as interesting, even more interesting, than the somewhat overblown tales of resistance written by Pakeha kupapa or sympathisers like Binney and Belich.

There is an excellent thesis which you can view on line about the life of Rapata Wahawaha, of the Ngati Porou - he was the man who really pushed Te Kooti into a form of submission, or at least, subsidence.

It interested me as Rapata was one of the men who in the end delivered Kereopa Te Rau (the man most associated with the killing of Volkner) to Napier after the Tuhoe grew exhausted with sheltering him. (In other words here we have a complex situation between different Maori iwi with no very clear sense of good versus bad.)

Newsflash: the past was as muddled and mixed up as our lives in the present.

I realise people prefer simple-minded analyses of complex situations.

But it's inherently dangerous as it encourages simplistic reactions.


Not so long ago a paediatrician's house in Britain was stormed and wrecked after Murdoch's 'The Sun' went on
a crusade about paedophilia.

People got worked up.

They also couldn't work out the difference between a paediatrician (who deals with children's illnesses) and a paedophile.

It's a warning.