Monday, January 30, 2012

James Belich, Matthew Wright, war comics and big nouns...

At the moment I am trying to catch up on background reading. I need to get a good sense of the overall dynamic and development of what were once called 'The Maori Wars', then became 'The New Zealand Wars', then they became 'the Land Wars'. 

The instability of title points to a problem of 'ownership'. Whose wars were they? Are they? Who caused them and who, even, fought them (given that kaupapa or 'friendlies' or 'Queenites' were Maori who actually fought alongside the 'imperial' or 'local' or 'Pakeha' sides...)

The wars are both terribly complex (what happened when) and terribly simple (what it was about.)

(What it was about: land, survival, a place to stand, a place to live - for both tangata whenua and migrants.)

I look at 'Contested Ground/ Te Whenua I Tohea' (The Taranaki Wars 1860-1881) and Matthew Wright's 'Two People, One Land- the New Zealand Wars' and feel exhausted by the internecine intricacy of the wars. (Both books are excellent, by the way.) 

I sense that the gusto and slightly nerdy passion which James Belich and Matthew Wright bring to their studies could be traced back to a boy's love of war comics. I never liked war comics, finding their all-male universe uninteresting. Valour, danger, male feats, guns, weaponry mean very little to me - have almost no resonance. So when I sit down and try and make sense of where Kereopa Te Rau fits in, within the schema of the 1860s wars, I become lost in a snowstorm of detail - of words, of battles, of poorly understood Maori names. 

Will I ever understand? 


Here's something that cheered me up.

'The pursuit of scholarly rigor too easily leads historians to erase any signs of imagination from their work. What is the historical imagination? It's the ability to see small and think big. Just thinking big leads you to Spenglerian melodrama and fantasy; just seeing small makes you miss history altogether while seeming to study it…….History helps us to understand reality by disassembling the big nouns into the small acts that make them up.' Adam Gopnik - the New Yorker, January 16, 2012.

'Disassembling the big nouns into small acts' makes sense to me. 

(Illustration c/-

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The start of a journey...

12 Jan 12

It fascinates me the degree to which a physical search facilitates the psychological journey.
Tomorrow, with my tourist alibi of a camera, I will take the overgrown path up to the Napier prison (now a backpackers) and see where it leads…
I suddenly feel I have begun the trail…and it is both soothing and exciting..

Last night a magnificent night's sleep. In my mind's eye I had the most vivid imprint of the
sea beside which I now walk every morning, when it is still cool…

13 January 2012

The track up to the prison was surprisingly easy, given the steep gradient of the hill. The fact was the backpackers who stayed in the prison probably still used it as a shortcut. (There was a glitteringly blue bike lying amid the periwinkle. I thought it might be stolen, then assumed it was a backpacker's.) 

It was once the shortcut between town and prison, asylum, light-house. There was enough foot traffic for it to have quite formal steps, made of huge pieces of limestone. 

It was overgrown and the higher I climbed the more I smelt toilet overflow. I avoided the ribbon of wet. 

There was a sea of periwinkle, then through the layered level of Norfolk pine fronds the summer sea brimmed up and glittered. I thought: this is when Napier lives up to its title of the 'Riviera of the Pacific' - that intensity of light. It's like looking into a very pure diamond. 

I thought of the people who now ran the prison as a private enterprise: they were new migrants, Indians I think. I often saw their van running round town, advertising prison tours on the side. Something like 'Lonely Planet' had given it their seal of approval. In one way it seemed an odd tourist destination but...

The track led up to a prison wall, quite beautifully built from stone. There was even a series of small and I think entirely decorative buttresses. I knew this was made much later than Kereopa's imprisonment there in 1871-72. The prison when he was there was stout and made of wood. Maybe even corrugated iron. 

I also knew prison labour had created the stones, some of which showed primitive 'signatures' - but again this was later than Kereopa's internment. 

In fact, when one took into account the fact that the Norfolk pines along the Parade were planted by prisoners and where Norfolk pines actually came from (a hellish prison settlement), the landscape of Napier which appears to our eyes settled and attractive in a leisure-time promenade kind of way, has another whole layering of meaning hidden only slightly beneath the surface…

Anyway I came home with my photographs.

I felt I had found something

It felt good to have started the journey.

Note: The stonework for the prison was undertaken from 1896 onwards. So the ornamental gate and stairs and wall date from almost 20 years after the imprisonment of Kaiwhatu 'the eye eater'. Possibly the track just formalised an earlier foot traffic route? 

I also note the prisoners in the 1860s had to undertake 'drainage' for the original prison…which on my walk in 2012 was leaking or…weeping.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 Macbeth....

11 Jan 12
The strangely disused gateway to the Napier Prison which, like all overgrown entrances, has an improbable romance. 

It is weirdly narrow - yet shows some signs of careful construction. Was it an alternative path from the Parade up to the Napier prison (and asylum which for tidiness sake was put right next door?)

Neither of them is used now for its original function, hence the pleasing decay...

 I looked at the sign advertising 'historic' prison tours. 

The run of words 'hear stories of Crime, Punishment, Executions, Escapes, Victims & Villains' seemed breezy, aimed at the tourist market. (When I looked it up online I found this image advertising late night tours of the prison...)

'INFORMATIVE, SCARY & FUN,' the ad tacked to a Norfolk Pine said... 

I know when I do guided tours of the Napier Hill Cemetery some people feel shortchanged when I talk realist social history (lack of penicillin, death in childbirth) instead of clanking chains and that old cliche of the graveyard - ghosts. I don't believe in ghosts. 

However I do believe in - presences. 

This is maybe what sends me off to look at 'original sites' - places where things happened.

I looked carefully at the stonework which seemed neat and old. Inside the gate posts, which obviously had a gate at one point, there were some beautiful almost classically oblong blocks of stone. Were they made by prison labour? And was this labour used to creating the required stone shape for classical buildings in prison-cities like Sydney or Hobart?

And then there was the track….

It skirted a business premise and I felt a bit wierd just walking up an unused track. It was the usually the mark of
someone up to no good. I decided instantly I would return tomorrow with my camera. It would authenticate me.
Instantly I would become 'a tourist' - one of those strange people entitled to photograph things which locals regard as banal and not even worthy of a second glance....


When asked in social situations 'what is your next project' I fumble it. 
If pushed I say the word 'Volkner' to see if that creates any glimmer of recognition. 
Occasionally I will say 'Kereopa Te Rau'. Usually there is no return of interest.

Today I thought I need to set the scene. 'Have you heard of the Rev Carl Volkner who was hanged in Opotiki in 1865 then beheaded and his blood drunk from his skull. A Hau Hau warrior prophet called Kereopa Te Rau ate his eyes and became the most notorious man in (Pakeha) New Zealand….'
But when I try and minimise the narrative to my real interest - two Pakeha of sensibility, essentially dissidents, standing up for him and trying to offer comfort to him in his last hours - it becomes even more difficult to soundbite.

I usually end up apologetically mumbling in a downcast way - 'it's a little bit blood stained'….'it's like Macbeth'..

Partly this is the writer's inability to believe that the project he or she is starting out on will ever eventuate. But it is also the desire to keep in the dark…those first tender shoots. You want to shade them from the harshness of the overhead sun.


What I want to write is the 'biography of an event'…

Monday, January 23, 2012

The brace of place...

10 January 2012

I went for a walk along the sea by the Parade. It was pleasurable, the day warm but not hot - early morning with all its promise. I noted two women talking intently by the sunburst - they had brought their thermos along. They weren't nattering, they were engaged in seriously enjoyable dialogue. I strained my ears to listen and thought I caught a foreign accent - either French or Italian. 

Few NZers would do this - the sea and a notion of civilised behaviour beside it in an urban setting - means something different to us.

Later by the fountain I came across two unlikely pilgrims - elderly - a woman in a sort of Chinese hat, a face mask almost over her lower face. The man appeared European but he was equally weather-beaten and also covered. He wore gloves. I wondered if he too had carpal tunnel syndrome. I thought not. Something about their singularity.

They had just looked at Pania who, in the early morning light, seemed to leer with her polished breasts and strange almost Hollywood conception of a Maori face.

I thought of how my last book, 'The Hungry Heart' , a biography of William Colenso, was held together by the brace of place. This place. I was conscious of the sea being the same sea (in some form) that William Colenso had seen and which he also meditated by.

Once I used to think of my Napier grandparents but now I saw they were probably busy working - and they actually related more to the (now vanished) inner harbour and port. 

But walking back I faced Bluff Hill and my eyes almost accidentally found the cleat in the Hill where the Napier prison was.
This was where the Hau Hau proophet/warrior - or alternatively terrorist -  Te Rau Kereopa was hanged in 1872. This is the core of my next writing project.

I was shocked into thinking again of place, and how place is what drove me to this new story.

The mystery and power and particularity of place.

Once I was home I suddenly thought of something else. It was almost exactly at this time of year, Kereopa Te Rau was executed. (Such a light holiday feeling time of year…when time no longer feels heavy but becomes cellophane thin…)

Colenso was a rare being - he was one of the defenders of Te Rau Kereopa, an astonishing act of bravery - amounting almost to the foolhardy. But seen from Colenso's pov this was the time of year in which he himself had faced rock bottom. It was the time of catastrophe for him: January was the month he had been ejected from his religious calling, his children taken from him and his mission house burnt to the ground (was burnt to the ground?): it was when he went into court to face a terrible public humiliation. So for him too January was not…a light month, an easy month.

A time of stirring, painful memories.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Lying fallow...and Lady Gaga

Lying fallow. Needing to lie fallow for a while. In December I realised I needed to just stop writing. But the fact was I felt miserable not writing. As usual my personality fell apart. I was overwhelmed by discontents. 

So I began a small project: a riff of a kind on the 'Clive Memorial' on Napier's main boulevard. The words 'Clive' and 'memorial' of course act as a negative here. One expects something stiff and archaic, about a best-forgotten imperialism. As for the word 'memorial' you can sense peoples' eyes glaze over.

Somehow I shook a story out of the handsome - ignored - memorial and totally enjoyed myself. (Memorials are always ignored - for most of the year anyway. But this is their purpose: to hold a story fast, to embed a narrative in stone. Will the story mean the same thing to future generations? Aren't you running the risk of the story being interpreted entirely differently? Yes. This is the risk. A huge risk. Monuments sit face to face with hubris, really. Put it this way. Hubris is the invisible shadow.)

In the end I managed to write a piece which referenced both Lady Gaga and 'a man named Flo'. (See this atVolume I No 8.

Note: I developed carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand just before Christmas - obviously I should have stopped writing - so these blogs will be scarce for a while, until I sort this out. I guess one could call this….enforced rest.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Who was Miss Colenso?

Before Christmas I posed a mystery question: who was the Miss Colenso whose botanical drawing appeared in the album of Sarah Mathews, the wife of NZ's first surveyor general?

(See last blog dated 22 Dec 2011 for more information and a link to images of the actual album - it's worth checking out…)

Initally I wondered if the mystery botanical painter was Fanny, William Colenso's daughter, but by the date in the album, she would have been married and no longer a Colenso. Then I wondered if it was by the daughters of Bishop Colenso, William Colenso's first cousin. (The thing which interests me, if the latter, is it implies that Bishop Colenso's family had relatively close connections with William Colenso - although there is very little evidence to support this.)

Fortunately fellow Colensophiles came to the party and supplied this information.

(Below is from Ann Collins, a Colenso relative (through WC's brother) who talked the matter over with fellow Colenso family members Gillian Bell and Gwilym Colenso. This conversation spanned Australia, NZ and Britain….)

Ann Collins writes...

The most likely contender, given that WC’s daughter was married and that the Bishop’s daughters were in South Africa at the time is the Bishop’s sister Frances Emily Colenso (1815-1879).

She lived (probably kept house for them) with her father and uncle until her father died in 1860. She was a schoolmistress in East Stonehouse Devon in 1861, with her niece Mary Kendall (daughter of Sophia Colenso and Nicholas Kendall). In 1871 she was living in Seaford Sussex on an annuity.  
It is possible that she travelled to Italy, possibly with the Butlers – Mary married Spencer Perceval Butler in 1863. I think this is what the reference to San Remo is about. Some information on the Butler’s is on the following link.
The Bishop’s wife and daughters were also botanical painters. The Bishop’s wife maintained a long correspondence and exchange of information with Katherine Lyell. Katherine Lyell was the wife of Henry Lyell, brother of the geologist Sir Charles Lyell, who had married her sister Mary as well. The two sisters’ father was Leonard Horner, an educationalist and  geologist. Both sisters were considered notable botanists.
The Bishop’s female family were all in South Africa for the 1870s. His daughter Fanny had travelled to England with her brothers in 1869 but returned in 1870. The brothers were then being educated at Oxford and Cambridge.
So it appears that the likely contender is Bishop Colenso's maiden sister, Frances Emily Colenso. She was William's first cousin and a contemporary. How she came to meet Sarah Mathews we do not know. Albums were a bit like facebook - a kind of collection of connections, both random and at times deeply meaningful. Maiden women often spent a lot of time looking very carefully at plants and, in a way, acknowledging the beauty of creation by copying them in paint or even embroidery.

The paintings of the botanical subjects are quite lovely and skilled. Ian St George has supplied the information that they are an arum, called delightfully 'striped jack-in-the-pulpit' (a suitable name for William Colenso one might think) and secondly, the berries of a pepper tree - a common enough tree in many older New Zealand gardens.

In the next few weeks I will meet with some people who lived in the 'Colenso cottage' which was transported to Hohepa Farm which is right beside Colenso's one-time mission. The question is: is this a building once owned by Colenso from the 1844-1862 period? If so, it would be very significant historically.

 I love these sort of mysteries.