Monday, February 27, 2012

Writing the book...

Tomorrow I have a carpel tunnel release operation on my right hand which I hope will solve my problems. It is done with local anaesthetic...
I guess I should think of the Victorians who usually only had a swig of whiskey and man up.

Below is an ad for a talk I am giving on Friday 23 March.

It is a New Zealand Book Month event.

What will make it special is that it is in the Ormand Chapel, the very beautiful little building
which was once the school where Wiremu Colenso went.

Will he be listening?

Peter Wells’ William Colenso
A New Zealand Book Month event
Wednesday 28 March 2012 at 5.30pm Ormond Chapel, Napier Terrace, Hospital Hill

The Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery present award-winning New Zealand author Peter Wells, who will talk on writing his book The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso
Limited numbers, bookings are essential.

To book, phone HBMAG on 835 7781 or email by Friday 23 March 2012.

Book online by visiting the Events Page, or pay in person at the Napier i-SITE.
Cost: $10 for general public, $5 for friends of HBMAG

Copies of The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso will be available for purchase, and signing by the author on the night.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Felix Kelly, Ngaio Marsh, refugees and Art Deco Napier....

Felix Kelly was the delightfully fey artist whose painting evoked a kind of neo-romantic sense of discomfort with the present and a delight in ruins.

It made sense: he was making art in the 1930s and 1940s when the European world was going to hell in a hand basket. He was, oddly enough, a New Zealander.

He spent most of his life in London. In one way he was a refugee. New Zealand in the 1930s had little space for artistic homosexual men and women and anyone who could tried to get out to the places like London where there was a subculture you could live within.

There were women like Ngaio Marsh who was a lesbian in London but officially either sexless or heterosexual in

Kelly left and as far as I know never or rarely ever came back.

The image above is one of my fave images from Kelly's art. It is a quick sketchy painting he did for a favourite neice. (It actually has prettier colourings in the original.)

It is set on a West coast beach out of Auckland. (Kelly grew up in Remuera and his art continued to show NZ icons in strangely odd settings.)

What I love about it - apart from its compositon - is its sort of signposting - a wrecked tram somehow sits on the beach. But a canopy has been put up to one someone is living in the carriage.

In other words, it's 'the end of the line'.

Aotearoa New Zealand is the end of the line in many ways, both bad - and good.

Here it is picturesque and arresting.

I was reminded of Kelly on Monday morning when I went for a walk.

It was the morning after the night before.

Art Deco weekend, a kind of orgiastic event to do with costume rather than sex, had just ended.

This rather lovely tent had not been taken down.

Nobody was around and rain was about to fall.

In fact as I took these photos the first big drops began to fall.

Living at the end of the line suddenly appeared....eloquent.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sun Dial, Te Kooti, Chatham Islands and the British empire

On my morning walk, I ended up looking at the sun dial by the Sound shell. This is an excessively decorative schema, the favourite site for photographers trying to capture Napier's art deco flavour. 

(A friend visiting from Brisbane said, gesturing towards it, 'all that cake decoration stuff'. It does have an enchanting excess almost entirely out of character with the pragmatic ugliness of most New Zealand small towns.)
The sun dial has wording round its top which has the stereotypical folksy wording of the 1930s: 'Smiles Equal Sunshine…'  
A later addition cut to the chase: 

The fact is there is nothing on this part of the Parade to alert people to the fact they are standing on the debri of a disaster. (Post quake a lot of the masonry and rubble of the shattered burnt out buildings was dragged to the beach and compressed and used to create the ground on which the decorative schema now sits.) 

It was a form of ellipsis, a cover-up if you will. It was understandable: trauma is best left behind, especially in the immediate aftermath when all you want to do is forget. But isn't there something in the strange and almost stilted (beautifully stilted) silence of the gardens and the decorative schema which evokes…its opposite?
Besides, is forgetting the best way forward?
Anyway, while looking at the sun dial I noted those arrows peculiar to isolated places (how far to London, for example.) Are these special to New Zealand? There are so many of these poignant arrows poised to fly off into space. The echo coming back is "you are not so far away. You are not lost. "
 Unfortunately they tend to have exactly the reverse effect. 
All you feel is…distance.

The destinations - Ottawa, Capetown, Canberra, London - also evoke an ideological framework. In the middle 1930s the framework of the British Empire was still extraordinarily strong - it took the following world war to reveal both how strong it was (the number of 'British subjects' who died for emperor and empire) and how weak.
The post war world would reveal a shrinking of empire so fast that by now, 2012, the British empire hardly seems to have ever existed. It is as distant as the Portugese empires and other vanished behemoths.
But in 1934 it was important to point out the litmus of the phantom empire: the Falkland Islands are there.  
And then, this surprising addition: 

I turned round and looked across the Bay, to Cape Kidnappers. I had no real idea of the geographical position of the islands. 

I instantly saw in my mind's eye that grim photo of Maori huddled in their blankets under the cliffs of Napier. (Were they in fact near the prison?) I thought of how people often write that Te Kooti could be among these people, unidentified. (It is part of his mystery - his power in a way - he was never caught by the camera. He eluded photographic capture.)
ATL 118691 1/2
In a way this illegal exile to the Chathams (without trial or due process) was the start of a disaster. In a broader sense though it was part of the messianic response of a people pushed to extremes. Kereopa Te Rau and the Hau Haus were one response. Te Kooti was another. They are different fingers of the same hand, in one way.
So I was very struck by this enigmatic pointer. To me, it seemed to evoke something powerful - and other. Napier's relationship to the Chatham Islands….and the beginning of a whole extraordinary history of massacre, religion, chase, belief which unravelled…

Monday, February 13, 2012

Framed - Gavin Hurley, William Colenso. Iconography...or facelift?

This is Gavin Hurley's cover image from 'The Hungry Heart'. It is a beautifully done collage, ie cut pieces of paper assembled to create an image. I bought the collage from Gavin and now I have had it framed. It hangs on my office wall, to my immediate right. (It is about the size of an A4 page and very bright.)

I find the image encouraging. Colenso's stark stare looks past me, into a kind of future. His skin is actually very pink - much pinker than on the cover of the book and the neat cuts of paper round his eyes have the effect of a neat surgeon's work.

The curls in his hair and the fabric of his religious white tie are also textured. I am very fond of that one curl on his forehead, it seems slightly sensual - a kiss curl maybe.

The book continues to get warm responses from readers. I said to a friend the book 'has struck a nerve'. I get handwritten letters, cards, a nice warm banana loaf. Below is an 8-page critique of the book by Nicholas Reid - at points it is critical, but I guess the point is he has engaged with the book quite seriously, which is great.

Below it is a link to a review on Jim Mora's radio show with Vanda Symon.

Reid's Reader – A Blog of Book Reviews and Comment.: Something ...

So having Gavin Hurley's picture of Colenso on my wall is like having something encouraging looking over my present project.

Is it like an ikon I wonder? And is that what I - along with many other Colensophiles - have been doing? Creating a new image. (Or is it like a surgeon, going a cut here, a tweak here....a facelift for Colenso?)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The sound of waves...

There's something about that particular area, by the Napier prison. It is like a pair of cupped hands held up to an ear. 
The concave hills - the way they are arranged - catch the sound of the waves and echo them back so the area is rich with sound. 
It's like the immense monster of the sea is peacefully, rhythmically breathing.
I've always loved that about living on Napier Hill. At certain times, depending on which way the wind is blowing and how high the sea is, you get this beautiful silvery commentary.
The air seems to rustle and crackle. At night in particular it seems magical.
I don't know what it was like for the prisoners - hearing this rhythmic sound. Did it remind them of the great natural world - from which they were debarred. Did it then become monotonous, a reminder of everything they did not have?

Did it creep inside their ears at night and whisper things? 
Calm their spirits - or agitate them?
According to the prison, the site was important for Maori astronomy and had high mana. But this information is uncredited and oral history has a way of being as...stretchable as chewing gum.
Pakeha history, being written down, tends to be more exact (and hence more easily forgotten, since it is nobody's burden or role to remember it....)
Instead of astronomy - looking into the stars and the infinite - the first known Pakeha name for the area was 'slaughterhouse reserve'. 
That is, one would look downwards into the entrails of animals, blood, guts and killing.
It has just occured to me. Is this my role here in particular: the burden of remembering?
Yet over both and before each.....the eternal silent commentary of waves...

Friday, February 3, 2012

Through the carpel tunnel....a distant view

29 January 2012
I felt dispirited. The low level but constant pain in my hand was getting me down. I couldn't type much and even to hold a book was difficult. I decided to go and see if I could find where the best old photo of the prison (1876 - F William's album) was taken from. It was clearly from another hill. 

                               (Prison is in mid-ground, between lighthouse and villa to upper left.)
It was raining hard and surprisingly cold for January. There was a Southerly wind blowing in. I drove around the fascinating little streets of Napier Hill. I have to admit I have a great love for Matarouhoe - Napier Hill - Scinde Island, whatever you choose to call it. It was so prominent a landscape feature that Cook wrote about it in 1769, choosing a name which still lingers - bluff. 
What appeals to me about the Hill is the way it is so honeycombed with stringy little streets, lanes, wedges of steps. Everyone was pretty much forced to live on the Hill until the 1920s when the plains were drained, and then of course the great 1931 earthquake when the land rose up. So although Napier only dates from the late 1850s it has a sense of a complex organism of a much larger town or place. 
The streets I drove up were actually no more than lanes. It is not uncommon for these streets to say, at their beginning, 'No Exit and No Turning Point'. 
One wishes this sign could be put up for all armies as they marched triumphantly out of their home cities.
It was hard to even turn the car around. Basically you had to drive into people's front yard and reverse out. A dangerous procedure if there was any traffic. But, it being a wet Friday afternoon and it being Napier, there was no traffic. I worked out the photo could not have been taken nearby. The angle was all wrong.
I followed my nose and drove over to Bluff Hill, the posh suburb on Napier Hill. I cut down Elizabeth Street, with its houses all beautifully painted and gardened. This wasn't right. I took another street - Priestly Terrace. I noted it had some steps going down the street below.
I suddenly glimpsed across the valley and saw the prison. This is where I thought the photo had been taken from. I turned round and drove back. I looked down. Stupidly I hadn't taken my camera. This was all part of my being low in spirits, and almost apathetic. 
But suddenly I felt enthused. I was on the right trail. Or at least, I was on some sort of trail….
I would bring my camera back....