Sunday, May 27, 2012

Multiple identities....

I had just finished reading William Leonard William's melancholy account of revisiting his parent's pillaged station in 1866.

 The one-time 'bishop's palace' was not far from present-day Gisborne. The Williams family had abandoned the station after twenty-five years of work as the Pai Marire troops came closer and closer. They had just killed the Reverend Carl Sylvus Volkner and the rumour was they were now coming for the head of Bishop Williams. 

Magically Bishop Williams' Christian followers faded away, leaving only a few Maori defenders. The family, nervous and baffled, decided to vacate.

The unoccupied house - still full of furniture and objects - was ransacked by Pai Marire troops or Hauhaus as they were popularly known. They tried to strip the wooden shingles off the roof to get to the lead lining. But then government troops arrived. 

The sacked house then became occupied by government forces and kupapa (friendlies as they were also called). This is a tale of multiple identities.

 The army and friendlies used the house's two storey height to shoot down into the pa which was right next door to it. And Pai Marire shot back into the house, shooting a gentleman who stood in the drawing room, his hand in his pocket as he languidly leafed through an antique volume. This was war.


There can be few things as devastating as visiting a family home after it has been occupied by military forces. 


I was racing to read documents before the Alexander Turnbull Library closed for two months. But my mind had become saturated with facts, impressions, thoughts. I had an image in my mind: a soaked carpet which can no longer absorb anything more. Rain just runs off. I decided to take a break. 

Without really thinking about it I went up to old St Pauls Cathdral, which is really only a few buildings away. Initially I saw it was being repaired. I thought it might be closed. 

As I got closer, I saw some workmen and women lounging about: there was a beautiful shepherd type dog with the snowy white long coat of fable. 

Inside the porch of the church was that beautiful black of old wood. I pulled the door back, registering with pleasure its old handle. (Is anything truly legitimately old in NZ?) 

Inside I plunged, or fell, like Alice down the hole, into the magnificently wooden funnel, ship's casket, ark-like structure of the interior. 

A mondaine woman guarded the desk. Her hair was immaculate as her Anglo-vowels. 

She was settling into the canter of a pre-prepared speech. I spied the afternoon light coming in the side windows - lovely as walking behind a waterfall. Rather deceitfully, if delightfully, there was a cd of an ancient chant playing. I explained I had only come…to have a look. A wander. A wonder, I might have added to myself, as I explored the loveliness of its confined space.

Somehow with that miraculous simultaneity which seems to whisper that there is no such thing as chance, I had ended up within the very thought-structure of the world I had been exploring or searching for in word after word for day after day. If Waerenga-a-hika was a missionary village, all of its aims were expressed in the simple grandeur, the solidity of this wooden building (St Pauls). 

I saw a Cross of St George on an old banner, a military banner perhaps. (…marching off to war..)

Two lovely little French young men entered, funnelling their accents towards the mondaine lady's precision. 'Yes…an English church…but NZ wood…Gothic…matai..kauri, 'I heard her intoning. 

Yes, an English church. Its loveliness cast a spell over me and quietened my soul, even while I questioned and reproved (and knew) the hauteur of its snobbery, its implied ancientness and the power of its authority. Hadn't I sat in a parallel if much more modest wooden ark Sunday after Sunday all through my childhood. It wasn't God which kept me there, it was some more worldly authority - my mother, her desire for order, acceptance, a broader family. 

I watched the French boy walk shamelessly right up to the altar, turning round to get the best perspective for a photo. I winced inwardly. Was the magic still potent? Did God really hide behind the skirts of the altar as I persisted in residually believing, even as an adult? The darkness of the church spoke to me and I thought of those now misunderstood, now maligned creatures called missionaries.*

This was the treasure box of their mystery.

I asked the cicerone what was the age of the original church. She said 1866. This was later than I had thought (I was thinking early Selwyn, the 1840s and 50s). I immediately placed it in the context of The War, as I had begun to call the NZ land wars in my own mind. So it was in the middle of The War. This changed my perspective somewhat. 

Even though St Pauls arose out of a mindset the Williamses might comprehend it was also a statement from a more problematic world. Even here, it was not pure. Like those flags from military nations, it had another story. Hidden within architecture, there is always - another story.

*In a conference called Iwi-Christianity-Rauiwi - 'Re-evaluating Christianity's Influence in Shaping Aotearoa New Zealand c 1800-c.1860' to be held in November 2012 I noted this discouraging para in the brochure: 'Tour of early mission station sites: A one-day tour after the conference will be arranged if there is sufficient interest.'

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A novelist on oath

I was up in Auckland and unexpectedly I had a window of three or four hours. I jumped on a bus and headed off to the Auckland Museum Library. I was unsure what I'd find there specifically, partly because I had left my notes back in my hotel room. But I knew that they had copies of some important letters by the German missionary Carl Sylvius Volkner.
The bus swept past Kinder House, Ayr Street, in Parnell. I suddenly felt this incredible itch to go and have a closer look. (John Kinder was an Anglican teacher, watercolorist of great subtlety and photographer. He also knew Volkner.)
Kinder took this photograph of Carl Sylvanius Volkner below and it may even be Kinder's identifying handwriting. (The photo is in the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

What fascinated me was trying to place the photo in a context. When I had initially looked at it I thought it might have been taken in Europe. (Volkner came from the same town as the Brothers Grimm….)
That kind of stony look is not common in Auckland, or the North Island generally. Then it occurred to me: perhaps it was Kinder House? It was made of stony flinty pieces of rock.
I pressed the bell on the bus, got off. I had my camera with me. I began to take photos of the main entrance doorway. 

I didn't have the Kinder photo to match up, so I decided to take some details of the great bluestone blocks by the door. I felt this was the door in which he had been photographed.

It all seemed possible. Kinder was married to the daughter of Rev Brown of Tauranga. Volkner worked with Brown at Tauranga for quite some time. Volkner was also interested in education and like Kinder, functioned as a teacher. 
I was on a roll.
Off I went into the library. I felt speedy, almost as if I was coming down with something. I looked up 'Volkner' as a general search and identified something key - absolutely key. 
This was a series of letters Carl Sylvanius sent to Governor Grey outlining the movement of 'rebel' Maori tribes through his parish. It even included a map of a pa. 
It was allegedly because of these letters that he was hanged as a spy by Maori 'rebels'. (Though how did Maori in Opotiki know of these letters marked 'Private'? Were these letters hand delivered? At the 'trial' following his death - a curious reversal of what normally happens - he was called a spy but there was nothing actually said about letters, as far as I can find. Historians later found the letters and displayed them as evidence.)
But something came up which also interested me. A series of photographs of CSV from within Kinder's photo albums. 
I asked to look at these. The expression on the woman behind the desk changed from what kind of pest is this to a sort of radiance. She had just put a photo of CSV online the day before, she said. The coincidence seemed amazing - a kind of symbolic meeting at a crossroad.
Pilgrim to Rome.
My few hours in the Museum Library were like that. I kept quickly discovering a lot of things. I thought to myself it was like coming on a laden apple tree. You gave it a few good shakes and the apples fell all around you. Plump for eating.
Yet other times, researching is a long hard road…and you don't seem to find anything fresh.
Long story short, though, when I carefully compared the pattern of stones round Kinder House door, they didn't seem to match at all those in the photo of CSV. I began to feel I was barking up the wrong tree. 
(It was complicated by those twee box hedges in pots, which deprived me of a sense of scale.)
Then I suddenly had a thought. I counted the number of small rocks inset by the second big stone from the top of the photo. I scanned the historic portrait...and suddenly the scale fell into place and it was revealed as the door against which Carl Sylvanius leant....150 years ago....
It also allowed me to actually measure his height, a not unimportant detail.
I need more time to test this hypothesis. And I guess this is what any sort of research is based on - wild surmise, sudden intuition - tested against whatever hardness of fact you can find.
Michael Holyroyd, the great British biographer, says a biographer is a novelist on oath. I do believe that. The 'on oath' part is very real - otherwise the fiction writer would take over.