Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Death in Queen Street - the enigma of family.

NZ Herald 13 November 1917

Just recently I signed up to an ancestor-searching website for a month (ancestor.com). For a long time I had had an itch to look back over my ancestors and discover more about them. Like most New Zealanders I faced the fracture which is emigration - a fracture so profound that the life left behind in Britain faded away into mystery, fable and - silence.
It was slightly different with my mother's family, the Northes of Napier. In my grandmother's house there was the evidence of the pre-New Zealand past - in fact her whole house was like an encyclopedia - a small watercolour of an ancestor, a silken address from Australia in the 1840s when my Northe ancestor moved on to New Zealand. There were also those gold nuggets - old letters.
It was different with my father's family. The Wells seemed deeply mysterious, or rather the silence was porous with meaning. I never knew what to make of this. Dad never ever spoke about his family. 
Much later, towards the end of my father's life, his aged older brother arrived from Melbourne. He may have been in an early stage of Alzeiheimers. But in one memorably awkward family dinner, he said that my Wells grandfather had not died of a heart attack - the one fact I did know - but rather he had killed himself. This was met by my parent's concentrated attempt to shut him up. 
It was this latter response which made me think what my uncle said might have some truth in it. If it was a complete fantasy,they could have blown it away with a laugh. Instead both of them tried to suppress the story.
Dad asked his brother to leave after that.
Anyway long story short, that was about all I knew about my Wells ancestors. Except two intriguing and disparate facts - (and often it is the contrast between 'facts' which indicate something interestingly fertile.)
My grandfather and his father were master butchers in New Zealand, largely operating in gold mining areas and becoming reasonably financially secure. But we were also descended - 'somehow' - from the dukes of Marlborough. Butchers - dukes - how much more disparate can you get than this? 
This latter fantasy or fact was based on two slim pieces of evidence. Various family members had a middle name of Churcher, or Churchill (the Marlboroughs are Churchills). The other 'fact' was when my father's oldest brother was billeted at Blenheim Palace or nearby during World War One 'he was treated as one of the family' - whatever this meant.
I used to study photographs of my uncles and the Churchills and I thought I could make out similarities between the high forehead and thin noses. There was an undeniable likeness.
Alas, or rather not alas - there appears to be no basis for this enticing rumour. (And just about every colonial family has a myth of aristocratic origins. This is maybe wish fulfilment for the often grubby attempt to make a living in difficult conditions. Or it may just be a reflection of our class-obsessed British origins. In this world of the past, only aristocrats or similar were real. Everyone else was 'nobody'.
Part of this was based on literacy. The illiterate from the past cannot, perforce, speak. They are silenced by their inability to write information which lasts into the future. Whereas the educated (well off) are endlessly gabby, in letters, diaries and those other fascinating bulletins of class and insight, like the novels of Jane Austen.
So who were the Wells? 
I was astonished at how easy it was to find out information about them once I began to use on-line tools. The Mormon online search engine, familysearch.org, is powerful, and by pressing on the parent's name of each entry, you leapfrog back into the past.
In one intoxicating morning I traced my Wells ancestors back to the time of King James Ist (the 1600s). I was absolutely astonished and amazed by all these newly found out facts.

It appeared they had lived for almost two centuries in a small village called Selborne, in Hampshire. (It was one village over from Chawton where Jane Austen actually did write many of her novels.) They were skilled artisans, small landowners and yeomen. Some had enough money to leave wills, which I am in the process of sending away to find out the contents.
In the 1820s they left Selborne forever, going to the biggest city in Hampshire - Portsmouth. By this stage two brothers were builders and lived beside each other in the same street.
Their father was wealthy. He was also a builder and I wondered if he had prospered throwing up those Georgian/Regency terrace houses which are so typical of the period. This meant they left Selborne before the village participated in the 'Swing Riots' of the 1830s. (This was when a starving group of labourers burnt down a work-house and generally terrified the landed classes that a French Revolution-type event was on their doorstep. The instigators were packed off to Australia as convicts.)
There was no evidence of any connection to the Churchills. Churcher was the maiden name of one of the Wells wives and she seemed unspectacular by background.
On line tools further enriched my research.
I went on google earth and strolled round Selborne which is one of those rare beautiful little English villages, all thatched cottages and leafy lanes. It is set in a vast national park. The next time I am in England I will make sure I go and visit.
But google earth was invaluable in another way. I wanted to go to Portsmouth to see where the family had lived. But operating the widget on google earth as I strolled down stereotypically ugly postwar development I realised I didn't need to go.
The street where the Wells lived in Portsea, in Portsmouth, had been bombed so badly in WW2 that all historical spaces had vanished.
What astonished me was the way the internet 'community' provided so much information. I began to realise that each Wells family member had on average eight to thirteen children - and each of these had a similar number of children so the internet reach of shared relations is enormous, multiplying exponentially generation by generation. This means someone you don't know on the other side of the globe shares the same ancestor and might have information on him or her.
Imagine my surprise and then excitement to find a photograph of my Wells ancestor who migrated to New Zealand. I had never had any photos of my Wells ancestors. My grandfather who died of a 'heart attack' had died in 1924. There was no photo of this mysterious man. This was a photo of his father - the somewhat grandly named Frederick Augustus Churcher Wells. Ironically it turned out this was the man who actually did die of a heart attack.

Photographs of ancestors have a compelling presence. You read them in so many ways. First of all for family likeness. Then there are all the other incidentals - dress, state of wealth or poorness, ease or unease, fantasy backdrop, photographer's name and place.
This photograph of my great-grandfather was also incidentally one of his wife, my great-grandmother, a woman about whom I knew not a single fact. (Apart from her name Margaret Bryson Paul.) Here the photo is - I can just make out it was taken in Thames and from the woman's dress it appears to be between 1893-1896 (puffed mutton-sleeves were fashionable in that period.)

Alas my great-grandmother looks like she is facing a machine gun rather than a camera. She seems prim, self enclosed and thin-lipped and censorious. This is quite possibly completely wrong, as people often froze before the camera, overwhelmed with this encounter with eternity.
But my ancestor (male) has a definite presence, almost, one would risk saying, a panache.
He is in his sixties but sits erect and with a flower in his buttonhole. I can imagine him in a striped butcher's apron.
He is also, not coincidentally, very like my father in his old age. The likeness is remarkable.
I found out some fascinating facts about Frederick AC Wells. His grandfather was a wealthy property developer in Regency Portsmouth, but his grandson Fred AC Wells appeared to make a hasty marriage as 20 year old to a woman who had a son to him. Two years later, he appears to have abandoned them and migrated to New Zealand in 1864. 
Whether he was going to bring them out later, or he simply vanished, I do not know. It may be an explanation for why information on the Wells family back in Britain was so scanty. But the really interesting thing is that as a 22 year old he 'married' again - to the NZ-born woman in the photograph. If his first wife was still alive, this was a bigamous marriage - a not uncommon thing in colonial times, when migration acted as an informal act of divorce.
Amazingly an obituary turned up of him in the Ohinemuri Gazette of 1917. It had interesting details - a tent set up in Grahamstown - where is that? - as his first butcher's shop - his knowledge of the mining industry and apparent large numbers of shares in various gold mines. But the coincidence of history struck me forcibly when it said he had died of a heart attack in Fort Street, Auckland. Or rather, he had had a seizure in the street and was carried along to the Imperial Hotel, where he died.
My father, his grandson, worked in the handsome 1920s National Bank in Fort Street - it was a kind of Art Deco Assyrian temple wastefully pulled down in that nadir period for Auckland, the 1980s. But Dad also used to drink after work at the Imperial Hotel. I wondered if he had any idea that his own grandfather had expired in one of the rooms. I don't think so, because I think this fruity fact might have slipped out.
I like to think of this kind of meeting at the crossroads. The whole experience of internet searching of ancestors is like this - a meeting at a global crossroads. There is a whole world of people who lost the information of where they came from. Diasporas occurred all round the world, especially in the 19th century. This fracture is in many Pakeha family trees. Then along comes the remarkable flotsam and jetsam of information on the internet, which, to the individual concerned, is as vivid as a personal keyhole into the past.
The only problem is ancestor-hunting is of interest only to the individual involved, or at most, certain elderly members of his or her family. To everyone else it is an area of extravagant boredom. 
My partner has been kind and listened to my 'exciting' discoveries but I can tell by the lack of follow-up comments that he is only being vestigially polite. (His one response was to google how common the Wells surname was among English surnames. It came out at 147th. Since his surname is Jenkins, I didn't take this too seriously. But possibly if one multiplies the lack of interest by 147 you get the depth of boredom that 'granny-hunting' so called engenders among those simply 'not interested'.
Yet the fact is at night I can barely sleep as I think up new ways to explore the meaning of 'facts'. (I am resting in between sending my next book off to the publisher and getting it back from the editor.) 
 Now…onto looking at where Grahamstown is, and where the Taruro cemetery is - this is where the bones of my great-grandfather lie.
I forsee a visit coming up.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Back by popular demand...

This is by way of a fable.

A long time ago a few people decided that there was a remarkable romantic sleeping ruin of a cemetery on Napier Hill.

It had all the right ingredients - history, romance, decrepitude and a kind of lingering silence broken only by the birds in the trees or the distant sounds of voices echoing across gullies.

With a great deal of effort these few people researched the history of some of the stories in the cemetery, mounted a museum exhibition which became surprisingly popular and touched a nerve in the general population.

During the exhibition, we began tours of the cemetery over the summer. Initially these tours were only for the duration of the exhibition, but such was the demand that six years later we are still taking tours through the cemetery, and word only has to get out about the tours for them to fill up.

There was a thirst for knowledge, for history, for stories about our ancestors.

A small group of people began gardening in the cemetery, tending it and planting flowers.

Gradually the cemetery became more frequented by people who no longer felt frightened to enter the sepulchral gates.

Families began to renovate headstones and generally feel pride in the fact their roots lay there, secure and sleeping for all time.

But one day a busybody walked through the cemetery gates and decided the trees were a terrible danger. The busybody wrote to the council and said the magic words: public health and safety. You only have to mention this word and council bodies panic.

The outcome of this single busybody, who happens to live near the cemetery and whose house may be shaded in winter by a cemetery tree, was that the council decided that 144 trees in the cemetery should be cut down.

After all, they said, these days so many people walk in the cemetery. It is no longer a deserted place.

The Historic Places Trust, that fickle organisation - having done nothing for the cemetery in its entire life - now joined in the cry. 'Down with the trees!'

And so it was that the Napier City Council began to plan how best to change a charming atmospheric and historic cemetery into one of those charmless lawn cemeteries where 'the loved one' lies side by side like ice-cream containers in a neat supermarket deepfreeze.

Above all the great cathedral trees of gums must come down.

These photos are by way of a farewell to the beautiful dreaming cathedral space of trees so vast they seem to be from a fairy tale. 

Their ivory trunks echo the blotched marble tombstones.

But they must go. 

A single citizen has mentioned the words: 'health and safety'.

Farewell trees, farewell a memory of something vast and magnificent as spars roaring in the wind. Farewell giants bigger than we are, farewell beautiful dreaming spires.

One day soon the sound of electric saws will start up...

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Telling stories

Mrs Volkner to the left, Gov Grey to the left. Still from UTU above. 

Well, the mystery of the ripped out page (see last blog) turned out to be a trail of confusion. 
In fact the whole situation is a confusion of sources, which can happen very easily in any situation. It's a little like a form of cross-contamination - one thing ends up in the other, growing a kind of culture. 

My last blog could be said to be its latest manifestation, a form of verbal mould.

Thanks to several very good detective friends who managed to get hold of the
Millard book of photographs of Maori tohunga, it turned out there was no 'Kereopa' in the book - so the ripped out page was purely accidental - vandalistic.

In fact what happened was the man who gave the Millard book of photographs also gave the glass negative of a man called "Kereopa" to Te Papa. I have asked for some further details but all I can hear is silence, with the faint echo of an iron shop front trundling downwards. I am not sure why this is. 

There is also a silence from Rangiwewehi, Kereopa's iwi, who were about to make an important announcement about the way they wished to change perceptions of Kereopa Te Rau.

During this time I have got busy on the writing, or as it feels at the moment, assembling of my book. My partner is away in exciting Tokyo so I have taken over the studio - I can spread my wings and create piles everywhere of documents.

Studio invasion - room to breathe

I'm still feeling my way with the tone of this book. I have been reading several masterly histories, notably Dame Judith Binney's 'Encirclement' and Monty Soutar's thesis on Ngati Porou. This is the kind of history I don't want to write, linear, excellent in its own classical way. (The fact is I couldn't write a history like that.) 

What is behind that kind of writing is a mastery of resources which is truly amazing. But I made this note to myself, by way of encouragement.

What is history but a series of stories. Even the most footnoted history is only a piece of made-up logic with each step of the way given a kind of spurious legitimacy that there was a source in the contemporary period. But there is always a choice in which sources to acknowledge and elevate to being the 'true' record while other sources are quietly downgraded into being unreliable, or more accurately, not suiting the purpose of the story-teller who usually has an ideological groundplan embedded in their brain - a kind of ideal but hidden map whose real shape only reveals itself as a kind of lit-up ground plan, much as lights on a darkened runway help pilots land their aircraft by night.

It looks much more orderly than it is....
 I guess I am going with the story telling approach….

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


A ripped out page

There is one very well known photograph of Kereopa Te Rau. This was taken by Samuel Carnell, an outstanding Napier photographer on the 8th December 1871.

We know this because the date is scratched into the negative, as is the person's name. (You can see it easily by googling 'Kereopa Te Rau'.) 

Kereopa by this time was in the Napier Prison, awaiting his trial - and he knew already - his execution. He knew this because he had already tried to exit the situation. 

Walking into Napier Prison a cut-throat razor slipped out of his clothes - before he could be searched. Incredibly quickly, given he was handcuffed, he managed to grab the razor and slit his throat. 

Though blood went everywhere, he did not die - he missed the major artery - and soon three doctors were on site, and one, Dr Hitchings, expertly sewed his throat up.

The photograph by Carnell shows Kereopa's misery. Carnell would have brought the props - ie Maori cloak - to the prison, so he looked 'legitimately' Maori. Perhaps because Kereopa looks so very pensive and sad, Carnell also overdrew, on the negative, his moko. 

This was an attempt to make a man whom many Pakeha saw as a terrorist look more 'terrifying'.

The photo would have been hot property, as people in the 19th century collected photographs of all sorts of people - royalty, celebrity midgets, circus performers, murderers, notorious poisoners, famous whores, beautiful society women, notable men like parliamentarians. 

It had an element about it of kids collecting certain kinds of cards.

Also photography, as a relatively new invention, delivered the news of what someone actually looked like - across space and time. In its own way it was remarkable.

Carnell later went on to be the chosen photographer for Hawke's Bay Maori. They felt at ease preening in front of his camera, rarely choosing to wear by-then 'antique' Maori costume. Instead they chose high status Pakeha outfits, refitted to ensure their own identity was recognised, mixed in with moko and other identifiable Maori elements.
Ripeka Hakiwai, ko Ngati Te Upokoiri ATL Neg number 1/4-022217-G

These were collected in a fine book called Nga Tamata which you can still find in bookshops.


But my mystery began with an idle evening recently when I did the obvious (which sometimes occurs quite late in research.) I googled Te Papa to see what they had of Kereopa Te Rau.

The two photos they had of him were from the same image - the famous (or infamous) one.

But I also noted there was another image, not on-line because permission from his iwi was needed. This piqued my curiosity immensely, as I was eager to see another image of Kereopa.

I knew Carnell had taken several photographs.

The curator at Te Papa kindly sent me an image which could not however be copied or used publicly. 

It was another image, but I was unsure whether it was Kereopa. (Kereopa was a missionary name turned into Maori, not a specific identity. ie there were lots of Kereopas.)

The image showed a rather plump man, once again wearing antique costume, holding a patu. He had none of the pensive grief in the well known portrait which is so affecting. He looked relatively ordinary.

When I asked the curator if she knew if it was indeed the famous Pai Marire warrior and prophet - and murderer? - she said the image came from a book called 'Portraits of Tattooed Warrior Chiefs of NZ: The Millard Collection'.

The book was unavailable at Te Papa because something was happening in the library.

I asked my friendly source at Napier Library, Steve Knowles, to try and find where else I could look at the book. I was fascinated to see if there was any further context.

Lo and behold there was a copy at the local EIT, in Taradale, in a special bookcase.

This morning I arranged to go out and look at it.

The glass case was unlocked and I was given the book - really a booklet - and told I could look at it right by the librarians, where I was publicly viewable.

The EIT librarian had already told me an image of Kereopa did not appear to be there. 

And sure enough, it wasn't.

It seemed inexplicable.

But then….some curiosity awoke in me. I looked very carefully at the binding and counted only nine images where it was clear there should be ten. And when I looked even more closely, I thought I could see where a page had been ripped out.

But was it Kereopa Te Rau? I glanced at the single page introduction. It was a curious piece for both its date - 1942 - and the person writing.

1942 was a strange date for a book, as this was the time in the 20th century when it was quite possible German and Japanese fascism would triumph and the course of history changed forever.

Only Britain and its empire fought against fascism, and it was quite conceivable the battle would be lost.  After the fall of Singapore and it was clear the Japanese could reach Australia and New Zealand with impunity, NZ's army was sent to Egypt - to fight German and Italian fascism. So New Zealand was very exposed.

In this predicament, cultural items like this book would have been used to arouse
a sort of pride or interest in NZ-specific history.

It was introduced by 'Victor R Millard' from the Royal College of Art, a sculpture student.

In terms of content it would seem that the ripped out page was indeed meant to represent Kereopa Te Rau.

Millard, giving some context to the photographs, talked of tohunga in a relatively respectful way (for the period). He also said, 'Being a cannibal race, they believed that by eating the heart and brain of a dead enemy, their courage and wisdom would thus be increased.'

(An alternative version was told by Ranginui Walker on the interesting series on Lindaeur at present on Maori TV called 'Behind the Brush' (Tuesdays 8pm). He said that by eating someone - an enemy - you showed how much you despised them, because basically after eating them, you shat them out.)

Anyway, long story short, I am going to have to find a hopefully complete booklet and see whether it does say it is Kereopa Te Rau - or whether it simply says the person is "Kereopa" - which was how Te Rau was pretty much uniformly known in the 19th century global press. 

My mystery is this: did the person ripping the page out do so because of his notoriety - or did the person rip the page out to protect his privacy, his mana?

Watch this space.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Who did what to whom?

Below is a tagline for an article which appeared in the NZ Herald on March 9 2013.

It relates to my project in that it is about the efforts of Mokomoko's whanau to get what they regard as proper restorative justice for their ancestor who was one of a number of people hanged for the killing of Carl Sylvius Volkner.

Mokomoko, a Te Whakatohea chief, was hanged at Auckland Prison on May 17, 1866 in what one could call the violent aftermath which followed Volkner's slaying.

The sad thing is Volkner, on his way to being killed, knew with a terrible foreboding that his death would lead to the most awful consequences.

Utu, so highly prized as a concept in the Maori world, is really not so different from plain old revenge.
Revenge works in many different ways in lots of cultures. (In fact I was interested to read in a blurb about the
soap television series called 'Revenge' an old saying: he would sets out to get revenge should first dig two graves.
ie those who set out to get revenge might as well set aside a grave for themselves, as that individual, or tribe, or society is enwebbed in a killing so bad that the whole enterprise is poisoned from the start.)

The article looks at the terrible consequences of utu which followed Volkner's killing - confiscation of
448,000 acres for a start. The Mokomoko family had a pardon granted in 1992 and in 1996 the Governor-General granted the pardon on the grounds that it was 'just and expedient'.

But no mention was made of Mokomoko not committing the crime. (He was alleged to have carried the rope with which Volkner was hanged and being present when he was hoisted up. The evidence is very contradictory on this, and the most plausible places him elsewhere.)

His whanau however have had to live with what they describe as a 'ripple effect' of 'extreme prejudice; resentment, anger, even hatred.' (The article is written by Yvonne Tahana.) This is because many people in Opotiki and elsewhere blame those who killed Volkner for the confiscation of their land and deep loss of mana.

It is an extremely complicated picture. For example one of Mokomoko's descendants says this: 'Mr Biddle says there isn't a question that the German missionary went bravely to his death. 'It was done by Kereopa. You always get a rebel and I can't tar (all Pai Marire followers) with the same brush (as Kereopa who was Pai Marire missionary.)'

This is difficult, as Kereopa Te Rau's whanau are equally insistent that he did not kill Volkner. (And there is very little evidence to show that Kereopa actually physically strung Volkner up and hanged him. Whether he influenced others to do so, is less easy to decide.)

So this article brings a key question to the fore: who did what to whom?

It is both an historical question - ie to do with what happened in the past - but it is also a contemporary question, in that its echoes still sound profoundly among different iwi.

Volkner was right: his killing unleashed the dogs of war. He had wanted to protect and nourish the members of his parish. When he was taken off the ship forcibly, he tried to shake hands with his Maori parishioners. Some stood by and wept. But nobody shook his hand.

The eyewitness accounts of what followed after this are many and contradictory, often based on iwi alliance or the degree to which an individual was implicated and wished to pass the burden of guilt on to others. In many ways it reminds me of 'Roshomon', a Kurosawa classic film from 1950.

The Roshomon effect is called 'the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection by observers of an event who are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it. (Thanks Wikipedia.)

Who did what to whom?

It's still a vital contemporary question.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Comet in a night sky

When I opened this blog to write something I was taken aback to find that I had written nothing here since January.
There was a reason for this. Over the past six months I had become aware that something was wrong with me
physically and eventually this reached such an impasse I could only barely walk. Anyway long story short,
I have been diagnosed with an 'aggressive' late development rheumatoid arthritis.

 I have been given some medicine which seems to be working very well, so my depression has lifted and my ability to walk and work has improved enormously. I now have a deadline for this book - July - so it is something to work towards.

And in that lovely way, once I felt better, things started to cohere and I suddenly glimpsed the end of the book. The truly wonderful thing is that it was the vision ,or idea, I had started out with. Over the past two years
I felt assailed, uncertain, pushed in different directions. Then suddenly it all seemed to fall into place.

'Seemed' however is the operative word. I have yet to write the ending, then go back to the beginning, look at the overall narrative, see what works and where it doesn't and begin that brutal process Patrick White called

In the meantime I have not yet got a title. One title I liked was 'Comet in a Night Sky' and when I saw this beautiful photo in the Dom Post of a recent comet passing over Wellington I could suddenly see the cover.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

How the New Yorker saved my life.

I love motels and planes for writing. Something about the bareness, the absence of clutter is deeply encouraging. Transience too. The fact is my office at home is a claustrophobic nest of information. Just to enter it, at the moment, is to feel overwhelmed by information. It appears too close to me for my eyes to even focus.

So going away, staying in a basically bare room, is both holiday and clarification for me. This past week I've been down in Dunedin, at the Hocken Library, researching 19th century HB newspapers. The fact is there are more complete runs of them in Dunedin than in Napier, due to the fire which followed the 1931 Earthquake.
It's wonderful to access paper copies of early newspapers too. The jumble of information is deeply fascinating.
So I had a great week research-wise. On the plane up to Christchurch I read an article by John McPhee in the NYer called 'Structure'. 

It's about the difficulty - and importance - of structure in a piece of nonfiction. By the time the plane landed at Christchurch (cheap flight, two hops from Chch and then Wgt) I had the first line of the first chapter of my new book. It somehow crystallised in the flight, while up the air, in that ideal space of possibilities. 

I had wanted to start the book in a particular place but hadn't been able to find the right words.
Suddenly they came to me. I opened up my Mac, turned it on midflight and wrote them down.
One thing led to another. Inside the new post-earthquake airport at Christchurch
I sat at a table, having purchased a space with a gingerbeer and a slice of date loaf. I began writing the introduction to the book.
I felt elated but also very sensitive to sound.  I had a man sitting right beside me on his cell. He was leaving NZ for Australia - he had had chickens. There was a great deal of information about chickens. I tried not to listen - to hear. To concentrate and I sort of managed to.
On the flight to Wellington I wrote a little more.
In Wellington I relaxed over a beer and read another article in the NYer. It was now 5pm and I had left my motel in Dunedin at 11.25am. I thought I'd better go to the loo before the next flight. 
I had got a luggage cart to help me handle my computer and briefcase. I'm still having trouble with my hands and I find carrying any weight painful. The toilets on the main level at Wgt were closed, so the only men's toilets were down some stairs. This meant abandoning my luggage cart. I took my briefcase and went to the loo. But inside the loo I had a terrible realisation. My briefcase was too light. I suddenly realised I had left my computer in the luggage cart at the top of the stairs.
I sweated blood.
I realised it had all my research for the past week - and I had had a breakthrough in the week. I hadn't backed anything up. And of course, with the new opening chapter for the book - I hadn't backed that up either.
My whole book was on the computer.
I raced back up the stairs in a white sweat.
And suddenly, to my intense pleasure, there was my computer sitting in the top shelf of the luggage cart.

What had protected it was my copy of the NYer. The NYer was sitting on top of it, and anyone passing by, casually, might have thought it was just an abandoned magazine.
I had my computer, my research, my unrepeatable first chapter.
So here I give thanks to the New Yorker - again - you saved my life, my book, my sanity.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Disappearing buildings...

Driving round regional NZ I was very aware of the possible ramifications of the new earthquake legislation. This is that 'earthquake prone' buildings must be brought up to standard within ten years or be 'demolished'. 

I couldn't help looking round some of the smaller towns and deleting from my mind'e eye the few notable buildings to escape an improvised appearance. 

The ramifications are enormous, as many of these buildings are not easy to tenant even as they are. Let alone owners being able to find the finance to upgrade to a really very high standard. Demolition - gaps in the teeth - is what will happen. 

That is, there will be gaps in a run of buildings which were once reasonably coherent. Many of the more bravura buildings will vanish. Small NZ towns, which on the whole lack architectural charm  - or charm of any sort, I am afraid - will return to their rudimentary beginnings.

The problem is how to make these buildings safe in an economically feasible way.

But while I travelled round, I took these photos of some likely candidates for 'disappearance'.
The Taihape Cinema, endearingly called 'NZ's Finest Country Cinema'

Above is the cinema in Taihape. It appeared to be still well-used with an almost art-house list of films showing.

Any cinema showing documentaries should be saved.

 I couldn't help but think what a gap, in many senses, the disappearance of this building will be.

This one is across the road. Of little architectural merit, yet it whispers the past. I love the way old faded signs remain on buildings long after their use has past.

This building in Marton in the Rangitikei caught my fancy. It is well maintained, indeed well turned out as befits a shop that once sold riding habits. 

J.J.McDonald Tailor and Habit Maker.

Marton, which prides itself on being the hub of the Rangitikei, is full of resplendent
brick buildings which speak of its once-wealthy past. What is their future?

As with Wanganui city, whose streets are full of big brick and plaster buildings of some elegance.

But 'disappearance' will strike many buildings.

This is a Catholic modernist church designed by Ernst Plischke in Taihape in the 1950s.

It is roughcast on the exterior and it sits in Taihape like some kind of satellite
landed from a different galaxy. 

But I doubt very much whether it will fulfil the new earthquake requirements so it will be labelled 'earthquake prone'. 

And at the end of ten years everyone will have to decide whether to 'disappear' it.

The built culture of Aotearoa New Zealand now faces its biggest ever challenge. It's daunting and there needs to be a wide debate about how to ensure our cultural heritage survives and the buildings are safe.

If I have time - away from my book - I hope to write some more on these challenges. 

PS One thing everyone can do is join 'Heritage Aotearoa' which will act as a lobby group.