Sunday, September 28, 2014

Thumbs up, thumbs down

A rather funny thing happened to me last night. I was browsing through Facebook when I came across a friend saying he had given up on reading The Luminaries, the current winner of the Man Booker Prize. In fact he was giving up on his second attempt.
 I saw there was a comment below it, so I opened it up. 
The contents were rather startling. 'I also find all of Peter Wells' writing boring,' someone said. 
I felt myself go into that curious reversal known as shock. Immediately I asked myself - God, is my writing boring?
Incorrect. Is 'all my writing' - every bit of it - written over 20 years - boring? I felt crashing self doubt. (I also became obsessed with finding out more about the person who made the comment. Amazingly when I googled him, I found his street address. He lived in Point Chevalier where I grew up. I wondered if he had read my memoir, Long Loop Home, which looked at the strange potency of place, sexuality and time. I also found he was a real estate agent, an assistant to David Shearer, the Labour MP and he also seemed to work in local government in relation to state housing. I was astonished at how much I could find out about him so easily.)
This at least gave me some context. 
But it didn't change my sense of self doubt.
Maybe I had become a boring writer over time, I wondered. But then he implied I was a boring writing from the very start.
This morning however I was very pleased to receive a  positive addition to the commentary from a woman who wrote 'If the comment (Eleanor Catton's writing) is anything like Peter Wells' work, that's a good sign - one of my very favourite NZ authors.' I felt intense relief. I could go on living - and writing. (Somehow the two are completely interwoven in my life.)

But the two completely different opinions point out how different people see the same thing. (Or do  they see the same thing? Aren't they seeing something quite different?)
Reviews tend to follow the same pattern. I think I've only had one book that had universally excellent reviews and that was 'The Hungry Heart', my book on William Colenso. In my earlier writing life, when my books were much more concerned with the landscape of homosexuality, the reviews tended to be much more polarised, depending often on the reviewer's own attitude to gayness. 

Here I'm including some of the reviews for my latest book, Journey to a Hanging.
I should say first of all, the reviewing pattern was very unusual. I had an early, and excellent, review before the book was even in the shops. (Metro). But this was followed by a long - and for me, worrying - silence. This went on for weeks, until it reached a point whereby I no longer raced down to get the Saturday papers and wrenched open the book pages. I only felt disappointment.

In the end I succumbed to melancholy. The book 'had sunk like a stone' I told myself.
Instead of controversy, which I had expected, there was just an unending silence.

A wise writer friend of mine counselled me by saying it is a big book to read and it will take reviewers time to respond. This in the end turned out to be true. The reviews in the major papers all came out in the same week - apart from one startling anomaly, The Herald which has still not reviewed the book - and may not be doing so.

The reviews went from as good as I could hope for (as I said to a friend, I couldn't have written a better review if I'd written it myself) through to a doubting review. I have to admit to reading the favourable review and not reading the unfavourable. I will read the latter in due course, when its sting is less.

What does a writer draw from reviews? On a basic level, they are a thumbs up or a thumbs down. But on a personal level, they tend to be more challenging. Most writers have insecure egos and live with self doubt. Self doubt tends to be very destructive and I know it crippled my earlier writing career. My manuscripts from my apprenticeship period were like 
battlegrounds scarred with constant crossings out and rewritings. I have to say that the
invention of the computer and the fact you're always working with a clean copy made me get over a chronic indecisiveness.

With 'Journey to a Hanging' I did question myself deeply about what appeared or even appears to be its lack of momentum with its reception. I felt that CNZ had interfered with my project with (well meaning but nevertheless destructive) political correctness concerns, altering the emphasis of the story.

If I had been given free reign it would have been less 'historical' and more weighted to the fictional. The true heart of the book, anyway, lies in the last part of the book- a dissection of the final days of Kereopa Te Rau framed by the small town of Napier. (One reviewer called this part of the book 'masterly'. Perhaps this was because I was writing the book I actually wanted to write.) 

But there is a further aspect. I feel New Zealanders have turned their back on the NZ Land wars. They have, psychologically, abandoned any connection with this fraught territory, consigning it to a well-paid Waitangi Tribunal bureaucracy who can be relied upon to divvy up money, land and - importantly - guilt. In this way one need not face guilt or even adopt it, except in a distanced sort of 'I know nothing' way but accept completely the Waitangi Tribunal findings. This does not involve real knowledge about the realities of interaction, which the Waitangi Tribunal is not good at (and I would argue its role is really one of processing 'justice', even manufacturing 'justice' even in an ahistorical way.)

But in a larger sense, for the dominant Pakeha public, it is just a turning of the back onto the past, preferring silence and obliteration - allowing the Waitangi Tribunal to enact justice, sort of behind the back of the general public.

And of course the subject matter of 'Journey' is disturbing. This is an important factor.
Readers of books tend to be women. Women do not like books about wars (men's business) - nor do they like, generally speaking, books about physical violence of a grotesque sort. (Well, who does, I suppose you could ask.)

These are all factors in how a book is received by the general public. As a writer you become aware of this belatedly, looking backwards.

I also question some smaller aspects of the book production. I didn't like the title and wanted 'A Walk At Night Without Stars'. I was told this was uncommercial. Its cover also tends to imply a boring historical book, a fact I argued at the time. I also disliked intensely the subtext, about 'race relations'. Personally I would always avoid a book which is 'about race relations' - a dated terminology which seems to evoke a pathological political correctness. I was over-ruled on these almost subconscious choices which nevertheless remain very important. (The look of a book, the sound of its title. Its feeling. How it reaches out to you…) I was told I was 'uncommercial' in my concerns and that the publishing 'committee' knew better.
These are smaller details, but not unimportant ones.

I will put the image I would have liked at the front of this blog. I like the image as it suggests a contemporary take, a kind of parallel reality which goes with the way of writing in the book.

And here are some of the reviews of the new book...






Thursday, September 11, 2014

The sound of the waves

Below is an illustrated talk I gave recently in Auckland. It's a precis of a longer talk, at times a bit vague, but it covers my journey in writing 'Journey to a Hanging' in its varying moods - pensive, worried, pleased, and in the end, feeling a sense of infinite relief.

Alas, while giving the talk, I left out a beautiful quote from Mark Twain on the sound of the waves in Napier which he noticed when he visited Napier in 1895. He was staying in the Masonic Hotel which faced the beach and he woke up in the night and noted down the very special melancholy of these waves, which he also decided were a great solace.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Controversy, a media storm and a meeting.

Below is a chapter from 'Journey to a Hanging' that I decided to edit out. I'm putting it on the blog as I believe it raises some interesting questions about political correctness/political interference in Creative New Zealand grants and the nature of intellectual freedom in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Originally this chapter was in the first third of the Volkner part of the book. 

The conclusion of Wittgenstein's Tracatus: 'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.'

I had underestimated how controversial anything to do with Kereopa Te Rau was. I found this out when I had my first media interview about this book.  
This is what happened. 
I was doing a telephone interview with a stringer for the Dom. Post. He was struggling to understand what was the area of my subject. (I hadn’t managed the sound bite then.) I suddenly had what seemed like a bright idea. I thought I could animate the ‘deadness’ of a past historical issue by paralleling the search for Kereopa Te Rau and his being brought to Napier with the-then recent feelings of Americans when they captured and killed Osama Bin Laden. (Fresh in my mind were television images of Americans who had spontaneously gathered outside the White House at night to – bizarrely, it seemed to me – celebrate eliminating a terrorist. It looked eery as Halloween or those hangings in the Deep South.) 

When I opened the following morning’s paper in a café, I saw – to my horror - the headline ‘Writer on trail of historic Maori ‘Osama Bin Laden’. There was my photo alongside the only known existing photograph of Kereopa Te Rau – a particularly plaintive image. I let out a small gasp of shock, closed the page quickly, as if trying to slam shut a Pandora box. I went on and read the rest of the newspaper quietly, in an attempt to calm down (surely I didn’t see that?) 
I returned to the page.
Yes, there it was, for all time.

I thought I could hear doors slamming all over the country. Doors into Maoridom. It was a disaster.

That evening I become caught up in a small media storm. Maori radio and television were ringing me for ‘clarification’ and I was deeply aware of the tenuousness of my situation. I was introduced on National Radio as ‘the biographer of Kereopa Te Rau.’ It didn’t matter that I said I wasn’t his biographer at all. I decided I needed to do something so the following morning I composed a letter to the Dom.Post –-

Dear Sir, 
I would like to make it clear that I wish to disassociate myself from the headline - as I am sure any reader who persevered and read the article in its entirety would understand. I am not looking for an historic Maori 'Osama Bin Laden.’ I am on the trail of empathy, understanding and insight.’

The letter wasn’t printed.  The fact was the situation was so fraught I had only been given the Michael King Fellowship to write the book on signing a Treaty-inflected document which asked for ‘an outline on your approach to working with local iwi or hapu on the project’. I went back and checked my application again and decided to answer in this way. 

‘Naturally I am very interested in the oral history of people close to Kereopa Te Rau (Ngati Rangiwewehi of Te Arawa) as oral histories held within hapu and iwi are often the repository of fascinating insights. But I do think the panel needs to acknowledge the project is what is today called creative nonfiction. Ie it is not an attempt to create a kind of eloquent Dame Judith Binney-type history in which I attempt to right historical wrongs. To quote from my application notes ‘I do not want to write about Kereopa Te Rau, the justice or injustice of his hanging or the political events which led to his trial. What I want to write about is virtually everything apart from that (accepting at the same time that everything is inflected with its proximity to this key highly politicised  event.)  I propose a voyage round the subject, looking at all sorts of ways to contextualise, to place in parallel, to open surprising windows into the past and hence understanding.’

 ‘The heart of the project is actually an essay about the nature of intellectual freedom which Colenso wrote called Fiat Justitia. Colenso’s essay, in which he looked at Kereopa Te Rau’s capture and imprisonment, was written within the tight confines of a society which had its own form of political correctness, its own attempts to curtain intellectual freedom by insisting on a portrayal of only ‘acceptable’ sides of truth. 
   The project is actually about the slipperyness of truth and the way two Pakeha people, Sister Aubert and William Colenso, went against the current orthodoxies to present their own entirely human - and humane - response to a situation which contrasted with the accepted ideas of their time.’

I did not add something I believe in, a quote from the remarkable nonfiction writer Janet Malcolm,  ‘The pose of fairmindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses.’p176
 I knew this was asking for trouble.

Then out of the blue I received what felt like a reprieve. This was a phone call from a young man who identified himself as Benedict Taylor from the Office of Treaty Settlements. He was an historian, he introduced himself, and he talked about the ‘unfortunate’ publicity for my new project. I burst out laughing. ‘You could say that.’ He kindly said if I found myself in Wellington on such and such a date it could be good timing. Ngati Rangiwewehi, Kereopa’s iwi, were signing off a Treaty document and they would be in a receptive mood.
Gratefully I accepted the olive branch. 

The meeting was timed for 2pm. And here I reproduce a letter I sent immediately afterwards to an Australian friend much interested, if bemused, by the contradicitons and vociferousness of New Zealand’s racial politics.
‘I entered a vast building - every floor identical and hence confusing. A name tag. Then into a conference room.
Eventually the small deputation arrived, four men and two women, all of middle to late middle age. All in black, dignified and happy (some had been to the pub.) The men hongi-ed me (I was relaxed, somehow channeling Colenso and my brother who had been solicitor for the Maori Affairs Department in the 1980s and an able speaker of te reo.) I in my naivety went to hongi the women, who ducked around and presented a cheek to kiss. (Oh dear…ok, got that…)
Then the Treaty people entered, fresh as newly minted dollar bills, two in their late twenties, one of Asian origin. They asked to 'minute' the meeting. 
A formal opening speech by a younger man, large, humorous, human. Of course I understand one word in every thousand but gathered it wasn't abusive or horrid.
I somehow summoned the ghosts of my Napier grandparents to stand behind me, and then my brother who had been so active early in Treaty politics before it became a gold plated chariot…
I stood up to reply, but they ushered me downwards. 
So I talked about how Colenso had led me to the project (how he did a brilliant defence of Kereopa)…and then I read out my letter to the Dom Post. This seemed to move them.
I felt them listening.
Then the discussion broadened with the elder woman speaking, Mrs Te Rangikaheke Bidois. I heard things I had never heard before: the Kereopa name was shrouded in so much shame – whakama - that there was an unusual degree of mayhem and suicide among the young men descendants. It was a surname that was rarely used these days.
They also said that the cannibalism was contextual to the times. (Well, of course…but then again…)
They said if I wanted to take it further I would need to come to the marae and consult the elders but as far as they were concerned they would like me to go further with the story.
I immediately said it would be wonderful if Benedict could accompany me (to his visible surprise.) They liked that idea. He is obviously a favourite son (and can speak Maori.) 
Anyway at the last moment a glam model appeared, female, a sequinned bag and I thought 'here's trouble'. It turned out to Donna Hall, one of the highest paid legal minds in the country. Anyway she was sweet and gave me her number and said to come to dinner.
So….all terribly surprising, my dear.
I know from ‘X’  they lull you in and then freak you out.
But it ended with them virtually thinking they had commissioned me to tell their story.
This made me a little uncomfortable as I cannot do that. I can certainly tell their side of the story - but as I said to them I want to tell 'all the stories'.
So, Ian, I found myself, this semi-elderly Pakeha mandarin, knocking fists and exchanging bro handshakes with the men, and kissing the women on the cheeks. One of the men (an ex teacher…) said I had performed 11 out of ten. 
One thing I noted in the midst of the glitter though. My nametag came off and fell on the floor. I was stooping down to retrieve it but it had glued itself to the sole of young Asian woman's foot and she walked off. I prayed it wasn't a presentiment….
It was left that I was to contact Mrs Te Rangikaheke Bidois in the near future and ‘present myself.’
We went down in the lift together…then separated at the bottom and went out diametrically opposed doors.

(I will follow this up with what happened eventually.....)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Korero on 'Journey to a Hanging' - Wellington talk on Wednesday 27 August

Journey to Tauranga....

  • I'm just back from a tiki tour to Tauranga. I gave a talk at the Tauranga Library on my book. I wanted to go to Tauranga as CS Volkner taught at the Tauranga Mission for three years from 1855-58. And somehow the historical proximity seems productive. (Going to the spot where there is still some remnants left - in this case the beautiful Mission buildings, today called The Elms.)

  • I was in two minds about whether I should go. I had a terrible cold and felt listless and faintly depressed, as you do with a cold. But I told myself I had a responsibility to turn up.

I decided to catch a bus to Tauranga. I haven't been on a long bus ride for years. I felt a little sceptical about how bad it would be. It turned out to be ideal. It forced me to be idle for long periods. (When at home I am magnetically drawn to my computer and endlessly fiddle round with bits of writing.)

But the fact is I am deeply tired - as you are when you come to the end of a long and massive project. So it was ideal just to sit still, not reading, not doing anything at all. 

The driver was polite and professional and everyone on the bus was similarly chilled. There was plenty of space - nobody sat beside anyone else, unless they knew them. So I caught the bus down to Tauranga, daydreamed away in a very idle manner and in the early evening gave a talk.

It wasn't one of my best talks - I was still feeling very low energy but I was pleased with the questions at the end of the talk. They were all interested and clued in, I thought.

One person said to me later she thought New Zealanders simply didn't want to engage with the land wars and the effects. They had decided to place it in the 'too hard basket'. Interesting point of view, I thought.

My next talk is at the National Library in Wellington. I promise to give an interesting talk.

Below are the details. 

If anyone is in Wellington, please come along and introduce yourself. 

  • Date: 27 August2014
  • Time: 
    12.10pm – 1.00pm
  • Cost: 
  • Location: 
    Tiakiwai (lower ground floor), National Library, corner Molesworth and Aitken Streets
  • Contact Details: 
    For more information, email
In April of this year, the Crown pardoned Kereopa Te Rau for his role in the killing of the Reverend CS Volkner in March 1865. Author Peter Wells revisits what he calls 'contaminated ground' to look at the controversy, placing it with the context of the Age of Apology.
Peter will discuss his book 'Journey to a Hanging', which looks at the events in an in-depth yet surprisingly personal way.
Millwood Gallery will have signed copies of the book available for purchase on the day.

About Peter Wells

Novelist, film maker, and biographer, Peter Wells uses these skills to summon up the ghosts of the past – to make them real, to allow them to speak to us in a personal, contemporary way. 'We need to enter the past as a vivid reality, recognising that people understood, and misunderstood things just as we grapple today with uncertainties and ambiguities, trying to make sense of what only makes sense many years later.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Witness for the Defence.

Sorry, a very bleary photo from the Listener August 9 2014

This is an interesting three-page article on the issues behind my new book, Journey to a Hanging.

It appears in 9 August 21014 Listener and is by journalist Sally Blundell.

I was pleased with the title 'Witness for the Defence' in that implies I am advocating for Kereopa Te Rau.

I have often wondered what his iwi think of my book. In my heart I feel they will be pleased as it does provide an idea of the inhumanity of his trial as well as taking you inside his possible point of view.

In time they will provide their own version of his story, which will be very interesting.

At some point I'll write about the difficult negotiations I had with Kereopa Te Rau's iwi. These never came to a

In the meantime there is my book....

(I have to admit, as a writer, I find talking off the cuff to a journalist quite demanding. It is only too easy to lose nuances and half-thoughts. This is why writing is so powerful in the end. You can explain a nuance. Verbal talk can be too blunt. Written words allow you to investigate the small indirections, hesitations that go on in internal thought. And the fact is, with this whole story, there are many shadows and shades and shadowings.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Quotes as signposts for the wandering writer

When I write a book I select certain quotes that act as beacons. I normally put them in a notebook, circle them and when I get lost, as I usually do in any extended exploration, I return to the quotes.  
They solidify the story and return me to central themes.

Journey to a Hanging took me three long and intense years to research and write. During that time I was all over the place in my perspective. It covers, of course, a very controversial - one might almost say contaminated - ground: raupatu (confiscations), killings and two very debatable hangings.  

These are not my usual terrain and I found the journey - walking at night without stars - full of soul searching and at times it seemed exceedingly harsh.

During that time I kept a sheath of papers on which I typed, in large letters, some quotes that helped me keep my bearings. 

I came across them just before, so here some of them are. 

(I'll add below why I felt they helped me get my bearings.)

 "A ghost desires only one thing: to live again." London Review of Books, 8 November 2012, The Second Life of Ghosts.

I felt that CS Volkner and Kereopa Te Rau were both ghosts in our collective imagination and both were calling, wailing if you like, to be heard again. When there are injustices, the voices never really fall silent. Silence only falls when justice is done and then a really peaceful silence falls. 

'We live in an Age of Apology.' Jonathan Meades, The London Review of Books. 25 October 2012.

This is a reference to an academic text in which a collection of thinkers talked about the contemporary phenomenon in which one group of people seek to apologise for the injustices of the past. This has obvious ramifications for Aotearoa New Zealand and this particular story. 

A Crown pardon - in terms of forgiveness - was awarded to Kereopa Te Rau in April of this year. But there has been no apology for the indignities on the body of Rev Volkner. Not even Rev Volkner's Church regard this as an issue. 

He is, as I have said in my book, the least important person in this story. 

Apology in other words can be conditional and freighted with political objectives. It depends, in the end, who you are on whether you are pardoned for your actions. In other words, some behaviour is 'understood' while other behaviour is forgotten. 

"A detailed account of subsequent measures taken to punish the assassins lies not within the compass of this little work. The future historian will find ample materials for the interesting task whenever it becomes desirable to use them." James Hawthorne, A Dark Chapter in New Zealand's History, 1869, p29

I came across this quote in a fascinating pamphlet written by a settler outraged at the hopeless way the fight against Te Kooti was being waged. It was really an attack on Donald McLean and what makes it even more interesting is that the book in the Alexander Turnbull Library has McLean's handwritten comments in the margins, largely, of course, attempting to disprove the anguished, angry charges. 

What I like about this quote is the actual title of the book - A Dark Chapter in New Zealand's History -  which could almost have been a title for my book. But I also liked the way it sort of foretells that 'a future historian' will be looking at the same material, at a different time.

Of course different periods read the information quite differently. But a real historian attempts to see the world as contemporaries saw it. One of the weaknesses of a lot of 'Treaty' history is that it makes no attempt to get inside the heads of Pakeha of the time, while always getting into the heads of only some contemporary Maori. (Kupapas' world view is usually ignored as invalid.)Yet without an attempt to understand how people actually saw and even misunderstood their own period, the history becomes an unreal contemporary attempt to rewrite history - as it 'should have been'. 

In this history everything becomes a noble fight, in one way, and on the other, an ignoble attempt to steal, rob and imprison. 

As we all know from living in the present, things are confused, muddled and very unclear. People work on a basis of self interest. It is only looking back that certain patterns are picked out.

I always think: what do we not know about our own period that will invalidate a lot of what we do and think.

Be sure of it - there will be something that makes us all seem as if we lived, unbelievably, in a dream world.

We just don't know it yet.

That is history's revenge.

"There is a kind of nonsense, which was in reality a very high kind of sense." Justice Johnson on Alice in Wonderland.

In a long wet winter in Napier, during a time of economic depression, penny readings took place in the evening at the Masonic Hall. Penny readings were an attempt at entertainment, at uplifting people's mood at a time people are almost naturally depressed (wet muddy winter, hard times, a beleaguered hopeless war that seemed impossible to win.)

The price was actually sixpence so it only appealed to the relatively well off. When it began the 'nobs' of Napier and Hawke's Bay set the tone by giving readings.

Bishop William Williams read from Shakespeare's 'pound of flesh' drama - perhaps not coincidentally.

Justice Johnson, who proved to be a harsh hanging judge when he tried Kereopa Te Rau, here chose an absurdist tale. His copy of Alice in Wonderland came from the Athaenium library (the forerunner to MTG Hawke's Bay) and the copy was described as 'much thumbed'. Hawke's Bay Herald, 22 May 1871.

I chose this text as I think it paraphrases much that occurred during this time in the Supreme Court trial of Kereopa Te Rau.

There was an absurdity about it, behind which lay a deadly intent. Utu. Revenge. A primitive passion that 'civilised people' were meant to be beyond.

'The majority of people do not judge for themselves.'  Editor of the Daily Telegraph in his final column before he was forced to resign. The editor was a well educated Londoner who found himself in the foundling settlement. He was insightful but also critical of Donald McLean. In the end he was chased out of town. (It is not unusual in small towns for people to turn on talented people who they feel are 'not like the rest of us.') 

I kept this comment as I felt it expressed the conformity of small town life. The whole of New Zealand is, or was, a variant on 'small town' mentality, harshly opinionated and hostile to different views. Crowd behaviour dominates and individual viewpoints are ruthlessly suppressed.

I felt this insight referred to many people during the trial of Kereopa Te Rau. Most people in Napier - and Pakeha New Zealand - called for his hanging. 

Only a refusnik like Colenso stood against this prevailing attitude and 'judged for himself.'

I feel this is as true today as it was then.

The majority of people do not judge for themselves.
As the editor commented sadly as he left Napier - never to return - 'Originality is a game that is dangerous to play in public.' 

I feel this is as true today as it was then. There are other quotes that I will talk about later. But this is a sample of these 'signposts' I used when I felt I had lost my way.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Auckland reading....

At the launch. Photo by David Frost, MTG Hawke's Bay.

 I'm doing a reading in Auckland, at the Whare Wananga, Auckland Central Library, Lorne Street this coming
Tuesday evening (22 July 2014) at 6pm. Everyone welcome.

I'll be reading from one part of the book that looks at going to Hiona, Volkner's church in Opotiki and my impressions. (I'll be accompanying the talk with photographs, some of which are in the book, some of which aren't.

I'll also look at the trial of Kereopa Te Rau in Napier 1871, when Kereopa Te Rau defied his lawyer and took to the floor to try and explain his journey. It was a calculated risk.


As always when I do a talk I write across the top of the paper BREATHE.

I have to remember to keep taking breaths consciously. Otherwise my fear of public speaking overwhelms me and unconsciously I start taking short panicky breaths. It tends to be self fulfilling, as when in this state, I end up with no control of my voice and I can sound both frightened and whiney. Awful.

Hence my memo to myself. The most obvious thing in the world. Breathe.


And I have to remember what it was like for Kereopa Te Rau to speak to a room largely full of Pakeha, when he knew his life was hanging on a very slender thread. He spoke te reo and it seems a shame to me none of the journalists talked of the timbre of his voice.

At certain times this short man (5'3" - 9 stone) had been extraordinarily charismatic and had held large numbers of people in his thrall.

But finally when it mattered most - on trial for his life - he could not 'read' the audience he was talking to and his words have a strange muted vagueness to them, as if he were trying to lay a pattern very imprecisely over another pattern that he could not read - British justice, I suppose you would call it.

What Colenso called, aptly, 'a shadowy phantom' thing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Launch of 'Journey to a Hanging' with associated media links

Chandalier at the Old Church, Meanee. All pix David Frost MTG Hawke's Bay.

Well, on Monday night, Journey to a Hanging was well and truly launched at the Old Church
Restaurant Meeanee. MTG Hawke's Bay assisted brilliantly with the launch, with staff members 
generously donating their time and energy to give the occasion a really warm atmosphere. 

I've put the talk I gave below, so you can see how I conceptualised the book
at its public birth, among friends and followers.

I was also fortunate to do some media for the book. (I'll enclose the links below.) One was a lively and
energetic interview with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon, National Radio - Kathryn seemed very 
involved with the subject, which was great. 

The other more surprising interview was for Te Kaea, the News on Maori TV. They had sent a crew 
to the book launch and did an on the spot interview afterwards. I was amazed - and gratified - to see it 
occupying about five minutes on Maori TV news last night - 8 July '14 - where it was treated seriously - and with really close
with interest. 

The other in-depth interview I did was with Hawke's Bay TV. This is harder to find for people out of 
the region, but will eventually be on Youtube.

So here is my launch speech.

"It seems especially fitting we're standing here in the body of the church that was once Sister Mary 
Joseph Aubert's.

It was from this church that Sister Aubert set out on a Thursday afternoon of January 4th 1872 and
 began her walk in to Napier, to go and visit Kereopa Te Rau on the hill in Napier Prison.

He was to be hanged on the Friday and it was her wish to go and comfort the condemned man. 

But we need to backtrack here, to fill in the back story.

Kereopa Te Rau was charged with the murder of the Anglican missionary with the strange Germanic 
name of Carl Sylvius Volkner.

The murder happened in March 1865 at Opotiki - and it was an especially grisly murder, especially 
for a traditionally tapu person - a man of God. 

Volkner was first rather amateurishly hanged, then when dead, beheaded and his head was passed 
into his own church where Kereopa Te Rau ate his eyes and drank his blood. His head was then 
mummified - turned into a moko mokai.

Ever since then Kereopa Te Rau had been on the run, fighting battles, then fading into the 
Urewera mists.

By 1871 Tuhoe were ready to sign a peace pact with the Crown. They could no longer withstand 
the battering they were receiving from kupapa and colonial troops.

Part of this was an agreement to hand over Kereopa who had a 1000 pound bounty on his head.

Kereopa was captured and marched to Wairoa, then put on a boat to Napier.

The news spread around NZ - and around the world - the notorious eye eater - Kaiwhatu - was 
captured at last and being brought to justice.

On Sunday 26 November 1871 the entire population of Napier waited on the wharves to see Kereopa.
He was kept below on the orders of JD Ormand and Sir Donald McLean.
Eventually - disappointed - the crowd dispersed.

The following morning Ropata Wahawaha -a Ngati Porou warrior who had once been a slave - 
brought Kereopa into town.

He insisted on a triumphant march - a king brought in chains - so he marched Kereopa along 
Waghorne Street, up along Shakespeare Road - then he got to Coote Road.
This led directly to the prison.

But no, Ropata wanted a triumph - he had been hunting Kereopa for many years in terribly 
challenging conditions - so down Shakespeare Road they marched, a brilliant Pai Marire banner in 
scarlet silk and white fluttering in the breeze, - they marched past the Govt Builidngs where 
Kereopa would be tried on the corner of Shakespeare and Hastings Street - they marched along 
Hastings Street - and only then along the Parade to the corner of Coote Road.

There Kereopa was handed over to Pakeha control.

He was marched up that steep incline to the prison.

But just as he entered the prison, he dropped a cut throat razor on the ground - and with bound hands
 - grabbed it QUICK AS THOUGHT as a newspaper put it- and slashed his throat open.
Blood was everywhere. 

The three doctors of Napier were all called.
Dr Spenser, the brilliant military doctor - famous for sewing up limbs - was first on the spot. 
He sewed up Kereopa's throat - he had just missed the jugular - and brandy was administered.

Kereopa was taken to a wooden cell, placed in their alongside two Pakeha prisoners and chained to 
the wall.

And there Kereopa stayed, through his trial on Friday 22 Dec 1871  when he was found guilty of murder 
and sentenced to death.

There he stayed through Xmas and New Year -

hearing the sound of the waves which are so clear and audible up in the prison still

hearing the band music played by the military bands

hearing the jollity and drunkenness hymns and silences

till he heard the sound of a nail being driven hard into wood
and he realised the gallows were being constructed

he was to be the first man hanged in Hawke's Bay.

At this time, when everyone local rejoiced in his capture and eagerly looked forward to his death 
one man 
one man alone in the whole of NZ stood forth to defend him

that man was the remarkable William Colenso
Colenso speedily wrote a defence published in the Hawke's Bay Herald over three days calling for
he didn't argue whether Kereopa was guilty or not

he just said the enormous killings and vast confiscations which had happened in the Bay of Plenty as 
utu for Volkner's killing had surely sated the desire for revenge

to be merciful is to be strong, he said 
to be merciful is to be Christian
he went to comfort Kereopa in his cell

and now walking in from Meeanee we have Sister Mary Joseph Aubert who had finished helping 
entertain the Catholic children of Napier who came out on drays for a special Christmas picnic 

she took her bible and her beads and began walking into town

so here we have
two of the most remarkable people alive in colonial NZ
two people walking to Napier prison to comfort Kereopa in his last hours

- what happens during those last hours, ….well, you have to buy my book and see….

but let me end by saying- inside the body of this one time church
which is like being inside the whale of our shared past

this book is about New Zealand, about Hawke's Bay, about the past, about the ancestors of 
some of the people who today stand in this room - 

it is about the present and the way we understand AND misunderstand the past

how we come to terms with our past - in this case a most painful episode in our short combined history -

an episode in which a missionary was killed and then a Maori prophet and warrior -

events that galvanised and divided NZ in its own town, 
echoes of which travel right up to this very present day 

it is only a month or so since the Crown issued pardon - in the sense of forgiveness - 
to Kereopa Te Rau for his implication in the murder

so we live among its echoes 
since the Crown pardoned Kereopa Te Rau two months ago - 
pardoned in the sense he was forgiven 

but in the book I talk of 
walking at night without stars

and I used this term to describe the German migrant who came to NZ and had to try and 
comprehend not only Maori culture but English culture - 
both were foreign to him so he was travelling at night without the guidance of stars

whereas Kereopa Te Rau was travelling in his own country but guided by a completely new religion 
which believed in talking in tongues, which believed that moko mokai - shrunken heads - could 
prophecy the future, a completely new religion made up on the spot

so he was walking at night too without the guidance of stars

just as i felt, writing this book,
being pulled in different directions at different times
but also trying to be empathetic
without being conned into a false sympathy

so in the three years I spent writing the book
I travelled far and wide and looked at everything I could find out about these events and 
the people who were its main characters -

and this was what i came up with in the end

there are many paths to understanding

there are many ways to see the same thing
other people might and will see things differently
and this book is a single writer's honest attempt to make his own path towards understanding -

so all in all
though this represents a book with pages and pictures, and facts, and thoughts, and intuitions 
and I hope insights

in the end this is all it amounts to 

there are many paths to understanding 

and this book is one of them.

Kathryn Ryan interview on Nine to Noon, National Radio

See below for Te Kaea, News on Maori Television 8 July 2014.


Latest episode. Te Kāea. Originally aired on Tuesday 8 July 2014. News programme with local, national and ...