Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Fact & Fiction

Still by Virginia Ginn from the 1983 film Utu

 This photo is in my new book Journey to a Hanging.

It relates to a key New Zealand film, Utu.

Why is a film-still in a history book?

Wasn't the film a fictional drama and isn't my book a factual history?

Yes and yes and no and no is the improbable answer.

The still relates to a highly dramatic moment in the fictional drama of Utu. (The film is about the experiences of an imaginary Maori warrior called 'Te Wheke'.) Te Wheke in the drama has just experienced the slaughter of his wife and family by British soldiers. This horrific experience becomes the source of a burning desire for utu - revenge - on Te Wheke's part. (A little like Russell Crowe in 'The Gladiator' - the slaughter of the gladiator's wife and children by Roman soldiers turns the gladiotor against the whole Roman Empire.)

(See the promo for Utu here which explains Te Weke's motivation in a very direct way.

Te Wheke's first act of revenge leads him to a church. A Protestant minister - with a beard curiously like CS Volkner - is preaching. The director and writers of the film had a standard 1970s anti-establishment view of religion so the minister is seen as ugly, vengeful and hypocritical. Te Wheke takes the church by surprise. He kills the minister - shoots him dead. But it is the next scene that interests us.

This shows him at the pulpit of the church, holding the beheaded head of the Protestant minister. He rages against British colonialism. And the head is brandished about as a talisman.

This is, of course, a precis of what Kereopa Te Rau was said to have done with CS Volkner's head at Opotiki, inside the Anglican Church, on 2 March 1865. 

This shows how deeply implanted the killing was in the New Zealand psyche, even as late as 1983. Utu's writers, rummaging round in that deep dark bloodied sack of New Zealand's history, found a key moment. 

They used it in their drama to mark a progression in Te Wheke's character. He reaches a point of no-return. From now on, it will be war to the death.

The killing of a minister, but even more so, the showy symbolism of holding the minister's head in his hands, inside a Christian church, at the very pulpit in which the voice of the Christian God is meant to speak, was an act of rebellion. 

In many ways it was a moment of brilliant theatre.

All around the world people gasped. 

But there is something which doesn't happen in the Utu film, and this is what interests me. 

Or rather there was something else actually filmed but it was edited out of the film. During the filming, Te Wheke also swallows the Protestant minister's eyes. 

This of course is simply following the historical narrative of Kereopa Te Rau eating the eyes of CS Volkner, accompanying the act with a symbolic statement. (This statement varied, according to listeners, from being specifically about one eye representing Queen Victoria and the other eye, the colonial or London Parliament - to Kereopa Te Rau raging against the disappearance of Maori control of their land and destiny.) 

At his trial for murder in 1871, Kereopa Te Rau asserted he said nothing of any import. 

In fact during his trial he denied eating the eyes at all.

He said he only ' pretended to'. This was in part an astute assessment of the degree to which the eye-eating actually fueled the anger against him - the disgust. He believed it was the eye eating that led to his being found guilty of murder (rather than, say, the literal hanging of CS Volkner for which he was actually charged. There was no separate law against eye-eating in the British statute books - for perhaps obvious reasons.)

Regardless, during the editing of Utu, the eye-eating was dropped.


Because test audiences, or the director and his editor, decided it made Te Wheke 'too unsympathetic' to contemporary audiences. 

(This is all based on a relatively recent interview with Anzac Wallace who acted the Te Wheke role. The interview came out last year when the redigitised version of Utu Redux was released to new and appreciative audiences.)

This interests me. If eye-eating is still 'unsympathetic' as late as 1983 - when in fact many codes to do with sexuality, behaviour, drugs, life style - were being broken down - it seems to infer that eye-eating, in an earlier age when codes of behaviour were so much more prohibitively strict - was even more outrageous. 

So while today there is a determined attempt to remove the stain of 'Kaiwhatu' - 'the Eye eater' nickname that Kereopa Te Rau wore during the 19th and much of the 20th century - the fact remains that this symbolic act which Kereopa Te Rau is associated with does have a continued power. 

I understand entirely the action of whanau sympathetic to Kereopa Te Rau who wish to see his life in a broader context. The eye-eating was one pivotal moment in a much longer life. It also had precedents, as I discussed in my last blog, in pre-European Maori culture. It had an entirely legitimate meaning in terms of this pre-Pakeha Maori culture. 

The question relates really to timing. Are acts which are culturally acceptable in one period culturally unacceptable in another?

Look at hanging in European culture. It was totally accepted as a form of punishment - for quite minor crimes at times - right up until late in the 20th century. Homosexuality is another case. Right up until comparatively recently, homosexuality was criminalised and deeply stigmatised in many cultures.

But cultures tend to be restlessly developing entities. What is acceptable at one point suddenly becomes reprehensible and even repulsive in another. Eye eating in Maori culture, in the 1820s  was quite acceptable, as was ceremonial cannibalism and slavery. But by the 1860s, we are entering - globally- another world. Slavery has been banished in the British Empire since the 1820s, although slavery inside the Maori world continued on for much longer. 

So was Kereopa Te Rau caught out, enacting a symbolic gesture the morality of which time had eroded and hollowed out and changed forever?

Perhaps. In the heat of the moment, it seemed a brilliantly symbolic act. His wife and two daughters were said to have been burnt to death by British soldiers earlier, so he effectively had a motive. 

The only problem here is that Kereopa Te Rau stoutly refused to accept this as a motive for his actions, even in his final letters to the world in the days before his death.

It is a very complicated story, as all human actions are, which take place at one particular moment but have to be understood in the longer context of someone's life, and changes in the way we view behaviour.

But the above still from the film interests me greatly, for what it says about how CS Volkner's death remained as a enduring symbol in the minds of New Zealanders - a grand guignol nightmare. But the still is also interesting in that the eye-eating, filmed at the time, and which Anzac Wallace said was disgusting to do, was edited out.

The symbolic removal of the eye-eating points to how some things need to be left out of a story, if you want to make your character sympathetic. If you want audiences to identify with your journey.

This relates to the contemporary attempt to rehabilitate Kereopa Te Rau and give his life a broader meaning than the one spectacularly gory act.

Unfortunately people tend to be seen in haiku form - compressed, all their changeable brilliance and various acts condensed into a single hieroglyph which often is even shortened further into good or bad.

At the moment the Office of Treaty Settlements and the Parliament of New Zealand have decided that Kereopa Te Rau should be officially pardoned. Surprisingly this became law on 9 April 2014 and got the royal assent on 16 April 2014. (I say surprising as I do not recall seeing a single mention of this extraordinarily historical act anywhere in the media.)

Part of this pardon is a kind of symbolic deleting of this act which is not even mentioned in the act.

So just as in the editing of Utu a too painful, too negatively constructed act, is removed from sight, so Kereopa Te Rau is remodelled for future time with a controversial act, not exactly removed, but certainly dampened down and tamped down so it no longer defines him. 

In fact that is the nature of air brushing in contemporary history, the blemish is removed completely.

Kereopa Te Rau is 'The Eye Eater' no more. He is just another victim of colonialism.

Whether this is strictly speaking, historically accurate, is another question. But few people today would accuse the Office of Treaty Settlements of historical accuracy.

Rather history is bent to the purposes of the state.  People are cleansed of past mistakes and presented to the future as idealised portraits.

To me this is understandable, in some senses, as a way of dampening down a century and a half of stigmatising and pain for Kereopa Te Rau's whanau and iwi. Whether it is being true to the core question inside history - what happened, why, when and how - is another question entirely.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Saints & Devils.

                                   Caption from 'Journey to a Hanging'.

I thought I'd talk about a few of the illustrations in my book Journey to a Hanging. I always love placing pictures inside books. It is where the film-maker in me comes out. And in my last book I worked out a way of illustrating which was a mixture of my contemporary photos and historical images. They seem to go together well and illustrate the double focus of my writing - a contemporary take on the past.

Here though I thought I'd talk about an historical image which intrigued me.

Discovering the photo in the Auckland Museum Library records.

This is a photo of CS Volkner which was taken by his close friend John Kinder. Kinder was a well educated man who spoke German. (In the 19th century Germany was seen as the land of Goethe, of advanced educational reform, of civilisation. At Kinder's house, which still exists at the top of Ayr Street Parnell, behind the Auckland Museum, CS Volkner and Kinder could relax, speaking in German, ranging over many topics.) 

But Kinder, as well as a teacher at Auckland Grammar was also a very talented watercolorist and, in his spare time, a photographer.

The door at Kinder House where Kinder took many photographs. It faced into the sun so had good light.
This was an exacting art and he practiced taking photographs of friends and family. He supplied some of the images of CS Volkner which were used over and over again, after CS Volkner's terrible death. But among his papers was a less familiar photograph. When I found it, looking through papers at the Auckland Museum, I felt a tremendous sense of excitement. This was partly because it dislodged the over-familiar images. 

But it was more than that. It seemed informal, and psychologically acute. Unusually in 19th century photography, it was a close up. But Carl Sylvius appears to be looking deep into the camera - almost as if he is staring into the future which he will soon vacate. His expression is ambiguous. You can sense his good looks - his hair colour was described as corn-yellow, his eyes were that greyish-blue colour - so his colouring was Germanic - one hesitates to say Aryan, because the much later Nazi appropriation of this type of colouring. But his features are regular and comely. He was in his early 40s.

(This photograph was probably not often used because of defects on the surface of the photo, the small blotches of black which might indicate some failure during the development process. But this 'failure' goes along with a great sense of reality, informality, insight.)

CS Volkner's hand is also in the shot, clasped. He stares into the camera and sees - what? Doubt? Uncertainty? Or is it certainty that he displays, that 'too firm' principle that a fellow German missionary, Kissling, said he would lose in time, as he got older and more experienced? But of course we know he had no time ahead of him. Or only a little. 

So this living portrait is a momento mori (a memory or harbinger of death) - just as photography itself is meant to be, according to Susan Sontag, an expression of the swift passing of time, essentially celebrating and marking the motion of present into the past - or passed.

I have to confess something further. When I see this picture of CS Volkner's head something in me takes a horrible step sideways, into the grotesque. This is a very difficult and potentially explosive area to examine. But this is to imagine what 
CS Volkner's head actually looked like when it was made into a moko mokai by the Pai Marire in Opotiki on 2 March 1865.

What is a moko mokai? It is a human head smoked, its eyes removed, its brains sucked out. The head was then boiled and the flesh smoothed out. Straw was often stuck up the nose to ensure the nasal cavity was kept straight. At times the lips were stitched together but often the lips were parted to reveal, horrifically, the state of the dental work of the human. At times this gives the shrunken head the appearance of a fiendish grin.

I have to admit I find even writing this turns my stomach. I am a person who looks away from the television screen when they show operations or internal medical explorations. I dislike blood and gore. 

Audiovisual at Rotorua Museum. 1 minutes 23 seconds to explain cannibalism in Maori society.

But there was of course another layering to this seemingly barbaric custom. Within Maori culture, moko mokai had a ceremonial or ritualistic place. It was not simply an expression of cannibalism (the eating of body parts) but was an expression of wairua and power. 

By eating somebody you consumed their mana, you overpowered their life essence, and, in a parallel act, you defamed them forever by shitting out their remains. 

That this occurred as late as 1865 - a time of railways and global travel - of chloroform and corsets  - indicates something about this act. It was 'out of time' , looked backwards to an earlier time when the eating of humans was a constant in Maori culture. (After all Christianity in the East Cape of the North Island had a name that literally translated into 'the instrument that removed human flesh from our teeth.') 

It was part of the turmoil of the land wars of the 1860s that a Christian/Anglican minister was selected for a return to ancient, pre-Christian customs.

So CS Volkner was hanged, then beheaded somewhat crudely, then his head was turned into a moko mokai by elders who still clearly remembered the customs which had only really stopped 35 years before. (So imagine for yourself something you did 35 years ago, like perhaps using a dial telephone. You would still instinctively be able to do this today.)

His eyes were removed and later swallowed by Kereopa Te Rau in CS Volkner's church. This was again done in a ceremonial manner, though nobody can agree on what Kereopa Te Rau actually said. (And he himself tried to deny that he had actually eaten the eyes at his trial in Napier in 1871. He said he only 'pretended' to eat them and he denied saying anything of any importance.)

There was something astonishingly appalling about the beheading. It fed directly into the 19th century taste for the grotesque. (Captain Morris Levy who was present during the killing, though possibly not seeing the actual hanging and beheading, asked to look at the head, to see it with his own eyes, soon after the moko mokai of CS Volkner was completed. There was something about 'seeing is believing' here.)

CS Volkner's death exploded into the newspapers in Auckland, then Sydney, then by telegraph and later reports all around the world. It was a scandal, a shock-horror episode and bizarrely 'amusing' case of a missionary being 'eaten' by the tribe who were supposed to be being converted by him. Burlesque poems followed, along with punning headlines - and calls for revenge. 

Lost in all this was one person: CS Volkner. He became a holy victim who swiftly became a saint.

And also lost in all this was Kereopa Te Rau, the man who swallowed CS Volkner's eyes. He became 'a devil'.

So that in essence is the trajectory of my story. The story of a 'saint' and a 'devil'. 

It is also, in that double focus, the story of how we see those terms today.

But for me, this intimate photograph of CS Volkner is important, as it reveals the human.

We have to find the human, to unlock the real story.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Getting the book finally....

I received the first copy of my book last week. It's always a big moment. To hold a book in your hand is amazing. All that work, worry, thought, midnight musing, angst. All that writing, rewriting and then rewriting again. And then, several years later, there is this finite outcome. A book

It weighs in your hand. You touch the pages. You scan through it quickly, urgently. You put it down. You go out of the room. And then you come back in, hours later and you get a shock. 

So this is what it looks like. This is it.

The cover illustration comes from the 1865 London Illustrated News. (The French version said 'Les Sauvages Fanatiques de la Nouvelle-Zealande'.)

It is meant to be a depiction of the killing of Carl Volkner, the Anglican minister of Opotiki in 1865. But really is a work of the imagination. It was heavily influenced by massacres like the St Bartholomew Days Massacre in Paris  in the 16th century.

The person making up the 1865 scene had probably never been to New Zealand. And it is wrong in nearly every detail (Rev Volkner was not lying on the ground being hatcheted with axes. His death was more ceremonial than that. Besides, he was hanged from a willow tree. So in nearly every detail this picture is wrong.)

Why use it on a cover then?

Ask my publisher that.

This is the title I really wanted for my book. 

But the publishing 'committee' decided it was too opaque, hard to say, difficult to remember. The title of the book 'Journey to a Hanging' was decided upon. It may surprise you that an author has so few rights about titling their book or its cover. But here is an example of what a famous book - The Great Gatsby - could have been called if the author had his way. Trimalchio in West Egg

So we'll wait and see how this name works.


In the next week or so I'll talk about illustrating the book. This is where I felt I had the right to insist on what I wanted. But we'll see, even here, there is dialogue. 

The fact is a book is made by many people, one of whom (and the person who usually has to take responsibility if things go wrong) is the author. 

I would have preferred a more contemporary image for the front of the book myself. My last book has a contemporary take on an historical character. I like this fusion, this doubleness. It also implies the book is contemporary in the way it talks. 

It'll be interesting to see whether this book can surmount its faintly text-book like persona, at the moment. 
I'm hoping so, of course....