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 ...