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.





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