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 cafĂ©, 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.)