Monday, February 27, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“EARLY NEW ZEALAND PHOTOGRAPHY – Images and Essays”, edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erik Wolf (Otago University Press, $50)

Early New Zealand Photography. To me, a non-expert in the field, the title alone immediately conjures up a familiar type of book – an album of copious photographs from the nineteenth century, showing existing towns and cities as they once looked, men and women dressed as they once dressed, and the primitive or quaint technology of an earlier age; in fine, the type of book that is an inducement to nostalgia and that is sold as a gift-book to Mum and Dad or grandparents around Christmastime. Our public libraries bulge with examples of such publications, well thumbed by pensive pensioners as teenagers yip and yap around them, playing on the computer terminals that also crowd our libraries.

But this Early New Zealand Photography is no such publication.

Edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf,  two academics of the University of Otago, Early New Zealand Photography is, as its subtitle says, a book of Images and Essays. To be precise, its twenty-four essays, which originated in a symposium held in 2007, are detailed reflections on the provenance, historicity, authenticity, means of production and appropriate modes of interpretation of some early New Zealand photographs. Each essay deconstructs one, or at most two or three, specific photographs, so this is not essentially a picture book but a book about pictures, an “anthology of essays on single images” as its Acknowledgements note declares.

Wanhalla’s and Wolf’s Introduction is careful to avoid the suggestion that any commentary can pin down, for good and all, the meaning of any image. They note that “these essays are not intended to provide definitive readings but rather offer a variety of ways to read the visual. They also address the changing and contradictory ways photographs have been read in the past and can be read today.” Society and culture change. What these late nineteenth-century and very early twentieth-century images meant to the people who created them and first saw them is hardly likely to be the same as what they mean to us. Wanhalla and Hall also set the parameters of the work, remarking that it is not a comprehensive survey of all the types of photography that were practised in the years they have chosen, from around 1850 to around 1910. The 23 contributors have written no essays on lantern slides, prison mugshots, school-class photographs, pornography, etc. Also, as it happens, all the photographers whose work is analysed were male.

The best of the Introduction is its reminder of the “materiality” of photographs as objects. They are artefacts produced using specific technology for specific purposes, and presented with specific materials in specific dimensions. This “materiality” is often forgotten when photographs are reproduced in glossy books, but it is certainly accounted for in each of these essays.

Further, photographs are taken in a specific time and place. Necessarily Wanhalla and Hall give a very brief account of the history of early photography in New Zealand, and the essays appear in roughly chronological order. It would seem that the very first photographs taken in New Zealand were in the late 1840s, probably daguerrotypes made by a photographer on a visiting French ship. But those images have never been tracked down. Technology moved on slowly. Photographs (such as daguerrotypes) were originally single objects incapable of reproduction. Only when cameras produced negatives was mass (re)production of the same image made possible; and only when the Kodak was marketed at the turn of the last century did “consumer cameras” become commonplace. Photography then moved from being exclusively the province of professionals with cumbersome equipment. Now happy (and more mobile) amateurs could take holiday and family snaps. The work of professional photographers became both more restricted and more specialised. It is at that historical point that this collection of essays ends.

How clearly are the concerns of the Introduction – materiality, provenance, historical context and interpretation - articulated in the 24 essays that follow?

Very clearly, of course, as the Introduction was written after the essays were contributed.
I think the difficulties imposed by technology in nineteenth century photography are best expressed at the beginning of  Wayne Barrar’s essay on the landscape photographer Daniel Louis Mundy. Barrar describes Mundy’s modus operandi in making an image of a South Island bridge in 1868:  “After parking his darkroom wagon at the far end, he would have mixed his chemicals, carefully coated his wet collodion glass plate with light-sensitive solution, walked over the bridge, set up his tripod and camera, made the required long exposure, then developed the plate ‘on location.’ ” Not exactly the same as aiming, clicking and moving on! Interestingly, while much nineteenth century New Zealand photography was undertaken in the interests of publicising New Zealand as a desirable and habitable destination for British immigrants, Barrar describes Mundy’s work as “anti-invitational” – reflecting the rawness and hardness of the country in its early Pakeha slash-and-burn settlement phase.

Some essays in this volume are almost exclusively concerned with the historical time and place and purpose of an image under review, as when Brian Moloughney and Antje Lubcke look at photographs taken by Presbyterian missionaries in, respectively, China and the New Hebrides. Similarly, Keith Giles worries away at whether a certain daguerrotype of 1852 was or was not taken by Isaac Polack; and Erika Wolf interprets stereoscopic views of the Dunedin exhibition of 1889-90 as evidence of commercial publicity rather than of documentation.

Such essays are absolutely necessary in establishing a realistic history of New Zealand photography. More stimulating, however, are those essays that demand we take nothing for granted and realize that certain familiar images may not be saying what we think they are saying.

In this respect, one of the best essays is the very first in the collection, Christine Whybrew’s analysis of an 1853 daguerrotype portrait of the sisters Caroline and Sarah Barratt. The young women (who had an English father and a Te Atiawa mother) are dressed in English clothes, with their hair severely parted and tied in respectable Victorian fashion. The image has often been reproduced for its ethnographic interest – as if it were recorded specifically to illustrate Maori assimilation to European ways. But as Whybrew argues convincingly, the image was in fact a family photo recorded for a special occasion (the coming marriage of one of the two young women) and with the sisters wearing “best” matching clothes that were not their habitual attire.

As portrait photography established itself, it was often seen as an adjunct or aid to the older art of the portrait painter. One of the most familiar New Zealand paintings of the nineteenth century is Gottfried Lindauer’s painting of Ana Reupene Whetuki with her baby on her back. Lindauer painted and re-painted this same image many times, and up to nineteen versions of it hang in New Zealand art galleries and in private collections. It has been reproduced in innumerable picture-books, posters and postcards and has become iconic, like a Maori Madonna-and-Child. But Lindauer (like the painter Goldie) habitually worked from photographs for his portraits. Keith Hall’s essay sets Lindauer’s painting against the original photograph by the Foy Brothers from which Lindauer worked. It shows an image similar to Lindauer’s painting, but the face of Ana Reupene Whatuki is so much more alive, alert and – dare one say it – challenging in the photograph than it is in the softened painting. By such techniques many familiar nineteenth century images were made. (At this point I drop in an interesting footnote – Paula Morris’s recent excellent historical novel Rangatira is structured around the situation of her ancestor the Maori aristocrat Paratene Te Manu undergoing long sittings for a portrait being painted by Gottfried Lindauer. But as Morris herself admits in an author’s note, probably no such sittings ever took place as Lindauer would have worked from a photograph of the chief.)

The matter of nineteenth century portrait painting’s dependence on photography is visited again in Angela Wanhalla’s own essay comparing a monochrome portrait photograph with its coloured painted version.

To comment in detail on every essay in this book would be to take more space than even I can afford on this blog.

I am forced to generalizations.

I believe there are some essays that struggle a little in their own visual interpretations. Professor Barbara Brookes is doubtless right in interpreting the disturbed woman, caught by Dr Truby King’s lens in the Seacliff psychiatric hospital, as more of an agent and less of a victim than she might once have been thought; but the images themselves don’t tell us this. Likewise Simon Dench’s analysis of a 1910 image of a road has a hard time proving that the image per se is propaganda for local development, even if it was recorded for such purposes. I might also add that some essays strain at a gnat, saying verbosely the bleeding obvious. Yes, Robert Gant’s 1880s photos of chaps cuddling do suggest a homo-erotic sub-culture, which could have been established in fewer words than Chris Brickell’s essay takes. Yes, photomontages in newspaper supplements (Cathy Tuato’o Ross’s essay) do present an idealised image of the world. Ditto comment.

At the risk of denigrating a useful and very interesting book, I must also add that many essays come close to being the same essay, perhaps reflecting a similar sociological and postmodernist mindset on the part of the contributors. If photographs of Maori artefacts or locations are being discussed, one can be fairly sure that the nineteenth century Pakeha photographer will be ticked off for his ethnic and cultural insensitivity in presenting things in a manner that appealed to Pakeha presuppositions. (The exception is Simon Ryan’s essay on W.A.Collis’s sympathetic photographs of Parihaka). Likewise, if photographs have already been subject to earlier commentary, we can be fairly sure that those earlier commentators will be ticked off for their lack of perception in failing to notice the artificial “constructed” nature of the image and the material means of its manufacture.

In the face of these severe and judgemental strictures, I found some relief in those essays that express a frank delight in the images under review. After properly and correctly analysing Charles Spencer’s image of a devastated landscape after the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera, Rebecca Rice endearingly admits that she was first attracted to the image by its purely aesthetic appeal, as an apparently post-apocalyptic image. Gary Blackman likewise analyses a amateur 1905 photograph of a statue being unveiled in terms of its historical context and the equipment used. But it is plain that his main admiration of the image comes (as mine does) from its – apparently accidental – composition and balance as women’s bonnets and dresses are kicked around by an intrusive wind. A purely personal aesthetic response.

Collectively, the editors and contributors prove the case that many specific skills are involved in reading old photographs rightly. But it is the moments of personal engagement that give Early New Zealand Photography its greatest appeal.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“IN SEARCH OF THE BLUES – Black Voices, White Visions”  by Marybeth Hamilton (first published 2007)

When we look at a photograph taken in the nineteenth century, there is always the possibility that we will take it as being “innocent” – a direct representation of the past, with no strings attached. We might even say it is “authentic” – the past unvarnished and unmediated, and hence an objective historical document that cannot be disputed. But as the essays of Early New Zealand Photography illustrate amply, there is no “innocence” when it comes to representation. There is always an agenda, a viewpoint, a construction – not to mention the limitations and conventions imposed by the state of technology. Photographs were taken by their creators with various assumptions in mind. Photographs select, crop, frame, pose and interpret the things in front of the lens. They do not allow us to walk untrammelled though a door to the past. They mediate. While the things depicted may have had an objective reality, photographs of them are often what comes between us and the past rather than giving us free range in the past.

It is rather dampening and deflating to realize all this. We would so much like to believe that those images of the past which we can access deliver “authenticity” to us; that we are making contact with something real and tangible.  But we are often deluded if we believe this.

These reflections brought to my mind a sharp critique of the delusion of “authenticity” in a field quite different from early photography – the field of early jazz and blues music.

I confess that I – a white, middle-class intellectual – am a lover of this kind of music. For all the technical imperfections of primitive recording techniques, I get a great buzz out of listening to (CD re-pressings of) the bluesmen and jazzmen from the earlier decades of the 20th century. I love much of the jazz that followed that era – the Swing of the 1930s and the Bebop of the 1940s and the Cool and Progressive and Modern Jazz thereafter. But for touching the soul and lifting the spirit, nothing can match hearing Gertrude “Ma” Rainey lamenting the absence of her Trav’lling Man (“hear me talkin’ to ya”) or Bessie Smith delivering the tough, sardonic wail of Sing Sing Prison Blues or young Louis Armstrong performing Lord, You Made the Night Too Long with feeling, before soaring into a trumpet solo – all of them recorded in the 1920s. As well as enjoying the musicianship, I’m imagining that I’m hearing an “authentic” voice of early black urban culture, lamenting real sorrows in a real world of real feeling before the slickness of modern popular song-writing kicked in. They deliver their souls to me on a plate.

And then along comes Marybeth Hamilton’s little book and it (effectively and convincingly) shatters my delusion.

Hamilton’s subject is not, in fact, the urban blues performers whom I’ve just named, but the black country bluesmen from the 1900s to the 1930s.

Briefly, her theme is that the whole concept of “authenticity” in early black blues is really the invention of white enthusiasts, collectors and musicologists, projecting their own desires onto the recordings of black artists which they enjoyed.

She begins with a reflection on the music of the legendary Robert Johnson, who recorded just 29 tracks in a small Southern recording studio in the 1930s, before dying at a young age. Numerous (white) blues singers and rock stars claim to be inspired by him. Robert Johnson’s complete and collected recordings fit comfortably onto one CD (which sits in my collection and to which I have often listened). Hamilton quotes some of the extravagant things that have been said in interpretation of Johnson’s track Stones in My Passway as the authentic voice of black suffering. She then proceeds to listen to the song itself and concludes that (stereotypical and limited as its lyrics are) it simply cannot bear the weight of interpretations that have been loaded on it.

And she is right.

Listened to “cold”, and without the supposition that he is a figure of legend, Robert Johnson is an okay guitar player and an average blues wailer. No more than that. The legend has been built from his young death, lack of documentation about him (which allows legends to grow) and the two or three surviving photographs of him which show a young man posing with a guitar, with (in one of the photographs) a macho cigarette dangling from his lower lip. Exactly the pose that has been imitated on album covers by so many of his white admirers.

With documentation, Hamilton argues that the concept of “Delta Blues” (Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House et al.) was invented in the 1950s and 1960s even if the recordings were made in the 1920s and 1930s.

She argues this thesis by following through the careers of specific white musicologists and record collectors. The song collectors Howard Odum and Dorothy Scarborough, in the 1910s and 1920s, were both white Southerners who collected songs in order to find the “authentic” and “uncorrupted” voice of blacks before they became urbanised and exposed to commercial music. In other words, they really hankered for the certainties of the old plantation, before blacks took their own place in modern society.

Something similar was true of the Texan blues enthusiast John Lomax who, in the 1930s, “discovered” – and probably exploited – the bluesman Huddie Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”). Ledbetter was then taken up by left-wingers (including John Lomax’s left-wing son Alan Lomax), who turned him into a symbol of the oppressed black proletariat and encouraged him to write contemporary protest songs. But they were shaping him to their ideological concept of what a black musician should be as much as  Howard Odum, Dorothy Scarborough and John Lomax did when they collected “authentic” songs. You are not hearing an “authentic” black voice when you hear a Lead Belly record. You are hearing a black performer who performed according to (white-controlled) commercial imperatives and whose material was often shaped by (white) advisors.

In the 1940s, when jazz was moving from Swing to Bebop, the white musicologists William Russell, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsay provoked the “Dixieland Revival” by promoting the earliest New Orleans jazz as an “authentic” urban folk music, “uncorrupted’ by later commercialisation. This phase, however, was not enough for one of them. Disillusioned by the gradual realization that “Dixieland” was itself an eminently commercial form of music, Frederic Ramsay set out to find something more “authentic” and hit on what he called “country blues”. Surely this, at last, represented the true soul of black folks before they were led astray by recording contracts! Finally, in the 1950s and 1960s the eccentric New York record-collector James McKune discovered the neglected  recordings of Robert Johnson and others, and the term “Delta Blues” was at last coined in the 1960s.

One thing Marybeth Hamilton makes touchingly clear. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the very rarity of copies of the old “country blues” recordings, the very fact that not many people (black or white) actually wanted to listen to them and that there had been no demand for them to be re-pressed, that made them attractive to the small group of white enthusiasts. That these scratchy old discs could be found only in second-hand and junk stores was part of what made them attractive to the likes of McKune. There was the thrill of the hunt for them, the sense of having found undiscovered treasure, and especially the sense that – even though one was only collecting records – one was actually a lonesome rebel against the commercial mainstream. Once the legend of the “Delta blues” was born, the old recordings began to be re-pressed and mass-circulated in LPs (the vinyl equivalent of a CD collection). And suddenly the likes of McKune lost interest in them. If they had become the property of a mass audience, then they were no longer an elite, rebel taste. They too were now “commercial’ and no longer “authentic”.

In this sad and instructive story of cultural misapprehension, Hamilton pursues some major lines of argument. One is that white collectors and enthusiasts often overlooked the fact that people whom they perceived as “authentic” black folk musicians were already recording in an environment of commercialism, even in the 1920s and 1930s. What Robert Johnson,  Skip James, Son House and others recorded were songs that were already influenced by vaudeville, show tunes and other recordings that that they had heard. So how “authentic” were they anyway?

Another major point is that, as a close scrutiny of record sales shows, even by the 1920s quite rural black communities shunned those very performers whom the white aficionados later mythologised. Rural blacks themselves much preferred to listen to the urban (and quite cheerfully commercial) jazz of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams and Louis Armstrong. They were already uninterested in solitary wailers to solitary guitars. So how “folk” is a folk music if the folks ain’t listening to it? And how much can it be said to represent “authentically” their concerns?

Hamilton also notes that the concept of the lone, inspired, rambling black bluesman of the Delta fitted neatly into the post-Second World War white “beat” generation of males’ self-mythologization as alienated loners. The legend of “authentic” Delta bluesmen, travelling, making pacts with the Devil at the crossroads, opening their mouths and letting their real unmediated feelings out, was just the ticket for white “beats” whose main concern was running away from domestic commitment.

Finally, and most heartfelt as a woman writer, Hamilton notes that the whole myth of the “authentic” Delta bluesmen overlooked the fact that the first black artists to really record the blues in the 1920s were all women – Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith etc. But the white male collectors who invented the “Delta blues” myth simply overlooked them or dismissed them as “commercial”. Besides, women didn’t fit into the desired image of the male loner rambling to roads with guitar in hand.

I finished reading this book with no diminished respect for the old (1920s) jazz music that I still love. I am perfectly happy that Marybeth Hamilton punctured some of my illusions about how such music was produced. I feel a sententious aesthetic truism coming on. Just as we should judge a book by how it is written, and not by what we know of the writer, so should we judge music by what it is, and not by legends that surround it. Stripped of legend, much so-called “Delta blues” is trite, repetitive, musically unimaginative and limited even if (like most other musical genres) it sometimes expresses real feeling.

And if Robert Johnson came to my door, guitar in hand, I’d listen with pleasure to one or two of his numbers before giving him a whiskey and sending him on his way.

Then I’d punch a button and listen to some more early Louis Armstrong.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Whether out of affection or in a spirit of ironical raillery I know not, but for Christmas last year my eldest son gave me a three-CD collection of recordings from the 1959 Newport Folk Festival.

I’ve had it sitting on the CD player in my car over the last couple of weeks. I’ve listened to it with pleasure, two or three times through, as I’ve been snarled in traffic jams coming home from work.

I know Pete Seeger was a complacently Stalinist creep when he was a young man, but I still love to hear his rich baritone proclaiming Careless Love or The Bells of Rhymney. I want to jig when Tommy Maken comes in with the pure Oirishness of Mountain Dew. Odetta sings with feeling a version of Cotton Fields Back Home more folksy and less rockabilly-inflected than the version that became popular in the 1960s. Oscar Brand sings out with the old socialist striker’s anthem Which Side Are You On?  Then there’s a special track – in fact the highlght of the three-CD set – where the then-well-known Bob Gibson fronts up with an unknown, unbilled kid and the two of them begin singing We are Crossing the River Jordan. Just a few bars in and her voice is easily out-soaring his. By the end of the song it’s plainly she who is getting the crowd’s roars of approval. It’s the 18-year-old Joan Baez on her first recording date – and she was damned good.

Listening to all this, I mentally reconstruct the ethos of an American folk-music festival 53 years ago. Good will abounded. Righteousness was in the air (far more songs came from a specifically Christian Gospel tradition than would be the case at a folk gathering now). In a few short years they were going to march on the Washington monument and listen to Martin Luther King have a dream and demand racial equality and desegregation. Goodness, guitars and plain folk without an agenda would prevail in the world.

Easy to be cynical with half a century’s hindsight and knowledge of how History (and Vietnam and cultural divisiveness and feminism and monetarism and postmodernism) would kick this simple dream to pieces. Too easy, in fact. I listen to the CDs and wish life were as simple and black-and-white in morality as the old folk festival ethos always implies.

But another set of thoughts come to me.

Is there any form of music that has been more haunted by delusions of “authenticity” than folk music? I doubt it. Why should this be so? Because old folkies want to believe that they are listening to the natural and authentic expression of “the people” without any intervening calculations of commercialism.

Consider that very term “folk music”. It suggests an upswelling from all of the “folk” (and doesn’t “folk”, like its German parent “Volk”, at once evoke peasants and countrypeople as opposed to urbanites and city slickers?). It ignores the fact that many “folk songs” are the compositions of specific individuals who had their own commercial and monetary interests. It implies that this is a natural and uncorrupted music. Especially when deployed by left-wingers (hello The Almanac Singers, hello The Weavers, hello Billy Bragg), it assumes the virtue of simple ordinary people in opposition to business corporations and the commercial mainstream.

Liking folk music means – supposedly – being virtuous and resisting commercial pressure.

You can get really grisly and dishonest versions of this ethos. In his 1962 play Chips With Everything, the left-wing playwright Arnold Wesker has an RAF recruit being pushed around by “the officer class’. Cynically, the officers want the proletarian squaddies to listen to Elvis Presley and rock’n’roll which are, of course, ways of keeping the working class drugged on inanities. An officer thinks he will get an easy chuckle by asking a recruit to sing. He imagines he is going to hear some banal rock lyric. Instead, the recruit gets up and sings a show-stopping “authentic” folk song and the officer is rightly put in his place.

Intended moral of left-wing playwright? Folk songs encode “authentic” folk culture which industrialised capitalist society is trying to stamp out.

Reality? Elvis and rock music more genuinely represented working class culture in the 1950s and 1960s than “folk” music ever did, and a left-wing playwright’s failure to recognise this is yet another proof of how much left-wing thought (especially in its communist guise) is a profoundly reactionary hankering after a peasant world that no longer exists. There is also that reproving puritanical suspicion that if the working class actually likes something (like Elvis) without left-wing theorists telling them to, then it can’t be good for them. Left-wing theorists have always had a hard time accommodating the real appeal of the mass media into their cultural assumptions, and are always ready to grab at conspiracy theories (“The ruling class are trying to drug you!”).

But I digress.

Folk music, for all its real pleasures, is no more “authentic” than any other genre of music. Some of its tunes come from long ago, sure. But others have been composed as knowingly, and with intended audience impact as much in mind, as anything that came from Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building.

More than once, I’ve heard the term “folk tune” used to signal some number’s acceptability. Recently, on National Radio, I heard a caller fondly commending the “Irish folk song” The Mountains of Morne. Actually, The Mountains of Morne is no folk song. It’s a late nineteenth-century parlour ballad composed by the Anglo-Irish tunesmith Percy French (the same guy who composed Phil the Fluter and Adbul Abulbul Amir). But sing it to an untuned solitary guitar and be soulful about it and you can imagine you are hearing “the people” singing.

Like hearing the sea in a seashell.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“GIVE YOUR THOUGHTS LIFE–William Colenso’s Letters to the Editor ”, compiled and edited by Ian St George (Otago University Press, $65)

It’s a rare thing to find myself, two weeks in succession, dealing with books about the same man, but such is the case now.

Last week I featured Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart, his idiosyncratic book (not really a full biography) of reflections and interpretations of the life of William Colenso. It is driven very much by Wells’ own interests and it centres on psycho-sexual matters relating to the disintegration of Colenso’s marriage and the nature (at least as Peter Wells sees it) of Colenso’s private life.

This week, by coincidence, I find myself reviewing a capacious collection of William Colenso’s letters to the press. I have taken some weeks to read this big book. It is 500 large and closely-printed pages of nineteenth-century controversial prose. Its 51-year span is from letters written in 1847, when Colenso was 36, to letters written in 1898, one year before Colenso’s  death at the age of 88. The letters are arranged into five sections, roughly corresponding to each decade of Colenso’s public letter-writing. Each section is preceded by a bare chronology of Colenso’s life omitting, I can’t help noting, the private matters that so concern Peter Wells. Collectively, these letters create a very different impression of the man from the one given by Peter Wells.

In Give Your Thoughts Life we see the public figure, the man communicating with his community, and not Colenso in his boudoir being analysed by an amateur Freud.

The title Give Your Thoughts Life comes from a letter Colenso wrote to the Hawke’s Bay Herald in 1859, urging readers to contribute more to the correspondence columns. He certainly followed his own advice. As Ian St George’s handy introduction says, Colenso wrote regularly to the New Zealand Herald in Auckland, and to Wellington and Taranaki newspapers. But living in Napier for most of the late nineteenth century, he contributed more to the Hawke’s Bay Herald  than to any other journal. Ian St George estimates that in the second half of his life, Colenso would have written three long letters per day to newspapers and friends. Many of them are now lost, and St.George admits that he was confined to collecting those accessible in the “Papers Past” search-engine.

He categorises Colenso as typical of the “white, middle-aged, well-educated upper-middle-class man who was an avid reader, lived in the country and had strongly liberal political views”.

In those days, newspapers were eager for copy and imposed almost no length-limitations upon correspondents. They were just made for an autodidact polymath maverick like Colenso, who was always ready with an opinion, argument or observation on current affairs. Newspapers were then the chief means of community discussion. Nowadays virtually none of Colenso’s letters would see the light of print, in an age when newspapers want letters 300 words or fewer, maximum.

If the letters were expansive, however, the community they addressed was not. St. George notes that Napier had a total population of 900 when its chief newspaper began publication. The letters it ran (including most of Colenso’s) would have originally been read by an audience of a few hundred at most. Ploughing through this collection, the very personal note of many of Colenso’s letters, and the frequent references to specific individuals in the small settler community, made me feel as if I were eavesdropping on a family conversation.

I hope I do not have to spell out that a collection of this sort is a treasure trove for historians, who want to see what the concerns and opinions of an articulate person in another age were. But this does not necessarily make it a treasure trove for the general reader. I must admit I found myself nodding when Colenso’s letters discourse at length on desirable drainage and roading for Napier. Most readers will have a hard time wading through the 1858 series of letters which Colenso jocularly calls “Tracts for the Times” and in which he discusses the status of Hawke’s Bay as a province, whether it should separate from Wellington, how it needs more Pakeha population and so forth.

Colenso was himself involved in local, provincial and national politics, at various times being an MP (in the then capital, Auckland), an MPC (Member of the Provincial Council), and Hawke’s Bay’s Inspector of Schools. So among his letters there are many fulsome addresses around election times to “electors” – meaning that tiny handful of Pakeha males who were then permitted to vote. In the 1850s, he spends a lot of time in the letters columns arguing about local politics with a jackanapes called Robert Pharazyn. In 1863, there is a heated and unseemly correspondence about whether Colenso had or had not insulted the Scottish race in a speech he made on the hustings. So often we are faced with pompous declarations of principles and the impression that the issues being discussed are world-shattering. We can cure ourselves of this delusion by remembering that much of Colenso’s ink was expended on very small-scale local enterprises. How seriously they took themselves in those days, when they had a sense of Destiny opening up a new country to them!

Much more interesting to me than political matters are some of Colenso’s more enduring concerns.

One is his interest in botany. He is frequently offering advice on how to best care for plants. An early letter offers 18 numbered steps on how best to plant and care for fruit trees. Another expands on the best varieties of apple tree for local acclimatisation. He discusses the Maori names for varieties of olive. Late in the volume there are a number of his letters passing on advice from Dr Hooker of Kew Gardens, about strange insects and destructive fungi he has spotted.

Another of Colenso’s concerns is race relations in New Zealand. St.George calls him “philo-Maori”, and on the whole this is true. Colenso usually offers a remarkably conciliatory attitude towards Maori who have been accused of crime or of special violence in provincial wars.  Written in 1847, the very first letter in this collection has him defending Maori against charges of stealing from a ship. Very occasionally in the early years he writes in Maori (signing himself “Koroneho”). In the press he defends the former HauHau Kereopa for his part in the murder of the Reverend Volkner. Regrettably, this volume does not reproduce the whole of his pamphlet about Kereopa – a footnote tells us that it will appear later in a collection of Colenso’s other writings. On 28 February 1883, Colenso writes a long and detailed letter supporting an amnesty for Te Kooti – a very brave thing to do in Hawke’s Bay at the time when Pakeha still feared Te Kooti as the marauder and  raider of outlying farms.

Colenso obviously made many enemies for his attitudes. From 1874  right through the 1880s, he often has to respond to carping criticisms that he is taking too long to compile a promised Maori lexicon, which had been generously funded out of the public purse. It’s a reasonable inference that some of these criticisms were payback for his pro-Maori views.

Yet there are times when Colenso’s Pakeha perspective asserts itself. He wants justice for Maori, but he never doubts that British settlement and laws will and should prevail, that Maori should be assimilated to them, and that any attempts to hold up Pakeha settlement must be resisted. In his letter of 22 October 1859 he bemoans at length the existence of Maori land-leagues, which are attempting to block sale of tribal lands to Pakeha.
One major area of Colenso’s correspondence that interests me is his involvement in religious controversy. Sometimes he is apparently very broad-minded for his age, preaching the subordination of denomination to general Christian principle. In his letter of 7 June 1880, responding to the Protestant push for Bible readings in the newly-established secular state schools (the “Bible-in-Schools” movement), he very sensibly comments that Bible readings alone mean nothing without some exposition. In a series of letters in 1896, he opposes the Prohibition movement by supporting true and voluntary Temperance.

Yet you do also encounter in Colenso the ingrained prejudices (sometimes approaching bigotry) of the old Anglican Evangelical. In 1879, he whines about “the wretched Ritualistic clique” – meaning those “Anglo-Catholic” Anglicans who were attempting to make their drab church more colourful by imitating the ceremonies of the Catholic Church. On 23 April 1891, he severely rebukes two young men for daring to go hunting on the Sabbath day. On 7 April 1892 he wades in to the Seventh Day Adventist sect thus: “those wretched men the Adventists, one of the lowest and worst sects of falsely-called ‘Christians’ known to me, who… unsettle and lead astray the simple, the quiet and the unwary”.

As an Evangelical, his chief antagonism is towards the Catholic Church. In August 1884, he imprudently challenges the Catholic priest Le Menant Des Chenais over some facts the priest cited in a speech. A few letters later he has to grumpily apologise. It was Colenso who got his facts wrong. In his letter of 4 June 1895, he responds to ideas of ultimate church union with a warning against “the sophistries and blandishments, the music and fair speeches of erring meretricious Rome.” Interestingly, most such prejudiced letters come late in the collection, suggesting that Colenso’s spiritual arteries were hardening in old age.

Apart from letters on politics, Maori matters, botany and religion, there are some letters that startle by their sheer quirkiness. I was intrigued by the letter of 13 May 1864 in which Colenso questions whether it was really the historian Macaulay who initiated the familiar, oft-quoted thought about a future age in which a “New Zealander” (i.e. Maori) would sketch the ruins of St Paul’s from the broken arch of London Bridge. Then there’s a series of letters to the Otago Witness in which Colenso sets them straight on the history of printing in New Zealand.

Colenso can sometimes be an opinionated old fool. His letters are certainly verbose and he is always ready to pep them up with literary or classical quotation, to show that he is an English gentleman with the appropriate intellectual credentials. He is not good at taking criticism. As an example of having your cake and eating it, or pretending to turn the other cheek without really turning it, take this uncharacteristically brief letter of 19 January 1861:

Reading on Saturday last the letter signed ‘George Worgan’ in your paper of that date, I had nearly made up my mind to answer it fully in your next issue, but, having been led to think on him this day while using these words – “That it may please Thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors and slanderers, and to turn their hearts” – I feel it now to be a duty not to notice the sad letter of the poor unhappy old man.
I am etc.
Yours Truly
William Colenso”

The historical value of this book is high. But in the end I have to say that Colenso was no particular stylist, and many of these letters are nit-picking, peevish and egotistical. He often burbles on for far longer than he really need and he gives the impression of someone desperate to nail down topics and have the last word. A bit like today’s talkback hosts. Or, for that matter, the runners of book blogs.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“MARIUS THE EPICUREAN” Walter Pater (written 1881-1884; first published 1885)

Reading William Colenso’s letters-to-the-editor on nineteenth-century religious controversies leads me into a piece of sheer self-indulgence.

I am about to examine and praise a book which has a very dubious reputation and is filled with faults. It is also a book whose religious outlook represents nearly everything Colenso hated. If William Colenso was at heart an Evangelical – a man who referred every religious argument to the Bible and who hated religious ritual – then Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean is a book that pushes love of ritual to sheer aestheticism. The Bible and Christian precept vanish in a puff of incense.

Walter Pater (1839-94) was a discreet and retiring Oxford don, an historian and aesthetician whose writings inspired a couple of generations of British “Decadents”, Oscar Wilde being their flashiest exponent. Pater lived quietly and died a virgin. (One slightly rude reference I saw declared that he was “probably innocent of any sexual experience with another human being”.) Nevertheless, the tone he set was deeply homo-erotic – a world of gaily dressed young men burning incense on their rooms as they read the “pagan” poetry of Algernon Swinburne to each other, and wondered if they should become High Church Anglicans or Catholics or merely swan off to the south of France together and write bad poetry.

A world of camp, in other words.

For many such young men, Marius the Epicrean was the Bible, at least it was if they hadn’t yet got around to reading the more interesting French works of Joris-Karl Huysmans.

Plot? There isn’t one.

Marius the Epicurean is essentially a set of reflections tied together by the merest wisp of narrative. (A joker once characterised the book with reference to Keats’ great line as a character “alone and palely loitering”).

In the Rome of the pagan philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the late 2nd century AD, young Marius tastes and tries the truth of a series of philosophies. The action, such as it is, is all inward and mental, creating a sense of passivity in the main character. There are some passages on the Christian widow Cecilia, and on the concept of motherhood, but Marius’ strongest attachments are to males – with the young man Flavian, who dies of the plague, and with a chap called Cornelius, who expresses vigour and youth. This squares very much with the mindset of the timid bachelor don who wrote the book and who died, unmarried, in the house of his sisters.

Passivity and lack of strong sexual attachment define the delicate sensibility of Marius as he tentatively fingers the surface of life, having never taken the radical plunge into commitment, let alone marriage and procreation. In short, he is a spectator of life’s most essential dramas. Though Marius dies in early middle age, and though Walter Pater was in his forties when he wrote this book, I read it as the sensibility of a sensitive, and as-yet-untried, adolescent.

So much for playing psychologist to a mind finer than my own.

What of the conscious subject-matter of the book?

Essentially, the Epicureanism of Marius is the method against which various available philosophies are tried. – first the traditional pagan “religion of Numa” for those who still believe in the ancient pagan gods; then dinner-table aestheticism; and finally Stoicism and early Christianity.

Epicureanism says that ultimate answers are unknowable (is there a God or afterlife etc.?). Therefore, value in life has to be found in the lived experience of the senses. But, fully aware that this could become a formula for mindless hedonism, Pater says that value means what is true to human experience; what is morally right; what we feel happy with when we survey our memories. In other words, forswearing traditional religious answers, he gives moral gravity to the concept of living well. Or at least he tries to. In practice it means that all philosophical systems are subjected to judgement by aesthetic criteria. How true are they to human feeling; to a sense of wellbeing; to the creation of beauty?

For all its attractions, the old pagan religion is rejected by Marius/Pater as it does not account adequately for tragedy in human life. Marius ceases to be a worshipper of the old gods when plague carries off his friend Flavian.

Stoicism is immensely attractive in the court of the emperor Marcus Aurelius and in the personal goodness of the (Christian-hating) emperor himself. But it ends creating a profound melancholy in Marius. After all, if we endure pain and suffering as Stoics do, by seeing them as mere unreal shadows that will pass, then we are also saying that the joys and goodness of life are mere shadows. Life is drained of reality and meaning. Stoicism stands back from the physical world, undervalues it and contemplates it passively. It simply does not account for human passions. (I wonder how much Pater was aware that this rejection could apply equally to the arguments of Schopenhauer in his own lifetime?)

So, in the novel’s final sections, Marius gives his qualified approval to (civilised, urban, Roman) Christianity. This is not on the basis of any Christian doctrine (doctrines are never examined) but on the strength of Christianity’s aesthetic appeal as a religion whose rituals feast the human senses without ignoring essential human feeling. Dying on the last page, Marius receives the Christian sacrament, but there is no sense that he has ceased to be an Epicurean. He has simply found a congenial home for his worldview.

I can see how for Pater and others this could lead straight into the type of smell-and-bells Catholicism that luxuriates in the rituals of (pre-Vatican II) Catholicism without taking on board any of the church’s teachings.

More significantly, though, I am struck by the similarity of the Aesthetic answer of Pater to the popular Existentialism of a later age. Both deny the validity of received values, traditional religion and absolute answers. In essence both say the individual has to create his/her own values – by moral choice, according to the Existentialist, or by fine receptivity, according to the Aesthete. I wonder if both systems cannot in fact be read as nostalgia for faith and ultimate value in an age where reason denies such ultimates? Significantly Marius the Epicurean is set in an era when traditional (pagan) religion is decaying – like our own post-Enlightenment world?

A few words about the novel as a piece of prose. Often on this blog, I’ve expressed a taste for those 19th century novels where the narrative breaks off for self-contained essays. Paradoxically, though, when I come to a novel that is all essay, I find it very hard going. Pater has an elaborate prose style – long sentences with numerous qualifying and subordinate clauses and a deliberate gravitas of meditation. More challenging is the fact that this is a novel which attempts to make sensual experience itself its philosophic point. It is easier to read of the clash of philosophic ideas than of the fine gradations of the senses. Frequently, as I read Marius the Epicurean, I was reminded of the more obtuse passages of Henry James. You read a whole page, stop, and wonder if the page was about anything at all.

In the very first chapter, Pater describes young Marius’s mind thus:

Some very lively surmises, though scarcely distinct enough to be thoughts, were moving backwards and forwards in his mind, as the stirring wind had done all day among the trees.”

Even as I luxuriated in parts of it, I wondered if this couldn’t be the epigraph for the whole novel. But at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that William Colenso would have hated it.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


The collected letters to the press of William Colenso put some thoughts about letter-writing in my mind.

I have a number of collections of illustrious people’s letters on my shelves – the letters of Keats, the letters of Shelley, the letters of Samuel Beckett and of John Gielgud among others. New Zealand university presses have recently published collected or selected editions of the letters of John Mulgan and of Frank Sargeson. Doubtless there are many more collected letters of other deceased people (and particularly literary people) yet to be published.

Literary people are a special case. Writing is their business and producing long letters is something in which many of them still indulge. The letters of literary people tend to be as much a part of their literary production as their novels, short stories and so forth – with one eye on posterity, and written as much for public consumption as for private communication. The same probably goes for the letters of the more literate actors, whose business is being public show-offs.

But what about letters by scientists, military people, politicians, sports stars and others? Once upon a time, there would have been a respectable number of published collections of their letters, too. But I doubt if that will be the case for much longer, and once the crop of recently-deceased has been dealt with.

It all has to do with the decline in letter-writing in general.

Paradoxically, it was just when enough people in Western societies were becoming sufficiently literate to write letters regularly, that the habit of frequent letter-writing began to decline.

Think about it.

In countries of Western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand etc., universal literacy was produced in the late nineteenth century by universal and compulsory elementary education. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the telephone became commonplace, and for many people the need to scribble off daily notes and messages vanished.

Of course literate people still wrote letters, but less for reasons of immediate need than for reflection, general news etc.

Now things have gone further. We phone. We take part in social media like Facebook. We send e-mails. Some people (I’m not one of them) Tweet. Speed and ease of communication are increased. If we can establish a conversation via e-mail with somebody, we can e-mail off a paragraph or two and expect a paragraph or two in reply within hours. But no more than that. Since e-mail allows such conversations to be fairly rapid to-and-fro, there is no need for the expansive, long, expository letter.

I’m aware that e-mails can be stored and, if so desired, printed off. But somehow I do not think that one hundred years from now there will be collections of great e-mails, Tweets or Facebook interventions being published. (Even if we interpret publishing to include things become accessible via computer.)

Brevity now rules in our substitutes for old-fashioned letters and the real art of letter-writing has probably died.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE HUNGRY HEART – Journeys with William Colenso” by Peter Wells (Vintage Press/ Random House, $49:99)

To the point of being irritated by it, you now know one of my favourite mottos. If a book is really worthwhile then it is worth arguing with. Only worthless books don’t deserve serious criticism.

Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart – Journeys with William Colenso is more than worthwhile. It is outstandingly good. Vivid, stylish and quizzical, it is the product of much research and much personal engagement by the author. It brings to life a figure who was for a long time in danger of being forgotten. It puts its finger on the pulse of many things that have shaped New Zealand. It reflects on many things in our nineteenth century history that some might prefer to forget.

Because it’s so good, I’m going to take issue with it, but before I do so, allow me to say what it’s all about.

This book is judiciously titled and subtitled. It is Journeys with William Colenso. It does not claim to be a comprehensive biography of William Colenso, marching from forebears to birth to achievements to public life to private life to death and reputation, all in chronological order and copiously footnoted. No. This is the type of “biography” that has sometimes carelessly been labelled postmodern. Peter Wells himself looms as large in the book as William Colenso does. Whole chapters are given to Wells’ personal experiences of places associated with Colenso. Wells goes to Paihia, to Waimate North, to Waitangi near Napier, taking photographs [reproduced with the text], reflecting on tourists and on heritage site-markers and generally pushing himself into the foreground. He tells us of his encounters with archivists, with descendants of Colenso, with possible descendants of Colenso and so forth. Much of the text is arranged as reflections on specific aspects of Colenso’s life rather than proceeding chronologically. In effect, this is a book about the author’s consciousness of William Colenso as much as it is a book about William Colenso. It is a book which overtly traces the stages of the author’s research and the impact they had on him.

It is also (and this should be stated up front) an excellent piece of book production. 400-plus pages of text exist in a sturdy hardback, fully illustrated with archival photos of people and places and texts, as well as with Wells’ own tourist shots of the places he visited.

What attracted Peter Wells to William Colenso, apart from Wells’ own Napier connections and his awareness of Colenso as someone in the historical background of his hometown?

Colenso, Anglican missionary, printer, explorer, collector, polymath and indefatigable writer of letters to the press, is clearly seen by Wells as a maverick and a misfit, a man who couldn’t help being an outsider. As Wells says [p.163] “He was not politic nor was he an assiduous networker. He was, by nature, heretical and challenging. He seemed to delight in – or be oblivious about – rubbing people up the wrong way. If anything his awkwardness only confirmed the uniqueness and verity of his beliefs – to himself.” 

Wells approves of some of these qualities, and finds evidence that Colenso’s maverick tendencies sometimes gave him greater insight than his contemporaries possessed. Colenso was the man who, having helped to prepare the Treaty of Waitangi and print it up, nevertheless had the wit to question whether the Maori chiefs really understood what they were doing in signing it. Over twenty years later, Colenso was the man who knew that land was being grabbed unjustly from Hawke’s Bay and Central North Island Maori, and who offended settler attitudes by publicly expressing his views. He also wrote a pamphlet in defence of the captured warrior Kereopa when the local Pakeha community bayed (successfully) for Kereopa’s blood.

Wells perceives Colenso as a man on the receiving end of the class system. Of humble Cornish background, the printer was regarded as a mere “mechanical” and snubbed by the Oxbridge-educated circle of Bishop Selwyn. Hence Colenso’s ordination was delayed and his initial ambitions to be a missionary were thwarted. There are some awkward passages where Wells is obliged to show how, in later years, Colenso himself sometimes took the side of settlers in approving of land-grabbing war on Hawke’s Bay Maori, and also became a prosperous bourgeois, chumming up with arch-land-grabber Donald McLean and living on a comfy estate overlooking the growing town of Napier, between the swamp and the sea.

For all that, Wells is predisposed to see much good in Colenso as an intellectual outsider and a victim of snobbery.

However, having noted this, Wells’ main interest in Colenso is sexual and psychological. The book’s main title, The Hungry Heart (presumably with a nod to the Bruce Springsteen song) signals this fact. The title is elucidated on p.376 where Colenso in old age in old age is described as  Alone, without a family, without a partner of any sort, this intellectual dynamo was yet an ordinary human being – a man with a hungry heart.

The centrepiece of the book, its heart and soul, is the painful story of the collapse of Colenso’s marriage, which caused scandal, made him a pariah and had him thrust out of the Anglican church for some years. Briefly, Colenso was married to the strong-willed Elizabeth Fairburn, who shared his hardships in moving to a mission-station in frontier territory, who had to give birth in particularly painful circumstances, and who then discovered that, during their marriage, her husband had a long affair with the Maori “servant” Ripeka Meretene and fathered a bastard son, Wiremu.

Peter Wells becomes deeply engaged in this domestic and sexual situation. He gives us probably as much intimate detail as there is to give. He does not whitewash Colenso, understanding both the nature of his betrayal of Elizabeth and how limited Elizabeth’s options were. He quotes in full the letter which Elizabeth wrote after the rupture, at last pouring out her magisterial scorn on the man who had promised to love her. Wells also gives us his own poem about Elizabeth. Like the book as a whole, this is as much imaginative and intuitive reconstruction as it is verifiable history.

But (and here my criticisms begin to kick in) there are some real difficulties with this book. I think Peter Wells is right on the money when he associates evangelical Protestantism with the Romantic movement, and connects the evangelicals’ sense of salvation and damnation with their emotional highs and lows. Yet – I infer – Wells is not particularly sympathetic to the whole Christian missionary enterprise anyway and the book has more than a few belittling shafts designed to suggest that missionaries as a whole were deluded or were wasting their time. This can’t help but put him out of synch with some of Colenso’s main concerns.

Because of Wells’ selectivity (openly admitted by him) some major aspects of Colenso’s life are underplayed. I am no Colenso expert, but I do know that exploration was one of his main claims to fame, and the only other book about Colenso I’ve read (Bagnell and Petersen’s 1948 biography) lays much stress on Colenso as explorer. Of this specific aspect of Colenso’s life, Peter Wells gives us one page, with the suggestion that Colenso was the spiritual father of all Pakeha trampers. He then adds a poem of his own devising. True, we do later get much detail on the botanical specimens Colenso collected and kept, and the Kew Garden botanists with whom he corresponded, but clearly exploration per se doesn’t interest Wells.

More troubling to historians, there’s the matter of evidence and inference. Often, when he draws conclusions about Colenso’s (and Elizabeth’s) intimate life, Wells admits that he is speculating. I think some of the inferences he draws are reasonable ones and there are some (such as the suggestion that Elizabeth might have been incestuously mishandled by her father) which he raises only to bat away fairly promptly. But there are pieces of historical re-construction where he blurs the distinction between speculation and proof, and proceeds to write as if he has proven something which he has only inferred, or guessed.

Colenso’s missionary station burned down. Wells finds a very, very vague and inconclusive suggestion that it might have been deliberately torched by people who disliked Colenso. He proceeds to assume this vague suggestion is a proven fact and analyse it as such.

In the course of his researches, an old auctioneer tells Wells that there might once have existed a diary showing that Colenso had sexual relations with Maori boys. Wells admits that he has found no trace of any such diary (if it ever existed) and also admits that the auctioneer’s rumour greatly surprises him. All the real evidence that he has suggests that, if anything, Colenso was a hyper-active heterosexual, not only fathering one illegitimate child but possibly fathering many others as well (Wells meets many Maori who claim to be Colenso’s descendants, and often calls Colenso “randy”). But Wells cannot let the auctioneer’s story drop. As he reminds us a number of times, he himself is known as a “gay writer”, much as he finds that term a bit of a burden. He has something invested emotionally in the idea that Colenso might have been homosexual, so he devotes a whole chapter to chewing it over, even though he has no evidence.

Then there’s what I can only call the camp element to the book – the moments where Wells teases readers with unsubtle puns or tries bits of naughty-boy shock.

On p.92, speaking of early Anglican missionaries, he says  The vast families both Williams brothers sired can be put down to a religious desire to ‘people the earth’. Another view is that the two men enjoyed fucking and, in the absence of reliable prophylactics, the women had to accept an endless roundelay of pregnancies”. I assume “another view” here means Wells’ view.

On p.311, when two men are discussing how large Colenso’s property is, Wells tells us that this illustrates “the quintessential male problem – how to talk about size.” (Tee-hee, snigger snigger). On the following page, he sums up Colenso’s views as being that Bishop Williams “in brief, was a shit and a liar.”

We also have rather dodgy generalizations. On p.254, as he discusses why Elizabeth stayed with William for so long, he remarks “There is an erotic element of enslavement and mastery in most relationships”. Gosh, is there really?

Perhaps part of what I am saying is that Wells often superimposes modern assumptions, and his own particular interests, on people of the 19th century. Yet I’m not criticising him for this, as I would if this were an historical novel and he were attributing such attitudes to his historical characters. Wells is openly speculating and openly allowing his own character to be one of the main features of the book.

In the end, The Hungry Heart has to be read as a personal encounter as much as a biography of Colenso. I could end lamely by saying that it is only part of the story of William Colenso. But then we should know that all biographies are partial and incomplete.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE FOX BOY” by Peter Walker (first published 2001)

A factual book on somebody from New Zealand’s past, into which the author inserts himself as a main character. Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart is not the first biography to adopt this strategy.

Peter Walker’s The Fox Boy, subtitled The Story of an Abducted Child, is about somebody more obscure than William Colenso, but it also illuminates episodes of the nineteenth century interface of Maori and Pakeha, and forces us into some painful soul-searching.
This is a work of historical reconstruction. Walker (a London-based New Zealander) follows the history of Ngatau Omahuru, kidnapped at the age of six after the Taranaki wars of the 1860s and handed over to Sir William Fox to be brought up and civilised as “the Fox boy”. Being about a Maori kid forced into a Pakeha mould, it’s a classic tale of cultural dislocation and also a work of intense Pakeha guilt.

Walker is forced to acknowledge that the historical record grows dim at times. Frankly not an awful lot of traces of “the Fox boy” survive. Walker has to fill in the gaps with imaginative speculation. But it winds up at Parihaka where Ngatau Omahuru had taken refuge, and where Te Whiti’s pacifism was brushed aside by an armed land grab supported by the government.

Peter Walker’s thesis is that Omahuru, trained to be an English gentleman, decided to return to his own Taranaki people and thus angered Sir William Fox, the former premier and one of the commission that decided on land confiscations. Sir William had much at stake emotionally. He felt aggrieved that his offer of an upbringing in a superior civilisation had been rejected by a Maori kid. In consequence, speculates Peter Walker, Sir William played a far more vindictive role over Parihaka than he might otherwise have done, approving the eradication of the community. He was settling a personal score as well as a racial one, by getting even with the boy who wilfully rejected the blessings of Englishness.

Yet all this is only what the book is ostensibly about – the pretext, shall we say, for Walker to nudge unquiet ghosts of Pakeha identity and examine his own childhood as a provincial New Zealander. He tries to penetrate and decode such Maori oral culture as he was kindly given and to interrogate his own cultural landscape. Pages tell us about Walker’s own schooling and upbringing, his youthful ignorance of Maoritanga etc.

Is this satisfactory as “history”?

Not entirely. As in Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart there is much speculation, much guesswork, much foregrounding of the author’s own sensibility  and many times when readers might suspect that too much has been made of a meagre documentary record. Can all this really be inferred legitimately from a few inconclusive surviving written records? Like The Hungry Heart, then, The Fox Boy situates itself halfway between biography and imaginative essay. Parts of it could readily be blown to smithereens by historians with a firm understanding of the legitimate uses of evidence.

Even so, as an essay on Pakeha cultural dislocation, The Fox Boy is very interesting. And there is the chance that Peter Walker’s speculations are true.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


There’s nothing new under the sun, says the old proverb, and often things that are hailed as new turn out to be fairly well-established.

Take postmodernism. The term has been around for only the last half-century or so.

One of the literary characteristics of postmodernism is supposed to be a self-referential awareness of form. Writers address readers in the full awareness that all literary genres are artificial constructs, and readers are sophisticated enough to pick up the writers’ awareness. Therefore, in writing history or biographies, postmodernists allow the seams to show. Writers push themselves to the forefront of their own books, explaining to readers what they are doing, how they did their research and so on.

Often cited as the grand-daddy of this sort of book is The Quest for Corvo, A.J.A.Symons’ account of researching the life of the minor novelist and charlatan Frederick Rolfe. It was first published in 1934.

The two examples I’ve given are Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart and Peter Walker’s The Fox Boy, both of which, written in the last decade, could reasonably be called postmodern.

But is this literary style really so modern – let alone postmodern?

After all, how different is it from Victorian novelists interrupting their narratives to directly address their readers with the “Dear Reader” passages of Thackeray or the long self-contained essays of George Eliot? Weren’t Victorian readers of such prose fully aware that they were reading something artificial and constructed? Indeed don’t we, in a postmodern age, spend far too much time patting ourselves on the back for perceptions that were fully accessible to our ancestors?

Let me take a more extreme case.

Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was first published, bit by bit, in the 1760s. At various times in the last two-and-a-half centuries, it’s been called a freakish novel, a “sport”, an expression of eccentricity, and a precursor of surrealism. Its narrator purports to tell the story of his life, but keeps getting so sidetracked by digressions that as the novel ends he is just being born. This is the ultimate shaggy-dog story, and a vigorous nose-thumbing at the whole convention of novel-writing.

In 2005 appeared Michael Winterbottom’s desperate attempt to film the unfilmable entitled Tristram Shandy – A Cock and Bull Story. Starring the cut-ups Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the film (like the original novel) constantly cuts back and forth between story and ironic comment on story and then even more ironic comment on the whole artificiality of the concept of story. The film is about a film crew trying to film Tristram Shandy but constantly getting side-tracked and never quite finishing the job.

The 2005 film has Steve Coogan calling Laurence Sterne’s novel “a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post about.” The phrase was used in the film’s advertising.

Which kind of gives the game away. This slogan really tells us how some attitudes and techniques attributed to postmodernism – such as consciously fooling with the nature of text – have been around for centuries. I suppose there are some current insights that really do belong to postmodernism. But this isn’t one of them.