Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī, Ngāti Paoa) is a story teller. His stories are philosophical and luminous and funny and intellectual and they plunge from one mood to the other without missing a beat. I spent a week in a van driving around Taranaki with him recently and our conversations changed me, though it’s hard to say exactly how.
History is people, and it’s the charismatic ones who live on in our imaginations. Today, to celebrate Jerningham Wakefield’s 201st birthday, here is an extract of his journals from August 1841. Some of his assumptions are uncomfortable today, some of his observations prescient, but judge the boy in context (where he is still problematic) and enjoy his lively voice. He was twenty-one when he wrote this.
In Wellington, progress had been made in the signs of civilisation. A large and well-furnished chemist’s shop, with the due allowance of red bottles and blue blue bottles, and glass jars full of tooth-brushes and sponges, and gay labels of quack pill and ointments, showed a broad front to the beach near Barrett’s hotel.
As this shop, which gloried in the sonorous title of ‘Medical Hall’, was close to the usual place of disembarkation for passengers, it became a much frequented morning lounge; especially as Dr. Dorset and another of our oldest medical friends were partners in the establishment. Many other equally gay shops began to ornament the bustling beach. Two clever rope-makers had begun the pursuit of their trade on a large scale, using the phormium tenax as prepared by the natives; and they received ample support from all classes, there being a considerable demand for small rope for the running rigging of ships, fishing-nets, and whale-lines for the stations in the Strait.
Rangihaeata and his followers had destroyed some of the bridges on the Porirua bridle-road, and in some places trees were purposely felled across the narrow path with a view to prevent the easy passage of travellers.
Tonight we’ll be putting on top hats (instant power) and eating pork, potatoes and puha and we’ll toast him a happy birthday. I’ll see if I can find a bottle of Hokianga red.
David Olusoga is fast becoming one of my favourite BBC presenters (though David Attenborough will always have my heart). Olusoga presented the excellent two part series on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners in 2015, showing how after slavery was abolished the legacy continued in the compensation paid out—not to the erstwhile slaves but to their “owners”—and in the underlying prejudices that became embedded in the culture. Brilliant documentary, watch it if you can.
His latest documentary is a review of Black British writers. It’s called Africa Turns the Page: the Novels that Shaped a Continent.
We launched my novel Jerningham this week to coincide with the young Wakefield’s 200th birthday. The book launch in Wellington was at Unity Books and it felt so right: beneath our feet in colonial times was the beach, before all the infill began. Jerningham would have leapt ashore from the whale boats right there onto the shingly sand, walked along the beach to Dicky Barrett’s pub and ordered a bottle of his favourite Hokinaga red. I had been a bit worried that no one would come out to help celebrate but there was a good crowd, in a big part because of our three wonderful kids who brought along every friend who had ever sat at our table over the years and made them buy a book. They probably came for the wine, but that’s ok. It was Decibel. Can’t blame them.
Then we moved up to Hawkes Bay and had a bit of fun dressing up like Victorians at Duart House. Decibel again sponsored the wine along with Maison Noire so we were guaranteed a good turn out. People drank local, read local and our local Wardini Books sold the book.
To all those who came along, thank you very much. And what did I tell you? Everyone looks better in a top hat (though the ladies rocked the flowers, too)
Colonial Wellington’s original wild boy, Jerningham Wakefield, was born 200 years ago today. The son of New Zealand Company founder Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Jerningham was a member of the advance party of the Wellington colony, arriving in Port Nicholson on the Tory in September 1839. He was nineteen years old and sent away from England by his father to keep him out of mischief. It was a mistake Edward Gibbon probably came to regret.
Jerningham Wakefield and the first colonial settlement of Wellington
I walked into a bookshop yesterday and my book was on the counter. Does an author ever get used to that? Felt like the first day out with a new baby. They cooed over me in the shop and asked me to sign the copies.
Our immigrants continued to arrive, newly ashore and land-fragile.
As I had done, they tended first to stand on solid ground and sway to an internal ocean. After months on water, the new arrivals were reluctant to lose sight of the sea. They walked up and down the long strand with packed sand underfoot, not knowing where to start or how to move on. They scowled at the high hills and dense bush and wrinkled their noses at the earthy smell, complicated and wholesome after brine and bilge water. They smiled hesitantly at fellow colonists and flinched from the inquisitive natives who ran forward to offer vigorous handshakes of welcome.
Every morning now I wake after dreaming of isolation. It makes it hard to write.
It’s as if there’s a place in my subconscious that has gone very dark and is holding all the fears I don’t confront during the day.
I force myself to linger in that half-state to capture a fragment and make sense of it, but there’s nothing to catch; just a feeling of unease, an unexplained fear. I have never been able to step into my dreams and haul out a story and I am suspicious of those who say they can. All I can ever bring across that barrier are moods and shots of disassociated things, like photographs of a past I no longer remember. I haven’t ever drunk so much I don’t remember what happened the night before, but it must be a post-dream feeling: waking up on someone’s sofa, remembering scrambling noises, a cat rubbing and mewing to be fed, crowds of people gathered before a high fence, something bad. Continue reading “Writing and the dark subconscious”