Saturday, 20 September 2008

Postcard from Gisborne

It was a glorious morning in Gisborne when I went for a wander around the streets and found a really great cafe for breakfast. Next to a secondhand bookshop, Cafe Ruba is fantastic - great coffee and an excellent bagel served with smoked salmon scrambled eggs.

A small vase of fragrant flowers (possibly jasmine; I'm not very good with my flora) and a bottle of water appeared on the table as if by magic.

Folk greet the morning here, discussing the world on the chairs outside. Boys in school uniform sit at a large table well-stocked with glossy magazines and sip coffee with a nonchalance that belies their years.

Baking tempts from behind the glass cabinets. The service is friendly, smiling, welcoming, prompt and adroit. I was impressed.

Gisborne is home to one of the largest carved meeting houses in New Zealand. Te Poho-O-Rawiri Marae is a beautiful building.

It is surrounded by beautiful green hills, bush and countryside. The red and white wooden embellishments to the building stand out in a powerful manner. The marae has hosted many people and many matters have been discussed here. Another great place for a meeting.

Close to the marae sits a Presbyterian church - at least I assume it is Presyterian due to the blue and white colouring. I don't know how long either of these buildings have been here or how well they coexist, but I like to think of them sitting side by side with the guardians or gods of each watching over their people and welcoming in all those who wish to enter.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Capturing Captain Cook

It wasn't exactly a pilgrimmage, but when I was in Gisborne, I found myself drawn to the Captain Cook monuments. The landing monument is quite understated and in the midst of the industrial docks. It seems oddly fitting.

I felt quite melancholy as I went for a drive and came across a second Cook monument on top of Kaiti Hill with the harbour laid out behind him.

Dusk was falling so the light was interesting and I played with the camera settings to get some spooky photographs.

The one on the right is my version of 'The World
Turned Upside Down'

The next day I went for a run along the beach and saw the statue in honour of Young Nick who first spotted land from Cook's ship. His hand is outstretched in a yearning manner and the sun lit him up as he reached out to land.

It began to rain but it was warm and still, and there was a rainbow. I saw the prism of filtered rays ignite Young Nick's Head and I felt a long way from Dover. A small fish was glistening above high tide, so I shunted him back to the sea and watched him shimmy away in the waves.

Captain Cook is again standing sentinel on the waterfront, again looking inland while Young Nick looks out to sea. This seems the wrong way round to me.

I took the photo on the left with the shadow of a telegraph pole because I thought it resembled a cross or a ship's mast and I liked the composition as it nestled between the statue and the tree.

I know that some people consider him persona non grata and blame him for all the evils of colonialism, but his navigational feats are indubitably magnificent and I do think he is a hero, albeit from a bygone era.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Books read in August

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in August. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

Landings – Jenny Pattrick (3.3)
Having written so successfully about the West Coast mining settlements, Jenny Pattrick turns her hand to the folk up the Whanganui River at the turn of the twentieth century.

She begins by describing the people who live there; the Maori families and farmers; the Chinese market gardener trying to eek a living from the soil; the people trying to make a profit from the timber industry; the former convicts escaping their past life; the nuns who run their peaceful convent; the hoteliers at Pipiriki and the day trippers in search of refined serenity. There are good folk and there are hell-raisers and their stories proceed to interconnect like the tributaries of the mighty river.

Each chapter begins with an advertisement or an article from the paper, extolling the virtues of the land available to buy, the houseboat, the homestead and the river itself, described as New Zealand’s Rhine. There are also admonishments against the evils of drink and the infiltration of the Chinese. These are swiftly followed by the author’s own descriptive prose which brings the river of a hundred years ago to life. One of the big issues is the dichotomy between progress and preserving the rights of the people who have lived on this land for all their lives.

Jenny Pattrick gives each character a voice, and writes their passages in different tones and tenses. She makes the issues personal, fleshing out the dry bones of history and writing a novel with characters it is easy to care about.

My Name is Will – Jess Winfield (4)
Jess Winfield is one of the founding members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, so he knows his stuff. Quotes and allusions scattered throughout the novel will have Shakespearean fans acknowledging them with a wry smile, while there is nothing to trouble the serious scholar. The subtitle is ‘A novel of sex, drugs, and Shakespeare’, and this is one book you most certainly can judge by the cover.

Willie Shakespeare Greenberg, an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz attempts to write a thesis about Shakespeare and the fact that he was a Catholic. The only problem is that he hasn’t done any research, and when his father threatens to cut him off, he becomes a drug runner to earn some funds, delivering an enormous magic mushroom to a mysterious buyer. Meanwhile William Shakespeare, playwright extraordinaire, is struggling to avoid religious persecution while holding down his job as a schoolteacher in Stratford-upon-Avon.

As Willie begins to investigate the religious persecution of the times, it is clear that this was a deadly serious matter. The Shakespearean sections are an intriguing interpretation, including Shakespeare hiding in a priest hole, attending a secret Catholic mass with his parents, and being tortured on the rack. There are some macabre descriptions of priests being hanged, drawn and quartered, which prevent the novel from being all beer and skittles.

In one chapter, the hero becomes them both, drifting in and out of a drug-induced hallucination. Never mind that this is a bad plot ploy – like stepping out of a shower and waking from a Dallas dream – it has taken Willie nearly all novel to work out the parallels that were blatant to us from the beginning. The ‘drugs equals forbidden religion’ line has many flaws, namely that the fear of being discovered as a practicing Catholic can hardly equate to using drugs, although this is the author’s premise.

Eventually Willie decides that he is most impressed by “the timelessness of the characters. The diversity. They’re so recognisable, even to a modern reader. It’s almost as if he was the very first writer to think like a human being.” This becomes the premises of his thesis, although it is far from a new idea. If he is to be forgiven for his unoriginality, it is because he puns in sixteenth century English better than anyone since the great man himself.

On the whole this is a fun romp through Shakespearean England and 1980s undergraduate California that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Voss – Patrick White (4)
This is a wonderfully colourful novel about the death of one era and the dawning of another; when men set off to explore and adventure and women stayed behind to await the triumphant homecoming. Voss leads a troop of disparate men with assorted aims on an expedition across the centre of Australia. Laura Trevelyan is forced to remain behind in Sydney and endure, but Patrick White has brought a strength and dignity to Laura that raises the novel to new heights. She scares men by being intelligent and telling them exactly what she is thinking when they ask.

The men are forced to work together to attempt to survive against the cruelty of nature. The class divisions fall away and the new nation is built on money and beauty. In this land, there is a chance for equality as everything is distilled to its essence in the crucible of the Australian outback. The aborigines are silent spectators of their attempts to conquer rather than co-exist.

The language is beautiful with descriptions that seem reminiscent of George Eliot or Jane Austen; both imperious and sly. Told with wit and humour, it brings humanity to a barren landscape with an ever-present reminder that we are merely passing through.

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4.5)
The half a yellow sun of the title refers to the Biafran flag, established to represent the new country of Black Africa, a splinter group of Nigeria. The deadly struggle that ensues has repurcussions for the protaganists of this novel.

There is Olanna, a young woman married to Odenigbo, a revolutionary and intellectual. Her twin sister, Kainene, is bitter and cynical and living with a white man, Richard. There are tensions between the sisters, exaccerbated by their partners, but their differences fade into insignificance against the background of history.

Some beautifully poetic passages clash with gruesome depictions of massacres and the politics of idealism contrast with the horrors of civil war. The spectre of colonialism hangs over the novel and the reader is forced to take a stand only to be told that their opinion does not matter unless they are personally involved.

Sibling rivalry, female liberation and coming of age - through Odenigbo's houseboy - are crammed into this novel which strives to tell a story. It is not until the end that we know who's story it is and who is telling it. It is character-driven enough that we do not feel as though we are being preached at, or given a history lecture.

Not all change is good and not all war is civil. There are so many unanswered questions in this complete but oddly unfinished story, that it feels as though the next chapter is still being written.

Monday, 15 September 2008

The Pohutukawa Tree

Last week I went to see The Pohutukawa Tree by Bruce Mason. I had heard of this play as a Kiwi classic, but had never seen it and didn't know the story. It is always hard to see plays that were written 50 years ago and try to understand what people must have felt about them at the time.

Much drama that was considered groundbreaking half a century ago now seems rather mundane. Despite this, I still found this to be a well-written and thought provoking play. The production was very good too. I'm glad that I have now seen it and can agree that it deserves its iconic status. I reviewed it for the Lumiere website.