Your history, my history, our history

The Penguin History of New ZealandWhen you emigrate, it takes time to get your histories all in a row.

First up all you are aware of is loss, the huge gaping and unfillable loss of who you were. It takes all your energy just to keep your head above water. At least that was how it was for me.

But then I rallied and joined the library where one of the first books ever issued to me was Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand. Feeling very virtuous I carried it back on the bus to Brooklands. There I took it on little jaunts from room to room and finally bussed it back (unread) a month later. It was too much too soon. I pulled in my horns.

Time passed and I started to look out for books that related to my interests: art, architecture and the stories of women. Beautiful books drew me in and fed my soul. Books like: Māori Architecture by Dierdre Brown; books about New Zealand Art, and A History of New Zealand Women by Barbara Brookes. I am unapologetic about the fact that sometimes I just looked at the pictures. I had a lot of catching up to do.

Cover of Maori Architecture Cover of a A history of New Zealand women Cover of Mauri Ora

Then, just recently, I came upon my best New Zealand book thus far – Mauri Ora: Wisdom From the Māori World by Peter Alsop. This is a lovely book to look at, a satisfying book to hold and a profound book to read.

Fiona and chalkboard at Central Library ManchesterAt much the same time as I was reading this book, I arrived at Central Library Manchester one day to work. On the sandwich board outside the library (see the photo at right with Fiona – its creator) was a te reo quotation with its English translation. I could almost understand the reo and I was enchanted by its translation – so appropriate for the library in question.

A small group of us stood outside the library looking at the quotes on the board. We had an engaging conversation about language and place and thought. Like planets, I felt all my histories line up and I was finally (albeit briefly) at peace. A quote from the Mauri Ora book says it all:

Ko te pae tawhiti, whāia kia tata;

ko te pae tata, whakamaua kia tīna

(Seek out distant horizons and cherish those you attain.)

The Silence Beyond

CoverThis wonderful book is a volume of selected writings by the late Michael King.  It shows his wide-ranging skills as a historian, cultural commentator, writer, thinker – someone with real insight into New Zealand culture.

The introduction by his daughter Rachael King, herself a brilliant writer, lets you know you are in for something special. She talks of:

Searching through a box by his desk one night, I came across several photocopies of an essay called ‘The Silence Beyond’. It began: ‘At the age of thirty I found out that my name was not my real name’.

This essay resonated with me. There was a similar revelation in my family when it was realised my grandmother didn’t have Swedish origins as we thought, but had been adopted and her ancestry was East End London Jewish. King shows that genealogy and family knowledge isn’t  a dry thing, it does opens up ‘the silence beyond’.

Amongst the eulogies and wise meditations, there is also a big  pulsing vein of humour. His anecdotes about the New Zealand literati are fantastic:

  • He is in a rowdy group of students who wake up Charles Brasch. He gives them a thimble of sherry.
  • Janet Frame buys a photocopier,  sticks it in the garage, it gets infested with ants and all her photocopied letters and manuscripts are speckled with squashed ants.
  • Janet Frame:  Scrabble Star. She invents the word Silltits – “It’s what all those women in New York get when they spend all day leaning out of tenement windows and watching the action in the street”.
  • Dan Davin – Starsky and Hutch fan.

The Michael King Memorial Lecture

A modest crowd heard John Carey deliver the Michael King Memorial Lecture today. Carey talked about the influencesCover of Being Pakeha Now that shaped William Golding the novelist.

Golding was a complex man – a scientist who could talk knowledgeably with James Lovelock about the latest NASA rockets, a fine musician, a man free from conventional opinions, a deeply religious man, a socialist with a strong sense of class inferiority, a brave man in wartime who was deeply fearful in everyday life and a teacher who incited the boys in his class to violence as a psychological experiment.

Do only complex people write novels?

John Carey has been involved in some spirited argument during the festival. He believes in the accessibility of art to everyone and the clarity of his writing and his speaking certainly work to that point.

Michael King was another writer who as Rick Gekoski said introducing the lecture took “complex and culturally important things and made them available to everyone”. There is now the Michael King Writers’ Centre on the North Shore. It is a writer’s residence, offers short stay accommodation and runs a community outreach programme of public literary events, writing workshops and master classes.