Monthly Archives: September 2009

‘Fatal Necessity: British Intervention in New Zealand 1830-1847’ by Peter Adams

waitangi

When considering early Australian and New Zealand history, you have to keep your bifocals on. Isolated ‘down here’,  ten thousand miles from ‘home’, with at the least a six month round trip for any official communication,  it’s possible to view events and people through a local lens with a type of nonchalance about pronouncements and edicts that arrived from the other side of the world.   But taking a broader view, the network of relationships and communications between the colonies themselves and the Colonial Office formed another type of reality- not as immediate perhaps, but imbued with the finality of ultimate veto.  But both local and distant views have the illusion of solidity: neither is as straightforward as it appears.

The “Fatal Necessity” described in Peter Adams’ book refers to the mission creep that accompanied the creation and signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand in February 1840.   The Colonial Office developed the treaty from a theoretical duty springing from the legal bond between subject and state, in order to control and protect British subjects who had chosen to go to New Zealand.  A second imperative was the increased humanitarian concern for the aboriginal people already there.   A third imperative, more urgent from the Antipodean perspective than that of the Colonial Office, was to prevent Maoris selling their land to strangers- particularly the French who were perceived to have designs on New Zealand.  The Colonial Office originally planned to gain sovereignty over only parts of New Zealand, but when the New Zealand Company despatched large numbers of settlers under systematic colonization, the Colonial Office realized that the whole colony had to be annexed.

This book shifts between the motivations and actions of individual men at the local, antipodean level- Gipps, Busby and Hobson- and the political manoeuvering of pressure groups and politicians to influence Colonial Office policy in London.  In particular Adams concentrates on the Church Missionary Society and its president Dandeson Coates, and the New Zealand Association- later the New Zealand Land Company- a group of investors influenced by Wakefieldian ideas of systematic colonization.   Diametrically opposed in their objectives, these two pressure groups circled around the main political and bureaucratic figures in colonial affairs, conducting meetings, petitioning and lobbying all as part of the game of politics and patronage.

Ten thousand miles away, Gipps, Hobson, Busby and Wentworth may have thought that they were key players and that their actions and submissions were influential, but this was a delusion. More important was the political make-up of British parliament and the always-present imperative to retain power.  Hence we see the clash of the Lords – Lord Howick, Lord Durham, Lord Melbourne, Lord Glenelg – doing deals, appeasing, jockeying and saving face as part of another dance of politics far removed from the lawn of the Resident’s House overlooking a quiet bay on the other side of the world.

treaty house

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‘Owls Do Cry’ by Janet Frame

1961, 179p

You may have detected a New Zealand theme in my reading lately.  This is because your Resident Judge is currently in the land of the Long White Cloud, and I often enjoy reading a book about or from the places I visit on holiday.  I’d already packed this book to bring with me, and was even further inspired to bump it up the “To Be Read While On Holiday” pile by visiting Janet Frame’s house between Christchurch and Dunedin.

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This book is very similar to her autobiography because it shares many autobiographical elements.  However, it is written as fiction with the barely disguised Frame family- the older sister who dies from burns (as distinct from drowning); the mentally troubled second sister (Janet herself); the epileptic, miserly brother, and the flighty and materialistic younger sister.  I’m not sure what her family thought about this book, which was one of the most warmly acclaimed of her novels, as they are certainly all identified quite clearly here.  I did read a biography of Janet Frame by Michael King some years ago, and I can’t remember what the family’s response was.

Although Frame’s autobiography was filmed by Jane Campion as “An Angel at My Table”, film of course always transforms an autobiographical source into something different.  The main character is the observed in a film, along with the other characters,  rather than the observer in the book who sees from the inside out.  In this regard, probably Owls Do Cry and the film are closely linked, more than the autobiography and the film that bears its name.

Frame writes beautifully with a real poetic sensibility.  At times her imagery is oblique and somehow distorted, but because of this it feels crisp, clear and somehow innocent.  It is truly original. The first section tells of the children’s poor and straitened childhood, and their grief after the death of the older sister.  Then the book splits into three strands, tracing the narrative through the perspective on each of the three remaining children in turn, twenty years later.  Toby, the brother, suffers from epilepsy and is “a shingle short” and lives an unhappy, frustrated, cloistered adult life with his parents. Chick (or Teresa which she now prefers to be called) is married with two children in the North Island, and her narrative is presented in the form of a diary as she and her husband strive for respectability and acceptance in a socially stratified community which sees through their materialism and anxiety about possessions and impressions.  The final strand is from Daphne (Janet’s) point of view and is fey, unhinged and lyrical.  There is a short epilogue that jumps ahead a further number of years, with a “what happened next” summary approach.

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I’ve really enjoyed reading this book, having now seen the Oamaru that she fictionalized as Waimaru in this book.  She captures so well the cold and greasy poverty of working class rural life,  the anxiety of adolescence, the fug of family and the pain of being human.

‘Come on Shore and We Will Kill You and Eat You All: An Unlikely Love Story’ by Christina Thompson

thompson

288 p.

I’ve been fascinated by the title of this book for some time, after hearing the author interviewed on Radio National’s Book Show.  An intriguing title, I thought, but rather long and unwieldy.  But having now read the book, I can see the nuances in the choice of title, and I think it a good one.

But I came to read this book immediately after reading Caroline Jones’ Through a Glass Darkly and here again, I find myself confronted by a book that is not just an autobiography taking a life lived across a long period of time, but instead a slice of the author’s life that examines a dilemma or situation faced by the author.  In this case, Thompson writes of her marriage to Seven, a Maori man and the three children she has with him.  She is an American academic, based in Melbourne to write her doctoral thesis, and when she meets and marries Seven, she finds herself enmeshed in Maori family and community obligations that she both observes and critiques as a border-crosser.  She is quite open about the fact that there are values and responses that she does not share, or even completely understand, and she feels conflicted about the historical trajectory that has seen her New England family amass wealth and status over another disenfranchised people, the American native.  She can see the parallels in her own story, and that of the history of Seven’s family and culture.

I liked the way that in several chapters, she chooses an emblematic episode or object and uses it as a focus around which to embroider observations, history and politics.  Her story ranges across the world- New Zealand, New England, Melbourne, Hawaii, and explores different aspects of border-crossing and contacts.  I’m not completely convinced by her writing style, though.  It is certainly readable enough, but in spite of the general notes at the back – not too academic lest they frighten the reader- the book veers between accessibility and colloquial chattiness.  She is obviously a careful observer and incisive yet wide-ranging thinker, but it’s as if she has subjugated her erudition- perhaps at her publisher’s suggestion? Or is it perhaps a reflection of the compromise she has had to make more generally in her life?

For her academic career and her marriage seem two completely disconnected, compartmentalized aspects of her life.  She hops from one postdoctoral fellowship to another, and obviously has a respected if not lucrative academic career.  Academia is often peripatetic  by nature, but there’s also an element of nonchalance that Seven seems to bring to this as well.  I am unsettled by the whole precept of the book and her foreword, where she explains that she has changed the names of Seven’s family but not other aspects of the story, suggests an uneasiness on her part as well. What is the authority by which she writes this book?  Is there an element of trophyism and appropriation going on here?  And, as with Caroline Jones’ book, I ask myself: do I have any right to criticize the choice that another person makes, just because I would have chosen differently?  But a part of me answers: but SHE wrote this, she put it out here into the public domain, she has invited her readers to observe her and, by extension, critique what they find.

The quote from which the book takes its title is from Charles Darwin who, tired and homesick after his long journey on the Beagle, misquotes from journals during Cook’s voyage written decades earlier. Cook and Banks realised that the taunt “Come on shore and we will kill you” was a performance and  a posturing stance towards any stranger that a Maori group might encounter, and was not necessarily acted upon.  The suggestion of cannibalism was added by Darwin himself.  It works well as the title for this book: it too is a challenge, and reveals layers of truth, representation and contact between cultures at the political and personal level as well.

‘Through a Glass Darkly’ by Caroline Jones

jones

224p. 2009

Caroline Jones is probably best known as one of the presenters of  Australian Story the long-running ABC documentary series on a Monday night.  The stories featured on Australian Story are human-interest, generally uplifting and ‘inspirational’ features of half an hour in length, combining a narrative, flashbacks, and interviews with friends and family of the person featured.  Caroline Jones comes across as an older, wiser, immaculately groomed, sensitive presenter.   As an English judge was moved to say of Lady Archer (huh!)  “Has she fragrance?  Has she elegance?” and the same question could well be asked of Caroline Jones.  I’ve always found her rather cloying though, and after reading this book, I am even more wary of such unmitigated ‘niceness’.

The book appears to be taken from Jones’ own diary, written after her 93 year old father had undergone heart surgery.  It traces though his time in intensive care and eventual death after a number of weeks, then with her devastation in dealing with his death.  She draws no comfort at all from the idea that he had ‘a good innings’ and, as she is an only child without children herself, she finds herself completely bereft of family.  She finds that her spirituality brings her no comfort at all and her pain seems to abate only with time.

I feel rather uncomfortable writing about her book, as to criticize the book is to criticize her. And yet, she is the one who wrote the book (for whatever reason); she is one who has chosen to expose herself in this way; she is the one who has put her own actions and responses into the public domain.   It’s a strange genre- not memoir as such, which is a construction in itself;  and by focussing on just one aspect of a life lived, it lacks the completeness of an autobiography.  It’s almost an argument of sorts; a point of view over a particular event, and I think that by writing it, the author invites challenge.

There seem to be many things that Caroline Jones has NOT spoken about with her father:  whether he should even have the surgery at the advanced age of 93 (and to my way of thinking, there’s something decadent about a society that even offers this option) and  whether Caroline has the right to say ‘enough- no more treatment’.   Jones herself says that she and her father have never really spoken about Caroline’s mother’s suicide when Caroline was a young girl- surely a huge,  unresolved (and unresolvable) ache in both their lives. For all her assertions of closeness and love between them, there are many things unsaid that should have been said.

Despite her “niceness” Caroline is filled with rage at her father’s predicament-  the breathing tube, the continued surgeries, the poor outcome- and she is watching like a hawk.  She is there every day: she does not leave until the night staff come on so that she knows who is on duty.  On the rare occasions when she leaves to fulfil firm obligations, she yearns to be back by his side.  It is a long drawn out nightmare for them both.

Her spirituality leaves her cold, and yet she brings many of her own spiritual mentors in to visit her father, even though he does not share her Catholic faith and has not expressed any particular personal faith.  Like many a loving father, he is content to let her have her own religion; but as a loving daughter she does not provide him the same space.

The book closes with two appendices, written by her friends in response to reading an early draft of the book.  I think that they are a self-serving addition, acting only to bolster her own world-view.  The second appendix, written by a doctor at the hospital where her father died, assures her that she was “controlled”, not “controlling”.  I can only assume that someone must have made this comment sometime about her.  I disagree.  She is very controlling.

To be honest, this book angered me.  I don’t think that I want to write any more.