Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

31 August 2009

San Gimignano: Town of Towers

To San Gimignano. Early. I’ve long wanted to go there. We missed a chance in 1995 when our New Zealand contingent (minus us two who stayed at Chiesetta for peace as much as any other reason) went to visit the Rocca del Macie winery in Castellini in Chianti and paid a side trip to the town of towers. When they returned they spoke more of some museum of torture than anything else but I long ago shed any curiosity about man’s inhumanity to man and I shan’t even give it a passing glance.

It takes us just two-and-a-half hours to get there from Barga via the autostrade but although we arrive early enough, at 8.10, the town approaches are already crowded with tourist coaches. The inadequate carparks outside the walls are full. We watch as streams of zombified visitors file through the town gate. Unwilling to join them we decide to turn away and do a tour of the purlieus in the hope that we’ll get a better feel for how the towers make the town. Mauve heat deadens the colours of the distant views as I take photographs across the outlying valleys and over the rows of vines that surround the walls and radiate like dull green corduroy down from the eminence, giving tremendous perspective. Vineyards are everywhere and at the hearts of each are red-tiled factory buildings and houses guarded by cypresses that make the scene so archetypally Tuscan.

There’s a feel of quiet wealth here, an inheritance of history, of landowners no longer subjects of the feudal power that once dominated from the city walls. Away from the roads that lead directly to San Gimignano it’s peaceful and deserted; few people are evident, just the odd Piaggio comes farting along the dusty back roads its driver giving us a disinterested nod at passing.

Having made a circuit we stop for lunch on the main approach to the town at an expensive hotel that lies away from the road. On the almost empty terrace beside a glassy azure pool we sit under a Cypress-green market umbrella, sip iced Campari sodas and nibble on bruschetta while watching the cars and coaches as they contest share of the highway below with tractor drawn trailers loaded with newly harvested grapes. Their drivers ignore impatient visitors. Especially deliberately and, it seems, insolently, they now and then slow down and ease towards the centre of the road instinctively knowing which of the cars and coaches carry a ‘D’ origin on their number plates!

At last we attack the city. It’s a little quieter after lunch and we find a parking space near the Porta San Giovanni, entering by that gate and making our way up the cobbled Via San Giovanni. We peel off to a side road from where we can get some pictures of the towers, emphasizing their height. At the zenith of power, in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were seventy; only thirteen now survive. I’ve read that they were built by antagonistic families during the conflicts of Guelphs and Ghibellines as defensive keeps - some connected by walkways - each one trying to outdo the other with a higher structure; sort of keeping ahead of the Joneses. But I don’t believe it because it would be too easy to add to the structure and in any case, even for show-off Italians, would have been a petty enterprise.

A more sensible suggestion (although it lacks the absolute stamp of history) is that their towers emerged from the time when San Gimignano was famous for its textiles, particularly those dyed by secret processes using the saffron yellow distillations of locally grown crocuses. The most prized fabrics were those whose colours had been fixed while avoiding sunlight and dust, and were the longest strips possible. To achieve this the strips were suspended in the still air inside the windowless towers. The holes that can be seen in the walls were made for trusses to support staircases outside the towers thus leaving maximum internal space for the textiles. Knowing the Italians’ proclivity for turning a lira or euro I’m certain that’s why the towers were built; my contention is supported today by the sheer commercialism of the town which is so attuned to taking tourists’ money that it’s hard to imagine what the character of the real San Gimignano is. I guess a winter here would have its own rewards. In fact, a winter anywhere in Italy would be an eye opener for, as with the hosts of a dinner party, behaviour would be quite different after the guests had departed. Prices would come down for a start!

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’ This book is available from Blurb.com.


30 August 2009

No Parlo Bene Italiano but…

I discovered that if I said to an Italian ‘No parlo bene Italiano; parle Inglesi?’ rapidly followed with ‘Sono da la Nuova Zelanda.’ I could establish:-

1. That although I didn’t speak Italian I was doing my best, and didn’t automatically expect him or her to speak in English.

2. That I was not English. Some Italians don’t like English tourists as they see too many of them. New Zealand is, believe it or not, exotic, not well known (one often has to relate it to Australia) and nothing of a threat. Indeed, at times there are warm feelings, either from the war or rugby union, (Tutti neri = All Blacks).

3. We’re not German. (For some reason - I can’t imagine why!!! - Italians dislike them).

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


Bang ‘em Up For Longer or Let ‘em Out?

Should crims stay banged-up longer for their transgressions? We, the voters, have repeatedly said that we want them shut away for longer but when I lean towards tougher punishments two things bother me. First: I have always shuddered at the very idea of imprisoning offenders who have not physically harmed anybody and are unlikely to. Why do we lock up embezzlers, fraudsters, bigamists, ‘white collar’ criminals, or robbers of intellectual property? If they aren’t the kind of people who serially kill, chop up neighbours’ faces or rape why on earth do we put them in prison? They’d serve much better sentences working off their crimes and paying back society by earning money, under supervision, most of which could go into the public coffers.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the non-threatening criminal fraternity could, by the sweat of their brows or the machinations of their brains, actually generate sufficient income to pay for the costly incarceration of their violent colleagues: there’s a thought for the Corrections Department.

Secondly, and much more importantly, I can’t escape the feeling that every time a lusty youth rapes an eighty-year old woman, or a bunch of teenagers invades a home and beats up its occupants to produce a net short term gain of a walkman and the contents of a piggy bank, Society - that’s you and me - have failed.

I can remember a time when violent crime was so amazingly unusual that if one occurred it took up the front page of the national newspapers for days on end. So what has changed in a lifetime? We’ve copped out, that’s what. The majority has failed to control the minority and we’re in such a sea of politically correct tiptoeing through individuals’ ‘rights’ that we now opt for the criminal rather than the victim.

Criminality starts in the family and grows in the schoolroom. From life’s outset, parents have got to be tough on their children when it comes to right and wrong, honesty and respect for neighbours. Before the little ones ever reach kindy or school they have to know that teachers are to be respected. Thereafter those teachers must be given the teeth, by parents’ consent and legal permission, to exert their authority. Tolerance of transgression at the nascence of discrimination (four or five years of age?) should be zero, and reinforcement of that regime should never be negative. Punishment should fit the crime so that the offender is left in no doubt of his/her place in a strict but compassionate society.

Above all work should be found for everybody of work age even if that means making able bodied people work on government schemes which they might not like. (You’re listening to a man who spent two reluctant years in the armed forces and only afterwards learned how valuable it was).

Work is important not only because it produces wages and, one hopes, job satisfaction but also because it is an absorption; people who do a hard day’s work find themselves so tired at the end of the day that they have neither the energy nor the inclination to do a warehouse or mug a fellow citizen.

Sure, there will always be the criminals who like to kill and maim for the fun of it. We’ll never get rid of them; they’re sick of mind. But, my way, they’ll be easier to find and one suspects that there are really so few of them that we could afford to lock ‘em up and, as they say, throw away the key.

© In text DON DONOVAN. ‘Prisoners Exercising (after Doré)’ Vincent van Gogh

29 August 2009

1908 10/12 Coventry Humber

I did this drawing in 1969 - over forty years ago!

I came across a colour transparency of it (half plate, no less, i.e. about 10cm x 15cm) in a filing cabinet. I think that the car is still housed at Terrace Station, Hororata, New Zealand. While it is also forty-plus years older, unlike me it is frozen in time and probably still looks the same. I certainly don't!


Humidity and Barramundi

I made a little note that afternoon:-

This is a different experience from the trip Robin and I did around the Red Centre two-and-a-half-years ago. That was a desert journey; hot dry days, cold dry nights. Here, the tropical humidity saps all energy and stresses the body’s systems, especially the heat-exchanger. The flora of Kakadu are luscious, strong-growing, fecund, sensuous.

Lotuses have a mute, threatening intelligence (like the sun-staring girasole of Italy), the paper-barks seem strangely vulnerable and dainty; and fist-sized mauve-petaled water lilies flower boldly beside their tiny white and cream cousins - naiads consorting with nymphs. Dragonflies pepper the sky like world war one bi-planes, they come at the car in head-on attacks but very rarely hit the windscreen; their relatives, the damsel-flies are tiny strips of blue and red neon on mica wings.

Coarse, broad-leaved grasses give shelter to snakes and long, stiletto lizards who dart suddenly with their heads up, seeking height for vigilance. Other grasses, lining the tracks, are taller than a man and give a deceiving impression of intimacy to the forest that lies behind them. At Jabiru nothing can be seen from the ground that gives direction. No hills; only the sun which rises over forbidden Arnhem Land and swings north to light up the flooded streams of the Alligator rivers.’

At dinner in the Escarpment Restaurant of the Crocodile Hotel I sweet-talked waitress Annabelle into sweet-talking the chef to depart from the set menu and do for me barramundi grilled in olive oil, and steamed potatoes. She did, he did; it was simple and delicious.

As we returned to our room lightning flashed in the southern sky but too far away for its thunder to carry. Instead the night crickets rattled while small lizards hung stencilled on the hotel wall. The air smelled of a subtle perfume.

From diary notes: ‘Kakadu and Beyond’


28 August 2009

I Admit It, I Am Cookie Bear’s Father

Advertisements rarely become monuments. Today’s newspaper publicity is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping. But while little is remembered, every now and then something lasts a bit longer. One of those putative ‘iconic’ stand outs is Hudsons’ Cookie Bear.

I admit it, I am the father of Cookie Bear; I invented him. What fame!

Cadbury took over the Hudson company - a New Zealand biscuit and chocolate manufacturer - in the early 1930s. They inherited the Hudson biscuit brand, a well-known and well-established household standard.
In the early nineteen-seventies Carlton-Carruthers du Chateau Ltd., the advertising agency of which I was a proprietor, conceived the idea of Cookie Bear for Cadbury Schweppes Hudson.

Cookie Bear started life when I suggested to our creative people that we develop him as a campaign character in television advertising. (At the time there was a mendicant bear character in the Andy Williams show that triggered the idea). He was positioned as a lover of biscuits who considered Hudsons to be best. The first two commercials were in black and white, which was just as well because CB was dressed in a green bear outfit borrowed from a fair ground performer in Lower Hutt.

With his deep ‘dum-de-do’ voice and cuddly personality he immediately had a big impact on the market. Children loved him and so did their mums. In fact, market research told us that the only people who thought he was a nonentity were intellectual snobs and teenagers (who almost by definition eschew anything to do with the establishment). In quite a short space of time, Cookie Bear started to adopt the characteristics of a brand in its own right. We found that brand awareness studies where the question was: ‘What brands of biscuits can you name?’ were producing, among others, the unprompted response ‘Cookie Bear’ from a significant number of respondents.

We decided, I consider rightly, in the early days of Cookie Bear, that Hudsons should continue to be the brand and that Cookie Bear should be the vehicle for the transfer of desirable images associated with that brand. Because he was so powerful a character, we put him on the biscuit packs and very carefully arranged it so that Cookie Bear was seen to be inextricably bound up with the Hudsons big blue ‘H’ without overpowering it.
Although it was acknowledged by all of the marketing department and management at Cadbury Schweppes Hudson that Cookie Bear was doing a great job for them there was only ever one person at Cadburys who made the full, long-term commitment to the character that I hoped for. That man was Mike Groves who subsequently left Cadbury and is today Director of Operations in the Graduate School of Enterprise at Auckland University.

Mike Groves and I firmly believed that Cookie Bear, as a near-brand could be as important to Cadburys and Hudson as, say, the Jolly Green Giant, and could easily achieve brand status if Cadburys were prepared to allow him to do so. We felt, though, that Cookie Bear would only really come into his full value when the children of the day had grown to parenthood. We believed that the brands you grow up with are an important part of life’s experience and are likely to be passed on to the next generation with the usual transmitted tribal folklore. If you like, there’s a sort of whakapapa of brands to be trusted which the elders are prepared to pass on.

The foundation for Cookie Bear’s long term success was laid through Cookie Bear’s Club which communicated through a monthly page in Woman’s Weekly and a correspondence which was conducted by Cookie Bear with children all over New Zealand who wrote to him. Many of the children poured out their innermost secrets that were answered with great compassion by Cookie Bear who was, in actual fact, an internal bureau at Cadburys in Dunedin which, at its height, employed four women full time handling daily sacks of mail.

Cookie Bear’s club was open to any child aged below twelve and each one of them received a birthday card from CB. We got to a peak of 180 000 children; one in four of all the children under twelve in New Zealand belonged to Cookie Bear’s Club. Mike Groves and I believed that the full fruits of Cookie Bear could have been plucked about ten years later when the girls who were twelve, would then be twenty-two - some of them mothers. That’s when the brand they’d grown up with would have started to be passed on to their children.
It is sad to record that others in the Cadbury organization - especially incoming brand managers - did not have our faith, foresight or dedication and the wave of success was allowed to dissipate.
The excuses were quite rational and pragmatic - postage rates increased from, I think, about seven cents a letter to twenty; to mail every member once a year cost $36,000 (a lot of money in the 70s), and then there was the cost of the wages of the ladies in the bureau etc; and his role was increasingly relegated to the odd advertisement.

Beside being a TV, radio, print advertising character, Cookie Bear was the subject of a children’s book written, drawn and published under licence to Cadbury; he was also licensed to a soft toy manufacturer and was subject of a court case for breach of copyright; and when Cadburys treasured the character most they formally asked my company to transfer legal copyright to them so that there should not be any misunderstandings about ownership, even though, in our opinion, they were always the copyright owner.

Mike Groves once referred to CB as ‘the million dollar bear’. Sometimes, in the old days, when we sat around discussing the future antics of Cookie Bear a part of my mind would detach itself, drift up to the ceiling, and look down on this bunch of highly paid adults talking about what appeared to be kid’s stuff and boggled at the apparent banality of it all.

‘Why’ I asked myself, ‘is this all taken so seriously?’ The answer was, of course, money. Perhaps the greatest irony of all that money earned and spent was that eventually the brand Hudson and the character Cookie Bear became the property of Griffins, whose market share Hudson were always trying to steal.
But Cookie Bear has survived for over thirty-five years and although he’s changed considerably since his beginnings he still appears on some of Griffins’ biscuit packs and, very occasionally, in advertisements.



27 August 2009

They Still Ring Church Bells In Italy

They still ring church bells in Italy; their changes float from belfries up and down the Serchio Valley. I try to rest in the sun in Chiesetta’s soothing garden. I read a little but then remember the raspberry bushes that grow on one of the terraces at the far end of the garden. They are loaded with fruit, fat, pubescent, pink and subtly flavoured. They’re ready to come off the canes but the first one I pull sets off a convulsive rustling in the bush. I jump back wary of a viper but it was probably one of the lizards that wriggle in the garden. The raspberries are morish and abundant; I make a pig of myself.

Later, some of us go to Castelvecchio Pascoli, a hamlet north of Barga, to inspect the house of Giovanni Pascoli a poet of renown. He lived with his sister, Maria, at Casa Pascoli from 1895 until he died in 1912 (they’re both buried here) during which he wrote much of his most important work. The house is now a museum very much as he left it. 

Three old ladies in black, ravens sunning themselves on a bench in the gravel forecourt, point to a concealed bell-push. The door is opened by a lugubrious, overweight, uniformed, pasty-faced ‘guard’ who admits us, charges us ten Euros each, insists that I leave my camera bag in his cubby hole (but I’m allowed the camera and tripod) and then gives us a conducted tour around gloomy, mouldy smelling rooms with high, frescoed ceilings. There are six thousand books and carefully indexed archives. Pascoli obviously rates in Italian literature but one suspects that he is given additional status to enhance tourist income. In one of the rooms are his desk with his quill pens and other objects in situ. The walls are covered with photographs, drawings and paintings: Pascoli and family, prominenti - including Garibaldi with Pascoli - and local scenes.

Apart from a sunny, collonaded balcony on the first floor, from which we can see Barga, the gardens of the house, and the river valley, I find it cold and uninspiring; I wonder what his poetry was like? Indeed, I wonder what was his relationship with his sister for there’s a hint of illicit propinquity about their connecting bedrooms…
From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


26 August 2009

Simple Tombstones of Rural England

Revered shrines of old England such as St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, York Minster or Canterbury Cathedral draw such crowds in the tourist season that the crush all but ruins enjoyment. There are alternatives and there’s as much history and vastly more peace in the provincial and rural parish churches. You could spend years visiting them: a new one each day without repeat.

By way of example, I was attracted to the parish church of St. Margaret’s, Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk while touring in the northern summer. It, and most especially its churchyard’s tombstones, is typical of all that is best in England’s rich catalogue of country churches.

Cley (sounds like ‘high’) was once one of the busiest seaports of north Norfolk. It lies at the mouth of the River Glaven, handy in mediaeval times for the flourishing export of wool to the low countries across the English Channel. Like many East Anglian churches, it seems far larger today than the size of the town warrants; that’s because Norfolk’s population shrank as the wool trade declined.

St Margaret’s was started in the 14th century to a grand plan that was never quite accomplished because the Black Death of 1348 devastated the local population. Nevertheless the evidence of its planners’ ambition lies in the perpendicular tracery of the windows of the nave and south porch, and the elegant skeleton of the roofless south transept.

The churchyard, heavily scented with wild flowers at the time I visited, has a scattering of 18th century tombstones some of which I photographed. I was intrigued by their naïve carving and an almost cartoon-like rendering of the icons of death: skulls, hour glasses and crossed bones interspersed with cherub heads, arabesques and stylized flowers. They date generally between 1720 and 1790 and appear to have been carved by the same hand; hardly possible but perhaps a father and son may have carried on a masonic tradition? I doubt that anybody knows for when I enquired of a local historian about the gravestones he was unable to tell me the masons’ names.
He did, however, comment that after the Reformation in the 16th century, the inscribing of religious symbols on tombstones was forbidden, forcing the carvers to use non-religious devices. This accounts for the death’s heads and hourglasses; only towards the end of the 18th century did crosses, crucifixes and saints reappear.

For all their simplicity, the stones are fluidly carved with sure hands guided, perhaps, by uneducated minds. The sculptor was undismayed if he misspelled or came to the end of a line with a word part finished - he simply inserted words or letters above the omissions or finished on the next line! The lettering style owed much to the printing typefaces of the time and are particularly reminiscent of the types of John Baskerville (1705-1775) the Birmingham calligrapher, engraver and printer; but with idiosyncratic swashes and flourishes that must have given great joy to the man with the chisel!

You don’t have to go to Cley-next-the-Sea to enjoy these arts; they’re found in churchyards all over England and other parts of the United Kingdom. Apart from their aesthetic qualities, they give an insight into local social history, too. With unerring English capacity for correctness, the armigerous nobility occupy tombs and niches within the church while those not so ennobled (but bigwigs nonetheless, such as wool merchants and successful farmers) have the best spots and the biggest mausolea, urns, obelisks and table-tombs in the surrounding grounds.

Meanwhile the lesser stones, of limestone, ironstone or slate, that lie outside the protection of the knapped-flint church walls erode inexorably. Names become obscure, doggerel epitaphs lose their rhymes, dates decay; and where the stones have lost their dressing, grey-green and orange-yellow lichens gain hold and spread a charming obliteration. You must catch the stones when the sun’s rays are parallel to their faces to decipher their inscriptions and see them at their best.

The wonder of it, as I have said, is that you may do so in peace, far away from the traffic growl and jostling shoulders of the big towns’ tourist shrines.


Shaw’s Alfabet & Textual Intercourse

George Bernard Shaw wanted to change the alphabet to the ‘alfabet’ believing that a high proportion of semi-literate children in British and other English speaking countries’ schools was because of alphabetical confusion.

He blamed the fact that many of the alphabet’s written letters signified more than one sound and that a plethora of two-letter combinations such as sh and th and ph was detestable.

Examples: C is sounded differently in cooking and cease. G in geranium and gallop. And the anomaly of ph was emphasized in alphabet and alfabet. (Or was it emfasized ?!)

So he set out to reform the alphabet and left money in his will for his crusade to be furthered. On 22 November 1962 his work Androcles and the Lion was published using his new set of symbols. This excerpt is what it looked like:

Which, in every day English reads:- ‘A jungle path. A lion’s roar, a melancholy suffering roar, comes from the jungle. It is repeated nearer. The lion limps from the jungle on three legs, holding up his right forepaw, in which a huge thorn sticks. He sits down and contemplates it. He licks it. He shakes it. He tries to extract it by scraping it along the ground, and hurts himself worse. He roars piteously. He licks it again. Tears drop from his eyes. He limps painfully off the path and lies down under the trees, exhausted with pain. Heaving a long sigh, like wind in a trombone, he goes to sleep.’
Today Shaw’s alfabet is as incomprehensible as heiroglyphs except to the scholar or kinky enthusiast.
Shaw might have been eccentric but he was no fool. He knew that if his alfabet was to be adopted it would be for economic, not cultural reasons. New communications in the language would lead to efficiency and profits. ‘England knows nothing of phonetics, hates education, but will do anything for money.’ He declaimed.

What would Shaw have made of a new reform grown out of the need to save money in telephone communication? A spelling reform most used by the very young people whom he thought couldn’t cope with confusion? What would he have thought if (had he still been alive at the start of the 21st century) his cell phone had given him a new rendering of that extract from Androcles that went something like this…

‘jngl pth. lion rors. lion gt thrn n paw. hrts lk hel. lixit, suxit. nbg. stffd. zzz unda tre’

I expect some nerds out there will tell me I’ve done it all wrong but I’m sure they’ll get my drift.

Txt msgs remind me a bit of telegrams. I expect that if Shaw had read Androcles in telegraphese or textual intercourse he would thought them a huge joke but he would probably have pointed out that while both methods might convey the gist of the story they effectively kill off any literary colour. In doing so he might have realized, too, that it’s the anomalies in English and its alphabet that make the language, its literature and its poetry so rich and exciting. It grows and it changes, it bends and it moulds all at unhurried and majestic pace.

Shaw’s alfabet never stood a chance, and text messaging will only last as long as the technology that supports it.


24 August 2009

Hard of Hearing? Buy a New Telly

‘What are “genital au pairs”?’ I asked my wife. (I, having lived a sheltered existence, thought something exciting might be passing me by).


‘“Genital au pairs”, they just said it on the telly.’

‘Jennifer Lopez.’ She interpreted, shaking her head in disbelief.

That’s when I realized that my hearing was packing up and that if I wasn’t careful I might innocently get into big trouble.

So I called in at my doctor’s rooms and he got one of his practice nurses to do a hearing test.

‘What do you reckon?’

‘Were you an artilleryman by any chance?’

She explained that I had the hearing of a 70-ish year-old whose ear drums might have been modified by the percussion of gunfire. Interesting: I told her that I’d never actually fired a howitzer but I had been in a Royal Air Force rifle team when I was about nineteen.

She then informed me that if my hearing had been impaired while serving in the British armed forces I might qualify for assistance with the cost of hearing aids. Subsequent investigations via an audiologist led me to fill in form WPA0001 to submit to a remote department of UK War Pensions in which I described a time over fifty years ago…

‘… I served in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 (Service number 2513297). I did quite a lot of .303 Lee Enfield rifle and bren gun shooting… Specifically, I shot for a Technical Training Command rifle team… Every time I fired a rifle I experienced not only short term deafness (improving over about three or four hours) caused by explosions but also pain; the percussion of explosion caused actual pain in my ears. We were neither issued with protective ear muffs nor allowed to stuff wadding or cotton wool into our ears…’

To give them their due, without much delay they shouted me a hearing test from a top Auckland audiologist who, completing the examination, confirmed that I was suffering typical delayed gunfire symptoms. ‘However, I have to tell you that your hearing is not bad enough for the Brits to pay for hearing aids.’ And he went on: ‘What’s more, as you age and as your hearing deteriorates further you will still not qualify because the goal-posts move inexorably beyond any extension of charity to your case.’

Well, of course. Don’t they always?

He then asked me if I wanted to have hearing aids.

I’d already given this some thought. Asking around I had gained the impression that those of my friends who use them often find them more nuisance than they’re worth; especially when among groups, at a party, or in the ambient babble of a restaurant. I had been warned, too, that they could cost big bucks - indeed, up to several thousand dollars. Thus, even before I learned that any UK-funded instruments were a forlorn hope, I had decided to take an alternative course of action.

I bought a new TV set. This big silver monster, at a price well below half of a pair of hearing aids, has a big flat screen, brilliant pictures, and above all the facility to manipulate its sound tone. Where my old telly had had no tone controls, the new one not only has settings for speech, music, movies and multi-media but also a graphic equalizer that allows me to minimize the duller and sharpen the upper frequencies. I can hear it - perfectly

‘What a good idea.’ the audiologist enthused when I told him about it. ‘Money well spent, I’d say. So, no hearing aids then?’

‘Not yet.’ (I didn’t tell him that a mate of mine who’s quite a bit older than I has agreed to leave his to me in his will.)

Meanwhile, with my shiny new TV I’ve now got a real handle on Jennifer Lopez: she not only looks good but sounds right, too - and that goes for her name. ‘Genital au-pairs’, I must have been mad.


Jim Jim Falls: Kakadu

Jim Jim Falls
Saturday 27 March

There was a marked change in the weather. We sniffed it as we walked outside our room; a different feeling. The sky had changed, too and instead of there being clear blue above but cloud over the escarpment we now had strings of high cloud overhead, soft feathers against the blue.

We drove out to Jabiru airfield and found Des-of-the-huge-hands sitting in his air conditioned, forest-green cuboid shed; he agreed to take us up.

We lifted off in the Jet Ranger, having waited four days for a break in the weather, and headed south-east towards the escarpment that’s virtually the western boundary of Arnhem Land. From just a few metres above the ground Kakadu National Park was revealed as an open-forested plain stretching limitlessly west, a sameness of trees and shrubs on a vastly flooded grassland base. Nothing could more emphasize that this was the wet season than the straight, red-clay tracks we occasionally flew across that ran into water, to reappear again later, tracks impassable even to four-wheel drive vehicles, their usefulness proscribed by the slightest descent below flood level. Short of foot-trekking (which would be madness) the only way to the waterfalls was by helicopter.

To the east the escarpment rose, at first unimpressively. Its geological importance lies not in its height but in the difference it marks between the Kakadu flood lands and the hard rock crust of Arnhem Land. As we approached the cliffs they became more impressive but again this was not because of their height - no more than 100 - 200 metres - but their length, they stretched to north and south, a forbidding red-rock wall. We flew at no more than 500 metres and hugged the cliffs for a considerable distance until, after passing low over a detached outcrop which came up to meet us, its crazy stones labyrinthine as a brain, we were confronted by Twin Falls, where the escarpment runs east-west. This was the lesser of the waterfalls but grand all the same, its modest plateau stream bifurcated at the lip into sudden turmoil. Des held the Jet Ranger steady as we waited for cloud shadow to pass and then photographed the falls, fully lit by the late morning sun.

Jim Jim Falls are to the east where the escarpment has turned north-south. A much more splendid display than Twin Falls, the waters drop into a self-carved gorge the northerly face of which, this day, was in deep shadow. We were probably a little too early - maybe thirty minutes - but the falls themselves were in full sunlight and as we made our first pass the spray clouds billowing from the base of the fall threw a brilliant rainbow. Then, having passed the rim, above Arnhem Land and looking back towards Kakadu, we could see that the stream that makes the falls seems nothing much at all; Jim Jim Creek - its name both above and below the falls - weaves as a thousand other water courses across the plateau, placid, narrow but not apparently deep, until, like Twin Falls, it hits the edge and turns into a fury.

Des lowered us down the face of the falls until we were almost at the gorge floor, slowly gyrating and moving gradually across the deep and surprisingly still sandy-beached pool at its base. Looking up from there I marvelled (as even a child of the technological age can) at the ease with which we had been above, around and below the falls in a few minutes, seeing it as only a large bird could.

Back over Jabiru we dawdled above the Crocodile Hotel and took pictures. Only from the air, of course, does the crocodile shape become real - and really quite inspired. I still couldn’t work out, though, whether the architect’s motives were born of kitsch, humour or näivety. Probably tongue-in-cheek.
From diary notes: ‘Kakadu and Beyond’


23 August 2009

The Hit Man

At a leather goods stall in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana a small, faded-yet-attractive woman in a shabby pin-striped costume suit is picking over the handbags and keeping up an incredibly fast running commentary to a couple of companions. She has hennaed hair, stiletto-pointed scarlet fingernails and a cigarette which she either waves like a baton, dropping ash on the merchandise, or shoves between her lips where it flies up and down as she speaks unceasingly and blinks away the smoke.

A small boy, whom I take to be her son, leaves the stone step where he has been waiting patiently under a women’s underwear display, walks over to her, tugs at her skirt and whines pleadingly. She mostly ignores him, but every now and then she gives him a smack on the head - not viciously, more like swatting a fly. I watch fascinated. Each time she swats him he glares at her with distaste. Finally, she having cuffed him for the umpteenth time, he raises the plastic space gun which has been hanging loosely from his right hand by its trigger guard, points it at the small of her back, squeezes the trigger and makes a plosive pout with his lips. Then he looks at me in passing, his big brown eyes amoral and impassive.

I realize that I have just seen a mafia hit man in the making and that he has wasted his mother.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


22 August 2009

Who Stole the Chimney Pots off Albert Park Lodge?

No. 33 Princes Street is the keeper’s lodge in Auckland’s Albert Park. It was built in 1882, at the same time as the park was laid out. It was deemed necessary to the well-being and upkeep of the park that a full time keeper should not only be in attendance at the park but should also be accommodated there because, at the time of the park’s inception, the area was subject to the delinquencies of prowling ‘larrikins’ and the depredations of roaming horses and cattle; also, according to contemporary reports in the New Zealand Herald, it was ill-used by people who would clamber over its railings rather than walk to its gates, who lay drunk under its trees, and who repeatedly stole the flowers.

One notable prosecution was that of Sir Charles Burdett, a military baronet from England, convicted of theft and imprisoned for fourteen days with hard labour. O, the joys of zero tolerance!

Some occupants of the lodge were: the City Librarian from 1886; the family of George Fillmore, Auckland City Council’s Superintendent of Parks and Reserves from 1930-1951, and Frank Fillmore, Assistant Director of Parks and Reserves. Indeed, the Fillmore family lived there for 35 years.

The ‘carpenter gothic’ cottage was designed by Auckland architect Henry Greensmith Wade and built by Wrigley and Hancock. It comprises a parlour, two bedrooms, kitchen, pantry and scullery and was, until, perhaps twenty years ago, graced by two elegant, moulded clay chimney pots of neo-Elizabethan design, probably sourced from a standard Victorian builders’ supply catalogue of the mid-nineteenth century.

The pots in place before they disappeared

Fortunately I photographed the lodge before these distinctive pots disappeared from the house. Despite my approaches to the Auckland City Council, the Historic Places Trust and the New Zealand Herald, I have been unable find out whether they were deliberately removed for safe-keeping or, perhaps stolen in a prank by students of the nearby Auckland university; I suspect the latter.

Or, perhaps, they were souvenired by the ghost of Sir Charles Burdett - who knows? If anybody does know I’d be pleased to hear from them.


Girasole: The Sunflowers

All Umbria is yellowed by sunflowers and I have not yet photographed one. I ask Rita whether she knows where, nearby, there might be a field of sunflowers. She translates my question to Marco but he already knows it:

Girasole? He wants girasole? You want sunflower? Come.’

He gestures to me and to his friend Roberto to join him and walks briskly to his VW Golf Turbo. We take off through the gate, crashing over the metal cattle stop, leaving a spray of pebbles and dust behind. We scream down the lane as if trying to outrun the hound of heaven, Marco quietly dragging on a cigarette, arms extended to the steering wheel totally at ease in true Nuvolari fashion taking each bend as if we’re on a one-way street. At the earthquake house he brakes, arresting like a fighter landing on an aircraft carrier, to pick up a black-clad widow woman - a real, live solo black crow - to whom he murmurs in neighbourly fashion until we reach the lower outskirts of San Gemini whereupon he stops dead again.

I make to get out of the car to open the door for the woman but Marco restrains me, ‘She will make you talk.’ he whispers. No sooner is her door shut than we’re away, tyres squealing, to curve around the main road below the town out into open country on the road to Terni. At length we take a bend and there, to the right, and extending to low hills in the far distance is an ocean of yellow sunflowers.

‘You want girasole? You got girasole!’ Marco laughs and Roberto, too. ‘You come tomorrow morning. Beautiful pictures’.

I creep down the stone stairway. The garden air is night-cool. My sockless feet in smashed old boat shoes are wet with dew off the long grasses of the unkempt lawn. I run the car downslope until as far away from the house as possible then start the engine. Only then do I slam the door and drive through the rapidly lifting mist of the valley bed. Bells are ringing from several churches.

In the still air I photograph a sea of sunflowers running to a distant hedge of oaks against wooded hills. They are a surreal intensity of yellows and they seem to have an odd intelligence about them which is almost intimidating as they stare unblinkingly at the sun. ‘Girasole’ - turn to the sun - a word as beautiful in Italian as sunflower is in English. The blooms are enormous, perhaps up to forty-five centimetres in diameter, each identical to its neighbour with a fringe of frivolous petals around the geometric seed head which is the business of the flower. The bees are up early; some of my close ups will show them at work.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


21 August 2009

The Art Critic

I wander along the Barga-Renaio road and sit with my feet in the long grass of the downward side of the road doing a painting of the houses that teeter over the bluff above the town, with the very misty, almost obscured at times, Apuane Alps in the distance. Although absorbed, I hear a faint shuffle behind me and some laboured breathing. I look around to see an old, stooped man leaning on a stick watching me. ‘Buon giorno’ I wish him; he replies with a grunt. I continue my work while he wheezes. He seems content to be ignored. I, not at all put off, work quickly with oil pastel and watercolour and as the lighter colours emerge from the wash he grunts, ‘Buon lavoro…’ and totters away. 

When I realize that he has just congratulated me I call after him, ‘Grazie, signor’ and he waves his stick at me without looking round. ‘Good work!’ Indeed, I must be good if he has said so.

It’s pleasant sitting in the summer grasses looking out into the silvery mists across the olive groves that dive away from my feet. The tortuous trees - they look saurian with lizard limbs of wood - are fruiting with hard little olive, modest looking treasures.

The weather seems to be changing.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


20 August 2009

The Amateur Photographer in Pisa

We visit the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo where they keep all the goodies associated with the cathedral. I’m particularly fascinated by hymnals on vellum, hand-lettered and illuminated in the 13th to 15th centuries; they are enormous, heavy with thickly ornamented initials and borders in vivid golds and primaries, bright and fresh as if they were done yesterday. The calligrapher in me twitches - but the life of a scribe would, surely, have been drudgery? (I’m reminded of when I was offered a job ‘calligraphing’ in Chancery hand the minutes of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall. Though flattered and tempted, I turned it down because I couldn’t face a life of writer’s cramp. Poor bloody monks!)

On the first floor of the museum a colonnaded external gallery looks over gardens to the leaning tower. From this angle the tower is very prominent against the cathedral and I set up my tripod. But a young man in uniform stops me.

‘No tripod. Only camera.’

I ask him why.

‘Professionale.’ he replies, wagging a finger at me.

So I rest the Minolta on the balustrade - just like any other amateur.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’



The Faded Signora…

I take the cameras into Barga and roam the steps and alleys taking ‘cameos’, shots of little details that intrigue - a barred window, a crumbling wall, shuttered windows edged with geraniums, niche statues, door knobs - I always feel happy when I’ve shot some frames; work ethic pushing through, I suppose.

With the camera on the tripod I wait for the light to be just right for a shot across the terra cotta roofs of the centro storico towards the Apuane Alps. It’s a long wait, the clouds move infinitely slowly. On one of the park benches sit two women, a mother and daughter, the mother bent and bird-like, trembling, grasping an ebony stick, her ivory knuckle bones about to burst through their fragile vellum skin. The daughter is a middle-aged lustreless blonde. I nod to them across the rose beds and turn to lean on the parapet waiting for the moment.

As the shadows chase patches of distant sunlight over the river valley I’m aware of a footstep beside me. It’s the blonde. Scuffed. Faded. Worn. She’s like something out of Coronation Street, an Elsie Tanner well past a best that might once have been voluptuous. She starts to talk in a soft monotone and doesn’t stop even when I tell her I speak very little Italian. She flutters her eyes and makes some provocative moues and it dawns upon me that she’s chatting me up. Gin fumes waft on the heavy air. I imagine that Barga, while being a delight to us holidaymakers, must be a cold bed of suburban neuroses, a place of frustrated wretchedness for a woman of a certain age, her happy times bedded in history, left now to shepherd her old mother and hopeful of lust from the odd stray tourist. She must be desperate to solicit an old joker like me.

Sudden sun flattens the seams of her face, and floods the landscape. Just what I’ve been waiting for. ‘Mi scusi, signora.’ I turn my back on her and thumb the cable release for a series of bracketed exposures. When I’ve finished I’m relieved to see her and the old woman taking pigeon steps out of the park.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’



19 August 2009

Murder at Opotiki

Hiona St. Stephens, Opotiki
It was 1865, twenty-five years after the Treaty of Waitangi. It should have been a time of peace but disaffection was widespread. Maori attitudes towards the British ranged from collaboration to increasing hostility and outright armed warfare.

The British wanted more of the land; if they couldn’t buy it they readily provoked rebellion then confiscated it. Maori ownership of Aotearoa (New Zealand) was becoming diluted and while they had been the first people in the queue they could not expect perpetual rights to the best seats in the house.

‘Maoridom’ didn’t exist in 1865. New Zealand was composed of discrete tribes and sub-tribes. Complex ancestral connexions determined whether tribes were friends or enemies; pre-European history was a mosaic of warfare whose winners gained territory, slaves and the meat of the bodies of the captured. Maori, like the British, were warlike, and the confrontation of one race by the other logically led to a series of wars - despite the Treaty.

Some Maori were friendly to the British because, a cynic might suggest, they were rewarded with European magic such as firearms which might quickly put old enemies to rout. A less cynical viewpoint might be that wise Maori heads realized that British newcomers were but the vanguard of a mighty host that would overwhelm them; things would never be the same again so if you couldn’t beat ‘em you’d better join ‘em.

Among the first Europeans were missionaries who zealously brought their Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan, Methodist and Presbyterian Christianity to the natives. They were surprisingly well received. The extent of their conversions was awesome. Christianity somehow meshed with Maori spirituality and, besides, wasn’t it the religion of these technocrats from afar who took Aotearoa out of the stone age in one magnificent cannon blast?

But the most bitter tribes lost their patience with the pakeha, (non-Maori) their disillusionments soured to rebellion and many missionaries became compromised. Whom did they represent, their native congregations or their native countries? When the local priest heard of Maori preparations for rebellion could he keep quiet and side with his parishioners, ignoring the fact that his masters in head office were part of the Great British Establishment?

One such missionary was Carl Sylvius Volkner, vicar of the parish of Opotiki in the eastern Bay of Plenty.
He couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

* * *

Opotiki was well populated by Maori, and strategically important. Eastward lay the crags of East Cape. South was the Waioeka River gorge whose forest tracks permitted inter-tribal communication with Poverty Bay. Other more secret paths led to the Urewera, home of the Tuhoe people. West lay Auckland and Northland whence reached the long arms of pakeha commerce, law and order, perfidy, preaching and retribution. Across gentler hills dwelt the restless spirits of Rotorua and Taupo, connected to the Bay of Plenty by ancient footpaths and a thermal tract whose sulphurous fires erupted at White Island, smoking on the sparkling horizon of the bay.

Here in 1860 the Church Missionary Society had established an outpost now run by Carl Sylvius Volkner, a gentle, blond, blue-eyed aryan. With native help he built its little church in 1862. Soon he became compromised by divided loyalties and either naively or stupidly he set himself upon a disastrous path towards his particularly violent death…

* * *

In 1864, the Whakatohea, their East Cape neighbours, and the Waikato and Tauranga tribes were caught up in a struggle against the British south of Auckland. They tried to attack through Rotorua but were blocked by a pro-British tribe, Te Arawa. Trying an alternative, northern, coastal route, they were badly mauled by troops and naval gunfire. A battle had taken place near Maketu, where a chief of the Arawa had been killed and Whakatohea chief Te Aporotanga had been taken prisoner. The dead chief’s widow killed the prisoner, leaving the Whakatohea with a deep need for vengeance, especially as Carl Volkner had let the tribe down by not condemning the murder; they felt that he should have asked his boss, Bishop Selwyn, to influence Governor George Grey to punish the Arawa for the revenge killing.

Volkner was aware that the tribe felt he had deserted them for he told Selwyn so but he had alienated himself with the tribe even worse; he, they discovered, had been sending secret despatches to Governor Grey. To be generous, he may ingenuously have believed he could save the tribe by divulging their plans and thus pre-empting pitched warfare. But in time of war, that sort of activity is tantamount to espionage. Naive or not, Volkner was a spy.

Knowing of Volkner’s divided loyalties, Te Whakatohea condemned him to death, and that decision, together with other forces occuring almost coincidentally sealed his fate…

* * *

Far to the south-west in Taranaki the Hauhau cult had grown out of the seed bed lain by the early Wesleyan missionaries. In 1862, chief Te Ua Haumene had been visited by the Angel Gabriel, who revealed that the Maori - one of the lost tribes of Israel - would find salvation by expelling the pakeha from ‘New Canaan’. Te Ua’s vision by-passed Christ, the Hauhau considered they had an affinity with the Jews of the old testament.
Te Ua believed the pakeha would be expelled peaceably by ‘karakia’ or prayers and that chanting believers were immune from bullets as they ran into battle; needless to say, the bullets maintained their trajectories.
Some Hauhau espoused violence. One such was Kereopa Te Rau who set off from Taranaki with a war party bent upon spreading a militant message through the North Island, recruiting followers to his mission as he went. He was skilled in the arts of terrorism and coercion as a report to the Civil Commissioner in Tauranga makes clear :

‘Poronui, Whakatane. February 21 1865.
On Saturday last a large party of [HauHau] arrived . . . bringing with them a British soldier prisoner and the head of Captain Lloyd, which they exhibit. . . They pretend to make it speak. . .’

The report continued that the Hauhau had sealed the port, threatening to kill the crews of any pakeha ships, and were moving towards Opotiki. The Hauhau knew enough of Volkner’s activities to announce that if he was in Opotiki when they arrived they would kill him.

* * *

Volkner, meanwhile, had taken his wife to Auckland for safety but ignoring warnings, he left Auckland for Opotiki again on 29 February on the trading schooner ‘Eclipse’.

The events that followed his arrival were dramatic. The highly respected ‘Illustrated London News’ of 29 July 1865 reported to the effect that:

‘Having had occasion to go to Auckland, Mr.Volkner returned to Opotiki with the Rev. T. S. Grace. The master of the vessel, Captain Levy, states that, on the 1st of March, when he sailed up the river at Opotiki, and came alongside the wharf he found a great crowd of Maoris. His storekeeper brother, Mr S. Levy, with Tewai, the interpreter, came on board, and said that the Maoris [Whakatohea] had all taken an oath the day before to kill every minister or soldier who came there. Captain Levy went ashore and found that this report was true. Later in the day the Maoris ordered Levy, with his crew and passengers, out of the vessel. As soon as they did so, the Maoris seized Mr.Volkner and Mr. Grace.
‘Captain Levy and Mr. Samuel Levy were not personally molested because they were Jews.

‘In the morning Captain and Mr. S. Levy were told that the two missionaries would be shot. The Captain begged the Maoris to refrain but another party asked for Mr.Volkner, saying they wanted him to come to a meeting. The unfortunate gentleman ran out, thinking for a moment that he was about to be set free’.

To quote Captain Levy’s narrative: ‘They walked him off at once. They told him that they were going to kill him. He stopped near the church and asked them to allow him five minutes for prayer … Whilst he was praying they took a block and strop from the vessel, which they made fast to the topmost branches of a large willow-tree… There were now about 800 natives on the ground, who at once marched him under the tree. They then took off his coat, vest, and shirt, which the principal chief [Kereopa] put on, he being quite pleased with the watch and chain.

‘They left his flannel on, he not showing the slightest fear…The poor fellow commenced shaking hands with them while they were tying his neckerchief over his eyes; and… while they were hauling him to the fatal branch. They never tied either his hands or his feet, but left him to dangle in the air for nearly an hour, during which time some of the natives were hauling at his legs to get off his boots and trousers, sharing what was in his pockets, whilst he hung over their heads, and one of the brutes put on his trousers…

‘After letting the body hang for some time they lowered it down and carried it to the side of the church, where they had a place fenced in. Here they spread the body out in the form of a cross. They then proceeded to cut off the head and to drink his blood as it ran out of the head and body… the chief, Kereopa, taking the eyes out of his head with his fingers and eating them before the whole crowd to show them the example. The body was then thrown to the dogs…’

A lurid report but while it sounds a little exaggerated it is substantially corroborated by other reports.
It’s hard to imagine that Volkner showed ‘not the slightest fear’. Unless spiritually anaesthetized the man must have been a blubber of visceral terror.

The report goes on: ‘The Maoris assembled that evening in a … chapel, where the bleeding head of Mr.Volkner was placed on the pulpit, and they performed a savage dance before it, yelling and screaming with the utmost fury.’

The essence of the remainder of the report is that Levy took possession of Volkner’s mangled, headless body which he buried behind the church in what has been described as ‘a curiously shortened grave’.
Volkner's memorial at the back of St Stephens
Retribution followed. On 8 September 1865 an expeditionary force made a clumsy seaborne landing and within a few days Opotiki had been taken. The force took up positions in and around Mr. Volkner’s church.
During several weeks of skirmishing many of the participators in Volkner’s assassination were killed or captured. (Kereopa left the district and made his way down the east coast. He was finally taken late in 1871, cornered at the head of Whakatane Gorge. At his arrest he made the comment that he knew his luck would run out eventually because when he’d swallowed Volkner’s eyes one of them had stuck in his throat! Kereopa was tried in Napier on 21 December 1871, found guilty and executed.)

From the scores of perpetrators, eggers-on, bystanders and witnesses of Volkner’s demise only five were eventually tried. There should have been more but, no doubt, accusation and counter-accusation so confused the issue that hard evidence was difficult to come by. In any case, as with some modern mistrials of ‘terrorists’ - notably the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four - accuracy was less important than that some sort of trial and punishment should satisfy the public’s appetite for revenge.

On Thursday 29 March 1866, the Opotiki Five were tried before Chief Justice, Sir George Alfred Arney. In the dock stood Mokomoko - a Whakatohea chief - Heremita Kahupaea and Hakaraia te Rahui (Ngati Awa) and two boys - Paora Taia (Whakatohea) and Penetita (Nga Maihi). Mr Carnell, for the defence, contended a lack of evidence all round but in the end the judge left it to the jury to decide and they, six and a half hours after the trial had started, gave their verdict:

Paora: Not guilty
Penetito: Guilty - a strong recommendation for mercy
Heremita: Guilty
Hakaraia: Guilty
Mokomoko: Guilty

* * *

Mokomoko maintained his innocence to the last and the other two, acknowledging that they were guilty and deserved to die, supported his statement; but their words fell on deaf ears, there was to be no reprieve. Shortly before he died he said, ‘Farewell, you pakeha! I die without a crime, it is not right that I should die!
Was Mokomoko guilty? Who was guilty? It appears that only Heremita and Hakaraia actually admitted guilt. Perhaps the fact that Mokomoko was a chief of the Whakatohea who, it was said, condemned Volkner to death even before Kereopa appeared on the scene, was sufficient to condemn him.

Never mind, it was all over on 17 May 1866. The ropes had stretched, the necks had broken, the bodies had been buried in unmarked graves to haunt Mt. Eden prison’s gloomy precincts; the tribes and colonists could carry on into the future losing a bit there and winning a bit here, promising to forgive and… forget?

* * *

Maori never forget. No matter how much Maori were changed by pakeha ways over 150 odd years of co-existence - cars, television, hospitals, tobacco, alcohol, state education and welfare, sheep and cattle farming and even a Maori governor-general - they have remembered how to remember. And the Whakatohea, who not only lost a son but also more than a quarter of their land, confiscated by the government, carried the scars of Mokomoko’s injustice down the years with the corrosive pain of unresolved grief.

Spirits of Maori ancestors demand dignity and respect. There are protocols to be observed. When Mokomoko and the others were executed their bodies were buried upright, headless, in unmarked graves. In 1986 the Auckland District Maori Council commenced a three year fight to have the remains exhumed and on the 18th of October 1989 the prison gave up its melancholy relics. Mokomoko was taken back to Opotiki where he now rests in the green hills of Waiaua, safe in the country of his Whakatohea.

There remained the question of his original ‘sin’. At first the Whakatohea declined the offer of a pardon. Some see it as implying guilt - how can one be pardoned when one was innocent in the first place? Whakatohea certainly saw it that way and in July 1990 they petitioned the prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer, that action should be taken to restore Mokomoko’s name and honour. A grave miscarriage of justice had occurred. Statutory intervention was called for equivalent to an acquittal rather than a pardon.

But two pleas for acquittal were turned down on the grounds that there was not enough evidence of innocence (such irony - was there ever enough evidence of guilt?) And although a representative of the Whakatohea insisted that the tribe did not wish to become ‘embroiled in land issues’ but simply wanted Mokomoko’s name cleared, a plea for pardon was lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal. A 1991 newspaper report said that the Tribunal had not decided whether to accept the claim.

But in June 1992, as a result of pressure from the Anglican Church, it was announced that the Governor-General, on the advice of Mr. Douglas Graham, Minister of Justice, had granted a posthumous pardon to Mokomoko. On 25 July, Mr Graham met Mokomoko’s descendants at Waiaua Marae, near Opotiki where the Minister presented the pardon to 80 year old Te Wairemana Taia, great grand-daughter of Mokomoko.
‘At last the long black cloud has been lifted off you, your family and the whole of Whakatohea’.

* * *

The Church of St. Stephen the Martyr still stands, neat, modest and white in Opotiki’s main street. You wouldn’t know, unless somebody told you, that there is a story here that ranks with the murder of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Relics of Volkner are still preserved in the church - a bible, his chalice and other bits and pieces - and his ‘curiously shortened grave’ - he was, remember, headless; his smoked head had been taken to Poverty Bay - is incorporated into the body of the church.

It has a simple, marble stone: ‘Carl Sylvius Volkner . . . who suffered martyrdom’.

And not so very far away there’s another simple stone: ‘Mokomoko. Wrongfully executed. . .’

But while their bodies rest, and while further reparations have been made since 1992, we may be certain that the story has not yet ended.



18 August 2009

A Cautionary Tale from Kakadu

Beware! Danger lurks in any unfamiliar environment. A seemingly harmless excursion very nearly turned into a matter of survival when I decided to walk alone to photograph some aboriginal rock drawings in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. This is an extract from my diary…

Friday 26th: I drove from Jabiru to Nanguluwar on the northern side of Nourlangie to visit the Angbangbang rock art gallery. As usual, the car park designated for the tourist attraction was in full sun and at an indecent distance from the rock; 1.7 km to be precise. This was all very well for the sake of ecology, conservation or whatever other reason apart from bloody-mindedness that might be put forward but it takes no account of the elderly, the infirm or even your average tour-bus tourist. Australian National Parks are, I’m sure, deliberately designed for back-packers - tramping types in tight shorts and ankle boots - in fact anybody who resembles the park staff themselves.

As I left the car, having drunk a large amount of water but unwilling to load myself up with any more impedimenta than necessary beyond cameras and tripod, I was amazed at the force of the heat; the hottest yet experienced and exacerbated by airlessness. A short distance along the path I met a forlorn party trailed by a drooping, fat woman who looked extremely distressed. She was staggering, her pinkly blotched flesh slimy with perspiration, hair hanging lank and wet below a felt hat that sat, sweat-stained on the back of her head. She looked at me with the desperate-to-be-beatified eyes of a martyr, ecstatic in suffering, and I smiled encouragingly, whispering: ‘You’re almost there.’

Having seen her, I felt fit and able to undertake any challenge. The walk was easy for the first twenty minutes until the path broke up, ill-defined on harsh, boulder-littered ground among trees. I started to ascend around and over rocks which had fallen from the bluffs, and very soon I was pouring sweat, my pulse thumping fast in my head.

The rock gallery was along a cliff face typically protected by an overhang. There was even less air here and I found breathing an effort as I started to photograph the paintings. They were beautiful and included friezes of ‘x-ray’ fishes and turtles done, apparently quite recently, by ‘Barramundi Charlie’ and ‘Old Nym’ two of the last great rock artists of the region. There was a remarkable illustration of a sailing vessel, evidence of the impact of European and Indonesian intrusions between 1880 and 1950; a leaping figure known as Nabulwinjbulwinj (who kills and eats women) and a weird thing like a stick of celery with legs called ‘Algaiho’ - the ‘Fire Woman’, one of the first people to create the world, who planted shrubs in the woodlands and used their smouldering flowers to carry fire. ‘Algaiho’, it was said, hunted opossums with the help of her pack of dingos and she is still feared by the people of Arnhem Land - where her spirit yet lives - because she kills and burns people. So much primitive fear.

I think Algaiho was at work on me. I was conscious, and only just, of so much sweat pouring off me that my clothing was soaked and when picking up lenses and film from my camera bag which lay on the ground I was having to stand to one side to avoid a constant stream of droplets falling on to the equipment. As I finished the last photograph my vision began to blur, I felt faint and apprehensive. I was alone, losing body fluids fast, and beginning to stumble. As quickly as I could, hoping that I hadn’t left anything behind, I packed up and scrambled, tottering, away from the brooding cliff. I remember taking huge gulps of breath and trying to gather saliva in my mouth. All of a sudden a round trip of just over three kilometres seemed like a day’s march…

I made it, of course, but it taught me lessons: carry water, don’t go alone, don’t overburden yourself. I sat in the oven-like car and drank warm water as I bathed my forehead in the slowly cooling air from the air-conditioning grille. Then after a long time of reflection, frowning and blinking to clear my vision I drove, slowly and carefully back to The Crocodile Hotel at Jabiru to shower and change my clothes.
Perhaps it was worth it to get the photographs but what a fool I’d been; and thank God it hadn’t been a five kilometre walk!’

From diary notes: ‘Kakadu and Beyond’



17 August 2009


I am the jackal of the skies.
Leisurely I sweep the broad spread
Tussock, plough, forest, pastureland
And highway (slab for the new dead)
Seeking the flesh of passive prize.

Mine is the world of silent flight;
Seeking, on thermal pillows poised,
Pulsating frog, sinuous lizard, mouse and
Skid-red pulp of ‘possum new destroyed:
Victim of the violent night.

I shun the drama of the stoop;
Cut not the substance of the air;
Decline to emulate those falcons grand
Who from their craggy eyries, ledges bare,
Launch their displays to loop their loop.

If joyfulness I ever feel
It lies in freedom, free to slide
On wide stretched wings, with finger feathers fanned,
From ridge to ridge while valleys glide
Crosswise their bounty to reveal.

And joy again in mating cries
When tumbling vernal courtship flight
Lures me with heedless ecstasy across the land,
Blinded by breathless, high delight,
Brief lust and then the passion dies.

The scavenger Man may despise,
(In Nature only Man has pride)
But heed well: I was fashioned by God’s hand
To take my place all else beside;
To be the Jackal of the Skies.

© DON DONOVAN (text only)


Two Into Four Don’t Go!

If a one-wheeled cycle is called a unicycle…

and a two-wheeled machine a bicycle (or bike, or motor bike)…

and one with three wheels a tricycle (or trike)…

why do the media persist in calling a four-wheeled cycle a ‘quad bike’?

Surely quadricycle, or quad or motor quad would make more sense.




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By Don Donovan