Bridging the Gap

boxal-bridge-paintingI wrote this in response to a brief to write a short story concerning two people who meet in an airport, station or other public place after a long gap. There is some unresolved issue between them. We were asked to focus on dialogue and characterization.

Bridging the Gap

When they met in the Chimeswell farmers’ market, they hadn’t seen each other for nearly 30 years. David was horrified as he turned from the honey stall. How could he be here, in this place? He’d thought they would never see each other again. That was mad, given that they’d lived within five minutes’ walk of each other back then but really, it was so unexpected.

From Tim’s point of view, it was a pleasant surprise to find himself suddenly face to face with the childhood friend who had vanished from his life after that 16-year-old summer.

‘Dave! By the Gods! After all these years – how are you, mate?’ Though clearly, from the look of the man’s drooping anorak and thinning hair, the intervening decades had not been kind.

‘Um….. yes. Tim, isn’t it?’ David answered warily.

‘Of course it’s me! How the hell are you? When was the last time we met – oh yes, don’t remind me, it was the day we blew up the Ashbery bridge – hell, that was a laugh!’

David said nothing. Christ! Did he have to be so loud about it?   At any moment, Anne would reappear and he’d have some explaining to do. He had to get away.

‘Look, I’m sorry, I don’t really remember much about those days, you know. It’s nice to see you’re keeping well but I really have to go and meet my wife now, and….’

‘Oh, married, are you? Great, the old ball and chain, eh? Only joking, mate – look, it’d be great to catch up over a beer and you ought to meet my partner, she’s poking around here somewhere–‘

There was no escape. David could feel the familiar edge of danger that had always hung around Tim. Of course, it had been great fun back then and the scrapes and adventures had been far more exciting than anything he’d managed to get up to since, but the nervous frisson was something he could well do without nowadays.

Tim was still beaming away, his expensive dentistry flashing itself mercilessly from a face that had clearly seen some Mediterranean sun recently. He most likely drove a Merc and lived on three acres over in Badgery St Clare now. He’d never had to make an effort in maths, which, looking back on it, had probably augured well for his future. David, on the other hand, had had to re-sit his ‘O’ Level.

In desperation, he found himself saying ‘Well, why not – I suppose I could spare a quarter of an hour or so. The Red Lion’s just across the square and we’ll probably meet my wife on the way over there.’ In fact, it was in entirely the opposite direction to that from which he expected Anne to appear.

‘Excellent – and look, here’s Rachel now! Darling, come and meet the infamous Dave, who helped me blow up the bridge!’ Tim positively bellowed. At least two people turned to look in their direction.

Rachel was clearly a trophy girlfriend. David, who realised he would never qualify for such an accessory, could spot that much immediately. There was something about the way her jeans drew the eye – and Tim’s hand – to her firm buttocks, the toss of her shampoo-ad hair that gave it away. That and the fact that she’d probably just been starting solids when he and Tim blew up the bridge. Oh God, the bridge.

All these years, hoping no-one in the village would put two and two together; a teenagerhood spent dreading the knock at the door just as his mother was dishing up supper on her wedding Denbyware.

He’d had no idea what Tim meant to do that day – he’d been drawn into the madcap scheme like a halfwit. “I got the explosives up at the quarry when my Dad took me up there – he was meeting with an engineer and I just sort of had a look round. I found this whole hut full of blasting stuff – gelignite and everything!’

‘But what about a detonator, I mean, doesn’t there have to be something like that all wired up to it?’ David had asked, nervously.

‘Of course! I read up about it in the encyclopaedia and nicked what I needed from the science lab yesterday. It’s all set to go. All you have to do is push the lever down when I give the signal. I’ll be up on the road keeping a lookout.’

David was brought back to the present by Rachel’s explosion of giggles.

‘Oh Tim, you were just awful! I can’t believe you fell for it, Dave!’

‘I know – surprising really,’ Tim was laughing. ‘I’d found out from my Dad that they were planning to demolish the old bridge. I had huge fun making the ‘detonator’. Dad said I could come and watch, which was why I told you that I’d be keeping a lookout – I needed to be able to signal to you at the right moment. God, what a laugh that was… you actually thought you’d done it! When did you realize?’ ☐


The Namesake

Tui in a Kowhai tree (photo ©Tanya Lunn 2015)

Tui in a Kowhai tree (photo ©Tanya Lunn 2015)

Here’s a short story that I wrote in response to an assignment on my creative writing course. The brief was that the story must be on the theme of ‘home’ and should be recognisably New Zealand, with a word count of 400-600 words.

NB: Kōwhai is pronounced Kō-fye

The Namesake

‘Why on God’s earth would you name a child after a tree? Trees have tree names, people have people names,’ he’d said, when she told him. But there was something about those yellow flowers that she loved and she wanted her daughter to feel as strong as a tree and as happy as sunshine. He wouldn’t understand, because he’d always been strong and happy. Anna remembered this as she trudged across the paddock, the plastic crate of washing on the angle of her hip, the frost crunching beneath her boots. She pushed a straggle of hair back under the grimy ‘Auckland – City of Sails’ baseball cap that had once been his. She had his cap, he had her kid.

Kōwhai had grown to be a sturdy little girl here on the farm, staggering about among the sheep in her tiny red gumboots, helping to put out sugar water for the tuis in an old peanut butter jar on a tin tray nailed to a warratah by the back door. The birds drank from it when other tuis chased them off the tree that was her namesake, the one the child could see from her bedroom window. The little bed had had a crochet blanket on it, one that Anna’s own mother had made when Kōwhai was a baby, long before she and her mum stopped talking. It had been a stupid argument, but that was Mum for you – always criticizing, telling her to ‘harden up.’ It wasn’t her fault that the ewes had got out and she’d fallen in the gully while rounding them up; lain there all night with a broken leg worrying about Kōwhai and trying to keep warm. Busker had gone back to the house when he couldn’t get her to move – probably to raise the alarm, but what four-year-old would know a collie’s distress bark from his ‘I’m hungry!’ bark? When bloody Raewyn called round the next morning and found Kōwhai alone and Busker chomping on the wild goat that Steve had brought back from his weekend hunting trip, of course there was going to be trouble. The judge didn’t know her arse from her elbow. All Anna’s letters to Kōwhai went unanswered.


Kōwhai remembered lying on the bed with the big orange cat kneading her tummy. Pink and green and maroon wool felt scratchy beneath her legs; yellow flowers outside the window danced against a blue sky and the whistles and clicks of the tuis were overlaid with the ‘quardle ardle wardle dardle doodle’ of the magpies in the macrocarpas down by the fence. Mum must have been somewhere about. In the kitchen, a man’s voice was talking on the radio about strong winds and Banks Peninsula. When it got to be night and Mum didn’t come back to get her tea and run her bath, she climbed onto an old red-painted chair and took some bread from the crock on the bench. She smeared it with what was left of the butter and, because Mum wasn’t there, squeezed a humungous dollop of honey in the middle. She couldn’t really remember what had happened after that. It was her last real memory of home and, apart from the crochet blanket that had come with her to Adelaide, it was what she wrapped around herself at night. The orange cat’s silky fur, tuis and magpies, yellow flowers on the Kōwhai tree and blue sky, Banks Peninsula and honey. And Mum, of course. But even that memory was beginning to fade and she supposed that dead people didn’t really mind if you forgot them a little bit because you’d always recognize them when you met up in Heaven later. That was what Dad said, anyway. ☐

The Language of Flowers

'The Language of Flowers' by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and Mandy Kirkby. (Photo ©Tanya Lunn 2014)

‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and Mandy Kirkby. (Photo ©Tanya Lunn 2014)

After the rather grim content of my last post, I’ve decided to mention a book that I read last year which centres around flowers. I really enjoyed our book club’s selection, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Having said that it has a floral theme, I have to admit that the main character, Victoria, comes with her own set of problems; author Diffenbaugh says that she rewrote the book several times, because she realized that it was ‘hard for the reader to like Victoria’ and yet she felt it was important for her audience to be ‘rooting for her’.  The idea of using flowers in the plot came later.  The novel tells the story of an emotionally scarred young woman who has been in foster care since birth and, on her 18th birthday, is given a short-term place in a transitional house while she looks for a job and a place to live. When she finds neither, she is turned out on the street and ends up living rough in a city park, where she plants a garden using seedlings she has grown from cuttings taken on her walks. Soon, she manages to persuade a florist to take her on part-time and she uses her knowledge of the Victorian meanings of different flowers (which she has learnt at one of her childhood foster homes) to prepare bouquets tailored to individual customers’ needs.

Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Photo Nina Rehfeld)

Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Photo Nina Rehfeld) photographed in a vineyard; a significant part of ‘The Language of Flowers’ is set in and around vineyards.

From there the plot develops, with Victoria eventually finding happiness through love. Not only is this a coming-of-age tale, themes of loss and redemption are also powerfully explored.  I enjoyed not only the story of how this young woman slowly turns her life around, but also the background theme of the Victorian ‘language of flowers’. I was so interested in this subject (I am, in fact, an ex-florist) that I ended up searching the net for books and ‘flower dictionaries’ on the subject. I found several, including The Language of Flowers by Mandy Kirkby, with an Introduction by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (the author of the novel), which I bought.

Among the flowers and leaves that I picked in the garden for the shot above, and their meanings, are:

This little volume 'The Language of Flowers' (© 1968 Margaret Pickston), published by Penguin, is a reproduction of a beautiful, handmade book dated August 8th, 1913.

This little volume ‘The Language of Flowers’ (© 1968 Margaret Pickston), published by Penguin, is a reproduction of a beautiful, handmade book dated August 8th, 1913.

Eglantine (Briar Rose) – “I wound to heal”

Ivy – “Fidelity”

Lavender – “Mistrust”

Yellow rose – “Infidelity”

Pink rose – “Grace”

Daisy – “Innocence”

Pink carnation – ‘I will never forget you’

'The Language of Flowers' by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and Mandy Kirkby. (Photo ©Tanya Lunn 2014)

‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and Mandy Kirkby. (Photo ©Tanya Lunn 2014)  Interestingly, Camellia (the pink flower on the left of the shot) means – ‘My destiny is in your hands’.

Interestingly, Camellia (the pink flower resting on the cover of the book in the left of this image) means – ‘My destiny is in your hands’. Together with her friend, high-flying brand strategist Isis Dallis Keigwin, Diffenbaugh founded the Camellia Network in 2012, using her advance on The Language of Flowers to get it up and running. The organization supports young people aging out of foster care, providing help, counseling and guidance for the huge numbers of young people that find themselves – like Victoria – in this situation every year. The Camellia Network’s website states that Diffenbaugh and Keigwin aim to ‘… bring these young people out of the shadows, celebrate who they are and what they are aspiring to achieve, and then give everyday people and organizations across the country a simple way to lend their support and resources, [so] they [can] dramatically improve the outcomes for foster youth transitioning out of care.’

Writing (and watching) under the big, black cloud

Janet Frame's house

Janet Frame’s childhood home at 56 Eden Street, Oamaru. Although Frame’s mental health has overshadowed her life, she recalled a happy childhood here.

Recently I visited the town of Oamaru, about three hours’ drive south of Christchurch on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Among other things, I visited the childhood home of Janet Frame, in Eden St. An ordinary little house on an ordinary street running down towards the sea – this was where one of the country’s greatest and most prolific authors lived from the age of seven, along with her parents and four siblings. Born in 1924, Frame grew up during the Depression and although the family was poor, her father’s job as a railway fireman kept food on the table. Hers was a life marred by tragedy though – her twin had failed to develop properly in utero, so she was perhaps always missing a part of herself. The middle child of five, she lost both an older and a younger sister to drowning in two separate accidents, and her brother George suffered from epileptic seizures. Her early adult life was dogged by mental illness and she spent years in and out of institutions in New Zealand as well as at the Maudsley in London. She was famously spared a lobotomy because, only days before it was scheduled to take place, her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, won a prestigious literary award. She was variously diagnosed as suffering from acute depression and schizophrenia and it has been suggested since her death in 2004 that she may have been on the autistic spectrum.

Colin McCahon, oil on canvas 1951, Auckland Art Gallery

Colin McCahon, oil on canvas 1951, Auckland Art Gallery

The bleakness of those periods of her life are the images that stayed with me after watching Jane Campion’s dramatized version of her life, An Angel at my Table, based on Frame’s own autobiographical trilogy – To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table and The Envoy from Mirror City. Watching this caused me reflect on the fact that, by and large, the creative output of Aotearoa-New Zealand is fairly dark. Our art and literature are strewn with brooding, melancholic themes that have migrated seamlessly onto the screen.  Think of Colin McCahon’s work and what springs to mind? Bleak, uneasy landscapes.  

 Selecting a New Zealand author at random, I come up with Keri Hulme, the controversial winner of the Booker Prize for 1985 with her novel the bone people, an overwhelmingly worrisome tale of three lonely people living dysfunctional lives miles from anywhere on the West Coast of the South Island. Major themes of the narrative are isolation and violence.   Off the top of my head I can list the following, ultimately depressing, New Zealand films: Once Were WarriorsThe PianoSmash PalaceHeavenly CreaturesThe River QueenIn My Father’s DenThe Strength of WaterAfter the Waterfall 

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin from a scene in Jane Campion's 1993 film 'The Piano'

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin from a scene in Jane Campion’s 1993 film ‘The Piano’

Referring to these movies as ‘depressing’ is not to say that they are not good, or even beautiful, films – many of them have been critically acclaimed and won awards, been lauded at international film festivals. It’s just that their themes are so grim. Against stunning backdrops of snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes and waves swirling across deserted beaches, the protagonists kill or abuse each other; they drown (sometimes referred to as a ‘national pastime’), suffer depression, struggle with alcohol, drugs or both; there is racial discrimination, rape, domestic violence, poverty and neglect.  Such films will barely have barely got going before the weather turns wet and the characters are slogging around in rain and mud up to their knees, hair slicked to their faces and blood on their hands. Children will die, family members will have turned against each other and there will be bottles of beer smashing into cold, empty grates. At some point, a native bird will startle from a dripping bough. A woman will be sobbing behind a door while a man in a singlet sets fire to some outbuildings before taking off in a battered car with a gun on the back seat (or, if it’s a period piece, into the bush with a sack and a knife). 

There will be a dead goat in the creek and, in urban scenes, seven-year-olds kicking aerosol cans around abandoned buildings saying things like “My Dad says the cops don’t know their arses from their elbows, that’s why my uncle’s in Paremoremo, but we’re gonna move to Sydney when he gets parole and can look after our Nana”.  At the end, there will be mournful music, toi toi bending in the wind and someone in a shapeless brown sweater walking towards the horizon. At least half of the cast will be dead, on the run or mentally scarred for life. Then it will be time for the viewer to sit in numbed silence for a couple of minutes before switching off the TV, getting up, stretching and saying “Gosh, that was a bit depressing, wasn’t it?” and wandering off, shellshocked, to put on the kettle.

Is New Zealand's landscape part of the reason our art is often so grim? (Photo ©Tanya Lunn 2015)

Is New Zealand’s landscape part of the reason our art is often so grim? (Photo ©Tanya Lunn 2015)

Over the years, the question has been asked, again and again, why is our art so forbidding? No-one, it seems, has really come up with an answer, though in one article that I read in the Otago Daily Times, a man living on the Central Plateau, near the place where Smash Palace was filmed, postulated that it’s because these themes typify life for many New Zealanders, saying it’s ‘really good, home-grown stuff that people can relate to.’  If you type the words ‘Why are New Zealand films’ into Google, it will offer you ‘Why are New Zealand films so depressing?’ Even our comedies are black – Scarfies and Two Little Boys spring to mind; and clearly, we are not living in the land of the classic rom-com as Eagle vs Shark is described as being a ‘romantic comedy’ despite having as its main protagonists two socially inept people from severely dysfunctional backgrounds.  Both Whale Rider, based on the novel of the same name by Witi Ihimaera, and Taika Waititi’s brilliant  Boy, while award-winning films, are set in isolated Maori communities focusing on the lives of children whose mothers are dead, fathers either in prison or emotionally disconnected and whose day-to-day lives seem precarious at best.  For light relief, though, there’s always What We Do In The Shadows – a 2014 vampire ‘mockumentary’ set in contemporary Wellington.  Maybe I found it light relief because we all know that there aren’t really vampires living in Wellington these days.  Are there?

Writing a Treaty: An underestimated skill

Writing covers so many different disciplines. That may seem obvious, but the more I think about it the more I realise that even talented writers have different strengths.  I spent around 20 years writing a variety of things, from descriptions of self-catering holiday destinations to annual reports to newspaper articles about IVF. I wrote reports, briefs and proposals.  Now, somewhat later in life, I’ve embarked upon a course in creative writing.  But at no time have I ever been asked (and nor would I have wanted to be) to write a legally binding contract between nations. I’ve been wondering whether the training of British Royal Naval officers in the 19th century included guidelines for treaty writing.  If not, this seems to have been an oversight.  The signing of te tiriti o waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) with chiefs of the Maori tribes of Aotearoa-New Zealand in 1840 was the first such treaty made by the Crown with a Pacific nation, but the circumstances under which it happened are, by modern standards, quite bizarre.

'Maori Chiefs Recognise British Sovereignty by Signing the Treaty of Waitangi' by A.D. McCormick (1860-1943)

‘Maori Chiefs Recognise British Sovereignty by Signing the Treaty of Waitangi’ by A.D. McCormick (1860-1943)

The latter-day problem with the treaty centers around the use of the word Kawanatanga, which was the Maori word used where ‘Sovereignty’ appeared in the English version of the treaty.  Kawana is the Te Reo Maori way of saying of ‘Governor’. Thus, it appeared on the Maori version of the treaty that the chiefs were agreeing to British governorship of the country, whereas on the English version, they were ceding sovereignty of their land to Queen Victoria.

  It might be reasonably assumed that the Treaty of Waitangi was carefully drafted over several weeks, if not months, with many revisions, and final approval of the wording being granted by Buckingham Palace. The reality was very far from that. Captain William Hobson, with the acting title of Lieutenant Governor of New Zealand, had been despatched with some alacrity from England in 1839 with a brief from Lord Normanby at the Colonial Office “to treat with the aborigines of New Zealand in the recognition of Her Majesty’s sovereign authority over the whole or any part of those Islands which they may be willing to place under Her Majesty’s dominion.”   The problem was that New Zealand was becoming increasingly lawless. Escaped convicts from Australia, traders, seafarers who had deserted their ships, whalers and freed men from the penal colonies had all made their way here and were selling grog and muskets, brawling and whoring and bringing disease to the Maoris, who were busy warring with each other. A number of honest British settlers who were trying to make a living, along with the missionaries who had been coming out to the country since the early 1800s to convert and protect the Maoris, were constantly petitioning King William, and later Queen Victoria, to “do something.”

  At the same time, the French were talking of annexing New Zealand, while a New Zealand Company with serious financial backing had been formed in London and was sending ships to start a colony in what is now Wellington.

Capt. William Hobson, Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand (image source: Wikipedia)

Capt. William Hobson, Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand (image source: Wikipedia)

Captain Hobson had travelled to New Zealand in 1837 and held discussions with the British Resident James Busby, the missionaries, British settlers and local Maori chiefs in an effort to bring some order to the place. Unfortunately, in1840, he was was not at all well (only three weeks after the signing of the treaty, he suffered a stroke, dying three years later).  By the time his ship the Herald arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1840 he was having arguments with the captain, Joseph Nias, and had hardly made a start on drafting a treaty. He had himself rowed ashore on the 30th January and made a Proclamation in the Christian Missionary Society church at Kororareka (known as ‘the Hellhole of the Pacific’, now Russell – a picturesque coastal village). Thus it happened that James Busby decided that he had better take matters into his own hands as the chiefs had already been bidden to attend a meeting to meet the ‘Kawana’ in five days’ time.  Busby and Hobson’s secretary, James Freeman, cobbled the short, 3-clause treaty together, Hobson later looking over it and making some revisions.  The final draft seems, owning to the paper on which it was written, to have been made at the house of the (British!) US Consul, James Clendon, who probably offered his opinion as well. Then, the night before the hui (meeting with the Maori rangatira, or chiefs), the missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward, who had grown up among the Ngā Puhi, translated it into Maori. The local printer (also a missionary), William Colenso, was concerned that the treaty in its current wording would not be acceptable to the Maoris. Five years earlier, with the help of Busby, they had signed a ‘Declaration of Independence’, stating that they would never cede their lands, but thanking the King of England for recognizing their flag and saying they would recognize him as their protector from all attempts upon their country’s independence.  There was some discussion about this on the night of 4th February and it seems that a decision was reached to use the word Kawanatanga, as the main priority was deemed to be to get the Maoris to sign the treaty.

A fragment of the Treaty of Waitangi

A fragment of the Treaty of Waitangi

Had Lord Normanby been present, things might have gone rather differently, for he had specifically stated in his brief that “All dealings with the natives for their lands must be conducted on the same principles of sincerity, justice and good faith as must govern your transactions with them for the recognition of Her Majesty’s sovereignty in the Islands. Nor is that all: they must not be permitted to enter into any contracts in which they might be ignorant and unintentional authors of injuries to themselves. You will not, for example, purchase from them any territory the retention of which by them would be essential or highly conducive to their own comfort, safety, or subsistence. The acquisition of land by the Crown for the future settlement of British subjects must be confined to such districts as the natives can alienate without distress or serious inconvenience to themselves. “ On the day of the hui, there was a great deal of resistance to the treaty and, in fact, for a while it seemed that the rangatira would not agree to sign it. But then three influential figures – Hone Heke, Patuone and his brother Tāmati Wāka Nene – spoke up, saying that the time for discussion was over: things had reached such a pass in New Zealand that if they did not sign this agreement with the English Queen then the French or the Americans would ‘have them’, which would be a worse fate.  The meeting then dispersed, with a terrible social gaffe on the part of the British who did not provide food for the assembled throng, giving them tobacco instead.  Many had travelled long distances and were inclined to go home, especially as the weather seemed to be on the turn.

This romanticized 1938 oil painting by Marcus King, 'The Treaty of Waitangi' purports to show Tamati Waka Nene signing the treaty (source: Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand)

This romanticized 1938 oil painting by Marcus King, ‘The Treaty of Waitangi’ purports to show Tamati Waka Nene signing the treaty (source: Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand)

The next morning, some of the rangatira arrived to sign the treaty, although the Governor had called a follow-up meeting for the day after (7th February).  Hobson had to be quickly summoned from his ship and, as his naval uniform was being cleaned, he came in his civilian clothes but brought his feathered naval hat in order to look suitably formal.  The French Bishop, Pompallier, turned up in his ‘full canonicals’, sweeping in and flashing his ring, insisting that a fourth clause be added to the treaty stating that Queen Victoria would protect all religious faiths practised in New Zealand, including Catholicism and Maori beliefs. About 40 rangatira signed the treaty that day. And thus was the Treaty of Waitangi, our country’s founding document, created.  In fact, there are nine copies in total.  The Bay of Islands being in the far north, copies had to be taken all around the country to gather the signatures of a further 500 chiefs who were not present at Waitangi; all but 39 signed the Maori version.  A number of chiefs chose not to sign.

  Today, we are still living with the ramifications of what happened in 1840. It has been debated whether, in fact, the treaty was valid at all under 19th century jurisprudence, as Aotearoa at that time hardly constituted a legally recognisable state, having no formal government.  We do now have the Waitangi Tribunal, established in 1975 as a permanent commission of enquiry into making recommendations on claims brought by Maori, relating to actions or omissions by the Crown as they relate to the terms of the treaty. Te Reo Maori is now an official language of New Zealand; Maoritanga (Maori culture) is respected and the Maori people recognised as the Tangata Whenua, the ‘People of the Land’ in what is no longer a bicultural, but now a multicultural, society.

As part of my Cultural Difference unit for the creative writing course that I’m currently doing, we had to write either a short story or a poem about the Treaty of Waitangi, with a few constraints. The title of the piece had to be When they Signed the Treaty and we were required to include at least three things from a list of five articles. I chose a magnifying glass, a bolt of linen and a child weeping on a beach.  I also drew on documented family history and the diary of my great-great-grandmother, who lived in Piti-one (now Petone), Wellington, in 1850 (when I set my poem) for small details:

When they Signed the Treaty

‘On the day they signed the treaty,
it was the end of all the worry,’ explains Mama.
The fire and lamps are lit, and they are safe from the gale
whipping along the Petone shore, tugging at the marigolds in the garden.
This afternoon, Lucy was crying from the cold,
hands blue as they struggled along the beach, their bonnets
tied on with handkerchiefs against the wind.

Now, the little girls’ hands are busy with their paper theatre;
Treaty of Waitangi 10th Anniversary figures
have been purchased at Hornbrook’s of Lambton Quay.
The children cut them out, lay them on the table,
read the printed names below each figure on the sheet.
‘The trouble really started with the convicts,’ Mama continues.

‘Traders – rough types – whalers
sailing over from Australia to trouble settlers ―
selling grog, bringing sickness, brawling, trading muskets.
All most unsavoury. (And then, there were the French.)
The Church Missionary Society sent good pastors out from England
to build their mission stations, sow vegetables, drink tea.

They preached from their hearts and Bibles; bought up land,
had the Māoris wear aprons, wait at table, learn to read.’
― ‘They didn’t know about God?’
‘No, dear, they didn’t go to church.
The Māoris sold land willingly, so it seemed the proper thing to do
to found a British Colony: build cities, plant wheat,
raise sheep and cattle; ducks and geese.
Good, law-abiding people could live peaceably, and thrive.

The Oriental – the ship in which Papa first arrived –
anchored in Port Nicholson only days before
in the Bay of Islands, the Governor stepped ashore.
On February the fifth, in sunlight, many rangatira gathered:
it was a most impressive sight,
the wakas paddling into Waitangi and the chiefs striding
up the beach in their kahu kurī and bright woollen cloaks,
feathers in their hair and the cicadas chirping.

Some carried greenstone mere, carved patu, others taiaha;
they had come to hear ‘Kawana’ – many spoke against the treaty.
Blankets and tobacco – not kai – after the meeting,
a woeful breach of Manaakitanga, no pork,
(Mrs Busby served a most delicious luncheon for the English folk)
so the chiefs decided to go home; they felt that it would rain.

You know the Governor was caught unawares,
on the sixth, the day they signed the treaty?
He wasn’t feeling well when he was quickly summoned,
had no time to don his naval coat with its brass buttons,
so he wore his civilian clothes, but took his feathered hat
in order to impart the dignity of his position.

The proceedings took place in a marquee made of sails,
put up on the lawn before Mr Busby’s house.
Flags were strung about it; they kept the Union Jack –
spread red, white and blue upon the table where the official party sat:
Governor Hobson, Captain Nias of the Herald
(I’m afraid the Governor and he had quarrelled –
as I’ve said, poor Hobson wasn’t well); Mr Busby, the treaty’s author;
Richard Taylor; the Reverend Williams,
whose quill scratched the words in Maori just the night before—’

— ‘This Bishop’s very haughty! Who is he, Mama?’
‘You do not recognise Pompallier, dear?
A great Catholic, as you know, but a Frenchman.
He came, in all his finery, made them add words about the faiths.

Now let me see that figure which you hold,
the one with the magnifying glass – it must be Mr Colenso,
the naturalist and printer, an interesting fellow.
He was worried that the Māoris didn’t really understand
that they would sign away the sovereignty over all their land.’

— ‘But they did understand, did they not? Or else, Mama,
they never would have signed!’
‘Some understood. The troublemaker Johnny Heke, he was first to sign,
and Patuone – Edward Marsh now – and Tāmati Wāka Nene,
their words convinced the doubters, Rewa, Te Kēmara.
But others feared they would lose their whenua,
their mana, their taonga; that they’d be slaves and end
with their names all that they owned, breaking rocks upon the road.

They knew more Pakeha would sail here, a pale flood,
and spread across the land, cut down the Kauri and the fern.’
— ‘So they would no longer have their country, theirs to own?’
‘Just so. Your Papa has told me that there was
a small misunderstanding about Kawanatanga,
(which does not mean quite the same thing in English as in Te Reo.)

Mr Colenso said he was most uneasy
but the Reverend Williams and his son Edward,
who knew Ngāpuhi well, decided it would be
the best word to use; and I am sure they were correct.
Now, my lambs, please come and help me
with this bolt of Irish linen, it is quite a weight!
I think we must cut some of it to make a small marquee
for your treaty-signing scene – it will do very nicely.

Such a pity that the New Zealand harakeke
will not make fine linen; your poor Papa was cursing
after he bought all that flax land from old
Rangihaeata, who had not much choice,
(for I think he did not wish to sell, you know
and yet he was in no position to make noise.)
I hear he oversees the building, near his at Poroutawhao,
of a good, new metalled road.
The treaty has helped us all; we can sleep easy, now.’

Tanya Lunn 2015

Of Triolets and Sparrows

This week, I’ve been researching a form of poem called the Triolet. This originated in France around the 13th century and is closely related to another poetic form, the Rondeau. Both emphasise repetition and rhyme. Only eight lines in length, the Triolet is a short poem that relies upon repetition of only two rhymes.

The first line is repeated in the fourth and seven lines; the second line is repeated in the final line, so that in fact, there are only five different lines in the poem. The form is ABaAabAB. Originally written as devotional pieces, the Triolet enjoyed something of a renaissance among British poets in the late 19th century. Often these later Triolets were humorous, such as the famous example by Frances Cornford 1886-1960, (a great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin):


Frances Cornford, by Janet Stone,1968.

Frances Cornford, by Janet Stone,1968.

To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,

Missing so much and so much?

O fat white woman whom nobody loves,

Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,

When the grass is soft as the breast of doves

And shivering sweet to the touch?

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,

Missing so much and so much?


Triolets were not always so lighthearted, though. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) recognised the potential of the form to convey more melancholy themes, as in his poem How Great My Grief, which is probably the best-known Triolet:


Thomas Hardy, some time between 1910 and 1915 (retrieved from Wikipedia)

Thomas Hardy, some time between 1910 and 1915 (retrieved from Wikipedia)

How Great My Grief

How great my grief, my joys how few,

Since first it was my fate to know thee!

– Have the slow years not brought to view

How great my grief, my joys how few,

Nor memory shaped old times anew,

Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee

How great my grief, my joys how few,

Since first it was my fate to know thee?


I decided to try my hand at a Triolet and, as I’d been considering sparrows, I decided to make them the subject of my poem. The humble house sparrow may not as humble as all that. I was amazed when, a few years ago, my sister was visiting us in Bahrain and commented upon seeing the sparrows hopping about on the patio that their numbers had declined drastically in Britain in recent years. I believe that the RSPB now considers the House Sparrow to be an endangered garden bird. I hope they are not going the same way as the bees.

House Sparrow (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

House Sparrow (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

I don’t think we have a problem with sparrow numbers declining in New Zealand – if anything, there is the constant argument about how much the introduced species of flora and fauna threaten the native species. Sparrows were introduced to New Zealand in the second half of the 19th century, when the Acclimatisation Societies were busying themselves with trying to recreate the sounds of the English cottage garden in New Zealand. All sorts of birds were brought out to the colony by various importers, many of them having been specially captured in Britain to order – one man used to set traps and catch birds in nets in the streets of London in the early mornings, to the amazement of passers-by who could not believe that any country would be begging for sparrows and starlings!

Dunnock (Retrieved from Wikipedia)

Dunnock (Retrieved from Wikipedia)

In fact, New Zealand was not really begging for house sparrows, but for their more appealing cousins, the Hedge Sparrow, or Dunnock. Due to a bungle, 13 pairs of house sparrows were brought to Lyttelton (though many did not survive the journey) and, when it was discovered that they were the ‘wrong’ sort of sparrow, the captain of the ship in which they had arrived released the survivors and watched them fly up into the rigging, where they sat, twittering, for some time. It was said that the entire sparrow population of Canterbury Province sprang from those few stragglers. I made this story the basis of my Triolet:

Breakfasting sparrows (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Breakfasting sparrows (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

How the Sparrows came to Canterbury

The sparrows sailed in a tall ship,

that they might flit and chirp and breed

(some perished on the three-month trip).

The sparrows sailed in a tall ship,

the order sent had been a slip –

‘Dunnocks — .’ The catcher paid no heed.

The sparrows sailed in a tall ship,

and they did flit and chirp – and breed.

What internet research can tell us: The story of Pte. C.D. Burgess

Poppies (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Poppies (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Following my previous post about the importance of research for writers, I thought it timely to mention just how access to the internet has revolutionized the act of researching something.  Of course, students from primary school through to tertiary education take this for granted, but mature students like me can remember a time when, not very long ago, research was a lengthy and often arduous task.  Nowadays, almost anything is available to us at the click of a mouse. This was brought home to me when I decided to find out a little about a soldier who died in the First World War.  I had attended the moving ANZAC Day dawn service on 25th April, along with over 5,000 others. For me, one of the most poignant moments was when the representative of the Turkish Ambassador to New Zealand read, first in Turkish and then in English, the words that Mustafa Kemal Attatürk wrote in 1934 to the mothers of fallen ANZACs buried at Gallipoli:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

The centre of the stadium was filled with white crosses, one for every soldier from this region who fell in WWI. As I have no knowledge of any direct family links to fallen ANZAC soldiers (my grandfather and great-uncles fought in the European theatre in WWI), I decided to try and find out a little about 67516 Pte. C.D. Burgess, in front of whose cross I found myself standing during the service. The following is what I discovered:

ANZAC Day Centenary memorial crosses in Nelson, New Zealand, 25th April 2015 (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

ANZAC Day Centenary memorial crosses in Nelson, New Zealand, 25th April 2015 (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Charles David Burgess, 1st Bn. Wellington Regiment, NZ Expeditionary Force, was the son of David and Ellen Ada Burgess of “Sunnyside”, in Wakefield. At the time he enlisted (or was called up?) his occupation was that of farm labourer, which possibly explains why he signed up in the last year of the war. He embarked on 2nd May 1918, aboard the ship Balmoral Castle.

David (as he was known) had been born in Reigate, Surrey on an unknown date, but he was 25 when he was killed in action at Le Cateau, France. The action was part of the Pursuit to the Selle, during the Hundred Days’ Offensive. The date was 11 October 1918, and Pte. Burgess is buried in the Romeries Communal Cemeteries.

That he died when the war was so nearly over must, in later days, have seemed a cruel irony to his parents in their quiet, rural corner of the South Island of New Zealand. I have no idea whether the Burgess family had other sons, but it seems unlikely that David’s family remembers much about his story, because his British War Medal with Victory Medal was auctioned by Dix Noonan Webb as part of Lot 208 (23 WWI medals) that sold for £180 in February 1998.

To know the villages and farming area where David was working before he joined up, and to imagine him leaving the farm there and finding himself in the battered, shelled-out villages of Northern France in the final months of WWI, never to return, is just so unbelievably sad.

Derelict farmhouse near Brightwater, NZ, the area where Pte. Burgess lived before he enlisted in 1918. (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Derelict farmhouse near Brightwater, NZ, the area where Pte. Burgess lived before he enlisted in 1918. (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

In researching the facts about Pte. Burgess so that I could write a little about him for my journal, I accessed websites of the New Zealand Army, the War Graves Commission, newspaper archives, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand and, for information about the Pursuit to the Selle, Veterans Affairs Canada.  Had I wanted to spend more time, I could have used my account on to access Census information to find out more about the Burgess family before they left England.  I could probably even have tracked them down on passenger lists to find out the name of the ship in which they sailed to New Zealand.  Quite amazing, really!  Below this post you’ll find a photo of some soldiers moving artillery during the Pursuit to the Selle; I was only able to save it as a separate post.