Friday, November 11, 2011
THE HUNGRY HEART - Journeys with William Colenso by Peter Wells - Launched in Napier last night
Last night saw the Napier launch of The Hungry Heart, Peter Wells' take on colonial dissident William Colenso. The crowded and lively event took place on the third floor of the iconographic art deco Dome building on Napier's Parade. (Numbers were swollen by the accompanying Colenso conference and celebrations - Colenso family members had travelled out from Britain and Australia.)
The previous night had seen Minister of Arts Chris Finlayson unveil a stunning new portrait of Colenso by contemporary artist, Gavin Hurley for the Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery who hosted the conference with admirable style and efficiency. (An earlier montage by Hurley decorates the beautifully tailored hardback of The Hungry Heart.)
The Hungry Heart was launched by Francis McWhannell, head of Bethune's at Webbs Rare Books in a moving speech.
Wells thanked CLL who gave him an award to write the book and publisher Harriet Allan for her patience and support, and Sarah Ell for her editing clarity. He closed by saying that book launches could be 'protean occasions'. He said he was standing in the very building where his parents had their wedding reception during the War and ' it is my pleasure that my mother who is now a venerable 95 is still with us and in this room - and finally, I wanted to promote the idea that book launches are protean occasions…at just such a book launch exactly 20 years ago tomorrow my eyes locked with the eyes of a young man across a crowded room…and this encounter changed the shape of the rest of my life…yes, true fact, Douglas (Lloyd Jenkins) and I met at a book launch on 11th November 1991 so I would like to end these words by saying that…yes, books can change lives…and in ways you would never quite believe…'
Left -Peter Wells and mother Bess, whose wedding reception was held in the same room on 4 December 1939.
Francis McWhannell's poetic launch speech follows:
Rise at first light and make your way to the beach, hatted and hooded against the high wind. Take with you the book, which is your travelling companion, a weighty one, preferring to be carried in your arm, against your chest. The Norfolk Island pines, which will now forever be ‘missionary trees’ in your mind, will be doing their best to imitate the sound of surf. Cross the car park and sit yourself down on the low wooden fence, looking out to sea, to where the gulls are wheeling, black against the pale greys of the sky and, presently, the firelight of the emerging sun. Down the coast you will see the Ravensdown fertiliser factory, its chimney faithfully puffing smoke or, hopefully, steam. Marking, too, the place of Waitangi, your companion’s beginning and end.
Picking up The Hungry Heart, one immediately registers how well presented it is: the bold hard covers, the careful typography, the luscious portrait collage by Gavin Hurley, the spine glistening with a pattern taken from the Rev W C Cotton’s exquisitely illustrated journals (which are further celebrated on the pages the book). Certainly we are looking at a hot contender for ‘Best Book’ at the 2012 Book Design Awards.
The Hungry Heart is also eminently, delightfully readable. (One would not be so quick to lavish this praise on the earlier biography of Colenso by A G Bagnall and G C Petersen.) The writing is strikingly fluent and elegant, which will come as no surprise to those who have had the pleasure of reading other books by Peter Wells. His prose is remarkably vivid, evoking time and place with an almost giddying potency, the images conjured up lingering in one’s imagination long after the book has been reluctantly set down.
The Hungry Heart is a complex book. It is at once a biography, an autobiography, a travelogue, a diary, a historical study, and a social critique. (One doesn’t envy the National Librarian who has to assign it its bibliographical tags.) The book’s variety is of course appropriate to its chief subject, William Colenso, to whose name Bagnall and Petersen appended no less than five occupations: printer, missionary, botanist, explorer, politician. Today, one would have to extend the list even further, to underscore Colenso’s importance as a commentator, historian, and student of the Māori, roles given due prominence in The Hungry Heart.
Colenso is, of course, a complex personality as much as he is a polymath, and the great triumph of this book is its frank consideration of and engagement with Colenso the human being. It is a very intimate book, a deeply affecting book, by a most scrupulous and compassionate writer. Interspersed as it is with images, including numerous detail photographs taken by the author, the book reminds one rather of a collector’s album, perhaps even one of Colenso’s own, brimming with data carefully arranged, and oozing the passion (not to say obsession) of its compiler. It is a fitting tribute by one remarkable to another.
Stand up and, clutching the book, crunch your way onto the pebbly shore. The day will have broken, the wind begun to drop. The waves will be rolling up the coast. Stoop to pick up a stone, one that chances to catch your eye. Feel its weight; feel it begin to warm in your palm. Keep it. It is for remembrance.