The abandoned heaven
Hamish's years in China had begun with a semi-respectable job which saw him inflicting the pearls of English literature - Shakespeare, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and, because the teacher had a good deal of input into the curriculum, Wyndham Lewis - on the recalcitrant students of a provincial university, and then devolved into a series of train, bus, and truck journeys into ever more remote areas of the country, journeys which were interspersed with gigs at English language schools staffed by permanently hungover Western slackers who liked to let students broaden their vocabularies by playing endless games of scrabble.
Hamish had turned up without warning in his clapped-out car and ordered me into the navigator's seat, which was brimming with the freshly-dogeared books he had bought, or at least acquired, in a bid to catch up with the recent course of New Zealand literature. Hamish does not so much read books as absorb them into his bloodstream. He likes to demonstrate his mastery of a novel by unsympathetically mimicking the traits of its minor characters; he often gives his opinion of a volume of poems by reciting its lines in more or less sarcastic tones.
Hamish told me that he travelled across China with copies of Ezra Pound's epic poem The Cantos and Wyndham Lewis' equally fat satirical novel The Apes of God; the book's heavy covers had come in handy when he had kipped down on the benches of parks or railway stations and needed somewhere to rest his head. I wondered if the texts between the covers had somehow managed to seep into Hamish's sleeping head through some process resembling osmosis, because he seemed to be able to recite endless passages of Pound's allusive, multilingual verse and Lewis' turgid prose from memory as we travelled northwest, past the little towns at the foot of the Byrnderwyns and into the flat country south of Dargaville.
On the top of the pile of Hamish's recently-acquired books was a cover divided into blocks of black, white, and orange. On the cover's block of white, under the title Atua Wera, was a drawing of a creature with the body of a lizard, a long, sharp tail, and wings that looked like billowing sails. The placenames Hokianga, Pakanae, Waimamauku, and Wairoa had been scribbled underneath the strange creature by John Webster, the Hokianga trader who had drawn it in 1855after attending secret religious meetings. For Hamish and his yawning navigator, the list represented an itinerary: we were going north, to visit some of the locations of Kendrick Smithyman's posthumously-published epic poem about the religious movement founded by the nineteenth century tohunga and rebel Papahurihia.
By October 2004, Atua Wera had been in print for eight years, Smithyman had been dead for nearly nine years, and both the poet and his longest poem were beginning to get the serious critical attention they deserved. Somewhere underneath Hamish's copy of Atua Wera was a copy of the special issue that the literary journal brief had recently devoted to Smithyman.
brief editor Jack Ross had filled Smithymania with academic essays, memoirs from family and friends, interviews, photographs, and dirty limericks. Somebody had given Hamish a copy of Smithymania, and he had set about reading it with his usual ruthlessness.
Hamish was steering us around a slight bend in Highway 12 and reciting a passage from the Pisan Cantos when he suddenly slammed his foot on the brake, so that our vehicle almost collided with an upturned concrete trough half-hidden in the long grass beside the road. 'That's it, the church! That's the church on the cover!' he shouted, digging around in the pile of volumes at my feet. When Hamish extracted his copy of Smithymania, and gestured through the cloud of lime-dust in front of our windscreen, I understood: the small church on the building's cover sat a few hundred yards from us, surrounded by weedy paddocks and a grove of totara.
Like most of the other images in Smithymania, the cover photo was the work of Michael Dean, a young man who had travelled around the north in the late '90s snapping scenes for his friend Jack Ross, who was trying to persuade Creative New Zealand to fund a book of images and text called Kendrick Smithyman's Northland. Funding had not been forthcoming, and Dean's photos had lain unseen until Jack had excavated them for Smithymania. As Hamish and I walked down a gravel road to the little church, we argued about the role the building might have played in Smithyman's life and writing. With its lack of external adornment, small size, and high very steep roof, the church looked Anglican. Smithyman had spent the first decade of his life in Te Kopuru, an old timber milling town just south of Dargaville, and about half an hour from Ruawai.
Perhaps, I suggested, the Smithyman family had sometimes attended this church? Impossible, Hamish snapped: Smithyman's father had been a wharfie who was a member of the 'Red' Federation of Labour and supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World during the revolutionary years before the First World War, and later a staunch Labour Party man. He was a socialist with no interest in the opium of the people. It is true, I conceded, that I couldn't think of any Smithyman poems about attending church as a child. Perhaps the poet visited and wrote about the church as an adult? Smithyman's always-intense apprehension of history was often heightened by the mildewed churches of his native Northland. Were we walking in the old boy's footsteps? Hamish was constructing a condemnation of Anglicanism, and of the 'nation of shopkeepers' that gave the faith its start, when we eased open a flaking red door and took a couple of steps forward, expecting to find the normal, cosy Anglican interior, with its large varnished cross, its pulpit painted with familiar Bible scenes by the local youth group, and a black and white portrait of the Queen hung in a corner by an embarrassed pastor. Instead, we found ourselves standing on a dirty floor, amidst scattered and broken benches, staring at a rising sun and a series of five-pointed stars cupped in crescent moons. We were looking at a painted map of the universe constructed by Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, the farmer from the Whanganui district who became the mangai - that is, the mouthpiece - of God in November 1918, after two whales beached themselves at the bottom of his property and an angel descended from heaven to talk with him.
Hamish and I turned on our heels, following the orbit of the heavenly bodies around the walls of the little church, and squinting at the strange words painted beneath them. Arepa. Alpha. Omeka. Omega. Wairua Tapu. Sacred Spirit. Anahera Pono. Faithful angels.
In an essay he collected in his 2008 Auckland University Press volume Waimarino County and Other Excursions, Martin Edmond described the experience of entering a Ratana temple at Raetihi, down the road from his childhood home of Ohakune:
Inside was a little piece of heaven. The same segmented five-pointed star inside the cusp of the crescent moon was carved into the pew ends. Each segment of the star has its own colour: blue for the Father, white for the Son, red for the Holy Ghost; purple for the Angels and gold for the Mangai, T. W. Ratana. Everything in the church was painted, even the altar, which was strewn with flowers.
The first and largest Ratana temple was completed in 1928, in the village that grew on the farm of the movement's founder. With its Romanesque style and the crescent moon and star on top of each of its pillars, Te Temepera Tapu o Iha (the Holy Temple of Jehovah) became the prototype for temples in Raetihi and a series of other towns and villages where the poor and politically marginalised Maori who adopted Ratana's faith lived. Almost uniquely, the little Ratana temple near Ruawai was established in the shell of an earlier, European house of worship. In her new book on Maori architecture, Deidre Brown argues that the Ratana appropriation of a European Catholic style is an example of whakanoa, the ancient practice of denigrating the mana of opponents. In pre-contact times, iwi had sometimes stolen the waka of rivals and violated the mana and tapu of these craft by transferring their carvings to buildings that stored food. In a somewhat similar way, Brown argues, Ratana and his builders sought to undermine the cultural authority and appropriate the mana of European Christianity by adopting the Romanesque style. Despite its location, the temple Hamish and I visited does not seem to have figured in Kendrick Smithyman's writing. It may have been the photographer Robin Morrison, not Smithyman, who inspired Michael Dean to pause beside the little building. Dying of cancer, the popular and prolific Morrison made a final visit to Northland in 1992, and returned with a series of images of graves, angels, and churches which were published posthumously in a book titled A Journey. One of the less spectacular images in Morrison's book shows the temple near Ruawai framed by mist, dark totara and an overcast sky. Like much of the work in A Journey, the photograph suggests a connection to place, and a sense of permanence that is deeply poignant, given Morrison's circumstances in 1992.
In Michael Dean's photograph, the temple near Ruawai is brightly lit, and surrounded by long, dry grass. Although it is superficially different from Morrison's wintry image, Dean's photo communicates a similar sense of solidity and belonging. He has shot the temple from a low angle and at a distance, making it look like the structure grows naturally out of the landscape, and obscuring mildewed panels and other signs of neglect and decay. A few months after he encountered the Ratana temple, Hamish Dewe returned suddenly to China. Hamish's departure came as something of a surprise to many of his friends, because the depravity of Chinese capitalism and the hideousness of Chinese cities had been favourite topics of conversation for him during his stay in New Zealand. Instead of the lengthy, excited epistles that most travellers to exotic places send home to their friends, Hamish delivered a series of laconic, caustic poems to the editors of brief documenting his latest travels. In a poem which was published in a 2005 issue of brief, a memory of New Zealand rubbed against a report from China:
Knocking, wait for no answer,
for no answer’s coming.
The windows are broken, burnt
out cars are dumped in the field
a horse once grazed.
Lace curtains at the
verandah wave in the breeze.
Inhabitants? None. The church,
Ratana, shows hoof-prints in
its sodden field.
Without holding hands, we pass
through the hospital, which smells
of herbs and urine, comforting,
out to the street. Liu Wu’s consumption
has passed. The one-kuai bus
takes us down to the station,
and we’re gone.
I'm not sure if Hamish has ever seen Robin Morrison's photograph of the Ratana temple, and I don't know what he thought about Michael Dean's image, but I can't help thinking of 'Arepa. Omeka.' as a rebuke to the two men's vision of the little building near Ruawai. At the beginning of his poem, Hamish knocks on the door of the abandoned building, aware of the absurdity of his gesture. Like the non-believer in Philip Larkin's famous poem 'Churchgoing', who removes his bicycle clips in 'awkward reverence' when he enters the house of God, Hamish wants to make a gesture of respect, however quixotic.
When, in his second stanza, Hamish notes not only 'burnt/out cars' but also signs of a departed horse, he is not engaging in description for the sake of description. In the 1920s and '30s, at least, the Ratana Church was in many respects a modernising institution, and some of its language and symbols were influenced by the United States, a society which was then widely seen as the locus of modernity. The leader of the organisation was called the President, and the automobile was an important symbol of the church. Ratana travelled the country in new-fangled cars decorated with placards bearing his message, and the church sometimes used a picture of a ladder rising out of a Ford convertible toward heaven to dramatise its message that salvation was possible through embracing the world of the twentieth century.
In many rural Maori communities, the horse was until quite recently the main method of transporation. In certain remote and rugged districts, like the East Cape and the north Hokianga, the horse is still commonly used to get to school or to the shops. The ruined cars and departed horse in Hamish's poem represent the abandonment of the temple near Ruawai by both the Ratana faithful and traditional Maori society. If we interpret them with Christian and Ratana theology in mind, the 'hoof-prints' close to the church suggest that evil forces now inhabit the building.
In the last stanza of his poem Hamish brusquely transports us to a Chinese hospital, a place which is full of people, yet which seems just as bleak and lonely as the abandoned temple. Hamish and his partner do not show affection as they move through the hospital, and their concern for the person they have visited - is she a friend, or a mere acquaintance? - seems perfunctory. Like the abandoned temple, the hospital in China is a place to pass through and leave behind. The cosmic title of the poem suggests that Hamish is universalising his message by making the temple and the hospital into metaphors for all human existence. A week and a half ago, after another Smithyman-inspired trip to the Hokianga, I revisited the Ruawai temple, with Skyler, Muzzlehatch, and Eel in tow. A flock of sheep surrounded the building, methodically chewing the damp grass. On the other side of the flaking red door we found mud splattered over stars and moons and sacred words. Muzzlehatch, who was a builder before he was a publisher, inspected the panels of the temple, and declared a number of them to be rotten through.
Returning to the car to retrieve something, Skyler noticed a man with long toned legs and very tight red stubbies herding cattle across the road from the temple. His name was Lockwood Smith, and he owned the huge granary - two lung-shaped iron containers filled with sileage - that dominated the low hill just south of the temple, and seemed to mock the beleagured wooden building with its size and robustness. What happened to the congregation which must once have prayed and sung in the little building outside Ruawai? It is at least possible that some of the faithful were lured into the sort of apostasy which afflicts every successful religious organisation. In 1941 a returned solider named Te Akai Rapana broke with the Ratana Church in protest at its alliance with the Labour Party and its excessive openess to Pakeha culture. The Absolute Established Maori Church - it became known, inevitably, as the Rapana Church - banned its members from drinking, gambling, watching movies, and reading 'undesirable books', and suggested that they live communally in the countryside, away from the influence of the Pakeha. At first the church was based in Te Tii, near Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, where its members ran a mill, but later Rapana led the faithful south to Tinopai, a long peninsula which begins a few kilometres south of Ruawai.
Tinopai would surely have seemed a fine place for a utopian community - the isthmus has its own balmy microclimate, which makes the growing of exotic fruits like olives possible, and the village at its far end sits beside one of the best fishing spots on the Kaipara Harbour. Te Akai Rapana and some of his followers got work on a foresty scheme which was covering some of the peninsula's less desirable land in pines, and they soon raised a meeting house on the outskirts of Tinopai village. Did they win some of the Ruawai congregation to their cause?
There are many examples of Maori comunities allowing religious buildings to decay, because the faith that these buildings represent is no longer strong, or has been transferred to another creed. In his classic study of the Hokianga community of Waima Valley, Patrick Hohepa describes how an historic meeting house was allowed to rot, because the extended family which had used it had embraced the Seventh Day Adventist faith, and erected a new house they judged to be more compatible with that faith.
It is not only Maori communities which are content to live beside the residues of abandoned faith: on a trip to Britain in 2005 I noticed scores of Methodist chapels that had been built in the West Country during the lifetime of John Wesley, only to be eventually converted to thoroughly worldly purposes. In the small Cornish town of Bodmin, somebody had knocked two walls out of an old chapel and converted it into a service station. In the eastern counties of Suffolk and Norfolk a group of concerned - and, it seemed, overwhelmingly non-believing - citizens had formed an organisation designed to protect the round-towered, flint-walled churches that descendants of the Vikings had built in the centuries before the English Reformation.
Perhaps the Round Tower Society is a quixotic, sentimental organisation, and perhaps I am sentimental for feeling sad about the state of the Ratana temple at Ruawai. Perhaps Hamish Dewe's poem, with its images of disorder and transience, is more honest, or at least less sentimental, than the photos of Robin Morrison and Michael Dean. What, after all, is the purpose of a religious building which is no longer inhabited by the souls of the faithful?