Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Different writers, different weddings

Hamish Dewe and Michael Arnold became friends at Auckland's Dilworth College, where they shared a hatred of rugby and a love of classical music, chess, and other seriously uncool pursuits. After seventh form, Hamish and Michael both went to the University of Auckland - Hamish got a Masters degree in English, while Michael got a postgraduate qualification in philosophy - and both began to publish poems in New Zealand's literary journals.

In 2000 Hamish took a job teaching English literature and language at a university in a remote part of southeastern China; a year or so later, Michael got a teaching job in Shenyang, the out-of-control city across the polluted Pearl River from Hong Kong. Over the years, Michael and Hamish undertook a number of journeys through China together, and even collaborated on a travel book about the unfashionable city of Taiyuan and its environs. Michael and Hamish both learned Mandarin, and both men continued to publish poems in Kiwi literary journals.

On the last day of 2009, Michael married his partner Xuan in her homeland of Vietnam; last weekend, Hamish married the Chinese-born Sabrina in a ceremony in the village of Mauku, fifty minutes south of Auckland. Michael has settled in Vietnam, for the time being at least; Hamish is settling back into New Zealand.

Despite the parrallels between the shapes their lives have taken, Hamish and Michael have always been very different people, and very different writers. Michael is an effusive person with an optimistic view of the universe and a deep attraction to religion. Hamish, by contrast, is a minimalist, who prefers a pungent one-liner to an elaborate argument, and a pessimist, who looks on religion as a sort of delusion.

At university, Michael became fascinated by the baroque palaces of thought built by German idealist philosophers like Hegel and Kant; Hamish, by contrast, chose to write his Masters thesis on Bruce Andrews, an American poet and left-wing activist who takes his violent images and crudely laconic vocabulary from the streets of America's big cities.

Michael and Hamish's different worldviews are reflected in their different literary styles. Michael's attraction to elaborate structures reached an extreme in Cashlin, the loving parody of a religious epic which he wrote in 1999-2001. Cashlin reads like a cross between The Book of Mormon and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and is probably too long and too obscure ever to be published in full (Michael's introduction to the work and his first chapter were published in brief, back in 2001). For his part, Hamish has seldom written a poem which would not fit easily on the back of a postcard.

It is tempting to believe that the differing worldviews and literary styles of Michael and Hamish were reflected in the differences between their recent weddings. Michael's wedding in Ho Chi Minh City - which I was unable to attend, but have watched with delight on youtube - featured many hundreds of guests and many hours of pageantry. Michael seems to have donned half a dozen different costumes during the photo shoot that preceded the ceremony. By contrast, the formal part of Hamish and Sabrina's wedding was over in fifteen minutes. The ceremony took place in St Bride's, which is one of the network of small wooden gothic 'Selwyn churches' built by the Anglicans around the Auckland region in the 1850s and '60s. St Bride's stained glass window remembers its role as a de facto fort during the guerrilla fighting in the countryside south of Auckland in 1863, when the British army was moving men towards the Waikato, where it was confronting the forces of the King Tawhiao and his nationalist supporters. Fighters loyal to Tawhiao would cross the Waikato River and range through the Franklin District, attacking military posts, burning farmhouses, and sabotaging communications. British troops and worried Pakeha farmers raised a stockade around St Bride's and cut rifle slots into the church's walls. The slots have been covered, but the wood that covers them has been painted red, so that they are easily visible against the white walls of the church.

On the 23rd of October 1863 a small battle took place a few hundred metres south of St Bride's, on a site which is nowadays traversed by the road between Pukekohe and Waiuku, after a group of guerrillas attacked a Pakeha farm and were confronted by a Pakeha militia. Eight Pakeha and more than twenty Maori died in the struggle, which began with sniping and ended in hand to hand combat amidst the giant trunks of recently-felled trees.

The window of St Bride's honours Bishop Selwyn, who marched with invading troops into the Waikato, and places symbols representing Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John beside imperial troops and the fortified church. A leaflet available near the entrance to the church explains that the window is supposed to celebrate 'the spreading of the gospel', but for a long time after the Waikato War the Anglican church struggled to attract Waikato Maori adherants. While Hamish and Sabrina's wedding was an appropriately simple affair - short vows were said, rings were exchanged, and I read a passage from 'The Song of Solomon' which Hamish had selected - its location was something of a surprise to many of Hamish's friends. Although he was baptised an Anglican at Dilworth, Hamish is hardly a regular churchgoer, and Sabrina shares his lack of religious belief.

But Hamish has always preferred the difficult to the obvious, and I wonder if there wasn't an element of mischeviousness in his and Sabrina's decision to get married in a church. I wonder, especially, about the reasons why Hamish asked an unbeliever like me to step up to the pulpit and read from the 'The Song of Solomon', which is a piece of frankly erotic poetry that looks rather out of place in the Old Testament. If Hamish were serious about the Christian aspect of his wedding, wouldn't he have found something more pious, and someone more pious, to read to the audience at St Bride's? I don't ask this question because I was unhappy reading for Hamish and Sabrina; on the contrary, I was delighted to take part in their ceremony. I'm simply intrigued by the meaning behind the allegedly Christian symbolism in the ceremony - and I suspect that Hamish intended me, and others, to be so intrigued!

In my speech at Hamish and Sabrina's reception, where everyone enjoyed the kai served up by the groom's sister, mother and stepfather, I suggested another reason why Hamish, at least, might have been keen on tying the knot in the little church at Mauku. Hamish has always been ferociously proud of his part-Portugese ancestry. His great-grandfather was a sealer from the Azores who jumped ship in the Hokianga and eventually settled in nineteenth century Auckland's Chinatown, where he lived between a brothel and an opium den. In his early twenties Hamish learnt Portugese, and he has translated Portugese poets like Fernando Pessoa into English. Was Hamish aware, I wondered, of the Portugese connection to the battle fought near St Bride's in October 1863? In a footnote to the description of the battle in his monumental study of the 'Maori Wars', James Cowan relates a fascinating story:

The Maoris took a prisoner, a Portuguese named Antonio Arouge, in the employ of the Crispe family. He was captured by the cattle-shooting party and tied to a tree. After the fight he was taken into the Waikato, and remained a prisoner for some months, when he was allowed to return to the Europeans. It was, no doubt, his swarthy skin that saved him.

With his resonant name, his apparent ability to travel unscathed between different cultural worlds, and his obscurity, Antonio Arouge is just the character who would appeal to the imagination of Hamish Dewe. When I asked Hamish whether the connection to Antonio Arouge might have influenced his choice to get married in St Bride's he smiled briefly, and refused to speak about the matter. I hadn't expected any other response.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

is 'Cashlin' as long as richard taylor's Infinite Poem???

2:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael Arnold is one smooth dude.

10:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HD and MA together in China:

Despite their differences they are still good mates.


11:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last I checked, Shenyang is pretty far away from Hong Kong

7:25 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Good news re Michael and Hamish. My best wishes to them both.

8:37 pm  
Anonymous Andre Nievo - Vermont Country Wedding said...

In the second picture, re you really pedaling that thing or no? :-)

Anyways, congratulations to both of you.

9:55 am  
Blogger AHD said...

I think you mean 深圳 (shenzhen), not 'Shenyang' (a city 辽宁 in North-East China).

9:40 am  
Anonymous Michael Arnold said...

Interesting, although I must protest at not having had any control as to the form of this traditional Vietnamese wedding. It just so happens that the greatest person I met in my life happens to be from this place, and that's how things are done here - weddings are an indescribably important part of Vietnamese culture, so much so that wedding boutiques outnumber fruit shops, and they're required by custom to be as glamorous and expensive (the Lonely Planet calls them 'ruinous') as possible. If her culture required 10-minute bone waving wedding ceremonies in the nude, I would have been just as eager to comply [if not more so]. And for the record, I arrived in Shenyang (capital of Liaoning's industrial heartland), and not Shenzhen (out-of-control fishing village-cum-garish economic powerhouse across the land border (not Pearl River) from Hong Kong), a few weeks after Hamish arrived in Mid-Central Hunan.

3:09 am  

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