Thursday, December 29, 2011

Breaking into fact

Whenever I examine a newspaper I steer around articles dealing with individual tragedies and outrages - car crashes and house fires and child abductions and murders - and instead read reports on more general, abstract subjects, like political conflicts or economic crises or demographic changes.

I justify this preference to Skyler by explaining that I see the world in materialist terms, and regard history as the working out of broad forces and grand structures. I tell Skyler that individual human tragedies and triumphs are not, in the scheme of things, significant, and thus don't count as news, in the proper sense of the word.

But there's a less intellectual reason why I try to steer clear of the tragedies that are part of every day's news. I find reading about crimes like the recent violent assault on a small girl in a Turangi holiday camp both distressing and depressing. I'm hardly alone in this, of course: the atrocity in Turangi has disturbed people up and down New Zealand. Even those of us who have avoided newspaper articles and talkback radio have received details of the crime and updates on the hunt for its perpetrator, courtesy of angry family members and friends.

A crowd laid siege to the Taupo District Court yesterday, as a young man appeared there on charges relating to the attack in nearby Turangi. A lot of Kiwis will be fantasising about the punishments they'd mete out to the attacker, if only they were given the opportunity.

While this sort of aggressive response to a heinous crime is rational enough, and may even have some therapeutic value, it seems to me to be somehow inadequate to the sheer mystery of evil. From Eichmann to Harold Shipman, the perpetrators of terrible crimes always seem somehow slight, once they are captured and safely removed from the scenes of their deeds. The reporters and psychologists who observe their appearances in the dock and interview them in prison meeting rooms, seeking some clue about ideology and motive, tend to be disappointed. It seems impossible to square the evil of the crimes with the pathetic lives and unimpressive countenances of the perpetrators. If we want to understand the evil of a Shipman or a Manson we must look beyond the individual, into history and sociology and the structure of the human mind.

The annotated selection of Kendrick Smithyman's poems I published last year included a text prompted by one of the most notorious murders in modern New Zealand history. Smithyman disliked easy rhetoric and over-certainty, and his discussion of the killing of Kirsa Jensen is both complex and sensitive. I've reproduced Smithyman's poem below, along with the commentary which I gave it in last year's book.


The not well chosen motel looks over the road
to the marshalling yard. They've a current row
about reducing staff, not enough work
to warrant; conceivably this might be why the yard
worked all night but seemed to get nowhere.
A few jolts forward, some coupling, clanking,
a few jolts back, some pointless heavy breathing
from too-long stationary diesel locos.
These are of course Bulgarian motors.
One has heard about Bulgarians, Smiley might tell more

whose prose leaps in the small hours from Kipling, the Great Game,
to Greene, the enduringly painful down at heel
talent which Evil has for breaking
any gloss of fiction, into fact.
That place which we passed, rivermouth
a few kilometres south which is historically
connected with missionary endeavour,
in a day or two there
a girl child will fall
from her horse, a middleaged man - platitudinous,
nondescript - with a nondescript truck
will stop, offer help. She will not be seen
again. We shall not, as we do not, know.



On the first day of the spring of 1983 a fourteen year-old girl named Kirsa Jensen disappeared after riding her horse to a section of coastline just south of Napier. Jensen was last seen at Awatoto Beach with a bloodied face, which she attributed to a fall from her horse, and in the company of a middle-aged man, who claimed to be waiting with her for her parents. Jensen's body has never been recovered, and her killer has never been identified.

Smithyman and his second wife Margaret Edgcumbe had spent a night in Napier in late August 1983, near the end of a journey through the middle latitudes of the North Island which took them to Taranaki, the Wairarapa, and the Ureweras as well as to Hawkes Bay. In 'Fiction Fact', which was written after the couple's return to Auckland, Smithyman remembers the uneasy night he spent in Napier, and finds in it premonitions of the tragedy about to strike the town.

In an interview with Jack Ross for the Smithymania issue of literary journal brief, Margaret Edgcumbe remembered that Kendrick often suffered from insomnia in his later years, and used to cope with this malady by reading deep into the night. In 'Fiction Fact', Smithyman's sleeplessness is reinforced by the noise from the railway workshop situated all too close to his 'not well chosen motel'.

The poet is obscurely troubled by the idea that the engines of the trains being repaired across the road were made in Bulgaria. In the early 1980s, Romania was widely regarded in the West as the most liberal of the Soviet Union's Eastern European allies, on account of its relatively independent foreign policy, and its neighbour Bulgaria was often perceived as a sinister, fiercely repressive place. Bulgaria's bad reputation derived partly from the closeness with which it followed Soviet foreign policy, but it also had something to do with the bizarre murder of Georgi Martov in London in 1978 by Bulgarian secret agents. Martov, a writer who had fled Bulgaria and become a prominent critic of its rulers, was killed by a tiny poison capsule fired out of an umbrella on a busy London street.

Smithyman wrote regularly about the Soviet bloc and the Cold War in the 1980s, thanks partly to the influence of his eldest son Christopher, a career diplomat who had begun, at the end of the 1970s, to specialise in Soviet affairs and to learn Russian. Christopher worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Wellington up until shortly before his death from a brain tumour in 1984, and on his occasional visits to that city Kendrick sometimes found himself chatting with diplomats from the Eastern bloc at parties and functions his son’s employers had organised.

In 'Fiction Fact' Bulgaria, with its Cold War connotations of espionage and repression, seems to remind Smithyman of books he has been reading to cope with his insomnia. After considering John Le Carre's novels about the Mi6 agent Smiley - a character sometimes described as the anti-Bond, on account of his dour demeanour and undramatic methods - Smithyman thinks of Rudyard Kipling, whose 1902 book Kim popularised the use of the term 'the Great Game' to describe the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Kipling's novel relates the burgeoning career in espionage and the on-again, off-again spiritual quest of a young Englishman raised on the Indian subcontinent. At the book's end Kim must choose between finding enlightenment deep in the Himalayas or enjoying worldly success as a British intelligence officer.
If Kipling's novel counterposes spiritual purity to worldly corruption, then Graham Greene's fiction demolishes the dichotomy, showing that men of God can be as amoral as the most cynical spy. Greene's preoccupation with the darker side of humanity was not confined to the page: as his biographers have shown, the great writer consciously experimented, for much of his life, with acts which he knew to be evil, like spying on his friends for British intelligence. It is appropriate, then, that Greene, along with Kipling and Le Carre, suggests to Smithyman the 'talent' that 'evil has' for 'breaking/ any gloss of fiction, into fact'.

In the last dozen lines of his poem, Smithyman explains why he has been so preoccupied with dark thoughts. He and Margaret passed the site where Kirsa Jensen was last seen only a few days before her disappearance.

When Smithyman describes Awatoto Beach as a 'rivermouth...historically/ connected with missionary endeavour' he refers to the nineteenth century history of the place. In the early 1840s the Church Missionary Society established a station at Awatoto, which was then known as Awapuni, after acquiring ten acres near the mouth of the Tutaekuri River from a local hapu of the large Ngati Kahungungu iwi. The young William Colenso, who would eventually win renown as an ethnologist and a botanist as well as a clergyman, was the first occupant of the mission station, and in 1845 he and his followers managed to raise a church there.

For quarrelling Ngati Kahungungu hapu and, eventually, for members of other iwi, Awapuni became a neutral locus for negotiations and diplomatic intrigues. In the
1850s the great Tainui leader Wiremu Tamihana visited the place, during his efforts to win Ngati Kahungungu support for the King Movement he was creating. After the invasion of the King Movement's lands by the Pakeha government in Auckland in 1863, Awapuni was the site of negotiations between Ngati Kahungungu and semi-secret government agents keen to keep the iwi from joining the war on the side of King Tawhiao.

'Fiction Fact' is not a poem which constructs a logical argument, or a linear narrative: it proceeds, instead, by a series of unexpected associative leaps. Perhaps Smithyman is reminded of the intrigue-filled history of Awatoto by the spy novels he has apparently been reading, and perhaps the terrible mystery which surrounds the disappearance of Kirsa Jensen reminds him of the sinister secrets which are the stock in trade of spies and states.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smithyman refuses to think for the reader.

11:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another sinister secret associated with Awatoto, and one which Smithyman doesn't seem to note, is that Rev. Colenso, who never tired of inveighing against Maori immorality, had a sexual relationship with his wife's housemaid, Ripeke Meretene. She cannot have been more than 18 when this activity began, and probably younger. While this behaviour pales into significance alongside the other examples of child molestation that prompted your post, it may have resulted from a similar impulse.

4:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is that piece of information in the new biography of Colenso by Wells, or has it been airbrushed?

9:46 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This allegation, because it was known the Anglican Church was something that Leicester Kyle, who was also an Anglican Priest, found added interest to his interest in Colenso in his poem sequence 'Koreneho'. He told me this himself. While he didn't "approve of it" I think the "scandal of it added interested for him in Colenso. He emerges as more human.

Smithyman's poem is great.

I read a book by psychoanalyst attached to the OSS who was abel to successfully analyze Hitler and indeed find the rationale (Freudian etc) for how he became what he was was indeed relatively straight forward (his father was quite an awful man and so on)...and anyway the German or Nazi creation was a "resultant" of the terrible treatment Germany etc received at the hands of the British and French after WWI. The psychoanalyst had access to a lot of data about Hitler as one of the leading Nazis had left Germany for the US.

The predictions and assessments of Hitler arising from the analysis were pretty accurate.

The important (and really quite scary) point is that these people (violent people, pedophiles , serial killers, mass murderers etc) are very much like us. They are just us as we could have been given different circumstances or genes or whatever.

Another book I read was about the capture by Israeli agents of Eichmann. The Eichmann they captured was just a frightened old man. They, the Israeli agents, couldn't even hate him. For them it was more or less just a job (albeit it was quite difficult and even dangerous for them (they were in a foreign country and had to act illegally), but Eichmann was not dangerous, he didn't resist at all...).

We need to understand why these crimes take place,how these people (David Gray, for me he is central to the tragedy at Araomoana, made greater by the ignorant burning of his personal effects, he needed to be studied and understood, he suffered like van Gogh...) come to be what they are, and allow justice to work and look to ways prevent such things happening if possible in the future. Vengeance and heavy punishments and hysterical hate do no good.

We need to try to understand and even have compassion for this 16 year old young man (IF he is actually guilty, it wouldn't be the first time the police have either stuffed up or deliberately falsified evidence etc, and his guilt is yet to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt) who is clearly quite troubled and in deep sense is a victim of society himself.

They, the rapes and killings etc, will just all repeat if they fail again to understand what the causes are.

2:00 am  
Blogger Ardis said...

thanks for this, from really a lazy point of view - you saved me the trouble of articulating it :) I too am a broad-brush news person, avoiding personal tragedies for the reasons you describe.

I found Alice Miller thought-provoking (disturbing is closer, even harrowing) on child-rearing practices and their relationship to cruelty, brutality and evil in adults.

1:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Scott.
Really enjoyed your post--in itself an argument pro blog.
Peter Wells' book does not airbrush Colenso's 'fall'. It is given centrality in a book which is as interested in sexuality as any missionary could have been. A mine of fascinating info and reflection... and the structure of the book--discrete essays, often breaking chronology, and written discretely-- means you must become a miner.
A welcome break from the hagiographic tradition of missioniary biographies.


10:29 am  

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