Work in progress — David Geary

Up the river

David Geary comes to grips with Mark Twain in Maoriland.

I have two wives. They met on a Canadian canoe trip down the W(h)anganui River in 2002. It was not a good scene.

A Canadian canoe is a double. Generally speaking the one in the front is the grunt, while the one at the rear steers. It is a good test of a marriage. My advice is to swap positions regularly.

My first wife and I were leaving New Zealand to live in Canada soon after the trip. The true test of Canadian citizenship is whether you can make love in a canoe. I failed. I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. For two days I’d worn the wedding ring from my first marriage paddling, swimming, diving, everywhere. By the third day I had come to feel completely at one with the river – ko te awa, ko te awa ko au/I am the river, the river is me. I basked in the shallows, an eel enjoying pebbles tickling my silver belly. I stood up, walked 30 yards … something was wrong. Very wrong. My wedding ring was gone.

After an hour I called the search off. My first wife and I got back in our canoe. I couldn’t say anything that would help. I was the grunt in front.

I couldn’t say a taniwha had sucked the ring off my finger. And I was now married to a river, to a taniwha. My second wife wore my ring in her ear to pirate parties on sunken riverboats. A ghoulish band, not unlike the Rolling Stones, played while she swayed and mud eels nibbled on her ear. She used my ring as bait to hook them. Meanwhile, I sat slumped in the corner, whakama, muttering “She owes me, she owes me, she owes me.”

Two years later, I was living in Canada and working on a novel I described as “Huckleberry Finn on the W(h)anganui River in the 1970s”. (While most New Zealand towns deal with E and P problems, I love how Wanganui struggles with whether to legalise the “h”.)

I googled Mark Twain Wanganui. And was amazed to find the great man had visited the dirty river city in 1895, issued racial insults, and received a death threat! I had a new project. It was writing itself.

Now the novel is a rusting riverboat in dry dock, and I’ve returned to New Zealand for my two wives to reconcile.

So what’s the story? Samuel Clemens was old, broke and carbuncled when he toured Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and England to pay his debts in 1895-96. Thus creating the material for his book, Following the Equator.

In Dunedin the illustrious Dr Hocken gave Twain one of his treasured taonga – a lignified caterpillar. In Oamaru Twain’s lecture inspired a dog fight. And in Christchurch he was hosted by The Savage Club, whose motto was to foster “the singer, the story-teller, the scribe and player on cunning instruments”. They cheered Twain with “Ake ake kia kaha e!” but no members were truly savage, except in their Anglicancentricity.

Palmerston North’s Club Hotel had a landlord who was “Fat, red, ignorant, made of coarse clay, possibly mud”. And through astonishingly thin walls, Twain was subjected to an early morning piano concert performed by a cat, as surely no person could play so poorly. 

However, this was nothing compared to the man who arrived at Twain’s hotel room in Wanganui to warn that if he spoke at the Oddfellows Hall that night, the great man would be assassinated. Twain described the man as having “less refinement than any lunatic I have met”.

And it is madness. Unless you knew what Samuel Clemens had said about the statues he’d seen in Moutoa Gardens, named after an historic battle at Moutoa island up river in 1864. It was here that Kupapa Maori – those loyal to the Crown and wishing to preserve their Pakeha trading partners for future social, political and economic benefit – defeated the rebel Hauhau, the “cult” who had come down river with the avowed intention to drive the Pakeha of Wanganui back into the sea. (Imagine plus-foured golfers being driven lemming-like out of bounds on the back nine at Castlecliff.)

The white folks erected a “Grief Monument” to honour the Maori who had died for their cause – a mass-produced white marble statue of a crestfallen woman. The inscription reads: To the Memory of those brave men who fell at Moutoa 14 May 1864 in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism.

However, Mark Twain dismissed it as “one of the most comical monuments in the whole earth”. And “Patriotism is Patriotism. Calling it Fanaticism cannot degrade it … They (the Hauhau) fought for their homes, they fought for their country; they bravely fought and fell … the Maori patriots.” Clemens added that another statue put up to honour prominent Kupapa chief, Te Keepa/Major Kemp:

cannot be rectified. Except with dynamite. It is an object-lesson to the rising generation. It invites to treachery, disloyalty, unpatriotism. Its lesson, in frank terms is, “Desert your flag, slay your people, burn their homes, shame your nationality – we honour such.”


And if Mark Twain got to broadcast his views to the world, then how would Wanganui cope? Just as it was trying to lose its Kupapa Cowboys vs Fanatical Barbarians image, and attract nice new immigrants. The dreams for their town could be snuffed out. So why not snuff out the loud-mouth Yank? And by killing him, paradoxically, we could create a good buzz about our little town. And see its fame spread far and wide, as the town where Mark Twain was gunned down. But only if we proved we’d restored law and order by honouring the great man by opening a Mini-Mississippi Museum – A Twain’s World.

Or it’s a complete hoax. And Twain’s entourage – wife, daughter and agent Carlyle Smythe – secretly hired assassins as they were sick of being dragged through every backwater and would pay the bad debts by claiming the insurance. Or the Catholics did it? Or the river rats Twain dismissed as “slimy half-caste pugs”. And, regardless, you’ve yet to hear of Twain’s tragic demise as, at the time, it was greatly understated, as is the Kiwi way. Due in part to the local constabulary not wanting it reported on their watch. And also because a Mark Twain impersonator was hired to fulfil his future engagements. Which is where I stepped in.


David Geary is the 2008 writer in residence at Victoria University of Wellington.


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