I am guessing that most of us historical writers would love to travel back in time (well, for a brief glimpse at least). Perhaps the closest we’ll ever get is to travel to a less culturally frantic part of the globe. ‘We are about to land in New Zealand. Please turn your watches back fifty years,’ is an old joke, but is it true? After my son emigrated there in 2002, my husband and I began protracted applications for parental visas to join him for a long visit.
Then in 2011 the Christchurch earthquake struck. Chris and his partner were both working in the city centre and though shocked and homeless, were thankfully unharmed. Fortuitously, a listing on a home-exchange site produced an offer of a house-swap on the Pacific East Cape for a year. We accepted and suddenly found ourselves in possession of an oceanfront house, a car, and a view of volcanically steaming White Island, named by Captain Cook in 1769. Our new hometown was quiet and old-fashioned; each morning the Coast Guard gave a rambling radio report and the morning’s fishing catch arrived on the wharf. Wi-Fi was poor, as was the TV, and the closest city lay an hour and half’s drive down an unlit road. Time, I promise you, ran more slowly. Then my agent asked for an idea for a second book to sell alongside my culinary mystery, An Appetite For Violets. I stared out across the blue Pacific and wondered what life must have been like a few hundred years ago.
Just across the Tasman Sea, the 1790s had witnessed a remarkable experiment to send more than a thousand British convicts, marines and soldiers to the upside-down seasons and harsh emptiness of Australia. Soon the penal colony at Sydney cove was struggling to survive, while at home, the French Revolution cast a dark shadow over Britain. I discovered Penny Hearts, copper pennies that convicts had smoothed and engraved with messages for their loved ones before being banished to ‘the ends of the earth’. A firebrand of a character began to develop in my mind, who would engrave a penny token with a vengeful rhyme leading to murderous consequences. I also found a book in my new home about Mary Broad, a Cornishwoman who escaped from Sydney by boat and returned to England.
But what if a storm had blown the escaped convicts’ boat straight to where I stood in New Zealand? Half of the population of our new hometown was Maori, a warrior-like people originally from Polynesia, whose rich mythologies and customs still pervade New Zealand. First contact between Maori and their few European visitors ranged from friendly trade to violent attacks from both sides. A small number of European women were captured by Maori, though these accounts are problematic, given that the women themselves gave no first-hand accounts.
By now my husband Martin was befriending his Maori students and also exhibiting photographs thanks to a Creative Arts grant. I began to glimpse local traditions of singing, storytelling, bone-carving and tattooing. More challenging were pig hunting contests between local women, and possum killing competitions organised for the children. Here indeed was living history. Dutifully, I sampled meats cooked in a hot-stone hangi pit, grubs, and sea snails.
After our first year, we flew across the Tasman to Australia, roaring back into a 21st-century world of tall brick buildings, trains and fast-moving crowds. In Sydney I was surprised by the uneasy ambivalence around Captain Cook and the First Fleet, though an excellent museum at Hyde Park Barracks recounts convict history, as do a clutch of heritage farms up the river at Parramatta. By now my convict was a cook, inspired by real-life accounts of starving prisoners obsessively discussing food and recipes. Like many confidence tricksters she also compiles secret remedies, poisons and aphrodisiacs to gain power over the innocent.
Our final spell in New Zealand was spent as itinerants around Auckland. I was fascinated by people’s stories; the Maori woman whose son had murdered his brother, the student migrants from China struggling to reinvent themselves through western brands, the locals who were raised in the forest, bathing and drinking from the creek. I also felt I’d become two people: the new adaptor trying to learn and cope, and the old self haunted by thoughts of ‘home’. Reflecting on this split, I wrote alternate chapters in the voices of my convict cook and her beleaguered mistress. By the end of the novel I struggled over who should prevail: sensitive but privileged Grace, or Peg, the eternal underdog trying to claw out a decent life by her wits.
Meanwhile the ‘home’ of Britain preoccupied me. I wrote about poignant objects in settler homes: locks of hair, scraps of fabric, and portrait miniatures. In 2014 we decided to return to England. My son and his partner were now settled on Auckland’s glorious North Shore and the launch date of An Appetite for Violets was approaching. I still have many regrets about leaving. The Creative New Zealand funding agency treats aspiring artists with an almost quaint generosity. For a month we were given a grant-funded eco-house to work in, and I was awarded excellent mentorship by the New Zealand Society of Authors. Living in New Zealand was enriching, not only in its gift of old-fashioned time, but also in its youthful ‘can do’ attitude – and I still miss the modern libraries with car parks, coffee shops and the best ocean views in the world.
It is easy to forget the aggravation of our tortuous house-swapping arrangements. Because of the time difference, routine repairs, insurance and banking turned into late night telephone hell. All the disruption meant I came horribly close to missing my novel’s delivery deadline. Yet to our astonishment, almost two years later we returned to a home that showed no traces of the six other families who had lived there, looking exactly as we’d left it. And I would not have missed a moment of the experience. Yes, I could have researched my novel in the UK, but I believe the parts that haunt me now – the wavering melody of a bone flute, the stories of migrants hoping for a better life at the ends of the earth, and the timeless pulse of the wild Pacific – make The Penny Heart a truer, and a bolder book.
The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey is published by Hodder and Stoughton and is a Sunday Times Summer Read, available in paperback from the 28 July 2016. It is also published by St Martin’s Press in the US as A Taste for Nightshade.
Photos all author’s own:
- Ohope Beach
- Wi, a bone carver
- Artist’s eco-h0use at Muriwai