Dating early pantograph
You’d get sticky legs from the constant slosh of beer; there’d be unsolicited frotting. ‘Sometimes when my brother is driving I look over and see he’s going at 200ks. He smiled at me, said, ‘Wait for it …’ drummed on the table, clicked his fingers, pointed into the air and announced, ‘Grübsch! Learn the sounds the letters make and you’ll be able to read a word and pronounce it correctly.
The owner had the unfortunate task of stopping the band at midnight so the neighbours, who’d bought apartments in the middle of the city’s small zone of nightlife, would not force the pub to close permanently. I did not particularly want to get to know anyone at the time. But you don’t notice it, it just feels normal.’ And then I thought it would be proper to find out, like I hadn’t, always. One of our German lecturer friends told me the hardest word for a learner to master is ‘Eichhörnchen’. This quietly alters the experience of walking in parks in the autumn. Like Johnny Appleseed, blessed by nomenclature with some divine botanical purpose. The answer to my question, in the dusty red velvet evening in the pub, was that there are two spellings. An umlaut is written the same as a diaeresis, but doesn’t have the same effect. No, my French ancestor came by himself and went to Taumarunui. There’s a series of kids’ books currently in production called Kiwi Corkers, full of faltering anapaestic lines, improbable dated slang, fudged rhymes, mangled reo. She milks cows by hand and owns an Edmonds cookbook.
This is because one generation back, there’s one in my family. On another level, a Kiwi is a white New Zealander of British extraction. Never mind the goddamn bird being just about extinct. The T-sauce, the pav, the black singlet, the jandals, the All Blacks, the hokey pokey, the red and black Swanndri, the quarter-acre section. German biscuits became Belgian biscuits, German shepherds Alsatians.
This umlaut arrived in New Zealand on a boat in around 1900, worked in quarries, had a daughter (whose married name, appropriately, is Stoney) and four sons. In the Swiss village of Küssnacht you can walk past any number of doors labelled ‘Gössi’. This was the silent suggestion in Don Brash’s election campaign billboards, half blue half red, labelled Iwi/Kiwi. There’s an old piano at my son’s Playcentre, walnut veneer, with a brass inlay reading ‘Made in’ and then a scratched-out shape that starts with a ‘G’ and ends with a ‘y’.
Gössi, like Grübsch, loses its diacritic in an Anglo spelling environment. All the things we’ve been called over the years, all the names on envelopes: Beauchamp, Beetroot, Beatrice—even, once, Beautyanus—what the fuck did it matter? What is different for a person in an Anglo-dominated culture with a non-Anglo name? When my grandfather started school in 1937, his English wasn’t fluent.
By the time he left school he’d lost Schweizer-Deutsch. Another brother just rolled with the pronunciation his friends and acquaintances gave him, Gossey. ’ his son Darryl was heard to exclaim, when by some unlikely chance a caller hit upon the original vowel sound. Sometimes this means going to the other side of the world. The umlaut persisted, two black jewels in a little floating crown. Before our children were born we were so sure times had changed.
The man at the embassy, in the kind of clear, impeccable English used only by second-language speakers, and maybe the Queen at Christmas, said: ‘You will need to bring in your partner’s passport which will show both spellings, as proof. To her Swiss parents, the name didn’t seem difficult. People said he’d been a fugitive criminal and had made it up, until the internet took off and we realised there were more of us.
Along the bottom of the passport on the first page it will show the international spelling.’ Whew. Not all dipthongs are pronounced the same in Māori and German, but ‘Ai’ is. There are ten people called Beautrais in New Zealand, and the rest are in Nantes.
I did not need to compile a family history going back a thousand years. So my son got to be Grübsch on his birth certificate, and in his Playcentre profile book, and on his school uniform and lunchbox and socks, and Gruebsch on his passport and at the doctor’s and anywhere where an ‘ü’ on a hand-filled form might be swapped for an ‘u’ on a computer file. But slowly, imperceptibly, as years went by, I was getting madder. Spelling and pronouncing a name correctly is a matter of respect. ‘Whanganui’ does not rhyme with ‘conger’ and ‘Dewey’. It is about acknowledging colonisation, admitting to privilege, and saying we do not have to keep on walking that worn-out path. But I hope the umlaut, for my kids, is about saying I am tauiwi. I was born here, and I have come here from somewhere else. There was something antique about sitting there in the pub in the five o’clock sunlight, potted palms drooping around us, plastic jug being evenly poured into two smeary glasses. Things would transform into other things when night fell. When a letter arrives for Mr Grubsch, I am disheartened. ‘Sir,’ a boy asked him once, ‘why do you have a smiley face in your name? When you handwrite it on a whiteboard, it’s two dots for eyes and a quick bendy mouth. Take away the dots and it sounds like the ‘u’ in ‘pudding’. The English language has some weird mongrel vowels, and that’s fascinating, like a tapestry, or a painting with many layers of paint.At the time, that particular pub was where the hipsters went, and after the hipsters the sort-of-hipsters, and after a certain hour the generic, severely drunk drunks who went wherever they saw crowds. But the ‘u’ in pudding isn’t the same as the ‘u’ in ‘grubs’. Bird, person, work, lurk: same vowel sounds, different vowels. As much of a pain in the arse as it is learning German, as much as genitives and datives and gendered nouns can tie a native English speaker’s brain into knots, at least the language is phonetic.Besides Schweizer-Deutsch, my ancestors lost two further languages in New Zealand: French and Gaelic. Nowadays they speak to their father in a mongrel mixture. Sometimes it feels like standing next to a swimming pool pipetting in a tiny drop of something other than water. You may not have a umlaut in a New Zealand passport. You may not have an acute, a grave, a breve, a cedilla. Master Lukas Grübsch would just have to lose his dots and be Grubsch. After a period of intense rage, I rang the German embassy. I did what I always do when faced with brisk, official High German—said ‘Guten tag,’ and then fell back on English, blabbling my story. And every time a redneck wrote to the local paper and said we had a referendum on this, and said it isn’t pronounced with an h anyway, and said I am a white guy who knows better and Wanganui has always been spelled this way. Recently, in the doctor’s surgery, a nurse walked into the waiting room and said my name correctly. Or someone says, ‘That was my grandmother’s name.’ Or ‘My daughter is having a baby, I suggested that name.’ As I sat down and prepared to explain to the nurse that I was pissing blood, she asked me, ‘Did I say your name right? She said, ‘Oh, that’s just how you would say it in my language, Shona—from Zimbabwe.’ I said my name is Māori and that perhaps the vowels and the rolled ‘r’ are the same in both those languages. The competition is named after Dunedin editor, poet and patron Charles Brasch, who founded Landfall in 1947 and was its editor for the next two decades.
I am not German—but my partner is German—my son was born here— but he is also a German citizen—we have this problem with the New Zealand passports office—about an umlaut—what do I do? A warmth swelled up in me that made me want to burst into tears. Despite my physical discomfort, I was beginning to feel soothed. I was named after Airini Gössi, the quarry labourer’s daughter who married a Stoney. They had names like Jocelyn, Margaret, Gertrude, Spray, Baron Aberdare. One, my papa’s waka, was a waka rererangi, a Boeing 747 that hit the tarmac in 2005.
Perhaps, unconsciously, it was this sort of common ground: the sharing of a diacritic, like finding you’ve been told the same folktales, that helped Norman and me connect with each other. By the time she married my dad, Mum hated her name so much she would have changed it to just about anything. Mr Norman, when his carefully practised accent cracked, when his country of origin was made known, was enthusiastically greeted with the Nazi salute.