Keri Hulme on her collecting compulsion

I freely admit it — I collect an awful lot of stuff…

Some of my collections are understood by most people who encounter them. It makes good sense to have a library of many thousands of books when you live in a remote area many hours’ drive away from a good library (“good” here equals “with at least as many books as I have on subjects I find deeply interesting”).

And then there is my extensive range of wine and whisky glasses, many of which have been presents from family and friends. Only they get to use them.

Others I’ve bought from op-shops and recycle centres. These have a fairly high attrition rate (an excuse for me to continue to search for more.)

And when you know that I love catching — and cooking! — fish, my 40 or so fish and mollusc knives don’t seem extravagant. From the beautiful fillet knife, handmade by one of neighbours, to the knives specifically for mussel and oyster opening, to my lovely Japanese sashimi knife … all of them efficient and pleasurable to use —

Other collections are — a bit strange. They have no utility; are merely there because I like having them. The harmless enjoyment factor … like the large Systema holder full of little containers —  miniature birchbark and flax kete; tiny porcelain jugs for holding thingummies; minute turned rata bowls, a small soapstone box with a mother-of-pearl spiral inlaid on the lid — dozens of such things. But many people collect stuff that seems slightly odd to me — thimbles for instance, or hatpins, or teapots…

What I can’t understand is why, of the three animals that I like a lot, I collect only one —

Many people collect models, figurines, statues of animals: I know of horse and dog  collections, some of them huge. Wooden and pottery butterflies? Yep. Birds? Check. Lizards, frogs, and other amphibians and reptiles? Indeedy!

From the time I was a small child, I have been enamoured of three sorts of animals: apes (especially chimpanzees, both Pan paniscus, the so-called pygmy chimp, and P. troglodytes, the common chimpanzee); cetaceans (my favourites being the five species found in Aotearoa seas) and elephants! African, forest, Asian — all of ’em!

I have seen all the above-listed animals, although only the dolphins were in their natural habitat. I’ve ridden on two (not a dolphin, alas!) I have no desire whatsoever to own any of them.


I have no ape statues.

I have two beautiful Blue Mountain figures of dolphins (mother and calf) and five silver ones swim in the air above my desk. (But I have many more models of snails than dolphins — I like snails because they are curvilinear and have four eyes, a bit like I used to be …)

Wanna guess how many representations of elephants I have?

Well, I don’t know. Well over a hundred, ranging from a thumbnail-sized loxodont to a knee-high pottery job.

I don’t know how many I have because they are kept in three different places. The herd has never been gathered together. Yet. It’s one of the things that I look to arranging when I shift over the hill.

They are made of metal, and wood, and china. They are made of plastic, and glass. I have one that is clad in grey feathers. And I have two that are created from textiles … One was made by a disabled person in Thailand, Thai silk with a purple velvet cover. And the other?

Well, it was made from my favourite chair.

My late-lamented naybore was a weaver: she found my chair slightly disgusting, its 40-year-old woollen covering tatty and dirty.

She wove me a new one in similar blue and green shades. Then she dismantled the old cover, and installed the new — it was professionally done, and I loved it. We toasted its advent with a couple of drams, and then she said, “There’s something else.”

And handed it over.

It was tightly stuffed and stood steadily. Its trunk was proudly aloft.

“Never thought I’d spend an afternoon with my finger up an elephant’s bum,” said Maloney.


This isn’t strictly true.

In my late teens, I had a very odd dream.

I was standing barefoot on a beach. It wasn’t a beach I knew at all. It wasn’t a New Zealand beach.

I was wearing some kind of well-tanned hide, kilt fashion, and a cape of soft thick fur.

I was watching an elephant. It was tiny, a bit over a metre tall. Must be a young calf, I remember thinking — but then I noticed the quite long and nearly straight tusks.

There the dream ended.

Two decades later, in New York, I met an archaeologist who said, when I asked what area he was excavating in, “Cyprus.”

“Sorry, I know nothing about it.”

“Fascinating place. D’y’know they had dwarf elephants there? And mammoths?”

And I learned they did indeed. As did other Mediterranean islands. They weighed about 220 kilo, and stood just over a metre, and


became extinct about 11,000 years ago…

How I would’ve loved one!

Or a herd!