Book of the Week: The revolutionary live email interview with Peter Wells

The return of the patented Spinoff revolutionary live email interview, this time with Peter Wells, author of a new book devoted to the subject of “reclaiming  Pākehā history”.

Peter Wells is unwell. You may well have read about it in Hello Darkness, his intimate and sometimes harrowing series published at the Spinoff. It records his struggle with cancer. All life-threatening illnesses take up rather a lot of time but Wells is now having to attend to his new book Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā history. It’s a family memoir, and also operates as an unflinching portrait of his mother Bess – and as a portrait of the author.

And so it’s an intensely personal story. But Wells is an acclaimed and highly original historian, and his book traces the progress – and dramas, and scandals – of his mother’s family  in an attempt to tell wider truths about post-settler, post-colonial Pākehā life in New Zealand. It’s as though Wells is daring to assert the moral rights of Pākehā existence. That may not be entirely welcome. What’s he playing at? Why’s he doing it? Is he Don Brash in disguise?

Such questions run like a fast stream behind the following live email interview with Wells, which was conducted on Tuesday from 8:30am to 12:30pm. The format – a question is emailed, the answer is sent back, read, digested, and then another question is emailed, etc – allows for a kind of literary correspondence. It also allows for hot drinks. I drank tea at my home in Te Atatu; Wells fortified himself with coffee at his home in Greenlane. He also has a home in Napier which he shares with his partner Douglas Lloyd Jenkin.

Good morning Peter and welcome to the latest instalment of the Spinoff live email interview, a revolutionary practise which combines the tension of every interview – question, answer, no time to retract – with a literary tone, owing to the fact it’s all down in writing and we’re not in the same room. Where exactly are you and – this old harmless question is freighted with heavy significance when it’s put to a man with cancer  – how are you?

Thanks for having me, as my mother taught me to say. I am in my office, which is really the second bedroom in a very special 1930s Corbusian-style house designed by Robin Simpson who was in partnership with Vernon Brown. My office was probably a child’s room – a narrow oblong with a small set of drawers, a mirror and a wardrobe. But I have a huge faux Regency dining table as a desk. There are two sets of bifold windows to my left which normally get the morning sun. The room is painted a soft green which is restful – I wish I knew its name as people often ask.

I am partial to green, which in the Edwardian period, was meant to indicate homosexuality (along with the inability to whistle….). I am a perfectly ok but tuneless yet very enthusiastic whistler in my private moments.

How am I feeling? Partially lousy. I had my third chemo yesterday afternoon and it went almost too well. So I am punished this morning by feeling generally sub-par if that is a word. But writing is what saves me, so I am pleased to be writing here.

Bess and her two sons, Peter and Russell, at Hicks Bay, 1960

“Writing is what saves me”: there’s a very strong sense of that in your cancer series Hello Darkness, which we’re honoured to publish at the Spinoff. But we are not at bedside to talk of sickness and the body. We’re here on the occasion of your latest book Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā History. We need to talk about that sub-title. It’s a curious, always interesting, wandering, coherent, sometimes very moving and perhaps contentious book; it’s a family memoir, in essence, which traces your father’s family and mother’s family from their arrival in New Zealand, and it tells, as you write, “the story of an ordinary Pākehā family and how they made sense of their lives”.

May I venture first off the bat that this is not a mid-career book. This is the book of a man in late career, and looking back; is it in part a case of the author wanting to make sense of his family’s life and also his own life?

Yes, I guess the subtitle – Uncovering a Pākehā history – is everything, the tail that wags the dog. In point of fact it isn’t about my father’s family. It is about my mother’s family – the Northes, the Northeys of Napier, alternatively a mythic family of great stature or a perfectly ordinary family without much lustre to their name. In that hangs a further tale.

No, it’s not mid-career, Steve, I left that long ago. I’m 68 – I might die in a few years time so I can’t really position myself there. I am late career definitely. I would like to live to produce another book or even two. You never know. But each book has such deep roots in your personality, your past, which sort of drag your life essence out of you in ways you don’t even think of when writing. Does that make sense? No book is easy. I’m not sure how much more life essence or energy I have.

With this book I did want to settle things. Not settle scores, as that is cheap. But I wanted to make sense of something that had been important to me all my life: my mother’s sense of her past, and hence my own sense of the past. I grew up with these absurd stories which I swallowed like nectar. Now as an older man, looking after my mother as she lost the plot, I wanted to archive, test, lay to rest these stories.

Oh my cat Ajax has just wandered into the room. His coat is wet from rain. He expects me to mop him down with a dry towel then he will probably clamber onto my shoulders, as a sign of affection, and try to drape himself round me as a cat fur stole. As my whole back is a zone of pain this is not a good idea. I’ll deliver Ajax to Douglas to look after.

But – to continue – yes I definitely wanted to make sense of my own life. I had been drawn back to Napier to live; Napier has provided the source material for my last three books to the point I informally call Dear Oliver the end of the Napier trilogy. It’s the end of my obsession. But yes the book is as much a portrait of me as my family. That’s my perhaps dubious idea of honesty. Putting yourself in the frame.

Sorry, quite right, I got confused there, and thought that some of the stories of relatives past were from your dad’s side – but it’s all Northe’s, your mum’s people, there’s no old Wells’s, they’re completely absent. So, too, almost, is your dad himself. The book in some ways is a story about Bess, your mum, who nearly lived to 101. I note by the way your email address is “peternorthe”; may I ask why? Are you wanting to take your mother’s maiden name? But my main question is – why is that your dad and his family are so absent? Your dad is a vague figure at best in the book. You write at one point, of your childhood, “My father seemed to dislike me.” You were very close to Bess; what about your dad?

My parent’s marriage was an unhappy one. I often think my entire life was distorted by a mother who could not express or feel any affection for her husband. Instead she poured all her love onto me. It was a great gift but also, without my understanding it, a great burden. It gave me huge emotional intelligence – but it also weighed me down with unhappinesses and a sense of failure (in her life.) Without my even perceiving it I accepted her view of her husband, my father, and never really questioned it until I was much older. That creates a huge distance.

To explain a little further. My parents had married in 1939 then Dad went off to war, effectively spending more time in the army than with his wife. The marriage was effectively over when he went away to war anyway. But as I explain in the book, he came back to the marriage a wounded man and their reconciliation was a compromise that ate away at both of them like an acid. They had to get back together. That was what society demanded in 1945. In a contemporary world they would have never got back together. They fought and hated one another till Dad died. So it was not a neutral zone. It was a family of huge hidden emotions. I never really knew Dad till he himself got cancer and we had a silent rapprochement. I got to understand him, as it were, laterally. He loved my mother enormously. I understood that. Like many unhappy marriages, it’s a question of an inequality of emotions.

As for Dad not having many family stories, I think it is quite normal for women in a family to be the gatherers of family history. Not so much, the men. Dad never talked of his family. Much later I found out Dad’s father committed suicide. As I say in the book, “an absence indicates a story”.

There is a suicide, too, in your mother’s family – the remarkable John James Northe, who took arsenic in 1904. There’s that great story about him as a young man caught in a shipwreck off Awatoto, and jumping off and swimming through the rough seas to shore, to raise the alarm; no lives were lost. And there are stories of heroism in the Boer War, and adultery, and other dramas. But the stories don’t exist as mere yarns, do they, otherwise that would be boring, that would be historical journalism or whatever. They add up to or belong to a thesis – it’s a Pākehā history, a reclaiming of Pākehā rights to their place in history.

You write, “Pākehā stand in a strange and controversial relationship to history in Aotearoa. In my lifetime we have gone from being slightly unreal heroic ‘pioneers’ to villainous exploiters of Māori culture and thieves of Maori land. Today we live with the psychological displacement of being defined by what we are not: we are no longer ‘pioneers’, ‘settlers’, or ‘colonists’: we have been stripped of our identity.” Well, you know, these are not exactly the times to be making calls for Pakeha identity, are they? It’s divisive, it’s provocative, isn’t it?

It is a potential minefield, I agree. I would hate to be identified, in any way, with white supremacy of the Don Brash order. My point is that race relations (horrible term) would only be made better if Pākehā understood more about where they came from, their own family stories, the struggle to actually live here. These stories run parallel to and at times intercept with the narratives of the tangata whenua. I’m always astonished at Pākehā who know so much about Māori history but have no interest in their own whānau, how they came to be here, what they went through to get here. Pākehā tend to forget they/we are migrants essentially and ours is a migrant story, with all its striving and inbuilt amnesia. I want to step around the amnesia and go back into an area of enormous richness. As I explain in the book, Pākehā were for so long the dominant majority they couldn’t get enough distance from themselves to actually ‘see’ themselves. I’m trying to clarify that view, albeit in the form of only one family.

I don’t see it as divisive, but as enriching. We all must tell our stories. You say I am reclaiming a Pākehā right to their place in history. It goes without saying that the history of Aotearoa New Zealand is a joint history. That is my point: we have to enrich the story-telling stream by including our own.

Bess on the beach during the period of World War II. Her husband, Gordon Wells, was serving overseas as a gunner, first in Egypt, then Palestine, Libya, Tunisia, and then Italy and Austria.

I wondered whether you would quote or reference Michael King and his 1985 book Being Pākehā in Dear Oliver and I was pleased to see that you did; it’s an important book, a long, questioning essay, not entirely dissimilar to your book. Did it inform or influence your thinking?

Yes very much so. It was his idea that migrants go through this cycle. The first generation are so desperate to make a living they cannot really look back at the past. Besides, in that past there were painful things – like the poverty that brought them to NZ. So the first generation don’t transmit much sense of the past. The second generation are too busy making money and putting down roots. Their parents’ British accents embarrass them, these are the first-born New Zealand generation and they want to get away from everything that suggests Britishness, a limey past. But it is the third generation who start asking questions: where did we come from? Who are we? What are our stories? But by that time the stories are so faded and lost, they have little imaginative energy and are often no more than pale fables of improbability. It is often this generation that starts the search.

Michael King wrote Being Pākehā partly after he was eviscerated for “writing Māori history”, ie muscling in on territory that was not his by cultural right. He was trying to find “a ground to stand on” with Being Pākehā. This is more difficult than you might think. So many Pākehā are loathsomely mealy-mouthed toads whose imaginative ancestor has to be Uriah Heap. They grip their bone carving, close their eyes and mumble “be ‘umble”. I totally understand and empathise with Pākehā wanting to know more about an obscured Māori history – as baby boomers we all grew up knowing nothing about confiscations following the New Zealand wars – the very thing that most contorted our history. But these same people seem to rejoice in knowing nothing about their own past. How they got to be here. Who, in essence, they are.

Michael King’s essay was a brave attempt to get round this amnesia, to find a way inwards, to positioning ourselves meaningfully in Aotearoa NZ. I don’t think I could have written Dear Oliver without his book.

Honestly Steve, if you boil my book down it is an attempt to tell stories which give some colour to a Pākehā colonial family and how they got here and survived. It is asserting a right to stand here. That is correct. But my view is we need more storytelling to understand the complexity of our joint history. I wanted to provide insights into the migrant experience – which was harrowing at times, dislocating and painful. I wanted to bring the big issues down to a personal  level. This is how these people lived. That is what ‘history’ feels like. An inner view of a colonial experience.

Put me in the war crimes tribunal, ok.

You write, “People so often say Māori are spiritual, Pākehā are materialist.” Do people really “often” say that? Do they say it at all? And if they do, what of it? Is it worth arguing, or pursuing? But you’re a historian, and you’ve written Dear Oliver as a historian, so I guess these kinds of issues are central to your thesis and your research. What, then, is spiritual about the Pakeha family in your book?

All humans are spiritual by nature. That’s what we are. We might suppress that side of our nature but it exists.

I used it in a particular context, which was explaining how my Napier grandparents’ presence was so palpable when I was making the documentary aimed at conserving Art Deco Napier. I heard their footsteps just on the furtherest limit of my hearing. Both were long dead and I never met my grandfather. So their spiritual presence was almost overwhelming – an aphrodisiac of memory.

People are actually always saying Māori are spiritual, Pākehā materialist. It’s a contemporary cliche and like all cliches it arises from historical laziness. But there are strong historical reasons for Pākehā materialism. The Reformation and Protestantism led to a very thing-based culture, obsessed with prosperity as a form of godliness. Add to that the migrant experience – a desperate clawing at anything to make a living – and you get a materialism so intense it almost forms a psychological tic.

My point of view is humans can’t help but be spiritual, it is what and who we are. We leak it as we do blood, tears, shit and semen. In terms of the family in the book, I would say spiritual qualities seep in round the edges of their efforts to make a living, keep a family together, survive catastrophes like a quake. But in a way the book is also a portrait of a developing NZ identity so you have that sort of preference for the basic, the understated, the silently borne. Yet the pain is there and real.

In terms of my mother and myself I would say we had a deep spiritual relationship if that did not make my flesh crawl. And why does it make my flesh crawl? Because I am ancestrally of British stock and British people tend to prefer the elliptical, the understated, the implied. But I still feel a spiritual connection to all my Northe/Northey ancestors. The book is my way of paying my respects to my ancestors. I visit their tomb in Napier often and I have planted a beautiful climbing rose – Madame Alfred Carriere – by it. The irony of course is that I am the end of the line (my mother’s line.) But it is not unusual for those at the end of the line to turn and look back.

Peter and Bess meet Peter’s grandmother Jessie Northe on the Auckland Airport tarmac, 1967.

I’m glad you have stated that you are the end of the line because I wanted to refer to that but wasn’t sure how to do it without looking like a totally insensitive clod, trampling all over your mortality and that. But there it is, you’ve said it; so what are your thoughts on this, that the Northe line dies with you? Oh and to repeat the question I asked before, but you didn’t answer, I note you call yourself “peternorthe” in your email address: are you wanting to take your mother’s name?

Being the end of a line is fine, it gives you certain privileges, an airy viewpoint. There’s nobody to crowd you out – maybe a right to say certain things that a more crowded family might not allow. I don’t regret not having children, there are plenty of people doing that. Though the “Letter to Oliver’ allowed me to fulfill the function of an elder passing on some ancestral knowledge to a child in the family. I don’t expect him to ever read it, at least not till he is in his sixties.

You have hit a soft spot with my email identity. My Instagram identity relates to my father’s family so that may equalise it a little. Partly it’s that Northe is such a delightfully irregular name you don’t have to bother with lots of other people sharing the name. Am I trying to smuggle myself into a family of which I am only tangentially a part (and I am sure once the book comes out those with surnames of Northe may well point the bone at me and ask what right do I have to spill the beans? ) Actually my full name is Peter Northe Wells so I can legitimately claim some right to my maternal name. It isn’t all oedipal madness.

Oh right – good old Oedipus! Actually there is a forbidden desire which you reveal in the book, but it’s not that you wanted to have sex with your mother, it’s the passing thought that you wanted to kill her. You write, “I thought very clearly about suffocating her.” And in another place, you write, “I do not say [to her] that I have begun to wonder if she will ever die, whether I will ever be free.” Anyone who looks after a very old, very frail parent will recognise these unspoken thoughts. But you’re a writer, and you say these things out loud. You write of your mother that her life included “an unhappy marriage, a brilliant son [your brother Russell] who died a shameful death, the absence of the many grandchildren she probably expected.” All these family secrets, revealed. But I guess you have the freedom to say what you want; there’s no one left in the family to upset. They’re all dead. There’s just you. All the same, is there a guilt, about telling all?

I suppose my thoughts are that yes, I am revealing all sorts of deeply personal things. But my experience has been that once these thoughts are expressed, a surprising number of people say: thank god! It’s what I felt/experienced but I didn’t know how to say it/never had an opportunity to say it. Is there guilt? A residual guilt will always remain as I was brought up to suppress family truths, which probably led to the irresistible pleasure in breaking this law.

There are certainly parts of the book, to do with my mother just before she died, which I am happy to have within the covers of a book but which I would be very unhappy about if they were on the radio for example. I am doing an interview with Kim Hill and I am trying to work out how I can ask for that area of the book to be unexplicit. My rationale is that a book is a private compact between an author and a reader. It takes place in silence. Whereas radio etc are a breach of this contract. Besides that aspect of the book is an important narrative development. It is also a very sad part of the story and, as a son, it is my natural instinct to protect her. You may find that at odds with my writing so explicitly about this episode – at least explicit about my raw emotion (it is this part of the book that leads me to think through the logistics of killing my mother) – so I guess it is all a muddle of trying to be protective where I can, guilt at the necessity of my confession, but accepting absolutely that necessity.

All writers have hearts of steel.

Bess and Peter Wells in 2011

Your mother said to you not long before she died, “You’re a wonderful son.” I was really moved by that. What a great thing to hear. I said before that there’s just you, everyone else is dead, but of course there is someone left, who you have to be wonderful for – your partner Douglas. He sort of passes through rooms in the background of the book. Early on, you refer to something disputatious with his job as director of the museum and art gallery in Napier, and you remark, “I began to experience what Anthony Trollope so feelingly called ‘the true hatred of provincial life’.” What did you mean by that? And, along with that question, my final question: with the cancer, and the chemo treatment and all, are you becoming like Bess, someone ailing, and frail, who needs to be looked after? Does Douglas now have the role you had with Bess?

That is quite a challenging question, or rather series of questions. “The true hatred of provincial life”? Everything is wonderful, till they turn on you. When another gay man came to live in Napier and was very head-in-the-clouds about relative real estate values of Morningside versus Napier, I thought to myself: yes the gates of the palace are wide open when you walk in. It is only when you turn around in panic, and want to leave, you realise the palace gates have been long shut. You are trapped. The provinces are like a microcosm of NZ: there’s the tall poppy syndrome and the smallness. Then there’s the inability to escape people in a small town environment where you meet them at every turn. This makes for difficult, even noxious living. You can run but you can’t hide.

Your last question is borderline impertinent but that is probably because I have never thought of the situation in those terms. I’m unsure how to answer that question. Both situations are predicated on illness, mortality and unquestioned and unquestioningly love. Am I like my mother – have I become my mother? Has her situation become, by some sort of weird osmosis, or transference, my own? Well, it would be historically fitting in a sort of ruthless Greek drama, I suppose. But I tend not to see it like that. I am in a very strange situation wherein I live day by day, we both live day by day – perhaps that is how life should be lived. It is pleasant, and almost as if I – we – had discovered the secret of life. To look after someone you love is draining but also – it is hard to describe – it is a life enhancing thing, as parents of course intimately know. So we both muddle along, unaware of the precedent of my being like my mother and Douglas being like me. One thing I do know is that one can learn empathy, one can learn understanding and one can even almost learn kindness. And for me, kindness is the most important thing in life – to humans, to animals, to everything and everyone. So we live as ourselves, as all of us must.

Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā history by Peter Wells (Massey University Press, $39.99) is available at Unity Books.

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