A memoir by Brian Turner: part 2 in our week-long series on Greymouth writer Peter Hooper

All week this week we look at the life and writing of Greymouth writer and conservationist Peter Hooper (1919-91). Today: a memoir by Hooper’s longtime friend and editor Brian Turner, taken from his speech at the launch in the weekend of Pat White’s biography.

Peter Hooper is a name that is seldom mentioned when NZ Lit is discussed today, which is surprising and regrettable, given the depth, variety, and range of his work. He wrote and published novels, stories, poetry and essays. He also wrote a few plays.

I first met Peter in the late 1960s when one of my tasks as an employee of Oxford University Press’s NZ branch in Wellington was to call on and try to sell OUP’s and Faber and Faber’s publications to bookshops and schools in the lower half of the North Island, and the entire South Island. It’s no wonder I’ve an extensive library of my own. Some of the books could be regarded as distinctly arcane.

Peter was teaching English at Westland High in Hokitika. He was highly respected, conscientious and very good at his job. He lived in Paroa, a few kilometres south of Greymouth, on a small holding he named Long Acres. He didn’t have a view of the Tasman Sea but it could often be heard, soughing and surging up the stony beach a few hundred metres away.

(Above: Peter Hooper’s house at Paparoa: “his only company the sound of rain on the corrugated iron roof”, writes Pat White in his biography.)

Peter had opened a small bookshop in Greymouth and named it Walden Books. He, and I, as I found out, were drawn to so-called ‘nature’ writers, hence the reference to the by then fabled Henry David Thoreau and his classic account of living and reflecting alongside Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. (Peter became, as I learned later, a life member of the Concord Thoreau Society.) Thoreau, famously, wrote that he “went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”. In many ways Peter aspired to do much the same. A laudable aim, as I saw it, but how one brings that about I’m damned if I know. In time I saw that Peter made a better fist of it than most of us, by far.

Hooper was brought up on a town supply dairy farm inland from Greymouth and had an uneasy relationship with his father who seems to have been taciturn and less than warm towards him. Life on the farm was hard and often harsh by today’s standards. He had a sister and a brother – he died tragically – and that, and his upbringing generally, shaped him in numerous ways. I hesitate to say scarred, so let’s just say it affected him deeply. Lucky are those who can confidently say they had a settled, as well as rewarding, upbringing and childhood. Does one envy such? I say Yes, and no.

Recently, prompted by reading Pat White’s touching and humanising biography Notes from the Margins: The West Coast’s Peter Hooper, I’ve realised the extent to which reading, writing and publishing has taken up the major proportion of my working life. In the mid-1970s, after I’d moved back to my hometown Dunedin, John McIndoe invited me to join the printing and publishing company that he and his brother Bill ran. John was, and still is, a remarkable, cultivated, mostly unsung patron of the arts in the south. Then came the gifted and charming Barbara Larson who, later, with associates Lynsey Ferrari, Jenny Cooper and Paula Boock, founded Longacre Press. What varied, tasteful and successful publishing they did. We, John McIndoe, Barbara and I, all had a hand in publishing Peter Hooper’s poetry and prose.

Barbara remembers Peter as a “kind man who gave a lot to his students and friends – and people in general.” She was struck by his “depth of feeling for people and places” and thought that culturally the West Coast “must have been a hard place to live in” for a man like him.

John McIndoe, bless him, virtually gave me a free hand to publish whatever and whoever we wanted; for example, historians (Erik Olssen and Steven Eldred-Grigg among them); poets aplenty including Bill Sewell, Elizabeth Smither, Cilla McQueen, Leonard Lambert, Vincent O’Sullivan and so on; fiction writers Noel Hilliard, Roderick Finlayson, Michael Henderson, O.E. Middleton, Owen Marshall… Then there were cartoonists, in particular A K Grant and Tom Scott. Grant’s I Rode with the Epigrams and Tom Scott’s Life and Times were bestsellers.

Peter Hooper’s best-known work is, or was, a trilogy of novels starting with A Song in the Forest (1979), then People of the Long Water (1985), and Time and the Forest (1986). People of the Long Water won the 1986 NZ Book Award for Fiction.

Eric Beardsley, writing in the Listener, was fulsome in his praise of A Song in the Forest, and acclaimed it was “a strikingly original New Zealand novel”, one with “an extraordinarily real and telling perspective, a magical sense of feeling for our rough islands”. He went on to say, “One of the tests of a classic… is that on re-reading it you do not see more in the book than before – you see more in yourself than before.” Another reviewer, Naylor Hillary, in The Press, said Hooper “credits his readers with… the capacity to dream.” He said the book “adds up to a major achievement in New Zealand fiction.”

Further down the Coast, at Okarito, was another, soon to be better-known writer, Keri Hulme, who was to win the Booker Prize for her novel The Bone People. Hulme reviewed both People of the Long Water and Time and the Forest in the Listener. After sitting on Time and the Forest for eight months she finally deigned to file a review. She was less than kind to the novel, panned it. Too harsh was what I and others thought. Over time Hulme’s output and contributions to NZ Lit and society generally, when compared with Hooper’s, have proven to be slight. Hulme and Hooper were chalk and cheese.

McIndoe also published other work by Hooper, including his Selected Poems, a lengthy essay Our Forests, Ourselves (he was a founding and very active member of the Native Forest Action group), and a collection of shortish fiction The Goat Paddock and other Stories. But his work these days is, overall, off the radar.

Ruminating over Beardsley’s view that Hooper conveyed “a magical sense of feeling for our rough islands” I find myself thinking that Peter would be saddened to know that we’re still governed mostly by people who won’t accept there are limits to what is termed “growth” and refuse to see what Margaret Atwood and others keep pointing out, “Nature is calling in her debt.”

From left, Margaret and David Waddington, Brian Turner, publisher Michael Harlow, and author Pat White, in Fairlie, at Saturday’s book launch of the Peter Hooper biography. Photo: Robyn McFarlane.

Or as Ronald Wright’s Massey Lectures (2002/3) – called, ironically, A Short History of Progress –  put it, “If civilisation is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital, of nature.” He went on to say that trends clearly show we’re on “the road to bankruptcy”.

It’s become clearer, as David Attenborough said some time back – and as more of us are inclined to accept – that as a species we’re “a plague upon the planet”.

In NZ we have various acts – including our RMA – which imply that just about everything we know and use, often with impunity, is a “resource”. To be specific, think trees, fish, water and so on… One can easily see why Peter Hooper admired, as I did, the work of the American ecologist Aldo Leopold who in the 1940s wrote, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” As I see it most of those who govern us, who we elect, still view the natural world as a suite of commodities. So we’re continuing, often, to defile and trash the place.

Reading Pat White’s account of Peter Hooper’s life and times made me reflect, once more, on the breadth of Hooper’s work and influence on the people lucky enough to know him. As it happened, just before I received Notes from the Margins I’d been reading some of the essays in a 1995 collection by Linda Hogan called Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World.

Hogan says we’ve a “broken connection… not only in language and myth but it also appears in our philosophies of life. There is a separation that has taken place between us and nature.”

She wrote that one Indian elder said that “there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours. We have no words for this within our language, or for even our experience of being there. Ours is a language of commerce and trade, of laws that can be bent in order that treaties might be broken, land wounded beyond healing.”

No wonder, I thought, that so much that we do and say is graceless, and that so much is uncouth and brutalised, on and off the fields of play.

Remember that Peter Hooper by 1995 – when Linda Hogan published Dwellings – had been dead four years, and may not have read anything of Hogan’s work. I read her as pointing out – as many are today – that we are, in essence, guests here for a short time between eternities, but too often behave like brutish marauders. Hooper knew that, as his writing and actions showed.

Peter listened to the – as James K. Baxter put it of Brighton and the south coast of Otago – “always talking sea”. Listened to the wind and the bird-song in the West Coast forests, to the waters rushing towards the Tasman Sea, to the breakers rattling stones, to the gulls… and it often pained him to witness the ways insensitivity and ignorance drove our behaviour towards the natural world that we shared with the people we live among.

But I didn’t see Peter as embittered, or soured in despair. He gave a great deal, often unstintingly. There were, and are, still, too few like him. Pat White’s brought him back to life. I hope considerable numbers of people will appreciate and thank him for that.

Notes from the Margins: The West Coast’s Peter Hooper by Pat White (Frontiers Press, $40) is available at Unity Books.

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