Greens-adjacent writer Anissa Ljanta on A Gentle Radical: The Life of Jeanette Fitzsimons, by Gareth Hughes.
I’m wary of biographies. I love a good one, but my ADHD brain has no patience to crawl through pages of dry eulogy. Thankfully, Gareth Hughes’ A Gentle Radical is no ploddy personal saga.
The story of his friend and mentor Jeanette Fitzsimons’ life and work features dollops of parliamentary dysfunction, an epic love story and a supporting cast of quirky and dastardly characters. There are comedic interludes, glimpses into the inner machinations behind historical moments and a dash of scandal – albeit with more compost toilets and lentils than the usual Hollywood offering.
It’s a special sort of terror to read work friends have laboured over (let alone go public with your thoughts about it). All I’d ever known Gareth to write was policy and parliament-speak – it seemed audacious to pitch a book on a topic and a person so close to his heart. But I also knew damn well he spent a year poring over everything Jeanette ever wrote or spoke before his fingers even touched the keyboard, and I’m relieved to report the end result more than does justice to his subject.
Jeanette was ahead of most of us in living her values and envisioning a sustainable future, and that can be a lonely thing. She was setting up recycling bins at the World Council of Churches in Geneva the year I was born, and stepped into politics at a time when it was populated by men doggedly maintaining the status quo. A Gentle Radical helped fill in the gaps of the historic moments I’d missed in the many pre-internet years I’d lived abroad, and gave an up-close view of parliamentary processes, quirks and rituals.
Who knew that New Zealand’s third Labour government funded the creation of rural communities, essentially paying longhaired lentil-lovers to start communes? Or that Piha, Karekare and Te Henga / Bethells Beach communities on Tāmaki Makaurau’s wild west coast were put forward as sites for a nuclear power plant? That our country may have had a role in the suffering of millions of people in the Vietnam War by manufacturing the vital Agent Orange ingredient 2,4,5T in Taranaki? Or that Jeanette and husband Harry Parke were such champions of conserving energy and sharing resources that they had a double wedding? I didn’t. Bless their homespun socks.
I’d heard the story of the first time Jeanette and Harry met, as part of a group walking the Tongariro Crossing. It was the stuff of legend in green circles. He was a professional shearer who had taken feminist studies at university. She was cultured in that well-travelled, classical music-educated, policy-head sort of way. Who would have thought. When I wandered into the Green Party’s slipstream on my return to Aotearoa in 2005 my impression was all feijoa wine, internal bicker and limited external bite. I’m glad Jeanette had the astute rock of Harry to anchor her dreams on through the Greens’ inevitable teenage growing pains.
My favourite Harry story is from our first meeting. I had gone out the back for some fresh air and quiet at an Environment and Conservation Organisations of Aotearoa (ECO) annual conference and found a ruggedly stoic man had done the same. Sucking on a cigarette, the pack folded into the sleeve of his shirt, James Dean style, he stuck out like a sore thumb, albeit a green one. What followed was the best conversation I had all weekend: Harry bemoaning the lack of meat on the menu, displaying an uncanny ability to take accurate measure of people and delivering a stunning analysis on the unfolding political drama of the day. Jeanette and Harry were clearly a good match.
Jeanette was a vital force for good, a complex and brilliant woman of vision, intellect and passion. Her passing left an unfillable void. Some people are like that. It is still unthinkable that she was cheated of her twilight years playing violin on the banks of her beloved Kauaeranga river, chainsawing firewood, working her magic in meetings, selling chestnuts at Thames Market on chilly Saturday mornings.
Yet her legacy is alive in many thousands of us, whether we knew her personally or not. She challenged what we consider powerful, called us to science-based and community-led solutions, gave us faith that a more sustainable world is possible.
Keeping a tally of all the wins, initiatives and policies Jeanette had a hand in is a dizzying endeavour. It was a relief, in a way, to read that she too suffered from the occasional wobble. I’m still chortling and cringing at the recounting of her first question time at parliament, when she blurted out: “Supplementary speaker, Mr Question!” I can just imagine how mortified she must have been.
We follow Jeanette’s transition from fledgling to seasoned politician, from hopeful to despondent and back again. The constant threads of her political life are always clear: integrity, her love of policy work and a deep-rooted commitment to a better world for us all. It had to have hurt to be so firmly confident in the ingredients and policies needed to ensure a sustainable future (or any future), to finally have a voice in the Beehive, and then… To quote Jeanette: “here we are, spinning our collective wheels, the widening equity divide and environmental damage mounting.”
Parliament is a taxing mistress. Having been in the Beehive himself for almost 10 years, Gareth describes a “never-ending stream of meetings and trying to stay afloat, swimming in a sea of paper.” I’m not sure a neutral party (pardon the pun) would have been able to bring the book’s parliamentary scenes to life the way he has done. It takes a special sort of person to hold their integrity intact through years of that incessant babble of work, fielding snide remarks in the hallways, wading through all that toxic politicking. It took its toll on Gareth and I heard through mutual friends and colleagues of the weight Jeanette carried, especially after her co-leader and friend Rod Donald died and she was left navigating the intense grief of his loss while bearing the full brunt of party leadership right when she had planned to announce her retirement.
National MP Nick Smith once said (in session no less), “Jeanette’s so polite – even when she’s throwing her toys out of the cot.” He meant it as an insult, but that integrity, rising above the bullying rabble, was one of her enduring strengths.
In my work as a celebrant I’ve seen how overly rose-tinted accounts of people’s lives can land uncomfortably. People listen to these Pollyanna remembrances and feel cheated somehow. It’s the same with biographies. Gareth hasn’t shied away from the tender parts of Jeanette’s story, or what tripped her up. He could easily have cherry-picked the choice morsels and slathered icing over the wobbly bits, but instead we get the whole wonderful person.
I often hear people contemplating the end of life and legacies in my work. A woman in her last weeks of life said to me recently that she was comforted by the knowledge she would leave the world better than she’d found it. Jeanette did too. It’s not a bad life goal.