All week this week we look at the life and writing of Greymouth novelist and poet Peter Hooper (1919-91). Today: a West Coast memoir by Steve Braunias.
I was only passing through the West Coast, lived in Greymouth for not much more than a year, packed a picnic lunch and a copy of the newly published the bone people when I tended a few dope plants most summer weekends in the beech tree forest above town, drank at the Golden Eagle, met girls, reported on crime, joined the film society, looked at the caryards on dead Sunday afternoons with my coalminer flatmate, gave the secret knock on the locked door of the Railway Hotel pub to get in on Sunday nights, entertained thoughts of living there forever and ever – there was a magic night going to see three punk bands playing at Lake Brunner beneath a full moon, a girl said come back to my place, I said where d’you live, she said next to the graveyard in Cobden. Greymouth smelled of coal. It lay in open carriages on the tracks by the river; the scent was like a light incense by day, heavy and intoxicating at night. The wind they called the Barber came up the Grey River and sliced through bone. I hung out at the coolest place in town, the Bonzai Pizzeria. Marcel and Tony ran it, were loose dudes from Holland. The chief reporter at the Greymouth Evening Star really was called Kit Carson. The editor, Frank Neate, never referred to the newsroom; he called it “the literary office”. I loved that. I loved everything about Greymouth – the dry heat of summer, the whitebait sandwiches at the ABC Tearooms, the river that flooded one night and a guy canoed into the Eagle and ordered a beer at the bar. Why did I ever leave?
I said to Peter Hooper, “Why did you stay?” He was born and bred, 65 or 66 when I met him, a shy old man in a cardigan and a tie who came to the film society screenings at Greymouth High School. He had taught there, also at Westland High, where he was deputy principal. We screened Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God starring Klaus Kinski going mad up the Amazon River. I programmed the films; that one seemed like a good choice to play in Greymouth. Madness surrounded the town. Great crowds would gather at the river bar when the sea was up to watch fishing boats rise and lift and, somehow, survive. But the deeper strain of madness was in the hills, in the bush. I once spent a weekend at the Greymouth Evening Star offices reading the 1941 reports of Stan Graham on the loose with his rifle. A killer who got killed: it was violent and spectacular, but the usual, everyday madness of the Coast was hidden, buried, gothic. It felt like the loneliest place on Earth. And there was Peter Hooper, who lived alone on a lonely spot at Paroa, south of Greymouth.
I got to know him. I had already heard about him. He was an author. He had published a novel in 1979, A Song in the Forest, set on the Coast after some nameless apocalypse; he imagined a tribe, a kind of pagan, mystical people, who worshipped the earth. I got out a copy from the Greymouth public library. It was profound and exciting, and like nothing else published here; it wasn’t social realism, it wasn’t the lusts and anxieties of the middle-classes, it was a pure imaginative fantasy. Plus we all worried back then about the threat of nuclear annihilation, about fire and the midnight clock, and A Song in the Forest felt topical. It won an award for best first novel and one of the judges, Ian Wedde, described it as “kidult”. He meant well – the main characters are teenagers, and it could easily be thought of as YA fiction – but the comment “irked” Peter, as Pat White mentions in his excellent new biography, Notes from the Margins: The West Coast’s Peter Hooper. I can easily imagine it. He was on good terms with irk. He was an anxious fellow, a fusspot, quick with a sour opinion, and much irked him; it made him aggravating company, sometimes an annoying drag, but that was only one side of his nature. He was funny. He was a sensitive listener. He was generous and kind, a man of simple tastes, perhaps not altogether unfamiliar with self-loathing. He was self-conscious. He didn’t seem comfortable in his own skin. He wasn’t particularly a contradictory person but I liked the contradiction in this portrait of Hooper by one of his former students, quoted in White’s biography: “The geeky old-fashioned suits, the stiff gait, the effeminate limp wrists, the long flap of hair combed over his bald patch, the pasty skin, the gaping nostrils and very bad breath…Despite his appearance, Peter commanded respect. He had a kind of fearless authenticity.”
I went for dinner at his house, interviewed him for the paper. Pat White writes of Peter preparing basic meals – white bread and jam, cold cuts with potatoes and greens, a lamb chop stew. The property was beautiful, with an enormous patch of foxgloves. And that was his lot: no partner, no kids: “How many nights,” writes White, “did he sit to read or write, with his only company the sound of rain on the corrugated iron roof, or the Tasman sea thumping onto the beach?” Elsewhere, he describes him thus: “Always the spectator.”
I assumed he was gay. White had access to his private papers, and found a note that read: “the agony of my love for John”. But actually there were heartbreaking, unrequited romances with two women, as White reveals – Louise Mansfield, a red-haired art teacher, and Muriel Firth, one of 56 victims killed in the 1985 disaster of the Bradford City football stadium fire. As for Louise, the last time he saw her was on the steps of Revington’s. Revington’s! Finest hotel in all of Greymouth, a great big stately booze barn, with a fire in the grate and good, hot meals on the menu… Love in a cold climate, the lonely nights and the lonely nights and the lonely nights. And every visit to town, the sight of Revington’s, where love lay bleeding. A student told White that Hooper once tore out his heart in class, and said to the astonished kids: “Have any of you ever loved and lost?” There was a shocked silence. And then Hooper said, bitterly, “I have.”
White points out that Hooper made a lot of friends, including ex-students such as poet Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. There was also former Listener journalist David Young. White tells of a fantastic book launch staged by Young at some kind of urban commune; Hooper was there, “always the spectator” perhaps, but there nonetheless, along with writer Gary Langford, and hippies playing folk music and bluegrass and showtunes from Hair, and there was plenty to drink. It went till 4am. Now that’s what I call a book launch. But it all comes back to loneliness, to the farewell and the return home to the foxgloves and the jam sandwiches. Loneliness was his condition: as a schoolboy, Hooper’s mother instructed the teacher to forbid boys from playing with him, for fear he might be hurt. He never took friends home. He lived on a damp remote farm in Coal Creek. A glimpse is provided in his book Shade of the Mugumo Tree: “When I was 16 and my mother became pregnant with my sister, my parents decided that somehow they had to find the money ‘to put the power on’. For most of our schooling my brother and I had done our nightly homework in a yellow pool of lamplight. Water had to be carried into the kitchen from an outside tap.” Elsewhere, he wrote of life back then: “A dour dogged plugging away, year in year out.” And then all the lonely nights, and the end was no different: when he died, in 1991, it may have been as long as 10 days before his body was discovered. “His final struggle (probably from another stroke)”, writes White, “had left him out of sight under the bed.”
Well, was it another stroke, or not? What was the cause of death? Was it 10 days before the body was discovered or more, or less? White’s book is somewhat lacking in specificities. There is no index, no footnotes. This is no academic work; White’s Life is no triumph of scholarship. Neither is it an accounting for every minute of every day, a practice which has become standard in the official New Zealand literary biography, and which is guaranteed to make you want to pull your teeth out in an effort to match or overwhelm the agony of reading. White’s book is a warm and gentle biography. He was another of Hooper’s ex-students who became, and remained, friends. The book itself is a kind of gesture of friendship, and partly operates as an attempt to revive interest or respect in Hooper’s work as an author. But White is no literary naïf. He’s a graduate of the blessed IIML. There’s a lot of skill in this telling of Hooper’s life and work, a lot of researching and ordering. More than that though it deals in common sense and plain speaking, and it may be patronising, possibly even entirely beside the point to mention that White lives in Fairlie, that flat, bare town in the tussock of the Mackenzie district, but I mention it because that’s the kind of place his biography is coming from: straightforward, quietly creative, no airs or graces. White achieves something that a massively footnoted academic tome sometimes can’t: he brings his subject to life. Even though White is pretty hopeless at discussing Hooper’s sexuality and whether or not he was gay, and ends up just sort of shrugging, he provides an intimate portrait.
So why did Hooper stay? Why not just up and leave? It wasn’t like he had the pram in the hall. But actually you could say he was the pram in the hall, never budging: his parents asked him to remain on the Coast, to help look after them. They both ended up at the dementia unit in the asylum at Seaview. Amazing place, Seaview; the abandoned mental hospital is next to a graveyard, up a winding road above the deserted shore. Imagine the faithful son, that nervous bachelor, visiting his gaga olds after a hard day’s teaching: the horror of it.
But if it was the main reason he stayed it wasn’t the only reason, and nor was his decision to stay some sort of awful endurance test, a misery without end. He loved the place. He loved the Coast. It brought him happiness. It filled him with awe and wonder, with ideas and possibilities. White is very good on A Song in the Forest, and what Hooper wanted to achieve with it. He quotes Hooper: “It answers for me a conscious need to feel in the Coast landscape a human involvement over a much longer period than one life, to sense a mythological character in these dark forests. When I drive to Christchurch now I can see the places where [the book’s principal characters] Tama and Rua camped, the ridges where they fled from their pursuers, the gorge where they were almost drowned by a flash flood, the shingle river-flats of the Waimak where they were terrified by wild cattle, the tussock hills of Cashmere above the ruins of Christchurch.”
The comments were made in a letter to Brian Turner, his editor at John McIndoe in Dunedin. Later, thinking aloud in notes to himself as he prepared to expand A Song in the Forest into a trilogy [the second novel won the 1986 national book award for fiction], Hooper remarked, “If the book had one dominant impulse, it was to mythologise the forests of Westland and the landscape of Canterbury.” He got it down, and got it right. The setting is everything in A Song on the Forest; Hooper poured his heart and his life into its composition, and left it behind as a timeless document. It’s a true classic, that book, it can be read now with as much pleasure as then.
Hooper had a rare and brittle genius. I was fascinated by him when I lived in Greymouth, the way he had made his life there, with his books and his garden and his thoughts and his dying parents. I thought: could I do that? Could I see it out? But I really just wanted to drink at the Eagle and kiss girls, all the better if they were at the Eagle. I was 24 or 25, and I feared loneliness. I was haunted by it. It cut closer to the bone than the Barber. I would have slept with the girl from Cobden if she’d said she lived in the graveyard. It was my urging that got my flatmate Vern to go out with me and look at the caryards on Sundays. He was just as happy listening to the radio in his room. He liked his rest; he worked long hours in the mines. “Let’s look at the cars, Vern!”: cars didn’t interest me in the least, I couldn’t even drive. The ache of those long dead Sunday afternoons – “silent and grey, in the coastal town they forgot to close down”: Morrissey wuz there – felt like something worse than boredom. It felt like terror. I wasn’t up to the Coast and its rain and its space and its dim, dark light; I beat it in the end, and leaving felt like a defeat, a failure of the imagination.
I envied Hooper for his staying power, his dedication, his art. He was a romantic ideal, heroic, the outsider beavering away in the wops, hooked up to something primal, the real, authentic New Zealand – A Song in the Forest is like Taika Waititi’s Boy, like Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s The Scarecrow, like Hotere’s black surfaces, like mad Frame or reclusive Hulme, like Washday at the Pa by Ans Westra, or like Silent Land, Les Cleveland’s great book of photographs from the West Coast. An essence of people and land is at stake in all of these works and all were made or set in the sticks. It doesn’t pay to be too doctrinaire about this. The regions are riddled with second-rate talent. Great art can be made anywhere. It even comes out of Kelburn. The day is perhaps coming when the only New Zealand books come out of Kelburn, rolling off the smooth factory floors of the IIML and VUP. Creative writing courses are the new orthodoxy. For a long time now the view is that provincial or regional writing is somehow second-rate, that it’s not up with the play; it’s missed too many tutorials. But the truth is out there! Outside the four main centres, away from the suburbs, occupying some unlikely or obscure territory on coasts and plains – Hicks Bay, Tangimoana, Winton, Collingwood… These and other, even smaller towns featured in Civilisation, my contribution to the rural-gothic genre. One of the towns I went to was Greymouth. The perfume of coal, the ABC Tearooms, the treacherous river bar – everything was still in place, also the loneliness and madness. Once again, as ever, I was just passing through, on assignment, a visitor. I thought about Hooper, long dead, long forgotten, too, by the literary establishment. It never really welcomed him. He didn’t belong to the academy. He was a backwoods mystic listening to the thump of the Tasman Sea – it was his Walden pond, he revered Thoreau. Peter Hooper – alone, maybe slightly crazy, certainly brave – lived his art.
He once sent me a copy of Saturday Afternoons, a collection of stories and poems by West Coast writers. It has two poems of his own. “Old Man in a Garden” ends
Above the rain-drenched garden
pine tapers hold the morning sun.
I feel that I could live forever.
Notes from the Margins: The West Coast’s Peter Hooper by Pat White (Frontiers Press, $40) is available from Unity Books.
Read the rest of our week-long series on Peter Hooper here.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.