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Peter Wells. Image: Supplied.
Peter Wells. Image: Supplied.

BooksFebruary 26, 2019

Peter Northe Wells, 1950-2019

Peter Wells. Image: Supplied.
Peter Wells. Image: Supplied.

Steve Braunias farewells Peter Wells.

But really I hardly knew him. “He was a noble man,” said Suzanne Blumhardt, his eldest surviving cousin, at the funeral for author Peter Northe Wells, 1950-2019, at St Matthew-in-the-City in downtown Auckland yesterday morning; one of his closest friends, novelist Stephanie Johnson, said: “He was a born writer and unabashed in his desire for everyone to know.” Jeremy Hansen also addressed the gathering of about 300 who filled the church with its high white arches and stained glass windows bright with jammy reds, and provided a journalist’s portrait when he spoke of visiting Wells at his stately home in Napier on a winter’s day: a roaring fire failed to warm the large, cold house, and Wells, who wore a cravat, served fruit cake and poured tea from a silver pot. The final speaker was Douglas Lloyd Jenkins. He stood before us as the widower. He was very loud, almost operatic; any quieter and he would have collapsed with grief. He spoke of his love for his husband and the darkness that now awaited him. And then the body was taken out in the most amazing coffin: it was made of wicker. It looked like a basket.

There had been a lot of talk about dolls. His cousins said one of their earliest memories of him was that he played with dolls; and Owen Scott, when he read from Wells’s memoir The Long Loop Home, chose a chapter about the craving he felt as a child when he saw a doll in a store window and wanted it, wanted it, wanted it. The chapter was a meditation on desire and possession. But there are other ways to play with dolls, and I thought about that when Stephanie Johnson spoke of his sharp tongue, his gleeful character assassinations of other writers: he was fashioning them into his own personal collection of voodoo dolls, and his mocking nicknames (Instant Turn-off, etc) were long, sharp pins. He would have been wicked and hilarious, and no doubt there were some writers at the funeral who worried whether he had practised his voodoo on their ass. I didn’t wonder. I would have been the target of especially long and sharp pins. “Steve and I had a spotty past,” he said at his book launch last Monday; a few people laughed, but actually I had once sent him a horrible and upsetting email, and it caused him great unhappiness. He wrote about it in an essay for Landfall. We didn’t speak for years. I saw him one day, on the street in Napier – I was there to interview a political aspirant whose ambitions I found laughable, but I accept John Key proved I was wrong – and we walked past each other without comment.

I took a long time until I had the grace to apologise. Just because an apology is offered doesn’t mean that it will be or ought to be accepted but Wells welcomed it and was wonderfully forgiving. He mentioned it much later in an email. We were discussing the nature of apologies, the way they’re given, the way they’re received. He wrote, “You apologised to me long ago and I found it touching and it reoriented me towards you so apologies can work.” I was very grateful. For one thing, I could commission him to write things for The Spinoff Review of Books: I loved his writing, those long, byzantine sentences, the range of his brilliant mind. It was such a pleasure to publish him. His essay on an obscure little book about Katherine Mansfield was astonishing. Our relationship was purely professional but then he got ill, and we began to form, as he later described it, “an unlikely friendship”.

Peter Wells receiving the $20,000 Unity Books literary award, May 2018.

He died last Monday, exactly one week after he launched his book Hello Darkness. I said in my introductory speech, “Welcome to the launch of the book of the mortal illness. Hello Darkness is Peter Wells’s last book. He will not live to write another. But the triumph and the majesty of it is that he lived to write this, ‘that strangest of all documents’, as he has described Hello Darkness.

“We are not here simply to honour the author. It would be kind of awkward if his last book was a fizzer. We’d have to fix a smile on our face and say all the right things while inside thinking Oh my God this is so bad it’s as though it was written by Wystan Curnow.

“We are here to honour the author’s book, this strange, wise, aching, tender, sad, frank, really interesting and deeply beautiful document. Peter started writing about his illness on Facebook. It’s great that Linda Burgess has come up from Wellington to be with us today because Linda read those first posts and emailed me to suggest I publish them at The Spinoff. That email on December 6, 2018, read, ‘Peter Wells is writing very well about coping with cancer. He wrote a lovely piece this morning about deciding to drive his car. It was sort of funny and bold and touching.’

“I replied, ‘SNAP! I been thinking that since someone told me last week he had cancer and was writing about it on Facebook.’

“She replied, ‘I was that someone.’

“I replied, ‘Oh right so it was.’

“Anyway so I approached Peter and he said yes, alright, but added, ‘There’s no quality guarantee or really that it will go anywhere – where can it go?’ It went to incredible places. We published five series of Hello Darkness and they were a smash hit, they resonated, they connected.

“They were also severely edited. The accumulated posts were about 20,000 words and I cut them down to about 6000 words and I did it quickly, efficiently, really quite coldly. I edited with an eye for shape and narrative and when I was finished I thought yes that’s good to go and the whole while I was merely professional and did it without feeling. All writing changes when it’s published. Something happens to it. When each of Peter’s Hello Darkness series was published at The Spinoff I read them as though reading them for the first time and was sometimes overcome with how harrowing and dark they were. I read them open-mouthed and could hear my heart beating. They were despatches from a corridor around the corner from death. Many were written at three or four in the morning, ‘the night side of life’ as he described it.

“They were shocking to read because like all species of journalism it was being written in real time. Hello Darkness the book isn’t like that. It doesn’t have that immediacy. It has something stronger. Peter has shaped and added and amended and crafted a book and it has more depth than The Spinoff series, is more coherent, assembled, a story. He writes in Hello Darkness, ‘Sickness has became my occupation.’ This is his record of that intense career.

“He also writes, ‘I always wanted to be exceptional and this very ordinary disease now gave me my chance.’

“But the fact is that as an author Peter has always been exceptional. His perceptiveness, his rich sentences, his shamelessness are just some of the virtues throughout his writing life and they all make their way towards the exit that is Hello Darkness. It was such a pleasure to publish him at The Spinoff and also to form a friendship with him.

“This is an occasion that I’ll always remember, and treasure, and I suspect that will be true of everyone who is here today to celebrate a literary artist’s farewell note.”

Peter Wells. Image: Supplied.

Actually I resiled from reading out that last paragraph. I’d already laid it on a bit thick that he was on death’s door, that he was on the way out, someone call an ambulance – yes, what a grand way to introduce an author. Peter arrived in a wheelchair. He was attended by a very good-looking caregiver. Pale, tender, small, he clearly didn’t have long to go but he was in terrific spirits and maintained his life-long stylish appearance in a polka-dot shirt and a neat little hat. He made a fine speech and there was a long queue of customers at his book signing. He went out on a high. It really was an occasion to remember.

But I failed him. As a novelist, a historian, and a memoirist, one of his great strengths was that he brought people alive – he imagined the past, made it vivid and thrilling, and he invested himself in the lives of the living. I knew something about the writer but too little about the man and my speech – and this form of obituary, too – failed to bring him alive. I was a stranger at the funeral. I studied the photographs of him that screened at the front of the church. The boy who played with dolls in Pt Chevalier, the young man staring out at the world with a direct gaze, the established author who got more and more handsome with age – Douglas had described him as “contained”, and Peter wrote to me in an email last May, “I am a bit of a disappointment in person – i tend to be quiet and withdrawn.” It was all there in his writing. His cousin had remarked Peter’s life was “well documented”; the closest and most avid documenting was performed by Peter. He laid everything out, inspected his motives and weaknesses, his erotic fevers and his frail mortality, in the 2001 memoir The Long Loop Home, in his 2018 family history Dear Oliver, in Hello Darkness.

Publishing is always a kind of dance between writer and editor. In journalism, it’s mostly short and vaguely sweet. Publishing the five instalments of Hello Darkness at The Spinoff was a long, slow, trusting, gentle, nevertheless sometimes clumsy and accident-prone duet that went on for six months. I wrote to him on December 6, “This is your story, and your life, and I want you to know everything that is happening with it at The Spinoff. Please step in and request changes to things at any point.” It was important to get it right. He was writing something special. It was a privilege and a thrill to have a part in it and we exchanged a multitude of emails. We finally met in June. He wanted to talk about turning Hello Darkness into a book.

We met at the Cordis Hotel for Lapsang souchong tea and sweets. I talked too much; I was excited and a bit overwhelmed to meet him, we had gone through the Hello Darkness series together, its intimate record of his long night of the soul, and had come out the other side – he wrote in March that chemo had shrunk his tumours in half, he was on the road to recovery. I said it would make an excellent book, a work of art, and gave him advice on how to go about self-publishing it. I also introduced him to my niece Katrina Duncan, likely the country’s best production editor, and she brought in Keely O’Shannessy, likely the country’s best cover designer. He got to work. He was on the road to life and love and happiness. He wrote in July, “Oh and by the way Douglas and I are getting married in December. I proposed on Saturday night, ate oysters and ended up vomiting the night away. Not exactly auspicious but after 27 years I guess we can assume some good luck lies ahead…It’s interesting where life takes you.”

He wrote a week later, “Steve, I’ve ended up in hospital again – unexpectedly.”

And on August 18, “I’m on amazing amounts of morphine so the pain is very distant.”

He finished the book. Together with Katrina and Keely, he made a work of art. He got married. He wrote on December 11, “The wedding was extraordinary – we used the old Anglican words and in the light of my health they became very moving.”

And on January 11, “I’m comfortable in hospital having every painkiller known to man. First time I’ve not been in pain for six months. So not too bad – apart from the death sentence.”

He was going to launch the book in March. He needed to bring it forward. He was cutting it fine. We exchanged emails about my speech and I suggested I bring up the past. He replied on January 27, “Please don’t talk about how we didn’t get on. That is a distant flyspeck on the windscreen. It’s great we can be companionable now.” The email ended, “I find it hard to accept I will peg out but I am afraid I don’t have a choice here.”

He was in hospital for 11 days. It just about killed him – the infections, and the stress of lying next to a homophobic patient who called him “a fucken cunt”. He wrote on February 4, “How are you? Thank you for our unlikely friendship. It turned out well. You’ve been really kind to me. We’re such different people it makes it special – this, whatever it is we have.” He had a blood transfusion the day before he had another launch of the book, at the Same Same But Different LGBTQI Writers Festival which he helped to create. His health was all over the place, sometimes good, sometimes extremely fragile.

The launch at Unity Books was due on Monday, February 11. He wrote on February 10, “Hi there Steve, how are things? I’m feeling invigorated by my launch yesterday at same same. It was pretty astonishing – emotional and for an old wreck like me touching.

“Amazing we have got this far – the book in the shops – a launch. So much is owed to our cup of tea at that hotel which encouraged me along. Ours is a late friendship, a surprising turn but I value the proximity at a late hour. A lot.”

We barely spoke at the Unity launch. He wrote on Tuesday, February 12, “I could kick myself for not saying goodbye to you yesterday evening.” But I had been too afraid, too nervous, too remote to say goodbye. He asked me to send him a copy of my speech: “I want to wallow. I would love to read your words as I was too tense to really hear and appreciate. I thought you were making up words they were so splendid.”

The email ended, “I have decided to live as long as possible.”

He wrote on Wednesday, February 13, “Thanks Steve for the words. Wonderful. I’m back mid-week next week so will get in touch. My bed is made at the Hospice and it’s time to hop back in.”

He didn’t write again.

Hello Darkness by Peter Wells (Mighty Ajax Press, $40) is available at Unity Books.

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