Hidden Places: a memoir in journalism
Hodder and Stoughton, 1992, $27.95
Rachel Lawson reviews Michael King’s new book and discusses his work with him.
Michael King has established his reputation through exploring what it means to be a New Zealander. He has written and edited numerous historical and biographical accounts of New Zealand places, people and culture, both Maori and Pakeha. Hidden Places – his 24th book – continues the more personal analysis which he began in Being Pakeha, this time through a collection of articles, interviews, reviews and editorials. This ‘memoir through journalism’ is an unusual but effective format, in which King charts his life and influences against a changing New Zealand society. This is Michael King seen through his work, and New Zealand seen through Michael King – the one illuminating the other.
Michael King: The memoir format was really a way of giving what could otherwise be a collection of fragments some sort of coherence … a book can never just be a collection of separate pieces, it has to feel like a whole as well, and this was one way to do, that.
The first chapter ‘Growing Up’ and the epilogue ‘Arrivals and Departures’ provide a context for the articles. King traces his career and interests back to a Catholic upbringing, immersed in books, strongly attached to the land and the history of the local environment: ‘we are products of our pasts and we are linked to continuities that come to us from our histories. Hence the importance of retaining our worthwhile traditions and of making them comprehensible and relevant to a continuously changing world’ (‘Epilogue’). Other chapters focus on these interests – writing, the land, the history – through the lens of New Zealand culture and people.
We are all to some extent an amalgam of things and people that we’ve met and associated with and admired – in some cases not admired … I don’t really know what we are in ourselves. Strip away all the layers of the onion and what’s left? There may be nothing there, but it’s those layers of the onion, which include the contribution that other people make to our lives and the way we select and assimilate those things, that make us what we are.
The accounts of ‘cultural encounter’ are some of the most interesting and powerful pieces in Hidden Places. Through sensitive observation of place and people, King enlivens a vibrant and spiritual Maori world. He shares his experience as a Pakeha touched by discovery, but also fundamental human recognition, of the Maori way. ‘Maori Images’, a piece on the first photographs of Maori, is a metaphor for a number of the historical issues explored in the book. It was thought that a photograph could take mauri – and therefore life – from the living, but then had the power to preserve that life even after death. This bond between the living and the dead links its to our pasts and inspires us to record our histories. History is, however, altered by the perspective of the historian. Thus, the earliest photos of Maori became culturally loaded statements. They were set pieces, created by a Pakeha photographer, who therefore cast a permanent shadow on the photograph and the story it told.
The book also contains profiles of an array of significant New Zealand figures and leaders in the Maori community. The portraits of writers in particular focus on distinctly New Zealand themes: Frank Sargeson is ‘the first major New Zealand writer to stay at home’; James K Baxter asserts ‘the Maori is the elder brother, the Pakeha the younger brother’; and Dan Davin retreats to England because New Zealand is ‘absurdly negligent of its own creative people’.
I suppose the pieces I really enjoy doing most are the profiles. I like writing about people, I like trying to make people intelligible, trying to evoke their manners and mannerisms.
Some pieces date back to the mid 70s, and sonic raise conflicts which are now resolved – such as King’s role as Pakeha recorder of Maori history. The articles remain interesting, however, because they document major events which are part of every New Zealander’s past, and they are presented in context. ‘France on Trial’ conveys the tension of the Rainbow Warrior trial at the time, and remains interesting despite subsequent developments.
They do all represent the perspective at the time at which they were written, and I think that’s part of their interest. There’s a piece there on the 1981 Springbok tour that was written at the height of the tour, and to take it away and redo it and to make it more reflective and more considered would be to write a different kind of piece altogether … It professes to be an attempt at instant perspective at the time, and that will never be the same as something that’s reflective.
Hidden Places contains skilful work in a range of fields, reflecting King’s refusal to be confined to any one occupation. Journalist, author, historian, or academic: ‘a writer is a writer is a writer’, and the task of all is to piece together life’s events into a meaningful pattern. It is perhaps the variety of his work which has enabled King to become relatively secure in the usually unstable ‘profession’ of freelancer.
I think anyone who’s interested in writing probably wants to have a go at everything at some stage – you have a go at poetry, you have a go at fiction, but eventually, you settle on what seems to be your strength and what gives you most satisfaction … One of the attractions to a freelancer like me was a life where I could set my own goals, choose my own projects. There are the risks and there are the uncertainties, and there’s certainly a pendulum swing about things like income … but I love what I’m doing, I love writing, I feel very privileged to be able to do it, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
The collection format perhaps inevitably bears the defects of its virtues. Each article is linked by a reference to its influence on King or his place at the time, but they are nevertheless different in tone and purpose. A travel guide for the Reader’s Digest, obituaries. editorials, and anecdotes don’t always sit comfortably side by side. The extremely personal and reflective epilogue is also an abrupt change in tone from much of the book, particularly the brisk and often cutting book reviews which directly precede it.
I would question the inclusion of some articles which have only passing reference to the themes which hold the book together. The interview with Patrick White, for example, is certainly interesting, but tells us little about either New Zealand or Michael King. Some of the book reviews also fit less comfortably into the overall structure. They have been included because they place the books in a larger New Zealand context, but book reviews are ephemeral by nature and perhaps lose relevance after a time. Does a review of Marilyn Duckworth’s Disorderly Conduct, for example, deserve to be preserved, simply because it is set against the background of the 1981 Springbok Tour?
When you’ve written hundreds of reviews over a long period of time it’s very hard to make a decision about which ones are worth republishing. What I wanted to do was just to come up with a selection that was representative of the kinds of books that have been published in the time I’ve been reviewing, books that raised issues which were of continuing interest, and reviews which could also be to some extent models for people with an interest in journalism who would read the book.
Michael King is well known for his exploration of unfamiliar territory and for breaking new ground. As a collection of previously published articles, Hidden Places may disappoint those who are looking for new revelations. But for most New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha, there is much in the book to move, amuse, and learn from, as we share in the self-exploration of a deep-thinking New Zealander, seeking to understand himself in his place and time.
Rachel Lawson has a degree in English Literature from the University of Otago, and lives in Wellington.