The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk
Random House, $50.00,
I was 10 when Norman Kirk died. It was the first death I had ever registered. When the news came through, my parents became so silent (our house was never silent) that I remember it 40 years on: the radio and an absence. My memory also contains a physical location. It is the staircase between the living-room and our bedrooms. I am sitting on it, looking down, and my parents are below me at the big table. It is a photo in my head. An external sense, as if someone else was there to describe it, of me waiting for them to make sense of it all, as parents always do. But they can’t. I tell that story now because Norman Kirk’s death often seems to occasion the sharp remembrance of a closer loss, even in people who never met him. Mine is an almost story book recollection that I carry with me.
Most New Zealanders, David Grant tells us in The Mighty Totara, “learned of Kirk’s death when the news hit the radio on Sunday morning.” Grant himself was “eating breakfast with two friends in a Taupo cafe. Time stood still for a moment. An eerie silence descended over the premises; as the radio crackled with the news, everybody suddenly stopped what they were doing.” The nicer detail, piercing through the common experience (as a biography such as this must do), comes in the preceding paragraph. Hugo Manson was on the early shift on National Radio. He took calls all night,“off-air”, from listeners wanting to share their grief, and he remembers the producers removing “inappropriate” music from the show.
Lovely. Norman Kirk changed the music on National Radio. But in the New Zealand of 1974, even the prime minister’s sudden and premature death wasn’t enough to encourage anyone to put the grieving callers on air. Perhaps, and this is my extrapolation not the author’s, that small detail, the music being changed, the grieving public who remained “off-air”, helps to explain Norman Kirk’s appeal. As Grant says in his preface, when Kirk became prime minister in 1972, “the country was a conservative, conformist, economically fragile, politically dependent, culturally insecure and ill-defined outpost of the Commonwealth.” The conformity and cultural insecurity are apposite. Keep the callers off-air in case they say something not quite right. Norman Kirk, on the other hand, believed in a New Zealand voice.
Grant’s admiration for the Labour prime minister is immense. He is not alone in this. His description of Keith Holyoake’s response to Kirk’s death is genuinely moving (“unsteady on his feet and with tears in his eyes, whispering words as he twice touched the coffin”), and Holyoake, of course, had recently been Kirk’s foremost political opponent. Grant’s admiration isn’t whispered. And it’s frequently coloured by the apparent similarity of Grant’s own political allegiances: “Kirk’s belief in social justice extended to all developing countries where social inequality was exacerbated by huge gaps between a wealthy elite and the indigent (and often starving) masses”; “His humanitarianism was universal”; “He was brave”. And so on, at some considerable length.
My sense, a guess, no more than that, is that Grant writes quickly. Parts of the book read like a verbal commentary, almost as if a radio interview with him had been transcribed. This is only a minor criticism. And it certainly doesn’t alter the weight of the book’s passionate learning. But I would have relished somewhat more literary care. Less repetition. Fewer tossed adjectives. More assiduous labour with the words themselves. Sometimes the sense of fingers typing, typing, typing (so much knowledge and admiration to impart), rendered me almost breathless. A tougher editor might have helped. The odd intervention to stem the rush.
But, and this is important, Grant is persuasive in his view that Kirk deserves his (and our) admiration. His leadership in sending two frigates to oppose French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll (“We are a small nation, but we will not abjectly surrender to injustice”), and his decision to have the 1973 tour of New Zealand by the Springboks “postponed”, despite strong public support for it going ahead (“I would be failing in my duty if I did not accept the criticism and do what I believed to be right”), are only the two most obvious examples of Kirk’s “moral force”. And here’s an interesting thing: I now want to do what only two paragraphs ago I held against David Grant: I want to suggest this brave “moral force” contrasts sharply with New Zealand’s current expediency and acquiescence as a global citizen.
Which is not to say Kirk was without fault. Grant identifies his “social conservatism” as leading him to hold positions that were “less and less tenable” on abortion and homosexual law reform. Kirk showed no great leadership there. Does that mean his humanitarianism was less than “universal”? There are other failings. Kirk’s economic stewardship was defined, and limited, by his commitment to Labour’s “treasured” 1972 election manifesto: the Red Book. By 1974, it was quixotic to adhere to it as singularly as Kirk was determined to do. But a promise had been given. Grant details tension between Kirk and Bill Rowling on this score: “The worse Kirk’s health became, the more irascible his mood and his stubborn resistance to Rowling’s economic panacea grew”. Later, Grant tells us: “Kirk believed the social agenda needed to be maintained irrespective of the cost.” The “cost” may have been the subsequent economic management of Rob Muldoon. Then Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson after that. Grant doesn’t spare Kirk these things. His admiration is not entirely one-eyed. But, to force an analogy based on the title of the book, the totara remains mighty, even if the author concedes a few branches weren’t all they might have been.
Beyond reminding us of a time when New Zealand’s foreign policy (“It is the responsibility of a small nation like ours to act as a voice of conscience”) wasn’t determined by a fealty to the nearest Free Trade Agreement, Grant’s biography contains another substantial gift: a flesh-and-blood sense of the man himself. Perhaps inevitably, Grant’s insights into the personal life of the man who was only prime minister “for one year, eight months and 23 days”, walk a precarious line between the known and one-dimensional clichés of political mythology (“Kirk’s life was a New Zealand version of a presidential ‘log cabin’ story in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln. He had to pull himself up with his own bootstraps”) and something more illuminating. The “son of an often unemployed cabinet-maker” was a “loner”, and even at
the height of his power, Kirk harboured doubts about his own worth, a combination of the distant relationship he had with his mother and his lack of formal education. He had to prove that he was worthy of being wanted, loved. He had to press on.
Those fine and restrained sentences get to the heart of Grant’s admiration for the boy from a family so poor his “clothes became rags” and they “ate two-day-old stale bread because it was a penny cheaper at the Linwood bakery”. Not only did Kirk have to overcome his family’s “grim life”, he had to transcend his own uncertainty. Did he belong here? Grant’s answer, emphatic, heartfelt and fair, is that he did.
Grant’s ambition for his biography of Kirk is perhaps best defined at its conclusion. “The essence of a democracy,” Grant tells us,
is that there is a place for an individual even in the highest office of state if he or she has the ability to do the job, no matter his or her background. Kirk’s remarkable career emphasises the truth of that belief.
It did. Curiously, the early life of New Zealand’s current prime minister (a “state house” boy from working-class Christchurch) is often framed in a similar narrative. But, implicit throughout Grant’s biography is a (sometimes almost melancholic) sense that New Zealand is different now. That something, and not just Norman Kirk himself, has been lost. Grant concludes: “in those days life was simpler, there was less poverty of spirit, less instability in family background, and less blurring of moral values.” Perhaps. But women struggled to transcend the limitations of traditional gender roles, sex between consenting adult males was illegal, and our abortion laws drove desperate women to Australia or to the danger, indignity and humiliation of back-street abortionists.
Sometimes, David Grant tries too hard to force a complex and contradictory narrative around the frame of Big Norm. But, and I’m grateful for this, my sense of Kirk is now rich and vivid. Since I’ve read this book, I almost feel as if I met him. I didn’t, of course. But I can see him and hear him, and I understand the will and dreams that drove him on. The absence I began with now has a man at its centre. Not a totara, but something more interesting and human than that: Norman Kirk.
John Campbell is a journalist and fronts TV3’s Campbell Live.