The historian’s story, Brian Turner

Looking for the Phoenix – A Memoir
W H Oliver
Bridget Williams Books, $39.95,
ISBN 1877242985

When W H (Bill) Oliver says that, by and large, New Zealand’s been a “good place” for him, one senses that at times he’s had to work hard to persuade himself that this is so. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the fact that most of his life has been lived in and around academia. What that means, often, for scholars, is that they find New Zealand too small a tributary and have a yen to slide into the mainstream and fight it out with bigger fish in more powerful currents. But this overlooks the fact that some of the better and bigger fish are often found in the healthier, smaller streams.

There’s a hint of Oliver’s anxieties in his title, Looking for the Phoenix. Curious, for he’s long looked like a splendid intellectual bird in our habitat. Sure, quizzical at times, wry often, flittery and a tad equivocal, but he’s chirruped and chackled, too, to good and mildly acerbic effect for decades. From the time he entered university nearly 60 years ago, Oliver has written variously, and pointedly, on social and political issues especially. Unlike many academics, he has entered the public arena fairly often in an effort to encourage more intelligent discourse.


Phoenix is an exploration of his personal history and the history he has written – how the two merge and diverge. Oliver knows well how our memories and beliefs (convictions, often, as certain of the more unrelenting petitioners to the Waitangi Tribunal have shown) come from “a random assemblage of recollections … guesses transformed into recollections, imagined happenings made imperceptibly real”, and so on. He wonders, as many of us do when recalling and writing of our parents, how much of their, and our, impressions of ourselves and others are owed to our “capacity … for invention and reinvention”. It is a good question, probably unanswerable, and also a warning.

When it comes to a discussion of his relationships with others he is sometimes unduly reticent, and never indecorous. (Well, he does have a shot at James K Baxter, but who could object to that?) One can argue that such reticence is a good and proper thing, or, taking the opposite tack, that it is indicative of a lack – or fear – of candour as well as the promotion of rectitude as a self-protective device. The result, occasionally, is that Oliver will appear like an elegant gun-dog skirting patches of prickly scrub and refraining from diving in. Mostly, though, he is not afraid to shake and bite. There’s a lot to sink one’s teeth into and snarl about in New Zealand nowadays.

Oliver’s parents were Methodists from Cornwall. His father, William Henry Oliver, was a farm labourer who emigrated to New Zealand in 1910, and his mother, Ethel Amelia Hosking, a shop assistant. They married in Truro, Cornwall, in 1917. William Henry, a non-commissioned officer in the 1st NZEF (he had been ill at both Gallipoli and in France), met Ethel when convalescing in Truro in 1916. Both believed in “self-help and self-improvement”, shared “a concern for the needy and a contempt for riches”. They were also “strongly egalitarian”. All of us inherit our parents’ attitudes to a degree and the author of this book very much so. Bill Oliver, like his father, has, for instance, had a life-long fascination with politics and religion. This may have hindered rather than helped his father and his family.

Oliver’s parents were unpretentious. Money was scarce. They were waste-not, want-nots. Such are sometimes accused of being “careful”, but only by those blinkered sorts unaccustomed to privation, or those “drys” who, having made good, trumpet that, because they prevailed, anyone can. This is a convenient way some have of avoiding taking responsibility for helping out the needy, and enables them to say to down-and-outs that it’s their own fault. Such “drys” have sprouted vigorously in New Zealand since 1984.

Bill Oliver saw himself as bright but no genius when he went to Victoria then on to Oxford, from which he got a good degree. His mother was “firm and kindly”, and “had a wonderful skill at making do with what she had”. She sharply “reproached” him – good on her – for saying that he was going to stay in the UK if he could get a job. I’m glad he didn’t, for our intellectual life would have been the poorer. I remember people of Oliver’s parents’ generation, as with my parents’, emphasising that we ought to look to contribute to the enhancement of this country and not swan about feathering our nests elsewhere. It was something to do with making New Zealand better than Britain, and also, increasingly, somewhat different, too. Which may be one reason why the likes of Bill Oliver have generally viewed with distaste so-called leaders intent on driving us down a path to US-led, western-style homogenisation. Oliver appears to have inherited a belief that one ought to support and advocate policies for the good of New Zealand, first, and that self-promotion at the expense of others makes for a sicker, more divisive society.

Oliver likes to toss a few aphoristic observations at us. He says, “The past we recover is the past the present tells us to take an interest in.” I think that’s true. The recovered bits go into an airy mental box along with the bits that were there already, burnt into one’s consciousness by searing flash-fires, and become indelible. But when writing autobiographically one can choose which burns to expose. To me, one of the pleasures of this book, and memoirs generally, is that one often asks, what is he hiding? In Oliver’s case he can, just now and then, be a bit oblique, especially on personal matters.


I go along with Oliver’s caution against feeling too much at home wherever we are. Actually, touching on a major part of the book, which is the vexed question as to how, and to what extent, we – ie, non-Maori – should make amends for the bad behaviour of some of our predecessors, many Maori appear to grapple with the fact that, contrary to what is often stated, they don’t feel comfortable, truly at home here. It is evident, for instance, that some Maori find it hard to say thanks for anything that colonists who followed them brought to this country. Ingratitude always reeks and often distorts reality, so we have a situation where Maori overstate their virtues, present themselves as morally superior in some regards, and non-Maori prefer to underplay or ignore the worst effects of their influence. The result is a great swirly trifle of anger, resentment, bewilderment, misinformation, ingratitude, self-righteousness, and so on. I think it a fallacy to speak only of the tyranny of majorities; minorities can be tyrannous, too.

Time and again Oliver alludes to the value of what he terms “a reverse Diaspora” as a means of fighting off insularity. At Oxford, he sensed something about himself that too many are reluctant to concede, which is that just about all of us are hybrids, and the better for it. Here and there he mildly rebukes those who would assert that their sense of attachment, their sense of belonging to this place, is greater and stronger because their ancestors on one side were here before he was, or you were. I think that Oliver may be querying the basis of the argument of those who accuse New Zealanders – non-Maori anyway – of being insular. Compared with whom? That New Zealanders are insular is a fallacy put about by cultural cringers, those who see themselves as sentenced, rather than lucky, to live here.

The historian Peter Munz – one of many intellectuals Oliver admired, Fred Wood and Charles Brasch being others – told Oliver to beware of a “shrinking vision” by returning to the “place of origin”. But by going away, returning, talking, reflecting and writing about New Zealand history, Oliver became naturalised intellectually. For him, his horizons expanded. One shouldn’t be surprised: plants don’t thrive if you keep uprooting them and moving them around. Hithering and thithering just makes for hithery-thitherers.

Oliver again: he found himself, as a postgraduate student in Oxford, “descended from an England that Oxford hardly knew”, and decided, in time, that he preferred “a kind of ambidexterity”, not deracination. He warns that in New Zealand today we have hatched a number of strange birds whose plumage says that they are “opting out of the European inheritance into a dubious quasi-indigenousness”. He argues that no tribunal or the like should reach conclusions based upon “scanty, ambiguous or opaque” evidence. When he said as much in respect to some findings of the Waitangi Tribunal – and he is a firm supporter of most Maori claims – he was surprised as well as irritated by the flak directed at him.

I am amazed that he should have been surprised for, as anyone who has even so much as quibbled about some of the assertions made, and positions taken by pro-Treatyists, knows, speaking out is seen as the height of temerity and to do so is to attract shot thick as that filling the air above a duckpond on May 1. But, as Oliver says, the Waitangi Tribunal required historians to answer the question, “what is the causative connection between the loss of land and resources and the deprivation shown by high rates of sickness and death?” It is a vexing, difficult question, and one that could be asked widely throughout all societies. Oliver wrily, and rightly, points out that “dry” economists are apt to state that “deprivation” is often due to people being “feckless and improvident”. What he doesn’t say, though, is that one of the causes of tension surrounding treaty claims, is a feeling, particularly, though far from exclusively, among disadvantaged non-Maori, that they are being told they are at fault for both their own and Maori impecunity. When Oliver says that on occasion one had to query the Crown’s motives when purchasing land, one accepts that there is truth in that. But shouldn’t one acknowledge, too, that in many cases a lot of collective good resulted? And Oliver was right, surely, to have reminded the Waitangi Tribunal that “state action” needed to be assessed “within the boundaries of what was reasonable and plausible to expect in a nineteenth century context”. He hasn’t had a lot of thanks for saying so, more’s the pity, but he was and is right.


Here and there Oliver muses on the nature of the differences between his The Story of New Zealand and Keith Sinclair’s history, and is frequently querulous about his religious ditherings. Those curious about the editorial thinking behind, and Oliver’s outstanding role in, the making of works such as The Oxford History of New Zealand and The Dictionary of National Biography, and whether New Zealand is best thought of “as a society rather than a nation”, will find much to intrigue them. He gives Massey University plugs aplenty and talks about his involvement with that rather good “liberal-Catholic” periodical Comment. And of his own poems? No illusions there: at times they were flawed by a “rather strained rhetoric”, he says. True, but it’s also true to say that his best are “reticent and decorous”.

Of memoirs one asks, often, whether the author comes across as characteristically of his country? I’m not sure of my answer. Oliver strikes me as a North Islander rather than a South Islander (in contrast to the likes of me, clearly), and not one to have shown much interest in the sorts of activities this country offers in greater measure than anywhere else: sport, recreation and the kind of active outdoor life that frequently gives rise to a strong conservation ethos. Maybe it wouldn’t have hurt him to play the odd game of bowls, despite his horror at the thought.

Now and then I thought, “Go on, be more candid. Be uncouth, rip into it.” But no. Looking for the Phoenix is underpinned by a preference for elegance and discretion. Oliver admits he has moved towards “an inner world of recollection and reflection”, and is surprised that he more often feels “a stranger” in today’s world. Why be surprised? After all, he is a writer and as such is bound to feel out of sorts a lot of the time, not only here but everywhere.


Brian Turner’s own autobiography, Somebodies and Nobodies, was reviewed in our March 2003 issue.


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