Deep footprints, Jack Perkins

In the Air
Henare te Ua
Reed, $34.99,
ISBN 0790010119

Henare te Ua, grandson of Sir Apirana Ngata, cousin of Witi Ihimaera, takes us on a journey spanning the period from the 1930s to the end of the century; through a rural East Coast childhood rich in aroha, and a unique radio broadcasting career. On the way he offers tantalising glimpses of notable figures in politics, arts and letters, and broadcasting. Although he follows a long family tradition of service to his people, he stands back from the divisions and turbulence of the 70s and 80s.

He writes with intense pride about his family, standing tall and firmly rooted in both tikanga Maori and tikanga Pakeha; but he also shows frustration and anger towards the polarisations and discords he sees today: “He’s a Maori, he’s a Pakeha …. Treaty claims by sniffers at the trough, whinging Maori, owners of foreshores and sea beds, and identity with upper case ‘I’.”

I first got to know Henare when I was faced with the daunting task of navigating my way through the complexities and ambiguities of the history of Maori radio. In Henare I found a superb guide. In the Air has the immediacy and intimacy of speech: Henare the conversationalist, raconteur, orator. I am no doubt biased by my work in radio and my association with Henare, but, for me, In the Air is written oral history.

Tuberculosis and the Maori Battalion’s heavy losses in Italy robbed Henare of both his birth parents. He was adopted under customary Maori right by his mother’s elder sister, a daughter of Sir Apirana Ngata, and her husband Hetekia Te Kani te Ua, “a stylish and elegant man, noted classical pianist … an orator and whakapapa authority”. But his one acre-sized garden was also notable. And from chapters with seemingly prosaic titles such as “Dad’s Garden” or “Mum’s Kitchen” pour a welter of detail which provides the reader with the myriad tastes and textures of everyday rural life 70 years ago.

Nothing escapes Henare’s extraordinary eye. Many histories describe grandmother boiling up the copper for the weekly wash, but in addition we are treated to a detailed inventory of the washing itself: “kitchen aprons made from hessian sugar bags … baggy bloomers with elastic cords … a variety of dish rags.”  The hangi gets similar treatment: “we avoided being upwind, ensuring body odour did not flow over the stones. If anyone broke wind the offender was banished downwind and dad would say a karakia.” This book is worthwhile for these early chapters alone. Although Henare’s journey to radio stardom was only beginning, the tikanga Maori and tikanga Pakeha of his childhood equipped him superbly for the post-war years.

Stints at Karaka and Gisborne High Schools, and Nelson College where his father had also been educated, confirmed Henare’s high scholastic abilities, but he faltered and failed at Canterbury University College. Success at university would have seen an inevitable  march into one of the professions but this stumble on the academic ladder, combined with a near-crippling accident while indulging in his hobby of gliding, turned the direction of his life. His long recuperation with both legs in plaster was the second big challenge which marked out the tough, determined side of both the child and the man: until his late teens, a stammer had prevented the future orator and broadcaster from stringing together more than a couple of words.

A chance meeting with a radio executive while languishing in hospital led to the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s Announcer’s Training Centre, followed by a posting to 1XN Whangarei. In the mid-1960s, the blend of commercial radio with public service responsibilities, unique in the world, was still thriving. 1XN had to make a profit. In addition it had to contribute to the needs and well-being, not only of Whangarei, but also of the outlying Northland area. Henare’s flair for broadcasting away from the studio came into its own: he was at home selling Rinso in a supermarket or commentating a formal ceremony live from a marae. A less-than-satisfying stint at Roturua reflected the changing, more competitive ethos taking over commercial radio, which didn’t sit easily with Henare. But it did serve to encourage him towards non-commercial work.

The long years of tokenism towards Maori in radio had been marked by little more than director James Shelley’s appointment of a Maori announcer to each main centre, and Bill Parker’s Maori news, which was first broadcast during the war. But by the mid-1970s Maori-based programming began to accelerate. Henare joined forces with others, both Maori and Pakeha, who have left deep footprints along the sometimes tortuous pathway of Maori broadcasting: one-time station manager at Gisborne, Leo Fowler, Wiremu Bill Kerekere, Haare Williams, Whai Ngata, Selwyn Muru, Derek Fox and many others.

The mid-1970s saw Maori radio combining with a fledgling Pacific service. These cousins didn’t always see eye to eye, but it did afford the opportunity for Henare to travel the South Pacific demonstrating his skills in outside broadcasting and as an ambassador for radio and New Zealand. Worldwide travel and many honours graced Henare before his semi-retirement in 2003.

Browsing through Henare’s radio career is like thumbing through a family photo album. But I also enjoyed the autobiography as a whole; I relished Henare’s easy storytelling, his aroha, humour, passion, and poignancy. I would have liked deeper insights though, more introspection perhaps. There are flashes: talking about his failed marriage, for example, he launches an almost brutal condemnation of himself, without the slightest hint of excuse or self-pity.

With advancing age, some of us need to apply a magnet of meaning to align the scattered iron filings of our lives. I think we all indulge in mental autobiographies at some stage, but, mercifully, few ever reach the page, let alone the publisher. But we would be much the poorer without this jaunt through an unusually eventful life and a celebration of the golden years of radio.


Jack Perkins is executive producer of National Radio’s long-running Spectrum documentary series and Resounding Radio, a 10-hour history of New Zealand radio.


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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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