A public intellectual
An abridged version of Vincent O’Sullivan’s eulogy for historian and poet W H (Bill) Oliver at Old St Paul’s, Wellington, 18 September 2015
In the 1960s, so much that was important to New Zealand intellectual life happened to be in Wellington, and much of it around the university. For a young person just back from Europe, it seemed a little like strolling into a literary Pantheon. I remember my excitement when, on one day, mind you, I saw, casually and in different places, James K Baxter, Alistair Campbell, Louis Johnson and W H Oliver. Oddly, considering he became a closer friend than any of the others, it was Bill I felt a little intimidated by when I met him in the staff club. He was a figure who emanated maturity, who gave lectures of sustained elegance, and wrote in as fine a prose as any of his generation. He was a scholar who was also a poet, a person who seemed at ease, wherever. He spoke with a rare precision, as no one else I knew quite did. He talked with you, rather than at you, as some eminent literary contemporaries were inclined to do. He gave the impression that questions needed to be answered thoughtfully, and that discussion was a courteous exchange, even if you’d only asked him the time of day. To me, he was a figure of urbanity and poise. Years later, he was amused when I told him how he had then struck me, as what a civilised New Zealander might be. He said that was only because I was from Auckland and hadn’t had the chance to know much else.
Luckily, my admiration for Bill turned into something rather less star-struck, as I more and more liked the man, and came to know him better. I continued, of course, to be impressed by the sense of consideration he brought to bear on things. And, from the start, I admired the way he wrote, whether his essays, his recent Faber history of New Zealand, or his journalism in Comment, the quarterly he founded with a group of friends, and edited for several years. He believed, as did his close friend Peter Munz, that good history could and should be good literature. I suppose what I was becoming aware of was that comparatively rare thing in New Zealand then, as it perhaps still is – what a public intellectual might be. And how, behind that role, a finely ordinary man could exist, as he pursued what he called “the project of finding a country by thinking about it”. Michael King put well what it was Bill gave us, when he reviewed Bill’s memoir, Looking for the Phoenix: “We live in a cynical age that tends to reject the notion that there is such a thing as wisdom or such a phenomenon as a wise man. Oliver is testament to the survival of both the notion and the phenomenon.”
But it is now Bill the friend, and Bill the poet, I most remember and celebrate. He loved poetry, and read it with perception – Eliot and Lowell, I think, especially. One of the necessities of his later years was its continued importance to him. He made no secret that he wished he had written more, when other kinds of writing preoccupied him, and academe demanded energies that took him to other things. But one can’t think of him anywhere, in any kind of work, without thinking, too, that at the centre of all that he did was his commitment to the possibilities of language. He summed it up, I suppose, in his saying, more or less as an aside, that to read Keats was to live more fully. How much his saying that implied about the man he was – his openness to the world, his attention to what people said and how they said it. It may seem an odd thing to note, but I admired what struck me as his deep Englishness, his pride in his Cornish roots and his family’s working-class values, even as he also seemed the exemplary New Zealander. It is difficult to think of many academics or writers who did more to work for a more intelligently and justly inclusive society. Yet “I cannot believe,” he wrote, “that absorbing something of the great inheritance our origins offered us, was in any way servile, colonialist, or a distraction from the local reality.” And how his legacy with The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, his work for the Waitangi Tribunal, bear out how fruitfully he attended to what that locally real might mean.
Bill believed, I think, that it is poetry – both what we inherit from the great tradition as rightfully ours, and what we write in our own domain – that best touches what is deeply ourselves, and that takes us into that intricate, anchored, delicate web of language which, after all, is where we begin and end. I admired Bill over many decades for his warmth and his gifts, and especially for his kindness and his wisdom in these recent courageous years. And for what he left for us in his poems.