“Loneliness was his condition”, Owen Marshall

Notes From the Margins: The West Coast’s Peter Hooper
Pat White
Frontiers Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473380663

A journey is a kind of endless forgetting. The boys lived only in the present, seeking a river crossing, probing a thorny thicket for the easiest passage, cooking a meal, hearing the night bird in the silence of the hills.

A Song in the Forest

The South Island’s West Coast features prominently in New Zealand literature, its swashbuckling history and impressive natural environment providing many advantages of setting. Charlotte Randall, Eleanor Catton, Jenny Pattrick and Amy Head are among those who have produced quality fiction associated with the region. Its perceived society and culture, however, are not those that would seem to foster a literary disposition among people who live there, yet Keri Hulme, Mervyn Thompson, Bill Pearson, Toss Woollaston and Philip May represent those with such ties. None has been more closely associated with the Coast than Peter Hooper (1919–1991), the subject of this biography. 

Hooper is not a major figure in our literature, and I imagine his work is little read these days, but he was a serious and talented writer who made a deep impression on many of his fellows. He considered himself as much a poet as a prose writer, but is best remembered now for his futuristic A Song in the Forest (1979) with its lyrical evocation of living close to nature. Pat White was Hooper’s close and long-standing friend, and his biography concentrates on the man rather than the work. That seems to me the right emphasis, for it is unlikely Hooper’s life and beliefs will be recorded as fully elsewhere.

I never met Hooper, but Brian Turner, a mutual friend, spoke of him admiringly and encouraged me to seek out his work. Turner features prominently throughout the biography, not just as a colleague with similar literary and ecological views, but as the editor for John McIndoe who consistently encouraged Hooper and published his work when there was little other interest.

Hooper’s life and character were marked by complexity and contradiction and this is one of the central themes throughout the book. Initially, he couldn’t wait to flee the Coast, but ended by living and dying there: he was a successful and dedicated teacher, yet resented the drain of the profession on his creative energy: he never married and lived alone, yet yearned for love and fell in love: despite making abiding and candid friendships, he felt alienated from the society in which he lived.

Rural life on the Coast was rugged in the 1930s. Hooper described it as “A dour dogged plugging away, year in year out”. He was not close to his dairy-farming father, but had more affinity with his mother, who had an English upbringing, was a keen reader and wrote poetry. In 1937, Hooper was dux of Greymouth High School, and the following year he gladly left the Coast to attend Christchurch Teachers’ Training College. After serving as a radar mechanic in the New Zealand Air Force during the war, he returned to teach on the Coast, partly to be able to give support to his parents. Apart from a year spent in Europe in 1961 and short overseas trips subsequently, he spent the rest of his life on the West Coast, his teaching at Greymouth High School and Westland District High School interspersed with breaks to concentrate on his writing, and briefly to own a bookshop in Greymouth.

Hooper taught to receive an income and resented the consequent restriction of the time he could devote to his writing. “All those years I gave to teaching stunted my development as a writer for decades,” he wrote to White in 1989, yet especially in his early career he was both fully involved and successful, not only capable within the classroom, but forming close bonds with boys that led to visits to his home and lasting friendships. Lou Sanson of the Department of Conservation, playwright Meryyn Thompson and poet Jeffrey Paparoa Holman are three of the many who remember him with affection and respect. In Holman’s case, the relationship grew into an equal friendship in adulthood and was maintained through life: “He fascinated me – I had never met anyone quite like him, a cultured and sensitive adult who seemed to have a window on another world to my working class coal-town existence.”

White shows how Hooper’s attitude gradually changed towards his region, from a feeling of constriction, even dismissal, to identification and the championing of its ecological causes, but nevertheless he retained a sense of alienation all his life and perhaps that would have been true wherever he lived. In an interview late in his life, he said: “Yes I do feel like an outsider. I feel like I’ve never found my own people.” Despite falling in love at least twice, he remained single and regretted that. Steve Braunias, in a recent Spinoff column devoted to Hooper, wrote: “Loneliness was his condition.” Braunias met and interviewed Hooper while a journalist in Greymouth and described him as “an anxious fellow, a fusspot, quick with a sour opinion and much irked him”, but also said: “He was funny. He was a sensitive listener. He was generous and kind, a man of simple tastes … .” Hooper’s loneliness persisted to the end. He was found lying beneath his bed several days after his death.

In a 1974 letter to Turner, Hooper wrote that “In one view, the only valid purpose of art is to reconcile man to his suffering”, but White rightly highlights the positives in his subject’s life as well as the difficulties. In addition to his successful teaching and close friendships, Hooper received considerable recognition for his writing. He published several books of poetry. His 1972 collection, Earth Marriage, sold 2,000 copies within a year. He published a collection of stories, non-fiction works and three novels, as well as articles and reviews. A Song in the Forest received some glowing reviews and won that year’s PEN Best First Book of Prose award.

Another thread running through the biography is Hooper’s profound admiration for H D Thoreau. White may force the parallels in life and character at times, but there is no doubt of the powerful effect the American writer had on Hooper. He purchased a copy of Walden in 1938, and Thoreau’s influence remained strong for the rest of his life. He recommended the philosopher to others, named his bookshop Walden Books, became a life member of Concord’s Thoreau Society, and in 1988 travelled to the United States of America to attend their annual general meeting and stand beside Walden Pond. Thoreau’s self-sufficient individualism, opposition to materialism, and commitment to living in harmony with nature were attributes with which Hooper identified.

Black-and-white photographs are placed throughout the text. Unfortunately, their quality is poor. This doesn’t matter so much when people are the subject, but considerably reduces the impact of those included for scenic value. An index would have been a useful inclusion. White’s narrative does not always flow easily, the chronology is difficult to follow at times, and occasionally his own life intrudes into that of his subject without a close connection, but his sincerity, insight and sympathetic understanding of his friend more than compensate for that. Being a writer and artist himself adds to White’s empathy. Notes from the Margins is the heartfelt story of a dedicated and talented Kiwi who lived for his craft, and I hope it will encourage readers to experience Hooper’s work.

Writer Owen Marshall is an adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury.

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