“A kind of undressing”, Elspeth Sandys

Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā History
Peter Wells
Massey University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780994143

Peter Wells is a wonderful writer, and this is almost a wonderful book.

Writing a family memoir (or, as the author calls this particular memoir, Uncovering a Pākehā History) is a risky business at the best of times, because no matter how extraordinary your family is – and Wells makes no claims for his to be other than what they are, unsung heroes of “ordinary” life – what will make or break the book is the quality of the mind interrogating those lives. Fortunately, what we have in Dear Oliver is a mind both well-informed – one of the many hats the author wears is that of historian – about the world he is imagining, sensitive to the inner lives of its citizens, and skilled at finding words that lift his tale out of the study into the bright light of lived experience. 

Wells’s delight in language, in writing, is evident on every page of this book. “Not to be able to write would be a kind of death,” he admits at one point, expanding on that later by declaring writing to be “a kind of undressing”. In Dear Oliver he sets out to “undress” the past, and the characters who lived in that “foreign country”, telling, or rather re-telling, the stories his mother told him, giving voice to people who had no language – surely one of the greatest things a writer can do. “My mother has always been at the core of my understanding of the past,” he explains early on in the book, asserting her position at the centre of this narrative. 

So why have I qualified “wonderful” with “almost”? There are two reasons. The first is to do with the physical book itself. Despite its collection of telling photographs, it is not easy on the eye. Lines are crowded on to the page, adding to the feeling (my second caveat) that the book would have benefited from some judicious cutting. Many of the quoted sections would have had more impact had they been shorter. Some accounts just go on too long – the report of the dispute involving the author’s great great uncle John James Northey, for example. There are repetitions, inevitable perhaps in a book that circles the stories of the author’s family over several generations, mining them for relevance to his theme, that the past lives within us. There are also contradictions. On page 113, Wells describes his death-bed rapprochement with his father in positive terms, but on page 60 he tells us that the initiative for the reunion came from him and was made “bitter-sweet” by his father’s “disbelief that I was here to help him”.

The almost (that word again) complete absence of the father from the narrative is not a fault of the book, but for this reader it became a tantalising vacuum. Since what the author is doing is telling a “Pākehā history”, the fact that he only examines his own maternal line raises the question of how complete a personal history it is. Wells is as much the product of Gordon Wells’s genes as he is of the woman whose personality and stories dominate this book, Bessie Northe. 

But these are quibbles. In a book of this range, the occasional moment of ennui is to be expected. And since the author sees himself as a “curator of the past”, giving voice to “an incoherent people in an incoherent country”, it is hardly surprising that the tone is sometimes that of a passionately engaged teacher. I learned many new things from reading this book. I didn’t know, for instance, that 19th-century Napier, described in one of many unforgettable phrases as “saturated with alcohol”, boasted three newspapers, a gentleman’s club, a reading club, and an acclimisation (sic) society, all that for a population of little more than 2,000. Nor did I know that 1980s Auckland, post the stock market crash, had more empty office space than any other city in the world. Wells is brilliant on the free market, boom and bust economics of the 19th century which affected, usually for the worse, so many of his characters. Nor does he stop there, seeing in those turbulent decades parallels with our own neo-liberal times, and the waves of migrants driven out of their homelands by starvation, persecution and hardship. 

The structure of the story is complex, moving from the framing device of a letter to the youngest member of the family, the eponymous Oliver, to a more wide-ranging examination of family letters, documents and newspaper reports, read in the context of the social, political and military conditions of the time. This is where the synergy between novelist, screenwriter and historian comes most successfully into play. Characters that would have been at home in a Dickens novel spring into life, carrying with them the language, attitudes, and aspirations of their time and class: the upright hard-working ex-Cornish tin-miner, Sergeant John Northe, defender of the Empire, respected citizen of mid-19th-century Napier; his convict brother Samuel, another redundant tin-miner; his sister Elizabeth Ereaux, keeper of a boardinghouse in London’s Cheapside, and enthusiastic letter writer. 

Threaded through the narrative, overlapping at times with his earlier memoir Long Loop Home, is the story of his coming out as a gay man, the effect this had on his parents, his mother in particular, and the long road to acceptance that followed not just this revelation but the death of his older brother Russell from HIV AIDs. Wells is too good a writer to dwell on the tragedy of his brother’s death, but when, in what reads like an afterthought, he describes his mother speaking at an AIDs fund-raiser, I was forced to stop for a moment as the impact of that sea-change sank in. 

“Pākehā on the whole do not love ourselves,” Wells writes near the beginning of the book. “We may laugh at ourselves. We rarely understand ourselves. There is a kind of numbness here, a mute silence ….” Taking on the challenge of giving words to that numbness, Wells succeeds as few other writers have in gifting Pākehā with stories as rich and various as any other peoples, Māori included. “In my lifetime,” Wells goes on, we have gone from being slightly unreal heroic “pioneers” to villainous exploiters of Māori culture and thieves of Māori land. Today we live with the psychological displacement of being defined by what we are not: we are no longer “pioneers”, “settlers”, or “colonists”: we have been stripped of our identity. 

It is a big claim to make, but Wells keeps his eye on the ball, locating the personal story of his intense relationship with his mother and his agony (and relief) over her death at the age of 101, in the context of the generations that came before him and helped to shape him. If I could throw out a challenge of my own, it would be to ask the author to complete this particular Pākehā history, by now telling his father’s stories. 

Writer Elspeth Sandys lives in Wellington.

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