Finding the way back, Nicholas Reid

Now When it Rains – A Writer’s Memoir 
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Steele Roberts, $35.00,
ISBN 9780947493776

A boy needs a father, but things can go badly wrong if the father is not good at fathering. This seems to be one of the main ideas implicit in Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s “writer’s memoir”.

Like many memoirs, Now When it Rains lays most emphasis on childhood and early adulthood. By halfway through the book, Holman, now in his 72nd year, has taken us only up to the age of 25. For many reasons, this writer was a late-starter, approaching 50 before he settled down to writing. So here we have a book telling us how the writer came to be what he is. It is not a book chronicling his life as a writer. As he says late in the piece, it is not a “tell-all journey”, either, and he mentions only briefly and tactfully those people who are still part of his life.

And then there’s that father problem. 

Holman senior was an ex-Royal Navy man, alcoholic, sometimes violent, addicted to gambling, and twice jailed for thefts committed to cover debts to bookies. Despite being a blokey kid (played footie, loved war films and assembling model fighter-planes), young Holman bonded more with his long-suffering mum and his adored English granny than he did with his father. Though he mentions some poems he wrote forgiving and lamenting his father, Holman’s portrait of the man is a little less positive than it was in his earlier memoir The Lost Pilot (2013), in which he allowed us to see why his father had become the way he was.

So, though it is never spelled out by Holman, there was a search for a more satisfactory father-figure, or at least a mentor. Holman speaks glowingly of his secondary-school teachers, especially the aspiring poet Peter Hooper who came back into his life in later years. Later, he became “a dope-smoking chip-on-my-shoulder burned-out rebel”, as he followed the example of his drug-addled pal Bill Mathieson. And only after the long hell of alcoholism and hard drugs did he meet his most important mentor, Jesus. At the point of despair, Holman became an enthusiastic Pentecostalist and Bible student. He says he’s now an Anglican. Christian values are still his anchor.

There’s another aspect to this search for a guide. Holman gradually found his way back into poetry, which had first moved him when he was a teenager. He did so by finding mentors on the printed page – Pablo Neruda, James K Baxter, Miroslav Holub, Jack Gilbert and others, each presented as providing a new example to emulate, a new life-changer. So, too, in early middle age, with his discovery of, and immersion in, Māori culture, and his return to the university studies that he had broken off years before. His doctoral thesis (later published) concerned the early anthropologist Elsdon Best and the Tuhoe people. Māori culture, protocols and set ways of doing things, like poetry and like Christianity, provided a stability that was not there in childhood and adolescence. 

All this is, of course, me playing Dr Freud as I follow the arc of Holman’s memoir. But Now When it Rains is not father-obsessed. His father moved from job to job often, dragging his family from address to address until they settled on the West Coast of the South Island. This may have nudged Holman into following a similar unsettled life for many years. After dropping out of university in his early 20s, he spent years shifting from job to job before he found himself in his new faith. A year working in a sawmill. Years as a “rousie” in woolsheds and then as a sheep-shearer in both Australia and New Zealand. Scrub-cutting. Being a farmhand on a hostile mist-clad property in the hills. Collecting garbage. Driving a van making deliveries of bread. Working on the wharves. And (only after his conversion) being a social worker in a home for displaced old men and working in a bookshop. 

Holman’s accounts of hard, physical labour yield some of the most engaging moments in the book. Ultimately, these were not “lost” years. They gave him a view of life that respected hard-case blokes doing jobs that were often exhausting and daily punishment for muscles. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, health and safety rules weren’t as tight as they are now, and many jobs were routinely dangerous. Respect for toilers fed into Holman’s poetry as much as the Blackball and the West Coast that he remembers as his home for most of his early life. 

I cannot say that Now When it Rains is all of a piece. The disorderly days of toil and boozing provide the liveliest anecdotes. There’s a mild dip into self-congratulation towards the end, as he tells us how his collections of poetry were received, and he does quote his own poetry to prove points. That said, this is a very readable and sincere autobiography by a man who has experienced a lot and has been able to put his heart into getting it down on paper. 

 

Dr Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian, poet and critic who conducts the book blog Reid’s Reader.

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