Pander 8 (July 1999)
Janet Hunt. Hone Tuwhare: A Biography. Auckland: Godwit, 1998; The Wizard. My Life as A Miracle. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1998.
Janet Hunt: Hone Tuwhare: A Biography (1998)
At first sight, this might seem an odd coupling: The Wizard of Christchurch (aka Ian Brackenbury Channell) gestures out from the purple haze and poppy lettering of his glossy paperback in hat and staff and full regalia; Hone Tuwhare’s faun-like eyes gaze soulfully at the camera, with grainy black-and-white particularity, like a latter-day version of the Michael Joseph Savage icon which used to adorn so many mantelpieces up and down the country. And yet there are some interesting connections.
“For twenty-five years I had been marginalised and trivialised by my enemies,” the Wizard concludes his strangely disjointed yet poignant memoir, but:
My life has constantly surprised me so far. It may not be a miracle, as the title suggests (publishers, not authors choose titles), but it has been both funny ‘ha ha’ and funny ‘peculiar.’
The really funny thing about the book is that the man is deadly serious. He has, in fact, provided the bones of one of those classic British autobiographies: Edwin Muir’s The Story and the Fable (1940), or Stephen Spender’s World Within World (1951). His “enemies,” however – for which read publishers, whom he inveighs against throughout – continue to marginalise and trivialise him.
The book is festooned with photographs. On almost every page he is seen leering from some unlikely angle, surrounded by foes and acolytes. The text has been divided up into bite-sized chunks, with headings such as “Cursed!” or “The Wizard in Cyberspace.” It’s all an awfully jolly romp, as the press releases emphasise. “Here’s something to make you smile,” the Canterbury University Press circular begins, going on to list the major “selling points:”
- The first-ever book about one of our cultural icons and tourist attractions.
- Full of hilarious anecdotes and illustrations.
- Lavishly illustrated and designed.
- An ideal gift book.
The wizard’s own philosophy, a curious mixture of Playpower and The White Goddess, which he is allowed four pages to expound near the end of “his” book, perhaps hardly deserves much more space, but the reader ends up feeling curiously dissatisfied. His buck-hungry publishers have conspired to keep us at arms-length from the anguished human merchandised as “the Wizard,” while the man himself has refused to write the Barry Crump-ish laugh-a-minute memoir they required of him. What could have been a book has ended up as a curiosity.
The reason this is of more than passing interest is because the same thing applies, in a rather different way, to Janet Hunt’s memoir of another one of our “cultural icons” (not yet “tourist attractions,” one hopes). In fact, those “selling points” could be repeated almost verbatim. Here, though, the conflict is not between a subject who wanted to write one way, and whose publishers packaged him another: here we find what is, essentially, an illustrated introduction to Tuwhare’s life and works, aspiring simultaneously to be a serious biography and critical study.
“Is that so bad?” you ask. No, of course not. Janet Hunt’s book became indispensable the moment it was published. It’s a mine of information, and does, indeed, introduce us to one of New Zealand’s favourite poets with economy and wit. The author has designed her own book, which explains the lovingly ingenious layout of some of the pages, artfully combining manuscripts and printed transcripts of poems with photographs and commentary. All of these virtues should be stressed at once before any reservations are expressed.
However (there’s always a “however”), one begins to get an uneasy sense of hagiography quite early in the piece. Has Tuwhare ever been a scallywag? Has he ever made any unfortunate choices? You wouldn’t think so from the book. An uncomfortable air of pious incense, combined of Pakeha reverence for “Maori spirituality,” and sentimental middle-class regard for free-spirited Poets, pervades all discussion of the numerous complex and controversial movements with which Tuwhare has been associated over the years.
This is what I mean about the conflict of intentions. For a children’s picture-book (a New Zealand equivalent to that famous pamphlet about Walt Whitman which labelled him once and for all as The Good Grey Poet), or even a coffee-table “portrait,” such carping would be inappropriate and out-of-place. But Janet Hunt, I suspect, wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to write a “serious” book about Tuwhare which proves him right at every turn. And, after all, we have to remember that he’s still alive, still active as a writer, and her principal collaborator in putting the book together.
Patrick White, who was able to read his biographer David Marr’s final text (which he’d helped compile) shortly before he died, allegedly burst into tears, declaring himself “the monster of the world.” Hone Tuwhare can have had no such epiphany. The old fox had done it again. No serious enquiry into his private life, politics, or even means of subsistence over the years was able to break through the golden calm. And yet my feeling about the Patrick White biography is that it enabled us to see him, finally, as a good, though complex and self-excoriating man. My reaction to the Tuwhare book is that, while it tells me a lot about the external circumstances of his life and writings, his true greatness as a poet and goodness as a man (which is quite possibly the conclusion we’ll come to anyway) remain to be explored by a more acerbic pen.
Janet Hunt’s book is obviously far better and far more worthy of attention than the Wizard’s, but both are, unfortunately, instances where the (necessary?) conflict between commercial packaging and artistic intention has leant too far towards the former – blunting, rather than sharpening, the point of these two very dissimilar works. I fear it’s a sign of things to come.
The Wizard: My Life as a Miracle (1998)