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Nine Lives : New Zealand Writers on Notable New Zealanders

I love books that I learn from. Although I wouldn’t say that I read lots of non-fiction, in this case the concept of fiction writers using their skills to paint the portraits of famous New Zealanders is excellent. Of the nine lives written in this book, I only knew of two before I started reading.

Perhaps one other name I should have known. It is not the same for the writers of these pieces. I have met or been to listen in person to seven of the nine.

I will come back to the idea of ‘nine on nine’ in a short while, because there is always one isn’t there?

I had heard of Albert Wendt, read one of his books and met him at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival.

I also knew of Carole Beu of the Woman’s Bookshop fame. Everyone else was either from well before I came to New Zealand, or from a walk of life I had never entered. We cover politics, sport, medicine and art before arriving at creatives and writers.

I think what stands out most clearly in this collection is the personal connection that each of the writers has or had with their subject. These meetings, however brief, are the things that brings each essay to life. None more so than the first story in the book, about Dame Margaret Sparrow.

‘After my 21st birthday and before the advent of seven digit phone numbers, I was given a local anaesthetic and a foetus was aspirated out of my womb. The abortionist was Dr Margaret Sparrow.’

What a way to start, but from there we learn a great deal about this pioneering lady as a campaigner for a woman’s right to choose. How very appropriate to read this now, when abortion has recently been removed from New Zealand’s Crimes Act. The reasons why a child is not wanted or planned or possible, no longer requires the use of lies. Novelist Catherine Robertson gives us an account of Sparrow’s life which helps us understand what motivated her own choices and career.

Novelist Lloyd Jones talks about potter Paul Melser, and his sixty-year love of pots in which he has also created a landscape in which to make them. ‘The potter is so integrated into his place of production that the property doesn’t look or feel right when he isn’t there – as if the land has lost an essential nerve.’

The chapter about Albert Wendt is co-written by Selina Tusitala Marsh and Pala Molisa:

‘This essay is written in the spirit of Al: a writer who constantly challenges the rules in pursuit of having what Charles Bukowski called ‘All of it’. We mucked up the rules of this book by insisting on co-authoring and tilting the titular balance of ten writers on ten subjects off its access. What was more important to us was our engagement with one of the central tenets of Pacific culture.’

The tributes flow:

‘Al argues that the body of Pacific literature/studies ‘is a body coming out of the Pacific, not imposed on the Pacific’. To be led by line, the blood line, the written line, and the spoken line was, in 1996, a paradigm shift for many of us. It rocked our scholarship, our poems and novels and plays.’

Crime writer and sports journalist Paul Thomas writes about cricketer John Wright, who after spending a summer playing for the Kent 2nd XI in the warmest, most genteel, part of England, was offered a contract by Derbyshire:

‘The first trial game was in the mining village of Heanor. Wright got to the ground early. The only other person there was an old bloke with a flat cap, a pipe, a tweed jacket and a whippet. If he’d been a character in a television drama, the critics would have derided him as a stereotype. He told Wright that the influx of overseas players was ruining English cricket.’

Wright went on to spend the next twelve years with the club. After his playing days were over he began working in the retail trade back in New Zealand, trying not to be recognised by customers. He was by all accounts hopeless, so when a phone call came advising of a cricket coaching position back in Kent, he embarked on a second cricket career. The culmination was taking India to a series win over Australia. The descriptions of what he faced in that cricket-mad country are fascinating.

Paula Morris writes passionately about the politician Matiu Rata. She and her father both believed no one else would ever have his mana. Although he only met Paula once or twice, he took the time to write and congratulate her on the completion of her PhD in England. It is always interesting to learn about such characters, in this case an inspiring politician and his work on behalf of Māori across the country. As we move from one generation to the next it is easy to forget some of the figures who have gone before, or gave so much towards the development of our nation. In the same way Malcolm Mulholland’s piece about Ranginui Walker shows us so much about the struggle of Māori in their own land. With that comes humour too:

‘Walker once asked me, as an aspiring Māori academic, if I knew what the purpose of being one was. With great anticipation I leant forward to ensure I could hear what he had to say. His answer could be an epiphany, it could provide me with the meaning of life as a Māori academic. He said, ‘Boy, our job is to cut through the bullshit.’’

Yet another reason to love this book – for the big dollop of Kiwi humour.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Upstart Press


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