Outsiders: Stories from the Fringe of New Zealand Society, by Gerard Hindmarsh (Craig Potton Publishing, 2012) 234 pp. $49.99.
Our family liked to show visitors the old plywood dinghy they had owned since 1963. They bought it after prison escaper George Wilder had taken it from a bach at Waihaha, on the western shore of Lake Taupo. He had rowed from there to Kinloch, where he burgled some houses for supplies, in some cases irritating the absent owners by breaking through the roof. Sometimes he left apology and thank you notes behind. He may or may not have done so on this occasion but it fitted the Wilder legend that he had rowed around fifteen kilometres in this small round-nosed boat, little more than a tender designed to be towed behind a launch. An irony of this particular theft was that the dinghy had been stolen from the grandfather of the boy who would one day be financier David Richwhite. In the tradition of heroic outlaws, Wilder had collected an unwitting levy in the form of the boat, one that might have pleased the many investors who lost out to Richwhite, notorious for his controversial links to the Winebox affair and the $20 million settlement in 2007 of the Trans Rail insider trading claim.
Wilder’s toughness and ability to stay at large made him a national figure. James K Baxter mused about his gauntness, his ‘smoker’s face,’ while each of his escapes increased his standing as a popular hero. The Wilder cult seems to have resonated with people’s dreams of escape, going bush, and living outside the constrictions of authority.
George Wilder features in Gerard Hindmarsh’s Outsiders: Stories from the Fringe of New Zealand Society. In it, Hindmarsh describes the lives of many of the country’s best-known recluses, rebels, and straight-out eccentrics. Most of them lived apart from society in places as remote as South Westland or isolated islands, but it would be wrong to regard them all as hermits. Rather than solitary contemplatives, they were generally people who chose to be ‘masterless and unmasterable,’ a phrase once applied to the most famous of the swagmen, Shiner Slatterly. For some of them, however, the places they lived could also be said to be where they found themselves. One such person is Robert Long, who left medical school after the third year and in 1980 moved to South Westland. Though living two miles walk along a beach from the nearest road, he and partner Catherine Stewart have brought up a family there in the hut he built. The publication of his book in 2010, A Life at Gorge River, demonstrated that isolation did not stand in the way of working as an artist and greenstone carver, or having a full life with his family and the visitors who have made their way there to see the man known as ‘Beanpole.’
Hindmarsh’s outsiders were usually appreciative observers of the places they chose to live. Survival alone often demanded that. One was Charlie Douglas, who explored and mapped the river and mountains of South Westland, as well as finding truths in his observations of birds, insects and tiny flowers. They were unlike the scenery admirers and preservationists that Geoff Park dismissed in Theatre Country as typical of Pākehā New Zealanders who like the outdoors.These men (or mostly men) chose to live in environments where their bond with the land was more intimate. It was established not only by their love of particular places but also by physical extremes of effort, cold, and danger. Though living apart, they were also usually sane and well-informed about what was happening elsewhere. One exception, Gerald Cover, was clearly mad. His time waiting for God to reveal Himself on a mountaintop he called Mount Petra was spent in a bivvy high on the tussock tops of the Mt Herbert Range. He kept in touch with events by watching TV1 and the Holmes show on a small battery-powered television set. Eccentric, yes, but in his igloo-like home, held together with chicken wire, Cover may well have known intensities of experience denied to most people.
Several of the outsiders had names that marked them out as ‘characters.’ There was Punchy Wallace, a former Australasian middleweight boxing champion who lived in a bivvy at the edge of the Kaimanawa Forest Park. There was also Wingy Henderson, who had shot off an arm when climbing a fence during rabbiting. Despite this injury, he built an African-style krall and a tepee near Lake Hauroko in the Fiordland National Park during the 1940s and 1950s. Once he had tramped in 45 kilometres to reach this base, he would stay for up to three months, not only hunting deer, but relaxing with the help of with the collection of 78rpm records he played on a wind-up gramophone. Others with nicknames were the ‘Hump Ridge Hermit,’ ‘Peanut’ and ‘Māori Bill.’
Hindmarsh’s wide knowledge of the Kahurangi area of north-west Nelson has already been seen in his 2010 book Kahurangi Calling. This is where he first wrote about the couple who lived in Asbestos Cottage in the Cobb Valley. Their cottage lacked even a wood-burning range but it suited Annie Chaffey, who had fled there after leaving her children and husband in Timaru. She was hardy enough to refuse to go to hospital after breaking a leg, yet liked to receive visitors in good clothes and offer refined refreshments such as glasses on wine on a tray covered with a lace doily.
The men who went to live in the bush were usually single. Like Annie Chaffey, there were, however, a few women who were prepared to share a remote life at places such as lighthouses or farms. One of the more unusual was Catherine Flowerday, who settled at Catherine Cove on D’Urville Island in the 1920s. She and her husband Ernie had a dream of breeding a perfect black rose there. Ernie’s other aim was to keep well away from the mainland, as feared arrest as a deserter. Locals suspected that this concern might come from the amount of meths he was thought to drink. Meths or not, he and Catherine developed considerable expertise as rose growers, although the black rose was never achieved.
The only truly solitary woman in Outsiders was Keiko Agatsuma, a Japanese tourist who lived for a while in a cave on Stewart Island. The story of most of the characters Gerald Hindmarsh describes is one of extreme resilience and physical endurance. Keiko Agatsuma’s situation was a less happy one, as she was deported after some hunters had persuaded her to return to Bluff to see a doctor. Her New Zealand experience was very much an interlude, as she returned to mainstream work in Japan in the post-production of animated feature films.
Outsiders leaves a sense that this is a beginning, that there is more to be said. The stories are there and well-told. Yet there is a mythic aspect to these lives that seems peculiar to New Zealand, a flight to the wilderness that people might like to think they could share, if only imaginatively. People such as the bushman Davey Gunn, who carried on working for days after he sliced through an artery in his hand, are only superficially similar to the people living in remote parts of the Appalachian Mountains that American writer Ron Rash has described in his stories and novels. Rash’s characters are hardened by circumstance. They did not choose, like many of Hindmarsh’s outsiders, to make their lives on the fringes of society. The impulse to retreat to a lonely place takes its own form in New Zealand.
Readers familiar with Hindmarsh’s Kahurangi Calling, also produced by Craig Potton Publishing, might be disappointed by the appearance of Outsiders, which is decidedly more modest in appearance. The earlier book, which tells stories of the backcountry of Northwest Nelson, was printed on better-quality paper and included a number of coloured images.Outsiders’ no nonsense format may have been designed to reflect the simplicity of its subjects’ lives, as well as achieving consistency in terms of the use of many historic black and white photographs, but its sparseness takes away from its impact. It would also have been improved by an index and a map to show where the outsiders lived.
Hindmarsh’s introduction establishes some of the historical context, such as the depressions of the 1880s and 1930s that created the army of swagmen that tramped from farm to farm in search of food and somewhere to stay. He also details the gradual growth of restrictions that make it difficult for individuals to live in places such as National Parks. It is possible, as he suggests, that the era of these notable individuals is now in the past. Maybe. Enough turbulent events seem to lie ahead for other outsiders to emerge. This book says something about the attributes they will need in order to survive.
JOHN HORROCKS is a research associate in the School of Health and Social Services at the Wellington Institute of Technology. He was a farmer for many years in the Tararua foothills north of Masterton, the source for most of the poems in his 2006 collection, Raw Places.