Notes from the Margins: The West Coast’s Peter Hooper by Pat White (Frontiers Press,
2017), 202 pp., $40
Peter Hooper (1919–1991) spent most his life in Westland, but travelled far by means of literature. His adult life was lived alone, but he was not a loner. He embedded himself (with reservations) in the community of the Greymouth district and had a professional life as a conscientious and imaginative secondary teacher. In this role he mentored many students, nudging them in the direction of literature and ideas. One of these was Pat White, the author of this portrait.
White has done us a favour by placing Hooper before us. Despite having lived (almost literally) to one side of the main literary developments here, Hooper was and still is of interest and relevance. To the generations born after 1945 he might seem a bit prim, even conservative in personal style, and definitely not up with the game of postmodern critical theory. As a writer he was in the main a Modernist with Romantic antecedents, and he was happy to acknowledge the prophetic American, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), as the most powerful influence on him philosophically.
In two key areas Hooper was radical, far-sighted and driven by his notion of truth. He grasped the issue of ecology decades before most writers, either here or internationally, realised that this would be the largest of all subjects to impinge on our arts and consciousness. He is among our first modern environmental authors. There was also in him a strong sense of natural justice, which was given direction by Thoreau’s 1849 essay, ‘Civil Disobedience’. This quiet scholarly man joined the hippies and the stirrers in protesting against the 1981 Springbok Tour, the Vietnam War and other threats to peace and justice.
White makes clear that there were moral influences that pre-dated the arrival of Thoreau’s Walden in Hooper’s life. He grew up on a marginal dairy farm at Coal Creek near Greymouth. His parents were salt of the earth: Ernest, his father, honest and hard-working, and Evelyn, his mother, likewise, with the addition of a strong interest in literature and the motivation to write some interesting poetry herself. There were three children. Tony, younger than Peter, was emotionally close. Jennifer, their sister, was sixteen years younger than her eldest brother. Their parents encouraged them all to pursue an education, and Evelyn actively stimulated an engagement with poetry.
Pat White knows the mid-Westland environment of the Hooper farm well and provides a good idea of how it was to grow up in a semi-feral landscape, the forests and mountains hugely near. Artists and writers were arriving in and closely observing this region as Peter Hooper grew into early adulthood. Toss Woollaston was one, resident in Greymouth through the 1950s and early 60s, who knew the younger Hooper and took some interest in his poetry. There was no lack of writing about Westland, nor writing activity within it, some by locals. This could produce outstanding work, notably Bill Pearson’s Coal Flat (1963) which probably had its inception in a Greymouth childhood and his stint as a teacher at Blackball school in 1942. This novel’s setting could easily have included the Hooper farm, so involved was it in that general landscape. Later Keri Hulme set her singular The Bone People in Westland and settled at Okarito. Between her and Hooper there was a contretemps, revealed in a hostile review Hulme wrote of Time and the Forest, the third novel of Hooper’s trilogy.
One of New Zealand’s most dynamic dramatists, Mervyn Thompson, also emerged from and drew on Westland. He was a high-school student of Hooper’s and later corresponded with him. Such connections and tensions speak of a literary geography well established in Westland and important in our wider literary culture. Isolation was far from complete, and further offset by the strong support Brian Turner gave Hooper both as friend and publisher. These were the circumstances in which Hooper became an accomplished poet with work such as the poem ‘Journey towards an elegy’, and he later won the PEN Best First Book of Prose award for A Song in the Forest, the first novel of his trilogy, in 1979.
White focuses clearly on Hooper’s character. Despite knowing him well, he realises that he is dealing with an introspective subject who could conceal aspects of his self, clues to which only emerged in his papers after his death. Troubled, ethical and questioning, Hooper is rich pickings for a biographer. Though he lived alone, he was a person of wide and deep friendships. Apparently celibate, he nonetheless had extensive experience of living. In all this the war was pivotal. He was stationed in the Pacific, on Bougainville, but as a radio operator was spared close combat. In April 1945 his brother Tony was fatally wounded near Forli in Italy. He died on 23 April, and his death became for Peter Hooper the cause of an elegiac grieving that never left him. This loss and others – his parents and an Englishwoman, Muriel Firth, with whom he remained in unconsummated love – were key markers in an emotional life to which Pat White has give dimension by good use of quotation. Instances include: the letter from Frazer Norton, the New Zealand soldier who saw Tony Hooper struck by shrapnel and attended his wounds; a poem, ‘Elegy for Muriel’, responding to Muriel’s premature death in a stadium fire; and a poem, ‘Huia Villa’, that speaks of his mother in a geriatric ward: her face ‘chiseled … by agony and madness to a naked sculpture of bone’.
This is not, however, a depressing story. Its author makes visible in Hooper a structure of values that kept him going, and could well be needed by us all as we advance into the anthropocene. He was a gentle fighter, stubborn and non-violent, at times perhaps too self-effacing. One of his students, watching him teach ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, believed he had become completely identified with the subject of the poem and felt himself to be this isolated and ineffectual aesthete. Perhaps there was a Prufrock in there, but there was a great deal more to him as well. A strong teacher, writer, environmentalist and social campaigner, he was no passive nihilist. As a pessimist yet a stoic struggling toward personal truth, he bore out the phrase of the Spanish philosopher Unamuno (1864–1936) as one stamped with ‘the tragic sense of life’. But it was not an unreasoned stance for those who had had to bite in turn on the existential bullets of the Depression, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.
White writes about all parts of this life, and does so in a largely informal way. He rambles and enters the story as himself quite often. These entries sometimes take us away from the subject, as on page 154, where an account of Frank and Daphne Simpson does not appear to connect with Peter Hooper. Fortunately most the author’s interventions in the book are more successful than this one, and he’s been adept, too, at fitting so much of an intensely lived life into just 197 pages. It was not an easy life, as Hooper himself knew: ‘Increasingly I’m inclined to think the life I’ve had is not the one I would have chosen and therefore very possibly, I needed it.’ The ending of the narrative with these words, followed by Brian Turner’s poem ‘Elegy for Peter Hooper’, is a telling one.
There is not a lot of literary-critical discussion of Hooper’s poetry and prose, but enough to give some idea of its range and quality. The most successful discussion of influences is probably the one on Henry David Thoreau in the chapter ‘Wind off Walden Pond’. Hooper’s first copy of Walden was bought at Whitcombe and Tombs in Christchurch on 30 July 1938. It remained on his shelves, along with many other Thoreau works, for the rest of his life. White quotes Hooper as the unabashed disciple: ‘I find Thoreau’s integrity and courage and clarity so wholly admirable that Walden is perennially invigorating. I share his love of solitude, his sense of companionship with the natural world and his search for the undying reality beneath all the shift and change of circumstance.’
Significant in this sense of connection with ‘HDT’ is the death of the philosopher’s younger brother, John Thoreau, in 1842. White considers this an important parallelism, and – on the basis of his evidence – I agree. Near the end of his life, Hooper, who had joined the Thoreau Society in Concord, Massachusetts, went there for a convention and visited the philosopher’s grave. An echo of his visit to Tony’s grave at Forli in 1961?
Perhaps it was Thoreau who pointed the poet and fiction writer in the direction of the essay. Ecology began emerging internationally as occasion for a renewed genre of philosophical writing in the 1960s. Though he never attempted anything on the scale of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817), a work which helped bring the radical Naturphilosophie of German romanticism into the English language, Hooper began to plan an educational book to bring Thoreau’s ideas to New Zealand students. This he did not carry out, but he did publish a fine piece of regional Naturphilosophie, his essay, Our Forests Ourselves, published by MacIndoe in 1981.
Notes from the Margins does lack some things. It badly needs an index and systematic referencing. Though much quotation is internally referenced by the text, some really interesting quotes are left in limbo. This is a loss, and an exasperating one. The overall flow of the story is a bit haphazard. It meanders, which makes it hard to find its bones, though indisputably it has them. Like a braided river, it spreads the shingle islands and gravels of its ‘life-material’ widely. It is up to the reader to criss-cross the riverbed carefully and pick up on the patterning, irregular, beneath their feet.
There are some typos that need repair if re-publication occurs: ‘was’ instead of ‘were’ when speaking of parents on p.37; the ship Rangitoto designated as HMS, which as a passenger liner it would not have been, on p.49; ‘Roland’ instead of Ronald (Hugh Morrieson) on p.82. These are minor errors though, and do not lessen a worthwhile portrayal of Hooper, long overdue. I would encourage the writer to give us a longer version, if he has not already had enough of the task. The book as it stands is a stimulus for more interpretation and appraisal of Hooper’s life, work and historical context. That it opens doors to further writing is full justification for Pat White’s work.
DENYS TRUSSELL, born 1946, trained as a classical pianist and continues to teach and perform music. He has published ten books of poetry, three biographies, a book of essays on art and ecology and a wide range of journalism in the UK, US, Germany, France, Australia and NZ. His most recent book, Red Woman Poems, was published in 2016. In 1975 he helped establish Friends of the Earth NZ, and still works for them.