Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Long live the King

The following is a transcript of the last broadcast interview Michael King gave before his untimely passing. It aired March 25, 2004 on 95bFM. Interviewer is Simon Pound, transcriber Matt Nippert.

SP: It must have been a hard time of late with Janet Frame's death, but perhaps there’s some consolation your biography helped cement her place in the New Zealand imagination.

MK: Well I'd like to think it had that effect. At least it means Janet got the degree of recognition and appreciation that she deserved before she died. Because if Janet had died 30 or 40 years ago she’d always be known as that crazy old woman who was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and wrote some funny books. It's really only been in the last 10 years that her reputation has consolidated and been fully recognized in New Zealand.

SP: And it must have been quite a wonderful occasion to receive the Prime Minister's Award for services to the arts in her company.

MK: In her company, and in the company of Hone Tuwhare, it was marvelous. They were the other two winners, and they were two writers who are a generation ahead of me, and who I absolutely revere and respect. It was wonderful, yes.

SP: You've said that the reason you write books for a general audience, rather than academics, is that you feel people need to hear the stories and you need to get the widest access possible.

MK: Yes, I still think that’s a scholarly function, because my books, I hope, are written in a scholarly way. The point I've always made is that I’m writing for a general audience, rather than just for an audience of academics or fellow historians.

SP: The best thing history can provide I guess is a sense of context for New Zealand readers.

MK: I hope so, and indeed in current affairs or history, like the seabed and foreshore debate, only make sense in the context of history, so you need that background.

SP: That's one other things that you’ve been known for over the years, taking a sociological viewpoint and examining what it means to be Pakeha in New Zealand. What do you think, now, today, what it means to be a New Zealander in general, and a Pakeha specifically?

MK: A huge change has taken place in my lifetime. When I was a child in the 1940s and early 1950s, my parents and grandparents spoke of Britain as home, and New Zealand had this strong sense of identity and coherence as being part of the commonwealth and a the identity of its people as being British. That of course has changed. I doubt if you'd find anybody now who would see the New Zealand identity in that way. So what's happened is that since that time we've become conscious of the fact we've got two major cultural streams. The Maori or indigenous one, and the other one that I chose to call Pakeha, and I've got no problem with that particular name. I'm astonished that some people do.

SP: By that you mean all other immigrants, not just a purely white term?

MK: No, no, no. Pakeha can have two meanings in its Maori usage. It can refer to people who came in origin from Europe, but it's also used in the sense of Maori and non-Maori. So that anything in New Zealand that is not specifically Maori would, in the Maori language, be identified as Pakeha. So I would use that word now for mainstream New Zealand culture. And I would regard it, as I've said in other forums and at other times, I don't regard it anymore as an imported culture or tauiwi, foreign, culture. I regard Pakeha culture now as a second indigenous culture. Although it has its origins in Europe, it’s vastly changed in the 150 years or so that Pakeha have been in New Zealand. It's changed in interaction with Maori culture and in interaction with the land. Most New Zealand Pakeha people now when they go back to their countries of origin, they may feel some sense of affinity there – but they don’t think that it's home.

SP: In saying that, identity is still emerging, it's still coming together. It’s a very positive tone, your book, it seems to be saying 'look there are troubles, but we’re all in this together and we’re not doing that bad a job.' Do you think the divisiveness stirred up by the Orewa speech, we do need to appreciate the fact we're all together in this?

MK: Yes, of course we do. I also think you can't measure the seriousness of the problem by the intensity of the rhetoric. It's less than a decade ago when there was a huge argument going on over the National Government's fiscal envelope proposal, when they were saying they would restrict Waitangi Treaty settlements to a total of a billion dollars. That caused an uproar at hui up and down the country, it caused Sir Charles Bennett to say that he would advise Maori not to fight for New Zealand again. And yes, it was one of those issues that was talked through and eventually laid to rest as I'm sure this one will be. I see the great continuities in New Zealand history as being decency and common sense and up until now when we’ve confronted these things we’ve been able to talk them through, and I'm sure we will with this issue as well.