Notes from the Margins: the West Coast’s Peter Hooper by Pat White.
Alexandra: Frontiers Press (2017).
RRP: $35. Pb, 202pp.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
Writer Peter Hooper was a West Coaster in heart and of mind, educated amongst and inspired by the distinct natural elements that make up this landscape and mould its people. He is not widely known despite a considerable output, and Notes from the Margins is friend and fellow West Coast poet Pat White’s thoughtful and diligent tribute to him. A poet and novelist, essayist and oft-times secondarily a teacher or bookshop owner, Hooper was fascinated by the written word and its power to create and compel. He also felt the weight of obligation to put forth his ecological and philosophical concerns, influenced by the ideas and ideals of Henry David Thoreau.
Born in 1919 in England, Hooper nevertheless grew up on the Coast from a young age, later attending Greymouth High School of which he was dux. Brother Tony was killed in the Second World War. This became a formative experience for Hooper, shaping his personality and writing, which was from then on was marked by loss. As White states, this tragedy became part of Peter’s as well; his journey was now one alongside the presence of the deceased.
The West Coast is edge territory, with wild changes of weather and sparsely populated, which lends itself in its isolation to insularity. White observes that Hooper himself was an introvert, often intensely so, living and writing alone, who despite an overseas period came home a year later because he wanted to continue his journey to the ‘still centre’. Though desiring family life this never happened; however, socially and intellectually he engaged with others through his role as a high school teacher and mentor. Many younger men sought friendship or guidance from him, either in their creative pursuits or in life choices more generally, and as this memoir records, he has remained firmly in many of their minds.
The writers of this region, like artists more broadly, cannot help but be affected by the extreme natural conditions. The landscape and weather changes form a definitive aspect of their work. Younger writers Mervyn Thompson, Bill Pearson and Brian Turner were all (near-)contemporaries. Of the lush forests the author writes that Westland’s are not one but many, and diverse, ‘tied together with language that drips moisture, reflects light … they are podocarp, temperate rain forests, growing on clay and pans of leeched mud …’ (p 144). And the presence of rain also is always there, outlined in the lovely poem “Rain over Westland”: ‘Rain over Westland/ and the night moths battering the pane …’ (p 26). So too is the distinctive light with its clarity, brightness and sudden convolutions, to which the mind responds.
Hooper’s best-known work was his trilogy of futuristic novels which began with A Song in the Forest (1979). The second, People of the Long Water, won the National Book Award (1986). He invested increasingly in growing environmental movements from the 1960s, joining Forest and Bird and the Maruia Society. These concerns were at the base of his work, for example as seen in the long essay Our Forests Ourselves (1980). He witnessed and experienced jarring political and ideological times, especially in the growth of unionism and workers’ rights in relation to the mining industry, and much later anti-war protests and the urgency of environmentalism. In these he became wholly involved and passionate.
Therefore, as White shows, while Hooper sympathised with and appreciated the needs of the average man to carve a life for himself and a family primarily through mining, forestry or farming, ethically this proved a challenge for him. Diverging from the mainstream, blue-collar lives of the Coast, Hooper pursued education, the intellect, and art for art’s sake; factors rather irrelevant and often considered pretentious by the average West Coaster. Thus with age and over time he felt increasingly removed from the everyday man, and somehow had to reconcile living on the West Coast and a love for the natural landscape with a growing objection to the majority’s values.
White has produced a sensitive and detailed account of his friend and former teacher from his own experiences of him. In doing so the author recognises his limits: that his knowledge is subjective, based on his own experiences of the man, and also that his subject of study, due to his introverted nature, will always contain a large degree of mystery. Hooper had underplayed his own significance, and Notes from the Margins fills a gap as an honourable tribute to him.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.