All this week we acknowledge Dick Scott, who died on New Year’s Day, and was the author of one of the most seminal books ever published in New Zealand. Today: a tribute by Christchurch writer Jeffrey Paparoa Holman.
There are books in our lives that can change us: some of them bring death and hell, others, life and abundance. It’s the difference between, say, Mein Kampf and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. They don’t have to be great literature either (neither of my two examples qualify); but works that are possessed of a power to change minds, directions, lives, whole societies. Which is another way of saying, writers change us, by getting under our skin, entering our bloodstream with their words, lingering long after we’ve put their books down.
Dick Scott, who has died on New Year’s Day aged 93, forever changed me, altered the direction of my shipwrecked life in the few days it took me in 1990 to devour a copy of Ask That Mountain: the story of Parihaka (1975). I had found the book in the New Zealand section of the Maidstone Country Library in Kent, while working as a bookseller for Waterstones. Such irony: 18,695 kilometres to find the truth there, about us way back here.
I’d been in the UK for nearly three years, after travelling back in 1987 to the land of my 1950 birth for the first time since leaving as a toddler, sailing to New Zealand with my mother and brother. The return to Blighty had not fared well: culture shock, homesickness for Aotearoa, a lingering sense that I had no belonging at all in Mother England, plus a two-year stint working in a Kent rehab for alcoholics which ended in my terminal burnout, had all left me stranded.
I had lost a sense of who I was and what I was here for. The only good thing about the crash was it finally delivered me from the illusion that I could help my fellow drunks (I was by then, admittedly, also a recovering alkie), any more than I could had have saved my alcoholic father from his PTSD naval veteran nightmares.
The burnout did set me free to read again, and a tentative return to writing poetry, which soon became my raison d’etre. The booksellling job helped too, but I was still surrounded by England and Englishness, far from my inner home. Kent was about as Home Counties, H.E. Bates, Battle of Britain, Real Ale pubs, as you could get. Reading Janet Frame’s autobiographies on the train home at night began to unlock the doors back to writing, but it wasn’t until I picked up Dick Scott that the switch to my true belonging found rails to run on.
I read about Parihaka with a sense of disbelief, that we could have done this at all, then suppressed it so deeply under a cloak of denialism and pretended all was well. I’d lived through the 1970s, I knew about the Land March, I went to church with Māori friends in the 1980s, I’d seen the frenzy of the 1981 Springbok Tour from a West Coast distance, but like much of the rest of the country, I was still deep in the amnesiac sleep that enabled most Pākehā to carry on as if the nineteenth century and wars of confiscation, the raupatu, had never happened.
Not Dick Scott. He personified the meaning of the word “salience”, of once having seen the truth of a situation, we do not walk on, but stop and consider what is being asked of us. How apt that he was born and brought up on a farm at Whakarongo, near Palmerston North; the Māori word for “listen, pay attention”, the nearby town named in 1866 after a dead British Prime Minister.
He certainly learned to listen and not be intimidated by histories that suppressed the experience of those around him, especially those of Māori. His rural background gave him an independence outside of run-of-the-mill cow cocky politics. While I was paddling with my brother in the waters of the Waitematā in 1951, Dick was covering the lockout on the wharves, as the Holland government set out to crush the waterside workers union with decrees and a state of martial law. My father’s naval comrades were forced to unload the ships.
Dick published an account of the lockout in 1954, as 151 Days, a history of the great waterfront lockout and supporting strikes, and soon after began work on his Parihaka history, the book that would reach me over 30 years later in the remote corner of an English library. The effect of The Parihaka Story/Ask That Mountain on the landscape of New Zealand history and our inter-personal relations is probably impossible to calculate, as it was part of a larger sea-change.
It’s fair to say, however, that it was instrumental in changing a climate of opinion, so much so that the very name Parihaka is now instantly recognisable to most New Zealanders as a sign and a symbol of injustice and bad faith, a just cause that demanded, and is receiving at last, recognition and redress. That is true on a national, historical scale. For me, that issue today as I farewell you, Dick, a man I never met in the flesh, is personal.
You sir, changed my life, my direction. It took a few more years to turn myself around, get out of England, get back home and do something about that issue of salience. I could not un-see what you had seen, and shown me in your book. I bought more New Zealand books from Kiwifruits Bookshop in the Royal Opera House Arcade under New Zealand House at the Haymarket in London. I even tried Teach Yourself Māori language books (which proved too hard to do on my own back then, and I would have to return here for the real deal).
In 1997, I turned for home, enrolled at the University of Canterbury and over the next 10 years, worked at completing my undergraduate degree in English, took Māori language and society papers, Māori history, and some poetry writing courses. By 2007 there was a late-life doctorate in Māori Studies on the anthropologist Elsdon Best and his Tūhoe informants; three years later, a book launch at Maungapōhatu under the mana of the Tamakaimoana hapū of Ngāi Tūhoe.
Don’t ever let anybody tell you there is no opportunity to start again and rethink who you are and how you can relate to your past and our shared history. Dick Scott faced it head on, with courage and style. He was a change agent of the highest order and my story – woven now with his, as all our stories Māori and Pākehā, past, present and future always will be in this land – is just one more thread in the tukutuku panel of life we are together weaving by thought, belief and action in Aotearoa today, right now. He knew that. He did something about it.
E te rangatira, e Dick, e te kaituhituhi rongonui, haere, haere, haere atu rā!
Tomorrow: A tribute to Dick Scott by Toi Iti.