A brilliant essay by Murray Edmond on the partying, grief, and violence of two post-war Māori and Pākehā fathers
The biography industry has not yet produced accounts of the lives of Arapeta Awatere or Robert Lowry. Awatere, during his years in Mt Eden Prison (1969–76), compiled an autobiographical volume, Awatere: A Soldier’s Story, which combined existing material with writings that he completed in jail, and which was not published until 2003, 27 years after his death, lovingly edited by his mokopuna, Hinemoa Ruataupare Awatere, with a foreword by his eldest daughter, Hinetāpora, and three prefatory pages from youngest daughter, Donna, “Memories of my Father”. Lowry, who committed suicide in December 1963, does not seem to have left any autobiographical writing. After he died, fellow printer Ron Holloway wrote: “Buried with the printer, his own unwritten memoirs.”
What we have, for both these men, are memoir accounts from their daughters, Donna’s My Journey (1996) for Awatere, Vanya’s From the Wistaria Bush (2001) for Lowry. Donna, born 1949, and Vanya, born 1943, are both ‘children of the sixties’. and their attempts to understand their fathers’ lives and fates set up a dialogue between the children whose lives were coming into being and the parents whose lives met abrupt catastrophes. Both are short, personal pieces of writing, not ‘scholarly,’ but both writers are insightful and idiosyncratic in their individual ways. What they share is the impulse to look back and to understand.
Bob Lowry and Arapeta Awatere were each iconic figures in the cultural landscape of Auckland in the 1960s. In Bob Lowry’s fate we might see ‘the death of old-time bohemia,’ whereas in Arapeta Awatere’s we can witness ‘the peacetime defeat of the war hero.’ Awatere was also a significant poet (among many attributes). Lowry was a printer to poets (his own efforts at poetry remaining at the level of schoolboy cleverness), but lionised by poets as representing the ideal of the artist’s life: “a stone volcanic god/Fed with honey and red gourds,/Opening his heart like a great door/To poets, lovers, and the houseless poor,” as James K. Baxter wrote of him. And, to complete some uncanny connection, Awatere includes a nine-page excerpt from a Baxter essay, “The Māori View of Life and Death” in his autobiography, Awatere: A Soldier’s Story.
Therefore, this chapter is about poetry, waiata, te mahi toi, but also, and in a connected way, about politics, activism, about the shifting of identity, a shift we might characterise long-term as from ‘New Zealand’ to ‘Aotearoa’. And it is about Auckland and the life and death of its cultures: the bohemian artistic world with its enclaves on the North Shore and in Titirangi and its party house on Maungakiekie; and the Māori world with its rapidly expanding urban working class and its supportive networks. And it is also about whānau and about gender: the ways in which Donna Awatere-Huata and Vanya Lowry looked back and wrote about their fathers, Māori and Pākehā respectively, and told the story of two generations whose fateful moments took place in Auckland in the 1960s. In relation to those moments and those men, it is also about grief, te pōuri.
Bob Lowry was the heart and soul of the party, stager of Auckland’s most notorious and famous bohemian parties. Lowry’s image stood for the life and energy of creativity of that small and heroic bunch of artists who stood out against the drab and puritanical conformity and triviality that dominated New Zealand culture: “Bob Lowry, I think, was somebody who contained the whole universe within the eggshell of his own skull,” poet Denis Glover, wrote in his obituary in the Auckland Star. But by the end of 1963, when he died by his own hand, Lowry was cut off from his friends, his artist mates, and even his family, a sick alcoholic alone in that party house on the slopes of One Tree Hill, except for the odd homeless fellow alcoholic wandering in: “My father is dying. I have found a name for his disease. I shall call it cancer of the soul …. The house is dead too, the windows blank eyes …. Now, the world of my father and of our home is become nothing,” his daughter Vanya wrote in her journal.
When Awatere went to a house in Te Atatū in late 1969 and killed the man who was the present lover of the woman who had been his lover, it was, as his daughter Donna wrote, “a lightning rod event.”
The case of Arepeta Awatere is, in significant ways, opposite to Lowry’s. Here was a man who, by the end of the 1960s, stood, in the eye of the public, for many of the best things in the society, kudos achieved only with great personal courage, sacrifice and effort – a war hero and commander of the Māori Battalion, a learned scholar and teacher, a poet, a Welfare Officer, top-polling Auckland City Councillor, a man of great mana in both Māori and Pākehā worlds. So when he went to a house in Te Atatū in late 1969 and killed the man who was the present lover of the woman who had been his lover, it was, as his daughter Donna wrote, “a lightning rod event.” The killing happened two weeks before Donna took part in the Herald aria competition (which she won): “Opera deals in heightened emotion and grand tragedy. This was more poignant and more tragic than anything I’d read about.” These events were decisive and final: “they marked the beginning of my political life. It was the end of his life as an influential public figure and it was also the end of my musical career. The figure that had held the foreground through much of my life had suddenly been removed to this strange other place.”
In a way a kind of silence descended on both men, which may be a reason why they have been sidestepped by the biographers. The personal tragedies involved, one deeply private, yet widely resonant, the other exposed to a ghoulish public scrutiny, but of deep personal consequence for many lives, were in both cases immense. Without diminishing these acknowledged aspects, it might also be possible to observe in the lives of these two men iconic, representative qualities and to note that these were qualities whose time was passing during the 1960s. They were each, in that rather imperial jargon, a colossus of their world. But those worlds were in retreat. The memoirs of their daughters evoke a great deal about the state of Auckland city and its culture in the 1960s. Contrary to mythology about drugs and sex and rock ’n’ roll, “The Sixties were a woeful time,” as Donna Awatere says. She writes that “It is a myth that Māori were drawn into town by the lure of bright lights. It was government policy to resettle them there.”
She points to a central fact in post-World War II Aotearoa, that the “purpose of the Department” of Māori Affairs (for which her father worked) “was to encourage Māori into the cities as a source of cheap labour to develop the country’s secondary industries.” Donna Awatere-Huata, like her father before her, has lived a much more public and high-profile life than Vanya Lowry, so her memoir commands a different resonance. Politics, more than the arts, are at the centre. Taken together the two memoirs of these ‘daughters of the sixties’ reveal a meeting-place of arts and politics in Auckland in the 1960s.
Arapeta Marukitepua Pitapitanuiārangi Awatere, Ngāti Porou from Te Tai Rāwhiti and Ngāti Hine from Tai Tokerau, was born in 1910, in Tupāroa, into hope and mana in Te Ao Māori: “Awatere was singled out as a toa – a warrior – from an early age.” Growing up, he undertook intensive learning in the traditional wānanga of Ngāti Porou elders in Te Tai Rāwhiti. And the destiny that was seen to be in him at birth – or even before birth, as he himself wrote, “I was dedicated to my mother before I was born” – was utterly fulfilled in his life, as Lieutenant Colonel Awatere of 28th Māori Battalion he was better known than almost any other individual New Zealand soldier, apart from VC winners Moana Ngārimu and Charles Upham.
Bob Lowry, on the other hand, failed to fulfill whatever meagre destiny may have been offered him. Born in 1912 into the small-town, lower-middle class ‘decency’ of settler society in the Hikutaia Valley, near Paeroa on the Hauraki Plains, it would probably have been expected that Robert would follow the generally improving narrative of his father, who had arrived in the 1880s as a stonemason from Donegal and had climbed the social ladder from farm labourer to store keeper to farmer, making himself into a man of the community involved in local government, clubs and church. Instead young Bob transformed himself into a radical and a bohemian, retaining just the artisan vestige of his father’s stonemasonry in his printing craft. The critical moment was winning a scholarship to Auckland Grammar School where he met others of like mind and others met him, notably poet-to-be Denis Glover: “at Auckland Grammar I fell among people of rare talent …. It was there, in my own form, that I met Bob Lowry. Bob had then a passion for printing and for printing types …. It was after I had left the school [Glover went south to finish his high school years at Christ’s College in Christchurch] that Bob Lowry developed his technique … of printing on an old proofing press, the form magazine. It rapidly involved him, not for the last time, in trouble with the authorities.”
Awatere’s young life suffered a much greater disruption than Lowry’s. At age 10 his father died and then, the following year, just as he had passed his English Proficiency (one of the great dividing lines of the whole society), his mother also died. His autobiography describes what he did, age 11: “I saddled my horse, put a pack saddle on another, loaded up the paltry belongings I owned, took my cat and dogs, came to the meeting house, Tangihaere, where the people who had come to the tangi were still asleep. I walked in, had a last look at my mother’s photo, at the photo of her father, Wiremu Parata, and that of one of her uncles, Pera Te Pokapoka, then took leave. Incidentally I did not return here until twenty-four years later.”
Awatere went to study at Te Aute College, the Māori equivalent of Auckland Grammar. He embraced the study of Latin with passion. When the schools were closed during 1924–25 because of a polio epidemic, Awatere went to work on coastal shipping. In 1925, age 15, he passed his Māori Interpreters First Grade exam and then, in 1926, bounded across that second great societal dividing line, Matriculation. And by 1928 he was working for the Native Department and was a young protégé of Āpirana Ngata, who was Minister of Native Affairs, with a No.3 ranking in cabinet and occasional duties as Deputy Prime Minister.
Both Awatere’s and Lowry’s pre-Second World War experiences defined their worlds for the rest of their lives. Lowry won a further scholarship, a Lizzie Rathbone, to study at Auckland University College. There his established passion for printing led to being the printer for the four issues of Phoenix, the originary magazine for the invention of New Zealand literature, laboriously set and printed, then reset and printed, page by page, in its very first issue. Phoenix featured work by R.A.K. Mason, A.R.D. Fairburn, Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, D’Arcy Cresswell and James Bertram. Phoenix was a new bird on the block, but old bird Kiwi, the established university literary mag, was also printed by Lowry in 1932, with work from John Mulgan and M.K. Joseph. In its last two issues (issues three and four) Phoenix became increasingly left-wing and politically strident, as was Lowry himself along with his future wife, Irene Cornes.
Phoenix was denounced in the pages of Truth newspaper as a cell of “rabid red revolutionaries” who “advocated sexual promiscuity.” Lowry had quickly become the printer to the future of New Zealand literature. But Phoenix was censored, not for its politics but its “indecency,” Lowry was suspended from the Students’ Association and the University, after being arrested in 1934 for taking part in a demonstration in favour of freedom of speech. He was placed on a two-year probation and a 7pm curfew.
Awatere worked all his life for the improvement of Māori and their place in Aotearoa. At the same time, “He had matakite (second sight),” as his daughter Donna puts it
On April 9, 1936, Irene Cornes and Lowry were married at the Registry Office and in the late 1930s they bought an old house, which had originally belonged to the colonial figure, Captain Wynyard, at 32 Gladwin Rd, Epsom. S.E.3. Their first child, Robin, was born in 1938. They spent a year up north in the gumfields as the teachers for the school at Ngataki, returning to Auckland in 1940, when Bob went to Epsom Teachers’ College. Bob and Irene had found their milieu, Bob had his métier, and they had a ‘safe house’ to offer for Auckland’s small society of determined bohemians. Lowry’s own poem, “Defeat (lines written in dejection after two bottles of beer),” printed on the inside back cover of Vanya’s book, sums up the course that the printer had set (in 14 point perpetua):
Well yes with you my love
These sights, sounds, scents
The seasons and the sunsets
The senses and the censor
Beauty-besotted citizen, lover in bowler hat
The world goes round, my poppet
And that’s that.
As expressed in that poem, Lowry’s sense of inevitability is strangely at odds with his desire for radical change. Perhaps this contradiction is the product of seeing the world in a complex way. Awatere too had a complex vision of the world. He worked all his life for the improvement of Māori and their place in Aotearoa. At the same time, “He had matakite (second sight),” as his daughter Donna puts it: “His batman – Canon Wī Huata – told me my father knew he would not die in the War, but he knew when others would die.” Some things are inevitable, but nothing happens without trying – the paradox seems to hold good for a Marxist and a traditional Māori view of the world.
But, unlike Lowry, Awatere was always a man at the centre of his community, a rebel perhaps only in his insistence on exceeding expectations. On 17 January 1931 he married Elsie Bella Rogers, from Te Arawa, of Ngāti Whakaue from Ōhinemutu in Rotorua. They lived in Gisborne from 1933 until 1940 and here, while working for Native Affairs, Awatere was on the Kaiti School Committee, organiser and secretary of the Māori Voluntary Welfare Workers, physical instructor at the Gisborne YMCA, as well as being co-treasurer and cultural organiser for the founding of Ngāti Pōneke in Wellington and a member of the New Zealand Territorial Force from 1928 onwards. He was living the kind of immersed community life that Lowry had refused. By the time that the Second World War began, Elsie and Peta had four daughters. Bob and Irene had two. Both men longed for a son, in their minds the only possibility that could continue their legacies. Vanya Lowry, another daughter, was born in 1943, then in 1949 Donna Awatere, as the potiki of her family: “When I arrived he [her father] went into shock. I say he went into shock, all I learned later was that he went walkabout for another two years and my mother was bereft.”
The last hope was dashed in 1953, when Brigid Lowry was born and Bob’s poet friend A.R.D. Fairburn, also a father of several daughters, wrote in consolation:
How lucky we are Mr Lowry,
to live in the land of the kauri;
just think what, between us,
our commerce with Venus,
would have cost in the days of the dowry.
That sense of luck might be extended to later-day readers for the accounts those unwanted daughters have given us of their ungrateful fathers.
Taken from the opening chapter of a brilliant collection of essays, Time To Make A Song and Dance: Cultural revolt in Auckland in the 1960s by Murray Edmond (Atuanui Press, $38), available in selected bookstores nationwide.