Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Michael King

13/04/2004
Biographers need a keen eye. Readers want to know about the subject's career and the personality. What makes him/her tick is the secret to readability. Gossip as well as guess work, and a bit of psychological speculation, usually help. Michael King was an excellent biographer. He first tried his hand at Princess Te Puea, that inspirational leader of Tainui. He produced what is still one of the few really good books on Maori history covering the first half of the twentieth century. Then he wrote about that mercurial kuia, Whina Cooper. Eventually he turned to the literary treasures Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame. King built up a readership amongst people interested in knowing more about those they thought they already knew, and those they wanted to know.

He was less at home in the world of politics and causes, which probably explains why he had a bipartisan following. I remember him supporting the protests against the Springbok tour in 1981, a struggle that crossed party lines and touched many of us where we lived. But I don't recall his involvement in the earlier lengthy and divisive campaign against the Vietnam War. That war upset the world's economic equilibrium in the late 1960s and fixed a left-wing mindset on many of the next generation of writers and politicians. Michael probably chose wisely. One of his obituary writers remarked that he was less judgmental than most professional historians. When some Maori erected barriers against his writing about them he retreated, rather than engaged. A semi-autobiographical series of essays was entitled "Tread Softly for you tread on My Life". His forte was empathy, not combat.

I believe this was the factor that most deterred King from completing the biography he began in the late 1970s on our most able prime minister, Peter Fraser. "Old Peter" as he was known, is the only New Zealander who can lay claim to being a statesman with an international reputation. He was also a driven, complex man, with a determination to push through reforms against which many instinctively rebelled. Fraser was one of the most controversial leaders of his age, much more combative than the gentler King. After two years interviewing Fraser's contemporaries, something for which we owe him a huge debt of gratitude, Michael became ill. He'd taken the bold step of trying to live by his writing. He didn't have two more years to invest in a book about a divisive figure like Fraser that would never be a best seller. Few political biographies outside of the United States ever are.

I didn't realise that my regular inquiries about progress would rebound. Michael neatly turned the table. He asked me to complete Fraser using, amongst other things, the six boxes of material he'd gathered. I agreed. And I enjoyed it. I knew enough from the political legends within the Labour Party and from discussions with diplomats who'd worked with the old man, that I was dealing with a hugely significant political figure. Michael's notes and interviews, and my own research confirmed every bit of it and more.

King was a joy to collaborate with. He seldom worked on fewer than three books at a time, but he'd drop tools and peruse whatever I sent. There'd be a note in the margin, followed by a phone call with a bit of gossip he recalled that cast light - or shadow - on Old Peter. Rarely was he wrong: good biographers require excellent memories.

Just as Michael felt uneasy writing about politics, so he under-rated the significance of those controversial figures, the captains of industry. The Penguin History concentrates on relationships between Maori and Pakeha, and covers their joint ventures in warfare with style. We get some political history, mostly with the bumps smoothed off. But a rounder picture of New Zealand must include the stake all of us have always had in economic growth, and what we need now to keep our best and brightest living and working here. As one perceptive reviewer of the Penguin History put it, as a nation we have no future in parochialism, insularity, introspection and tribalism. Michael knew this, and acknowledged it in conversation with friends. But the nicer side of his nature prevailed in print. It has moved legions of readers to mourn his and Maria's untimely deaths. King opened up many aspects of our past, and was always fair. That sense of equilibrium will be sadly missed.