Thursday, May 31, 2012


A random series on experiences and conversations in my journalism career. All the people involved were spoken to face-to-face in interviews but some extra material by way of background may have been added to round out the experience, especially when looking back a considerable number of years.


It was one of those moments when opportunity jumped out of the pages of a newspaper. All newspaper offices hold exchange copies of other publications whether locally, nationally or internationally. Often on slow news days a perusal of other newspapers could provide an idea for a local angle to be developed.

On this occasion, in early 1976, it was a brief mention that James A. Michener would be returning to New Zealand as part of the American bi-centennial celebrations during which he would be giving some public lectures, mainly in Auckland and Wellington that caught the eye. But there was also a reference that he hoped to do some travel in the South Island.

As a young general reporter on The Southland Times, in my third year on the job, I recognised it might be worthwhile contacting the Department of Internal Affairs, the government organisation hosting the legendary writer. So I sent off a letter, duly receiving a reply that Michener would be in Invercargill and would be available for a chat.

Never had so much preparation been done for an interview. My first contact with the Michener method had been his book The Drifters which struck a chord, as it would for many who grew up through those memorable 1960s. I had also most recently completed Centennial, parts of Rascals Paradise, and had consumed The Fires of Spring, The Bridges at Toko-ri, The Bridge at Andau, Kent State: What Happened and Why and A Michener Miscellany.

In most instances these were not small books but they had a captivating quality that got right inside the subject matter.

So the moment arrived, at Invercargill's Kelvin Hotel, right next door to The Southland Times as it happens. Introductions were duly made and the folder was opened with a set of questions laid out. First things first, what on Earth had made him come to Invercargill? Having been born and bred in Southland there was an awareness that not a lot of interesting people tended to visit.

However, it turned out that during his youth when studying in Scotland on a scholarship, Michener had visited a town on the west coast of Scotland known as Oban, and he wanted to visit the other Oban that he was aware of, on Stewart Island, across Foveaux Strait from Bluff, just to the south of Invercargill.

"I'd sooner come to Invercargill than go to a tourist spot. It's not majestic, or a great centre, but I have always been interested in it," he said. "I'm a trained observer. I love the world, and I have an affinity for what is going on in it."

But with the niceties aside, it was into his writing and its development. His experience in naval aviation with the US Navy in World War Two first exposed him to the South Pacific and its stories, most notably represented through South Pacific which became a top flight Rogers and Hammerstein musical and film.

That was followed a semi-biographical novel titled The Fires of Spring. Hawaii became another movie from his books and then he spread his wings with books like Caravans and The Source.

And then, of course, The Drifters.

"Pamplona was where it all started. My wife and I would go there and sit in a public square for a while and then young kids would find out who I was and start talking to me and firing questions at me. We would talk and argue over points. I learned while I was talking with these youths."

From that he developed the plot line of a story which caught the spirit of the youth of the age, unsettled and revolutionary as it may have been but also questioning and enquiring, an aspect that Michener appreciated – it was his own modus operandi.

Michener was also a patriot and at the time in the post-Watergate years he commented that while the US had enormous opportunities to accomplish good she contained within herself the seeds of her own destruction.

"This is more true now than when I wrote it. The day could well come when Japan could exist as a homogenous nation while the United States could have blown apart into four or five regions. [He wasn't far off the mark, replace Japan with China and you see his point.]

"We in the United States are a disparate society, with different religions and races. If everything goes bad we could fall apart," he said.

There were parallels in his observations of those days with modern America. He described the experience of Watergate which was notable for, as he put it, 'the actions of unelected men around the President, Richard Nixon' as being 'pretty frightening in a democracy'.

He hadn't been impressed by the influx of students into journalism courses as a result of it – that was leading to a lot of scandal-mongering as everyone tried to emulate Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who broke the Watergate break-in.

His observations about a potential role for New Zealand in the future of the world were also interesting.

Keeping in mind the alarming rate at which the world population was increasing, he said Australia and New Zealand would have to deal in their own ways with the burgeoning population in Asia.

"It may be New Zealand's destiny to provide a surplus of educated people to emigrate overseas and pass on what they have learned," he said. New Zealand had a very good education system which produced an 'extraordinary' number of graduates who were literate compared to the US where people were leaving college unable to read or write.

Sadly our time was over at that point. Michener's wife Mari, and his Dept. Of Internal Affairs minder were conscious of the fact he had not long before suffered a heart attack and was on a prescribed programme which meant he had used up his time and would have to conclude the interview.

But the memory, as they say, lingers on. It was easy to understand why Michener had been able to relate to people of all ages in going about his work. His reasoned responses to questions, his friendliness and his basic class towards a young journalist setting out on the road was an example that has never been forgotten. Scouring through yesterday's newspapers from other regions had proven its worth yet again.

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