Memoirs of an Outsider

These are the memoirs of an outsider; of a left hander in a right handed world, an introvert in an extroverted world, a Maori in a Pakeha world, an observer by inclination and a participant by necessity; a bystander.

I’ve been consciously aware of being an outsider, a bit different, from an early age. As a teenager my favourite author was Thomas Hardy. His Wessex novels of social criticism, often in rural settings I readily felt at home in, portrayed outsider characters; bystanders looking on at society. I empathised with them. In the 1970s I discovered Colin Wilson and his 1956 classic “The Outsider” in which he investigated the experience of the outsider; a sense of dislocation or being at odds with society. He explored his theme through literature and through the lives of great thinkers, writers, artists and men of action. His “Outsider” was a person on a quest, experiencing life at and between the extremes of the nothingness of non-being and the highs that came in moments of great insight. The book was an instant best-seller, was translated into thirty languages, and has never been out of print. It sits still within easy reach in my study.

In the early 1970s I was also fortunate to be given time out from a full on busy military career to spend four years in Melbourne on attachment to Australian Defence. Melbourne at the time was a hive of intellectual activity during a period when many perhaps all of the social and political conventions of post-WW2 conformity were being challenged. It was the time of Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” and Dennis Altman’s “Homosexual”, two of the many books that directly challenged and upset the Establishment elites and their comfortable conservative worldview. I immersed myself in that intellectual environment; reading, attending lectures, talks and seminars, and following the performance and visual arts. I subscribed to “Nation Review”, an intellectually vibrant weekly newspaper of criticism and critique, and humour and satire, that later provided the model for my own modest effort “Te Putatara”.

The life of an outsider or a bystander is not a lonely life for it is still peopled by family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And of course nowadays by all of those Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn digital friends, followers and contacts. The life of an outsider or bystander is however lived mostly in the inner world of reflection and contemplation. A good book whether fiction or non-fiction, a good movie, play or concert, a quiet dinner and conversation with friends, or a long walk in the countryside, is infinitely more satisfying than a night at the pub or a noisy party.

It is a life lived for all or most of the last thirty years as a vegetarian then vegan, and nicotine and alcohol free, free of both recreational and prescription drugs, enjoying only the natural highs of a well exercised body, an engaged mind and a settled spirit. Vegans and wowsers are outsiders by choice of course. But I’m a health nut vegan rather than a hard core animal rights political vegan. I’m not that much of an outsider.

My friend Wira Gardiner has described me as an iconoclast and as the Thomas Paine of Maoridom (displaying his knowledge of American & European history). Some in the Army called me an enigma which I thought said more about them than me. I always knew exactly who and what I was. One of my mentors the late Sir John Mokonuiarangi Bennett told me that my biggest weakness was my inability to suffer fools gladly and I told him he was right but that I always regarded it as a strength as well.

They are only partly autobiographical these revelations or memoirs of mine, keeping from you many aspects of myself and my life’s experience. I’m a private sort of person. Very private. So you should remember as you read that I am many things other than those I reveal. Much like the rest of you.

At this point though I should reveal that I was once a commissioned officer in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, a veteran of the Borneo and Vietnam campaigns. A twenty year soldier. That much you can obtain from the public record. I was once also a spook. Those two occupations will provide some of the material for the memoirs.

These are memoirs but memory is a notorious and scientifically proven liar.

Firstly our powers of observation are not as good as we think they are and we often miss or misinterpret what is happening around us. Eye witnesses in court cases, including policemen, are by definition unreliable, for the eye and the ear are easily deceived. Ask any stage magician, or cognitive psychologist, or my late grandmother who taught me at the age of 5 never to believe anything in the newspapers, or on the radio, and to believe only half of what I observed myself.

The brain simplifies what it observes. Then it focuses on that which we understand and expect from our own experience and stored memories. In doing so the brain leaps to conclusions that fit that experience and memory. And it all happens unbeknown to us behind the veil of consciousness.

As the Talmud (and Anais Nin) told us, “We see things not as they are but as we are”.

Secondly, we all reconstruct our memories all the time. We adjust the facts to accommodate them within the narratives we have created for ourselves to make sense of our lives. We are constantly engaged in giving meaning to our lives through our mental narratives, within which we usually view ourselves as good and worthy people, and sometimes not. We discard or conveniently forget those facts that don’t fit our narratives.

When our unconscious narratives are too much at variance with the facts of our lives we are declared deluded or at worst insane.

With that in mind I have carefully avoided the perils of delusion and insanity, I hope, by checking my recollections as much as I am able without spending years in research. I have checked newspaper accounts of events, various books that have described them, and of course multiple sources on the Internet. I have plumbed the memories of others who witnessed those events. I have consulted my own papers, diaries and journals which are comprehensive, detailed and recorded close to the events described.

Like everyone but I hope to a lesser degree than most I am inclined to judge people and happenings against my own experiences and beliefs, sometimes out of context, and to draw conclusions and make observations; sometimes in error. I shall try in this memoir of mine to differentiate between fact and observation, and to faithfully observe the context, like the accomplished intelligence analyst I once was.

These memoirs are then a record of a journey of some seventy years, or more accurately, about some moments on that journey. They venture outside my own experience to add historical, political and social context to the stories they tell.

Whilst those stories are as far as I can make them factual accounts they may at times read like works of fiction, with elements of both tragedy and comedy. Comedy is an essential element in a joyful life; to be able to see the humour in almost any situation. Tragedy and learning to react stoically to tragedy is the balance in the well lived life. As the cliché goes – it’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s how we deal with it. The tragedic elements in some of these stories stem almost entirely from three main characters; Ignorance, Racism, and Paranoia.

In the first essay I open with an account of a few instances of the racism I have encountered in my own life, to allow the reader to feel the actual experience of racism rather than trying to define it or describe it. In the life of a Maori in a Pakeha world racism is just part of the background noise, mostly soft noise but sometimes loud and jarring.

Regardless of personality type and inclination Maori are by definition outsiders. Which is probably why we continue to preserve our own Maori insider’s world. Because of it some accuse us of apartheid. Some Maori choose to live there almost permanently. Others like me move between the two worlds the one providing a retreat from the other. Some choose to live entirely in the outside Pakeha world.

In my childhood, sixty to seventy years ago, we “half caste” children were a species apart, outsiders by accident of parentage and birth. We were loved and accepted by both our Maori and Pakeha whanau but never fully part of either Maori or Pakeha society. We participated in both, distastefully labelled “half caste” by Pakeha, and if we excelled at school labelled “Pakeha” by those Maori who used cultural difference, however slight, as an excuse for their own learning deficiency.

Those were the days when there were few Maori university graduates. I was the first in our hapu to gain School Certificate, then University Entrance and Higher School Certificate. An oddity if not an outsider. Now we have dozens of university graduates. Education once valued mostly just in our whanau and especially by the aunties, is now prized by the whole hapu. I have seen that happen in my lifetime; the slow but gradual then increasingly rapid movement of Maori out of the shadows of the underclass into the educated middle class. There is still a long way to go but with the advancement I have witnessed in my own lifetime we can look forward to the time when we Maori outsiders are outsiders by genetic programming and choice alone rather than racial discrimination.

I myself like being an outsider and will continue to be an outsider, regardless. I’ve gotten comfortably used to it. It wasn’t always so.