Photo credit: Liz March
Stephanie Johnson on Peter Wells:
I first met Peter Wells soon after my return to New Zealand. In the early 90’s I was trying to write a play set in Napier after the earthquake and he invited me to visit and borrow some cassette tapes, which were recordings of witnesses of the 1931 disaster. Napier had been and will always be a source of inspiration for him. He had already, at this stage, made his short film ‘The Newest City on the Globe’ (1986), which celebrated the art deco architecture of that city and went some way to halt the wholesale destruction of many buildings. We could say that Peter has always done a fine line in instilling pride of various and vivid kinds in his fellow New Zealanders. His 1988 film ‘The Mighty Civic’ acted as saviour to the fantastical ornate Queen Street cinema that had its head on the chopping block, ready to go the same bleak way as His Majesty’s Theatre, the Synagogue and many other treasures. His prolific work in print and on film that focuses on gay life and identity has empowered and inspired many in the LGBTQI community. Pride in our national inheritance and pride in our sexuality are two of his gifts to us all.
On that long ago afternoon I set off from our house in Murdoch Road, Grey Lynn, for the two-minute walk to the cottage in Millais Street that he shared with then-partner Stuart Maine. I remember his gracious welcome, I remember I talked too much, I remember being completely in awe of him. We had a mutual friend in Anne Kennedy, who had written the short story ‘Jewel’s Darl’, which formed the basis for a short film of Peter’s of the same name, made in 1987.
It was during the years I was in Australia that Peter made most of his films, except for his only feature film ‘Desperate Remedies’, co-directed with Maine. Although Grey Lynn/Ponsonby was changing rapidly from artists and bohemes to people on bulging salaries who painted their villas taupe, it seemed that half the central city was involved in the film. Set in colonial Auckland, wild, camp and sumptuous, the movie was released to wide acclaim in 1993. It was a new way of looking at our history – inventive and risky – and threw open the door to a path away from the usual stolid, careful fare.
Our friendship, then, has mostly revolved around books – not only the books we were individually writing, but also the books we were reading, and for a period especially the books that we wanted to celebrate in the Auckland Writers’ Festival. Together with a group of keen literary types that included Tessa Duder, Stephen Stratford, Carole Beu, Michael Moynahan, Sarah Sandley, Keith Stewart and Murray Grey, we established the festival in 1998. By this stage my family and I had moved to another house in Rose Road, which luckily had a long table perfect for plotting and planning a festival to rival the best in the world. Although we had a lot of support, there were also a lot of detractors. Peter is a remarkably resilient man and none of the mean-spiritedness was allowed to get under his skin. Auckland was in need of a writers’ festival: under successive brilliant directors it has become a permanent fixture on the calendar.
Our friendship has endured for over twenty years and in that time Peter has published ten books, predominantly as author, with two as editor. Sometimes it seemed we were writing books in tandem, particularly those that centered on our country’s colonial history. In the late twentieth century a kind of bald, adjective-poor and adverb-less style was in vogue. Peter’s style is the antithesis of this and has many admirers, both here and overseas. His writing is ornate, dense, surprising, abounding in metaphor and simile. For many of his readers this is as welcome as rain after a drought, or landfall after being drearily becalmed at sea.
In Peter’s work, nineteenth century and contemporary New Zealand comes alive in all its various guises – characters gay and straight, real and unreal – and Peter takes us right into their hearts. Even in his fiction there is the sense that what he is telling you is true – true to the experience of many people and more vividly and compellingly elucidated than any of us could manage. The novel Iridescence (2003) grew out of material he had encountered as a post-graduate history student at Warwick University, England. The book is fat and epic, following the sometimes scurrilous adventures of a group of theatricals in the last decades of the Victorian era in London and Napier. His histories The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso (2005) and Journey to a Hanging (2014) give personalised, deep insight into New Zealand lives in the mid-late nineteenth century. Many readers treasure his intricate understanding of how people thought, wrote, loved and went about their daily work. This is further demonstrated in his 2018 family memoir Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pakeha History, which concentrates on his maternal Napier family with many fine tangential musings on how we once were.
While Peter worked on Dear Oliver his mother Bess was dying. He includes in the book her final years and death so lovingly and piercingly that you can only read it, as I did, through tears. I knew Bess, and I knew how much they loved one another. Peter’s only sibling Russell, an accomplished lawyer and speaker of Te Reo, died before Peter and I became friends, so I never met him. The family, apart from cousins in Wellington, is small.
Due for release in a week’s time is what might be Peter’s last work: Hello Darkness. It began over a year ago as Facebook posts when he was admitted to Auckland Hospital with terminal cancer. He wrote subtly, angrily, humorously, courageously. He approached the illness as a subject worthy of all his attention and care. He wrote about his sadness at the prospect of leaving behind his long-term partner and beloved husband, the writer Douglas Lloyd Jenkins. He wrote about nurses, doctors, other patients. The posts were widely read and treasured for the richness of insight and the beauty of his language – and now they are made into a book. It will be launched at Samesame But Different, a highly successful festival of LGBTQI writing that Peter established.
I feel very lucky to have Peter as one of my closest friends. He is funny, erudite, generous, kind and full of stories.
Editor’s note: A week after his book launch of Hello Darkness, Peter Wells passed away. Goodbye Peter, we will miss you.
Michael King Fellowship (2011)
New Zealand non-fiction literary prize, convened by CLL [Copyright Licensing Ltd] (2009)
Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and film (2006)
Shortlisted for the Tasmania Pacific Fiction Prize (2005)
Runner-up for the 2004 Deutz Medal for Fiction (2004)
Winner of Biography Category of the Montana NZ Book Awards (2002)
Winner of NZ Book Award for Fiction (1992)
Winner PEN Best First Book in Prose Award (1992)
NZ Book Council writer page
Full bibliography at University of Auckland Literature File
NZ Herald interview discussing the Hello Darkness series (May, 2018)
Stuff interview discussing Dear Oliver and sexuality (March, 2018)