Michele Hewitson Interview: Paul Moon

By Michele Hewitson

Paul Moon's book on cannibalism won him a reputation as anti-Maori and he is a target of hate mail. Photo / Richard Robinson
Paul Moon's book on cannibalism won him a reputation as anti-Maori and he is a target of hate mail. Photo / Richard Robinson

Want an opinion on whether taniwha exist? Or whether the Maori King should be the Maori King? The current go-to historian seems to be Paul Moon, who is supposed to be a very controversial figure.

I didn't know whether he was or wasn't Maori. He isn't. Did some people think he was Maori? He said I'd have to ask Paul Henry.

That was a joke. It took me a while to realise this because he is not given to making jokes. Oh, hang on. He did make one other joke now I come to think of it.

He once wrote a book - he is only 42 and has written either 18 or 19, he can't remember which - about traditional Maori gardening, among other cultural aspects, called A Tohunga's Natural World: Plants, Gardening and Food. I was looking at his garden and asked where his kumara patch was (I thought he had an interest in these things). He said: "At Countdown."

Aside from being the possessor of a desert dry wit then, and a very controversial historian, he has also been described as New Zealand's most right-wing historian.

He is also said to be anti-Maori, probably because he has written that Maori have a pre-European history of hitting their kids and that book about Maori cannibalism which he says, in his view, is the least controversial book he's written.

Is he controversial, right-wing and anti-Maori? Don't ask me. I asked him but of course he said this was all silly and he didn't know and he doesn't have views on things. He says he doesn't even know what a right-wing historian would be like. Well, how does he vote? By applying an inverse rule: "I work out the groups I don't want and vote for whatever's left." And what is left "varies".

He ought to be a flamboyant character. He is on paper. He is supposed to have had some fantastic spats - Claudia Orange, according to Wikipedia at least, once said he was out of his mind. I only mentioned it because I thought he might think it was funny. He doesn't.

He says about her, by the way, that he very much respects her. Does he think she respects him? Now that really is an idiotic thing to ask him. He doesn't know (fair enough), but he also doesn't care either way. Wouldn't he want to be respected by a historian whose work you respect? "It doesn't matter."

I asked who else he'd fallen out with and he said: "I don't know what you mean by falling out with."

So I'll have to tell you. His other fallings out include the Catholic Church - "they fell out with me" - after he described Bishop Pompallier in less than worshipful terms, so he might have expected a backlash.

He says there are another "one or two" academics he's fallen out with. This is a grand academic tradition, so what fun. "Oh, I'm not amused by it." Of course he isn't. He regards such silliness as, and, silly me, I really should have guessed this, a waste of time.

He never wastes time. And he certainly doesn't muck about having feelings for the historical figures he writes about. It would make no difference whether he liked or disliked Hone Heke, say.

Wouldn't it, really? I'd think that you'd be hard pushed to spend long periods of time with a character and not form a view, but, he says, it makes no difference what he feels. "I try to develop an understanding of the person but I certainly don't develop any personal preferences. I don't say what I like or dislike about them because if I happen to like or dislike them, that's immaterial."

He writes, very tidily, in exercise books with his name on the front: Paul Moon, 2010, in his tiny, cramped handwriting. Like a school project. "Hopefully I'll get a gold star at the end of it." Actually, that might be another joke.

What a funny way to write history books. Not at all, he said, what else was writing but doing writing, in books? Yes, but most historians, surely, write on computers.

He doesn't know whether they do or not - he knows some historians, but none are his friends. (He said, "What do you mean by friends?" I don't think he was being obstructive; he really wanted a definition.) He likes to write in longhand because he doesn't like to waste time on drafts. "It's discipline." Drafts encourage writers to write "sloppily". He doesn't do anything sloppily. "I try not to."

He claims, and so I must believe him, to live in his Hobsonville house with a wife, three children between the ages of 3 and 10 (the 20-year-old, his wife's child from a previous relationship has just moved out) and a small dog. I said, looking around, "And they live here?" You can excuse him for being bewildered.

"Yeah. Why?" he said, looking around. But honestly I've never been in such a tidy or clean house where there are kids (except for John Banks', and he's got that OCD thing happening). Oh well, he said, airily, he and his wife tidy up every two or three days.

His house, then, looks exactly as you'd imagine the inside of his head to look: everything dusted and polished and categorised. He works very long hours - he must, to have written all those books although he doesn't have an opinion on whether that's a lot of books to have written at the age of 42 or not.

He gets up early in the morning to write in the living room, on the coffee table, and goes to bed late-ish. The morning I saw him he'd got up at 2.30am to write, although he was at pains to point out that was unusual - perhaps even he could have formed the opinion that this wasn't quite a normal thing to do.

Have I mentioned that he doesn't like to waste time? When he goes to meetings - he's a professor at AUT (he got his BA at the University of Auckland; his philosophy masters at AUT and his PhD at Massey) so he probably goes to a few - he takes his material and looks at it when the meeting "goes into an area I'm not interested in".

This strikes me as an odd, if not rude, thing to do. Do the other people at the meeting know he's working on his stuff during their meeting? "Everyone takes papers to meetings." Yes, but you'd think they are usually papers to do with the meeting. "Maybe you rate meetings too highly."

I'm sure he's not consciously being rude. It just wouldn't occur to him that it would be rude to read your own papers in a meeting. Just as not offering us a drink (I'm struggling to think of anyone whose house I've been to for an interview who hasn't offered at least a glass of water) wouldn't have occurred to him. We were all there to work, so there would have been no point in mucking about with niceties, also, imagine the mess it would have made of the kitchen.

He is a Christian, and was raised and remains a Congregationalist, (they are closest to Presbyterians, but the Churches are entirely independent and sans hierarchy). His God is "the biblical God, the God of the New Testament"; he believes in the devil, heaven and prayer.

His idea of "leisure" reading is Milton's Paradise Lost, although he thinks Milton was "seduced ... byhis ability to make Satan too much of a hero"; Gibbon's Decline andFall, and Richmal Crompton's William books. I have no idea whatto make of his reading list although it's tempting to note that William(and Milton) were troublemakers.

The William books are ripping yarns. A critic once said Moon's books were Boy's Own adventure stuff. What does he think of that? "I think it's just silly."

Because of the getting up at mad hours and the number of books and the number of kids, and the attitude to wasting time, I was amazed to learn he had a hobby. A hobby seems too fanciful a dalliance, and it is possibly the wrong word for his china collecting.

He mostly collects early 20th century, mostly art deco teacups and saucers. Most people who collect things for fun like the stuff they collect. But he also has examples of 60s design which he thinks hideous but still displays in his living room cabinets - which are more like museum cases. (I wouldn't be at all amazed to learn that he has measured the distance between his teacups with a ruler.)

We had a very interesting (to me; not to him, I suspect) discussion about why anyone would collect, and display, stuff they can't stand the sight of. "Well," he said, "these things are evocative of a particular period. It's the same reason why people in the 18th century used to go travelling: to look at trees and cliffs and ruins. And that sort of thing is not particularly nice, but they are interesting." Whether he likes the china or not is, and no surprise here, immaterial.

For a person who has a profile because of his opinions, he seems determined to deny he has opinions. He must like having a profile. His AUT bio devotes a decent whack of space to detailing his media appearances yet, in an "ideal world", he says, "you wouldn't have to worry about that sort of thing". Then why does he bother with it? He says if he can provide "clarification" about issues like the taniwha, or the Maori King, that is a "useful" contribution.

For his pains he gets abusive emails and phone calls. He asked me not to repeat the most "terrible" recent message, and nobody would, it's so awful.

He seems to be at a complete loss why he'd attract such abuse. He won't even hazard an opinion. I'm at pretty much at a complete loss what to make of him.

It is true that he could be forgiven for being distracted - he'd had some news that morning that he asked me, perfectly reasonably, not to print. But he didn't seem distracted. I said he should have cancelled the interview; anyone would have.

So why didn't he? I think if he says he's going to do something - an interview, writing a book about cannibalism that, as he was told when he began it, would cause trouble - he does it and that's that. His idea of bad manners would probably be to cancel. Some people will like him for this; others won't. He has no opinion either way, so there is no point in me having one.

I went to interview the provocative historian, but he was out for the day.

- NZ Herald

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