Obituary: Michael King

By Arnold Pickmere

By ARNOLD PICKMERE

The death in a car fire of author and historian Michael King and his second wife, Maria Jungowska, was a dark end for a man who in most respects seemed at the zenith of his career as a writer and historian.

His Penguin History of New Zealand had become a publishing sensation, selling like no other New Zealand history.

He was an inaugural winner of the Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement last October. That put a welcome $60,000 in the pocket of an often-impoverished author who, as Helen Clark put it, had "established a formidable reputation as a chronicler of the history of New Zealand and its peoples". The Herald named him New Zealander of the Year for 2003.

Casting a shadow over such recognition was the 58-year-old's painful battle against throat cancer, requiring chemotherapy which he described as "the most unpleasant thing that's ever happened to me".

Michael King was born in Wellington and grew up at Paremata, on the Porirua Harbour, attending Catholic schools in Plimmerton, Auckland and the Hutt Valley.

His BA majoring in English and history at Victoria University was followed by a move to Hamilton, working for the Waikato Times as a journalist and gaining an MA at the University of Waikato.

His early writing encompassed many Maori subjects, starting with Moko: Maori Tattooing in the Twentieth Century in 1972.

At times the notion of a Pakeha writing about Maori history was criticised. He was, some reviewers suggested, culturally removed from his subject.

King's response was characteristically straightforward at the publication of his Maori: A Social and Photographic History in 1983. He agreed he was culturally removed from his subject.

"But I look at it this way. At the moment if Pakeha were not writing about Maori history then it would not be written about at all."

He saw remaining in his role as an observer rather than a participant as no bad thing - and traditionally the role of the historian. He had instead extracted the evidence and information in his book from people who were participants.

King did conduct Maori workshops to encourage Maori writers and encouraged other Maori authors by helping in the editing and publishing of their work.

But in well over 30 books - some jointly written, produced or edited with others - he covered an extensive array of subjects, from Being Pakeha, to the Rainbow Warrior, the Moriori, and from New Zealanders at war to An Inward Sun: The World of Janet Frame in 2002.

What drove him? Partly, he told the Herald's Tim Watkin last December, the conviction that "you can't understand your country and your culture unless you know its history".

And an obligation that "as an historian you've got to tell the whole story. Of course New Zealand has had events that we'd rather not have had, but there's also a long, long tradition of Maori-Pakeha co-operation."

But writing in New Zealand on New Zealand subjects and in a small market is hard work. By 1987, when he had been writing professionally for 12 years, he confessed to being "constantly pretty short of cash", despite working endless hours.

He was surprised if his annual earnings totalled more than $10,000. He never had enough to pay a deposit on a house or be sure enough of an income to take out a mortgage. A car was a matter of "difficult necessity".

King nevertheless viewed the economic plight of writers with a certain stoicism: "Please understand that there is nothing else that I wish to do."

And he did to the end. Installed for some years in his board and batten bach at Opoutere, overlooking a stretch of Coromandel bush and seductive seascape near Whangamata, he started in 2001 The Penguin History of New Zealand, probably the biggest writing challenge a writer/historian could undertake.

Beyond huge amounts of planning and reading, it meant a working regime for three years which he described to the Weekend Herald canvas editor, Carroll du Chateau: Each afternoon he read the books dealing with the subjects to be written about next day.

In the morning he would spend another hour thinking about what he had read, then sit down and write from 7am until noon. By then his diabetes and waning "mental stamina" dictated a lunch break. Then the cycle would start again - read, think, write.

Money was never plentiful, so the $60,000 that came with his Award for Literary Achievement late last year was a relief.

"I'm in my late fifties," he told Philip Matthews of the Listener. "You end up in middle age without any kind of superannuation fund or any kind or backing."

The man who explained so much about the people of New Zealand leaves a formidable body of literature, a plain language, accessible history likely to endure and a faith in his country: "Most New Zealanders, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant ... as sound a basis as any for optimism about the country's future."

Michael King is survived by his daughter Rachael and son Jonathan.

Biography

Born: December 15, 1945, in Wellington

Educated: Sacred Heart College, Akld, St Patrick's College, Silverstream. BA Victoria University 1967, MA Waikato 1968, PhD Waikato 1978, DLit Vic 1997

Occupation: Historian, author, book reviewer, social commentator.

Awards: Feltex Television Writers' Award, Winston Churchill Fellowship 1980, Fulbright Visiting Writers' Fellowship 1988, OBE 1988, NZ Literary Fund 1987 and 1989, Wattie Book of the Year 1984, 1990, NZ Book Award (non-fiction) 1978, Burns Fellow Otago University 1998-99, Prime Minister's Literary Award 2003.

Marital status: Divorced in 1977, married Maria Jungowska in 1988

Children: Jonathan 1967, Rachael 1970

Health: Diabetes, post-polio syndrome, throat cancer in remission. His wife, Maria, had multiple sclerosis.

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