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Gang life: an interview with writer Jarrod Gilbert

None of the other New Zealand Post Book Awards general non-fiction finalists went to quite the same lengths as Jarrod Gilbert did for his history of gangs.

Jarrod Gilbert outside a Christchurch gang headquarters. Photo/Martin Hunter

Say what you like about Robert Muldoon, you’ve got to admire his bottle. In 1976, as the then Prime Minister was embarking on what would prove to be a rare period of social initiatives, rather than law and order, to deal with New Zealand’s gangs, he held a meeting with 20 to 30 Black Power members, one of whom began flicking beer at him. “The Prime Minister ignored this taunt until he came to the end of his whisky,” writes Jarrod Gilbert in Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand, “at which point he threw the dregs at his young assailant. The Black Power were impressed. Not only did the Prime Minister enjoy a drink, but he was also prepared to stand up for himself – two attributes the gang admired.”

Gilbert, 38, was required to establish his credentials again and again during the eight years he spent on the sociology PhD that forms the basis of Patched, his first book and a general non-fiction finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Not just with Black Power, either, but also with the numerous other gangs with whom he was embedded.

“You can establish your credentials in many ways,” he says. “If there’s a three-day party and you stay there for three days, in some small way that’s assisting to prove yourself, because you’ve got a bit of mettle. There were a couple of fights where I was involved on the side of the gangs and we came out fairly well. Little things like that assisted. There were times where I held my ground, even with a knife at my throat.”

It does no disservice to Gilbert’s fellow award finalists to say none of them has gone to quite the same lengths. The lengths were beyond what even he expected.

Gilbert, who grew up “in a middle-class family in Hobsonville, of all places”, set out with “all the preconceived notions and stereotypes I think the general public tend to hold” – gangs being “a go-to for society’s ills. If there’s a problem, it’s got to be gang-related somewhere.”

Looking back, he cringes “a little bit at just how naive I was, really. And certainly how I didn’t come a cropper more often is a mystery.”

Although there are “as many alliances as antagonisms” between gangs, there were times when he went straight from one group to a rival.

“Jumping over fences of enemies was awkward,” he says – “awkward” being a word he uses often and with wonderful understatement.

“So I tried as best I could to have different groups in different geographies to solve that. But sometimes that was impossible. There were quite awkward incidents. One where there was a killing and I was with one group one week and then the other group the next. That got a bit awkward.

“Early on, when I was first being introduced [to groups], they would ask perhaps about opposition groups and I would just be very quick to say, ‘I’m not going to talk about them, in the same way I’m not going to talk about you.’ I was quite surprised how well they heard that. That they genuinely didn’t push.”

Headhunters members handing in weapons during an amnesty after 1979’s Moerewa inter-gang riot.

As well as the hairy moments involving beatings and danger to himself, there were the things Gilbert witnessed happening to other people.

“When I first went into the field, I think I told the human ethics committee [at the University of Canterbury] I was going to do structured interviews in a safe environment, because I feared they wouldn’t allow me to do the research. I was a bit dishonest there. I definitely did have and drafted an ethical code I had given great consideration to.

“I did some reading in the area and went, ‘Whatever happens, I protect my sources.’ And that’s really good in theory, but in practice, when you come up against things that really stretch that ethical code and bounce miles off your own morality, then gee, it does become much more difficult than that.

“But nevertheless, regardless of those difficulties and some issues I think may open me up to criticism, I stand by it. If there’s any thought you were going to be a nark or going to inform on anybody, your own research is over and it also means there’ll be no other research in this field for years while those wounds heal.”

Did he have a cut-off point in his head beforehand?

“You know what, I didn’t. There were some things that were really awkward …” He’s not to be drawn on details, although does say: “There were certain things around violence to women on occasion. The plotting of certain things.”

The fruits of Gilbert’s research – as assiduous (if less perilous) in libraries and archives as it was in gang houses – have produced a book admirable for its thoroughness and fact-based tackling of rhetoric and received wisdom on the part of politicians, police and gangs themselves (including about patches, since subject to a new Act banning them from Crown and local authority property).

In places, the book does seem to take a glass-half-full attitude towards gangs, but Gilbert insists: “I’d like to think where I argued against the orthodoxy I did have the evidence to support it.”

Police, he says, “barely return my phone calls any more”.

The reception from gangs, however, has been favourable on the whole. “I’m sure you can imagine that was a relief.”

Not that that was a concern he could allow himself to be cowed by, he says. “I wrote the book without fear or favour. Every day I repeated that mantra to myself. When you stay on the scene as long as I did, I think they respect the fact I wasn’t a fly-by-night, I was genuinely putting in an effort. Even if in their view I may have got some things wrong, or I didn’t damn the police and society as they might have liked to see perhaps, or made them look like heroes or something like that, I think they can acknowledge the fact I gave it a fair old nudge and an honest nudge.”

PATCHED: THE HISTORY OF GANGS IN NEW ZEALAND, by Jarrod Gilbert (AUP, $49.99); the New Zealand Post Book Awards winners are announced on August 28.

Guy Somerset is one of the judges of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.