Owen Wilkes

by Gordon Campbell / 28 May, 2005

As his former colleagues fondly attest, Owen Wilkes was the sort of good keen chap who would wear only a T-shirt and shorts in midwinter, would rarely go to the doctor, who built his own house and scorned wearing a helmet while riding his bicycle. A classic Kiwi individualist. Yet for decades Wilkes was also the visible face of the peace movement in New Zealand, and the man who laid its intellectual foundations. A brilliant researcher and organiser, Wilkes became a household name in this country during the 70s and 80s for his trail-blazing forays into New Zealand's political, military and academic links to the US military machine.

Wilkes died in Kawhia in early May, two weeks after his 65th birthday. The New Zealand national scene that he burst onto in the late 1960s was a vastly different place - being a society where appeals could be made directly to a shared sense of community, and to widely held feelings of public outrage. It was that sense of nationalism and community - his belief that New Zealand was a place small enough to mobilise around a common purpose - that sustained him for much of his activist life. It inspired his leadership role in campaigns at Black Birch, Mt John and Tangimoana and, in turn, he inspired others. For similar reasons, Wilkes became involved in the anti-apartheid and Vietnam war protests as well. Looking back, though, it was those early peace campaigns that laid the groundwork for the non-nuclear, relatively independent foreign policy that is now mainstream public opinion in New Zealand, post-Anzus.

Not that Wilkes ever wanted, or felt that he could, rest on his laurels. "He was a remarkably lucid thinker," says his friend Alan Robson, who first met Wilkes during the Mt John protests. "He could cut through cant and hypocrisy to illuminate special interests, and then mobilise public opinion, with good reasoning. In this way, he was an apostle of liberalism. He had a liberal's ironic humour, and he was amused by the Swedish Government's hamfisted prosecution of him for espionage when he was working as a researcher at Uppsala. In Sweden, too, he could appeal to long-standing liberal traditions and common sense, to convert the prosecution into a pyrrhic victory for the authorities ..."

A similar pyrrhic victory befell the Buller Council when it chose to demolish Wilkes's self-built house at Punakaiki. His warmth, good humour and skills as a raconteur were legendary to many. Others have cited his generosity about sharing his research. Perhaps surprisingly, given his genuine good keen man externals, Wilkes also happened to be a lover of ballet and opera - he once went to Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman at Sydney Opera House - and he was a good friend of the artist Tony Fomison. At one time, Wilkes had mastered the art of fire-eating, a particular party trick of his.

For most of his life, though, Wilkes was also prone to bouts of deep depression. Koa, his only child, committed suicide, a devastating tragedy for which he blamed his own "depressive genes" and which contributed to his retirement from the peace movement in 1992. In later years, Wilkes tended his garden, went sailing, and returned to his first love, archaeology. As the historical officer for the Department of Conservation in Hamilton, Wilkes charted many sites in and around his beloved Kawhia Harbour, the location where - ultimately - he took his own life.

Given his personal burdens, Wilkes's achievements burn even brighter. With globalisation, the New Zealand that he championed had become subject to new political and economic pressures. "By the time I met him again in the late 1990s," Robson says, "Owen was aware that New Zealand was being absorbed into a wider world on terms which threatened his core values of rational individualism - and which eroded the community solidarity in which it could be expressed." By then, Wilkes had chosen to withdraw from the wider battle, and to devote himself instead to the issues and to the friendships within his local community. Ultimately, that proved not quite enough to keep the depression at bay. Yet, it has left many now to respect and to mourn him, across all walks of New Zealand society.


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