The Silence Beyond: selected writings by Michael King, with an introduction by Rachael King

by Rachael King / 28 May, 2011
Novelist Rachael King remembers her father, Michael, and explains why his name was not really King in this adapted version of the introduction to a new selection of his published and unpublished writing.

In the late 1990s, when I was working at Pavement magazine in Auckland, my father and I regularly met for lunch at a cafe in town. He liked catching up on my news, and because of our easy relationship, always made easier when he was alone, I looked forward immensely to the time together. At one of those lunches, I asked him how his biography of Janet Frame was shaping up and he confirmed it was going very well. “And who would you like to write your biography?” I was making conversation but was genuinely interested in who he thought might be up to the job.

“Nobody!” came his indignant reply. “I don’t want somebody poking about in my private business!”

The irony of the biographer as reluctant subject was not lost on him, and although he chuckled after he said it, he never answered my question any other way.

Instead, I think he decided it was a job he would like to do himself. At the time of his death in 2004, he had a contract with Penguin to write a memoir. And as his own biographer, he kept his papers in an immaculately organised state, something akin, perhaps, to how he would have liked to find the papers of his previous subjects.

Dad willed all his papers to the Alexander Turnbull Library, but my brother, Jonathan, and I derived too much comfort and interest from sitting in his office, looking out over Wharekawa estuary at Opoutere and reading through them, to let them go immediately.

Searching through a box by his desk one night, I came across several photo­copies of an essay entitled “The Silence Beyond”. It began: “At the age of 30 I found out that my name was not my real name.” I knew the story, of course. That my grand­father’s father had been Peter Crawley, that my great-grandmother, widowed by the Great War, changed her name and those of her children to King when she married a New Zealand soldier and moved from Glasgow. But as far as I knew, due to his father’s sensitivity about his past and upbringing, Dad had never told the story before, not in Being Pakeha or its later incarnation, Being Pakeha Now, or in any of his other work. In fact, a photograph in those books of Peter Crawley in his Scottish army uniform, complete with kilt, carries the caption “my father’s father”: the name Crawley was never mentioned publicly. And I knew that as long as my grandfather was alive, Dad would not have felt able to write fully about the circumstances that brought the family to New Zealand. So I knew, as I was reading it, that because my grandfather had survived his son by more than two years, I had in my hands a piece of writing that had never been published.

I wish I could have asked him what his intentions were for the piece. It may have been meant as the first chapter for a new book about his life and his family history, one unimpeded by his father’s wish for privacy, or it could have been intended as a standalone piece, as it reads perfectly well as one.

One thing I knew was that it should be published, and together with my brother and Geoff Walker at Penguin we came up with a plan to gather together a book of selected works, with “The Silence Beyond” as a centrepiece. The job was surprisingly easy. Although we could no longer sift through boxes at our leisure, and had to apply to read folders at the Turnbull Library, we found not only had Dad done a magnificent job of cataloguing his work, but in turn the Turnbull staff had done a marvellous job of further cataloguing. Instead of having to trawl through every­thing, we simply had to order up folders labelled “other published work” and “speeches”, which were spirited up from somewhere below.

Discounting work that had appeared in 2001’s Tread Softly for You Tread on My Life, we were still left with a significant amount of strong material: work that had appeared in anthologies, some long out of print, and that people who had read his books may not have seen before, such as “One of the Boys?”, an exploration of the culture of masculinity in New Zealand; articles he had written for magazines and journals such as the Listener and Landfall, including a fascinating log of the trials and mysterious happenings encountered during the filming of the television series Tangata Whenua; the odd snippet of work from his books; moving and personal tributes to friends – James K Baxter, Robin Morrison, Janet Frame – who had passed on; and speeches he had given, such as the powerful and possibly controversial “Maori and Pakeha: Which People and Culture Has Primacy?” at the 2003 Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

That talk showed his scalpel-sharp mind, but we also wanted to showcase another side to him, one his friends and colleagues knew well, but that perhaps wasn’t so widely known to the public at large – Michael King the comedian. His wit was cheeky, subversive even, and his love of gossip shocking (only recently has his role as Quote Unquote’s gossip columnist Courtenay Plaice, and his regular contributions to Metro’s Felicity Ferret page, been revealed to me).

In “Remembering Dan and Winnie Davin”, my father “detected a tussle” in Dan “between the obligations to declare what is true and reasonable and temptation to say what is clever or amusing”, a tussle I suspect he often experienced himself.

I remember once watching him introduce historian Antony Beevor at an Auckland Writers & Readers Festival dinner, held at the same time as the New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Dad ­elicited as many laughs in that short opening as any stand-up comic I’d seen that week, and I told him so. He was a jovial presence at literary events, and it is not just as a speaker and a writer that he is missed, but as the life of many parties, which he enjoyed in bursts away from his quiet, scholarly life at Opoutere. I hope some of the pieces in the book convey that sense of fun.

Some of the work was painful to read. In “Janet and the Birds”, the speech he gave at Janet Frame’s memorial service, he described the argument he and Janet had about whose death was portended by the daytime appearance of a morepork. The fact they both died, so close together, makes it a skin-prickling piece to read, and when he describes the reception nationwide of the news of Frame’s death, he could very well have been describing the effect on the country of his own death, right down to his appearance on the cover of the Listener.

In “What I Believe”, which outlines his personal faith, I found the words that later made their way into Being Pakeha Now: “In the coming and going of the tides, in the rise of mist and the fall of rain, I see a reflection of the deepest mystery and pattern in all life: that of arrival and departure, of death and regeneration.” We chose these words to adorn the memorial headstone for Michael and his wife, Maria, which was made by Barry Brickell and erected in what is now the Michael King Memorial Reserve at Opoutere. With the headstone’s position, next to a pohutukawa-shaded seat overlooking their beloved estuary, the words seemed apt.

Other words from “What I Believe” seemed apposite as we went about selecting pieces: “I no longer believe that human life is eternal in the sense that we maintain our individual consciousness after death. However, I do believe in the power of literature and the arts to convey thought, feeling, even wisdom, from one generation to another. It is in this sense only that individuals achieve a degree of ‘immortality’; and in the way in which they influence the lives of those with whom they come into contact, especially their descendants.”

He couldn’t have known then the profound impact his legacy would have, not just on his descendants, but on the rest of New Zealand as well.

The “silence beyond” invokes the ancestral silence Dad felt beyond his grandparents, which he set out to fill by exploring the lives of his antecedents. But, of course, the phrase can be read in many ways, particularly as the title of a posthumous publication, and some readers may relate it to their own beliefs about what lies in store for us after we die. By leaving us these pieces to read, some for the first time, some again, my father is making sure that although he’s gone, and no matter what he believed, his voice will be heard for some time to come.

THE SILENCE BEYOND: SELECTED WRITINGS, by Michael King, with an introduction by Rachael King (Penguin, $42), released June 1.

Rachael King is author of the novels Magpie Hall and The Sound of Butterflies.


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