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Peter Wells: Telling Tales

Tue 3 Sep 2002 In: Books

Although Peter Wells is not yet 50, his memoir tells stories of a vanishing world. He recalls his life in the suburbs, the '60s and growing up gay - while Claire Gummer sums up his hard-hitting work. "I do believe that I grew up in what one could almost call a heterosexual tyranny," says Peter Wells. His spoken language, sprinkled with qualifiers, sounds quaint and carefully considered even donnish. Nevertheless a contrasting quality is unmistakably present: Wells' speech is impassioned. Long Loop Home, his new memoir, portrays New Zealand's recent past with a vividness that is breath-taking. It describes the nature of snobbery in a small colony, the devastating impact of scandal and the claustrophobia of towns that fancy themselves as cities. There's a mother's love (uncomprehending yet unconditional) and a father's helpless rage. All these elements evoke powerful memories, and not only in the mind of the man who wrote them. None steals the thunder of this memoir's major theme: growing up gay. English writer Patrick Gale has said, "People only think of the term gay in terms of sex, rather than in terms of the whole mindset". His novel Rough Music seeks to capture the gay child's "quite camp mindset", and that's exactly what Long Loop Home delivers. However Wells' memoir creates a more painful context (that heterosexual near-tyranny - of which he considers himself "a lucky survivor"). It is also more exquisitely crafted. The childhood focus and content of Long Loop Home overlaps that of Wells' debut novel. Boy Overboard (1997) drew superlatives from some reviewers, who likened it to Janet Frame's first novel. "In no way is Peter Wells' achievement any less than Frame's," Heather Murray trumpeted in New Zealand Books. "It is the fate of novels as good as this one to turn from base fiction into glittering literature, to be read by first-year students alongside Owls Do Cry" enthused the Listener's Anne French. Rapturous acclaim is a far cry from some responses to Peter's first book, Dangerous Desires. Although that ground-breaking collection of fiction won the 1992 NZ Book Award, its overt homoeroticism resulted in patronising write-ups by some reviewers. "I found the stories a bit claustrophobic, like being locked in a closet and physically importuned by someone you find resistable," wrote one. "Still, there is much prurient entertainment to be had in rediscovering the gay male's ability to be turned on by a stranger in a public toilet, his obsession with male physical beauty, his penchant for Judy Garland...." At least gays and lesbians have been accepted since then as part of New Zealand life. That's enormous progress, Peter says: "We're sort of like Middle Eastern food and flat whites. People now can't imagine the landscape without that component." Although few would say it aloud, some people still feel deep down that gay writing is of interest only to faggots. (Has anyone ever suggested that Frame's fiction is of interest only to the psychiatrically disturbed?). The flip side of that coin is that today's well-meaning liberals bend over backwards to insist that something like Michael Cunningham's The Hours or Peter Wells' Long Loop Home is NOT gay writing because it appeals to them and they're not gay. Such people are trying to be complimentary, but it doesn't quite come off.  Fortunately or unfortunately, Wells has had plenty of practice at being misunderstood. That's what much of Long Loop Home is about. "There's a huge misunderstanding of child homosexuality at present," he agrees, "quite a tragic misunderstanding about the nature of it." Until recently he felt his boyhood was sealed from him. "Perhaps it's part of growing up that you lose touch with that very primal sort of consciousness that you have as a child," he says. Also, there's the fact that "as gay men and lesbians we actually reinvent ourselves in a way that is more in tune with our own being, as we get older." It's hard to re-examine some of our experiences of growing up in a heterosexual universe: "We seal off painful experiences in rooms." All the same, when Wells began writing the pieces that comprise his memoir, he found them "extraordinarily easy." Long Loop Home details events and emotions he had not previously shared with even his most intimate companions such as the self-hating "stabbing dream" that followed a crisis in the lives of family friends. The memoir is frank, almost alarmingly so, yet Wells warns that it is "only one person's view". He says that in one draft he tried to warn people against taking "malicious pleasure" in what he wrote, but in the end an author has to accept that some readers will react that way. "I had a rule when I wrote... and that was that I would treat people with affection." Fiction offers a writer the freedom of a relatively boundless imagination. Non-fiction allows the freer discussion of ideas (Long Loop Home showcases Wells' considerable skills as an essayist). Paradoxically, non-fiction also creates a need "to be very careful or ultimately careless about the encroaching pallisade of real people and their concern about things not being said, not being told". Wells is sick of the "small-town, covert" nature of New Zealand society. He views his home town Auckland as just that: a town. It's another paradox, given his active role as a co-founder of the city-themed Auckland Writers' Festival which was held in May. So, perhaps, is the passion he has declared for Auckland. "I felt that in writing the book I was writing about a vanished world, or one that was on the point of vanishing," he says. "We need maps of our own past because to go into the future you do need to see your own past. Maori people have known that forever, and Pakeha people are very slow to come to a recognition of it." There speaks an historian. In print and on film Wells has recorded some real national treasures and heroes using an artist's eye for colour, an historian's attention to accuracy and a queer person's appreciation of camp. Auckland's extravagant Civic Theatre and Napier's delightful art-deco architecture were generally taken for granted before he polished them up and put them on show (now they're all the rage). He's also shone a spotlight on uncommon, unorthodox and somtimes unsung New Zealand heroes such as Freda Stark and Doug George. Georgina Beyer is waiting in the wings, the subject of another forthcoming documentary. For this, for being "a lucky survivor" and for everything else, Peter Wells is himself a national hero. Someone should give the man a medal. Claire Gummer is a lesbian journalist and writer. She was for a number of years editor of express gay and lesbian newspaper andwas recentlyto be found at Auckland's Women's Bookshop. Claire Gummer - 3rd September 2002    

Credit: Claire Gummer

First published: Tuesday, 3rd September 2002 - 12:00pm

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