During the months of December 1871 and January 1872, Kereopa Te Rau was brought to Napier, put on trial for the murder of the Reverend Volkner and hanged. These were the frightening times of the New Zealand Land Wars, when rumours were rife and settlers felt very insecure.

Peter Wells, the New Zealand writer and filmmaker who lives in Napier, is interested in looking at all the angles of this story, including the memories of those close to Kereopa Te Rau. He plans to do so in his non-fiction book titled Sparrow on a Rooftop.

Peter Wells

For this project, Wells is the 2011 recipient of the Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers’ Fellowship. Worth $100,000, this is one of New Zealand’s largest writing fellowships and supports established writers to work on a major project over two or more years. On August 22nd he received the award from the Prime Minister at Premier House.

Wells is in great company. Previous recipients of the Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers’ Fellowship are Owen Marshall, Vincent O’Sullivan, CK Stead, Rachel Barrowman, Neville Peat, Dame Fiona Kidman, Philip Simpson and Kate De Goldi.

In 2009 he won a non-fiction writing award that allowed him to work on a book involving William Colenso (1811- 1899), which Wells is currently finalising. Entitled The Hungry Heart, the historical novel will be launched as part of the 200-year celebration of Colenso’s birth, taking place in November at the Napier
War Memorial on the Parade.

William Colenso was a missionary and explorer who arrived in New Zealand in 1834 to work for the Church Missionary Society. He was an avid botanist, detailing and transmitting previously unrecorded New Zealand flora to his great friend, Joseph Hooker of Kew Gardens in London. Colenso fell from grace when it was discovered that he had sired a son (Wiremu) by Ripeka, the Mãori maid of his wife, Elizabeth Fairburn Colenso.

Child actor

Peter Wells was born and raised in Auckland and, as a child, Peter was a film fan. He thinks that New Zealand’s isolation gave the movies a heightened impact: “It was foreign travel, before we had even got on a plane.” He began acting as a nine-year-old, and it was on the stage that he first grew to appreciate the interaction of a fantasy world with everyday life.

In the early ‘70s Wells studied history at the University of Auckland – at that point “there was nothing like film studies” – though by that time he was spending much of his time at the cinema. He then took off for five years overseas, where he began to write short fiction.

By the early ‘80s, while working as a proofreader at the NZ Herald, Wells would finish his night shift, then watch a film crew shooting a short film on Queen Street. As he later wrote in the book, Film in Aotearoa New Zealand… “it was a fantastically empowering experience. The whole mystery of film, at that moment, collapsed as if someone had pulled a curtain away, rudely.” Wells realised he could make films too.

His 1993 feature film Desperate Remedies is a magnificently costumed drama starring Jennifer Ward-Lealand, a flamboyant yarn of vice and scandal which captured the chaos and hypocrisy of Victorian Auckland. This film was nominated for the Cannes film festival.

The documentary Georgie Girl reveals the life and times of trans-sexual Georgina Beyer, giving voice to her modest and honest exploration of what it is to be differently-gendered; her life as a dancer, actor and sex worker; who managed with great courage to become a local, and then national politician, the first openly transsexual person in the world to do so.

Napier roots

As a gay man, much of Peter Wells’ work explores homosexual themes. History seems to be the place Wells most likes to be. Imaginatively peopling the colonial towns and settlements of New Zealand, suggesting the secrets and anxieties of the lonely single men of the colony, his stories give a visual reality through his films and narratives.

He moved to Napier in 2005, but his imaginative connection with Napier began as a child when he spent holidays with his grandparents who lived on Napier Hill.

Napier features as the location of Peter Wells’ historical novel Iridescence (2003). In a recent interview he says, “Napier has always been an imaginative landscape in my life, and so I was fascinated with trying to enter the world of 19th century Napier from an outsider’s viewpoint, like that of Samuel’s (the novel’s main character) – one who’s such a misfit.” He continues, “The entire novel is about someone learning to live in the landscape, psychological as well as actual.” This book was nominated for the Montana Book Awards and a finalist for the 2005 Tasmania Pacific Fiction Prize.

In much of his historical work, Wells interprets the experiences and emotions of the mostly British settlers
trying to make their way in a raw and foreign land, half a world away from everything they knew and that had meaning for them.

Many readers will be familiar with Somebody’s Darling – Stories from the Napier Cemetery, the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery exhibition and book which was jointly curated by the Museum’s archivist, Gail Pope, and lovingly photographed and written by Peter Wells.

These are local stories of our settler ancestors which are poignantly told by Wells. He says, “Most migrants realistically would never get back to their homeland. They would die on what was essentially foreign soil.” From the exhibition, guided walks through the cemetery ensued, with the stories of the families being told along the way.

Asked what he feels is his major contribution, he replies, “Ideas whose time has come” and cites his 1986 documentary, Napier: The Newest City on the Globe, which explores the city’s unique Art Deco character – and effectively kickstarted Napier as an Art Deco destination.

“My work shows a commitment to change in New Zealand society, be it through documentaries archiving at-risk architecture (Napier’s Art Deco or Auckland’s Civic Theatre); producing one of the earliest pieces of fiction in which a gay author published under his own name; or writing and co-directing dramas like A Death in the Family, which was produced at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis and looked at the ways stigma works in families and society.”

In 1998, along with Stephanie Johnson, Wells founded the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival which has gone on to become New Zealand’s leading book festival. He became a Member of the Order of New Zealand for services to film and literature.

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1 Comment

  1. Just reading your book”the Hungry Heart:Journey with William Colenso” & it is excellent! I have just visited the north,on a short historical journey,& the places you write about are very clear to me.(have just discovered my mother’s sisters husband ‘s family are” Hooker”,& link up with Sir Joseph,also) I really enjoy your writing style & will be looking forward to reading your other NZ histories….

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