Greg McGee lives in Auckland, but he remains deeply connected to Oamaru and his beloved Waitaki Boys’ High School. The novelist, biographer and playwright enjoyed a recent trip home, and shared these thoughts with Hayden Meikle
Q: How do you enjoy coming back to Oamaru? What’s changed? What hasn’t?
Part of the reason I love coming back is that I still have family here. My mum is 97 and lives with my brother Derek and his wife Joy, and my sister Judy lives and works here. I also have friends here I catch up with, and those deep connections stay with me – one of my best mates in Auckland grew up three blocks away from me in north Oamaru. Oamaru has changed enormously. It was a dying town a few decades ago, but now it’s thriving, partly because the enlightened leaders of the community didn’t allow changes – they kept the whitestone bones intact.
Q: What are your memories of childhood here?
I feel deeply connected to the town and the surrounding landscape, because I grew up in it, and my brothers and I and our mates roamed everywhere on our bikes. I talked at the library of the way that proverb – “It takes a village to raise a child” – was particularly apt for me in the context of the Oamaru of the 1950s and ’60s.
Q: What was the best thing Waitaki Boys’ did for you?
They say every child needs one special teacher, but I had two at Waitaki: Derek Bolt and Malcolm Kissel, whom I got to publicly acknowledge at school assembly. Then there are the friendships – I had brunch with old mates from the 1968 First XV.
Q: Any special First XV memories?
That ’68 team was special, both in terms of results (unbeaten in interschool fixtures, playing the top teams from the top schools) and in terms of the fun we had and the top players it produced. Richie McCaw told me that Otago Boys’ was always in fear of Waitaki because of its huge boarding establishment, full of the tough sons of Southland and Central Otago farmers. But the ’68 team was a flowering of local talent. There were only four boarders that I remember – and two of them were from Maheno and Papakaio.
Q: Waitaki Boys’ is now quite a different school. How did you find your visit there?
It’s been through some hard times, but I spent a couple of hours with the new rector, Darryl Paterson, and I’m convinced he’s going to be great for the school. He’s steeped in its history and has a strong vision for its future.
Q: Does hold up 30-plus years on?
It holds up as a period piece, a portrayal of how we were – not how we are, I hope!
Q: Are you still a rugby man? Do you watch lots and do you like the way the game has evolved?
Yes, I’m an armchair critic, don’t belong to a club or anything. I did a column for Le Monde during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and will bore anyone at any time with my opinions! I think the professional game is more inclusive and egalitarian than the old amateur game I played. That game was run by a bunch of menswear retailers in Wellington and Dunedin (Morrison, Vodanovich, Saxton etc) with a ladies’ lingerie branch in Auckland (Ron Don). A dreadlocked Samoan would never have made the All Blacks in my time, let alone been appointed the All Black captain.
Q: What are you most proud of when you reflect on your professional career?
The Antipodeans, Foreskin’s Lament and Erebus: The Aftermath have probably had the most impact in their different ways, but it’s important to remember that I’ve failed. My career has not been a string of uninterrupted success. I’m proud that I’ve kept my nerve and have always been brave enough to try again. I’m also proud of having made a living from writing across almost 40 years. There’s been some pretty hairy times for Mary and me and the kids – as a family, we wanted all the normal things, but it was a challenge trying to convince bank managers, for instance, that I was normal and that they should give us a mortgage!
Q: What did you know about Richie McCaw after the book project that you didn’t know before?
Before we began, I asked him not to self-censor, because he could cut stuff out afterwards if he wanted to. I don’t think he did self-censor and he didn’t ask anything to be cut. So what I learned about him is in the book.
Q: How does Richie differ from Brendon McCullum, your other very prominent autobiography collaborator? And what are the similarities?
Richie’s super-organised, in comparison with anyone – including me and Brendon – but they both have the capacity to light up a room with their smiles. And, when you spend time with them, you can easily understand why people want to follow them.
Q: What’s your next project?
I’ve written a new play, Flame, which was workshopped by the Auckland Theatre Company in November last year. I’m waiting with crossed fingers to find out whether ATC will programme it for next year.