A passion for the written word

STILL WORKING: Tom O’Connor at work on his latest book in his ‘‘man cave’’, behind a Press sign he souvenired from the last meeting of the defunct Picton Borough Council.
STILL WORKING: Tom O’Connor at work on his latest book in his ‘‘man cave’’, behind a Press sign he souvenired from the last meeting of the defunct Picton Borough Council.

For a man who has been retired for three years, Tom O'Connor is taking a long time to learn the art of taking it easy.

Yes, the 68 year old spends a lot of time sitting in the "man cave" on his St Andrews property, but invariably he's doing research or working on the latest in a long line of historical books, covering a range of topics. If, that is, he's not engaged in putting himself forward for some kind of public office, witnessing documents for one of the inhabitants of "the village" in his role as a justice of the peace, or working on one of the freelance journalism projects that still occupy a good deal of his time.

The arrival on the shelves of O'Connor's latest work, about Albert (Bunty) Preece, a World War II soldier in the 28 (Maori) Battalion, who was born and has spent his whole life on the Chatham Islands, is imminent. But that doesn't mean he hasn't been writing while he awaits its release.

Another book, on a group of Irish convicts who made their way to New Zealand via the Australian penal colonies - his ancestors among them - is well under way, and one on the New Zealand involvement in the second Boer War, at the turn of the 20th century, is already in the planning stages.

"I tend to load myself up a bit," he says. That's as much an understatement as calling his impressive trademark beard ordinary.

Yes, he's busy, but unlike some who become busier after retirement, it's a case of more of the same for O'Connor, who says he's "always had two or three jobs" at any one time. That's partly the legacy of the era he grew up in, a time of "no unemployment when you could get a job anywhere you liked".

"I was a tugboat master on the Waikato River at 23," he says. That role, which saw him spend six years in the Merchant Navy, mainly involved transporting "gravel from a crushing quarry down river" at a time when several major roading projects were in progress and also moving stock and vehicles at times.

"At that stage there were a lot of ships working the river. It was like our equivalent of the Mississippi.

"It had its dangers, but there was no money in it," adds O'Connor, who had spent his formative years in the small Waikato town of Kawhia, west of Hamilton, a community where he says Maori and Pakeha were completely integrated.

Hence the start, some 40 years ago, of a journalism career that has overlaid the rest of his working life.

He went farming and also worked for New Zealand Steel for 14 years, all the while making use of his journalism skills freelance in his spare time. Until the craft became his occupational saviour.

"I came back to journalism in the financial crash of 1987.

"We were dairy farmers and we lost the whole lot.

"I was an angry man for two years."

But he soon saw the need to move on from that anger.

"Luckily I had journalism in my back pocket and I joined a little paper in a place called Otorohanga."

A move across Cook Strait followed shortly afterward, to Blenheim and the Marlborough Express, where he would spend 10 years. .

O'Connor's timing was spot-on, because the major Ngai Tahu settlements were starting and the paper had no reporters who could follow the proceedings in te reo Maori. Having grown up in an "almost entirely bilingual" community, he was a natural fit for the job.

"I'm not native fluent, but I can get by," he says.

He also arrived in Blenheim in the year after the sinking of the Russian ship Mikhail Lermontov in the outer Marlborough Sounds, an event that proved significant for him later. At the time he joined the Express, the Russian government and the Marlborough local authority were "embroiled in international litigation".

He had moved to the other end of the Mainland, taking up a role as communications officer for the Department of Conservation in Southland, by the time his first book, on the sinking, was published in 1999.

"It was the story no one wanted told. I had to call on everything I'd ever learnt from senior journalists to do it," he says.

"I felt it was important for people to know what had happened. A man had died on the ship.

"There were all sorts of rumours, like that it was a spy ship. I disproved all those rumours."

A significant step in pulling the book together was being able to interview the ship's master on the telephone. Though O'Connor says the master's role would have required him to be able to speak English, he insisted on conducting the interview through an interpreter. Nevertheless, O'Connor got the information he needed.

A journalism career that also took him to Gore, before bringing him to South Canterbury in 2005, continues, despite his retirement from the fulltime ranks. Regular assignments include a weekly history column for the Waikato Times.

And then there are the books, of which there have been a number, including three volumes on Ngati Toa chief Te Rauparaha.

The book on Bunty Preece was originally intended to be a contributed chapter of a book on 28 Battalion, also known as D Company, with a number of writers interviewing individual members. For reasons he's not entirely sure of, that didn't happen, and he was eventually asked to turn the chapter into a book.

Of Preece, who was 88 when he first met him two years ago, O'Connor says in his preface:

"Over several interviews and conversations he told me one of the most moving and inspirational stories I have recorded and written...

"It is a story of personal sacrifice and bravery almost beyond description. It is also a story of the Maori people trying to achieve recognition and equality in their own land."

In explanation of that last sentence, O'Connor says Preece and his comrades didn't go to "fight for king and country".

"It was to win the approval and acceptance of Pakeha New Zealanders," he says.

While writing has been one thread running through his adult life, O'Connor has also spent a lot of time involved in what he refers to as "community groups"; most notably Fish and Game, for whom he has served on five councils including the New Zealand council.

He's no longer involved, saying his position had become untenable as a result of personal attempts to help tackle "the appearance of conflicts of interest that needed to be properly and professionally addressed" within the organisation.

Since moving to South Canterbury he has run unsuccessfully (in 2010) for a seat on the Waimate District Council and Environment Canterbury. Success in the latter would have seen him one of the councillors sacked when the Government later appointed commissioners.

He has his views on why that situation eventuated.

"I knew it had serious internal problems, and thought I could play a part in trying to resolve some of that, but it wasn't to be."

He believes it was "the sort of politics that had been going on within ECan that was the cause of its misfortune".

His view is that former members of parliament Sir Kerry Burke and leadership rival Alec Neill, who he describes as "accomplished politicians and decent men", were unable to "leave their old parliamentary antagonism behind", to the detriment of the organisation as a whole.

"There were two camps, and neither was right," he claims.

With commissioners set to be in place until at least 2016, O'Connor is concerned, asking "What is going to be left to save?" In his view, developers now have "open slather".

But that's a problem for someone else to deal with, because O'Connor has plenty on his plate. Did I mention he's also chairman of the St Andrews Residents' Association and captain of the South Canterbury Vintage Car Club.

The Timaru Herald