Hilliard, Noel

Hilliard, Noel

In Brief

Noel Hilliard was a major novelist of the 1960s. He worked as a journalist and was variously involved with left-wing politics. His first novel, Māori Girl, was primarily a response to racial discrimination in New Zealand, but in his journalism other left-wing issues, such as opposition to peace-time conscription and the ‘American Big Brother influence’ played a larger role. He wrote a wide range of novels, short story collections and works of non-fiction and his short stories have been translated into Russian.


Hilliard, Noel (1929–97), was a major novelist of the 1960s, now fallen somewhat into neglect. He was born in Napier, the son of a railway construction worker and a waitress, and lived through the Depression in Hawkes Bay. His father, now on the dole, became bitter and angry. Hilliard became a journalist for Southern Cross and attended Victoria University College part-time 1946–50. There he was active in the Socialist Club. He and another journalist, Alexander Fry, became tubercular while sharing an unheated flat. While recovering from lung surgery in Pukeora Sanitorium, 1950–52, Hilliard joined the Communist Party only to leave it again after the Hungarian crisis of 1956. After a variety of jobs he trained as a teacher, married Kiriwai Mete (Ngati Kahu–Nga Puhi (to whom he was introduced by Hone Tuwhare) and taught in a Khandallah (Wellington) school. Although disillusioned with the Party, he remained active in left-wing politics, and this strongly coloured his first published novel, the ‘social-realist’ Māori Girl (1960). After further years as a teacher, in Mangakino, he joined the staff of NZ Listener (1965–70), then a major reviewing journal. After a year on the Burns Fellowship (1971) he returned to the Wellington region. He worked as a sub-editor for three large series of informative journals, New Zealand Heritage, New Zealand Today and New Zealand Nature Heritage, and as proofreader—later sub-editor—of the Evening Post. He had no illusions about such work, pointing out that the sub-editor ‘is not, as you may think—and as many sub-editors would like you to think—the person next in charge after the editor’. This is in the introduction to a collection of sub-editors’ work in the form of headlines, Nude Chooks Stun Farmer (1992), which includes such gems as ‘Married Students Get More’ and ‘Wild Oats a Worry in Wairarapa’.

In the Hawkes Bay workmen’s camps of Hilliard’s childhood racism was not an issue, but when he arrived in Wellington he was shocked to see the phrase ‘No Māori’ appended to advertisements for work and accommodation. In his fiction this became a major preoccupation, and Māori Girl was in large part a response to it, but in his journalism other left-wing issues, such as opposition to peace-time conscription and the ‘American Big Brother influence’ played a larger role. However, in reviewing Allen Curnow’s A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923–45 under the heading ‘New Zealand’s Jim Crow Verse Book’ (in Here & Now) he expressed annoyance at ‘the fatuous assumption in Curnow’s introduction that poetry in New Zealand began only when the white man arrived’.

Curnow’s next anthology (1960) did in fact include a little Māori poetry.

Māori Girl was followed by A Piece of Land: Stories and Sketches (1963), dealing mainly with the impact of capitalism and urbanisation on New Zealand. The title story gives a vivid account of Māori attitudes to land and how they are damaged by the different, personal-ownership culture of the Pakeha. The entertaining stories in the second part deal with two Māori children, Bubby and Paikea, in a rural setting. In Monthly Review, Winston H. Rhodes wrote, ‘because the best stories deal with social attitudes and problems as well as with the details, the small disturbances and joys and disappointments of daily living, they more broadly contribute to our slender stock of human understanding and sympathy.’

Hilliard went on to turn Māori Girl into a tetralogy with the sequels Power of Joy (1965), Māori Woman (1974) and The Glory and the Dream (1978).

Meanwhile Hilliard wrote another novel and another volume of short stories. A Night at Green River (1969) tells of a farmer, Clyde Hastings, who offers to pay his Māori neighbours to help harvest his hay, not realising that such payment breaches the custom of mutual help in the community. The Māori fail to come but celebrate the end of Tiwha’s harvest, leaving Clyde’s hay to be ruined by rain. In the course of a tense night Clyde and his wife discover that there are other ways to think of money and of human labour. The values of capitalism encounter those of Māori communalism. Both Māori and Pakeha learn that cultural differences require non-judgmental tolerance from all participants in social transactions. This short novel has something of the character of a parable. It was warmly greeted by critics, who admired its conciseness and the subtle differentiation of character as well as the balance maintained between Māori and Pakeha views, which all make the book less moralistic than a summary might suggest. Send Somebody Nice (1976) is a collection of twenty-five stories covering a wide and typical range of political and social themes.

Hilliard’s non-fiction arises from his journalism but always has a touch of the unconventional because of his determination to be unclouded in his view of society. Wellington: City Alive (1976) has the appearance, superficially, of a conventional picture book; but the photographs by Ans Westra reveal much more of unromanticised human life than might be expected and Hilliard’s text is not afraid to mix the negative with the positive: ‘On a fine, calm day Wellington is among the most beautiful cities on earth. But like cities everywhere it can be ugly deep down.’ The result is an honest but not harsh account, good for those who know the city and for those who do not. Hilliard also worked with Westra on a story of two Māori children illustrated with photographs: We Live by a Lake (1972), set at Mangakino. His last book, published in Moscow, was a personal view of travelling through the Soviet Union shortly before its dissolution: Mahitahi: Work Together: Impressions of the USSR (1989). He and his wife had been appointed ‘cultural ambassadors’ by the New Zealand government in 1988.

Māori Girl and most of Hilliard’s short stories have been translated into Russian. In New Zealand terms his books were a considerable commercial success and Noel Hilliard: a preliminary bibliography by Jeffrey Downs (1976) shows that by that time the work had been very widely discussed. Probably the findings would be much thinner for the period since then. There is a Canterbury University thesis by T.J. Mullinder (1974) and an extensive study in Italian of the Netta Samuel books by Tiziana Nisini (1983). NW


Updated January 2017.