I met esteemed historian, race relations and cultural commentator, author the late Michael King twice – once when he interviewed me for a book, and the second time when I interviewed him about a book.
That first meeting took place in 1985 at a rustic old Devonport house with an overgrown tropical garden at the foot of North Head, which I rented with three women friends. He’d come to interview me for his book on the bombing of the Greenpeace protest vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, by French secret service agents.
I was nearing the end of a journalism diploma at Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT/Auckland University of Technology) in 1985 and I’d had a great scoop (what journalists live for) earlier that year during the course, which ran from July to November. It turned out that I’d had a close encounter with one of the French spies sent over to set up the July 10, 1985 bombing of the ship moored on Auckland’s Queens Wharf.
Earlier that year, I’d worked at a small community newspaper, Inner City News, to gain some journalism experience having finished a Bachelor of Arts at Auckland University the previous year. On a routine visit to Greenpeace’s office in central Auckland as part of my job to check up on the latest news there (it was during the peak of anti-nuclear protests as super-powers amassed nuclear weapons) I was introduced to a visiting Greenpeace volunteer – from France. This struck me (and others) as odd, but this was a more innocent time. So, Frederique Bonlieu (aka Christine Cabon) was accepted as genuine by trusting Kiwis.
I asked if I could interview her about French views on the nuclear issue. Many New Zealanders were strongly opposed to France’s nuclear weapons testing programme at Mururoa atoll in the Pacific so it was a rare opportunity to ask a French citizen about the mind-set behind France’s insistence on having a nuclear arsenal and how they could justify testing weapons in the Pacific. She was hesitant at first but we spoke about these issues. I took notes. She was ill at ease, and refused to let me take a photo. I had no idea I was face to face with one of the French secret service team who had infiltrated Greenpeace in order to uncover plans for the Greenpeace trip to protest at Mururoa. While faking it as a Greenpeace volunteer, she was actually gathering directions, maps and information for fellow spies entering New Zealand on a yacht so
they could bomb the Rainbow Warrior and disrupt the protest to Mururoa. ‘If only I’d guessed’ – I’ve said many times. But no one could have imagined or anticipated what was to come…
When New Zealand police arrested two other French spies in the weeks after the bombing and it was revealed to be a French government plot, I realised I still had my notes from that interview with the woman who – it turned out – was a spy. She’d left the country by then. I got a front-page story in the Sunday Times newspaper during the journalism course. It was the biggest story of my career!
Michael King wrote one of first of many books about the Greenpeace affair, and I was just one of the many people who met and interacted with the spies he wanted to speak to. I recall sitting at the kitchen table in our flat and talking to him for an hour or more. He was very easy to talk to, and I felt honoured to be speaking to this author whose ground-breaking writing on race relations I admired deeply. It wasa big deal for me! I’d recently read his book Being Pakeha, and found his insights on our nation’s cultural identities very interesting.
Death of the Rainbow Warrior was published in 1986 by Penguin. I get a few mentions in the middle of the story as ‘Jenny Little’, with a description of what happened.
As an Auckland-based part-time correspondent for the international news agency, Agence France Presse, writing feature articles about lifestyle and culture in New Zealand for international readers, I met Michael King again. This time I interviewed him – about his just-published biography of Janet Frame in 2000, titled Wrestling with the Angel. We met at the Heritage Hotel where he was staying.
Again, he was very humble, modest and generous with his time and conversation. I was enthralled to be talking to him about the book and to be able to ask him about his meetings with Janet Frame in person. She was, and is, one of my favourite writers and I was personally so looking forward to reading his book.
These were brief encounters but I will always feel deeply privileged to have met and discussed two profound events and people – not connected but both influential in my life – with Michael King.