10 Feb 2019

Peter Wells: Writer, director, activist

From Sunday Morning, 10:06 am on 10 February 2019

Peter Wells died last night aged 69 after he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 2017. He started writing a diary of what he was going through, as well as his thoughts on life.

The book, Hello Darkness, came about him from finding himself in Auckland Hospital with a very aggressive form of cancer and trying to make sense of the situation

Wells was an award-winning author and filmmaker and co-founder of New Zealand’s most successful book festival, the Auckland Writer’s Festival.

In 2006 he was made a member of the Order of New Zealand for services to film and literature.

What follows is an interview with Wells from Sunday Morning with Jim Mora on 10 February. 

Peter Wells

Peter Wells Photo: RNZ/ Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Peter Wells tells Jim Mora his current prognosis is “not good.”

“I don’t know whether it’s months or weeks really, but it’s not good.”

He says the book came about him finding himself in Auckland Hospital with a very aggressive form of cancer and trying to make sense of the situation. It started with a Facebook post – “just putting it out there”.

“It was a great surprise to me to find a lot of people responded.”

He first realised there was a problem while on holiday in Britain. As he was climbing a set of stairs, he found his left leg suddenly wouldn’t lift. He figured it was something to do with his rheumatoid arthritis and put up with the pain for the remainder of the holiday.

“To the point where I didn’t really realise I was in such incredible pain, because it incrementally got worse.”

After returning to New Zealand, his doctor ran a PSA test and came back with the news that it was “off the scale.”

“It was a hell of a shock.”

Wells says he started writing Facebook posts in the middle of the night and very early morning when he couldn’t sleep and started getting responses.

“The whole thing suddenly had this huge propulsion behind it and then Linda Burgess, a friend of mine, told Steve Braunias at The Spinoff about it and said, ‘this phenomenon is happening’.”

Braunias got in touch with Wells about the posts and began publishing them on The Spinoff.

Wells was initially uncertain about publishing the posts on Facebook in the first place.

“I’ve been a Facebook user for many years but in a sort of uncertain ‘what is this, how do you do it properly’ – I can’t seem to understand it.”

A recent post detailed a January hospital stay in a ward with a man who didn’t like “queer bastards.”

“It was a really tough situation where I myself was really very ill. There were four men in the ward, and one was really out of control. One night at around 3am he appeared and wrenched the curtains open around my bed and said ‘you f***ing c***’. I jumped out of bed, I was absolutely startled, and I said to him ‘what makes you think you’ve got the right to speak to me in that way’ – and I’m so proud that I did express it in that way. He just sort of vanished after that.”

He says they tried to get him shifted away from the man, but the hospital couldn’t manage to do it.

“I just had to stay in this room with this really horrible man. It seemed extraordinary to me. I couldn’t really quite believe it.”

He and his husband made an official complaint to Auckland Hospital who accused him of imagining it and told him he didn’t have “special rights just because I was LGBT”.

“That appalled me. I don’t have special rights, but I have human rights. I was very surprised at their response.”

Wells’ television show A Death in the Family focused on a group of friends witnessing a death from AIDs and his own brother, Russell, died from it. He says he doesn’t feel unfamiliar with death and, for now, isn’t afraid of it.

“To me, it’s part of life and you might as well go with it and accept it and see what it really is and experience it for what it is. It gives you a lot of love and people react to you and are kind to you. They step forward and say how much you meant in their life which is very touching.”

Wells says he imagines he will be heading to a friendly space where his mother and brother will be, along with many of his friends who’ve died along the years.

“I’m being brought to the very edge and I’m continuing to learn about that situation and how I respond and make sense of it. All of it is about that really, trying to make sense of it.”

He says he’s been surprised at his own courage in the face of death.

“I was always bought up to be considered that I was a terrible sissy that was terrified of everything,” he laughs.

Peter Wells. 22 March 2017.

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The Gofta Slob

One of the incidents Wells talks about in the book is one which has played on his mind despite it happening over 30 years ago. At the 1987 Gofta Film and TV awards, Wells yelled out “fuck off, sexist shit!” at John Inman from Are You Being Served. A week later he was outed by the now defunct Auckland Truth newspaper as “the Gofta slob”.

Wells says the context of the incident was that Inman represented a character who “could never been authentically gay… he could never say who he was.”

In his book he says:

“Intellectually I stood up for what I had done. I had spoken truth to power. I was used to doing this, protesting about the demolition of Auckland’s heritage, for gay rights etc. But I knew in my heart I had brought shame on the family name.”

I wounded my parents and that was my most intimate hurt. They had brought me up to be well-mannered, courteous, and above all, kind. But there were hidden tensions. I was always trying to do well to off-set what I knew caused them pain – my homosexuality. They were conservative Pakeha, limited in their acquaintance with anyone not heterosexual. I was always trying to over-achieve, to say “look I’m alright. I’m ok, it’s all alright”. Then at my most vulnerable moment, as an ambitious 37-year-old film maker seemingly on the very point of success, I “made a fool of myself in front of the nation” and the family name I bore was dragged into the mud.

Wells feels he was treated unfairly at the time.

“I don’t think people understood the sexual politics of the situation very well. It was in advance of people’s understanding that there were such things as sexual politics.”

“I was very aware of hurting my parents and that, in turn, hurt me. My parents are long dead now, but your mind returns back to these things to try and solve the hurt within them and make sense of it and come to terms with the way you acted.”

Peter Wells after the Gofta incident.

Peter Wells after the Gofta incident. Photo: Truth

Despite everything Wells has been through, he says he can still be surprised by joy.

“I have this ridiculous sense of being lucky. Lucky to be alive, and lucky to be conscious, and lucky to be trying to make sense of this situation. Lucky to have friends, and lucky to have a cat on the end of my bed. At times, and I don’t know whether this is a Julie Andrews thing, but, on the whole, I didn’t feel depressed.”

Wells says he’s proud that he’s been so hyper productive toward the end of his life.

“That’s fantastic and, if I had another six months, I could have bought out another book.”

Wells says he spends his days at home in Auckland with his husband Douglas.

“The mornings tend to be most difficult for me - to get out of bed and start functioning – but I do. I spend quite a lot of time sleeping, or just below the level of sleep, because I have both long-acting morphine as a pain-killer and short-acting morphine as a pain-killer. Sometimes I just lie there in a faint sort of dream and drift along. And that’s actually very pleasant.”

He has friends call around and a young man who lives with them and cooks a “delicious meal” every evening.

“The days have been peaceful and very mellow.”

Occasionally his pain is overwhelming, which he says is horrible.

“You just have pile on as many pain-killers as possible and it slowly eases away, but at times it can be unbearable.”

He says for the coming months he will begin to retreat into privacy and lessen his Facebook presence.

“I’ll just spend time with Douglas and friends and just float along really.”

He says that if his friends wrote an inscription on his gravestone, he hopes it would say: “he was himself.”

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