Tribute to a human comet who lit everything he touched

Owen Wilkes
Revered New Zealand peace researcher and archaeologist Owen Wilkes overlooking his beloved Kawhia harbour. Image: David Robie/Pacific Scoop

REVIEW: By Jenny Nicholls

Peacemonger is a collection of essays about the much travelled Aotearoa peace activist and researcher Owen Wilkes, who died in May 2005. Wilkes was an extraordinary peace campaigner who discovered a foreign spy base at Tangimoana and was once charged with espionage in Norway and again while on a cycling holiday in Sweden.

After he took up beekeeping near Karamea on the West Coast in 1983, it was discovered that Customs was helping the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service to read his mail, apparently worried about his legendary ability to snuffle out secret installations by foreign powers in countries from New Zealand to Norway.

They were right to note his impact – this book explains just how enormously influential Wilkes was.

Many of these short essays are by big names in the Aotearoa peace firmament, such as Maire Leadbeater, Murray Horton, David Robie, Nicky Hager and Peter Wills. Each chapter contains gems; some hilarious, others sobering.

Wilkes was a rare beast, a man who could be, as Mark Derby writes, “unpretentious, fearless, indefatigable, at times insufferable”.

Hager, a phenomenal investigative journalist, has contributed the chapter “The Wilkes How-to Guide to Public Interest Researching’.

Coming from Hager, one of the greatest public interest researchers in the country, this should be catnip to a new generation of proto-Hagers, Thunbergs and Wilkeses.

The last chapter, “Memories of Owen”, was written by his partner, peace activist May Bass.

It is a heartfelt send-off to a human comet who lit up everything he touched, one who may never have realised in his arc across the sky what a void he left behind him, not just in the peace movement, but in the hearts of his friends and loved ones.

Jenny Nicholls writes reviews for The Listener and this review has been republished from the Waiheke Weekender with permission. She is also a graphic designer:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email