Book Review: Helen Clark: Inside Stories, by Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_helen_clark_inside_storiesHelen Clark needs little introduction, but for those reading this blog from the far side of Mars, let’s recall that she was NZ’s first elected female Prime Minister, before that a politician, a political activist and is now a high-ranking United Nations official.

There are many events in her career which are still matters of controversy. And just how was she so effective? What’s the ‘inside story’? This book seeks to answer many of the questions about Helen Clark, and the events that she was part of, in the words of those who know her, and were part of it all. This is a worthy aim: much of that period is still quite murky. What really happened in the 1984 Labour government to send it lurching off in an unexpected economic direction? What about ‘paintergate’? How was the foreshore and sea-bed furore managed?

The book has its origins in Pond Eyley and Salmon’s documentary Helen, which has been on TV a couple of times, and screened at documentary film festivals. Claudia Pond Eyley is a visual artist and film maker, and Dan Salmon is a documentary director and producer. While putting Helen together during 2012-13, they interviewed many of those who know Helen Clark best. This book is formed from transcripts of these interviews, with short linking passages introducing each chapter.

The range of participants is astonishing: from Clark’s parents and sisters to political colleagues and foes. They include friends, her husband, teachers, mentors, staff, journalists, lobbyists and commentators. I was very impressed by the range of participants – it must have taken a tremendous amount of work to get all these people to cooperate.

The coverage is obvious: Helen Clark’s life, from birth in the Waikato to the UN in New York. The organisation is, for the most part, simply chronological. Chapter titles tell the story: Chapter 1: Country girl to left-wing liberal; Chapter 2: Getting extremely involved in politics; Chapter 3: Meeting Peter; Chapter 4: MP for Mount Albert, and so on to Chapter 18: New York City.

Helen Clark is renowned as not only a skilled politician, but a very private person. The greatest contribution of the book is to get inside these protective barriers and reveal something at least of her ways of thinking and working, her relationships with people, and her motivations. Naturally some contributors verge on hagiography, and some have political axes to grind, but neither tendency is so powerful as to detract from the interest in what they have to say.

The book lives up to its sub-title – there are inside stories here. But this genre of recorded oral history has some limitations. There was a nagging doubt at the back of my mind about how much editing the interviews had been through. These are not verbatim transcripts, and there isn’t any indication of how much has been omitted. There’s some repetition of course: the 1984 Labour government rejection of its assumed economic policy features in several stories, but the stories don’t form a coherent picture and the reader is left perhaps with more data, more insight into Clark’s role, but not a lot more insight about the big picture.

This book is interesting, in places amusing and often enlightening. By design it doesn’t attempt to interpret, analyse or synthesise. We still don’t have the sort of analytical, independent biography that Helen Clark, and the events she has been part of, deserve. This book may be part of that later volume’s source material.

Helen Clark: Inside Stories
by Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408381