I was stopped in the street a little while ago by someone who said he’d recognised me from the TV documentary series I appeared in a few years ago. I presume from the re-run just finished.
It turned out he’d bought some of my books and was quite a fan. He liked the idea of having a writer living in the same part of town as he did. I suppose the TV appearance had something to do with it. For me it’s always a bit awkward. I never know quite what to say to people even at book launches. I don’t regard myself as special for writing – although I know a lot of people put writers on pillars. I can’t see why. It’s just stuff I do.
He was friendly enough, and I’m sure genuinely so. But I also made sure I was walking in a different direction when we parted, and wasn’t being followed to my house or anything.
Why? Well, being personally approached by strangers who recognise me doesn’t happen often – in fact, this was just the fifth time in over thirty years. All the rest involved open hostility from the strangers, including being spat on, roared at by some guy I thought was going to hit me – he was shaking with anger, demanding to know what I was working on, all with balled fists and red face – and finally having somebody turn up at my front door looking for ‘the writer’. That was a bit creepy.
All this is par for the course in New Zealand. Here, people who like something stay quiet, meaning the only feedback usually comes from those who feel threatened.
The worst of it, for me, has come from people who present as friendly, but who actually view me as an intruder that must be destroyed at all cost. It’s the same every time. They get in contact with what appear to be innocent queries, but which are actually leading questions from their perspective. If I don’t answer according to their secret script the result is insane anger.
The worst case came about 15 years ago when a fellow got in touch by letter, offering to help me research a book he’d heard I was writing in his field. Actually I’d finished it, said so, and politely thanked him for the offer which, for obvious reasons, I had to decline.
He never replied. But a few weeks later I discovered a deeply hostile full-page tirade about me in the local paper – an interview with my would-be assistant offering a litany of alleged ‘errors’ in my earlier work, with a banner headline about what a terrible historian I was. The problem from my perspective, apart from the ‘errors’ being blatantly fabricated, was that this was the first I’d heard of the issue.
It turned out that instead of replying to me, my intending ‘helper’ had instead gone to the local media, seething with hatred and malice, and been taken seriously by the reporter he spoke to. I rang the editor (who I knew very well) who admitted his reporter had erred by not calling me for my response.
With hindsight I think I was supposed to accept this guy’s offer, allowing him to get his name hooked to my work as an assistant. When I didn’t follow his secret script – BAM! I became an enemy to be destroyed, whatever it took. Lies. Defamation. Whatever. Vengeance was going to be his.
It’s one of the experiences that have left me very, very wary of strangers bearing smiles.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016