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February 26, 2007 | by  | in Books |
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Final Approaches: A Memoir

New Zealand political autobiographies have a poor reputation based solely on the fact that most of them are awful. They have ranged from the stupefyingly dull (Jim Bolger on how international dignitaries thought he was great) to the delusional (David Lange on how he had absolutely nothing to do with Rogernomics). Surprisingly, Gerald Hensley’s memoir Final Approaches is an autobiography worth reading.

I suspect Hensley would be secretly pleased if you had never heard of him. During his long and varied career (Hensley has worked as a diplomat, Secretary of Defense and head of the Prime Minister’s Department), he was required to remain fairly low-key. As a result, Hensley has seldom made any front-page appearances.

An elegant and witty memoir, Final Approaches covers the first thirty years of Hensley’s career. It tells of his diplomatic service around the world and his work with both Robert Muldoon and David Lange. His is a unique position, as he is able to compare and contrast the personalities and humour of two of New Zealand’s most historically important politicians.

One of the great strengths of the book is that the author is not obsessed with asserting his importance in the events covered. If anything, he tends to understate his often-crucial role, which is a refreshing change.

Providing an inside angle into many of the key events in New Zealand and the Pacific Rim during a turbulent period of our history, Hensley offers a fresh perspective and new information without compromising national security or damaging diplomatic relationships. Retirement has allowed Hensley the luxury of showcasing a writing style that is undoubtedly the envy of many best-selling authors. His use of exceedingly dry wit throughout the book makes compelling reading.

Most of the media attention surrounding this book has focused on Hensley’s comments concerning David Lange. The book exposes much of the conflict within the Labour Cabinet and also within the former Prime Minister himself about New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy. Hensley himself never supported the policy, yet he always remained a loyal public servant, working for the government even when he disagreed with its decisions.

Hensley also reveals that Lange’s most memorable quip (“I can smell the uranium on your breath”) was not spontaneous, but was in fact sourced from a cartoon Henley gave Lange months before the Oxford debate. Many of Lange’s funniest stories are also revealed as mere exaggerations or inventions. Despite this, the book is steeped in admiration and affection for one of this country’s most complex leaders.

Though the breadth of the autobiography is ambitious, Hensley’s writing style ultimately makes for compulsive reading. This is one of the best New Zealand political books to emerge in a long time.

GERALD HENSLEY

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