OBITUARY: GRAEME WHITE

Peace Researcher 35 – December 2007

           

-          Murray Horton

 

The name Graeme White mightn’t ring any bells for you. But if you were on, or saw media coverage of, the Anti-Bases Campaign’s (ABC) protests at the Waihopai spybase in either 2006 and/or 2007, you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about when I describe him as the bare arsed goatman. He was not the only nudist we’ve had at Waihopai protests (there have been several naked protests at the base, by both men and women), but he was definitely the only one to remain resolutely bare arsed throughout the whole weekend, whether in our camp, in central Blenheim or at the base itself. When he came into that conservative provincial town with us he made sure that everyone knew he was there by dint of playing his bagpipes and/or horn while simultaneously flying a halfmast New Zealand flag. A naked bagpiper in the central business district is not something the good people of Blenheim had probably ever seen before (his bare bum formed the background for an otherwise perfectly respectable national TV interview with Green MP Keith Locke). As you can imagine, his 24/7 nudity posed problems for us as the protest organisers, with complaints coming from several quarters – from within our own ranks, from members of the public, and from the cops. I give credit to the latter, as they could easily have arrested him and provided the media with an easy side issue to focus on. Instead they simply told him to cover up, which he did, to the bare minimum, wearing a tiny money pouch to cover his danglers but nothing else. In 2007 we only accepted his registration on his acceptance of our written condition that he put his pants on. Naturally he turned up pantless, denying all knowledge of having received any such letter, but he agreed to do his skimpy cover up for us.

 

So why did he go around naked (or nearly thus)? I never discussed this (or anything else) with Graeme, indeed I didn’t know him at all personally. So what I’ve heard on the subject has been second hand, ranging from that he was protesting at the sweatshop labour involved in producing the clothes that we import, to that “it reflected his disdain for the modern celebrity culture and the moneymaking machine it represents. For Graeme, ‘clothes didn’t maketh the man’. He believed human beings were beautiful without clothes as God had made them!” (The Common Good, Christchurch Catholic Worker, Spring 2007). The clue could be found in Graeme’s only choice of garment – sackcloth (I don’t know if he also wore the ashes that are supposed to go with that). He painted phrases and slogans both on that basic garment and on his own body, as a walking banner. With his long hair and beard, weatherbeaten face that made him look older than his 46 years, penitential garment and/or nudity, Graeme looked every inch like an Old Testament prophet or one of those early saints who used to live on top of a pillar of salt in the desert for decades. The modern versions are the sadhus, the Hindu holy men in India who go about naked, smeared with ash and with matted hair and beards.

 

But what about the goat? The answer why he drove it in his slogan-festooned car all the way from Christchurch to Waihopai and back, tethering it outside our camp, was simple and mundane – he had to milk it every day (he didn’t bring it on the actual protests). Bare arsed goatmen tend to get short shrift from society, no matter how nominally Christian it is. “He recently appealed against a conviction for indecently exposing himself to a woman while tending a goat. At the time he was wearing a money pouch over his crotch and a sack cloth. While defending that charge he gathered a further conviction when court staff saw his bare buttocks. He has also been convicted for riding his bicycle wearing nothing but a helmet” (Press, 13/8/07, “Swim attempt feared fatal: Graeme White was an altruistic volunteer who helped the mentally ill. He also has a string of convictions. One of Christchurch’s more eccentric residents has probably died in a bizarre incident”, Ian Steward).

 

“A True Christian Radical”

 

Despite being a Protestant (and his memorial service was held in a Presbyterian church), Graeme was a central figure in the Christchurch Catholic Worker group, one which has had a long working relationship with ABC, regularly joining us at protests at both Waihopai and the US military base at Christchurch Airport. Graeme was never an ABC member but he came to Waihopai at least three times that I can remember. He was very much a practitioner of Christian militancy, which led to the full force of the law coming down on him hard on two high profile occasions in the 1990s. No sooner had a statue been erected in Amberley of Charles Upham, New Zealand’s double Victoria Cross winner from World War 2, than Graeme had a pretty good go at chopping it down with a concrete cutter, in broad daylight. He was belaboured by the outraged locals who stopped him, arrested and fined $600.

 

He was a fervent anti-abortionist, regularly protesting at Christchurch’s only abortion clinic (as well as a placard he carried a small cross with a lifelike foetus strapped to it across his back) and was sent to prison for two and a half years after being found having tunnelled in under it, complete with what the Police described as “incendiary devices”, which meant that he ended facing very serious charges. At his trial Graeme said: “My main aim wasn't to burn the building down. It was really to facilitate a situation like this (public forum) where I could talk about it. I wanted to present a lot of information but I haven't been able to. I thought this might be a test case for abortion law and bring about some change” (Press, 9/5/00). He served 14 months in prison.

 

To him, Waihopai and the abortion clinic were part of the one big “death machine” that he opposed. I must say that I entirely disagree with him on this issue, and the methods he used. I’ve never discussed abortion with any of the Catholic Worker group (or with Catholic friends in general) but let’s just say that I’m completely on the other side of the argument on this one, and have been for many decades.

 

“Graeme was a true Christian radical and a prophet in our time. What work he did, how he spent his money and time, how he travelled, how he used his talents, how he behaved, how he lived and loved – he examined every facet of his life in the light of the Gospel of Jesus and acted accordingly. This took him to examine the roots of what he was doing and why he did things. This is what radicals do. This was reflected in the way Graeme approached what food he ate, how he travelled (mainly by cycle), what work he did (mainly manual), how he would be paid, how he would use his earnings, what justice  campaigns he would support and what would be his own individualistic response….Many people, including the mainstream corporate media, were confronted by his lifestyle and wrote him off as ‘an eccentric’….But, from a Christian viewpoint, it is a description that does him a disservice….He was a true believer to the point where his beliefs affected every area of his life. In a world which has made an idol of greed and wealth, he chose voluntary poverty over acquisition of wealth and goods. Despite having a university degree (in engineering), he chose to be a humble labourer gardening or milking cows, rather than seeking status…He was as close to the spirit of St Francis (of Assisi) as anyone we’ve met…Graeme had a special charism (a quality of being able to inspire others) for the mentally ill and peacemaking. He was a genuine pacifist, drawing strength for his life from the power of Christ in the midst of the community. He was the resident guitarist at the Wednesday evening Catholic Worker liturgies, at the weekly Sunday morning Hillmorton (mental) Hospital service, regular in supporting prison ministry over many years. He also peeled the spuds each week for the Catholic Worker communal meal and then washed the dishes after it was finished. His favourite saying when complimented was ‘no worries’…” (The Common Good, Christchurch Catholic Worker, Spring 2007).

 

Graeme’s altruism was broad in its scope. “In 2002 he became the second living person in New Zealand to donate a kidney to a stranger. Professor John Morton, who coordinated the kidney donor programme, said the following year that White was a likeable and intelligent man who generously gave a part of himself to save another. ‘I found him a fascinating individual’, Morton said then” (Press, 13/8/07, ibid.). And thus it was that his death was entirely in character with an altruistic “eccentric”. On a Saturday in August 2007 he went as a volunteer, as he regularly did, to help a conservation group plant native trees on Quail Island, in Lyttelton Harbour. Because he had to milk cows, he missed the boat from Lyttelton, so drove around the harbour to the nearest point, then managed to walk or wade to the island across the mudflats during low tide. But when it came time to make the return journey, the tide had come in and he made the fatal decision to try to swim across to where his car was parked – taking the boat back to Lyttelton was not an option. He was wearing his usual attire (i.e. almost nothing), it was a Christchurch winter’s day and Lyttelton Harbour is never very warm or welcoming at any time of year. His body has never been found. So his family and friends had to settle for a memorial service, rather than an actual funeral.

 

I freely admit that I am one of those whom Graeme made to feel uncomfortable. In this secular society a (quite literally) naked display of religion has that effect. He wasn’t a proselytising Biblebasher; quite the opposite, he aimed to live his life on Biblical terms and in strict accordance with his social justice beliefs. Inevitably, that made him an extremist and a genuine Christian radical. Nothing wrong with that, the country could do with more of them. His long time friend, Jim Consedine, described him as “a modern day John the Baptist figure… the dispossessed knew they had a champion in Graeme” (Press, 22/8/07; “Christchurch Eccentric: Tributes to ‘John the Baptist figure’”). ABC expresses our deepest condolences to Graeme’s widow, Lynette and to all of his (and our) friends in the Christchurch Catholic Worker group.

 

 

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