Gregory O’Brien’s honorary doctorate address

The following speech was delivered by Wellington writer and artist Gregory O'Brien at the graduation ceremony on Thursday 18 May, where he received an honorary doctorate of literature.

Firstly, I’ll acknowledge the ancestral mountain, Taranaki—or Egmont, as it was known when I was young. I dedicate the short poem that follows not only to my late cousin Stephen, but to all the whanau, the Hickeys and O’Briens, from whom I descend or with whom I co-exist in the present. My poem, with its ancestral chariot—the Holden Torana—and its founts of small town wisdom—Everybody’s Picture Theatre and The Enterprise Bookshop—might offer a set of originating co-ordinates for the thoughts that follow.


i.m. Stephen Hickey

I have no breath but yours, nor

as many words—the orchard

a tumble of fruit; the mountain

again, in its lather of cloud.

Surf cast or reeled in, the sun

in a whitebait net, or waylaid

mid-afternoon, between Everybody’s

and The Enterprise. And the mountain always

on your shoulder. A Torana gone

around the clock, near-new moon

on its bonnet. Long line and

lure, beach break and

unquilted mountain,

wayward one.

The endeavour that most defines me is poetry. Maybe I was destined to choose a vocation beginning with the letter P—my Irish forebears were, to a man, pig farmers, policemen, publicans, and my volatile great-grandfather Cockatoo Hickey, who washed up in Opunake, became a renowned pugilist, the bare-knuckle champion of South Taranaki. Carrying on with the letter P, my brother Brendan became a printer; my sister Justine spent serious time as a pianist in hotel lounges—and I became a painter-poet.

In terms of careering options, the family appears to be confined to some kind of P-lab--an alphabetical/vocational as opposed to a chemical one. Myself, I married a poet (not always a good idea but, in this case, a superlative choice), Jenny Bornholdt. Of our sons: Jack-Marcel became a policy-analyst and photographer; Felix is a pianist, fourth year at the Sydney Conservatorium, and our third son Carlo, aged 18, is presently angling around other letters of the alphabet before he, no doubt, fixes upon his inevitable profession beginning with P.

From our mother, Margaret, my siblings and I inherited a sense of the inter-connectedness of things, especially people. We were brought up in the belief that we were related to the entire Taranaki province…. Everyone was described as a cousin—the Hickeys of Opunake, the Hurleys of Pungarehu, the Titos of Te Namu and Parihaka. (Far beyond the province, the poet Eileen Duggan and the American television actor Robert Stack were certified family members.) All through my life, Mum has telephoned me to convey vital information—often grisly deaths—involving distant relations whose names I have never even heard before. Sixty years after leaving Taranaki to live in Auckland and now Wellington, it is as if our mother, at some deep, subliminal level, still owns and runs the province of her birth. The keeper of the knowledge—it is as if she has never really left home.

When I told mum about being awarded the Doctor of Literature award, she swiftly countered that Aunt Mary made it there first, beating me by a thumping 92 years. Mary Hickey, aka Sister Domitilla of the Mission Sisters, firstborn in the thatched Opunake whare of the aforementioned pugilist, was the first woman in New Zealand to be honoured with such a degree—from Canterbury University in 1925, I double-checked.

If my sense of the inter-connectedness of nigh-on-everything comes from my mother, from my father I inherited the great, great virtue of bookishness and an Irishness far too complex and unruly to talk about this evening. Alongside this genetic preconditioning, I’ve long subscribed to the idea that you invent your ancestors as much as you inherit them. And that is where university enters the picture. It was during my three years at Auckland University that the lives and works of a number of artists and writers opened up to me. Shakespeare, Yeats, Joyce, Matisse, John Berger, Colin McCahon, Janet Frame, Ralph Hotere, Bill Manhire, Robin White…They made me who I am, so I claim them.


We often hear that the youth of today are very slow to leave home. They linger for years, decades even, endlessly shuttling between childhood bedroom, kitchen-fridge and sofa. In Italy and Chile, according to various reports, the average male doesn’t leave home until he’s 37. As parents, we might well feel obliged to evict these ne’er-do-wells, for their own good. But are these homebodies really such a problem? I would like to speak briefly in praise of Not Leaving Home, in praise of Hanging On, Refusing To Go. Although, in this case, the home I’d like us all to not be leaving is the house of learning, the university—a place that, if it has done its job well, should have become, by now, the intellectual and spiritual home of each of us.

When I graduated BA from Auckland University in 1984, I never made it more than a few metres down the road. In hindsight, I think of my trajectory outwards as that of a horizontal bungee jumper. I am still rebounding. Within a few months, I was back there, illustrating a book for poet C. K. Stead, which was published by Auckland University Press; there were readings, conversations, publications, a literary journal called Rambling Jack launched in the English Department common room, an occasional beer with Karl or Bill Pearson or Dennis McEldowney across the road at the hotel referred to enigmatically as the Big I. Although I never enrolled in another course, I have continued to raid the academic fridge for provisions in the 33 years since graduation. Universities are far broader community than their tenured staff and enrolled students. You’ll know this soon enough. For decades now, I have been generously plied with sustenance of many kinds—not only from the realms of English Literature and Art History (my majors). Like my mother’s province of Taranaki, the university is a place where all of us are connected and where new connections are forever being made. It could be described as an immensely subtle space of collaboration, communion and ongoing conversation across different territories. Remember this: your chosen field isn’t a fixed address or a set of parameters, it is a magic carpet.

Since holding the writing fellowship here in Wellington in 1995, another bungee-like cord has attached me to Victoria University—where I have taught creative writing, researched, designed book covers, hung about generally, and been published by VUP. I acknowledge my friends at Victoria, many of whom are here tonight, with a special mention of Lydia Wevers, Richard Hill and everyone at the Stout Research Centre, where I have just spent two exhilarating, ‘broadening’ years. I also acknowledge another institution which has been a huge force in my life and ongoing education, the City Gallery Wellington and its inspired former director Paula Savage.


I will conclude by celebrating the great potential of the university to explore human life and what lies within, beyond and around it. That, for me, is why the word university is nestled up so closely to the related word ‘universe’. It means the study of everything… the state of being alive, of looking in every direction, of being curious and open to wonder.

When human beings think, it is the universe thinking its thoughts—that point was made by the mathematician/poet Lars Gustafsson. In a parallel fashion, you could say the university is a society thinking its thoughts, sorting out its priorities. A university should never be reduced to a trade school or technical institute for the professions. Neither should it ever be labelled a ‘service provider’ and its students ‘clients’. According to the 1990 Education Act, our universities are charged with, amongst other things, being society’s ‘critic and conscience’. How heartening it is to see so many people graduating in the ‘Humanities’. The vexed state of the world is a constant reminder of how essential the Humanities are to the well-being of our society, our cultures and possibly even our species.

If Donald Trump had a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays, I have no doubt he would make a better president. Has there ever been a time in history when we’ve been more in need of dynamic, insightful work in such fields as religious studies? In an era characterised by doubt, anxiety and stress, we need the Arts generally, not to fill an ornamental function but to complete who we are.

As, together, we become more profoundly a part of this archipelago of Aotearoa/New Zealand, we also acknowledge the status of Maori and other Pacific peoples as our older, wiser siblings in this oceanic realm. In that context, I thank and celebrate this university, this universe of human thinking, seeing, feeling and being, this home we carry with us, this well-stocked refrigerator, this marae of such things as we care deeply about--the university on the hill, another ancestral mountain for all of us here today.