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Obituary: Harvey John McQueen, ONZM, JP

Harvey John McQueen, ONZM, JP - Wellington Educator, Poet, Blogger

13 September 1934 - 25 December 2010

Born Little River, Banks Peninsula; died Wellington, aged 76.
m.(1) Mary Thompson (1963, diss. 1982); (2) Anne Else (1985).
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NOTICE: A public memorial service will be held at Old St Paul's, Mulgrave St, Wellington, on Friday 28 January at 11 am.

Harvey McQueen grew up in a sheep-farming family with strong Labour connections – as a child he met both Mickey Savage and Peter Fraser, and his great-uncle, Jim Barclay, was a minister in the first Labour Cabinet. After secondary schooling at Akaroa District High School and Christchurch Boys' High School (where, in response to a perceived injustice, he once broke all a master's canes), he completed an MA in history at Canterbury University College. He spent a year at Knox College before realising he was not cut out to be a Presbyterian minister, instead training for secondary teaching and working in Waikato schools from Morrinsville to Hamilton, where he used New Zealand poems such as Ruth Dallas' "Milking Before Dawn" to appeal to his students, and started writing his own poems.

He proved to be a gifted teacher of English and history, and played an active role in the PPTA until he was appointed to the inspectorate in 1972. With Lois Cox, he edited Ten Modern New Zealand Poets, the first anthology for schools of work by contemporary New Zealand poets such as Sam Hunt and Hone Tuwhare. In 1977 he shifted to the Wellington head office of the Department of Education, where he was influential in updating the English curriculum. It was while preparing his second anthology for schools, A Cage of Words, that he met Anne Else, his editor and later his second wife. Recalling how important his grandfather and stepfather had been to him after the death of his own father when he was five, he became a committed stepfather to her two sons, Jonathan and Patrick, and her mainstay after Patrick's death at the age of 18 in 1987.

Never entirely at ease as a bureaucrat, McQueen took early retirement from the Department of Education in 1985 to strike out on his own as an education consultant. He acquired a wide range of public and private sector clients, and in 1986 was asked to write education columns for the National Business Review. As a result, Prime Minister David Lange, also Minister of Education, invited McQueen to work for him. In January 1988 McQueen joined the Prime Minister's Office as education speech writer and later as education press secretary, but he increasingly became involved in the battle between David Lange and Roger Douglas.

As a writer he was in a unique position to observe this power struggle. His now widely quoted memoir of that time, The Ninth Floor: Inside the Prime Minister's Office (1991), gives a close-up view not only of the Tomorrow's Schools administrative reforms, the political process, and working in the Beehive, but also of an embattled government coming apart at the seams. It has been described as providing "an informed commentary on the educational and political history, while his sympathetic treatment of Lange gives a narrative undertow close to tragedy". [All quotes in this section are from entry on Harvey McQueen by Roger Robinson in the Oxford Companion to NZ Literature] McQueen's concern for education transcended his political leanings, and he worked on occasion for two later Ministers of Education, Phil Goff and Lockwood Smith.

Alongside his commitment to education and his deep interest in politics ran his sustaining love for poetry. The first of seven volumes of his own verse, described in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature as "giving engaging expression to the mental life of a contemporary educated male", appeared in 1981, and soon after he was invited to work with Ian Wedde on the frequently reprinted Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1985), "the first to juxtapose the poetic traditions of the Mäori and English languages". Next came the Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry (ed. with Ian Wedde and Miriama Evans, 1989). The New Place: The Poetry of Settlement in New Zealand 1852–1914 (1993) "treated New Zealand's Victorian poets with discriminating seriousness for the first time for more than half a century". His third school anthology, Gifts, followed in 2000.

Two significant educational leadership positions lay ahead. In 1992 he became Executive Director of the New Zealand Council for Teacher Education, and in 2001 he was appointed to head the Teachers' Registration Board (on which he had served as a member) and oversee its transition to the new Teachers' Council.

In 2002 he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and education. Retiring later that year, aged 68, he focused on his love of gardening and nature in an engaging personal memoir, This Piece of Earth: A Year in My New Zealand Garden (2004), followed by an anthology of New Zealand garden poems, The Earth's Deep Breathing (2007). But by then his health was evidently failing. In 2008 he learnt that he had a rare degenerative muscle condition, which slowly destroyed his physical strength and turned him into a house-bound invalid, but left his mind as acute as ever. He began a widely followed blog, Stoat Spring, and in March 2010 he published the seventh collection of his own poems, Goya Rules. Introducing it, Vincent O'Sullivan summed up McQueen's work: "These are poems in the long and admirable tradition of the humanist belief that to face the facts, to find the language for speaking of them, is also to live alertly, kindly, attentive to what the day is and what it brings…an unashamed declaration to a world that gives much, that expects much, and poetry is the way to say so." In October 2010 he launched what he knew would be his last anthology, These I Have Loved: My Favourite New Zealand Poems. Hospitalised after a fall on 22 December, he died peacefully in the early hours of Christmas Day.

NOTICE: A public memorial service will be held at Old St Paul's, Mulgrave St, Wellington, on Friday 28 January at 11 am.


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