Ten questions with Andrew Paul Wood


Q1: When you started this project did you have any idea that you would unearth such a rich cast of characters?

Yes and no. Some of these people had been percolating in the back of my mind for many years looking for a context in which to write about them, but the depth and breadth of spiritualists in Aotearoa really did take me by surprise, particularly as some of them were fairly high profile in the mainstream. From time to time someone will mention Whare Rā, but rarely in great detail. I was also quite unprepared for how influential Aotearoa was in the broader field of international movements like Theosophy and Anthroposophy.

Q2: Early New Zealand was certainly neither dour, godfearing not straight-laced, was it?

Indeed, but I suppose one should expect that of an isolated colony at the fringes of empire. It must have been quite attractive to those who didn't fit within polite society. Although half a century ago historians were inclined to look at it all a bit too romantically. First you had the hardboiled whalers and other human flotsam show up, and they co-existed with Māori, who were the dominant culture but still more permissive in some ways. Then colonists started turning up from the 1840s on, establishing a middle class which was more concerned with propriety. That said, the Victorians were far from the prudes of popular tradition, they just felt more conflicted about it. And then in the 1860s the gold rush brought all sorts from Australia, California and elsewhere. Outside the more established towns, it could get quite rough. But also these were people seeking something different to what they left behind.

Q3: Why do you think so many of the occult movements — from Theosophy and Spiritualism to the local outpost of the Golden Dawn — gained a foothold here?

For the same reasons they gained a foothold elsewhere in the nineteenth century — they were something families could do together (i.e. not the pub or Freemasonry), the Victorians tended to be intellectually curious people, obsessed with self-improvement, and conflicted between Christian morality and scientific materialism. That said, Māori spirituality also fascinated them as something tantalising and different to what the colonists were familiar with, and Aotearoa has always been openminded when it came to spirituality. Catholics and other Christian denominations experienced less overt prejudice.

Q4: Did you find it remarkable that New Zealand was on a sort of international proselytising circuit?

To an extent, yes, especially when you consider how often Aotearoa is left out of big concert tours today, when back then it could take anywhere between 75 to 120 days to get here. Then again, by the 1860s Aotearoa and Victoria were very wealthy with gold and full of people curious about novel spirituality and wanting to connect with what was happening in Britain, so I can see how this part of the world would have been attractive to speakers and groups.

Q5: And that so many high-profile New Zealanders were actively engaged with the occult’s various practices and movements?

Yes, that was a bit of a surprise. But there were a combination of factors at play. Spiritualism and Theosophy, while they upset the various churches, were relatively mainstream up until the Second World War. Other groups were very secretive, and while the information about various prominent people was available to twentieth century historians, there is often a reluctance to treat it seriously, a tendancy to bury it as something embarrassing, or refusal from their families to cooperate on the subject. Spiritualism and Theosophy in particular were proving grounds for aspiring social activists and liberal politics, and they offered women in particular experience in leadership roles they wouldn't otherwise have had access to.

Q6: There are so many amazing characters. Can you describe one who is especially notable?

I have a soft spot for rakes, roués and charlatans, so I’ve long been fascinated by the American bigamist con-man Arthur Worthington, who came to conservative Anglican Christchurch in 1890 and managed to convince some of the straightest-laced Cantabrians to cough up a significant fortune and embrace free love as part of his Temple of Truth, only to be more-or-less erased from the collective memory half a century later. He was a first class sh*t, but utterly fascinating.

Q7: Oh, ok then, tell us about another.

By contrast you have Dr Robert Felkin, who had been heavily involved with the Golden Dawn in Britain and emigrated to Aotearoa in 1916 and set up a branch of a splinter group of the Golden Dawn called Stella Matutina in Havelock North. The sect, which ended up running much of the town, lasted into the 1970s, long after the British groups had disintegrated. Havelock North was a magnet for occult, esoteric, and alternative religious sects — Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Radiant Living, and the Quakers, who probably don’t really fit in that list, but they found a home there. I suppose I could have mentioned Katherine Mansfield’s complicated relationship with the ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley, but I don’t want to spoil too many surprises!

Q8: Your book has the most marvellous cover image, a photograph by Fiona Pardington no less. Tell us about that.

Fiona and I have been friends for years, collaborating on various projects and sharing an interest in the fringe and spooky. It was a natural fit. I love the way she has combined all these occult and esoteric items into a glorious altar-like still life with these great sprays of native Clematis. I am really very lucky, blessed even, to have the involvement of such a brilliant artist who gets me.

Q9: Has most of this practice of the occult died away do you think?

LOL no. Of course not. Human beings have an innate curiosity about such things — popular media is full of it. Horror franchises are billion-dollar industries. If anything, many occult, spiritual and esoteric groups are far more public about their existence than ever. Along with more evangelical and Pentecostal types of Christianity, immigration has brought with it all sorts of spiritual practices from Africa and Asia. The Spiritualist Church is thriving. The internet gives anyone access to these ideas anywhere, and these days it’s far more common to self-initiate into a particular path than join an established group. There are countless television shows about the occult and paranormal. Anyone
with too many candles and a penchant for nudity is calling themselves a Wiccan. And then there are all the things I couldn’t put into the book for fear of being sued, or because some groups genuinely scare me, or because even I haven’t been able to ferret out their existence.

Q10: The end of a colourful and fascinating era?

Never. A belief in the occult, the esoteric, the supernatural, has survived centuries of mainstream religion and scientific rationalism — it’s as if human beings have a need for the mysterious and mystical coded into them. Moreso in our technological age. If anything I’m a little disappointed with how mainstream it has all become these days, often completely losing touch with their historical roots and deeper beliefs. You have to search harder for that mystique these days, but then I am an old and incorrigible romantic.