Last night, I was privileged to take part in a book launch that I suspect will never quite be repeated. All my friends were there, as usually happens – nothing strange about that – but it was what took place in the heart that will stay with me. Maybe it was my dear friend George Ehau, a brother from way back, in the steps of Jesus. We worship together in Te Haahi Mihinare, the Tikanga Māori partner in the Anglican church here in New Zealand.
George happily agreed to bless the kai and the book, so we stood around the great table in UBS Canterbury and said a karakia together while others chatted and had a drink. I will have to beat this man at golf one day, but he swings like he prays – quietly, but with real power.
Dear friends continued to appear: a retired professor of music here, John Ritchie, a WW2 Spitfire pilot who in his day had decklanded Seafires onto carriers. He’s 90+ and still airborne. Retired professor of English, David Gunby, whose father died in a Wellington bomber on ops over Czechoslovakia in 1943 – he came as well, another child grown out from the shadows of war.
Then there was Kota Hattori, my Japanese assistant, a post-doctoral fellow here at Canterbury who did the hard Japanese yards for me – internet searches and calls to kamikaze museums in Kyushu, all in pursuit of information about those who had attacked my father’s ship in April 1945, who had died in the attempt to sink HMS Illustrious. He found for me the contact details of their relatives as well. He brought me two exquisite cups, to drink the green tea he had already given me, brought back from his last trip home to Fukuoka.
Then of course, there was my friend Patrick Evans, who spoke to the book and launched it, arriving after a gruelling session in the upper echelons of University management where no doubt, heads were being counted, divided into the income and found wanting. What he said amounted to this, as I received it: “What Jeffrey is doing is trying to speak the truth to power, cave diving into the human heart on the way down”. By “power” I mean, all those lies that conspire against us being our true selves and allowing others the same space, especially those construed as our “enemies”.
Yes, it was a precious moment: old friends, old lovers, old soldiers, sailors and airmen. Either in the flesh, or in the spirit, there we all were. I said in my thank you list and the mihimihi I gave that writing to me is (as Margaret Atwood has written), “negotiating with the dead”. Writing about my father and mother (just writing them, no “about”), they came and spoke to me. Not like you and I might speak now, in the land of the living, but there they were.
Those dead kamikaze spoke too, out of their diaries, from transcripts from films, from the photographs of their teenage faces. There was no escaping them, as they looked straight into my soul without a word: “one day,” they seemed to suggest, “we will talk here with you where we are, and you will have no more fear of death”.
As I said, such a night will not be repeated, but there will be other voyages, maybe deeper, who knows, on this side of the divide, God willing. I think now of Hideaki Nishida, nephew of Hisashi Nishida who died in the attack; Hideaki who hosted me for a day in Osaka in May 2011, where I met his father, now the late Yoshiaki Nishida, Hisashi’s brother. Now he has the book too, and The Lost Pilot is just that little bit more found.