Wednesday, June 14, 2023

In memory of H Westfold

Wellington readers of this blog may recognise the name H Westfold. Hector, to give him his full name, was a well-known writer of letters; or to be more specific, letters to the papers.

He died in Wellington Hospital on June 3, aged 87, and was buried last Saturday at Makara Cemetery.

I first met Hector in the 1990s. I was then assistant editor of the Evening Post and my duties included editing letters to the editor, a well-read section of the paper that sometimes ran over two broadsheet pages.

I can’t recall whether it was my idea or that of Sue Carty, the editor, but we thought it would be interesting to put on an afternoon tea for a select handful of people whose letters we regularly published and whose names were therefore familiar to readers. It was partly a gesture of thanks for their contribution to the paper but I admit we were curious – or at least I was – to meet them face to face.

They were, as might be imagined, a varied and idiosyncratic lot. Most were emphatically of a leftist disposition, although Hector Westfold was positioned firmly at the other end of the political spectrum. Unsurprisingly, most were men; older men. A notable exception was the engaging Shirley Smith, widow of Dr Bill Sutch.

My memory is unreliable but I recall that the other guests included Don Borrie, Jack Ruben, Bryan Pepperell, R O (Rene) Hare, A P (Arthur) Quinn. Tom Shanahan and Brian Connolly may have been there too. 

Don Borrie was a motorbike- riding Anglican vicar from Titahi Bay who chaired the North Korean Friendship Society; the crusading right-wing weekly NZ Truth would have called him (and very likely did) a red reverend. Jack Ruben and Bryan Pepperell were trenchant critics of the Wellington City Council, both of whom (possibly goaded into action by an editorial that I wrote criticising them as armchair critics) successfully stood for the council themselves. Rene Hare and Arthur Quinn, diehard socialists from the Hutt, were leading lights in the Waiwhetu Peace Group and staunchly anti-American. Tom Shanahan, a retired trombonist for the NZSO, was a man with a strong moral conscience. Brian Connolly's pet subject, if my memory serves me correctly, was the right of appeal to the Privy Council.

All were intelligent, intellectually active people with firm opinions and the ability to write a pithy letter, which is why they so frequently made it into print. All, sadly, are now dead, including Jack Ruben, whose death notice appeared only a couple of weeks ago.

It would be fair to say it wasn’t a riotous afternoon tea. I suspect most of the attendees were themselves there out of curiosity and they circled each other warily. Letter-writing is a solitary activity, so it should have been no surprise that they were not (Shirley Smith aside) a very gregarious lot.

Anyway, that was when I first met Hector Westfold. In fact it was the only time we met face to face. I probably wouldn’t have recognised him if I’d passed him in the street, yet I knew him well. I wouldn’t say we were friends, but he phoned me often over a period of more than 25 years and often wrote me long letters.

I don’t feel uniquely privileged by this, because he did the same to other people. Hector was a bachelor who lived alone in a Wellington City Council flat. In our many conversations I never got the impression he was lonely, but I think he did value human contact.

Plenty of people knew of him by name only. It would be fair to say that Hector became a Wellington identity on the strength of his inflammatory letters. That was confirmed when a co-worker of my wife, on being told last week that we were going to the funeral of a man named Hector, gasped: “Not Hector Westfold!” It turned out that she and a friend had once been so enraged by something Hector wrote to a paper that they jointly wrote an angry letter in response.

Hector would have been delighted. He loved to rark up those he regarded as his ideological enemies.

He was not an easy man to like. Hector was deliberately, gratuitously provocative in his opinions and wilfully at odds with a world that he considered unholy and decadent. Curmudgeon is the word that comes to mind. He stubbornly adhered to old-fashioned values and standards, to the point of reprimanding any younger person with the impertinence to address him by his first name. It was Mister Westfold.

His letters – both the private ones and those that he submitted to newspapers – revealed recurring themes. He was a staunch monarchist and a strict traditionalist who despised liberalism in all its manifestations. He was fiercely intolerant of feminism and strident in his denunciation of lesbians, or “dykes” as he insisted on calling them (assuming, I suspect mistakenly, that the term would cause maximum offence). It would have been easy to dismiss him as a textbook misogynist, yet there were some women he spoke of respectfully and admiringly.

He reserved an especially intense detestation for Catholicism, which he saw as corrupt and Satanical. He rarely sent me a letter that didn’t include derisive references to papists and popery. He did this knowing I had been raised a Catholic and obviously intending to taunt me. It didn’t matter how many times I told him I had renounced religion; the jibes about popery kept coming. Hector couldn’t help himself.

He could be unpleasant. More than once I hung up on him or binned his letters – always hand-written and running to several pages – in disgust.

How his entrenched attitudes took root was never clear. The youngest of seven kids, Hector grew up in Taranaki; I can’t recall whether it was Stratford or Inglewood. He talked little about his childhood, though he was proud of his origins and used the email moniker “taranakiboy”. As far as I know, he spent most of his adult life in Wellington, where he worked for what was then called the Consumers Institute (now Consumer NZ).

He was a devout Christian and a regular worshipper at the Reformed Church in Brooklyn, whose congregation adopted him and gave him a warm and musically rousing farewell. How Hector reconciled his Christian beliefs with his often offensive denunciations of people he disapproved of was never clear to me.

I certainly don’t think for a moment that his fellow worshippers shared his extreme views. They simply accepted him as an imperfect human being. In a kind and thoughtful eulogy, a senior member of the congregation acknowledged that Hector “sometimes went too far”. That was putting it as gently as anyone could.

He was an intelligent and educated man, but not always well informed. His sources of information were often narrow, the more so as he got older and withdrew from engagement with the wider world.

In the end, he made it easy for papers to reject his letters. They were obviously judged too excoriating by editors whose commitment to freedom of expression seems insufficiently robust to withstand the incursions of cancel culture.

Hector regarded non-publication as a vindication of his belief that the world had changed for the worse, and I couldn’t entirely disagree. His fault was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tone down his unfashionable opinions to render them acceptable to a new generation of editors with little tolerance for ideological non-conformists.

Postscript, June 15: After I wrote this obit I stumbled across the following interview with Hector by my former colleague Joseph Romanos. It captured him well.

The Wellingtonian interview: Hector Westfold |

I particularly like the fact that tone of the interview is non-judgmental, which wouldn't happen today. If such an interview was published at all in 2023, which is highly unlikely, it would be done in such a way as to present the subject as a pariah.


Alex said...

Opinions are important.
Right or wrong, at least we get a discussion and , if we are lucky , an argument.

Hopefully the number of people he may have offended are outweighed by those he prompted to think.
Probably the same people.

Sounds like he would be "moderated" today.

That's the sad part.

R Singers said...

Thanks for this post, Karl. The word community is so often abused these days, but it's nice to hear about the life of a member of the community whose life made an impact on others.

Ben Thomas said...

Yes, I remember Mr Westfold's letters well from the days when the letters' page of the Dominion/DP was interesting and thought provoking. The correspondence these days appears bland by comparison and dominated by views from The Peoples' Republic of Te Aro.

As for being addressed with the honorific I have long given up. When I arrived in NZ I had a conversation with someone from the then telephone company. At the conclusion she said, "and you're Ben?" To which I replied, "no, I am Mr Thomas". I then asked for her name and received the hoity toity reply, "I am Miss Smith". Being addressed by my first name by someone I have never met still irritates me. Occasionally I bite, as with Genesis who persisted in calling me and saying, "hi, Ben", but mostly I grit my teeth and ignore it.

From this you can guess my age. I am definitely a ‘curmudgeon'.

Eamon Sloan said...

I recall many of the names mentioned in this post.

Brian Connolly was an auditor with Price Waterhouse umpteen years ago. I had an association etc. with him when he and his team came to the company I worked for. In later years he had a bee in his bonnet (maybe a hiveful) about Peter Mahon and the Erebus/Air New Zealand disaster report.

Mr Ben Thomas would be at home writing for the New York Times. Its style is to use formal salutations such as Mister in practically all situations.
Regarding curmudgeon.

Karl in a previous life wrote a newspaper column titled Curmudgeon. Is he in his new life now a reformed curmudgeon?

Anonymous said...

Ah yes - Mr Westfold! I remember well his letter writing days to the Capital Times. One letter which has stuck in my psyche (and how I wish I could erase its memory) involved his misadventures with a bottle of brylcreem. The last paragraph of that particular letter was so graphic the editor blacked out several words and phrases.

But I admired his courage to stand up for what he believed in, even if he was offending legions of other readers in the process. I have often thought that Hector proved all too well Kingsley Amis’s observation that if you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.


Karl du Fresne said...

As noted in a postscript to my obit (added this morning), The Wellingtonian published the following interview with Hector in 2009:

DoughnutGuy said...

Ah, good old H Westfold. I was just thinking about him recently, actually, reflecting that I had not read his letters in years and wondering if he was still alive. I am glad I came across this. I used to love reading his delightfully outrageous, curmudgeonly letters in the various Wellington newspapers. I remember that interview, too. The community newspapers had enough backbone to publish him even after the Dominion Post pathetically stopped, but sadly they all went out of business. I am sure he would hate getting prayers from a papist like me, but may he rest in peace.

Huskynut said...

Thanks Karl for this as a historical snapshot. H Westfold was a tour de force of his time and its great to be able to contextualise his emissions from an editorial pov. I doubt I agreed with 5% of what he wrote but stimulate discussion he certainly did.

D'Esterre said...

Many thanks for this piece, Karl, and for the insertion of the "Wellingtonian" interview, which I'd remembered reading at the time.

We saw with some sadness his death notice. It occasioned a bit of reminiscence in this household.

We returned to Wellington in the early 90s, by which time he was apparently a bit of an institution in the "Dominion", to which we used to subscribe. We'd come from ChCh, and we thought we'd seen it all, when it came to strong and eccentric opinions, in the letters page of the "Press". But Mr Westfold was on another level.

As we recall him, he didn't like women, Catholicism, liberals, St Peter's Willis St (he once characterised it as a den of iniquity, or words to that effect), Treaty settlements....or anything else much, really. We're with him regarding "Mt Egmont", though. The emerging ethno-nationalism of recent years has caused us to return to using its English name.

We haven't for some years been subscribers to the feebly twitching remains of the "Dominion", so we didn't know if his letters were still being published. We'd hoped that he was continuing to annoy the humourless left-wingers!

John Hurley said...

M Creel

M Creel is now the staff at Stuff (or an iteration of); he banged on about the Soviet Union).

Letter writing helps get things of your chest. When they were demanding a Crusader name change "X" wrote that the people of Christurch [were in no moral position to ... have a position].
I replied that the people of Chch had nothing to do with the Mosque shooting and Chch started out as a settlement of the CoE. It's motto is "a city founded in faith, rich in the fulfillment thereof and strong in the hope for the future (if that's alright with you, that is?)"