For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

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For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
(Four Quartets, Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot).

I am standing somewhere in Leicester Square. It is either midnight or close to. I am inside a red phone booth. Maybe it reeks of urine, but I do not remember. In my hand is a black receiver with a mouthpiece into which I am speaking. My head is nestled into an earpiece straining to catch the words coming from 12,000 miles away. I can hear my own words echoing back at me over the voice of my mother, and then my father. Just before the three minutes is up, an operator interrupts our stilted conversation to let me know that if I wish to continue, I need to insert more coins. Three minutes is all I can afford and all it affords me, is a series of frantic hellos and goodbyes echoing into the night. It is 1972, phone calls are expensive.

Christmas that same year, I am in Edinburgh living in a neoclassical (now historic A listed) building in Leith, on the edge of respectability. My flat is dark, bitterly cold and has a bold red street facing front door. A telegram arrives to wish me Merry Christmas Stop and a Happy New Year Stop. Each word costs my parents a small fortune, the two stops included. We are not on Viber, we cannot see each other and my blue aerogrammes take a week or two to cross the dateline homewards. My Dad drinks at the local pub after work every night. He is good friends with the local postman. Sometimes, if an aerogramme has arrived before delivery the next day, the postman will take my letter and deliver it in person to my Dad at the pub.

I grew up in a modest post-war Jerry-built wooden bungalow. Ostensibly we were working-class but New Zealand was more egalitarian back then. In our street including my Dad, a carpenter, were the butcher, a baker, a painter, a chemist, a doctor, three schoolteachers, and eventually, years after I left, a Prime Minister. Most women back then were not in paid work, well not in our street. We had no telephone. If we wanted to call my grandmother we needed to walk to the top of our street, up a small hill, to a phone booth. I was born in a cottage hospital at the top of that hill. My father and I received the news of my grandmother’s death in that phone booth. My mother was with my dying grandmother. Dad and I walked up the hill to the phone booth to call for news. I recall I screamed. A man passing by in his car, heard me scream, stopped and came to rescue me – seeing me in a phone booth with my Dad, and not knowing quite what was going on. This same man, when he learned our sad news, that my grandmother had just died, drove us up to my grandmothers.

When I lived at home, I woke each morning to the sound of the BBC News, as my father washed himself in the bathroom and sang. We had a tin bath but no shower. His ablutions were a ritual of running water and a lot of sloshing. Big Ben would chime before the news over shortwave radio and the news reader had a gravitas that brooked no doubt. No one speaking in such a well-bred, carefully modulated timbre could possibly be telling other than the truth. The Cuban Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, and his funeral, all came to us from the blue Bakelite radio above the small green fridge. The fridge I might add, was a modern wonder that had replaced but not entirely, the safe above the kitchen sink near the coal range.

My eldest brother left school to join the Merchant Navy and was travelling as a teenager to the Pacific Islands specifically Nauru for phosphate and up to Hong Kong and Japan. He returned from a trip with a portable tape recorder as a gift for me. It had a small microphone for recording and tiny reel to reel tapes. My best friend and I would visit the local shops and record our conversations with the fruiterer or the local bookshop. I would secrete the tape recorder, uncomfortably under my cardigan. I would disguise the microphone which hung around my neck with a daphne cutting from my mother’s garden. We felt like spies and thought ourselves entirely clandestine. I cannot recall any of the recordings, but I smile now to think that we thought we fooled anyone.

Many families back in the 60’s owned stylish stereograms, which appeared to be as much about furniture as about music. Some cabinets that housed the turntable also converted into a drinks cabinet. Our very first musical turntable was a wind-up gramophone and from memory, we had two records. One was Mario Lanza which may well have been quite hi-brow and the other played the Irish song The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door. The gramophone was in a case that sat on the floor in the front room when it was played and then it was put away in the big cupboard in Mum and Dad’s bedroom. Unless you wound the handle sufficiently, the record would slow right down and that is my memory of the final refrain of the song which repeats the title, in a slow motion sound as the gramophone wound down. Many years later, an older sibling purchased a full-size ACME reel to reel tape recorder. We taped from the radio and had everything from Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Simon and Garfunkel, Sandie Shaw, Helen Shapiro, Diana Ross and Cilla Black. When I look back, we were lucky with so many outstanding female singers to listen to back then. Our influences were very much persuaded by the English pop charts early on, rather more than the American.

Then in the early 70’s, travelling by myself, I took my music with me on a small cassette player, listening to Carole King, Cat Stevens, Donovan, Neil Young and Blood Sweat and Tears, mostly American music. Later, in the mid 70’s, travelling with my now husband, we would make recordings of ourselves talking to our families on small cassettes and post these small cassette tapes home. The cassette would then be recorded over by the recipient, my husband’s brother, or my Dad, as by then my mother had died. I still recall our laughter, as we sat in a Norsk hytter surrounded by metres of snow, as my future brother-in-law back in New Zealand with a young family, regaled us with the woes of the newly instigated daylight saving. The entire one-way conversation was meticulous detail of the complications of old time and new time, the impact it was having. It made no sense to us that someone could be so disturbed by a one-hour difference in their lives. We’d just hitch-hiked to Lapland to observe the Midnight Sun. It wasn’t until we had our own family in the late 70’s and very early 80’s, that that one-hour difference when putting a toddler to bed, finally registered with us.

All my photos taken when travelling by myself in the early 70’s, including a solo Greyhound Bus trip around the USA, living in London, Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh and Norway, were recorded on slides. When I returned for the first time from overseas, a friend of my dear maiden aunt’s, invited me to her house along with her local friends and neighbours to show my slides. I recall how amateur my slides were, so dark and different from the instantly captured high resolution photos that an iPhone can capture. We were all in her front room, the lights out, a slide projector was whirring as photos of me in a purple midi coat standing by Cleopatras Needle on the Thames finally came into focus upon a white bed-sheet on the wall. The audience were all appreciative and I was the feted returning traveller. London, our Colonial homeland, and I had been there, although both my mother and father were born in New Zealand. Watching Helen Mirren before she was famous, at Stratford on Avon in a Royal Shakespeare production which from memory was performed outdoors by the river. But memory fails me on which particular play.
For a short time during my OE, I was staying in Nazareth Pa, USA having fallen in love with an American Coastguard sailor who had dodged the Vietnam Draft by signing up for seven years on the Icebreakers. We met at the Downtown Club in Wellington in the late 60’s and I ended up staying for some weeks with his family who were bemused by this girl from Downunder. I recall Polaroid photographs were the technology of that time, an instant image rolling out from the camera in technicolour. I kept a couple from that era, but they have faded. Then, more recently, my daughter-in-law purchased a brand-new super-duper Polaroid camera which had a brief moment in our lives, but not for very long. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, the list continues and images of sunsets and sunrises so ubiquitous as to be rendered schmaltzy. Everyone is a photographer, and everyone can communicate almost instantly with almost anyone in the world. We are blinded by sunsets, sunrises, and airbrushed joy.

When I returned from my travels in the mid to late 1970’s, I was employed for a while with the Time Life Magazine Sales Office in Auckland. These were heady days when triple page spreads for Rothmans or some Liquor brand, kept the magazine viable. The Sales Team at Time simply wined and dined the advertising agencies at such places as Antoine’s, Le Brie or Clichy’s ensuring ongoing advertising placements. It was a time of lavish expense accounts and too, the emergence in Auckland of trendy fine dining. Time Magazine had prestige and clout back then. Possibly a time of general naivety without the Twitter trail of fact checking. I recall an issue of Time Magazine dedicated to South East Asia when Muldoon and some sheep were on the front cover. Advertising was easy to sell with a front-page story about New Zealand. Journalists and a famous photographer, Rick Smolan, fresh from his filming of Robyn Davidson trekking across Australia on a camel, came to New Zealand for about three days. Nowadays, Robyn Davidson would be more likely instagramming her own journey on a camel. I recall Rick Smolan travelling light with a camera slung across his shoulder and the straps of the camera festooned with baggage tags. Baggage tags back then were an overt status symbol. Those of us who travelled, left the tags on our suitcases, proof of our international adventures. The photographer and a couple of Time Life journalists travelled to Taupo. They stayed at Huka Lodge and wrote romantically about Zane Grey and fishing in Lake Taupo. I saw the expense account. For the price paid, I envisaged scuba divers in the lake putting trout onto the fishing lines of the journalists… but worse than that, the statistics in the primary piece about New Zealand, specifically about child mortality were somehow grossly over misrepresented. There were other factual errors and my faith in the 4th Estate began to wane.

I recall the heady afternoon, when one of the Time Life Sales Team brought in a fax machine. It was I think 1977 and the fax didn’t really take off for everyday use commercially until the 80’s. We may well have been the very first commercial companies in New Zealand to receive a fax. A small group of us waited in the boardroom with the Sales Team, our eyes glued to a compact machine on the coffee table. A fax came through from the Time Life Sydney office. Prior to that, the communications had been by telex. Back in the sixties, when I joined the Post Office as a shorthand typist, we would use up to six carbon sheets when typing a single memorandum, so that it could be circulated around the branch office. I was also responsible on shifts, for a small switchboard answering incoming phone calls and plugging the phones in manually to the extensions required.

About ten or fifteen years ago, we rented a holiday house in the Marlborough Sounds. The house had its own private beach reached by boat from Picton. We were somewhat surprised to read the instructions left by the owner of the house regarding phone calls. The house was on a party line and we were told not to answer the phone unless it was (for example, as I no longer recall exactly), long short long. Throughout the long weekend, the phone rang and rang incessantly. It was the same number (not ours) over, and over again. Finally, in frustration, my friend answered the phone. The caller was from London and furious that we had answered the phone, thus incurring her the cost of the call. She did, however, stop phoning, thank goodness, as it seemed obvious to all of us that whomever she was calling was not at home that weekend.

I contrast all of this with my solo adventures around the USA in 1972, doing a Greyhound bus trip from Vancouver Canada down the West Coast and up the East Coast including forays to Las Vegas (in those days, merely a strip and a few pokie machines). I even naively and yet safely, hitch-hiked on several occasions. Thankfully, my mother and father back in New Zealand, knew nothing of my adventures, apart from postcards that probably arrived, long after any perilous adventures. Too, there were broken hearts that I healed by myself, without recourse to instant contact with close friends and family back in New Zealand. My adventures were frequently about romance and idealised love, and I am glad in retrospect to have had these challenges to myself, made mistakes that only I know of, and poured my heart out into a diary, from which several pages have been torn and destroyed. The short few weeks when I was certain I was pregnant after unprotected sex. My mother back in New Zealand didn’t need to know and I had no one to tell. When I bled, it was a great relief. I’m glad I wasn’t in daily contact with my mother during these times. Too, when I ended up at the clinic for sexually transmitted diseases after my first sexual experience. This was a solo adventure, the penicillin worked and to be honest I was mortally ashamed. I imagine nowdays, that it might even be Twitter worthy news. That same first experience spawned a successful poem, fifty years later.

I’m on Twitter nowadays and mostly for the political links that I find. I’m fascinated by the banal, trivial and outright nasty comments that people I admire are prepared to post. Most recently Neil Gaman and his partner Amanda Palmer, stranded here in New Zealand during lockdown, enacted the early stages of a relationship breakdown, live on Twitter. My thoughts were for the innocent child in the middle of this so very personal muddle. Oh, I judged them, I did, but I could see that most people responded with empathy and compassion. And as happens on Twitter, many took sides, alas. It all seemed odd to be washing their laundry in public as my mother might have said.

I compare the use of Twitter and contrast this with the gravitas of the BBC News on shortwave radio. At least now I can verify facts, double check with several sources and make informed decisions. So I’m not wishing to go back to a time of censorship. A time when I idolised JFK and Jackie Kennedy and knew nothing really of American Politics. A time when I loved the Royal Family and went eight miles on the suburban bus to the picture theatre to watch the film of Princes Margaret’s wedding. Innocence indeed, and we also stood at the local Picture Theatre for God Save the Queen. A few dissidents in the more expensive seats at the back, often protested by sitting down, but we kids in the cheap front three rows knew nothing of politics. We were in thrall to the Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s and Paramount Pictures. Enchanted by the raising of the rich velvet scallop shaped curtain as it rose from the stage to expose the white screen. Billy Vaughan’s Sail Along Silvery Moon can still transport me to the magic of the Saturday Matinee, a sense of wonder. Yet nowadays I’m more likely to watch foreign films and arthouse movies than blockbuster Hollywood releases.

I started work as a sixteen-year-old at the Post Office, working on an Imperial 66 manual typewriter pounding the keys with up to five or six carbon copies. And today I write this essay from my brain to the screen on a Surface Pro that is so light, I carry it like a clutch bag. My travel in the 70’s was not documented on Instagram or Facebook. I have barely any photographic record of this adventure and instead I must retrieve these memories from my own internal memory bank without Facebook to prompt me, or photos from my phone. I can switch screens to check Facebook, check my phone for updates from Radio New Zealand about Covid-19 cases, use Google to verify the spelling of Rick Smolan the famous photographer I met briefly in 1977 and return with ease to place my thoughts on a screen that allows me to justify, spellcheck, delete and importantly to ‘save’, ready for emailing my entry to the Landfall Essay Competition. No doubt Instagram will remind me of the looming deadline.

Saintly Passions

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Saintly Passions

They say she biked in her ballgown
possibly in a brace, and her with just
one kidney and a ciggie dangling from
the corner of her marvellous mouth

The black sheep of the family, we
thought, a scandal for daring to dance
but then it turned out, her quiet older
sister had a baby out of wedlock

The lock on wed is worth scrutiny in
retrospect, possibly related to the
Death do us part people mentioned
when marrying back then

Another sibling, a younger brother
managed to impregnate a married
woman twice, before she died in
childbirth and he married another

Thank God for adoption everyone
thought back then, and the locals
conspired to contain the secrets
known as the fabric of society

We think of weaving, stitching and
the spinning of yarns, and that’s
just what they did, they hid knots
it was all more warp than weft

And we were left to unpick the
pieces, years later when grown
men arrived in the image of once
unknown fathers to surprise us

Including the girl whose family
won the Golden Kiwi and who
grew to look remarkably like
the Parish Priest who relocated

Where documentation fails, we
have our own imaginations, on-line
DNA matching and curiosity to
rewrite our family histories

Saintly mothers with secrets
that speak of wild passions to
inspire their granddaughters

‘The Wonder’ (and growing up Catholic in New Zealand in the sixties)

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My No.1 Book Group chose ‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue for our November read. I hadn’t read ‘Room’ and I was wary of all the hype. But, very quickly, I was immersed in 1860’s Ireland, and astonishingly, recognising so much of my own childhood as a 1960’s Catholic girl. It was confronting. I was wearing my new-age, non-Catholic, 21st century sensibility, but I was also recognising and understanding so much of what was happening. I knew that when book group convened, I would need the one other Catholic in our group to offload to.  Because truly, so much of the crazy cult-like thinking of the times, can only be understood, if you have lived it. What was so shocking for me, was that I understood so clearly what was driving the characters in the story.  I wasn’t surprised by the prayers, by the fatalism, by the unravelling narrative and denouement.  It made perfect sense, in all it’s weird and shocking ramifications and revelations. Most shocking was, that my memories were of 1950’s 1960’s New Zealand and this novel was set in 19th century Ireland.

Emma Donoghue got right under my skin.  She lifted off my skin, and she burrowed right there into my once Catholic soul, the guilt, fear, the superstition. And of course, I thought I’d tossed it all into the bin of yesteryear. But listening to my friends at book group and trying to explain why certain things happened and hearing that they had no understanding, not in the way that these things rang so true for me – I realised that you never truly lose this thinking, this darkly embedded (skewed) world view.  We’ve often said at book group, that you can tell the way an ex Catholic will respond to a narrative.  Indeed, as our book group has been together now for twenty years, we can often guess how all of us will respond to different narratives, our likes and dislikes.  But, ‘The Wonder’ took the lid off my carefully construed and civilised self. I knew how to beat my breast and recite ‘though my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’, recognising how faulty this really is. I knew the prayer to my guardian angel.  How lovely… I once had one.  What a treat.  I believed. She kept me safe. I’d forgotten all about her. I’ve learned to live on my own without her now, but when fatalism is your creed, back then a guardian angel was a lovely prop.

And then, my non-Catholic friends wanted to know what the holy picture cards were all about. I promised next time, to bring some along. I have cards printed for my mother’s death, my brother’s death, three aunts, and a few extras, such as St Theresa the Little Flower, whose name I took at my confirmation, along with Our Lady of Perpetual Succour… the name of the church we attended. Virginal women reigned supreme.

I understood unequivocally, the need to suffer, so Anna’s brother could be released from purgatory. Of course, I knew how crazy it was, but I understood too. Suffering the road to redemption. I remember my confessions and the need to say penance.   Bless me Father for I have sinned.  It’s four weeks (maybe three weeks), since my last confession. Since then I have:  disobeyed my mother and father, sworn and had impure thoughts… I think this was the extent of my sinning, the impure thoughts consistently pervading my growing pains. Guilt was ever present and of course, you had to have sins to confess.  Possibly I admitted envy now and then, for surely that’s the beast of sins, but usually one we outgrow, or age diminishes the sting of. As for the impure thoughts, I grew to like them.

I was from an ordinary working-class family. I didn’t attend a Catholic school because my parents couldn’t afford the uniform and bus fare into the city. The story goes, we got a Papal dispensation. As part of that dispensation, I was shipped on a bus, in the August school holidays to the convent to be indoctrinated in Catholicism.  The nuns at the convent we attended, told us terrifying stories.

The story that has lingered the longest and never left me, goes like this and bears some resemblance to a tale in ‘The Wonder’… I’m guessing there are many more stories of a similar ilk out there.

A young girl dies.  As per the custom of the Church, she is buried in a white coffin, the sign of purity for a child. During her funeral service, there is a knocking sound heard coming from the coffin at the front of the church. The knocking continues. There is nothing else for it, but the priest must open the coffin to see who is knocking. Inside the coffin is the young girl and her tongue is sticking out. Her tongue is black and upon this black tongue lies the host.  As the story goes, this young girl, while still living, had dared to receive Holy Communion while in a state of sin.  The Priest removes the host, the child’s tongue returns to it’s normal colour and the coffin lid is shut again.

Can you imagine how terrifying this story must have been?  Add to this, the dilemma of distinguishing between a venial and mortal sin.  Dying with the stain of a mortal sin on your soul, meant going direct to hell.  I can’t recall, but I’m guessing that receiving Holy Communion while not in a ‘state of grace’ as the saying went, would be borderline mortal… anyway, we never found out if the poor child went to heaven, but the story as you can tell, has never left me.

I read a short bio on Emma Donoghue and almost relieved to know she attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin… for where else would she have gained this incredible insight and understanding of the motivation of her characters, her empathy for them in all their blind faith.

This is not a book review. If anyone is confused about the lack of detail and reference to the plot, the parts that the characters play, I apologise.   I am simply moved, to respond to the impact this novel had upon me.

But also, this novel is more than just the things I have responded to. To quote Justine Jordan of The Guardian “Her new book is based on the many cases of “fasting girls” reported across the world from the 16th to the 20th centuries: women and girls, often prepubescent, who claimed to live without food for months or even years.”

And too the desire by the Church for worldly proof that there is another world leading to fabrication and blind faith in the search for such perceived blessings.

Love as a Stranger

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Love as a Stranger

9781775538578

This is vintage Owen Marshall. A contemporary novel about a baby boomer ménage à trois (although that might actually be an exaggeration and perhaps affaire is more accurate). It begins in a cemetery in Auckland where we met Sarah and Hartley, total strangers, who engage in a conversation about a fascinating inscription on a small headstone for a grave that has collapsed in on itself. Emily Mary has been shot on her way to bible class.

Sarah, is a woman in her late 50’s, who hails from Hamilton but who is temporarily domiciled in Auckland in an apartment with her husband Robert while he is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Sarah has time on her hands and as a result, she bumps into Hartley again… and again.All three key characters, Sarah, Hartley and Robert are very ordinary, leading fairly un-extraordinary lives and this is where Marshall shines. He knows how to unwrap the ordinary and show the reader the interiority of what could otherwise be quite banal lives.

The story unfolds gently, the circumstances of how Hartley and Sarah begin a sexual relationship. It seems quite natural and unspectacular. Robert is sick, Sarah has time on her hands, Hartley is widowed and looking for company. It’s not the be all and end all take your breath-away sex, it’s companionship with sexual benefits. But here is where Marshall takes risks. He writes of the whole messy business, details that writers often skip over, and it’s not sordid or prurient, it’s quite charming instead. Or does that mean it is believable?

As always, Marshall’s keen observation of the human condition and people shines through. My first laugh out loud moment came early in the book when we are introduced to Hartley’s ex mother-in-law:

‘Her mother kept the conversation going by listing the features that made Devonport unique, and then the superiority of her own part of Auckland. It was an indication of the sort of woman she was – preoccupied with the instruction of other and the emphasis of her own significance.’

And this
‘Irene was thin and always well dressed, but age ravaged her and although she kept out of the sun her skin darkened and loosened until it seemed as if she wore stockings over her limbs. Towards the end there was so little of her that she appeared in the process of mummification, with only her dark, jewelled eyes glinting from the wrappings.’

My next chuckle came when the author builds a picture of the lovers as they might be observed by an outsider.

‘To others they could pass as husband and wife, except perhaps to the more insightful observer of the close attention they paid each other. A tall, slightly heavy woman in what might tactfully be termed late middle age, well and casually dressed, the colour of her thick brown hair salon reinforced.’

And so an affair begins with Hartley and Sarah that seems to some extent benign in its simplicity and almost inevitability. Sarah’s husband Robert is in the shadows at this stage, as a vague figure who is being treated for cancer. Hilariously, as Hartley becomes more besotted with Sarah, he wants to buy her a frivolous gift and says:

‘I’ll buy you French undies.’ But Sarah is having none of this. ‘Like hell you will. You can buy me slippers. I need a pair. All grandmothers do.’
Hartley becomes curious and wants to meet his ‘rival’ Robert. ‘Robert was a large, intelligent, self-centred man who had run down into needy dependence.’ They do meet, and Sarah doesn’t know they have and Robert doesn’t know who Hartley is either.

As the story progresses, Sarah has to balance the joy of this new affair against her responsibilities as a wife, mother and grandmother. In contrast, Hartley recently widowed with a son living in London, has no such constraints and he begins to imagine a future with Sarah. Hartley begins texting Sarah when she is at home in the apartment with Robert. Sarah is disturbed by this new insistence and it amplifies the deceit as she has to rush to another room to read the text and then to lie about who is texting.

Marshall very cleverly deconstructs the mechanics of a love affair. The various components ‘there’s always an element of vanity in love’, the competing personal imperatives as to why and how an affair might happen and then, the other lives that will be impacted.

It’s a terrific story and builds to an ending that is both gripping and in some strange way on reflection probably inevitable, but I doubt many readers see it coming. I certainly didn’t and I think it is a masterstroke and takes the novel into the literary thriller genre.

Highly recommended.

Mainlining Mansfield

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(And a link to my report on the recent conference in Wellington on Beatties Book Blog).
mans_portrait

I overdosed recently. A strange drug set me reeling into literary dismorphia. I was mainlining Mansfield at the time, being drip-fed abstracts over a period of three days. I began to hallucinate, imagine myself tubercular, talented, a genius with a Dad who had enough dosh to keep me afloat – something like a yearly stipend. It felt lovely for a while and I scribbled feverishly in my computer notebook, aware that if the National Library did suddenly want my feverish jottings, that I should spell check now and then. But too, I knew, my odd use of commas and ellipsis would be found exquisite, rather than extravagant and that whole new abstracts would be written, eventually, years after my demise, so I didn’t worry… well, I did a little – but not enough to stop me.

I knew too from listening to more erudite and analytical writers than myself (before the dismorphia and hallucinating) that words like ‘little’ had no place in the literary canon. I used Google and an on-line thesaurus to find alternatives… and ‘not big’ seemed highly original and after all I could embed the link to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary and thereby avoid any plagiarism charges.

Mind you, (replace with an expression of ‘so what’), I’ll swear I heard scholars insisting that plagiarism was a writer’s right, that ‘The child who was tired’ by Katherine Mansfield, was merely a flattering reframing of Chekhov, perhaps even an improvement on. There was no proof they said that KM had even read the English version of this short story, as if somehow, the Russian rendition would render her English version authentic. Aha, I imagined momentarily channeling Anna Akhmatova ‘s poetry for my blog, claiming never to have read the English translations. But I was distracted as two eminent scholars began arguing over whether or not KM (and therefore me at the time), had contracted Gonorrhea. Someone very clearly wanted proof one way or the other. It was suggested this was impossible without an exhumation, and I didn’t want to offer up myself, my own medical records… for scrutiny…

Someone took me to task too for living through the Russian Revolution, the First World War and the very first General strike in the United Kingdom – as if these things mattered to my literary efforts. Hadn’t I achieved enough with ‘Bliss’, this one story, an almost manifesto for the liberated woman’s libido. Some bright spark even mentioned a fabulous pun running through the story, the pear/pair tree and the various flowerings/pairings, and I have to say I was delighted to claim this subliminal reading as my very own intention. This is the wondrous thing about my fans re-reading me – yes, I know, I know, I’m not KM. But you see, I was mainlining, and the effect was the same.
Me, kayaking almost in front of the Days Bay holiday home of KM

I grew tired though, after three days, and on the fourth, I witnessed the staging of a small play about my short story ‘At the bay’ – just a stone’s throw from the beach – writers leaping up from their flat whites to appropriate my words. Two grown men pretended to swim in the Pavilion, as if it were the sea and Linda, Granny and Beryl muffed their final lines, the great moment when Stanley is finally GONE. I saw one of the writers viciously punch the other to prompt her… it was that punch I think that bought me to my senses, and made me realise, I was just another wannabe, hanging on the coat-tails of the Colonial Shop Girl of literature and I realised I didn’t want to swap lives after all. I like being me, here ‘at the bay’, alive, able to swim in the sea without Jonathan Trout… I wasn’t prepared after all for a Faustian pact, to be famous and dead and remembered, instead of here, today, alive and aspiring.
Days_Bay,_Eastbourne_1920s

I’m doing the twelve steps now… having had a literary awakening, recognising that I am powerless in the face of KM, and I’ve asked for forgiveness for my own literary shortcomings, admitted that the critics at times have been right about my failings, and I’m trying to remove all defective characters from my stories…
I’ve abandoned the excess, found the limit of myself, but I continue to write… and I always will…

Emmylou Harris and a guava lipstick

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Emmylou Harris and a guava lipstick

Last weekend, I went to see Emmylou Harris and Her Red Dirt Boys play at Vector Arena.   My girlfriend and I met each other in Auckland for this special event.   I listen to Emmylou when I drive my car.   She is my driving music, the background to my many journeys from the bay to the city and home again.  I sing and hit the steering wheel in time to her music.   I try to hit the high notes and imitate the soft throaty whisper.    I’m a fan.   When she sings ‘From Boulder to Birmingham’ I feel her loss, I love the man she mourns, even though I didn’t know Gram Parsons.   She’s seen me through a broken heart, my own.

So, because we live in different cities, we took this weekend out to be ‘girls’, to do the girly weekend away thing and to go to the Emmylou Harris Concert.    We shopped.   We’re older girls now, so we shop differently.   And too, we noticed that not only do we shop differently, but the shop assistants treat us differently.   One of our rituals is to buy a lipstick when we shop together.   It means that if we buy nothing else, we have the fun of knowing that yes, we bought a lipstick on holiday.   Sometimes we’ve been known to buy the same colour lipstick.    The last time that happened it was the colour Raisin.    Raisin has served me well now for several years.  It’s my fall-back lipstick, my almost match my lips lipstick.   But my friend deserted Raisin years ago.

We started at one counter which I won’t name.   This is not a name and shame sort of story.   But any slightly older woman will recognise the story.  Gorgeous young things were seated having their eyes done.   Beautiful young things, who didn’t need eye shadow and certainly not the amount being applied.   We vacillated, trying lipstick colours on our hands.   My friend has a lovely tan and I have pale freckly Irish skin.   The same lipstick turns a different colour on our different hands.   We wiped, swiped and rubbed off the test stripes.   We waited patiently for the assistant on the beauty counter to notice us.   We wiped, swiped and rubbed our hands with tissues.   And then in desperation, we moved to another counter.

And it was here we met the kind of young girl that every older woman buying a lipstick needs to meet.   She joined our fun.   She coaxed and encouraged us.   We took risks with pale and deep and dark and we talked of tones and we spoke of blue-pinks and pinks that are not blue, the true pinks.

“You don’t think it’s too blue and wrong do you?”

“No, it suits you.  I know what you mean, but it’s not too blue.”

Guava is the colour I chose.   Guava, like a split fruit with the ripe pink bleeding.

“Oh, I like it.”

And I do, I really do, although I probably really should have stuck with Raisin – except it sounds shrivelled, and Guava sounds delicious.

Years ago, we might have purchased a dress each.   A rash, exciting, and expensive dress, encouraged by one another, the sense of beauty, the sense of yes, this dress, this dress…   But now we’re older.   We have grandchildren.    We run into bookshops and toy shops the way we used to run into dress shops.    I bought an educational word game for my granddaughter – a German version of scrabble for a five-year old.   We shopped for Christmas decorations for our grandchildren. We shopped for our husbands, looked for boxer shorts that didn’t grip, or weren’t too tight in the legs, and not too shiny, silky and silly.   Neither of us was sure exactly of what size to buy – we took the boxers from the hangers and we stretched them outwards asking one another – will this fit?   We still weren’t sure.  We know each other’s husbands, but we still weren’t sure.   How big is comfortable?    Will they really want boxers or should we be rash and buy the stretch jockeys that look so good in the picture?

And then, en route to find a restaurant, we found a shop selling new, but old fashion.    We stumbled into fabrics that spoke to us.   I found mustard corduroy and it swamped me in something visceral like hot bread, or brewing coffee, but stronger more emotional.    I fondled the mustard corduroy, and I knew the feel of it, the look of it and the colour I could taste if you can taste colour.

We spoke of crêpe Georgette as we fondled a dusky pink frock remembering Vogue, Butterick and Simplicity (especially Simplicity).   The fabrics were not imitations, but copies, identical copies of fabrics we knew.   I saw my mother’s wedding suit – the one she wore to my brother’s wedding and a year later to his funeral.   We both recognised frocks we’d worn to the ‘dance’.     We wanted to wear them again, to go to those dances, but we agreed to settle for Emmylou Harris, the concert, that night.

                Before the concert, we went looking for somewhere special to eat.   The waterfront beckoned, but the tapa bar we chose was closed on Sundays.  Our hearts were set on tapas, but we’re older now and flexible.   We found a bar with a view of the harbour and seating upstairs.  We watched in delight as gorgeous young things in tight-fitting frocks knocked back cocktails.   Nowadays we have to consider what food we order and what drinks we drink, not just how much and how many.   But we were up for bubbles.     And bubbles we had… one glass each and then we eyed the menu for food that wouldn’t be too acid, too fatty or just too…

We walked from the café to the Vector Arena, joining the swarms of baby boomers.    How fascinating to be entirely in your own genre.   It was extraordinary.    The ‘once were sexy brigade’.   The pretty girls crumble the first.    Once pretty faces are now pretty lined.   The handsome girls come into their own.   A handsome face on a woman is a very fine thing when you’re over sixty.    Tall is good, because everyone has shrunk a centimetre or so, except for the very tall men and the very tall women, or perhaps even they have.

It’s a wonderful thing to be sitting among so many ‘contemporaries’ – people who were there during the sixties and seventies and who love Emmylou Harris and her music.    There is something quite reverent about a crowd who remembers.   How lucky are we?   To be there, and to share, and to enjoy the atmosphere – all those pacemakers, titanium hips, the enamel (backed in heavy metal) smiles, and barely a Botox babe in sight.   Well, the lights were dim, but you know when you rock up to watch a girl like Emmylou with her unabashed grey hair (it looked white to me) – my friend thought she might have highlights.

She was the highlight.   She sang I think for two hours, barely stopping to breathe – every song you wanted to hear and she kept the best till last – my favourite – ‘From Boulder to Birmingham’ – after two standing ovations and a stomping encore call – this amazing woman rewarded us.   My heart broke when she sang ‘My Name is Emmet Till’ from her new album.  I cried when she sang ‘Darlin Kate’.  She spoke about being a girl from Alabama who never imagined seeing a Black President.    I think she spoke for all of us.

AWESOME Emmylou and awesome too, the ageing baby-boomers who came out in their droves to listen to her.

Ursula LeGuin, High Tea and the Menopause

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Ursula K LeGuin, High Tea and the Menopause

Recently, I attended a high tea for a friend’s 70th birthday.   We were all girls and we dined on dainty sandwiches, sipped tea in china cups and ate pretty cakes.

My friend is a writer and she asked if her friends would bring a poem they could read at her birthday.   She especially wanted something that spoke of age and being a woman.   I took my ‘Menopause’ poem and read it.    It seemed to strike a chord.

I’m in that genre now, the one made famous by Ursula Le Guin in her essay on ‘The Space Crone’.  In fact I think I’ve passed through the planet Altair already.  My poem is a response to Ursula’s essay.     It had its debut in New Zealand Books, Volume 17, Number 2, Issue 78 in the Winter of 2007.     I see that New Zealand Books will soon be celebrating the launch of their 100th issue at Unity Books in late November.

Menopause

(Inspired by an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin “The

Space Crone” 1976).

Ursula urges me to

become a Crone

to not bemoan

my declining hormones

to wear grey hair

catch a space ship

somewhere out there

so I can share

my wit, my wisdom

my years of fertility

raising children

(ensuring my humility)

so the fourth planet Altair

can learn about the human race

from a woman (once a virgin)

and now a Crone  (on loan)

But I’m all for my inner space

and I won’t go grey

well, not yet, not today

there’s plenty of time

because I still want to play

to flaunt in the twilight

my age now my highlight

on the cusp of something

almost a Crone – not quite

ready for Ursula’s throne

but not afraid either

thumb out – hitching a ride

not looking back, nor

particularly forward

pausing as they say – oh,

but not for men

for me.

©  Maggie Rainey-Smith

Brother of the More Famous Jack

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Brother of the more famous Jack

by Barbara Trapido


This book was winner of a Whitbread Special Prize for Fiction way back in the very early 80’s.   I’ve only just read it, and yet the catchy unforgettable title, has been with me since the mid 90’s.  My first book group read ‘The Travelling Hornplayer’ by Barbara Trapido and everyone kept saying, you really should read ‘Brother of the more famous Jack’.   Well, now I have.

It is the story of Katherine who is interviewed by Jacob Goldman ‘a powerful left-wing philosopher up from the east end’ for a place at a London university in his Philosophy course – and how she becomes involved with his family.  Indeed, how Jacob really takes Katherine under his wing so to speak.    My book group agreed, as we talked about this book, that this sort of special relationship between a professor and his student, is probably nowadays less likely (e.g. would face more scrutiny).   And yet, even though you sense Jacob’s infatuation with Katherine, indeed his whole family’s infatuation with her and her with them, it feels very normal.   The idea that another family other than your own can change the course of your life is very appealing.

Katherine and the Goldman family are the stuff of fiction, of course they are.    Does anybody in the antipodes really know a family like the Goldmans and the very fecund Jane, wife to Jonathan, not to mention their precocious off-spring?  Perhaps…   it doesn’t matter.   I loved them.    I’d forgotten how satisfying a novel can be, and how delicious it is to be lost in another family, and to not want a book to end.    Perhaps I’ve been reading to review too frequently recently, and this has spoiled my enjoyment.   Reading ‘Brother of the more Famous Jack’ was for pure pleasure and for the fun of discussion with one of my book groups.  I imagined they would all love it like I did.   And for the most part this was true, but one of my book group friends prefers non-fiction, and she usually gives novels about the first chapter to grab her, or she abandons them.    She is English, she is discerning, and she is well read.  Ah, I imagined, she will love this novel.   Not so, she only got to page 50 and hated all of the characters, especially, as far as she was concerned the unbelievable Katherine, and too, the ghastly Goldmans – she didn’t believe in them and she certainly didn’t like them.

Ah, but I really loved them, even if I didn’t always like them. This is what a good writer does.   She (or he) persuades you to believe in their characters, even if only for the 200 or so pages of their existence.    Somehow, with her first novel Barbara Trapido does this remarkably.   Mostly I found the characters hugely endearing (even when annoying) and the conversations and insights, at times, acutely funny.    You sense that Trapido knows the world she is writing of, extremely well.   The whole shambolic academic snobbery, layers within layers; the English class system.   Trapido, it says, was born and educated in South Africa but now (1982) lives in Oxford.   I sense she is in this regard, both an ‘outsider’ and an ‘insider’ making her observations so acutely funny.

Laugh out loud examples (for me) as Katherine negotiates her new world and new perspectives, aware of the differences between herself and the Goldman’s are:

Katherine is being seduced by an old friend of the Goldman’s, John Millet.    “I had cried into my pillow the night my mother called John Millet queer, but I perceived a world of difference between that and Jacob’s calling his house guest an old faggot.”

Katherine in a relationship with Jacob Goldman’s son, Roger…

“I painted disloyal portraits for him of my mother in her emerald crimplene trouser-suit, reclining in her fringed garden seat with the latest Nevil Shute.  I told him that my uncle collected George Formby records.”

“You wouldn’t know he was Jewish,’ my mother said, ‘would you?’  She said this by way of complimenting me on the quality of male I had at last reassured her by pulling in.

And, when Roger heads to Africa to teach in a country high school, and Katherine’s mother says this:

“I’ve got nothing against Jews,’ she said. “It’s such a pity he has to be in Africa when you could do with his company.  Aren’t there enough blacks for him in England?’

And then too there is the very sad stuff when Katherine leaves the Goldman family to live in Europe and meets the handsome feckless, Italian, Michele – “Michele didn’t drive a Fiat.  He drove an open-topped MG.   This was not because he was an Anglophile – far from it – but because he was an oddball who liked to be different.  It was a piece of understated showing-off which I found most appealing.”     Michele offers her a Mink coat in exchange for an abortion.    Katherine becomes a mother, briefly.

And then she returns to the Goldman family, altered, grown-up, sad, and they too have changed or has just her perspective of them altered?

We find out nearer the end, why Jane the lovely fecund Jane, keeps having babies.    We see Roger in a new light and we see Katherine emerging as a new sort of women, one who wants to work (hand-knitting garments) to help support her novelist husband.      Trapido in this novel explores the role of the modern women; Jane and all her babies (because she can afford it!); Katherine who plans to run her own business, and Rosie, the almost overlooked daughter of Jane who marries right outside the family ‘genre’ so to speak, because she recognises she doesn’t have the brains or intellect which her family (snobbishly) venerate.

And in the end, it’s just such a jolly good read, which is what a good book should be.

Good Morning

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Here is a link to my brief career on TV… one more to go … talking books with Sarah Bradley on the Good Morning Show.

 

 

 

The Comfort Women

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The title is of course an oxymoron of the cruelest kind.   Comfort for whom?  It reminds me of the title of Julian Barne’s book ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’, it all depends entirely where you put the emphasis. Until recently, I had not realised the number, the territory, the vast canvas of this henious crime.   It was on a recent visit to Seoul to be with family, that I came face to face with the history of sexual slavery during the Second World War.  According to Wikipedia a majority of the women were from Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines, although women from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and other Japanese-occupied territories were used for the Japanese military “comfort stations.” Many of these women have gone to the grave carrying their secret.     And now, a few, very old, very brave, live on as long as they can, hoping that by holding out, at some point, the Japanese Government will hear them, will see them, will give them all that they want… recognition, by way of an ‘official’ apology.

It is with pride that I write of my encounter with some of the still living sexual slave survivors at the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, about a two-hour bus ride from the centre of Seoul.   Pride because they are resilient old women with dignity, courage, and often a surprising sense of humour.   Many of them survived the horrors of sexual slavery and because of the shame, married, raised families and did not ‘come out’ until later in life.    Even now, in this quiet rural setting, they are not entirely welcome.   Some of their neighbours would prefer them to be elsewhere, and believe they bring shame upon the district.   So, instead of the overdue compassion, they still carry both inwardly and outwardly, the stigma imposed brutally upon them, their dignity so tragically stolen by a Japanese Government at war.     Simply put, many people, the Japanese Government included, would like that these women would just die quietly, their secrets buried with them.

We were taken on a tour of the House of Sharing by my son and his Korean wife who actively campaign for and support the cause of the Comfort Women. On this particular day, they were the tour guides for a group of around sixty international tourists from Japan, America, China as well as local Koreans, and my husband and I, from New Zealand.   The tour is advertised in the Lonely Planet Guide for the socially conscious tourist who wants to know more about Korea than just the LCD screens, amazing restaurants and famous palaces.

Every Wednesday, a protest is held outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (near Insadong) and whenever they can, my son and his wife, join the protestors, and too, some of these elderly women (in their late eighties now and failing) will travel the two hours or more by van from their rural home at the House of Sharing to join the protest.   Why?   Because, the one thing they still demand from the Japanese government is a formal apology.    The Japanese have admitted that these events took place, have even given funds to support the women, but the most important step they seem unable to take, to offer the women the one thing money cannot buy, an official apology.   An apology will mean that this barbarous act against these women will finally be acknowledged as a a war crime, and not just some collateral damage to be swept under the carpet and forgotten.                 Alas, these women are dying now, one by one, every few months, another survivor dies without the dignity of an official apology.

                  Take a look at the photograph of the map I have posted and see for yourself the shocking geography of it, scan the map, look at the colour, trace for yourself the transportation of young Korean women, some as young as sixteen, as mere bodies to satisfy the Japanese invading troops.   Imagine yourself as one of those women, taken from your family, to serve as a sexual object for not just one, but hundreds of soldier’s gratification.   Imagine that now in your last years, all you long for is recognition, a piece of your dignity restored and all that it requires is a public apology, so that it is known officially, noted in the history books, a dark stain on the maps of Asia, that you and hundreds of other women were sexual slaves of the Japanese Government.   And although you have great dignity as a survivor, maybe something else, maybe but a piece, a small shining piece of something will be yours, before you die.   That small piece of something will be a light that shines on this crime, so that it may never be repeated.

And yet, as I write, and as you read, we all know that around the world in scenes of conflict both within and between national borders, women are still, often, the first victims of violence in acts of aggression by the state, or the soldier.

I am posting some of the poignant and eloquently tragic paintings by some of the women from the House of Sharing.  Unable to put into words the dramatic degradation they experienced as young  girls and women, they have taken to painting to express their pain.   Words are not necessary.

I met some of these women.  I sat with them in the afternoon, after a tour of the House of Sharing that unveiled the history and horrific details of their experiences.   What a contrast.   From the museum part of the settlement, we moved with a swarm of delightful young tourists, to the home where these elderly women are feted like famous movie stars.     These young people come regularly on the bus and the women, to be their friends, to love and to show support for them.   There is much laughter, affection and ordinary conversation.

It might have been any small residential home for the elderly – under-floor heating, spacious rooms, quite luxurious toilets with heated seats, and smiling older women, some more stylish than others, one knitting herself a pair of woollen trousers, one holding my hand with humorous affection and telling me what a wonderful son I have.   My son laughing and teasing her because he said that normally, when he visits, she tells him he is not good enough to be married to our beautiful daughter in law.   The humour is good-natured and the women can be just as cantankerous and difficult as any elderly people might be.   Except they are not ordinary elderly women – they are extraordinary and their story ought to be told, over and over, that it may never happen again.

The systematic rounding up of young women, their transportation to the battle fronts, moved like livestock from camp to camp from Korea to Japan and as far south as Indonesia across vast areas of Asia, to serve as sexual slaves for soldiers – some young women servicing up to sixty men in a day.  Records were kept to ensure the sexual health of the soldiers; prophylactics provided but with no concern for the health of the women….waiting in the small room……listening for the footsteps….   We entered a small wooden hut at the museum restored to the dimensions of the huts used, where the young women lay like objects, listening for the footsteps…   the dark, repetitive, footsteps.

I met two dedicated women volunteers from Japan, living in at the House of Sharing and caring for the elderly women.  Indeed it is common for Japanese volunteers to come and stay for weeks at a time, and through their caring to do what their government refuses to do – acknowledge what has happened. I found meeting these Japanese women a very emotional experience as it highlighted the common decency of the average person and how most of us at any level abhor what war brings, especially to women.  I was very moved by their dedication, generosity and obvious loving affection for the women they cared for.   But too, even this, a small house in the middle of almost nowhere, is not without cultural politics, disagreements, and differing ideals within the groups of people who care and support the women at the House of Sharing.   The Korean’s demand an apology from the Japanese and I hear whispers from the Japanese as to why the Korean Government has not looked after its own women better, with the money given to them by the Japanese.   And so, seventy years on, politics still blur the lines of compassion.

If no-one listens, (and you almost feel this is what the Japanese Government is hoping for), these women will go to their graves, all of them, without ever having had their dignity upheld, their story acknowledged, officially, that they were brutally and repeatedly raped, as part of an official Japanese government programme.   No amount of money or reparation is as important as this official apology.     An official apology will not take away the past, but it will highlight the stain, focus the forensic eye, so that this crime enters the history books and so that it can never be repeated.

I’m adding to this blog from 2011, and including a link to a newly released short film (sub-titles in English) about the recent agreement between the Japanese and Korean Governments which includes a commitment to removing the beautiful and most poignant bronze statue across the road from the Japanese Embassy. http://newstapa.org/31980