Finding touch, Chris Laidlaw

Tall Tales (Some True): Memoirs of an Unlikely Writer
Greg McGee
Penguin Books, $37.00,
ISBN 9780143009139

McGee describes himself as an unlikely writer. This rather begs the question: what makes for a likely writer? Someone who has been brought up with a love of the written word, or surrounded by books? Someone who has sufficient discipline to be able to squirrel himself away and do the business? Someone who is plagued by doubt about the wisdom of trying to make a living from it? Or is it someone who can weather a long storm of disappointment before finally getting published? If it is all these things then McGee qualifies as a decidedly likely writer, or at least more likely than most.

Perhaps his sense of unlikelihood comes from his background as a rugby-playing, partying student. True enough, this is probably not the identikit preparatory school for a serious writer but then writers come from every corner of human experience, and McGee has been able to capitalise on his personal experience in much of what he has written, most notably his best-known work, the play Foreskin’s Lament.

This isn’t the only perplexing thing about this book. McGee calls it Tall Tales (Some True), which rather implies that some are untrue. The reader, however, searches in vain for signs of what might actually be untrue. This is a memoir after all and, unless you are a David Lange or a Jeffrey Archer, the facts are more or less the facts. But bemusement doesn’t end there. The book spans McGee’s adult life but stops abruptly in 1988 with no explanation as to why, or whether there’s more to come. It just ends. Bang. Is a sequel contemplated? We don’t know.

No matter. These mysteries don’t amount to much because there is much of real interest in Tall Tales to engage any reader, particularly someone who is interested in literature, theatre, television and film in this country. McGee has dabbled extensively in all of these. His portfolio is remarkably varied even if much of it is little known.

McGee doesn’t explain why he decided to sit down and write Foreskin’s Lament. It was, simply, a compulsion, or as he called it, a “curse”, and it caused him no end of anguish along the way. He was frustrated by the various diversions of life – playing rugby or otherwise having a good time OE-ing in Europe, or having to take up the law to make ends meet – constantly wondering why he wasn’t writing. There seems to have been an almost morbid determination to make it as a writer beneath the gallivanting and this is what gives the book its essential character. McGee set himself a five-year plan and Foreskin’s Lament lay at the end of it. He had no idea where the play was going as he wrote it but “I did know that what I was grappling with had to do with the end of innocence, and with disenchantment and anguish.” Thus the deeply unsettling character of the lament at the end of the play.

He relives his mortification at losing control of Foreskin to the demands of stagecraft and being unable to watch it even when he was invited as a special guest to many of the early performances. Its success clearly energised McGee. What would he have done if it had bombed? He had already written most of a novel while in London and abandoned it in favour of the play. There is a hint or two that if Foreskin had failed he might have packed it in and gone off to be something respectable. At a crucial moment before the play was finished, he dashed off a short story and sent it to Robin Dudding, editor of Islands, in the hope of some validation as a writer. Silence followed. Then, just as he was on the point of despair, Dudding got back to him. He liked the short story “a lot” and “Out in the Cold” was duly published by Islands.

It seems to have been a close run thing. McGee persisted, and buoyed by Foreskin’s singular success he achieved that precious validation. The way this play then came to represent a social barometer as rugby’s ethos came more and more under a critical spotlight is now part of the folklore of theatre in this country. This established McGee as something of a darling of the intellectual Left, and he seems to have revelled in it while harbouring, deep down, a sense of unease about “having a foot in both camps”. Others of us, occasionally trapped in this no man’s land, will know what this feels like.

It is at this point in the book, however, that things become a bit more prosaic. McGee is sufficiently talented to have a go at everything, and the next decade from the late 70s to the late 80s was characterised by scriptwriting for stage, television and movies, a bit of fiction and some sports journalism. He admits that some at least of this was the product of necessity. Writing, as distinct from the law, is a precarious business anywhere, and McGee, having determined that he wasn’t going to turn back, was obliged to take whatever opportunities came his way.

Amid all this, he produced two additional gems. The first was his play Whitemen, a political polemic which was savaged by some critics but recognised by others as an important piece of contemporary social comment, a rare bird in the New Zealand bush. The second was his script for Erebus: The Aftermath, which was another incendiary device that caused no end of aggravation at Air New Zealand and TVNZ, but which served to expose, probably for the first time, the ugly underbelly of corporate deception in this country.

This wasn’t all he was up to. McGee was also very active in the early attempts to indigenise theatre in New Zealand, and it is here that, perhaps, his most lasting legacy will lie. Along with several others he set about untying the knots between the professional theatres and those who wrote the plays. Understandably, the notion that some Johnny-come-lately with no previous experience of running a theatre should suddenly start telling seasoned operators like Raymond Hawthorne or Elric Hooper that they didn’t have it quite right didn’t go over particularly well. A small guerrilla war broke out with the traditionalists holding the fort and the indigenous insurrectionists trying to batter their way in. From all reports Greg McGee seems to have acquired a reputation as a right stirrer during this period. Who won? It rather depends on whom you talk to.

The last half of the book might have been just a lengthy postscript characterised by projects that fell over before they got to the starting line for one reason or another, were it not for McGee’s semi-detached perspective, as a semi-insider, on the bitchiness of the theatre, the callous commercialisation of TVNZ and the commercial hazards of film-making.

And then we have the inexplicable stoppage, 20 years ago. Has anything happened since? You’ll have to ask the author.

 

Chris Laidlaw is an ex-All Black and broadcaster.

 

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