Random House, $44.99,
Daddy was a German Spy and Other Scandals: A Memoir
Penguin Books, $40.00,
Piano Rock: A 1950s Childhood
Random House, $34.99,
Google “memoirs quotes” and up they come. Will Rogers: “There ain’t nothing that breaks up homes, country and nations like somebody publishing their memoirs.” Torvald Gahlin: “He who believes that the past cannot be changed has not yet written his memoirs”. Inevitably, Oscar Wilde: “I dislike modern memoirs. They are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering.”
Then there is the well-trodden argument about where memoir ends and autobiography begins – or what the differences between them really are. Brian Edwards makes sure by subtitling his book A Memoir; Hamish Keith eschews a subtitle and relies on his preface to explain that, in autobiography, “memory is the compelling impulse [which] colours, joins up and fills in”. Neither of these two will break up homes, and they have both done and experienced plenty that is worth remembering. Homes, countries and nations should be safe too. There is no threat, either, from Gavin Bishop, writing for children in a delightful little book that offers, in words and pictures, gentle, nostalgic memories of his 1950s childhood in the tiny South Island settlement of Kingston.
Some comparisons between the two larger books are irresistible. For a start, these two writers are contemporaries. Keith was born in 1936, a child of the first Labour government; Edwards was born in 1937, in Cork, Ireland. Both have been fearless commentators on New Zealand life for many years. Both have appeared on our television screens, Edwards as a formidable current affairs interviewer and long-time presenter of Fair Go, Keith more recently (and briefly) with his much-acclaimed New Zealand art series, The Big Picture. Both men, too, have complex personal pasts.
There, however, the comparisons should end. Edwards’ memoir covers his first 25 years in Ireland, before he emigrated to New Zealand, and focuses on his unknown father, who could just possibly, as the title suggests, have been a German spy but was certainly a bigamist and a ladies’ man. Keith tells his life story from go to whoa, with plenty of pauses for vigorous opinionating.
It is easy to understand why both publishers were keen to sign these authors up. They have lived at the heart of significant events in this country’s history and they have never been shy about expressing their opinions. They are lively-minded, controversial and articulate. Edwards, though no longer on television, is frequently heard on radio. Keith is still riding high on the success of The Big Picture, both on television and in the book that followed, and is never short of a challenging comment on artistic or cultural matters. But there is evidence of haste in both these books. Each has had at least part of its genesis elsewhere – in newspaper and magazine columns in Edwards’ case, and in interviews in Keith’s – and the transmutation to the page has not always been complete. Both volumes are readable, engaging and interesting but both could have been better had more time been taken, particularly over structure, in Daddy was a German Spy, and over editing in Native Wit.
As one might expect, Edwards writes easily and intelligently. His evocations of Ireland are first class: you can see the streets, taste the food, feel the weather, breathe the atmosphere in the rented rooms he inhabited with his mother. He can be very funny. He understands, too, the power of detail, and of a good list. Here he is on the house that, as a teenager, he craves:
I wanted to have things around me that chronicled the history of my early life – dog-eared books and comics, threadbare soft toys, jigsaws with missing bits, squashed ping-pong balls, old pocket diaries, Dinky cars with tyre-less wheels, rusting trikes, broken torches, a collection of desiccated conkers, a jar of marbles (shooters and giants), wellies four sizes too small, a battered kid’s suitcase, a Dan Dare poster, a desk, a chair, a wardrobe, a sign on the door that says ‘Keep Out – Genius at Work’.
Someone who writes that well deserves to have someone looking over his shoulder who could prevent the frequent appearance of clichés – “We got on like a house on fire” or, more perturbingly, “Arthur needed to be the centre of attention; it did not suit him to play second fiddle to me, the new apple of his wife’s eye” – and the overuse of exclamation marks appended to chatty remarks that are better suited to speech than the printed page: “Well, thanks a lot!” And Edwards doesn’t always know how to end a chapter.
The structure is unsatisfactory. The title leads the reader to assume that the book’s centre will be the father who abandoned his wife and two-year-old son and was never seen again. This often fascinating story is traced, and the relatives and stories uncovered in the search memorably introduced, but the paternal glue of the story weakens later and is only reapplied occasionally. The missing father is obviously a defining feature of Edwards’ own life; that centrality needs to be better reflected in the book’s structure. It is divided into 12 parts, when simple chapters would have done the job just as well. There is an almost documentary-style reliance on research materials – letters and emails are reproduced in full, rather than blended into the text, and birth certificates and other documents are reproduced at the end. Edwards’ difficult relationship with his mother is promisingly delineated – as far as it goes; more of this would have been welcome and would have made an interesting contrast with, and link to, the paternal conundrum.
The tone is revealing. Edwards is at great pains to be scrupulously open about his own mistakes and bad behaviour, to anatomise his likeness to and dissimilarity to his father, but there is sometimes an oddly egotistical quality to this anxious honesty. This is definitely not, as he himself admits, a man comfortable in his own skin. Rather tedious is the lengthy recurring theme of his search to lose his virginity. It would have been amusing as a single episode but soon becomes tiresome.
Native Wit is a more robust book, and less forensic, though it shows some of the same relish for self-chastisement. There is plenty of chutzpah here, as one would expect, and generous servings of uncompromising and thought-provoking opinion, on all manner of subjects. For instance, when describing the writing of a book about 20th-century New Zealand, Keith is typically forthright and combative about his discoveries:
Why had a grey fog of an invented dullness been dragged over our history, completely concealing the truly rich, diverse and interesting lives of our grandparents? If I believed in conspiracy, I might have believed that there had been one, in the interest of a rural political elite and a rural economy, constructed to strip us of our metropolitan past and bury it under a pile of frozen mutton. Which is what, I think had happened.
There is plenty on art and the intricacies of New Zealand’s cultural bureaucracy but Keith is never boring or afraid to say what he believes should be said. He can also be very amusing, as when discussing grumpy-looking politicians: “The contrast between Winston Peters and Peter Dunne says it all. Even if he is really cross, there is always an outrageous twinkle in Winston’s eye. Dunne always looks as if he is going to announce that the cat is dead.”
Keith believes that although “major error is fair game … a gleeful public leaping up and down on trivial mistakes does not contribute a great deal to the sum total of human happiness”. Here I beg to differ. Memoirs and/or autobiographies do not have to be particularly formal, but they are written, not spoken, records and therefore call for some care and respect. Like Daddy was a German Spy, Native Wit suffers from inappropriate chattiness (and exclamation marks) – and interpolations such as “Whoops”. Sadly, there are in its pages a number of avoidable and noticeable mistakes, which are distracting and do neither the author nor the publisher any favours. Passchendaele is misspelt, as is Purchas Street (given as Purchase) in Christchurch, where Keith grew up (and which he describes with gusto, while ticking many of the tired old class boxes). The South Island Waitaha tribe appears as Waitahi, novelist Graham Billing has an ‘s’ added to his surname and actor Judie Douglass is missing one from hers. More damningly, in a book by a man who makes his living from the arts, on the same page we have Geoffrey rather than Jeffrey Harris and Alan rather than Allen Maddox. Keith breezily dismisses the need for an index; in fact, one would have been useful.
Like Edwards, Keith is a natural communicator but there is a carelessness here, a surfeit of incomplete sentences, a good deal of clumsy writing that could easily (with more time?) have been improved. “There were some advantages in starting art school with a girlfriend with at least that part of one’s transitional baggage tidy and in place” or “I hadn’t really [turned into a hippie] but given the contrast with the me who had left and the me who was there in Philadelphia, seen through her eyes I could have been.” Keith has a tendency, too, to belabour a point; more thoughtful editing could have dealt with this. This is a very handsomely produced volume, on which design time and money appear to have been lavished; why not be as careful with the words?
Gavin Bishop is 10 years younger than Keith and Edwards, and his memoir, Piano Rock, is a little package of pleasure – for its intended audience but also for baby-boomers, especially those who grew up in rural New Zealand. The book begins with the family’s arrival in Kingston in 1949, where young Gavin is soon aware of Piano Rock, “on the hill behind us, looming up in the moonlight”. In short chapters with such evocative titles as “Marmite & Malted Milk” Bishop touches on school, family, food, friends, games, the coronation of 1953, Guy Fawkes night … . The illustrations, in colour and meticulously rendered scratchboard black and white, are superb and the book is beautifully produced. The glossary at the end is somewhat salutary for middle-aged readers, who will not need it, but helpful for young contemporary readers.
Raymond Chandler wrote: “There are people who can write their memoirs with a reasonable amount of honesty, and there are people who simply cannot take themselves seriously enough. I think I might be the first to admit that the sort of reticence which prevents a man from exploiting his own personality is really an inverted sort of egotism.” In their different ways, Edwards, Keith and Bishop have all been honest; they have taken themselves seriously enough. Does the egotism lie in the writing or the not writing? The reader must be the judge.
Anna Rogers is a Christchurch editor, writer and reviewer.