Withholding and unfolding, Ashleigh Young

Mune: An Autobiography
Ian Mune
Craig Potton Publishing, $49.99,
ISBN 9781877517334

Navigation: A Memoir 
Joy Cowley
Penguin Books, $45.00,
ISBN 9780143205715

Searching for Grace: A Woman’s Quest for her True Identity  
Carol Henderson and Heather Tovey
Steele Roberts, $39.99,
ISBN 9781877577017

Cat Amongst the Pigeons: A Memoir 
Cath Tizard
Random House, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869793005

Ian Mune divulges in his preface that the reason he wrote this book was to make a buck. Like most New Zealand actors or artists, he was feeling kind of desperate. This seems deeply wrong for a man who co-wrote and starred in the iconic Sleeping Dogs and directed Came a Hot Friday and The End of the Golden Weather. But this is what happens. He’d thought about doing a calendar (of gannets, I believe), but Craig Potton wouldn’t go for it.

Such disarming honesty makes this book essential reading. (It’s a large, handsome – if I can use that word – volume. The photograph on the front is all face. Those lived-in features tell a story before you’ve even opened the book.) Essential, because Mune’s got nothing to lose by telling us exactly what he’s been through in this country’s toughest industry, from his first taste of performance (reciting “Peas and Honey” at a Sunday school concert) to working with Ian McKellen on the set of Lord of the Rings (“He looks a little discombobulated when I tell him that I once turned down being his understudy for a Broadway season”). Mune has a warm, growly voice on the page, as you’d expect, and a deft, humorous turn of phrase.

Confronted with his publisher’s directive to simply “write your story, Ian”, Mune asks himself, “How many lives does each of us have?” Which lives do we tell, which do we keep secret? But, like any good scriptwriter, he’s been selective with detail and dialogue, homing in on moments of absurdity, profundity, and transformation – many of these moments are his bombastic failures on stage as a schoolboy – and he’s kept all the good bits so that what we get is story: the story of his life as an actor, director, writer, teacher; within the story of New Zealand film, TV, and theatre – and, more broadly, the story of our country’s emergence from cultural cringe. Mune’s slow, stubborn rise to success as someone who couldn’t speak in an English accent, whose rs sounded like ws, is parallel with New Zealand’s emergence or renaissance in the way we are prepared to see ourselves on stage and screen.

Joy Cowley is a writer who knows the power of story. We learn through story, grow through story; story grows from us and into us. I will never forget reading Bow Down, Shadrach for the first time, blubbering uncontrollably when the old Clydesdale finally bowed out. That story has always stayed with me, simply because, unlike many of the British and American books I read as a child, it let me see myself in it. In her memoir Navigation Cowley writes of how many of her stories began (naturally, Mrs Wishy Washy was conceived in the bath), how they have reached children all over the world, and how others’ stories have reached and shaped her. She tells the story of New Zealand’s reading programmes for young children and of how our education system has changed (I found my hackles rising slightly when she refers to the National Standards as “standardised testing” – they’re not!), and her experiences of reading to children in classrooms all over the world.

Particularly towards the end, where she recounts a near-death experience that relieved her of a fear of death, Cowley speaks openly of her spiritual views. There is recognition that things happen in our lives that we simply can’t account for. There are no true endings; all is story. I must admit that, at times, her pursuit of profundity felt overcooked, and the sweet became saccharine: “If we don’t see well without glasses, there is compensation in excellent hindsight as we review a lot of years in Life School.” Yes, yes. However, when it comes to evoking time and place – and of course people – her writing is luminous with detail. And her anecdotes are captivating. Is there anything more delightful than a New Zealand author throwing up in Roald Dahl’s swimming pool?

The narrator of Searching for Grace, Heather Tovey, has an altogether different voice. Carol Henderson is technically the author of this account of her late mother Heather Tovey’s search for her birth mother, but it is written in the first person, as if it were Tovey’s voice, hence the dual authorship. Is it just me, or is there something unsettling about consciously channelling your mother? Isn’t the idea to avoid becoming our parents at all costs? But let’s put our own issues aside for a moment. This is the story of one woman’s search for her identity, from childhood in Edwardian England to adult life in Plimmerton, New Zealand.

“To my family and friends I’m sure I seemed a very ordinary young person,” Heather tells us. Her point of difference, of course, is that she has no idea where she came from or who her parents are. Her pleas for information from her elderly caregiver “Mummy” are met with blank refusal. A pattern is established: each time she fails to extract information, Heather resigns herself to ignorance; inevitably another confrontation and disappointment ensue. The pattern persists until finally, aged 64, Heather decides to travel to England to discover why she was denied the right to know her parents. “I am here! I was born, and surely someone must be prepared to acknowledge me,” she rails at the New Zealand Passport Office.

Apart from the rare outburst, Heather does seem like a very ordinary person. In some ways quite a dull person, in the same way that, as a child, letters from your grandmother were dull. She spends a large portion of the book describing “what life was like back then”. There are occasional glimpses of quirkiness, such as her romance with the creepy artist(e) Beltrán Masses. However, there’s a sense that the levels of remove have made it difficult for the writer to fully inhabit this tale. The narrative becomes strained at crucial points in the book – such as when Heather discovers that her mother may, in fact, be her friend Lady Weigall – and becomes almost chilly when we read of Heather’s husband’s alcoholism, his philandering (“I cannot in truth say I welcomed the situation”), and his death. The brevity with which these seriously heart-rending events are told is jolting – and perhaps testament to how accustomed we’ve become to the memoir that lets us in completely, utterly, in technicolour. We don’t want reportage; we want to be transported.

In the end, does it matter? Many people of Heather’s generation told their stories with restraint. This book is true to that voice. It is also true to a time when one had to absorb “a strict code of acceptance of the status quo”.  The fact that a reader must work hard to bring this memoir to life perhaps doesn’t matter; perhaps is secondary to the fact that it is a true story about the lengths to which we will go for self-knowledge.

“I am quite introspective, you might be surprised to know,” Dame Cath Tizard has said in a recent interview. Which is surprising, because although her memoir Cat Amongst the Pigeons is entertaining, we rarely get far below the surface of the performer, the orator, Dame Cath.

She was the first woman mayor of a major city in New Zealand, and the first woman to become Governor-General here – pretty good for a woman who claims that her career was a series of lucky accidents – so when it came to her own life, naturally she wanted to get in first. She’s an orator before she’s a writer, but that doesn’t stop her from telling a lively story. Her years as Governor-General are among the most colourful parts of the book. Along with the raucous parties and junkets, there’s an excellent scene of the dame roaming around Government House in her nightie, brandishing a torch as she tries to flush out a burglar. Neither here nor anywhere else in the memoir does she show any self-doubt. There’s the odd instance of caution, of indecision – but self-doubt, never.

In fact, her memoir displaces none of those adjectives that people love to use about her – feisty, irreverent, shrewd, and others that somehow evoke a small furry creature from Beatrix Potter. Most readers (and she herself, I suspect) would’ve loved her to throw more caution to the winds, to show some vulnerability perhaps, but for a person of her status there is too much at stake, and somehow she has struck a balance between the withholding and unfolding of gossip. There are many light-hearted rib-elbowings, and rightly so, in ex-husband Bob Tizard’s direction – a jab here, a jab there: “Bob always produced a good supply of vegetables. Never flowers: flowers were a waste of effort”; “Bob had always boasted about coming from long-lived stock”; “A minor miracle took place: Bob gave up golf for a year.” She’s especially good at the too-good-to-be-true anecdote, such as the telegram she received from the Queen after bungy-jumping off the Sky Tower: “Well jumped. Elizabeth R.” She is able to be candid about her earlier, less known life, and she writes openly about her friendships, particularly that with Norman Kirk.

Readers hoping for the tell-all autobiography will be disappointed. She has not let us in on all of her lives. But I finished this book feeling that she had told a story she believes in.

 

Ashleigh Young is a writer and editor who lives in London.

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Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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