Saying it like it is, Jane Stafford

Palm Prints
Fiona Kidman
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 228 1

Then and There: a Seventies Diary
Dennis McEldowney
Auckland University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86950 116 6

Accidental Life
Phoebe Meikle
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 108 5

Bishops: My Turbulent Colonial Youth
Mona Williams
Mallinson Rendel, $24.95,
ISBN 0 908783 05 1

In a recent Listener article, the television series New Zealand at War was criticised by professional historians. Some of this criticism was for factual accuracy. Some was to do with the perennial television problem that if you haven’t got a picture of something, it hasn’t happened ‑ or, conversely, if you have got a picture of it, no matter how inane or insignificant, it can lead the bulletin.

But to my mind the most interesting and significant criticism concerned the status of oral history. Russell Stone, emeritus professor of history at Auckland University, took exception to the way in which the views of “ordinary” people were accorded the same status as those of “professionals” ‑ in this case military historians and soldiers. And it wasn’t just that the ordinary were wrong ‑ it was that they were somehow not significant, or at least not equally significant. Just because someone was there at the time, said Stone, doesn’t mean they knew what was going on.

There are several responses to this. One is that what people think happened is as important in terms of the historical record as what actually happened. It’s just different. Another is that the whole concept of historical “fact” (sorry about all the inverted commas, but they seem necessary) is one that many historians are at least interrogating. And, third, there seems a no‑doubt‑unconscious assumption in many of these comments that society is divided into those who know and decide and those who don’t and that this division is proper. That these views seem to be attributed to those involved, however tangentially, in the institution of warfare seems to me to be incredible and not a little frightening. The context of the discussion‑the New Zealand at War documentary ‑ further developed this point by implying that there were those who were qualified to pronounce on history, that is, historians, and those who were not, that is, television documentary makers.

History has been conscious of these questions of elite access and general experience for some time. The whole movement of “people’s history”, as pioneered by those such as Raphael Samuel, was not just a reinvigoration of social history, that Cinderella of the traditional historical canon, but a fundamental questioning of implicit and explicit values. What happens to a society can be measured in many ways and the activity of kings, politicians and generals ‑ the group Christopher Hill described as the top 2% male section of the population ‑ is just one of those ways. The middle class, the working class, women, material life rather than political life, the world of small event and particular feeling ‑ all these are interesting not just in the light they shed on what the chaps at the top are doing. They constitute an alternative and equally valid way of constructing the past. Autobiography is one way of recording this material.

In his diary of the 1970s, Dennis McEldowney talks about the biography of Sir Walter Nash written by Keith Sinclair and published by McEldowney at the Auckland University Press in 1976. Nash is certainly one of our top 2% and Sinclair’s biography is an important part of the historical record of the period. It is ironic to see its development and reception discussed in a very different type of book, a personal journal. Sinclair’s work is formal, magisterial, deals with grand events and significant decisions. Its mana derives from the mana of its subject. Power and all its trappings underpin the narrative. McEldowney on the other hand gives us domestic detail and minor event.

The diary form means that there is no discrimination into major and minor, no overall thematic shape, no development apart from the obvious progression of life ‑ we get older, we return to problems we thought we’d solved, we meet friends, we consider our gardens and we attempt to develop relationships with our cats. McEldowney has had, of course, a distinguished career as a critic and publisher, but there is in fact little in his diary that is particular to this sphere. He is acquainted with a range of writers, but there are no incisive portraits of them and no gossip. The work’s charm lies in its relentless ordinariness and its almost total lack of reflection or introspection. This is strange, considering he is not only writing down this record but offering it for public consumption and on first reading I was suprised and amused by the amiable banality of the tone:

4 Saturday Set the alarm so we would be up to finish staining the deck before it was hot, which we did, working two hours. My part was mainly painting the lower outsides of the battens, for which purpose I had the brush attached to a long handle. We stayed indoors thereafter ‑ I wrote at my desk until before and just after dinner I mowed the Ligginses’ lawn (they being away) and we also watered, which again is a daily chore.

Why, I thought, should anyone be interested in a detailed account of mildly cultivated middle‑class life in the Auckland suburbs, especially in the 1970s? But then somehow I found I was and I’m not sure why. Is it that the literary presentation of ordinary life is somehow reassuring, enabling you to see that your own life ‑ the mess, the panic, the awful hope ‑ could be similarly given a shape and formality, albeit the loose formality of the journal?

Phoebe Meikle’s Accidental Life presents satisfactions of another kind entirely. As she and McEldowney both had a career in publishing (AUP is her publisher and she thanks McEldowney for his “thorough knowledge of his craft and discriminating love of words” in the foreword), the difference must derive from the form of each book as much as from content. Meikle has written a conventional autobiography ‑ though perhaps conventional is not the word. She begins somewhat disconcertingly:

My life surely must have been accidental from the moment of conception because I don’t believe my parents planned to have yet another child when they already had four under the age of 7, children who stretched their father’s low pay to the limit and compelled their mother to overwork. If abortion had been available would I, I wonder, have been born?

This style sets the tone of her account of a life which combines incident and, if not celebrity, then certainly contact with celebrity. Meikle’s work in publishing, combined with her staunch feminist principles, made her an important influence on the literary scene. But it is the more personal and mundane details that I like. Her account of her childhood ‑ she was born in Tauranga in 1910 ‑ to my mind rivals Janet Frame’s To the Island. The world she so clearly describes was basically Edwardian in its conventions and social structures and I think that we believe her when she says that even as a child she was aware of such distinctions. But the stance she took from her upbringing certainly was far from Edwardian. I don’t like reticent, careful autobiographies. If you choose self‑display, you should do it properly and Meikle is very fair in this regard. For example:

So ‑ to love‑affairs.

I have had only two affairs serious enough to deserve the name, the first at the age of 18, the second and enduring one at 39.

 

The tone is brisk and intelligent and, whatever the focus, there is shape and purpose. She ends with a typically disconcerting look at death:

Perhaps having raged throughout my life ‑ too often egotistically; not often enough against unkindness, injustice, cruelty, violence, and folly (which can encompass all four) ‑ perhaps I shan’t “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, as Dylan Thomas enjoins old people to do. Perhaps I shall “go gentle into that good night”. Perhaps.

 

Meikle’s work as a teacher and a publisher gives her an almost messianic love of literature. She shares this with Fiona Kidman, whose book Palm Prints is informed throughout not with just Kidman’s sense of responsibility to her own writing, but her wider responsibility to the profession and culture of literature as a whole. This book is not strictly speaking an autobiography, rather a collection of essays, speeches and occasional pieces. But one can construct a biography from it both public and private. Given Kidman’s age and her feminist orientation, the two spheres bisect. Her account of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in provincial New Zealand and the weird folk rituals that young women in particular were supposed perform to gain acceptance is pure anthropology:

There was a farmer who belonged to the Young Nationals and wanted to marry me. I turned him down, much to my relatives’ disgust. There was the big fair Dutchman, who said if we made love, not to worry, he would certainly marry me if we made a baby ‑ that’s what he told everyone and I didn’t take the chance; there was an up‑and‑coming businessman who owned a pink and green open‑topped Chevy and dated me when his girlfriend was out of town; another took me out and told me he had bought a condom, I could choose between going to hear Billy Graham relayed into a landliner bus and sex, and I’d probably get it either way; I didn’t.

 

Perhaps the most interesting in this regard is “I, the Suburban Housewife”, written in 1969 for Eve magazine. Kidman, in a foreword, looks back at the confident, slightly prissy 29‑year‑old and finds her hard to recognise. And her defence of the housewife, written just before the women’s movement came along to supply a perspective and a vocabulary to examine such a role, is a fascinating marker of the gap between the expectations the women of Kidman’s generation had and the world they ended up living in. A historian could theorise this, but Kidman’s account ‑ warm, painfully honest, exact in its reference ‑ is a testimony that is at least as important.

In a similar way, Mona Williams book, Bishops: My Turbulent Colonial Youth, could be retold as a treatise on racism, imperialism, sexism and post‑colonial theory. I am not debunking such texts. They are necessary. But their authors must in return be respectful of the individual experience. And in Williams’ case, to extract the general argument would be to lose a delightful particular. Bishops tells of her experience in what was then (the 1950s) British Guiana as a scholarship girl at a traditional girls school where the curriculum tried to pretend as far as possible that classes were taking place in the English home counties. Guianan music was considered primitive, as was its art “unless our ideas had influenced Picasso … Only then was our work considered proper Fine Art”. There was no ‘proper” Caribbean history, no literature seen as worth teaching, despite the young Mona hearing Andrew Salkey, George Laniming, Samuel Selvon, C L R James and Derek Walcott on that weapon of decolonisation, the BBC. Bishops educated her but at the same time told her not to value who she was.

There is a thread here. The abstract, the intellectualised, the professionalised have meaning only in respectful partnership with individual experience. Dennis McEldowney’s daily round, Phoebe Meikle’s life of activity and purpose, Fiona Kidman’s testimony to change and advance, Mona Williams’ battle with the institutions of colonialism are worthwhile as evidence for a wider historical picture of an age, irrespective to their relationship to “fact”. But they are also important in themselves and as works of literary creation.

Jane Stafford lectures in English at Victoria University of Wellington.

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