Beating TB and Roger Douglas, Angela Foulkes

Marching On
Sonja Davies
Random House
ISBN 186941296 6

Sonja Davies is a continuing influence among New Zealand women. Although it is four years since she retired to the Wairarapa, her spirit and physical presence enliven both commemorations of and recommitals to campaigns as disparate as equal pay, women’s refuges and peace. Women who have never been members of a union or voted Labour respect and are encouraged by her example.

Sonja and I have never worked closely together. We were a generation and a city apart, as I was based in Auckland during her FOL years. By the time I moved to Wellington and became involved in national union activity, she had begun her transition to Parliament.

Like many a New Zealander I came to know Sonja through her first volume of autobiography, Bread and Roses (1984). As an immigrant who arrived in New Zealand in 1973, I was fascinated by the book’s picture of the 1940s and 50s. Its portrayal of a woman’s life during that period showed both great similarities to, and differences from, the lives of my mother’s and grandmother’s generation overseas, and its sense of struggle and achievement was as much a tribute to the hard work and optimism of the women of that period as to Sonja herself.

After her appearance on the television show “This is Your Life” and the movie of Bread and Roses, Sonja Davies the nurse, mother and activist became part of many people’s herstory, and both her successes and tribulations were somehow transformed into New Zealand folk legend.

I enjoyed Bread and Roses, but as history Marching On was always going to be a different matter for me. I had known many of the people of the era – and I am therefore a more critical reader. The book covers the years 1976-l996, a time when the differences between New Zealanders came to the forefront, and change and conflict were continual. Each New Zealander will have their own experience of that time, and for most it has been complex. Sonja was deeply involved in a number of the landmark issues. On opening Marching On, the first question in my mind was how she would deal with this history. Was the book to be an exposé or a sterile list of events carefully tailored to avoid libel suits! It is neither. It records the memories of a lady of a ‘certain age’ who values the planting of her garden and the health of dearly loved family pets as highly as a political crisis or a meeting with the Queen. It is discursive, and sometimes inaccurate, but has generosity and honesty. It can also irritate because it gives only tantalising glimpses of well-known people and events.

The book’s strengths are in the personal moments: starting with the loss of Sonja’s long-time friend Con and continuing to the early death of daughter Penny. The book is peppered with descriptions of kindness shown to Sonja, assistance given and friendship appreciated. The ability to maintain relationships is the underlying strength of the woman writing here. Every conference is exciting, every meeting an opportunity to meet new and positive people, and each crisis develops a supportive response. Yet some of the difficulties women faced working within unions in the 1970s are merely hinted at. The personality and health of FOL President Jim Knox serve as a model of the behaviour and approach of many ageing male unionists. It must have been hard to return regularly to meetings where such behaviour was acceptable.

You feel the commitment that she required, but the book gives no insight into the deep ideological and political debates that tore apart the union movement in the 1980s. An example is the relationship with Simon Walker, in 1981 a close friend, in 1987 an opponent in a bitter selection battle for the Pencarrow seat. Separated by 50 pages, the two incidents have no explanation apart from a Left/ Right divide. How did this start? What were the complexities? With hindsight, could things have happened differently? I am certain Sonja has a contribution to make to that history, but that will need to be in another book.

Sonja’s particular strengths are revealed in the chapter on the International Year of Peace. Endlessly travelling, speaking at schools, in rural communities and internationally, Sonja took part in promoting hundreds of small attitudinal changes. She shows with simple examples the progress we have made because of her commitment and that of many New Zealanders. A more radical progress than we sometimes remember in an area where it must have been easy to despair. The chapter very much reflects the title of the book – Marching On.

The period described in most detail is the six years between 1987 and 1993, the parliamentary years. As with Marilyn Waring’s reminiscences of her time in Parliament and the more recent reports from Christine Fletcher, Neil Kirton and others, the sense of a destructive and unrewarding environment is overwhelming.

For those of us who interact with politicians, it is always hard to understand why new MPs are shocked by the institution. It is equally difficult to understand their surprise at the irrelevance of backbenchers in the view of the Cabinet. Yet here we see a woman who has battled for years finally confronting the reality of parliamentary politics and appreciating how little an individual can influence their own party. It seems a pity that this part of the memoirs wasn’t in print in time for the influx of new MPs in 1996. Sonja also honestly reveals the stress involved in representing one’s party publicly when it acts in ways that are causing despair and anger; and, in a short brief comment she consigns Lange, Prebble, Anderton and others to history. This chapter should definitely be required reading for those aspiring to office.

These descriptions are by someone who is used to working with people – whether in unions, women’s refuges or peace groups. In any other organisation but Parliament those contacts and that experience would have been valued and utilised. That this did not happen is an indictment of the process of government and opposition as well as of some individuals in parliamentary parties.

It is in the closing chapters of the book that Sonja seems most comfortable, and yet they must have been hardest to commit to paper. Just as the loss of son Mark was the defining moment in Bread and Roses, so the death of Penny seems the hardest burden in Marching On. Yet the chapter gives the reader hope and peace and is a wonderful example of how to cope with pain.

Sonja’s move to the Wairarapa on her retirement has made many wonder at the change she has made from non-stop activity to quiet rural living. Yet as I see carloads of friends crossing the Rimutaka Range to plant bulbs, weed or just visit with her, I can agree with her belief that the move was a sensible decision. But we all regularly worry about her health and frailty.

For those who meet Sonja Davies for the first time her frailty is overwhelming. Many is the time that returning visitors question her ability to endure another winter. I have always taken such reports with a pinch of salt. Under that frail exterior there is a persistent and determined will that’s beaten both TB and Roger Douglas. As Bread and Roses showed us, she comes from a generation who worked harder and were grateful with less than either the Baby Boomers or Generation X. It was also a generation that built firm friendships and relied on family and friends for support and encouragement. Throughout Marching On, this essential factor comes through and it is Sonja’s great talent that she can both give willingly and receive gracefully.

I enjoyed this book and I believe others will also. I have already talked to many younger women who, reading about those years for the first time, are inspired and excited by the range of places and issues the book touches. I also know a number who are angered by some parts, and others unhappy they aren’t mentioned more often. But if I have a real criticism, it is for the publishers: if they are going to include illustrations, let us have quality reproduction. Also, some basic editing has been overlooked.

Reading Marching On made me wonder how much more Sonja could tell us. But I understand her silence. I also understand her feeling of security and comfort at Rangiiti. I hope that those reading the book will join the army of those she calls friends and cherish her in her retirement whilst she takes up the challenge she gives herself on the final page. It is a particular irony that many may love the book and Sonja, but find that message too difficult to accept.

It is equally ironic that some consider Sonja to have had a ‘tragic life’. Her losses have obviously been great, but she has seen things, met people and been part of movements that I am certain she never dreamed of in her teenage years. This book celebrates that success and fulfilment.

Angela Foulkes is Secretary of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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