A Fish in the Swim of the World
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Something for the Birds
Auckland University Press, $39.99,
Memoir is a flash word sometimes used to imply that what are really autobiographies bear more important news than they do, and that the authors may have dabbled in more dramatic events than they have. According to my hand-crafted definition, a memoir is an account of the author’s participation in, or association with, events that have impacted on the public consciousness, whereas autobiography is the fuller story of the writer’s real life, not a professional or official one.
But whatever your definition, the genre has never been more fashionable and popular in this country than right now. And why not? Every writer and journalist should know that the good stories are always the ones about people. I’ve never heard this better expressed than by a famous American deep-sea fishing writer who fielded questions from a group of journalists on such matters as the size of famous catches and the best places to catch the big ones. But then, perplexed, he said, “Look, I don’t write about fish, I write about people who catch fish.” No surprise then that biographies of all sorts are so often sought-after reads.
Despite claims that two of the above titles are memoirs, all four books are essentially autobiographies, with the exception of part of Richard Shallcrass’s Family Silver, the tale of his work with Treasury. And they confirm my belief that the well-told story of a well-examined, relatively ordinary life is worth much more than fame-washed celebrity fantasies, the flossied up lives of the important, the powerful, the very rich and the famous-for-no-apparent-reason-at-all, full as they always are of evasions and self-justifications.
A Fish in the Swim of the World is the story of a nobody who, in his own way, is everybody of his time. A good blunt name like Ben Brown, short, sturdy sentences about people of the land, and a wry, understated and droll tone will seduce any Kiwi in love with this country, as I am. Brown springs from outback Australia and Tainui, and he writes like Hemingway without all the conjunctions. For example, a character tries to steal some jeans hanging out to dry:
The cops were good about it. Stanley looked in a hell of a state they reckoned. Stanley looked feral. He’d been on the run for several days. They didn’t charge him. The lady whose clothesline it was didn’t want them to either. She was a Christian soul. She forgave. She would have given him the jeans but they were too big for him. Stanley was a tin-arse sometimes.
With this sort of style, you appreciate early on that Ben’s not bullshitting you, man. This is a social history of rural post-war New Zealand, which was full of boring, repetitive work between sleeps. Only personal loyalty, drinking among mates and storytelling made it tolerable, and sometimes even enjoyable. Brown’s anecdotes bring it to life. However, after a while, the staccato style echoes in your head like tom-toms in the hills:
A bootlegger’s still is practical science. A little bit of chemistry. A little bit of thermodynamics. Ethyl alcohol boils and turns into vapour at just over seventy-eight degrees Celsius. It can get you drunk. Really drunk. Or you can mix it with petrol and run engines on it. Tractors, cars, picking machines.
Ben was raised on a tobacco farm in Motueka, son of an Australian father and Maori mother. They were both battlers, living lives of hard nouns, without adjectives, just the way Ben writes. The Browns weren’t poor, but not rich either. Both parents just got on with it, his courageous mother fighting tuberculosis for much of her life. He attended Te Aute College and has since worked as a fencer, shepherd, construction worker, barman, and design and art tutor. What he writes about farming and the people of the land grabbed me and I have to say I enjoyed the side-stories, their earthiness and humour, despite the tinnitus from the tom-toms.
Family Silver is mostly about Richard Shallcrass’ life before and after a stint with Treasury, during which he helped manage the sale of the eponymous family silver. Overall, he emerges as a man with a wavering sense of himself, but likeable and engagingly candid. He evokes an early post-war New Zealand that remains familiar and loved by my generation, although we all knew it had to change.
The 70-odd bustling pages covering his journey as Treasury’s sales manager for government-owned assets are pure memoir and, I think, less personally genuine. He writes as though the policy and all its consequences were ineluctable, given the context of the time, presenting the issues as straightforward alternatives: sell immediately to diminish government debt, sometimes at any cost, or live forever with state-owned white elephants. His comments on politicians and other bureaucrats seem cautious and artificial, perhaps because, beyond enthusiasm, no underpinning of thought seemed to exist in Treasury – real thought that is, not just this year’s good ideas. And the relations among staff range from uncaring to vicious. In terms of self-doubt or quiet reflection, the Treasury people may not have been John Waynes but they were certainly a long way closer to him than to Hamlet.
Sadly, it is not enough for Shallcrass to have been sincere and honest; he yearns to be retrospectively right. I wince when people insist that history will vindicate them, as he does, especially in the wake of similar declarations by George Bush and Tony Blair. It betrays the sure nag of doubt. By his own account Shallcrass was a genial misfit for the first 15 years of his working life, seeming to find the Department of Foreign Affairs and its place in the world of politics and bureaucracy beyond full understanding. His career with the department came to an abrupt, inglorious end. His Treasury career also finished when he was in his mid-50s because his employers had no further use for him. But Shallcrass shoots straight when discussing his demise, and with a lack of bitterness at treatment that would scar most people.
If you’ve met Jacqueline Fahey, you will hear her voice as you begin to read Something for the Birds. You can’t say that of many writers, that their talk is so distinctive you can hear it in their writing. She talks to you frontally, sometimes in such well-formed sentences you wonder if she’s working off a script. But, no, she just has plenty to say that she’s mulled over. And so does her autobiography. The early chapters are studded with what seem like folk stories of her forebears, including her parents. Some of these characters are rather breathlessly overdrawn but others take charming, credible and memorable shape, especially her three maiden aunts.
Reeling at first from her adjectival style, I was soon captured by the sheer exuberance of Fahey’s writing. Just when you think the adjectives are out of control, the paint dries, so to speak, and the picture comes into focus. Get this:
My best friend at art school was Julie. One of the things that had attracted me to her was that she knew all about colour and texture. This impressed me as instinctual and innate because she was herself all colour and texture. With glowing gold skin and shining black hair, she wore clean red lipstick revealing pearly white teeth. She also had lovely eyes with a languorous glance. Her clear yellow linen shirt was a stroke of inspiration, and her dull purple corduroy trousers were the texture of the underside of a mushroom.
Not hard to guess this writer is a painter who understands that painting is about “the magic of looking”. Richard Shallcrass’ brisk descriptions of negotiating the sale of national assets may be more historically important but they don’t have the hilarious touch of Fahey negotiating with a kindergarten teacher:
I explained that my mother always wore her singlet outside her pants and so did I. This became such a serious standoff in the lavatories that the headmistress was called. I demanded to know where Mrs Barr’s singlet went, inside or outside her pants. She assured me inside her pants. I wanted to see. She said I had to take her word for it, that in polite society you did not show your pants. Well, she got around me and in time I put my singlet inside my pants.
Fahey and her family seemed uncertain of their place in the world. She writes a lot about class and about sectarian prejudices. Her mother and father were atheists but the family, long settled in Timaru, had strong Irish Catholic roots, so Jacqueline and her sisters were sent to Teschemakers Catholic boarding school in Oamaru. She hated the place, especially as she had no sense of a Catholic God, and still can’t quite grasp why her parents sent her there.
An air of improbability hovers over some of Fahey’s anecdotes but I don’t care. They should be true even if sometimes they may not be, quite. Anyone who can pull you along as she does and make you laugh in the process deserves special dispensation. Near the end, as she reflects on her young life and her marriage to psychiatrist Fraser McDonald, the book is moving, and I closed it glad to have been her guest.
It is difficult to imagine the travails of dancer, choreographer and writer Douglas Wright as he copes emotionally and physically with AIDS, and with the crush of sorrow as he loses friends and lovers. In Terra Incognito he tells of descending the vortex of despair. AIDS sufferers stagger around like weightlifters, an invisible hand heaping on more and more weight as if to discover how much pain and grief they can carry. Wright takes us on a journey towards understanding these tribulations and largely succeeds. His stories of fellow sufferers, of their bizarre behaviour in the throes of their illness, are acutely observed, richly sympathetic and even funny.
Some passages are so piercingly true they will stab the reader with their simplicity and understatement. For example:
[Matt] told me that weighed down with time, boredom and the fears that become palpable when there is nobody who understands to share them with, like disembodied arms and hands pushing down, always down, he often sat in his chair holding an unlit cigarette, looking at the lighter on the table which he only had to lean forward slightly and stretch out his arm to reach, for hours, unable to move, as if he’d turned to stone … . Matt said that at such moments the cigarette lighter seemed miles away from him, as far away as health, and we were both afraid that one day we’d get permanently stuck in this terrible stillness, this catatonia, and be taken away and put on a shelf with other living statues in a big room.
Engrossing, too, are the accounts of his creative process as a choreographer as a new dance begins in his mind, is transferred to words and drawings, and then the studio; although it’s never actually that tidy. No more than anyone else can he explain what one writer has called “God’s share”, the mystical creative bit away beyond reason.
However, much as I admire Wright, his courage, creativity and ability to paint brilliant word-pictures, I was fazed by his reactions, even before he was ill, to situations which would have caused, at worst, embarrassment and even a self-mocking response in most people, reactions so inappropriately intense they mystify rather than move. Readers of any book are obligated to engage their own emotions and imagination in response to the author’s. But with Terra Incognito, language and images are sometimes overdressed for their outings. Wright is, it seems to me, profligate with his gifts. I accept that nothing heightens sensitivity to life more than proximity of death, but as the book progressed, I couldn’t help becoming somewhat hardened to his story. I mean, when everything is a deep and intense experience … well, in the end, nothing is.
Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer and reviewer.