A dollop of literary life, Sue McCauley

Beside the Dark Pool
Fiona Kidman
Vintage, $37.99,
ISBN 9781869790592

Such a seductive title for a memoir, hinting at murky depths of angst, turmoil and scandal. The stuff we hope, in fact expect, to find in the autobiography of a serious writer. A dysfunctional private life, melancholia, addiction and an insatiable ego. The important thing about being a writer is to live on the edge, alone or with a succession of disposable lovers, in the centre of your own universe.

Well, I grew up on that exciting myth and as a criterion of success it wasn’t as far-fetched as it may now seem. Especially if you were female. (I’m tempted to add that most men fitted the description anyway, but that might be unfair.) In New Zealand, at least, it seemed that a reclusive or unworldly bent was a useful thing for a female writer to have. She should not have a husband, and she should certainly not have children and school committees and in-laws. Not just because these things would encroach on her writing time, but because her consequently domestic perspective had no place in “literature”.

This is my slant on how things were. Fiona Kidman may not have seen it that way, though she was one of the first of our writers to combine professional ambition with wife-and-motherhood; and the trials and consequences of this difficult, public, and sometimes unpopular, juggling act occupy a good proportion of Kidman’s previous memoir, At the End of Darwin Road (2008). They continue, though to a lesser extent, in Beside the Dark Pool.

But back to that title – it’s not what it seems. In the preface Kidman mentions a continuing association with water and goes on to say, “When you break the surface of water you are never sure what lies beneath. Memory is like that too, deep, potentially dangerous, but full of languorous possibilities.”

There are at least as many “languorous possibilities” as dangers in the memories offered here. Whereas Darwin Road seemed to me a somewhat anxious and edgy book, this second memoir conveys – despite a hectic kaleidoscope of publications, events and activities – a sense of calm and resolution. It’s as if the author is sitting back to harvest some of the good stuff she has spent a lifetime sowing.

Although “sitting back” is perhaps unlikely. The previous memoir, or volume one, was released only last year. Since her first published work – a play – in 1975, Kidman has produced 22 books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and edited four collections of other people’s writing. Over that same time she has worked for television and magazines, taught creative writing and taken prominent roles in writing organisations. She is prolific, versatile and apparently inexhaustible.

She has also been a (literally) wide-eyed observer of her times. Beside the Dark Pool tells us almost as much about social and political attitudes and events in New Zealand since the 40s and 50s as it does about the author’s life. Kidman has eschewed the confines of a “literary autobiography” and offers, instead, a wide-ranging memoir, chocka with family, friends, work, reflection and action. She has taken a dollop of literary life and mixed it with provincialism, domesticity, politics, marriage, parenthood, travel … . The result is life as most of us know it, but transformed into a rich and seamless story, skilfully woven into a coherent whole, and immensely readable.

You don’t need to be familiar with Darwin Road to enjoy Dark Pool. Information from the first memoir is encapsulated in the second, ensuring both books work independently. Beside the Dark Pool makes liberal use of excerpts, not just of Kidman’s published work but also fragments from her diaries and letters, and excerpts from other writers. Her husband Ian gives his own accounts, one from his childhood, the other about being kicked and beaten by Red Squad members at the time of the second test match of the ’81 tour.

In the opening paragraph of chapter one, Kidman hurls the reader into the maelstrom of Stop the Tour protest. It’s a lest-we-forget kind of beginning. Good. Kidman has always been forthright about her political beliefs. “Intransigent” was Muldoon’s description. She has, as they say, stuck to her guns on political matters, though it was quite often not in her own best interest.

The other major political ruction covered in some detail is the Bloomsbury flat affair; a matter that, for some writers, was no less divisive than the ’81 tour. It seems to me the two disputes had more than a passing similarity. In both cases an established power group (on the one hand, the RSA, with its national rugby-racing-and-beer conservatism, and, on the other, a group of self-appointed literary gate-keepers) were fighting to retain control of their respective domains.

Though there may have been no outright winners, the Stop the Tour protests did have profound and positive consequences. In the Bloomsbury flat fiasco nothing was gained, and Kidman and Lauris Edmond weathered a lot of flak. Graeme Lee and Doug Graham, ministers in the incoming government, sold the flat before it had even been occupied (“a spiteful and punitive action”, says Kidman). Dr Michael Bassett publicly blamed Kidman and Edmond for giving Lee “ the perfect excuse to knock it on the head”.

I remember, at that time, getting a similar message from a senior writer and academic. “Be careful what you say or we’ll all suffer.” Such a civilised kind of blackmail.

Another literary political wrangle concerned the Authors’ Fund. This time the writers involved were all on the same side. On the other side was the Arts Board, which was perceived by some of us as being unsympathetic towards writers. Kidman was appointed to the board: “I did crash courses on visual arts, theatre and dance, but I was kept well away from literature. It dawned on me that I was regarded as a threat, a single issue person with conflicts of interest.”

Feeling unable to effectively represent writers, Kidman resigned. It’s an action she downplays in Dark Pool (wisely, I’m sure) but repercussions of that resignation eventually realised considerable funding benefits for the writing community.

Kidman has served that community well. Surely no other writer has given so much time, energy and leadership to PEN (now the New Zealand Society of Authors) and the New Zealand Book Council. Her mission was always to make New Zealand writing accessible and familiar. She was, for instance, the instigator of WOW (Words on Wheels) and a writers-in-prison programme. Both get a passing mention in a memoir that carefully avoids any personal trumpet blowing.

Kidman did much more by way of supporting new writers – especially women writers – than she acknowledges. In fact she was more helpful than she knows. At the time of writing my first novel, Kidman was what kept me going. Here was someone else who had worked on the fringes as a journalist, columnist and writer of radio drama. Someone else without a university education or the right kind of family connections. Another outsider. And she now wrote novels.

I had never met her but she was the one who convinced me that I (even I) was allowed to write books. I am still grateful.


Sue McCauley is a Dannevirke writer and reviewer. 


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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