Obituary — Margaret Mahy

Margaret Mahy  1936-2012

The three most intelligent people I’ve known: Margaret Mahy, Ted Rye, Maurice Duggan, all storytellers, all dead. In them, the torrents of intellect and imagination came together like the staff of Hermes with its twining snakes Knowledge and Wisdom, one useless without the other – according to Robertson Davies: “Knowledge is what you are taught; but wisdom is what you bring to it.”

At Auckland University, about 1952, I waited each week with a marvellously-minded fellow-student for a lecture on Old English, the pair of us adding to a story of the pseudo-Gothic arches of the old “wedding cake” arts building sprouting icicles, as Dr Annie Sheppard came towards us, the white-haired Ice-Queen. Years later I came out of the bush, started teaching, and found Margaret’s ringing first pieces in the School Journal.

In 1969 at School Pubs in Wellington I heard about the wonderful writer that John Kelly, a previous editor, claimed to have found living under a gorse bush in the Ohariu Valley, he and then Louis Johnson and Alistair Campbell publishing her work – with illustrations by the great Jill Macdonald.

As their original publisher, we were sent copies of Margaret’s Journal stories published in America by Franklin Watts, beginning with A Lion in the Meadow. Suddenly Margaret was international, but we didn’t want to lose her for our kids. I visited her in Governors Bay, saw a witch in the garden, addressed her so, and she answered with a spell and another episode of “The Ice-Queen”.

“Have you read –?” Margaret led me inside, threw open a cupboard, and stood in a waterfall of books from which she deftly snatched one and read: “The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff …” I couldn’t wait to return to Wellington and reprint Ted Hughes’s story. Margaret was a great source of recommendations. She once called from Hamilton: “I’ve just read a new book about rabbits. It starts,” said that unforgettable, creaky voice, “ ‘The primroses were over.…’ ” Mayne, “Gobblekoll”, Paterson, Garner, Kipling, Voight: the conversation was endless. I re-read Peter Dickinson’s Weathermonger, and Merlin’s words come back in Margaret’s voice.

She’s inescapable, not just in her own work, but in what she admired; the virtuosity of her reading matched that of her writing. Her interest spread over all books, suffering no limiting sense of boundaries, that infirmity of so many adults, the fallacy that children’s books are an inferior category.

That visit in 1969, we went to the school gala, chatted to kids and parents, bought raffle tickets, hurled balls and drove in pegs in a buried treasure hunt. I tapped mine, but Margaret dropped on both knees, seized the mallet and walloped. “There.” Even knocking in a peg was to be relished.  I remembered it years later when Margaret’s car began to smoke, and she leaped out and ran crying to daughters Brigid and Penny, “Look on it as an adventure.”

I returned to School Pubs with the promise of more work. My happiest discovery there was an unpublished story of Margaret’s. Nobody now remembered its history, and Margaret herself was vague. I argued successfully for it to be published over a year’s issues of the Journal. It was questioned at the last moment, so I burst in on a meeting of the Director of Primary Education who harrumphed, took the story home and gave hearty approval. Brian Pinder was known as austere, but he, too, flowered in Margaret’s sun.

The story, one of her few about a child of mixed parentage, was “Tai Taylor”, a hero who “could press a headmaster between the pages of a book like a wild flower”.

A ring one day. Margaret distressed. Could she come and stay? I said get on the next plane. Chief editor Pat Earle told me to collect her with a departmental car, and George Gabites, another editor, said, “Miss Mahy must be met at the aerodrome with a closed motor.” Margaret turned it into a limerick as we dropped off the car and caught the train to Paremata.

We walked home from the station, Margaret’s straw hat wreathed with dead flowers. She nodded to and named the plants growing wild between rocks and sandbanks around the harbour. “There’s rosemary … fennel …” It was like a walk with Ophelia.

Sam Hunt’s Bottle Creek was a scuffle of baches and fishing shacks, part of its beauty the informality and warmth of the people there who’d opened up and welcomed my daughter and me. Now they welcomed Margaret. Each blue morning, we dropped down the pine-needle track, swam around the boats, fished, sun-bathed, talked and read. She made some adjustment within herself, and went home leaving an illustrated story on the blackboard in my daughter’s bedroom.

Margaret was in great need – the details later buried in her writing – and she reached out for help to School Pubs, her first publishers. We responded, I hope responsibly and with tact, looking after one of our great writers. All that within a government department. Considering the true value of her contribution to the Journal and our children and teachers, it seemed to me, it still does, a wise and necessary investment. The actual payment we made authors in those days was so small as to be mingy, especially somebody trying to establish herself as a writer while working and bringing up children on her own.

My nose was put out of joint when Helen Butt-field’s magnificent photo of herself dancing on the beach before the sea and Kapiti Island, which I’d intended using to illustrate Margaret’s near-perfect poem “Wonderful Me”, disappeared and showed up on the cover of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s Kapiti: Selected Poems 1947-1971 (1972). Forty years on, I look at Alistair’s cover, and the poem and picture still match in my mind.

I loathe the “I’m wonderful” sickness taught children by parents and teachers who should know a damned sight better. In “Wonderful Me” Margaret uses the same dangerous sentiment – with no trace of morbidity. Her child-enchantress sings and dances forever on the beach, meeting-place of the conscious and unconscious. Richness from simplicity.

One of the few funny feminist stories I remember at that time: “Concerning a Little Woman and How She Won Herself a House and a Husband and Lived Happily Ever After”. Then my last job at School Pubs was to sugggest Margaret as the writer for a primary school bulletin about the library.

Margaret spoke frequently at Wellington Teachers’ College. Gwen Gawith invited her into the teacher-librarian course, combined with college students, and we discussed that handbook on Alzheimer’s, Margaret’s great novel Memory, projecting it into dance, drama, art, music. Inbetween (how she gave of herself) I drove Margaret to schools where she put on the green wig and cast her spell, a loving inclusive net, over the children.

It may be churlish, but admiring the laconic, I often wondered why Margaret dressed up: the words she juggled and scattered so lavishly already clothed her in a suit of lights. I understand the exuberant freedom we take on with costume, but was there also a mask in Margaret’s wigs and penguin suits, one rich interior world within another?

Pat Earle always said at School Pubs that people write best out of experience. It seemed too limiting. Then he said of Margaret: “Her imagination is her experience,” and I thought of Keats’s “truth of the imagination”.

Margaret discussed humour again and again, and I came to expect the habitual long pause for thought, often to consider her own statement, the sudden laugh, and then the sweep of ideas again. Humour was not just a tool, but a power, redemptive, enlightening.

I left the college to write, and we kept in touch at a distance, both busy. I must be careful not to exaggerate our friendship, that sin of survivors; I was one friend among many. I regret – as we all do – not making more of Margaret’s abundance and generosity of mind.

I was always aware of her huge energy, that frequent concomitant of genius. Brian Birchall arranged a School Pubs course in Christchurch for Journal writers. After a morning’s work at the library, Margaret joined us one afternoon, talked till late, and returned next day with two splendid stories she’d written overnight.

A couple of years ago, at the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, we cheered Margaret’s and David Elliot’s win with The Moon and Farmer McPhee, and I said to my partner, “We should have stood to applaud Margaret. We may not have another chance.” It was not prescient; I had no foreknowledge.

I’m glad I helped Margaret celebrate life while she was alive, but now I mourn her. Curnow’s words sum up the incredulity: “that what has character can simply end .…” I miss her – bitterly, but with joy at having lived in her time, at her twining together the fabled snakes Knowledge and Wisdom.


Jack Lasenby


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