Saturday, September 2, 2017

How Princess Diana saved my mother's life


Yes, I do know exactly where I was and what I was doing when the news of Diana's death reached New Zealand. For the last month we've been seeing endless footage of her, and her charitable work has featured prominently. But few people know that even in death, she managed to perform one last gracious service. This seems a fitting time to tell the true story of how Princess Diana saved my mother's life.


It’s hard to think of what to give my mother. When I was young she had a weekly women’s magazine order – the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, of course, as well as the English Woman’s Weekly and the glamorous US Ladies’ Home Journal – along with comics for me. So for a few years I give her magazine subs for Christmas, until she says they’re full of stars she’s never heard of. 
      When I lived at home, I never saw her reading books; but one day she tells me that when she was alone all day, wanting to keep up with me, she secretly read my English schoolbooks. Then she started in on Dad’s collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. 
      I buy her Catherine Cookson romances, where deprived but determined girls break free of their past. At first she loves them, but after the fifth one she says they do all seem a bit the same. So I track down classics from her youth – Forever Amber, Precious Bane. And memoirs of women she knows – Aunt Daisy, Cookson herself, the illegitimate laundry-hand turned rich and famous author. 
      Her favourite is the story of an ordinary 1950s housewife: Journey from Stranger's Rest, by Dorothy Alice Ford. When you’re reading something good, she says, you forget everything else.
      At ninety, she falls. The doctors say she’s got the hip of a seventy-year-old. They patch her up and send her home, telling her she must get moving. I fly up to Auckland to spell off my sister. Mum lies there with her awkward catheter, resisting all my ploys, refusing to get out of bed. 
      On the third day the phone rings. It’s her grand-daughter Rebecca: “Princess Diana’s been in a car accident.” Soon she calls again: “Diana’s dead!” My mother hauls herself up, teeters into the living room and turns on the television. She eats her dinner in front of it on a tray. Next morning she gets dressed. 
      For her ninety-first birthday, I bring her Diana: Her True Story - In Her Own Words. Mum can’t wait. For the first time in our lives, we sit across from each other at the table, reading. 


My mother, Frances Ryda Matthews, in 1995 when she was 88, 
with me and my sister Susan

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Who will prevail?

My last post here was on 6 November, and I know why there have been none since. Three days later, on 9 November, Donald Trump won the US presidential election with 306 electoral college votes, compared with 232 for Hillary Clinton - a shift of 100 votes from the 2012 election, when Barack Obama won with 332 to Mitt Romney's 206. But Clinton won 2.8 million more popular votes than Trump, reflecting the greater support for her in the states with most people.

You can tell I'm retreating into the numbers here, to avoid fronting up to the reality of Trump's victory; but I think I need to write about it in order to be able to write about anything else. I see it as one of those rare historical tipping points (like the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand in 1914, or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour) that are not inevitable, but once they take place have a vast impact on the world's future. But we can't yet know what that impact will be.

The future is even murkier than usual because Trump is the first President never to have held either public or military office. As his first weeks in office have very clearly revealed, this means he has no real understanding of what is involved in heading a nation within the constraints of a democratic system.

He knows that Obama resorted to executive orders when Congress and the Senate blocked his initiatives, so that is how he is now putting his campaign slogans into practice. His orders appear to be worded with little grasp of the complex realities of government, let alone of whether they clash with the Constitution he has just sworn to uphold.

Apart from golf (cue Bill English's canny mention of Bob Charles), the one area where he does have experience and can claim expertise is in business. (Exactly how successful he has been in terms of making more money out of the money he inherited is unclear, and it's made more opaque by his refusal to release his tax returns as all previous Presidential candidates have done - apparently it's not actually a legal requirement.)

So it makes perfect sense that his only genuine guiding principle seems to be freeing up business, including the finance sector, to make as much money as possible. 

Though he's paid lip service to making companies keep jobs in the US, this is unlikely to mean much in practice.  Judging by his advisers and his nominees, we're likely to see wide-ranging attacks on employee protections, from anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws to minimum wages and benefits for the unemployed.

In the name of freedom and growth, he is intent on cutting the taxes paid by big businesses and those who run them, massively reducing the funds available for public services. He's reportedly preparing a budget requiring drastic cuts to these services, and he is appointing people who believe in shifting as large a share of them as possible to private enterprise and religious groups. 

His campaign rhetoric repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton for being in thrall to Wall Street. But as Will Hutton points out, this charge fits him perfectly: 
"Goldman Sachs’ number two, Gary Cohn, is to be Trump’s chief economic adviser; his Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was 20 years at Goldman Sachs before running OneWest Bank, which made a fortune by improperly foreclosing on mortgages in ethnic minority communities after the financial crisis...         Cohn has promised to attack 'all aspects of Dodd-Frank', the partially effective regulatory framework that Obama laboriously passed into law in 2010, in the teeth of Republican and Wall Street opposition… [Trump is calling] Dodd-Franks a 'disaster' on which he aims to do 'a big number'. There is only one end: to regulate the links in the financial network so they have even less oversight than they do now."
The consequences of this election are likely to be even worse than those of 2008's Great Financial Crisis for ordinary Americans, including many of those who voted for this president and many more of the disaffected, disillusioned 45 percent who didn't vote at all.

The consequences for the planet we must all live on are even more serious, because they are almost certain to be irreversible. The president and his henchmen seem prepared not only to permit but to actively encourage more harm to an already perilously endangered environment. He is already removing regulations designed to stop fossil fuel corporations causing damage, and his nominee for head of the Environmental Protection Agency has a record of opposing environmental protection.

There are two clear signs of hope: the huge surge of opposition and resistance, led by women of all races, creeds and classes; and the checks and balances built into the US system, which have already resulted in firm judicial rulings against the president's chaotic immigration edict. But right now, no one can say who will prevail.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

How We Survive


Last week I saw this event ad on Facebook. The idea of a feminist poetry slam was irresistible, and I reckoned the two women performing would be well worth hearing.
      Carrie Rudzinski was judged fourth best in the world at the 2014 Women of the World Poetry Slam. She's performed her work across New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and in almost all 50 of the United States. Currently a guest lecturer teaching Spoken Word at Manukau Institute of Technology's Faculty of Creative Arts, she's also programme director for the Rising Voices Youth Poetry Movement.
        Olivia Hall has been performing poetry since 2013. In 2015 she was Matariki Slam Champion, Capital Slam Champion and placed third at the National Slam Finals. She's one of the organisers for Wellington's acclaimed Poetry in Motion, and is currently completing her Honours degree in Sociology at Victoria University.
       
Back in August, simply advertising their feminist show on Facebook had brought trouble, as Olivia explained to 95bfm. They didn’t expect the trolling they got, but they simply deleted these comments. It seems the trolls took revenge by denouncing their event page as “abusive”, because Facebook suddenly took it down. But both Wellington shows were sellouts, and now they were back with the latest version.
       I got there at opening time to be sure of getting a good seat near the back. I thought I might have to leave early because of (a) intolerably loud music, or (b) not being able to hear the words (despite my hearing aids), but it was fine. I was 40 years older than anyone else there - but that was okay, because it made me invisible. I’d thought it would be like the old days, with no men – not banned, just staying well away. I was completely wrong. Most of those there were young male/female couples.
        The show is billed as “a biting and honest narrative on what it is to be a woman living and surviving in 2016. Addressing everything from rape culture to body image to heartbreak to {Queen J.K.'s] Hermione as a feminist role model, this show carries a switchblade and a hallelujah.” All true. 
         They had me (and the other couple of hundred people) from the opening lines. I was smitten with sisterly empathy, admiration, and envy for their hard-won confidence, talent, honesty and passion, and their ability to put feminist truth, love and strength into such shining words.
          But I was smitten with sadness, too. Forty-five years after feminism (or as Carrie and Olivia call it, common sense) first found me, women are still having to speak out on the same deadly stuff.
          And when it comes to “body-shaming” (so perfectly demonstrated by Trump), its dominating, destructive power has not diminished, it has only grown stronger – so much so that in a recent poll of US teenage girls, 42 percent said Trump’s disparaging remarks about women had negatively affected the way they thought about their own bodies. Olivia’s poems on her hard-fought battle to defeat such feelings made me cry, in sorrow and in rage.

I'd like to post different kinds of poems too, but these are the only ones I could find on YouTube.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Finders, Keepers

As readers of my Facebook page will know, last weekend the results of the New Zealand Heritage writing competition, run by the Canterbury Society of Authors and Christchurch City Council, were announced. The theme for the Short Prose section was "hidden histories", and the piece I wrote, "Finders, Keepers", was the winning entry.
            I've had a lot of queries about where to find it. The organisers have told me that they hope to get the winning entries up on the NZSA Canterbury website soon, but in the meantime I can go ahead and post mine on my blog. So here you are.

Finders, Keepers


My mother tells me what she knows

Each time my mother tells me what she knows about the family I came from, she speaks in her story-telling voice.  I learn these fragments by heart, word for word.

The lady who had you was so plump that at first no one noticed she was pregnant. When her mother found out, she took her to the home in Auckland run by Doctor Smale. He was the doctor seeing me because I couldn’t have children.

Some of this sounds wrong for telling a child. Perhaps she adds details as I get older.

He’d promised he would find me a lovely little girl. That’s how we got you. We brought you home when you were only two weeks old.

This isn’t quite the same as the story I used to ask for so often at bedtime, about Mum and Dad going to the hospital to look at all the babies and choosing me. I knew it was true because when I was five, they went back to the hospital and came home with my baby sister. But I don’t want to say anything to stop Mum talking.

The doctor’s nurse saw the name on the card. It was a family she had known in Christchurch.

Your grandmother was a very clever woman who wrote books.



Names

I was named Frances after my mother and her grandmother. Mum is always called by her second name, Ryda, and I’m always called by mine, Anne. She calls me Frances only when she’s cross because I’m reading and don’t hear her.

_________________________________________________


My sister is having problems with her first pregnancy. Mum and Dad hand over her adoption papers, in case knowing her original surname can help. Because they always treat us exactly the same, I get mine too.

I have a surname, but no first name: I am ‘unnamed female H.’

When I phone Social Welfare I have my story ready.

I have two boys, but my sister’s just had a baby girl. She’s promised that if you can tell me my birth mother’s first name, she’ll give it to her daughter as her second name.

The helpful woman I speak to probably doesn’t believe a word of this. But we both know she’s allowed to pass on any non-identifying information. A week later she phones me back.

There’s almost nothing on your file, but your mother’s name was Mary, and her middle initial was R.

___________________________________________________


Marie Rose H. of Christchurch turns out not to be my mother, though when she writes back she says she wishes she was. So I take a new tack, and hunt for the clever grandmother who wrote books.

A friend finds her in the Alexander Turnbull Library. In 1939 and 1943, the Bay of Plenty Times published collections of poems to raise money for soldiers’ parcels. The author was Kathleen H.

In the 1943 electoral roll, a new entry appears at the same address as Kathleen: Mary Rylana. Her foreign-sounding middle name echoes my mother’s: Frances Ryda.

By 1954 she’s gone, but I find a marriage certificate. She has married a man with an unusual surname, and her new address is in the same electorate. At Christmas I send a letter and a photo, and she replies.

Seven years after my birth, Mary had a daughter (another daughter) and named her Ann. Ann named her own daughter Ana, and she named her son Patrick.

Now Ann’s Patrick is at school and my Patrick has moved to Sydney. The next year he turns eighteen, and in October he dies there. My mother isn’t able to come down for the funeral. Mary asks me if I would like her to come and I say yes, so she does.



What Kathleen knew

Kathleen is the only child of a prosperous Tewkesbury brewer and his wife Jane.  She’s thirty when the first world war begins. It’s still going when George H., a tea plantation manager in Ceylon who’s close to forty, reads one of her poems and begins writing to her.

After the war he comes to England to meet her, then she sails to Colombo and marries him on the dock. A photo shows her sitting up on a dais with him, wearing a wreath of marigolds and a confident memsahib’s half-smile.. She looks intelligent and strong-minded, used to running things the right way.

________________________________________________


Although the man’s social credentials are impeccable, it’s much too late for a hasty marriage.  And of course it’s completely out of the question for Mary to keep me.

The rule is that she must never know my new name – it has to be a complete break. Kathleen has other ideas.

Somehow she persuades the doctor, or maybe the lawyer, to tell her who is adopting me. Perhaps she feels she must know, in order to be sure she has made the right decision. However she manages it, she finds out my new name.

For seventeen years she never once speaks of me to her daughter, but she reads the Herald. In December 1962 she comes to Mary with the paper.

You’d better see this. The girl’s come dux.


Maker unknown

I’m staying in Mary’s spare room. She opens the wardrobe and shows me two carefully shrouded Victorian cotton dresses. They come from Kathleen’s mother Jane’s family in Tewkesbury. Kathleen carried them with her on the ship to Ceylon and then on to Tauranga. Now Mary doesn’t know what to do with them. They’re rare survivals, I say. Would she like to give them to Te Papa?

The curator lays them out and explains how she can date them back to the early 1800s. The checked one has an unusual waist: you can let it out to allow discreetly for a pregnant stomach. She thinks they would almost certainly have been made by a local dressmaker.

They go off to join the crowded racks of dresses, running up to the 1960s, listed in the catalogue as Maker: Unknown.

___________________________________________________


My mother sews all her own clothes, as well as mine and my sister’s, on the ornate Singer treadle machine my grandmother gave her when she got married. Though she  never uses dressmakers, I know about them because down the road in the Mount Eden shops, not far from our flat above the grocer’s shop on the corner of Valley Road, two large and imposing women run a drapery and dressmaking business. Mum sends me there to buy Sylko thread and what I hear as Cruel needles. Every few weeks, if I pick a time when the dressmakers aren’t too busy and ask nicely, they give me leftover scraps of cotton, wool and satin to make dolls’ clothes.

I don’t make my first proper dress until I’m fifteen, struggling stubbornly with a striped cotton shirtwaister. Two years later, with the school ball looming up, I fearlessly tackle the mandatory bell-skirted brocade dress. Sandra Coney and I stand out for choosing the same deep crimson, instead of the usual wishy-washy pastels.

After I turn eighteen and get engaged, my mother comes tentatively into my room with the Woman’s Weekly. She’s used to me turning up my teenage nose at her ideas,  but she wants to show me a photo of a simply cut wedding dress with a draped obi sash at the back, made from a Vogue pattern. She’s so happy when I say I love it, then buy yards of white linen and spend weeks making it.

A year after the wedding, I cut it up to make a shirt, but I keep the short lace mantilla I made to go with it.

___________________________________________________


Between us my mother and I sewed hundreds of clothes. All of them have disappeared.

I wear the bedjacket and shawl she knitted for me; the ecru lace cloth she crocheted to go in my villa lives in a box, along with the lace edging she tatted for her mother’s nightdress when she was seven, and my mantilla, decayed into holes. On top are the loose delicate folds of Kathleen’s blue dress.



Monday, August 8, 2016

Drawing in progress

When I was young I drew and painted all the time. My father was a commercial artist for some years, and he provided me with good paper, pencils and paints. Later he bought me expensive American how-to-draw books. 
          His pictures hung on our walls. Most of them were copies of other artists' work, including well-known Old Masters such as The Blue Boy. He greatly admired Norman Rockwell too, and his copy of Rockwell's indignant small boy fishing up a boot was hung to form a hinged cover for the hatch that allowed us to use the telephone belonging to the grocer's shop on the other side of our living room wall. My sister has it on her wall now (I have Dad's English cottage).


In 1958 I went to Auckland Girls' Grammar, rather than Epsom, because I wanted to take art as a full subject. My ambition was to be a commercial artist like my father, and my dream job was to draw the illustrations for the romantic short stories in my mother's English magazines. This is the closest I can find to the ones I remember (no colour then, just black and white).


We had an excellent art teacher, but she quickly wrote me off as completely ignorant and untalented. Thanks to my parents buying me a steady supply of books, many of them "too old" for me but read avidly all the same, as well as being able to use the outstanding library at Normal Intermediate School, I had read very widely by the time I started secondary school; but until I encountered the prints of Old Masters and impressionists that lined the school walls, I had never seen a single piece of art that our teacher would have considered good (I don't think the beautiful, tissue-paper covered Edmund Dulac illustrations in my old book of fairy tales would have counted).
            So at the end of my third form year I agreed to drop art and pick up Latin instead. I didn't draw or paint again for ten years. When I plucked up the courage to go to an evening class, the teacher held up a painting I had done at home as an example of what to avoid.  I didn't try again till the 1990s, when I took some enormously enjoyable painting classes at Wellington's Inverlochy House.
             This year I've been going to drawing classes (about ten sessions so far), run by Rosemary Stokell in Karori. The winter Arts and Crafts Centre exhibition went up in July, and we were all urged to put at least one drawing in, I managed two, and much to my surprise and pleasure, one of them was highly commended and then sold.
             My drawings, like almost all my writing, are strictly non-fictional. Because I spend so much time dealing with words, it's immensely satisfying and refreshing to work on something wordless. This time, I want to keep going. 


My hat between Harvey's hats

(I foolishly didn't photograph these other two before I framed them)




Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Diana Bridge: A fine poet honours Harvey

Last week I went to the Unity Books launch of two poetry books elegantly published by Cold Hub Press: Michael Jackson's Walking to Pencarrow, and a collection of new and selected poems by Diana Bridge.
        Harvey and Diana had a strong bond. She lives close by, and visited him here in his last years. When she phoned to invite me to the launch, she told me that the new book included her poem for Harvey. So I went, and wore my Chinese jacket in her honour.
        But I hadn't quite realised how significant an evening it would be. In her speech, Diana said how pleased she was that, as Harvey's widow, I was there. Then she read the book's title poem, "In the Supplementary Garden". It was the poem in memory of Harvey.
        I should have remembered it from six years ago. In May 2010, Mark Pirie had put together an issue of Broadsheet: new New Zealand poetry (No.5), which featured an interview with Harvey (by email, because of his declining health) and six poems by him, along with poems by Mark himself and another five friends of Harvey's: Fiona Kidman, Ian Wedde, Paul Hill, Michael O'Leary - and Diana Bridge, who contributed "In the Supplementary Garden". 
         I was deeply moved that she chose it as the title poem for this collection, adding his name on the page, and as her reading for the launch. It's so strikingly appropriate for him, as poet, gardener, and friend, "nearing the end of his journey". He died seven months after it was first published.

















IN THE SUPPLEMENTARY GARDEN
i.m. Harvey McQueen

1.

In the Supplementary Garden, light spills down
on an excess of contrast, leaves are every shape in the pack,
their greens spiked here and there with ox-blood, amethyst
and a radiant shade of lime. Barks are crazy-paved
or smooth as parquet. There are no rules –  

except for spontaneity. With each twist of the path, we fall
as though into a new movement, and yet throughout
a garden that has charmed the eye of generations,
one mode prevails. Distant gazebo and pavilion
roofs are transformed into fans. Above our heads

a prow of shadowed wood is breasting the pale wave of the sky –  
see that and, like the Immortals, you could soar anywhere.
Each tree and upright stone set at the water's edge
has grown a shimmering twin. We watch each pair
break into halves  –  and instantly re-form into

a glimmering whole in a wondrous conversion of things.

2.

Slabs of rock, their faces ground and grooved as any sage
nearing the end of his journey, have made an amphitheatre
of the pool. Plants coat its rocky lip; they trail over it
like children's hands that reach for water, stopping
just short of the surface. A mat of lotuses that lies

as langorous as a woman on her side its starting its slow
slide into openwork. As smoothly as a corps de ballet
flowers glide apart – they'd have us think forever.
We want it to go on, this sunlit comedy, knowing it can't,
that the curtain must come down on all performance.

The afternoon has deepened, burnished as though by elegy.
A last butterfly of light plays on the pavilion floor, coaxing
its worn diagonals into harmony with the pleated lines
of the roof. It is that numinous, if unattested, time when patterns
of earth and sky combine, when black and white draw close

and then entwine, enacting the same spiral of conjunction
figured on a symbol from who knows how old a past.
It would take words as hand-picked and artless as the trees
in this old garden to convey the presence of that fullness
in this fading. Nearer still to evening, you find a way to tell me:

It's acceptable – it may be better, even – that it doesn't last.


(Author's Note from Broadsheet: In 1979, before it had been restored, I visited the Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou, of which the Supplementary Garden forms part. Coming across photographs of it 30 years later in Maggie Keswick's influential introduction in English, The Chinese Garden, became the catalyst to writing. I offer the poem that resulted to Harvey, a maker of both actual and literary gardens.)

Diana has published five books of poetry with Auckland University Press. In 2010 she received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for her distinguished contribution to New Zealand poetry. Her essay “An attachment to China” won the Landfall Essay Competition for 2014. She has a PhD in Chinese classical poetry from the Australian National University, has studied and researched Chinese language, literature and art history and early Indian art history, and is the first foreigner to have taught in the Chinese department at Hong Kong University. In 2015 she was invited to take up a residency at the Writers' and Artists' Colony at Yaddo in upstate New York, the first New Zealander since Janet Frame to go there. She also won the 2015 Sara Broome Poetry Prize.

IN THE SUPPLEMENTARY GARDEN has selected poems from Diana's five previous books, along with 23 new poems, the last of which is the title poem. Poems chosen by Robert McLean, with a superb introduction by Janet Hughes.
Cold Hub Press, $39.95.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Anzac Day 2016, Tinui


This morning I went to Tinui for the Anzac Day service, 100 years after the first service was held there in 1916.

Tinui is now a small farming community 30 minutes east of Masterton, with fewer than 25 permanent residents. In 1914 the community had 2000 people, and 36 of them – 35 men and one woman – would be killed in World War I.

The Anzac forces landed in Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. In 1916, this date was officially named as Anzac Day. To commemorate the seven Tinui men who died on Gallipoli, on 25 April 1916 the Reverend Basil Ashcroft held a morning service in the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd.

The Wairarapa Archive office holds a service sheet showing that this took place at 7.30 am, making it the earliest known recorded Anzac Day commemoration in the world. A second service was held that afternoon in the Tinui hall, which had room for the much larger numbers who came to it. This morning it was held outside the hall built much later.

That first Anzac Day fell on the Tuesday after Easter, so it was already a school holiday. Anzac Day became a New Zealand public holiday in 1920, several years before Australia, and the dawn ceremony was officially introduced nationwide only in 1939.

After the early service, Rev. Ashford led a group of 10 men, 7 women and 24 children, including the local Scout troop, up Tinui Taipo, more than 1097 metres above sea level, to set up a large wooden memorial cross.  Also known as Mount Maunsell, it was part of what was then Tinui Station, owned by the Maunsell family. Their son had served at Gallipoli, and they were strongly involved in the memorial project. It’s said that the barren landscape setting for the cross resembled Chunuk Bair. Today's memorial service sheet told us that once the cross was in place, those who had made the climb wrote their names on a piece of paper which was buried in a bottle at the foot of the cross.

This is the only known cross dedicated to Anzac losses during World War One. Because it was put up on the morning of that first Anzac Day in 1916, it has a good claim to be the first such memorial in the world. Heritage New Zealand says that the unveiling of the cross so soon after Gallipoli was:
"...the result of the impact that the Anzac campaign had on the small community at Tinui. The memorial was conceived as both a tangible demonstration of the Tinui area’s respect for those involved in the campaign, and more specifically, to [commemorate] those who died.”
In 1965 a locally made aluminium cross was set up to replace the wooden one, which had rotted. The original cross was put under the stage at the Tinui hall, but it later disappeared. In 2011, the Tinui Cross received a Heritage New Zealand Category 1 registration.

Since Tinui’s historical significance became better known, the numbers attending its Anzac Day service have grown. On the 100th anniversary of that first commemoration, 3000 people were there, including 94 descendants of the Ashcroft family. Basil Ashcroft's great-grandson, Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Mikkelsen, gave the main address at the service. Twelve-year-old Linda Morgan, whose relative is named on the Tinui war memorial as killed in World War 2, was the bugler who played the Last Post.


                                                                        (Douglas Maclachlan)

And here's the hymn by Shirley Murray that we sang this year, to the tune of Abide with Me:
Honour the dead, our country’s fighting brave,
honour our children left in foreign grave,
where poppies blow and sorrow seeds her flowers,
honour the crosses marked forever ours. 
Weep for the places ravaged with our blood,
weep for the young bones buried in the mud,
weep for the powers of violence and greed,
weep for the deals done in the name of need. 
Honour the brave whose conscience was their call,
answered no bugle, went against the wall,
suffered in prisons of contempt and shame,
branded as cowards, in our country’s name. 
Weep for the waste of all that might have been,
weep for the cost that war has made obscene,
weep for the homes that ache with human pain,
weep that we ever sanction war again. 
Honour the dream for which our nation bled,
held now in trust to justify the dead,
honour their vision on this solemn day:
peace known in freedom, peace the only way.
                                                                                         (Douglas Maclachlan)


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Changing lives; A History of New Zealand Women

 I've recently finished reading A History of New Zealand Women, by Barbara Brookes (Bridget Williams Books). Rumour has it that the first print-run has already sold out.
          I'm reviewing it for the Women's Studies Newsletter, so I'll post that review later.  For now, I want to write about what Barbara says in her introduction about her own life; but first I want to say a little about some aspects of mine.
         
I was born in 1945 and brought up in Auckland. I was lucky - I was in the zone for Auckland Girls' Grammar, and wanted to go there because it offered full art as a subject. My father had previously been a commercial artist, and I wanted to be one too - I dreamed of becoming an illustrator for the English women's magazines my mother read.
           The only problem was that I didn't know the difference between commercial art and art. Until I went to Auckland Girls', where the walls were covered with good reproductions, I'd never been to an art gallery or even seen a really good picture. So art was the only subject where I did badly, and at the end of the third form I was persuaded to drop it and pick up Latin instead. I went on to make the most of the academic stream I was in, and ended up dux.
            Both my parents had had to leave school at twelve, but they were happy to take the school's advice and let me go on to university. With both a national scholarship and a Lissie Rathbone (for English and history), my fees were paid, I had my own pocket money, and I could live at home.
            Though I never thought about marriage and motherhood, I had only the vaguest idea about my future, involving copying my beloved French teacher and somehow getting a scholarship overseas, preferably to England or Paris. In due course I graduated with first class honours in English in 1968 (the only member of my all-female year to do so), and was given a junior lectureship.
             But by then, as well as being female, I had married (at 19) and had a baby (at 20). No one on the "proper" staff took the slightest interest in me, or ever talked to me about my academic future. I think they simply assumed I didn't have one. In 1971, as Barbara points out, only 1 percent of women had degrees or other higher qualifications.
             I was eager to have another child, and took what I thought was a year off to do that, then found I couldn't come back - all the junior lectureships had gone to the lauded clutch of first-class men who graduated the year after me. So of course I did the only thing I could think of, and went off to teachers' college, as my teachers at school had all along wanted me to do. But it seemed so circular and pointless - bright girls became teachers and taught other bright girls, who became teachers in their turn...  I finally received my PhD in 2006, on my 61st birthday.

Barbara Brookes is ten years younger than me. She too was initially destined for teaching, but her trajectory as an adult was completely different from mine. At Otago University she found supportive mentors and could embark on feminist research. A recent article in the University of Otago magazine explains how, with Professor Erik Olssen’s encouragement, she won a scholarship to Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia, where she completed an MA.
        To research her ground-breaking doctorate on abortion in England during the inter-war period, in 1980 she went to London, where she found a very active feminist history group. Receiving her PhD on her 27th birthday in 1982, she took up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Otago. In 1983 she was offered a full-time job in the history department. As she explains in her introduction to A History of New Zealand Women, she is in fact a living example of the dramatic changes that her book outlines:
Born in 1955, I benefited from educational opportunities that eventually [when she was 17] took me to university on a teaching studentship. Long-term factors - such as state initiatives in education and the erosion of the breadwinner wage - underpinned a raft of new ideas generated by feminism in the 1970s that encouraged me to be independent and academically ambitious. Effective contraception, in the form of the contraceptive pill, meant that I believed I could plan to have children at a time that suited me. That time came after I had completed my PhD and secured a academic job. I married at the age of thirty in 1986 and had my first child [of three] at thirty-three. (pp.1-2)
And the rest, as they say, is history - only in this case, an invaluable trove of papers, articles and books centering on women-focused history, culminating in this satisfyingly massive new book.
          Her career has, however, been far from typical. She was an early example of the contemporary women she describes who, having 'opted for traditionally male professions are currently transforming them' (p. 481). Yet it's vitally important not to lose sight of the fact that the majority of women continue to be found in jobs remarkably similar to the ones Barbara describes them doing back in the 1980s: sales, teaching, nursing, lowly office work, plus the lowest paid and least secure of all - cleaning and caregiving. And, of course, all that unpaid cleaning and caring work at home as well, perhaps now more invisible and subservient to what policy-makers persist in calling "work" than it has ever been.
          So when Barbara ends by saying, 'We now rely on them [younger women] to imagine a future where the challenges of both respect for diversity and a commitment to equality can be met' (p.483), she has to be read as referring not only to a once unimaginably diverse array of cultures, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and family forms, but also to the kind of equality among women themselves that is now so glaringly lacking.