Here you will find occasional posts and updates about my work as a writer and oral historian, and related subjects. Still fresh and ongoing are the many public and private responses to Shirley Smith: An Examined Life. Over the past months since the book’s publication I’ve enjoyed talking to groups and hearing from many readers. My thanks to those who have written. It’s gratifying to know the book is reaching a wide diverse readership and I value your personal stories and insights.
After the excitement of Circa’s play reading of Shirley and Bill to a full house on Sunday, I’m happy to add that Shirley Smith: An Examined Life is on the shortlist for the New Zealand Book Awards:
‘Sarah Gaitanos champions the life of Shirley Smith, whose achievements working for human rights and social causes are often overshadowed by the notoriety of her husband, Bill Sutch. Drawn from voluminous archives and the recollections of family and colleagues, a clear picture is presented of a frank, principled woman who swam against the current of her time. Written with clarity, insightful interpretation of sources and a steady tone, a remarkable story is expertly revealed.’
This campaign should never have been necessary but the response has been truly inspiring. The letters and personal accounts published in the Save RNZ Concert group together make a powerful case. There are many fascinating angles to the debacle. Most shocking to me is the apparent ignorance of those behind the now abandoned proposals. Abandoned for now, but in the hands of such people, there is not yet any assurance that the programme won’t be gradually starved of resources. So we continue to write our letters and protest.
Here is my email to Grant Robertson, Associate Minister for Arts Culture and Heritage:
Kia ora Grant
It’s nearly nine months since we launched ‘Shirley Smith: An Examined Life’ and you spoke so well about freedoms, rights, the arts and other causes Shirley fought for. These are all relevant in the current furore sparked by proposed changes to RNZ Concert. Had Shirley been alive, she would have written strong letters of protest, drawing on classical and other historical references to illustrate how the arts have always played a key role in the social, cultural and economic life and the wellbeing of great civilisations.
I think you are probably doing your best to honour your promise in the Labour Party’s 2017 Manifesto, and that you personally understand the inestimable value of classical music and RNZ Concert. But I have been shocked and astonished to learn that this taonga, the heart of our cultural life, is in the hands of people who have no such understanding.
For what it’s worth, here’s my story:
As well as being a devoted RNZ’s Concert FM listener, I am a long-standing member of the Orpheus Choir of Wellington. I was in my 20s when I first heard Orpheus. I thought I’d love to join that choir but they all looked so old. When I did join in the early 1980s, our director Peter Godfrey aimed to have more than one-third of the choir aged under 30. It took a while but today the choir is a vibrant mix of all ages and ethnicities – and yes, some of us are now older. Age not an issue these days.
It is a hugely rewarding part of our lives, singing together, learning great works, performing in concerts with the NZSO, Orchestra Wellington and other professional musicians, led by brilliant conductors. The greatest thrill is the performance itself, when the audiences becomes part of the whole experience and we are all enriched. RNZ Concert plays an essential role, both in promoting our concerts and in recording them so that music-lovers who cannot attend concerts can hear them.
Much has been written about the connections between music, happiness and wellbeing, and how music participation is linked to achievement in other fields. We also know the powerful role music plays in our wider community, bringing people together. This community role was most apparent last year after the Christchurch massacre. There were many musical tributes around the country. I took part in one, a performance of Karl Jenkins’ ‘The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace’. Thanks largely to RNZ’s Concert FM publicising the event, we sang to a full house at St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington, and together expressed our grief and solidarity with the Muslim community.
And we will sing together on the steps of Parliament on 24 February to celebrate RNZ Concert’s birthday! That should be a happy occasion but also a serious public protest against any diminishing the programme that lies so close to our hearts.
Please do all in your power to ensure RNZ Concert receives the resources it needs to continue to deliver as it should, not only on FM band but with a full staff of presenters, librarians, recording engineers, and that they receive all the support they need. The first step is surely appointing a guardian of RNZ Concert to the RNZ Board, someone who understands what is at stake.
I’m delighted that Circa Theatre is presenting a reading of Dean Parker’s play Shirley and Bill, based on Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, during the upcoming New Zealand Festival in Wellington. Dean Parker is a legend and with Jane Waddell directing, Carmel McGlone playing Shirley and Gavin Rutherford playing Bill, it promises to be a great occasion. Details: 29 February at 2 p.m. in Circa One. For more information and tickets, see Shirley and Bill.
Shirley Smith was launched by the Hon. Grant Robertson at Unity Books, Wellington, on Monday 10 June. It was an honour to have Grant launch the book. He gave a great speech, pointing up the significance of Shirley Smith and her relevance in our lives today. My thanks to others who spoke and all who made the launch such a success, especially VUP and Unity Books who hosted the event. No wonder your readers love you!
The month of May started for me in the Northern Hemisphere where it was all about spring, new life, a new grandson, family reunions and, as always, new research.
Back home in Lower Hutt, the magnolia cambellii has burst into flower unseasonably early. I don’t know what that means (other than climate change) but I’m taking it as a good sign.
The month has also rewarded me in other ways: the publication of Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, the wonderful Auckland Writers’ Festival, and some good early reviews.
Also, my entry on Shirley Smith for the on-line Dictionary of New Zealand Biography has just been published.
And, quite unrelated, the New Zealand Society of Authors’ podcast of my oral history interview with Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, recorded in 2004, had gone live. (Since then, NZSA have added my interviews with Ian Cross and Tony Simpson.)
My book launch for Shirley Smith is yet to come! to be launched by Hon Grant Robertson (he has to get his Wellbeing Budget out first) on 10 June, 6.00 to 7.30 at Unity Books, Wellington. All welcome!
I’m delighted and deeply honoured to be chosen as the inaugural speaker for the Friends of the Turnbull Library in their proposed three-year sponsorship of an event at the AWF. I will be highlighting some of the many primary sources I used from the treasures held in the Turnbull Library. This is a FREE event.
Sunday 19 May, 11.30 – 12.30 p.m. Waitākere Room, Aotea Centre.
After a lapse I intended to start writing posts again here, but I never imagined it would be prompted by the recent devastating event that has shaken New Zealanders everywhere. I wish to offer a heart-felt tribute to the victims of the terrorist attack on Muslims in Christchurch last week. As I write this, the first funerals are taking place. I join with those who feel for the families and community in their grief.
It’s hard to find the right words. We are fortunate that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown us the way, not only with her words and actions but by the empathy she so obviously feels for the Muslim community. Throughout the country and the world, people have embraced her message: They are us.
Expressions of love and inclusion take many forms: people turn up for vigils in unprecedented numbers, they lay flowers outside mosques, light candles, give money, write messages on murals, in tribute books, share on social media, contact friends and family far and wide and show kindness and love to those near and dear.
Through haka and karakia, Māori offer a powerful and healing expression of feeling. Music speaks to the heart, not only in the gatherings in support of the Muslim community but also on social media also. Dave Dobbyn’s song Welcome Home has been taken up by various groups, including the Orpheus Choir of Wellington. We recorded a video last night to share: https://youtu.be/k6LZe-AaSWw On Friday we take part in a free performance of The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace by Karl Jenkins, composed in 1999 for the victims of the Kosovo conflict. It includes a Muslim call to prayer alongside Christian, Hindu and other texts, with a karakia replacing the Last Post.
The message resounds. They are us.