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.
A wonderful surprise, completely unexpected, is the news that I have been awarded the Ian Wards Prize 2020 for Shirley Smith: An Examined Life.
The ARANZ website explains:
The Ian Wards Prize honours the contribution to New Zealand scholarship of Ian McLean Wards, Chief Government Historian between 1968 and 1983, and, through his actions and unceasing advocacy over a period of more than 50 years, one of the principal architects of New Zealand’s modern archives system.
This annual prize recognises a published work which makes substantial, imaginative and exemplary use of New Zealand archives and records. The publication must appropriately and fully reference the archives and records used.
My thanks to the ARANZ Council for this recognition. It means so much to me.
‘We need to have a conversation about our country.’ That was the proposition I eagerly agreed to when invited to talk about Shirley Smith: An Examined Life at the forthcoming Featherstone Booktown’s Words in Winter series.
The icing on the cake is that I’ll be talking to Linda Clark. Linda is well known as a brilliant interviewer, but is also a lawyer and, like Shirley Smith, came to the law as a second career. There are other parallels between these two outstanding New Zealand women. I must remember that I am not the interviewer but I’ll be very interested in Linda’s take on the book.
At 2 p.m. on Saturday 27 June at Kiwi Hall, 62 Bell Street, Featherstone.
The series also includes Alan Duff and Becky Manawatu this weekend, and there are more to follow! For further information, see Booktown.
Congratulations to the winners, and to all my fellow finalists at last night’s Ockham Awards virtual ceremony. I wonder about the fun we missed, not celebrating together??? But we shared a unique experience doing it virtually and I hope you all had a very good time in your bubbles!
And Bravo Ockhams for promoting your authors so well throughout the lockdown and last night. It’s good for us and for other NZ writers. We all need this support!
This morning I was happy to see that my new books are at last arriving, so will be available at VUP and bookstores very soon. Onwards to Level 2!
A new thing to come out of lockdown is Ockhams Out Loud.
The plan was that finalists were to read from our work at the awards ceremony in Auckland on 12 May. COVID-19 put paid to that but the Ockham organisers thought creatively. They recorded our readings from our bubbles for their special YouTube channel. We met in our categories online to prepare for this. (Thank you James Leonard for technical advice.) I hope one day we’ll meet in person.
Deciding on which passage to read was quite an interesting exercise. I settled in the end for one explaining Shirley’s decision to keep her own name when she married in 1944 and the battle she had to get people to accept it. With more than two minutes I would have added that not even her father or her beloved grandmother respected her wish. But while they addressed their letters to Mrs W B Sutch, Shirley was more successful with the maternity staff in Sydney where gave birth to their daughter, only they insisted on calling her Mrs Smith – and her husband, Mr Smith!
It is Anzac Day 2020. New Zealand, like most of the world, is under lockdown because of COVID-19. In our street, as throughout the country, we ‘stood at dawn’ in our ‘bubbles’. The coronavirus pandemic and Anzac Day have brought us together.
There’s been talk on both sides of the Tasman about the Anzac spirit during COVID-19. That in part refers to unity and self-sacrifice, but also comradeship and down-to-earth common sense. These qualities serve us well in the current pandemic. With her characteristic clarity and compassion, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set the rules: ‘Stay home. Save lives. Be kind.’
We are told to practise physical distancing while staying socially connected. I share a bubble with my husband Taki and our dog Lani. We are supported by neighbours that now include people in the street we didn’t previously know, connected as a WhatsApp group. My yoga and Pilates classes have gone online via Zoom, as has my Saturday lunch group. Orpheus Choir rehearsals are now virtual on YouTube – not like singing together but they bring us together in our happy place. Friends, family, children and grandchildren connect via Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp from their bubbles around the world. Some still write emails or use the phone. We are instantly connected.
Ironically, this very welcome interaction reduces the solitude that is a normal part of a writer’s life. Also I have been preoccupied by what’s going on in the world. There’s so much to follow. As I walk in the hills or along the Hutt River with Lani, I listen to podcasts and interviews, or contemplate the state of the world. Normally I would think about what I’m currently writing, but these are extraordinary times.
Then again, the times and people I write about were also extraordinary. My current subject is Brigadier Reginald Miles, distinguished hero of World War I, Commander of the Royal Artillery in World War II until he was captured. His escape is one of the great prisoner of war escapes of all time, and his death in mysterious circumstances months later one of the most disturbing.
As a biographer, I look to the past for different perspectives on our own lives. Today I’m with Reg Miles on the Western Front in World War I, working with his letters that have survived over 100 years. Wounded in Gallipoli and again in France, he wrote about his experiences as much as censorship allowed. When his letters eventually reached New Zealand after months at sea, they were passed around and re-read many times. His family learns about his marriage, his wife and child in Ireland, and the birth of their second child in London. They will all three get influenza during the pandemic in 1918. Reg will have been away five years before he returns to New Zealand, leaving behind many of his companions who died in the field.
Here in 2020, New Zealanders are winning the war against COVID-19 simply by staying home. It’s not over yet but it feels like we’ve dodged a bullet.
This week VUP released a digital version of Shirley Smith: An Examined Life on MeBooks
Also, after COVID-19 delayed things, the book has now been reprinted. With ‘non-essential’ imports moving once again, the new books are expected to be in bookstalls soon, hopefully in time for their reopening for online and phone orders.
I’m shocked and deeply saddened by Dean’s death this week. I feel the loss of losing a new friend as much as a colleague. It was my great pleasure to come to know Dean as he worked on his play, Shirley and Bill. He rewrote it after the recent playreading at Circa, taking into account many comments and suggestions from those who saw it, wanting to get it right. He looked forward to what he hoped would be a full production at Circa Theatre in the future.
Dean commented that he was incredibly lucky that the reading occurred before the Covid-19 lockdown. Lucky also that Circa’s production of his play Wonderful was in those weeks before the theatre closed its doors. I saw Wonderful, and it was just that, the best theatre experience I can remember in a long time.
Tremendously gifted, Dean was also modest, generous and great fun. A huge loss to his friends and family, and to all New Zealanders.
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.’