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.
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.’
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.