Here you will find occasional posts and updates about my work and related subjects.
I’ve enjoyed many readers’ responses to my most recent book, Shirley Smith: An Examined Life. My thanks to those who have written to share personal stories and insights.
It’s coming up to 10 years since The Violinist was published. Watch for upcoming news about the Holocaust Centre’s education programme for schools.
We’ll all be pleased to see beyond 2020 but I’ve had many reasons to count my blessings and hope you have too. Let’s hope that 2021 will bring respite to a troubled world.
I decided to share this happy event held at the National Library yesterday. I hope it will be pleasing to my friends and family and those who helped me in so many ways.
Brad Patterson read the citation:
IAN WARDS PRIZE
The Ian Wards Prize, initiated in 2001, honours the outstanding contributions to the Archives and Records Association of New Zealand, to cultural life generally, and to New Zealand historical scholarship, of the late Ian McLean Wards, Chief Government Historian between 1968 and 1983. A lifelong supporter of the archives cause, for more than twenty-five years ARANZ’s elder statesman, Ian was elected to the Association’s third honorary life membership in 1982.
The Prize recognises what the appointed judging panel considers to be an outstanding piece of published New Zealand historical writing first appearing in the year preceding each Annual General Meeting. It is the sub-criteria, however, developed in close consultation with Mr Wards, which sets this prize apart from other New Zealand book awards. The winner must demonstrate either ‘innovative’ or ‘exemplary’ use of primary source materials, and otherwise be a model of scholarly good practice.
An exceptionally strong field again presented in 2020, making the selection of a winner a difficult choice. A long list of contenders was initially drawn up through searches of the New Zealand National Bibliography. This was ultimately reduced to diverse individual short lists of four by the judges. After further discussion, the judging panel’s unanimous decision is that this year’s winner is Sarah Gaitanos, for Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, published by Victoria University Press.
This substantial biography explores the life of a prominent New Zealand woman of contradictions: the privileged daughter of a highly respected lawyer, later judge, who nevertheless early embraced communism as a credo; a classics scholar and Oxford graduate who later, in a second career as a lawyer, a ground-breaking one, devoted her energies to defending life’s misfits; the wife of still controversial economist Dr Bill Sutch who, despite her strong feminist beliefs, nevertheless felt impelled to accept traditional domestic roles. Often viewed, not altogether justly, as being in her husband’s shadow, the author seeks to recount the events of Shirley’s life from her point of view. What emerges is a woman of strong principles and integrity, one who consistently confronted obstacles and generally surmounted them. The life is outlined against a backdrop of times when the political tone of the intelligentsia was more left-leaning than in recent decades.
The author’s judgements are based on a prodigious research effort, moreover one that it is hinted was not without its difficulties. Beyond wide reading in the secondary sources, the work is underpinned by research not only in the subject’s available personal papers, but also in those of many contemporaries. Files in Archives New Zealand and other New Zealand repositories have been consulted, also court and other legal records, as well as those of schools and universities. Moreover, the documentary search has extended beyond these shores, especially in repositories in the United Kingdom and the United States. Befitting an oral historian, the author has taken every opportunity to interview prospective informants, more than 100 being listed. Engagingly, wherever possible Shirley Smith is permitted to speak for herself.
Shirley Smith: An Examined Life is well written, holding the reader’s attention, and is nicely produced. In all respects it is a worthy successor to previous winners of the Ian Wards Prize.
Brad Patterson (Convenor, Judging Panel)
It’s a very great honour to receive this award. I thank ARANZ and judging panel with all my heart.
This award means a great deal to me, for many reasons. One reviewer wrote that among other things, Shirley Smith: An Examined Life would be relished by history buffs and polsci nerds. I don’t know whether that describes ARANZ members but I’m delighted that my book has been judged by scrupulous scholars and won your approval.
I didn’t come to biography from a scholarly background, but I was lucky that when I started writing Nola Millar, I was at the Stout Centre, around people like Brad, who influenced me more than they know. I remember a passing comment from Brad that made me think. He said that the first thing he did when he picked up a work of non-fiction was to check the endnotes. They would tell him whether or not to look further.
Well, there are no endnotes in Shirley Smith: An Examined Life. I’m glad that didn’t stop you reading it, Brad. I recall you disapproved of footnotes, and it never occurred to me to have them. The decision was made in a flash at the typesetting stage when my publisher Fergus Barrowman suggested out of the blue that we move them notes because they carried a lot of information. It was a big decision – but I didn’t hesitate in replying ‘Yes!’ It was quite a radical change.
I know you and the committee must have read these notes closely and critically to see what lies below the surface of what appears above on the page. I thank you for that slow, careful attention.
I was asked to talk a bit about the book, and as many people here have read it, I thought I’d start with something that went in, and out again, very quickly at a late stage, just to show how close I might have come to writing fiction.
I was busy checking reference numbers, capital letters, typos and such like when I heard that a former SIS officer had been involved in the surveillance of the Sutch-Smith house in 1974. I followed this up and my source tracked down this former officer in Perth, and I put my questions to him through this third person, who I trusted and respected. My book was by then with my editor so I moved very fast. On 5 November 2018 I emailed Fergus:
After telling Madeleine that I wouldn’t make any more changes I have this add: Chapter 20, Smoke and mirrors, p.4, 2nd last para
The SIS set up a top-secret annex code-named ‘Vulcan’, which involved searching Sutch’s office on a regular basis, bugging it and installing a tap on his phone. As part of the same operation they also bugged the Sutch-Smith house. They installed five devices: a tap on the phone and induction-based devices behind power points and light fittings. From a Ministry of Works caravan parked in the street nearby, the SIS surveillance staff listened to conversations and movements within the house.[confidential source] Nothing came of the taps and bugs, but the search of Sutch’s office produced a diary in which he had written the dates and cryptic references to his clandestine meetings with Razgovorov. The cryptic annotations lined up with the meetings the SIS had observed, missed and seen abandoned.
Only then did I think, I really should check this! I spoke to Richard Hill (an independent expert on intelligence) who was highly skeptical about using a caravan in a suburban street, and I had a lot of questions for the SIS which resulted in interesting new information, along with a firm denial that it happened. One of the points a former senior female SIS officer made was that they never suspected Shirley of knowing about Bill’s meetings with Razgovorov – in fact they were certain she didn’t as he was very secretive. So there would have been no point in bugging the house, and they didn’t have the resources to do so. I wanted to know about the tapes themselves, I learned more about bugging operations, and how they bugged Sutch’s office; and I asked more questions about Sir Guy Powles’ investigation.
It was all very puzzling but I had to accept that the story didn’t stack up.
My files are full of other good stories that aren’t in the book because they fell apart on further research, or they weren’t sufficiently relevant or important.
And then there were questions of discretion. Shirley Smith herself posed the question about whether the alternative to writing the whole truth was to keep silence. She also noted that the truth as we knew it changed as new facts came to hand. That was in 1956 when she broke finally with the Communist Party. What she wrote about people living in unreality is extremely relevant today. It’s interesting also to see how she struggled with her own reality at other times.
On the question of discretion, I followed Voltaire’s dictum, ‘To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.’ With regard to Shirley’s surviving family who would have to live with what I wrote, I was very careful, and actually I was pretty discreet about the dead also. I could have written a much juicier book.
A different problem was how far to let Bill Sutch encroach on Shirley’s story? I always had Shirley and the big themes of this book in mind when the focus changed to her husband.
A story about Shirley that carries a kind of truth that justifies its place in the book was the account told at her funeral of a hostage situation in Porirua in which a young man with a gun was holding a baby. The police tried to negotiate with him but the only person he would speak to was Shirley Smith. She was hastily brought to the scene, entered the house alone and of course unarmed, and emerged carrying the baby. This would surely have been a legend but none of her devoted clients in the gangs knew anything about it, and it was never reported. When I asked Shirley’s daughter, Helen Sutch, where it came from she didn’t know but thought it was true. So she is my source. Readers can judge. Had Shirley been put in that hostage situation, that’s exactly what she would have done, and we can see from her role in the Paul Chase case how the story might have evolved.
Finally, I wanted to record the life and times of Shirley Smith in such a way that it spoke to people in the 21st century; to connect with readers through our common humanity, so that the past can inform the present and perhaps we can make the world a better place in the future.
A couple of days ago I came across these words from Barak Obama, inspired by Genghis Khan and Ozymandias, and the lessons of history:
What I’ve always believed is that humanity has the capacity to be kinder, more just, more fair, more rational, more reasonable, more tolerant. It is not inevitable. History does not move in a straight line. But if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better.
Shirley Smith worked tirelessly on behalf of those values. I had a subject who really nudged New Zealand in the right direction, towards Jacinda Ardern’s politics of kindness.
For the record, the conversation with Brad continued, raising questions about our memories! He wrote:
For the life of me, I can’t remember telling you how I evaluated historical works. Even then it was probably a bit flip; there are many rooms in the historical mansion, including for synthesisers who eschew proper documentation! Did I say I don’t like footnotes? I don’t actually object at all, save when the documentation occupies two thirds of a page (like English 1 texts).
If only we had recorded our lunchtime conversations over the years, what a store of information that would be!
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.’