Biography

Featherstone Booktown

‘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.

 

 

 

Reflections on Anzac Day

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.

Dean Parker, 1947–2020

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.

photo by Philip Merry

2020 Awards Shortlist

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.’

‘Shirley and Bill’ at Circa

I’m delighted that Circa Theatre is presenting a reading of Dean Parker’s play Shirley and Billbased 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.

Launching ‘Shirley Smith: An Examined Life’

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!

Continue reading…

May days

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!