What with the death of Sir Edmund setting off a round of introspection about what it means to be a New Zealander and with Waitangi Day coming up I’ve been thinking about my favourite New Zealand books. Some of the titles that come to mind aren’t exactly cheery reading but they definitely capture something about living here at the “uttermost ends of the earth”.
Top of the list are the three volumes of Janet Frame’s autobiography. Yes it’s an obvious choice but I’m not alone in my admiration for To the is-land, An angel at my table and The envoy from mirror city. Jane Campion, who brought the books to the screen, thinks the collected trilogy is the best book ever written by a New Zealander.In the Guardian newspaper recently Campion reminisced about meeting Frame in Levin and about how the story of the magical little red-haired girl from Oamaru was loved by the unlikeliest people all over the world, first as books, then as television programmes and then as a film.
Ronald Hugh Morrieson didn’t change the novel as we knew it in the way that I think Frame did but he invented New Zealand Gothic and his books capture small-town life in ’50s and ’60s New Zealand in a way his hometown of Hawera never got over.
Morrieson was a womanising dance-band musician who liked a bottle or two of sherry before lunch and lived with his mother for most of his adult life, in fact until she died. After his own death there was none of that historic places nonsense for Hawera thank you very much; no commemoration of Morrieson in the way Frame is honoured in Oamaru. His house was pulled down and a fast-food restaurant built on the site – after all, “who wanted to remember that old drunk”, as one Hawera hard-liner put it.
James Courage is not as well-known as Frame and Morrieson, his books have never been made into films although one, Fires in the distance, has apparently been optioned. His work might be regarded as a tad old fashioned now but he was an interesting character and at least two of his books are still worth reading.
Born in Christchurch and educated at Christ’s College where he has a plaque on the writers’ trail, Courage is remembered every year on the 15th of November, the day PEN (the international writers’ organisation which champions freedom of expression) holds events to mark the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.
In New Zealand the New Zealand Society of Authors, which incorporates PEN, named their event after two aptly named Courages; James because his novel A way of love was banned (for its expression of homosexuality) prior to the setting up of the Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1964; and his grandmother Sarah Courage whose book describing colonial life in New Zealand was burned by neighbours who resented comments she made about them. My favourite of his novels is The young have secrets, set in a Sumner which is still recognisable.