Yesterday we joined the hundreds-strong crowd in the Hagley Park Geo Dome to celebrate the life and work of author Margaret Mahy.
Louise Deans hosted the occasion.
Author and longtime friend Tessa Duder gave a lovely speech about Margaret Mahy, her family and origins, her life and career, and the magic of her writing. She ended with a poem that Margaret dashed off on an airplane sick bag on her way to a speaking engagement. It was a beautiful piece about growing old and seizing the light out of life (and she was only 37 when she wrote it).
One of the most moving parts of the tribute was hearing Margaret’s lovely granddaughters speak, sharing memories as well as snippets of Margaret’s words. Imagine having a Nana like that, outdoing all the kids in her partying prowess, dancing the can can in the school car park.
Friend, neighbour and author Rosie Belton conveyed beautifully Margaret’s love of her environment in Governors Bay. She spoke of how the earthquakes affected the community. Apparently none of Margaret’s books fell off her bookshelf as they were so tightly packed. Rosie also mentioned the prescience of Kaitangata Twitch with its allusion to the harbour twitching and shrugging the people off its back. Margaret thought it required a certain fatalism to manage in the quaking times.
Lorain Day, Margaret’s editor for ten years, spoke of her work with Margaret. The words that were most important to Margaret were “real” and “true”. She was delighted with hearing a child say “That was a very Margaret Mahy word”. Lorain finished with the lines:
Do you know about the Word Witch? Has she cast her spell over you? She can lasso with a limerick, haunt with a haiku and wrap you tight in a rhyme, quick as lightning. Her cauldron is a dictionary, her wand a mighty pen, and she stirs her words at midnight, making tempting treats for children, to please and tease and tantalise them with imaginary treasures and delectable dreams. She weaves words into adventures, sets verses wildly dancing, makes similes sing and stamp their feet and poems purr like pussycats who’ve eaten all the cream. Her name is Margaret Mahy. These are her spells.
Gavin Bishop, who has illustrated Margaret’s upcoming book Mr Whistler, was dubbed by Margaret “A Sicilian in a Savile Row suit”. He read a piece from The Pirates’ Mixed-Up Voyage and had the crowd roaring. The idea of a pirate teashop suddenly loose on the seven seas, and the crew having to learn to read at a literary academy was silly. Brilliantly silly.
We got to see a neat video version of Down the back of the chair with Margaret reading to her twin granddaughters.
A children’s choir sang a medley of Margaret’s words.
Our own librarians Sue Colyer and Louise Easter spoke of working with Margaret. Sue said:
and the mother never ever made up a story again – This last line of A lion in the meadow – must be one of the most ironic endings in children’s literature for Margaret was a mother who made up stories for the rest of her life … However today we want to talk briefly about her library career. I worked with Margaret at the School Library Service office in Christchurch, in the 1970s where she was in charge of services to primary schools throughout Canterbury …
During this time Margaret was becoming established as a published author, writing by night, shooting over the hills from Governors Bay in her mini to work at the library by day and bringing up Bridget and Penny, who were always welcome visitors to the library. Despite this she was always fun, immensely cheerful and greatly loved by her colleagues; morning and afternoon tea conversations were a delight.
I discovered this wonderful librarian who would take it as part of her duties to enliven that first hour of the day which was spent shelving the returned books. Margaret would sing sea shanties often with a little sailor’s hornpipe to set the scene and recite long ballads and poems – the Rime of the Ancient Mariner being one of the shorter ones.
She would encourage us to talk about the books we were reading and to develop a critical analysis of children’s literature and it was really through her that I developed my own passion for children’s literature.
Talking to colleagues, who worked with her over the years, all remember with great fondness her sense of fun and mischievousness, her generosity with her time and advice as well as her encyclopaedic knowledge of all manner of things. She would often surprise one with discussions on scientific topics she had read about in the New Scientist. She continued to enliven staff morning and afternoon teas and a colleague remembers her leaping onto a table and reciting Chaucer in Old English to illustrate a point.
Margaret left the Library in 1980 to write full time but continued to come back to the Library for special events generously sharing her time always interested in what was happening to people and especially what we were reading.
In all the lovely tributes were common threads:
- Margaret was humble, always had time for people. And kids and dogs were always her special friends.
- She loved to read, and had an insatiable need to write. Margaret would often be up to dawn writing.
- Her imagination and flair with language were boundless.
- She had a strong enduring love for her family.
- We were so lucky to have had her. Really lucky.
Haere ra Margaret.