Maggie O’Farrell, author of seven very successful novels, has worked out who she is using her seventeen (that is correct) brushes with death, and has put it all together for us in her memoir: I Am, I Am, I Am. And it is very good.
O’Farrell has had a truly amazing life. Seventeen times she very nearly died (think attacks on lone walks, aeroplane near misses, medical blunders and and and and), but seventeen times she came back to live another day. These experiences have taught her a lot about herself, and she has assembled each episode into this uniquely structured memoir. After reading this book, it is almost impossible not to compare, to think back on one’s own life to times of danger or to those fleeting moments when guiding forces seem to have intervened and prevented something truly awful from happening. I have not had a life like O’Farrell’s. And I come from Africa.
But what if you did know the exact day when you were destined to die? Is this something you would want to know? And how might it affect your life? The Immortalists explores this option after four young siblings consult a travelling fortune teller who predicts the exact death date of each of them. Half way through this novel I wouldn’t have minded if all four Gold siblings had died at the same time, like immediately, but it is worth it to hang in there as it’s a book that gets better in the second half.
Could it be instead that some of us live lives that have been shaped by the small, by a huge number of minor chords, by repetitive everyday attrition, by little tests that slowly reveal who we are? Personally, I love to be told about myself by answering a gazillion questions (think the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs). I also suspect my birth date has subliminally influenced me. And this has been all well and good, until the library poster for the Lunar Year of the Dog arrived at work. To my dismay I see I am an Ox: steady, loyal, determined, blah blah blah. Just say “plodding” and be done with it why don’t you? I love my western Astrology sign of Sagittarius, but I am not a happy Ox.
Then I happened to glance at the top of this draft page and saw that this is my 200th library blog post.
I am indeed doggedly bullish. But I like to think of myself as an Ox armed with a Sagittarian bow and arrow with which to optimistically shoot my ideas all over the place. Maybe this is how I have found myself. Maybe it is with this kind of action I prove to myself: I Am, I Am, I Am!
Confession time. My reading tastes tend towards non-fiction. Not exclusively, but you’re far more likely to see me curled up with a good gardening book or a lush costume history than a weighty fantasy tome. This can make things slightly awkward when it comes to reader advisory (“You work in library – you must have read [insert novel/bestseller/literary worthy here]!”) All I can say is thank goodness for Novelist Plus and Fantastic Fiction for easing the stress of fiction read-alike queries!
I like to liberally sprinkle my reading fare with a good serving of memoirs, and this year has thrown up a few really good (and quite varied) reads. Often I pick up a memoir knowing absolutely nothing about the person concerned, just because that can be bizarrely fun. For instance, the first I’d ever heard of Russell Brand (some years ago now) was reading My Booky Wook – yes, I live in a hole. I just liked the title.
Amongst this year’s finds, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo wasn’t quite such a stone-cold intro. I’d seen some stand-up by Amy Schumer and had enjoyed it the point of snarfing my drink (always a sign of good comedy). I find her “oversharing” comedic style both endearing and fascinatingly horrifying, and her writing is much the same. I did find it a bit patchy, but her story has definitely gone on my list of female voices I’ve enjoyed hearing. I laughed a lot, I felt for her, and I admired her honesty.
Honesty (or the appearance of it) is I guess what we look for in a memoir. Reading memoirs can feel voyeuristic as a reader, sometimes to the point of discomfort but (unlike the nastiness of tabloid journalism) it is at least consensual voyeurism. I don’t mind that someone might only be telling what they want to tell (a somewhat odd criticism often levelled at autobiographists and memoir-writers, as though they are under an obligation to bare all). I’ve always figured that that is their right and I listen to their story knowing that the bias is part of the story.
I’ve just started Little Me: My life from A-Z by Matt Lucas, and I’m enjoying it very much. Again I knew little of the man other than some of his television appearances (I’ve particularly enjoyed his character on Doctor Who and his appearances on QI), but I saw the book go past in a transit crate, read a page or two, and was engaged enough by his friendly and straightforward writing style to place a hold.
Matt’s take on the whole “telling the truth but not the whole truth” thing is this: “I’m only forty-three. If I spill ALL the beans, then no one will trust me, no one will hire me and I’ll have no option but to go into the Celebrity Big Brother house.” More seriously, he talks about not breaking his promises to those he’s loved – which makes me like the guy.
In an about-turn sharp enough to cause whiplash, my other favourite memoir of the year is about a dog and his gardener. Nigel: My family and other dogs by Britain’s Gardeners’ World host (and one of my personal gardening heroes) Monty Don, is a delight.
Nigel, a gorgeous retriever, shot to fame as a result of his scene-stealing, haphazard appearances in Monty’s garden tutorials. He has his own social media sites and fan mail, and caused great concern amongst viewers recently when he disappeared off camera for some weeks due to a back injury. I have always loved Monty Don’s visible love of, and delight in, his garden.
In Nigel we learn of his love for the generations of dogs that have been a part of his life, in all its highs and lows. Ostensibly a piece about the special place dogs can hold in our lives, the book is also an open and honest look at Monty’s personal and business highs and lows, his struggles with depression and how his garden and his dogs help him through.
I’m not sure what 2018 will throw in front of me in the way of memoirs, but I hope they continue to be refreshingly random and varied. Peering into other lives life might seem a bit voyeuristic, but on the whole I think being invited to take a look makes for an enriching and more empathetic view of the world.
I’ve recently been delving into some “recreational non-fiction” reading!
Recreational non-fiction is what you might call stories based on fact that read as easily as a novel. This can be particularly true of memoir or biographies, and I’ve come across four such titles that I would like to recommend to you, the Christchurch reading public!
They’re all based around the topic of the natural world, they all read like adventure tales, and they all have a common link; the idea that we should all spend more time in and around nature, observe, engage, and enjoy.
We certainly don’t all need to go to the extreme lengths that these authors do – you don’t, for example, need to be the man responsible for dangling Sir David Attenborough 180ft in the upper canopy of one of the world remotest rainforests! You also don’t need to chase errant wild stags through the outskirts of London during the storm of the decade! And you definitely don’t need to be the man behind the push for Cpt. William Bligh to set off on his ill-fated voyage in the Bounty to take breadfruit from the Pacific Islands and take it to the Americas as cheap fodder for slave owners!
No, we can just sit back on a sunny spring day and enjoy stories of nature and travel, real stories told by real people who actually wrote the words themselves (apart from Linnaeus and Banks of course, their stories are ably told by Oxford historian Patricia Fara)
The amazing story behind two giant names in natural science; Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks. Just how great were they? Were they true champions of natural science, conservation, and preservation? Or were they subject to their own particular biases and egos in their work, striving to become something more than they were..? This book is a great insight and a brilliant read, giving context to the lives and journeys of these two names so famous now that we forget how recent their work actually is!
This is a series of stories that follows a man around the globe as he climbs some of the tallest trees in the world! He regularly works for the BBC to help produce some of the amazing images of the flora and fauna to be found in forest canopies seen in their Planet Earth series, he has a brilliant outlook on nature and conservation, and is a very talented storyteller – his tales read like boys-own adventures as he navigates all kinds of perils (weather, insects, primates, you name it!) to provide safe vertical passage through the forests of the world. If you like the natural world then this is a memoir too good to miss!
The story of David Attenborough’s fist major nature assignment as he travels into remote parts (pre-internet or mobile phone coverage!) to obtain vision of some of the creatures of the earth that humans have only ever read about in books. Written by the man himself, his voice is clear and present in every word as he deals with the perils of travelling the wilds of the earth for the betterment of natural science.
John Bartram stands as the longest serving gamekeeper of the illustrious and ecologically-fragile Richmond Park – a secluded nature reserve in the midst of the busyness of London. He tells of his journey to get to the job and the lifetime of work and memories he has obtained along the way. It is written in a very matter-of-fact manner which serves well to remind the reader that nature is on our doorstep and to stop now and then to treasure it.
And if these stories have piqued your interest in the natural world but you’re wanting to read more about OUR natural world, then perhaps try one of these beaut magazines available through Christchurch City Libraries… they’re full of the same fascination and excitement of discovery as the old stories but with the added advantage that they’re the stories of our own generation, in and of our own region.
I’ve had this song in my head since I saw Peter Garrett recently. Not at the Midnight Oil concert, but at the WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of view session at The Piano. It was the last talk in a series of goodies that formed WORD’s suite of Christchurch Arts Festival offerings.
Peter Garrett – musician, former Aussie federal politician, activist – appeared in conversation with the able and amiable broadcaster/journalist Finlay Macdonald, and followed the session with an audience Q & A and a book signing.
Peter’s book is a memoir of his life and career called Big Blue Sky. He found writing it both challenging and gut-wrenching:
It’s not just about what you remember, it’s how honest can you be.
He talked about the reformation of Midnight Oil and the series of concerts they are undertaking, including such stunner venues as Alice Springs and a rainforest in Cairns. Peter reckons they are sounding even better than their heyday.
His broad and expansive knowledge of Australian history as well as other topics made him a thoroughly engaging speaker. He talked politics, music, and more – and his move into federal politics made a lot of sense because he strongly believes:
The system cannot work unless it is infected by people who want it to work.
Peter went with the Labour Party instead of Green because he was “allergic to moral superiority and preachiness”.
There was plenty of music talk for the aficionados. He shared musical influences and passions – The Beatles, Neil Young, Rage against the Machine, Aborigine bands. Recalling seeing Muddy Waters play at ANU university, Peter got shivers right there on stage. So did we.
A big man in every sense, Norman Kirk was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1972 to 1974, and leader of the New Zealand Labour Party from 1965 to 1974. He died on 31 August 1974 and I would like to pay homage and possibly introduce him to another generation of Kiwis.
It’s not a very long period to be Prime Minister and be remembered with such affection and respect by so many and that in part explains the man. He was raised by parents in the Salvation Army and extremely conscious of social injustice and a tireless worker for the downtrodden.
In 1943 aged 20 he joined the Labour Party in Kaiapoi, North Canterbury. By this time the poor student had held down numerous jobs and was already married to Ruth Miller. The young couple bought a piece of land in Kaiapoi but due to a lack of funds and building materials being in short supply post-war, Norm built the bricks and then he built the house. All this time he was working at the Firestone factory in Papanui and cycling to Kaiapoi, doing a stint on the house and home again.
All the while he was pursuing a political career and again by sheer hard work he led a Labour team to victory in the Kaiapoi local body elections and became the youngest Mayor in New Zealand at the age of 30, also being leader of the first Labour Council in Kaiapoi.
In 1954 Norm Kirk stood for Labour in the Hurunui electorate, increasing Labour’s numbers but failed to win the seat. In November 1957 after a physically energetic (door knocking) campaign he won the seat of Lyttelton for Labour, becoming a Member of Parliament in opposition. He held this seat until 1969 when he transferred to the electorate of Sydenham.
It wasn’t until January 1958 that he resigned as Mayor of Kaiapoi and the family (Norm and Ruth had 3 sons and 2 daughters) moved to Christchurch. The work involved in being Mayor of a town outside Christchurch and the sitting MP of another electorate altogether must have been such hard work, especially for such a man as large as he had become. Partly because of his bulk and a childhood illness his health was never really good but still he worked hard for his beliefs.
Between 1960 and 1965 Big Norm progressed in the Labour Party, and with the backing of several large trade unions he was elected Vice President in 1963 and by December 1965 he was elected Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. None of this without hard work and proving himself the right man for the job and a brilliant debater using his bulk and stentorian voice to his advantage.
On 25th November 1972, Labour won the election with a 23 seat majority. The campaign was Norm’s campaign. The conservative newspaper The Dominion bestowed its ‘Man of the Year’ prize on him for ‘outstanding personal potential for leadership’. Quite a coup!
Norman Kirk took a stand: The South African team wanting to tour New Zealand in April 1973 were not racially integrated and the Kirk government refused visas. Pressure was applied to the French to stop testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific, this failed so a frigate was sent to the test area ‘to provide a focus for international opinion against the tests’. This was an activist government the like of which had not been seen in New Zealand for 40 years.
Ever the hard worker, Kirk pushed himself during the two years of his prime ministership, travelling and attending conferences desperate to achieve what his government had promised, all despite suffering with problematic varicose veins, breathing difficulties, blood clots, weight issues and stress. By 1974 the world economy was slowing and oil prices rising and Kirk opposed abortion and homosexual law reform both of which were gaining more recognition with the public. His government’s popularity was waning, but he still had a big personal loyal following. His health deteriorated further and he was finally persuaded to go to hospital and died of congestive cardiac failure and thromboembolic pulmonary heart disease on Saturday 31 August 1974 aged 51.
There was an enormous outpouring of grief nationally. He had gone before he could truly achieve what we all believed he was capable of. I had voted with proper consideration for the first time during the election of 1972 and felt we had lost a great leader, one not likely to be seen for a long while. Labour went on to lose the 1975 election to Robert Muldoon’s National government.
Norman Kirk summed up his and the Labour government’s political philosophy as ‘a social programme which will promote the housing of our people, protect their health, and ensure full employment and equal opportunity for all’. What a man and what ideals.
This biography caught my eye – the authorised story of Nina Simone.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is inspired by a documentary. Music journalist Alan Light (The Holy or Unbroken : Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the unlikely ascent of Hallelujah, and Lets Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain) draws on Nina’s diaries, rare interviews and her daughter’s memories to tell the story of the ‘real’ Miss Simone’ – a classically trained pianist, civil rights activist and one of the greatest artists of the last century. Did you know she rang David Bowie often? His cover of Wild is The Wind is one of my favourites.
Next up, some Sci-fi. The Switch is Justina Robson’s twelfth book. She’s won two Arthur C. Clarke awards and been nominated for many others. GoodReads is calling this one ‘ground breaking.’
Harmony is a ‘perfect’ society. To maintain this illusion, the defective are ‘dealt with’ (eradicated). Nico and Twostar are two tough cookies from the slums. They are survivors. Can they overcome Nico being sentenced to death for murder, or the loss of his mind?
The River Sings follows the fortunes of Eglantine, from mysterious beginnings in London to her father’s transportation to the Australian colonies for pick-pocketing. Eglantine must live by her wits and follow his footsteps if she is to survive.
In Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told, by Tom Phelan, journalist Patrick Bracken returns to the village of his childhood in Gohen, Ireland. He’s come back to investigate two deaths that occurred when he was a child. Patrick knows the deaths weren’t accidental, the legal ruling, because he and his best friend were witnesses…
There was an understandably big crowd at The Piano last night for A. N. Wilson in conversation with Christopher Moore. Part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season, we were treated to insights about the eminent novelist and biographer’s new and upcoming works, as well as his distinguished career.
As you can see, I was quite a long way back!
Wilson – or Andrew as I think we’re allowed to call him – was inspired to write biography after reading Lytton Strachey‘s Eminent Victorians and wanting to write as well as him. While he is generally commissioned to write biographies, he chose to write about the lives of Leo Tolstoy and Walter Scott. Scott was pretty much the father of historical fiction, with his tales of the Scottish Highlands allowing people to imagine what it was like to live in the past instead of simply regurgitating facts.
One of the things that fascinated Andrew about Tolstoy was the fact that while we know him as a great novelist, in Russia he was more known for his political beliefs – including his idea of passive anarchy which went to to inspire people like Gandhi. However, after digging into Tolstoy’s domestic sphere he concludes that:
he would not like to be Mrs Tolstoy.
Andrew’s latest novel is Resolution, about the German botanist Georg Forster who travelled with Captain Cook on his second voyage and later became a revolutionary in France. Interestingly, in Communist East Germany Forster was seen as a champion of class struggle and became a national hero. It’s great to hear about different and interesting people and I’m looking forward to reading this book.
An obvious favourite of Andrew’s is Queen Victoria who he describes as “taking being an embarrassing mother to new heights”. However, he is now researching Prince Albert, who is quite a different kettle of fish. Indeed, Andrew describes him as being
deeply strange and complicated.
He also believes that although Victoria was madly in love with Albert, he never fell in love with her and controlled her to a great degree. Look out for this biography in 2019, as its going to be fascinating!
Andrew obviously has a passion for the people he writes about and it was fabulous to have the opportunity to listen to his great storytelling here in Christchurch – which, he reminded us, is very much a Victorian city.
When Nirvana catapulted drummer Dave Grohl to fame, his Mum, Virginia, was surprised to be the mother of a Rock Star. Then when Dave reinvented himself as frontman of the Foo Fighters, Virginia quit teaching and began to travel the road. She didn’t often meet other mothers at gigs, but always wanted to talk to them about how music shaped their lives.
Like herself, many of these moms raised their kids solo, holding down several jobs to keep food on the table. While some mothers were okay with their kids quitting school to commit to music, others weren’t – Verna Griffin, Dr Dre’s Mom, worried that her son would be absorbed into the gang scene. (Dr Dre is 51 now!)
Virginia grew up in the Midwest, but Dave and his sister Lisa grew up in Washington, D.C. – a much more sophisticated environment. As a young mother she shared her music with her children (Dave remembers learning to harmonize along with Carly Simon on the car radio) and as he got older, Dave was sharing hard rock and metal with Virgina.
With a foreword from Dave himself, From Cradle to Stage is a tribute to the mothers who encouraged their kids to be creative and follow that star.
Sprinkled with personal ‘vignettes’ from Viriginia, Dave, Nirvana and the Foos, From the Cradle to the Stage chronicles the lives of eighteen musicians – from the army background of Michael Stipe , the early beginnings of The Beastie Boys, to the tragic end to the lives of Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain.
I really like her style. A former English teacher, Virginia writes a relaxed, entertaining, and at times moving story. It’s not only about people’s lives and roots, but contains slices of American history as well. It’s so interesting to read of each artists’ first sparks to creativity. For Dr Dre, it was GrandMaster Flash. Yeah.
This book is for everyone. The musicians cover a range of ages and even your Mum/Mom would enjoy it (Virginia even blanks out the F-words).
The mother of the ‘nicest guy in rock’ knows her stuff – using some pretty sophisticated terms (e.g. Minority Rap, Thug Rap in Dr Dre’s chapter – not Gangster Rap) but the last word goes to Dave:
There is no love like a mother’s love. It is life’s greatest song. We are all indebted to the women who gave us life. For without them, there would be no music.
On 2 May 1917, Ada Wells was the first woman elected to the Christchurch City Council.
I stand for better housing, for municipal markets, for proper working conditions for all employees, for rest-rooms and play gardens for mothers and children, I shall work for municipal activities in the direction of the uplifting of the people. We should have municipal educational lectures, music, encouragement of drama. We should have women inspectors. It must not be permitted that young boys shall sell newspapers on our streets until late hours… Municipality means the place which gives us freedom and shelter.
Reported on in the Maoriland Worker, 25 April 1917, the successful election of Ada Wells to the Christchurch City Council was “looked upon as certain” due to speeches like that above, her experience and her long standing commitment to improving the condition for women and children. She was 54 when she was campaigning to be elected to the Council for the St Albans Ward on a Labour ticket. Labour had only officially formed in 1916 in New Zealand, and they had the polarising campaign of being against compulsory military service during the First World War.
Her outspoken opinions made her a controversial figure to some, and a trailblazer to others. Ada was in favour of economic independence for married women, free kindergartens, universal access to secondary education, and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act 1869. Her involvement with the Peace movement (anti-militarism and anti-conscription) were causes she fought for throughout her life.
Ada Wells had been instrumentally involved in the Women’s Rights campaigns with Kate Sheppard in the 1880s, and she knew that winning the vote for women in 1893 was only a step in gaining equality for women.
She became involved with many societies and organisations that aligned with her opinions. She established the Canterbury Women’s Institute with Professor Alexander Bickerton in 1892, and held the position of President for many years and was a founding member of the National Council of Women of New Zealand in 1896, also serving as their first secretary for many years.
By 1900 there were cracks in the ranks of the National Council of Women due to some members — including Ada — holding pacifist views. The National Council of Women supported New Zealand’s involvement in the South African War (1899-1902). The National Council of Women of New Zealand stopped operating in 1906, but the organisation was revived in 1918 partly due to what was perceived as the moral decline of the country’s youth.
Ada was also heavily involved with the Children’s Aid Society, Peace Society, and was on the Board of Governors of the Christchurch Technical Council as a representative of the Council.
In 1899 she became the second woman elected to the Ashburton and North Canterbury Charitable Aid Board (a precursor of social welfare). She wasn’t shy about stating her opinion on the causes that she was passionate about. Ada often received antagonism from male members of the board when she stated how she thought the aid should be administered. She believed that children should be looked after in cottage homes, rather than boarded out in large orphanages. While on the Charitable Aid Board, she helped instigate an investigation into the treatment of the children at the Waltham Orphanage that the Board itself had responsibility for, even though “the progressive ideas of the lady members had not always been concurred in by the members of the Board”.
Running for Council was the logical next step in a tireless fight for women’s and children’s rights and actioning change at a higher level. Standing with Labour aligned with her anti-militarism ideals. The final outcome for the 1917 Christchurch City Council election was 9 Citizens’ Association nominees, 5 Labour nominees and 2 Independent nominees. Successfully being elected to the Christchurch City Council in 1917 threw the majority of the council into a tail spin on two points, that there was now a female Councillor, and she was with Labour!
Many heated discussions were had in the Council Chamber meetings and the newspapers of the day reported on Ada Wells speaking her mind. The discussions were varied and often reflected her anti-militarism ideals. There was talk on where war trophies that were presented to the city should be located. Ada stated it was a pity that the war spirit should be fostered at all, and she often often argued for peace rather than continuing the war. She visited the imprisoned conscientious objectors during her time as a councillor, once with her young granddaughter in tow who later recalled him as a nice man.
When the Council declined to support the Canterbury Society of Arts, she said that they might well consider themselves a huckstering, pettifogging people and pleaded in favour of the arts.
While she did stand again in the next election in 1919 her campaign was unsuccessful.
More about Ada
Born Ada Pike on 29 April 1863 in Oxfordshire, England, her family immigrated to Christchurch in 1873. She attended Avonside School and then Canterbury College in 1881 after being awarded the university junior scholarship. She then worked as an assistant teacher at the Christchurch Girls High School.
Ada was 20 when she married the Cathedral Organist Harry Wells (11 years her senior) on 7 January 1884. In 1885 the couple welcomed their first child, a daughter Christabel, and completed their family in quick succession by 1889 with the addition of 2 more daughters (Alma and Alice) and a son (John Stanley). The marriage was not a happy one and Ada often provided the only source of income for the family through teaching, or working as a healer through massage therapy which she learnt from her mother Maria Pike.
She juggled raising and supporting her family while working for the equality of women and this demonstrated her admirably strong character. When she was campaigning to become a councillor, she was already a grandmother of five.
Harry Wells died in 1918. Ada Wells died in Christchurch on 22 March 1933. In her obituary it was said of her that:
A cause might be despised, obscure, rejected, she not only helped it all the same, she helped it all the more, and in the dark and stormy days of unfounded truth she was always to the front. Press, Volume LXIX, Issue 20812, 23 March 1933, Papers Past
In 1933 the Ada Wells Memorial prize was established for undergraduates, or graduates of up to three years, and awarded for an essay on the exposition of some subject chosen from literature having reference to social ideals. This prize is still awarded annually.
For a lively fictionalised account of Ada Wells, her eccentric unmarried daughter Bim, and Kate Sheppard I can certainly recommend Farewell Speech by Rachel McAlpine, who is a great-granddaughter of Ada Wells. Based on family stories and talking to those who knew the women, three very strong, different personalities come clearly through.
Women In The Council Chamber: Ada Wells This brief political biography originally featured in an Our City O-Tautahi exhibition from 19 – 30 September 2006, featuring Christchurch’s own “Women in the Council Chamber”, initiated and co-ordinated by Cr Anna Crighton.