There once was a little restaurant just off Cathedral Square, in Christchurch. And, for that matter, I daresay that it still stands in the same old place. But on this particular hour out of all Eternity, I remember that the manageress didn't seem to mind whether bacon-and-eggs or cream cakes with “butterfly wing” trimmings was the cry, whether the ladies smoked or didn't, whether they stayed for an hour or two hours or from morn, till dewy eve. We were all in an inside room, sunflower-coloured, tiny mats and curtains of the bright gay yellow shining up against the outer greyness that is Christchurch on an early autumn day.
That was the time when women writers in Christchurch and from thereabouts (I don't mean placid social clubwomen with an occasional amateur writer thrown in like a silhouette on a Chinese lampshade, but women whose life was mostly writing or journalism) gave a luncheon to welcome a newcomer to the fold. Which was hospitable of them. I believe Mona Tracy, who was Mona MacKay once on a day, and who wrote a lilting little song about “Dusk on Akaroa town” that everyone remembers and puts into New Zealand's few poor wing-clipped anthologies, was responsible for getting it up. Most certainly she made a speech.
The most vital person I can remember, from that hour in a funny little Christchurch restaurant, was not a young woman, and didn't look a strong one. Thin, grey-haired, small, Jessie MacKay was some- page 66 thing of a source of anxiety to her friends. She would, so they said, sit up at nights a-writing; she would not at any price pay attention to regular meal-hours.…
And there was more real force in her than in any ten of the rest of us put together.
A Japanese visitor to New Zealand, a few years ago, was asked by a reporter what made him come to this country. His reply was that Jessie MacKay lived here, which is perhaps the finest tribute that any woman in New Zealand has ever received.
She was a journalist for long… . one of the few women in New Zealand ever entrusted with leader-writing work, in old Canterbury days. Keen insight into the world's affairs took her, the only New Zealander present, to fateful conferences in Ireland, where Eamon de Valera showed something of the card held by the most powerful and bitterly determined hand the Green Isle has known in a generation. She wrote of this, I remember, for the Christchurch Press, after the election when the Free State appeared to shake its shoulders free of the weight of domination laid on them over centuries. Her article impressed me as being the clearest-drawn thing I had seen in New Zealand journalism for years. Her Irishisms worry people like kindly but somewhat “precious” Quentin Pope, whose anthology of New Zealand verse, “Kowhai Gold,” has provided all our own playboys with the same old Aunt Sally. (It's pretty bad, but not so bad as many of the verses which he was criticised for leaving out: it could hardly have been so bad as all that.)
Edith Howes was there—from Dunedin—slender, still youthful, with soft bronze hair gay around a rather shy little face. A school teacher she once was. Then she wrote “Fairy Rings” and “The Sun's Babies,” and “Rainbow Children,” and “The Cradle Ship”—a new, very gentle life of nature delicately and deliciously patterned out for New Zea- page 67 land children. She has American publishers and a wide overseas reputation nowadays, of course.… but ages ago, long before the war, I can remember the most entrancing game, and it would never have existed without the good grace of Edith Howes. Bedtime, and the vasty white tent your coverlets can make becomes “Mother Earth's Kitchen.” There's the frightening box where Mother Earth's henpecked husband sits patiently keeping the earthquakes down, and the mill under the sea, where salt is ground out for ever and ever, to keep the sea properly flavoured, and at least three score and ten stage properties more. If Edith Howes hadn't written “Fairy Rings,” where would they have been? And I wonder how many children, nowadays, burrow into “Mother Earth's Kitchen” after dark? Hundreds, I hope; it's a most fascinating place, especially if you have the flicker of soft light from a tiny blue-enamelled lamp to restore you to mental tranquillity when you arrive back breathless from the Earthquake Box.
Esther Glen, who wrote “Six Little New Zealanders,” “Robin of Maoriland,” and at least half-a-dozen other rather lovable books for children, was the top of a Christchurch Sun column of which I was the tail end. We both gathered paragraphs, paragraphs almost without end, funny little bits that ought to have made womenfolk laugh, touching bits intended to make them wipe their retroussé noses (delicately, of course), more formal items advising Christchurch of the prospective movements of its many and harrowing women's societies and clubs. Composite thus, we were “Penelope.” It was rather fun, and “Penelope” flourished, all the more apace, long after I left the happiest newspaper office I have ever inhabited.
Esther Glen was Children's Editor. The lady editor was a slim lass, Miss Eliot. I was a soldier of fortune, sent off one day to write up an egg-laying page 68 competition (yes, as Heaven sees me!), another to trudge miles through drenching rain to an obscure little church, whose vicar was the first thereabouts to observe the now highly popular custom of Mothering Sunday. We all, I mean the three of us, lived together not in a little crooked house, but in a little top-storey office… one telephone, and lucky if somebody downstairs didn't cut in with one of those sweet-and-low conversations publishers always hold with their news agents.
Esther Glen's books weren't written in between office hopes and burthens. She used to go up to the mountains…… a tiny, tin-roofed cottage in Arthur's Pass, lent by a friend for times when she wanted to breathe crystal air and scribble, scribble, scribble. I have been to this place. It's very lonely, and quite neglected by the Government Tourist Department people, which may explain why it's so beautiful, its white wraiths of waterfall leaping out high up on the darkest hills, glacier ice greenish-black on Mount Rolleston, a murmur of wild bees among the manuka. It was unkind of the earthquake, which shook seventy or so devils out of the little settlement to desposit on Esther's bed (fortunately vacant at the moment), an enormous boulder, a sort of Troll King discovered proudly sitting there when she returned.
A little house in a side-street just beneath Tina-kori Hills.… . I remember yellowing poplar trees there, the one day I went to tea with Eileen Duggan, who is author of “New Zealand Bird Songs” and of many other poems. As a general rule, after school-days one more or less forgets about three sorts of wings in poems—to wit, those of angels, those of fairies, those of birds—but the most hardened sceptic would either have to make an exception, as regards Eileen Duggan's poetry, or else miss so much that is lovely… the gannets, now…
“A field of lilies, a meadow of birds.”page 69
The trouble would be, if it came to criticising Eileen Duggan's poetry, from a materialistic standpoint, that she really understands that other world of which she writes… .