Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows
1990 Marilyn Duckworth
1990 Marilyn Duckworth
Camping on the Fault-line
Olive-green houses had had their day. Now, in the late sixties, psychedelic dwellings had sprung up in Kelburn and on the Thorndon hillside. Chocolate brown with dazzling yellow or orange trim, dark rusty red with turquoise window frames. I looked at them and shone back, quaintly cheered. I bought some dark rust-coloured paint and set to work on the asbestos sidings of our house. My stepladder wouldn't reach as far as the eaves and I had to get help from a neighbour to complete the top half. Then the paint ran out. The wall alongside the church would remain a watery green.
Harry (Seresin) was appalled at the way we were living and at once organised me a job doing publicity for Downstage Theatre for twice as much money as I earned at the Observer; which was fortuitous because the Observer was about to become defunct. The advertising salesman had failed to sell space. Young Helen and Sarah began accompanying me to Downstage opening nights. Pinter's Birthday Party, Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist. When KB Laffa's exuberant comedy, Zoo Zoo, Widdershins Zoo, was showing my father rang up and warned me—'If you're thinking of taking the girls to Zoo Zoo I thought you should know there's a scene of simulated intercourse.' The play was about six young people in a Midlands flat, one of them an American draft dodger and all of them busily making love not war. My girls had already seen it and loved it. I didn't, however, think of taking them to the Late Night Show—Knackers and later Knockers, starring Paul Holmes, John Banas and John Clarke.
Downstage was then in the draughty Star Boating Club. Harry's tiny office gave onto the storeroom of the kitchen. He told me he had to stamp his feet before he went through this room at night, to discourage the rats. The food was protected in cages. Downstage had begun life in an old café on the corner of Courtenay Place, the brain child of actors Tim Elliott and Martyn Sanderson, poet and actor Peter Bland, and Harry, who had promoted the idea of serving dinner before the show. It caused some headaches not usually associated with theatre management but made Downstage certainly unique.
One of the pleasures of doing publicity for Downstage was being allowed to attend rehearsals. For years I had borrowed playscripts from the library because I found them as rewarding to read as novels. Now I watched them come to life, beginning to hatch like peacocks. You Know I Can't Hear You While the Water's Running. The Bacchae. Eduardo Manet's The Nuns. Three Months Gone. I tried to make myself invisible. Sunny Amey would hover, one hand poised above her script like a baton. Nola Millar sat, watchful under her beret, with a bag of humbugs on the seat beside her.
Bill Austin, head of Radio and Television Drama, bought another TV play I had called A Jelly Fish in Summer—but told me they didn't currently have the actresses capable of doing it justice. '. . . is the kind of play that would be very hazardous to present just at this time. However, it could very page 60 easily be a viable proposition at some time in the future.' I wondered if it was a little raunchy for the times. They had looked askance at my suggestion for a series set in a venereal diseases clinic. I went on to write a number of television scripts, for Section Seven, and for a series that never eventuated, but which brought me in some substantial money.
Harry loved my children and said so, but I wasn't ready to be charmed by this approach a second time. Harry and I became lovers and the best of friends, always, but it didn't happen in a hurry. Meanwhile he courted me with cases of peaches, driving me in his Triumph two-seater, telling me the stories of his life while I hung washing on the line. I told him some of my stories and he listened with mournful attention, sometimes exploding with sympathetic laughter. He took the children to the park so that I could do some writing. I learned that he was a special person, thoughtful and brimming with ideas.
He could see what was good about living in New Zealand, his adopted country, and yet he was sometimes dejected by the same drabness which had depressed me when I came back to Wellington after living in London. He talked nostalgically about 'dancing and singing in the streets', which there was none of in Wellington in the sixties, and he yearned for more non-conformist behaviour. I remembered an occasion back in 1962 when he had made his coffee gallery available for a special meeting organised by poet Tony (Anton) Vogt, who shared the same disappointment as Harry in our 'welfare society'. Tony had invited writers, musicians, artists, to this meeting with the intention of starting an exciting new magazine. There must have been about thirty of us. Jim Baxter, musician Douglas Lilburn, myself and others, ranging from humble to smug. We had been surprised and disappointed when Tony Vogt decided within weeks to leave the country and the project died. A lot of people were angry at the critical views Tony expressed in a farewell radio interview. Monte Holcroft wrote in a Listener editorial: 'Mr Vogt will no doubt be able to find a place where the people are joyful and where his own ebullience will cause no surprise. But he may need to be careful. In New Zealand he has been free to speak his mind on a variety of subjects; indeed we are all richer because he has had strong opinions and has expressed them vigorously . . .'
I enjoyed the vigour of Harry's expression. I wrote to Fleur expressing my surprise that I had become involved with him. He was so different from the kind of man I had been attracted to in the past. I was pleased with myself for not repeating old patterns—if this was a mistake, it was a new one.
Harry and I went with Sunny Amey and Bob Lord to a satirical revue at the university—One In Five. The title was based on a provocative statement by psychiatrist Fraser MacDonald that 'one in five New Zealanders are mad'. Dave Smith had written the catchy title song. He and Roger Hall and John Clarke were responsible for most of the skits. Watching this revue I suddenly recognised that I had become a genuine New Zealander without really noticing. I wrote an article in the Listener: '. . . leaning back in laughter at this country which I had never quite acknowledged, like a de facto relationship, page 61 I had a new feeling about it . . . Because I have lived [in Wellington] for more than 20 years, the place is full of ghosts for me, some of them malignant but mostly not. With the coming of the motorway the city seems to move under me like a quicksand—streets removing themselves overnight, buildings enlarging and soaring. While the bulldozers busily erase I superstitiously mark the spot, until the city becomes a kind of private scrapbook. The people—they are another thing. I cannot relegate them to a scrapbook. My shared experiences of their peculiarities joins me in a bond with the rest of the Wellington population . . . not until now had I recognised in [New Zealand]'s familiar, sometimes drab landscapes—myself. What tremendous cheek led me to set myself apart from all this?'
Wellington had had its eccentric personalities as long as I had lived there. There was the Eccles family, wizen-faced Mum and the two grown-up sons who didn't seem to work but had money to go to the continuous 'pictures'. They shambled in long, shabby, mud-coloured coats and worn shoes, like creatures from the lost lagoon. There was the gentleman who always wore a hat and pin-striped suit and twirled a walking stick. He talked to himself in plummy tones and would stop to salute the DIC. Lizzie and I as schoolgirls would encounter 'the birdman' who would put his hands together and warble like a canary. He was delighted when we stopped to listen and began to sing: 'Two little girls in blue!' We were wearing our Queen Margaret College royal blue uniforms. These were all personalities we indulged with a fondness which was possessive. They were ours.
'Camping on the Faultline' is an extract from an autobiography in progress.
Marilyn Duckworth, OBE, fiction writer and poet, was born in Auckland but has lived mainly in Wellington. Her first novel, A Gap in the Spectrum (1959), was published when she was twenty-three; her fifth, Disorderly Conduct (1984), won a New Zealand Book Award. She has been awarded the Scholarship in Letters three times, the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in 1980 and a Fulbright Scholarship in 1987. She has held fellowships at Victoria and Auckland universities. In 1996 Leather Wings was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers Prize. In that year she edited a book on New Zealand writing sisters—Cherries on a Plate. Her thirteenth novel, Studmuffin, appeared in 1997.