Sport 28: Autumn 2002
A keynote address at the Stout Research Centre conference
Loaded Canons: Discourse and Power in Aotearoal New Zealand,
Victoria University of Wellington, 1 December 2001
I became conscious of the idea of great books at about the same time I learned to read; not, however, through my reading, or schooling, but because I was present when my father first began to try to form my older sister's tastes and habits. When she was about seven Mary was having difficulties at school. The school sought the help of an educational psychologist, who gave my sister IQ tests. It turned out that she was very bright. The school thought this was a satisfactory explanation for her social difficulties—of course it wasn't, but I'm not going to go into that. The school gave her free range of the library and, in a revolutionary step, let her make models with the boys, instead of sewing with the girls. Dad's reaction was to begin to try to broaden Mary's mind and horizons. She was taken to operas. She sat with him in our lounge appreciating music (though she was tone deaf). He began to tell her about the great books, and the great writers. You have to imagine this process of education, and acculturation, taking place, fitfully, over years. I sat in the background and listened. I noticed that Dad's great books were in his shelves, but weren't the books he was reading. I wanted to read the books he was reading—particularly after trying Don Quixote when I was eight. I wanted to know what Mum had enjoyed (she scarcely ever read when we were young). Mum talked about making her sisters keep the light on while she finished Anne Of Green Gables. She swooped on the shelves of my Uncle Keith's bach to hand me books by Maurice Walsh and Raphael Sabatini. (When I was in my teens I used to buy these myself on the musty mezzanine floor of a bookshop in town. They are long out of print, but can still be encountered in a canonical form—because there are many canons, page 118 and canons within canons—in John Ford's The Quiet Man, with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, and Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood with Errol Flynn.)
Mary resisted Dad's efforts to educate her; she had her own enthusiasms. (It's my younger sister Sara who is slowly transferring his vinyl to CD, and can sing bits of the Saint Matthew Passion.) I began to read his books—though not those he was particularly insistent about.
When I was eleven I had my first important—life altering—encounters with canonical works. Trying to interpret page after page of Don Quixote didn't count, even though some of it sank in, as a nightmare of sun and colourful monsters. No—there were two things that happened to me, that made me first begin to imagine that I might want to be a writer, one of Dad's exalted beings. The first thing was one of Dad's other books, The Silver Locusts, an early edition of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. The other was a trip for the seniors at Paremata School. We were bused to Cannon's Creek school hall, where there was a screening of Olivier's Henry V. There were four classes of kids in the hall, two from Paremata and two from Cannon's Creek. We were happy to be at the movies, and the screening began well. But after about five minutes kids became restive, and then gradually worked up through restiveness, to noise, to crawling under seats, running in the aisle and general riot. But there were a few who sat still and stared at the screen. I was one of them. If you recall that film—and I haven't seen it since I was eleven—it opens in the Globe Theatre, with the audience sometimes haranguing the actors, then moves out of the theatre into studio rooms, then at one point there's a shot of a long column of soldiers marching off into the vanishing point of a painted backdrop. By the time they're at Agincourt the actors are in the open air. Then the film slowly closes down into artifice again, and ends in the Globe. That's what I remember. I remember because it struck me at the time with terrific force. And so did the language—of which what I was able to take in was the heroic self-assertion of its characters, and I mean the little people too; they opened their mouths and appeared. I remember that I went home and responded to the feelings I had about the film by painting, over months, a whole series of pictures page 119 of battles. Dad bought me a box of oil paints and suggested that I might like to be an artist.
Three years later I began to write poetry, as teenagers often do. Then one day, when I was sixteen, my father wandered in on a discussion between me and my sisters and my friend Carol about a treaty between two countries in our imaginary world, the world of a game we invented and had been playing, then, for five years. Dad listened for a time to our thoughts on the consequences of the treaty—it was a secret treaty—and then said, ‘I hope you're writing this down.’ We'd never thought to do that. I had a little notebook in which I kept census figures, names, ages, family affiliations of characters, but that's all. We remembered its history. It was an oral history. But writing things down was a novel idea. We all tried it—and I liked it. And a short while later I announced to my family that I was going to become a writer, a novelist. And Dad, who'd started me, who had said, ‘I hope you're writing this down’, whose books I'd read, who always talked as if being a writer was the best, most commendable possible aspiration, spent the next several years trying to discourage me. Who did I think I was? There wasn't any point in being a writer unless one could be a great writer. There were no great women writers (and when I went in search of the people not represented in his bookshelves, turned up some great women writers and volunteered Virginia Woolf, Dad said: ‘She may have been a great writer, but she was a bad wife’).
That's the head of my talk; its body is a selection of excerpts from my journals (and one from my sister Mary's diary).
Dated between 1976—about three months after I first began to write prose, of my own, not school essays—and 1986—several months before I finished writing After Z-Hour and Bill Manhire gave it to Victoria University Press—these excerpts show what thoughts I had, or conversations I recorded, around the subject of canons. Thoughts about wanting to join a literature; about what kind of literature was there to be joined; what other people thought about it, or said they thought; about what one should write, and what one wants to write.