Elizabeth Knox

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Margaret Mahy, Hero

I first met Margaret Mahy  when I was working in the shop in the old National Museum, Buckle Street. I met her in The Haunting, then, the very next day, in The Changeover. I was too old to have read Margaret’s picture books as a child, and I sometimes think what it would have been like to have gone on missing her until I had Jack, to whom I read The Lion in the Meadow, and The Boy who was Followed Home, and The Great White Man-eating Shark. As it was, when I was twenty-five I took up reading young adult literature again (after giving it up fourteen as being something I should grow out of). My renascence began when I picked up Diana Wynne Jones’s A Charmed Life in a fifty-cent stack in a second-hand bookstore. I’d plunged back into those books and was reading Diana Wynne Jones and Robert Westall, William Mayne and Antonia Forest and Cynthia Voigt. One Saturday morning in the shop I was unpacking book boxes and found a pile of hardbacks of The Changeover. I loved the cover–that dark, sombre-faced girl holding up an old coin, or token. That cover sang “heroine” and “magic”.

Cheryl said, “You are probably going to want to read the other one first,” and passed me The Haunting. (I still don’t know whether she thought that the two stories were related, or whether she just wanted to make sure I started with the book she had already read and enjoyed.) I took The Haunting home and read it that night, holding it with very clean hands, peering into its right-angled pages, careful not to crease the spine–all of which meant I could return it to the shop looking untouched. I consumed The Haunting, and took The Changeover home the following night.

It is difficult to describe the impact of that reading. I loved The Haunting and The Changeover like I loved Diana Wynne Jones–without yet understanding how lucky I’d been to encounter those two writers so early in my young adult reading. I loved Wynne Jones, but with Margaret I understood I’d met a writer who was for me. She was a New Zealander and, reading those two books, I felt that she was building a room in New Zealand literature where I wanted to go, be, hang out, get comfortable. I’d read Maurice Gee and Katherine Mansfield, Patricia Grace and Janet Frame–my big four–and I felt their presence as explorers. They’d gone off in various directions and hammered in their boundary pegs in places that felt less hospitable to me. Margaret’s boundary peg was a spar, standing upright in the sand of a sheltered cove, flying the salty remnants of a black flag, and with sea-pink growing around its base.

After that first encounter I read everything I could find, the picture books in stock in our well-stocked shop, and everything in the Wellington Public Library. I bought the YA books as they came out–in hardback–and this was when I was a poor student, so the book-buying was quite a commitment. I didn’t feel I had to own Wynne Jones; but I had to own Mahy. I can remember my excitement when I found one of her speeches, about reading and writing, the first piece of writing by her I’d read that was intended for an adult audience–an audience of librarians and scholars. I remember hitting myself on the head a few times with the literary magazine it appeared in, and then hiding my eyes in the open book. It was Margaret’s thinking that I wanted to be able to beat into myself, or isolate myself with. Her thinking–always unusual, and always right. How did she do it? How could she always seem to take a different tack and still always head in the right direction? (By this time I was beginning to see that, at least for me, Margaret’s boundary marker was in two pieces, and in numerous places. Part of it was buried in the sand in that friendly cove, the other was still attached to a roving vessel, somewhere over the horizon, still flying its black flag, and picking up any treasure it could find.)

So–that was me–working part-time in the Museum shop, reading Mahy, and writing my own novel, which was a ghost story, but not a young adult book. Then After Z-Hour was published and, lo and behold, Margaret Mahy reviewed it for the Listener.

At the time of the publication of my first novel I was both a newly published and a novice writer–still a novice because I wasn’t fully literate. I might have been the daughter of an editor, and have attended one or two PEN parties as a young person. I might have seen Witi Ihimaera hiding behind a piano, and a sozzled Denis Glover kissing my sixteen-year-old sister–seen writer antics–but the writing life I imagined was one where I got to talk to other writers about writing. I figured that since Margaret had reviewed my book she’d know I was a real writer and it would therefore not be too rude or forward of me to invite her to have a cup of tea with me when I was in Christchurch with my husband at a Booksellers Conference. It was 1988. Margaret came to our hotel at two in the afternoon when Fergus was at a seminar, and we had tea and cakes in my room. She was friendly and nervous. I was a starstruck mess of shyness, enthusiasm, and entitlement. She had a cold. At one point she fished in her sleeve for a tissue and pulled out a teabag. She looked at it. I looked at it. We both laughed and, after that, settled into a conversation about writing–which would have been far more satisfying for her I’m sure if I had written more and really knew something!

Margaret was always very kind, and she had time for people, for readers and teachers, librarians and people running international conferences on this and that. She had time for fellow writers (even youthfully callow fellow writers). She liked to meet people and talk to them, but she did say to me, years later, that when she did “too much”–being available, pleasing people, being loved, feted, owned–she’d sometimes feel raw and skinned and would take a long time to settle back into herself, her true self, her born writer’s solitary, savage self.

So, there I was, probably providing her with some pleasure and entertainment, but blithely and thoughtlessly taking up her time. It never occurred to me.

Soon after, Cheryl decided that it would be a very fine thing if the Museum shop could bring Margaret up for a weekend reading in the Theaterette. “You’ve met her, you can ask her.” I called Margaret up and asked, and she said yes (as she invariably did). “And you can stay with us,” I added.

“I be delighted to,” she said.

That is how Fergus and I came to be entertaining Margaret–having her all to ourselves–at dinner, at our dilapidated flat. The bed she was offered was sitting on bricks (low beds were in vogue and all my friends were removing their bed legs. Besides–well–bed legs creaked so, and we were all in flats with thin walls…). 246 The Terrace, the top back flat, was leaky and draughty, and had torn curtains and a loose weatherboard that went “Thwang, Thwang” all night in a northerly.

I feel astonished and rueful looking back on this. But I think how good Margaret was writing about these things–the things that young people just don’t see, with their sharp senses and vigour and appetite. She could write for the young–and gently and coaxingly against them too. Her books love their young heroes’ capacity, but almost all of those young heroes are, at some point in the story, innocently hardhearted towards their elders.

That night was one of the first of a very few long conversations I had with Margaret. Like most of them it was shared. (There were others, very rewarding, shared with Kate De Goldi, and Yvonne Mackay’s cousin Denise, a Christchurch photographer, and with my infant son Jack and her infant granddaughter Alice on our legs in a cafe, kept quiet by being fed bits of rosemary roasted potato, but nevertheless gradually covering us with grease till Margaret was looking at me through glasses stippled with tiny fingerprints.)

What was it like to have a conversation with Margaret?

She was widely and deeply read, and curious. But that only describes her habits of acquiring the world, not how her mind worked. Her mind was astonishing (a word she loved). People have remarked on her feeling for myth. But what she had a feeling for was significance. She saw possibilities for meaning, for story, in the way ideas fitted together, not mechanically, but as if this thought and that would suddenly seem subject to the same gravity, as if the way things fell together revealed the star they belonged to–the shining star, or the obscure one, whose only energy is gravity. This meaning-seeing and making was simultaneously playful and serious. It seems to me that her thinking and her work never sought to find a balance between fun and seriousness, fancy and portent. The opposing qualities just partnered-up, and wobbled, and danced. Margaret could say so much, and do so much, with one stroke of the tongue or pen. For instance, I remember yelling with joy at the line in The Pirates’ Mixed-up Voyage concerning the philosophical position of the parrot given to intoning “Doom and destiny!” With just four or five lines she produced 1) a very funny joke, and 2) a deeply felt personal worldview, and 3) a potted history of Western philosophy in all its sober nuttiness. I mean–this was a book for 8 to 11 year olds and it clearly came out of the same mind that, in The Changeover, spends a certain amount of time–a bit too long for comfort–contemplating the terror of the death of a child. Talking to Margaret I always had the sense that there were things she had made up her mind about for the purposes of transmitting helpful and thoughtful views to her readers, and that, beyond that, the generative and noticing imagination that came up with the thoughts was always turning up as many monsters and paradoxes, and that those monsters and paradoxes drove her as much as her kindness and wisdom and generosity led her.

At some point in that evening in 1988 Fergus and I became conscious of the wind snoring through the taped-over gaps in the lounge windows, and the curtains puffing and strutting. What nerds we were, inviting the celebrated writer to stay because it might be nice for her to have conversation about books and writing. So we nervously began to tell her about the flat, which was in this state of dilapidation because it was part of the long-disputed estate of the madam who had run most of the brothels in World War II Wellington. “This was once a brothel,” we proudly said. The wind got up even more and the unsecured weatherboard began its thumping. We apologised again and Margaret said how appropriate it would be to have a disturbed night in an old brothel because of a loose bawd.

Oh, she would pounce upon a pun! No pun had any hope of escaping her catlike attention. She’d make a joke, and then laugh at it herself–and her laugh–croaky, deep, warm, piratical–always urged everyone else to laugh even more.

It’s hard to describe what she was like to listen to. What she’d say–you can get the tenor of that by reading the talks and essays in A Dissolving Ghost. But the thing was, she could talk like that off the cuff with only a little less structure and polish. I think of the many times I’ve seen her on stage, in conversation or being interviewed. While her manner always put people at ease, because, whoever she was talking to, she’d treat them the same–or perhaps it was that she’d find exactly the right level to communicate and still be the authentic Margaret. However, in those interviews or staged conversations I did sometimes see her interlocutor (great word) ask a question and realise that they were about to receive a peroration rather than an answer. Margaret’s talk would go out wide, springing away from the question like a bird leading a predator away from its nest. But she’d always answer the question, and give the answer the question deserved and required. She didn’t make points, she made maps. She didn’t do soundbites, and following her thinking was often like following the flight of a bird through a forest to find that the bird isn’t being birdy–no, the bird is a little god that stitching the forest together.

While I’ve been writing this I’ve gone to my shelves to find books I need: The Changeover and The Pirates’ Mixed-up Voyage and The Other Side Of Silence (my favourite book of hers). They are missing. Who has them? Really, who has them? And I’ve been delving into my files to find letters. I found one to a friend describing how “the best thing about our trip to Christchurch was meeting Margaret Mahy”. “She came to our hotel room with her daughter Bridget, and Bridget’s being there prevented me from too much gushing admiration, because I was worried I might embarrass them both.” And I’ve found letters from Margaret–letters that are models of Margaretness–so keen and kind.

I’m thinking of her laugh, her hats, her dogs and cats, her winter coughs, her knitted coats, her rainbow wig, and very imposing penguin suit. I’m thinking of her long sentences and pithy quips; of the rose window of the top bedroom or her flat in Cranmer Square; of her empty refrigerator, of her very model of a modern Major General and, in the same vein, her virtuoso “Bubble Trouble”, and the loving rapture in her grandson Harry’s eyes when he watched to perform it at the launch of Tessa Duder’s book.

Charles Dickens was probably Margaret’s favourite writer. So I’m also thinking of the beginning of David Copperfield: “Whether I’ll turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Margaret had absorbed and understood the whimsy and seriousness of that. I am curious to know what she decided about it, if anything, towards the end of her life in regards to herself, especially since so much of her idea of a large and full life was one with a great measure of something self-forgetting–her story-telling and writing. But, anyway, I can say with certainty that she was one of the great heroes of my life. Of our lives.

From a letter, May 1991.

“I expect your house in Aurora Terrace really feels like home now. But houses can be altered so easily. I have just acquired a puppy and it makes me think of the house differently, as a series of dog places and non-dog places, depending on the time of day. Nothing stands still for long, even when it has foundations and four walls.”






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