Meme by Meme Churton
David Ling $39.99

Summarising Meme Churton's life is like trying to bottle Niagara. She was born in Italy, to one of her dashing Chinese father's several mistresses. She grew up in Trieste in World War II, saw Allied airmen land in trees and Jews loaded into railway wagons.

She lost her virginity during an air raid. She's not coy about this. She's not coy about anything. She watched "filthy" Yugoslavian troops terrorise the area, then headed for China, where she acquired a variety of qualifications and lovers.

Mao's troops entered Shanghai while she was there. After another lover, it was time for New Zealand, and Jock the New Zealand intelligence officer she'd met back in Italy.

New Zealand had no servants, no snakes, no style. The trains and hairdressing salons were primitive; the underwear unattractive; the coffee undrinkable. But it did have safety and sincerity, and she valued both of those.


Indeed, Churton was and is a woman with definite views. Those views range from strong to strident. New Zealand in the 1950s was so dull, people didn't realise they were bored. Kiwi males had/have little idea of how to flirt and flatter. Kiwi male academics had/have little idea of how to dress.

There's truth - some truth - in such statements. Plus it's always salutary to prick convention and complacency. But a few more nuances of opinion, a little more acknowledgement of other viewpoints might have helped turn this spirited narrative into a significant one.

Anyway, Mrs Jock, as she was by then, set off with husband and (after a bit) baby daughter on a spot of OE. Three years, in Japan, Brazil, Europe: what an odyssey for the times.

Back they came, to a flat in Devonport. Jock began to rise in the Fletcher's empire. Meme began to give ikebana classes to Remuera ladies at Smith & Caughey's. She helped start what was probably Auckland's first "real" coffee bar: Ca d'Oro in Customs St. She ran Symonds St's Ikons Art Gallery.

In her spare time (ha, ha) she met everyone from Martin Finlay to Jock Barnes, Allen Curnow to Pat Hanly. She tutored at the University of Auckland, looked after a difficult father-in-law for 28 years, supported the fashion world, the Italian expatriate community, the mah-jong club. She became an inspiring parent and grandparent. A Tiger Mother? A tiger would flee from her in terror.

There are descriptions of Auckland and New Zealand life and attitudes from the 40s, 50s, 60s, that will have you nodding in recognition. There are comments on our endemic racism that remain unsettlingly relevant. There's prodigious drive and many achievements.

There's also a breath-catching lack of discretion. A fair number of people in this book are dead now - and they may feel relieved about that.

You won't be bored by Meme. You'll shake your head with amazement and admiration. And, perhaps, with other emotions.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.