Sir James McNeish reminiscing through other eyes

By Carroll du Chateau

Carroll du Chateau talks to writer James McNeish about the people who fuelled his memoir.

'I'm very bad at learning from books and seem to need direct experience before things hit through and my brain starts.' - Sir McNeish. Photo / Supplied
'I'm very bad at learning from books and seem to need direct experience before things hit through and my brain starts.' - Sir McNeish. Photo / Supplied

"I don't like writing about myself," says Sir James McNeish, the rounded vowels he acquired at the BBC rolling down the phone from Wellington. "I don't find myself that interesting. But when my editor, Harriet Allan, came down and we were talking, Helen [his wife] said, 'why don't you look at [your life] through the eyes of the people that were important to you?"'

For McNeish, that was the key. He began writing his memoir, using as his touchstones the diverse bunch of people who had made an impact on his life. Their stories, as distinct from his, he says, made the project infinitely more interesting.

For the reader, 80-year-old McNeish's own story is a joy. A major figure in New Zealand literature, who did it all the old-fashioned way, working his way to Europe as a deckhand on a Norwegian ship, learning the craft of writing on the job, McNeish is one of our most decorated novelists and biographers. His writing is masterful, his attention to detail and his ear for long-ago conversations extraordinary.

Most of all, he writes with an emotion that touches the spirit.

"There are two great joys in life," he says. "Talking to yourself and, at the same time, talking to a crowd."

Writer Spiro Zavos, who met him at Suzy's coffee bar in 1970s Wellington, describes him as "a most charming mentor with a beautiful speaking voice, considered and interesting opinions on many matters and what I would describe as the handsome face of a Renaissance prince".

Effortlessly, it seems, McNeish carries us back to the reading room of the New Zealand Herald of the 1950s when he was arts editor. One night, the normally taciturn night cable editor, Ted Landon, talked non-stop about the glories of Sicily. "Do you know that Sicilian cauliflowers are purple? A true van Gogh purple."

Landon also warned him it was time to get out. "I shall be here forever ... Don't wait too long." Two years later McNeish was in Sicily, "and my life as a writer began".

Other touchstones describe the inner workings of the BBC when radio connected the world (and paid enough for one feature to keep a writer going for 18 months); when his friend and mentor Joan Littlewood's Theatre Royale was at the risk-taking edge of London drama. Now, says McNeish, the Theatre Royale is the only historic building left "sitting there in a sea of glass" created for the Olympics.

Another touchstone is McNeish's non-violent activist hero, Sicilian Danilo Dolci, who near-starved himself to death for his anti-Mafia cause.

Jack Dillon, who was BBC features editor in the 60s, is my favourite touchstone. "Jack taught me to smile into the microphone," writes McNeish. "'Come to Daddy,' Jack would say." Dillon also taught him to open his mouth. "To pause. To inflect and to smile. Also to edit, write concisely, ignore rules."

Dillon thought so highly of the youngster he compared him with the legendary Dan Davin: "Davin's a genius, Davin's got squareness, harmony, form. But beyond? He hasn't got what Plato called f***ing CLARITAS. You, McNeish, are on the verge of it. Daddy will give it to you."

For a young writer who had not come up through the great universities, nor run with the intellectual elite like the Oxford scholars he wrote about in Dance Of The Peacocks, being favourably compared with Davin was high praise.

Dillon would have been proud of the way McNeish finishes the chapter: "Francis Edward Juan Dillon ... a snuff-taker, mimic, broadcaster, drinker, and individualist. He was, though he would have resisted the term, intensely collegiate. He was my Oxford."

McNeish admits, "I'm very bad at learning from books and seem to need direct experience before things hit through and my brain starts." He pauses, and puzzles about whether this need to learn-on-the-job is one of the traits that forms the New Zealand character. "I don't think many writers, if any, have explored this in their writing."

The book's second half describes McNeish's life after he arrived back from Europe for good and in 1967 settled at Te Maika, out from Kawhia, in the house Aunt Jean, his "Maori aunt", had left him. He'd seen the house, standing high on the hill in a dream. It was his destiny.

Te Maika answered McNeish's need for quiet. Even then, when he first arrived he couldn't write. "I had to move into my aunt's old jam shed, which had no view of any kind. Ever since, I have written facing a blank wall." Two years later, after a courtship that built to "writing 10-15-page letters to each other on an almost daily basis," McNeish was joined by his Czech Bohemian wife, Helen.

He wrote "seven to eight" books over 15 years on that lonely sandspit in the teeth of the howling westerly. "But we could always find a corner out of the wind and there were five beaches," says McNeish. "We lived on $8 a week for groceries." They left only when the mailboat stopped running.

Despite the remoteness, the couple travelled widely. "If you live on an island and don't have money and want to travel, you've got to have a project," says McNeish. "I went to Papua to make a programme for the BBC and other things followed. I've done that all my life. If you haven't got a project, invent one."

His projects are endless and surprising: his memory for things that happened even 50 years ago, amazingly fresh.

"Music's my memory in many ways," he says. "Some people remember by sight. I remember by sound." Then there are the diaries he's kept for most of his life. "They're a wonderful tool, especially for recording what someone says."

On the other hand, he is wary of over-researching. He "quite sedulously" puts his notes aside and lets the novelist take over: "It's probably rather good that I veer towards fiction. It's quite good to give space to your imagination. If you rely on diaries, you're shot."

Touchstones: A Memoir (Vintage $29.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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