Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Trailblazer had time for a chuckle

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Christine Cole Catley took it for granted that women journalists would do the same job as men. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Christine Cole Catley took it for granted that women journalists would do the same job as men. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It's a memorable mouthful, "Christine Cole Catley", all that consonance, so suitable for a literary (and literal) Dame. I first saw the name when I was a newbie Metro editorial assistant, and noticed that it kept popping up in many different contexts: the Sargeson Trust, certain books we were reviewing, parenting history and ... Indonesia? I was fascinated: who was she, this omnipresent woman I'd never heard of?

I was told she was a publisher and writer, but it would have been more accurate to say she was a general force in New Zealand letters and society over 60-odd years. She was a down-to-earth doyenne, and most recently, a North Shore nexus. She knew everybody over three or four generations - and approved enthusiastically of most - from Douglas Lilburn to Rena Owen ("a most determined woman, very funny. I like Rena a great deal"); Janet Frame to "lovely, lovely" Ranginui Walker; Denis Glover to Kevin Milne to James K. Baxter (and his mother).

She's done too much to even start listing here but, after her death at age 88 last Sunday (writing and publishing to the last), many of her achievements have been listed elsewhere. For Cole Catley belongs to a certain category of people whom I admire enormously, and facetiously canonise into a "Renaissance Pantheon": people who have the talent, but more importantly, the curiosity and the energy to be Of-All-Trades. Who aren't satisfied with fitting into one box and staying there.

They're the type of people whom Catley herself, far less pretentiously, called "good all-rounders". She used the phrase several times when I interviewed her last year - to describe C.K. Stead for example: "He's exceptionally all-round gifted, is Karl, his poetry, his short stories, his critiques and essays".

She laughed long and loud when I asked about the notoriously complicated Stead. She and he went back a long way, to when Stead and Cole Catley's first husband John Reece Cole were in Frank Sargeson's inner circle. She told an anecdote: in an excellent profile available on the Listener website, Diana Wichtel wrote last year that Cole Catley would have made "a very literate and charming Sherman tank". Stead's next email to Cole Catley commenced, "Dear Sherman tank". "He's so bloody funny," chuckled the tank.

I found her very gracious and welcoming, surrounded by New Zealand art in her warm home. She was a trailblazer in journalism who just took it for granted that women reporters would be allowed to do what the men did - things like going to court and covering fires at night. "I must have been quite dumb not to realise what I was up against," she joked. But did anybody try to grind her down? "I think they were amazed by my cheek," she said.

It's not often one gets to meet a personal hero, and a hero to whom one owes a professional debt to boot. Even better, I found out she was not only admirable but a lot of good fun. As a female journalist, may I just say: thanks, cheeky Chris.

- NZ Herald

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