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

Janet McAllister: Fitting memorial to master storyteller

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Margaret Mahy - loved by babies, adolescent goths and academics alike. Photo / Martin Hunter
Margaret Mahy - loved by babies, adolescent goths and academics alike. Photo / Martin Hunter

Spotted peeking around the banister at the Storylines Margaret Mahy memorial at the Town Hall last Saturday afternoon: a bewhiskered lion, whose much-loved, pumpkin-coloured feline suit possibly belonged to his mummy or daddy once upon a time. Further along was another wee lad, looking like the lion's meadow, all covered in spikes of green cardboard. And further down ... someone in (ahem) a Spider-Man costume. The Spider in the Shower perhaps, or the "spider seven inches long" found Down the Back of the Chair?

The grown-up attendees included a pirate with a pink bob. A witch with orange curls. A green tam-o'-shanter accompanying a tartan cap. The good-sport ushers wore Mahy's trademark rainbow coiffure, which clashed beautifully with their black-and-wine Edge uniforms. One accessorised his with a beard.

Funnily enough, the pre-memorial slideshow of Mahy photos didn't include any of her own celebrated wigs but goodness me, it showed what an unconventionally attractive woman she was, with her long face, strong jaw and off-centre nose.

Her mother might once have told her that she had the right face for a witch costume - but what a wonderful-looking witch.

"No doubt she's having a great time in that great piratical rumbustification up in the sky," said writer Tim Tipene, who performed the opening mihi.

A "story of Margaret Mahy" was narrated by her literary biographer, Tessa Duder, interspersed with tributes and items performed by schoolchildren and Tim Bray Productions. It's true that proceedings were too long for the little ones - but how to cram in everything about a writer whose work is loved by babies, adolescent goths and academics who quote post-Freudian psychologists when analysing her novels? A writer who's inspired everyone from The Muttonbirds to Weta Workshop creatives?

There were amusing tidbits: "her application to become a policewoman was politely and mercifully declined," said Duder. Librarian Mahy poked fun at overdue fines (Auckland Libraries, doing damage with your debt collector threats, take note).

Writer William Taylor reminisced about Mahy's ability to discuss New Scientist articles and television wrestling in the same conversation. Hairy Maclary's Lynley Dodd mentioned she still has a message from Mahy on her answerphone: "And as Margaret is someone impossible to erase, there she is likely to stay."

Yet Mahy's own celebration of the fleeting also infused the event. Actor Geraldine Brophy - in red and white stripes - lent her lovely rich, fruity voice to The Bridge Builder, an enchanting and wise tale in which the title character insists that "none of my bridges are intended to last forever". Children's literature scholar Betty Gilderdale quoted The Five Sisters: "Nothing's really lost ... It just changes. Everything changes. Cinderella changed, and so did Snow White. Stories should end by saying ... and they changed happily ever after."

At the end was a video of Mahy herself reciting Down the Back of the Chair. Dr Libby Limbrick of the Storylines Trust - whose free family day is at Aotea Centre next Sunday, August 26 - had to wipe the tears away before closing the memorial. As many of us did, seeing the empty, neon-apricot storytelling chair.

Change happily forever, Margaret.

- NZ Herald

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