"Re-reading some of the very old, very first diaries has sometimes been like having a horse bite or Chinese burn inside my head …"
Stage and screen actress and writer of bonk-busters and historical fiction, Barbara Ewing admits that her memoir One Minute Crying Time almost never saw the light of day. The diaries, which she mined for this, were bundled up and ready to meet a blazing demise in a bonfire. She's been asked twice to publish a memoir and had rigidly declined both times.
"Too right! Absolutely! I just don't like those memoirs from actresses where they just write about who they worked with. I read a couple of biographies and I said, 'I will never, never, never write a book like that. When I got asked to write my own, I just screamed 'No!'"
While Ewing baulks at the idea of taking what could be seen as the easy route - writing a glossy, juicy tell-all about her life as an actress, she does offer the odd restrained glimpse into that world. She's worked with visionary nutcase film director Ken Russell, starred as the buxom lead (padded, she wryly notes) in the schlocky 1968 film Dracula Has Risen from the Grave from the iconic cult Hammer Horror stable. She auditioned for Gene Kelly, dined with Jack Palance, was Judi Dench's "standby" when Dench found out she was pregnant just before the play London Assurance and Donald Sutherland accidentally broke her rib while they were rehearsing a scene.
When she does write about this side of her life, it's laced with a scalpel-sharp wit and self-deprecating humour. She shares a review of her performance in Macbeth: "Barbara Ewing plays Lady Macbeth like an executive's wife who has lost her tranquilisers." When I read this back to her, she roars with laughter.
Ewing, who divides her time between London and New Zealand, is speaking from her small central Auckland apartment. In these strange and unusual times, meeting in person is not possible nor is – at least for the near future – a public launch of her book or actual appearances at the Auckland Writers Festival. Last Sunday, Ewing took part in the first of the AWF's online winter series instead.
She sternly wonders in her memoir who in their right mind would grant access to their inner world of adolescence in all its sentimentality and excessive self-obsession? But ever the history fanatic, Ewing happened to pick up one of the diaries before it went up in flames, started reading it and was compelled to finally tell her story.
Kicking off in the 1950s, when she is 11 going on 12 and ending in 1962 as she leaves New Zealand for Swinging 60s London to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, One Minute Crying Time is a personal story but also a fascinating and evocative document of post-war New Zealand's social and cultural history.
There's what she refers to as New Zealand's staunchly conservative society and her puritanical upbringing in a monochrome Wellington amid the austere 6 o'clock swill, but also, later a heady flurry of "big brown bottles of beer" and sherry-soaked parties, guitars, fish and chips, the thrilling new world of intimate, dark and smoky coffee bars which served real coffee, the emergence of the new youth culture, the headrush of Rock Around the Clock and a tumultuous forbidden romance. She even stumbles across a forbidden opium den in Auckland's Greys Ave.
"Oh yes! The door was open, so we poked our heads around. There were all these men on bunks, dressed in white. Nobody screamed at us to go away. We didn't know what it was and it was only later we realised when people told us," she laughs.
She writes of definitive early trips to idyllic Maungatapu, "where the sun shone and where the mānuka trees covered in dust stood silent in the heat" and where local children taught her songs in Māori, which sparked a passion for te reo. Ewing went on to study the language at university and worked as a Māori vocational guidance officer long before it was undergoing a renaissance.
"I loved the language; I loved the sound of it. You learn a language but you also learn other things [about the culture] deeply and properly."
She also writes about the accepted racism of the time. The menacing notices "No Children, No Māoris, No Dogs" slapped across boarding houses.
"It was a normalised attitude. It was hard to write that down. But I have to. I know history when I see it. New Zealand was the most puritanical place in the world."
This racism extended to Ewing when she engaged in a passionate but sometimes agonising relationship with a Māori man named in the book as Mikaere Rangi. Ewing's mother refused to accept the relationship, and Ewing and Rangi were faced with disapproval both to their faces and behind their backs.
"It wasn't done! If we'd been left alone, we could have pulled it off. You know, I didn't realise. At first I always thought, 'Poor Mikaere' but afterwards I realised it affected me as well."
She acknowledges it was a painful and drawn-out process writing her memoir and that she stopped twice.
"Do you know how awful it is to read about yourself as a teenager?"
Ewing describes herself as an "unbearable adolescent … the star of my own life" who fought with teachers, had a turbulent home life and a "byzantinely complicated" relationship with her scrupulous and frugal mother. But really, her diary entries illustrate her as being on the typical teenage roller coaster.
Reading One Minute Crying Time, it is clear that even as a young girl she was generous and empathetic towards others, but harshly self-critical. A head-prefect and bell-ringer, in one entry she describes herself as "being no good at things" - ironically, writing included. Despite the rocky dynamics at home - with her mild-mannered school-teacher father who went on to become a senior inspector of primary schools across New Zealand, and her tight-lipped mother who had a gift for science and biology - Ewing inherited her mother's drive.
Since the 1960s, Ewing has lived a dual life, spending time in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She is in New Zealand for the foreseeable future, saying she didn't expect it and doesn't even have a pair of winter boots.
Covid-19 concerns aside, Ewing acknowledges she will eventually need to reassess her living arrangements in London because her attic flat is up 71 stairs with no lift but, when she can, she intends to continue living her dual Auckland/London life.
"I could never make up my mind where I belong. I belong in both! So, I've never made the break."
When I suggest that the ending of One Minute Crying Time is actually a beginning - the start of her thrilling new life as an actress and writer in London - Ewing is adamant she is not tempted to write a second instalment.
"The diaries are packed up with friends, all ready for them to burn them in a bonfire. I give you my word!"
One Minute Crying Time (Massey University Press) is now available as an eBook with release of the hard copy ($40) scheduled for Thursday, May 14. To see Ewing in conversation with Paula Morris during the first of the AWF Winter Series, go to http://www.writersfestival.co.nz/look-and-listen/videos/