When comedian Michele A’Court asked 42 couples how they met, she watched them fall for each other all over again. Kim Knight reports on the power of a good love story.

Michele A'Court lives in the trees. Scattery end-of-summer light shifts across her second-storey deck and she lists the frequent fliers. Kereru, ruru, tui. Of them all, she loves the tui best.

"This probably sounds silly, but it matters to me. The only difference between the male and the female is size. They've both got beautiful plumage. I get slightly incensed that blackbirds are called blackbirds, when the female is brown. It's the male that says what they're called and it's so sexist."

A is for A'Court. Go-to Feminist and Female Commentator Of Choice.

"I guess it has got a bit like that," she says. "But I quite like it. I'm just a bit mouthy about women's issues. There's this wonderful thing that does happen when you get to be over 50, that you maybe have a little bit more time, because you're not a hands-on parent. You've got some time to talk and think and read and get involved in those discussions again. I really do feel like once you've hit 50, you find your voice again."


It would be lovely, she says, if that happened sooner.

The day after this interview is International Women's Day. McDonald's will digitally flip its
golden arches to read like a "W". KFC will momentarily replace Colonel Sanders with his wife, Claudia. Dame Margaret Bazley will be named as the head of an external review into incidents of sexual harassment at law firm Russell McVeagh.

The day after this interview, A'Court will host the New Zealand Festival's Writers and Readers gala opening. The stand-up comedian is still scripting, but here's a line she thinks she might keep: "There is a tear in the fabric of the patriarchy and we're going to push on through and change the culture."

It's three years since A'Court released Stuff I Forgot to Tell My Daughter. The blurb on the back cover says: "Every middle-aged woman wants to say in a firm, clear, loving voice to every young woman: 'I have been you. But you haven't been me, yet. You should listen.'"

In 2018: "Those young women, they're so feisty. I love it. And that's invigorated me, too".

Because the world can be shitty. Because you can be a comedian invited to MC an event a few years back and some man there will tell you he used to masturbate while watching you host children's television show What Now and he still does it when you're on 7 Days and tonight is his lucky night because — ba-da-ba-boom — he'll get to see you twice.

So there's a new book. And clear instructions for the reader.

"I want them to feel the world is quite often a kind and loving place and that it's possible to find your happy place in it with someone if you want.


"Because the world is quite complicated and difficult and there's a lot of anger and hate all over social media and the White House and it can be quite a scary time. On a global level, we've got trade wars and nuclear weapons and on a personal level, you've got #MeToo and Time's Up. And I think, back in October, when Me Too happened, that was quite a painful time for lots of women. It was painful, because we all knew what we've hidden. We all knew what we didn't tell."

That serial masturbator? A'Court was invited back to a second event. She said no. Her agent said right, we'll tell them you're not available, and we won't put a woman forward for it.

And A'Court went: "F***, who loses? I lose the opportunity to work and so do the potential women who could do that job. There's got to be a better way of dealing with it. The person who shouldn't be there is him! But how do you do that? I don't know how you do that yet."

An excellent excellent starting point, says A'Court, is a sexual harassment policy.

"I've just started doing this at company events, where you go 'in the unlikely event of an emergency, if there is an earthquake, drop cover and hold, phones on silent, the bathroom's over there'..."

Now, when she tells the audience to enjoy themselves tonight, she adds, "And remember to be kind to each other."

Which brings us to that new book.

It's human kindness writ large. A 323-page multi-pronged love story featuring a neuroscientist, a psychologist and 42 tales from real-life New Zealand couples. It's called How We Met. It could also have been called "How We Stayed Together".

A'Court's interviews are mostly confined to people who met in real life ("I think if I wrote this book in 10 years' time, every story would begin 'so I swiped right ...'") and have been together for 15 years or longer.

"My instinct told me 15 years was a good yardstick for measuring that a relationship was pretty settled ... to the naked eye, it seems lots of human endeavours go in cycles of seven. It takes seven years for your body to renew every cell, for example."

The book was born over a few drinks in Rarotonga when A'Court observed a couple she had known for a while "sparkle as they told a tale that starred the two of them".

She started to build a theory about those "how we met" stories.

"The romantic, absurd, serendipitous, convoluted, scandalous, breathtaking moments of connection help to weave our lives together. Partly as 'proof' that we were meant to begin this couple-journey, and also because in each retelling we go back to those first falling-in-love feelings and rekindle the passion."

If you want to see two people at their absolute best, says A'Court, ask them how they met.

A'Court, 56, is in the kitchen with the spotted ceramic chook on the windowsill and she's making coffee. She throws sugar in the plunger. "Do you take sugar?" No. "Oh," she pauses. She and Jeremy Elwood both take sugar.

Comedian Elwood is A'Court's third husband.

"Yeah," she says. "Yeah, so there's those attractions, those physical attractions that are really primal and I guess ... I can dissect my two failed marriages and see that neither of those two people particularly fitted my love map.

"With Jeremy? We fit together really well. We both love reading books, seeing movies, we like the same food, we like to drink, we both like to travel. There's probably a few things I will watch on Netflix when he's away."

They met at the Classic Comedy Club. It's not actually a very exciting story, insists A'Court. When did she know she was in love?

"Oh, here's a story. We'd been seeing each other since November, and we kept it on the down low at work. I don't think anybody knew. We went out for Valentine's dinner at a really fancy restaurant and then we went to the Classic and there was this dance competition."

Michele A'Court and husband Jeremy Elwood on holiday in Rarotonga.
Michele A'Court and husband Jeremy Elwood on holiday in Rarotonga.

The owner and the bar manager had been taking lessons; they were a sure bet.

"They were doing all these fabulous moves. Jeremy and I did our little waltzy kind of thing, hopelessly wrapped around each other and everybody was so gobsmacked, we won the competition.

"We didn't win because we were great dancers. We won because we were quite into each other. Everybody knew there was something quite sparkly happening over in the corner."

The couple have been together 18 years, and married for six. A'Court's daughter Holly (from her second marriage) is 25, with two children of her own. Early last year, A'Court's father died. Her mum still lives downstairs. Their story is in the new book.

"I really strongly believe that storytelling is how we weave our lives together," says A'Court. "And not just couples. My granddaughter is 4, and she'll say, 'Tell me that story you used to tell me when I was little.'"

The new book includes interviews with psychologist Sara Chatwin and neuroscientist Donna Rose Addis. It was a revelation, says A'Court, discovering how humans encode and retrieve the memories that create our stories.

She learned the brain could be likened to a room full of file boxes — "visual detail", "smells", "what people said", etc — and that when you recall a memory, your hippocampus runs around grabbing bits from various boxes. Slight variations ensue, depending on what the hippocampus grabs. But, eventually, this "episodic" memory will become a "semantic" memory, fixed in detail and facts, that you will use to support a particular version of a story that gives it a particular meaning in the context of your life.

Sitting in Addis' office with its plastic model brains, A'Court let out a little whoop: "We use stories to make sense of the chaos of our lives."

Her theory: "When people go back to tell the story of how they met and the moment they fell in love, you feel it again. You're back, present with those emotions, because you're digging around in your brain office for all those memories and you're experiencing those emotions again, so the fire gets restarted."

It's slightly embarrassing, she says, watching people fall in love again. "But also really lovely."

How We Met was completed just before American film producer Harvey Weinstein was publicly accused of sexually abusing dozens of women over a period of at least three decades.

"So I was reflecting back on what I had written about how couples fall in love and how they stay in love. It's so interesting to me that there are people, by which I mean men, who are now saying 'we don't know how we are supposed to talk to women, how are we supposed to meet women, how are we supposed to flirt?'

"And it's about consent. In all 42 of those stories in my book, there is always consent. There is always two people establishing that they're both interested in each other. None of those stories start with a dude interviewing you for a job while he's wearing a bathrobe."

The thing is, says A'Court, humans are really good at reading each other — we are, in fact, so hard-wired for procreation that researchers have discovered men can pick whether a woman is ovulating, just by looking at her photograph.

"You don't need to be worried that if you come onto someone and they reject you, that you're going to miss those messages, because they're RIGHT THERE."

We have the skills and tools to recognise when someone is interested — and when they are not. You can expect to see a version of this sometime, on a stage near you.

"I'm working on some new comedy ... If you can't tell the difference between 'that's a really lovely dress, Susan' and rape, you probably shouldn't be communicating with humans at all."

A'Court is a diminutive grandmother of two, pouring coffee at her kitchen table in the suburbs. But also — and always — hear her f***ing roar.

"I got introduced at a gig by a friend from university days as a comedian, writer and strident feminist. And it was the loveliest thing. It's what I have been for years, but we stopped saying the F-word for a long time. Oh God, the backlash ... "

"We just got tired, I think. It's a cliche to say this, but really, the 'girls can do anything' of the 1980s became 'women do everything'."

A'Court and Elwood are jazz fiends. They travel to New Orleans most years. Recently, in that city, she saw an artist described as a Katrina Survivor, mother and a feminist, "and I thought 'oooh, they said feminist out loud'." She thinks Caitlin Moran's book How to Be A Woman was one of the early signals that "we are having the discussion again".

"I think there has been a massive sea-change. Second wave feminists like me, we're middle-aged and we've got adult sons and daughters and we're looking at what the world is like for them and being concerned about that."

In the 1980s, she says, newspapers ran stories about women who wanted to be mechanics but couldn't, because (cue alarmed face and much hand-wringing) where would they go to the toilet?

"There's probably a toilet for her now. But there isn't childcare. We're still arranging the workforce as though a number of people don't stop to produce a human. We're arranging our workforce as though only one of the parents is actually a parent."

A'Court says feminism is about being connected and valuing people for who they are and what they do. And love?

"Love is all over it!"


Ageing (and heroes):

Every now and then there'll be a dude on Twitter who calls you an old hag ... and you try to just let that bounce off, but there's a little bit of, "Oh, that's a shame." I think I'm lucky because I was never a tall, willowy, nymphy — I don't know, what are those things? I was never the "classical beauty". It was unlikely I would get cast in the lead role in a play at school because that would be the tall, blond girl. My hero in the 70s was Carol Burnett and I was conscious of the fact that she wasn't your traditionally attractive woman, it was about her character, her energy and her ability to take on a persona that made her special and wonderful.

Dying (on stage): I quite like it now, I've come full circle with it. It's taking a risk and if I die I know I've taken a tremendous risk and that's great. So when you begin, dying is terrible, because it makes you think, "Oh perhaps I'm no good at this, perhaps I shouldn't be doing comedy." But now I'm chucking stuff out there that doesn't always work and I just go, "Well that's interesting" — which, for an anxious person, is bloody awesome.

Performing (and writing): The relationship between jazz and the blues is really interesting, because jazz came out of the blues and then they feed each other. Writing for me is the blues, it's telling those stories and then jazz is the performance of those stories, so that's comedy. Blues is like writing, because it's telling a story that uplifts, 'cos you know the blues is sad stories — but the intention is to make you feel not alone, to make you feel like there's a shared experience.

How We Met by Michele A'Court (HarperCollins, $35). A'Court is a guest at Auckland writers festival.