Bill Sutch and Shirley Smith were two of New Zealand's most significant 20th century figures. Keith Ovenden's memoir starts in the early years of his marriage to their only daughter, Helen Sutch - and the agony of the Sunday roast ritual.
It was perhaps my misfortune to have encountered Bill too late in his day, for when I began to acquire some intimate knowledge of him, from the spring of 1971 to the winter of 1972 when I held a post-doctoral fellowship at Victoria University of Wellington, I was expected to spend many hours in his company. They were never happy. The ritual was dinner on a Sunday evening at Helen's parents' home, the spiritual breaking of bread at the altar of family. Present, too, would be Bill's sister — also called Shirley — who lived almost next door. She was a professional psychologist who had recently taken early retirement from the psychology service for schools. In the family she was commonly referred to as "sister Shirley".
Given Shirley and Bill's antagonism to our marriage and the wound this had inflicted on Helen in discovering that her mother's love was not unconditional, it is hard even now for friends to understand why we saw this ritual endorsement of family as a necessary obligation. Surely we might have said, well, in the circumstances, perhaps we should stay away, or at least go less frequently. It is a testimony to the strength of Helen's personality, her determination not to let her parents drive her from the family, that we never adopted this option.
The circumstances, already unpropitious enough, were laced with an air of tension so intense that it hung heavy over the table like a Brent Wong geometric sky object, oppressive, angular, a form of mesmeric menace. The situation was not helped by Shirley's resistance to having outsiders, or even family, in her kitchen, so that any normal participation in the general minutiae of the dinner was denied me. No table clearing, no fetching and carrying, no washing-up. Helen's assistance, except in the preparation of food, was permitted, but even so there was an unstated threat of possible sudden reversal, of permission withdrawn.
Being left at the table with sister Shirley and Bill meant a desperate search for appropriate topics of conversation, in itself problematic — as the Marxists like to say. Here, the difficulty presented itself in the form of Bill's unworldly asceticism. His taste in food was solidly grounded in working-class experience and not a topic of interest. A dish of roast lamb, gravy and vegetables, enjoyable enough, hardly lent itself to culinary debate. Bill would not have read Cuisine magazine had it then existed, although I'm pretty sure he would have subscribed to it as evidence of New Zealand's increasing cultural and commercial maturity, and would have promoted it whenever and wherever appropriate.
Another conversational impediment was that Bill didn't drink, never had and never, to my knowledge, broke his teetotalism. Loquacity and the ease of social exchange that wine may generate, along with complex matters of terroir, vintage years, palate, grape varieties and so on, were denied us. Some said the reasons for his abstinence lay in his Methodist upbringing, that he had taken the pledge. Others, those with knowledge of his family background, that its sources lay in his mother's influence in getting him to acknowledge and reject his father's overindulgence. Part of it, as I came to see, may have lain in his parsimony.
Bill hated to spend money on what he thought of as irrelevant indulgencies. All this must have added up to a bit of a trial for Shirley, who loved a drink and gladly adopted my own views on the merits of wine, as well as her father's pleasure in good Scotch whisky, once the prohibitions of her spouse were removed by death and the path of our relationship had become less sticky. But again, this did not mean that Bill was against wine or other drinks per se. Entertaining diplomats, businessmen friends, colleagues from Industries and Commerce in the recent past, he served wine and other beverages, professed to being knowledgeable about them and urged their development in the New Zealand economy. He kept their products in his cellar and would occasionally speak with some knowledge about them.
Simpler sources of conversation were also somehow prohibited. Bill had little time for television. One had been installed in the house only in the spring of 1968, after he had been hospitalised with a heart attack. He had a similar indifference to radio. It had never occurred to him to have one in the house and Shirley had apparently found it a matter of disloyalty when she finally, rather courageously as I think she saw it, went out and bought one. Or rather two. Little Bakelite models that proclaimed their unimportance by their diminutive size. Shirley kept hers in the kitchen for the most part, where she could listen while cooking or washing up; Helen, as a schoolgirl, had kept hers by her bed: popular music, very quietly, after dark.
Indifference to broadcasting was coupled with the cinema and photography. I never heard of Bill going to see a film. And he certainly didn't own a camera, was never seen to take a photograph and showed little or no interest in it as an instrument of domestic record. But this didn't mean that he was against films or photography. He was a great supporter of Brian Brake, whose work he promoted and with whom he had some correspondence. And once he became chairman of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (as it then was) he was quick to understand from Jim Booth and Ian Fraser, two of his young lieutenants, the need to support and develop an independent film industry here. New Zealand's presence in the world, its social, economic and cultural development, were what interested Bill, and anything or anyone of merit or substance that helped to develop them could expect to get his support.
Abridged extract from Bill and Shirley: A Memoir, by Keith Ovenden (Massey University Press, $35)