Touchstones: A Memoir

ARTS, Books
James McNeish’s self-portrait, hymn to a vanishing New Zealand, and record of a varied cast of influential people.

Touchstones (Random House NZ, $29.95) by acclaimed New Zealand writer James McNeish is an autobiography by a writer who doesn’t like to write about himself.  “I am not by nature a self-analytical person,” he says, “nor have I ever been able to answer satisfactorily the question I am sometimes asked: what drives you?”

He navigates this riddle by writing a series of stories about people in his life who shaped his perspective: “a gallery of people—rebels, outsiders, romantics, enlightened misfits and illiterates—who have touched me in life.”

The result is an unfinished sketch of a memoir that takes slow rambles through the past, piecing together journal entries and grainy photographs. He writes about his adventures in Europe, the family ties that pulled him back to New Zealand and a legend surrounding his “Maori aunt” and a land dispute in King Country. It’s engrossing and personal, and sometimes reads like a novel with its romantic settings and vivid characters.

The story begins in the late 1950s, when McNeish was working nights in the reading room of the New Zealand Herald and learning he was not cut out to be a journalist. His first book, Tavern on the Town, got this reaction from his father: “Now you’ve got that out of your system, you’ll be able to get on.”

The New Zealand he portrays is fiercely prejudiced and stuck in the past, a place he tried his hardest to escape. Leaving his job and travelling to Europe, he found himself in the last days of a golden age for writers and artists.

“I think the Sixties were for many of us the last good time, and not just because of the sexual revolution; jobs were plentiful, rooms and bedsits affordable; one could travel and hitch-hike about Europe with safety and fall in and out of paid employment with relative ease.”

After a stay in London working at the East End’s Royal Theatre with director Joan Littlewood, who taught him the valuable lesson that he would never be a playwright, he married and went to Sicily to record folk music for the BBC.

These chapters are almost too romantic to be true, which for McNeish is part of the point. “It had not occurred to me that the vein of folklore I was tapping, which brought young men and women out of their houses to sing and dance so readily, might be a symbol of something else, like exploitation and waste.”

He spent four years living and working with anti-Mafia reformer Danilo Dolci, “the Sicilian Ghandi,” who went on hunger strikes to draw attention to poverty and injustice. Dolci would become the subject of McNeish’s internationally renowned biography Fire Under the Ashes.

The Sicilian activist taught McNeish that writing could be used to achieve a greater good: “that a book is not a toy or a plaything but rather something that can become a motive force or an instrument for action.” A useful maxim, he says, “but also destructive, capable of wrecking a marriage.” His wife eventually accused him of infidelity and returned to New Zealand with their child.

Later he returned to London to work with legendary BBC radio producer Jack Dillon, who taught him to use his voice and tell compelling stories. Radio features were in their dying days by 1963, and the anecdotes about Dillon evoke a keen nostalgia while acknowledging McNeish’s naiveté at the time. “My greatest training, it turned out, was that I was untrained; impressionable and trusting by nature. I was capable of being moved. I retained, in other words, the power to be shocked.”

Around that time he met his wife Helen, who made him see his Kiwi heritage from a new perspective. (“Are all New Zealanders so sentimental?” she asked him.) She would later challenge his attachment to a family legend about his Aunt Jean and her claim to Maori land at Kawhia Harbour, a mystery that gradually emerges throughout the book.

By the 1980s McNeish had returned to New Zealand for good, lured by a recurring dream of owning a white house on a cliff.  He and Helen settled in Te Maika, a peninsula overlooking the mouth of Kawhia Harbour, where there was no electricity and the mail had to be brought in by boat. He worked on a novel and wrote articles for the Listener, while Helen fell in love with Katherine Mansfield.

His reconnection with New Zealand is as satisfying as the excitement of his travels in Europe. “I had forgotten how to swing a hammer, dig a hole, mend a washer,” he says. “Learning to cook on a Primus took longer. The re-discovery of practical skills was matched by the renewal of forgotten pleasures—the miracle of light on water as the sun came up, the sensation of sand between one’s toes.”

Interwoven through the book is McNeish’s efforts to understand his father, who moved in with him at Te Maika in the last years of his life. Among all the remarkable people featured in the book, this ailing, prejudiced man had the most influence, and is perhaps the most poignant.

The 2013 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival hosts ‘An Hour with James McNeish’ on May 18.