Monday, 23 July 2012

Memories of breakfast with Margaret Mahy

I arrived in Hanoi an hour ago after an overnight train trip from Lao Cai on the Chinese border and on checking the NZ news, found that Margaret Mahy died yesterday. Here is something I wrote some years back when I had breakfast with Margaret at her home.

“We are leaving in an hour to live on a tropical island for a long time, and I am giving you a box to pack your books in. You can only take ten,“ I said to Margaret Mahy as we sat on her balcony at Governor’s Bay overlooking treetops and bush, towards the sea.
“Ohhh, that’s going to be difficult to chose, “ she said, as a smile broadened on her face.
She thought hard as she gazed into the bush. “I’ll have to take something of Dickens,” and deliberated.
King Solomon’s Mines is a must: I like Rider Haggard very much.”
And, I will have something by Lewis Carrol, perhaps Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass,” Margaret said quite excitedly. She decided on Alice.
Her dog Honey sat at her feet as we talked.

“Will I have food on the island so shall I take a cookbook? “ she asked. “You will be provided good food on the island so don’t worry about taking a cook book,” I replied enjoying this game.

Margaret Mahy, pictured left, was obviously enjoying herself as the warm winter sun shone on the balcony and warmed us up. My daughter Aroha and friend Lisa were with us enjoying the sun.

“That’s three books,” I said and sat back in my chair and waited.

“ I’ll have to take The Flint Heart for that is such a good book” Suddenly I felt embarrassed. I have never heard of The Flint Heart. Margaret sensed my disquiet and gave us a brief summary of the book written by Eden Philpotts and how the hunter found a large rock, and when he broke it open, there was a flint heart.

“ I suppose I should take the Bible.” That was five books. I noticed there were none on poetry and humour and waited.

Eventually she decided on two poetry books, one on English poets and another, an anthology of poets from all over the world. We were now up to seven.
I said, “ Margaret, you haven’t chosen any books that are solely humour.” She thought awhile and said, “what would you recommend ?” I didn’t have to think for long as I rattled off, “ A Dustbin of Milligan by Spike Milligan.”

She laughed and said “ He’s so funny and I loved the Goon Show.” She agreed to take Spike Milligin. Somehow we both ran out of steam and the game was over. But that is Margaret Mahy, the child who in her youth, her favourites were The Flint Heart by Eden Philpotts, The Jungle Book and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines with the stoic Allan Quatermain crossing the desert to the mythical diamond mines. And then there was Kipling.

We discussed Glover at length and I was pleased she had the same high opinion of him as a poet, printer and publisher. I told her she was the third top NZ writer I had met. She quickly rose to the bait, and said “ Who were the others?.”
I told Margaret I met Denis Glover in 1973 when he worked in Lower Hutt at the Correspondence Institute and he autographed my copy of his book, Enter Without Knocking. Then when I lived at Franz Josef, I visited Kiri Hume a number of times and one night we drank two bottles of whiskey together. Her eyes twinkled and said, “ I would have like to have been there.”

Earlier in the morning we ate breakfast together, in her old house next to her new one, where her friend Lisa Anson lives. Lisa is an old friend of mine who invited me out for breakfast and said, " You may get the chance to meet Margaret."
Over bacon and eggs, we discussed poetry, but in reality we were trading poems, one by one. I quoted two verses from my favourite Robert Frost, The Bearer of Evil Tidings.

He took the one to the mountains.
He ran through the Vale of Cashmere,
He ran through the rhodendrons,
Till he came to the land of Pamir.
And there in a precipice valley
A girl of his age he met
Took him home to her bower
Or he might be running yet.

Margaret responded with one of her favourites from Banjo Paterson -
A Job for McGuinness

Oh, it's dreadful to think in a country like this
With its chances for work - and enjoyment
That a man like McGuinness was certain to miss
Whenever he tried for employment
He wrote to employers from Bondi to Bourke,
From Woolloomooloo to Glen Innes,
But he found - though his wife could get plenty of work -
There was never a job for McGuinness.

But perhaps - later on - when the Chow and the Jap
Begin to drift down from the tropics,
When a big yellow stain spreading over the map
Provides some disquieting topics,

Oh, it's then when they're wanting a man that will stand
In the trench where his own kith and kin is,
With a frown on his face and a gun in his hand -
Then there might be a job for McGuinness!

The few hours I had with Margaret Mahy were fascinating. A delightful woman with an impish sense of humour, and so unpretentious. We must have traded six or seven poems, volleying like young Wimbledon players. I feel she won with her passion and accuracy
She was deeply interested in my work over the years for Red Cross and she modestly told me how she had given a lot of support to UNICEF.

Before I left I presented her with my book on Afghanistan, Mountains of our Minds which includes poems I wrote and photos I took. I read her my favourite, Refugee Woman. Margaret asked many questions and displayed a child-like curiosity during our time together.
For those of you who don't know Margaret, here is what the NZ Book Council has to say: Margaret Mahy is the most acclaimed of New Zealand’s children’s writers. The author of more than 120 titles, and translated into 15 languages, Margaret has readers across the globe. She worked as a librarian for more than 10 years before becoming a full-time writer. Mahy’s books ring with humour, fantasy, adventure, science and the supernatural, but always engage with the ordinary world. Awarded the Order of New Zealand in 1993, she has also won many of the world’s major prizes for children’s writers, including the Carnegie Medal and the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award.
I sensed Margaret needed to get back to her writing, so Lisa, Aroha and I took her dog, Honey, for a long walk over the Port Hills. On the way back to Christchurch I stopped into to have afternoon tea with Colin and Betty Monteath. Colin is a prolific writer on Antarctica and mountaineering. That, and many other experiences, during my one month long holiday in New Zealand will have to wait. I returned to Jakarta last Saturday night, inspired. That world famous children's writer Margaret Mahy left a huge impression on me. I am scrambling to find a copy of The Flint Heart


Joe Lowry said...

Good to know I'm at least half as good as Glover :). Nice piece Bob, sorry about your loss. Will you stop over in Bkk on the way back from Hanoi? That's more of a strong suggestion than a question, by the way.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Margaret will be having a dram with St. Peter and the few other Saints who like literature and whiskey. From such poor origins, she has been an inspiration to me. Joe, have to give BKK a miss. Bhupi is about to join me for lunch at an Indian restuarant.

Unknown said...

Nice post Bob,

It has been great to see New Zealanders thanks to Margaret Mahy burbling through the social networks and blogs.

What a Kiwi.

Marja said...

A nice ode to Margaret Mahy. The boys I know who lived in Cholmondely visited her and have good memories. I saw her once in the park reading stories to children. She was a well loved lady known by all New Zealanders.
Everyone talked about her when she died.

Victoria Tran said...

It was a pity that Margaret Mahy was talent but she was not alive to devote any longer.

Jame Watt said...

Thanks Margaret Mahy, I know about New Zealand.

Vietnam Blogger said...

I like your blog.

Vietnam tours said...

The talent was gone forever.It was a sad thing.

halong vietnam said...

I like it

Travel to Vietnam said...

I like Margaret Mahy. It's sad that she's gone forever

Unknown said...

a information sad

Betty Lin said...

Margaret makes us impressive!

Plus stop said...

Although Margaret is not alive, I believe that everybody always remember him.

Bitter socola said...

Margaret will be loved by many people.

Tehara said...

Margaret - author of children's and young adult books. I like them because many of her story plots have strong supernatural elements but her writing concentrates on the themes of human relationships and growing up.

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