A memoir by Maurice Gee, the man in the middle

by Stephen Stratford / 30 November, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Maurice Gee memoir memory pieces

Maurice Gee. Illustration/Weef

A memoir by New Zealand literary great Maurice Gee is at its evocative best when reflecting on his boyhood.

The first half of Maurice Gee’s memoir Memory Pieces, “Double Unit”, is a third-person account of his parents’ lives. The last section, “Running up the Stairs”, is about his wife Margareta’s life. In between is “Blind Road”, covering his childhood and youth. Maurice Gee: the man in the middle.

The 1930s Depression was hard on his parents: Len was on relief work; Lyndahl had a baby. They wintered in a shack on New Plymouth’s Ngāmotu Beach and “crept away early one morning when there was no money for the rent”.

The story moves to familiar ground when they shift to Henderson or, as I think of it, Geeland: “There was no stove. Lyndahl cooked on a sheet of iron over a fire that burnt in a hole cut in a bank outside the back door.” Still, her Chapple family were nearby. The name “carried an almost mystical cachet” for Lyndahl. Not so much for her husband: “It’s not certain when Len began to think, Bloody Chapples, but he said it aloud now and then most of his married life, with amusement sometimes, and sometimes not.”

Most of “Double Unit” focuses on Lyndahl, but Len, a builder and a boxer, wasn’t just an artist with a chisel and plane: “He was a hero. He had knocked men out.”

Lyndahl was a sharp observer: “I’ve noticed repeatedly that age grips a man by the back of the neck and a woman by the throat muscles.” There was a sad decline: “She could not understand how her life had reduced itself to a business of getting through the days.” Worse was to come: the account of Len caring for her is touching. At the funeral, “Those who had known her early had the happiest memories.”

Gee’s boyhood reading was like my own: Robin Hood, Greek legends, US frontier stories. But raised in a socialist household, he drew the line at Baroness Orczy: “As for the Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing aristocrats, I was for chopping off their heads.”

The Chapples admired Stalin “for his devotion to the people, the common man … On Lyndahl’s bench of heroes he sat beside Michael Joseph Savage. She presented him to her sons as ‘kind old Uncle Joe’, sometimes ‘dear old Uncle Joe’. They grew up believing in his benevolence and had difficult adjustments to make later on.” I bet.

The period detail in “Blind Road” is terrific: “Lloyd was the only boy in the school who wore shoes. None of us wore underpants either; underpants came at secondary school.” I, too, remember getting the strap at primary school, attempted sexual assault by an older boy, practising knife-throwing, nearly drowning in the creek … Perhaps all semi-rural New Zealand childhoods were like this.

The creek is central. There is a marvellous long passage about making a canoe from a sheet of corrugated iron and setting off in it, “one of the great journeys of my life, fixing ‘creek’ as a place in my mind”. The writing here is the book’s liveliest, starting with a lovely evocation, inspired by Peter Butler’s terrific Gravel Roads, of “the geography and times of my early life, waking memories of noises, smells, footsteps, journeys, dangers …” And we’re off into the heart of the book for most readers, I imagine – Maurice Gee opening up about himself.

Well, up to a point. The last section is perhaps more of strictly family interest – Margareta as librarian in Taumarunui does not grip, frankly. But the story enlivens when they work together at the Turnbull and pretend not to be a couple: “Our friends at work were not deceived; they watched with amusement.” And then Gee meets Margareta’s mother: “I was always a disappointment to Greta.”

How Margareta came here from Sweden is an amazing journey – there were articles in the Weekly News and Freelance. But the best detail is her father, with only 36 hours’ flying experience, setting off “one morning from Croydon Airport, heading for Australia. He had a spare propeller strapped to the side of the plane (named ‘Kia Ora’), and carried a bundle of clothes in the cockpit, and a packet of sandwiches in a brown paper bag. He ‘was not even wearing a hat’, his mother complained later.”

MEMORY PIECES, by Maurice Gee (Victoria University Press, $35)

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic
104712 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Television

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

Read more
Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity
104230 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Books

Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gend…

by Brigid Feehan

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Read more
Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition
104844 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Win

Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Ear…

by The Listener

To celebrate Sir David Attenborough season on Sky, we are giving away copies of his book Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition.

Read more
The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Queenstown launch
104788 2019-04-18 09:00:50Z Profiles

The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Que…

by Clare de Lore

Thanks to the determination of Christine Maiden, NZ has joined an international leadership network that aims to work on issues important to the future

Read more
Science must trump ideology in the GE debate
104784 2019-04-18 08:52:29Z Politics

Science must trump ideology in the GE debate

by The Listener

A New Zealand-developed super-grass that appears to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be blocked in this country by the Green Party.

Read more
Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital gains tax u-turn as victory
104803 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Politics

Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital ga…

by Jo Moir

The National Party is calling the u-turn on a capital gains tax a massive failure for the Prime Minister.

Read more
John Campbell is replacing Jack Tame on TVNZ's Breakfast show
104860 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Television

John Campbell is replacing Jack Tame on TVNZ's Bre…

by Noted

The TV network is switching things up - again.

Read more
John Lanchester’s ecological-dystopian tale about a barricaded Britain
104431 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Books

John Lanchester’s ecological-dystopian tale about…

by Catherine Woulfe

The Wall may be speculative fiction, but it feel like it's just round the corner.

Read more