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A memoir by Maurice Gee, the man in the middle

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.”

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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.