In her latest novel, Fiona Kidman focuses on the story of the second-to-last man to hang in New Zealand, Paddy Black.
Now the trajectory of the long-distance writer has taken her to a tiny room in Paris. “It’s about the size of a postage stamp,” she says contentedly via Skype. She’s on a sort of working holiday. In London, she visited a grandson and promoted her 2016 novel, All Day at the Movies. She’s about to speak at a Paris bookshop. “For some reason, the French seem to quite like my work. I don’t know why.”
The fictional life. Kidman has sometimes been confused with her characters. A Breed of Women, in which women speak, think and have sex, shook up 1979 New Zealand. “There was an assumption that I had lived every moment of those dramas. I became for a while a scarlet woman,” she says. “Filthy Fiona”, she was called by idiots. Meanwhile, women identified in droves. “Darlings, I’ve got the book we’ve all been waiting for,” broadcaster Sharon Crosbie told Radio New Zealand listeners. “This book is about us. We’re all in it.”
It sold like hotcakes. “Of course, I upset people because I was outspoken about women’s sexuality,” sighs Kidman. “That hadn’t been done to the same extent, perhaps, in New Zealand writing. Although I would say that Marilyn Duckworth, whom I greatly admire, was working in this area, too. I think it hit a nerve with good, conservative people. You’d think they’d never had sex.”
She’s had the last laugh. “The best line was, ‘The thinking woman’s Mills & Boon’,” she muses. “I don’t want to dismiss Mills & Boons readers,” she adds. She’s no literary snob. When I say her writing is accessible, she says, “I like to think so. I hope so. Yes, that pleases me.”
She was, you realise, courageous. “I didn’t think I was brave at the time.” Women’s liberation was in the air. “One of the trigger points for me was International Women’s Year in 1975. There was this big movement emerging in New Zealand.” More women were publishing books of poetry. “Writers like Rachel McAlpine and my dear late friend Lauris Edmond.” She published her own book of poems around that time. “I studiously hide any copies I can find,” she says airily. “I wasn’t the only person who was writing about things that were raw and close to the bone, but I did it in a novel.” The uproar must have been bruising for a young writer. “I almost could have stopped writing then because so many things were said.”
The not-entirely-fictional has also got Kidman into bother. Her 1987 novel The Book of Secrets is informed by the history of Norman McLeod, a Scottish preacher who shepherded a group of immigrants first to Nova Scotia and then to Waipu, where Kidman spent some of her early life. A central character is based on an old woman she used to see from the school bus. That woman morphed into the book’s Maria, the so-called “witch of Waipu”.
The book came out to a fresh uproar. “Waipu is a town I love beyond words. It’s almost my tūrangawaewae and I hurt the people there dreadfully,” she says. Even fictionalised figures can have appalled descendants.
“I learnt from that experience about taking certain precautions if you’re going to use the framework of a real life.” But writers often have to be a little ruthless about material. “It’s quite good to be naive sometimes, because The Book of Secrets probably wouldn’t have been as strong. I mean, the book has never been out of print for 30 years and I’m going to be talking about it in a bookshop in Paris that sold 200 copies in French translation. That one shop.”
The rift was eventually mended. “A group of the younger people associated with the Waipu Museum said to each other, ‘Look, we’re trying to get Waipu on the map. A lot of people come to Waipu because of The Book of Secrets. Perhaps it’s time we talked to Fiona.’ Cue a conciliatory dinner. “This huge gathering of people and they were spit-roasting lambs down on the beach and bringing them up on quadbikes. It was a very amazing and emotional night.”
She addressed the assembled townsfolk. “I talked about how I had inhabited the idea of a witch figure, but I was the witch, not the person in the story. I said I’d taken their relative on a journey around the world, but now I was bringing her back to them and I relinquished her, hoping that I hadn’t done her too much harm and they could proceed to honour her as their forebear and not be distressed by what I had written. And they said, ‘Come back, all is forgiven.’”
Nice. Then, in an episode in which life and art staged a meta collision, Kidman was invited to take part in the Grand Pageant of Waipu, re-enacting the town’s settlement. She played that problematic character Dame Fiona Kidman. “Ahh,” said a local schoolgirl. “You’re the woman who caused all the trouble here.” So Kidman made off with a chunk of Waipu history, only to find herself written into it. “It was a 20-year process, but it happened.”
Albert Black, who emigrated from Belfast aged 18, was 20 when he was sentenced to death for the murder of 19-year-old Alan Jacques, a British child migrant also known as Johnny McBride, after a character from the then-banned hardboiled crime fiction of US writer Mickey Spillane.
Two boys, alone and untethered in a post-war world. There’d been a fight over a 16-year-old girl. Black was badly beaten by Jacques. As Jacques contemplated his jukebox selection at all-night Queen St cafe Ye Olde Barn, Black stabbed him in the neck. Kidman’s fictionalised account interrogates the nature of the crime, the social milieu in which it occurred and the effect of the case on the death penalty.
The alienation of outsiders in a conformist society is a familiar Kidman theme. Those who yearn for earlier, allegedly morally superior times will be disappointed. New Zealand of the 1950s doesn’t come out of it well. This Mortal Boy will likely make you cry.
Kidman didn’t set out to write Black’s story. “I’d been really interested in the fragility of young people, young men in particular. Then I picked up a newspaper article about Albert Black and I was taken back to the time when it happened.”
She was 15 in 1955, “only five years younger than Albert Black. I remember the impact it had, how we talked about it, how dreadful it was. I thought this is really a story about one person making a terrible mistake in a life that was not perfect, in the last few months of it, but hadn’t been too bad a life. Suddenly, several lives are destroyed around him.”
She had a lot of help from writer Redmer Yska, who wrote about Black in his book All Shook Up: The Flash Bodgie and the Rise of the New Zealand Teenager in the Fifties. “Redmer helped me in all sorts of ways, including providing the partial transcripts of the trial. As I read them over and over again, it seemed abundantly clear to me that there was something pretty screwy about it.”
She went to Belfast to research. Back in New Zealand, she met Black’s daughter, who chose to be acknowledged in the book as EH. “It’s out of respect for her birth mother.” Black’s girlfriend, a composite character Kidman calls Bessie, was pregnant when he was hanged. Black’s story sticks close to the facts. Other names and stories have been changed to protect the living. “My book is a fiction,” says Kidman, just to be clear this time. Still, it must have been exciting to meet Albert’s daughter. “It was. She’s a lovely woman and desperately wants to know more about Albert. I was able fill in some of the gaps with what I learnt about him in Belfast.”
Albert’s story took on a life of its own. “I’m known as a person who’s written about women’s lives. It’s a real departure to write a book about a young man that I’m so intensely involved with. I had no idea at the beginning of it that I would be proclaiming some sort of innocence – I mean, he was guilty of a crime – but that I would be trying to downgrade the crime or think that it might be a lesser charge.” He’d been beaten savagely by Jacques. “He’d been kicked in the goolies,” says Kidman. “Excuse me,” she adds, but she hasn’t got where she is as a teller of sometimes uncomfortable stories without calling a spade a spade.
The story has resonances in the time of the #MeToo movement. “It’s a very good thing that women are now able to have a platform where they can talk about their experience without being belittled or humiliated. By the same token, I think if we dismiss young men and alienate them from our society, then nothing is really going to be healed.”
Kidman makes the case that the repressive moral climate of the times influenced the fairness of the trial. “That [Mazengarb] report was put into every letter box in New Zealand. I invented the jury as a sort of male Greek chorus. The main protagonists were people who were affected by this moral panic, this hysteria that started in the Hutt Valley. That whole dynamic of panic and terrible kids and ‘We have to come on strong and make rules and they have to obey us …’ It’s far-right-wing stuff, in my view, and it had a big influence on the outcome.”
Some witnesses were never interviewed by the police. A newspaper report meant that the judge’s biased view of the case, expressed to the Grand Jury, was made public before the trial. “The judge’s comments – that actually happened. It doesn’t make Albert Black innocent, but it meant that he certainly didn’t get a fair trial.”
The scene of the hanging, which draws on a vivid press report, is affecting, as it was at the time. Also affecting is the book’s portrayal of Black’s mother, Kathleen.
“I wanted to get inside her psyche and her feelings, because I’m a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. Some of those people that are my descendants happen to be boys. If anything happened to a hair on their heads … It would kill me.” Black’s mother was denied the chance to come to New Zealand, but raised a petition of 1200 signatures on his behalf. “My heart breaks for Kathleen.” It’s a tragedy all round. “It is a tragedy, it’s an enormous tragedy.”
National’s Deputy Prime Minister at the time, “Gentleman” Jack Marshall, championed the death penalty. He was opposed by Justice Minister Ralph Hanan. In 1961, under a Labour Government, 10 National MPs crossed the floor to abolish capital punishment. “In fairness to [Marshall], he had this idea that it was a greater punishment to stay in prison for your whole life than to be put to death; that putting to death was a sort of merciful act. I perceive it as an honestly held belief, but I so utterly disagree.”
The book is a powerful expression of that disagreement. Its launch comes at a difficult time. Kidman’s husband, Ian Kidman, died after a fall last October. He was 85. She is 78. I tell her, uselessly, that I’m sorry. “Yeah, well, me, too. You know, we had 58 years together. I was 19 when I met Ian. So it’s been a long time and I’ve never lived on my own before.” Will the writing life continue? Long pause. “Well, I would like it to, but at the moment I just have to get through these bits.” London, the tiny room in Paris are part of a healing. She’s met old friends and returned to Menton, her home while she was on the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in 2006. “I went back there the other day just to walk around and think about that wonderful and amazing year I had there. We had there. I guess you have to just slowly learn how to close some doors and keep some places in your heart intact.”
Kidman finished the first draft of This Mortal Boy two weeks before her husband died. “I probably would never have finished it if I hadn’t, but I had and there it is.”
There it is. It’s impossible not to be affected by young Albert Black’s good-natured last greeting from the gallows. “I wish you all a Merry Christmas, gentlemen, and a prosperous New Year,” he said. The book seems like an attempt to redeem him or at least to take that mortal boy on a journey and return him to history, reimagined and remembered. Meeting Black’s daughter, EH, was a spur. “I’d love her to feel somehow, through this book, that his life has been vindicated a little bit because I think that his death did have an impact. The account of his death influenced public opinion and led to National MPs crossing the floor and the abolition of the death penalty. For that alone he’s memorable.”
This article was first published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.