Stephanie Johnson likes a good story and she’s found one in a collection of colourful Kiwis who made their mark in Australia.
If she hadn’t existed, Stephanie Johnson, esteemed New Zealand writer who likes a good story, might have made her up. Deamer was one of a cohort of New Zealanders born early-to-mid last century who absconded to Australia. In her new book, sardonically titled West Island, Johnson stalks and reclaims five. Along with Deamer, there is painter Roland Wakelin, the first artist to exhibit at Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries; journalist and compulsive gambler Eric Baume; writer and passionate communist Jean Devanny; and poet Douglas Stewart.
Johnson had come upon them in her reading. “Queen of Bohemia, who was she? And then, of course, marvellously, it turns out the Queen of Bohemia was good friends with the Witch of Kings Cross – both were New Zealanders.”
The Witch, Rosaleen Norton, painted wild, occult scenes in the 40s: “flame and fire, horned Pans, snakes intertwined with giant penises …” There were “various sex rites”. English conductor and composer Sir Eugene Goossens got mixed up with her. A career-ending scandal ensued. Yikes. “My mother-in-law, who has lived in Sydney all her life, remembered all of that happening.” West Island is a useful corrective to the myth that the past is a foreign country, one where people were better behaved.
The book dashes back and forth across the Tasman, which makes Johnson just the writer for the job. We meet at the slightly bohemian-looking Grey Lynn villa she shares with her husband, film editor Tim Woodhouse. He’s Australian. Two of their three children live in Australia. One is a musician, the talented and very tall Skyscraper Stan, whose songs are like short stories. “I’ve always been fascinated by how close we are and also how different we are,” Johnson says, of our relationship with Australia.
“I lived there for much of my twenties and continued to be published there for years.” The book is partly autobiographical. In it, Johnson describes her initial culture shock. “When I first went to Australia, the things that were different were the birds and the men,” she says. “They were loud, man.”
Perhaps those rackety birds and boys had an effect. She has an inclination, in the resonant voice of a sometime actor, to call a spade a bloody shovel. The women in her book – Deamer and Devanny – have tough lives and get on with them. “Sometimes I find myself growing very impatient with this Me Too movement. I think if you read some history, you would actually see we’ve come a long way. You are behaving as if we are still back in the caves,” Johnson says, when we get onto the subject of women’s lives.
“It’s this whole crisis of narcissism, too – everybody’s locked in their own little thing and they whinge and moan. I’m not even 60 yet, but I’m pretty grumpy.” Actually, Johnson is wry, entertaining, erudite company. But it comes as no surprise that she’s a fan of the loud, Australian, often grumpy and currently unfashionable Germaine Greer. “Germaine can be quite batty, but she’s marvellous. I love her.”
Well, she’s a battler. When we speak, Johnson refers to “growing up as a little disabled person”. In West Island she writes of being a “buck-toothed lippy half-crippled skinny girl” and of “sore, malformed feet barely responding to seven or eight lengthy operations”. She’s known pain, doesn’t dwell on it but can clearly spot it in others. “Look how thin she is,” she says, of a photo of Devanny in her book. “You can just see the terrible hardship. She deserves to have her name up in lights.”
When Devanny wrote her compelling 1926 novel The Butcher Shop, it was banned in New Zealand for being indecent (read feminist) and for its politics. Devanny had a lot of tragedy in her life. She lost two children. And she got little back, after the family moved across the Tasman in 1929, for years of devotion to the Communist Party of Australia and its general secretary, JB Miles, with whom she had a long affair.
West Island reveals how appallingly she was treated by the party. Devanny is the one Johnson would most like to have known. “This maddening, oversexed, over-principled woman. Maybe we wouldn’t have got on. I wouldn’t have been radical enough for her. The person I know who would have absolutely hated me would have been Eric Baume. We would have hated each other.” Baume would have seen her, she writes, “as a soft pinko nincompoop with unfortunate feminist tendencies”.
Baume was also at times accused of being an anti-Semite. “He was invited to Germany after the war,” says Johnson, “and came back crowing about how marvellous it was there, forgetting for a moment about the Holocaust.”
In West Island, he ultimately becomes a figure of fun. Sent to London as a Europe correspondent during the war, he set himself up at the Ritz with black satin sheets and swaggered around in fake uniforms. “And wearing the Croix de Guerre,” says Johnson, “which he’d won gambling. You could be arrested for wearing medals that you hadn’t won. Well, he did it all the damned time.”
He was taken up by the Countess of Oxford. “He got duchessed,” says Johnson, employing the technical term for such liaisons. “These antipodeans would go to England and get picked up by some bored duchess and just fall totally in love with the English class system.”
He also wrote novels that featured some eye-watering racial bigotry and ignorance. One is called, unpromisingly, Half-Caste. “I was astonished to discover that it’s still available online and it’s listed as ‘clean and wholesome’.” Dealing with material from less-enlightened times can be tricky. “I tell the story in the book about the young woman who tweeted, ‘Stephanie Johnson said we should read racist books.’” Johnson was attending a New Zealand/Australian literary festival in London. She spoke about “lost classics” such as Noel Hilliard’s Maori Girl and Ruth Park’s 1951 The Witch’s Thorn, arguing that they shouldn’t stay lost, even if they are flawed. “They did their best,” she writes in West Island. “We could not say that, with any conscience, of Eric Baume.”
The book reveals that, among its many exports to Australia, Aotearoa has sent a selection of weirdos. “Ha. It is an odd collection of people, I am aware of that.” Johnson has tackled poetry, plays, such fine novels as The Heart’s Wild Surf and a couple of erotic novels under the easily decoded pseudonym, Lily Woodhouse. The second, The Sisters’ Lover, available online, is self-published. Even so, the new book presented challenges. One was finding a publisher before Otago University Press came to the party. West Island was declared too Australian for one New Zealand publisher, too Kiwi for an Australian counterpart. Then there was the scope. “It’s like five biographies, basically. I thought for a long time, God, you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.”
The very topic seems to bring out the Tasmanian devil in Tinker, the Johnson-Woodhouse dog. The interview tape is punctuated by her enthusiastic eruptions when someone, or no one, arrives at the door, sending Johnson flying from her chair: “Oh, God! Will you be quiet?”
Tinker has the right to a say. She played her part in the gestation of the book. In 2016, Johnson was selected as writer in residence at the historic Randell Cottage. Six months in Wellington. “I had never lived alone in my entire life. I’d gone from my family to flatmates to lovers and then married with kids.” She was allowed to bring Tinker with her. “They don’t normally let you, but she would have pined away. So would have I.” Tinker, like an early-warning system, gave her a sense of security. “If I take my boots off, I can’t really walk very well. At night, just having her in the cottage, I felt safe.”
A habitual early riser, she discovered a new time to write. “It’s dusk. There’s no one to talk to so you may as well work from five to eight. In a family, you never work in that time because everyone needs to talk to you and you’re in the kitchen rattling the pots.“ Usefully for a work that is part memoir, there was time for reflection. “You confront stuff about yourself, like stop being such a misery bags. Of course, I had these five ghosts with me all the time.” She got a first draft done.
As a sixth-generation Pākehā herself, Johnson was interested in how that sense of identity expressed itself. An undertow to the book is their mostly imperfect, sometimes awful attempts to grapple in their art with their place in a colonial enterprise.
West Island looks to Australia, but it has much to say about life back home. Eltham-born poet Douglas Stewart wrote in an early short story about an elderly Māori couple who took him in when he was once again between jobs. “What went on in those secretive Māori minds,” he wrote. “They weren’t animals. They had their own thoughts …” Johnson, good at following the threads that run between there and here, then and now, writes of how this story, “full of the prejudices of the time”, would later “incense and inspire” Witi Ihimaera after he read it at school in the early 50s. “I found the story poisonous,” said Ihimaera. “I was incensed enough to ask Mrs Bradley, ‘Why have you made us read this story?’ … I threw the book out the window.” That day he decided he would write his own stories.
As for Johnson’s own relationship with the Lucky Country, it seems more complicated now than when she began the book. West Island ends with a possibly symbolic disaster involving Johnson, a vehicle and an emu her husband has to dispatch in a mercy killing. “That was just terrible,” says Johnson. “It could have been so much worse. The truckie said, ‘Those things will rip your guts out’, and that was when I had the vision – there’s my husband disembowelled. We got off lightly. Well, the emu didn’t. It was dead.”
The book also ends with a declaration: “I love you, Australia. You’re like nowhere else,” she writes. “And I do love Australia,” she says now. “It’s like a sneaky love. But then, what they’ve done to us since … I’ve got young New Zealand relatives who can’t afford ever to become Australian citizens. They’ve made it so hard for us over there.”
In a chilly afterword, she writes about the “so-called ‘bad character law’” that gives officials the power to cancel visas of suspected or convicted criminals. “It’s so ignominious,” she says. “These ‘bad’ boys have Australian accents. They don’t know anybody here. It’s appalling. We’ve also had suicides of these young men.”
There’s anger in the afterword. “The New York Times reported that more than 60% of those deported are Māori or Pacific Islanders … Despite decades – centuries – of immigration from all over the world, Australia is racist.” There’s sadness, as if someone she loves let her down: “they’re behaving as if they hate us”.
She understands the pull to cross the Tasman. “If you’re a painter or a writer or anything, you’re in a bigger market. In New Zealand, to survive in the arts is hard.”
But you get the feeling writing about Australia has made her even more a New Zealander. “In fact, at the end of this month we’ve got to go to the Town Hall. Tim is a Kiwi on May 27.” Wonderful. “It is wonderful. I feel quite emotional about it. He’s very committed to New Zealand and I’m very patriotic.”
When they first came back to New Zealand, Johnson didn’t imagine it would be forever. Now it’s home. She’s started on another work of non-fiction and a new novel. Her experiment with what she calls high-end commercial fiction – the Lily Woodhouse novels – is finished. “Lily is now a dead duck,” she sighs. But don’t expect high literary fiction. “I can’t be bothered. I want the writer to get out of my way. It’s like you’re turning handsprings, and I’m very impressed with all things you can do hanging upside down, but actually, I want a story, beautifully told.” Well, she’s always been good at that.
West Island: Five 20th-Century New Zealanders in Australia, by Stephanie Johnson (Otago University Press, $39.95).
This article was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.