Friday, May 30, 2014

Quite a Sheila



Sheila Natusch (nee Traill) naturalist and author
at Owhiro Bay, Wellington, New Zealand
 
Wellington identity Sheila Natusch was interviewed recently by Kim Hill for Radio New Zealand National and answered some questions about her long friendship with Janet Frame, beginning when they were university students in Dunedin in the mid 1940s when both aspiring writers were training to be teachers:

http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/2597151/sheila-natusch-octogenarian-life

The interview is worth listening to for other reasons than Sheila Natusch's connections to the now world famous Janet Frame. Sheila is a fascinating and accomplished person in her own right: naturalist, author and artist.

New Zealand's most misunderstood Icon

The journalist Kim Hill has unfortunately been well and truly brainwashed by the usual patronising myths about Janet Frame, so much so that she appears in this interview to be a bit conflicted about Frame's personal life and qualities. While she correctly does realise that Frame seemed to have had "a gift for friendship", Hill exclaims at one point "but she can't have had many friends!"

Why not? and for the record the belief that Frame did "not have many friends" could not be more wrong. Media spokespeople like Hill are among those who spread these half-baked notions so that a new generation of listeners think they know the "truth" or the "facts" about New Zealand's most misunderstood Icon, when they know neither.

Frame had a gift for friendship alright and she exercised it prolifically as is clear when reading Michael King's biography, even though King omitted mention of most of Frame's everyday friends. King was not too interested in the majority of Frame's friends who were not themselves 'famous', as Frame was herself wont to note dryly while the biography was being written. But even so, she had plenty of noted and notable friends, so the belief that she was a solitary recluse is unsupported by any evidence other than hearsay.

Hill also seems also to believe that Frame really was barking 'mad', as she wonders aloud whether or not Janet would have a better time these days in the mental institutions than she had in the old days. Sheila responded quickly that she doubted that Janet would be in hospital at all in this day and age. I should hope not, given that British psychiatric professionals in the 1950s unanimously declared that Frame was never mentally ill and should never have been institutionalized.

One of my favourite sayings is "A lie travels around the world while the truth is just getting its shoes on." I like to paraphrase it as: "The myth drives up in its own limousine while the real story is forced to wait for a bus that seldom comes."

I get the feeling that even though she is old and ill now, Sheila Natusch is the kind of person that would rather walk or catch the bus, because you learn more of value that way.

Among other things, Sheila and Janet had in common a deep love of nature and being in the outdoors. They went on bush hikes and beach walks together.

[Update: I have always believed that Janet and Sheila went tramping with the Otago University tramping club, but Sheila insists that she herself never joined the tramping club when she and Janet were at Training College and University together. However Janet had mentioned having joined the tramping club to me, and when we went on outings to Oamaru via Trotter's Gorge North of Dunedin, Janet would point out the road to the University's tramping hut where she used to stay. Perhaps her association with the tramping club was twenty years later when she returned to Otago University as the Burns Fellow.]

Janet was a healthy and energetic person who kept up her love of vigorous rambles until later life when arthritis unfortunately prevented her from walking more than short distances. James K. Baxter, his wife J.C. Sturm and their children were among other close friends of Frame's who accompanied her on long hikes in the countryside.
 
Sheila in her private cable car
 
Sheila in her cottage at the top of the cable car
 
Janet Frame wrote to her friend Sheila Traill in 1947:
 
"I am keeping your letters so that one day when you are famous and all your manuscripts have been found and people are racking their brains to find out what the REAL S Traill was like, lo I will produce your letters and say behold the REAL S Traill, and people will give me guineas and trips to Hollywood and offer me film contracts and they will put your letters under a glass case in the museum..."
 
It was in fact Sheila who had occasion to publish Janet's letters, and what an interesting record they give of the brilliant young woman at odds with the world around her. Among them are some revealing letters written from Seacliff Mental Hospital.
 

Letters From Jean by Sheila Natusch and Janet Frame,
First Published 1st June 2004 by Nestegg Books.
 
Some of Sheila Natusch's many other publications:






Pamela Gordon and Sheila Natusch

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