Saturday, May 31, 2014

Antipodean Feast at London Festival

The inaugural Australian and New Zealand Festival of Literature and the Arts is now underway in London.

Stephen Romei of The Australian previewed the Festival:

'Making the Brits sit up and take some notice'

One of the highlights of the Festival for Frame fans will be the dazzling panel on Janet Frame chaired by Stella Duffy with participants Margaret Drabble, Linda Grant and Stephanie Johnson:

 An Angel at My Table: The Life and Work of Janet Frame

Janet Frame will also feature in a discussion on women writers. The panel consists of Romy Ash, Fay Weldon, Anna Funder and Mandy Hager, and is chaired by Antonia Hayes:

Their Brilliant Careers: Women's Writing in Australia & New Zealand


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:

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

They just make it up

Today a brand new Janet Frame anecdote emerged out of the back rooms and entered the public realm. It was told as an afterthought to a blog post about an extended interview with another great Kiwi author Keri Hulme. The journalist Ali Ikram described Hulme as " a notoriously reclusive famously cantankerous writer" (although from the lengthy TV item that emerged it seemed that Hulme had been very generous with her time and her responses). Ikram, debriefing with his producer, consoled himself with the thought that his difficult interview with Hulme wasn't as bad as an alleged notorious interview had apparently gone with with Janet Frame:

“At least it went better than when John Sellwood interviewed Janet Frame. She wouldn’t let him in the house and spoke through a crack in the door, then chased him round the garden with a broom.” Yet such a reaction from a brilliant loner doesn’t always mean they don’t like you. Janet was fond of John. In her will Frame specified it was to be he who played the bagpipes at her funeral. There he was, a character in her final scene.

I was amazed to read this pack of nonsense. When am I ever going to get used to the way these people invent such rubbish, and then embellish it? And surely some rational soul will demur? And suggest this can't be true? Not so. Not only that, but the usual suspects sniff a derogatory story about Janet Frame on the breeze and come running. It shores up their already held false beliefs, of course, so they won't question it. So, for example, journalist Philip Matthews, a strong supporter of the Professor Evans fictional/feral "Janet", as exemplified in the revenge fantasy novel (and stage play) Gifted, which Matthews vigorously promoted and defended, fell with alacrity on the anecdote:

Philip Matthews @secondzeit
I like the story about John Sellwood and Janet Frame. @RuminatorNZ @AliIkram
Of course he did.

But what was true, and what was a lie? I can tell you, because I was present on the relevant occasion.

(1) "she wouldn't let him in the house" FALSE
The friendly Janet Frame warmly and kindly invited John Sellwood, his cameraman, Michael King (whose biography on Frame was the reason for the filming) and myself, into her home, to sit at her dining table, for scones, biscuits and tea. She was a good host and perhaps someone should ask John Sellwood (and his offsider whose name I forget) for their first person version of these events, because I find it hard to believe that they are the ones dehumanising Janet Frame in such a churlish fashion after having been treated to her hospitality.

(2) "spoke through a crack in the door" FALSE
Well you can see that this bizarre misrepresentation is untrue if you look at the edited news item as it appeared on TV:

At one point, Janet Frame does open her front door, after being filmed (at the journalists' request!) closing it. The journalists and biographer have bid farewell, filmed her closing the door, and she, having thought that the filming was over, opened the door again, to say goodbye properly (not just on camera) only to find she had been ambushed by the still waiting camera, even though she had already generously carried out all the agreed activities in support of publicity for Michael's book: being filmed chatting affably to him, etc. It was never intended to be an interview; Frame only agreed to being filmed greeting Michael at the gate, but the camera had been left running surreptitiously and some secretly filmed pieces of conversation were broadcast. Despite her cooperation, to then have the clip of her opening the door again being used to falsely depict her as antisocial and reclusive, is unfair, but typical.

(3) "chased him around the garden with a broom" FALSE
This is a toxic fancy. It seems to have a touch of tarring her as a "witch" about it, and seems to link to the hostility earlier expressed towards Hulme. I would guess this is a relatively new rhetorical embellishment to the anecdote (in each retelling these kind of stories about Frame - this is not unique! - are added to and polished up).

(4) "yet such a reaction from a brilliant loner doesn't always mean they don't like you"
Lumping Frame and Hulme together here as "loners" is based on trumped-up evidence in the case of Frame. I know that Janet was never a loner, and I have met Keri often enough in sociable company to suspect that she doesn't exactly fit the stereotype she has been fitted with either. Frame was choosy about how she spent her time and who she spent it with. That didn't make her a loner.

(5) "Janet was fond of John" TRUE
She did get on well with John: he's a likeable chap and she was a charming personable old lady. And she had a soft spot for bagpipe players.

(6) "In her will Janet Frame specified it was to be he that played the bagpipes" FALSE
They just made that up! It's a good story though!

Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

(7) "There he was, a character in her final scene." TRUE, although  this last statement has been nicely shaped to fit the fiction of the anecdote. Or has the anecdote been shaped and enhanced to build up to the ending?

John Sellwood did very kindly play the bagpipes at Janet Frame's funeral. But not after being chased by Janet with a broom and being spoken to through a crack in the door and being rejected and not finding of her supposed affection until after her death when the will was read; that's a fable, a demeaning lie. Sellwood and Frame had a brief but uproarious and chatty human encounter, as well as partaking in a calculated professional exchange. He agreed to play at her funeral after being asked by her family to do so, being known as he was to play the bagpipes and being available on the scene, and having the advantage of not being a total stranger. And he did the deed as a human being and not as a journalist, carrying out a social obligation. He had used his bagpipes to gain access to Janet, and his facility with the bagpipes was in turn used by her family to farewell her at her funeral. It was a fitting part for him to play.


Why do people make up outrageous lies about celebrities? I don't know why, but I know they do, because of my connection to New Zealand's most famous author Janet Frame. The myths and fairy-tales and the malicious gossip swirling around her life story pretty much overwhelm the actual facts of her life and of her work. People actually seem to prefer the untruths about Janet Frame and they resent anyone who tries to present them with the evidence that questions their incorrect ideas. That is called 'the backlash effect' and recently there was an excellent article in The New Yorker about it. The article was about how you really can't change the mind of a committed "anti-vaccer", and it also referred to other false beliefs, such as those held by climate change deniers, but I also related the principles in the article to the fact that the more I point out that Janet Frame was not a recluse, that she was not disordered, she was not autistic, she was just a genius, a rare and brilliant creative artist who was woefully misunderstood, then the more that those people who are interested in preserving the myths about Janet Frame, insist that I am "overprotective" and that I'm "hiding something". And they seem to exaggerate their false beliefs about her even more to the extent that she becomes in their minds a caricature of the mad genius, barely able to function in the real world.

Not everyone believes this celebrity gossip rubbish of course, thankfully. A lot of the nonsense invented about Janet Frame has misogynist overtones so I would hope that feminists might be able to see through the familiar strategies that have long been used to belittle prominent or promising women, and question the demeaning anecdotes. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Significant relationships

Aerogramme from Janet Frame (changed by deed poll to Clutha) to Charles Brasch, 1970, Charles Brasch papers, Hocken Collections, University of Otago, New Zealand

The scripted literary reading Dear Charles, Dear Janet will feature tomorrow at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival 2014.

This Dunedin event offers a unique link to Charles Brasch and Janet Frame in that Alan Roddick, literary executor and friend of Charles Brasch, will read from Brasch's last letters to Frame alongside Pamela Gordon, Janet Frame's niece and literary executor, who will read from Janet Frame's last letters to Brasch. Also reading for Brasch, who was the founding editor of the influential New Zealand literary magazine Landfall, is the current editor of Landfall, poet and critic David Eggleton. Also reading for Janet Frame - from her first tentative submissions to the august editor of Landfall -  is Georgina O'Reilly, a student at the University of Otago.