Friday, October 31, 2008

"I read every book in the Oamaru Library"

Alison Albiston, Ralph Sherwood and Carol Berry:
Stalwarts of the Janet Frame House Project

Snapped at the Oamaru Public Library function, 29 October 2008

I had the great pleasure this week to attend a celebration at the Oamaru Public Library. The function was held to open the new display housing for two special collections: a heritage collection and a Janet Frame collection.

Oamaru Public Library now

The Friends of the Waitaki District Libraries had been involved with the fundraising for the new cabinets, and they invited me to speak and do the honours at the opening of the Janet Frame cabinet.

Local historian and author Dorothy McKenzie gave a very interesting talk and officially turned the key on the cabinet housing the heritage collection. Special collections librarian Kahren Thompson also spoke.

It was a fine event attended by a crowd of people I always feel very at home with: people who hold books, reading, history and culture near to their hearts, and who are generous with their time and effort in preserving and promoting local heritage.

Mayor Alex Familton took the time to attend the celebration, signalling his encouragement for acknowledging and protecting those important records of the town's rich past.

There were many supporters and friends of the Janet Frame House present, including the indispensable trio pictured above: JFEST Chair Carol Berry and Trustee Alison Albiston, along with the inimitable curator and guide Ralph Sherwood.

My fellow speakers Dorothy and Kahren also number among the volunteer guides who host the house when Ralph has an afternoon off.

In my speech I told the gathering that in video clip number 2 of the
TV interview that as of last week is now archived online, Janet Frame tells the story about receiving a year's subscription to the Oamaru Library as her prize for being Dux of Oamaru North Primary School.

"I read every book in the Oamaru Library" says Janet on screen. First she read through the Juvenile section, and then the Adult section. "And the smaller the print the better!" she says, giggling.

Looking around the recently refurbished, spacious and well-stocked Oamaru Library of today, it's doubtful that even the most dedicated bookworm could manage that feat any more!

How fitting that Oamaru now honours Janet Frame's connection with Oamaru, when so much about Oamaru, especially her education at its schools and the literary knowledge she absorbed through her membership of the library, contributed to her development as a great writer. And in her writing she has immortalised Oamaru, as I reminded the audience by reading some of her choice descriptions of the town. They particularly enjoyed hearing about the delights of Oamaru's Friendly Bay compared with Timaru's Caroline Bay.

I last spoke at the Library just over 2 years ago at the invitation of JFEST. At that time I shared with the audience some of the many and varied aspects of the role of literary executor for a major author. This time, I was able to update the gathering with news of the posthumous publishing successes of Oamaru's famous daughter.

Local independent bookstore Adams Take Note held a book stall offering a comprehensive selection of books of local interest for sale, along with a line-up of current Janet Frame books (for New Zealand, Random House have an impressive 15 separate volumes in print).

The building that housed the Library when Janet Frame was a child, now functions as the North Otago Museum

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Janet Frame in person

Rare documentary footage of Janet Frame was made available online for the first time last week, courtesy of new website New Zealand On Screen.

You can click here to see 6 video clips from a 1975 interview Janet did with Michael Noonan.

It's a really revealing interview, not the least for the fact that Janet claimed later to have been her usual inarticulate self, and yet watching the clips, one might wonder what standard she was judging by.

When Janet accused herself of being inarticulate, I'm sure she was comparing the ordinariness of her speech to the brilliant quicksilver thought going on in her head. She obviously wished she could be more of a raconteur. She admired verbal virtuosity. But she herself certainly wasn't "inarticulate" in the sense of having any deficit to normal communication.

In fact she was an effervescent, empathetic communicator who quickly won nervous people over. She had a wicked sense of humour. I often enough saw tongue-tied people approaching her, who were so overwhelmed to meet her that they were speechless. She often had to gently coax people out of their shells, by showing them she was just as ordinary as every one else.

Which she was not, of course!

Monday, October 27, 2008

It's a small blogosphere

In the post called Australian Cousins I talked about the fantastic party we had in Melbourne last month for the release of the Australian edition of The Goose Bath. That book was well and truly launched!

At the launch I met so many great people, including the magnificent Angela Meyer of the excellent Australian LiteraryMinded blog. I was already a big fan of that blog (yes we're reading it here too) and it's always exciting to meet someone you've already encountered online.

Angela has reviewed The Goose Bath for her blog, and here's the link.

She also found the New Yorker story 'Gorse is Not People' online, and recommended it here.

In these days of hearing bad news about budget cuts to print media review pages, it's good to know that there are so many great literary blogs online with thoughtful and perceptive reviews being posted every day.

LiteraryMinded and dovegreyreader are two literary blogs that really stand out, and Bookman Beattie is another blog worth a visit - he's New Zealand's most influential and comprehensive book blogger.

I've decided not to have a blogroll on Slightly Framous, because this particular blog is only about things to do with my Framous aunt (yes, it's a pun, and one we used to tease Janet with).

But if any reader who strays here doesn't already know the magical wonderland that is the literary blogosphere, you'll find lots more links to good reading online, down the right side of any of those three blogs I've recommended above.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Kingdom by the sea

You can climb the hill behind 56 Eden Street Oamaru and look down over the town Janet thought of as "the Kingdom by the sea"

Recently I posted a report on the fine work being done in Oamaru to look after Janet Frame's childhood home, which has been preserved and is opened to the public again from next weekend. The earlier post has all the contact details for those interested in knowing more about the Eden Street project.

Carol Berry, Chair of Oamaru's Janet Frame Eden Street Trust, has sent me a few quotes from the Visitors' Books at 56 Eden Street and suggested that I put them online. These comments give a good flavour of the sometimes moving and always appreciative responses that are recorded in the books:
“A fascinating glimpse into the early years of Janet’s life. The house still has an atmosphere of her presence”

“A wonderful memorial. One feels her presence as one walks through her world”

“It was a pleasure to have this little insight into Janet’s childhood. A fantastic effort on behalf of the Trust to keep her memories alive”

“A great and unexpected privilege to look more closely into Janet Frame’s life here. The JFEST is to be commended on their sensitivity.”

“Fabulous resource and fitting tribute”

“Thank you for this wonderful insight into Janet’s life; it is much
appreciated and also the enthusiasm and knowledge of the guide.”

Carol adds: "There are lots more … this is just a sample. Makes one feel quite humble really."

Janet Frame as a schoolgirl, Oamaru New Zealand

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Blog reviews

I've recently happened upon, as one does, a new blog I enjoy reading, because it was listed as a favourite on at least couple of blogs I already look at. Felicitously, just around the same time I discovered Dove Grey Reader's blog, the blog author, "a Devonshire based bookaholic, sock-knitting quilter who happens to be a community nurse in her spare time," discovered Janet Frame.

She does such good reviews, and I can recommend her two posts on Janet Frame's work. First she responded to Towards Another Summer.
Then she wrote about The Lagoon and other stories (click on the links to read the two reviews).

Janet Frame's first book The Lagoon was originally published by Caxton in 1952, but due to a typo on the imprint page it is usually listed in bibliographies as published in 1951.

There are two editions currently in print: by Bloomsbury in the UK and Random House in NZ.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Brochures, blurbs and biogs

Every now and then somebody will ask me what on earth a literary executor does. The answer will depend on my mood, and what project(s) or chore(s) I have on my plate that day.

I tell them, that I do everything a major writer has to do, except write the books!

How successful authors ever find time to write more books, unless they have a secretary, I don't know, because the already-written books are like children growing up and going through stages (reprints, translations, dramatic adaptation, anthology permissions) and just like growing kids envious of the new baby, they still clamour for attention.

There's the obvious that I do, of course, managing the publishing and administering the estate, controlling copyright. Chairing the charitable trust. Editing, researching, and corresponding with libraries and academics.

However queries from students or researchers cannot be treated as a high priority when there are publishing deadlines, and my aunt famously just didn't answer that sort of mail, or at least she rarely did. Perhaps that's where she made up the time to actually think, dream and write!

This week I've been reading the proofs of the next new title, a selected published stories (to be published in New Zealand next February by Random House), and approving the cover design and copy for the Virago new edition of Faces in the Water (due for release in the UK in 2009).

I've responded to queries from two different translators working on Towards Another Summer. Also signed and returned a couple of contracts to the literary agency.

Another recurring task seems to be advising on the Janet Frame component of brochures or other literary/cultural/historical projects. This responsibility can sometimes involve working on a committee. And that can be both time consuming and frustrating, given that there will be compromises to make. If and when the shiny new pamphlet or other material emerges, there's usually a sense of satisfaction all round.

Another of my frequent duties is to consult on blurbs and contributors notes. It wouldn't be wise to try to stand in the way of a marketing department or editor with their heart set on some particular spin or other, so I do try to advise gently where I note that the facts are in danger of suffering at the expense of the good story.

It's worth the effort though. Especially in the case of Janet Frame, where there has been some myth and misinformation in the past, a good brochure and a good blurb will have a life of their own, and keep on working quietly away to redress the balance.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Janet Frame's childhood home

56 Eden Street, Oamaru, South Island, New Zealand

Open to the public 2pm to 4 pm in the summer months
(November 1st to April 30th)
and at other times by arrangement.

The home which the Frame family lived in from 1931 until 1943 is administered by the Janet Frame Eden Street Trust. Their AGM was held last week and as I'm on their advisory panel, Chair Carol Berry sent me a copy of the annual report.

The Trust has reported a successful third year of operation. As well as opening the house to visitors, they held a creative writing weekend, they have run educational programmes, and given several talks.

The house has continued to attract some good publicity and accounts of it regularly feature on the blogosphere as travellers record their impressions of exploring "Janet Frame's Oamaru."

The visitors book at the house reveals that for many, visiting the house is a deeply inspiring experience.

Of the several hundred visitors,

9% were local

9% from Auckland

7% Wellington

7% Christchurch

8% Dunedin

27% other NZ centres

11% Australia

9% USA

6% UK

6% Europe

1% other countries.

Curator Ralph Sherwood reported that invariably the visitors had read Janet Frame's work and their visit to 56 Eden Street was something of a ‘pilgrimage’ seeking to find a definitive point of contact with Janet Frame’s own experiences and inspiration and to enhance their understanding and appreciation of her life and work.

In recognition of the valuable work of the Eden Street Trust, the Trust was awarded First Place in the Arts and Culture section of the inaugural Oamaru Community Awards in September 2008.

Very well done indeed!

It was a rewarding experience for our family to be involved in what Janet called the "re-framing" of the old house, which had been long neglected. Mum and Janet advised the JFEST volunteers on the differences between the modern state of the house and its characteristics when their family had rented it. Some "renovations" that had been done to the house were reversed: especially important was the re-installation of that heart of the home, the coal range. The house was reroofed and various repairs carried out. But the house was not completely restored to its original condition, hence the tongue-in-cheek term "reframing".

Special care has also been lavished on the gardens, again following the advice of June and Janet as to the kinds of flowers their family grew. The old pear tree with its two grafted varieties, still bears bountiful fruit. And the quince tree provides enough fruit each year for a batch of quince jelly, jars of which are sold at the house.

Information about visiting the house can be found by contacting the
Oamaru i-SITE Information Centre
1 Thames Street
Oamaru, New Zealand
Phone: +64-3-434 1656
Fax: +64-3-434 1657

There is also a VISIT OAMARU website with more information about the town and environs.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Whitebait Season

Lately the whitebait has been available in the South Island. This seafood delicacy is a rare and expensive treat for a city dweller, and when I have a feed of it I always think of Janet, because she loved her whitebait too. And she had a special recipe; her whitebait patties were the most delicious way to eat whitebait that I ever came across. They were so light, and they melted in your mouth.

There was a saying in our family, "Baby Frame is hungry." Apparently the doctor who had delivered Janet had made that comment about the newborn both to her mother Lottie and to hospital staff, and for 8o years the family kept saying it about Nini/Jean/Janet.

Janet did love her food, but could another reason that the pronouncement was so memorable, have been because it was made by Dr Emily Siedeberg, New Zealand's first woman medical doctor? It seemed to have been auspicious that baby Janet Frame was delivered by such a remarkable person, who quickly became one of the family heroes, along with Michael Joseph Savage, the first Labour Prime Minister, who was the figurehead for the proud New Zealand tradition of Social Welfare.

I used to watch Janet making the whitebait patties, but I never paid attention to the recipe which of course she knew off by heart after a lifetime of preparing them a certain way. I remember she used eggs, and cornflour, which is probably why they were so fluffy and light.

I still haven't found that particular whitebait recipe. I've found a handwritten whitebait recipe Grandma Lottie wrote in her poetry notebook, but it's for something she called 'whitebait savouries', in a baked case, and it doesn't sound as good as the patties.

People sometimes ask if I think we'll discover another Frame novel. Never mind the novel - what about the whitebait pattie recipe?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A catch phrase on my candle

Here's something I wish Janet could have seen.

She didn't shock easily, because she had an enormous ability to imagine multiple possible outcomes in her own life, the lives of other people, and in the world generally. (As does any fine novelist, of course.)

But I don't think even she could have predicted this. I would have enjoyed hearing her say a surprised and embarrassed "Good Lord!"

I found the candle recently while browsing in a religious book store for a gift. It was a Catholic Shop, of the type that Janet and I enjoyed browsing in many years ago when I first discovered Catholicism. Janet became very interested in sharing my journey of education about the Church.

I'm not even sure that this particular appearance of the catchphrase isn't just a coincidence. But the truth is that the catchphrase itself is well embedded into New Zealand (and Australian) culture.

As a former linguist, I've enjoyed watching the growth of the format "An X at Y's Z" in New Zealand popular culture. Hardly a week goes by without some example of it in publishing, online or in the print media.

Of course the link with the original quote is usually tenuous if not non-existent. But there's something uniquely Kiwi (as Kiwi as Janet Frame!) about the flavour of the formula, and I guess that's why it crops up so often.

There have been NZ book titles based on the formula (Aliens at my table: Asians as New Zealanders see them; and A Dagg At My Table: Selected Writings by John Clarke).

Episodes of the cult Kiwi TV cartoon series Bro' Town have been called A Maori At My Table and An Alien At My Table.

Whenever I see fresh examples I collect them, and I have quite a file of them. Just the other day a feature in the Sunday-Star Times by columnist Steve Braunias was given the headline AN ACTOR AT MY TABLE by sub-editors (5 October 2008).

Janet did live to see and be bemused by the growing phenomenon. For instance one year the capping show at the Otago University was titled "A Wombat at my Table".

The quote of course comes from the title of Janet Frame's second volume of autobiography, An Angel at My Table. The autobiography was a bestseller, and the ensuing film adaptation by Jane Campion titled An Angel at My Table served to further popularise the expression.
In her usual self-deprecating fashion Janet used to protest that she was being falsely attributed the expression, which had come first from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. Janet loved Rilke and his poetry. The particular poem was one of his French language ones, found in the collection Vergers.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The triumph of the little serving-maid

A week of celebration is underway, for the 50th Anniversary of the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago in Dunedin. The celebrations culminate next weekend in a literary festival and the launch of Nurse to the Imagination, an anthology of the work of past fellows, including of course, Janet Frame.

I'm looking forward to the launch. One of the Janet Frame texts to be included in the volume, which was edited by my colleague Emeritus Professor Lawrence Jones, is an essay Janet wrote about her experience of returning to Dunedin as Burns Fellow, and of the unaccustomed luxury of receiving a lecturer's salary and an office to write in. She describes the experience as:

"the classic theme of return to the scene of the crime, the triumph of the little serving-maid (I was last in Dunedin as a waitress at the Grand) who is invited to the castle."