Linda Burgess and Michael Hurst with quite different takes on a new book by New Zealand-born actress, playwright and writer Barbara Ewing.
This is a memoir very much written from the perspective of the present; evocative, authentic, humorous and poignant. Barbara Ewing approaches her subject via a series of diaries she kept all through her teenage years – 2,400 entries to be exact. The diaries are, by her own admission, “adolescent, sentimental, excessive and self-obsessed”. But, courageously, she perseveres and the book becomes a thoughtful exploration not only of what it was like for a teenager growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s, but also of the nature of memory itself: its slipperiness, its inexactitude, and its ability to both embellish and, often conveniently, forget.
It’s not an exhaustive biography. She doesn’t reveal everything about her life or even walk through it in a particular order, but as she reflects on her experiences growing up in a New Zealand that was, for all intents and purposes, closed on Sundays, you get the feeling that she is sitting in the room with you, just over there by the window, telling her story and sharing her thoughts on it.
Barbara and I have some territory in common, beginning in a chronological sense with the Hammer Studios film Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, released in 1968. It was R16 but I managed to sneak in with a friend, and as we watched Christopher Lee have his evil technicolour way with her, my friend nudged me and whispered, “she’s from New Zealand”. I’m not sure how he knew (the only other New Zealand actress I was aware of at that time was Nyree Dawn Porter), but I’ve been a Hammer Horror fan ever since. Moreover, Barbara and I are both actors, we both love theatre and we both grew up in a New Zealand that, even in 1966 when I arrived here as an eight-year-old Lancashire lad with a funny accent, still had a foot firmly lodged in the 1950s. This was was a bucolic, butter-laden little Britain at the bottom of the world and, even though the search for our identity had begun, England was still generally thought of as the place to be if you wanted real success (think Nyree Dawn Porter). It was there, Barbara observes, that “the most valued art and poetry and writing and theatre was created and appreciated”.
At 14, though, and still in Wellington, Barbara was lucky enough to meet Madame Maria Dronke, a successful German/Jewish actress who had had to flee Germany during the 1930s. It was a meeting that changed her life. “Maria was a terrific teacher with a big, theatrical personality of a kind we hadn’t experienced before” with a “fantastic knowledge of the craft of acting” and of “using words and the rhythm of a good poem so that, no matter how difficult it is, it makes sense”. Years later Barbara saw the great Paul Scofield play King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company with Peter Brooks directing and was stunned by his performance. She had a revelation: “I had at last seen… what acting could mean,” she writes. “Our job was to understand, to illuminate and to share everything: comedy, tragedy, everything in between – but always with heart truth.” I loved reading this stuff.
But she covers much more territory than just theatre and the arts. There were the young men to deal with, there was the issue of sex (“that silliness” according to her mother), there was the advent of rock and roll, the rise of communism, the latent, unacknowledged racism (signs on boarding houses still said “No children, Maoris or dogs”), Barbara’s Uncle Harry ruined by the war, her struggles to make and keep friends, the strangeness to us of there being absolutely nothing to do in the evenings or on weekends, no restaurants or bars, six o’clock closing, the welfare state – all of these aspects of that remote place called New Zealand in the 1950s provide a fascinating current for young Barbara to navigate. And from her 21st century perspective, she is in constant dialogue with the diaries, commenting on them, processing what she wrote, adding material from her later years as they become relevant, and always including us in the discussion.
It isn’t long before her complex relationship with her mother, Jean, swims into focus. Like so many women of the time, Jean was expected to give up any career prospects upon marrying and become a “happy homemaker”. In the event, this filled her with resentment, becoming a deep and lasting anger and finding expression in the way she treated her teenage daughter. “When she screamed at me the devastating criticisms that became more and more repeated and familiar… I was afraid of her. I was afraid of her hysterical, uncontrolled screaming.” The diary entries tell it all: “Mum is absolutely nauseated by me”, “she left me heaving with wracking sobs”, “she domineers… until I wanted to scream… she rules me.”
But dominating as it was, there was far more to Barbara’s teen life than this single relationship, and the diaries reveal how adept (and guilt-stricken) she became at lying to both her parents in order to keep her two worlds – family life on the one hand and a much freer, burgeoning student life on the other – completely separate.
Barbara was struggling to find her identity. “Who am I?” she writes, and at one point she becomes physically ill with the stress of it all. “I must pull myself together… my legs sort of feel unsteady underneath and I keep feeling sick and giddy. I am so tired.”
Modern Barbara asks, “what was I doing?” and notes that the diaries are actually the “record of a teenager suffering from a kind of anxiety which wasn’t recognised in those days”.
At home she was “not allowed to mention Māori things”, yet by the time she was 18, Barbara had developed an enduring relationship with te ao Māori. It began when she was seven years old and had to spend a summer as the only Pākehā pupil at the Maungatapu Native School, near Tauranga. “There was always laughter and singing and the sound of this soft, strange language.” This time was an “echoing thing” in her life – “the heavy, hot, summer scent of macrocarpa trees all along the dusty road to school and the cicadas singing”. Beautiful.
In 1957, while secretly studying te reo Māori at Victoria University, and at the very moment that she felt she had somehow fractured her psyche, she met and fell in love with a “strikingly beautiful” Māori man, Mikaere Rangi. It was a perfect storm. “I know – now – that there are all kinds of love,” she says, “many much happier and ultimately more fulfilling than ‘falling in love’. But it exists, that falling. And I fell.”
She certainly did, and as she deals with this love that roared through her life, we see young Barbara become the newly grown-up Barbara through the eyes of older Barbara who candidly shares her thoughts and reflections with us as. It’s a powerful, slightly dislocating experience, but I found it fascinating.
Ewing writes that “we can only know the real plot of the story of a life, how one event led to another, in retrospect – and even then only perhaps if we have a clear enough record”. The record she candidly examines of those formative years in her own life, years full of heartache and yearning, frustration and delight, years in which she was at times crippled with anxiety and a desperate desire to know more, has given her (and us) a deeper understanding of how we “become”, of how our memories flicker in truth but can be rewritten, rearranged or even erased to suit the needs of our present.
On page 228 of her memoir, Barbara Ewing writes: “my total inability to express anything openly is scattered all through the diaries”. This is possibly the most important sentence in the book: it’s not just a reflection on her own diaries, but on diaries in general.
Barbara Ewing takes an interesting risk with her memoir. The New Zealand-born, London-based actor and prolific writer has had considerable success in both fields over the last 60 odd years. She’s been an indefatigable diarist since 1951, when she turned 12. Extraordinarily, unlike most of us early diarists who lasted till about March 21, she not only continued recording her life from then on, but she also kept her diaries. She admits that it’s a sort of addiction. The risk? She uses large pieces of text from those diaries, interspersed with an overview, a reflective commentary, that she writes now.
On two levels, Ewing is her own editor. As I was reading her guileless early words – who she likes, how people see her (good actress, terrible flirt, constantly at odds with her mother) – I was reminded of writing my own diary at 16, and what I left out. However private diaries with their little locks are intended to be, however honest the account, most young diarists write with the covert expectation they’re going to be read by someone else, be it their curious mother or their sneaky little sister. Anne Frank wrote hers in the hope that it would be read, but she was writing in very different times from Ewing, living comfortably in mid 20th century New Zealand. Like Frank, like most diarists, the young Ewing works not only at recording her times but at creating a persona. Nearly 70 years later she’s of course still doing that: choosing which parts to use now, choosing how to depict herself, choosing what to comment on.
What is most interesting about Ewing’s young life is not only that she chose a young Māori as a significant other (a relationship resembling Heathcliff and Cathy’s in its fitfulness) but that she also studied Māori at university. Understandably, this forms the backbone of the memoir. Only those who were young in the 50s and 60s will know how unusual the latter was. Her interest in te reo was gently nudged by holidaying in Maungatapu when young, where Māori boys rode bareback on horses, and by people who became significant in her life. Well before her relationship with Mikaere, she’d met Violet, a young Māori housemaid in the hotel in which Ewing had a holiday job. It’s one of Ewing’s first experiences of racial discrimination – in spite of Violet’s obvious ability, her career expectations are far different from Ewing’s. Māori teacher Beth Ranapia is a significant mentor. And after finishing her degree, before leaving to find fame in the UK, Ewing works with the Department of Māori Affairs.
It’s the relationship between Ewing and her mother that resonates most, and it’s strongly linked to the choices Ewing makes. Her mother is not atypical of her time: she’s racist, snobbish, is appalled at Ewing having a Māori boyfriend, and is generally judgmental and finickity. That, in the 30 years since her mother died, Ewing has chosen to not forgive her, lingers. Her father, a gentle man who later in life separates from his wife, gets treated far more generously. Strong women, determined women, are all too often very hard on their mothers.
I like the idea of this book, the older woman revisiting her young self. Generally, it works. Ewing is an intelligent and analytical observer of her own life, and an honest one: there’s evidence of how much pain she and her family caused Mikaere when late in life he refused to acknowledge her brother. But as in many memoirs, there’s a frustration for the reader: I know her, yet I don’t. Oddly enough it’s the sense of knowing her well that caused a frisson of irritation in me, with the young Ewing that is, not the wise insightful older woman. Why on earth didn’t she get out of that on-again-off-again relationship sooner? Barbara – you need to give the young you a good talking-to.
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