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BooksMay 30, 2017

On writing a memoir: a brief essay by Tony Simpson


Long-time political insider Tony Simpson has written his 17th book – this time about himself, and the times he lived through. 

Writing a memoir is almost the only human activity I can think of which is literally and by definition a once in a lifetime experience. Of course you get the occasional smart-arsed maverick. Cyril Connolly published Enemies of Promise when he was only 35. But by and large you get one crack at it. It’s also quite distinct from an autobiography; someone in the New York Review of Books recently described it as anecdotes strung along a fence of significances. That might be true, but there’s another thing about it which defines it even more clearly. It very firmly underlines the well-known writers’ trope that you don’t know what your book is about until you’ve finished writing it.

In my own case that amounted to the shocked realisation that the world in which I had grown up and which had often been central to my own daily activities had almost completely ceased to exist over my 70 or so years. I don’t know what I expected but this was not it.

These are quite commonplace things I’m talking about. The sort of corner dairy my parents owned at one stage and in which I had worked during my mid adolescence. Suburban shopping centres which invariably included businesses such as a butcher, a hairdresser and a tobacconist and newsagent and to which I regularly rode my bike to pick up the family’s weekly order of women’s and children’s English magazines. Pubs that shut at six. The clink of bottles as milkmen delivered milk and bread to the gate in the early morning. The RSA as an arbiter in the land. Amateur rugby at the national level. Somehow or other all these things had slipped away without my noticing. I had been far too busy living the life that the book is describing to do so.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t suffer from the nostalgia which appears to infect some of my own generation when they look back. In many ways the 1950s in particular were very far from being a lost paradise. New Zealand has never been “a lovely place to bring up the kiddies” as continuing demands for an enquiry into the historical abuse of children in care bear witness.

There were quite a few losers as well as winners in that past world. The disappearances were neither good nor bad in themselves. Some were one thing and some the other; some were paradoxically both. Who would want to return to a world in which many banks adamantly refused to train women for management roles “because they’d only leave to get married”? Or one in which Māori males, if they were lucky, were firmly steered in the direction of the non-academic and technical stream at high school; it was a waste of time doing otherwise, my GP once blithely and casually informed me “because they only go back to the mat”. I can think of a few people who would but not me.

In my own case I don’t have much to complain about – although that doesn’t stop me. That society gave me a more or less free university education which allowed me to make the long haul from working to middle class and a comfortable life which didn’t require me to work in the rain although it was a bit of an obstacle course to get there, as the book bears witness. But for others it was a chamber of horrors. The point that I’m making is that it simply isn’t there any more and I had to write a 439-page book to realise, as the title says, I was only along for the ride when something much more important to us all was going on.

That I was going to end up scrapping in public with Muldoon, representing the staff of the royal palaces as their union advocate, getting a box seat on two decades of political and economic change from within parliament, and even, ultimately eating a bear in Slovenia I never knew in advance, but it seemed interesting enough in retrospect to be worth the telling. I still think so, but it wasn’t the real story of what was actually happening all around me to the society I appreciated and adored.

Along for the Ride by Tony Simpson (Blythswood Press, $48) is available at Unity Books.

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