Stevan Eldred-Grigg, My History, I Think
Stevan Eldred-Grigg, historian, novelist and memoirist, is one of the most interesting, original and thought provoking authors at work in New Zealand today. He began writing short stories while studying at Canterbury University and following his graduation with a PhD in History from the National University of Australia, returned to New Zealand in 1978 to write fulltime.
Since then he has demonstrated an impressive facility in both the history and fiction and now memoir genres. A central preoccupation in his writing has been the history of wealth and class, in late colonial New Zealand, notably the experience of Canterbury landowners from whom he descends on the paternal side - A Southern Gentry: New Zealanders Who Inherited the Earth (1980), A New History of Canterbury (1982), Pleasures of the Flesh (1984) and Siren Celia (1989)a satirical comedy of colonial Canterbury mores and manners.
In the late 1980s his focus shifted away from ‘white male’ history to working class women. His mother was a factory worker and his first novel Oracles and Miracles (1987) originally conceived as an oral history project, was based on interviews with working class women and his mother and aunt’s stories. The Shining City (1991) and Mum (1995) continued the family trilogy tracing Ginnie’s son’s passage from childhood to adolescence - based perhaps on the author’s life - and continuing the critique of his mother in the final book. Concurrently he was interviewing the people who survived the Ballantynes department store fire of 1947, which killed 41 people. The result Gardens of Fire (1993) was strongly sympathetic towards the workers who lost their lives. Since then Eldred-Grigg’s subjects have ranged from the historical to the contemporary, the working class to the wealthy; Working People (1990) The Rich (1996,) Diggers Hatters and Whores (2008) about the colonial gold rushes, Shanghai Boy a contemporary novel about a gay love affair between a New Zealander and a young Chinese man and more recently a controversial history, The Great Wrong War about the ‘murderous years of the First World War.’
Controversy often swirls around Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s books. His highly imaginative and opinionated interpretations, enlivened with superb anecdotal material have provoked intense reactions that range from vitriol to affectionate admiration. Reviews of My History I think as quoted on his website, which incidentally categorises the memoir under fiction, cite the praise of David Hill; ‘He proves yet again that he’s one of our finest recorders of domestic landscapes… always thoughtful, frequently vulnerable, constantly quotable’ and the scorn of Gerry Webb; ‘slackly written, repetitious, preposterous, vain, snobbish, self-consciously mannered, irritatingly evasive, world weary.’' He can also infuriate the more careful recorders of history. He writes in My History, I think that not many historians concur with my findings, ‘His stuff’s a bit slapdash,’ said someone, once. ‘He writes not for the meaning but the sound.’
Yet it is precisely this artistic flair that makes his writing so appealing. He is working on an article for the New Zealand Journal of History, within the pages of the memoir and the quoted passages are dazzling, expressive, energetic, pleasurable. He describes cup day, in Christchurch in 1905:
A throng of ladies from the leading families of Canterbury, Otago, Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay gathered under a blue sky to watch their horses run. Rose Moorhouse Rhodes, envied and beautiful, swept backwards and forwards in a gown of pale cashmere layered with cream lace and silk. Draped over the gown was a white coat of embroidered satin. Her head had been crowned by the labour of her lady’s maid and a personal hairdresser with a cream crinoline hat, which nodded under pink ostrich feathers, while in one gloved hand she carried a frilled chiffon parasol.
‘Mrs Acland, Mrs Acton-Adams,’ she murmured. ‘How do you do?’
‘Splendidly, my dear,’ was the reply. ‘And you?’
‘Oh perfectly. Of course.’
The novel that provoked the most intense debate was Blue Blood, a work he described as ‘speculative fiction,’ based on research, interviews with key people who had been intimately associated with author Ngaio Marsh and intuition. In the novel the famous writer is positioned at the centre of what could have been one of her own crime detective stories, portrayed as the prime suspect in the murder of two Christchurch women. It was this depiction of a socially insecure young woman desperate to find her artistic niche, who was also sexually divided and finding escape through cross dressing and an affair with a young shop assistant that scandalized readers and led to a television news item debating whether Eldred-Grigg had cruelly defamed one of our national icons. The author, unruffled by the furore maintained, ‘It is a fantasy but one which I believe comes close to the emotional truth about Ngaio Marsh.’
As might be expected of a perceptive and original writer My History I think does not deliver conventional autobiographical fare. There is no comprehensible chronicling of a life, proceeding from birth to the moment the writer lays down the pen. Instead we are treated to a postmodern collage of impressionistic scenes, dialogues, passages from the author’s histories and the novels that have inspired him, along with musings about some of the people he has known and his preoccupations as a writer and a provocative thinker. This makes for a fascinating but also tantalising and occasionally disruptive reading experience. He uses messages on his answerphone as a device to introduce people, both the living and the dead and the writing slips in and out of different time frames often in rapid succession. In one page he is on a writing residency at the University of Iowa, he is back home in Christchurch dissatisfied with the first draft of a history article and he is in his kitchen receiving news his university friend Frank has wasted away and died in Sydney, without the author being aware of the illness. ‘Frank dead. How could he die and me, his friend, not feel it? I felt sick. I felt cheated.’ Struggling with the loss of a man who has shared a history with the author, the memoir devotes many pages to Frank, he takes his three sons to Pizza Hut because he can’t face cooking.
The memoir touches only briefly on episodes in childhood, where some of the richest memoir material commonly lies, deliberately screening off those parts of his life that are not up for discussion. He comments, “Writers can hide very nicely behind their characters. I have hidden myself all my life. I like to hide…” But what he does offer is compelling. The description of his birth, based on his mother’s retellings, is sheer bravura. His mother laboured in a taxi on the way to hospital in Greymouth, her screams, ‘filled the interior of the taxi… the driver gunned his motor… The taxi bucketed down the Grey Valley, its black wheels spinning under the shadow of dark mountains, damp and dripping forests… The head of the baby had already forced itself out of the slippery hole between her legs by the time the driver screeched to a halt on the asphalted circle in front of the Grey.” A glimpse of the childhood imaginative play that engaged him and his siblings likewise displays the writer’s skill. In the lounge of the family home in Westland there was a solid upright piano which the children treated as a stagecoach.
The two girls would dress themselves in gowns and high-heeled shoes, like colonial ladies of Canterbury, or saloon women of the Wild West, while the boys would offer an arm.
‘Help you up, ma’am?’
‘Thank you, cowboy.’
The girls teetering on their heels, stepping onto the piano stool, would mount the keyboard. I, dressed as a dude from back East, would clamber into position beside them. I really was a dude from back East, as far as I was concerned, I was not a Coaster, I was a cultivated person from Canterbury. My brothers would climb onto the piano, one to take up the reins, the other to ride shotgun and defend the bullion and the womenfolk from attack by the Kelly and Burgess gang.
An overarching component of the memoir is the author’s development as a writer. One strand contains a critique of conventional history and the detractors of his work. These arguments reveal his vulnerability to criticism and his insecurity. In reaction he lashes out. The feminist historian Charlotte McDonald, whom he believes thinks of him as a ‘charlatan,’ and her book A Woman of Good Character: Single Women as Immigrant Settlers in Nineteenth-century New Zealand (1990) is subjected to a withering analysis,‘Her words are flat. Her choice of words seem seldom to concern her.’ Naturally the selection and arrangement of words on the page, matter to this wonderful wordsmith but whether this justifies the public humiliation of a colleague is questionable. Quoting her concluding sentences he slams them for their failure to say anything remarking sarcastically; ‘How moving. How profound.’
Another strand, one I particularly enjoyed, was his actual wrestling with the writing discipline and craft. Using the article draft as a reflexive device to reveal these challenges, he describes the obstacles that slow the progress of a text, the phone that rings and the answerphone messages that distract and derail, the stalling caused by a break to check sources and notes sending him off on a different thought tangent. He identifies a universal frustration when a text won’t settle into a satisfying shape and his struggle with perfectionism and the resulting restlessness and displacement activities. He scrolls up and down the screen, he leaves his study and walks outside into a courtyard of pink tiles and limestone walls with ‘big terracotta pots imported from Italy’ and planted with ‘costly’ cypresses and cordyline albertii, or he admires the parkland and river that surrounds his house, ‘its beeches and lindens and weeping willows, dipping softly into the river.’ Then after all the effort expended, he announces at the end of the book, ‘my story of the rich remains unwritten.’
My History I think offers useful lessons around the management of material. Sometimes life writers find there are too many stories clamouring to be told and in trying to pin them down the story can swiftly become tedious and irrelevant. My advice is to let go of the idea that a memoir should faithfully include and confess all and consider instead what experiences, events and personal interests and preoccupations are important. It is helpful to identify themes that are pertinent, condense areas that don’t hold any narrative interest and skip over others altogether. In this memoir the author’s eighteen-year marriage is limited to a brief outline and his wife remains virtually invisible, confined to a few economic sentences where he explains that they had married in Christchurch and then he had flown back to Canberra to complete his doctoral thesis. On his return they went to live in Northland although it was not his destination of choice but his wife, ‘a doctor, had chosen to advance her career by taking a temporary position in Northland. I was conscious that our decision to wed had committed each of us to a certain loss of choice. The calculus of marriage is that limited losses are offset by a novel profit.” A few pages on he terminates the story; ‘My wishes were few. To write. To father. To furnish a white house on a green riverbank. Wishes which have all come true. Children have been born. Home has been formed. Novels, essays and articles, and several works of history have been written.’ And that’s it. He has condensed a significant part of his life into a page of writing and although the summary might seem slightly clinical he has protected his wife and their relationship from prying eyes. Perhaps he decided this was the best solution. Since his marriage he has had close relationships with gay partners. To explore the origins of his homosexual development in this book would have been a betrayal to his wife and young sons, at the time of writing.
In my courses I sometimes set a self-portrait exercise asking writers to be searching and honest in their appraisal. Stevan Eldred-Grigg shows how this can be done when he swivels that super-critical gaze from the colleagues and people he finds wanting, upon himself. This is a ruthless, unsparing portrait of an at times unlikeable, insufferable man. He is conceited and a snob, not unlike the characters in his histories. He lives in aesthetically beautiful surroundings that matter a lot to him, is obsessed with his personal appearance and finds himself attractive. His wardrobe is important; he likes to wear Ralph Lauren shirts and ‘a Country Road outfit, twill trousers and shirt finely striped in white and grey, a shirt of which I was very fond.’ He also hints at an obsessive streak liking order and neatness. ‘I am so neat that I am almost a caricature of my own neatness.’
So why would you read this book? Because, in my opinion, it offers a complex and multi-dimensional portrait of an important New Zealand writer who has the courage to expose the shallow and shadow side of his personality, revealing the petty, dark, neurotic thoughts that most of us work hard to hide under a superficial layer of pleasantries and nice manners. In doing so he reveals his vulnerability and simple humanity. This is the work of a talented historian and novelist whose imaginative restaging of scenes and people from the past makes us think hard about our history and the ways it has been conceptualised and framed in the past and the alternative more interesting ways it might be written in the future.
When I read My History I think I was inspired wanting to re-read the books I had enjoyed and sample those I had missed. And he made me eager to return to my own writing and to the pleasure of experimenting with words on the page.
Around the middle of the memoir Stevan Eldred-Grigg quotes a passage from The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh, one of his favourite authors; ‘He had no wish to obliterate anything he had written, but he would dearly have liked to revise it, envying painters, who are allowed to return to the same theme time and time again, clarifying and enriching until they have done all they can with it.’ Stevan Eldred-Grigg has been highly productive since the 1994 publication of My History I think. I hope he will return to the memoir genre and continue his thoughtful discussion.
 Stevan Eldred-Grigg, My History I think, Auckland, Penguin, 1994:95
 ibid: 17.
 Christopher Moore, ‘The night blue blood flowed,’ Weekend, The Press, Christchurch, May 17, 1997:5.
 Stevan Eldred-Griggop cit:153.
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