Sarah Forster reviews Looking Back – Elspeth Sandys and Renée.
I decided to come to this because I saw Renée at Litcrawl last year and thought what a woman. And I came out with the same opinion, and a much better knowledge of Elspeth Sandys than I had going in.
Mary McCallum was chairing, and had them both read their opening chapters of their memoirs (in Elspeth’s case, her second one). Both dealt with their love of reading. Renée states, ‘Reading was a drug, a spell under which I fell willingly.’
Elspeth’s memoir is about her teenage years into her years in the UK: ‘I’m the bad news my parents never wanted to hear.’ She read Trollope, Dickens, The Cruel Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Moby Dick, Georgette Heyer. Shakespeare. She notes, ‘Is it any wonder I’ve become an expert at pretending I know what I’m talking about?’
Both women were missing parents – Renée’s dad died when she was only two. Renée’s mum had to marry because Renée was born, which saw her seen as inconvenient, while her younger siblings were loved dearly and given opportunities galore. Renée says, ‘She taught me to work, and she taught me to read. And how to manage personal disasters.’ She regrets not having the chance to know her as an adult, as her mum died at 42.
Elspeth’s adoptive mum turned up to her first wedding on tranquilisers – dressed entirely in black, with bold lipstick. She stood out, with her big lot of lipstick. Elspeth learned much later she was extremely intelligent – had topped nursing school and ought to have been running a hospital, rather than a home.
Mary then brought up a story Renée tells in her book – there was a man on her bus who noticed she was a reader, and began giving her his old John o London’s Weekly’s, which opened her mind up to the idea that there were people who wrote books, plays, performed in theatre. At this stage she was 12, and starting paid work, but now she had a possibility.
Elspeth’s source of books was more straightforward – her father was in publishing, and they had all the great writers available to her. However, in her teens she was with three different foster families in the space of three years, so they became more important to her.
We moved, then, from reading to writing. Elspeth married an actor and moved to the UK and wrote on scripts for radio and TV. They moved to the Cotswalds, where anyone who had moved there since the 1640s were seen as interlopers. Their presence there attracted many others – John Hurt, Sam Neill, among others. Hurt bought one of the manor houses and came with his partner. They bought horses, but neither could ride. His partner died after being thrown from a horse during a storm.
Elspeth notes that they entertained every weekend, and it was exhausting – being a mother, writer, wife. Mary asked more about who she learned from – she said Ben Kingsley taught her the most, despite being one of the most difficult people she’d ever known: ‘he was enormously imaginative.’ Meanwhile John Hurt was a ‘devil-angel’.
Living in the village, as the kids make friends at school, they slowly become part of it all – and all goes well until Mrs Whittaker – the upper class – labels them ‘communists’. The upper class counts as Mrs Whittaker. The longhouse they live in is painted as a communist cell.
Back to Renée – a proud lefty. Renée’s explosion of creativity happened when she was 50. She left her husband, became a lesbian, and an activist. She started writing, revues and plays centred on women. Prior to this she had worked doing everything in Napier’s theatres, directing, down to the jobs nobody else wanted. She says, on moving to Auckland, ‘It was like releasing something that had been damped down all those years.’
She had a lot of luck – sent a script to Mercury Theatre on spec, only to be asked for something else – she wrote her play ‘Setting the Table’ in four days. From there on, she was asked to do revues, commissioned for plays, and more. Her play ‘Born To Clean’ was a musical play. She says of the period, ‘I was very very stroppy. I hadn’t had an adolescence. I regret nothing.’
‘Born to Clean’ is about three young women who meet at school, drift apart, then reconnect. It includes a tampon scene – the characters read the wording on a pack of tampons – which Renée was concerned was too far out for people to accept. People laughed so hard, there was a queue for the box office for the rest of the run. It did well all over New Zealand – then filled the theatre every night for a month in Sydney, despite a negative review from a male in the SMH. In Renée’s words: ‘so tough shit’.
Mary then asked Renée whether she thought she would effect change. Renée noted on her two plays where she presented the female POV, that she’d read maybe two things about how women survived in the 1930s: she could see what they did, they went hungry. This is who she wrote about in ‘Wednesday to Come’. And she wrote ‘Pass it On’ about the Waterfront Lockout. She noted this was a tough one to research – the stories were hard to find.
Mary noted for Elspeth and Renée that the nexus of real life and fiction was ‘slippery and fertile.’ She then prompted Elspeth to agree that yes, her novel Obsession is based on she and Maurice Shadbolt’s relationship – Shadbolt enticed her back to NZ to live in the bush. She then said ‘I don’t see much of a difference between memoirs and fiction writing. All fiction is autobiographical.’ For those of you waiting – there will be no third memoir.
The two women held different opinions on whether you ask permission to write about others in your family. Elspeth hasn’t written about her children or her first husband, at her childrens’ request; while Renée doesn’t ask permission.
One last word of wisdom for the genuinely fascinating and wonderful Renée: ‘As soon as you give mothers a name, they become people’. She refers to her mother by her first name throughout – and her sons began doing the same for her once she explained her logic.
I would 100% go to any event featuring Renée in any festival this year. Don’t miss her!
Reviewed by Sarah Forster