McNeish and Me

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James McNeish and me are bookcase mates. His Tavern in the Town sits in my prime slot next to my The Compleat Cityscapes, among my most referenced Kiwi dictionaries and encyclopaedias. McNeish showed me the writing way.

Over half my life ago I returned from six years in Australia and England as a feature writer and wannabe book writer. For four years I spent lunch breaks in the Gray’s Inn Library in Theobald Road trying to write a childhood memoir like Laurie Lee and Akenfield. The only fellow feature writer to pen books told me you had to specialise, find something you cared about. I had to admit to myself I had not cared much about anything I wrote in England.

On my return in 1973 to see my dying mother, I took a feature writing job to make ends meet. I was shocked at the way a motorway had cut a destructive path through the old Wellington cemetery and stately wooden villas. This was something I cared about.

I still read only overseas, like Sicily in Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard, revelling in Burt Lancaster’s movie version of the dissolute prince. I read Christ Stopped at Eboli  and God Protect Me from My Friends.  I noticed a New Zealander James McNeish had written a biography of the ‘Sicilian Gandhi’, Danilo Dolci. I was surprised, this was adventurous, something that had never occurred to me to try abroad. I was just happy to get a job in London, where I could endlessly indulge myself in other’s achievements at the centre of the real world.

McNeish had also published Tavern in the Town. New Zealand history had not attracted me and I did not expect to get much from a trawl through ramshackle old pubs. Wrong! I didn’t like it, I loved it. This was real-life characters with their own dialogue, impressionistic portraits and vivid descriptions. I’d done student pub crawls around Wellington and remembered nothing. McNeish pub-crawled the country and remembered everything and made it all read like Dickens. This was the way to write about our history.

Evening Post editor Mike Robson liked my indignant letter to a giveaway paper decrying the destruction of Bolton Street Cemetery by the motorway, a concrete stake driven through the heart of Wellington. He asked if I could write a column about Old Wellington. I said I would have a go. Seven years and 244 historical vignettes later I had my first books, combined as The Compleat Cityscapes.

I continued to journey in McNeish’s wake, as he fictionalised our history. I used Mackenzie as I prepared to write about New Zealand outlaws. His pub book was a guide to my Ghost Towns of New Zealand and my West Coast goldfields riots recreation, The Lion and the Wolfhound. I sold the film rights to the latter and when it did not get to film, I turned my script into a novel, The Mock Funeral. McNeish showed the way again.

I met McNeish once, at Circa Theatre, chatting with Keith Ovenden. He had a noble, deeply lined face and a patriarchal air, flowing locks, piercing eyes and hawk nose beneath a high forehead laddered with corrugations, an Old Testament prophet in a Cecil B DeMille Hollywood epic. He was daunting.

I mixed historical fiction and fact and got a taste for reading about those who challenged the Nazis. His Lovelock was an excellent read, its climax at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I was finishing my second novel imagining Nazis impacting on New Zealand and those who opposed them when I heard his lecture about the need for more local espionage fiction. He had explored the subject in his book on Paddy Costello. Once again he was showing me the way.

When I published Tony Simpson’s non-fiction account of Kiwis in end-of-war Trieste, I was addressing the Unity Books crowd at the launch and there was McNeish looking fierce in the front row. I lost the thread of what I was saying, just like Patti Smith drying when she was singing Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall at the ceremony in Sweden for his Nobel Prize for Literature award.

Now McNeish is at rest after his long period of inspirational writing about us. We rub print shoulders, but in a version of Leonard Cohen’s song rating Hank Williams 100 floors above.

Image: his wife’s photo of McNeish in my 1984 edition of Tavern in the Town.