James McNeish, novelist, playwright and biographer, lives in New Zealand. He is the author of over 25 books and plays, and his work has received acclaim both in New Zealand and internationally. In the 1960s he worked in London’s Theatre Workshop, known for its socially committed drama, wrote and presented feature and documentary programmes for BBC Radio, and wrote for The Guardian and The Observer. As critic Denis Welsh has observed, the ‘themes close to the writer’s heart [are] the nature of justice, the quest for truth, race relations, prison rehabilitation, and the reliability of memory’. In 2010 he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Non-Fiction. He was knighted for services to literature in 2011.
The New Zealand Listener noted that McNeish’s standing is ‘perhaps unique among New Zealand writers in the facility with which he has moved back and forth between fiction and non-fiction’, while The New Zealand Herald has identified him as ‘A major figure in New Zealand literature . . . His writing is masterful, his attention to detail and his ear for long-ago conversations extraordinary. Most of all, he writes with an emotion that touches the spirit.’
In an interview in Weekend (26 June 2010), McNeish admitted: ‘I’ve always been an outsider, and I’m quite comfortable with that. To retain your critical sense in a small society like New Zealand, you have to stand apart.’
Touchstones, described in D Scene as ‘part autobiography, part reverie, part family history but entirely entertaining’, met with critical acclaim, and won over a new generation of readers. ‘Like a bird migrating into the past, James McNeish touches down on moments, hovers over their meanings, then hurries on in this nimble narrative. As a first-time reader of McNeish, Touchstones . . . left me wanting to read more.’ — Capital Times
As many reviewers have commented, Touchstones offers not just an insight into the origins of McNeish the writer, but also encapsulates his modus operandi: ‘This enchanting work . . . offers snippets of a rich, well-told life story . . .Touchstones are vignettes; half-remembered encounters and never to be forgotten moments. It is a book which roams widely, but never loses its direction. It offers glimpses, but makes you feel you have a sense of the whole of the man. It’s a wee gem of a book,’ D Scene wrote.
In reviewing Touchstones, New Zealand Books said ‘the voice in which it is written — compassionate, humorous, knowledgeable, sane, wise — has been distilled out of a lifetime of action and commitment, an engagement with the real world, a conviction that writing isn’t something that exists for itself but as a tool with which we can make change happen. Such voices are rare and now, more than ever, we need them — as much as we need the very air we breathe.’ The reviewer went on to say: ‘One of the enticing things about McNeish as a writer is, precisely, his ambivalence as to whether he really does want to know all; along with a suspicion that such knowledge may not finally be possible: his innate scepticism, mixed with an insatiable curiosity, makes an unlikely thriller out of his inquiry into the most of ordinary of circumstances.’
McNeish told the Christchurch Weekend Press that Touchstones is ‘a kind of disguised autobiography, a bit like Dan Davin’s Closing Times’, sharing that memoir’s focus not on the writer but on important people in his life, and also, in McNeish’s case, on an important place.