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  • Published: 30 March 2021
  • ISBN: 9780143776000
  • Imprint: RHNZ Vintage
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $38.00

The Mirror Book


What happens when a writer is born into the family of the writer? What does that do to the writer’s family, to the stories the writer’s family tells itself? Does it mean the fiction of the family is finished?

I was born into a writer’s family of five, my father the writer C.K. (Karl) Stead, my mother Kay, and three children: my older brother Oliver, I in the middle and my younger sister Margaret.

We called our territory ‘the gully’. Our house was a modest white weatherboard bungalow built inside the curve of Tohunga Crescent, an inner-city Auckland street sloping down through overgrown sections and wooden houses to Hobson Bay — the bay, with its slow tides, its mudflats and dreamy mangroves. The Crescent was a dead end, with no through-traffic, beginning at the top near Brighton Road, where some of the houses were built on soft, erosion-prone clay cliffs and had sections that were shrinking, threatening to send whole houses off the edge, and gradually sloping in a half-circle down to the bay, where the last properties sat right at sea level, prone to tides that crept higher and higher across lawns and paths, towards front doors.

Number 37, halfway down the Crescent and just below the sharpest bend, had two gardens, front and back. In the back was the shed where Karl wrote, a plum tree that produced a large crop every year, and a lawn that had a pleasing feature: if you went to the edge of it, at a point below the stone wall, you would find you could roll up the turf, exposing a network of roots and writhing worms. Behind ours and through a giant, sagging hedge was the garden belonging to our neighbours, the Bonnys.

Parnell is a crowded, hilly suburb that used to be full of shabby rentals and railway workers’ cottages, and is now gentrified. Our wider territory was Auckland, Tāmaki Makaurau, place of a thousand lovers, the sprawling city built on an isthmus between two harbours, the Waitematā and the Manukau. From the bottom of Tohunga Crescent you could look across to the Waitematā Harbour and the top of Rangitoto Island, its volcanic rim shouldering up over the horizon. We always said in Auckland you could see Rangitoto ‘from everywhere’; its shape was imprinted in our minds.

Spreading out from the city centre with its collection of office blocks and modest skyscrapers, Auckland was in my childhood (and still is) mostly low-rise, a shanty town, a haphazard jumble of wooden houses, overgrown gardens and meandering streets built around the volcanic cones whose names resonate throughout Karl’s poem ‘Scoria’: Maungawhau, Maungakiekie, Owairaka. A city rain-lashed, scoured by tearing wind, or shimmering and still under a haze of sun, or blazing with photographic clarity under a metallic-blue autumn sky, or sunk in the steamy lethargy of summer humidity; a Pacific city, the City of Sails, an island city, the conditions so changeable it’s always said, ‘If you don’t like the weather in Auckland, wait ten minutes.’

In Tohunga Crescent, down at the edge of the mudflat and just outside his house, Mr Balldick had tethered a large white goat that would knock you down if you didn’t avoid it, and, nearby, Old Balldick had dug a shallow pit in the mud, where ducks swam when the tide filled it. Old Balldick’s beautiful stand of toetoe plumes stood pure white against the sky until the drought-hit summer I was five, when a friend and I, at a loose end, set it on fire and it went up like a bomb, the crackling fronds shooting into the air.

When the fire brigade arrived and one of the kids in the gully named us as culprits, there was a brief court case at our front gate. A fireman in a silver coat and helmet found us guilty and lectured us as we hung our heads and wept. The lesson wore off quickly, though: we went right on playing with matches. We messed around with fire all the time; it was a substance to experiment with, like sand, dirt and water. We had just enough wit not to burn down the house. (I asked Kay about this; she raised an ancient memory of her cousins burning down the hen house at her family farm at Omokoroa.) I have a picture taken by the photographer Marti Friedlander when I was around two years old. If you look closely you can see in my grubby paw a box of matches.

All the houses within the Crescent had gardens, and the curve of the gully created a large area across which we roamed with no respect for territorial boundaries. There weren’t many fences, but if there were, we climbed over them. We had our routes and our trails that extended through the sections, around the bay and across the properties to neighbouring streets that also sloped down to the bay. And there was the bay itself, at low tide an expanse of mud and mangrove, and at high tide a brimming stretch of water, crossed by a concrete storm-water pipe (called by everyone the sewer pipe or the Pipe) that spanned the whole bay, re-joining the land at Ōrākei, on which we could walk, play and even bike. Often we walked far out onto the mudflats to catch the eels that lay under rocks waiting for the tide to come in.

As children we had space and, when we weren’t at school, complete freedom of movement. We lived in a temperate climate, we were unsupervised, we were expected to go out for the day and amuse ourselves, and so home was a place to return to, often reluctantly, to stop in at overnight, to pass through out of necessity. The older we got, the further we ranged and roamed.

Karl was a writer, a poet, novelist, literary critic and academic, and so writers came and went from our house. The poet Allen Curnow lived directly across from us on the Crescent. I remember, as a small child, meeting James K. Baxter (a lordly old hippie who sat on the floor in the upstairs room I regarded as my space; I hated him immediately, he and I glared at each other), and squirming under the mordant, beady eye of Dame Edna’s alter ego, Barry Humphries. The poet Sam Hunt arrived in the gully one day, driving an old ambulance. Perhaps he had his famous dog Minstrel with him; I can’t recall. I still have books and toys given to me by Frank Sargeson (especially Little Richard books and a croquet set) and warm memories of the shy, quavering, tentative Janet Frame. We visited Janet Frame’s house in the South Island once, and when she opened the door she said to me, ‘You’re the one who always called Katherine Mansfield Kathromancefield, all one word.’ She was sensitive about noise, and had piled all the furniture in her modest house around the walls, to keep out unwelcome sound. She lived in a small town; the street outside was empty, completely silent.

Recently, I re-read a short story by Frank Sargeson called ‘An International Occasion’, written when I was three. Set in Mrs Hinchinghorn’s boarding house, it features an irascible Swede named Karl, a woman called Lottie, and Coral, Lottie’s tiny ‘Maori-dark’ child.

After a dinner furiously cooked by Karl (he frog-marches a guest from the kitchen, lest he cause the cake in the oven to sink), Karl and Lottie retire to the bedroom, leaving Coral in the care of Lionel, the lodger who has a predilection for underage girls. One of the occupants is so outraged by this that he sets the house on fire. The story ends with tenants fleeing through the smoke, the old paedophile dragging the screaming, crying Coral by the hand.

The first time I read the story I was puzzled and slightly chilled by it. I forgot about it for years. Then one day, inexplicably, in the middle of writing, I went to the bookshelf and found it. I wondered what to make of it, with its eerily resonant characters, Karl (like my father Karl, fierce, of Swedish descent and comically tyrannical about food), the mother Lottie (my name) and her child who is (as my mother and I are) ‘Maori-dark’.

I consulted The Letters of Frank Sargeson. He mentions the story as containing ‘a kind of Last Supper followed by a kind of Crucifixion’, and says that ‘Lionel’ was modelled on a drifter nicknamed Ponsonby Jack.

I tried to get a fix on the haze of my childhood. Were my recollections real, or had I read them in a book?

The Mirror Book Charlotte Grimshaw

Growing up behind the family façade.

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