Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


“Glory! Glory! There’s the salt!”

The news that Margaret Mahy has written all her stories – for that is what her death means to us as readers, while for her family it is a whole other dimension of inevitable, unfathomable loss -- came to me via Twitter. At first a whisper, then a rustle, and then suddenly words and sentences tumbled down the page as we shared the shock of it. Shock turned to sorrow, which steadily transformed into tribute. People recalled not just indelible lines from life-changing books, but the circumstances of reading them. We remembered where we were, who we were with, and who we were when Margaret cast her spell on us -- as children, as young adults, as parents, grandparents.

I think this is her most powerful gift: to have told stories for everyone. Not for everyone separately, but everyone all at once. The list of her works -- a hundred picture books, twenty volumes of short stories, forty novels –- looks at first glance like a graduated reading programme for a lifetime, one you might work your way through as you grow up. But if you’ve ever read one of her picture books aloud to children – A Lion in the Meadow, say – you know that even her simplest stories carefully make space for the adult alongside the child. The mother in A Lion in the Meadow (an antipodean sister to the mother in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came for Tea) is integral to the story: she paces alongside the child’s creativity, amplifying it, misreading it, defending it, sometimes overmastered by it, but above all bearing witness to it.

Best of all, this adult presence and perspective is not delivered in a winking, over-the-shoulder aside to the adult reader. For as well as making a plea on behalf of the child to the adult reader, it’s Mahy’s great gift to reveal the secret life of grown-ups to the child reader. She dramatizes their flaws, their silliness, their hidden passions, their childish wishes (oh, the dad in Down the Dragon’s Tongue!). No matter how big we are, her books say, we’re still growing up. And no matter how small we are, we matter.

This embracing, inclusive sensibility persists in her novels for pre-teens and adolescents, which make a point of rendering small children, siblings, parents and other grown-ups as real, fully-rounded, plausibly particular people. A teen may be the heart of the story, but each person she meets has a story of their own. Whatever rung we currently occupy on the ladder of time, we all leave the book a little more empathetic, a little more understanding of others, a little more aware of our common humanity and life’s implacable unfolding logic.

Any one of her books thus works as a magic mirror that reflects its readers as they are, as they were, and as they will be -- and with a subtle nudge, as they could and should be.  If there is a moral argument in Mahy’s fiction, it’s a radical, unfettered imperative to be true to your dear, messy self  -- your daring, inquisitive, forthright, brave, forgiving, passionate, loving, and a little bit bonkers self. And to relish it when others do the same.

So you’re a beautiful and slightly stern librarian called Serena Laburnum, and he’s a hairy brigand by the name of Salvation Loveday who’s come to kidnap you. (“What is it when our librarian is kidnapped?” asked a councillor. “Is it staff expenditure or does it come out of the cultural fund?”). Take events in your stride, while insisting on the rules of the library, and soon enough your unlikely ruffian suitor and his gang of robbers will “then and there [swear] that they would cease to be villains and become librarians instead.” This not only leads to a “remarkably well run” library, but gives you permanent secret pleasure, since you’re “more of a robber at heart than anyone every suspected.”

Or you’re a former free spirit, trapped in a respectable suit in a day job, prone to “turning green and going all limp” on account of a large family and money troubles and the ennui of modern life: “I don’t think parties are what they were. I remember parties that went off with a bang and seemed to fill the air with rainbows and parrot feathers.” Suddenly you’re called upon to host a Great Piratical Rumbustification. Rise to the occasion, Mr Terrapin – grow easy in your mind, welcome the chaos, reap the reward and feel “contentment pour into [your] heart like creamy milk into a porridge bowl.”

Always, the answer comes from within, but catalysed by events and encounters from without. A cat crunches down a poetic mouse and unexpectedly discovers a knack for versifying and philosophising. It's a bit hard for the mouse, and a bit of a poisoned gift for the cat, who's not sure he likes this new way of thinking and speaking.

He felt as if his head was full of coloured lights. Pictures came and went behind his eyes. Things that were different seemed alike. Things that were real changed and became dreams.

That's Mahy's face in the mirror, peeking out from behind her character's whiskers. The cursed cat -- "I don't want to make poetry. I just want to be a cat catching mice and sleeping in the catmint bed" -- finds that poetry has its charms: he talks his way out of trouble with a dog, and makes his peace with the cosmic fortune of his new talent.

The cat went on thinking. “I became a poet through eating the mouse. Perhaps the mouse became a poet through eating seeds. Perhaps all this poetry stuff is just the world’s way of talking about itself.” And straight away he felt another poem coming into his mind.

“Just time for a sleep first,” he muttered into his whiskers. "One thing, I'll never eat another poet again. One is quite enough." And he curled up in the catmint bed for a quick kip-and-catnap as cats do.

(NB All three of these stories, at least in the versions I have, were illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, whose anarchic blotchiness strikes just the right chaotic, kinetic tone. Tempted to post a picture or two.).

I love the hidden depths of the stories for younger children, but it’s in Mahy’s teen fiction that things get even richer. The Catalogue of the Universe is one in particular that keeps pulling me back. Angela and Tycho, dreamy girl and geeky-astronomer boy, roaming Christchurch after dark -- what can I say, it’s a catalogue of my universe at a specific point in time and space.  It’s also a spectacularly well-made story.

Nobody can start a story like Margaret Mahy. Here’s how it begins:

One hot summer night Angela woke up and found she could not go back to sleep again for, beyond her closed eyelids, the room was infected with disturbing silver.

Hot… infected… disturbing… it's a subliminal invitation to surrender to a fever-dream disguised as life. We discover that it’s not the moon that woke Angela, but a swishing sound, “a sound like a whispered word.” Out of bed, she fumbles her way around her moonlit bedroom with her eyes closed, a marvelous writerly device that tells us a great deal about her and her world, as she encounters her treasures, an old teddy, an ominous doll, a desk full of exam notes. She opens her eyes and confronts her own beautiful naked self, “for she refused to wear a nightgown in the summer.” Then comes the sound again: “a whispered word, come and gone before it could be understood.”

Now, unlike some of the plainer, more intellectual heroines of the Mahy canon, Angela knows her power lies in her beauty. “She was her own currency and, being desirable, was able to pay her own way in the ferocious world beyond the fox-faced teddy and the smooth stones.” She knows she’s inherited this beauty from her unknown father, about whom her eccentric single mother won’t speak. With Angela on the cusp of adulthood, this “wonderful dowry” is a time-bomb.

And a third time the sound comes, “a sound as gentle as a hand brushing down a velvet curtain.” Angela moves to the window to discover the source: an arresting vision, for her and for us --  her mother, Dido, “scything the lawn by moonlight… like Mother Time herself.” Absurd, marvellous! Angela says as much herself. "I can't think of one other kid I know who'd wake up at two a.m. and find her mother scything the grass."

I can't think of one other writer I know who'd put that scene in a book set in New Zealand. And look what she's smuggled in. Mother Time. Mother, time. Time for Angela to confront her mother, time to whisper the words she’s been sitting on all these years. Who am I? Who is my father?  Thus the quest begins, both universal and particular; a daughter’s story and the story of a mother, a story of strangeness and estrangement, escape and return.  

And that’s only a tiny, tiny part of what Mahy manages to weave into her scene-setting – there’s so much more in that first short chapter, about the universe, about family, about location, about danger, about Angela's "home that had never quite got as far as being a proper house" (not the other way around, note), before we even get to the second chapter which throws us into Tycho's own disorderly, star-gazing life. Every time I read this book, I linger over that opening. I’m both bewitched by the story and dazzled by the writing. It’s a master class in how to write a first chapter. The chapters that follow only get better.

And then you stumble across a time-warp passage like this, as Angela and Tycho make their way up Colombo St in Christchurch, 1985 or thereabouts:

They were in a street where people had once come to shop, and indeed some of the old shops were still there, hanging on in an insecure and seedy fashion, even the new stock in their windows looking out-of-date and unwanted. All around them the street was changing. Old buildings were beaten down to rubble during the day, vanishing entirely overnight. High wooden fences sprang up, set with little windows so that curious passers-by could peer through them and watch the birth of car parks, drive-in liquor stores, and office blocks. Heavy trucks drove up with huge revolving drums on their backs, and began spewing out grey porridgy torrents of concrete, which waiting men immediately began to spread into place. Suspended above the new surfaces, which were in the process of being created, were walkways of wood, heavy planks along which men could push barrows – a maze hanging above the tender new crust of the city.

A maze, hanging. Amazing. Not just poet, but prophet.


So this morning, I put on a silly hat covered with leaves and flowers (the next best thing, me not being in possession of a rainbow afro wig), and talked to a classroom of six year olds about the legend who had just passed. The headline in the paper, which some of them had seen, called her a “giant”, which they found persuasive.  When I asked them to guess how many books this giant woman had written, they shouted “A THOUSAND!!!” -- which felt close enough.

I read them The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate. I’d grabbed it off the shelf that morning in a rush to get to school. It’s not an easy book – Mahy doesn’t write down to children, she writes up to them – but it seemed a suitable choice for a seaside school, a little man and his mother on an optimistic pilgrimage towards the ocean despite various obstacles and doubters."The wonderful things are never as wonderful as you hope they'll be," grumbles a philosopher. "The sea is less warm, the joke less funny, the taste is never as good as the smell."

The robust pirate mother isn't having any of that. She knows where she's going, and her downtrodden son looks perkier the closer they get. “Yes, it’s blue in the sunshine,” she rhapsodises, “and it’s grey in the rain. I’ve seen it golden with sunlight, silver with moonlight and black as ink at night. It’s never the same twice.” She’s talking about the sea, of course, but she might as well be talking about the book itself. Even though I know it’s coming, the moment when they finally see the sea gets me every time.

“Glory! Glory! There’s the salt!” cried his mother triumphantly.

Suddenly they came over the hill.


Suddenly there was the sea.

Whoever designed the book knew that you need a double-page spread of Margaret Chamberlain’s gorgeous illustration at that point. Not just to demonstrate the “BIGNESS of the sea”; not just to capture the transformative effect of it on the little man in his brown suit -- “He opened his mouth, and the drift and the dream of it, the weave and the wave of it, the fume and the foam of it never left him again.” But also by way of a pause, so that the adult reader can take a deep breath and stare very hard at something for a minute or so, in order to be able to keep reading thereafter.

Every damn time.

(An aside: the only other New Zealand book that regularly does this to me is Bob Kerr’s magnificently simple, simply magnificent and inexplicably out of print After the War. It has one particular page that’s like a bayonet to the belly, which thankfully usually bypasses the younger readers. I was glad to discover via Google that Mahy and Kerr collaborated at least once).

After reading the story, I told the kids to be sure to look around at home for gold earrings and shiny cutlasses and silver pistols, just in case their own mothers were also secretly pirates. There was a pause and then several hands shot up and a little voice asked, point-blank, with just exactly the right amount of suspicion and scepticism, “Are YOU secretly a pirate?”

Suddenly I stared back at them, not quite sure myself.

Suddenly, I was.


Thank you, Margaret Mahy, poet, pirate, writer, mother, giant, for your magical, transformative gift.

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