A writer’s home in “the kingdom by the sea”

What is it that is so fascinating about seeing inside a renowned writer’s house, touching the desk they used to work at, seeing where they were brought up—pondering on what made such a brilliant mind? Do we writers hope that, somehow, aspects of the inspiration, the writerly brilliance, of the famous one will transfer itself to us?

It seems that all writers are fascinated with the writing habits of other writers, and I am no exception. I remember being riveted, for example, by the chapter in Stephen King’s excellent memoir On Writing in which he described the placement of his desk. I also have a wonderful coffee-table book, simply titled Writers’ Houses, by Francesca Premoli-Droulers and Erica Lennard (Seven Dials, 1999), which allows me to peak inside the homes of Hemingway, Twain, Woolf, Yeats and Sackville-West, among others. Today’s post is my own story of a trip to the home of one of New Zealand’s best loved writers, Janet Frame.

"The kingdom by the sea", Janet Frame's home, Oamaru. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann

“The kingdom by the sea”, Janet Frame’s home, Oamaru. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann

On a week-long trip back to my birthplace in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island this month, I caught a bus to the small seaside town of Oamaru. I wanted particularly to go to Oamaru, not only because I have family who have lived there for up to 80 years,  but also to visit the town where the New Zealand writer Janet Frame spent her childhood, and about which she described in her autobiography as “the kingdom by the sea”.

With my first cousins-once-removed, I had lunch at the oldest restaurant in Oamaru, the 100-year-old Star and Garter (9 Itchen Street), where I had the lightest, tastiest whitebait fritters, the thread-like fish caught locally only that morning. The Star and Garter has hosted many wedding receptions and anniversary parties from the early 20th century, and it has a fascinating wall on which are glued newspaper articles from these weddings. They are pasted at random, so one from 1927 might be next to one from 1972. There’s a great picture of that wall on Real NZ Festival Insider blog here. For more on the restaurant, see this blog: Oamaru Life.

My cousins then took me to the childhood home of Frame, at 56 Eden Street, which she wrote about in several of her works. In typical New Zealand understatement, there is an unassuming plaque at the front, but you can easily miss it from the road and we drove by it at first without noticing it.

IMG_2488IMG_2489This is the house where Frame lived with her parents, three sisters and brother from 1931 to 1943. I was surprised—though I’m not sure why—to hear they hadn’t owned the house: it was a long-term rental property. They moved in when Frame was seven, and the four sisters shared a room and a double bed, as was common in those days, while their brother had his own room.  The house is not large, particularly for a family of seven, but the rooms are generously proportioned, the ceilings high. “This is because it was built in pre-Second World War times,” the guide told us.

Frame-newThere is no photography allowed inside, but these book marks show what it is like. The upper shows the girls’ bedroom, while the lower is Frame’s desk, which she donated to the house when it was being restored. The desk, of course, is from a later part of her life when she was living elsewhere. During the restoration, Frame herself visited the house and was asked if there was anything she would add to it. An old range would be a good addition to the kitchen, she said, and one was duly bought.

In many ways, Frame had a tragic life, with two of her sisters dying young, and many years spent in psychiatric institutions having been misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and even scheduled for a pre-frontal lobotomy at one stage. As is the case with so many people with brilliant minds, they do not conform to the norms that society expects. I love this quotation from her childhood diary: “They think I’m going to be a schoolteacher but I’m going to be a poet.” You can read more about Frame’s life here.

As might be expected in such a small town, my relatives knew the guide on duty that day. They didn’t know Frame herself, but my cousins knew or know several people connected with the family, and it was intriguing to hear them talking not of Frame as the great writer I know from books and films, but in terms of who was related to whom, and who went to school with whom and where they might be now, who they had married and what they had studied at uni, and so on.

A highlight of the house is the 1930s free-standing radio, set up to play a real tape of Frame actually reading from her writing about 56 Eden St. As she describes her mother standing in the dining room by the light of the window, you can gaze, eerily, at just the spot Frame is talking about.

I’ve read some of Frame’s books, including Owls Do Cry, The Lagoon and Other Stories, and To The Is-Land.  I’ve also read Michael King’s seminal biography Wrestling With the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (Viking, 2000). Several new works by Frame have been published posthumously, too. including the latest, Between My Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories (2012, also published as Gorse is Not People). She left her entire estate, including manuscripts and publishing rights to all her works, to the Janet Frame Literary Trust, which she formed in 1999. I was interested to read on the trust’s website  that the literary part of her estate is managed by the legendary Wylie Agency of London and New York. Janet Frame’s literary estate also runs An Angel @ My Blog that has all the latest publishing information.

On a personal note, seeing the house and feeling surrounded by quotations from Frame’s evocative writing has made me want to go back and read more. So, I add more titles to my ever-expanding summer reading list.

I will leave you today with a quotation written by Frame, showing that she had moved into the electronic age and had embraced it. To NZ writer and editor Elizabeth Alley, she said in an email: “I really love emailing, it’s like writing a poem in the sky.”

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Angry Mr Smith: A Parable

'Venice Beach, sunset', pastel painting © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

Mr Smith was an angry man. There didn’t seem to be any good reason for his anger: it just was.

He felt angry when his neighbour got a bigger, newer SUV than him; he felt angry when his brother got the latest smart phone and boasted about all its apps; he felt angry when the woman over the road bought a cinema-sized TV screen; he didn’t feel happy for colleagues who got promotions—he felt only anger that HE hadn’t got that promotion; he felt angriest of all when the neighbour with the big TV sold her house and moved to a much bigger one in a better suburb closer to the city.

Mr Smith took his anger out on random people he didn’t know. One day, as he was driving his big vehicle with its bull bars on the front, a woman in a small car cut across in front of him, and he had to brake suddenly. He made a point of driving up beside her at the next intersection.

“Where did you get your licence, lady—out of a cereal packet?” he shouted, shaking his fist.”

“Sorry,” she said, genuinely.

“Aw, get stuffed,” he said, and roared off.

The woman, Ms Jones, knew she had made a mistake, and she really was sorry. She was not herself today because her faithful dog had died that morning unexpectedly, and she was driving home from the vet’s surgery. Of course, Mr Smith couldn’t have known that, but Ms Jones cried all the way home, and felt very alone—more so since she had made a mistake while driving and had been shouted at. All she wanted today was someone to be kind to her.

Eventually, Mr Smith became a manager at his work, and was in charge of 20 people. He was always finding fault with them—most of them were so useless, he thought.

When the sales figures came in for his first year, they were well below what they had been the year before, under kind Mr Tickle. Mr Smith was furious, and he made a plan to get back at the staff. “This will teach them,” he said, fuming. Then he called his staff together and told them their work was not good enough and that they would have to work harder, and take a pay cut, if they wanted to stay. And three of them would have to go anyway: Mr White, Ms Green and Mr Brown. These three had always been very hard workers and had been with the company for many years.

Mr White had had some bad luck: he had a chronic illness for which he needed expensive medication. Even though he had sold his car and his house, when he lost his job he knew he would no longer be able to afford this medication. A year later, he died. Mr Smith said they couldn’t send a card or flowers to his family, because everything the company did had to be cost-effective. And anyway, Mr White no longer worked at the company, so it was not like he was an employee.

One day, Mr Smith had a heart attack, a big one. The doctors told his lovely wife and their three adorable children that he might not pull through and that the next 24 hours would be crucial.

They kept a bedside vigil: although they knew their husband and father was an angry man, they loved him all the same and wanted him to live. The children, Sam, Eliza and John, stood on the left side of the bed, holding his hand. His wife, Jane, sat on the right side, holding his other hand. As Mr Smith stared up at the loving faces, they all started to glow like moonlight; but they were gradually going out of focus, and he knew he was dying.

Without warning, he saw in front of him a burst of forked lightning, and, like a huge wall of TV screens, videos from all his angry outbursts appeared before him, all running together. Beside each screen of him being angry was a video of his victim. There he was, shaking his fist at the errant driver, Ms Jones, and there she was, sobbing as her faithful dog died in her arms. There was Mr White, being told by Mr Smith to pack his things and leave the building immediately; and there was Mr White, dying in pain because he couldn’t afford the medical attention he needed. On and on it went.

All the screens disappeared again, and Mr Smith could just faintly see through the white mist the faces of his wife and children.

Suddenly, he got it—the point of life, and he knew he had failed miserably. He had brought children into the world, but he hadn’t done anything to make the world a better place for them, and for their children and their children, and so on. In fact, he had made the world a worse place for them.

Sorrowfully, he admitted to himself that he had done nothing but take from the world and had let his anger be directed at innocent people who did not deserve it. He had made lots of people miserable. He had been greedy, arrogant and mean.
And now, tragically, just as he saw the error of his ways, it was too late to do anything. If only he could have a second chance to mend his ways. If only he hadn’t left it this late.

Slowly, the faces of his wife and children were coming back into focus. He could not speak to them, but he could squeeze their hands just slightly.

The doctor said he would live for now, but he must change his ways and give up work, and even then, he might not have a long life. Luckily, Mrs Smith had a job, and they decided that if they sold their house and bought a cheaper one, they would be all right.

When he returned home, Mr Smith thought about how he could best use his remaining time. He knew he wouldn’t be able to do anything big, or world-changing. But something was better than nothing.

He had been advised by his doctors to exercise every day, so each afternoon, he set off on an hour-long walk, to the end of his street , where there was a park beside the beautiful beach. Along the way, he smiled at every person he saw and wished them good health. Sometimes, he could see the sorrow and lack of hope in their eyes. But actually, there was barely a person who didn’t smile back just a little.

Before too long, Mr Smith found himself whistling a tune as he walked along. This brought smiles to the faces of passers-by, too. Often, he would see the same people in the same places, and they would exchange a few words. After a while, Mr Smith’s walks turned into two- and even three-hour outings, he had so many friends along the way that he talked to.  They would often tell him their troubles, and he would listen to them. Often, it was dusk by the time he walked home again, and he grew to love this peaceful time of the day, the sinking sun sparkling across the water.

Five years passed, and Mr Smith’s doctor said he was a walking miracle.

 Mr Smith was happy with his life, but he wanted to do something more. So he wrote a book about what he had learned, and how he had once been an angry man, but that nearly dying had helped him to change. He called his book A Walk in the Park.

The book was a runaway success, and it sold a million copies. Mr Smith decided to give most of the money to the park, for all his friends to share. As a result, they set up outdoor chess tables, a speaker’s corner, children’s swings and slides, and a cafe where anyone could have lunch for free.

Soon, other people in various suburbs started to follow the idea in their own neighbourhoods. Then other cities and other states caught on. Mrs Smith and the now almost-grown children were very proud of him, but, mostly, they were so pleased that he was such a happy person to be around. They hardly remembered the angry Mr Smith from years ago. And still, Mr Smith went on his daily walk to the park, smiling at every one he met.

Against all the medical predictions, Mr Smith lived to 95, eventually dying peacefully in his sleep. His local park was renamed Smith Park, and a statue put up in his honour—a man walking along, whistling a tune; a happy man who had made a difference.

Painting: ‘Venice Beach at Sunset’, pastels on board, © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012.