Although she grew up poor with a solo mother, the career of New Zealand playwright and author Renée seems, in retrospect, to have been pre-determined.
Why? Because of the love of reading which filled her childhood years.
In this lecture, Renée, aka Renée Gertrude Taylor, looks back over a life enthralled by words.
Edited highlights from the lecture
I was born in 1929, the year Jean Devanny left Aotearoa New Zealand for good because her novel The Butcher Shop had been widely condemned, and the year Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was published. New Zealand readers were horrified and repelled by Devanny’s novel. It was heresy.
This beautiful, idyllic, green and pleasant place, dotted with little white woolly clumps that baa-ed or larger brown clumps that moo-ed? Where the sun always shone? And this woman portrayed it as a violent and murderous place for both women and cattle? Oh, dear me, no. We can’t have that.
It didn’t help that Jean was a communist. Woolf, from an illustrious British upper-middle-class family, well-educated, married to Leonard, large house, servants, wrote about the necessity for a woman to have a room of her own.
At the time, I imagine I was only interested in sucking milk and sleeping, but I’d place a bet that my mother Rose read The Butcher Shop, and I wonder about her perspective as a farm worker’s wife. As for Virginia’s idea, a room of her own would never have occurred to Rose as a possibility – when she was growing up, she might perhaps have dreamed of a bed of her own...
My father shot himself in 1934, the year Ngaio Marsh’s first crime novel A Man Lay Dead was published, and the year the Reform Party in New Zealand put off the election because they thought they’d lose.
There were no great thinkers in the Reform Party, but they got this one right. Gordon Coates, their finance minister, completely unable to explain his financial management even to his colleagues, or indeed anyone else, was said to have told out-of-job workers, who complained about a lack of money to feed their families, that they could eat grass.
I don’t think he did say this, but it didn’t matter anyway – it was like putting stuff up on Facebook: everyone believed he had said it, it was the kind of thing he did say, so the election was put off and 1934 became ‘the forgotten year’. But not for me. I remember 1934 because it was the year my mother taught me to read.
Once I learned to read, I read in bed, I read in the lavatory, I read walking down the long drive to the letterbox, I read walking along the road to school. I read girls’ annuals, single stories and then, when I was around seven or eight, I discovered novels – long stories that went on and on. It was pure bliss, and at first I loved the novelty of them.
However, after the first heady exhilaration and reading each one two or three times, I got very bored. The kids in the books went to boarding schools where they had midnight feasts, which I thought was mad. Why would you get up in the middle of the night and have a feed? And they were always saying ‘scrumptious’. What the hell did that mean? I didn’t know anyone who said ‘scrumptious’. If I’d said it in front of Rose she’d probably have said, ‘Don’t try and be funny with me, my girl.’
One day, I was moodily looking for something to read, and I picked up Rose’s library book. Rose hated going out. She went out on pension day, when she went to the post office and collected her widow’s pension. Then she would go to Mr Rundle, where she paid the grocery bill and bought her one treat: a packet of Capstan ten tailor-mades.
She saved these cigarettes for special occasions, or perhaps for when she was feeling tired or discouraged. She eked them out so that the pleasure lasted. Yes, she hated going out, but she loved reading, so she had to go out once a week to borrow books from the library. The Taradale library was a lovely place, situated at the back of the Taradale Town Hall, with brown varnished walls and shelves, and a smiling, very kind librarian.
I’d enjoyed Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery and the rest of the Anne books, and I loved Emily of New Moon and the rest of the Emily books, but I couldn’t go on reading and re-reading them forever. The alternative seemed to be the scrumptious ones, so yeah, nah to them.
In desperation, I picked up one of Rose’s library books. These were crime novels: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers, later to be known as the Queens of Crime. Of course, there were other writers, other books, but these are the ones I remember. Dorothy L Sayers was the best writer I decided later, but they all held my interest.
They were puzzling though. There were manor houses, there were butlers, people said ‘rather’, the working-class characters were always slow and stupid, and it was always left to the upper-class sleuth to solve the murder. Hercule Poirot was regarded with suspicion at first because he was a ‘foreigner’, but he overcame that handicap by using his little grey cells and solving murders.
These novels were racist, classist and sexist, but at ten I didn’t notice that. In any case, these were people in books, they weren’t real, so I concentrated on the puzzles. Unfortunately, Rose didn’t care whether I was in the middle of a murder case – if she’d read the last line in the sixth or so book, she’d gather up the others, stick them in a basket, walk up to the library, return those and take out some more. I got used to making up my own ends to the stories, which were like reading about life on Mars anyway.
Some of them even said ‘scrumptious’. I made up my mind that if I ever got an invite to a weekend party at a manor house, I would refuse. I had no wish to be strangled or shot or stabbed in a library, locked on the inside.
I was taught to read before I was five and that was just the best gift anyone has ever given me. I fell in love with it then and I love it still. Books are not about covers or print, they’re about words. They’re about the words writers write. They’re about life and death and war and lovers and children, they’re about cities and good people and bad people, they’re about strange lands and strange happenings and they’re about this land and the strange historical cover-ups and the glory of the uncoverings.
Books – plays, poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction – they feed us, they heal the broken places, they teach us new things, lead us back to old. They are still working. The internet is great. I love technology, but there is room in our lives for more than one love. I was about eleven when Rose said, ‘If you don’t get your head out of a book, my girl, you’ll end up on Queer Street.’ Well, Rose, you were right, I didn’t take my head out of a book, and I did end up on Queer Street.
It’s not the Queer Street you meant – not the one where all the pawnbrokers and second-hand shops are, where all the poor people go, and it’s not one that’s always sunshine and roses either. On this Queer Street, we had to struggle and march and smile and shout, we had to sit and talk and argue, we had to read and tell our stories, we had to write a new ending and we had to heal ourselves – and on this street called Queer, that’s exactly what we did and exactly what we do.
He toka noa te toka
He rākau noa te rākau
Kia tapiri rā anō ki te kōrero.
A stone is just a stone
A tree is just a tree
Until it is a story.
Download a PDF of If you don't get your head out of a book, my girl, you'll end up on Queer Street here
About the lecturer
Renée is a leading lesbian feminist, dramatist and fiction writer. She has described herself as a ‘lesbian feminist with socialist working-class ideals’ and most of her writing is a direct expression of that conviction. Her plays, short stories and novels are characterised by their direct approach to women’s experience, whether lesbian, feminist, historical or rooted in memoir.