As of midnight, people over 70 are once again allowed to have a life. Steve Braunias celebrates 10 New Zealand authors of that compromised age.

Actually at first I was going to compile a list of the best 10 New Zealand writers under 30, and approached a number of authors, publishers and editors for their opinion, but there was a lot of moaning about it from people who a) sourly assumed it would favour The Wellington School (“Your list will be an ad for the IIML”)  b) sourly assumed it would favour The Pakeha Cult c) were boring, and they took all the fun out of it. But then I thought: who cares about the young, anyway? In the age of the lockdown, to be over 70 is the age of most interest.

As New Zealand moves into Alert Level 3 at 11:59 tonight, the rules forbidding the elderly to have a life will be relaxed. The past five weeks of Alert Level 4 have been tough on those born in 1950 or earlier. They laboured under the yolk of commandments: Thou shalt not leave the house. Thou shalt not go no place. Thou shalt not bother anyone with thou compromised immunity. Thou shalt, in short, do thou very best to cease to exist as far as the outside world is concerned.

But freedom is theirs once more in Alert Level 3. It’s an “especially careful” freedom, as Minister for Seniors, Tracey Martin, put it – they must continue to reduce contact with others outside their bubble, maintain social distancing, etc – but it’s a freedom from the regime of home detention.

In the spirit of their liberation, ReadingRoom celebrates 10 New Zealand authors 70 and over who are still writing, still publishing, still daring to exist in literary splendour.

Oh and by the way, the list of the best 10 New Zealand writers under 30 was going to be Madeleine Chapman, Annaleese Jochems, Morgan Godfrey, Tayi Tibble, Chessie Henry, Elle Hunt, Eamonn Marra, Sophie van Waardenburg,  Sharon Lam, Ruby Porter, Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor and Vanessa Crofskey. That’s actually 12 but oh well.

All lists, like awards, are random permutations, lotteries drawn from the hat of good and bad judgment, elites of no binding authority. Silly to overlook distinguished New Zealand authors over 70 such as Roger Hall, Brian Turner, Linda Burgess, Vincent O’Sullivan, Albert Wendt, Peter Bland, Elspeth Sandys, Owen Marshall, Renée, Tessa Duder, Ian Wedde, Fleur Adcock, Marilyn Duckworth and others.

Never mind! And so to the chosen 10 authors over 70.

Patricia Grace. Charlotte Graham-Maclay conducted a superb interview with Grace in the Guardian in February to mark the occasion of her 1986 novel Potiki being reissued in Britain as  a Penguin Classic. “We live by the sea, which hems and stitches the scalloped edges of the land,” Grace wrote of the seaside town that was the setting for her novel; that beautiful sentence also serves as a line about life in the New Zealand islands. She was born in Wellington in 1937.

Fiona Kidman. The grand dame of New Zealand writing – she got a Dameship in 1998 – is the current holder of the Ockham New Zealand national book award for best novel, and pocketed a cool $53,000 in loot when her book This Mortal Boy won the prize at last year’s ceremony. Vintage published her short story collection All The Way To Summer earlier this year. A fantastic story from the book, “Mrs Dixon & Friend”, appeared in ReadingRoom. She was born in Hawera in 1940.

CK Stead. Auckland University Press are about to publish the second memoir in his trilogy of books about his life and times. You Have A Lot to Lose covers the years 1956-86 – when he published his first novels and collections of poetry, spoke at rallies against the Vietnam War, was arrested in the Springbok Tour protests, and generally seemed as though he was, in his own words, “A Good Boy.” But then he wrote “The New Victorians”, his famous essay which scorned the Good Boys and Girls who created the first wave of political correctness, and forever after was regarded as A Bad Boy. He was born in Auckland in 1932.

Witi Ihimaera. Native Son, the second of his memoirs, was longlisted for this year’s Ockham New Zealand book awards for best book of non-fiction; and his 2011 novel, The Parihaka Woman, has been the ninth most requested novel from Auckland Council Libraries during the lockdown. His short story “Der Traum” appeared last year in ReadingRoom. He was born in Gisborne in 1944.

Anne Salmond. She can be a thundering bore – “The virus is a test of our national values”, etc – but she is a historian of considerable power and scholarship. Her most recent book Tears of Rangi was a finalist in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand book awards, losing out to Driving to Treblinka by Diana Wichtel (who turns 70 this year. Happy birthday Diana!). She was born in Wellington in 1945.

Bill Manhire. The dear old Twitter machine has been a terrific resource for literature during the lockdown, and this guy has been right at the forefront, regularly posting his own poems and the work of other poets. And, as a publican’s son, he posted this awesome photo, below. He was born in Invercargill in 1946.

An interesting object belonging to Bill Manhire.

Peter Simpson. Auckland University Press are about to launch the second of his monumental works on Colin McCahon. The first book, There is Only One Direction: Vol 1 1919-1959, was reviewed at length by Philip Matthews at ReadingRoom; the new book, Is this the Promised Land?: Vol 11 1960-1987 will be reviewed at length in ReadingRoom by Martin Edmond, whence the review is filed, that is. He was born in Takaka in 1942.

Kevin Ireland. In March, just before the lockdown, Ireland launched the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020 at Devonport Library, where he had also launched his own most recent poetry collection Keeping a Grip in December 2018. He was born in Auckland in 1933. He once wrote,

Being old

means making a meal

of death,

we gnaw

the problem

like a bone

as the lean meat

grows cold.

Sam Hunt. By strange coincidence the nation’s bard, who was born in Castor Bay in 1946, sent in a newly composed poem to ReadingRoom on Sunday. It is titled “Don’t say”.

Don’t say I ‘passed away’.

Tell it as it is – I died

precisely as planned.

Don’t say I ‘passed’. I’m dead


and don’t want to be

kept alive

or any other story.

Best, we say goodbye.


Before I go, though,

I loved you before I knew you.

And now I’m leaving

I don’t know who.

Joy Cowley. Well of course there’s a place in this list of the elderly great for the author of the classic Mrs Wishy-Washy. She has written over 1000 books (!) and in September  last year, at Featherston’s literary festival, she launched The Gobbledegook Book, a collection of her poems and stories, including the much-loved classic Nicketty-Nacketty Noo Noo Noo. She wrote on her website this month, “At 83, and with failing sight, I’m slowing down but still working, fitting in writing and retreats with caring for my dear Terry whose life is slowly, gently closing down. Five strokes in three years have greatly weakened his body but his memory is still sharp for historical activities. He may not know what day it is, but he can still do the cryptic crossword each morning.” She was born in Levin in 1936.

Keri Hulme. Very well, that makes 11 writers over 70, and Hulme no longer seems to write a single word, but she has lived her life as an exception. The author of the bone people wrote and published a few things after that one amazing book; nothing substantial, nothing complete, all of it touched by genius. Huia Press published Stonefish, a collection of stories in 2004, which included the line, “She chooses to remain known to herself.” She was born in Christchurch in 1947.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

Leave a comment