For a number of years Kate De Goldi and her husband Bruce Foster lived down the track from our house in York Bay. It was not unusual for me to pop down for a chat and find myself leaning in the bedroom door while Kate lay in bed. That would be the arrangement for an earnest discussion on what we happened to be reading or had read. That may seem odd to some. But bed is where Kate is more at home than most. And where Kate considers herself no less up and ready to tackle the new day. She is simply recumbent. And contentedly so, recumbent in her nest of books that have slipped into the folds of the bedcovers; more books are piled on a bedside chair, a few others discarded to the floor.
Kate is a talker. Unusually for a talker, she is also a very good listener.
She is just as lively a conversationalist while lying back in bed. Her legs defiantly at rest under the humped bedcovers. Her eyes pricked wide at a thought that is both beginning to form and startle her. Now her hands – her parrying hands – enter the fray. Until propelled by the words and thoughts in rapid accumulation she kind of sits up, though not really, and seems to realise the folly of the attempt and accepts resignedly she is better off where she was a second ago, prone, alert, and back there she collapses, her eyes circling thoughts gathered across the ceiling.
Everyone was amazed when Kate took up road running in her early forties. What about bed? What had happened to her lolling in bed with books? She wore earphones plugged into her beloved classical music and at a comparatively late age emerged into the green-lit world of playing fields, blinking like the child in the Spielberg film when ET reveals itself, amazed, amazed by everything, the pieties around sport (a Kate phrase), her own boy Jack’s devotion to cricket, (one of the few sports Kate takes an active interest in). It amazed and offended those of us limping about on old sports injuries that Kate appeared to be injury-free. One of the wonderful things about life in bed is it is comparatively risk-free from an injury sustaining point of view. And by Kate’s own estimation, she had spent her first 20 years in bed. Thereby saving herself and her ligaments for her later years.
And so, her friends became used to the odd sight until it wasn’t anymore of her running around the bays, and for some distance, and later she would run in the hills behind the city after she and Bruce moved there.
A small figure, five foot (I’m adding an inch out of kindness). When she learned I was writing this piece she did ask with a wounded curiosity if I would mention her height. Kate is a short woman, but with big hair and a bright smile that lights up a stage or welcomes one inside her door. The bright eyes and her quick intelligence are quick to fasten onto any fresh topic up for grabs.
Kate’s literary imagination is almost entirely shaped by her childhood reading. She reads adult novels, but her imaginative wellsprings are deep in children’s literature. The magic of story slipped into her as a child and has never left her. Her own writing and thoughts on reading more generally is an unbroken thread. She will often say “story is story” to repudiate any suggested boundary between children’s lit and the broader literature. As if to say, whatever lit one up as a child reader will light us up as adults. And that is an openness and readiness to be engaged and charmed by words on the page. Language does not suddenly pause or stop at an imposed border. It rushes across it. And whether it is in the form of a picture book or a prize-winning novel it simply doesn’t matter. Both the picture book and contemporary novel fall back on the same resources of language and persuasion.
But it is safe to say there are few others in New Zealand who can match Kate’s encyclopaedic knowledge of children’s literature. She knows absolutely the well from which she sprang.
In recent weeks, Kate has been promoting her latest novel Eddy, Eddy. Is it a YA novel? The question causes her to squint. She would rather it hang on a different peg. Perhaps in that crossover tradition between YA and general reader that a book like Mark Haddon’s The curious incident of the dog in the night-time that enjoyed such great success some years ago.
Kate has a vast vocabulary. So does the character Brain in Eddy, Eddy. There aren’t many YA novels with words like – adumbrate, desuetude, parallelogram, tristesse, phlegmatic, cruciferous, ontological(ally).
Her father was the son of an Italian who arrived in New Zealand with little English. Kate’s father set about mastering English, and like many who learn English as a second language Ron De Goldi delighted in words that usually skip us by. Kate’s parents spoke to her as an adult and treated her to a broad lexicon. In Eddy, Eddy the character Brain, loosely based on her father, has the same chaotic range of knowledge.
In a recent talk Kate quoted Wittgenstein: “The limits of my vocabulary is the limits of my world.” There is no greater argument for a developed vocabulary. By introducing unfamiliar words into her prose – often for younger readers – she is encouraging them to embrace a bigger footprint in the world.
Kate grew up in a Catholic world. She was taught by nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Kate’s cousins comprised half the school roll. Her mother, Frances, was the organist and ran the children’s choir. Frances De Goldi was an accomplished musician; for 30 years the principal cellist of the local orchestra that later evolved into the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. Unsurprisingly, Kate continues to be nourished by music and family.
I know from experience it is often a waste of time trying to get hold of Kate between 5-6pm. She will be yakking to one of her sisters, the phone nestled between shoulder and cheek or on speaker while she chops up the peppers and/or courgettes for that evening’s dinner and sips from a nearby glass of red.
Kate is a terrific cook. Her friends often wonder how she can she be so competent in the kitchen but a disaster behind a driving wheel, without sense of direction, or focus, as though driving is another form of daydreaming.
Catholicism retains a central position in her life. Though not the church, and its archaicises and exploitation. At this point she would say she has met many decent priests. In any event she remains a Catholic with a small c, that is, culturally absorbed by its rituals and in particular its music.
She likes to sing. And, as Kim Hill’s listeners might recall, Kate is not shy about breaking into song whenever the occasion calls for it. For Kate it will have been a natural way to illustrate whatever point she was seeking to make.
At the recent Marlborough writer’s festival, Kate’s interlocutor, a librarian, declared a reluctance to allow her nine-year-old daughter to read The Diary of Anne Frank. “Once you read something like that, you cannot unread it.” It was alarming to hear, especially from a librarian. I would hope that later when that librarian revisited her conversation, she might recall something Kate offered at another stage of their conversation. “I believe in wanton reading.”
Which is what you might expect any writer to say, especially one who began her working life as a library assistant in Redwood and Fendalton Libraries, a job Kate describes as life-changing.
Roll the clock forward and many decades on she is the chair of Te Puna Foundation, the national library’s charitable trust that funds activities that lie outside the national library’s remit; significantly, it provided seed money for the inaugural Te Awhi Reading ambassador role currently filled by Ben Brown. A job Kate performed by proxy over many years. I don’t know of many other writers who have been to as many schools as Kate has to persuade children and sadly, teachers, of the wonderful tool and treasure within their grasp. The battle (in my view) is a rear-guard one, skirmishes around areas of mutual interest, literacy, for example, promotional activity by the writers in schools’ programmes, urgent mustering of readers by this or that programme.
Thanks to the astonishing neglect of literature in our school’s curriculum, the latest information in is no surprise. Literacy rates are in crisis mode and reading is in decline. Incredibly, it falls largely upon voluntary efforts (Alan Duff’s books in schools, for example) and community goodwill to set our children on a reading pathway.
The appointment of a reading ambassador is a good move and in Ben Brown a good choice of ambassador. But it is rather like sending a single life raft to save the Titanic.
Fifteen hundred clones of Kate De Goldi would help set our schools’ curriculum on a more enlightened path. But since that isn’t viable, she is doing her bit as best she can to spread the message.
By New Zealand standards, Kate isn’t especially well-travelled. But in one sense she is. During those first 20 years she spent in bed she was travelling – imaginatively – through literature, and now she is giving back through her own books and work around reading to ensure newer generations may embark on the same journey she began all those years ago.
Eddy, Eddy by Kate De Goldi (Allen & Unwin, $29.99) is available in bookstores nationwide. It is number one on the Nielsen bestseller chart for NZ fiction, and was the subject of a rave review by Paddy Richardson last week in Newsroom.