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Brief encounter with Janet Frame

Artist Grahame Sydney fantasised for many years about meeting his literary hero and fellow Otago native Janet Frame. Sometimes wishes come to those who wait, although not always when and where expected…

For a school prize in 1965, I was handed a red hardback book. It was called The Edge of the Alphabet, by someone called Janet Frame.

My English teacher told me she was from Oamaru, had spent time in my hometown Dunedin, and had recently returned from some years overseas, so there was a tenuous local connection.

I found the story strange and disturbing, and I loved its language, the originality and inventiveness of so much of its writing. It was her third novel. Wanting more, I sought out her first, Owls Do Cry, published by Pegasus Press in Christchurch in 1957 and written entirely in Frank Sargeson’s garden shed at his Esmonde Rd property on Auckland’s North Shore.

I thought then, and still do, that Owls Do Cry was a work of unprecedented genius. Even in the mid-1960s, there was argument about whether or not the great New Zealand novel had been written; to me, there was no debate – this was it.

The little paperback, all tatty, weakened at the spine and coughing up odd pages, stayed on my bedside cabinet long past my leaving old Bob Withers on the last page, deaf, alone, slobber trickling down his chin, looking out across the harbour of Waimaru, his voice “grown thin like a thread”.

Its imaginative brilliance has never dimmed, its language so poetic, so real and so us – and many words and phrases from its pale brown pages have travelled with me since my first reading:
“…ah the tipsy wee small hours of insects that jive upon the crippled grass blades....” and, “It was a place of white manuka and a river pool of brown ice and hills of green iron; with a cloud crossing the sun, to send down a silver picnic rain like a new pin to be picked up, later, in the sunlight, in the tussock, or the bald feasting-place charred with old fires and strewn with yesterday’s picnic paper and bottle and sardine tin...”

I thought my New Zealand had never been condensed so perfectly. Her words smelled of it, were saturated in the feeling of being here.

Deep chords were striking, and I began to fantasise about meeting Janet Frame.

In New Zealand, it is not an impossible ambition, this encountering one’s heroes; the country still more village than nation, and a characteristic of living here is the accessibility of those elevated souls who in more populous cultures would remain forever unseen, or at least unapproachable. Frame had grown up in Oamaru, after all – not so far away – even gone to teachers’ college in Dunedin, so I held tight to what I thought was a reasonably realistic hope.

From a considerable distance, I kept track of where she was living at various times through the decades, gathering what snippets and gossip I could. Was it in Whanganui she reputedly spent an Arts Council grant soundproofing her house against the incessant motor-mower and chainsaw, the amplified weekend music of the suburbs?

Just up the coast from my then-Dunedin home were the eerie remains of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, one of several unwelcome psychiatric hospitals in which she was incarcerated during her troubled 20s. Poking among the abandoned, mouldering carcasses of buildings clustered on the hillside, I wondered which of the empty rooms might have been hers, which building housed the dining room and which the “dead room” where she was strapped down for the forced administration of electroconvulsive therapy.

My library of Janet Frame books grew. Then news came she had shifted back south, and had bought a nondescript wooden villa in a charmless South Dunedin street. I knew those streets, having once spent a summer school holiday as a postie’s helper plodding the footpaths of that sad, poor, claustrophobic neighbourhood “on the flat” – as despondent as anywhere in these islands, and the gasworks always within sniffing distance.

A friend and mentor, Reg Graham, became Janet’s preferred photographer there. Not that she welcomed it, but if a photograph had to be taken of her, she trusted Reg most. He visited her occasionally, one of the few, me always envying him the privilege.

Sometime in the 1980s, hoping it might lead to a meeting between us, I wrote a letter of praise and gratitude to her, believing as I still do that we Kiwis are too slow to speak of our admiration to those who deserve it; but on rereading my sycophantic declarations of respect and thanks I felt embarrassed to have descended to such a nuisance fan-mail level and consigned the letter to my desk drawer.

Once or twice I took it out, wondering if I should just swallow my pride and stick it in the mail – to hell with it! I wanted her to know how much her work meant to me. But I never found the courage. Unable to decide whether it was cowardice or appropriate sensitivity that restrained my hand, the letter stayed in the bottom drawer.

Instead, much later, with encouragement from Reg and genuine trepidation on my part, I sent two rolled-up reproductions of my Central Otago works to the South Dunedin address he gave me. In the cylinder I enclosed a small note saying simply, “With thanks and great admiration, GCS.” I sent it off. Weeks went by, and my private hopes for a reply faded. Nothing came. Forget it. What did you expect, after all, vain man?

But small events kept me wondering, kept me hoping. Reg tantalised with stories of accompanying her on drives south to Wyndham, the setting for her unforgettable poem of the same name about the dying town:

“and in the empty
railway houses
no Dad sits each morning
on the satin-smooth
dunny seat.”

Another mid-week morning, writer Owen Marshall and I went exploring the outskirts of his old hometown of Oamaru, finding “Willowglen” on a terrace dug into a steep slope off a secret, narrow valley behind the town.

Known to us both through vivid descriptions in To the Island as a warm, noisy, family cottage close to the railway where father Frame, an engine driver, would throw lumps of coal from the labouring train as he passed and the kids all played in the long grass beneath the fruit trees, it now stood broken and deserted, shocking us in its smallness, all of its windows empty of glass. We picked around among its remnants.

I retrieved a mouldy book or two from the rubble on the rotting wooden floorboards; Owen pocketed a rubber plug from a lean-to sink. She must have held it once. Down the road towards town we noticed a teetering letterbox, with the name “Frame” painted on its side. Could that be her brother George, the novel’s “Bruddie”, we wondered.

Grahame Sydney
Grahame Sydney

Michael King, Janet Frame’s biographer with his superb 2000 publication Wrestling with the Angel, had become a friend and occasional correspondent. When the long-anticipated biography came out, he sent me a copy generously inscribed by him, alongside a scratchy, cramped signature – “Janet Frame” – barely making it onto the foot of the title page. This, Michael told me, was one of very few she signed. I never knew whether to believe him or not.

Two years later, it was reported that within a short time both Janet and Michael had been diagnosed with cancer. Though miles apart, with Janet in South Dunedin and he in Coromandel, Michael indicated they were comparing notes on their respective illnesses, sharing some gallows humour at these unwanted interventions of the Fates, swapping stories of treatments and side effects, and altered attitudes to what remained of their lives.

Many knew of this inexorable tragedy, and the prospect of losing two giants at once, two who had stood hand-in-hand so often recently, at a time when both seemed to be only gaining in power and influence, was a depressing blow. Many shared the helplessness felt in the face of such forces. What could one possibly do?

So, in the summer of early 2004, I knew all about Janet Frame’s declining health. Reg Graham had kept me informed, and the local press occasionally alluded to her battles. The biography had described so beautifully her retreat, facing her computer, most alive, most at ease sitting in the glow from her screen in the darkened South Dunedin room, “without the burden of social contact”. I knew there was no chance of meeting her now. Never really “with us” at all, she would not be with us for long.

Then one day I drove from my Cambrian Valley home to Dunedin, urgent errands on the list, a typically fraught and hasty visit. I parked the car in the Centre City New World supermarket carpark, irritated as always by the tension of so many vehicles, so many people. Resenting that I had to do this shopping at all, I walked through the damned automatic sliding doors into the small glass vestibule of the supermarket.

She was sitting there, on the steel bench. Alone. I instantly knew it was her. Floral frock, very summery and short-sleeved, a halo of tightly curled fair hair. Not as red as I had expected, but she was nearly 80 after all. Didn’t look it. Nor did she look ill.

In mid-stride, I knew I had a decision to make: should I stop and speak to her – one of the greatest of my creative heroes – or should I do the decent thing, the habitual Kiwi thing, and say nothing? Leave her be, but forever wish I had stopped, said something?

It was an instantaneous, momentous decision, laced with danger – I would inevitably make a fool of myself again. Wouldn’t it be safer – kinder – to simply walk past? Of course it would.

I sat down on the bench beside her.
“Are you Janet?” I said. Stupid. I knew it was Janet. No question. Her face was permanently painted in the picture-library of my memory.
“Yes,” she said. A light, almost childlike voice.
“I’m Grahame Sydney. I’m an
artist. I....”
“Oh, I know who you are,” she said, smiling at me. “I’ve two of your paintings on my walls. In fact, I always felt bad that I’d never written to thank you for sending me those reproductions. I did mean to, but I never got around to it. Isn’t that awful of me?”

Janet Frame apologising to me? To me? Janet Frame even talking to me? How very surreal, there in the foyer of the Centre City New World. Ridiculous, really.
“It’s not awful of you at all,” I said. “It’s perfectly understandable.” I thought of my unsent letter to her, still cowering in the desk drawer. “But how are you? I’ve been told you’re having a tough time with your health, and I’m very sorry to hear it.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “In fact, I’ve just come from the oncology department across the street. They tell me the disease is winning, and I've got three weeks left.”
She was cheerful, comfortable, matter of fact. The shoppers streamed past in front of us, the odd one brushing our knees.
“Three weeks of treatment?”
“No, no,” she said, quite untroubled. “Three weeks left.”
What do you say to someone who has just been told they have three weeks left? Let alone to Janet Frame. That helplessness flooded back.
“Oh, they must be wrong,” I said. “You look so healthy. Surely they’ve got that wrong? I hope so anyway...” I had no idea what else to say.
She rescued me. “They may be,” she said, “but I doubt it. I’m not worried.”

At which point a woman pushing a loaded supermarket trolley emerged from inside, steering it towards where we sat. I thought I recognised her face too – Janet’s niece and minder, Pamela Gordon. She touched Janet on the shoulder, a signal for departure.

I flustered a farewell. “I’ve been wanting to tell you for many years how much your work has meant to me,” I said. “I’ve loved what you’ve given us all, and how inspiring you’ve been. Especially to me.” I should have said something about courage.

Pamela was starting away. I stood up. “I wish you all the best,” I said lamely. “Thanks for talking to me.” It all felt so pathetically inadequate.
She looked up at me from the supermarket bench. “No, no – thank you!” she said cheerfully.

No goodbyes.

The electric glass doors slid open, and I headed inside. From over my shoulder I heard the lady with the trolley say, “Do you know who that is? That’s Grahame Sydney, the painter.” A note of irritation in her voice, Janet replied, “I know who he is.” Then, “We’ve been talking.” I couldn’t look back.

Three weeks later, to the very day, a radio bulletin delivered the news: the disease had indeed won. She was gone.

Janet Frame died in Dunedin on January 29, 2004.

Michael King and his wife died in a fiery car crash just eight weeks later, on March 30, 2004. They were driving north towards the Bay of Islands, a deserved break to celebrate the enormous success of his Penguin History of New Zealand.

His was a death multiplied in its awful tragedy by the fact that a month earlier he had been given the news of the inexplicable disappearance of the cancer which he and others close to him all expected would take his life, a reprieve he described in a letter to me as “little short of miraculous”.

“The scans and photographic evidence are startling. The large throat tumour, which was spread along the base of the tongue and pushing against the larynx, has simply disappeared. Astonishing... the immediate future is good, and far brighter than it was four months ago.”

Only 40 days after writing that note he was dead, asleep at the wheel perhaps, and hopefully unaware.

Words by Grahame Sydney
Photos by Mike White