Because I’ve spent too much of my life inside institutions of scholarship, doggedly pursuing knowledge, I’ve become exceedingly adept at pretending to have read far more widely and deeply than is actually the case. In fact, I think I’ve read a total of seven books in my life—and one of them isn’t Finnegans Wake.
So in the spirit of honesty, and basically to show a little bit of respect for my subject, I’m going to admit frankly that I can’t bring to mind the title of anything of Margaret Mahy’s that I’ve read.
Now, this isn’t to say that the list doesn’t exist. I know for a fact that I read one aimed probably at the 10-13 market (when I was about three times that age): it was about a boy who had strange, mind-entering powers (or something).
And a few years back I was helping out with a charity auction situation, and Mahy kindly donated an autographed copy of a recent book of hers—so I read that too, cos it was lying around.
And I was a kid once.
And I’ve killed time in post offices and Whitcoulls and airports and so on.
So I’ve been exposed.
And of course I’ve got fuzzy memories of the woman in the strange head-gear coming to my little primary school and reading to us all there on the mat—a knot of squirming limbs, nervous in front of this quite possibly insane apparition but at the same time enthralled by her stories.
And I have particular memories of that mat-time because her stories always seemed to involve fiery red-headed characters, and (being somewhat of the ginger-freckled sort myself as a youngster) that always meant that I’d get called out for some kind of friendly attention.
(It seems that life is genuinely tough for red-head kids these days—and if that’s actually the case, it’s distressing—but when I was young it was more just precarious than overtly dangerous. Things could tip easily into name-calling, but usually the balance held and the essential prestige of being so manifestly different was respected: Mahy, anyway, had a way of ensuring that the tone of the attention that she brought to me was the right one, and it felt good.)
So when I saw her around and about Christchurch as an adult over the years, I always felt this warm affection, like she recognised me, and I heard her talking at a writers’ thing a few years ago, and what she said seemed so obvious and correct that I was sure that she was speaking directly to me. She spoke of salads, and of wanting to watch only The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.
Ah yes, those early zeros.
Now, I imagine that for quite a few years, life in and around Christchurch for Margaret Mahy involved (among other things of course) the perpetual vague knowledge that lots of people were recognising her—many of them remembering that mat, and that wig, and those stories of witches and red-heads and other freakish forms—so I imagine that she would have worn that benevolent half-smile of potential recognition always, as a defence against the possibility of appearing ungracious.
And, well, everyone does like a good salad, and those shows really were the only things worth watching back then—and of course one of the tricks of being a great writer is having a way of speaking as though you’re addressing each and every one of us individually, reflecting back to us our very own lives, gathering up all our knowledge and perception, all our loves and our fears, and organising it all, making sense of it, and telling it back to us with grace and discretion and ease.
And another trick to being a great writer is having that inexplicable, awe-inspiring ability to create a world out of words and to have it just appear there, out from nothing, and to keep it growing, and to convince some fragile body, in a distant place, under a blanket, in fading light, to keep following it, to keep letting it grow, to keep turning pages onto the endless horizon of a world transformed before your eyes by the ephemeral, shared language of the mind.
And it is—as laughter is the surest gauge of a comedian’s talent—the child reader who most reliably judges a writer’s ability to create a story, to spin a yarn, to bring to life a human drama of poignance and coherence and truth.
There’s no fooling a child.
Tell them a story; see how they listen.
And a story being told is always a story of the endless centuries of our generations. A story of these creatures, with brains the size of planets, who love nothing more than to be stimulated with tales of what might possibly be.
And being humans, from time to time we give birth to one of these writer-magicians. And they come among us, and they mess about with our minds. And we love them for it.
And even though I can’t name any of the Mahy books that I may have read over the years, my memory of them is crystal clear in one vital respect: the woman had it in spades. She was a born story teller. She was a writer—literally—in a million.
She’d have you from the first word, and she never put a foot (metrically, or metaphorically) wrong.
She could have made words dance a jig if she’d had the inclination—but instead she just used them to captivate us, and to help us to feel at home.
I heard the news that she had died last night while I was writing about Bruno Lawrence and thinking about his early passing—and I had just learned that Beaver too had died young, not so long ago.
And I was strangely not saddened too much at the thought of Mahy’s death—even though, while I can’t say that I knew her personally, she’s been such an important presence for me for so many years—as a writer, yes, and as a figure of singularity, and as a local example of what it might mean to live a good life.
And of course I feel for her family, and for her other loved ones, but I suppose I had the sense that Mahy was someone who became what she was meant to become—and that that was enough.