I have recently taken possession of the treasure trove of research files, notebooks, photo albums of press clippings and book launches, and boxes of letters from readers, that make up the writing archives of my mother Phyllis Johnston.
Managing the project of having Mum’s books reprinted has been exciting and within a few short months the first two books have been reprinted and the third book, “A Comet in the Sky” goes to the printing press tomorrow. Thank you for your support in purchasing the books and spreading the word, as the on-going book sales make it possible to eventually reprint the entire May series and other out-of- print works.
My daughter, Nia Chesswas, is doing a stellar job of marketing and distributing the books from her business “The Bead Hold” based out of Stratford in the Taranaki. Nia and her husband Allan are raising fine children in the valley only ten minutes from where “No one went to town” was set. On those rainy winter Taranaki days when my daughter despairs of ever getting her washing dry, I remind Nia that her great-great grandmother Anna Tarrant, May’s mother, was living in a ponga hut in the remote high steep hills of Taihore, cooking over a fire in a camp oven, boiling up water in kerosene tins to wash the clothes, sewing by candlelight and managing health issues…a far cry from her life in England. Anna Tarrant was not raised for this kind of life and she had to adapt as best she could. May Tarrant, the heroine of the books, had a very practical upbringing in rural New Zealand, while doing her best to be the well mannered, modest girl that her mother so wanted her to be.
May’s upbringing held her in good stead for the rest of her life. I used to stay with Grandma May in the school holidays when I was a little girl and we spent time each day, doing the chores – digging the garden, chopping and stacking firewood, cleaning, baking, knitting and sewing. My favourite holiday food was the ‘drop scones’ Grandma May made – cooked in half an inch of boiling fat and then spread with sugar and lemon, or golden syrup. They were delicious!
I grew up listening to the pioneer stories of my forebears as my mother gathered the recollections from her mother and elderly uncles. When I was sixteen I left Matamata to attend Hamilton Teachers’ College and came home each weekend. I found my mother had started to put pencil to paper – she was making notes on the back of brown paper bags about the stories her mother was telling her. I remember the potatoes boiling on the stove and the brown paper bag on the kitchen bench with jottings, pencil at the ready. These notes gradually were fleshed out onto lined paper as her ideas developed.
I had a wonderful English lecturer named Toby Easterbrook-Smith. I told him about my mother’s efforts and he said he would be very happy to review the drafts and give Mum feedback. So at times in my first year of teacher training I would take Mum’s writing to Toby and he would critique the work for her and I would dutifully take his notes and encouragement back to Mum in the weekends and she would reflect on his comments.
Sorting through the archives I have found letters from Toby Easterbrook-Smith pasted into one of the albums and memories have come flooding back. The night I received the the treasure trove I sat looking through the photo albums and was overwhelmed with the rich history of the writing of these books – and I also learned more about my mother. I spent a few hours reading through book reviews, press releases, and write ups of all those visits Mum made to schools throughout the North Island – over 250 schools as part of the ‘Writers in Schools’ scheme. Hundreds of letters from readers of all ages await to be read. I phoned my daughter Nia and said “Your Grandmother Phyllis was really famous!” I had not fully appreciated the depth to which Mum had carved a life out for herself, through her writing. The archives are a valuable resource for us as we all learn about pioneer life and the 50 years of social history that is covered in the May series.
My mother, at 82 years of age, has been thrilled to hold in her hands the 2017 reprints of the first two books. On August 8th 1980 Mum describes, in one of her notebooks, holding “No one went to town” for the first time …
“I held the first complementary copy in my hands on July 9th… I opened the yellow padded envelope from Price Milburn and saw my completed book for the first time. It was beautiful, and beyond my dreams! E.Papps cover was superb, paper and print, Christine Brown’s illustrations looked excellent – all the despairs, doubts, frustrations fell away, and there it was, my book “No one went to town”.
She goes on to talk about waiting for the ship, the ‘Strathmore’, to arrive from Singapore with the books that had been printed off-shore.
“Then we settled down to await the arrival of the ‘Strathmore’ (what a coincidence), which had left Singapore on July 2nd. We tried to make party arrangements, but could not settle anything until the ship’s arrival. We finally found out it had arrived on July 30th, and unloaded, and the books were in transit to Wellington….”
We no longer have to wait for a ship to arrive from Singapore with the precious cargo of books! I only have to drive 30 minutes down the Auckland motorway to collect the books from our printer. As I delve though the archives I will endeavour to bring you regular updates on my discoveries and hope each instalment will shed some more light on how the books were written and will answer questions you may have about particular events in the books.
Mary Johnston, October 2017