Writer closes chapter on life
Stamp in the Creek is David McGill’s 51st book and that, he has decided, is enough for anyone – especially for someone who has compromised his eyes and his back hunched over a desk day after day for decades.
This last book is also the last in a trilogy nostalgically related to the 71-year-old’s boyhood in Matata, near Whakatane. Stamp in the Creek follows Gold in the Creek and Geyser in the Creek, all them in Matata-like settings.
McGill has written about everything from buildings to characters to Kiwi slang. It’s a career he compares to a life in cricket: ‘‘hundreds of runs, the odd century and quite a few ducks along the way – some of the books went into that category’’. But some became classics, like his handful of books on Kiwi slang.
Writing about slang was one of his more profitable pursuits and he has used lots of era-appropriate slang in his just-completed trilogy. Slang entered his consciousness as a child when his mother, responsible for making ends meet, would talk about ‘‘living on the smell of an oily rag,’’ and not having ‘‘a brass razoo’’.
McGill’s life has been peppered with the sort of chapters that fuel books. He was one of four boys in a Catholic family of five children and his father sent him off at 14 for junior training as a priest.
‘‘I was in the last of what they called minor seminaries in Christchurch. The teachers were Jesuits. My parents were very proud to have a candidate for the priesthood in the family. I lasted three years in the seminary and went to teachers’ college, and started writing poems.’’
At training college, ‘‘there were five girls to every boy. Those were the days, at that wonderful teachers’ college in Karori, with liberal teachers like Jack Shallcrass. I moved from celibacy in the seminary to ecstatic teacher training.’’
He taught at Paekakariki, where he now lives, and there he left the profession.
‘‘I was dobbed in because I was wearing sandals without socks, in defiance of the regulations. I had eczema with socks. Two inspectors came to see me. I resigned on the spot.’’
He finished an arts degree at Victoria University ‘‘and then what do you do? There was only one choice and it was not teaching. I went to the public service recruitment office and they said: ‘You’re not suitable for anything.’ ’’
So he got a job as an office boy at the Listener, then travelled, slowly and impecuniously, to London, where he lived in an egg truck on Putney Common – ‘‘one of the Kiwis I flatted with delivered eggs’’ – and scored a job with TV Times where, no expenses spared, he travelled for a while to interview television stars. ‘‘I would have been a liver failure at 50 if I’d stayed.’’ In his lunchtimes he’d go to a pub in Gray’s Inn Road and write poetry.
Eventually he landed up back in Wellington, working at the old Evening Post, and, in 1976, writing a regular column on historic buildings illustrated by the late Grant Tilly. In 1976, they were collected into a book. ‘‘My first book. It was amazing. On the day of the book signing, the queue went round the block. I was under no illusion that it was me rather than Grant Tilly, but I was on an adrenalin high and I was hooked.’’
The books that followed in rapid succession were on every possible New Zealand-related subject. He has, he says, always been categorised as a social historian ‘‘but everything I write is nostalgia – the kid from Matata and the childhood perspective of where I grew up in the late 1940s and early 50s. I couldn’t leave it alone. My father was the postmaster there and I’ve done three fictional books about a postmaster in a place not unlike Matata.’’
Away from books, McGill , formerly married to actress Ginette McDonald, instigated the Wellington Civic Trust and was chairman of Amnesty New Zealand for many years.
He now lives a contented life not far from his current partner in Paekakariki, which is, he says ‘‘just like Matata’’. He gardens – ‘‘it’s terrible for the back’’ – and reads. After Stamp in the Creek, he says, there will definitely be no more book launches.
But books, definitely no more? Well, he does just have an idea, on the mysterious Victor Penny, who worked on a mysterious invention on Somes Island before World War II. Given his book-compromised health, it could take years, because he’s ‘‘working at quarter pace’’.
‘‘ I can’t visualise finishing a book, let alone another launch. Just to get people along is hard. They say ‘you had a launch last year’. I’m using up my reservoir of goodwill.
‘‘I’ve been a fulltime writer for 30 years now, and I wouldn’t advise it. It’s an incredibly tenuous occupation. I have made a living, but only just.’’
- Stamp in the Creekaif by David McGill, Silver Owl Press, $29.95.