In love with Shakespeare

22:20, Nov 16 2012
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Ida Gaskin

Towers of dusty books are stacked high on every surface of every room. Ida Gaskin has read them all, devouring the poetry of long-lost muses, the history of ancient China and the tales of sound and fury.

Her newest volumes are on her dining room table, next to the birthday cake she couldn't bear to slice up 13 years ago. It is a model of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and it was far too special to eat.

She jokingly sighs, agreeing she does live in a library, but pointing out she has artwork as well as books.

Leaning on the wall-to-wall bookcases are three boards covered in a series of drawings. The oxlips and the nodding violets seem almost to be growing out of the sun-damaged paper they were drawn on decades ago.

"That's every flower from Shakespeare's plays," she smiles. "An art teacher from Girls' High made them for me. She passed away many years ago now."

She thinks for a moment: "I really should get them laminated before age takes their beauty."


Two walking sticks are perched beside her, as she sits in the chair she received in 1983 after becoming the first woman to win New Zealand Mastermind - her specialist subject Shakespeare, of course.

She has spent the afternoon thumbing through one of her many copies of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

While senior students across New Zealand were sitting their exams this week, in what may be the last time Shakespeare appears in the curriculum, Ida Gaskin has been re- reading King John.

"The Shakespeare Society will be here tonight to discuss this play, so I thought I better have another look at it, in case I have forgotten anything," says the 92-year-old, who still teaches a history class every Monday night.

Memory, the warder of the brain, is not something this scholar should be concerned about; she can recite passages from any play you name.

Her mind has not yet reached the seventh age of man characterised by a second childishness and mere oblivion. Age may be in, but her wit is not out. She's still as sharp as a tack.

So sharp, in fact, that she is quick to sling arrows at Shakespeare being expelled from NCEA. When she talks about the Education Ministry's decision a flame flickers in the eye of the former president of the Post Primary Teachers' Association.

"They say Shakespeare is too difficult for children to learn, well I think that's insulting. People seem to be scared of his language, but they forget that he was quite bawdy. The boys in particular would be very interested if they knew what he was talking about."

Gaskin, who is the patron of the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand and who also spent time on the New Plymouth District Council in the 1980s, started reading the Bard when she was 10 after reading a condensed version of his plays.

Born into a poor family in Wales and growing up during the Depression, reading was an easy escape for the young Ida Jacobs. While her brothers were playing cards, she was nestled with her nose in her mother's Complete Works of Shakespeare.

"I didn't like waiting for other people to have their turn during a card game, so I'd sit with a book on my lap and read between my turns. I can't remember my brothers and sisters wanting me to play very often," laughs Gaskin.

One thing she does remember is the day the chimneys started smoking again in her home town in South Wales. It was 1937 and although books will tell you the Great Depression ended in 1935, Ida's father, a steelworker, had been out of work for seven years.

"I remember that day well. We all ran outside and watched as this trail of smoke started rising from the chimneys. It meant there was finally work again. The women had tears falling down their faces. Most of the men were crying too."

This explains why Gaskin became teary-eyed during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics when chimney stacks rose from the ground, complete with drifting grey smoke.

"I didn't watch the Olympics for the athletes or the sport. I watched it to get glimpses of my beloved London. The marathon runners and the cyclists, they all made laps around my favourite places.

"Oh, it was beautiful. I was homesick for six weeks after that."

Gaskin moved to New Zealand in 1946, after the London school she was teaching at was bombed during the winter holidays. Classrooms were exchanged for bomb shelters and Gaskin's students sat their end of year exams with explosions echoing around them.

"We had two guards, and if a V1 bomb landed close to the school the guards would ring the bell and we would get the students on to the floor. When the bombing finished they would go back to their exams.

"If there was more than one explosion we were allowed to give the children an extra 30 minutes for their exam. That was all," says Gaskin, who has five children and is now a great- grandmother.

In the hunt for brighter pastures, Gaskin travelled to the Antipodes on the Rangitata, a 16,737 ton, diesel- driven ship.

"I just wanted to go somewhere warm. A man told me New Zealand had no winter, so I spent six weeks on a ship to come here. But he lied, New Zealand has terrible winters," says Gaskin, who was named a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1996.

After living in the hills in northern Hawke's Bay, where there was no power and it snowed all through a winter of discontent, the teacher of English and history applied for three jobs in New Plymouth.

"Miss Allum sent me a telegram saying 'please phone immediately'. At that stage the only phone in town was at the pub, so I had to go down there and ask to use their phone," says Gaskin, who was the head of English and the senior mistress at New Plymouth Girls' High School from 1961 to 1980.

Although Gaskin officially retired nearly 33 years ago she is still invited to talk to students every year at the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival.

Dawn Sanders, the president of the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand, speaks highly of the "Welsh Kiwi" saying that at every festival Gaskin has a room full of students hanging on her every word.

"The students love her. She has a vast understanding of Shakespeare and she is always so generous in sharing her knowledge. The kids are spellbound by her, inspired in fact," says Sanders, who first met Gaskin 45 years ago.

Sanders, who strongly believes Shakespeare should be retained in schools, travelled to London with Gaskin in 1994 to unveil New Zealand-made wall hangings for the new Globe Theatre and again in 1997 for its official opening.

The pair, who went to as many plays as they could while they were there, met the Queen, Prince Phillip and - Gaskin's personal favourite - British poet laureate, the late Ted Hughes.

"If I could relive any day of my life it would be the day I met and had a wonderful conversation with Ted Hughes. I can see why so many women loved him. If I had been 50 years younger, I could have fallen for him," said Gaskin.

In fact, one of her prized possessions is a book the poet signed for her.

"I have a few special books and that is one I am most proud of," says Gaskin, as she sips a cup of tea.

It's hard to imagine where in this three-bedroom library her favourite book would be. One can't help but ask if she has ever considered a Kindle to help save space.

"Oh no, Kindles are terrible inventions. There is nothing nicer than opening a book, holding it in your hands and enjoying the fragrance old books have.

"Besides, poets cannot sign your Kindle, now can they?"

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