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Creek and Kitchen – Maurice Gee

May 31, 2011

One of my favourite pieces ‘on Maurice Gee‘ is an essay he himself wrote, called Creek and Kitchen, for Through the Looking Glass; Recollections of Childhoods from 20 Prominent New Zealanders.

In this essay, much is made of his experience of the creek (a creek that often plays a role in his fiction). Gee describes the importance of his grandfather and mother as well as of other, more random, characters who passed through his childhood… The essay makes for provocative reading, and provides interesting insight.

Childhood,” Gee writes, “was weaving between two places, home, outside. …Back and forth; home, outside.  Dangerous places: deep black pools where people drown, where I nearly drown, and huge eels under the bank; a naked swagman washing his armpits at the waterfall; slimy rocks where you can break your skull… And there are journeys in our tin canoes, down the creek, pool after pool, and voices in back yards and on bridges, and faces peering down like people in heaven, but we’re the real ones and down here is the real place.  Then comes the tidal pool at Falls Park, where the green water changes to brown and the taste to salt.  Big kids are jagging sprats with long lines on bamboo poles and try to jag us.  We pass Tui Glen, the tea kiosk, the pirate ship rocking on its axle, and come to the mangroves and the sea.  We hide our canoes and plough out to the road, thigh deep in mud, and run home through twilit streets into the kitchen – doughboy and stew.” (my emphases, p82)  

He continues: “…I try fighting Ernie, straight right, left cross, the way Dad has taught me, but he’s fourteen and his fists break through my guard.  Mum comes running out and makes us stop and looks to see if my teeth are chipped.  Dad says my arms are too short.  I stay quiet for several days.  The world has gone lopsided. I was right and Ernie Lisk was wrong so I should have won.  Isn’t that the rule my mother teaches. and with Dad’s straight left backing it up…? But Ernie won and I have chipped teeth and a swollen mouth.” (my emphases, p84)

He discusses neighbours and the bizarity of neighbourly relations… and emphasises that “the safe and happy place was the kitchen.” (p85)

“We saw our parents in story,” he writes (p86) and explains that: “The Depression took shape for me – a lurching beast swatting people down with a hairy paw and feeding on them.  But Mum and Dad got away.  My brothers and I saw them as heroes – and my mother, for me, was a kind of moral exemplar who, often unknowingly, laid down laws (rather damaging, that, in the long run), though she tucked up her dress and won the women’s dash at the Labour Party picnic.  Dad won the nail-driving contest. …It’s no wonder I felt happy and safe.” (my emphases, pp86-87)

“School was a mixture of good and bad,” he writes: “I don’t want to distort things by writing down just the bad.  But happy times become a kind of ground for memory and injustices, disappointments, keep a sharp edge.” (my emphases, p88)  

As he concludes his essay, Gee writes, “So there’s a dark/light opposition, though not as cut and dried as that makes it sound.  Mine, I suppose, is the common experience of childhood in a country like New Zealand, where hard times come and go, but nobody starves, and wars don’t come to us, we go to them. …Most, at some time, manage to see their parents as heroic.  But not many, I think, have a grandfather like mine.” (my emphases, p90) “My knowledge of him comes from my mother’s stories. …I found it [his grandfather’s exploits] all heroic (I still think it brave) and my grandfather became a major figure in my life.  Because of him, because of his career, I believed for a long while that one can be sure of Right and Wrong and find a Way.” (my emphases, p91)

Ref: Maurice Gee ‘Creek and Kitchen’ in Through the Looking Glass; Recollections of Childhoods from 20 Prominent New Zealanders. Selected and introduced by Michael Gifkins. Century Hutchinson: Auckland. (1988). pp83-92

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