Honest, witty and vividly descriptive memoir with a serious side

BEFORE I FORGET <br>Jacqueline Fahey<br>Auckland University Press
BEFORE I FORGET
Jacqueline Fahey
Auckland University Press
I enjoy reading memoirs, but had no great expectations when I started this one, having never heard of Jacqueline Fahey.

Looking inside the fly-cover I saw that she had written a previous memoir called Something For the Birds, was well-known in the art world and had been married to psychiatrist Fraser McDonald, whose name I recalled from the '70s when he was a familiar face on television. But from initial hesitation, once I started to read on it did not take long before I was intrigued and amused.

As its title suggests, Fahey is writing this at an age when many memories can be foggy, but she states at the beginning ''Somehow I had not noticed that I had grown old'', and when you continue reading you realise why. Immersed in her art, her family, mixing with a range of interesting people - she comes across as a splendid advocate of living life to the full, with ageing of little concern.

As I read further, my ignorance of women in the art world became distressingly obvious, with Rita Angus the only female artist she writes about whose name and work was familiar to me. Angus was friend and inspiration to the author, giving her the courage to integrate painting into her life.

Her paintings interspersed throughout the book are stridently colourful depictions of themes dear to her heart and many include domestic settings. Some paintings feature hydrangeas, which she describes as being ''emblematic of mental hospitals'', as they were prominent in the gardens of institutions such as Kingseat and Carrington.

As the wife of the superintendent, she lived in or near their grounds and witnessed 30 years of momentous changes in the history of the mentally ill.

Her descriptions of the reforms carried out by her husband, the opposition he often encountered, how his plans for more community care for patients were distorted by the politics of the day [and resulted in wholesale shutting of institutions without the provision of good alternatives] are fascinating - especially since readers have the privilege of seeing at first hand a policy statement written by Fraser McDonald, drafting his policy for the future of Carrington [then a huge psychiatric institution which housed 2000 patients] and being graphically reminded of the controversial methods used by Titewhai Harawira.

As well as the disbanding of psychiatric institutions, the book mentions topics which will provide nostalgic moments for those who were around a few decades ago - and might provide insights for the present generation into radical social changes effected by people like Jacqueline Fahey and fellow committed individuals. One of her strongest personal themes is the way women were perceived then and now.

In Melbourne in the '60s, as part of a group of young doctors' wives, she felt as though they were ''a reflection of the lives lived by our husbands'' and realised she had to get back into the art world. Later, in the '70s, she was involved in feminist politics but the overall impression she leaves is of someone who believes passionately in equality for all, regardless of gender or race. And she echoes what many are feeling these days about the increasing gap between rich and poor.

Serious topics are covered, but you are not left with the impression of the author as a proselytising bore. She is anything but. Before I Forget is honest, witty and vividly descriptive, and it is heartening to see that her strongly held views have not faded with age.

 - Patricia Thwaites is a retired schoolteacher.