Book Review: Looking For Answers (A life of Elsie Locke)

Victor Billot reviews Looking for Answers (A life of Elsie Locke).


A life of Elsie Locke

Maureen Birchfield

Canterbury University Press, $69.95, hbk

Elsie Locke was a formidable individual. This biography gives a sense of a strong personality whose long life was closely intertwined with the social history of 20th-century New Zealand.

Maureen Birchfield's sympathetic account runs to a serious 560 pages, dealing with Locke's politics as well as the personal life of a private person.

Like its subject, this is a formidable book: perhaps sometimes overzealous in the level of detail.

Locke's public life was outside the mainstream, firstly as an active communist and a feminist decades before it became acceptable, later as a campaigner, author and activist.

Born in 1912, she came from a modest small-town background.

She attended Auckland University as a young woman, mixed with a colourful set of intellectuals, and drifted towards radical politics during the turmoil of the Great Depression.

A substantial part of the biography deals with her involvement in the early days of the women's movement, and the family planning movement including the founding of a Sex, Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society.

The quaint terminology sounds curious and dated now, but at the time, in a society lumbered with ignorance and hypocrisy such initiatives were regarded as cutting edge, radical and even dangerous.

She joined the Communist Party in the early 1930s and soon came to the attention of the authorities.

There are many excerpts from state security files on her activities reproduced in this biography, which give an insight into the official mindset of the time.

Driven and highly intelligent, Locke did not pursue a traditional career after graduation.

She chose to raise a family.

Her first marriage did not last but her second to Jack Locke did, from 1941 until his death in 1996.

Two of her children are prominent political activists: Green MP Keith Locke and peace campaigner Maire Leadbeater.

Even as a young mother, Elsie Locke's copious energy found outlet in political and social causes.

Her disillusionment with Stalinism was completed with the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union in 1956, and she left the party.

While some former revolutionaries transformed into crusty conservatives, Locke became active in a wide range of progressive political causes.

These ranged from earnest-sounding folk music groups to the anti-nuclear, peace and environmental movements, and community involvement with the Avon Loop Protection Association in Christchurch.

All these activities are thoroughly covered, with illuminating comments from the many people who worked alongside her.

In her later life, Locke received substantial recognition as an author, especially well known for children's fiction, and she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Canterbury University.

This biography is just as much an account of social movements and activist politics as a personal document: a view from the front ranks of a New Zealander who put herself on the line for her convictions.

Ironically, the book is printed in China, a communist state operating a market super-economy enmeshed in capitalist globalisation.

It's a reminder of just how much the political and economic terrain of Elsie Locke's life has shifted in a few short years.

Victor Billot is editor of the Maritime Union magazine.

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