Timely anthology tends to reflect the best bits of growing up

Bryan James reviews Way Back Then Before We Were Ten.

Ed. Graeme Lay
David Ling, $34.99, pbk.

Given present adult sensibilities and fears about childhood, it's probably timely for an anthology of this kind, for in many instances it memorialises a childhood of happiness and pleasure.

Certainly, we tend as adults to remember the best bits of growing up and this is reflected in many of Graeme Lay's choices (many of which will be familiar to readers), but there are sufficient darker moments, too, brought to the light and studied with hindsight.

The range of writers selected to contribute is broad, beginning inevitably with Mansfield and Sargeson and including some of our major senior writers, living and dead, such as Frame, Gee, Koea, Shadbolt - even Fay Weldon.

Among the younger contributors Grimshaw, Kassabova and Wells stand out.

It's important to know that the book records both fiction and non-fiction accounts, which led me to thinking about how much exactly of our early childhood is invented when we recall it as adults, or more precisely, elaborated.

So much of our lives between the ages of, say, 5 and 10, is necessarily "made up" as we try to work out what things are and how they function, as well as learn to accommodate others in our sphere beyond immediate family.

Every child, I think, invents a companion or two to share this burden of understanding life, and one or two make their appearances in these stories.

Of the original memoirs, Brigid Lowry's "Just off Celestial Street" pleased me most.

The daughter of one of our literati's more famous figures, Lowry writes of the family villa in Auckland: "If you look in the corners there are plenty of stories"; of a sometimes sad little girl living in a house of "books and words, of printers and parties and poets", a place "of warmth and laughter but only sometimes."

She has a wonderful way of eliciting memory through the senses, especially of her father Bob, and her story perfectly catches the way childhood recollection works - a matter of the brightest stars dominating the night sky of memory.

- Bryan James is the Books Editor.

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