Saturday, August 14, 2010

Memories of a Dame: An encounter with Ngaio Marsh

I used to cover the waterfront for the New Zealand Herald and it meant just about anything that was newsworthy: smuggling, strikes, shipping disasters, the arrival of Hundert Wasser in his hippy yacht the Regentag, and VIPs arriving on large ocean liners.

I rather liked doing the liners being a bit of an early bird myself, as it involved getting down to waterfront as the sun came up and going out on the customs launch to interview persons of interest before they disembarked.

You never quite knew who to expect. It was common for PR companies to send in a blurb to the Herald in advance to get publicity on some showbiz person, but there were just as many persons of note that did not want publicity, and they often turned out to be more interesting.

I am pretty sure that was the case with Dame Ngaio Marsh when she turned up as a passenger on a P&O Liner back in the 1970s coming back to New Zealand.

I know I was totally unprepared for her - I had never read any of her books but knew of her reputation as a great crime writer. A Herald photographer accompanied me as there was generally a picture opportunity as well as a story on these liners, and someone in the pursers office tipped me off that she was on board. He was pretty ecstatic about the photo opportunity, knowing very well the Herald would most likely use it.

When you get that sort of tip-off you know the VIP probably does not want to be interviewed, so I had two problems: no pre-interview briefing, and someone who may give me the cold shoulder.
I know my way around ships having been at sea for eight years, so in a sense it was home territory for me. We made a request and got a message back saying she would see us, and she duly turned up at a lounge to be interviewed. She was sharp eyed, smart and organised in a sort of British Mem sahib colonial sort of way, and more British than I imagined. I don’t know why that surprised me as she had spent a very large part of her life in Britain.

At first she did not strike me as being a particularly arty sort of person who loved the theatre and Shakespeare because she was completely at home on board ship and told me how she had written a book or two on long sea voyages on cargo passenger ships. We talked about ‘Singing in the Shrouds,’ written on a Port Line cargo ship on a long voyage to or from, Britain.

It broke the ice that I used to be a deck officer on cargo passenger ships, so we could talk about ship board life and the great conversations you have on the long voyages in the days before satellite phones, TV, etc.

She clearly liked the steady routine of long ocean voyages and the thrills of storms at sea.

I think she guessed that I had not done any research on her. In fact I am ashamed to admit that about the only female author I had read at that time was Agatha Christie, but I could see she was not an Agatha Christie type of person.


Beneath her ‘Englishness’ I think she craved excitement and could possibly have been a detective or even war correspondent in a later age that accepted women in these roles.


In mitigation I have to say in my era a sailor could not take a lady author’s book to sea without eyebrows being raised, and we read Hammond Innes, Alastair Maclean, C.S Forester, and Nicholas Monsarrat. She gave a first impression of being completely in control of her life - a sort of woman who could survive a Japanese prisoner of war camp and have the Japanese eating out of her hands in days.

Her book production was formidable, more than 30 works between 1934 and 1982. Where do you start when you have to interview someone so prolific and successful !

I did the only thing possible and prompted her into telling me about her recent books and life. She talked easily about her books but was restrained about her life. She loved Britain and being part of a much bigger literary scene, and I think she loved the wide variety of characters a larger society produces.

She had been accused of reinventing herself to become more English, but to me as a fairly recent arrival from Britain she was rather typical of the established Christchurch set: cultured, confident, and British by heritage.

I remember she said something along the lines that New Zealand was really just a farming community, which it largely was then and definitely in the 1930s when she started writing. I asked her if she could have produced so much if she had remained in New Zealand, she gave me that sort of look that said 'that’s a stupid question', and just shrugged her shoulders.

It was obvious a bigger society provided the stimulation she needed, just as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa needed the Operatic society of London and Europe to thrive.

Although she came across to me as being a bit cold, I put it partly down to a touch of shyness and the early hours of the interview, and having to suffer an ignoramus of a journalist who had arrived totally unprepared for this interview.

She never asked the dreaded question , 'have you read any of my books?', or 'what did you think about Singing in the Shrouds?’ I would have had to have lied that I liked the beginning, or the ending, as all books have beginnings and endings.

She seemed to me to be a loner and a person who did constant character analysis, perhaps ever searching for new characters for her next book and wondering if the person she was talking to was capable of good or bad deeds.

Beyond journalism I had no aspirations to undertake any other form of writing then, least of all write my own thrillers.

Print journalism is a bit like angling - there are times when it best to put down the pencil and paper and listen, and other times when you can’t write fast enough. It was a bit like that with her; she tended to be a bit guarded, and if there was a hint of defensiveness it was best to put the pencil and paper down and the conversation came a bit more freely.

My own awkwardness was the probable reason for her reticence at times, and if I listened rather than asked dumb questions then the end result would be more complimentary to her and less damaging, she may have thought.

Beneath her ‘Englishness’ I think she craved excitement and could possibly have been a detective or even war correspondent in a later age that accepted women in these roles.

She reminded me of a lady who ran a mushroom farm in Britain, which I worked on briefly as a student before going to sea. When I told her I was going to sea she said, that is what I would do if I were a boy, and she said it with the tones of a person who wished she had been a boy.

I think Ngaio Marsh wanted the freedom of being who she was in a world, especially in a New Zealand that was still very conformist in its judgments of what constituted ‘decent jokers, good Shelias, and ‘weirdos’’.

She loved the Theatre and was totally accepted in that world. Reading about her recently I was struck by the difficulty gays faced. An aunt of mine worked for Ivor Novello, the famous Welsh musical writer and producer - to cover up his fairly obvious homosexuality his publicity agent was forever ‘linking Ivor’s name with well known actresses’ as though there was a developing love affair. In small print there was generally a mention that his real undercover lover Bobby Andrews just happened to be travelling with them at the time.

I do not know who Ngaio Marsh’s big friend in life was if she really did, which I imagine she did, have one. It was not something you could really ask in those days. That I think gave a touch of sadness to her life.

To say she was a touch mannish is not an insult - it was her choice and also her defense I think. She did not have to chase publicity, it came to her, and true to form the news editor needed no prompting to give her story a useful spot to make sure New Zealanders knew that one of this country’s famed ones was back home, for a while at least.

Roy Vaughan


Roy Vaughan is a former officer in the British and New Zealand Merchant Navies, and journalist for the New Zealand Herald (amongst other roles), who in his 'retirement' has now started a series of thriller novels. The first, THE MERELEIGH RECORD CLUB TOUR OF NEW ZEALAND, was published in hardcover late last year (launched in New Zealand earlier this year), and Vaughan has already completed the second, which will hopefully be released in the coming months (along with a paperback version of the first in the series).

You can read Crime Watch's 9mm interview with Roy Vaughan here.


What do you think of Roy's guest post? Did you gain some further insight into Aotearoa's own doyen of detective fiction? Do you like learning more about the authors you've read? Has New Zealand overlooked Dame Ngaio Marsh for too long, in terms of her crime writing? Thoughts and comments welcome.


  1. Excellent piece, Roy! You are very fortunate to have met the mother of New Zealand mystery writing.

  2. Craig - Thanks for hosting Roy.

    Roy - Thanks so much for sharing your memories of Dame Marsh. Her work was truly excellent, and you are fortunate to have met her.

  3. What a great guest post. It's great to get Roy's impressions of Ngaio. His description is just as I could imagine she would act around a stranger enquiring into her life and work - guarded and seemingly distant.
    It would have been interesting to see what path in life she would have taken in the modern day when women weren't so limited by social strictures in choice of occupation and lifestyle. She was a strong and intelligent woman who would have succeeded in anything she put her hand to, I imagine.
    Thanks for the post Roy.

  4. I loved the article, and the photos are great. I had no idea she was so attractive! Thanks for sharing!
    Pat Browning
    Yukon, Oklahoma USA

  5. Great post. This is my first visit to your blog and have joined to follow. I haven't read any of Ngaio's works, though I do have one sitting in my TBR stack.

  6. Craig thanks for giving me the chance to write for the Post and all the kind comments from everyone. I am not sure I did justice to Dame Ngaio in the original Herald interview years ago and i hope this helps set the record straight

    Thanks Roy Vaughan