There are certain authors whose impact can be felt long after the book has been closed, put back on the shelf and left some years behind in the past. Margaret Mahy is one such writer for me - a New Zealander whose work was imaginative, playful and ever so rambunctious. Stories with titles such as ‘The Blood and Thunder Adventure on Hurricane Peak’ or ‘Raging Robots and Unruly Uncles’ swung between the surreal and the sublimely exciting. My family cherished her. Both my brother and I grew up listening to Mahy’s glittering tales on cassette. We still have these tapes somewhere. A few of her books remain among our general collection, but others have been lost or passed on to friends with younger children.
I could say that I stumbled across Mahy, but that isn’t true. She was handed to me. My parents were the ones responsible for finding this extraordinary set of stories and passing them on to their daughter. I adored this woman’s complete willingness to dive into the realms of whimsy or fantasy – sending pirates on mixed up voyages across 1001 islands, or assembling an outer-space circus, complete with a troupe of acrobats. Nothing was too outlandish or silly to be excluded. A lonely boy stole birthdays; the devil entered into pacts with the corner grocer; thieves were foiled through the adept use of chewing gum.
These kinds of narratives feed the young imagination. They are rich - reveling in all that is out of the ordinary. Like Geraldine McCaughrean and Eva Ibbotsen, Mahy’s output never flagged when it came to being inventive and rather mesmerizing. The space between the real and the imagined was rubbed out and re-drawn. In the world of these texts there was nothing more natural than transformations, acts of sorcery, disguise and mischief.
We often use children’s books as a point of reference, a shared past that can be quoted and remembered collectively. However, it’s harder with someone like Mahy. I’m not sure whether any of my friends know of her. She is adored in New Zealand but little known here. This relative obscurity in comparison to Maurice Sendak, Enid Blyton or J.M Barrie is both unfortunate and beneficial. It means I can't mention the stories in that rapturous way reserved for communal reminiscing – for recalling characters and storylines known to all. But the counterbalance is in knowing that her work is somehow more personal to our family. A more individual sense of discovery and delight remains.
The premise behind the pictured shoot with my beautiful friend Lucy was a loose adaptation of ‘The Tatty Patchwork Rubbish Dump Dancers.’ Published in 'The Chewing Gum Rescue and other stories', this short tale of Mahy’s charts the fortunes of a grandmother and granddaughter who turn a cave by a rubbish dump into their eclectic home – surviving on wild apples, entertaining hoards of feral cats and sourcing their household items from others’ cast offs. They make “tatty patchwork” clothing on a sewing machine with “crazy stitching” and discover a “tatty patchwork” piano that plays “crazy music.” Beauty resides in flaws and imperfection. The story stirred me so much that at age seven or eight my best friend and I would scatter objects across the garden and then pretend to ‘find’ them. We foraged for watering cans, baskets, rugs and twine to build makeshift dens.
Idealizing the ‘dump’ as a depository from which to scavenge taps into the same desire that makes treasure hunts so popular. It’s the longing to seek and discover, or if you want to make it very primal, to hunt and gather. This story is still one that I return to with a dizzy pleasure. There is joy in the telling, and inspiration in the idea behind it. Like the rest of the tales in the collection, it is a kind of make-believe that one does still believe in and wish to be true.
The clothes may not be tatty, but they are a patchwork mix of layers and second hand dressing up garb. I enjoyed the process of mixing together texture and colour. The stunning Lucy is a very talented artist, photographer, designer and seamstress who I’m sure will make a lasting creative mark on the future. You can also see her modelling in her brother Linden's music video here.
All photos by me.