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All the Juicy Pastures: Greville Texidor and New Zealand by Margot Schwass

What a fascinating exercise, to read first the collected stories, such as they are, and then this life of someone I had never heard of until a few weeks ago. I found that I knew more about many of the people who surrounded Greville Texidor, but had never encountered the woman herself. In the twenties and thirties, she was painted by Augustus John and Mark Gertler.

If I were to conduct my exercise again, would I read the fiction first or second? Reading the biography certainly helped to put a context around the fiction. The writing made more sense, so perhaps it would work best to read the two together, if you are someone who can read two books at once.

Greville Texidor was born Margaret Greville Foster in Wolverhampton, England in 1902. Looking back at her life from the end of the biography, one is struck by the various contrasts in the things she did and the places she ended up. From a very privileged beginning, provincial England and Cheltenham Ladies College, to the glamorous life as a model, show girl and film star. Touring on stage through the USA, performing in Paris. Friends with authors and artists. She met Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. She moves to Spain and gets caught up fighting in the Spanish Civil War; in bombing raids, besieging towns and hiding in caves. I am afraid that the Spanish Civil War is one of those episodes of history that I continue to find perplexing, with so many factions involved that I am never sure who the good guys are, or indeed if there are any good guys. There seems to be some doubt that Greville was completely sure about the allegiance of those she was fighting for.

Greville’s complex love life played a fateful role in much of what happened. She was briefly married to “Mr Wilson” who pursued her to the USA. “The marriage lasted just two weeks because, said Greville, Mr Wilson ‘had the nasty habit of reading the newspaper at breakfast’.” In Spain she married Manolo Texidor, wealthy entrepreneur and motorcycle racer. He was a man who loved a good scheme and a new business venture. Some were very good, some terrible. Greville bore him a daughter and went with him to South America on one of his schemes, but in the end she found him unreliable. Instead she became involved with a German, Werner Droescher. When they eventually left Spain, where they had spent time running a home for children displaced or orphaned by the Civil War, they returned to England. Werner was immediately sent back to Europe as a Nazi. Once they married, Greville became a de facto German and spent a month in Holloway prison. She used these experiences in one of her stories. The Second World War had started and it was at this point that the couple managed to ‘escape’ to New Zealand.

‘All the Juicy Pastures’ paints a rather bleak picture of war-time New Zealand. Greville “…was bored by New Zealand – its meagre cultural life, its enervating respectability, its puritanism. She once said that ‘being brought up in N.Z. is the worst preparation for the struggle to live.’”

The book delves into the literary scene of the early 1930, the Phoenix magazine as a platform for emerging writers and the Caxton Press in Christchurch. These works have been called an expression of national identity and voice. Their nationalism was “bleak, unromantic, as improving as castor oil. Unlike nationalist writing elsewhere, it was neither celebratory, nostalgic nor intended as an instrument of anti-colonial resistance. Its pervasive tone was a kind of self-lacerating gloom.” Into this world stepped Greville and Werner. Margot Schwass notes “To many, New Zealand cities and towns seemed primitive, ugly and mean; there were few places to eat out at night and cultural activities were limited largely to the movies. They were astounded by New Zealanders’ attitudes to alcohol, and by displays of public drunkenness. Typical houses, even middle-class ones, struck them as poorly planned, cold and awash in ugly Victoriana. The abundance of corrugated iron was astonishing. Social behaviours – the separation of men and women at parties and dances, the reluctance to display affection in public – puzzled and sometimes shocked them.”

But if that atmosphere sounded bad, things were about to get worse of the couple. They were classed as enemy aliens. They had to register with the police and obtain police permission to leave home for more than 24 hours. All their correspondence was read by an official censor. They could not live in certain areas where it might be possible to observe troop movements and they were banned from owning maps, firearms or cameras. Werner was lucky not to be interned on Soames Island. A job was found for him with a Quaker farmer in a sparsely populated region at the north end of the Kaipara Harbour. Paparoa lay in an area originally known as Albertland, where English non-conformists had tried to establish a utopian religious settlement in the 1860s.

Frank Sargeson thought that it was the isolation that Greville encountered while living in Paparoa that turned her towards writing. But it was also a way of excavating her Civil War memories and perhaps dealing with the sense of failure that burdened her. Sargeson encouraged her to mine her New Zealand experiences for writing material. These stories brought her to the attention of a New Zealand audience. Closeness to Sargeson also brought her into contact with many other young New Zealand writers.

The story of Greville Texidor is ultimately a sad one. After leaving New Zealand she spent time in Australia and then returned to Spain. Margot Schwass concludes that she had written herself into silence. She did not find the consolation she had sought from writing. Schwass had written a fascinating study, both of the woman, the period and the fledgling literary landscape of New Zealand.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Victoria University Press. RRP $40


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