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Bill & Shirley a memoir by Keith Ovenden

Bill Sutch, arrested and charged under the official Secrets Act in 1974, on the charge of espionage after a series of meetings with an official at the Wellington-based, Soviet Union’s embassy, has remained a controversial and somewhat elusive figure in New Zealand history. The scandal which erupted from these charges and the subsequent trial, involving the revelation of clandestine assignations with a member of the KGB, seemed more likely the stuff of fiction than to be happening right here in our streets.

Keith Ovenden, the writer of ‘Bill & Shirley a memoir’, was married only four years to Helen, Bill Sutch and Shirley Smith’s only child, when Sutch was arrested. The memoir, though, is not so much a biography of Sutch or his wife, both prominent New Zealanders, but is largely focused on Keith and Helen’s marriage and how deeply affected the first years, especially, of their relationship were by Sutch and by Smith.

There was immediate conflict. Despite Ovenden having the credentials most families would consider perfectly acceptable in a future son-in-law- a recently completed PHD, the promise of a successful career- Smith, particularly, with Sutch following her lead, were violently opposed to the marriage. Smith did what she could to ensure it did not happen at all, neither of them attended the wedding and the gift-from Sutch-of Danish cutlery was addressed to Helen only.

Nevertheless, the young couple was required to attend the weekly ritual of Sunday dinner with Bill, Shirley and Bill’s sister-also Shirley. The dinners are described in excruciating detail-the direness of the conversation dominated entirely by Sutch, Smith’s refusal to have Ovenden involved in any of the preparation, serving or clearing up of the meal, the awkwardness-, the occasions becoming so traumatic that both Helen and Keith resorted to tranquilisers to enable enduring them.

Ovenden’s reflections on Sutch do not so much attempt to reveal the truth of the accusations against him, but offer the reader insights into this highly complex and enigmatic man, both personally and objectively. However, for me, the major interest of the book is Shirley Smith, who, in her forties, fulfilled her former ambition of becoming a lawyer, making a very successful career and being the first woman to lecture in law within New Zealand. Ovenden’s insights into Smith’s relationship with Sutch are fascinating. Her life, following Sutch’s death, is also revealing as she moves from her initial position of hostility towards her daughter’s marriage to establishing with Ovenden a relationship of mutual respect and strong friendship where, in later years, she expresses regrets for her past mistakes.

Elegantly and sensitively written, ‘Bill & Shirley a memoir’ is an honest and intriguing account of personal lives behind the public personae.

Reviewer: Paddy Richardson

Massey University Press


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