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Untouchable Girls: The Topp Twins’ Story

I’ve just been on tour with the Topp Twins, Jools and Lynda (well, their new memoir). They’re great company, though they tipped my carry-on bag well over the weight limit.

They’re substantial, these two – full-on, purposeful, committed: Untouchable Girls. They’ve hung out with royalty and opera stars, blokes from Invercargill and merino rams. They’ve been exhausted, despairing, discriminated against – and empowered, honoured, and loved.

The memoir is sub-titled ‘The Topp Twins’ Story’ – although it’s a story with hundreds of smaller tales within it. Jools and Lynda share their adventures at home and abroad, often equipped with only “a guitar, spoons, a bag each and a tent”. They tell it as they see/hear/inhale it. Their writing is down-to-earth and engaging – yarns spinned, a secret or two revealed, their passion for life, social justice, friends and family evident.

At the Old Time Country Music Festival in Iowa they befriend a fellow horse-lover who treats them to a smokehouse meal. Boom! We’re there too – I can almost smell the “hickory, honey and whisky” aroma wafting from the smokehouse chimney. A waitress mistakes them for young men: “Take a seat, boys, and I’ll be with you in a minute.” Jools and Lynda take this – and life – in their stride. They’re resilient, loyal, and skilled at disguise. Lacking her own moustache, Jools snips hair from her Border collie’s tail to make a salt-and pepper mo of her own, attached with tape. Her grey-trousered, sports-coated Ken emerges a star.

The carefree rural upbringing with their beloved parents set the scene for what they said in a recent radio interview with Kim Hill has been a “charmed and beautiful life”. There was even the odd date with a Kiwi bloke or two before “the whole lesbian thing…kicked in”. They write about how Dad Peter Topp’s belief in his girls “made us who we are – strong, independent women” and how 92-year-old Mum Jean Topp is still a rock for her daughters “with a hug and always some new weird and whacky saying”. Still country women at heart, both Jools and Lynda have a life-long love of horses. Jools owns a small ranch overlooking the Kaipara Harbour “…when you finally have the time to put your foot in the stirrup and ride out in the forest…the worries of the world disappear”.

They’re open about the challenges they’ve faced – particularly the “sneaky little creep” cancer they’ve both been diagnosed with. They write about other tough times too, including their father’s death and the ending of other important relationships, the occasionally rocky road of step-parenting, and the devastating effects of Covid lockdowns on the national arts scene. (When the initial lockdown was announced, they lost a whole year’s worth of gigs.) A teenage Jools stole prescription drugs from her pharmacist employer. The consequences included six months banished to the farm to help her father with the milking, and no contact with friends. “A combination of forgiveness, trust, leniency and love” set Jools back on the right track.

Jools and Lynda are fierce champions of women and marginalised communities. Their support of political and social causes is well-documented in the memoir, including their contributions to the fight for a nuclear-free Aotearoa and their opposition to the ’81 Springbok Tour. The memoir also records chapters in Aotearoa’s musical history, with the Topp Twins being supported by – and staunch supporters of – many other local musicians.

Many photos complement the text – not only of their well-known characters (I’m looking at you, Gingham Sisters and Camp Leader), but also of their time in the Territorials (Lynda brandishes her M16 rifle), family photos with their parents and their brother Bruce, and meet-ups with Charles and Camilla. There’s even a photo of a teenage Lynda flying over the bar to win the Huntly College high jump.

Jools and Lynda pay tribute to many of their support crew – including their manager, Arani Cuthbert, their long-time friend and photographer Sally Tagg, and their dear mate and writer Paul Horan who contributed to Camp Mother’s back story. Camp Mother, they tell us, is “the only woman who had reversed a caravan through the Waikino Gorge”. (Camp Mother, I’m in awe. I can barely back my Honda into a parking space.)

I attended a Topp Twins concert years ago, in Wellington. My partner – and other good-natured audience members – became part of the show. I saw first-hand how Jools and Lynda excel at making people feel comfortable, drawing them out and making them laugh. Sitting down with their memoir is almost as good as a night out with these two remarkable women. Their love for each other, and their determination and spirit, shine on every page.

Wāhine mā, wāhine mā Women everywhere, women everywhere

Maranga mai, maranga mai Rise up, rise up

Kia kaha Be strong

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Allen & Unwin


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