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April 30, 2015

Recollections of Ngaio Marsh


Even as a small child, I found something incongruous in the friendship between the tall and imposing Ngaio Marsh, with her resoundingly deep voice and wide, dramatic gestures, and my much-loved fluffy pink marshmallow of a godmother, Joanie Pullen.
Ngaio, a cousin on my father’s side of our extensive New Zealand family, appeared and disappeared from our London life with comet-like regularity and drama, as she met with publishers, received awards, gave talks and went, as often as she possibly could, to the theatre.
Art, writing and the theatre were Ngaio’s driving passions, and, much as she adored New Zealand, she also loved coming to England as often as she could, to meet with colleagues, family and friends, and to see new plays, new productions, new paintings.
Always, when in London, she would see my Dad, Sam Williams (or, more formally, Samuel Marsh Williams), and often she would stay with my godmother, who lived just a few streets away from our rather crowded family house in Chelsea. I suspect she found Joanie’s sedate apartment and deep, soft sofas a good deal more appealing than a house with three young children tearing up and down the stairs…
As well as being a family member, Ngaio had been something of a patron to my father in the late 1930s, when he found himself, a painter and set designer, rather unexpectedly back in New Zealand with a young English wife, and Europe about to go up in flames. Ngaio involved my father as designer in a number of productions she put on with a newly formed repertory company which she hoped at the time might form the basis of a New Zealand National Theatre.
Events both personal and political overtook the National Theatre project, and Dad went off to war, though a more unlikely soldier it would be hard to imagine. Once the war was over, Europe had more or less settled down, and my father had shed his khaki camouflage, he collected his young family (there were now three children as well as his profoundly homesick wife), bought passage on the good ship Ruahine, and set off back to England.
It was on one of Ngaio’s visits to England in the 1950s that I recall the way she teased my godmother about her hopes of finding a new romantic liaison. Joanie was widowed, and made no secret of the fact that she would like to be married again – or, at the very least, have a beau. When Ngaio visited that time, Joanie had just had her apartment redecorated (it was the first time I had ever seen flounces on a toilet seat cover – or, indeed, a toilet seat cover of any kind). Everything was soft, silken and frilly, and what I recall most about the scene was the contrast between all the pastel colours and sensuously upholstered furniture, and Ngaio herself, tall, dark, in a sturdy tweed suit and solidly sensible shoes, vibrant with intelligence and fun. She eyed Joanie’s much-pillowed double bed, and in a booming voice exclaimed: “All set for the seduction, I see!”

(Sarah Williams is the CEO of The Book Consultancy, in Woodstock, England, and author of How to Write Crime Fiction.)



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