A Memoir of Janet Frame

Janet Frame and others. By David Kozubei (Written March 2005 when I was 73.)

A recent e-mail from Lila Hamilton asked me if I was the David Kozubei who had known Janet Frame, and if so, had I any memories I would be willing to share. I had, but they were disappointingly few, and a wait of a few weeks did not produce one new one.

I only knew Janet in the late 1950s and perhaps early 1960s, before she was famous and a nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The top half of her head nestled under a sturdy thicket of russet hair dwarfing her high forehead. There was nothing like it in London, England, in the 1950s, but she seemed unaware of its difference and indifferent to how she looked, never wearing clothes that flattered her. Her freckled face was lustreless and unhealthy-looking.

She always wore sunglasses. During our acquaintance, she twice pushed them down her nose for a moment, with her forefinger, to more clearly see from my face how much I backed whatever outrageous thing I had just said. I assumed she wore them because she wanted to see others and hide her reactions and her vulnerabilities, and avoid the complications that might arise from their being seen. The sunglasses gave her a little space of her own. And her reticence with me allowed our friendship to continue because I did not pry, being politely British.

After I rang the bell to her place, she would open the downstairs door very slowly till the edge of the sunglasses appeared. She then turned her head sideways, looking at me out of the corner of her eye without opening the door any further, and then, after a silent pause during which she satisfied herself that I was who I claimed to be and looked like, would slowly go on opening it till I could edge in and walk up a flight of stairs, after her.

I never saw her room. In an area shared by some of the people on her floor, whom I never saw, we sat at a small square table that was covered with a faded yellow oilcloth. Everything looked aesthetically unappetizing and the worse for wear. She seemed to take it for granted and even be part of it. A small window near my side of the table showed a little weak daylight that stayed shamefacedly between the window and a windowless and grimy brick wall a foot or two beyond it. Each time I visited, Janet would disappear from the table, then reappear with a glass of tea for each of us. Early in our acquaintance she mentioned she had been to Ibiza and stopped speaking, portentously. But when in reply to my asking if she had met the poet Robert Graves who was living there, she said she hadn’t (I hadn’t either), we dropped the subject of Ibiza. For me at that time to say one had been there and not met with Graves was like wearing a cheap ring without the valuable gem that had been in it. She also mentioned more than once her wish to get electro-shock treatments at the Maudsley Hospital. She’d been given an incessant series of them in New Zealand, and I was horrified that she wanted more though she had undergone them and the zombiefication that followed each of them. I tried to dissuade her.

Knowing he was diverted by interesting characters, I brought my friend Lionel Coleman along one day. He was a talented painter who once described himself to me as a homosexual with lesbian tendencies. He marveled over her like the doctors over the lady who died of fever and chills, in John Crowe Ransom’s poem. And ended up seeing much more of her than I did.

Through her, I first heard of the New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, and of how he had given her a hut in his backyard for her to live and write in. Or maybe it was through John Goldwater, a New Zealand architect who knew him and had given Janet my address.

Owls Do Cry, her second and most recent book, did not impress me, but our friendship survived my pointing out what seemed to me some technical faults. But how I would like to have been able to think up the title of one of her later books, You Are Entering The Human Heart; and to have been able to write the story in it called Swans, so packed with a spoonful of childhood happiness, and so short; and to those familiar with her New Zealand ordeal, again show as she did, by writing it, the flame of the human spirit breaking through the ashes that covered it; and to feel, as a reader, gratitude for her filling-in another gap in what writers need to do.

To widen her horizons, which seemed to me too narrow, I took her to a very narrow and dark café called The French by those in the know though its front carried no name, on Old Compton Street on the Soho side of Charing Cross Road. It was like taking a child to a zoo, to see wild animals without endangering the child. You could stay for hours in it for the price of a coffee. This suited our financial condition. We made several trips.

It was run by a tall thin man, and his alert-eyed smaller wife: both quiet, decent, and French-speaking. They didn’t care what you were or did as long as you behaved in the café. It was near Carnaby Street and they sold it just before that became famous, so they didn’t make a killing.

Among the animals who stood or sat there, silently, or chatting quietly, was Charlie the cat-burglar, always at the counter near the doorway, and slim and dressed like a ladies’ man, and whose eyes were sharp with the anxieties attendant on being both; ample Ironfoot Jack who surveyed the café from the back, and wore a black cape and a black pillbox hat, and whose monotonous voice going on about his favorite subject, the difficulty of getting moolah, made me shun him as a bore; Suzie, a girl whose physical beauty sliced through the café’s dark like sunlight when she came in to get some uppers and downers from Jack, and whose slinkiness in brightly colored clothing and clacking high heels as she walked alone along a Soho street late at night made some men assume she was a whore until their overtures were rebuffed. She earned her living as an artist’s model. Later, when she was 32, she learnt she was about to die of cancer, and fear of death panicked and consumed her. Then there was the man who worked in a nearby advertising agency and who whistled Beethoven symphonies under his breath to pass the time and you could hear them if you were near enough; or the Irishman of peasant stock whose large Irish harp divided the barge he lived in on the River Thames into two equal parts and who was translating the Odyssey for the love of it (what became of that?); and Black Mike who had a thick gnarled stick, a limp, and constant scowl; and who let it be known that for bargain prices he would break arms and legs and do even more; and David from the heart of cockneyland, whose dialect was so pronounced that even fellow cockneys had difficulty understanding him so he was forced to work as a bouncer who did not need any form of English to be understood. And then there was a little old lady shriveled with age and humpbacked and vivacious who was called The Countess because she was once married to a count and who, taking a liking to me, and to encourage me to better myself, told me to walk along the gutter rather than on the pavement as that was a more likely place to find money. She had once found a wad of seven hundred pounds there. And there was Harry who’d had his portrait painted by Francis Bacon, and also had had sex with him. And the black man with plumped-out jaws, who one day couldn’t get rid of a painful erection till Lionel charitably manipulated and massaged him back to normality. But who Janet met among them or who else she saw there, I don’t remember. Nor who I only told her about or who I introduced her to.

She was stocky, and had a New Zealand accent.

There was an extensive menu elsewhere that we looked at, but it was too expensive, and we must have walked out of that restaurant. And once we wrote a list of things to shop for but never went shopping. But both these things may be inventions of what could have been, without even a basis in memory. And so may be my seeing her, after her first shock treatment in the Maudsley, sprawled in a wheelchair, with snail-slow inadequate responses and looking as if she had been wiped blank. I did not visit there again (if I ever did). It must have seemed pointless.

I lost touch with her. Years later, I read she’d had two hundred and eighty-five electro-shock treatments before coming to England.