Who was the Sheila I knew

Having a dear and companionable friend is what makes life worth living don’t you think? And that’s what Sheila was.

She was a most delightfully unusual person

deeply soaked in that tough Stewart Island background she’d come from. Whalers and sealers who had married into Maori families. People with names like Jacka Lee, Yankee Smith Black Swan, Manuel Gomez and Ned the Nailer.

Both she and Gilbert would say of themselves.” We are Foveaux Strait. A very mixed crew. Down here we think of people by name not by whether they’re Maori or Pakeha.”

I’ve known Sheila since the 1990s when in desperation I asked her to introduce me to Stewart Island families whom she thought I should interview for my radio series Dinkum Purlers. People whose blood was worth bottling.

Sheila was brilliant, and immediately suggested Peter and Joyce Topi, John Lee. Harold Ashwell, Alex Trail her brother, Philip Smith, Peter Goomes,  Marion Whipp, Julius Jensen the last of the Stewart Is whalers who was then in an old peoples home.

“I was a whaler in the Southern Ocean,” he began.” Five hundred whales we caught. Oh it was a terrible life! Working on the decks at minus 36 degrees. Your clothes froze. The whole toilet system froze.”

Women at the rest home knitting turned to each other. “I didn’t know he was a whaler. Did you know he was a whaler?”

People like Philip Smith (Yankee Smith. his ancestor, had jumped ship and been hidden in a cave and looked after by the Maori.) Philip was a cray fisherman who knew the mountainous seas of the roaring forties. 10 metre swells. ”Use your common sense,” he’d say. ” Speed kills. Respect the sea but don’t be scared of it.”

Her dear brother Alex, that independent spirit who said,” I don’t like appointments. I like to think each day is a blank cheque ahead of me. I don’t think most people truly like freedom”

Sheila herself was a wonderful mixture: geologist, botanist, zoologist, historian and linguist ((She spoke French German and Icelandic and conversed with her friend Andy Dennis in this last language)

She wrote with clarity and enthusiasm. Often writing for all ages. Never dry or dull. Jokes throughout. Often putting herself down. “This is not a learned book for academics. It’s a book for people to pick up and enjoy” she’d say… She wrote as she spoke. Refreshingly honest. Wonderfully accessible for Children. If publishers took too long to publish one of her books or tried to put her down she’d simply publish it herself in her own Nestegg Press.

Sheila wrote about her own great grandfather, Pastor Wohlers of the North German Missionary Society, who was invited in 1844 by the Kai Tahu paramount chief Tuhawaiki, (or Bloody Jack) to go and live on Ruapuke Island and help teach Maori how to farm and perhaps introduce them to Christianity.

Tuhawaiki fascinated Sheila. He signed the treaty dressed in a cocked hat and gold laced trousers, a fob watch and chai, but was just as happy acting as a harpooneer on a whaling ship. He had travelled to Sydney. He was good looking. sharp.Clever.

When sperm whales were divided up. He would say “I’ll just have the head.” He knew  all about the valuable spermacetti. Why was he called Bloody Jack? Because he called things bloody this and bloody that, like most NZrs . His death by drowning was a great loss to the community. Pitched overboard into the kelp Dragged down by his sea boots and heavy overcoat. He was only 40.

Same story with so many Stewart Island families whose uncles and brothers and fathers have drowned. The families will tell you. “You’ve got to be practical. Got to be a survivor.”

Sheila was on for everything. “Are you on for the flicks tonight?” I would say. “Yes!” She’d reply. Movies, opera ,plays… She was very well read. Could quote Shakespeare. Knew all the operas.

In films we both liked the same sort of themes. Complex. endearing funny, films with something to say. We didn’t always agree. She liked Wagner. I didn’t. I always felt Hitler was lurking somewhere there in the background.

We saw a lovely film at the Island Bay theatre. Good for Nothing. A clever spoof!Stirring music by NZ Nat orchestra. Wonderful acting by Cowan Holloway as a tongue-tied NZ cowboy. Hopelessly inaccurate shootouts between the cowboys. It was 10:30 AM. We were the only people in the theatre. We laughed and cried loudly and applauded rapturously and lurched out together into the sunlight. We weren’t drunk but Sheila had skinned her knees in a recent fall so we had to prop each other up, but nothing stood in the way of Sheila going to a good show. And then we’d go on to her favourite hangout, The Batch, where they served good coffee and food and stocked her books.

Sheila had published a lovely and funny book of letters between herself and Janet Frame. ‘Letters from Jean’ it’s called. They had known each other since teachers college and varsity days. So Sheila and I went to a play at Circa about the relationship between Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame. I thought it was rather good. Sheila was laughing and seeming to enjoy it. “Was that at all like your memory of Janet?” I asked. “No .No, she said, not at all.”Always honest. That was Sheila.

She loved a good sing song. That lovely Shakespearean song about meadows and cuckoos and cuckolds

‘When daisies pied and violets blue’ cuckoo…cuckoo,

Oh word of fear Unpleasing to the married ear.”

She knew war songs.  Brother Bertie. At a party at our place, leaning against our mantelpiece she sang,” Goodbye don’t cry. There’s a silver lining in the sky. Bonsoir old thing cheerio chin chin na pooh toddaloo Goodbye.”

That was one of the things   that made her so endearing . She knew all these songs.

When her cancer got worse and she got too breathless to go to the movies, I’d grab my little DVD player and race up there to her bird’s nest, her little eerie up above Owhiro Bay which you reached by a rather wobbly little cable car. I’d push aside the cat, and the papers, and articles, and I’d plug her in to Tosca and Sheila and I would thrill to the rape scene and murder of the dastardly police chief Scarpia played terrifyingly by Bryn Terfel.

Sheila didn’t sleep much at night. And once when we were reading Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner together, I noticed her mouthing the words. She knew it all.

“Oh sleep it is a gentle thing

Beloved from pole to pole

To Mary Queen the praise be given

She sent the gentle sleep from heaven that slid into my soul.”

On the day of Sheila’s death I was down in Riverton, way south, and looking out at the dim shape of Stewart Island and marvelling at the green sandstone rocks of the coast 260 million years old. At the little museum there an enthusiastic curator showed me a dear little box full of lovely creamy quartz and pistachio green epidote, pyrite, and sparkling mica, and I who am hopeless about making up my mind to buy anything, snatched it from her and said “Yes I’ll have that”. It might as well have been Sheila giving me a shove in the ribs and saying, “Dinah you need to be able to distinguish between metamorphic, igneous and sedimentary rock.”


Come to think of it she was a bit like igneous rock herself.

Composed of many elements and full of surprising sparkly bits.

So for me she’s still about, as I’m sure she is for many of you. And we have these 40 books of hers. Marvellous. Always something new to learn.

At the funeral Tony Burton and I sang a little waiata for Sheila. It was an old Irish song called The Parting Glass.

Dinah Priestley

Do go and see Hugh Macdonald and Christine Dann’s film about her, called No Ordinary Sheila.

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