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Book Review
Bill and Shirley – a memoir
by Keith Ovenden (Massey University Press, 2020) 199 pp. $35
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Overton cover-001The title of this short memoir by Keith Ovenden is misleading – it would be better called “Bill, Shirley and me” as it is an account of Ovenden’s memories of his parents-in-law, Bill Sutch and Shirley Smith. His presence is pervasive through the book. All three participants are (or were) eloquent, strongly-opinionated intellectuals who have made significant contributions to different aspects of New Zealand life. Their interactions were often complex and difficult.

Things did not start well for Keith Ovenden. When Shirley first met her daughter’s partner at Oxford in 1970 she took an instant dislike to him. A year later, when Keith and Helen were married in Wellington, Shirley and Bill did not attend the wedding reception. Then subsequently Bill was charged with an offence under the Official Secrets Act, being acquitted after a highly publicized trial, and died soon afterwards. The controversy over the case has not faded, and Ovenden has had to live with the tarnished memory.

The book is divided into three sections – the first dealing with Bill (whom Ovenden knew only for the last four years of his life), the second with Shirley, and a final section outlining Ovenden’s ideas on the writing of memoir and biography. The section on Bill Sutch is puzzlingly titled “The Lion and the Weasel”, but the reason soon becomes clear – there is a lengthy discussion on whether Sutch was a spy (and what is a spy?). Did he betray his country (a weasel), or was he a patriotic New Zealander caught up in unfortunate events (a lion)? Ovenden outlines the bumbling deficiencies of the Security Intelligence Service at the time, and suggests that Sutch was starting to fail mentally and physically. But the fact remains that he was covertly meeting a member of the KGB based in the embassy of the USSR, and handing over material, the nature of which he never disclosed. I can still recall watching a TV interview with Ian Fraser a few days after the trial, and my impression that Sutch was being evasive and telling an improbable story.

The second section, titled “If only, if only…” deals with Ovenden’s gradual reconciliation with Shirley as the grandchildren arrived, and he increasingly gained understanding of her as a pioneering woman lawyer and social advocate. It also highlights the major defect of this book – the complete absence of any acknowledgement of the substantial biography published only last year, “Shirley Smith – an examined life” by Sarah Gaitanos, which I reviewed for Scoop Books. Gaitanos is an experienced biographer, and her book was praised by critics and short-listed for the Ockham Book Awards. One can only infer that Ovenden felt that his personal story was different from that related by Gaitanos, but the failure to identify an alternative view does no credit to either the author or the publisher. The reality is that there is little in this section that is not covered by Gaitanos. She had previously interviewed Ovenden, and her version has the advantage of putting his recollections in chronological context.

Despite the difficulties of his last years, Bill Sutch was an important New Zealander, involved in the early days at the United Nations and UNICEF, and later as head of the Department of Industries and Commerce where he played a leading role in the development of local industries, industrial design, and a sense of New Zealand identity. A proper biography is long overdue rather than endless rehashes of his spy trial. To date the only serious account of his life is a brief entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography by Brian Easton as well as a section in his ‘The Nationbuilders’. But a major obstacle is the fact that Bill Sutch’s papers (and those of Shirley) are embargoed in the Alexander Turnbull Library by his family. Until a properly researched biography is available, Bill Sutch will continue to be remembered as a weasel.

On one level, this is a story of unusual family relationships that may seem disfunctional to outsiders, but seemed to work. I was constantly reminded of the old English saying, “There’s nowt so queer as folks”. The publisher’s blurb describes this book as a wise, urbane memoir, beautifully crafted. Yes, it is easy to read, and the gossipy bits are mildly interesting. But in the end this is Ovenden’s view of one aspect of his life, and the reader learns little that is not already common knowledge about Bill and Shirley.