Helen Brown is a local girl-made-good. These days she might live in Melbourne but New Plymouth readers will always claim her for their own.
With nine books to her name and a long career as a journalist, leader writer, feature writer and stage performer, it's still her column writing that keeps her famous. Or infamous, if you like, take your pick.
People enjoy Brown's writing for its humour - and the way she spills the beans on her ordinary, everyday life.
As she says, don't ever tell her a secret because it will just end up in print. “I'm not a good secret keeper. Nobody tells me secrets. I don't see there's much point in trying to hide things from other people.
“We're all basically fallible and imperfect and I think it's really okay to admit that.”
Her sister Mary, on the other hand, is 'the most discreet woman in New Plymouth'.
The Blackmans of Bracken Street
Brown grew up Helen Blackman, with sister Mary and brother Jim, in a substantial home (which even boasted a tower) in Bracken Street, New Plymouth. If there was ever a house to hatch creative talent, it has to be the one her family lived in.
A huge Italian-styled mansion, reminiscent of those found in San Francisco, Brown says the fairies opened her bedroom window every morning at 7 o'clock.
“Exactly 7 o'clock. They were my alarm clock. I had a bedroom upstairs and I'd leave the window unlatched knowing that at the same time each morning they would open it. And blow me down, they did.
“It wouldn't happen now, I think, because it only happens when you believe it. Today I'd have a residue of doubt.”
Brown never saw her fairies, but that doesn't mean they didn't exist. “You don't have to see them,” she says, as she waves her hands around as if to gather a few old familiar ones together.
“I think Dad was a particularly spiritual person. He had had a near death experience - the whole thing, going up through the tunnel of light - and he used to say, 'You should always keep fairies at the bottom of the garden.' He thought you should keep some magic in your life.”
A gasman with a vision
Brown's father was a gasman with a great passion for natural gas. When he came through from Hawera Gas Works to the New Plymouth Gas Works, he was offered a job in Hamilton and it was one of his great regrets that he didn't take it, because he considered it a well run place.
At the time, New Plymouth Gasworks were going into decline and were constantly on strike with the gas being turned off just as people were about to cook their tea. People were turning to electricity in droves.
“I remember Dad as quite a stressed-out person, but he had this vision that natural gas was going to work and he lived long enough to see it happen,” Brown says.
A singing career thwarted by the war – and family
Brown's mother was a talented singer who won a national competition, something akin to the Mobil Song Quest. She once gave a legendary performance of Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the New Plymouth Opera House. But Brown says her own creativity probably came from her dad.
“He was the Yin. Mum was the Yang. When I'm on stage, I think it's Mum's spirit I feel. But the writing, and perhaps the sensitivity, probably comes from dad.”
Brown's mother led her to believe that a great singing career, which had been nurtured by Connie Riley, a singing teacher in Hawera, had been thwarted by the war – and her children.
“Yes. We always grew up thinking we'd thwarted this great creative talent. Something Mum used to say was 'Never neglect your talents’.
“'It's the greatest story in the bible, the man who threw away his talents and regretted it. And I think she felt that for the rest of her life.”
Days of fun and freedom
Despite days punctuated by visiting ballet dancers, actors and regular house guests like the formidable newspaper doyen June Litman and her husband Paul, Brown believes her parents were probably quite starved of intellectual and creative company.
“We're a family of visionaries,” she says. “Which kinda means that you automatically get a few knocks in your life, I think. There are certain compromises you won't make. Others might, but you won't.”
She cheerfully describes her upbringing as, 'long periods of neglect disguised as freedom, interspersed with inspirational bouts of the Rudolph Steiner teaching method.'
She vividly remembers the day she decided not to walk up the hill to Westown Primary School any longer and demanded to go instead to Westend Primary School.
“I think I was in Primer One,” Brown grins. 'I remember being at Westend and we were practising for some fancy dress dance and we were lined up in groups of six.
“The headmistress said, 'Helen Blackman. You're the only person in this room who is out of line.' And I thought, ‘How can I be out of line, I'm actually at the front of the group!'”
She laughs. “I think I was out of line my entire school career. I had a couple of quite nice years at Devon Intermediate, although I was put into the accelerate class, something which I didn't really want to do.
“I remember bursting into tears and saying to Mum, 'I don't want to be clever, I want to be ordinary!’
“So I managed to be ordinary,” she says. “Sailing along at the bottom of the class.”
A career by default
Brown lived in New Plymouth until she was 16, before heading off to Wellington at the end of her sixth form year to train as a journalist.
“I had no ambition at all and probably still don't. It happened by default because I really wanted to go to art school and be an artist – I loved art – but the course at Elam or Ilam was four years.
“The journalism course at Wellington Polytechnic was one year. Mum was very hung up about sex and men in general and said I really shouldn't have sex until I was married. So I very foolishly rushed into marriage. I did the short journalism course so I could have sex.”
She believes the saddest thing about being young in Taranaki in the 60s, was that unless you were a nurse and lived in the nurse's dormitory, a girl had to leave town to have any kind of life.
Social options were few, but did include hanging out at the Milano Coffee Lounge in Devon Street, the La Scala Restaurant, or dancing to the Nevadas at the Queen's Hall in white Beatle boots, which Brown swears she never wore 'because my legs were so big.'
Love, love me do…
It was her love affair with the Beatles that eventually saw her married to the wrong man.
“I met my husband at a party on a ship down at the port. I was 15 and he was 20, but I decided this guy had all the qualities I needed in a man.
“I was obsessed with the Beatles and he had an English accent. He had a dog called Bracken, which was the name of our street. And his mother loved singing, like mine did, so I thought it was a match.”
She wrote to her English beau for three years and at 18, flew to England to marry him.
“By then he'd travelled the world. But I hadn't read his letters properly. I'd read what I wanted to read. In that time I'd created a dream. He was a myth.”
To make matters worse, his mother immediately threw her out. “She threw an absolute wobbly. She took exception to the big-boned girl from the colony who wanted to rush off with her son.
“Now we're very good friends,” she says. “I visited her just last year. She wishes we'd stayed married now.”
Cake and country connections
Coming back to Taranaki to delight long-time readers with her life as portrayed in her stage show, 'A Slice of Banana Cake' becomes a bitter sweet occasion now, with both her parents gone. But Brown maintains and nurtures a deep connection with the landscape and her roots.
“It was a beautiful night when we were coming in to land and I saw the mountain absolutely clear and I thought, 'Mum's not going to be waiting for me.' And I felt like bursting into tears.
“I thought, ‘How am I going to be able to stand on stage in front of people and talk about all these things that are important to me?’, and then I thought, 'Oh yes, I am. And my sister will be waiting for me'.”
And when you've grown up with that mountain, it haunts you all your life, Brown says. She used to always wonder, which was older, her nana or the mountain.
And after her mother died, she dreamed many times of circling above it and looking down.
“It's that great connection with the land,” she says. “There's great solace in it. As New Zealanders that never leaves us, no matter where we end up living.”
Strength and wisdom from the past
That same connection helped her through an overwhelming personal tragedy. “I tried to work out what helped me survive the death of a child and it was something to do with the feeling of coming from a long line of pioneering women who had suffered and survived.
“Mum's family arrived in Taranaki in 1853 and gave birth in raupo huts. They suffered. I didn't know many people who had lost children but I knew it was in my past. People in my past had survived it.”
A gift from the provinces
When Brown gets the chance to speak in public, as she did recently to students at New Plymouth Girls' High School she makes sure to tell them that being a girl from the provinces is a major win.
“Just about anybody who has made it big comes from the provinces,” she says. “It's actually a huge advantage. You have access to so many people. If you live in Melbourne, you live in a rich neighbourhood or a poor one. When you grow up in Taranaki, or other smaller centres, you're exposed to a huge socio-economic range.
“I mean, in Bracken Street, there was a brothel across the road. One of the stokers at the gasworks said to Dad, 'I can get a woman there for five bob a night.' But somehow, we just absorbed all this.”
Columnist of the Year – 2005
In 1991, Brown was awarded a Nuffield Press Fellowship to Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, and this year, much to her surprise, she was pronounced 'Columnist of the Year' by her peers.
“Next magazine entered me and I promptly forgot about it. It's quite prestigious. I didn't think I'd made the shortlist but then I opened my computer and there was a message that said, 'You won.'
“I nearly pressed delete because I thought it was one of those Nigerian scams.”
While she doesn't get money or a trophy, the certificate will hang proudly in the foyer of the Next office.
And yes, she'll keep writing her columns, something her readers will be pleased to hear - though she reckons writing them is like stringing a cobweb over Huka Falls and walking on it every Monday morning.
And if we're really lucky, she will continue to carry her stories back home in person.
First published 12 May 2005
Books by Helen Brown
Puke Ariki is not responsible for the content of external websites
MAGAZINES & NEWSPAPERS
Helen Brown writes for six New Zealand newspapers, Next Magazine, and Vive Magazine in Australia.
Look for her columns in the magazine section of Puke Ariki or in the newspapers by the Daily News Cafe.
RELATED TARANAKI STORIES