‘The Real Helen Kelly As I knew Her For 30 Years’

Just before my interview with   Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon last week ,in order to review Rebecca Macfie’s HELEN KELLY -HER LIFE , I suddenly realised something, writes Ralph Mcallister.

‘How much did I really know Helen?

I thought I did. I still think I did. I still think I do.

But after reading Rebecca’s brilliant biography with its impeccable research,its depth of insight ,its revelations into the life and death of one of our most celebrated and vilified leaders,politically and personally , I am still bemused.

Let me explain.

I met Helen in 1983 when as a student she entered Wellington Teachers ‘ College( or Creatures’ College ,as Principal Of Clyde Quay School Ian Forsyth reminded me each time we met).

Helen quickly established herself as a significant part of my drama group.

She was a vibrant member of the College Council,with no lessening of her commitment to the left wing views which were embedded ,at an early stage, in her by her father  Pat and mother Cath.

Searching for identity

In the halcyon days which were College then, students and staff spent many hundreds of hours together searching for individual identity and for quality teaching.

Helen and I became close friends .

We remained so for  the next 30 years.

She met and fell  in love with another of my dearest friends Chris Wratt ,whose talents as an actor singer meant he played leading roles in College productions of Fiddler on the Roof,Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ,Guys and Dolls and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

What about that for a CV?

Helen too was part of most of our work there but of course wider fields beckoned.

The vital role of teacher training

I mention all this because she herself was one of the first to admit how formative teacher training was in her development.

And my pride in the influence  I had on  her work is one of the most satisfying achievements of my teaching career.

I wept in Ho Chi Minh when hearing of her death . I weep now as I write this tribute.

But back to Rebecca!

Her reputation as a journalist is second to none in New Zealand.

Research in depth for this biography

She interviewed over  two hundred people for this biography.

She corresponded with  hundreds more .

She indicates, gently ,the three or four who refused to be interviewed. You know who they are.

The  descriptions of Pat’s life in Liverpool in the middle of the depression are deeply moving.

Suits taken to the pawnshop on Monday for money ,used to feed the children ,and collected again on Saturday for Sunday service.

Food left on the wall between houses  to be collected ,no word said ,so as to avoid embarrassment.

I related so well to these stories,more would have been appreciated .

But the main thrust of the book was ,and had to be ,political.

_+Pike River

+The Hobbit

+Forestry deaths

+Union conflicts

+Individual rights

All these and many more are featured in this life.

‘The humanity and passion’

But what transcends all is the humanity and passion that were a hallmark of Helen’s life.

Rebecca captures the highs and the lows ,oh so accurately.

During Hobbit Panic it was suggested Helen be deported as she was a traitor to New Zealand.

When news of her cancer became public, someone hoped she would have a long lingering death.

Try making sense of that hatred.

This book though has already provoked or reminded people of other stories about  Helen and her compassion for the underprivileged .

I am not suggesting a sequel Rebecca ,but I will keep you to that promise of a wee noggin soon!

A few weeks before her death Helen and I had lunch together in Cuba Street.

The wig had gone .

We walked down Cuba Street afterwards .

Arm in arm..

And there I was, all these years later, learning something about her, about me.




Ralph Mcallister

‘Helen Kelly-the life’

Awa  Press


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