Award-winning fiction (for grown-ups) writer Pip Adam recalls her earliest introductions to story through television and magazines, and resurrects the magic of 1970s Disney.
As a kid I loved TV. I lived for it. I often say there weren’t many books in our house, but that’s not true; there were. My grandmother would go to the library every Thursday, while my mother did the grocery shopping, to borrow for my brother and me seven books for the week. I remember one particular birthday party where I received nothing but books – save some vouchers from Wheelers, a local bookstore.
I remember liking books as objects. I would put them on my shelf in different orders, move them around. I liked the way they smelt, I liked the pictures inside them. I remember really enjoying the afternoon in Wheelers spending the vouchers. I loved Thursdays – to see what new books my grandmother had brought. My grandmother lived in the bedroom opposite mine and I would climb into her bed some mornings and she would read to me, which I remember liking as well. I’m sure my mum and dad read to me and I’m sure, because I have been told, that I also liked this. But it wasn’t until I read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton in about Standard Four that I actually understood why someone would read a book. Before this, reading a book by myself, for pleasure, just didn’t occur to me.
I remember liking books as objects. I would put them on my shelf in different orders, move them around.
I loved TV. I loved the holidays when my brother and I would sit in front of TV almost all day. I loved the days I was sick and would lie on the couch while my grandmother watched The Young and the Restless and Days of our Lives. These were ‘her’ programmes. My mother and my grandmother worked very hard, but at about lunchtime my grandmother would stop working and say, ‘I’m just going to sit down and watch my programmes.’ I loved The Young and the Restless. I loved After School. I loved Happy Days. I loved Fang Face. One night our next-door neighbour was looking after us and she let me stay up to watch Charlie’s Angels and I loved Charlie’s Angels. ‘What’s a prostitute?’ I asked her during the commercial break. ‘It’s a woman who sells her body,’ she said. I remember thinking, ‘That doesn’t make very good business sense. You can only sell it once.’
A better essayist than me would now write: ‘Most of all I loved The Wonderful World of Disney.’ But I’m not sure if that’s true. I watched it – I watched everything I possibly could. Sometimes I would sneak up the stairs after I’d been put to bed and watch Rochford Files through the lounge door. The Wonderful World of Disney was on Sunday nights at about dinner time.
The Wonderful World of Disney was different every week. Sometimes episodes would continue over a couple of weeks, but usually we would watch the credits with baited breathe to see if it would be a ‘real people’ show or a cartoon. My brother and I liked the cartoons best. Sure, The Parent Trap was cool and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea freaked my brother and I out, but we loved it best when it was animated. One of my favourite cartoons was Motor Mania in which Goofy, as Mr Walker, a quiet citizen, changes into a sadistic driver when he gets behind the wheel of his car. I think I liked it because my parents would laugh at it and when we were in the car later my brother or I could say things like, ‘Remember that cartoon?’ and we would all crack up. Although each week we hoped it would be cartoons, we watched them all – The Shaggy Dog, Sammy the Way-Out Seal, Pollyanna – but I’m pretty sure our favourite episodes were the ones that showed you round the actual Disneyland. There’s one memory I have of a tour narrated by Walt Disney himself. The day after these episodes, my brother and I would transform our house into our own Disneyland made out of chairs and cushions and anything not nailed down.
I loved the holidays when my brother and I would sit in front of TV almost all day.
The problem with TV in the 1970s was that you had to watch what was being broadcast. I could have watched The Wonderful World of Disney all day, every day, but that wasn’t what was always playing – there was the news and Country Calendar and The Beauty and the Beast (in truth, I quite liked that – but it was no Dumbo). But then, somehow, there were Disneyland magazines.
Disneyland magazine is one of the only things I can remember reading by myself. I have no idea how they got to our house. Last week, I asked my next-door neighbour if they were handed down from her (I always remember them arriving in large stacks, not one at a time), but she was pretty sure they weren’t. I asked my brother and cousins, who have American connections, but they also weren’t sure. I asked my mother last weekend and she thought, probably, she just bought them. ‘From the supermarket?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said. ‘That was Golden Books.’
However they got to our house, Disneyland magazines were amazing. Unlike the MAD magazines we’d get later, Disneyland magazines were in full colour. On the whole I don’t remember them having speech bubbles. Instead the text would appear under each frame. But that still worked for me – I found books without pictures tough; I kept losing my place. But the neat, small, bordered snippets of text were much easier for me to read to myself.
I loved the idea that in between running away and being poisoned by an apple, Snow White had a day where she had to warn Dopey about getting too close to the water.
There were classic characters like Snow White and Peter Pan and Dumbo, but often they were involved in activities outside their stories. I think this was what I loved most about these comics. I loved the idea that in between running away and being poisoned by an apple, Snow White had a day where she had to warn Dopey about getting too close to the water. Or, I wondered, was there actually another Snow White? One whose story was completely different to the one in the movie. I loved this idea the most. I was a bit obsessed with the idea that humans got into the Mickey Mouse costumes at Disneyland. I loved the idea of there being a whole other personality sandwiched inside a character I saw as living and breathing, and I think this idea of ‘alternate’ Snow White somehow got mixed up with this.
The comics had activities in them as well, join-the-dots which were great but I always messed them up – the numbers were so freaking small – and my favourites, these squiggles which formed closed shapes, some of which had dots in them. You shaded in the shapes with dots and behold! A Disney character would appear. I can’t remember if we were allowed to do the activities in the comics themselves, or whether we had to use a piece of grease-proof paper which we traced the puzzle onto. I have this memory that things like comic books were precious in our house and we might want to ‘pass them on’. Now that I think about it, I am pretty sure that that is exactly what we did with the comics. I have a memory of bundling the Disney magazines into 50-cent piles for one of our many trips to the flea-market which used to run in the car park behind Rendell’s on K-Rd. I think probably, by that stage, I wasn’t sad to see then go. Maybe I was already in my Outsiders phase. Maybe I’d already asked my grandmother to cut the sleeves off all my sweatshirts and was walking around scowling. Maybe the idea of 50 cents was way more interesting to me than alternative-reality Cinderella.
While I’m typing this I can hear the theme to Duck Tales playing in the other room. Toki will be the third generation of Adams told stories by the Disney Corporation. I’ve spent quite a few hours since the birth of Toki reading Scrooge McDuck comics. They’re interested in Disney all over again at the moment, because the game Bendy and the Ink Machine is awesome and features imagery reminiscent of early Disney cartoons. Bendy looks like a terrifying mutation of Mickey Mouse. The other day Toki said to me, ‘I think I like 2D animation better than 3D animation.’
I often wonder what those Disneyland magazines will look like in 200 years. Where will my Snow White sit in the continuum from the original Grimms fairy tale? The Disneyland magazines weren’t built to last. Their paper was cheap and ripped easily. Once the puzzles were done they were useless, but they remain in my memory as the first stories I read myself.
Pip Adam's third book The New Animals is published by Victoria University Press this month. Her short story collection Everything We Hoped For and novel I am Working on a Building are also both published by Victoria University Press. Her work has also appeared in literary journals in Aotearoa and internationally. She teaches at several universities and Arohata Women’s Prison.
Pip makes the Better Off Read podcast where she talks with authors about writing and reading.
Photo by Victoria Birkinshaw