Friday 16 October 2009

Elsie Locke: biography launched

Looking for Answers: A life of Elsie Locke by Maureen Birchfield was launched in Christchurch on Wednesday last week (October 7). There have also been launches in Auckland and Wellington. Elsie Locke was, as the press release from the University of Canterbury Press puts it, “an influential writer and activist”. A member of the Communist Party (CPNZ)* from 1933 until 1956, Elsie was also a member of the CP’s National Committee and a columnist in it’s various newspapers. She was editor of the CP’s Working Women magazine (1935–36), which was wound-up in order to launch Woman Today, a broader feminist magazine which continued until 1939. Elsie was also a founder of what became the Family Planning Association. Elsie was one of several leading communists who resigned from the CP, in protest at the party’s support for Russia’s crushing of the Hungarian Uprising – others included Connie and Albert Birchfield, parents of Elsie’s biographer, and Sid and Nellie Scott. However, unlike the Birchfields and the Scotts, Elsie’s husband Jack Locke remained a member of the CP and its successors until his death in 1996. It’s fair to say that it was Elsie’s achievements after leaving the CP that earned her most recognition. The fact that she was an ex-communist also made her more acceptable to establishment liberals who have honoured her with an with Elsie Locke Park in 1997, and this year a bronze bust as one of 12 Christchurch “Local Heroes”. From the 1950s, Elsie was a leading figure in the peace and anti-nuclear movements. And while Jack worked at the Belfast freezing works, Elsie worked at home, being a not so traditional house wife and mother, while writing children’s stories for the School Journal and a series of historical novels for children. The first being the much loved classic The Runaway Settlers (1965), based on the true story of a single mother who flees domestic violence in Australia and settles in Lyttleton Harbour. As many readers will know, among Elsie’s four children are Green Party MP Keith Locke (who, in the 1970s was a leader of the Trotskyist Socialist Action League) and Maire Leadbeater who is also a prominent peace activist, a former Auckland City Councillor, and campaigner for human rights in East Timor and Indonesia. Until their deaths Elsie and Jack (who died in 1996) lived at their small grapevine covered cottage it what is known as the Avon Loop on the banks of the Avon river in the eastern side of inner city Christchurch. From 1972 they were founding members of a remarkable community organisation called the Avon Loop Protection / Planning Association. Following Elsie’s death on April 8 2001, Maureen Birchfield, who’d recently published a biography of her mother, Elsie’s friend and comrade Connie Birchfield, was asked by the Locke family to write their mother’s story. The result is a big book (560 large pages) for a big life. Although I’m only half way through I can already recommend it as a interesting and entertaining read. *The CPNZ was the forerunner of Socialist Worker, publishers of UNITYblog.
Above: Jack and Elsei Locke on the front step of their home in the 1980s. This and the Working Woman cover were scanned from the book.

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