Memories of Barbara: Selected Poems by Louis Johnson

Portrait of Louis Johnson by Kenneth Quinn, 1986.In October 1988 New Zealand poet Louis Johnson wrote a poem called Footnote to Barbara Wace as a thank you for allowing him to stay in her flat in London. It was the last poem he wrote – he died on November 1st 1988.

The poem was included in a publication called Selected Poems by Louis Johnson, published by Victoria University press, Wellington, New Zealand and edited by Terry Sturm CBE (1941-2009) in 2000.

Thanks to Sarah Hamilton and Val Fallan for providing me with the relevant copies, links and background to the poem.


Life, if not pedestrian, is at least
a matter of many footnotes, and I’m treading
this one out to thank you for the five days
we stayed with you sharing the food and wine
and the fine time of your 81 years lavished
around us like a friendly climate. All talk,
of course, but what’s wrong with that? People
walked in and out of our sentences: rooms filled
and were emptied: exits and entrancing
entrances stirred the plot to thicken.
And if we did not finally find Whodunnit
or What the Butler Saw, it confirmed
what I’ve long known – that the real landscape
is people who look out at the scenery, inhabit
the rooms and decide on the nature of things.
Without you, there would be less of that capacity
you have to make us want and ask for more.


Louis Johnson (1924-1988) was one of the major New Zealand Poets of his time, with many volumes of verse published over a period of 45 years. He was also an energetic editor and supporter of new writers. In his youth Johnson was at the centre of the ‘Wellington Group’, who were noted for writing about contemporary life, society and the city suburbs, rather than ‘approved’ themes of New Zealand landscape and identity. Through his career this engagement with the social world combined with an increasingly personal voice – at times, acerbically witty, at others frankly sorrowful – culminating in his masterpiece, ‘True Confessions of the Last Cannibal’. This definitive selection of Louis Johnson’s best poems has been made by his friend and colleague Terry Sturm. It represents all the phases of his career, with key poems that have previously been unobtainable except in scarce copies of the original volumes. There is an illuminating biographical introduction, and published for the first time in the notes are many of Johnson’s own comments on the origins and inspirations of his poems. This book restores an important poet to New Zealand readers, and also provides a moving portrait of a literary life.

Victoria University press



Article in The Independent: The story they didn’t want women to tell by Anne Sebba, 1st June 1994


Obituary in The Independent by James Buchan, 30th January 2003
Obituary in The Times, 22nd January 2003
Obituary in The Telegraph, 21st January 2003

Barbara Wace