26 April 2008

Man Alone

A complicated man who no one understands but his woman.

21 April 2008

Turkey trot


When 3 o’clock, the time fixed for the commencement of the capping ceremony, arrived there were indications that the function was going to be an extremely lively one. A large number of the public had assembled in the Town Hall and the stage was taken possession of by a band of students dressed up as Maoris.

To the accompaniment of ragtime on the piano they commenced to dance the “turkey trot” and perform hakas. After the babel had continued for some time the Town Clerk announced that the ceremony would take place in the Concert Chamber. Immediately there was an exodus on the part of the public, but the students still continued their dancing and singing in the large hall.

Sir Robert Stout had time to give his address in the Concert Chamber, the doors being closed, the aisles being then packed with standing people. In the galleries there were six young ladies only. When the Chancellor finished his address the gallery doors were opened and the students burst in.

He remonstrated with them for making a noise with their feet, and threatened to adjourn the meeting if they were not quiet. More hubbub ensued, and the meeting was adjourned.

Evening Post, 26 June 1913

1905 is taken


Every year brings forth a new crop of “songs that touch the heart”. The harvest never fails. An American music publisher has given the secret away to an interviewer. Roughly speaking (he said), you can divide popular songs into seven classes as follows:

1. The straight love song, with a girl played up strong.

2. The “mother” song.

3. The song that appeals to patriotism (if you can hash up a medley of national tunes in the chorus accompaniment all the better).

4. The “misunderstanding” song (parted lovers, quarrels between husband and wife, etc.)

5. The piece with a locality refrain (such as ‘She was Bred in Old Kentucky’).

6. The ‘plucky poor’ ballad (including the tenement local colour brand, such as ‘The Sunshine of Paradise Alley’ and ‘Down in Poverty Row’)

7. The ragtime brigade – straight, blended, and un-African.

Evening Post, Wellington,16 June 1906

15 April 2008

Nibble Nook

How would we watch films in the future? Henry Hayward was a cinema pioneer in New Zealand (and uncle of Rudall, director of Rewi's Last Stand). In 1914 he joined forces with the Fuller's company, and together they operated 60 theatres throughout the country.

In 1930, shortly after his competitor Thomas O'Brien opened the Civic in Auckland, Hayward made a prediction about the film-going experience:

“The day will come when the whole of New Zealand theatres will be simultaneously supplied with sight and sound from one central station in Wellington. Every theatre from North Cape to the Bluff will have identical fare, with probably nightly changes supplied like today's radio, to every private home that cares to pay for them. But humanity being gregarious will no doubt continue to gather in theatres.”

13 April 2008

Pass the port

The recent death of Sir Geoffrey Cox, aged 97, reminds us that New Zealanders have made a significant contribution to journalism worldwide. Three years ago in the Independent, Hugo Manson wrote an affectionate tribute to long-serving Radio New Zealand news sub-editor Denis Phelps. From his wheelchair in Wellington, the brilliant Phelps trained journalists and broadcasters who went on to stellar careers internationally.

In Britain, Cox’s career received thorough obituaries in the Independent, the Telegraph and the Times. A panel on RNZ’s Sunday morning programme was informed and respectful, calling to mind a Kelburn post-prandial discussion over port and cigars.

To recap briefly, Cox left New Zealand in the 1930s as one of several talented Rhodes scholars. As a student, he filed reports from a holiday in Nazi Germany, and he then went on to cover the Spanish Civil War. During the Second World War, he served as chief intelligence officer in the New Zealand Army, and was later a diplomat in Washington. He represented New Zealand on the panel overseeing the war in the Pacific, with President Franklin Roosevelt in the chair; Cox was just 32. In the 1950s, he became a legendary pioneer of television journalism at Britain’s commercial service, ITN.

Not all expatriates cover themselves in such glory, however. A footnote in these obituaries was intriguing. The Independent wrote that Cox’s energy – and his team at ITN – meant they dominated television news in Britain until 1960 when “the BBC’s lacklustre editor of news, Tahu Hole, another New Zealander, was replaced.”

This unforgettable name was new to me. It appears that Hole (1918-1985) came from another great New Zealand tradition: the mediocre middle-manager. Tahu Ronald Charles Pearce Hole – the name gets better – was not, as it happens, Maori. He arrived in London in 1937 as the Sydney Morning Herald’s correspondent. In 1948, after a series of fortuitous resignations, he became news editor at the BBC.

He was known for his authoritarian, over-cautious approach, as Michael Tracey recalls in “The Strange Case of Tahu Hole and the Battle for News”, a chapter in his book The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting (OUP, 1998).

“Hole was widely and intensely disliked as an autocrat who had no more idea about the nature and role of news in the modern world than he had tact and consideration towards his brow-beaten employees whom he variously abused and appalled.”

Another reporter, Gerald Priestland, wrote that Hole “was a monster in every sense” who “took good care to make no operational decisions himself for which he might be blamed if things went wrong.”

Hole was awarded a CBE in 1956. Cox received his in 1959, and was knighted in 1966.

Songs sung blue

In a recent Sunday Star-Times feature, 50 New Zealanders shared their ideas on “How to Make NZ a Better Country”. The visionaries were those who had imagination, a sense of community and identity – and how we could make best use of them. And then there was Gray Bartlett, musician, aged 65.

“Replace the current government, because they’re the worst one in history. And we should think more positively and more individually; you can’t say ‘everyone else should’ – you have to do it yourself.”

Really? The worst government in history?

Gray Bartlett and Brendan Dugan serenade a previous prime minister in 1975.

Scarf and barf

Queenstown fish’n’chip shop PJ’s welcomes customers to its premises.

03 April 2008

Taihape’s Great Escaper

Reading for me was always about escape. Literally. The first book I ever completed – after a diet of Commando comics – was Ian Serraillier’s classic children’s novel The Silver Sword. Based on fact, it was about three Polish children on the run during the Second World War, after their parents were taken by the Nazis. It is extremely moving, but also thrilling, and it has never been out of print since it was first published in 1956.

Next came The Wooden Horse, Eric Williams’ account of a successful escape of three British POWs. They used a gymnasium jumping prop as a Trojan horse to get out of their prison camp, Stalag Luft III. So simple, and so perfect: a classical metaphor come alive and a ripping yarn.

The grandfather of them all, though, was The Great Escape. Not the silly 1963 film starring Steve McQueen as Evel Knievel, but the 1951 book by Paul Brickhill. The most famous war escape of all, it was on an epic scale.

At the same Stalag Luft III camp near Zagan, in Poland, the allied POWs dug three tunnels at once – Tom, Dick and Harry – and planned for more than 200 prisoners escape on the big night in 1944. In the end, they just used one tunnel, Harry, and only 76 escaped before their tracks were discovered in the snow.

Until then, the POWs had been reasonably treated by their Luftwaffe guards, as most of the prisoners were fellow airmen. However this grand gesture infuriated the German high command, and the SS and Gestapo responded with their own grand gesture. They murdered 50 recaptured escapees in cold blood.

Two of those murdered were New Zealanders. One of them came from Taihape, and I remember my uncle – who had also been a pilot and came from the same region – wistfully talking of his friend, Johnny Pohe.

So I was moved to pick up the March 18 Central District Times – also known as the “Taihape Times” – and read on the front page:

World premiere to be held in Taihape’s Majestic Theatre

Turangaarere: the Story of John Pohe premieres at the Majestic on April 5, with the red carpet rolling out for Pohe’s relatives, Maori elders, MPs, and members of the defence force. After the first few screenings, it will be broadcast on Maori TV as an Anzac Day special.

Porokoru Patapu (John) Pohe was the first Maori pilot of the RAF. He was born in Wanganui, raised in Taihape, and flew 22 missions over Germany before his reputation as "Lucky Johnny" ran out and his Halifax was shot down. After his escape from Stalag Luft III, he was recaptured 67 km away near Gorlitz, then murdered aged 22 by the two main executioners of the saga. Lux, who murdered at least 27 of the escapees, later died in battle, while Gestapo chief Scharpwinkel is thought to have been sheltered by the Russians.

The other New Zealander murdered in the escape, Arnold Christiansen, got even further away: 628 km. He was recaptured at Flensburg, just south of Denmark, and murdered days before his 23 rd birthday. He will be represented at the premiere by his niece and her husband.

Also present will be an old crew member of Pohe’s, who is being flown out from Canada by Air New Zealand, and will then travel on the railcar to Taihape (it’s about time Toll NZ did something for Taihape, after demolishing the historic railway station).

The Pohe family told the Times they regard the premiere as “symbolically bringing Johnny home”. Among the memorabilia on display will be the Pohe family piano which they bought 80 years ago from the Majestic theatre. Johnny learnt to play on the piano, and it has now been gifted by the family back to the theatre trust.

Turangaarere is directed by Julian Araranga, who played a Heke in Once Were Warriors. His father is Larry Parr, who has rehabilitated himself in the film world doing a brilliant job as programmer at Maori Television.

Escaping POWs continue to have a resonance. The London Times has collected a dozen of most dramatic escape stories, taken from its obituary columns. The motorcycle scenes in the film The Great Escape may have been hokum, but otherwise they tried hard to keep it factual (if American). The TV series Colditz kept the legend alive, even becoming a board game. A fascinating book examining the reality and mythology of the POW genre is The Colditz Myth: British and Commonwealth Prisoners of War in Nazi Germany, by SP Mackenzie. The best-written account is probably We Die Alone, by David Howarth, which is more of a survivalist thriller set in snow-covered Norway.

The latest bid on Ebay for a copy of the Colditz game is $100. So it may be easier just to listen to this BBC documentary on a great escapers Return to Stalag Luft III. Or check out the Times' selection of 15 "greatest escapers": ripping yarns taken from their obit columns.

The stories of New Zealand POWs during the Second World War are covered thoroughly here (with excellent pictures). Escape! edited by Matthew Wright (Random House, 2006) is an engrossing anthology of writing by or about New Zealand escapees, sadly let down by its cheap production values.