The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 2 (May 1, 1935)
New Zealand Journey
This is a simple story, but begins with a Very Great Man.
I shall always be proud that I interviewed George Bernard Shaw when he was in New Zealand, because I alone, out of about three hundred journalists, all better men than I, who wanted to see him privately, was the only one who achieved this honour. You, my reader, probably think it is easy to gain access to Great Men. Not so. The thing is an art, a matter of subtlety, guile and stratagem. Indeed, in this connection I am reminded of an advertisement which appeared in America recently, boosting an infallible thing for killing cockroaches, price 75 cents. Having posted your money, you received back two flat pieces of wood marked A and B respectively, and a printed slip of instructions. “First catch your cockroach,” ran the instructions, “then place it on the board marked A and hit it hard with the board marked B.”
Interviewing celebrities is very similar. One knows exactly what to do when he is caught, but—first catch your celebrity. If all the Trojans had been like the guides and protectors, chauffeurs, couriers, and hotel proprietors who stood between G.B.S. and the public, Ilium had never fallen.
When in doubt, tell the truth. I did so to Mr. Shaw in a letter.
“Dear Mr. Shaw,” said I, “Everyone is determined that I shall not interview you, but I hope you will see me for three reasons:
It would give me something to brag about.
It would enable me to extract a few guineas from the papers.
Since my childhood you have been the chief of my literary gods, and it would make me more proud than I can say to shake your hand.
All good to you always, Margaret Macpherson.”
This, of course, was so utterly childish and ridiculous that it aroused the pity of the giant, and I was given the unique privilege of talking to him for nearly an hour alone in his room whilst Mrs. Shaw bustled about doing the packing.
And can—as the Americans say—Can Shaw talk! We chatted on all sorts of topics—politics, drama, radio, vegetarianism, and so on. Then he pushed me off on my New Zealand journey. In this way—
“Tell me,” he said, “are you English or a New Zealander.”
“I'm a Yorkshirewoman,” I told him, “but I have been in New Zealand for over eighteen years.”
“Have you ever been back?”
“Yes, several times. I have just returned from Home.”
“Yes? Well, now, when you got back to your own country I am quite sure that you found that you had become a New Zealander and that you could not endure England at all. I don't know why you ever went back.”
“Well, Sir, you are partly right and partly not. New Zealand is a dear country, fresh and wholesome and free. But there is no art here, no drama, no music, no culture.”
He eyed me quizzically.
“But, my dear young lady, you must make that. You say there is no art here, but there is very great beauty just waiting to be made into art. No drama! Why, the life around you is pulsating with drama! You New Zealanders are extraordinary, really. You take that long, uncomfortable journey to see an inferior country which you persist in calling Home in spite of the fact that its people ignore you and are scarcely aware of your existence. I wish I could persuade you that This is your home, that this country should be the centre of your art, your journalism, your drama. In your own case, you have travelled all over the world, but do you know New Zealand? You write and broadcast about any land but your own. Allow me to persuade you to do a New Zealand journey and to write about it.”
I felt rebuked by George Bernard Shaw, but I also felt inspired. I realized as I came down in the lift from his suite at the Midland Hotel, Wellington, that my New Zealand journey had commenced already. I stepped into the street in search of art, drama, fun, history, tragedy. Whether I found them the following pages will show.
* * *
It is understood, of course, that no one takes a journey alone, always excepting commercial travellers—those men of mystery and romance. But people like Byrd, Shackleton, and myselfpage 33
go forth nobly escorted, so now I must introduce you to Hamish. I flatly refuse to refer to Hamish as my better half, but will merely tell you that he is the large young Scotsman who is the partner, and often the cause of my joys and sorrows. Hamish is not an Apollo—but he has very beautiful knees, and when he walks down the street one sees, in one's mind's eye, a kilt swinging; he is incapable of going ten yards without that barbaric prancing step which is peculiar to Highlandmen and high-bred horses. It is as good as a bagpipe to walk with, and will help us quite a lot on this journey. Like all self-respecting Scotsmen, Hamish left Scotland at a very early age and has been all over the world since. Therefore he sees New Zealand with an entirely relative and comparative gaze. His comments on this country are always interesting if not entirely tactful. The day he arrived in Auckland he was asked by a leading citizen to give his opinion of our Queen City.
“Och!” said he, “it's a funny wee place.”
I led him gently round a corner and remonstrated with him, and he is now more tactful, if less frank; but personally I appreciate his comments which are always informative, if not rapturous. For instance, on seeing the Wellington War Memorial statue, quite our finest piece of sculpture, Hamish, did not swoon with delight, but remarked:—
“Aye, it's fine, but not entirely original. The idea comes from Watts' equestrian statue, ‘Physical Energy’ in Hyde Park, London. And Watts, of course, got it from one of the horsemen on the Arc de Triomphe, Paris.”
Our Wellington memorial horseman may not be in the first flight of the world's sculpture, but he is a pioneer of the art in this country. Ride on, aspiring youth, ride forward upon your skyward journey. You shall lead the way for nobler and greater statues; because of the glimpse of beauty that you have given the people of this young country, other young artists shall arise to find divine form sleeping in the marble and clay of lovely New Zealand.
It is customary to speak of Wellington and Auckland as “sister cities.” Sisters they may be, but they certainly are not twins. There is a certain similarity of thought and opinion which they have both inherited from their sturdy parents, our pioneers.
Of these two ladies, Auckland is the more elegant; she carries herself with an air. Her outline is more suave, gently undulating. Her streets are wider and more modern, and she has a flair for unusual jewellery, decking herself with pretty oddments such as the University Tower, the Civic Theatre, the Memorial Museum—the first in Byzantine, the second in early Moorish, the last in Greek architectural style. Wellington, on the other hand, does not care a fig for such gewgaws, rather disapproves of them, in fact. She has a style that is rugged and grim. Stark against the sky she carries a fortress-like fringe of chimneys. In her sterner moods, when the rain comes down and the wind blows, she is a perfect old hellion.
Auckland flaunts her jewels on a genteelly curved finger—but are the jewels real? Wellington contends that they are not. The University Tower is pronounced to be cheap, tawdry, meretricious. Personally, I like it. It is a faery tower and might have come out of the “Arabian Nights” (Douglas Fairbanks' version, let's admit it). The Civic Theatre with its miles of oriental carving, is another of Auckland's show places. It is one of the finest picture-halls south of the Equator. But is it really fine, or merely decadent? Wellington, that gruff old mother, doesn't corrupt her children's taste with unwholesome sweets and bizarre ornaments. She has diamonds, but she keeps them modestly hidden away. Such things as the Turnbull Library are unrivalled in the whole wide world, but Wellington keeps quiet about it.
Auckland is the Norma Shearer, Wellington the Marie Dressler, of cities. Yet Wellington can be adorable when she likes… .
“Age cannot wither, nor custom stale, her infinite variety.”
She may greet you in the morning with a wind like a sharp knife cutting round the corners. The rain drives against your legs, the serrated hills, like black-edged teeth all smeared with grime, seem to crouch nearer; in short, the old harridan is showing her teeth. Then suddenly her features soften; dusk falls, and Wellington puts on her magic veil embroidered with little lights. She is no longer a scowling witch, but a little shining princess who dances, twinkling, into our hearts. It is the ace of enchantments.
Which is your true love, Auckland or Wellington? If you are not married to either of them, then my advice is, choose Wellington, but pay frequent visits to your charming sister-in-law.
Of Wellington's jewels, the chief is the Turnbull Library; the aristocrat and emperor of all the libraries I have ever seen. Like all aristocrats, the Turnbull is not showy in externals. When you arrive there, having walked up a tiny concrete path, and knocked at a discreetly closed door, you are beset with the misgiving thought that you have come to the wrong place. Surely this is just some gentleman's private house. And now his housekeeper comes to let you in, and you prepare to explain your mistake and apologise for the intrusion.page 34 page 35
Of course, of course, this polished hall with its deep luxurious carpets—how could you have thought it was a public institution! But it is. In you go, amongst gleaming tables and voluptuous armchairs; everything is speckless, rich and comfortable. And now you come to the majestic book-cases containing thousands of rare editions, all specially bound in hand-tooled leathers. I tell you, it is exactly like a bibliophile's dream of paradise.
The Turnbull is a comparatively small collection, but its value per square inch is greater than that of any library in the world. It has treasures which would be beyond your belief did you not see them with your own eyes. It has, for instance, the finest existing Milton collection outside the British Museum; some of the things in this group, indeed, the British Museum has not got. There are first editions of “Paradise Lost,” “Lycidas” and “Comus,” these three books alone being worth over £10,000.
Among other gems of the place are between two and three thousand autographed letters from famous people, including Carlisle, Shelley, Charles Darwin, King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, “Joe” Chamberlain, Disraeli, Gladstone, Edmund Gosse, Anthony Hope, Richard le Galienne, Lord Rosebery, “Dick” Sheppard, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, and countless others whom I do not mention.
One of the fascinating volumes brings you the fragrance of an old and decadent story. This is a copy of “Dorian Gray” containing a letter from its author, Oscar Wilde. Mr. Johannes Andersen, chief librarian, handed it to me. “First, smell it,” he said.
It had an exquisite perfume.
The book had been presented to a new friend of Wilde, one Payne.
“Dear Mr. Payne,” runs the letter, “The book that poisoned or made perfect Dorian Grey does not exist; it is a fancy of mine merely. I am so glad you like this strange-coloured book of mine. It contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry what the world thinks me; Dorian what I would like to be in other eyes perhaps.
Will you come and see me? I am writing a play and go to St. James' Place, No. 10, where I have rooms, every day at 11.30. Come on Tuesday at about 12.30, will you? But perhaps you are busy. Still we can meet, surely, some day. Your handwriting fascinates me, your praise charms me. —Truly, Oscar Wilde.”
The New Zealand section of the library is naturally the finest in the world. Amongst other things there is the log of the “Endeavour,” the ship in which Captain Cook discovered New Zealand, kept by one of the ship's officers. There is also Cook's first log, all in his own tiny copperplate handwriting. One interesting copy of Captain Cook's journal is beautifully bound in wood from a tree that he planted on Clapham Common near London.
A very different story attaches itself to another volume bound in wood, the “Aurora Borealis.” This is the world's first example of polar printing, and was produced by members of Shackleton's Expedition in 1908. This engaging production bears a foreword by Shackleton himself.
“The reader will understand,” he says, “the difficulties of producing such a book quite up to the mark when he is told that, owing to the low temperature in the hut, the only way to keep the printing ink in a fit state to use was to have a candle burning under the inking plate… . The printing office was only 6 ft. by 7 ft. and had to accommodate a large sewing machine and bunks for two men.” The binding of this volume is a side of a wooden packing case bearing inside the back cover the luscious legend “Beans.”
To give you an idea of the value of the books in the library, let me tell you that there are about 60,000 volumes, and the estimated value of the collection is about a quarter of a million pounds. This works out at over £4 per volume. As a matter of fact there are books worth over £100 each scattered about all over the shelves just like common novels. This has had an ageing effect on Mr. Johannes Andersen, the chief librarian. As far as the library is concerned he is rather like an old she-bear with its cub, so proud is he to show off its points, so jealous in protection of its treasures. Never for a moment does he allow you out of his sight, and if you are permitted to hold one of the most precious books in your hand, it is a greater compliment than if he had met you with a brass band and a bouquet.
And the man who collected these treasures, what manner of man was he? Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull was born at Wellington in 1868. He was educated at Dulwich College in Ireland and no doubt it was in that scholarly atmosphere that he acquired his taste for fine and rare books. Collecting was his passion and his hobby. When he returned to New Zealand he became assistant director of his father's shipping business, and he remained in the firm until ill-health compelled him to resign in 1917; but his real life was that of a bibliophile and philosopher.
Alexander Turnbull was a very shy man, retiring and reserved. He had a few dear friends amongst men mostly older than himself. His greatest moments would doubtless be the arrival of letters from his agent in Europe telling him of some first edition that had been tracked down for him.
He was very keen on the art of book-binding, and the world's most famous binders have many specimens in the Library—such craftsmen as Zaehnsdorf, Riviere, and Sangorski being represented over and over again.
He left his collection “to His Majesty the King, in trust as a reference library to be housed in Wellington.” He always regarded his books as something that he had bought not merely for his own pleasure, but ultimately for the good of his countrymen. He loved New Zealand as he loved his library.
I hope that I have not made Wellington seem too scholarly a place. It is not. Its inhabitants have, in most cases, never been in the Turnbull Library, but rather patronise the talkie theatres, of which there are many. And yet, I would not, on the other hand, convey to you the idea that the Wellingtonian is a gay dog. He is not nearly so gay as, for instance, the Londoner. In London you see innumerable couples walking arm in arm along the streets. In Wellington, Hamish and I are the only ones who do it. In London, lovers kiss in the talkies with the utmost abandon. Hamish and I dare not do it here. It simply is not done. There is a sort of primness in the air. But come along; we will go to Christchurch.page 36