The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 3 (June 1, 1939)
When I was a boy I knew an old lady who planned, God willing, to visit the Paris Exhibition in 1900. Her temerity appalled me. As it happened the extreme sanction was withheld, and she never saw it. There is always an exhibition looming ahead of one. If it isn't Wembley it is Dunedin. If it isn't Dunedin it is Glasgow the second or Paris the second. We look before and after, and sigh for what is not. Some of us look as far back as the New Zealand and South Sea Exhibition which was held in Dunedin in the year 1889. Out of the dark backward and abyss of time certain vignettes define themselves, perhaps the very earliest since the dawning of consciousness. To turn one's back in panic on the Centennial Exhibition, and scamper like the baby in the picture by Watts called “Whence? Whither?” is a foolish procedure, but that is precisely what I propose to follow in this article. I cannot recall entering the Exhibition of 1889 nor can I recall leaving it. Never mind, Jerome K. Jerome could remember falling into an ash-pit as a child, and he could not remember getting out of it. It is more than probable that I went to the Exhibition in a cab. Out of the murk the interior of a cab defines itself. The occasion of the first cab may have been one's first circus. Be that as it may, there was a day, or an evening, when I was first aware of the cab coverings flapping about me, of the little oil lamp below the window that proffered a view of the cabby's back, of the bilious-looking painted scroll which set forth the cabby's credentials, or the name of the coach builder who had fashioned this strange vehicle with its close-smelling upholstered seats facing each other on either side of the narrow fairway. Two steps let you down into the world of dogs and men and ribaldry. The little lamp cast raffish upward lights upon the lineaments of parents and brethren. There must have been a turnstile. If I were to think very hard I might recall being pushed through it from behind, a smiling image, as Robert Louis Stevenson puts it. My eldest brother and sister were admitted by ticket. These were little tokens in light brown leather that doubled like the covers of a book. Within was a photograph of the holder. I believe that a number of such tickets are preserved at the Early Settlers’ Hall in Dunedin. Out of the shadows which by this time must have superseded those pre-natal clouds of glory which, according to Wordsworth, we trail with us, there emerges the picture or tableau vivant, of an armless siffleur. He sat, dark-clad, very close up to his accompanist at the piano, and whistled “Men of Harlech.” I have sometimes wondered if my first infantile attempts at whistling date from that encounter. When one comes to think of it, how many of us can follow the string back to the precise hour when we succeeded in producing some sort of consecutive cadence by means of pursing the lips and expelling the breath through them. We lisped in numbers and the numbers came. It is more probable that we can recall our first created verbal cadence than our first whistled air. It is a matter of interest to myself alone that the first metrical line I ever perpetrated was
“Royal Rule Royal Rile
Up the gravel path we go.”
I do not want to be Freudian, but something stirred in that stolid rather over-nourished four-year-old at the sight of those little girls caught up in a kind of spider's web of pots and pans and dishes. Then there was the old gentleman in the bath chair who frequented the concert room. The concerts themselves come back in essence only, strains from Tannhäser with which is page 35 associated a first realization of what violins can do in the mass. That is a discovery which one makes but once in a lifetime. Future experience is but a ratification. So much for one's first Exhibition.
Exhibitions leave behind them, not footprints on the sands of time, but portents on the sky-line. The first sight of the Eiffel Tower or the Big Wheel at Earls Court invoke emotions not else to be evoked. There are all sorts of ways of seeing the Eiffel Tower. For my own part I saw it on a morning in spring when I had wandered away from the hotel where the power which should release me from Paris, with its morgue, its super-cemetery and its Pantheon, still lay abed. I traversed doubtful purlieus and turned a corner, and there was the Eiffel Tower looking so absurdly like itself that I was beset by an uneasy feeling that the thing had been made too easy for me.
The Big Wheel one viewed from various points as one travelled in the Metropolitan Underground, a portent in itself, seeing that it comprised portions of what had inspired the genius of Lear and of Cruickshank. The Crystal Palace shone at Sydenham as a memorial to the soaring vision of the Prince Consort. One could write nothing of the great Exhibition in Hyde Park that has not already been written by Lytton Strachey or Hector Bolitho. At Wembley the Stadium stands as a perpetual testimony to the enterprise of a visionary called McAlpine. Strange to say I remember more of the New Zealand and South Seas in 1889 than I remember of Wembley in 1924. Despite all that has been said to the contrary the human eye is the most lovingly acquisitive of all the organs. Wembley came to me through media less direct. There was a certain frosty week-end before the great Exhibition was actually opened, which I spent at the bungalow of a gentleman who was connected with the staff. In the afternoon of the Saturday one heard the band from Nella Hall, where Sir Arthur Sullivan's father was a bandmaster, play martial music, while a detachment of Boy Scouts acted as counters for a game which the late Mr. Lascelles was playing as pageant master. On the Sunday afternoon my host entertained a number of young men—and they all seemed young—who were finishing off contracts. They spoke lightly of having pinched cranes from each other, and compared our host's rock cakes with the concrete they had been using. It gives me little joy to think that I am farther off from the capacity to apprehend an Exhibition than when I was a boy.
I am painfully aware of the commiserating smile I should provoke on the face of any small boy to whom I might communicate my intention of visiting the Centennial Exhibition in 1940. Still, one never knows.
The late Fergus Hume, whose “Mystery of a Hansom Cab” made all London talk once upon a time, was then a heavy smoker, but very fastidious in his choice of tobacco, maintaining that pure tobacco was harmless but that if it contained overmuch nicotine it might do infinite mischief. Doctors will confirm that. But really pure tobacco, that is tobacco containing a trifling percentage of nicotine, is not met with everywhere every day. Even in London it is rare. Here in Maoriland it may be obtained at the nearest tobacconist's shop! The New Zealand grown and manufactured article is probably the purest and least harmful in the world, and smokers may indulge in it to their heart's content without running the smallest risk. This famous tobacco owes its excellence to the fact that it is toasted—the only tobacco that is, by the way. This process draws the poison out of it besides accounting for its wonderful flavour and matchless bouquet. Five brands only: Cut Plug No. 10, Cavendish, Riverhead Gold, Desert Gold and Navy Cut No. 3.*page break