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Chapter IX. — Menfolk

page 114

Chapter IX.

I have read about an age of chivalry in books, but there, unfortunately, my journalistic knowledge stops dead. Scratch a man and you find a martinet, a Merry Andrew or a Mrs. Grundy, as the case may be.… But in journalism, there is much entertainment to be gained if one concentrates, more or less, on the funny side of the sterner sex. On the staidest journal, there are usually incidents not altogether without their quaint and appealing side. There was the episode of the drowning man and the sausages.…

It wouldn't be fair to mention his name, but he had dined and wined not wisely but too well. Before him loomed a trip on a Wellington ferry boat. He made the first stage gamely, did it in splendid shape, and began to feel a dutiful husband once more. Hadn't he remembered the family marketing, all three pounds of sausages? First off the boat, too… . only he departed not by the gangway, but stepped unceremoniously off the side, disappearing with an appalling oath between wharf and ship. Bystanders began to compose epitaphs: they were a bit previous. From the jaws of a “demned, moist, cold, unpleasant” death was fished up a pathetic little man with the sausages coyly twined, like a wreath of seaweed, about his neck.

“The glory has departed.… .” Sometimes, in the sunset ways, one meets a man who has known all the excitement of popular success but a short time ago. I remember little Pirani, of the Dominion, who page 115 died some years back. With the late “Tommy” Taylor, he enjoyed the reputation of being among the few men in the House able seriously to annoy Seddon the Lionheart.

Departed glory doesn't much worry the greate number of our veteran politicians.

I only know of one politician who wept in public .… . crocodile tears or otherwise… . . that was the redoubtable “Bob” Semple, now re-elected to the House. His rejection at an earlier contest certainly did have that startling emotional effect upon him, but both his mana and his political backing have been rejuvenated, and the Semple of to-day might almost be described as a polished speaker.

The late Sir John Luke was one who struggled and went down hard, dying at last in the over-heavy harness of a political combatant. I remember him on the balcony of the Dominion office, after the landslide election of 1928… . . trying so hard to make himself heard at his farewell speech. They (the packed, highly-amused crowd in the jammed streets below) admitted no such courtesy. An old man, furious, fighting to speak, losing his temper, departing at last, disconsolate and unheard… . that is my last memory of a man who had been more than once Mayor of the city of Wellington, and who, however wanting he might be found among the glib tongues, at least had the interests of his city very closely and honestly at heart. He died game.…

The Hon. J. G. Coates and Major and Mrs. Noel Pharazyn were guests together at the first garden-party where I saw the latter twain, who have created so much interest and amusement in New Zealand since their tour of Russia. This was not surprising, for Mrs. Pharazyn—youthful, svelte and charming—is a daughter of the member for Otaki, W. H. Field. (As Major Pharazyn once wrote to a weekly newspaper, with unconscious humour, “I am certainly W. H. Field's son-in-law, but this is not page 116 his fault.”) Major Pharazyn retains his military title for all public appearances or journalistic work —and needless to say, his stand has made him the white-headed boy of the Left Wing papers.

I always have a vague and quite unjustified glimmering of an idea that by trying to keep a British eye fixed in all fairness and goodwill on Russian happenings, some of the parlour Bolshevists have a notion that they are serving the Empire, and may, in these changing times of ours, eventually produce some little Sir Oswald Mosley, served up cold on toast. But even should one wish to do so, can one doublecross forces of nature?

The most thoroughgoing Communist I have ever met was a little Jewish pawnbroker in Auckland. He was in earnest about Russia. More, he very definitely wanted to go and live there, and had written to the very highest authorities, endeavouring to get permission. He showed me, rather dismally, the letter he had received in reply. It began, “Dear Comrade,” which was promising enough, but concluded by saying that Russia was overburdened with professional and clerical workers, and that he could best serve the cause by keeping away from it. The spider seems to be pretty fly about what it invites into its parlour.

The others are mostly talk. (Everybody, including the police, seems to be rather fond of little “Daddy” Schofield, who still busily sells the Red Worker and much literature “prohibited” but easily obtainable).

The Christchurch City Council has probably the only official room in any British Dominion fully equipped with spittoons. This I know, having been allowed a glimpse at its maroon-leathed opulence by D. G. Sullivan, now one of the most popular Mayors the city has ever had, at that time Deputy-Mayor. Perhaps he's abolished the spittoons, which were, however, quite ornamental and interesting from the antiquarian viewpoint. Mr. Sullivan is page 117 probably the only New Zealand Mayor who is everywhere and by everyone called “Dan,” and usually, after an election (during which he nearly always scores the highest majority in the land) has to submit to many embraces from admiring constituents. (He is, of course, Member for Avon in addition to holding his Mayoral position: and although he was, when I first met him, the youngest man in the House save one, he now ranks as a Parliamentary veteran, never once having lost his hold on the goodwill of his electorate).

“Dan” has an absolutely amazing capacity for work—and can work in team as well as playing a lone hand. His story reads like a “Log Cabin to White House” romance: as a boy, he was a barefooted newspaper-seller, which would in America almost have sufficed to win him an option on the Presidential seat. He discovered a journalistic gift, was allowed to run a column putting the Labour point of view in good, plain English for a Christchurch daily. Then politics opened the gate.…

Once in Christchurch, I had the awful experience of interviewing prominent business men and shining lights of politics on the impossible subject, “What I would do, if I were eighteen again.” I had been formerly aware that all men are liars, but never until that day realised just what liars they are. What they would do, if they were eighteen again, sounded like a Methodist parson's idea of the shortest cut to Heaven: it also sounded to me like an attempt on the part of the financially successful middle-aged to extract a lot for a little from aspiring youth.

“Dan” was the only human being amongst the lot. When asked the fatal question, he thought for a moment. His eye brightened. “I'd do the same again,” said he, with a seraphic smile.

One of the most fascinating haunts in Wellington is the Turnbull Library. If it weren't that really valuable editions are well-known among bibliophiles, page 118 and American collectors much less unscrupulous than they are painted, this old library, which faces the Parliamentary Building on its Bowen Street side, would be a far surer bet for the cat-burglar than most banks. Old precious books, hidden away here, Milton and Shakespeare as men knew them when literature was a stripling, thousands of treasures which have slipped out of the ken of all save the student, must in massed array be worth a fabulous sum. There are larger libraries of rare editions in the Southern Hemisphere, but to the book-lover, the Turnbull Library is a treasure house. Upstairs, faded, yellowing, covered over with pointed precise handwriting, is a log of Captain Cook's: discovered lying unhonoured in a little Sydney bookshop.

The keeper of the treasure-house is Johannes Andersen. With all due respect to a most conscientious librarian, I think that Mr. Andersen is one reason why the Turnbull Library is not more generally known and appreciated. He is enamoured of his books, becomes as excited as the eccentric professor of an Edgar Wallace yarn does one desire to see them. “No, no, you can't have that to-day,” is his favourite wild cry, as he dashes after some invader. Being deputed to write an article about the library for the Christchurch Sun, I had what I may with reserve describe as the very devil of a time, persuading the muscular Christianity of the wild Johannes to relax enough for this. He didn't mind having his treasures written about, but professional journalism worried him not a little. “For money? No, no, you can't do it for money,” declared he, abruptly… A point of view, by the way, which I respect intensely, and would even go so far as to observe if the age of the literary patron should dawn on the horizon again. However, relent he did, and I spent one of the most fascinating days of my life hearing of these old books from a man who can truthfully say “Much have I travelled in the realms page 119 of gold.” Mr. Andersen is no specialist in “show pieces.” He appreciates the more educational and more valuable items in the great collection, of course: yet understands just as well the quaintness of some medieval book on hairdressing, a tiny poem about white violets and a dead child written in Swinburne's hand inside a volume of poems, very old periodicals containing the bitter, clear-cut leaders of Puritan John Milton.

In the really good old days of some five years ago—days when we were hypnotised into thinking ourselves financially solvent—the great white chief of one of the nicest offices in Wellington was A. H. Messenger, Publicity Officer. (The glory of his abode has to some extent departed, for the work of the Publicity Bureau has been strangely intermingled, not only with that of the Tourist Department, which seemed at least rational, but with the Department of Industries and Commerce. The results are precisely what might have been expected).

In the Messenger and Money heydays, one of the best-drilled squadrons of camera-men that heart could desire was in constant attendance at this office, and New Zealand was sending overseas “silents” as artistic as most issued by the publicity offices of other countries.

It was largely a matter of training and enterprise, for no backdrops are needed with the marvellous and varied panorama of New Zealand scenery as the camera-man's playground. These lads were keen, and since their little troop was disbanded most of them have found success overseas. A. H. Messenger — long, bronzed, thin, kindly face decorated with a moustache — was their guiding spirit and led them to all the best hunting-grounds, sleeping out in tents down in lonely Stewart Island or far north among the huge kauris. A camera-man of the early days himself, and a member of the family after which Mount Messenger was christened, he was officially adopted into the Arawa page 120 tribe, has an extraordinary knowledge of their ways and works and a collection of curios such as is seldom bestowed on the mere pakeha.

Incidentally, whilst in the aforementioned good old days I once rejoiced in a commission to do fifty articles for the Publicity Office, and worried through them quite successfully, I met my Waterloo trying to write screen titles for the silent films. It sounds easy enough… but I'd rather try to write a second Gray's Elegy, and I think that the title-writers of Hollywood deserve their prominent place in those interminable name-preludes which make most talkies so much more boring than they need otherwise be. The films, all in one marathon piece, were run off in a little private cinema on the Lambton Quay premises. Rather a comfy little place was this — the only cinema in New Zealand where visitors were encouraged to smoke. This was because many of them are portly and plethoric tourists, out to catch a screen glimpse of Mount Cook or the wild West Coast before definitely making up their minds to book through. It was considered tactful to put them at their ease.

Talking of films reminds me of the alleged—but only alleged—collection of one erstwhile film censor. It was whispered, more in envy than in anger, that the bits snicked out of films for the good of public morality weren't simply cremated. They were salvaged and formed the censor's “rogues' gallery” —used, no doubt, merely to demonstrate to members of the Purity League how efficient is the local watch on our behaviour.

This story is probably a canard. Not so, however, the possession of banned books among our M's.P., for I was in the House when with simple and manly dignity, the late Mr. Harry Holland, then Leader of the Opposition, arose and explained that he did not believe in the banning of books. We were, he truthfully said, old enough to read of our politics, finance and social usages without direction: and in page 121 honest accordance with this belief, he himself made a point of possessing banned volumes. Other M's.P. did likewise, but were not frank enough to say so. And indeed, the banning of books usually serves merely to run up their prices—as it did in Wellington when the second consignment of “The Well of Loneliness” was turned back, like an undesirable alien, after arrival in port.

The volatile Mr. Alexander Marky was one of the few foreigners who have ever purported to take a full-length film of New Zealand … and most of his enterprise appears to have been on paper. Long before his advent, Douglas Fairbanks' publicity chief had dawned on the New Zealand horizon, made the definite statement that “Doug,” then in the height of his silent film popularity, was to make his next great picture, “The Black Pirate,” off the New Zealand coast. The statement was purely a stunt, designed to popularise the next Fairbanks film, “Robin Hood.” It worked, but had consequences. When the full plot lay revealed, the very name of Fairbanks was absolutely banned by important New Zealand newspapers, including the Dominion. This was a strong measure, but justified. Even a small country is entitled to become fed up with stunt merchants. The taboo was not withdrawn until the Dominion, at all events, had received, from Fairbanks an absolute disclaimer of the story concerning “The Black Pirate's” screen location, and an apology for the trouble caused. Personally, I like a paper that has a foot and knows how to put it down: most of them seem to suffer from moral bunions.

Marky, as far as the future has yet unfolded, seems to have been another flash in the pan. He spent four years roving around New Zealand, mostly in Rotorua district, but this did not invariably turn out as expensive—for Mr. Marky— as might have been anticipated. There was, for instance, the occasion of his visit to a charming but isolated little bit of the far north. An ex-M.P., and page 122 a well-known enthusiast about his district, was persuaded to give the American an invitation. He arrived by hired car. Later his host got the bill for the hire thereof. The film, which was of course to be a “screen epic,” has not yet been shown in New Zealand, and the people who supplied the capital are still lamenting.

In the lounge of Hotel Cargen, I had the pleasure of getting the first real interview that Don Harkness, one-time partner and chief enthusiast of the “Wizard” Smith enterprise (the one which ended in so deplorable a fiasco, and has so effectively blemished the fair fame of Ninety Mile Beach as a racing track) gave to any reporter.

Harkness, who had designed Enterprise II. and knew her inside out, was already uneasy and unhappy about the ill-fated venture. His cherished cooling system was the butt of Smith's criticism. That he, at all events, was genuine in his hope that the car might put up a world record cannot be doubted. Long before the marathon debate as to whether “Wizard” would even give his audience a show for their money had really started, Harkness, who had brought over his own handsome green Vauxhall car and was prepared to take events seriously, had packed up and departed for Australia in sheer disgust.

Ninety Mile, under the reign of Smith, became a joke which will live in New Zealand history. Elaborate—a little too elaborate—privacy was observed. “Wizard's” frantic efforts to create a sort of “odour of sanctity” around the car and its doings were at first respected, and the A.A.A. officials joined whole-heartedly in cold-shouldering outsiders. “Wizard” was waiting for the right sand conditions… “Wizard” was all set to go next ebb-tide… “Wizard” was telling the toheroas bedtime stories.…

On his first Ninety Mile spin, when he did put up a wonderful exhibition of driving and made the New page 123 Zealand beach a dangerous rival to Daytona, Smith apparently never noticed the toheroas — unless he met one in his soup.

Toheroas made newspaper headlines during the months of his second vigil, whilst hopeful cameramen arrived by 'plane or attempted to get through in disguise. The last is plain fact. Believing that a serious attempt would be made to smash the world's record, believing yet more fervently that all screen rights had been unfairly sold out to an American movie company, a free-lance camera-man, big, burly Rudall Hayward, made plans to go camouflaged as a Maori, his camera concealed in a billy. The episode of the one camera-man who did land by 'plane in a position of 'vantage on Ninety Mile Beach, and who promptly found himself wrestling not only with the spirit but with the flesh of infuriated officials, made rather entertaining reading. But nobody took the attempt quite so seriously after the first few months: and the papers which had blossomed forth in odes to “Wizard” on his arrival in Auckland were curiously taciturn, after his brief jaunt along the sands, ending in a fire on the unfortunate Enterprise II.

Smith's libel action, on his return to Australia, against the paper which made such pointed comment on the yellow flag passed over to him at the wharf, was successful. However, he has not since figured as a world or local record-breaker … and Ninety Mile Beach is still hopefully waiting for something that might headline both “Wizard” and its own shining sands once more.

I shall never forget the first aeroplane ascent in Wellington. It happened before the war. The 'plane, as a novelty, had collected a mighty crowd, who had paid to see the ascent. Weather conditions were, to put it mildly, adverse—a rising wind, a sky greyed with the torn fleece of clouds. The pilot didn't want to ascend under such conditions. He wasn't let off, for the page 124 crowd became ugly.

Later, I remember seeing the pathetic remnants of the 'plane stuck high up in a Newtown Park pinetree. By almost incredible good luck, the pilot had escaped well-nigh undamaged. Yet there was something tragic and mocking about those torn wings…

If toheroas helped to ruin the reputation of Ninety Mile Beach, they are good stock in the London market—thanks to H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, on his visit to New Zealand, became enamoured of the wily toheroa, which burrows deep in the sand, is dug up and makes its first social appearance in the form of soup. The toheroa taste has spread among members of the Royal Family.

“The little Duchess of York,” whose smile, hat and sweet-pea complexion were imitated throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand for years after her visit, had her happiest New Zealand day in Rotorua regions. Slipping out by a back entrance, the Duke and Duchess entered a private car, and, with the hotel manager's car acting as rear bodyguard, made for the famous “Blackberry Patch,” near Wairoa. The blackberries hereabouts are not the ordinary waifs and strays which move the New Zealand farmer to such expressive oaths, but resemble the American blueberry. Half an inch long and bursting with sweetness, they are worthy of the most scornful philospher's consideration. Autumn brings a rich harvest of them to this lonely old road, where not far away are the skeleton remains of wrecked huts, stranded articles of furniture — casualties of Mount Tarawera's awful day of volcanic wrath. Like a grey ghost the deadly mountain, its rent craters still plain on its denuded sides, stands bare amid the rich wooded purple of friendlier Rotorua hills. It still seems to me a most ominous place, its steeps a pale threat of death over the shining lake waters.

But the Blackberry Patch is all autumn's sweetness and ripened virtue. How on earth this special page 125 sort of blackberry got there I have no idea: the Rotorua district is at its best, in autumn—under a spell of lavishness. I Know one tiny island on Lake Rotorua, where you may find wild peaches, wild raspberries, wild cape-gooseberries, wild figs. Nor need you be a vegetarian. Maori pigs are the only inhabitants, little grey freshwater lobsters are easy to catch, and the big shining rainbows simply ask to be lifted from the water. Table decorations? The steep hill is apricot and pink with wild gladioli. And since to bathe before dining is necessary, there's the delicious natural bath where you slide from crystal-cold water into a warmer spring, then into depths as hot as you can bear … This little island, with its bonfire ring of flaming pohutukawa trees, is supposed to be beyond the visitor's ken. It has an old Maori shrine, only a very small one, said to be sacred to love. One is not allowed to land… but naturally, one does.

One of the main ordeals of Kingsford Smith's visits to New Zealand has been the never-ceasing flow of “inventions,” poured in at every hotel where “Smithy,” the most popular Australian ever welcomed in New Zealand, may spend a night. Since he became Sir Charles—whilst remaining so whole-heartedly and insuperably “Smithy”—the hero of the Tasman flight has appointed his brother, Wilfrid Kingsford Smith, manager and “business head.” They are almost exactly alike, Wilfrid a little older and a little darker: and, oddly enough, he hates flying. Every invention of which particulars are received is at least cursorily investigated, and it was Sir Charles' intention to give a very thorough try-out to at least one improvement submitted by a young New Zealander. For the aeroplane, needless to say, is only halfway through its age of invention, and we have progressed a little further than to sit still and wait for everything new beneath the sun to be turned out by German laboratories and American workshops.

page 126

“Smithy,” with the eternal Australian grin never far away from his lean face, is refreshingly frank about the usefulness of hard cash. “The only place in the world,” said he, referring to New Zealand, “where I've taken their money away, and they've thanked me for it.”

Joy-riding in the Southern Cross or in the Southern Cross Junior, was certainly an excellent financial speculation. The mana of those great wings seems never-dying, and “Smithy's” personal popularity in New Zealand has held. It was frankly admitted that twenty-minute rides up aloft were considerably shorter in actual fact, and ten-minute ones but a flick of a white wing up and down again: this, however, was due to the appalling length of the “waiting list.” In the 'quake towns, Napier and Hastings, every evidence of a signal financial recovery was given by the fact that hundreds of pounds were paid in by joy-riders on a single day. “Smithy” had a lady nonagenarian for his first New Zealand passenger.

Had “Smithy” won the Melbourne Centenary Air Race, I believe the applause would have been louder in this land than if one of the New Zealand entrants should have achieved the seemingly impossible… . and certainly highly improbable. This is all the more curious as there is a quite distinct difference of life and opinion between New Zealand and Australian types, and not infrequently this develops into rivalry. When Jardine's highly unpopular eleven made their exit from Australia, plus the Ashes but minus any great social success, the civic welcome the Englishmen received in Wellington must have been an almost embarrassing change in temperature. Jardine, the austere captain, broke his vow of never smiling again, and unbosomed himself as to how ill continual Australian reference to “the English team” had made him—he being no Sassenach, but a true-blue Scot. The little English-New Zealand entente page 127 cordiale hardly looked well for Australia's place in the Dominion's heart. But personally, I think that we might learn to love Australia if only her silly newspapers would stop imagining 'quake scares the moment a metereological instrument wobbles: and that “Smithy” breaks down barriers of public opinion, because, as it happens, he knows how to grin. My own first experience in flying was down in Christchurch, when sent to interview a Norwegian journalist and roamer, Erling Aasgard, who had just come back from the Ross Sea. He had a date at the 'drome, so the interview was done by Avro. Mr. Aasgard being just under seven feet in height, the pilot refused to “stunt” with so heavy a customer. Mr. Aasgard was purple with annoyance, I green with fear lest the pilot should change his mind. However, our interview concluded happily at a coffee-stall, since it was revealed that after all the day had had the spice of risk Mr. Aasgard craved. “Mad Mac,” another pilot, had driven us back from the 'drome at Phaeton's Chariot speed, afterwards cheerfully explaining that his brakes wouldn't work.

It's not always the famous, the fortunate, that one best remembers.

High up in the Cashmere Hills there was a little garage. At least, that had been its builder's intention, but things had evolved otherwise. It was a cabinetmaker's home and workshop, and he lived there with none but a very lordly white cat to keep house for him.

I heard about him, because a few Christchurch people were beginning to invest in furniture about which there was something extremely odd: the oddity of real beauty. Sometimes he followed the lines of the old masters. Sometimes he found ways of his own.…

I remember climbing up and hopelessly tearing perfectly good stockings in the brambles of a very wild and wicked garden… . a garden which lay back in the sunlight and laughed at law and order. page 128 There was a swinging of pine-tree boughs in a slight wind, and the russet needles slippery underfoot.

How indignant he was with the modern craftsman's trick of joinery, the french-polishing which was half done and paid no heed to the grain of the wood. And such base uses had the poor wood come to… . but not in his workshop. For fifteen, twenty years, old planks of beech and rimu had lain maturing.…

The cleanest of all smells in the world is the smell of cut wood. It has the forest's heart in it, and white sunlight. I remembered an old Italian book called “Pinocchio.” The aged carpenter in that fairytale carved out an astounding puppet who, after many strange adventures and sad ones, came to life and was a human being.

Perhaps a New Zealand cabinetmaker could do as much, provided that he matured his beech planks long enough, kept in the good books of the white cat and understand all the ancient craft of joinery.

In College Street, Christchurch, the china collector lived. He was old, too. He has since died, I have heard, and I know that his all but priceless collection was to go to the Museum.

Chelsea, with its beaten gold and deep rich blues, is the king of porcelain. But he was proud of the tall Sevres vases, too, a pair, knee-high and gay with the wanton dance of the little shepherdesses.

And the queer old beasts on blue and white Spode… and the secret glazes, the apple glaze of the Rockingham porcelain, which none can ever copy… and the tiny flowers inside Bristol glass, which was a sideline, but fascinating enough… and the quite good, courageous and interesting work of the earthenware factory which for a little time in New Zealand patterned plates with the staunch canvas of the old sailing-ships… . these were all the commonplaces of his kingdom. I drank China tea out of a little fluted Rockingham cup, apple-green, and consumed apple shortcakes which were the page 129 specialty of his lady wife. She had coils of ivory-coloured hair under a mob-cap of old lace, just a little deeper in colour.

It is so very delicate, contact with the old. A thing like light through a stained glass window, or an autumn flower, frosty-brittle and deep-coloured. You know it can't possibly endure for long. But it is more beautiful than youth.

“Just when you think you're safest, comes a sunset touch.”

Trees in Christchurch.

The trees wait in Christchurch
Through the calm noonday glow
To the deep tide of twilight's
Azure ebb and flow.
Till her wide-flowered dawnings
Spill fragrance again
The trees wait in Christchurch
For comfort of men.

There is peace spun in Christchurch
By the stately sister hours
To webs fine as moonlight's
Carven ivory flowers,
There are dreams walk in Christchurch
Delicately drest,
With her bright silk of rivers
A shawl for their breast.

Ah, there's never a pilgrim
Comes wandering alone
But her brown leaves, her green light
Seal him her own.
And he who is weary
Of eyes or of soul
May touch but the cloak
Of the trees and be whole.