We need to talk about America…

Not that we haven’t been doing just that for the last few months, but there’s so much to say. America fascinates and repulses me. I couldn’t live there – not just because I would eat all the food – but it is a fascinating place to observe, and we are fortunate to generally be able to enjoy its cultural output, both high and lowbrow. So naturally I was intrigued when I spied Claudia Roth Pierpont’s American Rhapsody in a bookshop in Auckland. I immediately went to the nearest library, hopped on the wifi and requested a copy (btw – aren’t libraries great?).

Cover of American rhapsodyIt’s a funny book, endeavouring to “present the the kaleidoscopic story of the creation of a culture.” Lofty intentions indeed! However, it is more of a collection of biographical and critical essays about a range of major players in American culture. The first two-thirds of the essays – which include Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hepburn and Gershwin are perfectly okay, but it’s the final third where, for me, the book truly comes alive. Orson Welles‘ and Laurence Olivier‘s (not from the US but that’s not the point) approaches to acting and Shakespeare are compared and contrasted. What is naturalism, how – and should – America tackle Shakespeare? These themes of naturalism and an American theatrical tradition are continued in an essay on Marlon Brando.

Cover of James Baldwin: Early novels and storiesWe are reminded that Brando was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement, and the last two essays cover novelist James Baldwin and singer Nina Simone who – to my shame – I didn’t know much about at all. Reading about these two African-Americans and learning more about the the nuances and iterations of the wider Civil Rights movement is inspiring me – to read their words and listen to their music and make an effort to further understand America’s painful history.

So, I’ve come away from this book thinking about acting and how we express our country through our cultural creations, and also with some new inspirational figures to look to. We need them.

Tell me a story

I recently had the opportunity to attend a storytelling workshop by Te Reo Wainene o Tua. It was a great event and attendees got to think about Māori storytelling, stories in general and who has the right to tell stories.

Stories are essential – without them nothing really has any meaning. But stories and meaning and knowledge are being lost all the time.

We were honoured to have Charles Te Ahukaramū Royal as one of our presenters. He spoke about how the exact meaning of some words to describe Māori types of story has become unclear, and how he is trying to reconstruct this meaning by analysing stories.

Te Reo Wainene o Tua booklet
Te Reo Wainene O Tua: Kei Te Waipounamu, 7-10 Mahura 2016 booklet

In a similar vein I heard Paul Tapsell talk at National Digital Forum in 2013 about using digital channels to connect Māori in urban areas back to communities and places they are associated with.

This shift from urban to rural made me think about how in Britain, where I am from, there was a huge move in population to growing cities in the Industrial Revolution. What was lost in terms of communities and shared heritage that was never recovered? What have I lost?

A book that I read a couple of years ago that has really stayed with me is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. It really isn’t an easy read. It tells the story of the aftermath of the Norman Conquest (it’s never the Norman Colonisation, is it?), 950 years ago this month. 1066 is a huge watershed in British history and sometimes what came before gets a little lost. The north of England resisted and were savagely put down in the ‘harrowing of the north‘, and sometimes I wonder if the region has ever truly recovered. There really is a reason the north remembers.

The Wake reminds us of the human impact of the conquest and provides a glimpse of an older world going back into pagan times.

So, stories: they connect us to people, places and culture – both our own and ones we are learning about, they get lost, they get recovered, they can be very ancient, they lead us to different places, they make us think, they make us.

More about storytelling

Beautiful but doomed: Ted Dawe’s Devon Santos

Cover of Thunder RoadTed Dawe is coming to the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival this month, so I thought I’d better get up to date with his latest book Into the World, the final entry in his Devon Santos trilogy (although chronologically it is the middle instalment).

Into the World joins together 2003’s Thunder Road, a fast-paced examination of boy racer culture and 2012’s award-winning Into the River, set against Māori mythology and a prestigious boarding school.

All three are wonderfully written and completely engrossing, telling the story of Te Arepa ‘Devon’ Santos. Charming, talented and impulsive Devon may just be one of my favourite ever literary characters (along with Pat Barker‘s Billy Prior). In some ways cursed by his own intelligence, he is set up to fail by society. Cover of Into the RiverHis story shows how many hoops perceived outsiders are supposed to jump through in order to gain acceptance. No wonder there are people who want to live outside the system or to beat it.

We are fortunate in New Zealand to have a young adult writer like Ted Dawe who isn’t afraid to confront important issues like identity, sexuality, belonging and the nature of society. His stories feel as if they are ripped directly from the headlines.

Ted Dawe appears at the following WORD Christchurch sessions:
No Sex Please, We’re Teenagers, Fri 26 Aug, 5.15pm
Teens in Peril, Sat 27 Aug, 11am

Remembering a disastrous day – The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme lasted from July to November 1916. The New Zealand Division became involved on 15 September at Flers-Courcelette, which was their first major action on the Western Front.

New Zealand trench mortar officers on the Somme. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013112-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.New Zealand trench mortar officers on the Somme. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013112-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23130341
New Zealand trench mortar officers on the Somme. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013112-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23130341

While the casualty figures for the whole battle are horrendous for all nations involved, those for the opening day of the battle for the British Army and Newfoundland forces are truly staggering – over 57,000 wounded and more than 19,000 killed. It was truly a disastrous day and only the Fall of Singapore in 1942 saw more casualties for the British Army – although the majority of those were prisoners of war.

What makes 1 July even more devastating is that so many British and Newfoundland soldiers were going into action for the first time, many in what were known as Pals Battalions where men from local communities joined up together. Not surprisingly, this had disastrous consequences for these communities which were often in working class, industrial areas.

There are a couple of excellent and contrasting histories of this day. Martin Middlebrook’s First Day on the Somme is a classic military history which looks in great depth at the formation of the British units on the Somme and tells the story of the battle through the of a number of soldiers. Andrew Macdonald’s recent First Day of the Somme explores in great detail how the battle plan evolved and analyses the tactics of the army formations involved to show how they failed or partially succeeded.

Cover Cover

Over the next few days and months I will be thinking of those who fought on 1 July and throughout the rest of the battle, in particular the 7th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment who went into action near Fricourt late on 2 July.

Do you have any connection to the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916?

Our newspaper and magazine archives are a great way to explore historic events as they unfold. Log in with your library card number and password / PIN.

Frank Worsley – a local hero

It is just over a century since Frank Worsley, Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean reached a whaling station on remote South Georgia following a daring 16 day voyage to alert the world to the loss of Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition‘s ship Endurance. Because of this journey the rest of the crew – stranded on Elephant Island – were all saved.

Worsley was born in Akaroa in 1872 and the New Zealand Antarctic Society has republished an epic poem about him ‘Worsley Enchanted‘ written by New Zealand-born poet Douglas Stewart and illustrated by Myra Walton. The poem takes readers through his experiences on the Endurance Expedition – which has become legendary – and reflects on his relationship with the rest of the crew.

Frank Worsley. Smythe, P :Photographs of Frank Worsley. Ref: 1/2-182002-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22778293
Frank Worsley. Smythe, P :Photographs of Frank Worsley. Ref: 1/2-182002-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22778293

Find out more

The Battle for Crete

This May sees another 75th anniversary from the Second World War with great significance for New Zealand.

From 20 May to 1 June 1941 Allied Forces, including the 2nd New Zealand Division, took part in the ultimately unsuccessful but fiercely fought battle for Crete. That April the Germans had invaded Yugoslavia and Greece and as they had quickly occupied these countries, the Allies evacuated to the island of Crete.

On 20 May German paratroopers invaded the island and over the next 12 days a tightly contested battle raged. The Allies were forced to retreat again, with many being evacuated to Egypt and several thousand becoming prisoners of war.

Cover of Men of valourThe 2nd New Zealand Division regrouped and went on to take part in successful campaigns in North Africa and Italy.

The play’s the thing – 400 years since the death of Shakespeare

On 23 April 2016 it will be 400 years since William Shakespeare died. He is believed to have been born on 23 April 1564. Certainly in the English language, few writers will have left such a legacy as this most celebrated of playwrights.

Shakespeare

As an actor as well as a playwright he performed his own material, and in the four centuries following his death this material has continued to be performed, reinterpreted and reimagined in a huge variety of ways. His language can seem impenetrable, at least at first, but its richness, uncanny relevance, profundity and humour make it all worthwhile.

Some of his plays are performed with great regularity – who hasn’t seen a fluffy version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in some lovely gardens on a pleasant summer evening? (No, MSND is not one of my favourites) Others are far more obscure – King John, anyone?

Very broadly speaking Shakespeare wrote comedies (eg As You Like It), histories (Henry V) and tragedies (Hamlet). Yet a good number of the plays cannot be easily pigeonholed, for example Troilus and Cressida and The Winter’s Tale. As Polonius says:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2.

As for my favourite Shakespeare? Hard to say – I find Troilus and Cressida fascinating and wish I could have seen the Te Reo Māori version at the 2012 International Shakespeare Festival in London. I love Richard III – a masterful and still influential piece of Tudor propaganda that works just as well played for comedy as deadly serious. Who cannot love Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing – a star truly did dance when she was created.

It’s so hard to choose – Macbeth is so fast paced and profound, and as for Hamlet. Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 4, Scene 4 might just be my favorite piece of his writing – but what about Richard III, Act 1, Scene 2:

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?                                                                                         Was ever woman in this humour won?

Exit pursued by a bear.

What’s your favourite Shakespeare?

Brush up on your Shakespeare

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In which Katherine indulges her weakness for Lord Byron

Cover of Selected poems, Lord ByronIt is always a great feeling to discover a book that you didn’t really know anything about before you picked it up and find that you can’t put it down. Recently a new book, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club caught my eye. The synopsis looked promising – young adult urban fantasy set in Regency London, and it involved Lord Byron (always a plus in my book).

I simply could not put it down, yet at the same time I didn’t want it to finish – the curse of many a good book. The plot isn’t terribly original (sparky heroine discovers she has special powers and is introduced to a secret supernatural underworld), there are many familiar tropes (tortured, but dashingly attractive Byronic hero etc), but the quality of the writing and the attention to period detail – such as the inclusion of the real life assassination of the British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval – in the setting make for an excellent read.

Young adult urban fantasy is an extremely popular genre (see Twilight, Fallen, Vampire Academy etc, as is Georgian / Regency fiction like Georgette Heyer, and Jane Austen and her imitators, so it is kind of fun for an author to mash up these genres to create something that is both familiar and fresh. And which uses words like ‘gallivanting’ and ‘fornication’.

A small piece of Christchurch’s Antarctic heritage

Christchurch has many links with Antarctica, both modern and historic. This November sees the 105th anniversary of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition sailing from Lyttelton. Led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and officially known as the British Antarctic Expedition, the expedition ended in disaster when the polar party perished on their way back from the South Pole, having discovered that Roald Amundsen‘s Norwegian party had made it there before them.

Scott and his men had spent some time in Lyttelton and Christchurch before setting sail on the last leg of their sea voyage from the UK. Scott first came to the region in 1901 when he also used Lyttelton as last port of call on his way to Antarctica. This was the British National Antarctic Expedition, also known as the Discovery expedition.

A typescript letter signed by Robert Scott, thanking the City for the gift, from Mr. H. Greenbank, of a mounted horseshoe.
Letter, 15 Nov. 1910, from Robert Falcon Scott, CCL-Archive18-003

Our digital collection includes a couple of nice mementos of these two expeditions, which highlight the Christchurch connection. On both occasions the people of Christchurch gave a gift to the expedition – firstly some sheep and secondly a mounted horseshoe. Scott wrote thank you letters to the town clerk and these are now part of the library’s archives collection and have been digitised.

  • For everything you could ever want to know about Antarctica, take a look at the extensive links on our Antarctica web page.
  • Find out about the Antarctic Heritage Trust‘s quest to restore the historic Ross Island huts of Scott, Shackleton and others

Armistice Day in the news

Wednesday 11 November is Armistice Day, when we remember New Zealanders and others who served in the First World War and other conflicts since. 2015 is 97 years since the agreement that ended fighting in the First World War came into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

The Bridge of Remembrance with Cashel Street in the background [193-?] CCL PhotoCD 10, IMG0073
he Bridge of Remembrance with Cashel Street in the background [193-?] CCL PhotoCD 10, IMG0073
While Anzac Day has become the main memorial day in New Zealand and Australia, events still take place on Armistice Day. Using resources such as Papers Past we can find out more about how the day has been celebrated and then commemorated over time.

On 13 November 1918, in a article called ‘the city rejoices with wild enthusiasm‘ the Star records:

Never before in the history of the city has such intense enthusiasm been displayed as yesterday, when the news of the signing of the armistice with Germany was received. The people streamed into the town, leaving the suburbs all but deserted. Throughout, the tramwaymen stuck heroically to their tasks, this factor being a large one in the general success of the celebrations.

A year later the Press laments how long it took to move from an armistice to a final peace treaty:

Just as nobody imagined, when the war broke out, that it would last for over four years, so few people, on November 11th last year, supposed that the world would, after twelve months, be as far as it is from a return to normal conditions.

By 1935 another article in The Press states:

The celebration of Armistice Day this year will show, as previous celebrations have shown, that the anniversary does not grow less poignant or less significant with the passage of time.

This sentiment is still true.