Mark Twain, the tourist

All people think that New Zealand is close to Australia or Asia, or somewhere, and that you cross to it on a bridge. But that is not so. It is not close to anything, but lies by itself, out in the water.

Newspaper advertisement for Mark Twain's performances [1895]
Advertisement , Star, Issue 5410, 11 November 1895, Page 3 via Papers Past
The talk of the town 120 years ago in Christchurch was the visit of Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, who despite some initial ignorance as to our whereabouts (as illustrated in the above quote), made it safely to the shores of Aotearoa in spring 1895, and would spend 4 days in our own fair city.

It seems that Twain’s visit was on a par with those of pop stars of today. His performances were wildly popular. Originally scheduled to perform 3 shows at the Theatre Royal on Gloucester St, an extra date had to be added due to demand. He was hosted and shown the sights (such as the museum and botanic gardens), and a dinner was given in his honour. And as is still the case with foreign dignitaries, he was thoroughly interrogated by journalists into giving positive reviews of the scenery (some things never change).

Twain had undertaken a world tour due to financial troubles and used his travels as the basis for a “non-fiction” account Following the Equator which was published in 1897. I use the term non-fiction cautiously. Though the book does more or less faithfully document the itinerary of his world tour, Twain was a self-admitted liar and yarn-spinner and some of the stories in the book are of a spurious nature. Take for instance the information he gleans from a fellow traveller about the Moa.

The Moa stood thirteen feet high, and could step over an ordinary man’s head or kick his hat off; and his head, too, for that matter. He said it was wingless, but a swift runner. The natives used to ride it. It could make forty miles an hour, and keep it up for four hundred miles and come out reasonably fresh. It was still in existence when the railway was introduced into New Zealand; still in existence, and carrying the mails. The railroad began with the same schedule it has now: two expresses a week-time, twenty miles an hour. The company exterminated the moa to get the mails.

Oh, really?

This passage is accompanied by an utterly bizarre and grotesque illustration featuring a moa, being ridden by a Māori man, kicking the head off another – while also carrying a bag of mail.

Of course, this tale is related by an unnamed third party so Twain could always just have claimed he’d been misinformed if proved incorrect – which is an old, tale tellers’ trick… and a good one.

In any case, he did get to see his legendary moa (or at least the skeleton of one) at Canterbury Museum. In terms of scenery he thought our riverside weeping willows “the stateliest and most impressive” in the world. He was also struck by the Englishness of Christchurch saying, in his usual sardonic style –

If it had an established Church and social inequality it would be England over again with hardly a lack.

He also applauded the success of women’s suffrage in New Zealand (women had got the vote in 1893), the good sense of which he summed up in the following statement –

In the New Zealand law occurs this: “The word person wherever it occurs throughout the Act includes woman.”

Well, of course.

More about Mark Twain in Christchurch

Cover of Autobiography of Mark TwainSearch our catalogue

Celeb Slash Writer

I’m never sure how I feel about famous people who write books. Please understand – I’m not talking about famous (or infamous) authors (Archer, Thompson), but about people who are ALREADY famous for some reason, and who then go and write a book as well. It’s a bit like Model-slash-Actors:  they’ve already gotten to be really good at something (even if it’s just draping themselves over things in an alluring manner), and are earning buckets of money for doing so. How is it then fair that they also get to have a go at being good at something else – draping themselves all over the big screen as well?

I’m sure this is the main reason that I myself am not a successful writer – there’s only so much success to go around, and if SOME people are hogging it all, then it stands to reason there’s not enough left for the rest of us.

Not only that, but frequently the end result of hogging ALL the limelight turns out to be pants. I’m not naming names here (Minogue, MadonnaMcCartney, Gervais), but as often as not these are the books that regularly appear on our Worst Of lists, AND that are the subject of such gloriously tetchy columns as this one from a few years ago in the Guardian.

Having had my wee grumble, I’d now like to backpedal and say that the reason I started this rant is that I have just finished reading Dawn French’s recent novel, and have found it to indeed be A Tiny Bit Marvellous. Funny and sweet and a bit dark and all about families and children and relationships and growing up, it’s not the most amazing novel I’ve read this year, but I really enjoyed it and I’d certainly recommend it to my friends.  So clearly it’s not ALL celebs who should be banned from branching out.  And here’s the problem, of course – how do we know who should and who shouldn’t be let loose with a ream of paper and a word-processor?

What’s in a name?

coverBeing in an advanced stage of pregnancy, the issue of an appropriate name for the unborn child is becoming pressing.

The selection of a name for offspring is fraught with pitfalls and necessitates vigorous negotiating between the parents-to-be over individual favourites. The shooting down of each other’s top picks without a qualm can leave the list of suitable names somewhat depleted. Then there is the issue of whether the name can be shortened, lengthened, nicknamed … not to mention what unintended recognition the initials might provide. During discussions before our first child was born, I was keen on Ingrid Ruby as an option as a girl’s name – however the full initials resulted in I.R.A … hmmm, perhaps not.

As you know, the rich and famous often label their children with weird and wonderful handles – Daisy Boo, Bronx Mowgli and Princess Tiaamii to name but a few – and of course Harper Seven is the latest progeny named by famous parents to create worldwide comment and speculation.

The weight of this task can not be underestimated – as the appellation will be laden on the small person for years to come. I’m sure you can all think of a most unusual or downright weird name you’ve mocked in the past. I can still remember the full four names of an unfortunate at my high school – she featured in the yearly magazine in categories such as ‘person with the longest name’ or ‘oddest name’ for the full five years.

Fortunately, to help with this momentous task the library has baby name books aplenty to pore through and hopefully be inspired by. Though maybe I should begin by reading What not to name your baby first…

Do you have a favourite name of all time or one you particularly despise?


Sport? Never interested. Shakespeare? Sometimes interested. Celebrities? Always interested. So a book about sport, with a plot based on a Shakespeare play and featuring a couple very similar to David and Victoria Beckham put me in something of a quandary.

On the one hand books about sport make me feel faint with boredom. On the other hand a book where Posh and Becks-like characters fall victim to several of the deadly sins has got to have something going for it.

And so it proved with Exposure, a Young Adult book with something for everyone. Mal Peet writes about soccer well enough to make it exciting to someone who regards not following sport as something of a badge of honour and he’s no slouch at building suspense in a part of the story that’s concerned with political corruption and homeless children. He can even handle romance – the doomed love story of Otello and Desmeralda is believable, romantic and sad without being soppy.

I’m so impressed I’m going to check out his other books – this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Peet’s a definite must see at this month’s <a title="Mal Peet, appearing at this year's Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Moving Pictures

Hounded by authorities because of taxes, left-leaning politics and a liking for young ladies, the once adored comic Charlie Chaplin split the United States in 1952.  On his last day in the country, he finally consented to his portrait being taken by the noted fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Avedon had been keen to take Chaplin’s photo for many years, but the actor continually declined.  After a full day’s shooting, Chaplin gave Avedon the perfect, spontaneous photo. Head down, fingers aside his head like devil horns, he grins at the camera. It’s an unforgettable image, both humourous and political. Chaplin’s goodbye to the States is one of the most memorable in Performance, a new collection of Avedon portraits.  The subjects are all leading performance artists, and while you may recognise the names, many of these images have never been published before.  Avedon had an ability to really capture the vitality of his subjects, and these photographs all possess a charming lack of inhibition. 

The Avedon book has really fancy packaging and will look great laying on your coffee table for a couple of weeks. Indeed, big, glossy photography books abound at the moment. The other one I’m poring over is Vanity Fair the portraits : a century of iconic images.  Vanity Fair has a well established reputation as a stylish chronicle of society, so this celebration of their most famous sitters was always going to be good.  Considerable thought has gone into the  juxtaposition of  the images and the result makes leafing through the pages more thought provoking. I especially liked the placing of covergirl Kate Moss, gorgeous in a Marlene Dietrich style tuxedo, facing a page with a photo of La Dietrich herself.