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

Fried mice and collard greens: an hour with Madhur Jaffrey

Book coverBorn in Delhi, trained in London, lives in New York, travels (and cooks) the world: Madhur Jaffrey’s bio and credentials could fill books (and has done).   On paper and on screen, she’s larger than life, but on stage at the Festival this morning, she is tiny, although she IS wearing what appears to be the Festival colour of choice shocking pink  (listen to the Friday night audio wrap-up for more details) which also match the endpapers of her latest book Curry Easy.

Chair Alexa Johnston began the conversation by stating that the best cookbook authors are those who stand beside us as we cook, and then said that thanks to Madhur’s TV shows, she could not only feel like Madhur was with her in the kitchen, but she could also ‘hear’ her voice giving instructions and suggestions. 

Over the course of an hour, we travelled not only all over the world, but all through time, with Madhur revealing her encyclopaedic knowledge of cooking,  food history, geography and immigration patterns – “everything is tied in”, she commented at one point.  Her anecdotes name-checked foodie greats from Julia Child to James Beard, and also recalled how she was the one to introduce studio greats James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. 

Skipping morning tea before this session turned out to be a huge mistake. Every second sentence referred to (mostly) delicious-sounding food – in one 20 minute block alone she referred to crab in tamarind sauce, Indian sago pudding, grils and collard greens, turkey, chillies, coriander, cardamom lamb, sushi, omelettes, pancakes, puri, parantha, pig-horse-cow-toad, and my personal favourite – fried mice.

There’s so much more I could write more about this amazing and talented lady, but I really really need to go and buy some lunch.  For some reason I am feeling incredibly hungry …

Going Without Guilt – travelling stories!

Just back from an hour and a quarter with the travel boys – Ben Hills, Lloyd Spencer Davis and Joe Bennett. I had high expectations of this session, having always wanted to BE a travel writer (in between being forensic pathologist, food critic and French diplomat), and it was most enjoyable.

Christopher Moore was a great chair, and even almost managed to keep (one of) the panellists under control. He asked lots of meaty questions, and I’m not sure there’s room here to do justice to even a couple, but I’ll try to summarize.

The first question was about why each of them had chosen to write travel books.

Joe: Poverty. And an inability to produce a novel.

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