Archive for the 'Mark Derby' Category

All the world’s a stage

Nola Millar directs a theatre workshop, Wellington, 1968 (click for image credit)

Nola Millar directs a theatre workshop, Wellington, 1968 (click for image credit)

To mark the publication of our three new entries on acting and theatre, Mark blogs about his own history with New Zealand theatre.

My acting career was brief and unspectacular. For a few years from about the age of nine, I occasionally played young boys with names like Albert in productions staged by our local amateur dramatic society. I can’t remember any of the shows, fortunately, but they all seemed to have the same set – an upper-class English drawing-room, with fake French doors at the back, real doors at the sides for dramatic entrances and exits, and a mantelpiece for the hero to lean on moodily from time to time.

I don’t regret my stumbling, stammering stint as a stage actor, because it gave me a lifelong taste for watching real actors doing live theatre. I found that I could see plays set in houses that looked like mine, or not even set in houses at all. There were plays about things I argued over with my friends and plays that even had my friends in them.

So I revelled in the opportunity to contribute to three related new entries in Te Ara – Actors and acting, Theatres, cinemas and halls and Māori theatre – te whare tapere hōu. They reminded me of shows I’d seen and loved – and others I’m sorry I missed.

The endless struggle to sustain a theatrical culture within New Zealand’s small, diffuse and far-flung population is recounted in several of these entries. The chronically creative Dunedin couple Patric and Rosalie Carey extended their living room to create a 30-seat theatre where James K. Baxter’s plays were first performed, and which remains a force in the city’s theatregoing to this day. One theatre that didn’t survive was Wellington’s Downstage, which opened as a theatre-cum-restaurant in 1964 and finally closed its doors in 2013.

Another theme running through these entries is the vast contribution to New Zealand theatre made by Māori. As early as 1868 missionary Thomas Chapman was bowled over by the singing and oratory he heard on a marae near Whakatāne. ‘One old man attracted my attention more than all the rest … This man’s performance has made an impression on my mind that can never be erased … I could not help thinking at the moment, how infinitely superior it was to all the elaborate, theatrical shams that draw people at Home [England] to crowded theatres. Were this old man to sing his song in London, I believe that [theatre] professionals would have nothing to do until he left.’ By the 1950s, however, Māori were regarded very differently by many Pākehā theatregoers, and in at least one cinema – the Strand, in Pukekohe – Māori and Pākehā were seated separately. Half a century later Māori were performing Shakespeare in translation, in their own language, for the world – on film in 2001, and at London’s Globe Theatre in 2012.

Take a look at these sumptuous entries, but don’t think for a moment that reading about theatre, even on Te Ara, is any substitute for watching the real thing.

In-the-field research: motor sport

Mark pretends to be a petrolhead – for research purposes

Mark pretends to be a petrolhead – for research purposes

Here at Te Ara we try to acquire as much background knowledge as possible of our subject matter, but there are times when we find ourselves working on an entry for which we can’t claim expertise.

I’ll admit, for instance, that I’m not much of a petrolhead. I’m a reluctant driver (I prefer my bike), I have no inclination to exceed the speed limit and I’m not even sure what make my car is (it says ‘Demio’ on the back). So I had to rely entirely on books to put the finishing touches to our very comprehensive commissioned entry on motor sport, which was written by Jim Webber.

But we’re always looking to upskill, so on a recent Sunday I found myself out at Manfeild car-racing circuit in Manawatū, where my brother-in-law Gerad was trying out his supercharged Lotus, a malevolent-looking, bright-orange vehicle that appeared to my inexpert eye as low-slung as a go-kart and not much bigger.

It could certainly move though. From my seat in the stands, the little car sizzled along the back straight at the rate of a terrified mouse across a kitchen floor. And that’s what I felt like when Gerad pulled in for a break and suggested I join him for a few laps.

He explained that this was not a race day, but an opportunity for his car club to carry out time trials. The cars were ushered onto the track in groups of 10, they then whipped around it three times, competing only against the clock. Gerad held first-equal position in his category of modified saloon cars.

I was only slightly reassured when he said that the Lotus was licensed for the open road, that he had driven it to the track from his home in Greytown, and that he would be conserving his brakes and tyres for the return trip. That also accounted for his car’s polite exhaust note, very different from the ear-shredding howl of those with full racing specification.

In a spirit of cheerful ignorance but mild panic, I acquired a stamp on my hand that absolved the authorities of any responsibility for my welfare, hauled on a pair of fireproof overalls and a full-face helmet, and inserted myself into the impossibly cramped passenger’s compartment.

The video above gives only the barest impression of how it feels to be in a car going at absurd speeds. I was too preoccupied to notice the gauges on the dashboard but I learned afterwards that we touched 180 kilometres per hour on the main straight. The real action, however, came on the twisty bits. First with brutal, last-instant braking, followed by staggering centrifugal forces taking us to the uttermost edge of the tarmac, and finally neck-snapping acceleration as the car straightened up to attack the next sequence of vicious corners.

We did two lots of three laps and Gerad retained his pole position, so my extra weight didn’t make much difference. I may, however, have dented his roll cage from gripping it too tightly.

Finding Puhihuia

In Te Ara, as in life, one thing leads to another, and the outcome is pleasantly uncertain.

A friend told me recently that a second-hand bookshop in town was selling the sheet music for a song called ‘Puhihuia’. He thought I’d be interested because I’d been researching a Māori legend about a pair of lovers named Ponga and Puhihuia. I went to the shop and bought the song for 20 bucks. That seemed pretty good for eight pages of sheet music from the 1940s, with the cover printed in a marvellously tacky typeface incorporating Māori designs.

The cover of the sheet music for 'Puhihuia'

The cover of the sheet music for 'Puhihuia'

The song had a pretty tune and lyrics that, like our national anthem, could be sung in either Māori or English. These showed me that it was indeed based on the legend I was interested in. The story had been collected (some say invented) in the early 19th century by the pioneering, and somewhat dodgy, ethnologist John White. He had grown up in the Hokianga from 1835 and spoke fluent Māori.

The introduction to 'Puhihuia'

The introduction to 'Puhihuia'

Both the music and the lyrics were attributed to Mari Hamutana, a musician I’d never heard of. A bit of internet searching revealed that the name was a pseudonym for a Pākehā composer named Ruby King. She had been brought up in the King Country, the daughter of a schoolteacher, in the 1880s and, like John White, learned to speak Māori fluently. She wrote many songs in Māori and English, and some were broadcast on New Zealand radio. ‘Puhihuia’, her only published song, was also broadcast by the BBC in London in 1937. A Miss Eileen Driscoll of Wellington sang several Māori songs, including ‘Puhihuia’, on programmes beamed to Australia and Shanghai.

The sheet music for 'Puhihuia'

The sheet music for 'Puhihuia'

That’s about as far as I’ve got with this bit of pure and unplanned research, but if anyone can add more information on either this song or its composer, I’d be interested to hear it. In the meantime I’m thinking of passing ‘Puhihuia’ on to the ukulele orchestra that’s been formed here at work, in case they want to add this song to their repertoire.


The research skills developed while working here at Te Ara can be hard to leave behind when we knock off for the day.

The other night I was winding down by reading a recent novel called The dream of the Celt, by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s about the real-life character Roger Casement, an Irish patriot, humanitarian and convicted traitor. Most of the book is set in the jungles of the Congo and Amazon, so it’s satisfyingly remote from the material we work with daily on Te Ara.

But then I came across a mention of Casement’s friend Herbert Ward, an English sculptor and explorer. He was said to have travelled to such far-flung parts as Australia, central Africa, San Francisco, Borneo – and New Zealand. Was Ward also a real person, I wondered, and if so, did he leave any traces of his time in this country?

The magnificent Papers Past website instantly confirmed that Herbert Ward arrived in Auckland in January 1879, direct from his English public school and aged just 16. I have a son that age myself, and I wondered what Ward’s parents thought of him taking such a journey unaccompanied. But he appears to have been a resourceful fellow.

A young Herbert Ward (from A valiant gentleman, facing p. 9)

A young Herbert Ward (from A valiant gentleman, facing p. 9)

Ignoring standard tourist destinations such as the hot lakes, Ward headed for the King Country, at that time the nearly inaccessible refuge of the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement). There he met King Tāwhiao and got on so well with his people that they proposed to tattoo him. On the night before this ceremony was to take place, Ward’s courage failed and he slipped away.

He worked as a stock rider, circus performer and miner before spending two years among headhunters in North Borneo. Then this exceptionally adventurous young man, still aged only 24, travelled to central Africa where he worked closely with the legendary explorer Henry Stanley, the man who coined the immortal phrase, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’

I next learned that Ward is the subject of a biography (A valiant gentleman: being the biography of Herbert Ward, artist and man of action), and I had a look at it the next time I contacted the Hocken Library on Te Ara business. The book confirmed that the young Englishman had ‘lived for nearly a year among the Maoris’ and had learned, among many other skills, to ‘execute a passable war dance … and managed, as youngsters do, to pick up their language.’

I finished The dream of the Celt eventually, and enjoyed it, despite being led far astray by my own adventures in the archives.

Tongariro erupts!

Mt Tongariro in the foreground, Mt Ngāuruhoe behind and Mt Ruapehu in the background (click for image credit)

Mt Tongariro in the foreground, Mt Ngāuruhoe behind and Mt Ruapehu in the background (click for image credit)

The news that Mt Tongariro is blowing its top once again has sent Te Ara staff hunting for background information in earlier entries of the encyclopedia. Our Earth, Sea and Sky theme gave us a summary of volcanoes themselves, and also an account of historic volcanic activity, which noted previous eruptions at Tongariro in 1868 and 1896–97. The Volcanic Plateau entry of the Places theme explained more about the traditions and history of Tongariro and its two neighbouring volcanoes.

From there, some of us turned for more details to the magnificent Papers Past website, where reports of the 1896 eruption of Tongariro sounded similar to the current upheavals:

At 12.40 Te Mare [Te Maari], a steam hole on Tongariro, burst into violent eruption, emitting an immense volume of steam and the smoke rising to a great height, travelling against the wind. It presented a grand spectacle … Ruapehu also appeared to be emitting a small column of steam. (Marlborough Express, 16 November 1896, p. 2)

Tongariro's Te Maari crater erupting in the 1890s (click for image credit)

Tongariro's Te Maari crater erupting in the 1890s (click for image credit)

Te Maari crater, as Te Ara points out, had been formed by another eruption in 1868. Mt Tongariro is actually a complex of craters that have been active at different periods, and Mt Ngāuruhoe, although usually regarded as a separate peak, is Tongariro’s main active vent. The current volcanic activity on Tongariro is the first since the 1896–97 eruption, but Ngāuruhoe has been active much more recently.

In 1926 John Cullen, a former police commissioner and later a self-appointed warden at Tongariro National Park, witnessed Ngāuruhoe in action from his hut ‘about halfway between Waimarino and Ngāuruhoe Mountain’. The volcano was erupting in a series of loud explosions:

[E]very shot that went up gave a great display of fireworks. A smelting-furnace or foundry as seen at night is a good representation in miniature of Ngāuruhoe’s after-dark discharges. Everything would appear quiet in the crater; then a small puff of steam rise about the rim of the volcano; next a great body of fiery matter would be hurled high into the heavens, to spread out fall over and roll down the mountain-sides. (‘Eruption of Ngāuruhoe’, AJHR 1926 C–13 p. 5)

To have a look at the kind of spectacular performance that Cullen was watching take a look at the eruption of Ngāuruhoe in 1954 which you can find on Te Ara, and for more information check out NZHistory’s Today in History feature on the 1896 eruption.