Oh Mr. Fraser won’t you take us home

I had a won­der­ful lunch with my friend Chris Bourke a week or two back, sit­ting in his grand liv­ing room up in the hills above Welling­ton. The day was blue and gor­geous as only the cap­i­tal can turn on ‑on those days, not as rare as we Auck­lan­ders would like to think, when it sup­plies the sort of weath­er it loves to boast about when it repeat­ed­ly says ‘you should see me on a beau­ti­ful day’.

Chris has a mag­nif­i­cent view, almost beyond words. I’d love to post a shot of the man stand­ing in his bal­cony — over­look­ing the har­bour and the rugged undu­la­tions of the hills that roll down to it — but he made me promise faith­ful­ly when I took sev­er­al not to put any online, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Before, over and after lunch Chris pulled out books and box­es of items, many of which were used by him when research­ing his ground­break­ing book, the Book of The Year win­ner, Blue Smoke, an incred­i­ble, inclu­sive, his­to­ry of pre-Bea­t­les New Zealand pop­u­lar culture.

They includ­ed a box of old 78s which he’d been gift­ed — includ­ing the first record­ing ever made New Zealand, and a bunch of those Aus­tralian pressed Par­lophone issues from the 30s with the fab­u­lous New Zealand labels:

A nation­al treasure.

Not Chris, that is — he is too young and still has far too much to con­tribute to be lum­bered with such an oner­ous tag — but the book itself.

It is, of course, a book about music, or at least that is the rai­son d’être it hangs itself around, and I guess it prob­a­bly need­ed one, not least to con­vince pub­lish­ers who, in New Zealand, are rarely adven­tur­ous folk (this is pub­lished by the Uni­ver­si­ty Of Auck­land). It’s sub­ti­tled ‘The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Pop­u­lar Music 1918–1964’ and it method­i­cal­ly and joy­ous­ly tells that sto­ry in a way that not only draws the read­er inescapably in, but also takes you to the world that sur­round­ed the music and those that made it. It talks exten­sive­ly and details, but nev­er bor­ing­ly — quite the oppo­site —  the peo­ple who made it pos­si­ble for oth­ers to make music or were piv­otal in the dis­sem­i­na­tion of the sounds that shaped what we lis­ten to now.

I’m think­ing of peo­ple like Arthur Pearce, who, via his radio shows based in Welling­ton but broad­cast much fur­ther afield — across years when radio showed active dis­in­ter­est in any­thing con­tem­po­rary — edu­cat­ed, informed and enter­tained gen­er­a­tions of eager ears. His (as linked) biog­ra­phy on Te Ara, well writ­ten by Chris, is very thor­ough but it is hard­ly like­ly to excite any­one giv­en that it sits in a gen­er­al online ency­clopae­dia of New Zealand bibliography.

It takes Chris’ book to do just that. I think it’s one of the most impor­tant New Zealand works to be print­ed since… well, since I don’t know when. Let’s use the word ‘ever’.

I’ve read Blue Smoke twice, and giv­en a copy away to some­body I knew need­ed to own a copy but was unlike­ly to ever buy one (he did and said so repeat­ed­ly after he’d fin­ished it).

How­ev­er, what makes this cru­cial work so dif­fer­ent to the vast bulk of the many, many New Zealand non-fic­tion works I have on my shelves is that it does­n’t just tell us the fac­tu­al para­me­ters of our past. It does­n’t just doc­u­ment and record the music made and the music mak­ers, it instead broad­ly opens up for us, excit­ing­ly in both visu­al and writ­ten ways, how we enter­tained our­selves for the best part of three quar­ters of a century.

Blue Smoke is an extra­or­di­nary work and we’ve nev­er seen the like of it in print before — that I know of at least. The words, the lay­out, the imagery and the the over­all style all con­tribute to its uniqueness.

The pages on John­ny Devlin — nev­er before doc­u­ment­ed or writ­ten this way with such life — not only tell the sto­ry of one of the most astound­ing fren­zied phe­nom­e­na ever in New Zealand, but — more — what it felt like to be a 15 year old in big town and small­er town NZ at the time.

You feel as if you are one step away from the stage at The Jive Cen­tre when Devlin first arrived in Jan­u­ary 1958.

How we enter­tained our­selves and — more — how we inter­act­ed with and those being enter­tained drove that enter­tain­ment, because we did — Devlin was a pub­lic phe­nom­e­na long before Phil War­ren and Graeme Dent took that to the next lev­el, and kids were scream­ing at him sim­ply because he was Devlin — is as much who we are as any sto­ries of war (they’re in here too but in a way they’ve nev­er been told before — the war sto­ries alone make this book worth the admis­sion price), social demo­graph­ics, pol­i­tics or the nation’s trau­mat­ic upheavals.

All of which are includ­ed here as well of course, as our enter­tain­ment reflects, reacts and then influences.

The sto­ry of the Maori Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­tre in Free­man’s Bay (extant until a few years ago — in most of the world it would’ve earned a plaque on the wall, in ours it’s now a glass block unmarked) says more to me of the Maori exo­dus from the coun­try into the ‘smoke than any num­ber of words on paper or screen full of sta­tis­tics. Kiri Te Kanawa used to share a rick­ety stage with Char­lie Tuma­hai once upon a time.  That, to me, is fab­u­lous in so many ways, but until now, until Blue Smoke, who that was­n’t of that era knew?

Hell, you even begin to like Sir Howard Mor­ri­son as a per­son. Almost.

I get in huge trou­ble some­times because I’m not tra­di­tion­al­ly patri­ot­ic. I hate nation­al anthems (who exact­ly is defend­ing New Zealand and from what. Giv­en the last twelve months or so the end­less request seems to have fall­en on deaf ears, besides it’s an awful minute or two of stodgy music). Flags turn me off. All these things cause wars. They kill people.

If we lose on the week­end it may take more than a faux-deity to save the nation, at least in the short term.

That said, I’m very cul­tur­al­ly patri­ot­ic. I love and am com­plete­ly enthralled by where I come from, and by the places that the sto­ries in this book will indi­rect­ly take those who come after even if they don’t know it at the time or ever — because all on a per­son­al and nation­al lev­el that is dri­ven by the cul­tur­al sto­ries we have cre­at­ed in our islands. And no mat­ter where I am in the world that stays with me.

It’s why expats away for decades still call New Zealand home. It is. It is who we are.

Chris’ book tells me so much of that and I love it.

Have you read it yet?


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Sam Smersh on Facebook
October 21, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Inter­est­ing video I had­n’t seen but with NZ press­ings we seri­ous­ly suf­fered lo-fi, low-qual­i­ty 78’s — esp 1950’s (any­one want to make a col­lage from bro­ken NZ Elvis 78’s?)
NZ LPs also sad­ly lo-fi com­pared to e.g. UK releases…

Garth Cartwright on Facebook
October 21, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Sounds great — I will get a copy when next back home. My new book Sweet As his OMC and many oth­er Kiwi cre­atives in. Includ­ing you, Simon.

Simon Grigg on Facebook
October 21, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Tried to buy it in Ak but was­n’t out yet. Hope­ful­ly Kinoku­niya will have it here — they have most things. I thought of your won­der­ful More Miles book when read­ing Chris’ book. It con­veys sim­i­lar pas­sion and love for the theme and an impor­tant under­stand­ing of the broad­er cul­tur­al relationships

Rachel McCarthy on Facebook
October 22, 2011 at 4:00 am

Sounds great! I want to get it.

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