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.