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Monday, June 7, 2021

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“FROM THE CENTRE – A Writer’s Life” by Patricia Grace (Penguin Books, $NZ40); “KATE EDGER – The Life of a Pioneering Feminist” by Diana Morrow (Otago University Press, $NZ40) 


 

 

            Since she first began writing for publication, Patricia Grace has produced seven novels, five collections of short stories (plus two omnibus editions of them), seven books for children and a work of non-fiction. She was the first Maori woman to have a collection of short stories published, and she has, for half a century now, been a major voice in Maori cultural and literary matters as well as winning many literary awards. But putting it that way is a little limiting. Patricia Grace is a major voice in New Zealand cultural and literary matters, read by a wide public.

            What is her appeal? Much of it has to do with her insistence on dealing with ordinary people in ordinary real-life situations – unpretentious people facing problems that a wide readership can recognise. She emphasises this a number of times in From the Centre – A Writer’s Life. Many of her plots for novels or short-stories have their origins in things that happened to her extended family, things she has heard talked about and things she has experienced. Then there is her style. Her novels are concise. She often describes landscapes and seascapes lyrically, but her prose is colloquial and matter-of-fact – no nonsense and always getting to the point of things.

            And of course, she has an important overriding theme – the lives of Maori in the present age.

            From the Centre – A Writer’s Life is as much about Patricia Grace’s formation as a person as it is about her career as a writer. The first fourteen chapters – nearly half the book – deal with her childhood and adolescent years. She begins by introducing her turangawaewae, a much-loved home at stony-shored Hongoeka Bay, some of which is owned by her iwi Ngati Toa, though it has often been threatened by plans for government takeover.

Patricia Grace’s father was Maori but her mother was Irish Catholic, and the family followed her mother’s religion. When she won scholarships she went to Catholic primary and secondary schools, where she was taught by nuns. When she met and was wooed by Kerehi Waiariki Grace (whom she affectionately calls Dick) they were married at St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. On the whole, the education she got served her well, even if some of the schools’ culture was daunting. She remarks:

            Through our schooling, managed and controlled as it was by engendering fear of sin, hell, the Almighty and the strap, we were given as good and full an education as our teachers knew how. Repressive as it was, I wanted to be there, loved learning and having the textbooks in front of me. The nuns devoted themselves to our learning. No area of the curriculum was neglected.” (p.97)

Later, she speaks of the encouragement the nuns gave her about her writing.

Often it was awkward for her to be the only Maori in a classroom of Pakeha or in a sports team (as a schoolgirl she was very athletic). She tells anecdotes of a priest calling her “a bad influence” for no reason at all, and of a Pakeha man who, as she now understands, was trying to make sexual advances when she was a young teenager. These events threw her into deep depression. But at school, the prejudices she dealt with came from fellow schoolgirls, not from teachers. She was once attacked by two Pakeha girls while walking home from school. The nuns smartly sorted out a gang of catty girls who wouldn’t invite her to a birthday party.

Patricia Grace is aware of her Irish heritage and her Irish aunties, but she is Maori by culture, custom and inheritance. One disability she freely notes. When she went to teachers’ training college, she “began to feel the disadvantage of not speaking te reo” herself (p.154), unlike Maori students who came from more rural areas. Even if she has been a major advocate for the teaching of te reo, and has insisted that her books for children be published in Maori language editions, she admits that even at her present age “my ability in the Maori language is limited.” (p.287)

Outside school and formal education, the most influential things in her childhood were her love of reading, encouraged by her father even when he was away at war with the Maori Battalion, and the free and unsupervised games she enjoyed, cycling, swimming, fishing, sliding down mudslides and generally benefitting from the health of an outdoor life, even if the familiy were sometimes in straitened circumstances.

Oddly enough, the most joyful sections of From the Centre – A Writer’s Life are not about writing, but about her teaching experience when she and her husband taught in small schools up in far Northland. The schools were badly underfunded and lacking in resources, but there were fewer pupils in each class and it was possible to get to know each pupil well. Later she (and her children) were to find that larger urban schools were more impersonal and alienating.

Patricia Grace was to have seven children and they are obviously important in her story. With teaching and raising a family, it was not until her late 30s that she began to write in earnest.  Her attitude to readers and reviewers is a robust one. When she is asked who her intended audience is, she replies:

I am the first audience. I write for me and I must be the sole judge and take full responsibility for what comes about. The second audience, the one unknown to me, is whoever will read. Once I’ve finished a book or a story, my job is done. Reviews, analyses, critiques, theses are not written for me. They come after the event. What follows – the reading, discussion, dissection, opinion – is part of the next life of the book, that is, if it is to have an afterlife. I should say, though, that if Maori readers did not relate to my writing, or if they rejected it, I would not do it.” (p.200)

From the Centre gives accounts of the genesis of each of her novels, but she does not discuss them in any laborious detail, being mainly interested in how her ideas first came to her.

However, dominating the later chapters are accounts of her activism and her promotion of Maori language and culture. She was instrumental in a project to establish a wharenui and marae complex at Hongoeka Bay and was delighted that it was the younger people, rather than the elders, who insisted that they be built in traditional Maori style. She took part in the Foreshore and Seabed controversy. More than once, she was among those who rebuffed attempts to have her turangewaewae either taken over by government or falling into the hands of property developers. She petitioned the Education Department about readers that perpetuated racial stereotypes. She was forthright in preventing Maori land from being swallowed by the new Kapiti Coast motorway. All this speaks of a vigorous and committed life. The sad part is where she ends, mourning the death, by brain tumor, of her husband of 55 years.

From the Centre is a readable, accessible and very sympathetic memoir by an author proud of her achievements but modest in her expression.

 

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Diana Morrow’s Kate Edger – The Life of a Pioneering Feminist is about a woman quite unlike the one depicted in Patricia Grace’s autobiography - a woman not only of a different temperament and upbringing, but most crucially of a different era.

Kate Milligan Edger (apparently the name is pronounced Edgar) was born in 1857 and died in 1935, so her world view was forged in the nineteenth century. She is chiefly remembered as the first woman in New Zealand to earn a university degree at a time when universities were largely the province of men only. She was awarded a BA in 1877.  It was once believed that she was the first woman in the British Empire to receive a university degree, but Diana Morrow notes that a woman in Canada was awarded a BSc in 1875. Kate Edger went on to be a strong advocate for women’s enfranchisement, to have a distinguished career in education and to support many worthy and progressive social causes. But at the same time, many of her values were of a different age, and some of the causes she supported would be anathema to later second- or third-wave feminists.

Her father was a nonconformist preacher (i.e. a Protestant who was not part of the Church of England) who wavered between being Baptist or Congregationalist but who was usually the latter. He came to New Zealand as part of an idealistic scheme for co-operative farming, but it came to nothing and he moved to Auckland to be a full-time preacher. In social matters he was radical but he also followed very strict (nonconformist) Christian principles, which included an abhorrence of liquor. Kate, the fourth of his five children, lifelong had the same outlook. As Diana Morrow remarks fairly: “More than any other issue, opposition to the ‘demon drink’ has shaped popular perceptions of nonconformists as joyless, repressive Puritans. Certainly, some were self-righteous and dauntingly strait-laced, but others, like the Edgers, fostered public entertainments and cultural pursuits, partly to prove they could be enjoyed without alcohol but also out of conviction that these activities enhanced the quality of both life and religion.” (pp.37-38)

As Morrow also notes, New Zealand was ahead of most countries in opening adavanced education to (Pakeha) women on an equal footing with men. Brought up in a culturally-advanced home, Kate excelled in music and in mathematics. She had no difficulty in getting a place at Auckland University College and there was no controversy about her being awarded a degree. Quite the contrary. She was applauded in the press and fellow feminists promoted her as public proof that women were not intellectually inferior to men (an idea which had been embraced even by the likes of Charles Darwin).

Between 1878 and 1920, over three-quarters of New Zealand women graduates went on to be school-teachers. Kate Edger followed this path, taking up a position at Christchurch Girls High School. She made such an impression that at the age of only 26 she applied successfully to become the first principal of Nelson Girls College. She established an advanced curriculum for her students, who would study the arts and sciences just as boys did and would compete for the same scholarships.

But here we come to a set of values that does not chime well with the values of the early 21st century. Even though she believed in enfranchisement and advanced education for women, Kate Edger also believed in the domestic ideal of women most completely fulfilling their destiny as good wives and mothers. In Diana Morrow’s words: “Her graduates would be high-minded and earnest women, selflessly devoted to their husbands and children but also concerned to extend their elevating moral influence and values into wider society. Unlike frivolous middle-class women selfishly devoted to fashions and worldly materialism, her pupils would ideally become Christians with a social conscience, active on behalf of worthy causes and helping those in need. They would be self-disciplined and hard-working, able to fulfil their own potential while benefitting others.” (pp.83-84) Women were the best upholders of seemliness and morality in the home. Therefore “If women were well suited to guard the morality of their own children, it was only one step to further assert that their natural abilities as nurturers and protectors of the young could be used to serve other people’s children.” (p.81)

Kate Edger observed this ideal herself, so that when she married the Congregationalist minister William Albert Evans in 1890, she gave up her teaching profession, moved to Wellington with her husband, and set about raising a family, eventually having three sons. And of course she was henceforth known as Kate Evans. Yet there were years when, writing for the press and doing work for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) she actually earned more than her husband and was the family breadwinner.

Kate and William Evans were members of the Christian Socialist organisation which called itself the Foreward Movement. They lobbied for the Society for the Protection of Women and Children, directed against domestic violence, and for equality before the law in marriage, including women’s property rights. They campaigned for the criminalisation of incest. They wanted prison reform which would focus on rehabilitation and education of prisoners rather than punishment. In sexual matters they decried the “double standard” where prostitutes were convicted while their male customers faced no sanction. Few people would now disagree with these goals. But at the same time, they were strong advocates of “purity”, a moral cleansing and spiritual awakening of the individual. And this would include the abolition of alcoholic drinks.

The WCTU was the strongest lobby in New Zealand for women’s suffrage, but its underlying assumption was that women were naturally more “pure” and moral than men, and that therefore women would vote for candidates who opposed the liquor trade. This assumption would now be condemned by feminists as a species of “essentalism” – the idea that men and women are essentially different in mind and impulses. And Kate went further than the WCTU, which openly advocated only for restrictions on the sale of liquor. She joined the more extreme New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Trade, which openly wanted complete prohibition. Says Diana Morrow: “Advocates like Kate firmly believed that this one reform would cure all of society’s economic, social and spiritual ills. For both the WCTU and the New Zealand Alliance, the goal was nothing less than prohibition of everything to do with alcohol, from making to selling to importing. It was a black and white matter to drink or not to drink. Individuals could choose good over evil by giving up drink or stand idly by and watch it exploit and degrade their fellow human beings.” (p.141)

As history shows, this assessment of how society’s ills could be cured was well wide of the mark.

In later life, some of Kate’s ideas fell behind the standards that were beginning to be adopted in New Zealand. Though she rejected Dr Frederic Truby King’s eugenic ideas about “improving the race”, she supported his new Plunket Society “for the promotion of health for women and children”. In an era when more and more young women were choosing to study commercial courses to qualify them for employment, she was still promoting so-called “Domestic Science” in schools to train girls to first be good wives and mothers. She was appalled by the lack of “purity” in Ettie Rout’s campaign, during the First World War, to defeat sexually-transmitted diseases by distributing prophylactic kits to serving New Zealand soldiers. She was even more appalled in the 1920s when Marie Stopes’ books about contraception were widely circulated. But she did embrace one cause that would still be applauded. After the First World War, she drew more closely to pacifism and became a great supporter of the League of Nations Society, believing that war could be abolished by negotiations in an international council.

Kate Evans remained a respected figure in her old age, noted for her personal charity, but she had some sorrows before she died at the age of 78. Her husband had died in 1921. In the years of the Depression she knew that women were the first to be thrown out of work and greater social hardships returned. Making matters worse, one of her sons turned out to be a gambler, frittering away most of the funds she thought he had invested for her. She died respected and honoured, but already seen as somebody from a past time.

How do I assess this biography? It is clearly written. It notices carefully where Kate Edger’s commitments lay and how she acted them out. It also considers how different her values were from those that are most widely accepted now. But often, the woman and her life become smothered in the author’s explanations of the many causes she supported. Kate Edger herself becomes peripheral to accounts of how first-wave feminists in general saw things, or what the purpose of the WCTU was. Perhaps this shows the difficulty of making dramatic a life that was calm, clear of purpose, and unruffled by personal crises.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a book published four or more years ago.

“BY THE IONIAN SEA” by George Gissing (first published in 1901)

 


There are two topics that I have tackled a number of times on this blog. One is the nature of travel books and the other is the work of the late nineteenth-century realist novelist George Gissing (1857-1903).

With regard to the nature of travel books, I really said my piece in the posting On the Beaten Track some nine years ago. My basic contention was the obvious one that a worthwhile travel book has to be more than a description of places – a function that has now been usurped by television, photography and guide-books. It must be more in the nature of an extended autobiographical essay, dealing with personal encounters, human interactions and various travel-related topics (social, historical, political etc.) that engage the author. I maintained this view in my postings on older travel books like Henry Fielding’s Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, A.W.Kinglake’s Eothen, and Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps; and more recent ones like Ben Stubbs’ Ticketto Paradise, Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express and The Last Train to Zona Verde, and Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains.

And how is travel related to George Gissing? On this blog I have often made postings on his novels, usually stories of the grinding poverty of the working classes, or stories of the lower middle-classes desperately trying to maintain their position. Thus The Nether World, New Grub Street (probably his best-known novel, about hack writers), Born in Exile, The Odd Women, Will Warburton and The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. The last-named, probably Gissing’s second-best-known work, is a fantasia of the type of life George Gissing, always short of money, wished he had been able to lead. He depicts his alter ego as a man of leisure, living in the countryside, reading beloved literary texts, taking long walks and aestheticising over nature. How Gissing wished he could have led that life! And how he wished he could have continued with his classical studies, which had been broken off when his tertiary education was abruptly terminated. At the time of his death he was writing, but had not completed, Veranilda, a novel set in classical antiquity.

Which at last, to your relief, brings me to my reason for placing travel books and George Gissing in this one posting.

 

            Even by the standards of our day, George Gissing’s one-and-only travel book By the Ionian Sea, subtitled “Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy”, is a very brief work – about 140 pages of large print in the copy I read. It is an account of Gissing’s weeks in 1897, when he wandered about in Calabria and nearby areas, the “toe” and “instep” of the boot of Italy. Gissing had already visited more northern parts of Italy, but this was his one and only plunge into the deep south. After sailing from Naples, he landed at Paola on the west coast of Calabria, visited Aspromonte, travelled up to Taranto on the north of the Gulf of Taranto and moved back south to Cortone, where he suffered a horrible malarial fever, after which he went to the salubrious mountain town of Catanzaro, to Squillae on the smaller Gulf of Squillae, and eventually embarked for home from Reggio di Calabria.

            Now why did he choose to visit this part of Italy in one of his very rare trips abroad? Obviously it was because of his interest in classical antiquity, and his knowledge, fired by the books of the French archaeologist and classicist Francois Lenormant, that Southern Italy was as much a part of Greek antiiquity as of Latin antiquity. Greek colonists had settled there when Rome was still just a struggling city-state and before it had acquired an empire. Ancient Romans were sometimes called the south of Italy “Magna Graecia” (“Greater Greece”) because of this connection. As Gissing says in his opening chapter:

The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others; they make me young again, and restore the keen impression of that time when every new page of Greek or Latin was a new perception of things beautiful. The world of the Greeks and Romans is my land of romance; a quotation in either language thrills me strangely, and there are passages of Greek and Latin verse which I cannot read without a dimming of the eyes, which I cannot repeat aloud because my voice fails me. In Magna Graecia the waters of the two fountains mingle and flow together; how exquisite will be the draught!” (Chapter 1)

So in his journey, Gissing is the amateur antiquarian, sniffing out the tomb of Alaric the Goth; dreaming, when he has the fever at Cotrone, of the defeated Hannibal’s embarkation for Cathage; and breaking off the account of his own journey to give us a chapter on the Roman scholar and statesman Cassiodorus. His happiest single moment seems to be when he sees an orange orchard by full moonlight (end of Chapter 11) and imagines it to be the legendary Garden of the Hesperides which, geographically, should have been in about the same place that Gissing is visiting.

In the modern life of southern Italy, Gissing sees many things that delight him, and seem to him an affirmation that the ancient customs and ancient ways, which he admires, still persist there. Take this account of a pot market:

I was glad to come upon the pot market; in the south of Italy it is always a beautiful and interesting sight. Pottery for the commonest use among Calabrian peasants has a grace of line, a charm of colour, far beyond anything native to our most pretentious china-shops. Here still lingers a trace of the old civilization. There must be a great good in a people which has preserved this need of beauty through ages of servitude and suffering. Compare such domestic utensils – these oil-jugs and water-jars – with those in the house of an English labourer. Is it really certain that all virtues of race dwell with those who can rest amid the ugly and know it not for ugliness?” (Chapter 3) [Emphasis added]

But, for the modern reader at least, there is a problem with Gissing’s classicist approach. In looking for the ancient, Gissing often denigrates or belittles the living Italian realities of his own time. “It disappointed me that I saw no interesting costume [at Paolo]; all wore the common, colourless garb of our destroying time,” (Chapter 2) he writes of his first landing in the south, as if he expects modern Calabrians to be dressed as ancient Greeks in some sort of theatrical tableau. Of a sea wall, he writes “… it grieves one to remember that the mighty blocks built into the sea barrier came from that fallen temple.” (Chapter 7) Does he expect people, over many generations and centuries, not to have turned to their own uses the materials at hand? Many a traveller in an antique land expects that land to be a species of museum. Yet it is ironical that while Gissing makes the occasional comment on how “progress” is destroying much of the region’s ancient charms, he is as much a traveller by train as by foot.

Couple this antiquarian bias, this sense that modern Italians are simply living on the ruins of something greater than themselves, with his frequent complaints about stinky hostelries and awful, unhygienic Italian food (except in the delightful town of Cantanzaro), and you almost have the formula for the ghastly Englishman abroad, seeing these natives as merely cluttering up the classical landscape.

This impulse is, naturally, most to the fore when Gissing comes up against the locals’ Catholicism. When he reads an 1896 announcement by Pope Leo XIII of 300 days of indulgence, Gissing bursts out: “Probably he repeated a mere formula learnt by heart. I wished he could have prayed spontaneously for three hundred days of wholesome and sufficient food, and for as any years of honest, capable government in his heavily-burdened country”. (Chapter 8)

His account of his presence in a church in Catanzaro on a feast day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is almost a catalogue of Protestant distaste: “At the hour of high mass I entered the sanctuary whither all were turning their steps. It was not easy to make a way beyond the portico, but when I had slowly pressed forward through the dense crowd, I found that the musical part of the service was being performed by a lively string-band, up in a gallery. For seats there was no room; and a standing multitude filled the whole church before the altar, and the sound of gossiping voices at moments all but overcame that of the music. I know not at what point of the worship I chanced to be present; heat and intolerable odours soon drove me forth again, but I retained an impression of jollity rather than of reverence. Those screaming and twanging instruments sounded much like an invitation to the dance, and all the faces about me were radiant with cheerfulness. Just such a throng, of course, attended upon the festival of god or goddess ere the old religion was transformed. Most of the Christian anniversaries have their origin in heathendom; the names have changed, but amid the unlettered worshippers there is little change of spirit; a tradition older than they can conceive rules their piety, and gives it whatever significance it may have in their simple lives.” (Chapter 12) [Emphases added] You see, these “unlettered” and “simple” people are uncouth enough to actually enjoy their religious ceremonies and rejoice at them. They should be singing doleful hymns of lament and listening to overlong hortatory sermons, like the puritans of northern Europe. And besides, their religion is just modified paganism anyway…

But I do not wish to over-emphasise this element of Gissing’s outlook. Though he does have his moments of sneering at local “superstitions”, Gissing is probably much kinder to Italians than most of his English contemporaries would have been. In one section he remarks:

Legitimately enough one may condemn the rulers of Italy, those who take upon themselves to shape her political life, and recklessly load her with burdens insupportable. But among the simple on Italian soil a wandering stranger has no right to nurse national superiorities, to indulge a contemptuous impatience. It is the touch of tourist vulgarity. Listen to a Calabrian peasant singing as he follows his oxen along the furrow, or as he shakes the branches of his olive tree. That wailing voice amid the ancient silence, that long lament solacing ill-rewarded toil, comes from the heart of Italy herself, and wakes the memory of mankind.” (Chapter 10)

A little “purty”, perhaps, but at least showing some fellow-feeling.

Gissing does describe some of the ancient places he visits, but reading By the Ionian Sea, I was most struck by the fact that he is more concerned with anecdote than with (purple prose) descriptions of the sort that filled many travel books of his time. For example, he tells us of the local urchins who assume, because he is inspecting ruins, that he must be an architect come to fix their church, which has been damaged by an earthquake. The locals are sometimes bullied by “dazio” (excise men), which suggests some of the ongoing tension between Calabrians and the forces of the newly-unified Italian state, which really served the interests of more northern Italians and tended to see the southerners as barbarians to be tamed. Yet it was clearly the promise of scenic sights and interest in antiquities which motivated Gissing to travel to this country in the first place. There is, incidentally, no sense that Gissing has a travelling companion,. He is all alone, and the only people he speaks with are the chance acquaintances of the journey.

            A very brutal conclusion: despite its felicitous moments, this short book is also a very “slight” book, with no great moments or revelations. One almost gains the impression that Gissing wrote a travel book to order – to make sure he got the most out of his brief holiday.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.   

                               THE FLIES CRAWLED UP THE WINDOW

 

            This, dear reader, is going to be one of my vague and evocative meditations upon the past and how we react to it. But fear not. I am not delving into the very deep historical past. I am delving only into a piece of cheerful vulgarity from early in the 20th century and I am going to, as I have so often done on this blog, express bemusement at how the tastes of the relatively recent past are so different from the tastes of today. Not being the sort of person who feels superior to people of the past, I am not going to belittle their defunct tastes. I know that before too long, the tastes of today will smell like mouldy cheese. I am simply going to express my bemusement.

            Are you sitting comfortably?

Right. Here goes.

It happened like this. Some weeks ago, for no particular reason, the song “The Flies Crawled Up the Window” popped into my head. If you are younger than me, I might have to explain what that song was. It was a cheerful and nonsensical music-hall-type song recorded in the early 1930s, thus

The flies crawled up the window

They had nothing else to do

They went up in their thousands

And came down two by two”.

And so on for five or six more equally witty verses.

Why, pray tell, did I come to know this song which was recorded two decades before I was born?

Because it was often played on radio when I was a child in the 1950s. And there was something odd about it. The recording began with a Frenchman introducing, in French, the Englishman Jack Hulbert who sang the song. Jack Hulbert then, in very halting and ungrammatical French, and with a strongly English accent, apologised for having forgotten most of the French he had learnt at school. Then he launched into the song. But between every verse he shouted “Bonsoir!” and a very French audience shouted back “Bonsoir!”

Anyway, with this song in my head for no particular reason, I turned to Youtube and Wikipedia. I found the song and listened to it and it was just as I remembered it from childhood, French interventions and all. I then looked up its particulars and discovered that Jack Hulbert first introduced the song in the English film Jack’s the Boy made in 1932. Where did the French element come in? Because Hulbert sang only one brief verse of the song in the film; but it was so popular that the recording company to which he was contracted chased him down to the south of France where he was holidaying, and recorded him singing the whole song in front of a French audience. The original 78 RPM recording declared on its label that it was recorded at Monte Carlo.

Jack’s the Boy was, I soon found out, a big commercial hit in England in 1932; one of the year’s most popular films. I discovered it starred both Jack Hulbert and his wife and life-long theatrical partner Cicely Courtneidge. 

 


 

That rang a bell for me. Often, as a child, I heard my father say how funny the team of Hulbert and Courtneidge were. In fact I can remember him once acting out an hilarious scene in which the two of them, walking down palatial stairs, were about to sing a romantic song on a balmy summer’s night but then had to start slapping themselves because of all the mosquitoes that were attacking them.

Ah! Slapstick! A very hard genre to reproduce. I had to take Dad’s word for it that it was funny.

Anyway, having tracked down “The Flies Crawled Up the Window” on Youtube, I decided to see if Youtube had this hilarious, money-making 1932 Hulbert and Courtneidge film Jack’s the Boy. It did and I watched it.

Oh dear! Oh dear! Oh dear!

I am very tolerant of the primitive film techniques that prevailed in the early talkie era. Some of my favourite movies are silents and early talkies. But, even by the standards of its day, Jack’s the Boy reeked of “quota quickie” – one of those cheap British films that were made to meet the requirement, in the 1930s, that cinemas in Britain had to show at least as many British films as American or other foreign ones.

Stagey. Long sequences with a static camera simply staring at the action. Few close-ups. Over-acting even as farces go.

And it was a farce.

Jack Hulbert (a man with an elongated chin of the sort that P.G.Wodehouse once described as “like the ram on a battleship”) plays a ne’er-do-well playboy who is the despair of his stern father, a high-ranking police officer. Jack sings a tiny scrap of “The Flies Crawled Up the Window” in the opening sequence when he is rolling home late at night with some of his drinking pals. To win his father’s approval, Jack covertly joins the police as an ordinary constable on the beat. And, so the tale goes, he rounds up some crooks and does eventually win his father’s approval as well as getting the girl – though oddly the girl is Winifred Shotter, not Cicely Courtneidge. En route there is much obvious (and clumsy) slapstick, a few attempts at comic dancing by Courtneidge and Hulbert, and many obvious puns.

It was, quite simply, painful to sit through but, heroically, I persisted watching it to the very end – a very unconvincing stand-off between crooks and police in Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks and then the happy-ending-with-girl.

I do not think it would be acceptable as a mere supporting feature even a decade or two after it was made. How on Earth did it become a hit? And why on Earth did my father regard Hulbert and Courtneidge as hilariously funny?

But at this point my profound reflection on tastes of the past has to kick in.

Let’s transport our minds back 90 years.

In 1932, my father would have been 16. Talking films had been around for only five or so years, and they were introduced a little later in New Zealand. They were still a cause for wonderment. People did not have television. Seeing a film would for most people have been a once-a-week experience. Audiences were not bombarded with comedy routines 24/7 on TV, the internet and podcasts. In one sense, it was easier for comedians to win an audience. And in New Zealand, there was the miracle of seeing on screen famous performers from the other side of the world. “Stagey” films were quite acceptable – I can remember my parents and some of their contemporaries chuckling over remembered bits of the filmed Aldwych Farces that were appearing on New Zealand cinema screens at about the same time as Jack’s the Boy.

            So I reconstruct in my mind my father, a teenager with some of his pals, sitting in a picture-theatre in 1932, watching on the big screen well-known British farceurs and laughing at all their jigs, gags, songs and clumsiness. It was novelty. It was new. It was the week’s entertainment.

            That we judge it differently now means only that we live in a different context and time zone. And we should consider humbly how our current entertainments will be judged by the audience of the year 2111.