Saturday, November 28, 2009

Toy Soldiers

While wandering along Greytown's main street during our recent visit to the Wairarapa, admiring its Victorian buildings, my attention was caught by a fine display of toy soldiers in a shop window.

Now, I'm not a great fan of buying souvenirs; I really have no need to add to the clutter of my life. But anything with a connection, however tenuous, to my writing demands closer study. Toy soldiers play a part in my later books; a small part, but one with a certain significance. So the thought of having a set of my very own was tempting.

I found that the soldiers are made right there in Greytown, by a small family firm. The next day I went to their tiny shop just off the main street, and after much agonising I chose the Earl of Uxbridge and the Colour Party from the 1st Foot Guard, all from Waterloo. Here they are in as much of their glorious detail as a small picture can show:

A larger version can be seen here.

Imperial Productions doesn't have a website, but a potted history of the firm can be found here, and a few illustrations here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

This week in New Zealand history: women vote

On the 28th November 1893, New Zealand women voted in their first General Election, having gained the right to do so when an Electoral Bill was passed two months earlier. Concerns had been expressed by opponents of the Bill, no doubt with varying degrees of sincerity, that women voters might be jostled by unruly fellows when exercising their new right, but the day went smoothly, with no unpleasant incidents, and (despite opponents' claims that few women were interested in voting) a large turnout.

More details of the campaign for women's suffrage can be found on the Women and the Law page of my website. And a fictionalised account of that first voting day is included in Chapter 31 of Mud and Gold.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This week in New Zealand history: Mark Twain's visit

In 1895, Mark Twain spent a month in New Zealand, as part of the year-long lecture tour he made to pay off his debts. He travelled the country, encountering such unexpected events as dogs being brought to his show in the South Island town of Timaru. On the 21st of November he arrived in Auckland, and performed his "At Home" in the city's Opera House to a packed audience. Those attending had paid 1/- (in the Pit), 2/6 (Stalls), or the princely sum of four shillings for seats in the Dress Circle. No dogs were in attendance.

As a supporter of women's suffrage, Twain was particularly impressed that New Zealand women had had the vote for two years by the time of his visit. From his account of the tour, Following the Equator:

In the New Zealand law occurs this: "The word person wherever it occurs throughout the Act includes woman."

That is promotion, you see. By that enlargement of the word, the matron with the garnered wisdom and experience of fifty years becomes at one jump the political equal of her callow kid of twenty-one.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Greeting Saint Brigid

Writing brings many rewards. There's the pleasure of the writing itself, when things are going well. There's the delight of a reader who gets what I've tried to say; who tells me s/he really cares about my characters.

And then there are unexpected pleasures like the gift of seeing the world a little differently because I'm seeing it through the lens of my own sub-creation. Like my small ritual of greeting Saint Brigid.

On Thursday mornings we often walk up the hill to a nearby church for Holy Communion. It's a small, intimate gathering in a chapel behind the main altar; generally only four or five people are there. Afterwards, as we walk out down a side aisle, a row of stained glass windows is illuminated by the pale light of early morning. Each small window shows a saint, and I always pause for a moment before Saint Brigid. Because, without my quite intending it, Brigid (or at least an image of her) has made an appearance in my writing.

There's a character with a minor role in Settling the Account who appears again in A Second Chance; again in a small role, but with a little more page space. Here's an extract:

Bridie was propped up against the pillows. What Frank could see of her looked a good deal cleaner than on the previous occasions they had met, but the skin was stretched taut over the bones of her face. Her hands rested limply on the bedcovers, all knuckle and sinew. Her hair had been cut short; it stuck out around her head like a dark halo.
‘Who’d have thought I’d end up with the nuns, eh? Do you see who I’ve got here?’ A slight tilt of her head directed Frank’s attention to a small painting on the wall above her bed. It showed a young woman dressed as a nun, smiling mildly down as if on the bed’s occupant. ‘That’s Saint Bridget. She’s me name saint, see? The nuns put her up there to keep an eye on me.’ Bridie smiled, and Frank saw a trace of the spark he had once noticed in her dark eyes. ‘Ah, but she’s an Irish lass, so she’ll not be one for passing judgement on the likes of me.’

Brigid (or Bridget; both forms are used) does seem to have been a large-hearted woman, readier to dispense aid than judgement. My mornings seem a little brighter whenever she and I exchange a smile.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

This week in New Zealand history: Armistice Day

On the 12th of November 1918 (it was still the 11th in Europe), the official announcement of Armistice was published in New Zealand. After four years of hostilities, the Great War was over. In towns up and down the country, parades with brass bands and decorated floats, returned soldiers and schoolchildren, marched carrying banners and flags.

18,000 New Zealanders had died in the war, out of a population a little over one million; the highest death rate of any country in the British Empire, and one of the highest of any participating nation. Many of those people lining the streets to watch the parades would have been in mourning.

There were no parades in Auckland. The city's Chief Health Officer did not allow any official celebrations for Armistice Day - because crowds were something to fear. The war might be over, but deaths were not. Influenza was ravaging the country.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

An Avenue of Lime Trees

Last month we spent some time in the pretty little Wairarapa settlement of Greytown. From the time it was bypassed by the railway line, "development" left Greytown behind. As a result, it's well-endowed with Victorian buildings, both commercial and residential, and is now a popular spot for weekend visitors.

But what I specially wanted to see was the lime tree avenue in the Soldiers' Memorial Park.

Every town in New Zealand, small or large, has a war memorial of some sort, put up after World War I. Most often it's a tall monument known as a cenotaph. In Greytown the townsfolk did something different: they planted an avenue of lime trees. One tree for every soldier from the district who died in the war. One hundred and seventeen trees.

A town that before the war had a population of 1,123 lost 117 men in that war. There cannot have been a family left unscathed. Not a household that didn't lose a husband, a brother, a son. Girls who lost their sweethearts; women who never did meet the men who might have become their husbands. Farms "let go" because the strong young men who would have worked it never came home. As we walked along that long avenue, speaking in the hush that such a place evokes, it was a more powerful illustration of loss than any page of figures could be.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

This week in New Zealand history

1 November 1898: the New Zealand Old-Age Pensions Act came into law, the first measure of its type in the British Empire.

The pension was modest (£18 a year), carefully means-tested, and had a racist element in its careful exclusion of "Chinese or other Asiatics". It was also limited to persons "deemed to be of good character"; no drunkards or fallen women allowed.

But for those fortunate enough to be eligible, the pension made the difference between destitution and a measure of security. It was the first stirrings of what eventually became New Zealand's social welfare system.