Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dueling in downtown Wellington

What's now New Zealand's capital city was a wilder place a century and a half ago. On 25th March 1847, Dr Isaac Featherston and Colonel William Wakefield fought a duel at Te Aro, Wellington.

Dr Featherston was an Edinburgh-educated medical man who became a newspaper editor and later a politician. He arrived in Wellington in May 1841 on a ship owned by the New Zealand Company (a group planning to colonise New Zealand on a so-called systematic basis, creating “a perfect English society”), and was singularly unimpressed by the place, as he expressed in an editorial on 24th March 1847:

“Did those mud hovels scattered along the beach, or those wooden huts which appeared every here and there … represent the City of Wellington? Where were the hundreds of acres of [quoting from the Company's marketing] ‘fine fertile land which shall produce such astounding crops?’ ” His own investment, he said, was no more than “a useless swamp worth nothing”.

Colonel Wakefield, the Company's Principal Agent in New Zealand, took offence at this, seeing it as an implication that he was a thief. The two gentlemen met for honour to be satisfied. Featherston fired first and missed; Wakefield then fired into the air, announcing that he would not shoot a man who had seven daughters. That appears to have been an end to the matter, at least as far as regards pistols.

Dr Featherston lived till 1876, but Colonel Wakefield died the year after the duel, aged only 45, of an apoplexy.

The story of the Wakefields and the New Zealand Company is a complex and contraversial one, but Wakefield's personal history reads like the stuff of melodrama, with an abducted (on behalf of his brother) heiress, a betrothal that ended tragically when his fiancee died while he was in jail (for his role in the abduction), leaving a baby daughter; service as a mercenary in Portugal, and later with the British Auxiliary Legion in Spain (he was knighted by Queen Isabella). With such a history, fighting a duel seems almost inevitable.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Night at the Theatre

On the 8th of March 1929, for the first time a movie with a soundtrack was shown in New Zealand, at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington. The movie, "Street Angel", wasn't a true "talkie", but a silent movie with a recorded musical soundtrack.

Silent movies had been popular in New Zealand for many years, ever since the first film was screened in 1896 (in Christchurch). In the early years, they were short films usually shown as part of a vaudeville-style performance. In A Second Chance, I have two of my characters attend such a presentation in 1906. I've taken the details from newspaper reports of an actual show in Auckland.

(Note: I've changed character names to avoid spoilers.)

... a performance one evening by a Mr R. G. Knowles offered real novelty. Mr Knowles, a music hall artiste, presented a series of comical talks, interspersed with songs and dancing, accompanied on the piano by Mrs Knowles, who also performed several items on the banjo. The items were amusing enough, but what truly caught Anna’s imagination were the moving pictures, projected by a machine called a Bioscope, with which Mr Knowles illustrated his songs. It was Anna’s first experience of moving pictures, and she was fascinated by the images, which included an exciting trip by motorcar and scenes of the King and Queen walking about.

‘There’s talk of making moving pictures of entire plays eventually,’ Sophie remarked when the two of them were discussing the show late that evening. ‘Though not being able to actually hear the actors speak would be rather limiting.’

Interesting as the moving pictures had been, Anna agreed with Sophie that such entertainments seemed unlikely to displace live performances.

My apologies to any banjo fans reading this, but I'm afraid I find something irresistably comical in the image of this redoubtable Edwardian lady wielding her banjo on stage.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Short stories

I've added a new section to my website for short stories and essays. It can be found here.