Snapshots of the Century

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I don’t recall when I tuned into my first Spectrum documentary on the National Programme, but I think that it dealt with gamefishing in the Bay of Plenty, and I was immedi­ately captivated. Ever since, I have listened in as often as possible to John Buck,

Alwyn Owen, Jack Perkins and the rest as they have gently elicited all sorts of fascinating and improbable stories from workaday people the length and breadth of the country.

In Snapshots of the Century, Alwyn Owen (now retired) has chosen 16 interviews from the Spectrum archives (over 1000 pro­grammes), each with a participant in some impor­tant event or epoch from the past 100 years. The pieces are arranged chronologi­cally, from an account of the Boer War by a 97-year-old veteran to stockbrokers’ views on the crash of 1987.

As with most of Spec­trum’s characters, the interviewees are a mixed bunch. A handful are well known—John A. Lee, the Radio Doctor (Dr Turbott), Scrim, Jim Edwards—and the rest include a lighthouse keeper’s wife, a television cameraman, several house­wives, a Great Barrier Island whaler, a secretary to numerous prime ministers and more. Few come from the moneyed classes, and for the most part this is a grassroots view of life and society.

Every piece is an absorb­ing account, offering warm and personal insights into existence at the time. All are rich in those significant little details which are the very stuff of life. None of your professional political and economic commentators have a nose in here.

Sample three morsels:

“[Prime Minister] Kirk was something of an enig­matic person, and odd little things leaked out about him, like shooting pigeons from his window. I must admit I was involved in that. We had this slug gun—in fact we had two of them; he was very fond of guns. These pigeons would be sitting on the parapet just above the Chamber of the House, and there were big ventilators there. Kirk would have a go at these pigeons, and he’d get them most of the time–until they learnt that the moment there was a squeak of the window opening it was advisable to take cover behind the ventilators. I remember that there was an enquiry when they thought that some disease had hit the pigeons, because there were so many of them lying dead in the courtyard below the Prime Minister’s window. What they suffered from was “lead poisoning,” but everyone thought it was some disease.”

[At Pipiriki in the 1940s only Pakeha children brought sandwiches to school. Maori came with a pocketful of whitebait or lampreys—piharau—and the teacher, Keith, made the kids leave them on the tank stand outside the classroom] “because they had quite a strong, pungent smell . . I was quite perturbed one day when I put my pocketful of piharau out there, and Keith’s hens came and pecked the whole lot up, and I had no lunch. So I went down to the nurse’s place down there, and she had a yellowgage plum tree hanging near the road, and I shinned up her tree and pinched a shirtful of her plums. And just as she came out, old Pipo’s bull came along underneath the tree and I couldn’t get down. And the nurse—I think her name was Nurse Jarvis—came along and had a great deal to say to me!”

“When the [Hauraki Whaling Company] asked for extra funds from the Reserve Bank, three officials from the bank visited the whaling station to assess its viability as a commercial enterprise. They arrived in an amphibian, wearing suits, collars and ties, felt hats and shiny shoes . . . We had to piggy-back them ashore so they didn’t get their shoes wet. Anyway, after lunch these chaps from the bank walked up the track to observe the activities. We were cutting up a fish at the time, and two of them were holding handkerchiefs over their faces because of the smell—they definitely weren’t enjoying it at all. We had this bloke called “Hard Knocker”—so named because he used to wear a bowler hat—and it was just too much for him. He hooked a piece of steak about as big as a kitchen table and about six inches thick, and he sent it flying through the air so that it would land just beside the cooker, where the meat waiting to go in the cooker had formed a dam. Behind it were several inches of . . . sort of primeval ooze, I suppose you’d call it, and when this hunk of steak came flying through the air and landed in this puddle, the three chaps standing behind the winch were absolutely showered. I honestly believe it was at that moment the decision was made that they would pull the rug out from under Hauraki Whaling, and Hauraki Whaling went into receivership. On such small things are the fate of men decided.”

There is a wonderful diversity in Owen’s offer­ings. From the stench of whaling, we go to the isolation of Puysegur Point light, then to the reminis­cences of a man who became personal secretary to ministers and prime minis­ters from 1950 through to the end of the Muldoon era. We hear from a Wellington schoolgirl who fell in love with an American service­man in 1942 and married him—in 1990; the amusing tale of how Colin Graham Scrimgeour got his Christian names; how Turbott (whom I used to consider a bore when I heard him on the radio as a child) helped reduce the incidence of tuberculosis and typhoid—huge Maori health problems in the 1930s; of the cruel chaos of the Spanish civil war; of a woman in the Depression hiding her husband’s trousers to prevent him from getting into trouble by going on a protest.

This is a volume that is entirely pleasurable to read yet still imparts much easily assimilable history as well. If it whets your appetite for more of Spectrum, that’s no bad thing, and you can readily purchase tapes of old Spectrum programmes from Replay Radio—but the book is much better value.

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