WILD CARDS by JOHN DUNMORE, REVIEWED: Mad, bad and dangerous

 |   |  1 min read

WILD CARDS by JOHN DUNMORE, REVIEWED: Mad, bad and dangerous

Subtitled “eccentric characters from New Zealand’s past” this collection of short biographical articles by Dunmore -- Professor Emeritus of French at Massey, Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 -- is considerably more insightful than it looks.

To his more than two dozen, diverse subjects -- from ambitious or oddball early settlers through to the singular MP Mabel Howard (1894-1972) -- Dunmore brings a light and economic literary touch, an astute and bemused approach to their foibles, and a turn of phrase which illuminates personality or the period.

He also doesn’t shy away from Katherine Mansfield who has been elevated into the literary pantheon but conforms to the description “eccentric” as Dunmore uses it in the original meaning of “ex-centre”, out of the crowd. 

There are familiar names: the sheep stealer James Mackenzie; castle-building William Larnach; the poetically gifted Geoffrey de Montalk who grew up in Remuera believing he was Polish royalty; the sartorial and social misfit Rex Fairburn . . .

But here too are the Shakespeare-quoting hermit Maori Bill (William Thompson) on the West Coast; the nomadic Russian Jack (Latvian in fact) who stuffed paper wads soaked in mutton fat into his ears to protect them against the cold; and the kleptomaniac Amy Bock whose past kept catching up with her so she dressed as man and, in her late 40s, married (albeit very briefly).

Then there is Charles de Thierry who in 1820 purchased “all the land from North Cape to Tauranga”. Aside from the obvious problem there was also the inconvenience: Thierry was in England, had never seen New Zealand and knew little about it, and had no money to get here to settle his property, the size of which he was equally uncertain about. His remarkable journey is a salute to the human spirit and stupidity in equal measure.

Dunmore sympathetically tells these stories in a wry style: he notes the public admiration for thieves like Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Ronald Biggs and the local entries George Wilder and Mackenzie, so “when one thinks about it, it may not have been too difficult to get the Jerusalem mob to shout for Barabbas’ release in the place of Jesus: human nature being what it is, the tendency to favour a thief over a prophet is only to be expected”. 

Let’s hope Dunmore will bring more such characters to light in the same amusing, readable and informative manner he has done here.


Share It

Your Comments

post a comment

More from this section   Writing articles index

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON INTERVIEWED 2OO4: The poet speaks of tings and times a-changin'

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON INTERVIEWED 2OO4: The poet speaks of tings and times a-changin'

They were the happiest days of my life, the poet recalls as he sits in winter-blown London."I was born in a little town called Chapelton in rural Jamaica," he says with what could pass... > Read more

GRANT & I: INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE GO-BETWEENS by ROBERT FORSTER

GRANT & I: INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE GO-BETWEENS by ROBERT FORSTER

In his delightful if lightweight film That Thing You Do, director Tom Hanks puts at the centre of the story a Beatles-inspired pop band in the Sixties. In their search for a name they hit... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

EPs by Shani.O

EPs by Shani.O

With so many CDs commanding and demanding attention Elsewhere will run this occasional column by the informed and opinionated Shani.O. She will scoop up some of those many EP releases, in... > Read more

THE ELSEWHERE SONGWRITER QUESTIONNAIRE: University of Auckland songwriter finalist Emily Rice

THE ELSEWHERE SONGWRITER QUESTIONNAIRE: University of Auckland songwriter finalist Emily Rice

Every year many of the students in Auckland University's popular music course enter a Songwriter of the Year competition in which they perform their original songs backed by a professional band... > Read more