Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The following interview took place towards the end 2016. It was conducted by  John Davidson,  Professor Emeritus of the Classics Dept at Victoria University. John had seen all my production and adaptations of Classical works, and the precision of his questions attest both to the depth of his own reading and his deep concern for the transmission of the Classics.

Recently, the interview was published by the  Open University with the title.Practitioners’ Voices in Classical Reception Studies, edited by Marguerite Johnson. Three practitioners were interviewed on their attitudes to the Classics and these interviewes can be found at http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/pvcrs/2017/australasian


Phillip Mann was born in North Yorkshire, and studied Drama and English at Manchester University. He has worked extensively in Theatre in Europe and America and established the first programme of Drama Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in 1970, where he was later made Professor of Drama. Recently he has been appointed MNZM (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit). He takes a special pleasure in directing new plays and in finding ways of making Greek Classical Drama available to modern audiences. In addition to his theatre work, Phillip Mann is a freelance writer and has published eleven Science Fiction novels as well as essays, plays and works for younger readers.

John Davidson was born in Lower Hutt and lives in Wellington. In 2010 he retired as Professor of Classics at Victoria University of Wellington where he was a colleague of Phillip Mann for many years.

This interview was recorded in Wellington on 21st October 2016.

John Davidson. I’m guessing that your interest in ancient Rome began with studying Latin at school. But how did you come to be so passionately involved with Greek tragedy and comedy?

Phillip Mann. My interest in the classics began long before I thought of them as classics, but certainly my interest was quickened and deepened by my study of Latin. My regret was, of course, that I never had the opportunity to study Greek – but more of that later.

My mother was an exceptional woman. As a girl she was very bright, could play the violin, loved dancing and was quite gifted as a painter. She loved learning and, more than almost anyone I know, she would have flourished and blossomed if she’d had the opportunity to go to university. This, incidentally, was one of the reasons why she pushed me so strongly to go to university and seek a career in the theatre. Unfortunately, when she was fourteen, my mother had to leave school to get a job. She was a victim, both of being a girl – not many girls went to university in those days, except perhaps the wealthy – and of the Great Depression. She had to work to earn money for the family. She was also a rebel, with a quick wit, and I am sure it was these qualities, plus a desire to break away from her family, that led her to get married to a man who was somewhat older than her, and who was, as far as I know, a South African serving in the Merchant Navy. This was 1942. It was a disastrous marriage, and the only thing she took away from it when the wretched man deserted her, was a baby boy, me. I was, and remained, an only child. She became, and remained, a solo mother.

I mention these things because from an early age I was the focus of her attention and, while she still went out to work, she lavished on me her own love of learning: of mythology, of the theatre, of spiritualism, of herbalism, of literature and of the arts in general. My earliest memories are of her telling me stories taken from Greek, Roman, Egyptian and even Māori mythology. She had always been an avid reader and, to the day she died, one never knew what books she would bring home from the library. My (humorous) theory was that she chose books at random, but, that wasn’t the case. She was simply a voracious and adventurous reader. To give but one example, when I was very young – I think it must have been about the time I was learning to read, though I can’t remember ever actually learning to read – she brought home a book of the plays of Aristophanes and read them to me. You can judge the antiquity of this book from the fact that the spicier and sexually explicit parts weren’t left in the original Greek but had been translated into Latin. True! She went to great lengths to work out what had been translated into Latin and later found a more unexpurgated edition. Of course, none of this meant much to me, though I did enjoy the comedy as she attempted to read the different characters. The one play I can still remember was Lysistrata. Thus, as I grew up I had a familiarity with names such as Socrates, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Plautus, Catullus and Sappho. I was also totally unaware that my mother was unconventional. As children, we tend to accept what is, as normal, be it poverty or wealth. But she planted the seeds of a love of learning, and it wasn’t until I was ten or eleven, that I realized how poor we were in financial terms, but how rich in other ways.

I had demonstrated a love of acting from a very early age. Then, when I was in my early teens, I was invited to play Pentheus in the Bacchae and that sharpened my understanding of that text. In the theatre, one learns by ‘doing.’ Among the Greeks, Euripides became my favourite dramatist closely followed by Aeschylus. And among the Latin writers, Plautus can still make me laugh.

JD. When you directed Greek tragedy, to what extent did you encounter misunderstanding and opposition?

PM. I think a lot of people are afraid of what are called ‘The Classics’ partly because they’re unfamiliar with them but also because there are some poor translations. Literal translations tend not to work, or else they become bogged down with footnotes, and so one has to find a better way of getting inside the text without oversimplifying it or perverting it. As a teacher, and this means as a theatre director also, my greatest joy has been when I’ve seen an actor suddenly become dramatically alive and discover the humanity and depth of the text. I remember directing the Trojan Women and seeing the actress playing Andromache weeping in the wings. It did not detract from her performance. She conquered her tears and her performance became all the more searing. The fact is, the classics need an open humanity, a willing sympathy, and an act of empathy, if they are to be understood. And, at the same time, one has to accept that there are some things that cannot be easily understood – in our world or the classical world – and which yet remain true to our human condition. Explain Auschwitz or Belsen or the casting adrift of refugee children in a leaking boat. Then consider the sexual passion and guilt of Phaedra, the blood-lust of Achilles and the totally destructive madness of Agave.

I have encountered misunderstanding and my enthusiasm has, at times, been treated as elitism. And that angers me because, first, it’s not true; second because ignorance is never bliss but usually a refusal to accept a challenge or an adventure of the mind; and third, because the truly great classical works address the most fundamental questions concerning our humanity. The more you examine your own fears, lusts, loves and passions, the closer you move towards the classical works, and especially the Greeks. We forget sometimes the frighteningly unstable and cruel world in which these works were born. “Call no man happy until dead.”

When I was directing the Bacchae at Downstage in Wellington, many years ago, I remember someone coming up to me and saying: “Well, if it was called the Front Eye, I might have come to it.” It is hard to make headway against that attitude. But, to be positive, I have found that the classics when directed simply and directly have always found a ready response from the audience. It’s because they tell the truth about the human condition. It was, I think, F. L. Lucas in his little book called simply Tragedy – and which I highly recommend – who said, “Tragedy is man’s answer to this universe that crushes him so piteously. Destiny scowls upon him: his answer is to sit down and paint her where she stands.”

JD. What gave you the idea of adapting Greek plays for a contemporary New Zealand context? Were you especially influenced by specific, previous literary creations exploring the interface between the classical past and the present in Australasia or the Northern Hemisphere?

PM. I can’t recall being influenced by any previous productions of classical works. My theatrical education has been extensive and, no doubt, my own work reflects the influence of my masters as well as my own experimentation. In this context, I should perhaps mention that, apart from the Greeks, my favourite dramatists are Brecht, Shakespeare and Molière, and I think their influence is evident in my work. In a way, Euripides is very Brechtian.

As regards the first part of the question “What gave me the idea,” I can’t recall ever thinking about the process. I do not consciously try to modernise, and the idea of dressing up Dionysus as (say) a foppish hippy would fill me with a kind of dread. That is not modernising, it is limiting. It’s reducing complexity and paradox to something that’s easy to understand. That is not what art is about. Modernising is a natural and unforced result of being open and available to what a play tells us. The more one seeks to understand and reveal these works, the more they become modern simply because we are of our own age. The greatest imperative is to be true to one’s own artistic sense … and to trust it.

In the case of the Persae and They Shall Not Grow Old, I wanted to see if I could understand the very earliest extant Greek play that we have. Aeschylus intrigues me and always has. I think of him as an experimental dramatist, forging a new kind of art. In this he is like Brecht. When I first read the Persae I knew I was in the presence of a man who knew exactly what he was talking about. I was moved by the fact that he could feel compassion for the enemy that he had helped kill. I felt the bigness of his work, and this was what I wanted to convey.

I already had a knowledge of the Gallipoli landing from working on Maurice Shadbolt’s Once on Chunuk Bair, and the parallels between the two events – the Persians attacking Greece and the British attacking the Turks – became evident. However, what finally unites them is the sense of loss, of waste and of destruction … And it was that which I tried to convey in the final images when the dead rise up.

I have a little dictum that I discovered early in my career as a director. It states, “Good ideas solve problems. Bad ideas create them.” Everything that happened in the production of They Shall Not Grow Old was a simple and logical extension of the first idea; that the events in the Persae mirror events in the modern era. The names change, the location changes, but the essential event, and the compassion that it generates, do not.

Which things said, I have to admit that I had a lot of fun with the Persae – the sound effects with wind-chimes and fans, the women dancing in their flowing robes, the magical exhumation of Darius, the long, staggering defeated walk of Xerxes at the end, and the concluding threnody – all of these stemmed from the initial vision of Aeschylus. It was one of the most enjoyable productions I have ever done, and I think this showed.

JD. You were something of a trailblazer in introducing Māori waiata into the choral element of Greek tragedy (something which others have subsequently picked up on). What similarities do you see between the lyric tradition of the Greeks and that of the Māori?

PM. I remember reading, in a book by Gilbert Murray I think, that the choric moves in Greek drama derived from battle tactics, and that idea has stayed with me from the first time I saw a haka performed. I have also been moved by the waiata tangi, the lament for the dead or dying. The Greeks, like the Māori, were a warrior nation.

The poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, who was himself a classical scholar and whom I knew quite well after directing one of his plays When the Bough Breaks, also mentioned to me the parallel after he had seen my production of the Bacchae. However, I didn’t have a deep knowledge of Māori culture. I’m cautious as regards cultural similarities – it can be very misleading.

JD. Apparent in your work, is a strong sense of the horror and futility of war, and the suffering of its victims, especially women. Did anything particular in your life give rise to this?

PM. I must confess I wasn’t aware of this. However, I think your question is very perceptive. I have some memories of WW2. I was born in 1942 and can remember a special kind of children’s gas mask that I hated because of the smell of the rubber. I can also remember being put in an iron shelter and being very afraid. My birthday is the 7th August and I can remember the shock in my small family when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th and then on Nagasaki on August 9th in 1945, which would have been around my third birthday. I felt that somehow I was to blame for something terrible – but I didn’t know what. These are residual memories.

After the war, I saw my mother and my grandmother skimp and save. I can’t remember that I ever lacked for anything, but as I grew up I came to realize how brilliantly these women – note there were no men – managed things: knitting, darning, repairing, gathering, cooking, saving. Life had the virtue of simplicity, but was never boring. There was relative equality too as all the families I knew had lost men in the war. I have written about this in a series of stories called Coming of Age in’t North. I created a fictional family.

Much later, when I went to Scarborough College (I’d won an open scholarship which paid the fees), I was a member of the Army Cadet Force for some years and was a specialist at map reading on the North Yorkshire Moors where we had mock battles. As an army cadet, I visited Belsen Concentration Camp and other wartime locations in Germany. I was 14 or 15. These visits left an indelible impression on my mind. I wrote a poem about it and even now, if I close my eyes, I can see the heaps of used shoes on display, and the several large tumulae erected over the bodies of those prisoners who had been murdered.

While I can’t pretend to be a pacifist – that requires a very special courage – I am very strongly on the side of peace and this is perhaps what gives my work in the theatre its edge. I directed Bent (by Martin Sherman) which deals with the persecution of homosexual prisoners in Nazi Germany and is set in Dachau, and I directed the first professional production of Shuriken (by Vincent O’Sullivan) which deals with the so-called ‘Featherstone massacre’ of Japanese prisoners. There are many other experiences too that have shaped my feelings. I have directed Once on Chunuk Bair, and am somewhat ambivalent about the way Gallipoli has been celebrated. While we can admire the courage of the men who fought and we can justly celebrate their bravery, we should rise up in rage against those who made it happen, and I don’t mean the Turks. I’m also thinking also of Vietnam, Afghanistan, The Falklands and Iraq.

When you look around you today … well the world has gone crazy. Who can make sense of it? There are now no easy solutions. Basically, I think that we, the people, have outgrown the politicians. We know what the world needs and it isn’t more guns or more slaughter. I’m ashamed of countries like England and the USA which trade in armaments. It has to stop! I would feel honoured if any of my work – whether in the theatre or as a teacher or as a writer – helped bring about peace and a deeper sense of common humanity – for that is what I write about. This is a very big topic. I didn’t set out to write about war and the pity of war, but there we are … Often one is not aware of the implications of one’s work until they are pointed out by a thoughtful critic. I don’t have an agenda, as such, in my books. I don’t have specific situations in mind. But, I do write from the heart.

Writing is extremely emotional, and not infrequently I have to stand up and walk away from the typewriter, computer, whatever … as the emotion is so great.

JD. Your Science Fiction tetralogy, A Land Fit for Heroes is a remarkable work. What was the impetus behind your reception of ancient Rome here, and can the presence of the ancient world be felt in any of your other SF novels? Also, do you see the failings of the Roman Empire as a metaphor for the failings of our contemporary world?

PM. The books grew from a short story, as have so many of my books. It just kept getting longer and longer, the characters became more complex, and the conflict between the intuitive Celts and the Ir-Rational Romans became sharper. I can’t explain it, but the four volumes just flowed from me. I did just enough research to know what I was doing, and I could remember just enough Latin. A conversation with your old friend (and mine) Alex Scobie helped immeasurably. The rest was pure invention, but remember that I knew the Yorkshire Moors very well indeed. I was also encouraged by my editor who put the book in the same class as The Once and Future King. Unfortunately, my editor died, Gollancz was sold to Houghton Mifflin and the books fell between the cracks. There are very few reviews. As a friend of mine, the playwright Mike Stott, commented at the time, “It looks as if your books got straight from the printer to the remainder stand.” And he was right. It’s very sad because I regard those four volumes as among my very best writing.

JD. In reviews of A Land Fit for Heroes, how much attention was actually paid to the Roman reception aspect as opposed to consideration of character, plot and so on?

PM. As I say, there were very few reviews of A Land Fit for Heroes. It was published and then vanished. The best (and only) review I have is of Stand Alone Stan by David Groves. He does me the honour of taking my work seriously. Perhaps, John, you could do a retrospective review of the whole tetralogy.

Although I went to great pains to give the book a firm grounding in Roman antiquity – I lived in York for a while which was a Roman capital and was surrounded by Roman relics – I don’t think many people took that aspect of the novels seriously. I suspect they thought it was a bit like Asterix (which is also well researched) and that could be misleading. Apart from David Groves, there has been no substantial critical reaction.

JD. Do you see other possibilities for the adaptation of the ancient world and its integration into contemporary literature and art?

PM. Yes, antiquity is an open quarry. And I think there’s always an interest in the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, to name but three influential societies – if only because their societies are now so alien to us. But still we need their intelligence and the capacity of their art to dissect and face unflinchingly the reality of our Comédie Humaine. I have just finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson. It’s a remarkable book and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand and feel the glorious power of this great literature.

But I do worry sometimes that we might be going out on a limb. What would happen if a solar flare were to take out the Internet? Unlike our distant ancestors and some of the peasant societies which still exist, we are in danger of being disenfranchised.

I do not look back to a golden age. Every age faces its problems. My worry is that we may not face ours soon enough. We are in danger of being too ‘civilized’, too ignorant and too poor. I have often thought that intelligence has two aspects. The first is the ability to see a problem before it overwhelms us. The second is to have the courage and awareness to overcome the problem. And here we arrive at the importance of the arts and books and plays and singing and games: because, in the very best sense of the word, they educate us and shape our awareness of what it means to be human. Aristotle talks of ‘pity and fear’ for he was talking about tragedy, to which I would add ‘laughter.’

Recently, I wrote a little poem. I would like to end with it because I think it says more clearly what I’m trying to say now. When I wrote it I was thinking of all the children who have died while trying to escape oppressive regimes. It is called For the Children of the World.

***

For the Children of the World

            May the children of the world

            Have the strength to stand apart

            From the anger, fear and hate

            That daily shake their parents’ heart.

*

            May the children of the world

            Feel that time is their best friend,

            With time to play and time to feed,

            And time to sleep at good day’s end.

*

            May hunger not threaten.

            May water not poison

            Nor pestilence darken their night.

            May hopes remain constant

            Laughter stop sorrow.

            May children be children

            As is their right.

*

            May the shouting of soldiers

            Fade like an echo.

            May the thunder of canon

            Be a storm that is passing.

            May the calm that sustains

            All things, be apparent,

            And our world of difference

            Be a cause of delight.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The Suitcase

I seem, at present, to be stuck on the theme of Family Memories. Why this should be so, I do not know, but it is certainly connected with my sense of age and of time passing. However…

There is a group called The Green Room Gals of which I am an honorary member.  (How it got its name is another story.) Each month or so – for the meetings are erratic – we gather at someone’s house to share a meal, ideas, our latest writing adventures, gossip and poems – these being composed on a title proposed by one of the members. The most recent title was The Suitcase, hence the following poem.

It is an evocative title and those of you reading this, may have felt a slight shock of recognition, for ‘A Suitcase’ evokes complex memories: of travel, of change, of moving on, of leaving, of selection and perhaps of holiday.

I certainly felt some of this and it just so happens that in my study there is a suitcase tucked under the book case. I had not looked at it for years.. It is small and belongs to a by-gone age. It is what I think was once called a ‘lady’s case’ being light, and small and clothbound. It is the kind of case that was designed to fit on the luggage racks made of woven cord that used to be fitted in railway carriages. We are here talking about the age of steam, of windows that opened with a leather strap, of smoke that blew and clattering rails. I had even forgotten what the suitcase contained, until…

 

THE SUITCASE

I was not ready for this.

But dutiful… for t’was my request –

“A title to give shape to thought” –

And Robyn, kindly’ had obliged….

Her topic sounded in my heart,

dredging up thoughts without a name,

memories I could not frame.

                           *

The suitcase was still waiting there,

hidden within my book-filled room,

un-touched, un-locked, un-opened,

yet, biding the time, it would reveal

the coiled, blue snake of Memory,

at rest within, but poised to strike.

 

I was not ready for this –

One never is – seventy years swept away!

And the boy sees the case

In his grandmother’s hands

Containing the things that a smart woman needs

Departing for York on the train.

 

He sees too his mother –

this , some years on – packing

his vests and his best Sunday pants.

Pressing a pound under his socks.

Then a kiss and a wink and a walk

to the bus, the future a blank.

 

And now…

Too fragile for travel, battered and worn

the lock rusted over, the canvas torn.

placed on my table, I open it wide

As I did on the day my mother died.

                          *

Remembering how I gathered her things –

Her hand written notes, her blue earings.

Some postcards of Scarbro, a picture of me,

Decorations she kept for the Christmas tree,

Tortoise-shell clips to hold back her hair,

The glasses she lost down the back of a chair,

Poems writ on glass, an old piece of lace –

I’d bundled them all in my grandma’s suit-case.

                        *

No, I was not ready for this,

this bite of memory.

But yet I am glad,

glad to see these treasures again…

and my tears…

my tears are not of sadness,

but for a life, well spent,

for a mother I loved,

who was also my friend.

Read Full Post »

The Leaf

A short poem in memory of my grandmother, Elsie Brown.

I do not know if this has ever happened to you, but there are moments in life it seems, when suddenly events come together and create a new awareness. It can be something one reads, someone you meet, a chance remark, a forgotten letter discovered at the back of a shelf…. Whatever.

The following poem is inspired by one such moment and, like a coin cast into a still lake, the ripples spread wider and wider.

*

THE LEAF

I open the book with care.

It is old, the binding loose.

It has stood, unregarded,

On my shelf for years.

 

Revealed is a single leaf,

Still green despite the years,

Pressed tight, its shape flat,

Stamped upon the page.

 

It was my gardma’s book, I know

unopended, I guess,

Since the moment she,

Placed the leaf within.

 

And what was that moment?

What made her pause?

And with the love that marked her life

Chose a leaf to mark her place.

 

Had the bread risen?

Or washing dried on the line?

Or had the postman knocked twice

Bearing a letter from overseas,

 

News from a man,

Somewhere in France,

Trapped in the trenches,

Knee deep in water,

Sending a message,

Home from the front.

“Be home for Christmas.

This war can’t last long.”

 

And survive, he did,

my Grandfather,

Though talk he did not,

Of the ‘holiday,’

Of the Passchendael flowers

Or the smell of the Somme.

 

Or so I was told…

For I came much later, on the scene,

In the midst of another war

Another story.

 

***

 

I replaced the leaf

Where it had rested

For many years,

And closed the book,

 

Unprepared for the sudden…

The stab of grief

At the memory of a woman I loved,

Who died when I was far from home

And left too small a legacy.

 

Sweet memories. Yes, and this…

A leaf,

pressed,

between pages

 

 

Phillip Mann

Dec 5th 2015

 

 

Read Full Post »

For Hazel

I am a turning point in a new novel called The Head Man. If a turning point can be likened to a bend in the road, it means that I can not clearly see the ending yet. I expect surprises, for this novel has had many surprises for me, not least the following short poem.

I was writing about the death of a character called Hazel. She was the beloved of Sir Gawayn – yes, him of the Green Knight story – and he, faithful but faithless too, returned too late to save her. Standing at her grave side, Gawayn saw the following short poem which, in its own way, is a summary of the entire book… to which I must now return.

***

For HAZEL

Spare a thought for Hazel,

Who lies beneath this stone,

Who loved a man, who rode away,

And n’er came riding home.

                    *

She loved too well, not wisely,

And love can be a thief.

The golden coin it steals is joy,

The change it leaves is grief.

                    *

But yet, if Hazel woke up now,

With smiling lips she’d say,

“Not to love is not to live,

No matter the price we pay.

No act of love is ever lost.

We count the joy, not the cost,

For lovers do what lovers must,’

                      *

These are the words she’d say.

She’d say, “Not to love is not to live,

No matter the price we pay.”

Read Full Post »

In June 2015 I heard the sad news of the death of my old friend Jean-Philippe Jugand. He had been ill for some time but still, the reality of death always catches you unaware. And, of course, death always brings back memories.

Jean-Philippe wanted to change the world, not by politics – he rather detested and distrusted the kind of Politics with which we are familiar – but he sought change on a more primal and visceral level. He wanted to improve the status of mankind, though he might not have put it that way. At the same time, he wanted something vital and anarchic; something which can live as a dream, but which is hard to realize in writing or reality given the social structures we have. This desire for change explains his love of the theatre and the works of writers as varied as Alfred Jarry, Ionesco and Molière.

Jean-Philippe was a pioneer and an organizer. He dreamt up Le Théâtre des Iles, and drummed up the financial support which meant that for some years a small company of actors could travel from Wellington in New Zealand to some of the French speaking islands of the Pacific – New Caledonia, Vanuatu (New Hebrides as it was then) and Tahiti. Often our performances took place in isolated settlements, and to audiences who had never seen live theatre. The story of these adventures is yet to be written.

I composed the following poem to be read at J-P’s funeral. It celebrates some of the memories of those times.

And I remember… 

for Jean-Philippe Jugand.

And I remember that young man coming,

Treading the long shady path down to Drama,

His walk, I observed, almost a running.

Urgent! A man with a mission, I thought

I did not know him, but that meant nothing

for I was new to Victoria too.

Perhaps, like me, he was a new teacher.

Perhaps, like me, he was just a bit lost.

But no. It was Monsieur. Mann he was seeking,

His accent French and his manner quite droll.

He had a an idea… would like my assistance…

Using Drama to make his students speak French.

                                 *

I remember…

Claire making Bouillabaisse, down by the sea

And J-P’s great vision, Le Theatre des Iles,

Ionesco and Molière, Jim, Jarry and me,

to name but a few of the students and friends

caught up by the dream.

I remember…

Il Suffit d’un Baton. The laughter of children

Du Pétard à Ditchwater Creek.

The sun and the surf, the stars and the spiders,

Adventures and laughter to last us all week.

                                *

Remember too…

A long-distance friendship,

Embracing time

and two continents.

Bridging a turbulent sea

to settle at last

in a place called Choussy.

                     *

Alas! La recherche du temps perdu!

But remembering the good times.

Now, by the clear lens of memory,

Beyond dispute or descant

or the corrosive power of time and ailment….

I say,

Bon Voyage. Maestro.

Mon ami,

Jean-Philippe.

                                                            Phillip Mann 26th June 2015

Read Full Post »

A Christmas Story.

In the spring of 1892, my grandfather, William Southerly Brown of Nottingham in England, completed his apprenticeship as a glass engraver and maker of stained-glass windows. For his trade certificate he created a large oval widow in the centre of which he set the head of Shakespeare, seen in profile. Surrounding this he engraved twelve scenes from Hamlet on alternating circles of red and blue glass: the whole design held together by an open filigree of entwined lilies.

This exhibit, still extant at Odd Fellows Hall in Bramble Lane, Sheffield won first prize at an exhibition in London, judged by no less a celebrity than the aged but still sharply perceptive, William Morris. It was the lilies which captured his attention, methinks, and perhaps a sense that in Southerly Brown he had found a kindred, creative spirit.

Thus, at the age of 22, Southerly, seemed destined for an illustrious and lucrative career as a master glazier to the wealthy, creating christening bowls, wedding cups, funeral urns and such. But Southerly’s mind was set on other horizons. Growing up in Nottingham, Southerly was a child of the Working Class. He had known poverty: had heard the hacking cough of his father who was a coal miner and died spitting blood; had seen his mother age prematurely her arms mottled from immersion in washing water and her knees arthritic from kneeling to scrub. Southerly wanted to create a better world.

I have read his diaries – have them before me now – and know that he saw himself as a man of the new era: a socialist, inspired by a vision of a world where,- and here I quote, “Poverty and hunger can be eradicated and human dignity assured; where men and women can unite in equality; a world in which lowly or impoverished birth need be no impediment.”

He wrote those words in 1893, the year he set sail for New Zealand.

New Zealand was booming when Southerly stepped ashore in Wellington. Everywhere there was building – banks, warehouses, hotels, churches.

Southerly quickly found employment engraving monograms on the windows of the Puketai Import and Export Company of Dunedin.  Within Two years, as a result of hard work and thrifty living, he has amassed enough capital to set up his own small company, which he called simply Southerly Ornamental and Stained Glass. In the shop window he displayed example of his work including a picture of his celebrated Shakespeare sequence.

Even so… his beginnings in business were shaky, but the turning point came when he secured a large contract in Wellington, designing and installing glass panels in the doors of Government buildings. This gave him important contacts which led to other opportunities. Southerly Glass prospered.

But while he discussed business and worked as a craftsman by day, Southerly studied by night. He pored over the works of J. S. Mill and the anarchist Kropotkin. He read Tolstoy, Shaw and Ibsen. He worked his way through a battered and much thumbed copy of Karl Marx writings.

Avid for conversation, he joined a political reading group called the Freedom Through Literacy Society and, at their monthly gatherings, he encountered men and women, who, like himself, wanted to see New Zealand become a society based on equality and justice – a Brave New World.  It was at one of these meetings that he met Dominique Volet, the daughter of one of the leaders of the Paris Commune of 1871 who had escaped to New Zealand with her mother in the 1880s.

Dominique was guest speaker and her topic was “Women and the Future”. She and Southerly spent the whole night talking and two months later, after a whirlwind romance, they were married. Through Dominique, Southerly came to know some of the French poets, painters and radical thinkers of that age. Diverse in their life-style they might have been, nevertheless they all agreed upon one fundamental principle: that Art, in whatever manifestation, if it were to be at the forefront of social change, needed to speak with the common tongue.

1904 was an important year for Southerly Brown. In January my father Sebastian Brown was born. And in that same month the firm, Southerly O and S Glass, won the valuable contract to design, make and install all the stained glass windows for the new church of St Corinthian being built in Wellington. The subject of the windows was the responsibility of the church but the designs were left to Southerly.

The ink on the contract was scarcely dry before Southerly set to work. While not a religious man, he knew he could pour his turbulent feelings about life and society into whatever moments from the Bible the church wanted illustrating. Equally, the contract was big enough to allow him to establish the kind of workshop he had always dreamed of.

He took on new workers: a woman to help with the draughting and several apprentices including two Maori brothers. From the beginning he encouraged his workers to think of themselves as artist-craftsmen. He shared his skills lavishly, explained his designs and encouraged discussion and debate. In his enthusiasm he even organized evening lectures for his workers on literature, philosophy, art and politics. Dominique attended, and sat at his side, suckling her baby.

By and large, the church council liked Southerly’s designs. They chuckled over the sequence illustrating “Miracles from the Gospels”, appreciating the  look of astonishment on the disciples’ faces as the corpse of Lazarus opened its eyes and reached up. They nodded in appreciation at the way Jesus, broad shouldered and muscular as befits the son of a carpenter, strode over the waves of the sea of Galilee to join the small boat where the disciples were bucked and tossed. But their favourite by far was the large Nativity window, which blended into one brilliant image the cosmic star, the human birth, the Wise Men, the Shepherds and the whole world of Nature, from a thoughtful donkey, yea right down to a humble spider spinning its web in the eaves of the cattle shed. “We are one family,” commented Southerly, winking to the apprentices behind the retreating backs of the church committee. And if he had been speaking some ten years later he might have added the word “Comrades”.

Meanwhile, the building of the church of St Corinthian was proceeding apace, and all might have been well except for the arrival of Dr Montague Pollitt. This worthy had been brought out from England to oversee the artistic work – the candelabra, vestments etc. – associated with the church.

A former member of the British Academy, a specialist in Renaissance art, with, as he never failed to mention, a doctorate in Classics and Theology from Magdalen College at Oxford University, Dr Pollitt soon made his critical presence felt. For whatever reason – a clash of artistic vision perhaps, or just simple snobbery – Dr Pollitt detested Southerly’s work. And Pollitt was a formidable enemy with his erudition, sarcastic manner and high domed forehead.

At the meeting called to give final approval to the designs before the engraving of the glass, Dr Pollitt casually observed that he thought the image of the Virgin in the Nativity was a bit “fleshy”.

Southerly knew to which part of the Virgin Dr Pollitt was referring. “The woman is lactating like any young mother,” he said.

“But this is not any young mother. This is the mother of God,” answered Pollitt.

Later he complained that the disciples gathered around Jesus at Gethsemene looked “like common working men – not the elect of Our Saviour.”

“They were common working men” retorted my grandfather. “Plain men, with calloused hands.” He paused and then added with relish “Men who smelled of fish and goats.”

“But the church should ennoble, not demean, else how shall we better ourselves?’ Dr Pollitt answered smoothly. “I don’t know much about modem art’s pre-occupation with sordid scenes, but I suggest you take a look at the works of Giotto.”

My grandfather’s diary does not record his reply. At the end of the evening, the church fathers voted on the designs and Southerly’s work was approved – but only by a narrow margin.

Thereafter, antagonism between Southerly and Dr Pollitt grew. Not content with sniping at the artistic work, Pollitt involved himself with the accounts and even claimed that there were discrepancies between the materials ordered and those used. Once he arrived at the workshop unannounced with members of the church council to make a spot check. Nothing incriminating was found of course, but the working atmosphere was irredeemably poisoned, and this led my grandfather to commit a singular act of folly.

One night, shortly before the finished windows were due to be transported to the church, he engraved the face of Dr Pollitt into one of the windows. The window showed Herod ordering the slaughter of the innocents. Dr Pollitt’s face was undeniably the model for the angry king.

The likeness was noticed only when the windows were unveiled. Some men might have taken this as a backhanded compliment. Others might have laughed. But Dr Pollitt was enraged. He insisted that the offending pane of glass be removed immediately. He accused my grandfather of bringing him and the church into disrepute, of making a mockery of a most serious occasion. Then, in a series of articles in the newspapers, he launched a full-scale attack on all the windows, claiming they were poorly executed and even that some of the images bordered on blasphemy. “Jesus evicting the moneylenders from the Temple could in Mr Southerly Brown’s rendering be mistaken for a country lout fighting in a tavern,” said Pollitt, and he called for the windows to be removed.

The church fathers, embarrassed by the publicity, ordered Southerly to redesign some of the windows. He refused and told them that if there were any faults in the windows they were in the eye of the beholder. This, of course, angered the church council who promptly had all the windows removed and replaced them with panes of frosted glass.

As a final insult, Dr Pollitt secretly arranged for all the windows to be sold at auction. Which done, he returned to England.

The windows were sold before my grandfather found out. They disappeared to places as varied as a sheep station in Canterbury and a lampshade maker in Timaru.  The effect on my grandfather was devastating. It broke his spirit. For a while he tried to repurchase some of the windows. But it was impossible. Gradually he changed from a man of good humour to what now might be called an “angry radical” One who saw the Establishment, in all its manifestations, as the enemy. In 1914, on the eve of war, he sold Southerly’s Glass and bought a large comfortable house in Mt Victoria for Dominique and young Sebastian: it this house where I now live and have my architect’s studio. Then he departed for Europe. He traveled to Russia and, so the story goes, was killed in the fighting at St Petersburg.

But, to return to the stained glass windows. Just a few years ago the magnificent Nativity window which had disappeared without trace, turned up at an auction in Wellington and I was able to buy it – for an exorbitant sum, let me say. I have it now, installed in my studio overlooking Wellington harbour. The evening sun makes the colours glow exactly as old  Southerly Brown intended. It is magnificent.

I have had ample opportunity to study the window and believe that I have discovered things which Dr Pollitt missed, things which would have enraged him further, but which undoubtedly my grandfather intended. They make the work unique and priceless.

The realism of the faces is remarkable. Am I wrong in seeing among the swarthy skinned shepherds gathered at the back of the stable, a likeness to a Maori chief – a Hone Heke perhaps with just the hint of a moko and a taiaha for a crook? And those splendid wise men, surely the expansive one offering gold is William Morris, and the one behind him with the shining eyes could well be Percy Shelley, my grandfather’s favourite poet.  And consider Joseph with his mane of hair and tangled beard. An excited, vital man this – not the dotard of tradition. Karl Marx methinks.

And the Virgin? What of her? For a while I thought she was my grandmother Dominique. But a recent publication has made me believe that Southerly was actually depicting Dominique’s friend, Kate Sheppard. Yes!

And finally, what was Southerly trying to tell us in the figure of the Christ child, looking straight at us, laughing in friendship and holding his unblemished hand, open-palmed towards us with such joyous confidence? Surely he is saying, “Come on, you people. Workers of the world. Rouse yourselves! – We have a world to win and nothing to lose but our chains.”

THE END

And a Merry Christmas to you all.

Read Full Post »

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »