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TV Screening Will Mark Death Of Great NZ Writer

28 September 2001

TV Screening Will Mark Death Of Great New Zealand Writer

Leading New Zealand poet Allen Curnow died in Auckland on Sunday 23 September 2001. "Early Days Yet", the only documentary about him, will receive its first television screening on Sunday 7 October at 10.15 pm on TV One.

Director Shirley Horrocks says she feels profoundly grateful to have been able to make this unique record of this great writer. She finished her documentary four months ago.

"2001 was a remarkable year for Curnow", comments Horrocks. "Since he'd published a new book of poems that earned him his seventh New Zealand Book Award. He was lively, charming and eloquent throughout the making of the film, and astonishingly younger than his 90 years. Luckily when he saw the finished documentary in June he felt it was true to himself and his work."

The fact that one of New Zealand's highest achievers was still far from a household name inspired Horrocks to make "Early Days Yet", which takes its title from one of Curnow's recent books. "As a poet his work has stirred up the kind of overseas attention gained by only two other New Zealand writers, Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield."

At first the director was baffled as to why Curnow hadn't become better known in his own country, then she discovered that a major reason was his uneasiness about publicity. He preferred to keep his energies focused on the job at hand, on doing the best writing he could. In the three years she worked on the documentary Horrocks gradually won her subject's confidence and the result was an intimate but never intrusive portrait of an extraordinarily creative man who had worked on the cutting edge for nearly 70 years.

Director Horrocks persuaded Curnow to return to the childhood places he had written about ­ places he was seeing in some cases for the first time in 80 years. Horrocks was fascinated by the poet's vivid memories of the South Island world of his childhood. To dramatise the poems on the screen she tracked down a perfectly preserved Model T Ford, located footage in England of the model of the Avro biplane in which Curnow took his first flight in 1920, hired the Auckland Philharmonia and commissioned original music by Jonathan Besser, as well as using music by Curnow's old friend Douglas Lilburn.

In 1937 the poet had started using the nom de plume of Whim Wham for satirical verses in which he commented on the events of the week. These continued to appear in the Christchurch "Press" and the "NZ Herald" for more than half a century. His shrewd observations delighted tens of thousands of readers yet most of them never linked Whim Wham with the poet Allen Curnow.

For those who've never read Curnow's poems or think that poetry is not for them, "Early Days Yet" provides a highly attractive introduction, showing how richly the poems were informed by the writer's life and the New Zealand landscapes in which they were set. From the Canterbury Plains to Auckland's volcanic slopes those settings have been gorgeously filmed by leading New Zealand cinematographer Leon Narbey.

In his later years Curnow and his wife Jeny lived in the Auckland suburb of Parnell, while also owning a bach at Karekare. In the film the poet takes us on the walks that inspired some of his best poems.

Curnow's poems could begin with an unexpected sight or sound. "The Game of Tag" was his wry response to graffiti painted on the side of the road near his bach by a tagger he described as his "spray-gun toting rival". The poet also found scents particularly evocative and some of his memory poems focused unforgettably on beach smells, aeroplane fuel, or his mother's favourite perfume.

Not all the poems in the film are set in New Zealand. In 1978 Curnow and his wife were in Italy when the terrorist Red Brigade kidnapped and shot the former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, a death as dramatic for Europeans as the assassination of President Kennedy. This experience inspired one of Curnow's most dramatic sequences, deeply relevant to recent events in New York City.

In the course of his career Curnow received not only the seven New Zealand Book awards but also an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, the CBE and Order of New Zealand, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

Peter Porter and Michael Hulse in Britain and Chris Wallace-Crabbe in Australia were among the many leading overseas critics who hailed Curnow as one of the greatest English-speaking poets in the world.

Shirley Horrocks is the director of award-winning documentaries such as "Flip and Two Twisters" (about the artist Len Lye) and "Act of Murder" (with Miranda Harcourt). She also made the high-rating Kiwiana documentaries, "The Real New Zealand" and "Sweet As", among many others.

Her documentary "Early Days Yet" was previewed in this year's International Film Festival to the applause of audiences delighted to get to know the man who had been described over the years by journalists as one of New Zealand's national treasures ­ and one of the country's best kept secrets. Curnow's career provides welcome news for anyone who needs to be reassured (in C K Stead's words) "that it is possible for a major talent to emerge from New Zealand and continue to lead his career from here." Stead added that such an example "helps us all to take ourselves more seriously!"


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