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A Tale of Two Poets

Media Release
Embargoed until 24 January 2003

A Tale of Two Poets

Not far from the dominion of Robbie Burns in the Octagon is a memorial to his New Zealand counterpart, James K. Baxter. Both poets immortalised their respective cultures in verse, and both combined creative genius with an earthiness that scandalised their native populations.

The proximity of the two monuments is symbolic of another close relationship - that between Dunedin and its sister city Edinburgh. By way of marking the twin links between poets and cities, the Dunedin City Council is pleased to announce its support of a unique cultural venture.

The hit play Jerusalem, Jerusalem, based on the last year of Baxter's life, is penned by Dunedin writer Mike Riddell and features an all-Dunedin cast and crew. Following an enthusiastic response, the show will this year travel to Edinburgh for the annual international Fringe Festival. There it will represent the City of Dunedin, with the production team acting as cultural ambassadors to Edinburgh. The Dunedin City Council will be principal sponsor of Jerusalem, Jerusalem for its Scottish premiere.

This support marks the beginning of a new era of sister city relationships for Dunedin who currently has sister city relationships with four cities - Edinburgh, Shanghai, Otaru and Portsmouth (USA). The intention is for the city to be more proactive in maintaining these relationships by ensuring a triennial exchange of cultural, economic and civic activities, that allows Dunedin to draw some real benefit from the sister-city relationship. There is no intention to increase the sister city budget and all proposed exchange activities will be undertaken from within existing funding.

Announcing the venture as part of the celebrations to mark Robbie Burns' birthday on 25th January, General Manager of City Marketing and Development Peter Brown was enthusiastic about the possibilities of promoting Dunedin. "It's a great opportunity to showcase the city's artistic excellence on the international stage and make our sister city relationships more meaningful." he said.

It is hoped that a visit by Mayor Sukhi Turner will coincide with the season of the play in Edinburgh, to maximise promotional opportunities for Dunedin.

"James K. Baxter is one of Dunedin's favourite sons," said playwright Mike Riddell. "He is New Zealand's counterpart to Robbie Burns, and it is time he received further recognition. With the current tourist interest in New Zealand and its culture, now is an ideal time to build on that in promoting Dunedin" Mr Riddell noted.

The play will be performed for a season in Wellington in February, before returning to the Fortune Theatre for another Dunedin season in June. A series of events are planned to co-incide with the Dunedin season leading up to the departure of the cast and crew for Edinburgh in August. These events include an art exhibition, auction and dinner to celebrate Baxter. A documentary of the play and its presentation in Edinburgh will also be filmed, giving the city considerable promotional value for its sponsorship support.

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Media Contacts: Mike Riddell, Playwright, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, ph.455 5055. Peter Brown,

Why Edinburgh?

Sister Cities

Edinburgh is an official sister city of Dunedin, which indicates the special historical and cultural link between the two towns. While some sister city arrangements can be rather arbitrary and a trifle artificial, this is one is based on a genuine and abiding connection.


In 1842, Scottish MP George Rennie proposed a religious colony in the country of New Zealand: 'We shall found a New Edinburgh at the Antipodes that shall one day rival the old'. This zeal was taken over by Captain William Cargill and the Rev Thomas burns, nephew of the great Robbie Burns. By 1844 Frederick Tuckett surveyed an Otago site for a city which was to be called 'New Edinburgh'. Eventually the name evolved to that of 'Dunedin', the Gaelic form of Edinburgh. It was in 1848 that the first two ships disgorged Cargill and Burns and their band of largely Scots settlers.

In their new environment they set about recreating as much of their former homeland as was possible, including architecture and religious life. The Otago Chamber of Commerce website ( comments:

The idea was that the main town should reproduce the features of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, right down to sharing many of the same street names. To give it a good honest beginning it would be named Dunedin, the Gaelic version of Edinburgh.

According to the same source, the American writer Mark Twain commented on Dunedin: 'The people here are Scotch. They stopped here on their way to Heaven thinking they had arrived'.

The Scottish settlers established the first of New Zealand's universities in the city, modelling the stone buildings on the University of Glasgow. The main streets of the new settlement borrowed their names from those of Edinburgh: Princes St and George St. The colonists also reproduced the ecclesiastical architecture of their former homeland, building many fine Presbyterian spires. Inside these churches, the Calvinist puritanism of Scotland was correspondingly promoted. With such origins, it is not surprising that the Scots character of Dunedin is proudly supported and fiercely upheld in the cultural life of the city. The Dunedin City Council (DCC) website proclaims: 'The city's Scottish beginning gives it a special flavour which makes it quite different from anywhere else in New Zealand or Australia'.


There is no doubt that the cultural life of Dunedin has been uniquely shaped by its associations with Scotland. The Chamber of Commerce site remarks:

They [the settlers] brought many aspects of their Scottish life with them and that legacy remains today: Otago schoolgirls wear kilts as part of their uniform, haggis is regularly offered on the menu at a number of Dunedin restaurants and bagpipe music is often the preferred accompaniment at official occasions. The city also celebrates its Scottish heritage with an annual Scottish Week.

The DCC includes under a similar comparison Dunedin's 'finest range of malts and whiskies in New Zealand'!

A commitment to quality education, a recognition of the place of religion in cultural life, and a certain stoicism in the face of adverse circumstances are features of both Edinburgh and Dunedin. But there were other cultural effects which may not have been intended. According to the DCC site:

...the rather stiff Presbyterian "tone" of Dunedin gave later generations something to kick against. The dour faces glaring down from the walls of the Early Settlers Museum seem to have inspired much creative rebellion. Dunedin has produced more than its fair share of writers including one James K. Baxter, whose reaction against Calvinism resulted in some of our finest poetry.

The strong artistic community resident in Dunedin (the Chamber of Commerce describes the city as 'a haven for artists, writers, musicians and poets') may or may not be the result of a reaction about puritanism, but certainly that theme is prominent in the work of James K. Baxter.

Burns and Baxter

In the very centre of Dunedin is a statue of Robbie Burns, who is accorded pride of place in the city shaped by his greatly more circumspect nephew Thomas, who Keith Sinclair described as a 'censorious old bigot'. A conflict between the Calvinist religion and The Bard was apparent from the first, with controversy arising in Dunedin due to that section of his oeuvre which was regarded as pornographic. Nevertheless, his statue was strategically placed, and continues to oversee the cultural life of the city.

A few yards from the Burns totem is a plaque embedded in the pavement, marking the contribution of one of Dunedin's finest sons, poet James K. Baxter. Baxter, himself of Scots descent <<...OLE_Obj...>> through his father, said of his hometown that it 'carries like strychnine in its bones a strong unconscious residue of the doctrines and ethics of Calvinism'. In defence against it, he sought inspiration from Burns: 'I would often look to the statue of <<...OLE_Obj...>> Burns, with his back to the big Cathedral and his face to the Oban Hotel, for approval and consolation'. Baxter was to become for the years of 1966 and 67 a Burns Fellow, an award honouring the Scottish poet. The two writers shared a propensity for using their creative talents to promote honesty and puncture any sanctimonious tendencies among their fellow citizens.

Just as Scotland's most famous poet has found a home in the centre of Dunedin, the play 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem' seeks to take New Zealand's greatest literary figure to the heart of Edinburgh. One hundred and fifty years ago the Scots came half way round the world to plant their culture in the South Pacific. Now a genuinely organic Dunedin production returns the favour, by taking Antipodean culture to the auld country. The colonials have found their voice; now they seek to raise it among their forbears.

Promotion of Dunedin

Recently, a survey by the BBC discovered that the South Island of NZ ranked fourth on a list of 50 places that Britons want to see before they died (The Press 9/11/02). Dunedin has a significant and growing tourist industry. In order to promote this, it is vital to find ways of raising the profile of the city in potential markets. Edinburgh is an obvious target, given its historic links with Dunedin. But in a world of competing messages, new and creative ways must be found of raising the profile of Dunedin City. 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem' is a Dunedin play - written locally and with a local cast - about a local man. It provides a ready-made vehicle for building on the historic and cultural links outlined above.

© Scoop Media

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