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SRB: Colonial Culture?

Facing the Music: Charles Baeyertz and the Triad, by Joanna Woods
Published by Otago University Press, $45. Reviewed by JANE BLAIKIE for the Scoop Review of Books

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This thoroughly enjoyable biography springs from a period of New Zealand cultural history that’s been regarded with unease: colonial times.
Charles Baeyertz – musician, critic, writer and publisher of the Triad arts magazine – drives the narrative of Facing the Music in a vivid and engaging portrait of European New Zealand in the late 1800s into the twentieth century.
For all sorts of reasons, this era has often been shunned by literary types. New Zealand’s brilliant but nationalistic writers of the 30s and 40s dismissed colonial culture as derivative and twee, and Victorian ideas of white supremacy and the ghastly land grab are particularly unattractive.
But Facing the Music cheerfully embarks where others haven’t. Perhaps it’s part of a revision of colonial cultural history, a growing acceptance and integration of the various parts of the story – a necessary rewriting, as so lucidly and intelligently canvassed in Jane Stafford and Mark Williams’ 2006 book Maoriland.
For one thing, Facing the Music conveys the idea that colonialists (especially urbanites) were far more sophisticated than they have been credited with, particularly in music and performance.
At the same time, there’s a taint of desperation as the settlers try to establish themselves a long way from home. Charles Baeyertz illustrates a manic search for cultural identity – and there’s something utterly mesmerising in this ebullient and unstoppable character.
He was born in rural Australia in 1866 to an English (probably of German descent) father and a Jewish mother, both of whom suffered their families’ severe disapproval of the match for breaking the line over religion.
Charles’ father, a banker, unfortunately combined two traits – a love of guns and a certain clumsiness. These culminated in a fatal self-inflicted wound as he leant over a fence to shake the hand of a neighbour. Charles was just four and his mother, a gifted musician, coped by converting to a fiery form of evangelical Methodism.
By age nine, Charles was at boarding school as his mother began her local, and later international career, as a hugely popular public speaker. At 20, he married the “devout and homely” Bella, eight years his senior, and set up in business in Melbourne.
A property slump propelled Charles to Dunedin where he scratched around making a living by teaching and performing music, and writing reviews. His critical skills were undoubtedly helped by a near photographic memory.
After a year or two, and with a growing family to support, he plunged into publishing with the Triad – A Monthly Magazine of Music, Science & Art, which was to stay in print in one form or another, in New Zealand and Australia, for nearly 50 years.
Charles’ extraordinary energy, phenomenal networking, business bravado, and voracious intellect all make for a spirited account of how to make it in publishing. It’s amazing really that simply as a business story, it’s not better known.
To his credit, Charles taught himself Maori and urged others to do so. He was so annoyed at poor pronunciation of te reo (as well as being horrified by the emerging Australian accent), that he published a two-page feature on correct Maori pronunciation.
He was also aware of the need to protect the bush and native animals – though that’s about it as far as his progressive views went. He might have been a cosmopolitan Edwardian, rather than a Victorian, but he didn’t stray too far from the norms of the time.
Not too surprisingly, Charles’ marriage suffered under the strain of success, and the ups and downs of his later love life, along with libel suits and World War One, came to mirror his business difficulties. The endings – for him and the Triad – are as gripping as the story’s opening chapters.
Author Dr Joanna Woods doesn’t miss a step. An Irish woman now based in New Zealand, she earned her doctorate on Katherine Mansfield from Moscow State University, while living in Russia with her diplomat husband. There’s a delightful frothiness in her style overlying a rich scholarship.
That said, something slightly ghoulish attaches to the book, rather like watching a predatory wasp sting a caterpillar and lay an egg that will hatch and eat the living but paralysed body.
But it’s our story. Perhaps it’s time to get over the squeamishness and face our own music – it’s not all bad.

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Jane Blaikie is a Wellington writer and reviewer

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