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Oscar Kightley looks back at Mark Twain's New Zealand trip

Following Twain with Oscar Kightley. Photo/Supplied

In 1895, 60-year-old American Samuel Clemens set out to see the world. Not because he wanted to, but because even though – as Mark Twain – he had become one of the best-known writers in the English language, he was deeply in debt and needed to make some money.

So it was that, in what might be considered the colony of New Zealand’s first fling with celebrity culture, Twain arrived with his wife and daughter and spent 39 days on a feted speaking tour. His visit is well-recorded, but, understandably, not common knowledge in 2019.

It was news to TV director Jane Andrews when she picked up a copy of Twain’s account of his travels, Following the Equator, at the old Hard to Find bookstore in Onehunga. She was intrigued and began work with her production partner, Melanie Rakena, on an idea that reaches our screens this week as Following Twain with Oscar Kightley (TVNZ 1, Saturday, 8.05pm).

“I had no idea!” says the presenter of Following Twain, Oscar Kightley. “When Melanie told me I was just, like, what? When did he come to New Zealand?”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Although Twain’s itinerary provides the structure of the eight-part series, it’s really more about where the young country was at in 1895. In the first episode, Kightley finds Invercargill, the scene of Twain’s first gig, a surprisingly lively place where people were busily inventing instant coffee and eggbeaters. Twain, an inveterate investor (it’s what got him into debt in the first place) even put money into local innovator Ernest Godward’s new spiral hairpin design.

But if the series showcases colonial vigour, it has relatively little to say about Māori.

“Our way in was what he wrote and he didn’t write about any encounters with Māori,” Kightley says. “I don’t know whether that’s because they didn’t take him to meet any. He describes Māori, in the way of the time, as noble savages – and he was actually full of admiration for them, especially the tattoos, but there’s nothing at length about any encounters he had.”

Twain was, however, subject to one great New Zealand set-piece: he was asked what he thought of the place.

“That’s the hilarious thing – because one of the first interviews with him was by a journalist on the boat from Melbourne. Mark Twain did not know this guy was a journo, but among the questions he was asked was ‘what do you think of New Zealand?’ before he even got here!”

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.