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

by Russell Brown / 25 January, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Following Twain Oscar Kightley

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?”

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.

Latest

Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri dieback disease
102578 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Planet

Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri di…

by Bob Harvey

The closer you get to a kauri, the more you realise you are looking at one of the wonders of the planet.

Read more
Win a double pass to Everybody Knows
102573 2019-02-20 13:19:44Z Win

Win a double pass to Everybody Knows

by The Listener

Starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows is a gripping new thriller about the fissures and fault lines that can tear a family apart.

Read more
Fall into a beautiful abyss at this must-see dance show in Auckland
102571 2019-02-20 12:12:54Z Where to go in Auckland

Fall into a beautiful abyss at this must-see dance…

by Metro

A contemporary dance show that marries dystopian anxiety with raw energy is a must-see at the Auckland Arts Festival.

Read more
Climate change declaration 'politically charged' – Thames-Coromandel mayor
102563 2019-02-20 09:39:08Z Planet

Climate change declaration 'politically charged' –…

by Kate Gudsell

A push to get local authorities to sign up to a declaration on climate change is "politically charged and driven", the Thames-Coromandel mayor says.

Read more
What's inside Metro's March/April 2019 issue?
102558 2019-02-20 09:24:47Z Auckland Issues

What's inside Metro's March/April 2019 issue?

by Metro

Top 50 wines, rappers Church & AP, fast-talking poet Selina Tusitala Marsh and what to see at Auckland Arts Festival.

Read more
China could be using Taiwan as a testing ground for disinformation campaigns
102550 2019-02-20 00:00:00Z World

China could be using Taiwan as a testing ground fo…

by Gavin Ellis

A Taiwanese diplomat’s death in Japan has become a symbol of the consequences and dangers of disinformation.

Read more
The best way to beat food cravings? Fill up on the objects of your desire
102087 2019-02-20 00:00:00Z Nutrition

The best way to beat food cravings? Fill up on the…

by Jennifer Bowden

Research has shown that dieters’ attempts to resist eating certain foods appear to lead to cravings for those foods.

Read more
Deepfake: How disinformation fools our brains and damages democracy
102545 2019-02-20 00:00:00Z Tech

Deepfake: How disinformation fools our brains and…

by Gavin Ellis

Message manipulation using bots, algorithms and, now, AI software is making it harder to know what’s real – and threatening democracy itself.

Read more