Book Review: Bloomsbury South – The Arts in Christchurch 1933-53, by Peter Simpson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bloomsbury_southSomething happened in Christchurch between 1933-53. Here, in this southern city, far removed from the creative artistic spark which had spread across Europe and the Americas, there was a blossoming. Christchurch is my city, so the arrival of Bloomsbury South was like opening a door to a world I suspected  had existed, but had never properly explored.

Peter Simpson knows this world, as he lived in Christchurch for 25 years. He was a student, then a teacher at Canterbury University so knew and worked with many of those in this artistic community. His familiarity with running a publishing and printing company, Holloway Press, also enabled him to have an intimate understanding of the mechanics of this group.

The something that happened was the coming together of a group of creative artists: writers, painters, dramatists, sculptors, publishers, musicians, actors and dramatists. Together they supported, discussed and experimented in the wider arts. The title alludes to the Bloomsbury set who rose to fame in London. While some might say it is a bit pretentious to make this connection, Peter Simpson gives strong evidence to support the title.

His research is meticulous, and follows the individual stories of these creative leaders. Ursula Bethell was a founding member, and her support and encouragement is shown as an important factor in the establishment of the group. She supported rising poets, while Leo Bensemann provided a house for a studio, but also the venue for discussions and parties in which big ideas were freely debated. The founding of the Caxton Press played an important role in the printing and distribution of many new works. Each development is explained and its importance highlighted in this very readable book.

Having lived in Christchurch all my life, I have grown up with these names. I suppose I have struggled with the vacuum left as they departed for more supportive roles in other cities. Peter Simpson details this gradual decline and the desperate attempts by the remaining members to struggle on. The furore over the gift of Francis Hodgkins’s painting, Pleasure Garden, epitomises the conservative backlash in Christchurch. The establishment resented and excluded the members of the group, and so they left, taking their vision and passion to other shores.

This book is one of those benchmark writings, which every follower of the development of a distinctly New Zealand voice, must read. Peter Simpson has timed the release of his book well, coming 5 years after the earthquakes, which literally shook up the arts scene in Christchurch. I trust this publication will signal a new era in Christchurch creativity. It is time to move forward with the knowledge of past mistakes to enable us to build a community which allows and supports all forms of expressive art. This book is a wonderful gift to anyone who wonders, “What happened?”

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Bloomsbury South: The arts in Christchurch 1933-53
by Peter Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408480

Book Review: Beside Herself, by Chris Price

Available from bookshops on 21 March 2016.

cv_beside_herselfChris Price’s forthcoming collection, Beside Herself does wonders for the imagination. The mask-like face on the cover evokes the masks used in Greek Theatre; tragedy, comedy and tragicomedy all taking their turns to appear. A playful atmosphere is created throughout the book, where these different styles merge together and flow from one to the other.

There are moments where the poems skip off the tongue and reading them aloud adds a new level of enjoyment to the page. In ‘Trick or Treat’ we are given rhyme after rhyme, hold or sell / kiss or tell / stare or blink / hood or wink – / then / it’s / my air-guitar / your whammy-bar. ‘Antipodean’ plays with opposites and other contrasts, I am the wrong / way round, my north, / your south, my up, / your down, your Krone / my Crown. These poetic moments are not only enjoyable to go through, but they bring a lightness to the poetry, a comedy of sorts.

In contrast there are some more serious moments that balance out the more light-hearted pieces. ‘Paternity test’ starts out with the lines Here is how it is: / if I cannot kill you / I will kill myself. / As I cannot kill you / I will kill myself. Price easily exchanges one mask for the other, moving from comedy to tragedy between the pages, but it doesn’t feel forced, more like a natural progression that goes back and forth. This movement keeps each poem fresh, and as you continue to read, more and more voices and characters appear.

Perhaps the most interesting characters, and one that is given a lot of space, is the medieval thuggish Churl form the long poem ‘The Book of Churl.’ This poem spans twenty-eight pages, dealing with the life of this strange figure from the past. He is not like the knights commonly found in medieval literature, carrying a cudgel instead of a magic sword or lance, and his princess turns out to be a girl he finds in the forest at night. If he were a hero, something / would happen now. Instead, he lives / a long unhappening. Unadventure, / unbirthdays, unrest. But his ‘unheroicness’ is endearing in a way, and his character sticks out and feels whole, and the drawing that follows the poem seems to capture his essence.

The drawings by Leo Bensemann that bookend the different sections of Beside Herself really help to give even more character to the pages. The figures come to life in the words, both directly and indirectly. It is a refreshing collection, a good mixture brought forth by the different masks, the different voices and characters. At times it is fun and light, at others serious and intense. But above all it is an interesting study of the different personae created by Chris Price.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Beside Herself
by Chris Price, drawings by Leo Bensemann
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408466