Everyone should have a New Zealand childhood.
– Bryan Gould
Slice of Cake:
A hundred and fifteen years ago… intrepid emigrants
landed at the port of Lyttelton, wearing stovepipe hats,
heavy suits, crinolines and…they climbed the Port Hills.
…Whenever I return to New Zealand
I like to come home by the hills and
still think that an arrival at the pass on a clear dawn
is the most astonishing entry one could make into any country.
There, as abruptly as if one had looked over a wall,
are the Plains, spread out beyond the limit of vision,
laced with early mist, and a great river,
bounded on the east by the Pacific,
on the west by mere distance…with nothing but
clear air between [here] and
the foothills of the Alps, forty miles away.
– from Black Beech and Honeydew (1965)
an autobiography by Ngaio Marsh
Three quick facts about Ngaio Marsh:
Today is probably not her real birthday.
She was an only child, and though her parents knew she was born in 1895,
they waited so long to register her birth that they
couldn’t remember the exact date.
Ngaio Marsh herself opted for April 23—
because it’s Shakespeare’s birthday!
From her 1943 production of Hamlet through to a 1972 production of Henry V,
she was known throughout New Zealand as the nation’s premiere director of Shakespeare.
She wrote more than two dozen detective novels.
In the 1930s, she was called one of the four ‘Queens of Crime,’
along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, and Margery Allingham.1
In 1975, the Mystery Writers of America gave her the
Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement.
And a couple of years ago, she was a google doodle:
Biographer Margaret Lewis wrote:
It was fun to think about Dame Ngaio Marsh:
her dramatic appearance, her deep voice, her sense of humour,
her swashbuckling way with young actors, her vulnerability…
I was very surprised to discover that in her native land
she was remembered almost entirely for her work in theatre,
not as a writer of 32 celebrated detective novels…
At one time I thought that nearly every citizen of New Zealand
had taken part in a play produced by Ngaio Marsh.
Maybe not every New Zealander—
but it was certainly true of Sam Neill.
Niell was a 22-year-old University of Canterbury student
when he played Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
directed by Ngaio Marsh.
Sam Neill is probably most famous for Jurassic Park.
He also starred in two very different films set in New Zealand:
The Piano (1993)
and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
(which, if you haven’t seen, you really should).
Ngaio Marsh also produced plays for the London stage.
Actor and playwright Bruce Mason remembers the hurdles Ngaio Marsh faced in 1950,
as an outsider coming into the professional London theatre scene:
As a member of the cast, I was completely aware
of the patronising attitude of the English cast…
A ‘bloody amateur’: This was how the cast viewed Ngaio
at the first rehearsal—though not at any later one.
There was a deathly silence at the first rehearsal
when Ngaio…made it perfectly clear that first, she knew her job,
and second, would stand no indiscipline.
– Bruce Mason, quoted in
Ngaio Marsh: A Life by Margaret Lewis
Mystery is not a genre I know a lot about,
but I enjoyed Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme (1943) —
mostly because it was set during WW2 at a
fictional hot springs called Wai-ata-tapu—which was most likely based on a real hot springs reserve Wai-o-tapu, which my family got to visit in 2004.3
Friday, the day before the concert,
marked the beginning of a crescendo in the affairs
of Wai-ata-tapu. It began at breakfast.
The London news bulletin was more than usually ominous
and the pall of depression that was in the background
of all New Zealanders’ minds at that time
seemed to drag a little nearer…
awake for an hour or two beyond his usual time
watching the face of Rangi’s Peak
….The Peak changed from wine to purple
and from purple to black outside Dikon’s window
and no points of light had pricked its velvet surface.
At last he lost patience with watching and fell asleep.
– from chapter 6 of Colour Scheme (1943)4
a mystery novel by Ngaio Marsh
Happy 124th Birthday
** Ngaio Marsh **
I’ve been thinking this week about my life in New Zealand.
For five years, our family lived in the city of Christchurch,
on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
It was the adventure of our lives.
Here are some entries from my journals of those years.
2 Sept 1999
This past summer in California, I looked at the Pacific Ocean accusingly: It’s you, isn’t it? You’ll be between me and everything I’ve ever known. You and your vastness. It seemed a large flat plate, tilting toward me. Intimate. Intimidating.
But not impossibly wide, after all. We flew over thousands of miles of it in the dark. A tiny blip of humanity, miles above the water.
And now here I am: Regular life, kids playing, me making oatmeal. Yet we’re standing upside down, in this small island country, on the bottom of the planet.
26 Dec 1999
Walking through Dean’s Bush tonight I could feel the dry recesses of my heart filling up. Those woods are magic. They change nervous and snippy into serene and productive.
Coming back to the house, I again felt like a kid playing homeowner. Squatters until the real owners return.
Roses! What did I do to deserve being the owner of such gorgeous rose bushes?
2 August 2000
(just back from visiting our families in America)
it’s 7:45pm here, but it’s 1 am in California
The kids were asleep by 7:30pm. That’s good. I’d like them to keep that bedtime. Although God knows at what wee hour they’ll be awake again.
I’m dog tired but I can’t quite turn off and go to sleep.
The taxi driver on the way home from the Christchurch airport was polite and courteous, asking kind questions. And I thought, God, I’m back in the land of that Kiwi soft politeness. Then couldn’t decide whether that made me more comfortable or whether I’d miss the spontaneity and brashness of home.
Home. I stumble over using that word for both places.
(OK. I should go and try to sleep now.)
20 July 2001
I’m on an airplane waiting to take off for Sydney, Australia to meet B for the weekend. He’s flying in from California, on his way to a 4-day conference in Perth. I’m staying in Sydney for just the weekend.
It feels on edge—especially to be on a plane again so soon after the long trek across the Pacific. The “we are unable to uplift you today” trip. The “what do you mean permanent residency doesn’t mean permanent” trip. The “one sole employee working today at the Passport Office in Auckland miraculously came through for me, a faceless person 10,000 kilometers away, therefore keeping me from missing the international connection” trip. The “booked-on-seven-different-flights” trip. The “fly without B, but with my two small children and 76-year-old mother” trip.
It feels heady—to be meeting B for the weekend in Australia; him flying in from California and me from New Zealand, where we own. a. home. Who would have imagined this 22 years ago, when I was traveling by Greyhound Bus from San Francisco to Travis AFB?
27 Aug 2001
How did it get to be the end of August?? Every time I think of the calendar as it is here—with its months and seasons on backwards—I want to wave it away. There is something unspoken and sad about immigrants. Far from the land we were raised in. I’m half a world away. Which is tough enough. But then I look at people here who are struggling to learn English, and I’m amazed at their bravery and spirit.
More than once, some parent I didn’t know has stopped me in the kids’ schoolyard to ask a vocabulary question. Is it because I’m American, and could give a contrast to Kiwi English? Don’t know. English is such a confusing language—in any country.
25 Nov 2001
The other day I saw a little girl who was born just after we arrived in New Zealand. That’s how old our Kiwi-ship experience is. That tiny girl stomping along like she knew where she was going.
I remember seeing her a year ago just leaning to walk. That’s us, I thought then. Toddling.
We took a trip to Wanaka. Singing songs in the car. I started with ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.’ Then the kids wanted to sing some New Zealand history songs they’d learned for their school performances.
They got slightly miffed when I couldn’t help them remember the words. In Māori.
♫ ♪ A few times, my kids’ school choir got to perform
on the University of Canterbury campus—in the 430-seat
Ngaio Marsh Theatre.
6 February 2004
Here’s the beginning of a year of changes. We got our first offer on the house today.
The kids have the day off, of course. Their last Waitangi Day off school. No more Queen’s Birthday. No more Show Day. Back to President’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Martin Luther King Day.
Starting all over again
It’s gonna be tough
but we’re gonna make it.
Starting all over again
It’s gonna be slow,
but we all know
we’re gonna make it.
– lyrics by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
“Half Cup More”
When I think of our years in Christchurch,
I think of afternoon tea with biscuits for the kids.
Train trips & road trips. Ferry rides to see dolphins.
Hiking—or tramping, as Kiwis say—
to see waterfalls.
Holidays out of season. Like Halloween in the springtime.
And Christmas in the summertime.
And, of course, New Zealand has the planet’s
Most Amazing Birdsong.
Here’s an audio link to a bit of birdsong
from Waiuta, South Island, New Zealand.
Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart.
– British author Rudyard Kipling
in Auckland, 1891.
Every person dreams of finding some enchanted place of
beautiful mountains, breathtaking coastline, clear lakes, and
Most people give up on that dream—
because they never get to New Zealand.
– U.S. President Bill Clinton
in Auckland, 1999.
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you. .
You Can Read More…
notes & footnotes
Here is Neil Nyren on the ‘Queens of Crime’:
photo credit: New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage
(Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 8-Nov-2017
Margaret Lewis’ book says that in this photo, Ngaio Marsh is
wearing a suit she bought in Paris—
with her winnings from Monte Carlo!
And there’s even a photo of the winning ticket. See:
Ngaio Marsh: a life by Margaret Lewis.
Poisoned Pen Press, May 1998.
Wai-o-tapu and Rotorua are terrific places to visit:
This evocative passage about “Rangi’s Peak” is probably
based on Tahurangi Peak on Mount Ruapehu,
which is the highest point on the North Island.
stt Elevation = 2797 metres (9177 feet).
However, it’s only the 19th highest mountain in New Zealand.
The South Island has 98 of New Zealand’s 100 highest peaks,
mostly in the Southern Alps.
The tallest is Aoraki, also called Mount Cook.
Elevation = 3724 metres (12,218 feet).
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2022