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Tuesday 19 December 2017

Lola Ridge, Genius Poet and Typist

Lola Ridge at her typewriter. Below, her typescript of "Firehead".
The West Coast, my home district in New Zealand, was where the great American anarcho-feminist poet, writer and artist Rose Emily “Lola” Ridge nurtured her astonishing range of skills. Ridge, born at Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin, Ireland, on this day (December 19) in 1873, spent 27 of the first 30 years of her life on the goldfields of the West Coast, having arrived there with her mother Emma Ridge as a three-year-old. She moved to Sydney with Emma in November 1903 and, after her mother’s death, to San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York in 1907. From 1918 until her death from pulmonary tuberculosis in Brooklyn on May 19, 1941, Lola Ridge was one of America’s best known and most critically acclaimed poets.
The New York Times, 1941
New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, March 1903
After marrying an alcoholic West Coast gold miner and having two sons, the first of whom died in infancy, Lola Ridge turned her attentions to writing and illustrating at the age of 27. Her first published short story, “The Trial of Ruth”, appeared in the August 1903 edition of The New Zealand Illustrated Magazine. Lola also provided the finely detailed drawings which accompanied the story.
“The Trial of Ruth” is a thinly-disguised autobiographical piece, about an educated, refined woman called Ruth Dove who marries a drunkard, a “common digger” and “fourteen stone of irresponsibility”. Lola described Ruth as “small, and pale, and quiet”, with “smooth dark brown hair brushed straight back”. A portrait of Lola, taken by Greymouth photographer James Ring, had appeared in the March edition of Illustrated Magazine, accompanying a brief profile of Ridge (“now preparing some short stories and also a volume of verses for publication in book form”). The gravure image clearly shows a woman identical to the word picture Ridge later drew of Ruth Dove. Ruth was married to Paul Sullivan, who in real life was Ridge’s wine-sodden, “common digger” husband, Hau Hau-born Peter Sanderson Webster (1870-1946). “The Trial of Ruth” is set in Kitonga Valley and Jacob’s Flat, fictional place names which represent Hokitika and Kanieri Forks.
Lola had Ruth as a favourite with the “swearing sex” and was cutting about her being surrounded by settlers’ daughters, the other “society ladies” of Kitonga Valley – one was described as “a wide mass of girl, with a ridiculous post of a nose sunk in a paddock of face”. Lola’s story comes across as a cry for escape from the social confines of Hokitika.
No “settler” herself, Emily Ridge was a single mother, listing herself as a widow, when she arrived in Hokitika from Dublin. Three years later, in 1880, she married a Scottish miner, Donald McFarlane. In 1895 her then 21-year-old daughter, calling herself Rosalie Ridge and listing her occupation as painter, married Webster. The young couple settled in a two-room hut at Kanieri Forks, where Webster was a shareholder in the Lemain and Party sluicing claim. A son, Paul, was born a year later, but died at 12 days of bronchitis. Lola’s second son, Keith, was born in 1900. Between the two births, Lola continued her Trinity College (London) musical studies at St Columbkille’s Sisters of Mercy Convent in Hokitika, gaining intermediate honours in 1898. Below, the convent in 1900:
But writing and drawing gradually took precedence, and in 1901 the first of more than 30 of Lola’s poems to appear in The Bulletin in Sydney was published. “A Deserted Diggings, Maoriland” was signed simply “Lola” – it was her first use of this pen name. It ended:
Where are ye now, old comrades?
Past alarms,
Past lust of gold or gilt!
The sinews of a nation
In your arms,
Out of your strength and folly
A Nation ye have built!

The next year Lola had her first poems published in New Zealand, by the Otago Witness and by the Illustrated Magazine. The second of these is titled “Lake Kanieri” and began:
Blue veined and dimpling, dappled in the sun
Lies Lake Kanieri, like a timid child
Wide eyed, close clinging to the spacious skirts
Of old Tuhua, that big, brawny nurse,
On whose broad lap I lie. No need to serve,
Or suffer, or regret: it seems life holds
No future and no past for me but this
Sun-lighted mountain and the brooding bush;
Nor art, nor history, nor written page
Could touch me now. It is enough to be,
And feel the slow and rhythmic pulse of Earth
Beat under me; and see the low, red sun
Lean on the massive shoulders of the range.
0 lone, heroic, melancholy Hills!
A photo the English crime writer Agatha Christie took of Lake Kanieri in July 1922. Christie described it as “one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen … mountains all around it and the dense bush down to the water’s edge.” It was a claim Christie was to repeat in an autobiography written toward the end of her life (she died in 1976).
Although “The Trail of Ruth” ends on a positive note, with Ruth Dove rejecting the advances of Paul Sullivan’s partner Harry Dunn, saving her husband from being killed by Dunn and setting out to restore their marriage, less than three months after the story’s publication Lola left Webster, and Hokitika, for good. She and her mother (who left her husband in the Seaview mental hospital), along with the three-year-old Keith Webster, settled in North Sydney. As well as continuing to write poetry (insisting that her married name of Webster not be used), Lola was studying art and paying for her lessons by working at the Julian Ashton Art School at The Rocks. Julian Rossi Ashton (1851-1942) was an English-born artist and teacher who emigrated to Melbourne in 1878 under contract to David Syme's Illustrated Australian News, before moving to Sydney. He established the Art School in 1890 and its selection committee included Norman Lindsay.
The New York Times, 1927
Emma Ridge died, aged 74, of acute gastroenteritis and cardiac failure at Ellis’ Coffee Palace on King Street in Sydney on August 2, 1907, freeing her daughter to travel further afield with her son. By the following March Lola was contributing to Overland Monthly in San Francisco, while still sending poems back to Australia and New Zealand. It was her first contribution to the New Republic, “The Ghetto” in 1918, an imagist sequence about the Hester Street Jewish community of the Lower East Side of New York, that established Lola’s reputation as one of the leading American poets. During a lecture tour of the Midwest in 1919, she spoke in Chicago on “Woman and the Creative Will”, rejecting arguments of biological essentialism and exposing how socially constructed gender roles hinder female development. “Woman is not and never has been man’s natural inferior,” Ridge said. Later that year, Lola, aged 46, married a second time, although she was never divorced from Webster. This time she took on a kindred spirit, Scottish-born engineer, writer and radical David Lawson (born Charles Whipple, 1886-1980). Lola was almost 12½ years his senior, but was soon bringing her birth date forward, taking eight years off her age in a 1924 US passport application made with Lawson.
The 1924 passport photo of Lola and Lawson.
Lola Ridge’s high US reputation has been largely restored in the 21st Century, with biographies and other books published extolling her genius, her ground-breaking poetry and her consistent stand on major issues of equality and justice. Most of these works, however, have offered only passing (and often very inaccurate) references to her many years in Hokitika and Sydney. Academics and biographers have also, in the main, seen these as times of deprivation and hardship, and as Lola living an early life which honed her later deep empathy for the poor, disadvantaged and underprivileged of America. Such comments reflect a gross ignorance of life in urban Australian and country New Zealand at the turn of the last century. Lola’s years in Kanieri and Hokitika were doubtless often tough and quite lonely, but would not have been without some comfort and rewards. These included, in time, opportunities and outlets for her to express her artistic abilities. In Sydney, what’s more, she attended an art school of the very highest standard, hardly a sign of her own deprivation. Wherever she lived, Lola Ridge always found a way to support herself, to travel freely and be independent and independently-minded. This enabled her to express herself fully, mostly in poetry that was, even in the first half of the 20th Century, regarded as being well ahead of its time.

Thursday 30 November 2017

The Mystery of Sam Mitchell’s forged Victoria Cross

One of the Victoria Crosses awarded to Sam Mitchell for gallantry in the Tauranga Campaign of New Zealand's Māori Wars is in the West Coast Historical Museum in Hokitika; the other was last known to be in the hands of an Auckland collector. But this is no VC and Bar story. Sam Mitchell was awarded one VC (the first ever presented in Australia, the 300th awarded anywhere), for his actions in the British humiliation at the Battle of Gate Pā on April 29, 1864. So one of the two VCs in existence is a forgery, and although the one in Hokitika seems most likely to be the Real McCoy, there can be no absolute certainty on this matter.
A painting of Sam Mitchell wearing his New Zealand Medal.
The confidence West Coasters may feel about the Mitchell VC in Hokitika being the genuine article is perhaps in large part based on a letter Sam Mitchell’s daughter, Edith Mitchell, received in Mikonui, south of Hokitika, in 1957, from Captain Peter Wyatt, commanding officer of the Royal Navy’s School of Aircraft Direction and Meteorology at Kete in Pembrokeshire. This school was the latter-day HMS Harrier, bearing the same name as the sloop-of-war upon which Sam Mitchell had served in New Zealand in 1864.
Soon after taking up his position at Kete, Wyatt (left) had been approached by the Canadian family of a 12-year-old boy, Wayne Burton, who had found the second Mitchell VC buried in sand and driftwood under a wharf at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver, British Columbia, in August 1956. The family had sent Wyatt photographs of this Mitchell VC, hoping to get it authenticated. Wyatt, in turn, had immediately offered to buy this second Mitchell VC from the Burtons.
Before the transaction took place, however, Wyatt also received a letter from Edith Mitchell, who had read Canadian Press stories about the Burton find. Edith also sent Wyatt photographs of the Hokitika VC. Wyatt took both sets of photos to a Mr Dawes at Hancocks of London, casters of the VC (“probably the most knowledgeable man on the subject alive today”). The two VCs are identically inscribed, but based on photographic evidence alone, Dawes told Wyatt the Hokitika VC was the “true one” and the Canadian VC was a counterfeit. The two VCs have never been compared in reality, but the Canadian version has been described as more worn.
Could it be that the original VC finished up in Vancouver BC, where the man who bought it at auction in 1909 had his will resealed in 1938? Or that the VC sold to Mitchell's daughter in 1928 by this owner's son was a forgery? We shall never know.
Both VCs were eventually recovered from overseas and reached New Zealand - the one in Hokitika was bought by Edith Mitchell for £70 from British diplomat Alvary Trench-Gascoigne, the son of a wealthy English collector who had bought it at auction in London in 1909, the other in 1995 by the Auckland collector, who had bought the Canadian VC at auction in London.
A drawing of Mitchell as a young man.
Mitchell, born at Apsley Guise, Woburn in Bedfordshire on September 8, 1841, drowned in the Mikonui River, close to his farm south of Ross, on March 16, 1894, aged 52, still wondering what had happened to his original VC. He had returned to Sydney from England in 1865 and left the VC with other belongings at a boarding house in Sydney, when he went on to New Zealand in late 1868 to decide whether to settle there. Mitchell did opt to spend the rest of his life on the West Coast, and sent word to a couple believed to be called Goodman, owners of the boarding house, asking them to send his sea chest, including the VC, to New Zealand. He heard nothing back, and contacted police. He was told the Goodmans had returned to England. The prevailing presumption is that they took Mitchell’s VC with them, and sold it to a collector.
Agnes Mitchell
Mitchell's VC was next heard of in early January 1909, when New Zealand newspapers reported that it had been sold at auction for £50 by Glendining’s Galleries in London. Sam's widow, Agnes, contacted Walter Dinnie, the then Commissioner of Police in Wellington, who advised that the VC had been sold to colliery owner Colonel Frederick Trench-Gascoigne DSO of Lotherton Hall, Aberford, just east of Leeds, Yorkshire. Glendining’s had got it from the executors of the estate of a collector in Bradford.
 Frederick Trench-Gascoigne, above, and Lotherton Hall below.
Agnes maintained her efforts to have the VC returned, and after she died in 1918 her daughter Edith took up the cause. Between them they wrote to MPs, Government Ministers, Governors-General, High Commissioners, Returned Servicemen’s Associations, the British Empire Service League in London and British Freemasons. All to no avail, until on March 11, 1927, when the Duke of York (the future King George VI) visited the West Coast and Westland MP Tom Seddon (with whom the duke stayed in Greymouth) pressed the royal to intercede on the Mitchell family’s behalf.
Sir Alvary Trench-Gascoigne at Lotherton Hall.
Duly, in June 1928, Edith Mitchell wrote to Colonel Trench-Gascoigne, who said he had sold the Mitchell VC to his son, Alvary (later Sir Alvary Trench-Gascoigne), a diplomat who lived in Barkston Ash, West Yorkshire. Through public subscription, Edith raised the asking price of £70, forwarded it to the New Zealand High Commissioner in London, Sir James Parr, and in August 1928 the VC finally reached Mikonui. When Edith died in 1963, the VC was gifted in trust to the Hokitika Museum.
The Trench-Gascoignes hardly needed Hokitika's £70 - when Frederick died in June 1937, he left £688,976 12 shillings and 2 pence to Alvary and his widow. Intriguingly, his will was resealed in Vancouver, British Columbia, in April 1938. We know not why. But does that explain how the other Mitchell VC turned up in Vancouver, one must wonder?
Wayne Burton in 1992
The existence of the second Mitchell VC came to light while Edith was still alive, in August 1956. Canadian Press reported that 12-year-old Wayne Burton, of Nanaimo, had found it while hiding from friends under a wharf at Kitsilano Beach. The second of two Canadian Press stories on the find, in March 1957, mentioned Captain Wyatt and his offer to buy this VC, presumably for HMS Harrier. Edith wrote to Wyatt about this story, and in a reply in October 1957 was told “Mr Dawes [stated] with more decision than I expected from such wary people that yours was the true one, and that found in Vancouver a certain counterfeit.”
Nanaimo Daily News, British Columbia, August 30, 1956, and March 15, 1957.
The story can’t end there, of course. Dawes’ certainty was formed from viewing photographs, nothing more. The more than 40-year gap between the discovery of the loss of the VC in Sydney in 1868 to its auction in London in 1909 leaves far too many unanswerable questions – not to mention the gap from 1868 to 1956! The unsealing of Frederick Trench-Gascoigne's will in Vancouver in 1938 adds yet another twist. No information about the Goodmans and their movements can be found. Perhaps it’s time to bring the Hokitika and Auckland Mitchell VCs together, in an effort to ascertain some absolute truth in the matter. But the mystery of the Mitchell VC found in Vancouver in 1956 will no doubt tantalise military historians forever.

Monday 27 November 2017

As Time Goes By: Casablanca's 75th Anniversary and Screenwriter Howard E.Koch

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of the release of what is unquestionably the greatest movie ever made, Casablanca.

It's therefore opportune to look at one of the film's scriptwriters, Howard Everard Koch, seen above at his typewriter. Koch not alone worked on the Casablanca script with the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip (for which they shared an Oscar), but while working for the CBS Mercury Theatre of the Air he wrote the script for Orson Welles' famous October 30, 1938, radio version of H.G.Wells' The War of the WorldsKoch later wrote a play about the panic caused by the Welles broadcast, Invasion From Mars, which was adapted into the 1975 TV movie, The Night That Panicked America, in which actor Joshua Bryant plays Koch.
Koch was born in Kingston, Ulster, New York, on December 12, 1901. He was a graduate of St Stephen's College (later renamed Bard College) and Columbia Law School. While practising law in Hartsdale, New York, he began to write plays and moved on to the Hollywood studios. 
A year after his work on Casablanca, in 1943, Koch was asked by Jack L. Warner, of Warner Brothers, to write the screenplay for Mission to Moscow. The movie became controversial because of its positive portrayal of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union and Koch was fired by Warner. He was denounced as a Communist and criticised by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his outspoken leftist political views. Koch was blacklisted by Hollywood in 1951.
Koch moved Britain, where he wrote under the pseudonym Peter Howard.  He returned to the US in 1956 and settled in Woodstock, New York, where he continued to write plays and books while remaining actively committed to progressive political and social justice causes. Koch died in Kingston, New York, on August 19, 1995, aged 93.
Casablanca was based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison's unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick's. The movie was rushed into release to take advantage of publicity from the Allied invasion of North Africa a few weeks earlier. It had its premiere on November 26, 1942, in New York City and was released nationally a month later. It went on to win three Academy Awards.