Saturday 30 January 2021

James A Michener and the musical 'South Pacific'


The photograph is of a book that has been on my shelves for many years as you can see from the fact that it is priced at 5/- (five shillings) and it’s one of those that I have been rereading while this Covid-19 pandemic has been raging through the world (and recently we in the UK recorded over 100,000 deaths, one of the highest in the world).

The author, James A Michener, has long been one of my favourites. Admittedly his books can be quite lengthy which will put many people off but the depth of detail and immense scope of his novels make them worthwhile. So why this one then, a much slimmer book? Because from this one book was born the idea of the stage musical and subsequent movie ‘South Pacific’ (incidentally one of my all-time favourites). But first let me give you some background details of the man himself, whom I greatly respect and admire.

His origins are obscure but he was born around 1907 and was 'sort-of' adopted by a kind woman whom he knew as Mrs Michener and who fostered many children during her lifetime. As a child, he was inquisitive and interested in the world around him so much so that, young as he was, he hitch-hiked around various parts of the United States during the summer vacations and later, signed on as a merchant seaman so that he could travel around Europe before going to college on a scholarship. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, he joined the US Navy and spent the rest of the war years as a sort of liaison officer going round the South Pacific islands. From those years, came these Tales of the South Pacific. While these are fiction, there is no doubt that they are based on his own and other people’s experiences.

From his memoir, ‘The World is my Home’ comes this memorable experience ‘We came upon one of the most miserable Melanesian villages…….a truly pitiful place…….someone had affixed a cardboard sign with the settlements name………..I borrowed a pencil and jotted the name against the day when I might want to use it for some purpose I could not imagine, - Bali H’ai.’

In the ‘Tales’ many of the characters are there – Nellie Forbush, Emile Du Beque, Lieutenant Joe Cable, Liat, Bloody Mary, and that larger than life character Luther Billis. In fact, there is a soliloquy between Nellie and Emile in their tale that is almost word for word as it is in the song ‘Twin Soliquies.’ Daringly for the time, racism is there too, in the way that Cable cannot countenance marriage with Liat and how initially Nellie is horrified that Emile has had children by Polynesian women, personified in the song Cable and Nellie duet in ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.’ These two videos are from the 2001 version of the film which I found to be much more dramatic and grittier.

So how did these seemingly disparate stories come to be blended together to make up the story of South Pacific? And incidentally, the book won the American Pulitzer Prize of 1947 although Michener himself believed that to be a fluke of timing. It was taken up by the magical team of Rodgers and Hammerstein and, although originally, they had wondered how they could make a dramatic story out of such loosely connected stories, somehow they managed it. And to quote again from Michener’s memoir ‘The World is my Home’: ‘What they devised was a spirited musical drama about a contingent of American sailors waiting on a South Sea Island for a major battle against Japanese forces………..The action was rowdy, romantic and tragic and the public loved it.’ Incidentally, Michener was persuaded to invest some money in the show and it was the rewards from this that enabled him to become a full-time author.

James A Michener had a good and adventurous life and died at the age of 90, 3 years after the death of his beloved Japanese wife Mari. Throughout his life he was a philanthropist, endowing scholarships and supporting the arts. After he died, the copyright of his books and his papers were passed to his old college, Swarthmore, in Pennysylvania.

 As you can see from the photo, I still have plenty more books to reread!

Sunday 6 September 2020

Turbulent Times and Seeking the Safe and Secure


The only illustration I could find of an old-fashioned doctor's waiting room

What strange times we’re living through! We’ve been given warnings of a possible pandemic for many years and suitable preparations supposedly made yet when Covid-19 finally arrived, it seemed to catch the world unawares. Much of the resultant action has been reactive rather than proactive and, in many areas, chaos has ensued. I find myself turning to the safe and secure of my own world, my home, the garden, my family, my writing. But I’ve also been thinking about the past, in particular when I was growing up in the 1950s.

One particular memory came to mind when I tried to get an appointment at the doctors and had to make do with a telephone appointment (and here I have to say that I suspect that will become more of the norm even when the pandemic is over). Into my mind came old Dr Bennett’s waiting room in my home town of Horwich in Lancashire. Tucked away at the side of the house where he lived, it was painted a sickly green with wooden benches around and when you went in, you had to take note of who was already sitting there plus watching who came in after you so that you could gauge when it was your time. There was no appointment system then, you had to work out when it was your turn at which time, Dr Bennett would call out ‘next please!’ Dr Bennett was a dear old man, a traditional family doctor of the old school who had literally brought me into the world.

              Another memory came with a comment recently on Facebook about how Mums used to put their babies outside in their prams, either in the back yard or the garden, whatever the weather (obviously not if it was raining or foggy). The fresh air was considered beneficial at that time and, if it was cold, well, you just wrapped your little darling up more cosily. My own two used to love being outdoors in fine weather, being able to kick their legs and wave their arms freely. Neither of them came to any harm as a result. And, surprisingly, it was fairly normal practice to leave babies in prams outside shops then. Then, prams then were much bigger and simply couldn’t be taken into shops. Very occasionally, babies were snatched from prams but given the number of women who did leave prams outside, it was very rare.

Recently I was asked to contribute to an article about washing practices of the past. That certainly triggered a few memories! When I was a child in the 1940s, most ordinary working class people did their washing by hand and always on a Monday. To hang washing out on a Sunday was a sacrilege! Washing by hand usually involved a large tub with water boiled in the copper and involved using a dolly stick, a long stick with a handle and three prongs at the bottom which you had to swish backwards and forwards. People used a posser stick too, usually brass, which was dipped up and down. Then of course there was the rubbing board to get stains out, shirt collars etc by rubbing against the ridges with a bar of soap.

The first washing machine I remember us owning was a tub with a rotating handle on the top that you had to do yourself. Very tiring! Oh and it had a mangle at the back! Later we had a similar sized machine only it was electrical. I had a twin tub shortly after my first marriage in 1965 and it was much easier. It could be messy though lifting the wet washing with a pair of wooden tongs into the spin dryer. And there were always piles of washing around the floor, all graded into whites, towels, coloureds and finally darks. Even so, that took up much of the day so it was usually an easy tea on a Monday, leftovers from Sunday if you had them.

Me, taken around 1961, right next to our old fashioned washing machine

Saturday 25 April 2020

The Singer Not The Song

The inimitable Tom Jones!
Throughout my long life, I’ve been lucky to see many singers in person, starting way back in the 1950s when post-war austerity was still being felt throughout the country.
It happened like this. My Mum had a couple of friends whom I called ‘Aunties' and they in turn had daughters a little older than me, say around twentyish to my na├»ve 14 year old self. Feeling sorry for me, I think, they took me to Manchester (some 15 miles away from Horwich, my home town in Lancashire) to see various famous singers of the day.

The first one we went to see, at a theatre, I think, was the crooner Johnny Ray, famous for crying while singing ‘Little White Cloud That Cried’ or ‘Walkin’ In The Rain.’

This was followed by a visit to see Frankie Laine who was appearing at the well-known Manchester venue, Belle Vue. He had a particularly striking voice that was at its best when singing songs such as ‘Rawhide’ (the title song from a TV series of the same name featuring a very young and very handsome Clint Eastwood) and ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’.

The very pinnacle of this time has to be the time when they took me to see Ella Fitzgerald at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Her rendition of ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ was something I shall never forget. Sung unaccompanied, you could have heard a pin drop so quiet was the audience.

Later, in the later 1950s/early 1960s, I went with friends of my own age to the Odeon Cinema in Bolton to see The Searchers, very popular at that time with their hits ‘Needles and Pins’ and ‘Don’t Throw Your Love Away’. Shortly after, we went to see The Springfields (before Dusty branched out alone) and watched them perform their big hit ‘Island Of Dreams’.

And then there was Tom Jones. He sprang onto the scene in late 1960s and I fell in love with his raw energy immediately. The fact that he didn’t even know my name made no difference to me. It was a love affair that lasted many years and I still feel the glowing embers of it when I see him now on the television. I joined his fan club and through that, got to know when and where he was appearing. I went to many of his concerts over the years and once even received a rather delicious kiss from him. One of the advantages of being a member of his fan club was that we were allocated tickets from time to time to see the filming of his TV shows in the early 1970s. (I was then living in Bedfordshire so it was relatively painless to get to London by train.) I was broken-hearted when he moved to America round about 1973 – no chance of going to see him in Las Vegas – I was by then a young Mum. In about 2005, he was in concert in the grounds of Chatsworth House (not far from where we now live) and I persuaded my daughter to go with me. She loved him almost as much as me and we were both waving our arms along with everyone else when he was singing 'Delilah'. He is only a year younger than me but he can still sing though his voice has now taken a more gravelly sound which is particularly suitable for the bluesy type of songs he sings on a CD we have of his called ‘Spirit In The Room.’ Although I have many CDs, my own particular favourite is 'After Dark' labelled as 20 Romantic Classics. The first track is 'Love is in the Air' - speaks for itself, doesn't it?

Incidentally, all my novels are available on the link to the side of this blog which takes you to my Amazon Author page.