22 March 2014

The Inimitable Thatcher

A recent book club assignment found me reading New Zealand author Jenny Pattrick's novel Skylark, a story of travelling theatricals and circus folk in colonial New Zealand. Pattrick is best known for her West Coast novel Denniston Rose, but I had not read any of her work before. Skylark proved both entertaining and interesting, with a lively writing style in the form of a Victorian stage melodrama including musical interludes, editorial commentary from a 21st-century archivist, and stories told from multiple perspectives.

Much of the background detail of particular performers at large in the colony is taken from real life - apart from Lily Alouette, the story's heroine. One of the incidental characters is the well-known performer Charles 'The Inimitable' Thatcher (1830-78), a purveyor of topical and satirical songs tailored to parochial local audiences. Performing with his wife, the singer Annie Vitelli, Thatcher toured New Zealand and Australia, delighting audiences with his nimble song-writing:

Thatcher depended for his success on topical, ephemeral, and regional balladry; he travelled around all the principal goldfields of Victoria and also undertook three tours of New Zealand. His wife, 'Madame Vitelli' as she was known on the stage, provided a contrast to his descriptive 'local' songs by singing popular, sentimental ballads. 
Thatcher was considered good looking, with his delicately moulded features, lank hair and moustache. He was known for his vivacity, wit and sparkling conversation. Although he tended to drink to excess, he was also 'susceptible to deep religious impressions'. He was a big man, a crack shot and ready with his fists.
One of Thatcher's 'locals' was quoted by the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle of 20 June 1863, during Thatcher's second tour of New Zealand settlements. Entertainingly, the Nelsonian author appears unaware of the existence of the new settlement of Queenstown, which burst into existence on Lake Wakatipu following the discovery of gold in the Arrow River in 1862. The Rees referred to below is William Gilbert Rees, one of the first European settlers of the Wakatipu basin, and who is regarded as the founder of Queenstown when he converted his woolshed into the Queen's Arms hotel. The Yarra Bend referred to at the close is the famed Victorian lunatic asylum.
We have now before us the first number of "Thatcher's Lake Wakatipu Songster, containing many of the popular local songs as written and sung by him at the Theatre Royal, Queenstown." Our readers will naturally ask where Queenstown is, that boasts a Theatre Royal. We can only reply by saying, that we suppose it to be near Lake Wakatipu, in the Province of Otago, but a couple of Mr. Thatcher's stanzas, taken from one of his songs, styled, The Olden Days of Lake Wakatipu, will tell our readers all we know about it ourselves: 
Gold's a wonderful thing, what a change it can make,
Who'd have thought we should ever have come to this Lake?
Like magic there springs in a populous town,
And hundreds to get gold are here settling down.
Oh how it must knock off his perch, Mister Rees,
To see such a township and buildings like these!
When a few months ago he was here all alone,
And the fact of gold-fields near the Lake was unknown.  
Chorus—But just look around and you'll quickly behold,
The magical changes effected by gold
We keep shifting about, and a fellow's perplexed,
The question is, Where shall we have to rush next?  
Rees settled down here on this nice quiet station,
The Lake was a place then of calm desolation
He'd cross the Shotover his cattle to find,
But that nuggets were there never entered his mind.
His shepherds here daily unconsciously trod
Over tons of bright gold lying hid in the sod
And Rees drove in bullocks, and branded away,
Never thinking what money they'd fetch him some day.  
Chorus— But just look around, &c. 
No Queenstown was formed with its noisy hotels,
And no restaurants with their loud dinner bells
No Port Chalmers' boats could be seen on the Lake,
But the ducks had it all to themselves, no mistake!
No bellman here shouted as he walked along,
That Thatcher was going to sing a new song
If you told Thatcher then here his time he would spend,
He'd have thought you were booked for the fam'd Yarra Bend.  
Chorus— But just look around, &c.
I enjoyed reading Skylark, but my one gripe is that on my own account without the influence of my book club reading list I would never have read the book, due to its cover design. It's decked out like a romance novel, which is short-sighted marketing because it dissuades male readers from enjoying this deftly-crafted tale. Skylark has a love story at its core (a decidedly unconventional one, that is) but it is far from romance novel fare.

Books: Skylark review (spoilers)
BooksYossarian's liver, 16 October 2012 
BooksHokitika Town, 4 October 2011
History: A fire at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, 20 April 2011
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