'The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.' This opening line, penned by writer and musician Ronald Hugh Morrieson (1922-1972), is one of the most memorable in New Zealand literature. Or perhaps more widely known is the kiwi classic Came a Hot Friday, a film based on Morrieson's second novel, produced in Eltham in 1985. Despite this momentary notoriety Ronald Hugh Morrieson is not a common household name, the significance of his contribution to the New Zealand cultural scene remaining somewhat unheralded.
A colourful character from the small town of Hawera in South Taranaki, Morrieson lived all his life in the family home on the corner of Regent St and South Rd. His writing was built around a very local vernacular, his novels echoing the people, livelihood and milieu of this provincial community; his observations of local characters, language and peculiarities all contributing to the richness of his unique tales. Coupled with his dance-band lifestyle and happy-go-lucky reputation, Morrieson polarised the local community and remains a contentious figure in the region. Symptomatic of this uneasy relationship, in 1992 the author's family home was demolished to make way for a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.
Dr Peter Simpson wrote of Morrieson's novels, "…as a man and writer, Morrieson was both inside and outside the New Zealand tradition. As a man he was simultaneously detached from and involved with the society around him. As a writer he worked in almost total isolation from the literary community, and yet his books engaged with and significantly extended the concerns of other New Zealand writers… a strong case can be made that he initiated a new phase in New Zealand fiction which can be called post-provincial." His novels drew on the conventions of popular cinema, crime, mystery and adventure books from abroad, but he grounded these in his own rural environment and experiences, forging what came to be known as the 'Taranaki Gothic' genre.
Engaged with the histories of South Taranaki and episodes that have generated conflict or debate, artist Liz Allan coordinated a festival to commemorate the writings of Morrieson. Held in Hawera on Sunday 26 October, Came a Hot Sundae: A Ronald Hugh Morrieson Festival promised to offer something for everyone. The day included The Scarecrow and Came A Hot Friday movies, readings from Morrieson's novels at the KFC, music that reflects Morrieson's importance within this scene, historical walking tours of the Hawera township, visits to the Morrieson attic where his books were written, classic cars, a scarecrow costume competition, and the 21st anniversary of the Ronald Hugh Morrieson short story competition, as well as the chance for some sly grogging and a light flutter.
Morrieson's life and legacy is inextricably tied to Hawera and for this day he became the lens through which the stories and shifting identities of the South Taranaki region can be celebrated. 'Morrieson especially sought out those places in the community where people meet and mingle – the pub, the dance-hall, the marae, the race-track, the party, the billiard saloon', and in this way his practice is perhaps not dissimilar to Allan's own way of addressing notions of community, value and exchange. Rather than merely gilding the lily, making a day for Morrieson through the drawing together of community groups into an unconventional collaboration provided a chance to share the stories of a rural society, vocalise lingering tension and mingle the real and the fictional - for both each other and onlookers - the precise qualities of Morrieson's scarecrow and tower figures.
Liz Allan is the 2008 Govett-Brewster New Zealand Artist in Residence. The Taranaki Aritist in Residence Programme is in partnership with Western Institute of Techonology in Taranaki and supported by Creative New Zealand.
(1) Simpson, Peter Ronald Hugh Morrieson: New Zealand Writers and their Work. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1982, p.55.
(2) Simpson, p.9.
- 9am to 5pm Hawera walking tour maps available from the Hawera Town Square
- 11am to 3pm Visits to the attic where Morrieson's books were written
- Screenings of The Scarecrow and Came A Hot Friday at Hawera Cinema 2
(once each in the afternoon, once each in the evening)
- 3pm Readings from Morrieson's novels at KFC
- 12pm to 5pm Music and entertainment in the Hawera Town Square
- 1pm Scarecrow dress up competition in the Hawera Town Square
- 7:30pm 21st anniversary celebration and award ceremony for the Ronald Hugh Morrieson short story competition,
at St Josephs Hall
- 10pm Further festivities at Morrieson's Café and Bar
…as well as some sly grogging and a light flutter!