A New Zealand Marsh, a South African Springbok, and Some Pretty Dangerous Waves

How do you pronounce Ngaio? I think that the ‘g’ is silent, just like in ‘gnu’ and ‘gnostic’, but not like in ‘lasagna’. I also understand that a ngaio is a type of tree found in New Zealand, which makes sense since the word is of Maori origin, and you would expect that the Maoris would come up with names for their trees.

It would also explain how Ngaio Marsh got her name, since that’s where her parents were when they named her. (Actually, Ngaio was her middle name; her given first name was Edith. Perhaps she dropped Edith because it doesn’t sound very Kiwi; perhaps she had other reasons).

None of that, however, explains why I recently read “Enter a Murderer”, one of her theatrical detective stories from the 1930s. That can be explained only because I wanted something light to read, and I looked down at a table in our family room, and there it was.

I don’t know that I have to read any more Ngaio Marsh, but “Enter a Murderer” was entertaining enough (unless you happen to be the Arthur who was killed during Act III) and I do think that, as Inspector Alleyn posited near the end of the book, that the identity of the murderer should have been clear from the beginning, although Marsh did her best to obfuscate the issue and confuse the reader and almost pulled it off. A bright fellow, that Alleyn. Maybe I should see how he solves another crime or two.

Speaking of crime, I don’t think I am going to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie. I don’t have to see Holmes as an action hero, no matter how good the portrayal. But speaking about New Zealand (and Maoris), I did see “Invictus” this weekend, and am happy to say that there is one uplifting, positive, informative and enterntaining movie out there, and I think you all should try to see it.

Yes, I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.

Of course ‘Invictus’ is about Morgan Freeman (a/k/a Nelson ‘Mandiba’ Mandela) cheering on Matt Damon (a/k/a Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team, the Springboks) to the 1995 rugby world cup championships. To black South Africa, nothing could more epitomize the apartheid era than the Springboks, and when now President Mandela refused to denationalize the team and change the name (he believed that to do so would further alienate the white population he needed to win over), politics and rugby became intermixed.

Now, we all know that South Africa is not New Zealand, but in fact the finals were played between the Boks and New Zealand’s All-Blacks, which start their game with a Maori war dance, war chant and tongue sticking-out. (By the way, in case you are interested, 2009 was not that different from 1995 – the Boks beat the Blacks in what is now called the Tri-Nations final.)

So, perhaps Ngaio would have felt at home at the game (she would have liked to have had the opportunity to attend, I am sure, but unfortunately she had died 13 years earlier, at a ripe old age). But a friend of a friend, who is from New Zealand (not the friend but the friend of the friend, as I am sure you understand), did actually attend the game in 1995, and he reports (through the friend) that he thought that Clint Eastwood and the rest of the crew got it just about right. (And I wondered, did they have to do a casting call for 62,000 extras to fill Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg?)

But now back to the poem itself – ‘Invictus’ by William E. Henley. This is the poem that Nelson Mandela kept repeating during his 28 year imprisonment on Robben Island and which, in the film, he handed Pienaar to give him inspiration for his team before the championship match. But in fact, so they say, this did not happen, and although Mandela did provide a paper with inspirational words to Pienaar, he did not give him ‘Invictus’ but, in fact, some inspirational words spoken by Theodore Roosevelt.

Well, inspiration is hard to come by these days, and you should take it from any and all available sources. And that includes ‘Invictus’, the film, as well as ‘Invictus’, the poem.

And speaking of inspiration, we went this evening to hear a presentation by a man named Julius Menn this evening at Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville. Menn has published his memoirs, a book entitled ‘Waves’. His story is an interesting one, and his manner of presentation and genuine charm very appealing. Menn was born in Danzig in 1929, to a prosperous and integrated family whose relatives lived throughout Poland and the Ukraine. For several years in the 1930s, his family relocated to Palestine, but returned to Poland, escaping to the east, first to Lithuania and then through the Soviet Union to Turkey and through Syria back to Palestine) in the early 1940s. (One more aside: I know I wasn’t completely positive about Christopher Bohjalian’s ‘Skeletons at a Feast’ in a recent posting, but the trip that Menn described moving east in a hay wagon across Poland is not that different from the westward trip that Bohjalian described in the book, so……..) In Palestine, Menn worked on a kibbutz, joined the Hagannah, but left shortly before 1948 to attend school in California. He went back after Israeli independence, spending two years in the new Israeli army medical corps, before heading back to Berkeley, where he got a Ph.D. in toxicology and worked in private industry for several decades before coming to the Washington area, where he became deputy director of the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville. His speech, which meshed world and national history with personal history and anecdotes, was fascinating. I am sure that his book is, as well. Another recommendation.

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