The World’s Din: Listening to Records, Radio, and Films in New Zealand, 1880-1940 by Peter Hoar
Dunedin: Otago University Press (2018). RRP: $45.00
Reviewed by Andrew Paul Wood
“Distance looks our way”, as Charles Brasch wrote, but sometimes it makes noises too and we make noises back. Peter Hoar in The World’s Din: Listening to Records, Radio, and Films in New Zealand, 1880-1940 has crafted a worthy history of the recorded sounds of radio, film and record, originating in Aotearoa or otherwise imported and adapted to local purposes from the beginning until World War II. It’s a difficult task, and it’s debatable whether a history of sound actually conveyed in words and is an entirely successful proposition when a 21st century audience would probably prefer to experience it rather than have it described to them.
At heart, it’s more of a history of a technology and how it shaped New Zealand, and vice versa, from Victorian gramophones, to the rise of radio and the “talkies” between the wars. To a lesser extent it’s also a history of entertainment and popular culture. Perhaps the meatiest parts of the book deal with how early military radio and amateur ham radio hobbyists influenced the development of commercial radio following World War I, and particularly the fascinating individuals who progressed it, richly illustrated with archival material. There are also some fascinating forays into the impact on Māori, the voice radio gave to women long before Aunt Daisy, and even how the layout of the domestic interior rearranged itself around the radio at its centre.
Of course one could argue that this is a generic history in New Zealand drag, but that wouldn’t be fair to Hoar’s project. This is especially true near the end of the book when Hoar meditates on the erosion of local content with the arrival of cinema, and how this brought a particularly American influence at a time when most cultural influence was received from Britain. The World’s Din is also a reminder of the speed with which distinctively local popular culture can develop and just as quickly vanish again.
Andrew Paul Wood is a Christchurch-based art writer and critic. He is takahē arts and essays editor.