On the Main Trunk Line, Charlotte Yates

An Ordinary Joker: the life and songs of Peter Cape
ed Roger Steele
Steele Roberts, $59.95,
ISBN 1877228125

For a singer, Peter Cape has always struck me as an anomaly, with his thin nasal tenor, tentative tuning, and strongly defective “r”. And the multi-faceted An Ordinary Joker – the life and songs of Peter Cape, a compilation biography-photo-album-songbook with companion CD, further highlights the contradictions that should have diminished his popularity, but perhaps enhanced it.

An Ordinary Joker offers itself as a well-heeled coffee-table book with Fergus Collinson’s distinctive cover illustration heralding one of Cape’s most famous lyrics:

And I’ll love that flaming sheila till I’m up
and gone and dead
In Taumarunui, Taumarunui
Taumarunui on the Main Trunk Line.


In section 1, publisher and editor Roger Steele provides a biographical sketch peppered with family photos and Cape’s poems and early record covers, revealing him to have been anything but an ordinary joker. (My favourite photograph caption is “Peter took a recorder wherever he went.”)

Born in 1926, Cape was the only child of English immigrants. His father worked as a travelling salesman, making family life peripatetic. Young Peter was thoroughly exposed to backblock New Zealand. The accents and language he heard, in sharp contrast to his parents’ North Country brogue, made a lasting impression. An enthusiastic reader, Cape also credits his solitary childhood with the development of “a leaning toward speculation and fantasy and [the ability to] live, not in one world of my own but in several.”

A stint at Auckland University included writing for Craccum, an interest in theatre, in the outdoors and, not surprisingly, in hitchhiking around New Zealand. In 1951, he married Barbara Henderson, a skilled artist, and her sketches illustrate Cape’s songs later in the book. The following year, he began studying for his licentiate in theology and eventually worked as an Anglican priest for two or three years before turning to journalism. He wound up in broadcasting, making religious programmes for radio, and, ultimately, television.

But there were a few bumps in the road. Drinking, an affair with a colleague at work, and poor mental health led to Cape leaving his marriage and moving to a small farm in Richmond to live with Gladwen McIntyre. There he wrote prodigiously until in 1979 he died unexpectedly at the age of 53. The New Zealand Herald’s obituary described him as “one of the most versatile figures of New Zealand arts and letters for more than a quarter of a century.”


Section 2 of An Ordinary Joker is made up of Cape’s own autobiographical vignette, followed by transcriptions and lyrics of 29 of his songs (or “vernacular ballads”, as he preferred to call them). Here the contrast between the complex, clever man and the characters that populate his songs is extreme. Suddenly we are plunged into a nostalgic world of 1950s and 1960s New Zealand, where women were sheilas, blokes were jokers, and dogs were their best mates. Trains and steamers ruled, work was on the land, beer was the drink, and the pub closed at six o’clock. A world where there was no downsizing, no outsourcing, no
e-commerce, no equal pay. A world where there was a definite masculine perspective and a very Pake-ha-ha-ha approach to te reo.

The pace of life seemed slower, more cheerful. Time was spent working, drinking, and travelling, with not much care for the future or the past, and beggared if you knew what the sheilas were on about half the time. Many of Cape’s lyrics are so descriptive they whip up a mental picture quicker than an instant pud:

There’s puppies in an apple box, pipis in a sack
Riding the Okaihau Express
But no-one knows the difference when they’re
dripping from the rack
Riding the Okaihau Express


Whole lifestyles have vanished since many of these songs were written. Gum-digging, horse-drawn coaches, the only night-time entertainment provided by country hall dances and coffee bars: all this now seems light years away. Archival photographs attached to the lyrics vividly show how life has moved on from the corner grocery store in Miramar and the Westport short-back-and-sides Saturday night dance; and readers are well armed with explanations of any terms that might now be unfamiliar.


The final component of An Ordinary Joker is a CD slipped into the back cover of the book. It’s a comprehensive re-issue from Cape’s original record company Kiwi Pacific Records plus additional tracks recorded by Christopher Cape (Peter’s son), Arthur Toms, Phil Garland, and Pat Rogers (who wrote the tune of “Taumarunui”): 24 tracks all up. While the approach appears comprehensive, it feels like overkill, and the newer recordings don’t really have the do-it-yourself, clunky charm of the original 1960s tracks. In fact, when there was no defective “r” in the vocals, I found myself yearning for it. I would have preferred Kiwi Pacific’s earlier release of Peter Cape’s Kiwi Ballads as the aural accompaniment to this stylish book.

The CD sleeve notes by Kiwi Pacific’s Tony Vercoe make interesting reading, not least their account of Peter Cape’s difficulties in the recording studio. Vercoe matched Cape up with Don Toms, asking the latter to arrange and accompany Cape’s tunes. Although Cape came to refer to Toms as his mentor, initially Toms was reluctant to be involved, and Toms’s wife June actually advised him not to touch the music. The songs’ success seems always to have bewildered Toms, who later remarked: “During the whole process of recording I continued to think the songs very slight – I was amazed to find how popular they became.”

I must admit I had the same reaction in the early 90s, recording “Down the Hall”, “Taumarunui”, and “Coffee Bar Blues” with When the Cat’s Been Spayed. But when we toured the regions in 1993-1994, we were left in no doubt that the songs struck a chord with heartland New Zealand. And it was quite something to perform “Taumaranui” in the town itself. We were totally unprepared for the foot-stomping demand to hear it performed.

The regional, historically familiar images, combined with simple folk-esque tunes, have embedded themselves in an audience as happy to fill a theatre now, as they were once to fill the Monde Marie. Cape himself was apparently equally surprised by his songwriting success. “I find that these songs are the one thing I didn’t foresee,” he once commented. “I was never much of a poet and I don’t sing very well, I never even remotely considered myself as a composer.” Don’t worry mate, she’ll be right.


Charlotte Yates is a Wellington singer/songwriter  www.charlotteyates.com


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Posted in Biography, Music, Non-fiction, Review
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