Cabinet of Curiosities: Tiny Lectures on the Weird and Wonderful – WORD Christchurch Festival 2021

Last night I had the pleasure of remotely beaming in to see WORD Christchurch's Cabinet of Curiosities: Tiny Lectures on the Weird and Wonderful. It was an evening of new experiences— I've never attended a streamed event, been to any previous Cabinet of Curiosities events, and no one in the audience knew exactly what we were in for. Turns out, that it's a huge amount of fun attending surprise lectures!

Hosted once again by the fabulous and funny Naomi van den Broek, we were treated to the five speakers, each giving a short talk about an aspect of their expertise. First up was Antarctic historian Joanna Grochowicz — also attending remotely. After checking that everything was coming through okay, we got a "10/10" for no technical problems, and went right into Joanna's little lecture on privation and starvation in polar climates. In other words, what people in the polar climates ate when there was nothing to eat. Fair warning, what follows is a fantastic fusion of ingenuity, humour, and grossness. 

Speaker One: Joanna Grochowicz — 'Privation and Starvation' 

The first slide we were greeted to set the scene for what we were in for— Charles 'Doughballs' Green (the cook on Shackleton's Endurance, after the previous one got sacked) preparing the hanging carcass of an emperor penguin for cooking. We learned how Green, who was called Doughballs for allegedly only having one testicle, had to make do with what was on offer, particularly after the crew was stranded in Antarctica after the Endurance sank. With his MacGyvered kitchen that was open to the elements out on the snow, Green cooked up a variety of Antarctic delights:

“The flavour pairings were very inventive– penguin heart and beef dripping; seals brain with bacon”

Apparently, Green's concoctions didn't taste too bad after using spices, and were pretty healthy, with the meat providing lots of vitamins the crew needed to survive. The real problems arose when winter came, they ran out of their stores and there weren't any penguins or seals to hunt any more. Joanna then recounted a series of examples, from Shackleton's group and others, that show what people would eat when there was no food; let's have a look at some of the items on the menu: 


  • Dog
  • Blubber
  • Fantasy Feasts (think the Lost Boy's imaginary feast in the film 'Hook')
  • Seaweed cigarettes, with Encyclopedia Britannica papers, for the hunger pangs
  • "Gelatinous Scabs"  (a.k.a. boiled lichen sludge, from surrounding rocks)
  • Leather straps
  • Books
  • An entire Buffalo coat
  • Fellow crewmen

Last, but certainly not least, Joanna finished off by recounting how some travellers discovered a special type of jerky— the supplier "reached into his undergarments" and pulled out some jerky that had been "marinating in his skin folds for months"

"I don't think even Doughball would have had the guts to serve that"

Speaker Two: Gavin Bishop — 'Queen Emma of the Thames Goldfields'

Next we had renowned writer and illustrator Gavin Bishop with a fascinating talk about family history and heritage, all sparked by an old photograph. We were shown the image, assumed to be from the 1880s of a Māori woman in Western clothing and moko kauae. Gavin had thought it was a photo by the Burton Brothers, who went along King Country (the Waikato) during the 1880s taking photos of Māori living in exile or hiding after the atrocities from 1600s onwards.

Turns out, Gavin shared, there's another version of the photo, showing that it was taken by a photographer called Richard Leap, who had worked for an American photography company in Auckland. On the back was an inscription: 'Queen Emma of the Thames Goldfields'.

Giving us a bit of background, we learned that Queen Emma was the Queen of Hawaii, who went to England and hit it off with Queen Victoria. The catch? The woman in the photograph was definitely not her, although she does bear some resemblance. Diving deeper into his research, Gavin found more photos of this woman, recognising her by her moko. The next slide we were shown was a picture of her when she was young, and we finally learned her name— Irihapeti Te Paea (Hahau), daughter of the first Māori King Te Wherowhero.

The story got more and more interesting as he went! Next we saw her wedding photo, showing her husband John McKay– "she was dressed as Pākehā, and he was dressed as Māori”. Turns out, that she’s Gavin’s great grandmother!


This all inspired him to write some stories about his family, including Katarina (which is based on Irihapeti), and his new book Koro, which is inspired by his grandfather. 


Speaker Three: Madi Williams — Oral Maps, Ngāti Kuia

Greeted by much whooping from friends in the audience, we had an old university classmate of mine, historian Madi Williams, telling us about some of her research about oral maps, looking at her iwi Ngāti Kuia in particular. Madi started by telling us a bit about the story of ‘The Taniwha Fish of Ngati-Kuia’,

Using the story of 'The Taniwha Fish of Ngāti Kuia', Madi illustrated how the story changed depending on the time and place, and whether there was a "co-optioning of Pākehā stories and Māori". (See this excerpt from the Malborough Express from 1910 on Papers Past to read these co-optioned myths in more detail). This story centre around kaikai-a-waro, a spiritual figure or a god who acted as a guardian— he is who the Pākehā writers of the story were referring to with the phrase 'Taniwha Fish'.

Pelorus Jack, a Risso's dolphin who was renowned for escorting ships across parts of Cook Strait for 24 years in 1888, has also been referred to as kaikai-a-waro, with Kipa Hemi Whiro of Ngāti Kuia believing that they were the one in the same. 

Overall, I learned that stories are often linked to important locations and traditions, and that they moved and changed along with the tribes— hence the term 'oral maps'. Tribes needed kaitiaki (guardians) that matched their surroundings – so Ngati Kuia needed a water kaitiaki with them being a coastal tribe. The important thing when looking at oral traditions, we learned, isn't the specific names— for example, kaikai-a-waro is sometimes used to refer to the 'taniwha' and Tuhurangi was the cave he lived in, while others have it the other way around— but the overarching "patterns that flow through them".

Speaker Four: Glenn Colquhoun — The Limpet 

Glenn Colquhoun — a 'jack of all trades' who wears many hats as a GP, poet, and children's writer— had a very sweet contribution to the night, chock-fuil of fun facts about limpets. Inspired by the Māori supernatural being Punga, who is associated with "ugly misshapen things", Glenn has been "knee deep in lullabies and nursery rhymes", writing new ones that celebrate the "less glamorous" creatures in Aotearoa. 

I learned that we have our own native freshwater limpet, Latia manuherikia, which is the only luminescent freshwater limpet. Time to learn some curious things about the curious little limpet:

They are descended from gastropods (snails and slugs), but evolved parallel from each other. That is, each species of limpet evolved from a specific species of snail or slug, and don't share a direct common ancestor

Most are saltwater, but some can air breathe while others have to be anchored to a rock.

They have gills— some limpets are descended from land snails, so have vestigial lungs that are a cross between lungs and gills.

Because they're descended from snails, their bodies are twisted. This means that their anus is right next to their mouths! This followed  with a joke that "some politicians must have evolved parallel as well".

Their tongue is one of their most important organs, and is like a chainsaw. They have 100 rows of teeth, but only the first 10 rows of the tongue that are active at any one time. Their teeth regenerate every two days as they’re worn away, like a conveyor belt. They use iron to build their teeth, and run along sucking or grinding up the algae. Limpet teeth are now thought to have replaced spider silk as the strongest biological material in nature.

Last fun fact: they make a ‘home’  where they make and settle into a groove in a rock, and they go away and come back repeatedly to settle in the same spot, even though they cant see— we still don't know exactly how they do this.

Finally, Glenn finished off with an absolutely lovely new song he wrote called 'A Limpet Love Song', including some charming lyrics:

“A limpet is simply a hug;

I hold on; I fold on; to all I adore”

Speaker Five: Tom Doig — 'The Naked Pie Man of Palmy'

As Naomi aptly put it "we started with a tale of food, and we end with a tale of food", while introducing journalist Tom Doig in his "uplifting and nourishing story" of the Naked Pie Man of Palmerston North. Starting with a greeting that it's “amazing to be here irl” (yes, said as ‘eye are ell’), we began our tale with a "Butt Bucket escapade — nobody Google it!"

Turns out the Butt Bucket is “a tobacco shop with a terrible name” and is a shop run by the Naked Pie Man — a local nudist who kept getting arrested for being naked in public so many times, they stopped trying.

“I couldn’t help myself. I…I… I googled him” 

I learned an awful lot about this eccentric local figure that I'd never heard of before. This gentleman who has "a propensity to get his wang out" and "bears an uncanny resemblance to Iggy Pop" not only sells pies and dairy items in his birthday suit, but has also ran for mayor ("both fully clothed and topless”), was rumoured to be "NZ's biggest drug dealer", and was the topic of many a Stuff article before dropping out of the public eye.

"I asked around, got no answers, and forgot about him." Until one day, Tom was in Palmy's only craft beer bar, and who was behind the counter but the Naked Pie Man. “I was star struck. Tongue tied”. Ultimately, this chance encounter resulted not only in this hilarious talk at the WORD festival, but one complete with an interview with the Pie Man himself!

However Tom was "afraid that something that was funny from a distance would be tragic and upsetting up close, and I’d have to change the end of my talk and finish with my true passion about his true passion...Bryan Ferry".

Thoroughly fooled by a feint where Tom went off on a tangent talking about singer Bryan Ferry (complete with album cover and background music!), we did circle back to the Naked Pie Man, who shared some truths and debunked some myths.

  • No, he is not NZ's biggest drug dealer and has “never even been stoned”
  • Yes, he does collect BMWs, and now has 22(ish) cars.
  • He helped design the Beehive before starting to sell pies

We were even treated to a photo of the Pie Man making a 'W' for  WORD— both with and without his signature nakedness! But fear not, everything was censored— with a picture of a pie.

This tongue-and-cheek talk marked the end of my evening of eclectic curiosities. Knowing more about what to eat in the Arctic when there's no food to be found, limpets, oral maps, and naked pie men than I knew before, I have many more little factoids to squirrel away for the next trivia night!

Liked what you read about the event?

Check out these recent publications from the guest speakers. Some are still on their way to the library, while others are ready and waiting to be borrowed from one of out libraries.

Polynesia, 900-1600

Moron to Moron

Koro: 2021

The Small Girl Who Lives Next Door

Shackleton's Endurance

Want to see what the library has by these speakers? Find their works in our catalogue:

Never heard of a cabinet of curiosities and want to learn a bit about them? Find books about them in our catalogue.

WORD Christchurch