Giant of an NZ we no longer know

<i>Scrim: The Man with a Mike</i>, William Renwick, VUP, $50
<i>Scrim: The Man with a Mike</i>, William Renwick, VUP, $50

Sometimes history, even the relatively recent such as the Great Depression, reads like a foreign country or some kind of parallel universe.

Broadcaster Colin Scrimgeour is a standard figure in any history of 1930s New Zealand, if only for the curious event of how one of his "Man in the Street" broadcasts was jammed. Whether it was the coalition government of Gordon Coates that ordered the jamming has never been clear.

In Scrim, teacher and civil servant William Renwick only lightly touches on the actual jamming, but sets it in context of the life of a bewildering man, a Methodist minister with a giant opinion of himself.

He was a striking pioneer in commercial radio in Auckland and it is here that the Scrim story enters an almost Alice in Wonderland world. Scrim broadcasts were actively censored and monitored by prime ministers, including his saintly hero, Michael Joseph Savage.

Renwick makes a good fist of working his way through the way in which Scrim, heavily pro-Labour and aligned with rebel MP John A Lee, constantly chafed at controls. Renwick is no devotee of Scrim, and he hints that he suffered more than just an average media ego – that there was a megalomania verging on the sheer lunatic at times.

"A career in broadcasting which began with such great promise came to an untimely end through his domineering personality," he writes.

Much of it plays in Auckland, but a city so very unlike the one we now know.

Scrimgeour was huge in his day – his call to action on various political issues could fill the city's biggest halls. But when he was gone, he was very quickly forgotten, except by those closest to controversies.

One of the problems with political high-fliers is that they exist and are noted in a very narrow time-frame, unless they do something exceptional.

Scrim was an undoubtedly significant figure in New Zealand's 20th century political history. Renwick has neatly summed him up while leaving it plain that his New Zealand has disappeared into a black hole.

Sunday Star Times