I saw the film An Angel at My Table at a difficult time in my life.
I was very young, and working as a journalist on a daily paper. It was a stressful and high pressure job with a boozy workplace culture. The killer was the shiftwork. You could be rostered to start work at any time from 5am to 6pm, and the two days off you got each week were usually not consecutive, and which days you got varied all the time. You couldn’t really do anything which required a regular commitment. Playing a sport, doing yoga, taking music lessons, even just seeing a group of friends regularly – all the things that bring stability and joy into life, they become almost impossible.
There are people who can cope with this; I am not one of them. I quickly got into a downward spiral: exhaustion, anxiety, depression. A bad time, but one of the better things I did trying to make this strange existence work was to go to the cinema during the day. It is a little strange going to a movie alone, but I came to enjoy it. I could go to anything, and if it turned out to be a turkey I didn’t feel responsible to another person.
Jane Campion is a New Zealander, now famous as a film director, especially for The Piano. But in 1990, she was only small-big, known among arty types for darkly humorous films with a touch of magic realism. An Angel at My Table was completely different, a long film about the life of New Zealand author Janet Frame. I have mentioned in another post how film soundtracks can open our minds to diverse music, and that was the case here. There is a lovely original score, but it is interspersed with other music, from Schubert lieder to early rock’n’roll, to this song.
“Po Ata Rau (Now Is The Hour)” is a farewell, in the Maori language, first sung in 1915 to farewell troops sailing off to the First World War. This version is not the one used in the film, but it is so similar that I had to check. It is the work of the choir of a Catholic school, St Joseph’s Maori Girls College, and comes from an EP they recorded in 1962.
It is only short, but it is a beautiful piece of harmony singing, and it lifted my heart on a grim day in 1990 and it still does now.
- Artist: St Joseph’s Maori Girls College
- EP Title: Maori Love Songs
- Side 2, Track 3: “Po Ata Rau (Now Is The Hour)”
- Format: 7” EP 45 rpm
- Label: Viking VT62
- Manufactured in: New Zealand
- Year: 1962
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