Fiona Kidman says I was going in to bat for Albert in this book.
Another impressive book launch
By Roger Childs
This was the latest in a flurry of book launches hosted by the Friends of the Kapiti Libraries.
An audience of about 60 was present to hear Dame Fiona Kidman speak about her novel which is based around the life of the second-to-last person to be hung in New Zealand.
Kidman is an experienced historical fiction writer specialising in books on New Zealand events.
Some readers will be familiar with The Captive Wife, a story based around Betty Guard who was on The Harriett when it was shipwrecked in 1834 on the south Taranaki coast.
This time a 1950s setting
This Mortal Boy centres on Albert Black who emigrated from Northern Ireland and settled in Auckland. He was a handsome and basically decent young man, but his story is a classic case study of how lives can go wrong so quickly.
He fell in with some bad company, notably with Allen, who at 17 took on the persona of Johnny McBride – a Mickey Spillane character. In a brawl which followed a party at Albert’s lodgings the night before, Allen was stabbed to death.
Kidman did extensive research on the case in the reports and papers of the time and even went to Belfast to follow through on Albert’s Irish background. The more she read the more she became convinced that Albert did not get a fair trial or justified sentence.
He didn’t deserve to die
The author bases her perceptions on various aspects of the case.
- The police were selective in picking witnesses and three young English teddy boys who were prepared to testify were told to go away.
- The evidence given at the trial were conflicting.
- Many felt that Albert acted in self defence.
He had given himself up straight away and Kidman feels that on the evidence there was a strong case for a lesser charge such as manslaughter.
Sign of the times?
For many, Albert came across as a young man out of control. These were times when there widespread adult concern over the so-called permissive behaviour of young people.
Known as bodgies and widgies they were the subject of an official investigation into juvenile delinquency culminating in the Mazengarb Report.
At the political level, Sydney Holland’s conservative government favoured retaining the death penalty for murder and Minister of Justice, Jack Marshall, was staunch advocate. However change was in the wind, and the hanging of Albert Black was a factor in shifting public opinion.
The tide turns
The graphic descriptions of Albert’s execution in Mt Eden Jail helped the case.
The 1961 Bill to abolish the death penalty gained majority support in parliament, as several National MPs crossed the floor to join the Labour opposition.
On the scaffold Black had handled himself with dignity and his final words were:
I wish you all a happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
(“This Mortal Boy” is available from Paper, Plus, Whitcoulls, Unity Books and other bookshops.)