This book is available in bookstores now, and is a finalist in the General Non-fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards.
“I have frequently been asked if I am worried that this book may upset people—primarily gang members,” writes Jarrod Gilbert in the Preface to his book Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand. “While obviously I hope it does not, I am unconcerned by offending gang members, members of the police, or politicians. What I am concerned with is the truth.” It is this uncompromising commitment to the truth which makes Patched such an excellent book.
In Patched, Gilbert unfolds the history of gangs in New Zealand, starting from the 1950s with its incipient gangs of ‘milk bar cowboys’ influenced by Hunter S. Thompson and rock ‘n’ roll, and unfurling his history out to today’s urban streets, with LA-style street gangbangers wearing bling. Gilbert hangs his history on four ‘pivot points’—developments or events that, in one way or another, caused the gang landscape to seismically shift into a new configuration, and the demarcation of these pivot points helps the reader keep track of Gilbert’s complex subject. Gilbert is also careful to place each development in gang history within its specific historical, social and economic context—to the point that it’s possible to read Patched not merely as a history of New Zealand gangs, but rather as a history of New Zealand, as seen through the prism of gangs.
A sociologist by trade, Gilbert chose to study New Zealand gangs for his PhD thesis, and it is on this thesis that Patched is based. But Patched is by no means a dry academic treatise. In fact, despite all the statistics, official statements, interviews, and footnotes (all of which stand testament to the immense amount of work Gilbert clearly had to do), Patched remains a lean, mean read, that whisks you along this gang history in a completely unputdownable way.
But what really impresses, over and above the depth of Gilbert’s research and his obvious ability to write, is, as I said before, Gilbert’s steadfast search for the truth. Gilbert obviously went into researching this topic with his BS detector on high alert, since there isn’t a single statement made by gang members, police or (especially) politicians that Gilbert hasn’t turned over, scrutinised and gnawed, like a dog with a bone, until it has proven itself to be true. That attitude gives Patched a sense of hard-won rigour that is striking.
It is easy to conceive of police and politicians decrying Patched as being biased towards gangs (especially since Gilbert spent eight years doing ethnographic research with various gangs, immersing himself in the gang scene). But to Gilbert’s credit, it doesn’t seem like Gilbert wants to shut out views that clash with his own. Instead it seems clear that Patched is intended to ignite debate, not firebomb dissenters. And, equally clearly, that debate is needed, now. If nothing else, Patched shows the urgency with which social problems that lead to gang formation, like entrenched unemployment and poverty, must be addressed. Patched is excellent for its readability and its hard-nosed search for the truth, but it becomes outstanding because Gilbert’s findings are necessary. For these reasons, Patched may well become a landmark work of New Zealand non-fiction.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand
By Jarrod Gilbert
Auckland University Press