Book Review: Portholes to the Past, by Lloyd Geering

cv_portholes_to_the_pastWell know theologian, Lloyd Geering, takes the reader on a journey into the twentieth century, as he shares a wide range of experiences in his memoir, Portholes to the Past.

At nearly 99 years old Lloyd Geering is well qualified to look back over the last century, discussing the massive social changes he has lived through and evaluating the progress the human race is making.

Born into a world at war on 16 February 1918, he was the youngest in his family, and his three brothers all left home while he was in primary school. The family moved a number of times to enable his father to gain employment. Despite this, and the struggles of the Great Depression, Geering had a good education and went on to University, ultimately training as a Presbyterian minister.

He remembers “men tramping the highways with swags on their backs” during the 1930s, looking for any odd job in return for a meal and a bed in the hay barn, which all changed with the passing of the Social Security Act in 1938 creating the New Zealand welfare state. Geering stated, “the welfare state was founded on two basic principles: that every citizen has a right to enjoy a reasonable standard of living, and that the community is responsible through its elected representatives to ensure that this is achieved.”

Of course one of the greatest changes which occurred during Geering’s life time has been in communications, and young people today would struggle to comprehend how the family was told of the death of his brother. A messenger was sent from Dunedin to the farm at Allanton to inform the family of the passing of Ira due to TB, as they had no telephone. Lloyd then had to travel to Dunedin to let another brother Fred, know of their brother’s passing.

I enjoyed reading this book; it brought back lots of memories of my parents, who talked about many of the same issues, as they were born in the same era. They also had a Presbyterian background and followed Geering’s Christian journey.

In his concluding porthole he is optimistic about the future: “It may not be too much to hope that from the fragments of dismantled Christendom we may rediscover and reinvigorate the moral values of justice, truth and environmental guardianship. Together with the spiritual forces of faith, hope and love, these qualities may yet enable us to create a viable human future.”

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Portholes to the Past
by Lloyd Geering
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493332

Book Review: The Truth about Language, by Michael C. Corballis

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_Truth_about_language.jpgThere are wonderful variations in the way we tell our stories, seen even in the smallest parcels of language. In Turkey, there are over two million forms of each verb – each word-form a complex interplay containing not only tense but the subject, object and indirect objects of the aforementioned verb. Walpiri, an Australian aboriginal language, can be scrambled: you can shuffle the words and it does not change the meaning.

How does this work then? Is it first things, then words? We have been looking at these sorts of questions for some 3000 years, beginning with the linguistic traditions in India and then in Ancient Greece. The Truth about language –what it is and where is came from adds to this ongoing conversation, one that has been dominated in recent times by Noam Chomsky, who argues that language arose suddenly and ‘in a way that cannot be explained by ordinary evolutionary process’.

In this engrossing book Professor Michael C. Corballis tames an array of findings, theories and disciplines to provide context for his take on the matter. What results is a highly digestible and enjoyable account of language for the general reader.

A look at our current world reveals that there are some 6000 languages spoken, over one hundred of which are spoken in Vanuatu alone. Our open-ended means of communication is far more evolved than that of other animals; it is a ‘Rubicon’ that our species has crossed. These things we know. But this gives rise to more questions and the central themes of the book: What do all of these languages have in common? What is language? Is it something we are born with or something we learn? Or both? And where did it come from?

Corballis tells us that any person can learn any languages ‘in spite of the extraordinary differences between the languages of the world’. Regardless of what we speak, we follow rules of how we put language units together to form meaningful content. We can recognise something is correct on an intuitive, but cannot tell you why. So how did we get to here? This is potentially the ‘hardest problem in science.’

Cleve-van_construction-tower-babel.jpg

Tower of Babel, by Hendrick van Cleve, from Wikimedia Commons 

Detective-like, Corballis pieces all the parts together, accommodating the findings of various disciplines – from anthropology and archaeology, through to zoology, linguistics and genetics. He guides the reader through this vast puzzle by laying out his points in a series of stepping-stones: physical characteristics, grammar, speech, how children learn, and how animals differ and are similar in communication, to name a few.

Then there is Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, a general linguistic principal. Chomsky argues that there was first a new way of thinking, which was available only to humans (the I-language), and that the languages we speak or sign are secondary and external (E-languages). The way we form language is an unbounded merge where elements (such as phonemes or basic sounds) merge into larger units (such as morphemes or elements of meaning) and those larger units merge into still larger ones (phrases and so on). ‘The merges occur within I-language, the language of thought itself, but are manifest in the external languages we actually speak’. He explains language’s emergence in the human experience as a miraculous leap in evolution, due to a change in brain size or a minor mutation.

Enter Corballis. He argues that it came to us by ‘incremental process of Darwinian evolution, and not as some sudden gift that placed us beyond the reach of biological principles.’ He guides us through the precursors to language and the gradual changes along the way, tracing the transition from gesture to speech. Our ancestors achieved bipedialism and the hands were freed; gesturing accommodated the need to communicate information effectively in more dangerous surrounds, such as the exposed savannah. We needed to be social for survival.

Then there is speech – a triumphant culmination of fine motor skills, breathing, and the larynx. And don’t forget grammar. Corballis also takes us via the hippocampus – the part of the brain that allows us to understand scale and has a generative capacity to mind wander or to ‘time travel’ by imagining future possibilities – something other animals also demonstrate. This shared capacity lays the groundwork for the unique generative property of thought processes that language communicates. So, as Corballis concludes, it is the ability to communicate our mind wanderings, not the mind wanderings themselves, that makes us different from animals. The difference is one of degree not of kind.

Corballis writes ‘Language thrives on variation. And so does evolution’. It is a pleasure to read about the intersection of the two.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

The Truth about Language
by Michael C. Corballis
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408633

Michael C. Corballis will be speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival at 10.30am on Saturday, 20 May. 

DWRF 2017: Flying Nun at The Cook

It was the best of pubs, it was the worst of pubs.

In his memoir In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, Roger Shepherd says of the Cook: ‘It was a terrible dive. Some remember it fondly, but mostly what I remember is the incredibly sticky bar top.’

cap cook.jpg
Image copyright Fairfax NZ, by Hamish McNeilly 

Back at the refurbished Cook, more than three decades after the period being described, Shepherd last night sat down with music writer and aficionado Grant Smithies to chew the fat about his memories of founding and maintaining independent record label Flying Nun. It was a low fi affair: Shepherd and Smithies sat on black chairs under a naked bulb toward the back of the stage; the audience hung back, hands in pockets or clutching a beer like it was a gig, awaiting The Verlaines perhaps or maybe The Clean. It had been like that getting in too: a line down the street waiting for the doors to open, Graeme Downes prowling around with a cigarette, fans breathing steam and exchanging opinions disguised as facts. There was one major difference, clear in the light thrown by the beer fridges: the audience members were all of a certain age and they were all well dressed. The audience of 1987 was literally here again in 2017, nodding, sometimes guffawing, listening quietly as Shepherd and Smithies reminisced.

Then it really was a gig. Verlaines front man Downes was suddenly behind the microphone in his trademark suit and scarf and pointy shoes, untamed hair, a thin legged poet with a mighty voice. Then that was over too, curtailed by a broken guitar string, also a trademark ‘If I had a dollar for every string…’ Downes muttered, and lay his instrument down to join Shepherd, Smithies, Robert Scott, Francisca Griffin and Roy Colbert at the back of the stage for another casual conversation.

roger_shepherd_H_0217.771aacee3b08a3f7e168fb9d9f399eeeRoger Shepherd, photo from article with Steve Bell on themusic.com.au.

Aside from former owner of iconic Dunedin secondhand store Records Records, Roy Colbert (once named in the Otago Daily Times as the seventeenth most influential citizen in Dunedin), the speakers were all musicians in bands championed by Flying Nun through the eighties. They offered a range of anecdotes about this golden age of New Zealand music. Francisca Griffin, formerly known as Kathy Bull, lamented how every interviewer always wanted to know what it was like to be in her all female band Look Blue Go Purple; Shepherd dismissed the easy label ‘Dunedin sound’ that had been given to Flying Nun bands – ‘They all sounded completely different!’.

Bob Scott, bassist for The Clean and The Bats amongst other bands, remembered the casual violence outside and after gigs, involving the bodgees vs the scarfies or in one case police officers seemingly practising their baton techniques in preparation for the Springbok tour protestors; Downes spoke of the competition between bands, how someone or other was always raising the bar; Colbert recalled a shipment of The Clean album sleeves arriving devoid of actual records, ‘the kind of thing that happened sometimes with Flying Nun’.

As discussion again gave way to performance, as Griffin, Scott and Downes played solo sets, the festival audience settled into pub crowd mode, yakking and making their own connections. Snippets could be overheard: ‘Didn’t you used to flat next door to us in Cumberland Street?’ ‘You were the manager of Radio One for a time weren’t you?’ ‘Did you see them at The Oriental in ‘86?’

in love with these timesAnd as the crowd dispersed, propelled down the stairs, out into the starry night, it seemed that the value of the night lay in the rekindling of these conversations, in the warmth of a remembered and shared time. For this, there is good reason to thank Roger Shepherd and the flock of Flying Nun bands, good reason to thank the Readers and Writers Festival for bringing them back together, good reason to be in love with these times.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records
by Roger Shepherd
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775540892

Book Review: Island Nurses, by Leonie Howie & Adele Robertson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_island_nursesLeonie Howie and Adele Robertson live and work on remote Great Barrier Island – so called because it faces the full brunt of the wild Pacific weather and acts as a barrier for the mainland about 100 kilometres away. With a population of about 1000, no reticulated electricity, no ATM machine, no street lights and one pub, it is a wildly beautiful place. It has a long history of farming, whaling and fishing, and the people who live here are a resilient lot, proud of their community.

Howie is married to the doctor on the island, and their younger children sometimes attended consultations, including births, although they were generally asleep in the car.
Midwifery and nursing on a remote island bring a wide range of dramas and emergencies, and Howie and Robertson share the islanders’ stories-sometimes tragic, sometimes happy, sometimes funny-from over 30 years of challenging yet uplifting work.

In the early days, Dr Howie worked from an old building on the southern end of the island and in the public health nurses’ cottage in the north, travelling by motorbike and then in a second-hand Holden sedan. ‘On Wednesday they drove in Ivan’s iconic and durable light blue Holden HQ up north to the nurse’s cottage in Port FitzRoy for the northern clinic. At this time, in the mid-eighties it took just under an hour to reach Adele’s clinic.’

Clinics were also held in a caravan on the couple’s front lawn, and in their lounge, before Dr Howie encouraged the locals to form a community trust which built the islands medical centre.

A map at the beginning of the book is a great asset and I found myself referring to it as I was reading the book. The collection of photographs also complements the text and I loved the cover design, the fresh faced nurse’s smiles inviting the reader to open the book and read their story.

This memoir is the first book the pair has written and it highlights just how a small community supports itself and the people living there. It will be of interest to anyone interested in health services and who enjoys a life away from city living.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Island Nurses: Stories of Birth, Life and Death on Remote Great Barrier Island
by Leonie Howie & Adele Robertson
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781877505843

Book Review: Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, by Jonathon Boston

Available now in bookshops nationwide.cv_safeguarding_the_future

Given the context of our world, with its 24/7 news cycle and incessant need to be ‘current’, the rise of populist politics that pander to reactive tendencies, a desire for quick ‘fixes’ (whether this be wall-building or oil drilling), and ‘perpetual election campaigning’, one could argue that we live a little too much in the now (which, as it happens, passes pretty quickly). The ever-widening gaps in society (both ideological and economical) and climate change mean that how we think about time and subsequently plan for the future could result in unprecedented consequences.

It follows that good governance is vital for keeping short-term thinking in check. In Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, public policy expert Jonathon Boston makes a well-argued case for wise stewardship and ways to achieve this with economy and clarity. He starts by asking ‘How . . . can the chances of short sighted policy decisions – ones that threaten or undermine citizens’ long-term wellbeing – be minimised?’.

In response Boston proposes a design-based approach – one that is ‘more practical than ethical and more applied than conceptual’. He lays out the concept of safeguarding the future and does not shy way from the difficulties involved in achieving such an approach in the face of competing interests, before examining ‘The attributes of anticipatory governance’.

He goes on to assess how New Zealand is faring in light of this; it is a performance that is cause for both ‘celebration and lament’. Although there are some good frameworks and structures in place to protect long-term interests, such as Treasury publishing a report (independent of the Ministry of Finance) on the country’s long-term fiscal position, Boston emphasises that attempts to address environmental and socials issues have failed, grounding his argument in research and analysis.

The major hurdle he identifies is the ‘presentist bias in policy-making in the democratic world’ and the ‘excessive weight given to short term considerations’. This presentist bias plays out in a series of ‘Politically salient asymmetries’ or the time difference between the flow of costs and benefits. Yet this presentist drive is not the reserve of politicians alone, but shared across society: ‘On the whole, when individuals are confronted with intertemporal choices . . . biases tilt their preferences and behaviours towards the present.’

Both citizens and politicians find it difficult to pay for something now, when they personally might not see the benefits later. This might not matter as much for something like roading, which can be fixed at some point in the future, but it does matter for those long-term impacts that cannot be undone, such as the extinction of a species. This seemingly wilful refusal to heed massive long-term costs ‘reflects deeper pathologies within our democratic institutions, civil society and political culture.’

He illuminates the discord in our accounting, and what we, as a society and through our representatives, attribute value to. The types of costs and benefits typically reported on have the same old themes: capital, manufacturing, finances. But natural resources, as well as human and social cost-benefits, are not given the same treatment. Auditing these assets is important to ‘affect how policy-makers and citizens perceive the world, assess progress and judge governmental performance.’ Accountability is key. As Boston points out there are currently no requirements for government to consider whether their policy frameworks are intergenerationally fair – even when long-term impacts are highly likely.

In his agenda for reform, where the ‘aim is to shift the political context in which decisions are made by incentivising forward thinking and countering the presentist bias’, Boston sensibly advocates for change that is ‘evolutionary rather than revolutionary’ because this is cheaper, politically more expedient and less time consuming.

Crucially there is a need for durable, cross-party agreements for any meaningful change in policy and institutions to take place (otherwise things are undone, done poorly or stalled) – Boston cites superannuation as the most successful to date; political leaders need ‘to frame policy problems and proposed solutions in ways that can attract broad public support – perhaps because they appeal to long-standing cultural narratives and deeply held values’. Our parliamentary system needs examination (ones similar to ours show a similar lack of resolve) – he recommends commitment devices, the stating of long-term goals, and the strengthening of monitoring. And extending the term of governance to four years.

As Boston himself concludes in the book, the aim is not perfection, but betterment and this certainly available to us, not to mention critical. There is an implicit call to action for citizens within this – after all, citizens in a democracy have not only rights but obligations too.

Boston’s case for an intergenerational duty of care and ways to enable and better this are convincing and clear. Future generations are not able to advocate now, so we should. After all, as the philosopher Rawls is quoted in the book, ‘The mere difference of location in time, of something’s being earlier or later, is not in itself a rational ground for having more or less regard for it.’

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World
By Jonathon Boston
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518257

Book Review: Rants in the Dark, by Emily Writes

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Rants-in_the_dark.jpgI discovered Emily’s blog Dear Mama (now Rants in the Dark) thanks to Jolisa Gracewood, who marked her as a blogger to watch in a ‘new media’ session at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2015. I read some of her pieces as soon as I got home, and everything about parenting suddenly made sense. I immediately commented on one of Emily’s blog posts and got seriously the quickest response I’ve ever had: she knows how to build the community she wants to see.

I was delighted to see Emily become the Parenting section editor at The Spinoff, and publish pieces by mamas and dads from all over New Zealand, explaining aspects of their parenting and lives to us all. I’m now divided on whether the Parenting or the Books section is better!

Emily’s parenting philosophy is to let kids be kids, parent with respect, and be kind. But as she says herself ‘This book is an advice-free zone.’ Emily shares the trials and tribulations of parenthood as you’ve rarely seen it before – if there is one takeaway, it is that every child is different. Even within families.

The format of the book is cleverly done, with very short pieces (for checking out on the loo with kids interrupting) interleaved with longer – but not too long, we’re talking sleep-deprived mum length, essays. Some of the essays are serious, like ‘We built a village’, others are more a yawp into the void: see ‘How to get your baby out of a swaddle’ for a cry-laughing moment for an example of this. All of the essays are easy reads for those of us who don’t remember what being a fully functional, sleeping adult feels like any more.

If you are pregnant and wondering just what you are in for (really), grab this book. If you are pregnant and on the terrified side of what you are in for and still hoping everything is going to be like the ante-natal teacher has told you (it might, don’t get me wrong), then um maybe wait a few months. Once you have your bubba, it will all make sense.

Like Emily, I have two boys. I’ll leave you with this: ‘My boys are very delicate and gentle and loud and boisterous and cuddly and angry and delighted and easily upset and resilient and quiet and hilarious and rambunctious.’ Children are wonderful, and so is Emily. Thank you Emily, for being the person who is brave enough to talk about the bits of parenting that other books do not.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Rants in the Dark
by Emily Writes
Published by Random House
ISBN 9780143770183

NB: Emily Writes is doing several events over the coming months. Check out where she will be next here on her website.

Book Review: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front, by Matthew Wright

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_nz_experience_at_galliopiMatthew Wright is a prolific writer on many subjects not just military history. Many of this highly qualified historian’s works interpret various aspects of New Zealand’s social history. And it is this interpretative skill which underpins the author’s latest work The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front.

This book looks behind the actual events and discusses the why of not only the military and political actions and decisions related to the New Zealand’s soldiers’ involvement in World War 1, but also the social, political and economic of these decisions on New Zealand.

The work is not strictly a new book. As the author notes, it is an ‘updated and expanded second edition of Shattered Glory: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front’.

Among the important The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front updates are new numbers of the New Zealand strength at Gallipoli, which were finally reported on in 2016.

Wright views the New Zealand casualties at Gallipoli, showing the impact of these casualties on New Zealand’s then small, conservative country which was still highly motivated by the jingoism of the time – for the Glory of King and Empire. He sees the idealism of the time ‘however naïve it may seem from a twenty-first century viewpoint’ as being a device with which the country coped with the ‘shattering losses’ of the Gallipoli campaign.

However, the impact on New Zealand while known by households throughout the country having empty chairs around the dinner table, were never properly recognised in official figures. This was apparently because of bad record keeping by an inexperienced and probably under-resourced New Zealand army administration. The New Zealand government did not establish a post World War 1 war history branch, as the Australian Government did – they did after the World War 2. A semi-official history of the Gallipoli Campaign by Fred Waite was put together in haste in 1919 before many of the documents were available. In a preface, equally written in haste by Gallipoli commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, quoted a number of “total strength landed” as being 8,556 New Zealanders with total casualties of 7,447.

Wright comments that where Hamilton got his numbers from is not really known but they stuck as being official for decades. The impact that these figures had in establishing myth and legend around New Zealand’s sacrifice is discussed in length by Wright. Apparently it was in the 1980’s that historians began to question the Hamilton figures, but it was a long search before any acceptable level of accuracy was established.

In 2016, an interim report by New Zealand Defence Force Historian, John Crawford, suggested that many more kiwis had been involved in Gallipoli than the Hamilton figures had indicated. It was now thought that “probably” more than 17,000 New Zealanders fought at Gallipoli. While not claimed as a final figure, it is apparently changing the way historians are considering the New Zealand’s role. Wright does not seem to suggest that the casualty rate of 7,447 is in doubt. Proportionally, this is in line with the casualty rate of other nations involved. Thus, New Zealand had not, it seems, made an exceptional sacrifice after all, although obviously the social impact within New Zealand, is now seen as touching many more families than the Hamilton figures suggested.

The scale of the New Zealand effort on the Western Front was much greater than at Gallipoli. More than 90,000 kiwis were involved producing more than half of the casualties in all of New Zealand’s military history. And Wright notes that there was a greater toll if the death of wounded solders after the war and the lingering effects of gas were taken into account. The battles, the victories (Messines and Les Quesnoy) and the tragedies (Somme and Passchendaele) are detailed both in terms of the political and military preparations and the actual battles, but also from the personal level with excellent references to letters and diaries of officers and soldiers. Letters from home are also well used by Wright to allow an understanding of the impact of the hostilities back in New Zealand.

Following the penultimate chapter discussing whether New Zealand was in indeed a land fit for heroes to return, Wright finishes this book with a chapter entitled ‘Myth and Memory’. In it, he explores how ANZAC day, always regarded as the first expression of a New Zealand identity, has been ‘re-framed’ around 21st Century notions of the country’s self-identity with the battles of Gallipoli and on the Western Front: viewed in a different context from when they were fought.

We are now in the year of remembrance of the 1914-18 tragedy: the centenary anniversaries of Gallipoli, Messines and Passchendaele will be held in June and September with commemorative ceremonies throughout the country. Scores of kiwis will visit the commemorations at the battlefields in Europe. The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front explains why.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front
by Matthew Wright
Published by Oratia Publishing
ISBN: 9780947506193