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

Book Review: Illuminating Wisdom: Words of wisdom, works of art, by Dierdre and Craig Hassed

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_illuminating_wisdomPartners Craig and Deirdre Hassed have collaborated to share wisdom from Eastern, Western, indigenous, ancient and contemporary sources in the form of spiritual and philosophical quotes, mantras, proverbs and blessings. Craig, who wrote the text, is an academic and coordinator of mindfulness programmes at Monash University. Deirdre is a skilled calligrapher with a deep interest in philosophy. Themes covered in their book include love, beauty, truth, justice, service, compassion, virtue, unity, peace and wonder.

The title plays on various meanings of illumination – including the lustrous gilding added to some artworks to reflect light, as well the association with understanding and insight.

Although there are plenty of inspirational and aspirational quotes circulating on Facebook (and sold on cheap canvas ‘art’) few are attributed to individuals and there is typically no contextual information. Illuminating Wisdom is very different: the comprehensive background story for each quote both educates and informs – at times gently challenging readers to consider life from a different perspective.

The book includes Apache and Celtic blessings and the brief ‘indigenous and folk traditions’ section includes a whakatauki (Māori proverb). This section also acknowledges the role of symbolic stories, songs, dances and proverbs and the interwoven connections between land, ancestors and other living creatures (with particular reference to the teachings of the original inhabitants of Australia).

Many of the people quoted are familiar, such as scientists Curie, Newton and Einstein, leaders and politicians Lincoln, Gandhi, Churchill and Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Michelangelo. Others are less well-known. The historical notes and accompanying stories are engaging and several inspired me to turn to other sources to find out more. I learned, for example, about the Benedictine Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was the head of a religious community as well as an outspoken philosopher, mystic, author, composer, healer and scientist. Her writing and music are still popular – her Gregorian chants have been updated with electronic effects and modern instrumentation; I was soon listening to her soothing compositions on YouTube.

Craig includes a brief history and outline of diverse spiritual and religious traditions and practices. He explains that spiritual traditions often have dual paths – a religious pathway for people drawn to faith, and a mystical or philosophical pathway for those drawn to reflection.

I was at first confused by the ‘see text’ note accompanying most illustrations, expecting to find a typewritten transcript of the relevant calligraphised quote. This would have been helpful, as some of the more ornate and intricate lettering is a challenge to read. Instead, the referenced text describes the source and context of the quote, and explores its key message and likely intent.

In an ‘artist’s notes’ section at the back of the book, Deirdre summarises the technique used for each calligraphy work, including linocuts, sandblasting, collage, and letterpress prints. She uses inks, hand-stamping, gouache, gold leaf and gold powder, acrylic paint, foil and coloured pencils to inscribe her designs on surfaces such as hand-made, hand-dyed and hand-marbled papers, canvas and papyrus. An index assists readers searching for a particular quote, author, religion, spiritual teaching or tradition.

My favourite? A quote from the Sufi poet Rumi: ‘Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you.’ Craig interprets this as a reminder ‘to be open to the grace and good fortune surrounding us’, drawing parallels between this quote and the focus on gratitude in current positive psychology circles. (Food for thought: it was apparently Socrates, rather than Marie Kondo, who first challenged us to consider: “How much can I do without?”)

This is a book to be dipped into and savoured over time. For me its value lies in the history, analysis and wisdom shared alongside each quotation, as well as the beauty of the calligraphy – not only the intricate lettering but also the materials and mediums used to create it.

Illuminating Wisdom would be a good place to turn for inspiration next time you write to comfort, congratulate or console someone you hold close to your heart.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Illuminating Wisdom: Words of wisdom, works of art
by Deirdre Hassed and Craig Hassed
Published by Exile Publishing
ISBN 9781925335354

Book Review: New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key, by Michael Bassett

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

Michael Bassett is a former university lecturer in history, who was first elected for the Labour Party in 1972, and became a cabinet minister in the 4th Labour Government in 1984. He should have some unique insights into the careers of the Prime Ministers in New Zealand, both as an historian and as an insider. But during his career, Bassett has moved from the left of the Labour Party to become the main defender of the faith for “Rogernomics” – so, associated with the ACT Party.

The book begins as mostly elite political biography, moves into some sharp personal polemics during Bassett’s era as a politician, and ends up cheer-leading for John Key. As an elitist historian, Bassett’s text for the early Prime Ministers is based on some classic historical works, without accounting for recent scholarship from university history departments. And as an elitist, Bassett continually name checks retired right wing economists like Gary Hawke, and Don Brash, who regularly appear for their anecdotal accounts of politicians. Bassett himself often slips into the first person, and goes from the past to the present tense.

One of the idiosyncratic aspects of this book is the amount of text given over to caretaker Prime Ministers, like Harry Bell, who gets almost as many pages as days he spent in office. Bassett’s use of initials for Bell can also confuse him with his politician father, F.D. Bell. The reason for this focus on Bell is his influence on the likes of Coates and other key figures in the interwar period, which is Bassett’s main area of knowledge as an historian. But the post-war period has an underlying narrative based on economic transformation, and its apparent link to academic theorising. He digresses to talk about Don Brash’s view on the role of Canterbury University (p.335) in the chapter on Bill Rowling, who was apparently gripped by Keynes’ thinking.

For Bassett, after Kirk, the Labour leaders do not shape up. Most of the invective is reserved for R.D. Muldoon. This is where Bassett gets particularly petty, including referring to Muldoon as “Old Pussy”, based on a schooldays anecdote. He repeats this term a number of times in the Muldoon chapter, as well as other unattributed anecdotes, like when the Treasury secretary, Henry Lang, waited outside the minister’s office all day to get his point across. This is portrayed as an example of the Treasury officials’ views being overridden, but Bassett misrepresents their relationship with the finance minister.

Bassett’s book includes a lot of black & white images, some from library sources, and others from his own collection or offered by recent Prime Ministers. The caption on the photo for the first page of Jenny Shipley’s chapter states that it was contemporary, when it’s obviously taken recently. Indeed, with no photographs in colour, other than the cover photo of John Key playing golf, it is hard to justify the $50 retail price tag. But then this book is only really for the political conservatives in the current debate.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key
by Michael Bassett
David Ling Publishing 2017

NB: The views in this review do not necessarily represent those of Booksellers NZ as an organisation. All of our reviewers are independent commentators.

Book Review: Glorious South Island Steam Power, by Robert John

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_glorious_south_island_steampowerThe word “glorious” in the title of this photographic essay on steam trains in the Sth Island of New Zealand is not a misplaced use of hyperbole. Growing up as a child of the railways in the 50s and 60s in Timaru and North Canterbury, I loved everything about the huge black monsters as they puffed their way up and down the country.

Robert John has captured the feel of the era with his photographs which document the passing of steam power in the South Island. Quoting his words as he watched two locomotives power past his vantage point in Oamaru – ‘Onwards and upwards these two examples of Hillside shop’s finest blasted their way around the right inside curve, past this railfan’s camera waiting trackside. Puzzled faces peered out of their carriage windows, no doubt oblivious as to why on earth anyone would want to photograph their steam express. How could they have known that in 1965, steam was living on borrowed time?’

Sadly time ran out so quickly for the steam locomotives, but this book goes some way to assuage the pangs of yearning for past glories.

The photographs stir the memories, their black and white starkness somehow more impressive than a colour shot. My memories of the locomotives that hissed into the station across from our house, are always of the dense blackness of the engine and the varied whiteness of the steam that poured from every orifice. Mr John captures this effect well.

Along with the photographs there are accounts of various classes of locomotives, where they served and when they went out of service. For me, these accounts were less interesting than the photographs, but for many who were as fascinated by all things to do with steam power as the author of this book, this information will be a treasure trove of facts, eagerly pored over.

I’m so glad that people like Robert John exist. His love of his subject and his willingness to share the information he has painstakingly accumulated over time adds not only to the enjoyment of others of like mind, but leaves a well documented legacy of a piece of our history.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Glorious South Island Steam Power
by Robert John
Published by Robert John
ISBN 9780473359454

Book Review: Doctors in Denial – The forgotten women in the “unfortunate experiment”, by Ronald W. Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_doctors_in_denialThere have been two phrases in New Zealand, which have become synonymous with tragic events. While “an orchestrated litany of lies”, reminds us of the Erebus inquiry, an ”unfortunate experiment,” takes us straight to the sad events which unfolded over 20 years at National Women’s Hospital, in Auckland.

Ron Jones is a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist who was part of the original team to bring the spotlight on the work of Professor Herbert Green. Here he tells his own story in meticulous detail. The book follows a chronological timeline but also inserts the stories of some of those involved and gives a human face to the unsuspecting women in this experiment. He also captures the behaviour and social conventions of the times, which had a part in these events. While today we are appalled at the thought of medical experiments on uninformed patients, it was still the era when the Doctor knows Best and who are we to question.

The account of events, people, places and the advances being made in medicine at the time give a robust substance to the book. Here are the details, which supported the experiment, the people who questioned but were ignored, the women who accepted the treatment offered, or not offered in some cases. Against a worldwide agreement among many experts that CIS was a precursor of cancer, Green decided to make a study of his group without their consent. This meant women were untreated, or over-treated in invasive ways without a choice or knowledge of their involvement.

While the book is a little heavy for a general read, it is essential reading for anyone concerned with the development of ethics committees in New Zealand. It is important for medical students to see the fallout from poor decisions and for administrators to understand how things can go so wrong if there are no careful checks on the behaviour of our experts. This book clearly reminds us of how wrong we can be and the pain such mistakes can cause. I am a much better informed teacher of ethics and a woman who will always ask questions, even of the experts.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Doctors in Denial: The forgotten women in the “unfortunate experiment”
by Ronald W. Jones
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522438

Book Review: Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_truth_and_beauty.jpgThere has been a surge in recent culture, and across disciplines, of what we could term as biographical impulse. Objects, diseases and cities, through to created historical figures in art works, have all been examined through this lens, which involves interpreting a range of material to construct a narrative. This surge has also led to increasing awareness of the tension in biographical enterprise: there is a constant process of resurrection and modification.

Both impulse and tension are reflected, and even cultivated, in the emergence of a new genre, which is subject to critical discussion in Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma. ‘Verse biography’ melds biography and poetry to produce works where ‘the competing and complementary claims of truth and beauty’ find home in historical figures, whose lives are rendered in poetry.

Biography often favours chronology as the driving narrative force or main thread of work, which is then fleshed out with anecdotes and facts, reliable accounts, and investigations of identity. But verse presents another way of looking at things – ‘a freedom from the concerns of conventional biography’. It emphasises moments, highlights omissions, plays with chronology and is free from the burden of establishing authority or authenticity. We see this tendency in Anne Carson’s lyrical treatment of Sappho’s fragments, where she plays with square brackets to indicate omission: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.’

There is an inevitable jousting between the autobiographical and biographical in any act of interpretation or reconstruction, but verse biography stands apart in its approach – it is deliberate and self-aware, conscious of its subjectivity. Not only does verse biography provide another framing for the story of a historical person – for example a look at Billy the Kid in Michael Ondjaate’s work focuses on Billy’s later years, his intimates, what drives him to violence – his ‘trials and tribulations in New Mexico’. But there is also a framing of the relationship between subject and writer, which propels us to consider whose voice is speaking through these works? In Margaret Atwood’s rendering of Susanna Moodie we are unsure whether it is writer or subject: ‘The mouth produces words/I said I created/ myself, and these/frames, comma, calendars/ that enclose me’.

Through various poets’ treatments of figures such as Emile Bronte, Captain Cook and Akhenaten, the cycle of destruction and renewal – of resurrection and modification – ‘reminds us that historical figures are but characters marked beneath our current selves.’ With contributions from academics and poets (sometimes both), the essays survey the concerns of voice, palimpsests, masks, mythologising, characters as vehicles for contemporary messages – and bring this ‘construction of life’ to the reader’s attention – revealing the awareness of these verse biographers carry in their works.

Although this academic text is by no means light reading, Truth and Beauty holds a certain unruly appeal in that it captures a moment in time in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the emerging cultural practice of verse biography sits on the cusp of becoming something in particular. The collection of ten essays, which form this satisfying tome from Victoria University Press, critically analyses important verse biographers and captures this lively diversity, where ‘individual works are so variously influenced, so eclectic in approach to the idea of verse biography, and so various in form’. The range of possibilities before the institution of a canon or genre settles, and the freedom this entails, is exciting to consider. Indeed ‘verse biography expands the possibilities for both biography and lyric’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560974


Book Review: The Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata, by Scott Hamilton

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_stolen_island.jpgThe Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata, relates the untold story of a tiny Polynesian island near Tonga, whose history seems to have been forgotten, largely due to the booming slave trade in the 1800s that resulted in a tragic incident for the island’s inhabitants.

In 1863, an Australian-born whaler, who decided that the slave trade was more profitable then whaling, lured 144 ‘Atan men, woman and children onto his boat under false pretenses, only to sell them as slaves. No one knows exactly what happened to these people after they had been sold, but it is certain that they never made it back to their island home, ‘Ata. The Stolen Island relates how the author, Scott Hamilton, came across these stories of the now-deserted island and his journey in finding evidence to support the legends handed down through generations of story-telling among families and tribes.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the book but it surprised me. We don’t have to go back too far in history to see slavery being practised all over the world, and yet somehow realising the extent of it in New Zealand and the Pacific which the The Stolen Island pointed out, shocked me. The story of the natives of ‘Ata being captured would have been saddening enough, but that, along with the other accounts of kidnappings and exploitation that Scott Hamilton outlines in his findings, made it all the more appalling. Many were tricked into signing contracts that gave them little or no remuneration for years of servitude and labour. Others were forced into hard labour, some even left to die on abandoned ships, and almost all had very little hope to ever making it back home.

While what happened on ‘Ata in 1863 is the main focus of the book there are many more interesting points relating to ‘Ata or slavery that the author notes and discusses which makes The Stolen Island that much more intriguing and well-rounded. The way he progressively relates his experiences made me feel like I was right there too, seeking out whatever information was linked to this mysterious island, and feeling a mix of eagerness, desperation, at times disappointment but also satisfaction.

Scott Hamilton did a commendable job of tackling this topic; clearly it was something that intrigued him and piecing the puzzle together satisfied much of his own curiosity about the island, but to put his journey and findings into a book means that people are able to know a bit more about the history of slavery in New Zealand and the Pacific, but also the history of a little uninhabited island between Tonga and New Zealand, ‘Ata.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata
by Scott Hamilton
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518110