Satirist With Good Sense Of Humour Seeks Kindness and Lies, at Dunedin Writers and Readers festival

ODWRF imagen stage there were three chairs, three tumblers and a glass jug that would be a weapon in the wrong hands. Up they came, a pair of satirists bisected by a crime writer. The wall behind them was bare and white. In the absence of background colour (which tone would readers match to satire?) they would be forced to rely on wit and anecdote. On personal charm and vitriol: on revelation.

Lisa Scott spoke first, of Feedback from Readers. At one end of the continuum: a box of chocolates. At the other: a drawing of an appendage. (Hard to know, she said, if that was positive or negative feedback.) And a copy in the mail of a column of hers, with errors marked in red pen, a score of three out of ten and in capitals SEE ME.

pp_steve_braunias‘Always in capital letters’, commented Steve Braunias (left), then he spoke too of feedback. There have been communications that have stood out, he said. An invitation to use a private house and pool in Fiji. He’s going in October. (Anyone who reads Braunias will not be surprised by such an offer. He’s quite explicit and unembarrassed in his solicitations.) But on the darker side, a letter writer in a prominent public position “crossed the line” by labelling him ugly and questioning if this trait will pass on to his daughter. Braunias went after the letter writer, strongly enough to be fired from his column- writing job by the national publication’s recently-arrived editor (“a weakling and a nincompoop”– the audience gasped) “Columnists come and go,” wrote the editor. “Editors come and go,” wrote Braunias. They were both correct. Five minutes in and we had already received our money’s worth.

Lisa-Scott-portrait-640pxVanda Symon, with an ongoing excellent sense of when to place questions and how to maintain momentum, asked the two writers what they regarded to be the role of satire. “A fire starter,” said Scott (right). “A mirror held up to naked emperors. If you’re going to bare your ankles at me, I’ll bite them.” Braunias: “Satire is good for evoking situations and people as they really are. If you want to depict John Key, satire might be more effective than the positive descriptions chorused by most political commentators.” Symon asked if satire might have an effect on the behaviour of politicians and other subjects, to perhaps keep them honest? “God no, terrible question, three out of ten.”

The session moved on, following a certain rhythm. A question would be asked. If it was a tough one, Braunias, his untucked shirt rumpling before our eyes, would say “Lisa…?” and Scott would answer first. She spoke of her terror of deadlines, of hate mail, of the regret at hurting people’s feelings, of the women who have helped her along the way. She said that it was a pleasure and a privilege to be a paid writer, to have a national and in particular, a local audience. Braunias agreed that this was a wonderful thing. That he, too, owed his breaks to “really nice people.”

He said that he crossed the wide line between satire and slander rather too easily; he has been sued successfully any number of times. “It’s just a path you stumble along and next thing you know you’re fucked.” He was weary and laconic about his lapses in taste and judgement, about his column that took as its subject the otherwise heroic Julian Assange, who tweeted hostilely in response. “Oh Julian,” sighed Steve and reached once more for his long-empty tumbler.

The satirists and the crime writer had drunk the jug dry, drawn deeply from the well of personal experience, hit us with humour, honesty and talent. And a fair amount of grace. Amazing. It had been a revelatory hour, yet another one in an autumn festival filled with excellent hours.

Satirist with GSOH seeks Kindness and Lies: Lisa Scott and Steve Braunias, with Vanda Symon
Saturday, 9 May

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Check out  WORD Christchurch Festival and Auckland Writer’s Festival for future events featuring Steve Braunias.

Dunedin writers and readers festival: Poetry in the Pub

polaroid_leviathan1This was a Thursday night, a clear night with stars for Africa, and Dunedin. I came at The Leviathan from the direction of Queens Gardens. There it was, its main door opening out onto the nexus of two main thoroughfares. Trucks lay along its flanks. Toitu glimmered in the near distance. The old jail a little further on. I searched along both walls of The Leviathan for the entrance to the backbar, laying my hands on the faded facade in case there was a hidden lever. For surely the truckers and poets of yore needed not to enter by the front door, head past the main counter and key boxes, under the gaze of customers who only required a room and not fortification, past the dining tables, treading a path through the heavily patterned hotel carpet? It turns out they did, and the proprietor this Thursday evening waved me through with a mild smile that might have said,Welcome to the back bar, where poetry probably began.

There were formica tables with four hard backed chairs at each, deep softer chairs lining the walls, poets and listeners sitting quite quietly under bright lights, and a lectern in the front left corner sharing the podium with an enormous television screen. If one of the shorter poets had happened to levitate (which couldn’t be ruled out given the miraculous quality of the poetry and listening to come) they would have barely filled the screen. Was I alone in wondering if this was to be multimedia?

I was and I was wrong. But it was multilingual. Have you read or heard Rogelio Guedea? If not, do. His spoken work tonight, taken from his recent book Si no te hubieras ido / If only you hadn’t gone, described by those in the know as poems of love and loss, was alive, funny and painful. Guedea, a literary flame in his native Mexico, seemed to deliver his syllables and lines like a Spanish speaking gunslinger, despite the subject matter, with apistolero’s gestures to provide clues for his mostly English speaking audience. Michael Harlow, who would come back later to read his own poetry, gave us the English translation with a different rhythm. We were spoilt for sound and cadence.

Kay McKenzie Cooke brought more polysyllables to her poetry, and at first a focus on landscapes and the things that inhabit them and thus our memories: a lofty Balclutha sky, the grub in an apple that falls to its knees and begs for its life, the placentas that are buried under magnolia and olive on ancient family land. But she also delivered close details, in a darkly humorous vein tapped by all of the poets, of daily life in Caversham or on the road to Gorrrrre.

Peter Olds came shuffling up from the back of the room. “Never before have so many truck-drivers attended a poetry reading,” he opened in a quivering bass that spoke of wine-dark ferry crossings. He may have been right about the truckers, though who’s to say that Hone Tuwhare didn’t give recitals from time to time. The poems of Olds were self-aware, wry and sceptical, always funny. “You’re out of date,” he is told by a salesman in one of the poems, for using a typewriter rather than a computer. He leaves the shop with a wetsuit, and the poem ends with Olds speculating that it’ll be useful for gardening in the rain, or for when a tsunami hits Maori Hill. He finished with a poem about a bike, any old bike, ideally one “so old no one will want to steal it.” He made an old bike sound so good I resolved to buy one. His poetry made me want to buy his newest book. The poetry and verve of each of the poets had this effect. My children are on bread and water this week. I’ll read the poems out loud while they eat.

Especially Louise Wallace’s one about feijoas. As you probably know, the trees grow like weeds up North. You don’t buy feijoas in the supermarket. You try your hardest to give them away. We used to throw them at passing cars. Wallace took to making feijoa crumble, feijoa cake, freezing feijoas in ice cream containers, anything to seize the season’s day with winter on its way. (Peter Olds was overheard later recommending feijoa smoothies and feijoa wine. It seemed everybody had a view on feijoas that night.) It transpires in the poem, however, that Wallace’s husband “is a good man who hates feijoas.”  I know from perfumed experience that feijoas do polarise. Where will it all lead? It led me to think highly of the committee that selects the Burns Fellow. Wallace’s poems of fruit and plastic bag pois and childhood up North are seemingly light, quirky, funny. But like the country, perhaps like the life she is describing, they are weighted also with sadness, with uneasy revelations that ease up out of the dark.

Michael Harlow oozed generosity, of spirit, of talent, of insight. This man seems born to speak, and what he speaks of– imagination, heart, “the terrible affliction of being estranged from oneself,” love, the world — is worth listening to. Looking about, it seemed that many of the listeners had their eyes closed. It could have been the bright lights, it could have been the cheap whiskey. But I think it was more likely the sonority of Harlow’s voice and the purpose of his words. It could be felt through the palms on the table-top, through the soles. The whole room seemed to vibrate. What a feat! He is the kind of speaker, the kind of poet to whom one might say, as did young Cassandra, “Could you tell me all about the world?”

And then its time was up, the poetry in the pub. A thought I pursued as I left by the front door, turned right and climbed in the shadow of Burns Hall: when the poets sit in the audience, with friends and family and the greater mass of listeners, rising to read and speak then returning to the congregation, it seems that the divide between people and poetry is not so marked. That the music comes from the mass and is played for them by the poet. That the sound-giving and the listening are not separate, rather that they are an ocean. Like the ocean of stars tonight above the heads of poets and truck drivers.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Book Review: New Zealand: A Painted Country, designed & edited by Denis Robinson

cv_new_zealand-a_painted_cuntryAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

“New Zealand is a country of outstanding natural beauty,” plainly states the Rt Hon. Helen Clark in her foreword to this book. “Generations of New Zealand artists have drawn inspiration from our spectacular landscapes for their paintings…”

Denis Robinson, the progenitor and designer of New Zealand: A Painted Country and a celebrated champion of the arts, agreed with these statements. The intertwined themes of natural beauty and artistic representation of that beauty led Robinson to invite more than thirty New Zealand artists of this generation to contribute works inspired by their chosen region along with a short written piece expressing their thoughts on the region. In Robinson’s words, the resultant book reflects a journey that takes the reader from South to North through the eyes of these contemporary artists, who number among this country’s most popular. The publication also acts as a portfolio, providing insights into the wider spectrum of styles and techniques used to capture colour and light, to illuminate personal connection to landscape.

Skilfully realised works of art certainly do consistently grace these pages, and the articulate written accompaniment makes explicit the connections felt by the artists, established names as well as emerging painters who are, according to Robinson, “beginning to gain large followings, by producing art that appeals to an appreciative market.” Is this to suggest that we as human beings are drawn to make, view, buy and display finely wrought landscape paintings (and the books containing reproductions)? And if so, why?

There are myriad possible answers to this question. Aesthetic pleasure, including an awed response to grandeur, plays a large part: the subject material is often a composed work of art in itself, harmoniously arranged in terms of colour, texture and spatial relationship. The painter is on to a winner. Nostalgia too may play a part for the painter and the viewer, provoking longing for a remembered past or an ideal future. (Artist Alison Gilmour recalls magical holidays on the Tutukaka Coast in Northland as the inspiration to return and paint this coast; Jane Puckey saw Mimiwhangata in a photograph and headed north. Her paintings might have such an effect on her audience.) There may be a lack of political and cultural controversy in landscape paintings that appeals to a wide audience. This is not to say that a meaningful rendering of place cannot inspire thought and analysis of important issues, rather that they may not be explicitly or confrontationally presented.

Another possible reason for such aesthetic and commercial success is connected to the pleasure principle, but approached from a scientific angle. In his 2009 book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, author Denis Dutton argues that since habitat choice was a life-and-death matter for early hunter-gatherers, it should not surprise us that human beings became innately sensitive to certain qualities of habitable landscape. Those who lacked this sensitivity were less likely to survive long enough to reproduce and, even if they did, their offspring might not have fared well. Factors such as the presence of water, lush foliage (and perhaps even climbable trees) were not merely aesthetic choices.

Dutton’s thesis is that universal features of our appreciation of landscape — our landscape aesthetic — were formed in this evolutionary theatre. As he puts it, “we are what we are today because our primordial ancestors followed paths and riverbanks over the horizon.” And painters, he suggests, have devised ways of triggering the pleasurable responses that arise from such evolved adaptations.

However one explains it, the paintings in New Zealand: A Painted Country, and accordingly the book itself, are a success, to the extent that works such as the screen prints of Tony Ogle, which infuse with a divine glow the cliffs, pohutukawa, nikau and black sands of west Auckland’s coast, could lead a reader to sell up shop and head North to ingest some of that colour. Equally, Neil Driver’s crisply realised acrylic on board depictions of Central Otago or Nigel Wilson’s brush-stroked oil impressions of Clutha’s dams and lakes could drive a reader South in search of solitude.

However you see it, New Zealand is a painted country, and this book is a can of condensed milk pouring out light and colour. It could be particularly nourishing for a reader afflicted by suburban ennui or urban grind, perhaps in the thick of a grey winter. Or it could sweetly summon expatriates and budding migrants (back) to Aotearoa, to see and see anew a country that constitutes a sublime sequence of landscapes peopled with sense able inhabitants.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

New Zealand: A Painted Country Contemporary – New Zealand artists paint their favourite places
Designed and edited by Denis Robinson
Published by New Holland
ISBN 9781869664343

Book Review: Zealandia: Our Continent Revealed, by Nick Mortimer and Hamish Campbell


Available in bookstores nationwide.

What, you might exclaim with book in hand, is this Zealandia? Is it a symbolic female personification of colonial New Zealand? Is it the name of a naval ship, the title perhaps of a patriotic song? A butchery in Timaru? It is all of these but most pertinently it is the label applied to a continent that is ninety-four percent submerged, with New Zealand as its largest inhabited landmass. This book is the geological narrative of the complex and dramatic half-billion-year history of continental creation. It is also an imaginative plea for Zealandia to be recognised as ‘the seventh continent,’ and a description of the benefits attendant upon recognition.

The first four chapters of Zealandia deal expertly with the processes that have led to continental definition and the methods used by humanity to geologically and geographically define their home, Earth. The authors are scientists with GNS, experts in their fields of petrology, tectonics and palaeontology. Though the book has been written for a general audience, the subject is complex, the terminology specific. The text is therefore quite challenging and requires concentration. If the reader is prepared to invest the time, he or she may absorb conceptual knowledge of continental crust, hypsometry, subduction and bathymetry. The absorption is aided by what has become de rigeur in publications seeking to communicate science – exceptional visual material in the form of photographs, graphs, diagrams and maps, including underwater, seismic and satellite imaging to illuminate features perhaps previously unseen by most readers. To my mind, this is how a specialist book becomes accessible: with skilful synthesis and intelligent design cohering a panoply of relevant source documents.

The situation then is this: Zealandia is a mostly submerged continent, with relatively shallow waters over continental rather than oceanic crust separating the island land masses (New Zealand, New Caledonia, Howe, Norfolk and Chatham Islands) that constitute only six percent of the continent. This moves us along to Chapter Five: Society, in which the authors outline their central thesis and expand upon the question and answer supplied by them in the preface: “So what? Does it really matter? It matters enormously… to be island nations is one thing but to grow suddenly in stature and take on a continental identity changes everything.”

The authors wisely preface their comments regarding the social, cultural and economic consequences of living on a continent by conceding that they are “geologists, not social or political scientists and so have to tread carefully in this territory.” They then tread quite heavily.

For whilst it is very likely that continental recognition would open up unchallenged access to a greater range of economic resources, it seems less likely that the benefits would be unifying, or that “the geography and geology of Zealandia will lead the people of Zealandia to sustainable living standards and cultural, environmental security well into the foreseeable future.” History has not provided examples of this kind of unity.

These comments about sustainability and environmental security are further weakened by a certain dismissive tone when discussing the preoccupation “these days (with) the rare and threatened nature of various native plants and animals,” lamenting the lack of long view of most discussion regarding conservation and modern biodiversity. The authors are also fairly sure that a “so-called ‘green’ future has to involve just as much mining as at present,” and that “what makes or breaks nations and allows them to celebrate, preserve and promote their culture and environment instead of simply surviving off them, is largely to do with access to resources, to energy, minerals, agriculture and water.” This is true, but there is a paradox here, that ready access to energy, minerals and agriculture, within the prevalent methodologies of consumption, supply and demand, is likely to be incompatible with universal access to (decent) water. There is no acknowledgement either that using a land’s natural resources to accumulate wealth that allows us to celebrate and promote culture and environment is akin to, for example, using a country’s tax income from dairying and mining to fund advertising campaigns to project to the world a ‘100% Pure’ image.

However, it would be misleading to focus on the relative merits of this foray into ideology. For if Chapter Five’s conclusions are at best tenuous and at worst highly subjective, the bulk of the book’s material is definitely neither, and, in addition to digesting a detailed explanation of the evolution of a continent, an undaunted reader may experience the paradigm shift of perceiving New Zealand as simply the visible aspect of an enormous submerged continent. A speculative map on page 257 is the conceptual coup de grace, synthesising the geographical with the geological viewpoint by sketching how the landmass might have appeared to and been named by Kupe or Cook if the continental crust had been above rather than below the shallow ocean waters.

Zealandia closes with the prediction that Zealandia will in the near future be as commonplace a named fact as Antarctica and Australia. When a geologist refers to the near future, one cannot be sure of the inferred time scale. However, with a bit of luck, books are still relevant and unifying cultural artefacts in this near future, so that the predictions of the authors can be corroborated by the inhabitants of a freshly minted continent. In the meantime, the authors, publishers and scientific contributors behind Zealandia deserve accolades for their excellent research, collation, imaginative faculty and book design. The past, present and future of Zealandia is bright.

by Aaron Blaker

Zealandia: Our Continent Revealed
by Nick Mortimer and Hamish Campbell
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780143571568

Dawn Chorus: The Legendary Voyage to New Zealand of Aesop, the Fabled Teller of Fables, by Ray Ching

Available in bookstores nationwide.

To understand an object, animate or inanimate, cv_dawn_chorusobserve it closely. To understand more deeply, sketch or paint it. By this measure and method of understanding, Ray Ching has a deep knowledge of the birds, trees and water courses of his country of birth, Aotearoa New Zealand.

Ching’s ‘passionate and wondrous’ rendering of the avian inhabitants of this and other countries is well known to the bird- and art-loving world. Previous books such as Raymond Ching, the Bird Paintings (1978) and New Zealand Birds (1987) have established his reputation. In recent years, Ching has begun an exploration into the classic Aesopian fables, retold and transplanted to the Antipodes. From this exploration came the 2012 book, Aesop’s Kiwi Fables. Now comes Dawn Chorus.

Dawn Chorus is the love child of several glorious unions. Ray Ching is responsible for the idea and design, the shaping of the fables, the handwritten script (reminiscent of Hotere’s), and the paintings. His wife Carolyn Ching has created the story ‘The Voyage,’ which describes the fabulous journey undertaken by Aesop’s spirit, guided by an albatross to the Land of the Long White Cloud. The news of his coming precedes him; the birds of these islands begin to assemble; there is to be a great concert in his honour. Self-appointed as court artist for this kingdom of birds, Ray Ching has then recorded the details of the various scenes (Pitt Island tuis, freshly bathed, unusually communal kingfishers, a slightly unwelcome mynah, the celebrated kakapo choir) with an expert technique.

dawn_chorus_artworkThe verisimilitude is staggering, but what elevates the artwork is the vibrancy, the style, the drama and graphic excitement. Hues, gleams and shadows substantiate the ambiguity of matter. Water eddies and ripples from a seal’s oily head in brush strokes. Beaks have texture.

Dawn Chorus is placed before a librarian, who swoons and, when she comes to, swiftly orders a copy for the Oamaru Public Library. Dawn Chorus is placed before a child, who protests.

“That is not a painting. Is it?”
“It is.”
“It can’t be.”
“It is.”
“How did he do that?”
“He practised heaps.”
“How good was he when he was five?”
“Probably pretty good.”
“Can I try?”

An hour later in front of the child there is a watercolour tieke, southern saddleback, announcing a start to proceedings. An albatross (‘from southern oceans they come, great birds with beaks of unexpected hues.’) A weka with an ankle twisted in the attempt to eat a bunch of juicy grapes. To watch the child’s concentration is to catch a microcosmic glimpse of Ching in his studio, also perhaps chewing his pencil or brush. Echoes of John Ruskin travel down the ages, Teach them to observe, to draw, to learn how things work, how they are, and hence how to love them! This is where art, society and ecology collide.

In his introduction to Dawn Chorus, Ray Ching outlines the process he uses in painting these birds and landscapes. In his studio in in the west country of England, he paints from study skins and mounted taxidermy specimens. To set them in their homeland habitat of southern rainforests, rivers and mountains, he commissioned a series of photographs, undertaken by Auckland photographer Robin Lock, who consequently traveled the islands of New Zealand, finding the birds, plants and places needed for paintings. The birds are alive again.

dawn_chorus_2The final part of Dawn Chorus is committed to the re-imagined fables; ‘Aesop lived amongst the animals of Aotearoa New Zealand for some long while and was able to leave more than one hundred fables concerning their ways, fifty of which, hitherto unseen, are included here.’ What results is the condensed verbal and graphic wisdom of Aesop and Ching, both having employed metaphor and myth to illustrate that which may be necessary for the survival of all creatures, including humans. For example:

‘A young saddleback said to his mother: “Teach me a trick that will help me escape when I am foraging for food and taken unawares by a ferocious stoat.” The other replied, “There are many tricks for escaping stoats and other enemies. But best of all is to stay safe on this island, so they neither they see you, nor you them.” (It is best to avoid low company whether they come in peace or not.)’

Ray Ching and his collaborators have allowed their imaginations to roam and forage, making bounteous use of a multi-lingual fluency: visual, verbal, maori, latin, musical, comic. There are ‘Parts’ but no boundaries to this book; it is a manifestation of the creative spirit, an intensely observed and realised gift to us and our senses, a gift, a gift!

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Dawn Chorus: The Legendary Voyage to New Zealand of Aesop, the Fabled Teller of Fables
by Ray Ching
Published by Bateman
ISBN 9781869538910

Ray Ching’s collection opens at Artis Gallery in Auckland today, from 16-21 December. Images above taken from the listing about this exhibition.

Book Reviews: High Country in New Zealand, by Alison Dench, and Historic Places of New Zealand, by Dr Sven Schroeder – photography by Rob Suisted

cv_high_country_in_nzAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Rob Suisted is a renowned photographer of New Zealand’s exceptional scenery and the wildlife and human structures that inhabit those landscapes. His partnership with New Holland publishing has spanned fourteen books to date, including the award-winning Majestic New Zealand.

In producing these two pint-sized glossy publications, Suisted has been teamed up with experts in their respective fields, researcher Alison Dench and archeologist Dr Sven Schroeder. With these reputations behind them, the books arrive at the reader’s fingertips freighted with a certain factual and aesthetic authority.

High Country in New Zealand presents images and written descriptions of landscapes that might be relatively foreign to most New Zealanders, at least in terms of personal encounters. The reader who is moved by images of the types of structures that signify a pragmatic, humble engagement with a vast and energetic world (tents on plateaus, huts in the tussock) will be drawn in. As will the reader who responds to images of wild horses in the Kaimanawa Ranges or the karearea/falcon on the wing. The side-effect seems to be an instinctive longing for the conservation of the habitat, the structure, the species, followed, perhaps, by an urge to witness it all for oneself. One senses that Suisted would be at ease if the reader was affected thus.

Alison Dench’s introductions and photograph-accompanying short texts contribute to the allure of this book. The written style is poetic and factual, and consistently reflective of the bilingual naming of the land. “On a clear day, the sacred peak of Tapua-O-Uenuku, standing tall above the Inland Kaikoura Range, can be seen from as far away as Christchurch to the south and Taranaki in the north.”

cv_historic_places_of_NZHistoric Places of New Zealand follows a similar format − images of gorgeous places allied with informative and insightful text − though the photographs do not appear to have been reproduced as crisply: there is the odd warp or elongation, and the photographer Suisted does not appear to be as comfortable amongst monuments and leisure seekers as he is when surrounded by mountains and working people.

Nonetheless, as the book moves the reader from north to south, from Ruapekapeka Pa to the whaling artifacts on Stewart Island via the old wooden Government Buildings in Wellington, an effect can be registered. The reader may well reach for a map of New Zealand and a calendar, start dreaming of being out under blue skies with white clouds in constant movement, of treading on historic piers and the Bridge to Nowhere.

The effect of both books could be summed up as follows: You’ve seen it in a book, now experience it for yourself, and most importantly, conserve it for all to come.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

High Country in New Zealand
by Alison Dench, photography by Rob Suisted
Published by New Holland Publishers
ISBN 9781869664152

Historic Places of New Zealand
by Dr Sven Schroeder, photography by Rob Suisted
Published by New Holland Publishers
ISBN 9781869664169

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015, Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew

Available in bookstores from 17 November 2014cv_tell_you_what_2015

There is no law stating that you must compare fiction writing with non-fiction writing when discussing a volume of the latter, but there could be, for all that it occurs. Two fantastic exponents of either and both forms, Emily Perkins and Steve Braunias, have recently weighed in (Braunias has stated his belief that ‘our most accomplished literature is history and biography’) and it is inevitable to compare the qualities, content and effects of the two forms. To resist is futile, but it’s worth trying, if only for a paragraph or two.

This collection is unique. The editors, Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew, give as their inspiration that “…it had never been done before…surely we have enough great non-fiction to fill a book on a regular basis.” Concerned that much contemporary non-fiction material is ephemeral and often digitally published (think reportage, memoirs, essays, musings, blog posts), they have sought to “summon these fugitive pieces back into the light, to reveal the strength and variety of non-fiction in New Zealand right now…together on the page, these writers illuminate a moment in time.”

These qualifiers are worth commenting on. A moment in time. Yes, this is a collection drawn from a specific time period (2010-14) and centred on some aspect of life as experienced in Aotearoa: a person or an event, environment or culture, or a particular way of viewing the world. It is a time capsule, its contents informing current and future readers of what and who gathered our attention: earthquakes, the Auckland property market, Kim Dotcom, facebook and land rights, iPhones and climate change. Together on the page. Yes, and the result is coherence and context, critical for readers who can become disoriented and weary with a constant diet of decontextualised word bytes, even high quality ones. And for those who like reading off paper, this collection contains writing that otherwise may never have found its way to our eyes and minds. Bravo!

Speaking of high quality. There are writers known and unknown (to me) represented herein. There is Braunias, the godfather of the short non-fiction piece, investigating petty vandalism in the suburb of unease. There is Eleanor Catton, describing mountains: say no more. There is Elizabeth Knox, paying subtle and glorious homage to Margaret Mahy. There is also Paul Ewen, backgrounding his best friend’s one way flight home in a casket in cargo. Ashleigh Young describing the revolutionary life of a metropolitan cyclist. Gregory Kan doing compulsory National Service in Singapore. And Simon Wilson telling and retelling a piece of his family history. The quality of the writing in the collection is uniformly high, exceptional even. This suggests sound editorial judgment and a broad, deep talent base. For it takes talent to shape a history, be it personal or public, and make it compelling.

It is clear that good non-fiction writing operates on several levels and tends to resonate in multiple ways. There is the content, which may be entirely new to the reader (the realities of life for a sherpa in Nepal, the sad fate of the Society Islands snails, the anatomy of a heart murmur), or presented in a light so revealing that familiarity with the subject does not breed contempt. Then there is the delight caused by the sheer creativity that comes with the relaxation of the writer’s mind, freed as it may be from the strain of trying to invent everything and of trying to be authentic. It is authentic. When Steve Braunias casts a speculative eye over his neighbours, inventing personalities and motivations as he wonders which of them egged his house, the imagination is at its wild work. It all happened… some of it in my mind.In most, if not all of these pieces of work, the facts are interspersed with musings, the what ifs with verbatim. Holding it all together is structure.

The writers have each found rhythms and modes and tones of voice to best transmit their individual signals. Signals from the heart and mind, signals from a time and place, Aotearoa New Zealand, right about now. Vive le resistance.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015
Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408244

Book Review: Great Adventures: Experience the World at its Breathtaking Best, by Lonely Planet

cv_great_adventuresThis is not the kind of book you should attempt to read in one day. One year would be verging on excessive. The glossy photos, the exotic locales, the relentless hyperbole: too rich, too heady. You risk suffering like one who has taken only dark chocolate or strong coffee for an entire day. However, like those undertaking the actual adventures, sometimes a reader must take a risk.

Circumstance in the shape of a prolapsed disc and a compressed sciatic nerve had rendered the reader prone. But he was, as they say in some circles, time rich. So over the course of a week, with kidneys on the carpet and heels on the couch, he digested more than seventy adventures. The method was dictated by Serendipity. Pain played its part, as did TradeMe.Cuernos_del_Paine_from_Lake_Pehoé

“TREK CHILE’S TORRES DEL PAINE (wiki image above). A trek around or into the heart of one of the world’s most fantastically shaped mountain ranges.” Gravity had opened the book to page 22. “Brace for the brawn and beauty of nature…with gale force winds spearing ice into your face…” It was brutal that week in Dunedin too. The words and images fortified the reader for his personal trek through towers of pain, to the mailbox.

Monday’s mail: a letter and a smallish bar of dark chocolate from a friend in France. A double surprise: chocolate through the post, a friend in France. The adventures people were having. An idea occurred to the reader as he crawled back along the hall on his knees and elbows, hitched his feet up. France. He thumbed the contents page and turned to page 30.mont_blanc

“TAKE ON THE TOUR DU MONT BLANC (wiki image above). This international route, one of the world’s finest long distance hikes, has sections in France, Italy and Switzerland. The views encapsulate the entire Alpine landscape… the trails take you right to the foot of the towering rock faces and glaciers where alpinism was born. If you take the most strenuous route, it becomes as much as 11000 metres of climbing… the equivalent of Mt. Everest as you circuit this European mountain icon.”

And so the adventures unfold with rigorous consistency, one after the other, within sections: Hike, Dive, Bike, Above and Below (not a religious category), Climb, Ice and Snow, Animals, Water, and Drive. Each four-paged condensation of extreme behaviour in radical landscapes is presented with an eye for concision and aesthetics.Without deviation, you will encounter: prizewinning photographs, a map, a hyperbolic description, essential fact boxes, a select bibliography, and a paragraph titled The Adventure Unfolds which is written in the second person (“You’re suddenly standing in air so crisp and clear it’s as though you’ve stepped into a painting”) so as to stimulate your vicarium glands. It works. At the conclusion of page 33 the reader’s heart was pounding as if he had climbed Mont Blanc. But it may have been the dark chocolate. Sleep was elusive.

Wednesday’s mail: a kilo bag of coffee beans from Vanuatu. The reader had to stuff it up his vest to crawl back up the hall. He sat awkwardly under the grinder and ground a glass jarful. The aroma was anaesthetic. As the stovetop steamed he found something in the contents as close to Vanuatu as possible. Page 58.

bikini_atoll“DIVE BIKINI ATOLL (image credit John Stancampiano). Regarded as the ultimate theme park for wreck divers, this former bomb-testing site in the Pacific ocean is littered with the warped wreckage of destroyers, submarines and ripped-open battle cruisers that have been reinvigorated by a stunning array of marine life.” By the end of the adventure the reader’s pulse was racing, but it may have been the Fairtrade coffee. Or the sense of outrage: Though the experts have concluded that “there is no danger of radiation poisoning from swimming in the atoll,” over half a century on from the 23rd detonation on Bikini Atoll, “2000 Bikinians hope that soil scraping will rid this atoll of radiation so they can return home. In the meantime, they await a settlement from the US Government for the destruction of their universe.”

At least, the reader reflected, sleepless once more after the excitement of reading the entire Diving section, this book doesn’t evade historical and ecological truths.pedal_campino

Friday’s mail constituted a pair of second-hand Camper shoes, designed (and up until a few years ago, made) in Spain. The reader lay down, Campers on, and turned to page 110. “PEDAL THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO. For centuries, pilgrims have been foot-slogging their way across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compestela, to pay homage to the remains of the Apostle James. Today a new breed comes on wheels and 27 gears.”

Suppressing his misgivings about aluminium bike frames propped up against the Cathedral’s eleventh century stonework, the reader read on. “Beginning in the border town of Roncesvalles, the ride descends the Pyrenees into the city of Pamplona before crossing the wine region of La Rioja, where fountains dispense wine for pilgrims.”

It appeared to be the first great adventure that didn’t guarantee pain, terror or death. The reader placed a tick in his mental ‘Wouldn’t immediately say no’ column and continued with the remainder of the Bike section, during which he mainly placed ticks in the ‘Not even if you paid me in coffee and cacao beans’ column. By the end of it all, his elevated feet were aching, but it may have been the new old Campers.

On Saturday there was no mail delivery, an eloquent statement about changing communication trends. The reader’s morning lacked direction, until, in the first lucid flush brought on by a line of dark chocolate and a Vanuatuan short black, he recalled that his new old Campers were actually made in China. So he laced them back on, took his by now habitual position, flexed his triceps and turned to page 202.

“SEE PANDAS IN CHINA. We’re going on a beer hunt: clambering up the mountain, sneaking through the bamboo, tracking across the forest, tramping across the snow…following the trail of China’s most iconic and enigmatic but least colourful animal: the giant panda.” There are only 1600 of them still in existence, the reader learned with a heavy heart, and you’d need luck to sight “one of nature’s most beautiful mistakes.” But not as much luck as the giant panda will need to stay alive, the reader almost cried out before recognising that ecological passion would likely reinflame his sciatica. Focus on the photographs.

And truly, the image here of the giant panda, “lounging back, legs akimbo and surrounded by torn bamboo leaves, methodically crunching a a short, sweet stem,” was worth the price of admission to the book. It was also impossible for the reader to ignore his postural kinship with that panda. Substitute bamboo for chocolate and they were brothers. He looked deeply into the panda’s black rimmed eyes. They seemed to ask a question. “How do you feel, reader?” Like I have explored the world at its breathtaking best. Like a great adventurer. Like the planet is a little less lonely.

by Aaron Blaker

Great Adventures: Experience the World at its Breathtaking Best
Published by Lonely Planet Publications
ISBN 9781743601013

Book Review: Molesworth: Stories from New Zealand’s Largest High-Country Station, by Harry Broad, photos by Rob Suisted

Moleswcv_molesworthorth won the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award at the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards

This is yet another book from Craig Potton Publishing that you wouldn’t read in bed unless you were attempting to kill three birds with one stone: honing your intellect, bathing your senses, and toning your triceps.

Molesworth is the name of the book and of New Zealand’s largest high-country station. How large is large, how high is high? Situated inland from the Kaikoura Ranges, wedged between St. Arnaud in the north and Hanmer in the south, Molesworth occupies a land area greater in size than Stewart Island/Rakiura. Much of this land lies above 1000 metres; many of the peaks are closer to 2000 metres. ‘The overwhelming impression as you travel through it,’ writes Harry Broad in his introduction, ‘is one of hugely imposing landscapes that dwarf its rivers and dominate the horizons.’ Other writers have described Molesworth as a ‘sort of ghostly colossus, lurking in its mountain fastness.’

The station has long had considerable national recognition, for the above reasons, for its mystique — there was no public access until 1987 — and because of the transformation under inspired management from a ruined, rabbit-infested landscape in 1938 into a flourishing and profitable farm within a few decades, and so on into the present day.musterteam_w

Harry Broad has set himself the task of verbally mapping the history of Molesworth. His method of doing so, as the subtitle suggests, has been to present its history as a succession of stories, as told by the people who have created and contributed to the legend of Molesworth. Those whose stories he has recorded include the sometimes hapless buyers and sellers of Molesworth’s early history (1850-1938), the husband and wife teams who have successfully managed the place since the Government took over in 1938, the politicians, the stockmen and the environmentalists. To listen to their stories is to have no doubt which country you’re in:

‘“That’s where you were growing your tucker. I don’t think it will go a hell of a lot further.”’

‘“In response, he welded two crowbars together and told them to get on with it.”

“I was a bit in awe of him. He was one of those blokes you could put in some good days for and all you got in the end was a grunt and sometimes a bit of a grizzle.”’

‘“Thirty miles from the nearest telephone… the mountains around us and the stars, and there, I tell you, you know it’s New Zealand.”IMG_1161[1]

The central story of course is that of the land itself, the iconic high-country landscape of mountain and river valley, scree and tussock, snow, dust and willow. (image above is of the map included in the back of the book) Inevitably, the true sense of the vast, lonely, sometimes bleak environment and the people who live in it is captured best in pictures. This is certainly the case with Rob Suisted’s sensitive photographs, as he projects himself and his Canon into the action: riding the muster, getting up (too) close and personal with the beehives, astride the stockyard fences, up at dawn in the stockmen huts. From the cattle rises steam and dust. There is stormy light on the ranges, fire in the forge. There are dogs in motion and draught horses waiting patiently to be shod.

Though Molesworth the book is essentially a verbal and pictorial history of the place and its people, there is a throughline that captures the tension central to Molesworth’s past, present and future. Put simply, Molesworth is a large chunk of New Zealand that has generated a correspondingly large number of opinions from a variegated cast of stakeholders. The Government, Landcorp, a steering committee, DOC, Kai Tahu, Te Tau Ihu, the wider farming fraternity, anglers and hunters, environmentalists and almost anyone in New Zealand who values public access to mountains and rivers have a stake in Molesworth. It is a lightning rod for opinions on the basic function and value of land, a subject which is at the heart of New Zealand’s colonial history and ongoing self-perception.

What then is the reader left with, having laid Molesworth down upon the kitchen table for the final time? A mindful of intangibles: a sense of a vast unvisited New Zealand; a whetted desire to perhaps visit this part of it next summer when the storms have eased. An insight into farming practice past and present; a faint self-disdain when considering the easy comfort of metropolitan life. But most significantly, a sincere respect for the writer, the photographer and the publisher whose keen senses, hard work and artistic sensibilities have unearthed a shining stone.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Molesworth: Stories from New Zealand’s Largest High-Country Station
by Harry Broad, photographs by Rob Suisted
Published by Craig Potton Publishing
ISBN 9781877517167

Book Review: An Extraordinary Land – Discoveries and Mysteries from Wild New Zealand, by Peter Hayden, photos by Rod Morris

An Extraordinary Land is a finalist in the non-fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It is available at bookstores nationwide. 

Peter Hayden is prolific. He writesAn Extraordinary Land books, produces, directs and hosts documentaries, and even acts on stage and screen, all with a high degree of competence and efficacy. With photographer Rod Morris at his side, Hayden has for many years chosen to focus the attention of his audience upon the wild life of Aotearoa New Zealand. So it is with An Extraordinary Land. As you might suspect of two such experienced and creative persons, the fruit of their recent labours is as beautiful and useful as the vivid blossom of a pohutukawa tree.

Hayden un-controversially states in his introduction that ‘New Zealand is an extraordinary group of islands…’ then asks, ‘How did they get so strange?’ Isolation is the short answer. In the midst of a vast ocean, these islands became ‘a wild laboratory where evolution could conduct experiments…’ and ‘a refuge where ancient creatures could exist…’

Isolation. It is easy to forget, in a modern era of cultural homogenization, that isolation has been a shaping force in the evolution of life forms. It has led to floral and faunal diversity based on specific local conditions. It is a catalyst for eccentricity. In the case of New Zealand, as Hayden posits, extreme isolation has led to extreme eccentricity: flightless parrots, nocturnal birds, living dinosaurs, defenseless myrtles, and giant podocarps.

In seeking to impose some order on all this eccentricity, An Extraordinary Land has been organised into four main sections: Mystery Solved; Who Knew?; That’s Weird; and To the Rescue. Further segmented into twelve sub-sections, with titles like ‘Sensory Superstar’, ‘Playing God’, ‘Kiwi Comeback’ and the quite succinct ‘Bob’, the book runs to bang-on two hundred pages. With well over half of those pages dedicated to colour photographs of en situ wild life, it is not a demanding read, though it is an engaging one, for a host of reasons.



Rod Morris is a crafty and affectionate genius. The subjects themselves (kakapo and kea, volcanic rock and braided river) are splendid in their own right, so Morris is onto a winner. But the clarity and revelation of detail are the signatures of an aficionado, and certain emotional and aesthetic responses are evoked by such artistry. The only risk here is that the reader might decide that it is not actually necessary to leave home to see New Zealand.

Who knew that the pohutukawa belongs to the myrtle family (a family that includes eucalypts, manuka, feijoas and guavas)? That while eucalypts have evolved side by side with possums, and developed toxic oils to repel them, pohutukawa have not? That as a direct result of that vulnerability, pohutukawa have been nibbled almost to extinction?
Who knew that the Kiwi, already a sensory superstar with its enormous brain and nostrils at the tip of its bill (unique among ten thousand bird species worldwide), also has in the tip of its bill a cluster of cells that detect vibrations produced by prey moving underground?

pohutakawaCuriosity modeled
Peter Hayden not only writes as if geological and biological history is an epic narrative visibly un-scrolling all about us, he is as inquisitive about his subjects as the species-discovering children whose curiosity he praises within the pages of this book.

This is not to suggest that academic rigour and accuracy have been neglected. Rather, Hayden’s storytelling method weaves fact, theory, speculation and possibility into a highly digestible and coherent whole. His is a gift consisting of equal parts technical skill, subject knowledge, metaphoric tendency and the willingness to extend little invitations to the reader: ‘Take a midsummer stroll when New Zealand’s Christmas trees are in flower and you will be perfectly placed to witness another pollination partnership in full swing. The cloak of red that covers pohutukawa trees, and the urgent chimes from the throat of a bellbird show that the tree is open for business. Silhouetted above the tree, a scribble of bees runs random relays from tree to tree, hive to flower.’ Pollination as poetry – why not?

Heroes, and hope ahead
pp_don_mertonIt is probable that most New Zealanders are aware of the horrendous effect that humans and other introduced predators have had on this country’s eccentric and thus vulnerable wild life. The thing is, as attested to in the section entitled To the Rescue, it could have been much worse. The pest eradication and general ecological heroism of such conservationists as Peter McClelland, the late Don Merton and innumerable others, has led to resurrected ecosystems and rebuilt habitats.

Presently, organizations such as Backyard Kiwi in Northland, and Project Crimson (which also originated in the Far North but has now exported its pohutukawa protection mission to all parts of the country), are helping species back from the brink of extinction. This book, while not glossing over the calamitous state of many of our habitats, celebrates these successes and directs our attention toward the possibility of a predator-free New Zealand.

With its gorgeous photos and well-told stories from the front line, and its immaculate presentation, An Extraordinary Land certainly achieves its stated objectives: ‘to explode a few myths, solve a few mysteries, and get alongside those working hard to rescue species in trouble.’

An Extraordinary Land: don’t leave home without it; but do leave home, so as to experience this extraordinary land for yourself.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

An Extraordinary Land – Discoveries and Mysteries from Wild New Zealand
by Peter Hayden, photographs by Rod Morris
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781869509637