Book Review: Portacom City, by Paul Gorman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_portacom_cityAs the science reporter for The Press during the Christchurch earthquakes, Paul Gorman was in a unique position to report and observe on this cataclysmic event in Canterbury’s history. Not only was he equipped with the scientific knowledge to understand why the earthquakes were happening, his journalistic instincts also enabled him to ask the right questions of expert scientists and notice (and include) the right details when reporting.

Both strengths are brought to bear on his book Portacom City: Reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikoura Earthquakes, another in Bridget Williams Books’ excellent series of short, highly readable volumes of non-fiction. Portacom City is not just a collection of Gorman’s articles, and doesn’t read as journalism or reporting, though the book benefits form his journalistic efforts. Instead it is an overview of the geological reasons behind the earthquakes; an account of the human impact of the earthquakes; and a finely drawn sketch of what it was like to work for The Press then, trying to report objectively on vitally important stories while also dealing with the emotional and practical upheavals of that time (the book is so named because the newspaper’s staff had to set up office in a network of smelly, cramped portacoms near the airport, their work periodically interrupted by both airplanes and aftershocks).

Certain special details stick in your mind when reading Portacom City. Gorman stands in his kitchen minutes after the September earthquake, shakily jotting down notes on the earthquake on the back of an Ilam School newsletter, the closest piece of paper around. The Press’s social committee is dubbed The Smile Factory—clearly they played a big part in boosting morale. These certain specific details anchor his story and make his experiences somehow more concrete, rather than allowing his account to melt into the morass of earthquake stories we’ve heard many a time since the earthquakes happened. It stops this book from being merely “disaster porn” and makes it real, and engaging.

This is also helped by the scientific lens through which Gorman writes. I found the descriptions of the earthquake history of Canterbury fascinating, proving Gorman’s own point that after the earthquakes, people were hungry for more scientific information about them. It was also highly interesting to read about the stonewalling Gorman experienced from certain expert scientists, and the frustration that ensued. To be fair, Gorman acknowledges the political pressure these scientists were under to not divulge information, for fear of spooking an already edgy Canterbury public. It hadn’t occurred to me that such stonewalling had happened at the time. Fascinating, and disturbing.

Gorman’s writing is punchy and he has a gift for describing concepts in succinct, engaging ways. This, and the unique science communication angle of this book, makes Portacom City fresh and compulsively readable. An eye-opening and compelling read.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Portacom City: Reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikoura Earthquakes
by Paul Gorman
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780908321728


Book Review: Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the 21st Century, edited by David Hall

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_fair_bordersMigration has been a consistent practice across the plains of time. We were a nomadic species for the majority of our existence, before eventually settling in areas of abundant resources, and then supporting permanent settlements through agricultural innovations and the domestication of animals. Relatively recently – in terms of human history – the Westphalian concept of the nation state emerged, and with it a new system of borders.

We live in a time that has witnessed the biggest movement of people to Europe since World War II and the return of fervent nationalism (Brexit and Trump). The latter has been emboldened by facile rhetoric where concurrent events are mistaken for causation –  immigration is painted as the cause for job losses and a host of other ills. Borders, migrations and how these are treated in the public sphere deserve critical attention.

With our geographical isolation, in our nation that is removed from the continuity of continents, this might all seem very far away. Yet even with our natural boundaries, our history has been imbued with arrivals. We are a nation of immigrants. And migration continues to grab headlines on these shores.

Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, a welcome and topical BWB text edited by David Hall, petitions us to consider our own policies and attitudes to migration in Aotearoa. So, what do we talk about when we talk about immigration in Aotearoa and how is this reflected in policy? Surely a confident culture is one that is open to self-critique. David posits a simple yet essential question: are our policies and attitudes fair to recent arrivals and to those who arrived a long time ago?

As Hall states in his introduction, a border is not simply ‘the end of one thing’, but is also the crossing over into another. And who gets to cross involves an interplay between access and control. There are many administrative boundaries one must navigate – first the flurry of passports and visas, and then those deeper, hidden borders that ring fence access to welfare, health services and labour rights. We have ‘come to expect that different people deserve different rights’.

‘Fairness isn’t just about how we manage our borders. It is about how we talk about our borders and the impacts they have.’ To date public discourse has been dominated by numbers and statistics (which are open to interpretation), and confusion about impacts – notably an oversimplification of a myriad of factors that have developed over many years.

The contributors respond to this concept of fairness, ‘New Zealand’s characteristic political virtue’, from a variety of disciplines, giving the topic much-needed expansion – complex issues demand a range of views as no one person is ever the definitive expert. Here we hear from those with backgrounds in politics, development studies, geography, policy and advocacy. Collectively the authors contribute critical discussion and respect the human stories involved in these movements, whether they are of those arriving or of the communities into which they settle.

There is a wider colonial context we need to be aware of in New Zealand when we begin to talk about migration. In their important piece, Tahu Kukutai and Arama Rata examine the dominant Pākehā model that migrants are crossing into: ‘the substance of citizenship is wholly geared towards one Treaty partner’. They suggest a system based on manaakitanga –  one that respects mana whenua and recognises the need to improve how we look after those who arrive. They also point to the opportunity for Māori and newer migrants ‘to work together to create constitutional arrangements that are better suited to our diverse citizenry’.

Another striking contribution, by Francis Collins, looks at New Zealand’s reliance on temporary workers and examines the implications of this growth. Those who are charged with ‘Milking cows, cooking dinners, providing health care, waiting tables, building houses’ do not have the rights of residence, and cannot vote or access ‘social resources’. We have effectively created an underclass. The processes of immigration are not only riddled with uncertainties, but remain ‘fundamentally exclusionary’. The means of exclusion has shifted from ethnicity to economics, where those who earn more have a greater chance at residency. Collins suggest several measures, including a time-based accrual system, to redress policies at such remove from an equitable New Zealand.

In addition to contributions that show how lines run through identity and communities too, the book also considers forced migration. Nina Hall challenges the concept of climate refugees, because we end up invariably drawing another line by using the term. Instead she calls for us to do more to help all of those forced to move, and to be wary of the discourse of threat – security, identity and otherwise – that so often follows conversations about refugees.

National borders and the nation state will be here for some time. Fair Borders? offers critical reflection and encourages conversation about this ‘perpetual interplay between division and union’, ‘both beyond and inside a nation’.  The accident of birth defines so many of our rights, and there are many migrations to come. If we are to remain fair, we need to examine our policies and improve public discourse, so that our nation can see our borders not as bare and exposed to the sea, but open to arrivals.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the 21st Century
edited by David Hall
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518851

AWF17: Pakeha Oral Poetry, with Glenn Colquhoun

I first encountered Glenn Colquhoun as a school performer, so it was a pleasure to sit in on a schools session with him. His self-deprecating humour and judicious use of the F- word made him a hit with the students, and added to the already-great reputation as a speaker that meant he needed to move from the ASB Theatre to the bigger Lower NZI Room.

glenn colquhoun
Glenn was the first poetry writer in New Zealand to sell 5,000 copies of a poetry book, with his collection Playing God (Steele Roberts, 2003). I’m sure that Hera Lindsay Bird has now well and truly joined him on that parapet. Glenn is a medical doctor, children’s writer, poet, and an astonishing speaker and thinker.

Have you ever thought about the way in which the poetry traditions of the Pakeha and Māori differ? Glenn has, and he is here to bring them together. He noted that the Pakeha tradition is “a written poetry taught in school, while the other is sung, chanted and intoned. Performed with the body, punctured in the skin.” He was inspired by this to write oral poetry, sung poetry – and so he promised to sing to us, “Not that I can sing.”

Glenn says, “If you look at a written poem, inside it is a sung poem. Like when I look into your ear, there are three bones from a reptile inside it.” He suggests picking up the study of oral poetry in schools to teachers – why not do a close reading of KaMate?

Glenn explored the traditional song-formats for Europeans, and has written a series of songs about characters from European history that intrigued him, writing them into a combination of Māori and European formats.  He wrote these oral poems to tell his European stories, his migration stories. “My experience of Māori is that they are waiting for pakeha to sing them their songs. When you sing a song you reveal something right at the heart of what you are.”

Glenn then invited students up to choose a character from his set of around 20, for him to sing about, bribing them with chocolates (these are teenagers after all).

Ernst Dieffenbach was the first to be chosen by a student. Dieffenbach was one of the first scientists to live in New Zealand. He surveyed the land for the New Zealand Company. He collected rocks, flowers, plants. He renamed the plants, he named stones; he was the first Pakeha to climb Mt Taranaki – and he kept a pet Weka which followed him around like a chicken. He was also one of the first Western doctors in New Zealand – he treated people after a battle on the Kapiti Coast, where Glenn now practices. Glenn’s interest in Dieffenbach was extended when he realised he was treating descendants of those treated by Dieffenbach after this battle.

Dieffenbach also wrote the second grammar of the Māori language – and Māori thought he was the strangest Pakeha they’d ever seen, collecting rocks and hiring them to carry them for him. Glenn has written a sea shanty for him, in the form of a haka: he calls it a ‘Shaka’. Listening to Glenn sing is a pretty unique experience – his daughter is right in thinking the tune doesn’t always hold, but he really can sing. And he does so from the heart.

The second character chosen was a skeletal character called William Strong, the Master of the Orpheus, which stranded in 1860’s on the bar outside Manukau Harbour, within about 500 metres of land. None of the sailors and soldiers could swim, so 60-70 soldiers died that day in the worst maritime disaster in New Zealand’s history. These soldiers were intended to support the NZ government in the Māori Land Wars, so one would assume there wasn’t anybody on shore prepared to help. Anyway, 17–18 years after the Orpheus drowned, as the story goes, a whole skeleton washed up on the beach: it was identifiable as William Strong, because it had a captain’s jacket on. This song was a pure sea shanty.

All of his characters have stories that are tied with New Zealand history, and they form part of a collection he is working on called Myths and Legends of the Ancient Pakeha. Colquhoun says, “We can look at our written poem and find the oral heart of it, yet our poets have rarely ever crossed over.” This is what he is doing: he wants to make the poetic forms talk to each other.

Students at the high school sessions were a lot more hesitant in coming forward for questions, but there was an excellent question from a person who writes their own spoken word poems. Glenn’s advice to them was to play – play around, like a kid does playing with toys and telling stories: “If you use your imagination, the thing is alive. Tell the stories of your own life, be playful.”

The final song was Glenn’s choice, and it was a song about Jackie Price, a Pakeha man who married a Maori woman, but turned out to be a rogue. He stole a lot of sealskins, and as punishment he and his wife were stranded deliberately on the Solomon Islands in Foveaux Strait (with the expectation they would die there). Price created a coracle and made it back to New Zealand, and we joined in with the chorus, urging Price on through the Foveaux Strait.

I’ll leave you with Glenn’s final words: “If you want to write, don’t ever let it die. Don’t let anybody tell you it is a frivolous thing to do. It is more important than accounting. Don’t give up.”

If you have the opportunity to see Glenn: do it. He is on three more times at the festival: at the Gala Night – True Stories Told Live on Thursday night; at Walk on High on Friday night; and with Dr David Gellar and Sue Wooton talking Matters Medical on Saturday.

Attended and Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Glenn’s latest book is:

Late Love
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492892


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: 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

Book Review: The Big Smoke – New Zealand Cities 1840-1920, by Ben Schrader

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_the_big_smoke_nz_citiesTraditionally, New Zealand historians and the books which arise from their studies, deal with the close relationship between the land and the establishment of a new colony. Perhaps it is this focus which has clouded the reality for many settlers. Ben Schrader begins The Big Smoke with an account of his own family. His great-great-Grandfather arrived from London in 1862. This was the start of his family of urban dwellers with no close ties to a farm, or region.

Schrader explores the very limited research dealing with urban centres: their establishment, their growth and the features of such areas. To better manage this huge topic he has limited the book to the period 1840-1920 and made a focus of those towns which met the early criteria for being declared a city.

1911 was an important year in New Zealand, although the date is not often recognised as such. In the 1911 census, more people were identified as living in cities and boroughs than in rural areas. This trend has continued with the 2014 census showing 86% living in cities. Schrader has identified a lack of research, reflection and writing on this very important aspect of life in New Zealand. Apart from an early report based in South Dunedin (the Caversham Project), we have very little accessible information on the growth of cities. Schrader has provided a response to this lack, with a book which is both scholarly and readable.

Scrader focuses in his book on eight aspects which are chronological but also thematic. These include foundations of the cities, material concerns, culture, sociability and conflict on the street, Maori and environmental concerns. He also touches on religion and the role of women. This is no dry tome. The pages are illustrated with maps, early photographs, sketches and documents. I was particularly taken by a sketch of Holland Street, Wellington in 1892. It was drawn by the Medical Officer and shows the sewer which leaked and contaminated the surrounding soil. This was the site of a typhoid outbreak. This attention to detail makes the book more than a dissertation for academics.

I was a student of Human Geography at University, but found myself looking to distant shores for my studies. The focus was on older established cities with quality data to support ideas. Schrader points out that his book is a starting point and there are many possibilities for further research and reporting on our own situation. In light of the recent housing crisis and pressure to expand our urban areas, this book is a timely reminder that we must take care to grow in ways which reflect our past as well as our future.

While too bulky to be a coffee table book, this is a great read for anyone with an interest in urban New Zealand and how we got to be where we are now.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840-1920
by Ben Schrader
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492434


Book Review: Playing for Both Sides: Love across the Tasman, by Stephanie Johnson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_playing_both_sidesThe relationship between New Zealand and Australia, is like that in an extended family. While we love and support each other because we share so many things, we also pick at the differences, accentuate and ridicule them. It is a classic love-hate relationship.

In this BWB text, Stephanie Johnson explores at a more personal level her own experiences. As a writer, a wife and a mother, she shares her own journey and the way her crossing the ditch has influenced her writing and her feelings.

Johnson’s family have lived in New Zealand since the 1840s but she has lived in Australia as an adult, married an Australian and is often described as an Australian writer. She introduces the reader to other Kiwis who made the move, many never to return. However, she also points out that while they physically resided in Australia, they regarded New Zealand as home.

Johnson explores race relations, migrants, women’s rights, artistic freedom and the weather. But this is really a personal view because the telling is centred around the tour her musician son makes with his Mum as a roadie. This allows her to reflect on the places and people she meets, on their reaction to her son and his music and her own reflection on similarities and differences in the two nations.

I enjoyed the honesty of her writing. Her research added an historical element and the timing of the book is right. We are only now brave enough to look at our bigger, richer, stronger neighbour and ask if we are the same or we are different. I can see some robust discussion in a book group arising from this slim volume.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Playing for Both Sides: Love across the Tasman
by Stephanie Johnson
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492991