Book review: Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World By Steve Braunias

This book is in bookstores now.
cv_civilisation twenty places
Steve Braunias is a New Zealander who grew in Mt Manganui and has won 30 national awards for writing. He has written columns for newspapers, magazines and numerous books including Fish of the Week (2008) and also managed to fit in a bit of writing for a few television programmes, including the satirical television series Eating Media Lunch and The Unauthorised History of New Zealand – two series I actually watched and enjoyed.

Once I started reading this extraordinary book, I found it hard to put it down. Steve spent three years travelling throughout New Zealand. He also travelled to Scott Base in Antarctica, and Apia in Samoa, both of which have strong links to New Zealand. He visited places, met people and for a short time lived amongst them. Steve spent many hours observing people and places and then managed to get them to open up about their lives, with what seems, not much effort. Their stories are at times unbelievable and some are even slightly bizarre.

Hicks Bay – we meet Lance Roberts, who was just about to turn 85 who used to work as a slaughterman at the local freezing works along the coast at Tokomaru and now lives in an apartment he had fashioned out of part of the old freezing works – Lance bought it in 1984 for $25,000. Part of the purchase were the 69 acres which he then cut it up into seven paddocks, planting trees and knocking it into shape. There were blackberry and woolly nightshade and every other thing you could put a name to.

We learn about the history of the frozen export industry in early New Zealand history. I felt myself being transported back to my 5th form history class with Mr Hunt. – I got 23 percent in School Certificate History – my essays were often described as fairy stories!. Steve has spurred an interest I certainly never had at school.

Waiouru – population 2,000 and our Army training base. Major Chas Charlton says “Waiouru is our college and our university.” There are stories of ghosts and spirits. A woman was killed in a car accident many years ago and is sometimes seen driving along the Desert Road. We meet Teahu Peters 18, who joined up to change his life. He’d been in a bit of trouble with the Police. Outside the army camp is a sign that tells you that the security alert level is black. It has stayed that colour since 9/11.

Apia in Samoa, a place I visited a few years ago on holiday and was not one I personally would ever go back to – too many churches for my liking, with already struggling families tithing with money sent from families back in New Zealand. Steve meets the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi. He talks to him in length and to the locals. We get a feeling through the pages that perhaps the Prime Minister has a questionable style of leadership which is being upheld by the Samoan Government, and maybe not necessarily for the benefit of its island residents. I felt a roller-coaster of emotions, but mainly outrage as I read on, mainly on behalf of the people that lived in a village near the sea at Sigo. They were paid 3,000 tala to move out after the tsunami, not because it had borne the brunt and suffered major damage, like so many other seaside villages, but because the Government wanted the land to put up a new Government building.

Mt Roskill, in Auckland. A place that at one time was known as New Zealand’s Bible belt and for the outspoken religious views of the late Keith Hay, who I think from memory, was at one time Mayor of Mt Roskill. He founded the building company Keith Hay Homes. Now days you can find religions and people from other places. What used to be the Christian Congregational Church of Samoa is now a Hindu temple and a fitness centre, which on the surface sounds a rather strange combination. There are now an estimated 36,000 Muslims in New Zealand with refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. They have 41 different nationalities who attend the Mosque. The largest population of Muslims live in Mt Roskill. You have blocks of shops that include the Khoobsurat Hair and Beauty Salon, Mohammed’s Halal Meats.

In old Mt Roskill on the corner of Sandringham Road stands the shop owned by the Giles brothers, Kevin, Alan and Phillip – Giles Carpets. They have been in business since 1981. Stoddard Road and Stoddard Creek is semi-industrial. Zeb Mohammed, a Pakistani, is the proprietor of Khyber Foods and Spices. He sells anything from ox tongues, to Thums Up colas. A nearby shop window offers something that sounds rather bizarre – Dr Wasfy Shahin advertising that he will be doing circumcisions. A Palestinian from Iraq refugee Loia Mouhmod makes delicious semolina squares sold at King Tut. Mt Roskill has changed beyond recognition. It now sounds a much more interesting place.

Steve visited Hicks Bay, Pegasus, Waiouru, St Bathans, Ohinemutu and Whakarewarewa, the Hauraki Plains, Miranda and Birdland, Scott Base in Antarctica, Apia in Samoa, Mt Roskill,, Wanganui (or Whanganui, and still being debated amongst the local residents), Mercer, Winton, Tangimoana, Mosgiel, Wanaka, Greymouth, Collingwood, Wainuiomata, and last but not least, the Maromaku Valley. I’ve only touched on a few of the twenty places. Stories of people and places that seemed out of odds with what I deem normal, but then what is normal?

I have enjoyed meeting through the pages of this book, the many personalities, the places, and their stories. I found this book funny, sad, and at times, I felt outrage. Not at Steve, but at the hopelessness of situations within some communities. Many of the places I have visited at one time or another, but note that I have observed nothing. Next visit I must take time to really look!

Highly Recommended

Review by Christine Frayling

Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World
by Steve Braunias
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551352