Book Review: Vertical Living – The Architectural Centre and the Remaking of Wellington, by Julia Gatley and Paul Walker

Available now in bookstores nationwide. cv_vertical_living

The Architectural Centre is a group of (mainly) architects, established in 1946 to promote their vision for a modern city. Wellington in 1946 was not a modern city – but was ripe for redevelopment. Since that time they have worked to influence the development of Wellington in a particular direction. As well as architecture, their vision encompassed design, arts, craft, and industrial design, with the various strands fluctuating in their importance from time to time.

The Centre has undertaken many activities, from writing position papers, forming a manifesto (although that took 60 years to crystallise), promoting education, presentations, and debate, to hosting exhibitions and campaigning for political influence. They also published a magazine on design topics, and built a demonstration house. I’m no expert, but would categorise their approach as strictly “modernist”.

The membership of the Architectural Centre has fluctuated, but is around 200 members. They may only have built one “demonstration house”, but their mission was, and is, to teach and persuade the planners and builders, politicians and residents of Wellington, and their influence on the city has been profound.

manifestoThe modernist approach couples urban planning and architecture with visual arts, crafts, graphic design and even industrial design, and the Centre did not neglect these. And it isn’t always buildings: one line of the Centre’s Manifesto is “Fresh air is better than some buildings”. Open spaces, and of course Wellington’s hills and harbour, are all part of the picture.

Many activities came and went, but the focus has always been on planning. Planning to improve the urban environment, making it liveable as well as well-designed. They have had a profound influence on the development of Wellington city since their foundation – mostly in the CBD.

Gatley and Walker have focussed on the 1940s to the 1990s, highlighting the enormous changes to Wellington in that time. I lived in Wellington in the 1950s and 60s, and along with most citizens believed that the only plan was to maximise profit by throwing up glass towers on any scrap of land. The authors do a great job of describing and reporting on the principles that underlay the enormous changes that Wellington − particularly the CBD and waterfront − went through, and why glass and steel towers came to be. This reader is disabused! (The one shown is a 1970 shot of the BNZ tower being erected, taken from Lambton Quay.) BNZ_building_vertical_living

The authors are both academic architects, and the book includes contributions from art historian Damian Skinner and Justine Clark, an independent architectural editor, writer and critic. The authors take a basically chronological approach, with discursions into design topics and broader issues. As well as the activities of the Centre, they chart the forces driving the development of the Wellington CBD during this period of rapid change.

The writing is crisp and clear, and accessible to those of us who are not architects or planners while still being unmistakably the work of academics. The physical book itself is a very well-produced hardback, on high-quality paper with many photographs. It looks great.

While not a mass-market volume, this work is important. And it fills a gap – Wellington has not been as prominent in the history of architecture as might be expected. Of course it will mainly be of interest to architects, designers and town planners, but current or former Wellingtonians will get something out of it as well.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Vertical Living: The Architectural Centre and the Remaking of Wellington
by Julia Gatley and Paul Walker
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408152

Book Review: Child Poverty in New Zealand, by Jonathan Boston & Simon Chapple

This book is available from today in bookstores nationwide. 

“Child poverty” is one of thosecv_child_poverty_in_Nz things that it is hard to support. But whenever I hear the
term used it is to “support” someone’s case for their special interest or policy. So it is immensely valuable to see this in-depth, and broad-ranging, survey of the problem, and possible options for its relief.

Perhaps the biggest problem in dealing with this topic is revealed in the back-cover blurb: “Between 130,000 and 285,000 NZ children live in poverty, depending on the measure used.” That’s quite a range – how should we determine the number? And that is just the first question. What do we mean by poverty? Sub-Saharan African conditions? Is “poverty” a euphemism for parental neglect, or a result of it? How can we reduce or eliminate child poverty, and at what cost? What effects does this poverty have on children, and their families, and “the rest of us”?

The authors take a comprehensive look at these, and other, questions in three parts which I’d paraphrase as “The current situation”, “Options to reduce poverty” and “Coping with its impacts”. An additional chapter titled “Investing for the Future” draws some conclusions.
This book is not just an overview. Certainly, it covers a lot of ground, but in depth, and with evidence. Lots of facts, statistics, graphs, and charts buttress the arguments throughout.

Both authors were members of the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty established by the Children’s Commissioner in 2012, and they have of course drawn on the papers and discussions which came out of that group. As the title of the group suggests, there are solutions: reforming aspects of the employment, tax and benefit systems for example. These solutions are evaluated, and both costs and benefits considered. The idea that I personally found most enlightening was that the elimination of child poverty is something that can be incentivised (the authors’ word), with flow-on benefits to many other areas of the economy. In other words, the problem gives us some opportunities.

The book is authoritative, and quite accessible, although at times the reader has to work hard. I was grateful for the glossary of terms, to give some precision around words which have a technical meaning as well as a commonplace usage. It is impossible to write about social policy without using lots of data, and the sources for that data are often given in end-notes; I found that I needed to keep a bookmark in the Notes section so that I could assess what was being said in the text, to gain reassurance that I wasn’t just reading uninformed opinions. This reassurance is important to inform the debate, and lift it out of the political swamp.

Overall, this is a hopeful book, with its conclusion that “New Zealand has the necessary resources to reduce child poverty, and equitable and efficient ways to secure these resources are available”. The book finds these means to suit those of both centre-left and centre-right political persuasions. It deserves a wide audience.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Child Poverty in New Zealand
Jonathan Boston & Simon Chapple
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781927247860

Book Review: Boundless: A Wayward Entrepreneur’s Search for Peace, by Greg Hopkinson

This book is available in selected bookstores nationwide. 

The search for happiness can take many forms, pp_boundlessand have varying results. Greg Hopkinson’s path to his happiness and inner peace is one of the less expected.

We first meet Greg trapped in an avalanche. This near-death experience makes him think. He is an engineer working on the West Coast, running a gold dredge. He describes his life as “abundant”, although he had some difficulties because of the stock-market crash. But he describes himself as tormented, with lots of doubts.

So what is the path to peace? “Make Money, Retire Young”. This takes Greg to Russia, during the fall of communism, installing meat plants exported from New Zealand. This is not my idea of peaceful! There are obstacles to overcome, vodka and girls to consume, and a long distance relationship with his wife in London to manage. Some of this is outright scary.

It is here that Greg begins to recognise his inner demons. He staggers out of Russia, and into establishing a successful chain of pet stores in New Zealand (not named, but only lightly disguised). Along the way he has a (benign) brain tumour dealt with, seeks counselling to help him calm down, and breaks up with his wife.

Now the unexpected happens. He reads a self-help book – in fact several – and starts to come to grips with his need for inner peace. He attends a weekend course on a meditation technique which promises to “reveal peace and joy on a perpetual basis”. And it works. It doesn’t work for everyone, but Hopkinson finds that the process makes him a better manager, and helps in all sorts of situations, from bars to beaches.

His inner life changed, and he got his demons under control. This was an overwhelming change – so much so that he went on a six-month Mastery of the Self Course in Canada, and ends up taking his vows as a monk. He now lives in a remote location with his partner – also a monk. He travels, teaches meditation, and does the things that give him contentment.

This book will appeal to a diverse range of readers. The chapters on life in Russia are a rollicking word-picture of a world which has gone. The later chapters describe the author’s quest for mental peace, but with the added objective of starting the reader on their own journey.

I was engrossed in the writing, which is down-to-earth, and no-holds-barred. The word pictures of the outside world are vivid and clear. So are the pictures of Hopkinson’s inner world.

Boundless the book is part of a larger project. The web site continues the story, and will take the searching reader on further self-explorations. For these readers the book is the beginning, not the end.

Even if you don’t buy into the search for inner peace and happiness, the book is worth reading for the stories, and to meet an interesting guy.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Boundless: A Wayward Entrepreneur’s Search for Peace
by Greg Hopkinson
Published by Mountford Media
ISBN: 9780473260736

The Wandering Mind: What the brain does when you’re not looking, by Michael C Corballis

Available now at bookstores nationwide from Monday 19 May. Author Michael C. Corballis presenting at the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Saturday 17 May at 2.30pm.

Does your mind wander? Sometimes I doubt cv_the_wandering_mindwhether mine will ever come home. What does the brain do while our mind is wandering?

This well-written and engaging book introduces the reader to the research to explore what actually happens in the regions of the brain where dreams, religion, fiction, fantasy, but also creativity and imagination, lurk. Corballis begins by considering how minds wander − what occupies them when not focussed on a particular task. This leads to discussing some of the fundamentals of neuroscience.

The layered, complex thing we call memory is first. What is a memory? What types of memory do we have? We remember events, skills, and facts in different ways. There are fascinating, although tragic, examples in which parts of the memory are damaged, and an interesting discussion of the development of false memories. I was pleased to find that Hillary Clinton and Ronald Reagan had false memories just like me.

Time is a confusing concept. Corballis takes the reader through an examination of how time is understood, or maybe at least partly formed, in the mind. Is it only humans who can mentally wander forward and back through time? This leads to the next chapter, dealing with the Hippocampus and its role in remembering, and mentally meandering through, time and place.

brainsAnd now the book deals with several interlocking concepts. Can we share minds − for example by telepathy? The enormous importance of stories in the individual and collective consciousness. And the vital invention of language, and the way that language is involved with thinking.

Dreams and hallucinations are related. Corballis does not take the interpretation of dreams very seriously, and discusses Sigmund Freud’s theories about dreams in an entertaining way which leaves the conclusion in no doubt. The last chapter, on the creativity of the wandering mind, is the one which spoke most to me. “Mind wandering has something of a bad press” as the author says, but it need not be a negative thing.

Throughout the narrative is based on reporting scientific research, and anecdote. In the early chapters I found myself asking “and then what” as a passage based on anecdote ended, then happily finding the thread taken up later. The writing is well structured and the flow encourages the reader to carry on. In many places the author uses what we know about the ways that animals brains work to illuminate the way that human brains and minds function, and lessons from the history of (particularly) psychology.

The author is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Auckland, a widely published scientist and neuropsychologist. This is the first of his books that I have read, and he comes across as an able scientific communicator as well. His writing is based on neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, which he leavens with a sharp wit, and uncomplicated yet clear and precise language. I must try to find some of his others.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

The Wandering Mind: What the brain does when you’re not looking
by Michael C Corballis
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408114

Book Review: Learn To Weave With Anne Field, by Anne Field

cv_learn_to_weave_with_anne_fieldAvailable in selected bookstores now.

Weaving is great fun. But like all crafts it has its learning curve, and its jargon. I’m a self-taught weaver, and I really wish that I’d had this book when I first began messing around with looms. It’s great.

The first part of the book deals with the very basics of how to choose and warp (thread) a loom, and the fundamentals of weaving. Only shaft looms (table or floor looms) are covered, not rigid heddle looms.

The first chapter is about the looms – how they work, the different types with their advantages and disadvantages. The jargon is introduced gently, with text boxes in the margins.

The second chapter teaches the reader to wind a warp and thread the loom. The method for beaming on (getting the warp onto the loom) is a variation that I’ve not tried – so I tried it. It worked well. Variations to deal with special types of yarn are given, as are ways to correct the inevitable small errors.

The third chapter teaches the basic techniques of weaving. As well as dealing with shuttles and getting the beating right there is an introduction to the way that weaving instructions are written – the ‘draw down’. As the chapter progresses the reader can work along to produce a simple scarf. Again there’s a trouble-shooting section.

There are a lot of pit-falls for the beginner in weaving. These first three chapters are a fine introduction – although the text is dense and will reward re-reading it is very clear.

loom_hand_weavingUndoubtedly it would be helpful to have a more experienced person around to help the first time that a loom is threaded and tied up, but with or without a helper these three chapters have everything that you need.

The second part of the book consists of step by step instructions for eleven projects. These extend the learner weaver’s repertoire in many directions. Each project develops one particular skill through a fully detailed set of instructions, and suggests ways in which the reader may explore the skills and techniques being developed further. A wide variety of yarns is dealt with to introduce their respective properties, uses, and pitfalls. The projects include table runners, mats, cushion covers, dish towels, and wearable scarves, wraps and a jacket. Along the way the weaver – – no longer a mere reader – is introduced to such techniques as twill, overshot, wandering warps, reversible fabrics, pattern, and block weaving. As well as producing a particular article, suggestions are included for ways in which the techniques can be extended and explored. There is a collection of reference material and sources of materials at the end of this section.

As well as the step by step instructions, the book is stuffed full of practical hints and advice gained in Anne Field’s decades of weaving and teaching. Any beginning or intermediate weaver will find new ways to do things – as too will many more advanced weavers I am sure. Throughout the book the author speaks directly to the reader, recounting some of her own early errors, and explaining why to do things as well as how to do them. It really is like having her right there helping.

Anne Field, a doyenne of the NZ spinning and weaving scene, died in May last year. At the time this book was nearly finished, and her daughter Jane Clark, also a weaver, has seen it into print.
The book is liberally illustrated with photographs and diagrams – some of the best weaving photographs I have seen. The layout is clear, and production values are high. The text is sparse and direct, with not a word wasted.

The no-nonsense approach, careful selection of projects and the wealth of experience Anne Field brings to the task of teaching and captures in print make this a book that every beginner or intermediate weaver will benefit from. It’s fantastic and I’m really glad to see it.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Learn To Weave With Anne Field: A project-based approach to weaving basics
by Anne Field
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869538316

Book review: Unpacking the Kists: The Scots in New Zealand, by Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon

Available now in selected bookstores.

Scottish influences in New Zealand are many and varied. cv_unpacking_the_kistsSome historians have suggested that the influence of the Scots on New Zealand is greater than that in any other country (excluding, I suppose, Scotland).

This substantial volume is a major contribution to international scholarship on migrations and cultural adaptation. It demonstrates the contributions that the Scots made to the formation of a New Zealand culture by retaining their connections while adapting to and interacting with other ethnic groups. It is published in NZ and Australia by Otago University Press, and elsewhere as part of the series of McGill-Queens Studies in Ethnic History.

Retain their connections they did! My parents arrived in New Zealand 30 years after the period this book deals with, yet still were receiving the local newspapers that they had read ‘at home’ more than 25 years later, stopping only when their parents were no longer able to send them on.

Covering the period (roughly) 1850–1920, the book traces the dimensions of Scots migration to New Zealand, the sort of people who immigrated, where they came from and went to. Much of the discussion is based on extended case studies of better-documented migrants. It traces their influence on areas such as the economy, the environment, religion, politics, and education. Good use of made of family history records, and the records of local Scottish societies, as well as more usual primary sources.landing_immigrants

As well as the public influence of immigrants, the authors look into the more private worlds of Scottish families, everyday life, leisure pursuits, different types of Scottish groups, and the way in which the immigrants’ traditional cultural activities were maintained, and modified by interaction with other groups.

The authors are historians at Victoria and Otago universities. Others make contributions in specific areas. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is to show the way in which academic historians can collaborate with local historians, genealogists, and community groups.

As befits a work of scholarship, there are lots of notes and a large bibliography. There are tables, diagrams and maps, but no plates.

Until recently scholarly discussion of the Scottish diaspora was restricted to academic journals, with the odd chapter in more general history or geography books. This book joins Scottish Ethnicity and the Making of New Zealand 1850–1930 (Tanja Bueltmann; Edinburgh University Press, 2011) as more significant contributions. Of course there is some overlap with the earlier book indeed Tanja Bueltmann is a contributor to this volume. Unpacking The Kists is the larger volume, with much wider coverage, and it draws more general conclusions.

Not a book of stories, rather a serious work of historical research, this book will find a ready readership in its target market.

Unpacking the Kists: The Scots in New Zealand
by Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781877578670

Book Review: The Voyagers, by Paul Moon

Available in bookstores now. cv_the_voyagers

European explorers? Well there was Tasman, Cook, and, um, oh yes! d’Urville, and then I suspect most of us start to struggle. Some of us might eventually recall Julius von Haast and Charles Heaphy. But that’s about it. How mistaken we are!

During the first half of the nineteenth century very many early European visitors travelled huge distances on foot usually  and explored remote parts of NZ “on business”  as artists, missionaries or officials and vividly recorded their observations of the landscape, the flora and fauna, and of the people. Paul Moon has taken the journals and books left by 22 of these voyagers and distilled from them the often dramatic stories of their adventures.

The book is built around 22 individuals, loosely categorised in five groups: Soldiers and Sailors, Travellers and Settlers, Missionaries, Artists and Officials. Many of them are familiar names in other contexts: Edward Jermingham Wakefield as a colonist; Augustus Earle as an Artist, Deiffenbach and von Hochstater as geologists. They are also explorers.
Others are more obscure but no less interesting. Edward Shortland was a “Sub-Protector of Aborigines”; John Bidwill a botanist; Joel Polack a merchant. The events described cover the period 1805-1859, reminding us that this country’s history did not begin at Waitangi.


Maori War Expedition, by Augustus Earle

Some themes emerge. Many of the accounts describe the consequences of Maori and Pakeha meeting and the subsequent changes to Maori lifestyle. The aftermath of the musket wars, and the impact of whaling, also feature.

I found most of these accounts absolutely fascinating. There’s war and its aftermath, shipwreck, hardship and adventure a-plenty. And some more gentle, but equally fascinating, stories. Consider Thomas Shepherd. A Scot, Shepherd was sent by a group of English businessmen to investigate the possibilities of trade with New Zealand, and the conversion of the Maori to Christianity. They formed a New Zealand Company (with mainly commercial motives it must be said), chartered vessels and eventually Thomas Shepherd found himself on Stewart Island. Not exciting so far. But the date was 1826, before New Zealand was even part of the British Empire. He liked what he saw in an aesthetic sense, but a few encounters with starving sealers, poor terrain, and limited natural resources soon dampened his ardour.

Each chapter provides the reader with a number of almost accidental insights. While Thomas Shepherd’s story ends when the Company abandons its plans and he returns to Sydney, the glee of some Australians at this result speaks volumes about the trans-Tasman relationship at the time.

The author cleverly manages to get into the heads of the voyagers, and adopts their point of view, without the benefits of hindsight. He relates their observations, insights and reactions in a very natural way, and the reader can almost feel as if the voyager is sitting in the next chair, having a chat. Moon generally avoids reinterpreting the reactions of historical people in a more modern context, which here at least is a good thing.

Paul Moon is a Professor of History at AUT, and a prolific author on New Zealand history. This is one of his less academic productions, but, as is appropriate, a full set of notes, a bibliography, and an extremely good index are provided. Production values are high, and there are twelve beautifully reproduced plates.

But there is a major omission: time and again I found myself crying out for a map! Following Colenso’s incredibly long walks without a map is nigh-on impossible
It would be an extraordinarily well-read person who knew of most of the voyagers in this book. All the stories are interesting; the variety is astonishing and the text lively and readable. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

The Voyagers. Remarkable European Explorations of New Zealand
by Paul Moon
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143570554

Extract available here.

Peace Power & Politics: How New Zealand Became Nuclear Free, by Maire Leadbeater

This book is available now in bookstores.

This is an exciting book about an exciting story, tcv_peace_power_politicsold by one of the activists most involved in it.

The book follows the story of New Zealand’s peace movement from 1975 into the 1990s and beyond, and is in many ways a sequel to the earlier Peace People: A history of peace activities in New Zealand, by Elsie Locke. It hardly needs saying that Maire Leadbeater is a daughter of Jack and Elsie Locke, and a sister of Green MP Keith Locke. She was spokesperson for Auckland CND during the peak of the activity described, and her subsequent painstaking research has paid off in the form of an important book, not only about the peace campaigns, but about the way that people in movements can change a country.

The prime argument of the book is that New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy was made not by politicians and officials but by a wide-ranging peoples’ movement, and that the policy has become embedded in the nation’s psyche as a result of a long battle won by argument, research and political strategy. Politicians have taken the credit, but they were acting in response to a tremendous groundswell of public opinion, and not out of their own convictions. Or maybe their convictions just needed prompting. As the author says, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow”.

This is a comprehensive account of the motivations, the actions, and the personalities involved, and many of the seeming myriad of groups that took part. Throughout the emphasis is strongly on the activity, and not the people themselves. This is an insider’s story, but not an exposé.

It is written basically chronologically, clearly and simply with masses of interesting detail. As the book begins the peace movement was small and very much a fringe movement, but it soon became an important player on the political stage. Activism took many forms, from polite letters and petitions to full-on confrontation between warships and kayaks. Organisations of different types formed, grew, and often re-formed in a kaleidoscope of protest. The author mentions that at one point during the 1980s there were more than three hundred groups across the country.

The three major campaigns: against the visits by nuclear warships, against French nuclear tests, and to the World Court, are covered in detail. While the bare facts of these events are well-known this book give new insights into the way that the campaigns operated and of the extent that politicians were persuaded to commit, despite their original intentions. Of course the peace movement did not come to an end with the reluctant conversion of David Lange; other issues arose such as self-determination in the Pacific, and US bases in NZ.

The book is well produced, and copiously illustrated with photographs, cartoons, and pamphlets. The illustrations alone are worth the price of admission, and great care has been taken with what must be in many cases quick snapshots.

I was surprised to learn of the number of scientific advisers and dedicated researchers that worked to give the peace movement a proper factual basis to their arguments, in the face of governmental secrecy and misleading propaganda. Leadbeater argues persuasively that political change has come from a grass-roots political movement without a hierarchical structure rather than from formal processes, and makes it clear that although there have been some wins, there is still work to do.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Peace Power & Politics: How New Zealand Became Nuclear Free
by Maire Leadbeater
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN N 9781877578588

Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn

There are a lot of books about country singer Johnny Cash. He even wrote two autobiographies. But this monumental book of 680 pages adds much, explains much, and raises questions. Hilburn writes what Johnny’s daughter Rosanne calls the “unvarnished truth” about a flawed musical icon whose career stretched from the fifties to the noughties, and covers it all, in detail and in depth.1383252172-hilburn_cash_latimesCash had four early influences which were with him all his life: his disapproving father Ray, his sympathetic mother Carrie, his religion, and his birth into a world of poverty and hard work. He overcame great difficulties to become one of the twentieth century’s most important musical figures. Not a smash hit of course; he took a long time to get established. But then addiction to amphetamines, and overexposure, saw his bright light fade. But later in his life, due to his new producer Rick Rubin, and his second wife June Carter, he reached stardom a second time, only to fall again, then to rise again. Not so much a career path as a pendulum!

His legacy is a mixed bag. The albums range from the sublime to the mediocre. The reasons are clear: he was at times unreliable, unable to cope, self-contradictory and suffering from guilt. And at other times he was driven to greatness by his passions for the downtrodden, the poor, his religion, and above all for music.

This biography captures these rises and falls with a brutal honesty that has not always been found in biographies of Cash, and certainly not in his own writings. Indeed, there are many places in this book where stories are told and details are given to correct the autobiographies, because “Johnny never let facts get in the way of a good story”.

The book is written chronologically, but is not just a diary, as some recent musical biographies have been. It includes a great deal of background on the music industry and other influential performers, most notably June Carter and the Carter Family.

This is a rich book too, in that it anchors Cash’s story firmly in time and place. This is not just a biography of Johnny Cash but of what Hilburn calls the “tawdry melodrama” of country music, and of the music industry generally over the years. There is a mass of detail here, but this use of detail does not bog the narrative down but rather it moves the story along, sets the scene, and puts the reader in the place and time that events occupied to help understand why some things happened as they did. The business side of music making is well described, although it is hard to like.L_JohnnyCash_LegendsinConcert

Hilburn was pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times for more than thirty years. He interviewed Cash several times and knew him well, and since Cash died in 2003 Hilburn has had privileged access to Cash’s family and many of those who worked with him over the years. This has given him an unrivalled body of source material. This he has organised skilfully and sympathetically. His writing sparkles. He has included a useful guide to the recordings and DVDs for those who wish to explore Cash’s legacy, and notes of his sources.

A book that doesn’t raise questions isn’t worth reading. The dilemma for a biographer is that the primary reason for an artist’s fame is his output – patchy in this case, but reaching great heights at times. Does it matter that he is also a drug addict, a poor father (until late in life), a devout Christian, a serial adulterer, a generous man and an occasional financial cheat? Frankly, he behaved badly and was a hypocrite. He couldn’t help himself. Hiburn does not resile from this issue, and sheds light on many of the less reputable aspects of Cash’s behaviour. He does not judge: the reader is left to make their own judgement about Cash the man; history has already judged Cash the musician.

Lou Robin, who was Cash’s manager for more than twenty-five years, told Hilburn that “only about twenty percent” of the Johnny Cash story had been told. This big book goes a long way to telling the other eighty percent, in a comprehensive, stylish way.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Johnny Cash: The Life
by Robert Hilburn
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9780316194754

Book Review: The Devouring Dragon – How China’s rise threatens the natural world, by Craig Simons

I’ve never read a book about zombies, and now I don’t need to. cv_the_devouring_dragonThis book is frightening enough.

Craig Simons is a reporter on the environment, principally from Asia. In this brief account, he describes the effect that China’s phenomenal economic development over the last few decades has had on the environment of the whole planet. He bases this book on reporting trips over the period 2009-2012, and has conversations with many interesting people in some unexpected places. He blends personal stories, reportage, theory, and scientific and historical background, in a lively, often gripping way which carries the reader along a bleak road.

The environment is a broad topic, but there are two main themes: carbon emissions, which of course accelerate the rate of climate change world-wide, and the destruction of the natural world to satisfy China’s ever-growing need for resources.

As far as emissions are concerned, China is, per capita, the largest user of coal in the world. The author details the extent of this use, and discusses rather mournfully the lack of tangible results from the Kyoto and Copenhagen agreements. He puts the blame for this failure not only to China, but the developed world as well, describing the agreements as poorly implemented.

In terms of the natural world, China looks like a giant vacuum cleaner. It is the largest market for threatened species of wild-life, principally for use in traditional medicine. It has changed from being self-sufficient in forestry to stripping huge areas of tropical forests. Soy-beans are needed – so farmers in Brazil clear vast swathes of the Amazonian rain-forests. And there are many more examples, covering a wide geographic range. The author starts in Colorado, visits New Guinea, Brazil, India and many other places. New Zealand gets two mentions: for what is described as the alarming rate in which land is being converted to dairying, and for mining coal. You may disagree with one or both of these and that stimulation of discussion is one of the book’s strengths.factories_china

The issues are described partly by observation – the book becomes a travelogue in places – and partly using a huge number of figures, which are carefully interwoven into the narrative so not to appear as reference material. He covers a vast amount of ground, and while I knew that China’s growth had costs, the full impact and the wide geographical sweep of the depredation astonished me. Many of his figures will be obsolete very quickly of course, but that does not matter: they give a scale which it is sometimes difficult to appreciate: one fifth of humanity, one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, one half of all coal burnt in the world.

But there’s a loaded word in that paragraph. Depredation – really? Why should the Chinese not aspire to the same standard of living as other economies who started their exploitation of the environment earlier? Simons does not shy away from this, and makes it clear that China alone cannot solve the problems. Cooperation on an unheard-of scale between the large economies is the only hope for any solution. This cooperation founders of course on self-interest; NZ is unlikely to want to stop selling dairy products.

Simons is sympathetic towards China, and makes it clear that there is nothing to be gained by being anti-China. He takes a number of historical detours, showing that at least some of the blame lies with the West.tiger_boner

What about solutions? The author describes some attempts that have been made to resolve some of the issues. For example, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a major factor in the dreadful loss of Rhino, Tigers and other animals. Yet many doctors in China realise that TCM is worthless, and are trying to teach the population that this is so. Without much success so far – and it is here that we see the vast range of China, geographically, ethnically and socially. It would be fair to say that while Simons describes solutions in many areas, he is pessimistic about the likelihood of success any time soon.

As always with books on complex topics, I want to be assured that the author is worth trusting. And he is a journalist after all! He is an American, was a Peace Corps volunteer in China, studied widely and now lives in Beijing. He has reported on the environment from “a dozen” Asian nations, for newspapers and magazines. He has taken information from a lot of sources, and talked to a lot of smart people. Often the source material is not allowed to disrupt the flow of the book but is relegated to forty pages of notes, which are reassuringly complete. The writing is excellent – it is well paced, mixes direct observation of situations world-wide with reflection, and he has a great knack for highlighting one small detail which epitomises the big picture. It would have been easy just to write a lament but he hasn’t.

So, no zombies but the book frightened me anyway, and left me both better informed and more concerned. Well worth reading.

The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens the Natural World
by Craig Simmons
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551888