Book review: Secrets and Treasures: Our Stories Told Through the Objects at Archives New Zealand

This book is in bookstores now.

Just so it’s out there, I love history. Always have, always will. The teacher always made the difference for me when studying any subject and this book is no different. Secrets & Treasures is written like Ray Waru is standing with you, talking and teaching you about every detail he picked up in the short time he had at Archives New Zealand, while holding up amazing photos to accompany his words.

The book itself is simply beautiful, to compliment the outstanding work inside. Waru has done a huge amount of research, and has said in interviews the idea started with the tapes from the Erebus disaster (a topic which takes up eight pages of this almost 400 page book). The book is split in to five parts plus an introduction, and covers a huge range of topics, from the little-known Declaration of Independence of 1835, to the creation of New Zealand’s own currency in 1935, to the complaints the film censor received about The Life of Brian.

Part 4 ‘The Black Museum’ is the section that sucked me in the most. As the name suggests, it’s full of the secrets your grandma probably remembers but never wanted to tell you. These include the Crewe Murders, the Parker-Hulme murder and Amy Bock the ‘male bride’. My favourite part from the section is the story of The Bones in the Box. The first page is dominated by a photo of a seemingly harmless box, which, of course, contains bones. More correctly, the cranium of Francis Roy Wilkins. The story of Wilkins is hugely interesting and shrouded in mystery – his murder in 1947 is still unsolved. Creepy.

Waru’s writing is really quite flawless; it flows easily, making what could have been a very dry and uninteresting book into something that makes you keep wanting more. Although I wouldn’t put it in to the ‘coffee table book’ genre, it is something you can pick up and just flick through. Pick a page and start reading, or as I did, start at the beginning and read right the way through.

Waru doesn’t overbear you as the reader with information; he’s picked up some of the key moments from New Zealand’s history, and carefully written about them in such a way you just want to keep turning the pages. He’s not long winded – he knows what he wants to say, and does so in a timely fashion.

To go along with Waru’s text is some stunning photography. All of the new shots were taken by David Sanderson, an employee of Archives New Zealand, and an amazing photographer in his everyday life. There is a fantastic YouTube clip of Sanderson explaining how the cover image was shot. It’s definitely worth a watch, I don’t have a huge interest in photography, but it totally blew my mind learning the ways you can use a camera if you know how.

Although the text stands really well on its own, there’s no way this book would work without the images. Sanderson’s ability to capture something beautiful in the axle that supposedly weighed down the body of Harvey Crewe, or a reel canister filled of scenes literally cut from film reels, is really remarkable.

The depth and manner of Secrets & Treasures make it a definite must for every home around New Zealand. Waru’s words with Sanderson’s photos make it easy to read from cover to cover, or just to pick up and flick through when it’s sitting on your table. I can think of at least five people I would definitely buy this for at Christmas, it should be on everyone’s list. I haven’t even begun to cover what the book contains in this review. Trust me, it’s worth a look.

New Zealand history may not span over a huge number of years, but the depth of history we have discovered and have documented is amazing for a small country. And this book shows off a really small part of it incredibly well. Waru said on Radio New Zealand he believes there’s easily a series of books to be written about the items hidden away in the depths of Archives New Zealand. I believe it’s something that should be invested in – people often perceive history books to be dry and boring, but Secrets & Treasures throws that theory out of the water. Plus, every day history is made, so there’s always going to be material for the books. There’s no end to it.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Secrets and Treasures: Our Stories Told Through the Objects at Archives New Zealand
by Ray Waru
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869796891

Book review: Images from Albertland: Harold Marsh 1876-1948 by Paul Campbell

Ask in-store at your local bookshop about this book

Historical documentary photography from the Kaipara Harbour region is a niche subject area in which to publish, but in the case of Images from Albertland, it proves itself worthy as the tipping point for anyone with a bent for local history.

Named after the (then) recently deceased Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband), Albertland comprised the 70,000 coastal acres surrounding the Kaipara Harbour. Its people, the Albertlanders, were British immigrants who sailed to New Zealand between 1862-1880, with the vision of establishing a classless, non-conformist society.

Farmer and photographer William Harold Marsh lived in Albertland throughout his life, and the book chronicles his community’s story through a lens. All of the images are in black and white, taken from the archive at the Albertland Heritage Centre, Wellsford. A range of glass plate and film photos are included, and it’s astonishing to have such a clear record from this time. The book includes portraits, landscapes, domestic and street photography, and while most images are candid, there are also posed shots such as local weddings, or the image of the four Meiklejohn brothers donning battle uniforms and mounted on horses while at a training camp in 1905.

The photography is fascinating from an historical perspective, providing an insight into the arduous pioneering life of this tight-knit community of immigrants. A sense of isolation is apparent right through the collection, even in photographs populated with people. For example, a family building castles at the beach depicts the subjects surrounded by nothing other than gusty tree branches and an ocean; later in the ‘Harbour Highways’ chapter is ‘Legendary Kaipara fisherman, Ted Pooks and his sons clearing nets’ with only the wide reflections of a yacht and dinghy to keep them company.

Most affecting are Marsh’s personal photographs, for instance the self-portrait of ‘Pop Marsh’ showing him writing alone awhile suffering from the post-WWI Spanish flu epidemic, also the images of him and his children preparing to photograph an eclipse of the sun, or his children scoffing watermelon on the veranda. Marsh is capable of honing in on the detail of everyday life, using faces and subtle backdrop cues to weave an emotional tapestry.

The book’s text is well-written, informative, and packed with first-person accounts, but is not laid out in the most accessible of formats, something particularly critical in coffee-table-style books requiring a strong visual appeal. That said, it’s the photographs which should capture readers’ attention, and they do – they’re ones to savour before going off to find out more about this remarkable episode in New Zealand history.

Reviewed by Caitlin Sinclair

Images from Albertland: Harold Marsh 1876-1948
By Paul Campbell
Published by Echo Publishing
ISBN: 9780473185480