Book Review: The World’s Din: Listening to Records, Radio, and Films in New Zealand, 1880-1940, by Peter Hoar

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_worlds_dinPeter Hoar provides us with a very worthwhile insight into the world of sound that emerged for New Zealanders as radio, musical record, and film sound was imported and adapted to local needs. This is nonetheless a partial insight, as it tries to convey in text, and illustrations, mostly a lost world of sound and entertainment forms. While it may only be a glimpse of what our forebears listened to, it remains a fascinating one.

The World’s Din is organised into three parts, based on: recorded technology and musical recordings; then radio technology, and the emergence of radio stations in between the wars; and finally a look at the musical accompaniment to the booming film and cinema industry. Hoar provides some context where necessary, and most of the text is placed within New Zealand social history, the key point being the way locals received the new technology from overseas, and adapted it in a cultural sense. This raises other cultural questions, such as with early commercial recordings of Maori singers. This was helpful to the performers, but they remained very much ‘cover’ versions.

Perhaps it is the chapters on the development of radio which include the most obvious evidence of local expertise, and perhaps of an enduring legacy. Interestingly, Hoar includes a chapter on ‘military radio’ and its influence on the later development of commercial radio after World War One. Not only does he remind us of characters such as Eric Battershill and Clive Drummond, who went from ham radio enthusiasts through the military, and then became commercial radio figures. But he also examines in detail how the early radio operators found life in remote places, whether that be on top of Tinakori Hill (in Wellington), or in the garrison captured from Germans in Samoa, in 1914. These chapters also have interesting archival photographs, including the raising of a large aerial radio mast on the Chatham Islands, and the operator of a radio set in the desert of Mesopotamia, who was enduring over 40 degrees of heat.

Back home, and after the war, there were also forgotten female pioneers in radio, such as Gwen Shepherd in Wellington. Her wedding was apparently broadcast live on 2YA in 1930, with a large crowd also in attendance at Old St. Pauls. Aunty Gwen, as she was known, was just as popular as the avuncular men who got into broadcasting between the wars, though none may have been as well known as Maud Basham (Aunt Daisy) in the post-war era. Hoar not only looks at the content ‘on’ the radio, and debates over musical styles, but also the role of the actual radio in interior design.

Towards the end there is more consideration of the broader cultural context. Although films became very popular over time, there is a sense in which some of the local flavour was lost, as accompanying music was supplanted by the ‘talkies’. And with the talkies came a particularly American form of entertainment, in a period in which the British influence was officially still predominant. It is always difficult to gauge the role of popular culture in historical events, in general, but this book indicates how the local and indigenous cultural forms are present and then perhaps quickly forgotten.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

The World’s Din: Listening to Records, Radio, and Films in New Zealand, 1880-1940 by Peter Hoar
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531199

Book Review: Abel Tasman: Mapping the Southern Lands, by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivančić

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_abel_tasmanThere’s something a little bit eerie about the fact that a few minutes after I picked up Abel Tasman to read it in so I could write this review, Radio New Zealand National broadcast a piece marking the 375th anniversary of Tasman and his crew making first contact with Ngāti Tumatakokiri. It was purely a coincidence, but a tad spooky all the same.

Telling the story of how Abel Tasman came to be in that particular time and place, and what happened afterwards, this book is perfect for middle-upper primary readers (ages about 7 up) as a starting point into the European exploration of New Zealand. The text is easy to understand, balanced in terms of perspective, and follows a straightforward sequence. There are lots of footnotes to explain words used in multiple languages, and a helpful glossary at the back which adds more depth to the narrative.

For me, the highlight of an already good book is the illustrations. My mouth actually dropped open on about the third page, as the use of light was just stunning. The illustrations have a clarity and almost photographic reality that is just magic, and which I’m more used to seeing in art galleries. They are truly beautiful, and will keep me coming back to the story long after I’ve memorised the text. An extra special touch is the use of historic maps and drawings, at least some of which were drawn by Isaac Gilsemans, the fleet merchant in the expedition. Children will love this; and if they don’t notice it themselves, draw their attention to the dates on each set of end papers, and ask them what they notice.

As well as being essential for school and public libraries, this book would make a fantastic addition to the shelf of any curious child who appreciates a good story and asks lots of “why?” and “then what happened?” questions.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Abel Tasman: Mapping the Southern Lands
by Maria Gill
Illustrated by Marco Ivančić
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775435099

 

Book Review: Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945, by John Newton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hard_frostThis is the first instalment of a projected three-part series on New Zealand literature. It’s a rather curious project, if John Newton’s preface is to be accepted. He claims that New Zealand literature, as he knew it, is complete and increasingly remote, or a “finite chapter.” Really? New Zealand literature no longer exists, apparently. What an odd premise. His justification for this is similar to that which is given for the apparent demise of the music industry: the young people don’t accept the old format.

In fact, this book is caught within a crisis in the academy. The heyday of New Zealand literature courses is over, and the demand is not there. Newton seems to feel this acutely, having written about the key ‘nationalist’ authors for some time, but without being able to interest his students. Giving up a teaching role, it is a rather odd enterprise to write three long books all about the crumbling edifice. And why should it be the academics who define what New Zealand literature is anyway? This is a bit like the American academic who decided the fall of communism signalled the ‘end of history’, except that was a piece of triumphalism rather than an acknowledgement of defeat.

This first book is not so much about the historical context becoming irrelevant. That is still to come, presumably. Hard Frost is actually based on the premise that New Zealand literature did not begin until Allen Curnow and the Caxton Press created it in the 1930s. The ‘hard frost’ comes from a Charles Brasch quote, in reference to a Curnow edited anthology, claiming that the chosen writers had “killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth,” at least in the South Island. This mythology is analogous to making the inhospitable mountainous country possible to inhabit: some sturdy blokes conquer the mountains and then see the promised land. The mountaineering was both figurative and literal, and it was also largely a masculine activity, as the later literary critics have pointed out.

A lot of the book is about this gender issue. Some great female writers were marginalised along the way; and a number of the blokes are limited by their own masculinity, and implicit homophobia. It has to be said that the issues of gender and sexual identity may be topical, but are not necessarily of great moment. Newton notes that the new interpretations involve a re-reading of Frank Sargeson, and the intervention of theoretical positions adopted from the international literature. Of course, Newton does this too, but also reverts to his own student background in choosing to resurrect an obscure part of Raymond Williams’ canon, the Welsh doyen of cultural studies. This is where he gets the phrase ‘structure of feeling’ from, but it’s more of an organising concept than academic theory.

The theme of the book, if one can abstract from all the derivative quoting from the literature, can be observed in the front cover. This involves a rather curious photo of three men trying to hold up some fossilised bones in a paddock, in North Canterbury, circa 1949. The caption on the back cover indicates that the men are archaeologists, including Jim Eyles and Roger Duff, who wrote a 1952 book on the discovery of Moa bones in Pyramid Valley. Newton does not mention the photo in the text, but does quote from Curnow’s famous poem ‘The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch’. The poem refers to the moa egg that was reconstructed, and the much repeated phrase about a child, born in a ‘marvellous year’, that “will learn the trick of standing upright here.” Newton has spent much of his academic career trying to explain to his students how this phrase launched the new, nuanced, form of nationalist writing by Curnow. But he now makes the point that Jim Eyles had made a more important discovery as a 13 year old at the Wairau Bar.

Newton now admits that the ‘nationalist position’ of Curnow was not really teachable anyway; and that he had already read it from a ‘post-colonial’ frame, in effect. That is fine as an admission of a literary critic, but Newton has an enhanced idea of his project as literary history. This goes beyond the role of writing a history of the key texts, to that of the inverse, i.e. writing history by way of the local literature and related texts. This is quite perplexing, apart from the contextual evidence he introduced about the archaeologists, and some of the photographic research. The key ones are in the chapter about gender and mountaineering, including the photo of Blanche Baughan trying to climb an ice face in 1916. She appears to be wearing completely impractical clothing, but the reproduction is poor, it has to be said, as are the other photos in the chapter, which seem too small.

The only other contextual material of historical significance involves the two key blokish poets in the nationalist frame, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover, as representative of settler manliness. Thus, Fairburn and Glover are both subjected to literary criticism and as blokes, being too partial to boozing and bravado, and not accepting their role as literary poets. However, there is a very interesting discussion of Glover, on a very personal reading, in which Newton makes a comparison between him and his own father. Despite this personal insight it just makes Glover more of a romantically tinged nationalist. But still a nationalist, just not on the same level as Allen Curnow.

As I write this review the 375th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of New Zealand by Abel Tasman is being celebrated in Golden Bay. Gifts are being exchanged between Maori and Dutch dignitaries, rather than there being a clash of boats in the bay, as in 1642. Allen Curnow commemorated this in his ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’, in true modernist style, which remains relevant. A combined and inter-weaved post-colonial history goes on, but is there now really no one to tell our islands’ story?

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945
by John Newton
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561629

Book Review: Aotearoa, by Gavin Bishop

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aotearoa_the_new_zealand_storyGavin Bishop’s Aotearoa has been atop the Nielsen Bestsellers list virtually since its release. I spotted Gavin at the Storylines Hui the day after it was launch and he said ‘It sold 140 copies at the launch! I’ve never written a bestseller!’

Gavin has been writing and illustrating books for over 40 years. He has gone through many phases of illustration – the illustrations in this book are most similar in style to his The House that Jack Built, which was re-published a few years ago by Gecko Press, but also bring in elements (particularly in the people) of the broad style he used in Mister Whistler.

Aotearoa tells the story of our nation, from the big bang, via dinosaurs, through Kupe’s discovery of Aotearoa (so named by Kupe’s wife Kuramārōtini) and so on. My first favourite page – there are many – is the Voyages to Aotearoa, which depicts each of the waka that we know sailed to settle in New Zealand from Hawaiki. Along with people, came gods, and the stories of our gods are flawlessly woven into the narrative.

As iwi settled the land, each named its sacred mountain, and set about naming the birds, fish and insects of Aotearoa – and the land: Te Waipounamu and Te Ika-a-Māui. On the following spread, came war: the Māori war god Tūmatauenga makes several appearances as our people go to war. While disputes over land led to fighting, the first Pākehā arrived. Gavin takes us inside their minds to show how they drew the coastline of New Zealand, and the illustrations give further information about what was introduced and traded.

Something notable if you have never read a history book that has an integrated world-view of New Zealand: the Treaty of Waitangi isn’t signed until page 20 – one-third of the way through the book. There was a lot of history in Aotearoa before Pākehā came and carved it up, and this book ensures the younger generation doesn’t forget it. I will also add, for me the best parts of the book are those which tell about the settlement of New Zealand by all its peoples.

From the late 19th century on, Gavin does break-out ‘survey’ pages telling about progress in different areas of life and society. Transport, employment, houses, education. Each of these are finely drawn, but as somebody who tends to view things in a linear manner, I couldn’t help but want the images to sit in a more time-oriented manner!

The things he brings out though are wonderful, and there are several juxtapositions that made me smile to myself – in housing, these three things are close together: 1937: State houses were built for those who could not afford their own; 2008: A house in Masterton designed by the Wellington firm Melling Morse Architects; 2015: The number of homeless people who slept on the streets increased.

Gavin has also very cleverly given potted histories of famous architects, significant visionaries, and so on throughout his illustrations. His war illustrations are majestic artworks of the sort that I hope go on tour through Painted Stories.

I will stop myself gushing over every page and think about audience for a second. There is nothing that Gavin has done that hasn’t got kids in the centre of his thinking. The lollies page is fantastic; the clothes page – which involves many members of his own family – could inspire a class study of fashions using old family photos; the sports section is brilliant – and of course the All Blacks are running across the South Island. The disasters section is a starter page for 100s of school projects in the future. He has chosen famous people that children can relate to (Jamie Curry, Annabel Langbein, Witi Ihimaera, Lorde) and singers, writers, actors, dancers and artists as well. I’m pleased to see he has drawn himself in there.

Gavin has not been afraid to put his worldview across. ‘1840: The Treaty of Waitangi gave Māori the rights of British citizens. But for over 100 years it was ignored and ruled irrelevant to New Zealand law and government’. He has told briefly of land marches, protests, Bastion Point and Moutoa Gardens, hikoi, and wrongful Anti-terror raids. He has also called out those who are destroying our land: ‘Careless use of the environment threatens all life.’ Possibly the cutest drawing of the south island has it turned into a possum…

But the book ends with hope. Electric transport is being brought in. Kāpiti Island is a bird sanctuary, the Southern Ocean is a whale sanctuary. There are good things happening in agriculture. And finally, we have children flying the flag for the future. Just perfect.
It doesn’t matter what age you are, you will learn something from this book. You will understand how history has formed our land. Gavin has used the academic work of our most important historians to focus his drawings, and he has done a superlative job. Step out of the way, everybody, the award goes to…

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story
by Gavin Bishop
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770350

 

Book Review: Bastion Point: 507 days on Takaparawha, by Tania Roxborogh

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bastion_pointErica Tito thinks she’s going to spend the summer training her new horse (and also working to pay for it) but her parents suddenly have quite a different plan.

In 1977, the Muldoon government announced a housing development on Ngāti Whātua reserve land. This land had been reduced in size over time, by compulsory acquisition, despite having once been declared absolutely inalienable.

Many of the Ngāti Whātua iwi quickly returned to Auckland, and set up camp on Takaparawha, in what turned out to be a very long protest which ultimately saw more than 200 people arrested, and the buildings destroyed. However a subsequent Waitangi Tribunal determined that the land was indeed owned by Ngāti Whātua and much of it was returned. (source: Nzhistory.govt.nz)

So, to return to Erica’s story – her parents decide that it’s most important that they join Joe Hawke and the other Ngāti Whātua leaders, and despite Erica’s protests, that’s what happens. However what is intended a summer break turns into almost 18 months of living in leaky tents, on Bastion Point as the family become immersed in the struggle to retain their land.

Tania Roxborogh has created a compelling and entirely credible story, told through the diaries which Erica (who loves reading and writing) keeps throughout this time. The difficulties of living in such conditions are occasionally startling in their description; one which sticks with me is Erica’s note about her clothes smelling of smoke and damp, and trying to get rid of that before going to school so that she would not be embarrassed. But there are also the high points – an understanding and challenging teacher, Erica’s eventual ability as a top debater being drawn out, friendships made and kept despite enormous differences.

The importance of whānau is well-defined, and will resonate with young readers, as will the strength of character of the Tito family, determined to fight for what they know to be right.

The occupation of Bastion Point was not an easy time for Ngāti Whātua, and Roxborogh alludes in a very gentle way to the difficulties between the occupiers and the tribal elders and their advisors on the marae. She has more to say (through Erica) about the politics and the government of the day, and that is a good reminder to those of us who are old enough to remember Bastion Point and the challenges which were thrown out to all New Zealanders.

In all this is a very accessible, engaging and thought-provoking book. I’d recommend it to anyone, but particularly to teachers as a terrific resource either as a read-aloud or a text for study.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Bastion Point: 507 days on Takaparawha
by Tania Roxborogh
Part of the My New Zealand Story series
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434795

Book Review: The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie, by David Hastings

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_many_deaths_of_mary_dobieOne sunny afternoon in November 1880, on the road near Ōpunake in Taranaki, visiting Englishwoman, Mary Dobie, is brutally murdered, with her throat cut so deeply that she was all but decapitated. It was a horrific crime by both contemporary and modern standards. Wellington’s Evening Post called it a “shocking outrage”. Speculation was rife – about the nature of the crime, the behaviour of the victim, and the motive of the perpetrator.is an in-depth account of this fascinatingly awful story.

The backdrop to this sad story is the rumbling unease as tensions escalate at Parihaka. The ploughmen have been increasingly active and the pākehā settlers are calling upon the government to take action. Many at the time suspected that there were political motives for Mary’s murder, as she was the sister-in-law of a captain stationed at Taranaki with the Armed Constabulary. A confession is quickly elicited from a young Māori horse wrangler, Tuhi, and he is committed for trial.

Hastings is a journalist by background and has employed all of the talents in his arsenal to comprehensively research the events in the book, drawing upon many first-hand accounts in newspapers, court records and diaries. Sources are meticulously documented in the Notes and Bibliography, leaving no doubt that this tale is well-researched. The inclusion of photographs and drawings, some by Mary herself, bring the story to life and serve as a sobering reminder that these were real living people, and not merely fictional characters in a sordid whodunit.

This is a fascinating tale of a gruesome killing, made all the more interesting by the surrounding political climate of the time. I confess I had not before heard of the poor ill-fated Mary Dobie, but I will no longer be able to drive around the Taranaki coast without thinking of her. This is a story that stays with you for some time.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie: Murder, Politics and Revenge in Nineteenth Century New Zealand 
by David Hastings
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN  9781869408374

Book Review: Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand, by Matthew Wright

cv_Coal_rise_and_fall_of_king_coal

Available in bookstores nationwide.

There have been many books written about coal mining in New Zealand; however this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark. His discussion, in considerable depth, explores the strategic importance that coal had in the New Zealand of the late 19th and early 20th century and the social reform that resulted from coal miners’ recognition of national dependence on coal. The turbulent history of coal; the exploration for it, the mining of it, the use of it and the manner in which the political system was shaped by it, is superbly illustrated with subtle epithets which give the reader a deeper appreciation of the uneven progress of our coal mining heritage and history.

The significance of the local coal mining industry to wider society is offered in considerable detail; for several generations of New Zealanders it was an essential commodity for all manner of domestic functions, it provided the power for transport on both land and sea and the feed stock for gas works all over the country, it fuelled coal-fired power stations; the development of supporting industries and the general dependence on coal in the formative years of our country.

The reader is skilfully led from the very beginning of coal formation, through the early human realisation that it actually burned, into the exploration of the West Coast coalfields by Brunner, Rochford and von Haast. Coalfields that were to become household names throughout the country – Nightcaps, Kaitangata, Grey Valley, Denniston, Stockton and Waikato – are given a thorough examination in terms of industrial upheaval and the devastating personal effect of mine disasters.

Indications of when the industry began to falter are introduced in subtle ways; ships burning oil as far back as 1914, railways converting to diesel powered locomotives, the gradual disappearance of the gas and coke works in the cities as the distribution and supply of electricity offered a more convenient, and cleaner, alternative. In addition the rise of conservation awareness, the Clean Air Act 1972, the global warming indicators, all conspired to initiate a gradual move from a society that depended on coal to one that didn’t.

Attempts at explaining mining technology and terminology got a little off track which is a shame because this detracts somewhat from the value of the book as a reference work. Longwall mining is mentioned as being the preferred mining method in a ‘majority’ of pits, but this is not the case.

Wright goes on to discuss the dissolution of the money-losing State Coal Mines operation and the creation of its replacement, the Coal Corporation of New Zealand. He recognises the significance of change from an industry that supplied a diminishing domestic market to one that became very dependent on the export markets, thus illustrating the vulnerability of the industry. The dark days following on from the deaths of 29 miners at Pike River mine following a series of explosions in November 2010, coupled with the drop in the coking coal price in mid-2012 resulted in an acceleration of the ‘fall’ of coal as a commodity.

As Wright says, ‘coal was no longer cool’.

Reviewed by Robin Hughes, Coal Mines Expert and Ventilation Engineer

Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand
by Matthew Wright
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869537234