Book Review: You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon, edited by Barbara Francis

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_you_do_not_travel_in_china_at_the_full_moon‘The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. At 1 o’clock the urgent alarm went off and at 1.10 the planes arrived’, writes Agnes Moncrieff, known as Nessie, from Hankow in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

From 1930 to 1945, Nessie served as New Zealand’s foreign secretary for the YWCA in China, an organisation formed in 1855 in England to promote ‘the welfare of young women’. The collection of excerpts from her letters and reports published in You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon captures a period of uncertainty, a time when ‘long spells of wet weather’ are welcomed during the full moon, as they hinder air raids. Ranging from observations of daily life through to thoughts on military tactics and accounts of epic journeys, the letters all share her delightful style.

The book is formed from two complementary threads – the stories of the letters themselves and those that the letters hold. The letters, subject to the laws of the physical world, survived not only the vicissitudes of war, but also travelled a great distance to arrive in New Zealand. Barbara Francis, the editor of this volume, became Nessie’s friend while boarding with her in the 50s, and much later discovered the existence of the letters by chance, through a conversation. A trip to the Alexander Turnball Library followed, and her efforts have ensured that Nessie’s experiences can reach a wider public.

These letters hold a tension. They are foreign in that they bring news from elsewhere, and from another time – one that has passed. But there is the intimate sense of person that the letter form enables, where the writer is free to express herself and unselfconsciously communicate thoughts to the receiver. Nessie’s voice is immediate; she translates this other place and time into something we can relate to through writing that is a pleasure to read.

Letters from her first four-year term working for the YWCA in Peiping (now known to us as Beijing) detail her life of running a hostel and helping women in need. In addition to humorous sketches, there are observations of political undercurrents, which we view through our own filters on the other side of history. In 1934, she wrote that she was pleased to ‘note steadily increasing interest of students in rural and social reconstruction as fundamental to the solution of China’s problem’.

After a furlough, she returns to Shanghai in 1936 to begin her second term for the YWCA. While she is on holiday up the Yangtze River, the Japanese take Shanghai. Here begins the accounts of epic train and road journeys, the constant worry, and admiration for the resilience of a people. Unable to return to Shanghai, she moves up river to Hankow, the seat of the Chinese government. This is quite a glamorous time, involving lunch with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dinners with diplomats and a variety of people moving through the Lutheran Mission. But it is also heavy with the realities of war and an ever-present threat. She writes to her dear friend Eva Skinner: ‘Sometimes I can just not believe that it is possible that the things that happened in Nanking and elsewhere will surely happen here if the Japans come in. It is all too fantastic and terrible and so remote from the ordinary decencies of human life.’

28205-PA1-o-1191-11-2.tif

“Waiting for the train at Ch’u fu Station,” Agnes Moncrieff Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. PA1-o-1191-11-2

Though the threat is approaching, she does not wish to leave, fearing for her Chinese female colleagues. Eventually she must and sets out on a journey to Hong Kong, in spite of stories of bombed trains and survivors having to hide in ditches or long grass. An epic journey via truck, rail and boat ensues, one that she records with her trademark reserve and dry humour. An air raid takes place during a stop, where she notes that the ‘green canvas did not seem very adequate protection against shrapnel, so as soon as the anti-aircraft guns came into action, I shot off the truck and got under it in company with the two Chinese men.’ She reaches Hong Kong only to learn that she had left Hankow just two weeks before it fell to the Japanese.

With a return to Shanghai in 1939, the strain of living with constant bombing raids and reports of horror begin to take their toll. Nessie writes in her understated manner to Eva of her profound fatigue and a visit to the doctor: ‘my reaction to her knee taps nearly knocked her out of the room, so I suppose the trouble is nervous.’ From here, another visit to Hong Kong for recuperation, a return to Shanghai and then another furlough.

The YWCA of New Zealand allows her to return to China for a third term on the insistence of YWCA China and Nessie herself. In order to arrive there safely, she travels through Burma, involving another epic journey of 3500km. She arrives 15 days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon allows insight into a dangerous time and Nessie’s extraordinary life, where engaging writing, a formidable personality and a turning point in global history intersect. In a tribute paid to Nessie upon her death in 1988 (six weeks before her ninetieth birthday), the YWCA of New Zealand wrote ‘Although she is no longer with us physically her spirit will endure’. It comes through time and time again in her letters.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China, 1940-1945
edited by Barbara Francis
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560882

AWF17: Behind the Scenes at Landfall

Another free session! Fantastic, and again 300 plus people. There was a real buzz of anticipation from this lively crowd. I suspect many were there to relive old memories of their association with Landfall over the past seventy years that Landfall has been in continuous publication for. The title of the session would suggest the exposure of numerous scandals and raking over the coals for juicy stories. A little misleading perhaps, as the session was really about celebrating this seventy year milestone. It would seem all old secrets are staying right where they are, in the Landfall vaults. But the session was lively and interesting, with no need for any salacious details, the history of the journal another intriguing morsel in the saga of publishing in this country.

landfall coversThe session was introduced by writer/editor/curator Peter Simpson who would also appear to be the unofficial historian of Landfall. Although never an editor, he has contributed regularly since 1977. Deeply immersed in NZ literature and its authors, he is very well placed as commentator on the story of Landfall and the place it holds in New Zealand’s literary development. Joining him on the panel was Ian Sharpe, editor 1985-1992, Chris Price who edited from 1993-2000, and current editor David Eggleton. I found it really interesting that each of these three editors were poets before taking up the Landfall mantle. I like to think that the poetry side of their lives provided a perfect outlet when dealing with the tumultuous life of being Landfall editor.

There were a number of themes to come out of each of the editors. Firstly, was the ongoing struggle for survival with rival magazines started up, firstly by Robin Dudding and Islands in 1972, then Sport from Fergus Barrowman in 1989. There is such a small pool of writers in New Zealand, and funding has always been very tight. The journal nowadays only survives thanks to a Creative NZ grant, and very generous funding from current owner Otago University Press. Plus, the goodwill of many contributors.

Secondly, there seems to have been a determined commitment to follow the principles set down by founding editor Charles Brasch. A magazine ‘distinctly of New Zealand without being parochial’, writers were to be paid, the perfect platform to show the world what the voices of this country were all about. There is no doubt that the high standards, level of professionalism and genuine care for New Zealand writing that defined Brasch’s legacy set the standard for the journal. In David Eggleton’s words, Landfall is a ’plucky little magazine, a prime mover of who we are’.

landfall covers 2Thirdly, the journal has always had to work hard at keeping modern and current. From post-war uncertainty around what exactly is New Zealand writing, to the post-modernism of the late 1980’s when Ian was editor, to the magazine being approachable and not too high minded for new/young writers, to recognising the increasing regionalism and cultural diversity of this country. Chris Price is particularly proud of starting the annual Landfall essay competition which is still going, having grown and developed to a high standard, contributing to the literature of this country. The latest winner of this competition is in the current issue, the 70th anniversary issue of the journal. David commented further that attracting new and young writers is a constant challenge, especially with the formidable and intimidating air Landfall has developed around it.

pp_david_eggletonThe fourth theme emerging was how damn tough these editors have had to be. A thick hide would appear to be number one requirement, to cope with being the critic of submitted work, managing writer egos, making suggestions for improvements, plus truckloads of stamina. So much going on all of the time in this 70-year history – definitely the little magazine that could. There is also always conflict over the final choices for each issue. David (left) commented that as editor, you may make mistakes in choosing what to publish, it is very hard to please everybody all the time with the content of each issue. But his final words were that each issue of the magazine ‘becomes a time capsule or a particular moment’. And really what else can it be, the fact it has lasted seventy years is testament to how it continues to be both relevant and controversial.

David spoke briefly on the impact of the digital revolution on the magazine. Landfall Review has been online since 2011, with six reviews of current New Zealand writing put up a month. It also chooses to do reviews of books that aren’t extensively covered by mainstream media, giving a much needed avenue to these lesser known books. David also says he does virtually all his communication by email, which has streamlined his job significantly, but has made his relationships with writers and reviewers less personal. He receives hundreds of submissions for each issue which is fantastic, even if it does require him to make some tough calls.

The session organiser did their cunning best to get the panel to talk about skeletons in line with the session title, but those lips were going to remain firmly sealed. There were glimmerings of the conflicts that followed Denis Glover and Robin Dudding everywhere, as well as Dinny Donovan being difficult. Landfall was always associated with factions – in Wellington the likes of Louis Johnson and Alistair Campbell; Auckland with Keith Sinclair, and Kendrick Smithyman; the North Shore with Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame and Kevin Ireland; and continually stirring the pot with his meddling James K Baxter. Oh, such stories those walls could tell! Maybe we could do with a definitive biography of Landfall – it’s first seventy years.

Attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Behind the Scenes at Landfall
featuring Peter Simpson, David Eggelton, Chris Price and Ian Sharpe
Auckland Writers Festival 2017, Friday, 19 May, 2.30 – 3.30pm

Book Review: The Mt Pisa Station Story, by Nicola McCloy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_mt_pisa_station_storyOne of the pleasures of living in a relatively recently-settled country, is that we have only really started to record the history of the land and the people. That history is still recent enough for us to tell the full tale, to fill in the spaces, to join the dots. Add to that the wonderful scenery of the Inland South Island through the seasons and the ages, and you have a great book.

The Mt Pisa Station Story ticks all the boxes. It begins with the Māori settlement, or passing through that took place. Then came the hardy early men, explorers, Scottish travellers, younger sons. Gold brought a massive rise in population, but also an opportunity to provide the essentials of life to the needy miners. A series of managers ran the station for many years, some knew this land and flourished, others struggled with the terrain and challenges of weather. The introduction of exotic animals to provide food or to control pests is a story in itself. While we all know about pigs and ferrets and rabbits, I was less familiar with the cat. In 1888 200 cats were introduced to the station to make “bloody war on the bunny”. It is these details and the accompanying photographs which make this book so much more than a farm story.

Perhaps the most important part of this tale is the subdivision of the station into 10 lots to be won by ballot. So in 1924 the MacMillan family became part of the Mt Pisa story. This family still remains today and the second part of the book deals with the struggles and successes as the family grew and flourished. Again, this was not an easy task and the book chronicles the depression years, the impact of war, the Rabbit Board decisions and the hydro schemes.

I loved this book. It tells a real story about real people. It does not gloss over the difficulties of farming over the years, but instead celebrates the diversification and vision which is essential to adapt and survive in changing times. If you know the region, it will give you the back story to the places and the names. If you have never been there, you will be planning a trip sometime soon. This book is perfectly timed to make a great Christmas gift, combining story, family, beautiful photos and a tiny snapshot of the history of New Zealand farming.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Mt Pisa Station Story: A stroke of luck
by Nicola McCloy
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869539467

Book Review: A Passionate Affair – Llewellyn Owen & Music, by Margaret Bean

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_passionate_affairIn 1986, Llewellyn Owen’s daughter Gwyneth Owen gifted to the Ashburton Museum assorted material relating to Llewellyn, a school teacher, private music teacher, composer, conductor, accompanist and solo performer. He lived in Ashburton from 1890 – 1917. Margaret Bean, a voluntary archivist at the museum from 1993 – 1917 began compiling some details about his life to accompany that material. That project grew to become this book.

Llewellyn Owen was the youngest son of a family who emigrated from England to New Zealand in 1879 – he was eight years old. There were four boys in the family. At a young age, Llewellyn showed considerable musical talent. He obtained music qualifications after some years of study with no clear path of instruction. He was well-liked and in many reports of concerts and social events, his talents were in high demand.

Later on, Llewellyn trained as a primary school teacher taking up a position as an Assistant Master at Ashburton School. He resigned after 18 months to persue a career in music. He then returned to teach in Lyttleton. During his career he also worked as a composer, accompanist and a conductor.

The Gates family dominated the local music scene in Ashburton and were firmly established by the time Llewellyn arrived. They remained so during his time in the town.
Richard Wood, violinist of Timaru also had an impact on the Ashburton music circles in the early 1890’s both as a performer and teacher of stringed instruments.

The Woods and Gates families both figured prominently in early orchestral performances, along with Llewellyn Owen.

Llewellyn Owen’s time in Ashburton may be divided into four periods:

1890 – 95 Appointment to staff of Ashburton District School ending as
Choir leader of the Methodist Wesleyan Choir Society
1896 – 1902 6 years of intense musical society activity marred by eye
problems – sought treatment in Europe.
1903 – 1908 Returned from Europe; marriage, birth of first child.
1909 – 1917 Visiting music teacher at local high school until his departure
from Ashburton and return to primary teaching.

Llewellyn Owen also had a number of his original compositions published. In this book seven of his musical works have been included, one of which was discovered during Margaret Bean’s research, as well as a CD of his music. The CD is included with this book.

As a non-musician I found this book intriguing. New Zealand was a very different world to today. Music was a very important part of life in small towns and cities throughout New Zealand as entertainment and as a suitable accomplishment for women, along with painting and embroidery. This book is a glimpse into the social history of Ashburton and its surrounds, and an important record of that time in New Zealand.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

A Passionate Affair – Llewellyn Owen & Music
by Margaret Bean
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9781927242865

Book Review: A History of New Zealand Women, by Barbara Brookes

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_history_of_nz_womenIn the 1860s, Rose Hall wrote to her sister-in-law from Christchurch, comparing her life in all its loneliness ‘to that of a cat with its back constantly stroked backwards’. In 1893, Meri Te Tai Mangakahia of Te Rarawa argued for the right to be able to stand for Maori parliament as a Maori landowner. In the 1950s Women’s Weekly was on the rise, and its readers ‘were expected to know the bargain that marriage entailed for most families: men worked to become homeowners and married women maintained the domestic side of life’. By 1977, Therese O’Connell had left home and gone off to university, where she learned that male friends earned more over one summer break than she had in her four previous years of part-time jobs (she went on to found the Women’s Liberation Front).

Today, as Barbara Brookes observes in her vast and engaging A History of New Zealand Women, ‘Few people now imagine their daughters will be depending on a man for their financial well-being’. Women are in the corridors of power and enjoy public profiles in a range of disciplines. This dramatic change in circumstances for half the population deserves attention.

Exploring the overlooked and underreported role of women in nation-building, Brookes traces the move from a largely similar set of experiences in domestic roles through to the complex multiplicity of women’s lives today. In the rich illustrative material, we see women’s vastly different current circumstances encapsulated in a few pages: Chelsea Winter and Nadia Lim on the cover of cookbooks; a few pages later women are packing mallowpuffs at a factory, another is living in a caravan post-quake. Some women are in the corridors of power, but others continue to experience poverty and pay inequity.

Brookes takes us behind the scenes of the dominant narratives, through the spheres of health, education, franchise, representation, culture, sports, property rights – all illuminated through the lives of individuals.

It is the vast cast of women from particular times and places – the noises of the day as it were – which gives texture: small, intimate reflections of larger movements provide an accumulative sense of history. The big events loom in the background – colonisation, the Land Wars, WWI, the Depression – and we understand that women’s rights have not enjoyed a simple linear progression. It didn’t just take time but required shifting social and political climates to intersect with the efforts of individuals.

Brookes carefully examines Maori and Pakeha experiences – the vicissitudes of life provide different opportunities and hindrances for women from these backgrounds. New settlement and new land opens up new roles and expectations. Mary Taylor found freedom from the rigid English social structures upon moving to New Zealand in 1845: ‘She taught, she bought land, built a house and dealt in cattle’. Yet colonisation and its patriarchal family structures were disruptive for Maori – particularly in terms of land ownership for women. Pakeha women’s lives were dominated by the household, yet their education and ‘skills in literacy and numeracy would enhance opportunities in the changing world’, while Maori women were ‘participating in warfare, acting as eloquent advocates in court, and exercising unquestioned rights with regard to property’.

Handsomely produced, A History of New Zealand Women includes wonderful illustrative material that provides insight at a glance. The striking portrait of Heni Te Kiri Karamu, a warrior woman who famously risked her own life to give water to the enemy stares out from the page resplendent, with huia feathers in her hair. The examples of weaving, clothing, artworks, photos and advertisements highlight the complexity of the women’s sphere, including a confused ad for ‘freedom lover’ pantyhose – part liberation (women no longer required garter belts), part leggy glamour shot.

This layering of stories and experiences leads the reader to where New Zealand women are today. ‘The aspirations of the feminists of the 1890s appeared to be fulfilled when, in December 1993, almost precisely a century after women’s suffrage, Helen Clark became the first woman to lead a major political party’. We have a deeper understanding of this progression thanks to A History of New Zealand Women and a reminder that many young women, benefiting from the fruits of their ancestors’ efforts, still need to advocate.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

A History of New Zealand Women
by Barbara Brookes
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN  9780908321452

Book Review: Women of the Catlins: Life in the Deep South, by Diana Noonan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_women_of_the_catlinsThis wonderful collection of stories from the women who live in New Zealand’s deep South are treats for the soul. Each woman bestows on the reader a sense of peace as they share the day-to-day stories of their lives. It’s fascinating to read of the way they have built their lives in the Catlins – a wild and isolated natural, beautiful part of New Zealand.

The Catlins is known to some of us as a place you drive through on your way from Dunedin to Invercargill, others may not be entirely sure where it is. You may wonder what the fuss was about as you drove past on the main highway, but the secret of the Catlins lies beyond this highway. You need to make the time to turn off and head down those back country roads to see the rolling green farmland interspersed with native bush, and cold, windswept wild beaches abundant with penguins, seals and seabirds. With no-one in sight.

Catlins resident Diana Noonan shares some of the best, the worst and the most fascinating things about the lives of these 26 women, none of whom would think they were remarkable in any way, but for the magical place they’ve chosen to build their lives. Through Women of the Catlins, we sneak a peek into their lives. Their stories are the kind that you might get if you were lucky enough to run into them at the local store, share a pint at the pub, and get into conversation with them about the history of their place.

Rona Williamson may tell you how seafood was abundant back in the ‘30s, the water was clear and clean, and flounders lay flat and plentiful in the beds. She’d walk all the way out to the mouth of the river spearing them as she went – some were so large they wouldn’t fit in the pan.

Christine Mitchell grew up farming, shearing and horse trekking, far away from anything and anyone – an hour this way, an hour that, sometimes the travel can be annoying. She notes that it can be a lonely sometimes, but on the flip side, she wouldn’t trade the amazing bush and ocean views out of their living room window, plus the kids love it down on the farm. Christine says they don’t need things, she knows and feels they have all they need, with a warm house and a loving family.

What is particularly notable about these women is the reflections that make up their lives, as they live among the woodland, flowers, native bush, animals farmed and wild, coast, sea and hillsides, in weather warm, cold and windblown. Each of the women has a rich knowledge of local people, community, neighbours – concerts and dances in halls, farms, views and peace and quiet. It’s a kind of charmed life for those of us that live in the hustle and bustle of the city, and its not for nothing that many of us crave a simpler life more connected to the earth and the elements.

I wish to thank these women for sharing a piece of their lives with us, and Diana Noonan and Photographer Cris Antona for bringing it to life. This is a wonderful book for anyone who relishes the dream of a slower, more connected life – taking the time to smell the roses, and the fresh baking.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

Women of the Catlins: Life in the Deep South
Edited by Diana Noonan, Photography by Cris Antona
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781877578977

Book Review: High Country Stations of the Mackenzie, by Mary Hobbs

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_high_country_stations_of_the_mackenzieTourists flock to New Zealand’s shores because they contain some of the
most stunning scenery in the world. The Mackenzie Country, nested beneath Mt Aoraki/Cook is one place that draws them. The combination of snowy mountains, placid blue lakes and yellow tussock combine to produce a picture-postcard scene. But behind this iconic image lie wonderful stories. These are the rich treasure which Mary Hobbs uncovers in her book.

Mary Hobbs is a local writer and as such she has access to many stories from the Mackenzie; some oral, some written. She has already published local stories and her style is both informative and readable. From this strong background she takes us on a trip around 11 of the stations in the area. Her research has uncovered tales of courage, hospitality and tragedy.

The account of the Mary Range Station includes the amazing journey which John Hutcheson took from Scotland to Wellington, then Wanganui, Nelson and Banks Peninsula. Along with Captain Sinclair, John Hutcheson helped transport the Deans to Canterbury, the Hays to Pigeon Bay and finally he with his new wife Mary, to the shores of Lake Pukaki. There are interesting asides in each tale, such as the discovery of many Moa bones in the Mackenzie. These were described by John as being so fresh he kept a wary eye out for the birds. At that time the struggle for survival was more important than extinct bird remains. The Birch Hill Station has an equally interesting history including links to the Crimean war (Mt Sebastapol) and the sadness of losing young children, now buried in the Burkes Pass Cemetery.

Where the Hermitage currently stands amidst the Mt Aoraki/Cook National Park, was once Mt Cook Station. The heroine of this tale is definitely Catherine Burnett. To her fell the task of entertaining the many visitors and celebrities wishing to view or climb Mt Cook. In the words of one traveller she was,”full to overflowing with the happiness of her life while discussing all sorts of plans for our comfort, and descanting on the hygienic properties of the air and the sunshine”. While this may have been his view, she also gave birth to 8 children, and was known for the help she gave to others in need in the area. Obviously the writer was a man!

I have been visiting the Mackenzie for 40 years and have always enjoyed hearing of, or reading the local stories. This book is a treasure as it contains both the early history, the intervening years, and the more recent status of these stations. So many of the names in the area come from people or events from the past.

Mary Hobbs has produced a book that works on many levels. It provides good historical facts, entertaining asides to events of the past, and a sense of the vision and courage of those who settled here. The photographs, both old and new, and the maps add to the visual pleasure of the book. However, do not be deceived into thinking this is a coffee table bauble. It is a superb piece of research from someone who truly loves the tales she shares.

I have already bought 2 copies to give to friends from Twizel for Christmas!

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

High Country Stations of the Mackenzie
by Mary Hobbs
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9781927213513