Book Review: Face to Face: Conversations with Remarkable New Zealanders, by Paul Moon and Jane Ussher

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_face_to_facePaul Moon is a Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology. He is also a prolific writer of non-fiction, with twenty five published New Zealand histories and biographies to his name. This background meant that he was well placed to undertake a “rare survey of the diversity of talent that contributes to the character of our country.” Following Moon once he had interviewed each of twelve remarkable New Zealanders in situ was Jane Ussher, long regarded as one of this country’s foremost portrait photographers. With this publication, the stars of both Ussher and Moon have risen even higher.

If a thousand New Zealanders were chosen at random and asked to compile a list of twelve remarkable living New Zealanders, they would possibly come up with a hundred names in common. It would be curious to see if the twelve in this book would feature consistently. Here is a quick list of the surnames, which is itself an experiment: do readers recognise the subject just from a surname? Jones, Hadlee, Grace, Gluckman, Harawira, Chen, Houston, Warren, Holst, Geering, Finn, Pardington. How did you get on? And who would you turn to first?

There are a dozen interviews and the publication runs to 270 pages. These are deep and lengthy conversations. Paul Moon’s historical bent ensures that each conversation is contextualised by the personal, social, cultural and sometimes political history that has shaped the world of each subject. The reader is able to orientate herself quite swiftly to the thoughts, words and deeds of the speaker. Moon’s contextual knowledge is evidently coupled with a human warmth that has encouraged his subjects to open up. The interviews are (as the back cover publicity suggests) “stimulating, humorous, sometimes controversial and always revealing.”

Revelations are also called forth by the seeing and photographic process of Jane Ussher. Faces and other relevant features emerge with startling clarity out of blurred or inky black backdrops. Hadlee’s moustache, Houston’s fingers, Jones’s eyelids, Gluckman’s lips, Grace’s irises, Holst’s cheekbones, Pardington’s tattoes: they leap out at you and speak of personality and tendency. Blotches! Pates! Liverspots! Eye pouches and nose lumps! The images speak of life and time, and how the individual human form responds to these twin imperatives.

The main contributors to these interviews are of course the interviewees themselves. Through their words, it is possible to gain an impression of their thinking, their methods, their aspirations and their perceptions of their own achievements. Some of these New Zealanders are remarkable for their deeds rather than their words — Hadlee’s ‘genius’ lay in the performance of his ‘art’, and there is not too much to be freshly learnt from his utterances here. On the other hand, someone like Bob Jones gets your attention with such pronouncements as “the best way to get rich is to lie in bed and think,” and with an account of his infamous assault case, where he was fined $1000 for hitting a journalist, which had him asking the judge if he could pay another $1000 and hit the journalist again.

There is a steady flow of wonderful quotes and insights throughout Face to Face.

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Lloyd Geering: “If you worship an idol, the likelihood is that it’s going to be broken.”

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Michael Houston: “I think I have a bent to living in the present.”

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Tim Finn: “You’re looking for beauty, but not always in beautiful places.”

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And Fiona Pardington: “Nature’s all about death. If you go down there [the ocean] it’s the hugest graveyard in the universe. Everything is beautiful for a while, then it dies.”

With its blend of historical context, personal anecdote and pictorial revelation, Face to Face succeeds wildly in its intention to convey the essence of each of the individuals. Inevitably perhaps, a wider objective is also approached. These thoughtful portraits of twelve remarkable New Zealanders work together to illuminate what it may mean to be a human, here, there and everywhere. And if you handed Face to Face to a migrant stepping off a boat, she might think, New Zealand — I wouldn’t mind living here.

Review by Aaron Blaker

Face to Face: Conversations with Remarkable New Zealanders
By Paul Moon, photographed by Jane Ussher
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143571445

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.

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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.