Book Review: Country Calendar, by Matt Philp and Rob Suisted

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_country_calendarThere are some things in New Zealand which seem to acquire the label “iconic” – think the likes of Marmite, Buzzy Bee, Black Singlets and the Kiwi. This book celebrates another member of that group, Country Calendar. This year, the TV programme celebrates 50 years of keeping the New Zealand public informed about what happens down on the farm. While the T.V. series screened old footage and revisited earlier farms, this book brings the stories together in an easily accessible read.

The introduction is an essential part of the story as it recounts the growth of the programme from an initial 13 programmes a year to 40. New technology has also changed the way scenes are shot and certainly made it easier to capture images. Some tales are told of dangerous escapes in the early days of shooting the footage. But above all, this chapter introduces us to the people, both on screen and behind the scenes. Frank Torley is an integral part of this story, not just as Mr Country Calendar, but also as he directed, produced, reported and fronted so many of the shows. The style of the programme as well as the vision of what was relevant has also changed. From an initial traditional farming stance, a wider view included fishing, organics, sustainability and lifestyle farms. This chapter also shows how the focus has changed from the land to the people and perhaps this is what enabled the show to screen across generations.

The book then presents 15 stories based on programmes screened over the 50 years. Some revisit the same farm twice or even three times. The Hinton’s stonefruit orchard near Earnscleugh, near Alexandra, was a wonderful example of this. It includes a photo from the 1961 Women’s Weekly, and a recreation of this image by the current family. Here the focus on family, on heritage but also on change was especially evident. Market forces have meant big changes in the farming sector as cheaper imports force farmers to adapt.

The stories are arranged in geographical order, starting from the top of the North Island and finishing in Blueskin Bay on the Otago Peninsula. Each story has a different focus, in the same way that the T.V. shows were presented. Stu Muir farms in the Waikato and his work regenerating the waterways enables whitebait and ducks to flourish. He gives the reason for this as being his love of shooting and whitebaiting, but there is an underlying love for the land coming through his story. The adaptation by each generation is evident in the script. As Mike Barton from Lake Taupo comments, “Previously I thought I was just a farmer. Now I feel like a farmer, a scientist, an environmentalist and a policy maker all rolled in to one”.

I grew up with Country Calendar as a part of my week. My father comes from a farming background, my sister and her husband were featured in one programme and I have always been on the receiving end of comments relating to the programme each week. Sometimes the episodes were a bit new age, others were too organic, but always they elicited an opinion. I loved this book. The text is informative, engaging and very much a New Zealand expression of how we weave our lives with the land. The people are what make the stories but the photographs give us the vision. They are superb. This book is well timed as a Christmas gift to anyone who loves to acknowledge our farming heritage, in the past and into the future.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Country Calendar
by Matt Philp and Rob Suisted
Published by Potton & Burton

Book Review: Molesworth: Stories from New Zealand’s Largest High-Country Station, by Harry Broad, photos by Rob Suisted

Moleswcv_molesworthorth won the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award at the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards

This is yet another book from Craig Potton Publishing that you wouldn’t read in bed unless you were attempting to kill three birds with one stone: honing your intellect, bathing your senses, and toning your triceps.

Molesworth is the name of the book and of New Zealand’s largest high-country station. How large is large, how high is high? Situated inland from the Kaikoura Ranges, wedged between St. Arnaud in the north and Hanmer in the south, Molesworth occupies a land area greater in size than Stewart Island/Rakiura. Much of this land lies above 1000 metres; many of the peaks are closer to 2000 metres. ‘The overwhelming impression as you travel through it,’ writes Harry Broad in his introduction, ‘is one of hugely imposing landscapes that dwarf its rivers and dominate the horizons.’ Other writers have described Molesworth as a ‘sort of ghostly colossus, lurking in its mountain fastness.’

The station has long had considerable national recognition, for the above reasons, for its mystique — there was no public access until 1987 — and because of the transformation under inspired management from a ruined, rabbit-infested landscape in 1938 into a flourishing and profitable farm within a few decades, and so on into the present day.musterteam_w

Harry Broad has set himself the task of verbally mapping the history of Molesworth. His method of doing so, as the subtitle suggests, has been to present its history as a succession of stories, as told by the people who have created and contributed to the legend of Molesworth. Those whose stories he has recorded include the sometimes hapless buyers and sellers of Molesworth’s early history (1850-1938), the husband and wife teams who have successfully managed the place since the Government took over in 1938, the politicians, the stockmen and the environmentalists. To listen to their stories is to have no doubt which country you’re in:

‘“That’s where you were growing your tucker. I don’t think it will go a hell of a lot further.”’

‘“In response, he welded two crowbars together and told them to get on with it.”

“I was a bit in awe of him. He was one of those blokes you could put in some good days for and all you got in the end was a grunt and sometimes a bit of a grizzle.”’

‘“Thirty miles from the nearest telephone… the mountains around us and the stars, and there, I tell you, you know it’s New Zealand.”IMG_1161[1]

The central story of course is that of the land itself, the iconic high-country landscape of mountain and river valley, scree and tussock, snow, dust and willow. (image above is of the map included in the back of the book) Inevitably, the true sense of the vast, lonely, sometimes bleak environment and the people who live in it is captured best in pictures. This is certainly the case with Rob Suisted’s sensitive photographs, as he projects himself and his Canon into the action: riding the muster, getting up (too) close and personal with the beehives, astride the stockyard fences, up at dawn in the stockmen huts. From the cattle rises steam and dust. There is stormy light on the ranges, fire in the forge. There are dogs in motion and draught horses waiting patiently to be shod.

Though Molesworth the book is essentially a verbal and pictorial history of the place and its people, there is a throughline that captures the tension central to Molesworth’s past, present and future. Put simply, Molesworth is a large chunk of New Zealand that has generated a correspondingly large number of opinions from a variegated cast of stakeholders. The Government, Landcorp, a steering committee, DOC, Kai Tahu, Te Tau Ihu, the wider farming fraternity, anglers and hunters, environmentalists and almost anyone in New Zealand who values public access to mountains and rivers have a stake in Molesworth. It is a lightning rod for opinions on the basic function and value of land, a subject which is at the heart of New Zealand’s colonial history and ongoing self-perception.

What then is the reader left with, having laid Molesworth down upon the kitchen table for the final time? A mindful of intangibles: a sense of a vast unvisited New Zealand; a whetted desire to perhaps visit this part of it next summer when the storms have eased. An insight into farming practice past and present; a faint self-disdain when considering the easy comfort of metropolitan life. But most significantly, a sincere respect for the writer, the photographer and the publisher whose keen senses, hard work and artistic sensibilities have unearthed a shining stone.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Molesworth: Stories from New Zealand’s Largest High-Country Station
by Harry Broad, photographs by Rob Suisted
Published by Craig Potton Publishing
ISBN 9781877517167