Book Review: War Blacks, by Matt Elliott

cv_war_blacksAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Rugby and war are often described as major influences in defining who we are as New Zealanders. This book is a new twist on an old theme.

To dismiss this book as ‘just another rugby book’ would be doing it a serious disservice. Everyone has a story to tell and Matt Elliott does this very capably for the over 90 men who both played for the All Blacks and, either before off after, served in World War 1. Although following the narrative of individual sporting and wartime careers becomes somewhat repetitive, there are certainly some intriguing stories. The remarkable account of Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) Henry Essau Avery is one such tale.

Liberally distributed within the player’s biographies are some superb snippets and anecdotes. Former M.P. John A Lee’s account of playing rugby (John was a soccer player), in an article for Chronicles of the NZEF in 1916 is a classic example: ‘A man needs to be a centipede to play rugby decently, and every leg shod with a pair of tens.’

As a rugby enthusiast I was a little disappointed that the All Blacks involved in World War 2 were not give similar treatment. Perhaps that story has been told elsewhere, but the likes of Fred Allen, Charlie Saxton and Bob Scott – to name but three – deserve to be remembered as War Blacks, such was their influence for decades after the war.

While this book may attract only the dedicated bunch, for the serious collector it is a must.

Reviewed by Robin Hughes

War Blacks
by Matt Elliott
Published by Harper Colllins NZ
ISBN  9781775540366

Book Review: Rugby – A New Zealand History, by Ron Palenski

cv_rugbyAvailable now in bookstores nationwide.

Once again, Ron Palenski has demonstrated his mastery; he has taken a game close to New Zealanders hearts and produced an outstanding and definitive work on the subject. To the casual bookshop browser it could easily be dismissed as ‘just another rugby book’, however that would be doing it a serious disservice. While there are certainly photos and perhaps stories and anecdotes found in other works, they simply add to and support the obvious depth of research and focus on accuracy and detail that Palenski has striven for. Light blue tinted pages are cleverly utilised to draw the readers’ attention to some of the defining episodes in the evolution and emergence of New Zealand as a dominant rugby nation. The rugby myths and legends that have abounded for decades are given a thorough airing.

The reader is led from the very beginnings of the game at Rugby School in England, right through to the professional era, with many insights from the early years of the game. Perhaps an interesting precursor of what was to come from New Zealand teams in later years occurred during the tour by the British team of 1888, who found that their opponents in the match against Wellington were ‘outrageously rugged’. Rugby was of course a gentleman’s game in these early times. There are riveting tales about the exploits of the first New Zealand rugby team to tour overseas, the New Zealand Natives, and the vital role they played in establishing New Zealand as serious competition in the minds of the English.

Many of the periodic controversies that have been associated with the game are examined in detail; the grossly unfair dismissal of Maurice Brownlie in a test match at Twickenham in 1928, the expulsion of Keith Murdoch from the All Black tour of Great Britain in 1972, Colin Meads ordered off at Murrayfield in 1967, the disastrous Springbok tour of New Zealand in 1981, the Cavaliers tour of South Africa in 1986 and of course the enduring ‘did he or didn’t he?’ – Bob Deans scoring the try that would have given the All Blacks victory over Wales in 1905.

Early tours to NZ by overseas rugby teams and by our own sides touring overseas are addressed in the unique Palenski manner. They are never a statistical list of who won what, but a detailed account of some of the personal experiences of the team members, the personalities they encountered, the events they attended and the challenges they faced.

This book is an absolute ‘must’ for serious rugby fans.

Reviewed by Robin Hughes

Rugby – A New Zealand History
by Ron Palenski
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408367

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


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