Book Review: Close to the Wind, by David B. Hill

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_close_to_the_windThis is an unassuming book about the wartime escape of a New Zealand reserve sailor, Len Hill. Told by his son David, it is part family history, and part creative non-fiction, with the dialogue between the servicemen being re-created by the author. But it’s a good read, based on an extraordinary maritime escape from Singapore in 1942.

For an appreciation of the story and the perspective of the author it is necessary to actually read the Afterword first. One needs to realise that it is the son who is writing the story of his father and his comrades. The other two main comrades became the author’s godfathers, so this is quite an intimate portrayal. Also, by reading the Acknowledgements it becomes clear that this is an alternate version of the escape from Singapore in 1942, that provides something of a different view to that of a book published by an English survivor who was not part of the successful final voyage.

What we get therefore is very much a New Zealand version, with Kiwi heroes who are hounded by the advancing Japanese forces all the way along the coast of Sumatra. After fleeing in their Fairmile craft ML310 with senior British officers, the New Zealand sailors come aground on the small island of Tjibia. The survivors decide to take a small craft they have found, which only holds five men, through the Java Sea to Batavia, before the Japanese can capture it. They eventually reach the Java mainland with some Dutch sailors, only to have to find another vessel to flee to Australia.

The interaction with the Dutch servicemen, who are also part indigenous, adds an interesting sub-text to the adventure. The author identifies the ethnic tensions underlying the war effort in New Zealand, and the whakapapa element in his own family history, including the loss of Māori great-uncles in the First World War. This theme is explored through his father Len’s dialogue with a Māori soldier on the initial trip of the navy reservists to England in 1941. The soldier, Haami Parata, does not appear again in the story, but his knowledge of tikanga is portrayed as a key influence on the young Len Hill, even though he had really been brought up a Pākehā.

Perhaps it was the author’s choice to enhance this association, which may have otherwise been seen as fleeting, compared with the close bonds forged on the tiny yacht which brought the sailors to eventual safety. There is also the problem that most of the dialogue must be filled in, which is perhaps easier in the combat situation, than in the parts of the book that include visiting the bars and nightspots of Singapore.

Overall, I found this a riveting story and a pleasure to read, and it was obviously a labour of love. Even for those not necessarily interested in war stories this would be of interest, without the cover hinting of the very dramatic adventures inside the book. The book does lack a detailed map of the South Asian area, and perhaps could have placed the archival photographs as a centrepiece rather than as an appendix, with higher quality paper. But otherwise this very personal project was fully realised.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Close to the Wind
by David B. Hill
Published by Huia Publishers
9781775503491

 

 

 

Book Review: Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand, 1914-20 By Jared Davidson

cv_dead_lettersAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

This is a curious book. It is obviously about wartime censorship, and provides an insight into the sometimes very strange actions of officialdom, and ordinary people, who feared an enemy within society. But somehow the book’s title does not convey exactly what the author is trying to achieve. The ‘dead’ letters, which were never seen by their intended recipients, are not actually dead. They were in fact preserved, and sent to the national archives, where an archivist (Jared Davidson) brings them to life.

In fact, Davidson brings a handful to life by repeating them in their entirety at the beginning of each chapter. This follows a longish opening chapter in which he provides a good overview of the system of censorship, and the key personnel involved. The chief censor was a British soldier, Colonel Charles Gibbon, who was sent over for the job, as part of his role as chief of general staff in New Zealand. The actual censorship was under the supervision of a William Tanner, based in the Wellington postal centre, and operating under the Solicitor-General’s regulations.

All of the officials were deeply involved in the war effort, as an imperial venture, but their practices went beyond this remit. Mail censorship included all letters written to people in neutral countries, and individuals were targeted for what would normally be legitimate dissent. The atmosphere created within a small society led to suspicions being cast on anyone considered a foreigner, and therefore denunciations followed. This accounts for some individuals whose lives were disrupted, if not destroyed, by the heavy hand of the State after letters were censored, even if not actually subversive.

Davidson has collected a small sample of these cases, basically one per chapter. Some of these people were just misfits, and would otherwise have been seen as eccentric, especially those from European cultures, such as Marie Weitzel, Hjelmar Dannevill, and Laura Anderson. Others had obvious opposition to imperial Britain, either as Irish catholics like Tim Brosnan, or Frank Burns, who decided to evade conscription in the West Coast bush. The author obviously has an interest in the fringes of the labour movement, and the so-called Wobblies, where there was organised dissent and forms of opposition, including the actions against the conscription of married men in 1917.

But mostly these are very individual stories of outsiders, and some troubled souls, who made the mistake of writing candidly to friends and family, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Davidson is able to follow up these stories, and find some relatives who were not aware of the letters, and the stories within them. There is a sense of justice finally being provided for some individual cases of harsh treatment.

There are also a few problems with the book. The narrative can be somewhat jumbled as it goes from the particulars of a contemporary letter, and then including a lot of contextual information, before trying to complete the story of an individual life story. Davidson has a habit of referring to published authors as ‘historian’, when he is actually referring to academics. Obviously these outsiders and dissenters are of great interest in history departments, but a lot of the detail is very obscure.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand, 1914-20
By Jared Davidson
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531526

Book Review: New Zealand – A Painted Journey, by Graham Young

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_new_zealand_a_painted_journeyGraham Young’s paintings provide a charming and idiosyncratic view of New Zealand life, mostly from the view of a summer tourist. The paintings are full of light and bold colours, and reproduced particularly well, with a sympathetic design.

The book has something of a classical, sometime rustic feel, as it highlights older structures, often restored, or the rusting corrugated iron of old garages and aging baches. Most of the settings are on the coastline, but Young begins his journey away from the sea, in Central Otago, in the Turner/Sydney country. Indeed, Young’s Omakau rail shed is very similar to Graham Sydney’s more famous Wedderburn ’75, except that Young’s paint brings brighter colours and deeper red to the old shed.

The Central Otago rail trail has brought parts of the region to life, and helped develop new facilities in otherwise ageing buildings and little sheds. But the corrugated iron shed of the Lowburn Collie Dog Club indicates how good Young is at reproducing signage, both in logos and writing, and providing a hint of humour within the image.

After a quick trip through the West Coast and Abel Tasman National Park we see some of the other things that Young likes to paint: modes of transport. There are kayaks in the Park; and a carpark with heavy-laden old examples of a Mini, a VW Beetle, and a Morris Minor next to each other. All three models appear again in the North Island, as well as the VW combi van, and the odd Holden Kingswood.

Following a few pages highlighting the Taranaki region, the rest of Young’s paintings come from the Auckland region, city and countryside, and from Northland. So there are more beach scenes with people on summer excursions; many old baches, caravans and garages for car and kayaks; and more old cars laden with luggage. The most effective painting involves a double page spread of three baches with a lot of characteristics details, including a variety of craft, surfboards and hanging towels.

Apart from all this summer bliss, Graham Young has a particular interest in the suburban dairy, and Auckland shop frontages in general. This is partly due to the architecture, and to capture the dairy’s feel before they disappear. But a closer look highlights his fascination with signage, especially the reproduction of magazine billboards, including some familiar celebrities with headlines he has made up.

So all in all this is a modest but fascinating slice of life collection, where Young celebrates the traditional or timeless summer holiday and some iconic Kiwi architecture. In a way his written commentaries are interesting but superfluous.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

New Zealand: a Painted Journey
By Graham Young
Published by New Holland Publishers
ISBN 9781869664893

 

Book Review: Whaler by Providence: Patrick Norton in the Marlborough Sounds, by Don Wilson

Available in selected bookshops.

cv_whaler_by_providenceThis book is an example of the painstaking research of the family historian, and the frustration of having a lack of written records of a key ancestor. Patrick Norton was a petty thief in Ireland, who was convicted and transported to Australia in 1810. He eventually escaped and ended up in the small whaling settlement of Te Awaiti on Arapaoa (Arapawa) Island in the Marlborough Sounds, in 1831. Norton seems to have arrived there in the company of the legendary sailor/whaler Jacky Guard.

The author Don Wilson is a descendant of the Patrick Norton, and of the other key Te Awaiti pioneer William Keenan. Keenan was in fact born in Australia, and was thus a ‘currency lad’, one of the terms that the author helps to clarify in the book. Indeed, most of the text is based on archival research and contextual material provided by authors researching Jacky Guard and the other whalers in the area, Guard being based at Port Underwood, in proximity of Cloudy Bay. One of the main sources is the diary of whaler James Heberley, which is quoted frequently (in italics without referencing).

Wilson’s text is divided into three parts, or ‘books’. The first is based on the transportation to Sydney via Brazil, and life in the wild colonial days of Australia. The second book, ‘Sealers and Whalers’, takes up the story as Norton’s sentence expires and he rejects taking up land in Sydney, instead going to sea with Jacky Guard. Apparently Guard had promised James Heberley that there was already a settlement at Te Awaiti, but when he arrived a year after Norton there was still nothing there. The third book provides the detail on how Te Awaiti was built up.

In the third book there is probably less detail about whaling than one would expect. It is concerned in particular with how a small whaling station would fit in an area dominated by Māori tribes and the conflict between Te Rauparaha’s Te Atiawa and Ngāi Tahu. The key aspect to survival in this pre-colonisation period was integration by marriage with Māori women. Wilson provides a key chapter on the complexity of the inter-racial marriages, both because of the tribal links created, and the relative status of the Māori wives. Patrick Norton ‘married’ Makareta Tingitu, a woman of high position in Ngāi Tahu; whereas the other whalers co-habited with Te Atiawa women. Wilson can only speculate on how they met and managed potential conflicts.

The book doesn’t shy away from dealing with the more difficult aspects of the era, whether that be cannibalism, or the reports of orgies among the whalers and their Māori companions. Of course, once the official colonisation had come, and the clergy had arrived in the South Island, the whalers made sure they were officially married, often a number of times. Patrick Norton died in 1854, and so most of the third book is really about his descendants, and their relationships with the other whalers and settlers in Marlborough and Kaikoura. In fact, the Nortons end up whaling and shearing sheep as far away as Campbell Island, far off to the south, before whaling ended in 1964.

This is certainly a good read for those interested in the whaling stations and in the Marlborough region. Maybe a lot will be familiar for those that have read about the exploits of Jacky Guard and his wife Betty, who was held captive by Māori. It is certainly a very professional production, with extensive footnotes, and maps and other illustrations. In particular, the reproduction of the old photographs is excellent.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Whaler by Providence: Patrick Norton in the Marlborough Sounds
by Don Wilson
Published by River Press
ISBN 9780994123442

Book Review: Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_better_lives_migration_wellbeing_and_nzWith migration being an ongoing political topic, and a tricky policy area, this book would seem to be a timely one. Julie Fry and Peter Wilson are both independent economists, and the former has already co-written a 2016 text on migration, with Hamish Glass, for Bridget Williams Books. However, this version is a lot longer and becomes more of an academic text, rather than an extended essay on a specific topic.

Besides utilising their economics training, and referring to well-recognised academic economists, Fry and Wilson introduce the ‘Wellbeing’ framework, which introduces a range of qualitative aspects for policy-making, to complement the existing quantitative measures. But the authors also refer to the shortcomings of aggregated statistics such as Gross Domestic Product, before setting out all the categories of the Wellbeing approach. Since the so-called Wellbeing approach will apparently feature prominently in next year’s Budget documents, this is a useful way to think about nuances in policy.

However, the idea of Wellbeing is open to criticism for being somewhat subjective, or even nebulous, and introducing political criteria, such as considerations of the Treaty of Waitangi. One can perhaps expect right wing economists to find it all a bit too politically correct, and also lacking in econometric rigour. There is a conceptual problem that is rather obvious here, and migration exemplifies it for economists. While most economists want free movement of money, capital and goods across borders, there seems to be an exception with the mobility of people, at least for people who don’t have useful skills. Yet that mobility also aids in moving wages and prices.

The difficulty provided by this conceptual problem, of having free markets but not free movement in people, becomes clear in the chapter on applying the Wellbeing framework. This chapter is actually significant in itself, highlighting the current issues in tertiary education, and the health profession, caused by temporary and permanent migration. But, certainly with regard to tertiary ‘export’ education, especially in private training (with work visas), the authors revert to wearing their economic hats.

First there is a criticism of export education as a contributor to national income, given the free movement of capital, as a business decision. The point being that so-called export education is not necessarily good for the economy just because it provides an ‘export’ income. Then a few pages later the authors claim, while making a point set within parentheses, that ‘export’ education is not really an export at all, if those graduating from tertiary courses stay in New Zealand, and don’t actually return home.

The latter point is made in the context of an important discussion about the health sector workforce. Indeed, it seems that New Zealand has almost the highest number of foreign-born doctors in the world, apart from Israel, and has the most foreign-born nurses. It might have been better to focus on these migration issues within the tertiary sector, and the related question of training an indigenous based health profession, more directly.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand
by Julie Fry & Peter Wilson
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781988533759

 

Book Review: Wild Journeys, by Bruce Ansley

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_wild_journeysThis book is a good read, and an example of excellent local publishing with New Zealand stories. But, somewhat frustratingly, it could have been an essential read in the tradition of Kiwi adventure stories, with its hard cover and illustrated dustjacket.

Bruce Ansley, the former writer for The Listener, turns out to be something of an adventurer and sailor. But, by his own admission, he is not an intrepid sailor, or much of an adventurer. His tales are mostly about following in other people’s footsteps, often forgotten men who came to an untimely demise on foolhardy missions. He is a more enthusiastic sailor, but one who knows the risks and his own limitations.

In a way the tales of the voyages are the more personal stories. Ansley ends up sailing around North Cape, and the South Cape (in Stewart Island), and as a Dunedin resident even worked on a crayfishing boat in Fiordland. As a young man the crayfishing went well, but getting back to a safe harbour did not, and he almost missed his own wedding in the process. Fortunately, he did marry Sally and they remain together, though she doesn’t appear to have accompanied Bruce on most of these journeys.

Ansley does, of course, meet up with some interesting characters. These include Rhys Buckingham, former wildlife ranger who has pursued elusive the ‘grey ghost’ of birdlife, the South Island Kokako, for 40 years. Then there is Colin Gavan, or ‘Wobbles’, the skipper of the boat that gets Ansley to the South Cape, and back again, despite the wild weather in Foveaux Strait that has claimed so many local mariners.

But it is really the ghosts of pioneering men, or their own mythology, that Ansley seems to be pursuing here. He begins with the adventures of the folk hero prison escapee, George Wilder, and his habit of staying in baches around Lake Taupo. Other adventurers are less well known, such as John Whitcombe, a Canterbury road surveyor. His journey through the Southern Alps ended badly, but he did find the Whitcombe Pass first, even if those that came later could mostly not follow in his unfortunate footsteps. Ansley also finds a lost adventurer of sorts in the German sea captain, Count Felix von Luckner, who was captured in the Pacific during the First World War. After several escapes he ended up on Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

All of this is entertaining and fun, with some useful turns of phrase: sailing up the North Island’s west coast, Taranaki’s ‘graceful shape’ appears, and Cape Egmont ‘turned into its cracked and crenellated self.’ But Ansley’s writing about the South Island comes across as the more convincing and soulful. And a couple of times his North Island geography lets him down, such as when the Tangiwai railway bridge is described as a little way east of Waiouru, when surely it is to the west of the village.

There is in fact a complete absence of any kind of map in the whole book. Moreover, some of the chapters could have been enhanced by a photo or two which display the landmark that Ansley is trying to reach. This is certainly the case for the lost mining settlement of Serpentine, somewhere in central Otago, and for which it takes Ansley two attempts to find the little church (which is apparently at the highest altitude of any churchin New Zealand). Another example would be the pillar at Tuturau, in Southland, erected on the centennial of the battle between the northern chief Te Puoho and Ngai Tahu.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Wild Journeys
by Bruce Ansley
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775541202

Book Review: Social Science Research in New Zealand: An Introduction, edited by Martin Tolich and Carl Davidson

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_social_science_research_in_NZThis is a very useful multi-authored collection that covers many aspects of social science research, but mostly from an academic perspective. The editors are both sociologists, and they appear to have already written a number of other books on the subject. However, Davidson has worked in the public sector and there is also an emphasis on applied social science research and policy analysis.

The focus is both very specific on methods for qualitative and quantitative analysis of empirical data, but also includes examples of research from academics and writers who are not, strictly speaking, social scientists. Indeed, apart from the study of Sociology there remains a small question of what exactly is ‘social science’. Students from across the humanities disciplines will gain from reading the book, but only some post-graduates will actually get to create their own empirical research projects.

Another way of putting the problem is that, if social science is defined broadly, it is rather obvious that most graduates will not get jobs as social scientists. The only positions as researchers appear to be in some government departments, unless one includes the type of public surveys that one of the authors is involved in for the private sector. Early in the introductory chapter the editors include a position statement from a former departmental official (now deceased) about what is required to be a policy analyst. In this she effectively states that social science methodology is only for academics.

The particular point about policy analysis was that it mixed up qualitative and quantitative methodology as required, depending on the policy problems to be solved, but also that the methodological distinction has no particular meaning. Yet, the authors maintain that there is a distinction which aligns with significant logics, based on inductive or deductive approaches. The deductive logic is aligned with quantitative analysis; and inductive logic involved the qualitative analysis of empirical material. The idea seems to be that the latter allows for theories to be tested once a qualitative assessment has been made; whereas deductive research begins from a strict form of research design in which a statistically significant sample of evidence is deemed to be important.

It is rather difficult to maintain this distinction between inductive and deductive research, especially given that so few academics really get their students to create formal empirical research projects. Most postgraduate research involves the student beginning with a literature review, based on international theories, and then adding some empirical material from published sources to buttress a preferred theoretical position. In other words, most academic research is deductive in logic, but based on pre-determined theoretical positions that academic supervisors expect students to follow.

But despite my misgivings about the content of the early chapters, there are still some significant approaches that are examined, and things to consider when any new empirical research is being considered. One of the most interesting is the chapter on research ethics by Lindsay McDonald, which refers to the study of the Canterbury earthquakes. Any participants in a research project, and particularly those who have experienced trauma, need to be clearly consenting to be in the project and especially if they can be identified in any way. Of course, there are many examples of health related research that has not had participants who have even been informed, let alone consented to being involved. Another aspect of research ethics can be seen via Jarrod Gilbert’s ethnographic fieldwork on gangs. It’s rather hard to see how to get ethical approval to participate in certain gang activities, just to maintain their trust: especially when it involves brawling with Russian sailors.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Social Science Research in New Zealand: An Introduction
Edited by Martin Tolich and Carl Davidson
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408848