Saturday, February 13, 2016

Great non-fiction: another spinoff

Steve Braunias and the other editors of The Spinoff have published, in two parts, a list of the hundred greatest works of New Zealand non-fiction. A few of their inclusions and omissions are baffling (how could they honour Bob Jones, but neglect Judith Binney?), but many are astute, and some of the thumbnail sketches attached to the books are marvellously apposite (the Treaty of Waitangi is 'as mysterious and profound as the Dead Sea Scrolls, at once enigmatic and dead simple').

A group of Maori scholars has taken issue with the lack of tangata whenua on the Spinoff's list, and come up with a supplementary top fifty which includes more fine books.

But there are still many great New Zealand works of non-fiction that haven't been publicised at The Spinoff. I've made my own list of fifty titles, which I'll give in three instalments. Here are numbers fifty to thirty-four. Their order is, of course, rather arbitrary.


50. John Pascoe, Unclimbed New Zealand, George Allen and Unwin, 1939

Pascoe's paean to the 1930s bohemians who caught Friday trains from Christchurch and spent their weekends slogging cheerfully up Canterbury's mountains, reciting Coleridge and arguing the merits of Marxism and Douglas Credit on the way, is one of the classic texts of Pakeha cultural nationalism, as ambitious as Curnow's 'Landfall in Unknown Seas' and as anarchic as Mulgan's Man Alone. Why has it been forgotten?


49. H. Guthrie-Smith, Tutira, William Blackwood, 1921

The Greeks have the Odyssey; the Portugese have the Lusiads; Pakeha New Zealanders have Tutira, WH Guthrie-Smith's epic account of the history and present of a sheep station in the Hawkes Bay hill country. Guthrie-Smith's prose is both sensual and precise, and his determination to make the geology, flora, and fauna of his small kingdom as heroic as his humans might remind us of Braudel and the Annales historians, who were warming up on the other side of the world when the first edition of Tutira appeared.


48. John Gorst, The Maori King, Macmillan, 1864

Gorst is the most famous of a series of Pakeha writers who anatomised and criticised the wars that the British Crown and settler governments waged against Maori in the nineteenth century. As a sometime aide to Governor George Grey, Gorst had a front seat view of the early stages of the Waikato War. The Maori King describes Grey's expulsion of the tangata whenua from their ancient homes around the Manukau harbour, the burning and looting of kainga, and the cynicism of the Auckland businessmen who persuaded Grey to go to war. In one of his book's poignant flashbacks to pre-war years Gorst describes the wealth and harmony of the doomed utopian community that Wiremu Tamihana, the architect of the King Movement, created at Peria, deep in the king's domain.


47. Bronwyn Elsmore, Mana from Heaven, Reed, 1999

Elsmore's survey of Maori religious syncretism teems with angels and demons and revelations. She describes not only famous religious leaders, like Te Kooti and Ratana, but seers and miracle workers and theologians whose followings never grew beyond a village in the Hokianga or Horowhenua.
46. Roger Neich, Painted Histories, Auckland University Press, 1993

Painted Histories is Roger Neich's study of the painted meeting houses built by the devotees of Te Kooti in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Influenced by the paintings and photographs they had seen in Pakeha magazines and newspapers and by Te Kooti's turbulent theology, the painters Neich surveys broke with the timeless motifs of classical Maori art and produced realistic portraits of individuals. Sometimes their images combined the traditional and the new: the head of a tiki might be attached to a body in a neatly buttoned coat. Neich was a structuralist, fond of categorising and charting the images he found on rafters and pou, but he also had an intense empathy for the artists and communities he studied. More than any other ethnographer, he has influenced New Zealand's fine artists: both the Nga Puhi painter Shane Cotton and the Tongan-New Zealand sculptor Visesio Siasau have cited him as a guide.
45. Dennis McEldowney, The World Regained, Chapman and Hall, 1957

When he was still a very young man McEldowney was driven to bed by a weakening heart. Too tired to read his beloved books or even to listen for long to the radio, he spent years gazing out a window at a Taranaki garden. The World Regained is the story of his resurrection at Greenlane hospital, and his joyful struggle to cope with the vastness of the sky, the strange solidity of suburban houses, and the hum and roar of 1950s Auckland. A gentle masterpiece.


44. Robin Hyde, A Home in this World, Longman Paul, 1984

Early in 1937 Robin Hyde abandoned Auckland Mental Hospital, where she had been voluntarily living, with the intention of taking a boat for the tropics. After discovering she could not afford a ferry ticket to Rarotonga or Samoa, Hyde headed for a guesthouse at Waiatarua, near the top of the Waitakere Ranges. She wrote A Home in this World in a few weeks, whilst listening to rain and possums on the roof of the hut she had rented in the guesthouse grounds. Hyde's text is too brilliantly erratic to be called an autobiography: it moves from one memory to another with the rigorous and secret logic of a dream.


43. HD Skinner, The Morioris of Chatham Islands, Bishop Museum, 1923

In the aftermath of World War One travel to the Chathams was carefully regulated, and HD Skinner had to sneak aboard one of the few vessels headed for the islands. By the time he returned from the chilly archipelago, New Zealand's first professional anthropologist had seen enough artefacts and bones and heard enough stories to destroy the Victorian theory that the Moriori were the remnants of a Melanesian people chased from the North and South Islands to the Chathams by Maori. Skinner proved that Moriori were an Eastern Polynesian people, like the Maori, and that the Chathams - or Rekohu, as they called it - was their longtime homeland, not some relatively recent refuge. It's a shame that, more than ninety years later, many New Zealanders still haven't assimilated the arguments Skinner made so powerfully.

42. Spiro Zavos, Crusade, INL, 1981

The Social Credit Political League was the only anti-capitalist movement to win mass support in postwar New Zealand, but its weird mix of populism, crank economics, and anti-semitic conspiracy theories has made it unattractive, and perhaps even incomprehensible, to scholars of both the left and the mainstream right. Writing in the early '80s, when Social Credit was winning the support of a third of New Zealanders in opinion polls, Zavos both documents and critiques the movement.

41. John A Lee, The John A Lee Diaries, 1936-40, Whitcoulls, 1981

John A Lee was the Trotsky of New Zealand: a brilliant and erratic man, who could never decide whether he preferred to stay in his study and scribble or address the masses from a podium, and who eventually fell victim to an inferior but more single-minded rival. Lee's diary covers his career in the first Labour government, when he was one of a group of radicals trying to push the party's increasingly otiose leader, Michael Joseph Savage, into confrontations with New Zealand landlords and British bankers. Near the end of the book Lee celebrates Savage's death from cancer, calling it the man's first useful political gesture.
40. Te Ua Haumene, Ua Rongopai: the gospel according to Te Ua, 1860

In the fateful year of 1863 a Taranaki man named Te Ua Haumene began to hear the voice of the Angel Gabriel. The angel dictated; Te Ua wrote a gospel, which was passed from hand to hand by his followers, and eventually published, with an English translation, by Lynley Hood. Te Ua writes like a Polynesian William Blake, as he damns the Pakeha, identifies his beleagured people with the Jews, and promises his enemies apocalypse and his friends paradise.

39. Home Guard Manual, Hawkes Bay Home Guard, 1941.

Want to know how to blow up a bridge on the main trunk line, stage an ambush on Highway One, or snipe from the rooftop of the typical Kiwi farmhouse? There's advice on matters like these in the Home Guard Manual. Inspired by the texts of Tom Wintringham, the British communist and Spanish Civil War veteran who had founded and trained a British Home Guard after the fall of France, thousands of New Zealanders began to prepare themselves in guerrilla warfare in 1941 and 1942, as the Japanese imperial armed forces moved ever closer. Secret tracks were cut through the bush, and backcountry huts were filled with gelignite and cans of bully beef. A series of noisy but mysterious events - an artillery training session near Waiuku, a plane crash at Whenuapai - prompted rumours that the expected invasion had already occurred. To read the Home Guard Manual is to open a door into an alternative version of New Zealand history.

38. Len Richardson, Coal, Class, and Community, Auckland University Press, 1995.

Richardson's sympathetic but scholarly book follows the struggle of New Zealand's coal miners for better conditions, unionisation, and eventually the nationalisation of their worksites between 1880 and 1960. Richardson describes the great industrial conflicts of the early twentieth century - the fatal Waihi Strike of 1912, and the Great Strike, with its cavalry charges and chaotic shootouts, of the following year - but he is at his best recreating the culture of study and discussion groups that thrived amongst increasingly politicised miners. He takes us inside the unheated huts where weary West Coast miners would gather after their shifts to pore over the Communist Manifesto and Capital, and by doing so reminds us that some of the most interesting and important parts of New Zealand's intellectual life have unfolded far from university seminar rooms and research libraries.


37. Errol Braithwaite, The Companion Guide to the North Island of New Zealand, Collins, 1970

Poor Errol Braithwaite. He wrote a trilogy of novels about the New Zealand Wars, but the better-known Maurice Shadbolt did the same thing, for a much larger audience. Braithwaite also wrote a superb guide to the North Island, but his achievement was overshadowed when, a few years later, Shadbolt published his inferior but widely distributed Shell Guide to New Zealand. The editors of The Spinoff have compounded the insult by including Shadbolt's lousy book in their top 100, but snubbing Braithwaite. The Companion Guide to the North Island is propelled by Braithwaite's obsession with the wars Maori fought against Pakeha in the nineteenth century. He cannot bring his readers through the Waikato without pausing at pa, redoubts, old fortress towns, and riverbends where ironclads once shelled waka. He salutes the dead warriors lying anonymously under maize or cowpats, and searches the thick walls of old church-forts for the indents left by musket-shells. Braithwaite's book is at once a travel guide and a classic of New Zealand psychogeography.


36. Peter Munz, The Shapes of Time: a new look at the philosophy of history, Wesleyan University Press, 1977

Peter Munz was one of the Jewish intellectuals who took refuge from Hitlerism in New Zealand in the 1930s and '40s, and by doing so raised the country's collective IQ and improved its cuisine. Most of Munz's books are exercises in history, but The Shapes of Time ventures into the chilly realm of philosophy. Steering between the Scylla of naive realism and the Charybdis of postmodern relativism, Munz argues that no historical event can be accessed outside the categories and timelines created by humans. Historians construct as well as document the past, and have more in common with novelists than practitioners of the natural sciences. Munz's text was received respectfully overseas, but local historians couldn't cope with it.


35. Frances Hayman, King Country Nurse, Blackwood and Janet Paul, 1965

A middle class Pakeha heads into Te Rohe Potae, historic fortress of Maori nationalism, on a mission to help the benighted and unhygienic natives. She arrives at the same time as emissaries of the Ratana movement, which is surging through Te Ika a Maui with a message of renewed resistance to Pakeha authority. What could go wrong?


34. Angus Gillies, Ngati Dread, Rogue Monster Books, 2001

Thirty years ago a young employee of the Gisborne Herald began to hear stories about a series of strange events in the rough country north of town. Farmhouses and barns were being burned; an independent Maori state had been declared; a headless body had been found on a sacred hill; dreadlocked men were proclaiming a new religion, and citing Te Kooti and Bob Marley as its prophets. Angus Gillies' investigation of the Rastafarian movement of the East Coast and the Pakeha landowners, Ngati Porou elders, and police that opposed it took him through pubs and courtrooms into prisons and mental hospitals. When publishers baulked at the huge manuscript of Ngati Dread, and suggested cutting the court transcripts and interviews with killers, Gillies self-published his text in three volumes. South Pacific Pictures has bought the rights to Ngati Dread; I hope they put the astonishing story Gillies tells on every screen in the country.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


21 Comments:

Anonymous Princess Te Hangi said...

That Angus Gillies series is fantastic. The horse being dragged through Ruatoria by a big black Plymouth! My boy is related to all those fullas and the little kid with flames shooting out his heels.

11:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Angus Gillies fell out with John Campbell at TV3. Anyone know the story behind that?

8:01 pm  
Anonymous RS said...

Great list: thank you.

6:02 am  
Blogger Carringtonia said...

I'm enjoying all these lists - lots of interesting books I've not come across, thank you. I have to agree with you about Errol Braithwaite, I love his description of Wellington.

8:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Gus. Let's just say some shit went down.

12:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recently I was leafing through New Hokkaido by James McNaughton, a novel set in a Japanese occupied New Zealand circa 1987. One of the issues that I had with it is that he focuses on the conflict between the whites and the Japanese while ignoring what the Japanese policies towards the Maori would be. Even during WWII, Maori people were a significant and growing minority, so the Japanese couldn't afford to ignore them and the Japanese wouldn't be beholden to the Treaty of Waitangi. So, how would the Japanese go about bringing Maori into their new colony?

9:56 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Interesting lists Scott. I had a lot of these books (the Brathwaites as well as his 'The Needle's Eye' for sale. I pulled 'The Needls's Eye' aside as it looked interesting. It is a novel but based on actual events in the NZ Wars etc.

As it is I have 3000 books in my garage with several boxes (possibly more than 20 boxes, that is more than 200 NZ books alone) of NZ books and many other subjects (books I had online for sale until I stopped two years ago).

By the way, I read a book by Bob Jones, in fact it was 'The Permit' a novel. It was so so but the descriptions of him or the protagonist fishing are brilliant. His brother is a renowned writer. He also writes about boxing and has this amusing book of his own life....but indeed he doesn't compare to Binney...

I was going to get more NZ books in my own collection but I realised it would become another obsession (or another branch and of the other nearly 4000 books of my own I supplement what I have with library books, and indeed there are some interesting and unusual NZ books.

Unfortunately, when I had some very good ones, they were the ones that sold for the most and or most quickly and I needed money badly for some years: but I managed to read a few before they left for good homes.

10:18 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I've read parts of that McEldowney book, I don't know if I still have a copy but it is a kind of gentle book, and good.

There's a book about a NZ doctor who was in the South Island I think in the 1920s and all the characters he met or had to minister to. I forget who wrote that though.

10:27 pm  
Anonymous brett cross said...

some interesting titles: http://lithub.com/10-more-writers-nobody-reads/

5:58 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Brett, that is interesting. The one on there I have read is "Ice" by Anna Kavan. It is brilliant, for some reason I read it very quickly but it is almost poetry. I have another book by her but haven't read it yet.

Stapledon, now that book by Olaf Stapledon I am sure I have, but it is in my garage in boxes marked Sci Fi under boxes and boxes....but I have seen it, he looks interesting.

The others all look interesting...It is a fact that, overall, I prefer books from other countries, almost always anywhere but NZ...but there are some good ones: of course Scott here is talking about fiction. I had that Brathwaite but either sold it or it's in one of the New Zealand boxes. I actually found the Shadbolt book interesting and I aggreed with their choice of the biographical book by Dan Davin...his stories of boozing with Dylan Thomas (the really great poet), and others who had great trouble getting to do anything as they would turn any meetings to do things etc into week long booze sessions.

I think there is a reason that many of us look OUTSIDE NZ, and I include the fact that we ARE isolated here. It is not so easy to travel to Europe etc...I think Brasch had a point. Yes a lot happened, but try to get most people to take much interest: tourists (and locals of whatever ethnicity) here on my local Mount Wellington are simply uninterested in Maori history, or even much local history, they are fascinated by the volcano, and ask about that, I have been up there hundreds of times and when I try to tell that it was once a Pa etc and some of teh other history, people soon lose interst, even Maori are only interested in the fact that it is a volcano: that it might do something interesting, like in a Hollywood movie, and there will be an explosion, a cataclysm. As a boy here that fascinated me most also about the local mountains, but I was also interested that Maori lived here, and I liked the idea that there might have been savages here, and jungle etc etc....but I think that is it, we either exoticise, (we could never eroticise although maybe Morrieson and the movies of his books was part of the way)....NZ is simply far to away from every thing, and despite it's reputation of being green, and the homeland of Hobbits, is otherwise rather dull: plodding. At one stage, during the 50s, and on, international visitors found it so excruciatingly dull they fell asleep stepping ashore.

So, regardless of what happens, Ruatoria, the NZ Wars, earthquakes, there is something inherently and fatally (perhaps irremediably dull and grey about New Zealand - even the name - only a few German and US tourists think it is wonderful because they have read in travel books that this is true...

So our literature and non-fiction, unfortunately, except for a few enthusiasts...otherwise, dull dull dull.

7:12 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I meant "Scott here is talking about non-fiction"

7:13 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I was going to mention that once, at a book launch at the Auckland University, a woman I had seen around the University said she was doing a PhD on Kavan, and said, to the effect: 'But you will have never heard of her.' For a moment I agreed, then I remembered I had read 'Ice', but I think she was more disappointed than interested in my response: she wanted, I think, to be studying and writing about someone no one else had, and not many had read.

But I wonder who that was? I am sure that, you, Brett, were at that launch, but I cant recall whose book it was: at the Auckland University English Department common room.

Any one know who studied Kavan (for a thesis)?

9:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The irony is Richard that your posts on NZs boring history are really interesting. To some of us it becomes a challenging gauntlet often thrown. I guess my original passions were overseas too - Greece and Rome but increasingly I have been drawn to New Zealand's story . It is after all where I come from. On that basis I do enjoy reading Maps views on things although I hardly ever agree with him . But the book list is brilliant. I have read Braithwaites trilogy on the Maori Wars but felt Shadbolts novels far superior.So I will look at the Braithwaites travel book with some caution. It would be nice to agree with Maps for once.

12:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

anonymous - well, my "dull, dull, dull etc" was somewhat ironic and aimed at his lordship Dr. Hamilton, who I have known well since 1994....but I agree (thanks for your compliment). It is in certain moods I feel it all dull. There is a perception of it thus...I think the point is that we see things in our own country as less exciting, or even less "central" although I suppose we are living here!

I like Gerald Murnane's approach though. A deep passion for Hungary and the language there and he has no intention of ever visiting the place!

I have heard of Shadbolt's books, but again, he's another NZ writer I haven't read. Nor have I read Brathwaite. My mother listed all the books (virtually all) she had read, and they included all countries. She put n.g. against 'Fear in the Night' but ticked 'The Evil Day'. Of Shadbolt's she liked 'Strangers and Journeys'...I have a few Shabolt books on my shelves...

I had that travel book but I think it's sleeping in my garage with books I had for sale. The list is interesting indeed.
Dr. Maps is always getting (or trying to get) the jump on everyone by discovering something no one else has, or something that has been 'dismissed'. It is certainly educational following his finds.

3:18 pm  
Blogger Anon said...

Your reference to

12:32 pm  
Blogger Anon said...

Your reference to Gerald Murnane reminds me of a classics professor of mine - another Hamilton. Steeped in ancient history and the lyric poets and a good biography of Alexander under his belt he chose to spend his entire life here in little old NZ with no desire at all to head for the Med

12:37 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Fascinating and beautifully useless observation. I have long held the view, that to actually see things or be near them etc etc (come into contact shall we say) is a very naive and simplistic way of dealing with reality [and notwithstanding Plato / Socrates (their?) views on mimesis etc we believe that a painting of a table is as good as leaving the Cave only to discover an infinite regress of Platonic caves...

All that said, or not, as the case .......It is interesting that our Hamilton is not a classics Prof. and has indeed traveled to England Aussie and Tonga etc...But I think that is the way with some people. The are reasons...

I am not keen on traveling although my fear or dislike of it may be linked to my fairly considerable lack of funds induced by a sudden and pathological condition that seized me round 1988 or so. This condition is known generally by those in the medical profession as Workitis. However, if the wages are low, the hours are good, or fairly good.

All that aired, I've forgotten what I was talking about.

But another factor, now I remember...is that the imagined world is often more wonderful that that encountered (again pace Plato whose Republic I have just finished reading). My England, where all my relatives from, is from Dickens and so on, with a dash of Rupert Brooke's 'Granchester'...and other nostalgia. One can be almost irremediably nostalgic for something one has never and probably will never see. In fact, thinking now of my England (which I have and probably never will never, see), tears burst out with the force of a Japanese tsunami...or Alph the underground running river a la Coleridge (pace a certain person whose name we must not mention in vain)...

The centre, the centre, the centre, not the center, we seek. We seek our centre...

5:02 pm  
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