Great non-fiction: another spinoff
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.
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.
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.
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
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]