Monday, August 30, 2010

Time Travel (3): New Zealand in 1973

Fresh air, magnificent scenery and outdoor activities are the feature attractions of New Zealand. It’s not a big country but for sheer variety it’s hard to beat. As soon as you reach New Zealand, you quickly see that its reputation for being ‘clean and green’ is well deserved. Visitors who come expecting a pristine, green, well-organised little country are not disappointed.

Thus the atrocious beginning of the Lonely Planet guide to New Zealand that Justine and I purchased shortly after landing at Auckland airport in late 1997. It described the New Zealand of the travel brochures, of landscapes barely touched by history or civilization except in the form of an eager and helpful services industry in charge of packaging all of this nature and making it available to the tourist. I had never set foot in the place, but I knew scenic, well-organised New Zealand chiefly as a fiction, a marketing construct, brilliantly satirized by Lee Tamahori in the opening sequence of Once Were Warriors – which we had seen back home, dubbed into Italian, a couple of years earlier. But aside from Justine's stories and family photos, my main source of information about New Zealand was neither film nor guidebook, but rather the writings of Keri Hulme, Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield; writings in which nature featured prominently, but as a vehicle of social, psychological and historical meanings, more intensely than but otherwise not entirely unlike the countryside of my own maternal ancestors, or the mountains where my parents used to hike before my sister and I were born. Landscapes that weren't urban, but that were nonetheless indelibly marked by human intervention, if only under the guise of storytelling.

These days the guidebooks on the market – Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Fodor's, Eyewitness – all follow the same pattern: a quick historical background, information on how to get there (that is to say, here) and then the region-by-region, centre-by-centre breakdown of the things to see and do, chiefly in the outdoors department, always striving above all else to be up to date, detailed, accurate. It is a reassuringly practical approach, and perfectly attuned to the needs of today's international tourist, who can afford to visit the country for as little as two weeks – international travel being as affordable as it is – and in that time could not be expected to acquire much more than a series of snapshots, and not just of our scenery, either. Here's the highly cringeworthy paragraph on 'Maori Culture' from the introduction of Fodor's See It New Zealand, 3rd edition:
A big draw for visitors is the vibrant culture of New Zealand's first inhabitants, the Maori. After their culture was suppressed throughout the 19th century, Maori society enjoyed a renaissance towards the end of the 1970s. Language, art and kapa haka (performance arts) are thriving. The most popular place for visitors to experience these is Rotorua.

It was at the beginning of this year that I came into possession – thanks to an especially thoughtful friend – of Maurice Shadbolt’s Shell Guide to New Zealand, the first of its kind. It was originally published in 1968, although mine is the revised edition of 1973. I am fond of those dates because they straddle our birth years, Justine’s and mine. It is the New Zealand in which she was born, and that I didn’t know existed; a New Zealand that, it seems to me, is often damned with faint praise: attached to an egalitarianism that could no longer be sustained, cohesive but stifling, monocultural, insular yet still reliant on Britain’s appetite for its exports. The Māori renaissance had yet to take place, or the Waitangi Tribunal created; the Springbok Tour of ‘81 had yet to form a new generation of political activists, and the Homosexual Law Reform Act was over a decade away, as were the Rogernomes and their cohorts, with their dreams of putting the 'new' back in New Zealand. It was not so much a time of transition as a time before, the country that contemporary New Zealand gets most often compared to, and in generally favourable terms. Whatever our current predicaments, we shouldn’t wish to return to that.

There is probably a lot of truth in those sentiments, but I for one wouldn’t mind a return to their guidebooks.

A very helpful Air New Zealand employee informed me today that in the 1960s a return air trip to Europe cost 21 times the average weekly wage, versus 2.8 times today. So to the extent that The Shell Guide to New Zealand was conceived with the overseas visitor in mind at all, it would have been a thoughtful model tourist, interested not so much in the snapshot as in the protracted experience of a long stay, if not a relocation; somebody who wanted – in Shadbolt’s words – to ‘comprehend New Zealand’. And who wouldn’t mind doing the work of reading, for apart from the brief ‘Gazzetteer’ sections at the end of each regional chapter, the Shell Guide is impervious to skimming, and reads almost like a novel.

But before moving on to what this almost-novel is about, the time traveller must account, as always, for the things that aren’t there: most conspicuously of all, there is not a single occurrence in the guide of the word 'Kiwi' to mean 'New Zealander', nor the fruit for that matter, which goes by that name only amongst Asians and Americans, we are informed, and remains Chinese gooseberry to the locals, for whom it’s just an export amongst many, slotting behind the tamarillo at the end of a long list. And so too the bird is a native species unworthy of treatment more special than the others. Just as strikingly, the only outdoor activities cited in the book are tramping, golf, fishing and skiing – no rafting, kayaking or paragliding, and certainly no bungy jumping. There is no Te Papa in Wellington, and in fact precious few museums up and down the country (but the Govett-Brewster gallery had opened in New Plymouth in time for the 1973 edition, and was already listed as ‘superb’). The capital features an aquarium, but Auckland and Napier do not. And while the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute would have existed, you could still walk up to Pohutu as part of your tour of Whakarewarewa. The single most substantial absence however has to be the Pasifika influence, in Auckland as much as elsewhere, although Shadbolt notes the upsurge of immigrants from the Islands alongside the further weakening of the ties with mother England.

(Actually, I have one more: there is no mention in the guide of a local film industry. That’s probably because John O’Shea’s Runaway was the only New Zealand feature film of the 1960s, after his Broken Barrier had been the only one of the previous decade. I am always quietly staggered by this statistic. On the plus side: no bloody Lord of the Rings or Middle Earth tours.)

Auckland, by Garth Tapper

The Shell Guide begins with an historical introduction, too, but it sets a very different tone:
The visitor might be tempted to see this shore as innocent of history; he would be wrong. Wrong, that is, unless he excludes the struggle of a restless land to find shape, within some final skin; wrong unless he excludes the eccentricities of creation, of flora and fauna, upon these isolated islands; and above all wrong if he imagines the human occupation of the country, relatively so recent, to be a simple story.
And so the separate treatment of each region is an answer to just that call, the telling of a far from simple story: seventeen essays in which history is woven into the slow-moving journey from Northland to Southland.

As a history book, the Shell Guide may not reflect the best scholarship available to us, or even back then for that matter, and is bound to contain several errors that escape my scrutiny, but is immensely readable and made more fascinating by its itinerant structure: it is history as exploration. Besides as always I am fascinated by layman interrogations of the past from within another past, which often expose the ideological orientations prevalent at the time. In Shadbolt’s case, the narrative is mediated by the not unappealing figure of the enlightened and compassionate Pākehā writer who seeks to comprehend and emulate, rather than romanticise or subsume, the experience of true, or at any rate truer, indigeneity, in pursuit of a contemporary native inflection. It is a stance that in Shadbolt is both self-conscious and explicit, as is his convinction that it is the artist, more so than the historian or the politician, who is best qualified to capture the true spirit of the nation. Thus his frequent appeal in the text to the work of several leading literary figures – Pākehā, in the main: Glover, Mansfield, Baxter, Curnow – and the commissioning of the seventeen paintings, one for each chapter, that are one of the most notable features of the book and yet also lack that first person Māori voice that the Guide so frequently evokes but fails to provide. A further reminder, perhaps, that the renaissance had yet to come.

Wanganui-Manawatu, by Juliet Peter

The Guide must be praised nonetheless, and vigorously, for attempting to do what no contemporary guidebook any longer does, that is to say explore the complex relationship between culture and nature, history and landscape. Consider how unlikely it would be to see a chapter in a Lonely Planet guide begin with these words: ‘To travel out of Auckland along the busy, noisy Great South Road is to travel a route bought with slaughter and suffering: bought, in fact, by war’; or compare the narrowly folkloristic function of Māori legends in today’s guides (nearly always in the form of framed asides, visually separated from the useful text) with Shadbolt’s recourse to Haunui-a-Nanaia’s progress to explain the geography of the Manawatu, which reminds us in the bargain of the mnemonic function of poetry and storytelling in our oral prehistories. The following passage in the East Coast chapter encapsulates the books’s perspective perhaps more succinctly than any other:
The road through the Urewera demands time, but then so does the Urewera. What distinguishes the entire region for the visitor is Maori life, tradition and culture, and its often violent and always fascinating post-European history which began with the gunfire of Captain Cook in Poverty Bay. Physical delights are here in plenty: the region swallows thousands of visitors every summer, yet is never really crowded. But the experience of the East Coast-Urewera is all the richer if the visitor comes prepared: then this dramatic region, from long and dazzling rugged shore to forested back country, takes on mood and meaning.

Living in Wellington, one feels sometimes at the mercy of geology, and not without reason. But it pays to remember that none of our landscapes are entirely determined by physical forces, and that the value of our resorts does not reside solely in their attractiveness to the visitor. There is, almost everywhere you look, a layered history full of mood and meaning, for those who know how to read it. I'm not quite there yet.

Otago, by Colin McCahon

With many thanks to Keri for the book.

At the end of last year Robyn Gallagher embarked on a tour of the South Island using the
Shell Guide. She chronicled it in a series of nine posts that begins here.


Ben Wilson said...

Interesting book. I am fairly sure I was actually around at that time, but I don't have a very clear memory. It's very tedious that 90% of my parent's anecdotes about me derive from that time - I wonder if it's when they felt most alive and connected.

Robyn said...

I love you, Giovanni.

Your analysis is brilliant, and so much more insightful than I could ever be.

I love the kiwifruit mention - I'm sure Maurice is making jest of the fact that "kiwifruit" was used everywhere but the place where the name came from. And it's also a reminder of the word's origin as a marketing name, much like Zespri is now.

I have so many more adventures to have with Maurice!

Robyn said...

P.S. What edition did those scans come from? My 1969 edition has the art, but in my 1973 edition, the art has been replaced with scenic photos (boring).

Giovanni Tiso said...

I have so many more adventures to have with Maurice!

That's something for the rest of us to look forward to.

I have the 1968 edition revised 1973. I've seen the 1973 edition in a second-hand bookshop and while I was curious about the text I refused to buy it on account of the photographs. They had even dispensed with the McCahon on the cover! Madness.

Giovanni Tiso said...

(Also, you're far too kind.)

Robyn said...

I'm guessing that by 1973, the art from the older edition looked a bit naff, and so it was replaced with modern photos. Yet the art offers to much more insight than a photo ever could.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I wonder how Shadbolt felt about that, though, the whole book is about the primacy of the artist's perspective. If the decision to replace the paintings was a commercial one on the part of the publisher, he might have felt like a victim of those "vandals of progress" in charge of city planning.

"[...] change, in the second half of the 20th century, is still often enough the rule: immediacy still guides civic leaders, who seldom have time to respect the fact that today's compromise is tomorrow's grief. Thus buildings, particularly in a city as explosively growing as Auckland, are felled in their prime, at the very moment when time and history have lent grace and distinction; and the anonymous glass towers of the 20th century climb against the skyline." (p. 10)

Anonymous said...


Ummm... I came across your article this morning and was interested in some of what you were saying about nature and 'Landscapes that weren't urban, but that were nonetheless indelibly marked by human intervention'.

I wondered if you might be interested in this -

It has much to say about 'The New Nature Writing'. I'm interested in this currently in a modern New Zealand context. For instance, Zealandia where conservation work (which I support) is, in it's own odd way, leading to a constructed environment (if you get my drift). Just curious to know if you've touched on that elsewhere?

I'm just a curious passer-by but I enjoyed what you had to say.

Islander said...

Ah! Trust Giovanni to open my eyes further-

while indeed Maurice Shadbolt's work (reliant on many others' contributions, naturally) is indeed 'Time Travel', it is also percipient and relatively undated. (He does mention 'significant tropical Polynesian immigration...from 1945', but rather over-estimates the proportion of ANZers with Maori ancestry (1 million by 1990...)

It is a series of thoughtful essays, and I recommend both the 1968 edition (published by Whitcombe & Tombs, printed & bound in Japan "under the supervision of John Weatherhill Inc., Tokyo) and the revised 1973 version of the 1968 ed.

Because my copy keeps 3/4s of its cover, I can tell you that the original price of this taoka was...$3.50.

I paid rather less than that for each of the copies I bought at a recycle centre...

-and I very much look forward to more of 'Robyn's adventures with Maurice'!

Giovanni Tiso said...

but rather over-estimates the proportion of ANZers with Maori ancestry (1 million by 1990...)

The passage, which struck me a bit, reads as follows: "From its low point of 43,000 near the turn of the century, the Maori population (half-caste or more) now approaches 250,000 and by 1990 will exceed half a million, with at least another half million people of some Maori blood. Nowhere in the world has a supposedly 'dying race' won a more ironical and spectacular success." (p. 34)

We no longer account for ethnicity in those terms, do we? 'Half-caste or more' is quite a shocking phrase to my post Waitangi Tribunal-educated ears. More so in that it is bound to have represented the enlightened view of its time.

Giovanni Tiso said...


I saw that issue of Granta at the DCM bookfair but seem to have somehow failed to acquire it seeing as I don’t have it. It was like twelve issues for 3 dollars at that point, believe it or not... But I digress. It sounds very interesting and I shall get hold of it via the library.

I'm interested in this currently in a modern New Zealand context. For instance, Zealandia where conservation work (which I support) is, in it's own odd way, leading to a constructed environment (if you get my drift). Just curious to know if you've touched on that elsewhere?

I have nibbled at that theme a little bit, albeit in a very non-expert fashion, in discussing the works of artists Brendon Wilkinson and Marian Maguire (here and here). I think you’d be interested in their work, especially Maguire’s. The ‘Asian Edition’ book promoting New Zealand to the Chinese that I discussed here also has some notable examples, particularly where it comes to integrating forestry and farming. Shadbolt is masterful in his depiction of interventions that don’t leave a material trace, whereby a physical landscape becomes a landscape of the mind because of the stories that are woven through it. The essay on Northland is probably the best example in the book. It’s also worth reading the Haunui-a-Nanaia passage in full (it’s not very clearly indicated, but I linked to it externally where it comes up in the post).

Robyn said...

I've got my editions a little confused. For the record, I have the original 1968 edition and the 1976 edition, which is a revised and metrificated version of the 1973 revision.

So the 1973 edition is now on my wish list.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I think the 1973 edition (as opposed to revision) with pictures I saw might have been the Whitcoulls listed here on AbeBooks.

Islander said...

The 1968 version is metrified...

Giovanni Tiso said...

Metrified? How do you mean?

Islander said...

Kilometres et al Giovanni - decimality had come in the year before.

(I may have made up both these words. In this state o unhealth, I cant be bothered checking, and - does it matter? Cheers n/n NateMotu

Keri H said...

I met Maurice several times, mainly at Lit do's -when you just eat and drink with people you dont have much in common with (except you've had books published.)
I liked Maurice because
a)he didnt load his past or any other expectations on me (you have no idea how many male writers did!)(O, and a couple of female ones.)
b)he not only smoked a pipe - he knew his tobaccos: ye gods & little fishes! The number of people I've endured wittering on about pipes/cigars/tobaccos - who've smoked VERY little of anything except maybe pot... Maurice smoked a pipe-
c)he explored some very sad & grubby areas of ANZ history, and
d)for quite a long time - nearly 2 decades- he supported himself by his writing endeavours.
He was my exemplar.

When I last met him, he couldnt remember me/name, but he pulled out his tobacco pouch - and we shared a pipeful-

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ah, that's a lovely story, and it highlights the country's loss. In fact I meant to ask the question in the post... If somebody were to commission a Shell Guide today, who could we get to write it?

(By metrified I thought you might have meant versified, for I am slow. My copy is Imperial throughout, oddly enough. That created a few double takes when it came to temperatures.)

Keir said...

One rather prosaic observation: Shadbolt writes for the motor-tourist. He assumes that the reader possesses a car, and travels in it. Obviously, the motor-tourist is rather committed to the country he's in, because he has to feed and water a car, as opposed to someone using public transport, who pays a fare and moves on.

Shadbolt writes pre-oil shock. Cars are cheap and cheerful and reasonably slow, and, well, why *wouldn't* you drive one? This lends a narrative structure to his book, because he assumes the reader will enter NZ at Auckland, Wellington, or Christchurch, and travel from there in a primarily linear way, & of requirement taking an amount of time to do it [0]. He doesn't expect people to do Auckland over two nights, then fly to Queenstown, and after doing Queenstown nip over to Fiordland and then, a week later, quit via Christchurch.

Of course, Shell is very much focussed on that motor-tourist (being an oil company and all.)

[0] Auckland to Wellington, for Shadbolt, will take at the very least two days, and possibly three. A fast car does 60 kph, maybe 70 at the best. Flying is not really considered, and the train is a day and a night also.

(Yes, thank you Mr. Marx for material explanations of the superstructure.)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Except I grew up on a very solid diet of Touring Club and Michelin guides from that era (pre-oil shock), and they were nothing like the Shell Guide. They had itineraries and driving distances and organised information designed to enable the tourist to visit the major attractions of a region in an orderly and efficient manner. Long socio-historico-cultural essays, which is what the Shell Guide mostly consists of, are of more dubious practical use to the motor-tourist. And the gazzeteers are alphabetical and make no mention of places to eat or stay. Which makes the Shell sponsorship all the more interestingly odd.

(On the other hand the book is somewhat reminiscent of the Leningrad guide from 1963, which was sponsored by the state.)

maps said...

O'Shaea's Runaway is the only New Zealand that it's essential to see, and that's probably why it's so hard to see it.