Monday, May 25, 2009

This is New Zealand - Asian Edition

I’ll come right out and confess that one of my favourite literary genres is the promotional book. It might have something to do with my dear godmother, who for a number of Christmases in a row gave me books that her husband picked up at trade fairs, including a monumental - and in so many ways, absolutely delightful - History of Methane, a relic of a not-so-distant time when the word emissions had almost exclusively scatological meanings.

Of special and more recent interest to me is the subset of this genre that promotes whole countries and their ways of life. I talked briefly a little while ago about this particular gem

but neglected to make the dutiful point that nationalistic propaganda sprouting from a rich compost of lies and embellishments is hardly the sole domain of totalitarian governments. Everybody does it. You’ll find as much self-criticism in this type of offering as you do in the average national anthem. Nonetheless, these books generally make very interesting reading, precisely in fact because of their specific lies and obfuscations, as well as the occasional truths that seep through the promotional message.

There are some reassuring constants: the people of all nations, we are told, are uncommonly resourceful and ingenious, hard working and interested in pursuing a variety of interests. Sports and the arts play important roles in their lives, as does family. I am looking forward to a book professing that the citizens of, say, Latvia, are a slothful and tedious bunch who loathe children and are really letting themselves go in the fitness department, but it doesn’t seem to be forthcoming (at least not from the Latvians themselves). Also, most countries whose literature I have come across are 'a country of contrasts', which apparently is a good thing.

Predictable niceties are also written about each nation’s great artistic beauty and its rich and colourful traditions. But these aren't ordinary guidebooks, and a reminder of their mercantile aims, often on a very large scale, is never far behind. Here is a page from G. Selmer Fougner's A Good Living Tour of Italy (1955):

The advertisment goes on to say, i
n case you were wondering, that 'graving and floating docks can handle supertankers'. And who didn't tour Italy with his or her supertanker, in those days?

Another point of difference is that these kinds of books invariably project an uncritical and cohesive image of the country's political structures and policies. Look in particular for the ideological statements that underpin the sections on government, welfare and society, if you're into the comparative literature of propaganda. Case in point: the About New Zealand booklet published by the Ministry of Foreign affairs and Trade in 1999 - at the tail end of nine year of National Party rule - which reads as a manual on the virtues of neoliberalism. We learn for instance that
[s]uccessive [New Zealand] governments have shaped an environment for a leaner, more productive economy by championing reform, deregulation and sound financial policies at home, while pursuing open and liberalised trade and investment policies abroad. (p. 27)
We all know that ‘leaner’ means ‘employing fewer people’, but whatever repercussions this transition might have had on the securing of welfare provisions is left unsaid. In fact, the myth of the smooth, harmonious operation of the state machinery invariably espoused by these books can complicate things a bit when it comes to boasting a nation's historical achievements. About New Zealand needs for instance to accommodate both the pride in the pioneering role played by the country in the areas of labour relations and welfare entitlements, and the idea that getting rid of such entitlements was a good thing. Here's what the book has to say about health services:
In the 1930s, New Zealand made history by being the first nation to establish a comprehensive welfare system. The aim was to provide people with security ‘from the cradle to the grave’ through assistance for the sick, the unemployed and for families. A wide range of medical care was also provided free of charge. Almost 70 years later, the cost of providing social welfare has grown. Welfare benefits are now more tightly targeted at those most in need. Today the emphasis of the social welfare system is on providing income support to ensure those facing difficulties can be helped back to self-reliance and well-being. (p. 34)
Deftly, neatly, this paragraph bridges together a far poorer, less advanced New Zealand which yet believed that it should care for its citizens as a matter of duty, to the contemporary, far richer and more advanced New Zealand, where ensuring the people's well-being is just too darn expensive. And naturally none of this is allowed to interfere with the notion that by crossing this particular bridge the country has experienced anything but progress.

As it happens, some time last year I became the fortuitous but nonetheless proud owner of a precursor written in 1986, at the very time when this significant change of ideological course was being charted. I say fortuitous because there was never a time when you could buy or pick up this very lavishly produced book, which was intended as a gift for Chinese businessmen and government officers.

This puts the fantastically entitled This is New Zealand - Asian Edition in a particular sub-category of nation-promoting books, those specifically aimed at encouraging foreign investment and trade. This is a tricky and elaborate exercise that requires a certain amount of grovelling to go along with the requisite pride in the display of the nation's treasures to the chosen bidder. Hence the seemingly peculiar decision - given the overall politics of the book's authors and sponsors - to open with an appeal to the ambassadorship of Rewi Alley, a New Zealander who dedicated his life to the cause of Chinese communism. But do not be fooled: as the contribution of stockbroking firm Renouf Partners makes clear, the book is firmly aligned with the Douglas manifesto and its 'major restructuring of the economy'. In an especially welcome development, we are informed,
a growing financial sector is blossoming, helped by rapid and bold moves to free the economy from a mass of regulations and controls that had developed over the years. It has been said that the "New" is being put back into "Zealand". (p. 113)
(I couldn't find a lot of information about Renouf Partners, by the way, other than in this document by Chris Lee, that lists it among a number of firms that went belly up under Douglas' tenure as a result of having been 'perhaps honestly, but incompetently run'. It sounds like they might have put the "usual" back into "bankruptcy".)

For all the talk of restructuring and radical innovation, the book still boxes New Zealand in its traditional role of primary producer, declaring it from the outset 'a well stocked farm in the Pacific' (p. 17), capable of such feats as - in what is possibly my all-time favourite caption - 'integrating forestry and farming':

The image below of a refrigerated container full of fresh produce opening onto a pristine landscape encapsulates the idea of New Zealand that is being sold to the reader by a list of more or less predictable suspects: the Meat Board, Owens investments, National Bloodstock, Feltex, Wattie Industries, Tasman Forestry, the State Coal Mines and a number of companies servicing the primary sector - even the lone representative of the electronics industry, AWA, turns out to be involved in the production of fruit grading machinery.

One contributor stands out and may at first seem a little puzzling: the Justice Department. It appears that the export envisaged here is expertise on how to deliver a Western-style justice system, should China ever be interested. In the relevant section the reader is helpfully informed that
[o]ne of the dilemmas in any democracy is the tension between the desire to strengthen and extend government powers to provide and effective government, and the need to uphold and protect the rights and freedoms of the individual. (p. 125)
For all the condescension in this particular snippet, the book is deferential towards China and studiously avoids topics that may offend or complicate the picture of what the country has to offer. Therefore it skips directly from the 'ancient times' of Maori settlement to 'today's lifestyle', without so much as a mention of the arrival of the Europeans or the Treaty of Waitangi. It name checks the presence of Chinese immigrants from the second half of the eighteenth century, but glosses over the sorry race relations record that accompanied it. It even contributes to the time-honoured tradition of using Asian as a substitute for Chinese (no other nationality is mentioned). Its Maori content, including some stunning artwork, sets a picturesque scene, but is never placed within the easily domesticated concept of the Maori renaissance, let alone the harsher realities of persistent socio-economic differentials. Moreover, none of the businesses promoted through the book have an explicit Maori dimension, making the customary exploitation of iconography and lore that much more grating.

None of this, however, is altogether untypical. As I suggested above, these kinds of books are often more significant for what they leave out than for what they include. Lacking as they are in critical perspective, they cannot be regarded as documents of a nation's changing modes of self-examination, but rather of the ways in which myths and fictions of nationhood are constructed. Also, they generally have very pretty pictures.

This is New Zealand - Asian Edition. Wellington: Sheffield House, 1986.


Deborah said...

the people of all nations, we are told, are uncommonly resourceful and ingenuous.
They're all ingenues?

DPF:TLDR said...

Fascinating stuff Giovanni! As a keen student of nationalist phenomena, I think the way that nation-states promote themselves outside their own self-designated borders, both to individuals (as the Soviet book does) and to larger institutions, including other nation-states, is extremely revealing.

The focus on primary production is especially revealing - even when I try to get into the mindset of a hard headed nationalist-capitalist, it seems to me that the anomaly which has 4% of the total economy providing nearly 80% of the export sector is more of an achilles heel that needs addressing than a source of strength that needs to be enhanced.

If something similar were to be written now, I guarantee it would have plenty about New Zealand's role as a world leader in addressing climate change and providing solutions for sustainable living. Would you agree? And if so, would this be a positive step?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Drat. See, ingenuity is a false friend and that's what led me astray.

Deborah said...

- in what is possibly my all-time favourite caption - 'integrating forestry and farming'.
It appears that the export envisaged here is expertise on how to deliver a Western-style justice system, should China ever be interested..
Hmmm... there's a certain amount of trade contracted through NZ, precisely because we can offer niceties like a fair and impartial justice system.

Fascinating reading, thanks, Giovanni.

Giovanni Tiso said...

If something similar were to be written now, I guarantee it would have plenty about New Zealand's role as a world leader in addressing climate change and providing solutions for sustainable living. Would you agree? And if so, would this be a positive step?

Aside from the fact that we are most assuredly not world leaders in addressing climate change, you mean? The 2004 About New Zealand guide (written by Kate Camp - score!) makes in fact the pretty honest point that our clean, green image derives mostly from having such a low population density. But I'd love to have a contemporary offering to compare to the Asian Edition. The more recent ones I have are all of a generic variety, and do acknowledge the role of farming but talk at much greater lengths about the knowledge economy (education publishing, software, the Lord of the Rings) and tourism, or companies like Icebreaker, or manufactured primary products like wine. I wouldn't be surprised if the books aimed at a business audience and trade officials did still talk mainly about the actual commodities since it's still such a large part of what we sell.

If anybody has any of these books, needless to say, get in touch!

there's a certain amount of trade contracted through NZ, precisely because we can offer niceties like a fair and impartial justice system.

I thought about that, but it doesn't seem to be what the section is about - perhaps it's the implication that counts.

Philip said...

Britain (or England, if you happen to be a citizen of our greatest ally) is a land of plucky little contrasts, where an ingenuous government has achieved world leadership in climate change and population density thanks to business opportunification initiativity and considerable education reform.

Word Verification: dicas, another bit of Latin which I should remember but can't.

Lyndon said...

I was staring at that forestry photo because I couldn't believe it was real. Then I started wondering if the sheep in the centre is dead.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Surely they're all dead by now.


Emma said...

The picture of the sheep under the pine trees is disturbing. Pine needles contain a natural herbicide designed to kill things that aren't baby pine trees. So if you walk through a pine forest, one thing you notice is a distinct lack of grass.

And sheep.

I can totally understand the fasination of those books. My personal obsession is old 'how to' social etiquette books.

Paul said...

Dottore, my people need to talk to your people. I have titles to recommend.

This sort of book is a significant part of my PhD research. Might I suggest, to start, Wellington Celebration by Michael Fowler? Published in 1983 by the City Council, it aims to do what it says on the cover, 'celebrate' (a very Eighties word) Wellington. But it does so with the help of corportate sponsors, all of which want a slice of the promotional pie. So it gets weird. After the usual pictures of small children playing in the park on an uncharacteristicly sunny day at a rare public event, the book lurches into photographs of the sponsors' dismal office buildings. One sponsor (NCR, I think, but don't quote me) has photos of its latest computer technology with a glowing commentary from the author.

This is the sort of thing that makes academic research fun. I am now off to the Library to compile you a reading list.

Word verification: trickst - what Tudor card sharps did.

Megan Clayton said...

At the time of the 1987 crash, Sir Frank and Lady Susan Renouf were regularly featured in the women's magazines as a fashionable couple. When his fortune disappeared (from something like $20m -> $2m), they parted ways. Wikipedia mentions that she called him "Frank the Bank" during their divorce.

(this isn't the weekly poem.)

Word verification: hanes.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Are you telling me that a tycoon's finance company went bust and the tycoon lost 90% of his money? Boy, those were the days, huh?

Paul: yes, my people must talk to your people. There is a section on architecture in the book, if you're interested. Glossy and verbose. I can try to scan it for you if there are no copies at your library - it would be a bit piecemeal on account of the A3 format.

Jake said...

Harvestbird: If you're taking requests, I'd like 'punching above our weight on the global stage' to be included in this week's accompanying piece.

Megan Clayton said...

Jake: you are so on.

stephen said...

We punch above our weight -- the most in the Southern Hemisphere.

Paul said...

This is relevant to my interests, as they say. I have the American and Western Pacific editions, but not the Asian.

The 1982 American edition has a forward which observes that Richard Pearce tried to fly and eighty years later, the space shuttle Columbia was launched. From these events it concludes, "the spirit of New Zealand and the spirit of America meet in the love of freedom and of overcoming, like Richard Pearse, the obstacles in our path to common prosperity."

On the following page is a photograph of Ronald Reagan and Robert Muldoon, who contributes a forward. The book is mostly about the industries we still owned back then, and how alike we are to the Americans

Word verification: colog, which does not bear thinking about.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Paul: I need to get this book to you, I see no other solution. We'll discuss a suitable method of transportation (I'm thinking refrigerated container).

@Stephen - the most in the Southern Hemisphere.

Funny you should say that. I'm always used to reading or being told that Old Government House is either the larget wooden building in the southern emisphere or the second largest in the world. Asian Edition informs me in fact that "it has the largest floor area of any wooden building in the world".

Daleaway said...

Funnily enough I was looking at a new one of these last week - from MFAT (?) selling/justifying/excusing NACT's newly business-targeted foreign aid policy.

Many of these big brochures are written by public servants against the clock and often against their grain as well. Or are slammed together carelessly by contract writers from government press releases.

Sir Francis was known as Frank the Bank long before he fell into Aussie Susan's clutches. I remember him in the mid 1970s addressing a trade group I was with, talking wistfully about the days when he didn't have so much as a kerosene tin to gather wild blackberries in - and yet, he confessed, he thought we as a nation were all happier then. The Young Turks present loudly scoffed at his perspective, straining at the bit for the chance to get their own snouts in the trough (if you don't mind your metaphorical pigs with bits). They certainly troughed heartily over the next few years, and it all ended badly for Frank, which was rather sad. He had a point.

Anonymous said...

i'm certain i've seen that sheeptree photo in another setting...

i think there were other projects to try mixing silviculture and husbandry in the 90s?

harvestbird, if you're taking requests what about "here the trees grow like grass".

word verification: stedness, the reason i always get the boring checks.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Daleway, that's an interesting piece of background. Having since read his bio, Renouf was certainly of a whole other generation than the lot that was putting the "New" back in "Zealand".

i'm certain i've seen that sheeptree photo in another setting...

Does anybody know how they did it? I mean, they didn't vacuum up the pine needles, surely.

DPF:TLDR said...

Giovanni, I think there's a temple in Japan that's bigger, but the floor area thing might be correct.

However, I think there's a generic need to be sceptical when New Zealanders tell you that something is the "biggest/tallest/longest in the southern hemisphere". When they say this they usually mean "in Australia and New Zealand". I used to constantly hear people say that Colombo Street in Christchurch was the longest continuous street in the southern hemisphere. I'm pretty sure nobody who claimed that had ever heard of Avenida General Paz.

katy said...

Gorgeous - thanks for that!

I have been in situations abroad confronted by statements such as, "You are from New Zealand. You must like rugby!" where it felt churlish not to go agree. Dodgy representations of the farming industry or race relations seem only a small step beyond..

katy said...

Hugh, Stephen, Giovanni:

Giovanni Tiso said...

Katy, I know what you're saying about feeling churlish, I get the same about the assumptions that come with my nationality (although I draw a pretty strong line under "you must be a catholic").

katy said...

Giovanni, I have a good friend who is originally from Italy (from Milan), he has no interest in the topic of food/cuisine and maintains that that was onre reason why he had to leave :)

Giovanni Tiso said...

He is from Milan, though, right? Hence he must be heavily into in fashion. I should know!

katy said...

He always used to say how he wasn't really Italian etc etc and he had spent years out of the country... Then one day he turned up in a pink jumper...

Megan Clayton said...

Underdog with Dairy Cow

Here the trees now grow like grass;
to bear aloft a modern people.

Tane Mahuta, in a yoga headstand,
will render his mother 100% pure.

The face of Tu at Anzac Cove
with poets and publicists makes the nation.

A hall of parliamentary portraits
not bigots, fools, but friendly ghosts.

You and I are world-class,
multicultural, cosmopolitan.

Prizefighters of a leaner polity,
an underdog with dairy cow.

This hall of mirrors in our waters,
none other than a global stage.

We feint and dive across the paddock,
to punch above an unknown weight.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Lovely, HB. I think that the many proponents of the rhetoric of the underdog forget one important thing, though: generally, the underdog gets hammered. (Case in point: the Chiefs overnight.)

Unknown said...

Punching my weight
into the timeclock,
I am waiting for
the cargo to fall.

Anonymous said...

Would it enhance your appreciation of the caption to know that "integrating farming and forestry" is from a research trial at Tikitere, just out of Rotorua, and the research showed
...drum roll... that it was a disaster for both forestry and farming. At that spacing on ex-pasture sites, trees quickly get fatter than normal mills can handle, while they're still at an age where the wood is of extremely low density and stiffness. The unpruned branches are enormous so unpruned logs are only good for pulping and pallets, and the tops all blow out. There's bugger all feed in the pasture after 7 or 8 years (and you can't let the stock in until the trees are big enough to not get trampled).
You can integrate forestry and farming successfully - just not like that.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Would it enhance your appreciation of the caption...

Would it ever! Thank you very much for that.

Anonymous said...

Gio, we're just getting started! The caption you admired tells 4 words, the photo a thousand more. But the FILM version came out a couple of years later and beat out over 100 entries to win first prize in a European Film Festival – the “Magna Mater” award (as a good Italian boy you’ll appreciate that’s a Very Big Deal Indeed). Actually I’m surprised you didn’t recognise the still – you’ll surely remember Italy’s entry in 1995: Patate: vizi e virtú di un alimento molti speciale.

Anyway, read all about it here:

Film približuje vývoj a históriu poľnohospodársko-lesníckych meliorácií na Novom Zélande, pri ktorých sa uplatňuje borovica radiata. Všetky aplikácie tohoto melioračného systému (lesné pastviny, stromy na pastvinách, produkčné lesné pásy) majú jeden cieľ - zvýšenie celkovej produktivity a ziskov "1989" - Veľká cena festivalu - MAGNA MATER - cena vlády SSR

Or there’s a little bit of anglicky on the website:

Anonymous said...

And because your readers are stressing about the poor sheep, I'll just add that the herbicidal properties of needles are not of great concern to them, seeing as how they’re not herbs and all. But pregnant cattle eating needles can spontaneously abort (“spontaneous” in this context possibly imparts a false sense of frivolity to proceedings).

Giovanni Tiso said...

I think Emma might have referred more the killing of the grass than the harming of the sheep. And I'm still curious as to how they got around the pine needle issue - do you have the inside story on that?

I've located a copy of the potato film in a media archive just outside of Rome. Enough to warrant a special trip there, I reckon.

Anonymous said...

re. herbicides and sheep... yes, sorry. (I would beg for Emma's pardon, but we haven't sorted out our safe word yet).
re. pine needles. Sorry, no mysteries there, so you can moderate the rest of this away. Grass grows fine when there are just a few scattered pines in a paddock, and not at all in a dense forest.
The agroforestry trial had trees at spacings from 50 trees per hectare up to 400 trees per hectare. At 400 trees/ha, the forest is quite dense, so not much light reaches the ground. You also get a lot of pruned branches, thinned stems and fallen needles which tend to suppress understorey growth, regardless of any allelopathic or soil acidification effects. At 400 stems/ha, grazing stopped at age 9. They were still grazing at age 19 with 100 stems/ha, although sheep production was low. Not much rye or clover, just less palatable species (and needles). On the other hand, there was no difference in meat flavour or lambing percentage, so the needles weren't too harmful in themselves. They also looked at invertebrate ecology and tried to grow ginseng.

Take home message: if you're going to try silvopastoralism at home, your best bet is to devote part of your land to the best farm products you can produce, and the rest to the best trees you can grow. Don't have a half-arsed go at both across your whole property.