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.