Scoop Review of Books

Local Hero

Book Review
Whatever It Takes: Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948 – 2000
 by John Reid (Victoria University Press, $60)
Reviewed by Lindsay Shelton

Whatever_coverJohn Reid’s new book about John O’Shea and Pacific Films is astounding but it’s also sad. Astounding, because of its extraordinary story of the fifty-year achievements of a unique New Zealand film company run by a man who was ahead of his time. Sad, because it details the enormous amount of opposition that confronted Pacific Films throughout its life.

Even before the start of his filmmaking career, at a time when we were dominated by movies from Hollywood, John O’Shea was one of the few voices stating the need for local films which would reflect New Zealand’s way of life.  Reid observes that he wanted to be a New Zealand filmmaker as much as he wanted to be a filmmaker at all.

Anyone who thinks they know about Pacific Films will be amazed to discover the enormity of the company’s output, described so well by John Reid after an immense amount of research. And anyone who thought that Pacific Films faced only occasional opposition will be shocked to discover for how long it faced so many stubborn rejections – not only from both of New Zealand’s two theatrical exhibition companies at various times, but also from the monopolistic government-owned National Film Unit and later from the equally monopolistic and inward-looking state television system (which  refused to show anything made by Pacific Films or to commission any productions, except during a brief period when Tahu Shankland was head of production.)

Some of Pacific’s greatest achievements are well known –  it made the only three feature films that were produced in New Zealand in three decades (Broken Barrier 1952, Runaway 1964, Don’t Let It Get You 1966), the ground-breaking Tangata Whenua series written and presented by Michael King, the marvellous group of documentaries created by Tony Williams and Michael Heath, most notably  the prescient Lost in the Garden of the World (1975) in which they go to the Cannes Film Festival to ponder on why New Zealand wasn’t making films like the rest of the world. John Reid’s detailed narrative is fascinating as it describes the struggle – seemingly at times almost impossible — to make each production happen.

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Biography of a University

Book Review
Otago: 150 years of New Zealand’s first university
 by Alison Clarke (Otago U Press, $50)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

ou-cover-001webThe Scottish settlers of Otago placed great importance on education, and started their university only two decades after they arrived in Dunedin. It was New Zealand’s first university, and it proudly celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019. This well-illustrated and readable account of the university by Otago historian Ali Clarke is a fitting way to start the anniversary year.

Two earlier histories of Otago University have been produced, marking its 50th and 100th anniversaries. But the number of students has quadrupled since the centenary history, and the university is now a different and much busier place. In its early days the university was a male-dominated institution, but since 1986 there have been more women students than men (and by 2016 there were several thousand more). It is also far more diverse with increasing numbers of Maori, Pasifika and international students.

Writing a history of an organisation as large and complex as a modern university is challenging as there is so much to fit in. The author has wisely decided to deal with topics that cover all aspects of the university, starting with chapters on those for whom it exists – the students. Three chapters cover the make-up of the student body, student life, and student accommodation. I’m old enough to remember the controversy in 1967 when the Vice-Chancellor tried to ban mixed flatting. In retrospect it can be seen as the local start of a period of major social change when students started to assert their rights, and the university reluctantly started to modernize.

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Our Animals

Book Review
Animals of Aotearoa: Explore and Discover New Zealand’s Wildlife
 Written by Gillian Candler with illustrations by Ned Barraud (Potton & Burton, $34.99)
Reviewed by Melinda Szymanik

animals-of-aotearoa-cover-72I can see children enjoying this handsome book just as much as Barraud’s Backyard Beasts. It covers all the categories of animal that live wild in New Zealand, from our distinctive flightless birds, through our minuscule native frogs, to introduced animals like Tahr and Red Deer. From the common bee to the cat’s eye, the blue whale to the glow worm, there is a wealth of information about the animals we might find as we travel around this country. From average sizes (a very handy fact for getting a handle on any creature) and dietary habits, to commentary on the endangered status of some of our most threatened species, this book is a terrific resource for budding zoologists and the generally curious, alike.   

As with Backyard Beasts, the artwork is by Ned Barraud and follows the same brief (there is even some crossover with the insects mentioned in Beasts) providing sufficient detail for general animal identification. The design is pretty much the same, is easy to follow and perfect for dipping in and out of. Along with a short glossary, there is an index at the back that makes searching for your favourite animal easy, along with a contents page at the front. The language used here is simpler than Beasts, making the book accessible to a wider age range.

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Bugs for Kids

Book Review
New Zealand’s Backyard Beasts by Ned Barraud (Potton & Burton, paper, $19.99; hardback $29.99)
Reviewed by Melinda Szymanik

nzs-backyard-beasts_cover-72You might be forgiven for being a little uncertain about what this non-fiction work is all about based just on its title, but the cover illustration steers you straight, and the content inside leaves you in no doubt about the purpose of this lovely book. Barraud has gathered a wealth of interesting information and facts — some well-known and others surprising— about the creepy crawlies that inhabit our gardens, pairing these with his gorgeous realistic artwork to bring the insects to life.

Aimed at older children, with regular use of some complex words (which get a good explanation in the glossary at the end of the book), the text is respectful of its audience, and while detailed and informative, is also clear, easy to follow, and in nice bite-size chunks. The text is a good mix of facts and points of interest.

I learnt a number of interesting titbits I’ve never come across before, despite having knocked around in science books and back gardens for some years now. I didn’t know Aphids only grow wings when food is harder to find. I never knew that that funny little bag thing hanging on the outside wall of my house was a Bagmoth. And a Weta is a grasshopper? – Of course it is!! My only quibble was the cheat of describing the metamorphosis of a butterfly as a ‘magical’ transformation. Everything else is given at least a brief description except for this. While the transformation might seem miraculous or indeed ‘magical’, it is still a biological process and I wanted to know more about it.

The illustrations are lush and detailed and a good size, and to my untrained eye look an awful lot like the real thing. The design is clear and attractive and easy to follow. I would have enjoyed having this book as a child, dragging it out in to the garden to identify the beasties I saw crawling there and comparing their appearance. All the extra bits of information would have pleased me no end. And I can just see today’s children feeling the same. This would be a cool Christmas present, especially if you are planning a family staycation this year.

Lighting the Way

Book Review
Sunset to Sunrise: an illustrated history of New Zealand’s lighthouses by Timothy Nicol (New Holland Press, $39.99)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan


lighthouses-001Sailing around New Zealand’s exposed coastline is hazardous, and the historic record is full of stories of shipwrecks and drownings. Soon after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, the British imperial authorities passed regulations to enable the establishment of aids to coastal navigation, and the New Zealand government has traditionally taken responsibility for the provision of lighthouses and other coastal lights. By the end of the nineteenth century a network of lighthouses had been set up, manned by keepers and their families who often lived in isolation for many months at a time.

Since the 1970s the New Zealand government has had a policy of progressively automating the lighthouse network, and the last keepers left the remote Brothers Island station in 1990. Since then the lighthouses have functioned by remote control, with regular maintenance visits by staff from Maritime New Zealand. Captain Timothy Nichol, an experienced mariner, had responsibility for inspecting the lighthouse network from 1990-99, and has based the narrative of this book on his annual inspection tour with engineer Ken Belt – an adventurous trip by road, helicopter and boat around the New Zealand coastline. It was no job for the faint-hearted, involving changeable weather, hazardous boat landings and clambering up the vertical sides and lighthouses.

The tiny light at Cape Kidnappers surrounding by nesting gannets. (Source: Sunset to Sunrise)

The tiny light at Cape Kidnappers surrounding by nesting gannets. (Source: Sunset to Sunrise)

The book is a retirement labour of love, combining Captain Nicol’s own experience with information on each lighthouse gleaned from official files, newspapers and reminiscences. The opening chapter sets the scene by explaining the Lighthouse Environment, including the evolution of different types of light, foghorns, radio direction finding, and the equipment kept on different lighthouses. A useful map near the beginning shows the locations of functioning lights, and it was a surprise to realise that I had visited perhaps a third of them over the years travelling round New Zealand.

The next seven chapters, the bulk of the book, comprise a travelogue around the lighthouses region by region, starting at the top of the North Island, and ending with the Chatham Islands. Although the book covers much of the ground covered a decade earlier by Helen Beaglehole, the illustrations, both modern and historical, are a fascinating record of New Zealand’s lighthouse history. It is also a reminder of the problems preserving lighthouse heritage, as the structures are invariably in isolated and exposed locations.

Sadly Captain Nicol died earlier this year, a few months after handing the manuscript to the publisher. This is a beautifully produced book, and I have no doubt that he would be delighted to see it in print.