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‘Buildings Are Their Memorials’

Book Review
Architects at the Apex
by Geoff Mew (with assistance from Adrian Humphris) (Ngaio Press, Martinborough. 264 pp.) $59.95
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Mew cover-001The older buildings in New Zealand reflect the work of a relatively small group of architects, many virtually unknown outside heritage circles – the buildings are their memorials. This volume illustrates the work of a group of leading architects who were active in New Zealand between 1840 and 1940. The authors, Geoff Mew and Adrian Humphris, have previously published important books on Wellington architecture.

It was not entirely straightforward to make a choice of who was included. The authors specify their criteria for selection which includes a geographic spread of buildings, an innovative approach to design, and recognition by others in the architectural profession. Readers may note the absence of a favourite architect – for example, I regret the omission of Thomas Forrester who designed many of the whitestone buildings that make Oamaru so distinctive – but the book includes all the major players.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, architects often found it hard to make a living, but were used to design commercial buildings, churches, schools, and government buildings. With increasing prosperity in the Pākehā community, the better-off families employed architects for their houses, both in town and country. There was a shortage of local building stone in most parts of New Zealand, but wood was freely available and was used as the dominant building material. Later brick was used, particularly in urban centres where there was a high risk of fire.

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Our Insect World

Book Review
An Exquisite Legacy: the life and work of New Zealand naturalist G.V. Hudson
by George Gibbs (Potton & Burton, 2020) $59.95
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Hudson cover-001Some years ago I wrote a short article, Collections of plants and animals, for Te Ara — the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, which started with a picture of a small part of the huge Hudson collection of insects, now held in Te Papa. In this beautifully illustrated volume, George Gibbs tells the story of naturalist G.V. Hudson, a pioneering New Zealand entomologist and illustrator.

Born in England, Hudson’s artistic talents were nurtured by his father who crafted stained-glass windows. By the time he was 9 he was already collecting and illustrating insects. In 1881 his father decided to emigrate the New Zealand, and the young naturalist was excited by a new and largely undescribed insect fauna. He quickly decided that he wanted to present New Zealand’s unique insect fauna to the general public in the style of illustrated natural history books available in Europe, and this was his over-riding interest for the rest of his life. To support himself, he worked for the Post Office. His routine job involved shift work, which allowed him leisure time for his insect studies.

Soon after his arrival in Wellington, Hudson started attending meetings of the Wellington Philosophical Society (precursor of the present Royal Society of New Zealand), and presented his first paper in 1882 (subsequently published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute), where he was to publish many papers over the years. Despite his youth, his expertise as an entomologist was recognized by other members of the small scientific community.

Although the emphasis in this book is on Hudson’s illustrations, he was always concerned with understanding the full life-history of the insects he studied. There are several case studies of the carefully documented research that Hudson undertook, of which I found his pioneering work on the New Zealand glow-worm particularly fascinating. In England he was familiar with local glow-worms, which are carnivorous beetles known as fireflies. But Hudson quickly recognized that New Zealand glow-worms are the larvae of a fly, not a beetle. He painstakingly collected, reared male and female specimens, and published a landmark paper, “The Habits and Life-History of the New Zealand Glowworm” documenting his observations and changing conclusions.

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Social Work

Book Review
Agency of Hope: The story of the Auckland City Mission 1920-2020
by Peter Lineham (Massey University Press, 2020) $49.99
Reviewed by Judith Nathan

agencyofhope_v7Noted historian Peter Lineham has done a meticulous  job chronicling the complex history of the Auckland City Mission, founded by the Anglican church.  He has clearly waded conscientiously through the records of countless meetings over the years.  What emerges, in varying intensity throughout its history, is a surprising number of tussles with the diocese (with which it now has only tenuous links) and with other agencies, such as the Methodist Mission and the Salvation Army.  Alongside these are the many variations in the mission’s diverse activities as it adjusted to meet the changing needs of its clientele – sometimes seen as city-wide but now focussed on the inner city.

The most fascinating section of the book is its account of the first quarter century when the mission was headed by a charismatic, eccentric individual, the Rev Jasper Calder. In the 1920s its activities included a doss house with 100 beds, clothing shops and a soup kitchen that served over 100,000 bowls of soup in its first year.  For 80 years it ran a hospital library.  In a city theatre it held weekly services that included entertainment with a paid orchestra and at their height attracted over 10,000 people at a time. These continued till the mid-1940s.

In the 1950s under a more sedate leader, Douglas Caswell there were various innovations (described by Lineham as an “odd assortment”). These included founding Selwyn Village, intended for poor elderly. This separated from the mission in the 1960s and changed its focus (and clientele) to selling licences to occupy.  There were ongoing issues over the division of assets and grants between the mission and the Selwyn Foundation.

The energetic, long-serving missioner, Diane Robertson, (1997-2015) was the first woman and the first lay missioner. She maintained a high profile for the agency which grew rapidly. By 2000, soon after she left, there were 110 full-time staff.

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No Ordinary In-Laws

Book Review
Bill and Shirley – a memoir
by Keith Ovenden (Massey University Press, 2020) 199 pp. $35
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Overton cover-001The title of this short memoir by Keith Ovenden is misleading – it would be better called “Bill, Shirley and me” as it is an account of Ovenden’s memories of his parents-in-law, Bill Sutch and Shirley Smith. His presence is pervasive through the book. All three participants are (or were) eloquent, strongly-opinionated intellectuals who have made significant contributions to different aspects of New Zealand life. Their interactions were often complex and difficult.

Things did not start well for Keith Ovenden. When Shirley first met her daughter’s partner at Oxford in 1970 she took an instant dislike to him. A year later, when Keith and Helen were married in Wellington, Shirley and Bill did not attend the wedding reception. Then subsequently Bill was charged with an offence under the Official Secrets Act, being acquitted after a highly publicized trial, and died soon afterwards. The controversy over the case has not faded, and Ovenden has had to live with the tarnished memory.

The book is divided into three sections – the first dealing with Bill (whom Ovenden knew only for the last four years of his life), the second with Shirley, and a final section outlining Ovenden’s ideas on the writing of memoir and biography. The section on Bill Sutch is puzzlingly titled “The Lion and the Weasel”, but the reason soon becomes clear – there is a lengthy discussion on whether Sutch was a spy (and what is a spy?). Did he betray his country (a weasel), or was he a patriotic New Zealander caught up in unfortunate events (a lion)? Ovenden outlines the bumbling deficiencies of the Security Intelligence Service at the time, and suggests that Sutch was starting to fail mentally and physically. But the fact remains that he was covertly meeting a member of the KGB based in the embassy of the USSR, and handing over material, the nature of which he never disclosed. I can still recall watching a TV interview with Ian Fraser a few days after the trial, and my impression that Sutch was being evasive and telling an improbable story. Read more »

Rite of Passage

Book Review
The Fell
by Robert Jenkins (RedDoor Publishing, 2019)
Reviewed by Johnny Tell

410khbegzulVery recently I posted a review for this novel on and make no apology for posting another here. It is my intention to ensure The Fell finds as wide a readership as possible. It matters that much.

The Fell is tagged as a debut novel by Robert Jenkins and RedDoor Publishing, but the quality of its craftwork suggests otherwise.  I would like  to know more about the author but his bio tells us little.

The Fell reads like a classic of literary fiction, a rite of passage that stands testing against any previous work. I suspect, in time, if it finds its feet,  it will rank alongside the likes of The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Actually, for readers today, this will eclipse them. They are vanilla in comparison.

To be fair, in comparison Fight Club is tame and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is set in a normal and well-run institution.

The Fell reeks of lived experience and is in places harsh, brutal and disturbing, but also poetic, subtle, tender and clever. I suspect for many readers it will be almost too subtle, an entire life-changing event is distilled into a single line. “I let him have me all”, is all we hear about the boy narrator’s first experience of homosexuality. A line referencing a hilariously inappropriate folk song catches you unawares until it percolates and then stuns with how very appropriate it really is. His view of old people in a park is heartbreakingly on the money.

Sometimes confusion, honesty and raw experience are encapsulated in a single word and the simplicity of language used by the young character is employed perfectly.

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