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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 »

Experiences and emotions

Book Review
ngā whakamatuatanga / interludes
by Vaughan Rapatahana (cyberwit, 135 pp.)
Reviewed by John Carstensen

interludes-coverRapatahana continues to hone his craft as a poet. In his latest work, ngā whakamatuatanga, one notices at a glance, the usual eccentric typographic features that animate the text on the page and on reading, the usual obscure but apposite lexis. Also, the usual, perhaps not always perfect mix of languages – particularly te reo Māori. There is still some of the focus on self but there is less of the world weary ennui, cynicism and rancour than in earlier works. Experiences and emotions are expressed with finer nuances, more pathos, and often more wit.

Rapatahana has suffered some heavy blows in life and in his writing he processes the pain, the loss and the grief, mimetically and cathartically.   There are the broken marriages, attempted suicide, the death of his son (to whom he dedicated the previous book), the abuse he witnessed in his childhood home and the abuse he suffered as a child, all referenced in various poems. He has struggled with identity and reinvented identity, embracing the Māori part of his ancestry and te ao Māori. He adopted te reo Māori as his ‘first language’ and speaks it fluently.

ngā whakamatuatanga is compartmentalised into chapters: In Chapter 1, ngā wāhi / places, there are some evocative descriptions of place, personification of nature, as in chapter 3, te ao tūroa / nature, and some politicising. Chapter 2, ngā whanaungatanga / relationships, is a standout with moving and memorable phrases and images in the zephyr and note to a dead son. Then there are poems about his father, which are quite disturbing. And others with relationship themes of tenderness and estrangement. Chapter 5, ngā toikupu /poetry, is interesting for its passion and wit. Chapter 6, te raro / the underworld, finishes with ambiguous contemplations of death. Rapatahana writes in a variety of different genres but it is poetry where he excels.



Many Worlds

Book Review
The Great Outdoors, and other stories
by John Carstensen (Austin Macauley, London, 2019) 172 pp. £8.99
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

great-outdoors-coverJohn Carstensen is a Danish-Canadian Kiwi author, based in Waikato. This is his first collection of short stories, twenty-four in all.

They cover not only a range of topoi, but also a range of global locales from Kalimantan to PR China to WWII Netherlands, given that, I find his more hard-boiled quasi-Crump Aotearoan tales the most riveting and rewarding. The lead-off The Phantom, for example, is excellent, not only because of its sustained nail-on-the-head tone, but also because it nails so well young teenage sexuality and selectivity. When Carstensen writes this well – which he also does in several other Kiwiana stories such as one of his earliest pieces, Rocks, and the titular tale, too – ka nui te pai! To his credit also, the author attempts to broach substantial themes ki te ao Māori, as well as to provide a workable glossary as pertaining.

There is a rather curious dichotomy at times in the overall literary ambience in this collection: a sort of crisscross of the puritanical and the prurient, sometimes in the same piece.  I think the back cover blurb sums up this aspect better than I can, as here –

   Carstensen is a Christian writer, though not so much a writer of Christian stories, as his stories tend to be more worldly, carnal and gritty than would sit comfortably with many Christian readers. However, his writing does explore some challenging Christian themes.

The earthiness, then, meets the ethereal. Occasionally preachy, yet more often understated, ironic and even ambiguous in tone, with a penchant for daubing the dichotomies of human nature, rather than a fully blown paint-by-numbers portrayal. Sometimes funny too; Bluto for example is laugh-out-loud precise with its recognizable veteran schoolteacher who has been incarcerated far too long.

I have little more to add. For me, one or two stories read more as slice-of-life scenarios without an obvious denouement or resolution. More, maybe the pieces would have benefitted by being compiled into sections whereby there is commonality of place, for there is some mental realignment required when we travel from New Zealand bush to piratical Asian seas, if we read sequentially. But these are my own idiosyncratic minor points. This collection is no curate’s egg; rather a tasty repast.

Carstensen has conjured up a very good book of tricks. Congratulations. Kia mau tonu ngā mahi pai.


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