Scoop Review of Books

Questions of Identity

Book Review
This Pākehā Life: an unsettled memoir
by Alison Jones (Bridget Williams Books, 2020) $39.99
Reviewed by Lindsay Shelton

This-Pakeha-Life-HRI have been recommending this book to everyone. And those who have accepted my recommendation are now recommending it to others. Its story may at first seem to be a modestly low-key one, but it quickly proves to have a powerful impact, with resonances that will be personal for every reader.

As Alison Jones writes: “Most Pākehā people seemed to know nothing about Māori history, and they did not know what they did not even know. In my experience, Pākehā people like my father who denigrated Māori things knew nothing about Māori. On the other hand, I too knew next to nothing about Māori though my ignorance was tempered by curiosity and attraction rather than rejection and fear.”

The author, a professor in Te Puna Wānanga at the School of Māori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland, tells a moving personal story that begins with her birth in Cornwall Park Hospital in 1953 — “with no relatives here, my parents and I were alone in New Zealand.” Her parents were immigrants from England, who had arrived the previous year.

From her hospital bed, her mother looked out at One Tree Hill, without knowing that the “volcanic cone, rising high amongst all the other remnant volcanoes in the Auckland area, has another name, another history, and another identity.”

And now, “it officially has a doubled name, joined by a slash. It is Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill. The slash marks an ongoing tension: the mountain’s identity remains unsettled.” And she tells us: “The stories of Maungakiekie and One Tree Hill, the histories that call those places into being, are quite different.”

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Tree of Strangers

Book Review
Tree of Strangers
by Barbara Sumner(Massey University Press, 199 pp.) $35
Reviewed by Gregor Thompson

Tree of StrangersI bumped into a childhood friend recently in a bar in Auckland. Ordinarily, I live in Wellington but I was on my way to Paris to start a new life. The recent surge in Covid-19 cases in continental Europe has necessarily put that plan on the backburner. Lily told me that her mother had written a book and that I ‘ought to read it. Not knowing what to expect, I came out the other side with an internal obligation to share what I had read.

Having previously worked as a journalist, amongst other things Barbara Sumner is an award-winning documentary producer. Sumner is a multi-disciplinary creative and seems to have a habit of perennially popping up. 11 years after her Oscar short-listed 2009 film This Way of Life, Tree of Strangers is Barbara Sumner’s first literary work. Her newly published autobiography is consistent with her previous work in the sense that it is exceptional.

Displayed on the front cover is an image of the author playing alone on a lawn, presumably the backyard of one of her numerous childhood homes. The photo was taken by her adopted father when she was three years old, it conveys an impression of resolute loneliness. Perhaps the perfect portrayal of Sumner’s fascinating life.

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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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