Write like the wind

by Denis Welch / 29 December, 2007
Recent local books.

Our national capacity to talk about ourselves - in print, anyway - never ceases to astound. Memoirs, autobiographies, family histories keep pouring off the presses. Given our semi-articulacy in public, this suggests an ingrained comfort with the written word that can perhaps be traced back genetically to the letter-writing so essential to communication, indeed survival, in 19th-century Aotearoa.

The liveliest and best-written of the five personal stories under consideration here is On the Wings of Mercury: The Lorraine Moller Story (Longacre, $39.99). This is probably the frankest autobiography ever written by a New Zealand sportsperson. Marathon-runner Moller talks as freely and engagingly about her sex life as her athletics career; and she pulls no punches when it comes to her fellow runners. Let's just say that Anne Audain ("Queen Anne") doesn't come out of this book at all well.

The name David Yerex is always a guarantee of reliable, readable prose. Author of many books, mostly about farming and rural matters, Yerex has now written Word Imperfect (Fraser Books, $30), a memoir of his long career as a journalist (including a stint on the Listener). It's a life as rich as any, well worth sharing; and if you've ever wondered about the name Yerex, it turns out to be an Englishisation of Jurckse.

Colin Amery's a real square peg in a round hole: one of those people always slightly at odds with society. A former hippie who dabbled in the occult, he even went looking for the lost city of Atlantis before becoming, improbably, a criminal lawyer in Auckland, where he has often taken on controversial cases. His book Always the Outsider (Hazard, $35.99) is not a bad read but very long and printed in small unfriendly type.

Two biographies now. The prolific Alison Ballance adds another valuable chapter to the history of wildlife conservation with Don Merton: The Man Who Saved the Black Robin (Reed, $59.99), though the cover confusingly shows us Merton with a kakapo. He was instrumental, however, in ensuring the survival of both kakapo and black robin through the most painstaking, fiddly nursing and nourishment of tiny fledglings. Brings a whole new dimension to the term chick lit.

Another busy author, Dianne Haworth, is no stylist, but she has given us useful books on prominent Kiwis as diverse as Lance O'Sulllivan and Freda Stark. Her Give a Man a Horse: The Remarkable Story of Sir Patrick Hogan (HarperCollins, $59.99) is probably more for the horse-lover than the general reader, but it does have the Queen, commenting on the number of mares served by champion sire Sir Tristram, saying saucily to Hogan, "Well, it's not done him any harm."

Peter Graham is onto a good thing. The files of old newspapers are thick with accounts of sensational court cases now often forgotten, and many a book could be made out of them. A former lawyer himself, Graham has scoured the archives for his book Vile Crimes: The Timaru Poisonings (Canterbury University Press, $29.50); the result is a rollicking good read about a case that gripped the country in 1886. You'll never take tartar emetic again after this.

As you might have suspected, anarchism is a "much neglected anti-authoritarian leftist current" in this country's history. So says Rabble Rousers and Merry Pranksters (Katipo Books & Irrecuperable Press, $30 from http://katipo.net.nz), whose author, Toby Boraman, sets out to remedy that lack with this zippy "History of Anarchism in Aotearoa/New Zealand from the Mid-1950s to the Early 1980s". It also functions as a loose history of the wilder shores of left-wing politics in an era when such things existed, let alone mattered.

From anarchism to the Jaycees is a bit of a leap, but such is the joy of books. The mysteries of this once-influential organisation, now sadly in decline, are explained by historians Graham & Susan Butterworth in Jaycee: Developers of People, Builders of Communities (Ngaio Press, $49.95), but you'd have to be a devotee to plunge into these solid, worthy pages. It does throw light, however, on the voluntary community activity subculture that once flourished like an ancient civilisation now almost buried beneath shrines to Mammon.

Similarly, Banks Peninsula: Cradle of Canterbury by Gordon Ogilvie (Phillips & King, $59.99), while packed with historical minutiae, is unlikely to fly off the shelves at Whitcoulls any time soon. The columns are wide and the reader may have difficulty crossing over.

If you have a family connection to the Peninsula, however, you're bound to find yourself in here somewhere.

Wira Gardiner's little book Haka (Hodder Moa, $19.99) is a damned good introduction to the subject from its origins to its modern variations. Attractively designed, and not much more than pocket size, it's one of the first in a series called "Unique NZ" by the publisher. "The skill to quiver the fingers and the elasticity of the protruding tongue," wrote Sir Peter Buck 60 years ago, "seem to decrease with the ratio of increase in European education and culture" - but how wrong he was, as Gardiner happily confirms.

Finally, some Real Gold (Auckland University Press, $49.99). In this handsome book, subtitled "Treasures of Auckland City Libraries", polymath Iain Sharp roams rewardingly through the libraries' special collections, finding, among many taonga, old scrapbooks, letters, maps, paintings, photographs and of course rare books, such as first editions of Dickens's Little Dorrit and the Lyrical Ballads (1798) by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Marvellously, there is a letter in King Tawhiao's own hand to Sir George Grey near the end of both men's lives, with the beautiful seal the Maori King used to secure his letters. This, and all other items, are gorgeously photographed by Haruhiko Sameshima. Alas, these things are not easy for library users to see, but Auckland City Libraries hopes the book itself will serve as a "permanent kind of exhibition".

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