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Simon Winchester. Photo/Getty Images

Simon Winchester: But why is this land your land?

The WORD Christchurch-bound bestselling history writer is also in New Zealand to research his next work – a history of land ownership.

When Simon Winchester returns to New Zealand at the end of this month, he’s not just coming to talk books. He will be doing that at WORD Christchurch, though, and he has a lot of them to talk about. His latest, Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, is by our count his 23rd work of non-fiction.

He is also coming here to work on his 24th. It has the working title Land Fever: The Struggle for Possession of the Surface of the Earth. The idea for it came when Winchester was asked by environmental scientists if they could use his New England property to take some satellite measurements relating to soil and plant moisture. Fascinated by their study, he agreed, but it inspired one of those small questions that can lead to a very big book.

“It just suddenly came home to me that it’s bizarre that any individual human can own part of this planet. So, I decided to have a look at it and at how it’s done, how land has been owned in history, what people have done with it, how they’ve argued about it, confiscated it, stolen it.”

To get a sense of New Zealand’s fraught history in the area, he’ll be talking to Māori Land Court chief judge and Waitangi Tribunal chairperson Wilson Isaac, as well as various academics. Aotearoa didn’t feature much in his 2015 book, Pacific: The Ocean of the Future. This time, we may get a whole chapter, he says.

“I may come out of it looking very foolish, but it seems to me that New Zealand is taking the most constructive approach to land reform. Much more so, obviously, than America with the Native Americans and much more so than the Australians with the Aboriginals. I think everything that’s going on in New Zealand is really sort of cutting edge. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. I’m only going to be there a week, but I daresay I’ll manage to get a flavour of it, if not all the details.”

A few days after the Listener talks to Winchester, the Ihumātao occupation hits the headlines. He’s aware of it when we send him an email suggesting he could hang a left at Auckland Airport to further his research.

“It seems as though my trip is happily timed,” he replies.

Seventy-four-year-old Simon Winchester (OBE) has been a journalist for five decades and a bestselling author of highly approachable histories about daunting topics for much of that time. He still has a newspaper job of sorts. He’s a columnist and occasional reporter for the Sandisfield Times, the 11-issues-a-year non-profit journal he founded in the New England town that has been his home for 18 years.

“Once in a while, there’s a real news story here – usually a fire – and I race down to cover it and I won’t brook any competition. I’m so excited. It’s my old self and I love it so,” says the writer who covered Bloody Sunday and Watergate for the Guardian, and the Falklands War, which got him locked up in an Argentinian prison, for the Times. “I get enormous pleasure when there’s a real news story in this little village of ours.” No, his hamlet is not a big place.

“Hey Google, how many people live in Sandisfield, Massachusetts?” Winchester asks in the converted barn that is his office. “The population of Sandisfield was 873 in 2019,” replies his Google Home Mini, a new gift from one of his children. “Life is going to be a lot easier if I can just talk to it whenever I get stuck,” he says, laughing.

Considering the amount of research in Winchester’s books, you may wonder how long the device will last. His early works were largely reporting memoirs. Based in Hong Kong for 12 years, his focus was on Asia and the Pacific Rim with books about his adventures in South Korea and China. With the Hong Kong handover in 1997, he shifted to New York and became a dual UK-US citizen. In 1998 came The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words, his account of how retired American Civil War army doctor William Chester Minor became a major contributor to the first Oxford English Dictionary, all while incarcerated in an English lunatic asylum. When it first came out, the story of philology, murder, schizophrenia and genital mutilation (Minor amputated his penis) somehow became an international bestseller.

The book did okay in Britain on release. It had arrived in the wake of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, which had given publishing houses new enthusiasm for books about obscure figures and topics from science and history written with novelistic elegance.

But Surgeon took off in the US, and it was helped by a series of fortunate events. Already on to his next project, Winchester was researching American Arctic explorer Adolphus Greely (he later figured in the writer’s 2005 book about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) by sledding his way across Ellesmere Island at the top of Canada. He got a radio message from his publishers: could you please fly back to have lunch with a New York Times writer who likes your book? A ski-plane was duly chartered. Lunch was had. He flew back north. Months later, the feature finally ran on Labor Day in the US, a holiday when usually no one reads the paper. Except in New York it rained. Many of those folks who read the Times then went on hot new website Amazon and bought a copy. It stayed on the NYT bestseller list for 53 weeks.

That’s an abbreviated version of the story Winchester tells, possibly not for the first time, over an entertaining 10 or so minutes. He concludes with the summary that Surgeon was his lifeboat out of journalism and allowed him to concentrate on writing books full-time.

Winchester speaking at an event in New York in March. Photo/Getty Images
It eventually became a film, too, under the book’s US title, The Professor and the Madman, after Mel Gibson bought the rights soon after publication. As well as Gibson, the film starred Sean Penn as Minor. After filming in Ireland in 2016, it got tied up in a legal stoush between Gibson’s production company and the film’s financiers. The movie limped out unloved and unheralded earlier this year. Winchester first saw it somewhere over Nebraska on a flight to California. “It’s not bad, but it could have been so much better.

“I had the highest hopes. I thought, ‘My God, they’ve assembled this wonderful marquee cast for this funny little book I wrote.’ Then it all collapsed in a welter of litigation and massive egomaniacal cockfights. Still, the book continues to live on even though the film will die a death.”

The bestseller also brought with it a problem. Not what to do next. But will it sell?

“You’re going to quite rightly say this is very much a First World problem, but it did put me under pressure to write bestsellers, because those early books, after The Surgeon of Crowthorne, were all – and I’m certainly not complaining – bestsellers. So, then the editors or the publishers would say, if I came up with an idea that fascinated me, ‘Well, is this going to be a bestseller?’ And, if it didn’t seem to them to be likely to be a bestseller, they would say, ‘No, come up with something better.’ I think I would write a far better book if I was allowed to write what I wanted, rather than what the marketing people want.”

Post-Surgeon, Winchester tapped his pre-journalism study and work as a geologist for books on the Krakatoa eruption, the San Francisco earthquake and pioneering English geologist William Smith, before widening his horizons even further with biographies of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, among other works.

Last year’s hop-skip-and-jump through two centuries of precision engineering, Exactly, was Winchester at his expansive best. There was his ability to bend technical jargon into flowing prose and boil down topics, such as the history of the jet engine, into 40 pages of human endeavour and peril. As he’s done before, he occasionally injected himself into proceedings. The book’s prologue recalls Winchester’s fascination as a boy when his precision-engineer father brought home a set of gauge blocks – metal measuring tiles rendered so smooth they stick together non-magnetically.

A chapter on the development of global positioning systems starts in 1967 with his account of being a young petroleum geologist in charge of placing a 9000-tonne oil rig on an exact spot in the North Sea. He noted that dropping the rig 60m from the target was considered a good effort in those pre-GPS times.

“With the book on precision, at first, it was just an idea to write a book about this concept. But then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I did this and I did that and they are legitimate to put in the book, so why not?’ Whether it devalues the book and makes it a little trivial by putting yourself into it, I’m not sure. It’s something that I think about a lot and so I try not to be too jokey about it.”

Winchester says that it was actually his editor who suggested that something about his father would be a better beginning than the one he had planned – a visit to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which first detected the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

But otherwise, he says, he’s not the sort of writer who needs much input from those who publish his books. “This is going to sound terribly conceited, but I don’t require an awful lot of editing. But one of my failings is I often take quite a lot of throat clearing, as they say, to get to the lede. People say, ‘Come on. Get to the heart of the story more rapidly, will you?’ So, that aside, once I’m into telling this story, it seems to hum along quite happily. I think that’s a consequence of having worked on newspapers for so long.”

Winchester starts writing the new book on November 1. He has to deliver it by April 30. He’ll divide the number of days by the required word count and give himself a daily goal. In writing mode, he’s up at 5.30am polishing the previous day’s output, having breakfast with his wife at 8am, then writing until 4.30pm, before a run, getting the research materials for the next day ready, eating dinner and forgetting about the book until the next day. And repeat.

“Orwell is my guide in all these things. I have a complete set of Orwell to hand and if I think, ‘Oh, my God, this is getting a bit purple,’ I turn to him and I just hit the delete key. Quite a lot.”

His George Orwell admiration extends to naming his property Barnhill Farm in homage to the remote spot on the island of Jura where 1984 was written. As a student geologist, Winchester lived in a croft on another Hebridean island, Raasay, when his Oxford geology degree required that he map the minerals of six square miles somewhere in the British Isles.

“It was incredibly cold and I wasn’t allowed to go out with my hammer on the sabbath because the good Lord wouldn’t approve. But, nonetheless, I produced not a bad geological map.”

Returning 50 or so years later might give him the sort of personal beginning his editor will like. He’s thinking of heading to Scotland more permanently because of what he sees as the likelihood of a second Trump term along with what his Japanese-American wife, Setsuko Sato, is now facing in the US. “She was pretty severely insulted in the street the other day. ‘Go back to your own country, go back to China,’ is what they say.” He used to go climbing in Scotland, so it appeals.

First, though, he has a small mountain of research to conquer and another avalanche of words to unleash. “I’m [nearly] 75. So, I’ve got another 20 years, if I’m lucky, to write and I think the kind of books I write are becoming less and less fashionable, but I can live with that.”

An Evening with Simon Winchester with Kim Hill, WORD Christchurch, August 31.

This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.