Hat-tricks, Geoff Robinson

The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, volume 5 (1941-1960)
Auckland University Press/Department of Internal Affairs, $130.00,
ISBN 1869402243

 

When asked to review this fifth volume of The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, my first reaction was “why me?”; and now that I’m writing it part of me still feels that way. The answer I was given was that as I was neither an academic, nor an historian, nor a contributor, but had “been around a while” and might be expected to have known, or at least had dealings with, some of those profiled in this volume, I might bring a different but authoritative
perspective to a review.

When I still hesitated, it was suggested that I would not be expected to have read all the book, but I might like to choose a theme from the Categories Index and perhaps make some comparisons that way. There are, after all, over 600 pages of relatively small print, and, as in the earlier volumes, around 600 individual potted biographies in the book, so a comprehensive review of them would probably be nearly as long as the volume itself.

The first thing to say is that, contrary to expectations, I am reading it all. The nature of my job is that I breakfast early and alone, and I have found to my surprise and pleasure that I can generally read a couple of entries over my toast and coffee. At present rate of progress and allowing for weekends and holidays, I expect to have finished it some time in June! The print however is small and a magnifying glass, or at least stronger specs, is necessary.

The second thing is that this is not the sort of book that another reviewer, John Leonard, in the Australian Financial Review, had in mind when he wrote,

Biographers … devour the brave hearts of the prey they stalk. Nor would the equally greedy readers of biographies want it any other way – a cannibal feast of family dysfunction, vile apprenticeship, open wounds, big scores, closet secrets, love gone wrong, grief and grudge.

 

This is a volume of potted biographies. It does not purport to be anything else. They are, as Claudia Orange says in her Introduction, “[e]ssays … produced by 432 authors.” They follow a pattern and were presumably written to a brief supplied by the editors. I notice, for example, that generally the female authors place the subject’s mother’s name before the father’s in the essay, and vice versa. Notwithstanding that the subject usually bore the father’s surname – although, again, usually but not always, that changed after marriage. I have the impression that women authors have tended to write about female entries, and male about male. Nothing wrong with that, just an observation.

The entries in this volume first made their mark or flourished in the period 1941 to 1960, which means that a number of them died quite recently. It it also means that reviewing the fifth volume of the Dictionary in isolation, as I have been, can rapidly lead to some misapprehension. Geoffrey Alley is there, his sister Gwen Somerset also. But where I asked is Rewi, the other and arguably more famous sibling? Selection, as Claudia Orange again notes, is not an exact science, but surely he should have been there. Well he is, only in the previously published volume 4, as I discovered in the comprehensive index to all five volumes that is at the back of this one.

The other indexes, the Categories Index (Law and Law Enforcement, Literature and Scholarship, Manufacturing and Trades etc), the Regional Index, the Tribal and Hapu Index, and the Nominal Index which lists all the individuals in the biographies, are valuable, and for the student, vital cross-referencing tools. I guess reviewers don’t feel they have made their mark unless they are able to find a flaw or anomaly, so I’ll mention in passing that Keith Holyoake is categorised as Governor-General, and as Prime Minister, but not as Politician (national). I presume that was an oversight and not a judgement.

Claudia Orange also notes that “[r]eaders will have a sense of familiarity in turning the pages. They will have met or known many of the people in this volume.” That is certainly true, as is her comment that some “will support or contest an author’s assessment, debate fine points of interpretation, and perhaps regret that some detail has been omitted through pressure of space.” What I found more chilling was her comment that “[s]ome might like to reflect on the likelihood of their own inclusion in a future Dictionary.” Do we think of ourselves as holding down a place in history and if we do, will our actions be predicated on that? Somehow I feel that is an idea best left unstated.

2

So to the entries. I find them fascinating. The key event of this period is seen as the Second World War, which undoubtedly affected, shaped and, in some cases, ended the lives of people in this book. But for me it is the picture of the New Zealand in which these people grew up that is fascinating. Most were born before the age of radio and mass communication; they were involved in so many organisations and movements that they were not, they could not be, “couch potatoes”. We see them involved in local issues, joining the WEA, participating in open air meetings, striving to create a brave new world that would be not just different from that of their parents, but better. Whether they were born here, or brought here by their migrating parents, we get a sense of people participating in the forming of a nation, and aware they were doing so. They looked to Britain for approval and often for their higher education and qualifications, but this was their place, and where they wanted to be.

As interesting as the stories, and as likely to attract the casual reader, are the subheadings under each name. “Tailor, spiritualist, herbalist, politician” reads the entry for one William Theophilus Anderton. “Clerk, athlete, military aviator, prisoner of war, politician, sharebroker, sports administrator, community leader” reads another, although I knew him only as Mayor Barnes during the five years I spent in Dunedin. “Ngati Moe, woman of mana, interpreter” reads the entry for Te Heke-rangatira-ki-Nukutaurua Boyd. “Poet, postman, teacher, dramatist, writer, social critic” is the summary for James K Baxter, who, incidentally, with four-and-a-half full columns, has one of the longer entries in the volume.

The blurb points to the diversity of entries – “New Zealanders active in art, architecture, literature, diplomacy, business, sports, science, conservation, music, politics, theatre and Maori Affairs” and some who “ fell foul of society like con-men Murray Roberts and George Horry, murderer Stan Graham and hoaxer Sydney Ross.” One turns to such characters on first taking up the book; you might say one has been directed to them. But I found more interest in the entry for Benyon, Edgar Wilson, magician, juggler, entertainer: the Great Benyon, whose evening show of magic in Ireland in 1939 was called “Bam-Boo-Zalem” and who had letters of encouragement and recommendation from the great magician Chung Ling Soo (W E Robinson) and Harry Lauder. The Great Benyon’s most famous feat was to “spin a billiard cue like a propeller on the tip of another cue held horizontally – something he claimed to have learned from watching Maori stick games.”

Another sense one gets from the entries is of the ferocity with which views were held and positions adopted. To read the entry for Ormond Burton, teacher, soldier, war historian, pacifist, Methodist clergyman, writer, or Peter Butler, seaman, trade unionist, communist, local politician, is to glimpse but not necessarily fully comprehend the depth of passion and violence generated by opposing views on great issues. Now that the Berlin Wall has fallen, and communism has almost disappeared from our vocabulary, it is easier to understand the arguments for or against pacifism than those internecine struggles that marked the Marxist/Stalinist, pro Russia/pro China, worker-against-employer-and-government period of our industrial history and the intolerance that
accompanied it.

So I’m working my way slowly through volume 5 of the Dictionary, enjoying the entries, learning more of the history and attitudes of my adopted country, being surprised by the variety of categories that people can be entered under, and wondering how many of them dreamt they might one day be included in a work such as this. And I’m dipping into it also, discovering, as many readers will, amazing things about people I had met wearing one hat, but who enter the dictionary wearing many. People like Sidney Koroneff, whom I met as one of the first women to be ordained priest in the Anglican Church, and who was Vicar of Patea at the time of the freezing works closure. Some might consider this enough in itself to warrant an entry, but the Dictionary testifies that she was also a “French Resistance worker and newspaper managing director”.

I suspect that people who buy this volume alone of the five and who read it or use it – as opposed to having it prominently on the coffee table – will find themselves inexorably drawn to completing the set. I probably would not have read the book had I not been asked to review it. That would have been my loss.

 

Geoff Robinson has co-presented Morning Report for National Radio for many years.

 

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction and Review
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