Gavin McLean: Diverse and shorter reviews

The Great New Zealand Fossil Book: Pictures of Ancient Life in an Evolving Land
Ron Brazier, Ian Keyes and Graeme Stevens,
DSIR Geology and Geophysics, Wellington, 1990, $49.95

On Shaky Ground: a Geological Guide to the Wellington Metropolitan Region
Graeme Stevens,
DSIR Geology and Geophysics, Wellington, 1991, $29.95

Having to mark the 125th anniversary of the New Zealand Geological Survey, 150 years of local palaeontology and the official DSIR contribution to the 1990 celebrations are all worn surprisingly lightly by The Great New Zealand Fossil Book. Indeed, it is a fine example of popular scientific writing that may help lure some students back into the laboratories. The long Latin names are there, of course, but the photographs, maps and large gallery of specially commissioned paintings provide imaginative reconstructions of life in our ancient past that will captivate young and old. From ancient beginnings in Gondwana to the miraculous survival of the tuatara, it is all here in commendably clear and concise prose.

The prolific Stevens is an accomplished popular interpreter of current scientific knowledge. On Shaky Ground begins with a fascinating 36-page summary of our geological past that is a masterpiece of compression. Stevens then takes us on five geological tours of modern Wellington: Wellington-Lower Hutt, Western Hutt Hills, Eastern Hutt Hills, Upper Hutt Valley and Haywards-Paekakariki. Colour photographs, maps and diagrams referenced to modern buildings and recognised topographical features make it easy to follow the processes that have shaped the landscape down through the millennia. The major regret is that he almost ignores the densely populated southern and eastern suburbs.

If either book has shortcomings, it lies with the dated, semi-academic presentation. That A4 format, so dear to scientists, is aesthetically limiting and, in the case of a guidebook, rather impractical. Cost, of course, always has its say, but Ron Brazier’s colour paintings lose much impact in black and white, a loss that the use of spot colour only emphasises. In that one small area, Geoffrey Cox’s recent booklet (Collins) has the edge.


Tragedy at Aramoana
Paul Bensemann,
Cape Catley/ Inprint, Wellington, 1991, $24

Paul Bensemann’s book is one of two rushed out to commemorate the first anniversary of the slaughter at the beautiful entrance to Otago Harbour. It shares the strengths and weaknesses of all such rapid productions. Like any good journalist, Bensemann’s writing has pace: you have no difficulty turning the pages. His text and maps set out clearly the confused movements of those tragic few hours, and his extensive interviews add a human face to the gruesome statistics. Yet he also leaves some questions unanswered. Although he explains the police constraints on the use of firearms, he could have said a lot more on the subject of the élite anti-terrorist squad. Again, although Bensemann spoke widely to friends, neighbours and psychologists to build up a reasonably detailed portrait of David Gray the loner, he cannot explain exactly why he ran amok. Indeed, the true horror of this book is that we have no way of knowing just when the next David Gray will slide over the thin line that separates harmless eccentricity from homicidal mania.



Fall Muster: the Annual Muster on Mt Nicholas Station
Hodder & Stoughton, Auckland, 1990, $14.95

Book number 25 from Hodder’s Men of the Hills takes us on the annual sheep muster on the rugged Mt Nicholas station high above Lake Wakatipu. Of a type that was once the cornerstone of the old Reed’s list, Fall Muster is a classic tale of men and animals against the wild, presented companionably in diary form. Here for a couple of hours the reader may keep company with hard-living, hard-drinking kiwi blokes like ‘The Packer’, and learn that not every horse has the manners of National Velvet. Holden’s many evocative colour photographs of men and mountains (sheep must make awful subjects, as they hardly get a look-in) round out the picture nicely.



Learning on the Farm: the Educational Background and Needs of New Zealand Farmers
Ken Moore,
New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Wellington, 1990, $19.50

This monograph by Christchurch Polytechnic rural tutor Ken Moore presents the results of a survey of 110 farmers in the Canterbury area in 1988. While the problems of the time (high interest rates and drought) and the nature of farming undertaken in that district obviously colours the results, it does confirm that New Zealand farmers continue to place higher emphasis on practical training than on classroom learning and that they have relatively little off-farm time to give to such matters. MAP and rural educators will find much food for thought in this monograph, not least being the responses to questions about the availability and cost of advice. With farm profitability falling and the cost of specialist advice soaring, it will be interesting to see if even the current levels of educational attainment can. be maintained, let alone improved.



Graham Hutchins,
John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1990, $19.95

If you know the pop song from which the title is taken, this slim book is for you. Like Hutchins’ earlier 1960s reminiscences, Tall Half-Backs, Hello-Goodbye takes us back to the days when the Beatles, Dylan and the Beach Boys reigned supreme and every student dropout wanted to emulate them from the safety of country communes. This is a lighthearted look back, not in anger but in embarrassment, best read wearing a paisley shirt and bellbottoms. Masochists may enjoy the bonus treat of lyrics to tracks such as ‘The Deuteronomy Suppositories/Suppositions’.


Gavin McLean is a historian with the Historic Places Trust whose most recent book is ‘Shipwrecks and Maritime Disasters’ (Grantham House).


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Posted in History, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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