Letters – Issue 37

Checking the coordinates

Professor Fairburn has written a thoughtful and careful review of the New Zealand Historical Atlas (August 1988 issue). It’s not practicable to respond to everything he wrote but comment on five main points seems worthwhile.

1: Rejection of the classical tradition of the Atlas

Professor Fairburn reckons the Atlas has abandoned a so-called classical tradition of historical atlas presentation for something which has not worked, namely a jumble of text and images. In fact, early atlases were shaped by constraints of production, with map plates and text prepared quite separately. The plates for the former involved the full range of colours, and also thicker paper, and were prepared by manual cartographers, while the latter were prepared as with any book. The two were only brought together when the text was bound.

The Times Atlas of World History, which Professor Fairburn instances as being in the classical tradition, departed from this, and attracted a good deal of attention at the time it first appeared, in the 1970s, for that reason. By breaking the division between letterpress and maps, it allowed the reader to move readily back and forth between maps and text, as does the New Zealand Atlas.

The Times also explored unusual projections and orientations as a way of making historical points, a technique in fact evident in the “balloon projections” in Harper’s Pictorial History of the [American] Civil War (produced in its immediate aftermath).

Historical Atlases produced in the 1980s built on the Times’ pioneering work, most notably vol 1 of the Historical Atlas of Canada (Toronto, 1987) and National Geographic’s Historical Atlas of the United States (Washington DC, 1988). These both went further than the Times in breaking down the division between text and graphics, and indeed the NZHA has not gone significantly further than they.

2: Confusion about target audience

Did we dumb down and make it too clever at the same time? We aimed at a balance between making something accessible and not making it too simple, keeping in mind that an atlas like this would be used by many different people for many different purposes. Thus the caption problem Fairburn discusses (“verbal descriptions bleached of empirical content and conceptual precision”) arose from a decision that every graphic would have a caption, to help the novice reader. Other devices – the use of standard deviations, for instance – assumed that there would also be sophisticated readers.

3: Imbalance in the selection of subject matter

Is 34 out of 100 plates dealing entirely or primarily with Maori history and race relations too many? Those 34 plates can hardly be treated as a homogenous group, covering as they do an enormous range of time, topics and approaches – a picture of a neolithic society drawn from archaeological knowledge, a presentation of how Maori oral tradition named and retained the landscape, a record of the great variety of encounters between non-Maori and Maori. Quite apart from their informative value to New Zealand readers, scholars and the reading public elsewhere in the world would expect a New Zealand historical atlas to tackle these subjects, given the interest in the Polynesian as well as the European history of the country. They are also all subjects particularly suited to cartographic treatment.

4: Interpretation

Professor Fairburn refers to a “curious disclaimer” in the preface that the Atlas is not primarily intended for reference purposes but as an “interpretation” of New Zealand’s past. Perhaps the choice of word was infelicitous but the point stands. Our judgement was that people can have very particular expectations of atlases – they expect them, like dictionaries and encyclopedias, to be volumes in which you can “look something up”: “Which year was Tauranga established?” “How many sheep in the North Island in 1911?” The Atlas does not answer many of these kinds of questions: it is not designed to, hence the disclaimer.

And there is interpretation. Throughout the Atlas material processes – changes in population, production, markets, technology and incomes – provide an underpinning. Such factors offer an excellent starting point to explaining geographical change over time – for instance, in the “Dominion” section the impact of dairy and frozen meat industries (plates 60 and 61), Wellington’s emergence as a financial centre (66), the development of sport and leisure (71) and the decline of country townships (90).

5: Capacity of visual images to convey information

In his summary paragraph Professor Fairburn argues that the Atlas’ “problems” tell us that “visual images are inherently incapable of communicating complex historical processes and arguments”. Leavin-g aside th fact that in some instances (for example, plate 90) he would appear to think otherwise, the question remains whether that is the goal of the Atlas. A word used in the preface, but not referred to by Professor Fairburn, is “complementary”. The wealth of recent writing in New Zealand history has not been accompanied by any comparable cartography, partly because of cost. The Atlas provides an invaluable companion to both the writers and the readers of that history, a companion that invites them to look at that history from new angles, and encourages them to explore it further.

Malcolm McKinnon


Words into music

I can easily answer part of Lydia Wevers’ question, “why in fact are there so few historians and so many composers and artists?” in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (December 1998). Sixteen composers are included because they have set New Zealand poems, short stories or, on occasion, a novel. Out of these collaborations have emerged some distinctive works, which have given the texts an independent life and established them as icons in their field. I am thinking particularly of Lilburn’s powerful setting of Alistair Campbell’s Elegy, which is a constant presence when reading the poems today. Likewise, his Sings Harry, to Glover’s sequence, with its masterly matching of music to colloquial text, has introduced countless listeners to the works of a major New Zealand literary figure. Lilburn’s earlier musical framework to Curnow’s Landfall in Unknown Seas (1942) has become a New Zealand “classic”, if one dares use the word. And I would add Lilburn’s evocative setting of Robin Hyde’s “Journey from New Zealand” in the choral work Prodigal Country (1940), still a greatly undervalued work.

I could list many more important collaborations,
such as David Farquhar’s Bells in their Seasons (Curnow, Fairburn, Glover etc), Gillian Whitehead, Jenny
McLeod, Lyell Cresswell, Christopher Blake and Edwin Carr. New Zealand composers do not “use New Zealand literary texts in some way”, but respond imaginatively to the essence of a work that has attracted and usually compelled them.

John Mansfield Thomson


The expert commentator

I approached Brian Easton’s review of Tim Hazledine’s book Taking New Zealand Seriously: the Economics of Decency (December 1998) with some eagerness, having heard positive comment from friends. Not being an enthusiastic reader of books on economics, I hoped it might save me the bother. Not so. I ended up having read much more about what Easton thinks than what Hazledine does. But worse than that, much of it I found impenetrable, and the issue I want to take up is that of the expert commentator.

So much of the review is laboured expertise, but when it comes to whether there is such a thing as social capital – which involves the related question of whether there is a collective psyche or society of thought – the expert is none other than Margaret Thatcher with her “there is no such thing as society”. I doubt if the most devoted Thatcherite would regard her as an expert on psychology, but here she is presented as such, and the heavy expertise of the rest of the review is in striking contrast.

Of course, anyone can be an expert on psychology, as they can on economics (having been in a psychological discipline, I know it well); and the two disciplines have something else in common: they both use jargon to hide their deficiencies, as – I would suggest – do all insecure disciplines. I feel, however, that the time has come to challenge this more seriously. I suggest that if discourse is not penetrable to the interested person of good intelligence, then it should not be in the public domain. Let us away with the pretence. Let there be low tolerance for the impenetrably technical. Let the experts keep that for talking amongst themselves.

Before this challenge Easton’s review fails badly, which I think is particularly reprehensible when the author of the book has attempted to be accessible to the public, and  – from what I have heard  – has been so. I will judge for myself when I have read the book – stronger resolve to do so being the one good thing to come out of the review for me.

Could I also urge New Zealand Books to take a stronger line on penetrability of expert comment?

Kenneth Bragan


Publishers’ lapses

I was disappointed with Kathryn Walls’s review of Diane Hebley’s The Power of Place in your October 1998 issue. As an editor, I find her criticism of the publisher, University of Otago Press, pointless and superfluous: “Most people writing a study as extensive as Hebley’s are going to be guilty of some stylistic and logical lapses, but one would expect these to have been eliminated by an editor, particularly when the publisher is a university press.”

What a load of tosh. What difference would it make if the publisher had been a non-university press? Is Walls implying that only academic publishers are able to eradicate mistakes from books? No matter how hard editors/publishers try, there will always be the odd error or “lapse”, but this does not imply that a publisher/editor is incompetent. I sympathise with the publishers, especially when they are having to edit several books in one month and work long hours for little financial reward. Walls might like to think more carefully about the job of an editor before criticising them in this manner.

Mark Pirie

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