Revision and revisionism, Philip Temple

Mr Explorer Douglas
John Pascoe’s New Zealand classic revised by Graham Langton
Canterbury University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 908812 95 7

For bushmen, trampers and mountaineers, the exploits and writings of 19th century explorer Charlie Douglas have become folkloric. Enduring days of rain in South Westland is somehow made easier by recalling Douglas’ advice that “It’s no use tapping the glass, man. The barometer doesn’t affect the weather much on the Coast”. And a sharp antidote to bush sentimentality is his dry summation that “Altogether the kiwi, excep in a museum as one of the last of the pre-Adamites, is of neither use nor ornament. His intellegence is on about the same level as a spider …” (sic).

Charles Edward Douglas (1840-1916), packman, bushman, prospector and surveyor, spent almost 40 years exploring the valleys and passes of South Westland. He collected information about the country’s natural history that has proved invaluable to our current understanding of vanished or rare species. His opinions on conservation were a century ahead of his time. He made reconnaissance surveys of the most difficult country in New Zealand, usually alone save for a trusty dog, providing vital leads for triangulation of the country by theodolite. Douglas’s work in this area was so valuable that he was accorded the official title of “Explorer” by the survey department. The drawings he brought back from his hazardous journeys, and the paintings he later worked up from them, count him as a “primitive” of some note in 19th century landscape art. His name and place in that grand impenetrable landscape, where he was of both “use and ornament”, is memorialised in a 3000-metre peak, a glacier and a river.

We would not have learned so much about Charlie Douglas had it not been for the devotion of his spiritual amanuensis, John Dobrée Pascoe (1908-1972). Pascoe became something of a legend in his own right, one of those amateur Canterbury mountaineers who, during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, helped complete the exploration of the highest and most remote corners of the Southern Alps. Alone amongst that fraternity, Pascoe had talents as a writer and photographer, and these first came to fruition in his book Unclimbed New Zealand. For a colonial to be published in London in 1939 was an event in itself, but the book was also the first to give expression to the character of homegrown, pioneer mountaineering in the South Island back country during the sugarbag years. This book and its successors by Pascoe were the foundation of a genuinely New Zealand mountaineering literature.

Charlie Douglas was ten years dead when Pascoe began climbing but Douglas’ reputation lingered and he was a source of inspiration for the young mountain explorer. In the mid-1930s, Pascoe began a 20-year task of finding and bringing the Douglas papers together, and of gathering biographical information, which culminated in the publication of his Mr Explorer Douglas in 1957. It became an instant classic, reprinted that same year and again in 1969. Out of print since Pascoe’s death, the book’s lasting merit has brought about its reissue in a new edition, revised by historian Graham Langton.

Like the first edition, the new book is divided into one-third Douglas biography and two-thirds annotated Douglas writings – letters, journals and reports. Like Pascoe, Langton has given Douglas the devoted attention he deserves. He has left Pascoe’s selection of the writings virtually intact, trimming “Birds of South Westland” but adding the unpublished Harris letters and rearranging the material into a chronological order. Throughout the book, he has made a first-class job of correcting quotes, sources and information and adding new material that both fills gaps and lends new perspectives on Douglas’ work and life. Two examples – Langton gives a much fuller account than Pascoe of Maori settlement of the West Coast; and he has accurately clarified Douglas’ relationship with the Ward family and his involvement with their farm at Paringa. There are few errors that I can detect, save one major omission from “Further Reading” which may have caused Langton to miss the fact that one of Douglas’ indispensable dogs has been commemorated in Mount Betsey Jane, at the head of the Waiatoto.

However, on reading through Langton’s revision of Pascoe’s biography, one becomes aware, with increasing alarm, that he has not only corrected fact and quote but has also corrected and bowdlerised Pascoe’s narrative style with a magisterial, politically correct red pen. For example, “Man” has been replaced by “people”; Pascoe’s comments on Maori blushingly banished; and we are tediously reminded of how important Douglas was in what begins to amount to a “Good News Bible” version of Mr Explorer Douglas.

Unforgivably, Langton has removed Pascoe from Pascoe, squelched the unmistakable, idiosyncratic style that marked all Pascoe books from Unclimbed New Zealand on. One example will suffice. Pascoe wrote: “Sing praises to these pioneers who for uncertain reward and against routine dangers made the first trips through gorges and over ranges. Feel sadness that they left no journals to enrich our frontier literature …” Langton has replaced this typical rhetorical flourish with: “These pioneers deserve praise. For uncertain reward and in the face of dangers that became routine, they made the first trips through gorges and over ranges. Sadly, they left no journals …”

Consistently – whether in style or self-reference to his own relevant mountain journeys – Pascoe has been reduced to a kind of extended footnote when, given his dedication to the work of Douglas – and his own role in the history of New Zealand mountain exploration – a new edition of Mr Explorer Douglas should have included at least a two- or three-page biographical note. Pascoe’s own narrative would have been better served by complementary chapter appendices, same-page footnotes and discrete panels, rather than a wholesale revisionist treatment. In a similar way, while an excellent selection of Douglas-related photographs and drawings has been included, Pascoe’s own photographs and supporting selection have been banished in favour of indifferent modern colour photographs.

As a reference for Douglas, the Langton version of Mr Explorer Douglas is the superior book. But if you would gain a measure of the style, character and times of the man who first gave us Douglas, then you must return to Pascoe who was, if nothing else, original.


Philip Temple is a Dunedin writer who has himself explored New Zealand’s mountains.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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