Localising the global, George Griffiths

From Tamaki-makau-rau to Auckland
R C J Stone
Auckland University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 1869402596

Rolling Thunder: the Spirit of Karekare
Bob Harvey
Exisle Publishing, $39.95,
ISBN 0908988176

Remembering Godley: a Portrait of Canterbury’s Founder
ed  Mark Stocker
Hazard Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1877270032

The Far Downers: the People and History of Haast and Jackson Bay
Julia Bradshaw
University of Otago Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1877276073

Four excellent books: I recommend them all.  Russell Stone, after a career specialising in Pakeha Auckland business history, has bravely moved into Maori history from a standing start. It’s a difficult field. Faced with the imprecision of pre-European Maori history – especially if the region is unfamiliar – the reader longs for a chronological list of kings and queens (however discredited that may be) to provide fixed moorings. Stone may not wear the names and the detailed incidents of his new field of inquiry quite as comfortably as his favourite old clothes, but he has written a thorough and informative account – especially in setting the scene for the arrival of the Europeans, the acquisition of land and the siting of Hobson’s seat of government.

Bob Harvey’s Rolling Thunder provides a non-academic antithesis, moving exuberantly across such diverse subjects as Maori battles, pioneer logging and farming, the development of popular surfing, natural history (including an unexpected section on meiofauna), artistic responses to the atmosphere of Karekare, and even the moralities of beach life down the ages. Compared with the conventional and rather tame illustrations in Stone, those in Harvey are a riot of sepia and colour.

Taking Woolner’s statue of Godley as a starting-point, Mark Stocker’s book draws on several well-written individual portraits – Jean Garner’s excellent study of Charlotte hardly requiring its light feminist varnish – which together offer a fresh appreciation of the progressive-conservative ratio in Godley’s personality. Good readable essays and a pleasant range of illustration.

And however well we may have imagined the hardships facing pioneers in the remoteness of southern Westland, the realities recounted by the nine men and women interviewed in Julia Bradshaw’s account of Okura and Jackson Bay have a vividness that no generalised imagination can match.

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A most satisfying range of reading, therefore. But do they meet the editorial suggestion that, in dealing with them as a group, the review should comment generally on the writing of local history? I’m sure the authors wouldn’t think so. Stone, in his foreword, specifically warns it would be a mistake “to look on this book as an exercise in local history”. Harvey, the colourful mayor of Waitakere, would hate to have his book compared to a typically dry local body chronicle. Stocker would protest that Remembering Godley is essentially a biography, and Bradshaw, that the life-breath of The Far Downers is its oral history.

Such reactions, however, would say much more about the devaluation of the phrase “local history” than their own work, for the term has drifted too far away from the strict and valid meaning of its components. That word “local”, in particular, is too often used merely to throw a single-strand electric fence around an arbitrary area of inspection. The resulting books might be better termed “chronicles of small batches of political animals”. They could be anywhere.

Ninety-four years have passed since Britain’s first fellowship in local history was offered at Reading; 80 since University College, London, appointed a Reader in that field; and 50 since Herbert Finberg was appointed by Leicester to head the first permanent university department of local history. In his 1952 introductory lecture, Finberg acknowledged that most critics considered conscientious local histories unacceptably dull. “There are no classics in this field,” he added, “no local histories which are esteemed as masterpieces …”

That’s certainly no longer true, for we have only to look at Le Roy Ladurie’s works, Montaillou and Carnival in Romans, to see what can be achieved. Indeed, if we look at local studies in a broader sense it wasn’t even true in 1952. We may baulk at including such essentially literary portraits as Daudet’s Tartarin de Tarascon, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Or the highly localised scientific masterpieces of the entomologist Fabre. But no local historian with any vision could find better models than Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, published in  1789, or the series of sketches in the five volumes of Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village, between 1820 and 1832. The fact that such great works don’t even get a passing mention in any discussion of the subject is itself an indication of the blinkered vision with which local history is too often approached.

Finberg at least got the meaning of “history” right. “History, as we all know,” he said, “is a Greek word meaning inquiry.” That’s close enough. Older etymological references in the best dictionaries draw on such terms as “knowing”, “learning by inquiry”, “a narration”. Natural history is still thought of in such terms. Only in later centuries did the definition of “history” come to be interpreted as “the [dead] past” – our minds silently inserting that missing word.

But there are no such things as “past” or “death” in the presentation of history. History is simply a sequence of present days, each day with its own full quota of vitality. If, in recounting a sequence of previous events, we do not fully convey that essential reality, we have failed the requirements of history. And too much local history fails that requirement lamentably. That’s why Harvey’s recollected surfing culture at Karekare makes such good history: and why the people interviewed by Bradshaw provide an essentially accurate picture of South Westland 50 to 70 years ago.

It’s no surprise that the history that attracts teenagers these days is military history – NOT because it is bloodthirsty but because it’s one of the few branches of history which, through the sequential presentation of campaigns and battles, maintains a level of daily immediacy.

“Between the idea / And the reality,” T S Eliot wrote, “Falls the Shadow”. How are we to prevent the Shadow of the Past coming between the Reality of another age and our historical Idea of it? Certainly not by using as a starting point the concept that those who have preceded us are dead. If any branch of history is to illuminate the human condition, it should be local history, where we can examine topics of manageable size in microscopic detail, and bring recorded emotional response into the equation. Far too many local historians throw away this opportunity by concentrating almost exclusively on political and organisational aspects that dominate people’s conscious thoughts and are repetitively familiar.

The locus element is even more important. The Romans, recognising that places have their own individuality, expressed the concept in the phrase genius loci, used 2000 years ago by such writers as Virgil, Livy and Horace. Dictionaries define it as “the guardian spirit, the special atmosphere of a particular place”, implying a touch of mysticism. But the contributing elements can be readily defined quite logically as long as we assess them stereoscopically – one eye driven by the active survival processes that govern 90% of our lives; the other programmed by the receptive instincts that lie semi-dormant within us.

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Of the many physical factors that impinge on a locality’s identity, it is sufficient here to mention four: locality, landscape forms, soil/water qualities and climate/weather.

A Vade-Mecum published for Dunedin’s 1889-90 Exhibition led off its description of the city by giving its latitude, 45˚ 52’ 11’’, and longitude, 170 ˚ 31’ 11’’. Few local historians properly define their district’s location. They assume a local readership for whom such information would be superfluous. None of the maps in today’s books gives either latitude or longitude. Remembering Godley, though the book relates almost as much to the founding of a city as it does to its founder, carries no map at all.

Human lives differ enormously between high and low latitudes, and marginally even in the middle ranges. Many activities are decided by the hours of sunlight defined by location and further influenced by the more flexible isotherms which accompany the latitudes. Atlases commonly show isotherms for wheat, cotton and other important staples. But what is global is also local: the Maori were unable to grow kumara south of Banks Peninsula. What is the southern boundary isotherm for good baking wheat? Or the northern boundary for edible swedes? At what time did summer darkness fall for night manoeuvres on the Auckland isthmus? When Stone tells us that Tamaki Maori could sometimes grow four crops a season, we better understand why the competition for occupation of the Maori isthmus is mirrored by Auckland’s magnetic pull today.

We take it for granted that the Russian steppes produce in their writers and inhabitants certain views and philosophies. That countries like Yugoslavia have been bedevilled by their mountainous internal divisions. Practical living and the human spirit are always influenced by such factors, and the inference must be that all landforms influence their inhabitants, even though the effects may often be difficult to measure.

Of course Stone’s book is a “history of place”. He himself describes Tamaki “as a nodal point where canoe transport converged”. Not only did the isthmus act as a crowded channel for all intertribal flow, but the complex land-sea ratios around the double harbours, with their portages, their fishing and planting rights, governed the calculations of all iwi in the region.

Christchurch, passed over by the Scots as too flat and open for crofting, suited the English better. Godley, arriving at Lyttelton in April 1850, “remained for a long time absorbed in contemplation”, but we learn relatively little about his interaction with the unfamiliar Canterbury landscape.

Dunedin people, hemmed in by hills, frequent cloud and a minimal land horizon, undoubtedly have a less expansive view of the world than Aucklanders, who can now uninterruptedly see some 50 kilometres or so from their rotating tower. The Far Downers gives us sharp insights into the spirit of the landscape south of Haast; while in Harvey’s Rolling Thunder, the spiritual reaction of humans to the majestic surf and its rugged coastal surrounds dominates his whole book – so much so that it’s only in passing we learn that the black Karekare sand accelerates the rate of sunburn.

Good “locus history” needs both fact and spirit. Dan Davin, in Cliffs of Fall, transformed South Invercargill’s Heidelberg Rise from childish memory into “the Faraway Hill” where he and his brother looked out over the flat town to mountains “like a promise written in blue on the horizon”. Heidelberg Rise, its slopes no longer golden with gorse, is only 22 metres above sea level …

Rural histories usually offer some general description of land and soil, but the inclusion of such information is by no means universal, and the coverage often skimpy. Patricia Wilson’s Fresh Plains of Edendale, written 40 years ago, is one that does describe how property written off in 1879 as the sourest land in the NZ & Australian Land Company’s portfolio, became transformed by lime into prize-winning farms. Even now local historians don’t pay enough attention to such things as trace element deficiencies. How many of us recall how “bush sickness”, widespread in sheep and cattle, was sheeted home to cobalt deficiency in 1935? Molybdenum, copper and selenium deficiencies have all made an impact; and, of course, the absence of iodine in parts of Otago, Westland, the Canterbury Plains, Marlborough and the North Island caused the scourge of goitre in humans. Historians have an obligation to record matters so fundamentally important.

Urban local histories, describing the lives of people largely out of touch with the land, rarely mention soil qualities. Stone provides some information from the Maori period; but Bradshaw, though recording soil inadequacy as a contributing reason to the failure of South Westland settlement, elicited no specific causes in her nine interviews.

Weather and climate have been with us for ever, yet only now are we beginning to appreciate the physical, human and economic effects of such global patterns as the El Nino phenomenon. From both viewpoints of the stereoscope – practical living and subconscious receptivity – local historians treat the effects of climate and weather far too superficially. They rarely, if ever, seriously discuss how a district’s climate impinges on the spirit of its inhabitants. One presumes the surf at Karekare will be warmer than at St Clair, but I didn’t spot any temperature figures in Harvey.

Each locality’s weather has its own personality. Dunedin is essentially a morning city. If a day’s weather is going to change, it commonly begins to do so about 2.30-3.30 p.m.; so people who are slaves to midday Sunday meals, followed by afternoon excursions and the hope of an evening picnic or barbecue are too often disappointed. We all need to know an area’s weather rhythms.

Those slight examples don’t do justice to the broader aspects of the effect of climate on people. Clarence Mills, professor of experimental medicine at the University of Cincinnati, pioneered this field in the 1920s. In his 1940s study, Climate Makes the Man, a chapter on “Climate and Human Reproduction” sets down details probably still unfamiliar to most of us. “Your fertility is highest,” he writes from pre-metric days, “when outdoor temperatures range around 65deg Fahrenheit; conceptions then occur most readily and the offspring are most lusty … As mean summer temperatures climb above 70deg you decline in both fertility and bodily vigour …”  He continues:

Starting at Montreal, fertility hits its peak in midsummer and sinks lowest during the steady cold of winter. In Boston there is a slight reduction during July and August when mean temperatures rise slightly above the 70deg Fahrenheit line, but in Cincinnati this summer drop becomes more definite …  Even more striking reduction is found at Tampa, conceptions being fully a third less during summer heat than during the mild winter coolness.

 

With such fields of research still open to the historians of Auckland, Christchurch and South Westland, why should anyone ever imagine that local history need be dull?

 

George Griffiths is a Dunedin historian and former books editor at the Otago Daily Times.

 

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