Frontier of Dreams: The Story of New Zealand
ed Bronwyn Dalley and Gavin McLean
TVNZ/Hodder Moa, $79.95,
“Another damned, thick, square, book!” We’ve all heard the story about those words spoken by a doltish Duke of Gloucester upon taking from the author a gift copy of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. We’ve heard the story, but we’re not all aware that Edward Gibbon worked as a freelance genius, a writer dependent on no patron. Nor do many of us know that his dense, complex work was an instant and runaway bestseller.
Frontier of Dreams is another damned thick book. Not dense or complex. Not written by a freelance genius. Not likely to be a bestseller. A book under patronage, commissioned and paid for by a television production company. A book blazoning on its front wrap three words in 3-D block caps, like a poster for a 50s Hollywood blockbuster. The block caps are tackily tinted with the blue and red of the little-loved national flag of the New Zealand state: FRONTIER OF DREAMS. A historical-romance bodice-ripper? An apologia for United States foreign policy, funded by the White House? No, a book about the history of Pig Island published piggyback with a television series – a tele-series five years in the making and costing $4.5 million. “It is the most ambitious television documentary series produced in New Zealand in over 20 years,” claim copywriters.
Similar skiting can be heard about the book. “Frontier of Dreams is the most comprehensive single-volume history of New Zealand yet produced, taking our story from Gondwanaland beginnings to the era of cyberspace and MMP,” says the website for the project.
Okay, this book is about a nation known as New Zealand. This book is big. This book is very big! This book is bigger than big!! Weigh it in your hands – those of you who don’t have problems with OOS – and think, wow, big! Flick through its 400-plus pages. What a lot of brightly coloured pics you see. “450 photos, paintings, maps and items of ephemera,” yap the promoters. Timelines open each chapter, supposedly to “set out the key events at a glance”. What if your attention-span is too short, thanks to telly, to get you through more than a few pages of sequential text at a time? For you, folks, the publishers have provided “one- and two-page break-outs”. What glossily white paper. And what mingy little script squeezed into the gaps between the pics.
Who has the book been published for? Not those who earn low incomes, since its retail price of almost $80 is about half the weekly wage for a single adult on an unemployment benefit. Nor has it been published for those who like to carry a book about with them in a briefcase or backpack – it’s far too big and heavy. Clearly it’s meant to be not so much a book for reading as a heritage object, a taonga in whose possession the owner takes pride. So who will buy something which, once bought, is more or less doomed to stay in one room, and very likely, after a brief leafing-through, to be squared tidily on the coffee table for a year or so, before finding its lifelong home on some shelf?
Those most likely to be suckered into shelling out for such a book are not the urban professionals or business suits who belong to the only class comfortably able to afford it, but instead the well-meaning sketchily-schooled mortgage-indebted lesser suburbanites who watch tele-screens inside mass-produced houses whose GVs belong to the lower-middle or upper-lower price band – suburbanites who, upon seeing cathode-rayed ads for the book, will think it not so much a book as an investment, something to buy for the kids, to help them in school and afterwards to hold onto for future generations.
Similar national history heritage projects seem to come thumping off the printing press every generation or so. A series of booklets, sold separately but to be bound into a sort of history encyclopedia, was published by the state in the run-up to the 1940 Centennial. Another series of booklets, marketed the same way, was published in the 1970s and made its intent clear by calling itself New Zealand’s Heritage.
Frontier of Dreams forces us to fight our way through a flaky foreword by two tele-producers before we can hear the voice of the historians. “History is the new black,” is their first sentence. The printed equivalent of a sound bite may seem unpromising as an opening gambit for anything other than an ad for a heritage theme park, yet its silliness is belied by the real introduction that follows. Frontier of Dreams is “a general history of major events, personalities, themes and issues”. The credentials of the authors are spelled out – for a second time, since we’ve already come across grinning colour pics and quick bios of them close to the frontispiece. Well, Ian McGibbon couldn’t quite manage the grin. Themes are outlined, and an angle of approach asserted, intelligently at odds with that flaunting flag on the front wrap: “We have national stories rather than a single national story, and the act of telling our history, like history itself, is a work in progress.”
This sets the tone for the text of the book as a whole. After getting past the hype we find that words are almost always measured, though awkwardly parcelled. Frontier of Dreams proves to be, if you forget the pics, no less and no more than a conventional, competent series of essays by eight historians: Bronwyn Dalley, Gavin McLean, Ian McGibbon, Neill Atkinson, David Green, David Young, Claudia Orange and Jock Phillips. All are or have been employed by the state inside a warren of air-conditioned offices in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Two of these writers – McLean and Dalley – are also the book’s editors.
The book has been planned by a committee, which means that there’s no sustained set of ideas. Chapters are workmanlike, unlinked chunks. Three are written jointly by two authors. Ten are solo essays, written by one author apiece. The approach is broadly chronological. We start with prehistory. Next comes contact between Maori and Pakeha. Next comes early colonial history. And so on. Dalley and McLean conclude with a chapter about society now – labouring under the burden of the risible title “Breaking Free” – whose last sentence, the last sentence of the whole book, is blamelessly bland: “This should pose interesting questions about what it means to be a New Zealander, and what New Zealand may be.”
All essays are referenced with endnotes and a useful bibliography. Maps are nice and clean, though dated in their technique compared with the Bateman Historical Atlas of New Zealand edited by Malcolm McKinnon. The lustre of the book’s pics makes uphill work for those steady plodders, the writers. Words are upstaged over and over again by images. Some have been done to death – we’re so over posters advertising the 1940 Centennial Exhibition – but the publishers are to be thanked for finding and printing in high quality many photographs, paintings, posters and advertisements never yet seen inside the covers of a book.
The book is bicultural in its approach, with the attendant limitation that only Maori and Pakeha – often defined as Maori and British – tend to be seen as the two peoples of New Zealand. “Britain, our other ancestral launching pad,” says the opening paragraph of McLean’s and Young’s joint chapter on prehistory. Polynesia is “our” first ancestral launching pad. Half a million or more Pakeha whose forebears were primarily German, Dutch, Scandinavian or Irish either have no ancestors or else are not among “us”. Nor are the hundreds of thousands whose forebears were Indian or Chinese. Young, portraying Polynesian/Maori settlement society, calls Palliser Woman “our” equivalent of “England’s Lindow (Peat Bog) Man”. Why not a reference to an equivalent figure in the prehistory of Iraq or Mexico? The reason, of course, is that in spite of a supposed development of a sense of national identity it’s still a widespread custom among the chattering and travelling classes on this part of the planet to consider as a crucial cultural referent that island once known to the descendants of English and Scottish migrants as “Home”.
Frontier of Dreams is an odd welding of stodgily sound historiography inside the airbrushed faux-glam of tele-land. It is not, as its promoters claim, the most comprehensive single-volume history of New Zealand. More comprehensive single-volume histories have existed ever since 1981, with the first edition of the Oxford History of New Zealand. The two-volume Making Peoples and Paradise Reforged by James Belich gives much better value for money, if you want intelligent history, than this chunk of wannabe-slick marketing, inside which has been sealed a worthy yet lack-lustre set of bookishly ordinary historical essays by bookishly ordinary historians.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg has been living in Shanghai, but has now settled for a while in Wellington.