Boudicca does it for a jar of mead, David Hill

A Short History of Sheep in New Zealand
Richard Wolfe
Random House, $29.99,
ISBN 1869418204

Instructions for New Zealanders
Richard Wolfe
Random House, $34.99,
ISBN 1869418506

The Smell of Powder: A History of Duelling in New Zealand
Donald Kerr
Random House, $29.99,
ISBN 1869418131

Whykickamoocow: Curious New Zealand Place Names
Nicola McCloy
Random House, $19.99,
ISBN 1869418077

Mrs Cook’s Book of Recipes
John Dunmore
Exisle Publishing and Australian National Maritime Museum, $24.99,
ISBN 0908988648

I remember the lurch in perspective when I first read how archaeologists build up their knowledge of vanished civilisations not so much from the golden statues and lapis lazuli codpieces they unearth (OK, the codpiece might give them a hint), but from the trivia. It’s the potsherds or parchment scraps with runes, glyphs or pictograms reading “Oxen Yokes: two cubits; only five drachmae” or “Boudicca does it for a jar of mead” that really tell us what preoccupied the scribbling classes a couple of millennia back.

So let’s contemplate the possibility that when cultural experts from the Procyon star system start digging through the ruins of Wellington Central Library after our species has imploded, it may not be the grand achievements of Gee, Frame or Manhire that help them reconstruct the ways we were. It may be Donald Kerr’s account of a Cloudy Bay duel in 1840 between one party with a sword and a second party with a whaling harpoon. Or Richard Wolfe’s glossary entry for “the business of removing matted wool and excrement from the rear quarters of a sheep”. Scorn not such books. They keep writers, publishers, loggers going. They bring people into bookshops who wouldn’t know a Curnow from a curlew. They’re sometimes more illuminating and impressive than we like to admit.

The industrious Richard Wolfe is top of our trivia tabulators, and, yes, it’s very satisfying that A Short History of Sheep in New Zealand should be written by a Wolfe.

This comely small survey takes you through the etymology and genealogy, husbandry and midwifery, symbolism and metabolism of Ovis aries. You learn a lot, with little pain and little permanence. A colour fold-out even helps you avoid the social ignominy that comes from confusing your Perendale with your Polworth. Beware of the sexual precocity of your Finnish Landrace.

Sheep appeared on Earth about 2,500,000 years ago, and in New Zealand exactly 234 years ago, after being liberated by Cook on his second voyage. They promptly ate tutu berries and died. Wolfe outlines the swelling economic and environmental effects of their later rellies throughout the country in an orthodox, adequate manner, enlivened by interested and interesting digressions.

Find how a gear failure on the Dunedin meant that the world’s first consumers of frozen meat lived a hemisphere away from the intended buyers. Learn how the Grandmaster, the Superlative, and other varieties of swede supplemented grass as fodder. Revisit the euphemism “bullswool”. Dwell on archival illustrations such as that of the 1924 wool press with joggle-eye hinges. Admire a book that immortalises Te Kuiti.

Wolfe’s second survey punctures the image of sturdy Kiwi individuality. Instructions for New Zealanders has over 100 sets of admonitions, regulations, exhortations from two centuries of governments, local bodies, manufacturers, clubs, special interest groups and churches. It starts with the 1855 Fencing Act from Auckland Province, which did not affect “aboriginal natives”. It ends with semantic tips from the Polynesian Advisory Council’s 1970s pamphlet, Understanding Pakehas. (“When a Pakeha asks ‘Aren’t you coming to work tomorrow?’, he really means ‘Are you coming to work tomorrow?’ ”.)

There is advice on Martyrdom and Miracles, Prevention of Slugs, Using an Electric Oven, the Dangers of Drink (“a few glasses of wine at a supper or dance – and the first downward step is taken”), Flag Etiquette When Greeting the Royal Yacht, Coffins for Crematoria (“English Elm is not permitted”).

Some make the mouth quirk: “Is your underwear spotless and are shoulder straps and petticoat hems out of sight?” – You and Your Clothes, 1959. Some make the stomach clench: “Can be effective without being noticed. Ideal for crowd control and family disturbances” – Manufacturer’s Notes on the police long baton, 1976. Like the other four in this bunch, it’s a book to be quoted lightly rather than analysed heavily, but Wolfe does evoke some of the ways we were or were intended to be. Current regulations, of course, will never seem silly in retrospect.

A History of Duelling in New Zealand: how reductive can you get? Actually, Donald Kerr’s neat narrative of 30 pairs of men behaving badly is also an insight into male macho mores. Fewer examples covered more fully might have been even more effective. It’s prefaced with a succinct history of the custom in Europe: the Byzantine etiquette; the elaborate apparatus; the unexpected participants. Mrs Elphinstone and Lady Almeria Braddock had a go at each other in England in 1792 with swords and pistols. Then, arranged for some reason in geographical sections, with the bellicose and populated north supplying most examples, it takes you from New Zealand’s first recorded duel of 1833 in Kororareka, a clumsy business over grog, to the 1935 confrontation in an Auckland office after a Russian dared slight the honour of King George V.

Dunedin’s first boy racer, Dr Henry Manning, challenges Justice Sidney Stephen. Two famous Wellington names from the same Masonic lodge measure out a distance in Te Aro. (Then comes the curious bonding which often followed such combats.) A solicitor and a barrister take the law into their own hands, and gangrene is the winner on the day. David Elliot’s deft illustrations enhance.

Nicola McCloy’s irritatingly-titled skim through distinctive place names relies heavily on the recognition factor. You’ll be intrigued if yours is here; you’ll be miffed if it isn’t. Nearly 70 towns, rivers, promontories, declivities et al are covered. There are several sensible groupings: names (Clive, Gabriel’s Gully); double-ups (Havelock and Havelock North); overseas echoes (Bombay, Omaha) etc. There’s a tediously adolescent section on names with sexual, smutty or scatological associations.

McCloy tells you the history, botany, personalities, climate and local economy of each place. There are some nice little narratives and/or explanations re Fairlie (a honeymoon location); Ophir (an Old testament reference); Nightcaps (an atmospheric appearance) and others. It won’t stimulate you, but it may occupy you.

While Captain Cook did roam, his missus stayed at home. She outlived him and their six kids: how appalling. During 16 years of marriage and 57 years of widowhood, she transcribed and trialled all sorts of culinary curiosities that “my beloved Mr Cook” and other sailors had told her about. John Dunmore has arranged over 50 of them in the elegant, informative, intermittently terrifying (“Take about ½ pound of dried jellyfish”, “kill a medium-sized dog”) Mrs Cook’s Book of Recipes for Mariners in Distant Seas.

Each section (“Anti-Scorbutic Beverages”; “Rats in Stew”) comes with Elizabeth’s concise notes on the ingredients and their marine associations. I recommend the dishes “To Welcome Home a Weary Sailor”: Yorkshire Pudding, Roast Beef, Jugged Pigeon, Oyster Loaves, Strawberries in Fritters, Poor Knights Pudding. Cholesterol is king. This is a true hidden history. Read it, and you immediately hear a voice speaking. She didn’t write too badly, either. “Roast beef and ale are the backbone of England, as Mr Blackburn my stepfather was much given to proclaim as he raised his glass in tribute to the dish my mother so often prepared.” Right on, Mrs C.

So – five pocket-sized books where the packaging is often more significant than the prose, and the concept as important as the contents. Are they “social history”, as the blurbs for nearly all of them claim? Yes, in the same way that your lawn-mowing man is a Turf Consultant. They’re generally diverting and occasionally illuminating. You needn’t be totally downcast if the Procyons end up relying on them.


David Hill’s young adult novel Duet will be published by Mallinson Rendel this year.


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