Standing places of the heart, Harvey McQueen

Heartlands: New Zealand Historians Write about Where History Happened
Kynan Gentry and Gavin McLean (eds)
Penguin, $35.00,
ISBN 0143019929

History used to be about kings, queens, politicians, diplomats, generals, wars, revolutions, parliaments, laws and treaties. My early schooling followed the careers of worthies like Alfred the Great, Robert the Bruce, Robin Hood and Captain Cook. The upper secondary school was a preparation for university, where we studied English and European history. It is now common for people of my vintage to say they’d never heard of Parihaka as they processed through our education system. To be fair, my first introduction to Parihaka was during my Master’s year, when for a paper for Australian and New Zealand history Bill Oliver mentioned it. But basically history was something that happened on the other side of the world.

This collection of essays reflects how much has changed. Kynan Gentry’s introduction begins: “We all come from some place and we all live in some place. Our identity and our very sense of authenticity, it seems, are inextricably bound up with the place we claim as ‘ours’. ” To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Historic Places Trust, 15 historians were invited to write about places where history “happened” that were of special significance to them – somewhere they grew up, regularly visited or have made their study. The result is 15 cameos, celebratory and informative, about specific locations. Home may be where the heart is, but these heartlands are not mythical; they are firmly grounded in historical places.

Of course the Maori word turangawaewae, in Paul Tapsell’s words “the very heart of my people’s identity”, homes in on this sense. As he leaves his job at Auckland Musuem at the end of the week and sets off to Ohinemutu, he feels his ancestors’ “hopes and dreams hitch a ride on my shoulders”. Tapsell traces the origins of the marae back across the Pacific before explaining the background here. He concludes:

It is one thing to stand on your marae and reminisce about the past – it is another to be immersed up to your neck in thermally warmed water that has been emanating from beneath it for thousands of years! Not for the first time I thank my ancestors for their foresight and courage, and my mind turns to thoughts of tomorrow: fixing the roof and pruning the trees. Yes, here in Ohinemutu, the thin crust between us and volcanic disaster is not unlike the boundary we walk every day between the living and the dead. Every step is steeped in history – fleeting but all-pervading, like the wisps of steam continuously framing Te Papa-i-Ouru: we all live from one moment to the next, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, until one day we too become ritually embedded within collective tribal memories of narrative, rhythm and song, as a new generation defines for themselves what turangawaewae means to them when they come home to Ohinemutu.


I have visited most of the heartlands in this book. The exceptions are Gallipoli, Puniho Pa and, to my shame, Stewart Island. As a boy, John Wilson holidayed there. Unlike Tapsell, he focuses on a few events, such as a family trek to the Wohlers family graves at Ringaringa Point. For 41 years Wohlers was a missionary in the area. A son and grandson were drowned in Foveaux Strait. Another Wilson family picnic was to the Ackers Point lighthouse – Acker was an American whaler who settled in 1830. His storehouse still stands, one of the oldest buildings in the country. These events helped shape Wilson into a historian.

Like any collection of essays, these vary. I have a hunch that the greater the love of the place, the more they are a pleasure to read. Two I particularly enjoyed were Erik Olssen on Dunedin and Ben Scrader’s on Lambton Quay. A huge gap in my education was anything to do with architecture. On my first visit to Paris, I sensed elegance and grandeur but, having few reference points, found it difficult to tie this sense to the clutter in my head – Henry of Navarre, Danton and Louis Napoleon. Earlier in Dunedin I was similarly awed, without understanding why, by many of the city’s 19th century buildings. I wish I had read Olssen’s essay then. Scrader’s love of the capital city’s winding thoroughfare shines through his piece on the changing cityscape reflecting trends and fads and economic forces. Both essays enlarged my horizons – better late than never.

Wellington is well represented. Helen McCracken’s walk along Petone Beach explores its history while Michael Kelly outlines developments at the Basin Reserve. A magnificent photo of the 1929 Anzac Day marchers assembling at the Basin is a reminder of a significant military presence in our history. Ian McGibbon’s essay about Gallipoli is participatory history. He was there for the 90th commemoration. In his own words, “I had gone from track designer to guidebook designer to tour guide.” Jock Phillips’ devotion to war memorials has often left me slightly bewildered, but his essay on Wanganui’s makes it more understandable – they are significant historical markers. He takes us for a walk around the centre of the city, “uncovering some history to be found in these hunks of stone”.

Heartlands are often places of nostalgia, as Gavin McLean’s evocative essay on Oamaru Harbour shows. His last section is aptly called “History becomes heritage”. Anne Salmond uses her Gisborne childhood to advance different historical aims. Hers is the most provocative essay. She writes: “For although Cook’s voyages and other such imperial feats almost invariably involved exchanges with people like Maori, they were mute in the histories I studied in school.” She realises that “history is a power in the present. Ignore the narratives and agency of people in the past, and you are likely to ignore their descendants.”

My only visit to the gannets at Cape Kidnappers revealed little of the human endeavour in the area. Kylan Gentry’s essay investigates it. Tom Brooking’s heartland covers several places associated with the farming industry, including Tutira where Guthrie-Smith penned one of our great books. There is a striking 1902 photo of “King Dick” striding up the hill to land reformer McKenzie’s monument. Tony Nightingale researches Waiutu, one of many fascinating ghost towns on the West Coast. His and Brooking’s experiences suggest an ability to use a slasher is an essential skill for a modern-day historian.

Representation is always an issue in any collection, and the reasons for selection are often complex. Katie Pickles is one of only three women contributors. She focuses on Bottle Lake Forest Park, north-east of Christchurch, a wasteland on the outskirts of an expanding city. The last essay is from Ashley Spice Morgan. He revisits his ancestors’ old pa, Puniho in Taranaki. An aged aunt points out where his granny’s home had been: “That’s your land there.”

Every New Zealander has his or her own heartland. Indeed, many of us have several. For some, it is offshore, a place of birth, upbringing or residence. But for most it’s a place somewhere in these islands. Wherever it is, collectively all these attachments in their richness contribute to the identity of our place. These 15 essays represent an enlargement of the discipline that is our history.


Harvey McQueen is a Wellington writer.


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