Absolutely commercially, Jenny Robin Jones

Logan Campbell’s Auckland: Tales from the Early Years
R C J Stone
Auckland University Press, $45.00, 
ISBN 9781869403935

Wellington: Biography of a City
Redmer Yska
Reed, $44.99,
ISBN 0790011077

Auckland illuminated through stories of the past; Wellington reconstructed through careful scrutiny of council minutes – these two books could hardly be more different in approach and scope. In Logan Campbell’s Auckland, Russell Stone’s 10th book on Auckland history, the author writes with clear purpose. Concerned that new Aucklanders may see themselves as aliens in the city they call home, he sets out to show continuity of tradition: rapid growth and commercialism have characterised the settlement almost from its beginning. Unless, says Stone, people’s interest in their city’s heritage expands beyond physical things like buildings, places and walks, Auckland may become a community without a memory.

Allowing John Logan Campbell, the Father of Auckland, to set the parameters, Stone begins in 1840 with Campbell’s arrival in Auckland and ends in 1912 with his death. The author relates how Ngati Whatua became the tangata whenua of Tamaki, and recreates the 1841 immigrant voyage of the Jane Gifford. We learn the true history of the tree on One Tree Hill, and that Auckland had its “Lost Boys” – but also a fine school specially created for lads from impecunious homes. We see the part played by the military in early Auckland and how, among the higher classes, duelling was much more than a last resort.  The final tales tell how rugby came to Eden Park and how defeat came to seem unbearable. Nothing much has changed there.

Some of the tales carry greater significance than others, and all are clearly, even patronisingly, addressed to the non-historian. They are uneven in the telling but the Jane Gifford chapter makes admirable use of the unpublished autobiography of Peter McDonald. As a steerage passenger, McDonald was able to speak for the sufferings of those who largely remain silent in our literature, and his record also enlivens later chapters. He’s a treasure.

It’s ironic that, in this book of tales, Auckland’s early writers are everywhere denied a presence. They are mentioned, right enough, but never paid their dues as writers, nor brought to life as such on the page. Joel Polack, who wrote the classic New Zealand: A Narrative of Travels and Adventures published in 1838, is represented only as “a hot-tempered Jewish trader”. A S Thomson, rightly presented as the first to write a history of New Zealand, is passed over as a means of illustrating life in the military, though he is a good example of someone who by 1860 had developed a deep love for Auckland and wanted to die on its soil. And, though John Logan Campbell is mentioned extensively as a merchant, banker and amateur artist, his merit as a recorder of Auckland in its very first year of existence is never paid its due. I once heard a couple on a Devonport ferry raving about Poenamo as they pointed out (Campbell’s and) Brown’s Island to one another, but the book, though “famous”, is, I’m willing to bet, largely unknown on Queen Street, and it’s sad Stone missed an opportunity to inspire Aucklanders in search of community memory to read it.

It’s probably the revelation that Green Lane, of motorway exit and hospital fame, was once a green lane along which the Pakuranga Hunt Club used to chase rabbits that will abide with me most vividly. That or the knowledge that Eden Park rugby ground was once known as Cabbage Tree Swamp and with good reason. Sometimes for history to work we don’t need a thesis, we just need the breath of life.

Actually neither the Auckland nor the Wellington history appears to feel the need of a thesis, but it is the latter that struggles more desperately for its breath of life. A biography of a city – and that city, Wellington. To any reader who loves it, what a chance to understand more clearly what makes the city’s heart beat. I looked forward to following the developing city from shadowy beginnings in four pa to the hope-and-disappointment era of the first settlers. When the biography got to 1855, I would experience the earthquake that shattered the embryonic certainties of the new settlers before granting their most urgent wish – flat earth. And perhaps I would watch the menacing gravitational force of Auckland give way to an unassailable sense of local identity.

Or perhaps not. After a paragraph or two on each of these seismic forces, we are moved on to the formation of a town board or a new twist in the unfolding story of the trams.

It turns out that this “biography” is actually a civic history and no wonder, since it was commissioned by Wellington City Council, and the council, understandably, would like to see its history recorded. In which case it would have served the purpose far better not to have invited comparison with Peter Ackroyd’s stunningly exciting London: The Biography but simply to have concentrated on the task in hand.

Oh for a table setting out the succession of governing bodies associated with Wellington, summarising the powers of each and the relative ability of the citizenry to influence decision-making. Such a table accompanied by textual analysis would give meaning and a sense of progression to the history. Some definitions would not go amiss either. If we are going to read a civic history, we may as well get the building blocks sorted. A municipality versus a town board and when a borough is not a borough are matters my Oxford dictionary did nothing to clarify since the terms vary in interpretation from country to country.

We also want to understand how the need for regulation emerges and changes over time. In the 1890s, for instance, people identified a need to regulate the quality and distribution of milk as a way of tackling infant mortality. It’s not always about bully-boys throwing their weight about. But Yska is reluctant to guide us towards evaluation. While faithfully reporting contemporary criticism, he rarely offers an opinion. After all his work reclaiming Wellington’s civic history, his input would be valuable and would add to our sense of informed debate.

Despite my reservations about this book, it has changed my life: I have now vowed to become a well-informed citizen and to vote at every local body election.

And the final two chapters are genuinely compelling. Mayors Michael Fowler and Fran Wilde emerge as real personalities, and in their boundless optimism and visionary zeal we sense the kind of personality a mayoralty attracts and needs. We see how far Fowler and Wilde were each in their different ways able for a time to articulate and meet the felt needs of their citizens. And looking back over the book, we see how often councils overreached themselves, how inadequately they consulted and kept their books, how willing they were to make decisions of enormous consequence with a dire insufficiency of information. We see how councils sometimes found it impossible to debate the complexities of issues such as sewage outfalls with their people. And we wince at their very public failures.

We see the difficulties created for the city in its other identity as capital of New Zealand and we see the slow realisation, as the citizenry stared at the yawning chasm left by departure of head office after head office for the north, that there is something yet that makes Wellingtonians different. Suddenly the council sees that what it has here is “Creative Wellington – Innovation Capital”. At last Wellington is out and proud – and has not looked back since.


Jenny Robin Jones is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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