Curiosa and curiosa, Dale Williams

The Owl That Fell from the Sky: Stories of a Museum Curator 
Brian Gill
Awa Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781877551130

Stag Spooner: Wild Man from the Bush 
Chris Maclean 
Craig Potton Publishing, $50.00, 
ISBN 9781877517686

The Indescribable Beauty: Letters Home to Germany from Wellington, New Zealand 1859 and 1862 
Friedrich Krull  
Awa Press, $38.00,
ISBN 9781877551338

Mansfield with Monsters: The Untold Stories of a New Zealand Icon 
Matt Cowens and Debbie Cowens
Steam Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780987663504

The joy of niche publishing is that, as with gourmet cooking and foodies, it’s permissible for the flavours to be unusually strong and exotic. A strange and rather wonderful array of local “gourmet” books is currently on offer: they won’t suit every palate, but if you like them, you’ll devour them.

Brian Gill’s The Owl That Fell from the Sky is an idea so simple and effective that one wonders why books like this are few and far between.

“Every natural history museum around the world has its own store of fabulous tales,” Gill writes, and gives us the stories behind just 15 of the thousands of exhibits in New Zealand museums, mostly the Auckland museum. And he does it splendidly, with prose that is clear and engaging, and a scattering of additional information woven into the narrative.

So when we read about the world-wide peregrinations of a Kaikoura moa’s egg, we also learn about a moa’s-egg project taking place in New Zealand museums, and recent findings about the number of moa species. The mystery of Australian banjo frogs appearing suddenly in the Waitakere ranges leads into remarks about detection of the deliberate introduction of pest species. A story involving tropical turtles washed ashore in the Far North includes a discussion of native fossil turtles in the eocene epoch and a grisly account of how to reduce a largeish animal to a skeleton (hint: exploit your garden compost heap). And there is the eponymous owl itself: another modern Aussie hitchhiker, probably in a jet’s undercarriage, identified by painstakingly investigating the origins of the tiny ant’s head found in its stomach. Beat that, CSI.

Curators tell stories, too, about the colourful and not always admirable past personalities who collected animal life, and about the public who seek help identifying animal life. It’s tricky enough when they go out into the garden and hold up their phones, in order to identify birdsong; beyond  difficult when they ask: “What’s the name of that bird whose call sounds like a phrase in the third movement of the Bruch violin concerto?”

Some of these background stories should certainly be more readily available within the museums themselves, especially those that have been persuaded into the “less is more” school of signage. Museum displays tell us stories about ourselves, our patch and our past, and introduce us to new worlds. But without their stories, exhibits risk seeming mere illustrations or puzzles.

A nature lover of a different kind was Wairarapa’s Neville “Stag” Spooner, fixated on hunting in the mountains. He wrote up several of his 1930s hunting and tramping adventures in a comics-style graphic diary, with narrative captions at the foot of each watercolour drawing, now published with additional material by Chris Maclean as Stag Spooner: Wild Man from the Bush.

Spooner’s spare but accurate accounts of the pre-war cullers’ life offer a factual counterpoint, as Maclean points out, to the literary invention of authors like Crump. It is a product of its era in more ways than one, not only in the naive art style and the Billy Bunterish slang – deer are “rotters” and “blighters” – but in how it reflects the leisure options available to a rural teenager of the period. Spooner might have stayed a deer culler for much of his life, but war intervened, and at 22 he volunteered for active service along with older brothers Tory and Bryan. He trained as a driver and served stints in Suez, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Italy.

All three brothers nurtured a talent for decorating, in pointilliste style, the envelopes which carried their letters home, and many of these are illustrated in this book. Italy was good for Neville’s self-discovery – he developed commercial skills with his paints, and found a love of opera. At war’s end, he published a small book of his war art in Cairo, entitled Tattooed Envelopes.

For all this passion for the bush and mountains, New Zealand’s wild places returned the hunting Spooner boys few favours. Neville and Tory both died lonely deaths in the mountains in 1946.

One of the book’s 1930s photographs provokes thought: the teenage boys’ bedroom strewn with animal skins and bones, and hung with trophy heads and eight rifles. Stag Spooner’s artistic and literary gifts were funnelled into comic drawings, his sporting instincts into hunting and tramping, and his yen to collect confined to animal heads and skeletons. Today’s young Nevilles, country dwellers though they might be, have wider life choices. DOC ranger, or designing computer games, with luck.

From northern Germany, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 22-year-old Friedrich August Krull arrived in Wellington as a settler in 1859 and travelled to parts of the lower North Island, eager to understand not just the lie of the land, but its Maori life and culture. Then like all well brought-up boys, he wrote home to Mutter, but only ostensibly so. His observant, detailed descriptions of his new life and surroundings were actually intended for a wider readership, via his brother-in-law who published them in a local journal to show intending German settlers what conditions to expect. Five of those long letters are translated in the charmingly presented The Indescribable Beauty: Letters home to Germany from Wellington, New Zealand 1859 and 1862. 

Krull journeys to Wairarapa and along the Kapiti coast as far as Otaki, and to the German settlement of Ranzau near Nelson. He becomes friends with chief Te Puni, and visits Tamihana Te Rauparaha (who assures him Maori think themselves the cleverest people on earth) and Matene Te Whiwhi. His description of the Mecklenburg settlement at Waimea is fascinating, and he is touched by the pride with which some of his fellow Mecklenburgers display to him their new bourgeois lifestyle and possessions.

His accounts of the sights, the people and the frustrations he dealt with have a freshness and immediacy. But his word is not always gospel. Some of his anecdotes have a dash of added spice; a couple of the murderous attacks he describes are inventions, and some of the Maori names seem misrecorded.

A helpful introduction by Oliver Harrison, who studied early German settlements in New Zealand, observes that regarding the history of conflict between Maori and settlers, popular German publications of the day tended to side with Maori and stress their barbaric treatment at the hands of the British. This, he says, along with German travellers’ enhanced ability to meet Maori leaders and visit closely guarded sacred sites, gives German accounts an inherent value because they do not simply reinforce a British viewpoint.

A postscript outlines Krull’s subsequent long career in New Zealand as German consul, and his death shortly after the start of WW1.

Katherine Mansfield’s delicate, precise but emotionally charged stories often hold an element of mystery and foreboding. Kapiti’s Matt and Debbie Cowens have succumbed to the satirist’s temptation to fulfil the stories’ B-movie potential and written their own Mansfield fanfic, Mansfield With Monsters.

This is Mansfield upcycled as a hybrid Steampunk Goth, and it’s not the giant leap you might imagine. She always did struggle to rein in her dark side.

The stories chosen for tweaking are some of the shorter ones, and offer more deft twists than a bag of pretzels. Vampires, sea monsters, hideous mutants in the H P Lovecraft vein all put in an appearance in the reshaped originals. Sometimes the new slant is given outright in the re-titling: “The Daughters of the Lizard Colonel”, “Her First Bite” and so on. But in other cases, the reader is chugging along peacefully through familiar Mansfield paragraphs when, with a sudden jolt, a boundary is crossed and one is definitely in startling Cowens country.

Imagine, for example, attempting to hold a garden party in a post-apocalyptic world where insects have evolved to giant size. And it’s surprising how gratified you’ll feel when the little Kelveys at last extract a gruesome revenge on the snobs who patronise them, and the Little Lamp takes on a demonic role.

Can you see the joins? It depends how well you know the stories. It’s amusing to read one or two alongside Mansfield’s originals, to see the skill of all three writers. Great literature it’s not, but it’s great fun, in small helpings.


Dale Williams is a Waikanae reviewer.


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Posted in Art, Fiction, History, Letters, Literature, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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