How to live in the woods, Don Aimer

Outsiders: Stories from the Fringe of New Zealand Society
Gerard Hindmarsh
Craig Potton Publishing, $35.00,
ISBN 9781877517723

Christchurch Crimes 1850-75: Scandal and Skulduggery in Port and Town
Geoffrey W Rice
Canterbury University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781927145395

Google maps don’t have a street view for Puangiangi Island, which is 2.4 km long, steep and rugged, just off the north east tip of D’Urville Island. Ross Webber lived there for 46 years, and, moreover, for the last 20 he didn’t leave the island. When he was young, Webber was set on buying his own farm, and this was all he could afford. He had a motor boat to take him to French Pass, and a truck he left there to go to town, but in the end he felt no need of his boat and gave it away.

This can-you-believe-it story and those of some 26 other people and families who chose to live in isolated areas is told by Gerard Hindmarsh in Outsiders. Some have been made famous, such as Arawata Bill, around whom Denis Glover based a suite of poems; Charlie Douglas, the subject of a biography by John Pascoe; Davey Gunn of the Hollyford; and Tom Neale, whose book An Island to Oneself recorded his years of solitude on Suwarrow in the northern Cooks.

Another famous family is that of Robert Long, his wife Catherine, and their two now adult children, who live in one of the remotest spots in New Zealand, at the mouth of Gorge River, a two-day walk south from Haast. Robert was a successful medical student who researched the most isolated place in New Zealand to live. His wife is a scientist. They met in Queenstown, and she eventually joined him to raise two children.

My default position was that most of the subjects were probably borderline psychotics trying to avoid human company. While one or two were clearly doolally, in general I was way off beam and most accounts showed the pleasure they took from visitors.

Hindmarsh’s is a drab-looking book, seemingly printed on recycled toilet paper, and I began it with zero anticipation. It surprised me that my head lit up as I read, and I asked myself why was I so excited. Hindmarsh tells his stories well, with a fund of anecdotes, but on the face of it they slot comfortably into our genre of outdoor writing. It had to be more than the storytelling. It was the issue itself, which is so much greater than the sum of its parts. The great conundrum is what made these people of normal sociability manage their isolation with such equanimity. Your average texter would shrink with horror at the thought of it all.

The accounts trend toward two poles: one centred on back-country itinerant workers who followed the frontier society into its last fastnesses, panning for gold in remote rivers. The second tend to be well-educated people, with middle- or professional-class backgrounds, who decided to cut away the dross of urban life for a more inward-looking way linked with their survival skills. It seems to be this pole which captures our imagination.

Two recent articles confirm that we just love fantasies about giving it all away. Jessica Reed had a headline in The Guardian: “Tales of hermits in the woods fuel romantic dreams of freedom”. The second is by Ben Fogle, British adventurer and TV-maker, sourced to the Telegraph Group. He claims, with some hyperbole, that many people are opting out of the material world before they are strangled, but actually cites only four cases worldwide whom he visited. One of them happened to be the Long family.

Both journalists assume that we share a notion of civilised society as corrupted and deadening, with salvation lying in self-reliance in the woods.

Who does this remind us of but Jean-Jacques Rousseau, scion of Calvinist Geneva, but personally pragmatic: “[N]othing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.”

If Rousseau supplies one archetype, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe presents another. The economists have got hold of him, and Karl Marx dubbed him the quintessential capitalist. He was carefully given all the means he needed to prosper, including a slave, and his story is a hymn to hard work, thrift and prudence. These are the Protestant virtues of the rising middle class, trading and accumulating capital. Something of the Crusoe carefulness and self-reliance shines through accounts in Outsiders, not least that of Tom Neale.

The Protestant Reformation marches under twin banners. One predicts that a sign of your salvability lies in the Robinson-Crusoe virtues. The other affirms that salvation lies not in outside authority but within your own head. We are ultimately children of the Reformation and of the rise of capitalism, pickled in the brine of these notions, and we cheer on the few who dare to pursue the logic of their fantasies.

Of course, if this is the case, then those of Catholic faith should not be harassed by such nagging dreams. There must be a PhD in all that. Apologies to Hindmarsh who thought he was just writing about some unusual New Zealanders who fascinate us.

Christchurch Crimes 1850-75 by Geoffrey W Rice is a parade of the miscreants who passed through the Courts of Christchurch from the founding of the settlement until the end of provincial government. The parade is long and repetitive: assaults, drunken and disorderly conduct, dishonesty, the odd robbery, a bit of arson, and the occasional murder. While I guess it’s nice to know that life continues in a similar vein 150 years later, their stockpiling does get a bit tedious. It’s not really a fun read but useful to dip into.

Some incidents do shine through, and you can choose whatever lights you up. I was impressed by an illicit still uncovered in 1866 under the carpet in a large cellar, complete with fireplace, chimney and a supply of artesian water.

In one of the most hilarious episodes, Catherine Fleetwood, a well-known prostitute, with a group of fellow workers, was refused admission to a theatre. They vented their rage by crossing the road to sing, dance and use “most improper language to the great annoyance of the passers-by”. They refused to leave, and a large number of men and boys collected, blocking the footpath. Here was a sort of primitive pussy riot. These prostitutes in a small colonial town were apparently undaunted in mocking their betters. It was a feisty public presentation. We can only guess whether it was really about more than anger at discrimination, and whether they were also taking it out on the sanctimonious middle-class society which they could never join.

The author does not pretend his book is much more than a collection of anecdotes. He notes that it is not an academic work, by which I assume he refers to the absence of analysis or discussion of the social context of the colony. We are left to work out what we choose from the glimpses of life revealed.

The meat of the book comes largely from paraphrases of newspaper reports of court cases. It is the quality of the journalism which sets the tone of the book. The newspapers gave plenty of room to crime reporting, but reading them is like chewing on cotton wool laced with soap. They plod unrelentingly through the trial, the “he said” and “she said”, the whole unmodified boredom of it all.

The Press, founded in 1861, was a leading newspaper. We need to remember that the social milieu from which Christchurch sprang was the world of Benjamin Disraeli: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were … inhabitants of different planets. The Rich and the Poor” was how he summed it up.

A modern view of the settlement of Christchurch needs to follow John Cookson in Southern Capital: Christchurch. He says “[I]n all settlements aspirant, emergent or arriviste elites tried to create social distance to separate them from the rest”, and that it may have been more explicit in Canterbury than elsewhere.

The Press was founded by Edward Fitzgerald, born into Irish aristocracy, and keen to reinforce the image of the elite. The tone of disdain in the reporting of court cases is not surprising, but is a tone this book does not override. What the book does do is give us local colour, as respectable society made examples of its lawbreakers.


Don Aimer is a Wellington reviewer.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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