A Savage Country: The Untold Story of New Zealand in the 1820s, by Paul Moon (Penguin Books, Auckland, 2012)
‘[the historian’s] work at best is the provisional creation of a pioneer’ – F.W. Deakin
‘Nothing but experience could evince the frequency of fake information … which is afterwards incorrectly diffused by successive relators’ – Dr Johnson
These two observations above, the first by a British twentieth century historian and soldier, the second by the eighteenth century English poet, critic and dictionary-maker, point to something of the ambivalences I find inherent in the prolific Paul Moon’s latest publication. Moon has previously written the best-selling Fatal Frontiers – a history of New Zealand in the 1830s. A Savage Country is his latest book and covers the decade prior to Fatal Frontiers. In addition to writing such books, Moon is also a frequent contributor to national and international academic journals on a variety of history-related topics.
Andrew Paul Wood
Fate & Philosophy: A Journey Through Life’s Great Questions, by Jim Flynn (Awa Press, 2012), 250 pp., $32.99.
If The Torchlight List of good books may be glossed as Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn’s genially Quixotic attempt to out-Bloom Harold Bloom’s magisterial Western Canon, then Flynn’s Fate & Philosophy: A Journey Through Life’s Great Questions could be described as a cross between Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy and some Alain de Botton pabulum mash-up for the masses. Flynn was Head of the Politics Department at the University of Otago for what seems like forever, has been profiled by Scientific American, and even campaigned to enter Parliament as an Alliance candidate for North Dunedin in 1993 and 1996. Apparently he has written a book of poetry too, somewhere along the line. Perhaps best known round the world for his research into IQ (The Flynn Effect is the proven continual increase in intelligence test scores internationally from circa 1930 to the present day), and the rather unfortunate misrepresentation put about by some dunderheads in the mainstream media that he was pro-eugenics, Flynn is no fool – though like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane or Saint Thomas, he has doubted. As he says: ‘Today is my seventy-seventh birthday, so it has taken sixty-five years to replace Catholicism with a personal philosophy I can live with. This book is intended to give you a head start.’
Other People’s Wars: New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror, by Nicky Hager (Craig Potton Publishing, 2011), 439 pp., $49.99.
New Zealanders may feel anger and betrayal at reading Nicky Hager’s latest installment of their country’s secret history. But for those described by the former United States ambassador to New Zealand Charles Swindells as ‘first worlders’ – the military and foreign affairs officials, business people and politicians who regard New Zealand as a US ally – the anger will stem from the fact that the lid has been lifted on their activities so comprehensively.
The rest of us, those who applauded then-prime minister Helen Clark’s decision to stay out of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, will feel betrayed to find we went anyway, as the diplomatic and military establishment took every opportunity to suck up to the US.
New Zealand in the Twentieth Century – The Nation, The People, by Paul Moon (Harper/Collins 2011) 672 pp. $49.99.
Conscientious historians worry about periodisation — that is, in historical terms, when can we say an ‘age’ or a period in a country’s history begins or ends? Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Music Makers ode may be a very bad piece of Victorian poetry, but it’s surely correct when it declares that ‘Each age is a dream that is dying/ Or one that is coming to birth’. Historical periods overlap; attempts to divide history into discrete segments are always artificial; and only hundreds of years later do historians simplify with neat labels like ‘The Middle Ages’ or ‘The Age of Enlightenment’. Yet the attempt to periodise is still an essential skill when narrative historians choose to do a ‘broad sweep’ of a century or so. There has to be at least the effort to explain why one set of circumstances and beliefs and customs gradually changes into another. In other words, history isn’t history without a grasp of causation. The alternative is a more chronological approach, where history gives way to chronicle: one unexplained, de-contextualised event after another. Regrettably, it’s this latter approach that informs Paul Moon’s New Zealand in the Twentieth Century. Doggedly, each of its ten chapters confines itself to one decade, out of which Paul Moon cherry-picks what seem to him the most noteworthy features. [Read more…]
Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania, by Alice Te Punga Sommerville, (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 288 pp., $61.99.
Their knowing the use of this sort of Cloth doth in some measure account for the extraordinary fondness they have shew’d for it above every other thing we had to give them.” [Cook, Edwards, Beaglehole 1955/1968]
‘For Māori at Uawa in 1769, the usual European trade goods and trinkets that had been prepared for exchange by the Europeans on board the Endeavour were trumped by large sheets of tapa recently acquired in Tahiti … As they interacted with navigator-explorers Tupaia and Cook, Māori communities drew on existing narratives of connection and exchange with the broader Pacific.’ [Sommerville, 2012]
Alice Te Punga Sommerville’s important thesis is that not only do all Polynesian peoples share a Pacific Ocean heritage and ethnicity, but that it is well past the time that mo ngā iwi Māori o Aotearoa and Polynesians from elsewhere started to share a lot more than they currently appear to do, whether in the tight urban-suburban boxes they tend to inhabit within New Zealand, or in their increasing intermingling in diasporal sorties.