The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso, by Peter Wells (Vintage, 2011), 467 pp. $49.99; Give Your Thoughts Life: William Colenso’s Letters to the Editor, compiled by Ian St George, (Otago University Press, 2011) 497 pp. $65.
A question lingers throughout a reading of Peter Wells’s The Hungry Heart — what exactly is this book? There are no clues in the way of preface or blurb and readers must make up their own minds. But a reviewer has the advantage of a publicity sheet in which Wells says the book allowed him to re-engage with his ‘former passion’ of colonial history, and ‘I hope I also bring the vividness of a novelist’s eye and ear to an historical narrative.’ The ‘Journeys’ of the sub-title do not relate to William Colenso’s North Island explorations, which are said to have been over-emphasised elsewhere, but rather the emotional journeys of a ‘difficult, passionate man.’ Wells says, ‘The larger picture I want to present is Colenso as a passionate if flawed outsider, a towering figure in New Zealand’s intellectual heritage.’ His epigraph on the title page is taken from a New South Wales government travel poster: ‘Sometimes it’s the winding roads, the missed turns or the unplanned surprises that make a simple journey something special.’ What other kind of surprises are there?
It becomes clear that the journeys are Wells’s own, in search of his own place and identity and sexual heritage. Wells appears to find an ancestor in Colenso as the ‘outsider, the questioner, the maverick’, and perhaps as ‘an extremely difficult, prickly creature: people of individual genius often are’, although ‘genius’ seems a step too far. Wells writes, ‘Wasn’t I, in effect claiming Colenso by writing a book about him?’ Only if you want to, only if you wish to be less than objective about your subject.
Helen Watson White
Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond (Penguin/Viking, 2011), 528 pp., $65.
Anne Salmond’s Bligh is not just about the legendary British naval commander of the Bounty, who in 1789 lost his ship to mutineers. It is about the fabled ‘South Seas’ through which they were sailing, and about other European explorers who preceded them there; the nature of their vessels and of the people they met, whether hospitable or (much less often) hostile; the cultures and internal politics of a number of Pacific Islands, especially Tahiti; the cultures and internal politics of the British Isles from which they came, and of the British Navy; and the revolutionary climate in Europe at the time. Above all, we meet a great many individuals in these different settings, including Bligh’s Tahitian friends, his wife and family waiting at home, his sponsors and critics, the sailors who were loyal to him as well as the mutineers.
Wild Heart: The Possibility of Wilderness in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Mick Abbott and Richard Reeve (Otago University Press) 224 pp. $45; Making Our Place: Exploring Land-use Tensions in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Jacinta Ruru, Janet Stephenson and Mick Abbott, (Otago University Press), 243 pp. $45.
Although we are becoming an increasingly indoor nation, our wild and natural landscapes, our ‘clean, green’ image, and our agricultural heritage all remain strong in the identity of most New Zealanders. The topics discussed in these two books have wide appeal. Both books address current and contested questions about our use of and relationship with the land, and provide glimpses into history. My concern is that they may be read by only a narrow range of potential readers – mostly by academics and professionals over 40, I suspect, unless interviews, magazine articles, blog posts and so on can draw other readers in.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Coal and the Coast: a Reflection on the Pike River Disaster, by Paul Maunder (Canterbury University Press, 2012), 112 pp., $25.
It might be uncomfortable to consider, but pressing in on me as I write this — and on whoever reads it — are the ghosts of hundreds of Chinese coal miners: those who die every week in unsafe mines to fuel the booming economy of the renascent Red Dragon and thus supply us in the West with almost all of our consumer goods. Every phase of the Industrial Revolution has had a human cost, in the blood of peasants driven or lured off the land into burgeoning urban centres to make a new life for themselves and a fat profit for the owners of the factories and the mines.
Early New Zealand Photography: Images and Essays, edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf (Otago University Press, 2011), 208 pp., $50.
Susan Sontag characterised photographs as ‘invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy’, while Roland Barthes asserted that the photograph was ‘a transparent envelope’ — that is, a paradoxical object at once visible and obvious but also sealed-off and enigmatic. Likewise, Walter Benjamin stated that the photographic image shows ‘dialects at a standstill’, meaning photographs can hold contradictory meanings in check. Benjamin also pointed out that: ‘Every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its concerns threaten to disappear irretrievably’. Mindful then that this significant trio of twentieth-century photography critics regarded photographs as extremely ambiguous objects, attracting interpretations the way flypaper attracts flies, I launched into Early New Zealand Photography: Images and Essays, edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erica Wolf.