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Matt Elliott (Image: Archi Banal)
Matt Elliott (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksOctober 4, 2023

Matt Elliott on the art of the ‘book doze’

Matt Elliott (Image: Archi Banal)
Matt Elliott (Image: Archi Banal)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: Matt Elliott, author of Good as Gold: New Zealand in the 1980s.

The book I wish I’d written

Harry Potter, because then my annual tax return wouldn’t be so depressing! But in saying that, I am fortunate to do a job that I love. It constantly brings me into contact with an array of interesting people and subjects. I learn a lot and hope my books add to what we know about our country and ourselves.

Everyone should read

Shakespeare. The Bard’s works are so influential. From quotes to plot lines and character traits, Shakespeare remains so relevant. The fact that some secondary schools are no longer teaching Shakespeare is very disappointing, and perhaps says more about some English teachers than it does about Shakespeare. 

The book I want to be buried with

Strawberry Land: a Birkdale/Beach Haven local history (by me). Much of the research and exploring for this book I did with my son, Peter, who appears in several photos. Not many fathers have the opportunity to write books with, or including their children, so that is very special to me. 

The first book I remember reading by myself

In terms of novels, it might have been Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven. I still have it, and feel as though that was the founding book in my personal library. The covers of the 1970s editions of that series were like little art works, really interesting and enticing to children.  

From left to right: the book Matt Elliott wishes he’d written; the book he wants to be buried with; and the first book he remembers reading by himself.


It’s a crime against language to… 

I struggle with autobiographies where the subject recounts word-for-word long conversations they overheard or were part of as a three-year old! I don’t find it believable. For me, that is moving into the realm of historical fiction.

The book that made me laugh

I could barely get through a page at a time of comedian Jason Byrne’s Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy without laughing uncontrollably. It helped that I am a fan of his stand-up and have seen him perform live shows several times. His telling of an Irish-Catholic upbringing – combining pent up frustration and Milligan-esque absurdity – is brilliantly entertaining. 

If I could only read three books for the rest of my life they would be

James Joyce’s Ulysses as I might actually finish it; Monty Python: the complete unexpurgated scripts of the television series would always have something to laugh at; New Zealand’s Native Trees by John Dawson, Rob Lucas and Jane Connor. Over 500 pages with stunning photographs. I would be constantly adding to my knowledge of our flora. You open it up and immediately feel as though you are in a native forest.

From left to right: Matt Elliott’s greatest NZ book; an image something akin to the ‘Mince Italiano’ that formed his best food memory from a book; and his most underrated book.

The most underrated book

Sir Edmund Hillary’s High Adventure. Reading extracts from Sir Ed’s account of he and Tenzing Norgay being the first to summit Everest should be compulsory in secondary schools. Yes, it is a source of national pride, but it is also an extraordinary story of trust, risk, friendship, uncertainty, preparation, self-belief, patience, skill and so on. Important traits for young people to learn. 

Greatest New Zealand book

Buller’s Birds aka A history of the birds of New Zealand (1888 ed.) by Walter Buller. The plates painted by J.G. Keulemans, who never saw any of the birds alive or in situ, remain absolutely stunning, as if they could just fly, or walk, off the page. Every home should have one!

Best food memory from a book

Learning to make pikelets from a recipe book for children in the 70s. Some of my first batch survived long enough to be eaten by other people. The book also had a dish called “Mince Italiano”; mince, pasta shells and chopped carrot. Exotic!

Best place to read

Anywhere in the sun, so the warmth induces a “book doze”. Our front deck is a little sun trap and there have been times when my wife, son and I have been sprawled out there, engrossed in our reading choices of the day. Sadly-departed family cat would usually find a spot between us, or on my feet. 

What are you reading right now

 I’ve just finished The Islander, the autobiography of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. His recollections on the development of reggae and Bob Marley are fascinating. Next up is Carl Hayman’s Head On: Rugby, dementia, and the hidden cost of success. As much as I have loved rugby all my life, I’m really concerned about the long-term effects of high impact collisions which have become part of the modern game.

Good as Gold: NZ in the 80s by Matt Elliott ($50) can be purchased at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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