A Spinoff special: we list the best 100 works of non-fiction ever published in New Zealand.
Because the Guardian is running its list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books next week, the Spinoff thought we’d get in first – and present the 100 greatest works of New Zealand non-fiction right now, right here, spread over two days, with the countdown beginning today.
A panel of experts – an elder statesman in Wellington, a grave senor in Christchurch, an aged hack in Auckland – agreed to disagree sort of thing, and after bouts of ill-temper, harmony, hilarity, abuse, rage, resentment, and resignation, staggered behind closed emails after a 48-hour marathon with the list.
Like the Guardian books editor, Robert McCrum, who wrote that his list was devoted to “100 key texts that have had a decisive influence on the shaping of the Anglo-American imagination, economically, socially, culturally and politically”, the judges examined texts for their influence on the New Zealand mind. They also considered artistic merit, contribution to human knowledge, and pretty pictures.
Early on in the proceedings they decided to include magazines and other documents. It was felt that non-fiction deserved a wider definition than books.
Works were chosen from three centuries of thought. Oddities were accepted; it wasn’t simply a matter of considering the canon, and ticking literary orthodoxies.
No doubt there are glaring omissions. That’s a shame. But the judges tried, and were working with not just the best works of non-fiction – they were working with much of the best writing ever published in New Zealand. Novelists, playwrights and poets have produced wonderful work in this country. So, too, have essayists, biographers, historians, scientists, journalists, wits, memoirists and other assorted practitioners of the real.
Without further fuss and ado, here is the list from 100 to 51. We conclude the countdown tomorrow. We welcome correspondence, including haters.
100 The Passionless People, Gordon McLauchlan (1976): “Smiling zombies”! That shocking observation of the average Kiwi rung like a loud bell in the ears of the nation when McLauchlan published his fresh, funny examination of the New Zealand psyche. The book was a huge commercial success and established our idea of ourselves as a bunch of mopes.
99 The Extortionist, Simon Jones (2000): Sub-titled “Confessions of a tabloid journalist”, energetic hack reporter Jones tells about the time everything went terribly wrong – in Hamilton, during an interview with a former taxman. Jones pressed him for information. He pressed perhaps a tad too hard. “Suddenly a door opened and an immaculately dressed man flashed an identity badge. ‘I’m detective constable Robert Isaac and I’m arresting you for extortion.’” Jones claims he was fucked over by his editor, and left for dead. Familiar names from the media – Pip Keane, Miriyana Alexander, Sue Chetwin – flit through the pages of this crazy yarn.
98 A History of Silence, Lloyd Jones (2013): “I arrived in Christchurch to find a city cracked open like an eggshell in the earthquake and where I heard no laughter.” Jones is likely the best writer of prose in New Zealand, and he’s at full, lyrical strength in this singular book, sort of about the Christchurch quake, more about another broken thing – his family.
97 Memories of Muldoon, Bob Jones (1997): A surprisingly tender, almost elegiac memoir of Muldoon by his one-time friend and later bete noir, told with terrific vitality and gusts of good humour. Much of it is about the bizarre election campaign when Jones’s New Zealand Party proved such a pain in the ass for National. However Jones comes not to bury Muldoon, but to praise him.
96 The Journal of Katherine Mansfield (1927): “Tear up and burn as much as possible,” Mansfield instructed her husband. John Middleton Murray waited till her death to respond: “Yeah nah.” He rather tidied up her posthumous journal, but Mansfield bursts through on every page – broke, on the move, sick (“Felt ill all day…rather like being a beetle shut in a book”), creating her amazing stories, noting small, beautiful details, remembering when she first arrived in England and was regarded as “the little savage from New Zealand”.
95 Moriori: A People Rediscovered, Michael King (1989): “Nobody in New Zealand – and few elsewhere in the world – has been subjected to group slander as intense and as damaging as that heaped upon the Moriori,” wrote the great historian, in this angry, compassionate account of a lost people.
94 Straight Furrow (founded 1941): “Whoever takes issue against the farmer,” boomed WW Mulholland in the first issue of this invaluable rural gazette, “will be opposed by Straight Furrow.” Splendidly put, sir! The magazine always acted as a voice for farmers. In its pomp, in the 50s and 60s, it was also regarded as a kind of letter from afar, uniting rural New Zealand with news, advice, and games. Fairfax canned it in 2013.
93 A Sort of Conscience, Philip Temple (2002): Incredibly, Temple’s mammoth biography of the Wakefield rogues – our founding fathers, with their schemes and lies and fantasies – was beaten at the 2003 national book awards by some shitty little badly designed wine guide. The wine book has disappeared from trace; Temple’s biography remains a modern classic.
92 Bread and Roses, Sonja Davies (1984): Davies’s autobiography was an inspiring read for a generation of activists and anyone wanting social change. In the 1960s, she helped organise a petition seeking government support for a ban on nuclear weapons, and writes, “In those days I believed that thousands of signatures on a petition to Parliament could help change the hearts and minds of the politicians. What a naïve creature I was…” But she never gave up trying, and campaigning, and fighting.
91 Living with Summer, Colin Hogg (1983): One of the coolest characters to ever stalk the corridors of New Zealand journalism writes of life with his daughter. A rare jewel of a book; utterly charming.
90 Na to Hoa Aroha, Keith Sorrenson (1986): A lasting record of wisdom in the correspondence between two great elders, Sir Apirana Ngata and Sir Peter Buck. “The letters confirm that each man was indeed a totara tree of some magnificence and that each was a tree that stood alone,” commented Hirini Moko Mead.
89 The Shell Guide to New Zealand (1968): No self-respecting glove box was without this nifty compendium of New Zealand cities, towns, railway stations, churches, football grounds and other worthwhile roadtrip destinations. The author was novelist Maurice Shadbolt, manfully trudging across the pages with clichés in his boots: “Spare more than a glance, traveller, for this serene and tame region, bought with blood and despair; if the land could speak, the Waikato River, eddying between willowy banks, melting wide and sluggish into the Tasman, would tell it all.”
88 Pyramid Valley, Roger Duff (1949): Two guys went to bury a dead horse in a swamp, and blundered across an incredible burial ground of moa bones. Duff, director at the Canterbury Museum, wrote this thrilling account of what lay beneath.
87 Larks in a Paradise, Marti Friedlander and James McNeish (1974): A portrait of ordinary New Zealanders, photographed in stark black-and-white by Friedlander and evoked with similar unsentimentality by McNeish. It’s almost brutal. Fun fact: Hard to Find in Dunedin have about 20 copies on the shelves. For goodness’ sake, snap one up while you can.
86 State Experiments in New Zealand and Australia, William Pember Reeves (1902): He’s better known for his New Zealand history, The Long White Cloud, but frankly it’s a bore. State Experiments is a fascinating survey of the time when New Zealand presented itself as a social laboratory. The online encyclopedia Te Ara notes, “Reeves’ radical legislation…gave New Zealand probably the most extensive system of labour regulations in the world. The Truck Act 1891 enforced the payment of wages in cash and not kind. The Factories Act 1894 forbade the employment of children under 14.” Top man.
85 How to Feast on the Smell of an Oily Rag, Muriel Newman (1988): An Act Party MP writes a book advising the poor how to make ends meet. “Making the most of rubbish… Budgeting by jars”, etc. Comedy gold.
84 Kin of Place, CK Stead (2002): A bracing collection of essays on New Zealand writing, which bring authors and books into the room, look them up and down, and declares their various strengths and failures. It includes his breath-taking and possibly really offensive demolition of Lauris Edmond; in a 6000-word critique in Landfall, much of it incoherent with rage, John Newton sourly referred to Stead’s essays as “unhappy misadventures”. In fact good old CK was fulfilling the role of the critic.
83 Metro (founded 1981): A powerhouse of long journalism and social commentary for over 30 years, due to founding editor and visionary Warwick Roger – a prickly sonofabitch to his critics, but an adventurous, hard-working, dedicated, often inspired character who changed New Zealand journalism for the better.
82 Civilisation, Steve Braunias (2013): Twenty portraits of one-horse towns and no-horse towns, and the people who move like ghosts on their wide, empty streets.
81 How to Write and Sell Short Stories, George Joseph (1958): Most how-to-write books are full of oh-you-don’t-say cliches; this one is just plain weird, a kind of demented masterpiece. His advice includes, “Characters to Avoid: (a) Those with impediments of speech. (b) Those with ugly physical infirmities. (c) Idiots or those mentally afflicted.”
80 Bird Secrets, Major Buddle (1951): A classic by our first great bird photographer. Buddle writes how he took it up as a hobby as a young boy. “Then there came World War I, and the after effects of gas attacks on the Somme and at the battle of Arras finally brought me back to my own country, eventually to taker up my hobby again…” His best work is at the seashore, where his photographs include gannets, terns, gulls, and shags.
79 I Rode with the Epigrams, AK Grant (1979): Superb collection of pieces by the master satirist, including his “An Inquiry into the Construction and Classification of the New Zealand Short Story”, which will always be the funniest parody ever of NZ lit.
78 The New Zealand Wars, James Cowan (1922): The hard-working journo and full-time hack knocked out one book a year, some lame, some important; this may be his best. Elsdon Best moaned about Cowan’s “very ordinary knowledge of the Maori tongue”. It’s reminiscent of snobbish attitudes towards contemporary popular historians such as Paul Moon and Matthew Wright. But they all wrote good, solid, extensively researched books.
77 The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Erebus Disaster (1981): “The ultimate key to the tragedy lay in the white silence of Lewis Bay, the place in which the airliner had been unerringly guided by its micro-electronic navigation system, only to be destroyed, in clear air and without warning, by a malevolent trick of the polar light….” Justice Peter Mahon’s report achieved something no one expected: beauty.
76 The Treaty of Waitangi, Claudia Orange (1987): The first comprehensive study of the Treaty, and a commercial success, too. The times were right. We wanted something this intelligent and calm.
75 City of Volcanoes, EJ Searle (1964): The good professor takes us back to the drama and cataclysm of Auckland’s major volcanic eruptions, in words and also pictures – there’s the twin explosion craters of Tank Farm and Onepoto, there’s the scoria cone of Mangere, there’s Hunua Falls “plunging over the very throat of a volcano”.
74 Holmes, Paul Holmes (1999): “She handed me something in her closed fist. It was her underwear.” Comedy gold.
73 The First New Zealand Whole Earth Catalogue (1972): A hippy bible, ahead of its time – sensible diets, energy saving, sustainable living, generally being cool and not an asshole in relation to the planet. The book was everywhere for a good 10, 15 years, in communes, in cheap flats, in jails.
72 Trial by Trickery, Keith Hunter (2006): Hunter’s book rips into the police case against Scott Watson, convicted for the Marlborough Sounds killings. Momentum is gathering for a fresh investigation into one of the most controversial murders in recent New Zealand criminal history; Hunter’s account is the best place to start reading up on it.
71 Somebodies and Nobodies, Brian Turner (2012): Those bloody Turners of Dunedin, all mouthy and opinionated and sticking their beaks in – who the hell do they think they are? Brian provides some answers in this affectionate, honest portrait of his family.
70 I, George Nepia, TP McLean (1963): Much of this as-told-to bio of the famous All Black is a dull plod through his playing days. But there are moments of terrific detail. Here is Nepia on perfecting his famous spiral kick: “Our coach never ceased to astonish us with his skill in throwing the ball. He threw it over his shoulder not with the unbroken sweep of arm we had been taught, but with a chucking motion, exactly as if he were throwing a cricket ball. It would sail for fifty or sixty yards, spinning like a top. I started to think of the possibility of imitating this spiralling motion with a punted instead of thrown ball…”
69 CF Goldie, Alister Taylor (1977): Taylor is the all-time rogue of New Zealand publishing, its dark stain, a bad guy. But he sure as hell produced some beautiful books; this one reignited the craze for Goldie, and brought him back into the pantheon.
68 Places in the Heart, Warwick Roger (1989): A collection of journalism from the old master. Stand-outs include his picaresque “6 Months in Another Town”, where he writes about an Auckland unfamiliar to him – wet T-shirt contests, that sort of gross thing, and “Highway 99”, an epic, wonderfully reported roadtrip which tells the life and times of a country town in Southland.
67 New Zealand Shells and Shellfish, Glen Pownall (1971): The bible for anyone wanting to pick up shells on our beaches and identify what they are. Beautiful colour photographs of 150 shells – pink tower, little volute, tiger shell, black nerita, red-mouthed whelk, etc – and informative captions bring you closer to the shore.
66 Long Loop Home, Peter Wells (2001): Some of the most gorgeous prose ever published in New Zealand came from the hand of Wells in his intimate memoir of growing up gay. His brother Russell died of Aids; Wells writes of standing by his hospital bed, “I could see so many of the streets we had driven along, to go to the Domain, to visit the museum; I could see flats I had lived in when I was a university student, the window of a room where I had once made love; I could see all the streets and houses and the odd thing was that at that moment they all seemed to have resolved into a singular path, which had led to one place, which was where I was standing: the crossroads, I guess, of my life.”
65 The Sugar Bag Years, Tony Simpson (1974): Another important book published by ratbag Alister Taylor, this is our best record of the 1930s depression, told as oral history – Simpson talked to the people who lived through it, who struggled to feed and clothe their families, to stay alive.
64 The postcards of New Zealand by Gladys Goodall (began 1960): New Zealand has never looked as luscious and naïve and happy as the postcards photographed in a 20-year odyssey by the legendary Gladys. But her photos only told half the story. How many millions of words did holidaying Kiwis write on the back of her cards? A nation’s history was sent in the post.
63 Going South, Geoff Chapple (1989): Chapple writes such distinctive prose – charged, mystical, funny, enthusiastic for life. This account of cruising around the South Island with his wife and kids in a six-tonne Bedford is a supreme piece of New Zealand travel writing.
62 Dirty Politics, Nicky Hager (2014): The book that changed… well, nothing, really. There’s Key, there’s Collins, there’s the whole set-up still in place despite Hagar’s superb investigation – well, apart from Whaleoil. Hagar’s book basically takes out Cameron Slater, and shoots him. The smell of gunsmoke rises from the pages.
61 Hansard (founded 1854): “Order!” But there never is; all is chaos, blather, distress, vanity, and various degrees of vastly entertaining madness as recorded in Parliament over three centuries.
60 A History of New Zealand, Keith Sinclair (1959): History is one damned thing after another, and a lot has happened since 1959; Sinclair’s history is out of date. But it’s almost certainly the best written of all our histories. Sinclair had a lyrical, confident prose style, and there’s such aesthetic pleasure to be had in reading his sentences.
59 The Otara Four-minute Reading Programme, Donna Awatere (1980): It all went terribly wrong for Awatere. As an MP and activist, though, she made a real contribution to New Zealand life, including this attempt at educating the children of the working poor of South Auckland.
58 The Wahine Disaster, Jim Hartley and Max Lambert (1969): The two journalists combined forces to conduct interviews with a large number of survivors who were onboard the doomed ferry Wahine. Their narrative builds steadily, inexorably, towards the dread moment when disaster struck, the boat sank, and passengers and crew jumped overboard in a storm. Frightening and moving.
57 Tread Softly For You Tread on my Dreams, Michael King (2001): New Zealand’s intellectual and literary scene has never really recovered from the death of Michael King. Here was the guy who could be counted on for common sense and an intelligent understanding of any number of social issues. A sample of his busy mind is collected in these essays and reviews, reflecting on his life and times in New Zealand; it’s funny, thoughtful, wise.
56 Bullshit & Jellybeans, Tim Shadbolt (1971): The dude smuggled hand-written pages of his autobiography out of prison! On toilet paper! His book was a sensation at the time, incendiary, loud, rebellious as anything; it was a call to arms. Shadbolt later found more comfort in wearing a coat of arms. Sell-out motherfucker!
55 At the End of Darwin Road, Fiona Kidman (2008): The first volume of her autobiography includes the priceless anecdote of a kind of pre-launch of her first novel, in 1979, when Kidman, broadcaster Sharon Crosbie and historian Keith Sinclair jumped in a car, and Crosbie “leaned out of the windows waving copies of the book and shouting the good news that there had never been a book like it”.
54 Spleen (founded c1976): It didn’t last long but this short-lived literary journal was lively and outrageous, full of vim and vigour, and Ian Wedde and Alan Brunton, both then soft-faced bards writing odes to sex and revolution. It didn’t wring its hands and moan about national identity. It went out and had a good time.
53 The Rise and Fall of a Young Turk, Robert Muldoon (1974): What timing! Muldoon published the first – and best – of his autobiographies the day after he became leader of the National Party. It’s vainglorious, intolerant, impatient; it’s also a lot livelier than that one John Roughan did of the guy who is currently National’s leader.
52 Birds of the Water, Wood & Waste, H Guthrie-Smith (1927): Everyone always raves about his book Tutira, but frankly it’s a bore. The great naturalist is on form in these 18 field-research portraits of common birds – kingfisher, silvereye, pukeko, etc. He’s scathing of the Australasian harrier, or common hawk: “A poor low coward, a terror only to deformed creatures and weaklings…He is a disgrace to his honourable family…Wicked.”
51 Golden Kiwi lottery tickets (founded 1961): The piece of paper that carried the hopes and dreams of New Zealanders. It had a more artful design than Lotto tickets, which replaced it in 1989, and it felt nice, too, to the touch. Crisp. Tantalising.
The Spinoff’s book coverage is sponsored by Unity Books.