In which we take a deep breath and declare the best 50 works of New Zealand non-fiction – books, journals, and various assorted printed material. Yow!
Right then! Let us continue with the countdown to the greatest works of non-fiction ever published in New Zealand, as selected by a conscientious, hand-wringing panel of male and female literary busybodies in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.
Although paraphernalia and periodicals were included, newspapers were regretfully excluded. It was a matter of geography. Easy to say that the New Zealand Herald has had more of an impact and is generally just a lot better than the Sunday Star-Times; but who can say it’s more important than, say, the Greymouth Evening Star?
Blogs were also excluded, because, you know, fucken blogs! Tagging is ugly, and skywriting is too wacky, and would have lowered the list’s tone – the Spinoff Review of Books is an online literary journal, not a commercial radio breakfast show.
Beehive Matches came in at 101.
As an aside, while only seven women authors featured in the list from 100 to 51, the number in this elite group is 19. The cream rises to the top, sort of thing.
Anyway! Here, then, are the best of the best of the works devoted to the real.
50 The Mask of Sanity, James McNeish (1995): David Bain did it, wrote McNeish. The law has declared McNeish got it wrong. He wrote his book after the first trial. As reportage, it’s outstanding; as writing, it’s powerful; as psychological study, it’s quite likely utterly bogus. Maybe.
49 Historic Houses, Linda Burgess (2007): A lovely record of nineteenth century homes, from tiny cob cottages to country mansions, by one of our best prose stylists.
48 Making Peoples, James Belich (1996): A History of Us not written by Michael King. This is the first of two volumes (Paradise Reforged came five years later) that unfold a some big ideas typical of Belich’s bold thinking and prose. His Polynesian Presence begins in 1066 (why not?), his ‘Protein Bridge’ is the period 1882-1973 when frozen meats exports to the UK began to lift us out of depression, his ‘Making Pakeha’ section argues for a distinctive Kiwi identity forged early, on the goldfields, the battlefields, the sportsfields and even at home. Bold sweeps, sometimes, but every word confident in the massive research behind it.
47 Eagle’s Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand in Colour, Audrey Eagles (1975): Twenty years in the making, this delicate, acutely observed collection of her illustrations – life-size, and painted from life – is a lasting sensation.
46 The Teheran Contract, Gayle Rivers (1981): The true story (apparently) of a New Zealand-born soldier of fortune who leads a team of mercenaries into Iran for a mission impossible – the rescue of a wealthy Jewish family on the death list of both the PLO and the Ayatollah. It’s very, very exciting, full of guns and death and occasional reminiscence: “I had made a habit of looking out for myself since I was a kid in New Zealand, hinting alone in the mountains with a small-bore rifle…”
45 The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, Fiona Farrell (2015): Not even a year old, but instantly, obviously a work of rare intelligence and artistry. Her account of life in Christchurch after the earthquake is philosophical, angry, always alert. A terrible disaster demanded an important work; this is it.
44 Answering Hark, Peter Simpson (2001): Colin McCahon’s use of words – “I AM”, and that – is pretty much the first thing we think of when we picture his paintings. Simpson’s book examines the particular influence of poet John Caselberg, who shared a long friendship with McCahon. Two of his largest and most important paintings (“The Wake”, “The Second Gate”) relied on Caselberg’s poems; Simpson tells the full story of one of the most exciting collaboration in New Zealand art history.
43 Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964, by Chris Bourke (2011): When you read this book, you can hear music. Chris Bourke writes about music with such feeling and deep knowledge that it’s like listening to the Kiwi musicians whose stories he tells with such obvious delight. He’s a fan. He’s also a first-rate cultural reporter, skillfully putting over 40 years of music into social context. Plus the photos are awesome.
42 Station Life in New Zealand, Lady Barker (1870): History as it was lived. Her cheerful letters home to England tells us what it was like in our strange new colony – the price of coal, the problem of servants, pig hunting, mustering, shearing, and breadmaking.
41 A River Rules my Life, Mona Anderson (1963): More shearing, more mustering, in Anderson’s cheerful memoir of life at a high-country sheep station in Canterbury. She began writing it during a stay in hospital, on the back of get-well cards. “What’s this rubbish?”, asked her husband. The book ran to nine editions.
40 South Sea Vagabonds, JW Wray (1939): Go, Johnny, go: the dude gets sacked from an unspecified job during the Depression, and gets it into his head that he may as well build a boat and just set off. And so he knocked up a yacht, sailed around the South Pacific just for the hell of it, and wrote a breezy memoir of his great adventure. As Bruce Ansley writes in the 2014 edition: “This book changed lives.”
39 I Passed This Way, Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1979): Sylvia! Mad as a loon, horny and strange and brilliant, she wrote her autobiography at a ripe old age and in great pain – cataracts, and the removal of a malignant growth on her eyelid – and produced a masterpiece.
38 Denis Glover: His Life, Gordon Ogilvie (1999): Ogilvie’s Glover ranks with David Marr’s great biography of Patrick White: the same openness and honesty in slowly, relentlessly revealing a man of certain genius who, unoriginally, sought to wet a wall with it. This is the man who threw a live heater at his wife, put his yacht club funds to personal use, and walked into the Paekakariki Tavern naked but for a tie; and also the man who wrote some of our great lyrical poems, culminating in his “Sings Harry” seqence of the 1940s, a plangent, beautiful elegy for the lost childhood of an entire nation.
37 Turf Digest and Best Bets: Probably the only printed material ever read by generations of punters, who continue to pore over the small, dense type, with its codes and abbreviations, its fascinations with handicap and form – even to experts, the two magazines remain the most inscrutable literature in New Zealand.
36 The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, Anne Salmond (2003): Cook’s three voyages are examined with a fresh eye by Salmond, who treats European and Māori with equal respect. Cook is the star, but he shares the stage with Tupai, who Salmond seems to adore.
35 Broadsheet (founded 1972): Impossible to over-estimate the impact and influence of this energetic, thrillingly argumentative feminist magazine, which wrote about class and race nearly as much as gender. The letters pages were intense. Coney, Bunkle, Else – all the big names wrote for it, and scared the hell out of men for 25 years. It was canned in 1997.
34 Here’s How, Alison Holst (1966): Cook us some eggs! When you add up the sales figures of all Alison Holst’s cookbooks, she’s the biggest-selling author in New Zealand publishing history; it began here, with recipes which now read like atrocities – lamb with cucumber sauce, crumbed brain with tomato sauce, pig’s head brawn – but marked the debut of the Nana of the nation.
33 Traditions and Superstitions of the New Zealanders, Edward Shortland (1854); Struggle Without End, Ranginui Walker (1990): Entirely possible to separate these two books, but we didn’t, because they’re sort of two sides of the same coin. Shortland was described as “the first anthropologist of the Māori”, and collected a wide range of fabulous stories and myths. Walker’s book told a history of New Zealand from a Maori perspective, which is to say that it argues that the past 150 years have been an endless struggle by the Maori for social justice, equality and self-determination.
32 The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature, Patrick Evans (1990): There’s something about this book which isn’t quite…right. It’s…funny! It’s downright hilarious, in places, and mean, sometimes, and high-spirited, often, and it doesn’t give a fuck about literary orthodoxies. It’s original. It’s also rigorous, and serious; it’s the only entertaining survey of New Zealand writing, but it’s the work of a trained and brilliant mind.
31 Closing Times, Dan Davin (1975): Good health! Your round! Glug! Pints and pints and pints of that good, warm English ale swill through Davin’s memoirs of nights out on the grog with luminaries such as poor, doomed Dylan Thomas. Davin, from Invercargill, was in the thick of things as a publisher in Oxford in the 1950s and 60s. He’s a first-rate memoirist and the character studies are absorbing.
30 The Death of Captain Cook, JC Beaglehole (1979): He’s more celebrated for his mammoth achievement of editing Cook’s journals, and for his magisterial The Life of Cook, but this slim volume on Cook’s death is a short, sharp, perfectly formed account of the events that led to the slaughter in Hawaii.
29 Dismembered, Trace Hodgson (1988): Tom Scott, Peter Bromhead, Malcom Evans – there are a hell of a lot of really good, really funny newspaper and magazine cartoonists, but the craziest and most savage was Trace Hodgson. Dismembered is a selection of his Listener political cartoons from 1984-88. The way he drew Muldoon – berserk, appalling, evil – should have earned him a spell in prison.
28 Stranded in Paradise, John Dix (1988): The guy should be fucking knighted for this. Dix worked his ass off for years and years to finally produce this definitive history of New Zealand rock’n’roll from 1955 to 1988. He knew everyone, got out of it with most, and surprisingly remembered quite a lot. Dragon, Split Enz, Bruno Lawrence, Hello sailor…they’re all here, in a noisy, smokey room.
27 AA Maps (founded 1925): The splendidly named Mr Champtaloup drew the first official AA road map by hand. Driving would never be the same again, and the maps became the most widely-read document in New Zealand life – and among the most beautiful. “Figure out where you’re going,” as a character advises in John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run, “before you get there.”
26 A Girl Like I, Rosemary McLeod (1976): Master satirist at work. Her commentaries on modern manners were so funny and sharp, so biting and astute, as she revealed the middle-class in all their dim hypocritical absurdity – and made them look even more grotesque in her drawings. Strange that her illustrations seem almost forgotten. She was a fabulous artist.
25 Tragedy at Pike River Mine, Rebecca Macfie (2013): An angry and intensely moving investigation into the deaths of the 29 miners at Pike River by one of our best practitioners of journalism.
24 Washday at the Pa, Ans Westra (1964): Westra photographed a Māori family with nine children at their home in Ruatoria. It looked kind of Third World. Demeaning, said the critics; accurate, said Westra, of her important – and striking – social document of New Zealand life. .
23 Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting, Gil Docking (1971): This was the one artbook every household needed, and was kind of shocking to behold – here was full-colour, sumptuously printed proof that we had a history of really good art.
22 A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand and Outlying Islands (founded 1966): In which the New Zealand Ornithological Society of New Zealand came of age when it committed itself to the ultimate identification parade of anything with feathers on it. It contains the marvellously gothic sentence, “In 1874 the skin of a freshly dead Australian Darter was found nailed up inside an old shed in Hokitika.”
21 Farthest East, AH Reed (1946): At the age of 70, the venerable Reed – a widower, and a kind of holy fool – walked from Tolaga Bay to Opotoki. It took him 12 days. His account is perhaps the best of his famous books of his perambulations throughout New Zealand; here he ponders the coming of Cook, has tea with Sir Apirana Ngata in Ruatoria, and visits the church in Opotiki where Reverend Volkner was murdered, his eyes gouged out and drank from a chalice. Geoff Chapple called Reed, “This old gaunt giant of early hiking.” Nice.
20 Report on Experience, John Mulgan (1947): “A queer, lost, eccentric people,” Mulgan wrote about us, in this strange and haunting book by the author of the classic novel Man Alone. It opens with remarks about New Zealand, and then he writes of his role with the resistance in occupied Greece during World War II. Famously, tragically, he mailed the manuscript home, and then took his own life, with morphine, in a Cairo hotel room, for reason or reasons still unknown.
19 The Life of Katherine Mansfield, Anthony Alpers (1954): “In the evening there was dancing. At ten o’clock Katherine said good night to the company, and she began to go upstairs. Half-way up she was seized by a fit of coughing….Her hands were over her mouth and blood was oozing through her fingers. The doctors came almost immediately, and were ‘going through hopeless motions with hot water bottles.’ At half past ten, Katherine was dead.” There is a thriving industry devoted to the life and works of Mansfield; Alpers got in early, with his wonderful, sympathetic biography.
18 Chronicle of the Unsung, Martin Edmond (2004): No one writes like Edmond, no one has his range. Perhaps he, too, will never attain the majesty of this loose, amazing memoir, set in Europe, Australia, Fiji and back home in New Zealand. It’s a work of art from start to finish.
17 Landfall (founded 1947): This was where New Zealand literature went for solace, an argument, a place, a drink, a home – it was the best, toughest joint in town for years and years, publishing great writers and also good writers who wrote great works, such as Bill Pearson’s classic “Fretful Sleepers” essay. It was the place to be seen; it was a lifeline of culture.
16 Ten Years Inside, Tom Scott (1985): Satire as the first draft of history. The great master of the political sketch created the best record of New Zealand politics from 1975-84, through his regular column in the Listener. This selection remains vivid and really funny. Also, the guy could write; there is something of Clive James in his prose style, with his epigrams and knowing smile.
15 The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde, Derek Challis & Gloria Rawlinson (2002): Iris Wilkinson’s son and her best friend collude to remind us of the vigour of our literary culture before the cultural nationalist boys took over. Here are women writing as much as men in a tiny, busy world ruled over by the literary panjandrums of the main centres’ dailies – Alan Mulgan, JHE Schroder, Charles Marris and so on – all with an ear to the Mother Country. Out of this journalism and a chaos of illness, fervent relationships and unwed motherhood came ‘Robin Hyde’, poet, novelist, nonfiction writer, impossibly productive and always driving heartrendingly towards suicide at 33.
14 A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case, Lynley Hood (2001): Folk stories provide metaphors for our beliefs; the best have exciting narratives, and themes of fear, dread, punishment. Hood treated the hysteria over the Peter Ellis child abuse scandal rather like a folk story – something powerful and weird and totally fucked-up. Ellis was innocent, she concluded, in her remarkable book. Justice Behrens wrote, “It is full of erudition and sarky wit and is in a style that can strip paint.”
13 New Zealand Woman’s Weekly (founded 1932): It was launched, outrageously, in the Depression. Nothing could stop it. A family journal par excellence, with its knitting patterns and chat and Royal news and slice-of-life letters pages, it also provided quality journalism – it scored exclusive interviews with intensely private figures, such as the Māori Queen Dame Te Ātairangikaahu, and Janet Frame. It has always spoken to women, never down to them.
12 Beyond Reasonable Doubt?, David Yallop (1979): Our most sensational crime book. English journalist David Yallop caught wind of the Crewe killings, got hooked, and wrote his remarkable investigation which argued for the innocence of Arthur Thomas. Within a few months of its publication, Thomas was released from prison, and pardoned by Prime Minister Rob Muldoon.
11 The Telephone Directory (founded 1920s): God bless the phone book! It was indispensable, as essential in the home as dishwashing liquid and potatoes. It was studied, examined, circled, ripped, mooned over, crossed out furiously – it was a book of names.
10 The South Island of New Zealand from the Road, Robin Morrison (1981): 155 pictures, often wide-angled, many bathed in the golden light of South Island afternoons, of people and buildings, of a New Zealand we now know as Morrison’s New Zealand.
9 New Zealand Listener (founded 1939): For so long the journal of cultural record, and a rare and reassuring sign of intelligent life. It’s had great editors such as Monte Holcroft, Tony Reid, and Finlay Macdonald, great writers such as Geoff Chapple, Bruce Ansley, and Diana Wichtel, and great photographers such as Jane Ussher, John Reynolds, and David White; it’s just so loveable, and venerable, and has given such great service to writing and reading in New Zealand.
8 An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966), The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (founded 1990): There ought to be no separating these two monumental references; let them share equal billing in the top 10, for their incredible contribution to our knowledge of where we live and who passed this way. Orsman began his dictionary in the early 1950s, seeking in it a Kiwi vernacular at a time when most Kiwis were unaware they had one. It took forty years to complete and leaves us with a social history of a New Zealand now lost, in which a ‘knocker’ was a pad on shears, a ‘propstick’ propped dray shafts, a ‘shafter’ was a bullock, poached eggs on toast were known as ‘bastards on a raft’, dumplings were ‘buggers afloat’, and children played ‘kick-the-tin’ while sucking ‘conversation lollies’. Lost white settler New Zealand lives again on every page.
7 Hot October, Lauris Edmond (1989): The first volume of Lauris Edmond’s autobiography took everyone by surprise when it appeared. It made many think immediately of her exact coeval, Janet Frame, whose autobiography appeared in the same period: here, though, was something else, a fervent, almost confessional narrative, puzzled, questing, deeply human, telling the story of a woman who took another path through New Zealand life of the time: marriage, motherhood and then the frustration and guilt of choosing a writer’s life and not to be defined by the suburbs. Hot alright: the urgent story and vivid prose all but burn the pages.
6 The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, Jamie Belich (1987): He was almost a punk historian, even though he had a beard. Belich’s version of the so-called “Māori wars” was absolutely radical, and still the source of much harrumphing discontent because of his revisionist thesis of these “bitter and bloody struggles”. Too pro-Māori, too anti-English, scowl the critics. Fuck them. Great book.
5 Edmonds Cookbook (founded 1908), Yates Garden Guide (founded 1895): Impossible to separate these two essential guides to the New Zealand way of life – at home, in the kitchen, in the garden, quietly absorbed and happily, righteously, profoundly suburban.
4 The Penguin History of New Zealand, Michael King (2003): The book that told us who we were and how we got to where we are. It was a synthesis of King’s wide reading, intended for the general public, but it was sophisticated and never pat, and it even had some pretty good jokes. King was everything a good historian should be – fair, scholarly, shrewd – but he had something else, something special, that made him a great historian: wisdom.
3 A History of the Birds of New Zealand, Walter Buller and JG Keulemans (1872): Birdland. Masterfully drawn by Keulemans, and thoroughly researched by Buller, that monster, that genius, that good shot: “In the summer of 1859,” he reminisces of the white heron, or kotuku, “after stalking him for two hours, I shot a beautiful adult male.” Well, all the better to examine it. His book will always remain our most extraordinary record of our natural heritage.
2 To the Is-land, Janet Frame (1982): “Among,” said Patrick White of the first volume of Frame’s autobiography, “the wonders of the world.” Quite right. Her crackling, singular genius touches every page, every word of this incredible evocation of childhood in a lost New Zealand.
1 Treaty of Waitangi (1840): February 6 and all that. As mysterious and profound as the Dead Sea Scrolls, at once enigmatic and dead simple, our founding document is the paper that formed and continues to form life in these South Seas islands.
The Spinoff’s book coverage is sponsored by Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.