Sugar rush

Sacks of sugar piled high at the Colonial Sugar Refining Company refinery, early 1900s (pic: Alexander Turnbull Library)

Sacks of sugar piled high at the Colonial Sugar Refining Company refinery, early 1900s (pic: Alexander Turnbull Library)

I’m well known for having a very sweet tooth, and it’s a characteristic I share with many others. New Zealanders have had a long love affair with sugar, and New Zealand cookbooks tend to have a heavy emphasis on cakes and biscuits.

Unlike their cousins elsewhere in the Pacific, Māori were unable to grow sugar cane in Aotearoa, so sugar was introduced by Pākehā settlers. The first sugar refinery in New Zealand was established, with the aid of a government grant, in 1882 in Birkenhead, Auckland.

In the early 20th century imports of sugar from Fiji dominated New Zealand’s trade with the Pacific, but Fiji’s role as a sugar supplier to New Zealand gradually declined over the century. Since 1960 most of New Zealand’s sugar has been imported from Australia.

Sugar gets a bad rap these days – blamed, quite rightly, for its role in a range of ills from obesity to diabetes. Like other products that can be damaging to health, it can be difficult to get people to consume less sugar because it is associated with pleasure and sociability.

Still, with all due respect to the wonderful work of public health advocates, I would like to celebrate all things sweet and sugary on Te Ara.

Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today.
At Te Ara, it’s jam every day! Jars of jam are beautiful to look at and even better to taste. You can watch jam being made, see the teenage workers of Kirkpatrick’s of Nelson stirring huge pots of jam, and admire Miss Bush’s remarkable dress (a promotion for Kirkpatrick’s jam).

If I knew you were coming, I’d’ve baked a cake.
Too late to bake for those unexpected guests? Don’t worry, Te Ara has you covered. We’ve got cakes of all kinds and cakes for every occasion: birthdays, Christmas, wedding anniversaries (this one brought a tear to my eye)…

Pie in the sky when you die.
Peeved by posthumous pie promises? You can get your piece of the pie right now at Te Ara. Pies can be sweet or savoury, but I’m guessing these prospective prize pies are sweet and full of fruit. Then there are the pie’s fruity relatives, such as the crumble.

That really takes the biscuit.
If someone’s taken your biscuit, we’ll help you replenish your supplies. Care for a Girl Guide biscuit, perhaps? Or feast your eyes on this amazing photo of dough scraps from the Griffin’s factory in Lower Hutt.

We all scream for ice cream.
Stop screaming and start dreaming. A classic Kiwi hokey pokey? Or some swanky up-market ice cream? Something you can share with your dog? Uranium ice cream, anyone? Or plain old chocolate and vanilla on a stick. I’m sorry, though: bacon and egg ice cream is just wrong.

And that’s not all: we’ve also got pavlova, chocolate, custard squares, baklava and more. Now, where can I get a nice cup of tea

Sporting life

All Blacks triumphant after winning the 2011 Rugby World Cup (pic: New Zealand Herald)

All Blacks triumphant after winning the 2011 Rugby World Cup (pic: New Zealand Herald)

2015 has been a great year for sport and world cups.

At the beginning of the year New Zealand hosted the Cricket World Cup. There were great cricketing moments from the Black Caps, like Martin Guptill’s double century over the West Indies, or the touching photo of Grant Elliott helping South African Dale Steyn up after the Black Caps’ win to make the finals. Although we lost to our sport nemesis, Australia, in our first cricket final, it will never be as bad as the unforgotten underarm bowling incident.

New Zealand also hosted the FIFA Under-20s World Cup in May.  This is FIFA’s second-largest competition for males. Our under-20 team managed to make the knock-out stages for the first time, but the ultimate champions were Serbia. Football in New Zealand has slowly gained more recognition thanks to the All Whites, the Phoenix and the growing number of New Zealanders playing football internationally.

In August, Australia hosted the Netball World Cup. As usual, it was a Silver Ferns-versus-Diamonds final, and (unlike 2003) the Silver Ferns couldn’t pull it off.

Mid-September saw the start of the Rugby World Cup. The opening of course featured Rugby School and William Webb Ellis.  The All Blacks are the defending champions, with no team ever yet winning two cups back-to-back. Let’s hope it doesn’t end up like 2007.

Bill Oliver, 1925–2015

Historian and editor Bill Oliver, complete with pipe (pic: Massey University)

Historian and editor Bill Oliver, complete with pipe (pic: Massey University)

It’s sad to record the passing on 16 September of William Hosking Oliver, one of the pioneers of the teaching of New Zealand history in New Zealand universities, and the founding editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (now part of Te Ara).

Bill was born in Feilding and attended school there and in Dannevirke. He was proud of his Cornish ancestors and his roots in middle New Zealand. He studied at Victoria University College in Wellington, where he came under the spell of History Professor Fred Wood. He went off to complete a doctorate at Oxford University (on British Millennialists) before returning to teach at Canterbury and Massey universities.
It was at Massey that Bill established the first course that focused on New Zealand history, and he published a pioneering history, The story of New Zealand (Faber and Faber), almost simultaneously with Keith Sinclair’s History of New Zealand
(Penguin). Sinclair’s book came to be reprinted many times, and Bill’s was not, possibly because of its more discursive and essayistic style, cast in elegant prose and avoiding the Great Men and Great Events school of historiography. It still reads beautifully.

Oliver and Sinclair were longtime colleagues and friends, both poets and essayists as well as historians of New Zealand. They mingled with other writers and artists in their youth, and fruitfully sparred with each other on DNZB committees.

In the early 1980s Bill Oliver took on the role of founding editor of a new dictionary of national biography for New Zealand. He was determined as ever to make this, usually the most nationalistic of historical monuments, as representative of the actual makeup of the country as possible. This was a difficult challenge, especially in the selection of biographies for inclusion in the first volume, which covered the years in which the islands were discovered by Europeans, the British colony founded and settlement begun. The historians and other interested parties whom Bill consulted and formed into working parties had definite views and firm ideas about who was to be ‘in’ and who was not. Bill’s democratic plan was to include many Māori and many more women than were usually encountered in such compilations. This didn’t leave as much room for the pale patriarchal people and many noses were put out of joint. Bill stuck to his principles and a unique and memorable collection of lives enriched New Zealand’s historiography.

Alongside this achievement was the publication of a parallel volume of Māori-language lives of Māori people. This bicultural initiative was another pioneering achievement, assisted and continued by Bill’s successor as general editor, Claudia Orange.

One of the distinguishing features of Bill’s editorship was his guiding hand in matters of structural editing and style. Staff were treated to Bill’s handwritten comments on their editing, in terms of the balance and structure of a life as well as in identifying detailed (in Bill’s hand, always ‘detailled’ – he never could spell that word) points of fact and nuances, drawing on his immense knowledge of New Zealand history and the primary sources of information. These comments were expressed in economic and graceful prose. (Bill’s editorial principles and practices have been outlined in a previous post to this blog).

Bill was awarded a CBE for this achievement, and the project was fortunate to have his ongoing interest and attention, as he continued to provide advice and detailled [sic!] commentary for all future volumes of the DNZB after his retirement.

I suspect that all who worked alongside Bill (not ‘for’ him – he seldom pulled rank) will count it among the most satisfying, stimulating and rewarding periods in their lives.

In recent years Bill’s activities have been compromised by ill health, though his mind and interest have remained active. Few people, and certainly not Bill himself, had anticipated he would live to such a ripe old age, but those who have had the pleasure of his company will cherish the memory of the gentle and wise man who was happy to discuss all manner of contemporary subjects, and also to share the details of a long and full life. He’d had to give up most of his ‘vices’ over the years, but his memories of them were animated and cheerful. Recently he told me about his time manpowered into the broadcasting service at the end of the Second World War, and chortled over the jazz records he ‘borrowed’ from the service and took home to enliven student parties. He’d been reading to me from Rachel Barrowman’s recent biography of Maurice Gee, enlivened by erudite and amusing commentary. I’m going to miss his quiet charm and wise conversation. Nice that he’s left an enduring legacy and a cohort of friends and colleagues to celebrate knowing him.

Long to reign over us

Queen Elizabeth II on the observation platform of her royal car, 1954 (pic: Archives New Zealand - Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga)

Queen Elizabeth II on the observation platform of her royal car, 1954 (pic: Archives New Zealand - Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga)

On Wednesday, after more than 63½ years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II surpasses her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, as the longest-reigning British monarch. Because New Zealand did not become part of the British Empire until several years after Victoria’s accession, Elizabeth has been this country’s longest-reigning monarch since 2013. Between them, Victoria and Elizabeth have been New Zealand’s head of state for more than 70% of its existence as a separate colony, dominion or ‘realm’.

The two reigns have an inverse symmetry. Victoria became monarch in an era of imperial expansion accompanied by economic and social upheaval (think Chartism). She lived long enough to experience the high point of empire – absolute British rule over India – but also anxiety about the rise of Germany and the United States, and trouble with the Irish.

Elizabeth’s era has been one of imperial decline. By the time she succeeded her father, King George VI, in 1952, the country that had stood alone against Hitler in 1940 was no longer a great power. The Indian subcontinent was already independent, and the rest of the Commonwealth soon followed suit. In 2015 the United Kingdom is a middling country on the edge of Europe whose internal unity can’t be taken for granted.

The monarch’s role has shrunk along with her domain. Victoria – especially while her husband Albert was alive – expected ‘her’ ministers to at least take her views seriously. Even after the Reform Act 1832, only 5% of Britain’s population had the vote, and Parliament and government were dominated by an elite steeped in deference. Today, Elizabeth acts only on the advice of the people’s representatives.

Queen Victoria never visited New Zealand – or India, even though she was installed as its Empress and studied Hindustani. Elizabeth II was the first reigning monarch to visit New Zealand, in 1953, six months after her coronation. She has been back nine times, on the last occasion in 2002 as part of a golden jubilee tour of the Commonwealth. Since then younger members of the royal family have visited this country frequently.

The significance of the monarchy today is largely cultural. In the 1950s every household seemed to have a souvenir of the first visit by the young Queen and her dashing naval officer husband. Tea towels hung proudly on walls and commemorative booklets graced mantelpieces. Watching the Queen’s Christmas message on television remains part of the Christmas Day ritual for many households.

Though Elizabeth retains an aura of authority – or at least, mystery – royal pomp and ceremony isn’t what it used to be. One milestone, in Wellington in 1970, was the Queen’s first so-called ‘walkabout’ (as it was dubbed by the British press corps, in a misguided reference to Australian Aboriginal custom). There was a strict ‘no-touching’ policy in relation to the royal person – yet today, a selfie with Prince Harry is probably the most sought-after souvenir of a royal visit.

As the silken bonds of empire continue to fray, the record royal reign is also likely to be one of the last, at least for New Zealanders.

Saluting Jack Perkins

Jack Perkins on the job

Jack Perkins on the job

It was the end of an era last month, when Jack Perkins hung up his headphones, or mic, or whatever it is that radio documentary producers hang up when they retire. Now 75, Perkins has spent 56 years in radio, producing Radio New Zealand National’s weekly Spectrum programme since 1972, when it was set up as a human-interest complement to the more current-affairs-focused Insight (also still running).

Portable recording gear (unwieldy though it was by today’s standards) was introduced in the 1960s, allowing radio producers to get out in the field, talking to people in their own environments. It brought a freshness and immediacy to radio, and Perkins made the style his own. ‘Radio had been a bit stuffy, it had been tied to the studio, largely,’ muses Perkins in Spectrum’s life and times’, an endearing two-part Spectrum about, well, itself, in which he chats with the programme’s founder, 88-year-old Alwyn ‘Hop’ Owen. ‘We were able to get out and get ordinary New Zealanders telling their own stories in their own voices, and that was a huge change … They were hearing their own stories fed back to them and the people in their community.’

In its 43 years Spectrum has been everywhere and met everyone, it seems – to a kākāpō-saving project in Fiordland, to the Nelson tip, up in Tiger Moths and helicopters, to rugby matches and protests and tattoo parlours and railway stations and many, many people’s lounges, from one end of the country to the other. And it has amassed a remarkable body of recording, of New Zealanders talking about themselves and their lives, and on subjects of all sorts, from long-line fishing to caravans to tsunamis to skydiving to boarding schools. It has recorded our voices and thoughts and memories and lives, and played them back to us, and preserved them. ‘We didn’t really know just how valuable in terms of social history we were going to be,’ says Perkins. ‘That’s right, you just got on with the job,’ chimes in Owen.

I was lucky myself to work with Jack in 2003 and 2004, when I was commissioned as a freelancer to do a couple of Spectrums, and was trained in the Perkins approach – which I mostly remember as a kind of stepping back, an intent listening, an allowing. In a guide for journalism students, he writes, ‘At the back of the farm, on the city street or on board the fishing boat, we talk to people in their own surroundings, capturing the activity and “feel” of everyday life – their feelings, attitudes, prejudices, stories and experience – first-hand and unfiltered – up close and personal.’ His work is often rich with layers of ambient sound – listen, for instance, to these clips from 1973 abortion protests and from a fruit and vege auction, and to the grizzled, lovely voices of these two interviewees – old mates, clearly – talking about coal mining.

I emailed Jack today, asking for a photo to use for this blog post, wishing him the best, and asking what his plans were. Unassuming as ever, he responded, ‘I feel as though I’m on holiday, it’s a bit unreal after 56 years. I’m just going to see how things go, I’ve nothing specific planned.’

You can catch part 2 of ‘The life and times of Spectrum’ this Sunday – 6 September – at midday on Radio New Zealand National.