On Wednesday night Te Ara launched its offshore islands entries. This was both a proud and sad occasion for Te Ara. We are proud because the completion of those entries means that we now have the whole of New Zealand covered in our Places theme. This fine collection of accurate, beautifully illustrated information represents a signal contribution to the exploration of this country’s history and culture. The 22 regions covered have been the work of many people, but the person who has overseen it and must take much of the credit is Malcolm McKinnon.
This is where the sadness comes in, because the completion of Places meant that on Wednesday we also farewelled Malcolm, who for nine years, following Claudia Orange’s departure, has been the theme editor of Places. A distinguished historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of New Zealand (and indeed world) history, Malcolm had also been trained as a geographer. He brought those skills to bear on his magnificent reference work, The New Zealand historical atlas (1997), where every one of the 100 plates invites hours of absorbing study. With his mastery of time and place, Malcolm was the ideal person to oversee the Places theme.
He did so brilliantly – writing no less then five of the entries:
- Bay of Plenty, the very first place, which we launched in Tauranga to an expectant crowd of 11!
- Manawatū–Horowhenua, which Malcolm made really interesting, thus overturning my Wellington-centred prejudice that it was the country’s most boring region
- Volcanic Plateau, which attracted particular enthusiasm from the tourist operators of the region
- Otago, where Malcolm’s Scots heritage came to the fore, and the locals, about 150 of them, just loved the entry at the Dunedin launch
- Marlborough, in which, as always, Malcolm took the reader expertly from Wairau iwi to wine.
Malcolm also made a huge commitment to the other Places entries. With impeccable judgement he helped choose the authors and then used all his very considerable powers of diplomacy to work with them, checked and read many times every word they produced, wrote most of the captions, took a leading role in selecting resources (working first with Shirley Williams and then Janine Faulknor), took part in heated debates about the entry colour schemes, and attended most of the launches. Above all, he liberally sprinkled every entry with maps – of geology, landforms, vegetation, iwi locations, military engagements, government boundaries, and inevitably rail lines. The Places entries reflect his skills on every page.
Nor was this all. Malcolm has been a marvellous colleague in the Te Ara team. He read every entry in all the other themes too, and would draw on his huge knowledge to pick up errors or suggest more felicitous wordings, all expressed in his minuscule handwriting. He was a constant source of information and bibliographic advice to the whole team. He also made special contributions to the Economy and the City theme – where he was the theme editor for the economy part and turned all that scary economics jargon into clear English – and to the Government and Nation theme, where he worked closely with the theme editors, Nigel Roberts and Stephen Levine.
And of course he was our go-to map man. Any Te Ara map went to Malcolm for sign-off, and all of them are very much clearer and more accurate as a result.
I personally have now worked with Malcolm in various roles for some 40 years. I cannot believe that I will not work with him again in the future. I can be a fairly forthright person at times, but I cannot in all honesty remember one serious disagreement over that time; and I can remember countless occasions when I have learnt heaps from him. So thank you Malcolm for your enormous contribution to Te Ara. It has been a privilege and a delight working with you. Your wisdom, your respect for the truth of time and place, and your human generosity have greatly improved the encyclopedia and made working here so much more enjoyable for all concerned.