Archive for the 'Kerryn Pollock' Category

Fond farewell

Nancy Swarbrick at the November 2013 launch of her book Creature comforts: New Zealanders and their pets

Nancy Swarbrick at the November 2013 launch of her book Creature comforts: New Zealanders and their pets

The best managers are those with a light touch; who trust, but know when to check in and offer gentle encouragement. Nancy Swarbrick, the departing senior editor of Te Ara, is one of these people. I have worked with Nancy since I started as a Te Ara writer in 2008 and she was my manager until 2014, when the first build of the website was completed. Since then, we have worked together updating Te Ara alongside Caren Wilton, Emily Tutaki and Melanie Lovell-Smith. Now that we are all moving on, it is time to pay tribute to Nancy’s 28 years in the public service.

As a historian, it is fitting that Nancy has helped to make history through her contribution to some of New Zealand’s most important public history projects of recent decades. After graduating with an MA in English from Waikato University, she worked for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust before joining the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1987. Bill Oliver was General Editor and the DNZB was housed within the Department of Internal Affairs. Nancy was then appointed as assistant editor, editing and research, by Claudia Orange (Bill Oliver’s successor) in 1989. In this position she was responsible for managing the workflow of the five English volumes of the DNZB, which were produced between 1990 and 2000. She also found the time to write five entries. All this prepared her well for the mammoth task that followed.

Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand began at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in 2002, with General Editor Jock Phillips at the helm. Nancy was Te Ara’s managing editor, overseeing the ‘sausage factory’, as one Te Ara writer called it, with consummate skill. With her trusty whiteboard alongside her at all times, Nancy tracked all 980-odd Te Ara entries from conception to publication, and wrote around 44 of them herself, including the monumental Waikato regional entry. Outside the office she managed to fit in an MA in Public History from Victoria University, for which she graduated with distinction in 2003, and wrote the well-received book Creature comforts: New Zealanders & their pets, published by Otago University Press in 2013.

As our ex-colleague Ross Somerville said to me, Nancy ‘is excellently well-read, knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, an excellent writer and editor’. She is formidably organised and calm under pressure, someone who makes things happen without fuss. Approachable, kind and supportive – the finest of managers.

I don’t think Te Ara could have done without her.

Wellington 150

Wellington in 1866, the year after it became the capital (pic: Alexander Turnbull Library, Alexander Fisher Album)

Wellington in 1866, the year after it became the capital (pic: Alexander Turnbull Library, Alexander Fisher Album)

This weekend Wellington celebrates a birthday – 150 years as the capital city of New Zealand. To mark this event, a host of national and local institutions are participating in The Treasures of Wellington, a series of free tours and events. On Saturday Dave Dobbyn and the Orpheus Choir will perform on the grounds of Parliament, accompanied by a sound-and-light show about the city’s history. Wellington will be in celebration mode.

Roll back 150-odd years and the mood in Wellington was not only celebratory, but triumphant. In January 1865 the New Zealand Spectator and Cook’s Strait Guardian reported that the city was ‘preparing herself to take that station among the New Zealand provinces which her central position and natural advantages have so well fitted her for, and which have marked her as the Capital of the Colony’.

Wellington’s gain was Auckland’s loss. Auckland had been the capital city since 1841, when Governor William Hobson moved his premises from Okiato near present-day Russell in the Bay of Islands, after being offered land in Tāmaki-makau-rau by Ngāti Whātua chiefs. In an era of scattered settlements, basic transport links and painfully slow postal services, Auckland was very far removed from the rest of the population. In 1854 New Zealand’s first head of government, James FitzGerald, proposed moving the capital to a more central location. This first bid was unsuccessful but the issue remained a live one. In 1864, after Parliament passed a resolution to move the capital, three Australian commissioners chose Wellington over Whanganui, Picton, Port Underwood, Havelock and Nelson. The legislators set up shop in Wellington the following year.

The 19th century was a time of fierce provincial and town rivalries as different centres struggled to establish themselves as going concerns. The capital city question provoked disdainful, and at times lurid, commentary in newspapers.  The New Zealand Herald, then as now an Auckland paper, heaped scorn upon Wellington, a ‘wretched collection of dirty wooden structures, built partly upon a mud beach, and partly in the space formed by the scarping of the hill which hems the “city” into landward’ (31 March 1865, p. 4). Well-informed people knew that Wellington ‘would not make up a third rate street in Auckland’. The paper described Wellington’s impending new seat of government as:

… a very creature of Frankenstein…. The monster, however disgusted with its existence in such a spot has, like its prototype, destroyed one after another of the dearest objects of its creator’s affections. It clings to him with pertinacity, returns gibbering and grinning to him from time to time with the evidence in its hands of some new disaster which it has worked for him. (New Zealand Herald, 24 March 1865, p. 4)

Papers in rival centres like Christchurch, not facing a great loss as Auckland was, could indulge in a little pompous, self-satisfied commentary:

The great difference between the South and the North is that here the question of self-interest is really never thought of. It is no exaggeration to say so. We talk of all parts of the colony as parts of a common country having common interests. In Auckland they talk of nothing but Auckland. (Press, 14 January 1864, p. 2)

It’s fun to browse through the newspapers of the time and have a good laugh at the duelling colonials, but things are not so different now. In 2013 Prime Minister John Key told a meeting of Auckland businesspeople that Wellington was dying, much to the chagrin of many Wellingtonians, who vociferously defended the health of their city. Then-Labour Party leader David Shearer retorted, ‘This is absolutely negatively John Key talking about Wellington, it’s a vibrant city, anybody that drives down to Courtenay Place on a Thursday or Friday night knows that’. Perhaps in another 150 years readers will chuckle over statements like this.

The Magna Carta down under

The 1297 version of the Magna Carta on display in Canberra (pic: Flickr: NickHodge's photostream)

The 1297 version of the Magna Carta on display in Canberra (pic: Flickr: NickHodge's photostream)

Today marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, a document granted by King John of England that limited the power of the Crown. This document was fundamental in establishing the concept of the rule of law and notions of freedom and justice. Why, I hear you ask, are we interested in such an anniversary here in New Zealand? Because New Zealand was once a British colony, we inherited its laws. One clause of the Magna Carta remains on the New Zealand statute books:

‘NO freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.’

The Treaty of Waitangi has been described as the ‘Māori Magna Carta’.

The Magna Carta 800 Committee for New Zealand has listed on its website a series of events around the country. There’s a lot on this month, including commemorative services and lectures. In July the University of Auckland is holding a five-part lecture series. If you’re at all interested in the legacy of this important document, check out the New Zealand committee’s website and consider attending one of the events. You can also find out about the Magna Carta and its application to New Zealand on Te Ara.

Tunes on Te Ara

An early record from TANZA, whose name was an acronym for 'to assist New Zealand artists' (pic: Mataura & Districts Historical Society)

An early disc from record label TANZA, whose name was an acronym for 'to assist New Zealand artists' (pic: Mataura & Districts Historical Society)

Every year since 2001, New Zealand Music Month has rolled around in May. Te Ara is full of the stories and sounds of local music. Music historian Chris Bourke’s monumental entry on Popular music takes readers on a jam-packed journey from traditional Māori music to Lorde. He also treats us to shorter forays into the worlds of Jazz and dance bands and Folk, country and blues music. Peter Clayworth explores the military and Scottish origins of Brass and pipe bands, while Piri Sciascia and Paul Meredith chart the evolution of Waiata hōu – contemporary Maori songs.

These entries are replete with great images, sound clips and music videos. If you’re looking for some music to get you through your day’s work, why not check out Hirini Melbourne’s ‘Te pūtōrino a Raukatauri’, Pixie Williams’s classic ‘Blue smoke’, the Chills’ ‘Heavenly pop hit’ or Concord Dawn’s ‘Broken eyes’? There’s something for everyone on Te Ara.

Rural towns and numbers

Ōhura: a quiet township in 2011 (image: Waikato Times)

Ōhura: a quiet township in 2011 (image: Waikato Times)

Updating Te Ara’s regional entries can be a sobering exercise when one’s gaze is fixed on rural New Zealand. In contrast to the inexorable population increase of the big cities and some other main centres, many rural towns are losing people year in, year out.

Urbanisation is not a new trend – more New Zealanders have been urban dwellers from the early 20th century. The rural population has hovered around 500,000 ever since. For the most part though, rural towns held their own until the late 1960s when, in the wake of Britain joining the European Economic Community, agricultural prices stagnated and trading conditions became unfavourable. Young rural people flocked to the cities for work and remained there. Rural life got even tougher in the 1980s after the government removed farm subsidies.

Te Ara’s entry on the King Country region exemplifies these macro-trends. The area’s population peaked in 1961 and has fallen ever since. The new 2013 population figures we’ve added to the entry show a continuation of this trend – the region lost 33% of its population between 1961 and 2013. The populations of Taumarunui and Te Kūiti have fallen, while Ōtorohanga, which is much closer to a big city (Hamilton), has remained stagnant since the 1980s. Places off the beaten track and historically reliant on one industry, like the old mining town of Ōhura, are extreme examples – its 2013 population was 129, an 80% drop from 1961.

It would be interesting to hear from people who make their lives in these places. It’s easy to allow a sense of doom and gloom to permeate when looking at numbers alone, but situations are always nuanced. Award-winning photographer Tony Carter visited Ōhura time and time again in the last two years to photograph its people. He recognised that life was hard and but noted that ‘most people [were] proud of who they are. I felt the people there were quite creative in their own way and happy with their own company’.