A while back someone I knew from the UK visited a bookstore in Wellington and – as a stranger – asked the book-store owner what they thought of me. He was told I was ‘controversial’ because I wrote on so many ‘different’ topics.
I disagree, of course, and with good reason. But I can see how the impression emerges. A lot stems from the fact that the total skill-set of authors is often confused with their subject matter of their last book. I wrote a book on aircraft; that made me an ‘aircraft historian’. I wrote another on the battle for Crete. That made me a ‘military historian’. I wrote a fair number on Hawke’s Bay, which variously made me a ‘local’, ‘Napier’ or ‘Havelock North’ historian.
The supposition, apparently, is that it is only possible to be ‘expert’ on one topic, and that expertise is defined by the ability to accumulate data.
Such opinion, of course, misses the point of my work. In fact I am only doing the one thing, and it is the topic I have been focussing on my whole working life. History-as-analysis – meaning, ultimately, finding ways of understanding the human condition - is a skill of its own. So is writing, which is the mechanism for expressing it. Although I tailor books to specific commissions and markets, the techniques required for each – including the research and writing skills - are identical. As is the interpretation I present; in every book this has been an aspect of the wider historical interpretation I’ve developed to explain New Zealand’s past – and hence, its present. I laid the whole of it out a few years back in my general history of New Zealand.
Each book explores aspects of my general theme, expanding, developing – even, at times, re-thinking. Consider Old South, which explored the collision between idealism and reality that shaped the settler period. Shattered Glory picked up that theme where Old South left off – where New Zealand society was wallowing amid the wreckage of those settler-age dreams, and explored how they were then revived into social militarism. Which was then then broken in the First World War. It was a stand-alone book – but it could also be read straight after Old South and was a conceptual sequel.
Not, I suspect, that anybody particularly ‘got’ it. Never mind. I further explored New Zealand’s First World War mind set in a couple of other books, Western Front and New Zealand’s Military Heroism. The human place New Zealand was in at the end of the First World War is covered in my book Quake – Hawke’s Bay 1931. And in my various histories of our part in the Second World War, I also looked at how that struggle further transformed New Zealand’s culture.
I’ve argued that what came afterwards, into the 1950s and 1960s, was something of a golden age for New Zealand in terms of the expectations people had at that time, although the gold was coloured rather dull brown. An age of boring certitude and safety after two generations of upheaval, a desire for the good life without too much effort – reflected in our mania for consumer goods – which I explored in my transport and several of my regional histories.
Along the way I’ve detailed elite settler society, which I covered in Hawke’s Bay – The History of a Province; bohemianism, which featured in Havelock North – The History of a Village; and race-relations, which I covered in Two Peoples, One Land.
And I’ve looked at how these social developments have interacted with our physical world, via my engineering histories. All these tie closely in to the main settler-age interpretation presented in my general history and in Old South.
So that, in a nutshell, is how I see my books; different aspects of a single approach, pursued now over more than 25 years, exploring the deeper human condition. To this extent everything might be looked on as another instalment in a single over-arching interpretation that, so far, approaches two million words.