Fun, sun and the usual Spinal Tap hilarity on the other side of the ditch

It’s time for a weekend get-away, and She Who Must Be Obeyed and I decide the other side of the Tasman is, once again, the place to be. Sydney is one of our favourite get-away destinations, cheaper to reach than parts of New Zealand and alive with a vibrancy that underscores its place as one of the world’s great cities.

Sydney Opera House on Bennelong Point, with Circular Quay beyond.

On Sydney harbour: I recklessly took this from the Manly Ferry as it cut its way to Circular Quay.

We’ve been there often enough before, and these weekends usually don’t turn into Spinal Tap adventures until we get there. This time the shenanigans begin when She Who Must Be Obeyed picks up the tickets from the travel agent.‘I see you didn’t take the fourth night free.’ ‘What free night?’ Turns out the other staff member, who we’d booked with, hadn’t mentioned it, and we are stuck with three.

Oh well, it’s still an extended weekend in a good hotel up from the historic district. Until the shuttle-bus rolls up at a different establishment at the eastern end of the CBD, a place with the same name but thoroughly down-market air, awash with tour groups and fading nineties tat. This is what the agent has ACTUALLY booked. But hey, I think as I skid on the body hair of the last occupant, possibly left by the cleaners as a kind of memento on the bathroom floor, we’ve stayed in worse places. The only major down side, to my wife’s annoyance, is that the TV remote keeps sticking on channels showing Dr Who.

Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House with Circular Quay to the right.

We head into central Sydney where a walking tour departs at 2.00 pm from the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park, ‘every day, rain hail or shine’. Except, we discover in true Spinal Tap terms, today. ‘Sorry, not enough people,’ explains the guide. ‘I’m really sorry, it’s not worth my while. Maybe tomorrow.’ Not my definition of professionalism, but hey… We side-step into St James Church on King Street, where we scan the memorials on the walls for New Zealand historic figures from the 1840s. I find some I’d missed last time. And then we dive into the shopping district where – predictably – we discover the retail stores carry exactly the same brands and range we get in New Zealand, at much the same prices.

The Opera House Bar.

The Opera House Bar.

Dinner is at our favourite sushi train, a place on Liverpool Street whose hard-working staff prepare it in front of their largely Japanese clientele. We go there every time we’re in Sydney. It’s great sushi, and the sense of theatre is underscored by the concierge calling every time someone enters, repeated in unison by the chefs. Careful questioning reveals it isn’t some kind of good-luck ritual, as I fondly imagine, but – mundanely – ‘customers arriving’.

My view from the Makoto sushi bar, Sydney.

My view from the Makoto sushi bar, Sydney. I took this with my phone – I wasn’t going to lug 1.5 kg worth of SLR and lens to dinner.

Another night we eat in a pub of a kind long since extinct in New Zealand – red 1970s carpet, half-tiled walls and an air of tired grandeur and extensive drinking. We find a table under a giant projector screen. ‘Nice to be away from all the New Zealand news,’ I say, just as the screen lights up with the Hawke’s Bay vs Northland game in my home town of Napier. In an effort to feel I am somewhere different I order an entire schooner of XXXX lager (yes, that really is the brand name), having forgotten that in NSW a ‘schooner’ tops out at 285 ml. The one I actually mean is the ‘Middie’, which is approximately 32.8 litres and can be knocked back by any good Aussie or Kiwi in the ten seconds between the start of the six o’clock time pips and the top of the hour.

Inside the Victoria Building on George Street - Victorian-age mall.

Inside the Victoria Building on George Street – Victorian-age mall. Click to enlarge.

Back at the hotel we discover that (a) a couple have moved into the room next door, (b) the soundproofing is in the same basket as the floor cleaning, and (c) our neighbours like each other very, very much. After the Beast With Two Backs makes its third Australian-accented intrusion into the room next door I’m ready to yell ‘get a bloody room’ through the wall despite the fact that, rather obviously, they already have.

We take the commuter ferry along Port Jackson to the historic farm-museum at Parramatta, where I look at Rev. Samuel Marsden’s desk and discover that I know more about its context than our guide. The thing about Sydney is that this is where New Zealand’s pakeha history began. Specifically, at this very desk, where Marsden the ‘Flogging Parson’, so-called because he used to get his jollies watching convict women being whipped, plotted to set up the first permanent pakeha settlement – a Church Missionary Society station – in the Bay of Islands. And managed it, finally, in 1814. Yes, it’s true – history is interesting, if a bit on the ewwww side.

The not-so-sandy end of Manly Beach.

The not-so-sandy end of Manly Beach.

On our last full day we head down to Circular Quay to catch the Manly ferry. Manly, out by the heads, is a great swimming beach, and the water is inviting apart from one small problem. ‘Sheet,’ I explain in my best Australian, ‘we left the cossies across the deetch.’ The calming presence of She Who Must Be Obeyed stops me saying anything more in Australian. Probably wisely.

A busy Saturday on Sydney harbour.

A busy Saturday on Sydney harbour. Click to enlarge.

Our adventures don’t end as we leave our hotel for the airport. We get to the departure lounge, but I can’t help thinking something’s missing. And it is. The aircraft. Then when it does arrive and we settle in, someone near the back decides they have Ebola or have left the eggs boiling back home, and the time is therefore Totally Deranged o’clock. More delays while officials rush about and take the passenger off, then disembowel the hold in a Lord Of The Rings scale quest for their luggage.

Eventually the engines spool up and we depart, 90 minutes late, with what looks like an attempt to taxi back to New Zealand but turns out to be a crawl to the furthest possible runway, all to a soundtrack of Jimmy Barnes’ ‘Last Train Out Of Sydney’. Apt, I think, as we finally surge into the air and the lights of that city disappear behind us.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

New Zealand and the American Declaration of Independence

I am often intrigued by the unlikely ways history has conspired to make the world we know today – the connections, often unlikely, that link the world.

John Trumbull's painting, of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

John Trumbull’s well known painting of the authors of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Take the US Declaration of Independence, for instance. I figure that it was thanks to a combination of this document and the fact that too many Englishmen were caught poaching that we have Australia and New Zealand as we know them today.

Let me explain. The British lost the War of Independence – and with it, one jewel in their Imperial crown, America. It had a significant ripple effect – and in ways nobody could have predicted. You see, Britain didn’t have a state prison system as such. After 1717, most poor criminals who weren’t hanged were banished to America. By 1776 some 40,000 had been bundled off across the Atlantic, where they were usually put to work as labourers.  That door closed with the revolution – just at the moment when, as far as anybody in Whitehall could tell, places to exile petty criminals were needed more than ever.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his 1820 book Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library, public domain.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his ‘Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders’ (1820). British Library, public domain.

The problem was that the American Revolution came just as Britain also fell into the Industrial Revolution. That brought social upheaval on unprecedented scale. Authorities responded by tightening punishments on those dispossessed by the change, who had been reduced as a result to petty crime. But there were a lot of them, and by the early 1780s there was nowhere to put them, except the rotting prison hulks anchored around Britain’s harbours. Home Secretary Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, summed it up. These places were so crowded that ‘the greatest danger is to be apprehended, not only from their escape, but from infectious distempers, which may hourly be expected to break out amongst them.’

The prospect that they might also become a focus for uprising was probably not lost on authorities. There was only one answer; and at the end of August 1786, Sydney ordered the Admiralty to get moving on a scheme to set up a new prison colony on the other side of the world in Botany Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.  The first fleet of eleven ships, led by HMS Sirius, left Portsmouth in May 1787.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

The prison colony at Botany Bay soon expanded; other prisons were set up – all with the aim of becoming nuclei of proper settlements. And they began leaking. Prisoners who had no idea where they were took to small boats, thinking they might reach Tahiti – or home. Actually, many ended up in New Zealand, where there was virtually no European presence at the time. Others went across on ships – men given their parole who found work on sealers and whalers. All lived riotously, and they soon gave New Zealand a repute for wild lawlessness.

New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, were disgusted with the behaviours they saw playing out before them – and complained, on occasion, to authorities in Sydney.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

It was largely to curb this bad-boy behaviour by British subjects who were out of reach of the law that the British finally angled towards setting up a Crown colony, formally, in the late 1830s. But there was no money available, and prevailing mood in the Colonial Office was tempered by the Church Missionary Society. A colony, the Colonial Office insisted, could only be set up with free agreement of Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi followed – a three-clause document hastily written and signed for the first time at Waitangi in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in February 1840. Today it is regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, much as the US uphold the Declaration of Independence. And – by the path laid out here – likely wouldn’t have happened if the American colonies hadn’t decided to do something about the problems they were having with the British.

History, as I say, has some funny connections. Do you ever think about the way events conspire to connect – and create the world we know today?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Buy the print edition: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

 

Arguing about New Zealand’s founding Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 174th anniversary of New Zealand’s founding as a Crown Colony, when Hone Heke became the first of around 40 Maori to sign a treaty with the British government at Waitangi (‘Weeping Waters’).

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Copies of the Treaty were subsequently taken around the country, and about 540 Maori subsequently signed. Today the Treaty of Waitangi is upheld as a founding document. Like most ‘founding documents’ it’s also grown with us. Today we uphold the Treaty as a definition of race relations – a device for establishing the relationship between two peoples, buoyed on ‘principles’, developed in the 1980s, which guide the way claims by Maori against the Crown are analysed and settled.

It is also terribly divisive. Arguments always flare at Waitangi and the associated Te Ti marae on the day – down to mud being thrown (literally) at dignitaries. Meanwhile, nay-sayers deny it’s valid – particularly a lunatic fringe of ‘Celtic’ evangelists who think they have found a ‘real’ version in the drawer of a bureau in an auction house. These fruit-loops trawl the Treaty, word by word, for literal meaning they twist to suit their own agenda. On what I’ve seen of their rantings, they don’t have the slightest understanding of historiographic methodology. Still less any acceptance of the context of the Treaty as a living document. If they were in a class I was teaching on history – or philosophy, or logic – they’d get an F.

The reality is that the Treaty has become part of New Zealand’s cultural fabric – an evolving, current concept that far transcends its humble historic origins.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi - now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi – now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Back in 1839, when the Treaty was first mooted, the Treaty wasn’t envisaged as a colossal nation-founding treatise at all. It was a quick and cheap expedient for meeting an immediate need.

The problem the Colonial Office faced was that New Zealand was off the beaten track – it had little economic value. But white crime was rife, leaking out of Sydney. Ex-convicts and other pakeha (white people) in New Zealand thumbed their noses at British law. Then former kidnapper Edward Gibbon Wakefield decided the place would make a perfect venue for the socially ideal society he envisaged.

From the Colonial Office perspective it was a perfect storm. Crown Law had to be established. But the Treasury wasn’t prepared to fund it – meaning that colony by treaty with Maori, as a cheap alternative, gained ground. This idea keyed into Church Missionary Society thinking, in the ascendant at the time.

I've covered the Treaty story in several of my books, including this one.

I’ve covered the Treaty story in several of my books, including this one.

New Zealand consequently became the only British colony set up by treaty. But it was done with terrible haste. William Hobson, the naval commander sent to undertake the task, didn’t know whether the colony should cover all the New Zealand islands, or just Northland where contact with Maori principally existed at the time. That was still being debated when he rushed to the Bay of Islands on board HMS Rattlesnake and met local British officials – the Resident, James Busby; and CMS head Henry Williams.

The short three-clause treaty that followed was hastily written and badly translated – there is evidence that Williams was given the wrong version to turn into Maori, and his translation of that was sloppy.

The  first clause repudiated the ‘Declaration of Independence’ of 1835, by which Busby tried to get Maori to enforce law over Britain’s wayward ex-convicts. The other two clauses  were designed to get land sales under control – and set up the colony. Maori had been falling victim to private deals during 1839 which, by British law, had the appearance of scams. Hence Maori were guaranteed possession of what they had – until they sold it to the British.

The lot fell foul of cultural differences. None of the British officials were sure Maori understood the distinction between ‘sovereignty’ and ‘chieftainship’, and the wording that emerged – which never made it into the Maori version – wasn’t clear.

It’s from this that a lot of the debate has since generated about the Treaty – but at the time it was a product of mis-fired good intentions. And, as I say, things have evolved since. As they should.

The story of how it was signed – which was only accidentally on 6 February – and the subsequent fate of the actual parchment signed that day almost exactly matches the way we’ve conceptualised it, culturally – but that’s another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, fun with science, and more. Watch this space.

How professional book reviewing works – ideally

A week or so back my publicist at Penguin sent me the reviews of my book Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past, that have been published since that title came out.

They got me thinking about reviews and reviewing. I write such things myself for New Zealand newspapers and magazines. And at that professional level, reviewers are trying to inform readers – to give an impartial and useful judgement. Most do; and for this reason, professional reviewers usually come to much the same conclusions independently, even if individual reviewers have minor gripes with one thing or another.

The best reviews are, themselves, mini-essays; arguing a case about the book and its subject – where it comes in context with the rest, what contribution the author has made.

If a ‘wrong at every turn’ assault on the book and author pops up amidst general acclaim it sticks out like a sore thumb – and is usually because that individual reviewer has succumbed to a personal agenda. The main problem in New Zealand is territorial; it’s such a small place that authors get to review works of competitors – commercially or ideologically, and use the review as a device to avenge themselves.

Professional reviewers, though, do give books a fair go. And it is important, both in fairness to the author being reviewed – and to the reviewer’s own repute.

Personally I try to look for the best in the books that come by my desk. Sometimes it’s hard; but as an author myself I’m always acutely aware that a writer has poured their heart and soul into the work. Shovels, of course, get called shovels; sometimes real stinkers do pop up – and in fairness to readers, I have to mention it. One book I reviewed earlier this year was so execrably written I could not ignore the point. But for the most part there is usually something positive to be found in any author’s work.

As for the reviews I got – well, see for yourself. A nice consistent batch from some professional people:

‘As Matthew Wright acknowledges, although “generations of historians have told and retold the tales, openly and happily”, the true story of convict involvement has been ignored by many New Zealanders who have sought to differentiate themselves from their Western Island… Although some academic reviewers use the word “prolific” as a pseudo-insult, Wright combines a scholar’s mastery of the sources with a journalistic skill at communicating complex messages to lay people, all sharpened by the experience of writing nearly 50 books.’ – Gavin McLean, Otago Daily Times, 11 August 2012.

‘…great reading, full of specific real-life personalities and daring escapades, some horrifying, to be measured and understood against the background of Maori and British cultures of those decades of the nineteenth century. This is the first time the tale of New Zealand’s convicts has been told to this detail, in a single book – one destined to become a New Zealand classic. – Jo Keppel, Greymouth Evening Star, 26 July 2012

‘Wright has done a great job of exposing activities which society had considered best forgotten, and made it interesting reading to boot’. – Graeme Barrow, Northern Advocate, 23 July 2012, and Wanganui Chronicle, 16 August 2012.

‘…an entertaining and informative account of some of the larger-than-life characters who made this country their home in the early 19th century…’ – Alister Browne, Manawatu Standard, 17 August 2012.

‘…adds to the colourful tapestry of New Zealand’s early settlement.’Mana, New Zealand, 1 September 2012.

‘Wright has carved out a niche for himself in pre-Treaty New Zealand history, from which very few written records survive. It’s not an easy field to research.’ – Mike Houlihan, D-Scene, 5 September 2012.

Veering for a moment into shameless plug territory, if you feel like owning this book, it’s available online from Fishpond. But that’s by the by. As, indeed, is the fact that I’ve been asked to submit an academic paper based on the book to an Australian peer-reviewed journal.

Have you ever had a book published and fielded reviews? What were your experiences? Did the reviews help or hinder? How did you feel afterwards?

 Matthew Wright text copyright © 2012

First reviews of ‘Convicts’ – and a couple of radio interviews

I’ve fielded a couple of reviews of my book Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past, which I’d like to share:

‘Wright has done a great job of exposing activities which society had considered best forgotten, and made it interesting reading to boot’ – Graeme Barrow, Northern Advocate, 23 July 2012.

‘…great reading, full of specific real-life personalities and daring escapades, some horrifying, to be measured and understood against the background of Maori and British cultures of those decades of the nineteenth century. This is the first time the tale of New Zealand’s convicts has been told to this detail, in a single book – one destined to become a New Zealand classic. – Jo Keppel, Greymouth Evening Star, 26 July 2012

I like it. And here’s the link to my interview Sunday last on RadioLive, 29 July http://www.radiolive.co.nz/Convicts-NZs-Hidden-Criminal-Past/tabid/506/articleID/29638/Default.aspx

Also the link to my 15-minute slot on Jim Sullivan’s Sounds Historical programme on Radio New Zealand National, last night: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/soundshistorical/20120812 My slot starts at 26:47 in Part 2.

Wrapping it all up – blog meltdown, book launch, radio promos and earthquake

What a month. My book Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past was published. The city I live in was shaken by a larger-than-usual quake the same week. My blog blew up. Our internet connection kept going on the fritz.

And I was embroiled in a promotion frenzy. The key way to push books in New Zealand, at least, is through radio interview. I’ve had quite a few this month, and I’m always grateful I did that voice work, all those years ago.  There’s also the foot work – going to bookstores to sign stock. Among the highlights, Unity Books – my favourite indie. (They’ve been a Wellington institution for decades. I can’t walk in without finding a book I must buy.)

These days online networking is part of the picture – and I had a contest to run. Except my blog blew up as I got going. WordPress problem. ‘Aaaargh!’ Solved it by re-theming, re-customising and making an ‘emergency’ header – which the theme needed. Rule No. 1 for promotions is NOT to change your brand at the crucial moment. But I had no choice. I also had to code updates on my custom-built website (www.matthewwright.net) – no CMS, and there are amoeba on Saturn better practised at HTML than I am.

Highlights? Here’s the podcast of an unexpected interview I had, by cellphone, on 95b FM ‘The Wire': http://95bfm.com/default,206700.sm

Coming up next on this blog – no more new books for a while. Instead there’s stuff about flying cars, writing, sci-fi, history and other things.

But enough about me. How’s your month been?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Convicts Contest – we have a winner

The winner of my ‘Convicts Contest’ – prize, a copy of my book Convicts, New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past - is Helen McMullin.

Helen’s great-grandfather was a missionary here in New Zealand, back in the 1880s. You can check out Helen’s blog at http://www.conantstation.com/2012/07/09/of-new-zealand-and-my-bucket-list/

She Who Must Be Obeyed picking the winner from the Topee Hat of Extreme Britishness.

And a big thank you to all who entered – with special mention and shout-out to -

Julia Indigo: http://juliaindigo.com/2012/07/08/awesome-new-book-by-matthew-wright/

Bev Robitai and the Mairangi Mob: http://arrestingprose.blogspot.co.nz/2012/07/win-book.html

Lemuel Lyes: http://historygeek.co.nz/2012/07/03/convicts-in-new-zealand/

All their blogs are well worth a look – and if you’re a history buff, Lemuel’s got some wonderful stories, ephemera and general New Zealand history posted. Fabulous stuff.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012