A sneak peek inside my ‘Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand’

A few weeks ago an e-book edition of my best-selling Illustrated History of New Zealand was released by David Bateman Ltd.

Wright_New Zealand Illustrated coverYou can buy that by scrolling down and clicking on the link below. Go on, you know you want to…

Today I thought I’d share some of the pages of the print version.

History, to me, is more than simply recounting past events. It is about understanding the shapes and patterns of life –  exploring how they led to the world we know today. From that, we can understand more about where we are – and where we might go. It is, really, about understanding the human condition.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

For these reasons history must be about people –  their thoughts, hopes and moods. About how they responded to the world they found themselves in. The colonial-age journey to New Zealand, which the sample pages I’ve reproduced here describes, brought that human condition out in many ways; a three month transition between old and new, a rite of passage in which they could shuck off the old world and more fully embrace the dream of the new.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

On these pages I’ve conveyed some of the thoughts of those settlers – click to enlarge each page. The poignancy of the journey was deepened, for many, by tragedy; children, particularly, were vulnerable – and often died, something the colonial government deliberately addressed in the 1870s. That’s covered elsewhere in the book.

The opportunity to write something as big as my Illustrated History of New Zealand – big in the physical sense, big in terms of being an interpretative history of an entire nation – is rare in the career of any author.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

The opportunity to then re-write it, ten years on – to re-visit, re-cast, re-think, extend and renew – is almost non-existent. That’s particularly true here in New Zealand where the number of qualified historians to have written large-scale interpretative general histories of the country, solo, in the last 60 years, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

These samples have a copyright notice added to them. Pictures, forming part of the design collage, are from the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

My Illustrated History of New Zealand is on sale now in bookstores across New Zealand, or direct from the publisher website. Scroll down for the e-book link.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 2

The other Saturday I spent a few hours in downtown Napier, New Zealand, where the annual art-deco weekend was in full swing.

'Art Deco' car parade, Napier, February 2014.

‘Art Deco’ car parade, Napier, February 2014.

For a few days the town turns into party central, celebrating the rich and famous lifestyles of 1930s Hollywood. There’s a lot of cosplay. And  a lot of tourists. I overheard a couple of them – done up in period costume down to the cloche hats – chatting in German, something like: ‘Ich muss ganz ein Eis kaufe mir’. I don’t go in for the dress-ups, nor did I attend any of the set-piece events such as a 1930s picnic or the tours. It’s my home town after all. And I’ve (literally) written the book on it.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

But I did make the point of going to see the vintage car parade. They spanned the gamut from the First World War through to the early 1940s. Few of them actually appeared on New Zealand roads at the time – the country imported mainly British. And none of them, I suspect, were in quite the sparkling order they are now. But that wasn’t the point …was it.

Quintessential modernism - streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Quintessential modernism – streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Passing the Buick...

Passing the Buick…

The art of deco.

The art of deco.

Parasols and sun.

Parasols were vital wear in 33 degree C heat (91 degrees F).

My camera really didn't capture just how much the cars glowed in the sun.

My camera really didn’t capture just how much the cars GLOWED in the sun.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard Super 8.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

Ever get that feeling of quake deja vu?

Monday was the provincial anniversary holiday in Wellington, New Zealand. Kind of cool – the provinces were abolished in 1876, but we still get the holiday.

Around 4 pm the house began shaking – slowly at first and then quite violently. We get a lot of small quakes. This wasn’t one of them. In fact, it seemed up there with last year’s big quakes.

The science behind it is fascinating. New Zealand has an automated seismic network that publishes estimated figures to the internet in near-real time. The first official figures – calculated by the duty seismologist – were available within fifteen minutes, with a final refined value just over an hour afterwards. This quake, at magnitude 6.2 and with an epicentre near Eketahuna in the Wairarapa, was classified ‘severe’. It was 33 km deep – felt widely, but not so destructive as the shallow quakes that hit Christchurch in 2010-11 and Wellington in 2013. It occurred in the Pacific plate subduction zone, where the plate is being driven down by the Indo-Australian plate riding up over it. It’s no coincidence that this is right under New Zealand – the islands are a product of that collision.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal - a marvellous example of the model-maker's art.

I don’t have a photo of the Wellington airport eagles, but this is Gollum – taken last year – near the model that fell into the foodcourt. Click to enlarge.

Where I live the ‘felt intensity’ was at the high end of V on the Modified Mercalli scale. Damage around Wellington included the Weta workshop model of a Hobbit eagle  in the airport terminal, which crashed into the food-court. It was worse across the lower North Island in centres like Palmerston North. Fortunately nobody was killed or hurt.

Quakes have been on the rise in New Zealand lately. Archaeological work reveals that quakes cluster in decades-long patterns. The late twentieth century was one of the calmer periods. And now it looks as if we’re back in the action again. Christchurch, alas, may have simply been the beginning. Are they linked? Possibly. Certainly a quake in one area can increase stresses in a fault nearby that’s already under tension. But there also seems to be a general process of rising and falling activity.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.

The Christ Church Cathedral, Christchurch – photo I took in early 2013. Click to enlarge.

Best case is it will settle down. Worst case – well, there is a disturbing precedent from the fifteenth century, where a succession of massive quakes estimated at magnitude 8+ tore along the length of the country over just a few decades. One of them, circa 1460, struck just south of Wellington and filled in one of the two harbour entrances, the Te Awa-a-tia channel. Motukairangi island – modern Miramar – became a peninsula and the water within its hills swampy terrain. Peter Jackson’s studio is built on the uplifted land.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.

Warehouses opposite Peter Jackson’s Park Road headquarters, Miramar – under water until 1460. Click to enlarge.

Maori named the quake Haowhenua (‘the land destroyer’). The evidence is still visible as the flat land of Miramar and the Wellington airport flats – and as beach lines at Turakirae Head. The name seemed a puzzle – a ‘land destroyer’ that produced uplift? Then archaeologists discovered evidence of 10-metre tsunamis at the same time.

The question is not ‘if’ this will happen again – but ‘when’. New Zealand has many fault lines – the largest is the Alpine Fault, which moves about every 300 years and generates quakes of magnitude 8+. We are due for one, statistically, within 50 years. Recent studies point to the existence of other large faults each side of the South Island. They are still being researched. Scary? No.  We have to accept the reality as it unfolds – and be prepared.

Do you live in an earthquake zone? If not, what natural disasters do you face?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and humor. But hopefully not more quakes. For a while, anyway.

I got a message from Marilyn Monroe

I picked up a new follower on one of my social networks the other day. Marilyn Monroe.

Henry David Thoreau...also followed me. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Henry David Thoreau…also followed me. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Not THE Marilyn Monroe, of course. Any more than I was followed by Henry David Thoreau, who joined the list next day.

They were fans – and, as a writer myself, I’m an enthusiast for anything that spreads the word about great writers like Thoreau. More please!

Still, I think it’s safe to say the real Marilyn Monroe isn’t out there on Twitter.

It’s always puzzled me that some people pretend to be celebrites. None of this is new – social networking merely makes it easier. Is it dragging on the coat-tails of fame? Sharing the emotion and pleasure they feel by consuming the work of the celebrity? Expressing a need to identify with someone other than themselves? Winding others up? Or all of the above?

That’s why we often see “Official” tagged to Twitter accounts of the real celebrities.

It begs questions about online identities. For myself, I use my real name. It’s a common popular name, so I add my initials and a “New Zealand” (‘NZ’) qualifier online. The letter “J” is another popular one to start middle names with, I find, but hey, my middle name’s also mine – and, coincidentally, I discover has been in the family since the early 1800s, at least.

I’m a bit worried another Matthew Wright might do something heinous, like dressing up as an Oompa Loompa in Norwich, for instance, and I’ll get besmirched.

But I wouldn’t use a pseudonym – still less pretend to be anybody famous. Maybe they might pretend to be me…maybe…

I think the phenomenon tells us a good deal about people. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

It’s Christmas. Again.

It’s Christmas again. Where has 2013 gone? Why, the way every year does – quickly, in a sea of good intentions and reorganised plans.

MJWright2011

I hope everybody has a wonderful festive  season. Whether it’s snowing or high summer. And that, somewhere along the way, we get the chance to bring a little more cheer to the lives of those who are less fortunate.

For me and She Who Must Be Obeyed, it’s a Christmas with family. I am trying not to succumb to the temptation to write. We’ll see.

Have a good one, everybody – keep safe, and here’s to a great holiday season.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

The irresistible list of four fun weird things

Ever wondered what might happen if Charlie Brown grew up and became a cyborg mercenary in a post-apocalyptic dystopia? No? Me neither.

But a guy named Jason Yungbluth did. Hitting No. 1 on my weird list (and maybe yours…)

1. Weapon Brown.
Published here: http://www.whatisdeepfried.com/  Warning – it’s a graphic novel, and it’s seriously graphic (no pun intended) – mostly OTT violence. Not safe for work. Or home. Or possibly anywhere. But very funny. It is, needless to say, parody.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

2. One-way Mars flight with reality TV
Then there was the Dutch plan to send people on a one-way ‘trip of a lifetime’ to Mars – funding it by (wait for it) turning the venture into reality TV. I have to say, a one-way trip to Mars would be the LAST trip I’d ever make.

3. Total physics geekery with custard
Although I’ve made a name for myself by writing history, my real enthusiasm is for physics – and I’ve found out about a way of measuring the speed of light using a microwave oven and a bowl of custard. I’ve got a post coming up…be warned. And get that custard ready.

4. A slightly odd German lexicon
Finally, anybody remember Blackadder Goes Forth? The scene where Blackadder insists the Germans have no word for ‘fluffy’? Of course I had to look it up, and I believe there are at least seventeen German words referring to ‘fluffy’. They include flaumig (fluffy feathers), flockig (fluffy snow), kuschelig (fluffy fabric), locker (fluffy hair), fusselig (fluffy), duftig (frothy/fluffy), oberflachlich (fluffy thinking), schaumig (fluffy egg whites), stofftier (fluffy toy), pluschtier (fluffy toy), not to mention fluffig, which means…er…fluffy.

Ok, so that was probably a load of quatsch … but hey…my German vocab is otherwise limited to ‘Achtung!’ (which I accidentally said in the departure lounge in Frankfurt airport, one time), ‘Panzer’, ‘Messerschmitt’ and ‘mein Luftkissenfahrzeug ist voller Aale’.

Did you find out anything funny or just plain berserk in 2013? I’d love to hear from you!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Christmas greetings, more science geekery and some end-of-year fun.

Looking for the missing spirit of Christmas…with zombies…

We went to the local mall on Sunday. It was packed, of course, with the usual shopping zombies, their minds destroyed by the glitz and glam.

The Zombie Christmas Maul

The Zombie Christmas Maul

Whenever we visit the mall, She Who Must Be Obeyed forbids me to shuffle along behind them, matching their gait and murmuring “braaaaiiins….”

Well, I’m not forbidden, but she won’t walk hand-in hand if I do, instead she’s on the other side of the mall saying things like ‘I don’t know that weird guy.’

Being the weekend-before-the-weekend-before Christmas, there were a LOT of people shopping last Sunday, interspersed with cellphone-toting teens whose minds were miles away, and toddlers drifting aimlessly around the whole lot like the wayward satellites of some Jovian supergiant. Every so often, one of the squidlings would squeal with the exact pitch and timbre of a gym shoe being scraped across a polished floor.

Looking at the way everybody had been reduced to brainlessness by the pressure to buy, buy, buy for Christmas, I couldn’t help thinking we’ve lost something.

It’s Christmas. It’s a time for caring. A time for families. A time to think of others. A time – well, it’s Christmas Spirit, isn’t it.

What’s it become? A marketing frenzy. A shallow exercise in consumerism. A concerted effort to extract as much cash as possible from the wallets of many who cannot really afford it.

Here in New Zealand, the shops will be open right through Christmas Eve – and open again on Boxing Day when, inevitably, it will be ‘sale time’. I believe that’s true elsewhere too.

Where has the spirit of care gone? Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Fun holiday stuff – with some history, geekery and writing stuff. Regular writing tips, science geekery, history… and more… returns in the new year. Watch this space.

Why I don’t fan-boy (much) over The Hobbit or Trek

The other week Peter Jackson met fans in Wellington for a sneak part-preview of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Even Smaug was there – well, the pet lizard, Hermes, they used for mo-cap sequences, anyway.

I am a huge enthusiast for Tolkien and Jackson. But I didn’t don my magic elven cloak (the one that renders you invisible against green grass, green sky, green rocks and green water) and go along. I don’t cosplay. I don’t go to conventions. I don’t have a book filled with autographs from the Guy In The Red Shirt or the set-sweeper for Star Trek: The Original Series, who’s made a living from convention fees ever since.

Partly it’s because I’ve been at the receiving end to some extent. As an author I get approached every so often by strangers. Setting aside the odd incident in which a would-be author thinks I’ve written one of ‘their’ books, sees red, and barrels over to take a pop at me – which has actually happened – most of these people are friendly, but I never quite know what to say. I just do stuff. It involves a lot of hard work and doesn’t make me special.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

Ordinary Kiwis at the Hobbit craft market, late 2012.

I think this is true of most writers. They are professionals whose job happens to be creating stuff –  who have normal lives and do their own supermarket shopping. Actually that’s true of the whole entertainment industry. A few years back She Who Must Be Obeyed and I lived a block or two from an actor who was known internationally. My wife knew his wife slightly, and we used to run into them in the local video store. They were totally normal, unassuming and nice people.

As far as I can tell, modern ‘fandom’ emerged in the 1920s on the sci-fi magazine boom. It took on life in the 1970s – largely fostered by Trek.  Back then it was seen as a symptom of maladjustment. ‘Trekkie’ became a perjorative, usually taken to mean socially inept nerds who couldn’t function in a normal world and relied on their obsession with somebody else’s fantasy to define their identities and social interactions.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to go prone to take this picture of Hobbit market stuff. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

It’s likely, I think, that a proportion of fans then did fit that category. But not many. Certainly I don’t think that characterises fandom these days. It’s been mainstreamed, commercialised, and evolved into a way for people to express their enthusiasms. (That’s another reason I don’t go to conventions – they’re so crowded you can’t get in the door).

So why do fans become ‘fans’? I think it’s an indication of the power that stories and settings have to evoke emotion. It’s a way of sharing that experience with others who think the same way. It’s an endorsement of the ability of writers, movie-makers and actors to create emotional transfer and capture an audience.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: the final NaNo prompts for 2013, more writing tips, and more.

Farewell to Tom Clancy and the age of the techno-thriller

Tom Clancy died this week, aged 66. Sad news. I enjoyed his books in their day. His writing – and games – brought a good deal of pleasure to many people.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode in an RNZAF P-3K Orion on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

He achieved something few authors manage; he defined a genre, the ‘techno-thriller’. Other authors followed,  some of them service personnel whose own experiences gave their stories a ring of authenticity. And if their characters were at best cardboard, their plots contrived, the stories nevertheless struck chords in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly.

It was a genre born of the Cold War, and it was a genre of its period. The realities of warfare at personal level (stress, isolation, noise, fog of war, death without warning, visually unspectacular), were lost amid the gee-whizz factor of boys-with-toys hardware. It was also largely an American genre, suffused with all the symbols of American patriotism. Some of the more extreme techno-thrillers could have substituted slabs of text with the chant “America! Flags! America! States! Mom! Apple pie!” without anybody particularly noticing.

To me that spoke a good deal about the human condition in general; for the late Cold War was not the first time that popular militarism had led to popular loss of touch with the realities of this darker side of our existence. My own country, New Zealand, went through the same experience in the 1890s, plunging into fervent ‘social militarism’ pivoting on the same fantasy glorification of warfare and popular idolisation of hardware.

An Airfix 1/76 Mk IV "Male" tank from 1917, which I built when I wasn't writing.

My Airfix 1/76 Mk IV “Male” tank. Contriving a “WWI” style photo for it covered bad assembly details on my part.

That led to such things as a letter from one of our ‘lads’ heading to the Boer War in 1900, telling his mother he hoped to get shot as a way to earn glory. He was; and it was not glorious, it was a tragedy, especially for his poor mum. The trend culminated, in 1909, in our getting into a ridiculous debt to buy a battlecruiser for Britain. I wrote a Masters thesis on how that happened. Later, after that thinking had been blown out of us by the First World War, it did seem a little silly.

Looking back on the techno-thriller, I can’t help thinking the same thing. I read a lot of them in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and enjoyed them at the time. But they were not exactly literature. Some read like Murder on the Orient Express as written by the Eric Olthwaite Locomotive and Rivet Counting Club instead of Agatha Christie. Today, for me, novels need to be more than a thinly disguised catalogue of military hardware working to design specifications. That never happens in reality, and it shouldn’t happen in a novel if disbelief is to be suspended.

heroesWhat’s more, real warfare has more to do with hearts, minds, morale, tactics and support than it does with hardware specifications. I could give dozens of instances, but let’s put it this way – in a ‘techno-thriller’ world, we’d have lost the Second World War because the German Tiger II’s, Me-262’s and V2′s, out specced anything the Allies had and, by techno-thriller logic, therefore made the Germans invincible.

To me, the techno thriller in its original ‘cold warrior’ form is a period genre – one sliding away from us as the years roll by. I suspect many of its books will fade too, as ‘airport novels’ (which is what these things really are) inevitably do.

But we’ll see. Your thoughts? Have you read any of Clancy’s work – or any other techno-thrillers? What did you think of them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, and ‘Write it Now’ on style.

Pride before an Americas Cup fall and all that

So we’ve failed to get the Americas Cup. Naturally. Pride goeth before a fall, and victory celebrations on an early 8-nil lead was it.

The sloop Mayflower, defender during the sixth Americas Cup regatta in 1886. Painting: Antonio Jacobsen, public domain, via Wikimedia.

The sloop Mayflower, defender during the sixth Americas Cup regatta in 1886. Painting: Antonio Jacobsen, public domain, via Wikimedia.

Besides, it’s a Kiwi thing either way. New Zealand’s entry, Aotearoa, was a New Zealand project. The defending Oracle Team USA was led by a Kiwi and the sails were built in Warkworth, north of Auckland.

It’s a salutary demonstration of Kiwi technical chops that we build hydrofoil catamarans that fly over the water at 40 knots.  Add the ‘Wellywood’ film industry and it’s clear the place isn’t just a land of scenery and sheep.

So why was it important to us to win this bit of tin? I can’t help thinking the Americas Cup is one symbol of New Zealand’s discovery of itself.

The first serious challenge New Zealand mounted in 1986-87 came just as we re-invented ourselves as an independent nation on the world stage. The challenge was unsuccessful, but you wouldn’t have known it by the heroic reception the crew got afterwards.

It was a case of event, mood and moment coming together. And that, I guess, is one reason why it’s remained a symbol for us today.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013