When tyre-kickers leaf through your books…

Last week I sauntered into the (last) bookstore in Wellington’s Lambton Quay, New Zealand’s Golden Mile of retail shopping. I soon found some of my books – quite a number of my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand, in fact, cover-out, which is the very best way to display such things.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). A display from earlier days.

Cheered, I went to leave, when someone standing nearby picked up a copy and began leafing through it. I loitered. He leafed, frowned, smiled, leafed again, smiled, looked quizzical, and leafed some more. Finally he put it back in the shelf. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Would you mind telling me what stopped you buying the book? I’m the author, you see.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I was just browsing.’

I guess you can lead the horse to water. If the guy had no intention of buying and was simply passing time, he wasn’t likely to be captured by the book even if it had ‘buy me, you bastard’ in fluorescent ink at the top of every page. In point of fact, I wrote the whole thing to be appealing (obviously) – but not to capture a reader with hook lines every paragraph. That would ruin the book. That’s why TV is so terrible at the moment, incidentally; the pacing is designed to capture people as they idly channel surf, meaning action/drama every eight seconds (literally). It really affects the structure.

I walked off, “No Sale” signs chinking up in my mind’s eye. Better luck with the next customer. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Getting away from the re-remythologising of history

I’ve always thought it curious that our view of New Zealand’s history has always been a process of ‘re-mythologising’ – of discrediting one set of myths and replacing them with another. It happens once a generation.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

When I was a kid, around 1970, my school taught that New Zealand had been settled by two races. Moriori were displaced by Maori, who had arrived in a great single canoe fleet, and who were in turn displaced by the British. This was the supposed ‘truth’ on which kids of my generation were brought up – despite the fact that the ‘two race’ settlement idea had been discredited by anthropologist Henry Devenish Skinner in 1923.

Moriori, in reality, are the people of the Chathams. It has always saddened me that the fantasy of a ‘two race’ settlement persists, to this day, in the disgraceful and ignorant pseudo-history peddled by those who would prefer that Celts had arrived in New Zealand first.

The other myth of the nineteenth century – the ‘great migration’ – persisted into the 1970s, though it was increasingly evident that no such adventure occurred. It was Jeff Simmonds, I think, who first proved the point.

Today we know the ‘great migration’ was another settler-era fantasy, created before the turn of the twentieth century by amateur ethnographer Stephenson Percy Smith, who concocted it by ‘rationalising’ Maori oral traditions into a form that suited the way pakeha of that day preferred to see their world. Settler-age thinkers such as William Colenso, who lived a generation or two before Smith, knew there had never been a great migration. But once popularised in the School Journal, it was all the rage.

The reality is that New Zealand was settled around 1280 AD by Polynesians from the Cook Islands. The first landing was likely on the Wairau bar. No humans had touched the place prior. Others arrived from the Marquesas islands. There were also return journeys. All this stopped during the fifteenth century on the back of the Little Ice Age, leaving New Zealand’s Polynesian colonists isolated. Maori emerged, indigenously in New Zealand, as a development of Polynesian settler culture. There is some evidence that there may, some time later, have been an arrival from Tahiti on the East Coast of the North Island – a point that could explain quite a bit. But it has yet to be proven.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my brief history of the New Zealand Wars.

The mythologies of ‘two race settlement’ and ‘great migration’ were products of their time – a demonstration of the way that history is re-filtered through contemporary lenses. Even Maori of the day joined the band-wagon; Te Rangi Hiroa, for example, leaped upon the ‘great migration’ concept whole-heartedly, portraying Maori as ‘Vikings of the sunrise’.

Are we more enlightened in the twenty-first century? Of course not. Since the 1980s, New Zealand’s history has been re-written yet again. The so-called ‘revisionists’ have successfully dislodged old settler ideas. But these post-Vietnam baby boomers have also re-shaped our past in the image of their own ideals, the ‘post-colonial’ view that reversed – but which has not transcended – the parameters of settler age thinking. And while some new understandings have emerged, out of it has also come some of the most startling fantasies yet peddled about our past – fantasies that have once again seized the imaginations of particular intellectual groups, and so filtered through to wider society, as if true.

I’ve covered the story in my new book The New Zealand Wars – a brief history. And more besides. It’s time to get clear of the relentless cycle of re-mythologisation. Step one on that path is to understand the process.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Fringe thinking fruit-loops or just misunderstood?

I am often bemused at the way some people seem to think. Particularly those who advocate what we might call ‘fringe’ theories.

I took this photo of the Moeraki boulders in 2007. They fact that they are not perfect spheres is evident.

Moeraki boulders, north of Dunedin. It’s been argued that they are weights used by Chinese sailors to raise sail. As I know the natural geological origin of them, that’s not a theory I believe myself, but hey…

These are often portrayed in pseudo-scientific terms; there is a hypothesis. Then comes the apparent basis for the hypothesis, frequently explicitly titled ‘the evidence’ or ‘the facts’. And finally, the fringe thinker tells us that this evidence therefore proves the proposal. QED.

All of which sounds suitably watertight, except that – every time – the connection between the hypothesis and the evidence offered to support it is non-existent by actual scientific measure. Or the evidence is presented without proper context.

Some years ago I was asked to review a book which hypothesised that a Chinese civilisation had existed in New Zealand before what they called ‘Maori’ arrived. (I think they mean ‘Polynesians’, but hey…)

This Chinese hypothesis stood against orthodox archaeology which discredited the notion of a ‘pre-Maori’ settlement as early as 1923, and has since shown that New Zealand was settled by Polynesians around 1280 AD. They were the first humans to ever walk this land. Their Polynesian settler culture, later, developed into a distinct form whose people called themselves Maori. In other words, the Maori never ‘arrived’ – they were indigenous to New Zealand.

This picture has been built from a multi-disciplinary approach; archaeology, linguistics, genetic analysis, and available oral record. Data from all these different forms of scholarship fits together. It is also consistent with the wider picture of how the South Pacific was settled, including the places the Polynesian settlers came from.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop someone touring the South Island looking for ‘facts’ to ‘prove’ that a Chinese civilisation had been thriving here before they were (inevitably) conquered by arriving Maori. This ‘evidence’ was packed off to the Rafter Radiation Laboratory in Gracefield, Lower Hutt, for carbon dating. And sure enough, it was of suitable age. Proof, of course, that the hypothesis had been ‘scientifically’ proven. Aha! QED.

Except, of course, it wasn’t proof at all. Like any good journalist I rang the head of the lab and discovered that they’d been given some bagged samples of debris, which they were asked to test. They did, and provided the answer without comment. The problem was that the material had been provided without context. This meant the results were scientifically meaningless.

I’m contemplating writing a book myself on the pseudo-science phenomenon with its hilarious syllogisms and wonderful exploration of every logical fallacy so far discovered. How do these crazy ideas get such traction? Why do they seem to appeal more than the obvious science?

Would anybody be interested if I wrote something on this whole intriguing phenomenon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing prompt: suddenly it was 1938…

I’ve been playing with some of the photos I took during the Art Deco Weekend, Napier, a few months back.

Here’s one of them. It got me thinking of a story. You?

Anybody would think it was 1938...

Anybody would think it was 1938…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Cool! New Zealand joins the orbital rocket club – for real

Private-enterprise orbital ventures aren’t just an American dream. Last week, New Zealand’s own Rocket Lab unveiled their commercial booster.

Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977. Photo: NASA, public domain.

OK, this is a generic rocket pic, but you get the picture. Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977, by Titan. Photo: NASA, public domain.

It’s called Electron. Very cool. It’s not a big rocket – 10 tonnes of carbon composite and 18 metres long. But it’ll put 110kg into a 500 km orbit, with the help of locally developed Rutherford LOX/ kerosine engines. And in this day of micro-sats, that’s plenty for a whole host of commercial uses. The company states that it already has 30 launches pre-booked.

Space boosters? We are a country of 4 million people previously known for our large numbers of nervous sheep. I’m put in mind of the ‘mouse that roared’.

But of course New Zealand long ago ditched the ‘No. 8 wire’ notion. We have world-class scientific minds (Lord Rutherford led the way – and don’t forget JPL head Sir William Pickering, or Sir Ian Axford, a friend of my family who ran the Max Planck Institute). It’s over half a century since we designed and built the world’s first jet-boat. Today we design and build world-leading quake-proofing systems. We build yachts that ‘fly’ with underwater carbon fibre wings, literally, at double wind speed. We have the world’s leading SFX studio, right here where I live in Wellington.

I was wondering. What could Kiwis put into orbit? Here’s my list.

1. Justin Bieber. Of course, a 110kg payload doesn’t leave much room for niceties like a pressure suit, life support or space capsule, parachutes, heat shield etc, I suspect we’re looking here at just Mr Bieber and a one-way trip to orbit. But hey…
2. Can’t actually think of a No. 2.
3. A radio endlessly suggesting to the world that it’s best to buy the books variously written by me, and by my blogging writer friends.

I’m leaning towards (3), but given (1), it’s…well, pretty evenly balanced…

What’s your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Lamenting the sadness of war, and of New Zealand’s war historians

Flags are at half mast today across New Zealand to mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War.

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121937

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121937

Over 100,000 young Kiwi men were drawn into that conflict over a four year span. Of these, more than 58,000 became casualties, 16,500 of them dead. For a country of just on a million souls it was a heart-wrenching tragedy.

New Zealand, of course, was far from alone.

That human cost was multiplied by the fact that survivors came back damaged; this was the war that introduced ‘shell shock’ – post traumatic stress disorder – to the world on the largest scale. During the 1920s, broken men tried to pick up the shattered threads of their lives as best they could. There was often little help. An experience wonderfully described in J L Carr’s A Month In The Country.

Today the overwhelming impression of the war – certainly the way that New Zealand historiography and popular recollection has been shaped – is of unrelenting tragedy. A senseless war of senseless slaughter in which stupid generals didn’t know what to do, other than send innocent men walking very slowly towards machine guns.

Call it the ‘Blackadder’ interpretation.

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22304585

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22304585

This has been the overwhelming tenor of the key interpretations of the war, shaping even academic history. From the military viewpoint it’s not true. Despite the appalling casualty lists and human cost, the tactical reality on the ground was a good deal more sophisticated than historians usually allow. And there is a good deal else that has yet to be discussed – lost, until now, amidst the overwhelming power of human sorrow. The war’s beginning has been portrayed, narrative-style, as a mechanistic result of nationalist pride and inflexible European alliance systems. In fact, there were choices; but the underlying motives for the decision to fight have barely been discussed by historians.  Could it be that, from the viewpoint of British and French politicians in 1914, it was necessary – even essential – to make a stand? A lot was said at the time about German ‘frightfulness’. Was this propaganda or a fair assessment? How far can the underlying trends and issues be validly traced?

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

As yet, these debates have barely begun. They are being raised in Britain – I keep getting invited to contribute papers to symposia and conferences there, via the Royal Historical Society of which I am a Fellow.

Whether I can do anything about exploring the same ideas in New Zealand is moot. I write and publish on my own merits. Alas, New Zealand’s local public- and university-funded military historical crowd – all of whom prosper on full-time salaries at my expense as taxpayer – have rewarded my independent commercial work in their field by treating me like a war criminal. I know these strangers only through their public worth-denials of my scholarship and the commercial work I do to complement their taxpayer-funded activities. They do not respond to my correspondence, I cannot get added to mailing lists, and I have been unable to join their symposia even as audience – I only found out about the latest by accident. All from strangers who have felt unable to approach me directly in the first instance, but have been happy enough to go behind my back to attack me in public and then cowered behind silence when approached over their conduct. However, I’ve been told their status is such that I have no grounds to criticise them.

westernTo me the study of history – as with all human endeavour – is all about positively working together with good will, generous spirit and kindness. Grow the pie, and everybody benefits. But I appear to be a lone voice. And the experience makes me ask why I am paying the salaries, travel expenses and subsidising the publications of this little group through my taxes. There is a LOT of public money sloshing around the First World War centenary in New Zealand. Should it all be accumulated to a few public servants and academics who flourish at taxpayer expense and whose response to commercial authors seeking to work with them is to publicly attack and exclude the interloper?

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThe practical outcome is there seems little chance of my getting support for what I want to do. I’d like to look at New Zealand’s First World War from a different perspective – not to dislodge the ‘Blackadder’ view, but to add to it. There are many questions, including issues to do with New Zealand’s national identity – something I touched, briefly, in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin, 2010). But I can’t see myself being in a position to take that further.

But enough about the schreklichkeit of New Zealand’s military-historical academics. Instead, let’s take a moment to pause and think about the realities of the world a century ago – a world when, for a few brief weeks at least, the notion of a new war seemed somehow adventurous. It would, most of those who flocked to enlist were certain, be over by Christmas 1914.

Of course it wasn’t. As always, the enthusiastic young men, the hopeful patriots, the eager populations of 1914 did not know their future.

More on this soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: using weather to create a mood

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am something of a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien. A lot of a fan, actually. And the more I look at what he wrote, the more impressed I get.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.

The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view but with wonderful blue skies. Click to enlarge.

Take his settings. More often than not, and especially in The Lord Of The Rings, he’s telling us about the weather – which, usually, is gloomy. It rains a lot in Middle Earth.

Peter Jackson’s version – set in bright New Zealand sunshine against our sparkling landscapes – didn’t actually capture what Tolkien was describing in that sense. If you read the details in the text you find that many scenes in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are set against wild weather; gloomy clouds, rain, even storms. Virtually the whole of The Return Of The King was played out under the darkness of Mount Doom.

Tolkien used the sun as a counterpoint – deliberately played to create the mood, as when the hobbits left the home of Tom Bombadil after several days socked in by rain and jogged fearlessly across the Barrow Downs. Doom followed when the weather closed in.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

OK, well this looks like Gorgoroth, except for the blue skies (again). Photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau. Click to enlarge.

Quite a lot of the inspiration for it, I suspect, came from Tolkien’s experiences in France during the First World War. It rained a lot over the trenches. Weather over Europe in 1915-17 was unusually wet in any event. But there is some evidence that the concussion of artillery bombardment – which sent shock waves hammering into the air – was enough to trigger looming clouds to drop their rain early, so it was even wetter over the battlefields than it might otherwise have been.

The relentless rain created a mood of gloom among the men, a darkness to befit the dark world into which they had been plunged. It is this mood that Tolkien evoked in much of The Lord Of The Rings which was closely based – in detail – on trench life and the environment of the Western Front. Tolkien did all this quite deliberately, of course, to create a mood, a sense of darkness, a sense of oppression to befit the epic canvas of his stories.

And he was, I think, perhaps also well aware of the sense of comfort felt by a reader who could comfortably snuggle before a roaring fire on a cold and dark winter’s afternoon, enjoying his words while the wild weather raged outside.

Do you write fiction? And if you do, do you use the weather to create mood?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Remembering the wars that never ended

The New Zealand Wars were fought over a generation from 1845 until the early 1870s. Despite the tendency to pin their closing curtain on the last pot-shots fired after the fleeing terror leader Te Kooti A Rikirangi Te Turuki in 1872, reality was not so sharp.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my latest book on the New Zealand Wars.

New Zealand of the early 1870s was in a state of turbulent peace. The war in the Waikato of 1863-64 had been a sharp British victory against the Waikato/King Country from a military perspective – but had not been pursued to a final conclusion. The reasons were largely political and economic. Wars were expensive. In order to attack and defeat around 2000 Maori toa (warriors), the British had deployed 10,000 men of their best regiments, gunboats, artillery, naval forces and marines. From the perspective of the Imperial government in London, New Zealand was a sideline. By late 1864 they had taken the declared territory. Maori were unwilling to continue fighting; and even at the height of their Imperial power, the British did not fight wars of annihilation. And so both peoples stood aside.

But they were not at peace, and that was as true in the early 1870s as it had been a decade earlier – even though the separate brush-fire wars of Te Kooti and Titokowaru had essentially ended by then. That was why Matamata resident Josiah Firth built a concrete tower on his property. Today, we know the wars were over. At the time, Firth didn’t.

What happened? My take on it is that Maori switched the focus of combat from the battlefield to the courts and parliament. The drive was led by Ngati Kahungunu, the people of Heretaunga (Hawke’s Bay). It was warfare of a different kind; an acknowledgement that the colony was there to stay – but that there were still ways of resisting the intrusion. That left the King Country as a semi-independent state; but the government resolved that too. By the early 1880s, key King Country leaders, including  Tawhiao, were prepared to talk peace. But the real enforcement of it did not come until later in the 1880s, when the Main Trunk Line was quite deliberately pushed through the King Country.

I first published that interpretation in 2006, and you can read my latest discussion of it in The New Zealand Wars: A Brief History. Available now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Announcing my next book on the New Zealand Wars

I’m pleased to announce my first title for 2014. It’s being published by Libro International on 29 July. Here’s their media release. I’m quite excited, and I hope you will be too.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my next book.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history tells the tale (briefly!) of the thirty years of sporadic fighting that marked New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century.  Two of these wars played out at the same time – and with much the same technologies – as the US Civil War being fought on the other side of the Pacific.

It’s an era that had had its share of controversy and its share of myth-making. Late twentieth century historians reversed the way the wars had traditionally been seen. But were they right? And what was the actual story – in brief – behind the dramatic events of the day?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014