What ever became of all the good in the world?

I am always astonished at the limitless capacity humanity has for intellectualising itself away from care and kindness.

Quick - burn the intruding historian! Avenge ourselves!

School. If you’re accused, you’re guilty!

Many years ago, when I was at school, there was a coat cupboard at the back of the classroom. Next to the cupboard was a trestle table on which had been set a class construction project. The bell went. The class joyously leaped from their chairs and surged to the cupboard, shoving and ramming each other as they fought to get their coats and escape.

I’d hung back to wait for the scrum to clear and saw the cupboard door being forced back by the desperate mob, into the trestle table. I rushed to try and rescue it – too late. The whole lot collapsed to the floor as I got there. Needless to say I was blamed. Everybody had seen me standing over the ruin and it (again) proved what a stupid and worthless child I was, and how dare I claim I was trying to save it, I totally deserved what was coming to me.

So much for trying to be a Good Samaritan.

But – but you say – surely I had rights? No. I had absolutely none. Back then, teachers given power by the system used it to smash those the system had defined as powerless, the kids, and so validate their own sense of worth. If I was seen near a broken table and the teacher decided I had done it – well, then obviously I’d done it, and how dare I protest my innocence.

The main ethical problem with this sort of behaviour is that guilt-on-accusation and summary justice stand not just against the principles of our justice system, but also of the values of care on which western society prides itself. But that is how society seems to work, certainly these days. We have trial-and-conviction by media even before someone alleged of a crime has been charged, just as one instance.

All of it is a symptom of one side of human nature. A symptom of the way humans intellectualise themselves into unkindness. It stands against what we SHOULD be doing – stands against the values of care, compassion, kindness and tolerance that, surely, must form a cornerstone any society.

There is only one answer. We have to bring kindness back into the world – together. Who’s with me?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

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Buy from Fishpond

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‘Kiwi Air Power’ – out now, and it’s the best launch party e-v-a-h!

There ain’t nothing like the sound of a Rolls Royce Merlin thundering overhead as you sip your morning coffee.

I’m on my annual pilgrimage to the Art Deco weekend in Napier, New Zealand; a light-hearted nod to the styles of the 1930s and early 1940s. And its hardware. This was the age when Britain’s Supermarine Spitfire and the North American Mustang reigned supreme in Europe’s skies on the back of genius design, heroic pilots – and their Merlin power-plants.

This weekend, they’re supreme in my skies – flying over residential Napier doing aerobatics, which is super-cool. And from my perspective that’s apt, because this is the moment Intruder Books are re-releasing my original military aviation title, Kiwi Air Power.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 450 pxKiwi Air Power was originally published in 1998, but it’s been out of print for fifteen years, and I’m delighted that Intruder have been able to bring it to a new audience. The main thrust of the book is the Second World War and its long-duration scion, the Cold War. And you can get Kiwi Air Power for Kindle right now. If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here.

Kiwi Air Power is the first of a series of re-releases from my military-historical back list, and the REAL launch party, the one you’ll all share, will happen when Intruder publish the second title from my back list. Watch this space.

As for the amazing Hollywood-style deco age fantasy I’m in the middle of? It’s still unfolding – watch this space, and check my Facebook author page for pictures – if you haven’t ‘liked’ already, the widget’s in the right hand column.

But enough from me. I’m back to the deco-age Hollywood magic. And that classic Merlin sound. Woah!

Catch you soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Kiwi Air Power: cover reveal and a sneak preview!

Here’s the cover of my book Kiwi Air Power, my history of New Zealand’s military aviation to the end of the Cold War, which is being republished as No. 1 in a new military series by Intruder Books.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 450 pxYou can get Kiwi Air Power for Kindle right now – it’s being officially launched next week, but it’s already been released to trade and is for sale on Amazon if you want to buy ahead of the launch (sssh).

If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here.

The inspiration for the new edition cover is a photo I took last year as an RNZAF UH-1D Iroquois did some truly spectacular aerobatics over my head. Which sums up how I feel about this release. Kiwi Air Power was originally published in a case-bound edition by Reed NZ Ltd in 1998, but it’s been out of print for fifteen years. Now you can buy Kiwi Air Power on Kindle – and it’s the first release in a series that’s going to bring selected titles from my military-historical back-list to the market – and at reasonable prices – for the first time in years.

They’re also being published, initially, as e-books, meaning they’ll be available for readers anywhere in the world with a click. Reversing the old order of release embraces all the change that’s been sweeping the industry. And that’s super cool.

I’ve got other writing news soon, about my forward list, which isn’t military or non-fiction, and that is a return to my roots as a writer. Those roots are what made it possible for me to more easily find and infuse human truths into the non-fiction for which my academic work has been recognised.

Watch this space.

And on top of that, I figure when the next book in the New Zealand Military History series comes out – a re-release of my First World War title Western Front – I should throw an online party. What do you say?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Exciting writing news for 2015!

I have some exciting news.

Wright_Military History CoversFrom the mid-1990s through to 2009 I wrote 16 books on New Zealand’s military history, spanning the period from the ‘musket’ wars of the early nineteenth century, through the ‘New Zealand’ wars of the mid-nineteenth century, to the major campaigns of the First and Second World Wars, and some of the conflicts beyond.

They ran the gamut from standard campaign histories through to the development of the RNZAF, the story of New Zealand’s long involvement with sea power, the politics behind it, the adventures of POW escapers in the Second World War, and I wrote a psychological study of heroism. I looked into the wars as a social experience for the soldiers. I examined the ‘musket’ wars and New Zealand Wars from the perspective of sociological culture-collision. I also wrote a biography of New Zealand’s key commander in the Second World War, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg.

I wrote the lot on my own initiative, sold on merits to Penguin, Random House and Reed NZ Ltd, and funded exclusively through sales. Although I’d written principally for a commercial market, the scholarship I showed in these books was received at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, with sufficient acclaim that I was nominated to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London. And I was elected a Fellow, on the worth of my contribution to military history.

It is one of the highest accolades possible to get in history, anywhere in the world.

Most of my campaign histories – A Near-Run Affair, Desert Duel, and so on – were published by Reed NZ Ltd, New Zealand’s oldest and best known publisher, on the back of a multi-book contract they offered me in 2002. (This was unheard of in New Zealand, but they offered me one anyway).

Then in 2008, Reed were taken over by Pearson Group – Penguin. I had a close relationship with Penguin – they’d been publishing my social histories for a while. However, talk of reissuing my campaign histories as a Penguin omnibus edition fell through, and with the industry in general churn-over, my back-list – military and social histories alike – quietly fell into the out-of-print box. I began retrieving the licenses and seeing what I could do to have the highights of my back-list republished alongside my new titles. That led, among other things, to the reissue in 2014 of my Illustrated History of New Zealand in a fully re-written and revised edition by Bateman Publishing.

I also re-wrote and re-published one of my New Zealand Wars books for Libro International.

And now I’m pleased to announce another step. It’s taken some effort, but I’m delighted to say that at least seven, and possibly more, of my military campaign histories will be republished in 2015 and 2016.

heroesIt’s a true twenty-first century effort, embracing the e-book revolution and taking advantage of the way e-readers have exploded into life in the last few years. That means they can be bought with the click of a button – from anywhere in the world. Print will follow if demand warrants it.

The imprint is Intruder Press, and the first of my titles to be reissued is Kiwi Air Power, a history of the RNZAF originally published by Reed NZ Ltd in 1998. It’s been out of print for 15 years – and it’s going to be available in a few weeks. The second release will be my book on the New Zealand Division in the Western Front, in time for this year’s Anzac Day.

Watch this space for cover reveals and more details. Soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Does what we write define us as writers?

My book Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand was published late last year by David Bateman Ltd. It was my second science-oriented book in a month.

It’s not often that authors are able to publish books in quick succession with major publishers. In point of fact, my schedule included four releases between July 2014 and January 2015, and this is not due to luck. Such results have to be worked for. I sacrificed time that many perhaps take for granted to achieve it. Coal 200 pxCoal remains a particularly important title for me, because it sets out my views on climate change. To me, the deeper ramifications of the themes I explore are vital questions that must be answered if we are to ensure the long-term survival of humanity.

Both my recent science books have provoked some curious comments from the media in New Zealand – ‘how can a historian understand physics’, ‘I thought you were a military historian’ and so forth. As if I were a one-trick pony. A review of my science book Living On Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House 2014) in the New Zealand Listener referred to me as a ‘historian’.

I’ve published a lot of history – but if I have to wear a label of any kind, the word is ‘writer’. I write on things that interest me – and, for a long time, that was history. But it’s not an exclusive interest. I always regard my home field as the sciences, particularly physics, with which I was brought up and where, aged 15, I won a regional science prize for my interpretation of Einstein’s physics as it applied to black holes. I was taught, at post-graduate level, by Peter Munz, a student of Karl Popper – who defined the philosophy of modern scientific method – and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I don’t validate myself as ‘an historian’, still less by imagined ‘status’ in a particular topic. I just do stuff that involves thinking, and which carries my enthusiasm and allows me to express my thoughts on the human condition. To me there is no challenge or reward in repeatedly going over a single topic. And that’s true for all things we might write about. That doesn’t mean falling into the Kruger-Dunning trap – the supposition that a subject is ‘easy’. You know – ‘History – it’s just collecting data. How hard can it be?’ Quite.

The challenge is achieving an understanding of topic before venturing forth. It also means also accepting, given my experience with military history, that public-funded bullies probably exist in every field, and we have to accept their tactics as part of the human condition. Where next? Well, my next writing project has involved me sitting down and doing a lot of math, purely to make sure I got the background details accurate.

The term you want isn’t ‘geek’. It’s ‘intellectual badass’. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Waitangi Day: the story behind the Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty that established a Crown Colony in these islands. These days it’s a public holiday.

Possibly the closest equivalent in the US is Independence Day, though the New Zealand version isn’t quite the same. Our day is usually divisive, and the normal outcome is a succession of public spats in a couple of key places around the country – including Waitangi itself – while just about everybody else ignores it and has a day off. To me that isn’t really how it should be, but it’s hard to see what can be done to change it – such matters are generational.

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 of the Treaty being signed. Note William Hobson (left centre) in his blue morning coat and hat. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

I’d like to think things might be less tense if people better understood the differing historical and present realities of the Treaty of Waitangi, so called because it was signed at Waitangi (Wailing Waters) just north of the Te Tii marae (formal meeting place) in the Bay of Islands. These are indicative of the way that the Treaty is a living document, not just a historical relic – something that underscores its importance and value to New Zealand. Legally and constitutionally, it remains a key founding document; and the idea of the Treaty – its social place and meaning – has been re-cast many times since it was signed, reflecting changing values, all of them valid to their own times. Some of the mid-nineteenth century ideas were backdrop to the career of the man whose hidden private life and character I explored in my latest book Man Of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean (Penguin Random House 2015). Donald McLean,  coincidentally, arrived in the Bay of Islands just as the Treaty was being signed – little realising that he had a career ahead of him as a major Crown land buyer and Native Minister whose job it was to live by its values. Sort of, anyway. (Click on the cover in the sidebar to the right to check it out).

Those ideas, in turn, were very different from the way it was seen in the late nineteenth century, or the twentieth, or today. Needless to say, all of the ways the Treaty has been seen are a far cry from the gimcrack way the Treaty was actually set up in 1840.

Gimcrack? Sure. In 1839-40, when it was mooted and then signed, the British weren’t very interested in setting up a colony in New Zealand. Theirs was a trading Empire, and although there was a supply centre developing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand lay far off the main trading routes. To a penurious Treasury, it seemed to offer only cost and very little benefit.

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 on the grass to the right of the flagpole, about where the flagpole was in 1840.

But pressure was growing to do something. The place had become a haven for white criminals – escaped convicts from Australia among them – and there had been some nasty incidents, including the Elizabeth affair, when a British sea captain apparently chartered his ship to Maori so they could conduct a war expedition that ended in heavy bloodshed and, allegedly, cannibal feasting on board the British vessel. Nobody objected to what Maori had done; it was accepted that they were at war and the conduct of the war party was precisely correct according to their own values. The problem was the intimate involvement of a British sea captain; not only had he profited from it, but apparently his crew had gotten rather too enthusiastically involved – and by British law, those actions rendered him a pirate.

A photo I took in 2011 of the 'Treaty House' at Waitangi - the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. Now restored as a museum. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

A photo I took of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – home of British Resident James Busby from 1833. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

In this context the Treaty was an expedient – a cheap way of applying British law to a country that, it seemed, was going to be drawn into the British sphere whether the Treasury and Colonial Office in London wanted it or not.

The moment came in a brief window of time when a war-weary Britain was exploring a more liberal and humanist approach to the world. The Anglican-based Church Missionary Society led the charge, arguing that British civilisation would unerringly destroy any indigenous peoples it encountered. The Colonial Office was effectively a hot-bed of ex-CMS officials; and the Treasury – which reflected similar thinking – was insistent that a New Zealand colony could only be set up with the full consent of Maori, by Treaty.

That was why the Treaty was ordered. It was done in haste by officials such as William Hobson, who were not familiar with New Zealand – he was, in fact, a naval commander – and it was drafted in circumstances where neither he nor his local advisors were sure whether it should apply to the whole of the New Zealand archipelago or just the part around the Bay of Islands. Even the way it was signed was ad-hoc. It was put to local rangitira (chiefs) on 5 February 1840; they did not agree during korero (discussion) that day, so Hobson arranged for a further meeting on 7 February. But next morning, 6 February, chiefs arrived to sign it. Hobson decided to take up the offer and rushed to arrange it, clad informally in a morning coat rather than his official naval uniform. Later, when the Treaty was taken around New Zealand, the only people the British actively sought to sign it were rangitira who had signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence, which the Treaty of Waitangi superseded – its whole first clause, in fact, was given over to that purpose.

The Treaty remains the only example of its kind in the world – and it’s fitting that it has become a blueprint in New Zealand for race relations since. But that’s a far cry from its gimcrack origins, a fact that underscores just how times change, and how interesting a foreign land history really is.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why only nasty people seem to win – and my book about one of them

It’s not often that an author gets to write a biography of someone who can only be described as a total and utter bastard. And rarer still to find a compelling raft of redeeming features in a such a character.

Man of Secrets 200 pxBut that’s what I managed to do – and the book in question, Man of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean – is being published today by Penguin Random House.

This book means a lot to me in many ways. Not least because it has to be the longest-brewing book I’ve ever written. I signed the contract with Penguin in 2003, only to discover – unbeknownst either to me or to them – that another biography of McLean was being written.

There wasn’t room in the market for two books on the guy, and so Penguin agreed to shelve mine while this other biography sold through. I found it very much a ‘classical’ academic biography, asking the sorts of questions that academics need to ask to earn status with other academics, all framed by traditional themes relating to Donald McLean’s place in New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century settler history as a major public servant and land buyer.

By 2011 I figured enough time had passed to tackle my own book. But I didn’t want to re-tread the ground that the last biographer and the Waitangi Tribunal had been raking over, exploring his competence, motives and actions as a public servant. A further biography wasn’t the right place to to add anything to those debates, even though by eschewing them I risked being targeted by ‘straw man’ worth denials pivoting on the assertion that these arguments were the sole arbiter of the quality of any book on McLean.

It was also important to find an organising principle – a theme. Despite the conceit that books should be ‘definitive’ (an assertion usually deployed by authors to validate their own self-worth, or by others to fuel straw-man worth denials in academia) the practical reality is that even the longest tome can only ever look at aspects of a subject.

I gotta love this clip from the back cover.

I gotta love this clip from the back cover.

I had just over 75,000 words available, which meant finding a very tight-knit theme and focussing just on that. I was aware of yet another manuscript out there, covering off McLean’s political life. So what else was there?

The obvious destination for any biographer is character. What sort of person is the subject – in all their depth as a human individual, irrespective of their place in history or their narrative deeds? And when it comes to McLean the answer, it seemed, was ‘nobody cared’. McLean’s character had always been simply taken as an as-read backdrop to the political and land-buying deeds that have usually formed the backbone of studies of his life. Nobody had looked much beyond the self-evident facts that he schemed, he was ambitious, he drank heavily, he beat people, and on the back of it played a huge role in New Zealand’s colonial history.

I thought it was worth having a crack at seeing what lay beneath all that. Some of the story was clear from his diary. And then I found McLean’s love letters.

McLean’s brief marriage to Susan Strang ended abruptly in 1852 when she died giving birth to their first and only son, Douglas. She has only ever been a footnote in his ‘traditional’ history – a paragraph only in the 1940 biography penned by James Cowan, and a single, short and asynchronous chapter in Ray Fargher’s.

But for my purposes, those letters were important because – along with his diary they revealed a very different figure from the mean-spirited, alcoholic, vindictive, egotistical bastard more usually known to history.

Suddenly, McLean leaped into deeper perspective, and in ways that hadn’t been considered before.

Man of Secrets: The Private Life of Donald McLean is being released in print – available in all good bookstores and for purchase online – and also as an ebook. Details soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015