Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Colourful Story of a City
Gordon McLauchlan – Penguin - $40

One of New Zealand’s most widely experienced journalists, and with a string of books to his name, McLauchlan has now turned his attention to the city he calls home. While Dunedin-born, and Wellington College-educated, and having lived in diverse parts of New Zealand, McLauchlan has spent the second half of his life in Auckland and in his new and entertaining book he has delivered a frank, not uncritical, but nevertheless fond look at the city he clearly loves.

McLauchlan is my kind of historian. He is passionately interested in Auckland and its history, has a significant library of his own on books about the city, is widely read, while his writing style is crisp, entertaining and accessible. He doesn’t bring too scholarly a feel to this book, there are no footnotes that so abound in more academic tomes, it is a book for the interested layman and it reads like a good novel.
Publication date was yesterday, 29 September, and the title is to be launched at a function at the Auckland City Library later this week. This seems an eminently appropriate venue as the appealing image on the back and front covers is an early map of Auckland from the Special Collections at that library.

Although McLauchlan deals briefly with Auckland’s volcanic past this history is really about the village, town and city of Auckland from the time of European settlement in the early 19th century to the present day.

Quite early on in the story, after describing in some detail Auckland’s first regatta held on Friday 18 September, 1840, gun salutes all over the harbor, the author notes rather drolly, “Quite a lot of pomp for a quiet spot at the end of the world, accompanying a deep sense of circumstance”.

And this about the initial land purchase from local Maori:
The land purchased was like a tasty wedge of cake – 3000 acres sliced from the coast to the crest of Mt.Eden and back. What was this inchoate city worth? Fifty pounds, fifty blankets, 20 trousers, twenty shirts, ten waistcoats, ten caps, 100 yards of gown pieces, ten iron pots, twenty hatchets, four casks of tobacco, a box of pipes, one bag of sugar, one bag of flour. (Seven months later, sections in town were sold on to settlers for an average of 525 pounds an acre to the later chagrin of Maori”).

McLauchlan tells his story chronologically but he is not afraid to be occasionally sidetracked which adds to the enjoyment of the book. His premise that Auckland’s past is not too different to its present is certainly illustrated in the tensions that existed between Auckland and Wellington in particular but also between Auckland and parts further south from very early times. Here he is on this subject:
It was not just envy that drove Wellingtonians to claim the capital nor the absolute conviction that their centrality made the move essential. Their sense of class and moral superiority motivated them powerfully – a sense, some would say, they and other southerners have never lost”.

In the course of his “Life and Times” he tells his story by way of charming vignette portraits of many of the main players who helped shape Auckland including George Grey, John Churton, Logan Campbell, Charles Heaphy, Bishop Selwyn, Frederick Maning, Josiah Firth, david Nathan, Elizabeth Yates, John Allum, Dove Myer Robinson, Henry Kelliher, Ernest Davis, Cath Tizard and many others.

Not surprisingly he devotes a chapter entitled “A First Wave of Writers” where he writes of the work and influence of Rex Fairburn, James Betram, John Mulgan, Jane Mander, Roderick Finlayson, Frank Sargeson, Robin Hyde, Allen Curnow, Keith Sinclair and others who gave New Zealand a new body of literature.

He has a deal to say about the ethnic diversity of Auckland’s population and how it has changed so dramatically in recent years. He takes pleasure in this but wonders about” the widening cultural gulf between Auckland and the rest of the country where populations have tended to stay whiter and more conservative”.

Like his friend Hamish Keith in his recent book, Native Wit, , McLauchlan laments the widespread destruction of important heritage buildings, indeed he rises in anger over the “persistent penchant of Aucklanders for knocking old buildings over to replace them with something new or for building on any open space a developer may identify”,

This is a personal, occasionally polemical, always entertaining look at Auckland, “a town that started off running” and has scarcely stopped to draw breath since. It is a valuable addition to Auckland’s written heritage.

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