Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Encounters - The Creation of New Zealand A History - Paul Moon (Penguin)

I own a house, and a small parcel of land, ti which I paid the current market rate for, slap bang in the middle of an old swamp. It was once known as Aglionville. Now it's known as Alicetown, after a prominent settler, by the name of Alice. On first meeting me, people often ask where I live. They need a sense of place to locate me and everyone else on their own map of the world. Where they live, in relation to me determines their status in society, it reaffirms their own choice of location, it identifies their cultural tribe, their clique, it helps to build their identity. And every one they meet is equally assessed. This is not a Western phenomenon. Maori do it too. They talk about them selves in terms where they are from - their mountain, their river, their whakapapa. All of this helps to determine who we are as individuals and where we sit in the world.
Massey University has a TV jungle "Find your place in the world", as if potential students don't know who they are, or where they belong. Only academic study and collegiate camaraderie can suitably direct their un-positioned compasses.

American author Walt Whitman referred to the great 'Yawl!"; A concept of standing on a rock, high up in the wilderness and balling out to the trees and rivers. The American identity, he believed was encapsulated by nature, the pioneer spirit and the yearning for freedom in the wild, escaping the squalor and oppression of the cities.

Playwrite Greg MCGee charged his most famous character, Foreskin, when addressing an after match rugby function, with the most profound question in all of our literature to date" "What are ya?"
Who are we, indeed? That question of identity - real, imagined and desired is a pivotal question in Paul Moons new book "Encounters'. In his chapters, Moon explores the historical identity of our land and our people. Who were they? Who are they and what did we think of our selves as we journey through time. He looks at the Maori mythical explanations of how this country was first settled and the later misguided interpretations of European academics, with agendas of racial purity and Christian morality. He also looks at the imagined identity of New Zealand. The creation and selling of land parcels, some of which still exist today, by the New Zealand Company from maps drafted in London, never locally surveyed, impresses upon history the desires to escape the old world for the new yet reinforces the Victorian arrogance that because they were British the early settlers could just arrive and set up without any question of challenge from the current occupants.

Later, Moon tackles the question of physical geography. New Zealand's literacy tradition and it cinema of unease endlessly refers to the ways in which the land shape us. The weather, the earthquakes, the sea and the mountains all enclose and embrace us. I recently heard a comment that New Zealanders are not tolerant in large crowds, such as 2 hour queues for rides at Disneyland, because we are so use to the sparseness of population and the vast ness of open spaces. Yet at the same time it would be difficult to move far in any town or city without encountering the encircling hills, or meeting the ocean or having to ford a river. The land and its infinite natural incarceration can not be escaped. Even in the densest city areas a mountain or a river is close by and can even be seen out of the nearest window.

Finally, he looks to the future. With the resurgence of Maoritanga and Te Reo, the new respect for ANZAC day and New Zealand's involvement in the wars and our ongoing battle to 'punch above our weight' in the international arena. Almost sine the beginning New Zealand has been identified by its commercial prospects. The need to get our produce onto the pantries of Europe, Britain and now in Asia has driven innovation, inventions such as the freezer ships and milk biscuits, the electric fence and a strew of agricultural products. Yet the invention that most sums up our ongoing desire to mix history with the present, honouring the past, embracing it, repackaging it and laying it down for interpretation and identity is the Garmon GPS. This humble in car navigation device contains all the maps, place names and landmarks of our country and many others. It is a very small device yet it can identify any land parcel, any road, any street and tell you who lives there, the proximity to the township, and from that one can speculate on many things about who they are. And despite the ethereal make up of pixels and data the implicit history and identities encapsulated are real and imagined, mythical and legitimate. It is the ultimate map, and like the land always changing and always reinterpreting - just like our history.

'Throughout its human history, New Zealand has been interpreted and experienced in often radically different ways. Each wave of arrivals to its shores has left its own set of views of New Zealand on the country – applying a new coat of mythology and understanding to the landscape, usually without fully removing the one that lies beneath it.' Encounters is the wide-ranging, audacious and gripping story of New Zealand's changing national identity, how it has emerged and evolved through generations. In this genre-busting book, historian Paul Moon delves into how the many and conflicting ideas about New Zealand came into being. Along the way, he explores forgotten crevices of the nation's character, and exposes some of the mythology of its past and present. These include, for example, the earliest Maori myths and the 'mock sacredness' of the All Blacks in the twenty-first century; the role of nostalgia in our national character, both Maori and Pakeha; whether the explorer Kupe existed; the appeal of the Speight's 'Southern Man'; and ruminations on New Zealand art and landscape. What results is an absorbing piece of scholarship, an imaginative and exuberant epic that will challenge preconceptions about what it means to be a New Zealander, and how our country is understood. Lyrical, breathtaking and provocative, and illustrated with artworks throughout, Encounters offers an extraordinary insight into the beginnings of our country.

1 comment:

  1. Your review was used in the NCEA exams in 2014, well done!