by Gordon Ell
Published by New Holland Publishers (NZ) Ltd
reviewed by Paul Smith
There are many ways to capture the culture of a country. Gordon Ell has taken the engagingly simple route of an A-Z. It means you can open the pages of this book at say, 'Ladies, a plate' and recall how strange it was to newcomers to the country. (Bring a plate?!) Or readers can travel back 100 years and read what constituted 'Bushman's toilet paper' (the large soft leaves of the Rangiora plant).
Ell originally collected stories like these in his book New Zealand Traditions and Folklore, published some 14 years ago. At the time, the book fairly walked out of the bookstore. Publishers New Holland have just produced an updated version called Kiwiosities and it will probably do the same.
Among other things, Ell has done us a service because some of this history, mostly derived from life in the country, may well be lost in a society in which 86% of the people are city-dwellers. When you start reading this book you realise how much New Zealand has changed and how the symbols and characters of the past might be slipping into obscurity. There's a note of sorrow in Ell's preface that many 55 plus baby boomers might share, a sense of having lived in two New Zealands - one before 1984 - then in the barely recognisable society which followed. He writes:
Ideas that had been central to our national consciousness, such as social security for all, have suddenly fallen to the margins of memory after 100 years in the making. There has been a radical change in New Zealand since the determined destruction of the Welfare State began in the late 1980s… It is challenging to consider whether such general pioneering ideals as mateship and caring for others will reassert themselves in time or whether such traditions dating back a century or more, can simply be destroyed by changing the social framework.
Kiwiosities (it sounds so much like curiosities - and some of the entries are) guards against that. It's a storehouse we can return to again and again to feed our memories. There's a bonus too in Ell's laconic style. Could almost be A Good Keen Man. (Who?!)