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“Nine Lives” that helped shape contemporary New Zealand

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Nine Lives

Upstart Press

RRP $39.99

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Much has been made recently about what constitutes New Zealand culture, the intersection of Māori, Pacific and European experiences which has formed our contemporary multicultural society.

Part of the impetus behind these changes are people who make a difference and the new book “Nine Lives” examines the lives of nine people who have have helped reshape our culture.

The book provides something of an encapsulation of New Zealand cultures telling the reader as much about the ways that contemporary New Zealand has been formed as about the people who have made that happen.

These nine  personalities range from the internationally famous to those who known only within their own areas of expertise or experience and the writers include some of our most distinguished novelists, poets and playwrights.

In the nine chapters  the writers encounter, examine and reflect on the lives of nine others . Lloyd Jones on Paul Melser (potter), Paula Morris on Matiu Rata (politician), Catherine Robertson on Dame Margaret Sparrow (doctor and health advocate), Greg McGee on Ken Gray (All Black), Stephanie Johnson on Carole Beu (bookseller), Malcolm Mulholland on Ranginui Walker(academic), Selina Tusitala Marsh on Albert Wendt (writer), Elspeth Sandys on Rewi Alley (writer and activist), and Paul Thomas on John Wright (cricketer).

In his chapter on the potter Paul Melser Lloyd Jones quotes Goethe – “Try to do your duty and you will find out who you are … what matters is the manner in which one does the work.” It’s a quote which is relevant to all the characters in the book – people who attempt to make a difference.

In some cases the writers have close ties to their subject as with Elspeth Sandys who writes about her “uncle”  Rewi Alley and the ambivalence she had concerning her communist relative, despised by many New Zealanders but revered by millions of Chinese for his work in improving the lives of the population. We learn about her family dynamics, her own life as well as the life of Alley himself.

One of the most personal and emotional accounts is that of Catherine Robertson on Dame Margaret Sparrow which opens with her first encounter with doctor – “After my twenty-first birthday and before the advent of seven-digit phone numbers, I was given a local anaesthetic and a foetus was aspirated out of my womb. The abortionist was Dr Margaret Sparrow.”

Her chapter on combines the life of Sparrow along with a short history of the development of abortion law reform in this country.

Greg McGee writing about the All Black Ken Gray recounts their parallel lives in playing the game. He dwells on the Gray’s personal life as well as the political dimensions of the game around tours to South Africa  and the man being ostracized by the rugby establishment over his stand against apartheid.

Stephanie Johnson writing about  Carole Beu of the Women’s Bookshop shows how chance and vision combined with the changes brought about by the women’s movement resulted in an iconic bookshop and a remarkable bookseller.

Selina Tusitala Marsh first encounters with  Albert Wendt in  her under-graduate years at Auckland University and she admits “I didn’t like him. In my New Zealand Literature course he was austere, distant, and seemed to me to be just plain ole grumpy.” But through personal  and academic encounters with the writers she later notes ”I’ve never thought of Albert Wendt first or even foremost as  a literary giant. For me he’s a political giant.” Her chapter explores the importance of Wendt as  a great writer of Pacific literature but also as a person who has helped transform  much about the Pacific politically and socially.

All the writers manage to skilfully weave their subjects lives and their own  together along with events and encounters which have changed lives and histories in creating the fabric of New |Zealand culture.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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