Winter reading ideas

I often post book recommendations in January, but I have read so much already this year that I decided to write about my favourites now. Taste in books is a very personal thing, but maybe you’ll find something here that you enjoy.

I read a jumble of things I happen upon at the Lilliput library or op shops, new books in the tiny but impressive village library, books passed on by family members, books that are recommended on my favourite podcast, Backlisted, and things people recommend on Twitter. Thanks to everyone who has shared their favourites with me!

This year I also started using a reading app, StoryGraph. I have resisted using GoodReads because I try and avoid anything owned by Amazon, but when I heard about this new app I was sold (that’s a figure of speech, since it’s free)! It’s great for recording what you have read and what you want to read, setting yourself goals and looking at reading stats if you’re that sort of nerdy person (I am), and seeing what other people have thought of some book you’re considering reading. It also gives recommendations based on the preferences you enter and what you have already read. I have found it excellent – its especially good when you’re in the library or bookshop and can consult your ‘to-read pile’ on your phone.

I’ve only included books I really liked here – there’s no room for the ho-hum ones. On with the books, but just beware that some of the links to Wikipedia pages are likely to include spoilers!

Current issues

There are so many urgent problems in the world – poverty and inequality, Covid, climate change, the biodiversity crisis – that I have to start here. Can books save us? Possibly not, but they can describe the issues, suggest solutions and motivate us to act. Happily there are many people with useful ideas out there, and writers who can communicate them clearly.

I thoroughly recommend Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by economic anthropologist Jason Hickel. The first part of this book is pretty grim, as it outlines the problems we face, but it does have solutions. It is, at heart, a critique of our current capitalist system and demonstrates that its obsession with everlasting economic growth is responsible for our ills. At the heart of the evils of capitalism is colonialism, which is a major focus of the book. Hickel does show, though, that humans can flourish in a post-capitalist (and post-colonial) world – bring it on!

Another thought-provoking recent book is The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by philosopher Roman Krznaric. With admirable clarity, Krznaric describes the issues with short-term thinking which beset our age and have led to our current crises. He has gathered wisdom from cultures around the globe and throughout history to prompt us to become long-term thinkers and reshape humanity’s future. He demonstrates that Indigenous cultures lead the way, with their priorities built around multiple generations, past and future. Māori tikanga receives special mention, and he cites Nanaia Mahuta. This is another very worthwhile read.

The BWB Texts series, from New Zealand publisher Bridget Williams Books, is always good on current issues. I thoroughly recommend its Living With the Climate Crisis: Voices from Aotearoa. Edited by Tom Doig, it brings together short essays by a diverse range of authors, from teenage activists and scientists to local body politicians and journalists. Māori and Pasifika perspectives come through strongly.


History and current issues are intimately related, as some of my favourite recent history reads show. BWB Texts are again to the fore. The Platform: The Radical Legacy of the Polynesian Panthers by Melani Anae is a lively history of this activist organisation by one of its founding members. It is a very personal account, but also grounded in Anae’s work as a scholar in Pacific Studies. With the New Zealand Government offering an apology for the Dawn Raids – one of the events which spurred the foundation of the Panthers in the 1970s – this is a timely read and I thoroughly recommend it.

Also from BWB Texts comes Alice Te Punga Somerville’s Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook. Written as Aotearoa marked 250 years since Cook arrived in this place, it offers a brilliant Māori perspective on that explorer and the multitude of memorials (in this country and elsewhere) to him. It is at once tragic and amusing; it is brief, brilliantly written, and hard to put down. This history is topical – only this week protesters pulled down a statue of Cook in Victoria, British Columbia, threw it into the harbour, and replaced it with red dresses, symbols of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Another excellent history from Bridget Williams Books – a bigger book this time – is Te Hāhi Mihinare: The Māori Anglican Church by Hirini Kaa. Kaa is a priest and historian steeped in the culture of Ngāti Porou, so unsurprisingly this is a deeply informed book. It is very readable and even humorous at times; you don’t need to be Anglican or even religious in any way to enjoy this book. Perhaps its major theme is the agency of Māori in the development of the church, often in the face of opposition from English and colonial Anglican authorities. This is a deserving prize-winner.

The final history book I wish to recommend comes from the other side of the world. In The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel, David Gange takes an unusual approach to researching history. He kayaked around the Atlantic coast of Britain, Ireland and associated islands, stopping off to visit local libraries and archives and collect oral history. Taking a seaward view of these places, and the connections between them, makes a lot of sense: motorised travel by land and air are relatively recent developments in their history. This book was especially interesting to me because I have ancestors from Shetland, the western highlands of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, but I think it would have a broader appeal. Historians will enjoy Gange’s novel approach to research. He also writes beautifully about the natural world.

Memoirs and personal essays

I like a good memoir. The personal essay collection seems to be having a moment at present. These can seem self-indulgent, but done well they are great. I can highly recommend Times Like These by Michelle Langstone and All Who Live on Islands by Rose Lu. Both write evocatively of their families and childhoods – Langstone grew up in Auckland, and Lu migrated here from China as a young child. The stories are frank and deeply personal and extend into their adult lives. Langstone’s writing is powered by her grief at the death of her father, and her struggles with fertility. Lu portrays vividly the varied lives of 3 generations of a migrant family, and the Wellington tech world in which she works.

Of course, personal essay collections have been around for a while. Inspired by the Backlisted podcast, I read in translation the 1970s collection The Summer Book by Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson. It’s not precisely biographical, but closely based on her mother and niece. It portrays with masterly simplicity the lives of a child and grandmother on an island during summer. I loved it and was inspired then to read A Winter Book, a collection of various Jansson short pieces collected together in translation after her death. It is wonderful too.

One strand of memoir focuses primarily on the natural world. I’m fond of nature writing, and I loved Findings by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. This beautifully written collection of essays explores her personal experiences of different aspects of the natural world in various parts of Scotland. The very first book I read this year was another cracking book of nature writing: Under the Stars: A Journey Into Light by Matt Gaw. We live in a world invaded by artificial light: Gaw investigates its effects and seeks out experiences of natural darkness and light around England and Scotland.

Fantasy and science fiction

Before you skip this section because you don’t like these sorts of books, let me encourage you to give these genres a go! Some people dismiss them as escapist (not that there’s anything wrong with escapist reading), but the alternative worlds and societies invented by sci fi and fantasy writers provide powerful commentary on our own communities and world – they can be great triggers for analysis and critique of the way we live, and imagining how we might face the future. Indeed, in The Good Ancestor, discussed above, Krznaric suggests that sci fi is a great tool for turning us into long-term thinkers. And an interesting recent article in the Guardian on current ‘cli fi’, or climate fiction, attracted lots of comments pointing out that sci fi authors have been writing about this stuff for decades.

I read prize-winning sci-fi author Octavia Butler for the first time this year, and was immediately hooked. Her Earthseed series (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents), published in the 1990s, is set in the near future (2020s and thereafter) in a post-apocalyptic USA; the main character is a young woman who founds a new religion. In the 1980s Xenogenesis or Lilith’s Brood series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago) humans have all but destroyed themselves through nuclear war, but the remnant is rescued by an alien species, which later resettles Earth with them. All of these books are exciting and peopled with great characters; they are sometimes brutally violent though. They explore many themes but with Butler’s African American identity it is not surprising that gender, race and slavery are the most significant.

A very different sort of historical sci-fi book is The Inheritors, by William Golding, best-know for Lord of the Flies. I came to this intriguing 1955 book through Backlisted. It reimagines the lives of a small band of Neanderthals, and their contacts with Homo sapiens. Although we know a lot more about early humans and related species now than we did in the 1950s, this remains a powerful read – highly recommended.

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox was my favourite read of 2019; I read it again this year so I could more fully appreciate a session by Knox at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. It was even better on a second reading! It’s a fantasy novel with a page-turning plot, but also rich in deeper themes. It was a privilege to meet the author and have her sign my copy. She was interviewed at the festival by another Wellington fantasy writer, H.G. Parry. That inspired me to read Parry’s The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep. It’s an amusing whirlwind adventure, with a great Wellington setting, featuring a mixture of literary characters who have come to life. It’s a special treat for booklovers and literary scholars – if you like Victorian literature you will particularly enjoy this book, though it’s not essential to know the featured characters already (alongside such famous Victorians as Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, there are a brilliant 1930s girl detective, multiple Mr Darcys, and Maui). The family at the centre of the story is also very well developed. Another more light-hearted and page-turning fantasy adventure with a bookish setting is The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix. I liked it very much despite not being in the target young adult market!

General fiction

I’ve been struck by how many brilliant New Zealand fiction writers there are just now. Kudos to them, and to the publishers pumping out all these fabulous books in a small market – though some are also getting the international releases they deserve. There are two novels by New Zealanders that have particularly gripped me so far this year. Nothing to See by Pip Adam is a beautifully written and unexpectedly strange book about addiction, technology and various other things – although the book touches on big issues, she is especially good at capturing the minutiae of everyday life. Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey really is brilliant. Set in – and adjacent to – a Nazi concentration camp, it captures in a gripping, sensitive and chilling way the horrors of that place and the infection of evil. The way she handles a complex plot told from multiple points of view is masterly.

Speaking of masterly writers, recently I read Ali Smith for the first time. Wow! She is both highly literary and a teller of page-turning tales. I loved How To Be Both, and immediately started her Seasonal Quartet series – I’ve just finished the first of them, Autumn. I love her use of language – it’s literally poetic at times – and her characters are wonderful. The books move seamlessly between present and past. So good.


Gluten-free bread recipe

I love making bread and have been baking it weekly for years now. However, I’ve been trying a low-FODMAP diet recently and really struggled to find a good gluten-free (GF) bread recipe. Eventually I found a half-decent one in a library book ( Bette Hagman, The Gluten-Free Gourmet Bakes Bread, published 1999) and did some playing around with the ingredients and method in that. I’ve made quite a few successful loaves now, so I’m sharing the recipe to help anyone else who wants to make their own GF and FODMAP-friendly bread. I reckon it’s as good as the GF bread sold at the supermarket, if not better! Of course, it’s not as good as regular bread, but it’s pretty tasty when it’s warm, and delicious toasted for several days after baking.

I can get all the ingredients except one at the local supermarket. The exception is xanthan gum, which is often used in GF baking to help bind the ingredients. You can find it at health food stores, but mine was out of stock so I bought it online. It comes as a powder – try not to spill it, as it can make a gluey mess if it gets wet!

This recipe makes one medium-sized loaf. It takes less time than regular bread to be ready as it has one rise rather than two.


1 ¼ cups warm water

2 ¼ tsp active yeast

1 whole egg plus 1 large egg white

70ml oil

¾ tsp vinegar

1 tbsp maple syrup

1 cup rice flour

1 cup tapioca flour (sometimes called arrowroot)

1 cup cornflour or cornmeal

1/3 cup almond meal

2 ¼ tsp xanthan gum

1 ½ tsp salt

1 tbsp sesame seeds (optional)

2 tbsp poppy seeds (optional)

2 tbsp pumpkin seeds (optional)


  1. Put the warm water in a small bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Set aside to start activating while you complete the next step.
  2. Put the egg, egg white, oil, vinegar and maple syrup in a large bowl and beat together well. I use a handheld electric beater, but if you have a flash cake mixer you could use that.
  3. Add the water/yeast mixture to the egg mixture and mix a little more.
  4. Add all of the remaining ingredients, including seeds if you are using them, to your wet mixture. It will create a dough that is too wet to knead by hand – it looks like a thick cake batter. Beat together for 3 minutes using an electric beater or cake mixer.
  5. Pour the mixture into a lined loaf tin – I use a scraper to spread it evenly. Cover it with a clean tea towel.
  6. Put the tin in a warm place to rise for 60 minutes. I set my timer for 45 minutes to remind me to turn the oven on to heat!
  7. Bake at 200ºC fanbake for 10 minutes, place some foil loosely over the top of the tin, and bake another 40-45 minutes.
  8. The loaf can be removed from the tin as soon as it comes out of the oven. Put it on a rack to cool for at least 20 minutes before cutting. Once I’ve cut into it, I wrap the remainder of the loaf firmly in a clean tea towel to stop it drying out. Once it’s completely cool you can store it, still wrapped in the towel, in an airtight container.
  9. If you’re wondering what to do with the leftover egg yolk, my favourite thing is to add it to another whole egg plus a little milk and make scrambled eggs for lunch!
A loaf after rising, ready to go into the oven.
The finished product – this loaf doesn’t have the optional seeds.
A finished loaf with seeds included.

The 2020 reading corner

We’ve made it through 2020! I did well in the birthplace lottery and I’m very fortunate to live in Aotearoa New Zealand, which has been less severely hit by the pandemic than most other places. My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones or had major health issues, been on the frontline of healthcare, lost jobs or otherwise struggled in 2020.

It has been a strange year for reading. We had an early and very strict lockdown. For some people that meant more reading, but I was one of another group – pretty big, I think – who found it difficult to read in 2020. In the first half of the year I had very little spare time, as I worked (from home during lockdown) and cared for an ill family member. Because this was all a bit overwhelming, and because of some ongoing chronic health concerns, I took early retirement in June. That gave me more free time, but I still struggled to read. Undoubtedly doomscrolling (voted word of the year in New Zealand by Public Address) had much to do with that: between the pandemic, climate change, US elections and New Zealand elections, there was a lot of news to follow. It was very easy to get distracted by Twitter or news websites or online scrabble (an addiction started during lockdown!). I lost the ability to concentrate.

I wanted to be able to read again, so I created a new reading corner. After a big clearout of my home office I was able to get rid of one filing cabinet, which made space for a comfortable old armchair I picked up in a junk store. I declared this a device-free zone, so I could sit and read there without distraction – it worked!

These, then, were my favourite reads in 2020 – some fresh off the shelves, and some from the underground stacks of the library. Taste is a very personal thing, of course, but maybe you will enjoy some of these too.


My favourite book of 2020 in all categories – indeed, my favourite book of many years – was Diary of a Young Naturalist by Northern Irish writer Dara McAnulty. The ‘young’ of the title is no exaggeration, for this book is the diary he kept when he was 14 years old. Dara is many things: he is a schoolboy, environmental activist, autistic, and a great lover of nature (especially raptors), but he is above all a brilliant writer. He writes of his personal struggles, of his wonderful loving family (all nature lovers, and his mother and siblings are also autistic) and most beautifully his observations of the natural world. Like all really good writing, it is a book to read slowly and savour.

Another book I read slowly, since I kept wanting to reread bits, was The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a 2007 memoir by one of the great masters of nature writing, set in a variety of wild landscapes around Britain and Ireland. If you, like me, love nature writing, I can also recommend a couple of great podcasts by English nature writers: The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison, and Birth of a Naturalist by Jonathan Tulloch. Both happen to be very good novelists as well: last year I devoured all of Harrison’s novels, and this year I enjoyed Give Us This Day by Jonathan Tulloch.

A different sort of memoir about walking in Britain is The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. She and her husband lost their farm and business and became homeless at the same time as he received a terminal diagnosis. This is a beautifully written and very moving description of the big journey they took, walking the English South West Coast Path and free camping.

Crossing the Atlantic, I enjoyed a couple of very good memoirs by African American women. Like millions around the world, I read Becoming, Michelle Obama’s well-written and interesting account of her life, from childhood to her years in the White House. I also appreciated A Burst of Light and Other Essays by poet Audre Lorde, first published in 1988. She writes about her struggles and activism as a Black lesbian woman, with connections all over the world. The book includes diaries she kept as she lived with breast cancer.

Closer to home, I read the memoirs of two remarkable people who now live in New Zealand. Green MP Golriz Ghahraman is still in her thirties, but she has had an eventful life. She and her parents fled Iran when she was aged nine and they claimed asylum in New Zealand. In Know Your Place she writes of her early childhood in Iran, settling to a new life here, her career as a human rights lawyer and politician, and her recent experience of adjusting to disability due to multiple sclerosis. This is a well-written book by a significant and boundary-breaking woman.

Like Ghahraman, journalist Behrouz Boochani is in his thirties, Kurdish and a refugee from Iran, but he fled his homeland later, in 2013, and had the great misfortune to encounter the barbarity of the Australian refugee detention system. No Friend but the Mountains is a very moving and disturbing book, in which he writes of his perilous journey from Indonesia by boat and imprisonment on Manus Island. Boochani is a deep thinker and philosopher and his writing is poetic; the book is in a mixture of poetry and prose. The tale of the book itself is extraordinary. He wrote it in prison, through messages sent to friends on his phone. Friend Omid Togifhian translated it from Persian to English (and wrote a longish introduction). No Friend but the Mountains won several major literary prizes in Australia, no doubt greatly annoying the government it criticised so heavily. It became his key to a new life, as he obtained a visa to attend a literary festival in New Zealand, where he was subsequently granted refugee status. He remains a strong advocate for his fellow detainees.


First, a word of warning – some of the links are to Wikipedia entries and may include plot spoilers!

I’ve read some cracking fiction this year. Four very different books topped my list. I loved Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winner, Girl, Woman, Other, an originally-styled tale of the lives of many black women, all linked in some way. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a wonderful imagining of the lives of Shakespeare’s wife and children; it’s a moving tale of love and of grief for a child. The Bees by Laline Paull has an unusual narrator – a bee. It can be interpreted as a fable about society and hierarchies, but is also just a compelling story about bees and their hives. A recent standout read was Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 sci-fi classic, The Dispossessed. It features two contrasting societies – one is anarchist and possessions are insignificant; the other capitalist. I was especially struck by some comments about the decline of Earth, which are thrown in at one point rather than featured throughout – they seem highly prophetic.

I don’t know that Juliet Marillier can be counted as a local writer, since she has lived in Australia for many years. Still, she grew up in Dunedin and she’s an Otago graduate! She is one of my favourites, writing wonderful sensitive historical fantasy. I loved The Harp of Kings, the first in her latest series, Warrior Bards. Another Dunedin writer I really like is Laurence Fearnley: I especially enjoy her descriptions of the natural world. Scented, which I read in 2020, isn’t my favourite of hers but I still liked it. It is unusual in being a novel that is very much about smell. Speaking of the natural world, another great read this year was Richard Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Overstory. It’s a story about trees and a group of people, all deeply developed, involved in protecting them.

I happened upon Canadian Ann-Marie MacDonald’s books this year, and read Fall on Your Knees, an extraordinary historical family saga set on Cape Breton Island. She is a wonderful writer, but a word of warning: this book includes child abuse (including sex abuse). After reading this and a couple of other very grim books, which shall remain nameless, I decided I needed to read more cheerful things in this stressful year! Crime fiction is one category I’ve gone off. I’ve never been a fan of violent movies, though I used to watch some of the innumerable TV crime series. But now I find it hard to stomach as a mode of entertainment, especially when it involves violence against women. Also, I served on a jury in a horrible case in 2020, and that experience made me pretty cynical about our justice system.

I asked on Twitter for good ‘uplit’ recommendations, and people kindly gave lots of suggestions. The ones I’ve read so far are very good. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (translated from Japanese) is a lovely tale of a woman and her son, caring for an aging mathematician whose memory lasts just 80 minutes due to a head injury. My friend Jason recommended Salley Vickers and I found The Librarian unputdownable. It’s the tale of a young children’s librarian and her influence in an English village in the 1950s, with wonderful characters. I love a good book about books, and I also like well-written child characters in adult novels – they are a big feature in this one. I also read The Boy Who Could See Death, a collection of Vickers’ short stories. They are interesting tales of people, some with a supernatural edge, but mostly about very human things.

Book podcasts are a good source of recommendations. There are a couple I’ve followed for ages, but it was in 2020 that I first encountered the brilliant Backlisted, which includes wonderful rambling and witty conversations about older books. I recommend especially the 2020 Christmas Day programme, about The Dark is Rising, a Susan Cooper book I read and loved in 2019, as part of my binge of 1960s and 70s children’s novels. The Backlisted podcast features novels of all genres, literary and popular, and it was thanks to it that I read the hugely enjoyable Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson, published in the 1930s. I vaguely recall reading some of her books way back when, but had forgotten how good they are. This is a charming and hilarious tale about a naïve woman who writes a book based on the residents of her English village. Published under a pseudonym, it becomes a bestseller and chaos ensues as the villagers try to identify the dastardly writer.


I only read one New Zealand history book in 2020, but it was a significant one: Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand by Brian Easton. It’s a long book – the distillation of a lifetime’s work as an economist – but happily very readable and low in jargon. Economic history has been rather neglected in this country, so it’s good to have this comprehensive study. More expert friends tell me that Easton’s inclusion of environmental aspects in this book is novel, but I guess I’m more radical, since it doesn’t go quite far enough for me! I was disappointed that, despite a disclaimer, it focuses on economic growth, with no consideration of newer theories like doughnut economics. I may be too harsh a critic on economics, though.

My favourite history read of the year was Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. Everything Solnit writes is good, and this 2000 book is, as ever, full of quotable bits. It covers a huge range of time and geography and philosophy about walking. I also liked Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which seemed appropriate reading for a plague year; Simon Garfield’s Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World, a nice piece of science and cultural history; and Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History, a great read about some of the more positive sides of humanity.


Rounding off the list are some miscellaneous works of non-fiction that I liked. I’m certainly not the first to say that Imagining Decolonisation is a must-read for New Zealanders. It’s a multi-authored book, very readable, about the issues and practicalities of decolonisation. The Black Lives Matter movement moved me to read Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt. She is an American social scientist with expertise in racial bias, especially as it relates to the police, but this book is of broader relevance too – highly recommended. Finally, I was inspired by two books I read by Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook and The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World. Hopkins is the founder of the Transition Towns movement, encouraging grassroot groups who work to make communities more self-sufficient to increase resilience in the face of climate change and economic instability. If you are interested in local action these are a good read.


Well, those are my best reads of 2020. A big thank you to all the writers, publishers and podcasters who provided me with sustenance in a difficult year!

Going car-free

Action on climate change has been in the news recently: the New Zealand government has declared a climate emergency, and there has been much discussion of what needs to be done to reduce our carbon and other emissions. It seems a good time to reflect on my experience of being happily car-free for two years!

Why do it?

Like many other people, I am deeply concerned about climate change and its increasingly evident impact on planet Earth and its inhabitants, both human and non-human. I am committed to doing what I can to reduce my emissions and environmental impact. Some argue that what one person does has little effect, but I have other ideas! We need both high-level AND individual action. If everyone does nothing, then nothing will change. One person influences others around them by modelling a different way of living: I have been influenced by people I know, both in real life or through reading and online. And I know other people have been influenced by my actions. There are mental health considerations, too: climate anxiety is a feature of our times, and I find I am much more content living in a simpler lower impact way.

Transport is a big player in greenhouse gas emissions, and it is one of the most effective things we can act on. New Zealand has a very bad record when it comes to transport emissions. We have more motor vehicles per capita than just about every other country, including the notoriously car-dependent USA: check out the table on Wikipedia. The Ministry of Transport has just released our fleet statistics for 2019, and the report makes for a depressing read.

Over the past 20 years, we might have hoped that some effort would be made to reduce our transport emissions. However, the number of vehicles in this country has increased (per capita as well as in real numbers) and the size of vehicles has increased. From the report: “In 2010 light vehicles with engines between 2000-2999cc became, and continue to be, the most common light vehicle. Prior to 2010 light vehicles with engines between 1600-1999cc were the most common.” This is obvious to any observer. In my part of the country, every second vehicle seems to be an SUV and double-cab utes are increasingly common too. There are very few electric vehicles and 98% of the light vehicle fleet runs fully on petrol or diesel. The only glimmers of hope in the report are that vehicles entering the fleet have lower reported CO2 emissions per kilometre (New Zealand vehicles are, on average, older than in comparable countries), and that annual kilometres travelled per capita have decreased a little for the first time in many years. The distance travelled by heavy vehicles (trucks and buses with a gross mass over 3.5 tonnes) is on the rise, but still light vehicles were responsible for 92% of the total distance travelled by the New Zealand fleet in 2019.

Shame on us. Keeping this huge fossil-fuelled fleet going contributes significantly to climate change, but it has other issues also. Vehicle crashes kill and injure people, and there is increasing evidence of the serious harms caused by vehicle pollution on human health. While switching to electric cars reduces some of that pollution, a fair bit of it comes from tires, brakes and road surface wear, so they are not the perfect solution. The increasing time spent in cars has another health impact: New Zealanders have become less physically active and that is very bad for us. It is presumably no coincidence that we rank very highly internationally for car ownership, and very low for physical exercise.

Another issue is the cost of buying and running a car, and providing infrastructure for all those vehicles. There are obvious individual costs: one American source suggests the lifetime opportunity cost of owning cars is $2 million for one person! Then there are the direct costs to society of providing roads for that ever-growing fleet of vehicles, and places for them to park. Thankfully the political party whose solution to everything is “more roads” is currently in opposition, but we are still spending a lot on roads. Not enough, some will say, as congestion keeps increasing. The obvious solution is fewer cars, not more roads.

Life without a car

Like many New Zealanders of my generation I got my driver’s licence when I was 15 years old, and from my twenties onwards owned a succession of cars. A few years ago, as my concerns about climate change grew, I decided my next car should be an electric one, but then I started to wonder if I needed a car at all. I had been using it less and less, and I tried doing without it as much as possible before taking the final plunge. It remains an eccentric thing to do, but I had friends who inspired me.

In December 2018 I sold my car and I have never regretted it. I felt that a burden had lifted from me when its new owner drove it away! I could not have taken this step without access to suitable infrastructure for active and public transport. Unless you live in the middle of town and can walk everywhere, you need some other way of getting about (incidentally, that is why increasing density of housing in well-serviced urban areas is the ideal for the environment when it comes to housing development).

I live on the Otago Peninsula, 11km from central Dunedin. There’s an hourly bus service to and from town 7 days a week. Until a few years ago there were only 2 or 3 buses on Sundays, which was much more limiting. More frequent buses would be more convenient – we do have a couple of extras in rush hours! – but I can work around the hourly timetable. The buses stop overnight. The last bus home leaves town at 11.38pm on Friday and Saturday, but at 10.38pm on other weeknights and just 8.38pm on Sunday. That means the occasional taxi is called for, but I’ve only needed one a few times as I’m not a late bird. Getting to other suburbs sometimes requires transferring buses, with a wait between. The Dunedin bus hub makes that straight forward. I regularly travel to a friend’s place in Waikouaiti (40km north of Dunedin), transferring buses in town.

I like the bus, and often used it to commute even before I gave up the car. I’m lucky because I can read, despite it being a winding road (many people I know feel sick if they do that). But often I spend the journey chatting to friends. I’ve met many people in my community over the years at the bus stop or on the bus. It’s so much more relaxing than driving yourself, and you can enjoy the view much more! Since the Dunedin City Council added more subsidies to buses, it has become a really cheap way to travel – just $2 for an adult fare across the whole network (free for over 65s). That includes transfers, so I can get from home to Palmerston or Brighton or Mosgiel for just $2.

My favourite way of getting into town, though, is on my bike. When I first tried commuting by bike I had to share the winding 70kph road with motor vehicles, which could be hairy at times, but now there is a wonderful new separate shared path all the way into town. This is a huge improvement and has led to many more people cycling. It’s a beautiful ride beside the harbour, and I love looking at the water and birds. As well as the benefit of the physical exercise, I really feel the benefit on my mental health of being outside in the weather beside the water – it’s almost meditative. In winter, when the days are shorter, commuting brings the bonus of beautiful sunrises.

When I sold the car I bought myself a new bike, since my old one had some faults that were beyond repair. I thought about getting an e-bike, but decided to stick with a push bike and have no regrets so far. My rides are almost all on the flat, but if I had more hills I would definitely go for an e-bike. If a big headwind gets up before I ride home (a regular thing, unfortunately), I can put my bike on the rack on the bus – this is a brilliant service on the Dunedin buses. I’m happy to ride in the rain, thanks to a good rain jacket and pants, but I’m not fond of a headwind! My bike is vintage-style and not the fastest one out, but it has some practical features I highly recommend: a chain guard, mud guards, a kick stand and a sturdy bike rack. Running a bike is a whole lot cheaper than running a car, and I am much better off financially, even with the occasional taxi fare and lots of bus fares added in.

I’m not commuting any more, but I still bike into town for various things. I take some delight in quaxing! For those who don’t know this term, it means shopping and carrying stuff by bike or public transport. The term originates from the late Auckland councillor Dick Quax, who didn’t believe people did regular shopping without a car. It is now in use well beyond Aotearoa!  My best efforts so far involve tomato plants and large boxes of fruit, but other people take much bigger loads, especially if they have specialist cargo bikes.

Resorting to vehicles

Not owning your own car doesn’t mean you can’t use one. Although it’s a last resort, I have borrowed one, though only on a handful of occasions (and if I couldn’t borrow one, I could rent one). I can get most items I need home by bike or bus, or have them delivered. Taking two cats to the vet definitely requires a car though! Other things I have used a car for are an urgent doctor’s visit, and transporting a spinning wheel, an armchair, and compost (though I could probably have had the latter two delivered). Occasionally I get a ride with somebody going to the same event. There are some places I can’t get to without a car, but I’ve simply chosen to go to other places instead.

I’ve done some long-distance trips on public transport. They include weekends in Central Otago and a lovely trip by bus, train and ferry to Christchurch, Wellington and the Wairarapa. Obviously renting a car is another option, but I much prefer being driven by a professional than doing my own driving. My mother was very ill for quite a few months this year, and I became her chauffeur as well as her caregiver, driving her car to the hospital and other health-related appointments. Once she started getting better I also drove her to a few gatherings, until she improved enough to get the bus and eventually was able to drive herself again. These days I really dislike driving. I find it stressful and parking is such a hassle. Cycling or catching the bus is much easier!

Go for it

In conclusion, I now live very happily without owning a car. If you have the infrastructure you need to get around by active or public transport for most things in your part of the world, I highly recommend this way of life!

Something good to read

Looking for a good book? I have recommendations! Last January I posted about my favourite fiction reads of 2017 and 2018. This time around I have recommendations from novels I read in 2019, and non-fiction I’ve read over the past couple of years. There’s nothing mediocre here – I only recommend things I really enjoyed or found important.

Saving our world

The year 2020 opened here in Dunedin with an eerie orange sky and visible brown haze – smoke from the massive fires in Australia had travelled some 2000 km across the Tasman Sea. It seemed a frightening portent for the new decade – climate change is here and now; we must act urgently. So, let there be no pussyfooting around – my top book recommendation is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus. He is a Californian climate scientist – he is also an activist who has been moved by his scientific knowledge to change his life and campaign for action. Kalmus writes engagingly about his own family’s experience as they reduce their impact on the environment. The book also serves as a primer on climate change. The changes Kalmus makes are achievable for many of us, and also bring happiness – as the blurb states, ‘Life on 1/10th the fossil fuels turns out to be awesome’. It’s a great read and, even better, now available free online on Peter Kalmus’s website.

Another climate scientist writing engagingly about living a lower impact life is New Zealand’s own Shaun Hendy. In #NoFly: Walking the Talk on Climate Change (2019), he recounts his year without flying – a tricky challenge for academics, who are generally big travellers. Like Kalmus, he provides a brief overview of the latest science on climate along with his own personal experience of travel by land and sea.

Since our economic systems have a huge influence on the planet, revising them is an important part of dealing with environmental problems. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, is a very readable book by a ‘renegade’ economist. She investigates necessary reforms to the way we organise our world so it might fit into the ‘safe and just space for humanity’, with an economy lying between the limits of a just social foundation and ecological ceiling.

Short books on big subjects

The BWB Text series, from excellent New Zealand publisher Bridget Williams Books, has the tagline ‘Short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’. I love this series. It covers a range of historic and contemporary topics. The books are small enough to fit into your pocket or handbag – great for commuting. I’ve already mentioned one outstanding book from this series, Shaun Hendy’s #NoFly. Other recent reads I particularly liked were: The Health of the People by David Skegg; Māui Street by Morgan Godfery; Still counting: wellbeing, women’s work and policy-making by Marilyn Waring; Ko Taranaki Te Maunga by Rachel Buchanan; and A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World by Jess Berentson-Shaw.


I’ve read surprisingly little history over the past couple of years, but there’s one history book I can thoroughly recommend – indeed, it should be compulsory reading for all thinking New Zealanders, plus anyone from further afield who wants to understand this place! Vincent O’Malley has followed up his brilliant study of the Waikato War (The Great War for New Zealand ) with a broader overview of the wars: The New Zealand Wars: Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa. In contrast with the hefty – literally – tome on Waikato, this is a concise book; it is written in O’Malley’s trademark clear and readable style. It is also very well illustrated. It has been great to see this book on bestseller lists; it has an important role to play in increasing New Zealanders’ understanding of events which have an ongoing influence on our society.

Another great history is The Face of Nature: An Environmental History of the Otago Peninsula by Jonathan West. I took a special interest in this book since I live on the Otago Peninsula, but I think it would be of much wider interest: indeed, it won the New Zealand Historical Association’s prize for best history book. It provides a fascinating history of the land and water of this stunning place, and the impact of the people who have lived here.

Memoir and biography

There have been some outstanding memoirs published in New Zealand in recent years. Of those I read, four stood out. We already knew that musician Shayne Carter was a gifted wordsmith thanks to his song-writing. His memoir, with the excellent title Dead People I Have Known, reveals him as a brilliant proponent of longer-form writing also. I found his account of his Dunedin childhood especially powerful. Another powerful memoir of childhood and beyond comes from Helene Wong: Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story. Although my own childhood was very different from those of Carter and Wong, both referred to people and places I knew (including the fruit shop in Rata Street, Naenae!), which added to the interest for me.

A very different sort of memoir is Marilyn Waring’s account of her years as a member of parliament, 1975 to 1984: Marilyn Waring: The Political Years. During one term she was the only woman in the National caucus. Being not just a young woman, but a feminist, she was very different from most of her colleagues, and it was a difficult place to work. Waring is famous for her anti-nuclear stance, which brought down the National Government; the book provides interesting insights into that as well as many other activities of her parliamentary career.

I found Robert Webster’s account of his life in science fascinating. Flu Hunter: Unlocking the Secrets of a Virus reads a bit like a thriller, as he and colleagues travel the world tracking down the origins of new influenza strains. I suspect this book hasn’t had the reach it deserves  – it’s a really good read on an important topic.

Moving beyond New Zealand, like many people I was fascinated by Tara Westover’s memoir of her extraordinary childhood in a rural Idaho family preparing for the end times. Educated is quite some read, beautifully written. Another extraordinary life is that of Irish writer Mark Boyle. For some years he lived without money, and in his recent memoir The Way Home: Tales From a Life Without Technology he writes about living in rural Ireland without the conveniences of modern life, including electricity.

When it comes to biography, I recommend Diana Brown’s book The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell. As the blurb states, ‘Whether or not you have heard of pioneering nutritionist Muriel Bell, she has had a profound effect on your health.’ Bell, who was one of the first women academics at the Otago Medical School, was an important nutrition researcher and public servant who influenced several significant public health schemes.

Writing for the young

In 2018 I enjoyed reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, so in 2019 I read some more vintage children’s fantasy books. Like all good fantasy books, they take the reader to another world and thereby illuminate our own. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and Alan Garner‘s Weirdstone of Brisingamen and sequels were good reads; I also enjoyed Garner’s standalone book The Owl Service.

I was reflecting on my own shaping as an historian, which prompted me to re-read a big favourite from my childhood, The Runaway Settlers by Elsie Locke. First published in 1965, this book has stood the test of time. It is based on the true story of a family who escape their violent husband and father, moving from New South Wales to Canterbury, New Zealand. It gives a vivid portrayal of settler life in Aotearoa in the 1860s and does not shirk the difficult topics: domestic violence, poverty, tensions between Māori and Pākehā, worker exploitation and troubles on the goldfields. That may sound bleak, but the book is also a celebration of the determination of its working-class characters, in particular the staunch Mary Small.

Other childhood favourites for me were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, based on her own life in a geographically mobile family on the American western frontier. I didn’t read Wilder’s books again, but I did read a recent biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for biography – it is a long but absorbing story of a woman whose books have been enormously influential in the USA and beyond. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, writer and editor Rose Wilder Lane, also features strongly in the biography. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to know more about the ‘real’ Laura of book and television series fame. Lane, who edited her mother’s books, was significant in the founding of the libertarian movement in US politics, and Wilder largely agreed with her politics. It is interesting to reflect on the contrast between their beliefs and those of left-wing activist Elsie Locke. It seems that the books I loved most in childhood came from opposite ends of the political spectrum!

Fiction favourites

There can be no doubt about my overall favourite read of 2019 – the prize goes to The Absolute Book by the fabulous Elizabeth Knox. It’s one of those books you regret finishing and want to read again immediately – I do expect to read it again soon. It manages to combine a rip-roaring yarn with much deeper themes. Even if fantasy is not your usual choice of reading, I recommend giving this one a go. Simply brilliant.

It was a joy to discover several authors who were new to me this year. I happened upon a Melissa Harrison novel in a library display and liked it so much that I immediately read the rest of her books! Harrison writes lyrically about the English countryside, but she also writes brilliantly about people. I thoroughly enjoyed her books ClayAt Hawthorn Time, and All Among the Barley.

Another author new to me was Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, the ‘queen of crime’. When I heard she was coming to Dunedin as a visiting professor I thought I should try one of her books! As with Harrison, I immediately wanted to read more after the first one. She has a big back catalogue that will take a long time to get through, but I’ve started with her Karen Pirie books. These are based in a cold cases unit and incorporate intriguing settings in past times. Great reading.

When @nzdodo recommended When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall on Twitter, I was immediately intrigued because of the reference to bicycles as the main form of transport in a post-apocalyptic world! It’s a gripping and tense novel set in a future England, 20 years after a virus killed most of the population; the climate has also changed. It’s quite a thriller and a good read if you don’t find post-apocalyptic fiction a little too depressing.

More familiar writers whose books I enjoyed this year included Fiona Kidman; her This Mortal Boy is an excellent novel set in the 1950s, based on the case of one of the last people to be judicially hanged in New Zealand. And the funniest book I read in 2019 was Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s fantasy set in the end times. I haven’t seen the TV series based on this yet, but the book is fabulous.


I enjoy getting book recommendations myself, even if I could never keep up with everything that sounds intriguing! I hope you find something good through this post – happy reading.

Beauty amidst the engines: railway station gardening competitions in New Zealand

AG Clarke (garden)
Alan Clarke (1900-1960), railwayman and gardener. From Clarke family collection.

This is a paper I presented at the New Zealand Historical Association Conference, Wellington, November 2019.

Railway stations have romance attached to them: they are places of meetings and partings and beginnings of adventures. But they can also be bleak and utilitarian, especially in rural or suburban locations. They are industrial, with huge engines roaring through and sheds for goods and rolling stock; every country station once had its animal yards. With all of that comes dirt and noise and odour; the grime was worse in the days of steam engines.

Railway Station
A postcard of Feilding Railway Station, c.1910, conveys the contrast between the industrial space of the railway station and the garden next to it. Ruth McIntyre Collection, Feilding Public Library.

Some men working for the New Zealand railways in the early and mid-1900s made valiant efforts to transform stations into attractive environments, for their own sakes and for the benefit of the travelling public. These endeavours were promoted by railway station garden competitions.



Alan Clarke and friend at Makarewa. From Clarke family collection.

My interest in this ‘brilliantly niche’ topic, as a colleague calls it, began with curiosity about my grandfather. Alan Clarke’s entire working life was with the railways as a clerk and eventually a stationmaster. These photographs show the garden he made in the gap between two single men’s huts at Makarewa, a few miles north of Invercargill, where he worked in the late 1920s. This extraordinary garden was located right next to the railway line and beside utilitarian buildings. The surroundings of railway huts were often scruffy. What prompted the creation of the Makarewa garden? Aesthetics probably played some part. Alan was quite a snappy dresser: if he had to live in a hut, he would make it a stylish one. More importantly, he grew up in a culture of working-class gardening. The Caversham project, which studied life in the working-class suburbs of southern Dunedin, revealed the huge extent of home gardening there – even renters with small sections cultivated substantial vegetable gardens.[1] A photo of Alan with his son outside their Ohakune railway house in the 1930s provides a glimpse of a productive back section.

Alan Clarke with son Ross (b.1936) in the garden of their railway house, Ohakune. Clarke family collection.

Home gardening was frequently gendered, as some Caversham study authors write: ‘Fathers often produced impressive vegetables to feed the family, while mothers grew flowers and ornamental shrubs’.[2] But there was another tradition, too: working-class men were big participants in flower shows. Alan’s grandfather, bootmaker Walter Anderson, was a stalwart of the Tuapeka Horticultural Society. He won prizes for turnips and carrots and raspberries, but most of all for his flowers.[3] Alan spent his first few years in Lawrence, near this flower-growing grandfather, before the family moved to Christchurch. There the children were also encouraged in gardening at school. In 1911 Alan’s brother Erl, aged 8, won a prize for the floral buttonhole he exhibited at the Richmond School break up.[4] A photo from Alan’s album shows Erl standing proudly with vases of flowers, presumably prepared for a show.

W Anderson
Walter Anderson (1850-1938) in his Lawrence garden. Clarke family collection.

Erl Clarke
Erl Clarke (1904-1987) with flower display, Christchurch. Clarke family collection.

The immediate prompt for the Makarewa garden may have been the competition held by the Southland Women’s Club Garden Circle for the beautifying of Southland country railway stations. Makarewa took third place in 1929; the judges found its efforts ‘very pleasing’.[5] Why, though, did the Southland women run this competition?

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Otago Women’s Club dinner, 14 August 1924. Otago Women’s Club records, AG-682-01/12/001, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

Women’s clubs were very active in the 1920s: in 1926 the Southland Women’s Club had 287 members and the Otago one 800; there were clubs in many towns, including three in Wellington.[6] Although those numbers suggest they can’t have been extremely exclusive, their members certainly came from the more elite end of society. The judges of the 1929 Southland garden competition, for instance, were the wives or widows of a pharmacist, a land and insurance agent, and a doctor. The clubs held social events, raised funds for philanthropic causes and hosted talks; they entertained distinguished visitors, such as the wives of governors general. They had various interest groups: for instance, the Otago Women’s Club had literary, gardening, arts and crafts, civic and motor circles, among others.[7]

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Lady Ferguson and Sir Lindo Ferguson, 1925. Otago Women’s Club records, AG-682-01/12/002, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

It was the Otago Women’s Club that inspired the Southland club to take an interest in railway station gardens: the Otago gardening circle launched New Zealand’s first railway station gardening competition in 1925. The idea came from Mary Ferguson, the club’s long-serving president. Lady Ferguson was a woman of standing in Dunedin. She was the daughter of a merchant, educated privately in Dunedin and then in London. She married ophthalmologist Lindo Ferguson, who subsequently became dean of the Otago Medical School and thus an important figure in New Zealand. The Fergusons were involved in many organisations; both were charming and renowned for their hospitality.[8]

Ferguson had perhaps seen or read about railway station gardens in other countries; New Zealand came late to this practice. In Britain and in Canada, for instance, station gardens became popular from the 1860s. Railway companies encouraged gardening and rewarded their gardening employees through competitions. Gardens beautified railway property and provided wholesome recreation for railway workers, but there was more to it than that. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company used gardens to promote development: they demonstrated the fertility of the prairie, encouraging immigration and greater use of the railways.[9] In New Zealand, too, railways played a role in colonisation, promoting the development of agriculture, industry and mining. Most striking was the construction of the North Island main trunk line, which opened up the central North Island to Pākehā settlement; it provided a route into the Māori stronghold of Te Rohe Pōtae, the King Country.[10]

Gore Railway Station, 1900s. Joseph Crisp, the inspector of the permanent way, led the development of a garden there in the 1890s. Photographed by Muir & Moodie, C.014832, Te Papa.

However, it was in the south that station gardening competitions took place. Unlike many other countries, where railways were owned by private companies, in New Zealand they were government-run. The Railway Department paid some attention to publicity but it was subject to scrutiny over its use of taxpayer funds: some viewed gardens as an extravagance. When railway workers created a garden at Gore in the 1890s, it provoked grumbles. One local complained that surfacemen were distracted from their usual duties to load and unload wagons of soil; garden maintenance would take up the time of ‘an already hard-worked set of Officials’. It seemed, he wrote, ‘as if the Government placed more value upon the existence of macrocarpas, violets and pansies, than the safe conveyance of their patrons who have occasion to use the railway’.[11] Other community members were more supportive. On Arbor Day 1895 they turned out for the formal inauguration of the garden and helped plant 600 trees and numerous flowers.[12]

In a climate of taxpayer suspicion, the Railway Department didn’t devote significant funds to station gardens, but it was happy for others to contribute and offered support behind the scenes. Railway workers who wanted to develop new gardens received fencing materials, soil and manure (conveniently available from stock wagons) and the department offered free transport for plants and competition judges. It paid the Otago Women’s Club £10 each year in compensation for their provision of plants[13], and later supplied plants directly to station gardeners. It still had to defend itself over the gardens, though: in response to one enquiry in 1939 the Otago Daily Times noted that the railway gardens were ‘laid out and are maintained by the voluntary effort of employees at the particular station. There is no payment for the work done in the plots, and the only reward is the appreciation of the travelling public and a chance of winning one of the annual awards made by the Gardening Circle of the Otago Women’s Club.’[14] It was a labour of love for the gardeners.

Auckland Railway Station, 1930s. 1/2-071820-F, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Things were different in some large cities – at its grand stations in Auckland and Wellington, opened in the 1930s, the Railway Department employed gardeners. As the Railway Magazine pointed out, the new stations ‘gave the Department an opportunity for expressing the value it places on aesthetic considerations not only in the design of the buildings but also in their setting.’[15] The Auckland station had a plant nursery on its roof, where head gardener Roy Thornton raised flowering annuals from seed and nurtured native plants, including kauri, manuka, and ferns. Princess Te Puea Herangi took a great interest and brought him tree ferns for conservation.[16] The station also featured an experimental garden for testing New Zealand-raised dahlia seedlings.[17] Dunedin had the glitziest station, opened in 1906; it is now alleged to be one of the most photographed buildings in the Southern Hemisphere. For many years, though, its frontage could ‘not reasonably be termed picturesque’, as the stationmaster noted with considerable understatement in 1927. He asked if a lawn and flower beds could be developed but his request was denied; its manicured gardens were a later development, cared for by the city council.[18] In Auckland, the council took over care of the gardens from the Railways Department in 1948.[19]

The environs of Dunedin Railway Station, c.1910, were utilitarian by contrast with the grand building. Photograph by Muir & Moodie, C.012183, Te Papa.

Entries in the garden competitions for smaller stations depended entirely on the interests of the local staff, and since railways staff were a mobile group, the involvement of stations fluctuated. In 1932 the Otautau Standard reported just two entrants in the Southland competition: “This was due no doubt largely to the frequent changes in staff made recently since in past years as many as ten entries have been received.” The paper heaped praise on “the local staff for their painstaking work in creating a beauty spot in a flower garden and lawn out of what was a hole many feet deep. Mr Kelly has done hours of good work and promises better results for next year if privileged to be still stationed here.”[20] Kelly was the stationmaster, perhaps the person most likely to be interested in the station surrounds, but those who made station gardens came from a range of railway occupations. Ganger William Pickering was responsible for the Fairlie Station’s prizewinning garden of 1928, and bus driver M.A. Jackson for the Palmerston Station garden in 1947. George Johnson, an engine driver on the Southland line, created a prize-winning garden at Lumsden Station in 1929.[21] It was the signalman at Wingatui who produced a daffodil design which displayed the station’s name, the letters outlined with whitewashed stones.[22] In Waikouaiti the stationmaster’s father, James Rendel, tended the garden; in 1937 the department supplied  Rendel, who was about 80, with some piping and a tap for a watering system so he wouldn’t have to carry buckets of water to the garden.[23] Not all stations had a good water supply, making a big challenge for gardeners in drier districts.[24] At the smallest staffed stations, there was just the porter to create and tend a garden; the Otago competition had a special category for ‘very small’ gardens.

Wingatui June 1928
Wingatui won second prize in the Otago railway station garden competition in 1928; this sign was visible all year around, but filled with daffodils in spring. New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 June 1928.

Competition was a motive to create a garden, but it was not the only one. Charles Pope, a clerk, started a garden at Balclutha Station in 1918, before any competition; he had returned as stationmaster by the time Balclutha won first prize for its garden in 1930.[25] In Rakaia, stationmaster Hugh McDougall planted around 150 varieties of roses in the 1920s; he had retired by the time a Canterbury competition commenced, but others kept the garden going and Rakaia was the inaugural winner in 1930.[26]

Horopito garden
Porter M. Chapman with his garden at Horopito Railway Station. New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 February 1931.

In the North Island, a few enthusiasts built gardens despite a lack of competitions. Some earned publicity in the Railways Magazine. A 1931 edition featured the station at Horopito, a small settlement on the main trunk line between Ohakune and National Park. The porter, M. Chapman, made a garden ‘under considerable difficulty, due to the presence of gravel’.[27] The Hawera Railway Station garden also featured in the magazine a number of times. A Wellington woman who described herself as ‘an old lady, very fond of flowers’, was moved to write to the stationmaster, Robert Allwright, after passing through Hawera on the train in the mid-1930s. ‘The bed of pansies and violas was wonderful and showed that even last summer’s heat had not killed them all, as in so many places. The hasty glance one had of other flowers made one realise that a real lover of God’s beauties must be trying to make one corner of His vineyard a place of joy and happiness.’[28] James Campbell, the Hawera mayor, was another fan: ‘Our citizens are as proud of the gardens as your own Department is’, he wrote.[29]

Hawera March 1937
Extensive gardens at Hawera Railway Station. New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 March 1937.

Local pride was significant in the development of the station gardens. It was probably the chief motive behind the involvement of the Women’s Clubs, and was undoubtedly the chief motive in Canterbury, where station garden competitions were run by the Horticultural Society. The Society had already been running competitions for home gardens for some years when it started offering prizes for station gardens in 1929; factory gardens were also added to the schedule.[30] Under the guidance of this thriving society, the railway garden competitions survived the longest in Canterbury, continuing until the late 1960s. Roses remained a popular feature of station gardens in the region. When Papanui stationmaster Norm Chapple departed in 1970 he earned a headline in the local paper: ‘Pruned roses before leaving’. He was known for his success in the garden competitions.[31]

The Otago competitions ended in 1948: when there were no entries, the Women’s Club withdrew its cup and it does not seem to have made any effort to revive the competition.[32] If railway workers were losing interest in gardening for their employer, the removal of the competition exacerbated that. I can only speculate about why workers lost interest in station gardens. In the post-war period, many New Zealanders turned their attention to home life; presumably railwaymen were among them. Gardening in their own patch may have held more appeal than gardening at work. The growth of the union movement, together with the industrial tensions of the 1950s, perhaps made voluntary work for an employer less acceptable. A growing range of new pastimes also competed for people’s leisure hours. One of the most time-consuming, television, arrived in New Zealand in the 1960s.

Gardens had always been at risk of falling into neglect due to changing personnel; with the end of the competitions, reports came in of former prize-winning gardens in a sorry state. In 1953 the Port Chalmers Borough Council complained that a station garden which ‘for many years was a place of beauty and afforded much pleasure to residents and visitors’ had fallen back; neither railway staff nor council were willing or able to commit staff time to its maintenance.[33] Middle-class voluntary organisations picked up some of the slack: beautifying societies, amenities societies and service clubs were among those who leased land from the Railway Department at peppercorn rentals and tidied it up. In 1970, the Minister of Railways announced a new scheme to dedicate the increasing income from outdoor commercial advertising panels towards beautifying areas around stations and on other prominent railway land, preferably in joint arrangements with local bodies. ‘Modern society … had become increasingly sensitive to the need for the preservation of natural environment’, noted the press release, and the department ‘intended to play their part to this end.’[34]

The railway station gardening competitions provide a glimpse into a largely forgotten part of the world of working-class men. The railwaymen who participated loved flowers and used them to transform parts of their grimy workplaces into oases of beauty. Gardening is a science and an art, and they demonstrated both aspects. They turned some unlikely places into flourishing gardens by building up soils and carefully feeding and caring for plants. Their creative talents were revealed in the designs of their gardens, from the selection of colours to the layouts of paths. The element of competition was highly significant, and huge pride associated with winning. When that incentive disappeared, railway gardeners presumably turned their energies to their home gardens, and perhaps to local horticultural societies, which provided, as they still do, a different venue for competitive gardening.

As I briefly mentioned after I presented this paper, the staff of New Zealand’s various railway workshops were also keen gardeners. In the 1930s and 1940s all of the workshops established horticultural societies and held regular competitions for vegetable and flower growing. Reports showed tinsmiths winning prizes for violas, fitters for sweet peas and boilermakers for gladioli. 

[1] Barbara Brookes, Erik Olssen and Emma Beer, ‘Spare Time? Leisure, Gender and Modernity’, in Barbara Brookes, Annabel Cooper and Robin Law, eds, Sites of Gender: Women, Men and Modernity in Southern Dunedin, 1890-1939 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003), 172-173.

[2] Sites of Gender, 173.

[3] ‘The Gardens of Lawrence’, Tuapeka Times, 28 April 1897.

[4] Lyttelton Times, 22 December 1911, p.9.

[5] ‘Otago Station Gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, 4: 2 (June 1929), 50. The women were named with their husbands’ initials – names and occupations traced through various genealogical sources.

[6] ‘Women’s Clubs: Growth in New Zealand’, New Zealand Herald, 8 October 1926, 7.

[7] Otago Women’s Club reports, in their archives, Hocken Collections.

[8] ‘Mary Ferguson’, NZ History,; Rex Wright-St Clair, ‘Ferguson, Henry Lindo’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara,

[9] Edwinna von Baeyer, ‘Rise and fall of the Manitoba railway garden’, Manitoba History, 31, 1996.

[10] Matthew Wright, Rails Across New Zealand: A History of Rail Travel, (Auckland: Whitcoulls, 2003); Kerryn Pollock, ‘King Country region – Te Rohe Pōtae’, Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand,; Nancy Swarbrick, ‘Rural services – Railways’, Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand,

[11] Bluegum, letter to the editor, Mataura Ensign, 13 August 1895, 2.

[12] ‘Arbor Day, 1895’, Mataura Ensign, 8 August 1895, 3.

[13] For instance, see Rona Allen, Hon Sec. Gardening Branch of Otago Women’s Club, to District Traffic Manager, Dunedin, 9 April 1937, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[14] ‘Answers to Correspondents’, ODT, 27 March 1939, 8.

[15] ‘Beautifying on the Railways’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1937.

[16] Auckland Star, 30 July 1937, 6; 9 September 1937, 6.

[17] ‘Beautifying on the Railways’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1937; ‘Gardening Circle’, New Zealand Herald, 5 March 1937, 3.

[18] Stationmaster, Dunedin to District Traffic Manager, Dunedin, 6 October 1927 and District Traffic Manager, Dunedin to Stationmaster, Dunedin, 11 October 1927, Dunedin – Station Garden file, R21983938, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[19] Southern Cross, 14 October 1948, clipping in Beautification of Railway stations also Railway gardens file, R21512449, Archives New Zealand, Wellington; Auckland Star, 30 September 1941, 8.

[20] ‘Railway Gardens’, Otautau Standard, 5 April 1932, 2.

[21] ‘Lumsden Station Garden: A Visitor’s Impressions, New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 July 1930.

[22] ‘Otago’s Station Gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 June 1928, 13.

[23] District Traffic Manager to District Engineer, 16 February 1937, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[24] For example, see Tablet Porter, Goodwood, to Traffic Manager, 20 February 1941, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[25] ‘Railway Garden Cup Presentation’, ODT, 20 March 1930, 16.

[26] ‘A prize-winner among New Zealand station gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1930; on McDougall’s appointment and retirement, see Ashburton Guardian, 11 March 1920, 4 and 19 January 1926, 20.

[27] ‘An example of station beautifying on the N.Z.R.’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, February 1931, 57.

[28] ‘Railway Station Gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, December 1935.

[29] ‘Beautifying on the Railways’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1937.

[30] Colin Amodeo, ed., Wilderness to Garden City: A celebration of 150 years of horticultural endeavour in Canterbury (Christchurch: Canterbury Horticultural Society, 2001), 155.

[31] ‘Pruned roses before leaving’, Herald, 14 July 1970, clipping in Beautification of Railway stations also Railway gardens file, R21512449, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.

[32] District Traffic Manager, Dunedin, Memorandum No.1948/111, 28 October 1948, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office; Otago Women’s Club Annual Report, 1948.

[33] District Traffic Manager, Dunedin to Town Clerk, Port Chalmers, 20 November 1953, and to Stationmaster, Port Chalmers, 28 January 1954, Beautification of Stations file, R20397636, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Regional Office.

[34] Draft statement, 30 June 1970, and various newspaper clippings, Beautification of Railway stations also Railway gardens file, R21512449, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.

Two years of reading novels


Wondering what to read? I have a few recommendations! I’ve neglected this blog over the past two years, since I’ve been preoccupied with finishing my own book, which has just been published. There’s always time for reading, though! Indeed, I think it’s an essential part of the writing process, not to mention a fantastic way of relaxing. In 2017 and 2018 I read exactly 100 books – that may sound a lot, but it averages just one a week, and some of them were short (thanks, BWB Texts). Just under half of those books were novels. I’m not going to mention them all here – these were my favourites. A word of warning – some of the links I’ve included are to Wikipedia pages which may include plot spoilers.

Classic fiction

As ever, my fiction reading has covered a range of the old and the new from various genres. I enjoyed several classic novels. I read Emma (published 1815) for the umpteenth time, in honour of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. I also discovered, for the first time, ‘the Scottish Jane Austen’, Susan Ferrier. Scottish writer Val McDermid ran a campaign to revive the memory of this once popular author. Her 1818 novel Marriage, which I called up from library storage, is a family saga, long but interesting, with some great comic characters.

The death of Ursula Le Guin prompted me to read the entire Earthsea series. I read A wizard of Earthsea (1968) as a child, but I can’t recall reading the others previously – I wasn’t a big fan of science fiction or fantasy then, as I am now! I especially liked The tombs of Atuan (1971) and Tehanu (1990). Immersing myself in Le Guin’s imagined world over all five of the books was a great experience. The writing, characters and stories are all excellent, while, like all imagined worlds, Earthsea and its people prompt reflection on the state of our ‘real’ world. A striking feature of the series is the diversity of the central characters with respect to gender, ethnicity and abilities – undoubtedly that adds to its broad appeal.

Like many other people, I was prompted by the current state of our world to read some classic dystopian fiction – Nineteen eighty-four (1949) and Animal farm (1945) by George Orwell, and The handmaid’s tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. I first read The handmaid’s tale soon after it was published, so describing it as a classic makes me feel old, but I think it fits that category. It was chilling when I read it in the 1980s and has remained with me since; it was just as chilling when I read it in 2017. I haven’t seen the recent TV adaptation, but the power of the book’s imagery is clear in the way that the costume of the handmaids has since become an internet meme!

More recent fiction

In a previous post of book recommendations I noted that Life after life by Kate Atkinson was my favourite read of 2016. Last year I read the ‘companion’ to that, A god in ruins (2015). It is equally brilliant – I don’t want to include any spoilers, so I’ll just say that it’s a creative and compelling story about the long afterlife of war. Another creative and compelling novel about war, and other things besides, is The wish child (2016) by Catherine Chidgey. I’ve read Chidgey’s three previous novels and all are excellent. Their settings vary widely – this one is a tale of children living in wartime Germany.

Although there is no indication of it in the setting of The wish child, Chidgey is a New Zealander, and it’s been great to discover some other excellent writers from New Zealand over the past couple of years – from Dunedin, even! New to me was Laurence Fearnley. I read The hut builder (2010) and The quiet spectacular (2016) and loved her settings, characters and subtle humour – these are quiet books with lots of descriptions of the natural world. There’s something special about reading a book set in your own environment, and that’s one of the reasons I liked Billy bird (2016) by Emma Neale. It’s an imaginatively written novel about a family recovering from a trauma. A final recommendation in the ‘locals’ category is by transplanted Scot Liam McIlvanney. I don’t read much crime fiction these days, but make an exception when I know the author in person! The quaker (2018) is a beautifully written novel set in 1960s Glasgow, inspired by the unsolved Bible John case. I was privileged to attend the launch, where Liam read from the beginning of the book. I read another chapter on the bus home and was completely hooked, finishing it in a couple of days. The plot is interesting, with its fair share of twists, but it’s the little details and evocation of a time and place that makes it really special.

Tales of the imagination

A recent reading highlight was Station eleven (2014) by Emily St John Mandel. My friend André commented on Twitter that it was “Absolutely one of my very favourite books of all time. The funny part is how almost any description of it makes it sound kinda shit really.” I agree! If your taste runs to the post-apocalyptic, you should definitely read this one, set in a world where most people have died in a pandemic. It has all sorts of interesting threads running through it – travel, theatre, and religion being prominent. A different sort of imagined world is that evoked in The power (2016) by Naomi Alderman. It is a world where gender hierarchies are reversed after women gain new physical powers, and the consequent tensions are explosive. I found it disturbing, but it sparked lots of interesting ideas.

I’ve also read further books by two of my favourite creators of imagined worlds. Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller, and I found American gods (2001) fascinating – it’s based on the premise that old gods follow migrants from their old world to the new, and struggle to survive in their new environment, which is also influenced by new gods (such as the media). A related book I thoroughly recommend is Gaiman’s masterly retelling of old legends, Norse mythology (2017). Juliet Marillier writes a different sort of fantasy, set in an imagined past with elements of magic. She, too, is a master storyteller. Her characters often struggle with disabilities or past traumas; they are very empathetic tales. She also has a big heart for animals, which feature in most of her books. I know because I’ve read all of them! Over the past couple of years I enjoyed completing her Blackthorn and Grim series, which includes Dreamer’s pool (2014), Tower of thorns (2015) and Den of wolves (2016).

There is a little magic or fantasy or imagination – call it what you will – in two other powerful books I read last year – Lincoln in the bardo (2017) by George Saunders and The underground railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead. Lincoln in the bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize, is a wildly imaginative book set in a space between death and an afterlife, with many different narrators. It takes place in 1862 and has its basis in the true story of US President Abraham Lincoln’s great grief on the death of his son. The underground railroad is also set in 19th century America, where the underground railroad was a metaphor for the secret routes taken by slaves escaping from the southern states to the north. In Whitehead’s novel, the escape route becomes an actual railway in underground tunnels. This imaginative device mixes with the all too realistic history of slavery in a highly effective and moving novel.


Sometimes, when life is tough, you don’t want to read a gloomy book. Of course, there is plenty of escapist fiction with a happy ending out there, and I’ve read a few romcoms of varying quality! But a friend introduced me to the concept of ‘uplit’, more literary stories designed to lift your mood ‘up’. The two she recommended were excellent. The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), by Rachel Joyce, is a moving, thoughtful and well written novel about a man who takes an unexpected walk. The trouble with goats and sheep (2016), by Joanna Cannon, is a study of a community in 1960s/70s England, partly from the perspective of a child. “Suspense, nostalgia, the making of outsiders” is how I summarised it after reading.


I’ve found Twitter a good place for book recommendations, often alerting me to things I wouldn’t have read otherwise. I’ve discovered some interesting books through the #storypast hashtag, used by historians/historical fiction writers interested in creative ways of writing about the past. I haven’t joined in their Twitter reading group, largely because the dates or times didn’t suit me, but I have read some of the books they discussed. A highlight for me was Ulverton (1992) by Adam Thorpe. It’s a novel which explores a fictional English village in different periods, making good use of varied writing formats. There’s an interesting interview with Thorpe in the Guardian, published when Ulverton became a Vintage Classic in 2012. I must read some more of his ‘uncategorisable’ opus!


Happy 2019 everyone – I hope the year brings you lots of interesting reading. If I get the chance, I will write another post with my recommendations for some good non-fiction reads – the photograph provides clues to some of my favourites!

2016 – a year in reading

readingI didn’t have a lot of time for ‘recreational’ reading in 2016, as I was too busy writing – not for this blog, unfortunately! However, I kept a list of all the books I read and gave them scores for both content and writing. I thought I’d mention a few of my favourites here for those looking for a good read.


The novel I enjoyed most this year was Life after life by Kate Atkinson (published 2013). It’s the fabulous tale of Ursula Todd, born in England in 1910 and destined to live her life many times over (at varying lengths). At its heart lies the devastation of World War II and Ursula’s attempts to prevent it. Atkinson notes that the book was sparked by that favourite ‘what if?’ scenario: what if Hitler didn’t come to power? But it’s more than that – a grim but witty meditation on the little things of life, gripping and beautifully written.

I like a bit of speculation and science fiction, and another of my favourites this year was The book of strange new things, by Michel Faber, famous for his Victorian blockbuster The crimson petal and the whiteStrange new things tells the story of Peter Leigh, a Christian missionary to the indigenous population of the planet Oasis, colonised by a mysterious American corporation. Like all fiction set beyond Earth, it’s really an exploration of humanity and all our foibles. It’s tinged with sadness and was obviously greatly influenced by Faber’s own circumstances – he wrote it while his wife was dying. I heard a great radio interview he did with Kim Hill when he visited New Zealand for a writer’s festival (warning – it’s a tear-jerker!).

These two novels were both imaginative and written beautifully, and if it’s those qualities you want it’s hard to go past New Zealand’s own Elizabeth Knox. Her work defies easy categorisation – she writes fantasy and horror among other things – but is always intriguing and unpredictable. Her ability to imagine new worlds is remarkable, yet she is also very good at depicting real places. She’s certainly one of the most creative writers out there. I loved her recent novels and have been slowly working my way through her back catalogue. This year I enjoyed Treasure (1992), Black oxen (2001) and Daylight (2003).

A new discovery for me this year was the Australian (US-based) novelist and journalist Geraldine Brooks. I started out with Year of wonders (2001), set in an English village isolated by the plague in 1666. I immediately sought out her other books and I’ve since read Caleb’s crossing (2011), the story of the first indigenous American to graduate from Harvard, in the 1660s; March (2005), on the U.S. Civil War as experienced by the father from Little women; and People of the book (2008), the tale of a Jewish text and its journeys through history, from medieval Spain to the 1990s Bosnian war (it gets bonus points for featuring librarians and conservators as heroes!). They’re the best sort of historical fiction, with compelling characters and page-turning plots bringing the past to life.

Rewriting literary classics seems to be all the rage these days, and over the last few years I’ve followed with interest the projects where well-known authors rewrite works by two of my favourite writers, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. The results have been mixed, but I thoroughly recommend one I read this year, The gap of time, a ‘cover version’ of Shakespeare’s The winter’s tale by the fabulous Jeanette Winterson.


It’s all been about New Zealand history for me this year. There are so many great books coming out it’s impossible to keep up! Three I read in 2016 really stood out, and should be compulsory reading for all who wish to understand better this country’s past and present.

I couldn’t help but like A history of New Zealand women by Barbara Brookes. Not only does it chime with my own historical interests, but it was written by the excellent supervisor of my current project! Putting aside any bias, this really is an important book. The culmination of many years of research and thought, it is a compelling and clearly written account of this country’s past as experienced by women. It’s also well-illustrated, and some of the women’s art works included are a revelation.

Tangata whenua: an illustrated history, by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris, assisted by several others, is another ground-breaking book. It tells the history of Māori from origins to the present in a scholarly but very readable way. I especially enjoyed the earlier sections, by Atholl Anderson, which share the latest insights of archaeology (including DNA analysis) into the origins of Māori and their early years in Aotearoa. However, the entire book is fascinating, and the illustrations are, again, excellent.

The great war for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 by Vincent O’Malley is yet another landmark publication. There has been much discussion in recent years about New Zealanders’ ignorance about our own past, especially when it comes to the wars of the 19th century. We are forever hearing about our involvement in World War I in this centenary period, while the 150th anniversaries of events of the New Zealand Wars, conducted on our own soil, pass quietly by. I was fortunate to attend an enlightened school – Naenae College, a big state school – way back in the 1970s, when the history teacher chose the New Zealand option in our senior year. We studied the NZ Wars and I will never forget the field trip where we visited various battle sites, including one just a block from school (from the battle of Boulcott farm) and others at Pauatahanui and around the Porirua and Hutt Valley districts. Such exposure to NZ Wars history is a privilege all too few New Zealanders have had, but in this book  – and his blog at The Meeting Place – Vincent O’Malley helps put that right. He has been researching and writing about Māori history for quite some time now, often in the context of Treaty of Waitangi claims, and The great war for New Zealand brings together that and new research. It is a clear and detailed account of war in the Waikato, placing it in a very broad context from first contact between Waikato Māori and Europeans to the present day, when the consequences of the massive land confiscations following the conflict continue. A must read for all thinking Kiwis and, again, beautifully illustrated.

Kudos must go to the wonderful Bridget Williams Books, publisher of all three of these significant works. My only complaint is that they are huge books and absorbed a very big part of the time I had for reading this year. Tangata whenua and The great war for New Zealand are also heavy (literally) and I had to sit at the table to read them! There is now a more manageable paperbook version of Tangata whenua and both are available as e-books. Still, the hardcovers are beautiful objects and I enjoyed the physical heft of them, despite the awkwardness.

Other non-fiction

Bridget Williams Books is also responsible for my other favourite non-fiction reads this year, thanks to their excellent BWB Texts series of ‘short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’. They provide a good contrast to BWB’s other massive tomes! I have a subscription and the ones waiting to be read are piling up, but I made it through several in 2016. I especially enjoyed Why science is sexist by Nicola Gaston (spoiler alert – it’s unconscious bias) and Silencing science by Shaun Hendy. I’m no scientist but I like to keep informed about the latest in science and the environment – mostly via the wonderful RNZ National. These two books raise important issues about how we learn about science. I also thoroughly recommend two BWB Texts on politics and society – Ruth, Roger and me by Andrew Dean and The interregnum: rethinking New Zealand, edited by Morgan Godfrey.

Finally, I’m now a dedicated fan of Auckland University Press’s Tell you what series. Susannah Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood edit an annual volume of ‘great New Zealand nonfiction’, gathered from all over the place: magazines, newspapers, radio scripts, blogs … and elsewhere. The topics are wildly varied but always interesting, and the writing is lively. I enjoyed the 2016 edition and have now started on 2017’s. One minor irritation – why is a volume published in 2015, made up of items that appeared in 2015 (sometimes earlier), the 2016 volume? Since that pattern was set with the first edition in 2014, I guess they’re stuck with it!

Happy New Year, and here’s to more good reading in 2017!


Drama at Victory Beach

026Victory Beach, a 3-km long straight beach at Wickliffe Bay on the Otago Peninsula, is one of my favourite places. It’s never crowded – the 2-km walk from the road no doubt puts some people off – and I’ve never seen anybody swimming there. But for those willing and able to make the effort, it’s a beautiful beach to walk along and offers the opportunity to see some of Dunedin’s intriguing wildlife, including yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) and New Zealand/Hooker’s sea lions (whakahao). If you look closely, you may also spot some interesting clues to its past, for this apparently peaceful spot has a dramatic history.

The smaller of the Pyramids, Te Matai o Okia, February 2016.

The drama started millions of years ago, with the volcanic eruptions which created the landforms of the Otago Peninsula and Dunedin district. The final major eruptive phase of the Dunedin volcano created the lava domes which form many of the prominent peaks around Otago Harbour. The eruptions produced extensive flows of basalt, the most common volcanic rock. As basalt cools and dries out it can crack to form symmetrical patterns, and there is a striking example of this at the mounds known as the Pyramids, adjacent to Victory Beach. On the seawards side of the smaller Pyramid (Te Matai o Okia) you can clearly see the tubes known as columnar jointing. For added intrigue, some of the columns are oriented diagonally from the ground.

Some of the remarkable columnar basalt at Te Matai o Okia, February 2016.

Fortunately, all this volcanic activity took place long before people lived here, but the beach and the swampy flat land adjacent to it, known as Okia, have been walked by Māori for generations. As local kaumātua Edward Ellison explained in the management plan for what is now a reserve, this district was home first to the Waitaha people, later followed by Kāti Māmoe and then Kāi Tahu, who migrated from the north: ‘An old settlement dating back to the earliest times was located at Okia, a place where generations lived, hunted and celebrated life. The hunter gatherer lifestyle was centred around numerous mahika kai resources that were available on the Peninsula and surrounding districts’. Of course, though they later intermarried and made peace, new iwi were not simply welcomed to an already occupied district, and numerous battles were fought. One important tradition concerning Okia, possibly dating from the 18th century, concerned Kāi Tahu warrior Tarewai. Kāi Tahu anthropologist Atholl Anderson details the story in The Welcome of Strangers. Kāti Māmoe lived in some numbers at Papanui Inlet (which drains into the sea at the southern end of Victory Beach), while Kāi Tahu had a pa at Pukekura (at the tip of the Peninsula); some Kāti Māmoe also lived at the pa. A dispute arose between the two groups over the use of Papanui Inlet to launch fishing canoes. Papanui chief Whakatakanewa devised a scheme to extract revenge for the destruction of some canoes. He began constructing a house near the Pyramids, at Kapuketuroto, and asked his Pukekura neighbours for assistance. Several of the Kāi Tahu men who came to assist were killed, and Tarewai only just escaped into the bush. After dark he returned to the Papanui camp and by impersonating a local managed to retrieve his patu (club), then used it to kill two Kāti Māmoe before escaping back into the forest. After hiding out in various places Tarewai returned to Pukekura. Kāti Māmoe were then defeated by Kāi Tahu and fled to Fiordland; Tarewai was among a party that pursued them and he was eventually killed at Matauira Island (Preservation Inlet).

Some sources suggest that a cave at the base of Te Matai o Okia was one of Tarewai’s hiding places. It was certainly a location of some significance to Māori. Another tradition, told to Ellis Sinclair in the 1930s, was that the cave was the site of a massacre of some of the Pukekura Pa residents by Te Wera in the mid-1700s. Sinclair uncovered the cave in 1934 and carried out an archaeological excavation with his brother a few years later. They discovered woven flax matting, the remnants of kaimoana (seafood), and the bones of birds, a pig, and people; Sinclair thought the way the bones were broken and the absence of larger bones suggested cannibalism. John Riddell, a Pākehā farmer whose family had been in the district a long time, informed Sinclair that several human skulls had been found at the cave entrance about 50 years earlier. Sinclair also found in the cave a carved wooden atua (god) figure about 20cm high, which he deposited at the Otago Museum. In 2014 the figure was loaned, together with two Pacific atua from the museum collection, to an acclaimed touring exhibition of the National Gallery of Australia, Atua: sacred gods from Polynesia.

The land at this end of Otago Peninsula was native reserve, retained by Māori at the time of the sale of the Otago block to the New Zealand Company in 1844. Nevertheless, some colonial families settled in the district by leasing land from the Māori owners. They ran stock in the Okia Flat area, as had some of the inhabitants of the earlier Peninsula shore whaling community before them. They named the bay Wickliffe Bay in honour of the migrant vessel John Wickliffe, which brought the first settlers of the official Otago colony from Scotland. The John Wickliffe had anchored in the bay for a couple of days when it first arrived at Otago in March 1848.

Another ship found the bay less welcoming. The SS Victory ran aground here on 3 July 1861 – that’s how the beach got its name. The Victory was a 3-masted single-screw steamship, 145 feet long and 426 tons when first launched at Dumbarton, Scotland, in 1849. In 1860 the ship had a major refit and was lengthened to 215 feet; it was now 501 tons net and had the latest and most luxurious fittings, from rich crimson velvet seats to oil paintings ‘of no mean order’. It was owned by the Inter-colonial Royal Mail Packet Company, which prided itself on punctual mail delivery; it was put on the Melbourne-Canterbury-Otago run, making its first visit to Otago in January 1861. The Victory next arrived at Port Chalmers from Lyttelton on 1 July 1861, bringing a dozen or so passengers. Her mixed cargo included some items clearly destined for the new goldfields (63 camp ovens and covers, 9 bundles shovels), along with tapioca, arrowroot, pimento, glass, cement, fruits, candles, hops, butter, drapery, a horse and ‘sundry pkgs merchandize’. At Otago she loaded up with 4 casks of brandy, 27 bales of wool, a box of stationery and a package of drapery, plus 5 passengers, and departed bound for Melbourne.

The Victory cleared the Otago Heads and set a course designed to take it past Cape Saunders. The captain, James Toogood, headed below for tea, leaving the third mate in charge until George Hand, the chief mate, took over. A few minutes later, at 6pm, in the dark, the ship ran aground at the southern end of Wickliffe Bay, fortunately on the beach rather than the rocks not much further along the coast. Reversing the engines proved no help: the Victory was well and truly stuck and around midnight a boat was lowered and the passengers, baggage and mails safely landed. According to several witnesses, Hand was intoxicated and he had also deserted his post just before the wreck; he was sentenced to 3 months in prison. Though Captain Toogood protested suggestions that he held some responsibility, it seemed unlikely that Hand could have prevented the wreck, for the Victory was clearly on a dangerous course; the compasses were inaccurate and there were also claims of lax discipline on board.

The remaining wreckage of the SS Victory, as seen at low tide, February 2016.

Three weeks later the Victory and her cargo were sold at auction; R.B. Martin bought the vessel, complete with machinery and fuel (300 tons of coal). Though there was no suitable equipment available in New Zealand, there was still confidence that the ship could be salvaged in working order, a company was set up for the purpose and engineer Mr Scott arrived from Sydney the following year to undertake this mission. After months of work, including several almost-successful attempts, he was forced to abandon the task in November 1862 after the re-floated Victory, just preparing to steam away, washed back onto the beach when the anchor broke. This time the vessel was split and filled with water. The wreck was auctioned again – what had sold for £570 a few months earlier was this time knocked down for £200 to Scott. The determined engineer suffered ‘another sad mishap’ the following month when a small schooner taking away some of the Victory‘s parts was also wrecked on the beach. The moveable parts of the vessel and its contents gradually disappeared, but the bones of the ship remained for the surf, the tides and the weather to slowly erode away. Even now, 155 years after the Victory ran aground, her iron flywheel is still visible, coated with barnacles, in the surf at low tide. The boiler ended up at Lower Portobello and some of the timber helped build the byre and stable at John Kerr’s farm, which overlooked the wreck. Kerr, who died in 1930 aged 96, told a story of a lighter broken in two while going to remove cargo from the stranded vessel, leading to the loss of two lives; I haven’t been able to confirm this tale as yet.

The beach remained relatively peaceful in subsequent decades, though there was the odd exception. By the late 1870s the Portobello Rifles, a volunteer company, had a shooting range (‘butts’) at Wickliffe Bay. I can just imagine the conditions in January 1882, when they competed for their district prizes: mist ‘settled down so thickly that the target was scarcely discernible’. I’ve been there when the Otago Peninsula was drenched in bright sunshine, but Victory Beach was covered with a sea mist, creating a distinctly eerie feeling. Some locals later used the beach for exercising racehorses. One of them, James Riddell, who lived nearby, was killed at the beach in 1932 when a stirrup broke and he was thrown from his horse.

Victory Beach entered a new stage of life in 1991, when the Dunedin City Council and Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust purchased the adjacent land to create Okia Reserve, which is jointly managed by the council and trust, together with the Department of Conservation and Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou. With the removal of grazing stock and a little strategic planting, the reserve is slowly reverting to native bush and should one day be covered in coastal forest. It is home to numerous birds, including little blue penguins and the endangered yellow-eyed penguin. Seals and sea lions also visit, and there was much excitement among conservationists and zoologists when a small breeding colony of the endangered sea lion developed here. ‘Mum’ gave birth at Taieri Mouth in 1993 and then brought her pup to Victory Beach – this was the first recorded sea lion birth on the mainland for many decades. The story of sea lions is a fascinating one, but I’ll save that for a later post …

It’s pretty clear that Victory Beach isn’t just a beautiful location: it is also a place with an intriguing past!

A sea lion on the move at Victory Beach, February 2016.



D.G. Bishop and I.M. Turnbull, Geology of the Dunedin Area (Lower Hutt: Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, 1996).

Okia Reserve Management Plan 2009-2019 (Dunedin City Council, 2009).

Atholl Anderson, The Welcome of Strangers: An ethnohistory of southern Maori A.D.1650-1850 (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 1998).

Ellis D. Sinclair, ‘Excavation of cave on Okia Flat, Wickliffe Bay’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 49, 1 (1940), 137-43. For an edited online version see

John Gibb, ‘Otago Museum artefacts in touring exhibition’, Otago Daily Times, 8 May 2014.

Bruce Collins, Rocks, Reefs and Sandbars: A history of Otago shipwrecks (Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1995).

The Inter-colonial R.M. Steam Packet Company’s ship Victory’, Otago Witness, 1 September 1860.

Shipping news’, Otago Witness, 6 July 1861.

The SS Victory’, Otago Witness, 13 July 1861.

Inquiry into the loss of the S.S. Victory’, Otago Witness, 27 July 1861.

Sale of the wreck of the steam-ship Victory’, Otago Witness, 27 July 1861.

‘Shipping news’, Otago Daily Times, 25 to 29 November 1862; ‘Commercial’, Otago Daily Times, 29 November 1862.

Shipping intelligence‘, Otago Daily Times, 25 December 1862.

‘Obituary: the late Mr John Kerr’, Otago Daily Times, 24 October 1930.

District prize firing’, Otago Witness, 21 January 1882.

‘Fall from a horse: elderly man’s death’, Otago Daily Times, 15 November 1932.

A swimmer’s delight

Looking towards the pool in its early years. Image courtesy of Dunedin City Council archives, Ocean Beach Domain Board Series, reference acc1995/16/1.

I thought it would be fun to write an occasional post about the history of some of my favourite places in Dunedin. The St Clair salt water pool is right up there. I head there to swim laps once or twice a week, no matter the weather. In fact I prefer it when it’s raining or cool because there are fewer other people there – twice I’ve had the whole pool to myself! It’s a shame it’s only open for six months of the year, but I guess there isn’t the demand to warrant it in winter. The water is a balmy 28 degrees, though occasionally it drops a little if there’s a big sea and waves have crashed into the pool. There’s something special about swimming outdoors in salt water, but with the benefit of heating. There’s quite a community of regular swimmers of all ages and shapes and sizes. A couple of times I’ve swum my laps alongside the mighty Highlanders rugby team, who occasionally book half the pool for training.

There’s been a swimming pool at this spot for 136 years – since 1884 – but people were, of course, making use of this beautiful location long before that, and perhaps some swam on this spot. Māori developed a walking route around this section of coast, with some of their camping sites identified nearby. They had an urupā (burial ground) somewhere on the cliffs above. Once the Otago colony was established, it wasn’t long before the Ocean Beach, as it was then known, became a popular recreational spot. In 1851 William Valpy, a large landowner who developed a farm he called Forbury, put on a ‘harvest home’ celebration for his workers and friends. The Otago Witness reported that one group of party-goers ‘betook themselves to the Ocean Beach, and amused themselves in the interval betwixt dinner and tea with leaping, racing, and other manly exercises’.

Turkish baths
Advertising for the ‘greatest luxury of the age’, the Turkish baths in Moray Place, Dunedin. From the Otago Daily Times, 30 December 1874, courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

As Pamela Wood explains in her excellent book Dirt: filth and decay in a new world arcadia, some Dunedin entrepreneurs set up ‘bathing establishments’ to provide the 19th century public with facilities for swimming and washing. To start with many residents had no public water supply or drainage, and even once those arrived people often had just wash basins or a tin bath in front of the fire to soak in. Premises such as the ‘Turkish’ baths set up in Moray Place in 1874 offered not just swimming, but a whole range of baths (there’s an intriguing piece about their history in the 1905 Cyclopedia of New Zealand). Local councils, more reluctantly, also provided facilities. In 1867, with the harbour ruled unfit for swimming, provincial government subsidised the building of baths at Pelichet Bay and in 1884, when those became run down, the Dunedin council opened new baths at Logan Point (these areas are now reclaimed land).

Also in 1884, the council contributed to the Caversham Borough Council’s new salt water baths at St Clair. The baths were pretty low-tech to begin with: a natural depression in the rocks at the end of the beach was enlarged to create a pool of nearly a quarter-acre, and each high tide conveniently flushed it out. A shed provided a little privacy for changing. At the official opening on 13 December, the mayor of Caversham surprised the 300 onlookers at the end of his speech when he ‘divested himself of his overcoat, and showed himself to be arrayed in Nature’s garb, with the exception of a pair of bathing-trunks, and without more ado took “a header”, followed by about a dozen similarly-attired persons’. With St Clair on the tram route, the baths quickly proved popular. As one councillor explained as funds were being raised, there had been a ‘number of accidents which had occurred from bathing in the open sea’; these ‘proper baths’ would be ‘universally beneficial to the community’.

ES 30 Jan 1885
An advertisement for ladies’ hours at the pool from the Evening Star, 30 January 1885. Swimming was strictly segregated by gender in the early decades of the baths. Image courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

A new concrete retaining wall, added in 1891, was the first significant improvement to the pool, which has been through a seemingly endless cycle of deterioration and renewal in the decades since. Perhaps the most important innovation was heating. In 1910 the Ocean Beach Domain Board, then responsible for the pool, installed three hot water baths, designed and constructed by A & T Burt. For any readers of a technological bent, here’s a description from the paper: ‘Water from the ocean was pumped up to a 600gal elevated reservoir by a Worthington Duplex pump, working with a steam pressure of 25lb. The circulator beneath the reservoir contained 250 gallons, and was filled with internal copper coils for heating by steam’. The plant was capable of heating further baths and later they grew to 18, enclosed in a building adjacent to the main pool. A telephone, installed in the caretaker’s house in 1910, allowed patrons to book a hot water bathe. A massage room was added in the 1920s, and later (perhaps the 1940s), a heated ‘therapeutic’ pool measuring 26 by 12 feet.

St Clair
This photograph of St Clair, taken by Sydney Charles Smith about 1923, shows further developments at the pool, visible in the distance. The buildings housed the caretaker, changing rooms, hot baths and a massage room. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-047673-G.
Meanwhile, the outdoor pool remained unheated, the only improvement being further additions to the wall which protected it from the sea. Regular work was needed to remove sand and debris from the base of the pool, but by the 1950s it had fallen into serious decline. Finally, in 1968, after years of campaigning and fund-raising, a brand new outdoor pool opened, all lined in concrete, complete with heating and chlorination. A paddling pool for youngsters was also added, but more ambitious plans for a diving pool and hot curative pool never eventuated due to lack of funds. The most recent upgrade, including a new heating system and changing facilities, was completed in 2002 after another long campaign. The improvements cost a cool $2 million, over half of it raised by a special trust and the rest by the council. Through the years the pool has been leased and run by various people and trusts; it is now fully managed by the city council, which employs the lovely lifeguards (one of them, Katherine, recently featured in the ODT’s regular careers series).

St Clair pool
St Clair saltwater pool in January 2016.

A big part of the appeal of the pool is the contrast between this piece of modern civilisation and its wild outdoor setting. The Pacific Ocean is a powerful force and St Clair beach is sometimes hit by big seas; erosion has created challenging problems for the council, and those problems are bound to become worse with rising sea levels. Sinkholes have occasionally appeared on the esplanade, access ramps have been seriously damaged, and there have been recent warnings about the risks of being swept out or thrown against the rocks at high tide or by rogue waves. None of this seems to put the surfers off, though, and it’s a long-time popular location for them, regardless of the cold. It isn’t only people that enjoy the waves – once I had the special treat of seeing a seal surfing in confidently on a St Clair wave as I wandered to the pool. Last year I spied a crested penguin, who sat on the rocks next to the pool for a few days while he or she was moulting. However I missed the famous occasion when a sea lion came in through the automatic doors and actually swam in the pool!

i met this wee creature, who’d come ashore to moult on the rocks right next to the pool, in Feburary 2015.


Barbara Brookes, Erik Olssen and Emma Beer, ‘Spare time? Leisure, gender and modernity’, in Barbara Brookes, Annabel Cooper and Robin Law (eds), Site of gender: women, men and modernity in southern Dunedin, 1890-1939 (Auckland University Press, 2003), 159-189.

Barbara Newton, Our St Clair: a resident’s history (Dunedin: Kenmore Productions, 2003).

St Clair salt water pool 1884-1984 (Dunedin: Queens High School, 1984).

Pamela Wood, Dirt: filth and decay in a new world arcadia (Auckland University Press, 2005).

Old newspapers on Papers Past, with quotes taken from the following –

Otago Witness, 5 April 1851

Evening Star, 21 May 1884

Otago Daily Times, 15 December 1884

Otago Daily Times, 11 August 1910