Makin’ them dry bones dance
Dr Orange and the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.
Tairongo amoamo rises, pushing back his chair with one foot, and fixes me with a steady gaze. “Let’s talk about a Stone Age man. Born when . . . 1840s?•Died 1954.” His lips purse. “How did he travel to a tangi?”
“He came on a horse,” says Amoamo. “Rode right up to the marae. He was completely naked apart from a wreath of petipeti leaves on his head. In his hand was his taiaha, his weapon. He entered the marae creeping and writhing like an eel.” Amoamo moves like a snake, in imitation. “Now and then he stopped to strike the ground with the taiaha.
“When he reached the body he sat down, and for nine days he stayed there, eating nothing. With each passing day he seemed to those watching to more and more resemble a ngarara—a reptile. Finally, when the wreath on his head was dry and withered he took it off and cut his hair, laying the leaves and hair in the coffin. The women sitting with the body did the same.
“Those were the actions of your ancestor. His name was Te Pain Tuterangi, chief of the Tuhoe. He was one of the last links between the old world and the new.”
After a pause Amoamo, assistant editor of the reaches behind for the chair and sits once more, his impassioned speechmaking at an end. He has done with the story, told for my benefit to demonstrate how the lives that pack the pages of the dictionary can be used in a classroom to draw young Maori closer to their heritage.
It is all there in volume three. The story of Te Paiti, child of the rugged Urewera Range, a boy dedicated to the war god Tumatauenga at the age of seven, who grew skilled in the warrior‘s art, and who, during the unrest of the 1860s, set aside the traditional taiaha and toki poutangata (greenstone adze) and embraced the gun.
When the embattled chief Te Kooti retreated to Urewera in 1868, Te Pain became a fervent supporter, waging war on his behalf as far away as Taupo. During lulls in the fighting he took up woodcarving and horseracing, his lean build making him a favoured jockey—so much so that songs came to be composed about him and his horses.
A devout follower of the Ringatu faith, he became a charismatic orator with a style all his own. An imposing figure with his white hair, the beard of a sage and long greenstone ear pendants, he used the marae as a stage, gesturing with his adze, strutting, running with clipped steps and leaping in the air to emphasise his words. On landing, he would nimbly set off in the opposite direction.
“He never stood in one place, reasoning that it was more difficult for opposing tohunga to direct makutu [harmful supernatural powers] at him,“ states the dictionary “He usually wore a rapaki (kilt) when speaking, and if he was wearing European clothes he would deliberately remove his shoes, socks and trousers and wrap a blanket around his waist before starting.”
He was fastidious in his daily life, and a strict observer of tapu—to the extent that if his or someone else’s shadow fell across his food he would immediately stop eating. Partial to an occasional whisky and fond of suits and top hats, he was a fine weaver of feather cloaks and, wary of makutu, never wore a Maori garment unless he himself had made it.
A firm believer in the old ways, Te Pain never learned to speak English. In 1927, when in his 80s, he was persuaded to take the part of Te Kooti in the silent film The Te Kooti Trail. The following year he played a minor character in Under the Southern Cross, at one point rescuing the film by reciting an appropriate karakia so that other Maori actors would act out tapu ceremonies demanded by the script.
Reading the dictionary’s account of Te Pairi “The Leaper” Tuterangi, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary work of biography. The tale of the Tuhoe chief, and others like it among the 2500 or so memoirs published to date, sing with anecdote; with the remembered details that amplify the past until it seems to shimmer before us, the reconstituted slivers of experience becoming so many stepping stones back to the lives of our forebears.
This mark of lively authenticity stems in part from the decision of the dictionary’s editors to move away from what now seems a misplaced emphasis in previous biographical works which dealt with public life and the recording of “worthy” achievements; away from the commemorative instinct that gave rise in their pages to a seemingly inexhaustible parade of minor politicians, mayors, bankers, headmasters, lawyers and others whose doings for generations swelled the columns of the national and provincial press.
What we have here is a celebration of New Zealand life in all its rich diversity and effervescence.
The person largely responsible for casting the net wider, former editor Bill Oliver, wrote in his introduction to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography’s first volume in 1990 of a determination “to draw in common soldiers as well as their officers, community leaders as well as politicians, matriarchs as well as patriarchs, followers as well as leaders, entertainers as well as painters, bullock drivers as well as engineers, missionary wives as well as their husbands.” In other words, to add to the familiar mix of the famous dead others who, if not imposing presences in their lifetimes, might at least become “memorable historical presences.”
A start in this direction had been signalled in England late last century by the work most historians today think of as the blueprint for all such endeavours, the 66-volume Dictionary of National Biography. Its visionary first editor, Leslie Stephen, best remembered now as the father of Virginia Woolf, emphasised the importance of “minute names, the mere rank and file of the great army,” and made a claim for the importance of “amusement” as well as factual fidelity. Among the subjects tackled by Stephen’s surprisingly (for the times) broadminded dictionary were sportspeople, murderers, actresses, deviant clergy, agnostics, journalists and transvestites.
The latest instalment of the ongoing New Zealand project, volume four, put together under the watchful eye of general editor Claudia Orange and focusing on the years 1921 to 1940, continues that early favouring of utility, variety, individuality and reader appeal. Between its marbled salmon-pink covers can be found essays on runner Jack Lovelock, prime minister Michael Joseph Savage, rugby great George Nepia and aviator Jean Batten, but also entries on others who would have fallen through the cracks of more sober histories: endurance swimmer Katerina Nehua, for instance, and swagger Russian Jack.
Katerina Nehua’s is a moving tale. Born in the Bay of Islands, she fell on hard times early in life and moved to Sydney with her husband and young family in the Depression years. They became destitute when he lost his job, and, lured by big prize money, she entered one of the endurance swimming cont
ests then in vogue. The aim was to stay afloat in a pool for as long as possible without touching the bottom or sides.
To conserve energy, Nehua spent the last of her money taking a tram to the venue: the tidal baths at Manly. Unable to pay for the special grease used by other competitors (including famous English Channel swimmer Mercedes Gleitze), she was coated with a mixture of olive oil and axle grease, and entered the water determined to “stay [there] until they carry me out.”
After more than 47 hours in the choppy water, and showing signs of distress, she was helped out ahead of the only remaining swimmer, Gleitze, who was so taken by Nehua’s courage that she shared her prize money. Nehua went on to set new world endurance records, including one of 72 hours, 21 minutes set in Brisbane.
Barrett Crumen, one of the last of the old swaggers, remains something of a mystery to this day, despite the determined attentions of the dictionary. Reportedly born in Latvia, and later known to all as Russian Jack, he made a dramatic arrival in 1912 aboard the steamer Star of Canada, which encountered a violent gale off the East Coast and was blown ashore at Gisborne. Nothing is known of his family, and doubt even surrounds his name. “Crumen,” says the dictionary, may merely have referred to his shipboard occupation, while “Barrett” had no meaning whatever to him.
It appears that, having narrowly survived the shipwreck, he decided to save money by walking to Wellington where, presumably, he intended signing on with another ship. He never got there. At some point on the journey he heard the siren call of the road and spent the next 53 years obeying it, tramping through much of the North Island—though avoiding Hawkes Bay after experiencing its 1931 earthquake.
Squat and tanned and sporting a sagging moustache and wide-brimmed felt hat, he was a familiar traveller on country roads, his patched clothes stuffed with paper, and sugarbags and a kerosene tin billy slung over his shoulders.
Crumen took to wadding his ears with brown paper soaked in mutton fat as protection against the cold and “to keep the bugs out.” In the early days he removed his boots when leaving a town, walking through the countryside barefoot to save leather. In later life, however, he let the habit slip, lining worn boots with cardboard and patching them with leather and car-tyre rubber. At the height of his artistic make-do his boots together weighed more than eight pounds. Life under the southern stars did Russian Jack surprisingly little harm. He died after a short illness in 1968 at the age of 90.
Biographical nuggets abound among the almost 13,000 biographical files that have accumulated in the dictionary’s downtown Wellington offices. “We have a goldmine here,” says Orange, who is also acting chief historian at the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, which runs the project. “We just hope it doesn’t develop into a quartz-crushing exercise.”
It is unlikely that even such an unhappy turn of events would slow things much at the dictionary. From her orange-walled office—well, the colour just happens to be her favourite—she runs a tight ship. The marshalling of facts (and of people) is second nature to the former university junior lecturer, thanks to skills honed on a doctorate which, published as The Treaty of Waitangi, went on to win the 1988 Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards (as did volume one of the dictionary in 1991).
“If we publish on time,” one staffer later confides, “that is entirely Claudia’s doing. It is almost unheard of with national dictionaries.” The Italian effort, the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, as I am reminded more than once, took 35 years and one supplement to reach the letter “E”
Orange, who started work at the dictionary in 1984, becoming general editor six years later, lives and breathes the project. For the first 14 years she commuted weekly from Auckland, only putting an end to the air miles in October 1997, when she and her husband Rod, a school principal, finally surrendered to geography and moved south.
Often, while he heads for the bush or takes to the water, she stays put, making sure history turns out the way she likes it—accurate and accessible.
A latecomer to higher education herself, having been a school dental nurse and mother of three children before starting university at 30, and one of the first professional historians to learn Maori, she has an inbuilt drive to democratise history.
This is reflected in the process as well as the product. An enormous number of people have become caught up in the dictionary—more than 1000 writers alone. And not just academics, but music specialists, radio people, engineers. Anyone and everyone.
She and her team are determinedly telling history like it is. Among the surprises: the significant contributions amateur New Zealand astronomers have made to the world of science; the way plastic surgeon Cecily Pickerill often withheld her gender from distrustful patients until after an operation; the fact that radio presenter Aunt Daisy (Maud Basham)—Mother to a nation—was also a singer, once performing as contralto soloist in Messiah.
The scope for things to go wrong with the dictionary juggernaut is enough to crack the strongest constitution. With 17 regional and specialist working parties to coordinate, in-house workflows to juggle and, in the case of the newly published volume four, the labours of 417 writers to meticulously check and hone, an intricate organisational structure has evolved—one Oliver called “more complicated than the Vatican.”
By the time the fifth volume appears in 2000, one of New Zealand’s largest publishing ventures, and the most substantial work in history yet undertaken, will have been going for 17 years. At that point, and in obedience to an implacable law of nature, the project will drastically scale down. The simple reason for this can be found in the answer to a query put forward by Robert Muldoon when the dictionary was first mooted. “What do I have to do to get in?” he wanted to know. “Die,” was the frank reply.
The former prime minister will, of course, “get in,” but it may take time. With the dictionary entering the 1940s and ’50s—”snapping at our heels,” in the words of the publicists—a problem has arisen, thanks to the way subjects are selected. A candidate’s place in the chronological series is determined by when they first “flourished,” by which dictionary folk mean the date they first made their mark. It is conceivable that someone—a potter, say, or a trade unionist—who did significant work at an early age in the 1950s will be hale and possibly even hearty well into the new millennium. The natural buffer of these long-lived early achievers gives the dictionary a built-in lag.
“We have all become hearse-chasers,” says assistant editor Ross Somerville with an amused grin. For Somerville and his colleagues, each fresh obituary brings with it the possibility of introducing a new candidate to the lengthening subject list, or giving a previously favoured one the green light for a write-up.
The prospect of the brakes coming on as the dictionary catches up with history in the making doesn’t faze him. Publication of the fifth volume is, he says, the obvious point at which to go electronic. Somerville, who joined the project 10 years ago as a researcher, soon gravitated towards editing, and one day woke to find himself responsible for computer operations. Since then he has overseen the transfer of all data to a sophisticated searchable database that holds out the possibility of accessing the dictionary’s data in ways undreamed of by the nib-wielding Leslie Stephen.
CD ROMS are one possibility. Another, with more lasting potential, is Internet access to the data, which may come to include newly discovered material and currently unpublished biographical files as well as video, sound and still images. Given that people tend not to read at length on-screen, says Somerville, the information could be presented in summary, with details layered underneath, the whole being searchable by keyword. The trick, he says, is to future-proof the data by anticipating new needs and emerging technologies.
Meanwhile, the quiet machine hum of a dictionary in progress continues. Assistant editor Nancy Swarbrick, who functions as a sort of literary chief engineer, introduces me to the repositories of the project’s real wealth: its banks of filing cabinets, locked against earthquake, each of which is jammed with files. She opens a drawer and lifts out a worn manila folder, leafing through it to reveal photographs, correspondence and a 1000-word draft typescript, heavily marked with blue pencil. I note that the author, a professor known for his well-turned phrases, has not escaped lightly.
Contributors often assume that only one editor sees their work. In reality, each essay is read by up to 12 staff, culminating in a read-through by Bill Oliver, now retired and acting as consulting editor. It is a process likened by Oliver to chain slaughtering as opposed to solo butchery. “I think his father was a freezing worker,” says Nancy Swarbrick helpfully.
No fact is free from scrutiny. As if to underscore the point, I am told of a staff member who once leaned out of an office window to confirm the number of storeys in a nearby building. “Normally our research data is a little more rigorous,” Swarbrick says, apologetically. Sometimes, however, the survival of one “fact” over another comes down to a judgment call over conflicting sources.
One useful innovation, forged in the white heat of research, has been a device called the NAF, the Name Authority File. Introduced after volume one, and the result of impressive labour, it is an assemblage of index cards charting the changing identity of New Zealand organisations. Invited to test-drive it, I pick something that I had trouble with recently: the name in 1919 of what is now New Zealand Post. A quick flick through the cards and there it is: “Post & Telegraph Dept 1890-1959. Fr 1959 Post Office.” Never, as I had read somewhere, Postal Department. Anticipating argument, the NAF cites New Zealand Statutes, the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives and Post & Telegraph Dept reports.
Such exactitude can test the mettle of those in the field. “Some die for their country,” historian and veteran contributor Frances Porter told me, only half in jest. “Others work for the dictionary.”
On a wall at dictionary HQ is a whiteboard marking the progress of the essays through the various edits, rewrites and proofs—Maori subjects in green, others in red. Maori memoirs are separately tracked because they are destined for a further stage, translation into Maori. From the beginning, a parallel Maori language publication, has been issued, which collects together all the Maori subjects from the main dictionary. The Maori biographies from the first and second volumes have also been published in English as and selected essays from the first Maori volume as Given the dictionary’s aim of bringing the information to the broadest possible range of readers, the whole thing has become something of a micro-industry, with an illustrated derived from volume one appearing in 1992, selected essays from the first two volumes emerging as in 1993, and a book on the King movement, hitting the shelves in late 1996. More titles will undoubtedly follow.
Tairongo Amoamo’s preoccupation, since joining the dictionary in 1988, has been with piecing together the Maori biographies and getting them out in Maori. It has not been easy. Maori lives are often not well documented, with births, deaths and marriages often going unrecorded. Then there is the difficulty of finding the people with the knowledge. The dictionary relies heavily on family writers—people knowledgeable about their whakapapa and able to work confidently with senior members of a whanau.
Nevertheless, for a culture where mana is often held collectively rather than associated with individuals, sensitivities have sometimes meant switching off the light of scholarship. This was the case with an essay commissioned for volume two which revealed that a prominent community leader was the natural child of a rival group leader. It was felt that a public revelation would have undermined the leadership of the current generation and possibly have torn apart their community. The essay was dropped.
A Maori working party chaired by Tipene O’Regan has lent weight to the work of the dictionary. Faced with calls from descendants to suppress information because it denigrated the mana of ancestors, the working party’s response has usually been to say, “We are writing history, not accolades.”
More often than not, however, oral evidence gathered by the dictionary has unearthed treasures absent from earlier written records. Tuhoe writer Pou Temara’s essay on Te Pairi Tuterangi reveals how warriors were trained to use the taiaha. Another from Ngai Tahu describes the methods of southern muttonbirders and the traditional uses of river and sea resources. Amoamo himself gives a fresh account of the methods of a Ringatu tohunga.
Even more important for Amoamo has been the role of the dictionary in fostering Maori language. The most substantial publication in Maori since the Bible was translated last century, the dictionary draws on the skills of editorial staff, including Angela Ballara—fluent in written Maori and the author of some 22 essays in volume four alone—and outside advisers such as Timoti Karetu of the Maori Language Commission.
Thanks to the broad reach of its subjects, the dictionary has even helped extend the language. Assisted by the Maori Language Commission, staff have coined words for “thermosphere,” “cardiovascular disease,” “carbon monoxide” and many others. is now used as a source for Bursary exam papers.
“We are writing for a new generation,” says Amoamo with pride.
Stepping outside, I notice the dictionary’s address—Waring Taylor Street—and on a whim look it up in a Wellington library. (Once you get into the groove, everything reduces—or should that be enlarges?—to biography). A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (not today’s edition, but a two-volume work dating from 1940) has him covered: Taylor, William Waring (1819-1903). Born in Yorkshire, arrived in New Zealand 1848, became a Wellington merchant. “Rather retiring in disposition, but a useful citizen and highly respected.”
He was deputy-superintendent of the province, a member of the waste lands board and a capable sheep farmer who, in the entry’s concluding words, “retired from public life in the eighties, and died on 11 Oct 1903.”
No mention that the retirement was occasioned by being indicted for fraud.
Underscoring the half-century gap between the two radically different publications, today’s passes over the retiring Waring in favour of his sister, Mary Taylor—feminist, music teacher, businesswoman, writer. Two years older than Waring, she was a close friend of Charlotte Bronte—though not above rebuking the writer for attitudes she considered insufficiently progressive. For example, when Bronte asserted in a novel that work was for some women only, Taylor called her “a coward and a traitor.” To Taylor, a woman who did not wish to work was “guilty of a great fault—almost a crime.”
Taylor emigrated to New Zealand in 1845 and opened a drapery and clothing shop. The venture was a success, and in 1853 the shop was listed as one of Wellington’s principal stores. According to the DNZB entry, Taylor may have been the first to import a sewing machine to Wellington.
On her return to England, she began publishing articles which developed the feminist ideas she had mulled over in Wellington—that marrying for money was degrading, that women were not duty bound to sacrifice themselves for others and that women should earn their own living—and went on to write several books expanding on these views. The dictionary describes her as independent and forthright, with a hatred of hypocrisy and a coolness towards religious dogma—a somewhat more interesting person than “useful citizen” Waring, after whom the street in the capital is named.
It is perhaps harsh to make too much of the shortcomings of Guy Scholefield’s 1940 Dictionary. A labour of love, and reverential in tone, it reflects the obituary source of much of the material and was, like all dictionaries, a child of its times.
Scholefield never intended the work to be representative of the people of New Zealand. It was to be a record of the country’s (mainly political and military) men of note, along with some Maori leaders and a smattering of women “of particular prominence.” Nor did he attempt to evaluate his subjects, reasoning in his introductory on the Practice of Biography” that “Estimates of the significance of a man in the history of the country must inevitably change with the passage of the years; but the facts of his life, once they are accurately ascertained and recorded, cannot change.”
He might have said, with Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind: “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Except that Scholefield himself rooted out a little too energetically. His entry on Dunedin businessman and politician William Larnach skims over much of the financial misfortune that plagued the man and neglects to mention that he ended by killing himself in Parliament Buildings. The memoir on Presbyterian minister and lobbyist James Gibb fails to note that he was accused of heresy in 1890, and it plays down the intensity of his pacifist convictions after World War I.
“I didn’t have much time for Scholefield,” admits Frances Porter. When Orange asked her to write him up for the DNZB, she was reluctant, arguing that “it is easier to work with the absolutely, positively dead.” Scholefield, the parliamentary librarian, was too close. As a young graduate she had often seen him at the General Assembly, and, with his eyesight failing, was brought in to help work on his massive two-volume Richmond-Atkinson Papers.
“I was appalled by the way he had edited them,” she says. “I was trained that primary sources were sacrosanct, but he had added comments in ink and put indelible crayon through sections he didn’t want.” Porter later came across a letter in which he explained that, thanks to his work, students no longer needed to “grub through” the original letters, as they would be available in libraries.
“He thought he’d done a good job in his defacement, but what he called the ‘discards’ were women saying that they didn’t want another pregnancy, that husbands shouldn’t spend so much time at the General Assembly. History for him was political, it wasn’t about tea parties or women slaving away.”
Like Te Pairi, he stood at the crossroads.
“To a degree, history is a matter of fashion, and Scholefield spanned a watershed,” explains Porter. “He was definitely on the side of the generals. Now the generals have been moved aside and the housewives brought in.”
Almost a third of the entries in the DNZB are about women. Among them are people such as Agnes Harrold, manager of the Travellers’ Rest boarding house in Stewart Island and unofficial “bush surgeon” and midwife to the island’s few-hundred-strong population during the latter years of the 19th century. From the dictionary we learn not only of her medical competence, but also of her forceful character and sympathetic heart. “She listened to troubles, never spread them and kept her own to herself,” writes contributor Maida Barlow, concluding with the words, “If anyone deserves a monument on this island, it’s Granny Harrold.”
Elizabeth Torlesse (1835/6?-1922) bore 10 children (at almost yearly intervals), three of them dying within a year of being born. She is remembered for opening a women’s refuge in the 1860s.
Grace Rood joined the School Dental Service in 1922, when dental decay among school children was common and there was a shortage of dentists. Women trainees were selected “on the basis of their academic achievement, sound health and pleasing personality.” Appointed school dental nurse in charge of Waipukurau, Rood was conducting a clinic at the very moment the 1931 Napier earthquake struck. Still clutching the basin, her young patient took off—with more justification than perhaps she could have hoped for.
In achieving a balance between the sexes, the New Zealand dictionary is doing better than its British counterpart, the New Dictionary of National Biography—a monumental revision of a dictionary that has its origins in the 1880s. Editor Colin Matthew and a legion of helpers are working against the clock to revise or rewrite the Dictionary of National Biography’s 36,000 entries and add a further 14,000, for a staggering total of some 50 million words in 50 or so volumes, all to be published in 2004.
The old DNB, even with its voluminous supplements of “missing persons” unintentionally omitted from the main work and 10-yearly (later five-yearly) “interim notices” on the recently dead, was notoriously short of female subjects—around 3 per cent of the total.
Matthew admits that his revision is unlikely to reach the DNZB’s target of a minimum of 20 per cent women. Even addressing the domestic circumstances of male subjects is a problem. “To integrate fully the home and sexual life of a person who is, as most are, in a DNB for ‘public’ reasons, requires space, and space equals money and time,” he has written. “But this incorporation is perhaps central challenge for DNBs of our time.”
When I visited the offices in Oxford, Matthew was full of praise for the New Zealand project, and not just because of its inclusiveness. “They are doing fundamental primary biography there,” he said. “Carving a trail through the woods.”
Gratifying as the commendation may be, Claudia Orange complains that the British editors are “pretty mingy about who they let in from down here.” Apart from editing the homegrown product, she is the s associate editor for 20th-century New Zealanders, and finds herself arguing hard for the inclusion of even major figures.
But Matthew is philosophical, envisaging a time when, with the click of a button, a reader of the online can switch from its entry on, say, Sir George Grey, to Grey’s memoir in the New Zealand dictionary.
“Perhaps it will be the final act of Her Majesty to link up the dictionaries of national biography in all her realms past and present,” he says with mock grandiosity. If so, he adds, they may collectively come to embody B founder George Smith’s original vision of a comprehensive Universal Biography.
Sheila ronbinson’s mind is focused on matters closer to home. She is one of the New Zealand dictionary’s 17 working party convenors, charged with seeing that her region is accurately and adequately represented in the pages of the dictionary. Dunedin-born but having called Gisborne home for 28 years, she writes from a home surrounded by nearly a hectare of tranquil gardens and decorated with images of the countries she and husband Robbie once sojourned in as Colombo Plan workers.
Gisborne is one of the smallest and most isolated areas covered by the dictionary—two hours of hill-country driving to Opotiki and six, as Robinson is quick to point out, to the university libraries in Hamilton or Palmerston North.
Appointed convenor for the East Coast because of her work as historian and archivist at the Gisborne museum, she overcame the meagre supply of local academics by recruiting researchers through subsidised labour schemes, donating her own fee (from volume three on, convenors received a modest honorarium) to the museum.
The group’s job was eased by several published local histories and an enthusiastic local newspaper which printed requests for information.
“The main difficulty here was often what generation to settle on. Take the Williamses, for instance. I did an entry on four cousins, all descendants of Bay of Islands missionaries Henry and William Williams, who each had 12 children. Who do you choose? In the end I decided on one who became Minister of Works, because of his national prominence.”
Which brings Robinson to the fate of regional centres in this country. “What tended to happen here is that we had outstanding early pioneers, but as the population grew and travel got easier we lost a lot of our top achievers. Gisborne became a service centre for a district that relies on farming and horticulture. People tend just to be good citizens.”
Dictionary folk in Hawkes Bay and Nelson agree, she says. “Look at my own family. Four sons with degrees and not one of them ever likely to work here.” Several are overseas, one in the Middle East.
Keen to salute the pioneers, Robinson wrote a celebration of local photographer William Crawford (1874-1913), for the 1990 sesquicentennial. Crawford, a hearty, fun-loving bear of a man, captured provincial life exquisitely on hundreds of fragile glass plates, two-thirds of which are now in the local museum collection—and, yes, Robinson helped him into volume two of the dictionary.
Her great-great-grandfather, James Hamlin, however, has not made the cut. “He came out in 1826, and almost always worked alone, in the Manukau and the Waikato. In 1835 he became the first permanent missionary in Wairoa.”
And there it is again, a reminder of all those files in Wellington, waiting for something more inclusive even than the print dictionary—Somerville’s microprocessor wizardry perhaps—to bring them to life.
Peter Lineham, a Massey University lecturer, is convenor of the working party on religion. “With 600 entries per volume, it is clear that no matter how good they are, we are never going to get more than about 30 people in,” he says. Before getting down to some serious “horse trading” with Orange, Lineham meets colleagues to debate who should be put forward.
“It’s like the religious wars all over again,” he says. “Some groups are very keen. The Baha’i, for instance, and the Jewish community. One of its octogenarians set about writing, apparently convinced that every Jewish person in the country was worth an entry.
“We’ve just pulled off an interesting case for volume five, though,” he announces with glee. “Sidney Koreneff. A female French resistance fighter who later became an Anglican priest.”
I have to admit, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The joy of discovery—of lives “rescued” from the rubble of neglect, or simply raised up for a new generation to appreciate—permeates the pages of the dictionary. Even the captions beneath the names have a certain allure: “Pedlar, importer, viticulturist,” “Furnisher, singing teacher, composer, astronomer,” “Boatbuilder, rugby player, tourist guide,” “Woman of mana, suffragist,” “Shearer, lay reader, wrestler.”
Begin this last entry and you enter the world of Ihakara Te Tuku “Ike” Robin, Hawkes Bay shearing contractor and, during the 1920s, a legend on the wrestling mat. Born in 1886, Robin was blessed with a marvellous physique—in his 20s he stood over 1.8 metres tall and weighed 108 kg—and had the mental and physical agility to make him a superb sportsman. In one Napier sports day he took part in the shot-put, hammer throw, caber toss, high jump, tug of war and two types of wrestling, winning many of the events and collecting £26 in prize money.
He was a 300-a-day shearer who eventually employed 100 men in his contract gangs, and offered work and board to young homeless Maori. His wife, Mei, ran gangs of her own, working the coastal stations of southern Hawkes Bay and others as far inland as Taihape.
In 1926, Robin took only three rounds to defeat the Australian heavyweight champion, Clarence Weber, and became so well known in this country that a patented wire-strainer for fencing was named the “Ike Grip.”
Robin, a deeply religious man, served as a lay reader in the Anglican church for nearly six decades and was a friend and adviser to the first two Maori bishops. He met royalty on behalf of Hawkes Bay Maori and once entertained the Trapp Family Singers. An enthusiastic preacher, he once became so absorbed in his message that he failed to notice the congregation had departed, leaving only his dog to hear him.
A singular zest and appetite for life was also the hallmark of Rangi Kuini Wikitoria Topeora, an important figure in Maoridom during the first half of the 19th century. One of only five women to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, Topeora gained prominence as an orator, singer and composer of waiata.
Four marriages and a string of other relationships suggest a woman whose passions matched her pride as a leader among the Ngati Toa people. The mid-1800s were violent times, and the details of Topeora’s life matched them for drama. When she discovered that her husband was having an affair with a slave on Kapiti Island, she had the woman killed and eaten. Another time, she competed against a Te Ati Awa woman for the right to marry a man by outrunning her and throwing a dogskin cloak over her male prize.
Although she initially supported the Treaty, she later denounced the Pakeha settlers in the Otaki district. On this occasion she in turn was upbraided by an old chief who declared she was no better than a dog’s daughter and went on to compare the benefits of peace—pigs, potatoes, warm fires and tobacco—with the discomforts of war. He appears to have won the day, but it is fiery Topeora who is remembered.
Though the DNZB is in the business of preserving and unearthing the facts of people’s lives, it has, in rare instances, been known to radically alter them, and nowhere to greater effect than with Edmund Bohan.
Put off a career in history by the academic infighting he witnessed while taking a degree in Christchurch, Bohan left for Britain where he pursued his other love, singing. For 26 years he did the oratorio circuit, occasionally appearing in operas as guest principal and, thanks to a big repertoire, notching up some 600 concerts as principal tenor with a rising impresario.
Bohan’s eventual return to New Zealand in 1987 coincided with preparations for volume one of the DNZB. Bill Oliver, one of his former lecturers, was short of a writer for one of the early politicians, Edward Stafford, and suggested Bohan write 3000 words.
“I’d only been working on it a few days when I realised there was a colossal gap in 19th-century political history,” Bohan tells me. “No one knew much about him. Sinclair had dismissed Stafford in a good but unfair sentence.”
I later look up the passage in Keith Sinclair’s A History of New Zealand and laugh aloud. “E. W. Stafford, a man with no obvious qualification except a conciliatory manner, was Premier on several occasions for a total of a dozen years, while giving always the impression of wishing to be elsewhere,” Sinclair had written.
Bohan ended his own dictionary piece on Stafford with an oblique return salvo. “He was a pragmatic, down-to-earth, successful politician,” he wrote. “For common sense and clear-sighted ability he must rank as one of the most effective of all.”
When Claudia Orange took the dictionary’s helm for volume two, Bohan was invited to contribute pieces on a further five late Victorians, and, with the help of a research grant, also wrote a full-length biography of Stafford, published in 1994. It was, says Orange, one of the first independent fruits of the dictionary project.
Other biographies followed, and now Bohan divides his time between (less frequent) singing engagements—”mostly character roles, which befits an elderly tenor”—and writing.
Unable to leave the thing alone, I take a last look at volume four, chancing on Bernice and Doreen Lumley (1921-1939). Dark-haired identical twins, they showed early promise in athletics, swimming, tennis and basketball. In 1938, Doreen represented New Zealand in track events at the British Empire Games, and the following year in Auckland raced against unbeaten Australian gold medallist Decima Norman over 100 yards. In a spectacular race on uneven ground Doreen won, equalling the world record of 11 seconds. She was just 17. Bernice, who usually finished three yards behind her sister, came fourth.
On October 1, 1939, the twins were killed in a fatal collision with a truck. Their death shocked sportspeople across the nation, with more than 1000 paying their respects at the funeral.
I am surprised to discover that they went to school just up the road. Half a mile away. But then, it’s that sort of dictionary. And New Zealand is that sort of place.