By Graeme Lay
This is the first of a three part series by author Graeme Lay. An abridged version was published in the Sunday Star-Times on 30/8/09
Local history, there’s a lot of it about. Over the last couple of decades New Zealand communities have shown a growing interest in recording and publishing their back-stories. Most of our small towns have colourful histories, being entwined with such dramatic events as pioneer farming, bush clearances, gold mining, coal mining, the coming of the automobile and the impact of the world wars. And there is now an awareness that if these stories are not written down, they could be lost forever. Natural attrition means that witnesses to our small towns’ histories are fast passing. There is also a substantial readership for local histories, probably because New Zealand’s ageing population has a developing curiosity about the places where they grew up or spent family holidays. While they were young they were too preoccupied with the present to bother looking back. Now, they want to. It’s a concern which parallels, and possibly derives from, our increasing interest in genealogy.
Local histories are usually initiated from within the community. Sometimes it’s the local historical society, sometimes the town librarian, or the ratepayers’ association, or a group of well-read citizens, or an interested individual. For example, Janet Riddle of the Mercury Bay Museum in Whitianga, wrote and published Salt Spray and Sawdust, the history of her local area, in 1996. Its first print run of 1,000 sold out, necessitating a reprint. Print runs for such books are usually short, but they sell steadily.
Commercial publishers shy away from local histories because they don’t consider them a viable proposition. As Penguin NZ publishing director Geoff Walker says, ‘They have a local readership, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it depends how local and narrowly focused a book is. A history of Canterbury or the West Coast or the [whole] Coromandel, for example, would almost certainly have a wider market.’ So, the entire production process of a local history – from the writing through to design, printing and distribution – is usually in the hands of the people who inaugurate the project. This saves money, because the book is produced largely by a voluntary labour of love. But a crucial question still has to be answered: just who is to write the community’s history? A team of townspeople? A committee of enthusiastic genealogists? The local school principal? A part-time writer? A professional historian? That’s a decision for the organising committee.
My involvement with a local history project began with a phone call, in May 2008. An author was needed, to write the history of Whangapoua, on the eastern Coromandel coast. Would I be available to do the job? I thought about it. I knew that coast reasonably well, I was between books, the suggested fee seemed fair. Local resident Judy Drok, one of the project’s management team, showed me over Whangapoua and neighbouring New Chums beach. On the walk there we passed a long homestead, surrounded by native trees and a stone wall. ‘That’s the house that Alberta McLean had built,’ Judy told me. I didn’t know who Alberta was, although I was soon to find out. Judy and I walked along a track to New Chums beach, which I hadn’t seen before. Native bush overlooked an arc of white sand. It was even more beautiful than Whangapoua beach. I decided to accept the offer.
(To be continued)
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