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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Random House declared New Zealand Publisher of the Year

On Sunday night at the Booksellers New Zealand industry dinner and awards, Random House won the Best NZ Publisher award for the fourth year in a row.

In a press release, RHNZ declares that it "is enormously gratifying to have this level of recognition from the people who sell our books. We are absolutely thrilled that all the effort we put into making sure our books are the best they can possibly be is recognised and appreciated by the book trade."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Researching at the National Archives, Kew

The National Archives at Kew is one of the world's great treasures.  It's huge holdings, comprising over a billion documents covering a thousand years of history, have been digitized to a surprising extent (look at their website, and start hunting), but if you are a serious historian or genealogist, the odds are that you will have to pay a visit.

It is a rewarding experience in more ways than one, as it is one of the most efficient libraries around.  And, what's more, it's free!

On your first visit you will need to obtain a reader's ticket, as it can only be done in person.  It is an easy process, just as long as you have TWO crucial items of identification.  One must have your photograph -- your passport or driver's licence is usual.  The other holds hazards for the unwary foreign visitor -- it must be a formal document, addressed to you at your home address.  A utility bill such as your electricity account or your rates demand would work.  (They also suggest a credit card bill or bank statement, but for security reasons I don't personally recommend it.)  The main thing to remember is to pack something suitable before you leave New Zealand or wherever is your homeland, as it must be an original document; a faxed one will not work.  For other essential information, such as directions and opening hours, study the "Before you visit" page.

Once you have your reader's ticket, it is useful to call on the very pleasant, friendly officer at the help desk. If this is the first time you have researched in any repository, it would be worth attending the free 'New to Kew' talk at 11.30, for a general overlook, and then proceed to the specialist desks to find out how best to research your area of interest -- how to use the catalogue, order material, and so on.  Bring cash for photocopying, but the use of a digital camera (no flash!) is encouraged, to the extent of giving you a desk with good lighting.  And once you have that reader's ticket, carry it with you, as you will need it to order documents.  You can order six at a time now (it used to be three), and even more if they are from the same series.  Beware of some categories being held off-site (which I think means Cheshire), where 48 hours notice is required whether ordered on line or in person.

The reading rooms, though very comfortable, are HUGE, and as they have big windows (though not open) and people are coming through the doors all the time, it can be quite chilly.  So, it is a good idea to carry a cardigan or light jacket.

Getting there.

Trains are frequent and very convenient, and Kew Station is just a very pretty ten-minute walk away from the Archives, which are set in a beautiful and extensive park.  There is a lot of work being done on the underground system, so it is a very good idea to check the London transport website before you leave home or hotel.

If you are driving, you will find there is a small car park attached to The National Archives. At one time, according to one researcher, one drove in, parked and that was that. Since early this year they have restricted access, and charges are going to be introduced on 14 September.  Apparently, you will have to book and pay on the day before; to find out how to do it, keep up with the news.


The website specifies what is and what is not allowed, and the staff at the entry to the archive library are strict. Keeping everything in a transparent plastic bag is a good idea, but it will be inspected thoroughly.  You will have to open your laptop on leaving the reading room, so the security staff can make sure a document hasn't been slipped inside. Free lockers are available just outside the archive area, and you will have to store your laptop bag there, along with other forbidden items, such as food and drink. Cameras need to be registered on first checking in.  You are allowed to carry your mobile phone and take photographs with it, but it must be in silent mode, and only texting, not talking, is allowed.

It doesn't need much imagination to guess what damage could be done to the historical records, either by accident or design. Pencil erasers are banned, as there is a great deal of value in the pencilled notes left in the margins of Admiralty papers by long-dead officials and early researchers like John Hawkesworth.  This rule has now been extended to the small erasers to be found on the back end of both wooden pencils and push-pencils - they are removed at the turnstiles and left on the security officer's desk for you to pick up and re-insert on departure.  This poses a hazard for the unwary.  I always carry mechanical pencils -- the sort that you push at the end to release more lead -- and was quite happy for the little eraser to be removed.  It was not until my first attempt to take notes led to a spectacular  scattering of leads all over the table that I belatedly realized the eraser does double duty, as it holds the leads inside the casing of the pencil.  Ron very cleverly solved the problem by cutting the little eraser short -- not much fun when you are doing crossword puzzles and sudoku, but equally impossible to use for erasing important archival material.

Nothing with a blade is allowed, for obvious reasons, so there are pencil-sharpeners at the enquiry desks in each of the document reading rooms.  There are also security cameras in the ceiling, so be aware that everything you do will be watched.

Feeding the inner researcher

There are coffee bars and a restaurant on the ground floor, as well as vending machines for drinks. After the privatisation of this complex, eating of food procured elsewhere was banned, but this led to such an outcry that the ban was repealed, and you can now use the restaurant for eating your own (cheaper) food. There are two counters, one a coffee bar with sandwiches, toasties and so on, and with a coffee-card system whereby every sixth (or is it seventh?) cup of coffee is free.  If you can afford it, the food is tasty and wholesome and with reasonable portions. A reader recommends the baked potato (always standard cheese, but fillings such as tuna are available) or soup-and-a-muffin. Either way, it costs about five pounds, including a large strong coffee.

It is possible to eat in the village, just a ten minute walk away.  I noticed a fish and chip shop, and also a restaurant and bar in the railway station.  The Maids of Honour restaurant at 288 Kew Road is recommended by a fellow researcher, and I see from the website that the snack menu is very enticing.  As another friend observed, though, if you want to lash out on a "real" meal, it might have to be reserved for celebrating some marvellous and unexpected find in the archives - the dinner menu  looks scrumptious but not at all cheap.

Hopefully, you will find this once-over-lightly useful.  I thank Nicholas Blake, David Asprey, John Weiss, Allan George, and Martin Evans for their lively input.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


I made an amusing blunder at a convivial dinner party with a few good friends (luckily good friends), demonstrating that I am incurably fixated on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

"Today, I read a wonderfully biting poem by Jonathan Swift," I announced.  "It was a satirical elegy to the death of Wellington."

"That's impossible," a literary friend immediately objected.  His very good reason?  The great Anglo-Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) died a long time before Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), of Battle of Waterloo fame.  Before he was even born, in fact.

Swift's Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General was aimed at John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, of course -- but it seems to apply to a lot of generals, forcing the reader to reflect that it does seem strange that men who send so many thousands to a violent death, creating thousands of widows and orphans, should die of old age in their beds.  Do they indeed have cause to dread the last Trump, and the Day of Judgement that awaits?  And note how Swift uses punctuation marks like bludgeons.

His Grace! impossible! what, dead!
Of old age, too, and in his bed!
And could that Mighty Warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!
Well, since he's gone, no matter how,
The last loud trump must wake him now;
And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,
He'd wish to sleep a little longer.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we're told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
'Twas time in conscience he should die.
This world he cumbered long enough;
He burns his candle to the snuff;
And that's the reason some folks think,
He left behind so great a stink.
Behold his funeral appears,
Nor widow's sighs, nor orphan's tears,
Wont at such times each heart to pierce,
Attend the progress of his hearse.
But what of that, his friends may say,
He had those honours in his day.
True to his profit and his pride,
He made them weep before he died.

NZ Post Book Awards

Congratulations to Judith Binney, Brian Turner, Al Brown, and Alison Wong, who all feature in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Dame Judith Binney's Encircled Lands is NZ Post Book of the Year.  The convoluted and engrossing story of Tuhoe's quest for self-government of their lands, Encircled Lands, is, in the opinion of book awards judge Paul Diamond, an exhaustive, comprehensive history of the Urewera that "would profoundly change our understanding of our shared history."

He said it revealed "an almost unknown history to a new audience," at the same time delineating the history of the Tuhoe struggle in a fashion that would resonate through the years.

Other winners were:

Wellington debut novelist Alison Wong, who won the fiction category for As the Earth Turns Silver, bringing "a powerful new voice and new themes to New Zealand fiction."

Brian Turner, famous for his passion for the gold and indigo landscapes of Central Otago, won the poetry prize for his collection Just This.

Al Brown, co-founder of Wellington's iconic restaurant, Logan Brown (memorable for its bar counter, which is a shallow aquarium), won the illustrated nonfiction category, as well as the Readers' Choice award, for Go Fish: Recipes and Stories from the New Zealand Coast.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


In yesterday's DomPost magazine, "your weekend," there was a long story by Philip Matthews about the inaugural Ngaio Marsh awards with the name of Kiwi Crime Watch blogger Craig Sisterson featured prominently. (See link to the RH side for much more from the Man Himself.)

This rang a big bell for me, as I had finally opened my copy of New Zealand Author (journal of the New Zealand Society of Authors), which was awaiting when I arrived home from sea, and lo, there was an article (12-13) by Sisterson himself about Bob Marriott, unpublished Kiwi crime/thriller writer, who has been shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award, run by the influential and prestigious Crime Writers' Association.  (To take note of how Influential and Prestigious they are, have a look at the list of judges for the award.

Then, in the half-hour of sipping an ambrosial Leffe Brun before our usual "Salon" brunch, held on Saturdays at Wellington's iconic Belgian Leuven Restaurant, I found a story about visiting crime writer Val Macdermid, written by -- guess who -- Craig Sisterson.  It is only apt, that as the instigator of the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Kiwi crime fiction, he should get the kind of publicity that book publicists strive mightily to achieve.  To read more about the award and  the shortlisters (including Vanda Symon) just hit those RH links.

Friday, August 13, 2010


While in Whitby (North Yorkshire) last month, my good friend Martin Evans noticed and bought a copy of Stephen Baines' recent book: The Yorkshire Mary Rose - the ship General Carleton of Whitby. (Blackthorn Press, Pickering, Yorkshire; 2010; ISBN 9781906259204).


The book is a very readable account of the history of this unremarkable Baltic trader, lost in a storm off the north coast of Poland in 1785. Unremarkable, except that the wreck was found in 1995 and carefully explored by Dr Ossowski and his team of Polish underwater archaeologists. Because her cargo included much tar, the wreck was found very well preserved and some extraordinary material has been recovered and conserved, including clothing and personal possessions.
The book was on sale in a number of places in Whitby, including the nice Captain Cook Memorial Museum on the harbour front. This museum's seasonal exhibition is on Captain Phipps and his 1773 expedition towards the North Pole with the Racehorse and the Carcass. The displays includes typical items of clothing worn by seamen in cold regions, including a remarkably well preserved woolly cap and stockings, recovered from the General Carleton and on loan from the Polish Maritime Museum at Gdansk.

The exhibition is on in Whitby until the end of October, when the Cook museum closes for the winter.
Stephen Baines' book is very extensively researched, and he has assembled a huge amount of information about the ship's owners, crew, trading voyages and general history. There is much about the Whitby ship-building yards and the supporting industries in the latter part of the eighteenth century, backed by a long bibliography. But the book is not aimed at academics: it is a very readable account of the people concerned and their lives. I really enjoyed it.

Read more about the content of this book.  Please note the owner of this 18th century ship was a woman!