I recently gave a talk at the Webstock Mix and Mash Mini on the topic of my fave new book, The Shell Guide to New Zealand.
To celebrate the launch of Digital NZ’s Mix and Mash competition, the theme of the evening was mashups and remixes, so my talk focused on the idea of a travel guide from the 1968 being recontextualised in 2010. Yeah, that’s right – recontextualised.
So first, the text of my speech:
Time, Travel with Maurice
Last year, I came across a copy of Maurice Shadbolt’s 1968 travel book, The Shell Guide to New Zealand. And I thought, “Ha ha! A fruity old travel guide. This will be hilarious!”
But when I started to read it, I realised that not only was it a well-written and interesting book, but it might actually still work as a travel guide. Little did I know how it would change my perspective on New Zealand.
But first, I had to take it on the road, starting with a local exploration.
Amongst Wellington’s sights, Maurice notes that the Carter Observatory of 1968 is “occasionally open to the public through the week”.
I like to think this meant having to convince the codger astronomer on duty to let you in, and if you bribed him with a steak and kidney pie, he’d let you have a look through a telescope.
Compare that with the extravagance of today, with the interactive exhibitions, light, colour and the planetarium with its rool-trippy-as domed ceiling projection. And it’s open seven days.
Let’s go further afield.
When I was in Gisborne earlier this year, Maurice pointed me in the direction of the waterfront monument to Captain Cook’s first landing in New Zealand.
He wrote, “Beside the monument is a ship’s cannon reputedly from the Endeavour.”
The old monument was there, but there was no sign of the cannon. What had happened to this noteworthy historic artefact? Had it been deemed culturally offensive, a reminder of colonial oppression?
Well, it turns out that the cannon was proven to have not actually come from the Endeavour. The now non-famous weapon has since been moved to the local museum where it’s been hilariously renamed “Not Cook’s Cannon”.
But there was something else missing from the Captain Cook Memorial – the waterfront had mysteriously vanished.
Yeah, the historic beachfront by the monument has been reclaimed to make space for storing logs. This historic New Zealand site has been casually destroyed, now making the monument honour Captain Cook’s remarkable ability to go for an inland hoon in the Endeavour.
And the book is full of other glimpses into “New Zealandness”.
Describing Auckland, Maurice notes that its mild climate means that fruits such as the “Chinese gooseberry” can be grown. He adds that, in Asia the Chinese gooseberry is known as a “kiwi fruit”.
This suggests that in 1968, the term kiwifruit was yet to catch on in New Zealand, and was probably still viewed suspiciously as a marketing term, much like we consider Zespri today.
And – as my friend Giovanni discovered – this is the only use of the word “kiwi” in the book. We’re still – quite elegantly – New Zealanders.
I like to think that when we dropped “Chinese gooseberry” and started calling that small brown furry treat a “kiwifruit”, we’d progressed a bit with our national identity. “Hey, we have a fruit named after us!… even though it’s native to Southern China…”
One of the most curious things I found in the book was Maurice’s recommendation that visitors to Auckland should check out the Building Centre, with its “comprehensive displays of building materials”.
Yep, that’s one of those places where homeowners go to check out Formica samples and insulation options, and he’s recommending it in the same list as the museum, art gallery and library.
So I paid a visit to the modern equivalent – the Home Ideas Centre in Petone – to see if the magic was still there.
I really enjoyed it! And I don’t even own a house. A wonderland of doors that open to nowhere, porno bathtubs, and kitchen benchtops available in a huge range of beiges, creams and greys – like a suburban funhouse that just happens to also reveal truths of middle New Zealand. Yeah, Maurice knew what he was recommending.
And that’s what I’ve gained the most from the Shell Guide to New Zealand – an old book for motoring tourists has given me the ability to find intriguing places to visit, things to do and new perspectives on both the New Zealand of 40 years ago and of today. A way to turn a holiday into time travel. The kind of adventures that wouldn’t normally be found in a travel guide.
And Maurice seems to agree. He concludes:
Today the traveller through New Zealand will, if observant, find a land of fascinating if sometimes enigmatic and ambiguous signposts, pointing into the past as much as towards the future. In the end, perhaps, no guide book will truly help him. It can indicate where signposts may be found, but it is up to the traveller to read the signposts for himself.
The signposts are there, all around this country. Get out and read them.
Extra for experts
So, you’ve read that and you’re all fired up and want to hit the open road. The first thing people want to know is where they can get a copy of the Shell Guide to New Zealand.
Well, they’re always coming up for sale on Trade Me, so that’s the best place to look. Try this search – you should be able to get one on a Buy Now for under $10. But if you like it IRL, just have look in the New Zealand section of your local second-hand bookshop.
There are three editions of the book – 1968, 1973 and 1976, and I recommend them in order of oldest to newest. The biggest difference is that the 1976 edition has had all the original art (including work by Colin McCahon) replaced with colour scenic photos, so go for the ’68 or ’73 for the art. The ’68 seems the most common, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding a copy.
But, of course, you don’t have to do exactly what I did. Maybe you’ll use a different old travel guide or perhaps a novel will inspire you.
My general philosophy is to not be reliant on the modern guidebooks, and by using an old travel guide, the reader/traveller is forced to pay more attention to their surroundings. The book becomes a springboard to great adventures and discoveries.