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Book Review : The Man Who Ate a Salamander

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STEVE BRAUNIAS review two government-sponsored histories, one of which is best forgotten. HELL OR HIGH WATER: Merchant Seafarers Remember the War Edited by Neil Atkinson Harper Collins, $45. HISTORY IS economics, philosophy, science, religion, climate, and lusts and blunderings and glories and that, but the actual experience of the ages is individual. World War II meant that Bill Hall, who now lives in Dunedin, ate a salamander. He had been captured by the Japanese, and taken to Singapore. He was starved. He was 16.

The man who ate a salamander, and other stories: Hell or High Water, a Ministry of Culture and Heritage oral history project, is a collection of 15 interviews with New Zealanders who served in the merchant navy in World War II.

They were working men, slaving away from port to port, transporting cargoes of meat, wool, and dairy products New Zealand ships supplied 80% of Britain's butter in 1942. It wasn't a military operation; the merchant navy is often referred to as "the forgotten service". But they were essential, and they saw action 64 ships sailing between New Zealand and the UK were sunk.

We shall now remember them, thanks to this government- sponsored souvenir.

Les Watson of Dunedin went to a brothel in Santos, Brazil, to find a mate: "He was getting it for free. He had high cheekbones and blue eyes." Before the war, Allan Wylie of Gisborne watched his father die of the bubonic plague: "He went black, I saw him." Bill Hall was liberated by the Americans, and taken to a hospital ship: "I thought the nurses looked like film stars."

There are stories of combat and misery, wages and hijinks. The best are told by Napier man Jim Blundell of his mother who "got smacked up in the (1931) earthquake and was never the same", of being torpedoed by a U-boat, of falling in love in Buenos Aires ("It was only with her and my wife that I ever knew that sort of thing"), of erotic bedlam in Auckland on VJ Day ("They were rooting in the bloody house bar"), of suffering a nervous breakdown from the traumas of battle ("I was like a bloody travelling pharmacy") ... This natural, candid raconteur concludes of the war: "They were the happiest days of my life. Yeah, they were." Good man, good book.

MORE THAN LAW AND ORDER: Policing a Changing Society 1945-92 By Susan Butterworth Otago University Press, $49.95. HISTORY IS bunk. For all its academic credentials Susan Butterworth's More than Law and Order is another Ministry of Culture and Heritage project, managed by Dr Claudia Orange and Dr Bronywn Dalley this fifth volume in a series on policing in New Zealand resembles a kind of fiction.

Yes, the facts are there, research has been assiduous and disciplined, and Butterworth shows a clear understanding of issues.

But the book was commissioned by the New Zealand Police, and tells their version of their history.

As the wife of former Police Association official Graham Butterworth, the author cares about cops. Good. Nothing wrong with sympathy.

And it's even refreshing to read a thorough bias towards the police in chapters on the Thomas trial and the 1981 tour.

But as she cheerfully goes about prosecuting "an opinionated and turbulent public", a terrible smugness creeps in.

"The baby-boomers have lately grown grey and turned from cultivating their political consciousness to cultivating their gardens," she titters, pithily dismissing an entire generation.

Butterworth is too good for this kind of nonsense. The elegance of her writing reveals a sharp mind, and she gives a great deal of useful information and insight.

She's done the job as asked. Her history isn't intended as a critique, or an unflinching assessment. It's an inside job, rubber stamped, an open and shut case.


(C) 2005 Sunday Star-Times. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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