Writing ‘Not in Narrow Seas’

Brian Easton on the trials of writing an economic history of New Zealand (Phanzine September 2020, pp16-19.)

The event which precipitated my writing Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand was that, having completed Globalisation and the Wealth of Nations, I asked the Marsden Fund for further funding but, in its wisdom, it decided that there were higher research priorities than New Zealand’s place in a globalising world. So I looked around for a project which would be not so expensive (overseas travel would not be so necessary) and where there might be some other research support.

I was well placed to write an economic history of New Zealand. There was not a comprehensive one, and I had already written four books which had a substantial history component (not to mention a number of books on the contemporary economy which were history by the time I published). Like many applied research economists I had used historical events to test my theories and I used them also in my popular writings. (My website identifies over 300 history items, although there is some double counting.)

An earlier stimulus was the 1994 Hocken Annual Lecture, at the University of Otago, ‘Towards a Political Economy of New Zealand: the Tectonics of History’. It was warmly received and Tom Brooking told me I should write an economic history of New Zealand. Well, it took a quarter of a century; Tom has been most patient and supportive.

I struck early gold when the T G McCarthy Trust gave me enough funding for the first part of the book to approximately 1840 (thank you). I also used the time to read as many histories of New Zealand as I could. I was struck by how they usually ignored the economic dimension even when it was staring them in their face. (You can find a 16-point scholarly summary of my grumbles about other histories in the ‘Epilogue’.)

This is not to argue that other ways of looking at our history are invalid. But as I wrote in the introduction:
Sex is notably absent from the Victorian novel; the economy is almost as rare among recent novels and histories. To give an account of a society without paying attention to its economic underpinnings is about sensible as telling a love story without sex. It can be done, of course, but certain vital facts of life are left out.

An earlier version added:
But they cannot be avoided. Babies mysteriously appear, as does money.Undoubtedly Victorians were much more sexually active than their novels imply, and New Zealand writers assiduously seek grants, contracts, and royalties and awards.

(Tact led to the change; I am as assiduous as any of us.)

Shortly after, I was fortunate again when I was awarded a Stout Fellowship to be spent at the Stout Research Centre (thank you to them and the J D Stout Trust). It not only funded the time writing to the end of the nineteenth century – drawing on the work of Brad Patterson, whose work on early European settlements is critical to getting the mid-nineteenth century right – but I also had access to Victoria University’s library of the data of the times; my own sources start in the twentieth century.

I am very data driven. The original, much longer, version of the text had long-term data tables, the work partly funded by the Reserve Bank and the Treasury (bless them – more than any other funder they are not responsible for the opinions in my history). I hope to web-publish the material as soon as things settle down. A summary of the work is in the book’s appendix, ‘Phases of Economic Development’.

Now came a drought. Especially unfortunate because the early twentieth century is not well documented – we do so need a good biography of Massey. (Malcolm McKinnon was very helpful here and in many other places.) I can still dimly see some puzzles but I never had the resources to clarify them. What really happened to the economy and policy between 1908 and 1928? It is also clear that economic management during the Second World War was influenced by what happened in the Great War.

I was fortunate to get some funding from the Prince Albert Trust which enabled me to write chapters on the long development of social policy. (Again, thank you.) So much of our contemporary policy is driven by ignoring the historical context and the knowledge that we made the mistakes before.

This did not mean I was not applying for other research funds, but there always seemed to be more worthy projects (which is the same as saying there is not enough public money devoted to historical research).

Then the New Zealand History Research Trust came up with funding to write up the 1950s and 1960s. (Thank you.) But it was pretty much a matter of soldiering on in between contract work. Sometimes that work contributed, as when Te Ara commissioned me to write the entries on New Zealand’s economic history and its economic distributions.

Right at the end, Te Whanau o Waipareira came up trumps, asking me to write Heke Tangata. (Thank you.) There is some overlap of materials – their book has more emphasis on policy (and data) but the broader history placed contemporary Maori in a context which I could not have envisaged without it. (Perhaps immodestly, I claim that Not in Narrow Seas is probably the most comprehensive account of Maori in the economy yet written; there are eight of 60 chapters devoted to them (excluding the one on the New Zealand Wars) and they appear in other chapters as well.)

Then the preparation for publication. The manuscript at this stage was about 400,000 words. I was told firmly that it was far too long and that it could not be published as two books. Ironically, the same people told me that I had left things out which should be added.

The cutting down involved the painful exercise of converting 6000-word chapters to 4000-word ones, getting the length down to 250,000 words. (It is a little longer because time passes and I had to add material to keep the end of the book up to date.) Sometimes, talking about somethingfrom the book, I cannot recall whether it is in the final version or I had to cut it out.

When VUP accepted the manuscript and got publication under way, it was a dream. Except that Covid-19 hit us; it is not in the book; earlier epidemics are, but it had gone to print before the crisis began. Apparently we got the printing done just before the Singapore printer was locked down, the shipping arrived to a warehouse which was locked down, and when it was opened up, bookshops were still locked down. Additionally the lockdown and aftermath cancelled the launch, although there have been smaller celebrations.

Finally, it is no fault of the book, nor of VUP, that publicity has been a problem. Those who have heard of the book, bought it and read it are exceptionally generous. The problem is that, with the diminishing space in newspapers and magazines, there are simply not enough platforms for New Zealand reviews. The abolition of public funding of the New Zealand Review of Books was a disgrace; no doubt the government will award the executioner a gong.

What I learned from the exercise, as well as a lot about my beloved Aotearoa New Zealand, was that if you are thinking of writing a history of New Zealand, or any book: don’t do it! And now on to the next books I am writing.