Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World by Steve Braunias – review

By Peter Riordan In Books

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13th December, 2012 Leave a Comment

Civilisation by Steve Braunias A foreigner reading Steve Braunias’s study of small-town New Zealand might decide we’re a nation of complete misfits, so liberally are its pages sprinkled with unappealing characters squatting in dilapidated digs. The hapless reader would certainly not think we possessed anything readily identifiable with that word in the book’s title, “civilisation”. Indeed, the picture to emerge of hidden-away New Zealand is so depressed, so depressing and, in parts, so alarming that any intending visitor, having read Braunias’s book, would probably cancel his or her airline booking on the spot in favour of a more agreeable destination.

In the course of visiting 18 generally forgotten or despised corners of New Zealand (the other two are Scott Base and Apia), Braunias seems to stumble upon an unending string of recluses, loners, divorcees, oddballs and obsessives. Says one such individual, explaining his straitened circumstances in typically laconic terms: “Marriage fell over.” Braunias meets people living in caravans without money, without hope. He meets tattooed drunks, people on welfare, people living off the grid, people living at the end of the line, people who’ve retreated from society.

It’s a landscape of threadbare houses, obscene graffiti, snarling dogs. A touch of normality sneaks in when he comes upon ordinary Kiwis who’ve packed their lives into a campervan or bus to travel the countryside. Braunias goes to Mosgiel, Kawakawa, Greymouth, Wainuiomata, Mercer, Wanganui (and Whanganui, too), to name but a few. He has a nice way with words, although sometimes I wish there was less of the journalist and more of the writer in his approach, fewer facts and more evocation of place. (It is not necessary, for example, to assign an age, newspaper style,  to every person who shuffles on to his pages, as in John Field, 74, or Dave Carson, 85.)

The standout destination is Mt Roskill. In this working-class Auckland suburb, Braunias finds the Masjid e Umar mosque, focal point of the largest Muslim population in New Zealand. Up and down Stoddard Rd march refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. It’s no under-the-radar corner of the country, but it’s vividly sketched and provides some relief from all those ex-husbands, ex-wives and widows. Whanganui stands out, too, for the same reason. He meets youths in the city square who confirm his contention that “boredom is the New Zealand condition”.

Lest anyone have any doubt about the tone of this book, let the last word go to Wainuiomata community centre volunteer Terangi McGregor, 32, who informs Braunias: “Wainuiomata’s main employer would have to be Work and Income.”

CIVILISATION: TWENTY PLACES ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, by Steve Braunias (Awa Press, $36).

Peter Riordan’s Gods of the Stones: Travels in the Middle East won this year’s Travcom Travel Book of the Year Award.

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