Pipes and platforms

This is an edited version of the talk I gave at NDF2017. The talk was supposed to be about moving from publishing through pipes to providing publishing platforms for others to use. It got a bit messy, and hopefully makes more sense written down. The platform question is really about how publishing at Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, could play a more active role in both government and the cultural heritage sectors. But along the way I got more and more interested in what it means to update digital content in the form of Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

I work in the team at Manatū Taonga that manages our historical and reference publishing. We’re part of a tradition of government publishing going back to the 1930s – war history, history of government activity, historical atlas, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, NZHistory, Te Ara. My team’s focus for a few years has been on managing Te Ara and NZHistory. They’ve been built up over many years. NZHistory launched in 1999 and has grown organically even since. Te Ara launched in 2005 and was built up over the following 10 years with a new theme released every year or so.

Without meaning to be harsh, NZHistory leans towards a Pākehā view of our history. Te Ara made an explicit attempt to present a Māori perspective – it engaged a wananga, translated significant amounts of content into te reo and included specific Māori perspectives. I’ve been referring to them recently as legacy or enduring content to distinguish them from other content that the ministry produces that’s more time-limited or for a specific project. That distinction is quite crucial to our new digital strategy that places Te Ara and NZHistory squarely in the role of supporting new ministry projects.

Updating an encyclopedia – do you really want to do that?

Over the last year we’ve been doing a lot of work updating the Social Connections theme. It’s one of Te Ara’s 12 themes and was published in 2011. Social Connections is heavy on statistics – census, health data and so on – so it was a fairly obvious place to start for maintaining the currency of the website. But in some ways it’s the hardest given its coverage of contemporary issues at the time. That gives it an historical significance – it’s how we looked at and wrote about society at a point in time. I’ll come back to that later.

It also points to some more general issues that stretch across Te Ara, one of which is the way subjects sprawl across content in all of the themes. We’ve been looking at keywords recently. Keywords are not a radical idea in this sector I know, but it’s one way of picking up on that issue of sprawl.

A simple or obvious example is of places – we have articles about places, articles about iwi and biographies of people significant to that place, and references across a wide range of other subjects. Bringing that content together makes a lot of sense. Birds are another good example – we have entries about birds scattered across themes – forest birds appear in the Bush theme, Sea birds in the Land and Sea theme.

I’m not going to dwell on this – it’s a fairly simple thing we can do to tie a lot of content together. We’ve done it successfully on NZHistory, search engines love keyword pages because they’re so content rich, and with no promotion people are using them a lot.

But we’ve learnt some more fundamental things too, and they throw up some really interesting questions. It’s another not-radical idea…

Things change. Facts change. Ideas change. But more fundamentally, how we think about ourselves, and what we think is important to say about ourselves, changes.

What we consider worth writing about changes. Take the Te Ara article on digital media and the internet, written by Russell Brown in 2014. In those short three years the internet has changed a lot. His article covers the territory of what was important at the time, and as a record of that it’s valuable. But do we tinker with it to make it seem more contemporary, or should we let it stand as a record of what we thought then and start from scratch for an updated version?

Changes in society also influence the way we might approach a material about particular communities. We’re currently grappling with how Te Ara talks about gender diversity and in particular gender fluidity. The way society in general thinks and talks about gender is changing rapidly – again, for the better – but it’s changing fast. It’s not that gender diversity didn’t exist in the past, but government publishing has tended to take a top down, slightly academic approach. That’s just not appropriate or accepted by communities themselves anymore.

Similarly the approach to bi-culturalism and the treatment of Māori subjects today appears a little like ‘othering’ – Pākehā view here, Māori view there. In the context of the time it played an important role in shining a light on Māori culture. New Zealand really needed that light. Have things changed? Do people generally accept now that Māori culture is an inherent and important part of everybody’s culture in Aotearoa? I hope they do, and I optimistically think we’re at least heading in that direction. But what does that mean for the structure of a website that’s built on a very clear and distinct bi-cultural model?

Writing things down and publishing them is a way of fixing things in time. What we choose to write about, the words we use, the perspective we come from or privilege, all places that work in historical context. It’s similar to the way museums, archives and libraries reflect the decisions they make about what is and isn’t collected, kept, discarded, digitised, released and so on.

I’ll be honest, this is where I get slightly hung up on where to go to from here – doubt creeps in. If what we wrote and how we wrote it fixes information in that moment in time, should we change it? Are we somehow breaking the historical time continuum by effectively changing the past? If today’s society doesn’t like the way we talked about a subject once, doesn’t changing it to reflect today’s sensibilities hide both the progress we’ve made and the darkness of our past?

Maybe that’s getting too dark, and I want to pause just long enough to reassure anyone who’s worried, that we’re still updating Te Ara – we have been and will continue to. But we’ll have to be more targeted in our approach.

We also need to approach it with a hierarchy in mind of how we change and update different content, where some is easy to update, some not so easy but worth doing either through updating what’s there or doing a new version of the article. But there may be content where the subject itself has changed in scope or importance so much that a totally different approach is needed.

We’re going to address this with what we’re calling topic pages. They’re a kind of higher level or supercharged keyword page.

What we’ve learnt from some of the audience research we’ve done this year is that people, especially young people and students and teachers, are looking for both credible and reliable content but also a diversity of perspectives and voices. It’s not enough to present only the ‘government sanctioned’ view. That’s still valid, but learners need to see other views alongside it so they can develop those critical thinking skills that are so important in a world of fake news and fake history. Our role in that world is to be as active as we can in presenting our content in a wider context. Being an active node in the network, to use Pia Andrews‘ words.

This is where topic pages can play a part. They’ll include relevant content and resources from across Te Ara and NZHistory as well as updated material about the subject, with context around historical material, interpretation of different viewpoints, education material, classroom teaching prompts, material and links with other sources like DigitalNZ and Wikipedia, communities and recent research. It also provides a way for us to bridge the different perspectives within our content. I’m thinking in particular of the bi-cultural content and how we can weave Pākehā and Maori perspectives back together again.

The benefits for us is it provides a framework around which we can manage the updating process. We can focus on particular topics. We can quickly pop up a topic related to something that’s in the news or trending in our analytics, or support another project that’s underway at the ministry or out in the sector. We know from librarians that people regularly ask about certain subjects – the Treaty, New Zealand Wars, local history to name a few. All topics where thinking and interpretation changes in ways we need to reflect and record. And we can work in a more focussed and coordinated way with subject experts and communities of interest.

Te Ara as a platform?

This is the part of the talk that actually relates to the topic I’d pitched for NDF. If I’d just stuck to this area I wouldn’t have gone over time, but I just found the material above far more interesting. There are some ideas worth thinking about, but I’ve abbreviated it and hope to think about it more clearly in future.

How Te Ara, and more broadly Manatū Taonga’s publishing, can serve other organisations more effectively?

At a simple level it’s being a more active node in the network. That’s where I see the value in topic pages. In making connections between our content where people can get a broad overview of a subject, drawing on other organisations work and data, and linking people to other sources of information.

A second way is as a platform for other organisations to publish research and content aimed at a general audience. I’m thinking here especially of government departments, many of whom are publishing information about their work. It’s not their core business and it’s not material that’s related to specific public relations campaigns; it’s just general information they happen to be specialists in. We have a far greater reach in education and public engagement than they do, and we can place their content in a wider cultural context. While we’re at it, can other organisations help update related content in some of the subjects where Manatū Taonga lacks the subject expertise?

Beyond government departments, we want our websites to be a place where communities can tell their stories. We’re currently working with Ngati Awa to tell their Treaty settlement story as part of the Te Tai Treaty Settlement Stories project. Again it’s about reaching a wider audience for them, but it’s also about us sharing our expertise to upskill iwi in research and publishing, not to mention contributing to a more meaningful relationship between the Crown and iwi.

I’m also thinking about how we can provide a home for legacy content from other organisations. I talked to someone who’d researched and written extensively to support a museum exhibition. It was published on the museum’s website but when the author tried to find it years later it was gone. The exhibition had closed; the content had fallen off the end of the long tail, and when the museum re-built its website, the content didn’t survive the cull.

It was valuable research and deserved to survive somewhere that it could continue to live within a wider cultural and heritage context. I think we need to be smarter about the lifecycle of content and identify which pieces have long-term value and then make sure we keep them available for the future. And maybe we need to think about some sort of collective effort to keep what we’re creating alive and accessible, rather than dumping born digital content on archives and collecting organsiations and theyeby making our burden theirs. Let’s start thinking about a collective effort at managing the documentary heritage we’re creating today and using platforms – maybe Te Ara, maybe not – living repositories or islands of persistence, to use Michael Lascarides‘ phrase from a few years back.

What to leave behind?

The big question this leads me to is how many platforms do we need in this sector?  Government certainly needs to think smarter about how it engages the public with reference information, and adopt a more audience-focussed approach. It’s been doing that (or trying to anyway) through Better Public Services over the last few years. But the cultural heritage sector has invested significantly over the last 10 to 15 years in services like Te Ara, DigitalNZ, Cenotaph, NZMuseums, Kete, as well as the myriad institutional websites out there.

I don’t think it’s sustainable and it might not be doing our audiences any good, or at least not as much good as we could do collectively. People at NDF have been talking about collaboration for years. A lot of us are now the senior managers in the sector. Maybe it’s time we stepped up and made good on all our talk, made some hard decisions about what to drop and what to take forward (another brilliant thought from Pia Andrew’s keynote), and ask some pretty tough questions of ourselves and our institutions.

Putting a value* on culture

Someone asked on Twitter recently how much does the GLAM sector contribute to NZ’s GDP? The short answer is it’s tricky to tell, but here are some known figures and some of the complications behind them. My thanks to colleagues at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage for sharing what they know.

Culture and recreation

According to Statistics NZ, ‘culture and recreation’ contributes over $900m to the economy, but that includes sport (the biggest contributor at over $400m). ‘Arts and culture’ contributes almost $200m, but it’s unlikely that truly represents the whole GLAM sector. (I think this is the data behind those figures.)

There’s a figure in this infographic from Stats, that the non-profit sector contributed 4.4% to GDP in 2013. Sure it includes a lot of GLAM organisations but probably doesn’t include local and central government organisations. And ‘culture and recreation’ is only one sub-group in non-profits, which also includes 11 other sub-groups:

  • Education and research
  • Health
  • Social services
  • Environment
  • Development and housing
  • Law, advocacy and politics
  • Grant making, fundraising and voluntarism promotion
  • International
  • Religion
  • Business and professional associations, unions
  • Residual categories

Included in the ‘culture and recreation’ sub-group is film societies, community theatres, toy libraries, historical associations, garden societies, operatic societies, pipe bands, Maori performing arts groups, sports clubs, regional sports trusts, racing clubs, tramping clubs and vintage car clubs.

Arts and recreation services

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage is currently working with its funded agencies (the likes of Te Papa, NZ On Air, Creative NZ and so on) on a project to develop a cultural sector narrative. Part of that includes working with Stats to develop better reporting on cultural statistics. For now MCH is working with the Statistics NZ GDP by industry, but the smallest category that’s useful currently is ‘arts and recreation services’. Improving this is part of the work MCH is doing with Stats.

The ‘arts and recreation services’ industry group includes the following 7 sub-groups:

  • Museum operation
  • Parks and gardens operations
  • Creative and Performing Arts activities
  • Sport and Physical Recreation activities
  • Horse and Dog Racing activities
  • Amusement and Other Recreation activities
  • Gambling activities (that’s right – GLAM is in there with gambling…)

The GDP for ‘arts and recreation services’ for the year ended March 2016 (expressed in 2009/10 prices) is $3.038b or 1.35% of GDP. But there are so many caveats in that figure that it’s currently not possible to answer the question of what does GLAM contribute to GDP. It gives a sense of the scale though, and in time we might have a better idea.

* Contribution to GDP is only one way to measure or value something, and a very blunt one at that. It’s useful in some contexts and useless in others, but is worth being able to articulate alongside other richer, more interesting and intangible benefits of cultural sector. As Paul Rowe put it, “knowledge/creativity/sense of community”. Tautoko that! (In my defence, the question was about GDP, thus an answer about GDP.)

Three things this summer

  1. Moana and all the discussion it’s provoked about Polynesian stories
  2. Arguing with a racist on Twitter while visiting the Waitangi Treaty Grounds
  3. Being in the Bay of Islands and seeing two worlds so clearly – rich white and poor brown

We stand up #NDFNZ

Earlier this week I had the pleasure to give the closing address at the National Digital Forum’s annual conference in Wellington. As the outgoing chair of NDF’s board, I felt truly honoured to be able to speak to such a wonderful group of people. Here’s what I said.

First up I’d thank you all for being here in what for many are trying and tense times. It’s a testament to the quality of the conference and commitment of the conference organisers, speakers, and all of you that we’re here, together, sharing this event.

Your presence and the point of so much that we’ve heard over the last two days shows that people matter – the people here and the people we serve.

I’ve been involved with NDF for 5 years, over that time I’ve done worked on the conference and most recently as chair of the board. In that time I’ve met wonderful people and contributed to an incredible community.

But I’d like to speak not as the board’s outgoing chair or as a staff member of a particular organisation. I’d like to talk simply as a person who’s privileged enough to be able to address this audience at the end of one very strange year.

We probably all remember this man…

By AVRO - Beeld En Geluid Wiki - Gallerie: Toppop 1974, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17768919

By AVRO – Beeld En Geluid Wiki – Gallerie: Toppop 1974, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17768919

and this one too…

By penner (http://flickr.com/photos/penner/2450784866) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By penner (http://flickr.com/photos/penner/2450784866) CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons

Their deaths were sad events for many who saw in them creative genius that spoke to the great variety or humankind.

We can only read so much into celebrity deaths. But as Matariki Williams said yesterday, things have changed this year. The likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and now Donald Trump, have unleashed an assault on human decency the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.

We can argue about the future of parliamentary democracy or the validity of neo-liberalism, or the breakdown of progressive politics. But I think what we can all see is a fractured world of increasing inequality and division.

Much of this we watch from afar, and hope or think that we’re safe. But it’s at door too. We have – after all – people sleeping in cars.

More recently we have reports of increased racial abuse – not just out there – but here in New Zealand, emboldened by events overseas.

And just last week, Brian Tamaki thought it was ok to blame a natural disaster on sexual orientation among other things.



It’s the sort of abuse I’d hoped we were starting to put behind us. We’re not immune. We’re part of a global community and share many of the good and the bad with other countries.

This is the BAE share price reacting to Trump’s election.



That’s the big jump. What does this say about the potential for conflict in our world? Right now it’s anyone’s guess but it’s not a good sign that the world’s most powerful leader-elect inspires such confidence in the weapons industry.

This is voter turnout in the US election.



The figures have probably changed a bit since this post, give or take, but over 100 million Americans didn’t vote.

This is New Zealand voting in 2014.



Smaller scale and smaller percentage, but still over 700,000 who didn’t vote. That’s disengagement on a huge scale.

So what do we as a sector do?



We probably won’t solve homelessness or change voter patterns. But can we help to create a society that people want to belong to? And reach out as a society and invite people back in?

We need to look to our organisations and ask:

What is the work that connects us most strongly with all New Zealanders?

Are our education and community programmes as good as they can be?

Are we working with the right organisations to target those most at risk of disengaging?

Are we reaching the disadvantaged, the vulnerable, the forgotten? (And it was great to hear Robyn Hunt remind us yesterday that we’re here for all people.)

Are we providing spaces for people to tell their stories and valuing the contribution they make?

I look to our regional organisations, out there working in New Zealand communities. As a sector we need to think about how we support them, and how our national organisations can work with and through them.

We need to see our role as central to working with communities, with people, and doing all we can to halt and repair the sort of social breakdown we’re witnessing.

New Zealand is so well positioned to rise to this challenge.

I turn to our Treaty of Waitangi. It hasn’t been honoured properly but reparations are at least heading in the right direction. And what it signals is a commitment to partnership that we all need to honour. It’s in our interests to learn from each other, if for nothing else than to look to Ngati Whaatua’s response to homelessness and Ngai Tahu’s response to the recent quakes.



To honour that partnership, Takarei Norton’s talk this morning pointed to us being open with our collections for communities like Ngai Tahu to use them. It’s a really useful place to start – partnership based on what you can right now to help.

The recent interest in the New Zealand Wars shows a real thirst to explore and understand, recognise and acknowledge, what Māori suffered in the colonial period and think about how we move on as a country from that.

And 2018 will mark the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage. It’s a chance to celebrate certainly, and talk about democracy and voting. But it’s also a chance to talk about income inequality, domestic violence, systemic sexism, and what we want to do about those issues.

These are real conversations that as a sector we need to be involved in. What’s the contribution we can make to support and nurture those conversations, ensure voices are heard, combat a post-truth world, make people listen to the lessons of the past?

This isn’t about making ourselves relevant. We need to get past arguing that we’re relevant and just be relevant. Relevant to building social cohesion, and a shout out to Mark Crookston for talking about this and Treasury’s Living Standard’s Framework. It’s a tribute to New Zealand that public servants, even in Treasury, actually think about social cohesion as being important. Similarly Lillian Grace talked about how she hasn’t met a person yet who doesn’t care about our country’s future.

Our sector has a role here, in building a society where people want to look after each other, and where hate can’t survive.

One thing’s for sure, it’s about building and celebrating community, and with that we turn to celebrate some of the people in our community with our second annual awards.

We closed the conference be presenting awards to our community. Check out the NDF Awards page for this year’s winners.


This is the talk I gave at my Dad’s funeral last year, in Wellington at Old St Paul’s, on 18 September. He’d died two days before in the early hours of Wednesday morning, 16 September.


I’m going to talk about Manawatu mud. When my sister got married Dad spoke, eloquently of course, of the Manawatu mud from which that marriage had sprung. Both my sister Liz and her husband Wayne were born and bred Palmerston North, and in Liz’s case it was a long lineage.

Dad, born in Makino just outside Fielding, was Manawatu stock. Even when the family moved to Danniverke in his high school years, he still wasn’t far from the source of the Manawatu river.

Makino was hugely present in the conversations we’ve had over the last few years. Three small houses clustered around a dairy factory, the walk from town after dark when he’d run one lamppost, walk another, to get home, his realisation later that the countryside of poplars, paddocks and lillies wasn’t native to this land.

He shared the house with his parents, William Henry and Ethel Amelia, and siblings Margaret (or Peg) and John (known to many as Jack). It’s lovely to see so many of Peg and Jack’s family here; he treasured those relationships despite distance, both physical and at times emotional. It gave him immense pleasure to know Peg and Jack more closely in later life.

Links to his parents’ Cornish origins were never far away. His father lapsed into a broad Cornish accent when with Cornish friends, who knew him as Har. Dad and his brother John shared a middle name, the old Cornish family name of Hosking. It was a futile attempt on Ethel’s part to keep their memory alive with the wealthier Cornish cousins in the hope they might inherit something.

Dad created his own larger family. He married Dorothy Nielsen, a descendant of early Palmerston North and Norsewood settlers, in 1951. They’d met earlier at young Methodists conference in I think Christshurch. Methodism was their first but not last denomination, moving through Catholicism and Anglicanism together.

Over the next 20 years or so 6 children arrived – John, Steven, Hugh, Thomas, Liz and Matthew – so many in fact that at times he had trouble remembering who was who. He once called me John Steven Hugh Thomas Liz Matt? Matt! And from there further generations of children too numerous to name, but here today, have sprung.

Mum passed away in 1988 after a brief fight against cancer. It was a time of reconciliation for them both after some years of unofficial separation. He was at her bedside when she died, a sunny spring Sunday afternoon, proofs of Dictionary entries on his lap.

He always wanted reconciliation in his personal and professional life. Some things were mended, some weren’t. In looking back on his own life, he regretted some things, and gently accepted others. I hope he died at peace with the life he’d lived, as he should.

He was deeply committed to his public life. One of the oddities for family when a public figure dies is seeing a person’s life more sharply through the eyes of others. Many kind emails have been sent, and we thank you all for your thoughts. One message from Jock Phillips talked of Dad as a real inspiration to younger historians, thought provoking and a ‘lyrical writer’ who showed that ‘writing history about this country could be a literary as well as a historical contribution’. Others have expressed similar sentiments.

It’s an odd feeling to reconcile that with the private figure, the man who spent Saturday afternoons half asleep in front of the TV, half watching provincial rugby. The man who could cook a mince dish with no regard to what he was putting in it – fish sauce of all things – and who lured me away from vegetarianism with lightly cooked fillet steaks!

When I was living with him in Thorndon, we’d spend evenings watching Shortland Street, quickly flicking the channel at 7.30 for Coronation St. Most of the time we were both asleep in our armchairs, he with the broken legged cat, Pusca, on his lap. My partner Madeleine was there sometimes too, sitting bewildered on the sofa as her boyfriend and one of the country’s leading historians nodded off in front of the soaps.

He provided three bits of advice that I can remember, most of which I’ve lived by. The first was his attempt at sex education when I was a teenager. I won’t repeat it here. The second, and I’ve quoted it to some of you, was his approach to correspondence when he was at Massey – in short, if it’s important someone will write twice. The implication was not to answer anything first time round.

He told me recently he interviewed for a job in Australia and when asked about his approach to the demands of administration he replied that if you leave it long enough it will either resolve itself or go away. He didn’t get that job.

The other I’ve taken more seriously and that’s that you should always know where you want to get to and gently and quietly always be moving in that direction. I think it reflects his approach to so much in life. He wasn’t a revolutionary in any sense, despite being called a rabid socialist once in parliament. Not a revolutionary but always committed to changing things for the better.

He despaired in recent years at the state of the world, the state of the Labour Party after last year’s election, computers, social media, society, economy. They were all things he took an interest in whether he knew much about them or not. Any idea his family or friends brought to him he’d entertain, ponder, offer a considered thought. But regardless of despair or otherwise, he left what part of the world he could affect in a better state than he found it.

Returning to the Manawatu mud, I think of the old house in Church St. Of all the towns and cities and houses that Dad and Mum lived in, 114 Church St was the only place where the whole family lived. A big rambling turn of the century villa; an even bigger and ramblier garden. The neighbours thought we were fairly mad. They worried our pine trees would fall on their houses, complained of the shadows cast by the trees, or that tree roots would damage their concrete driveways.

We didn’t mow the grass verge often enough, despite Dad cutting a fine figure in denim shorts, purple teeshirt and bata bullets, pushing the Massport Tornado up and down. The last straw of our family’s sanity was broken when we built a corrugated iron fence along the front of the macrocarpa hedge, complete with holes cut in the iron for the hedge to grow through. It was a childhood I’ll never forget and I’ll treasure the memories of dad, mum, my brothers and my sister at 114.

The funny thing about when a writer dies is there’s no shortage of material to use in speeches like this. I’ll read now a poem by dad about that house in Palmerston.

Old House

Night sounds: the old house settles,
a nail thrums through the floor,
a child calls sharply, a bird
cries out once only. Silence
climbs on a wave of small sounds,
a distant car, a far dog barking,
the pulse of an electric guitar.
The sounds of the day linger,
voices of children, the march
of a fugue, the boom of rock,
a car at speed on the straight.
Old house, you are close to your end,
you do well to fall silent.
Remember the clip-clop of hooves,
wheels brisk through the gravel,
children and birds in the trees,
fingers finding the keys,
the swarthy baritone in full
voice proclaiming I dreamt I dwelt…
The sounds have sunk to a sigh.

Rose tints

I’ve been reading my dad’s book, The Story of New Zealand (1960), his first major piece of writing about New Zealand after returning from the UK in the mid-fifties. It’s funny hearing his voice, though not so much the voice I knew but his public and well-trained voice. You could almost call it a published voice; clipped Received Pronunciation, barely the same as the voice I grew up with. (You can hear it at it’s most extreme in a piece taken from 1951, at about 35 minutes in this Sounds Historical recording.)

When public people die there’s an oddness for the people who knew them privately. An unease that maybe the public was more important; that the private got in the way, or hampered the public figure. When the two sound so different, which was the real one, the authentic experience? But I recognise the understatement; in person it would have been delivered with a gentle smile. If you were lucky you’d see the twinkle in his eye as he checked to see if you’d got the joke. In written form, it’s just a statement, left hanging for you to take or leave.

I also recognise the optimism and hope in his writing, and it goes some way to explaining the social or political disconnection I think he felt late in life. In writing about the Liberal era of the 1890s, he refers to how changes in that decade effectively became a standard of New Zealand social and political life. Things like industrial arbitration, state loans to small farmers, a state department of agriculture, all pointed to an accepted role of the state in building a fair society. What’s telling is that – writing in the late 1950s – these things more or less still existed. The consensus had stuck, and at the time there seemed no reason to think it would end.

He was still young, only 35 and writing a history of a country. The sixties hadn’t happened; Britain hadn’t joined the EEC; Muldoon hadn’t inflicted his perverse conservative socialism on us, nor prepared the ground for the neo-liberalism-on-crack during the eighties and nineties. So much hadn’t changed at that point, a point that from this distance evokes a benevolence and shared belief in a decent society.

It’s a rose-tinted view obviously; the past is always gentler, more innocent, more honest, prosperous and glowing than the present. And there’s been plenty of positive change – second wave feminism, Waitangi treaty settlements, gay law reform to name a few – but I think we’ve lost some decency and I think he felt that too.