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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Steven Loveridge talks about Secret History

Steven Loveridge is a historian whose research focuses on governance, security intelligence and war and society. The author of several books, he has been published in various scholarly journals and anthologies. His recent publications include the co-authored The Home Front, an authoritative examination of New Zealand’s social, political, economic and diplomatic experiences in the First World War, and content within New Zealand’s Foreign Service and Histories of Hate. He is a research fellow with the Security and Surveillance Project at the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Victoria University of Wellington/ Te Herenga Waka. Steven talks to NZ Booklovers about Secret History.

Tell us a little about Secret History.

Secret History is the first of a two-volume study of state surveillance in New Zealand and covers the years between 1900, when the Police Force was the primary instrument of human intelligence, and 1956, when a dedicated Security Service (now known as the NZSIS) was founded.

It tells the story of the surveillers who maintained a watch for threats to state and society throughout a period which experienced times of domestic unrest, radicalisation, international animosity and cataclysmic conflicts. It also tells the story of the surveillees whose public and private lives came under scrutiny in manners which sits uneasily with cherished notions of New Zealand as an exceptionally fair and open society.

What inspired you to write this book?

Richard has an expertise in the history of policing and has long had an ambition to study how this tilted into state surveillance. In turn I have written a fair measure on state power and security measures during World War One. These areas gave us a launch pad to research a broader history of how the police approached security surveillance in the first half of the twentieth century.

What research was involved?

There’s an expression among historians: ‘Drink an ocean, pass a cup’. More than most books, the research for Secret History demanded imbibing voluminous and disparate oceans. We pored through the masses of declassified security files now hosted in Archives New Zealand, examined released personal files that were loaned to us, spoke with people who had some experience in the history as surveillers or surveillees, and generally made our way through an array of histories, research dissertations, memoirs, personal papers and assorted ephemera.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

The nature of the subject meant a long gestation in which we read books, reviewed files and perused personal papers while working out the heart of the book – language, structure, priorities etc. From this chapters emerged, were discussed and revised as new information came to light.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

My top pick would be Elvis Costello’s ‘Watching the Detectives’ with The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ as the second.

What did you enjoy the most about writing Secret History.

It rewarded eclectic research, obsessive puzzling and detective work in piecing things together. You could, for example, delve into the history of a particular building or stumble upon a document which added a new, and sometimes surprising, wrinkle to a larger story.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

For me writing and producing a book feels like it lacks a definitive finishing moment. It’s more like a slow dawning realisation that the series of tasks you’re scrambling to keep on top of are slowing down. I think Richard and I will only truly believe it’s finished at the launch. We’ll be sure to celebrate then.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

James Curran’s Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War. I thought it was a fascinating account of two political careers which burnt brightly before meeting dramatic ends as well as a very insightful assessment of some of the rhythms within US-Australian relations.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Volume two (currently untitled). So far it promises both new challenges in the writing and new insights in the reading.

Auckland University Press


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