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Making History: A New Zealand Story by Jock Phillips


One of the most valuable qualities needed by a historian is the ability to communicate and get ideas across to others. Jock Phillips seems to have that talent in spades. His writings here, both about his own experiences and the history of his own family, are a pleasure to read. He has the ability to bring stories alive.


What he charts in his own development is the journey from academic history, teaching rows of students in lecture theatres, to becoming what he calls a ‘public historian’ of New Zealand, communicating to a more general non-academic audience, not just by writing, but via images, museum exhibitions, talking on radio and television, and finally developing a new language of history for the web.


Phillips begins his story with his grandfather, born in the Jewish East End of London, at the same time as and just along the road from the Jack the Ripper murders. No one knows what drove Sam Phillips, at the age of 16, to get on a boat for New Zealand, but by the time Jock was born in 1947, his own father had just been appointed professor of history at Canterbury University. This looking back two generations to the ancestors on both sides of his family, gives a unique insight into a long phase of development. Both Jock’s parents had strong ties back to the UK and to a tradition of settlers and farmers. On his mother’s side there were large properties owned in the Hawke’s Bay and before that roles in colonial administration in Australia. There was an expectation that Jock would be brought up with an education that mirrored what he might have got in England.


There was rugby, cricket and tennis as well as garden parties and domestic servants. With two parents who had studied history, Jock seemed destined to follow a similar course, but what set him apart eventually was his unwillingness to accept that there was no history to speak of in New Zealand itself. He would turn against the English and European history that his father taught and eventually Jock gained a place at Harvard to study American history.


I must confess to being surprised at the extent to which English history and culture was a factor for Jock growing up in Christchurch in the 1950s and 60s. Schooling and study were modelled on an English system, so much so that when Jock had to spend a year at Dulwich College in London, he fitted in easily.


The period covered by the book is one of changing methods in the field of history. Oral history, demographic statistics or the use of popular culture like songs and adverts to reveal popular attitudes, were all new avenues to explore.


The Editor of the New Zealand Listener asked Jock to write a column in 1975 about the country and its issues, simply on the strength of a letter he sent critically stating that success for an established historian was not when locals began to think about their own condition, but when the historian was recognized by Oxford or Buckingham Palace. His letter used his initials J O C Phillips, but that was seen as too cumbersome, so he became known as Jock, which has stuck ever since.


In the years after completing his US thesis, Jock worked on two books, one on domestic stained-glass windows and the other on Kiwi men. While travelling the country to look for examples of stained glass in domestic homes, most of the time he was offered tea and scones by proud owners, except in Auckland where the owners were more likely to assume that he was casing the joint for a robbery.


One of the things that I enjoyed most about this book was watching Jock Phillips’ career evolve over the years and watch his gradual shift from historian, then American historian into a champion of New Zealand history. And that is not just history of long ago, but of ourselves in recent years, how Kiwis came to evolve their own characteristics and national identity. He worked running the Stout Centre for research into many aspects of New Zealand, then designed displays for the new Te Papa museum, worked as a civil servant with a department that wrote histories of many aspects of New Zealand life and finally presided over the development of an online encyclopedia of all things New Zealand. All these aspects are fascinating, as are the people with whom Jock had contact, both scholars and creatives but also the politicians who were instrumental in providing the much needed funding to make these initiatives possible. Some of the success in museums and online history have put New Zealand at the forefront of bringing history to life, and have drawn much admiration from other parts of the world.


While working on exhibitions at Te Papa, I was interested to note an approach was taken from US history, where there was a suggestion that what had made American democracy was not the values new settlers brought from the Old World, but the interaction with the frontier, with the environment of the New World.


You really come away from this book with a sense that Jock Phillips has enjoyed almost every moment of his professional life, and that makes for inspiring reading.


Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Auckland University Press. RRP $45

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