In this section you will find reviews of some of Bee’s books.
A family story from early Wellington to modern farming in the Rangitikei
Penguin Books NZ, 2019
Most people who know Wellington will have come across the Plimmer name. It’s immortalised in locations such as Plimmer Steps, Plimmer House and the seaside village of Plimmerton, north of Wellington city. Many residents and visitors will have paused to look at the statue of the ‘energetic and entrepreneurial’ top-hatted John Plimmer and his ever-leaping little dog Fritz. The pair are found at the base of the steps between Boulcott St and Lambton Quay, a route that Plimmer often took. Bee Dawson’s book recounts the story of the Shropshire-born Plimmer and many of his descendants from the 1800s through to the present day.
Dawson is a social historian who has carried out extensive research not only on the Plimmer family but also on the growth of early Wellington. Her book also provides a comprehensive record of farming history in the Rangitikei area, where many of Plimmer’s descendants established farms.
The Plimmer family and other settlers faced many challenges. Earthquakes, infant deaths, rheumatic fever and other illnesses took their toll. Fires were common, sometimes destroying entire streets, and there were constant threats of work-related injuries and deaths. However, life was not all doom and gloom. The Plimmer family was fortunate to experience first-class trans-Tasman steamer trips, enjoying the plush couches, tempting menus, and solid marble baths on offer during the journey. Their social life included balls, fancy dinners and moonlight river excursions.
Dawson has drawn on accounts in newspapers, letters, journals and other records. Where there are gaps in these accounts, she suggests what was likely to have happened. Photos and maps supplement the text. There are plenty of diverse topics covered, some in more detail than others. They include Māori history and lore, transportation (with a hair-raising tale of brake failure), duck-shooting traditions, pest control, mourning rituals, and corporate ‘wheeling and dealing’. Dawson even offers a couple of the Plimmer family’s favourite recipes.
Dawson grew up on a Canterbury farm and her love of farming and knowledge of farming practices is evident throughout the book. As a townie I knew nothing about the complexity of land exchanges or the farm ballot systems that Dawson describes. I was intrigued to learn about the old Rabbit Board houses, and how farming families cope in remote areas during floods and electricity outages.
The tight-knit nature of rural communities is well-depicted, and Dawson also emphasises the strong family ties and business nous that have kept Plimmer’s legacy alive.
Succession planning has been critical to the Plimmer family’s ongoing success. Generations of Plimmer descendants have continued to work the farms, often during university holidays. This work often involved what they call the ‘d’ jobs: ‘drafting, dagging, docking, drenching and dipping’. Such hands-on jobs provided a solid introduction to farming life, although some descendants later pursued careers in the corporate world.
I suspect that this is the only book I’ll ever read where the appendix includes a list of paddock names. Some are named after family members, others after farm workers including shepherds, fencers and tractor drivers – there’s even one named after an accountant. Several names reflect the territory, purpose, or characteristics of the area, such as Flax Gully, Airstrip and Dam Flat. Dawson provides a thorough index and a short bibliography for readers keen to learn more, drawing primarily on New Zealand material. The family tree at the front of the book helped me to keep track of the main characters.
The closing notes include a descendant’s observation that the Plimmer family has now come full circle – from Wellington city to the Rangitikei district and back to the city again. The area where John Plimmer first established his business ventures is now ‘just a stone’s throw away’ from the family’s current office on Queen’s Wharf. That office is also not far from the statue of Plimmer and Fritz. If the statue could talk, Dawson’s book hints at the fascinating stories those two could tell.
Anne Kerslake Hendricks in The Reader – Booksellers New Zealand’s blog, 8 July 2019.
The RNZAF in Fiji 1939 to 1967
Random House NZ, 2017
‘I was really looking forward to Bee Dawson’s new book as I have copies of her previous books on Wigram and Hobsonville, which are firm favourites. Having lived, worked and socialised at both RNZAF Bases Wigram and Hobsonville, they are really ingrained in my psyche and it still irks to see what has become of those once fine stations, with so much history lost. But Bee’s books are an excellent tribute to the memory of both those amazing places and to the many generations of fine people who passed through them in the service of the RNZAF.
For me, Laucala Bay – or Lauthala Bay as the RNZAF preferred to spell it – is a lot less well known. I never served at this famous station, and I have never had the opportunity to visit Fiji to see its remains. However, I have heard a little about it from talking with veterans who served there with the Short Singapores, Consolidated Catalinas and Short Sunderlands over the years. It always sounded like a tranquil paradise, an idyllic spot in the Pacific, even during wartime.
Having a much shorter RNZAF history than either Hobsonville or Wigram, with the RNZAF presence in Fiji only spanning 28 years, I suspected LB to be a smaller book then its predecessors. I was wrong. It’s a really solid history indeed sitting at a hefty 336 pages! That includes an index which is always helpful.
This book is in the same format and layout style as the two previous books which compliments them perfectly. Like the books on Wigram and Hobsonville, LB is rich with historic photos on almost every page. I suspect almost all of the photos have never been published before. The majority come from the archives of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand, but there are also excellent shots from private collections.
Of course, interspersed with the photos is the narrative text, which, like the other books, is easy to read and is sort of sectionalised with sub headings so you can either happily read the book from cover to cover or simply cherry-pick a clearly defined topic and read that section.
Of note, despite the name of the book, it does not entirely concentrate on RNZAF Station Laucala Bay. Also covered is the RNZAF presence at places like Nadi, Nausori, Suva and Lautoka. It’s an all round history of the RNZAF in Fiji, and so is not just about the Catalina and Sunderland flying boats, but also the Vickers Vincents, Short Singapores, DH60 Moth, DH86 Express, DH89 Dragon Rapides, Lockheed Hudsons and Venturas, the Grumman Avenger, etc. The RNZAF Marine Section, who operated the flying boat tender vessels, are also well covered, and there’s a wonderful mix of personal stories too, including the romances that bloomed in the tropical paradise of Fiji.
I am really pleased with this book, it’s the perfect companion to its Wigram and Hobsonville counterparts and forms another very fine record of a lost station from the RNZAF’s history. Anyone who served there will be thrilled to see this book, I’m sure, as it will be jam-packed with memories for them. Anyone who has the other two books needs to buy Laucala Bay to complete their excellent set. Very reasonably priced at NZ$45.00 (RRP), I am sure it will be in all good book stores and will certainly be available from the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.’
Dave Homewood in Aircrew Book Review, 10 March 2017.
My Life at Morven Hills Station
By Madge Snow and Bee Dawson
Random House NZ, 2015
‘Many South Islanders go to the high country for the big lift it will give a tired city soul. Tourists visit to soak up the wild beauty and possibly glimpse Gandalf.
The air is so clean and clear – if you wear specs it’s like your eyes are young again. Everything, has these sharp edges. In those alpine valleys and hills you’ll find more variations of sensible beige and grey than you or Resene could ever imagine, plus gravel river beds, icy streams, scree slopes, tussock.
And the hills have that mana that comes from just being really big, really old and really permanent. Give or take the odd helicopter buzzing like a gnat in the valleys, the high country looks the same today as it always has.
On a fine day it feels like the best place in the world. But what about living there day and night, week after week, month after month, season after season?
Our human outposts in the high country are the great sheep stations and through tales of life on those stations the rest of us can glimpse a life lived away from it all.
We love these stories and publishers know it. Spring has brought three new books on famous stations which reveal different facets of a landscape where kea, not lawnmowers, call out on Saturday mornings…
…In Snow on the Lindis, Madge Snow tells of her life on Morven Hills Station at Lindis, Central Otago. It was her family’s farm and she and her husband Max farmed it for more than three decades up to the 1980s, raising three children.
Her isolated life in this high country world included an older world view of roles. Feminists look away: Max ran the farm and Snow ran the home, specifically the cooking.
“The heart of a country station is the kitchen. If you feed your men and look after them, then the farm runs smoothly. I think it is very important. I spent all my time in the kitchen and I loved it. It’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I did,” she says.
But this was no cakewalk. She echoes Martin that a critical high country skill is organisation and planning.
“It’s the same with everything in life. If you are organised, you are fine.” She had to plan months ahead around feeding big mustering and shearing gangs. Her biggest fear was of running out of supplies because there was no shop to turn to.
The family was essentially self-sufficient, apart from basics such as flour and sugar, which was bought in bulk twice a year. Yet Snow could cook a different pudding every night for months.
They worked hard. They relied on neighbours. They only went to the doctor 60km away in real emergencies. Snow says deals were done by word and a handshake, and they were honoured. In such isolation, it had to be like that for survival.
Snow says you need to enjoy your own company in the high country. But that isolation brought one regret – the children’s education. They managed through primary school by offering board to bus-driving teachers, but boys had to leave at 11 for boarding schooI. “If I had my life over again, I would keep them at home,” she says.
But the high country was wonderful for someone like her who was born to it. She needs the big hills near and that’s why she lives in Wanaka. “I couldn’t live on the Canterbury Plains, it’s too flat. I love the hills.”‘
Ewan Sargent in Stuff.co.nz, 26 October 2015.
‘Pop in unexpectedly for a piece of her legendary shortbread and you won’t find this feisty octogenarian sitting with her feet up.
Rather, you’re far more likely to find the formidable Madge Snow poking about her beloved, four-acre Wanaka garden with just her trusty walking stick for company.
One of life’s great enthusiasts, gardening has remained Madge’s grand passion and she’s certainly not planning on hanging up her garden trowel any time soon.
‘I love it. I’m obsessed with it. It takes a brave person to try and prise me away from my garden,’ laughs Madge.
In her charming new memoir, aptly titled Snow on the Lindis, Madge Snow reflects on her wonderful and long life in the historic and majestic Lindis Pass — the main inland route to the dry Mackenzie Basin, running between Central and North Otago. It’s a part of the country which is never far from the weather headlines in winter for its snow and in summer for the severe droughts.
Morven Hills is one of New Zealand’s most well-known high-country stations — once an enormous 400,000 acres. The great stone woolshed is one of New Zealand’s instantly recognisable farm buildings and is one of the largest shearing sheds in the country at a whopping 34 stands.
Madge grew up on Malvern Downs, her parents’ 14,500 hectare station which was once part of the great Morven block. As a young school leaver, Madge met Max (‘it was love at first sight’) and they married soon after she returned from a trip abroad with her mother.
Together, Madge and Max took over the running of modern-day Morven Hills Station where they raised their three children.
Unlike station wives today, the roles between husbands and wives of Madge’s generation were clearly divided between things domestic and beyond the garden gate.
Madge commanded the home front as efficiently as the men ran the station. Her kitchen was her kingdom. She loved being in there and her life-long
preoccupation, apart from her garden, was to make sure there was always plenty of wonderful home-grown and deliciously hearty homemade food to fuel her family and hardworking musterers and shearers working the station.
After 30 happy years together running Morven, it was time for the next generation of Snows to take over the station. Madge (right- photo: Ruth Brown) and Max retired to Wanaka in 1982
This is Madge’s delightful and very personal story of domestic station life ruled by the changing seasons and cycles, how the times have changed, and of fond memories that will never fade.’
Graham Beattie, Beattie’s Book Blog, 30 September 2015.
The Mary Potter Hospice Story
Random House NZ, 2014
‘With You is a treasure and a treasury, written to celebrate 100 years of the Little Company of Mary in Aotearoa and 35 years of Mary Potter Hospice. Four golden threads hold together this variety of stories: the openness and courage, immense generosity and fidelity of the sisters of the Little Company of Mary; the willingness of people from many walks of life to recognise and respond to the “signs of the times”; the creative energy of Wellingtonians; and the power of “community”: the new life that is generated when people of like mind dare to share a vision and commit to making it a reality — for the good of all.
With You is a series of stories. It is like listening to members of an extended family telling and re-telling the story of a longed for pregnancy, miraculous birth and the coming of age of a favourite child — LCM Sisters, medical specialists, financial advisers, people in high positions, people on the street, all had their own part to play. It is a multi-layered book, filled with memories and impressions of ordinary/extraordinary New Zealanders, who have given enormous amounts of time, professional expertise, commitment and love to Mary Potter Hospice. Some stories are in-depth analyses which provide the framework for the whole; while others are light brush strokes. Each has its place and is told with care. Volunteer drivers, gardeners, spiritual carers, fundraisers and networkers walk easily alongside highly skilled care-givers and professional medical and administration staff.
Mary Potter Hospice is not a place or a building. It is a living, growing, compassionate entity which provides care for individuals and families who are walking the last part of life’s journey — themselves or alongside a loved one. Another important layer records the parallel developments of Hospice New Zealand and the gradual recognition of palliative care as a branch of medicine in its own right. Mary Potter Hospice has played a key leadership, educative and research role in both developments.
Author Bee Dawson invites readers to engage with the whole Mary Potter Hospice enterprise and the individuals who give it life. Superb photographs by Chris Coad enhance the text.
In content and appearance With You is an inspiring and very beautiful book.’
Judith McGinley in Tui Motu InterIslands Magazine, February 2015.
‘Bucket-list queen is what former Mary Potter Hospice nurse Mary Death calls herself.
One of her dying patients, a young mountaineer, yearned for one last trip to the Southern Alps but was too sick so she transformed the courtyard outside his Wellington hospice room into a winter wonderland with tons of shaved ice from a local fish market and fairy lights in the trees.
“When all was ready, his wife pulled back his curtains and opened the door and – whoosh – we pushed an avalanche of ice right into the room, all over his carpet.
“We told him, ‘We couldn’t take you to the mountains so we brought a mountain to you’.”
The nurses also put ice on his hands and chest to add to his alpine experience.
“He loved it – and he died about two days later. We did things like that all the time.”
Death’s poignant story is one of many by those involved in the Wellington hospice included in a new book called With You – The Mary Potter Hospice Story.
The book marks 100 years since English Catholic nun Mary Potter sent four sisters from her Little Company of Mary to New Zealand to care for the dying.
Mary Potter Hospice chief executive Ria Earp said the book was commissioned by the religious order as a gift to the hospice and the Wellington community.
Authored by local writer Bee Dawson, it traverses Mary Potter Hospice’s development in New Zealand, focusing on Wellington, where it opened New Zealand’s first hospice in 1979 at Calvary Hospital.
Sister Margaret Lancaster had asked the hospital’s leaders in 1974 if the hospital’s Mary Potter ward for the elderly could instead specialise in caring for the terminally ill.
The hospital agreed and major renovations were carried out before the ward was opened more than four years later.
Lancaster, whose important contribution is detailed in a chapter, said the book would be a legacy of the Little Company of Mary, which had only 11 sisters surviving nationwide, including three in Wellington.
“In 20 years, there might not be any of us left,” the 70-year-old registered nurse said.
The $35 book will be sold at hospice bases and shops.’
Deirdre Mussen in The Dominion Post, 1 January 2015.