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Keepers of History


In pre-Eyebright times (33 years) I had a conversation with a World War One fighter pilot.  He told me how he started out as a stable hand tending cavalry horses, but was selected for the Royal Flying Corp. Soon afterwards he was dog fighting over enemy lines. 

More recently I was a bystander as Fergus O’Conner, of Appleby, and an engineer, discussed the merits of narrow versus wide wagon wheels. Fergus’s passion made you feel as if it was still a pressing issue.   It sounded a lot like the Holden versus Ford debate which raged for decades in our school yards.

The fighter pilot is long gone, as are his comrades and foes.  Fergus also died a few years ago.  Their conversations now reside only in my memory, and will last only as long as I do (should I be so lucky that my brain lasts as long as the rest of me).

Not so for thirty-six New Zealand centenarians, interviewed by Nelson author, Renée Hollis.   Of 120 people, over 100 years old, that Renée interviewed, thirty-six can be found in the pages of her just-released book ‘Keepers of History’. 


This is a terrific book; but then I would say that.   Renée is my niece.  Seriously though; it’s a no-nonsense record of the last 100 years, as told by people like you and me, who for reasons they can not explain, have just kept on living. 


Renée’s book opens with a 109-year-old who was, for-the-most-part, living independently in her Wellington home (she recently died at 110).  As you turn the pages, you come to younger interviewees, finishing with a new entrant to the centenarian’s club, who fondly recalls Tauranga before it was connected to Auckland by road.   Each person’s story is distilled to five to ten pages along with wonderful photographs. 

The story that particularly gripped me was that of Sister Marie Fitzpatrick, who was sent to France just before the occupation.  The Germans held her and her fellow sisters on suspicion of their being spies for Britain.  My heart was in my mouth as I read how she was told that she was to be released the next day, but was to be taken somewhere by train at 6am.  I won’t spoil the story by telling you what happened next.

The book is divided into sections, starting with those born in 1907 and finishes with 1917.  Each section is prefaced by a page of events that happened in that year; for example in 1907: ‘Baden Powell forms the Boy Scouts’,  In 1913: ‘New Zealand's General Strike ’, and in 1915 ‘ The Gallipoli Landing’.

If you think you would enjoy reading about what it was like at the edge of living memory, this book delivers in spades.  It connects you to life stories told by thirty-six lucid New Zealanders who happen to have lived longer than they expected.  It is a beautifully laid-out book, and a great piece of work.

AND,  you can pick up a copy at Eyebright. ($40).

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