Against the odds

Ian Williams reviews This Barren Rock and The Awa Book of New Zealand Sports Writing.

A true tale of survival in the Southern Seas

Sylvie Haisman
ABC Books, $34.99, pbk

Apart from the obvious Kiwi connection (Ms Haisman is descended from early British migrants to New Zealand, and the sports writing selected by Ricketts is as Kiwi as it comes) these two volumes have a less obvious connection: defying the odds, especially when it comes to survival and adaptation.

In Ms Haisman's case, it's her great-great-great-grandmother and great-great-grandfather, shipwrecked on a tiny, barren island deep in the Southern Ocean.

In the sports writing examples, it's meeting the challenges of team and individual sports and pursuits, often against all odds.

In 1875, 47 men, one woman and one small boy managed to scramble ashore from the wreck of the iron-hulled SS Strathmore, bound for New Zealand.

The motley survivors, a mixture of crew and passengers, must find a way to co-exist on a tiny island deep in the Southern Ocean with none of the comforts available to glamorous castaways such as Robinson Crusoe.

Not only that, they must do so for seven months before being rescued.

Although half-cooked albatross, mutton birds and penguins taste like boiled shoe leather, and bashing them to death with whatever's handy is not a read for the squeamish, this tale is compelling reading.

That's because Ms Haisman's ancestors, Fanny and Charlie Wordsworth, had literary and artistic bents, and their survival story ran in numerous publications after they were rescued.

Ms Haisman has collected all the relevant documents and combined these with an innate talent for story-telling that held me spellbound.

Truly a survival story that succeeds both as a male-oriented adventure yarn and one that pulls at the heartstrings.



Ed. Harry Ricketts
Awa Press, $40, pbk

While risky individual sports such as mountain climbing, diving, sailing and hunting aren't my cup of tea, it was interesting to read about them, along with the more traditional team and individual sports that I am familiar with, in The Awa Book of New Zealand Sports Writing.

With 80 pieces covering a period of more than 150 years, the time frame parallels that of Ms Haisman.

Obviously, rugby football, including its history of violence and political shenanigans, looms large, although only literary types might appreciate Foreskin's speech in the excerpt from the stage play, Foreskin's Lament; and like most tennis players and followers, I wonder when a new Anthony Wilding is going to come along.

Never mind, there are enough stories about mainstream sports to satisfy mainstream sports followers, with my special favourite a piece about Noel Holmes, the cranky rugby writer who made his name with the Auckland Star.

Ah, nostalgia! Where would we be without it?

Ian Williams is a Dunedin writer and composer.


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