The edge of middle New Zealand

CIVILISATION: Twenty places on the edge of the world<br><b>Steve Braunias</b><br><i>Awa Press
CIVILISATION: Twenty places on the edge of the world<br><b>Steve Braunias</b><br><i>Awa Press
Civilisation is the title of journalist Steve Braunias' book, which examines ''20 places on the edge of the world''. This world is mainly ours, from Kawakawa in the North to Mosgiel in the South, with quick visits to Samoa and the Antarctic giving some international dimension.

The back cover explains that Braunias was engaged on a modern pilgrim's progress for three years, visiting places, whenever he could, chosen at random from a map. He says he was ''drawn to their averageness, their nothingness, their banal and exhilarating New Zealandness''.

It is by no means a travel guide but more like a Kiwi version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The writer always manages to find odd or interesting characters in places he visits and recounts their particular tales, whether they be amusing or disturbing, or just weird. Some places seem to become crime-ridden (in Mosgiel he went on the community patrol, which is scared to encounter its boy racers), other towns are sardonically lampooned for being small-minded or just plain dull. Some get a reasonably affectionate portrait - usually of some aspect rather than the whole picture.

In St Bathans (''permanent residential population of seven'') the writer met up with painter Grahame Sydney and his wife Heidi, poet Brian Turner and others and he paints his own sharp word sketches of them.

Wanaka also gets a visit - along with Collingswood, Greymouth, the Hauraki Plains, Hicks Bay, the Maramaku Valley, Mercer, Miranda, Mt Roskill, Ohinemutu, Pegasus, Tangimoana, Wainuiomata, Waiouru, Whararewarewa, Whanganui and Winton.

Everywhere Braunias travelled he must have filled notebooks, a tape recorder or an exceptional memory, since he records conversations in such detail and always managed to coax out delightful stories and quotes from those he encountered.

It is an entertaining book yet best to dip into, as the 20 chapters are self-contained and have a certain sameness in their pattern of construction when read straight through. Braunias' technique likes to shuffle back and forth between a couple of split stories a few times and then come up with some good catchline or ironic observation at the end.

As a journalist, Braunias perhaps took his visits to Scott Base and Samoa, both having close associations with New Zealand, a little more seriously. But at the former he found ''the whole stupid, merciless place was a vacant lot''. In Samoa he met the prime minister and lampooned him as ''sitting at his desk, massive and puffing, surrounded by toys'' while some of his people were still suffering after the 2010 tsunami.

So Braunias is a sharp writer whose ''civilisation'' is shown to be pretty curious or rather uncouth at times - but all enjoyable as a bit of a laugh.

Geoff Adams is a former editor of the Otago Daily Times.

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