Yarns from the back country worth telling

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied
Jim Sullivan reviews Down A Country Road: Stories From New Zealand's Heartland, by Tony Orman. Published by New Holland.

"It’s odds on the stories of Shirty will never completely pass into oblivion."

So ends Tony Orman’s chapter on the tales told to him about legendary Marlborough run holder Jack Shirtliff, who died in 1961 at the age of 91. Without books like this one, yarns about Jack’s toughness, scrupulous honesty and his ability to put the bureaucrats in their place might well have lasted only a generation.

The men who worked for him put flesh on the skeleton of the story: "Shirty was a hard case, as hard as nails, a hard boss, extremely observant and yet very sensitive of people and his staff".

As a farming journalist Tony Orman has not only collected stories at musterers’ reunions and in the improvised bars at dog trials (Omarama’s dog trial champion Ginger Anderson tells his story), but he has also sought out face-to-face yarns with story-tellers of all sorts: from Sukhita Longford at the famous country store at Bainham, to Jack Lange, who spent 21 years maintaining his bit of the Haast Road with wheelbarrow, pick, and shovel, and was known to all as "Makarora Jack".

The author has chosen "back country" rather than "high country" to define his beat, and that sees some good stories sneak in. Bunty Longuet, who spent the war in a Marlborough farmhouse monitoring signals from Japanese submarines, is just one, and there’s an up-to-date summary of the adventures of the "ghost" at the Vulcan Hotel, St Bathans. Some of the characters have appeared before in books, like the Nolans of Jacksons Bay and high country poet Jim Morris, but in every old story there is always more to be told, and Down a Country Road adds a valuable new volume to the library of stories which must never "pass into oblivion".

- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.

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