Book shares the shearers' stories

Ruth Entwistle Low, of Timaru, says her book is a window into shearing. Photo: Chris Tobin
Ruth Entwistle Low, of Timaru, says her book is a window into shearing. Photo: Chris Tobin
The success of an earlier book on drovers has prompted Timaru author Ruth Entwistle Low to write another, this time on shearers.

The Shearers: New Zealand Legends was launched in Timaru last week following on from her successful On the Hoof: The Untold Story of Drovers in New Zealand.

''It was a risk for my publishers taking on the drovers' book,'' she said.

''It's a niche subject but the book sold well and was on the New Zealand best seller non-fiction lists for six weeks, which was pretty satisfying.''

That prompted the realisation that there was sufficient interest to warrant another similar book.

''When the dust settled on the first one, Penguin came back and said: 'Do you want to write a book on shearers?'.''

That was four years ago.

So began a long process of travel around New Zealand stations and woolsheds for Mrs Entwistle Low, an oral historian, interviewing and writing.

''I did parallel interviews with farmers and stations owners in each region so I got the nuances of farming in New Zealand, the differences in topography and weather patterns that impact on shearers.

''I got a real mix and then hand-picked the the stories I felt should be told.''

Through hundreds of hours of interviewing shearers and those in the industry and seeing upfront the work shearers did, Mrs Entwistle Low's admiration for them has grown.

''It's a hard-working environment; you move from shed to shed and after shearing one sheep you pull a cord, put the sheep down the porthole, wipe your brow and then take your next sheep,'' she says.

''The sheep can be up to 60kg. No-one can travel New Zealand and see what is being done and not admire it.''

It has been a collaborative effort with her husband Mark Low, who travelled with her all over the country taking hundreds of photos, a selection of which appear in the book.

''We drove thousands of kilometres. We got to places many people never get to see.''

A ''townie,'' Mrs Entwistle Low soon learned the challenges facing the industry with a declining national flock and the average age of shearers getting older.

Attracting young people to the industry was not easy and there were also some negative connotations regarding drink and drugs.

The contractors association was grappling with these issues, she said.

''But the people I interviewed absolutely loved what they did.''

Mrs Entwistle Low's sister has helped in transcribing the taped interviews, which have been edited and crafted to suit the themes of the book.

''In writing the book I became a weaver of stories rather than a writer of a shearing book,'' Mrs Entwistle Low said.

She has divided it into four sections.

''I look at who the shearers are first, then their work, their culture and then a section 'Guts and Glory', which looks at the competition side of shearing.

''Each interview is fitted into those sections and shaped accordingly.

''It has allowed the shearers to do the speaking and I'm out of it.''

Among the shearers interviewed are Peter Casserly, Eddie Parkinson, Catherine Mullooly, of Piopio, Peter and Elsie Lyon, the famous Brian ''Snow'' Quinn and competition blade shearer Tony Dobbs, who gave an insight into how he has achieved his success.

''When it got down to winning or losing by a fraction of a point you have to have everything right - even the way you opened the catching pen door, or the way you stacked the sheep into the pen,'' he told Mrs Entwistle Low.

''As to studying other shearers, I studied David Fagan and a few other guys.

''I thought, that guy could get the sheep out and the belly off before anybody else got out of his pen - what's he doing?

''Went up and studied him and worked out how he was doing it ... I knew how to do it then.''

Mrs Entwistle Low wanted to include the parallel stories of farmers and their stations and properties alongside the shearers but this would have required a bigger book.

''I had to leave the farmers' stories behind, but each station I visited has a synopsis in the back to recognise their interviews, which gave me colour and understanding for the shearers' interviews.''

Retired Timaru Boys' High School teacher Bruce Leadley provided memories of growing up on a small family farm at Wakanui near Ashburton and working as a fleeco.

''There are lots of shearers who could have been interviewed but I hope they will recognise themselves in those I interviewed and will say, 'Yep, that's me'

''I'm really happy with the way it's unfolded. It's a window into shearing.''

-By Chris Tobin

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