Tuesday, December 12, 2017

World War One air stories long overdue

FEARLESS – The extraordinary untold story of New Zealand's Great War airmen by Adam Claasen. Published by Massey University Press, Auckland, 2017

If the work being put into the First World War Centenary History publications achieves nothing more than to publish this book Fearless then it will have been well worthwhile.

Dr Adam Claasen's achievement is all the more meritorious because it fills a gap that should have been filled many years ago.

It is well known that the history of New Zealand's First World War is poorly served, especially when compared to the effort that went into recording the Second World War histories, flawed as they may be. Possibly it was to avoid the situation after WWI that so much was put into the WWII coverage.

Whatever the story may be, there can be no doubting the worth of Claasen's work which in spite of the years between remains a compelling record of service, devotion, spirit and yes, sacrifice, of those who took to the air to fight between 1914 and 1918.

Remember war broke out just over 10 years after man's first powered flight achieved by the Wright brothers and just over five years and a week after Frenchman Louis Bleriot flew the English Channel. That the technology could expand so quickly to become a fighting weapon is extraordinary for the era.

That New Zealanders, so far removed from the developments in flight, should become so taken with it is little short of amazing, but then again in the wake of engineering achievements in other spheres it should not be a surprise.

However, the stories of these men who numbered around 850 by Claasen's study, most them pilots, some observers or gunners and others - various odd bods working as mechanics or other subsidiary roles - is compelling and readable.

The casualty rate does not make it an easy read but the achievements of these trailblazers cannot be under-estimated.

There had been little Government support for the benefits of flight – it was too early in its development to have been of interest as a means of speeding communication in the eyes of politicians. Some things do not change.

But the entrepreneurial spirit was alive, even in those early years and men like Henry Wigram, a businessman who had turned to politics, could see the benefits to be had but he couldn't sway fellow politicians who were still enamoured of the benefits of naval power.

Claasen describes flight's battle for acceptance in the pre-war years in New Zealand, producing highly readable accounts of some of the daredevil antics which proved so fascinating to citizens able to witness their flights.

It is in this area that the reviewer regrets two facts which emerge in the book, purely on a personal basis.

The first was the fact that New Zealand's first cross-country aircraft flight occurred on February 20, 1914 between Invercargill and Gore by Will Scotland. It was also the first flight in the South Island and was the first 'town to town' flight achieved in New Zealand. Not a word of it passed my eyes in my Gore High School history studies in Southland.

Scotland went on up the South Island to buzz a cricket match between Canterbury and Australia, The Press noting after the fall of a wicket, "Bishop went in, but the appearance of the flying machine caused a stoppage for some time."

Nor was there anything taught about the Gore lawyer Ron Bannerman who would become New Zealand's best fighter ace in the last year of the war.

These things weren't talked about often in that day and age, but they were surely worth more acknowledgment by the local community. Has there ever been an official plaque laid to mark the achievement? Like this book, perhaps it is not too late to mark the feat.

Back to Wigram. He set up one of two flying schools in New Zealand at the airport in south Christchurch which soon bore his name while in Auckland two brothers Vivian and Leo Walsh set up the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama. As Claasen points out, the onset of war only hastened the interest in flying and as he relates those who couldn't gain their training in New Zealand headed off to England to qualify. And from some of the battlefields, especially in the Middle East, there was no lack of volunteers to turn to flying.

What resulted was a significant contribution to the war effort, sadly not all of it was successful, and the loss of life, much of it due to lack of time for proper training, was horrendous.

But it was the intrepid approach of the New Zealanders, and others, which caught the imagination of the British and French. It is difficult to imagine the demands and dangers of night flying to take on the monstrous Zeppelins dropping bombs on England. Yet they not only took on the gas-fired behemoths but flew home to land in the dark.

Then there are the battles and operations over the Western Front, an area of conflict that advanced exponentially as the war continued due to the tactical advantages that could be gleaned from aerial observation.

Claasen has done an admirable job in scouring through all available resources to piece together some remarkable stories of heroism and rather than single out individuals in this review it's best left to the reader to admire the selflessness and courage of those who aspired to be part of this new form of warfare, often at the cost of their lives.

Fearless is precisely that, a story of which all New Zealanders should be acquainted because it is a sad yet powerful example of service that should never be forgotten. Claasen has lent even more strength to the phrase of remembrance 'Lest We Forget'. For 100 years the aviators may have been forgotten but not any more.

Walter Hadlee's diary a reminder of days of yore

The Skipper's Diary, Walter Hadlee, compiled by Sir Richard Hadlee, published by The Cricket Publishing Company. Book and DVD only available online www.theskippersdiary1949.com

Few cricket tours have resulted in quite as much literary treatment as that of the 1949 cricket tour of England and northern Europe.

Autobiographies of Walter Hadlee (Innings of a Lifetime), Bert Sutcliffe (Between Overs), John Reid (Sword of Willow and A Cricketing Life), Merv Wallace (A Cricket Master) and the tour book by NZPA correspondent Alan Mitchell, Cricket Companions, all helped ensure the place of the tour in New Zealand's cricket history.

While confined to three-day Test matches the tour was only ever going to produce Test victories if the New Zealanders collapsed.

They didn't because the side was one of the most skilled batting combinations to represent the country and while the first Test win over England would wait another 29 years, the foundation of New Zealand's cricket future was laid by Walter Hadlee's side on their first post-World War Two visit to England.

Blessed with batsmen of the quality of Martin Donnelly (2287 runs), Bert Sutcliffe (2627), Merv Wallace (1722), John Reid (1488), Verdun Scott (1572) and Hadlee himself (1439), the side proved highly competitive and attractive to the English public who were still getting over hosting Bradman's great Australian side a year earlier.

Hadlee Snr had toured England in 1937 along with Donnelly and Wallace, and fast bowler Jack Cowie, so was well aware of what lay ahead of the side. His diary is a fascinating look into a bygone era, an era never to be seen again, yet a reminder of the sort of devotion to the game such a tour took.

These tours involved six weeks at sea, in each direction, so three months of the year were gone already. The players were amateurs and times were tight. They were paid a basic allowance and due to their success in quickly surpassing expected gate takings they were paid a bonus.

All of it is described in Hadlee's diary, a fascinating record that has been well worth the reproduction in what is an outstanding publishing format and only available through website sales.

This reviewer did not expect to get as much enjoyment as he did out of the book which provides not only reasonable match coverage but a look at the goings on of a group of men thrown together to play international sport.

As captain, Hadlee was required to take issue with some of them at times with the resulting details coming through in his diaried comments.

But what is also obvious is the demanding social requirements of the side. Remember this was the time when Sundays were a day off and there were activities aplenty laid on to take advantage of that spare time. It wasn't all beer and skittles, or golf.

It is also obvious that as an accountant, apparently reasonably well-placed, Hadlee wasn't averse to using his contacts to his own and to the benefit of his clients back at home. What better time to hit up New Zealand's Minister of Finance about the import duty on a car bought in England and shipped home on the same boat as the team returned on, that when Walter Nash visited the side during the tour?

Numerous other business initiatives were taken by Hadlee during the course of the tour, many of them on the mornings before play started in the various towns around England. There were also the many visits to factories and warehouses were the team were able to take advantage of opportunities.

It was little wonder Hadlee required some extra storage room on the boat on the way home. There was none of that cursed extra baggage you have to pay so much for when flying home.

One interesting comment during the second game against Glamorgan resulted from his meeting Cliff Prosser, the secretary of the Swansea Rugby Club. "He told me he saw Rhys T. Gabe pull Bob Deans back from the goal line after Deans had scored a try against Wales at Cardiff in 1905 – it was a disallowed try. He hopes Gabe will publicly announce this before it is too late."

What makes the 'diary' even more compelling is the publication of the tour report and financial returns and the reflections of the players in the years after the tour, clearly taken from correspondence between Hadlee and his team.

His own summation towards the end of the book was prescient.

"It was important to learn lessons from this tour and share the knowledge for future teams and players. All the bowlers needed to learn that direction was as important as length. Length is not effective without direction and direction is hopeless without length.

"By having the emphasis on direction as well as length I was able to set some very good fields – the bowlers were asked to bowl to those fields and as a result the fieldsmen became keener and that helped team spirit. It meant that everyone was involved in the play.

"The batsmen learning the art of concentration had to be maintained. Some of our most successful efforts were due to the intense concentration in a crisis.

"I will never forget this experience and all the players will remain great friends for life," he said.

However, his subsequent career as a cricket administrator may be viewed, there can be little doubt that Walter Hadlee's legacy to the New Zealand game is significant and the publication of his diary is probably the most graphic demonstration of that. It is a commendable exercise and one that further strengthens the historical connection with New Zealand's cricket.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Deserving Congdon story in print

Bevan Congdon has a special place in New Zealand cricket history as the common denominator through the age of advancement from Saturday afternoon amateurs to a more professional, in outlook at least, unit.

From the time he was first selected in the summer of 1964-65 through until his last tour of England in 1978, Congdon was the one player to have provided the bridge from the construction phase to the near completion of the task of New Zealand's climb into the top bracket of world sides.

Some like John Reid and Bert Sutcliffe, who provided major contributions, ended their time after the tour of India, Pakistan and England in 1965. Others like Barry Sinclair, Graham Dowling, Gary Bartlett, Dick Motz and Jack Alabaster got halfway through the process while others like Bruce Taylor, Bob Cunis and Richard Collinge had phases of being in and out of the side with availabilities and injuries.

Then the likes of Glenn Turner, Hedley Howarth, Ken Wadsworth and Dayle Hadlee came in for the second half of the journey with Richard Hadlee an even later addition to the cause.

But sailing through it all was Congdon, growing in stature and confidence, playing within his limits, and occasionally extending them as on the 1973 tour of England with his successive Test centuries.

Those formative days cannot be under-stated. Years of being an afterthought on the end of tours of Australia by English and West Indian teams meant New Zealand's best players were starved by comparison to other countries.

There were the days in the  late 1950s and 1960s when four home series were played against Australian B sides with a tour to Australia to play state sides in 1967. There were also the first involvement in limited overs competitions in the fledgling Australian state competition where New Zealand's rising stature became apparent.

Congdon proved an essential part in New Zealand acquiring the knowledge that would stand them in such good stead within a generation.

It took time but eventually things came together for him. There was the run flow going off the chart in the West Indies on the benign pitches that failed to produce a result in five Tests in 1972 and there was the captaincy of the side in the first Test victory over Australia at Lancaster Park in 1974. The captaincy had been moved on to Mark Burgess by 1978 but Congdon was there when victory was achieved over England for the first time in Wellington at the old Basin Reserve.

His bowling was often under-appreciated but it grew in stature during his career and two wickets for 14 at the end of England's first innings helped ensure that while New Zealand suffered a collapse, they still had enough runs in the bank to apply pressure for win.

Undemonstrative, in public at least, but renowned for a certain trait of grittiness, being the subject of an autobiography was never really in the Congdon make-up. Although there could have been plenty of stimulus had he so chosen.

R.T. Brittenden, who saw all of Congdon's career, wrote of him in 'The Finest Years', "When he came into first-class cricket, it was as a boldly-attacking batsman, with a firm liking for the cut and the pull. He did well enough to win test status in four years. But he became outstandingly good only because of his firm resolve to improve. It was not enough to make a good score now and then. He is a perfectionist."

No bad thing that through an era when being a perfectionist wasn't always the most endearing characteristic of those who didn't understand the requirements along the road to success.

He still sits within the top 10 run scorers for New Zealand in Tests, in ninth on 3448, one behind Kane Williamson and one ahead of John R. Reid. That's the sort of quality we're talking with seven Test centuries and an average of 32.22 which says something of the tough times in the early stages of his 62-Test career.

His contribution has not been overlooked and Bill Francis has written an extended essay making a small book of Congdon's career looking at what contributed to his emergence from what we now know as the Tasman region of New Zealand and what sustained him through a distinguished playing career.

'A Singular Man' has been published by The Cricketers' Trust, which has been established by the professional players of the day and the New Zealand Cricket Players' Association, with the support of boutique cricket publisher Ron Cardwell in the publication.

It is a worthy addition to a growing resource which acknowledges the era which was the necessary forerunner to New Zealand's emergence on the world scene in the 1980s, especially, and beyond.

A Singular Man by Bill Francis. Published by The Cricketers' Trust.

It's not all about the glory days

Rugby publishing is full of the success stories of the game, all those golden contributors to memories of deeds past.

Given the nature of All Blacks' success there are any number of examples over the past 50 years.

Stephen Donald's story 'Beaver' is a little different and while it has as its obvious high point the penalty goal that proved to be the match-winner in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, a story subsequently retold in a television docu-drama, there is plenty on the down moments in top sport.

Probably no New Zealand sportsman since Mark Richardson's tell-all 'Thinking Negatively' about the psychological demands of top cricket has talked so frankly about the less attractive side of sport.

In Donald's case it was the loss to Australia in Hong Kong in 2010.

The story is well-known. Donald missed a 76th minute shot at goal that would have put the lead out to eight points. Then a turnover ball needed to be kicked to touch to save the game. Donald kicked, the ball didn't go out, Australia ran it back and James O'Connor scored.

Donald took the loss hard, and he became a target for the all-knowing talkback radio brigade who enjoyed the luxury of anonymity in making him their scapegoat.

The rest of the tour became arduous for Donald, and it got worse when returning to New Zealand and into the start of the next Super Rugby season, which happened to be the prelude to the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The public slanging was everywhere.

With Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade emerging as first five-eighths of ability, the result was that Donald slipped to fourth on the list with Dan Carter sitting on top.

It is easy to think in these days of triumph for the All Blacks on the international scene that all is rosy and life is continually good for the participants. But these are humans who are involved and not everyone reacts to pressure of performance in the same way.

Donald describes how tough it was and it is clear that he didn't help himself in some regards on the social side and it was hardly surprising that when the World Cup started without his involvement that he wanted nothing to do with it.

What happened then as Carter, Slade and Cruden all succumbed to injuries, Cruden going off before half-time in the final, and Donald came from his whitebait stand onto the centrestage at Eden Park is part of folklore.

That was a triumph of the will after all the frustrations, but there was more to come. Again, there are lessons to be had for young players heading off overseas to pursue their rugby careers. Donald clearly had second thoughts about travelling to British club Bath and that carried through to his involvement.

His words are salutary: "I struggled with almost every aspect of Premiership life. I struggled with the mentality that playing rugby was a job, not a pleasure. I struggled with coaches who wanted me to kick every time we found ourselves in our own half. I struggled with the ruthlessness of club administrators, and the revolving door for coaches and for players.

"I struggled with newspaper headlines that claimed I had been told by the CEO to lift my game, when no such conversation had taken place. Yeah, I most assuredly struggled with that. I struggled with games on Christmas Eve and New Year's Day, and with kicking coaches who tried to change my technique…Most of all thought I struggled with my own discipline. Bath had its own way of doing things and, having accepted their offer to play their, I should have been more professional in how I approached that time. I tried to buy into it all, I really did, but to play well for a team, you have to believe in that team. There was no culture for me to invest in. Rightly or wrongly, that's how I felt almost the entire time I was there."

Food for thought if ever there was.

Rehabilitation has been achieved. Who will forget his contribution to the Chiefs' win over woeful Wales in 2016? But he has continued with the franchise and with Counties Manukau.

For all that may yet happen in his career, telling his story may be one of the most useful aspects of it, and certainly making clear some of the pitfalls that can befall players.

'Beaver' by Stephen Donald with Scotty Stevenson. Published by Upstart Press