BY THE BOOK
Pioneer History P H OTO G R A P H BY A N N A B R I G G S
Ben Schrader tells SARAH LANG why his pioneering history of New Zealand’s cities took him a decade.
t became a long-running family joke: would Ben Schrader finish his magnus opus The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840–1920 before his sons left home? “It was a close-run thing,” says Schrader, a 52-year-old with strong views, a soft voice, and a slightly nervous laugh. “My eldest son Fred went flatting a month after I finished it.” Schrader and partner Lis Cowey also have Carlo, 16. Over a cuppa at their Northland home, Schrader explains why the book took 10 years, on and off. For starters, it was a big job. The first-ever overview of the evolution of New Zealand’s cities plugs a big gap in our country’s urban history. Covering 80 years, it zooms in on five cities (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Nelson), spanning social, cultural and economic history, housing, street life, and Maori experiences in cities. Schrader received grants to start and finish the book, but it often went on the back-burner while he earned a living as a freelance historian. Then in 2012, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. “It can come and go, but I’m in remission. Last year I was in hospital for 10 weeks for a splenectomy, then I got pancreatitis. Now I’m on a new cancer drug, but it’s still early days, so I don’t know the long-term prognosis.” He talks about it matter-of-factly. “I think it's good to acknowledge chronic illness rather than trying to hide it from public view.” While having chemotherapy, he sent some draft chapters of The Big Smoke to a publisher. “The publisher said ‘They’re not very good and we don’t want your book.’ That gave me a crisis of confidence but he was right, partly due to the effects of the cancer and
chemo on me cognitively.” He revised the chapters, and publisher Bridget Williams was keen. “I did get it right in the end,” he says. The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards judges certainly thought so, shortlisting it for this year’s General Non-Fiction category. “I was surprised but gratified because I put so much time into the book.” He’s off to the awards ceremony in Auckland this month. “I’m not holding my breath to win, but it’ll be nice because as a writer you can be a bit of a lonely atom.” The ceremony is part of the Auckland Writers Festival, where he’ll take part in a session called Town and Country. The Big Smoke busts the “rural myth”: that New Zealand was predominantly a nation of farmers, smallholders and small-town folk, when in fact many early New Zealanders lived in cities (actually, most of us have since 1911) and had urban identities. Schrader opens the book with his great-great-grandfather James Schrader, who immigrated to New Zealand as a young widower, remarrying and spawning generations of urban dwellers. A century after James’ ship docked, Ben and twin Tom were born in Christchurch in 1964, joining five siblings. “My mother died of a blood clot soon after we were born which was tragic all round. We had housekeepers, and my older siblings helped look after us younger ones.” Their father, a Presbyterian minister, remarried two years later and the family moved to Wadestown, Wellington in 1970 when Ben was six. (His only half-sibling, Paul Schrader, runs Nikau café.) So why history? “For my 10th birthday, I got William Main's book Wellington Through a Victorian Lens. I remember spending hours imagining myself in the