Judith Binney

"This is not a history of the faith. I have written a biography, but it is not conceived as though there is a single understanding of its subject and his significance." - Judith Binney, Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, 1995, p.1.

Last night I read online of Judith Binney's death. I read the tribute to Binney's important historical work from Reading the Maps which he wrote when she was in hospital over a year ago after being hit by a vehicle. The news transported me back to 1995. Following the romantic invitation of a handsome young man I'd met in Dunedin a few months earlier, I'd waited tables for the devil at the Christchurch casino in between tutoring and researching for my thesis and thrown the dosh at a ticket to Auckland. He was a nice fellow but the romance was short lived. But what remains in my memory most strongly is a visit into the Ureweras we made on that trip north. We travelled on the train to Mount Maunganui, where he had a family bach, and on the way we looked at the Dictionary of Maori Biography, then a new publication. He was fascinated with the architecture and stories of the Ringatu meeting houses and with Te Kooti himself. It was catching.

The nice young man's father had worked in the forestry at Murupara for many years. He had formed very good relationships with many of the local Maori men working with him and had been invited onto the marae in the past. The nice young man, his elderly father and I drove into the Ureweras one day and I experienced a part of New Zealand so unique and so powerful, that I doubt I will ever forget it. We drove down from the north, through mist and along narrow rough shingled roads as far as Ruatahuna where we had lunch. I remember the stories as we drove and the thick thick bush that only a local could navigate. I remember going up a side road near Ruatahuna and enormous cattle and horses, black and wet, wandering slowly across the road, moving for no one. Everything seemed to have powerful mythological status.

Back down south, for my next birthday I bought Judith Binney's book Redemption Songs. I never finished it - the bookmark shows I got to page 115 - but it still has pride of place on a shelf in our study, one of a treasured collection of books which represent journeys into other worlds which I have loved. The other books mostly relate to my journeys into Pacific Island cultures when I was living in Auckland: several Sia Figiel books of fiction and a biography of Queen Salote. My book on London history, London: A Social History, by Roy Porter, represents not so much a journey as a sustained love affair. I have read every page just as I drank in London itself.

I look behind me now, curious as to what else is there. Janet Hunt's biography of Hone Tuwhare, which I have also read in its entirety, and the beautifully produced homage to Central Otago which my parents bought for me the Christmas after I finished my MA, Timeless Land, featuring the paintings of Grahame Sydney, the poems of Brian Turner and the short stories of Owen Marshall. We have a digital camera now which can take pictures of our holidays and adventures (this 'we' business of the last decade or so; there are few solitary adventures now), but it is books which seem to provide an enduring and infinitely richer capture of an experience.

Thank you Judith Binney. Your history books are taonga for all of us, forever. I hope you knew how special your gifts to New Zealand were before you died.

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