A charming story right from the beginning, The Clapperton Diaries is at once gentle, good-humoured, and quintessentially New Zealand. Written virtually as a monologue with judicious editing by Crispin Caldicott, the well-paced story starts with a transcription of the original journal of John (Jack) Clapperton’s grandfather, William Nicol Clapperton. Eloquent, witty, observant, and an excellent draughtsman, William recorded his 1885 journey with his family from Scotland to New Zealand on the clipper, Crusader. Sailors will particularly enjoy this chapter.
The Diaries follow William and his contemporaries around early Northland (Pahi, Whakapirau, Dargaville, Hoanga) until 1929 when John Clapperton, known as Jack, begins with his own diaries. The Kiwi No.8 style is introduced early as he and his older brother purchase now antique cars and motorbikes and ‘chop’ them for greater handling and speed efficiencies. The car-mad will love this section of the book, but it’s also easy reading for the non-mechanically-minded. The hair-raising escapades are delightful.
We follow Jack in 1954 through Europe and the UK on a 1946 Army Model 500cc side valve Norton with sidecar, achieving all of 30mph around England and Scotland. Some of the escapades are laugh out loud, as are many of the anecdotes of working at Bussey Stool farm in England. For historical agriculture buffs, this section is really worth a read, particularly for the array of tractors and farm machines and their various astonishing quirks.
Back in New Zealand, Jack takes us through remote Manawatu, Wairarapa, Wellington and Wanganui Districts as he practices his Surveying profession. Appalling conditions cause more than a few retrospective laughs, but real-time 1950s surveying of New Zealand was fascinating. Later Government surveys took him into the remote Far North in even worse conditions. Young, fit men, whose employer would not relent, did as they were bid, and Clapperton’s relating of the resultant anecdotes is both damning and hilarious.
The Kiwi of yesteryear speaks eloquently through these pages and is one of the greatest charms of this book. Love finds the young surveyor, and allows it to change his priorities, becoming an adoring family man which he remains to this day, even through his sideways move into private employment and the achievement of engineering qualifications.
The combination of engineering and surveying skills made John Clapperton indispensable on major projects and two chapters are devoted to his work in the Hunua Ranges on the Upper Mangatawhiri Dam, and later at the Huia dam. Anyone who works on major engineering projects such as these will thoroughly enjoy these chapters and the ingenious solutions used to overcome problems.
Ultimately, The Clapperton Diaries is a very personal record of days which are fast slipping from New Zealand memory as the young become older, but it’s also a record of how some of the most important infrastructure of our developing country was achieved and a worthwhile read from that aspect alone.
The book is large format, with large print easy on the eye. Liberally interspersed with images, many of them are poor quality owing to their era, but this is more than made up for by the actual story and John Clapperton’s warm-humoured view of a life well-lived.
A worthwhile read.