Jane Macnaughton writes: New Zealand’s South Island is a beautiful and unexpected place. You can find yourself in a tiny village hall listening to a rather good folk duo and sitting right next to a Booker prize winning writer.
Andrew Russell, co-convenor of the WRI Smoking Special Interest Group, and I are in New Zealand speaking to groups at the University of Otago in Wellington and Dunedin. New Zealand has the grand aim under its ‘Aspire 2025’ plan to become tobacco free by 2025. Andrew is currently on a Leverhulme Fellowship preparing a book on the tobacco plant and how it has influenced world politics, industry and public health. End game scenarios like that of New Zealand are a rare but fascinating aspect of the tobacco control ‘industry’. We started off in Wellington speaking to the Public Health Department of Otago University there, and also spent an afternoon with representatives from the Ministry of Health who are engaged in tobacco control work. They reported that ‘Aspire 2025’ was achieving great things, but there was still much to do. Specifically, women in the Maori population still have a smoking rate of around 40%, although this had fallen recently from 50%. And we thought our rate in the North East of England for women of 23% was high!
After Wellington we travelled to Dunedin where I spent the afternoon speaking about developments in UK Medical Humanities with the team from the Centre for Bioethics. They are much involved in the teaching of medical students and other heath professional students, and were a little depressed by my suggestion that a change of tack was needed from a focus on the students themselves to the substance of their education and the importance of a medical humanities influence on bioscience and clinical research. In keeping with the theme of our visit, my focus was on public health and smoking research, and how medical humanities can open out perspectives on the experience of smoking that public health might ignore.
Urban New Zealand is rather stimulating, but for real wonder you need to get out into the wilds. And this is where our Booker prize winner comes in. From Dunedin we hired a car and drove to the Southern Alps, glimpsing the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers en route, to stay at a tiny hamlet by a lagoon called Okarito (see picture right). This venue was by design, not accident, as Andrew had discovered that Okarito is the home of the writer Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, an extraordinarily original and disturbing novel which won the Booker prize in 1985. What we had also discovered was that Keri had worked as a tobacco picker in New Zealand in the 1960’s at a time when the industry was still alive and kicking here. As luck would have it, the evening we arrived there was a concert in the village hall (see picture below) by a folk duo the Tattletale Saints and we slipped into this at half time to find ourselves sitting next to the writer. Rather tentatively, at the end, we introduced ourselves and were invited to visit the next day.
Keri Hulme practices the welcoming hospitality of the Maori. Chairs were cleared in her writer’s lair, laid about with books (thousands of which are stored with kind friends elsewhere, she tells us) and which is in a room shaped, like her character’s house in The Bone People, as an octagon held up by a single, stout wooden pole. We exchanged gifts. I gave her a copy of Frissure and told her something of Kathleen Jamie’s work, a writer with which she has much in common; and she gave us a book of her poetry, Lost Possessions, signed with a Maori greeting. She reminisced about her days as a tobacco picker, recalling three seasons in this work for three months at a time, and the need to protect her hands from the nasty black resin produced by the plants with rubber gloves carefully supplied by her anxious mother. Friends who had been pickers with her have subsequently developed skin cancer as a result of unprotected contact with the plant. She also recalled how free and welcoming this activity was for her and for others who did not necessarily feel at home in conventional society. She remembered the kindness of the family she worked for, the Stratford-Holmes in Upper Moutere near Motueka, in the north of South Island and was shocked to hear that tobacco growing is now history in New Zealand. We had seen archive video footage of the harvesting machines in Te Papa, the national museum in Wellington, and look forward to seeing the tobacco exhibition in Motueka museum in a few days, but the final ‘golden harvest’ took place in 1995.
I reflected after this visit on end games and on what may be lost as well as gained by the banning of tobacco. What remained in Keri’s memory of her tobacco picking days was a sense of liberation and of finding congenial society with other women. Sociability has been part of tobacco smoking for as long as the weed as been used by humans in diverse societies, including the UK, from the Enlightenment to present day discussions that go on in outdoor ‘smoker’s shelters’. People are, of course, very adaptable and will find other things to gather sociably around. As I begin a new project focussing on the problem of breathlessness caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), fast becoming the third greatest cause of global mortality because of the ever-increasing rates of smoking in developing countries, investigating what some of these might be seems like a very good idea.