Saturday, 2 January 2010

In praise of Leitch & Scott

David Leitch and Brian Scott are the authors of “Exploring New Zealand’s Ghost Railways”, the first edition of which was published by Grantham House in 1995. A second edition appeared a few years later. I have both but will refer to the first edition for most of this posting, which is not really a review but does seek to balance what, at times, has seemed like undue criticism of the work from this blog and elsewhere. For us geographical types, Leitch & Scott is the book we have waited for, for decades. Considering a far greater volume of works on more PC topics like steam locomotives, L & S is quite unique in NZ for having collated all of the information from throughout the country into one publication. Of course, with the tools and techniques we have available today, it is easy to miss the enormity of this achievement, which was produced at a time before the widespread technological advances such as virtual globes, online mapping and GPS became commonplace. L & S at the same time is enough of a niche publication that the rise of technology combined with the relative lack of prominence of its subject in railfan circles, will probably ensure that the feat is not repeated. By use of these same tools, it isn’t long before “omissions” or “contradictions” become apparent. Quite apart from the constantly changing nature of the countryside and therefore alteration of information in the books, a letter I discovered recently in my collection brought me up to date on the authors’ challenge just to get their original manuscript published; David Leitch wrote that they had faced extensive sub editing due to the publication being too large in its original draft. This accounts in some respect for the cryptic remark about “deliberate omissions”. If there are any faults to these books, one of them is the tendency to political pontification about New Zealand’s land access laws, or “official vandalism” or neglect of old structures; ditto for the  over-zealous praise for preservation efforts at times (personally I prefer to walk a line between these two extremes as I believe this represents a more balanced viewpoint that is in sentiment with most public opinion).