Nothing illustrates better the contemporaneity of history than a review copy of Philip Temple's new book arriving the day Ross Armstrong announced his resignations from two public boards.

Armstrong may have introduced the New Zealand public to such concepts as "national infrastructure planning", "public-private partnerships" and "first mover advantage", but it was the Wakefield family, and in particular Edward Gibbon, who more than 160 years ago began to operate in the arena implied by those expressions.

And the waxing and waning of Armstrong's public career, characterised by a lethal combination of chutzpah and imprudence, was almost perfectly anticipated in the career of Wakefield (though, to be fair to Armstrong, he has yet to elope with eligible heiresses).

Mr and Mrs Kupe aside, if any group of relatives has earned the right to be regarded as New Zealand's First Family, it is the Wakefields. Edward Gibbon developed the blueprint for the settlements of Wellington, Nelson and Canterbury and sold the idea to entrepreneurs and aristocrats.

His siblings, nieces and nephews flooded into the infant colony of New Zealand to achieve fame and infamy in roughly equal proportions, and though Edward Gibbon and his son Edward Jerningham Wakefield were elected to the New Zealand Parliament, the niece Emily Wakefield went one further in becoming the wife of Edward Stafford, who became the country's first Prime Minister.

Everything we may have wanted or needed to know about the Wakefield clan is here: the family's middle-class origins and, in particular, the reckless pursuit of dreams by which Edward Wakefield senior anticipated the career of his eldest son; the two abductions of heiresses - one successful, one not - by which Edward Gibbon sought to improve his fortunes; the prison term, in the course of which he began to show serious promise as a writer and social visionary; the process by which his colonisation schemes were "sold" to influential backers, with consequences for the early development of Canada, Australia and New Zealand; the careers and fates of Edward Gibbon's siblings, four of whom finished their lives in New Zealand; and the pathetic ends at which so many of them arrived, including Edward Gibbon and his talented son Edward Jerningham, a hopeless alcoholic who squandered a promising start to a career in politics.

The story - in effect, a group biography - is not only told more comprehensively than previously, it is also told well. Temple, the experienced writer, has at all times retained the upper hand over Temple, the would-be scholar.

And the title, taken from one of Edward Gibbon's early letters, conveys perfectly the ambivalence with which one confronts the combination of humanity and greed, of thoughtfulness and recklessness, that underpinned so much of this extraordinary family's behaviour.

The text is also infused with the kinds of insights that often amount to genuine wisdom, for example, "the only way [EGW] might obtain credit for whatever he achieved was self-publicity, regarded as vulgar and reprehensible by the already privileged or rewarded". In this respect, Temple the British immigrant to New Zealand may have come to the further aid of Temple the writer.

As a writer, Temple has an impressive record of productivity and versatility. He has produced books on mountaineering, exploration, wildlife and the environment, and several novels. But this new volume is far and away the best and the most important of his entire oeuvre.

A Sort of Conscience is a book we need to understand better the origins and textures of early Pakeha New Zealand. In giving it to us, Temple pays a debt to the past and provides his adopted country with a gift for the future.

Auckland University Press


* Michael King is the author of many books on New Zealand history.