Marking Armistice Day centenary with a collection of memories of war and conflict.

There's something decidedly off-putting about someone who writes about people interviewing someone who also writes about people.

Such was the case when Our People knuckled in on Alison Brown, the experienced pen woman who's been compiler-in-chief of the three Rotorua Retro books, preceded by Remembering, a "mosaic of memories" from this city's 90-plus-year-olds published in 2011.

These books have been in tandem with their originator Rotorua's now 101-year-old Ynys Fraser (Our People, August 2016, 2017).

Now out of Brown's own stable comes the RSA-commissioned Touched by War – WARTIME MEMORIES to be launched today as the official prelude to Rotorua's civic Armistice Day centennial celebrations.


Alison's role has been an amalgam of her writing and production skills; she's produced it with assistance from Matthew Martin, a former Rotorua Daily Post reporter.

While many of the 40 contributors featured have shared their own tales, others come from kin left behind or those who've chanced upon their accounts.

Alison calls them all "wonderful stories that are memories, not memoires".

She's sectioned them off into categories: the two world wars, those who served in the military but were New Zealand-based and those with a civilian's experience of war. For this, she's drawn on English and European sources with horror accounts of how bombings blighted their childhoods.

Incorporated too are offerings from those conscripted into military service and those who've served in more recent conflicts not officially classified as war but in which this country's played a key role.

It's been an 18-month project for the woman who, fittingly, is the daughter of a World War II military man. Her late father served in the British-Indian Medical Corps.

One of her earliest childhood memories is of the large garrison walls she lived behind.

That was in India, the country of her birth. The city was Quetta, Alison's time there was pre-partition, the 1947 decree which turned that part of British-ruled India into self-governing Pakistan.

By then she was well clear of the tumultuous times the division engendered. At age 7 she'd been sent to boarding school in Scotland. St Andrews University followed. Yes, that St Andrews, the one where Prince William met his wife-to-be the then Kate Middleton.

Alison graduated with an MA, majoring in political economics and geography "in 1960 or was it 61?" No matter, it was a time when the UK job market wasn't graduate friendly.

She worked part-time in a wool shop on the Isle of Man, the British self-governing dependency and sometime tax haven in the Irish Sea that separates the UK and Ireland.

Her parents had settled there when her father's India service ended, becoming members of the group Manxmen (and women) referred to as "come-overs".

She was on the Isle of Man when she opened the Telegraph newspaper, to be greeted by a full page ad telling graduates New Zealand needed them as teachers.

"There was this picture of a recruitment officer pointing his finger saying 'New Zealand needs you' - a replica of the war-time image of Churchill proclaiming 'your country needs you'."

Alison applied, was accepted and posted to Hutt Valley High where she met and married her former husband, Charles Brown.

Before their children arrived they did their OE together in Europe and the UK. Later there was another year in the UK including further time on the Isle of Man.

"Our kids went to school there, started to pick up the Manx accent."

In London, she was employed as journal secretary with the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

When the Browns parted ways, Alison became field officer of the newly formed Keep New Zealand Beautiful organisation (KNZB) - "covering an area from Northland to Taupo, across to New Plymouth . . . It was the time when Rotorua was the jewel in KNZB's crown".

"I had a company car with bull bars, they really came in handy the time I had to plough through a flock of wayward sheep, the scene attracted police attention, they arrived to find a stock truck driver cutting the throats of badly damaged sheep."

Next career move was to the 1990 Commission established to mark the 150th signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

It's at this juncture we receive the sharpest rebuke of Our People's decade-long existence. What else would be expected from a fellow writer hot on accuracy? Our error had been to ask how much a Pom actually knew about the Treaty. "I'm not a Pom, I'm Scottish," Alison retorts, her voice raised. That won't be a mistake we'll be making again.

Her introduction to this region came when her then partner established an ostrich farm at Ngakuru.

"We knew absolutely nothing about them; they were meant to make us a pot of millions, they didn't."

When the relationship unravelled Alison settled at Glenbrook, arriving with 10 teenage ostriches, she grazed on her daughter's farm.

"Eventually they dropped dead on an agistment block near Tauranga, a disease was decimating ostriches at the time."

Enter her writing days.

"I popped into the Waiuku Daily Post run by friends; they'd just lost their proof-reader so kindly took me and my red pen on two days a week. I became motoring editor, wrote rural stories, it just grew and grew. I wanted to get into the kind of thing you [Our People] do, and started to write about unsung local heroes, the people behind those in the news."

She was simultaneously contributing to national publications of the New Zealand Memories kind and a farming magazine.

"I thought it would be useful if I moved down here [Rotorua], it was central."

And renewing her local writers' group membership when what she describes as a miracle occurred.

"A letter came in, Ynys Fraser was looking for someone to help with Remembering, she took me on initially as her photographer."

As the years rolled on and the project morphed into the Rotorua Retro series her involvement intensified.

It was while seeking a contribution from former RSA president William MacDonald for Retro 3 that he suggested she'd be the ideal person to take on the book planned to commemorate Armistice Day.

"I jumped at it, I like memories, opening people up, hearing people react 'gosh, did I say that?' when I read their stories back to them. The books are social history, projects I've had great pleasure from, it's an honour to be involved in them. I can't say how grateful I am to folk who have shared their memories; I'm kind of gobsmacked how generous people are, so trusting, so interesting."

Memories of War is available from McLeods Booksellers and their stall at tomorrow's Armistice Day commemorations in the Government Gardens.


Born: Quetta, India, 1939

Education: St Bride's School (Helensburgh, Scotland), St Andrews University

Family: Two daughters, one son, seven grandchildren

Interests: Family, keeping fit. "I walk with poles, go to the gym, aqua jog." Square dancing - "I like moving to music, like the rhythm, educated in Scotland means I'm educated in Scottish country dance." Reading "creative fiction and I just love Google." Member U3A committee

On Rotorua: "It's home."

On her life: "I've been lucky to have so often been in the right place at the right time."

Personal philosophy: "Do unto others as you would have them do to you."