Simpson, Tony

Simpson, Tony


Primary publisher
Penguin Random House

In Brief

Tony Simpson is a writer with a distinguished career in politics, journalism, television, editing and arts administration. He has published widely on aspects of New Zealand social history, with an extensive publication list of books, pamphlets and articles ranging in focus from the New Zealand depression in The Sugarbag Years (1974), to the origins of New Zealand cuisine in A Distant Feast (1999), to Ambiguity & Innocence (2013), a book which records the 1945 confrontation between the New Zealand Division and Marshall Tito’s partisan army in Trieste. He has written extensively on the lives of working class New Zealanders, in such titles as State House Furnishings and Working Class Culture (1991), and the idiosyncratic The Scone in New Zealand literature: A Post Modernist Approach (1993). He is the recipient of multiple fellowships, including the Fulbright Literary Fund Award for Non-Fiction (1983), the Arts Council Non-Fiction Fellowship in Letters (1995), and in 2016 was a Visiting Scholar at the Stout Centre of Victoria University of Wellington. In 2017 Simpson published Along for the Ride, a political memoir.

Simpson, Tony (1945 - ) is an award-winning social and cultural historian, who has published seventeen books exploring the diversity of New Zealand history. Graduating with a Master of Arts in politics and history from the University of Canterbury (1968), Simpson’s writing career exemplifies his dedication and passion for New Zealand’s turbulent social and political history. His readable narrative histories touch on a vast range of subjects, from the New Zealand depression in The Sugarbag Years (1974), to the history of Māori land loss in Te Riri Pakeha (1986), to the origins of New Zealand's cuisine in A Distant Feast (1999, 2nd edition 2008).

In 1968 Simpson left his hometown of Christchurch to work as a producer in radio in Wellington. While writing and producing historical radio documentaries, Simpson recognised that no one ever mentioned the 1930s depression. Over the next few years Simpson gathered oral recollections from those who lived through the 1930s, resulting in his first published book The Sugarbag Years (1974). The Sugarbag Years won second place at the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards (now known as the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards). The sequel, The Slump, explored the economic and political context of the depression years in New Zealand, and was published in 1990.

A former industrial advocate, radio producer, screen writer, and public servant, Simpson’s career is as varied as his publications. Notable works include 'The Folk Culture of the Dispossessed' (1972), 'State House Furnishings and Working Class Culture' (Heritage New Zealand), 'The Treaty Speaks to Pakeha' (Victoria University of Wellington lecture series), the idiosyncratic 'The Scone in New Zealand Literature: A Post-Modernist Approach', (Readers and Writers Conference, Dunedin 1993), 'Alchemy, Erotics and the Wife of Bath' (National Library Seminar Series, 2006), The Immigrants: The Great Migration from Britain to New Zealand 1830–1890 (Godwit Publishing, 1997), 'Looks Like It's Open Season on Queers' (LAGANZ Homosexual Law Reform Conference), ‘Miss Beauchamp and the Servants’ (Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society, 2010) to ‘Mr Wakefield and Dr Marx’ (Presentation to the Annual Conference of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, June 2014). In 2013 he published Ambiguity & Innocence, exploring the New Zealand army’s 1945 skirmish with Yugoslav partisans in the Italian city of Trieste.

Simpson is a fierce promoter of literacy and social rights. He was the president of the writers’ association PEN(NZ) in the 1980s, a member of the Literature Committee of the Arts Council from 1991, and for four years was the president of the Society of Authors (until 2013). He judged and convened the 2003–2004 Montana Book Awards (now Ockham New Zealand Book Awards). For 10 years he was also a board member of the Stout Centre for the Study of New Zealand Culture at Victoria University of Wellington, and in 2016 he was a Visiting Scholar at the same centre. He is currently a board member of Copyright Licensing New Zealand and is involved in RAINBOW Wellington, an organisation supporting LGBTI+ youth.

Simpson has published multiple articles in magazines and journals, both in New Zealand and overseas, including in The Listener, the New Zealand Law Journal, the New Statesman and London’s The Guardian. He publishes regularly as a books reviewer for New Zealand Books. Simpson was named Reviewer of the Year in the 2005 Montana Book Awards.

Encouraged by the realisation that ‘the world in which I had grown up [in] . . . had almost completely ceased to exist’, Simpson’s latest work Along for the Ride: A Political Memoir (Blythswood Press, 2017) details his life as a unionist and public servant from the 1970s through to the present day.

A leading New Zealand historian, Simpson has received multiple awards and fellowships over the years. These notably include the Fulbright Foundation award in 1983, where Simpson studied whaling records relating to New Zealand in the United States. He was also awarded the Mobil Trade Union Fellowship in 1985, the New Zealand Oral History Archive Illyot Fund in 1988, the Literary Fund award for non-fiction in 1986 and 1991, the PEN/Stout Centre Fellowship in 1992 and the Arts Council Non-Fiction Fellowship in Letters in 1995.

Simpson was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2005 in recognition of his dedicated service to historical research.

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Updated June 2017.