Q&A: Gábor Tóth

Gábor Tóth knows quite a bit about the capital’s history.

He’s the Local and New Zealand History Specialist at Wellington City Libraries and also manages the online heritage platform Wellington City Recollect.

Gábor’s role at the library involves working as a historian, developing new heritage resources and looking after the collections of rare books, photographs and manuscripts.

To celebrate 150 of the Wellington City Council, Gábor will be sharing the weird, wonderful, fun and funny, fabulous, and downright strange history of the council so look out for his videos.

In the mean time, we chat to the local history expert about a few of his favourite things.

What’s your favourite place in the wider Wellington region?

The Skyline walkway between Mt Kaukau and Ngaio. It forms part of a loop which I try and run from home at least once a week. It gives me that wonderful feeling of being on top of the world with stunning views over Wellington City, Ohariu Valley and Cook Strait towards the South Island. I find there’s something about standing on top of a hill that you have climbed yourself that touches the soul.

On extra-clear days you can occasionally see Mt Taranaki rising out of the sea but it’s just as exciting when a nor ’wester blows through, the cloud layer comes down and you have to face nature at its fiercest.  

Also up there is my favourite Wellington building, the Mt Kaukau TV transmission tower. As someone with a keen interest in architecture, it may seem strange to select a big aerial as my favourite structure but I love its purity of form and how this follows its function. Its design is unique in New Zealand with its graceful lower curves being part of an engineering feature that helps it withstand the extreme wind conditions which regularly occur on the summit. An interesting fact is that its height and proportions are very close to those of the Saturn 5 rockets of the Apollo moon missions, something to keep in mind next time you spot the transmission tower from afar.

What’s the best local purchase you’ve made this year?

A New Zealand made carbon-steel chef’s knife by “Svörd” which I bought from The House of Knivesin Petone. It’s beautifully balanced, razor sharp and for someone who loves spending time in the kitchen, it’s been a delight to use. It was a special treat to myself after engaging in a wee bit of retail therapy following New Zealand coming out of Level 4 lockdown in late April.

Who is your favourite famous Wellingtonian?

The writer and journalist Robin Hyde. With history being such an important aspect of my life  I love the dream-like manner in which she invokes the early 20th Century Wellington of her childhood in The Godwits Fly or how she captures the brutality of World War I in Passport to Hell. I think it is unfortunate that her work as a historic Wellington author has been overshadowed by Katherine Mansfield but her talent for writing, her extraordinary life and the tragic nature of her death at only 33 really intrigue me. I often wonder what path her life would have taken had she received the support and recognition she so richly deserved when she was alive.

What book is beside your bed?

Two at the moment which both happen to be autobiographies of musicians.

The first is Shayne Carter’s Dead People I Have Known; his music has been part of the soundtrack of my life for over 35 years so it’s been great to read about the life and philosophy of one of New Zealand’s most enigmatic musicians.

The other is the autobiography of Cosey Fanni Tutti, the pioneering electronic music artist best known for her work with the legendary (and infamous) 1970s experimental rock group Throbbing Gristle. It was the last thing I expected to see going cheap at the closing down sale of Paper Plus in the Johnsonville Mall.

You just won lotto, what will you spend it on?

A Leica “M” digital camera with a set of lenses. Leicas are superbly engineered and beautifully made but their eye-watering price tag has meant that acquiring one has only ever been a pipe-dream for me. I borrowed a Leica M6 film camera when I was working for The Independent newspaper in London back in the 1990s and I’ll never forget its buttery-smooth mechanical operation and the precision release of its cloth shutter. Admittedly the resulting photos proved that I was no Henri Cartier-Bresson but I could see how its simple unobtrusive design could become an extension of one’s eye and mind, and the optical quality of the lenses was something to behold.

What’s a skill or talent you have that people wouldn’t guess?

Producing cold-smoked sausages, prosciutto, bacon and other various forms of charcuterie. My Hungarian ethnicity meant that I grew up with all manner of cured meats in the fridge long before they became popular in New Zealand (it’s funny to think how salami was considered “exotic” up until the early 1980s). About five years ago I started to learn the craft of curing meat and so far it’s been a great success, made easier by the fact that the former owner of our house installed a small commercial kitchen downstairs where she use to run a catering firm. A number of friends and family members have suggested that I should consider doing it commercially but I can imagine how the demands of running it as a small business could quickly kill the love I have for doing it as a hobby. It fits in well with my other D.I.Y pursuits of brewing craft beer and home-roasting coffee.


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