13 Jan 2021

Bookmarks: Alison Ballance

From Summer Times with Emile Donovan , 11:00 am on 13 January 2021

"I have a strange work-life balance. It's a bit of a melange, to use a geographical term … but getting out in nature brings me great pleasure both professionally and personally."

This summer RNZ's Alison Ballance has been hanging out with family in Nelson - walking and sea kayaking in the Waimea Inlet. 

Our Changing World producer Alison Ballance helping check stoats traps in Fiordland.

Our Changing World producer Alison Ballance helping check stoats traps in Fiordland. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

The Our Changing World presenter chats to Emile Donovan about her favourite music, books and films.

As well as being a science broadcaster, Alison is also a writer, filmmaker and member of Wellington choir The Doubtful Sounds.

She was a bookworm as a child and still reads every day, favouring books with a strong sense of place, such as:

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

"They're just quiet, observational, very insightful essays."

The Quiet Spectacular by Laurence Fearnley

"Laurence is a fabulous New Zealand author, she's also a good friend of mine. She's another person who writes these quiet meditations on place. [This book] is about wetlands and it's about female friendship. It's a slow story about three w0men each dealing with things with their lives who somehow end up together and the thread that holds them all together is this wetland."

The Salt Bath by Raynor Wynn

"This is a book about a couple in their late 50s walking the South West Coast Path in the united kingdom. Their life had basically gone to hell in a handcart. They'd lost their house, they'd lost their business… then her husband was diagnosed with an incurable neurological condition so she figured there was nothing else for it by why the hell don't we go and walk this coast path?"

"Raynor has this beautiful sense of place … an ability to just make quiet observations about the place you're in and the nature that is happening around you."

Alison is a walker herself, and especially loves Wellington's south coast, Zealandia and Otari-Wilton's Bush.

"Everyone at RNZ always laughs 'cause when I leave at the end of the day I've got my walking shoes on and my walking clothes and my backpack. They go 'where the hell are you going?' i go 'i'm walking home."

Before RNZ, Alison worked at Dunedin's NHNZ, formerly Natural History New Zealand.

She doesn't watch a lot of wildlife documentaries for recreation - saying she's too critical - but she loves NHNZ's 1989 documentary series The Black Robin - A Chatham Island Story.

"This was natural history filmmaking as a soap opera in a way that no one had ever done before. These birds had names… they had these humans who were making this last-ditch effort on a remote island to try and rescue them. This was really really popular viewing."

"[These docmentaries] are pretty basic compared to technology these days but if you cast your mind back this was revolutionary. They had 16mm cameras, they had reels of film, they were in the back of beyond. It was hard and difficult and it was compelling filmmaking."

The Netflix film My Octopus Teacher was another treat last year.

"There's a strong sense of place - not just this octopus as a character but the cold beautiful place where the octopus lives … [...] is quite different from anything I've seen before."

Alison also enjoys "quirky foreign films" such as the Norwegian film Kitchen Stories (2004).

"It's a film about Swedish efficiency researchers watching Norwegian men to try and improve how they work in the kitchen … it's excruciatingly painful and excruciatingly funny at the same time. Those films from different cultures that just take a poke at life really make me happy."

The music Alison played:

'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' by George Frideric Handel

Alison's father Peter was a keen piano player and she learnt for many years, too. They used to play this sinfonia together "quite badly, I have to say"

Peter played the upper part while Alison "bashed around down on the bass".

'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park' by Tom Lehrer

"My parents peter and queenie had an eclectic record collection which included this by former mathematician Tom Lehrer, who wrote brilliant satirical parodies of popular musical theatre genres. I loved those songs so much."

'The Complete Oboe Concertos' by Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni

As well as piano, Alison learnt oboe as a child.

"When it's placed nicely it's just heartbreakingly gorgeous and Albinoni's oboe concertos just press every button as far as I'm concerned."

Alison Balance has long produced RNZ's science and nature programme Our Changing World and also created the podcasts Kākāpō Files, and Voice of the Iceberg. She is also a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to natural history, filmmaking and broadcasting.


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