Sunday, November 15, 2009


Switching on the TV yesterday I caught the tail-end of a reality survival show. Such shows rely very much on humiliation. I know about stiff upper lip and all that jazz but to be publicly pilloried is not pleasant. Even our popular Dancing With the Stars (which is being axed on cost grounds) uses the same format. Those who rail against bullying in schools should consider its ramifications in presentations on the box.

Peter Wilson ends his 850 pages account of the Thirty Year’s War with advice. ‘The voices of the seventeenth century still speak to us from the innumerable texts and images we are fortunate to possess. They offer a warning of the dangers of entrusting power to those who feel summoned by God to war, or feel that their sense of justice and order is the only one valid.’

After his historical block-buster I meant to turn to fiction. But Geoff had bought for me from Melbourne a remaindered paper-back Humphrey McQueen’s Social Sketches of Australia, 1888-2001, the radical historian and cultural commentator’s analysis of his country’s social history. It was beside my chair and I picked it up to glance at it and was hooked. After Wilson’s dense prose it was a relief to enjoy a polemical approach to history. He sees history through class warfare, labour versus the bosses and it’s quite clear where his sympathy lies. I kept thinking of parallel happenings here in New Zealand. Lovely little insights, the advent of the motor car narrowed women’s dresses and ended flowing trails. Country life was tough,.drought, rabbits and prickly pear. Town life was equally rugged for those at the bottom of the heap, sanitation, working conditions, sweated labour, servants.

Another dry blow. The forecast promises rain, the skies are grey but there is no precipitation. And the wind is strong and drying. It could be an unhappy summer. Hope not. It’s early days. Meanwhile I can only observe. My watering days are over.

Several year’s ago in my gardening heyday a friend’s son rang up. A designer, he wanted some garden photos for a web-site. “Sure, come round”. But when he arrived he was disappointed. He expected neat, ordered rows of veggies. My riot of flowering rocket, cress and coriander interspersed with mini-cauliflower, leeks, dog-legged radish and spring onion rows and lettuce plants with lots of white strawberries muddled in was not his idea of a garden. He took some flower photos – that part of the garden was photogenic – but my veggie patch didn’t fit his stereotype. But then I didn’t know what his client was after. The young these days have such diversity of career options - designing web-sites sounds like fun.

Outside the other day I noticed a plump little brown spider dangling from a thread on the camellia. There was an intermittent northerly wind blowing and the spider was relying upon a bigger gust to enable contact with another branch. It came and and it did. The spider then crawled back up its thread and re-launched itself in a different direction. This time it fell short so it extended the thread. The next wind swung it to another twig. As I watched it slowly constructed a web. Such dogged determination deserves admiration.

As a schoolboy I learnt the story of Robert Bruce the medieval Scottish leader who took refuge in a cave from the pursuing English. Having just lost his sixth battle he’d decided to give up attempting to get his throne back. But he watched a spider try and try again to spin its web to the other side of the cave. Six times it tried and six times it failed. On the seventh it made it. Its efforts inspired him to continue. He went on to soundly beat the English at Bannockburn. A disappointing battle site to visit – no sign of that long-ago heroic conflict.

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