Monday, March 30, 2009

Education Gap

Every now and then our community goes through a witch-hunt about education standards. The critics claim school leavers can’t read. They can’t write. They can’t do their sums. Actually, most can. The international evidence is clear - our best are up to the world’s best. But unfortunately, we do have a long tail of - in the jargon term - under-achievement. There is no magic bullet, no quick fix for this problem.

For it is not just an education problem. As the gap between rich and poor widens, this rift is reflected in our schools.

Year One teachers are well aware of the huge learning gap amongst their charges. Some youngsters come from homes where curiosity has been fostered, books cherished and used, and stimulating and challenging experiences provided. Other kids are not so lucky. They arrive at school way behind in their prior learning. Teachers do their best but what happens in their classroom cannot be divorced from what is happening in the rest of the community.

That gap is likely to continue to widen if those children arrive at school hungry and/or emotionally distressed. A hungry child is not interested in learning. He or she needs food. A battered child will not be interested in learning. She or he needs assurance, comfort, love. Schools do their best but they cannot supply those things single-handed. Teachers are aware of the importance of continuity for such pupils. Many of these children constantly shift from school to school which upsets the attempts to improve their learning.

I am not parent-bashing. What I am saying is that the children of marginalised parents are at risk when it comes to learning. Marginalisation has various causes, but many stem from policy decisions made by central and local government and private enterprise.

There are other factors. Throughout their schooling, but especially in their teen years, students are subjected to intense media and peer pressure – pressure that today's decision-makers find difficult to comprehend. Until recently family, school and church were the learning sources. They worked together relatively coherently. Now learning sources are much more fragmented and competitive. At the stage in their lives as young people move from dependency to self-sufficiency they receive contradictory and conflicting messages about their self-image.

Another pressure is the increased skill level that is required. Yesterday’s grease monkeys are today’s computer technicians. I am told that what used to be Stage 2 chemistry at University is now taught at the senior school level.

Further, critics of school leavers’ skills and confidence should look at workplace practice. How supported are young people when they start? What is the employer’s educative responsibility? We, as a community, need to accept and embrace the concept of lifelong learning.

To return to the schools – they are not islands. Teachers are not miracle workers. There is poverty in our land and that affects what happens in our classroom. The best reading programme in the world is up against a colossal rival here. If the school runs a sensible health programme it has to compete with the advertiser’s hype.

Education policy cannot be developed and delivered in isolation from other policies. For example, immigration and housing policies have a great impact upon the work of schools. When successive governments changed social and economic polices in the past how often were the likely education consequences considered? Teachers are left to cope with those consequences. Under trying circumstances the great majority do their best. Knocking them will not help. So, let’s give three cheers for our teachers. Without them, where would the learning society be?

Ancient Greece

A subject I really enjoyed at university was Greek History, Art and Literature. That ancient Aegean society really grabbed my interest. Studying the torso of a shattered sculpture or the scurrying scene on a mended jar opened up fresh thoughts about history, the creative spirit and human efforts to excel. I swallowed the lecturers’ theories uncritically, unaware of their late nineteenth century origin. The literature, especially the drama, proved good background for a lifelong interest in poetry and drama.

Greek Art - art criticism was new to me. The first time my eye received any training it was the human soul made manifest by the human body; passion and clarity intermingled. New art led to old myths. I systematically went through the library shelves, (both university and city) borrowing everything on the Greek gods and myths. The lecturers presented these as figments of imagination as representative of our species' behaviour. The books gloried in that sunlit ideal past in ways that made the present seem mundane. Mankind jubilantly released from the death- and animal-worship of the Egyptians evolved to honour the human figure and spirit. (Recently I read Black Athena a book that refutes this thesis). These ideas were a corrosive mix for a faint-hearted theological student. Yet in a strange way they helped support his faith by presenting the material struggle for existence as unimportant, indeed degrading. The argument of a divide between body and mind was reinforced.

So in later life I was delighted to twice travel to Greece. The Parthenon is a spectacular reminder of a past glory, while Mycenae, Epidaurus with its unbelievable acoustics, Olympia and Delphi lived up to expectations. A spectacular thunderstorm over Delphi added to the atmosphere.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Unhistoric Story

A stanza from Curnow’s THE UNHISTORIC STORY

Spider, clever and fragile, Cook showed how
To spring a trap of islands, turning from planets
His measuring mission, showed what the musket could do,
Made his Christmas goose of the wild gannets.
Still as the collier steered
No continent appeared;
It was something different, something
Nobody counted on.

I majored in history from university. The unintended consequences of human actions, or sometimes inaction, that’s the attraction of history. The past – how people have lived and organised their societies - fascinates me. Not only has it fashioned the present, it will help shape the future. Questions of leadership, of power, of conflict are of continual interest. I slowly learnt to understand the crucial importance of economics in these occurrences. while the relationship of art and literature - effect and reaction - is always intriguing. Auden’s lines, ‘[History] is by the criminal in us: goodness is timeless,’ are valid but they smack to me of the heretical. My spirit can accept the validity of the claim, but my will cannot. It goes on its merry way pursuing historical interests.

Humanity came late to Aotearoa,. Pakeha even later. My view of this latter part of our history was shaped by two historians, Sinclair and Oliver and a poet, Curnow. Of the three I suspect the poet’s impact is the greatest. His potted history of the European arrival has a simple argument – the result is not the one anticipated. The land of milk and honey bathed in the light of kowhai gold had disappeared under the weight of puritanism, capitalism, greed and selfishness, a land without a soul at home. The clever change of rhyme scheme in the last four lines of each stanza adds to the sense of something not quite right, hesitations and misgivings.

There’s a contradiction here. Curnow’s conclusion, intellectually accepted, was not my actual experience. Indeed, during the 1950s and 1960s while the intelligentsia were decrying our smugness, crudeness and conservatism I saw with delight the impact of labour-saving devices upon Mum’s time and energy and how it increased the farm’s productivity. After the depression and the privations of war materialism made sense. Unemployment was low, Britain took all our butter, ANZUS guaranteed our security and the welfare state was a given. The damming of rivers was not controversial, though a massive social change was starting with the influx of Maori into the cities. Depression and war over, poverty vanquished, we could concentrate upon progress and prosperity.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Librarian

At Morrinsville College where I began teaching I was put in charge of lost property and the library. The first was a chore, the second a bibliophile’s joy. During all my twelve years teaching I was school librarian – ordering and unpacking new books, encouraging students to borrow, managing the stock. It also meant working closely with another adult (the library assistant). I felt then and still believe that if we had more aides in schools and fewer teachers quite likely they would be better learning centres. The principal suggested that I take the senior student librarian and two others to Auckland to the Minerva book-sale, a poor way to build up stock. But for my three years at Morrinsville it became an annual treat. Goggle-eyed country kids in the metropolis, all four of us would make our selection, go to a coffee-shop, my shout, drive to the top of Mt Eden to view the city, and return to the college to unpack our booty. "Loved that book you gave me, sir" - it made the job worthwhile. In those pre-TV days kids read more than they appear to now. I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill kid. Bookworms and devotees still exist. I relate to such people. My grandmother used to complain “that boy has always got his nose stuck in a book.”

From the library back room I saw other teachers at work. The good side was seeing effective teachers using the resources of the library as part of their overall strategy of motivating students to read and search. But I also observed lazy teachers. "Get a book, sit down and be quiet." Once a student asked, "what's the capital of Russia, sir?" "Stalingrad" the teacher replied. When the bell rang and the kids departed I gently pointed out his answer was wrong. "I didn't know but that is the one thing a teacher never admits. Be dogmatic. Otherwise you lose charge.” I didn't remonstrate, he was older. But I made a mental note to avoid such an approach. The library held several atlases and books about the Soviet Union. What an opportunity missed in terms of young people's self-discovery, curiosity, and skill acquisition. Why had the student asked the question? The library assistant saw my face. "Some people shouldn't go teaching," she said.

It concerned me that many teachers under-valued the library. I commenced a campaign to sell the place in all the schools in which I worked. I instituted a roster scheme of student librarians, they sat a small exam, and then had their library badges presented at assembly. We met weekly to discuss displays, ways of making the library work more effectively and to attract more customers. When I shifted to Thames High I became embroiled in a battle - if the library was vacant it was customary to take boys there to cane them. As librarian I refused to allow this practice to continue. "It is a place of learning, not a place of punishment." I carried the day. One way was to fill it up with classes, not just English and Social Studies, but other subjects as well. The visit to the library was not something to be rationed, not a treat or trick but an essential component to learning.

Friday, March 27, 2009

UN Job

So Helen Clark gets the third highest UN job. Richly deserved. I felt proud to be a Kiwi while she was representing us overseas, especially in her stance over Iraq. Not that the new job will be an easy ride. Getting and distributing aid in the present financial situation will be stressful. And then there is the task of ensuring that the aid goes to those who need it and not to the fat cats along the way. Good luck to her.

When some future historian writes up Helen’s regime her travels will loom large. When I read the biography of Peter Fraser I was struck by how much he had travelled as PM, especially during the war. I was reminded of this while reading the Alanbrooke diaries – he and Churchill seemed to be at sea or in the air much of the time. Considering the slowness of planes then the magnitude of their journeys is mind-boggling. Plus the dangers – being shot down or crashing. Brooke lost his ADC when the pilot ran out of fuel when seeking for Malta.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Literature

On 20 July 1975 I gave a talk on teaching literature. I began:
'I came to English teaching in search of the El Dorado of literature. Ever since I seem to have been hacking through a jungle of linguistic grammar and the sociology of language acquisition. Some jungle! It grows so quickly. Take a bird’s eye view of that jungle. Is it not life, ever-changing, ever-renewing life. Life, not existence. There is a difference in these words. Words which are my limits and my wealth, they are the machetes with which I attempt to clear a way through that jungle. Literature is the attempt at clearing a path through life by the use of words.'
I later said:
'The English teacher helps his students explore the ambiguity and chaos that is life and language. Literature is one of our methods of putting order into that ambiguity and chaos. Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning. A literature lesson is a raid on the inarticulate. And it will fail. And tomorrow we shall try again. And in the trying is the success.'
My words sound like a person in mid career, a confident being, though still out to impress, masculine, whose liking for metaphor often stood in the way of his argument - half-way between the university student and this elderly guy tapping words into the word processor. Also obviously someone at that time reading too much T.S.Eliot. I’m not sure now that I admire that man. And yet he was chasing something valuable.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Normandy

I’m now reading Triumph in the West, the second volume of the Alanbrooke diaries. The English gentry continue to amaze me. A month before D.Day he spent a contented Sunday afternoon in a hide watching a marsh tit. The odd pheasant shoot with the King with scores of birds being despatched. I am up to the landings and the battle for Caen.

Anne and I had a holiday in Nomandy in 1999 including a weekend country homestay north of Caen. Our host took us to Aramaches, one of the beaches where the British came ashore on D.Day. My diary reads: ‘The remains of the old Mulberry harbour are still there, part of war's debris but a reminder of the size of the enterprise. The Channel looked choppy and uninviting, even the little cafes with names like Churchill looked rather empty and forlorn. At the museum there were displays of the harbour and relics, a very good slide-show in English and a documentary made not long after the war - one forgets the tone of those old news-films. It finished with a small French girl giving flowers to the Allied soldiers.’

Not far away there was ‘a little cemetery where British, Canadian and German soldiers lie in row after row. A considerable number had the tag, an unknown soldier. Each grave had a little rose in front of the stone. The countryside was so quiet. Back home Anne and I went for another walk up a trail, arched over in places with beech trees with the sun shining on wheat stubble and contented dairy cows. Courting couples and family groups all said 'bon jour' as they passed.’

Caen’s a city steeped in history with its two fine cathedrals, one housing the remains of William the Conqueror, the other his wife Matilda. We were impressed by the Museum for Peace, especially by the large split-screen display of the actual beach landing, a montage of Allied and German newsreel plus additional material from movies such as The Longest Day. The build-up of events on both sides of the Channel was well-done. There was also an audio-visual programme of the Caen hinge battle - those poor civilians and that wrecked town.

We visited Bayeux, a town ‘crisscrossed by a little stream which has millwheels on it and ducks and swans’ and saw the famous tapestry. It exceeded all expectations, the original comic strip, ‘William, the build-up in Normandy, Harold's oath of allegiance, funeral and death of Edward the Confessor in that order, the channel crossing, the battle itself, dead knights having their armour stripped off. It’s a miracle such a flimsy piece of material survived while stone walls have been battered and demolished. Not only was there the story, but the scenes of peasant and animal life above and below it were delightful. I liked the cameo where the priest is bringing William's daughter to Harold in the main text. In the sub-text there is a man hastily disrobing obviously eager to get into the marriage bed.’

I wrote this poem on my return:

Bayeux

The Channel sources
a chill wind, jet trails
clutter the sky, inside
a comic strip tapestry
narrates William’s battle.
Once called the Bastard,
now the Conqueror. Peasants
strip armour from the dead
& dying.

Not far away, beyond
placid tractors and stationary
cows, stranded hunks of rusted
floating harbour, evidence of that
more recent landing. Men died
in what is now the carpark where
sparrows struggle for the tourist crusts.

Two slaughters that
helped assemble my existence.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What's Wrong With Our Schools?

Judging by the chorus of criticism our schools are in a parlous state. The picture is one of classroom mayhem and chaos. But it’s not so. Up and down the country, the majority of students at all levels get on with their learning quite satisfactorily. Most parents seem content with their local school. Some are delighted. A few have grounds for concern. The system has checks and balances to deal with such concerns but they are rather slow to kick in.

Students grumble, but then they always have. Teaching is harder than when I started in 1960. Now, information technology offers alternative learning. Kids tell me ‘school’s dull’. Cleaning your teeth is dull. Learning maths is hard but I’ve never thought of it as dull. Teachers tell me that many students find step by step learning more difficult than formerly. The average attention span appears to have got shorter. Schools have to compete with the hoo-hah of television, texting and play-station. Further, they are being given an increasing socialising role

One problem is: how to define a good teacher? In 1966 I was in my first year as Head of English in a new secondary school. One of my students passed School Certificate English with 97%. My reputation was made. She was a brilliant student, with a high IQ, and parents devoted to reading and debate. The co-relation between the IQ test and School Certificate English was 89%. She was home and hosed for that particular exam long before she appeared in my classroom. In terms of value addition my teaching had done more for many of her peers.

This is a dangerous argument. You might say it makes the teacher redundant. No! The role has changed, is changing and will continue to change. Teaching is a complex task. Research means we now know much more about learning. The old pour-in-the- information model is being replaced by a more facilitative role. As students progress through the system the teacher increasingly becomes a mentor. My primary school maths was a series of drills. We worked silently and on our own. Today’s youngsters play with shapes as they talk and work in groups.

Since I went to school the worlds of banking, communication, farming, shopping and entertainment have radically changed. Schools cannot remain in a separate time warp. They also change and adapt. Which is why education is fair game for the critics. Everyone has been through the system. We know what we did and we believe we know how we learnt. Nostalgia adds a rosy glow.

I am asked, “Why bring in new-fangled ideas like NCEA?” When I was young they made similar comments about the abolition of proficiency –whereby you couldn’t go to secondary school until you reached a certain standard. There was criticism of the new-fangled School Certificate - no holy cow then.

So I say, let’s praise what is working well and seek to improve what should be working better. There will be mistakes. The education establishment will sometimes stuff things up. We all do. That is in the nature of being human. And that’s how we learn.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hiroshima

HIROSHIMA

The most famous shadow in the word
is the fastest ever made.

The most ordinary of mornings
is the quickest disposed of.

The second hands on the frozen watches
the most accurate of all.

There are speeches, there are prayers.
The seminars and the journalese are endless

on their way to that purest glamour
the sun close as a mirror while a city shaves.

Light, which is god and father,
Shadow, which is mystery and image,

where have you gone, words, things, we favoured?
You are too close together. You do not exist.

Vincent O’Sullivan Selected Poems p143

I saw the shadow O’Sullivan describes when I represented New Zealand at an educational conference in Hiroshima. During our breaks, in the streets little children would run up to take the hands of white strangers - something trusting about holding hands. Pedestrian crossings had different bleeps -– so many people had been blinded. Those at the blast’s epicentre would never know what happened, but for many it would be a slow, lingering, painful, dreadful death. Locals told me they found it difficult to marry people from other parts of Japan, the risk of deformity in the new-born child still high. The conference over, I returned to the peace-park, where urged on by giggling Japanese school girls I rang the peace bell, before being photographed with them and then walked around the museum slowly and soberly. One exhibit was a stone plinth from the old post office. Someone had been sitting on the steps. There, seared on the stone is the shape of that person, a slighter darker silhouette. For a brief moment that body had blocked light from the explosion. The museum photos show utter devastation. Not just of humans and their buildings. But every living thing been caught in the maelstrom – fly, horse, dog, moth, chrysanthemum, maple, cherry, water lily and goldfish. We have no right I believe to do that to other life.

The spectre of the nuclear bomb has hovered over my life, an evil addition to the mayhem of war. I know about the carnage inflected by the artillery barrages on the Western Front destroying horses, oaks, moles, liverworts and butterflies. Kublai Khan smashed hitherto impregnable Chinese cities with massive catapults. The rocks these machines hurled did not discriminate between soldier, civilian, dog, mouse, pheasant and sparrow. But somehow the scale of nuclear annihilation beggars description. What is even more sobering is that as a weapon the Hiroshima bomb was a mere tidler compared to those developed since. No nation is now an island. Terrorism adds a new dimension. Humanity is at risk from its own technology. We did not create the planet upon which we exist. We briefly are but its tenants and stewards. Now as a species we are capable of making it uninhabitable.

Contradictorily, having said that I acknowledge that President Truman’s green light for its use was based on the evidence presented about potential casualties from an attack on the main Japanese islands. They also at the time were relatively unaware of the long-term affects of radiation. I also admire Truman’s courage in standing up to MacArthur when he wanted to use nuclear weapons in Korea.

Curmudgeonly Comments

a) It’s a bit rich for Tourist Minister, Prime Minister John Key, to ask Kiwis to holiday at home to assist the local economy when he has just had a Hawaii Christmas vacation.
b) Boy racers are in the news. TV’s Top Gear is a role model – middle-aged hoons behind steering wheels. The two major channels devote much of their week end sports time to motor racing. Despite a few ads about speeding and drunk driving there are many ads extolling and showing the speed and manoeuvrability of new models.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Old Age

It has been said the past is a foreign country. Old age seems to me to fit the same category in that it is unknown territory. Most of the guide-books I’ve read about it picture a sunset era of tranquillity and kindness. They speak of expanding visions and the giving of sage advice. That’s a possibility. Equally possible is indignity and infirmity, a loss of control and a need for palliative care. Our consumer society’s search for perfection is averse to acknowledge alternatives. It creates it’s own myths, there’s only one way and that’s upward, ever upward with improvement at every step. There are rah rah books galore explaining how we can extend our horizons.

But it is not surprising that old age is a status to which people do not aspire, for at the same time we are bombarded with a decline narrative. Buy this product to delay the inevitable. In the forties a mid-life crisis is apparently our lot. Put it off by swallowing these pills. After that the knacker’s yard beckons. We don’t want to know about that. Such a mentality seeks to make palliative care invisible. It seems to me, even if it is only in the long run in our own best interests, those who remain active should be more conscious not only of those who need it but also those who service it. Their work is important and as the number of aged increase so will their numbers. Like teachers and nurses, if we undervalue their work we do so at our own hazard as well as the community at large.

Science

I had my first science lesson, after, on the way home from school we passed a paddock where some big blue gums had been cut down. We stopped at a safe distance to watch men blow out the stumps. One would drill a hole, put in the blasting powder, light the fuse and scamper away. There would be an almighty bang, at the same moment the stump would jump and be shattered, all very dramatic. Next day, a fair distance away on my grandfather’s verandah, I watched this activity through his binoculars. The log jumped but it took ages (the term is relative) for the sound to arrive. I asked, ‘why?’ ‘Ask your teacher?’ they suggested.

Next Monday I did. Miss Banks gave the answers. Light waves travel through air faster than sound waves. Intriguing! Captivating! Fascinating! Much more interesting than the normal lessons. That information stuck, is a fundamental component of my mental furniture. ‘How does colour travel?’ And, ‘how does sound go round corners?’ ‘It’s time we did our tables’, said Miss Banks.

I’ve always retained an amateur’s interest in science, especially during my 30s in what I call my science fiction phase. I drove around Britain - from Land’s End to John O Groats - reading Asimov’s Foundation series. Bradbury was a particular favourite. Also Farmer who only recently died. But the doyen was Arthur C Clarke.

I was never into magical fantasy. It was science and its ideas that appealed. One short story called The Cold Equations illustrates its attraction. A far-off planet has a medical emergency. A rocket carrying needed medical supplies is despatched. The sole male astronaut piloting it finds the vehicle is carrying too much weight; there is a stowaway aboard, a young, pretty nurse, her brother is on the stricken planet. Gravely he breaks the news to her. Her weight means the rocket can not get through, and she cannot fly it so she must be sacrificed. He works out the projections and the point at which she will have to climb into the airlock and be ejected into space and immediate death. This tale was a sure-fire lesson with kids. They could understand the logic and appreciate the tragic waste of a young life. At issue were concepts of chivalry, gender roles, ethics and survival of the species. Discussion was nearly always vigorous.

I wrote this poem about a year ago.

THE ULTIMATE

Seeks to exchange body -
round shoulders (consequence
of childhood illness & wire
wove mattress), original teeth,
(less than started with) lungs,
(struggling), penis (lust no
longer invasive], mind (in
sound shape except for forget-
fulness about thinking in good
shape) one skin, (thin) ten
toes, tongue, (in cheek), great
capacity for whisky, roast pork
bacon, nectarines, omega plums,
& guacamole with tons of garlic
supplementary maintenance required.

- for
lithe, supple, surefooted, unhesitating one
either sex (might be fun to try the other)
a short-term lease could be considered.

Damn!
Arthur C. Clarke never proposed this possibility.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Question of Sex

A good memory of Canterbury University’s Rolleston House hostel is the rough and tumble of argument and debate, over cups of instant coffee. Topics ranged far and wide, earnest to light-hearted, the nature of existence, the flow-on effects of sputnik, the truth of the Bible, the merits of Marx, how to get a goodnight kiss, skiing, tramping, apartheid, nuclear war – in other words everything. One evening discussion focused on why Marilyn Monroe was such a sex goddess. I recall the topic but fail to remember any conclusion. But there was something about her.

One topic went over several nights. Whether it was better to be a girl? Would experiences be very different? It was a sharing of ignorance and prejudice. We took for granted the period’s sex roles. We would be the breadwinners. The pill was still around the corner. The opinion was expressed that women led a more secure and comfortable life. They didn’t go to war or fight fires. I am sure that if I heard a tape of that long-running discussion I’d be surprised, indeed appalled how smug we were. Newcomers were roped in to have their opinions sounded.

But the one thing upon which we agreed was that we were pleased not to have to bear children. By all accounts it sounded messy and painful. I piped up about my experiences with lambing; of turning a unborn lamb around with my small hand when it was trying to come out the wrong way. Briefly I basked in the limelight before accidentally de-railling the discussion. I mentioned that farmers believed that breeding sheep for wool had made their birthing more difficult. That got a scientist in the group musing about human evolution. His opinion was that walking upright had caused skeletal changes and the size of the human brain made it very difficult for the child to get through. The mention of evolution saw the hounds bound away after that quarry.

Of course he was right. Recently in a Geographic I read about the strains that humans suffer as a result of standing upright and walking on two legs. The article said that the moment of birth was the greatest gymnastic manoeuvre that any human does in their lifetime.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mid-March 2003

From New Year’s Day 1998 until I went to hospital in April 2006 I kept a diary. Out of interest today I looked back six years. Here’s a few excerpts.

18/3
Ali Carew came for lunch. We had it outside in honeysuckle corner. I listened to George W Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. War has been inevitable for quite some time but now the clock is ticking visibly. Howard pledges support, Clark says no and Robin Cook has resigned in the UK. The only sure thing about a war is that it will have unforeseen consequences. I have never doubted their capacity to take Saddam out. But then what. Bush argued the legality of the action, appealed to the Iraqi people and then braced the American for likely terrorism action. It proved very hard to settle after that. For entrĂ©e I picked a handful of runner beans and steamed them for five minutes, blanched them in cold water and then fried them with garlic and parsley. A lovely flavour. Bill English has come out in support of America. Great flip-flopper that one.

19/3
Tony Blair won the vote in the House of Commons for war but 219 opposed it including 135 Labour MPs. I looked at some of the speeches on the internet. I must say the standard of debate just leaves ours for dead. It almost surreal as we watch them sleepwalk into engagement. Especially as it was a gloriously fine March day. Bizarre, the war teeters on the verge of war and I am pickling onions. I poured boiling water on to them to assist in the skinning (and it stops the tears). Even so it took me three-quarters of an hour to do two bags. I leave them in brine overnight.

20/3
Turkey will let American planes over-fly but not land and no ground troops allowed. There is talk of Turkey invading northern Iraq. Old rivalries are churned up when war is imminent. The USA black and white approach finds it hard to comprehend century-old enmity in that whole Balkans/Middle East region. The war began at 3 30 our time when a cruise missile sought a ‘window of opportunity’ on Bagdad. Obviously the Americans had struck at Saddam Hussein. He appeared on TV later so it looks as if they didn’t get him. But was it a pre-recording, or a double. It is a Graeme Greene situation. I watched the TV for a while. It is portrayed in intellectual speculation. It might be a quick war but it will not be a nice war and the long-term consequences for American popularity cannot be estimated. ... Iraqi missiles miss their targets in Kuwait. It’s a minnow against a white shark.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

UNESCO

I was the sole New Zealand representative at a UNESCO Education Conference in Geneva when the topic was the role of the teacher in the 21st Century. It was a singular experience. There were 748 delegates from 136 member countries and 163 observers (who had speaking rights), a total of 911 people, there were 26 Ministers of Education, 25 vice-Ministers and many CEOs. Such statistics sound like a promotion. Not so, rather it’s to stress this was no minor league. The USA’s absence was its loss. New Zealand suddenly seemed very far away and very small.

UNESCO has had a rough press. But its existence is important. It is correct when it says that wars begin in the minds and hearts of men, (yes, the sexist tag is appropriate), and education is one of the ways to address this concern. But a large international conference has many frustrations. Just one small example, a 20th century equivalent to medieval theology’s debates over how many angels could dance on a pinhead. Point 5 of the declaration adopted by the conference reads, 'to call upon all the partners, such as teachers and their associations, learners themselves, moral and spiritual authorities, families, businesses, the media, intellectuals, artists and scientists to commit themselves to the development of a school envisaged as an active centre for learning and moral, spiritual, civic and vocational education, to be continually adapted to a changing world." The original draft had the words ‘government and religious authorities’. A number of delegates asked that the term ‘government’ be deleted. To them it was a dirty word. Others wanted ‘religion’ out. Others wanted it retained. Bearing in mind our system based on the concept of a partnership between teacher, community and the State I supported the word ‘government’. The lady Minister from Bahamas suggested a sensible reconciliation, "all the partners, teachers, learners and stakeholders". That was turned down by the chair on the grounds that "stakeholders" was a new term, not tabled prior to the meeting. So ‘government’ and ‘religion’ were both struck out. As the Australian delegate said to me, "the powers-that-be-back-home are going to ask 'how on earth could you support a recommendation that ignored two of the main movers in education?'" Watching these geopolitical arguments removed some of the glamour my mind associated with diplomatic jobs.

My mindset, my associations, my experience did not prepare me for the intensity of these debates. They were argued with a life or death fervour. For the first time in my life I understood the schisms of the early Christian church and the passionate heat of the various factions of the Reformation. The disputes between Sunni and Shi-ite in Iraq mirror the same intensity. Mirror is the wrong word. These debates are not about semantics. They arise from deeply held convictions. To such people I probably appear shallow-souled. So be it. I have no desire to enslave others to my own beliefs. It’s an age-old dilemna. Not being into ‘isms’ is both freeing and restricting.

It wasn’t all intense debate. Time was set aside for regional meetings. There was a delightful moment at the beginning of the Asia-Pacific one. A Japanese delegate said, "now we are all speaking English at long last we can understand each another", to which a Sri Lankan added in his clipped English "this conference indeed lacks an Anglo-Saxon dimension."

The final session saw not only the adoption of the conclusions of the major debates, the declaration, and recommendations but also a celebration of International Teachers Day. This proved rather inspirational and moving. The nations of the world with all their posturing and rhetoric were in agreement about the importance of this task and the need to value it. It was a coming together of the entire week. There was genuine idealism - many people with fire in their bellies about what education can do, should do, must do. It was authentic and global and heart-warming. I came away reinforced in my belief that New Zealand has a fine system and we don't acknowledge it often enough. In the conscious dreams that human beings have created, education is one of our finest. There is a time and place for idealism just as there is a time and place to be bawdy and comic and impolite and outrageous.

I also learnt a lesson – never make jokes at an international level. Delegates’ seating was based alphabetically. Next to New Zealand was Oman and because of French spelling after that was Uganda. They had an overflow of delegates and because I was on my own they asked if they could seat some of their people with me. I happily agreed and enjoyed their company. At a cocktail reception the lady minister from the Bahamas – a most impressive person – said to me she didn’t know New Zealand had so many blacks. I said ‘but we have the All Blacks.’ Mistake! My lame explanation didn’t help; a most embarrassing moment.

The Male Gaze

My latest poem:


The Male Gaze

Eva Hitler commits suicide
30 April 1945. The SS man
carrying her body for burning
fumbles furtively her left breast.

Mata Hari is shot as a spy.
Med students use her corpse
to practise an appendix operation.

Clara Pettaci, knickerless,
rigor mortis setting in, swings
upside down in a Milan garage.
Standing on a box a priest
tucks her skirt around her thighs.

A nine-year old girl is excommunicated
for an abortion. The stepfather who raped
her stays in the congregation of the faithful.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Churchill

The lovely weather continues. I have a care-giver come five days a week, thrice to shower me, twice to walk or exercise me. Today was a walk. At the end of our lane, we are the last of seven units, there is a shopping complex. We sat in the sun there watching the passing traffic, pedestrian and vehicular. There was a large queue at the bus stop. I reflected on the irony of my situation: I qualify for a gold card - thank you Winston – but cannot use it because I can’t climb the bus steps.

Still reading about World War 2. Eisenhower in exasperation at Churchill’s suggestions of reduced troops in North Africa before Tunisia was finally captured shot back ‘for God’s sake can we finish one job at a time.’ Brooke had to cope with his mercurial master every day. His pen portraits of Churchill’s mannerisms, behaviour and ideas is fascinating. A born counter-puncher and bull-dog. A lover of the theatrical - speaking to the troops in the Carthage ruined ampitheatre. One of the best biographies I’ve read is Roy Jenkins’ life of Churchill. He’d written a life of Gladstone as well. His summary is that they were both great prime Ministers but Churchill was the greatest. The war was his finest hour. Otherwise he would have gone down as a political failure.

Bryant’s explanatory pieces are very one-sided. Of course the British are going to be Eurocentric. Bryant’s own background makes him an advocate for sea-power and thus the Mediterranean theatre – Nelson, Pepys and Wellington are his heroes. Churchill had information on the development of rockets and other new German weapons. The Americans were always going to look both ways, Pacific and Atlantic: and after all they had been attacked first at Pearl Harbour. There were two entirely different strategies being considered. They too must have found Churchill trying.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Milking Before Dawn

MILKING BEFORE DAWN

In the drifting rain the cows in the yard are as black
And wet and shiny as rocks in an ebbing tide
But they smell of the soil, as leaves lying under trees
Smell of the soil, damp and steaming, warm.
The shed is an island of light and warmth, the night
Was water-cold and starless out in the paddock.

Crouched on the stool, hearing only the beat
The monotonous heat and hiss of the smooth machines,
The choking gasp of the cups and rattle of hooves,
How easy to fall asleep again, to think
Of the man in the city asleep; he does not feel
The night encircle him, the grasp of mud.

But now the hills in the east return, are soft
And grey with mist, the night recedes, and the
The earth as it turns towards the sun is young .
Again, renewed, its history wiped away
Like the tears of a child. Can the earth be young again
And not the heart? Let the man in the city sleep.

Ruth Dallas Collected Poems p15

I’m sometimes asked ‘which is my favourite New Zealand poem?’. It’s an unanswerable question for it’s a moveable feast. There are so many. Not only is Milking Before Dawn a fine poem, it’s one for which I have a deep affection for it is the first I taught.

A rookie secondary teacher at Morrinsville College in the Waikato, dairy heartland, I had trouble establishing rapport with a low ability fourth form English class. Many students came from dairy farms, often, share-milker’s children who’d worked in the shed before catching the bus to school. Poems from the Old Country, smugglers and highwaymen, daffodils and swallows were not their glass of milk. I loved this poem and decided to risk sharing it with them.

I handed out copies and had hardly finished reading it aloud when a boy said ‘it’s just like it is, sir. People in the city don’t know what they’re missing.’. A gusher from the first well – a teacher’s satisfaction, plus pleasure at the common currency between the Deep South poet and cow cocky heartland. The poem’s intoxicating tone wiped away the boy’s experience of the shed’s hard slog. The age-old myth about the morning’s renewing freshness proved captivating and the ensuring discussion turned lively. The image of cows as wet rocks led to a heated debate, quickly sorting those with imaginative minds and those of a more realistic bent. To top the scene off, through the windows was the distant Kaimai range half-shrouded in the clinging wisps of mist that follows summer rain. Would that all lessons went as well. That one shaped a career.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Military and Political Consequence

It’s a beautiful crisp March day, no cloud, no wind, ideal for a walk to the ATM machine and lunch outside. It’s that sort of a day when it’s a joy to be alive.

I continue reading the Bryant/Brooke book. Pearl Harbour has just happened. Hopkins and Marshall have flown over to discuss a 1943 landing in France. Brooke is asking Marshall what plans he has after landing. Do they go east, south or west? Marshall had no idea. The Americans, as did Churchill, wanted to make a political gesture to the Russians. Brooke believed a premature attempt would be a disaster. His viewpoint prevailed.

It reminds me - in the scale of things, trivia - of a Copenhagen conversation I had. In 2002 Anne and I stayed with friends in Berlin. We had planned to go to Dresden and Prague but there had been heavy flooding so we changed and went north to Copenhagen and Lubeck. We’d spent a morning in the fascinating Danish musuem and were having lunch in the cafetaria. An American couple asked if they could join us. He worked in naval administration. About his third sentence was, ‘how long will it take to knock that bastard Saddam Hussein off his perch?’ I said, ‘that’s not the question. What will happen when you’ve done that?’ We had a ding-dong debate. The women-folk quickly left us to explore the museum shop. He seemed to have a frightening unawareness of the concept of consequence.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Language

When Christopher Columbus sailed west in 1492 to discover the new route to China and India he took along an expert Hebrew speaker. Everyone knew it was the original language before the Tower of Babel gave mankind many different tongues. I’m sure both parties, American Indians and Hebrew speaker would have had equal difficulty communicating.

Questions of language and communication have intrigued me all my adult life. One of the pleasures in teaching English was this aspect. But increasingly I became aware of a gap in my education; I’d never learnt another language. Whenever I travelled in Europe I watched with regret the ease that people often spoke in several languages. It’s an access to different cultures that I regret. Any culture is bound up in its language. Maori know this – hence their urgency about its use. Some people argue that English is becoming the world language and therefore we don’t need to learn other languages. Hollywood and the Internet will ensure the dominance of English they claim. They forget that Rome did not last forever. Some futurists predict the breakup of the USA, with a new Spanish speaking nation in the southwest and southeast. But while it is true that Russian airline pilots landing at Cairo receive and return information in English it is a fact that the Russians remain embedded in the culture that nurtured them and the Egyptians retain an Egyptian psyche.

I enjoyed the several years when I managed the work of the national language advisers for schools on contract from the Ministry of Education. There were nationals from Japan, China, Germany and Spain. For a historic reason the French adviser was a Kiwi teacher who was given a year’s training in France – a much sought after position. The Japanese and Chinese advisers couldn’t understand the other’s spoken language but they could communicate through writing. One day the Japanese adviser asked, “What is hail?” The Chinese adviser draws the signs in the air with his hand. “Frozen rain,” she said. We all nodded. Once, there was a hilarious moment during a team meeting. Someone made a suggestion. I countered, “we can’t go on milking that particular golden goose.” Several minutes later Hansjorg the German adviser said he’d given up trying to work out what I meant. I explained. He said, “in a million years I’d never have known”. Interesting all the Kiwis in the room knew exactly what I meant.

Friday, March 13, 2009

My War

Talking about my Lange blog a political scientist points out that this year’s new university students were born after David stepped down as Prime Minister. This statement reinforces a feeling that I sometimes have – younger people stumbling on to my blog are likely to say who is this old fogey? I am my generation. Like most Kiwis of my vintage our upbringing was dominated by a distant war - World War 11.

At present I am rereading The Turn of the Tide, Arthur Bryant’s editing of the Alanbrooke diaries of that war. Last evening it was the retreat to Dunkirk. Despite Bryant’s ardent British patriotism what a shambles. And amidst such mayhem such bravery and pluck. Monty won his spurs. The German pincer plan worked splendidly. Yet their troops held back at the end. The Brits were lucky. They could have lost almost all their men as well as their equipment. At this arm-chair level it’s a game of chess – not the blood, sweat, tears and panic of the battlefield and its surrounds. The chaos on the roads, refugees and troops, disorganisation and fear is described and can be imagined but I'm sure the experience would be chilling. The relief at Brooke's transition to the quiet of English country lanes is obvious. But at the back of his mind there must have been the thought that those lanes might soon be reflecting the same chaos. Bryant’s always tough on the French. Who knows what defeatism may have run through Britain had the German army gained a foothold. Further, the French had seen first-hand the carnage of the First World War.

When I was a child that second war dominated my life. The action may have been distant but the consequences were ever present. Our teachers lectured us that civilisation must be saved from the cruel, barbaric men who had seized control of Germany. The enemy was not the German people but their leaders. When the Japanese advanced in the Pacific the tune changed. Now the war was no longer confined to the other side of the world, and a sense of threat moved into the community.

But the action for me remained second-hand. The war was bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover. It was Mum knitting jerseys, mittens and socks, Doug or I with the skein held in our outstretched hands as she wound the khaki wool into a ball against the background of rain drum-rolling on the corrugated iron roof. It was Pop (Mum’s father) listening to the BBC, its gloomy urgency - `this is London calling'. (Years later standing before Big Ben and hearing its precise strike I experienced a surprising feeling of imperial pride. The Empire might have lost its grandeur but its heart still beat. That particular cluster of emotions had been fastened to my personality, incongruous alongside other contradictory clusters).

Granny’s Sydney cousin and her daughter came to live in Little River for a while after the submarine attack in their harbour. Wood was piled on Pop’s farm at Rocky Peak, high above Akaroa Harbour, to be lit as a beacon if the Japanese landed. We saved money in our post office boxes to help defeat Hitler. We were given time off from lessons to hunt for ergot, the black fungus that grows on tall fescue grass, and which would apparently stop soldiers bleeding to death. There were photographs of dead or missing young men in the Weekly News, and maps in the newspaper showing the Russian advance from Stalingrad, past places with strange-sounding names like Kiev and Omsk. At the cinema (a local Saturday night showing, or in town as a treat), we watched grainy newsreels of Spitfires taking off, shattered cities, Churchill with his ever-present cigar, and the odd distant dead German soldier.

One Friday the regular army arrived. There was to be an exercise in which the local home guard, acting as the enemy, would attempt a breakout from Pigeon Bay, and the army would try to stop them, and defend the road to Christchurch. After school we helped the troops cut down two of Pop’s pussy willow trees to camouflage their tank, an activity which did not please him. Next day the older boys and girls rode over to Pigeon Bay and told the local men which spots the army had fortified. The soldiers had protected the main road but no one had told them about the alternative route, Pah Road. The home guard got behind them effortlessly, and received compliments on their intelligence. Pop said, “that lot wouldn’t be much help against the Japanese.” In their haste to leave their pussy willow stronghold the soldiers left behind two combat jackets, which we promptly commandeered.

Towards the end of the war, convalescing American soldiers were billeted with local people. These men kept getting malaria relapses. Pop was given an extra petrol allowance, as he or Mum often drove his big dark red Oldsmobile to Christchurch hospital with sick marines. Even to my untutored eye their uniforms seemed smoother and better-cut than those of our men, while their comics, chewing gum and forbidden Camels opened up new worlds. I listened wide-eyed as one marine from Arizona told of his cattle ranch, and the cowboys who worked it. After he had gone, one of his mates said he worked a petrol pump and wouldn’t know one end of a horse from the other. Romance is so easily shattered. Nevertheless the locals spoke of them as brave boys. Bravery was then an important value. Farmers, soldiers, rugby players: all were brave. I envied them, even though my imagination too often portrayed the unfortunate consequences of such bravery.

Suddenly the European war was over. Decency had prevailed. Hard on the heels of this news came the victory of Labour leader Clement Attlee in the British general election. All through milking that evening, Pop whistled happily. Soon it was VJ Day. - the locals complaining about the lack of fireworks caused by the war. The horrors of Hiroshima remained unexamined though a new word Belsen justified the long struggle. Soon oranges reappeared in the shops, and bull’s-eyes, which we had read about in English schoolboy stories – gigantic things to hold in the mouth. And hazardous: they could choke you.

Until peace arrived, the conflict heightened a sense of unpredictability and insecurity. One day that fateful telegram might arrive. There was fear over the prospect of the troop ships being torpedoed. Pearl Harbour shook confidence. Our home-guard with their horses and old rifles offered little protection against Zero planes. But most men returned – the killing had not been nearly as catastrophic as in World War I, and only a few names needed chiselling on to the memorial gates of the Little River domain. Those who came home were scornful of the British High Command’s limitations during the war. In contrast, those who had been in New Zealand were grateful for the American presence in the South Pacific. The geo-political shift that created the Anzus alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the United States took place in front of my childhood eyes.

Those who criticise the materialism of the '50s and '60s should recollect the austerity of the war and its preceding depression, also the courage and the sacrifice that made victory possible. There are those who call that generation 'selfish'. Many of these men put their life on the line 'to keep the world safe for democracy' and their womenfolk joined in that sacrifice.

Note (An abridged version of this passage is in my memoir, This Piece of Earth, now out of print).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

David Lange

Our society has replaced class with status. Celebrity has replaced aristocracy. The poet’s question ‘was he happy, was he free’ is not the question now. Everyone and everything seems to need ranking - All Blacks, universities, restaurants and soap powders. People want to be Number One. A while back there was a fuss about whether Hillary or Tensing got to the top of Mount Everest first. Neither of them would have got up there without the other. Indeed, it was the support of the larger expedition that got both to the summit, which is not to take away their own achievement.

I’ve always taken heart from Emerson’s lovely sentence, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I am a mess of contradictions as most of us are. For a period Mum introduced me as “Harvey worked with David Lange you know.” Part of me jibbed at being so defined. The other part accepted what she meant. The time with him was the high point of my career. In his autobiography I warrant two sentences. If mine were written he’d warrant a chapter. (Which in the nature of experience is a distortion, eighteen months isn’t long in a span of 74 years). In my wildest dreams I never imagined I’d spend that time in close proximity to the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

One morning in late 1987 the phone went. The voice at the other end asked would I like to come to the Beehive to be interviewed about working for Mr Lange. I was flabbergasted. And thrilled. I went to the Beehive where they had a strip search of prejudices and attitudes. Shortly afterwards I met him and Phil Goff. Both men seemed rather pre-occupied. I didn’t know Roger Douglas’s flat tax proposal had Cabinet ministers rather preoccupied at that stage. A hand-shake and the job was mine, education speech writer for joint Ministers of Education. I had signed up for a turbulent journey.

As his poll ratings slumped his senior advisers decided he should stump the country selling the education reforms. So it was my good fortune to travel the country with him - Invercargill and Inglewood and Westport et al. I recall with affection as visit to Hokitika where on an educational tour of the West Coast he took time to look at the new road bridge being built across the river. A large black Labrador singled him out as the obvious leader of the human pack. Despite the efforts of security and Coasters the dog kept trying to return to him. Thrilled youngsters explored the Air Force helicopter in which we’d arrived, the pilot and his side-kick benignly watching them. The thought strolled across my mind – only in Kiwiland would the Head of State’s chopper become a temporary playground for local kids.

Twice I urged him to give up the portfolio or at least the travel to concentrate upon the struggle with his Minister of Finance. I told others the same opinion. He remained adamant he would continue. Selfishly I was pleased – it meant more time with him., and listen to his conversation and speeches

As a person he was quixotic, quirky, humane, complex with an extraordinary mental adroitness. His courtesy was old-fashioned. Equally, at times he could be exasperating. Aides were supposed to prevent him eating too much. But how can you stop a Prime Minister determined to have his way? “Thank you Harvey, you’ve done your duty and given me advice. Now, can I order and eat my hamburger in peace.” My instructions also said I must walk on the street side of him. He wouldn't allow that, pointing out that if a car or bullet hit me it would still kill him too whereas if he were hit the odds were I'd survive.

At policy-making his acumen I found amazing, likewise, at the same time sometimes he surprised me with an unworldly naivety. His wit often left us in stitches. One day an importunate journalist pleaded with him. “A word Mr Lange, just a word.” He got his word. “Wombat”. So many times his one-liner summed up a situation superbly. Interviewing me about my latest book This Piece of Earth in Christchurch in late 2004 the reporter sprung a surprise question - what plant would David Lange most resemble. I said it would have to be something gigantic, a kauri or a redwood - no, not colourful enough, it would have to be a pohutakawa, a magnificent man-of-war one in flamboyant full-bloom beside the sea. The article began with this description. I sent a copy by email to him. Quick as a flash came back his response. "The possums have got to this pohutakawa."

I visited him a few months before his death. He looked frail and ill but was cheerful, full of jokes and anecdotes, giving details of his health problems that I’d rather not have heard and facing death with a fortitude and stoicism I envied. He said Roger Douglas had called to see him and they'd buried a few hatchets. "I trusted Roger too much," he said. I countered, "the way you trusted people reflected the person you are." He beamed. There was often a little boy in him wanting to be let out.

His education administration reform Tomorrow's Schools was based on a premise of trust. David kept talking about a covenant. I was asked to try to stop him using that word. He explained that he meant it in a legal sense. The community should be able to ensure that the school had the necessary resources and teachers to deliver the required education. The State had that responsibility. It was a clear vision - underpinned no doubt by his Methodist upbringing. He saw it as a three-way partnership, school, community and government. He wanted to ensure that the changeover disrupted young people’s schooling as little as possible. To this end he appointed four well-known educators and charged them with making sure the process did not disadvantage students. It seemed to me then and now that this is a good consultative model. It worked well. Regrettably, however, one important recommendation was not implemented. That was for an overarching Council with the heads of the Ministry of Education, the National Qualifications Authority and the Education Review Office plus three other prominent New Zealanders appointed by the Government. This Council would be charged with co-ordination of policies from the various agencies and looking at long-term effects of educational decisions. That idea never got out of the hangar. Treasury claimed it added another bureaucratric layer and was unnecessary. The Education Ministry didn’t want conflicting advice being offered to Government. The result has been an on-going lack of co-ordination between the agencies, indeed more than that, outright competition in some instances.

The last speech I wrote for him was to open an Auckland childcare centre, which concluded with unveiling a plaque. That speech had caused quite a few problems. It was delivered after Roger Douglas mounted his leadership challenge. I kept getting phone calls asking should they place the unveiling on hold in case of the challenge was successful. He is the Prime Minister I’d kept replying, expressing a confidence I did not feel in my bones. He survived the challenge. But half an hour before the speech was due to be delivered the Boss rang using the car’s cellular phone. Have you given the speech to the media he laughed down the line. Yes, I replied. He chuckled, the headline could be that he’d unveiled a plague on that building. Several people had read the draft – no one had picked up the typo. No one in the media did either.

Sods and Odds

a) Anne says it’s a law of life that whenever we’re visitors the table pepper grinder runs out.

b) People seem to have trouble recognising that I have a permanent medical condition. Several times I’ve responded to a question about my health ‘I’m feeling better today.’ Next thing I hear on the grape-vine that I’m on the mend. Better is a relative word in this context – better not to be used I realise. I will not get better, instead I wilI get worse. I suppose it’s human nature to want our friends to be well and in good health. But I find the avoidance of unpleasant facts very frustrating.

c) I spend a lot of time watching the wild life of the garden and lawn. Every day at present a pair of wax-eyes come and do the abutilon over. In winter there’s often a flock. I’m reminded of Stead’s lines: the bottle-brush bush/ shaking with/ warblers at work. Two pairs of blackbirds work the lawn over. Each day they seem to find new worms. The cabbage tree (our neighbour has several large ones) has ripe berries and the blackbirds are trying to eat them. They have trouble getting a footing whereas in a few months time they will be perfectly at home eating crabapple and medlar standing on the boughs with ease. I throw old bread out for the sparrows. Within minutes there are dozens jostling and struggling as they demolish the offering. Soon it is all gone with the birds still gleaning for crumbs. There are two dandelion flowers. White butterflies settle on them seeking nectar. If these butterflies were rare and did little damage we would consider them beautiful. Every now and then a monarch butterfly sails serenely past. We have lots of late roses with buds galore. Even the Dublin Bay climber we planted last autumn is having a second flowering.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bethell

I could not go on with my gardening
For dreaming of loved and lost London,
And Regent’s Park on summer Saturdays,
And hearing the shrill calls of young boys playing cricket,
And ceaseless distant scream of captive seals.

My favourite New Zealand poet is Ursula Bethell. My poetry editor Mark Pirie sent me today by email a piece he wrote about Bethell and Dinah Hawken. To Bethell, ‘home’ was England as the quote from ‘Mail’ illustrates. To Hawken in New York, New Zealand was ‘home’. Jenny, my niece in London sent me photographs of London canals. Twice, Anne and I stayed with her friend Sandra who lived near Regent’s Park. We strolled along the canal paths behind the zoo and heard the barking of the seals as well as lions roaring. Bethell’s lines restored that memory.

Speaking of Bethell her contemporary D’Arcy Cresswell said, ‘New Zealand poetry wasn’t truly discovered until [she], “very earnestly digging”, raised her head to look at the mountains.’ For a brief spell – ten years - the serenity and comfort of Rise Cottage on the Cashmere hill inspired Bethell to create some of our finest poems. But when her companion, Effie Pollen, suddenly died, her ‘small fond human enclosure’ was destroyed and her poetic voice became silenced. One of my favourites is ‘Pause’.

When I am very earnestly digging
I lift my head sometimes, and look at the mountains,
And muse upon them, muscles relaxing.

I think how freely the wild grasses flower there
How grandly the storm-shaped trees are massed in their gorges
And the rain-worn rocks strewn in magnificent heaps.

Pioneer plants on those uplands find their own footing;
No vigorous growth, there, is an evil weed:
All weathers are salutary.

It is only a little while since this hillside
Lay untrammeled likewise,
Increasingly swept by transmarine winds.

In a very little while, it may be,
When our impulsive limbs and our superior skulls
Have to the soil restored several ounces of fertiliser,

The Mother of all will take charge again,
And soon wipe away with her elements
Our small fond human enclosures.

Rarely has the sublime been so gracefully and practically defined and explained. From the Port Hills the distant Southern Alps convey an aura of distant splendour against which we seem so transient. In time the elements will sweep away our human enclosures. But she picks up her trowel and continues gardening; that is our lot. There is enjoyment and satisfaction in digging in the soil, planting things and looking after plants. She stops work every now and then to look at the mountains, serene and timeless, backdrop for her labour.

One of her poems I particularly like is RUTH H. T. It depicts a characteristic of gardeners, the ability to conceive a future picture.

"Ruth" is my very fine new rose-tree.
Compact in growth" is she, and "fairly vigorous";
Her leaves so "dark and shiny, will not mildew."
"Erect" she carries "large round blooms of copper-carmine."
"Continuous these blooms, and "sweetly scented."

Around her base spring many-coloured tulips
Beside her leans an orange-spotted lily
Beneath her smiles a small bright apricot-hued viola.

- So to my faith, and for your fancy. But the facts are:
Two bare thorny twigs with a pink label;
Stuck in the earth around them several white pegs!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Goals and a Fable

Schools are human constructs to assist learning. What is their purpose? Thomas Arnold, famous 19th Century headmaster of Rugby gave three reasons: religious and moral principles, gentlemanly conduct and intellectual ability. In 1969 the PPTA working party arrived at the same three though in a different order and jargon: the urge to enquire, concern for others and the desire for self-respect. In other words, education was, is, and will be about a mix of values, behaviour and knowledge and the skills all three require.

To outsiders teaching appears a simple task. In reality it is extremely complex one, requiring considerable professional expertise, emotional labour and commitment. The Chinese have a proverb. Give a man a fish and he can feed his family for a day. Teach him to fish and he can provide for them every day. I add a further twist. There are many ways to catch fish, not just one way.

Sometimes talking about education I tell a fable. A teacher wandering along a deserted beach finds a washed-up bottle. The cork removed, out pops a genie who makes the old three-wish offer. The teacher quickly decides, “a long happy healthy life and at the end a quick and painless death.” “Very sensible” says the genie. “Most people ask for eternal life and after a few centuries that gets rather boring”. Second wish. “I wish the same for my partner and that they die at the precise moment I do.” “What a sensible person you are. Most people ask for someone more young and beautiful or handsome and that way lies trouble.” Third wish.” We both hate flying and now all our children live in Australia. Could you build a bridge across the Tasman so that we could drive over to visit them.” The genie scratched its head. “That’s rather difficult. Whales will try to rub their barnacles off on the pylons, and snakes may slither across and there’s the small matter of passing bays and petrol pumps. And we’d need draw-bridges to let ships through. Would you mind putting that one in the too hard basket and asking for something easier?” “I’d like to teach in the perfect school.” The genie didn’t hesitate. “The bridge, two lanes or four.”

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dotage & a tragedy (little t)

Trailer:

The saga of Groucho and Marx, the monarch butterfly caterpillars took a sinisiter twist this morning. When we went to bed last night Groucho was winding himself/herself into his/her cocoon while Marx appeared to be in the process of beginning to do the same. When we came down this morning Groucho'’ chrysalis hung contentedly from its stalk whereas Marx had fallen off and drowned in the water surrounding the pot. The stupid creature hadn’t attached itself properly. Anne said ‘how tragic’. I said, “such a greedy guts, it probably was too heavy.’ I never thought caterpillars could become so interesting.

I once asked Mum how she felt when her pet lambs were taken to the freezing works. She replied, ‘I never named them, Dick always did.’ He christened one lamb Snowflake and then couldn’t make the wrench to send it off. It earnt its keep as a Judas sheep.

The Main Show

A word intrudes into my consciousness – a word I do not want to use, indeed I’m even reluctant to acknowledge its existence. It is ‘dotage’, derived from Old English meaning silly and it is used disparagingly about aged people who are frail and senile. I understand why the Greeks invented gods who were immortal - Aphrodite always beautiful, Artemis always chaste, while down the ages Zeus would hurl his thunderbolts and huff and puff about human folly. Age-old, that human search for perfection, we want to lasso particular moments and hold them fast forever. Hollywood pursues the same myth. Against all odds the hero survives, lovers are always young and athletic, the aged are either comic relief or a bothersome nuisance.

Those ancients had a chilling legend about a mortal man, Tithonius. A minor god Eos – rosy-fingered dawn with the snowy eyelids responsible for the first glimmer of day light - fell in love with him. She begged Zeus to confer immortality upon her beloved. At length he gave in to her persistent demands and granted her wish. But she forgot to ask for Tithonius’s perpetual youth. Everything was fine at first but then he began to age. Eos tried to kept him young with celestial ambrosia but in vain, he wrinkled and shrunk and became more and more impotent and decrepit. Tennyson describes his plight. “Immortal age beside immortal youth, and all I was in ashes”. Eos locked him away out of sight and went off as the Greek gods were wont to do seeking other lovers. Eventually Zeus took pity on him and turned him into a cricket.
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Helen of Troy’s face may have launched a thousand ships, but the search for the fountain of youth sent more. Most societies had some legend about the search for a cure to stop or at least slow down ageing. I read once an account of Thomas Parr an English peasant in the 17th century. He lived on a spartan diet, cheese, fresh fruit and bread. He was summoned at the age of 152 to the court where the Charles 1 hoped to learn the secrets of longevity. So lavishly did they feed the poor fellow that he fell ill and died. Even if the king had learnt a secret it would have done him little good, his head soon to be chopped off by the executioner’s axe. I wonder what Parr drank? Most contemporary accounts have beer as the chief beverage. Parr’s diet does sound sensible. Not like medieval scientist Roger Bacon’s recipe for longevity which was the rejuvenating powers of the breathe of young virgins. A likely remedy. Maybe I lay a too cynical 21st century template on the philosopher’s motives. My source claimed the Parr story is true, but I have not been able to verify it. I can vouch for the Bacon. And the beer.

Pingandy

In my CDU blog I mentioned producing resources for Pacific countries. Shortly after leaving the Department to be an education consultant in 1986 – at that time a rather unusual and rash step - the Consortium approached me to write a wrote a text-book for New Zealand Schools titled Australia Nearby. Part of it was built around the lives of four Australian secondary students. The first was on correspondence in a remote station in the Pilbara region in West Australia. That visit enabled me to experience the outback vastness, such an ancient immense area.

Here in New Zealand nowhere is far from the sea and the most common colour is green. The Pilbarra consists of kilometre upon kilometre of red earth, with rows of gum along the banks of waterless streams. The rainfall is 22 millimetres, just enough for sparse vegetation, mainly mulga shrub. The small plane that took me to Paraburdoo the nearest town made several landings along the way, mainly at iron ore towns providing dramatic views as it flew low over the massive open-cast mines with their gigantic machines, From Paraburdoo there was a four hour jeep journey to the station called Pingandy.. Emus raced alongside the jeep. “Crazy birds. Are they racing us?” I asked. “Too dumb to swerve away,” the student’s stepmother replied. “They’re real bird-brains.” When the jeep stopped what struck me was the silence. And the late spring heat. Summer is the rainy season. Late spring, everything is very dry.

It’s half an hour from the station gate to the homestead. We arrive late afternoon as the heat dies down and a slight breeze starts. The animals come alive. We go past a bore, free range cattle and kangaroo drinking along with cockatoo and galah. As it’s nearing the end of the dry season the stock do not move far from the troughs. When it does rain the vegetation quickly flourishes and the cattle and the wild animals range further afield. Kylie, the student, starts her schoolwork about 6 30 am. Apart from helping neighbouring stations muster she’s only left her station three times this year. Basically the station closes down in the middle of the day – siesta time for everyone though I’m too hot to sleep even in the veranda shade. The generator is turned off at 8 30 pm. By that stage we are all under mosquito nets on the veranda. The kikuyu grass around the homestead is green – the good bore there can supply enough for a sprinkler as well as the household and a large trough for the animals. And there is a big veggie garden. I watch the dogs chase a goanna out of their melon patch. “If it comes towards you fall over,” Kylie advises. She saw my bewilderment. “If you don’t, it will try to run up you to get away from the dogs.” I hurriedly look round for the best place to hurl myself. The reptile with its huge claws goes over the high fence with ease.

Kylie’s parents take me bush bashing – in the buggie we drive through the mulga towards water-holes they’ve only seen from the air. Pelicans and galahs take to the air as we arrive. They are delighted to find their prize Hereford bull with a harem of cows. In the last roundup he’d been missing and they were worried he’d died. I pull my shirt off to enjoy the sun. “Put it back on” they tell me. “It’ll fry you.” I don’t argue. They have one big round-up a year and truck the stock out for sale. “A good sale means we can sink another bore.” “And a bad one?” “We pull our horns in.” On the way back they point out some holes in the dry river-bed where they have dug temporary watering holes. They identify the best places to dig by kangaroo scratch marks.

During my last evening, Kylie taking the meat out to the freezer almost steps on a brown snake. If it had bitten there was no way the Flying Doctor could land at night. She would not have survived. I’m more concerned than they are. “We live with this.” Kylie says “I wouldn’t like to be anywhere else.” At night, under bright stars, I hear the heifer calf savaged by dingos cropping the lawn. Miles to the west there was a flash of lightning. In time the rumble of distant thunder arrived. Could the much-needed change in the weather be coming. I sensed Kylie, her parents, the animals, the bush all willing it to rain. No, it was a dry blow.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Undeserved Praise

The Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars.

Anne and I were beginning to get worried that Groucho and Marx the two caterpillars would run out of leaves again. But Groucho upside down began to spin his web cocoon preparatory to become a chrysalis. Isn’t instinct marvellous? Marx went on chomping away.

The Rose Garden

This afternoon Anne drove me to the rose garden. Family groups galore strolling around. Lots of roses still in bloom. Children, ducks and a fountain. A very pleasant stroll.

Undeserved Praise

For eighteen months I had the good fortune to be an education aide to David Lange, Prime Minister of New Zealand in his capacity as Minister of Education. I have written about the experience in a memoir The Ninth Floor and in a poem sequence called Beehive, published in the collection Pingandy.

One anecdote I overlooked involved the end of year Correspondence School break-up. It was broadcast live and traditionally the big brass politicos attended. I wrote a speech for the PM based around the fact that most listeners would be isolated rural folk and people like light house keepers. The draft talked about the valuable role of the parents in educating their children. The PM’s chief advisers overruled that effort. It was a chance they claimed to promote Tomorrow’s Schools, the administrative education reforms. Despite my protests they completely recast it.

As we walked across to Wellington Girl’s hall for the ceremony David said ‘I hear you’re unhappy about the speech. Why?’ I explained why but added, the amended copy had been given to the media and he should go ahead. He said nothing. But when he got up to speak he used the opening I’d drafted but then launched into an off-the-cuff impromptu speech along the lines I’d originally suggested. He ended by warning kids about sunburn and urged them to slip, slop, slap. At the conclusion I was waiting for him to come down the steps. Jim Bolger, Leader of the Opposition said, ‘good speech,’ as he walked past.

Friday, March 6, 2009

CDU

For five years, most of them while Merv Wellington was Minister of Education, I held a position as an Assistant-Director Curriculum Development in the old Department of Education. Explaining curriculum development proved difficult. Mum asked “Why can’t teachers just get on and teach?” Life is rarely simple. That job partly existed because of the space race. The Russian sputnik and the resulting space race galvanised Western educators to enhance their maths and science programmes. To do this they moved from syllabus revision to curriculum development. Put simply, syllabus revision is about what is being taught, a sort of rearranging of the deck chairs of ‘content’. Curriculum development is wider, why and how the subject is being taught and can it be taught better, a re-design of the deck chair. Developments in maths and science led to similar developments in other disciplines.

In New Zealand a Curriculum Development Unit, (CDU) was created to lead this change. As well as sputnik other reasons existed such as the growing awareness of the need to dovetail primary and secondary syllabuses. The bulge of baby boomers passing through the school system created pressures as new schools were built in new suburbs throughout the country. With more secondary students staying on at school the senior curriculum needed attention. The CDU would be a ginger group to cope with growth and change.

Educationally, it was a time of confidence and excitement, {though it was a very masculine and Pakeha world). There was a consensus about education, parents, teachers. civil servants and politicians in agreement. The mood was liberal, progressive optimistic. Successive governments increased educational expenditure. CDU developed a fairly unique, consultative, interactive loop-back method of development involving a great number of teachers along the way. This meant a considerable buy-in to suggested changes, unlike overseas where teachers were often reluctant to accept the imposition of a top-down development. During the Holyoake years the camaraderie of the CDU was striking. It reflected a sense of common purpose. But the process proved very resource hungry. The formation of a Resources section within the Unit channelled the use of available funds to better usage but development was always being done on a shoe-string.

Before my time under Merv Wellington I had had an earlier stint in the CDU. I was seconded from the Hamilton secondary inspectorate to help co-ordinate the secondary education review. This is amongst the most exciting times of my education career. The unit was buzzing. Many officers had attended courses and conferences overseas. Comparisons were made and best practice discussed. Ideas like ‘schools without walls’ were being thrown around. The review itself was unleashing questions and fresh answers. Discussions about education, projects, ideas, classrooms visited saw ideas and ideals debated. There was considerable bucking of educational shibboleths. I anticipated lunch-time discussions eagerly. This was education as I imagined it could be. The place had a reputation at being anti-authority. My recollection is that it was a place of high self-respect with a likeable lack of respect for unjustifiable practice.

An exciting aspect of CDU was its international dimension. Officers were aware of developments in other countries and vice versa. There was a conduit role. During my Merv Wellington stint my fellow Assistant-Director was involved with on-going international assessment studies. A few officers went overseas to work on specific curriculum developments in third world countries. I was personally involved in two major projects. The first saw me organising of UNESCO seminars in New Zealand on Distance Education and the Teaching of Reading. The other, the Pacific Circle Consortium involved the production of school Pacific resources. This work meant I attended meetings in Hobart, Brisbane, Hiroshima and Honolulu, hands-on work that I found stimulating, satisfying and productive.

The country’s mood began to change as Britain joined the EU, the Springbok tour revealed deep divisions, youth unemployment hit high levels and our standard of living seemed to slip. From being the bright hope of the future, education increasingly became a scapegoat. Some were critical it wasn’t doing enough to cure social ills. Others claimed it pushed an unacceptable amount of social engineering. There was growing concern about burgeoning expenditure. This discontent provided a fertile seedbed for political criticism. Despite research evidence to the contrary, there was a constant beating of drums about falling education standards. Perplexed parents and worried teachers began to question the nature and pace of change. Even within the Department itself there was a growing weariness or maybe I should say wariness. A District Senior Inspector wrote to the Unit complaining that often change was not bedded in before more change was under way again. He used the metaphor of plants being pulled up to see if they were growing.

At the end of 1978 Wellington replaced Les Gandar as Minister. Right from the start he criticised the CDU for being an engine room for change. He considered it should be reined in. Social Studies proved a lightning rod with a new Forms 1-4 syllabus creating controversy. It was seen by a considerable number as introducing unnecessary sociology and anthropology into the classroom. Some teachers and many of the public hankered for the old ‘certainties’ of history and geography. It certainly lacked an awareness of economics.

Health proved even more controversial. Wellington inherited from Gandar an extremely liberal health syllabus which included sex education. Interest groups led a charge against the proposed changes. The post-war educational consensus collapsed. Historically Wellington can be seen as a Canute trying to stem an incoming pluralistic and global tide. But undoubtedly he represented the views of many Kiwis.
For six years there was a struggle between Mr Wellington and his officers. He set up his own curriculum review group to wrest control away from the unit. On becoming minister, Russell Marshall formed a new curriculum group, which proved supportive. But the seeds of unease had sprouted. When in 1998 the Picot Report advocated the abolition of centralised curriculum development there was surprisingly little comment or opposition. With the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools the unit abruptly went out of existence in 1989 after flashing through the system like a short-lived meteor for 25 years. With its going something valuable vanished from the national fabric.

I personally found Mr Wellington courteous. Indeed, I felt a grudging respect for his courage. He did not hesitate to make his feelings known about the Unit but he also showed an awareness of the dedication of its officers. He several times told me how much approval for his policies he had received from teachers as well as community leaders and members of the public. My history training gave me a feeling of the cyclic nature of society and I sensed his actions were part of a conservative backlash against an increasingly globalised and pluralistic society. These crosscurrents continue today.

The other side of the coin was facing the wrath of officers about my insistence that he was the Minister. One said “I’ve outlasted several ministers and I’ll outlast this one. You know as I do that his policy is crap.” When I replied he had no option but to accept it he exploded telling me what a species of low life I’d become. The word ‘turncoat’ stung. For a spell the relationship became rather frosty.

Much of my efforts involved seeking more resources. A group of us negotiated a deal with BP for that company to support the production of resources about energy use. The Unit would pay an officer’s salary to co-ordinate the enterprise. Several similar appointments were made. Some long-serving officers were upset.“It’s the Government’s job to supply resources. We’re selling our ideals for commerce.” As the debate raged I realised that there was a collision course between officers’ assumption of a bottomless bucket and government’s desire to balance the budget. Even so I did not anticipate the approaching wave called Rogernomics which swept aside and swamped our debates. Wellington’s regime was a tough time to be a middle manager. I add for the record that there were many good moments working with officers and teachers here and overseas developing new curriculum and the resources to support it.

After he won the 1978 election Muldoon asked for funding cuts, 3% across the board. To his credit Wellington never made them as deep and as wide as his master demanded. At the beginning the minister asked the teacher unions to discuss their priorities with him. I wonder what they would have said if he had persuaded them to come to that party. Increasingly I was hearing teachers at the time saying that the Unit was not as relevant as it had been in the old days. I suspect that is the nature of educators – some Golden Age. But it was good to be a bit part of it while it lasted.

Why Stoat Spring?

This blog is settling into a pattern similar to an old time movie session. Cartoons, newsreels & brief clips followed by interval and then the main feature.

a) I’ve reservations about science. I don’t like it monkeying around with the essence of human existence. But I must admit I would not be alive but for scientific and technological breakthroughs.
b) I was to go to Te Papa yesterday to see the Impressionist exhibition of paintings from Boston. Anne had a wheelchair booked. But a stomach upset in the morning put paid to that plan. She went without me with Jonathan her son, who majored in art history. They arrived home raving about the Monet and Renoir. Renoir is my favourite painter, humanity at play amidst light and shade. But Monet’s haystacks, waterlillies, green bridge, London scenes, Rouen cathedral are also amongst my preferred paintings. We’ve been to Giverny his home and garden, a memorable visit. The surprise was his large collection of Japanese prints, many very erotic. I can visualise him and Clemencau walking and talking in that garden. I hope I can see the exhibition before it closes.
c) My stay at home meant I was here when a friend, Brian Clark unexpectedly called. Brian taught with me at Melville High School in Hamilton and then worked with me when I was Executive Director of the New Zealand Council for Teacher Education. Brian’s wife has a contract in Brisbane. He’s finding the humidity and heat there very trying. Their two cats are enjoying catching an endless supply of lizards and he has a bush turkey nesting in their back yard.
d) Lesley brought us as a wedding anniversary present a swan plant with two monarch butterfly caterpillars on it on Tuesday. Her idea was that they would interest me. She was right. I christened them Groucho and Marx. We both became involved in their progress. To our dismay, by yesterday morning, voracious feeders, they’d eaten every leaf on the bush. So Anne went out early on a rescue mission to Mitre 10. She said ‘I feel responsible for them.’ Two new plants later, transfer effected auspiciously, they happily chomping away, we felt we’d played God very well. I never ever thought I’d care about a caterpillar. Poor Anne, the fact that there was no alternative to her going is an another example of how my health affects our activities. Which is a nonsense sentence because there was an alternative, not to go, and let them starve, but we never thought of not doing a mercy mission.

I’ve been asked why my blog is called Stoatspring? Simple! My second volume of poems, published 1983, is called Stoat Spring. When I was creating the blog we found title suggestion after suggestion had already been used. It took us ages to find an acceptable one. It’s a good one for it is a volume I’m particularly pleased about. A favourite childhood book was Mortimer Batten’s Some British Wild Animals. In his chapter on stoats he told of a box-trap set for rabbits. One night, two rabbits, a tom-cat and a stoat fell in. It would have been a lively night for in the morning it contained two dead rabbits, one mangled, dying cat and a very frisky stoat.

The closest I ever got to a stoat was in Delphi in Greece. The guide had taken us to the ruins of the old stadium high above the temple remnants. Remote from the group I was sitting on a piece of masonry. Suddenly this stoat popped out beside me. Standing on his hind legs he surveyed the scene, a beautiful and deadly creature. I’d seen the carnage either a stoat or weasel had committed in our fowlshed at Okuti. Thereafter the chooks roosted in the old macrocarpas behind the house.

The volume comprised a series of poems written over a period when after the end of my first marriage I began my relationship with Anne, a rather fraught though sparkling time. I was also under stress at work – bureaucratic middle management with all its frustrations and powerlessness. I see the blurb at the back of the book says ‘he earns his keep as Assistant-Director Curriculum Development, in the Department of Education.’ Most of the poems were written before I took up that position when I worked for Schools Supervision, an unwise career move in terms of satisfaction. I collapsed the poems of a few years into a sequence of a spring season and made stoat a metaphor for my feelings of discontent and exhilaration. It was a good time and a bad time. I was reading Hughes and Larkin and their hawk and toad were in my mind. Before publication one evening I was reading poems at the old Circa theatre. Api Taylor preceded me, such power left me daunted. Anyway after my reading while I was sipping a wine one of the band that was backing our readings said why don’t you get Bruce the drummer to illustrate your book. Bruce Rothwell, a wallpaper designer, drew stoats as a hobby. So he did. On my study wall is this picture with six stoat drawings in it

The poem begins:

Spring
and gin, the traps
slam shut.
Inside middle management
stoat and cat fang rabbit;
then circle
circle one another.
Cat leaps
Too late!

Along the way I explore the nuclear threat (Mururoa tests were underway) poetry critics, love’s affirmations and ups and downs, the washing machine flooding the laudry floor, the garden, life, history, climbing Cave Rock at Sumner with my mother and above all, the workplace.

The office has its boltholes,
they bar the winter winds:
only the rich
or vagabonds
can afford the sun
open space
and the chance to outpace
that sliding and elusive shadow.

I remember writing those lines. It was a Saturday and the rain was pelting down. I’d spent the week in the office, a glorious September week with full sunshine. The penultimate poem describe the work Christmas party, ‘the office/ rings with satisfaction, sausage/ rolls and grog.’
A colleague slaps gin into a glass,
states he ‘couldn’t give a damn.’
I do, stoat
I do

The poem ends:

We lay our drains until banks
burst
then boat the paddocks, rescue
stock. For a while the heart enjoys
the risk as yesterday's pig sty
tin drum
dream house
float
down the creek. When the flood
recedes we resettle & the bishop
climbs the pulpit, announces new tithes,
old taxes, they'll enclose a field,
rebuild a nave, get him a crimson
cap. No need to wait another winter.

Bureaucrats like sheep labour on
wear
lasting tracks into the fabric of events.
The system works until the design fault snaps.
Who doesn't like to run guns to the rebels?
(Evaporation - precipitation - respiration)
Silt cracks in the sun. Peasants plough.
Politicians check the profits. Money comes
and money goes; adds a little sherry to the trifle,
more blood to the revolution: a matter
of economics of hunger of physics of love.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cox

During my time as a student at the University of Canterbury I stayed at Rolleston House hostel. One year early on I coxed the hostel rowing four against arch-rivals College House. What happened the evening of the race lingers in my memory, no doubt assisted by a slight sense of shame. Before the race we practised regularly. Kerr’s Reach on the Avon River had not yet been cut. The start was near Avonside Girl’s with the finish at the rowing sheds off Fitzgerald Avenue. We trained for it - up early on an autumn morning we’d put our skiff into the water at the sheds and row leisurely downstream to the course where we would turn and row at racing speed upstream – for cox a lovely sensation; the misty river, the rowers in unison, the thin shell of the boat sliding over the surface, crisp air, the weeping willows dragging in the water, a duck slipping off the bank to paddle away from our intrusion, the early morning cars and cyclists a background noise behind the slap of our oars and my calling the rating.
We passed under a bridge, not much room to spare – a tense moment. We practised at speed, lining up objects to get us through without losing momentum. Never once did I make the wrong computation - a bad omen. To my chagrin, in the Capping Week race, with the two boats side by side at the bridge I misjudged space and speed; bow's oar clipping a bridge support. Flung off balance we slipped sideways to tangle with the oars of the other boat, which meant disqualification. Feeling mortified - not only had I let myself down but also the other four and the hostel, I expected recrimination and abuse, but all I mainly received good-natured chaffing - "the lengths a cox will go to avoid being chucked in the river". "You'll have to make sure we win the drinking horn."

We’d trained for that too. After hockey we would swagger off to the pub and share a jug. As a Presbyterian Ministry trainee I was supposed to practise moderation, but to the others my calling made me fair game. Sinners themselves they wanted to tempt me, urging me to "down it" so they could refill. In an unexpected way my future livelihood protected me. The others knew I couldn't afford to buy several jugs, so I'd buy one early and that served as a token. I would sit on a near full glass and watch the smoke-filled male preserve in action all around me. Beer provided an excuse to say things normally not said. After a few sips the mildest fellow would start telling a crude yarn or boasting loudly, the alcohol not even cleared from his stomach. My attendance was a form of dancing with the devil - how close could I go without compromise, each step fraying a little more the edges around my conscience. Near six o' clock closing the 'half g's' would be filled. "Time gentlemen please". We'd walk back to the hostel, supporting those who needed assistance.

Rolleston House had held the rowing drinking horn for a long time. The race on the water might be lost but honour demanded we retain this trophy. Inexperienced, I had trouble downing beer quickly, "not letting it touch the sides of your throat". Back at the hostel I practised with water or lemonade, but in the pub training was serious with the real thing. The confusion created in my head was warmly pleasant. Now it was my turn to be supported back to the hostel, where I would collapse on my bed and sleep through dinner to wake cold, hungry and sore-headed. Initiation, errors of judgement, feelings of guilt, humiliation, and exhilaration - part of acceptance into the Kiwi male world of that period.

Six o clock closing - it was another era. Like standing for the national anthem at the movies accepted as a natural part of life. Long before the call of "Time gentleman please" most drinkers tried to load as much beer as possible into their system. It was invitation to drink quickly and beyond capacity. I couldn’t afford whisky chasers, but for those who could it was a means of accelerating the process. The noise and din - also cigarette smoke - was part and parcel of the performance as were the men staggering out on their way home to waiting meals. The urinals dotted around our cities marking the end of the now pulled up tram-lines tell their own story.

After the fiasco on the river there in the Clarendon my reputation was really on the line. Cox drank last. We had a practice run, watching our opponents and drinking in time with them. Then it was the contest. We got ahead slightly, but I could see when it was my turn that we would be in trouble for my opponent was a hard-doer. Swallowing manfully, I was aware he was drawing level. As we neared the finish I flicked the last of my glass's content out and over the barman as I slammed it down empty. As the barman mopped himself down pandemonium reigned all around me - "He cheated" - "Nah, he didn't, just a bit of froth" - "You ought to be an actor mate" - "Just a drop and you make it look as if it was the Pacific Ocean" - "Yuh did it too". Rematch. "Do it again," stroke muttered. I did. More hilarity and abuse. I was beginning to feel warm and contented, the centre of attention. Stirrings of conscience, I quietened by telling that blurring organ that two of the other team were Anglican trainees. Stroke knew their weakness. My four comrades could hold their liquor better. If I was our weak link they possessed two. Rematch led to rematch as excuse followed excuse. At a quarter to six we breasted the bar for the final encounter. By the time it came my turn to drink we were so far ahead I could down mine at a leisurely canter. The trophy remained in our hands. Shouting and singing we staggered home. At the serving counter matron Sheila Fieldhouse said rather frostily, "You've had too much to drink." "Nonsense!" She was right. Hastily I left the table to lose the afternoon's celebrations in the quad – the first time that had happened. Ashamed, yet feeling some test had been passed, I was led off to my room, and tucked in with a bowl beside my head. What I had done often for others had now been done to me.