Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fiona Farrell

The last day of May. There’s a sparse layer of hail on the lawn, there is the odd flurry of snow and four rose bushes still have blooms. Crazy weather.

Poets often write about their craft. Fiona Farrell, one of our most versatile writers, spent six months on a writing fellowship in Ireland at Donoughmore. The poems that arose from her experience there are striking. They were published in the volume The Pop-Up Book of Invasions. In particular I like this one about how the poet turns the flop of failure into a myth. Homer ensured we do not see Hector as just a loser. Neither were the old warrior chiefs or the 1916 revolutionaries of Ireland. Fiona adds a further feminist dimension to such myths.


The poet always wins
or the blind singer.

Butcher’s shambles in
dust by the city wall or
spilled on office floor,
deals wrought behind
veneer while bullets
pierce the bronze wings
of angels. One two three

Small arguments at
kitchen tables, doors
slamming on never.
Small hatreds small
betrayals small deaths
in smoke and falling
stone. Days that fade
to shouting.

No sign of victory in
the guts. A bloody mess.

Then the poet comes and
sees in the flop of failure
the outlines of some old
hero whom another poet
made from grunt and stab
on some muddy hill. And
there’s that girl again, in
her buttoned coat, waiting
at the prison gate till her
husband dies.

She is listening for the
sound of bullets piercing
cotton shirt and snuggling
into lung and heart.
One two three.

And that’s how
the song
will start.

I greatly enjoyed her last two novels, Book Book and Mr Allbones’ Ferrets. Book Book reflected the reading of the period of my life - I related to it very easily. The publisher described Allbones as ‘an historical, pastoral, satirical, scientifical, romance with mustelids.’ I found it an absorbing read. So it was with anticipation I started reading her latest, Limestone. Ian Sharp in this morning’s paper said it was one of the best recent New Zealand novels. From what I’ve read so far I would not disagree. Indeed, I’m finding it difficult to stop reading it. I love the sense of time her opening chapter conveys.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Generaration 'X'er

This Is Just To Tell Some New Zealand Poets

I was
on the road
and didn’t
cabbage trees,
sheep, or

forgive me
the new car I drove
was so fast
and so sleek

Mark Pirie

Apparently simple, indeed guileless, and introspective, Pirie’s poem distils generations of arguments about our poetry. Cabbage trees litter our 19th and 20th century poems – paintings as well. Likewise, sheep and macrocapa symbolise the success of overseas settlement. However, against the glamorous appeal of modern technology, who wants to bother about those old pastoral symbols, or arguments about our societal or spiritual welfare. The young watch Channel 4 while my vintage watch Country Calendar.

Wellington poet, Mark Pirie, is managing editor of HeadworX, a small press publisher of poetry and fiction. Its list has 47 poetry books, two of which are mine, Pingandy (1999) and Recessional.(2004). I’ve found Mark an excellent editor and a good friend. His books are always well-presented and I’m pleased to be part of this stable.

Poetically, Mark is prolific, selfless, zealous and restless. He was co-editor of JAAM literary journal from 1995 to 2005 The NeXt Wave, his anthology of ‘Generation X’ writing was published in 1998. He has organised international conferences and winter readings. In 2008 he began a new periodical called Broadsheet in a chapbook form with the aim of publishing high quality poetry at an affordable price.

His own work reflects a fascination with popular culture such as comics, pop lyrics and movies. The camera is one of the defining devices of the 20th century. It’s use altered literature as well as art. At one level poetry can be defined as an arrangement of words, striking and/or entertaining. There’s an element of composition, just as in phtography. Then there is organisation, the craft behind apparent casualness.

The snapshot metamorphosed into the moving image. Film enhanced techniques of movement in time. ‘Cut and paste’ entered our narrative. As a poet, Pirie, like many of his contemporaries uses these devices.

Tom, his latest book was launched this year. It’s a verse novel, a post-modern pastiche of many literary forms, about a struggling young Generation X student in Wellington in the 1990s. The music is alien country to me but the ideas are stimulating. They give me glimpses into how Generation 'X'ers think and move. Tom writes an essay on Hopkins. ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins wasn’t around to hear the blues or the beat of a drum machine but some useful comparisons can still be made.’

Mark has also moved into anthologising. With Tim Jones he has co-edited a collection of New Zealand Science Fiction poems called Voyages which is being released at present. (Again, I declare an interest. I have two poems included).

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Budget

Bill English’s budget has been called bleak and bland. True, it’s both. In some respects it’s better than I expected, much less slash and burn than predicted. Health does reasonably well while education is steady as it goes with a needed school programme of new and repair buildings which will provide jobs for those in that trade. Tertiary institutions are the losers while private schools get extra assistance. The latter have always done better under National. Private tertiary providers were closing before the budget – a sign of the times. Early childhood remains the Cinderella of the sector as Labour initiatives in this area are cut back.

Cullen was lucky. English is not. But he ought to give thanks that Cullen ran surpluses rather than deficits. Otherwise we would have been in a heap more trouble. Some critics say this budget is prudent. Cullen’s certainly were. Except the last when he was bullied into a tax cut. The world recession situation gives the government the perfect excuse not to honour its promised tax cuts. And Labour cannot criticise this move too loudly or it in turn will be portrayed as profligate.

Cullen had hoped to wrap up the superannuation debate with his fund. But without government payments for the next eleven years the fund could be in trouble just at the time the peak of the baby-boomers reach retirement age. Watch this space.

Basically this is a status quo budget. It seems to me this recession is going to lead to large structural changes. Where and how I haven’t the wit to see. But I sense a shift. Economy, education, health, superannuation, unemplyment, social welfare, tax, law and order, the list is endless. All will change, some more than others. The process could be rough.

Labour failed to address the growing poverty gap in our society. This budget similarly overlooks the issue. Of course, it’s not just happening here. It’s endemic in the contemporary world.

Gloomy pundits talk of future wars being fought over resources, race, status and ideology. They could be right. But I have a glimmer of an idea that class might be an overlooked factor. Something could occur like the French Revolution, a mass explosion of anger at exploitation and hunger. That particular event let the tiger of nationalism lose to prowl the planet. Historians of the future might point out how little attention English’s budget gave to defence.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Richly Deserved

Canadian short story writer Alice Munro has won the $60,000 Man Booker International Prize. This is the third awarding of this biennial prize. Unlike the much more well-known Booker Award this one is for the body of work, not just a single one.

The judge’s panel said “Alice Munro is mostly known as a short story writer and yet she brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels’. Hear! Hear! One of my favourite authors I have always felt her portrayal of the contemporary human conditon is superb. She captures the ambiguities of existence better than any one else. Every winter I tend to specialise with one writer. The last three have been Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and last winter Alice Munro. She keeps good company.

A depression baby like me Munro grew up in SW Ontario. This area has been the major setting for her stories. Her father had a silver fox farm hit hard by the slump. Her descriptions of her family’s and neighbours’ hardships during these times are both bleak and rewarding revealing a deep understanding of human relationships.

I feel she understands men very well while the subtlety of her woman characters is a joy to this reader, often baffled by female complexity. Their dilemmas as they grow up, encounter traditional small-town behaviour, deal with courtship, marriage, break-up, divorce, the troubles of middle age and the loneliness of old age are impressively presented. Her stories are an art form. The spare and lucid prose counterpoints enlightenment and bigotry.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

History Masters

Yesterday’s posting of Lepanto made me realise how far I’ve traveled mentally since I did my university history degree. At that stage I would have regarded Lepanto as history and the rise of the Taliban as current events.

I did six papers for my History Masters. One was England from Elizabeth I to Cromwell - parliamentary conflicts mainly. I conceived an admiration for Elizabeth that I've retained ever since. Another was British constitutional history. My conviction that civics should be part of the school curriculum dates from this study. Issues of the rule of law, the supremacy of parliament, the bill of rights, trial by jury - these became entrenched in my consciousness. My childhood interest in politics as a clash of personalities was given a theoretical underpinning.

Bill Oliver took the New Zealand and Australia paper - the first time my studies took me outside the Eurocentric viewpoint. I found the story of our neighbours across the Tasman illuminating in its differences as well as it similarities. Debates about such topics as whether convict origins meant a greater radicalism and larrikinism proved stimulating.

The fourth paper was political theory in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I specialised on Calvin, Hooker and Hobbes, wrestling with the prose and intricate thoughts of these three thinkers. It must be recalled I was planning to be a Presbyterian minister.

These papers were all good training for an historian or administrator. Some of Prof Phillips' students went off to join the fast diminishing British Colonial Service or the rapidly increasing New Zealand Diplomatic Service. But they were not so hot for the ministry or secondary school history teaching.

They seem remote from a world dominated by Eisenhower, Eden, Stalin and Sid Holland and the vague but ever-present prospect of nuclear doom that accompanied the Cold War. I did not make the connection.

In fact, it was not till Watergate that I saw those old English politics in the perspective of the perpetual problems of power, and the paranoia that goes with it. Not understanding political opportunism I judged actions from an idealistic moral vantage. Further, I accepted the notion that good historical study discovered or disclosed meaning.

The contemporary notion that such study invented meaning would have been for me then an impossibly alien thought. A historian was a detective, not a myth-creator. Then, History was what had happened. It was about people who had once lived and breathed as I did now. But somehow I saw them not as passionate, muddled and complex as I did myself and my contemporaries. Somehow time had crystallised them, removing them to a different sphere.

The last two papers consisted of research on documents from the Colonial Office brought out by David Fieldhouse from London and the relevant papers held in New Zealand. Research appealed, although I am a lateral thinker rather than an analytical one. I liked the cross-connections, the moments of insight, the search for cause and consequence and the exploration of the flux and flow of past human events.

I am grateful for the emphasis my university teachers, especially Fieldhouse insisted I give to sources. But temperamentally then like now I want to bring the understandings I gain into larger frames.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The jihad/crusade clash between Islam and Christianity is not just recent. At present I am reading Italian Renaissance scholar Niccoli Capponi’s Victory of the West: The Story of the Battle of Lepanto. It’s a bloody account. A 16th century struggle that foreshadows Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. Ghastly things done by both sides, then as now.

Earlier the Turks had beseiged the Cyprus town Famagusta. After a heroic defence against overwhelming odds the town surrendered on a promise of safe passage. Instead brutal slaughter and rape took place, the heads of the defeated Venetian lords displayed on the walls.

In 1571 at Lepanto the victorious Spanish and Italians butchered the Turkish seamen floundering in the debris of their defeated galleys. The book does not spend much time on the actual battle. Instead it gives a fascinating account of events leading up to it and the consequences. It’s an important date if not a definitive one. Rather, it is indicative of a historical shift.

In one way it was a miracle that the coalition between Spain, Venice and the Papacy was stitched together and then held. Intrigue, in-fighting and jealousy dominated negotiations and the fleet. My knowledge of Phillip of Spain was based around his marriage to Mary and then his clash with Elizabeth, the fighting in Flanders and the Armada. Capponi’s book reveals how he was also at the same time coping with enemies in the Mediterranean.

He also describes the expense of equipping and keeping a galley navy. Phillip tried to get the Papacy to pay for as much as he could squeeze out of it. The Venetians were always after the best deal. The Florentines had their own games to play. The French had established good trading relations with the Turks so they did not want to come to the party. (They had the safeguard of distance).

Outnumbered the Christian coalition won an upset victory in enemy waters. Technological superiority carried the day. Their munitions were much better. Their tactics proved superior.

The battle didn’t stop the westward surge of the Turks. They retained control of conquered Cyprus. Shortly afterwards they re-captured Tunis. Indeed a century later the Ottoman army reached the gates of Vienna. But it slowed the surge down and prevented the Mediterranean becoming a Turkish preserve. They no longer harassed the Italian coasts with impunity.

The Mediterranean had lost its centrality. The Atlantic-facing nations of Europe could now access the Orient and the New World by sea. Their galleons could outgun and out-sail the galleys. The bloody battle of Lepanto was the last gasp of an old system that had been overtaken by technological change.

But ninety minutes on an October day in 1571 in another close-run thing did have significance. Capponi, by placing them in context, does them justice.

Okuti Hilltop

As a boy on weekends or holidays when not helping Dick my stepfather I often climbed to the top of the farm. He had 150 acres over the ridge. From such Olympian heights, looking back on the Okuti side I could see the familiar tableau of valley, bush-shadowed creeks, sheep paddocks, the lake, sea, plains and distant Alps.

The other side had an even more glorious view, Akaroa Harbour, French Farm directly below. The very name tells its own story - in this cove with its fertile soil the early French settlers established their vegetable gardens. Grapevines now. On a calm day the land-locked harbour would be still, a boat's wake stretching from side to side. Onawe Peninsula lay sentinel in the centre, a volcanic plug in the old crater, the spot where Te Rauparaha swept down from the north to capture and destroy the local pa.

The scene crystallised into near-mythic dimensions for this dreamer - the wonder of creation, the heady mixture of nature and human effort, the awesome size of it all.

That hilltop was a good spot for dreams to merge into thoughts and questions. A dry cowpat turned to the nor-east would roll towards the harbour, to the sou-west towards Lake Forsyth. If a rain drop fell just one inch away it would seep away in a different direction, even more dramatically in the Southern Alps, or the Andes or Himalayas. Indian or Arctic Ocean? Did the Chinese rivers start there? Check the atlas when I get home.

I savoured the arbitrary nature of apparent chance - no, the little science I possessed told me that the reason why that drop fell where it did was not chance. Ambiguities compounded. Was my existence chance? What if I had been a black child born in Africa? Living in Okuti and not in London, or Vladivostock or Auckland; how had this altered me? I'd give up - thought can get difficult. Easier to say to the dogs "possum" and eagerly they’d race off to find one, hunter replacing dreamer.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The 1956 Springboks

Yesterday I watched the replay of the rugby match in Pretoria between the Bulls and Crusaders. The roar and delight of the local crowd as their team won brought back memories. Anne finds it difficult to understand how I can follow such a, in her words, brutal game. Quite simply, I grew up with it. Even during the war years scratch teams played during the winter months representing the four clubs that made up the Banks Peninsula sub-union. Everybody turned up to watch.

After the war my stepfather would drive us through to Lancaster Park to see a Test or a Canterbury game. We’d get there early to get a good patch on the jammed embankment. During my university years I was a spectator not just for provincial but often ordinary club matches as well.

It was a great Ranfurly Shield era. There was a famous match when Otago were leading 9 – 6 with the clock showing full time when Mayo crashed over to score an equalising try. He couldn’t take the kick, the crowd invaded the field. I was doing wheelies on my bike riding away. A traffic cop grinned and gave me a thumbs up as he drove past.

The Springbok tour dominated the 1956 winter. Everyone in my world - Little River farmers, Rolleston House students, Varsity girls, the St Andrews congregation - followed the tour avidly. It is hard now to explain the primitive fervour with which we wanted the '56 'Boks humbled.

It must be remembered we had never won a series. Legend had it that New Zealand outplayed them on the veldt in 1949, but biased refs and their big kicker, Geffin, unfairly took that series from us. This "we wuz robbed" theory fed a paranoia. Rugby, a medium of egalitarian nationalism, proved tribal. Throughout the winter we argued, debated, and boasted about the tour and its personalities. We were a small country but by God we could beat these neo-Fascists from a land which did not accept the equality of men.

Delighted I watched Canterbury win in the provincial match. But the test series was what counted. The first test was narrowly won, but the second was lost. For the third test at Lancaster Park the selectors made several changes; including dropping two of our local heroes. Kevin Skinner, a one-time boxer, was brought out of retirement to strengthen the front-row.

The first time the new full-back Don Clarke kicked the ball it went seventy yards, a towering touchfinder. The crowd cheered, old loyalties quickly forgotten - a new champion had arrived. Most people on the bank claimed to have seen how Skinner settled the two 'Bok props in turn. Like the ref I didn't; Skinner knew how to do his duty. Whatever happened both players in turn needed ambulance attention. All around us the talk was the same - the 'Boks bent the rules, our bloke straightened them out. Desperate times, desperate measures.

New Zealand established an eleven point lead thanks to three massive Clarke kicks, two penalties and a conversion of a try. Then the 'Boks struck back - two tries, magnificently executed, but the crowd around me were in no mood to acknowledge that. High tension. A group of nearby back-country youths had been swigging whisky all day. They'd brought a rubber hose to urinate through - there was no possibility of getting out of the crush to go to the loos. In the excitement one forgot to attach his hose. As the match-winning try for New Zealand happened he was wailing, "I've pissed my pants". His mates were supporting him upright when a further try sealed the game. We had won.

Later back at the hostel we replayed the game, in fact we relived it for months, reflected renown. A few days later the whole hostel listened to the radio as we wrapped up the series at Eden Park. Danie Craven's statement, "It's all yours New Zealand" saw the beginning of an all-night impromptu hostel party. "Did you hear what Jones said?" Caught by surprise, National Radio relayed the large forward's oath across the country.

Readers might express surprise at this deification of these torrid and intimidatory exchanges. It would be less than honest to my account, as well as the actual facts. Rugby entered the soul of most young men of my generation. If I’d been told then that in later life I would march against a tour I wouldn’t have believed it. Nelson Mandela gave me licence to renew my interest.

Sport (armchair though now it is for me), still attracts me. Not the hype - in fact that irritates - but the drama. Unlike the rituals of the theatre - Othello will suffocate Desdemona, Oedepius will kill his father - the appeal of sport is its unpredictability, a bounce of the ball, a pass not made, a stumping chance taken, the luck of the toss - something spectacular or just plain trivial can win or lose a match.

This drama is tied to parochialism or nationalism, which is both good and bad. Part of the crowd in Edinburgh at the 1970 Commonwealth Games I was on my feet shouting encouragement to Sylvia Potts when she tripped inches from the tape, an event in its own way as cathartic as Lear staggering in with Cordelia's corpse in his arms. I have rarely felt more a New Zealander.

An appeal of sports to us is an underlying sense of equality. Both sides have an equal number of players, fifteen, thirteen, eleven, nine, four. The playing field is in theory equal. There is a worrying trend though. If the All Blacks lose, there are instant demands for the coach to be sacked and new blood appointed.

Or the medal count is down at the Olympics and there’s an outcry. The simple fact is we are small country. Other people perform well at this particular gathering. Unpredictability which makes sport so interesting is relegated to second place now – winning is all that matters. The gold medal tally has become the yardstick rather than the ideal of taking part.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Poetry as Sound


In Plimmerton, in Plimmerton,
The little penguins play,
And one dead albatross was found
At Karehana Bay.

In Plimmerton, in Plimmerton,
The seabirds haunt the cave,
And often in the summertime
The penguins ride the wave.

In Plimmerton, in Plimmerton,
The penguins live, they say,
But one dead albatross they found
At Karehana Bay.

Denis Glover

Poetry existed as sound long before it pinned down by the written word. We are a speaking species. Poetry, linking to dance, song and story, is a device developed as a form of speech. The use of doggerel and repetitive, imitative or interesting sounds is natural, especially in childhood. We savour resonance. Threnody is an example of a poem primarily about sound. I’d say to students, speak it out loud and savour the sounds.

I found it difficult when I taught poetry to older teenagers to persuade them of this importance of sound. Pity, younger children delight in sound, just the sheer delight of it. My mother’s mother Granny had a store of nursery rhymes and songs which she taught me off by heart, `little pig, little pig where have you been’, ‘pop goes the weasel’, ‘Jack and Jill’, ‘see saw, Marjory Daw’, and ‘oranges and lemons, the bells of St Clemens’. A better seedbed for poetry is hard to imagine.

While I was going to Little River primary school the local Maori school closed. A student from there Charlie Timothy was my desk-mate for the year. I took my Winnie the Pooh book to school. The two of us used to go round chanting Cottleston Pie, a great nonsense rhyme – looking back a very strange cross-cultural activity.

The first poem I recall being taught Walter de la Mare’s Silver was based upon sound.

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in silver feathered sleep
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream

Lemon & Chicken

Several Christmases ago we were given a coffee-table book with chicken recipes from all around the world. In the years when we shared the cooking – usually week and week about - this was a lovely book to browse through. The numerous photos were eye-catching – though what relevance is a camel market in north India in a cookbook – and the various chicken dishes seemed legion, the ingredients to add flavour varying from region to region.

Two Greek recipes in particular took my fancy and I used them frequently. The first needed preserved lemons. The second had a lemon and mild mustard sauce that was made at the last minute. If left it separated. Both recipes call for fresh thyme. Anne cooked the former last night. It was yummy. Lemon adds a tartness to the taste. The weather was so foul we couldn’t be bothered to go out to the shop to buy olives which normally are part of the dish. Olives like garlic have an affinity with chicken.

Speaking of the foul weather there has been wave after wave of cold southerlies over the last week. Snow storms in May seem unseasonable. Some forecaster said that they’ll pass and it will soon be mild again. Probably the same guy who predicted a very warm summer. After about a week ahead, he, like everyone else, hasn’t the foggiest.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Rolleston House

An important component of my enjoyment as a student at Canterbury University in the 1950s was being a resident at the Rolleston House (RH) hostel. It consisted of six old mansions - one the dining room and kitchen with the housemaster’s quarters upstairs, the rest divided into double or single rooms for about 80 students. A low slung ablution block/common room complex stood in the middle.

We were responsible for our own cleaning and washing, but meals were provided. RH revelled in a reputation for hard drinking and hard living as after the war it housed mainly ex-servicemen. Most students were engineers with morning lectures. I quickly established a pattern of studying during that quiet time. After lunch I went to afternoon lectures, spending time between them in the SCM den or having friends across to my hostel room for coffee.

The buildings were an electrical inspector's nightmare with illegal wiring everywhere. We were lucky, the place never caught fire as we boiled jugs and ran radios and record players. Circuit-breakers were no hazard to electrical engineers.

Such small illegalities were part and parcel of RH life. Once some housemen nicked an ancient penny-farthing from the museum across the Avenue. We took turns to ride it or fall off - one guy broke both arms in his involuntary descent - before replacing it. We talked of dismantling the famous museum whale skeleton and reassembling it in the university quad, but that remained idle chatter.

The dons would’ve had us debating Oxbridge issues. Our talk fell below that radar screen – mainly sex, rugby and in my case religion. Some of our most serious discussions were held in the steamy showers; somehow everybody naked took away class barriers.

Many of the students were from wealthy homes, they owned cars and lots of clothes. I realised the struggle Dick and Mum had faced as I listened to my fellows talk about their holiday activities – holidays in Fiji, beach-houses, all-night parties.

When bored with studying or arguing I could go the billiards room or table tennis, someone equally restless would welcome a challenge. I discovered chess - again usually another resident would be keen to have a game.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bradford's Folly

As the recession bites around the world there are off-the-cuff bailouts of institutions and industries. The global free-for-all is over [for a while?]. The trouble is once the family silver is sold it is hard – and certainly expensive – to buy back.

Illustrative is our electricity. There is a big fuss at present about the profits the four major suppliers are making, overcharging by $4.3 billion in the last six years the Commerce Commission says. Three of those suppliers are state owned. Certainly I am well aware how the cost of electricity has far exceeded other increases. For those on fixed incomes it has become a real burden.

The worst two things that the Bolger/Shipley government did were Ruth Richardson’s ‘mother-of-all budget’ which slashed social spending and Max Bradford’s market model electricity change. Labour bewailed that model but basically did little to modify it.

When I was younger the construction of dams for hydro-electric power was a wonder of the modern world. On my first visit to the North Island I visited friends at Tuai which used water from Waikaremoana. When I lived in Hamilton there were week-end drives to look at the latest dam being built on the Waikato river. I’ve picnicked at Matahina dam near Edgecumbe and near the intake at Lake Coleridge. Benmore in the South Island was hailed as state of the art.

But power generation from this source became controversial. The tunnels which carry water from Lake Manapouri to Doubtless Sound are an engineering triumph. But the raising of the lake level proved controversial while the construction of the Clyde dam was even more so. Muldoon only rammed it home with the support of Social Credit.

Everyone wants power. This blog assumes it. My two machines that thump away my nights depend upon it. As does my life. On this chill day our heat-pump is necessary. Dam-building is now difficult. (Water-power is also dependent upon climate). Wind-farms are common in Denmark and North Germany, but here no one wants them in their own back-yard. Coal-generation, environmentally unfriendly. Nuclear power – a no-no in New Zealand.

So we have a problem, a democratic problem. The market model apparently positions the government of the day to one remove from the responsibility for both supply and cost. But when things go wrong the buck comes back. Joe and Jane Public want action.

Before Bradford the responsibility was in the government’s court. The whole country’s grid was controlled from a Waikato centre, which monitored demand, flucuations and weather patterns and ensured continuity by juggling hydro- and coal-based stations and the flow of power across Cook Strait.

My concern is that in an attempt to wrestle with the issue the Key government might further break up the state-owned retailer/generators. The Auckland black-out should have been a wake-up call that the State cannot afford to let electricity supply be the responsibility of the market alone.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Heads Down

An ex-student of mine now a University English lecturer told her professor that I was the best teacher of poetry she’d had. That will do me as an epitaph. I enjoyed teaching poetry for some time before I began to write it, which was when I was Head of English at Melville High School in Hamilton

During one annual creative writing week I’d brain-stormed ideas on the board for poems and having ignited the class to begin writing, I sat down at the desk and pulled up a pile of marking. ‘Aren't you going to do something yourself, sir’ a boy asked. I bit back a sharp teacherly ‘smart alec’ rejoinder to say quietly, ‘Why not.’ At the end of the period I had written a poem, my first:

Heads down my class wrestle with words:
unpolished stones await the mind's tumbling
glitter pranking in the wrong place,
statements shatter sense,
firecracker sparkle preceding obsidian moment.
Words in ink are strangely glib -
or taciturn.
Pens toy with patterns,
brows furrow, scowl.
an ambulance screams,
a starling preens).
Sir! Sir! please
a synonym for silly...?
the opposite of cant...?
Take up your own pen
Greenstone is greywacke to the idle beholder.

I shared it with them. ‘Pretty good, Sir.’ I sent it off to Lauris Edmond, editor of PPTA Journal. She published it - my class as chuffed as I was. My first poem. Others began to follow. I add for the record, my previous principal at Thames was an avid gemstone collector. He had a tumbler in his garage to polish the stones he’d found down the Coromandel – hence my image, as topical as the language is typical of the period.

Cousin Sally

My cousin Sally also grew up in Little River. Her father, Uncle Tom was married to my mother’s sister, Nancy. Sally now lives at Darfield. She recently sent me an email about my blog and how it jogged her memories.

‘Picking black currants with one or two sows, especially Daisy or Peach and little piglets just through the fence, I spent more time watching them than picking. The little ones had a great time exploring.’ She describes the stand-off between the sows and the dogs over bones. Then “if you heard one of the big cooking apples fall from the tree in the bull paddock on to the rock hard ground you could watch the race between the little pigs and the bull to see who would end up with it to eat.’

Her comments are very relevant in light of the controversy over pig-farming that is taking place at present.

She concludes ‘Thanks for the memories. The ice-creams in the little cone had a special taste which is lacking today. Perhaps because they were a special treat and not had every day.’

Bones, Fossils & Theory

The discovery in the Wairarapa of a European woman’s skull dating from the 17th century challenges the claim that Abel Tasman was the first from that continent here. The theory being advanced is that Dutch officials often brought their wives out to their East Indies stations. Off-course a boat could have wrecked off that coast. It is extremely unlikely that we will ever know what did happen to the poor woman.

Even more dramatic is the announcement of the finding of a 47 million year fossil which adds more information about primate evolution and eventually human evolution. Indeed it has been called the missing link. The lemur-like skeleton features primate characteristics such as grasping hands, opposable thumbs, nails instead of claws and relatively short limbs.

The exciting and unique feature of this fossil is its completeness. Most fossils are only a few scattered remnants. The other intriguing feature is its discovery in Germany. The assumption has been to date that Africa was the continent where primate evolution took place.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Dymocks Wellington franchise bookshop has gone into receivership. I’m sad about that. It was big and spacious with comfortable armchairs. It was well-stocked, especially with coffee table books, which was probably one of the reasons for its failure. Travel, art, garden and culinary interests were splendidly covered. There was a large paper-back fiction section, history books galore, a range of good science and technical and excellent racks of biographies. If they didn’t have a book in stock they would get it if it was available. In other words, an old-fashioned bookshop, trying to compete with the chains and niche boutiques. I launched my memoir This Piece of Earth there.

The name Dymocks carries resonance for me. When I was a boy I loved Richmal Crompton’s William books. During the war and after they were re-issued by the Australian publisher Dymocks in cheap editions with red covers. Birthdays and Christmases saw my collection steadily increase, each with that strange name on the spine. I was accustomed to publishers being booksellers - Whitcombe and Tombs in Christchurch and Pauls Book Arcade in Hamilton spring to mind. So in my first visit to Sydney I entered with delight Angus and Robertson’s large bookshop. A few streets away I stumbled across Dymocks – not as big but still a treasure trove of Australiana. I spent a happy day in both shops.

I’ve always explored bookshops, new and second-hand, indeed it is a good way to judge a town. In my first visit to Gisborne when I became a school inspector I discovered a shop that had hardback editions of Conrad’s novels still priced at 2 and 6, half-a-crown. The University Bookshop in Dunedin has long been a favourite. The size of the English sections of bookshops in Tokyo was a revelation – in one there were over four shelves solely devoted to Melville. Blackwells in Oxford was like entering a time-warp.

Book-shops should be like garden centres; places to meander and browse, contemplate purchases and toss up about choice. They are different from a library. There every book is available for lending whereas in a bookshop they are there to be bought and possessed. The scent and sight of new books excites the senses and the mind. What pleasures lie between the covers? The passing of Dymocks leaves Lambton Quay the poorer. I regret that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Things Great And Small

I’ve finished reading Ghost Wars, Steve Coll’s account of the rise of Bin Laden; a very sobering book - a tragedy of errors on the American side. It strengthens my belief that Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a colossal and unnecessary mistake – that war took energy and resources away from Afghanistan from where the 9/11 attacks had been conceived. The questions remain. Can the porous Afghan/Pakistan border ever be controlled? Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, can it be controlled? Frightening questions.

According to the New York Times parts of Alaska near Juneau are rising as glaciers melt as part of global warming. There are golf links now in what used to be mud flats at low tide. At university I learnt that Norway was still rising as a consequence of the end of the last ice age. Geography is, amongst other things, climate.

I’ve stopped writing poems since I started this blog. Obviously my creativity is going into it. What is gratifying is feedback. From friends mainly. But sometimes complete strangers. Usually by email, sometimes letter, once or twice phone. I’m delighted by such contacts. The world comes to me.

Ill-health narrows down that world. Recent dinner party talk made me aware how much this has happened to me, our guests talking about their recent experiences. Mine are reduced to the apartment, the view from it, books, the internet, and the conversation of friends and visitors. In their different ways they are still rich but they lack the stimulation of variety. Hence,an emphasis upon nostalgia.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Grandparents

All four of my grandparents were first generation New Zealanders. What a voyage their parents had made to see the wooded hills of Banks Peninsula looming up ahead, high ship-breaking cliffs guarding the various bays and harbours. The magnitude of that trip is still hard to imagine. Sailing round half a world was a lengthy and dangerous process, involving permanent separation from loved ones. Away from the comparatively sheltering, nourishing land, life became even more precarious.

My maternal grandfather’s parents came out in 1874, losing a child in the measles epidemic that broke out on the ship, indeed, only two children out of 28 aboard survived. It must have been a relief to get away from the flying spray, creaking timber, constant motion and cramped conditions.

Their experiences would be those of any settler, homeland memories, dislocation, but also the balm of a summer's sunset over land made productive. Survivors, hardened by constant labour, they adjusted and learnt to cope. Granny, Mum’s mother, kept saying to me, “with all your dreaming you’d not survived in the old days.”

My paternal grandfather, Jack McQueen, managed a large station, Kinloch on the southern slopes of Banks Peninsula. He married a local settler's daughter, Emma Rhodes from remote Flea Bay, over the hill from Akaroa. On the wall of their tiny retirement cottage hung a photograph of the cattle being auctioned when the Liberal Government forced the station to be broken up. Jack McQueen never forgave Dick Seddon.

We used to beg Granny McQueen to tell us the story of the ketch "Crest" wrecked in Flea Bay in 1868 - a dreadful story. The men were seen on a ledge in a cave into which the disabled ship drifted, but despite all efforts they could not be rescued. The kelp foiled attempts to float ropes in. Men tried to swim but they were defeated by the boiling waves. A dog was used, but it too failed to get through. At high tide the cave mouth was covered. After one tide the ledge was empty, the men had disappeared, presumably washed away. Her tale finished she would sit quietly looking in space.

I knew much more about my maternal grandparents. After my father’s death, we went to live with Pop and Granny at Little River in their house overlooking the rail station. From their window I watched the trains shunting, and the men loading sheep and cattle. Beyond the station and township was a meandering river into which all the various hillside creeks disgorged.

Then Pop brought a cottage for us ten minute's walk away, across the boundary creek of his farm, sandwiched between the railway line and Aitken's orchard. Tall hollyhocks grew on the sunny side and a bank of violets under the hydrangeas on the south. There was a large red gum in the northeast corner of the section. Year after year a pair of blackbirds nested safely in the tight hawthorn hedge that surrounded the place. The hedge also sheltered hedgehogs, there always seemed to be one or two snuffling around the lawn and woodheap.

When she cut the hedge Mum always raked it very carefully. Doug and I ran barefoot round the section all summer, shoes were expensive, but this was choice, the freedom of a country childhood. Risking thistle, thorn and bee sting we felt grit, soil and grass on the sole.

Pop and Granny, (Sam Barclay had married Alice Reed, another Little River girl at the turn of the century), figure prominently in my childhood years. Instead of being in an isolated Pigeon Bay nuclear family I’d rejoined a large network of relatives living in close vicinity to one another. Not that it was a family to parade feelings. But it was there, a supportive group and there were men around to make up for my father’s absence.

Pop called his wife, Al. I misinterpreted this as Owl. Certainly Granny with her thick glasses looked rather owl-like, but I could never understand why he called her so, for he seemed the shrewder of the two. (Cousin Marlene disagrees, we each pluck from memory our different perceptions). Pop always ate a raw apple unpeeled, Granny used to pare it with a knife. Mum, who most of the time sided with Pop, explained that vitamins were near the skin.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Our Town

After three years teaching at Morrinsville College my first school I shifted to Thames High School. It was a good move. I could leave my mistakes behind and the new staff-room was more relaxed. In terms of the economic see-saw Thames was going down while Morrinsville was coming up but it was in an old gold-mining town with a working class ideal about the value of education. The old-timers recounted tales of stamper batteries working round the clock, of how gold from Thames have enabled Auckland to become the Queen City. "There's still more gold there than has ever been taken out," they claimed. The pace of life in the town was slower. Drama and music were valued.

The school was producing HMS Pinafore. The drama producer fell ill, so I stepped into the breach. I knew little about stage direction so was on another quick learning curve. "Do you know how to dance a hornpipe? No! Neither do I. So we'd both better learn." I became hooked on directing school plays.

The following year I produced Shaw's Pygmalion and the subsequent year Wilder's Our Town. These productions were amongst the happiest experiences of my life - the shared, collaborative purpose, the mixing of ages, the triumphs, the disasters, the hush as the lights go down, a stage and an audience, a goal and an ending - curtain down, encore. Watching from the wings there is usually that magical moment when the audience collectively moves from detachment to involvement. In education there are few quick fixes, few magic bullets. The rewards are long term and applause is rare. On the stage the rewards are brief but the applause is heart-warming.

My production of Our Town had Emily’s coffin carried down the hall aisle followed by the mourners. First night, someone in the audience began crying. Others followed, soon there were handkerchiefs galore. Turning from watching through the curtain the girl who was playing Emily said ‘they’re crying for me’. ‘No’, I said, ‘they’re crying for themselves.’ ‘You’re a honey’ she said giving me a whooping big hug. You’re not supposed to embrace students. Gently I disengaged. ‘Now, go out there and wow them.’ I looked round. Prompt, a science teacher, and the stagehands all seemed unconcerned. I’d learnt something about the politics of situation.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


As a consequence of two falls in early January I’ve been seeing a local physiotherapist for treatment. She’s Dutch. When she was 18 years old she came to New Zealand as a school exchange student and fell in love with the place. So she decided to live here. She mentioned the other day how her host parents at Wellsford had a babaco tree and she adored the flavour of its fruit. She commented very few people had heard of it and expressed surprised that I had.

Anne’s relatives in Tauranga had them growing in their orchard hothouse. A relative of the pawpaw the hybrid fruit is a native of Ecuador. It’s flavour is so divine that its nickname is the champagne fruit. The seedless flesh is very juicy and is apparently low in sugar. It's nicest slightly chilled and goes very well with cold mutton or a good grilled steak.

I’m equally surprised it’s not more well known. The fruit is quite large, 12 inches long and 8 inches wide. It is distinctively five-sided, in a torpedo shape, blunt at the stem end, pointed at the apex. I can see it would be hard to pack and distribute - it's easily damaged. I’ve rarely seen it in the shops and on the few times it’s been available it looked over-ripe. Pity. It deserves wider recognition.


Despite many cullings, the books on my shelves carbon-date my interests. In my younger days I used to buy a book – more regularly books - when seeking an answer to a problem - how to teach grammar, how to lead the good life, how to develop a joyous temper, how the Roman Empire fell, how to write poetry, how to grow better roses, how to find truth, the nature of art or of the Godhead. I don’t bother so much now. Time is a bonus which I like most humans have squandered.

As a young man I read Augustine, Plato. Machiavelli and John Stuart Mill. My understanding was not as great as my intent. I was at that stage of life when being serious was the thing to be. One question posed by Augustine intrigued me, ‘what is time?’ His answer ‘I know not’ has never been trumped. Measured yes, the same impulse that drove ancient civilizations to measure distance made them treat time the same way.

Three of our measures are natural – the day, the earth’s rotation, the month, the moon’s cycle, the year, the planet’s orbit – the rest are of our devising. Down the ages our species worked to cut time into chunks in an attempt to control if not understand it - sundail, clock, watch and carbon dating. We measure time now in detail.

The last time I made a trip to the Wellington tip – sorry, the southern landfill – I was weighed and clocked in and out. I spent precisely 12 minutes 14 seconds there. Big brother’s watching as you dump your rubbish. Augustine’s question lurks in that visit. The connection between the man who threw a cartoon of rose cuttings into the concrete trench and the man now paying for the use of the tip is his consciousness linking the two events. They are not simultaneous and the moment they are over they are gone, unrepeatable. Fascinating! Exhilarating! Frustrating! Existence is a series of fleeting moments. In it we move and have our being.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Containable Entity

Little River in Banks Peninsula where I grew up was a containable entity for a child - everyone knew everyone, their history, their follies, and their successes. It was a closed community, homogeneous and inbred. `Peninsula people' defined themselves as country folk in comparison with "townies" who forgot to shut gates behind them, rarely grew vegetables, ignorantly rolled boulders downhill to smash fences, had uncontrolled dogs which chased sheep, all in all ignorant people with an inferior lifestyle.

Town existed as a place of hard pavements and people who didn't know or want to know you, an abode of temptation and luxury, its very existence dependent upon the farmer's labour. The symbiotic nature of the relationship received little acknowledgment. Deep down though, Little River people resented the cultural dominance of Christchurch. Of course the city people in turn cringed before the superiority of the Old Country.

Every now and then Christchurch police would raid the Little River pub to try to catch after-hours drinkers or illegal bookmaking. Along the way they would be spotted and the publican alerted by phone. Gleefully the story would be told again and again by even the most devout teetotallers or anti-gamblers - stupid townies tricked again.

One new ranger, tired of trying to catch farmers grazing their horses and cows on the "long acre" (the roadside outside their place) flung a wire across the telephone lines to prevent warnings being phoned ahead. Rounding up the stock he filled the pound, but the locals considered his action unfair, indeed dishonest. Even those who'd been on his back to clear the stock off the road were not supportive. A stranger, he failed to understand the area's morality. Sometimes it proved hard to pin down, even by those who lived there.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Is It Full Tide?

Blast! I was going to advance a theory over the appointment of Christine Rankin. That it was a stalking horse for the repeal of the so-called anti-smacking legislation. Vernon Small’s column in the Dominion Post this morning put forward the same argument. Why else would National appoint such a controversial, four-times-married, high-spending figure to the Families Commission; especially when it would alienate political allies.

That legislation was an albatross around Labour at the last election. It had become identified as their cause despite it not being a bill advanced by them and was passed with the support of John Key and National.

Let me be quite clear. I supported the legislation. But I’m sure it was a downer for the Clark government. It’s repeal would appeal to a considerable number of people.

Maybe the conspiracy theory is wrong. The reason could be a mere close association between Paula Bennett and Rankin. Sometimes the wrong thing is done for the right reason.

Whatever the cause the decision is going to have considerable political impact. Helen Clark enjoyed early on a honeymoon period. As has John Key who has shown astute sure-footedness so far.

Has popular support for Key’s government reached full tide? It’s not just Rankin. The Waterview Road decision will alienate others. As will the Auckland supercity implementation. Melissa Lee’s silly comments about the new motorway diverting criminals from Mt Albert won’t help. A bleak budget looms. The recession provides an excuse for retrenchment but there will be electoral consequences.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Grave Secrets

Love is an ambivalent emotion. There are times when the elixir of being in love is a powerful force that creates a sense of bliss, of well-being, of wonder and delight in everything around. The body in rapture, the soul feels liberated. For a while every waking moment is filled with the incandescent awareness of the other person’s existence. And there are times when love is not blissful. As an emotion it can also be disconcerting, baffling, indeed hurtful. Many of us have felt that misery when our obsession becomes dominant and we know the world will never, ever be right again.

Love is more than sex but arises from and is based around it. The contemporary world tends to trivialise the ancient Greek concept of mighty Eros into mild Cupid. Be that as it may, poets down the ages have sung about love in all its aspects. Relatively unknown New Zealand poet Helen Bascand’s poem Grave Secrets sums up that lovers’ moment of fusion – gigantic in itself, but a brief fleeting episode in the vast duration of time. Nevertheless it is a moment when the universe appears to fulfil its purpose. It’s an old theme well-told.

An aside but relevant. Every now and then there is an announcement of the discovery of more dinosaur fossils here. At one stage scientists thought there were none in New Zealand. When I first heard that claim I felt uneasy. Tuatara are remnants from that age. If they survived here others of the same species must have been around at the same stage. Interesting, though they have now found dinosaur fossils here they’ve never found fossilised tuatara illustrating just how random is the preservation of remnants. There’s a strange comfort in these huge stretches of time. They put love into perspective.


If you should bury me,
as I have requested
with my hands clasped,
bury me wearing this bird
on a fine chain,

if my grave
should be uncovered
in a thousand years
a wise man might say

Here we have
the bones of an elderly woman,
well, she would have been elderly
in her day.

From the evidence
of the spinal column, we can deduce
she carried heavy loads & the bones
of the hands indicate hard labour.

There is advanced
degeneration of the phalanges.
Early writings suggest
this was a common affliction.

But what is
of peculiar interest in this grave
is the small wrought bird.
It is silver and beautifully worked.

It has fallen into the chest cavity
but I think we can safely imagine
it was placed between her hands –
wings to carry a soul to eternity.

* * *

My gap eyes and unhinged jaw
will not reveal the day we bought it;
the way you wrapped it in my hand
& kissed my fingers closed;
the way we made love
with the silver chain around my neck

Wings pressed between us.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Love Is

Here is a poem I wrote for my Anne my wife:

is reading a Margaret
Atwood poem &
understanding it

is old as the hills
& young as the moon

is fresh picked
sweet peas
damp with dew

is regret
at lost time

is giving up
the computer for
you to send an e-mail

is what old
men sing about
long after the event


Lies Near the Truth

Some sayings pop out of the mind at strange times. I was reading Coll’s Ghost Wars when suddenly the question "'What is truth?' asked jesting Pilate" came into my consciousness. The Sudanese authorities claimed American pressure to get rid of Bin Laden. The American deny this. Whom do you believe?

His book leaves me with a feeling of what a life of innocence I have led. I would like to think I live in a country of innocence but that’s probably not so. David Lange was concerned about electronic snooping. The Rainbow Warrior bombing shows Godzown can be subject to a terrorist attack.

The word ‘lie’ regularly appears in his account of espionage around the roof of Asia during the 1990s. Col claims Bhutto lied to Clinton, and the Pakistan Intelligence lied to her about support for the Taliban. Saudi sent money and men for the cause. In both cases the assumption was that once in power the Taliban would soften their fundamentalist stance. It was not to be. It’s leaders meant what they said. They were not your normal Afghan warlords.

Certainly with the Soviet gone the Clinton administration let CIA operations in Afghanistan wind down. There were no ears and eyes on the ground as the Taliban came to power. Talk of gas and oil pipelines across Afghanistan meant the Afghan people widely believed in a conspiracy that Coll claims did not exist. CIA involvement had stopped but nearly everyone considered it as ongoing.

At the beginning Clinton cut CIA funding and therefore its activities. All part of balancing the budget. The decision to switch to more technological surveillance while cheaper meant fewer personnel. (I think the same thing happened here with policing). It was not till half-way through his time that the rising terrorist threat at home and abroad meant a change of tack.

It could be described as a chapter of accidents. But it always is. For in the long run history is what happened. Over time, theory, hindsight, simplification and distance distort and shape the account. At the moment events occur, complexities, cross-currents, creeds, national and vested interests mix with human needs, vanities, desires and ideas, to shape them.

This morning’s paper, Pakistan military pounding Taliban positions in its NW frontier and Afghans upset over civilian casualties from an American air-strike makes me realise that my so-called state of innocence was mere ignorance and a rather naïve belief in human rationality and fair behaviour.

I do know that as you sow so shall you reap.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A West Coast Drive

I have a huge regret in that I can no longer drive, a necessity which has greatly reduced my independence. More than that, I loved driving, especially in the country. One of my last big drives was on the West Coast. I’ve always had that Cantabrian fascination with the Coast and it was good to be back there. I picked up a rental at Hokitika airport and headed south over the new bridge. The previous time I had been there was with David Lange when on an educational tour he took time out to inspect the half-built bridge.

Farmland alternateed with bush with its regenerating rimu. The native clematis was in flower, its garlands hanging everywhere - a touch of chastity in the tangled green. South of Ross it’s mainly bush right to the road verge, except for the lush green dairy flats. I pulled off the road at Lake Ianthe. It was so still with great reflections that I regretted not bringing my camera. A duck landed and its mates followed, disturbing the calm. They hopefully paddled towards me, obviously tourists often fed them. I stopped at Harihari for an ice-cream. While I sat licking it on a playground bench a hawk lazily circled on reconnaissance.

In that area mountain immensity and vegetation exuberance dwarf humanity and its dwellings. Tasman’s description remains apt, “a large land, uplifted high.” It some ways the South Island resembles the human torso. Its backbone runs the length of the West Coast.

It’s a challenging drive, especially over Mount Hercules, in this instance complicated by road-works. It was so mild that I wound the window down; the smell of the bush - decay and regeneration - permeated the car. Every now and then there was a stand of kahikatea or totara - a reminder of past glory. Part of the appeal of living in New Zealand is the diversity of its landscape. The west/east divide of flora and fauna is striking.

I pressed on to my destination, Franz Josef and a conference beginning that evening.. That afternoon I sat on the balcony outside my room facing the glacier. It had shrunk back and was now barely visible. The precipitous mountain-sides overlooking it, however, had their own majesty - waterfalls dropping from nowhere - while wisps of mist in the tops adding mystery to the view. As there was no wind tui and blackbird’s songs merged into a chorus.

The previous time I had been there - at the same hotel – Anne had been with me. We were on holiday; lucky with a rare spell of idyllic weather. She’d never been on the Coast before. We did all the tourist things, walked around Lake Mathieson - Mt Cook and Mt Tasman reflected in all their glory - scrambled up to Lake Wombat, and visited the glacier faces.

We hired a ski plane and flew up the Fox glacier to land on the ice-fields that feed Franz Josef. The advantage of a plane is that the pilot can cut the engine. There was absolute silence. Suddenly I became aware of a fly buzzing around. It must have hitched a ride. It wouldn't have lasted long in that temperature. It soon stopped and we savoured the stillness, white and enormous all round us. Then a helicopter landed. The noise from its motor drove us back to our monoplane and the flight down the glacier with its rocky rubble and deep crevasses.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Knowledge & Skills

Education has always been about relationships and power-shifts. There is an inherent problem in being a teacher – one is in a position of power. Of course, parents, or some cases caregivers, are in the same situation. Even more in that they are first cab off the rank. But to become an adult a young person has to move from dependency to self-sufficiency.

Education is about enabling such empowerment - the opposite of indoctrination which merely switches people from one state of dependency to another. It is an age-old argument: motivate or control. As most parents and teachers know, it is not an either/or question. Good teachers have always known that learning involves moving from the known into the unknown. Such teachers anticipate their students will in time catch up or overtake them making their assistance redundant. It’s one of our society’s most important tasks. The well-being of the individual and the community depends on it being done efficiently and effectively.

We have an increasing awareness of the importance of the process in learning itself. Teachers have always taught content, always will. You can't learn about nothing. Having said that it must be accepted that no matter how carefully content is selected much becomes redundant over time, or needs to change, or proves unnecessary, indeed sometimes even becomes useless clutter or harmful. At one stage everyone knew the earth was flat.

Knowledge can change, whereas processes once mastered remain with the learner. How to learn, how to transfer knowledge, solve problems, make generalisations, analyse data, use a keyboard, relate to other people, these and many others are process skills. Like riding a bicycle, once such skills have been learnt, even if they become rusty, they can be redeveloped, refined, added to throughout one's life.

Ridiculous Rhinos

Last time I was at Auckland zoo I watched with amusement a young boy jumping up and down with glee at seeing a rabbit hop around in the elephant enclosure, much more interesting than the two giant mammals munching away at their hay. The white rhinos there always took my fancy. Somehow elephants look credible. Even giraffes, ungainly but graceful as well. But rhinos close-up appear ridiculous.

Those in Christchurch’s Orana Park look more spectacular in their wide-open green paddock beyond the moat than their brethren in Auckland’s dusty domain. Distance has a softening effect.

Like hippopotamus (river-horse) the name for the rhino is derived from the Greek, (keros[horn] and rhino [nose]). The Romans used rhino for their gladiatorial games. What effort there must have been to catch and convey them from their African homeland to Rome. Unlike the elephant which can be domesticated, the rhino remains an unruly creature. Not very intelligent they are basically timid but if angered they have terrific strength and power. A gladiator’s idea of hell must have been an enraged rhino.

I’ve tried to find out how those ancients managed to round them up but no luck in my research to date though there are mosaics in Sicily showing some capturing with a lot of maiming of the animals. I did learn, however, that in Julius Caesar’s triumph on returning to Rome from the East after defeating Pompey there were 40 elephants each holding a lit torch in their trunks as part of the parade.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Family Trait

It's a family trait to be delighted watching animals. When my mother lived in Christchurch she loved going to Orana Park, especially watching the lions being fed. I was telling her on the phone this morning about last night's TV programme Wild Caribbean. There was a sloth dog-paddling slowly across a mangrove lagoon - an incogruous sight.

Later in the programme they showed an uninhabited island where boobies and frigate birds nested side by side. Imagine the pong. And the din. The footage showed frigate birds ganging up to force a booby to disgorge its catch of fish for them to eat. A lazy way of hunting. I felt sorry for the boobies having to run that gauntlet to feed their chicks.

After a conference in Brisbane once Anne and I had a holiday on Heron Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. I lay in a hammock absorbed in reading Robin Hyde’s Dragon Rampart, her account of her experiences in the Sino/Japanese War. Such mayhem seemed unreal in that tranquil spot.

I snorkelled and we went out in a glass-bottomed boat out past the reef. I was thrilled to see live turtles swimming. Back at the resort the laundry had a notice asking people to put out the lights. They confused newly hatched turtles which were looking for the phosphorescent gleam of the sea.

All the time there a sole frigate bird hovered over the island. In the scrub behind the resort boobies roosted. I chuckled over their clumsy crash-landings – not the usual delicacy with which most birds handle the process.

The second-to-last time I was in the South Island I drove my mother to my brother Bruce’s deer farm near Mt Hutt. Shortly after we arrived he brought in a little grey piglet, only a few days old. Bruce runs a wild pig boar and sow and there were six new piglets. This one eyes had just opened and it’s ears were big, floppy and soft. Smiling like a kid with its first taste of candy-floss, Mum cuddled it as it snuggled in to the warmth of her body.

There was a fantail twittering outside. Sister-in-law Margaret opened the door and bird fluttered in chasing flies and moths. It was like a scene from a movie, a frail old lady nursing a piglet with this bird twirling and whirling overhead. Apparently it came in daily. The door has been left open and eventually having caught all available insects the bird darted outside. I noticed Bruce had positioned himself to block the little pig should it make a dash for the door.

Margaret closed the door the minute the bird has gone. She explained how it followed Bruce as he walked out along the lawsonia hedge. He brushed the vegetation disturbing insects which the bird then snapped up. I emphasised with and understood that action. It’s the sort of thing I do. I mean, I did. It’s arm-chair viewing now.


This week in Washington President Obama hosted the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. An historical and geographical shatter-belt, the area has been a hot spot for centuries. Coll’s book Ghost Wars gives the recent record of plot and counter-plot, of heroic deeds and treachery, of sudden and often savage deaths. It’s a big book. I’m a speed reader but I still have to go slow, it’s so complex. I’m not even half way through.

I’m up to 1990. Bin Laden’s in Saudi Arabia denouncing local dependence upon American assistance and offering to clear the secularist forces of Iraq’s Saddam out of Kuwait with his own holy warriors. The offer was declined. Meanwhile back in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, American, Pakistani and Saudi intelligence services jockey for power in the vacuum created by the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In Washington the CIA bosses refused to accept their field officers’ reports of concerns from many Afghan warlords about the support being offered to the Islamic fundamentalist leaders. The power-games in Washington remind me of the time-wasting, energy-sapping struggles between the Ministry of Education, the Education Review Office and the New Zealand Qualifcations Authority after the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. On the scale of things very minor, but ultimately important here. In the USA the State Department, Pentagon and CIA all had their agendas. Decisions made affected the whole world.

What comes through clearly is the murky nature of espionage. It’s John Le Carre country. Who do you trust? Nobody. What is scary is the influence that all three spy agencies had over their governments. In many instances they dictated or lead policy.

The defiles and hills of Afghanistan are ideal for guerrilla warfare. The pattern that is emerging is one of a beleaguered leader huddled in Kabul surrounded by strong war-lords. Survival is a game of playing one off the other. Sooner or later time runs out.

I hope Obama is successful. The stakes are incredibly high. But I fear in a country where war has been a way of life for centuries the odds are not good. To switch metaphors his own countrymen down the years have fouled the nest.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pioneer Woman with Ferrets


Preserved in film,
As under glass,
Her waist nipped in,
Skirt and sleeves
To ankle, wrist,
In the wind,
Hat to protect
Her Victorian complexion,
Large in the tussock
She looms,
Startling as a moa
Her children
Fasten wire-netting
Round close-set warrens,
And savage grasses
That bristle in a beard
From the rabbit-bitten hills.
She is monumental
In the treeless landscape,
Nonchalantly she swings
In her left hand
A rabbit,
Bloodynose down,
In her right hand a club.

Ruth Dallas

My blog on Frank Moreton illustrated the danger of type-casting our Pakeha forbears. Dallas’s poem describing an old photograph similarly enlarges our perspective of the period. Those pioneering women were no bleeding heart, shrinking violet creatures, fainting at the first hint of danger. They were tough, able to kill a rabbit without compunction despite all their frillery. The photo as a historical record can give the lie to romantic mythology.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Dancer

We all form stereotypes. One of mine was how prim and proper life was in late 19th century New Zealand. My big surprise when I was researching 19th century poetry for my anthology The New Place was to discover Frank Morton. His poems, though sentimental, were strikingly different and gave the lie to that particular stereotype. He enjoyed baiting (in his words) ‘prudes”, and he celebrated pantheism and an end to “wowserism.” In a rollicking introduction to his one published volume Laughter and Tears, he really got stuck into the political and literary establishment. Australia has had many literary larrickins, they exported one here with Morton. His poem not only purveys the vigour and verve of the dancer’s movements it also exhibits a sexual frankness surprising for its era. Also obvious is the class structure of God’s Own Country in the 1890s.

‘The house is darkened, and the air is thick
With heavy odours of the music-hall
Here in the crowded Circle, eloquent
Of perfumed flesh voluptuously warm
In open bodices; with this, faint scents
Of women's hair, and tawdrier fragrances
Incisively persistent. Here and there
A naked shoulder gleams across the gloom

Up in the teeming Gallery
Bill and his garish girl, exuberant,
Spice talk with hot, ungentle repartee,
And scuffle for positions next the rail.
Down in the Pit, Respectability
Talks politics, and makes the best of things- –
The orchestra preluding. In the Stalls,
Smug city-men exchange their dingy thoughts
And snigger anecdotage, mostly lies,
About the awaited lady.

Then the stage
Starts into vision as a a pool of light
With Nita smiling roseate in the centre
Rouged, pencilled, undemurely confident –
The moment’s tyrant, wholly conscious of
Supremacy, she scorns the god’s applause.
And so she stands a moment’s space at poise,
Immobile, almost listless, though her eyes
Are full of life. It seems as though she were
Half soothed and half intoxicated by
The greenish sweetness of the violins …

And then she dances …
Languorosly at first
As though the motion bored her. First she lifts
One little foot (the modern dancer’s foot,
Scarce beautiful, the only charm she shows
That is not perfect in its shapeliness) –
Lifts one small foot and flings it far above
Her shoulder, while those mortals in the stalls
Divine the shrouded splendour of her hips,
And lay up thoughts for future use. And next
She bends her supple body forward, like
A wand of hazel, while her fearless eyes
Flash challenges the gleeful gods translate,
And her bare breasts protuberant take their part
In the so-insolent triumph of her pose.
And now the rhythm assails her, and she flings
Into a maze of motion that suggests
Romano's Graces frenzied with champagne.
She moves in purple worlds of art and sense,
Making the best of both; and all the while
Bedevils men with her tormenting eyes,
And wins from brazenly decollete dames
(White breasts abulge in open bodices),
Up in the circle, comment critical.
Murmurs of `Wanton hussy!' and the like.
And in the teeming gallery up above
Bill and his garish girl approve the dance,
Leaning wide-eyed and warm across the rail.
And in the stalls the city-men applaud;
And in the Pit, Respectability
Is somehow glad he left the wife at home,
But claps and shouts his bravas with the rest,
As Nita, panting, smiles and slips away.’

Trevor Mallard

So Trevor Mallard is restored to the Labour front bench and becomes opposition spokesperson on education. He’ll give Anne Tolley a tough time. Much as Ruth Richardson did for Russell Marshall between 1984 and 1987. The pre-election polls showed education as one of the few downers for the Fourth Labour Government. That is one of the reasons why David Lange took the portfolio. Phil Goff knows what he is doing. Tony Ryall and Paula Bennett are performing reasonably well in their portfolios. A teacher stouch is brewing over performance pay.

I worked for and with Ministers Brian Talboys, Phil Amos, Les Gandar, Merv Wellington, Russell Marshall, David Lange, Phil Goff, Lockwood Smith, Wyatt Creech, Nick Smith, Trevor Mallard and Steve Maharey. I disliked Amos and Nick Smith. The rest, regardless of policies, were approachable, sincere, dedicated and hard-working in an extremely demanding position.

I remember saying Maharey is the nicer man but if I had to climb a mountain I’d take Mallard every time. He had courage. He had clout. He had common sense. He gave no quarter and expected none. He got things done.

To change tack. Coll’s book on Afghanistan. What a frightening read. Both Schultz and Reagan were informed that Russia planned to pull out and its concern at a fundamentalist Islamic take-over. Their fears were dismissed, so intent was American policy on winning the Cold War. Casey, CIA chief had channelled large amounts of aid through Pakistan to fundamentalist fighters. That aid was assisted by further funds (and personnel) from affluent Saudi Arabia. The teeth that bit America had been formed with American assistance. Who knows what else is brewing still in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border? Will Obama be successful where all else have failed?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


As regular as the duck-shooting season, an argument erupts about the teaching of grammar. When people discover that I was once an English teacher they want to know what I think about it. It seems to be some sort of touchstone. I included the use of terms like noun, verb and adjective in my lessons. The explanation between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ is best covered by a grammatical explanation. Students need to learn the difference between the active and passive voice. After all in adult life they might end up in advertising or writing TV scripts.

Ambiguities provide a good avenue into grammar. The advertisement ‘Handsome Persian Strips’ for a carpet sale provokes an interesting lesson. ‘What terrible minds you have.’ Equally useful is to tie grammar to literature, for example, Shakespeare's Egyptian queen speaking about being displayed in a Roman triumph ‘I shall see some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness’ or Hopkins ‘let Him easter in us’. But I did not and do not see the point in sterile exercises.

I confess that high school Latin did help me. You learn a lot about your native tongue when you study another language.

The critics might be better occupied if they turned their sights to the sub-editors of the Dominion Post. There have been some howlers let through of late. A recent example. ‘womb’ instead of ‘room.’ Wrong noun.

More Random Response

Carol Ann Duffy is to be British Poet Laureate, the first woman in the position’s 341 year’s history. A good choice. I thought we had her volume The Wife Speaks but it is not on the shelf. Probably lent and not returned. We’ve both been prodigal with our books. I’m meticulous about returning borrowed books and assume others are the same. Anyway I’m re-reading and enjoying Feminine Gospels, various visions and revisions of female identity.

I am also reading Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, a history of Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to Septermber 10, 2001. Recent history with its roots in the past and many implications for the future. I find the Time-type style rather irritating. Example: ‘Yuri Andropov was a rising force within the grey cabal the circled the Kremlin’s listless don, the hound-faced Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.’ But the analysis transcends that: ‘Not less than America’s modernising capitalists, Russia’s retrenching communists under-estimated the Iranian revolution.’

Tom Davies from whom I borrowed the book also lent us a DVD with four Alec Guiness Ealing comedies. I enjoyed Kind Hearts and Coronets last night – British black humour comedy at its best. Guiness stars in eight cameos as the different family victims of a plan to inherit a wealthy estate. The film ends with a dramatic twist.

The weekend’s Rotorua marathon also ended dramatically. The front runner stumbled a few feet from the tape – his legs he says just turned to jelly. At least he got up and finished second. I was in Edinburgh for the 1970 Commonwealth Games when NZ runner Sylvia Potts fell when leading inches from the tape – a cruel blow. When the Games finished and the Queen and Prince Phillip left by circling the stadium in an open coach with the crowd singing ‘will you nae come back again’ there were few dry eyes in the crowd. Mine included. I’ve always been a sucker for sentiment.

We’ve had an email from Chris Livesey a Kiwi working in Canberra. He says Australian birds screech and squawk rather than sing. I remember crying in a movie theatre in that strange governmental city. I’d been to the poet’s lunch at the university, indeed had the honour of reading Les Murray’s poem for the occasion. It had been great to meet many people who had until then had only been names in books. A considerable amount of wine was consumed. At its end I was dropped off at a mall where the newly released Crocodile Dundee was running – appropriate to see it in an Aussie setting. At its conclusion when the two lovers are re-united in the New York underground in front of a cheering crowd I found myself weeping buckets. Wine helps remove emotion’s inhibitions.

Yesterday’s blog reminds me I’d used kauri as a metaphor for David Lange in a lengthy poem I’d written about my Beehive experience published in the volume Pingandy. (For some reason my blog will not accept my spacing of lines in poetry, everything shifts to the left margin).
‘A kauri is an awesome thing
seeing one is like entering an old pit-sawn church
sheer volume of hand-smoothed timber
the old organ manhandled from the motherland
and admiration at such purpose that could
plot sunlight through stained glass to
make the heart lurch so.
Nothing in this elusive
world is ever total
the wind blows round an empty pulpit
the kauri’s mortal too.’

Later lines query the metaphor:
‘Tonight at a party
The long tongues gun for the big man –
big kauri sounds a bit …
as a metaphor it doesn’t exactly fit trench warfare.’
But several lines on I say:
‘the kauri – yeah stubborn mule, stick to your metaphor.’

In time I found a more satisfying image. Interviewing me about 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."

Monday, May 4, 2009


The recent gale toppled a 1000 year old kauri in a reserve near Huntly. There were two of these gigantic trees there. I saw them several times when I lived in Hamilton. The one that went down was rotten inside. Even the kauri is not eternal. It would have been a seedling round about the time William the Conqueror set sail for England. When I lived at Thames and drove over the Coromandel Range there were a few isolated trees towering over the rest of the bush, remnants of a departed glory.

The gigantic size of these old trees is a marvel. Anne and I walked in once to view Tane Mahuta the grand-daddy of them all on our way to Opononi. What a sight those kauri forests must have been and how quickly they were destroyed. Mum’s childhood was spent on a farm north of Dargaville. She describes watching the felling of a large kauri. “It didn’t seem right, this sudden huge gap in the landscape. I’ve never seen anything more dreadful.” She and Uncle Charlie ran along the fallen trunk.

The speed with which these great trees were cut down illustrates our species’ continuing capacity to plunder the environment. 19th century, the idea of sustainability was hardly existent. Not just the kauri. Kahikatea were felled for butter boxes. And on Banks Peninsula the totara had a similar fate. The mill at Little River pre-dated farming. We were proudly told at school how logs from the local area were rafted across Lakes Forsyth and Ellesmere to be used as piles for the first Rakia River bridge.

Our last Northland holiday was spent at Cable Bay near Mangonui. From there we visited the ancient kauri workshop in Awakino. I must admit it’s a splendid timber. The pieces were made from dug-up swamp kauri, products ranging from envelope openers to huge wooden couches suitable for an executive waiting room. There was even a spiral staircase carved out of a single trunk.

North of Awakino is a tourist attraction called the Gumdigger’s Walk through manuka regrowth over 42,000 year old stumps exposed by the 19th century search for kauri gum. That ancient forest had been flattened in a manner that the experts believe would have been caused by a tsunami. What a wall of water that must have been. The walk is punctuated by scale replicas of huts and tools the diggers used. Anne learnt the origin of the word gum-boot. In the swamp the diggers needed water-proof footware.

As the fallen tree is rotten it’ll be left to decay where it lies. This saves DOC the dilemma of whether to mill the trunk. Sometimes it’s not an ill-wind.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

How Britain Lost Its Great

Next door neighbour Pat lent us Quentin Letts’ book 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain. Accepting the fact that he yearns for a Britain that never existed his acerbic pieces about his chosen villains are very readable. He’s provocative though romantically right wing in his ranting. He’s in favour of fox-hunting.

He does criticise some Tories. Kenneth Baker really gets the stick for abolishing caning in schools. Ted Heath collects a packet but that’s for sacking Enoch Powell over his immigration speech. Letts does point out, however, ‘the ‘black man’ has actually turned out, in many cases, to be one of the last proponents of family support, Christian charity and communal endeavour – once common standards which have crumbled like Dorset’s Jurassic coast.’ Margaret Thatcher’s sin was to destroy the Conservative vote in North England by her overkill in the miner’s strike.

As for Beeching ‘His decision to cut 100,000 jobs and to close 2,000 railway stations, along with 5,000 miles of rail track which had been built at the cost of countless navvies’ lives, was one of the most anti-progressive steps of the last fifty years.’

Princess Diana cops a lot of bile. [She] 'was a liability, a soufflé of false ideas, a super-model with all that that entails.' 'Diana robbed us of the stoicism and understatement which had served Britain well.’ Her butler Burrell ‘manages the rare feat of being both disreputable and dreary.’

Tony Greig’s voice is ‘as nasty a sound as the human larynx can make – jagged, guttural, conveying scorn and aggression.’ His sin was to lead cricket down the TV one-day hype path. Greg Dyke from BBC is responsible for making Britons more tired by shifting the night news from 9 to 10. Howard Schultz of Starbucks gets a roasting for bad coffee. While the Rev Jaspers whom I’ve never heard of is responsible for the replacement of the Book of Common Prayer with its ‘steady cadences’ with inadequate new versions. ‘Disease, drought, death – all have come and gone in previous centuries. The Prayer Book shows modern mankind that he is not quite so exceptional after all.’

That last sentence reflects his lazy thinking. I enjoyed the book though.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Two Deaths In One Night

Writing about hospitals a few blogs back reminded me of the impact that a Janet Charman poem had when I first read it. For a spell in my student days I had a nurse girl-friend. The callous way she spoke about her patients and sometimes their deaths shocked me. I realise now it was a defence mechanism. Charmin’s poem had the same feeling. The intensity of her experience hammered at me from the page. The contrast between the apparent indifference at dealing with the corpses and the sexuality at the rugby party is striking. As well there is the surprise of the spare, urgent presentation, rules of punctuation and poetic form completely overturned – a captivating poem.


in each side room
a body
dropped in the sheets
after long pain
and a look of tense
between breath

we were going to a rugby party
after work
that night

how we washed their bodies

i took down the cotside
and cut away
the drip
old dressings
and the oxygen mask

Jean said
i'll wash
you hold

i held
the dull blank weight
against warm me
his unknown soldier chin
propped up finally
and we found a bit of carnation
to stick between
his tied together hands

this was just
the first one
across the hall
we started on the other

how we washed his body
had to laugh
in the low light of

sipping tea
waiting for the orderlies
to load their long white parcels away
on cold trolleys

All that shit
I don't know how you girls can
Do it
says the lock forward
brushing his finger into what he hopes is my breast

Come down the beach with us –
we went
two deaths in one night

Janet Charman 2 Deaths in I Night p14

Friday, May 1, 2009


a) Mayday. (Google time doesn’t reflect Kiwi time). To me it’s not the workers’ day that it is to most of the world. Rather, it’s the beginning of the duck shooting season. When I used to walk to work through the Botanic Gardens at this time each year the duck pool was crowded. During my youth Uncle Charlie turned up year after year with ducks and Canadian geese he had shot. Two of my half-brothers are keen duck-shooters. Mum had kept from the farm the big deep-freeze and each year it stored many ducks. Every time I visited there would be wild duck on the menu. Once Mum gave a duck to a friend who didn’t realise the possibility of shot. She put it in the microwave to cook. The result was an explosion that destroyed the duck and the microwave.

b) Someone asked did swine flu scare me. I am well aware how vulnerable I am not just to swine flu but to ordinary flu or even a cold. In my condition a risk of secondary infection is obvious. Death carries its own certainty. It’ll come in its own time. Of course one has fears. The other night when a gale was buffeting the house I woke up needing to go to the toilet. (An advantage of the mask and the machinery to operate it means I don’t normally hear the noise). I made a cup of tea and listened to the wind and rain. The thought flashed across my mind – what a hell of a time for the earthquake to happen. For a while the hobgoblins had a field day but common sense came to the rescue. I put the mask on and went back to sleep. With luck the earthquake won’t happen in my lifetime.

c) By coincidence I had two emails this morning one after the other both talking about President Obama. One was from Roger Robinson in upstate New York saying how well he was doing. The other was from my sister-in-law Margaret to whom I had recommended his autobiography. Here’s what she wrote: I have at last got a copy of Barack Obama's 'Dreams From My Father'. I was shocked to find Ashburton (Whitcoulls & Paper Plus) had no copies. The girl behind the counter in Whitcoulls hadn't heard of Obama - shock! And when she went to look up on the computer list, wanted to know how to spell - shock!! I ended up getting my copy in an excellent book shop 'Take Note' in Hokitika.

d) I’m reading Colin Thiele’s poetry book ‘In Charcoal and Conte’ Thiele was a South Australian writer and teacher. His childhood memoir ‘Sun on the Stubble’ is one of my favourite books. He grew up in a German farming settlement and his loving accounts of pioneering life and adventures are heart-warming. As a poet his striking word pictures are a characteristic. Mrs Henschke’s ‘great bells of her breasts/Shaking with the carillons of laughter.’ A street scene: ‘She on the pillion, girl koala, clinging …’ A school classroom: ‘Only at the door a hangdog sneak of sun/ Slunk in, curled up, dozed and dissolved/ Slowly into a still warm pool.’

Historically Recent

Speech is our species' greatest achievement. It speeded up learning. It was a long haul but in time literacy added a further dimension. Printing quickened the process. Now the digital revolution transforms it.

Education existed before literacy. But literacy altered its nature, though the skill remained a privilege for a few. Printing increased its availability. Thinkers and social tinkerers beginning to theorise education should be the right of all young people. Schooling was seen as necessary to ensure that all had access to learning. In Europe protestant clerics added their voice, everyone should be able to read and study the Bible. The industrial revolution added momentum - workers must be educated to be able to calculate, read and obey instructions. Males getting the vote added even more urgency to the demand. In England, in 1870, Robert Lowe speaking in Parliament in support of compulsory education stated "we must educate our masters."

So during the nineteenth century, instead of the earlier casual and fluid educational arrangements for learning, throughout the industrialised world systems of compulsory schooling were introduced. Students were graded by age as well as ability and increasingly taught by teachers specially trained for the task. Systems of inspection were introduced to ensure national standards. It is easy to forget how recent in a historical sense this development has been. Teachers often complain that as a profession they lack recognition. As an occupation it does not possess the weight of tradition that say law or medicine carries.

Lowe was right. The demand for the extension of the franchise, first to all men, then to women, reflected widening literacy as well as beliefs about the nature of humanity. E M Forster’s essay Two Cheers For Democracy argues it may not be the absolute best form of governance but it is the best we can attain. Democracy may clunk along but it does ensure opposing viewpoints can be heard. It relies upon a consensus that the decisions made by the majority will be accepted by the minority. . It assumes the rule of law; and empowerment through learning and literacy. Modern information technology is already altering democracy as we know and have experienced it. This has consequences for education.