Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tomorrow's Schools

a) Our first rose is out – Old China Monthly. Leander has several buds on the verge of bursting
b) There are two half-grown thrush fledglings on the lawn. Awkward teenagers they are demanding food from their hard-working parents.

The Main Show
Anne is in Auckland at an education conference in two capacities. She is representing me as a contributor to a book Tomorrow’s Schools: Twenty years on. She is also the editor. They asked for a commentary upon my chapter. Anne will read it. Here it is.

‘In my first term teaching I marked a set of Sixth Form history essays. On one I wrote ‘Balderdash! D-.’ At the time I was quite proud of myself. Looking back now I am ashamed. Over the years I learnt how to be more capable of assisting young people’s learning.

I was not the first teacher to be so simplistic. A child’s lesson from the second century A.D was found in a midden near Hadrian’s Wall in the U.K - a very poor copy of a passage from Virgil. At the bottom the teacher had scrawled, “sloppy”. History doesn’t tell us whether an accurate copy was ever done. But we now know a lot more about learning than they did then.

The teacher’s task is to help people learn. What is taught, and how, is the core of teaching. What is learnt, and how, is the essence of learning. The nature of assessment is crucial in this enterprise. I acknowledge and applaud that - in the 49 years since I began teaching, research on formative assessment has added greatly to knowledge about learning and how it works.

In theory, the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms were about the administration of a system. David Lange was always adamant they were not to affect the learning of students. We worked hard to ensure that while the ship was refitted, it kept sailing on course. But the system used affects the climate in which learning takes place.

The reforms meant change. They had many good aspects, and I discuss these in my essay. Here I want to highlight one of the aspects I focused on – an anxiety about the effect of the reforms, which I’ve had from the beginning. I admit my comments are oriented more to secondary education than to primary. I’m relying on teacher friends’ comments and media reports, as well as other people’s research, when I say that I suspect a concern I had about the Tomorrow’s Schools implementation has been fulfilled.

I sense that teaching has to some extent lost a professional collegiality that existed when I was a teacher. There was rivalry then between schools, yes; but as a profession we were aware of a common cause – to improve the learning of all young people, the future citizens of our nation.

Today I sense isolation and defensiveness. I’m sure it varies. It probably begins at the top. Picot recommended that there should be an overarching Council, with the heads of the Ministry of Education, the National Qualifications Authority and the Education Review Office, plus three other prominent New Zealanders appointed by the Government. This Council would be charged with co-ordinating policies from the various agencies, and looking at long-term effects of educational decisions. That idea never got out of the hangar. The result has been an on-going lack of co-ordination between the agencies, and outright competition in some instances.

Further, the legislation setting up the Education Review Office made it quite clear that its prime function was to check school accountability. A worthy aim. But the result has been that the old advisory function which the inspectors had developed, on top of their legal responsibilities, has been lost.

As for the schools, in the ‘60s and ‘70s I felt I was part of a nation-wide teacher fraternity that shared experiences and professional knowledge. There was camaraderie across schools. As an inspector, I often helped principals to send new or struggling teachers to watch and learn in other schools. Principals themselves established networks to do this. The inspectors also had a capacity to use good teachers as temporary school advisers. Each time I asked a principal for these people’s release they’d sigh and say they were sorry to lose them from their own classes, but for the sake of their personal development, and subject improvement in other schools, they’d agree.

I recalled those pre-Picot times in 1995. That year, as Director of the Council for Teacher Education, I managed on contract the work of the national language advisers. Along with the Language Teachers Association we got agreement from the Ministry of Education for the temporary secondment of teachers to assist regionally. I rang a principal to ask whether the school would release their excellent teacher to do this work for a term. I was refused. I was told that education was now very competitive. They did not want other schools learning about their best practice.

We were lucky in those earlier times. There were national in-service courses in Lopdell House in Titirangi and Hogben House in Christchurch. They were very resource-hungry, but they mixed and matched teachers from throughout the country. They helped create a sense of shared enterprise. There were often unexpected spin-offs. I did my Hamilton school’s time-table. One summer I met a problem. I remembered hearing a fellow Head of English at a course saying his school had got round that problem. I rang that Invercargill school and spoke to the Head of Maths. Eureka! Problem solved.

The old Department of Education developed a fairly unique, consultative, interactive loop-back method of curriculum development, involving a great number of teachers along the way. This meant a considerable buy-in to suggested changes, unlike overseas, where teachers were often reluctant to accept the imposition of a top-down development.

Maybe I was naïve, but I thought the Picot model would allow flexibility for schools to experiment with new forms of administration. The old primary/secondary division still bedevils our system. Educators tend to be conservative. The concept of middle schools has never got off the ground. Morrinsville College, where I began teaching had an attached Forms 1 and 11 on the same site. It felt like a larger educational community.

When I interviewed the late Ian Mitchell, Henderson High School principal, for my book ‘Education Is Change’, he spoke of a dispute which arose over a request to have a Tuvaluan language nest in the school. They wanted to build on a vacant piece of land by the canteen. The Ministry officials argued that you couldn’t have little ones playing where the big ones might knock them over. Ian told me, “It should have been our decision and our response to a community need. Eventually we won. When you go over to our canteen now there are big students buying their food, and right beside them these little mites. That is as it should be – a softening influence and the big ones more conscious of their responsibilities. It’s part of a caring community.”

Many people in the community still think that education can be delivered in an Industrial Revolution model - a production line. But that’s not how we bank, play, farm and communicate now. The Information Revolution is based around interactive networks. One of the major obstacles is the age cohort concept. It is not how people learn naturally. I count myself lucky that I went to a little sole teacher country school where we all learnt together in the one room. I envisaged that because there was nothing in the reforms to prevent an amalgamation of schools, or a sharing of facilities and resources, such things would happen. This has not happened as quickly as I anticipated - with the exception of the East Coast, where the Ministry of Education, to its credit, has facilitated the process.

The cohort model also carries another unfortunate assumption: that one finishes learning when one leaves school. A modern knowledge society assumes life-long learning. The shelf life of much information, and often skills, is short. As work patterns, both paid and unpaid, continue to change, people of all ages will increasingly require upskilling, new skills or just new knowledge. Schools could be transformed into learning centres which, as well as delivering compulsory education, and necessary upskilling, could also be places where digital technology is available for all in the local community.

The narrowing down of adult education courses is therefore a seriously retrograde step. In many societies the old help educate the young. We have an increasing number of senior citizens. Fresh learning for such people is more than beneficial to them personally; it widens the opportunities for them to make continued contributions to the community. In the context of a learning centre this could mitigate against the atomisation of society that many American futurists predict. Most of these call for a return to community to counter a number of current trends. The local learning centre where people of all ages from the community mix and learn together could be a powerful lever.

That was part of my vision as we planned delivery of the Picot model. That vision assumes collegiality in a school and across schools. The possibility takes us back to the tension inherent in the model – power to the local people, yes, but what about national priorities? Autonomy and accountability are uneasy but necessary bedfellows.

Tomorrow’s Schools was an administrative reform. It was about the delivery of education. It is worth recalling that David Lange always said it was only the first leg of the double. The second leg was to be curriculum, the what, why and how of teaching. Schools exist for that purpose. No matter how it is delivered, a curriculum needs to be delivered. How this is done will both reflect and determine what is learnt in our schools. What curriculum should be taught is a national matter. How it is delivered is a local matter. How these two needs are reconciled will shape our education over the next decades. I believe teacher collegiality and community trust in that collegiality are vital components in the development of an even better system.’

Friday, October 30, 2009

Beyond the Battlefield

I’ve finished reading Gerald Hensley’s Beyond the Battlefield. It’s a good scene-setter for our country’s diplomatic history post 1945. While fighting a war on both sides of the planet our politicians had to think about the future shape of the world community. Hensley portrays Peter Fraser’s warts and all but his travels, meetings and finally his efforts to develop the United Nations emerges him as a hero. As an international leader working from principle he has only Helen Clark as a peer.

Hensley claims only Nash and Coates provided equivalent support. Coates’s premature death removed him from the scene and Nash spent much time in the USA. Together the two Labour leaders forged New Zealand’s policy amidst the cross-currents of other nation’s military, trade and financial interests. .

Fraser was shaken by events in Greece and Crete. Never again were New Zealand troops to be committed on forlorn adventures. I’m sure that was one of the basic assumptions behind the decision to leave our troops in the Mediterranean theatre rather than bring them home to fight in the malaria ridden jungles of the SE Pacific against a fanatical enemy determined to die to the last man. Roosevelt and Churchill also argued to leave them there – geopolitical strategic reasons including shipping availability. Fraser got almost unanimous support in the House for the decision. .

Hensley quotes Muldoon. The troops sunning themselves in Trieste expecting to be ordered to fight against the Japanese and many of them expected to die. That may not have happened. Hensley argues the Americans wanted to execute the Pacific war their way without Allied support. He weaves good history about the various factions in the American camp let alone the Allied cause.

I can see why diplomats of his generation were so enamoured of the American connection. The Japanese advance caused soul-searching in Canberra and Wellington and altered the two nation’s perspective. But Hensley concentrates not just on the military situation – he’s good on trade and manpower. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ – we were lucky to have had Fraser. As Britain was with Churchill. Such conflicts often consume the hero. So history proved in both cases. Roosevelt died in office – he did not live to see the Cold War his policies helped create. But probably the concessions he made to the Russians that historians now tend to deplore had few alternatives. Uncle Joe had most of the cards.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Garden Plants

We have two lovely tree ferns in the NE corner of our section. Last summer we had many delightful lunches sitting under their fronds. But then last autumn we had the neighbour’s trees topped to allow more winter sun into our house. An unanticipated consequence of this was the exposure of the tree ferns. A cold winter and spring and a constant succession of chill southerly winds has broken existing fronds and blasted the uncurling new ones. The two plants look sadly disheveled.

Unlike another neighbour’s snowball tree. An old-fashioned type of tree it’s covered at present in showy white balls of flowers, a shrub in full glory. It’s a type of viburnum, sterile in that it produces no berries. Last week on the anniversary of her son Patrick’s death I bought a bunch of flowers for Anne – included in it were snowball flowers.

I went to the public hospital today for my six month neurology check-up. (Nothing new to report. Though Anne said I flirted with the young woman registrar. If I did, and it is likely, then that is probably a good thing). On the way I noticed that downtown the cabbage trees are beginning to flower. Those up our way high in the Wellington hills don’t show any signs at present. Microclimates.

I also noted a wisteria down our lane is coming into flower. My romantic heart has always heaved at the sight of a wisteria arch – it seems to me the acme of garden design – colour, grace and beauty. Some varieties have a delightful scent. Though I do know that it when rampant can be a beastly menace, vigorous suckers every where.

A memory I have is going to Toowoomba in Queensland’s Carling Downs area. The streets were lined with jacaranda – in full flower at that stage – a lovely sight. When I compiled my garden poem anthology I discovered this poem about a jacaranda. It seems to sum up the nature of gardening.

(for June)

The nature of colour is lost in contrasts
claimed by dull suburban gardeners;
a red Flame Tree by Jacaranda blue –
it explains nothing,
though it may be true.
You planned your home around the patio
where Jacaranda flowers fall
on the pool as blue as the sky –
reflections that differ,
like you and I.
I too built my home around those I love
scattered like leaves
on both sides of the sea –
a difference in architecture
not in design.

Tree, sky, pool - earth, air, water;
the eye can see all are blue,
and the heart love
the single relationship
that lies between them.

Our gardens do not grow wild with weeds
or tasteless colours in false dichotomies;
we tend them,
we cultivate them –
you and I.

Eleanor Horrocks

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Red Pork & Lamb Shanks

A regret is that I can no longer cook. A late developer I had enjoyed experimenting and trying new dishes. I’ll give an example. Red wine does not usually go with Chinese cuisine. But in a recipe book I bought in Singapore the wine is an ingredient in a dish called red pork which I made several times – it’s very yummy. In this instance the flavour seems appropriate. On the web there are other recipes for red pork, some have sauces of which I have never heard. Probably the wine replaces these – a clever cook along the way had seen the possibility.

Here are the ingredients for a meal for two
Pork pieces diced small – I judged the amount, more than the recipe
7 tablespoons of soya sauce.
2 tablespoons of sugar.
175 mg of beef stock
175 mg of red wine
One onion, sliced
Cooking oil

Set the oven to 170. On the top of the stove brown the meat in the oil in a casserole dish and set it aside. Then put the onions in the oil and turn until golden. Remove them and tip any remaining oil out. Add the remaining ingredients to the dish and bring to the boil, taking it off immediately and place in the oven, turning frequently. After an hour lower the temperature to 150 for about an hour and a half, basically until the meat is tender. Towards the end I used to take the lid off to lower the liquid level. This has to be watched carefully as it could go dry. The addition of more soya sauce and beef stock makes it saltier so if necessary I added a small amount of warm water. I used to serve it with rice and whatever vegetables were available and suitably wok-cooked in oil with slices of root ginger and garlic.

In those days when we shared the cooking we tended to divide our labour, Anne specialising in Thai and I in Chinese. Specialised is too strong a word, dabbling would be better. My late interest in cooking was unexpected but very satisfying. Actions often have unanticipated consequences, but cooking a meal nearly always produces the goods. One learns from mistakes. Like a round of golf it was a challenge, an act of love to provide a meal for partner and/or friends. (I accept it tends to be a chore if you have to do it day by day). I think too, the act was a minor rebellion against the instant consumerism of our society. Increasingly, even the most mundane of tasks is granted a Hollywood style over-dramatisation. Admittedly cooking can be given that grand treatment. But my simple approach and adaptations kept me content.

Once when I was cooking a plumber called. He asked as he came in “what is that divine smell?” “Lamb shanks” I said “cooking in dark beer and treacle, with bacon, onion, garlic and carrot.” “Where did you get the recipe.” I made it up.” There was enormous pleasure in that statement.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

‘What’s the best occasion when you’ve read a book?’ That’s a good question. An instant recall arose in my mind – we were having lunch in the secluded spot in our garden in our previous house that we called honeysuckle corner. Jenny, the next door neighbour returned our copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She’d wanted to re-read it before seeing the movie. Anne and I had seen the film the previous evening. I liked the portrayal of Elizabeth – a spunky, spirited, country lass. I could understand Darcy being attracted.

After Jenny left we sat talking. We both thought the film’s ending, a romantic depiction of the hero striding towards the heroine smacked of Bronte rather than Austen. However, neither of us could recall how the couple finally got together in the book. So I checked. They were out walking of course. That’s what Austen’s young characters did all the time – walked and talked. Sounds a good life. Of course they had servants to run round after them.

I turned to the beginning of the book. It was a lovely warm day. I made a decision. Away with guilt! At this stage of life there was some entitlement to irresponsibility. So I poured myself a beer and settled down outside to read, neglectful of garden, computer, and correspondence. Dorothy the cat sprawled contently on a spare plastic chair alongside. If I could purr I would have been too as I delighted in the novelist’s craft, enraptured by the Bennett household, suitors arriving thick and fast. Having been in the company of a succession of gloomy novelists it was a relief to get back to a straightforward love story with a happy ending. Especially one with such crackling prose.

I’d forgotten how Austen lets the reader know how against his will Darcy is increasingly captivated by Elizabeth. The reader realises that that young lady is in for a surprise. If such a delightful being does not understand her own heart, how true that is for most of us. I went inside for a second beer. I might as well pig our completely. When I got back out I savoured the scene, bumble bees galore at the chive and borage flowers, a blackbird singing from Jenny’s TV aerial. I picked up the book again and was immediately transported to late 18th century Kent. I wonder what Jane Austen would have made of movies based on her books. They make good movies. Cinderella is a timeless myth. The fairy tale princess like Austen’s heroines will remain immortal and young like the Greek gods.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Being There

Yesterday was fine and relatively warm. Helen, my school-girl gardener came for a couple of hours. She and Anne tidied up the pots, pulled out rocket, parsley, coriander and spinach that had gone to seed, and refilled the pots with potting mix. They did plant cos seedlings and spread rocket seed.

Normally on Labour Day weekend I plant tomatoes and courgettes but the weather is still ‘winterish’ to coin a word, and the soil is cold. So we’ll wait a bit. It was sad to see the polyanthus go – they have been a cheery show. Helen transplanted two cyclamen from their pots to the fernery garden. There is little space to heel old plants in like I used to in the old place, but these were birthday presents so I'll keep them.

I watched the pair work with mixed emotions. There is pleasure in anticipation of harvest and flowers but I feel helpless and useless as I look on. I can give advice and make requests but the satisfaction of being a hands-on gardener has gone.

Lauris Edmond in one of her poems in Late Song aptly sums up an aspect of that satisfaction.


There must be a moment
when a flower opens
a bud splits
a leaf breaks and falls -

you never see it, You wake up to find
mushrooms in the autumn paddock,
fully expanded pink impatiens cluster
where last night one flower
bloomed in the dusk,

the speckled scarlet day lily
a dried husk which minute by
midnight minute, shed yesterday’s
necessary sun. Nobody's ever there.

But I was. I am, indisputably here
the jasmine tangle on my shed wall
moved, it just did, and a geranium flower
opened its last petal. It’s out. Now.

For a day, for a week; an invisible step
in the dance of creation
pointed its toe, put it down
tap, tap, without sound
on the shimmering floor of the world.

Bars, rocks, fists of blood, bombs falling
Couldn’t stop it happening.

Lauris Edmond

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Today, seven years ago we railed from Copenhagen in Denmark to Lubeck in Germany, a trip that included a rail ferry and duty free shopping. Two days ago, last Thursday was the 22nd anniversary of Anne’s eighteen-year-old son Patrick’s death in an accident in Sydney. The hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life was to tell a mother her son was dead. We placed his ashes under a newly planted pohutakawa tree in the Wellington Botanic Gardens. Every year on the anniversary we have gone to the tree with one exception, 2002, when we were in Copenhagen

Here is my diary for the day. ‘The anniversary of Patrick’s death, sadness allied with one of the most interesting days of my life. As it was raining (gentle drizzle) we didn’t get up until after nine. When we walked out we discovered that the restaurant Amadeus which we had looked for unsuccessfully last night was open for breakfast. It was a bakery as well as a restaurant. We had a continental breakfast, freshly baked rolls, strawberry jam, Danish pastry, cheese and ham.

We walked home via the supermarket to be picked up by Annadorte, [an art historian who assistance was organised by the Danish consul in Wellington], to be taken to see two old churches with wall paintings. As she had lived in Manchester she spoke English with in the dialect of that city. She had grown up in the area she took us to. The first stop was a little village called Mavel. The paintings were rather faded though in a sheltered corner there was a lovely madonna and child. As we couldn’t get the lights to work it was hard to pick up the detail. What did surprise me was to see a three men and three women wooden carving on the pulpit. All six were bare-breasted. One woman was fully frontal, the other two had their hands folded across their chests but the nipples were still observable. [In Catholic Italy bare-breasted madonnas are not unusual but I did not anticipate seeing them in Lutheran Denmark].

The next church Ballerup Kirke was breath-taking. It is one of the most striking churches I have seen. Its list of pastors dated back to the Reformation. But the paintings are from 1200. St Michael slaying the dragon, St George and another dragon, the madonna interceding with Christ who is interceding with God for human souls. The pulpit had similar carvings to those at Mavel.

Annadorte took us to lunch at the Canal Café with open rye sandwiches. The café itself was an experience, nautical knickknacks everywhere and a cheery welcome. On her advice I ordered two sandwiches, plaice and shrimps first, then roast pork, gherkins and red cabbage. They were monstrous. Even with the assistance of a medium sized beer – rather scornfully the waiter described Anne’s as ‘a woman’s beer' - I couldn’t eat all the roast pork. The first time in my life I have ever left roast pork on the plate.

We said goodbye to Annadorte and went off to the National Museum which was just around the corner. The Danish custom of leaving one’s coat in an open locker area takes some getting used to, in Berlin one always checked them in. 2000 BC stone age, bronze age, iron age. Clothing and remains preserved by the bog. The Chariot of the Sun. Absolutely fascinating. Then the Vikings. The arrival of Christianity. Wooden carvings similar to what we had seen in the morning. We got to the Reformation and had to gave up – just too much to absorb and it was approaching five o clock.

After a bit of confusion which we sorted out by going back to the railway station we caught a bus back to the nearest stop to our B&B. We had a brief rest before going out for a quick dinner at a café, a pate sandwich and a glass of red wine for me – neither of us wanted much after that lunch. We walked to the National Theatre to see the ballet The Odyssey. [They had a system of late bookings. We obviously had picked up a pair of cancelled seats]. We were delighted to find we had very good stall seats. While we waited for it to start everyone stood up. The Queen had entered the Royal Box, not that far away from where we were sitting. Her presence was the icing on the cake – it made it a Royal occasion.

My only regret is that there was no English programme. The ballet was at several levels. On a raised level there was a modern cocktail/coffee/television lounge in which people drank, flirted, watched the box, (before the show started was showing images of war and famine, and which I realised with interest fairly early on was actually showing the ballet as it was being danced. The main stage saw Odysseus as Everyman. The sea was portrayed by strikingly blue-dressed maidens who slowly moved across the stage but if they wanted to portray a storm they swirled their skirts and hid Odysseus in them. Modern clothing. Viet Nam. The sailors turned in to swine. Cyclops was portrayed as a science fiction figure of fun with an eye at the end of his trunk. Odysseus disposes of the other suitors and then he and Penelope danced down the dais extending out into the stalls before the troupe form the shape of a ship and pair sail off into the future. From the moment it began with Telemachus riding his bicyle until that ending we were both enthralled. It was like watching a 3 ring circus, so much was happening on stage so much of the time. There were 7 curtain calls, with 14 bows, first to the Queen and then to the audience. It had stopped raining so we walked home very exultant.'

Re-reading this I realise how much my life has narrowed down. Anne went to see Patrick’s tree this morning with Lesley – the first time I’ve not been with her on this annual occasion. I do recollect the morning we left Copenhagen. I said to Anne that this was the last time I would trundle a suitcase over the cobblestones of Europe.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My Reading

I often read two or three books at the same time. I’m doing that now. Oliver lent me Gerald Hensley’s Beyond the Battlefield. It’s an account of the war-time leadership in New Zealand in geopolitical terms and New Zealand’s positioning pre-war, during the hostilities and after its end with emphasis upon the formation of the United Nations.

Gerald was finishing his history doctorate in my masters year at Canterbury. He went on to a distinguished career as a diplomat and public servant. He deserves great credit for the nature of the Samoan and Cook Islands governments. But his unflinching support for the ANZUS alliance meant clashes with David Lange.

Hensley’s admiration for Fraser and Nash is obvious but he is not blind to their faults. I did not realise how much disagreement, indeed animosity, with Australia existed at the time. Hensley knew both Berendsen and McIntosh, the chief advisers, well and quotes from their personal anecdotes.

It’s good stuff but reflects the man – dry, informative, factual, interesting, but not gripping. So for light relief I turn to Caroline Alexander’s Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition. Shackleton’s planned crossing of Antarctica beginning in 1914 is one of humanity’s great adventure stories, a heroic tale of fortitude and courage.

His ship Endurance was caught in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. The men had to over-winter in it. Along with the men were dogs and a cat which belonged to the carpenter, Mrs Chippy. Alexander has written a tongue in cheek diary compiled by Mrs Chippy. It’s a good read.

Mrs Chippy has the roam of the ship. Its scorn of the dogs is obvious. It sees itself as the confident of the ‘Boss’. Not only does it catch mice, it is pampered pet of the men, getting tit-bits galore. Mrs Chippy misunderstands nearly all the situations it find itself in. Hurley’s photographs enhance the tale.

This reader knows what’s ahead. Ice begins to crush the ship. It has to be abandoned. Everything not essential has to be jettisoned – and that includes the cat. They manhandled two lifeboats across the ice and eventually all 28 men reached Elephant Island. Shackleton knew no one would come looking for them there. Six men made an incredible voyage, over 750 miles across the south Atlantic aiming for landfall at the small island of South Georgia. If they’d missed it would be curtains for everybody. They made it.

They still had to cross the high mountains to reach the Norwegian whaling station on the north side. They did this. Eventually they rescued all the men on Elephant Island. All had survived the three months wait. .

The other book I’m reading is Lauris Edmond’s posthumous poetry volume Late Songs. It is one of the most powerful small collections I own. ‘My song is of the generations, it echoes/ the old dialogue of the years; it is the tribal/ chorus that no one may sing alone.’

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Two Tainui Adventurers

Rae, in her words, ‘elder-sat’ while Anne went out last evening. We watched together a TV programme on Maori Television, The Flight of Te Hookioi. In 1860 Wiremu Toe-Toe and his nephew Hemra Te Rerehau, two well-tattooed Tainui tribesmen sailed from Auckland as crewmen on board the Austrian naval frigate Novara. The Novara’s arrival, it was on a scientific mission, had caused quite a stir in Auckland.

After the ship arrived safely home in Trieste the two men railed to Vienna. There they worked at a printing press. They were lionised as exotic novelties. Both proved excellent dancers. What is unique is that Te Rerehau kept a diary. Apparently Toe-Toe sired a child. Quite likely there is a gene pool of his descendants living in central Europe.

The two men met the young Emperor Franz Josef who gave them their own printing press as a farewell gift. They went on to England to an audience with Queen Victoria before sailing back to New Zealand. Aboard the ship were British soldiers on their way to fight the Maori in the Waikato.

Back home they established the newspaper Te Hookioi which proved an important weapon in the fight for the Maori to retain their own land and is still a voice for the Kingitanga today.

The producer of the documentary took back to modern day Vienna a copy of the first edition of Te Hookioi to present to descendants of Franz Josef. There were stunning shots of the magnificent architecture of the city, a reminder of the past glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It was a low-keyed documentary, charmingly effective and informative in its rather amateurish footage. I am pleased to have seen it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Nazi Salute

Schoolboys giving the Nazi salute is silly. Grown men organising a concentration camp party is stupid.

Young men often bucked authority – it goes with the territory. From their viewpoint they do not appreciate or understand the reasons for the outraged response. To them it is another illustration of the stupidities of the older generation.

Soon after I began living with Anne her two boys once painted swastikas on their foreheads. They were as surprised as I was at the ferocity of my response. My childhood conditioning took over – this was an evil symbol. Even more is it to those veterans who fought and saw their comrades die opposing that symbol.

So I mute my outcry over the actions of five school boys from Auckland Grammar who gave the Nazi salute and kissed the swastika at an Auckland Museum exhibition. Boys will be boys. The revered objects of their adults are a target for youthful rebellion, albeit of a mild kind. They do not appreciate the depth of feeling of the adult world on this issue.

Though as history students they should have known better. But then Prince Harry should have had even more understanding when he donned Nazi regalia for a party. Surely the child of British royalty would have had drummed into him an understanding of the nation’s recent history.

The fact it is has happened in one of our most prestigious schools according to received mythology. (I’ve inspected it. Of its type it’s good). If it had been boys from say Manurewa College there would have been a similar outcry but with a different twist. Auckland Grammar students had earlier received unfavourable publicity after a brawl at the end of a rugby match with Kelston Boy’s. Young men are young men no matter what school they attend. Part of me is pleased that an iconic school is seen as normal as its peers.

As an educator I have a question. Where was their teacher while the incidents were taking place? From experience I know how hard it to watch groups when out on a study tour. But if I were principal I would ask some hard questions.

I expect a renewal of cries for more history teaching. From my vantage I support this call. But it will not stop incidents of this sort.

Until the school lads I have no sympathy for the group of gay men who were organising a concentration camp party. It’s more than a lapse of taste. It’s shamefully disrespective for the victims of the holocaust. It does not help the cause these men represent.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

After the Disaster

I’ve been watching Parliament’s Question Time on TV. Nick Smith is the minister under attack at present – he has responsibility for both ACC funding cuts and the Emissions Bill. Both controversial and dependent upon cross-party support. Ann Tolley was also in the firing line over her adult education withdrawal of funds.

Rachel McAlpine rang up yesterday. She was going to a poetry reading, poems from Mark Pirie and Tim Jones’s science fiction anthology, Voyagers. (The book has recently had a favourable and well-deserved review in the NZ Listener). She’d been asked to read one of mine in that collection (attached below) and was seeking a couple of points on clarification. We both agree it is very much a visual poem, the spelling aims to get across the notion of a different species and therefore a different language. Likewise I had tried in the second stanza to get across the idea of aeons of time passing between civilisations. It was a poem I enjoyed writing, disembodied ideas.

I had let Mark know quite a long time ago I was unavailable for the reading. Damn! My fragility cuts me off from enjoying some of the fruits of my labours.


After the disaster cats mutated
became the largest mammal left alive
and survived.

Cirques had cut deeper
into the Matterhorn
(decimals weren't reinvented)
when their archaeologists stumbled
upon human skeletons
ochre-brown with age.

On display in an art cavern
strung together
with common titanium wire
they create a commotion.

The elevated chief wizard deliberates her theosophers -
issues a viewpoint
Carbane dating establishes grate antiquity
Credence to archeforms of gyants
These things - an evolutionary cul-de-sack
additional proof of Nurture's Distinguished Wisdom
Greatly too gygantic
Irrelevant clavicles
Tayl (obviously grystle) long stretch from brayn
Competition most likely cause of destruction.

She announces
Dividend -
For exceptional tripled production -
Day off for druid and artisan multitude
To contemplate the exhibition
& participate
in being humble.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Dream & The Blog

Most nights I wake up and make a cup of tea half-way through but last night I was pleased to sleep right through even though I did have a bad dream. In it we were back in the old house but outside, Dorothy the cat was cornered by a big black dog. I raced to protect her but when I got there I couldn’t do a thing. I just stood there rooted to the spot, helpless, unable to kick the dog, hit it with a stick, pick up the cat. Strange.

I think it’s a mixture of my helplessness, Dorothy’s bewilderment and the ending of the French horror movie. My shift downstairs has really disturbed the cat. Her patterns have been broken. For two years she’s slept on the bed by my feet. Now it’s Anne’s room. Dorothy has a choice of beds now for Anne’s old bed is now in her study as a guest bed. During the night she patrols between all three and during the day makes do on my new one for I’m usually in the room.

When I managed the jerk back the curtains this morning it was good to see sunshine after several day’s rain. The sky has that striking deep blue look. After lunch Anne took me for a walk around the section and partly down the drive. It’ll be good to get a little fitness back.

The thrushes are busy feeding their fledglings right outside my window. They are busy relaying in their tit-bits. Their presence has been a great source of satisfaction. The territorial conflict with the tui seems to have subsided.

My blog continues to be another source of satisfaction. It’s been a lifeline to the outside world now I’m basically house-bound. Relatives and friends respond and comment. Strangers send me emails about it. Educators though complain there is too much literary stuff and the literary types mutter about all that education jargon. A few have said I should have two blogs, one personal, one political. Others like the blending. It’s all all part of my universe, poems and all. I can see a danger though – repetition and forgetfulness, that item has been discussed or that poem shown before.

Last evening’s meal was guacamole entrée followed by grilled salmon steak and asparagus. Though I don’t eat much quantity it is nice to eat such food fit for a king. I had never eaten avocado until late middle age. Now it is something I enjoy very much.

I’ve been reading Joanna Orwin’s novel Collision, It’s about the French explorer Marion du Fresne’s visit to the Bay of Islands in 1772 and the massacre of him and many of his expedition, an intyriguing topic, part of our history. He spent five weeks here before things went wrong, no one knows why. Maybe he just overstayed his welcome. Orwin tries to suggest reasons. It’s all great material for a novel. But unfortunately Orwin has written history as fiction. Her characters are wooden. Poor author, I’ve just finished Wolf Hall a superb piece of historical fiction. A better contrast is with Fiona Kidman’s The Captive Wife where historic happenings take on flesh and blood and become the basis of a good read in its own right. (write?)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Les Diaboliques

When I began teaching at Morrinsville Collge in 1960 the local cinema had once a month on a Tuesday evening a horror film. There were showings of Vincent Price movies such as The Fly while ones about Dracula and vampires were also common. It was customary for a row of nurses to sit in the seats in front of a group of us young male teachers. Lots of giggles and ‘boos’. Simple days. Not the slash and gash, buckets of blood, Friday 13th type of the modern era.

It was lots of fun; until one night. It was a 1955 French film, Les Diaboliques, given the English title The Fiends. In it a downtrodden wife (Vera Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret), united by his bullying, decide to murder the man by drowning him a bath and dumping the body in the school swimming pool. Background - the wife had money and the school was hers. She also had a weak heart.

Everything went according to plan except the body didn’t float and when the pool was drained it wasn’t there. A number of strange happenings occur, including the return of his dry-cleaned suit, and a boy claiming to have his slingshot confiscated by the headmaster and it appearing amongst his possessions.

The strain is too much for the wife and she is supposed to stay in bed – a perfect opportunity for the director to have her in a see-through nightie and vulnerable. On the fifth night after the murder there are mysterious noises and happenings around the building. The wife gets up to investigate – she hears typing and there is a message in his typewriter and suddenly the lights in the room go out. She flees to the security of the bedroom and locks the door. Clutching her heart she rushes to the bathroom for some water.

There in the water-filled bath is her drowned husband. Slowly he begins to rise up. In 1960 I was sitting between two burly men – one played rugby for Waikato, the other went on to become deputy-principal of Auckland Grammar. Wimps they were not. One clutched my knee in horror as the corpse rose, the other buried his face into my chest. On screen the wife dramatically collapsed and died from a heart attack.

Fully erect the husband removes the false eyeballs which had suggested he was dead. He checks his wife’s pulse, unlocks the door and in rushes the mistress. They embrace. They were the fiends, plotting the wife’s demise. ‘She was tougher than I expected’ he said. She asks how much they will get from selling the school. ‘About ten to fifteen years’ says a detective suddenly appearing.

I got it out on DVD yesterday. It is a classic of the horror thriller genre, very French of its era. It had more early humour than I remembered. It was classic black and white camera work. The build up of tension was still very good despite my foreknowledge of what was to happen. I would say that the final ten minutes were amongst the most powerful cinematic experiences I’ve had. It has stood the test of time. I can see why it had such an effect upon three young men so many years ago.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Retired Cat

Dale sent me through this poem. Her note said, ‘someone has just introduced me to this poem – now why didn’t they teach us the GOOD stuff by Cowper at University instead of the philosophical/religious drudgery.’ She’s quite right. Though do they teach Cowper at all now? Anyway it’s the first time I’ve put an 18th century poem on line.

The Retired Cat

A poet's cat, sedate and grave
As poet well could wish to have,
Was much addicted to inquire
For nooks to which she might retire,
And where, secure as mouse in chink,
She might repose, or sit and think.
I know not where she caught the trick--
Nature perhaps herself had cast her
In such a mould philosophique
Or else she learn'd it of her master.
Sometimes ascending, debonair,
An apple-tree or lofty pear,
Lodg'd with convenience in the fork,
She watch'd the gardener at his work;
Sometimes her ease and solace sought
In an old empty wat'ring-pot;
There, wanting nothing save a fan
To seem some nymph in her sedan,
Apparell'd in exactest sort,
And ready to be borne to court.

But love of change, it seems, has place
Not only in our wiser race;
Cats also feel, as well as we,
That passion's force, and so did she.
Her climbing, she began to find,
Expos'd her too much to the wind,
And the old utensil of tin
Was cold and comfortless within:
She therefore wish'd instead of those
Some place of more serene repose,
Where neither cold might come, nor air
Too rudely wanton with her hair,
And sought it in the likeliest mode
Within her master's snug abode.

A drawer, it chanc'd, at bottom lin'd
With linen of the softest kind,
With such as merchants introduce
From India, for the ladies' use--
A drawer impending o'er the rest,
Half-open in the topmost chest,
Of depth enough, and none to spare,
Invited her to slumber there;
Puss with delight beyond expression
Survey'd the scene, and took possession.
Recumbent at her ease ere long,
And lull'd by her own humdrum song,
She left the cares of life behind,
And slept as she would sleep her last,
When in came, housewifely inclin'd
The chambermaid, and shut it fast;
By no malignity impell'd,
But all unconscious whom it held.

Awaken'd by the shock, cried Puss,
"Was ever cat attended thus!
The open drawer was left, I see,
Merely to prove a nest for me.
For soon as I was well compos'd,
Then came the maid, and it was clos'd.
How smooth these kerchiefs, and how sweet!
Oh, what a delicate retreat!
I will resign myself to rest
Till Sol, declining in the west,
Shall call to supper, when, no doubt,
Susan will come and let me out."
The evening came, the sun descended,
And puss remain'd still unattended.
The night roll'd tardily away
(With her indeed 'twas never day),
The sprightly morn her course renew'd,
The evening gray again ensued,
And puss came into mind no more
Than if entomb'd the day before.
With hunger pinch'd, and pinch'd for room,
She now presag'd approaching doom,
Nor slept a single wink, or purr'd,
Conscious of jeopardy incurr'd.
That night, by chance, the poet watching
Heard an inexplicable scratching;
His noble heart went pit-a-pat
And to himself he said, "What's that?"
He drew the curtain at his side,
And forth he peep'd, but nothing spied;
Yet, by his ear directed, guess'd
Something imprison'd in the chest,
And, doubtful what, with prudent care
Resolv'd it should continue there.
At length a voice which well he knew,
A long and melancholy mew,
Saluting his poetic ears,
Consol'd him, and dispell'd his fears:
He left his bed, he trod the floor,
He 'gan in haste the drawers explore,
The lowest first, and without stop
The rest in order to the top;
For 'tis a truth well known to most,
That whatsoever thing is lost,
We seek it, ere it come to light,
In ev'ry cranny but the right.
Forth skipp'd the cat, not now replete
As erst with airy self-conceit,
Nor in her own fond apprehension
A theme for all the world's attention,
But modest, sober, cured of all
Her notions hyperbolical,
And wishing for a place of rest
Anything rather than a chest.
Then stepp'd the poet into bed,
With this reflection in his head:


Beware of too sublime a sense
Of your own worth and consequence.
The man who dreams himself so great,
And his importance of such weight,
That all around in all that's done
Must move and act for him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation
The folly of his expectation.

William Cowper

Friday, October 16, 2009

Nature Matters

I’ve written earlier about the thrush nesting in the camellia outside my bedroom window. Earlier today I saw an aerial dogfight out there. A tui landed on a hebe bough not far from the camellia. Immediately, both thrushes dive-bombed it from different directions and the tui left. Shortly afterwards he returned with a mate. Battle was resumed. One thrush was grounded and I feared for its safety. Triumphant the tui departed. I was delighted later to see the thrush glide back into the shrub.

It’s raining heavily. Yesterday I had lunch outside on the deck for the first time this spring. Everywhere there was the promise of summer’s fecundity. Next door’s two large kowhai have almost finished flowering. Last week there were six tuis in them. Now, only one, seeking nectar from the last blossoms. Beside them the copper beech has burst into new leaf, a dramatic explosion of colour. Their large snowball bush is a mass of incipient blooms.

In our own garden the orange abutilon (Chinese bells) is looking very sick. A shame. Last autumn it was vigorously healthy and covered in flowers. Bruce, our lawn mower man and heavy gardener thinks it has a virus. Sad, if so, we’ll have to get rid of it. Which leaves the question, do we plant another abutilon there?

When we throw bread out the sparrows don’t worry about the health of the abutilon. They crowd its branches deliberating whether it’s safe to land on the lawn. Sooner or later one brave soul ventures down. Straight away its mates join the fray.

Everything else looks healthy. The roses all have fresh shoots and new buds though the equinox winds have done damage. The lovely-scented Jude the Obscure has had its main new shoot broken off. As the camellias finish flowering new shoots galore emerge.

Inside, the potted plant that Amy and Tom gave me for my 75th birthday is in magnificent bloom – two stalks with six large striking raspberry pink flowers on each. Visitors assume artificial flowers and are astounded to find the blooms are natural. I thought it was an amaryllis but research on the net revealed it is a hippeastrum. It is the same family, belladonna lilies, but amaryllis are South African and this is South American.

Helen, our school girl gardener has been spending her fortnightly time here helping us shift books as part of the switch of rooms. There is plenty of work looming outside for her. Rocket, coriander and parsley have all gone to seed. She has taken out the tulip bulbs and the pots that contained them are empty waiting for tomatoes and courgettes - an annual Labour Day weekend task.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

O Captain

Amidst the arguments over the rights to TV coverage of the rugby world cup one thing is obvious – the nature of the Key administration. Ministers have control of their fiefdoms and there is often a lack of co-ordination. Helen Clark was criticised for her tight control. Key is vulnerable to the opposite criticism. He has a charming habit of disarming criticism by being honest. But in time we will weary of it.

I’ve finished watching the last three episodes of the DVD series, The American Civil War. A great series. Very moving. I’ve learnt a lot about the psyche of that powerful people. And what a tragedy the assassination of Lincoln was. He had the greatness and the goodness to have helped reconcile the two camps. I recall reading Jan Morris’s biography and her conversion to hero-worship of this man.

The series often quoted poet Walt Whitman also an admirer of Lincoln. Whitman worked as a volunteer nurse in Union hospitals. I’ve read his account of the experience. He wrote this poem on Lincoln’s assassination.

O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung--for you the bugle trills; 10
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths--for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won; 20
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Walt Whitman

I’ve also finished reading The Fever Trail. An interesting read. Richard Spruce seems to me one of the unsung British heroes of the 19th century. The Dutch did better than the English at harvesting the bark from the cinchona tree.

There are fledglings in the thrush nest in the camellia outside my bedroom/study window. When I pulled back the curtain this morning the bird was just landing with a worm in its beak.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tony Beyer

New Plymouth based poet Tony Beyer has written many fine poems. He deserves to have more in the literary canon. This one I consider a gem of a love poem. The hands that wait to embrace him have also created a lovely garden.


the gate latch
kisses apart at my touch
and the garden
flows towards me

so many
human hours
to the ground
as work and art

an arrangement
for the still voice
saying over
what belongs
because it is here.

and barely
visible in the
stirred silence
of the porch shadow
the hands

that patterned this
rest in each
other’s warmth
waiting to
open to greet me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Piccadilly Circus

Our place this morning was like Piccadilly Circus. Susanna my caregiver arrived. Almost immediately the district respiratory nurse arrived to check our oxygen converter's new position. The new bed Anne had ordered for her self was delivered at the same moment. And Larrie our builder arrived to drill a hole to put the oxygen tubing through and tack it to the skirting boards and to earthquake proof the shifted bookcases.

The bed is an interesting example of a change in attitudes. When Anne bought it the salespeople assured her that it would be delivered and assembled. The man who brought it this morning was a deliverer only. It was his job to bring it on site and do nothing else. Anne had to work hard to persuade him to take the pieces upstairs and then assemble them.

When she rang up the firm to complain she was told firmly that it was now policy to only deliver. When she rang the sales section to complain she was told that most people were happy to arrange and assemble it themselves. If they rang to say they couldn’t couldn’t do it one of the salespeople would come out after hours to do so. So much for service. So much for older people’s independence.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Fever Trail

Despite the strange surroundings of the new bedroom I’ve slept well. It’s a sensible move but both Anne and I feel unhappy about it. From sharing a bed, to separate beds, then separate rooms and now separate floors, it’s been a downward journey. Still Susanne my care-giver and I enjoyed this morning the stimulation of using a different shower and working out suitable procedures.

A complete change of topic. I’m reading a book Geoff lent me, The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria, by Mark Honigsbaum. My first gin and tonic was on my first flight overseas. We were flying to Perth on the first leg of a round the world trip. It was lunchtime as we flew over southern Australia. It seemed a sophisticated thing to do and I enjoyed the sweet--bitter taste as I watched the desert slide underneath.

The tonic contains quinine which for a long time was used as a cure for malaria. Honigsbaum points out that malaria was unknown among the American Indians until the Europeans who were carriers arrived. The local mosquitoes helped spread the disease.

The Indians had long used the bark of the cinchona tree – a relative of the coffee tree -as a cure for fever. It was discovered that it was good in coping with the symptoms of malaria. Market forces took over for the rare remedy. Including the adulteration of the product. The French, Dutch and English wanted to break the Spanish control of the trade and so they sent botanists and explorers to bring back seeds and plants.

These heroic adventurers, Richard Spruce, Charles Lesdger and Clements Markham, battling high Andean peaks and tropical jungles, rank with Livingstone and Mungo Park for their journeys; at risk of life all the time and dependent upon local tribesmen. I realise we hear about the British explorers in Africa because they added to Empire. Eventually Markham successfully smuggled out some specimens which enabled the British and Dutch to break the Spanish monopoly. Honigsbaum implies robbery but it could be argued that the need to combat malaria overrode that argument.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize.

Last night’s earthquake jolt in Wellington followed by a subsequent jolt in Gisborne is a reminder of how vulnerable we are. On top of quakes in Indonesia, Samoa and Vanuatu it makes me wonder if there is interaction along a whole fault line.

A jolt of a different sort was the award of the Nobel Peace prize to Barack Obama. He was as surprised as most of us. It’s normally given for achievement rather than anticipation. We still await delivery. My hunch is that it reflects the distaste of Europeans for the unilateral policies of George W Bush and their delight at the new President’s reversal of them. It concerns me that their expectations of Obama are so high that they are nigh impossible for him to fulfil.

Certainly his actions so far on nuclear proliferation are praiseworthy but it’s early days in his administration. He has inherited two wars and what he does about both theatres is in the seeds of time. The award has aroused the scorn of the American right and has not pleased the left. I hope the award is not premature but I think it reflects a world-wide opinion that while we expect American leadership we expect it to be done with consultation and diplomacy.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

My Shift

Today’s a sad day for I shift downstairs. My bedroom has been upstairs and I have showered in the bathroom up there. But my increasing frailty means I’m losing confidence on the stairs and increasing afraid of falling.

So my downstairs study will also double as my bedroom. There is an ensuite off it so I can shower there. There will be the stimulation of change and having to establish new rituals but it’s also a concession and a retreat. It’s part of a diminution of responsibility and power.

Two strong men have helped Anne shift the furniture and oxygen generator.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wolf Hall

I have finished the best book I’ve read this year, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. No wonder it won the Booker Prize. It’s a big novel, 650 pages, densely populated with a wealth of characters from all walks of society, basically covering those six years from King Henry VIII’s reign that saw his sexually motivated break from the Roman Catholic Church.

The novel begins with the young Thomas Cromwell brutally beaten by his blacksmith Father. He ran away to the Continent. We next meet him as the 40-year- old chief aide to Cardinal Wolsey. What happened in the intervening years is only hinted at throughout the rest of the novel – a soldier in the French army, a financier in Italy, a love affair in the Low Countries.

Henry badly wanted a son. His wife Katherine of Aragon had been briefly married to his elder brother Arthur before that young prince's early death. She had borne Henry one daughter, Mary, but had a series of miscarriages. Henry had convinced himself the marriage was illegal and immoral and therefore cursed. He wanted a divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn who cleverly played hard to get.

Henry’s concern is understandable. The bloody Wars of the Roses were fresh in people’s minds and the confused royal bloodlines meant there were many potential claimants for the crown. But Katherine’s nephew Charles V had captured Rome and the despite all of Wolsey’s clever manoeuvring the annulment of the wedding was not forthcoming. Wolsey’s fate was sealed.

The first part of the novel centres around the relationship between Cromwell and Wolsey, his mentor – a brilliant portrayal of self-serving diplomatic games, verbal jousts, petty quarrels and endless jockeying for position and power. Cromwell’s wife and daughter both die of the sweating sickness. Ordinary London life continues, rich, bleak, and comical. Mantel is marvellous at the minutiae of history as well as its grand sweep.

Cromwell – subtle, rational and cleverly manipulative, (a most unlikely hero) – becomes Henry’s chief adviser. If the Pope will not grant the divorce England will go alone. Henry and Anne marry. The breach with Rome means an oath of loyalty to the king. Thomas More, Chancellor England, will not take it. The last part of the novel deals with the test of wills between the two Thomas’s. And ends with More’s execution.

Mantel tips received wisdom on its head. I, for one, have long perceived More as a hero. Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons fixed that image in my head. Mantel portrays him as self-flagellating Catholic zealot who bullies his wife, and tortures Protestants. There is a cruel scene in which Cromwell is dining with More’s household. The conversation is in Latin, which More’s wife does not speak. He makes rude remarks about her, which she cannot understand.

The last time the two men talk sums up Cromwell’s attitude. Throughout the novel he is referred to as ‘he’ a stylistic approach that enables the character to occupy centre-stage. ‘A handful of hail smacks against the window. It startles them both, he gets up, restless. He would rather know what’s outside, see the summer in all its sad blowing wreckage, than cower behind the blind and wonder what the damage is.’

The contrast between the two men tips the scales towards Cromwell. He is rational, against supersition, modern, upwardly mobile, questioning the old order, seeking to get things done, a patriot and a citizen of the world. He knows his New Testament. Historian Elton argued Cromwell founded modern government with its emphasis upon law and financial administration. Mantel would agree. At the same time she presents the man in very human terms. He admits to not being good in bed. When a servant confesses to being ‘violently in love’ with a girl, Cromwell asks ‘how does that feel?’

The book’s ending took me by surprise. I had been led through the arc of ascent. But the decline? It’s like the movie Psycho – not even halfway through and the heroine suddenly removed. Cromwell had wondered about a relationship with Jane Seymour from Wolf Hall – one of Anne’s ladies in waiting. But he had given the prospect away. The novel is called Wolf Hall and the place has not even been visited. But the king plans to call there and so does Cromwell. The game is moving into a different phase. Mantel’s skill is such that it seems appropriate to end this way.

Anne will lose her head and two wives later, Cromwell his. But that is another story. Apparently Mantel plans a sequel.

The novel represents England at the cusp of the modern era. Henry’s actions will help usher in the nation states of contemporary Europe. The Common Market hints at the end of that era.

‘The fate of nations is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater, her hand pulling close the bed curtains.’

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The American Civil War 2

I’ve been watching the second part of the American Civil War documentary DVD. What carnage, heroism, valour, waste. The moving image at its best – unfortunately presenting such bloodshed.

Apparently after the war began a 900 men volunteer corp was raised in Tennessee. The casualty numbers from all the battles meant that at the end of Gettysburg only 3 of the original men were still in the corp – the rest were either dead or maimed.

The nature of the regiments meant the fortune of not being called to join a battle counterpointed the ill luck of being called upon to engage. All the men from one village would be killed, while from a neighbouring town most would survive.

Though the Union introduced conscription the wealthy could pay for someone else to represent them.

The war was not just battles. There are interesting items on hospitals and the treatment of the wounded and on the role of women in supporting the soldiers.

By the end of the war one in ten Union soldiers were black. It was not till a hundred years later that they really began to achieve equality.

At the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery the speaker before Lincoln orated for two hours. Anticipating a lengthy address from the President the photographer took his time getting his camera ready – exposure issues. By the time the 269 words were spoken Lincoln was heading back to his seat without the picture being taken. What words they were – one of the greatest speeches of all time.

Grant and Lee are now slugging it out in Virginia. The Union had at long last found a general who didn’t retreat. It had become a war of attrition and the numbers were on the Union side.

P.S. Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has won the Booker prize. I’m sixty pages from the end. It’s a well-deserved award.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NZ Book Trade

Last weekend’s Sunday Star Times had a several page spread about New Zealand Book Month. Amongst the items there was one in which prominent writers, publishers etc were asked to comment upon the lack of sales for local books. Many reasons were canvassed and suggested.

But I was surprised at two that were overlooked. One was reviewing. I admit my experience is limited to the newspapers and magazines I read. But my feeling is that there has been a steady decline in the reviews of locally produced books. Certainly the Sunday Star Times seems to be doing so. So is the Dominion. The syndication of weekend supplements hasn’t helped. If books are not drawn to people’s attention they are more unlikely to be sought.

The other reason is Whitcoulls. A large conglomerate it has the lion’s share of the market. New Zealand picture books for the tourist trade and lives of sports and media stars on are its displays. There must be a life of Richie McCaw in the offing. It’s not that these don’t have a place. Brian Turner’s book about Colin Meads is a classic of its type and I loved Jeremy Coney’s The Playing Mantis. But local fiction, non-fiction and poetry hardly rate shelf space.

Unless of course you’re a name – Michael King, Janet Frame and Patricia Grace. The hype from overseas – the Da Vinci Code springs to mind – means that a few international bestsellers, promoted and pushed with all the marketing gimmicks, dominate display space.

There is also salesmanship. Michael King’s History of New Zealand was discounted from day one. This undercuts other smaller booksellers. I accept that the book trade is into the profit and loss business. But struggling writers trying to make a living out of writing are at the bottom of the pecking order. Bookshops where the owners love books and are knowledgeable about them are becoming rarer.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I spent my 62nd birthday in Gutersloh, Germany. I was there courtesy of the Bertelesmann, the giant global media corporation. I read today in the New York Times that its founder Reinhard Mohn has just died aged 88. I met Mr Mohn who had built a the company from a small war-shattered publishing business to its present gigantic size. I didn’t know till I read his obituary that the company owns Random House.

Mohn did not believe in the top-down model of administration. He also believed that profit and humanity were not mutually exclusive. His group did many good works. I had helped select Mt Roskill College as the New Zealand school to represent our decentralised system at an education conference it had organised.

The German government had offered me a study grant. I was able to time the visit to follow on from a side-trip to Gutersloh for the conference there. Margaret Austin, ex Labour MP led the delegation.

I landed at Frankfurt to be met by a chauffeur who drove me to Gutersloh which is a sleepy provincial town. I’d describe it as the German equivalent of Ashburton. The long drive surprised me – more trees than I expected, more green than I expected, more church spires than I expected – a countryside surprisingly like Southern England.

The conference whirled past in a series of presentations, talks, discussions, bus rides and banquets – the stuff of such events. I recall the camaraderie of the last night, the Scots, Norwegians and Kiwis enjoying their whiskey.

Next day was my birthday. One of our party had to go to Hanover to fly out so I went along for the ride. I spent much of the day mooching round that city sight-seeing - zoo and the tropical gardens, lovely butterfly house - before catching a train to Gutersloh. (European trains are excellent). That evening I had a solitary dinner, roast duck. The next day I caught a train to Bonn – still then the capital - where I was met by a guide. After checking in to the hotel he took me to see the Rhine. Again, I was surprised at the amount of barge traffic. The following day my fortnight's study tour began.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Emily Dickinson

While the American Civil War raged a reclusive women poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) lived in obscurity in Amherst, Massachusetts. She became increasingly eccentric, for the last twenty years of her life she hardly ever left her parent’s house. She wrote nearly 2,000 poems, never published in her lifetime. It was not till the 20th century that her merits were recognised. I consider her one of the greatest. Her spare lines are packed with meaning and sensitivity. Here are two examples.


A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him--did you not,
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun,--
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.


A Burdock-clawed my Gown—
Not Burdock's-blame—
But mine—
Who went too near
The Burdock's Den—

A Bog-affronts my shoe—
What else have Bogs-to do—
The only Trade they know—
The splashing Men!
Ah, pity-then!

'Tis Minnows can despise!
The Elephant's-calm eyes
Look further on!

Humanity has a long tradition of snake fear. A narrow fellow in the grass sums up that feeling. We do not feel cordial about snakes. The common sense of the burdock poem confronts our human presumption that we are the centre of the universe. A minnow and an elephant – what a fabulous juxtaposition.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The American Civil War

Jen, the neighbour over the back fence brought me a bunch of bluebells. They remind me of one of the loveliest sights I’ve seen. It was May and we went to Kew Gardens in London to see the lilac in bloom. The lilac was disappointing but under a forest of deciduous trees with their tracery of new leaves there was this magnificent host of bluebells, a shimmering carpet of blue.

10 degrees forecast today – a southerly snap. In October. I took down a warm winter shirt, packed away I had thought for good in 2009.

I’ve been watching Ken Burns acclaimed series The American Civil War on DVD. The first disc contains three episodes. The scene is set, a good backgrounder, slavery and the southern states secession. 620,000 soldiers died and an unknown number of civilians. It was a war of technology, iron-clad battleships, deadlier rifles and artillery and the camera recorded the carnage and destruction.

On paper the industrialised north had the advantage. The ineptitude of its generals in the first two years saw this advantage squandered in the east. Even though they halted the Confederate advance into Maryland at the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American military history, they did not pursue the retreating forces. The commentary claimed that had they ruthlessly followed up they could have ended the conflict much earlier. Meanwhile in the west Grant and Sherman won major battles for the Union cause.

It’s brilliant viewing. Contemporary photographs, paintings and newspaper clippings are intermingled with modern shots and narration, backgrounded by haunting music from the period, especially the tune of John Brown’s Body. The only piece not from era is the theme music ‘Askokan Farewell’ especially composed for the production. At the time the dome on the Capitol had not yet been completed. That image and the many of Lincoln's gaunt face counterpoint the battlefield corpses after each ghastly battle.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In the Beehive

In my wildest dreams I’d never imagined spending eighteen months working in close proximity to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In David Lange’s autobiography I warrant two sentences. In mine he fills more space. Such is the nature of experience and the good fortune that led me to be an education aide to him. In my span of three score years and fifteen those eighteen months rank spectacular.
Part of the turbulence was the education administration reform Tomorrow’s Schools. Structural reform was part of the ethos of the period - the fourth Labour Government was in full flight, economy booming, share prices soaring, a gold-rush mentality. Anything goes and everything goes, the stagnant economy of the Muldoon era kickstarted into vitality. There was a desire to put more efficiency into all systems, including education. Critics at the time pointed out emphasis was upon input and process rather than outcomes and claimed consultation and participation too often led to veto and paralysis.
One specific education event proved crucial. Russell Marshall then Minister of Education and David Caygill (Associate Minister of Finance) put an agreed secondary salary claim on the Cabinet table only to have it rejected by their colleagues. PPTA then took the claim to arbitration, and gained a 32% increase - an amount close to that earlier negotiated. This led to blow-outs in other parts of the public sector. Many in Government were outraged - education must be re-structured.
Behind these mindsets and value judgements was a vague, generally accepted idea of devolution and empowerment. Up for grabs, the concept of devolution free-floated in the ideological atmosphere. It had been voiced consistently since 1877. After 120 years its time had arrived. The degree of control exercised by the Department of Education and the Education Boards was increasingly criticised as inflexible and inappropriate. The status quo held dwindling support. Previous attempts at administrative shakeups had failed but now both Marxist lecturers and New Right theoreticians alike agreed about the need for radical reform. A consensus had emerged about the need to redefine the relationship between the central authority and the individual school in a way which would enable greater decision making by the school, especially primary.
This consensus (we have lived with its contradictions ever since) hid an uneasy alliance. On the one hand, devolution was seen as an extension of the state sector reform model to schools. On the other it was seen as a vehicle to increase the involvement of parents in education. Added to this tension there was a third agenda, some saw the reforms as necessary cost-cutting. "We have got to corral this run-away herd." It was an era of tight fiscal control. As the reforms were implemented, decisions were often made to control, and sometimes reduce, education expenditure on financial rather than education grounds. It was part of the larger debate – what is the role of government. Over this battle-ground Lange and Douglas fought to a standstill. This was the second reason for turbulence. I went on holiday at Waiheke Island before I started working in the Beehive. I was swimming at the moment David Lange pulled the plug on the flat tax.
But inevitably, given that the education radicals joined forces with the conservative critics in demanding a major re-structuring, some form of administrative shake-up would occur. Post-war New Zealand education planning reflected the international trend - centralised top-down implementation. Various attempts to make it more democratic failed until the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms swept that model aside. Many in education still hanker for a return. Quite a number outside also. Of course, there is irony in that the reforms attempting devolution were themselves a top-down imposition. Compounding this irony is the factor that the centre and the politicians remain unwilling to let the system go. Indeed they too keep pulling up the plant to see why it isn’t growing.
My original role of just being education speech-writer had long gone. It was the most hectic time of my existence. The adrenaline rush carried its own buzz but there was too little time to reflect or consider consequences. I realise once a government is formed it carries its own momentum, the energy consumption based on the thoughts, plans and hopes at the time of taking office.
It was not just education. There were three press aides. One day I was under siege from NZEI and the Minister of Labour’s Office involved in an industrial dispute. NZEI claimed the issue was educational, the Minister of Labour’s office was adamant it was none of the PM’s business and he was stay out of it. A view which coincided with his own. It was a period when the Boss as called him was under immense pressure. My phone kept ringing from both parties. I left it off the hook. A telephonist appeared at my office, the other two press secretaries were out of the office would I take a call from an agriculture reporter from Dublin. “I can’t help him. Put him through to the agriculture adviser in the Boss’s office.” Protocol did not allow that. I had to take the call. So I did. Rather incoherently the Irishmen began chastising his old mate David Lange on selling out on Ireland. He admitted he’d been at the whiskey bottle quite a bit during the evening. Eventually I pieced together his concern. It seemed New Zealand was dumping old mutton in the Middle East. I told him I’d ring back and went and saw the appropriate adviser. He knew nothing about it. I rang Dublin to relay this information. He’d had more whiskey. “It must be true” he wailed down the line. “My old mate Lange.” I asked how he knew the PM. Apparently he’d accompanied the Irish prime minister during his visit here. I’d just hung up when the adviser appeared. It had just come over the wires, it wasn’t our mutton, it was Australian. One of the other press officers had returned so I left him to cope with Dublin while I kept reiterating to the disputants, ‘no I will not involve the PM.” A back bencher appeared to lobby for NZEI.
That evening it occurred to me that I was one of the first people in New Zealand to know a particular piece of information about world trade.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Looking at images of the utter devastation in Samoa I realise how our media downplayed the initial impact of the tsunami. The picture I’d got early on listening to the radio and looking at the internet was of physical damage but people had been given warning and so had sought and found high ground. Not so! Those poor souls caught in nature’s relentless force.

Four lucky men were on their surfboards and were far enough out to ride out the fury. In any calamity there will always be tales of good luck and tales of bad luck. With my disability I’d be a goner if I were on a beach and such an event occurred.

China celebrates sixty years of successful Communism. If it hadn’t abandoned Communism it might not have been so successful.

It’s about a year since I gave up driving. I’ve been dreaming recently of driving the car quite a lot. Anne thinks that my subconscious is telling me I want a change of scene. That’s not my reading of the situation. I see it as regret for a loss of independence. There’s been of late a bit of confusion over a prescription. Last night’s dream had me driving to the doctor’s to sort out the problem.

I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a novel about Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell who rose from obscurity to be Henry VIII’s prime mover in the English Reformation. The book has had rave reviews. I’m revelling in it – history and character, the stuff of good novels. The interplay between Cardinal Wolsey and Cromwell is brilliant. I’m up to the stage where Wolsey has just died.

Mantel gives Sir Thomas More a bad press. He has long been one of my heroes but not according to her. Well, like General Montgomery it’s a matter of interpretation.

It’s always struck me as ironic that Henry in his search for a son and heir divorced Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn and when that poor lady only gave birth to a daughter he had her executed on a trumped up charge. That daughter turned out to be Elizabeth, England’s greatest monarch.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Goya Rules

Goya Rules

March days can be superb, autumn crispness
in a mature sun. Late cicada hold chorus
as I walk through the gardens to the city.
Women trundling toddlers smile as I stroll
past, a man swings his little girl into giggles.
A tourist couple snap a courtly begonia bed.
A perfect day for a Renoir riverside party.

But Goya rules.
Trains detonate in Madrid.
Sudden death is often our common lot but
this unnecessary slaughter beggars thought.

Harvey McQueen

This poem which I wrote several years ago is in the latest edition of Poetry New Zealand. Yesterday I wrote about juxtapositions. Life can be both benign and brutal. I recall the day the poem was written – I'd listened to the radio news with the carnage of the carriages before walking down town through the Botanic Gardens on a lovely autumn day. I think the poem captures the essence of my mood that day. Renoir is my favourite painter - full of sunshine. But too often the horrific images that Goya presents dominate.