Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Anne has just come in from a walk to the shops to say, ‘it’s freezing out there’. The internet says 8 degrees in Wellington and reports sleet in Karori. The Desert Road's closed and snow is falling over much of the country. Rae calls, back from Tonga, 29 degrees she says. And the Paris tennis open yesterday was played in 30 degrees. Oh, to be elsewhere.

Yesterday Banks Peninsula lost electric power for over a couple of hours. Little River was named in this morning’s newspaper. It brought back childhood memories. Power cuts were common in my youth. Dust in the transformers caused shortages when it rained. Country lines were vulnerable. Storms were as frequent then as now but the infrastructure was more crude. It must also be said, sophistication leads to complexity and complications.

Not that we used much power in those days. Electric lights in the centre of each room, switched on with the pull of a cord. And a small fridg. That was all. In winter, bedtime meant hot water bottles. And we dressed in front of the banked-up stove, it’s wet back provided our hot water. Baths were rationed. There was always a kettle on or near the stove. In the washhouse there was a copper, tubs and a wringer. Washday was hard labour. The rest, electric iron, vacuum cleaner, oven, fan, tooth brush, computer were ahead in the future. Television – the concept was not in our ken. What a revolution. I remember still my amazement standing in a Tokyo square looking at the glitz and glamour of the electric billboards, thinking how much nuclear energy is being used to create this eye-stimulating scene.

This morning's newspapers used the word austerity a lot. Mainly wages. That’s what belt-tightening means to most economists. Maybe we should consider cutting back on electricity usage. Everyone, well nearly everyone wants more, wants more power, needs more power they say. Trouble is, no one wants a wind-farm near them. Dams are now an environmental no-no. Nuclear-power, well that one gets me out of the starting blocks. So what do we do? Save power? We’ve done so on the past in times of national crisis.

My hunch is we’ll stagger on much as we do at present. Max Bradford has lumbered us with a system of power generation that in the name of competition gives little else but never-ending price hikes. It’ll be a brave government that dares to intervene. It used to be simpler in the ‘bad’ old days. A few engineers at Whakamaru controlled the whole country’s flow.

In different ways two poems from Fiona Kidman and I are hymns of praise for this magnificent invention - electricity. I relate to her description. An early birthday present from my mother was my own reading lamp – an act of true maternal love. She knew her son’s delight in his reading. I could read while my brother slept. Our little farmhouse radio was also green. Possibly the same brand. Those are enchanting last lines in her poem. Forget the complications that arise from electrictiy. Let's accept the glory of its arrival. Throughout the early days of my life, each new hydro-dam was seen as an advance for our fair land.

Just as the old cat seeks our laps for warmth, so do we as a species in our own ways search for its comfort. Electricity, in our climate, is now, next to the sun, our greatest source. It’s a modern miracle we take for granted. It runs the machinery that pumps oxygen into my lungs all night, as well as cooks my food. I no longer use an electric blanket for I leave a thermostat electric heater on all night. But I recall the bliss of that tumble into a comfortable bed. The primitve in me responds to fire. The civilised accepts the switch. The only thing is; never forget which came first.


In all the marvellous lights of the world
we were able to read books. Before electricity
was feed along our road, we read by candlelight
or a kerosene lantern, their flickering fires
turning words into unsteady little crickets
that chirruped across the pages
and followed us to bed to keep
us awake. When the power board
came and brought the lines past our gate
we could snap a cord from the ceiling
as the bulb showered us with steady
yellow light, a trifle dull perhaps
but it was still easier to decipher
the scripts, the secrets of the characters
on the page.
……………. We did not foresee
pylons that strode across landscapes
carrying charges more powerful
than lightening into the blazing
cities of the world, or television
or dish washers or hair driers or can openers
that did the work by themselves, or electric
guitars strumming, or the Eiffel Tower
when the French won the football
(or how it would darken when they lost). Nor
did we concern ourselves with the national
grid and how people would starve or freeze
to death in their homes when it failed.
It was enough that the green wireless
on the shelf told us stories for a change
and that I learned to waltz with my father
to its music in the kitchen.

Fiona Kidman

Open Fire

We gave away the open fire when
we downsized. No longer, the annual
cord of manuka, mulled wine
& massage beside the embers.

Now at a country lodge
we sit beside a blazing fire,
I put down my book
& watch the dancing flames

The deer charring in the ashes, the wild
dog pup cavorting with the children
the old man who can no longer hunt,
the warmth doesn’t ease the chill in his bones

The other nuns off to their cells, an abbess
rosary ready wonders how such comfort
can represent hell, sighs and worries about
blasphemy, the matter must be raised in confession

The housemaid warms her bottom
on the fire she has just stoked for
her master, he’ll be in shortly
from the hounds & she’ll be run ragged.

Boys around the campfire, smoke
in their eyes, ash in their hair, faces
aglow, there is something primeval
about the open flame. Now light

& heat come down a line from an
emptying lake. It’s better but not
the same. Progress as loss. Night
has lost meaning as well as value.

It’s time to put on the electric blanket

Harvey McQueen

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