Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Comfort


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This morning the alarm woke me but I didn’t get up. Unlike at night when it’s a bore and a chore, at this time of day the mask attached to the CPAP and oxygen converter machines has a hypnotic effect. I was warm – the day promised only 9 degrees – and comfortable. Lying in bed I pulled back the curtain and the prospect looked bleak. So why get up?

I lay there, the radio burbling on, I picked up that Spain had beaten Portugal at the soccer and that pilot error was responsible for the Air New Zealoand crash in the Mediterranean. I wondered about today’s blog – the Supreme Court decision to knock out Chicago’s hand-gun laws, national standards in schools, poems – my own or someone else’s - or a further trip down memory’s circuit. Suddenly, Dorothy our sixteen-year old cat arrived to settle on the bed. My heater had been on all night; it was the warmest room in the house.

Long gone are the days when the alarm went off early and I’d get ready for work. In those days Dorothy used to sleep at the foot of our bed. As I staggered half-awake to the kitchen she’d gleefully accompany me. She knew the first thing I’d do was feed her, Weekends, holidays and summer evenings she had her role, assistant gardener and supervisor. For the rest, she was decorative, faithful and part of our life.

Things changed. When we shifted here a few years ago she had spent six weeks in a cattery so she was exhausted. All winter she slept upstairs on my bed, coming down only for her meals and kitty litter. Springtime, she began to venture outside.

New rituals were established. She liked to drink from a scungy old bowl in which leaves and dead bumble bees added flavour to the water – a primal memory of jungle pools. Once when we were away our cat-feeders decided she needed something cleaner. They put down a clean plastic ice-cream container with fresh water and emptied the old pot out. When we got home Dorothy was looking very miserable. I filled her old bowl and she drank and drank – I have never seen a cat so thirsty. That bowl shifted with us, now sits outside our back door, she uses it daily though we do keep a reserve bowl in the laundry for those stormy days when she doesn't go out on patrol.

As my health deteriorated Anne took over the tasks of feeding her and changing the kitty litter. Dorothy switched loyalty. She knew from whom her meals came. She spends the days during the winter on my downstairs bed. As soon as she hears Anne put on the electric blanket at night on her upstairs bed, Dorothy leaves my room for the greater comfort. Other times she has taken to sleeping on Anne’s lap rather than mine. I’m a has-been in cat terms.

In summer she’s an outdoors cat – greeting Anne with the same ecstasy she used to greet me. I don’t go out on my own now – I need help with the walker and the presence of someone else in case I fall. But during the winter she has two excursions, one morning, one late afternoon to wander round the section, drink her water, attend to her toilet and mark her territory. On rainy days she sits at the entrance wailing plaintively – her little cat brain cannot understand we have no say on the weather.

I have one use – door opening. She has a special call for that. She’s trained me to respond to it. So this morning’s visit was only cupboard love, or should I say electric love. Her old bones desire warmth and comfort and who can blame her. As soon as Anne appears Dorothy moves with considerable alacrity off my bed to go clamouring from the room, ‘feed me’. She knows, or thinks she does, who is boss of the place.

As I type this she’s curled up on the red eiderdown on my bed, the sun streaming in. Her capacity to accept the moment is enviable. Choice is decided by comfort. As mine was this morning to lay abed a while longer than usual. It would be untrue to say old age does not bring some benefits. Millions of humans cannot afford the luxury I enjoyed this morning. And thinking of the scrawney cats acres of years ago I saw in Athens and elsewhere Dorothy is indeed a fortunate creature. The difference is, she doesn't know it.

Containment

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Some historians see history as whims and myriad enthusiasms. Others see it a cyclical. Peter Beinart is in the latter camp. I’m finding his 'The Icarus Syndrome', an account of recent American foreign policy, a thought-provoking read.

He begins with Woodrow Wilson’s idealism before, during and after the first World War. When that failed America turned isolationist. Franklin Roosevelt saw the dangers in that policy but knew he couldn’t take the electorate with him. His rhetoric was at odds with policy which was Beinart claims old-fashioned ‘real politick’, power blocks and alliances. That rhetoric stressed universal democracy.

Under Truman that approach led to anti-communism in Greece and Korea etc etc. Containment became the order of the day. Viet Nam lay ahead. Of course, the Presidental name is merely the focal point for a movement, a trend, the current wave.

I quote from Beinart
‘McArthur and his allies genuinely believed that the only reason containment kept expanding was that the communists kept confronting the United States with grave and graver threats. What they didn’t grasp was that their definition of what constituted a threat had grown in parallel with America’s growing confidence in its power.’

‘Former under-secretary of state Robert Lovett told a committee tasked with putting America’s containment strategy into written form ‘there was practically nothing that the country could not do if it wanted to do it.’ His words might have served as an epigraph to the mounting hubris of the age.’

‘Containment … conceived as primarily a political strategy, was now an unmistakably military one. …The perception if weakness … would breed ‘doubt and recrimination,’ both among America’s allies and within the USA itself. … [This] meant that unimportant places were important after all. … [Americans were seen] as so moral, decent and rational … that they could take virtually unrestrained action to combat communism without ever imperilling their souls.’

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tuesday Poem

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Thomas Hardy

I notice how finches delicately
bend the dandelion stalks to get at the seeds.

I notice how the cat sniffs the air
before she ventures outside.

I notice the oak sheds more & more leaves
& the patterns into which the wind whirls them.

I notice the sun
rises later each morning.

I know that soon the sun will reverse track.
I know that one day I will not be here to see that happen.

But let it be known,
here was another man who noticed things.

Harvey McQueen

I wrote this poem two years ago just after I’d just received the diagnosis of my illness. Like any other human over the years there had been the occasional thought about mortality. But that late autumn bomshell sharpened focus. At the time I was reading Hardy’s poems – I’ve always responded to his work and return to it again and again. Hence the last line.

I like this poem so much that I placed it at the beginning in my recently released collection ‘Goya Rules’ published by HeadworX.

If you wish to read other contributions to the Tuesday Poem site it's http://www.tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com/

Pensive Mood

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There are few pleasures in my condition. But one of them is the absence of haste. Deadlines are few, mainly self-imposed, while a few are of necessity, care-giver coming and appointments etc.

I found when I was a tourist it was hard to reconcile a leisurely appreciation of the scene and a desire to cram as much as possible into the occasion. The best times were probably sitting having coffee or a beer and watching the world wag by. There is that sense of non-participation. Around one people gossip, flirt, worry, plan, argue and laugh in a language one does not understand. And that doesn’t matter.

The word ‘saunter’ springs to mind. Now as I push my walker round I recall those times. ‘For oft when on my couch I lie/ In vacant or in pensive mood/ They flash upon the inward eye.’ There is the flower market in Brussels, the square in Siena, the maidan in Ishfahan, the peace-park in Hiroshima, the squirrels in Vancouver, the defile at Delphi, and myriads more, soaked up and stored in the deep-down cells.

Memory forgets the hassles, the lost luggage, the confusion, the irritation, the bewilderment, the hucksters. It recalls the amazement – cathedral, monument, ruin, rampart, canyon, lake, beach and river. It recalls the pleasure, for example warm sea-water at Acapulco, Honolulu, Heron Island and Raiatea. Around the house there are mementoes that jog memory – salad servers from Paris, a print from Kyoto, dinner service from London and a paper knife from Bangkok.

I did not plan to divert into travel. But life is higgledy-piggledy. I intended to write about absence from the rat-race. ‘Rat-race’ is unfair. The circumstances of the big, bad world are more stimulating than that expression. Memory recalls triumph and tragedy at both the public and the personal level.

While I cannot say my present existence is one of tranquillity I can say I find great enjoyment in recall. Despite what is written earlier the effort to do things and accomplish something is stressful. It takes its toll. Another word springs to the word processor, ‘valiant’. It’s a word I don’t think I’ve ever applied to myself before. Interesting I use it when the possibilities for adventure are now narrowed down. Such is life. So as humans down the ages have done I seek solace in my circumstances.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bright Star

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This was no fairy story – it had an unhappy ending. Furthermore, we knew it did. Last evening we watched a DVD, Jane Campion’s movie 'Bright Star', a brilliant portrayal of the relationship of poet John Keats with his neighbour Fanny Brawne. It didn’t fit my conceptions of the two protagonists but that didn’t matter. In itself it contained its own reality. And that was striking and disarming. This is no costume drama – rather human passion stretched close to breaking point.

Keats and Brawne’s playfulness turning to romantic obsession was beautifully portrayed with superb camera work. Mood matched scene time after time. 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.’ Fully clothed the two lovers recite stanzaz from ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci ‘- one of cinema’s most sexy scenes. This relationship was unconsummated – therein lies much of the power of the tale. But the quotes from Keats' letters reveal the fervour. The bereaved Brawne walking through the snow-clad woods of Hampstead Heath at the conclusion of the movie is equally striking – loss as winter of the soul..

The end film credits are backgrounded with a recital of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale’ ‘For many a time/ I have been half in love with easeful death.’ Rarely has the word ‘forlorn’ carried so much meaning. When I was teaching Seventh Form English, Keats was one of my selected poets for extensive study. Before I began I wondered about the student reaction – how would 1960s youth respond to lush romanticism - but there was little need to worry. Keats’ own conviction carried the day. They accepted him for what he was. His three great odes are a summation of that movement that is called romanticism.

To assist my teaching I bought Gittings’ 'Life of Keats'. My mental picture of the poet and Fanny Brawne was based upon that biography. Now, Campion has fastened another dimension. I must reread Gittings. The pile of unread books on my shelf still grows. And the list of those I want to reread is enormous. So much to read, so little time. ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The World's Beyond Our Will

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A little paragraph in this morning’s paper claims that half the food consumed in the USA is produced by illegal immigrants. It’s a sort of hidden peasantry. Meanwhile the politicians and populace debate the question – feelings run high. So much for the Statue of Liberty. Was it ever different? The early prosperity of the nation was based upon slave (Black) labour.

The very success of America tends to blind it to its contradictions, At present I am reading Peter Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome, a book about foreign policy and the hubris that follows success. In Greek mythology Icarus flew to close to the sun, the wax in his feathers melted and he plummeted to his death in the sea. Hubris is the Greek term for overwhelming pride and arrogance – a common fate for rulers – ask Kevin Rudd.

Beinart takes three case studies, Washington on the eve of the First World War, the Viet Nam war and the Iraq invasion. I’ve only read the introduction and am just up to the conclusion of World War 1. Woodrow Wilson’s idealism is clashing with Clemenceau’s realism. The Frenchman wanted an alliance and a guarantee against further German aggression, the American wanted a world order based on reason. Beinart argues that the hubris behind Wilson ignored human emotion and passion. The progressive dream had reached the stage that it over-reached.

The more I read history the more aware I become of the danger of applying a theory to events. Even more to future events. Entering a war means throwing the dice, how it falls is in the lap of the gods. Obama’s inherited two wars. He wants to tackle the immigration issue. There are Congressional elections this American fall. It’s all beyond the capabilities of one man and his chosen advisers. The world is beyond our will. .

Between them Wilson and Clemenceau sowed the seeds for Hitler and World War 11, an outcome neither man contemplated and both hoped to prevent.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Terms of Appointment

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TERMS OF APPOINTMENT

I speak of walls and chains; of the vials
of wrath; of limitations, denials,
derelictions, fallings from grace,
making them yours to save my face:

Though you live in the desert eating manna, you will not be happy until you have raised a house;
Though you build, yet chaos will stoop like a girl by the hedgerow to pluck your towers like lilies;
Though you gather flowers, yet the dust of a thousand carriage--wheels will settle upon them;
Though you go a journey into the interior you will long for the reek of salt and the noise of gulls;
Though you cross the seas your heart will remain buried beneath the hearthstone;
Though you stay on one acre you will sweat with rage to see your enemies riding upon the hilltops;
Though you conquer your enemies at last, you will wish you had spent the time making summer love;
Though you tumble her in every haystack from here to Paradise, there will be a question at the end and no answer from the night;
Though you grow wise with the sloughing of years, time will not forgive you for deserting your youth;
Though you live you will long for death; though you die you will lack breath.

A R D Fairburn

Fairburn along with Glover and Curnow whetted my poetry interest in the 1960s. Here was a Kiwi poet writing about Kiwi things. The publication of his ‘Collected Poems’ in 1966 added impetus. 

This poem in particular has always appealed. It seemed an apt summary of the human predicament, the road not taken, the neighbour’s patch always better..Shakespeare’s duality, as a species we were half-angel, half-beast, lurked in my mental framework. Life's a journey, death's the end. I found it 'big picture' appealing stuff.

But unlike Glover and Curnow I found it hard to translate this enthusiasm for Fairburn into successful classroom lessons. There was some generational gap that was hard to bridge. The Biblical references at the beginning of this poem did not have reference points. Pity, I’d have to reserve my pleasure for my private reading. And then maybe the kids sensed something in this poem, a coldness, an aloofness, a lack of passion, clever stuff, abstract ideas remote from reality, a cynicism and world-weariness that youth’s idealism rejected. All very complicated for a young teacher trying to understand the universe.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Embarrassment

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Yesterday’s blog about single-sex boys’ schools brought back a memory of an deeply embarrassing moment. Mid ‘70s, the South Auckland inspectorial team were at such a school. That morning there was a snippet in the local paper about a prominent English public school installing a condom dispensing machine in its senior common lounge.

When the all-male group got to the school comment was made about this item. One inspector suggested to the principal –always a publicity seeker - that he could win brownie points by announcing such a development for his patch. Male crude ‘shyacking’ – my spell-check doesn’t help here – ensured between the more earthy types in the room egged on by the man in residence. I don’t want to sound prudish but I felt uneasy, indeed unclean. Certain sandpits maybe, but the headmaster’s office? Chivalry comes in many guises.

As I left for my first visit the principal asked where I was heading. Remedial Reading! ‘Watch yourself Harvey, she’s the most beautiful teacher I’ve ever employed'. She was striking. A good teacher, her self-confidence and presentation had the five Maori boys eating out of her hand. They worked eagerly and keenly. As was customary she taught for a while and then set them some work and turned to me to talk.

I praised her work and asked if she had any questions or problems. ‘Resources. There is a shortage of material.’ I found myself replying, ‘have you got one of those Durex machines here.” Even as I spoke I realised the word I'd meant was Xerox. A Freudian slip, probably arising from a subconscious recollection of the earlier conversation.

To her credit she didn’t blink, while the pupils sat there poker-faced. Confused and trying to retrieve the situation I muttered, ‘you know, one of those reproductive devices’. One of the boys snorted. With what dignity I could muster I departed saying ‘Good work.’ Shame-faced I made my way back to the principal’s office. I told him of my folly. He roared with laughter and slapping me on the back said ‘not to worry.’

I did. I’d let my side down. I’d let my self down. Embarrassment ruled. I still cringe when I recollect that incident.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Hardy Breed

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Last Saturday the final rugby test was played at Carisbrook in Dunedin, a bleak spot, exposed to the southern winds. It's also unique, it had character. When I went in the 1950s, after the high grandstands of Christchurch, its low-slung one appeared diminutive. They are building a fancy new stadium in the north of the city. There’s an item in this morning’s paper. A new stand there has no toilets. The architect left them out and the mistake was not picked up along the way. They breed them hardy south of the Waitaki.

Over thirty years ago I started work in the old Department of Education in Wellington. After five years as an inspector of schools I’d been promoted to Head Office. My office window looked out to the railway station and the snow-clad hills at the head of the Hutt Valley.

I was jack of all trades and master of none. I was asked to approve the plans for a refurbishment of Otago Boys’ High staff-room block. Whether I should have been doing this job is another issue. I was. It was part of the brief. I said, 'I know nothing about such issues'. 'Have a look', my boss said. So I did.

One thing stood out. No women’s toilet! I queried this and was told I was quite right. So back to the Otago Education Board’s draftsman. He consulted the Rector. There was no woman staff-member nor would one ever be appointed. Visitors could use the ablution block at the reception area near the hall entrance. The decision was not an oversight; it was policy.

I dug my heels in. As an inspector in the Waikato area I’d seen an increasing number of women teachers in single-sex boys’ schools, private and public. In time, this could happen in Dunedin. Further there were increasingly new library assistants and other ancillary staff appointees, almost all female. I was looking at things to come, not the present.

The southern reply was equally adamant. I sensed masculine outrage at this jumped-up Wellington bureaucrat telling them how to conduct their affairs. Their cosy club atmosphere was not to be shaken by the addition of femininity. They’d have to watch their language. I stuck to my guns. Both common sense and the future were mine.

Nothing to do with this issue, I received promotion to another division in Head Office and lost touch with the debate. Such is the nature of paper-pushing. Rather soul-destroying work a critic may say. It is, but it is necessary, it has its uses. If certain paper-pushers had enforced the requirements about oil-drilling the Gulf of Mexico spill may not have occurred. I say ‘may’. Humanity cannot guarantee ‘failsafe’.

Somewhere along the line somebody involved in the new Dunedin grandstand didn’t do their job properly. I say this not to blow my own trumpet. There were probably other things in that school plan I didn’t see, like power points in the preparation room. [Computers, what were they?]. I’ve made mistakes of commission as well as omission all my life. We all do. That’s why systems of checks and balances are instituted. We lower their use and number at our peril – in this instance, bladder control. They slow things down but they prevent blunders.

When I was a boy at Christchurch Boys’ in the 1950s there was one woman on the staff, at reception and telephone. I visited in 2005 as a co-writer of a book celebrating its 125th anniversary. The ratio in the staff-room was about 50/50. There was a plesant atmosphere. Several people commented about women teachers, "normal now and accepted." “It’s had a good effect upon classroom and staffroom.”

Here's an excerpt from my write-up. 'Contrasting the school he attended to the present day one, Colin McIntosh (1945-49) comments “There was no gymnasium, but the basement, a dark concrete bunker under the hall (now the library) was used on wet days and there one learnt the art of survival not only at Phys Ed but also at interval and lunchtime. This hall had no panelling. The walls were plain red brick. The stairs were plain concrete. (It must be remembered there had been a war and austerity still was the nature of the period). There were no counsellors, deans, transition coordinators, career advisers, teacher aides, sports coordinators, nurses, technicians, executive officers, nor a full-time librarian until 1960 or 1961, There was a secretary and a bursar, Captain Billy Hoar who had trained men for the First World War. Sex education hardly got past the amoeba and the hydra.” I am confident Otago Boys' post-war would have been similar.

A rough count (internet) of present staff at Otago Boys' reveals about 17 women teachers and 13 women support staff. I say 'rough' - a school staff is a moveable feast.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Private Life

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Two early 21st century snippets to precede a blog about the early 20th century. Anne’s bought a bunch of Iceland poppies – such delicate flowers and colours. A touch of grace in our lounge. On today’s walk – in full sunshine – I was sitting on the seat outside the dairy when two young mothers – they looked hardly out of school – went past pushing babies in their prams/strollers, (whatever is the correct word). One said, ‘I’m off to New York tomorrow.’ ‘For how long?’ the other queried. ‘A week’. The tone was blasé.

An unusual courtship followed by a unusual marriage - the material of many a novel. I finished Jane Smiley’s ‘Private Life’ yesterday. There are books I burn through. This was one - intimacy made inclusive, rejection made ridiculous, loss made limitless. Involved in the various adventures of Margaret Early I was vicariously involved in her life, angry at her husband’s treatment of her, delighted at her odd show of spirit, pleased when she found solace in nature; and when that failed her, the power and longevity of art. In a loveless world art promised longevity.

San Francisco took on more literary shape for me. Like Dickens' London, various parts of it’s location became fixed in my mental landscape. And the events in which the novel took place are a chronicle of the time. The earthquake, the first world war, the Spanish flu, the Russian Revolution, the great depression, the Japanese invasion of China and Pearl Harbour backdrop the narrative. .

It’s the ‘Middlemarch’ theme. Apparent intellectual husband turns out shallow and sad – in this case though ‘bad’ and ‘mad’ as well, an egomaniacal and obsessive paranoid. The ultimate betrayal of Margaret caught me completely by surprise. This was an act beyond comprehension. Yet, it rang true – it was in character. Absolutely frightening such cruelty and injustice.

Part of the appeal of the novel was the lack of sentimentality. Reassurance isn’t available. Yet Margatet’s essential wholesomeness and goodness shine through. She’s entitled to be bitter. I longed for her to round on her husband but she left it too late. And that’s how it would have been given the portrayal of her character and circumstance.

And so I come to my niggle. The ending! The novel has one scene too many. I’ve re-read the last few pages several times. Was I missing something? Probably. But it seems to me to add nothing. I don’t mind a tapering off. I don’t mind loose ends. But in this case the tale and the tension had closed on the previous scene. If it had been my book I’d have put the beginning sequence at the end. It revealed the consequences of her husband’s actions.

In those times if you were a woman you married and then you made the best you could of the bargain you’d bought. Marriage was a lottery. A divorce was possible for adultery, but not for unhappiness. Things happen to Margaret - like the young coots she watches with pleasure - but she is at the mercy of events. Sensitivity and docility are not enough. The account of the death of her baby I found incredibly moving – on a par with Tess’s. That’s high praise from me.

If my comments put you off reading the book I’ll have done it a disservice. It’s a great read. I’d commend it as one of the best recent novels. It’s deeply moving and the central character is a vivid depiction of a certain type of ‘everywoman’. I have a yardstick for a book. Am I richer for the read? In this case, miles so.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tuesday Poem 22 June 2010

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WINTER OLYMPICS

Not a maple in sight, when she
sold us the place Elizabeth asked

if she could dig up a cherished camellia.
While we believed it was too big to survive

the strain we said ‘Sure’. Behind
the hole it left was a cowering wintersweet.

Lesley gave a white abutilon cutting
to fill the gap. Stasis did not prevail.

The flame lit, competitively the two plants
bolted for the space of sky, a trajectory

of green-power. Nature’s not into charity.
The surrounding tall trees presented a challenge.

After two years, the abutilon now has a three
foot stem before four leggy branches, huge leaves

& only five flowers, graceful as dance skaters
on ice. Revitalised the wintersweet jostles like

an overbearing ice hockey jock. There is only
room for one on the central podium. My money‘s

on the abutilon, but there are further
complications in our small coppice corner

for at their feet there’s this cheeky indigenous
intruder, a red stemmed, peppery-leaved matipo

Harvey McQueen

In posting poems on Mary McCallum's blog that have previously appeared I realise there is a risk of alienating readers. If you’ve read it before and can’t be bothered to do so again – pass on. If not re-read. It is the nature of poems to be read again and again.

This poem was written during the time of the winter olympics. For the benefit of new readers I have a rare muscular degenerative disease. On this day my care-giver had taken me to a seat at the end of our section. I’d planted that abutilon tree, so I was interested in its progress. The competition of the various plants was striking. I came inside and the poem tumbled ready-made on to the word-processor – nature, green in leaf and bough.

Choice

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The shortest day - always one of my favourites. Reversing tracks the sun turns north again and slowly our hemisphere will warm up again. A relatively mild morning, cloudless. By midday it had clouded over and the threatened rain seemed increasingly closer. Part of the penalty of living in a temperate climate. My decision to dwell in Wellington determines the climate and the weather in which I exist. I have no choice on that matter.

On my first retirement someone asked did I plan to shift to Tauranga or Nelson. I had never contemplated that possibility. Gardening opportunities would be better, but friends, habits, identity were bound up in Wellington. I was happy here. The political buzz was part of my being. I enjoyed the cultural life. Above all, there was Anne, her work, her friends, her life. These were not Victorian times when the husband had complete say over such matters.

In Stonehenge people are gathering to welcome the sun rise – the morning of midsummer’s day. Some peoples’ gain, other peoples’ loss.

I confess I must eat humble pie. Amidst all the hype about the football cup I’ve been saying wait till the All Whites meet the world champions Italy. Well, they have met them and held them to a draw. Regardless of progress from hereon, soccer has received a boost in Kiwiland. The long term implications for rugby look interesting. The youngster recruitment pool is finite.

Seven years ago my diary records, ‘I watched on TV the rugby test, the All Blacks beating Wales comfortably 55 to 3. Carter had a good debut. Mehrtens can probably put away his test boots. Such is life.’ I watched the replay yesterday afternoon of last Saturday evening’s match. Carter had an outstanding match – I didn’t realise he’d been around so long.

The paper tells how the South African police are enforcing sponsorship rights at world cup venues. Trouble ahead for next year’s rugby world cup. [And the London Olympics]. I understand sponsor rights. But where’s that cherished word – in certain quarters – ‘choice’. Will there be a choice of beer at a match then. Not likely. Will fans be able to wear their favourite t-shirt. Not likely? In theory I have a choice of electricity supply. Do I have a better service. And ask the customers of Tranzrail the same question.

What choice did a wife have in the 19th and most of the 20th century? Not much according to Jane Smiley’s novel ‘Private Life’. It opens powerfully, but bewilderedly, with a scene in an American Japanese internment centre just after Pearl Harbour. What’s going on? It quickly moves to a 1880s Missouri farm where Margaret Mayfield is growing up. Her father and brothers dead, it’s a feminine household - ’Little Women’ with more character. My one boyhood reading of Alcott’s novel has left me with a sense of insipidness.

Anyone who has read Jane Austen can guess what will happen. Margaret’s two sisters marry and begin to bear children. It looks like she’ll be left high and dry, a spinster. Her mother and the mother of naval officer and idiosyncratic astronomer Captain Early combine to arrange a marriage. Sounds boring. No! It’s a gripping read. I’m up to the San Francisco earthquake. It’s one of those hard to put down novels.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bacon & Beavers

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Instead of my usual porridge for breakfast I’ve had brunch the last two days – bacon, mushroom and kidney in a cream and brandy sauce on toast yesterday, just bacon and mushroom on toast this morning. Bacon seems the archetypal English breakfast. Indeed it is one of defining characteristics of Western cuisine.

The word has French and Germanic roots but until the 16th century meant in English all parts of the meat of a pig. The phrase ‘to bring home the bacon’ has an interesting history. In the 12th century the English town of Dunmow promised a side of bacon to the man who could say in church he had not quarrelled with his wife for a year. These days the buyer goes into a draw for all purchasers of that particular product. At the least the old bribe had an act of commission.

This afternoon Anne and I watched a DVD, IMAX Beavers. A delightful nature programme. The advertisement says ‘The Biggest Dam Movie You Ever Saw'. Amazing their dam and lodge building feats. They are the animals next to humans who alter their landscape the most the programme claimed. I never realised they were the second largest rodent in the world.

Distress

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Here is a long ago poem based on facts.

Distress

The house had massive verandahs,
I remember that, if not the snow
that settled overnight & loomed
large in my mother’s photo album.

There are so many jogs to memory
but some are in the down deep-cells.
my brother & I had grown tired of
waiting so she dished the roly-poly

pudding we’d been clamouring for ahead
of the main course. This five-year-old
ignored the knocking on the door
until she returned distressed followed

by two uniforms, the Salvation Army
had found my father draggng from
his horse. The scenes blur until
Uncle Tom’s laden truck laboured out

of Pigeon Bay and that chapter closed.
A few years later Mum was taking me
past the wards at Christchurch Hospital
for an x-ray when she suddenly turned,

leaving my grandfather to lead me along
to the cold machine. He explained that
my father had died there. That was the first
day I ever put Brylcreem on my hair.

1939. I was a pre-schooler. That winter snow fell right down to the seashore and for days flakes swirled past our windows to settle in a weightless hush on trees, shrubs, shed and lawn, the hills completely curtained off. My parents couldn't drive out for well over a week and the power was cut.

My father, John, had stacked piles of firewood so Mum kept the kitchen stove going full bore. She kept filling our hot water bottles all night and in the morning wrapped us in blankets to run shivering to dress in front of the opened firebox. It was so cold that the jagged spikes of ice hanging from the guttering didn't thaw for over a fortnight. John spent his days rescuing sheep caught in the drifts.

Then, shortly after World War 2 started and I had turned five, John failed to arrive home on time for the hot midday meal. His back was broken in the fall from his horse. He lingered for a few days before dying. Except for Mum's distress, I remember little of the blurred events after that. Ever since then a woman's tears reduce me to helplessness.

The day of John’s accident remains clear, but the day of his funeral is completely cauterised. The event must have been traumatic to an imaginative child, an unexpected ambush of grief and loss. It created a deep guardedness, a distrust of happiness - existence is not reliable. The present cannot guarantee the future. John’s death welded a strong sense of insecurity on to me - an obvious grounding for a life in education, an occupation that attempts to bring some order out of the chaos.

My memory-banks are quite clear on two events. Uncle Tom's old whey-eaten truck laden with our furniture stalled near the top of the Pigeon Bay Rd. My grandfather's Oldsmobile was right behind. A rope was attached. Mum, my younger brother, Doug, and I were left on the snow-covered bank watched by curious heifers as the rope took the strain. After towing the truck to the Summit Road. Pop came back to collect us.

The other is Pop taking me to the X-ray machine. The nurse said 'what a smart young fellow I was.' I pointed out rather proudly that I had put on hair cream. What Mum must have been feeling.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mum & Dick

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You should write a poem about your mother. It doesn’t work that way – a command bid locks the system. But obedient I tried. Here is the result.

Saw-toothed the Kaikouras below
mark the ascent, soon the swaying
landing at Rongatai.

Moonlight on barbed wire
How does one say ‘good-bye’
‘Thanks’ sounds not heart-felt enough

They are together now
she handing him the wood
he, expertly guiding it to the blade.

the pile in the shed growing
fuel for meals to be cooked
& baths for his back to be lathered.

My last trip south to see Mum was in November 2007. In the spring vacation 1969 I visited her and my stepfather in their Christchurch home. He was dying of lung cancer. It would be the last time I saw him.

On the farm they worked in unison at sawing up the manuka wood for the wet-back stove. Dick would be stripped to the waist. Mum feared the saw. I think she thought if she were there it would keep him from harm. They were a great team.

My Mother


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Saturday morning. For years a ritual was to ring my mother at 9 o clock on this day for a weekly catch-up, family gossip, rest home tales, national events and the fortunes of the All Blacks.


It is exactly a year since she died. I attach a photo. She gave it to me several years ago saying ‘something to remember me by’. It’s faded and the print has partially stuck to the back of the glass. Geoff has snapped it through the glass. It sits on my bedroom/study window sill. Backdrop – the camellia with the scarlet blooms. First one out yesterday. Overarching is the gaunt oak, devastated by last autumn’s storm.  Underneath, the promise of daphne.

My Ashburton niece, has sent by email photos of two of  Mum’s great grandchildren. The elder, Ryan, I saw with Mum in my last visit down south. He was about a month old. The younger, Taylor, was born last spring so Mum never saw her. But I find the continuity of the generations comforting. It is the nature of things.

Friday, June 18, 2010

An Ordinary Day

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Posted today, this blog was written yesterday.

‘But this book is not about plot or narrative tension; it’s about being there.’ This sentence from a review of a book about the Arctic Circle featured on Beattie’s Book Blog sums up what I wanted to say about Elizabeth Smither’s novel ‘Lola’. I've begun reading Jane Smiley's 'Private Life'. I remember discovering 'Moo' one of her earlier novels at Rosemary's home in Brown's Bay. A perfect place to read a novel dissecting univesity life, a view of the sea to Rangitoto - placidity amidst all that plotting and counter-plotting

Friends Fran and Howard brought our evening meal last night – meals on wheels for golden oldies. I was delighted – a well-deserved night off for Anne. With my non-participation, a dinner party means extra work for her. So grateful thanks.

The first course was walnuts from their large tree. Fresh walnuts and walnut pate from a recipe Anne gave Fran years ago. It’s now a yearly ritual. The flavour of barely dried walnut brings back early childhood memories. On the Pigeon Bay farm my father managed there was a long grove of walnut trees. Late autumn saw the laborious collection of nuts.

Four year old, I helped with the trailer on my trike, but quickly tiring took my toy koala off for rides on the side. Long racks of drying nuts faced north on the verandah. Possums had arrived on the Peninsula. A dog was chained there to keep them away from the nuts. Suddenly in the middle of the immense silence that is a country night there would be a sudden rattle of a chain, a frantic burst of barking and an angry marsupial hiss.

Then ginger chicken legs – very tasty – followed by tamarillo puree for dessert, fruit from their own trees. And one of the loveliest flavours in Christendom. A good meal.

Speaking of food I learnt from Del Conti’s book that many centuries ago a Pope ruled that snails are fish and not meat; therefore they can be eaten on Friday and Lent. She says it was because he was a snail-loving Pope. I can’t vouch for that. I’ve only eaten snails once. I enjoyed the garlic. And did not try again. Whereas frogs’ legs. Yum!

During the day, with the help of the walker, I made it the local shopping centre to sit in the winter sun, watch the traffic flow past, people filter into the shops and a man water the hanging flower baskets. Everyone’s hunched against the winter weather.

Back home, a tui and a bellbird arrived on their daily reconnaissance of the abutilon bush. Each stayed long enough for me to savour the sight.

Last year our first camellia – the bright scarlet one - flowered on the 16th. Today, the first bloom on the same tree on the same NE side appeared despite the very different season. Soon, the camellias white, pink and this one red will be in full bloom. They were here when we arrived, so I don’t know their varietal names.

Camellias are named after the Jesuit priest Georg Kamel. In the 17th century he sent back to Europe seeds of the plant – a member of the tea family – that the Chinese had been cultivating for centuries. Part of their appeal is that the generous scattering of strong-coloured blooms backgrounded by glossy dark-green leaves.

A camellia in bloom. The perfect approach to the shortest day. And there is a peep of a tulip in the pot outside the back door.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Penguin

Several years ago surfing the net I found a lecture by Wystan Curnow which had high praise for Ian’s and my Penguin anthology. .

*****
'Anthologies of New Zealand poetry have over the last 50 years played a defining role in the critical understanding of our literature. Alex Calder has shown how a short history of poetry and nationalism in the now-called Aotearoa/New Zealand can be written by way of a history of the major anthologies. Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen's 'Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse' proposed a radical revision. One fifth of their material was Maori; they gave us our first bicultural canon. Equally important was their ability to pick out for the 1980s, a range of ambivalences and ambiguities, puzzles and problems, in the understanding of our literature and culture not identified by previous anthologists.

*****

When asked about achievements I name the Penguin as amongst the best. It is something I feel very proud to have been involved.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Element Discovered

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Geoff emailed through this thought-provoking scientific breakthrough:

******
‘New Element Discovered’

‘The Nuclear Physics Department at the University of Ottawa has discovered the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.’

‘These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert; however, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take from 4 days to 4 years to complete.’

‘Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2 - 6 years. It does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganisation in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, since each re-organisation will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration.’

‘This hypothetical quantity is referred to as critical morass.’

‘When catalyzed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium, an element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.’

‘The collective noun for Governmentium has been decided - it is to be a Parliament of Governmentium.’

******
I enjoyed the piece. Parody always carries enough element of truth to have a bite. And there are times when I curse government and all its lackeys. But as scientists do I want to challenge some assumptions of this piece.

Governance is an essential component of human society. And as soon as the group gets larger than the tribe or local community it needs administrators, public servants, bureaucrats, call them what you will. Even an army needs its commissariat. The chief wallah, male or female, cannot govern on their own.

Interesting the research comes from Ottawa. Aha, North America. Unusual governance there. South of the border there is the present rage of the Tea Party against the so-called erosion of ancient liberties and freedoms. Just for the record, the frontier was reached over a century ago. Life in the USA has meant even before that time a co-existence between state and individual, a zig-zag process. And when things go wrong as in the Gulf of Mexico the clamour is for the state to fix it.

Governors can be fools, rogues or good people. My experience is that they are mainly sincere, trying to do their best according to their lights, and at the mercy of forces beyond their control. This ranges from Obama to the Capital Coast Health Board.

Likewise administrators. I know rules and regulations can be infuriating. That’s why some bright spark suggested we didn’t need so many in the building industry. Oops, sorry, leaky homes. Under Bush and Cheney similar trigger-happy artillery suggested loosening drilling regulations. Oops, sorry, a deep sea rogue well. Even a class-room needs management. Why not a nation? To what degree - 'that is the question'. 

‘Gv’ is like ‘H2O’. Elemental. There is a difference. We can attempt to make 'Gv' better. Oops, sorry, more effective and efficient. We must get the jargon right. Anyway thanks Geoff.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

50 Years of NZTV

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Last week I expressed great disappointment at the TV1 show on 50 years of television in New Zealand. A trivial games show did not seem to me to be the right way to celebrate a landmark event. Prime TV made up for it last Sunday evening with the first episode of a series giving a historical summary of this media here.

It began in Auckland. Then in Christchurch – coverage was easier then, but not to parts of Banks Peninsula; trips ‘home’ meant listening to complaints about lack of reception or tales of farmer ingenuity putting up translators on high peaks. Wellington next. Dunedin after that. And gradually the rest of the country. My Hamilton father-in-law even bought a set before reception was available in the area. The first programme I ever saw was at his place, The Flintstones.

Prime covered the drama and the politics of local television. It didn’t dabble in the overseas shows. That’s an international story. Prime’s programme concentrated on the indigenous - squarely home-grown, the exploratory, evangelical exciting nature of those early days. It was very much a masculine world.

Current events back then dealt with big issues. I saw the programme that resolved a post office strike live - Brian Edwards in the chair, Minister and Union Leader on either side. One channel – a unifying factor in a dispersed nation. Holyoake’s pomposity – he was not at ease in this medium.

Norm Kirk was. His leading a young Maori boy by the hand across the Waitangi treaty grounds was great theatre. Watching I felt proud to be a Kiwi. Behind the scenes a more subtle change was beginning to take place. Maori began to claim a rightful place in this medium. Their cause was helped by Billy T James – he could take the mickey in a way a pakeha comedian could not. Anyway, they had John Clarke.

TV decided to get up-to-date so the bosses built the large new studio at Avalon. Enter Muldoon. Lean times. Bad times. A bully. No increase in the fee. Interviewers banned or ridiculed. TV fled to Auckland. Ideas of it as a public service dwindled. Then the 1984 election with that dramatic moment prior to the election when ousted in a studio debate Muldoon muttered ‘we love you David Lange’. In the meanwhile Avalon had became a white elephant.

For a while TV did love Lange. Shots of the Oxford debate reinforced the images. But his government took a further step down the Muldoon line. Prebble turned TV1 into a S.O.E. – its aim, to be commercial. Programmes like Wild South were too expensive to produce. It was over to private producers to prepare shows and programmes. Not that the results have all been bad. Outrageous Fortunes springs to mind. But the genie was out of the bottle. It could not be put back. The early heady days were well and truly over. The way home to giggling games shows was established.

Thank you Prime. A historian’s appreciation for a well-made documentary.

Tuesday Poem

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The Lodging House Fuchsias

Mrs Master’s fuchsias hung
Higher and broader and brightly swung
Bell-like, more and more
Over the narrow garden path,
Giving the passer-by a sprinkle bath
In the morning

She put up with their pushful ways
And made us tenderly lift their sprays,
Going to her door:
But when her funeral had to pass
They cut back all the flowery mass
In the morning.

Thomas Hardy
 
I've joined Mary McCallum's Tuesday Poem group. This is my first entry.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lola (2)

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When I drafted yesterday’s blog I began with this phrase, ‘Elizabeth Smither’s heroine, Lola.’ I stopped and started again, deleting ‘heroine’ and substituting ‘character’. I was wrong. Lola is the heroine. Too many block-busters Harvey. Too much narrative based on cause and consequence. There are other ways of looking at reality. .Poet Louis McNeice summed it up, ‘things being various’. The novelist, biographer, historian, scientist craft to make it containable. But life is bigger than any container humans can devise.

I had fallen victim to a mindset. Lola is indeed the central figure of the novel. Around her the other characters revolve. In fact, the novel is even named after her. She is the heroine. It is my definition, or rather ideal, of heroine that is at fault. Too much ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in my youth. Girls, and boys as well, do not need to be all action. Things happen. We reflect and respond. That is part of life as well as marriage and duels. Sex is not necessarily just action. It’s reaction and inaction..

After a circumscribed life, Lola decides to be more adventurous. But by her nature this exploration of herself is reflective and responsive. For the novel reflects the author, an intellectual poet, greatly skilled with words and a lyric view of the world, a lover of classical music, interested in those unseasonal topics, death and aging, and a humane capacity to appreciate and understand ordinary life.

I was thinking about Chesteron’s prose before I began writing this piece. In contrast with Smither’s it would be easy to label his ‘masculine’ and hers as ‘feminine’. These are both in this context and in many other, pejorative terms. Both these writers embrace paradox but they approach it in completely different styles. Smither, like Russian novelist Turgenev sees the random nature of life’s happenings. But unlike him she doesn’t rail against the injustice and unfairness of life. Rather, it’s something to be analysed, smiled about and appreciated.

Smither’s description of Flannery breastfeeding her child is the best account of this particular human activity I’ve read since Steinbeck’s 'Grapes of Wrath'. That was heroic. This is human, personal, normal. .

Death, grief, mourning, unrequited love and unsatisfactory relationships are essential components of human existence. 'Lola' as a novel puts them up front. But the heroine moves gracefully, if with effort, through them. Most novelists emphasise the bliss, joyous, challenge side of existence, massive events and world-shattering challenges. . Smither finds them in the unexpected coincidences of interaction. A spoilt socialite’s car breaks down. She’s rescued by a playboy-reading truckie. Briefly, the spotlight’s on a lilting unexpected development  The successful poet, the master short-story teller shine through.

Lola’s efforts to break free, lead, via the renting of a long-term hotel room, to a change of life-style. That’s heroine territory. It’s not the usual way. Rather than a hurtling plot we are given a series of densely packed occurrences and emotions. They build to a cumulative picture. I feel the richer for having read them. I’m not so much moved as aware that I’ve been given glimpses of deeper perceptions.

It is not a novel about grandeur or brutality. There are no depths of despair. Luigi may look for maxims but they are never adequate. There is eccentricity in the midst of normality. And love, not as maximum passion but as that soothing ingredient that gives spice to daily life which takes place against the back-drop of death.

As you can see I enjoyed 'Lola'. The descriptions of the quartet and their music will linger long. And I've been given a picture of behind the scenes at a funeral parlour that was nearly non-existent before. Cheers, Elizabeth!

I appreciated 'Lola' even more, when my next read was food writer Anna Del Conti’s memoir, 'Risotto with Nettles'. Pedstrian prose with mouth-watering recipes. Comfortably off parents. Italian childhood under Mussolini’s regime. English marriage. Successful career. All Europe to explore. A Portuguese lover. Widowed grandmother now, living with her Dorset daughter and the grandchildren. A full life. But after Smither’s prose, pallid stuff. An account, not an experience.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dorothy

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Elizabeth Smither’s character Lola wonders if animals possess nobility. “Their tolerance of their owners for one thing.’ What would Dorothy our cat say about us? As my illness has progressed she has switched loyalty from me to Anne. Cats are not pack animals but she knows who feeds her. Besides, I push her off my lap now, something I used not to do.

In the old days she spent the night sleeping at the end of my bed near my feet. Though once when Anne was away I was surprised to wake up and find her a few inches from my face. Vacant space! During the present cold days Dorothy has taken to sleeping in front of my study heater. That is, until Anne goes upstairs to turn on her electric blanket. Dorothy is off like a shot to enjoy the warmth arising from that action. When Anne goes to bed Dorothy knows to shift from the centre down to the bottom.

She is nearly 17 years old – a good age for a cat. So I don’t blame her for feeling the cold. She’s always been a ritualistic animal. In our last place during sunny days she often slept on the doormat in front of the dining room doors. The rattle when I took the compost bucket from its bin woke her at this post. It was her duty to escort her master on patrol. She went first, chattering in cat talk, stopping to give an affectionate rub of my leg before bounding ahead, stopping frequently to make sure that I was following.

Unlike her brother, William, Dorothy was not a good hunter, though in the summer she catches the odd cicada to present noisily and clumsily to us. In her younger days, letting it go and chasing it around the house was part of her attempts at being mini-human. Once she caught a mouse – I suspect William had damaged it. The fuss she made; Achilles could not created more clamour when he slaughtered Hector.

Every now and then in those old days she engaged in a game of wheelies. Why and wherefore I do not know. But it was amusing to observe. Eccentric English poet, Stevie Smith knew about such cat behaviour.
'Oh I am a cat that likes to
Gallop about doing good…
Galloping about doing good
Is a full-time job
That needs
An experienced eye of earthly
Sharpness, worth I dare say
(If you’ll forgive a personal note)
A good deal more
Than all that skyey stuff
Of angels that make so bold as
To pity a cat like me that
Gallops about doing good.'

I don’t know what judgements Dorothy would pass over our voices. But her many engaging characteristics do not include her meow. Her cry is not pleasant. The last show I saw before admitting defeat because of my illness was ‘Cats’. The day after I wrote this poem.

The Day After Seeing 'Cats'

Stroked by a purring hand
our cat meditates about its
requested name, Lion’s
Gigantic Roar. Fate gave
her a pip-squeak sound
half yelp, half squawk
which sends blackbirds
chuckling to safe boughs
and holiday feeders to
ask how anyone could love
such an unmelodious creature.

Harvey McQueen

The Taste of Tulips

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An email

I can tell you what tulip bulbs taste like - not because I have eaten them, but I met several Amsterdammers who had to live on them during the Great Starvation during the war. They told me that they have a disgusting sweet taste and you never want to eat them again. But they can sustain life, at a pinch.

In Dutch they are tulpen, which is nearer to the original Turkish word for a turban, which they are named for. Tulpomanie.

Cheers
Dale

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Roses & Tulips

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Bruce, our mower man - he once was rose gardener in the Botanic Gardens - pruned our roses yesterday and sprayed them with winter oil. Anne had bought a new vase the day before. It now has several roses from the pruning, especially Leander buds. It will be interesting to see if they open. That climbing rose is an original, here when we arrived.

So was Jude the Obscure, a bush rose with a superb scent but useless as a picker, the petals fall straight away. We brought Remember Me with us – it was given to Anne by her family after the death of her 18 year-old son. It is now just a few scrawny sticks. Last summer it was superb, deep russet buds opening to coppery apricot with red and yellow tones. It also had its own distinctive fragrance. We’ve also added two climbers, Compassion and Dublin Bay. The latter is a deep red rose – my favourite colour.

It continues to amaze me that from a clay base with an overlay of topsoil and compost and sheep manure, each rose plant with its own chemistry creates its particular delectable perfume. The potted rose, Old China Monthly, that Bill gave us flowers about nine months each year, an older hybrid which has its own delicate scent.

When I was teaching English I used Burns’ lines ‘O My Luve’s like a red, red rose’ to teach the difference between simile and metaphor. Roses carry such a huge amount of symbolism - beauty, scent, sweetness, smoothness, short-lived perfection, versatility, while the red ones stress the colour of passion (and blood), and revolution. Much of it may seem hackneyed, but it’s real for me. Ruth Dallas has a line “Where are the words to convey what a rose is?” True! My grandfather who voted Labour all his life went out wearing either a red carnation or a red rose in his buttonhole when they were in season.

Shakespeare’s plays contain over sixty references to roses. But their symbolic importance is not just to the English. The French, Persians, and Chinese all sing and write about them. You just don’t grow roses, they take on a life of their own, as Katherine Mansfield knew.
'As  for the roses, you could not help feeling that they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden parties; the only flowers that anybody is certain of knowing. Hundred, yes, literally hundreds had come out in a single night, the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.'

Still in the literary garden, the tulip bulbs Anne planted last autumn have not yet appeared. Until they do and bloom we’ll have to make do with abutilon while the swelling camellia and daphne buds promise riches to come.

At the end of the seventeenth century when tulip bulbs became as precious as gold in Europe, Joseph Addison had a bit of fun about the mania.
'I accidentally praised a tulip as one of the finest I had seen: upon which they told me it was a common Fool’s Coat. Upon that I praised a second which seems was but another kind of Fool’s Coat … The gentleman smiled at my ignorance. He seemed a very plain, honest man and a person of good sense, had not his head been touched with that distemper which Hippocrates calls Tulippomania, insomuch that he would talk very rationally on any subject of the world but a tulip.'

He told me ‘that he valued the bed of flowers that lay before us, and was not above twenty yards in length and two in breadth, more than he would the best hundred acres in England’, and added, ‘that it would have been been worth twice the money it is, if a foolish cook-maid of his had not almost ruined him last winter, by mistaking a handful of tulip roots for a heap of onions, and by that means’, says he, ‘made me a dish of potage that cost me above a thousand pounds sterling’.

I wonder what the potage tasted like? Baboons eat bulbs, so I presume humans can too. I don’t think I’ll try. Humanity seems to have made the clear decision that tulips are for the eye and not the palate.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Donkey

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 The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood,
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears
And palms beneath my feet.

G.K.Chesterton

I put this poem up in light of yesterday’s blog. The donkey’s moment of glory - Palm Sunday, carrying Jesus into Jerusalem in what appeared a triumphal march. Ahead lay betrayal and crucifixion. But briefly, the animal carried the Messiah.

We learnt this poem at school. Chesteron’s rollicking rhyme entered my literary midden. Also, obnoxious child I must have been, I pointed out that the animal could not be dumb if it had a sickening cry. A teacher’s dread – a smart alec pupil.

I’m awake early – every now and then I have these nights. Plus tooth-ache. I’m having a loose tooth taken out this afternoon. The third this year. Not a good harbinger. The writing of ‘Eagles at Delphi’ has etched that donkey’s bray into the memory midden.

My heart went out more to a poor donkey in Iran. Part of that 1970s trip we spent time in Ishfahan, the ancient capital of Iran (Persia). The magnificent mosques and surrounding architecture was a mind-boggling experience. Again we took a taxi and a guide and went to remote mountain villages My wife questioned about the qanats, the underground water channels, that had been running for centuries. In response our guide instructed the driver to turn aside to a small village, walls of sun-dried brick, topped with rough thatch.

A blindfolded donkey circled endlessly a primitive wheel from which water flowed to a few green fields. The animal, mangy coat, ulcerated knees, trudged endlessly round and round. Under a thorn tree a small boy watched a few scrawny sheep scavenging for food - the permanence of poverty. A crow jeered from the top of a deserted pigeon loft. After the rich splendour of the days before it was a depressing sight. But it had enabled survival. As did the row of apricot trees, setting fruit discernible, watered by the beast's efforts.

When I was a young man I read a lot of Chesterton's prose. His Christian apologetics bolstered my cause though his conversion to Catholicism was a bother. In those days that church was presented romantically. Not just Chesterton but also Evelyn Waugh and even Graeme Greene. Chesterton’s delight in paradox captivated me.

‘The whole modern world has divided itself into Progressives and Conservatives. The business of the Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.’

Would that politics were so simple. In the name of austerity the so-called Conservatives world-wide now act radically. Conservatives have rarely been just 'hands off'. And the radicals come in many guises, one of which is yesterday's causes. Chesterton’s ‘fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense’ is all very well. But when you have child abuse in the church and MPs showing little comprehension of the limits of credit card spending that sunny country looks more like a bedraggled winter scene. Sunniness is little comfort to the fishermen and brown pelicans of the Gulf of Mexico. Human arrogance has turned a hazard into a disaster. 

[Checking this blog later in the day I had the radio on. A commentator was making a valid point. There was a huge pile of credit card receipts. It's is only a few who have not used them correctly. Yes! The mind is rather jaundiced when the body's reluctant to sleep]

Chesterton's comment about sex is both interesting and noteworthy if sexist. ‘All healthy men, ancient and modern, Western and Eastern, hold that in sex there is a fury that we cannot afford to inflame; and that a certain mystery must attach to the instinct if it is to continue delicate and sane.’

Ah daylight! I’ll read The Economist on line.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Classic Greek Tour

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At University I fell in love with a vision of an ideal sunlit civilisation – Ancient Greece. (See blog 3.30.09). Over the years that vision has dimmed but niece Jenny is in Athens at present and I’ve been reading peterspilgrimage’s blog – his trip around Classical Greece sites. His photographs jogged my memories. I suggest you look at them and I’ll let you read his text for descriptions that I recall as I sit at at my computer desk.

Years ago, inspired by those studies, I’d taken a similar tour, twice, once in late spring so enjoyable that I did another, this time in late autumn. Leaving Athens, both buses followed roughly the same route as Peter’s, Corinth, Mycanae, Epidauros, Olympia and Delphi. Peter’s photo of the Corinth canal is very similar to the slide I took during my first trip in 1970. I also took a photo of a site in the old abandoned ruins of ancient Corinth, which the guide claimed was the synagogue. St Paul preached there, she said. Peter doesn’t mention this. At the time I thought it was a long bow.

In contrast, the presence of king Agamemnon at Mycanae felt real. From that inland citadel he’d led the Greek army to Troy. I’d seen the large amount of gold, including the death mask in the Athens Museum, taken from this site. Looking at the jumble of archaeological diggings, those lectures about palace politics and the great wealth of the court made sense of that old Greek family drama, fratricide, matricide, the psychology of relationships. Behind the Lion Gate emotions, lusts and ambitions were pitched high

Both my tours stopped at Nafplion for the first night. Our hotel windows looked out at the wharf and the little Venetian fort in the harbour. Having grown in confidence we took time out from the second tour to spend two nights there. Instead of having a meal at the hotel we explored the city and had dinner at a little taverna. Learning we were from New Zealand we were treated royally – they had memories there of our soldiers.

My first wife was a geographer so on our full day we hired a full-time cab. The driver took us high into the hills to his home village where his family were harvesting olives – the time-honoured method of threshing the trees, tarpaulins spread underneath them. I’d seen vases decorated with the scene in the museum that had been made long before the Romans landed in England or humans walked upon New Zealand soil - and processing them. We had a picnic lunch under the olive trees.

He drove us on to Epidauros, a vast amphitheatre, still-used. The tour trips meant tourists galore. On this third visit we had the place to ourselves. The atmosphere was one of solemnity and celebration. Thousands of plays, human hopes and dreams and hates and struggles, portrayed down the ages. The continuity of human existence. I recited Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ speech in the centre of the stage. High up in the seats my wife said each word was crystal clear. As Peter says in his blog those ancient Greeks knew about acoustics. Our first visit there was accompanied by sustained gunfire in the hills, the colonels were still in power, obviously an army practice. During the second they’d been ousted. There was country silence. It seemed a renewal.

From Nafplion the buses crossed to the west side of the peninsula. At a small town stop we bought fresh cherries. [Et Al Arcadia Est – a once learnt Latin phrase sprang to mind as we crossed the province with that name as we gluttoned on cherries in the bus]. At Olympia there was different vegetation, pine forest rather than the bare hillsides of the east, obviously more precipitation. Every time I see cyclamens, they stir a memory of dozens of the little native cyclamen in those pines around the stadium ruins in Olympia - a revelation that our favourite garden blooms are human developments from nature’s store. I’ve been told that large numbers of these little wild cyclamens flower in season under the old olive groves in the Garden of Gethsemane. There were also large toadstools at Olympia. I cannot say for Gathsemane.

Peter’s blog reveals the same jumble of ruins and awesome stadium that I saw long ago. I stood at the starting line with its foot-holds and imagined the scene of ancient, naked Greek men lined up for their race. The games began about 2,700 years ago. They were closed down with the advent of Christianity.

Peter’s photographs reveal one big change. The roads. After we left Nafplion the roads were narrow and tortuous. Now there are super-duper highways, part of a European trucking and tourist network. We crossed the western end of Saronic Gulf to get from Olympia to Delphi by ferry Watching the waves roll underneath I commented upon the wine-dark sea to the surprise of a British scholar beside me. I think he had visions of uncouth Antipodeans, who had never heard of Homer. Now, there is a suspension bridge across the Gulf. .

Delphi was truly awesome. Apparently in the old days the priestesses would eat bay leaves before issuing their prophecies. This could explain their trance-like state, as the leaves are mildly narcotic. I'll let Peter's blog give the background except to say the Bronze charioteer is the best statue I've ever seen. And boy, can it rain on Mt Parnassus. For the rest, let this poem suffice to sum up an amalgam of my two visits. Again we stayed two days.

Eagles at Delphi

They say that eagles float at Delphi
in winter once
a seagull settled on a misty pillar
& in a lazy summer at the stadium
a stoat sprinted through the poppied ruins.
My tourist's awe was excited by
a retsina-sleep destroying thunderclap
brochures don’t mention rain on Parnassus.

daybreak
& a donkey's sullen bray awoke me
shattering every droplet on the oleanders
reverberating down the steep and rusty
slopes to the sodden plain of Amphissa -

a postcard scene.
Our Franz Josefs chapel's such a site
a decaying glacier through an altar window)
where one fern-damp, rain-swept night
I preached in the decline of my belief.
A flippant fantail stole my sermon.

Another view
those blue dry minarets of Ishfahan –
such sun seeking tiles
camel bells & jasmine, Maidan roses
eyes downcast above the veil
raucous crows, their ceaseless quarrelling
& children cross-legged chanting

I remember these and what they said of eagles
my oracle at Delphi
minus rider
was an aged & tattered donkey

Hrvey McQueen

The poem. of course, chases a different target. It was written in the 1970s when I was facing the inevitable acceptability of my agnosticism. Delphi, the old Greek oracle site. A church in New Zealand. Muslim boys chanting the Koran and those magnificent Ishfahan mosques. And the donkey – echoes of Chesterton’s famous poem echoed around my mind. Christ had ridden a donkey into Jerusalem. I, despite having seen all these tremendous views and the experience of them, was minus that rider. Also missing was the 'eagle', a metaphor for the 'glory that was Greece. Eagle carries much symboism as does donkey. Looking at it now with hindsight I think the poem stresses sensory experience without the leavening effect of the mind.

Peter’s pilgrimage took him on to a famous monastery. Alas my travels did not take me north of Delphi. But thanks for the memory. It’s been great to traverse that tour again.

I learnt something about the psychology of bus travel. People tend to sit in the same seats they occupy the first day. If you hop on and off a tour you take what seats are left, usually near the rear of the bus. That's where the fumes and the not so serious travelers congregate.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Lola

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A Cortege of Daughters

A quite ordinary funeral: the corpse
unknown to the priest. The twenty-third psalm.
The readings by serious businessmen
one who nearly tripped on the unaccustomed pew.
The kneelers and sitters like sheep and goats.

But by some prior determination a row
of daughters and daughters-in-law rose
to act as pall-bearers instead of men
all of even height and beautiful.
One wore in her hair a black and white striped bow.

And in the midst of their queenliness
one in dark flowed silk, the corpse
had become a man before he reached the porch
so loved he had his own dark barge
which their slow moving footsteps rowed
as a dark lake is sometimes surrounded by irises.’

Elizabeth Smither

As far as I know no poet has written so movingly about an actual funeral. Eulogies yes, there have been some great ones. But this miniaturist one describes an actual service; dare we say that it also a ‘performance’. Conducted in that professional manner in which the deceased was not known personally. Those assembled, not a close-knit bunch, sheep and goats, followers and lively ones, faithful types and unbelievers, a very typical modern funeral. Beautiful, strikingly dressed young women - striking word 'queenliness' - moving in unison, carrying the coffin down the aisle, through the porch and out into the world. The barge –my mind conjures up the splendour of Cleopatra’s barge summoned into existence by Shakespeare’s skill. An affirmation that life exists amidst death

I’ved use the words ‘gentle steel’ to describe Smither’s poetry. Ideas and images are her forte. These carry over into her prose. I enjoy her short stories and really loved ‘The Sea Between Us’ her 2003 novel. In the 21st century we tend to forget the earlier interflow between the Australian colonies/states and New Zealand. Several of my forbears tried their hand at farming across the Tasman. Some stayed, some returned. Now, the flow is increasingly one-way.

Smither’s novel did much more than describe that interflow. She explores the nature of family relationships and that elusive emotion called love, as young women grow and mature, tossed around by the ebb and flow of romantic and adulterous cross-currents. Death, as always, is ever lurking as a possibility. Above all, to this male reader, it was women’s voices presenting that desired sense of a common humanity. The same world, but a different perspective - outward ordinary life, underneath a seething swirl of urges and reflections – on the human lot.

I’m reading Smither’s latest novel ‘Lola’. I deferred reading it because the reviews tended to be critical. They did not blame indifference, rather their claim was lack of narrative and development. I was wrong to wait. I am only about a quarter of the way into it. I accept the narrative is not gripping. But scenes, ideas and images are. I’ve not had that much to do with funeral parlours – probably another reason why I delayed starting the read.  Right from the start, however, Smither had me hooked.

Beattie’s Book Blog has a quote from a recent book, ‘The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains’ by Nicholas Carr. ‘The Net is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now, I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.’

Lola’s sea of words recalls me to that delight of the sea of words. It’s still there. Carr's correct.  Smither sweeps me into a credible world. I understand why Lola finds it the parlour life claustraphobic; why she wants out. But the events that trapped her into the profession in the first place are cogent and possible. Husband, Sam, is not the first man to be forced into a career not of his choice.

Lola’s friendship with crippled Alice and her relationship with her own son Adam, and his unhappy wife are an unlikely seedbed for reflective thoughts Her discontent is stealthily introduced. How it will develop is the force that drives me to turn to the next page. One thing I do know, Smither always has a capacity to surprise. I look forward to the next few days reading.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Electricity

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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.

Electricity

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
…………………………shimmying
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

Monday, June 7, 2010

Food for Thought

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Yesterday morning Anne and I celebrated the Queen’s Birthday by sleeping in. The weather was cold and wet. There was no reason to get up early. Indeed, I pulled back the curtain beside my bed and promptly dozed off again. One glimpse of that waterlogged sky was enough. The night before we’d watched two episodes of Lark Rise to Candelford. 19th century English village life, bucolic peacefulness. We were at ease with the world which is the point of a 'holy'day.

When I did get up I surprised myself. I asked instead of my usual porridge, could I have a pancake. Anne obliged. We had a pancake each for breakfast. With sugar and lemon juice as filling. We had no treacle or maple syrup, but as it is I prefer the bitter taste of lemon undercut with the sweetness of sugar. I used to make pancakes a lot. Now, when my disability prevents me cooking I hesitate to ask Anne too often to cook meals I get a sudden craving for. She says it doesn’t matter but as an ex-cook I know it does. One makes plans and prepares meals in the mind long before the action of assembly and, usually, cooking.

She cooked a superb evening meal last Friday – venison in cherry sauce. She’d looked at the internet and made adjustments to the casserole. Most recipes had juniper berries in them but in this instance she left them out. The recipe she basically followed was based around cranberries. She substituted cherries. It went well with mashed potatoes and broccoli. My loose incisor – it’s coming out this Friday –means I can only manage soft food. The pancake slipped down easily, venison less so – but the taste was gorgeous – and I had an excuse not to eat all my broccoli.

I’ve also had a bowel upset – par for the course with my problems – so for dessert we had stewed apple and ice cream. The pectin in the apple is beneficial. An old wife’s tale that is true. Modern life bombards us with scientific evidence about food. Some is accurate. Some is self-seeking. Chocolate’s good for you. Steak’s good for you. Steak’s bad. Butter’s bad. Shark’s mercury laden. I’m sceptical about the over-riding nature of such claims. Though I do look forward to the days when we no longer have fast-food franchises in hospitals. I also have my prejudices.

Meal preparation should be like gardening. Pleasurable. Unfortunately it can turn into a chore. Our home library has many cookbooks. When I did my share in the kitchen French and Italian were my favourite styles though I was increasingly interested in Middle Eastern food, especially the mixing of meat and fruit. I invented a tamarillo and pork dish, which was yummy. It is an act of love to prepare food for friends. The sharing of bread is an ancient and sensible ritual.

Now in the preparation line I am only an on-looker. A holiday weekend activity has been a tidy-up of my papers. Going through an old folder I found a pile of recipes I’d downloaded from the internet several years ago. There were three for slow-cooking lamb shanks, reflecting an interest of the time. I handed them on to Anne. In her good time she may try some. It’s a good metaphor for human existence. We squirrel things away in the hope of our own use. They come to fruition in unexpected ways.

One can dream. All I can do now is write about past experience. Part of the fun was the reading and selection of what to cook. I was a fan of casseroles because you can put one in the oven and garden, read your book or work at the computer, knowing that dinner wouldn’t burn. It should be noted the slow-cooker appeared on the scene as I began to withdraw. But there were times when I did work all afternoon in the kitchen, stirring, blending and tasting. An ample supply of thyme, oregano, lemon balm, parsley, rosemary, chives, tarragon and sage was at hand and the bay tree provided its essential leaves. Thanks to her own efforts Anne has most of these available in the new place. My thanks!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Shades of Green

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D.Day Anniversary today. (See my blog 25 March 2009). My memory of that cemetery is the green of the lawn – such a peaceful spot.

Our medlar tree is ablaze with gold leaves. Despite heavy rain there has been little wind to blow the leaves away. They hang bedraggled but not drab, a slash of brightness between the green of the cabbage tree leaves and abutilon bush. The abutilon is covered with flowers, slightly darker apricot than the medlar leaves. It’s a colourful sight. The bellbird made another visit to the flowers yesterday. Obviously nectar’s in short supply during winter, hence the foray from the sanctuary.

In a long ago poem, I describe the New Zealand bush as
'green
every unconscious
shade of conceivable green'.

The garden is the same. In all the hullabaloo over flowers it’s easy to overlook foliage, the stage on which the flowers perform. Leaf shapes in any small garden are legion. What is striking is their diversity. Taken for granted, green is the dominant colour, but the smooth dark green of the camellia contrasts with the pale, feathery kowhai. Even the wandering willie, one of nature’s best survivors, has its own green charm.

Part of the appeal of a lawn is its greenness. I have tried to imagine how a lawn would look if it were another colour. Each time my imagination shudders to a stop. Brown appears to be the only possible variant. I have been to deserts in Australia, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt and Arizona. I found them exciting and interesting places, but after a few days I hankered for the green of home - the colour of peacefulness and relaxation.

I curse the cold and bless the rain. Both are responsible for the green.

This morning’s paper has a heading about a ‘withering attack’ on Prime Minister John Key by Green co-leader Meteria Turei. She accused him of turning his back on his state house roots. I saw TV clips of the speech. Her points were well-delivered but I would never have used the word ‘withering’. It’s not her style.

The media's claims have to be watched. Both Jane Clifton and Maggie Barrie have echoed my complaints about TV’s production of 50 years of TV in New Zealand. A childish quiz show. Management’s reply, it had high ratings. It’s a Tui billboard sign. Yeah, right man. I was tuned in, part of that rating. I turned off a third of the way in. When I channel-browse is that part of the ratings game? How green can you get?

Back to admiring the medlar. Maybe the bellbird again?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Annual

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Irrelevant to the rest of this blog there was a bellbird in the abutilon bush yesterday. There was the usual array of wax-eyes there and at the fat ball when suddenly this larger bird flew in, balanced and swigged some nectar before taking off again. I’ve seen tui often at that bush but never until now, a bellbird. It made my day.

When I grew up in Little River it was the head-quarters of the small Waiwera County Council. Pride of place was the local Domain. A few blogs ago I mentioned rugby during the war years there each winter. There was also cricket, tennis and croquet in summer and basketball (now netball) in winter. The young women, having played their match earlier, in their uniforms were part of the rugby sideline scene. My elders talked of women’s hockey teams as well but that had long gone.

Somebody, (or bodies), in the 19th century with great foresight had planted belts of deciduous trees around a large area of public land between the sheep market yards and the primary school. Those trees, lush in summer, bare in winter, formed a splendid backdrop to the Domain’s activities. At the south end was the public library and council chamber. At the north end were the county offices, croquet lawn, tennis/basketball courts and changing rooms.

To cap it all off there were by the memorial gates two large whale tripots from Peraki – a memento from the past. Hempbelman’s shore station there had been the first pakeha settlement on Banks Peninsula. Each year we had a social studies lesson in front of those pots.

But the biggest memory is the impressive stone war memorial gates with the engraved names of local lads who had not come home from the First World War. Anzac Day saw the Domain at its most resplendent. The sheep that grazed there all summer had been removed -–they would have spoilt the ceremony. They did not return until the rugby season was over. Cricket didn’t involve getting your face in the mud.

Every year summer fairs and sports meetings, (Mum always won the married women’s race) were held there. Townies would come out to picnic. But the major event was the annual show. This poem sums up a boy’s response to the tawdry spendour of that occasion.

Annual

Each November, the locals complained
‘too many townies, professional pothunters.’
Early morning, Old Bert, the blacksmith, collar and tie,
measured the horses, calling their height in hands
on special days, words can change meaning.

Everyone jostled to park ringside beside the jumps
and though she’d never admit it, Granny enjoyed seeing
riders come a cropper; she’d call out, ‘Get up lass,
you’re not hurt,’ and as alarmed horses capered
round, shout out advice to arm-flailing stewards.

Uncle Charlie’s budgies always won the prize for cage birds
as in their section did my stepfather’s mother’s scones and sponges.

Merry-go-rounds, candy floss, darts,
plaster dogs for a shilling a throw
discreet lines in the makeshift urinals
and then there was the Highland band
the grand clearing of spittle from pipes.

Once the band got distressed,
‘where's Jim the big drum? – at the marque and late,
cheers
loud cheers
when he lurched into view
and they placed the drum around his shoulders,
rearranged the lion skin, positioned him and started the parade.

Even out of step, his timing vigorous
and behind the waddling bulls
my embarrassed calf tugged me past the shining cars.

I haven’t seen a show like that for years.

Harvey McQueen

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sights & Thoughts

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There was a native pigeon in the neighbour’s large kowhai tree. Nearby is a puriri tree which has been attracting tui. I was pleased to see the pigeon. Such a lumbering flight.

Anne’s attempts at gardening are being frustrated by a jinx I’ve christened ‘Agent Yellow’. She has an illogical dislike of the colour yellow. She just doesn’t respond to it positively. Imagine her frustration when a mixed pack of pansies turned out to have five yellow and one white. Then two packs of wallflower seedlings gave eight yellow, three maroon and one orange. So much for nature’s randomness and the vagaries of the nurseryman. And the yellow rose still blooms whilst the other colours have packed away for the winter.

My disease reminds me a little of the underwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There is some obvious signs on the surface, floating oil, bedraggled seabirds, booms, tar on beaches and in the rushes, fishing fleets in port. But below the surface there are all sorts of developments that science is having trouble measuring, about which the oil people have few clues and the long term consequences loom disastrous.

Such is my body. Friends call and say I look and sound well. Of course, I’m putting my best foot forward. But underneath the dry rot spreads. The walker both enables greater mobility – got to the end of the lane twice this week despite the inclement weather – but also increases dependence. Another loose tooth, the third this year, does not auger well in the dental department. I wear mittens most of the time as my feet and hands feel the cold. Roll round the shortest day. The effort to do simple things expands continually. The comparison with the Gulf is mere metaphor. But the frustration and helplessness is similar. .

Thursday, June 3, 2010

You'd Better Go Teaching

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During my later years at University I began to have increasing doubts about becoming a Presbyterian minister. But I did go south to Knox College. There, I went to my tutor and tried to explain how I felt. The interview proved unhelpful. I felt he oversimplified my difficulties. No doubt he believed I exaggerated my concerns. I wrote to Maureen a student in Christchurch with whom I become friendly, mentioning a switch to the Anglican priesthood. Would she come to capping ball with me for the second year running? Back came her reply, enthusiastic on both points.

I told my pastor that I was contemplating exchanging creeds. "Your choice," he said testily. He didn't even try to argue, which at the time irritated me. Looking back I think they probably had reached the conclusion that I was going anyway. My self-centredness at the time would not have seen that.

Towards the end of term, I received an invite to preach at Morven and Glenavy in South Canterbury. A local farmer met me at the train Saturday evening. At mealtime, he asked me to say grace. After I finished my ritualistic one, he began another impromptu which went on and on full of God's vengeance and His protection against Satan's hellfire while the roast mutton cooled in front of us. That night, before I drifted off to sleep, I thought of Hooker's criticism of Calvinism. The Anglican Church would be better. Only a cynic would point out that it would also involve training in Christchurch where Maureen studied.

The next morning at the church, the elder prayed for me at length before the service, again asking Christ to defeat the powers of evil and calling down the Holy Spirit to enable me to speak with enlightenment. Irritated, I glanced at my watch; already past eleven. He must have sensed my movement, for he switched to pray for our acceptance of God's plan outside man's temporal time.

The spirit he asked for did speak to me in that pulpit. As I waited for the singing of the first hymn to die away, something welled up from deep inside me: "You’ve no right to be up here." "Before the Anglican altar", I queried. "Not there either." As I commenced the service, my lips said the words, "Oh come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our Maker," but my interior mind toyed with my revelation. As I continued, a sense of well-being flooded through my body. The service and sermon were well-delivered. The elder praised my presentation. "You've got the power, lad."

Lunch was difficult. I wanted to explore the tumult of my thoughts, polish the moment and cherish it. Instead I found myself defending my argument that a personal Satan did not exist. The elder got out the Bible to support his case. I argued the Devil did not appear in the initial chapters of the Bible. He equated him with the serpent. In the circumstances it was a bizarre argument. His wife tried to change the subject, but he remained determined to make his point - evildoers must suffer in the next life and the issue was not one of frivolity. I spent the afternoon when I decided to leave theological training arguing theology. After preaching again, it was not till I caught the railcar at Studholme could I relax. "I'm leaving, I'm leaving", the refrain ran jubilant around my mind in tune with the clickety-clack of the wheels.

It would be unfair to blame or, indeed, thank that elder. Various factors had built up, but his emphasis on humanity's depravity finally tipped some psychological balance. Released from the corral in which they been herded, my feelings ran in all directions - hard now to explain the elation. The incomprehensible Being could remain precisely that; I did not need to try to fit it into a pattern or shape. If the world still refused to make sense, at least I could explore it through my own sensory experience without interpretive control. Existence seemed enough satisfaction and justification. Now longer would I need to push theory past the point of self-defeat. Foolish youth!

The last fortnight in Dunedin proved satisfying. No one tried to dissuade me from leaving. Tutors gravely said good-bye and wished me all the best. They assumed I departed to join the Anglicans. I did not enlighten them. Students treated me with that curious mixture of covetousness and aversion of the elect for the sinner outside the fold. "It will be easier to be an Anglican," a women deacon trainee said enviously. "One can be so much more worldly. Enjoy a sherry."

Skipping lectures I wandered through the gardens in the shortening sunsets, past caged birds and late roses and dahlias. At St Kilda beach I walked along the sand-dunes, watched the southern waves roll in to crash upon bleak sand and indulging in useless thoughts in the mode of Byronic heroes down the ages. I commenced an orgy of fiction reading. At the book-shops, spending money I could ill-afford, I bought Ian Cross's The God Boy and Chapman and Bennett's Anthology of New Zealand Verse. Much of the cultural capital that has enriched my life was soon to be published - Sinclair's and Oliver's histories of New Zealand, Pearson's Coal Flat, Frame's Owls Do Cry and Hilliard's Maori Girl. I found the personal truthfulness of Cross's novel, and even more the poetry mind-expanding in that they spoke of a world I knew, ordinary but made remarkable. In a strange way I found ‘New Zealand’ in that last fortnight. The decision to leave the known habitat enabled me to make that discovery.

From this distance the decision to go south to Dunedin appears quixotic and foolish. But I don’t regret it. I went far enough down a particular path to know definitively it wasn’t the right one. That knowledge is useful. The issues discussed weren’t trivial or unimportant. Indeed, they are crucial for humanity. From my lecturers I’d learnt a sense of perspective and moral criticism; also, a sense of duty - maybe "service" is the better word. Further, their stress that human beings are more than market units remains a useful corrective in my life.

Back with Maureen, she enthusiastic about the Anglican decision - I didn't reveal my hand, a mistake, for it built our relationship from the first upon a withheld truth. But as writers customarily say that is another story.

At the ball, Maureen, vivacious and sparkling, on my arm the whole world seemed possible. While she and Mrs Phillips were "powdering their noses", Prof Neville Phillips – I had majored in History - asked, "What do you propose Harvey to do now?"
"I don't know."
"If you can't stand the Presbyterians, what makes you think the Anglicans are any better?" he grumped. "You'd better go school-teaching."

I did - and to my surprise enjoyed it.