Monday, January 3, 2011

The Last Post

             Harvey McQueen, 13 September 1934 - 25 December 2010

Harvey died peacefully in the early hours of Christmas Day. He had been taken to hospital around midnight on Wednesday, after a fall. By Christmas Eve it was clear that while there was no sign of any new problem such as a stroke, he was too bruised and weak to come home for Christmas as he so much wanted to do. I was worried about how well he would recover, but there was no hint of any danger to his life. So it came as a terrible shock to be phoned at 4.20 am on Christmas morning. His already greatly weakened lungs had begun to fail, and his life closed soon after.

This is how I ended the letter to him which I read at the private funeral service in Wellington, on the last day of the year.

Your ending matched you so well. Quick and quiet, definite and gentle. And above all, kind. Only, for once in your life, not kind to me - the one thing you would have wanted to change.

With all my love


A memorial service for Harvey will be held at Old St Paul's, Mulgrave Street, Wellington, at 11 am on Friday, 28 January 2011.

Harvey had planned to post, in the New Year, this poem by Mark Pirie, who has published all Harvey's own poetry under the HeadworX imprint since 1999, when Pingandy: New and Selected Poems appeared.

This Piece of Earth*

For Harvey McQueen, 1934-2010

It was on a Sunday
that we drove to her place,
up there in the Cashmere Hills.

John and Elaine were the tour guides,
enthusiastic raconteurs of
'Canterbury lit tales' - and eager they were

to show Alistair and me a 'slice of history'.
I began to think, as we arrived, so
this is where 'very earnestly digging'

Ursula first raised her head
and discovered her (and our) poetry…
It's true though, most of her best poems

were about her garden
and that digging: the careful
time-honouring of place;

it's similar to what you describe
in your book. How timeless
the ordinary seems, yet so truthful

and appealing. Each one of us
spends their life, some by choice,
others by circumstance -

you and Ursula choose the garden.
It's here you both found those rare insights
into our lives. We are grateful for that.

Mark Pirie

*This Piece of Earth is the title of Harvey's memoir, published by Awa Press in 2004. At the time I was in Christchurch for the Books & Beyond Festival, May-June 2001. John O'Connor and Helen Jacobs (Elaine Jakobbson) invited Alistair Campbell and myself for a tour of the Canterbury region, including visiting Mick Stimpson's grave at Banks Peninsula, where Harvey was born. The area where Harvey grew up featured on the cover of his last anthology, These I Have Loved: My Favourite New Zealand Poems (Steele Roberts, 2010).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mansfield Still

Over the last few weeks I’ve been still savouring Katherine Mansfield’s stories. Two or three at the most and then contemplative time afterwards as I sit and chew the mental cud about each one. It’s a good way to appreciate them. Too many at once and a form of critical and mental indigestion sets in. For these readings being less greedy means more enjoyment

I’m up to her later middle period. What has struck me this time’s reading is how feminist she was. Not in suffragette terms but in her sympathy and sensitivity. The comment probably reflects the maturation of Harvey.

Three stories I’ve just read all illustrate the same point. First ‘Pictures’. A young woman, penniless and hungry, unable to pay the rent, tries to make ends meet by getting work as a film extra. The story ends with her sitting in a cafĂ©. A stout man sits down with her, has a whisky and shouts her a brandy. They leave together. An internet background note makes the point that the story is about unemployment. No! In the end the poor woman was reduced to prostitution.

Then ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’! Those two poor sisters, their lives frittered away is meeting the needs of their tyrant father and they are now on his death unable to make up their minds or reach a decision. ‘Josephine had had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was being lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing withuout asking his permission. What would father say when he found out? For he was bound to find out sooner or later. He always did.’ Poor women, his intimidation had trained them so well, neither of them can remember what they wanted to say.

‘Ma Parker’ in one way is an old-fashioned tear-jerker. She buried her beloved grandson the day before the story starts. In another way it is an indictment of a class system that creates a life of drudgery for people like Ma Parker. ‘It was cold on the street. There was a wind like ice. People went flitting by, very fast; the men walked like scissors; the women trod like cats. And nobody knew – nobody cared. Even if she broke down, if at last, after all these years, she were to cry, she’d find herself in the lock-up as like as not.’

I acknowledge that at the same time as she was penning these pro-women pieces she was also revealing other sensitivities. ‘An Ideal Family’ seems to me to reveal a growing awareness of her father’ s stronger points. Though ‘At the Bay’ and ‘The Fly’ lie ahead.

That sentence is revelatory. The metaphor is inadequate but it'll serve. This present slow read is an re-exploration of a tourist spot once enjoyed with enthusiasm and vigour. Now I stroll at a more leisurely pace and reflect on the scene with more knowledge and background than before. The idiosyncrasies and movement of people and things take on fresh meanings as they are placed in a wider context.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Albedo by Harvey Molloy


A terminator line
cuts the moon

like a millionaire cake
into two sharp slices;

white and black.
The earth casts a shadow

across its monochrome twin
that turns so perfectly

in step with our dance
we never see her move.

A vast blanket
of frozen regolith

covers the scarred
brightside face

smashed by a million
meteor punchups

and throws a wash
of pale light

over the black tar roof
of the outside laundry.

Harvey Molloy

A poem by a Harvey put up by a Harvey. There’s a simple explanation. For this Tuesday Weeks’ poem most members of the group have been paired and asked to select a poem of their partner’s. I’m grateful that the organisers paired me with Harvey Molloy. It’s forced me into his work.

In the rush of cards that have come into our household this Christmas there have been lots of stars and the occasional sun. The moon has been ignored. It is not part of the nativity story. Interesting! Down the centuries the moon has excited a lot of human emotion and has been the source of many a legend and tale. There is no space in the inn for the moon.

Harvey Molloy’s take on that cool piece of rock is really striking. I’ve liked it from the moment I first came across it earlier this year.. It’s rational and concisely scientific. At the same time it captures that sense of awe the moon can compel.

I am not a scientist. Nor an astronomer! But in my childhood’s country quiet a cloudless full-moon was a stunning sight as the familiar hills took on a enigmatic colouring. Sometimes, that full moon even bestrode rather ghostly a daytime sky.

There’s nothing elusive about this planetary object, but it seems at all ages to carry an always air of mysteriousness.

Monthly and young I saw then the changing cycles. At that stage explanations left me bewildered. I was told the ocean’s tides were dependent upon those cycles. Down the centuries poets and philosophers had pondered about the meaning and nature of this phenomena.

Now we understand the science. And therefore the miracle of it more. Men have walked on the moon’s surface and returned to earth bringing samples of its surface back. Nevertheless, its existence still retains that ability to create wonder, amazement, inspiration and even fear.

Sometimes people complain about a poet’s obscurity. Occasionally, rightly so. But usually not. T.S.Eliot assumed a knowledge of Christian theology, Classical mythology and European literature. In his period it was a fair claim. More difficult now. So I give some background to Harvey Molloy’s terminology. He’s not being difficult. He’s being accurate. And, as a poet, astute. Like all words technical terms have sound and resonate in their own right and with other words. The moon’s there. He describes it. Accurately! End of story! Not of enigma!.

‘Albus’ is the Latin word for ‘white’. A derivation ‘albedo’ was first used in a scientific sense in 1760 to measure reflectivity, how strongly an object reflects light. The ‘terminator line’ is the term given to the line that separates the illuminated (day) side of a planetary body from its dark (night) side. ‘Regolith’ is loose material covering solid rock. On the moon it is the powdery layer created by meteors hitting the surface.

‘Albedo’ is a very visual poem. That’s one of Molloy’s strengths. He’s good at juxtaposition. And atmosphere! The sun may produce heat while the moon remains inert but there’s a calmness and simplicity in its regular appearance, Speaking about another of his Moonshot poems in his blog he says ‘nothing much happens in the poem at all; no bangs, no surprises, just little movements.’ True of this one as well.

I like his metaphor of meteor punchups on the moon’s face. Down the ages its surface has taken many hits. And I admire the matter-of-factness tone of the last four lines. Yes, that’s exactly how it would have looked. That laundry black tar roof would have appeared pallid and frightful in the moonlight. Our imagination engages – silver and sinister merge and mingle in our mind with scientific certitude.

If you want to read my poem selected by Harvey Molloy hit the Tuesday Poem quill button on the left hand side and enter the site. I intended to put the poem up on my blog as part of my Christmas season. Harvey has done it for me. Thanks!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Como Christmas

West Europe struggles with a cold winter. There is traffic chaos. There’ll be a white Christmas.

We were fortunate over the Christmas period of 1989. It was a relatively mild winter there then. I had finished my 18 month stint in the Beehive. Anne had never been to Italy and so we planned an Italian holiday as rest and relaxation for me and excitement for her (and me). We took a gamble on the weather. We had only one really strong storm.

In late November we were staying in London with friends before crossing the Channel, shops already decorated for Christmas. We were in Harrods – gaping mainly – though in the Christmas nick-nacks Anne stopped to buy a small owl for her sister Susan who collects them.

The pimply, toffee-voiced youth serving asked rather condescendingly as he wrapped up her meagre purchase ‘And where will Madam be spending Christmas?’

Inwardly I applauded her assured reply. ‘Lake Como’. Thereafter, he treated us with more respect. Eccentric, wealthy colonials?

It is 21 years to the day when we arrived at Como. We’d pre-booked a lakeside hotel. But when the taxi pulled up there were big signs it was closed and was obviously being renovated. All was well. Panic was unnecessary. We were re-directed to a hotel high in the hills above Cernobbio further up the lake. Its panoramic view included the renowned Villa d Este hotel on the waterfront directly below. A steep footpath took us down to the bus station or ferry into Como city.

We got fit as we used the path to catch the ferry back and forth daily and explored the city. In the industrial area we found an old church with ancient wall paintings. The Madonna had just given birth. There were blood-splattered sheets everywhere and a few women comforting the mother. It is the only painting I’ve seen which accepted the animal act of birth of Christ.

Christmas day arrived clear, bright and cold. I’d carried a good suit all the way from New Zealand, lugged it the bag through Paris, Nice, Venice, Ferrara, Florence and Siena. Just for this one day. Anne had bought a silk tie in Como for my present. I wore it. I could tell the proprietor approved. Anne was also dressed in her best. My present to her, leather gloves had been admired but they were for outdoors and today was an indoor day. We rang New Zealand mid-morning. Mid-evening here.

Lunch was twelve courses. The dining room was full of Italian family groups. There were prim aunts and grim uncles, there were jovial aunts and mischievous uncles, children in their Sunday best, well-behaved, polite and courteous, though I noticed a sulkiness in several. There was one solitary couple, both sagged with age and care but obviously still content in each other’s company. We were the only non-Italians there.

Evidentially, as part of the job, the chief waiter's wife and two teen-age children had a table. He looked harassed. Every time he went near she laid down the law. From her gestures and tone I gathered she considered their seating and service was not to her satisfaction. I could see him pleading with her to speak more softly and to let him get on with his duties. The man who imperiously had ruled the dining room all our stay revealed to have feet of clay. I felt sympathy for him. That was the only unhappy table in the room. He deserved better.

The food was delectable. The noise was loud but bearable,but it was part of an atmsphere of happiness and celebration. The view was superb. And as Anne said, we had to do nothing but eat. I gave up on the ninth course. I was replete. Christmas ‘89 was over, ahead lay Basel, Amsterdam, Vancouver and home. Chrsitmas 1990 was a long way ahead. Christmas 2010 unforseeable at that stage.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Our first Christmas lily of the year has just burst into blossom. Good timing!

There is a definition of an ambassador – ‘a person sent abroad to lie for his country.’ Diplomacy is a cornerstone of international politics.

As long as there have been diplomats they have reported home to their masters. Many a Tudor melodrama has a shifty-eyed Spanish ambassador as its villian. I’m equally sure that Spanish equivalents have an equally dastardly Englishman.

This knowledge means I fail to get excited about Wikileaks. In most cases it seems to me confirm what I already know (or suspect). I would hope that our government has a good handle on what is happening in Fiji. I am not surprised that John Key was disappointed his officials couldn’t arrange a meeting with President Obama. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t.

And I must say much of what has been reported is obvious. Indeed, the American diplomatic service comes out as doing a surprisingly good job. From their angle. That is their job.

The character of the Italian prime minister had been reported in the local and international press long before Wikileaks revealed the diplomats were saying the same thing. The sudden rolling of Kevin Rudd by his colleagues took me by surprise. The Wikileak reveals a diplomatic assessment fairly early on as to why he was vulnerable. I am not shocked to learn that other Middle East Arab states fear a nuclear Iran. I would expect them to be.

And at the risk of bringing down ire on my head I think their judgements about our scene are not too far off the mark.

The big exposure of this week has been the claim that the Lange government was anti-nuclear for reasons of cost-cutting. Well, when Messers Bassett, Tizard and Goff can agree that is not so, the claim is seen for what it is – wishful musing on the part of a few senior public servants.

At the time it was common knowledge around Wellington that some of these boffins were unhappy about the change of policy. Of course the diplomates would carry such tittle-tattle back to Washington. If they were doing their job they would have also reported the overall feeling of the nation. There was a majority conviction. The French testing was still fresh in our minds.

As an education bureaucrat I was surprised at the intensity of the conviction expressed by some middle echelon Treasury officials. In those heady days Lange and Douglas could do no wrong in that quarter.

I understand American outrage. I appreciate their concern that names may be released and people’s lives put at risk.

But as long as there are diplomats people will try to intercept and decode their messages. Such is the nature of Government. And local people will use such information if available for their local causes and efforts. What else is in the Wikileaks that is not being researched or released. That is the question?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Fairy Tale

My blog serves many purposes. The simplest of which is to provide a purpose. What to write, how to write occupies time and space in my mind.

Today’s blog is not the one I intended to put up and composed mentally last evening. That’ll keep. This morning Susanna me caregiver came as usual. She pulls up my bed before she attends to me. This morning she gave each of my feather pillows a solid thumping. I made a casual comment about getting rid of a lot of frustrations.

She told me a Grimms fairy tale I’d never heard before. She grew up in Germany and her grandmother had a wealth of such tales. This was a variation of the Cinderella story – the persecuted heroine who wins through to a happy ending.

A girl had a stepmother and a stepsister. She did most of the work. And got little thanks for it. One day – Susanna’s account was much more complicated she dropped something down the well. Her wicked stepmother forced her to climb down into the well to retrieve the item.

But when she got to the bottom it opened on to a garden, which she entered. There was an apple tree laden with fruit. The tree was groaning and asking for the fruit to be picked to relieve its burden. The girl willingly harvested the crop and stored it as suggested. The tree was very grateful.

Several similar adventures happened (this is Susanna’a abbreviation) before the girl arrived before a large house. The lady there said I’m looking for a maid, and offered her the post. The girl accepted. The lady showed her how to fluff up feather pillows and duvets.

After a month’s work the lady said the girl had earned a reward. She led her to a gate out of the garden. When the girl entered there was a large pot of gold. Another gate and she was spirited back home to be with her stepmother.

Hearing of the adventure the stepsister climbed down the well. She ignored the apple tree and went straight to the lady’s house. Again the same offer. But this girl was lazy. She couldn’t be bothered thumping the pillows into shape. Nor sweeping or cleaning.

At the end of the month she was led to the gate. But instead of gold there was a pot of warm tar. Which miraculously was tipped all over her.

Morality tale! House-care advice! A story to keep attention on a cold winter’s night!

I’ve spent over an hour on the internet seeking more detail about it. So far failure. But the search illustrates another purpose of the blog. Information-gathering/checking/sharing.

I had not realised the Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears were all English and that Little Red Riding Hood was originally French. Up till now I had wrongly assumed all these had been uncovered by the Grimm Bros research. Of course, later research has discovered that many of the tales attributed to the men had actually been gathered by their womenfolk.

Anyway, thanks Susanna for the story. I enjoyed its telling.

Friday, December 17, 2010


The bellbird was there again this morning. Great! I wonder if he/it/she’ll sing. I haven’t heard a tui for a while; unlike the spring when they were carolling all the time. Humans are rarely satisfied.

The word ‘docking’ for me has two connotations. On the farm it is removing the tails of lambs and in the case of the males, castration. It’s a noisy, dusty, bloody business. The other use of ‘docking’ is spectacularly different - a space shuttle establishing contact with a space station. In older days it was a ship being docked at a wharf, huge ropes to tie it securely to the shore.

I use the term ‘docking’ to describe getting to the stool in my shower. I walk my walker into the new wet shower with its smooth vinyl floor. My caregiver hovers close behind in case I stumble. I turn almost 360 degrees and step backwards to the stool. A rail on the wall helps steady me. Gingerly I lower myself on to the stool.

The caregiver takes the walker away and showers me. Friday is shampoo day. We do my hair first. Then the rest of me. The shower over she retrieves the walker and positions it. I’m already upright. The last act of the showering is for her to wash my backside, so I’ve pulled myself up by the rail to stand and face the wall.

Again gingerly I reach for the walker’s handles. I push it out to the bedroom where she positions the stool and I repeat the reverse docking. She finishes drying me, applies ointments for my dermatitis – my back is especially bad this morning. Why? Humidity? Chinese meal last night? A long night’s sleep – my mask means I have to sleep on my back?

Finished, glasses cleaned, I take the walker out to the lounge where Susanna makes me a cup of tea. No milk, but sugar and a slice of lemon. The nicest cup of the tea of the day. Highly necessary, for I find myself pretty exhausted at the end of a shower. It takes energy, nervous as well as physical. There is that element of risk in the docking. Though my experience is that I have not fallen while being careful. Touch wood.

The biggest element of risk of falling is when I first get up in the morning. After a night with the CPAP machine thumping away plus the oxygen converter putting a flow of that gas into my system I wake up rather mesmerised and I’ve a hunch a build-up of carbon dioxide in my body. I swing my legs out of bed and sit up. I take the mask off and sit there deep-breathing. It’s important to clear the head before I start moving around. It is my biggest moment of risk of falling in the whole day. Eventually I retrieve the walker and begin the day’s activities.

The falls I’ve had have been the result of simple multi-tasking. Like stepping up from the garage two years ago and turning to put off the light switch. Mistake! Balance was lost. The last fall I had was such a simple thing. I was turning and started to sneeze I reached for my handkerchief and next thing I knew I was tumbling.

Those two falls, there were four others, happened when I was using the walking stick only. Now I have the walker. The knowledge lurks that sooner or later there will be further falls. But four wheels are more secure than one sole stick. All I can do is to express gratitude each evening for another day without mishap and each morning to express cheer at the prospect of another day.