Thursday, April 30, 2009

First Day

In 1989 after 20 hectic months working in the Beehive as an education aide I needed a holiday. I took Anne to Italy where she had never been before for what basically was an art tour. Christmas we spent in a hotel high on the hills overlooking Lake Como – blue sky except for the spreading of jet trails, below the rippling lake and in the distant north the snow-clad Alps. Not far away was the spot were Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were executed. The subsequent display of their strung-up bodies in Milan service station pictured frequently at the end of the war. Obviously such was the strong reaction from my adults that the image was fixed in my mind. The event signaled to them that the European war was over and that justice had triumphed – a good ending for a modern morality play. So not surprisingly I used the image in a poem.


In winning their war my adults counselled certitude,
though perilous the outcome from those massive fieldguns
until strung up to view was a mistress & her Mussolini.

My stepfather, who'd slogged from Cairo to Trieste
swore fluent, & rolled his own only as a soldier could & should
& his wife, my mother,
anxiously signed me up for the third form.

Being small -
35 the roll -
'your son won't come to any harm',
& “Sticky”Arnold strolled out to the clustered strangers
suggesting they leave untouched this uncounted one.

Despite my plea(s),
they gave me the neglect of a horse trough dribble,
the other new boys received a headfirst dunking
in front of the admiring girls.

Inside - at a test, unthinking, I got them all right
someone said "skite",
& for revenge
at lunchtime caught & bowled me spin first ball,
whereupon I went out to field cicadas on the boundary

It describes my first day at secondary school – Akaroa District High.

At Random

So Michael Cullen’s gone as well. It is indeed an end of an era. A striking thing about the Clark/Cullen government was its tight ship nature. I’m sure that both of them with memories of the dysfunctional Lange/Douglas years were determined not to repeat the mistakes of that government.

In three days Wellington has gone from having a very low April rainfall to well exceed the monthly average. Our climate while temperate is very unpredictable.

I understand the severity of the recession but I wonder sometimes about the remedial actions. The Commerce Commission is considering shedding some jobs. If people lose income they will spend less. Likewise, the Reserve Bank announcement of official interests rates lowered to 2.5%. I appreciate it helps people with mortgages. But for many like myself the slashing of interest rates lowers income. Again, we will spend less.

An American education researcher called to ask about my perceptions of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. Talking to him brought back memories. The reforms were based on a premise of trust. David Lange kept talking about a covenant in a legal sense, the community should be able to know that the school had the necessary resources and teachers to deliver the required education. The State had that responsibility. It was a clear vision - underpinned no doubt by his Methodist upbringing. He saw it as a three-way partnership, school, community and government. He wanted to ensure that the changeover disrupted young people’s schooling as little as possible. The process was like outfitting a ship while it was sailing. To this end he appointed four well-known educators and charged them with making sure the outfit did not disadvantage students. It seemed to me then and now that this is a good consultative model. It worked well.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Farmer Bill

I’ve finished reading Farland’s life of William Massey - a disappointing book. Our Prime Minister from 1912 to 1925 deserves a better analysis than this shallow account. Though basically Farland’s probably correct in that Massey has been underestimated by historians. He rails against them from Sinclair to Bassett – proponents of the Long Pink Cloud theory he calls them. His own intense dislike of the Labour politicians of the period and even more the strikers makes his own narrative unbalanced. He keeps making unnecessary diversions – a long background to the First World War with his thesis that the French were its main culprits.

Massey’s undoubtedly hard to write about. Gardner couldn’t come to grips with him. There are no diaries, few letters and not many personal accounts. Farland relies almost solely upon Parliamentary debates and legislation – not the best source. (I wonder in ninety years time what biographers will have to say about Helen Clark – email leaves little record and she herself has been reticent).

Massey obviously had presence. Like Seddon he was a masterly Parliamentary tactician, pragmatic and cunning. He lacked the showman’s instincts but he seemed to have instinctive leadership qualities. Whereas Seddon’s heart was with the worker, Massey’s was with the owner and the boss. Massey had to work harder to survive. In his period Parliament was fractured and parties were more fluid.

His belief in the British Empire and his anti-Catholic bias were made clear – they reflected his origins - but I was left wanting to know more about what made this man tick. There were hints – a kinder heart than expected under an exterior of flint. His emotions as wartime Prime Minister are not revealed though the soldiers seemed to like him.

His resting place, Point Halswell, is one of the most commanding sites in Wellington Harbour. It has been for a long time one of my favourite picnic spots.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Good Health

Our health system comes in for a lot of stick, some warranted, some unfair. Over the last few years I have had considerable first-hand experience with it. I had a pacemaker fitted in 2004 and on 24 April 2006 I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. Eventually, two problems were diagnosed. One was a form of sleep apnea whereby I stopped breathing which resulted in a shortage of oxygen. The other was a rare muscular degenerative disease. The two are probably related but not necessarily so. Treatment for both is facilitative rather than rehabilitative.

The dedication, commitment and cheerfulness of the people involved has been impressive; especially the hospital nurses and even more so the district health nurses. There is talk of privatising the latter service. I hope not. Change just for ideological reasons or even worse for cost-cutting will disrupt a good thing that’s working well.

The specialists have been clear in explaining my problems, procedures to be followed and likely consequences. Other professionals have supplied resources and arranged support and care. My needs have been recognised and met. There have been frustrations over delays but unfortunately that is part and parcel of the human condition.

I admit to one moment when I had a flash of anger. The day I had a muscle biopsy; as I was being logged in for the operation I was jauntily told to think of the experience as a journey. New age balderdash. It was surgery, not a venture into darkest Africa.

I am well aware that the tax-payer foots much of the health bill. I just hope that the government in its zeal to reduce the impact of the recession does not leap to the conclusion that the critics of our health system have it right. As in education there is always room for improvement. But as with education there is great wealth in the people involved in the sector. Let’s appreciate and build from that.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rosellas, Life & Epidemics

It's strange weather – mist, unusual in Wellington, alternating with heavy rain. The garden needed the rain, April has been a very dry month so far. It hasn’t deterred a fantail which has been squeaking around for much of the day. And a rosella pair are now coming daily to the neighbour’s crabapple tree to eat the ripening fruit. These Australian birds began appearing in the Wellington area in the 1960s – probably escaped cage birds. They are delightful to watch, such colourful parrots. Nature is amazing in its variety and shapes.

On this subject it continues to amaze me that the cells in my body constantly repair and renew themselves. The chemical components of them have been disassembled and re-synthesised day after day for over seventy years. According to what I’ve read there have been at least ten complete changes of every one of my individual cells – brain, heart and funny-bone. The miracle is that despite all these changes memory continues. The inter-action of it all is miraculous and the complexity is extraordinary. In my liver alone there are over 50,000 different enzymes working to keep my body functional. Part of the ageing process is sometimes the replacement is not a hundred per cent accurate. This is how and why, for example, the skin weakens. It is a fact of life – we can delay the process. We cannot stop it.

Meanwhile the media is making an understandable meal of the possibility of a swine flu panedemic. Such events are not new. As long as humans and animals co-exist the possibility is there as history proves. What is different is modern communication.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pay parity

It’s been my career good luck to avoid taking part in industrial discussions – confrontation is not my style. There was one exception when my role was facilitative; in 1994 I was asked to chair a SSC/NZEI joint working party. By happen-chance I became a bit player in a major education development.

NZEI, the primary teachers’ union, was negotiating for pay parity with its secondary brethren. There had been a strike earlier in the year – on the day Prime Minister Jim Bolger on Morning Report said that maybe NZEI had a point. Hastily up and down the country NZEI pulled paragraphs from its prepared speech. A week before Bolger had asked education minister Lockwood Smith what was the difference between a form 2 teacher and a form 3 teacher. Smith replied that it was between a physics teacher and a new entrance one. Bolger left muttering he knew which was more crucial. His public musings meant NZEI had won its case in principle.

But working through the details proved tricky. Hence the working party and my being asked to be its independent chair, acceptable to both parties and the Government. At the time I was executive director of the New Zealand Council for Teacher Education. The Council gave me clearance to accept the request.

It was tiger country. The Government and its agencies, SSC and the Ministry of Education wanted to cap expenditure and to get in return for parity a system of teacher performance pay. NZEI wanted the pay change but not the assessment scheme. PPTA, fearful of parity’s impact on secondary salaries and even more wary of performance pay, refused to participate.

To assist the working party a contract was let to prepare two background reports. Eight firms tendered; Deloittes were selected. While in association with us they beavered away on we met weekly as a group. NZEI were always well-prepared and passionate in their advocacy. The other side didn’t present requested information, kept delaying and in general time-wasted. Tempers got heated. At one meeting things got so unpleasant that I decided to fling a controlled teacher’s paddy. Snapping a pencil I stood up, announced I was fed up and stormed out of the room to spend a pleasant half an hour in Unity Bookshop. When I went back they were working quietly. I sat down and read my new book for a while. Sometimes adults are like children.

In the interests of fair play I warned SSC that NZEI was doing all the running with Deloittes. Nothing changed. Then when the Education Ministry made a presentation to Deloittes their spokesman said that performance pay was a no-no. It was a complete contradiction of what its working party officers had been arguing, left hand not knowing what its right hand was doing. NZEI’ was jubilant. Its records state I kept a poker face.

So not surprisingly the Deloittes reports supported pay parity as well as advice on how to implement it and opposed performance pay. Lockwood was not pleased. His office rang me demanding an explanation. My reply was simple ‘they were independent, I was merely the chair’. I felt like saying his officials should have warned him but I didn’t. ‘Shortly thereafter the working party was disbanded.

The dispute simmered on with another round of strikes until in early 1998 settlement was reached. Pay parity was entrenched but in the process the government got its wedges in on performance pay and bulk funding.

Despite the heat there was a strange camaraderie within that working party. The experience gave me an inkling of how hostages can bond with their captors. I confess I used to look forward to the challenge and life became duller when it stopped meeting.

Harvey McQueen

Saturday, April 25, 2009


As an inspector of secondary schools I observed, advised, graded, assisted hundreds of teachers. I saw lessons that humbled me - teachers performing magnificently against the odds, or with that brilliant flair that left one speechless with admiration. I saw students exploring excitedly as self-directed learners. Sometimes the learning charge in the atmosphere was so substantial I felt it could be cut into blocks and packaged - the elation was obvious. Sadly, there were also times when I saw kids getting short-changed.

Once as I watched a student pocketknife his name onto his desk, the teacher in me wanted to intervene, but the observer noted the depressing lesson, unclear instructions, chilly room, bored class, and the fact his knees could hardly fit under the table. His eyes met mine. He folded the knife away and sat sullenly still for the remainder of the lesson.

Furniture arrangements proved fascinating. Old schools tended to have big thick heavy desks but the newer ones had lighter furniture, which meant rooms could be quickly rearranged for different activities. A well-drilled class could do this very quickly. Indeed it was a yardstick for measuring the teacher’s control. Increasingly at that time, a U-shaped model was used, all desks facing the centre of the room. Some teachers had their desk behind the students, others at the front. Some taught standing behind their desk, others walked around the room. My admiration for Phys Ed, metalwork, woodwork, home economics and clothing teachers grew as I watched them cope with children in groups and often with different projects.

The boy who was chiseling on the desk I saw later in a workshop. He was leader of his group. The master asked him to show me his work. Proudly he did. This time his eyes met mine openly, conspiratorially almost. "Good work. How long did it take you?" "Not long. I am a quick worker, especially with the girls." - a cheery grin accompanied his boast. "You can say that again", a mate said, hilarity lurking close to the surface. I left the group, not too quickly, dignity must be maintained, but the circumstances were nearing compromise.

"Rough diamonds that bunch" said the teacher after they left. "That boy has a widowed Mum and three younger brothers. He delivers papers in the morning and works after school to earn extra money for the family. Most of this class have some form of work. I'm not sure we need work experience. Some of them, especially the sharemilkers’ kids, are too tired to do their schoolwork properly." As inspector with responsibility for work experience I could only nod at the complications of it all. Memo to oneself - beware of charm when least expected. No, chalk it up to the irrepressibility of the human spirit.

During one early visit I reported to the principal that a certain teacher was doing damage to the kids. He sighed and said "when you walk away I've still got the problem. He should go. I have told him but he doesn't hear what I am saying."
One of my colleagues muttered about disciplinary proceedings.
“That rips your staffroom apart. And it takes so long.”
"I'll go and tell him," I brightly said. So I did. When I asked him if he liked the job replied, "To tell you the truth I hate it". I had earlier observed his pain at the contempt of his classes.
"Why don't you leave then?"
"I haven't got the guts. Besides my old man's a teacher and he would see me as a failure. Where would I go?" It all poured out. "I'd have to give notice and I couldn't face the staffroom or the kids."
"We could help you go almost immediately and quietly."

The look of relief on the chap's face was touching. So it was arranged that afternoon. In the car on the way back to Hamilton the debate raged. I had broken one of the rules. "You could end up in a court case. They get the message with their grading." I knew I was safe - the teacher's thanks had been profuse. He had just needed that final push. Other times it was not so easy. "I loathe the job but a mortgage and three young kids, I'm trapped."

Thinking now about that action I realise that a few years later I would probably have been more cautious.[It’s a pity to have to admit that particular truth]. As someone fresh out of the classroom I saw the world differently from my more experienced colleagues. Down the years as I learnt the tricks of the bureaucratic world compromise and necessity blunted that youthful enthusiasm. When I moved to Wellington this pressure increased.

One day soon I’ll write a blog about teacher assessment. It’s going to be a hot potato under this government. If you have ideas about it let me have your comments.

Harvey McQueen

Stoats and Anzac Day

Every day a wax-eye pair come and work over the apricot abutilon (Chinese bells) flowers for nectar. They cheat and peck a hole at the base of the flower. As the tree is covered in blossom they do well.

It’s ANZAC day. Little River had an impressive Memorial Gate to the Domain. During my youth the whole community in Sunday best attended the service. The old diggers with their ribbons marched before going off for a beer and a yarn. At school we were given lectures about service. At the end of World War 11 few names needed to be etched on the Gates. Admittedly there had been depopulation but the slaughter was not nearly so great as in the first world war. Dick, my stepfather, used to regularly attend until a particularly bellicose speaker irritated him so much he stopped going. He was opposed to the secularisation of the holiday though. ‘They’ll want racing next’ he said.

After reading my blog Auckland friend Rosemary Stagg sent this email:
‘I am pretty sure you say somewhere that you have never actually seen a stoat. Ken and I have a very conflicted attitude to them. On the one hand they are a ruthless predator of native birds and we have been faithfully looking after a couple of lines of stoat traps for Ark in the Park [in the Waitakere Ranges] for about three years now. On our first line, which was deep in the heart of the Ark area, we didn't catch a single stoat and only one rat in over two years. We had to keep reminding ourselves that this was a good thing as it meant that predator control round the edges of the Park area was working well. A few months ago we were asked to switch to a new line that is on the edge of the park and in January we caught a stoat. It had been in the trap for several days and was mummified rather than decomposed. Its lips were drawn back to give very good view of a fearsome set of needle sharp teeth. Since then we have caught a rat and then - on our last check - three hedgehogs!’

‘Ken and I are in the habit of going every spring to camp on Motutapu island for a weekend. We take the ferry to Rangitoto with our full sized tramping packs with tent, food for two or three days etc and people look at us very curiously, clearly thinking we are a bit over equipped for a day excursion to see the volcano. We walk the track around the edge of Rangitoto for about three hours to reach the causeway that links Rangitoto to Motutapu. A couple of years we were doing this and paused on the other side of the causeway for lunch. We were sitting in a lovely grassy area under some trees with a bank of scrub behind us. We could hear rustling in the bushes and, as we sat there drinking our coffee, a pair of stoats came dancing out of the scrub and engaged in the most amazing mating dance in front of us. They were incredibly beautiful and agile and we were quite transfixed. A terrible mixture of delight and horror - such wonderful little animals and yet thinking of the vulnerability of those tiny pied stilt chicks with their fuse wire legs we were about to see on the island.’

I have seen live stoats several times. The closest I got was in Greece in the old stadium high above the temple ruins at Delphi. I was quietly sitting on a toppled pillar when suddenly this stoat emerged near my feet and stood on its hind legs sniffing the breeze. It stayed in this pose for several moments ignoring me before slowly loping off. My feeling was like Rosemary's.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Food for Thought 2

In yesterday’s blog I described Nigel Slater’s father as tyrannical. It would be fairer to say aloof, distant, obviously bewildered at his rather unusual son and unable to cope emotionally with the death of his wife. Every night for ages the poor man leaves two marshmallows beside Nigel’s bed because the boy had written an essay in which he said they were his favourite food. They were not – it was poetic license. The mother’s death had a huge impact on Nigel. Very early on, writing about her, he says you can’t taste a hug or smell a cuddle but if you could it would smell and taste like her bread and butter pudding. The hunger is also sexual as described by the growing child. His bewilderment as his father becomes besotted with his new lady is obvious, plus the abandonment of their old home for an isolated place in the country.

What a revolution has taken place in eating tastes since his childhood and mine. Garlic and olives were completely unknown in my youth. Now I eat them all the time. Likewise salami and blue vein cheese. In 1953 on her visit the Queen asked Prime Minister Sid Holland whether New Zealand made any other variety of cheese than cheddar. He replied innocently there were no other kinds.

My first taste of pizza was in Rome in 1971, now they are cooked everywhere. I was amazed how many pizza parlours there were in Japan. An Italian peasant dish has conquered the world. A different Japanese memory is from my second visit; near my Tokyo hotel was a basement garlic restaurant. Every dish had garlic in it – my favourite was garlic beef with mushrooms. The aroma attracted me as I walked past and I went there for a week experimenting with different dishes. I was welcomed warmly as an old hand after my second meal.

Huge world-wide and local distribution improvements have been both good and bad. They even out seasonal production – the good side we can now buy grapes all year round, the bad side we lose that contact with nature and often fruit from overseas is tasteless. Imports also affect local production. On the supermarket shelves all jars of pickled onions now come from Australia. We actually import pork. But against that in Wellington we can buy avocado, tamarillo, papaya, mango and persimmon. Anne thought lemons were only collected from trees until she came to Wellington. I’d discovered tree tomatoes (as tamarillo were called) when I was at university. When I lived in Thames for three years I was delighted to have a tamirillo tree on the section. Still seasonal, Bluff oysters and whitebait are now available, though very expensive, throughout the country when available. Finally, distribution world-wide is not equitable.

Cooking appears to be a dying art. A pity. Something very human is at stake. Mass production and fast food takeaways replace the skill that Slater celebrates, even if his mother wasn’t a great cook – haphazard might be the more appropriate word. (Her class were raised not knowing how to cook). I know what he means. Childhood memories. My comfort food is lamb loin chops followed by jelly and ice cream, Anne’s is tomato soup. Preparing and serving a meal for friends is one of the great forms of hospitality. (I regret that my health now prevents me doing this – even pancakes are beyond me now). Shared bread and wine carry the same significance as part of a religious ritual. All peoples have traditions of fellowship around food and particularly in the presence of visitors and guests.

Sadly the world has two epidemics. One is obesity. The other, even worse, is starvation. The fact that the two exist in parallel is a blight upon our species’ presence here.

Harvey McQueen

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Food for Thought

Ali Carew sent another snippet about gooseberries. According to the Shorter Oxford ‘the old gooseberry’ was a colloquial term for the devil. I am taking time out from reading Massey – it’s that sort of book – to read Nigel Slater’s Toast: the story of a boy’s hunger. Slater was born and grew up in Wolverhampton. (I’ve met a distant relative who worked there maintaining and servicing the royal railway coaches). Slater’s memoir is based around boyhood memories of food. His beloved mother died when he was nine from asthma and he disliked his tyrannical father and even more his stepmother.

It got me thinking about my own childhood food experiences. Each night before school Mum made sandwiches for our lunch, mutton, jam or marmite. As we got older Doug and I took over this chore. Mum spoke longingly of oranges and pineapples, but despite the war there was plenty of seasonal fresh food. We called our meals breakfast, dinner and tea, eaten off the oil-clothed drop-leaf table. If guests came Mum put a cloth on. Breakfast in the winter was usually porridge, Creamota from the packets with Sergeant Dan on them, in the summer Kornies, "everybody's breakfast" the radio ads told us.

Most meals consisted of mutton, either hot or cold, mutton soup all winter, fried chops often, neck stew. Always with mashed potato except for the Sunday roast. People ask if such a daily diet of mutton and spud wasn’t monotonous. Certainly at the time it did not seem so, it was what people ate. Uncle Tom killed a pig for Christmas and Easter, so pork became for me the symbol of celebration. Mum made brawn, chopping the cooked pigs-head apart with a sharp tomahawk. Pop always ate the trotters. When the young roosters got three-quarter grown it was axe time for them, Mum and Granny saving the feathers to stuff cushions. Sausages were a treat, whenever Pop or Mum went through to town, as was corn beef. When Mum married Dick on the new farm there were ducks and geese. Goose became our Christmas dinner. Mum stirred carefully hoarded threepence pieces into the Christmas pudding. One year young Bruce my half-brother swallowed all of his.

In late spring Uncle Tom's black-currant bushes would be laden, for a couple of days we couldn't use the bath, Mum would be making jelly, the juice oozing through the muslin bags hung over large basins. Other neighbours possessed gooseberry bushes. In autumn we would collect large field mushrooms in a bucket while during the summer we would harvest watercress from the creek margins. Another autumn activity was picnics picking blackberries to be made into jam. Mum planted apple trees, granny smith, red delicious, cox's orange, lovely names. All summer we dug our own potatoes, red dakota mainly. Then in autumn one bagged up the rest of the crop for winter. She always planted a lot of peas, her two sons loved to eat them raw. My lunch pack over summer always contained several pods. Tomatoes grew well, turned into sauce and chutney to be used all year. Pop loved spring onions and radishes. While he was drafting he'd send me to his garden to pull some and rinse them under the tap. Chewing happily, he sorted the sheep, his pet cockatoo screeching advice from a tree above.

Another bonus was Aitken's orchard. Between his house and ours was his orchard. - the second best in Little River. Coops who'd established the mill had the best. That orchard was the perfect place for children - lush grass to burrow through, well-established trees to climb, make-believe tigers to stalk or be stalked by; furthermore he didn't mind our playing in it or picking the fruit. Several large plum trees grew close to our fence and there were prolific apricot, pear and apple trees. As he never sprayed the peaches they did not do too well but otherwise there was nature's plenty. There was more fruit than his household or ours could eat, all summer the aroma of decaying fruit wafted from the orchard through our house. In the fork of the gigantic plum tree one could sit and gorge, the fresh juice sticky as it ran down one's chin. Mum and Thora would bottle and bottle, and us five kids would climb and gorge, climb and gorge. The only place we had to ask permission and get the key for was the cherry cage - about twenty trees surrounded by wire-mesh. Balancing near the top of a cherry tree, my face streaked with red, marvelling at the miracle that could turn sap and sunshine into such a delicacy, the ripe fruit all around me, is a very pleasant childhood memory. We could eat our fill and take away buckets full. We did both.

Ice-creams at the local shops cost a penny or threepence. After the war there were liquorice straps.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Boyhood Washday

My early boyhood was a time of frugality and thrift with little waste and even less extravagance. Sitting now at my computer (with the dishwasher, clothes washer and drier all working) it is difficult to recall how primitive (and apparently simple) it all was. Monday was washday. Mum lit the copper early in the washhouse. Then she did the washing by hand, hanging it on the long-line on the other side of the creek. As with haymaking, one kept an eye on the weather. Every morning she listened to Aunt Daisy as she did the housework, then the radio serials - Dr Paul and Portia Faces Life - from ten till eleven. The serials over there she made phone calls to Granny and others to discuss the latest events, the serial story and village gossip. She did a lot of sewing with her old treadle machine, most nearly all her own and our clothes.When the school held a fancy dress party she made me a tiger suit, orange with black stripes, cotton whiskers and a long padded tail.Doug went as a pixie doll.We made a smart pair.

The wood stove lit every day, its wetback heated our water. Mum placed old-fashioned irons on top, fitting in the wooden handle and carefully tested the temperature before she ironed the clothes. One day she bought an electric iron, though without a thermostat it equally had to be tested for heat with spittle. On the stove, a kettle hummed quietly most of the day, visitors always had a cup of tea and at night the hot water bottles needed filling.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009



Miranda, as usual, indefatigable
(curiosity, unspooling like a firehose
or endless rope for her disappearing trick).
has gone on ahead to the top of the hill
to interview giraffes
But after an hour
of painted birds and jigsaw monkeys angular
in their dance and fitting together, her smaller brother
has had it. Retired, slumped in the pushchair
near collapse, I wheel him along the central path
when ahead, I see the great shape approaching;
and, as he catches it at the edge of the eye –
-the world wheeling before him-the sharp intake
of breath. Awe. A stillness cloaking him, intent
as the quiet mass fills the whole of his vision: :
an avalanche closing the freeway.

“What is it?" whispered, followed by memory- –
“Elephant” so soft you know his voice has found God
and is hushed by the language of size. Grey,
tusked and house-high, wrinkled walls and roof
are on the move to another climate or street.
Snails can carry their own - but here is proof
the whole lived-in world could be gypsy: Kamala,
I tell him, and he whispers that one too.
A name for everything, and the sound is worship.

Louis Johnson True Confessions of the Last Cannibal p13

Louis Johnson wrote some lovely poems about his children. One of my favourites is Elephant. His son’s awe at the immense size of the mammal radiates from the page. Half the fun at a zoo is watching the reactions of the human audience. Louis has a great capacity at drawing word-pictures, the sister’s endless curiosity and the son’s weariness and then reverence are splendidly presented.

Kamala, long deceased, and not replaced, used to graze on the paddock overlooking Newton athletic track. My academic athlete friend Roger Robinson announces at meetings there. When the elephant was there Roger used to warn it before the starter’s pistol went off, an announcement that always brought an ironic cheer from the spectators.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Blog

Basically house-bound by my illness my blog is giving me great pleasure. I get feedback from unexpected sources. In particular ex-teachers who write (or even ring) to ask for more on education. Then I get literary types who ask for more comments about poems, others’ work as well as my own.

This morning I had a lovely email from Ali Carew. She been clearing her vegetable garden and found some gooseberry cuttings she just poked in had all taken. I agree with her about the satisfaction of your own propagation. By coincidence she had just read yesterday’s comments about gooseberries. She also liked the one about being a fresher at Canterbury university. Her parents met there, members of the SCM (student Christian Movement). Their friend Jimmy Gardiner called it the Society for Courtship and Marriage. By another coincidence, Gardiner, a historian, lectured me on the French Revolution. He planned a biography of Massey our second longest serving Prime Minister but he never got round to writing it. Pity! I am reading Bruce Farland’s rather pedestrian life of the premier at present. He pays credit to Gardiner. Farland upsets this English teacher. Cattle were not ‘droved’ to the West Coast from Canterbury. How can I wrestle with the complexities of a complicated man when I am rewriting his biographer’s script.

Someone asked why write about strawberries and gooseberries. I’m a curious man. I ask questions. And like to share the answers. I follow leads. That’s the teacher in me. New facts, new poems, new thoughts, last classes notes on the blackboard, I added them to the lesson. I had a look at currants but there’s little to add to what I wrote about gooseberries. I looked at currants as in raisins and sultanas and reconfirmed that that usage comes from a corruption of the word Corinth. Currants – a small seedless grape come from the Levant but especially from the area around Corinth.

Harvey McQueen

The Good Old Days

When I began teaching at Morrinsville College the community had confidence and trust in my position. I felt transformed in that at long last I was earning my keep as an adult. There is little time to moon about the nature of existence when you face thirty thirsty minds, though I was being paid to work in a job that enabled me to indulge my life-long love for words and reading.

As regards control I learnt a hard lesson with my third form class, English. As the first term progressed they got noisier. Just before Easter they got even more raucous, calling out answers across each other. Foolishly I said, "I'll cane the next boy who calls out." They quietened down. Near the end of the period a very quiet scholarly boy who had never previously opened his mouth unless I asked him a question, called out an answer. "You gotta cane him, sir. You said you would". I realised there was no option. "Outside" I said. Head down he went out before me. The phrase this hurts me more than it hurts you was never more true. I also knew I could not cane him gently - the class inside waited expectantly. I hit him once. He waited for the second stroke. The school rule was three strokes for a minor offence. (It was a barbaric form of discipline) "That's all. And don't call out again." Back in the classroom someone quietly said, "you only caned him once." "He only called out, once," I replied. The humour eased our mutual unease at the injustice of the situation . Moral - never utter a general threat, it can collide with justice.

Rugby first fifteen practice started very early. Several of my history sixth formers played in the team. When I protested about their frequent absence I was given a lecture about priorities - community priorities. "Scholarship isn't valued here, All Blacks are." (This was Don Clarke country). There was a school rule that pupils caught smoking or drinking would be barred from participation in the next week's game. Some players caught smoking on a school trip split the staff into two groups. Those on the staff who wanted to waive or delay punishment until after next Saturday's big game held a majority but the principal, the women teachers and some of the younger ones like myself believed a rule is a rule. Debate got very bitter. The principal carried the day - the match was lost - shortly after he was off on sick leave, a nervous breakdown.

Classroom preparation and survival left little energy to question overall education direction. I wore my gown for most lessons, it enhanced the sense of authority. Like the children in front of me I accepted the artificial divisions of time as normal. The bell ordered our days like a factory whistle. The curriculum seemed set in sacred concrete. There was a ranking in order of importance. Maths, Physics and Chemistry for the bright boys. History, Geography, German and Biology for the bright girls, Home Economics, Commerce and Technical for the lesser mortals. Uniform inspection was a drag but it was part of the job. Long hair for boys had not yet become an issue. Once a girl dared to wear lipstick to a class. She was marched off to the Senior Mistress for a dressing down - effective, no one else dared to follow suit.

Harvey McQueen

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Gooseberries and Yesterday

Yesterday was a full day.
a) I rang 96 years 11 months old Mum in her Ashburton rest-home at nine as I do every Saturday. She’s been fine until recently but sounds pretty feeble at present.
b) I finished the Obama book. It really was a joy to read.
c) Anne’s in Auckland, so Susanna, my caregiver, came to shower and dress me. I can’t manage socks.
d) Helen, my school-girl gardener, came for two hours. She planted tulip bulbs and foxglove seeds as well as weeding
e) Rae Julian, an old friend, popped in for a couple of hours in the afternoon. She’s off to Tonga for three weeks work. We had a good political chin-wag.
f) Ulrike Handke rang from Berlin. Ulrike, was the German adviser when I managed the national language advisers’ group. She is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met and we became good friends. They spent several Easters and Christmasses with us. Anne introduced their young daughter Lisa to Easter egg hunts in our garden. Since her family’s return home I have visited them once and Anne twice. Lisa spent three months in Wellington last year on a working holiday before starting university this year.
g) Grace, the daughter of a friend of Anne’s, is house-staying while Anne’s away. She’s a good cook so I’ve continued dining well.
h) Anne’s cousin Rex has been looking at my blog. After reading my Semple piece he emailed me with a recollection of his own. On a Pacific cruise as they entered one port there was a cheering crowd. This rather large lady suggested that he a little boy might like to stand in front of her to see better. He thought they were cheering for him and waved back. But no; they were not cheering him, the lady was Queen Salote. My memory recalls the coronation film and the London crowds warmly greeting the same Queen.
i) I put up my strawberry blog and this got me interested in researching further, this time gooseberries.
Like the strawberry, the gooseberry was sought in the wild in Europe, west Asia and North Africa, long before it became a cultivator. It began to be grown in home gardens in the Low Countries, France and England in the 16th century. Towards the end of the 18th century it became a common plant of cottage horticulture in the new industrial areas of England as it provided a big yield while taking up little space. Most home gardens in Little River had a row of gooseberry, a task was to pick enough for a meal and then top and tail them. Jam-making was a bigger job.

While common in Europe gooseberries are not grown much in North America though it was introduced to New England by the early settlers. The plant didn’t like the heat of the summers for it got bad mildew. In the nor-west where the climate was more suitable it did better but it was found to be an alternate host to the white pine blister rust which damages white pines a major milling log. As a result there are laws against the gooseberry and blackcurrant cultivation in some states.

I had made the obvious connection between goose and berry but the etymological sources deny the linkage. Likewise they are baffled by the use of the term gooseberry to be the third person chaperone, indeed to muddle metaphors, the fly in the ointment. Sometimes in this situation the gooseberry is wanted. Most times, he, or she, is a pain in the neck.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


The radio had an item about the steep increase in household costs. One item mentioned was strawberries. Why, I do not know. Production and distribution probably. Despite having passed Economics 1 at university in 1954 on this subject I remain a bear with very little brain.

I know more about strawberries. They are members of the rose family. Archaeology shows pre-historic people ate them but they were not an important food – the collection of them would have been too laborious. The Romans didn’t cultivate them though Virgil warned of the danger of children collecting them in the fields because of adders and Ovid has a love-sick swain offering a small cottage beside which his beloved can “gather the soft strawberries growing beneath the woodland shade.”

Strawberries were cultivated and traded in Chile and Peru before the Spanish explorers arrived. We don’t know for how long, but it was probably long before it began in Europe. Certainly, it was not till the 1300’s that the French began cultivating the little woodland strawberry, much smaller than its South American counterpart. The English followed suit. In 1534 Henry VIII’s expense list has ten shillings for a pottle of strawberries. Thomas Tusser in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, (1557) wrote under the month September
Wife, into the garden and set me a plot
With strawberry roots, the best to be got:
Such growing abroad among thorns in the wood,
Well chosen and picked, prove excellent good.

Early in the 17th century F. virginiana was introduced into Europe from North East America. They were much larger berries than the European ones. Indeed the Indians grew them and used them in many dishes including mixing them with meale to make strawberry bread. It was not till the 19th century that the white settlers there began cultivating them, they were so plentiful in the wild. In early 18th century the Chile breed was introduced into Europe. The hybridisation of these two American berries forms the basis of today’s modern, big-fruited strawberry. We now eat bigger, tastier strawberries than Henry V111 did thanks to French horticulturalists and their successors.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Oysters and Books

At the moment I am reading two very different books, Diane Neutze’s poems and Obama’s Dreams From My Father. Diane, suffers, much more severely, like me, from a degenerative disease. In one line she talks about ‘a lack-lustre life.’ I appreciate how she feels. She was a close friend of a girl-friend of mine in my post university years. The three of us would sit round earnestly discussing why Beethoven was better than Brahms. She was vibrant and lovely. Time can be cruel.

I try to cope with a lack-lustre life with red letter events. Yesterday had two such. Treesurgeons arrived to top some trees in the neighbours to give us more winter sun. I watched the men at work admiring their agility and skill. The task finished, another gang arrived to tidy up and mulch the cuttings. Then friend Oliver arrived with Bluff oysters for lunch – one of my favourite foods. We pigged out on a dozen each. Yum. Good friends and good food - one of life's great treats.

The Obama book is fascinating. No American president to my knowledge has come this way to the office – community work in the slums of Chicago. What shines through is the character of the man, a vision of a better world and a determination to work towards it despite set-back and failure. It’s not so much humility as a lack of hubris. The right-wing blogs are labelling him fascist. He gives no indication of that sense of destiny that I consider indicative of fascism. Rather, old fashioned courage and tenacity.

After the descriptions of his childhood years in Hawaii and Jakarta his visit to Kenya in search of his paternal origins is revealing. On the way he spent some time in Europe. He felt no sense of belonging. (In contrast I felt at home culturally, though not socially – the class thing.) At Nairobi someone asked ‘would you be Dr Obama’s son?’ and he immediately felt the sense of the achievements and grievances that is the lot of families world-wide. In the streets, black was the norm. But he still did not feel quite at home. He was an American. Further, a thoughtful, thinking American. In other words a liberal.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I was carried on Bob Semple's shoulders

A childhood memory is the great flood in Little River. Periodically, Lake Forsyth if full and not released began to back up the main river. If this coincided with heavy rain in the hills then the village got flooded. During the war one such flood occurred after steady easterly rain turned into a downpour. With slips galore on the hills, the creeks couldn't cope with the rush of water, mud, rock and log. Soon willows torn out by the force of the water jammed across other trees or bridges, diverting the flood across paddocks and farmland, where it swept stock away to pile them dead against the fences. Normally a placid little stream, the creek between our house and Pop's farm became a belting torrent. Blocked by a pile-up at the railway line just below our place it spilt across Pop's hay-paddock and our section. People were boating along the main street, but we had serious concerns. Pop couldn't get across to help. We began stacking furniture. Other neighbours arrived with sandbags. When the water began lapping at the door-step, they evacuated Doug my younger brother, Mum and myself to Aitken's our neighbours up the hill.

In the morning the rain had abated and an insipid sun shone. Stone and silt covered Pop's flat paddocks and Mum's flower garden had been stripped away. The water had not entered the house, another inch and it would have. We lacked piped water for a month - the feed upstream completely twisted around - but the rain water tank was full. Likewise, even more impressively, the railway lines had similarly bent and buckled. Meanwhile, with the lake let out and the dammed up water drained away from the village it left foul smelling silt everywhere. The main river had altered course and swept bridges away, wrecked fowl-houses, undercut barns and tipped vehicles on their sides. The hills, scarred with weeping slips, had lost their aura of permanence and certainty. Our creek was now a shallow trench, Mum's old stove buried under the debris. Pop dragged sheep carcasses off the fences and attempted to burn them, but there was no dry fuel. He covered them with logs, but for days the stench lingered. They could not be buried because the soil was so waterlogged; nor could a machine be brought in to dig a hole. We sloshed around in gumboots for it seemed an eternity.

Bob Semple, Minister of Works, an old friend of Pop’s, visited to inspect the damage. The two men talked about boring a tunnel through the solid rock at the end of the lake to provide a permanent outlet. They climbed the hill to survey the devastation, Semple carrying me on his shoulders across slurping mud and slippery slopes. The tunnel was never cut. Instead the local council cleared most of the willows and straightened the river. "It'll happen again", the old folks said, "You can't control the elements". Now the commuters build close to the streams again. And they are flooded occasionally. I can hear Granny’s scorn, “townies.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Kuwait Experience

In 1995 on an education mission to Kuwait, I visited several schools. In an infant girl’s class they were learning English, a compulsory second language in that country's curriculum, using word cards to increase their vocabulary. The walls were as colourful as any Kiwi classroom with posters and charts. The pupils were enthusiastic. It could have been a classroom anywhere in the world except for the previous day's drive out into the hot, sun-drenched desert, with its tethered camels, a Biblical boy leading his sheep, burnt-out tanks and cordoned-off minefields. "We have a vision of a better Kuwait," the teacher said. Education always contains a hope of betterment, for individuals as well as the nation. In a war-torn country it becomes more obvious. New Zealanders incline to take the vision for granted and therefore lose sight of it.
"Where are you from?" one of the girls shyly asked me.
"New Zealand", I said. "Do you know where that is?"
She looked at the teacher who nodded so leaving her desk she went to the map on the wall and pointed correctly.
"Clever girl" I said
"Teacher showed me. We do not learn without a teacher."
I wonder if a New Zealand seven-year-old would make the same comment?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

After the Fall


After the bath with ragged towels
my Dad
would dry us very carefully;
six little wriggly girls,
each with foamy pigtails,
two rainy legs,
the invisible back we couldn’t reach,
a small wet heart and toes, ten each.

He dried us all
the way he gave the parish
Morning Prayer:
as if it was important,
as if God was fair,
as if it was really simple
if you would just be still
and bare.

Rachel McAlpine

Poets often prospect their own childhood - young Wordsworth rowing across the lake, Dylan Thomas free and lyrical under the apple boughs, Robin Hyde watching two lovers from the periwinkled sand dunes, Baxter talking about a bay that never existed, all seek again that cherished experience of awe, freshness, magic, joy, security, simplicity, and apparent clarity. Time winnows out the tears and tantrums. McAlpine’s poem is a glittering presentation of that childhood sense of innocence. The picture of her vicar father earnestly and tenderly drying down his young daughters after their bath is so convincing it has long lingered in my memory banks. I can feel the girls shivering in the Canterbury chill. Poems, like photographs, about children can easily slip into being just cute, McAlpine’s sparse lines avoid this. The location of the word ‘invisible’ is marvelous, the magical vastness of the world at that stage of life while ‘ragged’ to describe the towels hints at the penury of vicarage life.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Sunday


A good day for the resurrection
a half-empty moon, white in
a crystal pool of blue, the tulip
bulbs snug in their new pots

Forty-two years ago you stood
in the pulpit at Kaitangata, miners,
farmers, wives in the Sunday best
& a sheepdog in the doorway.

You spoke of the stone rolled away
while distrust lurked in your heart
that still-thumping lump of muscle
that can weep tears at a sentimental

story, leap into the throat at
a horror movie, beat rapid with
joy or anticipation and has allowed
one to see the bloodshed down the years

May we have peace O Lord
but may it not come in our lifetime.
Humanity may have walked on that scarred
moon-face but we fail to control our own hearts.

So the poem’s seven years old and it’s forty-nine years since I preached in that South Otago pulpit. I stayed with a delightful farming family on Inchclutha Island.
This morning we discussed a newspaper columnist’s use of the Easter theme. Anne produced a striking sentence. ‘God is a sort of celestial ACC.’ It fits the theme of my last stanza. Several people have criticised the poem’s message there. I argue it’s sound theology. St Augustine would agree, even if Calvin might not have. The doctrine of the ‘elect’ is a dangerous one.

It was the second-to-last time I lay preached before leaving Knox College. My faith had been steadily eroding before I went to Dunedin. I enjoyed preaching, the rituals, the authority, the music and the community. I consider I have a sympathetic ear and would have enjoyed the pastoral work. The theology proved the sticking point. Stevie Smith has a striking poem about ‘the beautiful lie’ It summed up my dilemma.

After Knox on a Teachers’ College trip to the West Coast I preached in Franz Josef Chapel – a striking setting - and while teaching at Morrinsville I lay-preached quite often. But my beliefs were ebbing. After I left there I accepted the label agnostic and there I have settled. I am now core in a very secular society. There are regrets and a vague hovering feeling that we’ve lost some glue for community. Or maybe in the past that was merely a fa├žade for abuse and unreported mayhem. Meanwhile the elect continue on their merry way.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bizzare in Ballarat

Near Ballarat there is a small zoo. There I had a bizarre experience and a sentimental one. I went into the reptile house alone. Anne abhors reptiles, mistakenly once I dragged her round a reserve north of Brisbane. The first exhibit was a rather pretty snake rarely seen and non-poisonous. By the time I’d got her to the last enclosure which was an extremely dully coloured snake which, highly poisonous, lived in letter-boxes, she was determined never to expose herself to reptiles ever again in any shape or form. One of the reasons Lord of the Rings disappointed her was the reptilian aspect of some of the monsters.

In the Ballarat one there were the normal displays of snakes and lizards, but at the far end there was a big enclosure with a relatively large crocodile behind the glass. The entrance to the reptile house was open to people. And kangaroos. There was this large one resting on is tail looking inquisitively and safely at the reptile. I stood beside it looking at the dozing croc. I looked at the mammal. It returned my look with interest. I waited to see what would happen. It waited to see what I was going to do. Eventually I tired first – there’s only so much excitement watching an immobile crocodile. I wonder how long it remained there. And what was it thinking?

Outside I rejoin Anne who’d been happily feeding emu and wallaby. Wallabies have such soft muzzles. We walked over to the koala bear enclosure. A fairly large one bounced up and down by the gate. I’ve never seen such an energetic koala. As he went past the young keeper said “there, there, Charley, I know what you want but you’ll have to wait.” So we stood round until he returned with gum branches which he took in to feed them. Charley didn’t stop. He remained near the gate continuing his unslothlike antics while his fellows slowly moved to eat their full of the new leaves. Intrigued, Anne asked the keeper what the koala was waiting for, expecting it to be some special food. No! It was a cuddle. “If it’s not long enough he bites, so I leave it till I’ve finished my chores and can give him a longer spell.”

My mind romanced about being able to have a job where you are paid to cuddle a koala. Once, at a literary festival I was asked what I would like to be if I had a different existence. My reply surprised myself. It was along the lines that I since I didn’t have the body or the innate skills to be a ballet dancer it would have to be a zoo-keeper.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Barack Obama

Every Easter we plant our spring bulbs. This Good Friday Anne’s put in our hyacinths. It always amazes me that out of these scruffy things such beautiful shapes, colours and scents emerge.

Kathrine and Roger gave us Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father for Christmas.
Anne read it straight away and raved about it. To my shame I’ve just got round to picking it up and I’m engrossed. Bob Dylan said it’s a book that makes you feel and think at the same time. It does. He transports you to Hawaii, Jakarta and Kenya with ease and grace.

A few excerpts.

‘His [Gramps] was an American character, one typical of men of his generation, men who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism and the open road without always knowing its price, and whose enthusiasms could as easily lead to the cowardice of McCarthyism as to the heroics of World War 11. Men who were both dangerous and promising precisely because of their fundamental innocence; men prone, in the end, to disappointment.’

‘The air in the office [USA Embassy in Jakarta] was cool and dry, like the air of mountain peaks: the pure and heady breeze of privilege.’

‘We didn’t go to the beach or on hikes together anymore; at night Gramps watched television while Toot sat in her room reading murder mysteries. They principal excitement now came from new drapes or a stand-alone freezer. It was as if they had bypassed the satisfactions that should come with middle age, the converging of maturity with time left, energy with means, a recognition of accomplishment that frees the spirit. At some point in my absence, they had decided to cut their losses and settle for hanging on. They saw no destinations to hope for.’

'It had taken a couple of years before I saw how fates were bsginning to play thyemselves out, the difference that colour and money made after all, in who survived, how soft or hard the landing when you finally fell. Of course, either way, you needed some luck.'

When Obama was elected President I felt concern that expectation could outrun delivery. The financial crisis deepened that feeling. But reading this book does give me a hope. Here is a humane man with great depth. Can his people go with him. My curiosity about that question gives me a desire to live long enough to see the shape of the answer. It's like my hope to see the hyacinths in the spring.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Bad Moment

About a fortnight after I’d started teaching, it was at Morrinsville College, a (second-to-bottom Social Studies third form, Pakeha girl asked "can you read French?" "No" I replied. ”Then you couldn't write me a French letter," she said, a real flytrap and I flown straight in. While the thought flared across my mind, “What the hell am I doing here?” I just stood there, rattled, embarrassed, mortified, angry, not sure what to do. One was not allowed to throttle students. At this moment all my high ideals seemed pointless, Socrates and Sophocles providing no help. I snarled "Get on with your work" which in the circumstances was one of the better things to have done. She was with her insolence after the cheap thrill of confrontation and unwittingly if naively I didn’t give her that satisfaction. “You can’t cane me.” “Get on with your work you silly girl. The rest of you.” The ‘silly girl’ comment stung her. Sarcasm she met with sarcasm, but my counter-attack which took me as much as her by surprise was a new approach, she had not yet developed a response. I decided it was a useful weapon to have in my armoury to be used sparingly.

That moment seared itself into my memory-banks. I reported it to the Senior Mistress who was all set to come in and blast the class. I worked hard to persuade her not to do so for I realised I must control the class myself and not rely upon outside support. This group had several hard-boiled, worldly-wise students who challenged my authority all year. What I had to teach first up didn’t help – the local survey. Pointless telling them about dairy farming and factory or fertilizer works. They lived with them. I slowly learnt some tricks, asking did they have any relations who’d helped drain the Piako swamp. Two boys had forbears. I got them to tell us about it – one brought photos. Even the most naughty became interested. What hurt was that the class contained some lovely kids who watched with scuttling eyes the battle. (The military metaphor is correct). Their learning - I was going to say zilch, but that while dramatic would be untrue- was little. That knowledge hurt.

There were no school guidance counsellors then. Looking back at that incident I am sure the girl sought expulsion. She played up with other teachers just as much I soon discovered. Another disadvantage is that I didn’t have my own classroom. I walked from that class to this class which meant I entered the room with them already there. Many of the older teachers had their own rooms. It was the younger ones who were peripatetic. Classes were rigidly streamed. This group had several Maori in it. They did not challenge my authority as the white cohort did. But despite my best efforts I found it difficult to connect with them. I had had not one lesson at teachers college to prepare me to teach them, differences in eye contact, learning approaches. My texts assumed European supremacy. When I asked for help an older teacher said, “if they don’t want to learn that’s their problem, not yours”. That’s why today I support cultural sensitivity in teacher education.

Later I became a good teacher. But it took time and it took effort.

All year I struggled with that group. We had a history text entitled March of Civilisation. I reverted to narrative to keep them quiet. They doodled a lot so they enjoyed illustrating their work - blood pouring from huge gashes in Julius Caesar or a dying gladiator. All the preparation in the world cannot ready a prospective teacher for this experience – an unwilling class. By the winter term we had established some rules. Their forays had probed my weak points. They had learnt my point of no return. And I had learnt to read the signs of impending trouble. I tried different experiments to see what would enable more than a semblance of order. Bribery, flattery worked briefly but interest was the best approach. Hard to maintain. And there were good moments when the majority hissed at the troublemakers, “shut up”.

By December I could say I’d survived. Caning the bad boys was unproductive - they added a further notch to their belts and continued behaving as before. Sarcasm from me only increased the heat, they writhed and retaliated intensifying the friction. Moral intimidation was not my style, despite the provocation. Indifference worked - an act – for inwardly I seethed. I also learnt that if spilled my heart out in the staffroom I got little sympathy. "The beggers don't deserve an education. But you've got to show them who is boss." The isolation of each teacher in his or her own classroom didn’t help. I leant later when I was a senior teacher that if I screwed the discipline lid down very tightly on a misbehaving class they were more likely to blow on the next teacher who was often more inexperienced. Isolate the troublemakers. Avoid confrontation. Keep calm. I kept forgetting my own maxims.

Soon it was break-up day, crying kids, presents for teachers, the boys shaking your hand, "Thanks sir", even the French letter girl with some of her mates called to wish me a Merry 'X-mas’.
"Stop! The last thing I'll teach you this year, is that the word though written that way is shorthand for ‘Christmas’. You still say Merry Christmas."
"Will you be teaching us next year. Neat! Here’s a card, Sir. We’ve all signed it.” They had; sentimental comments revealing the real selves that had been apparently largely untouched by the education they’d received. They’d glimpsed life’s promises only to see them thunder in and peter out on the rocky reefs. Hence the hard shells. There must be ways of getting under that shield.

However, the possession of this new insight did not stop me going off hastily to see the time-tabler before I swung my newly purchased Morris Minor south. "No, we wouldn't do that to you Harvey. We've got an even stroppier bunch coming through to the third form. We'll give you those instead." A joke - but one which left me with a feeling of discomfiture.

Helen Clark

So, Helen Clark leaves New Zealand politics. The scene is smaller by her departure. Such is the nature of politics. Lange and Muldoon are now seen as titans. Not so, at the moments of their departure. Indeed, at that point they were seen as failures. History adds its own perspective. Clark will be seen as a pragmatic idealist or should that be an idealistic pragmatist. No populist, she worked the levers of power very skilfully. Having seen the disunity of the Lange/Douglas years she and Michael Cullen knew that to be successful cabinet and caucus needed to appear to be speaking with one voice. Her finest hour for me was the Iraq war. New Zealand followed an honourable course. That helped her, I am sure, get the UN job.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Strange Bedfellows: war poetry & dependency

Teen-agers tend to idealism. Teachers are aware of this. Which is why many of us in the 60s and 70s taught the First World War poetry of Owen and Sassoon. They were relevant and understandable and students responded quickly and well. Rachel McAlpine’s research at the time confirmed what was my experience as a secondary school inspector – they were amongst the most commonly used poems. I suspect that one of the seedbeds of this country’s anti-nuclear policy was this classroom practice.

I used them myself before I became a ‘beak’ as we were known in the profession. Particularly popular were Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est and Futility. Sassoon’s The General was another. Two soldiers say ‘he’s a cheery old card.’ ‘But he did for them both with his plan of attack.’ There is a chilling poem about a badly wounded soldier waiting outside as the evening cools down to be wheeled inside who asks ‘why don’t they come.’

I find myself relating to that man’s situation as I become increasingly dependent upon others. I don’t like it. I try not to let frustration and resentment twist me into anger and bitterness. But it is difficult. Since I have given up driving I can’t just hop in the car and go out and buy an Easter egg for Anne. Everything has to be planned and thought about. It’s pretty rugged on her. It’s like having to look after a child again.

A small example. We found the swan plant that we’d put outside after the two monarch butterfly caterpillars had departed had sprouted leaves and now had another large caterpillar. We brought it inside and found it had eaten nearly all the leaves. So Anne went to a nursery to buy another plant. She then had to assist the thing to the fresh grazing – I do not have the manual dexterity. She knows that watching that little beast gives me interest, is indeed a pleasure like a kid with building blocks. But it’s another chore for her. She wears the Harvey cross. For that I am fortunate and grateful.

The things I cannot do now; the list seems interminable. Shakespeare’s several ages of man; I’ve come full circle.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Kyoto and a Wendt poem

After I attended an education conference in Hiroshima I spent an enjoyable fortnight as a tourist in Southern Japan, staying at traditional inns. I got as far south as the Beppu thermal area where I luxuriated in a warm black sand bath. But the highlight was a few days in Kyoto on the way back to Tokyo.

Two things stood out. One was a visit to Kawai Kanjiro’s House, a musuem now for the famous potter. The other was the Golden Temple. Of the buildings I’ve seen only the mosques of Ishfahan can rank as equal in beauty to that glittering pavilion. Albert Wendt describes it in a poem.


Through the shadows cast by the moon tonight
the memory of my mother dances
like the flame-red carp I watched
in the black waters of the lake
off the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto.
Such burning grace.

Though I am ill with my future
and want to confess it to her
I won't. Not tonight.
For my mother dances
in the Golden Pavilion
of my heart.

How she can dance.
Even the moon is spellbound
with her grace.

Stir together dance, moonlight and the Pacific Island oral tradition; add the Golden Pavilion and the result is a lyric gem – a paean of praise at Wendt’s mother’s skill and grace. The lovely last three lines are diamonds in prose. Wendt has many careers, novelist, respected academic and a forerunner in and tireless advocate for Polynesian writing. His presence has enhanced our literature.

Education Thoughts

In 1877, adopting the approach developed in Nelson province our Parliament established a nation-wide system of ‘free, compulsory and secular education’ for children between the ages of 7 and 13. Maori need not attend but they had the right if they wanted to. Introducing the Act, Sir Charles Bowen said, ‘the higher branches of education may be taught upon payment of a fee. … and there is provision for scholarships which enable children of unusual attainments and ability to carry on their education. It is not intended to encourage children whose vocation is honest labour to waste in higher schools time which might be devoted to the learning of a trade.’ Well-intentioned this two-way division fastening different expectations has bedeviled our system ever since.

Just as the industrial revolution changed society and education, so will the information revolution.

This revolution assumes mobility, flexibility, and the capacity to change, to adapt, and to be innovative. It means knowing that the shelf life of much learning is short, that the knowledge base is increasingly complex and that society will increasingly be characterised by continual upheaval and dislocation.

New Zealand’s best educational practice is along the needed lines for the future - group work, projects, ownership of learning, skills across the curriculum, inter-disciplinary studies, greater linkages to enterprise, portable qualifications, holistic learning, and collaborative knowledge creation.

Education is a human system devised to help people, especially young people learn. Schools are the devices that have been developed to assist this process, to facilitate learning. They reflect community values, needs and pressures. American research finds students spend over four hours daily in front of screens, (computer or TV). Peer pressure is stronger than it used to be. Schools are caught in the crossfire of a pluralistic society.

Authority now has to be earned. When I started a teacher had it - could lose it, but they had it as of right. .

I consider the teaching profession is devalued and underpaid Admittedly, teachers are sometimes their own worst enemies, especially secondary teachers who advise their students not to go teaching.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Long Live the Sheep-dog

My grandfather possessed
places with great names,
the big house
overlooking the railyards,
Rocky Peak,
a view of nearly
all of Banks Peninsula,
Western Valley,
a quiet creek,
dragonflies & native bees

He seemed to spend his time
shifting sheep between the three

Any excuse to practice the dogs
for those heroic winter days
when he would stride out to
the circle & with whistle, shout
& stick, control all brute creation.

This is a poem I’m particularly pleased to have written. My grandfather lived for his dog trials. My stepfather was also a keen triallist. I helped raise their pups. Watching a half-grown pup eyeing and rounding up the chooks is an early memory.

My country upbringing showed this morning when I read that animal rights activists were campaigning to remove sheep-dogs from the farm. High country mustering would be impossible. Centuries of interdependence would be lost. My hackles rose.
Long live the sheep dog.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Eileen Morris

Eileen Morris, aged 94, died peacefully this week. I first met her in 1979, a gracious, dignified, grey-haired lady, mother of Anne’s friend Lani. Nothing about her demeanour prepared me for the surprising statement that she should have a t-shirt made with the words ‘when I was 21 I ran away to sea with a German sailor.’ Over the years I learnt snippets of her story, how George in his yacht arrived in Napier in 1935 and despite her mother’s disapproval and the condemnation of the provincial city, the young typist went with him sailing around the Pacific. She was a brave lady.

By coincidence I am at present reading Dark Sun, the life of George Dibbern. As a roving young man he had been in New Zealand during the First World War and was interned on Soames Island in Wellington Harbour. He had returned to Germany, married and had three daughters. He left them in 1930 to sail vagabond style around the world, Mediterranean first, then across the Atlantic and Pacific to New Zealand. He had a succession of woman sailors but he described Eileen as his ‘best mate.’ The book reveals what a competent yachts-person she was, navigator as well as cook and deckhand.

They had an idyllic time, though there was hardship as they lived hand to mouth, in the South Sea Islands, before heading north to Hawaii and then east to Canada. There they contemplated settling but they could not get citizenship, George was German and they had little financial prospects. They sailed south to Seattle and San Francisco before heading back to Hawaii. War had broken out, their American visas had expired and so they headed south surviving a battering hurricane to limp back into Napier. George was interned again at Soames Island.

The war over, they resumed their sailing life together. Lani was born and lived on board as they sailed around the Cook Islands. Eventually, Eileen decided Lani needed schooling so she left George and settled back in Napier doing office work. Her days of adventure were over.

Daylight Saving

Daylight saving ended this morning – a now accepted part of the calendar year. Its origins goes back to English monarch Charles II establishing the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675 with the aim of developing a star map to help ships determine longitude. With these maps, plus developments in watch-making, sea captains such as Cook could work out whereabouts they were while at sea. But accuracy in knowing where you were did not guarantee knowledge of the time of arrival home. Sailing ships like horse and stage-coach were at the mercy of the elements. The advent of the steam railway train in the 19th century ended this randomness of arrival. From departure to arrival time could be accurately measured. Obviously a common time was needed to enable people to catch the train. Local time created confusion. So the various British railways decided to use London time as the Greenwich system was called. Some of the provincial cities objected but common sense prevailed.

Nations began to use the same system. New Zealand was one of the first (1868) to adopt a standard time to be observed throughout the country, set at 11 hours 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich mean time. Greenwich time was not adopted officially by the United Kingdom until 1880. Four years later an international conference decided to make the world-wide standard an imaginary line running from pole to pole and going through Greenwich. Ever since it has been the basis of all time-zones. Liberia in West Africa was the last nation to accept it. In 1972 they abandoned their stubborn insistence of their own local time, out of step with all their neighbours.

The USA is more complicated, the distances are vast and run in all directions. To end the confusion of local time in 1883 the railway companies there divided the country into artificial time zones. During the First World War the Federal Government introduced daylight saving. As soon as the war it was removed for farmers were bitterly opposed to it. After Pearl Harbour it was re-introduced but again was repealed as soon as the war was over. Cities and states reverted to choosing their own time. This caused so much confusion that in 1966 the Federal Government legislated for national daylight saving.

New Zealand’s first advocate of daylight saving was Dunedin MP Thomas Sidey. In 1909 he argued that clocks should be advanced by one hour each summer to add an hour of daylight to the evenings. For the next twenty years he regularly introduced draft legislation, until in 1926 the House of Representatives passed it. But then the Upper House, the Legislative Council rejected it. New Zealand once, like most western democracies, had two legislative houses. Our Upper House was abolished by the National government in 1951. As a result of that particular change tremendous power was given to the one debating chamber, a major reason for the introduction of MMP in 1996.

The 1926 debates over the introduction of daylight saving indicate the arguments of the time. Sidey claimed “the extra hour of daylight after working-hours during the summer months is of especial value to indoor workers and the community as a whole as it gives one additional hour for recreation of all kinds, whether playing games or working in garden plots ... one cannot overlook the economic advantages that will also accrue. There will be a saving in the consumption of artifical light.” Opponents expressed concern about the women “who live in the backblocks”. Further, it would cause “the wife of a working-man to get up an hour earlier in order to get her husband away to his work.” As there were no women in either house Hansard does not record what they really thought. Sidey, however, continued to persevere. In 1927 both Houses passed a Bill enabling an experiment whereby the clock was put forward for an hour in summer. This change did create much rural resentment. Radio listeners got better reception at night so they were also opposed. Sidey compromised and in 1928 he got a new bill making a half-hour change. By this New Zealand summer time was set 12 hours ahead of Greenwich, and the passage of the legislation indicates our switch from a rural to an urban society. For a while there was an amusing spin-off. People arranging to meet had to ask where they using real time or Sidey’s time.

Then during the Second World War as an efficiency measure, standard time was altered to be 12 hours ahead of Greenwich time. This advanced our daylight saving once again. Daylight saving is now one hour in advance of New Zealand standard time. The Chatham Islands are a further forty-five minutes ahead of that time. Late in the 20th century after extensive consultation it was decided to begin the saving earlier and ending later. The dates now are the last Sunday in September and the first in April.

So the modern world runs on arbitrary clock time, part of what we take for granted. In a hotel I stayed at in Kyoto I could programme my wake-up call in English, Japanese or French, male of female. I tried all three female voices and settled for the French for my stay. The computerised machinery for that voice was based on Greenwich time.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Goose Bath Poems

I am reading The Goose Bath Poems, an edition of Janet Frame’s posthumous poems. In my first poetry anthology for secondary schools, Ten Modern New Zealand Poets, I included some poems from Janet Frame’s recently published The Pocket Mirror. A teacher rather caustically said ‘I suppose you included her to make up the women’s numbers’. He didn’t believe my reply that she was one of the first I selected. I said something to the effect that her work was excellent though uneven. I knew that she had been writing poems ever since that first and only publication. I hoped they would be published and delighted they have been. She is one of our finest wordsmiths.

I would I were a teacher again to share these poems. The book is a joy to be savoured again and again. Given her experience it is not surprising she writes about death so frequently. But what I like about this selection is its celebratory nature, the affirming joy of existence rather than a morbid sense of extinction. It’s her use of language that’s so exuberant.
The sweet daily bread of language.
Smell it rising in its given warmth
taste it through the stink of tears and yesterdays and
eat it anywhere with any angel in sight.

The intriguing title tells its own story. When Frame lived near Shannon she kept a goose and a gander, in her words “watchdogs and creatures to be watched.” Friends gave her a discarded ornamental fibreglass bowl as an ablution pool for the birds. When she left to live in the city again she took the bowl (about the size of a child’s paddling pool) with her. There it became the receptacle for her poetry manuscripts. “I’ve been looking through the goose bowl again,” she would say long after the bowl was discarded – a way of saying she was looking at a second volume of poems.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Fresher


On the Sunday before orientation week, with only a scattering of people about, shyly resplendent in my new maroon blazer, I walked through Canterbury University's old clock tower with its well-worn geometrical tiles. It felt splendidly baronial. The quad with its vertical stone walls, high, steep slate-tiled roofs, cloisters, small stone-clad library in the middle, the one extensive copper beech and several green-leaved ginkgo trees appeared Old World befitting the education I was about to receive. The scene conveyed a message - observe, have faith in the institution and obey. A stranger to such higher halls of learning, and equally an amateur at architecture, I sensed history, a impression reinforced when exploring the quad I discovered in a corner a plaque stating Sir Ernest Rutherford worked in the nearby underground room.
I was the first of my family to go to university so it was real unknown territory. I count myself favoured in that its location meant town and gown were merged and meshed together. The distinction has been made between a uni-varsity, a community united in a common enterprise for a common purpose, and a multi-varsity, a loose confederation of distinct groups pursuing special interests or agendas. During the 1950s the Arts faculty at Canterbury stressed the first approach with missionary zeal. Graduates, no matter what occupation they would enter, should drink from the well of Oxbridge wisdom, a self-confident, cultural enclosure. One would graduate with certain intellectual approaches and a storehouse of knowledge. The proponents of this viewpoint saw the more vocational oriented courses, law, engineering, education and commerce as second-rate disciplines.
Its leading advocate, Professor Neville Phillips next day gravely enrolled me for stage 1 History, the subject in which I intended to major. During orientation week I joined a group of other `freshers' for an evening at the Phillips' home. The meal was bacon and egg pie, mashed potatoes and peas. The Professor gave us wine. I had had the odd beer, hot toddies for colds, brandy on the pudding at Christmas time, and sherry in the odd trifle, but never wine. Inexperienced, I drank too much of the pleasantly sour stuff. We stood around to eat with only a fork, another new occurrence. Foolishly I ate the pie and spud first, which left me with a pile of peas which rolled round the plate as floundering I tried to spear them. Worse was to come. The Prof produced a bottle of Benedictine and poured us each a tiny glass. My first liqueur. He toasted “Good Study".I knocked mine back in a gulp - dim memory of movie characters doing so and certainly a few glasses of unaccustomed wine dulls judgement. The liqueur burnt down leaving me with an inflamed gullet and eyes that refused to function properly. In agony I coughed and spluttered for the rest of the evening - indeed for the rest of the week. The shame still lingers - not a good beginning to four years' work with the Professor.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fool's Day

Today is April Fool’s Day. During my primary school years teachers received great respect except on this day when they remained fair game until midday. At the newly-built posh Little River two-teacher school Miss Kennedy who took the top room used to come out on Monday from Christchurch by the morning bus, she'd arrive five minutes late. One April First morning we turned her desk around carefully rearranging her papers. "Good morning boys and girls" she said as she swept into the room, taking off her gloves, which she always placed in the drawer where the roll was kept. Probably our expectant faces gave the game away, she would be anticipating some prank, it happened annually. "Ah I see you have had your little joke, could you turn the table round again for me, thank you." Four boys rushed out and quickly righted it. Then to our delight as she went to put her gloves away she placed her hand on the hedgehog hidden in the drawer. Her scream proved most satisfying. She took it good-naturedly except the animal had shat on the roll - Government property and that created a problem. How the problem was solved we never found out.