Tuesday, June 30, 2009




at their grave site
I no longer bring my parents
my need of them

over time
the self settles
and is not lost

in nearby fields
mares shimmer
with special light
in the presence of their foals

where larks tumble
singing over them
my parents are at peace

whatever of theirs
I resemble
is now indivisibly mine


those who mean to keep
death a secret from us
know nothing about the powerful
cleansing loneliness
of the cemetery

rows of former minds
outside time
lying listening
to birdsong ritually dispersed
among roadsides and districts
larks over graves
and starlings feeding between them
a blackbird’s living sheen
like polished granite

some who die young
are loved so much
remembered with such pain
their families bring offerings for years
toys photographs gifts
for the sun to dull
to the pallor of faded plastic flowers
in front of the abject stone


the fault is not
in failing to love
but failing to see
how others love you

the stone man
toughing it out
unweeping at the funeral
fears for his own vulnerability

we are weak
we die
we don’t and can’t
keep promises

Tony Beyer

My concept of a cemetery is conditioned by my upbringing. Little River cemetery is beside the small wooden Anglican church on a knoll where the two main valleys converge. My father is buried there, all four grandparents, numerous uncles and aunts, other relatives while most of the graves are of people I knew or have heard about. It’s a peaceful spot, surrounded by trees, grazing sheep and cattle. High sentinel hills look down. Rod Donald, Green co-leader lies there.

The last time I visited was to take my mother then 92 years old. That morning the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, a spectacular and public death for its crew. I helped Mum teeter along the gravestones thinking those age-old thoughts about the enormity of death, and the sudden stoppage of a particular combination of soul in flesh and bone.

A few years later Beyer’s selected poems came out. When I read this poem memories of that visit flooded back. He superbly described such a scene - though a different location - and that medley of elusive musings I’d chased that day. So often we think our thoughts are fresh and original. It is with surprise we learn that others have similar thoughts and articulate them better.

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

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

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

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

I notice the sun
rises later each morning.

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

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

Harvey McQueen

I wrote this poem in early June last year. I relate to Hardy, love his novels and his poetry. What is there more to say.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Late Song


It’s a still morning, quiet and cloudy
the kind of grey day I like best;
they’ll be here soon, the little kids first,
creeping up to try and frighten me,
then the tall young men, the slim boy
with the marvellous smile, the dark girl,
subtle and secret; and the others,
the parents, my children, friends –

and I think: these truly are my weather
my grey mornings and my rain at night,
my sparkling afternoons and my birdcall at daylight;
they are my game of hide and seek, my song
that flies from the high window. They are
my dragonflies dancing on silver water.

Without them I cannot move forward, I am
a broken signpost, a train fetched up on
a small siding, a dry voice buzzing in the ears;
for they are also my blunders
and my forgiveness for blundering,
my road to the stars and my seagrass chair
in the sun. They fly where I cannot follow

and I – I am their branch, their tree.
My song is of the generations, it echoes
the old dialogue of the years, it is the tribal
chorus that no one may sing alone.

Lauris Edmond

As I age I increasingly have a sense of continuity – of language, of society, of generations and dare I say, love, as well as the fixtures of earth and sea.

Literature is one vehicle of continuity. When an obscure Asia Minor chieftain named Hector lost his life defending his small citadel in a trivial skirmish, little did his mourning subjects realise that a poet would immortalise him and their town.

There are many lovely poems in Edmond’s later volumes. This is one of the best. Not only the message, but the tone, a celebration of life. Our genes reflect our ancestors. And our descendants. We are but links in a chain.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Over the last few years I often got Mum reminiscing about her childhood. She was born in Little River but shortly after Pop shifted to Omana between Dargaville and Whangarei to manage the farm while his brother Jim went off to the First World War. Mum started school there. They went bare foot summer and winter. “If you wore shoes they stayed wet when it rained.”

She described watching the felling of a massive kauri tree. “It didn’t seem right, this sudden huge gap in the landscape. I’ve never seen anything more dreadful.” She and Uncle Charlie ran along the fallen trunk. She recalled the long trip back to the South Island – boat from Dargaville to the Manakau, overnight train to Wellington, overnight ferry to Lyttelton and on to Sumner to a house near Pop’s mother. Shortly after Pop shifted to a farm at Lyndhurst half-way between Ashburton and Methven. Charlie drove a horse and cart to school, with his brother and three sisters. He had to stand on a stump to harness the horse. Mum recalls frosts after growing up in the winterless north. “We had to wear shoes.”

Several years ago once when I was down after questioning her closely I said let’s see if we can find that farm. Others had tried but failed. Mum said “things have changed so much you can’t recognise anything. She’d told a story about the five children fording the Ashburton river and the river rising when they were on the other side. She and Roy struggled back across while Charlie in turn carried the two younger sisters on his back. They never told their mother for they’d been forbidden to cross it.

I looked at a map and there were two possible sites. I drove to the first. There was a side road with a rise. Mum had talked about climbing a hill. “That’ll be it” I said. “That’s not a hill”, the scorn in her voice would’ve stopped a charging buffalo. “It would be to a little girl” I replied. So I drove to the top.
“That’s not our house”.
“It looks like it was built after the last war. You were here in the ‘20s”
“No, that’s not the place.”
“Well let’s go to Lyndhurst and find the school.”
I consulted the map and set off along roads to the township. Mum kept saying this isn’t the road and let’s turn round and go home. I said “the sign said 12 kilometres and we’re only done 9.” She grew silent.

Suddenly she said “that’s the horse paddock.” It’s now a pine plantation. I turned a corner and there was the school, closed by the Canterbury Education Board shortly before the Picot reforms. Mum wandered around entranced. “We used to play marbles under that oak. They’ve built a swimming pool. And a dental clinic.” There’s something depressing about a recently-closed school. A heart has gone out of a community. Those empty buildings and playground once rang with the laughter and shouts of children. I didn’t share my thought with her as ecstatic she wandered around. Instead I savoured her pleasure.

Charlie drove the cart from home to school a different way from the way we’d come. Mum gave me directions how to go back. “There used to be a cattle-trap here.” “They’ve closed in the drain.” It turned out to be the house I’d approached from the other side. “That hill was gigantic then,” she said. Time plays spatial tricks in our minds. When we got back home she telephoned all and sundry to tell them about the trip.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Forever War

All war is awful but the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are particularly so. I've finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma and am now reading Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War. A New York Times journalist his account is what he saw and felt. It does not speculate or discuss policy. It merely tells his own experience. It’s a personal account of the hardships faced by the troops and the civilians.

The glimpses of human spirit amidst the chaos and violence are moving. They are given power by the unvarnished under-statement of the author. There is no place for platitudes in the battlefield. But there is for compassion. And Filkins has this.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma was not a good book to be reading during a time of grief. I should have put it aside to do it justice. But I stubbornly read it – something to do to pass the time. I’d finished the iindustrial section about corn before Mum died. The organic section is but a blur. I did pick up that in the USA organic is now big business with the same mass production techniques, very different from our weekend organic markets.

(An aside. Colin brought up an organic pinot noir last night, Vinfields from Martinborough. It is one of the loveliest reds I’ve tasted).

The last section of Pollan’s book was about hunting and gathering. It struck many a cord in me. My childhood contained the remnants of that way of getting food. One sentence particularly struck me, hunters lose all sense of irony when on the trail.

It finished I returned to a childhood favourite – The Wind in the Willows which Mum gave me during the war years. A comfort read. Good triumphs. Now I’m riveted by Filkins' narrative.


June glooms towards its end – cloudy today. The sunshine is about average, rainfall is well down, chill is higher than usual. Still the solstice is passed. I intended to write about it but Mum’s death cut across that intent. To me that day is a high event – the sun reverses track and starts returning south.

In the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice is close to New Year’s Day. In the English winter of 1865 Thomas Hardy wrote ‘to insects the twelvemonth has been an epoch; to leaves a life; to tweeting birds a generation; to man a year.’

Cousin Marlene has sent me a copy of a Boxing Day 1948 picture. There is Mum’s mother holding my two-month old half-brother Bruce surrounded by her thirteen other grandchildren. There would be three more, seventeen in total. Sixty-one years ago! The generations come and go.

My study window looks out to a mid-winter scene. In the foreground is a camellia covered with buds. Shortly it will be ablaze with scarlet blooms. Beyond the mock orange blossom hedge that separates us from our northern neighbours is the largest koroniko I’ve ever seen, covered in seedheads. Beside is the gaunt architecture of a weeping elm, bare of leaves. There is a tree fern. And coming over from our west neighbours is an oak bough with a few brown leaves still hanging on. All winter they’ve been floating past.

Friday, June 26, 2009


It’s been a week since Mum died. I confess the shock and extent of my grief has surprised me. It was anticipated and I thought I had done much of my grieving. Not so! I've been shattered. Yesterday I felt utterly exhausted and was too weak and wobbly to go for my twice- weekly walk with my care-giver. Feel better today but still very fragile.

A friend sent me a card in which he said how his mother’s death had gutted him. It’s the sudden absence of a someone who has always been there. I can see a void on Saturday mornings for a while for I rang her at nine on that day every week. My inability to attend the funeral also probably contributes – there is not the same sense of closure.

The first hyacinth of the season is in bloom, a lovely lilac colour. Anne brought the pot inside. It goes with all the other flowers that I’ve received – cheerfulness amidst the winter gloom.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

New Zealand Teachers Council

I have long supported the idea of a strong Teachers’ Council – of the teachers, for the teachers, by the teachers – as a way of empowering the profession. But then maybe I was idealistic in denying political realities – as the principal funder of our schools government is always going to be intimately involved. The tax-payers’ dollar is at stake.

Nearly 97% of our schools are state schools. Teachers have long enjoyed autonomy in their classroom in the sense they chose the resources and teaching method to deliver the curriculum. But prior to 1989, especially in primary schools, they were very much under the control of central bureaucracies. Tomorrow’s Schools was an attempt to move them from that dependency to greater self-sufficiency. Teachers know their task is to try to move their charges along the same path. They know it is difficult. They know it takes time. They also know it operates best on a system of trust.

I saw a Teachers’ Council in this light. I was impressed in a visit to the United Kingdom in 1994 with the Scottish Teachers’ Council. It had teeth, was representative and was responsible. So I looked forward to the formation of our own Council and was delighted when it was legislated into existence to be interim director in the transition from the old Teacher Registration Board. The Council came into existence on 1 January 2002.

Life suddenly became extremely fraught. The old board had responsibility for ensuring teachers were suitably qualified, competent and fit to teach. Now there was a larger council charged with professional leadership. Although goverrnment had given a transition grant of extra funding teacher registration fees had been held for several years. We were operating on a shoe-string

There were unexpected pressures from left field. Police vetting of non-teaching staff proved tricky. The office was flooded with queries. Differing legal advice didn’t help. For example the Auckland Catholic education office had a plumber on call if one of their integrated schools needed help. The Ministry’s legal advice was that each individual school had to check that plumber. The Council’s own legal advice was one check would suffice. That sounded common sense to me so I followed it. At your peril I was warned. The sky didn’t fall in.

After a distressed call from a principal – the police search had revealed the school’s beloved caretaker had committed a quite serious offence in his adolescence – and the trustees were demanding his removal I decided to cope with the queries by setting up a help-line. Three young women were appointed. I saw them basically as a conduit between the police vetting officers and the schools. I knew they were very busy but to my surprise and horror about three weeks after they started I became aware that they were giving advice on all sorts of issues. I knew the loneliness of the long distance principal but to have these three whipper-snappers giving counselling advice was a bit hair-raising. Now it all seems a storm in a tea-cup as the system has settled down.

The rotation system of the old Board had ensured continuity. Grass-green, Council members lacked those memory-banks. The first meeting concentrated on a statement of aims but in the second there were several discipline cases. Erratic would be the best adjective to describe member’s reactions. I realised I had a tricky educative role until the discipline tribunal was formed.

Basically I planned to see two things through. One was to improve the financial situation. Registration fees had to go up. Council members were unhappy at the prospect. Teacher reaction would be negative. My argument was that the Council had increased responsibilities. To undertake its legislative requirements it needed extra staff. I carried the day eventually as members accepted the inevitability. There was as anticipated an outcry from teachers.

The other was to arrange the election of the three teacher representatives. That arranged I retired. I was finding the job stressful and felt it needed someone with fresh energy. I was also beginning to have symptoms of my muscular degeneration but at the time I thought that was the onset of old age. The Minister’s Office rang asking me to stay on longer. I said no, it was time to go. So in August I retired for the fourth and final time.

It was a good way to end a career in education - doing something that I believed was important and necessary and that I had the capability to do.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Teacher Registration Board

This time seven years ago as executive director of the New Zealand Teachers Council I was selecting by tender a firm to carry out the ballot for the first teacher representatives. There were three positions, secondary, primary and early childhood. Trevor Mallard the Minister had appointed temporary people until the elections could be held. I was tempted by a digital ballot – it would be cheaper and innovative, indicative of the future. But I didn’t want to upset teachers and I was aware that people in the early childhood sector might have trouble getting access. So we settled for a postal ballot.

(I point out the lack of the apostrophe in the Council’s title is a reflection of the wording of the Act forming it. It was a political decision, not an educational one. I signed many a letter in the Council’s early days stating this fact).

In 1992 Lockwood Smith put me on the five-member Teacher Registration Board, (TRB). The Board had been formed during the Tomorrow Schools reforms to carry out two functions, to register and to deregister teachers. Most of the staff had been inherited from the old Department of Education. The board met eleven times a year, mainly to discuss deregistration for particular individuals.

Ian Leggat was chair of the Board. Ex-principal of Hagley Community College and Christchurch Boys’ High School, pro-chancellor of Canterbury University Ian was a humane educator and an extremely capable chair. As teachers being considered for deregistration had the right of appear before the Board meetings were often harrowing and fraught. People’s livelihood and careers were on the line. But the question had to be asked, what this person fit to be a teacher? Competence issues were the most difficult. The well-being of students was always our primary aim in reaching a decision.

After Ian left Lyall Perris replaced him. Lyall had been with me in the Curriculum Development Division of the old Ministry. He had been acting Chief Executive of the Ministry of Education before the permanent appointment of Howard Fancy. He continued with Ian’s sensitive style of chairmanship. I was pleased to have been a member of the Board under their leadership.

In 2000 my stint ended. But half-way through 2001 Lyall rang me. John Langley, director of the TRB had been appointed principal of Auckland College of Education. Would I be interested in being interviewed for a position as interim director to assist in the transition to the newly formed Teachers Council? ‘Be a three months’ job,’ he said.

I was appointed in September. It was to be a transitional job so I adopted a policy of as little change as possible. After all I knew the running of the Board very well. I quickly learnt the political sensitivity of the position. Cases involving teachers being prosecuted or having sexual relationships with students were right up the media’s alley.

An example – at a remote area school a young woman teacher had run away with a senior male student. This was on the radio in the morning. When I got to the office early a staff member was already on the ball. The teacher was not even registered. I rang the school – the principal besieged by the media was distraught. When she heard my news she was even more upset - foolishly she had not checked. “It is so difficult to get staff here.’

The media rang me. “Such cases almost invariably result in deregistration but in this case as the teacher was not registered the TRB can do nothing.’
‘So it was the school’s fault.’
‘Yes, they should have checked.’
‘What are you going to do to punish them?’
‘Nothing, the school has suffered enough with all the publicity and I’m sure the principal will not make this mistake again. I’m also confident that that teacher would have trouble getting a job as a teacher.’
I got pilloried all day for being soft. Pundits thundered about the lack of standards in the profession.
At the next Board meeting Lyall commended me on my compassionate remarks.

I shall write about the Teachers Council in tomorrow’s blog.

Reign Rain


Neither juggernaut
nor crawling thing
with saintliness and ease

can bring
a mountain weeping
to its knees
quicker than rain:

that demure leveller
maker of plains.

Hone Tuwhare's poem neatly summarises a thousand geography lectures. Issues of time and space intrigue me - the size and span of the universe; and within that the little speck that is our planet. And on it the constant rearrangement of rock and soil and water. Against such a vast background we carry on our enterprise.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Christchurch Boys' High

The loneliest day of my life was my first day at Christchurch Boys' High School – a thousand boys and I knew no one. The day before school started Dick and Mum took me up to Town. First to see the principal, Mr Jim Leggatt in his large, book-lined study. He had strong twinkling eyes, I liked him, and he treated my country parents as important people. But at Adams House, the hostel, the reception was more perfunctory, people were busy and everybody seemed to know everybody else.

I was pleased to see them go, Dick's hat-twirling and Mum's ill-concealed concerns were embarrassing, but as the De Soto car pulled away I felt both abandoned and ashamed of my emotions. My brother Doug had gone to Tec, to the hostel there, he was used to crowds and a dormitory. I wasn't.

Mr Kidson the housemaster asked one of the prefects to show me around. He looked so confident in his blazer, whereas I felt ill at ease in mine, still it was nice to be wearing grey longs after three years of tickling woollen shorts. He introduced me to Pat Vincent, the Canterbury rugby captain and duty master. High on the bank at Lancaster Park I had watched his chunky figure twist and dart to score many a try for the province. "Do you play rugby?" The question was perfunctory, I had neither the build nor the confidence.

"Pat's one of the heaviest caners in the school."
This was a whole new world in which I lacked experience. I had never been caned in my life, hadn't been strapped for years. The prefect showed me where he and his fellows each had their own little room, "we can cane too". Obviously I was entering a hierarchical universe which I only knew through reading. I contemplated the prospect.
"Don't worry, sixth formers rarely collect it."

He took me upstairs to the senior dorm, sixteen beds, mattress curled up on a wire frame, folded blankets, flannelette sheets, pillow-case, a combination locker wardrobe for each boy, the space looked bare and spartan though a large chestnut tree outside the window filtering sunlight into the room made it look more bearable.
"Take your pick."
"Wont the others mind."
"No. If they do say I told you."
"Which one would you suggest."
"Not near the window, its drafty. Plus kids come and go." He saw my bewilderment. "They're not supposed to use the fire escape but they do because they can shiny up the tree and drop onto it. Near the door's probably best. You look a bit shy, get's a bit rough in the middle sometimes. Pillow fights. Apple pie beds, and it always pays to check your bed before you sit on it".

I began a denial about being shy, it seemed particularly important to tell that particular lie, but I was overridden. "Behind's the door the best. It was mine last year. Give's you time to pop into bed when old Pat or the others come round. Or me, prefect's job to check lights out you know."

Finally, he took me to the ablution block. The showers and hand-basins were even more spartan. The scent of Jeyes Fluid hung strongly over the dank concrete floor. There was no privacy.

There was none in the dormitory. I faced the wall to get undressed. Being behind the door was advantageous. A game consisted of putting the legs of the bed at an angle so that they collapsed at the first weight. Very early on, someone illegally visiting us from another dorm dived under the nearest bed, when Pat appeared at the door with a boy out late. Pat escorted the recalcitrant, a big hefty lad from the West Coast to his bed growling and telling him to hurry up, it was well past lights out. The Coaster sat down to take off his shoes and the bed collapsed on the poor youth underneath who gave a scream. He needed several stitches to his head. No one owned up to the action so Pat caned all of us to set the standard. What I saw as injustice made me furious. Having been a teacher I realise that boyhood code of non-telling on your mates made a collective punishment necessary. I think my rebellion was more about the barbaric nature of the punishment.

If the hostel proved alarming, the first week of school was equally so - barracks week while the timetable was sorted out. The house prefect who befriended me first day at Adams House held rank in the Air Training Corp. Claiming it as more fun, he pointed out that one might get a flight. I had never flown. So I joined, only to find myself on parade a sixth former surrounded by third formers. Being suddenly one of the taller boys made me stand out. Never having been drilled or shouted at in this fashion, and with a poor sense of left or right I hesitated about which way to wheel. Several times I shambolised a parade, and received punishment, standing to attention in the hot sun with a rifle over my shoulder. No one believed my protestations that my actions were unintentional. Each time we marched I remained in a cold panic - a condition which made me more hesitate at the barked command and therefore liable to create more chaos.

In a week of hot nor-westers, I was back in woollen shorts and serge blouse, instead of the comfortable grey slacks bought to go with my blazer. We marched, we stood at attention, we stood at ease, we lined up in ranks, we presented arms, we marched, and we wheeled. It all seemed pointless. There was a lesson on assembling a machine gun - even more pointless because half the parts weren't there, we were asked to imagine them.

The only enjoyable moment was a spell in the swimming pool with rubber dinghies, pretending to be shot-down airmen. What a relief to get into swimming togs and mess around - I'm sure the masters realised we needed a break. We went out to West Melton to shoot in the butts. Again, it seemed pointless, lying spreadeagled to shoot at a distant fixed target when around us were real live running rabbits.

Confusion reigned at the passing out parade. On a stinking hot nor-west day we stood to attention while the Brigadier reviewed us. Several boys fainted but we were kept out in the heat at attention. One third former beside me muttered he was going to "throw a sickie" to get into the shade - his rather theatrical faint caused quite a stir. Some perverse demon prevented me from following suit. Stubbornly, stupidly I held myself ramrod stiff. Mercifully the parade ended. Our officers were taken off for a flight - the ranks got another march to keep them occupied.

I went home for the weekend very unhappy. Dick had little sympathy. "That's what the army's like," he said. Mum said that once lessons started I would like it more. She was right about that, but not about the austere hostel. The culture shock was too great. I felt most of the boys were unnecessarily crude - for the first time in my life I felt prudish, which is probably more a commentary on me than them - the canings brutal and unfair while the food was basic, bulky and poor. At prep time I'd finish my homework but found it difficult to read because of the mutterings and distractions. I had no space to retreat into my private world of books and thought.

After five weeks I made a lunge for freedom. I rang Mum, "Come and get me,please. I can't stand it any longer." Without arguing she did, and took me in to town shopping. I spent my remaining pocket-money on two books: Eric Williams' The Tunnel and Aspley Cherry-Garrad's The Longest Journey in the World - both accounts of non-academic men, defeated but still heroic in front of an applauding world. The next day I cut manuka with Dick, the dogs lolling around as I built up a huge bonfire. Rolling a cigarette, Dick asked me what I wanted to do. Cautiously pointing out that I wasn't strong enough to be a farmer he said I should do something with my brains. "What about the Church?" he asked. I replied that I wanted to go on but wouldn't go back to that school. Maybe I could get University Entrance by Correspondence? "You do want to go to University?" he asked. I nodded. He picked up the chain saw and tackled a big tree.

The next day he put on his best suit and disappeared in the car. I carried on clearing manuka. When he got home it transpired he'd been to see Mr Leggatt. "He wants you back. Says it would be a waste for you not to continue.” I remained adamant, I wasn't going back to the hostel. Mum had been on the telephone to Aunt Thora’s mother, Mrs Mason. She lived in a small cottage in Fairfield Avenue in Sydenham, the surrounded maze of streets so well described by Stevan Eldred-Grigg in his Oracles and Miracles. Boarding with her and her accountancy student son Barry, I could bike to school as a dayboy. "Will you try it?" Mum asked. I knew I wanted to, but then Dick added the sting in the tail. "Did you cut up Pat Vincent's canes when you left?" I had, every one of them into small pieces. I admitted it. Inwardly I felt a bit ashamed, it was an act of cowardice rather than audacity. "Well, Mr Leggatt says you'll have to be publicly caned for that. It's part of him taking you back."

The following Monday saw me back. At morning break I reported to Pat. For a time he looked at me with brown eyes that rather twinkled. "What are we waiting for?" I asked. He continued to scrutinise me. At last he spoke, "Character analysis. I thought you were a sneak, cutting and running. Maybe you have more spunk than I gave you credit for. Bend over." Four of the best, but it was a private caning. At the finish he shook hands. "Welcome back". Backside on fire I returned to class, feeling rather proud about his comments - high praise from this doyenne of masculine society.

1939 Snowstorm

In her recent autobiography Jacqueline Fahey says “all memories are true, but within families they can be hopelessly at odds.” I’ve got strong memories of Pigeon Bay in the great snowstorm of 1939. But I sometimes wonder whether that is because my mother’s photograph album had many snaps of the snow. There were other events and of these I have no recall, not even echoes. Maybe the storm was spectacular enough.

Certainly the word blizzard entered my vocabulary - snow fell right down to the seashore and for days flakes swirled past our windows to settle in a weightless hush on trees, shrubs, shed and lawn, the hills completely curtained off. We couldn't drive out for over a week and the power was cut. John had stacked piles of firewood so Mum kept the kitchen stove going full bore. She kept filling our hot water bottles all night and in the morning wrapped us in blankets to run shivering to dress in front of the opened firebox.

The cold meant that the jagged spikes of ice hanging from the guttering didn't thaw for over a fortnight. We built a large snowman on the front lawn. In some of the bays the snowdrifts were forty feet deep. 25,000 sheep were lost on the Peninsula. In Long Bay and Le Bons Bay cattle were frozen on their feet as for three days the temperature never rose over freezing point. Weeks went by before the biggest drifts of snow disappeared.

Monday, June 22, 2009

My Poem for Mum

My mother's funeral service was held this afternoon in Christchurch. She is buried alongside her second husband Dick Lee. My own health meant I could not attend. Anne read my poem at the graveside.

Betty Lee 1912-2009

She saw a giant kauri cut down
‘such a gap in the landscape’
barefoot she ran
along the trunk

Golden legs
that won many
a married ladies’
100 yards dash

Forceful at chopping
a pig’s head to pieces
to make the brawn
she knew delighted me
love comes in many guises

she won at bowls
never forgave
the selectors when
they dropped Mehrtens

2 husbands
5 sons
& a long widowhood


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Two Personal Poems


Each action valiant, he fenced
he swore, he laboured, gradually
shaping the steep land to the image
in his mind. Southerly busters would
see him out, warm tea with a slosh
of whisky in a bottle, assisting in
the bitter wind a birth, skinning
the dead & mothering on the living.
A refusal to suckle was a personal
failure. My heresy (they’ll only go
to the works) was ill-received, his
pride in the high percentage a cover
for exclusive acts of creation &
salvation. Felling the pines over-
shadowing the house he discovered
a magpie pair nesting. He stopped
cutting, ‘they’ll keep the hawks away
from the chickens & ducklings’ &
placed abandoned yard eggs in
the warming oven. Season after
season as water tumbled down
the bush-shrouded creeks, he
wrestled irritable Southdown
rams across the board, shore
them without a cut & then with
tenderness booted each one down
the ramp for my hot branding pot.
Great was the harnessing of
the big horse – swingletree &
sledge ready for the herculean contest.
How the sparks flew.


Uncoiling bracken raises
the clutched bidibid
car-high cocksfoot ripples
bees browse at clover
nesting magpies hold court
while under konini cattle stare.

Below, loomed waves
pattern the empty beach
beyond the chunky hills
and the Waimak curling
to a vaguer horizon
clear blue in the east.

Elsewhere the sky is
slashed by a nor-west arch
- Nor-west –
how quickly the wind wilted
the flowers on your grave.
Dick. You farmed land like this.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The PM & Mum

During the time I worked for David Lange I think Mum hardly heard the TV news. She spent the time watching to see if I would appear in the odd camera shot. When I did she’d ring me up proudly. “Saw you this evening.” I never had the heart to tell her that I tried very hard to stay out of camera sight.

There was a time when I’d planned to spend an evening with her after a visit with him to Christchurch. It was just before the release of Tomorrow’s Schools and as there was so much to do I decided not to stay. When I rang and told her she was disappointed but understood. When we’d finished the schedule and he talked of dropping me off on the way to the airport I explained I’d changed my plans. “What come down and not see your mother. We’ve got plenty of time. It’s on the way. We’ll call”.

The car pulled up in front of Mum’s place. I raced up the path to warn her that the PM was behind me. She appeared at the door. “He can’t, I’ve only got my old slippers on.” “Nonsense” the big voice boomed behind me. “They’re the prettiest pair of old slippers I’ve seen for a long time.” Flustered she told him he was looking well. He responded by telling her she was looking well. I watched him put her at ease with a skill he’d obviously learnt from his doctor father.

Towards the end he said “I’ve got some paper-work to do in the car. I’ll leave Harvey with you for five more minutes”. Mum said “You’ve both got work to do, I’ll see you off.” She wandered to the car with us, old slippers forgotten. Neighbours twitched curtains. She and the Prime Minister waved goodbye at one another. As we drove off, he turned from the front seat, ‘she’ll be the talk of the street.” He gave me a conspiratorial smile. He’d read the old lioness well.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Mum's Death

My mother died peacefully this morning aged 97 years, one month and two days.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Frustrated Tui

We had a rather frustrated tui in the garden today. The abutilon is covered in apricot-coloured flowers. Every now and then it is abuzz with wax-eyes seeking nectar. The tui decided it was time he also got in the act. But the trouble was his weight was too great for the delicate boughs. He landed several times, managed a few sips but kept slipping off. He finally gave up and left.


Two friends came for lunch last Monday, Graeme Oldershaw and Lester Taylor. Graeme brought a tasty smoked chicken and vegetable soup he’d made and Lester home-baked scones. They are both former college of education principals, Graeme in Wellington and Lester in Dunedin. I got to know them well when I was director of the New Zealand Council for Teacher Education in the 1990s. NZCTE basically was lobbyist for the colleges of education. My major task was to ensure their voice was heard alongside the universities and polytechnics and the increasing number of private providers of tertiary education. Dealing with the funding cuts by the Bolger Government occupied quite a bit of my time.

A highlight of my stint there was to organise through the British Council an education study tour of the United Kingdom for the six principals and myself. In a jam-packed fortnight we gained considerable knowledge about the English and Scottish systems as well as a lot about each other. We spent the first week at an in-service centre near Bristol. After an intensive day’s work, in the evenings we had time to explore the lovely Somerset countryside. The second week was spent in visits to institutions in London, Milton Keynes, Manchester, Edinburgh and Stirling. I found the Scottish system particularly impressive.

The position meant I had a lot to do with Minister Lockwood Smith. Despite opposing some of his policies I enjoyed working with him. He was always approachable, willing to listen and prepared to reconsider his decisions when faced with reasoanble arguments. He launched my two education books. I am not surprised he is a success as Speaker for he is fair man.

NZCTE took him out to dinner once a year, Chatham House rules. (Nothjng said was to be attributed). They were useful occasions. Until one night Dr Smith kept talking about his farm and his prize show bulls. Eventually one principal said we were there to discuss education. He sighed and asked if he could trust us to keep a secret. We agreed. He revealed that there was to be a Cabinet reshuffle and he was being taken off the education portfolio. To our credit we kept our word. My first thought was ‘damn, what a waste of money.’ A month later we took his successor Wyatt Creech to Plimmer House for a repeat meal.

As director I had responsibility for the national language advisers, French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. This was logical as colleges of education had regional control of teacher advisory services. These five positions were administered under separate agreements with their governments. This meant considerable discussions with embassies and home authorities, a very stimulating process. The same contract from the Ministry of Education gave me control of teacher exchanges.with Britain, Germany and Canada.

NZCTE no longer exists. The colleges have all merged into the local university Education Departments. My time as director was an enjoyable period of my life. I was 'boss' and proved to myself that I was a capable administrator.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Compulsory Education

Amidst all the change, excitement and hype associated with contemporary education it must not be forgotten that education has always provided continuity in passing on knowledge, skills, values and traditions. Schools at their best are places of intellectual excitement and nourishment. But their custodial function remains. Parents wish to know their children are in a safe place, while society wants to ensure that those children whose parents neglect their learning are having a second chance at least.

While my boyhood held school and family in separate parallel tracks I was not aware of any conflict between them. This is not always so. There is often tension between the family and the State as the supplier of schooling and learning. Those who keep asking for a return to the 'so-called' traditional family values in education have themselves to answer a question - if the monolithic Communist bloc of Eastern Europe cracked under the pressure of Western information technology can the tutelage of kin also withstand the same pressure.

At one time family and workplace were the main educative sources. In the 19th century the nation-state took over the role. Now schools compete with the global multi-media world. That is why teaching is now much harder than when I was in the class-room.

It is easy to forget how recent a development is compulsory schooling. Teachers often complain that as a profession they lack recognition. As an occupation there is not the weight of tradition that say law or medicine carries. Further, for centuries children assumed adult responsibilities much younger than they do today. Indeed, the very education structures we have created prolong childhood and have introduced adolescence.

Equity is a problem for modern educators. A nation cannot afford to waste its available talents. Present access to the global multimedia is inequitable and is likely to remain so. A question any society faces is how far should the State intervene and provide assistance on socio-economic as well as gender and ethnic grounds?

Western society balances two prospects of freedom: capitalism - the maximisation of profit - and democracy - equality and social responsibility. The tautness between them though uneasy provides the dynamic upon which our way of life exists. Somewhere in there environmental sustainability is struggling to be heard.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More Jottings

1 Our first camellia flower opened yesterday

2 It’s 6 degrees outside and there are snow flurries. Dunedin has snow to the sea

3 Cousin Sally has been researching in the Akaroa Mail. She emailed me information about an interesting test case before the magistrate in the 6 June 1917 edition. It was about a breach of the Council’s by-law restricting the driving of a motor on the Council’s roads on any night except Wednesday.
The by-law had been passed after considerable discussion and had been supported by petitions. These were tabled despite the defendant’s lawyers objections. The magistrate said ‘local bodies often received unreasonable petitions and whether these were for or against they were rather worthless. Even if every ratepayer signed the petition it might be unreasonable because all the King’s subjects had a perfect right to use the King’s highway and it was a question of whether a local body could make such a restriction.’
It was pointed out that if a motorist were caught at sunset on their way to Le Bons Bay he would have to stop. People travelling to Little River on the evening train could not get home because of the by-law. A witness claimed the by-law was made by the knowledge of the roads and confirmed by the judgement of the ratepayers. When the defendant’s lawyer asked could the doctor travel at night the witness replied ‘ we thought it was just as well to save the life of the person on the road as the person the doctor was going to attend.’
There were 96 cars and cycles registered in Akaroa County. There was no similar night restriction in the neighbouring Waiwera County Council though it had one for speed – a limit of 15 miles per hour.
I’ve asked Sally did her research find out the result of the case.

4 Not often do I agree with columnist Richard Long but I did today. In all the hoo-hah about mortgage rates people forget about those of us who rely upon interest from our savings. Good one Richard.

5 Our super debate is hotting up. Demographers generalise statistically. Politicians legislate for the common good. Planners operate for the majority. But we should never forget that in any devised system plans can never be that water-tight that an unexpected iceberg cannot rip them apart and we all age individually. One person might anticipate a drop in life-style and spending power. Another may be delighted at the prospect of more leisure time. Some are caught in poverty. Others like me with ill-health. Every now and then I hear a horror story about someone losing a life-time’s savings by some means or another. The fortunate have wealth and health, while those with wealth can spend on health. In the USA approximately 1% of the population account for 22% of total health care expenditure. In trying to change this sitution Obama has a fight on his hands.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilemma

My present reading is Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest poetry collection Further Convictions Pending and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan compares a koala which has no option as to its food – gum leaves - with humans who have both the luxury and dilemma of choice. His first section explores the production of corn, now all pervasive in the American food scene. He describes it as industrialised food. He says North Americans are now processed corn walking, claiming they had traded in a wide variety of diet for the appearance of variety.

He outlines how corn growing has replaced the old diversified family farm. The place where most kernels end up is on the American factory farm, places that could not exist without them. Further, hybrid corn is the greediest of plants, consuming more fertiliser than other crops. After the war the government had large stockpiles of ammonium nitrate used in munitions. It also can be used as fertiliser. But the processing uses oil.

Nixon’s Government removed the safeguards set in place during the New Deal. They replaced loans which enabled storage with outright purchase. With guaranteed sales the result was a mountain of cheap corn. So a system of specialisation and debt developed which saw the farmer chasing his own tail. It’s a sobering and thought-provoking read.

Sunday, June 14, 2009



Why should one long for something
supposedly composed of sawdust
or sweepings and bulked up with
excessive breadcrumbs? Coloured

like a tart's lips and typically
when the water in the pot comes to boil
stepping out of her underthings
or worse looking like a condom?

And yet, sometimes passing the butcher’s
I compose a worthy list: eye fillet
And a nice beef roast (special visitors)
And just casually, like childhood, a saveloy

Elizabeth Smither Red Shoes p28

When I was a boy a trip to Christchurch by my adults often ssaw them bringing home a packet of saveloys. In a regular diet of home-killed mutton they were a colourful treat. Anne can’t believe that I still like them. Tasteless things she says. Like Elizabeth Smither, for childhood’s sake, I still enjoy my saveloy.


Five years ago Anne had a second cataract operation. In the waiting room at Kenepuru hospital I finished reading Kira Salak’s The Cruellest Journey, a fascinating travel book, about kayaking 600 miles down the Niger to Timbuktu. It had a lot of meditation about journeys and their point. Or lack of it, which can be a satisfactory reason. Salak quoted interesting snippets from Mungo Park’s diary as she followed the famous Scottish explorer’s two trips along that river.

An arm-chair traveller I found myself caught between two feelings, immensely impressed in her bravery in travelling on her own through misogynist Mali and at the same time struck by her foolhardiness. She described well the world’s narrowing down to just the physical repetition of paddling and deciding where to sleep in the evenings.

The title is a variation on Cherry-Garrard’s Worst Journey with its account of the repetition of step by step man-hauling a sledge across the snow. Something satisfying about travel books is that they have a definitive ending. There is a journey’s end. Arrival is the goal and it is usually achieved. I love a good biography. But often there is a little disappointment when it is finished. The main character has departed but what happened to the supporting cast – children, lovers, friends, rivals. I want to know about the continuity, the vast seamlessness of people affecting one another, interacting, drifting apart, suddenly co-inciding.

Salak continually made the point about the clutter and cares of our ordinary way of life. (A line from Auden springs to mind, “in headaches and in worry life leaks away”). Saints and sages down the centuries have pointed out that not having possessions gives us freedom. We believe them, but not for us thanks. Salak’s senses became more acute, learning to judge weather, and noting the way the landscape changed as the river left the trees to go through the desert.

And behind her judgements is the knowledge that if she survives there will be warm baths and perfume and cavair again. (That sentence is my addition, she did not mention such things). What her experience reveals, however, is the few basic things a person really needs to exist. The poor villagers with whom she stayed nightly had few except maybe time. The hospitality she was offered reflected a way of life that we have long lost.

As a boy when asked why I read, I replied it gave me a chance to read about things I could not do or have. My questioner said “that’s a very sophisticated answer.” I remember the comment because I looked up the word “sophisticated” in the dictionary. I had to ask Mum how it was spelt. I was looking at ‘sof’. Living on my own piece of earth I can explore the world through the eyes and experiences of others.

Salak’s journey on her own in a canoe on a mighty river is not one I’d like to undertake myself. But I feel the richer for having read about her adventures and reflections about them. Human beings have always connected through traveller’s tales. Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world. Wealth is relative but I am extremely rich in my existence compared to the inhabitants of that nation. Salak’s experiences highlight the pleasures of simplicity.

Salak became seriously ill as her journey neared its end. At one stage it looked like she wasn’t going to make it. Sitting in the waiting room, surrounded by all the paraphernalia of modern medicine reading about a poverty-stricken country and so identified with the narrator I was concerned about her predicament. My mind, miles away from my body, was jubilant when she finally staggered on to finish the journey under her own steam.

She described Timbuktu as the world’s greatest anti-climax. It’s full glory was about the time that Maori began arriving in New Zealand, when its grandeur became the stuff of European legends. It’s certainly a name that carries a whiff of romance. I remember once getting all excited when there was a possibility I would be asked to do some education work in Samarkand. It’s a place I’d always dreamt of visiting, one of those places that again carries that sense of grandeur. Web-sites reveal the drab concrete world of Soviet realism rather than the historic mosques that are portrayed in the books on our shelves. It was not to be. I didn’t go.

Anne's operation was successful

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Near Kaeo


Hills are lit as for McCahon, mangroves
reflect the slanted sun, tourist coaches
race across the reclaimed flats while placid
Friesians graze between the arum and the flax.

Near here, early Wesleyans, their wives as well,
sought by action to turn their needs into belief –
also profit. Did they pause to watch the evening
hills lit like this? Diaries tell of tribal alarms,

shipwrecks, forbidding peaks, obedience, sermons
and the fires of hell; letters speak of muskets,
flour and faith, of planting acorns, sinners,
schism and defeat. By all accounts a dour people.

We their heirs, must judge with much less haste
lest our descendants be equally unkind to us,
their unrepentant forbears, who haven’t sailed
half a world nor ever tried to build Jerusalem.

This poem is from my first volume Against the Maelstrom.


a) The Historian in me watches with interest the different approaches being taken to the recession. Obama’s America has gone for stimulus spending The argument is that increasing the deficit is prudent. France and Germany worry that such spending spirals into inflation. Time will tell.

b) The Economist yesterday had an article about Gordon Brown’s survival. Out of curiosity I looked at the comments that had been made about it. Again I was struck by the intemperate language. Extremism is dangerous especially when it is muddled up with racism. But it is more than a lunatic fringe. Conspiracy theories abound. We peddle vitriol at our peril.

c) My advanced years might not have brought serenity or wisdom. But they have increased an awareness of the complexity of things. I find in many discussions people work from prepared positions as if its trench warfare. A few evenings ago I listened to a ding-dong argument over state intervention or a hands off approach. It was an either/or argument; neither side prepared to concede the other had some points.

I was asked my point of view. It satisfied neither side. There are some givens. The answers are legion. It doesn’t matter if a millionaire or the most lowly paid worker pushes the flush toilet button someone somewhere has to ensure that there is infrastructure in place to cope with the consequences of that deed. There is not just only one way.

d) Any person’s life is littered with ‘what ifs’. Last year I read an interesting life of the famous ballerina Margot Fonteyn. In 1940 some clot in the British Council decided to send Sadler Wells, the company in which she danced, to Holland as a goodwill tour in the closing stages of the phony war. Just ahead was Dunkirk and the French surrender. The group arrived in Holland the day Hitler’s troops invaded. They were bombed, shot at, but eventually got away on a tramp steamer crowded with Dutch refugees. There were no casualties.

They were lucky. They could have all been killed or imprisoned. The world might never have seen the breathtaking artistry of one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. There is a further chilling question. What other potential great but unknown artists were killed in that massive conflagration?

Fonteyn loved steak and kidney pie. She used to have them delivered from the Savoy hotel. It was one of my favourites when I was cooking. My meals would not be up to Savoy class. But they were tasty. You either like kidneys or you don’t. For many people who don’t it’s the thought rather than the taste or look. I like pastry but I didn’t bother with it usually. Basically what I prepared was a steak and kidney casserole made with dark beer.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Brideshead Revisited

A childhood favourite book was Wind in the Willows. It fixed into my consciousness an acceptance of an idyllic English country lifestyle, picnics and hampers and a sense of a possible but unattainable glory. At the same time there was a dark side, the wild wood with its stoats and weasels.

It understandably was a good seedbed for the novels of Evelyn Waugh which I discovered in my undergraduate days. Those between-wars high jinks so remote from my ordered existence were this young man’s escapist fancy. I read Brideshead Revisted, the best, several times. It fixed another image into my mind – the splendours of Oxford. I confess to being disappointed when I finally visited Oxford. Waugh’s splendid prose o’er did the reality. Possibly too his snobbery had lost some of its appeal.

The other appeal of the novel was its emphasis upon Catholicism and the element of divine grace and reconciliation. At the time I had several good Catholic friends and to this budding Presbyterian minister with his serious doubts they seemed rocklike in their casual certainty. Waugh, a convert himself, mined this seam magnificently. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory sang the same song.

Last night we watched it on DVD. Unlike the brilliant 1981 TV series this movie concentrated not on the flamboyant Oxford high life but the Catholicism. The secular values of agnostic Charles Ryder are challenged by the aristocratic Marchmain family, a severely flawed but deeply religious family. At the beginning Ryder finds himself, now in the army, sometime during the Second World War billeted back at Brideshead the palatial family home.

The film then jumped straight into the scene which when I first read the novel had made a tremendous impact, it was one of the most erotic scenes I’d ever read. In the novel it’s much further on that Charles and Julia come together. The film didn’t dwell on the Oxford scenes, it quickly cut to the enchantment of Brideshead.

The novel is rich and sprawling. Despite brilliant camera work the film does not have the time that it deserves to tell the nuances of Waugh’s work. That luxury the mini-series did have.

Arthur Baysting


when the ecology thing
finally reached its height
an American millionaire
wishing to put things right
took all the lions from
his luxury estate
and shipped them back
to their proper habitat.
one died on the sea-journey
from an unknown infection
two were killed by other lions
the man-scent still on them
the others, tired from hunger
and chasing fleeter prey,
soon collapsed and died,
were eaten where they lay.
But the last, not yet weakened
by ease and age
found a group of trees
and made them his cage
has learned to hunt again
but returns every day
to lie in the shade
and blink his eyes at the sky
people never come
and he wonders why.

Arthur Baysting


Yes, well I agree
there’s been too much
exploitation of resources
I like music
and that piano
was once
trees and rocks
and elephants.

Arthur Baysting

Baysting flashed across our 1970s literary firmament like a shooting star. A member of the Auckland group that produced the magazine Freed, his anthology The Young New Zealand Poets gave prominence to new players, people who had come to adulthood in the swinging sixties. Very masculine-oriented – one critic said “eighteen men and a poet, Jan Kemp” it was in Auckland academic poet Kendrik Smithyman’s words “timely.” Smithyan wrote an afterword. In it he says “about three or four years ago, another wave of poets – why are poets always waving, as though perpetually saying goodbye – was evidentially at work. “Wave” is a silly word for them, ‘group is over-positive, but [there was] a sense of common happening and fairly common outlook.”

Like many a pioneer Baysting disappeared from the scene while many of those he had introduced flourished. These two poems of his highlight a contemporary dilemma. I’m reasonably environmentally aware, well aware that resources are finite and need husbanding. Sustainability is common sense. But yet on a wet day I’ll confess I used to take the car rather than brave the elements and catch the bus. Poets often poke fun at contemporary shibboleths. Baysting does it so well with his impish common sense I cannot help but admire him.

While I reject the man has dominion thesis I am also aware that nature carries its own rules. Nothing is constant and while we can assist it to repair the damage we have done we cannot restore it completely.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Teacher's Task

A few blogs ago I wrote about my 1987 experience at Wellington East Girls’ College. I quickly recognised my fifth formers expected more than instruction, they wanted attention and affection. And on the whole they had little idea of consequences. On April Fool's Day, before school started, I saw a girl with an egg in her hand loom up behind another girl. Foolishly I assumed the old hard-boiled egg on the head trick. It was not. The egg was fresh - the resulting mess and mayhem indescribable with both girls in hysterics. When they had cleaned up and settled down, I talked to the culprit. "I had no idea it would do that, I've seen it on TV and it looked funny." Her distress was genuine. And my punishment was unfair -"It wasn't my fault."

The Patricia Grace novel finished, we did some creative writing and then a research project involving library skills. The picture I formed, along with the restlessness and talkativeness, was a better capacity for work than I had anticipated, albeit collective. Right from the start I had let the five Samoan girls work together. Two newcomers’ English was weak. The other girls mothered them. They beamed as I told them how much their work was improving.

But nearly every student shared their work as they did it. Teaching has always been the art of compromise. If I had to adjust to the noise level, they had to meet my standards of work. They wanted to do their project from magazines. I insisted on a non-fiction book which I vetted. Grumbling they settled in, but in every group the task eventually engaged them. Facts are interesting. I was struck how three groups chose the Second World War for their topic

The following piece slightly adapted has already appeared in my garden memoir This Piece of Earth:
Only twice was this group completely silent. New carpet was being laid in their form room, so we shifted to the video suite for the 10-minute roll check at the beginning of the morning and afternoon. One afternoon, as I unlocked the door to let them in, they asked, were there any form notices? When I replied No, they asked if they could watch television. “Why not?"

So we turned on the set, The Young and the Restless. They sat glued. Someone on the screen, pregnant, sought courage to tell the father. The bell went for class with five more minutes of television time to go. They all looked at me. "What have you next?" "Science." "OK you can stay, but just this once." Vaguely I could see the headlines, "Relief teacher court-martialled."

The science teacher confirmed they arrived late but cheerful, had worked well. I mean, having a baby, what else could compete? Next English period, I asked about the programme. Almost all watched in the holidays. "Why do you like it?"
"It's real."
"Is school real?"
As we talked around the issue I realised their idea of reality was relationships, gossip, and status. My world of books and ideas was foreign to most of them.

They also fell silent when my temper finally broke. At the beginning I'd made a pact with myself to remain calm and rational. Back in the form room, two European girls quarreled. Assisting a Chinese girl with her grammar, I snapped, "Stop that!" and continued. Behind my back fisticuffs erupted.
"Stop that, I said!"
One stopped, the other delivered a final blow. I'd forgotten how much a nose can bleed. I shoved the victim (whom I suspected had started it) out the door and into the staff women's toilet across the corridor. "You can't go in there," said one girl. I continued shouting. "Shut up and get me some toilet paper. I'm fed up with the whole bloody lot of you." She got the paper quickly.

The blood flow staunched, I left the sniffling casualty and marched back into the classroom. Everyone was working. I moved centrestage. Silence. They kept their heads down.
"I want to talk to you." They turned their mostly brown eyes up to me.
My mood to blast them began to evaporate. Who was manipulating who?
"Boy you were mad," one ventured with a half-grin.
"I'm furious." My tone betrayed me.
"We know." The grin was fuller. The rest relaxed. "Just like Dad. We're only good when he yells."
The nosebleeder appeared at the door. "It was my fault."

For a few days they were good, they knew they had pushed me too far. But it did not last. To be honest, it was too good to be true. When they started playing up again I found myself defending them. Teachers do this. The whole world focuses down. I found the staff remarkably understanding and compassionate for their charges. But they felt the pressure of the work. The resultant hostility is focused up and out, the school authorities, society, the parents, the system, and the minister. What struck me then and I believe is even stronger now is that in the day-to-day hassle, there is too little time to pull back and be objective and to be reflective as all the teacher education theory states. They felt devalued then, and that was before the Tomorrow’s Schools reform which was supposed to empower them and hasn’t.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Snorkelling & Incest

On a French Polynesia holiday I greatly enjoyed learning to snorkel in the lagoon. The water was warm, the sights were amazing, each area different and alive with movement as the brightly coloured fish darted and swarmed over the coral.

Particularly so in Raiatea. At the hotel there was a small jetty. I would go in at the end and float contently over the shallow reef. But I recall one terrifying moment. The main reef seemed miles away. On the shore one could hear the distant roar of waves crashing in to it. But in the placid lagoon I felt quite safe, until suddenly my little reef abruptly ended and I found myself gliding over a void of pitch black water plunging down and down. I hastily turned and paddled back to the protective coral. That was a depth I could go without.

Another memory is the open air restaurant at Huahine beside the beach. Large crabs scuttled around for scraps from the table much as sparrows do at some New Zealand cafes. It was the only time I have ever eaten a flash evening meal only wearing swimming trunks. The mixture of French, Chinese and Polynesian food was superb while the singing from the churches on Sunday was an enthralling sound.

And Bora Bora lived up to expectations.

To change tack completely, I’ve nearly finished reading the biography of Dorothy Wordsworth. It’s got me dipping into her Grassmere Journals. The constant stream of ex-soldiers and sailors begging puts a different perspective on the Napoleonic Wars. It was not all glory. It was penury for those maimed in the battles.

Francis Wilson discusses the relationship between William and Dorothy. Was it incestuous? There is an element of reasonable doubt. There is no doubt that they had an intense bond. Wilson makes an interesting side-issue that Emily Bronte was influenced by the debate about these two people. Shortly before Wuthering Heights was written De Quincey publicly raised the likelihood of incest between them. When Cathy says her relationship with Heathcliff is like ‘the eternal rocks beneath’ was it reflecting this possibility. An intriguing question about one of my favourite books. Literature’s like this, one thing leads to another. I’d never made the connection between the Wordsworths and the Brontes.

I also learn that Freud said often a cigar is only a cigar. In other words, face value is the nearer truth rather than irritating speculation.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

PEN President

Not long after I shifted from Hamilton to Wellington to work in the old Department of Education I was elected to the Pen Executive. (PEN is, I suppose, best described as the union or association for writers. It recently changed its name in New Zealand to Society of Authors).

In 1987 as I left the house to attend the AGM I said to Anne "I'm stepping down. I've done my share." When I got to Turnbull House the outgoing president Louis Johnson pulled me aside. "I'm off to Menton on the Mansfield Award. I want you to stand in my place." I demurred but his arm-twisting proved successful. I stood and was voted in, arriving home to announce, "Guess, what, I'm President."

I began a series of regional visits for I believed that the leadership of this writers' group should not remained entirely Wellington-based as it had been previously. In Dunedin I stayed with Bill Sewell and met with an enthusiastic group. In Christchurch Elsie Locke led the charge against. Her argument was that as usual Wellington was trying to get the regions to do work it should be doing itself. Disappointed I pointed out that we were all volunteers and Wellington was doing all the work on their behalf and that was both unrepresentative and unfair. I made little progress.

I made plans to go to Auckland but as I was appointed to a position in David Lange’s office I resigned. My replacement Rosemary Wildbood and her successors brought in the transition to a rotating executive. I have sometimes wondered what would have happened if I had stayed on working in literary politics. My brief encounter in Christchurch showed me it could prove as bruising as education politics. As it was I briefly journeyed down that path but didn’t go far. Instead I reverted to education where I remained until my retirement in 2002.

Monday, June 8, 2009

More Tolerance

I believe in passion. It gets things done. But passion without compassion is dangerous. Some of the vitriol in the blogs from the States about Obama is downright scary. Sotomayor is presented as either a saint or a devil. Likewise here. Some of the things I read about Helen Clark left me bewildered. How could so much malevolence be aimed at an able person attempting to do her best. Now I see the same acrimony in comment about John Key. Policies are fair game. Criticism yes. Hatred no. We need more tolerance. Which means not attacking personality.

Dorothy Wordsworth

I don’t like winter. A heavy frost in Wellington this morning. Despite full sunshine the day remained chill. There were two comforting things. Wax-eyes having a ball over the suet we’d hung in an onion bag on the fence; and Dorothy our 16 year old cat after her morning ablutions outside retreated to sleep on my dressing gown lying on a chest of drawers with the sun streaming through the windows – the warmest spot in the house. Cats know what’s good for them.
Dorothy, along with her deceased brother William was named after the Wordsworths. He whined a lot and she bustled busily around. When we got them as kittens we had just returned from a trip to Britain which included a visit to the Lake Country. On Anne’s birthday in 1994 we stayed at a bed and breakfast right behind Rydal Mount which was the Wordsworth’s home for more than forty years. For a present I bought her a coffee table book, Dorothy’s Illustrated Lakeland Journals.
For her birthday this year amongst other books I gave her The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, a biography written by Francis Wilson. I had read a very favourable review in The New York Times. I have just started reading it. This Dorothy was born on Christmas Day 1771. After the early death of their mother the children were separated and it was not till her early 20s that she was reunited with William. Thereafter, the two lived together and became inseparable. In his famous poem Tintern Abbey he speaks of her as his dearest Friend.
Earlier biographies tend to portray her as a self-effacing spinster giving her full attention to looking after her brother. That’s not Wilson’s interpretation. She sees her as a central figure in the so-called Romantic Movement. She was her brother’s confidant, inspiration and aide. He and Coleridge got inspiration from her journal, her record of their rambles together in all hours and all weathers. Indeed, William’s well-known poem about the daffodils, is in many respects a straight lift from the journal.
Dorothy wrote ‘there was a long belt of them along the shore. … I never saw daffodils so beautiful. … [They] tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing.’
He wrote. ‘They stretched in never-ending line/ Along the margins of the bay.’ And ‘The waves beside them danced; but they/ Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Cruelty to Teachers

“When were you last in the classroom?” people sometimes ask when I venture an education opinion. Well, my work till I retired in 2002 took me into schools quite often. But the question really means, “actually teaching.” For me that was 1987. A year earlier I had left the old Department of Education, where I had been Assistant-Director, Curriculum Development, to set up as an education consultant.

Today, such people are plentiful, but then it was a brave and reckless thing to do. Though they appeared envious, most of my peers seemed to think it was a rash step. And just like when my first marriage broke up they would come in to my office and tell me their marital problems, so now they talked about their ambitions to own a ten-acre block, to paint watercolours, or grow lilies. One, whose expertise was commerce, advised me to invest heavily in shares.“By far your quickest return.” (She got her fingers badly burnt when the market slumped). This country boy paid off the mortgage and invested in the best available computer hardware.

Janice Campbell, principal of Wellington East Girls College, bluntly put the question. "My head of English has received promotion. The other school wants her as soon as possible. I can't get a replacement until the end of the May holidays. Could you do a two-month stint? Help both schools and put your money where your mouth is."
I demurred. "Other pressures."
"Nonsense. What you mean is that you’re not up to it."
Clever woman.

What an irresistible challenge? So unexpectedly, after re-experiencing the corridor tumult before school begins, I faced my form, a fifth, multicultural, mainly second-years repeating School Certificate. I came in cold – the mana built up when I was well-known Head of English long gone - what did this bearded old guy know about the real world, their world? The old tricks came back quickly, eye contact, keep moving around the room, maintain lesson momentum, react to any inattention before it grows larger. Credibility slowly built up but it took time. I began experiencing a long forgotten emotion, the elation of a successful lesson. When I left in May the class petitioned me to stay.

As teachers tend to do I reverted to previous habits. From the known one moves into the unknown. Further, I was in a caretaker capacity. There were three exam classes and whatever the merits of the system their life opportunities were dependent - more than they should have been - upon their marks at the end of the year.

The class had already been given Patricia Grace's novel Mutuwhenua. By a mixture of comprehension questions, I tried to drive them into the story and the issues and to get them writing themselves. Except for a few new arrivals in New Zealand they read better than I’d anticipated. Maybe unwittingly I’d absorbed the constantly reiterated claim that literacy was falling. Newcomers all took English-as-a-second-language lessons as well as ordinary classroom work. With this tuition their reading steadily improved.

Most enjoyed the novel. They liked its "New Zealandness". The issues were relevant, trying to live in two cultures at once, respect for their elders, leaving home, marriage, identity. As a group they were articulate, but very wary of my judgment. They watched my face as they gave their opinion trying to gauge whether their answer was correct or not. “Boy, you’d make a great poker-player,” one said. Though complaining about the number of written tasks, they wrote competently though slowly. I believe in handing back marked work the next day if possible. As they realised this was a pattern they began to take their writing more seriously. Pointless arguing with them that the marks were not as important as learning from my corrections and their mistakes. The old trick of slowly raising the level of their marks worked. If you believe you are doing better, you do better. On the whole their writing varied between good and satisfactory. And I realised they were writing in other subjects, not just history and geography but art, science and home economics.

But they didn’t listen. Not only were they noisy, oral instructions were not heard, let alone coded. After several abortive attempts I reverted to writing all instructions on the blackboard. I had anticipated the experience to be energy sapping. But I had forgotten how demanding youngsters are. The more you give the more they will take – an experience like being pulled in different directions by powerful vacuum cleaners.

I was 53 years old. I felt sorry for teachers when they raised the superannuation age to 65. If they raise it to say 67 it would be even crueller.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Last Run


He’d fallen over a cliff
And he’d broken his leg.
Just a mustering dog.
And he looked at me, up there on the hill,
Showing no hurt, as if he’d taken no ill,
And his ears, and his tail,
And his dark eyes too,
Said plainly,
‘Well, Boss, what do we do?
Any more sheep to head.
Give me a run.’
But he’d never head sheep any more.

His day was done,
He thought it was fun
When I lifted the gun.

Bruce Stronach

This is a poem I have an affection for as it is one I used to introduce third-formers to poetry. The finality of the last three lines always left a gasp of surprise and horror in the air. Rarely has rhyme been so effective. Town students, boys as well as girls, expressed indignation at the dog being put down. ‘He should have been nursed, sir.” These were the ‘60s and ‘70s. Would today’s students be so sentimental?

Animal death was a fact of my upbringing and to the country students in my classes. While my early wellbeing depended on an economy of fattening lambs and cattle for the works, I recall the pain of loved, trusting dogs having to be destroyed, dogs I had helped rear as puppies.

Friday, June 5, 2009

'50s Experience

In my second year at university I fell in love. Before or between lectures we strolled through the botanic gardens in that blissful state of involvement with some significant other that happens only once for the first time. I mooned around daydreaming about the strange sweetness of existence. We went to the Boranvansky ballet together - Swan Lake ever since is associated in my mind with romance

I was grass green over matters of the heart. Much of my learning about relationships between the sexes was based upon what I’d seen on the movies. One early third-term day she suggested a walk in the park. No manoeuvres, straight to the point. She'd been seriously thinking about her study, and how our relationship stood in the way. She owed it to me to tell me I cared for her more than she for me. A Minister's daughter she did not want to be a manse wife herself. She was the first girl I had taken out seriously, I should take others out as well. Hurt, I realised the correctness of her assessment. Not like later, when head over heels in lust and desire, rejection stung like hell, and numb with despair I hung in hoping for the miracle. The fact that I didn't do this tells its own story. She did it well, disengaging herself graciously. My compliments across the years.

After the break-up I joined the hostel movie brigade: Friday 5 o' clock session, rushed pie cart meal, 8 o' clock session, the same formula repeated on Saturday evening. For a while I saw just about every movie in town. They were fifties movies - great on the Second World War, John Mills on the bridge of a destroyer saluting the flag as his ship went down; the Carry On capers, Sid James and cronies with their sexual innuendo; other English comedies with Alec Guinness, Rex Harrison and Terry Thomas; and musicals of which Carmen Jones ("beat out that rhythm on a drum") endures most.

I saw a thousand Apaches bite the dust and Alan Ladd, Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper hang up their guns time after time only to sling them round their hips again ("a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do"). I identified more with their heroic deeds than with James Dean. The film from the period I recollect most vividly is Shane. I swallowed that American dream holus-bolus, while not responding to more complex portrayal of its consequences (On the Waterfront, The Wild One or The Blackboard Jungle).

My adult’s generation's movies symbolically ended with Charlie Chaplin disappearing into the horizon twirling his cane - poignant and sentimental melodrama. Mine ended with the gunman spurring his horse over the ridge to his next lonely battle. It was not an era for the camera of ambiguity. The movies that impacted mostly ended with defeat - The Caine Mutiny and Viva Zapata.

Among the female actors there I recall Kay Kendall who died tragically young, sultry Ava Gardner, always Marilyn Monroe, and a young waif called Audrey Hepburn in her first film Roman Holiday. Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock saw the beginning of a new craze. When rock and roll burst upon the scene, enjoying my exploration of classical music I was not greatly impressed but took part in the gyrations that seemed to be called for.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


My mother said "Guess what?" Kids at any age hate that question. It assumes adult superiority. I would have been about three years old. Probably the excitement in her eyes helped seal in the memory. She supplied her own answer. "Pop’s brought a new car. He's bringing it round." [Pop was my grandfather}. We were living in a small house near the Catholic church in Little River.

To add to the excitement, Mr Aitken, an elderly neighbour, buzzed in on his old water-cooled motor cycle to bring us a large basket of freshly picked juicy cherries from his orchard. Just as he started to leave, the new car cruised up the drive, crushing fennel, blackberry and periwinkle along the verges, billowing clouds of dust, scattering pups, chooks, and causing Mr Aitken to dismount hastily and wheel his cumbersome machine out of the way.

The car was a big pre-war Oldsmobile – the same black red as the cherries. The flashest car in Little River, it remained a sleek symbol of technology, mobility, glamour and power during my childhood years. Pop drove it like a king. Lounging against it he would discuss fat lamb prices, the meaning of life or spin a tale to engage a child’s fancy. During the war years it often served as the local ambulance - Yankee marines with malaria relapses, locals with heart attacks, hands half-severed in a farm accident, women in labour. (Mum often drove in such circumstances. She was an excellent driver). He took his dogs in the capacious boot to muster, to trials, to breed - my job to make sure the vents were open. Whenever we shifted house we went in the Oldsmobile. And Mum drove it to his funeral.

The motor car has been a constant throughout my life though during the war years with petrol rationing there were not that many around. There were hitching posts outside the Little River post office and railway station and they were used. In Christchurch dray carts still delivered goods, especially beer barrels. When the war ended and rationing was eventually lifted the era of the car really began. Quickly, there were flasher cars than the Oldsmobile around. The local farmers began to bypass the railway – trucking their lambs straight to the works and wool through to the stores. Women went through to Christchurch to the larger maternity hospitals. Little River hospital closed and then the railway line. Stepfather Dick drove us through to Lancaster Park to see the All Blacks play.

When I started teaching I realised I could afford a car. I saw the bank manager and arranged a loan. He offered me further money to invest in shares for the new oil refinery at Marsden Point. Shares were beyond my experience and it had been drummed into me as post-Depression lore ‘borrow as little as you have to.” I turned his offer down. Looking back I wonder how my life might have panned out if I had invested in the stockmarket at that stage. I used the car loan to buy a Morris Minor.

New Zealand’s economic history can be followed from my car ownership – Austin, then several Hillman, then a switch to Honda, Subaru and the last a Toyota Corolla.
At the time I failed to make the connection between the refinery and the motor-industry.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Spark's Farewell

“Man is in love, and loves what vanishes.’ Putting aside the arguments over the word ‘man’, this quotation from Yeats sums up my romanticism. My good friend Colin James represents the alternative approach – the classical, scientific, 18th century. We have ding-dong arguments over my continued use of the word ‘heart’. He sees it as a muscle essential for the body’s life. I accept that but I also use it in a wider sense as a metaphor for feeling and a sensibility. Technically he’s correct.

But words like ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ are part and parcel of my world-view. To me that use is valid. This is why I like Ron Mason’s sonnet A Spark’s Farewell To Its Clay.

Well clay it’s strange at last we’ve come to it:
after much merriment we must give up
our ancient friendship, :no more shall we sup
in pleasant quiet places wanly-lit
nor wander through the falling rain, sharp-smit
and buffeted you, while I within snug-shut:
no longer taste the mingled bitter-sweet cup
of life the one inscrutable has thought fit

To give us: no longer know the strife
that we from old have each with each maintained :
now our companionship has certain end
end without end: at last of this our life
you surely have gained blank earth walls my friend
and I? God only knows what I have gained.

I first read it when a student as I was struggling with the concept of the resurrection of the body. What happened to the soul? The answer Mason supplied is what I sensed then and accept now. Heaven knows. But I appreciate the sentiment of the enjoyed partnership along the way. It’s valid.

Scientists tell us that in time the sun will cool and that life as we know it on Earth will no longer be possible. It seems unbelievable that not only will humanity cease to exist but giraffe, lion, kea, sooty shearwater, potato, kauri, moss and rose will also vanish. All I can say is that for over 70 years my spark and clay, meat and mind, body and soul have co-existed. The heart and head have endured their conflicts. There have been good days and bad days. But I give thanks for the combination.

General Motors

The American taxpayer is now the majority shareholder of General Motors. The Canadian taxpayer also has a considerable interest. What would Lenin and Mao have to say? Even Atlee. Obama has a lot at stake here. He had Hobson’s choice. He’s inherited the whirlwind that others helped create.

The New York Times yesterday had a column claiming that Reagan’s actions in removing the New Deal safeguards began the slide to the present financial crisis. It figures. People forget the reasons why such measures were introduced. Here, Douglas and Richardson followed the same path. Our welfare state arose from the depression.

Under Reagan and Bush public debt increased. So did private debt. Here, Kiwisaver and the Cullen Fund were attempts to alter that culture. The knee-capping of both will have long-term consequences. With the best will in the world the individual cannot always be responsible for their own well-being. Forces beyond their control can sweep away years of industry and thrift.

I am not advocating the abandonment of personal responsibility. Rather, I am arguing that the State has a role to ensure fairness and justice. The present American reaction to this recession suggests that unfettered capitalism has its limits.

At a personal level I didn’t make a conscious choice to be a public servant. I drifted into teaching, found I enjoyed it and from there on followed where opportunity arose. I never wanted or expected to make a fortune. The work was satisfying and gave me space to pursue my literary interests. I assumed the welfare state and a pension at the end. I have been lucky. But will others be so fortunate?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fiona Farrell (3)

I’ve finished Limestone. Rather I’ve burnt through it. Will read it again soon to savour it more slowly. I did twig how it would end about three-quarters through. But I won’t reveal that. Not since I read Fiona Kidman’s Captive Wife have I been so engrossed in a New Zealand novel. They are both worthy additions to our already over-crowded bookshelves.

Anne and I are both bibliophiles. When we first got together we had separate libraries. The day we decided to merge them sealed our commitment to one another more than any vows we’d made. Where we had duplicate copies hard decisions had to be taken. School prizes took precedent. Appearance counted but sometimes dilapidation reflected a cherishing which won out. Slowly we negotiated our way through the process – second book buyers did well for a while.

One book I was very reluctant to give away was a volume of sermons given to me by Bishop of Christchurch and signed by him. “Will you read it again?” Anne asked.
“Well, why keep it?”
“The association.”
“We’re not a museum. Put it in the pile.”
Reluctantly I did. I’ve never felt the need for the book since it left the house. Indeed, I’d forgotten the event until my mind wandered up this particular cul-de-sac just now.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fiona Farrell(2)

Queen’s Birthday – another bleak southerly day so what better way than to continue reading 'Limestone'. Fiona Farrell grew up in limestone country but now lives on Banks Peninsula. In the opening of her novel - a paen of praise for limestone - the narrator says that those who grow up on basalt have a sense of insecurity.

That’s made me pause to think. Those sentinel hills of childhood’s Little River seemed permanently solid. I knew Akaroa and Lyttelton harbours were old volcano craters but somehow I never envisaged boiling rock. I always put my insecurity down to my father's death when I was five. Maybe I was wrong. Certainly in Auckland I feel aware of the volcanic presence. It is not so long since Rangitoto last erupted. Likewise in Wellington the fault-line is strikingly obvious.

Farrell’s description of the long haul flight from New Zealand to Heathrow reminded me of David Lodge’s writing. She describes Oamaru lovingly. ‘St Patrick’s with a bosomy Latinate dome, St Luke’s with it's demure English spire, and an assortment of determinedly dowdy little non-conformist chapels. They built schools mimicking Eton with mullioned windows and Virginia creeper and harbour-side warehouses with carved archetraves resembling twisted rope.’

It’s a novel you want it to end to find out what happened. At the same time you don’t want it to end because you’re enjoying it so much. Farrell’s technique’s like a detective story sucking in the reader The plot keeps getting interrupted by what appears to be another diversion but which adds another strand to an already complex story. Brilliant!