Friday, July 31, 2009

My Reading

Having finished Ishiguro’s Nocturnes I’m now reading Douglas Porch’s Conquest of the Sahara the story of French efforts to take control of that vast area. At the same time I’ve been enjoying two very different poetry books, Diana Bridge’s Aloe and Alistair Paterson’s Africa. The one thing they have in common, they do not speak in the confessional voice that is so much the norm of recent poetry.

Bridge has studied and taught Chinese language, literature and art as well as early Indian art. Her poems have an Asian enrichment rare in our writing. There’s an acute intensity and meticulous detail as this poem illustrates.


I catch it through branches that stoop
in a ruined umbrella over the sodden earth.

Its own branches reach up like a last supper
of arms, all of them Christ’s. No supplication here.

just chalices of creamy white, occasionally incised
and bruised, like Ding ware, with a fine dark rim.

Paterson is also well-known as an editor and critic. Like the late Louis Johnson he is a fine mentor who has helped many up and coming poets. He has a fine lyric voice. Africa is one long poem reflecting the myths and beliefs of a vanished group of Bushmen who saw the past and present as coexistent but the whole planet is now Paterson’s stage. .

‘And this
is somewhere in Africa

Bushmen eat the cattle
of the Boers
& the Boers take the children
of the Bushmen

& make servants of them.’

Neither example gets the feel of the totality of both books. I’ve appreciated being in their company and commend both to poetry readers.

Little River School

During the war, the Canterbury Education Board built a new school at Little River to replace the old one burnt to the ground when its chimney caught fire. Education Minister, the Hon H.G.R.Mason arrived to open it. A courteous speaker he spoke about country children having the same opportunity as town children, and how his Government had ended unemployment "for good".

The building had folding French doors facing north, windowed down to floor level. There were two rooms, junior and senior separated by the teachers' quarters. There was a bike rack and luxury a shelter shed - all very posh though the classrooms remain fairly spartan. I sat with Charlie Timothy a Maori boy from the recently closed Maori school. Learning Pooh songs from my book we used to go round together chanting `Cottleston Pie' and similar ditties.

We rote-learnt maths tables, had a spelling test each day, and I moved from inelegant printing to even more inelegant writing. After gas-mask practice we all sang "Land of Hope and Glory". We took time off from lessons to hunt for ergot, the black fungus that grows on tall fescue, which apparently would stop soldiers bleeding to death. We didn't find much but searching for it was a change in school routine.

Memories of school and home are relatively seamless. The fact there are more about home than school probably represents a time percentage rather than any other factor. I enjoyed school, got top of the class in everything except phys ed and art. Certainly when we summoned back inside from playtime I had no feeling of regret. With the war on, most adults were rather preoccupied. I was a shy child. My father’s sudden death kept me introspective. Teachers and fellow-pupils saw me as studious.

I learnt early that praise of my ability was a two-edged weapon. It did not endear me to my peers. How to enjoy and learn from the lesson while at the same time not earning disapproval encouraged a camouflage approach. Sometimes after a correct answer to a question the teacher would ask why my hand hadn't been up. I learnt to ration my waving, and not to show scorn when someone gave a foolish answer.

There were painful days as well, scraped knees, Chinese burns from schoolmates, fingers caught in the swivel of my pencil-case, winter chilblains. and bruised feelings. Pop, my grandfather had a pet cockatoo, which screeched advice and abuse at him as he went about his farm business. Amongst its food were big red chillies. They looked appealing. Aged six I stuffed one in my mouth and bit. Agony is a blistered mouth and the humiliation of little sympathy. Dr Trail said hospitalisation, which meant a trip to Christchurch in Pop's red Oldsmobile.

At the same age, played rugby at break with the big boys, my collarbone broke. Weeping I left the field. "Who's a big sook" they shouted after me. I returned to play, choking back my pain, the occasion demanded public manliness, and a show of bravado. The next day very proudly, my tears justified, my arm in a sling, I possessed a new word, `clavicle'. Words I liked, collecting and polishing them to drop into my talk, often in the wrong place. Next year, again playing rugby, I broke my clavicle a second time. These two breakages meant thereafter I broke the golden rule of that sport - "don't flinch".

Canterbury University offered money to the school for live frogs. We were asked to catch them over the weekend. At the railway turntable Doug and I filled a sugar sack. Back home we dumped the sack on the kitchen floor while making a beeline for the pantry to have a snack - Mum made lovely jams, raspberry, strawberry and apricot. She came in to see the heaving, contorting bag and foolishly undid it. Jubilant frogs leapt round the house while she explained what she thought of us. We rounded them up, and barricaded them in the old shed. That night she woke to an intermittent thumping noise. Every time she moved it stopped, but resumed as soon as she lay still. Eventually she jumped out of bed, and something cold and clammy hit her leg. She screamed loudly. Unfortunately she found the light switch just as we ran into the room. There between us hopped a frantic frog, one we had missed. Mum put Pop's old razor strap to use, unfairly we thought. Meanwhile the frog disappeared. I hoped it got outside. Certainly all those we barricaded in had.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Last Lecture

Here is the my other science fiction poem in the anthology Voyages.

The Last Lecture of the Semester

The energy revolutions at the end
of the fifth millennium ushered in
a strange aberration, democracy,
they themselves labelled it, ignoring
the norm that nearly all humans are
destined to be serfs. The very origin of
the word democracy reveals its fallacy.
It comes from the antique Greek meaning
People, but ignores Plato’s teaching of
the need for a rational elite. Equally
forgotten was that other ancient seer
Thomas Hobbes. Our own philosophers
rightly place due stress upon authority.
The idea that common people know
what is good for them quickly revealed
its flaws. As the millennium ended
the elite increasingly used the rhetoric
of democracy to hide their necessary
use of power. Fear of fanaticism led
to the mob’s acquiescence. The idea of
people power was quietly dropped. What
is interesting is how teachers turned to
the example of primitive Rome when
the serfs lost the instinct of discipline.
As you know when they realised they
couldn’t defeat the Chinese Empire
their leaders resorted to military force
with great destruction & chaos. Some-
one had to step in to ensure rationality
prevailed. We did. You needn’t bother
to study anything political in this period
after Louis XIV. However, there will be
a question on the impact of technological
changes upon society in that period.

For those returning we will pick up
the distributive restoration of law &
the scientific breakthroughs that
underpin our constitution. For those
of you - yet to be determined -
joining the contingent to deal with
the frontier problems I wish you well.
I commend all of you to spend some
time contemplating the silver maxims.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Teaching at Thames

While at Thames High School to assist my English teaching I did further English study extra-murally from Massey University. Marlowe was a delightful discovery - Tamburlaine and Faustus with their gaudy language and outrageous images; and the later plays of Shakespeare, especially The Winters Tale. The paper qualification probably helped my confidence, but what did even more was my improving competence.

I thought about the lesson both before and even more importantly after it, but seized the opportunity of a student comment, morning radio news, staffroom banter, the previous lesson or my latest reading to create variations and interest. I made a rough lesson plan but would alter that to follow where the learning was leading. It was not scientific but it worked. Because of my assurance the kids accepted my leadership.

I had relatively few discipline problems but always a few would challenge authority for a variety of reasons. Harold Wilson's advice on government, "keep the bus moving so fast no-one has time to get off," was useful. Tantalise with tit-bits and surprise. Praise and reward effort. Curious myself, I tapped into the kids' own curiosity. I used image and metaphor a lot in the process of the lesson. A sense of fair play meant I tried to involve the whole class.

The inspectors commented I questioned widely. I moved around the whole territory of the classroom. One of my surprises when I joined the inspectorate was to discover how many teachers seemed desk and blackboard bound. Early on I experimented with group work. If it was successful, one could sense the buzz of learning, the growth of understanding, the appreciation of having one's own voice heard. The teacher set the task and a deadline. Otherwise the group time-wasted. Keep changing the personnel. Break the rules if it was not working well.

It was not all success. There were botched up lessons derailed by unforeseen circumstances or by one’s own wrong decisions. Sometime one lost the thread in the confusion of tongues and the chaos of activity. There was wet duty lunchtime and stroppy kids and irritable colleagues. One’s own fallibilities surfaced unexpectedly. Some days one just slogged on. There were sessions with a child, or a group, who had committed some misdemeanour, their flushed, evasive gaze indicating guilt, or their scornful, straight glare denoting innocence, (or were they acting?)

The knowledge that maybe I, the teacher, the judge and the jury could get the evidence or the behaviour wrong added to the awkwardness of the situation. Once a boy swallowed a shilling during a lesson. "Will I die, Sir." "Probably." He burst into tears, turning my irritation into chagrin. Then there was hurt when a bright kid would inexplicably bomb out in School Certificate. Had I failed him or her? The system? The wheel still spinning, I would clamber on again to try to do better. Always the challenge, another day, another class, a fresh text-book.

Sometimes we misunderstand reasons for bad behaviour. One student had a reputation for cheating and for being short-tempered and squabbling with her peers. She was in my hockey team, a strong, determined player. Once she was in a potential goal-scoring position but her back was turned to the play. The ball was hit in her direction. Despite her team-mates' shouts she didn't turn round. I joined in but she did not respond. The ball shot past her and over the side-line. Attention gained, she trapped the other side’s put in and sent her team on to the attack again. Puzzled I pondered over this - suddenly a thought.

Next Monday I tested her. She was deaf. She lip-read. She cheated because she had no other way of knowing what to do. No wonder now and then she exploded into anger - her frustration level tested all the time, her silence not a sign of sullenness but a survival mechanism. Her parents did not know. Her teachers did not know. Nor did her class-mates. She had got to the Fourth Form and her disability had never been discovered. Little surprise that her IQ score was low. No wonder I was crabby recently when a middle-aged yuppie told me that the system I worked in was so much better than the one that educated him. Crap.

A Fall and A Poem

a) I've had a fall, more accurately a stumble/tumble getting out rather carelessly of my chair in my study. I can’t afford not to be vigilant. Luckily I was able to break it by grabbing the sofa as I fell. I was even able to drag myself up again. But it took considerable effort and left me very shaken.

b) I’ve been asked what were the two poems I had selected for the recently released science fiction anthology, Voyages. Here’s one called 'Return'. I’ve always had an unfashionable sneaking liking for a narrative poem, one that tells a story in the economical way a poem can. High School acquaintance with Patrick Spens and The Highwayman probably nudged this heresy into my inheritance.

Great advance for a Gill. These cumbersome
uniforms work. Exhilaration mingles with
apprehension as Findolphin and I exchange
thumbs up. The first time our species has
left the water. The star-sparkles are brighter
and appear closer here above the safety zone.
Cautiously, slowly we flip to the wall of
earth-weed that merges into the sand.
Difficult to cut, stems are tougher than
we anticipated. The gigantic growth
overhead is beyond our reach. Voice
tells us time to start our return.

has it that our ancestors once lived on
this shore & bred our gills to farm the sea.
Radical theologians reject this. Our elegance
has no need for such superstition, outmoded
like original sin. But it remains, a satisfying myth.

What’s this? A strange menacing creature
- looks like a seal with legs like a lobster
two fewer, baring teeth as it circles us.
We fumble backwards towards the foam.
Suddenly it lunges. Its claws pierce
Findolphin’s suit. The life-support
water flows out. I hesitate. Should I assist
him or get our specimens back. I seek advice.
Assist him they say. But a glance shows me
he is beyond aid the animal tearing at his
apparel & - horror - his flesh. His look of
anguish I’ll never forget. Obviously a type
of land-shark. As more of the monster’s
kind burst out of the undergrowth I retreat.
I do not think we will ever survive in that
environment. My report is not well-received.
They build an obelisk on the outer side of
the reef to us but they make it clear I should
have died a martyr. For my cowardice they
condemn me. I now extract sea-snake venom.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Maori Education

In 1941 as part of the Centennial Surveys A.E.Campbell, later Director-General of Education, wrote Educating New Zealand. The word Maori does not appear in the index. The assumption behind his text was that education began in these islands when the settlers arrived. This is not true.

Human learning in Aotearoa began from the moment the first settlers waded ashore from their canoes. The new environment demanded it. I wonder what these new arrivals thought at their first sight of a moa. For centuries from their settlement Maori passed on received and acquired life skills and knowledge through an advanced oral tradition. The European arrival saw a new dimension, the written word. To spread their word the missionaries produced bibles and texts in the Maori language.

The colonists had a different agenda than the missionaries. Campbell says: 'He [the colonist] may, indeed, become more … than ever wedded to the old, for nostalgia is one of the dominant influences in his life, and culturally, and educationally, he is less interested in adapting himself to his new environment than in surrounding himself with the institutions and ideas that formed the background of his existence in the homeland. Especially is he concerned to give his children an education an education that will link them to the life he has known. Cultural continuity is to the colonist of even greater importance than practical adaptation. This is the key to the understanding of colonial life.'

Providing food and shelter meant improvisation, but education would be conservative. It perpetuated the class system of the homeland. My research into our nineteenth century poetry written in English brought home to me how strongly this mindset was embedded in British settler culture. Despite rhetoric about equality, our schools, especially secondary, perpetuated this division. A small "in-group" were treated as superior, privileged beings. Treated as successful they were successful.

After 1840 each English-speaking settlement developed its own system of education for its young people, all modelled upon the mother country. The churches were the main providers, though some individuals established fee-paying schools, while the wealthy employed private tutors. In 1847 Governor Grey promoted an idea an idea for “education of youth … in New Zealand.” Basically using the services of the three main missions he wanted to assist in the education of Maori children. The idea was never launched. The Wellington newspaper The Southern Cross was adamant in its criticism, “European and native youth cannot be educated together.”

The sectarian rivalry between the three missions complicated the provision of schooling which explains why in the first attempt at some coherence Nelson colony established a "free, compulsory and secular" scheme. In 1877, after much debate, Parliament transferred this approach into a national system for children between the ages of 7 and 13. The compulsory element did not include Maori although their children had the right to attend state schools.

Parallel to this system there were native village schools. In 1879, control was shifted from the Department of Native Affairs to the Education Department. At that stage there were 57 of these schools. By 1903 there were 103 schools. Use of the Maori language was actively discouraged, indeed forbidden even though in many cases it was the pupil’s only home language. That usage has been estimated as high as 96.6% as late as 1930. That year a group of teachers advocated that the Maori language be taught in these schools. The Director of Education, T. B. Strong responded, “the natural abandonment of the native tongue involves no loss on the Maori.”

There was clearly interflow between the two systems. My grandfather walked with his brothers and sisters over the hill from Okuti valley to the native school in Little River for schooling. His mother, an illiterate linen worker from Dundee, taught herself to read from their books. I recall watching her in her late 90s painstakingly reading the newspaper with a magnifying glass. One of her sons became a Cabinet minister in the Peter Fraser government and subsequently High Commissioner to Canberra.

Shortly after World War 11 ended the native school there was amalgamated into Little River main. Twenty-two years later – I had been secondary teaching for nine years – control of the last of the native schools was handed over to the local education boards.

End of an Era

In the mail, (addressed to our previous home), there was a letter from the NZ Transport Authority pointing out to me that as I turn 75 in two months time I’ll need to renew my driving licence. As I gave up driving last year it no longer is a concern to me. But somehow its loss is another erosion of identity. Its presence in my pocket was of significance – adulthood, independence, and identification.

I got my licence as a university student in Christchurch. I have driven all round New Zealand – to Cape Reinga, Hicks Bay, Haast, Invercargill, (never made Bluff). When I was in the inspectorate I drove all round the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and East Coast. I loved the drive to Te Araroa. When I lived in Thames I explored the Cormandel. And from Hamilton we could go to Kawhia or Raglan or explore the hydro dams dotted along the Waikato River.

My first wife, a geographer, had a sister living in Greymouth so from that base we roamed around the West Coast, especially pottering around the old gold-diggings. We were at the opening of Shantytown. I recall years later taking Mum to visit my half-brother Rick in Holitika. We went over Arthur’s Pass but heavy snow closed the route so I drove back to Christchurch over the Lewis – a magical drive for the beeches were covered in snow which kept dropping on the car.

Overseas, three times I’ve driven around Britain – the first down to Land’s End and up to John O Groats. The Cortina’s windscreen wipers stopped working so I took it to the Avvis depot in Bournemouth. They gave me a Jaguar at Cortina rates so I drove to Cornwall and then north to Scotland in luxury. Though the bed and breakfasts we stayed at looked surprised when we arrived in such a magnificent vehicle.

Several times in Australia. A visit to Hanging Rock was a highlight. Once in France, rather nerve-wracking that right-hand drive. And once in Hawaii, right round Oahu.

The last big drive I made was in 2006. After a family wedding in Rotorua – the drive up had become ritualistic, morning tea at the Brown Sugar cafĂ© in Taihape and then a picnic lunch on the shores of Lake Taupo – we drove on to Ohope for a beach holiday. We feasted a lot on rock oysters. On the way south Anne sprained her ankle which meant she couldn’t share the driving. I remember driving along the Foxton straight and thinking I’m getting rather old for this caper.

When I stopped driving last year it was with a sensation of closing a book – that chapter of my life had ended. I was reliant upon others, or taxis.

Monday, July 27, 2009


An activity which has given both pleasure and satisfaction has been poetry anthologising. I got into it by chance. When I was teaching I gave a talk at an in-service course advocating more New Zealand literature in the curriculum. Phoebe Meikle, Longman Paul editor, heard me and approached me about compiling a poetry anthology to remedy the deficiency. I was half way through my selection when I was appointed to the secondary inspectorate. As I was trying out the poems with my students, I wrote to the Director of Secondary Education asking about completing the task. His reply was that I could not as a departmental officer finalise it, but I could find a co-editor to finish it and have my name associated with it. I asked Lois Cox, an honours graduate from Otago and a fellow teacher at Melville High School to complete the project. Ten Modern Poets appeared in 1974

It proved one of Longmans’ successes. Years later attending a meeting of the Wellington Poetry Society, I met two young men from two separate parts of New Zealand. Both gained their first interest in poetry from this anthology. One of the best ways to influence the curriculum is to write a textbook. My school poetry collections were compiled with this thought in mind and later when I moved into adult anthologies I remained very conscious of the agenda-setting nature of the activity.

The contract to work with Ian Wedde on the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1984) arose from that first anthology. Of all the things I have done, the Penguin is one of which I am most proud. It was a best seller with over 16,000 copies sold. Disappointingly, subsequent anthologists have not followed our lead in seeing Maori poetry as an integral part of New Zealand’s language heritage.

Ian and I worked well together. We chewed the fat for hours over the nature of the task and our expectations. We each individually made our selections and then negotiated. There was some hard bargaining but I was surprised how often our opinions coincided. For example, we were both mutually delighted to find ourselves agreeing that Charles Spear was under-rated. We got the assistance of the late Margaret Orbell for the Maori poems.

I did two more school anthologies:
A Cage of Words, (1980), through which I met Anne who was editor.
Gifts (2000) which included Australian and American poets as well two Pacific Island poets, Konai Thaman and Albert Wendt as well as Canadian Margaret Atwood.

Ian and I did another Penguin anthology, Contemporary New Zealand Poetry, (1989). One of my disappointments is that while it was my turn to write the introduction I did not have the time (I was in David Lange’s office at this stage) nor the energy to devote to that task. Pride prevented me from not admitting I couldn’t do it properly. I believe I sold myself short as a result. That is a regret.

Not so with The New Place: The Poetry of Settlement in New Zealand 1852-1914, (1993) my selection of our 19th century verse. I’ll write about this in a later blog. And I’m particularly pleased with The Earth’s Deep Breathing, (2007) a selection of New Zealand garden poems. Random House’s brilliant production made it an ideal coffee table book. I enjoyed selecting the poems for this collection. My only guide was my own taste and pleasure within the general aim of as catholic a choice as possible.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Steve Braunias in today’s Sunday paper describes making porridge for his bird-feeding station. Not only am I not capable of doing this I have never felt the urge. I’m comfortable throwing them their daily slice of bread and getting Anne to hang a suet ball on the fence.

I had to laugh this afternoon. There was a congregation of sparrows tugging around the slice and in the middle having the feast and the ride of his life was a wax-eye. There was even a thrush pecking at the crumbs scattered by the sparrows. Sparrows illustrate the term ‘bird-brain’. They’ll fly to a branch with a large crumb. They can’t eat it so it drops to the ground where the odds are another sparrow will grab it first.

One of my regrets is I can no longer go to the Karori wild-life sanctuary. I used to enjoy bird-feeding, taking sugar-water to the bellbird stations.


Cilla McQueen, (no relation), has been made our poet laureate for the next two years. Well-deserved. Her Crickey is one of our loveliest love poems.


I can’t think straight
my words spin off
in sugar and spice
god you’re nice
I’ve got a running filmstrip in my head of you
every time I close my eyes
I close my eyes quite often
I feel so good
I feel like morning
a kiss on a ferris wheel
in a tunnel of love
I’m not quite sure what is happening
but your image is in me like a scent
all the roses in the garden are opening up at once
it’s raining big round drops
of extraordinary sweetness
let me be serious
I’m in love with you
I think of you
at every
turn move
my hand
your eyes your hand
do the washing
dream on the doorstep
clean all the windows at high speed
get lost
stare into space
watch a
green caterpillar
spinning enough
amazingly fine silk
to let himself down smoothly
from the very top
of the tree

The poem magnificently explores (one can never capture) that bounce of being in love, every cell in the body vibrant with elation and anticipation, swept along by that irrepressible confidence. Every waking moment is filled with the incandescent awareness of the other person’s existence. Particular events, like a caterpillar descending on its thread, take on a celebratory significance.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Free Milk

The First Labour Government, concerned about the health of the country’s youth, gave us each a bottle of free milk every school day. Pupils at Little River took it in turns to be milk-monitors. The bus from Christchurch to Akaroa left crates of pasteurised milk under the blue gums by the tennis-courts. If not picked up immediately they would get warm and go off. When the bus arrived late, as it did frequently, we had extra time off school, mainly passed in gum-nut battles. As this was the time our tables were heard it seemed a good period to miss. If it was really late, we would skip 'sums' as well.

Play-time in winter saw us drinking hot cocoa and milk. Free apples were also part of the system. Milk and apples made sense in town, but in Little River less so. But now as I hear about malnourished kids in our classrooms I wonder whether something has been lost – a common sense of care for our young people. Micky Savage’s lot knew something about nationhood we appear to have lost.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gallus Oratory

An old work colleague Rory visited me while my computer was on the blink. One can work with people and know little about their background and upbringing. We got reminiscing about our childhood days. I didn’t know Rory was born in London and grew up there. He was there during the blitz and then the time of the doodle bug rockets. His mother was stone deaf so Rory had to warn her of air-raid sirens sounding. The doodle bugs were scary. If the sound cut off overhead it was O.K. – the glide path would take it on further. But of the sound was approaching then it was all senses alert waiting to see if it cut out. His father was killed in a traffic accident during the war and his mother had re-married. The step-father was a New Zealander and so they emigrated here in 1946. Life stories are always fascinating.

Rory’s father was Irish. He talked of going there as an adult and meeting scuds of relations. We both got animated describing our drives round the ring of Kerry and out on the Dingle peninusla. We discovered we both had been fascinated by the old stone rings and grave sites of SW Ireland. And we both confessed to being moved by the Gallarus Oratory.

The Gallarus Oratory is a tiny church dating from the 6th century. It is built in the shape of an upturned boat. Built of dry stones there is no roof; instead the stones taper towards the top. They are perfectly fitted together and it is completely waterproof inside. It needs to be, this is a very wet part of the world. There is an open door and a little round window at the other end. On the day I went there was a candle flickering on the altar, a reminder that mass had ben celebrated there for well over a thousand years. The little building was appropriately surrounded by fuchsia bushes with little red flowers, Now I understand there is a massive car park and shop. When I went there was just the church surrounded by small fields with stone walls.

Something similar has happened to the old Bronte parsonage at Hawarth in Yorkshire. On my first visit one could walk out the back door straight on to the moors. But 24 years later there was a large modern gallery attached to the old building.

Grading Teachers

I was a secondary school inspector based in Hamilton from 1972 to 1977. The primary inspectors were located in the Board offices in the central city. The secondary inspectors were on the outskirts of the city, an old block of prefabs inherited from defence after the war. Both sets of inspectors graded teachers - a gate-keeping function over advancement and promotion. They controlled the funds for in-service training. They registered teachers. A 19th Century hangover, they wielded tremendous power. They were resented and respected.

Grading proved a barrier in relationships with teachers. Not only did we have to do it, we also had to fit grades into a curve laid down by our Wellington masters. During my interview for the job I checked to see if the policy decision to remove it from the secondary service would be honoured. Assured it would be I proceeded. It did mean that teachers were on their guard in your presence. It made your advice too authoritative. It meant they mistrusted you for you might say "well done" but did not lift their grading. There was many a donnybrook in the principal's office as he or she fought for a higher grade for one of their teachers. Going to Tauranga Girls to face the formidable Joy Drayton was preparation for battle. She saw personal failure in every refusal to up the mark. We always knew we would be late leaving her office.

My heart warmed to Miss Duff at Gisborne Girls. After a particularly stressful grading meeting I commented on the thrush singing in the oak tree outside her office. She replied, “that bird has provided solace to me through many a long meeting.” “Like this one I said.” “Like this one”, she responded. My colleagues glared. Spreading my hands, the age-old act of appeal I said ‘we do our best.’ “So do I,” she replied.

The hardest thing to explain to teachers was that grading actually on the whole was fair - in a paternalistic way. The research evidence is that on the whole teachers rank students reasonably consistently. They might be hard markers or soft markers, but twenty teachers given the same assignment to check will approximately rank them in the same order. So with grading. The more teachers one saw the more one could fit them into a mental slot. One sensed that slot fairly early in the lesson and then spent much of the rest of the time wondering about how to assist the teacher - what comment to make, what advice would be useful, was confidence in need of support. There were always two inspectors grading each teacher. We usually coincided, even conservative sceptic Joe Neale and radical idealist Harvey McQueen. If we didn't we went back to the drawing board.

The presence of the principal also meant an extra witness. "He's not his best at present, new child at home." "She's the best netball coach we've ever had." We knew that on the whole they practised a rule, if we got it wrong in terms of lifting a grade they shut up - if they thought we'd been too harsh they'd argue. My final argument with teachers was always, "until you stop ranking kids, you really can't complain about us ranking you." Thankfully, the scheme disappeared. Teachers took a further step towards being truly professional. An anachronism, I was pleased to see it go.

At the time the inspectorate also was a male club. We had Miss Anderson, the Home Economics inspector whose hats were a subject of teacher gossip, a very fair and discriminating woman, underestimated by her peers. But all the chief inspectors were male, our travelling conversations and jokes were male, our decisions were male. Principals would say “well if you’re only to give one grading up then she’ll be getting married shortly and he’s got his career to think of.” It was a career conspiracy that was then on the verge of collapse. Quite a number of young women teachers I inspected became principals of co-educational secondary schools. That has been one of our quiet revolutions.

When I went to Head Office of the old Department of Education it was equally a male reserve. All the directors were men. Now there are many women senior managers.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


When I used the word ‘regret’ Fran a counsellor by trade said ‘it’s a word we should not use.’ I was surprised. Investigation revealed a misunderstanding. She was using the word in the context of past decisions, regrets at roads not taken, relationships not pursued, careers not chosen etc. I was using it in terms of things I couldn’t do now. Make love. Garden. Travel. Cook. Drive the Car. Go to Shows. Wash the Dishes. Put the Rubbish Out.

It is not to say that I do not try to appreciate what I still have. Yesterday was a good day. I am reading with great pleasure Ishiguro’s Noctures. (Music and dusk, regret merging into melancholy with a dash of unexpected comedy in unlikely places). Two very colourful rosellas spent considerable time in the top of the large hebe outside my study window next door, eating seeds so delicately. Taranaki writer and friend David Hill – always good company - came for dinner.


Several years ago when I began to get alarmed about my waning strength I took several steps to retain fitness. One was to buy a ball to do exercises on. Of course my problem was the onset of my muscular degeneration. The ball was put to many uses as one of my poems illustrates.


The three-year-old is small, compact
& incredibly flexible. I’m slow, circumspect
& spectacularly inflexible. She discovers
“the big, blue, bouncy ball”. Elders take
turns to hold her hands or legs as
she gleefully trampolines & rolls.

Then she invents a game, Snow White.
An apple bite, she’s asleep & the handsome
prince - her father – prances up on his blue
steed to wake her with a kiss. Then it’s
my turn. Flattered – I’d never been called
a prince before & slightly embarrassed
she’s so rapt in her role; innocent
unaware, in thrall to an ancient myth.

Three quarters-envious, I do as
as I’m told. And do it again as ordered.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Two Stories

Oliver forwarded these two stories in an email.

Two Stories BOTH TRUE


Years ago, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago. Capone wasn't famous for anything heroic. He was notorious for enmeshing the windy city in everything from bootlegged booze and prostitution to murder.

Capone had a lawyer nicknamed "Easy Eddie." He was Capone's lawyer for a good reason. Eddie was very good! In fact, Eddie's skill at legal manoeuvring kept Big Al out of jail for a long time. To show his appreciation, Capone paid him very well. Not only was the money big, but Eddie got special dividends, as well. For instance, he and his family occupied a fenced-in mansion with live-in help and all of the conveniences of the day. The estate was so large that it filled an entire Chicago City block. Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and gave little consideration to the atrocity that went on around him.

Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son that he loved dearly. Eddie saw to it that his young son had clothes, cars, and a good education. Nothing was withheld. Price was no object.

And, despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach him right from wrong. Eddie wanted his son to be a better man than he was.

Yet, with all his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn't give his son; he couldn't pass on a good name or a good example.

One day, Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision. Easy Eddie wanted to rectify wrongs he had done.

He decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about Al "Scarface" Capone, clean up his tarnished name, and offer his son some semblance of integrity. To do this, he would have to testify against The Mob, and he knew that the cost would be great. So, he testified.

Within the year, Easy Eddie's life ended in a blaze of gunfire on a lonely Chicago Street .. But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, at the greatest price he could ever pay. Police removed from his pockets a rosary, a crucifix, a religious medallion, and a poem clipped from a magazine.

The poem read:
"The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop, at late or early hour. Now is the only time you own. Live, love, toil with a will. Place no faith in time. For the clock may soon be still."


World War II produced many heroes. One such man was Lieutenant Commander Butch O'Hare. He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific.

One day his entire squadron was sent on a mission. After he was airborne, he looked at his fuel gauge and realized that someone had forgotten to top off his fuel tank.

He would not have enough fuel to complete his mission and get back to his ship. His flight leader told him to return to the carrier. Reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet.

As he was returning to the mother ship, he saw something that turned his blood cold; a squadron of Japanese aircraft was speeding its way toward the American fleet.

The American fighters were gone on a sortie, and the fleet was all but defenceless. He couldn't reach his squadron and bring them back in time to save the fleet. Nor could he warn the fleet of the approaching danger. There was only one thing to do. He must somehow divert them from the fleet.

Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dove into the formation of Japanese planes. Wing-mounted 50 caliber's blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane and then another. Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was finally spent.

Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many enemy planes as possible, rendering them unfit to fly.

Finally, the exasperated Japanese squadron took off in another direction.

Deeply relieved, Butch O'Hare and his tattered fighter limped back to the carrier.

Upon arrival, he reported in and related the event surrounding his return. The film from the gun-camera mounted on his plane told the tale. It showed the extent of Butch's daring attempt to protect his fleet. He had, in fact, destroyed five enemy aircraft.

This took place on February 20, 1942 , and for that action Butch became the Navy's first Ace of W.W.II, and the first Naval Aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. A year later he was killed in aerial combat at the age of 29. His home town would not allow the memory of this WW II hero to fade, and today, O'Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this man. So, the next time you find yourself at O'Hare International, give some thought to visiting Butch's memorial displaying his statue and his Medal of Honor. It's located between Terminals 1 and 2.


Butch O'Hare was "Easy Eddie's" son.

An Age-Old Issue

I recall a classroom discussion about the Eskimo habit of leaving the old ones behind to die when they’ve reached the point of being a burden on their family. One girl disagreed with the prevailing expressions of horror. She said maybe they knew they had to sacrifice themselves for – these words were not hers – the common good. Maybe they stayed behind voluntarily and deliberately, she argued. They accepted their time was up.

Do the Eskimo old now kept alive by modern convention bewail the changing culture and materialism of their grandchildren. Socrates was probably not the first but his words are available – civilisation as we understand it depends largely upon the recorded word – to complain about the antics of the young.

My generation is equally foolish. An example. I find it bewildering that many young do not read the paper and or watch or listen to the news. Whether it’s worth watching is another question. But then those young people shake their heads over my lack of interest in texting. My generation helped create the environment in which our youth grow up. When they reach my vintage – as I trust most of them will – I am confident they will then bewail the youth of their day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Further Convictions Pending

I’ve always had a large respect for Vincent O’Sullivan’s poems. He’s the thinking man’s poet. For a fortnight I’ve been savouring the poems in his Further Convictions Pending. They’re dense, they need careful reading. He’s always had a keen eye for domestic detail and the interaction between the sexes - regrets, hopes, desires and hungers. Wide reading and meditating about the arts and civilisation provide a background to explore the human predicament. The angst of the lapsed Catholic of the earlier poems has merged to a more ironic, wry examination of life’s complexities and subtleties as this collection, an ample selection from his last four volumes plus forty-four new poems illustrates.

I like the way he explores the boundaries between a truth and another truth and the lies and claims that arise and dwell between them as shown in this excerpt from Not One To Let On.
‘And the child who was four
or five, neither clever among other children
nor slow for her age, looked straight
ahead, knowing that something important
was dawning for the first time, something
about grown-ups and lies and her mother’s
secrets which were very different from her
father’s, because hadn’t her mother said,
hadn’t she told her only yesterday
that a secret was something extra special..’
The poem ends:
‘Her mother wearing her nightdress
when she hugged her and told her that.
and then it was time to go to her father’s
and the other lady’s, although that is still a secret.’

The expulsion from Eden is one of his long-term themes - the innocent, the victim, the underdog, the plaything. ‘There is a woman with an apple/ barely bitten, she is saying/ ‘Welcome home.’

The poems are jam-packed with pithy few-liners. 'The seasons,/ like the clocks in her own body, strike their reasons.' 'The easeful nakedness of living with mere/ things as they are.' 'This was/ and is love, grain by grain by grain.' 'The house is sold, even the weeds/ are someone else’s.' 'Still, she’s there,/ the 19th Century.' 'Consequence is a longer name for love.' 'The world as is yet to be, as what isn’t, is.' 'The colour of blood is a question too of grammar.' 'There is finally little to love, that is not each other.'

And so to the final poem and the last line which provides the title to the collection. The prosecution and the defence sum up; the verdict, ‘further convictions pending.’ What a marvellous pun. I look forward to his next volume and more of his convictions.

Grey Warblers

A thing I like about my blog is the feedback I receive. Just before my computer went on the blink I posted a blog about a possible sighting of a rifleman, and the following day another one saying the more I researched the more I realised I’d made an error, it was probably a grey warbler. My sister-in-law Margaret (their farm is near Mt Hutt) and Auckland friend Rosemary both sent emails.

Margaret says:
Bruce [my brother] is having a great discussion over the Grey Warbler and the Rifleman. He thinks what you saw was a Grey Warbler. We have them in the bush here and have a pair around the house. Now that we have planted some manuka trees Bruce is hoping the population will improve. He wasn’t prepared to give me a demo on the sound of their sweet tremulous trill.

On Banks Peninsula many times Bruce watched a Rifleman begin its search for insects at the base of a tree, spiralling up, sliding down and repeating the procedure again in a neighbouring tree.’

Rosemary says:
‘I did wonder if it wasn’t grey warblers that you had seen, but didn’t want to rain on your parade. It is not often that you see them – as you say, one hears them much more often.

One of my nicest Ark in the Park experiences occurred when I was observing a hihi feeder station for an hour. (We don’t do it any more as the feeder stations have cameras on them now). I found that if you sat quietly, for about 10 to 15 minutes all the bird life resumed and it was amazing what you saw.

The particular time I am thinking of, two grey warblers were darting around extremely close to me to catch insects, and I soon realised they were feeding one tiny chick which I imagine had left the nest very recently, probably that very day. It was only a metre or so away from me so that I could see the parents feeding it very clearly. It was about the size of the top joint of my thumb and it was perched on a little branch only about 10 centimetres from the ground. The parents each took about 10 minutes to hunt, so the little bird got fed every five minutes. It seemed so fragile and vulnerable, and I imagine the parents were trying to pump it up with energy so that it could fly and get further from the ground and predators. I hope it survived.’

Bureaucrat Bashing

Bureaucrat bashing is as Kiwi as criticising the All Black coach. But to see Treasury boss John Whitehead – a bureaucrat himself - wading in to slam the public service is a bit rough. There is this mantra that private is good, public is bad.

The recession is not the fault of the public service. Indeed, had there been more public servants with greater teeth some of the extravagant excesses of the private sector might have been curbed.

Of course in hard times the public service must do its fair share to lighten the burden. But blanket criticism of it does not help. Most public servants I know are decent, hard-working folk. They do an honest day’s – sometimes night’s – work.

Does Whitehead plan to lay off teachers, nurses, treasury officials? Privatise prisons? From what I gather from overseas experience that has not improved efficiency. Politicians often assume fat in the system. I noticed in this year’s Budget that there was no cut in ministerial services. Maybe they should look at Parliament to make their first cut.

From 1984 to 1993 Treasury advice governed government policy. Maybe Whitehead’s comments are a harbinger of things to come.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon Walk.

Today we had afternoon tea sitting in the sun on the deck – the first time we’ve done that since autumn. Lovely.

The contrast between sun (day) and moon (night) is striking. Humanity is fascinated by the moon - until recently when neon outshines it in our cities. It’s cycle was the stuff of legends. Roughly the same amount of time as a woman’s menstrual period it became symbolic. People planted by it and made travel arrangements. Poets sang about it and complained about it. It shone on many a lover and hid many a black crime.

When I was a boy we had an outside dunny, a long drop. It was quite a walk. There was always a torch on the bench inside the back door though in winter we had potties under the bed. But especially during summer on a moon-lit night I enjoyed going outside. Everything looked different if familiar. Looking at a full moon with its strange pockmarks was a sensual experience. I associate it with the country call of a morepork. It was not till I shifted to the city that I realised how the clean country air gave me a clearer view of the moon’s face.

It’s forty years today since the first moon-walk. I have two strong memories of that day. I was at Lopdell House in Titirangi where I was on a teacher refresher course. I recall seeing on TV Neil Armstrong’s step on to the moon’s surface. Today’s paper says that it was a 7 pm news viewing with tapes flown across the Tasman and that the actual step was broadcast over the radio. Memory plays strange tricks. We must have clustered around the radio during the day when the actual landing was broadcast, and again that evening around the TV.

There’s a neat Australian movie called The Dish starring Sam Neil about the TV broadcast of that walk. NASA had a back-up satellite dish near Parkes. According to the film a change of plans meant reception of the walk had to be made through this station. All sorts of complications, including gale force winds and a power cut, happened to add drama and tension. Add in a sweet romantic interest and comedy in the near-by town and the result is an appealing film.

The other memory is not my own. It’s Mum’s. On that day she drove Robert, one of my half brothers, back to Burnham camp where he was training. On the way back to Christchurch there was a full moon. She pulled over on to the verge and sat there gazing at it. ‘To think men have actually walked on it. In my life time.’ She was 56.


Saturday, July 18, 2009


A week without a lifeline to the world has ended. My computer’s been returned, faster, cleaner and extremely welcome. It’s been a hard week. And the sun came out today, the first time for about a fortnight. Nothing is more spirit-lifting.

My existence is split. Part of it is contemplative, almost monastic. I read, I think, I observe, I daydream, I meditate. The other part is at my computer. I read Stuff, Scoop, and the New York Times daily and usually look at Kiwiblog and Bookman Beattie's blog. Once a week online I read the Economist, Time and New Yorker. My own blog is my outreach, attracting comment and feedback.

In my computer’s absence I read two books, Denis McLean’s Howard Kippenberger: Dauntless Spirit and Colin Thurbon’s The Shadow of the Silk Road. I enjoyed the Kippenberger more than I anticipated. Especially the letters from the Western Front in the First World War – what conditions our soldiers had to endure. From private in one war to a general in the next. Quite a transition. McLean gives a lucid account of the North African campaign after the wasteful debacle of Greece and Crete. The contrast between the fighting across desert spaces and then the Italian hills is striking

Thurbon’s book earlier book The Lost Heart of Asia pointed out the environmental damage of the Soviet inheritance in Central Asia. His own self-doubt added credibility to his account. Likewise in this one about the Silk Road, the 2000 year old route from China to Rome. He set off from Xian in China. A personal quest is mingled with history, anthropology and observation. Along the journey little vignettes illustrate the plights, hopes and life of people he meets.

There are poignant descriptions of the plight of the old in rural China. Their children are rejecting their collective Confucianism for Western individualism and materialism. His descriptions of the clash between the Han and the Muslim peoples contain warnings of the bloodshed that erupted between them this year,
I can’t get enthusiastic about Tibetan Buddhism but he seems to have an empathy.

Sad, the markets of Samarkand are now full of flogged DVDs rather than silk and gold. The post-Soviet disillusionment and the disruption of the Islamic faith present a gloomy picture. Some of the people he visits look back to the ‘glory’ days of Stalin. Past glories are even more obvious in neighbouring Afganistan. Warlords, Soviet and now American troops, the Taliban. The picture Thurbon paints is one of anger rather than despair. These steppes have seen many conquerors come and go. He’d visited Heart (my bloody spell-check keeps turning the city spelt h e r a t into heart) before and describes it as once a fertile oasis.

On to Persia – a religious festival, faithful fanatics, and the impact of the internet – the restiveness of the young and the perplexities of the elderly. And so to Antioch and the Mediterranean. A visit to the ruins of an old Greek temple sums up the streak of religious exploration which is a major theme of the narrative. His own faded faith allows a clear exploration of other belief systems. Underlying the whole journey is a note of wistful sadness. It could be the territory he traverses but more likely it’s his own temperament.

He points out that the Chinese invention of the compass opened the way for the sea route to the East and the decay of the silk road.

The one bad note - a blackbird has learnt to take a whole slice of bread and fly away with it. Instead of a gaggle of sparrows I have a deserted lawn while somewhere else that blackbird gorges on a feast of his own.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

News Flash

My computer's playing up and the guru's taking it away to have a look and provide backup. So no blogs for a while. I already feel bereft.

The Bowsprit Chronicles

Two recent aircraft crashes at sea have been high interest stories. The world knew about them almost immediately. I thought about this in the context of a blog I had in mind about the perils of sea-travel in the 19th century and our pakeha ancestor’s voyage to New Zealand. Ships lost at sea, no record, no clue, just non-arrival.

Now sailing ships have been romaticised as graceful and glamorous vessels. To the migrants at the time in cramped and over-crowded quarters the journey must have been a mixture of boredom and fear. What a relief it must have been to stand on firm earth again.

I particularly like this poem. From an unusual vantage it sums up both the beauty and the danger of a vanished era.


I gaze where the ship points me. On up-swells
I glimpse clouds; swinging down, I peer
into the keel-split water. I am always proud,
even disdainful: I slight porpoise and albatross
without favour. I am the sailor's muse, the ship's courage.
This fact sings in my cedar blood

I go first. The lady leads the way. There are zircon harbours
in the tropics into which I glide: a queen with her retinue
of masts and flags and white sails, sailors skimming
up and down the rigging nimble-footed, alive with the prospect
of grog tonight and easy women. While they are gone
I refuse to miss them.

I give them my best smile next morning as they saunter to the dock.
My best cracked maiden's wince. I go first. Out of the harbour,
feeling the weight of fresh water in the holds, goat meat
and pineapples, the sailors with their sore heads and balls
hauling on the mainsail, singing shanties to banish
their fear of the sea.

When the ocean's rough I sew it: in and out, in and out,
the interminable waves like oncoming satin,
vast nightmare curtains swishing and swashing,
slippery, the seam refusing to close, raw unmatchable edges
fraying as soon as I touch them. I will tell you now
my salted secret:

even with arms to gather the winds to my cleavage;
even with fingers to smooth the rucked fabric of the sea;
even with tongue to sing every lullaby I ever learned
from drowning sailors as their lips were greening
- even with these scented skills, I could not hold these storms.
I go first: into the reef if necessary.

Sue Wooton

Of Mice and Sparrows

Yesterday I wrote about two small birds that I wondered if they were rifleman. (Should this be riflemen?). The more I researched the more I think I was wrong. Apparently rifleman rarely fly and hug the bole and branches of a tree as they search for food. The birds I saw flew quite well.

They were probably grey warblers. I heard them all summer but to the best of my knowledge did not see them. They have a lovely call. I presume the present cold weather drives them to new food sources.

When I was a boy I often found their abandoned nests – such cosy comfortable things. But despite looking I never found any with eggs or even more exciting a shining cuckoo fledgling. It always seemed unfair the idea of those little birds feeding that large interloper. .

These thoughts reminded me of a poem which amused me:


God said to the mouse,
`Grow feathers and become a bird;
or was it the reverse
the consequences of which
I celebrate in verse?
Today I saw two of them
and a third,
and none at all resembled a bird.

God must have been bored,
and what may have started
in his mind as a doodle
became something identifiable –
a mouse,
and a tree-climbing mouse at that,
I first mistook for a bird.

Today, my dear, 1 had intended
to write a poem for you
about sparrows whose antics
we both enjoy, but seeing mice masquerading
as birds,
I have to admit
I am lost for words.

Alistair Campbell

Friday, July 10, 2009

That & This

I had planned to read I Married A Nazi Officer, Anne’s book club choice. It’s about a Jewish woman who managed to get false papers and married a Nazi officer. She had a child and claims in the book that was the only Jewish baby born in a German hospital during the later part of the war.
But I was sent a review copy of Denis Welch’s Helen Clark: A Political Life. So I read it instead and began the review.Very readable.

Though he makes a major mistake early on. He says she went to a private school. Not so, Epsom Girls’ Grammar is a state school.

In the camellia bush outside my study window yesterday there were two small birds. I think they were rifleman though I can’t be sure. By the time I had looked up the reference books they had gone.

This morning has news of further bomb carnage in Iraq. Bush and Blair’s invasion unleashed smoldering sectarian hatreds that are going to bedevil that poor country as the American troops withdraw.

Starlings have discovered the fat ball hanging on the fence. So the wax-eyes have competition.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


When I was a secondary school inspector I became increasingly aware of the importance of the learning environment. It indicated status - of teacher and of subjects. (Maori was then noticeably often taught in prefabs out the back). Not always. Every now and then a teacher converted an old prefab into a colourful space excitingly alive with opportunities for learning. Sometimes classes had painted murals, both interior and exterior. The cheap Nelson blocks (so-called because the initial design came from the Nelson Education Board) built in the early years of the baby boom were beginning to show their age. The older schools with their high echoing corridors had been built to symbolise stability and order. The newer ones reflected haste and impermanence, their vacant walls tempting vandalism.

Furniture arrangements were also changing. The old schools tend 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 one of my yardsticks for measuring the teacher’s control. Increasingly, 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.

Part of the job was travelling education salesperson. "I saw this recently" and an idea, a lesson plan, a new method would be passed on or suggested. Some recipients nodded but were not listening, others took the suggestion holus bolus and as a result often it did not work while others internalised it and added it to their repertoire.

As a teacher I had accepted the division of time. Now I became more conscious how it dominated secondary education - terms, periods, subjects, bells. No matter how attention is engaged the lesson ends at the pre-arranged time. Practical classes have to start tidying up before the end of the period. It was and is very much a factory model. Much of it becomes ritualistic. Each teacher had his or her own tricks of starting a lesson, controlling its direction and wrapping it up. Ritual provided a secure place from which to present learning opportunities which was a risk-taking business. Not that inspectors saw many experimental lessons. Understandably teachers played it safe. But it became increasingly obvious to me how passive the process was for most students. I looked back over my own teaching with concern – had I done this to kids? Learning for many was something one had to do to get through the period, not an exciting skill to be mastered or an activity of intrinsic value. Though one beguiling lesson began: "today's lesson will not be as good as yesterday's. There is a visitor in the room." They sat up and paid attention while I wondered was he having me on. Yesterday's lesson must have been a humdinger - this one was admirable.

Analysing lesson after lesson proved fascinating for a while. Tension, excitement, frustration, curiosity, satisfaction, boredom, each combined in differing proportions. What was the reason why a successful lesson suddenly faltered? How come such a random presentation gained attention, indeed interest? Why did such well-resourced instruction fail? Relevance was usually all but sometimes the most irrelevant subject matter engaged attention and learning was alight and alive. Teachers who loved their subjects usually were respected; their enthusiasm was contagious. On the other hand one learnt to suspect expressed concern for their charges – often it masked a sense of condescension. Those who had deep concern revealed it in their actions.

Two successive science lessons are illustrative. In the first, the experiment did not go as planned. Dampened but determined the teacher led the classes back through each step to work out what had gone wrong. I was impressed. In the second, a different experiment also did not work. "Never mind," said the teacher. "This is what should have happened. Take down these notes from the board." When I complained to fellow inspector Joe Neale he sensibly responded, "what else would the poor devil do with you in the room. That's a science teacher's nightmare."

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Those Stick Insects in the Sun

I wrote this poem about eight years ago. I’d forgotten until this morning tidying up my files on the computer I stumbled across it. It didn’t work as a poem. And we still have bananas.


Those stick insects in the sun
do not understand that in seven
& a half billion years this planet
will no longer exist - so the radio
states - nor do they comprehend
that in ten years time we could
have no bananas - so I heard
last week. My Grandmother had
a record with the tune ‘yes we have
no bananas we have no bananas
today’. You wound up the machine
& placed the needle gently down
& miracle, cracked music emerged.
Though they have ears these insects
would not hear it. Something about
their hearing being tuned to a different
pitch – as a stoat ignores a gun shot.
I wish I hadn’t heard so much. It
makes the world less full of miracles.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It Was Worth Doing

During 1962 my final year teaching at Morrinsville College, the report of the Commission on Education was presented - the high tide of the classic progressive approach to education. Commonly called the Currie report after its chair, Sir George Currie, it made 346 recommendations. Though the basic direction - a fair education system - was unquestioned, the report signalled four areas requiring urgent attention - teacher training, Maori education, the structure of secondary education and the administration. Many recommendations were implemented but significantly the administrative ones received less attention than the others did. The seedbed for the Picot reform was in preparation.

In the years after Currie the feeling grew that policy development remained limited to too small a group of officials, (Of whom I was one). Increasingly, the very advantage of uniformity was seen as the disadvantage of conformity. Opinion began to move towards a concept of education as a means of achieving social equity. The lack of achievement by Maori students in particular illustrated the failure of an even-handed equality of opportunity approach.

Equally, the system disadvantaged women. A Conference on Education and the Equality of the Sexes was held to mark 1975, International Women's Year. It proved a mind-exploding experience for many of the men who attended. The ripples from it bounced through the system and rebounded as steps were taken to remove the structural blockages for women and girls. The problem was that men in places of responsibility attempted to alleviate the situation top-down. Ownership of the issue was not handed over to the people concerned.

I experienced the conflict and resentment that arose when as a Head Office wallah with minor rank I found myself asked to chair a research committee investigating teacher career issues with a view to looking at reasons why women were not getting promotion. I was the only male on the committee. We investigated different mindsets and expectations, the "old boys club" nature of the system, why women did not apply and if they did why were they then not being appointed.

My position in the hierarchy was vexatious to some committee members and led to several clashes at the beginning. I could understand their frustration, but my superiors were adamant they wanted me to be the controlling officer. Part of my learning curve was to accept the group taking responsibility for the study. This got me into trouble with my superiors as some of the directions being headed to by the study were not those they wanted pursued. They wanted me to dampen down the fires, the other side wanted them lit. Even-handed honesty is not a recipe for staying out of trouble.

When the report finally appeared the research did reveal discrimination, not only in schools but also in administration, and suggested ways in which it could be addressed. Recently Geraldine McDonald a leading feminist educator described it as 'ground-shaking' study. I was pleased to have been associated with that particular piece of earth-movement and consider my association with it an important achievement.

Rates & Taxes

No taxation without representation. That was the rallying call of the American Revolution.

I am a believer in democracy. It has its flaws but by and large it enables people to have a say in how they are governed. I agree with the novelist E. M. Forster when he wrote an essay titled Two Cheers For Democracy.

When I was teaching I became involved in teacher politics. I became chair of the Waikato Region of PPTA. I recollect leading my delegation in the annual August AGM – members included Bruce Beetham and Mike Minogue, both expert in challenging the chair. Every year there was a heated debate at the regional meeting as members discussed remits. Some people wanted to tie delegates’ hands – they had to vote as the region had dictated at its meeting. I always argued for some freedom of movement for I knew that sometimes arguments were advanced at the AGM that had not been canvassed at the regional meeting.

I thought of those days when I heard discussion on the radio about legislation to cap rate rises to inflation. While I understand concerns about rapidly escalating rate rises I don’t believe the answer is to prevent them by such legislation.

Part of the reason for recent rises is central government has been passing more responsibility to local bodies. But councils also need room to maneuver in light of new or unexpected circumstances, perceived needs, or replacing outdated plant.

Ultimately the people decide when they vote at the next election.

The mess that California has got itself into reflects democracy gone mad. A series of binding referendums have hamstrung the government’s revenue supply which means it has lost the ability to supply and support essential services. It is issuing IOUs in an effort to cope with the financial crisis.

Taxes and rates are inevitable. Let’s concentrate upon electing the best possible people to represent us. They need watchdogs but ultimately that’s the electorate’s job. Those representatives need and deserve some flexibility.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Old Boys Going Teaching

A few years ago Christchurch Boys’ High School had its 125th anniversary. I was asked to write a chapter on educational achievements of old boys as a contribution to a book to celebrate the event. I based it around a large number of interviews.

I had not been near the school since I left as a boy. One of my interviewees John Fletcher expressed a sentiment with which I now concurred. “I remember being impressed first and foremost by the look of the school. The appearance of the main block, looking out over a magnificent expanse of playing field, was – and thank heavens still is - a noble prospect. Thank heavens the old buildings were retained; both Nelson College and Wellington College have subsequently lost their main blocks because of earthquake strengthening requirements.” As a schoolboy I took that noble prospect for granted, I had nothing to compare with it.

I found that in the 25 years since the centennial 21 Old Boys had become principals of secondary schools. During my two days in the school I learnt that sadly, just as the number of Old Boys who have become primary teachers has nearly dried up completely, so the number going secondary teaching has reduced to a trickle. There will not be 21 Old Boys running secondary schools in the next 25 years. That is a shame. Their influence has shaped a system and a nation.

The change reflects a devaluation of the status of teachers, both in monetary terms and in community preceptions. This is a chicken and egg situation. Unless good people are attracted into the system then the traditions of scholarship and leadership valued by the school are at risk. So is the stream of students who have gone on to university to take science degrees and pursue doctorate studies.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Existence (2)

Spring must be on its way – the blackbirds are in courtship mode. Bird-watching gives me much pleasure. The wax-eyes queue up for their turn at the suet ball but the starlings have now discovered it and a pair call daily. The sparrows turn up at midday for their daily bread.

In 1917 while many of our young men were fighting and dying in Flanders the Akaroa magistrate’s court was considering an interesting legal case – the right of the county council to prohibit night-driving. I outlined the arguments in an earlier blog. Cousin Sally is researching family history in the Akaroa Mail and sent me the details. At that stage the magistrate had not reached a decision. Sally has researched further. The decision went against the council. ‘It unduly hindered the public in the lawful use of the highway.’

Last Thursday was a good day. Oliver brought bluff oysters for lunch. The number of treats life can offer me has narrowed down now. Oysters are one I can still enjoy.

Geoff and Pam called. Geoff – an engineering student - and I roomed together at Rolleston House, the hostel in Canterbury University years ago. We were best man at each other’s wedding. Geoff is heavily involved in Seniornet. He helped tidy up my computer. Unlike most experts in this field he is an excellent teacher – insisting I do all the hands-on stuff. I enjoyed the learning experience, it was stimulating.

I’ve finished The Forever War, a brilliant and horrifying read. Iraq; that poor country, centuries old hatreds. Filkin describes visiting the British graves from the First World War era.

The hyacinths in their tray inside are in full bloom, a lovely sight and scent.

Brides in the Bath


I’d just always wanted to bathe in a tub with claws
And golden taps, smelling of lavender like a real lady.
He’d ushered me in and said, ‘Darling, it’s all yours.’

My father taught me history, about politics and wars,
King Henry and his poor wives, but it slipped my mind.
I’d just always wanted to bathe in a tub with claws.

‘May I join you?’ he said, in a voice he’d used before.
I wriggled to make room, but was secretly annoyed;
he’d ushered me in and said, ‘Darling, it’s all yours.’

He soaped my back too firmly, like I was one of his chores,
Then gradually pushed my head down towards the plug.
I’d just always wanted to bathe in a tub with claws.

You are unique, he told me, you haven’t any flaws.
At the shop I’d always enjoyed being his best antique.
He’d ushered me in and said, ‘Darling, it’s all yours.’

Cleverer girls than me have let down their guard
For men who only deal with priceless things.
I’d just always wanted to bathe in a tub with claws.
He’d ushered me in and said, ‘Darling, it’s all yours.’

Amy Brown

I greatly enjoyed Brown’s first poetry volume The Propaganda Poster Girl. Most first collections concentrate upon the interior mind. But Brown’s striking characteristic is the outside objective world as the source for the images. The volume is divided into three. The first is personal, childhood, family, the beach, life in general.

The second section is about living in Viet Nam and South-East Asia. It contains the title poem, a man purchasing a copy of a famous poster, a girl holding a gun and a flower. There are many poems about the ‘look’, the ‘gaze’, the ‘view’. Brown’s is steady and unflinching. This sense is at its strongest in the third section, which begins with Brides in the Bath; a section living up to the back-page blurb as ‘thoughtful, mature and provocative.’

My use of this poem may surprise in that the subject is so distasteful. But it taps into traditional fairy tales, many of which are much more grotesque and brutal than the sanitised versions they have become. The jaunty tone adds a chilling twist to the macabre subject. Subtlety is apparently not there, but it is. An artfully simple poem it mixes sweet innocence with horror, a collision of moods akin to a Hitchcock movie.

Brides in the bath is the name given to the case of a 19th century British bigamist who drowned three ‘wives’. The incident entered the mythology based around the Bluebeard theme, which in turn arises from an even larger theme - women as victim; unfortunately still far too large a part of our culture not just in legend but in reality. This morning’s paper has an item stating that over half the murders in New Zealand result from domestic violence.

Friday, July 3, 2009


My travelling days are well and truly over. One country I enjoyed visiting was Japan; twice, both autumn visits. I loved it - being anonymous in a crowd, the bustle, the order in the chaos, (or is it vice versa), the politeness, the adaptability and tradition, the little restaurants where with sign language and laughter assisted by green tea, coffee or beer one makes oneself understood. Ancient Kyoto is a most exquisite city and the potter Kanjiro’s studio there is a fascinating shrine to art.

My first visit was to a conference at Hiroshima University. I visited the peace park – a group of giggling school girls stepped aside and gestured me to ring the peace bell. What can I say except how I responded to a drunk belligerent Japanese businessman who asked me at Kyoto “Why did you drop the bomb?” I said, “It must not happen again, Kampai.” He poured us both another whisky. “It must not, my friend, Kampai.” We sipped silently contemplating past enmities and shared humanity.

After the conference I travelled where the trains took me. At Tokyo the Tourist Board had given me a chit to hand to a taxi driver. It said something like ‘take this guy to a traditional Japanese inn.” It worked. They had warned me there would be little English spoken and I would have to sleep on the floor. At each hostelry I was treated everywhere with courtesy and great hospitality.

I went as far south as Beppu in Kyushu, a major hot springs area where I had a black sand sauna. I arrived at the bathhouse just ahead of a Canadian girl. I stopped to look around while she went to the entrance. When I followed I discovered she’d been charged for both of us. She said ‘my shout.’ In the men’s area two old ladies undressed and showered me before burying me in the steaming black sand. The young nubile attendant ignoring me hovered near two Japanese businessmen.

After I’d been there a while my two ladies came and unceremoniously pulled me out and led me to the shower. I was feeling very languid and I got irritated as they hurried me through my dressing. At the very moment I emerged into the foyer the Canadian walked out of the women’s area. We briefly talked before going off in separate directions. She’d had the same experience. I could see bewilderment on the receptionists’ faces. Strange Westerners! As far as I could see there had been no communication between the two areas. Strange Asians!

People would approach me in the street, “you speak English” and on my affirmation offer me a coffee or a beer in return for hearing their pronunciation and explaining things in the phrase book. In the trains old ladies seeing I had no food pressed boiled eggs and mandarins upon me. I was male and a stranger on my own. The words of poet James Brown are apposite, “I am important/ and unnecessary.” I felt safe.

In 1995 I went back to discuss the mutual exchange teacher scheme. After meetings I explored Tokyo again, its museums, shops and restaurants. I gave a briefing to language assistants coming to work in New Zealand and Australian schools. There were two side trips, one to earth-quake ravaged Kobe. In the office buildings there were still unopenable buckled doors.

The other was north to Fukushima with which province I was trying to negotiate a new type of teacher exchange. Meetings over I was taken on a tour of the city and countryside Maples and other deciduous trees splashed whole hillsides with colour. They took me to a craft area where I painted a traditional doll to the amusement of a number of middle-aged Japanese woman tourists. One made a comment and others laughed and laughed, it sounded ribald. My guide said, “she says you would make a good Father Christmas with your beard and she would like to borrow you.” I’m confident the comment was more crude than that.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Yesterday was I July. I measure my life out in days, months and years. Time seems to exist in two separate spheres. In one it’s racing past in the other it drags on slowly.

Friend Tom has been helpful. He has a good DVD library which he has catalogued. I can borrow disks from him. I’ve been pigging out on nostalgia including Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, The Magnificent Seven and Dr Zhivago. All have splendid music, especially the haunting Lara’s Theme from Zhivago. Such movies and music is my past – they helped shape and define me and it’s been fun to revisit them and see how they stand up. I’d forgotten the epic nature of Zhivago and the portrayal of the cold. My mental picture of Russia I realise is based on that film. It has stood the test of time better than the other two.

The American troops are pulling out of the Iraq cities as part of Obama’s election pledge to withdraw them, The bloodshed will continue. Filkin’s narrative in its honesty makes a chilling read. What a brutal unnecessary war Bush committed the American’s to.

Quoting Filkin: ‘Of course [the Iraqis] lied. It was that they had more to consider than the American were ever willing to give them credit for. The Iraqis had to live in their neighbourhoods, after the American soldiers had gone home. The Iraqis had to survive. They had their children to consider. For the Iraqis, life among the Americans often meant living a double life, the one they thought the Americans wanted to see, and the real one they lived when the Americans went home.’

He describes an incident. One American officer, charged with searching villages for hidden weapons, had a striking blonde woman amongst his soldiers. She took off her helmet and he auctioned her off to the Iraqi men standing around. Bidding got very fierce. Meanwhile the other troops searched the village. Each time they got a biggest haul of weapons than usual. The auctions were called off on the grounds that the bid was not high enough. The officer got reprimanded for his action. He told Filkin it was the smartest thing he ever did.

It was great to have a visit from my brother Bruce and his wife Margaret who flew up from Christchurch for the day. They brought up two frozen wild ducks and some home-killed mutton chops. So we’ll be dining well. It was an emotional occasion as we reminisced about Mum and the past. We looked at photos and recalled incidents and events. Margaret gave me the Cairngorm brooch with a Celtic design that I’d bought for Mum in Scotland on my fist visit to Britain. She wore it all the time. It was her favourite piece of jewellery.