Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I’d worked out today’s blog in my mind – one of my recent poems - before I went to bed last night but the news of the large earthquake south of Samoa and subsequent fatal tsunami has eclipsed what I meant to write about. It’s a reminder of the instability of the planet’s surface upon which we petty humans strut and preen.

I had not realised that Apia was on the north side. This meant it was sheltered from the worst effects of the tsunami which devastated the southern coast of West Samoa. American Samoa took an even bigger hit. It seems casualties are much higher than first suspected. The poor people.

Juxtapositions. They’ve discovered a diamond the size of a chicken egg at the Cullinan mine near Pretoria in South Africa. The earth still has the capacity to surprise us.

Amongst the other news of the day is an article in the Press revealing that just before the Budget’s release the Government pulled a proposal to axe 772 teachers. The plan for which a communication strategy had been prepared involved a reversal of lower pupil/teacher ratios in new entrant classes. Anne Tolley, not the sharpest tool in the shed nor the brightest mind in Cabinet, claims she did not realise that the change would actually lead to the dismissal of existing staff. The subsequent uproar would have meant her push for national literacy and mathematical standards would have become more difficult.

At least in this instance she changed her mind. Over adult evening classes she has stubbornly clung to her early decision to cut them substantially. It’s a good example of a new minister seeking to cut expenditure wielding an axe indiscriminately without an awareness of consequences.

I said to Susanna my caregiver this morning “And I can’t even put on my own socks.’ She said, ‘think of yourself as a king, someone is doing it for you.’ Wise woman.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Thrush & A Tui

I was wrong. The thrush appears to be nesting in the camellia shrub outside my study window after all. This morning it had just hopped up when a tui appeared and settled on the bush seeking nectar from the flowers. I wondered the smaller bird thought about this large intruder. Thought? How much would be thought and how much instinct? I did appreciate the close-up presence of the tui, what splendid colouring.

On the boyhood farm we used to find the odd thrush nest, mud, moss and grass with colourful blue eggs speckled with brown. Apparently the female builds the nest and incubates the eggs herself but when they hatch both parents share the feeding of the fledglings.

I’ve finished reading the life of Talleyrand. The creation of the state of Belgium was probably his most far-reaching action. He was a great survivor but I find it hard to accept Lawday’s lionising of him.

Today’s news has a sad and frightening item. On a farm owned by New Zealand’s largest dairy company calves had to be put down. The staff did not know how to make them drink. It’s a commentary on how farming has changed. It is trending to absentee landlords – often overseas – and hired hands. These hired hands obviously had no idea of what the job entailed and no training in the required skills.

In the farming of my youth skills were handed down from generation to generation. Farmers on the whole were their own boss, they had to learn the hard way and if calves starved to death because they had not been taught to drink the farmer would not survive because he was not earning an income. Sharemilkers aspired to own their own farms. They learnt the tricks of the trade. Pronto!

I see the Greens are polling below the 5% threshold. They, I’m sure, will regret the decision not to make Sue Bradford a co-leader. She provided a link to the social activists and necessary allies to the environment movement.

Monday, September 28, 2009


An enjoyable pleasure is still a good malt whiskey. Friend Geoff for my 75th birthday gave me an unusual one of which I had never heard – Clynelish, (pronounced kline-leesh). It’s a delightful dram, fruity and slightly smoky. The location of the distillery in surprising. It’s on the east coast of northern Scotland, sixty miles north of Aberdeen, near the town of Brora and the famous Dunrobin Castle, (home of the Dukes of Sutherland) with a view of the North Sea.

Others with whom I’ve shared a tipple are also enthusiastic. Another friend Bill did some research and sent through this information. ‘The [then] Duke of Sutherland built this distillery in 1819 to provide a market for the grain grown in the area by crofters removed to the coast under the notorious Highland Clearances program, for which the Duke was held responsible. The original distillery was called Brora and was eventually taken over, closed then moved to a different site. In 1968 a new distillery was built on an adjacent site and renamed Clynelish. The single malt is bottled at 15 years.’


Sunday, September 27, 2009

John Masefield

These two John Masefield poems are buried deep in my literary midden. I learnt them both in primary school. Cargoes is one of the best poems to teach sound, I love the change of tempo in the last stanza. I’ve been to Ledbury, Masefield’s birthplace, one of those lovely old West England towns.


Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

John Masefield

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Malvina Major

Last night we sogged in front of the TV. First up was Planet Earth – the shallow seas. It began with a humpback whale and her just-born calf; he gorging on her milk, she not eating. It ended with the long journey to the polar waters – in this instance, the Bering Strait, whales and sea-birds in a feeding frenzy.

Then it was To Sir With Love, a replay of the variety concert for Sir Howard Morrison. One of the singers was Dame Malvina Major. We had a very engaging evening in her presence a few years ago.

It was at The Wellington Club. When I was Director of the New Zealand Council for Teacher Education I often entertained visitors from overseas. I took them for lunch at the nearby James Cook hotel. The chair of the Council said why didn’t I join the Club, better food and good accommodation. So I did.

As a little country lad it had never been an ambition of mine but to my surprise I enjoyed being a member. The meals were excellent, the surroundings were pleasant, the staff were friendly. I joined the gym there and for three years unsuspectingly kept my degenerative condition at bay for a while. Reluctantly, last year I resigned on grounds of ill-health.

One year the Club management arranged an evening with Dame Malvina and three budding singers who were studying with her support. We went with friends Tom and Amy and had a most enjoyable evening – a good set menu and an evening’s entertainment. The three young singers sang in terms, mainly operatic arias with Dame Malvina giving items between each singer. At intervals she wandered round the room talking to people at their tables.

Alas, such evenings are now no longer possible.

Friday, September 25, 2009


a) I rang Margaret my sister-in-law last evening. It was snowing on their farm near Mt Hutt. Snow also closed the Rimutuka hill road between Wellington and the Wairarapa. The farmer’s son in me always thinks of the poor new-born lambs in a September snowstorm.
b) Sir Howard Morrison has died. He was a great entertainer. He straddled two worlds with ease, a Maori and a New Zealander.
c) It has just been announced that Sue Bradford is resigning as an MP. She will be missed. She was a voice of integrity.
d) In a farmer’s field in Stafordshire, England they have discovered the largest treasury ever of Anglo-Saxon jewellery, gold and silver and precious stones including garnets. Anne and I both wear a garnet ring. When we first got together I bought her one and a few years later she found one for me. When we got married used these rings for the ceremony.
e) This morning’s Dominion has an editorial about the possibility that we will not free-to-air viewing of next year’s Commonwealth Games. That would be a travesty and a tragedy. Sky, which looks likely to win the contract, is talking about Prime. But that could mean delayed coverage. There are times when being a New Zealander counts and that is one of them and to hell with the almighty dollar.
f) The thrush is on the lawn. My hunch is that the reason it abandoned its nest building in the shrub outside my window was the strong overnight wind blew away the semi-built construction.
g) The mock orange blossom hedge is bursting into flower, a spectacular sight.
h) I’ve been dipping into the Johnston and Marsack NZ poetry collection. It’s always interesting to see what others select when they make a choice. I’m enjoying the Bernadette Hall pieces – ‘blackberries thicken like blood clots.’
i) I’ve also been reading a book Geoff lent me Sam Elworthy’s Ritual Song of Defiance: A Social Hisotry of Students at Otago University. I was interested to learn that right from the start women students were allowed there. In those early days, however, there was strict segregation and dress codes. Accounts of life in the 1950s stirred many memories, life at Canterbury was very similar – hostel initiation, capping, drinking horns, sexual exploration, (mainly kissing and the occasional heavy petting, those were pre-pill days) and escapades.
j) Publisher Roger Steele came to visit yesterday. The anthology of New Zealand poems I’ve been working on, These I Have Loved is ready for publication so we talked about that. He brought me two books. One was a well-illustrated biography of Mervyn Taylor. As a boy I loved his wood-cuts in the old school journal. His model Frances Porter lives two apartments away. The other book was Charlotte Trevalla’s poetry book Because Paradise. Charlotte, 17 years old is still at school, Rangiruru. She has won several prizes already. I like the look of the poems and look forward to reading them. Roger has always had superb covers, in this case it is two large Huntsman spiders.
k) A good food day. Duty porridge as usual for breakfast. Then fresh asparagus for lunch, one of my favourites. I was disappointed when I went to Europe. Asparagus there is not green, it's white, they pack straw over the growing spears. The result is an insipid taste, not the vibrant twang of ours. Oliver is coming for dinner. He’s been given whitebait so I look forward to that.
l) I’ve decided to shift my bedroom downstairs. Twice I’ve nearly stumbled on the stairs and the risk of a fall alarms me. It’ll mean a big upheaval – oxygen machine and tubing etc will have to be shifted. It’s always sad to see a change that reduces options but this one is wise. We’re planning for the weekend of 10 October.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


I have finished the second of my birthday present books from Anne, Antony Beevor’s D Day: The Battle for Normandy. Beevor is an excellent military historian. He begins with the tension prior to the launch of the invasion as the weather turned iffy. At this stage the level of attention is top brass as Ike makes the decision to go. It turmed out for the best. – a fortnight later, which would have been the fallback position, there was a massive storm.

So to the carnage, heroism, cock-ups and chaos of the landing. Once the beachhead was established – Beevor’s description is first-rate – the result was probably inevitable. Allied air supremacy made sure of that. The Resistance helped. Hitler’s meddling and indecision assisted. Rommel was quite correct – the landings had to be repulsed.

The invasion was more successful than envisaged. But the breakout proved more difficult as savage battles of attrition took place. The Allies had underestimated the problems of the hedgerows. These slowed the advance and increased the casualties. Beevor argues the fighting was ferocious, little quarter given on either side. The poor civilians – and their livestock – caught up in the battles. 20,000 were killed. But also old scores were being settled.

I had accepted the Montgomery myth - The victor of El Alamein and the British best general. Beevor is very critical. Monty claimed his battles around Caen enabled the American breakout to the west. Beevor says that’s a rewriting after the event. Admittedly the Germans had their finest panzer divisions facing him but Monty and his men made many tactical mistakes and were too cautious.

The Allied troops were a civilian army. They were up against very skilled, disciplined and tenacious men who on the whole believed they were fighting for the survival of their fatherland. Beevor’s account of the resultant struggle is both illuminating and appalling.

The Allied High Command heard the news of the attempted assassination of Hitler with mixed feelings. They felt his interference in the battles gave them an advantage.

There are many tales of bravery, drama and horror. There are some amusing incidents. During an Allied bombing raid a American medic dived into a foxhole. It was already occupied. By a German medic. Both unarmed they frantically pointed out their red cross arm bands. Within five minutes they were showing photos of wife and fiancée. The bombing over, they shook hands and went their separate ways.

And so to the liberation of Paris. De Gaull wanted that. Ike wanted to bypass the city. De Gaulle’s arrogance is almost admirable. He got his way. Hitler’s order to raze the city was not obeyed. That would have been a colossal tragedy.

If D’Day had not been successful the Russians might have got to the English Channel and European history would have been different.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I blame George W. Bush. I don’t blame him for attacking Afghanistan. Its Taliban leaders were sheltering Obama bin Laden who had launched the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA. Bush had UN support, Helen Clark quite correctly committed support from our army.

But his oil-hungry hawkish advisers urged a second front in Iraq. There was absolutely no Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 talks. Bin Laden and Saddam were at daggers drawn. The UN disarmament group could find no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But Bush still went to war; an illegal war. Helen Clark quite rightly did not support him this time. That’s what I blame him for. Siphoning troops and energy away from the prime goal in Afghanistan.

As a result the war there has festered on. With resources spread thin the weakened American presence could not be effective and is increasingly resented. They are seen as invaders. Every Afghan killed whether Taliban or civilian creates a potential recruiting source for insurrection.

The mountainous terrain suits guerilla warfare. The insurgents can attack and then melt into the countryside. It worked against the British, the Russians and now the Americans. In a nation of warlords it is hard to impose a Western democratic system of government. A rigged election doesn’t help the Allied cause.

Vietnam derailed President Johnson’s Great Society. I fear Afghanistan will derail President Obama’s health reforms. And we are muddled up in the mess,

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Bronze Rider

For a while I had an office in the Old Wooden Building that housed the old Department of Education overlooking the war memorial on the corner of Lambton Quay and Bowen Street. It’s a Wellington landmark. I’ve attended Anzac Day dawn services there.

When the both the Boer War and First World War broke out a wave of jingoism swept New Zealand. This reflected the mood of the Mother Country. The approach of the Second World War was greeted more apprehensively. New Zealand was now much more independent but it had been a leading advocate of collective security and I gather the mood was one of resolution as well as foreboding.

Robin Hyde wrote this poem in this period. It was before she went off to China, the first women war correspondent in that theatre after the Japanese invaded. I love the lines ‘home to your broth and your books, as you’re bid'. What a lovely explosion of ‘b’ sounds.

The Bronze Rider, Wellington

Riding wooden horses from the hot Christmas Caves,
The children came laughing out into the Quay,
With a prance at their hills, and a dash at their waves,
And the broad street between shining peaceful and free.
Cheeks nipped in the wind, and their curls sailing gold,
Rode the sons and the daughters ... (Come home, dears, come home.)
But a wind from the sea blows, a thin mist blows cold
Faint down the Quay sounds the tuck of a drum.

Children come home, and be kissed as you're told.
(Ah but who said it? A child could grow old).
Home when you’re bid, or the length of my tongue
(Ah but who said it? A child could die young.)
Now the bronze Rider comes to stay awhile,
In my hilly heart, so haunted by running feet;
Turns to the dusk his young, mysterious smile,
Implacably, unanswerably sweet.
He props the sky up with his stiff young arm,
Lest it drop on cradled cottages,
Do our poor groping ways of living harm,
Vex with a light our city, that was his.
O forfeit of this world ... The great bronze hooves,
Soundless, yet trampling air as they aspire,
Fling shame on us who tread ancient groves:
Dawn is his stirrup, and his reins are fire,
Riding painted horses from town to Island Bay,
Mouths pink as moss-roses, hair sailing free,
Past the penny-shops, awning-shops, red shops and grey,
Past the Blue Platter Inn, that’s been burnt seven year,
Ride the sons and daughters. (Come home, loves, come home.)
But the sound of a bugle folds crisp on the air,
The swish of a keel cutting out the foam.

Children come home, will you hear your Dad shout?
(Ah, but who said it? A ship will glide out . . .)
Home to your broth and your books, as you’re bid . . .
(Ah, but who cried it. Our lamps could be hid.)

Faint on the Quay sounds the throb of the drum.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Further Sods and Odds (3)

a) For the last three days a thrush has been building a nest in the camellia bush outside my study. It gave me pleasure just watching it. But today it has not appeared. Whether it has been killed or has merely given up I’ll never know. But it is disappointing.

b) Anne went to the launch of a biography of activist Elsie Locke on Friday. It is ironic that one of the chief sources of background material was the Special Service files. I look forward to reading the book.

c) The district nurse came this morning to dress my graze from last week's fall. What a fabulous service they provide.

d)There is debate at present about the legal defence of provocation. My mind tells me the law courts should be about truth and justice. My experience tells me it’s about winning a case. When emotions have moved into spite and hate, common sense, compassion, tolerance, understanding fly out the window – on both sides. Revenge is a very powerful and understandable human motive.

e)Watching the All Blacks play the Wallabies I thought of the past. I regret the passing of an era when the two teams ran out side by side and the two captains publicly shook hands before the match began and there were three cheers for the other side at the end of the match.

f) Cousin Sally sent me through a clipping about my great grandfather Morrison Barclay, an early settler on Banks Pensinsula. Apparently he like me was a JP.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Education History

By 1900 there were only 25 secondary schools. The high school curriculum remained classical, dominated by the University matriculation examination. An unintended result of the 1877 Act was to fasten two different kinds of education upon our system, two separate teacher services and a national expectation for two levels in our schools. This situation is not holy writ though it is often treated as such for we have got so used to it.

In 1883 the New Zealand Educational Institute was formed to represent the teachers' viewpoint. The Institute pushed for and obtained a national system of grading teachers. This required a national inspectorate. Both developments reflect an on-going centralist trend.

The Liberal Government at the end of the 19th century accelerated this trend. Pember Reeves, remembered mainly for his labour reforms, was education minister. His forays into education change, mainly to increase the number of free places in secondary schools, appear lack-lustre, probably reflecting little Cabinet support. But after his departure Seddon who took the portfolio began to exhibit a convert’s enthusiasm - he recognised an electoral issue which would help his Government. A fight with conservative secondary boards of governors provided good campaign fodder. Perhaps across the years I do him an injustice - after all his mother was a schoolteacher. History is much more contrary than we would make it. It is a convenient mythology to portray Seddon as the brawling pragmatist and Reeves as the defeated intellectual. And if Reeves had his Edward Tregear in labour, Seddon had his George Hogben in education for in 1899 this reforming educator became Inspector General of Schools.

In 1901 the school leaving age was raised to 14. The Secondary Schools Act of 1903 marked a turning point in the accessibility to the three different types, secondary schools, district high schools and the new technical high schools. More parents than either Seddon or Hogben had imagined enrolled their sons and daughters. A historic milestone, free secondary education had arrived by the back door. However, despite repeated attempts to broaden the secondary curriculum to Hogben's frustration there was little fundamental change, the university retained its stranglehold upon the curriculum.

During this time a lot more women became teachers. Until 1895 the majority of adult New Zealand teachers were male, reflecting the sexual imbalance of the early European settlement, the nature of female immigrants and the lack of women’s educational opportunities. But as women began to gain education qualifications, (and the vote), teaching held appeal as an occupation as an alternative to domestic service or factory employment. Further, the education boards, short of money, used, some would say exploited, secondary leaving girls as pupil teachers. In time these ex-pupil teachers formed an experienced pool from which to recruit teachers.
On behalf of its women members NZEI fought long battles with education boards over salaries and conditions of service, and between 1901 and 1905 won the principle of a common pay scale. At the time it was a radical step and a major breakthrough. This was altered in 1925 when as part of a government belt-tightening exercise women were once again placed on a separate scale where they remained until 1961. I recall parties as women teachers celebrated this step.

Further attempts to ensure that primary schools should be controlled by their own locally elected boards failed. The election of the post-depression Labour Government in 1935, saw a fresh impetus to education reform. Free post-primary education was made available up to age 19 and five-year-olds were once again re-admitted to schools. Teacher colleges closed during the depression were reopened. The proficiency examination at the end of primary schooling was abolished. Free milk in schools was introduced, and the country library service was inaugurated. In 1939 Peter Fraser issued his famous statement penned by his reforming Director, Dr Beeby.
"Every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers."

However, Hogben's old concern about the 'academic' nature of courses offered by secondary schools remained. In the 1940's half of secondary school students left before they completed two years, which meant to politicians and educators they were not receiving a "sound basic education". These concerns led to the Thomas Report in the middle war years recommending the separation of the University Entrance (the old matriculation) and School Certificate examinations, and the establishment of a compulsory curriculum for the lower secondary school. These recommendations were accepted, and the school leaving age was raised to 15. Like Britain with its famous 1994 Education Act, New Zealand celebrated approaching military victory with a major reform to improve the learning opportunities of the younger generation.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Near Kaeo

I’ve been sitting watching a tui in the large hebe outside my study window. Such a handsome bird. It's unusual to have one so still for long.

A poem which I’m pleased to have written is:


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 forebears, who haven’t sailed
half a world nor ever tried to build Jerusalem.

We were staying at Paihia and had driven to Cape Reinga for the day – a long and tiring drive but well worth-while. It’s a unique spot and encapsulate mythic issues. It’s the only time I’ve been. I’m pleased to have the experience. Back at the motel I jotted down the outline of this poem. A little polishing and it was ready.

I had been reading a history of the Wesleyan settlement at Kaeo. The idea in the last stanza is a hobbyhorse of mine. We are so quick to disapprove of past generations. They also had their dreams and beliefs and in this instance made great sacrifices to implement them.

Yesterday, when Anne took Dorothy our cat to the vet, for what we both believed was the last time, I had an emotion which I’ve been trying to analyse. Was it sexist or chivalric. I felt it was my responsibility to take the animal. And my ill-health prevented me.

Anne, this morning, cleaned my electric razor. I do not have the manual dexterity. Enough said.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Some Good News

For over a week Dorothy our tabby cat seemed very badly out of sorts. She stopped eating, was keen to go outside but as soon as she did wanted back inside, her coat got mangy, her eyes appeared glazed and her voice had altered.

Reluctantly we decided she probably needed to be put down. We certainly did not want her to suffer. So this morning Anne, with assistance from Pat next door, put her in a cage and took her off to the vet.

He thinks she’s been in a fight or else had a bad fall. She was basically in good shape he believed. So she had a steroid shot, an antibiotic shot and was de-clawed. Anne brought her home and released her in my study. She came straight to me for a stroke. My stomach unrolled.

She’s 16 years old, a cat equivalent to my 75 years. She’s been part of my life for a long time now. We got her and her brother William when they were young kittens. They were named after the Wordsworth brother and sister. We had just returned from a visit to England and we had driven around the Lake Country. As the characters of the kittens developed it became obvious he whined a lot and she bustled around.

The first time we let them outside they quickly clambered up a manuka tree where they sat mewling plaintively as they swayed on its branches. At peril to my life and limb I rescued them but they promptly went up again. So I left them to climb and tumble down.

Over the years Dorothy assisted me garden. In my previous house I’d built a raised veggie bed. If I was sitting on the ledge she’d give me friendly bunts and advice. It took me a while to train her that her job was supervisory, not to meander across the seedlings nor to use that area as a toilet. She was not a slow learner but she did have stubborn tendencies.

One stormy night she really showed her intelligence. Anne woke me to say someone was knocking at the front door. ‘Only the wind’ I muttered. But no she was correct, so very tentatively I opened the door. In bounded Dorothy. My language was extremely unparliamentary. But next morning I discovered why she’d been hurling herself at the door. The cat-flap had jammed. I let in a drenched and dishevelled William.

We had to put William down about five years ago. Ever since then Dorothy has become even more faithful as Harvey's cat. Since we shifted here she’d slept on my bed every night, near my feet. When I go up to bed I get the anticipated bunt and a demand for a stroke. Last night I gave her an extra long stroke and said what I believed was goodbye to her. Now, she’s had a reprieve.

In talking about it last night we’d decided against a replacement. The apartment has no cat flap and no sensible place for one. This means one of us has to let her in and out of the house and during winter between rooms. With my health Anne has to feed the cat and take care of the kitty litter, and deal with any visits to the vet. Well, for this summer at least we’ll have Dorothy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Further Sods and Odds (2)

a) I am still very stiff and sore from the fall but a little more mobile.

b) I am pleased I had my annual whitebait meal on Tuesday night when I was still capable of appreciating it. I love whitebait and I make a point of always having a good amount on or near my birthday. I always cooked the fritters, wall to wall whitebait but this year Anne made them. Magnificently. My brother Rick has a stand on the Hokitika River near his house. He used to give lots to Mum to deep freeze and whenever I went south she’d make a batch. Gone are those good days.

c) I finished Beside the Dark Pool last night. What a full and rich life Fiona has had, family and friends, travel and adventure, plus lots of writing, support for and encouragement of writers. A most enjoyable read. When I finished the first memoir I reread her first four novels. I must reread some of her later ones now I know more about the circumstances in which they were written. I think The Captive Wife is superb.

d) I had two visitors yesterday. One was Rae who was mentioned by Fiona as driving Ian and her around Cambodia. Rae has always been a good works person and she had a stint in Cambodia.

e) The other was Graeme, ex chief executive of Wellington College of Education. We reminisced about the 1994 study tour I organised through the British Council. We spent a lovely week in a rural Somerset training centre, a mock castle built by the Wills (tobaco) family with English experts explaining their education system. After a free weekend (Anne joined me in Bath) we were taken to teacher education centres in London, Milton Keynes, Manchester and Stirling. Not only did we learn a lot the camaraderie for the eight of us in the party lingers still in my memory banks.

f) I realise one problem I have with writing a blog is I tend to lack the inflow of stimulating incidents. Cousin Sally in her birthday email message describes a typical event in a farmer’s life. ‘There is a cow down which also adds to the work load at present - she went down before calving and after 3 visits from the vet they managed to get twins out which are lovely but she still isn't on her feet. Craig lifts her up with the tractor three times a day for about an hour at a time so that is taking a huge amount of the hours which would have been spent on other jobs. She is eating okay, just not on her feet which is a worry after a week.’

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Fall

Last night around 3.30 I had a fall. I’d got out of bed to use the commode with my oxygen mask still on. I somehow stumbled and fell on the floor. I lay there for a while semi-concussed. After a few moments I took the mask off. I didn’t panic at first. I wear an ambulance alarm and I never take it off and I realised no bones were broken.

But when I reached for the alarm button it wasn’t around my neck. That was scary. Was I dreaming? Where the hell could it be. With the oxygen machine running there was no chance of Anne hearing me call out. I reverted to pulling a drawer in and out as noisily as I could. It worked. It woke Anne who came to find out what was happening.

When I had ripped the mask off I had taken the chain and the alarm off as well. That sorted out we rang the alarm. The ambulance came, two strong young men bound up my grazed arm and then lifted me back to my feet and bed.

This morning I am very shaken and sore, bruised ribs and in need of a district nurse to dress the wound. My confidence has taken a dive.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Further Sods and Odds

Roger has given me interesting feedback about two recent blogs. On 28 August I wrote about the mythical Greek runner Atalanta and on 6 September I wrote about the sinking of the Titanic. I said as far as I knew Atalanta and her successful suitor lived happily ever after. That’s not how the story ends. Apparently they made love in a sacred temple and chief God Zeus punished them by turning them into lions. Hardy wrote his poem about the Titanic two weeks after the event for a memorial concert in London.

We need rain. The month is half over and we’ve had only a fifth of the normal September average. There have been a number of dry blows, a threatening of moisture but very little precipitation. The shrubs and trees are O.K but some flowers look unhappy. Green leaves are appearing on the weeping elm next door, a stunning tree at any time of the year. The camellias are past their best. Anne has a superb crop of rocket. I noticed the first white butterfly of the season so we had better gorge ourselves on the tasty green before the caterpillars wreck their havoc.

Amongst my birthday presents was a copy of Fiona Kidman’s Beside the Dark Pool, her second volume of memoir. Talleyrand has been put aside as I burn though the memoir. I’m loving it. Both volumes describe a writer’s evolution. Last night I put the book down having accompanied Fiona on her first overseas trip to England, Paris, Greece, Nova Scotia and New York – researching background for her novel about the Waipu settlement. The section ends with a moving description of being home again. I found myself with tears in my eyes. Kipling’s line sprang to mind – ‘all earth to roam, one place to love.’

Phil Goff has said sorry for the mistakes of the Fifth Labour Government’s last term. I suppose he has to distance himself from Helen Clark but I hope he doesn’t go on abjectly. Admit mistakes yes, but don’t grovel and don’t prolong the process. John Key is still enjoying the electoral honeymoon. It is the nature of the system.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Fencer Has Moved To Town


maybe in the big smoke, a chapter
or two in a book gathering
dust on a library shelf, who knows

Te Whiti, Longbush, the Admiral hill
places that young men left for the desert
before that for trenches, or Gallipoli
memorial halls that sweat with the need
of laughter, or any echoing crowd

even Gladstone kept its school
but petrol, post office, corner store
gone with gravel roads … yarns
or history, take your pick
talking to wrinklies

clearing sales
let us know the real news
seasons that keep coming at you

after the dams are dry
what can words do –
it has been another

Pat White Drought

Farming is not as agreeable or as colourful as it is mythically imagined.. It’s a serious business making a living amidst the vagaries of climate and land. Pat White is a Waiarapa farmer and poet. His area had several bad drought years. He penned a moving series of poems about the struggles his neighbours and he faced coping with summer aridity. This particular poem widens that struggle as it reflects the downsizing of a community occurring at the same time, part of the rural depopulation of the last century. I saw this first-hand at Little River, as the railway line closed, then the butcher, baker, draper, and post office, and so a vibrant place became empty and lonelier. With rural depopulation the schools consolidated accelerating the process. Drought in such circumstances is a frightful foe.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Today is my 75th birthday

Saturday, September 12, 2009

In the Beginning and At the End

The Morrinsville College cross-country race was held early in the first term. There were several promising young athletes from the local club. That bunch broke away early accompanied by one long lanky third form Maori boy. A new teacher I was at one of the early checkpoints with an elderly teacher who said, “he won’t last long, that lot never do.” Inwardly, I wished the youth success.

We got back to the finishing post in time to see him lolloping along way in front. “He wont last long” I said to the four winds, thereby making an enemy in the hierarchy for the duration. As he and the principal were at daggers drawn, my comments labelled me as one of the other camp.

Tact was not one of young teacher McQueen’s virtues. Neither at the beginning was a sense of self-preservation. If I were being as honest as I could I’d probably add that quite a bit of present tact arises from the development of that sense, part of an on-going learning cure. Part of the process of shaping a young teacher is learning about staffroom relationships. Life as a university student is individualistic. When you join a secondary staffroom you become part of a team. Good relationships are vital.

After three years at Morrinsville I left to teach at Thames. Last period on the last day I booked the film room to show my fourth form a Disney wild-life movie. There is in time in teaching when entertainment is entitled. The film finished before the bell was due. We had been forbidden to let classes out before the end of the period. To kill time I ran the film backwards. We were falling about laughing when the bell rang - turtle eggs leaping out of the sand and back into the reptile's body. "You may go" I said. No-one left did as the film continued to wind back. Eventually I stopped it. "Hope you enjoy your next school sir?” After all the learning a little hilarity was a good curtain-call. They left happy and so did I, grateful for survival and what I had learnt and ready for the next challenge.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Courtship of Tuis

It’s raining. About time. August was well below the average Wellington rainfall for the month and we’re had almost no rain in these early days of September. The ground is very dry.

The tui pair engage in courtship flights, wheeling and dealing and flirting around the section in spectacular fashion.

We watched a DVD Some Like It Hot a couple of nights ago. I’d forgotten how chunky Marilyn Monroe was. The comedy has dated but it’s still a good movie. One could be forgiven for feeling envious of Tony Curtis for kissing Monroe. So it was with surprise I read on the net he described the experience as kissing Hitler.

Surfing the net about the movie I followed some leads about Marilyn and stumbled across a five part series about her death involving reconstruction and research. There are three possible scenarios, murder, suicide or an accidental overdose. Scientific research rules out the third. The first is very unlikely. So it does look like suicide the programme concluded.

My books to read shelf is filling up. I’m enjoying the Talleyrand but it’s a big book and I allow myself to be sidetracked. Knowing I was watching Charlie Chaplin movies Anne’s son Jonathan sent me a book about his development of the character of a clown. I have three books from Geoff and I know there are birthday books to come.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Te Araroa

Te Araroa

Mildew on the slides of the mind
blurs – as lichen on the Alamein graves
at Te Ara roa – the memory of the generator
that thumped away our honeymoon evenings.
Ghosts of my callow youth
escort me now, one case only,
up the hotel stairs,
but when they mock me in the midnight surf
that bangs and bangs at the cleared beach,
I smile: I think more often now I smile
and stare them out.

I must take some new pictures to show you;
we’ll compare them with the old –
there’s much less tangle, mess and clutter now.
The present isn’t envious
of anything except the years
except the years.

I wrote this poem shortly after I became an inspector of secondary schools and revisted Te Araroa in that capacity. As I’ve been blogging about poems and cameras I decided to put it up for it is the only time I’ve written about taking photographs. I was surprised and delighted when it was selected to go into a coffee table book callled Shards of Silver containing poems and pictorial images.

A poet friend said it was a good poem except for the last three lines. He said they don’t arise from the previous material. He’s probably right but it’s what I wrote at the time. Typing it out yesterday brought back lots of memories. Indeed, when I finished that task I flipped contently through my first collection of poems Against the Maelstrom published by Caxton. The poems there are like a photograph album of my forties years.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Two Thoughts About Education

In 1877, adopting the approach developed in Nelson province our Parliament established a nation-wide system of ‘free, compulsory and secular education’ for children between the ages of 7 and 13. Maori need not attend but they had the right if they wanted to.

Introducing the Act, Sir Charles Bowen said, ‘the higher branches of education may be taught upon payment of a fee. … and there is provision for scholarships which enable children of unusual attainments and ability to carry on their education. It is not intended to encourage children whose vocation is honest trade to waste in higher schools time which might be devoted to the learning of a trade.’ This two-way division fastening different expectations has bedeviled our system ever since.

I learnt a hard lesson in my first term teaching. I had a third form English class, bright young country adolescents like alert young puppies, enthusiastic and full of verve. But as the first term progressed they got noisier. Just before Easter they got very raucous, calling out answers across each other. I realised I had to put my foot down, hard. Foolishly I said, "I'll cane the next boy who calls out." Realising I meant it they quietened down.

Near the end of the period a quiet scholarly boy who had never previously opened his mouth unless I asked him a question, called out an answer. "You gotta cane him, sir. You said you would". I knew I had left myself no option. "Outside" Head down he went out before me into the corridor. The phrase ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’ was never more true. I also knew I could not cane him gently - the class inside waited expectantly. I hit him once. He waited for the second stroke. "That's all. And don't call out again." Back in the classroom someone quietly said, "you only caned him once." "He only called out, once," I replied. The humour eased our mutual unease at the injustice of the situation. They knew he did not deserve the punishment. They also knew I could not lose face. Moral - never utter a general threat, it can collide with justice.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

NZ Review of Books

Yesterday’s mail included our copy of New Zealand Review of Books. Enthusiastic reviews of Jenny Bornholt’s The Rocky Shore and Vince O’Sullivan’s Further Convictions Pending, two poetry collections I really enjoyed. Sue Macauley’s review of Fiona Kidman’s second volume of autobiography made me even more keen to read it. I have asked for it for my birthday which is coming up soon.

Regrettably, my review of Denis Welch’s book on Helen Clark has been held over for the next edition. My last review to be published there was last year on Bassett’s book on David Lange. Here it is:

Working With David
Michael Bassett
Hachette Livra, $59.99, ISBN 978-1-86971-094-1

Working With David is a dogmatic and humourless book about a man who, even in adversity, revelled in laughter. Beginning with clear praise - ‘at the peak of his career in 1984-5, Lange had a magic about him that no other parliamentarian rivalled’ - Michael Bassett goes on to make scathing comments about his later performance: ‘a jumping jack’, ‘a political cot-case’, and ‘only Lange’s removal could really have let cabinet government operate properly’. My hunch is that he never forgave the PM for taking the Health portfolio away from him in 1987.

Bassett’s account of Cabinet discussions is something rare in New Zealand politics, an insider’s view. To read it is to re-enter those six turbulent years when the Fourth Labour Government radically changed the shape and direction of New Zealand society. Bassett’s account of the 1951 waterfront strike and his lives of Ward and Coates were good books, but he spoilt the account of Fraser’s life with cheap ideological jibes. This book is much worse - 550 pages obsessively pursing the theme of a great leader led astray by a siren woman. As a personal memoir or diary it’s acceptable, but it’s not an impartial history. It would be tragic if it is accepted as the only accurate account of those six years.

Margaret Pope is not the only woman at the receiving end of Bassett’s scorn. His misogyny is clearly evident. At a Cabinet meeting, Margaret Shields ‘warbled about rumours and leaks not only being sourced to the Prime Minister’s Department’. After the 1987 election as the Cabinet discussed likely new appointments, ‘Lange was losing concentration. He had [Margaret] Wilson waiting to see him, possibly to pour more poison into the king’s ear.’ On 29 June 1989, the day Lange narrowly won a non-confidence vote, “Douglas, Butcher, Goff, Prebble and I had a lunch of fish and chips for old times’ sake, this time without Moore or Lange. And we kept the door firmly shut. Hunt got together with Clark, and they set up a dinner date for the Friday evening. Her plans were coming along nicely.’ Ruth Dyson ‘kept hectoring Labour MPs on Lange’s behalf.' ‘We laughed about the cabal egging Lange on. I likened it to the last days of the Tsar, with Pope as the Empress and Wilde as a female version of Rasputin.’ Those who live by conspiracy find it everywhere.

His chronicle is not only a belittlement of Lange and Pope; it’s too simplistic. There were so many other factors. Above all, it does not do justice to the titanic clash between Lange and Roger Douglas - the stuff of Greek drama, hubris, the future direction of a nation, the nature of power, an ideological struggle.

It must be remembered that Lange supported the early economic reforms, as the inertia of the status quo was challenged in new and exciting ways. His implementation of the Picot proposals for educational administrative reform is further proof of his sense of a need for restructuring. Further, he trusted people in whom he had confidence. He delegated well, I can vouch for that. But he began to diverge from Douglas in April 1987, when the Finance Minister signalled his desire for a flat tax and the privatisation of social services. In a written response dated 22 April, Lange strongly stated his reservations: ‘Your radical strategy would negate our assets. We would no longer be united. Our determination would falter. Mine would. Our purpose would appal our own suppporters.’.

After the sharemarket crash in mid-October that year, Douglas resurrected the flat tax idea on the grounds that the markets needed something heroic to restore faith in them. The spin-doctoring from Douglas’s office on the Beehive’s sixth floor saw the media dutifully carrying stories of the need for dramatic action. Despite Treasury reservations, Douglas persisted with the concept, persuading his Cabinet colleagues to go along with it. Lange reluctantly agreed, a major mistake, and it was announced with great fanfare. But the more Lange studied the proposals, the more uneasy he became.

He tried to persuade his colleagues to accept that the announcement was in principle only and to take the issue to Labour’s caucus. He made little headway. Knowing he was breaking Cabinet collectivity, at a press conference on 28 January 1988 he announced delays in its implementation. The gap of the previous April had become a chasm. Dennis Welch wrote in the Listener, ‘the towering edifice of the Labour Government shifted on its foundations’.

Hijacking the debate over social policy, the passions, frustrations, anger and conflict generated by that shift dominated the remainder of the government’s term in office. Bassett was a major participant in all these events: I was a mere bit player, in that it was my good fortune to be an education aide for Lange in 1998-9. In the subsequent Cabinet reshuffle after the 1987 election, despite Pope’s advice to take Health, Lange chose Education. It was decided he would stump the country consulting teachers and parents about the education reforms. So for 15 months I was in close proximity to him as he toured New Zealand. I saw him on good days and on bad days. Three times officially and quite often off-the-cuff during that time I advised him to drop the portfolio to concentrate upon the power struggle with Douglas about the direction of the government and country. He remained adamant he would continue. I had shaken hands on an education job. Instead I found myself in a war-zone.

I admit to being partisan myself - but Bassett’s mean-spirited portrayal of Lange is not the person I worked with. He was ebullient, courteous, humane, witty, quirky and highly intelligent. He was both formidable and vulnerable. He could be infuriating, but his capacity to suddenly focus constantly astonished me. He was more stoical than is commonly recognised. His dislike of confrontation was legendary but it also aroused protective instincts amongst his aides.

Not only were the Rogernomes arrogant, they were impatient. Bassett’s fundamentalist fervour allows no recognition that Rogernomics was maybe not working, indeed might be flawed. His continuing criticism of Lange’s insistence on more social service spending is evidence of its importance to the PM. I believe Lange’s lapsed Methodism was a key to his approach to politics. He spoke often of the influence of the English preacher Donald Soper upon him. He had a strong sense of helping the underdog and the needy.

He told me how he felt Douglas’s policies were not helping these people, indeed they were disadvantaging them further. The 1987 election results concerned him, in that suburbs such as Remuera swung sharply to Labour, while its vote went down in its heartland electorates. He sensed something was wrong. Both his instincts and the polls showed the same story. Restructuring had damaged too many people – there was a need for a breather. This had nothing to do with pillow-talk. He was speaking from his own heart. Of that I am convinced.

Lange’s government should be seen in context. Post-Muldoon, it was a struggle, amongst other things, about the future shape of the Labour party. There were fisticuffs at conferences and constituency contests. Bassett gives some clues, but does not explore the background to the two breakaway parties of the early1990s - to the right Roger Douglas and ACT, to the left Jim Anderton and the Alliance. Clark and Cullen’s experience of a disunited ministry and caucus goes a long way to explain the leadership style of the Fifth Labour Government.

Had the flat tax gone ahead it would have destroyed the Labour party. David Lange can be criticised not for shelving it, but how he did so. When I started work I was surprised, indeed amazed, at how isolated he was. He was an outsider; his path to power had not been through the ranks, the rough and tumble of meetings and conferences, remits and compromises, the camaraderie of a common cause. With all his brilliance he never really understood politics. He took a lonely path. It was a brave one and it was a sacrificial one.

I recall Lange’s visit to a secondary school where he visited a class with learning difficulties. The students had been making up crosswords. They challenged him to do them and he finished very quickly, telling them he did one every morning. He invited them to help him create a new one. They crowded round him. The teacher and I both moved forward, but he jovially waved us away. As I stood watching, two thoughts jostled in my mind. He should be in Wellington dealing with affairs of State; and savour this moment, you’re in the presence of a man who has an immense capacity to enjoy his humanity. David Lange deserves a better and more balanced account of his time in office than this.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic

Last night I watched a good TV documentary, The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic. It gave pictorial images to the concepts in Thomas Hardy’s great poem about the event.

The Convergence Of The Twain

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?" . . .

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her - so gaily great -
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Thomas Hardy

From snowflakes that settled while humanity was still in its stone age a great ice-sheet was formed in Greenland. As it reached the sea great chunks calved to form ice-bergs. There was stunning footage of these happenings. Photographs of the sea-floor revealed huge gouges where the ice had stuck, scraped and scarred. Historic film showed the ship’s construction and launch in Belfast and its maiden voyage sailing from Southhampton.

Most icebergs melt before they enter the shipping lanes. Some get stuck along the Newfoundland coast because most of the volume is under water. I did not realise they tumbled because the underwater melt of the ice makes the ‘berg top-heavy. In 1912, however, this large one was in the path of the Titanic.

Apparently the decision on sighting the ‘berg to go to starboard was a mistake. Head-on would have crumpled the bow and caused considerable chaos and damage on board. But with its waterproof compartments the ship would have survived. As it was the ice ripped along the keel and water poured into the compartments. It sank with a huge loss of life. Modern underwater images of the sunken ship reveal what Hardy had imagined – marine life.

By coincidence, Anne and I earlier had watched The Antiques Roadshow. A man brought in some mementoes of his grandfather. He had been a sailor and sailed on the Titanic’s fateful voyage. In charge of a lifeboat he survived.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Teaching Creative Writing

It was nearly fifty years ago that I began teaching. So when I write about my teaching experience it is about another era – a time when the very idea of policemen on campus would have seemed preposterous. An experience I really enjoyed was getting teenagers to write creatively. How did they portray the world?

What I found was that letting young people unlock experience through language not only improved their language competence but also often their social behaviour. Time after time I was amazed at how a student who had not shown much proficiency would suddenly come up with words and images that left me humbled at my temerity in making judgements about them. The system I was working in imposed a structure that was all too often not conducive to learning and creativity. By its very attempt to systematise learning education in inclined to create a lockstep programme that tends to stifle creativity. Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, D H Lawrence, Denis Glover, all rail against the schoolroom. Ironically, it is teachers who have helped preserve their fame.

There were challenges in getting teenagers writing. The first was to persuade them it was useful, as well as pleasurable. The second was to get beyond cultural second-hand and cliche from film or print. There are areas of integrity where the teacher has to walk carefully. Some images and ideas appear archetypal, others false. Tigers and crocodiles seem right, murder and mayhem in the style of the latest Hollywood blockbuster did not. Further, fashions change in images and ideas - Star Trek comes in, Robin Hood goes out.

As students grew, the more self-conscious they became. Third formers would write comfortably in free verse about the wind in their hair as they galloped their horse or rode their bikes over the squashed hedgehog on the road. Senior students all too often had learnt that poetry was stern stuff. Once persuaded that its creation did not involve stuffing it full of hidden meanings for some planned treasure hunt, and that the flow of associations was what was desired, they would happily write for hours.

Older adolescents tended to sum up - language gives control of the universe. Acceptance of the idea that metaphor has little closed meaning is one of the most empowering things they could learn. Sometimes as I watched them writing, I had a sense of having missed that bus myself. If only they had been exposed to this excitement earlier, what poems and prose they might have written. Elwyn Richardson's fine book In The Early World impressed me with the possibilities inherent in much younger children.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Song of Spring

Colin came for dinner last night. He said I was very cheerful. I'd felt bright and alert all day. I realise it was because Anne was home and around. Indeed I wrote a poem, the first for ages. Here it is

A Song of Spring
(for Anne)

In the bouncing kowhai
tui court, the snowball
tree sprouts green shoots
daphne scents the section
cat spends more time
outside, tulips sway in
their pots.
A hurtle of wings
ignoring the gale, tui cavort
past, it is the season
for swings and flings,
a ballerina dancing
to applause as off stage
an old troubadour expires


“How many times have I stopped short when exploring Talleyrand’s epic struggle against Napoleon’s imperial overreach and thought, aha! Yes, if only our world’s lone superpower at this outset of the 21st century were to lend him an ear. He identified for all ages the ultimate foible of empire. The alert he sounded two hundred years ago to a military genius who bestrode a vast empire of his own making rings all the bells: ‘I attest that any system which aims at taking freedom by open force to other peoples will only make that freedom hated and prevent its triumph.’”

This passage from Lawday’s introductory chapter to his life of Talleyrand illustrates his admiration for the French statesman. In it he claims his hero laid the basis for the ending of the ancient enmity between England and France and their subsequent alliance from then till now.

Talleyrand was born to an impoverished noble family. He had a club foot and therefore could not follow the family tradition of service in the military. He was by-passed by his younger brother and against his wishes destined for the church. Ordained he rose quickly through the ranks to become a bishop. That did not prevent him hopping into the beds of several aristocratic ladies – indeed it probably helped through their support.

As the sweep of events led towards the French Revolution Talleyrand rode the tide, leading the charge he hoped towards a constitutional monarchy. Seen as a traitor by most of the clergy he proposed that the vast properties of the Church be transferred to the state in exchange for salaries paid by the state. For his acceptance of the civil constitution of the church and the consecration of new bishops for that church he was excommunicated by the Pope. He was lucky, just before the worse part of the terror he was appointed ambassador to England. He rode out that storm in exile.

That is as far as I have read at present.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Strangely Parted


To my children
I’ve always been old.
A tree never the sapling.

A sunset
without the sunrise.
As far as they’re concerned

my life began mid-stream
– a ford for them to cross
over in safety.

Like photos I’ve seen
of my own mother
taken before I was born,

when she was twenty-one
and a stranger wearing shoes
and a coat I’d never seen

before, her hair young,
springy, strangely parted
to the side. Girlish,

she’s as thin as a parcel
still wrapped-up, smiling
an oddly unencumbered smile.

Kay McKenzie Cooke

Seeing I'm on a camera/poetry jag here's another one. Cooke’s approach is familiar territory, the poet as participant. Photos freeze a moment of time. There was time before it was taken. And time after. The mother’s unencumbered smile and her own experience as a daughter and then as a mother is a reminder of the passage of the generations.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Limelight & Things

House-sitter Jo and I watched the Charlie Chaplin film Limelight on DVD last evening. I recall as a teenager weeping buckets of tears at the movie’s end, Chaplin as the old vaudeville trouper dying in the wings while Claire Bloom as the ballerina danced on stage. I now know the dancer was a double. But Claire Bloom’s beauty made that young man swoon. It was good to see it again. The comic scene with Buster Keaton is great. Chaplin was a master of the movie camera.

Reading my blog about brawn my sister-in-law Margaret sent through Mum’s recipe for passion fruit flummery. Take six passion fruit, beat half a bottle of cream stiff and add sugar to taste, beat whites of two eggs very stiff and add dessertspoon of sugar, and fold in to the cream the beaten egg whites and passion fruit and a good tsp of gelatine mixed in a little cold water.

I am reading David Lawday’s Napoleon’s Master, a Life of Prince Talleyrand. Talleyrand has always fascinated me. I have Duff Cooper’s life bought when I was studying the French Revolution. The wily old fox survived the revolution and then became a major architect of the 1815 post Napoleonic settlement.

I read recently a review of Lawday’s latest biography of Danton. Apparently he is very laudatory of Danton. Despite being one of the initiators of the Reign of Terror and the constant use of the guillotine he seems to attract a favourable reaction. Hillary Mantel’s great novel A Place of Greater Safety also makes him a warm figure

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


In my last two blogs I wrote of the impact of the camera upon literature and entertainment. This poem by young poet Mark Pirie illustrates the impact of the movie camera.


1 Tilt

you tilt upwards
& begin

to notice her eyes
the way

they alter
as the first kiss stirs

2 Roll

you roll back
& see

the light
across her hips

your face
covering her shadow

3 Crane

you slip
down a bank

& fall
towards the river

your limbs
shaving the trees

4 Zoom

you kick the door
open and tumble

from a moving car –
the camera

catching your legs
in mid-air

Mark Pirie

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Reader

Anne’s in Auckland. Her son, Jonathan, returns to China next week to do a second stint at teaching English as a second language. The visit also gives her an opportunity to see her sister and family as well as other friends. Jo is house-sitting and looking after me. Last evening she got out the DVD of the movie The Reader.

I have read the novel by Bernhard Schlink and found it very moving and thought-provoking. It provided the basis for a very good film which is all the better for following the text fairly closely. Sadly, the two producers both died before it was released. Kate Winslet as Hannah the illiterate exSS guard was superb, it is no surprise she won the Academy Award for best actress for her performance. Her aging was very credible.

David Kross as the young Michael plays the part of the young adolescent and later bewildered law student very well. The erotic relationship with Hannah after she seduces him leaves him unhappy and morose for the rest of his life. Ralph Fiennes is also excellent as the perpetually perplexed adult Michael, unable to establish good relations with women. The scene where he finally comes face to face with Hannah for the last time is painfully powerful.

In yesterday’s blog I wrote about the camera. It’s a winner in this film. The seediness of the working class suburb contrasts with the beauty of the German countryside. The nude scenes were not voyeuristic. Apparently they were shot last, after Kross turned 18. Court scenes are usually dramatic – this one was. It’s a film I would recommend.