Monday, November 30, 2009

November's End

The price of beer is expected to go up. There is a shortage of hops. A few years ago there was over-supply. So world-wide growers ripped out their plants. Now there are not enough. In an early Stage 1 Economics lecture I learnt about the hog-cycle. Too many pigs. Not enough profit. So farmers cut down the numbers. Prices rise. In an effort to cash in on the boom farmers increased numbers. And so the system perpetuates itself. It seemed to me even then that a canny farmer would take the long view. But I suppose many are in no position to do that. At least pigs can be breed quickly. Plants take longer to mature. But people will always drink beer.

I would that my illness was as cyclical. I had a strange wishful dream last night. I was at a conference, it seemed American, the word Seattle hovered in my consciousness. One of the guys there was a hockey guru. After a day’s discussion he and I would take our hockey sticks down to a park and practice the skills of shooting and trapping. After the conference ended I hired a rental car and drove over a high pass on a winding road – it seemed like Dyer’s Pass - to a beach beside a gorgeous, placid harbour. I wandered along the beach until I reached an old gun-site where sitting on a concrete pier I skipped stones across still water. Skills I’ll never use again.

Ali and David came for lunch yesterday. They brought me a belated birthday gift, a lemon tree in a container. The Dublin Bay rose they gave us when we settled here is blooming well. In time we should be able to harvest our own lemons, with memories of the tree's origin. Anne and they went off to a presentation of Handel’s Messiah. I’m delighted Anne could go. Hearing it each year is part of her Christmas tradition. I watched the rugby replay while they were out. In an exciting, indeed commanding display the All Blacks beat France 39 to 12.

Ali and David also lent me the complete DVD set of Simon Schama’s History of Britain. I am grateful for the opportunity to see it in its entirety. I saw most of the series when it was shown here in the early years of this century. It's also good to see it on a larger screen.

I watched the first episode last night It starts with the Stone Age village of Skara Brae in west Orkney. Over the next four thousand years, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Vikings and Christian missionaries arrived and made their contribution. On my first visit to England I visited the sites of several of the burial barrows of those ancient Britons. The stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge I found breath-taking and the size of Maiden Castle was awe-inspiring. We have mainly only conjecture and imagination to get a handle on the society that created these things. These people are amongst my ancestors. We have clues about how they lived but what did they think and feel? Schama rightly gives credit to Bede – who left a record of his period and his own experience. I’ve seen Bede’s tombstone in Durham Castle.

I also watched half of the second episode which was about 1066, the last successful invasion of Britian. The major visual source was the Bayeux tapestry which I had greatly enjoyed seeing in my 1999 visit to Normandy. I always felt sorry for Harold, having to fight on two fronts, first, his rebellious brother with his Viking hordes in Yorkshire and then, William the Bastard, soon to be renamed the Conqueror, on the south coast.

Worrying financial news from Dubai. If the oil barons have over-committed themselves and cannot meet repayments then heaven help the rest of us. Oil prices could sky-rocket – which in the long run could be a good thing, forcing research into alternative forms of energy. A different level of the hog cycle.

Today’s the last day of November. Three year’s ago we first saw the place where we now live. Here are selected excerpts from my diary for that day. ‘A howling gale all night. Four Wellington houses lost their roofs. ... We drove to look at a town house. ... Quite a long driveway and there at the end was the house, quiet, big and modern. It had almost all the requirements we wanted with two exceptions. It was NE facing and would not get much late sun. The garden was entirely camelia and roses – and a lemon - with little space for a raised herb patch. Virtues: A downstairs bathroom and an upstairs bathroom. Very close to shops and bus route. Within walking distance of Mall and library. No change needed. Garage with internal access. Built in bookshelves. Gas. Separate laundry. We both fell in love with it. Probably us and a dozen others. ... Back home I made arrangements for Larry [our builder] to look at the town house tomorrow. ... Don Brash has quit politics. He looked quite relieved on TV. Having watched the headlines, Brash overshadowed by Fiji, we turned the TV off and discussed an offer for the town house. [We reached a decision. The Rubicon was crossed]. ... Rereading Ian Wedde’s Sonnets for Carlos. What a wonderful series it is, the wonderment of fatherhood and the delight in existence.

Wedde’s Commonplace Odes is my poetry companion at present. A fitting comment to end a blog that begins with the hog cycle.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Golden Lads and Girls

‘Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.’

These Shakespearean lines kept reverberating in my mind as I read and finished A.S.Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book. It’s a magnificently detailed book about the period between the end of the 19th century and the First World War, mainly in England but also Germany. It was a golden age for children’s literature. Adults were tempted to retreat to the imaginative world; the stern task of creating an Empire needed a healing refraction. Victorian doubt and morality were beginning to be seen as out-moded.

One central protagonist, Olive Wedgwood ‘a successful authoress of magical tales’ children’s stories based on fairy tales and folk-lore, appears to have it all. But Byatt’s novels are never simple. The apparent innocence and plenitude of childhood conceal actions and events that lurk like underground gnomes chipping away at feelings of security. Nothing is at it seems to be. The beloved tree house is chopped down. School is an abusive place. Adults are not to be trusted – they can be incompetent or selfish or predetory. Peter Pan is not real – it’s make believe. It was the adults who clapped their belief in fairies when they saw Barrie’s play. The artist creates his or her effect at peril to those around them.

It’s a novel jam-full of ideas and information. Too much some critics have said. The historian in me was enthralled. Keeping up with all of the novel’s children is difficult. There are about twenty. Today’s reader knows many of those golden lads whose childhood we share will be killed in the trenchs. But Byatt’s skill was that her characters did not know that. To them the war was an unexpected trauma. As mothers lost sons and the girls their young husbands and lovers the individual pain of that ghastly carnage is brought home. Those early romantic entanglements and sexual desires count for little when set against that backdrop.

Byatt writes well about those entanglements and desires. Her prose crackles with energy and passion only to slow down to describe a pot, a play, a scene, picking up the pace to describe a suffragette throwing herself at the king’s horse during the running of the Derby. It’s the stuff of life. It’s how things happen.

Edward IV and GeorgeV get a deserved, bad press from her, along with the Kaiser. They and their ministers created the war that destroyed the society she describes. I am pleased to have dwelt under her guidance in that society for a brief period. It was not golden, though its young people thought it was at the time. When the Great War began the producer stopped using a line from Peter Pan. That line was ‘to die will be an awfully big adventure.’

Saturday, November 28, 2009

All the World's a Stage

Last night in my dream I strode along Lambton Quay with purpose and with confidence. Now it is day-light and I move at snail-pace around the house.

As a fourth former I had to memorise these lines from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Life on my childhood farms was cyclical. So it was easy to see human life in a similar if different pattern - we are born, we develop, we age, we die. Now as I hover between Shakespeare’s sixth and seventh stages that particular cycle rings true. The seasons repeat themselves though I admit each spring is different from the previous springs as are all the seasons. That natural cycle does not end. (Ignore the long-term prospects for the moment). But the human cycle does end. Our lifespan has closure. For the individual. Not the species. That goes on. I had a great-niece, Esme Isabel James, born in London two days ago.

Anyway, Shakespeare’s sevenfold division has lingered in my consciousness for decades. The appeal is partly the small vibrant verbal vignettes of each stage albeit with the difficulty of language from an earlier century. I especially like the school boy sketch and also the lover making his protestations to his beloved’s eyebrow; he dare not meet full gaze.

In the play the speech is a device to enable Orlando the hero to have enough time to go and pick up Adam, the faithful retainer who helped him run away from the tyrant ruler, and carry the old man to the camp. One legend has it that in the original production Shakespeare himself played Adam. The soliloquy is made by Jacques, a pessimistic courtier who is out of touch with those around him, a figure of fun, indeed, almost in need of pity.

A few blogs ago I wrote of Troillus and Cressida and my regret at never having seen a live production. Byatt’s novel, The Children’s Book which I am reading at present describes two weekend household productions, one of Midsummer Night’s Dream and the other The Winter’s Tale. My heart hurls to see them again.

I was lamenting the prospect of not seeing live Shakespeare when, (rather belately when think about it). I had a brainwave, why not get out DVDs of live productions. So I requested As You Like It with Helen Mirren as Rosalind. The pastoral scenes in the Forest of Ardern are some of the loveliest Shakespeare ever penned and it was a joy to see them well presented. It has always been to me the definitive romantic comedy.

After the power structures of the usurper’s court it is a relief to be in the greenwood where romantic dreams are fulfilled and life is presented as simple. It’s all make-believe but wonderful theatre to experience. The illusion that is the stage is rarely better fulfilled. And Jacques’ speech contains an irony. It’s a speech delivered from a stage.

The play abounds in irony and wit as well as romance. There are elaborate gender reversals. Rosalind acts the part of a boy, Ganymede. In Shakespeare’s times this would have been a boy actor who played the woman’s part. Orlando roams the forest hanging love-poems to Rosalind from the trees. Touchstone the jester who has run away with Rosalind and her cousin Cecilia clowns upon the lines. Ganymede offers to pose as Rosalind for Orlando to practice wooing upon.

And so the play chuckles it way to its anticipated happy ending, melancholy Jacques and ribald, jolly Touchstone ride shotgun to the lover’s courtship. The audience believes Rosalind and Orlando will live happily ever after. It is equally sure that Touchstone’s marriage to Audrey the goat-herd girl will not last for it is built only on amorous desire. But their wooing enables belly-laughs along the way.

I have never heard of Angharad Rees who played the part of Cecilia. She was good. I feel all the better for having watched the play two nights running. There are still good things out there in the world, despite the morose Jacques that inhabit the media and strut upon the stage.

Friday, November 27, 2009


A tui comes several times a day to the orange abutilon (Chinese bells) outside the French doors. As the doors have been open for the last few days I’ve had fantastic views of the bird balancing on the slender branches as it tongues its nectar.

This November has been dry – about half the average monthly rainfall. Anne was keen to have some pots with flowers outside the doors, but she is finding the required daily watering a bother on top of all her other tasks – one big chore is looking after me. Wilting pansies are not a pleasant sight. I've suggested maybe a lavender bush to provide both colour and scent as well as requiring less maintenance.

If spring’s garden is best for colour, summer’s is best for scent – lavender, rosemary, catmint, rose, nicotiana, honeysuckle and sweet pea. In my previous existence, twice a week I’d pick a large bunch of sweet peas and their perfume would waft through the house.

One of the season's sensual delights is the sound of bees at lavender. As well as smelling wonderful and looking interesting, with their grey-green leaves and range of purple flowers, lavenders have the engaging quality of being hardy. They thrive on heavy pruning. Even neglect.

The name lavender comes from the Latin ‘lavare’ to wash. Lavatory comes from the same root. The Romans added lavender to their bath water and ever since its oil has been used in perfumes and toiletries.

In the previous garden we had several varieties. Cuttings from friend's plants, heeled in and nurtured, had flourished. In turn, when I pruned our bushes I often stuck several shoots into the veggie patch and usually they took root. Pinching out any flowerheads, nature's fling at ensuring that particular species’ survival, to ensure more root growth, I’d pot them up as presents for friends and neighbours. Over time the original plants become woody and scraggly, so my pots were also a source of replacement.

Not only are they easy to grow, lavenders need merely a dash of lime once a year to remind them of their Mediterranean origin. Also, reflecting their birthplace, they don't mind drought - indeed, they seem to flourish during one.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Reading Kassabova

How do poems happen? Juxtapositions create their own metaphors. Here’s an example from several years ago. I was staying with my mother in Ashburton and took her as usual to visit my brother’s deer farm near Mount Hutt. At the time I was reading Kapka Kassabova’s novel, ‘Love in the Land of Midas’. During the evening after the being on the farm this poem gestated in my mind. I’d been told about the stoats and the fact that Bruce had had to shoot a doe. Events coalesced, I made them first person, the poem appeared and needed very little further effort. Other poems can require considerable crafting.

Reading Kassabova On My Brother's Farm

Redpolls gather deer hairs
from the paddocks to line their nest

We are our own narrative, we neither
create the introduction nor the ending

That Balkan sadness
at the eternal slaughter

A doe is killing other doe's fawns
my brother has his rifle in his hands

Midas comes in many guises, as does love
that abruptly knots every nerve and blood-vessel

"She laughed for a fraction
of a second and velvet brushed his ear"

"We had bellbirds nesting here last year, but
a bloody stoat cleaned them out, I got the bastard though"

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Emissions Trading Bill

I begin with two apparently irrelevant sentences.

My Ashburton niece, Janine, sent through by email recent photos of her two young children, Ryan aged three and Taylor aged two months. They look bonny youngsters. Certainly my sister-in-law Margaret is ecstatic about them. Even allowing for the fact that is the nature of grandmothers it is fascinating for me as an educator to follow from afar the development of skills and attributes.

The slave master went below to address the galley rowers. ‘I have good news and bad news’, he said. 'Which do you want to hear first?' ‘The good.’ The captain has ordered a triple tot of rum for each rower. And then some clot called out ‘what’s the bad?' ‘After that the captain wants to go water-skiing.’

It is one of the oldest political tricks, the release of good news to obscure the bad. Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett fronted with the good news – youth unemployment figures are down and she announced further initiatives. But in question time in Parliament the pack chased another target – the Emissions Trading Bill.

Then in the urgency debate over the bill, Rodney Hide described it as an ‘atrocious piece of legislation by a good government’, Labour said it was a ‘shambles’ and while the Greens were more polite they were just as vehemently opposed. Peter Sharples sat hunched and isolated. The deal hitched between National and Maori would allow the legislation to pass.

It is poor legislation, crashed through without much debate or consultation. It postpones payment. Ryan and Taylor will be paying off that debt for the remainder of their lives. The government tells us that we must cut the debt. It’s downloading this particular debt to generations yet to be born.

I am surprised that the Maori party agreed to such a back-room deal. The outcome will be to increase disadvantage. For a short-term gain the party has made more difficult the lives that their children will face. It would appear the deal is a sweetener for the Foreshore repeal. Can Harawira go on supporting the present policy. After I finished typing this draft I checked the internet. Apparently there is a grass-roots revolt in the party over the deal. Maybe the captain will not go water-skiing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


America – so most of us call the USA - looks forward to two very different anniversaries, Thanksgiving and last year’s election of President Obama. Yesterday’s Dominion had an article about Detroit – 28% unemployment. And yesterday’s New York Times had a column about Sarah Palin’s whistle-stop tour, ostensibly to sell her book but obviously a positioning for a tilt at the 2012 presidency. I quote a sentence. ‘Palin can be stupefying simplistic, but she seems dynamic. Obama is impressively complex but he seems static.’ Would Clinton have dealt better with the issues? The question is unanswerable. The unlikely possibility of a Hilary Clinton versus Sarah Palin campaign would have been very interesting.

Americans have a tendency to be suckered-in by enthusiastic evangelicals. Indeed Obama’s campaign contained to a considerable extent that strand. I wondered at the time whether he had the ability to translate the rhetoric into reality. Clinton's ads struck home to this observer. Obama did lack experience, but maybe that could be an advantage. This gave me some hope as it certainly did to his fervent supporters.

Detroit is symbolic of much of modern America. Manufacturing is in the doldrums. Despondency has replaced that sense of adventure and confidence that characterised the sector for over a hundred years. The recession that began in Bush’s last year has bit hard – the big banks do not seem to have learnt the obvious lessons. And the litany of outrage that greets any move by government to regulate makes it difficult for any intervention. Add to that the inheritance of two unwinnable wars - damned if you do and damned if you don’t – it’s a presidential nightmare. The tasks are Herculean.

There will always be that gap between rhetoric and reality. Time is a factor. An economy is like a big ship at full speed on a collision course; it takes time to alter course. Too sharp a turn can create chaos. Not sharp enough and the impending disaster looms larger. The criticisms – some from the right are so vitriolic they are downright scary; those from the left reflect optimism turning into gloom at the failure of their leader to deliver.

Add to that two yearly Congressional elections. In an effort to get elected the rhetoric cranks up. Promises are made that can never be effected. Strange alliances are formed. Lobbyists are back in force. Can Obama do a Roosevelt and override these difficulties. I must confess my hopes dwindle. I hope I am wrong,

Monday, November 23, 2009


Anne has been browsing through Stephanie Alexander’s magnificent coffee-table book, Cooking and Travelling in Southwest France. She is trawling for ideas for a dinner party. I used to delight in reading such books, this includes gardening ones. They added ideas for me to turn into practice in the kitchen or outside. Now, I have to balance frustration at my inability to work in either sphere with the interest of the subject matter.

Anne and I share a love of books. I don’t know when I first learnt to read but in my Granny’s words ‘that boy has always got his nose in a book.’ I’m grateful for my widowed mother who never stopped me except to make sure I'd got next morning's kindling in. Early on she bought me a reading lamp, waking in the night I would click it on and pick up a book. She’d growl but did not never remove the lamp.

One of my first books was Winnie the Pooh. That old favourite like nearly all the others was based in the northern hemisphere. I grew up on tales of Christmas snow and a land full of squirrels and elves. Even the Whitcombe & Tombs story books were about such characters as Hiawatha and Ivanhoe, full of breezy optimism and damnation to evildoers. There were gaps, I never received an Enid Blyton or Beatrix Potter, I presume Mum saw them as books for girls.

Very early on I began consuming books from the Little River public library. Exhausting the children's section, Arthur Ransome and Robert Louis Stevenson - (Kidnapped seemed boring, I lacked the necessary Scottish historical knowledge) - I turned to the adult section, Idries I particularly recollect, especially his tales about diving for pearls off the north coast of Australia. Then I discovered Westerns, Zane Grey and Max Brand, again a world of heroics and the triumph of good. This led me to Bulldog Drummond, the Saint and Edgar Wallace.

I wish my teachers had thought to get me writing but in those days there was no concept of creative writing. My reading assisted a tendency to day-dream without the discipline of writing to force me to assemble my thoughts. Give me a macrocarpa stump or a rock and I would sit introspective upon it rearranging the world to universal acclaim. After all Richmal Crompton's William who was one of my heroes used to do this, sending out conquering armies, despatching cutthroats with a wave of his arm, catching spies or giving lectures.

Sydney-based Dymocks reissued Crompton's books in cheap war-time paper. Each Christmas and birthday Mum put one in my pillow-case. (We never had stockings, just a pillow-case at the foot of the bed). I still possess a few William, battered, marked and marmite-stained, evidence of continual re-readings, a love-affair with fiction and a good plot that I still retain. Crompton's stories like Milne's Pooh tales are superbly crafted - they resolved the conundrum that had been set up, a Heffalump captured or William ripping up his school report to leave a trail to help his aunt out of the woods in which he convinced her they were lost.

I had no early sense of any scale of critical value - that came much later. In fact I have often secretly harboured the heresy that it was for the better not having an anatomy of criticism forced into me early. Unless one has read many books how can one work out which are the good books? Haphazardly I devoured my grandfather’s David Copperfield along with his John Buchan, Steele Rudd, Ryder Haggard, H G Wells and Left Book Clubs. It was not just books. There were as well paper-back Westerns, the Press, the Auckland Weekly News, simple school readers, Pop's Bulletin, Mum's New Idea and any comics I could scrounge. Mum brought me a Bible. I kept getting stuck in Levicticus, doggedly I'd set out to read it from cover to cover again.

Bill Manhire claims that such eclectic reading is a very New Zealand thing. The class system of the old country helped determine what you read. The fact people like myself read across all the boundaries reflects our classlessness and our artlessness. This last idea is mine, it would be unfair to put Bill's label upon it. I was and am a print junkie - more accurately a story junkie. I rarely fail to finish a book nor do I walk out on a movie, TV is fatal once I see the beginning of something.

From day one Anne and I had read together and argued about books. An ideal holiday was a bach at a beach, Anne on the sand on a rug with a book and I in a deck-chair up the bank also with a book. The day, after a few years living together, when we agreed to merge our books was a red-letter day, symbolising as great a commitment as a wedding ceremony. We each had treasures we wanted to retain. Decisions were made amicably but sometimes involved considerable discussion.

Having finished Humphrey McQueen’s book on Australian social history, I tossed up whether to re-read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as I’d promised myself when watching the DVD of the movie or to start A S Byatt’s The Children’s Story which had been languishing on ‘to be read’ shelf for a while. I went for the Byatt. I should have read it earlier. It’s gripping. It’s the world of Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, William Morris, the Fabians and that strange assortment of Russian anarchists, artists and free-thinkers of the late Victorian era when childhood was seen as a magical place. In the William books these people were objects of interest and scorn. But they were real, they shaped an era, soon to be overtaken by the carnage that is called the First World War.

Byatt’s prose glitters. A description of a cottage garden ends with ‘a haze of forget-me-nots’. Exactly right. The book opens in the museum, which is now called the Victoria and Albert. It quickly switches the scene to the rambling place in Kent that is the home of Humphrey and OliveWellwood and their large weekend party. There are performances of Midsummer Night’s Dream and magic lantern shows. The extensive cast of children and adults reveal a complex medley of emotions, desires and needs. I, as reader, even at this early stage, sense below the bounty and illusion there are dark under-currents ranging from infidelities to incompetence and imperfection. Why? The children, each responding in different way to the changing situations, provide the hints. In their own world of make-believe they see through the make-believe of their adults. What is real and what is not? That is the question.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tui, Cathedral and Strawberries

Yesterday I was delighted as a tui settled in the abutilon, the long tongue seeking nectar in the flowers. The bird’s balance was amazing. It was so close that the sheen of its feathers was striking and as usual that tuft of white feathers at the throat was eye-catching. No wonder the early English settlers called it the parson bird.

The site for last night’s Antiques Roadshow was Wells Cathedral. Anne and I visited it in 1994 while holidaying around England, indeed we went to evensong. We’d spent the day exploring the Somerset countryside but I wished we’d gone to the cathedral earlier – it’s very unique. And very old. Built mainly between 1184 and 1239 it has survived remarkably well. The vista on the west side is striking – from a distance the medieval figures merge into a symetric symphony. White swans on the moat around the Bishop’s palace added the final touch. In the transept is an astronomical clock – in the 19th century the old machinery was replaced, but the medieval face was retained. The dial presents a geocentric view of the universe, the sun and moon circling around the earth.

The white strawberries we brought with us are being choked out by the violets I planted when we arrived. There’s history in these strawberries. When we arrived at Farm Rd there was a little group of what I thought were small mountain strawberries. I’d seen them in the fields in the French massif. But I kept waiting for the white fruit to ripen. They didn’t. But self-sown strawberries kept appearing all round the section. Then one day mother-in-law pointed out that they were supposed to be eaten white. They were a different breed from the one that I thought they were. Ripe, they were delectable – even more strawberry flavoured than strawberries. For several years we’d been missing out on this luxury. After that we enjoyed this taste every summer. The ones in the veggie patch grew well on the ample amount of sheep manure I’d dug in.

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

Strawberries were cultivated and traded in Chile and Peru before the Spanish explorers arrived. We don’t know for how long, but it was probably before it began in Europe. Certainly, it was not till the 1300’s that the French began cultivating the little woodland strawberry, much smaller than its South American counterpart. The English followed suit. In I534 Henry VIII’s expense list has ten shillings for a pottle of strawberries. Thomas Tusser in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, (1557) wrote under the month September
Wife, into the garden and set me a plot
With strawberry roots, the best to be got:
Such growing abroad among thorns in the wood,
Well chosen and picked, prove excellent good.

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

To Autumn

The word ‘proud’ is two-edged. On one side it is pompous, puffed-up power pretence. The other is a legitimate sense of achievement well-done and well-deserved, worthy of praise. In that second sense I feel proud to have co-edited The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse with Ian Wedde. It was a best-seller. A while back I met a retired high court judge. He told me for years he kept a copy of the anthology beside the bed and most evenings he read a few poems. He said he’d been through three copies.

I enjoyed working with Ian very much. Our decision to include Maori was not only timely but correct. We had long discussions, read everything separately that we could find, prepared short lists and then negotiated. It was remarkable how much our selections coincided. An example, we were surprised to find we both admired the poems of Charles Spear. There were disagreements, but we talked through these, compromised and made choices. We have not revealed the nature of these and I do not intend to now. Indeed, memory is rather blurred on such matters. What stands is the agreed script. And the recollection of the camaraderie of a good, close working relationship.

One of Ian’s appealing characteristics is his delight in ‘the luxury of the ordinary world.’ That quote appears in his blurb on the back of The Common Place Odes, one of Ian’s later volumes. Here’s one of his odes as an example:


How to prepare stuffed green peppers:
In plenty of green olive oil, cook
Garlic and onions, with a couple of red chilies.
Add the arborio rice and give it a stir.
Some cans of cheap Italian tomatoes are good.

A glass of red wine, and a huge handful
Of chopped parsley. Stuff the partly cooked
Rice into capped green peppers, and let
The rest stew slowly in the pot with the dolma.
When you life the lid praise the commonplace world

Where everything ends and then starts again –
Where are the songs of spring? I heard them at the end
Of last winter, they were starting to struggle out
Of the wet paddocks, they were choking on unpruned trellises.
And now a year later, like a good bourgeois,

Like the Sabine farm’s wry proprietor, turning
My back on landscape, I approach with sharp secateurs
The yellowed vine that runs round the verandah
Above the deck stained with summer’s libations.
Smoke from the house-fire blows away

Into the rainy mist on Mount Victoria, the place
I take my bursting heart on autumn mornings
So gorgeous I almost believe that beauty’s
All I need to know on earth, that my song
Can be without weariness, fever and fret.

Ian Wedde The Commonplace Odes

Such rapture about food. There are poems galore about cabbage trees, daffodils and dogs but much fewer about those most pleasurable activities, cooking and eating. Such a good Italian dish too. Luxuriating over food with language, that one human pleasure that’s easy to underestimate. But it’s more than food. It’s existence to exult ‘a bursting heart'.

But the poem also contains several layers. It’s part of a series based on the old Roman poet Horace whose retreat, his farm in the Sabine hills, figures prominently in his odes. My favourite English poet is John Keats. And my favourite poem is Keats’ To Autumn. Ian not only uses the title, he directly borrows a line ‘where are the songs of spring?’ while the line about the vines echoes another from Keats. There are other throw-backs, the concluding stanza echoes two other lines of the English poet’s odes, To a Grecian Urn and To a Nightingale. Keats knew the grief of existence's passing. But briefly in his To Autumn he transcended it. So does Ian even though he hints at it in the last stanza.

Friday, November 20, 2009


In my second year at university I fell in love. My girl-friend wanted to see the Boranvansky Ballet from Melbourne when the company danced in Christchurch. Together we watched performances of Giselle, Swan Lake and Coppelia from the Gods in the old Theatre Royal. Spell-bound, this country lad was swept away by the music and movement - the grace of the ballerinas, beauty personified, the athleticism of the male dancers a source of envy. The bliss of the occasion seared into my being. Later that year she broke it off – too young to have a serious relationship she claimed. Broken hearts do mend, and when one is young it happens quickly. Her legacy for which I am grateful has been a love affair with an art form that has lasted all my life. Across the years I thank her.

I have watched the New Zealand Ballet productions whenever possible. And seen shows in London, (Sadler Wells and the Kirov), Copenhagen, Munich, Paris, Sydney and Melbourne. In New Zealand Jon Trimmer has been a fixture – still on stage despite his seventy years. 2005 was a good year – a very dramatic Dracula and a striking performance of The Nutcracker Suite, Trimmer at his best. It had very different choreography from the other earlier times when I’ve seen it presented as mainly frolic and energy.

The setting was a hospital, which enabled a different structure. On Christmas morning Clara, hit on the head with her new nutcracker doll by her brother Fritz, was admitted concussed to hospital, where after a dose of nasty-tasting medicine she hallucinated the various dances. The result was a magical pantomime, dancing cripples, a bed that rose to the ceiling, three comic doctors, snow imps, and a doctor and nurse twirling around in love. The tea-lady danced a tango. Nurses turned into Arabian ladies, candles to inspect the sick suddenly became lights of sexual allure. There was a very lively Chinese dance while Fritz and the matron, Jon Trimmer, did the Russian dance as a comedy. I’ve never heard so many laughs at ballet. All too soon it was over as Clara returned home cured. It was an evening of pure make-believe leaving the heart warm and the mind relaxed. The applause was rapturous. There are occasions when one is proud to be a New Zealander. This was one.

Too soon, however, we were jolted back to reality. When I’d made the booking a year earlier I didn’t connect the date with Guy Fawkes. We had parked in the Reading building just across the road from the St James theatre. The waterfront fireworks had just finished. This created chaos in the car-park as everyone tried to leave at once. The problem was that the streets outside were clogged. We looked at the static line of cars and turned back to the concourse to have an ice-cream and watch the youth of Wellington chatter, flatter and flirt.

There were two girls sharing our table, speaking Arabic I think, probably Iraqi or Lebanese nationals. They both wore make-up, no head-scarf, had cell-phones and texted the whole time without stopping talking. I wondered if they were as confident as they appeared. Friends approached them, a mixture of English (some surprisingly good – don’t be patronising Harvey) - and their own language. They left and a middle-aged Chinese couple sat down. Twenty minutes later we tried the car-park again. The queue was moving. Slowly we wound down the floors to eventually reach the street. There are no lights on in the Beehive as we drove past. If Fawkes had been successful would the Westminster model of government have been established in our islands?

A year later we went to the ballet for my last time. Fittingly it was Giselle, the first ballet I had seen. The early peasant dancing was pleasant and sweet but the dance suddenly became powerful, the pathos palpable as Giselle learnt of her lover’s betrayal. The ballerina’s descent into madness was a superb piece of dancing and acting. Allied to the power and energy of Qi Huan who danced Albrecht it was extremely dynamic. The second half was eerily staged. The costume of the Wilis (betrayed dead maidens) fitted my mental archetype as to what a ballet dress should look like. Their queen and the other artistes shimmered and quivered on point as they rejected Albrecht’s pleas for mercy. And so to the final anguish of the lovers, a performance a fitting conclusion to a lifetime’s pleasure.

Now, I watch ballet on DVD. While lacking the glamour of the live theatre it’s a good second best.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

To My Mirror



Toweling myself before the mirror in a hotel far
From the unfinished dwellings of my life, I see
How gravely my weight wants to go to earth,
Tugged down by good living, by love,
And by spiteful tiredness brought on by the knuckle-

Cracking Cotton Mathers of cultural bureaucracy.
Was this your fate also, Horace,
To sit in meeting rooms filled with nodding
Heads – that semaphore of acquiescence signaling
An infantile need for the boss’s caress, a desire

To sit at the high table, to learn the secret
Handshakes of power and the muscular exercises of gate-
Keeping? Your friends in high places trusted
Your amiable libations, and those who joined you in the shade
Of the Sabine farm’s leafy awnings knew

That you loved life too much to learn
Those shameful trades. I heard Neruda in London
When my young ambition burned. His huge confidence
Was without ego or neediness and came from the sure
Knowledge that what he gave was his to give

And was wanted by the great crowd that stood on chairs
To applaud the poet. Then he just left –
And I walked out knowing it would be my fate
To see in the dark mirror of some shop window
The sad marks of remorse on my own face.

Ian Wedde’s Commonplace Odes is a volume that represents a literary tradition – the use of an older poem as a model. The original poet was Horace a Roman who lived from 65 to 8 BC. During his lifetime he bragged that his poetry would live as long as there were Vestal Virgins in Rome. Those particular ladies are long gone, but his poems, including 103 odes, are still read. They cover a great number of themes, dinner invitations, wine, woman, song, holiday celebrations, and patriotic hymns – Augustus was emperor, Horace knew on what side his bread was buttered. Many are about his farm in the Sabine hills not far from Rome.

In his accompanying blurb Ian says “having not written for a while I became fascinated again by a tension I’d forgotten, sometimes wry and sometimes dramatic, between the marvellous, surreal details of ordinary life, and the great themes of human existence. … What I rediscovered was the grand themes in ordinary details: the emotional truth of the commonplace.”

Horace faced the dilemma most poets face, how to earn a living while working at their craft. He earned his keep as a bureaucrat, working in something akin to our modern Treasury. The chafing tension between that life and the more precarious life as a free spirit is captured in Wedde’s To My Mirror. As an ex-bureaucrat I can vouch for the authenticity of its sentiments.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

17th November

Yesterday was very itsy-bitsy. The highlight, in one respect, was mashed-up raspberries and ice cream for lunch – one of my favourite flavours. Rae brought a punnet - the term places me geographically, ‘chip’ in Auckland, ‘pottle’ in Dunedin, I grew up with ‘punnet’ - when she came to dinner on Sunday. There were enough left over for me to have again. Yum!

I deserved a treat. I’d just come back from my six-monthly check with the skin specialist. I’ve been going for forty years – the penalty for having Scottish ancestry and a childhood wearing only shorts through the Canterbury summer – to be checked. Usually, I have spots burnt off with dry-ice, a not very pleasant experience. Occasionally I have to have them cut off – twice they have been pre-cancerous. Yesterday, I had only one burnt off, on my left shoulder – the penalty for those long ago sun-burnt days.

My caregiver Susanne comes twice on Tuesdays, briefly in the morning to dress me and then after lunch to take me for a walk. She’s been on leave – well-earnt. Coping with us old fogies can’t be much fun. For a fortnight I’ve had a succession of temporary relievers. Some of them are excellent but they didn’t know the ropes. I’m aware of a change in my attitude. At one time I felt rather embarrassed at being naked and exposed but now I accept it – it’s part of their job. Though there remains a sense of indignity at having to be looked after in this fashion.

They say there are no secrets between a man and his valet. I wouldn’t know. But there are few with a caregiver. They know the nooks and crannies of the soul as well as the body. It is a marvelous support system that the State supplies. Susanne's help is invaluable and she has grown accustomed to my quirks and eccentricities. I did not walk as far as I should have as a growing wind clinched my turning for home earlier than I had planned. I have not been out enough for some considerable time. Stamina needs building up. Resolution – do something about it.

I watched Parliament on TV over question time. Unanimous agreement about congratulating the successful All White soccer team’s success in gaining entry to the World Cup in South Africa, quickly turned to bickering over energy emissions and ACC. National’s excitable minister Nick Smith is in charge of both portfolios. He was having a hard time of it.

I’m enjoying Humphrey McQueen’s social history of Australia. His irreverence for the establishment is refreshing and after all the detail of European kings and captains it is refreshing to read about the lot of ordinary men and women in Australia. If you were at the bottom of the heap in the late 19th century and early 20th century it was a hard life. Little details are engaging. He claims the bungalows that replaced the earlier multi-storeyed buildings meant the house-wife no longer needed live-in servants. Interestingly, he calls the Second World War the First Pacific War.

He’s scathing about the White Australia policy and points out the constant political and academic demand for increased population. He quotes a poem entered in a competition which was part of the 1938 anniversary celebrating 150 years since the the arrival of Governor Phillips and the convicts, the first European settlement in Australia.

Ye girls of British race
Famous for your beauty
Breed fast in all your grace
For this is your duty.
As Anzac gave in war
So daughters at your call
Will quickly respond the more
To replace those that fall.

Writing about the health consequences of my childhood reminds me of something else related to that which Bruce my youngest brother and I talked about when he last visited. He recalled watching me spraying gorse and blackberry with 245T every summer when I was at university. Each vacation I classed the wool in the shed during shearing – my stepfather timed it to coincide – and then tackled the weeds with a back spray-pump. Stupidly as well as ignorantly I wore only shorts and boots. I have memories of the liquid running down my back from the rather crude pump mechanism. Even worse I did not have a face-mask so I must have breathed in the spray. I’ve talked about it to the doctors and they say there is possible though unlikely connection with my present illness. But that activity probably has cut down lung capacity. If tested and it were so there is nothing that could be done at this stage. Water under the bridge.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Helen of Troy

When my volume of poems 'Against the Maelstrom' came out John Weir reviewing it said every first collection should be judged by the potential of its best poem. He said my take on Helen of Troy was that poem


I can’t sleep. Spartan
nights are cool in August.
Illustrious Menelaus roisters
again with his cronies, clattering
around in harsh armour, they boast
of burnt and blackened Troy.

It’s my fate to share this unheroic age.
The gods alone know when some
tall teller of tales will blindly
celebrate that savage raid: Hector’s
corpse mutilated by vain Achilles.
He’ll ignore my beloved Paris,
already the butt, the blamed,

the cause; bootlicking Odysseus
saw to that before he vanished
into the tempestuous sea and
that’s the last we’ll hear of him.
I remember my father Tyndareus
once saying as we collected honey

from smoke-dazed bees, ‘likely lass
they’ll not remember us, fame
is mainly chance.’ My husband
spreads nursery stories, ravishing
great swans, my real self spirited
away for the years, deep-bosomed
goddesses offering gifts – a futile

attempt to save his sweat-stained
reputatation. My rustic maidenhood,
olive harvest frolics, sufficed
the fox-souled son of Atreus,
I could milk ewes, churn soft-white
cheeses, render lard, was comely,

of fertile stock (he wanted sons
so overlooked my meagre dowry).
It was so long ago, grey flecks
now in my raven locks. His family
was always quarreling – witness
the massacre at Mycanae. Those
who malign me forget his cruelty.

He was mean also, counting
quinces for our guests. Those
same ill-tongues claim that Paris
was effeminate. They are wrong.
He was cedarwood and stone, a royal
city, battle-furious when aroused.

When desire (that uninvited stranger)
struck I resisted, in fact we both
resisted for some while, until
Menelaus left us (for boar-hunting
so he claimed). The rest you know.
Such passion demanded obedience.
Now beside the weeping Salamander

fallen masonry beds the fugitive
cyclamen and scarlet poppy;
badgers burrow in the ruins
where we once loved so tightly.
Women curse me; I am the whore
who led their men; sons, lovers,

husbands, direct to that
nonsensical cavern of dark and
lonely Hades. It was not my intent.
Nothing is what it once was.
Released I am captive in my
own country. Even the rain
is different, it falls with much

less force: little affection
or tenderness here. My critics
forget that I also have reason
to weep over my embroidery.
Let it all be said, but also
recall our sturdy ship

cresting the rollers of
the windswept Aegean; for
royal escort diving gannets,
leaping dolphins, the strength
and delight of oak-hearted Paris.
Remembering that brief joy
I do not regret what I have done.

In my blog of 29 March I describe how while at university I fell in love with ancient Greek society. I wrote this poem after my first visit to Greece. On the flight from Istanbul to Athens I’d had a clear view of the Dardanelles. Down there somewhere was the site of ancient Troy. I’d been to the old citadel of Mycanae. For a summer fortnight my first wife and I had an apartment at Paihia, a panoramic view of the Bay of Islands. Some days we explored Northland, even as far as Cape Reinga. Other days we lazed in the sun. Re-reading Homer’s Iliad I had also taken a pile of library books about that old Aegean Society. I worked at the poem evening after evening. I have never polished a poem as much. It is one of my favourites.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Troilus and Cressida

Roger’s going to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in New York. He’s already seen two earlier productions. Three in a lifetime. Lucky man! It’s a play I would love to see performed for it’s one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing.

Intriguing in that it overturns so many dramatic and poetic conventions. Commentators label it one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. There is much conjecture as to what was happening in the playwright’s private life that so embittered and disillusioned him during that period. That is all it can ever be, conjecture, for there is little real evidence as to the cause.

Troilus and Cressida is a sub-plot of the Trojan War story. Shakespeare’s audience would have known well the story and the sub-plot. Helen the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta ran away with Paris the son of the king of Troy. During the ten year’s war that followed the two heroes Hector, Paris’s older brother, and the Greek hero Achilles were both killed in battle.

Troilus, brother of Hector and Paris, falls in love with Cressida. She revels in his pursuit of her. Her uncle Panderus – from whom the word ‘pander’ has entered the English language – acts as go-between. The lovers swear eternal fidelity and quickly seek the bedchamber. But Cressida is exchanged for the release of Trojan captives and falls in love with a Greek warrior. In medieval times Cressida became a symbol of feminine infidelity

Shakespeare wrote some lovely love scenes in other plays – Rosalind in As You Like It is my favourite while the romantic language of Romeo and Juliet has not been surpassed. Then in his latter plays in characters like Perdita and Miranda he created feminine visions of grace and attractiveness. These four characters all have a fresh sweetness and a strength of character. Cressida’s language by contrast is a mixture of bawdiness and high-flown rhetoric.

It fits the theme of the play – heroism, nobility and love all the time undermined by baser qualities. Instead of a traditional heroic epic we are given an anti-heroic look at existence in which brutality and lust dominate. Part of the intrigue of the play is that Shakespeare was constrained by the stories. Hector could not survive, Cressida could not be faithful.

The story though allowed the playwright to meditate on the conflict between personal needs and the interests of the state. But the anti-heroic stance means that Achilles is portrayed as an unpleasant, sulking coward rather than the mighty warrior of Homer’s portrayal. Likewise, the mighty Ajax was a thug. His slave, Thersites, is a foul-mouthed ruffian who, however, provides a commentary on the action with his refrain of “wars and lechery”. Unpleasant though he is, the audience (in this instance me) is not unsympathetic.

The only two characters to emerge with much credit are Ulysses and Hector. Shakespeare portrays the former as a clever politician manipulating with ease his fellow Greeks. He is political philosopher, concerned about the slippage from power to ‘appetite’. Hector is not only brave, he questions the need for the war worrying about the ‘hot passion of distempered blood’ of the young men. Paris and Troilus for their own reasons do not want an end to the strife. Paris says they must keep Helen for she is worth more than ‘the world’s large spaces’ while Troilus argues they must retain her for she is ‘a theme of honour and renown’. I sense Shakespeare was on Hector’s side, but had to accept the inevitable outcome.

Unlike in Homer, Hector, unarmed is killed in a cowardly fashion by Achilles. The play ends in anti-climax. Troilus does not get revenge. Hector does not get justice. Pandurus the pimp sums up in a bitter speech. Behind it all we hear Thersites muttering ‘wars and lechery’.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Switching on the TV yesterday I caught the tail-end of a reality survival show. Such shows rely very much on humiliation. I know about stiff upper lip and all that jazz but to be publicly pilloried is not pleasant. Even our popular Dancing With the Stars (which is being axed on cost grounds) uses the same format. Those who rail against bullying in schools should consider its ramifications in presentations on the box.

Peter Wilson ends his 850 pages account of the Thirty Year’s War with advice. ‘The voices of the seventeenth century still speak to us from the innumerable texts and images we are fortunate to possess. They offer a warning of the dangers of entrusting power to those who feel summoned by God to war, or feel that their sense of justice and order is the only one valid.’

After his historical block-buster I meant to turn to fiction. But Geoff had bought for me from Melbourne a remaindered paper-back Humphrey McQueen’s Social Sketches of Australia, 1888-2001, the radical historian and cultural commentator’s analysis of his country’s social history. It was beside my chair and I picked it up to glance at it and was hooked. After Wilson’s dense prose it was a relief to enjoy a polemical approach to history. He sees history through class warfare, labour versus the bosses and it’s quite clear where his sympathy lies. I kept thinking of parallel happenings here in New Zealand. Lovely little insights, the advent of the motor car narrowed women’s dresses and ended flowing trails. Country life was tough,.drought, rabbits and prickly pear. Town life was equally rugged for those at the bottom of the heap, sanitation, working conditions, sweated labour, servants.

Another dry blow. The forecast promises rain, the skies are grey but there is no precipitation. And the wind is strong and drying. It could be an unhappy summer. Hope not. It’s early days. Meanwhile I can only observe. My watering days are over.

Several year’s ago in my gardening heyday a friend’s son rang up. A designer, he wanted some garden photos for a web-site. “Sure, come round”. But when he arrived he was disappointed. He expected neat, ordered rows of veggies. My riot of flowering rocket, cress and coriander interspersed with mini-cauliflower, leeks, dog-legged radish and spring onion rows and lettuce plants with lots of white strawberries muddled in was not his idea of a garden. He took some flower photos – that part of the garden was photogenic – but my veggie patch didn’t fit his stereotype. But then I didn’t know what his client was after. The young these days have such diversity of career options - designing web-sites sounds like fun.

Outside the other day I noticed a plump little brown spider dangling from a thread on the camellia. There was an intermittent northerly wind blowing and the spider was relying upon a bigger gust to enable contact with another branch. It came and and it did. The spider then crawled back up its thread and re-launched itself in a different direction. This time it fell short so it extended the thread. The next wind swung it to another twig. As I watched it slowly constructed a web. Such dogged determination deserves admiration.

As a schoolboy I learnt the story of Robert Bruce the medieval Scottish leader who took refuge in a cave from the pursuing English. Having just lost his sixth battle he’d decided to give up attempting to get his throne back. But he watched a spider try and try again to spin its web to the other side of the cave. Six times it tried and six times it failed. On the seventh it made it. Its efforts inspired him to continue. He went on to soundly beat the English at Bannockburn. A disappointing battle site to visit – no sign of that long-ago heroic conflict.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Two Films

Over the last two evenings I’ve watched two very different DVDs lent to me by Tom, Aquirre, the Wrath of God and Sense and Sensibility. Aquirre leads a group of conquistadors and slaves down the Amazon looking for El Dorado. Very minimalist the film portrays madness and folly amidst the lush and unforgiving jungle and its Indian inhabitants.

The other film, based on Jane Austen’s first published novel, is a direct contrast. It is the Cinderella theme; Elinor and Marianne, two sisters in reduced circumstances, experience romance and heartbreak before the inevitable happy ending. Austen’s novels end in wedding bells. So does the film. Along the way there is the debate between sense (logic) and sensibility (emotion).

During the 1970s two German film-makers, Fassbinder and Herzog established reputations as great directors. When I saw them I found Fassbinder intriguing but I never warmed to Herzog. When I first saw Aquirre (one of his films) I thought it far-fetched romantic twaddle while his much acclaimed Fitzcarroldo left me cold. At the time I thought the fault was mine.

So it was with interest that I looked at Aquirre again. I appreciated the camera work more, great shots of the Amazon headwaters and jungle. But I did not respond to the story or to the actors. I can appreciate the lust for gold driving men crazy. But the actions, especially of the hero actor Kinski, arising from the story-line were still not credible to me.

I’ve finished reading Wilson’s The Thirty Year’s War. In his summing up of the consequences he wrote about how Schiller the great German romantic poet and playwright had used events from the war to portray attitudes towards death, desolation and alienation. There is a strand here that leads to Wagner, Nietzsche and Hitler that is rather foreign to my nature. I am not an outsider.

Around the time Schiller was writing Austen was penning her novels in England. They in their understated way are as far-removed from the works of the nihilistic German playwright as is possible. The cinematic contrast between the ordered English countryside and the uncontrolled jungle is striking, reflecting two different world-views.

I’m not, I hope, making value judgements about cultures. There are strands of both approaches in New Zealand. But in my case it is an acceptance of a fact that my being has been shaped by the English lens that backgrounded and educated me. I am at home and at ease in Jane Austen.

The scene when Elinor realises that she has been misinformed, that Edward Farrar is not married and is indeed free is one of those marvellous film moments. It had me close to tears. Whereas Aquirre, his daughter killed and his men all dead, maniacally raving alone on a mid-stream raft with only monkeys for company left me uninvolved and shrugging ‘so what’. Still, I’m pleased to have seen the film again. It’s good to know that what I sensed over thirty years ago is still valid. And I must re-read the Austen.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Burglary

This poem is in this week’s New Yorker.

The Burglary

They stole my mother's silver,
melting it down, perhaps,

into pure mineral, worth
only its own weight.

We must eat with our hands now,
grab for food

in this new place of greed,
our table set

only with memories, tarnishing
even as we speak:

my mother holding a shining ladle
in her hand,

serving the broth
to children who will forget

to polish her silver, forget even
to lock the house.

While forks and spoons are divided
from all purpose,

patterns are lost like friezes
after centuries of rain,

and every knife is robbed
of its cutting edge.

Linda Pastan

Lauris Edmond introduced me to the poetry of Linda Pastan. She told me the American poet’s take on domesticity and relationships was as good as you could get. She was correct. So it was with interest and pleasure I read this poem and its expression of that sense of violation that is the consequence of an act of burglary.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

It Saddens Me

Yesterday, two separate news items saddened me. Koala bears face extinction in the wild. So do orang-utans. The planet will be less interesting and more the poorer for the loss of these two species.

On a different tack it also saddens me to hear uninformed criticism of our schools and teachers. They are better than their critics often realise. When I was executive director for the New Zealand Council for Teacher Education in the early 1990s amongst other duties I managed international teacher exchanges. At first teachers from overseas found our classrooms more stressful and energy sapping than they had imagined or experienced. Their stress was not just working in a new environment, but it was in finding that the preparation of lessons and fresh resources, day after day, took them much longer than in their homelands.

They often bewailed to me in the early stages of their stay the lack of textbooks, and of pre-packaged, school or state-wide “off-the-shelf” courses. Equally often at the end of their stay here, many had become converts to our system. Converts in that they realised how our education centred around the needs of the students, rather than dictates laid down by paternalistic officers in the capital city.

Likewise our teachers returned from their year’s exchange to report that initially they felt it was marvelous with less preparation time, but as the year progressed they increasingly realised the value of flexibility and the increased responsibility of our system. Don’t underestimate what we achieve here.

Teaching is a blend of theatre and scholarship. Each teacher combines their own character and their own talents within the learning situation. To outsiders it appears a simple task. In reality it is extremely complex one, requiring considerable professional expertise, emotional labour and commitment.

The Chinese have a proverb. Give a man a fish and he can feed his family for a day. Teach him to fish and he can provide for them every day. I add my own twist. There are many ways to catch fish. There is not just one way.

As a species humans are very adaptable. This is a blessing and a curse. It enables us to change the environment in which we exist. But a consequence of this is to endanger other species by reducing their habitat. Koalas and orangutans, like the panda, by their very specialisation are in an evolutionary cul-de-sac. They are vulnerable because of the changes we make. To take the proverb a step further – if you catch all the fish then you will starve. Common sense dictates that conservation should be part of the education curriculum.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

4 Unrelated 'Cs'

C is for Cowberry

I had read about lingonberries, extremely nutritious, which are collected from the wild and served with reindeer steaks in northern Scandinavia. What I hadn’t realised is that its English name is cowberry. This plant grows all over northern Eurasia and has a related species in the same North American latitudes. It is unusual in that is an evergreen, its leaves buried under winter snow. They are an important food for bears and foxes.

Friend Jenny gave me for my birthday a fancy packet of Swedish sweets, lingon soft pastilles, a sort of superior jube. They had a pleasant, tart flavour. In Northern Europe the berries are usually cooked as jam or sauce. It was customary to preserve them. Until recently they had an important role in keeping people healthy in Sweden through the long winters when fresh vegetables were unavailable.

C is for Cedenco

Cedenco is a large New Zealand vegetable processing company. It went into receivership two days ago. ANZ is providing seasonal finance to keep it trading before a sale next year. So, at least in the short-term, farmers and labourers will be able to maintain their livelihood.

One of the reasons given for the collapse of the company was a breakdown at a ‘shareholding and governance level.’ Cedenco’s major shareholder, SK Foods International, an American company, is filing for bankruptcy protection. In turn it is seeking legal redress from ANZ for its action. I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, probably faults on all sides. But I do know the lawyers will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Meanwhile Kiwis who till the soil, harvest and process the crop remain at the mercy of these global transnational forces. My mind tells me it’s been happening for centuries. My heart says something’s wrong as I see Kiwi sweat develop another viable and useful local industry only to see it gobbled up and possibly destroyed.

C is for the Cup

Yesterday, I watched on TV, a horse called Monkey King win the New Zealand Trotting Cup. In my childhood the word ‘cup’ had one meaning. It was that race which took place each November at Addington during Canterbury Show Week. Pop, my grandfather, a trotting fan, was a steward at Addington racetrack. I spent 15 months in bed as a boy with a collapsed lung – the wire wove mattress probably contributed to my present round-shoulderness. Shortly after I became bed-ridden Pop drove off to Ashburton for the day. Before he left he said listen to the broadcast of the main race, a pacer called `Gold Bar' would win. I listened and `Gold Bar' leading all the way finished first.

Thereafter Pop and I would pick winners from the paper and I would listen to the races on the radio to see how my choices got on. Racebooks became part of my reading mania. I cut them up and ran my own races with the horse's names, imitating Dave Clarkson the caller. "Good for his lungs" the doctor said. At first I played God and choose the winner but after a while I divided my cardboard track into segments and threw dice to determine the speed of advance. Must confess when I threw a one for Gold Bar I sometimes deemed a miss-throw and tossed again hoping for a higher number.

Pop told me that if I got better he would take me to see the New Zealand Cup run in November. Maybe he knew I was on the mend, maybe it was the stimulus I needed, but my temperature dropped, I stopped coughing and I started to venture outside. We went to Addington to the member's stand - a red letter day. The clerk of the course in his old world costume leading out the horses with their drivers in bright silks sitting casual in their sulkies.

"This time", Dave Clarkson's voice, "they're on their way" and the crowd's excitement mounted as they paced past. I worried that Alan Holmes the owner/trainer/driver of "Gold Bar" would wear him out before the race, he seemed to have pushed him around the track faster than the others during their preliminary warm-ups. No need. Gold Bar opened up a massive lead. Pop said they usually catch him. But they didn't. He bowled along in front all the way to flash past the post easily and gloriously first. Occasionally life gives you that dazzling sensation you feel it owes you.

C is for a Cynic
Sometimes an ill-wind blows unexpected political results. Phil Goff has been seeking a breeze to get some wind into his sails. In a strange way Hone Harawira’s outburst calling him a bastard and that ‘he should be lined up against a wall and shot’ might just do that. It would be ironic if Goff benefits from the so-called ‘redneck’ vote.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's The Point

In a response to my blog, next door neighbour, Jenn points out she has been to Prague Castle and saw and photographed the window from which the two Imperial envoys were hurled, the event that precipitated the Thirty Year’s War. The two men were lucky, landing in a pile of horse manure they escaped unhurt if undignified.

Someone said ‘what’s the point of reading about a long vanished war’. There are several reasons. Curiosity! The great vanity fair of human existence. It’s an interesting narrative, history usually is. It’s about people in a different era – the same emotions and desires but channelled by different beliefs and customs. It explains subsequent events and what is happening in the area today. The shape of modern Europe was being hammered out on the battlefield and treaty table. But these circumstances are universal. What is happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan today is a sort of repeat. Religion, status, territory, power, great powers meddling and jockeying. It is different and it is not different.

For even in the early 17th century much of the planet was involved. While Tasman had not yet sailed to New Zealand, the Dutch were trading in the East Indies – a perilous operation with prospects of spectacular rewards if successful. Silver from the mines in Mexico and Peru was swelled the coffers of Spain and helping pay the wages of the troops engaged in fighting the Dutch rebels. I’ve learnt that because the sea route to Low Countries was insecure the Spanish marched troops from Italy over the Alpine passes and down the Rhine to their destination. The possibility of Protestant states blockading this route was a factor in the war.

Geography affects war. Always has. Always will. Geography includes climate. Winter was shut-down time. This period was extremely cold, a mini-Ice Age. Armies, composed mainly of mercenaries, were largely self-funding, loot and tribute extracted from the local area. Woe betide the settlements where the troops were stationed during winter months. Then when the campaign began pillage and lawlessness meant devastation for the countryside and towns through which the troops passed. It was a cruel time if you were there.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mum's Legacy

On the weekend Canterbury defeated Wellington to win the rugby super 14 championship. In a province renowned for its one-eyed provincialism - I am also a son of the Canterbury soil - there were probably few more parochial than my mother who died earlier this year. And if the All Blacks lost that was a national catastrophe. She never forgave the selectors for dropping Mehrtens. Loyalty, not logic, was always one of her characteristics. Her support was tribal.

"You with your university 'on this hand and then on the other hand'" she growled at me after she'd asked my opinion about why New Zealand would want to become a republic. I'd merely replied that I thought it was inevitable but maybe it was a little too soon yet. That didn't suit Mum. Black and white, right and wrong, you took sides. She had wanted a statement with which she could challenge or agree.

She'd led a much more austere and tougher life than I have. In most people’s narrative their mother is a major player. Not always, but certainly so in my case. Not negatively. There has been a spate of recent autobiographical memoirs critical of parents. That’s not my experience. But Mum was always a no nonsense person. Two adjectives that would been least appropriate to describe her would have been volatile and capricious. A few years back she said “you were a trial as a boy. Always day dreaming. You took after your maternal great grandfather, away with the fairies. You were too clever for us.” That’s a reasonable summary. Mum’s practicality is part of my being. But I have other yearnings and interests. The rift between the two is the context of my history. With what complexities are we all composed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The World's Greedy Anarchy

Diesel trucks past the Scrovegni chapel
Catherine Deneuve farting onion fritters
The world's greedy anarchy, I love it!
Hearts that break, garlic fervent in hot oil
Jittery exultation of the soul
Minds that are tough & have good appetites
Everything in love with its opposite
I love it! O how I love it! It’s all

I’ve got

plus Carlos: a wide dreaming eye
above her breast
a hand tangling her hair,
breath filling the room as blood does the heart.

We must amend our lives murmured Rilke
Gagging on his legacy of air.
Hang on to yours Carlos it’s all you’ve got.

Ian Wedde

What a lovely line – ‘the world’s greedy anarchy.’ Modernity and old art, a beautiful actress farting, the human capacity for love with all its joy and heartbreak, food appealing to taste and scent, and a young child.

This sonnet is one of sixty in Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos published in 1975, a moving series of reflections and descriptions of the birth and early days of the poet’s son Carlos. I recall first reading them – striking in their intensity and in their material. There was a zest about experience and life that upset my carefully nurtured poetic conventions. The poetry of surprise declared war on cliché and cant.

What I found liberating was that while the poems exhibited a wide worldly knowledge they still located themselves firmly in the local earth. The world’s greedy anarchy, despite all our attempts and efforts to corral and harness it, is not just banal and meaningless. It is something to celebrate, the joy of it is everywhere.

Despite my disability I am still experiencing and observing that greedy anarchy. Anne took me and Pat our next door neighbour to the garden centre at Miramar on Thursday. The drive was stimulating – throughout the city the deciduous trees had fresh leaves while the native cabbage trees were coming into flower and there were buds on pohutukawa, a harbinger of summer. November has always been to me the fecund month with Nature at its best. That afternoon Anne planted tomato, courgette, cucumber and summer greens.

I’ve been watching the musical Chicago on DVD. What Energy! What Zest! It took a successful Broadway play and transformed it into a lavish cinematic experience, great cross-cutting and transition, poking the borax at celebrity and at the same time glorying in it, and creating spectacular fantasies of dance.

The film was good counterpoint to The Thirty Years War. After an extensive scene setting I am now reading about the actual conflict – the Hapsburg army has just won the first major battle at White Mountain which opened up Prague for it. The DVD and Ian’s poems are a relief from the grim account.

It is a year since Barack Obama and John Key both came to power. Key is riding high in the polls, Obama is not – the fortunes of politics. The week’s news here has been dominated by news from the minor parties – ferocious perk-buster Hide has been using the perks himself while Harawira hived off from a conference in Brussels to go sight-seeing in Paris. Subsequent remarks from both men did not assist their causes.

20 years ago the Berlin Wall came down. My stint in the Beehive over, we were in London, on our way to Italy. We watched the TV news before going to the park to see squirrels picking up acorns. It really happened as the story books describe.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Berlin Diary

Poet, Cilla McQueen, (no relation) had a stint in Berlin prior to the wall coming down. In her long poem ‘Berlin Diary’ she describes her experiences including an illegal visit to East Germany using the underground.

When Anne and I visited in 2002 the wall was long down. East and West mixed but there were still differences – mainly architectual. I kept a diary. Here are two days, 13 and 14 October that year.

I pulled back the curtain and there was falling and settling snow. Indeed it was the coldest October day in Berlin on record. 3 degrees was the maximum. I walked out to buy croissants for breakfast. Church bells added to the sense of a special day. It seemed a normal Saturday thing to do and half the men of suburb seemed to have the same task. They helped me queue and order what I wanted. How the world narrows down when one travels. We decided to brave the weather, Anne has never been in falling snow, so wrapping up warmly we set off to the station.

We did plan to go to the National Gallery but when we emerged from the underground at Potsdamplatz, it was snowing heavily, it was cold and as we had come up out of a new tube entrance we couldn’t get bearings as to north and south, east and west and it was too chill to try to work them out. So very sensibly we went back to the tube and went to Hackesche Hole carefully restored as it was originally built with glazed tile buildings around interconnecting courtyards with restaurants at ground level. Ulrike had taken Anne there the day they went shopping.

We found a restaurant called the Oxymoron that looked right. It seemed the right setting for a hundred Humphrey Bogart or Noel Coward movies, it felt old and glamorous. I just loved it. I had a kirsch and a hot chocolate to warm up. It was so warm and comfortable that we decided to have lunch there. I had two steaks with mushrooms and potato croquettes in a sherry sauce. Anne has salmon risotto. Superb presentation and a courteous Turkish waiter.

It had stopped snowing but there was still sleet and a drizzly cold rain so we decided to go to the only Museum near a tube entrance which was the Natural museum. Us, and every parent in Berlin. We were going to check our cloaks in but the long queues made us change our mind. As travellers we made three sensible decisions today.
a) pulled out of going to the National Gallery
b) to stay and have lunch at the Oxymoron
c) not to put coats in the cloakroom.

Anne was more impressed than she anticipated by the world’s largest brontosaurus skeleton. It was colossal. Indeed the Museum was built around it. It was dug up in Tanzania 1909-12. The other dinosaur remains were interesting but this massive one was awe-inspiring. I have seen dinosaur skeletons in London and New York and they have better displays but nothing to compare with this monster. The other interesting exhibit were large models of insects which a guy did for a hobby – right through the war he was making these models of flies and beetles. They were eye-catching.

It was getting so crowded that we gave it away and headed for home. We had a scratch meal. When we rang Ulrike she expressed amazement that we had ventured out. Please we did. Mad dogs and Kiwis go out in the Berlin Snow. The news is dominated by a brutal bombing in Bali of some night clubs packed with mainly Australians, young people. They talk of about 180 deaths and untold maimings. BBC commentators keep saying they are at a loss as to explain the motive for such a blast but nightclubs are anathema to the fanatical Muslim and this will have huge impact upon global tourism. It will have a devastating effect upon the people of Bali. Not only were some of their own killed, their whole livelihood was built around tourism. Too close to home for comfort. Humanity’s ability to wreck pain upon other human beings is beyond understanding.

Up relatively early to join Ulrike and Lisa on the train. [It started at ground level in the suburbs but went underground as it neared the city centre]. We got off at ‘Under den Linden sub-station and emerged alongside the massive Russian Embassy – obviously built to stand a siege. We walked along the famous street to the Opera Café where we met Ulrich and Ursala, both in their 70s for brunch.

He is an ex-history teacher and school inspector and has an OBE for services to fostering German and English interchanges. At 15 he was drafted into the army, put on anti-aircraft guns, captured by the Russians and kept a prisoner for a year. He and his father survived the war, his mother and brother killed in a bombing raid just before its end. When I expressed sympathy he replied “we began the war and had to accept the consequences.”

Anne loved the café. When we had finished he took us on a walking tour, past the Historical Museum (unfortunately being done-up and therefore closed), new Bertlesman headquarters, across the bridge and the Peoples Palace (now closed because of asbestos) - while utilitarianism is understandable downright ugliness is less so, the Communists did the same in Dresden – to the main Lutheran church. The body of it was closed, but we had a brief glimpse of the magnificent stained glass behind the altar, before attending a service in a small chapel. Lovely organ. I thought the priest was rather perfunctory, so did our guides for they both went up to him and told him off for not pronouncing the words correctly and for his casualness. That is something no Kiwi would ever do, rebuff a stranger – a striking difference between the Germans and us.

Back over the bridge we went to the memorial to those who died in war and terror, a striking Kathe Kollwitz small statuette of a mother grieving over her dead son has been recast to sit brooding much larger. It’s there under a hole in the roof, open to the elements, a very eloquent memorial. Yesterday it would have been covered in snow.

We went in to the Humbolt University to see its foyer, (second hand books for sale outside) and the Frederick the Great statue. Ulrich then showed us the spot outside the opera house where the Nazis burnt books. Below a glass dome is row upon row of empty library shelves. Finally he took us to see a model of what that part of the city had looked like before the war. Glories lost. He then took us to a pub, bottles of wine stacked to the ceiling – obviously no earthquakes here. Two reislings later we were left on our own.

Ulrike laughingly refers to us as her two little Inuits, we look so hunched in our windbreaker jackets. Anne led me to Lafayette where we had a late chicken and chips lunch to soak up the wine. Then we walked to the Brandenberg Gate and explored the ring of plastic bears, one for every country. The New Zealand bear had a moko and native birds. The English bear bore a cup of tea on its paw. We walked back along the centre strip with its linden trees to have an afternoon beer in the sunshine at a coffeeshop called Lindenlife. We made our way back Fornhou [Ulrike’s place] for a potato, sausage and egg dinner, a very traditional German meal Ulrike assured us.

The contrast between two days was striking.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Berlin Zoo

Here is a poem I drafted when I was on my study tour of Germany:

Berlin Zoo

Tigers awe children everywhere,
always, they never fail. Families on

display in front of such dominion,
sinew under fur begging to be stroked.

A thousand year Reich, he claimed.
Without regret it is not so, but these

are under threat. A three-year old
retreats in tears before the teeth.

History condemns, admires, laments Potsdam.
Across the way, haughty giraffes contemplate

the crowds, the clamour; and in their pool
polar bears titanic a plastic ice-cream container.

When I was a boy my grandfather gave me a big black and white photo book called Great Zoos of the World. Berlin Zoo came first. When I was in Berlin most of my time was spent in education visits. But on the Saturday I was taken to Potsdam. In the morning I was shown over Frederick the Great’s summer palace with its beautiful grounds. The afternoon was spent at the home of the Kaiser's son where at the end of the war the Allied leaders, Stalin, Truman, and Churchill who halfway through was replaced by Atlee, divvied up Europe, an event historians have debated ever since. On the boat trip back to Berlin we passed an idyllic villa where my guide said the final solution had been signed.

The following day was a rest day for me. My hotel was not far from the zoo. So I went. It was smaller and more dowdy than I expected. Seeing pandas was a bonus. One memory stood out - a magnificent male tiger just through the glass. The animal turned and yawned, it’s teeth only a few feet away. The young lad beside me burst into tears and fled. There was a display pointing out that tigers were an endangered species.

That night in the hotel I sat down and began to write this poem. My ignition point was the endangered species. But gradually the latent power of the animal and the historical circumstances of the city took over my writing and it became a part political poem. At the back of my mind there was the thought that the haughty aristocrats who did nothing to stop the rise of Hitler were partly responsible for the carnage he unleashed. The giraffes seemed a fitting image.

The tiger merely yawned before resuming his pose. But in their pool two polar bears toyed with an empty ice cream container someone had foolishly thrown into their pond. The power and the strength of these animals was striking. We are also animal. Lovely tiger can be a deadly killer.

Back home I polished the poem. The film Titanic had been released. I used the word in the final line as a verb, it seemed to sum up human folly. The poem was at rest.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Guy Fawkes Day (2)

Yesterday, my mind on autopilot, I put on my blog the piece I’d written to go up today which celebrates the thwarting of Guy Fawkes’s plot. I wondered about deleting it and starting again but decided not to – quite a lot of effort had gone into writing it. I have a Word document called ‘For the Blog.’ On it I place tentative pieces and ideas as well as poems and anything else that’s relevant. I usually copy and then paste. Yesterday, I cut. A lesson learnt – the folly of absentmindedness.

Guy Fawkes Day to me will always be associated with our good German friends, Ulrike, Matthias and their daughter Lisa. Ulrike was the national German language adviser, a member of my staff. They rented a home high in the Brooklyn hills with a superb view of the city and its skyscape, a great place to watch the official fireworks over the harbour. For five years we went there. Matthias became enamoured with the occasion. He and neighbour Brian delighted in setting off their own after the city display finished.

Here is a poem I wrote after the last evening together. It is not one of my better poems but I feel it captures the spirit of the occasion very well.


Events take on their own
Conversation relaxed
on the balcony as we watch
the display over the harbour
& then Matthias & Brian
advance to set & light
our own, four watchful
girls & assembled adults
- the fuse lit the two men
retreat crab-like, as ballet
dancers choreographed
to move together- then
whoosh - the garden lights
up & overhead coloured stars
appear, droop & fade. An annual
ritual has become this evening.
Will you celebrate Guy Fawkes
in Berlin? A reminder that this
event is the last time we will
watch together, but let's not
dwell upon the future, rather
the radiant present, the grace
of two men, our delight in their
action & by mutual agreement
"Godzilla's the best".

When the family left at the end of 2000 we were sad, not at the end of a friendship but the lack of their proximity. In the words of a local teacher, ‘Ulrike was a magnificent ambassador for her country.’ We visited and stayed with them in Berlin in 2002 and Anne spent some time there in 2006.

Lisa was six years old when they arrived. She had five years New Zealand schooling. When she returned home her English teacher shuddered at her Kiwi accent. We invited them on their first Easter here to have a meal with us. Anne hid chocolate eggs around the section and Lisa had great fun locating them. This became an annual event, Lisa inviting her school friends to help her in the search. Lisa came back for a three month stint last spring – a gap between her schooling and university. Staying with our neighbours she got a temporary job as a waitress in a local restaurant.

Hansjorg, Ulrike’s predecessor had arranged a study tour of Germany for me in 2004. Bonn, (Beethoven’s birthplace), Trier, (Constantine’s western capital), Cologne (cathedral), Berlin, (the wall not long down), Dresden (fabulous art gallery) and Munich (the ballet Midsummer Night’s Dream and beer halls) – it was some trip. Anne claimed it was a junket. If it was it was informative, educational and well-worthwhile. I was very pleased to have the opportunity.

I had a strange dream last night. I’d won a study tour to Greece. (Why Greece? I had not thought of Greece for quite some time). I had to race from a meeting to the car-park to pick up my vehicle. The drive seemed to be from Little River to Christchurch. Half-way there along the Motukara stretch I realised I’d left my passport behind. The word ‘passport’ was like the word ‘forlorn’ in Keats’ famous nightingale poem – it woke me to reality. I came awake thinking my passport’s lapsed. I had trouble going back to sleep as my brain tossed concepts of loss and regret around – times that were and will not be again.

It was at Motukara that I’d impressed Anne light-years ago. Early on in our relationship I drove her and her two sons to visit Akaroa. There was a ewe cast in a roadside paddock. I stopped the car, vaulted the gate and turning the animal over, helped it get to its feet. A natural action to a farmer’s son – an impromptu, unpremeditated move that won me great kudos.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Guy Fawkes Day

There’s nothing new under the sun. From The Thirty Year’s War I learn that in 1623 the Persians captured Bagdad from the Ottoman Turks and slaughtered all the Sunni residents who had not fled. Centuries of hate. I’ve also learnt from the book more than I ever need to know about 17th century military and its weapons.

Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the day in London 1605 when Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars of Parliament cellars with enough gun-powder to blow King, peers and commoners into oblivion. One conspirator advised a Catholic peer to stay away. The peer told Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s wily adviser, inherited by James 1. Cecil ordered the yeoman to search the cellars and so the conspiracy was revealed. Had it been successful the history of the British Isles could have been very different, probably something like the bloody conflict of the Thirty Year’s War. But the plot did not succeed. Instead its failure fastened the Protestant hold on the land.

When I was growing up Halloween was unknown but Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated. I have a vague memory of Pop letting off crackers when I was very young but the war meant the end of fireworks for some time. Each year, however, there were bonfires and a guy was burnt. Gradually after the war fireworks came back. Private and public bonfires have vanished to be replaced by public fireworks displays.

The American presidential elections sometimes fall on Guy Fawkes Day. In my lifetime thrice, 1940 Roosevelt for the third time, 1968 Richard Nixon and in 1996 Bill Clinton for a second term. In Roosevelt’s time I was a school-boy. Pop, a Roosevelt fan, was distressed when the President died. When Pearl Harbour happened Pop firmly placed me before the radio. “This is a historic moment,” he said as Roosevelt delivered his day of infamy speech. In Nixon’s time I was head of English at Melville High School in Hamilton. When Clinton went back I was Executive Director of the New Zealand Teachers Council. I measure my life in terms of the American Presidents. Such and such an event happened when Kennedy was in the White House. I, like most other humans have no say in the election of the most powerful person on the planet. That decision affects us all.

That sentence would not have been written in my early life. Britain was still the centre of the most powerful Empire the world had ever seen. New Zealanders sang Kipling’s Recessional without really believing it. On Guy Fawkes Day 1914 the Empire was extended when the United Kingdom declared war on Turkey and annexed Cyprus. Two later events illustrate the waning of that power, both happening on November 5th. In 1956 I lay on university hostel bed listening to the radio, British and French paratroopers landing in Port Said. Eisenhower was not impressed at this invasion of Egypt. The control of oil in the Middle East was shifting from Europe to the USA.

In 2003 Cyprus was granted the opportunity to apply for membership of the European Union. How the Empire’s changed. The first time I went to London I walked straight through as a Commonwealth citizen, my passport stamped by a man with a Cockney accent. The last time I waited while Europeans strolled past, my passport stamped by a Pakistani woman.

Thirty Year's War

I’ve been watching on DVD the blockbuster movie Australia. I’m pleased to have seen it but it wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t. It begins with slapstick and beefcake and ends in attempted epic, the Japanese bombing of Darwin. It’s too long. Two-thirds of the way through it reaches a natural climax, the posh English lady and the rugged Australian drover with their ill-assorted crew successfully get their cattle through to the port to frustrate the beef baron attempting to gain a monopoly. Lovely scenery, a barely credible love story but a plot with tension to be enough at that stage. The rest is overkill.

In Auckland the saga over medical lab testing continues. It proves the old adage – if it ain’t broke don’t change it. The DHB decided to give the service to a cheaper bid than the old and trusted provider. After protracted legal battles the newcomer carried the day. And has not provided the required service. People’s lives are at stake. It just proves that health like education is not a commodity to be bought and sold like baked beans. Service is not necessarily provided by the cheapest source.

Humanity’s history is riddled with inhumanity. Of these events the Thirty Year’s War is one of the worst. This brutal conflict in the early part of the 17th century wiped out a quarter of Germany’s population and condemned the area to two centuries of internal and international division, impotence and backwardness. While Spain, France, England and Holland gained overseas empires the small German states bickered and smouldered over trivial territorial issues. When that handful of Bohemians tossed the Hapsburg’s envoys out of the Prague castle’s window little did they realise the devastation they were letting lose.

I have read C.V.Wedgewood’s superb account about the war several times. But she wrote it in 1938. So with interest I started Peter Wilson’s recent history of the conflict, a book lent to me by Tom. A hundred pages in and apart from a beginning scene-setter Wilson’s is still backgrounding the religious, political, social and dynastic situation and causes. Reading these pages I became aware of a curious effect.

I’ll go off on a tangent. For years my mother took a keen interest in rugby. But in the last few years before her death her failing eye-sight meant she had trouble distinguishing the jersey colours on the TV screen. "The radio's not the same." My probing unearthed the reason, the names were no longer familiar – no Blackadder, Mehrtens, Marshall, Lomu, Jeff Wilson, Cullen. “The only one I know is Umanga.” I realised the narrative of the match was less important than the comforting recital of known names.

Reading Wilson’s descriptions of the three-fold religious divisions of the period, Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists brought back memories of Stage I History. Intending to be a Presbyterian minister I had concentrated on the reformation. Reading the fresh account brought back a flood of memories, of sitting in the little old stone library in the quad pouring over Bainton’s magnificent life of Luther ‘Here I Stand’, with its contemporary woodcuts. Wilson even mentions Bodin, a rather obscure French lawyer whose political theories point towards the modern nation state, on whom I did a brief paper. Nostalgic, in a different form of comforting recital, I harked back to that naïve young man in a maroon blazer exploring the ivory world of academia teeming with ideas.

The recall of these years was unexpected – a strange bonus considering the subject matter. Life is more bizarre than we would have it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Melbourne Cup

This October has been the coldest in 64 years. It felt like it.

Today is Melbourne Cup Day. It’s a strange occasion in that people who never take an interest in horse-racing make this event an exception. For years I’ve watched it on TV alongside colleagues in workplaces or at home. It didn’t pay to win the sweep-stake. You spent more shouting fellow workers than you won from the pool.

The legendary Phar Lap formed part of my childhood mythology. Everyone knew he was the greatest racehorse this country had bred. I have never been to Flemington though I did see the Sydney Cup race in that city the year that Battle Heights won. The horse was trained at Morrinsville and our next door neighbour in Hamilton was his daughter. So I’ve drunk from the Sydney Cup.

Three particular Melbourne Cups stand out for me. In the 1980s I was in Perth, West Australia while I was researching for my school textbook Australia Nearby. On the day I was visiting the Department of Education. The office shut down for the running of the cup. Because of time zones this was in the late morning – bizarre to me in that the Cup in New Zealand was always shown around 5 p.m.

Along the back straight the New Zealand horse Kiwi was last. Beside me a big-paunched Aussie man said ‘as usual Kiwi dragging the chain.’ To my delight Kiwi started to move forward and he mowed them all down in the home straight – a magnificent win. I didn’t need to crow. The horse had done it for me.

Then in 1988 a group of us gathered in the Prime Minister's private back room in the Beehive. David Lange was pouring me a beer as Empire Rose won the race.

The Catholic Education Office in Wellington holds an annual Melbourne Cup party, the kick–off of the Christmas festive round. In 2001 I was standing between Cardinal Tom Williams and Donna Awatere, ACT MP (later to be imprisoned for fraud) as Ethereal (a New Zealand mare) romped home. Donna had invested heavily on the horse. In her glee she slopped much of her wine onto the carpet. The Cardinal did not look impressed.