Thursday, December 31, 2009

The End of a Year

This December has had half its normal rainfall and just under the average for sunshine. Evidence for what my body tells me, it’s been a dull cloudy month. Roll on summer. Today’s a cold southerly and I have the heater on as I work in my study.

So, it’s the end of a decade. For its first nine years Helen Clark led the fifth Labour Government. It did many good things. My big criticism would be that it did not do enough to alleviate child poverty. Early financial help in education, health and related areas cuts down future social costs.

This is not to say that all future social costs will be eliminated. As Obama said in accepting the Nobel Peace prize, ‘evil exists.’ As a teacher I quickly learnt the difference between ‘naughty’ and ‘bad’. Every now and then there would be a student who seemed inherently cruel and unfeeling. Even siblings can be different. Yes, I accept Nature does count, but so does Nurture and we ignore that at our peril.

My concern about the new administration is a rather punitive mentality. The most striking thing, however, about John Key’s first year in power is his wooing of the Maori vote. He has made a point of attending every Treaty settlement and occasion. His charm offensive also is attracting the women’s vote. The erosion of Labour’s heartland is at this stage effective. The next high tide of radical reform looks a long way away.

Unlike Key’s polling, Obama’s has slumped. Before his election when some pundits were speaking of him in messianic terms I thought ‘for goodness’ sake, he’s a political campaigner, very powerful on the hustings.’ In power he faced the usual dilemmas and choices. It is far too soon to make a judgement call. Abe Lincoln springs to mind. A great orator but also a canny politician. His assassination was indeed an American tragedy.

I’m reading at present military historian John Keegan’s The American Civil War. He excels not so much in the descriptions of the carnage, (though he uses Walt Whitman’s experiences in the Union hospitals to good effect), but in the macro-view. Rather than a narrative this is an analysis, a bird’s eye view. Lincoln shines out.

Keegan’s particularly strong on geography and terrain. The South stronghold was protected by the Appalachians to the west and while the North blockaded the Atlantic coast it was hard to make a sea-borne assault. Especially after an early successful landing was thwarted by inept leadership. Some American reviews point out inaccuracies in his location of some battles, especially in west Tennessee. I cannot comment upon these particular criticisms but found his overall geo-political explanation convincing and enlightening.

At the beginning both sides hoped for a quick major knock-out battle – shades of Napoleon. As time went on and the casualties mounted it became a war of attrition. What a waste. Until Sherman marched through Georgia living off the land. Another sort of waste. Manpower, munitions and money – the issues of modern warfare. Engineering expertise was needed to bridge rivers and lay down railroads. American expertise and ingenuity were put to use. The North's industrial base gave it a massive advantage.

Keegan gives the context for the conflict. Slavery! But the picture we have of cotton plantations was not the norm. It was subsistence farming, hogs, chickens and corn, The men from these farms fought for secession from the Union even more than the slave-owners. The South lost the war but its myths proved persuasive – Gone With the Wind (assisted by Hollywood) has outsold Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That distrust of Washington and big government is still a component of the area's psyche. Ask the Republican strategists.

In contrast to the book for the last two evenings I watched a video, the BBC production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra starring Jane Lapotaire and Colin Blakely. Shakespeare got over the difficulty of portraying destructive passion on stage by his magnificent language. Cleopatra’s beguiling glamour and allure and Antony’s power and manliness are conjured up in words. As is the age-old clash between Eastern sensuality and Roman austerity.

Let me savour an example: ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne/ Burnt on the water; the poop was beaten gold,/ Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that/ The winds were love-sick-‘

Not wanting to be taken as a captive to Rome, ‘the quick comedians/ Extemporarily will stage us, and present/ our Alexandrian revels: Antony/ Shall be brought drunkenly forth, and I shall see/ some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I’ th’ posture of a whore’, she takes the asp from the fig-basket and clasping it to her breast encourages it to bite her. Octavius’s final order ‘She shall be buried by her Antony/ No grave on earth shall clip in it/ A pair so famous’ sums up the tragic grandeur. The play ends with a richness like the old Nile in full flood.

Ancient historians had the asp merely biting Cleopatra’s arm. Shakespeare knew how to excite an audience’s attention and sympathy. I used the line ‘some squeaking CLeopatra boy my greatness’ to illustrate the Elizabethan theatre and its customs – boys played the female roles. It also gave me a chance to teach grammar, ‘boy’ as verb.

An unusual ending for my blog for 2009; but once a teacher, always a teacher.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Plane Safety

The passengers and crew on the plane flyng to Detroit were lucky when the Nigerian Muslim fanatic’s explosive device failed to go off. If it had, the result would have been carnage in the air and possibly on the ground belwo.

Scary. Despite the best will, devices and knowledge in the world the suicide bomber will sooner or later get through again. In this instance, there was a system failure. The American administration admits this. But it’s like computer hackers. No matter how high the firewall to the challenger that is a problem to be solved.

Reluctantly I accept that questions of privacy and modesty have to give way to issues of security – the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s happened before and it will happen again. The actions of a fanatical few curtail the freedoms of the great majority.

Selfishly I’m pleased to have travelled by air when this present threat was absent, though there was a period when there was a danger of hijacking. I recall being in Athens airport when a child’s balloon exploded. By the time I’d thought of diving to the floor other people were beginning to sheepishly pull themselves upright. It’s much less simple now.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why Write Poetry?

‘Why write poetry?’ I’m sometimes asked. The obvious answer is ‘because I want to.’ There are many other logical and complex responses. I advance one theory. During childhood my existence consisted of two worlds. One was Little River, Banks Peninsula, my birthplace and heartland. That grounded me in New Zealand.

I have always had a strong sense of belonging here. I grew up in a place that supplied the minerals and vitamins to nourish my body. Books, equally real, were my other source of nutrition – from around the world, disembodied knowledge, information not tied to actual experience, narrative and stories and timeless fantasies, expressed through the English language.

It has been suggested that the distinction that I should make is between "what is" and "what should be" but I don't think this is accurate, they were and are parallel worlds. While a chameleon curiosity underlies both interests, basically they remained disconnected throughout my childhood and indeed through much of my early adult life. My practical self instinctively knew the wish-fulfilment of the other self would never come into being because that self tended to be haphazard at action. So the practical self concentrated upon the things that needed to be done, kindling cut, essays marked, meetings chaired, speeches written.

It was in and by poetry that I attempted and still do to bridge the gap. I think, indeed I am confident, that the two strands have merged as I have grown older. That bridge is now an essential part of my mental landscape, so much there that it seems natural as if has always been available for use.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Two Hardy Poems

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

The Puzzled Game-Birds

They are not those who used to feed us
When we were young--they cannot be -
These shapes that now bereave and bleed us?
They are not those who used to feed us, -
For would they not fair terms concede us?
- If hearts can house such treachery
They are not those who used to feed us
When we were young--they cannot be!

Thomas Hardy

I tossed up whether to put up Hardy’s ‘Oxen’ or Johnson’s ‘Decking the Tree’ on Christmas Eve. I blogged the Johnson – it seemed to sum up the modern secular reaction to the event, commercialism has so distorted the Christian story. Hardy sums up truthfully a different reaction – disbelief in the story but would that that disbelief did not exist.

In the first stanza an old person tells children the story of the oxen kneeling at Bethlehem. The second stanza has the young’s unquestioning acceptance. But the third stanza introduces a rueful note, few believe nowadays, but then again the story weaves its magic and so the final stanza which ends with the narrator running through 'the gloom/ hoping it might be so.'

‘ Barton’ is Hardy’s local dialect word for shed or stable, and ‘coomb’ is a hollow

In looking up “Oxen’ I came across ‘The Puzzled Game-Birds’. It’s typical Hardy. It reflects s countryman’s dilemma. It is not a big leap from caring for stock to caring for the game-birds that will be shot. But I disapprove of feeding wild ducks to make them tame for the shooting season. In my book that’s not cricket.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Rosamund Rowe describes an encounter in her book 'A Fringe of Leaves', an account of her attempts to break in her “half-acre paradise.” On a warm day, “a tad self-conscious,” doing she says what the Greek botanist Theophrastus advocated in 250 BC (gardening advice is as old as civilisation) with hat and sunglasses she strode around dipping the hearthbrush into a bucket of cow manure and water flinging droplets over the lawn, the borders, the rockery, the veggie garden, the orchard and the paddock. "The drops sparkled in the sun as they arced through the air before falling on the vegetation and I was just beginning to feel a spiritual oneness with my piece of earth when I caught sight of a man on the causeway watching me with open mouth. Tossing him a greeting as nonchalantly as the situation allowed I carried on. ‘I thought only priests did that sort of thing,’ he called and walked on, shaking his head.”

Last summer, with back-pack and paraphernalia, looking like a crature from outer space, Bruce, our mower man, sprayed the dandelions that were rampant in the lawn. Successfully, there are only one or two showing this year, a small enough quantity for Anne to take her frustrations out on.

In my gardening days when I had to spray I’d put on a large sunhat and big sunglasses, wear a bandanna over my nose and mouth and have garden gloves. I too would have looked a sight.

Not so in my youth. Dick, my stepfather, had a benign growth on his back which prevented him carrying the spray-pack. So it became one of my summer jobs to spray the gorse and blackberry around the farm – about a week’s work. Mum always wanted us to leave some of the blackberry bushes – she used the fruit for jam. Dick would say “Hell’s Bells, woman, the birds will spread the seeds.” But secretly he’d tell me to leave one or two of the bigger bushes. I enjoyed the chore – it was part of the process of breaking in the land.

Looking back, however, I’m appalled. They were innocent days. No one gave a thought to any consequences. The herbicide was 245T. I would have a sun-hat. On a hot day I’d wear nothing else except shorts, socks and boots. The spray came out as a mist. I must have inhaled a fair quantity over the summers. I suspect my present reduced lung capacity is partly an outcome of that experience. The medicos say probably so but there is nothing they can do about it. Further, the machinery leaked at the pump, little rivulets ran down my body. It is so easy to be wise after the event. I was pleased to see how responsible Bruce was last summer.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day Reading

Long ago Boxing Day settled in to a routine; no matter where I was I began reading one of our Christmas present books. There’ve been some great books. Seven years ago we were in Auckland house-sitting the Langley’s place in Epsom. We had lunch with friend Rosemary in Brown’s Bay on the shore at her house with its superb vista of Rangitoto. That morning on the Langley's deck I’d begun reading Philip Temple's 'A Sort of Conscience', the story of the Wakefields who played such a significant part in the early English settlement of New Zealand.

The Wakefields grew up on the lower edge of the genteel class. Their lot with no regular income was a daunting challenge, no welfare state then while the Victorian sense of charity and duty had yet to kick in. I thought it was a magnificent piece of historical research and writing and I understood Temple’s disappointment at missing out at the Montana awards. The book deserved that prize.

Three years ago I began reading Lloyd Jones’ 'Mr Pip'. At the time I burnt through it - a gripping read. This year I’ve been going back and forth between Brian Turner’s poems ‘Just This’ and Louis De Bernieres 'Notwithstanding' a series of interlocking fictions – rather than short stories – about a Surrey village in the 60s and 70s. Idyllic, funny, plaintive, heart-warming, it’s jam-packed with eccentric and idiosyncratic characters who interact and counterpoint each other in a rich tapestry of a vanished way of life. The tales are about a community in a lovingly described landscape.

I fell in love with a picture of England when I read H.V.Morton’s In Search of England. When I visited there was the shock of realisation that reality did not live up to the image. Bernieres restores that image. And his descriptions of adolescence are superb.

In contrast Turner’s poems with their sparseness, love of Central Otago and harsh criticism of contemporary society by their honesty communicate a different approach to humanity's dilemma. Both eschew sentimentality. Both are secure in a heartland, be it in the arid countryside of our southern backcountry or the lush green fields and gray squirrel-infested woods of south England. I’m enjoying both and revelling in their contrast. Unlike 'Mr Pip' which as I say gripped me, with these two books I find myself finishing a poem or a piece and sitting there reflecting about life. Thanks, Father Christmas.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Just This

Christmas Day 2009

Amongst my presents from Anne was the latest volume of Brian Turner’s pomes, 'Just This'. I've always admired and enjoyed his work. The cover has a striking photograph of the Matukituki River valley. The first poem in the volume begins:

'There’s a side to beauty
that is sadness enduring'

It seems a fitting comment for the day, for the year, for existence.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Decking The Tree


It has come round again. Time to bring in
the dwarf pine in its tub from the patio
and necklace it with lights, the silver
balls and frosting. The children chatter

of secretive night visitors, a sound like the crackle
of paper in their throats. So little and so much.
Some of the deeper cupboards are again
out of bounds. The mercury climbs towards Christmas.

No fires. No holly. At the gate flaring feathers
of the pohutakawa spread themselves right on time
like mating birds. So much promise. The road
dips down towards the hazy blue blue

as a bruise. And the old wound of Kapiti stark as
a scar, sentinel over other forms of feasting
and a dark past: threat of an old nightmare.
There is little disparity in all this. We hold

as nuch of it in the mind as possible.
Variousness is itself. The pattern is what
you make, if you must, at your peril. A birth:
a death. The oscillating lights blink on and off.

Louis Johnson

Louis was a good poet, friend, mentor and host. He laughed a lot.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Decade Of Being Spun Silly

A recent New York Times had an opinion piece (tongue in cheek) that struck a chord in this reader. It concluded:

“After his ‘indefinite break’ from golf, [Tiger] Woods will surely be back on the links once the next celebrity scandal drowns his out. But after a decade in which two true national catastrophes, a wasteful war and a near ruinous financial collapse, were in part byproducts of the ease with which our leaders bamboozled us, we can’t so easily move on.

This can be seen in the increasingly urgent political plight of Barack Obama. Though the American left and right don’t agree on much, they are both now coalescing around the suspicion that Obama’s brilliant presidential campaign was as hollow as Tiger’s public image – a marketing scam designed to camoflauge either his covert anti-American radicalism (as the right sees it) or spineless timidity (as the left sees it). The truth may well be neither, but after a decade of being spun silly, Americans can’t be blamed for being cynical about any leader trying to sell anything. As we say goodbye to the year of Tiger Woods, it is the country, sad to say, that is left mired in a sand-trap with no obvious way out.”



in love with Mary
led her un-noticed
through the streets
avoiding hawkers
the camel's bite
the donkey's kick

many brushed
the protruding
belly, priest
thief & child

within her the hands
& feet were forming
ready for the nails

I thought I'd put this poem on the blog - it's the only sort of Christmasy one I've ever done. I wrote it over forty years ago after a heated dinner-party discussion over the Virgin mother. I wanted to stress the human side of Jesus's birth.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Incident With Ducks

Several years ago, a few days before Christmas. while we were in our previous house, William, our cat, followed me out to the letter box, then he stopped. A pair of plump farm ducks waddled up the road. I suspect someone has tried to nab two early Christmas birds – our ducks had been ordered weeks before. This unexpected pair were very tame and pottered expectantly across the road to us. William retreated behind my legs like an alarmed pup.

To him they were obviously birds, but they were not acting as birds should and they’re much too big. When one began to investigate him, quacking loudly, he reared back in alarm and retreated without much dignity. They followed him. He bolted. All day they patrolled the street, giving drivers a dangerous fright.

I rang the powers that be, and by next morning the pair had disappeared. William scouted around very carefully for days afterwards when he came out with me to collect the mail.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pre-Christmas Blues

In the English winter of 1865 novelist and poet Thomas Hardy wrote in his diary: ‘to insects the twelvemonth has been an epoch; to leaves a life; to tweeting birds a generation: to man a year’. I appreciate the sentiment having survived another year’s sun’s turning, as it now swings north again.

Hardy penned his words on New Year’s Eve. Midsummer Day down here in the Southern Hemispehee is a signpost towards the warmer days of summer and the fruitfulness of orchards, full of ripe cherries, apricots, nectarines peaches and plums. It is a day down the decades each year I eagerly awaited. But this December I find myself grumpy. I snap at the cat and growl at Anne, neither of whom deserve such unpleasantness.

At first I blamed the weather – dry blows sapping the garden of vitality, grey sky day after day, and little sunshine. But I realise my malaise is deeper than that, I mourn the ghosts of Christmas Past. Christmas has always been the gate to the lazy, hazy days of summer, school and university vacations, beach holidays, togs and relaxation, travel, new experiences and fresh sights. But it’s a festival in its own right, fine food, family, friends and fellowship – the giving and receiving of presents. It’s a time for stock-taking. Above all, it’s a time for youth.

As a child I put an empty pillow case at the foot of my bed. In the morning it would be full of miraculous surprises – usually a William book and lots of new clothes - Father Christmas had been down the chimney. When I learnt who Father Christmas really was I said to my mother “so you drink the sherry’. Despite there being a war on, my grandparents’ wicker clothesbasket was always full of beautifully wrapped family gifts.

When the currency changed Mum kept some old silver threepence pieces to go in the Christmas pudding. One meal my youngest brother, Bruce – Mum had three further sons by her second marriage - finished his pudding very quickly and accusingly wailed ‘you didn’t give me any threepence'. Mum responded ‘I gave you three.’ In his haste he’d swallowed the lot.

Mum’s death earlier this years means she will not be with Bruce and his wife Margaret this Christmas, the first time for ages she will not be partaking of their meal. I recall visiting Bruce and Margaret on their farm at Te Oka, one of the remote bays between Akaroa Harbour and the Canterbury Plains. Their eldest daughter Janine was just old enough to relish the unwrapping of presents. I watched Mum furtively wipe away a tear as she watched the little girl retrieve her packages from under the tree and gleefully open them. I spoke to Janine, now a mother with her own boy and girl, on the phone yesterday. Mum had also always been part of her Christmas day celebration. The three generations will this year have a barbecue in the Ashburton Domain. A very sensible change. There is something to celebrate, Janine's younger sister Jenny is home from London. My thoughts go with them. Myself, I will miss the annual ritual of ordering flowers to be delivered and ringing Mum up early on Christmas morning.

I’ve lived with Anne for thirty years. We’ve usually celebrated Christmas at home in Wellington, occasionally with her mother and sister in Auckland and once overseas in Italy at Lake Como in a hotel overlooking the lake, a very cherished memory.

For our first few Christmases Anne’s second son Patrick was very much part of the festive occasion. But then he died in an accident in Sydney when he was eighteen years old. The hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life was to tell a mother her son was dead. Certain lights went out in her that never came on again. The Christmas after that was a sad event. We had lunch that year at friend Colin’s place.

After that, Anne, Jonathan her eldest son, and I established our own Christmas rituals. For our tree he found and created decorations to garland it. He bought figures for a crib and constructed a box as a cave to place them in. Each summer we have given that crib pride of place in our living room. It's there today. But since my health collapsed we have not put up a tree.

The actual day was usually spent with friends in an evolving sort of serial meal. Late morning people would arrive with hors d’oeuvres. The ritual shelling of the peas followed for everybody except me. I would be putting on the vegetables, my own garden carrots, bought kumara and parsnips, roasting as usual in olive oil, orange juice and marsala. I’d put the ducks into the oven earlier. In the early days Colin always ordered fresh Jersey Benny potatoes from Oamaru. They're now available in the shops.

[Because in the old days cooking was done on a roasting spit, the word ‘roast’ has settled on meat baked in the oven. We bake a cake, but we roast a duck. To me the roast is still the monarch of meals. On my boyhood farm Sunday midday meal was always a roast, usually lamb but sometimes chicken or pork. At Okuti on the farm for Christmas we had goose. The annual goose kill, a frantic business of flustered wings, hissing beaks and a quick decapitation, had taken place a few days before, Dick my stepfather, dropping the birds off to local people who’d ordered them. Every stop involved a sample of Christmas cake and a cup of tea on the verandah, an annual leisurely event.

For years Anne and I had pork but we eventually settled on duck as our traditional roast. There was little waste from those two ducks. While I did the roasting on the actual day and made the gravy it was a co-operative enterprise. Anne saved the fat and used it for cooking for the rest of the year. [Mashed potato fried in a smidgen of duck fat is delicious. So are left-over roast parsnips]. She also made a terrine, using meat from the boiled-up necks, heart and liver. And the bones and carcass was boiled to make stock.

A fine hot day meant that around two o’clock, after the main course, we’d go out to the back lawn, with rugs and groundsheets for the younger ones dropping in with their partners, deck-chairs for the likes of me. One year there were eighteen people there. The year would be replayed, jokes told, anecdotes repeated, hopes and plans discussed, projects suggested, reputations analysed, and the world set right and alight. I enjoyed those days, not as patriarch or squire but as joint-host – our friends at our place. Hospitality can be one of life's great pleasures. It was great.

Mid-afternoon more friends would arrive with the day’s light dessert, usually something meringuey and creamy, studded with strawberries. We would come inside to watch the Queen’s message, for royalists an important occasion, for others an opportunity for irreverence. Anne meanwhile had put her Christmas pudding on to steam for the final course later in the evening. No threepennies. Just brandy sauce.

As the years went on and my stamina decreased we had to cut back. When my health completely collapsed we had to drastically rethink the day. My cooking days were over and it was a big burden for Anne to carry on her own. We’ve had to downsize. The first time we were here at our new place we had two couples for the main meal and Anne cooked a fillet of beef, which we had with cold salads. [A more appropriate meal for mid-summer]. Five other people came during the rest of the day, one of whom has subsequently died.

Last year we went to faithful friends Bill and Donna’s for the main meal. This year they are coming to us, fillet of beef again. Their fellowship is an important part of our lives and I greatly value and appreciate that but I miss the genial bonhomie of the larger group.

My regrets about past Christmases is a symptom of something larger – the loss of initiative, the inability to do things I once could, the deprivation of that delight from a surprise present, but above all the recognition that that cumulative experience will never be repeated. It is vanished in that vast hole called existence. Living is no longer easy. But I still vividly remember Bruce indignantly claiming he’d not been given his fair share of the silver in the pudding. At the time I was at university – the world lay before me, a glittering place to explore. They were simple days. I mourn their passing.

Having written this I felt much better. Then in the mail today was a package from cousin Sally with material about the history of the Reed family. The mother of my mother and Sally’s mother was a Reed before her marriage to our grandfather, Samuel Barclay. There are lots of nostalgic memories in the photos and accounts of the family’s activities. Sally has taken photos of the Reed graves at Little River cemetary. Her parents, my father, our shared grandparents and their spouses are all buried there. An annual pre-Christmas happening was tidying up the graves. I knew the sites well. Other families would be there engaged in the same task – it was almost a picnic atmosphere. Somehow the material gave a sense of perspective, of continuity, of acceptance, of inevitability, of peace. Which after all is one of the main messages of Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Bomb Is Made


The bomb is made will drop on Rangitoto.
Be kind to one another, kiss a little
And let love-making imperceptibly
Grow inwards from a kiss. I’ve done with soldiering,
Though every day my leave-pass may expire.

The bomb is made will drop on Rangitoto.
The cell of death is formed that multiplied
Will occupy the lung, exclude the air
Be kind to one another, kiss a little-
The first goodbye might one day last forever.

The bomb is made will drop on Rangitoto.
The hand is born that gropes to press the button.
The prodigal grey generals conspire
To dissipate the birth-right of the Asians.
Be kind to one another, kiss a little.

The bomb is made will drop on Rangitoto.
The plane that takes off persons in a hurry
Is only metaphorically leaving town,
So if we linger we will be on time.
Be kind to one another, kiss a little.

The bomb is made will drop on Rangitoto.
I do not want to see that sun-burned harbour
Islandness as moon, red-skied again.
Its tide unblossomed, sifting wastes of ash.
Be kind to one another, kiss a little,
Our only weapon is this gentleness.

Keith Sinclair

This poem – one of my favourites – reflects its era, the Cold War at its height. It’s just over twenty years since the Berlin Wall came down, the beginning of the unravelling of the Soviet Union. Around the planet there was a relaxing unclenching of bodies – less likelihood of the nuclear conflict that could even lead to the annihilation of the species.

I was not so sanguine, too well-conditioned during that era when Sinclair wrote his poem. Novels like ‘On the Beach’ and ‘Failsafe’ reinforced those fears. During the Cuban missile crisis the world seemed to teeter on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. It didn’t happen. But it could have. Apparently the American High Command wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons in both Korea and Viet Nam. The country’s policy makers were obsessed with the possibility of a Soviet pre-emptive strike – understandable in light of Pearl Harbour. Thompson’s book on the Cold War that I recently read reveals that the Soviet leaders never contemplated using the weapons first but they were paranoid about the possibility the Americans might. Misunderstanding or miscalculation could trigger the conflagration.

So my stomach did not completely unroll when the Wall came down. There was always the possibility of a rogue general on either side going amok. The number of nuclear states was proliferating. The odds seemed to be that sooner or later one of them would be clot enough to unleash their arsenal. I could see Israel out of desperation or North Korea out of bluster resorting to this armoury. There was always the prospect of terrorists or criminals gaining and using weapons.

I’ve been to Hiroshima. See my blog 23 March this year.

I return to Sinclair’s poem. Using the iconic volcanic island of Rangitoto as his anchor point his reaction to the potential nucrlae horror is a mixture of resignation and indignation. There is little the ordinary person can do about it. Kissing (loving) and general acts of kindness are our best, indeed our only weapon against this monstrous possibility. Is gentleness enough? The poem captures the war-weary mood of his generation. The Auckland landscape minus Rangitoto is an almost unimaginable prospect. But it could happen.

I know! I know! Volcanoes can erupt. The result could be devastating. But I can live with Nature. It’s not our species’ fault. The nuclear thing is. We never learn. Witness Copenhagen. What a cheerful note to begin Christmas week. Enjoy the poem. It’s a good one.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Standardised Tests

Take a hypothetical example – a cross bar and a government edict that every child of a certain age must jump cleanly over it. Some will achieve it first attempt. With coaching most will over time meet the standard. Some never will. If they were a factory product for such incapability they could be discarded. But they are young citizens with needs. Further, some of those who will reach the standard have, to attain that level, let other needed skills atrophy, how to swim, how to catch a ball, how to be a team member.

Take an actual situation. With the commendable aim of raising standards in the so-called three ‘r’s’ reading ‘riting, ‘rithmetic’ Education Minister Anne Tolley has introduced standardised tests. Sounds good. Why then are the teachers so ‘agin’ it. It’s because they know from experience it’s not that simple. Tests measure achievement, they do not reveal value-addition.

Indeed, the American experience is that such testing is counter-productive. Teachers teach to the tests. Amongst those who fly through some are not challenged to do much better. Meanwhile the brand of failure is stamped on those who do not reach the standard.

Despite the best will in the world not to do so, these tests will I'm sure be used to rank young people, and schools. Schools reflect their catchment area. Educational league tables are confusing in that achievement need not reflect effort. Furthermore the tests themselves are untested. They will need fine-tuning and callibrating. At the least there should have been national trials to fine-tune and make necessary adjustments.

I am now too far removed to make judgements about the contemporary classroom. But I have enough experience to know that damning reports from bureaucrats supporting a minister’s cause are not necessarily unbiased. Equally I know that strident calls from hotheads in the profession don’t help. Jargon and rhetoric obscure issues. There are many ways of enhancing education. Let’s explore them together. Entrenched warfare between the politicians and the profession will only damage the learning of the youngsters in our schools.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Two Dreams

Geoff visited yesterday. Amongst other things he talked of his love of trout-fishing, (something I've often thought I'd like to do), and asked my views on the proposed NZEI strike over national standards.

Last night I had two vivid dreams. In the first I was trout-fishing myself at Turangi, walking up the river to a solitary pool. There I made my cast. Somehow that merged into my going to NZEI’s headquarters to be offered a contract to undertake a survey of teacher education graduates entering the profession. They offered me an office car to drive round the country as I investigated the issue. A voice from the past, Helen Kelly, as president was in the chair.

In the cold light of day I can only say Alas! The mind is willing; the flesh is weak. Not for the first time I curse my illness.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I watched the closing session of our Parliament yesterday afternoon. Phil Goff and Bill English were engaged in their normal ping-pong arguments but Gerry Brownlee and David Parker switched to good-humoured banter. Question-time ended in chuckles, catcalls and guffaws. It’s a fine tradition.

At present I am reading about one of the foundations of that tradition – Yale historian Steve Pincus’s history: 1688, The First Modern Revolution. Instead of the usual narrative this is a polemic arguing that the overthrow of the Catholic English monarch James 11 and his replacement by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange was the first modern revolution.

Pincus’s basic argument is that 1688 was not a clash between traditional and progressive forces – rather it was between two competing progressive ideologies. This has been he claims the pattern of subsequent revolutions, French, Russian, Cuban etc. As a result the victors transform the society and nation their way. It’s an interesting concept.

Pincus argues that James tried to set up an absolutist state similar to that being created across the English Channel by Louis XIV – a form of centralised power and monarchical monopoly. Against that the English commercial class – which included many of the nobility – looked to the Dutch model, dynamic, tolerant and open, good for business and for trade, governed by rules of contract and consent.

Methinks though persuasive the book pushes the case too hard. It rarely is as clear-cut as it is written down now. Though the kernel seems correct, the revolution was not nearly as bloody as the French or Russian ones were and religion was probably more important than Pincus allows. What I had not realised is how much a consumer society Britain had become in the late 17th century. The conflict was fought out over parliament – James trying to control elections and his opponents trying to elect their followers.

While the relatively peaceful coup in which the daughter and her Dutch husband supplanted the king was not necessarily ‘glorious’ as was and is often claimed, it did provide a façade of royal continuity and enshrine certain long-held claims about ‘English liberties’. The past, as always, was ever-present in the change. Part of he claim ‘glorious’ is based on the fact that Britain did not have the ghastly blood-letting that occurred in France a century later. In escaping absolutism the nation was spared that ordeal. There’s enough truth on the claim for it to be credible. But there were other factors – for instance Wesley turned the workers from indignation and insurrection to worship and acceptance.

As you can see I am enjoying the book. I keep putting it down to argue mentally with its academic author. I wish it were not so heavy physically. That’s the trouble with the word-processor. That’s a small gripe in the scales of pleasure.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Boston Tea Party

On this day in 1773 a momentous event took place - the Boston Tea Party. The British Government had imposed a tea tax on the American colonies. Many settlers rallied around the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’. A group of young men dressed as Indians tossed the tea assignment from three ships in to the water of Boston Harbour. Their actions helped ignite the American Revolution.

An intriguing question? What if that Revolution had been unsuccessful? Further colonial revolts? Early Dominion status? Consign to the too hard bin. There were other factors. The ideology of equality and freedom of the individual floated in the air. The Revolution did happen, because it was probably inevitable. And the result is today Obama. And there is still resistance to taxes in the American heartland. For that ideology is still ever-present there.

Taxes have been the downfall of many a government. Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax ended her ministry. More dramaticly, issues of taxation as well as that self-same ideology were amongst the causes of the French Revolution. The royal prerogative had been the method by which the government there had raised taxes. But by the late 18th century the coffers were bare – bankruptcy stared Louis’s ministers in their faces. The Estates-General – their type of Parliament – was called. The result was rebellion, revolt, terror and tyranny.

I have never been to Boston. But I have been to Philadelphia. On holiday in Washington I took a train side-trip for a day’s work. A private company wanted to arrange teacher exchanges from New Jersey state with New Zealand. I quickly realised that this was not on, it was a sheer money-making enterprise, ripping off the profession.

But I was delighted when they proudly took me to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. It was a moving experience, not just in seeing the sites, but in.witnessing the passionate belief that Americans have in their constitution and the intent of the nation’s founders.

I read of a new phenomenon in American political life – the Tea Party. Right wing Republicans who want an end of big Government. As a group scary in their contradictions, but obviously a potent force. They represent that naïve but sincere idealism that is such a factor in the American way of life. They resent their taxes going to bail-out the big banks, providing health-care to the ‘improvident’, even fighting foreign wars. Taxation promises to be one of the big issues in next year’s Congressional election. It goes back to that cry ‘no tax without representation’.

Schama’s History of Britain DVD series has a clear strand running through it. To pay for their wars the Medieval kings had to tax and they had to get permission to levy these from their peers. The struggle for control between monarch and parliament under-girded the Tudor era, culminating in the Civil Wars of the Stuart period. The ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688 when James 11 was deposed saw parliament in the ascendancy. The early settlers to America carried that belief across the Atlantic. As a torch it is a rallying point. Precept rather than practice, but that is the nature of parish pump politics at all levels.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


A lovely mild morning yesterday. We had the sliding doors wide open. Sunshine streamed in. Dorothy the cat plonked herself down on the step and lazed there – queen of the section and of the house. The daily tui came for its nectar fix at the abutilon bush. Summer had arrived.

Peter Jackson’s movie ‘The Lovely Bones’ had its Wellington premiere. The reviews have been mixed. The heaven scenes are too coy say some critics. That might go down well in America. My criticism of Lord of the Rings and King Kong was length. Several scenes should have been cut. I mean a battle between a dinosaur and a gorilla has only so much interest. I felt ‘have the technolgy, must use it.’ Suspect the same here.

Every now and then a voice from the past emerges to catch one by surprise. Today’s news that famous economist Paul Samuelson has died aged 94 is one such occasion. When I studied Economics I at university Samuelson was the text. To my astonishment I did well in the exam in that subject. So my economic bedrock was and is his theories. I had long confined him to an earlier era. He must have been a young man when he wrote that defining book.

A visiting scientist criticises the modern celebrity cult. ‘It’s a form of false idolatry’, he says. True! But is it new? In my youth Joe Louis, George Nepia, Clark Gable and Shirley Temple enjoyed the same cult status. Probably modern media increases the hype and certainly makes it more readily available to everyone internationally. The careers from which celebrities emerge may change but human nature tends to worship false gods. Because someone acts or sings or plays well – that does not necessarily make them good people and worthy role-models. The same can be said about intellectuals and scientists and politicians. And in the spot-light’s glare if you stumble there is a long way to fall. Tiger Woods is the obvious example at present. He is not the first man whose penis has got him into trouble. And he will not be the last. But if you are a celebrity and court the spotlight and the advertiser’s dollar you do so at your peril.

Over the years Anne and I have had some good holidays at Waiheke Island. This December time six years ago we spent a week in a friend’s apartment at Onetangi. On the far horizon was the outline of Great Barrier Island. From the deck we could watch gannets diving in the bay and sparrows nesting under the tile eaves of the neighbouring block. Pukeko strutted on the vacant section behind the apartments. We lazed on the beach, went for walks and read. Friends on the Island and from Auckland visited. We went to vineyards for wine-tasting. I watched the Australian/Indian cricket test live from Adelaide. Australia were 556 all out at the end of the first century. Ponting got a double century. But the Indian batsmen responded magnificently and eventually won a nail-biting match. School holidays had not started so in our evening strolls along the beach there were few people about - the blue flicker of TV sets in the few inhabited baches told the story of modern civilisation. While we were there Graeme Henry was appointed the new All Black coach and Saddam Hussein was captured live in Iraq.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I used to like country driving – the freedom, speed, changing vista, scenes for the geographer, historian and farmer’s son. Away from home base I was more conscious of being a New Zealander. My little piece of earth was conjoint to thousands of other pieces in which other Kiwis lived with their pleasures and their pains. Finally, there was just the joy of landscape.

One favourite drive was from brother Bruce’s deer farm near Mt Hutt to Christchurch by way of the Rakaia Gorge and sleepy country town of Hororata. I was always awestruck at the vast depth and breadth of the Rakaia basin – archetypal high country. The grandeur of that immense expanse is breath-taking. 'Big Skies' is the aptly titled book of Canterbury poems. Somehow that sense of size introduces a sense of proportion - our cares and concerns are ultimately so minor. Usually, there would be a nor-west arch, reminiscent of my favourite New Zealand painting, Bill Sutton’s 'Nor-wester in a Cemetery'. Those little wooden Gothic churches with their neglected gravestones stud the Canterbury countryside, relics of a by-gone pioneering age, and standing upright against the blast of wind whipping the ragged pines and draining the long grass of its vitality.

The European romantics of the late 18th and early 19th century, painters, writers and poets, fastened an image of landscape on the culture. I am a recipient of that heritage. As are the advertiser spin-doctors of our era. They sell New Zealand as a place of gigantic high country or idyllic beach scenes. We are now an urban people. But it is not how we portray ourselves. Which partly explains my gut reaction to plans to have cow cubicle farms in the MacKenzie basin.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Last night’s television had a programme on the Wearable Arts Awards, New Zealand’s iconic and spectacular fashion show. In my heyday I saw and enjoyed several shows, both in Nelson and in Wellington. Sceptical before my first visit I became a convert.
The choreography, lighting, sound, pace and visual treat swept the audience along.

So it was with regret that I had to stop going. Anne went again this year with friends Paul and Lesley so I experienced the show vicariously, When I saw it was coming on TV I looked forward to seeing it on the screen.

I was disappointed. Instead of the previous two-hour showing it was one hour and it stressed a promotional aspect - of the event and Wellington city - rather than show this year’s presentation. I enjoyed what I saw but I would have liked more. Which brings me to a point. There are many New Zealanders like me, for a great variety of reasons, for whom it would have been an interest if not a joy to have seen a programme of the whole event.

I know about ratings and the advertiser’s dollar. But this is one of the leading cultural events in the calendar year. Kiwi developed it is a great exemplar of our ingenuity. It is a shame it cannot be recorded and shown in its entirety later in the year. We can watch a replay of the All Blacks the next day.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Wellington had gale force winds last night. Daylight revealed snapped-off shoots on the Jude the Obscure rose bush and tree-fern fronds hanging bedraggled to the ground. The first distresses me, the second irritates. The rose flower has a lovely scent and the two broken shoots had lots of buds which was the cause of the misfortune. We had staked the opened blooms and they survived so I blame myself. I cannot clean up and the trailing fronds look untidy and unkempt.

I realise I was and am an emotional gardener – with a fair share of contradictory feelings. A week ago I described crushing snails with relish. Here’s a poem I wrote when we were living at our previous house.

How Did They Get There?

How did they get there? Four years
ago we laid some instant lawn, not
a daisy, now it is full of them. It’s a
mystery, they’ve always been prolific
on the top lawn but that gets mown
before they seed. Beats me! Others
urge, dig them up. But why? They’re
like the spider that lurks in the car
door, spins its web across the drive
side mirror. That mesh brushed away
it’s back next day. That’s spider’s been
through several car washes, traveled
thrice to Auckland, sailed on the Top
Cat. “A squirt of fly spray will fix it”
says the garage; a tip-off I ignore.
partly admiration for the pluck of
plant & beast, partly a form of
Buddhist courtesy, be & let be; a
gardener’s double standard for I crush
still, sap-sucker, aphid, snail & oxalis.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Midsummer Night's Dream

There are three reasons why I adore Shakespeare
 Plots that engage
 Magnificent language that lingers in the mind
 Unforgettable characters

I watched last night on DVD a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, his lovely play all romantic froth and moonlight. I got it out because I’d enjoyed Helen Mirren’s Rosalind and I wanted to see her as Titania, Queen of the Fairies. I was not disappointed.

But the drama caught me up and carried me along - as Shakespeare always does - and I realised at the end I’d hardly noticed Mirren as a performer, the role is so intertwined with the rest of the play. It moves at a good pace, that mix-up of lovers and mistaken identities, ‘rude mechanicals’ comedy, courtly pomp and revels, and finally believable fairies. Above all else there is that mercurial hobgoblin, Puck.

At the beginning we hear: ‘Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth.’ So the play romps on until Puck’s conclusion
‘If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.'
What happens on stage and screen is all a fantasy.

I first met the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in my Latin class at Christchurch Boy’s High. ‘Spud’ Moffat the teacher introduced us to Ovid’s tale. Lovers, forbidden to meet, the pair conversed through a crack in the wall between their two houses. They arranged a tryst outside the city walls. Thisbe got there first but was frightened off by a lion. Fleeing she dropped her veil. The lion, bloody-mouthed from a fresh kill played with the garment. Pyramus arrives and fearing she has been eaten by the beast kills himself. Thisbe comes back and finding her lover dead in turn stabs herself.

In Shakespeare’s play Quince, Bottom, Flute, Starveling, Snout and Snug, go to the forest to rehearse their performance of this famous story. Oberon, the King of the Fairies and Titania have had a quarrel. To punish her Oberon instructs Puck to drop a potion into her eyes, which will mean when she wakes she will fall in love with the first person she sees. Puck magically changes Bottom’s shape. Titania sees this creature first. The result is classic comedy as the fairies Peasbottom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed wait upon the bemused donkey-headed Bottom and the doting queen.

One of my educational regrets is that I cast for a school production of this play. My appointment to the secondary school inspectorate put paid to that project. Unwittingly I gave my successor a hospital pass. I'd cast a tomboy girl as Puck – she seemed a monty for the part. But puberty set in. Her personality changed. She was not good.

The only time I’ve actually been involved in acting the play was at Roger and Kathrine’s wedding. A group of us acted out the mechanical’s performance at the end of the play. ‘A tedious brief scene of Pyramus/ and his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.’ Vincent O’Sullivan was Pyramus. I was Moonshine.

Reading Byatt’s The Children’s Story earlier this year reminded me how much English literature has used the concept of fairies. I am sure this play fastened that particular myth into the national consciousness.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Helen Clark Review

New Zealand Books has published my reivew of 'Helen Clark: A Political Life', Denis Welch, Penguin, $40.00, ISBN 9780143202417. Here it is.

I admire Helen Clark, and I was pleased to be asked to review this book. Unlike David Lange, who flashed meteor-like across the parliamentary firmament, Clark became a consummate politician after a long apprenticeship learning the hard way about the nature of the game. As Prime Minister she ran a tight ship. Her stance over the Iraq invasion made me proud to be a New Zealander, and I recall with gratitude her support for the arts. As Welch writes, ‘Helen Clark has probably been the most culturally sophisticated and physically active prime minister New Zealand has ever had.’

Although unauthorised, this book is thoroughly absorbing. Welch writes well and has strong opinions; his text is studded with interesting quotations from a considerable range of people. (He did interview me, but he quotes me only once - I had very little contact with Helen Clark herself during my time in the Beehive.)

Early on, he makes a surprising mistake, which his editor should have picked up. He says Clark went to a private school. Not so - Epsom Girls’ Grammar is a long-established, prominent state school. This slip fosters a major misconception about her background. It made me wonder about other statements of fact in the book.

However, he sets the scene well, beginning in 1968, the year Clark was a fresher at Auckland University, when ‘women were almost invisible in New Zealand public life…[they] lacked not only political power but social status.’ Holyoake was Prime Minister and Kirk was the newly elected leader of the Labour opposition, a party badly in need of renewal.

Welch traces Clark’s 40 year political journey from that year till her electoral defeat in 2008. Summing up, he makes the case that ‘she was the personification of the great resettling undergone by this country in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the seismic political and economic upheavals of the 1980s and early 1990s.’ He argues that her ‘political competence and prime ministerial demeanour’ has greatly normalised female participation in politics, and concludes ‘the struggle for genuine equality is far from being won – when it is, Clark’s leadership will, I believe, be looked back on as trail-blazing.’ Yes, it will.

Muldoon might have railed about the universities breeding a liberal-left generation, but Welch argues that ‘Joining Labour wasn’t a radical thing to do. It was a job application. For a career in mainstream politics. At that stage Clark’s focus was almost entirely international.’That interest in foreign affairs remained with her throughout her career. Welch says that while he was working on this book, he ‘found universal agreement at least on this aspect of Clark’s career: she was most in her element when representing New Zealand overseas and moving through the realms of diplomacy, trade and geopolitics.’

From the start Clark was quite clear: she wanted three terms in power and would like four. If she had been more radical or controversial, she would have been ousted earlier, or never gained power in the first place. It’s an old political dilemma, especially in a democracy. Idealism has its place, but to get and keep power you need to compromise and trim. If you lose power, the New Zealand experience is that it’s a long time before you get it back. Welch puts it very well: ‘choices are freighted with compromise, calculation and personal baggage. Like all of us, only a lot more publicly, Clark gave ground on some things, held the line on others.’

Welch credits Clark for saving the Labour Party from extinction, indeed for resurrecting it. To do this she needed to extend the olive branch first to Jim Anderton’s Alliance, and later to other parties. Once in power she was saddled with an MMP environment, something she had never wanted. For three terms she navigated through the shoals of that environment with skill, but nevertheless it did limit her options. Which, I am sure, is the reason the electorate voted for MMP. It did not like the abrupt policy lurches of the Fourth Labour Government or the early years of Ruthonomics.

Welch is not certainly not sycophantic. His Alliance sympathies shine through. He’s critical of Clark and Cullen for not unravelling the Rogernomics revolution more. But they were faced with a double whammy. They had to prove to the left that the rightward revolution had finished and the tide was retreating. At the same time, they had to regain and retain the centre.

A hallmark of the Fifth Labour Government was its discipline. Having experienced the dysfunctional years of the Lange/Douglas struggle, Clark and Cullen were determined to keep disagreement out of sight. Critics of Clark as a control freak can’t have it both ways. If she had not been, her government would probably not have lasted as long as it did.

Particularly interesting, and the core of the book, is Welch’s account of Clark toughing it out when five prominent front-benchers confronted her to urge that she should step down as leader of the opposition. She didn’t, though her deputy, David Caygill, did. It is a sign of Clark’s political astuteness that she did not demote the rebels, and over time they became her loyal supporters.

Welch claims that ‘with her back against the wall, and her fortunes at their lowest ebb, she found the will and the strength to assert herself and – for the first time – became a true leader. Simply, if she wasn’t going to collapse in a heap, she had to stand and fight. Which she did. And found herself as a leader in the process.’

At the subsequent election, Winston Peters had the role of kingmaker. He chose Bolger. If he’d chosen Clark, her and our history would have been different. Welch says she should be grateful to Peters for not choosing her, because ‘Labour was not fit to govern in 1996; it needed more time to settle its internal differences, to deodorise the pong of Rogernomics, and to make peace with the Alliance.’ Moreover, by destabilising the Shipley government, Peters helped pave the way for Labour to win in 1999.

Welch interrupts his narrative between 1996 and 1999 to devote a chapter called ‘So Different In Person’ to Clark’s attributes and temperament. This is not only a very difficult task, but a risky one. She was a markedly private person, and most of those close to her did not wish to be interviewed. Welch wrestles with her dilemma of being a political woman, and the double standard involved. The media did not comment about Bolger’s hair or clothes or marriage. Welch quotes Clark herself pointing out that Bolger never once drew attention to her childlessness; but other politicians often did. As Welch says elsewhere, ‘sexism is a stayer, and misogyny still smoulders like an old incinerator in the kiwi heartland.’

In the middle of this chapter are three pages of ‘comments and observations drawn from conversation and research’. Some are attributed – to Michael Cullen, Charles Waldegrave, Arthur Baysting, and Mary Varnham; others are not. Up to this point, and after, Welch is meticiulous in attribution. It seems unfair and unwise to lapse from this practice over these comments about personality and character. It would appear that the journalist has taken precedence over the biographer.

Welch’s summary of the years 1999-2008 is succinct. ‘The story of the fifth Labour Government is essentially the story of two aims: to stay in power and to stay true to its own conception of itself. Good plan. Only problem: the two aims were irreconcilable.’ He argues, I think correctly, that ‘Brash’s speech at Orewa on 27 January 2004 marked the point at which the Clark Labour Government started to lose its cool, its gloss and the plot.’ It was roughly at the same point, after four years in power, that the fourth Labour Government began to disintegrate. Helen Clark saw Brash off, but it was at a cost. By 2008 she was leading a rather exhausted ministry, undercut by the vagaries of MMP. She had held it together by her own will-power and strength.

A politician to the core, she herself was not tired or worn-out: ‘Clark went down fighting, just as she’d come up.’ She left with dignity. Welch says ‘posterity will, I think, be kind to her.’ I hope so. She deserves it.

Harvey McQueen July 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dairy Factory Farms

I should be blogging about Copenhagen. It’s important, indeed, vital. But international conferences of this scale rarely pollinate ideas, rather participants grope towards words that represent a compromise. So I write about another topical issue of interest and concern.

The Mackenzie Basin is a vast expanse of Canterbury high country between the Southern Alps and the foothills, beautiful and unique. It’s been sheep country ever since its discovery by a sheep thief but is renowned for its hydro-electricity generation, tourism attractions – Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo in particular - trout fishing, and gliding. Now there are plans to build sixteen factory style dairy farms there, three companies are involved. Consent applications reveal that its is planned to house 18,000 cows in cubicle stables, 24 hours a day for eight months of the year and twelve hours a day for the remaining four months.

I have strong reservations about the proposal. There are questions of animal welfare. My farm upbringing and twelve years living in the dairy heartland of the Waikato with its ever-present milk tankers leaves me with the feeling that it’s not natural to keep cows in interior pens. Bluntly, the Mackenzie is not dairy country. It’s mighty cold there in winter. Apparently the plan is that these are not enclosed sheds but will be open-air. The cows of my boyhood years grazed grass paddocks, chewed their contended cuds, interacted with one another and lined up for milking. I’m not being nostalgic. I was brought up to treat animals with respect even if you planned to kill them. In the pursuit of profit we do not have the right to mistreat other creatures.

I know it’s how dairy cows are now farmed in Europe and North America. But that doesn’t make it humane. I also know that for centuries in Europe cows have been kept in barns or in the floor story of the farmhouse. That was not only on a different scale; it was a question of survival during long cold winters. There was a seasonal rhythm to the process worked out over the ages. Switzerland is illustrative. In winter, indoors, in summer, up in the mountain pastures while hay was made to tide through the winter. There was a harmonious bond between humanity and nature. The stink of the animal’s manure was countered by their milk – for cheese as well as a beverage – and the veal.

There is the question of the New Zealand image. Federated Farmers claim that this method of farming is merely catching up with the rest of the world. I claim it is giving up a leadership over the rest of the world. Our marketing has stressed our pastoral strength. To destroy this free-range, grass-feeding image would be folly. Overseas experience is that indoor stock require more drugs – again this has marketing implications.

Then there is the environmental factor. Dairy farming requires considerable amounts of water. This means it must be supplied. By what means and what are the implications for a fragile environment? I note the planners aim to collect the effluent and spread it ‘thinly’ on nearby pasture. How will that affect the Waitaki River flow? What are the downstream implications? For hydro production. For boaties? For trout fishermen? What will these housed cows eat? Palm kernels? Corn like in America? Hay? How much can the Canterbury Plains grow? They are already under pressure from the extensive dairying that has developed there in the last several years.

In advancing another criticism of the actual plan I’m not retracting my opposition to the whole concept. Industrial production has transport costs. So it seems illogical to contemplate locating factory farms in remote sites. Maybe the decision reflects a mind-set. This is business. It’s exploitation, not farming.

During Parliament’s question time yesterday it was heartening to see John Key not keen on the idea. Maybe that’s what the polls are telling him. Maybe it’s his own conviction. Whether he can stop the proposals is another matter. I understand that a factory farm with 500 cows already exists in Southland so already this particular cow is bailed up for milking.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On The Swag


His body doubled
under the pack
that sprawls untidily
on his old back
the cold wet dead-beat
plods up the track.

The cook peers out:
`oh curse that old lag-
here again
with his clumsy swag
made of a dirty old
turnip bag.'

`Bring him in cook
from the grey level sleet
put silk on his body
slippers on his feet,
give him fire
and bread and meat.

Let the fruit be plucked
and the cake be iced,
the bed be snug
and the wine be spiced
in the old cove's night-cap:
for this is Christ.'

R A K Mason

This well-known poem is one of my favourites. Part of the Kiwi dream is an idea of egalitarianism. Mason’s swagger represents that tradition at its best. It reflects its masculine era but that old deadbeat is Christ as Everyman and therefore deserves to be treated with great dignity and respect. Its radicalism is underestimated for it was and remains an objection to the contemporary ethos. Not only does the compassion have a rare robust ring to it, the mood fits age-old traditions of hospitality, challenging the power structures of the class system. The Kiwi rebellion against the Old Country was amongst other things a protest at the ordered world of Victorian England. As a piece of writing its form transcends its ideas. Part of its appeal is its apparent simplicity, rhyme so snug it’s hardly noticeable.

Pearl Harbour

Yesterday was the sixty-eighth anniversary of Pearl Harbour. I remember Pop, my grandfather, firmly placing me before the radio – I was aged seven – to listen to President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous ‘day of infamy’ speech. The New York Times has an interesting column placing the blame for Japanese expansion firmly on President Theodore Roosevelt’s policy at the beginning of the 20th century. He actively encouraged Japanese imperial aims in North-East Asia and indeed in 1905 without Congressional knowledge secretly approved the annexation of Korea. At the same time his own expansionist operations led to the American control of the Philippines. Thirty-odd years later two bloody battles were fought in that nation between the USA and Japanese troops.

Monday, December 7, 2009

More About Snails

In response to yesterday’s bog Ali sent this email.
‘I'm with you on this - pacifist in most things, but merciless when it comes to snails. But if there are thrushes around I'll throw the snails onto the lawn as a treat for them. One day I was fascinated to see a parent thrush teaching its fledgling young how to deal with this bounty. Having picked up a snail and taken it across to one of the bricks edging the veggie patch and using it very efficiently as an anvil, the parent stood back and watched as the youngster tried clumsily to do likewise - to be rewarded eventually by the tasty interior. We see the seagulls doing the same with shellfish on the beach: the older ones know to drop their catch on the nearest hard surface(the road, a car, a house roof), but the youngsters just drop them onto the sand and look cross and puzzled when nothing happens. The value of education.’

I did think of feeding the snails to the thrushes but our resident pair having hatched and reared their young hardly ever come to the section. Unlike a cat or dog they wouldn’t have responded to my call. Hence, my resort to massacre.

One of the saddest sights I saw was over forty years ago at the Tauranga rose gardens. Somebody had scattered slugkill near the hot house. There were dying snails galore and a large number of thrushes were busily at work, picking them up, dropping them on to the road and then feasting away. I suspected that the concentration of poison would kill them as well.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Snails After a Black Mood

After yesterday’s nostalgic blog I return to contemporary reality.

Palmerston North recently hosted the disabled athletes championship. The organisers asked for volunteers to assist in the running of these games. They wanted 2,000. They got 5,000. Did the media herald the Kiwi spirit. No, there are murder trials, errant teachers and straying golfers in the headlines. Perspective takes a back seat.

Negative can so easily swamp positives. One of the problems of being human is mood swings. Two days ago I put on my blog a poem I’d written after a great, unexpected moment of rapture arising from watching two wax-eyes fossicking through abutilon blooms. Yesterday morning I had a reverse experience.

I was outside sitting in a deck chair watching and advising Helen, our school-girl gardener at work. She’d planted a lavender bush, petunia seedlings and had turned to the pot of matted mint and chives that needed repotting. Doing a great job. In an effort to help her I picked up a bunch of clump of intertwined chives with intent to separate them. My fingers and wrists were not strong enough to obey instructions. Frustration turned to despair as black clouds rolled into and across my soul. Sit back and enjoy the sunshine my rational mind said. Meanwhile Helen cheerfully laboured on, oblivious to my internal turmoil. Such is the nature of existence.

She discovered a nest of snails. She asked what to do with them. ‘Crush them’ I said. She shuddered, she’s a vegetarian and couldn’t do that. She volunteered to throw them over the fence into the neighbours. The gardener that I once was rebelled at that prospect. I might be a dove on foreign policy but when it comes to snails I’m a hawk. ‘Put them on the deck here’ I ordered. I had age and authority on my side. Reluctantly she did. I sent her away on a mission. And sensing her disapproval, I vigorously destructed them, left foot this time obeying orders. What a way to gain restoration and equilibrium. She and I departed on good terms. Living is complexity. It was, is and always will be.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

With Ample Rainfall

A recent book, Crest to Crest, an anthology of Canterbury prose and poetry, has two pieces of my writing. The first is Uncle Charlie which was one of the first pieces I put on this blog. Here is the other - slightly longer in that the published piece was edited for reasons of space.

'With ample rainfall, the Banks Peninsula hillside soils a combination of wind-blown loess and weathered volcanic rock were fertile from the ash of the burnt bush and the rotting stumps as well as sheep and cattle dung. The river flats were formed from flood silt. Small one-unit farms, very dependent upon the wife's labour both in the household and on the farm, were indeed the norm, a conscious political decision of the Liberal Government of the 1890s. As the children grew their labour was put to use. Sheep and beef cattle grazed the hills, dairy cows the flats and lower heights; most farms a mixture of both. Mainly Romney Cross, the sheep provided fat lambs for the English market, with wool as a supplementary source of income. The beef cattle were either Hereford or Black Poll. The sheep and cattle farmers worked to nature's rhythms, tailing, dehorning, (both bloody and noisy events) shearing, drafting, bursts of hectic activity interspersed with maintenance tasks.

Dairy folk faced a harder life; tied to the cow-bails for nine months of the year. A continual source of disagreement amongst cockies was whether Friesian or Jersey were the best breed for milking, while the few herds of Shorthorn had their own devotees. Most of the milk went to the co-operative cheese factory, though a few farmers separated and sent the cream churns through to Christchurch by train. At the factory they met and yarned each morning as they delivered milk by truck or cart and loaded whey for their pigs. Unless they were working at the vats, (suppliers were rostered as part of the cheese co-op), they could take the day off to go over to Akaroa Harbour to put out the flounder net, join a working bee at the Church or school, replace fences or repair yards.

John, my father, farmed in Pigeon Bay. Shortly after World War 2 started and I turned five, he failed to arrive home on time for the hot midday meal. His back was broken in the fall from his horse. He lingered for a few days before dying. Except for Mum's distress, I remember little of the blurred events after that. Ever since then a woman's tears reduce me to helplessness. She and her two sons shifted back to live with Pop (her father) at Little River. Uncle Tom's old whey-eaten truck laden with our furniture stalled near the top of the Pigeon Bay Rd. Pop’s Oldsmobile was right behind. A rope was attached. Mum, Doug and I were left on the snow-covered bank watched by curious heifers as the rope took the strain. After towing the truck to the Summit Road. Pop came back to collect us. The writing of this memoir has proved a rescue operation - events long forgotten suddenly resurrecting vividly back into the mind. The day of John’s accident remains clear, but the day of his funeral is completely cauterised. Obviously there was little discussion about it. Granny Lee told me years later that Dick, who became my stepfather, came home from the service talking about the two poor fatherless boys but whether that was her myth or truth, I do not know. The event must have been traumatic to an imaginative child, an unexpected ambush of grief and loss. It welded a strong sense of insecurity on to me - an obvious grounding for a life in education, an occupation that attempts to bring some order out of the chaos.

If at school I learnt the 'three r's'; back on the farm I learnt other facts of life. One was the simple fact of killing animals for meat. All three men in my life killed the fortnightly mutton, as well as old sheep for dog tucker. They cracked the neck as they cut the beast's throat. Pop alerted me to the pig's shrill dying scream when a knife was struck through its heart. Mum beheaded chook, duck and goose with one quick decisive axe blow - a clean execution. She refused to let the beheaded birds flap round headless as several neighbours did. Men skinned the sheep and scalded the pig, women plucked the poultry - constants of life.

All three men managed large vegetable gardens. I helped, probably hindered, them as they planted and hoed. Each milked a house-cow. Although Pop had two separate cow-bails he often used to carry the three-legged stool out into the paddock. As soon as the small Jersey heard his call, udder swinging, she’d run to him. He would feed her hay, and sitting on the stool milk her. Every now and then he would squirt some milk straight from the teat into my or a dog's mouth. The pet Canadian goose, wings clipped to prevent it flying, waddling up to survey the scene once got the jet of milk aimed for me. Great hilarity. Thereafter the stupid bird expected this as one of the milking rituals.

It was not all idyllic - I also recollect Pop coming in from milking with his sou-wester and oilskin dripping wet and warming his hands before Mum's stove. He'd leave two large billies for us and go on over the road to Uncle Charlie’s wife Thora. One billy was for drinking milk (it was unpasteurised). The other Mum set for skimming. We had rich thick farm cream on porridge and pudding, and plenty left over for home-made butter. Mum gave her butter ration coupons to Thora who made shortbread for the two households. The dogs drank the skim milk. Pop kept a pig once, it also drank the skimmed milk but he hated killing it, he'd made such a pet of it. Childhood lore was that skim milk pork possessed more flavour than whey-fed.

Across the creek from our cottage was Pop's hay-paddock, full of red clover and drowsy bumblebees. Cutting created great excitement. Two big Clydesdales pulled around the cutter in ever decreasing circles. Anxiety dominated while the grass dried, Pop surveying the sky, fretting at the least sign of rain. Until it was stooked he worried. Before and after they were covered by the tarps it was great fun to slide down the stooks, no-one seemed to mind though we were warned about the dangers of pitch-forks. Before long a tractor replaced the horses and a baler the stooks. One crop got damp, so Pop had to keep shifting the bales around to let them cool. Haystacks and haybarns frequently caught on fire - spontaneous combustion people explained, it seemed one of life's wonders to me. Pop's survived, however. Shifting the hay meant mouse-hunts, great fun for boys and dogs, and a grandfather. The hay - winter food for horse and house cow, and insurance for cattle and sheep if there was snow, otherwise stock was left to take care of itself. Breeding ewes got first attention if a cold snap set in, they carried next year's income. Quite a number of Peninsula farmers had a form of winter transhumance, they drove their sheep to farms on the plains where they wintered over on turnips and lucerne. Dick, my stepfather, did this, but Pop didn't, his bottom farm countered his two in the heights.

Farm work was seasonal. - cattle being dehorned, calves castrated, lambs tailed, all bloody and noisy procedures. Fat lambs needed drafting - the frenzied call of lambs separated from their mothers is an omnipresent memory. Sheep with footrot needed to have hooves cleaned with bluestone. The way they winced suggests a painful process. Dipping was great fun. Pop possessed a tip-dip, a rare thing then. The sheep loaded, Pop pulled a lever and the pen tilted throwing the sheep into the foul-smelling dip, with a large splash. Occasionally one would balance precariously on the narrow ledge, Pop would use his stick to push them in. He’d duck their heads under to make sure all the ticks were killed. The chute gate opened, the sodden animals clambered out, the dip streaming off their wool, to shake themselves dry in the draining pens. The rams provided great fun, they hated the place. It took all the skill of Pop's dogs to get them up the ramp to the tilting pen. They would turn on the dogs, stamp their feet, "Back up", Pop would tell the dogs. Sometimes the rams charged, the dogs nimbly jumping over the rails out of the way. "Heel" Pop would say and Jill or King would go for the nose or ankle - the ram would hurry up the ramp, the dogs bouncing gleefully behind. Pop would pull the lever, the rams would splash into the dip, the dogs surveying over the edge, carnivorous mastery over lesser herbivores.

Once as Pop went to duck a sheep it swerved, he missed and fell in. Luckily I was there to pull up the gate to let him clamber out spluttering and choking, otherwise he could have drowned. When Granny berated him he said he always made sure he had someone else there when he dipped. “That daydreamer” I overheard.

Each night before school Mum made sandwiches for our lunch, mutton, jam or marmite. As we got older Doug and I took over this chore. Mum spoke longingly of oranges and pineapples, but despite the war there was plenty of seasonal fresh food. We called our meals breakfast, dinner and tea, eaten off the oil-clothed drop-leaf table. If guests came Mum put a cloth on. Breakfast in the winter was usually porridge, Creamota from the packets with Sergeant Dan on them, in the summer Kornies, "everybody's breakfast" the radio ads told us. Most meals consisted of mutton, either hot or cold, mutton soup all winter, fried chops often, neck stew. Always with mashed potato except for the Sunday roast. People ask if such a daily diet of mutton and spud wasn’t monotonous. Certainly at the time it did not seem so, it was what people ate. Uncle Tom killed a pig for Christmas and Easter, so pork became for me the symbol of celebration. Mum made brawn, chopping the cooked pigs-head apart with a sharp tomahawk. Pop always ate the trotters. When the young roosters got three-quarter grown it was axe time for them, Mum and Granny saving the feathers to stuff cushions. Sausages were a treat, whenever Pop or Mum went through to town, as was corn beef.

In late spring Uncle Tom's black-currant bushes would be laden, for a couple of days we couldn't use the bath, Mum would be making jelly, the juice oozing through the muslin bags hung over large basins. Other neighbours possessed gooseberry bushes. In autumn we would collect large field mushrooms in a bucket while during the summer we would harvest watercress from the creek margins. At school they told us to dig for victory. Pop and Mum did their share with their big vegetable patches. Each autumn Mum would plant lupin and each spring she would dig it in to add nitrogen to the soil. She planted three apple trees, granny smith, red delicious, cox's orange, lovely names.

When Mum married Dick we shifted to a farm at the top of Okuti valley on the east side of Little River. The house was large and old weatherboard with a verandah running along its western front, and the inevtiable red corrugated iron roof. Scattered behind it was a garage with a haybarn on top, store-sheds, an earth-floored stable and saddle room full of old harness and other paraphernalia not sold at the clearing sale, a fowl-house, a cowshed and a pig-sty. Beside it, the large orchard had pear and apple trees and a rampant raspberry patch. The first apple to ripen was an Irish Peach - a pile of tree-ripened fruit and a good book was boyhood bliss. The woolshed, sheepyards and dip were on the next ridge. The farm was well-watered, well-sheltered, stocked with 650 Romney cross ewes, a small Southdown pedigree flock (rams and ewes), some Hereford cattle, and a large flock of noisy geese. Several paddocks were full of bracken. One paddock which I christened Foxglove Knoll blazed with colour - I have never seen so many foxgloves in one place. The divide at the top looked down on French Farm on Akaroa Harbour - Dick had 150 acres over that side.

Mum says this was the best time. For that Dick must be given the credit - plus her own resilience and courage. She loved being out with him. The widowed woman blossomed again. I am pleased life treated her generously then - for Dick also died young.

Friday, December 4, 2009



Synchronised swimmers
under-carriage obvious
seeking nectar, almost
in unison, two silver
-eyes move mice-like
amidst orange abutilon

Such a scene as
would loose an albatross
from off a mariner’s neck

The word ‘blessed’ bounds
around my skull. Antiquated, but
in this instance, extremely legitimate.

Having seen this scene at lunch-time today I sat down and wrote the poem. Looking at it now I wonder whether I could leave the second stanza entirely out. It's said in the last stanza. Or maybe it is necessary. I invite your opinion.

Taxes & Wars

One defining event of the present government will be Bill English’s 2010 Budget, It seems clear it will attempt to bed in certain tax changes. I dislike the words ‘tax reform’. Reform suggests improvement. The form of taxation changes, it doesn’t improve. At various times windows and lavatories have been taxed. The only constant is that taxation continues. Our present parliament has its origins in the fact that in the Middle Ages the kings of England needed money to pay for their invasions in Scotland and France. To get that money they needed consent to raise taxes.

There are two approaches in the modern world to tax changes. One is the bold cut through all the red tape. That tends to produce many casualties. The other is the slow increment of changes refining the system and attempting to make it more efficient. Of course, the balancing factor is the effectiveness of the systems dispersing tax income.

I had an email from a friend yesterday asking why I haven’t commented upon the tax taskforces and their comments about the Cullen Fund and Kiwisaver. The Brash report was so predictable it hardly warrants mention. Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson applied that prescription. It didn’t work. So, let’s move on. Though in passing I mention that in my understanding Australians pay more taxes than we do.

I always saw Brash’s appointment as a stalking horse for the National led-government to launch later its own initiatives. To switch cliches its purpose was to serve as a smokescreen. Time will tell. But like all administrations the government has less room to maneuver than ministers would like. Mr Cullen made sure of that.

I was saddened at the earlier tinkering with the Cullen Fund. Further cuts could damage the whole scheme. I hoped we could get inter-party agreement on super but that’s probably an idealistic pipe-dream. Which means lurches in the form of policy changes. That effects the livelihood and morale of thousands.

Kiwisaver is basically below my radar. Friends with more economic savvy than I have were not enthusiastic but it seemed to me a scheme which encouraged saving was a step in the right direction. It would be a shame to see it turned into an unworkable one, or even destroyed. Probably Labour should have started it earlier but that is the nature of politics. The gaining and retention of power takes precedence over policy consistency. There are also electoral shibboleths – tinker with these at your peril. There are also questions of leadership – can a government switch direction by selling a vision.

Obama sold the vision in a campaign based upon one word, ‘hope’. Now, he is learning as his predecessors had he has less room for change than he anticipated. Thompson in his book about the Cold War outlines how each president in turn was hamstrung by previous commitments, decisions and lobbyists. And their own decisions. Kennedy’s disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion convinced the Russians of his weakness. So they started to put missiles on Cuba. For a while it seemed the planet hovered on the brink of an all-out nuclear war. The Russians blinked and withdrew. I hadn’t realised until I read Thompson how far the Russians had gone. It was not just missiles, it was smaller nuclear weapons. Kennedy exhibited courage.

As I believe Obama has over Afghanistan. It’s a gamble. By putting an exit date into the mix he has given a hostage to the future. But Thompson provides a chilling account of America stumbling further and further into the Viet Nam quagmire.

But wars require money. The American taxpayer is like any taxpayer any where. The exit strategy softens the financial implications of the president’s decision. Politicians are interested in power. They are usually reluctant to do things that will alienate the electoral majority. Key and English have strategically been at pains to keep to the political centre. Next year’s budget should give a real glimpse of their long-term aims.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Old Poet

The Old Poet

The aging poet – milk teeth cut on the romantics,
the second lot grew while he studied those whose
whole world edged towards the inescapable combat –
reads a modern anthology with regret but
without envy at their poise & certitude.
He turns as is his custom to the introduction
last & slams it down in dispute with the author.
Accepting he’s getting to the stage of being
beyond new tricks he toys with a letter.
‘while it might be contemporary to avoid
the moral tone it would also help if we who
use it are not attacked so hurtfully & heedlessly.’
He doesn’t write it. The world can not
comprehend that once in dreams of goddesses
& justice, to him paradise appeared quite possible

Harvey McQueen

This poem carries an interesting history. When it appeared in my last poetry collection, Recessional, The Dominion Post selected it for its weekly Wednesday poem. A fellow poet asked me what was the anthology I was writing about. It was an imaginary one. This poem is interesting for I normally move from the personal to the more objective. The process of writing this one was the reverse.

I’d read a letter, bristling with indignation, in the Spectator I think, from an elderly curmudgeonly guy complaining about modern writers’ lack of moral values. The mood struck a spark. I began a poem about an old retired bull brooding in a paddock about the foolishness of his successors. The artificiality of that metaphor quickly became obvious and I discarded it.

What emerged was this rather succinct biographical piece. But I stress, the character that is created is a personae rather than the actual me. It is true that my first poetic love was Keats and his fellow romantics and the second more mature was Eliot and Auden. But the picture of that naive young writer, chivalrous and idealistic, buffeted by and misunderstood down the years is not the full story.

It is a poem. It is not Harvey McQueen but something he has created. There is a difference.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Hawk & The Dove

I am reading Nicholas Thompson’s The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. Thompson is Nitze’s grandson and had access to his papers. Kennan’s diaries enable him to give an impartial account of the struggle for policy control between the two men with their widely differing approaches to dealing with the Soviet Union. They agreed on containment, but not the means to that end. A feature of their friendship is the civility of their discourse despite huge disagreement.

The contrast between them is an interesting approach to the foreign policy history of the USA during the Cold War. Nitze is presented as a hard-nosed realist, arguing for the development of the H-bomb. If they did not pursue it the Russians would. Containment must be backed up by military strength. Kennan was more conflicted – horrified at the massive arms build-up and the prospect of nuclear obliteration, and brooding over the impossibility of enforcing the American way of life on sovereign nations. To him, containment meant that in time the ‘evil empire’ would disintegrate from within.

Well-written, the book is very readable. I especially enjoyed the Korean War section and the concerns in Washington over McArthur’s imperial leadership. I’d almost forgotten that American and Chinese troops had fought each other during that war. The legacy of that conflict lingered long in the minds of the American public and policy-makers.

President Truman emerged with credit when he dismissed McArthur. The book abounds with little revealing vignettes and anecdotes. Like when Openheimer who directed the atomic bomb development met Truman and said ‘I’ve blood on my hands;' afterwards, Truman exploded to an aide, expletives removed, something to the effect of ‘how much more do I have on my hands.’

This was the world in which I grew up. Those two conflicting views were background to my development. In the book Eisenhower has just been elected – the two men are briefly on the outer. Ahead there is Dulles, Suez, Hungary, Cuba, Viet Nam, Nixon's visit to China. I know the general history outline but not the individual stories of the two men. History through biography, that’s an interesting twist to provide a satisfying read for the wintry start we are having to summer.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Where ever I travelled, New Zealand or overseas, there always seemed to be Japanese taking photographs. Especially, before the digital age, I wonder where they stored them all. Even in their homeland they took thousands.

In my first visit to Japan, after attending a conference in Hiroshima, I travelled as a tourist. The Japanese Tourist Board had given me a chit which roughly translated said ‘take this guy to a decent traditional Japanese inn.’ When I got off the train I presented this to a taxi driver and very soon I was being met with bows and escorted to my room. I had been warned about sleeping on the floor – futons are comfortable – not being spoken to in English – hand signals seem universal – and communal bathing – it never happened, I always had private facilities.

I got as far south as Beppu – a thermal resort like Rotorua. There I decided the best way to see around was to join a tour. The rest of the group were elderly Japanese tourists. I realised I had been adopted as the tour curiosity. At every stop I had to join obligatory groups to be snapped again and again. Relatives must have got bored at seeing this hairy barbarian (I was bearded those days) popping up in photograph after photograph.

Back in Tokyo I took another bus tour – this time to Hakone, a lake resort high up in the hills. At the first view of Mt Fujiama the bus stopped for everyone to take a photo. The mountain was a long way away and there was nothing to frame against it so I didn't bother. It looked like Egmont. Behind us a farming group were harvesting rice by hand – it looked timeless. I lined up for a photo only to have a restraining hand on my elbow. It was the diminutive tour guide. She turned me firmly around and pointed at the sacred mountain. That was the view. I was equally determined and turned back. She was agitatedly adamant – I did wonder if she did not want me to portray her people as backward but thinking about it afterwards I’m sure she merely wanted me to get the right photograph. I let her have her way. She stood beside me till I pressed the shutter on the correct view.

I too have a pile of photos I have taken down the years. My slides got mildew so I threw them out. When I’m gone most of those photos will have the same fate. It all goes so fast. Experience, finally, is beyond capture. One of Ian Wedde’s commonplace odes captures that mood very well.


To me the Fates have given scorn for the envious.
Time’s no flood, it bears nothing
Away, and only light catches it, shuttered on memory.
Let the heart rejoice in what ever it has right now.
What is we hold up between us, my brother

And I? It’s our father’s satisfaction, it’s food
For the table, it’s a monument he never dreamed he’d see
In the Ufizzi, it’s his wife in a camelhair coat
By a DC3, with a camel in the Wadi
Araba and among the weathered pyramids of Dashoon.

Now it’s a show, it’s a thousand sunsets on the Nile,
On the bay of Bengal, on the waters of Lake Constance,
And he was never satisfied with them. Far horizons, blue
And made of rocks, are what he also saw.
Sometimes he was happy with the spired horizons of cities

But which cities? And what Gods are worshipped
Beneath those turquoise domes? What was sacrificed
On those basalt altars, tumbled in black ruins
Across what valleys foraged by goats, sheep
Or llamas? What tunes have faded away?

Where are we now? No longer in
The picture, which is now a picture of my father’s loneliness.
He survives in roguish snapshots taken in restaurants.
A plate of quail in Damascus. But never in the tin
Trunk of photographs because he took them all.