Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mansfield Still

Over the last few weeks I’ve been still savouring Katherine Mansfield’s stories. Two or three at the most and then contemplative time afterwards as I sit and chew the mental cud about each one. It’s a good way to appreciate them. Too many at once and a form of critical and mental indigestion sets in. For these readings being less greedy means more enjoyment

I’m up to her later middle period. What has struck me this time’s reading is how feminist she was. Not in suffragette terms but in her sympathy and sensitivity. The comment probably reflects the maturation of Harvey.

Three stories I’ve just read all illustrate the same point. First ‘Pictures’. A young woman, penniless and hungry, unable to pay the rent, tries to make ends meet by getting work as a film extra. The story ends with her sitting in a cafĂ©. A stout man sits down with her, has a whisky and shouts her a brandy. They leave together. An internet background note makes the point that the story is about unemployment. No! In the end the poor woman was reduced to prostitution.

Then ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’! Those two poor sisters, their lives frittered away is meeting the needs of their tyrant father and they are now on his death unable to make up their minds or reach a decision. ‘Josephine had had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was being lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing withuout asking his permission. What would father say when he found out? For he was bound to find out sooner or later. He always did.’ Poor women, his intimidation had trained them so well, neither of them can remember what they wanted to say.

‘Ma Parker’ in one way is an old-fashioned tear-jerker. She buried her beloved grandson the day before the story starts. In another way it is an indictment of a class system that creates a life of drudgery for people like Ma Parker. ‘It was cold on the street. There was a wind like ice. People went flitting by, very fast; the men walked like scissors; the women trod like cats. And nobody knew – nobody cared. Even if she broke down, if at last, after all these years, she were to cry, she’d find herself in the lock-up as like as not.’

I acknowledge that at the same time as she was penning these pro-women pieces she was also revealing other sensitivities. ‘An Ideal Family’ seems to me to reveal a growing awareness of her father’ s stronger points. Though ‘At the Bay’ and ‘The Fly’ lie ahead.

That sentence is revelatory. The metaphor is inadequate but it'll serve. This present slow read is an re-exploration of a tourist spot once enjoyed with enthusiasm and vigour. Now I stroll at a more leisurely pace and reflect on the scene with more knowledge and background than before. The idiosyncrasies and movement of people and things take on fresh meanings as they are placed in a wider context.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Albedo by Harvey Molloy


A terminator line
cuts the moon

like a millionaire cake
into two sharp slices;

white and black.
The earth casts a shadow

across its monochrome twin
that turns so perfectly

in step with our dance
we never see her move.

A vast blanket
of frozen regolith

covers the scarred
brightside face

smashed by a million
meteor punchups

and throws a wash
of pale light

over the black tar roof
of the outside laundry.

Harvey Molloy

A poem by a Harvey put up by a Harvey. There’s a simple explanation. For this Tuesday Weeks’ poem most members of the group have been paired and asked to select a poem of their partner’s. I’m grateful that the organisers paired me with Harvey Molloy. It’s forced me into his work.

In the rush of cards that have come into our household this Christmas there have been lots of stars and the occasional sun. The moon has been ignored. It is not part of the nativity story. Interesting! Down the centuries the moon has excited a lot of human emotion and has been the source of many a legend and tale. There is no space in the inn for the moon.

Harvey Molloy’s take on that cool piece of rock is really striking. I’ve liked it from the moment I first came across it earlier this year.. It’s rational and concisely scientific. At the same time it captures that sense of awe the moon can compel.

I am not a scientist. Nor an astronomer! But in my childhood’s country quiet a cloudless full-moon was a stunning sight as the familiar hills took on a enigmatic colouring. Sometimes, that full moon even bestrode rather ghostly a daytime sky.

There’s nothing elusive about this planetary object, but it seems at all ages to carry an always air of mysteriousness.

Monthly and young I saw then the changing cycles. At that stage explanations left me bewildered. I was told the ocean’s tides were dependent upon those cycles. Down the centuries poets and philosophers had pondered about the meaning and nature of this phenomena.

Now we understand the science. And therefore the miracle of it more. Men have walked on the moon’s surface and returned to earth bringing samples of its surface back. Nevertheless, its existence still retains that ability to create wonder, amazement, inspiration and even fear.

Sometimes people complain about a poet’s obscurity. Occasionally, rightly so. But usually not. T.S.Eliot assumed a knowledge of Christian theology, Classical mythology and European literature. In his period it was a fair claim. More difficult now. So I give some background to Harvey Molloy’s terminology. He’s not being difficult. He’s being accurate. And, as a poet, astute. Like all words technical terms have sound and resonate in their own right and with other words. The moon’s there. He describes it. Accurately! End of story! Not of enigma!.

‘Albus’ is the Latin word for ‘white’. A derivation ‘albedo’ was first used in a scientific sense in 1760 to measure reflectivity, how strongly an object reflects light. The ‘terminator line’ is the term given to the line that separates the illuminated (day) side of a planetary body from its dark (night) side. ‘Regolith’ is loose material covering solid rock. On the moon it is the powdery layer created by meteors hitting the surface.

‘Albedo’ is a very visual poem. That’s one of Molloy’s strengths. He’s good at juxtaposition. And atmosphere! The sun may produce heat while the moon remains inert but there’s a calmness and simplicity in its regular appearance, Speaking about another of his Moonshot poems in his blog he says ‘nothing much happens in the poem at all; no bangs, no surprises, just little movements.’ True of this one as well.

I like his metaphor of meteor punchups on the moon’s face. Down the ages its surface has taken many hits. And I admire the matter-of-factness tone of the last four lines. Yes, that’s exactly how it would have looked. That laundry black tar roof would have appeared pallid and frightful in the moonlight. Our imagination engages – silver and sinister merge and mingle in our mind with scientific certitude.

If you want to read my poem selected by Harvey Molloy hit the Tuesday Poem quill button on the left hand side and enter the site. I intended to put the poem up on my blog as part of my Christmas season. Harvey has done it for me. Thanks!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Como Christmas

West Europe struggles with a cold winter. There is traffic chaos. There’ll be a white Christmas.

We were fortunate over the Christmas period of 1989. It was a relatively mild winter there then. I had finished my 18 month stint in the Beehive. Anne had never been to Italy and so we planned an Italian holiday as rest and relaxation for me and excitement for her (and me). We took a gamble on the weather. We had only one really strong storm.

In late November we were staying in London with friends before crossing the Channel, shops already decorated for Christmas. We were in Harrods – gaping mainly – though in the Christmas nick-nacks Anne stopped to buy a small owl for her sister Susan who collects them.

The pimply, toffee-voiced youth serving asked rather condescendingly as he wrapped up her meagre purchase ‘And where will Madam be spending Christmas?’

Inwardly I applauded her assured reply. ‘Lake Como’. Thereafter, he treated us with more respect. Eccentric, wealthy colonials?

It is 21 years to the day when we arrived at Como. We’d pre-booked a lakeside hotel. But when the taxi pulled up there were big signs it was closed and was obviously being renovated. All was well. Panic was unnecessary. We were re-directed to a hotel high in the hills above Cernobbio further up the lake. Its panoramic view included the renowned Villa d Este hotel on the waterfront directly below. A steep footpath took us down to the bus station or ferry into Como city.

We got fit as we used the path to catch the ferry back and forth daily and explored the city. In the industrial area we found an old church with ancient wall paintings. The Madonna had just given birth. There were blood-splattered sheets everywhere and a few women comforting the mother. It is the only painting I’ve seen which accepted the animal act of birth of Christ.

Christmas day arrived clear, bright and cold. I’d carried a good suit all the way from New Zealand, lugged it the bag through Paris, Nice, Venice, Ferrara, Florence and Siena. Just for this one day. Anne had bought a silk tie in Como for my present. I wore it. I could tell the proprietor approved. Anne was also dressed in her best. My present to her, leather gloves had been admired but they were for outdoors and today was an indoor day. We rang New Zealand mid-morning. Mid-evening here.

Lunch was twelve courses. The dining room was full of Italian family groups. There were prim aunts and grim uncles, there were jovial aunts and mischievous uncles, children in their Sunday best, well-behaved, polite and courteous, though I noticed a sulkiness in several. There was one solitary couple, both sagged with age and care but obviously still content in each other’s company. We were the only non-Italians there.

Evidentially, as part of the job, the chief waiter's wife and two teen-age children had a table. He looked harassed. Every time he went near she laid down the law. From her gestures and tone I gathered she considered their seating and service was not to her satisfaction. I could see him pleading with her to speak more softly and to let him get on with his duties. The man who imperiously had ruled the dining room all our stay revealed to have feet of clay. I felt sympathy for him. That was the only unhappy table in the room. He deserved better.

The food was delectable. The noise was loud but bearable,but it was part of an atmsphere of happiness and celebration. The view was superb. And as Anne said, we had to do nothing but eat. I gave up on the ninth course. I was replete. Christmas ‘89 was over, ahead lay Basel, Amsterdam, Vancouver and home. Chrsitmas 1990 was a long way ahead. Christmas 2010 unforseeable at that stage.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Our first Christmas lily of the year has just burst into blossom. Good timing!

There is a definition of an ambassador – ‘a person sent abroad to lie for his country.’ Diplomacy is a cornerstone of international politics.

As long as there have been diplomats they have reported home to their masters. Many a Tudor melodrama has a shifty-eyed Spanish ambassador as its villian. I’m equally sure that Spanish equivalents have an equally dastardly Englishman.

This knowledge means I fail to get excited about Wikileaks. In most cases it seems to me confirm what I already know (or suspect). I would hope that our government has a good handle on what is happening in Fiji. I am not surprised that John Key was disappointed his officials couldn’t arrange a meeting with President Obama. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t.

And I must say much of what has been reported is obvious. Indeed, the American diplomatic service comes out as doing a surprisingly good job. From their angle. That is their job.

The character of the Italian prime minister had been reported in the local and international press long before Wikileaks revealed the diplomats were saying the same thing. The sudden rolling of Kevin Rudd by his colleagues took me by surprise. The Wikileak reveals a diplomatic assessment fairly early on as to why he was vulnerable. I am not shocked to learn that other Middle East Arab states fear a nuclear Iran. I would expect them to be.

And at the risk of bringing down ire on my head I think their judgements about our scene are not too far off the mark.

The big exposure of this week has been the claim that the Lange government was anti-nuclear for reasons of cost-cutting. Well, when Messers Bassett, Tizard and Goff can agree that is not so, the claim is seen for what it is – wishful musing on the part of a few senior public servants.

At the time it was common knowledge around Wellington that some of these boffins were unhappy about the change of policy. Of course the diplomates would carry such tittle-tattle back to Washington. If they were doing their job they would have also reported the overall feeling of the nation. There was a majority conviction. The French testing was still fresh in our minds.

As an education bureaucrat I was surprised at the intensity of the conviction expressed by some middle echelon Treasury officials. In those heady days Lange and Douglas could do no wrong in that quarter.

I understand American outrage. I appreciate their concern that names may be released and people’s lives put at risk.

But as long as there are diplomats people will try to intercept and decode their messages. Such is the nature of Government. And local people will use such information if available for their local causes and efforts. What else is in the Wikileaks that is not being researched or released. That is the question?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Fairy Tale

My blog serves many purposes. The simplest of which is to provide a purpose. What to write, how to write occupies time and space in my mind.

Today’s blog is not the one I intended to put up and composed mentally last evening. That’ll keep. This morning Susanna me caregiver came as usual. She pulls up my bed before she attends to me. This morning she gave each of my feather pillows a solid thumping. I made a casual comment about getting rid of a lot of frustrations.

She told me a Grimms fairy tale I’d never heard before. She grew up in Germany and her grandmother had a wealth of such tales. This was a variation of the Cinderella story – the persecuted heroine who wins through to a happy ending.

A girl had a stepmother and a stepsister. She did most of the work. And got little thanks for it. One day – Susanna’s account was much more complicated she dropped something down the well. Her wicked stepmother forced her to climb down into the well to retrieve the item.

But when she got to the bottom it opened on to a garden, which she entered. There was an apple tree laden with fruit. The tree was groaning and asking for the fruit to be picked to relieve its burden. The girl willingly harvested the crop and stored it as suggested. The tree was very grateful.

Several similar adventures happened (this is Susanna’a abbreviation) before the girl arrived before a large house. The lady there said I’m looking for a maid, and offered her the post. The girl accepted. The lady showed her how to fluff up feather pillows and duvets.

After a month’s work the lady said the girl had earned a reward. She led her to a gate out of the garden. When the girl entered there was a large pot of gold. Another gate and she was spirited back home to be with her stepmother.

Hearing of the adventure the stepsister climbed down the well. She ignored the apple tree and went straight to the lady’s house. Again the same offer. But this girl was lazy. She couldn’t be bothered thumping the pillows into shape. Nor sweeping or cleaning.

At the end of the month she was led to the gate. But instead of gold there was a pot of warm tar. Which miraculously was tipped all over her.

Morality tale! House-care advice! A story to keep attention on a cold winter’s night!

I’ve spent over an hour on the internet seeking more detail about it. So far failure. But the search illustrates another purpose of the blog. Information-gathering/checking/sharing.

I had not realised the Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears were all English and that Little Red Riding Hood was originally French. Up till now I had wrongly assumed all these had been uncovered by the Grimm Bros research. Of course, later research has discovered that many of the tales attributed to the men had actually been gathered by their womenfolk.

Anyway, thanks Susanna for the story. I enjoyed its telling.

Friday, December 17, 2010


The bellbird was there again this morning. Great! I wonder if he/it/she’ll sing. I haven’t heard a tui for a while; unlike the spring when they were carolling all the time. Humans are rarely satisfied.

The word ‘docking’ for me has two connotations. On the farm it is removing the tails of lambs and in the case of the males, castration. It’s a noisy, dusty, bloody business. The other use of ‘docking’ is spectacularly different - a space shuttle establishing contact with a space station. In older days it was a ship being docked at a wharf, huge ropes to tie it securely to the shore.

I use the term ‘docking’ to describe getting to the stool in my shower. I walk my walker into the new wet shower with its smooth vinyl floor. My caregiver hovers close behind in case I stumble. I turn almost 360 degrees and step backwards to the stool. A rail on the wall helps steady me. Gingerly I lower myself on to the stool.

The caregiver takes the walker away and showers me. Friday is shampoo day. We do my hair first. Then the rest of me. The shower over she retrieves the walker and positions it. I’m already upright. The last act of the showering is for her to wash my backside, so I’ve pulled myself up by the rail to stand and face the wall.

Again gingerly I reach for the walker’s handles. I push it out to the bedroom where she positions the stool and I repeat the reverse docking. She finishes drying me, applies ointments for my dermatitis – my back is especially bad this morning. Why? Humidity? Chinese meal last night? A long night’s sleep – my mask means I have to sleep on my back?

Finished, glasses cleaned, I take the walker out to the lounge where Susanna makes me a cup of tea. No milk, but sugar and a slice of lemon. The nicest cup of the tea of the day. Highly necessary, for I find myself pretty exhausted at the end of a shower. It takes energy, nervous as well as physical. There is that element of risk in the docking. Though my experience is that I have not fallen while being careful. Touch wood.

The biggest element of risk of falling is when I first get up in the morning. After a night with the CPAP machine thumping away plus the oxygen converter putting a flow of that gas into my system I wake up rather mesmerised and I’ve a hunch a build-up of carbon dioxide in my body. I swing my legs out of bed and sit up. I take the mask off and sit there deep-breathing. It’s important to clear the head before I start moving around. It is my biggest moment of risk of falling in the whole day. Eventually I retrieve the walker and begin the day’s activities.

The falls I’ve had have been the result of simple multi-tasking. Like stepping up from the garage two years ago and turning to put off the light switch. Mistake! Balance was lost. The last fall I had was such a simple thing. I was turning and started to sneeze I reached for my handkerchief and next thing I knew I was tumbling.

Those two falls, there were four others, happened when I was using the walking stick only. Now I have the walker. The knowledge lurks that sooner or later there will be further falls. But four wheels are more secure than one sole stick. All I can do is to express gratitude each evening for another day without mishap and each morning to express cheer at the prospect of another day.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

America Arose from Revolt

By training I’m a historian. But that was long ago. So I’ve got an interest in events and trends, economic as well as political. So here’s an amateur’s tour.

Britain became the dominant power because of iron and steel. It was first out of the starting blocks in the Industrial Revolution. The same economic powerhouse saw the North overwhelm (at great cost to both sides) the South in the American Civil War. Despite gallantry and bravery the South was beaten by rail and industry. It was a harbinger of things to develop.

Germany, and to an extent Japan, challenged that Anglo-Saxon economic supremacy. And failed. (Again at great cost to both sides) (And the economic analysis ignores the ideological aspects that led to the holocaust).

But China is now doing it by a different method. It is using the very industrial muscle that gave that supremacy its strength. Container ships sail to the American West Coast full. They return to China empty. Manufacturing languishes in the USA. Unemployment increases there. The Chinese standard of living improves (relatively). Unrest in the USA festers. Bread and circuses – shades of ancient Rome.

Like all Cook’s tours – suspect. But I consider it contains many atoms of truth.

It seems to me that America is New Zealand writ large – indeed the whole Western world. There are two economies – one is, and this is very crude, financial and big business. Profits on investments increase and top salaries are soaring. Banks are booming. With the best of intentions they were shored up during the recession.

But the rest of the economy and society wasn’t. For the ordinary worker wages are static, unemployment rises, people are scared of losing jobs and homes, small businesses are collapsing.

The big corporations have shifted their operations offshore. Overseas workers with less pay and harsher workplace conditions will produce the goods and services that once were delivered in the homeland. If I could get hold of the Filipino - I think he was - that I recently dealt on the phone with I hope there would be someone near to restrain me. And it wasn’t his fault. He could only work from the information he’d been trained to deliver.

Services! The IT revolution that was supposed to free us has replaced us with digital services. The obvious catch for our workers is lost income. The hidden catch for our economy is that the purchasing power of the people decreases. Market towns know this pattern – a drought season and the farmers stop buying all but necessities. West Coasters fear it – with good reason – after the Pike River disaster.

Both in America and here tax cuts increase the income and spending power of the rich. The majority, if not standing still, are going backwards because necessary expenditure increases. This has societal consequences. In both countries expenditure on pre-school and tertiary is being cut while the school sector is being squeezed.

It’s a topsy-turvy society we’re creating. The historian in me also recognises people power. The French, Chinese, Cuban people all rose up in anger about a two-tiered society. Looking at riots in Athens, London, Rome, Madrid and I’ll predict to come in the USA, I wonder if this unrest is not a harbinger of change waiting in the wings. America arose from revolt.

A Bellbird

Ever since we lived here I’ve hoped that one day a bellbird would visit us from the nearby wildlife sanctuary – which for some unfathomable reason has been renamed from Karori (which proclaims its location – Wellingotn would have been acceptable) to Zealandia. To me that is the title of an extinct Catholic newspaper, not a refuge for birds.

In my healthy days I bird fed in the sanctuary – sugar water for the bellbirds. It was a delight to see these songsters in their natural habitat. But I’ve never seen them outside in Wellington until yesterday.

I’ve written several times about a tui that comes daily to the abutilon tree (Chinese bells is its common name). But yesterday I looked up and thought that’s a bellbird there. It flew off before I could be certain.

Anne and Amy were making macaroons – memories of their tour in SW France in 2006. Their cakes in the oven, they were having a cup of tea when the bird returned. It was a bellbird, banded.

That’s a good way to end 2010 – a bellbird in the garden.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


There is a time and place for rituals. They lift life above the mundane and the frenetic. Christmas is such a time. Over the years Anne and I’ve built up our own rituals, not original, but personal. For example, when she makes the Christmas pudding I always get to give it a stir.

In our previous home we put up a Christmas tree in the front room unless we were going away. Purchasing the pine was part of the fun. I wanted to keep the leaves as green as long as I could so that meant putting the stump in a large bucket of water with stones and old bricks to stabilise it. And topping up the water. I didn’t want Christmas day to dawn on shedding leaves. To further hold it I tied it up to the mantlepiece. After I’d got it steady – albeit with lots of advice, Anne and Jonathan (her son, if at home) decorated it.

For starters there were lights she’d bought years ago in London. Over the years Jonathan bought white imitation doves, gilded musical instruments and painted other embellishments. Decking the tree became more and more ceremonial. Entering in to the spirit Anne started to put up a wreath on the front door. Holiday or celebration – it was a break from the routine.

Further, and to cap it all off, Jonathan made a crib for us, painted little figurines, Mary, Joseph, three wise men and animals to surround the baby Jesus. Organising that crib became another ritual. Visitors would help Anne arrange the figures.

Since we’ve been in our new place, this is our third Christmas here, Jonathan’s been overseas. He’s teaching English as a second language in China; but coming home for a month in mid-January, an occasion to which Anne is looking greatly forward. That is one reason why we’ve reluctantly given the tree ceremony away. Other reasons include, no place to tie it up, my health, different spaces, logistics, plus a growing realisation of the need to be adaptable. .

Instead Anne has developed new rituals to retain the feel of 'Christmasy'. She places a green garland over the Robin White prints. Through it she’s threaded the doves, musical instruments, bells and other ornamanents that used to grace the tree.

Below it on a sideboard she and Jenn from next door put up this year’s crib last Sunday. The lovely painted box Jonathan made years ago collapsed from extended use in 2008. So for backdrop last and this year Anne recycled the chocolate box that Ulrike and Matthais sent us from Berlin in 2007 to celebrate our new home. Four coloured houses had shutters with a month’s supply of chocolate. It looks like a street scene from Ghent or Lubeck or any other undamaged northern Europe town. A Bethlehem manger in front of a European market town in a Kiwi house. The diversity of Christmas! Reminds me of a black Jesus we saw in a crib in Amsterdam in 1990.

Here’s a photo of last year’s crib. Over the years it’s got additions. Each carries meaning, a gift, a token, a reminder of a location or event. For example, the baby’s cradle sits on a piece of polished greenstone I was given for speaking to the West Coast principals in1997

Jenn had made us a wreath of flax-fibre. Anne has hung that on our front door.

On the bookshelves are our Christmas cards. And dominating the whole area is the large post-card of the altarpiece we saw in Ghent. It is the Mystic Adoration of the Lamb painted by the brothers van Eyck, one the most striking piece of painting I’ve ever seen. Indeed, today's New Yorker describes it as a touchstone piece of art.  24 panels with imposing figures of Adam and Eve on either side! The touch of mysticism seems appropriate on our shelves.

I sat and ate a few cherries as I surveyed the scene this morning. They ripen now and so are another December ritual. And a reminder that in this hemisphere the season is in summer.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Increasingly by Harvey McQueen


Despite memory -
‘tiny, native narcissi
midst distant massif
verge & meadows’ -
my cruel malady
spurs me to confess
increasingly, I
long for oblivion

Harvey McQueen

Maybe I’ve compressed too much but this is my final personal poem for the Tuesday blog site for 2010. I  finished it this morning.

The poem originated with these lines.
‘Flame & moth
attract, hover, merge.’
Along the way I rejected them as old hat as I did a further two words ‘larks overhead’ after ‘meadows’. 'Midst' and 'verge' kept hovering about. There was an archaic feel about them which I felt summed up memory. Was the French massif really like that. I recall fields glittering with little flowers and inhabited by large cows. The skylarks I also recall but were they in the Loire valley with cuckoos calling from the woodlands - the lure of Europe to a colonial lad.

 I try very hard to be positive and cheerful despite my malady, illness, ailment, call it what you will – it’s relentless. But every now and then I crumble. I did so late last week. The result was this poem.

It’s true. Also untrue! I look at it, say it, & then feel its trite, feel its truth, a bite of sensation that existed. A moment, a mood, a measure, a melancholy, moonshine & melody! It’s out there for your reaction and scrutiny. I’ve had a good day today. The poem captures a bad day a few days ago. Such is the nature of poetry.

Franz Josef Chapel

On this day in 1642 Abel Tasman sighted the West Coast of New Zealand. On this day in 1959 I was making my first visit to this unique area of New Zealand, Tasman’s words ‘land uplifted high’.

It was at the end of my year at Christchurch’s Secondary Teachers’ College. For a few days the Social Studies group stayed at the Franz Josef camping ground. We spent a Sunday morning climbing up the glacier. The ice was much further down the valley then.

That evening some of the group decided they would like to have a service in the little Anglican church whose altar window then framed the glacier. They got permission and the key and persuaded me to lead it. Reluctantly I agreed. The previous year I'd pulled out of training for the Presbyterian Ministry. I have never preached in a more splendid situation.

Just as I began the sermon a fantail flitted in distracting both preacher and congregation. Don’t 'ad lib' they'd warned me when I'd been training at Knox College. On this occasion I did, successfully. Bede had preached a sermon years ago about a sparrow’s brief flight through the hall of existence. Who could fail speaking about a fantail - one of the delights of creation. I vividly recall the event – but not the words I said.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


It is the season for lists, the best books, movies, shows, events etc of 2010. It is a time for show-offs and pay-backs, for compliments and brickbats. Today I’ll have a list of minor grumps. 

I’ve been sitting watching the petals fall off the Leander rose. Several flowers have collapsed in quarter of an hour. Leander’s a climbing rose that was here when we arrived. For a brief spell it’s ablaze with its salmon-coloured bloom. Suddenly, its season’s over and the lawn is littered with the discards – a briefer season than most roses. (A deheading of the hips will see an autumn blooming)

Beside it, the Compassion rose blooms longer and steadier. I’d like to think human compassion has a similar longer life. But two news items give me pause. One’s here at home. The RSA is going to get its poppies made in China and assembled in Australia. The contract which up till now has been with a Christchurch firm has gone off-shore.

That local firm employed handicapped people and war veteran widows. The work gave meaning and hope to its workers. They had a place and a work in which they could take pride. Now in the name of a higher profit the process will be shifted off-shore. We and they will be the poorer.

I have not bought a poppy for the last two Anzac Days for the simple reason I’ve stopped going downtown and out. But if I was capable I would boycott next year’s sale. Those poor Christchurch people. Such news is not in the Christmas spirit.

In the USA I see where the Republican Senators as part of the revised tax package have withdrawn support for compensation for people who helped in the clean-up of the 9/11 attacks. The so-called war on terror continues but the front-line troops who responded to the call of duty have been abandoned. If anybody needs assistance it should be these people.

Kennedy said ask not what you need, ask what America needs. It needs as our RSA does, a sense of compassion for those not as fortunate as ourselves. The unhesitating way the New York fire brigade responded was a good example of the human spirit at its finest.

A news item about poverty in New Zealand yesterday carried the information that many on welfare did not know about benefits to which they were entitled. Have people advising them not done so? Is it to save the tax-payer – the reasons the Republicans are advancing? If people are entitled to a benefit they are entitled to know about it.

There are times I feel sympathy for the politicians. They’ve passed the legislation granting those benefits. They should have the safe assumption that their wishes will be carried out. Apparently, not so.

One of my medications I have to apply for yearly. When I rang up about its renewal I was told the request had been declined. Why? I asked. Apparently the form had not been filled in properly.

The person processing that application did not send the form back to be properly completed. No! It was left to lie upon the table and lapse.

They did not think of the sick person out there in our community who needed that particular prescription for their survival.

And then I think of all the marvellous service I’ve had from the health system this year. It far outweighs my irritation at some paper-pushing erk. And I feel better at having had a public grump.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ninth Floor

Browsing through the recent copy of 'New Zealand Books' in Brian Easton’s review of ‘Crisis’ Alan Bollard’s account of the reserve Bank’s reaction to the global financial collapse I came across the following paragraph.

‘Another group of specialists who will use the book is the policy studies community, many of whom have little practical experience of how it really is. When teaching the subject, I used to encourage my students to read Harvey McQueen’s ‘The Ninth Floor’, which describes his life as an education adviser to David Lange.’

Unsolicited and unexpected praise. It seems ages since I wrote that book. For 18 months I was a bit player in the Beehive. Looking back it seems unbelievable. An office a few doors away from the Prime Minister. This little flesh and blood boy from Okuti.

I was flattered when Dr Lockwood Smith as Minister of Education later put out a feeler about my working for him. It would have been interesting working for a different administration. But I declined. I’d worked in the Beehive. Been there, done that. My two months working out my education contract in Phil Goff’s office had showed me the hard grind of a ministerial office without the glamour of the Prime Minister’s department.

Here’s a quote from ‘The Ninth Floor’ about my feelings when I left.

‘Two personal symptoms surfaced – a lack of adrenalin surge and information withdrawal. As for the first, although I had complained about the excitement, it was invigorating; one never knew from one moment to the next what might happen. One phone call and the adrenalin would be pumping. The place is addictive; it compares with travel. Afterwards one forgets the hassles in airports, the Italian siesta, French waiters and the grubbiness of London streets. So too the power game exercises its own siren song - one forgets the burn-out, the cruel dashing of hopes, the lack of time for real relationships, the insularity, the emotional brutality. I missed this high voltage. Talking to others who have left before and after my departure, I get, the same reaction, increasing the bad times fade and I find myself recalling the humour and the periods of elation. Second, not only had I read the major dailies, but often I had known what would be in them, and further there was all the insider information, the rumours, the Beehive buzz.'

Friday, December 10, 2010

Mansfield Again

Kathleen Jones began her life of Katherine Mansfield with a description of Wellington’s weather. Obvious and sensible! As I re-read the short stories – not read since the early 1980s I’m struck by the sentences about the weather. This is especially true of the stories set in New Zealand but not necessarily always.

‘It was the early afternoon of a sunshiny day with little winds playing hide-and-seek in it.’

‘All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground – it rooted among the tussock grass – slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces – settled and sifted over us and was like a dry-skin itching for growth on our bodies.’

‘It was a delicious day, warm and sunny with a little wind that seemed to leap at Kitti like a friendly dog, ruffling and tumbling her.’

‘Over all bulged the grey sky with black web-like clouds streaming.’

‘The sun hung in the faded blue sky like a burning mirror.’

I’m grateful for Jones. Reading her life spurred me to pick up Mansfield’s prose again. I’m loving her stories. Also her poetry. Indeed, late November, early December 2010 can be seen as a Mansfield phase in my reading life. I’ve read Ida Baker’s memoir as well. Normally, I have several books on the go at once. For once I’ve not had beside my chair a separate poetry collection for dipping into for sanity’s sake. At present Mansfield’s adjectival pieces suffice.

As a young man I’d read a few of her stories in a haphazard way. ‘At the Bay’ and ‘Prelude’ stuck in my memory. So I fell with glee upon the collection of her New Zealand stories which Ian Gordon brought out in 1974. It lived up to anticipation.

The big Alpers volume ‘Stories of Katherine Mansfield’ which I’m reading steadily through again I gave to Anne for Christmas in 1984. I read it then. But I recall I got bogged down a bit in the early London, German and Belgian stories.

Since then I’ve been to Germany and Belgium. I will not say I’m wiser but I am more mature. I appreciate pension and spa life in a way I didn’t then. And I have time – time to savour the skill, style and passion of the narrative. I understand the feminist perspective better. Those early stories reflect a woman's lot at the beginning of the 20th century in both Europe and the colony. 

Since then I've also read the Letters and Notebooks. Now, I live more in solitude than I did in 1984. I read a story and sit and reflect upon it before beginning the next one. When Anne's around we'll discuss it and its companion pieces.

I’ve long argued (not really, but facetiously) that Jane Austen is too good to be wasted on the young. In a very different way the same could be said about Mansfield. So once again, thank you Kathleen Jones for your re-introduction. In my dotage I’m loving reading her.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Regret

I was asked if you have one regret about something you could have altered what would it be.

'Have seen Judi Dench play Cleopatra', I replied.

Beyond the Scene

In this month's 'New Zealand Books' I have this review which I wrote last winter.
'Beyond the Scene: Landscape and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand', edited by Janet Stephenson. Mick Abbott and Jacinta Ruru, Otago University Press, $45, ISBN 978-1-877372-81-0
Harvey McQueen

I’m clear about the origins of my identity. Banks Peninsula is my heartland. My forebears are buried there and it’s where I grew up. For my forthcoming poetry anthology, ‘These I Have Loved’, I hardly hesitated in choosing the cover image - Akaroa Harbour. With its old volcanic plug of Onawe Peninsula in its centre, the place assumed mythic dimensions in my boyhood being. But I can imagine the soul-searching that the three editors of ‘Beyond the Scene’ went through when they considered their cover. They’ve settled for the soar of Taranaki, or Mt Egmont as it was called when I went to school (the names are part of their point). It’s partially cloud obscured, and the design presents it as diminishing in size.

There have been many landscapes in my life, and in themselves they’ve always represented something beyond the eye’s reconnaissance, including what I brought to the view. And it is more than ‘I’, it is ‘we’. So the title of this book made sense before I even opened it, and the sub-title further grounded it – landscape and identity in Aotearoa New Zealand. The distinctive perspectives included here made me more aware of a collective, intergenerational, and, even in conflict, cross-cultural dimension. This collection is based on the notion that the personal is shared, the apparently unique is universal, the specific is part of a whole. Jane Bowring says landscapes “are soaked in memories, personal and collective, and they are a constant point of reference to who we are, our perspectives on place, and how we portray ourselves”.

The first section, “Belonging”, looks at three landscapes. First, Dr Ailsa Smith of Taranaki tuturu, Ngati Haupoto descent, explores how the songs of lament of her great grandfather Te Kahui are a storehouse for the tangata whenua. “No other group of people in New Zealand’s social history will have such an opportunity for developing a oneness with the soil as Maori did in their transition from their East Polynesian origins.” Nevertheless, there is diversity in that oneness, for they reflect the local landscape, seascape and skyscape.

The Te Arawa account of the origins of the Maori universe has Tane the forest god separating the primal parents. Te Kahui’s waiata has the act performed by Tangaroa the sea-god. Taranaki proximity to the sea gave local Maori a different perspective, just as “the looming bulk” of the mountain did. “Landscape is as much emotional as physical” and the landscape features “dump their history upon you at the mention of their names”.

Smith concludes by asking whether “other populations living here” can have the “same human connectedness to the natural environment”. South Waikato farmer Gordon Stephenson says yes, they can:  ‘Our landscape, here at Waotu, is one where, for us, every feature carries a meaning, a connection – its own history. Having lived here for forty-five years, I suppose we are now part of the landscape, albeit rather more ephemeral than the hills and valleys. It is somewhere we love. And it has influenced us and changed us as we have changed it, just as is true of any long-lasting and loving human relationship.’

There are people who plunder and pillage the land. There are others who value and cherish it. Farmers come in both camps, and fortunately there are many like Stephenson living here. His contribution illustrates a fulfilling relationship with his environment. It’s a piece deserving a wide readership for its positive common sense. Horrified when, in 1971, a town business group bought an adjacent forested block and milled it, he bought the “devastated forty acres and added it to our farm”. This began the seeds of what became the Queen Elizabeth II Trust. “I can look with pleasure across the paddock to the first registered QEII covenant, secure in the knowledge the bush is safe forever (unless Taupo plays up again).” And like Smith, he stresses that sky is part of the “landscape”.

David Eggleton chooses big country for his location – Canterbury in sixteen poems. ‘Where thousands of moa once stalked, cows now move to stand,/ big bladders on legs, bagpipes of udders in sway.’ First, the physical location: “frost-heave lifts flakes of rock” which “tumble” as stone, ‘till, caught by river rapids, they bank up as shingle,/ and, an eternity later, river-bed dust blown sky-high.’

Upon the pre-colonial landscape, the settlers measured and counted their way. It was “a frontier/ a found blank wasteland they would remake”. The Greek gods wrestled with indigenous heroes for naming rights. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost. Eggleton’ s series of poems captures the essence of that conflict – rarely is it entirely conquest – and development. And so through colonial struggles and dreams to the present era when “the corporations, the speculators, the anonymous investors … join the primary producers” in “the conversion of farms to dairying land”.

The second section is called “Encounters”. Here Bowring describes Buller’s romantic plans to turn Lake Papaitonga into a picturesque spot, completely ignoring prior Maori use and dependence. Elsewhere she describes the “role of artifice in the suppression of memory” in the brochure settlement of Pegasus (where the plans make no provision for a cemetery) and redevelopment of the Sunnyside site in south-west Christchurch.

Wardlow Friesen and Robin Kearns explore the “politics of difference” in two contrasting South Auckland suburbs, Otara and Dannemora. Their photograph selection assists their analysis of how two migration waves (’50s to ’70s Pasifika and ’90s to ’00s Asian) “have led to different sets of residential, retail and religious landscapes.” Davinia Thornley contemplates films “that record the multiple histories that Central Otago has supported”. She differs from Stephenson when she says there is “a lack of belonging in Pakeha culture”. I’m not sure I buy this argument. It fits some films, but in my view it reflects, in her case and the examples she has chosen, a townie’s attitude, rather than a country dweller’s. It could be that certain types of film are good at portraying unease.

As the camera captures and explains landscape, so does art. Linda Tyler looks at the diversity of the Auckland landscape, as portrayed by artists “imagining the built environment”. The natural landscape has become “a cultural construct”, as illustrated by Robert Ellis’s painting “Motorway/city”. It would, however, be unfair to Tyler and Auckland to describe the city as mere “urban spaghetti”; Auckland is many things to many people, as her selection of artistic representations shows.

In the final section, “Prospect”, anthropologist Lyn Carter tracks the evolving cultural meanings of Ngai Tahu rock drawings. The other three pieces in this section are written by the editors. Jacinta Ruru says that historically, law has been “embedded in monocultural Pakeha colonial constructs”, but recently new directions have.emerged. She describes this change as it affects Pikiraka tahi, Mt Earnshaw in the Mount Aspiring national park. Mick Abbott looks at the heritage walks of the Otago Peninsula. Lichened walls tell a story; where people once settled and lived is now mainly a place to be visited and imagined. Janet Stephenson’s essay on Akaroa has a quote from an inhabitant, “this place gets into your blood”. Her distinction between the ‘surface landscape” and the “embedded landscape” is helpful in that, by asserting “the multiple values on a single site”, it explains how it is “impossible to divide people’s notions of landscape from their interactions with it”.

As they say in their conclusion, the editors consciously set out to avoid the “scenic”: “knowing landscape only as scenery … promotes a limited relationship” and erodes “landscape’s stores of memories, meanings and melancholies”. Their argument is that “over time, landscape shapes culture and culture shapes landscape”, and the contributors “provide many perspectives on how this leads to a gradual shift from non-belonging to belonging”. The argument has an element of faith; “coming to belong involves people rubbing shoulders with place, each adjusting over time, like rocks in a river jostling and smoothing each other to a mutually comfortable shape”.

New Zealanders keep seeking a defining moment of national identity embedded in location – Norm Kirk with a Maori boy at Waitangi, Whina Cooper with a small child on the land-march. But such an identity is more than an event or a place, it’s the sum of all its parts, an ever-changing assemblage. By looking closely at a few selected areas with their particular reverberations, this collection assists that ongoing discussion.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ginger Beer

Summer after summer I used to make ginger beer. I didn’t keep a ‘root’. The recipe involved activating dry yeast and adding it to water along with ginger powder, sugar, a touch of citric acid and cream of tartar, and a few drops of lemon essence.

After the bucket with the mix had stood for a couple of hours I’d stir and pour it into empty plastic tonic and soda bottles. In a week’s time it was ready to drink. The only problem was that it became extremely likely that if the cap was unscrewed too quickly, the resulting fountain lost half the bottle. So to the amusement of visitors, I’d take the unopened bottle outside, stand it in a basin and slowly unscrew it.

The air hissed as it escaped. At the first hiss the cats fled. Primeval memories of snakes – they disappeared from sight, to come back cautiously later. I’d give the cap another slight turn and there’d be another rush of bubbles up the neck.

I’d go away to pull a few weeds or deadhead some flowers, and come back in a couple of minutes to give it a further turn. The whole process could take ages. The result was a satisfying cooling summer drink – ideal with a good book in summer shade.

One summer there was a spell of cold wet weather. We didn’t drink so much ginger beer. One night there was a loud explosion. A bottle had exploded on the laundry floor. The last remaining one followed almost immediately. We tidied up perfunctorily. In the morning there was a trail of ants to the site. They were enjoying the sticky concoction.

Alas, my ginger beer making days are over.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Katherine Mansfield - Study: The Death of a Rose


It is a sensation that can never be forgotten, to sit in solitude, in semi-darkness, and to watch the slow, sweet, shadowful death of a Rose.

Oh, to see the perfection of the perfumed petals being changed ever so slightly, as though a thin flame had kissed each with hot breath, and where the wounds bled the colour is savagely intense . . . I have before me such a Rose, in a thin, clear glass, and behind it a little spray of scarlet leaves. Yesterday it was beautiful with a certain serene, tearful, virginal beautv, it was strong and wholesome, and the scent was fresh and invigorating.

To-day it is heavy and languid with the loves of a thousand strange Things, who, lured by the gold of my candlelight, came in the Purple Hours, and kissed it hotly on the mouth, and sucked it into their beautiful lips with tearing, passionate desire.

. . . So now it dies . . . And I listen . . . for under each petal fold there lies the ghost of a dead melody, as frail and as full a as a ray of light upon a shadowed pool. Oh divine sweet Rose. Oh, exotic and elusive and deliciously vague Death.

From the tedious sobbing and gasping, and hoarse guttural screaming, and uncouth repulsive movements of the body of dying Man, I draw apart, and, smiling, I lean over you, and watch your dainty, delicate Death.


During Katherine Mansfield’s return visit to New Zealand in the early 20th century she wrote a number of experimental prose poems influenced by the Decadent movement in London. Vincent O’Sullivan in his 1988 foreword to her poems notes the ‘emphasis upon atmosphere and mood rather than sustained sincerity or event.’ He describes them as ‘excursions into that dimly defined territory between the expectations of prose and the freer emotional contours of verse.’ He talks of Mansfield’s ‘adjectivial assault’.

This poem was published in Triad, a Dunedin based magazine, in July 1908. It was a magazine renowned for its avant-garde views.

When I compiled my anthology of New Zealand 19th century verse – my cut-off point was the outbreak of the First World War – I put in two of Mansfield’s vignettes as she called them. I toyed with several others, including this one, but eventually left it out.

I found its strange, Gothic, almost sadistic sense of decay repellant, yet at the same time weirdly appealing. Part of Mansfield’s power, even at this early stage was this double-edged capacity. Futher, it revealed an unusual perception into the nature of the human psyche.

Akaroa Mail

I asked poet/novelist Fiona Farrell who lives on Banks Peninsula to present a copy of my latest book to the Akaroa Library. As part of the occasion Fiona interviewed by phone for a piece for the 'Akaroa Mail' the local newspaper. Here’s her piece from the interview. It was published last week.

‘Harvey McQueen has the Peninsula in his bones. Ancestors include a sailor who wisely jumped ship and settled to farming the Peninsula hills. His grandfather managed Kinloch Estate. His father died after a fall from a horse in Pigeon Bay and lies buried in the cemetery in Little River in the company of numerous relations. His four grandparents are also buried there.

Harvey was raised on a farm at the top of Okuti valley where he was a pupil at the local primary school before transferring for three years of secondary education at Akaroa High School. His memories are of climbing to the top of the farm to gaze down on the long harbour of Akaroa below, swimming, playing tennis and going with his mates to the crayfish factory by Daly’s Wharf where they could have as many crayfish bodies as they wanted as an afterschool snack.

So when it came time to choose an image for the cover of his most recent and final anthology, it was no surprise that he chose a photograph of Onawe stretching its arm out into blue water.

This anthology, 'These I Have Loved', is Harvey says, his ‘swansong’, a book in which he says goodbye to the poems, people and places he has loved over a long and productive career.

It’s an idea he has carried with him for decades, ever since his English teacher at Akaroa High School handed him a copy of General Wavell’s 'Other Men’s Flowers'. The famous military commander in old age published a collection of the poems that had meant most to him. The teacher, Miss Greenwood, loved poetry and shared her enthusiasm with her students. Harvey was already intrigued by verse: his grandmother had recited nursery rhymes to him, and at Okuti school, Mrs Bulman had her classes memorize poems.

‘It was all highwaymen and daffodils,’ says Harvey, until the momentous day when Miss Greenwood added to the mix by writing some New Zealand poems on the blackboard. For the young boy from Okuti it was a revelation: poems didn’t have to be about England, and their writers didn’t have to be dead. In fact, one of the poems on the board, 'The Old Place', about a farmer leaving the farm he has built up over fifteen years, was actually by the woman he frequently saw riding her creaking bike round Akaroa: Blanche Baughan.

Poetry has remained central to Harvey’s existence ever since.

He became a teacher, working in high schools in the Waikato, where one day he himself introduced a class of difficult lads to Ruth Dallas’s poem, 'Milking Before Dawn'.

'In the drifting rain the cows in the yard are as black
And wet and shiny as rocks in an ebbing tide…."

The boys were, many of them, from dairy farms. They knew the monotonous ‘heat and hiss’ of early morning milking.
‘It wowed them,’ said Harvey. Such breakthrough moments are rare in a teacher’s career and deeply treasured. It persuaded him that all New Zealand kids deserved to read New Zealand poems.

As a teacher and later as a school inspector, he became a passionate advocate for New Zealand poetry. In 1985, in collaboration with Iain Wedde he compiled 'The Penguin Anthology of New Zealand Verse', an immediate best-seller. He has published other anthologies, including a very popular collection of New Zealand poems about gardening, 'The Earth’s Deep Breathing', as well as seven collections of his own verse.

And now he has written this anthology, a rich collection of familiar and unfamiliar poems, linked by passages of autobiography. They are not necessarily famous poems, or great poems. They are simply the ones he has loved best, a collection of poems by someone who reads very widely and has an excellent ear for good verse. It’s the last collection of an expert. He knows it is his last, because he suffers from a degenerative muscular disorder which will make the time consuming business of creating major anthologies impossible. Instead he lives quietly in Wellington with his wife, historian, Anne Else.

But in this collection he makes a final farewell, saying goodbye to Okuti Valley, Little River, Akaroa amongst other places: places he loves most on his homeland, the Peninsula. He can no longer travel here himself. Even attending his mother’s funeral last year was beyond him.

So the book has come south in his stead.

‘Could you take a copy,’ he said, ‘to the Akaroa Library? I’d like to present one to the collection.’

If you go into the library, you’ll find it there. On a shelf, not far from the place where Miss Greenwood wrote a poem of Blanche Baughan’s on the blackboard, and helped spark a lifetime of reading and taking deep pleasure in poetry.’

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The President Has A Choice

When America snarls, sneezes, snores or sometimes smiles, the rest of the world takes notice. It’s bit of effrontery before such power and might on my part to offer an opinion. But what happens there affects us here. Elsewhere as well. Two years ago there was a hard-fought race for the Presidency. We have no say in the decision as to the most powerful figure in the world. Not only I cannot vote. Even if I were an American citizen I could not stand for the position for I was born otside the Republic.

There are some good things about that vote. The position is not finite – two terms only at the maximum – that’s the present law. The people do have a say every four years. A failure may leave, or be defeated.

It concerns me – a civics-junky – that so many Americans don’t bother to vote. The choice is made by those who do. And we, as they, have to live with the consequences.

From afar it seemed to me that McCain was a decent guy – good record in the Senate, war-hero. But his choice of Palin as his running mate alarmed me. She was untried, unknown and as the campaign went on obviously uneducatable. Not many votes differently in a few key states and she could have been a heart-beat away from the White House. We forget that Obama did not romp in.

In the build-up to the 2008 campaign I watched with intense interest the struggle between Obama and Hillary Clinton. In my head I felt she was the better candidate – knowledge of the issues, experience, Washington-based now-how.

But I’d read his book, loved his message of hope, believed his career path would give him a different perspective on America. His rhetoric was inspiring. He bettered Clinton. That was no mean feat. My American friends all wrote jubilantly about him. I had high hopes – a fresh breeze through Washington. Maybe the fervency was for real, not just hype.

Obviously others sensed the same feeling. The Nobel Peace Prize reflects that attitude. It was not just this little Kiwi. The dispossessed, the underdog, the battler, the folk with mortgages, all over America. Martin Luther King’s “I had a Dream’ was receiving valediction.

The recession did not begin under his watch. He dealt with it as well as he could. But as he called for bi-partisanship, governance opportunities began to slip past. The battle to past health-care absorbed energies and time. He’s inherited two wars. Growing unemployment weakened confidence and eroded hope.

The Republican opposition sensed weakness. Seeing the possibility of a one-term President they unleashed the hounds of continual opposition and a vitriolic media campaign to destabilise his policies and programmes. Their lack of co-operation smacks to me of anti-patriotism. The pragmatics of power over-rode the needs of the country.

In this they were assisted by the Tea-Party, anti-government and anti-Washington to the core. Palin is one of their symbols. She is not be under-estimated – she is a clever campaigner. She knows her audience and how to work the members of it..

Over the last two years I’ve wondered about the wisdom of Obama making concessions and negotiating over issues with his opponents. I’ve no problem with compromise. It’s the nature of politics. But if your opponents won’t budge and it’s you who continually give way then it’s certainly not a win/win situation.

Now, he’s made a significant yielding even before the next Congress assembles. There’ll be a wage freeze on government worker salaries. Scenting blood where will the opposition head next.

I get a picture of a courteous, thoughtful man trying to cope with brutality and dangerous glamour in an atmosphere of adversarial politics that is alien to him.

My instincts suggest that he is choosing the wrong course.

Pop, my grandfather had two heroes, Mickey Savage and Franklin Roosevelt. Their governments used government spending to help counter the rececession. Cutting it compounds the problems. That’s my eye-tooth learning.

Later, I wrestled with the theories that the Second World War saved both governments. But I recall that Harry Truman took on a Republicn congress when it tried to block his continuation of the New Deal. Everyone said he would lose the 1948 presidential election. Papers even had the banner headlines printed ‘Dewey Wins’. The people supported the President. In the voting booth! In Truman’s words ‘the buck stops here’.

The Republicans made sure next time round. Eisenhower, war-time hero, gentleman above the fray. Never a great President but a steady one. I don’t where but I’ve read somewhere how after the Bay of Pigs debacle (newly elected President Kennedy supported an anti-Castro attack on Cuba) he asked Eisenhower to the White House. Eisenhower made him go step by step through what had happened. When Kennedy had finished, Ike toweled him up, and finished to the effect ‘it’s not the mistakes, it’s the lessons learnt.’

Every yielding that Obama makes will create more consternation amongst his supporters. Unless he draws a line in the sand and sticks to it, he’ll increase his own disadvantage. That would be a pity. He had potential It has yet to be realised. There’s more at stake than who will be the next President of the USA. We are all dependent to an extent upon who that person is. When he was in Afghanistan yesterday there would have been an aide nearby with a briefcase. Every president since Truman has had that case handy.

This is a blog I regret feeling that I had to put it up; I hope my instincts are wrong.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Truth About Santa Claus

Six year olds are not allowed to read this blog.

It’s a true story. Recollected with nostalgia, age and insight. And therefore accurate.

I was six. I sat on Santa’s knee and told him what I wanted for Christmas. ‘What did you ask for?’ my mother asked as we left the large department store. ‘It’s a secret” I replied. It actually was a hammer.

Mum wheedled and cajoled me over the next few days. Looking back it must have been a rough time for her. Her fatherless son being foolishly and stupidly stubborn. Other adults chimed in. Santa knows I kept replying. They had built up the legend so successfully I’d swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Christmas Eve!. Anticipation! Tomorrow, I would get my hammer. We’d put out the usual glass of sherry for Santa Claus. Mum must have drunk it rather glumly anticipating my disappointment in the morning. I went to sleep with my head full of the things I would make with my hammer. The pillow-cases – we never used socks, always pillow-cases – were empty in front of the sitting-room fireplace chimney.

The great day arrived. I raced through to my pillow-case with glee. Several goodies but no hammer. The hurt still singes in my soul. Especially later in the day when Pop my grandfather asked Mum for a hammer to crack the nuts that Father Christmas had brought him. It was his annual treat. Brazil nuts – the last year we had them for a while, there was a war on. I had proudly imagined using my own hammer to help him.

My adults tried to console me. Santa’s very busy. He’s given my hammer to a poor sick boy who needed it more. Uncle Tom had several. He drove home to pick one up and lend it to me for a year. ‘I’m sure he’ll remember next year. And here’s a little saw to cut the wood for you to use with this temporary hammer.’

Despite all the kindness and concern the seeds of disbelief were sown. A year later I was older, wiser, more cynical and calculating. Probably classmates had dropped hints and clues, though on the whole the community sustained the myth miraculously well.

We went through to Christchurch again. Once more I sat on Santa’s knee. I explained what had happened last year and he assured me it would not happen again. I saw him wink at Mum, who this time hovered in earshot.

A few shops later while Granny took Douglas my younger brother to the toilets I said to Mum ‘which is the real Father Christmas?’ ‘Why’ ‘Each shop has a different one.’ She sighed, ‘I’ll tell you about it when we get home if you promise not to talk to Doug about it now.’

That evening, tired after a day’s pavement-bashing and plethora of goodies we’d seen, she put Doug to bed and allowed me to stay up. She said ‘I’ll tell you a secret but please you’re not to tell Doug or anyone else you know. Promise me that.” I did. So she told me – reindeer, chimney etc, it was all make-believe. The first thing I said was ‘so you drink the sherry and eat the piece of cake we leave out.’ ‘Well, seeing you’re now a young man who knows such things you can help me eat them’. So I had my first alcoholic drink – a sip of sherry – and a crumb of cake.

To my great disappointment she would not let me help pack the pillow-cases. I was put to bed, convinced I wouldn’t sleep. But I did.

Surprise! Christmas day celebrations were no different from other Christmas Days. Roast goose at Pop’s, fresh green peas and spuds from his garden. And a full pillow case – clothes, (Christmas was a time for widowed Mum to stock up for both of us for the next six months), books and a hammer. I hardly used that hammer. It was light and frail, suitable for tacks and small-sized boys, unlike Uncle Tom’s, which was a man-sized hammer. That stayed with us.

I kept my bargain. I never told Doug. I’ve heard people argue it’s cruel to tell kids such untruths. Well, I harbour the heresy that we all have elements of make-believe. Certainly, things have changed since then,  now the seasons’s more intensely driven by commercialism. We were poor then in some respects. With a war on there were no oranges or bananas, lead toys were unavailable, there were fewer books. But in the country we were well-off in terms of food.

The shared secret was communal. I felt no anger when I learnt the truth. Indeed, I’ve a hunch my let-down the previous year had nurtured the seeds of doubt in my mind.

It was just after Pearl Harbour. All my adults looked worried. I sensed even at that tender age a feeling of let’s enjoy this Christmas, it might even be our last in this form.

I approach this Christmas – my 76th – with a sense of thankfulness for those far-off childhood family occasions. They had a sense of relaxed celebration. I always enjoy watching children unwrapping presents. Their innocent and eager acceptance of the moment appeals. But there is also disappointment – we do not always get that for which we have asked. It is true of any age.

Friday, December 3, 2010


Twice, directly, conflict in the Korean Peninsula has affected my family. In 1951, my stepfather Dick got a record price for his wool clip. A returned serviceman he’d got a rehabilitation loan to buy the run-down farm he now worked. He was one of the lucky ones.

It changed our lives. Instead of an old creaky truck we now had a new car. Mum had a washing machine – no longer the copper labour on Monday. An indoor toilet was added to the house – I got pocket-money digging the hole for the septic tank. Mum stopped making butter, we bought it from the grocers. She went to town (Christchurch) and bought clothes off the peg – no longer long hours of home dress-making.

I didn’t realise the enormity of paying off early some of the loan. But I did see and use the tracks bulldozed around the farm. That cheque greatly improved our lives. Market forces at work though as a boy I didn’t understand that. The soldiers fighting in the Korean chill needed woollen clothing. Dick was fortunate. His bales came up for sale in the midst of a buying frenzy.

My half-brother Bruce and his wife Margaret have a deer-farm near Methven. I had an email from Margaret the other day. I quote: ‘All is well on the farm. Little fawns running around early morning and late evening. So very cute. Velveting is going well with some big heads being cut off. All buying has ceased at the moment because of what is happening in Korea.’

Quite a while ago I rather scornfully said to Bruce he was making a living off a superstition that deer antler velvet was an aphrodisiac. He countered with scientific arguments. Apparently it is rich in nutrients. He showed me research proving this. There are now natural dietary supplements advertised throughout New Zealand.

I accept that my scorn was misplaced. Certainly, better deer-farming than killing tigers for the organs or rhinos for their horns. And deer provide venison one of the tastiest and fat-free meats available. I’ve always enjoyed visiting Bruce’s place. The animals look so regal. Bruce, like his father, is a farmer who cares for his animals.

Talking of farming, sow crates are to be phased out by 2005. Good! An inhumane practice. But I read Fontera is to have dairy farms in China with cow barns. I don’t like the idea of off-shoring practices we are not prepared to use here.

I know in Europe farm animals are kept in barns over the winter. Indeed in the old days they were housed underneath the house. But these were not factory farms. In season the animals went out to the meadows.

Our reputation as a food source has been based upon our grass economy with animals outside all year. We need to remember that.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pike River Memorial Service


It’s fine weather on the West Coast today. A community’s grief will be shared nationwide. When I heard that consideration was being given to a memorial service in Christchurch I muttered ‘no, it must be Greymouth’. And so it is appropriately. The camaraderie that is the Coast has been respected.

Grief comes in many guises. The unexpected death of a loved one has a numbing effect. Mining is a risky business – the mind knows that but daily safe return after safe return lulls people into a sense of security – both for those going off to work and those who see them off. Suddenly, a heart-wrenching event, fear, horror and the torment of long nights descend.

The Pike River mine explosion shook more than the Greymouth community. A disaster of this scale affects a small country. Nationwide, our thoughts went out to the victims, they were husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, colleagues and friends and of those who lived in their locale. And to all who loved them.

31 men – like all of us, with breakable bodies - went off to work that morning. They went cheerfully, grumpily, carelessly, routinely, anxiously, thoughtfully, resignedly, excitedly (one was a lad on his first day) as people go to work everywhere. All anticipated coming home that evening. But theirs is a dangerous trade. Two near the entrance miraculously survived the first explosion.. For the other 29, their loved ones began a terrible wait. The dread! Rumour! Hope, one of humanity’s grandest emotions lingers long against the odds.

And then to be told finally there was no hope left. The tumult of emotions. Why me? Why us? Why wasn’t more done? The future? Priorities are re-scrambled. Values are re-asserted differently. Plans are discarded. Friends and flowers become the order of the day. Words fail, hugs cannot stop tears but they show concern and care. ‘If onlys’ flit through the mind, align with guilt, pain and regret. What will we do this Christmas? The TV camera showed men in a pub putting aside a jug for their lost mate.

The fireball of last Sunday’s explosion which we saw on yesterday’s computer and television screen was frightening. Humanity has challenged nature down the centuries. It is bigger than us. Puny, we challenge back, even in the midst of catastrophe. This tragedy reminds us of these facts.

Shortly the blame/game will start. But today is a day to honour the lost miners, indeed all who laboured at the coal-face down the years here and overseas, some of whom have suffered a similar fate. To the living the service acts as a focal point, offering support and dignity in distress. and as a ceremony offers comfort of a sort. .The grieving are not alone in their grief and their loss


I wrote the above section this morning. I’ve now watched the service. The individual tables for the 29 miners which were arranged by the family were memorable. One moved me to tears – children’s toys with a picture book ‘The Hungry Frog’. I can imagine the father reading the book to his children. It was a poignant symbol for the community’s loss.

I was struck with the poem written and read for the occasion by Helen Wilson. She described the miners going off to work that morning planning the weekend’s activities in their minds, going fishing, taking the dog for a run, mowing the lawn. The run-of-the-mill things we do which we take for granted. Planned, anticipated.but never done! That's how death often happens.

John Key made an excellent speech. He talked about his own childhood and losing his father. His ability to reveal a common touch has always been one of his political assets. I think he has revealed good leadership over this issue. On the spot frequently but in the background, not taking the limelight but there in the background supporting the local people. The evening after the announcement there was no hope of finding the miners alive he spoke in the Beehive theatre. His speech there was good. But it was in the question and answers that he excelled. As an ex-prime Ministerial speech-writer I watched in admiration. The acid (and asset) test comes after the ‘Boss’ has delivered the prepared speech.

All in all the service was moving. Part of its appeal was it amateurish nature. It was the Coast – heartfelt, gawky, improvised, sincere, sentimental, disjointed but above all well-meaning. I was pleased to be a participant from afar.

Poet Brian Turner wrote a moving elegy on West Coast poet Peter Hooper’s death. He describes attending the funeral. I borrow some lines from the poem as befitting today’s service.
‘There’s scripture, hymns, eulogies and that undeniable
finality that never fails to reduce me to tears.

Time alone will fill the spaces your going’s opened up
like evening shadows stealing into the valleys
of the Grey and Arahura that you knew and loved.’

Shared  loss is tribal. All loss takes a long time to heal. Communal memory is long. It assists in the healing and delays the process. In twenty year's time the Coast will be talking about the events of the last two weeks, today, and the weeks ahead as decisions are made about what to do next.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Comfort of Waxeyes

I used the new wet shower this morning for the first time. Much easier work situation for the care-giver and I no longer have a pesky, risky step to be surmounted. But I’ll have to learn new handholds instead of the old shower supports. We’d taken the door off ages ago. I'd learnt to manage. The old dog will have to learn new tricks.

But – a bigger but – the room is not well-cambered. Water pooled in the area behind the toilet seat. That had to be mopped up. Well it’s their problem. But more hassle for me. My health leaves me feeling helpless in such situations. I’m at the mercy of others. I'd assumed a spirit level would have been used to check.

The daily tui comes to the abutilon. As do a waxeye group. In winter there are flocks of them. Then in early spring a pair. Now four! I suspect parents and their chicks. Jen, our neighbour commented about this foursome only the other day.

This group also spend time in the row of cabbage trees at Jen’s place which overhang the fence to us. The creamy flowers are very diminutive but by the length of time the birds spend there they obviously are getting nectar. The other possibility is insects who are fertilising the flowers. I notice the waxeyes seek aphid on the roses. Good on them!

I went googling to check the facts. I learnt a lesson. I’d put the words ‘cabbage tree fertilisation’ on the search engine. Lots of hits about nitrogen phosphorus, etc. So I tried again using ‘reproduction’ instead of ‘fertilisation’. Success! I was right both times. Insects are the main source are fertilisation – moths, bees, flies and wasps. But small birds as well.

In autumn there will be berries where the flowers are now. Tui love them, balancing on the long spikes. Blackbirds have more trouble. I’ve been amused watching them struggling for a toehold. Sparrows and starlings do better.

I watch the little birds going about their business. Cabbage tree to abutilon, sometimes together, sometimes separate, but shuttling back and forth and never still. While I sit and watch somewhere in the system I hope there is a message circulating – the McQueen renovation isn’t complete yet.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tuesday Poem; Anne Rutledge by Lee Masters

There are two poems on this blog today

Anne Rutledge

Out of me unworthy and unknown
The vibrations of deathless music;
'With malice toward none, with charity for all.'
Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions,
And the beneficient face of a nation
Shining with justice and truth.
I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,
Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union,
But through separation.
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!

Edgar Lee Masters

There is a traditional story that Anne Rutledge was Abraham Lincoln’s first sweetheart. She died young, leaving him so the legend says heart-broken. Historians argue over the facts. But on her Illinois grave this poem of Lee Masters has been engraved on the granite monument.

For years I found it hard to understand the reverence that Americans had for Abe. That is until I read Jan Morris’s life of the great man during the summer of 2000/2001. We were house-sitting in a place with a lovely garden in Ponsonby. Here’s a poem I wrote after reading the book.

Reading Jan Morris' Life Of Lincoln In Anglesea Street, January 2001

The Herald has two pages of world
news and six of sport. Each morning
I dehead Jill & David's Mutabilis
rose & savour the serenity of their
bougainvillaea-shrouded veranda
(Scarlet O'Hara), very distant the city's
hum. Morris toyed with calling the book
Grape Jelly, one of her first two dislikes
in the USA, the other, the extensive
reverence for Abe. Now she too
embraces the Gettysburg greatness.
Mythical might be the log cabin but
that address endures from a man
kind to kittens & his dim-witted son;
a gawky, laconic politician, who took
courage for granted, whose time saw
one of the bloodiest combats ever.
The prose glitters in praise of his prowess.
Their lettuce & parsley have run to seed.
A person rather uncomfortable with himself
but at ease with his mission. Apparently,
at present the Earth rushes away
from the sun at 108,000 kilometres an
hour. An unconvincing fact to someone 
at ease in a cane chair in peaceful Ponsonby.
He fastened in the America psyche the idea
that right has might and is therefore invincible.
Historians now reappraise, Viet Nam
napalmed doubt into the nation, but
someone better tell George W. for
Roman heroics still brawl on Capitol Hill.
Midday sun and I'm in the shade with
this gem of a book hurling the brain
out of its neutral summer lassitude
while leaving the body still in a
state of contented disengagement. .

At the Gettysburg opening of the war cemetery the speaker before Lincoln spoke for nearly two hours. When Lincoln got up to speak the cameraman took his time to get organised. Lincoln had finished his 147 words before the man had his mechanism lined up. So no photo exists of the famous occasion.

A moving moment in my life was a visit to the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC on Veteran’s Day. It’s a blot on our education system that our kids leave school knowing about Stalin and Hitler, Gladstone and Disraeli but very little about Lincoln. That combination of ‘might’ and ‘right’ seems to me crucial in understanding modern America.


It used to grate when people said ‘isn't it nice you have a hobby’. I didn’t see my gardening as a hobby. It was more than a pastime, an amusement, a diversion. It was a way of being involved with life itself. While there were always new possibilities in the garden, ultimately it was shaped by forces beyond my control, natural forces both generous and frightening. I was only a tenant, fortunate enough to dwell upon that particular spot for a while.

And now I can but onlook. And admire other people’s handiwork. Such is life.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Mixed Bag

A bonus of the recent fine mornings has been dew-spangled spider-webs. As the sun warms up the moisture evaporates. But for a spell the garden is draped with the glittering evidence of effort.

Yesterday I watched a sparrow through my bedroom window. It was obviously pecking spiders from under the guttering. I’d seen either it or one of its mates at a similar task a few weeks back. Nature’s checks and balances.

During the Cultural Revolution the Chinese went on an anti-sparrow campaign. They got rid of them in millions. And the insects multiplied. Sparrows are like rats and dogs, the co-existence with humans is built into their societies.

Yesterday, they put in the vinyl for my wet shower. Anne took this "outdoor toilet" photo, the bowl which they'd temporarily removed looking forlorn on the shady side of the garage. The tap looming over it suggests temporary plumbing. Close examination reveals the garden seat facing east, a good spot to sit on a sunny morning.

But yesterday I waited to go outside until later in the day. Anne had been gardening most of the afternoon. Ali had given her some herbs for transplanting, sorrel, lemon balm, lovage and chervil. As well she put in lettuce and rocket seedlings. We're now having a green salad daily as a result of her labour. The smell of crushed coriander leaves dominated the scene. On the table beside me was some mint she'd saved for use after pulling it out. I ate some of the succlent top shoots, a hangover from my gardening days. I was always crushing rosemary or nibbling lemon balm or chives.

I sat with my pre-dinner whisky savouring the scene. The two lavender bushes she'd potted are in full flower - to the delight of bees, bumble and honey. Pansies and petunias are magnificent. Roses everywhere. One of my contributions, foxgloves, add their unique shape to the area. I'd planted their forebears under the two tree-ferns in the NE corner. Self-sown progeny now sway colourfully in that territory. a mixture of white or pink spears.

We dined well. Anne made watercress and potato soup for starters and then lovely lamb cutlets - just the right shade of pink - for mains. A bottle of French bordeaux - a splash out, all the better for being rare - added a touch to a good meal for the last Saturday in November.

I then watched 'Hobson's Choice', a DVD of a David Lean movie from the 1950s. I'd seen it then but didn't appreciate it. The English class system was beyond my ken then as was life in Salford, Manchester. I think too the concept of an offer of a choice when there really is no choice was too complicated for an unphilosophical young man. I can see now why the critics raved about it.

Charles Laughton and John Mills were superb. But it was Hobson's daughter Brenda De Banzie who stole the show. Described by her father 'as a bit on the ripe side' for marriage she sets out to show him how wrong he is. The other delight was to see a young Prunella Scales who later made her name in 'Fawlty Towers'.

It was a good day after a rugged week. I understood Voltaire's desire to work in his own garden while the world goes on its restless way. But welfare reform concerns me - co-inciding with the Pike Creek tragedy occupying the nation's attention, the working group's latest report has slipped under the radar.

Dependency-bashing is easy. I accept a dilemma. Too small a mesh in the safety-net and the lazy, cunning, cheating people get supported. But if the mesh is too wide some who deserve assistance slip through. I would prefer to live in a society that errs on the side of compassion. But these issues are mighty - they need rigorous and careful consideration rather than adversial and pre-judged dogma. I fear the timelines are too tight for any satisfactory resolution.

Also concerning is the Korean Peninsula. I don't take heart from Sarah Palin's comment that the North Koreans are our allies. All politicians make slips of the tongue. She makes them all the time. Gung ho on top of ignorance does not inspire confidence.

But America faces a dilemma. North Korea is acting confrontational. Why? That is my question. But America will have to act. Can it afford another war. Especially one with China waiting in the wings. If the North is not careful it'll find itself on the slippery slope of no return and so heaven help the poor people caught up in the conflagration.

I sat in the restful lawn last evening and considered these things.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Memories of LM

‘I loved Rhodesia and the lazy yet vibrant life of the untouched land with its few people and miles and miles of peace. In the moonlight the plantations of eucalyptus trees shone like still moonstones: in the early dawn the tall grasses swayed in the light breeze, heavy with dewdrops, till suddenly the sun rose and in one half hour the world was once more a hard, dry gold. Then, dotted all over the fields, fine spirals of blue smoke began to curl up from the fires of early workers, while across the wide valley soft, white blankets of cloud rolled up and toppled over the slopes in a hurry to get down to the river before the hot sun licked them up.’

The passage is from LM, as Ida Baker, Katherine Mansfield’s devoted friend and helpmate, was known. The year is 1916. In Europe ‘the ghastly war raged’. LM was returning to Europe from her father’s place in Africa.

In light of what’s happening in present day Zimbabwe it reads sadly. But as I read it in quotation in Kathleen Jones’s biography of Mansfield the thought struck me that Ida Baker was not to be lightly dismissed.

So the life finished I took ‘Katherine Mansfield: The Memories of LM’ off the shelf to reread. I see I gave the book to Anne for her birthday in 1986. Fourteen years ago, two houses back for us. I’d read it at the time. But since then I’ve read a lot more about Mansfield including her journals and letters.

I read it this time with the benefit of just completing the Jones. She has used LM’s memories judiciously and sensitively. I’m no expert but it seems to me as biographer she places this relationship in a fair and accurate context. LM’s account is guarded and cautious. But she was there for Katherine’s two early pregnancies, unwise marriage, and towards the end as the writer’s health deteriorated as menial support.

LM made many perceptive comments about Mansfield. Here’s one which I think is a good description. ‘She was both a creator and an extrovert. She looked at life and saw it; then she took it into herself and created.’

The letters from Katherine to her friend reveal an interesting relationship. It was based on devotion and trust rather than equality. LM knew her place. Her prime loyalty was to her friend. I’m pleased to have read her memories again – this time with much greater understanding – and am grateful for her dedication. It helped Katherine to create and survive as long as she did.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Red Carnations

Anne likes flowers in the living room. For over a fortnight we’ve had a bunch of dark pink alstroemeria from our own little garden. I planted them the year we arrived. They were at their end yesterday so Anne bought some bright red carnations (for me, because she knows I like them).

They sit there, jaunty, in a vase beside me. She also picked two red roses, Dublin Bay, from the climber we’d planted. She bruised the stem and placed an aspro in the water, time-honoured customs to preserve shape, scent and longevity. A kind neighbour had brought some little pink carnations of the kind described by Shakespeare. So the room looks colourful.

Part of the appeal of red carnations is that in season when he dressed to go out my grandfather, Pop, always wore one in his button-hole. A keen Labour man, it displayed his conviction and loyalty. He in his turn probably got the habit from his mother whose Sumner garden always had carnations, pink, red and white. I was six when great-granny Barclay died died in 1940, aged 98.

Here is a poem I wrote about her years ago.

how environment has shaped me
protocol, parameter & precedent
I wonder about Mum’s paternal
grandmother. “Lyttelton was like
coming home, laddie, coming home,”
easterly drizzle, ochre hills, or
just the look of land after the
rough charter voyage from Dundee?

Then a clean apron among the burnt
stumps & butter churns at Pigeon
Bay. I am told her husband though
a tartar was good at felling totara
& on the County Council. When they
shifted to Okuti her many children
walked over the hill to the native
school; from their studybooks she
taught herself to read.

I recall lavender
& camphor clothes, thick glasses,
carnations along her fence, lapses
into Gaelic, tram rides into town,
& the time her son a cabinet minister
brought Peter Fraser home, I watched
her pour tea from a pot I had never
seen before & to the nodding great
man describe me as a future politician.

She would not have understood
the theologian’s ”politics is the sad
business of dispensing justice in a
sinful world,” everything except John
A Lee or her shortbread could be perfect.

How I have failed her.

Once apparently
they asked,”did you never want to go
back? & she replied, “such a long way.”

When I had a sore throat, she mixed
aspro, honey, told me to stop crying &
sat up all the night to share the pain.

A devout Presbyterian she went to church every Sunday. A devout teetotaller she had a strong conviction that a hot toddy was good for colds. She seemed to have a lot of colds. Pop’s brother, Jim Barclay, a Cabinet Minister in the first Labour Government, brought Peter Fraser to see her when she was dying. Of course I did not know that, such things were not talked about in those days. Mum was nursing her. Great-Granny called out from the bed-room for me to come and meet the great man. He was quietly spoken, this was not the booming voice Pop listened to on the radio. Gravely, he shook my hand and told me to be kind to my mother.

Apparently the comment about ‘such a long way’ is a family mythology. Cousin Sally’s research unearthed the information that Great-Granny and her husband had gone back to Dundee in the late 1920s. They were not impressed, the town had shrunk and was grimy. (The Depression was beginning to bite). When I taxed Mum about it she told me that the remark was in response to her question about them going back again. I know Great-Granny hated the sea, despite living by it. She did tell me about the crowded conditions of the first voyage out. Children died of a measles epidemic on board.

With the wet shower being installed, Susanna my caregiver is washing and dressing me in the lounge. ‘Lovely carnations’ she said this morning. They were her parent’s favourite flower. Susanna hails from Germany. Something satisfying about a shared connection over a flower.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


29 men dead. The news, families, a community and a nation feared announced at last. The first blast looked horrendous. The second was devastating. Hope, that great human characteristic, finally had to be relinquished. At such times other things seem trivial. The rivetting power of TV brought a nation to mourning.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Take On A Fantail

Several years ago I wrote this piece.

A Saturday morning routine is cleaning my electric razor in the courtyard. I tamp it down on the arm of the bench. On Wednesday the fluff is still there, mist-spangled, so for four days there has not been enough breeze to shift it. I remember reading somewhere that hair clippings can be added to compost.

As I drop this tiny contribution into the bin, a fantail appears, flitting and jerking about. I freeze, and suddenly it lands on my old garden sweat-stained hat. It hardly stays a second, then takes off, snaps an insect or two, and lands back on the hat. When it flies off again, it seems so tame I decide to help it.

Gently I shake an akeake bough. The fantail goes frantic as it chases insects loosened by my movement a few inches from my face wheeling and turning, twittering all the time. Its body is so small, it appears to be just a fluff of feathers with a very smart tail. It’s so close I can see the white strip above its eyes, another round its throat, and the chestnut brown of its undercarriage.

Postscript 1 Now I lack the motor skills to clean the razor. It's now one of Anne's chores.
Postscript 2 On the subject of birds, the nearby Karori Wildlife Sanctuary has a problem. A morepork family have nested in a kaka box. Clever birds, a built-to-measure residence.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Piwakaka


Waka jumper, feather box of tricks on
springs, tree-hopper, handbrake-turn show-stopper,
fantastic tail-spreader, full-house tree-clown
two flits short of coming a bad cropper.
Pathetic fallacy! For one moment
my heart jumped out and into you: beyond
the window’s glass you snatch up joy. Insects
actually: heaven sent by the fat
season’s purblind hand smack
into your squeaky trap’s sweet reflex.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

It seems to me appropriate to put up a Tuesday poem by a Tuesday poet. Holman’s collection of poems ‘Fly Boy’ was recently released. (I reviewed it in ‘Stoatspring’ on 2 November). There were many powerful poems about planes. There is also a delightful section about birds and their flight capability. One that particularly caught my attention was ‘Piwakaka’, the Maori word for the bird the colonists called fantail. It is an enchanting jaunty little insect-eater. The poem sums up very well my reaction also to this little jewel/clown of a bird.