Sunday, January 31, 2010

Just So

Just So: A Love Poem of Sorts

Even though awkward
I freely opened once
my arms to you. I still
long to do so but it’s
not the troubled, grinding
heart that fails, rather
inadequate & reluctant
muscles. You are as
ever the fresh aroma
of nectarines sunshine
picked. A full moon rises
& calm is the night.

Harvey McQueen

Another poem popped out last night

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Nature of Things

(for Jenny)

Loss is loss, futile
to call it anything
other. New age
twittering will not
help. 28 years old
my niece moves round
the house with grace
& confidence, marvels
at a frail old neighbour
who, heyday, modelled
nude for a well-known artist.

Hitler’s men stole many
treasures, some lost for
ever, though the Ghent
altarpiece was found
& is back in place
but that is art & I
declare flesh. Time, like
war, takes its toll. In
my decline, small solace
except this life-spirit’s
absurd & unexpected
comfort at youth’s
astonishing vitality.

Harvey McQueen

My latest poem. It's origins are obvious; see the last few blogs.


Friday, January 29, 2010


1)I am pleased ny blog attracts feedback from all round the world. Three days ago my comments upon.’Monumental Men’ attracted a response listing several sites giving more details. I’ve enjoyed exploring them. As I am continuing reading the book. Its narrative has now reached German soil and the men are searching for cultural artefacts are exploring salt-mines and castles. Ike went down a salt-mine with them.

2)One danger I can see with blogging is repetition. It’s like living with someone – the same anecdotes and tales. So if I do I seek your forgiveness and a shake of the head at Harvey having another rave. This morning’s news is new. American writer J.D.Salinger has died. And sea-fog is affecting Wellington airport. For weeks I’ve been bewailing the wind. It’s absence at present has consequences.

3) Time magazine has an article saying that the Arctic ice meltdown is more seruiously than scientists previously recognised. Whereas another group of scientists say that the glacier melt in the Himalayas is not as great as projected. It’s hard being a layman when the experts disagree. All I can vouch for is that January 2010 has had much sunshine than average and nearly twice as much rainfall.

4)Niece, Jenny, left yesterday. She's been a breath of fresh air for the last several days. I recall Mum ringing me up to tell me she'd been born 28 years ago.

5)Yesterday, recovering from the previous day’s fall – it rather shook me up – I watched two DVDs. Nostalgic trips both. The first was Buster Keaton’s ‘Steamboat Bill’ (1928). The storm scene which concluded the film saw the comedian’s acrobatic and comic skills at their best. Silent movie at its best. The scene where a massive house wall collapsed on him and he emerged unscathed because of an open window I'd seen in clips - in context superb. No double, just split second timing. His heroines were more active than Chaplin’s. The other was ‘The Cruel Sea’ (1953). It’s dated but still a gritty portrayal of the British navy’s escort duties through the u-boat packs.

6)As a serious young man I read Augustine, Plato. Machiavelli and John Stuart Mill. My understanding was not as great as my intent. The individual trees attracted my attention rather than the whole big forest. One question posed by Augustine intrigued me, ‘what is time?’ His answer ‘I know not’ has never been trumped. Measured yes, the same impulse that drove ancient civilizations to measure distance made them treat time the same way. Three of our measures are natural – the day, the earth’s rotation, the month, the moon’s cycle, the year, the planet’s orbit – the rest are of our devising. Down the ages our species worked to cut time into chunks in an attempt to control it, sundail, clock, watch and carbon dating. We measure time now in detail. At my last visit to the Wellington tip – sorry, the southern landfill – five years ago, I was weighed and clocked in and out. I spent precisely 12 minutes 14 seconds there. Big brother’s watching as I dumped my rubbish. Augustine’s question lurks in that visit. The connection between the man who threw a cartoon of rose cuttings into the concrete trench and the man who a few minutes later paid for the use of the tip was his consciousness linking the two events. They were not simultaneous and the moment they were over they were gone, unrepeatable. Fascinating! Existence is a series of fleeting moments. In it we breathe, move and have our being.

Thursday, January 28, 2010



having cut the thistles
from the lawn for the last time

in bloom, fledglings
in the starling box on the garage wall

grapevine, wallpaper patch
where the cat measured her height

of the steps
in the dance before the grave
intimacy is one of the loveliest

An early poem. I had lived in that Hamilton home for eleven years. It was an attempt to capture that sense of familiarity that comes from settled existence allied with a sense of excitement at forthcoming change. Reading it brings back memories. Jackie my first cat – black and white, she sat up like Jackie and Kennedy’s wife was in my consciousness.
One of the most lovely examples of intimacy in poetry is Wordsworth's description of a boiling kettle, it's 'faint undersong'. I can visualise him sitting reading with his wife and sister, the kettle humming quietly on the hob.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Fall

I keep forgetting; I must not multitask. I did it this morning, trying to pull a handkerchief out of my dressing gown pocket while turning. Result, sprawling on my side on the floor. Nothing broken, merely shaken. Two cheerful strong ambulance men appeared to pull me to my feet. Damn! Confidence lowered.

Lovely summer sunshine. At long last.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Goodbye to Venice - Other Art Now

I’ve finished Ackroyd’s Venice. ‘By the early 21st century the inhabitants of Venice had the lowest incomes in the whole of the Veneto region. One third of the population were over the age of sixty. The death-rate had overtaken the birth rate by a factor of four. That is why at night, Venice now seems so empty. It has hard to imagine a time when it was a city full of people. Of course, in the day, it is full of tourists. But, paradoxically, tourists empty a place by their presence. They turn it into a spectacle without depth.’

It’s been a dazzling, dense read. It’s restored memory banks and created new ones. It’s got me rereading Byron. I’ve sat in my chair and contemplated Ackroyd’s aphorisms and the place of art in the human consciousness. I’ve blogged about it and discussed it with friends. It’s been a joy to read and at the same time a chore in that it seemed to require a sense of duty to plough on.

It is almost with relief that I picked up ‘The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Theives and the Greatest treasure Hunt in History’ by Robert Edsel, lent to me by Pam. Despite its overblown title, repetitions and rather wooden prose it’s a terrific story – the search for the art stolen by Hitler’s men during the Second World War. Some masterpieces have been lost, others amazingly recovered.

The Allied side caused many losses – Monte Cassino springs to mind. In Dresden I was told that the paintings in the art gallery that so impressed me were hidden in a salt mine during the war. Otherwise they could have been destroyed in the fireball that consumed the city. Eisenhower ordered his officers to take care of architectural and artistic treasures if possible but he also pointed out the necessities of war.

Edsel early on in the book describes Hitler touring the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Mussolini impatient and bored beside him. The scene altered my mental conceptions of the two dictators. Hitler determined to have a magnificent German gallery as his memorial.

Two great pieces of art that I’ve seen are part of the story. While the paintings of the Louvre in Paris were evacuated early the Bayeux Tapestry depicting William the Conqueror’s victorious campaign to capture England was stored in its basement for safekeeping. As Paris was falling SS men arrived with Hitler’s orders to take the tapestry away. The Resistance had taken over the Louvre. The German general in charge refused to order his troops into battle for the tapestry. It did not leave French soil.

Even more striking is the story of the altarpiece at Ghent, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It compares with Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin for majesty and colour – all 24 panels. The natural background to the theological expression is striking while the large Adam and Eve are eye-catching. Seeing it was an artistic highlight.

Apparently when war broke out the Belgians sent the piece off by truck for safe-keeping in the Vatican. At Pau in France they learnt the Italians had declared war on France. So they handed the piece over to the local authorities for the duration. The Germans tracked it down and took it away. I have not got to the stage where it was recovered. Treasure-hunting of this type is a form of detective work. The war is still being fought in the narrative, the Allied advance halted by the German counter-attack at the Battle of the Bulge.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Venice and Akaroa

It’s a long bow to compare Venice with Akaroa. The high, comforting hills of Akaroa Harbour define a different landscape, but the light reflecting off salt water is a uniting factor. I count myself fortunate in that I spent three years as a student at Akaroa District High School. The historic town skirts a bay off the harbour, the crater of a dead volcano.

In a constant aroma of salt sea, in those days as it does now, it moved slowly in time to tidal rhythms. Denis Glover speaking about the "calendar beauty", says "the Akaroa hills are best in dawning/ or forgiving evening light." He's too harsh on the midday hills, their purple tint with lazy haziness contrasted to the sparkling water. The light reflected from the sea - brilliant turquoise, translucent green, turgid grey.

The town consisted of two distinct parts, a curved promenade linking them ran around the beach with its fringe of pebbles, debris and quarrelsome gulls, except for one little spot of sand near the old bathhouse. Inland, up three steep valleys small houses hugged the hillsides. It was less Frenchified then than it is now. What is now Rue Lavaud was Lavaud Street and the shops were unashamedly small town New Zealand. But it carried mementoes of a more glorious past, a large war memorial surrounded by gardens, the Gaiety theatre, the post-office with its mock Tudor panelling, swimming sheds, wharves, five large wooden hotels and many guest houses. Tourism was important, taking the waters. So was fishing - there was a crayfish factory.

The similarity with Venice was that the town then was decaying. It was kept going by tourism and absentee landlords who bought old houses or built a new bach. In the 18th century as Venice lost its imperial empire it turned to tourism and revelry as a means of survival. It became the centre of a cultural pilgrimage. Napoleon’s capture and destruction of the Venetian republic saw the end of an era and the intensification of tourism. Now the depopulation of the city means its livelihood depends entirely upon the seasonal influx of curious sightseers and foreigners buying property. City and small town depend upon the same factors.

Akaroa cannot boast, however, the same history. But it had its one dramatic moment. Our teachers stressed the town's history. In August 1838 a French whaling master, Captain L'Anglois purchased Banks Peninsula from the local Maori. Back in France there was talk of establishing a penal colony, but eventually this faded and 63 settlers, including a few Germans, (two of whom are ancestors) set sail in February 1840. They arrived on 13 August, two days after the French frigate L'Aube under Commodore Lavaud, but importantly three days after the British, Captain Stanley on the H.M.S. Britomart.

To us students it was presented as a dramatic race, the British just arrived in the nick of time to prevent the French claiming the South Island. According to Miss Greenwood, Lavaud had let slip to Governor Hobson and his Bay of Island luminaries the frigate's destination and his nation's plans. "In his cups," she seized the opportunity to elaborate on the perils of the demon drink. Otherwise we would be speaking French. Historically the race is not true, but it makes a good tale and a clever way of gaining attention. There was an added dimension, the whole town knew that Miss Greenwood liked her gin and tonics.

Though the French settlement had all the problems of all first landings - land to be cleared, no grain or vegetables for a while, and even when crops were mature seed had to be kept for the next planting - it was a safe anchorage for whaler and sealer. Once the settlers got established they could supply passing ships. This led to shipbuilding. In fact timber became the main industry. Venice may be old and built of stone. Akaroa was new and built of wood. Old weatherboard houses still reveal pit-sawn timber

It was a capital place for a shy country lad to develop a bit more confidence before he faced the challenges of Christchurch city – large by his standards. It was a stepping stone for the adult man who years later saw the Grand Canal with such delight.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lamb, with Sauce

Last night Anne cooked lamb rump steaks with a lovely cherry sauce. The sauce had cherries and cherry paste in it. It was a delicious flavour. The internet recipe had pears and quince paste. Adaptation of recipes is what cooking is all about.

Years ago, in my cooking days, off the internet I got a lovely wine and caper sauce to go with flattened chicken breasts. We found it even tastier with lamb steaks, cooked either in the oven or on grill. The meat was rested while the sauce was made in two stages. The first involved putting in a pan a tablespoon of olive oil, a finely minced onion, half a cup of white wine and a reasonable pinch of dried or finely chopped fresh sage. It was reduced to three-quarters of the volume. Then the juice of a lemon, a tablespoon of capers and a tablespoon of chopped parsley were stirred in. The lamb was added to the sauce, ladling the meat as it warmed up again with the heat turned up. It was a delectable dish with mashed spud and garlic as an accompaniment.

Byron in Venice

During my Varsity days I read a selection of Byron’s letters. I was particularly struck by his descriptions of Venice, he swam in the canals, he had a succession of mistresses and he described the city in detail. Napoleon had recently captured and destroyed the republican regime. The sense of desolation and decay suited the poet’s mood as shown in 'Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage'. In another poem ‘Beppo’ he describes a gondola as it ‘glides along the water looking blackly,/ Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe.’

In 1816 he wrote ‘[Venice} has always been, (next to the East) the greenest island of my imagination. It has not disappointed me: though its evident decay, would perhaps, have that effect upon others But I have been familiar with ruins too long to dislike desolation. Besides,I have fallen in love, which, next to falling into the canal (which would be of no use, for I can swim), is the best or the worst thing I could do. I have some extremely good apartments in the house of a ‘Merchant of Venice’, who is a good deal occupied with business, and has a wife in her twenty-second year. Marianna, (that is her name), is in her appearance rather like an antelope.'

from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: Canto the Fourth

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O'er the far times, when many a subject land
Look'd to the winged Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, thron'd on her hundred isles!

She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion,
A ruler of the waters and their powers:
And such she was; her daughters had their dowers
From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
Pour'd in her lap all gems in sparkling showers.
In purple was she rob'd, and of her feast
Monarchs partook, and deem'd their dignity increas'd.

In Venice Tasso's echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone--but Beauty still is here.
States fall, arts fade--but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy!

But unto us she hath a spell beyond
Her name in story, and her long array
Of mighty shadows, whose dim forms despond
Above the dogeless city's vanish'd sway;
Ours is a trophy which will not decay
With the Rialto; Shylock and the Moor,
And Pierre, cannot be swept or worn away--
The keystones of the arch! though all were o'er,
For us repeopl'd were the solitary shore.

The beings of the mind are not of clay;
Essentially immortal, they create
And multiply in us a brighter ray
And more belov'd existence: that which Fate
Prohibits to dull life, in this our state
Of mortal bondage, by these spirits supplied,
First exiles, then replaces what we hate;
Watering the heart whose early flowers have died,
And with a fresher growth replenishing the void.


Ackroyd’s book about Venice is a good read. But it lacks the conviction of his earlier book about London. He loves London, knows its nooks and crannies, history and follies. His Venice is an affair of the mind. In Byron’s words it casts a spell even from afar. Ackroyd says the first act of Othello captures the feel of the place. Shakespeare never visited it, he wrote about an imagined city. That early conditioning of my mind by Byron shapes my memory of my brief visit. Past grandeur still magnificent in stone and art with an allure that seems timeless. A back-water? Some back-water!

I’ll let Byron have the last word. ‘With all its sinful doings I must say,/ That Italy’s a pleasant place to me.

Cybele Greek mythological earth mother figure
Tasso Italian Renaissance writer

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Venice is an artificial city, an unusual hybrid of land and water, a place renowned for its duplicity and drama. From swamps and mudflats a dazzling nation-state was created that has captured the European imagination for centuries.

My mind was littered with myth and metaphor about the city long before I visited it – contributions included the writing of Byron, Ruskin, Henry James, and Evelyn Waugh: the art of Titian, Tintoretto and Canaletto, the music of Vivaldi, the origin of opera, the tale of Casanova, the home of Marco Polo, a place of carnival, gondola and revelry, a far-flung maritime empire that once controlled the Eastern Mediterranean. Also a place of espionage, betrayal and imprisonment where the Jews were locked in their ghetto every night - let out in the day to indulge in commerce, their money-lending enabled the state to flourish.

Venice lived up to expectation and imagination. Our little hotel room’s back shutters opened on to a small, quiet canal. St Mark’s Square and Cathedral were superb. The Doge’s palace was splendid – all those energetic, muscular Tintoretto paintings. The dungeons were terrfiying – it was a police state, secret denunciations were assumed. But the most breath-taking experience was seeing Titian’s painting The Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the Santa Maria Basilica – the largest altarpiece in the city. The monumental scale, the colour and the geometric precision are awe-inspiring. Seeing it was one of the highlights of my life.

While there I was conscious of the tides, light off the water and reflections at night. The absence of traffic noise is a lasting impression. Horses were excluded very early. There are pet dogs and caged birds – Byron had a menagerie - but the only wild animal life are feral cats and their prey, rats and mice. I took a photo of a plump cat sun-bathing half-way up a statue. Tourists were forbidden to feed the pigeons from 2008. I saw seagulls and swallows –maybe they were swifts - but recall no sparrows.

Peter Ackroyd’s book about Venice is full of interesting facts and theories. I didn’t know that Hobbes the English philosopher lived there before he returned to England to write The Leviathan which argued for a strong central authority to control human nature. Ackroyd describes it as a city of stone, brick and cobble-stone. There are very few gardens and no bare land.

Ackroyd is a word-smith. He uses this skill to build up a picture as his ending ilustrates: ‘And so we have the words – vivacity, gaiety, radiance, extravagance, energy, buoyancy, spontaneity, urgency, facility, exuberance, impetuosity. Oh! Venezia!’

That old exam question – compare and contrast? I must reread Jan Morris’s history of the same city. My memory banks tell me she captured the historical grandeur and horror even better. Both books capture a past glory – that was my impression when I visited, a metaphor for individuals as well as vanished empires.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Those Roses

Those Roses

Roses, the single scarlet sort,
open at the throat as if for
coolness, sprawl at the window;
you heap on my plate a pile
of potatoes, steaming and small,
smelling of mint. `They're
basic,' you say as we go at them
lustfully, `they grow by the door;
you have to chase meat'- and I
notice a certain vegetable poise,
not striated like the fibrous
deposits of a more strenuous growing
but smooth, opaque; placid testimony
to the sufficiency of flesh.

`Of course you do have to hunt -'
I say, thinking of hopeful
burrowings in the soil, wresting
from the clutch of its black fingernails
each creamy nugget; and we agree
on that; we're a bit languid,
munching more slowly as each
pale pod splits open and fills
us with amber warmth - one flesh
sturdily giving itself to another.
Those roses, too, they lean over us,
and the squat black pot gives
off its dull gleam, grinning
crookedly from the stove.

Lauris Edmond

This poem, (one of my long-term favourites), is archetypal summer – flower, food, flesh in an atmosphere of warmth. Her quiet and authoritative voice exults in the extravagance and fecundity of a domestic occasion. Before I shifted to Wellington I had been in correspondence with her. Once I lived here we would meet for lunch several times a year, occasions I looked forward to until her death in 2000, a sad loss which removed a major figure from the New Zealand literary landscape.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

This Piece of Earth

I‘ve been feeling rather low, on and off, for a few days, - the weather hasn’t helped - fed up with being useless and a burden; a feeling reinforced looking at the garden and the things I should be doing in it. But then I looked back through my 2005 January diary. It had several book reviews that lifted my spirits. Past achievements count in the scale of things.

I hesitated for a while about putting some of these in a blog for in many ways I’m a modest man. Indeed, I’m surprised at how much I’ve enjoying blogging which does required some revelation. I am not a skite. In the end I decided to quote three which have been not only particularly healing but they say things about achievements of which I'm rather proud but feel reluctant to claim. I once did garden, very well, and with contentment. And love remains, an emotion usually avoided discussing for it intrudes upon privacy. These three quotes get near my essence – that is, on the good side. Enough!.

1 Michelle Hewitson in the book pages of the Herald had a column headed ‘Down In the Garden, in Book Heaven’. She had a stack of books beside her garden lounger:

“The book on top is ‘This Piece of Earth: A Life in My New Zealand Garden’ by Harvey McQueen and it is everything I would desire in a book: a garden, cooking (with recipes) and cats. McQueen was a teacher who became an inspector who became education adviser to David Lange and his memoir is the most charming book I’ve read for a long time. It is a quiet book in the way that gardening and cooking and living with cats are contemplative activities: you make peace with the weeds and the plants that curl up their toes and the cats that dig up your seedlings and eat the birds that you planted the garden to attract. A beautifully paced book which captures perfectly a year in the garden or an afternoon pottering in the kitchen cooking for the people you love. It is a memoir of many friendships, especially that of McQueen with his wife Anne Else and the friends who wander through their kitchen, garden and lives.”

2 Friend Kathrine, a famous runner who made history by becoming the first woman to run a marathon, sent a hand-written card which touched me deeply.

‘This is a fan letter, or fan note to say how much I loved your book. I read every word & Roger didn’t have a chance at it until now. How can I describe it? It’s touching, revealing, quirky, sweet & very interesting. It’s also as I try to write my own book, very humbling. There is such a lot of work here & I’m impressed more that I can really say. So just a few of perhaps a hundred delights – First a recognition and resonance of your gardening being so like my running – it’s an important thread that goes through my life that connects me to life. I loved the vignettes of your life, which told me a lot about you I never knew - & you told it tightly, with punch. Some things made me laugh out loud – the pile of timber on the side of a hill that was once a house … some of the things made me wince – the birds on a wire who’d just lost their babies to the rats… I love travelling from Akaroa to Arizona to Kuwait with no fanfare whatsoever. I love your challenging us to smell the roses by simply taking a chance and cooking. Lastly, as this paper wont take ink, I loved best how the love and respect you share with Anne was so perfectly woven in the seasons of your garden and the seasons of our lives. Congratulations! It’s a brilliant book.’

3 And there was this review on the internet called ‘Soul Food’..

I've just finished reading ‘This Piece of Earth’, subtitled ‘A life in my New Zealand Garden’ by Harvey McQueen. Released by Awa Press at the end of November, the quote on the front is from Fiona Kidman: 'I loved every minute of this book - a gorgeous read'. Well, initially at least, it wasn't quite like that for me. When I first started it, I thought, what the hell is going on here, exactly? Is this geezer really going to rabbit on about his garden for 245 pages? And opening with half a page devoted to the antics of a tui, something I can watch every day in my own garden? I can't possibly read this. But then; it's hard to nail what it was that hooked me. Just like it's hard to come up with a label for this gentle biography/cook book/gardening diary. I imagine that he just sat down and wrote it without worrying about all of that. The thing that came shining through for me was contentment, and I think maybe that's the hook - I started it just before Christmas and it became a little haven of calm in the storm. Again, just like my own garden. Harvey and I and of course millions of other have discovered the healing and - oh yeah - grounding power of dirt and plants, the very stuff of life. But yes, contentment, that rare and most prized of possessions. With Harvey, it's definitely the product of a useful, creative life. Born in Little River, south of Christchurch (been there, loved it, as well as Akaroa, where Harvey was educated), he was a teacher who through a series of steps ended up being an education advisor to David Lange, and in 2002 was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to education and literature. He's written six books of poetry and a couple of other worthy historical tomes. And the literary magazine Bravado has recently employed him as their reviewer, so he'll be pottering in literary fields yet for a while. But right now he's pretty much retired with his wife Anne Else, and their cats, Dorothy and William, who sprawl and purr throughout the pages, their characters clear. Anne, who doesn't sprawl and purr, or not so's you'd know, must nevertheless have other ways of securing the love of a good man, because it glows gently all through the book. He knows all her likes and dislikes in the garden and the kitchen; picks her favourite flowers and makes her favourite dishes. Too damn cute for words actually. Besides, I love a man who cooks ... luckily, I hasten to add, I've got one. Recipes appear randomly, inspired by the planting or maintenance of a herb or vegetable. I have marked and intend to try several. He seems to cook quite like me: a quick look at a recipe, then wriggle it around to make it work better or have a slightly different flavour to suit the occasion or whim. And pretty loose on the amounts. Nice. He's endearingly loose in the garden too, likes a bit of chaos, but he certainly knows his stuff all the same. I learned a fair bit, and there are lots of little snippets I found fascinating. For instance, I had no idea that aconite, a homeopathic remedy I use often for bruises, which grows easily in the New Zealand garden, is also called wolfsbane - one of the strongest plant poisons around: 'for centuries, people used it to poison wolves. Also, less heroically, rats.' Classic, dry, wry McQueen humour. Mr McQueen has a style which is no doubt derived from his poetry, which I intend to read: quite controlled, pared down, almost austere sometimes. It doesn't prevent him sounding human though. One day, walking through Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens shortly after 9/11, he comes across the seat where he had his first kiss 'half a century earlier'. A young mother was sitting there, breastfeeding her baby, her toddler feeding the ducks ... “I suddenly realized she might think I was being voyeuristic, but she looked up and smiled and I said something to the effect of 'what a beautiful scene'. She asked her daughter to give the nice man some bread to feed the ducks. Tears sprang to my eyes - for that departed youth, for the dead in New York, for humanity. I felt a fool and grateful.” As I am unexpectedly grateful for the gift of this calm and inspirational read. Treat yourself to a bit of contentment, You never know, it could be contagious.’

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An Onlooker's Meanderings

My education and interests mean I know a lot about British politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries – Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury, Asquith. But my reading and interests now lean much more towards the American scene. I read daily the 'New York Times' on line and weekly 'Time' and 'New Yorker'. I also look at the 'Economist' for world comment and book reviews, science and technological developments etc. But in many ways my life is measured in terms of American presidents. .

'The Dominion' Post has a daily column – on this day in history. This morning’s listings include the fourth inauguration of President Roosevelt as well as those of Kennedy, Regean, George Bush, George W. Bush and Obama plus the second one of Clinton.

Roosevelt was the steady fixture during my childhood. I was ten when he died. My adults were shaken. Unknown, unheralded Truman proved a success. Then came Eisenhower and the Cold War, the background to my university years. I started teaching to the strains of Camelot. Cooking pancakes for breakfast one morning in 1963 I turned on the radio – ‘the president’s widow is flying back to Washington with President–elect Johnson.’ I wept. One question lingers – would he also have emeshed his nation into the Viet Nam quagmire?

So to Nixon. A nasty man but a strange mixture – Watergate yet rapprochement with China, only a republican president could have done the latter. The surprise of Jimmy Carter. Iran made sure Reagan would beat him. George Bush senior took over the baton, but the charm of Clinton saw him defeated. Then George W. squeaked home. It looked dynastic for it appeared time for another Clinton.

It was not to be. From left field came Barack Obama. So much for a potted history. Reagan very adroitly blamed Carter for the problems during much of his two terms. Obama has not potted George W in the same way. To his credit George W. has responded in kind. Unlike Dick Cheney who seems determined to rewrite history in his image.

Obama faced the worst economic crisis since the great depression. Reagan had dismantled many of the safeguards that Roosevelt had erected to prevent it recurring. The whirlwind started in George W’s final year but reached velocity as Obama took over. Unemployment will be the chain dragging at Democrat’s re-election chances later this year. He inherited two actual combat wars with huge financial cost. Bin Laden’s aims had only been thwarted to a limited extent. The terror threat remains, an anchor on American confidence.

It is an old political dilemma. To win a vision is held out. Victory reveals the complexity of implementing that vision. Partisan conflict in Congress doesn’t help. Reduced revenue across the country doesn’t help. Vitriolic vilification of Obama doesn’t help. (Hilary Clinton would likely have attracted even more).

Give the man time I say to his critics. He has tackled many issues. Maybe that’s a policy failure or maybe it reflects a deep sense of the need for a more just and fair society. The instinct for bipartisanship is a good one but maybe given the nature of the political system it’s not capable of implementation. One of the measures for this year will be his performance. I will watch with great interest.

Post script (added after the original blog went up). The Republican candidate has won the by-election for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat. Obviously, disasatisfaction is deeper than this onlooker realised. The historian in me is fascinated. It'll be a roller-coaster year testing Obama's mettle.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Yesterday’s blog had a poem I wrote about staying in a friend’s house in Auckland. Their back section had a large spectacular jacaranda tree. It reminded me of my visit to Toowoomba, 125 kilometres inland from Brisbane and 660 metres about sea-level. When I visited that city the jacaranda lining the streets were in full bloom - beautiful.

To the west lies one of the richest farming areas in Australia – the Darling Downs. Further west the plains become increasingly arid until the great dry deserts of central Australia begin. From this harsh country, Aboriginal families leave to live in urban centres like Toowooma. The fourth student, I visited when I wrote my Australian text-book for New Zealand schools, Bill was one of these.

Darby McCarthy, a retired famous jockey, worked for the Queensland Department of Education to help boys like Bill adjust to city life. Darby said, “we’ve lost our traditional culture. Maybe for some out west but for most of us help has come too late. We have to adapt now and rebuild.” He and his friends explained how their language has gone. “Up in Arnherm Land, they’ve written it all down – ours was never recorded. A few words left, that’s all. They teach the dream time to our kids with legends that were never ours. Bill’s generation – that’s a lost generation. It’s not till they get older that they start looking. Like us. We’re late starters. Look at our surnames – McCarthy, Kelly, Riley, Rose, Martin, McKellar. We’ve got no record of our aboriginal names, that’s vanished like so much else. The Murri people never used the didgeridoo. Now our students study texts that say it was part of all Aboriginal culture.

He went on. “It’s no good dwelling on past injustices. In places like Toowoomba these kids have more opportunity. Bill wants to be a mechanic. Maybe his son will be an accountant. Maybe not, it doesn’t matter, but the opportunity will be there. It’ll take time. Education is our main hope.”

I asked Bill and his mates what they thought. “I know we need a good education to get on but sometimes it doesn’t seem worth the hassle.”

I asked an old man at the community centre what were the characteristics of being Aboriginal. “We are the land, the land is us. That’s a very hard idea to get across. Even our young pretend to reject it. Deep down it’s there. They can’t escape a sense of belonging.” And “we look after one another.” While he talked – I had a tape recorder running, I half listened to a nearby animated discussion about the best place to buy Christmas trees. ‘How do you celebrate Christmas I asked?’ ”Just like you do. Except we have more relations. More food is needed.” The old man picked up the subject of food. “We looked after it. In drought times we killed the weak and the male. We never took more than we needed. If we could we avoided killing the female. We never took all the eggs from a nesting emu.”



Flesh in transient
time I watch mixed
petunias open to
bounty, a sort of
satisfaction while
headlines shriek
‘looters rule rubble
graveyards’. A large
bumble bee seeks
pollen as it fumbles
through the flowers.
Perfection, brief
but enough amidst
consistent turmoil

Harvey McQueen

Usually my poems gestate slowly but this one popped into my head very rapidly yesterday morning.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jan Morris's Lincoln

Reading Jan Morris's Life Of Lincoln In Anglesea Street
Ponsonby, 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
bougainvillea-shrouded verandah
(Scarlett 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 also
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
naplamed 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. .

Harvey McQueen

The poet tries to encapsulate the transient moment. If successful it transcends the moment to the universal. Usually, it remains a record.
Jan Morris also wrote a life of Lincoln. As you can see I enjoyed reading it. 9/11 was still ahead.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jan Morris's Trieste

A photograph that I took hangs on my study/bedroom wall. It’s a back canal in Venice on a still day, the reflection of a church on the calm water between the moored barges. Just after I took the picture a sea-mist rolled in semi-obscuring the scene and the quiet was disturbed by the arrival of an ambulance launch. A pregnant woman, obviously in labour, was helped down some steps to board the craft and it chugged away leaving us to find our way along the deserted late autumn footpaths to the church with more work from the famous painter Tintoretto. They were as superb as the guide-book says they were.

Venice is a magical city. Bill has lent me Peter Ackroyd’s book, ‘Venice: Pure City’. I’ve begun reading it with pleasure. I remember walking out of the railway station and there in front of us was the glittering Grand Canal, a sight to lift the soul as many cultural strands coalesced. It is indeed a pure city, no rural hinterland.

I shall write about it in a later blog. Today I seek other prey. I had previously enjoyed Jan Morris’s book about ‘Venice’, his appreciative evocation of its past glory and present splendour. I’ve always enjoyed this author’s books, ‘Conundrum’, the story of the sex change from man to woman, ‘Fisher’s Face’, the British Empire trilogy, ‘Hong Kong’, and many more but above all ‘Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere’.
Trieste had been the port of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. But its grandiose history has been replaced by a sense of a backwater living on run-down glory. Now on the border between Italy and neighbouring breakaway states of Croatia and Slovenia it was the place where Kiwi soldiers ended up at the conclusion of the European phase of the Second World War. For a time it looked like further hostilities as Yugoslav partisans claimed the city and the Allies refused to accept that request. Cool heads reached settlement, Trieste remained Italian.

My stepfather, Dick, described the partisans as ‘a scruffy lot, but brave’. Further conflict avoided our men swam and sunbathed. Muldoon told Gerald Hensley that while the men enjoyed the break at the back of their minds lurked the belief that this was an interlude before they would be posted to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. That was not to be. Dick described how Adriatic Sea was very buoyant. When someone lost his false teeth while diving off the wharf they could see them through the clear water but no one could get down to them.

In the book Morris defined nationalism as ‘patriotism gone feral’. There is an overall melancholic introspective tone which in a strange way is charmingly captivating, a self-examination set in a decayed imperial city whose cosmopolitan nature enables him to sum up his life. This paragraph which I copied into my diary when I read the book illustrates the meaning of the city for the author:
‘There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They share with each other, across al the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them, you know you will not be mocked or resented because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools, if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste’.

And this paragraph which is the germ from which this particular blog developed. It’ll be my final word for a while on the youth/age dialogue. I’ll let Morris have the final say:
‘The past is a foreign country, but so is old age, and as you enter it you feel you are travelling into unknown territory, leaving your own land behind. You have never bee here before. The clothes people wear, the idioms they use, their pronunciation, their assumptions, tastes, humours, loyalties all become the more alien the older you become. …This kind of exile can mean a new freedom, too, because most things don’t matter as they used to. They way I look doesn’t matter. The opinions I cherish are my business. … Kindness is what matters, all along at any age – kindness, the ruling principle of nowhere’.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Nature Notes

Niece Jenny is staying with us at present. A touch of youthful vitality in my surroundings. We’ve been watching the tennis. Kiwi Marcus Daniell and his Rumanian partner Horia Tecau have just won the men’s double’s title. Lovely sunshine in Auckland. Here, it’s a pig of a southerly storm, strong, strong winds and pelting rain and on 15 degrees. The only good thing, the ground was very dry before this soaking.

Yesterday, before the storm arrived I was admiring a white convolulus growing to the very tip of the neighbour’s snowball tree. I know it’s a weed and should be eradicated but it looked so fragile and brave swaying in the breeze that I found myself admiring it.

Outside my study window another neighbour’s koromiko tree is bursting into flower. It’s our most common of the very large grouping of New Zealand hebe a shrub which hybridises very easily. Other hebes are found in South America, Australia and New Ginuea. This is the largest individual hebe I’ve ever seen. Last summer when it was in full flower it was alive with bees. It’s not bee weather today. Maori used the koromiko leaves as a treatment for diarrhea.

Also outside my study window a blackbird is nesting in a camellia tree, the same tree that had a thrush’s nest earlier this year. It’s a relatively cat-proof tree.

Apart from that blackbird and the two faithful little wax-eyes in the abutilon there is no bird life on the section today. I don’t know where the sparrows ride out the storm, Monday’s Dominion paper had a piece about their over-nighting in the city. I knew starlings did this, they had a few central roosting pads. Apparently sparrows do too. What journeys these little creatures make.

Even more amazing is the godwit. Today’s paper had research from Alaska. After the mind-boggling flight from New Zealand to either Alaska or Siberia the godwits seek more northern nesting sites to avoid predators like minks and cranes. Amazing!

Along the nature theme and is light of my recent dialogue about youth and age I came across this poem when dipping into Yeats this morning. .

The Coming Of Wisdom With Time

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

William Butler Yeats

Friday, January 15, 2010

Terracotta Warriors

My stepson Jonathan sent this email to me overnight. It seemed to me it deserved a wider audience.

'Harvey I’ve just seen the Terracotta Warriors yesterday and as they are truely one of the wonders of the world I thought I'd send you a message to share it with you.

Xian is a rather grand old Chinese city with the famous TW's as the absolute highlight.(It was minus ten yesterday, so I’ve decided not to move on to even colder Dunhuang where the ancient cave paintings are but to stay here.)

The TW's are situated about two hours out of town guarding the Emperor's main mausoleum which has yet to be dug into but 2000 odd of an estimated 6000 soldiers have been revealed, many are complete in incredibly good condition considering they are 2200 years old, others have been put back together out of smashed ceramic shards. You can see the archaeologists at work on site and the museum has been built right over the three pits where the soldiers were discovered.

Two peasants innocently drilling a well in 1974 made the discovery of the century. As the experts have now found pottery serving maids and acrobats it is estimated a whole terracotta imperial court may lie buried there, most of it still waiting to be discovered. I loved the museum where you can see excellent photos enlarged of the warriors individual faces, some young and innocent, some battle worn and older but all highly individual. Amazing! Even different facial types from different parts of China. They are not quite sure how the modelling took place but it seems at least some were modelled from life either from the real soldiers in the emperors army or from the faces of the craftsmen working on site. There is incredible detail to the figures and some even have the original paint-work complexions, beards, moustaches and details of armour carefully picked out. I wasnt sure before whether the trip out there would live up to the hype but now I can truly tell you it does ... and more!!!'

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Impulse For Mathematics

I’ve seen the pyramids near Cairo and Mexico City. They are immense. The endeavor behind their construction if it wasn’t for the fact of their existence is inconceivable. When I saw them the thought intruded both times - how many lives were lost in their construction? Equally, impressive is the mental processes that created their shape and worked out the mathematical calculations necessary for them to be built in that shape. It was not done by random. Probably the impulse for mathematics arose from studying the sky. Early hunters, navigators, farmers, each had different lessons to learn, indeed had to learn. In North America the Plains Indians learnt that until certain stars appeared in the night sky it was too soon to depart for their seasonal summer hunting grounds. The mighty Giza pyramid near Cairo is aligned to the pole star. The seasons can be read from its shadow. The Polynesians colonised the Pacific with their star maps. Humanity’s capacity for achievement continues to amaze me. Unfortunately, there is also its capacity for destruction.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Stephen Foster

Today is the anniversary of American song writer Stephen Foster’s death in 1864. Two of his songs ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘Old Folks at Home’, more commonly known as ‘Swanee River’, are recognised as official state songs for Kentucky and Florida.

His songs were part of my childhood. Dick, my stepfather, brought a dowry with him when he married my widowed mother, his gramophone and a large collection of records. There was a motley of melodies. Dick had a good tenor voice and there were records of Caruso and John McCormack. Milking the house cow if relaxed and happy Dick would sing such favourites as ‘Home on the Range’, ‘Santa Lucia’ and ‘The Road to Mandalay’.

There were many records of English and Scottish comic songs, Gracie Fields and Will Fyfe spring to mind. There were Straus waltzes. But Dick’s first choice to sing was usually the Foster songs, ‘Oh Susanna’, 'Campdown Races', ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ and ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair’. The melodies and words are imprinted in my soul, or proably more accurately my mind.

On my first visit to the USA my then wife and I stayed with farming friends of her parents in Indiana. They assumed being New Zealanders we’d be interested in horse-racing so they drove us down to Kentucky. We didn’t argue. That lush blue-grass landscape was striking. They took us to see both the famous Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is run and the recently finished statue of Man of War the District’s most brilliant racehorse. On the way we called at New Harmony where the Scottish industrialist Robert Owen attempted to establish a utopian community. Theolgian Paul Tillich’s heart is buried there.

But the highlight was a visit to My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown. The park consists of a former plantation owned by the Rowan family. The striking old mansion was built Federal style. The guide during our visit wore crinolines and a bonnet of the Civil War period. Tradition has it that Forster a distant relation wrote the famous song there during a visit in the 1850s. Unlikely, but like most legends the stuff of dreams. But the setting gave us a glimpse of a vanished way of life – ‘Gone with the Wind’ as reality.

Forster, a Northerner, only visited the South once. He never ever saw the Swanee River he made famous. He opposed slavery and claimed his songs were to supposed to arouse compassion for the Blacks. He died before the Civil War concluded.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Rite of Passage

I956, the Boks were beaten, the Avon river bank daffodils were in bloom when I was introduced to, (I shall call her Rebecca, - I’ve never had a friend with that name), a trainee nurse. The person bringing us together us hoped Rebecca’s unthinking acceptance of her faith would strengthen mine. A trainee for the Presbyterian ministry I was having doubts. For a brief intoxicating spell the relationship worked. James Brown’s line ‘I imagine sex/ to be like peaches’ was true for that uninitiated youth. Even though I knew Rebecca sprang from a class above me I fell in love. Love, that word in this context which blends basic animal sexuality with the reciprocal attraction of someone else and the desire to be wanted. Her sophistication appealed to me as much as my naivete appealed to her. But:

‘to-day in the surf
a wide-hipped girl
chuckled as you once did

the rusty boatshed
in which you changed
has been demolished now
the tides have burred the glass
that bottle we each had drunk in turn
and which I hurled at the oyster rocks

I can't complain
about the treatment of the years
and trust the same for you
but had I been
less clumsy or more kind

tease, remember
you undid both straps
no, that's unfair, most unfair
you, like me, were caught by crossfire
actions, then as now, are seldom simple.’

The crossfire was mainly generated by me being a Ministry trainee with old-fashioned ideas of male chivalry coupled with inexperience. If I lowered my guard on drink I kept it up on sex. Grass green on matters of intimacy, my expectations were conditioned by books and movies. Kissing was permissable, but an embrace moved into dangerous and unknown territory. Fondling and petting were off limits except for mutual rubbing against one another at dances. For some reason that was legitimate (and pleasurable) - all very confusing. While suggesting carnality was not the way to fulfillment, the Church encouraged romance with that very unclear word, Love. I had had no preparation for the strength and volatility of the emotions that Rebecca triggered in me. She would listen to my church dreams with an engaging wide-eyed interest, then kiss me. I would pull away, body throbbing with new impulses which made a mockery of all the religious talk of purity - such confusion common in those pre-pill days. We could get a girl pregnant. Every now and then a student would have to get married, having got someone "in the family way".

During our long serious walks, (certain spots in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens still trigger surges of recollection), she argued that as a passionate person she could not live with a sexless parson. I replied that marriage would alter that state, but until I'd finished training, at least four years ahead, I couldn't afford to. She bounced back; we could marry early and live off the smell of an oily rag. We would have children, I countered they were expensive. All the merrier, she responded. The blissful thought of married life led to more heavy kissing, and then my pulling away, and then often a altercation. It seems another century now. Part of me looks back and shudders at that callow youth. Another part, remembering the agony of that intensity, can only sympathise and feel pleased it happened long ago - when the call of "phone for you, Harvey" would see me race to the phone box in the hostel courtyard to hang breathless and tongue-tied if it was Rebecca, curt and offensive if it wasn't.

Then she went to a dance with someone else. Jealousy hit me - a specific searing moment. I demanded an explanation. She owed me nothing, she could go out with whom she wanted. Wretched, in danger of flunking my exams, I stopped reading for the first and only time in my life. Prayer didn't work, even though I spent hours in the evening gloom of St Andrew's faking faith as I wrestled with my passion for Rebecca.

Years later Waikato University education lecturer Sue Middleton sent me a paper about the forces that turned her into a feminist teacher. I quote from the section dealing with the 1950s:
"Female sexuality embodied contradictions. The traditional sexual double standard constructed two ideal types of women: 'good' women (virgins, then monogamous wives) and 'bad' women (whores or sluts). Sociologists have analysed schooling as reproducing this double standard... Academic stream girls were expected to delay sexual activity until they had completed their tertiary education... Sexuality and intellectuality/professionality were socially constructed as contradictory."

The double standard of the time also affected men. My upbringing stressed remaining a virgin until a monogamous marriage. Certainly, until I finished my training I could not afford marriage. Many men of my vintage make the same comment. Admittedly some did sleep around, and some established relations with a steady girl friend, but many more did neither.

I went to a doctor. He checked me over physically before questioning me about the emotions dominating my life. ‘Young man, you have some problems. Only you can solve them.’ He gave me some sleeping pills. I slept and slept. Life looked a little less distressful. Someone lent me Somerset Maugham's 'Of Human Bondage'. The fact I began to read again suggests some return to normality. I empathised with Phillip's love for Mildred:
"He had thought of love as a rapture which seized one so that all the world seemed spring-like, he had looked forward to an ecstatic happiness; but this was not happiness; it was a hunger of the soul, it was a painful yearning, it was a bitter anguish, he had never known before."

Trying a last rapprochement with Rebecca, I bunked lectures, and after taking the train through to Lyttelton, we launched across to Diamond Harbour for a picnic lunch. We swam but hardly touched. And then talked. Her passion cooled, she offered friendship. My desire still uncontrolled, I offered to give up the Ministry for her - a gesture which excited her. However, it backfired: "I cannot ask this of you". Miserably we trailed back to town.

With medication, common sense asserted itself. There were exams to pass, only three weeks away. I tried to catch up on the work. I went home for the recess. Mum worried about my health, fed me up as I swotted flat out. Back for the exams, I found I had done enough to pass the history and the political science. Ancient History proved a breeze, I flew through, but of course did not write about the heresies free-floating in my mind. The point was to pass the exam. I went home for the summer wiser, sadder. My fellow theological students had miserable exam results, nearly all failed most of their units. The Presbyterian Church's insistence on a rigorous academic training was at a cost. They were more secure in their beliefs. Aware of the fragile nature (and I was feeling unworthy as a result of the failed relationship) of my faith I had the skill of passing exams.

Over the summer break physical work proved restorative; satisfaction in a few well-aimed cuts and the tree toppling exactly as planned, a patch of blackberry curling up after being sprayed, and classing the wool. Yes, I would go on to train. I had survived a rite of passage.

Monday, January 11, 2010

An Unlikely Tandem: Tennis & Taxes

I’ve been watching on TV the women’s tennis in Auckland. The men’s tournament begins today. In my youth I played a lot of tennis.

Wellington has the reputation as the windy city. It’s true. But to date this summer it has been windier than usual. I long for a few still days. [I wrote this in the morning. Mid-afternoon it’s windless.] One particular long-ago wind-gust is etched into my memory banks. It happened on the Birdling’s Flat school tennis courts.

A bonus when I switched from Little River to Okuti school was the tennis court alongside the school. With only fifteen pupils. I was one of the seniors. Almost every fine day I spent lunch-hour on the court playing. I was never a powerful player but had guile and a good eye so I did reasonably well as my game improved.

Three days before I finished my primary schooling we went to Birdling’s Flat for a tennis tournament between the local schools. The forecast had predicted a southerly storm but it was a calm hot day. To my surprise I reached the boy’s final. Ahead 5 games to 4 I was serving and leading forty love. In today’s parlance I thought I’m home and hosed. But my opponent changed his tactics. Returning my service he rushed to the net and I could not volley past him. Deuce! Advantage receiver! In desperation I went for a high lob. I saw his face as he realised he couldn’t retrieve it in time. At that precise moment the southerly buster arrived and the gale-force wind blew my ball out of court. With the wind whipping around us we played on. I never won another point. The hard knocks of childhood.

At Akaroa District High the south courts were very handy. So we often played during the break. Tennis was also played during summer physical education lessons – for a small group of boys and girls as a game it was a better leveller than cricket.

I boarded at the north end of the town. My landlady’s place had a gate leading to the tennis courts at that end. There most afternoons after school a small group of us gathered to play; a mixture of ages from the high, primary and convent. Play is the operative word – teen-agers as we now know them had not been invented. We were children, country bumpkins, having fun. For two years I spent a great amount of time on those courts. For my last year at Akaroa I boarded at Barry’s Bay and caught the school bus so I then only played tennis when at school. Thereafter I’ve rarely played.

Politics as it is played in our neck of the woods is rather like a tennis game. The ball goes from the left court to the right court and vice versa. At present our particular set is in the right court. The recession is being lauded as the reasons for cuts in public expenditure. Politics has always been about choice. Part of the party political divide is how the concept of obligation is determined.

When introducing his latest budget proposals, California Governor Arnold Schwatzenegger had this to say: ‘The current tax and budget system is cruel. It is cruel because it is forcing us to make a Sophie’s Choice amongst our obligations. Which child do we cut? Is it the poor one or the sick one? Is it the uneducated one or is the one with special needs?’ The hard knocks of adulthood.

The comment reflects an American dilemma – the recession has led to a huge decline in state revenue. Nationwide, expenditure on critical services is being slashed, education, health, welfare, public transport and corrections are all affected. A New York Times columnist says ‘this is not a disaster waiting to happen. It’s under way.’

To this bear of very little economic brain it seems to me that cuts in public expenditure only increase the downward spiral. If people don’t have an income they will not spend. Accordingly there will be less tax intake. I accept it’s a wilderness of mirrors and that people dislike paying taxes. But a narrow intepretation of obligation means distress and discomfort to a greater number.

Our situation is similar to the USA and yet at the same time dissimilar. Apparently, our unemployment increase is easing and the housing market is improving. It concerns me that the rhetoric around suggests a tough budget for us this year. Balance the books, yes. Attempt to cut waste and inefficiency, yes. Certainly see if a more effective tax system can be devised. But is it wise to do such things at the expense of public services? When a Republican governor uses the word ‘cruel’ I think we should take note.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Machine Gun & She, to Him


Steve Braunias writes in today’s Sunday paper that ‘old age is the price we pay for maturity.’ These two poems continue the dialogue I’ve had going on this topic over some recent blogs. The first was written in the full flush of erotic love when I started living with Anne. It encapsulates the intensity and involvement of a particular afrernoon. The second I stumbled across and liked very much the other day when I was reading Hardy’s poems.


Your tits smile
through your blue
sweater as I accede
to Patrick’s request
to make a machine gun

less than an hour ago
we had our burst of action

I get involved
in the intricacy
of wood, saw, old towel
rail as barrel, and good
rimu tongue and groove

less than an hour ago
it was all tongue and groove

Harvey McQueen


WHEN you shall see me lined by tool of Time,
My lauded beauties carried off from me,
My eyes no longer stars as in their prime,
My name forgot of Maiden Fair and Free;

When in your being heart concedes to mind,
And judgment, though you scarce its process know,
Recalls the excellencies I once enshrined,
And you are irked that they have withered so:

Remembering that with me lies not the blame,
That Sportsman Time but rears his brood to kill,
Knowing me in my soul the very same--
One who would die to spare you touch of ill!--
Will you not grant to old affection's claim
The hand of friendship down Life's sunless hill?

Thomas Hardy

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Genetic Goulash

The title? It’s hardly relevant to the first part of this blog but it’s such an irresistibly rich word combination that I felt I must use it.

Today, a morning’s pleasure! Anne drove me to the botanic garden for morning tea under green-leaved grape-vines with a view over the rose beds - still in ample flower - to Tinakori Hill. A big adventure for me nowadays. Leisurely groups of Wellingtonians of mixed ages mingled with grey-haired tour groups.

She bought rocket seedlings on the way home - a role change. She is now the gardener. Once here, out came the gone-to-seed parsley and coriander in a pot and in went the rocket. Beware of white butterflies I warn.

Her pride and joy at present is a hanging basket of small tomatoes. It’s full of flowers and the promise of fruit but needs watering three times a week. Being a gardener means extra responsibilities. Anne’s a quick learner. The Lebanese cucumber she planted has already yielded two for our table and today she picked the first of the yellow courgettes. She’s marinating it in an Italian way we’ve done for years – with salt, pepper, olive oil, a dash of vinegar and finely cut garlic and mint. She’s muttering about trying lemon juice instead of the vinegar.

For years I alternated those two large pots, tulips in winter and spring, courgettes in the summer. I’m pleased Anne’s continuing the tradition and am delighted she’s planted a cucumber in one of the pots. You’ve arrived as a cook or gardener when you start experimenting.

Great! Geoff fixed up the date on my blog. Instead of showing American time it is now on New Zealand time. Automatically every date adjusted, Christmas Day is now on Christmas Day. Not those, however, on the few occasions I’ve typed one into the text. We couldn’t solve the automatic shift of lines to the left margin. This means it’s difficult to put up free verse in that the look of the page on the blog is not as the poet has presented it.

I’m reading Ranulph Fiennes’ ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen; An Expedition Around My Family’, a book lent by Oliver. The second paragraph describes the English as a genetic goulash; a choice of words which tickles my fancy. It knocks for six any concept of the master race. It’s a rollicking romp through English history told through the lens of a family tree.

Fiennes can trace his ancestry back to Charlemagne, the Frank ruler crowned Holy Roma Emperor on Christmas Day 800. What a lineage to possess. His ancestors fought on both sides at the battle of Hastings and have been part and parcel of the English ruling class ever since. And for that matter, for while the French nobility.

The book’s more than a history of the family. It’s a potted history of England, William 11 mysteriously killed by an arrow in the New Forest, John being forced to sign the Magna Carta and Edward 11 losing the battle of Bannockburn. Fiennes likes heroic deeds and aggressive men. Medieval history as taught for decades was dominated by bloody battles with to us now a strange set of rules of chivalry. It was not a pleasant age if you were caught amidst the machinations of the mighty.

I did not know the story of the six burghers of Calais though I have seen replicas of Rodin’s famous statue. After slaughtering the French at Crecy, Edward 111 laid seige to Calais. Medieval custom was that if a town did not capitulate early the victorious troops could sack it. The governor of Calais hung on for a year believing the French King would come to his rescue. That gentlemen licking his wounds in Paris did not want to chance his arm against the English again so soon.

So the governor had to surrender. To save his townsfolk from massacre, rape and pillage he pleaded with English king. Edward agreed to waver the customary right on a condition – he would put six prominent burghers to death. To Edward’s surprise, indeed chagrin, six burghers volunteered – to save their fellow citizens they were prepared to sacrifice their own lives. But, when the burghers appeared before him as instructed nearly naked and ready for execution the queen interceded pleading for their lives. The king angrily told her he wished she had not been present but reluctantly acceded to her request,

I give an example of Fiennes' style. 'Prince Hal, the grandson of Maud Fiennes, was crowned in the midst of a snowstorm, as king Henry V.'

I wonder if England’s present snowstorm heralds another ara of greatness?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Red Dress

Over the last few blogs I’ve engaged in a dialogue over youth and old age. This poem of Elizabeth Smither’s is an apt summary - the later ample and satisfied years, covetous while at the same time rather smug at the recall of youthful enthusiasm. We all have in various symbolic forms our red dresses, exiled by time and experience from that younger self with its sense of promise and expectation.


When I was young I bought
uncompleted things: records
without a record player
a dress without shoes.

I could not let the impulse go
the red dress, the Enesco rhapsody
Beethoven's Ninth with Toscanini
a silver sheath that needed strappy shoes.

Half of the purchase at least was hope:
the red dress might sweep someone off their feet
(without shoes). The sheath shine
like moonlight across a crowded room.

Now I hesitate and match. No CD
is unplayed and gathers dust
in a box under a bed. I'm not saving for
a recording of the last quartets.

And yet, and this is my regret
the hesitancy leads to something less:
complete, useful, well- accomplished
but nothing like the daring of my red dress.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Turakirae Head

Turakirae Head

Surveying me
through the periscope of his head
Seal said
‘Play the concertina
as I haul myself ashore.

it is difficult to jig
to the tunes of guilt and grief
the causes you’ve forsaken
Instead, try the rhythm of the kelp
to the chatter of the rocks
with the chuckle of the blood
and the pulsing of the surf –
a billion pieces, each in motion.

Then, when
you find that you can do it
let them think that you’ve been touched
life’s a fling and life’s a caper
dance and toss the salt along
only play that concertina
as you haul yourself ashore.’

A few blogs back I wrote about the benefits of old age. That raises the issue has youth got any advantages. The answer is yes. To prove the point I put up this poem written when I was young. It was created in the evening after I'd taken Anne and her two sons to see the seals at Turakirae Head between Wellington Harbour and the Wairarapa. I like that jaunty, optimistic young man.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Alice Munro

“She was learning, quite late, what many people around her appeared to have known since childhood – that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements. It could be brimful of occupations that did not weary you to the bone. Acquiring what you needed for a comfortable, furnished life, and then to take on a social and public life of entertainment, would keep from ever being bored or idle, and would make you feel at the end of the day that you had done exactly what pleased everybody. There need be no agonizing.
Except in the matter of how to get money.’

It’s a good example of a technique – in one short sentence explode or defuse or illuminate or add meaning to the previous passage or passages. There are many better examples in Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, ‘Too Much Happiness’. But that would have meant retelling whole stories.

The quoted passage is in the middle of the title story in the collection. By coincidence – at that stage I had not read this final story - I put on yesterday’s blog comments about the Russian writer Turgenev. Munro’s tale has a Russian protagonist travelling in Europe and its style carries the feeling and flavour of that nation’s 19th century writing. Rarely does Munro stray in her settings from the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. It’s not comfort zone, it’s the amount of material than can be quarried. Her tone, crisp as the Canadian climate, uses the detail of her life in a non-revelatory manner. In this particular story, on a wider canvas, Munro projects her normal interests and concerns - a successful experiment that leaves me wishing she had done it at least a little more.

I wrote glowingly about Alice Munro in my blog of 28 May 2009. I’m grateful to Fiona Kidman who first suggested that I read her work. I’ve always found her writing rewarding and I revelled in this new collection. Rarely do I put down a tale of hers without feeling sad at being human, and yet at the same time extremely glad to be human. A reviewer says you finish a Munro story and close the book and feel less lonely than you did before you read it. I’m not sure, I sense I feel lonelier than before but also more humble about the variety of the human spirit.

Yes, that’s the way things happen. We are individual in a community – we belong but are unique. Experience shapes us. It’s all presented so subtly and gracefully. Few writers have her skill at denoting space, place and time. In a kitchen and then suddenly a bedroom. The linkage is there but so effortless and swift it happens in the blink of a phrase. And every tale is different. I liked ‘Some Women’ in this collection. It is an unusually straight narrative except for the opening paragraph and the concluding sentence. A story within two bookends that collectively forms a different unit.

If you’ve not read Munro before, this is probably not the best book to start with for it is blacker and more gothic than earlier ones. There are three murders. Mortal fear exists and birth defects exist. But none of the characters shake their fists at the universe about the indignity of their situation. The author precisely dissects how events unearth fresh understandings. For that reason alone this book is well worth reading. They're damn good stories in their own right as well.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fathers and Sons

Do I regret being old. No! The regret is in the infirmity that accompanies my particular old age. I'll use one example to illustrate my strong statement.

While I was a student at Christchurch Boys’s High I mowed three lawns (two shillings and sixpence each) on Saturday to get pocket money. The history master suggested we read a Russian novel when we studied19th century Russia. I read Dostevsky’s 'Crime and Punishment' – translated of course - and was hooked. I spent my pocket money buying and exploring his other novels. The tumultuous torrent of his prose swept me along. Nothing in my experience fitted his world. Years later when I reread them, especially 'The Brothers Karamazov' and 'The Idiot' I still found the mystery and strange extremes of emotion and ideas excitingly compelling. That literary love affair led me naturally on to Tolstoy and the great panoramic sweeps of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Kareinna'.

In the year I trained to be a secondary school teacher as a history graduate I was placed in the Social Studies group. We were urged to do further university study. I asked to do Russian. My tutor reacted scornfully. “What for?” My reply was honest. “I want to read Russian writers in the original.” Their response was understandable. I was going to teach New Zealand secondary students. “You have no geography in your degree. You need some. We’re enrolling you for Geography 1.” So much for the romantic longings of a late adolescent.

When I started teaching I could afford to buy more books. Reputedly, Turgenev was the third great 19th century Russian novelist so I bought a couple. But he didn’t grab me as the other two had. Too gentlemanly, too reserved, nothing much seemed to happen, everything seemed to be an understatement, love seemed destined to fail. Strange! I admired the novels of Dostovesky - a religious fanatic and nationalistic bigot - ahead of the novels of the cultured liberal and strong opponent of serfdom. There was a famous quarrel between the two writers where Dostoevsky suggested the Turgenev would see Russia better if he got a telescope.

The foreword to Turgenev’s 'Fathers and Sons' had a quotation from a lecture given by Turgenev which helps explain the difference between the two writers. He said everyman was either Don Quixote - certain of their beliefs and acting without fear of consequence – or Hamlet - contemplative, sceptical and ironic. Now, I realise both are two male fictitious, fantasy figures but as a young man I found the division intriguing. Of course, it’s rarely one extreme or the other, most of us are somewhere along a continuum. Further, it’s a moveable feast. But at that stage of my life I firmly believed I was a Hamlet. I spent hours looking at my existence through that lens - a waste of time.

Turgenev’s division into these two extremes is more singularly Russian than British colonial. My development and temperament steered me towards a more practical, pragmatic existence. Turgenev might be like Hamlet in that he was an equivocater. My farming upbringing while it didn’t stop me day-dreaming did give me habits of persistence, punctuality, and reliability. As a teacher there were lessons to prepare, homework to be marked, university texts to be swotted, and sports teams to be coached. Marriage added another set of responsibilities, garden to be dug, hedge to be cut, car to be washed, mortgage to be paid though undoubtedly, the bookish side of my character puts me more on the Hamlet side of the spectrum.

Last summer I reread 'Fathers and Sons' with much more enjoyment and satisfaction. When I first read it, while I found concepts of liberalism and Slavic nationalism credible – even so I didn’t really understand them - I found that of nihilism just unrealistic. Now I realise it was a stepping stone towrds modern existentialism. The hero s wilful denial of his feelings seemed stupid as did his denial of the power of art or poetry. I enjoyed rereading it much more when older. It captures that sense of living on the edge of an abyss – Turgenev’s word - that is elusive but always there. It was more Russian than I’d realised, but also more universal.

When that young man first read that novel he knew death was certain but the odds were that it was some way far ahead. Now as my own gets closer I find myself understanding more the 19th century preoccupation with it. And the horror and fear without faith. The novel’s farcical duel was not as I first thought romantic twaddle, it was a form of dicing with death, Russian roulette involving two people. The hero’s succumbing to typhus at the end of the novel is par for the course. How can a nihilistic atheist think of death as anything but random, a terrible and stupid waste? Heroic death was not an option in this instance. I realised my stoicism rather than his despair was my buttress.

My country childhood days were punctuated with births, weddings and funerals. Mortality was seen as part of a cycle. Every now and then in the city a funeral cortege would go past. Men would doff their hats, traffic would stop and there was silence to respect the dead. Those days are long gone. Death has always bothered humanity. Medieval theologians wrote treatises about it, there were manuals on how to die properly. Then, young, mature, the old, all were vulnerable. Plagues lurked and pounced on individuals and civilisations. Modern civilization with its gadgetry tries to ignore death. And therefore aging because it is an unfortunate reminder of that certain inevitability. We have moved a long way from Alexander Pope’s 'this long disease, my life'.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Debt blowouts and private schools

The media has been on the warpath about the family debt blowout over the last four years. It’s the latest beat-up. Whipping boy or stalking horse – take your pick. I’m a depression baby, so I’ve always been canny about expenditure. If I can’t afford something I don’t buy it and I know about delaying gratification. But I suspect younger generations have grown up with a different mind-set. Saving for a rainy day is now a lesser part of the psyche, national or individual. There’s an intriguing double-standard here.

There was a recent talk on the radio about happiness. The speaker claimed there was less today. It’s hard to quantify such feelings. But from my vintage it seems to me that for years the advertising industry has worked hard to leave us feeling dissatisfied and therefore want to buy products to ease that feeling. Collectively we’ve bought that message. Wrinkles on your face – that’s the end, sexually. Your car doesn’t corner well - buy ours, it will. It takes time to cook a meal on your own – buy ours, it’ll make you instantly part of the group. Do you believe your cat is happy with its present food – content your kitten with this scientific balanced diet. You deserve a better home. And exciting holidays. And so on.

Possession does not guarantee happiness. I accept that poverty makes it difficult, indeed in instances renders it impossible. With that fear lurking the dissatisfaction industry has the seedbed to render its claims credible. Happiness like astonishment does not come in league tables. It is not a competitive game.

At a different but relevant tangent I’ve learnt that with no press fanfare or critical comment the Government has set aside $2.6 million to enable Year 9, 10 and 11 students to attend private schools. State aid for private schools! Is the Government saying state schools aren’t good enough? There is this myth that private schools are better. Again it is a target of the dissatisfaction industry. Public health bad! Private health good! Public schools bad! Private Schools good! Scholarships for smart students; a rerun of the 19th century.

The belief underlining the policy is that the state school system is no good. Where’s the evidence that private schools are better? Where is value addition at its greatest. When I was in the secondary inspectorate I visited private schools; a few were excellent, some were good, a handful mediocre and one or two of a standard of which we were very critical. State schools had the same range. The belief is an American import. Their system cannot be compared with ours, it’s comparing oranges with bananas they are so dissimilar.

The policy will mean some of their best students will leave state schools as they reach the higher levels depriving them of leadership, scholarship and sporting skills. It denies the concept of neighbourhood schools? It devalues the work of thousands of hard-working teachers.

Schools reflect the socio-economic background of their students. To increase the intellectual grunt at the higher levels of the private schools will inflate their examination results. This in turn will become self-perpetuating.

I rarely use this word for policy. I do for this one. Humbug!

Bernadette Hall

I’ve been dipping into poet Bernardette Hall’s ‘The Lustre Jug’ another Christmas present. I had greatly enjoyed her previous volume ‘The Ponies’ with poems about her visit to Antarctica. This one has poems from her six months on the Rathcoola Fellowship in southern Ireland. Fiona Farrell had a similar stay. The poetry from her experience tended to stress the historical aspect. Hall’s poems inhabit the same place – especially the 19th century potato famine - but they somehow experience the space with a sense of intimacy; it’s where ‘foxgloves are heliotrope thimbles’ and ‘raindrops slide down strings of sunlight’.

The second section of the book begins with poems set in Australia, the brightness of bougainvillea and jacaranda contrasting with the rain-washed green of Ireland. There are pelicans in the land shaped like an angelfish. And then moves to her homeland - crisp, complex, colourful poems full of life. Hall's good at celebrating love as the title poem illustrates. Here is a love poem of hers from an earlier collection which I have always liked ever since I first read it.


the best way yet of testing
it is to put you on a list
e.g. of Akaroa roses:

'solfaterre' a creamy noisette
climbing Napoleon's willow
grown from a slip from St Helena

'souvenir de malmaison'
a true bourbon flowering more
than once a year

'antonia d'ormois'
a blush-white pretty flower
with clear green shoots

'banksia' cascading double white
from Lombardy poplars

'alberic barbier'
yellow buds opening to creamy
white with the fragrance
of green apples

'charles de mills'
tough dark-green leaves
drooping from the mid-rib

'celine forestier'
quartered with flat incurved petals
instead of stamens, a button eye
& the fragrance of spiced tea

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ponting's Photograph

Eight Commonwealth women have sledged to the South Pole. A century ago that feat had never been achieved. During my childhood I read every account I could find about Scott’s ill-fated expedition. Ponting’s photographs assisted the words. Part of the fascination was the knowledge that five of the party would die on their return trek from the South Pole.

So it was with interest several years ago I read Spufford’s fascinating book ‘I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination.’ It had Ponting’s most famous photograph. Taken from the frozen sea-ice at the foot of a glacier, the camera was stationed far enough back to register the glacier top on the plate, along with a slender slice of night sky. It shows the whole height of the ice cliff, a chasmed surface.

At the bottom, some way out from the glacier foot, there is a man hitched to a sledge. He is tiny. Closer examination proves he is not real, but a silhouette inked onto the print, posed there to give an indication of scale, like the small coin placed next to a champion pumpkin, his six feet giving the measure for the glacier’s hundreds.

The glacier’s imperturbable grandeur contrasts this emblematic man’s smallness. The picture dramatises the struggle, which will be based upon the difference of size between men and landscape. It sets the men up, of course, for the start of what was at that stage planned to be a successful journey. Ponting took the photograph before they began. It’s an iconic image - the sublime glacier’s indifference to human efforts.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Three entrees before the main course.

a) Yesterday, New Year’s Day, Anne cooked sauerbraten for dinner – very tasty. She’d made a batch of gingerbread so a few pieces added to the flavour of the sauce. It was an appropriate meal – our German friends Ulrike and Matthias rang early from Berlin – it was great to hear from them.

b) This day last year I had my worse fall. It was not a good start to the year for I sprained the tendon that links hip to spine. It took over a month for the pain to subside. The odds are with my condition I’ll have another fall this year though I try to take good care to avoid one.

c) There are two things that irritate me about this blog. First, the dating – it’s American time. Second, lines of poetry always move to the left, which means free verse does not appear as I have typed it.

d) My New Year’s Eve blog talked about Cleopatra. In my salad days I wrote a poem questioning the legend. Here it is.


The fuss is beyond me –
the bitch is dead,
tomorrow we return to Rome.

Years since I’ve seen the kids
and the missus. One night
stands seldom satisfy –

be good to be back.
Bleak here, sand and wind;
Octavius is right – bloody savages.

When she tried her wiles on him
(didn’t waste her time on likes
of me) he told her, poison or

in chains to Rome and furthermore
he didn’t want her – even as his
whore. That stung her. He just

walked out while she screamed
at him. Later, showed her true
colours: insisted on full regalia.

We munched figs – raided from
the palace courtyard – while we
waited. Even with the maids

dead about her feet, still she
tarried. We forced the potion
down her throat. From her wrist

I nicked two pearls – no further
use to her. Now they talk
of a snake in a fig basket.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Gooseberry Pie

For New Year's Eve Anne made one of my favourite desserts - gooseberry pie. With cream. I finished it off for lunch today. I love the bitter sweet clash - it's a combination Chinese cuisine discovered centuries ago. It's the end of the season but a damn good way to finish 2009.

January 1 1998

It's interesting to look back. On I January 1998 I began a diary. I stopped writing it when I was hospitalised on Anzac Day 2007. Here's that first day eleven years ago.

Having reached 63 and a quarter years and thereby becoming a superannuant and having just retired from my full-time job as executive director of the New Zealand Council for Teacher Education I have decided to keep a diary. The only definite thing about the forthcoming year is that it will be different. Off to the office at eight and returning just before six is over. So is having a PA to do all the mundane tasks. If I get contract work I will continue to buy books. If I don’t I will be reduced to reading those we already possess. Either way a win/win situation.

What else does the new year hold? Abroad the meltdown of the Asian markets will have long-term consequences. At home racial tension looks like intensifying. Politically, will Jenny Shipley last? Will I?

We are in Auckland, staying at Rosemary Stagg’s lovely sun-drenched Browns Bay pole house, surrounded by native trees, which help keep it cool and frame the view of the sea. The only fly in the ointment is a tui. Usually they are melodious but this one must have learnt its call from the mynahs - the most ugly squawk you’ve ever heard. When we arrived and Rosemary said she could wring its neck we were both a little shocked. Now we understand as it scolds in the morning.

Rosemary left mid-morning to go a bach down the Coromadel. A beautiful hot day, every window and door open and the two cats Scooter and Buttercup seeking the shade. I wonder how our two, Dorothy and William (named after the Wordsworths, she’s plump and placid and he whines a lot), are surviving the Wadestown cattery. We only left on Monday and today is Thursday.

I have just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s 'Alias Grace' – a powerful book. Women’s lot in the 19th century left a lot to be desired. And the class system. Usually after a book that grips me I seek something lighter so I picked up one of Rosemary’s 'Under the Tuscan Sun' by Frances Mayes. Three months in Tuscany, the rest of the time at San Francisco University. Suppose it is part of the class-system of our global society. The only thing I ask of academics is that they realise what a fortunate life they lead. The book brought back memories of our own stay in Italy in 1989.

Anne went off to take her mother for a drive and then brought her back, very frail and tottery. We amused her with colourful cookery books - Rosemary has the best library of these in New Zealand and is a superlative cook as well – until Anne’s sister Susan rang to say they were back from their Wenderholme picnic. We drove round picking up Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way. Mrs Matthews tires very quickly so we took her home at about 8 30 to a lovely sunset and us on to Browns Bay and a night-time read of Italian living. For me a lazy beginning for 1998.