Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Rare Moment

Seven years ago, my diary for 28 February 2003 reads:
‘In the evening we visited Fran and Howard who live nearby and had just sold their house to celebrate with them. When we got home after ten our house was very hot, indeed the hall gauge showed 26 degrees. So we opened the doors and sat on the patio seat, a whisky nightcap for me, tonic with a twist of a lemon from our tree for Anne. We left the house lights on but did not put the patio ones on. There was interplay of light and shadow on the patio and surrounding shrubs. The white nicotiana and alyssum and variegated flax glowed in the reflected light. Overhead were the stars, part of my childhood sky but rarely noticed in the city. The air remained absolutely still for about ten minutes. There was movement, Dorothy padded out of the bushes to flop down quietly by our feet and moths fluttered over the lawn and around the flowers. One of the beauties of moths and butterflies is their silent flight. We just sat there contemplating the surroundings. There was no sound. Then with a gentle stirring of air, the mildest of breezes arrived, touching the pittospernum leaves. "That was a moment of absolute perfection," Anne said. We remained outside as it continued warm, talking far into the night.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Work in Progress

As Doty says ‘a poem is always a made version of experience.’ Here’s my latest, unfinished at this stage. On Thursday Paul took me to the hospital for my six-monthly respiratory check-up, a four-hour process. ‘You’ll have to write a poem about the waiting room’ he said.

When I got home I tried but it was going nowhere. Poems cannot be produced on demand. But then two thoughts coalesced. A few days earlier I’d jotted down some thoughts about the garden. And last year when my mother was dying I’d written a few lines. If I combined the three I could create a narrative. Like all fiction it is true and not-true. I’m unhappy about the Muse – an abstraction amidst concrete details. Sooner or later I’ll find an appropriate metaphor to link the thoughts.

Alien Actuality

At home after the tense
boredom of the hospital
waiting room, interior
minds sitting each in its
own space, I contemplate
the alien actuality of an
orange gerbera, a present
hastily heeled in, now
dominant in the petunia
patch. A monarch flutters
past, cabbage trees stark
against a cloudless sky.
The Muse proclaims sit
& sing of defiant Gods
but then the phone rings
to say she’s sinking fast.

Harvey McQueen

After I'd put this up I sat there thinking how much my daily blog has become part of my present life. This poem popped into my mind. Here it is unaltered in the writing down.

An Old Man Starts To Blog

Metal bars rattle the cattle stop
Weeping willows trail the Avon
Kids crowd school corridors
Imposing ruins rise to Grecian skes
Meetings plod through afternoons
Now, he pursues the power of audience.

Harvey McQueen

Friday, February 26, 2010


Geoff has shown me how to put pictures on the blog. Here's us at Christmas in a photo taken by Bill.

Goya Rules

I received advance copies of my new poetry collection Goya Rules.

Mark Doty

Vince lent me ‘Fire to Fire’, new and selected poems by Mark Doty an American. From the moment I dipped randomly into them I was hooked. Descriptive power, based on close observation with a sense of connectivity are his striking characteristics. I’m impressed with his empathy for animals.

Two dogs show affection in different ways. One buries his head into his master’s clothes. The other
‘Beau, had another idea. He’d offer his rump
for scratching, and wags his tail while he was stroked,
returning that affection by facing away, looking out
toward whatever might come along to enjoy.’

A friend has a friend who is dying. He has got rid of his dog and cats but is persuaded to get a goldfish for some company. Doty tells of reading a story about a Zen master who on his death thought about a deer he used to feed and so came back as a ‘stunning fawn’. The poem concludes
‘So Maggie’s friend –
is he going out

into the last loved object
of his attention?
Fanning the veined translucence

of an opulent tail,
undulant in some uncapturable curve,
is he bronze chrysanthemums,

copper leaf, hurried, darting,
doubloons, icon-cloured fins
troubling the water.’

On his web-site Doty has an essay, ‘Souls on Ice.’ In it he describes the process of creating a particular poem. Here is a paragraph from the essay: ‘Of course my process of unfolding the poem wasn't quite this neat. There were false starts, wrong turnings that I wound up throwing out when they didn't seem to lead anywhere. I can't remember now, because the poem has worked the charm of its craft on my memory; it convinces me that it is an artifact of a process of inquiry. The drama of the poem is its action of thinking through a question. Mimicking a sequence of perceptions and meditation, it tries to make us think that this feeling and thinking and knowing is taking place even as the poem is being written. Which, in a way, it is --just not this neatly or seamlessly! A poem is always a made version of experience.

Here is a full poem, which is from that site.


LOST COCKATIEL, cried the sign, hand-lettered,
taped to the side of a building: last seen on 16th

between Fifth and Sixth, gray body, orange cheek patches,
yellow head. Name: Omar. Somebody's dear, I guess,

though how do you lose a cockatiel on 16th Street?
Flown from a ledge, into the sky he's eyed

for months or years, into the high limbs of the ginkgos,
suddenly free? I'm looking everywhere in the rustling

globes and spires shot through with yellow,
streaking at the edges, for any tropic flash of him. Why

should I think I'd see him, in the vast flap this city is?
Why wander Chelsea when that boy could be up and gone,

winging his way to Babylon or Oyster Bay,
drawn to some magnet of green. Sense to go south?

Not likely; Omar's known the apartment and the cage,
picked his seeds from a cup, his fruits and nuts from the hand

that anchored him -- and now he's launched, unfindable,
no one's baby anymore but one bit…

Think of the great banks of wires and switches
in the telephone exchange, every voice and signal

a little flicker lighting up -- that's Omar now,
impulse in the propulsive flow. Who'll ever know?

Then this morning we're all in the private commuter blur
when a guy walks into the subway car whistling,

doing birdcalls: he's decked in orange and lime,
a flag pluming his baseball cap; he's holding out a paper cup

while he shifts from trills to caws. Not much of a talent,
I think, though I like his shameless attempt at charm,

and everybody's smiling covertly, not particularly tempted
to give him money. Though one man reaches into his pocket

and starts to drop some change into the cup,
and our Papageno says, "That's my coffee, man,

but thanks, God bless you anyway,”
and lurches whistling out the door.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Butterflies, Marigolds and Tomatoes

Yesterday afternoon was lovely and warm. Outside I saw the first monarch butterfly of the season. I also noticed another strange butterfly fluttering past. I know that New Zealand does not have many butterflies - only 17 have been recorded, some very rare, compared with Britain’s 69.

Research suggests the this one was probably a glabe copper. The same research reveals that the one which up till now I’ve called a red admiral is probably a New Zealand copper. Apparently the red admiral larva requires nettles, and as far as I know there is none around here. The other possibility is a painted lady, a recent immigrant from Australia.

The gloomy summer has meant few ripening tomatoes on the two plants that Anne has in pots. Lots of flowers and green ones. When I used to grow them in the old house veggie patch, I planted African marigolds alongside as companion plants to repel eelworms and insect pests. It’s not just eelworms that this plant repels. No dog will cock its leg over it either. This marigold actually comes from Central America; the Spanish took it home and from there it was taken to North Africa, where it did very well. When botanists found it there, they assumed it was a native.

The tomato also originally came from Central America. Once an Italian restaurateur told us proudly that the tomato had been the secret of Italian cuisine ever since Ancient Rome became a republic. I didn’t have the heart to disillusion him.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Full Life

‘The golden fleece did not power the boom, but it did provide the main life-raft when the boom ended.’ This is the end of a section called ‘The Golden Fleece’ from James Belich’s ‘Replenishing the Earth’. I had understood the merino flocks were the cause of the prosperity of 19th century Australia. Belich paints a different picture.

Belich as always is stimulating. He provides an economic history underpinning to a story I roughly knew. Jan Morris’s history of the British Empire was guns and glory. Belich’s account of the Anglo settlement of what he calls the British West is data and detail while his description of the similar American West migration fills in large holes in my knowledge of USA history.

He’s slow going though. Very dense and so jam-packed is his narrative that I have to consciously remain in a slow reading gear. My reading life is getting complicated. Tom dropped four books off last night. I have three of Pam’s. Bill has lent me another on Venice. Anne has four review novels which I want to read, plus the Kingsolver I gave her for Christmas. My 'to read' shelf is over-flowing.

As it is life is fairly topsy-turvy at present. Anne’s away in Tauranga so Jo is house-sitting. Then Susanna my care-giver is on leave. Christina her temporary replacement comes early, before eight-o-clock. So I’ve had to rearrange my morning. It’s hard for an old dog to change his habits. I’m out of kilter and forgetting to shave or take my tablets.

To complicate matters the hospital has just rung. Tomorrow’s appointments have been transferred from two in the afternoon to eight in the morning. Christina is coming now at 6 30. Anne will be back but is seeing someone from Waikato University so I’ve made arrangements for Paul to take me. It was an exhilarating half an hour on the phone.

As well as reading Belich, I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics. Last evening I watched breathtaking free dance ice-skating, The American pair were unbeatable I thought. But then a Canadian couple Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir outdid them before an ecstatic home crowd. The previous day a Russian pair had won the compulsory dance section but they couldn’t compete with the two North American couples in the free dance.

I’ve also been pigging out on nostalgic DVDs, especially ‘Dad’s Army’. I have joined up with Fatso in a scheme where I am able to have three disks out at a time. But I’ve enjoyed re-seeing ‘The Cruel Sea’ and ‘Genevieve’ while Deborah Kerr as a nun in ‘Black Narcissus’ (which I hadn’t seen) was miles more erotic than most modern actresses. I must say I found Woody Allen’s latest 'Vicky, Christina, Barcelona' very disappointing. So life is full.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Young Hedgehog

I have not seen a hedgehog where we now live, whereas in our two previous previous places they were fairly common. I never minded them. They ate snails and other bugs. Once, one fell from an overhanging bank into the compost bin. It had eaten royally on worms and the household refuge for a while but it had compacted the soil in its frantic efforts to get out. Hedgehogs are good climbers - if they tumble they form a ball, and the quills cushion the impact. But the smooth sides of the bin gave the poor creature no footage. At my approach it rolled into a ball. I got the coal shovel and lifted it to safety. Here’s a poem I wrote years ago.

A young hedgehog
paddles across
the patio unaware
that the wind has
dropped & sea-mist
drifts below an
orange sunset.

Across the goat
universe we journey
flesh and talent

the animal attempts
the brick steps, with
a final heave, scrambles
over the top.

latest says “in this
love business, boy
things are never just
what you want - not for
more than a day or two
in a decade, I reckon.”

The animal nuzzles past
butterbean and broccoli
whipped wicked in last
night’s storm…
Socks and jealousy.

it would be great to be
indifferent, cataract
& rapid emptied into
the moon-tossed ocean.
Instead we harbour
puritan prickles

The small creature
moves under the garden
shed, I can hear it
munching beetles and snails.

I have no idea what prompted the line ‘socks and jealousy’. But I still have a clear mental picture of that half-grown hedgehog clambering up those steps, impressive in its brute determination and power. I think I have fewer prickles now.

One morning at our previous house on the back lawn there was a whale of a racket coming from under a camellia tree. I went exploring. A hedgehog pair were having sex. My arrival interrupted them; they separated quickly and scuttled off. Pity, if I’d gone more quietly I might have seen what was happening. I’ve always wondered how they manage with all those prickles. I moved after them and sensing my approach, this time each curled up into a ball. Dorothy, our cat, stepped around them warily. I just stayed still. Slowly they uncurled, beady eyes measuring distances, then they made a run for it. Dorothy gave them right of way.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Supply Preaching

As a young man it was my intention to be a Presbyterian minister. During the winter of 1956 I went out from Canterbury University to my first supply preaching, three whistle-stop services in one Sunday, Sheffield, Hororata and Greendale. My sermon topic, "the Patience of God" indicates that I realised my own impatience needed dealing with. I took the train out on Saturday. A gaunt farmer met me to drive me to his home and equally gaunt wife. In their big, spare bedroom with the embroidered texts on the walls and a photograph of their son killed in the recent war, I couldn't sleep. Despite the hot water bottle the high-studded room was mid-winter freezing. My mood - "imposter syndrome" - was one of apprehension, and a realisation what the pastoral role would entail, consoling grief-stricken people like as my hosts. It would not all be intellectual cut and thrust.

Next morning, however, the church was warm - the boiler had been put on early. I entered the pulpit in my undergraduate's gown. As the pedal-driven organ wheezed to a stop I stood up to begin my first service. Doubt drained away. I became conscious of an internal monitor assessing my performance, watching congregation reaction and consequently varying pitch and attention. Later, often when teaching, a third level observer appeared checking the monitor's performance and contingency plans. This third observer still reappears frequently but very rarely does the monitor ever shut down.

The hour passed rapidly. Afterwards as I stood round chatting, grateful for my upbringing which enabled me to talk about weather, crops and meat schedules, someone thrust an envelope into my hand: "Your fee". Embarrassing, the relationship between God and Mammon so clearly established. This little divinity student was rather unworldly. We went back to a large meal. Someone called to take me on to Hororata where after a cup of tea I preached to twelve people - and two dogs, who sat in the porch entrance throughout the service.

More tea and cake, before they whirled me on to Greendale and a slighter larger congregation. "The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended; the darkness falls at Thy behest". Afterwards they rushed me down to catch the bus for the short journey back to Christchurch. Back at the hostel, I went for a shower. Two of the roughest hostel diamonds, one a Canterbury rugby forward, both Catholics, were there. "Late for you, where've you been?" they asked. I explained. "Holy hell," one said. Thereafter they treated me - a prospective man of the cloth - with an undeserved respect.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Incredulously, I watched on Parliament’s TV last week, Education Minister Anne Tolley stumble without thought into a trap. It was sad. It was pitiful. Politics is a nasty game. A patsy question, who are the members of a review group to give advice on the implementation of national standards, was easily answered. And then things went wrong. Trevor Mallard asked did the minister understand the inter-moderation of standards between schools.

‘Yes’ said the Minister. The fox was in the poultry pen. Mallard followed up with a series of questions which revealed the minister didn’t have a clue. Her attempts to quantify were laughable. Nimbleness is not her characteristic. There was glee on the Labour benches as she floundered around.

Someone must have given her a message. When Mallard put another question she raised a point of order with the Speaker. The supplementary didn’t arise from the original question. The Speaker pointed out his dilemma. The Minister by answering ‘yes’ had opened the door to such questions. He allowed the question to stand.

Gerry Brownlee, rose to his feet, rule book in hand. Quoting Speaker Algie [who held the position during the fifties] he raised a further point of order. Too late, the damage was done. The Minister was left suggesting Mallard come to her office to seek clarification. An invitation I do not see him taking up.

Last year I watched the Minister being questioning about cuts in night school classes. She just repeated the mantra about Moroccan cooking and belly-dancing classes. Now Stephen Joyce has the tertiary education portfolio. His argument is logical. The Government is in favour of such courses and acknowledges they do good. But the cupboard is bare and priorities have to be made. These programmes unfortunately cannot be supported. I may disagree and argue but I have to accept the rationality of the case. I see few questions from the Opposition on this topic this year.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Books & Animals

This week’s Wellingtonian had articles about two of the city’s institutions which I used to enjoy greatly.

One was Quilter’s second-hand bookshop. I’ve always loved bookshops and browsing in a second-hand one was fun. All sorts of surprises and forgotten treasures. When I was building up a collection of old New Zealand poetry the search gave a focus to visits to other cities. And I recollect with delight two or three small shops in the Shambles in York, England – precarious piles of books with proprietors who knew the location of the title I named.

Quilter’s is one of the best. Ordered, quiet, the great centre table with new acquisitions, the rest alphabetically arranged it was a pleasant place to loiter in. Books that have given others pleasure, words, symbols and images to please or provoke the mind. Immortal stories and passing thoughts. Insight and information. Fascinating out-of-date history and faded art books, once greatly loved. Foolhardiness excluded from autobiographies and misdiagnosed in biographies. Memories and data. Fantasy and certitude. Agitation and conviction. It’s there in bookshops sure but there’s a different atmosphere here, miles from the tabloid world, it’s a serene place to linger and lounge. A space, rather timeless, to revel in being human.

The other place is Wellington zoo. The kiosk/cafĂ© is closing. It is right beside the meerkat enclosure. (My spell-check doesn’t acknowledge this word, instead suggests ‘market’, ‘merchant’ or ‘merest’). It was enjoyable to lick an ice-cream while watching the antics of these little mammals.

From the moment you walk past the beautiful, delicate, golden tamarins to enter the grounds you are removed from the hectic urban scene. Agile, ever-active otters gliding smoothly underwater. Long-limbed monkeys stranded on an island, a pelican standing guard. A one-legged kiwi. Haughty giraffes. Ostrich, such thighs. A muscular tiger, dappled half-god of the undergrowth. A lonely camel. Naughty baboons. Noisy gibbons. Cheetahs lurking in long grass. Cuddly red pandas. Chimps with a view over the city to the harbour – what thoughts flash through their primate brains. Lordly, yawning lions. Conservation programmes galore. I always came away invigorated. The amazing, great variety of the animal kingdom, of which I’m a mere, bit part.

I regret I can no longer visit these two places.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Garden & Planet

For much of the summer a pair of wax-eyes daily visited the abutilon bush seeking nectar and insects. Earlier this week I noticed only one. Tragedy in the bird-world it seemed. Had one of them fallen foul of a cat or some similar fate. But this morning there were two again. Was one merely absent or is it a new partner. Humans record their experiences. We can but conjecture what transpires in the wild animal world.

Kaka from the sanctuary are raising the ire of some local residents by raiding plum trees and stripping the bark off plants as they search for insects. It’s a dilemma with no easy solution. Personally I would be delighted to have kaka on my section but then if I had a plum tree I'd like harvesting my own crop.

Our red rhododendron is flowering. A confusion of seasons. Not so the foxgloves in tree fern corner. The white and pink flowers are bright splashes of colour against the green background. And a late Remember Me rose is out in full glory.

Today's paper has a piece about pukeko being on the menu at the West Coast wild-food festival. I ate pukeko as a boy once. Uncle Charlie shot it during the duck-shooting season. Mum cooked it. my only memory was it tasted gamey like swan.

The critics of global warming are having fun over the very cold snaps over eastern USA and Europe. I suspect ‘warming’ is the wrong word. ‘Change’ would be better. More weather extreme events look in the offing. Australia is in the midst of a terrific drought. There seem to be more hurricanes than in the past.

It’s hard to separate long term trends from day to day occurrences. With nine days to go in the month our February this year has only half the normal amount of sunshine and well under half the rainfall. It’s not the summer idyll that columnists have been warbling about over the last few months.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lean Years

'Lean Years' is the title of a column by David Brooks which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. It’s highly relevant to our own situation though some of his statements are disputable. It's about unemployment and its consequences.

Talking about the American situation he says 'the biggest impact is on men. Over the past few decades, men have lagged behind women in acquiring education and skills. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, at age 22, 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men who have done so. Furthermore, men are concentrated in industries where employment is declining (manufacturing) or highly cyclical (construction).'

He goes on to say, 'in a powerful essay in ‘The Atlantic’, Don Peck reports that last November nearly a fifth of all men between 25 and 54 did not have jobs, the highest figure since the labour bureau began counting in 1948. We are either at or about to reach a historical marker: for the first time there will be more women in the work force than men.'

It would be interesting to compare our own statistics.

The other group being disproportionally affected by the downturn are young people. Quoting Peck's research Brook goes on to say 'college grads who entered the job market during the recession of 1981 earned 25 percent less than grads who entered when times were good. That earnings gap persisted for decades. Seventeen years after graduation, the recession kids were still earning 10 percent less than the boom kids. Over a lifetime, recession kids can expect to earn $100,000 less than their luckier cohorts.'

This research highlights obvious cultural consequences. 'Men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity. Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. So in areas of high unemployment, marriage rates can crumble - while childbearing rates out of wedlock do not.'

In my own case I saw the effects of the 1930s Depression. Those who enter the workforce during a recession tend to pursue careers that offer security. As Brook says 'they are less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even in pursuit of greater opportunity.'

But he then adds a hopeful note. 'The U.S. endured the Great Depression reasonably well because family bonds and social trust were high.' A contentious statement considering the distress and suffering of the time. But probably a reasonable economic historic fact in terms of relativity.

He continues, 'The country endured stagflation and recession between 1977 and 1983, and rebounded smartly in the 1980s and '90s.' 'That's because people are not passive pawns of economic forces. Recessions test social capital. If social bonds are strong, nations can be surprisingly resilient.'

He goes on to say 'this recession has exposed America's social weak spots. For decades, men have adapted poorly to the shifting demands of the service economy. Now they are paying the price. For decades, the working-class social fabric has been fraying. Now the working class is in danger of descending into underclass-style dysfunction. For decades, young people have been living in a loose, under-institutionalized world. Now they are moving back home in droves.'

It appears to me that the trend in America towards individualism has weakened that social fabric. Here too. There are calls for a return to community. But these things cannot be forced. It took a Roosevelt to restore trust and hope in America. In Germany Hitler did the same thing by a vastly different approach. Whatever happens I do not see an easy return to the fat years.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I’ve been watching on and off the winter Olympic Games from Vancouver. The figure skating is as always amazing. Last evening I saw two Chinese couples get first and second. The grace, athleticism and skill reflected years of disciplined training, just like their gymnastic compatriats in the summer Olympics.

This Swiss are doing well, I would expect that but the commentators sound surprised.

I watched the opening ceremony. The death of a luger doing a practice run that morning rather cast a pall over the spectacle. Happy fiddling seemed inappropriate. The lighting was superb, my biggest memory.

In one of life’s ironies British Columbia, in which the city is located, has had little snow this year. The day before the games began every USA state except Hawaii had snow lying on the ground somewhere. Luckily it snowed just in time in the Whistler resort where the skiing was taking place.

Vancouver’s a pleasant city, often rated in league tables as the most liveable one in the world. It’s setting is superb, a large mountain range dominating it, and the western marine climate ensuring a reasonably temperate climate. I recall in 1990 spending a couple of nights there on our way home from Europe. The rain was pelting down. After the polluted skies we’d been experiencing this water felt clear and clean. I stood there, facing the sky drinking it in, feeling ‘I’m home’.

We’d spent a longer period there on the way over. There were grey squirrels in the parks everywhere. We went to the aquarium and watched the orca whales. (It’s since been closed). Painter Emily Carr’s exhibition of forest scenes excited our admiration. The choice of restaurants was bewildering. The bookshops were good. I felt I could live there easily.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010



One man with a frown ruining.
his once-young features, one woman
by his side and yet, one hopes,
by herself sometimes,
her body collapsing slowly, partly
because of the ravages of duty,
and partly through simple neglect,
her spirit not-quite-devastated
with weary camaraderie....
What use to ask or wonder
where have they been; what do,
and did, their lives mean
to each and one another.

Now that we should grow morose
and feel a swift frisson
at the sight of such ordinariness,
two people who happened to touch,
one day, for one moment
when something exciting broke
and left them reeling.

I can tell you this
because it happens to many of us,
because I know how random
whim and randomness are,
how opaque emotion conspires
to drive insight out the door.

Why, only the other day
I held two ducks who were
not quite ready to fly.
A friend had run them down
on the river bed, and rather
than killing and eating them,
decided on photographs instead.

I do not know, entirely
what this tells us of ducks,
of what it means, but what I do know is,
that had it been the day before,
or the day after,
things might have been different.

Brian Turner

Love turned into companionship, the randomness of things and decisions, ducks and people, life and death decisions – the stuff of contemporary life; well-captured.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lamb, Trade & Change

On 15th February 1882, the first cargo of refrigerated mutton left Port Chalmers in the sailing ship ‘Dunedin’for England, an event which altered the New Zealand economy. It arrived in good condition, the problem of distance from farm to market had been solved. That sailing ship's voyage shaped my life for the farming community of Banks Peninsula in which I grew up was based on that trade.

In 1939, four years old, I was living with my parents in Pigeon Bay. The sea remained an important link. The small steamer "John Anderson" took stock aboard and round to Lyttelton. Before it arrived the men sorted the sheep and drove the lambs round to the wharf. There, one hurdled the rails to land in the sea. It swam ashore to a party of welcoming dogs. They thought the dripping animal would be easy to control but it had other ideas. It bowled two and sprang nimbly along the rocky foreshore. "Let it go", my father said, calling off the dogs, almost as if such courage deserved the reward of freedom. A herd animal, it foolishly came back to look for its mates. This time the dogs proved equal to the task and rounded it up to join the others for the trip to the Templeton works. 'To the works' was an early phrase I learnt.

Much of my childhood seemed a succession of sheep-yards - a turmoil of hot and sweaty men, bleating sheep, dust, dung, barking dogs, and morning and afternoon teas, big baskets of freshly made scones and pikelets. My grandparent’s house overlooked the railyards at Little River. From their bay windows I watched the loading of lambs into wagons to take them to the works.

Mid-summer, the roads would have flocks of lambs being driven to the railhead. Over time trucks replaced the droving. Then farmers realised less stress was caused to beast and men by trucking the lambs direct to the works. In time the rail connection became redundant. Now, refrigerated meat is a miles less important factor in this nation’s income.

The Dunedin’s cargo included 22 pig carcasses as well as pheasants, turkey, hare and chicken plus 2226 sheep tongues. Now we import pork while sheep tongues (which I like) have dropped off the radar scene. The type of farming I grew up with has largely vanished. Change! It happens so fast

Sunday, February 14, 2010

St Valentine's Day

Five years ago today my diary records a ‘lovely warm day – indeed almost too hot. I picked the first sweet pea of the season. I was chuffed when earlier in the week The Listener’s Lois Daish’s column was based around my St Valentine’s Day cooking:'

"You could simply let St Valentine's Day slip by with a yawn. If the saint was still around, even he might think that his day had lost some of its fizz. Remember when this was the day that you sent a card or single red rose to your secret love? You never, ever put your name on the card - and you certainly couldn't ask. It was a tantalising and bittersweet occasion for sender and recipient alike. These days, Valentine's Day serves a less fraught purpose, as little by little it has been transformed into Sweethearts' Day. Many happy couples choose to put their love on display by dining out; in fact, so many of them that restaurateurs have been known to refer to February 14 as "Noah's Ark Night".

Others would rather stay at home. In his new book ‘This Piece of Earth: A Life in My New Zealand Garden’ (Awa Press, 2004), Harvey McQueen describes a Valentine's Day dinner he and Anne prepared for themselves. The meal began with a rock-melon cut into halves, the flavour sharpened with a squeeze of juice from a homegrown lemon. They ate the rock-melon from their laps while watching a re-run of Fawlty Towers. Before the programme began, Harvey had put agria potatoes and several cloves of garlic on to boil. Once the television was turned off, the tender potatoes were drained and mashed with chives. French beans freshly harvested from the garden were quickly boiled. These simple vegetables were served with a rich dish of venison steaks that were grilled on a ridged pan after having been marinated in red wine, juniper berries, cinnamon and cloves. A sauce was made by boiling down the marinade and adding a square of dark chocolate. (The recipe is in the book.) A bottle of Australian shiraz was a comely accompaniment. For dessert, Anne had cooked greengages with port and sugar. Harvey says the meal was "a real joint labour of love".

Several elements contribute to making s meal such a seemly expression of affection. The mood is one of serenity, rather than competition. Although keeping three pans in the air while cooking the main course would have had Harvey his toes, he has probably cooked this kind of meal many times before. Apart from that, nothing could be easier than splitting a melon for the first course, I imagine that Anne would have cooked the greengages earlier in the day, so that she could stay out of the kitchen at dinner time.

Yet for all its simplicity, this meal was still special. Although everyday meals usually have only one or two courses, this one had three, which gives the meal a satisfying shape and allows for lingering. Cool melon, its musky flavour sharpened with lemon, is one of the few fruits that works as a first course and made a thirst-quenching beginning for a summer meal. For the main course, the choice of a prime cut of red meat gave the meal a high status and, for dessert, the homely comfort of stewed fruit was made special with the addition of port.

This was also a meal that celebrated the fact that our Valentine's Day occurs in the warmth of late summer, rather the chill of a northern hemisphere spring. Here, Valentine's Day celebrates fruition rather than the bursting of buds. Juicy melon, mellow mashed potato, luscious fruit. Everything is sumptuous and sensual.

I imagine that I'll be cooking a meal something like this myself on February 14. Just a few little changes so that it fits us like a glove. To start with, we won't be sharing the cooking. That's my job, and this isn't the time for cooking lessons. Instead of venison, I might panfry beef sirloin steaks or thick slices of lamb cut from the leg, either of these cooked medium rare and left to rest in the pan until they release their juices to make a spoonful of sauce. Mashed garlic potatoes and green beans would be great - no scary aubergine or bok choy. I don't want to risk upsetting the calm mood of the meal in any way. I'll serve the meat onto hot plates in the kitchen, but carry the vegetables in serving bowls to the table, where we can both take just the right amount. For dessert, I'll make something smooth and creamy to accompany the poached plums or apricots. My valentine thinks that pane cotta would be just right."

P.S. I set the record straight. The greengages were poached. 'Stewed’ under-estimates the effort Anne put into getting a good flavour. My mistake, not Lois’s. Also, for this year’s St Valentine’s Day Anne is making for dessert passion fruit jelly, a very tasty dish from Lois’s own recipe book. Long gone seem the days when I could do my fair share in the kitchen. I see by today's paper that John Key plans to cook his wife's dinner tonight - that's an astute politician at work as well as at play.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Year of the Tiger

The Chinese Year of the Tiger starts tomorrow. The tiger is a sign of courage. Sadly, the statistics reveal an endangered species. It is estimated that there are only 50 wild tigers left in China. Since the last Year of the Tiger, twelve years ago, the world-wide population of wild tigers has almost halved to about 3,200. An international convention on saving the species is to be held in Russia later this year – a hopeful sign I hope.

Less hopeful, I foresee the year as an increasing tussle between China and the USA. Trade, finance and military-might enter the equations. Apparently China is on the verge of overtaking America in the number of motor vehicles on the roads. The selling of arms to Taiwan and President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama outrage the Chinese leadership. Human rights and environmental issues arouse American concerns.

The authoritarian Chinese leadership is in contrast to the gridlocked Congressional system in the USA. Let’s hope cool heads prevail in all camps.

This conflict, with huge implications for us, is interesting in light of the book I’m reading, Jamie Bellich’s ‘Replenishing the Earth’. In the 17th century there were two great empires, the Chinese and the Spanish. He argues that the Chinese turned inward and the Spanish never really moved to the settlement stage.

Bellich’s thesis is that there are three stages of colonisation, networking (trade and outposts), conquest, and finally settlement. In the period covered by his book, what he calls the Anglophone (English speaking) World numbers expanded from about 12 million in 1780 to around 200 million in the 1930s. The settlement of the American West and the British West, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa made this possible.

Bellich rightly rejects the myth of Anglo/Saxon superiority. The industrial revolution, however, enabled the end of settler isolation and self-sufficiency. It enabled urbanisation, communication, transport and the integration of markets. The argument’s complex. It’s vast. It’s exciting. It’s big picture. And it happened. My good fortune to be a very minor bit part of it.

Bellich makes fascinating comparisons of Argentine, Manchuria and Siberia. France and Germany were johny-come-latelies to the expansion. Indeed the European wars of the 19th century and the world wars of the 20th can be seen as extensions of the resulting power-struggles. (This comment is mine. I’m not far into the Bellich and such thoughts have not been even suggested by him at this stage).

The historian in me looks at China and the USA in the present with interest. The citizen in me is rather aghast. When elephants engage let the mouse beware.

Anyway, I’m enjoying the Bellich. His boundless and intelligent quest for knowledge is refreshing. It takes my mind off the plight of the tigers.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Reading Janet Frame


Where the first pear slug hasn’t won,
the first frost has. Gaunt
the hawthorn’s lichened boughs
rise to cloudless skies and
for once no mower clamours loud.
Day? It’s a cracker. Just right
for worship, celebration, carousel
and the planting of jonquils.

Reading Janet’s poems…
the pocket mirror shows jaw
and bone under a Sunday stubble.
Next spring the bare hedge will bloom again;
but at present all too clear is its gaunt frame.

I must have been in a grumpy mood yesterday. Poor, old Maurice Gee really copped a bucketful. Still, it’s how I felt at the time. This poem, written years ago in Hamilton, reflects such a mood. I’d been reading Janet Frame’s book of poems, ‘The Pocket Mirror’.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

to GST or not to GST

John Key and Bill English are squirming a bit over pre-election comments they would not raise GST. Key has retreated to the argument that he'd meant it would not be raised to counter the deficit. That seems to me to be splitting straws. He’d been better to argue that the promise had been made in good faith but that changed circumstances make it necessary now.

Unfortunately for him he also added that if the Government was doing ‘a half-decent job’ a rise would be unnecessary. Goff’s smile is less forced and Key’s is more so. The perils of Government.

Access Road

I’ve finished reading Maurice Gee’s 'Access Road'. As usual I enjoyed the prose. Gee cracks the pace along and sets the scenes well with his capacity for giving the feel of a place. But the story. The sense of hidden violence that lurks underneath it all is extremely well-crafted, crackling with credibility.

That’s my problem. I don’t want to put prospective readers off. Indeed I would say it’s amongst my must-read books. But Gee has dwelt in this territory throughout his novels. I think 'Crime Story' is greatly under-rated And 'Plumb' is one of our best novels. It overcomes the bleak and grim nature of most of the other novels.

Our pakeha male literary scene is littered with this puritan sense of sin and doubt and so much comes back to sex. It seems a sort of fetish. I ask where is the celebration and joy of existence. Passion can be a productive as well as a negative force. Time after time in our writing some childhood experience blights the person’s whole life. I don’t deny the existence of evil. But please don’t deny its opposite. Though maybe I’m being unfair. Milton’s 'Paradise Lost' springs to mind, Satan more interesting than God. But somehow the 'here and now' is betrayed by things that happened in the 'past'.

Where Gee excels in this book is the quiet comedy of the narrator’s life with her husband. Their courtship, the ups and downs of their relationship, the acceptances of each other’s idiosyncrasies and foibles are touchingly presented. There was a full story here.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good book. I’m pleased to have read it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I watched on TV Parliament’s opening session yesterday. High drama of a sort. First, Lockwood Smith, magnificently gowned in his doctoral robes, moved to the Speaker’s chair as if to the manor born. But then John Key’s speech was more cautious than the preceding hype had suggested. Bill English beside him fixed a smile which never wavered. The whips behind him tried to look interested. But then Key’s never been one for high rhetoric. It was a speech of two speeds, the first half normal, the second almost a gabble as he raced through it. The trouble with generalities is they are harder to pronounce than specifics.

Personal tax cuts, yes, but short of detail. GST, a rise to 15% being considered. I take that as certain. A toughening up of property tax but again substance deferred until the budget. Another toe into the water. The announcements will make the polls interesting for up till now Key has ridden the crest of the wave. The weekend’s trouble-free Waitangi celebrations might help him ride on at this stage. In this morning’s paper a business critic said the proposals were under-whelming. GST will be the rub for the polls.

He talked about compensation for the lower paid as a sop for GST. Phil Goff predictably talked about giving to the rich by taking from the poor. He’s right. No matter what compensation is given there will always be unders and overs in any tax-change but on balance a GST rise does seem weighed against the poor. It’ll take a while though for the impact to be felt.

A chilling sentence to me in Key’s speech was increased water-irrigation in Canterbury. Bye-bye McKenzie country.

Goff’s speech was strong. Though he did make a gaffe. He said he was against GST. Quickly he corrected himself, he was against the rise in GST. He pointed out, accurately, that the Government had left bolt-holes galore in its statement. True, but that’s Key’s style. Still it was good to see Goff with fire in his belly. His whips responded with more animation than National’s as Goff chipped away at the repeat nature of the Government’s announcements. As an example, the rebuilding of the Kopu bridge at Thames was a Labour funded policy. National has announced it eleven times. (Having lived at Thames and knowing the bottleneck it is I say to whoever is the Government just get on and do it).

Dr Norman’s speech contained many good points about the environment. The House emptied. Enough said. Come election time the Greens could be trouble though mining on Crown land will be an excitable issue.

Rodney Hyde spoke of working with the government but pointed out it was not ‘all love and roses’. ACT differed over what Hyde called ‘climate-gate’. Curiously, he never mentioned taxes or GST.

Likewise, neither did Tariana Turia. She devoted her time to speaking about whanau ora, its necessity and possibility. Her agenda was clear. Watch this space.

Jim Anderton was in his element. No pre-election talk of a GST rise, indeed John Key had said ‘a half-decent government would have no need to raise it’. But he was speaking to a nearly deserted house. In the Beehive the spin-doctors would be assessing the fall-out. I switched off as Anderton concluded. Peter Dunne – the best shock of hair in the House - I am sure would have spoken well on the subject of tax but I’d had enough excitement for the afternoon.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Education Standards

Education standards need fences at the top of the cliff rather than ambulances at its base. I’ve written earlier about this topic, see 24 March, 1 November and 19 December last year. I write again today. Unfortunately it is unlikely to be the last time. The Government seems hell-bent on a collision course with primary teachers.

This stouch is trumpeted as about national standards. That’s not the issue. Rather, it is measurement of achievement on those standards. How this done? And having measured them, then what? My understanding is that the teachers do not query the need for standards. But what standards? Who decides? How can they be best achieved? The questions are legion and there, is as usual in education, no quick fix.

Education standards are a great stick to beat any government. (Ruth Richardson was particularly effective while Bruce Beetham used the issue to help unseat Les Gander). But once in power simplistic slogans are not enough.

Neither are simplistic statistics. Sure we have a long tail of educational failure. So do most similar countries. Looking at the statistics through a different set of binoculars gives a different picture. We are amongst the best. OECD figures show that New Zealand fifteen-year-olds rank 11th out of 57 countries in mathematics, 7th in science and 5th in reading. A report card would say ‘could do better’. But the same report card would say ‘there is a fundamental vitality in our system reflecting the professional expertise of our teachers.’

But what about those kids who are not reaching the expected competency. Let’s face it – they are there. It’s easy to diagnose the problem. It’s harder to remedy it. Parents have ambitions and hopes, which may exceed their offspring's capabilities. They often find it hard to accept their child is a slow learner. All the effort in the world might still not lift a number of these young people to the required level.

Others, for a great variety of reasons, personal or societal, do not want to, or find it difficult to learn. The class-room cannot be separated from the community. Learning is hard to force-feed to unwilling recipients. Drills, yes, but that teaches drills. Industry wants initiative, does it not? Then of course, bright kids will fly through. Will they be extended, as I believe they should?

Research from round the world seems to suggest achievement tests do not lift performance as expected. Teachers will, understandably, teach for the best result for their charges. They will teach kids to pass these tests. Good on them. That’s what they are paid to do.

Teachers are asking for trials. It’s a reasonable request. New Zealand has a successful track record in curriculum development. Part of the reason is teacher buy in. They have been involved in the development of the programme. Bugs and problems are solved and sorted out. Exclude such tests and you’re asking for trouble.

I advance my own heresy. Teachers have slowly lost status in our society. Pay rates reflect this. Income affects recruitment and retention. Higher teacher salaries by improving the calibre of the force could be a more effective way to improve the effectiveness of the learning of the youngsters in their charge. It’ll take time. It doesn’t fit the electoral cycle. It will be the responsibility of successive governments.

Teachers in turn will have to accept government demands for greater accountability. This again will need negotiation and the development of a just, effective and efficient system. Tests results alone will never determine good teaching. Value-addition in learning is hard to measure. Parental needs cannot be ignored during those negotiations.

One thing is certain. Mayhem in our schools will not improve learning.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Adequate Answer


Halfway there
the nerve begins to fail;
mist shrouds the route
climbed at sunrise;
dream becomes dilemma
as your desires
and those of others
avalanche across
the plotted paths

Along the way
with fate’s connivance
you’ve built two homes,
planted feijoas, kaka’s beak
taught some poetry
and enjoyed uncertainly
the pleasure of the senses.
The results stand – unaltered
by what lies ahead.

While blood and bone and muscle work
one can but clamber on with resolution
and yes, as well, with gratitude.

Harvey McQueen

I wrote this poem in my mid-40s. Now, I’m in my mid-70s with an incurable muscular degeneration. I look back on the intervening 30 odd years with gratitude and thank that middle-aged bloke for his resolution. There have been many good happenings and events in that time. Of course, any answer is inadequate as well as adequate.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


This morning's Sunday Star Times business section had an advertisement. The heading read 'INVESTMENT GUILT-EDGED.' I don't know whose responsibility it is - the advertiser or the paper's proof reader, but I'd be wary as an investor. I suppose soon I'll be reading in the court news 'not gilty, your honour'.

The Iraqi War

Seven years ago the ‘The Dominion Post’ had an excellent editorial about the Iraqi war:.

‘Whether it is a war with United Nations backing or one led by the USA without UN sanction, it will make little difference to Iraqi civilians, The missiles will sound the same. The fear will feel the same. And the human devastation will produce the same terrible grief. If war goes ahead, it will represent a spectacular failure of diplomacy so soon in the new millennium. … It is hard not to conclude … that Iraqi President and US President George Bush have met their match in each other – a shared determination never to back down.'

'Former New Zealand Ambassador to the UN Terence O’Brien has accurately described the situation as having “an element of contrived crisis”. … The fundamental question, why, has yet to be answered. Why does the US so badly want a war? President Bush tells us there needs to be a war because Iraq is openly flouting a UN resolution. There is little doubt that this is so, But even so, a complete paucity of diplomatic imagination is exposed if the only answer to flouting a UN resolution is to go to war. Other countries including Israel have regularly ignored UN resolutions and in doing so have never had a response like this. For the US to say that the UN risks being seen as toothless unless it acts to uphold its sanctions is ironic, because nothing will undermine the UN quite like the US declaring war while the UN is trying to stop it. … We will all pay.’

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Waitangi Day 2010

Colin James forwarded his commentary on Sir Mason Durie's speech in the Waitangi debates at Te Papa last Thursday. I attach.


Claudia Orange has now twice cast me as a riroriro [grey warbler] to a totara in this annual Te Papa Waitangi series. Three years ago I followed Sir Edward Durie. This evening I follow Sir Mason Durie. These brother totaras are of great stature. They root deep into the earth. A riroriro is a momentary flutter.

So first I will set contexts, which I have written and spoken about
at length over the years and so will note only in brief now.

First, Aotearoa is Pacific. This is a fact of geography and has been
gradually becoming a fact of life as Maori words, custom, culture
and protocol seep into the "mainstream" and as the links with
Polynesia re-form. This is the Pacific-ation of New Zealand: we are
now increasingly of the Pacific, not just in the Pacific.

Second, New Zealand is economically and to a large extent socially a
segment of Australasia. For 40 years we have been re-Australasianising, integrating our societies, economies and policies and to some extent our politics. Economic or geopolitical forces might drive this tiny nation to federate as a state --Australians would resist Sir Mason's scenario-2 confederation -- but equally the forces of climate change, mass migration, geopolitics and geo-economics might drive us in other directions.

Third, New Zealand is an outlier society: first, an outlier of Polynesia, from which it separated 600-800 years ago; then an outlier of Britain, from which over the past 40 years it has been separating, in mentality and custom (though not in heritage); and now, increasingly, an outlier of Asia as migrants and investors make
themselves at home and some set up or buy enterprises here -- we are Asianising and may in time become a sort of vassal state of China, whence will come increasingly ideas that drive science and technology and social and economic organisation.

Next I note -- again, only in brief -- three forces that I think shape the evolving Treaty.

First, the Treaty is both reality and fiction, both of which have been important in aiding this nation to firm and find meaning. I examined this at length here three years ago.

Second, the focus in "Maori" issues has since at least 2003 been shifting from rights to development -- education, training and skills, managing and developing iwi assets and fostering entrepreneurial enterprise. Rights remain important, of course, but more in their exercise than in their recovery. There is a limit to anger as an engine of progress. A loose parallel is with the 1980s, when younger women bothered less about claiming rights than exercising rights their mothers had won.

Third, over the past 40 years the ex-British (and other later arrivals) have been indigenising. There is no other "home" or "land" for those born here with, now, up to seven generations of forebears of this place. Their culture and customs are now distinctively New Zealand/Aotearoa. In 2030 it will scarcely be credible to assign
exclusive indigenous status to someone who is one-128th Maori by accident of birth or casual liaison.

It will be obvious from what I have said that I agree profoundly with Sir Mason that as we enter the "post-settlement" era, there will be "a shift from grievance and adversarial bargaining ... towards a relationship based on a futures agenda". I agree, too, that it was expected in 1840 the Treaty would "see a transition from a tribal society to a modern nation" and that "tribes would benefit from economic, social and civic gains". It is time to recover that 1840 objective of progress.

I also agree that "there is no good reason why the Treaty should be the single most important defining statement about the position of Maori". And, given the real commercial weight some iwi have been acquiring (still little known outside iwi), we have cause cautiously to share Sir Mason's optimism that "tino rangatiranga will
increasingly be a product of demographic significance, economic might and acknowledgement by peers". His scenario-3 international leadership by Maori in worldwide indigenous networks and his vision of international alliances, both not dependent on the Treaty, are intriguing.

But it will also be obvious from what I said earlier that I disagree with Sir Mason's notion that the Treaty is about the relationship between Maori and the Crown.

First, the "Crown" is a fiction. Bagehot distinguished 140 years ago between the "dignified", the ceremonial and powerless monarchy, and the "efficient", the powerful cabinet and the bureaucracy. In this fictional Treaty parlance Georgina te Heuheu, Pita Sharples, Tariana Turia and Paula Bennett are both "Maori" and the "Crown". When Sir Mason's scenario-1 republic arrives (which may be beyond his 25-year timeframe) it will become obvious just how fictional the "Crown" has been.

Second, the Treaty was between sovereign iwi and hapu and the sovereign state of Britain: it applies to iwi and hapu issues, spheres of influence, assets and taonga. There was and can be no Treaty relationship between Maori in general and the "Crown", except under article 3's conferment of "subject" status but that is a
relationship every citizen (which is the modern word for subject) has with the government.

Maori and other citizens are born, live and die under general laws; Maori pay taxes on their incomes in the same measure as other citizens; if they are out of work they receive the same Work and Income benefits; they drive on roads according to laws made for all in cars made in some other country; their children go to schools paid
for by the government and expected to meet government-set standards; they are operated on in the same hospitals. That is article 3.

And if they are in some way disadvantaged the Treaty is not the remedial agent. The modern concept of citizenship connotes full participation in society and the economy, which implies state-guaranteed action to reduce inequalities of pportunity.
Moreover, the modern concept of that action includes ensuring assistance works. And that implies sensitivity to cultural and other differences, which in turn includes understanding and working with different worldviews. That is the genesis of and mandate for Tariana Turia's whanau ora project and Maori entities delivering education, health and social services. That is not an article 2 matter, dealing
with iwi and hapu autonomy. It is article 3, dealing with citizenship.

Being citizens does not require Maori to be post-Enlightenment individuals stripped of whakapapa, custom, tikanga and heritage, though many Maori do choose to be post-Enlightenment individuals here and abroad. This is a Pacific nation and society and the outlier Polynesian culture has its place here as much as the outlier ex-British culture.

But iwi culture and custom will change. As we "normalise" te reo, words will acquire new meanings and connotations. As we "mainstream" tikanga, it will adapt. Modern Maori arts, crafts, dance and music are bending and stretching tradition. Iwi governance is modernising. That will not make a half-brown homogeneity but neither will there be pre-1840 dark brown and fair-white, except in special places and on
ceremonial occasions.

In this evolving society the Treaty will evolve. It will have its place as a fact of history and as a fact of recovery of lost rights. It will be a moral, and probably legal, guide for the limited purposes of article 2, perhaps codified by Sir Mason's scenario-1 republic. But the mystique some have attributed to the Treaty, the claim some make for its superior constituional status and the convenient fictions which have influenced governments will lose their edge. The Treaty, too, will "normalise".

That evolution highlights an observation by a 40-something friend last week: that before you this evening are two ageing men. These past 40 years or so the Treaty has been Sir Mason's and my Treaty, in different ways. Over the next 40 years the Treaty will be the Treaty of the under-35s. When they are ageing men and women on platforms
such as this, what, if anything, will they have to say about the future of the Treaty?’

Friday, February 5, 2010

Great Gee

On fine days - which in Wellington are more frequent than the city’s critics allow - I used to walk from my hillside home to the city, down Garden Road and across the Botanic Gardens. On one occasion I caught up with a small boy and his older sister. They seemed engaged in serious conversation until suddenly he started hopping on two legs.

"Why are you doing that?" she asked.
"Cos I'm a rabbit," he responded.
"I don't want you to be a rabbit. They don't talk."
"I can be a talking rabbit. Can’t I?"

Such innocence and assurance. At the time I chased the thought of being a child again, of returning to – no, was it such a magical time? Such a restoration would mean giving up a lifetime’s experience and learning. Within that elusive boy that once was co-existed a strange sense of early timelessness and a taught belief that progress was linear and upward. The resulting conflict with the reality that contradicted those two attitudes bruised me into writing poems as well as being a practical teacher and education administrator.

I began reading Maurice Gee’s novel ‘Access Road’ this morning. Magnificent opening! Gee’s work has never disappointed me. In this first chapter he presents a view of old age which fits my experience, a weary satisfaction and acceptance of the status quo, far removed from the young person who could have been a talking rabbit.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Today I went to the hospital for a pacemaker checkup. Everything’s fine. I received it in 2005. Earlier I had begun to have an occasional dizzy spell. After routine checks my doctor decided he was over-medicating me for my blood pressure so he lowered the dosage. But the spells continued. He gave me new medication and made arrangements for me to have a cardiology check-up. I was sent an appointment, it seemed centuries ahead. After a particularly bad turn, I went to the doctor again – his surgery was just around the corner – and very quickly I found myself on a stretcher in the emergency ward. But even as I lay there I felt the spell passing. By the time they’d wheeled me through to see the doctor all systems were back to normal. So I was sent home.

But the good news was that by being admitted temporarily I was now on the conveyor belt. Soon, I reported to the cardiac unit where they strapped a 24 hours monitor on to my chest. It revealed a problem that had not been picked up before - my heart was having slow-down periods and for that I needed a pacemaker. The operation would not fix the dizzy spells, electrical circuitry in origin but the medication I needed could not be prescribed until a pacemaker was in place.

While I waited for the operation I had increasingly more and more dizzy spells. The hospital advised me not to drive. I felt grounded and frustrated and my productive life seemed to be grinding to a halt. At least I’ve got my garden memoir book 'This Piece of Earth' away being printed. I smiled wryly at an email from Roger in New York with an attached cutting about a gorilla in an American zoo, being given a pacemaker.

To my surprise I enjoyed the experience of the operation. I never dreamt I’d ever say that but it proved interesting. Up early, feeling hungry, we were at the hospital by 7 30 but I had a wait for I was the second up that morning. A nurse prepared me, blood pressure check, ECG, a rapid shave of the left side of my chest - (“you’re not very hairy are you?” Was that criticism or merely factual? The mind is an amazing thing. To consider being affronted not long before the surgeon takes a knife to you.) - and then the insertion of a needle in the left arm.

It was comforting to have Anne sitting beside me reading the paper. I developed cramp in my right foot so I had to hobble around the corridor to restore circulation. I was wheeled to the theatre at 10. Anne went home. Careful explanations and information were given from all concerned. I was very clear that I didn’t want to watch on closed circuit TV. The first injection was a mild sedative. Then antibiotic. Then local anasthetic. Then theatre - soothing music, banter of the team, further explanation (“you’ll feel me pushing”), a further sedative, (“you’re too chirpy”).

While we waited for that to kick in we discussed Labour Day holiday arrangements. Most of the team were going away. Obviously I wouldn’t be. I liked the way the surgeon explained every step as he did it. When the two wires were inserted through the veins into the heart he put the battery in. I was back at the ward at 12 20. After a while they brought me lunch, two sandwiches and a cup of tea. My room-mate hadn’t liked the surgeon telling him what was happening. “Rather not know”, he muttered. I didn’t argue but I felt pleased – at least I knew what was happening and why.

I rang Anne to her surprise at 1 30. They wheeled me down to have an. X-ray. Anne arrived to pick me up at 4 30. I got home in time to watch the TV news. The day before we’d discussed what I wanted to eat on such a night. I asked for simple, comfort food, tarakahi, asparagus and mashed potato, followed by raspberry jelly and ice-cream. No wine. Nothing like hunger to sharpen the taste buds.

As anticipated the dizzy turns continued even though I was delighted how quickly my body bounced back from surgery. When the pacemaker was checked it was working well, indeed even recording the time when I had my dizzy spells. In consultation with the surgeon they decided I should go on to betablocker tablets straight away. When I complained to the young doctor prescribing them that I felt I was a walking pharmacy he said if he got to my age and only taking five tablets a day as I was he would count himself lucky. The medication worked. The dizzy spells stopped. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine I was able to renew my productive life. Other problems lay ahead. But this one had been dealt with.

In Victorian times those dizzy spells would have meant confinement to home and probably eventually to bed. Like education, health will always be a political whipping boy. No matter how much you spend more can be spent. I’m grateful for the service I received, and the professional efficiency and skill of all involved. For that I give much thanks.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Muddled Musings

The headlines are as usual full of crime. A prominent ex-restaurateur has been charged with ripping off IHC, a banker secretly squirreled away millions, a millionaire with a reputable ordinary life has been murdered and it’s been revealed he was a secret swinger.

Why do human beings do it? The craving for excitement is part of the human psyche. Bungy jumping seems an example of this appetite. With crime or sin or just breaking the rules of convention the thrill of risk-taking and the sense of superiority all too often overtake caution and common sense. They will not catch me. That seems a rule of thumb for many murderers and fraudsters.

But they often do. Not always. That’s the catch. There’s always the possibility you’ll get away with it.

And society does seem to have a double standard. White collar crime is regarded differently from blue collar crime. Penalties alone reflect that. So do societal attitudes. I suspect that the ideas that Neitzsche promulgated in the 19th century still flourish, the boundaries between good and bad (or should that be evil) blurred.

Most of my life has been spent in an atmosphere of decency, kindness, common sense and compassion. Not always, but mainly the bits that affect me. Modern communications may suggest we live in a world of murder and mayhem but that’s not my experience. I’ve been lucky. Those virtues are rather ineffective in face of evil.

There are other interweaving strands. Do suicide bombers have an adrenaline rush as they mingle with their victims moments before detonation? Or is this just cold-blooded fanaticism? Reading about the Jesuit priests infiltrating Elizabeth’s England opens up further thoughts. Some sought martyrdom. Back in Rome there was concern. The aim was conversion and the upholding of the faith. The death of a priest set back the cause. But hiding in a priest-hole while soldier’s ransacked your host’s house must have been nerve-wrackingly exciting as well as painfully distressful. In one way the Gunpowder Plot conspirators were 17th century terrorists.

I have too much imagination to be a good spy. And the idea of torture. Heaven forbid! I’d crack at the sight of foreceps. But I’m well aware of the old precept – ‘there but by the grace of God go I.’ I admit to the human characteristic of selfishness. So having gone round in circles I give up. It’s all beyond me. Part of the rich tapestry that is life. But I still find it difficult to imagine the mindset that could deliberately indulge in financial criminal activities that destroy the livelihood and happiness of ordinary folk.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I’ve been observing a young blackbird puffing up its new feathers on the lawn as it demands food from its patient parent. The tyranny of the species’ survival. The adult finds worms and bugs to feed that voracious appetite.

This morning’s paper has a lovely story and photograph about a wild tui at Waikanae. Two young tui were found miles away – blown out of their nest probably and taken to the wild life reserve. Staff have been feeding them in their cage. But an adult wild tui heard their agitated cries and has begun feeding them through the netting. It’s not the mother, the youngsters were found in an area with a different call from the food-hunting one.

The other night I watched a full moon rise. I was surprised going to bed to hear a tui singing outside, going through an extensive range of vocalisations. Morning chorus yes, but not this late. I checked the internet. Apparently tui have been known to call at known at night, especially clear, moonlit ones. Considerably better than the forlorn morepork that I often hear.

From the internet I also learnt they have two voiceboxes. This enables them to make the myriad of sounds of which they are capable. I knew that some of those sounds were above the human register. I have seen tui obviously singing at full throttle and heard nothing. A fascinating facet which I also knew was tui and kowhai and flax flowers have evolved to be mutually compatible. The tui is their chief pollinator because of the shape of its head.

To the best of my knowledge I have never heard a nightingale sing. Not even in the lush hotel garden in Ishfahan in Iran where the setting called for one. So I’ll settle for a tui one summer night in 2010.

Here is a paragraph from Buller our famous ornithologist: ‘One of its finest notes is a clear, silvery toll, followed by a pause and then another toll, the performance lasting sometimes an hour or more. This is generally heard at the close of day, or just before the bird betakes itself to its roost for the night. I have, however, on one or two occasions, heard the tui’s sweet toll long after the shadow of darkness had settled down upon the forests and all other sounds were hushed.’

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Tyranny of Appearance

a) Today I learnt a new word. Palindrome. Today’s date is a palindrome: 01022010.

b) Damn! I was going to blog about the massacre of 40 dogs but Rosemary Mcleod’s newspaper’s column this morning said most of the things I was going to say. That’s too many dogs for one man to own. How did he feed them? They were unregistered. There was no attempt at controlling breeding. They roamed at will. No surprise the neighbours ran out of patience and took the law into their own hands. The uproar, whipped up by the media is about animal cruelty. It is the owner I believe who was the cruel one.

c) Colin Espinor’s political column makes a surprising assertion – that Phil Goff had captured the headlines. It seemed to me that John Key surefooted as ever had done that. A week back he was denouncing people who own dogs which attack toddlers. This week it was people who are cruel to animals. Especially dogs. I can hear most New Zealanders saying Hear! Hear! Phil Goff’s appeal to the battlers got lost in the media hype over the public service’s top brass salaries. He’s in dangerous territory attacking bludgers. Many people see beneficiaries in this light. Maybe Goff’s speech was clearer but as reported it did seem so did he. The problem with safety nets is they will also provide assistance to the undeserving. I agree the minimum wage should have gone up more. But my biggest criticism of the Fifth Labour Government is its failure to address the issue of child poverty which is partly a sub-set of the minimum wage allowance and certainly part and parcel of allowances for beneficiaries.

d) Moorpark apricots are no longer available in our shops. Apparently their speckled appearance makes them less acceptable to the eye. But they taste great – miles better than those available now. My desire for apricots, apples and tomatoes with taste counts for little alongside the tyranny of appearance.

e) It reminds me of a meeting called by an advertising agency with a few educators for a campaign. They asked us for an appropriate image for education. We surprised them by saying either an infant class learning to read or a school bus on a dusty country road picking up some students. We discovered they had in mind ivy-covered brick buildings.

f) I’m reading Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. After schooling in the Continent, Jesuit priests made their perilous way to England to help they believed the restoration of the Catholic faith. I suspect after the failure of the Armada a fairly hopeless task though the issue was not really settled till a hundred years later when James 11 was forced to give up the throne. Brave men, most of these priests were martyred. Hogge by implication criticises Elizabeth and her ministers. But for heaven’s sake, the Pope had excommunicated her and called for her removal. It was life and death for all concerned. My admiration for Elizabeth is that unlike her father, brother and sister she tried to avoid creating martyrs as much as possible.