Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Autumn Thoughts

1) The monarch butterfly caterpillar that we’d called Wilson has shifted leaves and finally settled on his pupating spot. Meanwhile, overnight Mainwaring has been transformed into a green chrysalis.

2) Yesterday, I took my CPAP machine to the Respiratory Unit for a check-up. The old tube needed replacing. What I didn’t realise is that the machine’s computer records my breathing patterns. There has been no apnoea for the last six months. What with that machine and the oxygen converter pumping away that particular problem’s been solved. (As long as the power stays on). But that doesn’t restore lost lung capacity.

3) This afternoon I’m having two loose teeth taken out – an event I’m not looking forward to.

4) April starts tomorrow. It’s a month much mentioned by poets - from Chaucer’s “sweet showers” to Eliot’s “the cruellest month’. Of course, in the Northern Hemisphere it’s capricious spring with the weather swinging from sunshine to cloud to rain.

5) This year on the anniversary of Patrick’s birthday I ordered a bunch of chrysanthemums. Bronze-red they have glowed for over a week in their vase in the living room – a reminder in several ways of the past.

6) In the old place April was always the month when I planted the spring bulbs in pots and Anne bought potted chrysanthemums for the house. When they had finished flowering, I used to dig a space somewhere and heel them in. Several flourished and we had annual autumn brilliance. Then one year they all developed the ugly lumps caused by midge fly larva.

7) Whether the problem came with the plant or arrived by other means, I don’t know. The lumps were ugly, but not threatening in themselves; yet by weakening the plant they left it vulnerable to viral diseases and powdery mildew. Over time, they all weakened and wilted.

8) Whatever it was that I had introduced in to the section it stayed. After a two year gap, I tried again but the plant soon showed the same symptoms. So we gave up growing chrysanthemums there, except for one hardy old-fashioned perennial that was there when we arrived. Each autumn, despite neglect and the over-shadowing of the camellia, it has its own showing of small tawny-yellow flowers. They bred them tough, those old plants. I suspect the force-feeding that goes on in some nurseries contributes to the vulnerability of many new breeds.

9) This year Anne has bought tulip bulbs Abba. They in the fridge at present to reproduce the cold of their original habitat. She'll put them in a pot over Easter. She’s decided not to plant hyacinth bulbs this year. Later on, she’ll buy plants already blooming in their pot. Instant colour.

10) Geological surveys reveal Gisborne has slipped slightly, ever so slighty, further west. Autumn comes and goes regularly but the unsteady earth mantle continues to surprise.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Tale of Two Caterpillars

Jenn and Barrie from next door brought over two swan plants on Sunday afternoon with two large monarch butterfly caterpillars on one. They had just about devoured all the leaves on that one so at the end of the day we transferred them to the second plant.

Last year when we had a similar pair I’d christened Groucho and Marx. This year Anne claimed naming rights. As I’ve been watching Dad’s Army she christened them Mainwaring and Wilson.

(High excitement. A wasp in my study/bedroom as I worked at the computer. Anne with fly-spray in pursuit. ‘Don’t spray near my oxygen equipment.’ She didn’t. One dead wasp down the toilet).

They’d just about chomped their way through most of the second plant’s leaves when Mainwaring began to act differently. He stopped feeding and began feeling round as if searching for another branch to climb onto. He climbed to the bottom of the plant and explored around a bit before clambering up again. I suggested he was looking for somewhere to pupate.

Last year Groucho and Marx started going walkabout on the sofa, so I did some research and discovered that the caterpillars always leave the swanplant and move to a different kind of plant to attach and pupate - presumably because otherwise another caterpillar might eat the leaf they were hanging from.

So Anne cut a bough off a camellia tree and placed it in a vase. She then gingerly lifted him onto it with a bit of flax. He explored around a little before settling under a leaf, then he stayed still for a while under his chosen leaf, before attaching himself upside down. Aptly named – a born leader. Mission completed.

Wilson began to exhibit the same behaviour. An identical repeat performance from Anne saw him stop crawling about as he settled on a leaf near the top of the branch. Niece, Jenny, leaving, having spent almost a month here – she climbed Mt Holdsworth over the weekend; we shall miss her – said ‘he hasn’t picked a good spot.’ So Anne’s nomenclature was spot on again. He hasn't attached yet, he's still in the waiting stage. A born loser? Time will tell. Often the original Wilson's words ‘do you think that’s wise, sir’ preceded some change in fortunes.

We’re talking about another caterpillar. It’ll have to be called Pike. . .

Anne took the photographs too. She’s been busy. Have a look at her new food blog at

This photo is of Wilson on a camellia leaf trying to make up his mind as to what it is that he wishes to do.  

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dispassionate Fury

My latest poem. That recent storm.

Dispassionate Fury

tore, the cat inside
as a sudden southerly

slammed into
the mild March day

loose let all hell.
as thunder bounced

about the hills
& among a frenzy

of twigs & leaves
a massive oak limb

cracked & crashed
on to our helpless lawn

Harvey McQueen

Sunday, March 28, 2010


On Friday evening ‘Goya Rules’ was launched at St Ninian’s hall to a good crowd of friends and colleagues. As MC Barrie Keenan said ‘a Karori affair, a book by a Kaori poet, launched by another Karori poet, and sold by a Karori book-seller in a Karori hall.’

I find it hard to write an objective account of the evening. I had such a medley of emotions, chiefly it’s my best collection. I’m not used to shouting such comments from the roof-tops.

Anne had arranged a wheel-chair. Jenny wheeled me around. When it came to speeches they lowered the mike. Vince O’Sullivan launched the book. His comments touched me deeply for he addressed the book and the author in a way he showed an understanding of what I was attempting. His comments about Goya were very pertinent.

I spoke impromptu. I thanked Vince and all who’d helped make the occasion a good one. I explained how my illness meant that any effort was a great effort and that’s why I was not signing books individually but I had put my signature on all the books for sale.

I spoke of my dedication to Mum and thanked Anne. And finally Mark Pirie for his editing and publishing and his discovery of the cover painting. (blog Feb 26th). Anne finished the official part by reading two poems ‘Goya Rules’ (blog 1 Oct 2009) and ‘Thomas Hardy’ (blog 30 June 2009).

I was exhausted at the end. And yesterday was a real wipe-out. I sogged all day, incapable of reading, thinking or doing anything. Watched Dad’s Army and Underbelly episodes on DVD. In the evening we watched ‘In The Loop’ a satirical movie about the moves to war by the American and British government. Very funny in its way but also very scary and frightening – career, vanity, folly over-riding common sense and humanity.

I’m pleased to have publicly launched the collection, though the occasion's passing removes a goal. Still, new poems keep appearing.

Thanks Geoff for the photo.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Stick Insects & Sticking My Neck Out


Research has revealed a fascinating difference between South and North Island stick insects. South Island females reproduce alone or asexually. Females that breed that way almost always yield female offspring. In a Massey University study of 300 virgin births, only one was male.

Whereas in the North Island females breed by mating with a male. North Island. Apparently they are equally capable of solo reproduction but they do not seem to want to go it alone.

The science fiction possibilities for humans are mind-boggling.


I’ll stick my neck out and make a political prediction. That after the next general election there’ll be no Green party in Parliament and New Zealand First will be back.

Friday, March 26, 2010



cicada sing summer songs

few loves have much renown - Helen’s
chance, her embrace of Paris rather
than her face launched the thousand
ships that gave the place such fame.

like most of us, of those long ago
couplings, immense in their intensity
all that remains is fickle memory
the price we pay for being animal.

wheel-chair bound
I watch with dismay
white butterflies
lay eggs on the rocket seedlings.

Harvey McQueen

This poem from my just released collection ‘Goya Rules’ was published in yesterday’s Dominion Post.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


For a brief historical period there was an outpouring of essays and poems in praise of idleness. The writers, almost all male, ignored the fact their pleasant state was based on the labour of others, coal-miners and house-maids. Such writing would get shorter shift now in this period with its heightened work-ethic.

Ever since human beings created civilisation it has been based on interdependence and infrastructure. And within that system, welfare was, is and will continue to be an issue/challenge/problem. It’s like a hippo in a swimming pool – too big to be ignored, too big to be got rid of.

A fair and just welfare policy is a worthy objective deserving pursuit. I fear Social Development minister Paula Bennett’s announcement earlier this week that ‘the dream is over’ signals a return to the harsh mean-spiritedness of earlier years.

I accept that there are some people who do bludge off the system. I also accept something should be done about them. But they are not the only ones who from a sense of entitlement bludge off the tax-payer. Tax evasion, dodgy expense accounts, pilfering, all are forms of bludging.

But to bash the beneficiaries has always been a vote-catching sport. It’s good political timing to have a go at the point controversial mining proposals are being advanced.

How do you target beneficiaries? Administrators have to be careful in targeting people like that, that they do not hit those who deserve assistance. The government prides itself on public service cuts. Means testing leads to extra staff being required to assess and monitor each claim.

Does the dream is over mean that we as a community do not care about the vulnerable, sick, poor, frail and disabled? That care is one of the measures of a society.

Does it mean the dream is over for a solo mum who has a permanently sick child? Will she be assessed so regularly she’ll feel harassed? Will the system for her be charitable or ruthlessly efficient?

The policy seems a muddle. The changes will not only perpetuate inequality, they as announced will  increase it within the nation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

24 March

It’s Anne’s second son Patrick’s birth-date today. He would have been 41. Patrick was killed in Sydney when he was 18 years old. Certain lights went out in Anne that day that have never come back again. We have tried every year on this day to visit the pohutakawa tree planted over his ashes in the Botanic Gardens. My ill-health means that niece Jenny will deputise for me today

I had an unusual dream last night. Yesterday I’d talked about two of my ex-bosses, David Lange and Bill Renwick (ex-Director-General of Education). Neither man appeared in the dream. But a group of ex-staff members were tidying up Lange’s overgrown garden in Wadestown.

I luxuriated in the use of an axe and then a slasher attacking rampant honeysuckle and jasmine. And then a pick on wild ginger roots. The garden morphed into Bill’s place. Finding an bed of very mature leeks I went inside to ask Marjorie if she wanted them harvested. She did. So I went to pull them out. But reality intruded. I did not have the strength.

Awake, I savoured the sensation I’d briefly enjoyed of being strong and physical again. Ichabod! As it was I lay there, two machines thumping away – helping keep me alive -before I dozed off again. The vibrancy of that dream was so vivid.

I’ve been looking back to see we’ve done on this day in other years. I stumbled across the fact that I wrote the poem Goya Rules on the morning of 12 March 2004. (See 1 October 2009 blog). It was hardly changed from that original draft. It is the title poem of my latest collection being launched this week. (The cover is on my blog of 26th February).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Parihaka Album

I never thought when I began reading Rachel Buchanan’s book ‘The Parihaka Album’ that I would learn a lot about the early history of Wellington city. I’ve lived here since 1979.

I knew that in early Pakeha settlement a sizeable earthquake had raised the Basin Reserve. I often walked to town through the Bolton Rd cemetery and across the Denis McGrath footbridge. I’d read about the outcry over the building of the motor-way through the cemetery. .

But I had no knowledge about the Maori association with the Botanic Gardens and cemetery. I did not bother to make any connection between the name ‘Taranaki Street’ and the province. From Buchanan I now know about the Te Aro pa in what is now the Courtney Place area. It was a pa with close ties to the Taranaki area.

But more than that – what started off as an academic thesis about Pakeha-Maori mythmaking became a family history as she explored her own whanau and the links between the Te Aro pa and Parihaka. It’s been a fascinating read.

And the thesis still stands. I’ll let Buchanan’s words explain it. ‘The absence of any reference to New Zealand’s first wars at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, or at the National War Memorial that looms up behind it, suggests that these wars are moving even further from the centre of national collective memory. The wars of foundation are certainly not forgotten; but they remain peripheral, problematic and contested, unable, somehow, to be integrated into popular, bicultural rituals of commemoration.’

Monday, March 22, 2010


Every now and then I have a surprising surge of patriotism. I had one last evening watching the TV programme about Stephen Fry’s search for endangered animals. I’d enjoyed previous programmes about Madagascar and Indonesia. I would not like to confront a komodo dragon whereas lemurs look cuddly.

But this time he was in New Zealand. What a magnificent wilderness Fiordland is. He was in search of the kakapo. But what was striking was the hard work of the workers and scientists engaged in conservation efforts. Their enthusiasm and dedication was heart-warming.

Kiwi, tuatara, weta and black robin – engaging tales. Especially the black robin, brought back from the brink of extinction. But above all the kakapo, such an absurd bird – a flightless nocturnal long-living parrot. Once found throughout the country, now only husbanded on a few remote islands, mainly Codfish Island off Stewart island.

They only breed when the rimu or kahikatea are fruiting. Looking after such eggs and chicks means the mother has to be fattened up. The males booming bowls are a strange form of courtship.

Even more strange was the behaviour of Sirocco on Codfish Island. Reared by humans he has bonded to them, even attempting to mate with Fry’s cameraman. Funny to watch except for the person having his head used in an attempt to continue the species. A birdbrain in action.

We were shown a remote Fiordland valley where they hope to reintroduce the kakapo to the mainland. I hope it’s not one where they intend to mine. It would be a tragedy to lose a potential spot for a natural sanctuary.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Our House

This day four years ago New Zealand cruised to a cricket victory against the West Indies. Today, it looks like they are heading for a massive hiding from the Australians.

Having just sold it, on that earlier day we were beginning to pack up our previous home. I wrote this poem about it. It was a lovely old place. The poem will be appearing in ‘Goya Rules’, my latest poetry volume which is being launched this week.

Our House

Outside, our house looks
historic - well, it's over
a hundred years old but
inside it’s comfortable,
spacious, the high stud.

It has watched old age
weary on, but also seen
child & kitten romp & play.
It has survived candle,
lamp, power drill,
rats inside the walls
starlings under the eaves
pink batts over the ceilings
laughter & food & dismay
roast lamb & takeaways
cleaning of chimneys
fitting of gas
television set
furniture removal
a baby's birth
soldiers' uniforms
lovers, in bed & out
regal gongs &
fire-place tongs.

It has character
we love it
maintain it.

It will outlast us.

Harvey McQueen  

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Film, like any other art form reflects its era. This is very true of comedy. In its early days it reflected it reflected its vaudeville origins. Comedy - laughter at the absurdities and humilities of existence - is a form of subversion. It pokes fun at authority and takes the mickey out of prejudice and fashion.

Last night I watched Charlie Chaplin’s silent movie made in 1925 ‘The Gold Rush’. Slapstick, pathos, sentimentality – I can understand how the Little River audience at the time loved it. Simple universality. Hunger leading to cooking and eating a boot. (It was made of liquorice). A cabin teetering on the brink of a chasm. Being chased by a bear.

And the anticipation. Charlie’s in love but his beloved scorns him. After a tiff with her suitor she asks The Little Fellow to dance with her. He’s in bliss. But his trousers start to fall down. Seizing a piece of rope he ties them up. The camera pans to the end of the rope and the attached dog. And then to a cat walking on the dance-floor. Back to Charlie’s blissful face. The audience knows what’s going to happen. And it does.

I’ve also been watching episodes of Dad’s Army on DVD – part of British nostalgia about the war years – a sitcom series about a Home Guard volunteer group. Arthur Lowe’s portrayal of the pompous, patriotic, brave Captain Mainwaring is comedy at its finest. His sergeant Wilson is the exact opposite, a diffident man, ‘do you think that’s wise sir’. Wilson is from upper class stock, a foil for his lower class captain. Though there is one heart-stopping episode when an unexploded bomb is in the bank cellar and the two men are left holding it. It’s a comedy. One knows they’ll survive. But it captured the camaraderie of that period when the common cause transcended class.

Like most comedies it relies on stock phrases. ‘You stupid boy.’ ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic.’ ‘They don’t like it up ‘em.’ ‘Fuzzie-Wuzzies’. ‘Permission to speak, sir.’ And stock characters, a comic source of much mirth.

Niece Jenny has a loan of the DVD second series of ‘The Flight of the Cochords’ starring New Zealand comic duo Jemaine Clement and Brett Mackenzie. It’s an unusual blend of witty, laconic dialogue, characterisation and acoustic guitar music. You might find it surprising but this wizened old buzzard loves it. It’s so different from Chaplin in style and tone and yet has so many characteristics. It’s hard to pull the chicks, for instance.

One episode will illustrate. Tired of using a rostered, shared coffee cup Brett has bought one for his own use. It cost two dollars, ninety-five cents. Their power-bill was that amount short. So the power was cut off. To restore it, Brett sells his guitar. So he has to mime the gig guitar-less. They ask their agent Murray for a loan. He reveals he has lent his money to an entrepreneurial Nigerian online. Their look says it all. But no. It was not a scam. It was valid. So it all ends happily except Brett breaks his cup.

I love them all.

Friday, March 19, 2010

To Autumn

If I were asked to define autumn I would say ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Indeed I would recite the whole first stanza of Keats’ famous poem, It’s buried deep in my literary midden. Mrs Bulman, teacher at sole-charge Okuti primary school has us commit it to memory. I’m grateful.

It coloured my picture of England. At the time I was reading H.V.Morton’d ‘In Search of England’ so this swoony, rural vision of the Old Country was fastened on my consciousness. It gave a romantic twist to my idea of what poetry was and should be. The slightly old-fashion diction carried a sense of a slightly different world. Finally, there was an elegance and contentment – mellow frutifulness, indeed. .

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ill Fares The Land

‘Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay’
These two famous lines from Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village’ sum up a perennial problem.

They underpin a reason why I watched with interest, amusement and irritation a TV item last night. A Telstra executive was complaining about the industry being asked to support rural broadband initiatives. It should be done through government investment he said. I suppose the same guy wants tax cuts for companies.

Everybody seems to want support for their particular cause. And most seem to think tax cuts are at the same time the quick fix to their particular problems.

Down the ages there has always been some form of uncritical adulation of wealth. Admittedly, definitions of wealth vary. But it seems to me that one of the changes during my lifetime has been an increase in this particular form of worship. Hand in hand with this there seems to be a decline in the sense of moral and social responsibilities.

But then I recalled Goldsmith’s lines. Each generation’s been there, complained about that.

Two other different items.
a) At Waitara’s Owae marae John Key signed documents on the 150th anniversary of the commencement of the Taranaki land wars that will allow negotiations with Te Atiawa leaders and the Taranaki Iwi Trust. Reading Buchanan’s book has given me fresh slants on this issue. Parihaka and other confiscation are not a historical grievance. They have been alive and kicking for well over a hundred years.
b) The heavy floods in Queensland mean the Darling-Murray river system will flow fresh water into the sea for the first time in several years. Sustralia’s climate is either feast or famine.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gold Card

St Patrick’s Day. It’s the day the leprechauns have a picnic. Historian Patrick O’Farrell explored Irish migration in the nineteenth century to Australia and New Zealand. His basic argument was that these migrants both detested and admired the majority British culture. My forbears were part of that majority culture. During my youth intermarriage between Catholic and Protestant was frowned upon by both parties. That didn’t stop my lot singing with gusto "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" and "Danny Boy". Bing Crosby’s rendition of Galway Bay had them all dewy-eyed.

I didn’t mention the occasion on last year’s blog for the day. Instead I lamented the fact that having become eligible for a gold card – thank you Winston – I could not longer use it as I was incapable of using buses.

So I was interested a few days ago when Transport Minister Stephen Joyce talked about a review of the card use. In a fund of $18 million, $2 million was being spent on the Waiheke ferry service. The other big user was the rail trip from the Wairarapa to Wellington.

To my surprise and to an extent I found myself sympathetic. Fullers who provide the Waiheke service have done well from the card. So, probably have the retailers on the island itself. I don’t want to be a killjoy but it seemed to me that the intentions of the card were being overwhelmed by pensioners having jaunts. Again, why shouldn’t they. But as a taxpayer I was quite happy to have the government looking at the cost-benefits.

Let me say one thing clearly. I applaud the service going to people who use it because it lessened hardship and enabled them to make the trip to hospital, visit friends and go shopping. And, means tests are cumbersome and difficult to apply.

To my further surprise, almost immediately Joyce did a U-turn. He had been misinterpreted. He’d merely meant discussions with the providers. It had all the signs of a minister being lent on by someone higher up the Beehive. Joyce is normally a safe pair of hands. He’d apparently goofed on this one.

The change of heart seems to me to reflect two characteristics of this government. First – ministers are given considerable free rein. But what happens if their decisions are politically unpalatable? Second – I thought the Clark government was incredibly poll-driven. The Key government is even more so. Probably all modern democratic governments are.

There’s been a lot of huffing and puffing about mining in conservation reserves. But the prospect of a fight with the environmental lobby alarms the government. Likewise, the gold card. You can’t upset the golden oldies.

But you can’t govern a country deferring to lobby groups all the time. The foreshore issue waits like a time-bomb. I wonder what National’s polling is revealing on that one. The leprechauns can’t help them here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Flu Jab

Yesterday, Anne and I had our flu jabs for 2010. I’ve been having them for years now – a form of health insurance. With my reduced lung capacity I need to give the body’s defenses the best possible assistance.

Inoculation and vaccination – the two words have become practically interchangeable – are one of modern medicine’s miracles. When I was a boy I was inoculated against diptheria and tuberculosis, two of the great infant killers of previous centuries. I had the normal string of childhood illnesses, mumps, whooping cough, measles and chciken-pox. Now, most of these are vaccinated against.

During my school days, they were nationwide closed twice because of poliomyelitis epidemics. I took the oral vaccine for that disease in my first year teaching.

When going overseas in the old days one had hepatitis and smallpox injections. Modern travel is less complicated but going to certain areas still necessitates specific vaccination.

When I was executive director of the New Zealand Teachers Council I offered staff free flu vaccination. To my surprise and disappointment most declined. It was in my self-interest as well as a good deed – staff off ill was a costly business. Apathy and ignorance appeared to be the reason.

I gather the health authorities are alarmed at the declining number of parents seeking vaccinations for their children. I’m aware of the possibilities of a negative reaction and of science sometimes getting things wrong. But I’m equally aware of the dangers of disease. I am happy to see the government spending money urging us to get our flu jabs early.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hard to Find

When I began working in the old Department of Education Head Office in the Old Wooden Building in the 1970s I had a medley of emotions. There was the challenge of a new job. There was the frustration of being desk-bound. I was living at Papakowhai and coming to work by train.

Here is a poem I wrote at the time. On the blog I lose the free verse appearance but the tone is an apt reminder of that period of my life. It was not a cheerful time.

hard to find
the appropriate word for sunrise

balances uncertainly across the inlet as
I wait for my train

& a heron
by movement
to stillness

across the water
hills colliding with spaces
cattle immobile
& painted like childhood’s gaudy toys graze
beneath cabbage trees
each leaf countable

usually its only the bitterness of coffee after
shaving that heals the night’s long amputation

this morning’s ambush
escorts me through the rattling tunnels
people hacking
yawning, gossiping
to stride to work
smile at the sentries
make crude signs to telephone callers
contemplate the mail

for a while
the foolishness if blatant, obvious until
the restraints return
& the paper-chase begins again

hard to find
(elusive the appropriate definition of)
the only world I can & do inhabit.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cape Egmont

Events personal as ever impinge upon the political. I had intended to write about Buchanan’s The Parihaka Album yesterday but Friday’s storm intervened. The aftermath of the storm continued into yesterday. The tree that toppled over north next door was a rather rare Chilean native, not as I thought a species of ribbonwood.

And the oak bough from the west neighbour’s tree was only part of the damage. The whole top of the tree has been shattered. A tree surgeon will be required to remove some of the dangling branches. The neighbour kindly put his power saw to use and removed the bough and debris. We were lucky. Even the daphne bush survived the brush with the large branch.

To return to Parihaka. I have been to Cape Egmont lighthouse. Impressive! A solitary white unmanned beacon above a surging sea. That day I brought with me my ignorance.

I will let Buchanan’s words tell her story.
‘Maritime New Zealand had put a sign. It said in part ‘This light shone for the first time in August 1881. …:" ‘

‘The sign made me angry. … I couldn’t dispute the facts presented on the sign, the longitude and latitude, the heights and weights, the seconds and the dates; but even so, what the sign said was not really true. The lies of the sign, if I can put it that way, is in what it doesn’t say, in the facts it leaves out.’

‘This light just didn’t happen to shine for the first time in August 1881. There is absolutely no coincidence in the date of this illumination. … [It was part] of the military campaign on Parihaka only seven kilometres up the road from the cape. Soldiers erected this lighthouse, soldiers guarded it once it began to shine. They built the road I had driven on, and they installed the telegraph lines that allowed the men leading the campaign on Parihaka to communicate their thoughts, wishes and fantasies to politicians in Wellington. The road, the telegraph and the lighthouse – speed, safety, secrecy, enlightenment – all these things the soliders installed, forcibly, in this formerly independent Maori place. …’

[The lighthouse] ‘is a relic of war. Why doesn’t the sign say so?’

Several years after my visit to the lighthouse I stayed on the Parihaka marae – a moving experience. I did not make the connection. History surrounds us as we oblivious go on our merry way.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Autumn's Arrival

Yesterday – Anne was out - I was sitting in the lounge at about 4 10 p.m. reading The Parihaka Album. It had been a lovely warm sunny day. I noticed it was clouding over so I got up and closed the French doors.

The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget is an account not just of the history of Parihaka but a journey of self-discovery. Rachel Buchanan the author did her doctorate on the history but this work led her to seek relationships within the whanau. She interweaves the personal and historical in an intriguing manner. When Geoff Park used the same approach I remember arguing with a professional historian it was a valid style.

Suddenly, the whole house shuddered. A strong Southerly buster had arrived. I could see Dorothy our cat cowering outside the closed doors. As I opened them –she tore inside – all hell seemed to break lose.

A large bough off the oak tree to the south-west had snapped off and landing on our north lawn disintegrated. The lawn was littered with debris. Luckily it missed the house. The garden furniture toppled everywhere. The abutilon and roses lost most of their blossom in that blast.

Our north neighbour had an old high ribbonwood snapped off at the trunk. Again, it’s our good fortune. Mid-winter that tree had kept the midday sun off the house. It’s lost that function. Despite swaying all the tree ferns survived. It was a spectacular sight as the wind whipped them around. There was thunder and lightning. The power stayed on. The Kapiti coast was not so lucky.

The temperature dropped eleven degrees in half-an-hour. There was mayhem in the city. Marsden College lost half the roof of its auditorium. Tugs had to help the inter-islander berth. The police launch had to help yachties on the harbour. Train services were cut with trees on the lines.

25 millimetres of rain was dumped in a few hours. And I’ve been bewailing the lack of rain for the garden.

I realised my uselessness and vulnerability in such circumstances. The bough only missed the large plate glass window. I couldn’t even unplug the computer – the plugs are too low. I did lower the garage roller door. And the heat pump proved a godsend.

This morning the sun’s out on a bedraggled garden. It’s chill though. Autumn has arrived.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Distress, Then & Now

Last evening Fran and Howard came to dinner. They said I was looking and sounding well. I confirmed this. But when I went to undress I found I couldn’t slide my shirt off my shoulders. For ages I struggled. Eventually I gave up and called Anne. While it can be seen as a further muscular slippage it must also be acknowledged that the shirt was made to measure by a Bangkok tailor in 1995 when I was attending a UNESCO conference there. It's still a good looking shirt if tight-fitting.

Six years ago this poem was published in Recessional. I liked it when I wrote it and think it is still one of my better poems. When she launched the book Fiona Kidman said it sounded a good-life, being a pensioner. I gathered she was partial to bacon and mushrooms. Looking back, it was, then.

The Pensioner

A whiff of treachery, the body’s reluctance
to get out of bed in the morning. There is
reason to feel nervous about the outcome.

Not death, that is certain, but the trip to it.
Even cautious encouragement, the promise of
bacon and creamed mushroom on toast,

takes time to override its resistance. Recall
misty autumn mornings out early with bucket
& knife, picking field mushrooms, & the awe

at rings, fairies don’t exist they said, … but still…
the sun a pale corona through the fog. The jaunt
through the asphalt world has had its moments,

exotic brilliances & conspiracy corridors, but.
finally, feet, recognising the opportunity while
the mind’s woolgathering, swing over & out.

Lights, camera, we have action. Trousers etc.
It’s the loss of poise that irritates. Against that,
all that bother about face is of much less concern.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Education Cuts

It’s appropriate that Roger Douglas ended up in the ACT party. He’s the only Labour Finance Minister to cut actively the public service.

The public service I joined was apolitical. Ministers came and went and we got on with the job of serving them as well as we could. Peter Boag gave me a piece of advice. ‘You can tell a minister twice the policy is not sound. If they insist you have two alternatives. Resign or implement it.’ To the best of my knowledge no one resigned for that reason during my time there.

Douglas was helped by two very funny TV programmes; our own ‘Gliding On’ and Britain’s ‘Yes, Minister’. Both held gems of truth but they reinforced the stereotypes. After the sour Muldoon years people were in a mood for bureaucrat-bashing.

Since that period the numbers in the public service tend to reflect the government of the day. National to cut numbers, Labour to increase the figure. I recall Lockwood Smith launching my education book ‘A Quality Partnership: the transition from school to workplace’. In my speech I regretted the closing of the Northland branch of the ministry of Education. Afterwards we sat talking. He argued he’d had to make some cuts in expenditure. "Where would you have made them Harvey?" I understood his dilemma. I did not have an easy answer.

Now, the present government is well and truly on this hobbyhorse, albeit in a haphazard fashion. Today’s Dominion editorial is on the warpath, taking them to task for not proceeding faster. OK, I understand the tax argument. But there is another side to the coin.

The Education Ministry is to shed jobs. But I’m also aware that such cuts are at the expense of teacher professional development, curriculum development and research. The implementation of national standards is going to require careful monitoring. What else will be sacrificed for the sake of slashing expenditure.

Such cuts have downstream consequences. Thank goodness Merv Wellington and Lockwood Smith over-ruled Treasury advice to cut back teacher training. Otherwise we’d be facing a grave shortage of teachers. The announcement of education job-shedding means a subsequent generation will be affected.

Vernon Small, also in the Dominion, points out that ‘National will always cut too much (and fill in the gaps with consultants and contractors) while Labour will always expand too much (and top up that with consultants and contractors).' Cynical, but reasonably accurate.

I have another concern. The Americanisation of our public service. The change in the nature tends to alter perspective of the service from serving the people to serving the government; a strange contradiction from an administration claiming to reflect the opposite.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Little River Cemetery

Surfing the net yesterday I was chuffed to find this review of Recessional which I had not seen. I was chuffed. I hesititated about putting it up but felt the analysis of 'Little River Cemetery' was so apt I decided to share it. Thank you Terry Locke.

'Recessional' by Harvey McQueen. Wellington: HeadworX (2004)
Reviewed by Terry Locke

A recessional is a hymn sung while clergy and choir are moving from the chancel of a church to the vestry at the close of a service. Harvey McQueen was born in Little River, on Banks Peninsula, in 1934, which makes him about 71 years of age or thereabouts. I first met Harvey when he was a curriculum officer in the Department of Education, at a time when Russell Marshall was supporting the development of a Peace Education syllabus for New Zealand schools. He was, and still is, a man passionate about the arts, literature and education.

‘Recessional’ is a gracious book written by a man who is ageing gracefully. Age permeates this book; indeed it provides a stance and a resource to be mined. McQueen has 70 plus years to play with and he does. I picture him, scotch in hand, eyeing some plant or other as he ambles around the garden, finding a wicker chair in the shade, reaching for a book as his mind drifts to some incident in the past, perhaps prompted by what he is reading, perhaps entering unannounced.

By the time a poem is hatched, there will be a particular slant on things, often with a political or ethical twist. McQueen knows state politics (as educational adviser to David Lange), educational politics and the politics of poetry. In respect of the latter, McQueen can take a lot of credit for moving New Zealand poetry anthologies in new directions (including bicultural ones) and for taking risks in inviting younger, unrecognized poets into the public spotlight. Many of these have a much securer place nowadays in the pantheon than McQueen has. But that's politics.

What is also politics is that it is Mark Pirie's publishing venture HeadworX which has chosen to bring out this book of Harvey's (as Mark did for Alistair Paterson's ‘Summer on the Côte d'Azur’ ). McQueen dedicates a poem to Pirie:


There are two theories of creation:
- sweat
cooled basalt stacked
to wall a garden

- inspiration
a thousand ships and just a song at twilight.’

McQueen's verse is in the former category. He is a crafter and a shaper of poems that are often rough-hewn. You'd want to wear gloves handling "cooled basalt"; you'd also be aware of its volcanic origins.

You could use a poem like this with secondary students. But you may be picking up that I'm hesitating about suggesting that this book would be a good one to use with secondary English students. The book speaks to me, both in terms of its content and its stance. However, old age is not something secondary students willingly reckon with when next weekend looms so large on the horizon. ( King Lear can be sold to students because they can identify with Edmond, especially those studying economics with aspirations to be IMF executives.) McQueen himself, in "The Old Poet", pictures himself as someone definitely out-of-step with his times.

However, so you can make your own judgement, let me introduce "Little River Cemetery". The poem begins with a musing and a clearly evoked setting, both of which typify McQueen's verse:

‘If sparrows were rare they'd be considered
beautiful. One squats on my father's tombstone.
Mum totters towards it.’

The language is spare, yet apt, with just enough disrespect in the choice of "squats" to raise a slight smile. The poem moves to a recount of other family members whose graves are close by. Then:

‘Leaning on an old stone
for support Mum peers at the words. "He
lived to a ripe old age. Always a lazy bugger."’

This is as close to a moment of truth as you can get; bedrock. Just two sentences and you have a whole family history unwrapped. Then there is a link sentence, with the use of a personification that marks a tonal shift...

‘The hills of Little River stand sentinel
as they did in my youth.’

And then the irruption, the disruption and the connection.

‘This morning
Columbia disintegrated re-entering
the earth's atmosphere, a spectacular
& public death for the crew. A beautiful
& peaceful day here as they search the
Texan landscape for debris. Every death
ends a unique combination of circumstances,
prejudices, embraces & experiences. Never

The idea of beauty returns as a motif. The astronauts become linked with the poet's father, sharing a common fate through circumstances that are inevitably unique: sameness and difference.

‘Spying a hen in the dust, the sparrow
darts down to mate with her, a rowdy process.’

I can imagine! McQueen will know that he joins a long line of poets making use of sparrows in this way - Yeats, Auden, W.C.Williams and many others. What is reasserted here is the tone just faintly suggested by the word "squats" in line two. It's an assertion of carnival, sexuality, rebirth and comedy. An assertion right there, in a setting (a cemetery) and at a time (disaster in space) when the conditions are not particularly propitious.

I'm glad HeadworX has done this job for Harvey McQueen. He deserves it. And if you're like me, you'll find this book an amusing, engrossing and absorbing read.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dreams & Worms

In last night’s dream I left a rental car in a parking lot. As the dream progressed I got more and more anxious about paying for it before it got locked in. This morning in the drowsy zone between asleep and awake I had this continuing anxiety. Even as I checked my emails the concern lingered. I had to talk severely to my sub-conscious. ‘It was a dream. I don’t drive. There is no car in a parking lot. End of story. Get over it man.’

Despite the dry weather blackbirds are still getting worms out of the lawn. They especially like scratching under the rose bushes. There must be dozens of worms even on such a small section.

Yesterday’s paper had a science article by Brockie about worms. Darwin observed them over the years and marvelled at how they raised the soil, burying stones and flagstones. In time their castings covered the objects. It was his last book. But for years he kept worms in pots in his study and investigated their activities. To test that they had no hearing he yelled at them and played musical instruments. He did table-top experiments with light and heat as well as sound.

When people here read his research into worms they were sceptical. But they found he was right. Indeed, we have more worms per acre than Britain. The worms the blackbirds are eating are European worms. Old country birds eating Old Country worms. It’s a very ordinary Kiwi sight now for they forage in the shade of our two elegant tree-ferns.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Renoir's Cat


(at Cagnes-sur-Mer)

She has the same anxious
friendly smile as the naked
servant girls peering down
from pictures on the farmhouse
walls above their rosy nipples.

She has a saucy black bib
and a rolling white belly
that she bares when she rolls
in the grass among the ripe
fallen olives. There can be no doubt
her grandmother was Renoir’s cat.

Last year Fiona Kidman sent me copies of a few of her recent poems. I loved Renoir’s Cat. My favourite painter and my favourite animal all wrapped up into one lovely little gentle poem.

Another she sent was about electricity and the miracle of its arrival ‘when the power board/ came and brought the lines past our gate’. At a snap of a cord the household had a better light in which to read . The poem ends:
It was enough that the green wireless
on the shelf told us stories for a change
and that I learned to waltz with my father
to its music in the kitchen.

I related to this poem. In my early boyhood we had ‘power’ for light and radio. Nothing else. Then my widowed mother got a small ‘fridge’. It was a miracle. Ice-blocks for our summer drinks.

Last week Anne went to the launch of Fiona’s latest collection, "Where Your Left Hand Rests’. Both of these poems are in it. I’ve been dipping into it ever since Anne brought it home. What I like about these poems is that they are intimate glimpses of life in the context of the wider world, especially strong on family, friends and occasions. The search for identity predominates. The world’s a better place for them. I hope Fiona keeps writing poems. They're good.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The General

Last night was a good evening. Anne went to hear ‘Sing the Truth’ a tribute to Nina Simone by four top-class jazz divas. Also on stage were the original members of the the great singer’s band. Anne arrived home rapt.

Murray and Sue spent the evening here. They came from separate golf games, bubbling over with enthusiastic accounts of their rounds. Jenny, my niece, is staying with us again. Her vitality is contagious. I realise with my health problems my moods are more than ever, chameleon, dependent upon surroundings. So life feels rather full at present.

We watched the rain-shortened one-day cricket. It looked like New Zealand might bring off a miracle win but it was not to be. Vettori scored a whirlwind 70 runs before being last man out 12 runs short of the required total. Exciting stuff.

We then watched a DVD, Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent classic The General. I’d seen it ages ago. A strange mixture of epic and slapstick it’s a great movie. And a trend-setter for much of subsequent Hollywood. Goodies and Baddies. The damsel in distress. The hero who wins out over adversity. (Single-handed). The blowing up of a railway bridge with the engine on it – shades of River Kwai. The hero under the table – shades of Danny Kaye. The scary forest scene – lightning and black bears.

Keaton’s stunts are breathtaking. And his heroines are not nearly as passive as Chaplin’s. Though at one stage she did pick up a broom to sweep the engine’s cab floor.

I’m reading on and off Jenny Uglow’s ‘The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730 –1810.’ Most historians locate the late 18th century powerhouses of Britain in the late 18th century as London and Edinburgh. Not so, Uglow. For her it’s Birmingham and its surrounds. A group of friends, mainly dissenters – that is, not adherents of the Anglican faith – formed a club to discuss philosophical and scientific interests. They used to meet monthly on the nearest Sunday to the full moon. Being practical men they realised the full moon gave them a better light to ride home. Their ideas and experiements did indeed help to shape the future

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Another New Poem


I slapped a gnat that settled
on my face. Such a short life.

In many respects my own is similar

Apparently, that ghastly Chile
earthquake shortened earth’s
day by one-millionth of a second

Unbelievable, the molten rock
underneath this planet’s slim crust
on which I labour, love & laugh

it hurtles through space

Passing by, it is never
finished & nothing ever is.

Harvey McQueen

Friday, March 5, 2010

Prncess Grace

My boyhood, Okuti farmyard housed a small menagerie. As well as the ever-present dogs, there were pet lambs in season, chooks, geese, turkeys and ducks. Dick, my stepfather, built a small concrete dam across the small creek that ran past the house to provide a pool for our ducks and geese.

Princess Grace*, our sow (so christened by Dick because of her outstanding beauty - she was the ugliest pig ever seen), used to wallow in it. She developed a game of lying still, only snout and eyes showing, while the ducks or geese settled. With a snort she'd jump up, sending the birds flying in panic, her pig-eyes gleaming in triumph. She'd settle down, they'd return, and the whole performance would be repeated. Ducks are slow learners. No – I take that back. The pool in the Botanic Gardens is always crowded during duck-shooting.

There were turkeys and bantams as well as chooks. As the ducks don’t brood that well, Mum put their eggs under the bantams. The little hens strutted round followed by a gaggle of awkward looking youngsters tangling over their feet chasing flies. Sooner or later the ducklings would discover the pond and paddle away, leaving their mother frantic on the bank. Once Princess Grace startled the ducklings. The mother bantam stormed across into the water right into the pig's face. Astounded, the sow gave ground. We had to rescue the bedraggled hen.

* Famous actress Grace Kelly married the Crown Prince of Monaco.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Winter Olympics

A new poem

Winter Olympics

Not a maple in sight, when she
sold us the place Elizabeth asked

if she could dig up a cherished camellia.
While we believed it was too big to survive

the strain we said ‘Sure’. Behind
the hole it left was a cowering wintersweet.

Leslie gave a white abutilon cutting
to fill the gap. Stasis did not prevail.

The flame lit, competitively the two plants
bolted for the space of sky, a trajectory

of green-power. Nature’s not into charity.
The surrounding tall trees presented a challenge.

After two years, the abutilon now has a three
foot stem before four leggy branches, huge leaves

& only five flowers, graceful as dance skaters
on ice. Revitalised the wintersweet jostles like

an overbearing ice hockey jock. There is only
room for one on the central podium. My money‘s

on the abutilon, but there are further
complications in our small coppice corner

for at their feet there’s this cheeky indigenous
intruder, a red stemmed, peppery-leaved matipo

Harvey McQueen

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I’ve finished reading Belich’s latest history. I know some critics pan it for being derivative. But for the lay reader like me that’s useful. I can’t keep up with constant flow of new material and reintepretation of the old.

It’s a provocative read. I’ll give one example:
"As late as 1879, the old Spanish settlement of Los Angeles was ‘still a mere village, mostly Mexican … and the country round was practically a desert.’" Belich is quoting American historian Pomeroy’s ‘The Pacific Slope.’ It introduces a section devoted to the rise of Los Angeles. The business community there persuaded the Southern Railway Company to make the city its terminal rather than San Diego which had a natural port.

The oil and movie industries saw a flood of immigrants. Irrigation added a further factor, horticulture.

Belich goes on: ‘The California fruit industry … was similar to the contemporary rise of the export meat industry of New Zealand. The latter did not invent lamb consumption in London, but it did invent the Sunday lamb on the average table. California did not invent orange consumption in New York, but it did invent the oranges in the average fruit bowl and the orange juice on the average breakfast table. It also invented the raisins in the average school lunchbox and the tasteless iceberg lettuce in the average salad. … [Each industry] created its mass-market by emphasising its ‘freshness’ despite age, and its American-ness and British-ness, despite distance, Each compressed space and eliminated seasons. … [Both] were products of the same phenomenon: recolonisation ‘

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

25th Wedding Anniversary

Today is our 25th wedding anniversary. Two houses ago we were married outside our back door on a brilliant sunny day. We’d invited people to a party on the lawn afterwards – they did not know they were being asked to come to a celebration.

Afterwards I wrote a long poem to commemorate the occasion. I called it ‘Room’. Beginning with the path that led to the front door it had a section for every room in the large two-storied house. The last section dealt with the marriage scene.

‘Beyond the laundry clutter, out the back
patio, pumpkin, borage, ginger lily,
compost, worms, bees, snails,
cats, sparrows,
the bank held temporarily by ivy and convolulus
once a tui called to check the flax

There is room for everything

"Patrick, Jonathan, Ina, Rae & Colin,
we are gathered today at Anne & Harvey’s
home to witness and to celebrate their marriage."

Folly, magnificence, the whole thing,
dew on cobwebs,
paint peeling off the house,
mortared brick,
the embrace of a place
& one another.

A lot has happened since that poem was written. More tui round now. I dug out the ginger lily as a noxious weed. Pity, it had a splendid scent. As Yeats says ‘man is in love and loves what vanishes/ what more is there to say.’

It would be wrong, however, to end on a wistful note. There are still things to look forward to with pleasure. As it's a special occasion, Anne's cooking duck breasts for dinner tonight followed by poached black boy peaches in muscatel with fig and honey ice-cream for dessert.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tragedy & Trivia

Anne paid some bills this morning, She was muttering about ‘spring-cleaning, curtains and cat.’ Sounds like a line of poetry. Reminds me of Auden’s ‘in headaches and in worry life leaks away.’

Not always – sometimes there are horrific events. Yesterday’s TV had a brief clip – the pier at Akaroa. All its pylons were exposed in the low surge of the tsunami. I learnt to swim off that wharf. Interesting the surges were stronger around the harbours of Banks Peninsula than much of New Zealand. I wonder if volcanic rock is a factor.

The clip showed the strength of the tsunami. Again, I was interested to hear it was worse in Japan than here. I would have thought its power would have dissipated as it got further from the epicentre. Apparently not.

The power of nature. A tragedy for the poor people of Chile and Haiti. At least the former had a reasonable infrastructure. We could be next. Or anywhere else, though the likely expected places are known. Earthquakes are still in the quaint old phrase, ‘an act of God’.

Thousands are without power and there are deaths in the NE USA and France with snowstorms. Climate is predictable, weather is not. A trivial example. My temporary care-giver comes at 8 shower and dress me. This meant I could be outside having morning tea at 10 30 in the NE corner under next-door’s oak and wineberry. I was revelling in glorious sunshine. Then suddenly and dramatically it clouded over and shortly after Anne got me inside a light drizzle started.

Seeing I’m back to trivia Canada beat the USA in the ice hockey final at the Winter Olympics. There’ll be some soreheads in the land of the maple-leaf tomorrow.