Monday, May 31, 2010

End of May 1999

The Last Saturday Of May 1999

A lukewarm sun dries the cormorant’s
widespread wings at the water’s edge
as the fully-laden container ship
gathers speed in mid-harbour &
the tugboats fuss back to their berth.
The hills huddle under a wind-tossed
haze while a youth on roller-blades
exercises his eager labrador, admirable
his skill as on the leash he constantly
switches hands as the dog runs right
to left & back again. In the city all
the coffee shops are full, & salesfolk
pounce as you cross their threshold
the politics of choice, the Budget’s
been & gone. A century ago this
harbour would have been full with
sailing ships, the wharves swarm
with manual labour. Seddon was
king then to at this point in time
our Shipley; the wooden piles of
his period replaced by concrete,
slapped by the same but different sea.
Suddenly the shag folds its wings,
performs its centuries-old dive,
while the youth’s luck runs out
for the dog stumbles him to the deck
to grin foolish alongside; the bird
gulps down its fish as the animal
licks forgiveness from its master’s nose.

Here’s a poem I wrote eleven years ago. People ask ‘what does your poem mean?’ Well, it means what it says. To you. To me. This is a snapshot poem. A scene. An early winter’s day, mild, a container ship, the usual Wellington promenade along the waterfront, friends, coffee at Shed 5 or an ice cream. The dexterity of a boy and his dog.

But scenes often have a theme. I’ve seen pictures of this waterfront in earlier times. Ships galore, berthed at the human-made wharf or in the stream. In Seddon’s time. In Fraser’s Time. How commerce and transport have changed. Mention of Seddon – the women’s vote. And now a woman Prime Minister. And before Seddon, before Maori, cormorant fished these waters. Nature will out.

So the poem becomes a time capsule, capturing a moment, reflecting at what has gone before and glimpsing what may come hereafter. There’ll be a boy and his dog, I’ll warrant next weekend racing along that human creation. And if it’s a day like today there’ll be a wind-tossed haze over the hills. Nature will out.

In the original poem I had the word ‘aswarm’ to give the sense of physical activity on the wharves as ships were loaded and unloaded. I wanted to contrast that bustle with the leisurely Saturday strollers – contrast the pace of their earlier shopping. Somewhere along the line the ‘a’ was removed, probably in the name of editorial correctness. I never picked it up until the poem was published in “Recessional’ An interesting example of the perils of publishing.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Your Secret Life

Yesterday was itsy-bitsy but very full. Rosemary rang from Auckland. Suggested we watch Maori TV that evening. We did. The successful release of a kokako pair in Waitakere. The male shot up into the canopy as fast as he could. The female stayed awhile to bolt a meal of mashed banana – wise bird, a more frugal time ahead. One of my regrets, I’ve never heard a kokako call in the wild. Such a lovely sound.

I have out a DVD of an Australian production of The Magic Flute, Mozart’s last opera. Superb music, good singing, terrible plot, sexist assumptions, good production. So in watching it I come out on the credit side. Seeing I can’t get to the theatre it has to come to me.

I am continuing to enjoy Hibbert’s account of the Borgias. Only yesterday I looked at the fly-leaf to find it was the author’s last book. He died just after it was finished. So I’ve been reading obituary notices on the internet this morning. Over 60 books – quite a record. The comment is roughly the same, readable, good research, little analysis. Hibbert’s argument, was let the reader decide. There is a place for such histories.

It’s been good weather for watching and reading. The gauge has not got over ten degrees for the last three days and today looks the same. Just as I write this a weak beam of sunshine glances through my study window.

Anne and I have been enjoying the DVD series Lark Rise to Candleford. O.K, it’s idyllic, sentimental, nostalgic. But it’s BBC costume drama. The work-house, debtor’s prison and poverty are constant companions. They lurk below the poppies, wheat and oaks.

This morning’s paper has a piece about the ageing teacher service and pending retirements. The Minister is not concerned. She talks of retention. That misses the point. The generation gap is a factor in authority and authenticity.

Another chilling item is American research showing today’s younger generation has much less empathy for others than earlier cohorts. That reinforces my observation. The commercialisation of our civilisation comes at a cost.

On 1 June 50 years ago TV began in New Zealand. Last night’s ‘Country Calendar’ ran through the decades. Viewers of my vintage will recall how the showing used to end at midnight with the cat and the kiwi going to bed. Starting with that image Harry Ricketts has written a delightful poem about fatherhood.

Your Secret Life

(for Jesse)

I can see it all already:
sitting up long after the kiwi
and the cat have gone to bed
to do whatever it is they do
when the screen scrambles to a noisy snow.

I’ll hear you shut the front door
with a soft click that makes me jump
- just time to fix a welcoming smile
before you bound into the kitchen (perhaps
for a drink) blooming with your secret life

What shall we say? Will I blurt out
“Do you know what time it is?”
angry with relief that you are home
at last and apparently unharmed
from that film, that party, that lover?

Would that be better or more likely
than a “had a nice time sweetheart?”
poured out with an oh-so-casual cup of tea?
“Sorry Dad.” “Yes, Dad.” Not now, not soon,
but sometime it will happen.

Harry Ricketts

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Judith Wright

I have long believed that Kiwi writers ignore Aussie writers and vice versa. Pity! We have a lot in common. One of my favourite Aussies is poet Judith Wright. She is one of those poets to whom I keep returning. Indeed, she is one who if I were asked which ten would you take to a desert island would be included. The other surprise would be Margaret Atwood, Canadian poet as well as novelist. Here are two Wright poems that appeal


Once as I travelled through a quiet evening,
I saw a pool, jet-black and mirror-still.
beyond the slender paper-barks stood crowding;
each on its own white image looked its fill,
and nothing moved but thirty egrets wading –
thirty egrets in a quiet evening.

Once in a lifetime, lovely past believing,
your lucky eyes may light upon such a pool.
As though for many years I’ve been waiting,
I watched in silence, until my heart was full
of clear, dark water, and white trees unmoving,
and, whiter yet, those thirty egrets wading.

Bora Ring

The song is gone; the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth,
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.

Only the grass stands up
to mark the dancing-ring; the apple-gums
posture and mime a past corroboree,
murmur a broken chant

The hunter is gone; the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.

Only the rider’s heart
halts at a sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood of the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain.

‘Egrets’ is lovely. The Australian outback is often portrayed as a harsh landscape. But it can also be lush. Waterfowl in a marsh or at a billabong, paper-bark trees, what a poetic snap-shot. And has there ever been a more superb three word phrase than ‘lovely past believing’.

'Bora Ring' is a poem. But as an artifice it also makes a political point. The bora ring is the ancient corroboree ground, in this instance, now deserted, of an Aboriginal tribe. A dramatic beginning ‘the song is gone’ grabs our attention. The dances and rites are now lost. All we have is ‘an alien tale” the colonist’s version of what happened. Wright’s use of words, ‘gone’, ‘in the earth’, ‘useless’ and ‘loss’ accumulate this feeling.

There is a physical reminder of the spot. The grass ‘stands up’ to mark the ring. ‘Stands up’ not only marks the place, it conveys a sense a sense of being counted and of being upright as if the dancers are still there. Nature reinforces this sense – the apple gums ‘posture and mime’ the lost movements and the leaves ‘murmur’ forgotten chants.

But it is fantasy to expect these things to really reflect the past. That’s gone. These hunters are dead. Their nomadic way of life is finished. Again the words accumulate the sense, ‘gone’, ‘underground’, ‘a dream’, ‘forgot’, ‘are still’.

And so the final stanza and a wrench to the present. The rider – white stockman, the poet herself, you or I? – feels a twinge of fear, remembers Cain, son of Adam and Eve, who murdered his brother. The Biblical dimension adds a further twist to the poem. We are all involved by blood and history with past wrongs and injustices. From a pensive contemplation of the scene Wright has taken us into a realm of shared guilt. In many areas of early Australian settlement the local indigenous people were knowingly annihilated.

Wright uses rhyme and half-rhyme to tie the stanzas together The shorter final line in each stanza reinforces the overall mood. It is a powerful little poem. I value its presence in my poetry granary.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Blogging! It’s fun! It’s rewarding! It feels virtuous! And the blogs I like are pleasant and useful. Those that scream hate and venom I pass by feeling sorry for the twisted denizens who inhabit such ravings. Blogging leads to other thoughts as well as other blogs. (Anne has just pointed out that I didn't have a bloglist so we've now added one, you can use it to go to the blogs mentioned here or earlier.)

It assists conversations. A few days ago I blogged about Argentina. Rory has visited. He told of a Buenos Aires night club scene where a woman dressed in a white dress came out, and with the spotlight only on her sang ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’. Apparently, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. We both agreed that Madonna’s performance in the film of that name was superb. I must confess it is the only thing of hers I’ve seen. Audrey Hepburn was more my style. But Madonna’s performance in this instance was striking

On 20 May I mentioned on my blog another blog, peterspilgrimage. His posting about the island of Chios invoked memories of my studies into ancient Greece. In the name of democracy Athens transformed islands into client vassals. Peter not only explained the history of the island he’s taken magnificent photographs. An excellent conducted tour. Thanks Pam for drawing my attention to this blog.

But today when I went to check what Peter had written about Chios I found he’d been to the National Archaeological Museum at Athens. I’ve been there twice. As well I studied Greek Art, History and Literature at Canterbury University. (See my blog 30 March 2009).  Peter’s photos took me down memory lane. That magnificent bronze statue of Zeus, weight supported only by the ball of the foot. Those carved gravestones (stele, the correct term), well over 2,000 years old, human grief down the centuries. Painted vases. (I remember that octopus one). And all that gold from Mycaenae. Above all, the golden death mask from that hoard. Lucky man. Still I’ve seen them.

Another blog I enjoy is Mary McCallum’s. Her latest piece on crime writing is a gem. Everything a blog should be. I visit Beattie’s Book Blog regularly. He’s lifted Mary’s piece as his introduction to today’s Another I visit is Robert Reich (not a blog though), American economist whose latest piece is about Obama’s reaction to the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. “Respectful disagreement is virtuous in a democratic society, but so is appropriate indignation.” I also check on Anne, my wife’s food blog, Something Else to Eat, to see what I’ve been eating.

Similar to my pleasure in the blog is my daily reading of the weather statistics in the Dominion Post. Mid-May, the sunshine was ahead of the monthly average, rainfall well-down. The last several days have reversed that trend. For the next four days the forecast is more rain. It looks very likely the sunshine hours will be well-short for the full month. Rainfall is already well over. The wide gap of the earlier months of 2010 is beginning to close.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Present and Past

It surprised me that in the rosy glow in which Bill English seemed to be existing after the Budget he cast the idea of privatising, (albeit partially) Kiwibank. Why disturb sleeping dogs. It fitted my conspiracy theory. National will go to the electorate saying ‘ look we’ve no horns’ before moving down the privatisation path in its second term. The recent Labour government followed the same course in its first term except its policies went in the reverse direction.

My gut reaction is one of disappointment. The idea of Kiwibank appeals. It helps keep the foreign-owned banks honest. In the onslaught of another recession the government has a weapon to help regulate the industry. English talks about ‘mums and dads’ buying into Kiwibank. On that basis years ago I bought shares in Bank of New Zealand when it was privatised. My little bit to help New Zealand. The result. I was forced to sell. At a loss. I was at the mercy of global forces. If offers are made for the little mums and dads's shares can the government stop the loss to overseas interests. There is a time and a place for a Churchillian nationalistic rumble.

The other surprising news this morning is that Capital health stopped elective surgery for a week. They had met quotas. Admittedly I don’t know the full story. Staff can accumulate leave, which can be a book liability. But it seems to me folly to have operating theatres lying idle and staff willing to work on enforced leave.

It is with relief that I turn to my reading, Christopher Hibbert’s account of the Borgias, for a while the leading family in Rome. Tom has lent me his copy to read. Hibbert’s a prolific historian, well over thirty books. I’ve read ten and possess four, London, Mussolini, the American Revolution and Nelson. Earlier this year I read his Venice.

He can be described as a pot-boiler – a once-over lightly. But he’s more than that – he’s a good story teller, able to condense complex material and issues into explainable text. So I’m enjoying his Borgias. The very name conjures up images of corruption, nepotism, vice and greed. Pre-Reformation Rome was not a pleasant place. Even for those at the top it was a constant power struggle, bribery, marriage and murder.

The central figure is Cardinal Rodrico Borgia, nephew to Pope Calixtus 111. He served under five popes before bribing his way into the position himself becoming Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He died in 1503. He fathered many children, the two most infamous being Cesare a soldier of adventure and Lucrezia a woman seeking adventure. These three left a legend of notoriety. Hibbert’s account leaves me with a sense that despite all their follies the politicians under whom I live are clean and well-meaning, not corrupt and base. Not for the first time I say I’m lucky in my period and in my place. No wonder Martin Luther rose up in revolt.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Snippets: Interesting and Bad

American research has revealed that godwits fly direct from Alaska to New Zealand across the Pacific Ocean. Recent microchipping enabled scientists to track the birds. They were amazed to find that the birds flew in a direct line without stopping. They gorge themselves all autumn, take off when there is a good tail wind and fly south. There are no feeding grounds along the way. Apparently they land exhausted and sleep for a day. There are few predators, crocodiles or snakes so they are safe. The article did not reveal how they get north. Is it the same way or do they go via the marshes of China and Korea as those bound for Siberia do. Nature’s magnificence.

Another bit of animal research. Most male animals try to attract the female by a show of strength and power. The male topi antelope adds subterfuge. That species has a specific snort which means danger, lion or cheetah etc. It’s basically used as a warning to the predator, ‘we’ve seen you’. With one exception, courtship. The female topi comes into heat only for one day only once a year so a gentleman topi hasn’t much time. The longer she’s around the more opportunity he has to mate. So when she goes to leave his territory he snorts. She retreats back into his space. According to the researchers who observed the process it worked.

This isn’t research. It’s observation. For months I’ve had a wax-eye pair visiting the abutilon daily. They spent quite a bit of time each day in the shrub. Now they seem to have merged into a larger flock, bevy, group, flight – call it what you will – that also visit once a day but for a much shorter time. A large number of the little birds suddenly descend, whirl through the flowers, pick obviously a few late aphid off the roses, and equally abruptly leave.

I read that one of Egypt’s main exports is potatoes. I presume they are grown from soil irrigated by the Nile. Strange to think of Europeans eating spuds grown with African water. Still, the ancient Romans thought of Egypt as their granary. The recent Iceland volcanic dust-clouds greatly disrupted the Kenyan flower-trade with Europe. It’s an interesting world that of modern commerce.

It’s a menacing world. The Gulf of Mexico is still an emergency site as the collapsed well gushes oil into the sea. American law is that in the event of a spill it’s the company responsible that must clean it up. The President, however, has the ability to mobilize national or state forces to ensure the work gets done. The longer the spill continues and BP fails to cap the well the more criticism the President will face. I note that many Americans who clamour for the Federal Government to keep out of business also clamour for it to clean up the mess if one results. You can’t have it both ways. Obama, dooms if he does and doomed if he doesn’t.

It looks like Obama is going to face another test of strength over Korea. The evidence does point quite clearly to the fact that a North Korean torpedo did sink the South Korean ship. My question, Why? Was it a Government order or the stupid act of a local commander hyped up by propaganda. Either way it’s a disaster course. The South cannot ignore it. But the consequences. The North has some nuclear capabilities. If desperate, despots could resort to their use. The possibilities are frightening. I don’t like the prospects.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Continent Unvisited

During last winter there was the swine flue scare. Students from an Auckland High School returned from Mexico City with it. We ranked high on the list of countries to be avoided for a while. I was asked why would our students need to go to Mexico? To learn Spanish was my reply.

Spanish is an important international language. With our emphasis upon East Asia we’re inclined to ignore the trade potential of South America. I recall Jim Bolger stressed it and one of Helen Clark’s first visits was to Chile. But the region seems to have gone off the radar. Pity!

On the American continent I’ve never been further south than Mexico City. My brief visit gave me a glimpse of a way of life, not European, not Anglo-Saxon, but uniquely based upon Spanish and the indigenous.

In the late 1990s I was invited to go on a trade mission to South America led by Minister Lockwood Smith. I was to represent Wellington College of Education, which was interested in training teachers from the region in English but also reciprocity with Spanish teaching. Alas that was not to be. I developed pneumonia and that was that. Here is a poem I wrote about that non-trip.

A Continent Unvisited

I should have been
in Lima
a constitutional around Harbour View Rd
millpool water
a departing ferry
Mt Vic windows sparkling in the winter sun.

ancient Incas
conference room
after conference room
& cocktail do
after cocktail do
What day is it? This must be Santiago.
Johnnie Walker in the mini-bar.

I would liked
to have gone
another scene
another continent

but then I wouldn’t have seen
three large stick insects
lured out by a false spring
clinging sluggishly
to a bare climbing rose
where have all the leaves gone
& the approaching evening
threatening an apprehensive frost

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Argentina becoming an independent nation. I read that in this morning’s paper. Aha, I thought, Napoleon’s overthrow of the Spanish monarchy cleared the decks for the locals. A little research proved me right. The idea of liberty hovered in the air. Further north Simon Bolivar was on the verge of leading other successful revolts against Spanish rule. Even further north, the successful revolt against British rule also encouraged the colonials around Buenos Aires to declare their own independence.

I realised I know very little about Argentina. Speaking to my replacement on that mission reinforced my idea that they ate very little but beef. ‘You’ve never seen steaks so enormous,' and they ate late. So I did a little reading this morning.

Sparsely populated by indigenous people (relatively speaking) before the Spanish arrived, Argentina is fairly unique in South America in that it is more European in nature. Neither did it have the Black intake of Brazil, the Caribbean and the USA. There was a large Italian influx between the two world wars while there was considerable German migration both before and after the Second World War. The economy throughout the 19th and indeed much of the 20th century was based upon livestock farming. British capital formed the basis of development.

In 1884 all children were guaranteed universal, free and non-religious education. When I represented New Zealand at the UNESCO Education Conference I was greatly impressed by its chair – the woman Minister of Education from Argentina. Her vision of education’s possibilities was heart-warming. It reflected a country that’s known turmoil and social conflict. It also showed an idealistic streak that I envied. Both reflected the Spanish origin and a wide class gap.

Like most modern nations it’s top-heavy with its capital city. More than one-third of the its 32 million live in Buenos Aires. 90% of Argentineans live in urban areas.

When I met the Argentinean ambassador preparatory to the mission he stressed the tourism potential and urged me to make a return visit to explore some of his country’s scenic spots. Alas again. That ‘apprehensive frost’ was more perceptive than I realised at the time of writing.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Modest Truth

I once watched a student teacher bewildered by the inability of the class to see that Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’ was about a murder. I realised that poetry was no longer being taught as narrative or story. Those young people saw poetry as lyric.

I found bringing students and poems together always an interesting task. Interpretations as to what was being said would be varied. I am sure many a poet would be depressed at what was being found in their lines.

Once when discussing this poem of mine, ‘Modest Truth’, with some friends I found they all assumed I meant university students. But that was not the genesis of the poem. It was years ago. I was in Christchurch on a fine late spring morning. I was walking from the museum to Armargh Street and took a short-cut through Cranmer Square. It was lunch hour and there were High girls galore sunning themselves in the park.

The incident happened as I describe. My school-teacher’s severe gaze failed. The girl’s look of scorn at having bested me rankled. Sexuality is so complex. It's a neat, little, honest poem.

Modest Truth

& a blue sky

as I cross the square
through scattered

thighs in the sun
three sprawl apart

as I approach
two sit up
the other goes to pull down
her skirt

it is I
to admit
the self-same
which endures beyond
or innocence
who look away

in all her power
doesn’t yet appreciate
we play
at what we do not understand
and having understood
play on.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Taste Buds

Lesley has given Anne a birthday card with a cartoon of a donkey eating a rose. The caption says ‘remember to stop and eat the roses.’ Lesley used to run a small farmlet with her bed and breakfast business. When she deheaded the roses she tossed the hips and old petals into the donkey paddock. They relished them. There was a small cottage on the place. Sheep broke through the fence and ate all the roses around it, standing on their hind legs to get as high as they could.

When I mowed the lawn at the old farmhouse the cow hovered near the gate. I’d tip the catcher over it. At the end of the process there would be that little heap of daisy heads, carefully separated by the cow’s tongue. It intrigued me that something so large could be so sensitive.

But how did they know roses were good and daisies were bad?

Taste is a wonderful sense. I suffer from the natural waning that goes with old age. But my illness also has had an effect. My nutritional supplement leaves little desire for other food. I’m just not hungry. And I’m not losing weight.

Poor Anne. She’s cooking for an ex-gourmet. So I was delighted that we had friends in on Friday to help eat the two wild ducks that brother Bruce brought up. Anne found a recipe on the internet involving whole oranges as stuffing. They gave the meat a lovely flavour. She made a potato gratin in the oven and cooked carrots with honey and walnuts. Yum! Even I say so myself.

Today’s paper has another recipe for cooking wild duck. This time the stuffing was onion and celery. The duck was cooked one day, cooled in the freezer overnight, and then reheated the following day.

Good cooks improvise. That’s a lesson I learnt when I did my share of the cooking. After a while one starts to branch out, adapt a recipe, add less salt, more chilli. At the beginning I always put caraway seeds in with my boiling carrots. It’s what my forbears did. But over the years I learnt there were other ingredients equally flavoursome.

One of my big present regrets is I can no longer cook. I can still read and drool over recipe books. I can think of adaptations as I read and can ask Anne to contemplate trying such and such a dish. But I cannot suddenly ask would you like to have this tonight. While Anne, not only has she to do all the meal preparation (and the clearing up), has to cook for someone who has little appetite. So I was grateful her duck dish was so appreciated.

It’s like gardening. Another regret. The two are intertwined. Along with lavender, rosemary is one of the most evocative fragrances in the garden. I often picked and crushed a few leaves when I worked nearby, savouring the pungent odour. One of the joys of gardening is the buzz of bees. Somehow it signifies nature at its most relaxed and productive. They love the rosemary.

A roast of lamb is better with several sprigs of rosemary and my favourite dish of chicken, stuffed with garlic cloves and sealed to pot-roast on a bed of herbs is all the better for a bit of rosemary. I also used a few rosemary leaves in my garlic and herb sauce. You stir finely chopped garlic and a mixture of herbs from the garden – thyme, parsley, lemon balm, tarragon – into unflavoured yogurt, plus pepper and salt to eat with a pan-grilled pork chop or rump steak. Or in season you can put a piece of rosemary in with five asparagus spears, wrap them in bacon, drizzle lemon juice and olive oil on the packages and bake briefly.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


The oil from the Gulf of Mexico rig disaster has reached the Louisiana bayou at the mouth of the Mississippi. This has long been a mysterious area for me, land, salt water, fresh water, marsh, mud, frog, snake and turtle. It reflects a love affair with a river I’ve only seen thrice from high in the air. Mississippi – what a lovely roll of sound. To stand along side it was one of my boyhood dreams.

I read Mark Twain’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huck Finn’ when I was a boy. I didn’t relate much to Tom. But Huck was a different kettle of fish. The account of his drifting down the mighty river on a raft with his friend the runaway slave Jim became entrenched in my mind. It was the American dream personified, freedom and escape. I didn’t realise that. The language, the situations, the comedy, the tension, intrigued this earthbound boy. Rivers represent release. Indeed, in my first reading I resented the sudden intrusion of Tom back into the story near the end. Huck had been having real adventures, not make-believe ones. What I took away was a sense of awe at the magnitude of the river.

Twain’s books are criticised now for the use of the word ‘nigger’. It was part of the vocabulary of the time. Even more so when he wrote the book. But it’s a rollicking tale, told with enthusiastic gusto. As Twain himself said: ‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author.’ And so we leave Finn planning to head west to avoid being ‘sivilised’ again.

What I chiefly remember, however, is the river. This feeling was reinforced when I read Jonathan Raban’s 'Old Glory', his descent of it in a sixteen foot aluminium motorboat. It’s one of the best travel books I’ve read. The dangers and rewards of travel have rarely been better described. ‘Riding the river, I had seen myself as a sincere traveller, thinking of my voyage not as a holiday but as a scale model of a life. It was different from life in one essential: I would survive it to give an account at its end.’

Once the lifeblood of the nation in terms of commerce and travel the Mississippi flows on – the people on its banks have a nostalgia for a lost past. Raban’s account of the people he meets added to my understanding of the American heartland.

Reinforcement of this interest came in a geography lesson in school. How the levees were being raised higher and higher. Sooner or later they will breach with catastrophic effects. The effects of Cyclone Katrina were forecast in a Little River classroom sixty years ahead. We were shown photos of barges on the river higher than the houses on the surrounding ground. That image lingered.

Hollywood added its glamour to my imagination. ‘Showboat’. ‘Steamboat Bill’. Howard Keel and Paul Robeson singing ‘Old Man River’.

Mark Twain died a 100 years ago last April. To commemorate the occasion this week’s Economist has an article by Laura Barton who drove through ten states along the river. She begins in Hannibal where Twain grew up and the river is three miles wide. I find it hard to conceive so much fresh flowing water.

Barton reinforced Raban’s description. The vast manufacturing industries that lined the river are long gone. ‘Today many of these towns sit dark and deflated on the water’s edge. Some 600 miles from the headwaters, Muscatine, Iowa is still known as the Pearl of the Mississippi in honour of its once flourishing pearl button industry. (in 1905 its factories produced more than a third of the worlds buttons). Today, one factory still operates, the button-making is largely done abroad and there is a lost feeling to its streets.’

I’ll have to settle for the fact I sat on a hotel balcony overlooking the Nile. You can’t win them all. The Amazon. I never lusted for that one.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pooh-like Musings on the Budget

No nation is an island. The American stock-market weakens as the European monetary crisis deepens. A Grecian sneeze, a German freeze, and round the world financiers watch and worry how to break out of a tailspin.

Never mind. We have a budget that in the Dominion Post headlines says ‘lollies’ for all.’ Bunkum! Acid drops for the poor. Swiss chocolates for the rich. The paper’s figures – which are probably based upon statistics supplied from Bill English’s office – assume the rich will spend their tax cuts and thus increase the GST coffers.

Why should they? They’ll squirrel some of it away. Spend some of it overseas. Find further tax loopholes. Meanwhile those at the other end of the scale will be hard-pressed to retain present standards of living. Everyday things will be more expensive. What and where do I cut down?

And what about local body rates? That issue will figure large in this year’s forthcoming elections.

The budget could have worse. Sir Roger would have us cutting government expenditure much more. Rodney would have us ignoring climate change. There is belt-tightening but it not as bad as some had been predicting. The drip-feeding of increased taxes has been skilfully managed.

Let’s face it. The budget flies the flag of National’s true blue colours. Labour on the whole is the party of redistribution on humane grounds. National is traditionally less inclined to be so charitable. The boundaries are blurred. Labour has its aberrations like Sir Roger in the 1980s. National has always had its Coates and Talboys, even Muldoon with his appeal to the battlers. The centre is the ground either party wants to gain and retain. I suspect – in the short term at least – this budget will not erode National’s occupation of that ground. Though the Maori party’s commitment will be tested.

So this government was reverting to type. Two comments have got up my nose this year. The first was Paula Bennet’s comment to beneficiaries to stop dreaming. I thought that was offensive. The safety net for the deserving is always going to provide support for some who are undeserving. That’s the nature of life. But to say it’s the dream of the majority… I thought it a demeaning comment.

The other was John Key’s comment about jealousy. I am not and have never been jealous of the rich. That is their lot, their luck, their effort. I am critical of those who use their power to destroy the savings of the small investor. But I do not buy into the politics of envy.

All I want is a decent deal. I’ve paid my taxes down the years. A commentator asks why his taxes should be helping dole-bludgers? They also help pay teachers, nurses, surgeons, surveyors, immigration officers, the list is long. OK, he’ll have more take home pay, much more than the people who collect his garbage. They provide a more essential service than his.

Most of the education vote seems to be for building. That’s good. Kids need the best possible environment. It provides a stimulus to the building trade and shows the government achieving something. But teacher salaries? I’ve long argued teachers deserve better pay. You get what you pay for. The Government will say tax cuts are in lieu of increased salaries. It appears to have backed off confrontation over class sizes. Turmoil over the implementation of standard achievement tests is probably enough to cope with. Return us to power in 2011 and we’ll bring in performance pay.

It seems to me that is the crux of this Budget – keeping power for a second term at least.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ideas & Images

Last evening we watched an Argentinian movie, ‘Conversations with my Mother’, a delightful little comedy drama. The theme was universally western – middle-aged executive, ambitious wife, two rebellious kids, suddenly out of work and in mid-life crisis, and a cranky, common sense talking mother. Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Paris, Christchurch, even Mumbai. Life goes on despite all the economic ideas.

What am I reading at present? I have two non-fiction on the go. After watching the DVD on the painter David I plucked off our shelves, Anita Brookner’s life. I skipped the explanation of Rousseau and his ilk. In my student days I studied them. They let lose many of the ideas that still free-float around. But liberty can turn quickly into tyranny. Or anarchy. Look at the streets of Bangkok at present.

My criticism of David is different from Scharma’s. It was not so much that he immortalised Marat. It was that he heroically deified Napoleon. I fell in love with Paris in my first visit. With one exception, the Les Invalides and Napoleon’s Tomb. The glorification of that man I found sickening. Part of his status is the mythical figure that David’s paintings accord him.

The other book is one that Oliver lent me, Matthew Wright’s ‘Behind Enemy Lines’. It’s a first person account of escaped Kiwi prisoners-of-war in Nazi-occupied Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy. Brave men. I was particularly intrigued by one who rose high in Tito’s partisan army and when the war was over came home and drove a taxi in Temuka.

Who knows how one will react when caught up in events like that. My relationship with an early girl-friend foundered after we saw the movie ‘Cockleshell Heroes’. Her eyes were shining bright from the heroism of those brave Englishmen. She assumed all men would act so well. I was young and fool-honest. We quarreled at my lack of surety. I learnt a lot quickly about the dangers of a single-sex boarding upbringing for girls. We lost touch. I presume she learnt more about men as I had to about women.

I admire these men, ordinary Kiwis, living by their wits and old-fashioned number 8 fencing wire mentality. Also the local people who risked their lives to assist them. One of my stepfather Dick’s heroes was Sandy Thomas. Captured in Greece, he escaped and was given sanctuary in the Mount Athos monastry. His account ‘Dare to be Free’ tells of his experiences.

Pam has sent through for my interest another blog. Her vicar’s, It’s He has been touring the Holy Land, Greece and Turkey. I have found it extremely interesting. The blog contains photos of Mt Athos. It is very different from the mental picture I had formed about the place from Thomas’s account. Beware of books. They are like pictures. They create images.

Peter’s blog gave me an image for my latest poem.

After Church

light glints through stained glass
we would be pure of heart but
history happens despite our pain.

outside, a mellow breeze lifts
spirits, an immense pohutakawa
sheds its blood-red spikes

a jet with its anonymous
passengers flits overhead
a car alarm rackets our peace

great is Diana of Ephesus
a daily sacrifice will raise the sun
tax cuts & we mustn’t be jealous.

It seemed an appropriate poem to put up on budget day before the document is delivered to the nation.

I’m also re-reading Judith Wright’s poems. An Aussie battler whose clear-sightedness leaves me breathless.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Against the Maelstrom

Seeing I’m in an early poems into the blog period here are two poems for Anne – part of my longer poem 'Against the Maelstrom' published in 1981. They were in free verse, hence the unusual lines


features dim with firelight
tell ghost stories
you decline
offer to read
‘The Ancient Mariner’

I didn’t know you could
read like this
my buck tooth love
the words spit & spin
they burst
like napalm
like sapphires they
dance along the skeleton

for a
your voice strong & tender
we overlap

the wedding guest’s unexpected


all flight up
I chew peppermints
in times of stress
old habits return

now oblivious
to Auckland showers I stroll
from gallery
to gallery

to buy you (wench)
a stupid card
as the lacerating spines
the hedgehog heart unrolls

I also buy
a new tie
listen to the shopgirl’s prattle
last night’s party
'hey you’ve not listening'
she says


but she is jaunty & so am I
the drought on happiness has lasted long

when I return to Wellington
an unexpected snare
you distressed
at me
the stranger

after all the affirmations/protestations
(in case one fails try another)
it creeps out

I’ve grown fond of you
more honest than most else

I grab the axe
chop kindling
once a boyhood chore

old habits

Today’s Anne’s birthday. Yesterday, the door bell rang. Anne answered it. She came into my study with an amused smile saying ‘your florist has sent your flowers a day early’. I took one look and said, ‘not mine’. They were roses, not the cream tulips I’d ordered, Ulrike had sent them interflora from Germany. Mine arrived this morning as anticipated.

I’ve had to arrange presents by phone and get them smuggled in. The decision to buy the major one, a new sewing machine, was by mutual agreement. The others were a surprise. A bottle of genuine French champagne, two books - a new life of Emily Dickinson and Margaret Forster’s latest work Isa and May, and two cards selected for me by Susanna my caregiver. I trundled these minor treasures out to the lounge on my new walker. Watching Anne unwrap presents is always a joy. I'm like a young child, keen to get to the actual present. She proceeds slowly and carefully, obviously savouring the event. Even the flowers are done the same way. I'd looked at the card first. Anne gently studies the arrangement both of flowers and the bouquet.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bee Dawson's Book

My review of Bee Dawson’s book ‘A History of Gardening in New Zealand’ is in this week’s Listener. Here are three extracts from it.

‘This is a delightful book – well-researched, well-written, magnificently illustrated and well-designed, but also immensely readable and entertaining.’

‘For me the text and images were a trip down memory lane. My elders kept talking about Buxton’s Christchurch nursery, which seemed a mythical place. I too dug for victory during the Second World War – a patriotic duty. I never hear of Irish Peach now, but we had a tree of this lovely early-ripening apple in my boyhood orchard. Bliss was the season’s first apples with a good book on the verandah. At Akaroa, hedges were full of ‘Bishop’s Rose’ originally brought there, so legend claimed, by Bishop Pompalier. When I got married, my mother gave me my own copy of Yates Garden Guide – a rite of passage. Others will bring their own memories as they read.’

‘[Speaking of changes in gardening practice Dawson says] “On the home front the ability to cook a good steak or turn a sausage replaced vegetable gardening as the way for the Kiwi male to provide for his family. If he could make a marinade as well he was a true hero.” That trend reflects changing lifestyles, as well as the tendency for paid work to encroach on the weekend. A smaller proportion of people than in the past actively work in their gardens. But as always, there are conflicts and compromises. The trend for low maintenance gardens clashes with the growing desire for organic food. However, Dawson ends hopefully, and that’s appropriate. Gardening as an enterprise, whether necessity or luxury, is based on hope. Seeds, plants and landscaping are hostages for the future.’

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cave Rock

Last year my mother died. Today is her birth-date. 1912 in Little River, where I also was born twenty-two years later. For a while in the early 1920s Mum as a girl lived at the seaside resort of Sumner as her parents were between farms. She often spoke of playing in the sand and in and around Cave Rock. In those days at full tide the sea surrounded the iconic rock.

I wrote this poem about 1981. My work – curriculum development – had taken me to Christchurch. I stayed on in the weekend to spend time with her - I recall it was during the winter, we were wrapped up warm. Dick, her second husband had died twelve or so years earlier. I had driven her to Lyttelton and around the port before going over the hill to Sumner. She expressed a desire to climb Cave Rock. So we did as I describe. The sea was winter quiet and calm. There was the incongruous sight of an old man with a large ice cream. Do I recall that because I wrote it down – a snapshot for memory. I remember we talked about it at the time.

The poem not only records a scene, it records an emotion. I had been living with Anne for roughly a year. Naturally, a mother wants reassurance her son is happy. She pried with questions and got dissatisfied with my responses. The poem reflects my medley of emotions – filial responsibility, loyalty to a new relationship yet at the same time conscious that she wanted me to make a commitment beyond the point that I felt I could safely say. The poem is a snapshot of a very complicated period in my life.

It’s not about Mum, it’s about me. Yet in a strange way it is about Mum. I am her son. Years later in a mood of irritation and speaking about her I said to my niece ‘she’s just a stubborn, stupid, old git.’ Janine looked me in the eye and replied, ‘takes after her eldest son.’ I miss her. Speaking to Bruce my brother yesterday he said ‘most days I think something about the ‘old duck’. Well said.

A regret about putting this poem on the blog is that because I cannot master putting free verse in the blog – the blasted machine keeps bringing everything to the left margin.- the poem’s shape does not follow the emotional flow. From a steady beginning, the sentences and stand alone words become jerkier and spaces are used to signify breaks in expression. Anyway here it is.

Cave Rock

With my assistance, awkwardly
she climbs Cave Rock, known so
well sixty years ago. ‘It’s changed
a lot, the sand’s shifted.’ We settle
out of the wind and it seems I’m
child again to that younger, stronger
woman, half my lifetime back

A tanker
heads towards the harbour. Earlier we saw
the pilot launch leave. A couple clasp hands.
An old man licks an ice cream. Empty estuary
and across the city and the plains
alluring as ever, the sun-capped Alps.

She doesn’t comprehend my work;
asks instead after Anne. Do I love her?
How can one reply?

Love covers posturing,
suits some of the facts –
taunt of body
touch of hand
the same spare movement as today's sea.

Infallible in spray
a dog and his boy chase unreachable gulls.

‘I miss her
that’s enough.’

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What A Marvellous World

I woke up this morning wide-awake and early. Leaving the mask on I used the commode and then put myself back to bed. No go! I was obviously not going back to sleep again. So I got up, turned the night’s machinery off, put on my dressing gown and switched on the computer.

I surfed the news – unrest in Thailand, (for the first time a decent analysis of what’s happening), space shuttle Atlantis’s last take-off, pre-budget speculation, lizard extinction with global warming (scary), a skinny-dipping Canadian tourist had a katipo spider bite on his penis (undountedly painful), and both super 14 rugby semi-finals will be in South Africa. NYT has a scathing review of Russell Crowe's Robin Hood. I read Beattie’s Book Blog, Auckland Writer’s and Reader’s Week. I’d have loved to have been there. Robert Reich’s column helped untangle the chaos that is the American banking system. Mary McCallum has a fascinating piece about a new biography of Emily Dickinson with comments also by Mark Doty (see blog 26 February this year) on that American poet.

I then flicked back to my blogs of a year ago – what was I doing and thinking then. Following that line of inquiry I went back to the beginning. Why a blog and why the name? A fairly early blog was about the historian Gibbon. And I see I used the phrase ‘I realise how thin a veneer our civilisation is.’ I used the same phrase in yesterday’s blog. A danger of blogging – repetition. Originality is rarer than I realise.

Emails keep me abreast with events and friends. Cousin Sally has sent through information about Little River in 1886 the year our grandmother was born. There were floods in May that year and the railway line was under water. Roger in upstate New York is reluctant to use his front door, a pair of redcaps are nesting neaby and do not like being disturbed. (I understand this feeling). Colin has sent photos of his recent visit to Korea, lovely cherry blossom. Nieces Jenny and Cherie are taking their mother Margaret my sister-in-law on holiday from London to Venice; all are understandably excited. Anne’s son Jonathan reports from China where he is teaching.

What a marvellous world. A few days back the New York Times had a video clip about jaguars in Costa Rica. As tui in Wellington need bush corridors so do jaguars. They need jungle corridors. Speaking of tui, a pair seem to have taken up residence in Barrie and Jenn’s big kowhai. They always seem to be there. It’s a bit early for that tree’s blossom.

1886. Mt Tarawera erupted here. Little River was a mill town. Overseas. Burma was added to the British empire, Victoria secure upon the throne. The first trainload of oranges leaves Los Angeles for the USA East Coast. Coca Cola is invented and the gasoline-driven machine is patented. The Folies Bergere stages its first revue. Grants whiskey distillery opens. Diego Rivera was born. Emily Dickinson died.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Thrill of the Kill

This morning’s radio rural section had an interview with a Scottish couple who have a small-holding not far from Masterton. Basically a berry farm, it also has a vineyard and a large vegetable garden. They sell produce – strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries, currants and gooseberries – and jam as well as vegetables, olive oil and wine. They have a stall in the Saturday Masterton market.

They keep a pig to eat up the spare and damaged veggies etc. Piglets are raised for the table. There are chooks, ducks, two turkeys and rabbits. A goat in kid has been ordered. They have given a small area to the nearby local primary school where the pupils have planted potatoes and have grown tomatoes all summer.

It sounds idyllic if hard work. In a different incarnation I would have loved it But it’s not Anne’s cup of tea and basically I’m a bookish man. Still one can dream.

Last night we watched another Schama art DVD – David’s portrait of Marat killed in his bath. McCarthy’s witch-hunts while they might have destroyed careers and lives on the whole did not impose the death penalty. The French Revolution moved very quickly from high expectations of liberty to bloodshed and terror. I am very conscious of the thin veneer that is civilisation over the beast that is in humanity.

Schama made the point that David’s portrayal was pure propaganda, transforming a brutal man into a martyr. He also made the point that the innumerable portrayals of Christ and the saints pursue the same goal. Rivera’s Mexican murals portray revolutionary idealism.

I wrote two poems as a result of my visit to Mexico. One was on yesterday’s blog. The other is below. When it was published several people remonstrated with me. You can’t equate the fortnightly mutton kill on the farm with the human sacrifices of the Aztecs? I could and I had.

The use of the word incarnation above sparked off a thought. If I’d been brainwashed from birth to believe that the sun would not rise without a daily human sacrifice would I accept the practice. Different circumstances and I might not be the kind person that I would hope that I am. I too might have been chanting ‘death to the infidel’ or ‘better dead than red’ or consigning people to Belsen. The Indian and Cowboys movies of my youth were based around the killing of the other folk.

I remember saying when the detestable treatment of some Iraqi prisoners by their American captors was revealed, ‘There but by the grace of God go all of us.’ The poem is an honest recall of an emotion. Sitting on the peak of that awesome pyramid my mind toyed back to my country boyhood. It’s a long way from Okuti to Teotihuacan distance-wise. That magic of childhood. But death with its strange appeal intruded. I was trying to comprehend the enormity the act of willingly killing another human. The more I thought the more I realised how the instinct seems inherent in our species.

The thrill of the hunt, the chase, the excitement of the kill. The last words of my poem are sobering.

From Okuti toTeotihuacan

Under circling buzzards,
pyramids apex to the sky;
the clamber to the top has left
me breathless in the northern sun.

After the smog of the city
where neon obscures both squalor
and splendour, clean air invites me
to be a boy again in that snug valley

where my small hand helped lamb
many an ungrateful ewe. Such chores
were interlude from exploration; deep
in the jungles of emergent bush, streams

contained crocodiles,
eels, at least, in every pool
if one were patient; on tussock slopes
scalp-hungry Indians; and hares, which when startled

always burst uphill.
Grotesque stumps, remnants
of great bush fires, crumbling quietly
through cicada summers, sign-posted clearings

where in rhythm, clematis
was miracle and blackberry was banquet.
A rusted billy-can upon a peak was then sure
proof that no one could have climbed so high before.

Resting here, my mind replays
another long-forgotten rapture, the
fortnight mutton-kill; a witness-compelling
ritual. Knife meticulously honed, the chase,

the capture, head forced back across
the knee, the one deft act as throat
is cut and neck is cracked. Heaving lungs
and flailing feet collapse into an awesome relaxation.

To poke an eye without
response … or track congealing blood
across the dust … Though as a link I am
rather tenuous, it’s not far from Okuti to Teotihuacan.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Management Training

I have finished the Kingsolver novel. What a powerful book. Stalin’s regime was evil. But the sins committed in the name of anti-communism were also horrendous. We are still in the same bind. Evil done in the cause of goodness.

Even if I had never been to Mexico I would have enjoyed the book in its own right as a novel. But I have seen the powerful Rivera murals in the National Palace in Mexico City. Who would not have liked to have mixed the plaster for the master painter? And I’ve also seen the pyramids at Teotihuacan just outside Mexico City. where Kahlo and Shepherd had their picnic, the crux of the novel. I did not like the spot – the knowledge of human sacrifice lingered in my thinking and buzzards still circled there.

As I usually do I bought books about the history of the places I’d visited. The conquest of the city by Cortez I could understand – colonialism rampant. But the Aztec way of life remained cruel and repulsive. Their theology was beyond my ken.

Shortly after my return to Wellington I attended a two day seminar on management training. I found this new theology equally mysterious. In this poem I attempt to portray that late 1970s bewilderment. Irony of ironies - on the seminar wall was a Rivera print.

Management Training

Through cigarette smoke, a lecturer’s monologue,
Rivera’s burdened Indian dominates the room.

A systems approach is a tool and a way of thinking
‘the morning star, the breath of life, the Quetsal serpent’

presupposing the recognition of a series of relatives
‘place their hearts before the breastplate of the world’

eliminate premature conclusions
‘nine hells and thirteen heavens’

function flow block diagram
‘heron feather headdress’

utility continium
‘the mirror that smokes’

cost benefit profile
‘the eagle that soars’

needs assessment
‘ascending incense’

concept and process
‘our lord the flayed one’

solution requirements
‘the god of corn is born’

solution strategies
‘twin-headed jaguars’

suggested output
‘burning waters’



Bird Bedlam

There’s been bedlam on our lawn. Anne threw out some stale bread. When she did there wasn’t a bird in sight. Almost immediately one sole sparrow arrived. Very soon the lawn was alive with them, quarrelsome and frenetic. How do they communicate? Scouts on patrol, a series of control posts, sound as well as sight? Whatever the method is, it is effective.

A plump blackbird pair was there very quickly too. They eat differently. Each carries a piece to the shelter of the fence under the camellia tree. There they peck at leisure. When they come out for another piece, a pack of sparrows descend on the vacated spot looking for crumbs.

And then three starlings arrive – I hazard, mum, dad and a late junior. Freebooters, they wade in, the sparrows parting as they approach. One, seizing a large piece endeavours to fly away with it. The bird gets airborne but as it gets over the neighbour’s lawn looses its grip. A convoy of sparrows swoop over the fence. Easy pickings.

A chaffinch appears on the scene. Late gleanings.

All the while a fantail flits and jinks above them all. Insects, its prey. I award it top marks for performance. The rest, sterling efforts at entertainment.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I’ve only been to Amsterdam once. The standout memories are the works of two painters, Rembrandt and VanGogh. Last night Anne and I watched a DVD, Simon Schama’s 'The Power of Art'. It showed Rembrandt’s House. We had visited it during our brief stay in that city.

The famous painter owned it and lived there from 1639 till 1660. It has reconstruction of his living quarters and workshop with some of his etchings on display. It is like all reconstructions. But it does give a feel for the painter’s way of life and reveals his status in his heyday. In his latter years he experienced personal tragedy and financial hardship. But earlier he could foot it with the successful merchants.

Schama’s programme concentrated on Rembrandt’s last great work – the 'Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis', a piece commissioned for the new town hall. The work was rejected – it didn’t suit the taste of the affluent burghers. Only a powerful remnant remains.

But I remember being bowled over by 'The Night Watch' in the Rikjsmuseum. I’d send reproductions, usually in darkened old drawing rooms, but the vibrancy of the actual painting took my breath away. It’s colossal size, use of light and shadow, and above all a sense of motion and emotion, all combine to form a breath-taking work.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Lacuna

Several blogs ago I commented how I was delaying reading Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Lacuna’ because I knew my reaction when captured by the vast pull of a captivating novel. And so it has proved. A quiet, dreamy boy grows up, has big adentures, wants to settle down and mull over them. It was not to be. Who could resist such an intriguing life

The historian in me is always intrigued by the attempted retrevial of the past. Kingsolver makes Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky human while at the same time emphasising their heroic dimension. Their lives and the events that happen around them are put into a larger perspective. History is made by people of flesh and blood. Stalin was a man.

But it is more than that. There is common humanity in its multitudes. Hopes, alarms, desires, hates, the conflict of emotions and people with one another and at large. Set agianst the backdrop of nature with its contrasts – the colour of Mexico, winter in the Appalachians. The bounty of the sea and earth and their terrors. Environmental issues hover throughout the book.

It is art that transcends all this by recording and analysing it. But even that will not warrant security or satisfaction. The artist is always participant as well as onlooker.

I’m up to the end of the Second World War and the publication of the Harrison Shepherd’s first novel. I know ahead lies McCarthy. But I’ve been surprised the reviews seem to have ignored the riots when the Vet’s camps in Washingtom D.C.were broken up during the depression. I knew it happened. I didn’t know how? Kingsolver presents a lucid and moving account. It helps explain why the American Left cheered so loudly when Truman stood up to McArthur. That general led the charge against the veterans.

What Kingsolver does best is describe and capture one of the great impulses of the 20th century - against tyranny and brutality, the common people’s struggles to improve their lot. They succeeded but not as well as anticipated. It’s a massive theme. I applaud the attempt. And look forward to the second half of the novel.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Olympic Memories

Last night I had trouble sleeping. So I got up and made a cup of tea and surfed the net. On the New York Times page I discovered that roast radishes are now a craze at restuarants in that city. A while back it was beetroot. I find it hard to imagine roast radish. Anyway I sent the page through by email to Anne. It might give her an idea for her food blog.

There was news of two resignations. Gordon Brown will step down as leader of the UK Labour Party. But not for two or three months. Why would the LibDems want to tie themselves to a corpse? He should go right away. But even then for Labour and the LibDems to attempt a coalition when they don’t even have a straight majority is a living death. The attempt would ensure a Conservative regime for a decade. The people have spoken – the Conservatives have a clear mandate.

I can greet the other resignation with more pleasure. Barabara Kendall is stepping down from competitive boardsailing after 24 years in the sport. She’s been part of the Olympic scene for some time now. It’s hard to imagine the Games without her. She’s represented New Zealand for the last five games.

There are several great Olympic memories. Okuti farmhouse, up early I go to the kitchen to ask did Halberg win last night. “Listen” said Dick, my stepfather, enjoying his first of the day smoke and cup of tea. “It’s on the news in a minute.”

They crossed to Rome. The announcer chattered about two New Zealand runners. They put on the 800 metres first. I muttered about ‘a waste of time, how did Halberg get on?’ An unknown Kiwi called Snell had won. Glory! As did Halberg. A few years later I saw Snell break the world mile record at Western Springs stadium.

Then there was a midnight in Hamilton. They were playing our anthem in Munich. Our rowing eight had won. It was the first time they’d played God Defend New Zealand. (I have no problem with the tune. It’s the words I find hard to accept). We’ve done relatively well in rowing every since culminating with the twins magnificent win in Beijing. There was Mark Todd resplendent on Charisma. And I enjoyed watching Carter win the Athens men’s triathlon But above all there was Kendall being carried triumphant on her board in Barcelona.

I began with food so I’ll end with food. Tonight, Anne’s cooking pork chops with yams. Next door neighbour Jenn brought the yams over. They’re running wild though her garden as they do. Dick gave up trying to contain them. I love their flavour. I look forward to the meal. Thanks to all for the memories.

Monday, May 10, 2010

About Security

This year, instead of planting bulbs Anne waited till the potted hycinths in the shops were ready to bloom and bought one with blue blooms. It’s opening in our lounge – a splendid splash of colour. It’s a variation of one of our rituals, the annual autumn planting of bulbs, both labour-saving and giving an earlier season fulfilment.

Rituals provide a sense of secuirity. Unless of course they have become a chore. It which case they should be discarded or at least modified. I have been conscious all my life of our species quest for security. War, terror and famine have passed me by but I’m well aware of their possibility, let alone earthquake or hurricane.

Life by its very nature does not guarantee security. My father’s death when I was five illustrated this fact. But I was fortunate, my grandfather’s and then my stepfather’s farms provided stability and continuity and the high volcanic hills of Banks Peninsula gave the appearance of a safe haven. University was great. Teaching proved worthwhile. Then I ran into trouble. A move into the bureaucracy coincided with a period of unhappiness.

Here’s a poem I wrote over thirty years ago as my first marriage was collapsing. It reflects pain, distress, confusion, inevitability and, indeed I’ll admit, arrogance. It was a long time ago. It was truth at its time. Despite my present problems I’m pleased that period of anguish is long gone. Although I think now the beginning is very flat the torment of the soul comes through in the latter part of the poem. I also realise now I was chasing a concept of immunity from distress – an impossible concept – as much as security.


About security, they ask a lot –
old men, young women, the middle-aged;

we overlook the fact views turn
into prisons. Here twice daily

the mudflats come & go, the scene
clangs shut, you search in vain

for keys & mine are lost. What
can we unlock – the past, the pump,

the changing cells? A hacksaw would
only show the (waste) in the hourglass

& although tears pulverise both shores
they cannot always guarantee security.

Looking back that was my greatest period of insecurity. Since then (and things are relative) there’s been marriage to Anne, I’ve had challenging work, an adequate income and delightful gardens and homes. Now, although I have increasingly health’s insecurities to contend with I have a sense of achievement. That plus pleasure in watching the hyacinths open. As close to security as I’ll ever get. There’s still room for poems. They arise from the insecurities that lurk around us.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

Mother's Day. David Hill has an excellent and moving piece in The Listener about his mother. Our mothers explain and define us. I've written on the blog often about mine but March 1 2009 would be the defining piece. Mum's birth-date is Monday week, she would have been 98, but she died last year. Here is a photo of her gravestone, sister-in-law Margaret sent up the other day.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

William Carlos Williams

I’ve been watching a thrush on the lawn. It appears to have so much more elegance and dignity than a blackbird. It’s shyer and gentler but is a superb songster. The day has been the better for its appearance.

I’m also observing the falling autumn leaves. Our neightbours’ oaks, weeping elm and cooper beech have lost most of theirs but the lower down trees, crabapple, medlar and snowball tree still have most of theirs. The view reminded me of American William Carlos Willams’ poem

The Approach of Winter

the half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine –
like no leaf that ever was –
edge the bare garden.

Williams argued, especially in his early days that poetry should be about the local, about what is. He wanted to cut out foreign phases and classical allusions. A line sums up his viewpoint. ‘No ideas but in things’ His most famous poem is ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’. Here it is.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The British General Election

When I brought up the New York Times this morning there was a video link to BBC live coverage of the British general election result chaired by David Dimbleby. I watched on and off for much of the day.

The first seat to bring in a result was in the Sunderland area. A young 26 year-old woman university graduate won easily for Labour but it was an eight-per-cent swing to the Conservatives. This day in 1928 saw the age for woman being able to vote dropped from 28 years to 21 years. It’s a safe seat. One day this young woman could be a Cabinet minister.

I wrote these two sentences yesterday morning. I became riveted by the drama. There were interruptions. A dentist’s appointment, nurse to change my forearm dressings, visitors (always welcome and take precedence over such viewing) and Xtra going down (it seems a regular Friday happening). But otherwise I watched.

That first result had an interesting harbinger – the Liberal vote was down one per cent. The pre-election polls had the Liberals doing well; coasting on good debates by their leader Clegg. But as the night wore on in Britain it became obvious, that while the vote was slightly up percentage-wise, they would lose seats to the Conservatives. Clegg would fewer bargaing chips than the he and the gurus had anticipated.

As anticipated Labour lost seats to the Conservatives. Especially in north England. But the voting was irregular. Some seats the Tories anticipated as easy gains were not taken. Others that were perceived as reasonably beyond their reach did fall. I think the calibre and reputation of the individual candidates counted. It was noticeable the electorate was hard on those involved in expense scandals, Rightly so!

The drama centred on whether the Tories would win outright in first past the post. As the night wore on it became increasingly obvious that they would not do so. The pundits then turned to the question of the next government. Spokespeople for the three major parties made predictions and staked claims. My thoughts turned to 1996 in New Zealand when Winston Peters became kingmaker. This stalemate, however, or is that moreover, occurred in the UK under first past the post.

Shortly before I went to bed I saw Clegg make a statement. The Conservatives had the largest number of votes. They should be given the chance to form the government. He had done the honourable thing. It looks like David Cameron will be the next Prime Minister of the UK.

Indeed a feature of the viewing was the decency, civilised behaviour of the whole process. It’s a strange world that British democracy. I think the Liberals will try to extract some form of proportional representation. I see Gordon Brown in this morning’s paper is offering to discuss the issue with the Liberals if they fail to reach agreement with Cameron.

Indeed it might be a good election to lose. Labour can pick a new leader and regroup. The new Government will have a rocky path and a further general election is a likely possibility. Austerity measures increase resentment. Coalitions mean uneasy compromise. Time will tell.

There is another aspect of the present first past the post system. The Conservatives basically represent England. They don’t represent Scotland. They don’t represent Northern Ireland. They are not strong in Wales. Electorally, increasingly there are two nations within one.

As you can read I had a good day yesterday.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Walker

Yesterday, occupational therapy delivered a walker for me. Four wheels, a brake, a seat, a tray and a basket – all mod cons. The great news is it will increase my mobility and assist confidence. The bad news is that the seat is so low I can’t get off it – thighs and arm muscles aren’t strong enough. The good news far outweighs the bad.

The sad fact is that it is yet another indicator of waning power. When we first shifted here I could, with the aid of my stick, walk unaided to the shops to buy groceries or books, get my hair cut, pick up prescriptions, and if Anne was out buy fish and chips or even go for lunch at the local café. I could walk to the dentist, podiatrist and physiotherapist in the nearby medical centre. I could drive then or catch a bus to go down town to shop or meet friends. I could browse the bookshops, go to the library or muse along the waterfront.

Over the years I’ve had to give these things away. Several falls undermined my trust in my own capabilities. I’ve had to learn to avoid multi-tasking, every fall was a result of trying to do two things (automatically as I used to) at once like turning and blowing one’s nose. If I fell I couldn’t get up on my own. Now the podiatrist and hairdresser come to me. I only walk down the lane (unsteadily) with my caregiver or Anne. I even don’t go out on to the lawn unless someone’s around.

Giving up driving near the end of 2009 was the big thing. A loss of freedom. I had to rely on others for my food, medicines, whiskey, clothes. I can’t hop into the car at whim to buy pork sausages for my lunch or flowers for Anne. Friends have to come to me. I can’t meet them in their homes or half-way at a café. That step meant the abondonment of something I’d taken for granted all my adult life.

The decision to shift from an upstairs bedroom to downstairs at the end of last winter was another loss. But I felt increasingly uneasy on the stairs and realised that a tumble there could be dire. It was not worth the risk.

The tray on the walker will be a great asset. I mentioned I was commenting on a draft book for NZCER. Yesterday I shifted papers between my lounge chair and computer chair using the walker as I worked at the task. I do not trust myself to carry a full cup of tea from the kitchen to my chair. I now will be able to. And I will I hope be able to access the nearby shops again. Alas, my bussing days are over. Winston’s Gold Card sits in my drawer, unusable.

Never mind. The sun’s out. The rose Remember Me has three blooms – in May. There are wax-eyes at the abutilon flowers. The daphne buds are forming. Mid-winter is just a few weeks away. And I have my walker.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


The privatisation of electricity has been a success. Right! So now we are going to privatise water supply. Right! Two wrongs don’t equate to a right. And I see Meridian is talking of higher bills for those who don’t pay their accounts online. The vulnerable, young, poor, infirm and old are not seen as clients in this do-it-yourself world. It’s like service stations. They used to provide service. Now it’s self-service.

Grumps. Bit of a shame really. I intended to blog about grace and beauty. Last night I watched a DVD of the Australian Ballet Company dancing Giselle at Adelaide. It was a competent performance. It made me realise how good our own ballet company is, not just the dancing but in the setting and the staging.

It may not have been great but I found myself crying. I confess to sentimentality. I wept at the end of Chariots of Fire and Crocodile Dundee. Nostalgia, regret, romanticism, they’re all ingredients. But it’s also the art-form.

Giselle was the first ballet I saw. I was in love – first love, head over heels. In Christchurch. I was young, impressionable. It was the last ballet I saw live – in Wellington. I was in love – with Anne, that companionship and friendship that comes with years of living together. In between I’ve seen it performed in Hamilton, London and Sydney. The grace and lyricism of its heroine has always appealed to this country lad.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oaks and Books

A radio item this morning spoke of a new bacteria threatening English oak trees. That would be a tragedy. It was a sad sight driving around the English countryside after the elms were killed off by a fungal infection. The still-standing dead trees littered the landcaope, a striking exampkle of the fragility of the ecosystem.

I’ve finished reading ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ Barbara Kingsolver’s book co-authored with her partner and daughter. For a year, 2007, the family spent a year living as close to the land as they could. They spent a year on a family farm in Virginia attempting to live only off foods that were in season.

They contrast this with the ecological costs of food from factory farms, transporting it around the country and preserving it. They claim Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into their refrigerators as into their cars. Watching pictures of the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from an uncapped deep sea well reinforces their message.

I found the book rather disappointing. Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ I consider one of the finest novels of the later 20th century. But the prose in this memoir-cum-polemic seems rather flat. It’s a worthy book. I don’t disagree with its conclusions or observations but ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ which I read last year made the same points more succinctly.

My poetry reading at present is Allen Curnow’s ‘Selected Poems 1940-1989’. He is our master. The cover has a reproduction of a 19th century rowing crew boating past a thick kahikatea stand on the bank. A very Kiwi scene as oaks are a very English one. Those trees of ours were cut down to make butter boxes. At least the English trees were used to build stout ships.

Monday, May 3, 2010


An outstanding childhood memory is the large clump of violets on the south-side of the woodshed near the gate of my widowed mother’s cottage. During winter and spring when the plant was in full bloom when I came home from school and passed the patch I’d smell the gorgeous perfume.

At my two previous homes I established violet beds. When the flowers appeared I’d regularly pick bunches for Anne. The violet’s unique scent is based on a substance called ionine, which briefly dulls our sense of smell after the first sniff. Some argue that a picked violet loses its scent almost immediately. It doesn’t, it’s we who lose our sense temporarily. That’s why people coming into a room with a vase of violets comment on their fragrance, while those already there have lost it.

So unlike a sprig of daphne whose scent continues all the time, the violet’s scent hits you as you enter a room, seems to go while you are there, and returns only when you re-enter. Shakespeare knew this. In ‘Hamlet’, Laertes warns Ophelia that the hero is:
‘A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute:
No more.’

A casualty of the recent storm was our violet bed. Clearing the oak bough that crashed onto it created a huge mess and destroyed most of the plants. Planning to continue a tradition one of the first things I did when we shifted here was to plant a violet. It took and began to spread. But alas my deteriorating health meant I can no longer continue the tradition of picking them. Ichabod!*
*Biblical – from the Book of Samuel: the glory that has departed.

The sentiment brings to mind a Yeats poem.

The Coming Of Wisdom With Time

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

William Butler Yeats

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Small Mercies

I read there’s a growing shortage of secondary teachers. Pay! On today’s scales there’s little reward for going teaching. Pity and shame. A nation needs good teachers.

I also read that the Guardian has withdrawn support for Labour in the UK elections. Instead they are going for the Liberals. Bye Bye Gordon Brown.

Finally I read that Obama has suspended further oil drilling while they try to douse the spill in the Mexican Gulf. It seems to me the risk of a blowout is always there and anything at sea must be more difficult to end than one on land. Our dependency on oil has consequences.

NZCER has given me a book draft for comment. That’s keeping me out of mischief.

I’ve watched two very different DVDs over the last two days. The first was ‘River of No Return’ (1954) starring Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Apparently there were huge relationship problems making it but I was an impressionable young man when I saw it. It is obvious now that the close-up shots of Monroe and Mitchum on the raft were shot in a studio tank. But at the time I was very unsophisticated. I enjoyed seeing it again – and the Canadian countryside.

The nurse arrived to dress my wound while I was watching. I stopped it running while she worked. She asked what I thought of Monroe. I said ‘she’s more chunky than today’s actresses.’ She said ‘I’d say voluptuous.’ 

The other DVD was (2007) ‘Miss Austen Regrets’ a BBC produced drama film based on the last few years of Jane Austen’s life. Rather sweet as a story though I suspect grossly inaccurate about the actual events. A heroine with common sense, the exact opposite of Monroe.

Watching the old western with its emphasis upon guns and right and wrong – The American fixation on guns is partly based on these nostalgic movies – I found the metaphor for a poem I’d started and which was going no where. I saw the movie while at Varsity. On of my texts that year was Matthew Arnold’s book on ‘Culture and Anarchy’.

Small Mercies

A stumble
a frantic grab
a great tear of skin
from my right forearm

Twice weekly
the district nurse
comes to dress it.

It could have
been worse
I didn’t fall
no bones broken
the skies
didn’t tumble

In my youth
men were expected to
act like Robert Mitchum
& woman to be built
like Marilyn Monroe
happily, it is not
necessarily so

Culture & anarchy -
despite the odds, my
life’s favoured the former

& life.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Hay & Captain

The Southland floods have created an unexpected hazard for boaties in Foveaux Strait – floating haybales. Southland dairy farmers knew about flood plains. Newcomers often didn’t and apparently did not accept advice. Result, the plastic-wrapped bales were swept away. In time as the water seeps through the plastic they’ll sink. But they’ll be at their most dangerous when water-logged they float just below the surface.

The harvesting and storing of hay was part of my boyhood. Across the creek from my widowed mother’s cottage was Pop's hay-paddock, full of red clover and drowsy bumblebees. Cutting created great excitement. Two big Clydesdales pulled around the cutter in ever decreasing circles. Anxiety dominated while the grass dried, Pop surveying the sky, fretting at the least sign of rain. Until it was stooked he worried. Before and after they were covered by the tarps it was great fun to slide down the stooks, no-one seemed to mind though we were warned about the dangers of pitch-forks.

Before long a tractor replaced the horses and a baler the stooks. One crop got damp, so Pop had to keep shifting the bales around to let them cool. Haystacks and haybarns frequently caught on fire - spontaneous combustion people explained, it seemed one of life's wonders to me. Pop's survived, however. Shifting the hay meant mouse-hunts, great fun for boys and dogs, and a grandfather. The hay - winter food for horse and house cow, and insurance for cattle and sheep if there was snow, otherwise stock was left to take care of itself. Breeding ewes got first attention if a cold snap set in, they carried next year's income.

When he bought the Okuti top of the valley farm my stepfather Dick also bought a big draught-horse called Captain. Unlike the gigs mouldering away under the macrocarpa trees, mere roosting perches for the chooks, he used the sledge which came with the place. When Captain was called for service, he and Dick proved an even match. It was a herculean contest, truly high drama. Unlike Pop, who rarely swore, Dick possessed a soldier's vocabulary. The air turned even more blue than usual when Captain was worked.

First he had to be caught. It usually took several runs around the horse paddock with Dick commenting upon his ancestry before the hefty animal could be cornered and haltered. Then came harnessing. Captain by this time as "mad as a snake", objected to the collar and the attachment of the swingletree which he knew meant drudgery. He held no idea of taking the strain of the sledge.

As soon as Dick shook the long reins, Captain snorting his contempt hit his traces like a missile, Dick jumping and twisting over stones and thistles and remonstrating at full voice as he bounded along behind - the dogs acting as outriders - the sledge groaning and creaking, showering sparks as the iron runners hit a rock. It was OK unless the sledge overturned, spilling its load. Dick once had the bright idea of wearing him out by taking the empty sledge high up the farm. It didn't work, Captain remained convinced he was a racehorse in disguise. Naturally we were never allowed on the sledge. Dick would give extra hay to the lathering horse at the end of the day - they held a mutual respect.

Dick had to buy in hay. There was a haybarn near the house. In the first winter Dick sledged the hay up during the winter months. By the next winter he’d built another barn higher up. It was an autumn chore to fill it. After the Korean War wool-cheque Dick bulldozed tracks and brought an old truck. It could ferry more bales than the sledge.

Captain had a much easier life after that except for Inny-Pop. That was what Dick christened the old petrol engine which ran the Wolsley shearing machines in the woolshed. By a system of pulleys it turned the machines as well as the grinder to sharpen the blades. Starting Inny-pop caused more blue language. As obstreperous as Captain, the machine seemed even more unwilling to start. Dick would turn the handle, cursing as it spluttered into life and then died. Once he got it running he happily adjusted valves and oiled it, acts that earned my admiration - he knew about machines.

He would heave the machine on to the sledge to take it the quarter-mile over to the house to power the saw to cut the lengths of manuka firewood. Captain hated Inny-Pop. It smelt of oil and labour. Dick, naked to the waist, muscles knotted as he strained at the task - like Captain, he never acknowledged defeat - would lever the machine up onto the sledge. He would then hook up the horse, with Mum standing uphill with a rope tied to the machine to balance it. As Captain led off with his usual frantic burst there'd be Mum fleet-footed uphill and Dick racing along behind keeping up. The machine never spilt, more by luck than design. Dick enjoyed these jousts. He could have rigged the saw up over at the woolshed. But at home Inny-pop going, Mum handing him up the wood, he'd expertly saw and toss the pieces straight into the woodshed. They were happy doing things together.

Even the truck became redundant. Quite a number of Peninsula farmers had a form of winter transhumance, they drove their sheep to farms on the plains where they wintered over on turnips and lucerne. Dick did this in his later years. So Captain had a long and as far as I could see a contented retirement. He deserved it.