Saturday, July 31, 2010

On Ugliness

I’d read and enjoyed Umberto Eco’s ‘History of Beauty’ - his thesis that attractiveness, prettiness, loveliness vary from era to era and culture to culture. Fascinating, provocative, argumetative it was a great read. Feminine beauty was once defined as voluptuous. Now, according to our fashion experts such a figure is obese and ugly. Tradition as fashion - it seems a rational argument. So it was with interest over the last month I’ve been dipping into Eco’s ‘On Ugliness’, a history of repulsiveness, a large art book Tom lent me.

Images of gore, viciousness, monstrosity, obscenity, brutality, deformity are a fixture of art as much as beauty. Not as nice but part of the human condition. They can be portrayed with equal passion. Ugliness can become as much an obsession as beauty. Cruelty is far too common. Experiences can be terrifying as well as glorious. So Eco's narrative of ugliness through art is a fascinating study. An example, the devil was visualised as ugly, evil and sadistic until Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’ unwittingly raised his status to the fallen angel, beautifully powerful in disgrace. ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’

Evil as ugliness is relative – what a perfect subject for a debate. First, define ugliness. One strand centres around excrement. To me with a farm background it’s a natural function.. All animals do it – it is part of a cycle. Grass in one end, muck out the other. Sheep pellets fertilised my adults’ gardens and cow pats their paddocks, (in England they’d say fields). Horse manure is great for strawberries. It was no big deal. Nasty but natural. Some Romantics might remove that ‘nasty’. Heathcliff is both thrilling and desirable. So even is Mr Rochester. Byron springs to mind.

To a non-Christian blood-streaked images of Christ on the cross can be repulsive. To some Christians Mel Gibson’s depiction is equally repulsive. (I read somewhere that the amount of blood he apparently shed during the movie was more than the human body possesses). I saw in Mexico men and women flagellating themselves with thorn branches. I found that repulsive.

Misogyny (fear of women) gets prominence in Eco’s account. Before we in the so-called Western world get too smug let us recall that Tertullian wrote in the third century that a pretty face became ugly when looked at in an extramarital fashion. He argued according to Eco ‘don’t worry, O blessed ladies, no woman is ugly to her own husband; she was pleasing enough when she was chosen.’ I wonder what the early Christian apologist would have made of Picasso and Matisse. Hitler wanted to purge galleries of ‘degenerate art’.

One thing I’ve enjoy about Eco is the highways and byways his work opened up. Reading about Tertullian drove me to look at Wiki. The origins of Catholic celibacy and much subsequent misogyny are there in this man's writing as this chilling quote illustrates.
‘Do you not know that you are Eve. The judgement of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you were the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.’

And so Eco hop, step and jumps us to witchcraft. And warlocks. Some artists portray the loss of youth as ugliness. Poverty, illness, abandoned industrial sites, kitsch, being in a minority, the list of Eco’s examples seems endless but the illustrations he’s selected fascinate. Sometimes though I think he draws the long bow unnecessarily. He quotes the opening of Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ with its striking metaphor of fog creeping around London. It’s a brilliant piece of prose – a set piece. I’ve always seen it and continue to as a metaphor for the English legal system.

I’ve finished dipping through Eco. I am now reading Sebastian Faulks novel ‘A Week In December’. Contemporary ugliness – the tale seems to be obviously going to end in an underground suicide bombing. I won’t dip – I’ll follow the novelist’s narrative to his selected ending. His 'Charlotte Gray' is a novel I greatly enjoyed.

I'm pleased to live in an era in which the equality of the sexes is assumed. I know we have considerable ground yet to cover. But reading Eco left me more aware of the injustice of the ages. Maybe the definition of ugliness is the absence of human rights.

Friday, July 30, 2010


A humdinger of a frost this morning. A day’s full sunshine failed to warm the atmosphere that much. But the native pigeon spent much of the day in the kowhai.

I was amazed yesterday to learn by the internet of Chris Carter’s outburst. It smacked of pettiness and stupidity. A political death-wish of the highest order. Labour’s ability to erupt into factional fighting whether in power or in opposition must be a despair to its devotees. Everyone knew Goff was almost certainly heading for defeat next election. There was a parallel with Bill English in 2002 - a new government enjoying its honeymoon. But in politics, you hang in there, the tide will turn. Whether it will be in your time or not only the future will reveal.

Watching Carter’s performance on TV last night I thought what a spoilt brat approach. There was an incredible sense of entitlement as he scrambled to occupy the moral high ground. He said he did it for Labour. I couldn’t imagine anything more damaging to its cause. I find it difficult to conceive that he did not understand that. I was left with the feeling that personality conflict had overridden common sense and political judgement.

John Key couldn’t have been delivered a better present than infighting in a weakened opposition. For months he'll greet criticism by diverting attention to leadership strife on the other side of the house.

I thought Goff on TV handled himself with dignity. What more is there to say. Carter did not. That is his tragedy. There are ways of challenging leadership. Anonymous letters to the press gallery is not a good approach. Skulking is not the way to win support. I’ve always said it didn’t matter so much who was in power – what was essential was a vibrant opposition. Carter has done his utmost to ensure we don’t have one for the next several months. His actions will not only disable the Labour Party but enhance the Government's freedom to act.

And I had intended to write about New Zealand Poetry Day and National Maori Language Week.

P.S. I suppose I should be grateful for one thing. I can see it is all too easy to become repetitve in a blog. This eruption is something new and unexpected, adds a bit of spice to the humdrum of politics.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tuesday Poem: NZ Poetry Day: The Charge At Parihaka


Yet a league, yet a league
     Yet a league onward,
Straight to the Maori Pah
     Marched the Twelve Hundred.
`Forward the Volunteers!
Is there a man who fears?’
Over the ferny plain
     Marched the Twelve Hundred

`Forward!' the Colonel said;
Was there a man dismayed?
No, for the heroes knew
     There was no danger
Theirs not to reckon why
Theirs not to bleed or die,
Theirs but to trample by:
     Each dauntless ranger.

Pressmen to right of them,
Pressmen to left of them,
Pressmen in front of them,
     Chuckled and wondered.
Dreading their country's eyes,
Long was the search and wise,
Vain, for the pressmen five
Had, by a slight device,
     Foiled the Twelve Hundred.

Gleamed all their muskets bare,
Fright'ning the children there,
Heroes to do and dare, Charging a village, while
     Maoridom wondered.
Plunged in potato fields,
Honour to hunger yields.
Te Whiti and Tohu
Bearing not swords or shields,
Questioned nor wondered,
Calmly before them sat;
     Faced the Twelve Hundred.

Children to right of them,
Children to left of them,
Women in front of them,
     Saw them and wondered;
Stormed at with jeer and groan,
Foiled by the five alone,
Never was trumpet blown
     O'er such a deed of arms.
Back with their captives three
Taken so gallantly,
     Rode the Twelve Hundred

When can their glory fade?
Oh! The wild charge they made,
     New Zealand wondered
Whether each doughty soul,
Paid for the pigs he stole:
     Noble Twelve Hundred

Jessie McKay

I’ve taken a liberty with the brief. Rather than put up a poem about New Zealand I’ve taken a particular event. Dated verse, it tells its own history.

Parody is rather rare in Kiwiland. So are political poems. Many Pakeha of my vintage claim now that they went through our education system with out knowledge of events at Parihaka. In my case Bill Oliver talked about it in university history honours. But there was no mention of it at school or earlier in university.

After the land wars of the mid 19th century here, calamitous for Maori, the iwi at Parihaka attempted passive disobedience to assist their cause. In 1881 the Government used overwhelming force to arrest the leaders and tried to prevent reporters describing the scene. Dick Scott’s 'Ask That Mountain' is a good account of the event.

Well-known activist - women’s rights, Scottish and Irish nationalism, prohibition – and supporter of the underdog, McKay used Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade as a model to poke the borax. It’s a good example of the power of the pen, mockery and laughter used to deflate pomposity and grandiose behaviour. It also reveals contemporary difference of opinion over the seizure. Indeed, it shows that the late 19th century literary scene is, as well as the political establishment, more complex and diverse than common accepted wisdom allows.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Blue Cod

This morning there was a native pigeon in next door’s large kowhai tree. It seemed to be pecking at the barely formed blossom buds. I suppose winter food is scarce but it seemed small pickings. Nature’s prunings – there will at least be flowers on the smaller twigs that couldn’t carry the bird’s weight,

Anne’s in Auckland. Jo is looking after me. Last night we dined in style – blue cod caught in Cook Strait on Sunday. Matt brought the fish. He is our neighbours’ son from our previous house. I remember him as a school-boy. He’s now a computer whizz-kid, with an apartment in New York. He works there for several months and then comes back to New Zealand for a holiday. He stores a boat at Island Bay and goes fishing when the weather’s suitable. He was wearing a very jaunty hat bought in a New York store.

When I was a boy, blue cod was renowned as the best fish available. There were a few caught around Banks Peninsula but local people spoke longingly of fishing for it in the Marlborough Sounds. At Fail’s Fish Café in Christchurch the menu said Queen Charlotte blue cod. Fails had a striking mural based on Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea running around its walls. Mum loved sole, my stepfather the blue cod, my brother and I superior fish and chips, tarakihi

At home we sometimes had groper, caught by rafts or kon-tiki floated off the beach at Birdling’s Flat. The hooks were baited with eel pieces. With an outgoing tide and an easterly offshore wind the raft was launched. When the tide turned and the wind dropped – as the land warmed the wind often changed direction – the rope was hauled in through the surf. Great calculations went on as Uncle Charlie worked out the best time to undertake this activity. As the line came in there would be dogfish galore, the odd skate and usually several large groper.

My adults also used to go floundering in Akaroa Harbour. Great excitement as the net was hauled in and we’d usually feast well that evening. Sometimes the men would row off-shore to fish – mainly red-cod, relatively tasteless, but once Uncle Charlie caught a blue cod. Great excitement.

Several years ago Anne and I had a holiday weekend at Picton. We went across by the ferry and stayed at a motel overlooking the harbour. We went on a day vineyard trip. When we got back she bought fresh blue cod at a fish shop. That was a lovely meal, sitting on the lawn in front of our unit, a Riesling purchased in a vineyard that morning and the succulent fish, the harbour reflecting the gathering sunset, the wake of the departing ferry rippling the smooth surface. .

The other motel fish meal I recollect was at Westport. In a fish shop there we bought two brill – a fish I had never eaten before. Slightly stronger than the delicate taste of flounder. Rock oysters and chips at Manganui and Ohope also spring to mind

I’d read about snapper but not till I started teaching in the Waikato had I tasted it – the major catch in the Hauraki Gulf. The few times when living in Thames I went fishing the catch was snapper and gurnard.

I’ve eaten native pigeon. Once! I was aged four. We were exploring a beach in Pigeon Bay near our home when the bird struck overhead telephone wires. It fell to earth with a broken wing. Mum rung its neck, took it home, plucked and gutted it and cooked it for my brother and myself. I have no memory of the taste but I know we ate it. Once when I was older and began to boast about it Mum silenced me. Afterwards she said I must not talk about it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Cheers

I wrote this poem in 1978. There’s further explanation at the end.


………My last letter signed!
Be nice to have a chat before I go.
As far as I know most things
are up-to-date. My belief: better
never than late; rather twisted
but I'm sure you catch my drift.
Sorry, I haven't any ice.
Your good health.
                           Well, well. The job's
yours now; you're welcome to it. No.
No regrets: a few successes, lot more
failures. Before I forget - one final
plug - here's my pet project, rejected
again; could you take it up with them,
just one more try, you never know,
new blood just might scrape it through.
Have another one.
                                          I'll miss
this entertainment grog. What a waste;
reckon I could’ve lasted a few more years.
Ticker's sound, blood pressure's O. K.,
not dog tucker yet. Just get the run
of things when down wallops the chopper.
             keep your options open as long
as possible, and guard your flanks,
that's the main thing.
                               Yes, yes.
It's a good drop.
                         You know, in all
my hopes I never aimed for the top –
it just happened! The race goes to the lucky,
not the strong nor the swift, not even
to the crafty, though I wouldn't bank
on that. Remember poor old Smart? Set
his heart here, but never in the right
place at the right time. Reminds me;
keep an eye on young Browning - ambitious
sod. Don't trust him. Quality doesn't
quite match achievement.
Now Costello spoke his mind too much...
just as you have once or twice; you'll
have to watch that. Top brass wouldn't
wear him. Too bad. Bright chap. Suppose
I should've pushed...
                                Have another,
Easy after the event to be wise. Don't
get me wrong. It's like the war; where
and when you're posted. Did I ever tell
you about the long pee I had in the Po?
Jerry really on the run then. Most vivid
recollection of the whole stupid show:
a thousand blokes, each one full flow.
Same again?
                         Sal's a good secretary.
Indispensable. They'll try to shift her.
Don't let them. Place'd fall apart. Keeps
fools off your back, brains, well-stacked,
picks up your grammar ...what more can
you want? Watch their writing. Most of them
are too wordy. They complain that I
don't trust them but it's true, most of
them can't write. I've been too lenient.
Always a soft touch; they say that now
as I retire.
                 Yes, it's a nice room.
Chose the prints myself. When I came in,
Picasso, period; most depressing,
only one tit on the whole lot. Quickly
changed that.
                    Ministers? Can't complain.
They come and go. First one I had knew
what he wanted. Did we slog, but they
kicked him sideways. Since then I've kept
my moustache away from the fire.
                                                  A refill?
Was it worth it? In a funny way, yes.
We've lurched forward, but it has been
forward. Pleased you agree. You'll bring
your own strengths as I did mine. You
know, there was a time when I couldn't
stand you; thought you were too ambitious
for your own good, but now I must say I
was wrong:
                The Ngati Porou gave me that.
It's the only thing I'll take; the rest
are official.
                 Come here to the window. See
that bed of tulips? Spring, it'll be a blaze
of colour. Time's gone so fast ...I've
watched them bloom for over a decade.
             Hell, I'll miss this room.

In my early 40s, I had not long been promoted from being a secondary school inspector to a head office desk position in Wellington when I found myself in a bizarre situation. The recently retired Director-General of Education popped in for an unexpected visit. Busy officers didn’t know what to do with him. Get ‘new chum’ McQueen to brief him on developments in the field some bright spark suggested. I had never met him before but sensed his hurt and frustration at being shunted into my office; but being a loyal public servant he didn’t criticise peers or masters or successors.

About the same time a few other prominent heads of government departments retired. Sixty was the arbitrary cut-off vintage. One evening, wondering what it would be like to give away forty years of service having risen to the top, I began to write a poem. Like Topsy, it quickly grew.

Aware that my skills did not prepare me for that position, I was not ambitious enough to anticipate getting to it. But my new job meant a growing realisation of the ‘poisoned chalice’ nature of the post. New thoughts and theories jostled into my writing. My educational idealism was being challenged by many unexpected realities. In the classroom I had been king. At my office desk I was subject to many forces and conflciting factors, most beyond my control. Looking back I think my writing reflects a sub-conscious wrestling with this fact. I had changed career paths and there were unexpected consequences.

I’d been reading Browning’s poems so the dramatic monologue seemed a good vehicle for a person to reminisce about their experience. Novelists tell me every now and then a character takes over, swells in dimensions and takes on his or her own unexpected traits.

This happened here. He had a wife, (and marital strife), five children, went to Mass most Sundays, except for the war, resented the lack of overseas travel, loved his holiday trout-fishing, had unfulfilled ambitions for Treasury. He was much cruder and coarser than I was for his language reflected the ethos of the time – this was an ex-soldier generation. People ask was he ‘me’. The answer is no. There were aspects – rural upbringing - but this older guy took on his own life.

He gets maudlin towards the end as the whiskey takes effect. (There were tulips in bloom at the time outside my office window). My career path to that date had been upward. What would emotions be like at leaving the last post twenty years ahead with no anticipations. What I wrote felt real.

I looked at what I’d produced – far too long. It either had to be developed and turned into a novel, or trimmed back as a poem. On the novel’s side was the other participant, the listener, the successor, I had more than glimmerings as to his nature. (Note the ‘he’ – the top public service then was entirely ‘he’). Rather scornful in his silent thoughts he tolerantly and superficially listened to the ramblings of this old ‘has-been’ on his way out.

Sensibly I turned it into a poem; heavily cutting, I only left in those passages that gave the character, setting and scene. The majority of my poems are spur of the moment thoughts. Not this one. It's been disappointing that critics, with the sole exception of David Hill, have ignored it. It’s unique, a one-off, a glimpse of a road not travelled, and a piece though dated very reflective of its period.

The Tuesday poem website is


In Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Tess of the Durbervilles’ the description of the glorious summer at Talbothay’s dairy farm when Angel and Tess fall in love is one of my favourite pieces of writing. “Some spirit within her [Tess] rose automatically as the sap in the twigs”. Hardy goes on to talk about humanity’s “invincible instinct towards self-delight”. That’s exactly how I respond to summer’s bounty in the garden.

It was my good fortune to be foundation Head of English at Melville High School in Hamilton in the 1960s. I could chose the set texts I wanted to use without having to curse the selections of my predecessor. For the Seventh Form I chose, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Tess’, and George Orwell’s ‘1984’. I’m not sure I’d chose them now. But I did then and they worked. I loved all three, (‘admired’ is probably a better word than ‘loved’ for ‘1984’). My enthusiasm proved contagious.

Just over a week ago I wrote about a teacher’s delight in striking a gusher. ‘Tess’ once erupted into much more than just a gusher. One of my teaching methods at that senior level was the use of seminars. I’d given a boy the task of presenting a viewpoint on Alec. During the course of his talk he mentioned Tess being seduced. One of his male classmate snapped, ‘no, she was raped’. They were off, ding-dong, the whole class, the argument raged.

I was rather stunned. In those days matters sexual were better left out of the classroom. Ironic, considering my set books’ subjects. Should I close it down. But they were revealing knowledge and a degree of sophistication that made me realise they possessed an inner world that my fellow teachers and I had little knowledge of. They knew their society even if they were not at home in it. It was I that was on the learning curve. I had been under-estimating them, treating them as students when they were already young adults.

They turned to me. What did I think? I drove them to the passage. Clever Hardy! That question is left up in the air though it is clear the young man has his way with her and she bore a child nine months later. The fact she later lived with Alec before she murdered him suggested he exerted some charm over her.

I dared the question. Hardy called her a ‘pure woman’. Was she? They all agreed she was, boy and girl alike. Angel was the one for whom they reserved most scorn. Alec was a bounder but Angel was a fop. (The words are mine, I report a sentiment). I concur with their conclusions. The power of fiction; Hardy’s in particular. I have always thought that Hardy understood women better than any other male novelist. That experience confirmed that judgement.

But Tess is caught by life ambiguities – as we all are. She must die because she killed for love – an age-old story. Hardy knew how to turn the bitter-sweet corkscrew. He has a sad short story called ‘On the Western Circuit’ with a brilliant description of Salisbury Cathedral at the beginning of the tale. After a brief encounter a London lawyer asks a country girl to write to him. She is illiterate so she asks her cousin to write for her. Then she realises she is pregnant to him. Stirred by the warmth and depth of feeling in the letters the man agrees to marry her. Not till after the wedding does he learn the truth

'What are you doing, dear Charles?' she said timidly from the other window, and drew nearer to him as if he were a god'.
'Reading over all these sweet letters to me signed "Anna"' he replied with dreary resignation.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cocoa Fix

A little snippet in this morning’s news, A mystery London buyer [buyers] has just about cornered the entire global cocoa market. These hedge funds give them a monopoly. Cocoa prices have more than doubled since 2007. That combined with weak harvests from West Africa suggest a massive hike in prices for the consumer.

I’ve said before I’m a bear of very little economic brain. It seems, however, to me unfair, indeed immoral that a few speculators can make such a great killing at the expense of both producers and consumers. Shortage of supply and political instability means making finanicial gain by commodity trading even easier. None of the profit will filter down to the growers. The consumer can make a choice not to purchase, but for the farmer it’s harder. To switch crops is difficult and even if possible takes time.

Where is Robin Hood while these robber barons rule the roost? I know it's easy to huff and puff about these things. But! It just don't seem right.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

IBM: A Different Intepretation.

This morning several items jostle for attention. The first and most exciting was a phone call, late yesterday afternoon. The caller, Don, said ‘seeing I had IBM I might be interested.’ Cross-purposes! IBM to me is an American computer company. I thought Don must be from SeniorNet ringing up about some computer matter. I confused the issue for I kept saying I had a Compaq computer and used Microsoft.

It took us a while to sort matters out. IBM is also an acronym for Inclusion Body Myositis, the disease from which I suffer. Don represented the small Kiwi group – 23 in number – who suffer from it. They had stumbled across Stoatspring and so established contact. I was pleased. It offers an opportunity to share experiences and support with fellow-sufferers, rare though they are. I look forward to that. The hard thing to explain to non-sufferers is that while the disease is painless the debilitating that accompanies it is most distressing.

This morning’s paper has an item about the wrench when the elderly give up driving their car. I can vouch for that. The day I accepted the disease’s progress meant I must give up driving was a milestone – a cruel day. It represented a major step away from independence. I had driven all my adult life – here and overseas. The assumption – wheels, for work, travel, leisure, for everything. That life-style was over. Even as I took the step I did not appreciate the enormity of it.

I used to think nothing of driving out for an evening meeting. I would like to have heard Pat White, Wairarapa poet and farmer, talking at the Poetry Society earlier this week. I’ve always been a fan of Pat’s work. His ‘Drought’ I consider one of the most moving accounts of the tribulations of a farmer’s life in the face of one of nature’s many assaults. Pat was speaking about his research into Peter Hooper the West Coast poet and novelist.

I’ve always considered Hooper’s poems rather neglected. The ‘Coast has always held a fascination for Cantabrians like me – wet compared to dry, forest compared to tussock, the romance of gold, coal, whitebait and glacier. Above all else there is the proximity of the mountains; Tasman’s description a ‘land uplifted high’ is apt. English-born Hooper grew up on the ‘Coast. He retired from being deputy principal of Westland High School in 1977 to be a full-time writer in a Walden-like retreat near Greymouth. His ‘Forest’ trilogy of futuristic novels was widely acclaimed but he published poems that mainly reflected his vision of a pantheistic natural world, very grounded in his beloved Coast. I’m pleased that Pat is rescuing him.

Which is all a long-winded way to say my health meant I didn’t hear Pat’s talk. He is beginning his own blog and an abridged summary of his talk is on it. I'm pleased. The marvels of the internet. It has made my disease more bearable. Unlike Dorothy our old cat who basically hibernates the winter away, I'm a restless soul who likes activity. My computer gives me access to a myriad of activities.

Finally, and this may seem small fry. This morning’s paper has an outcry front page about local body credit expenditure. I’ve written about this before. There is a difference between legitimate use and selfish use, whether at the political or the Council level. There is a tendency to mean-spiritness in these attacks that I find dis-spiriting. I certainly see nothing wrong for Council members and their partners going out for a Christmas meal together. They’ve earned it with their public service. It’s a sort of bonding-session, conflicts and vehemence forgotten in the cheerful celebration of the season.

Does the editor of the Dominion Post have a credit card? November, December, the city is full of private companies sharing a meal together. All year there are staff farewells and occasions with visitors from overseas. That is part and parcel of the job. Let’s not get too puritan and legalistic about these matters. Neither, for that matter should we be too lenient about their abuse. The middle way is always hard to steer.

PS I've added Pat White's blog 'Valdimar' to my blog list.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Two Items

Two items in this morning’s paper made me indignant.

The first was the public pilloring of Obama’s administration over the sacking of a black federal officer in Georgia for racist policies and language. It has turned out that a commentator on Fox TV doctored a documentary, which by not showing the full interview gave a biased and slanted opinion. It was on that presented, falsified opinion that the woman was sacked.

In the outcry, criticism centres on the administration. Maybe senior officers were a little trigger-happy. In the powder keg that is politics people have to act quickly to damp down potential ignition material. Of course, they should have checked.

But there appears to be little criticism of the immoral nature of that ignition material. The officials acted on good faith on an apparent clearly cut and dried case, it was there on the tape. Only, it wasn’t. The tape was not the truth. It was a lie. And the man who compiled it was a liar. And anyone who aided and abetted him is a liar.

I know that cloak and dagger stuff is a component of politics. But there is word called ‘truth’. News channels I believe had the responsibility to present that truth. Sure, they’ll slant the information. But to wilfully tamper with it and distort it into untruth. That is dangerous to democracy. Dr Goebbels would have been proud of the act. I am not.

The second item is that Massey University suddenly closed enrolments for summer school courses. They normally close on 1 November. It was announced yesterday at 4 30 p.m. they were closing at 5 p.m. that day, 22 July. The reason – funding. Places at summer school have decreased from 5,000 to 3400 due to an increase in full-time students. That increase is good. But the consequent drop in summer school is not. Foreign students can continue to apply until 1 November. They pay full fees.

There are several factors. First, good faith. Many people would have assumed 1 November as the date – plenty of time. They will have missed out. ‘Tough bickies’ I can hear the hard-hearted saying.

I’m in favour of open entry in theory. But I have to acknowledge financial realities. If numbers have to be limited there should be some merit system rather than an arbitrary closure of enrolment date.

Again I hear the hard-hearted saying ‘it’s only hobby classes’. It’s not. Some are catch-up or filling in gaps. And for those that are what’s wrong with people broadening their horizons, expanding their minds, learning new skills. Many of those people will be able to make an improved contribution to our society and economy as a result of the value addition of these courses.

Behind the decision lurks the same issue writ larger – full-time students. The idea’s afoot that only those studies that increase productivity are worthy of support. The folly of that argument can be demonstrated. Define those studies. We do not live by bread alone. Nor by circuses. Learning comes in many guises. Improved learning is a necessary adjunct to the society that the politicians would have us aspire to. To narrow the vision is to reduce the number of ways of fostering it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


A tui has just hurtled past, going at great speed under the fronds of the tree fern. For such a large bird its movement is amazing, weaving between trees. It headed towards the neighbour’s large kowhai.

It seems to spend more and more time there. Is it aware that spring’s coming and it’s establishing territory in anticipation of the nectar from the blossom? If not, its behaviour suggests it is. Or is it the security of leaves? The bare branches of the copper beech beside the kowhai do not seem to attract it. Maybe, it’s a nationalist. The word 'native tree' carries connotations.

I’ve just had a visit from my great nephew, Ryan, from Ashburton. When he got home he asked when could he do that again. I don’t think he knew the enormity of what had just happened to him. Here’s a photo of him accompanied by his faithful bunny making sure he is eating up all his food. Frustratingly for his adults he’s learnt that to squint when the camera’s pointed in his direction is a way of attracting attention..

His self-assurance, enthusiasm and energy made my day. The miracle of modern flight. (I know. I know. The carbon footprint. It’s still a miracle). I have a brother in Canada at present visiting his daughter who lives there. Margaret, my sister-in-law who came up with Janine, Ryan’s mother has just been to London to visit her other two daughters who work there. The three of them had a side-trip flight to Venice. At one time the journey from England to New Zealand took half a year. Visits were rare.

Ryan’s great-grandmother, my mother, touched Kingsford Smith’s plane ‘the Southern Cross’ at Wigram after the first successful trans-Tasman flight. As she told the story they were listening to the radio describing his flight when her father said ‘let’s go through and see it land’. Granny said ‘I haven’t done the dishes’ and Pop said ‘blow the dishes’ and so off they went. Gravel Roads then, the trip from Little River to Christchurch was a big adventure. They got there in time to see it land. Mum’s brother went up the steps to look into the interior. Mum used to say ‘I wish I’d gone up those steps.' In her 97 years she only flew three times and never left New Zealand.

All young children are determined. But two and a half-year old Ryan appears to be more than most. It’s a family characteristic. Years ago, speaking about my mother, when she'd been frustratingly difficult I muttered ‘she’s nothing but a stupid, stubborn, old git’.  Janine replied, ‘takes after her eldest son.’ We grinned at one another - family truths.  I was that eldest son.

Apparently Ryan was upset when bunny was taken off him to be put through the screening machine. Life’s not as we would have it. My flying days are well and truly over. I’m tired of dreams at night with my body, hale, hearty, active and lithe in spirit. I awake to the thump of the machine puffing oxygen into my lungs and muscles that work at quarter-power.

This morning though I surprised myself and did manage extremely well in a lull in the rain to make it with the walker to the local shops – quite a feat. My caregiver’s encouragement helped. She walked further on to the post box to return the DVD Anne and I  watched last evening, a French movie ‘A Very Long Engagement’ starring the beautiful Audrey Tautou. Throughout a very complicated plot she kept looking for her missing fiancée after the end of the Great War. In the end she found him.

I woke up this morning surprisingly cheerful. Ryan (as did his mother and grandmother) helped. So did Tautou. And the tui. All three carry a message - the miracle of hope.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Every now and then an unlikely question vaults into the mind. I had one this morning. Is John Key contemplating an early election?

Why the thought? There was great stress at the recent National Conference about the need for preparation and the need to beware of complacency. It might have been rah-rah hype, probably was. The downfall of Kevin Rudd was sudden and sobering. Every now and then politics has one of these seismic shakeups. The build-up of tension is usually noticed but sometimes the direction of the thisteldown in the wind escapes attention.

I’m sure the Beehive spindoctors are watching events across the Tasman. If Labour goes back comfortably over there with the new PM seeking a mandate to continue the general direction, albeit with dropping a few unpopular measures then the temptation to follow suit would exist. That very temptation will be vilified as copy-cat. I can hear another spindoctor saying pecisely that.

The Government’s riding high at present. As GST cuts in there’s going to be increased criticism. Some potential policies will be unpopular. Let’s seek a mandate. Labour’s still in relative disarray. I sense a growing snese of unease in the Press Gallery. Let's lock-in the Maori party and we've taken some of the wind out of the Green's sails.

Tempting. All the odds suggest I’m whistling in the wind. But I recall in his previous life John Key made a good living by calculated gambles.

The odds are extremely high that the thought has been a waste of time. Still interesting though.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Song at Summer's End


Down in the park the children play
rag-happy through the summer’s day
with dirty feet and freckled faces,
laughing, fighting, running races.
Dull against the smoky skies
the summer’s heavy burden lies,
leaden leaves on tired trees
lacking supple limbs like these.

The skyline shows the shape of life,
tomorrow’s world of sweat and strife,
fifty stacks and one grey steeple.
Down the street come factory people,
folk who used to play on swings
dodging chores and apron-strings
to wrestle on the grass and run
barefoot with the fleeting sun.

Some of the kids are sailing boats:
the first leaf drops unheeded, floats
and dances on the muddy pond.
Shadows from the world beyond
lengthen, sprawl across the park;
day rolls onward towards the dark.
From the clock-tower wreathed in smoke,
Time speaks gravely, stroke on stroke.

A R D Fairburn

When I became interested in New Zelaand poetry A.R.D.Fairburn was one of our leading lights. He has since rather dropped below the radar. But I’ve been re-reading him.

Last weekend there was a neighborhood children’s party near-by. As I listened to the shouts, squeals and laughter, Fairburn’s lines vaulted into my mind, ‘rag-happy down in the park the children play.” He wrote in depression days when ‘rag-happy’ was an accurate description. It still is, in too many instances, but the sound of children at play is a constant through the generations. That carefree merriment of youth, how regrettable is its erosion over time. It’s a very urban poem. Of course, today’s children tend to face an office future, rather than an industrial one. Also, of course, childhood is not all merriment.

In my youth there might have been a war on and our parents were recovering from the depression years but my cousins and I played noisily together. My mother’s parents had 18 grandchildren. 11 of us met a few years ago for a cousin’s reunion. As I looked around the room, faces wrinkled by the years, another line from this poem also sprang to mind. ‘Time speaks gravely stroke by stroke.’ What power lies behind that word ‘gravely’ as the generations pass through. The poet's words span time.


Over the weekend I watched a DVD 'Wild South America'. Maybe because we were once a British colony we are inclined to ignore that continent. Lions and tigers, bison and beavers, the teeming life of the African plains, all gorillas and baboons more common in our mythology than the denizens from the Andes, Amazon rain-forest an the continent’s plains. Just as unique though.

And spectacular. The Andes, the longest mountain chain on the planet. The Amazon with its annual great flood. And the plains with much greater temperature variance than their African counterparts. Turtles that can only breed in a narrow span when the sandbanks of the Amazon are revealed. Houseboats that rise and fall as the river does. And the monkeys – a huge variety. Butterflies resting on a crocodile’s head. Ant-eaters raiding a termite’s nest. Wild llama. Electric eels.

And the birds – the mighty condor, the minute humming-bird ansd above all the colourful, intelligent parrots. Especially the macaw.

A friend once said of Australian birds – they shriek rather than sing. True. They like those parrots are colourful. We had a rosella pair on the lawn yesterday. Beautiful red-breasted creatures with lovely blue wings and tails, yellow body with black bars. They strut round so confidently. They looked at though they were onstage and knew it, reincarnated film stars. The familiar world was suddenly transformed by their presence. If I couln't go to Peru, the Australian outback can come to my backyard.

I couldn’t understand why they were raking at the piles of oak leaves at the west end of the section. They were after acorns. Their sharp beaks tore in to the flesh while overhead flitted a fantail jubilant at all the insects disturbed by the larger birds. Obviously, winter, food was short. They were there for quite a while – an Australian bird eating European food on a Kiwi lawn. A striking contrast. When they flew off a blackbird landed, pecking up the pieces left over from the rosella’s repast.

To the Englishman I might say - you have squirrels to enjoy your acorns, I have rosellas. And to the powers-that-be thank you for connections large and small.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Spelling -the right thing for the wrong reason

Continuing on from yesterday’s blog, my main memory of that Wellington East class was that as a group they didn’t listen. Not only were they noisy, oral instructions were not received or coded. After several abortive vocal attempts I reverted to writing all instructions on the blackboard. Rather than deliberate naughtiness, their noisiness was rather thoughtlessness and above all habit. A moment of silence and some student would pounce on it as if quietness was a dangerous thing to be avoided.

There was a competitiveness about this noise. It was partly to get attention. Many seemed to think my job was to run to their demand, the squeaky gate gets the oil, the teenager as I’ve said before is the centre of the planet. I had anticipated the experience to be energy sapping. But I had forgotten how demanding youngsters can be. The more you give the more they will take – an experience like being pulled in different directions by powerful vacuum cleaners.

Realising that restless noisier bunch needed early settling I began each lesson with a spelling test at the beginning of each period. That got attention and control, As they became aware this was real, the marks were actually being recorded, the test became expected and enjoyed. They saw it as homework they could do and in many cases so did their parents. Youngsters like rituals and stability, from a secure base-camp they can explore the meaning of life.

One recently arrived girl from India got one out of 10 the first test. She assiduously learnt the words; her classmates coached her. It was a red-letter day when she got nine right. "Ain't I good?" she said. In terms of effort her work was excellent but she was miles away from being a passable English scholar. "I'll pass School Cert next year won't I Sir?" My sound was vaguely encouraging – it would have been cruel to tell her the truth.

One day another girl in this class, (not the crocodile girl, I never saw tears in her eyes) her parents recently separated, wept and wept. Did she want to go to the counsellor? She had been, the counsellor couldn’t help. Did she want to leave the room? No, there was nowhere to go. Did she want to go home? That suggestion increased the flow of tears. Trying to comfort her I was conscious of the rest of the class vying for my attention. To them it was not fair one person hogging so much of my time. Indeed, adamantly and loudly they told me so.

Postscript: Two comments from Steve Braunias's column in today's 'Sunday' reverberate with this ex-teacher.
"Education is one of those situations where you, very quickly, get to like people.' 
& 'Another question: what is the most important thing? All educators know the answer. It is the students, the students, the students."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Crocodile & Class Size

I was pleased to do a term’s stint relieving teaching at Wellington East Girls’ College in 1987 helping the school out when it temporarily lost its Head of English. I hastily add I took her classes, not her responsibilities. I enjoyed the return to the classroom more than I’d anticipated. It helped give credibility to comments I made as a consultant again about education. (For a while – the chalk-face is a rapidly evolving institution). It made me aware of the multi-cultural nature of our large city schools.

I’ve written elsewhere about the experience. (See blogs 6/7/09 & 6/11/09). But not about this particular incident. I recall the fourth-form class, a lively, clamorous, noisy group. One Pakeha student, however, could not fail to be noticed – inattentive, doing as little work as possible, withdrawn, sullen and spiteful. Staff-room gossip confirmed her as a trouble-maker. A loner she did not mix with the others. She did not rebel so much as not conform. I sensed her problems were not so much fury against authority but more those of personal angst. All of us in that room had been bruised in various ways. She had been damaged. It showed.

A few times she was late for class. ‘She’s seeing the counsellor, sir’, the class chirruped when I asked after her. She arrived with the note explaining her lateness. I checked with the counsellor. “Home problems.” An explanation was not given. It was not for me to pry. Not only was I temporary, I had once been inspector with responsibility for counsellors. I had repeatedly warned of the dangers of voyeurism in other teachers. So I adopted a policy of containment to keep that student’s disruptions under control as much as possible.

One day near the end of my time there I arrived to find them engaged in a heated argument. There had been a news item that morning – a salt-water crocodile had killed a young woman swimming in north Australia. ‘Would she have felt pain, sir?’ Others argued that fear would numb her, ‘like a bird before a snake’ an Indian arrival suggested. All shuddered at the prospect. Mortality, briefly glimpsed in their confident lives. “What a horrible way to die.’

I asked them what they thought. Debate grew heated. (They thought I was being side-tracked. Their glee at having done this was obvious. I had abandoned my lesson plan but when a teacher strikes a gusher you go with it. For once they were all focussed). After a while I set them an exercise – to write about the incident; a newspaper account, an interview with a survivor, or the young woman’s experience.

Most opted for the last option – lavishly illustrated with oceans of blood, a copious use of red pens. It’s a phase, most grow out of, a sort of rite of passage. The naughty pupil though took a different tack She wrote from the crocodile’s point of view. An orphan, parents killed by humans long ago. Nobody loved her. She was starving, had to feed herself. Now those terrible humans were shooting at her. She’d only done what was natural. God had given her those teeth to use. Shortly, they’d kill her and all her troubles would be over.

It wasn’t ‘Wuthering Heights’ and it was littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes, but the piece was urgent, vivid and real – an aching loneliness shone through. I wasn’t skilled to cope with her problems but had I the time, the therapy of creative writing might have eased her pain. In the morning I would have to face over thirty of her spirited peers, all demanding my time and attention – the teen-ager as the centre of the universe.

Recollecting that incident I shake my fist in anger at those misguided boffins who argue class size does not matter. It does. The classroom cannot be divorced from the society that surrounds it. And I wonder what became of that ‘crocodile girl’?

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Liking For Film

The film festival opens in Wellington today. This day five years ago on the opening day Anne and I went to see ‘U-Carmen’ at the Embassy, a retelling of the Carmen story set in a Capetown shantytown. An intriguing mixture, Bizet’s lovely music combined with the libretto translated into the Xhosa language. My diary notes it was ‘energetic, moving, and a superb blending of two cultures,’ and that ‘Pauline Malefane as Carmen was powerful.’ A neighbour described her as ‘a plump heroine’. She went on to say ‘the cigarette girls who formed the chorus were also all chubby.’

Film lures the viewer into stereotypes. Leading ladies are usually svelte. Opera can have the opposite effects. Many a soprano dying on stage of malnutrition could be described as well-formed. Part of the attraction of the festival is to see different cultures, not just in ways of life but also traditions of film-making. That year we also saw two French films, a documentary set in the Cameroons and an English one, fewer than our normal pig-out.

The first foreign film I ever remember seeing was 'Wages of Fear'. It's earthier atmosphere and different acting style combined with a cosmopolitan feeling to make it riveting viewing. There was an agony there that was absent from the American and British movies that had been my staple diet during my university years. For a period there in the ‘50s I saw just about every movie in town. There was a group of us at the hostel with a routine - Friday 5 o' clock session, rushed pie cart meal, 8 o' clock session, the same formula repeated on the Saturday evening. I fell in ‘like’ with the moving image.

They were the movies of the period - great on the Second World War, John Mills on the bridge of a destroyer saluting the flag as his ship went down; the Carry On capers, Sid James and cronies with their sexual innuendo; other English comedies with Alec Guinness, Rex Harrison and Terry Thomas; and musicals of which 'Carmen Jones' ("beat out that rhythm on a drum") endures most.

I saw a thousand Apaches bite the dust and Alan Ladd, Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper hang up their guns time after time only to sling them round their hips again ("a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do"). I identified more with them their heroic independence than with Marlon Brando or James Dean. The film from the period I recollect most vividly is 'Shane'. I swallowed the American dream holus-bolus, while not responding to more complex portrayal of its consequences ('On the Waterfront', 'The Wild One' or 'The Blackboard Jungle').

My adult’s generation's movies symbolically ended with Charlie Chaplin disappearing into the horizon twirling his cane - poignant and sentimental melodrama. Mine ended with the gunman spurring his horse over the ridge to his next lonely battle. It was not an era for the camera of ambiguity though the movies that impacted mostly ended with defeat - 'The Caine Mutiny' and 'Viva Zapata'.

Among the female actors there I recall Kay Kendall who died tragically young, sultry Ava Gardner, red-haired Rita Hayworth, always Marilyn Monroe, and a young waif called Audrey Hepburn in her first film 'Roman Holiday'. I fell in love with her.

Bill Haley’s 'Rock Around the Clock' saw the beginning of a new craze. When rock and roll burst upon the scene, enjoying the exploration of classical music I was not greatly impressed but took part in the gyrations that seemed to be called for as part of the scene. The screen set the scene for much of our life - courtship, ideas of courage, values, family life etc. Violence was portrayed but it was under a veil of complacency. (And dare I say, decency). For of course there was censorship on what was allowed to be shown. One of the shocks of 1960s 'Psycho' was the showing of a toilet and furthermore it was flushed.

Now the DVDs I get from Fatso include some of those golden oldies. Audrey Hepburn stands the test of time. And I can view films produced from all around the world. It’s not the same as the big screen. But second best is still good. This afternoon I'll be looking at the wild life of South America. Documentary or Drama; this media has enhanced my existence.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On Makara Hill


On Makara hill, the wind
     sings in the struts
     of a radio mast.
Beauty is not only visual;
     this ugly construct makes
     a sad and lovely music
to draw me on and up
     through low cloud.
A dog. grey-white in
     the white-grey mist
     runs on ahead then
returns, disappearing and reappearing,
    the epitome of young
    joy in movement.
I plod behind, thankful that
    this ageing body
    can still bring me
here to the peace of emptiness.
    Around me gorse
    and barberry build
piles of scented gold.
    The wind gusts
    and clouds part.
A profligate sun showers
    more gold on the grey
    waters of the Strait and,
with alchemist fingers, turns
    distant snow-capped peaks
    to heaps of silver.
Such riches Midas never had.

Paul Hill

Paul Hill is an old friend. This poem appeared in this morning’s Dominion Post, as its weekly Thursday choice. It was first published in Broadsheet 5. My editor and fellow-poet Mark Pirie issues these broadsheets twice a year. The first one of the series in its chapbook form was based around the poetry of Alistair and Meg Campbell and proved very popular.

So I was chuffed when Mark asked me would I like to be guest for Broadsheet 5. He interviewed me, how I began to write poems and my subsequent career as a poet. There are several of my recent unpublished poems. As well he invited friends to contribute poems, Fiona Kidman, Ian Wedde, Diana Bridge and Tony Beyer. Diana wrote one specially for the occasion which delighted me.

Also Paul Hill. Until two years ago Paul and Lesley had a ten acre section and a bed and breakfast business on the road up the west side of Taupo. We used to break our journey to and from Auckland by staying overnight, sometimes two or three days to get some fresh country air and peace. Indeed, my last night outside Wellington was spent there in February 2007 on our way home from a Rotorua wedding and an Ohope holiday. They’ve retired now and live not far away.

Rather shyly Paul, at the end of last year, asked me to look at some poems he’d written. They looked promising and interesting so I sent them on to Mark. Mark said to tell Paul to keep writing and in a decade or so there could be a volume. Amusedly, I pointed out that Paul was my age so he’d better get cracking. Anyway, Paul also was chuffed to see himself in print. And now to be picked up by the ‘Dom’.

For more information regarding Broadsheet the web-site is:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Poet's (Wander)land

Yesterday and today have been contented days. I’ve been exploring Mary McCallum’s ‘Tuesday Poem’ site. Not just the poems but the highways and byways they and their followers opened up. After the bluster, bombast and backbiting of much that is on the internet it was a relief to be in a gentler arena, a topsy-turvy world where blue may not be a favourite colour but can be a favourite word. Or a place where a fox is a wolf bearing a flower.

Gentle in this instance does not mean weakness. There is power here. And richness. And delight. It is another space – of grace and observation and sharing – a mixture of ideas and images. And phrases like ‘a compassionate archaeology of the family.’ Mix-ups in spelling compound interest. Did you use ‘hoard’ when you meant ‘horde’? Searching takes me into new places - a health clinic in Seattle and the committed humans who tender to the sick, wounded and vulnerable.

There is nostalgia. For example, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s ballad about the early Labour party on the West Coast.
‘The First Church of the Socialist Millennium
Was the Blackball Miners Hall: where I grew
Up, with a Tip Top tub and Cecile B De Mille
And the saints on the wall were black and white.’
On the wall were photos of Saints, Hickey, Semple and Webb. Blasphemy some may say. The worship of those early leaders of the party had a religious fervour. Holman’s rollicking piece captures the spirit.

I can visualise that boy in the old hall waiting for the curtain to go up eagerly licking his ice-cream and looking at the line-up of the community’s past leaders. In my early days I attended the Presbyterian services in Little River held in the Masonic Lodge Hall. The door to the inner sanctuary was locked. But the hall in which we worshipped had photos of past masters wearing their regalia. I studied, even counted them, as my attention strayed. One blog site had a John O’Connor poem. It has these lines about a new church ‘& I recall wondering (&/ enquiring) why they made everything/ so unlovely.’ The child I was didn’t think of beauty, but noticed the difference of the environment. Those severe men were iconic.

On most expedition like this a few themes emerge. For some reason one I trawled was birds – even to the extent of a kowhai seed travelling through the gut of the native pigeon. Belinda Hollyer’s prose piece was delightful. The pukeko with its ‘comic timing’ so aptly described. I realised why I chuckled when I saw a certain advertisement. Such ungainly feet.

A bird flees a cat ‘with alarm and a certain disdain.’ There are bird descriptions galore; a great white heron snaps a ‘spiney fish’ ‘to a final soft swallow’. There is bird song. There’s an arresting quote from Carol Ann Duffy. Air-space closed because of the Iceland’s volcanic eruption:
‘But British birds sing in this spring from Inverness to Liverpool, from Crieff to Cardiff.,
Oxford, Londontown, Land’s End to John O;Groats.
The music’s summons,
That Shakespeare heard, and Edward Thomas, and briefly, us.

Ironic, with no planes flying, the birds could be heard. When my garden memoir ‘This Piece of Earth’ came out I received many letters and emails from people throughout the country telling me of their pleasure in hearing a tui sing. It pleases me that this can still happen in these islands. And the response taught me that the writer is never as individual as they suppose they are.

I like conundrums like that last sentence. Meliors Simms’ poem on the two types of ‘time’ left me meditating about an age-old debate, I like to reread old favourites, Hopkins, Donne, Browning and Causley. I even like the frustration of reading something I’d like to return to and then I cannot find it again, a glimpse of something heart catching. I’d swear I read these lines yesterday. ‘Tongue-dancing after wine tasting’. Today, I cannot find them. Did I dream them? Have they been removed? Am I a failure as a detective? Anyway, the chase has been fun. Maybe I was after the wrong fox.

A Postscript:
Today is Bastille Day. The French Revolution released ideas of nationalism, liberalism, autocracy, democracy and individualism that still drive human affairs. On a smaller scale the day is the anniversary of the election of the Lange government which profoundly changed the nature of New Zealand’s way of life. I meant to write about these things. Instead I’ve been, as I say, content to roam around in poet’s (Wander)land

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tuesday Poem: PATRICK


Nine years have passed
since that telephone call.

This afternoon we walk past
the tree we planted over your ashes.

Your mother admires
a chaffinch landing cheekily
beside us on the duck pond rail.

We stroll up to the swings
where she says if you were alive now
she wouldn’t remember you playing there

nor would I describe a chaffinch,
chestnut, confident, elegant, commanding
attention by its very presence alongside us.

Harvey McQueen

In 1987 my eighteen-year old stepson Patrick was killed in an accident in Sydney. The hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life was to tell his mother her son was dead. Certain lights went out that have never come on again. Nine years later I wrote this poem. Anyone who knows the Wellington Botanic Gardens will recognise the location.

The Tuesday poem website is

From Frost to Mud & Blood

A heavy frost this morning but it has been followed by a glorious day – not a cloud in the sky; winter in its finest clothing. This morning’s paper has a headline, two fine days in a row. That sums up three weeks of bleakness, lowering skies, drizzle and heavy rain. Watching the abutilon leaves thawing out, however, I wonder if that plant will cope. Cabbage tree and camellia are naturally evergreen. The oak is deciduous. But the abutilon hovers in between. It's covered in flowers. Stupid tree, it doesn't realise it's winter. .

Octopus Paul got it right. Spain won. South Africa has successfully hosted the World Cup. Indeed, it has confounded the critics and doom sayers. I cringed at being a New Zealander when that country missed out on holding the last one. Helen Clark had assured the South African Government that our vote would be for the African republic. The local authorities had told her that was this country's position. But Dempsey their representative on the FIFA had other ideas and voted against – a blatant and willful act of disobedience.

I’ve been drooling over a handout in the paper about the fortnight food festival in the Capital City at the end of the month. I know it’s all marketing hype but there are some mouth-watering treats in the offing. My restaurant days are over. There have been many meals out down the years, celebrations or lonely ones by  myself through necessity. Taste, like the other senses, is a fleeting affair. But memory retains images and thoughts from a considerable number where food and occasion coincided to be retained and cherished. .

This time last year my computer was playing up. Our guru took it away for a week. I felt bereft not being able to do my daily blog or read my emails. It has functioned well since then. Its use you may say is addictive, but I find it hard to envisage existence without it.

I’ve been watching on DVD the Ken Burns documentary series on 'The National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea', six years in the making. I have only been to one, the Grand Canyon but the arresting images and the description of the struggles and efforts to establish them make good viewing. I had never heard of John Muir the leading advocate. He is a great American. I found the idea of President Theodore Roosevelt and Muir sleeping out in the wilderness intriguing. From Yosemite and Yellowstone the series follows the development of the Parks and the servicing of them. While I find the preachiness of the text a bit off-putting and I would welcome more variety in the background music the ideas and issues are important.

I’ve finished 'Lark Rise'. A first-class read! Compulsory school – with its consequences – the inspector’s visit, the vicar, May Day and harvest day, a wealth of childhood experience lovingly presented. She was obviously close to her brother Edmund. And so to the last paragraph which reminded me of Byatt’s 'The Children’s Story' – all that youthful vitality growing up to be cannon fodder in the forthcoming carnage. The waste of it all.

‘And all the time boys were being born or growing up in the parish, expecting to follow the plough all their lives, or, at most, to do a little soldiering or go to work in a town. Gallipoli? Kut? Vimy Ridge? Ypres? What did they know of such places? But they were to know them, and when the time came they did not flinch. Eleven out of that tiny community never came back again. A brass plate on the wall of the church immediately over the old end house seat is engraved with their names. A double column, five names long, then, last, and alone, the name of Edmund.'

Sunday, July 11, 2010




The swift descent through darkening air,
Lights, leaning palms, and reef-encircled there
Your Island, Tusitala - a rush of fragrant heat,
Warm laughter in our ears,
Warm earth beneath out feet,
And as we dreamed it, jewelled, high,
Your wide, your starry sky.

Flower language

"Behind the left ear if you're single,
Behind the right if you're married;''
The voice from the foyer carried
Soft, explicit, clear,
But the plumber-boy passed laughing
A flower behind each ear.
"Why two?" a curious guest
Called from the swimming-pool.
"Just,"was the joyful answer,
"To be beautiful."


What was it, then, we thought to teach?
Carton, beer-bottle - drop them on the beach?
The white-man's trash-can - there it lies –
Palagi waste polluting paradise.

The Market

Sack-laden trucks, crammed buses, hungry dogs, and heat;
Baskets, bright umbrellas, children, jandalled feet,
And eager vendors squatting, cross-legged, their watchful eyes
Half hidden behind mounds of morning merchandise:
Taro, bread-fruit, green bananas, and gourmet ones they call
Lady-fingers, - golden, plump, sugar-sweet and small.
Cocoa, like black putty, that willing house-boys brew
Fool-hardy guests, or, gleeful, buy in sticky lumps and chew.
All colour, chaos, movement, until the noon sun stares
On empty streets, and weary forms stretched, sleeping,
by their wares.

The Graves

These graves about the fale say:
Even in death you are not far away.
By day, the children bring to you
The wild hibiscus as they always do;
Each night
Your smaller fale shares our fale's light.
Our talk is yours; the laughter that you hear,
Your laughter; Death's not far, but near –
So near, that even when we weep
It is your tears we find upon our sleep;
And pondering all these Island graves have said
I think again upon our Western dead:
The bleak hill-side, the broken cross,
The seeping moss ....


Always I shall remember it
This way:
A rainbow brilliant, storm-stencilled,
On sky slate grey.
Beneath it - the perfect still-life –
Palms, rocks, sand-curving coast,
And upright, frail, among the waving hands,
A slender ghost.

Ruth Gilbert

One of my health regrets is that I can no longer travel. I always planned to go to Samoa for a holiday sometime. Part of the attraction was to see Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave, a desire reinforced when I read Roger Robinson’s book about him, 'His Best Pacific Writings'. Alas! It is not to be. Ruth Gilbert is another poet who fell under the same author’s spell. More than that, the whole culture and way of life. Tusitala is the name the Samoans gave to the famous writer.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Existence, Things and Events

The cold snap continues. As I’ve aged my temperature control mechanism has ceased to work as functionally as it used to. In the summer I found the heat very trying. Now, I fight the cold. Looking like a character out of a Dickens' novel, I wear mittens as I type and a warm beret I bought years ago at a fair on Waiheke Island.

Human beings are intriguing in what captures their fancy and interest. An octopus called Paul is world-wide headline news. To date it has accurately predicted the world cup results. If Spain doesn’t win this weekend? What a weight for a beast to carry.

Yesterday the podiatrist and the hairdresser called on me to cut my toe and finger nails as well as hair. Gone are the days when I went to them. The podiatrist sat on the wicker-wove stool I made as a third former at Akaroa District high School. Apart from a few photographs it’s the oldest of my possessions in the house.  Anne also uses it to sit on when she puts on my bed-socks at night and changes my socks during the weekend. I can manage slippers but not socks.

Most days I have porridge for my breakfast. Occasionally in the weekends we do brunch. I had such a meal this morning – the remains of a vensions and tamarillo casserole on toast. Rarely has heated-up venison tasted so scrumptuous. Not many peopmle in New Zealand would be having venison at such an hour. Thank you Anne.

Though my chief reading is Lark Rise – I’ve also got Fairburn’s Collected Poems on the go- I’ve been dipping into a book about the American buffalo, one lent to me by Dale. It’s full of interesting facts. For example, there is a recently established herd in the Alaskan/Northern Canadian border. Wolves there leave it alone. It’s never been a natural prey.

I knew that while the ancestors of the horse had crossed the Siberian highway to the Americas that the species had died out in the western hemisphere. I also knew that Cortes used horses to conquer Mexico from the Aztecs – indeed, they were a major factor in his quick success. What I didn’t realise was how quickly this reintroduction spread northwards. Indian tribes that adapted to their use became dominant in the prairies and it became a predominant factor in their hunting of the bison with a major impact upon the ecology of the area. When the Indians got guns the odds were further loaded against the bison.

As I write this on radio Kim Hill interviews Jane Smiley about her novel ‘Private Life’ [see blogs 21 and 22 June]. Smiley had been riding; she rides twice a day. Most of her novels have horses in them. Why did she write the novel, ‘I just wanted to tell a story’.‘What is it like to be married to someone who considers himself a great man?’ Her great-aunt had this experience. Smiley knows hardly anything else about her but this fact. Around this she has constructed her powerful piece of writing. In that era there was no-one to talk to about the perplexities of such an existence.

Smiley says ‘all novels are liberal and political.’ “Novels explore power relationships.’ ‘They embrace individualism.’ Woman’s posiiton – is she a character in her own right or just a piece of property. Smiley realised having written the novel that it was also a parable about the modern American way of life, the average citizen caught up in a foreign policy over which they have no say.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Along the lane to our unit there are several stands of milkweed or euphorbia. Its clumps of small yellowy green cup-shaped flowers (they are really bracts, or modified leaves) contrast with the dark green of the leaves. A cut stem oozes a milky sap which is apparently poisonous - it always looks nasty, but it is toxic though in small doses it was used as a herbal purgative.

When I was gardening in our previous place I always wore gloves when I cut the euphorbia there from overhanging the steps. I have never liked wearing gloves. Somehow you lose the intimacy of handling the plant or the soil. But I did for this task.

That old plant and those down the drive match the pictures in our garden books of euphorbia robbiae, introduced into Europe in 1890 by a Mrs Mary Anne Robb of Hampshire, England. A keen plant collector, she went to a wedding in Turkey. Seeing this unusual plant, she got her guide to dig it up. As she had no other container, she placed it in her hat-box to take it home. What happened to her hats is not recorded. The plant’s nickname is Mrs Robb’s Bonnet.

About the time Mrs Robb was travelling in Turkey, Flora Thompson was leaving home to work in the nearby town's post office. She describes the arrival locally of a novelty. “It was on Jerry’s cart [he called each Monday with fish and fruit] tomatoes first appeared in the hamlet. They had just been introduced into this country and were slowly making their way into favour. The fruit was flatter in shape then than now and deeply grooved and indented from the stem, giving it an almost star-like appearance. There were bright yellow ones, too, as well as the scarlet; but, after a few years the yellow ones disappeared from the market and the red ones became rounder and smoother as we see them now.’

‘At first sight, the basket of red and yellow fruit attracted Laura’s colour-loving eye. “What are those,” she asked old Jerry.’ ‘Love-apples, my dear. Love-apples, they be, though some hignorant folks be calling them tommytoes.’ [Laura tried them and liked them. Most of her peers continued to turn their noses up at this new-fangled thing] Thompson concludes with her own prejudice. ‘Most people today would prefer them as they were then, with the real tomato flavour pronounced, to the watery insipidity of our larger, smoother tomato’.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lark Rise

We’ve been watching on DVD the delightful BBC series, Lark Rise to Candleford. It’s a nostalgic look at 19th century rustic life, based upon the writings of Flora Thompson’s trilogy. ‘Lark Rise’, ‘Over to Candleford’ and ‘Candleford Green’.

The description of three closely intertwined rural English communities, a hamlet, a village and a nearby market town is hailed as a masterpiece. Rightly so. It’s based on the author’s experiences growing up in the area in the 1880s and 1890s. It’s that territory traversed by my beloved Hardy but he wrote novels, her work is autobiographical - a slice of social history – though she did give fictitious names to her characters to prevent identification. Flora is called Laura, a device which allows the writer to distance her comments about conditions and change.

Flora Thompson was born in Juniper Hill in 1876. In her lifetime she saw a complete transformation of the way of life of her siblings and peers. Her elders could recall the commons, the rural poor had some land for their own use and usually some stock. By Thompson’s time the hamlet’s goose flock had gone. Ploughing, sowing and reaping which seemed long traditional were in fact ‘recent innovations’.

On of my joys is my library. I’ve picked off the shelf ‘Lark Rise’ the first book of the trilogy. It's been unread for ages. Too long. So many books to read. So many worlds to explore. It begins ‘The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing northeast corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Lark Rise because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn.’

‘All around, from every quarter, the stiff, clayey soil of the arable fields crept up; bare, brown and windswept for eight months out of the twelve. Spring brought a flush of green wheat and there were violets under the hedges and pussy willows out beside the brook … but for only a few weeks of later summer had the landscape real beauty. Then the ripened cornfields rippled up to the doorsteps of the cottages and the hamlet became an island in a sea of dark gold.’

What Thompson does best is convey the sense of community that existed in the hamlet. There was poverty and hardship, But the inhabitants were tough and stoic. And they helped one another. The ‘baby box’ springs to mind. The clergyman’s daughter had custody of it. It was given to expectant mothers when the baby was due. It contained clothing for the new infant and other necessities. After about a month of the baby’s delivery the box was returned and prepared for the next confinement.

Thompson doesn’t shirk in the book at acknowledging transition, ‘But side by side with these changes the old country civilisation lingered. 'Traditions and customs, which had lasted for centuries, did not die out in a minute. State-educated children still played the old country rhyme games; women still went [gleaning] although the field had been cut by a mechanical reaper; and men and boys still sang the old country ballads and songs. … At the ‘Wagon and Horses’, [the inn], the [songs were] apt to be a curious mixture of old and new. … The singers were rude and untaught and poor beyond the modern imagining, but they deserve to be remembered, for they knew the now lost secret of being happy on little.’

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Icarus Syndrome

As a species we have ideals but we are also fallible creatures. We continually fall short. I’ve finished Beinart’s ‘The Icarus Syndrome’ very readable account of American foreign policy from Woodrow Wilson on. Each time the nation went to war the conflicts did not end with the anticipated outcome. Like Icarus, successive generations flew too high. This is Beinart’s thesis: he tells it convincingly. The desire to remake the world is a very American thing. Anything is possible. Moon, Mars, Peace on Earth, Democracy (Uncle Sam’s style).

Except things don’t go according to plan. Beinart’s heroes are the realists – those who accept a theory should not be flown to close to the sun, Truman, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan and Colin Powell. And the quick learner, Kennedy? One of history’s unanswered questions is would JFK have continued the expansion into Viet Nam. Beinart says ‘unlikely’ but I’m not so sure. The argument that skewered Lyndon Johnson ‘America can’t be seen as backing down’ would have been used, the ‘hubris of toughness’ was alive and kicking in that era. Indeed JFK was given that very advice over the Cuban missile crisis. Johnson was trapped – he couldn’t win. He couldn’t get out. Ironically, a Republican president could get out but I wonder if Ford’s loss to Carter did not reflect a little of a sense of America having been whipped.

Beinart quotes Kennedy as saying just before his assassination, ‘if I tried to pull completely out of Viet Nam now, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m re-elected.’

Beinart doesn’t like Johnson. I’ve a hunch history will be kinder. The Civil Rights Bill is a significant step in the nation’s history. When Johnson was a young congressman he saw McCarthy in action. That experience helped shape the future President.

Beinart did give a significant twist to my perceptions of George W Bush. A lazy man who had a hankering for greatness – which made him easy prey for the ‘hubris of dominance’. I found the account of the intellectual development during the Clinton years of this theory fascinating. It led to the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘Quagmire’ is probably the wrong word for those two desert nations, but it reflects the situation.

Beinart is good on the economic forces shaping foreign policy with one surprising exception – oil. Powell was amazed, according to Beinart’s account, at the first cabinet meeting to discover Cheney and others wanted to topple Saddam. While I accept the ‘unfinished business’ argument I ask why was there not similar talk about, say, Myanmar.

The flip-side of optimism is over-confidence. That is the appeal of the American spirit. What concerns this onlooker from the distance is the downturn of that confidence. 9/11 introduced a new note of vulnerability. The recession hasn’t helped. Going-nowhere wars sap enthusiasm. Obama caught that yearning for a better world, but expectations carry their own seeds of decay. Neither big business nor government can cap a gushing under-water oil well. Let’s hope the lessons of messianic imperialism have been learnt. Probably not. And a withdrawal into isolationism is an equally disturbing idea. No nation is an island

The president personifies the period. But they are not isolate creatures. Reading Beinart’s account I realised the danger of the great person approach to history. (Behind the sole individual are brains trusts, think tanks, cronies, lovers, siblings and peers). But it is an obvious and easy approach. The imperial power wielded by the President of the United States of America is massive. It is a Roman system rather than Greek. But the Greek legend is a useful handle to its understanding.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Tuesday Poem: A Parental Ode to my Son, Aged 3 Years and 5 Months

Gentle reader – that Victorian phrase when the author intrudes – you may wonder at my choice for the Tuesday poem. It even surprises me. Up till now I had only ever read one of Thomas Hood’s poems – the widely anthologised ‘Song of the Shirt, an attack upon the industrial conditions of seamstresses. But the Guardian selected this poem for its weekly poem. Victorian writing was not all serious earnestness. And I like exploring our literary heritage.

The poem appealed. It’s language dates it but the theme is universal. Pride in the infant and irritation at his behavior jostle for attention. Of course , its patriarchal. It’s its period. But I can imagine cave man snarling at his mate to get that child out of his hair and away from the flint he is sharpening. It’s also parental, that mate may’ve snapped at him not to let the child too close to the fire. Anyway here it is. Enjoy.


Thou happy, happy elf!
(But stop, - first let me - kiss away that tear-)
Thou tiny image of myself!
(My love, he's poking peas into his ear!)
Thou merry, laughing sprite!
With spirits feather-light,
Untouched by sorrow, and unsoiled by sin;
(Good Heavens! the child is swallowing a pin!)

Thou little tricksy Puck!
With antic toys so funnily bestuck,
Light as the singing bird that wings the air;
(The door! the door! he'll tumble down the stair!)
Thou darling of thy sire!
(Why, Jane, he'll set his pinafore afire!)
Thou imp of mirth and joy!
In love's dear chain, so strong and bright a link,
Thou idol of thy parents; (Drat the boy!
There goes my ink!)

Thou cherub-but of earth;
Fit playfellow for Fays, by moonlight pale,
In harmless sport and myrth,
(That dog will bite him if he pulls its tail!)
Thou human hummingbee, extracting honey
From every blossom in the world that blows,
Singing in youth's elysium ever sunny,
(Another tumble!-that's his precious nose!)

Thy father's pride and hope!
(He'll break the mirror with that skipping-rope!)
With pure heart newly stamped from Nature's mint;
(Where did he learn that squint!)
Thou young domestic dove!
(He'll have that jug off with another shove!)
Dear nursling of the Hymeneal nest!
(Are those torn clothes his best?)
Little epitome of man!
(He'll climb upon the table, that's his plan!)
Touched with the beauteous tints of dawning life
(He's got a knife!)

Thou enviable being!
No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky foreseeing,
Play on, play on,
My elfin John!
Toss the light ball-bestride the stick-
(I knew so many cakes would make him sick!)
With fancies, buoyant as the thistle-down,
Prompting the face grotesque, and antic brisk,
With many a lamb-like frisk,
(He's got the scissors, snipping at your gown!)

Thou pretty opening rose!
(Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)
Balmy and breathing music like the South,
(He really brings my heart into my mouth!)
Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star,
(I wish that window had an iron bar!)
Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove;
(I'll tell you what, my love,
I cannot write unless he's sent above!)

Thomas Hood

The Tuesday Poem website is

Economic Salvation

The British Government in its Budget has announced public service cuts of up to 40% in some departments. That’s drastic. There will be consequences. Women will be affected more than men. The poor and the needy will be at greater risk. I am confident that up and down the country people will be saying ‘necessary’ and ‘about time’. It takes time for consequences to emerge.

Here, Bill English uses the same cue. Whenever I watch Parliament’s question time he seems to be burbling on about the ‘bloated bureaucracy’. Well, that is his government’s servants he complaining about. .I notice they don’t cut the number of people working in the Beehive.

It appears to me that economics is a bit like religion – it’s an act of faith. Upbringing plays a major factor. My Stage I Economics in the 1950s years had Samuelson as its text. It was a Keysenian analysis. Some people rebel against their youthful indoctrination, others, like me, accept it as part of the life-blood of the spirit. So I’m rather sceptical of the ‘austerity’ faith while trickle-down theory seems a shibboleth on par with sacred cows.

Ireland went down the heavy austerity path a few years ago. Matters have not got better, indeed they’ve got considerably worse. Greece has gone down that track. The World Bank would have Spain, Portugal and Italy cantering towards the same approach. .

It’s complex. I accept that. As well as Samuelson I grew up with my elders telling me how the Labour Giovernment, Bob Semple in particular, had helped solve the depression by public works such as the Summit Road on the Port Hills, the Rimutuka tunnel, the rail link to Picton and the Karapiro Dam. State Housing greatly assisted. But later reading revealed a currency crisis that was basically solved by the Second World War. But  in the process, men – I use that word deliberately – got work, things got built, confidence grew and money circulated.

All the reading I’ve done about the American recession that began in 2008 suggest that one of its biggest causes was the removal of the safeguards that Roosevelt had introduced as part of the New Deal to cope with the Great Depression of the early 1930s. According to Beinart George W Bush for years kept teasing his Secretary of the Treasury who had warned him at the beginning of his presidency that the bubble would burst. That teasing stopped in the final months of Bush’s presidency.

Being a bear of very little economic brain I find it hard to comprehend why humanity cannot harness the economic forces unleashed in war-time to be used in peace-time.

Apparently Obama worried at the G8 conference that the European faith in austerity would delay the recovery from the recession. Most commentators say the stimulus package began by Bush and extended by Obama has greatly helped in the USA. But candidates in the forthcoming Congressional elections are baying after different prey. ‘Tax cuts’ and ‘fiscal responsibility’ are chanted and cheered as acts of faith.

I am not asking for reckless spending. I believe strongly in good monitoring of government’s expenditure, (from the politicians down). My hero in the first decade of the 21st century was Michael Cullen. He balanced the books, allowed some stimulation, (not nearly as much as his fellow MPs and constituents desired) but did not slash and burn existing services. Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson had led us down that driveway far enough for the majority of the electorate to realise it was a dead end. But those  two have faithful clones who long to advance further down the same track. They hover around, ever hopeful. I do not believe Paradise exists at the end of that driveway. And I feel sorry for other nations being asked to explore it as an approach to economic salvation.

Solstice Meal

For quite a while now each year we've celebrated winter solstice with good friends, Bill and Donna, Dale and John – one of our rituals We share the meal, one couple bring the entrée, the host cooks the mains and the other couple bring the sweets. This year we’re a little later than usual – yesterday, July 4th, a date which English born and raised Roger claims as Rebellion Day. I don’t know how loud he says it in upstate New York where he resides at present.

We used to rotate the venue for this midwinter meal but my health dictates it taking place here now. It was very tasty. Bill & Donna brought the entrees to have for starters and ratatouille to accompany the main, plus very good wine. Dale and John made individual chicken, bacon and leek pies and potato gratin. Anne contributed a lemon meringue pie – very lemony just as I like it.

It was a leisurely occasion. Anecdote, mirth, issues and hopes dominated the scene apart from sounds of appreciation. Here’s a poem I wrote after such a meal with these two couples over twenty years ago. As I considered it light verse I didn’t publish it until it appeared in 'Goya Rules' earlier this year. It might be slight but it records an occasion and a period as all verse does.

On Request
(for Dale)

Harder than it appears
your challenge to grow a poem
from friendship’s alluvium.

Flicking through my latest
you growl, ‘Never dedicated
anything to me you hound!’

So, as if by order, one is bound.

Chicken, cashew, Chinese cabbage
I’ve shopped & chopped
stirred & served;
now you demand verse as well:

World full of folly & delight
gales of laughter over pinot noir.
We set nearly everything all right.

It doesn’t matter: that fight in Israel
& the Gaza Strip, Tranzrail’s down the creek
& forecast’s snow.

You relate a detail about your
Leningrad visit, row upon row
of pickled freaks - Peter’s museum.
I had never heard of its existence.
Grotesque and gothic grows our humour.

Leaving late you pronounce:
‘You need to clear your path.’

An evening of affability and affinity
to serve as (sauce) to be written up.
So here’s your verse, and lump it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


With no real knowledge a few weeks back I made a rash prediction, the World Cup Football final would be Brazil against Germany. This morning Brazil was beaten by the Netherlands. Tomorrow Argentine will quite likely eliminate Germany. So much for the amateur soothsayer. But I’m a casual onlooker. The nationalistic fervour aroused by the games is striking. There’ll be keening throughout black Africa now that Ghana has lost to Uruguay in a penalty shoot-out.

What has surprised me watching snippets of the various matches is the rough play, jersey pulling, professional fouls, dodgy tackles all topped off with Hollywood performances – many of those guys deserve an Oscar. I had an old-fashioned belief that soccer was more sportsman-like than rugby. Not now.

Even netball has become more physical – the barging, charging and pushing is most unladylike. Not the court behaviour of my co-ed school days.

I was very impressed as a young man when on the first day of a cricket test the opening English batsman was given out almost first ball. Walter Hadlee, the Kiwi captain pursued him , invited him back, told the umpires the catch had not been taken. Washbrook went on to score a century. The crowd agreed, that was sportsmanship. Ah, the good old days. Winning wasn’t everything. Tell that to Graham Henry.

I’ve been admiring the tennis players. Roger Federer saying his opponent, who had lost,deserved to win. I’ve even seen players applaud a good stroke from the other end. That’s cricket by my book.

Those good old days. Th two teams ran out to the field together. They shook hands. The ref blew the whistle. When he ended the game the players shook hands again, gave three cheers and often fraternised in the changing rooms. The activity had its own interest. Spectators applauded good play from both sides.

Sport is now big business. The dollar rules. I understand though I do not approve drug cheats. Throwing a match in return for a large monetary reward must be a temptation to people whose route from poverty has been via their sporting skill. A bonus for a win means that success might be sought by foul means as well as fair.

Ah, in my tirade I forgot the Springbok tour of 1956. It is hard now to explain the primitive fervour with which much of the population wanted those 'Boks humbled. Legend had it that New Zealand outplayed them on the veldt in 1949, but biased refs and their big kicker, Geffin, unfairly took the series from us. This "we wuz robbed" theory fed enough New Zealand paranoia to dominate the middle of that year. We were a small country but by heaven we could beat these neo-Fascists from a land which did not accept the equality of men. Our mood was tribal.

And don’t mention the ‘under-arm’. An evening of shame. I’m no better or worse. Rum as a drink has never appealed to me. Whiskey does. Bob-sleigh leaves me ho-hum. Whereas rugby I get involved. We each have our own poison.

A player can be a champion or a villian, or more likely a mixture of both. It is us who participate vicariously who help create the climate in which their competition takes place. The Springboks play here shortly.