Monday, August 30, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Goya Rules


March days can be superb, autumn crispness
in a mature sun. Late cicada hold chorus
as I walk through the gardens to the city.
Women trundling toddlers smile as I stroll
past, a lone man swings his little girl into
giggles. A tourist couple snap a begonia bed.
A perfect day for a Renoir riverside party.

But Goya rules.
                          Trains detonate in Madrid.
Sudden death is often our common lot but
this unnecessary slaughter beggars thought.

Harvey McQueen

Before my health deteriorated I delighted in walking down the hill from my home high in the hills thought the Botanic Garden to the city. (I bussed home). The first stanza records such a walk – a lovely day. But that morning’s news was dominated by the explosions on Madrid trains. Some fanatics had decided that innocent commuters, travellers, old, female, male, young, Christian, Muslim and atheist should die.

It was an afternoon to celebrate existence. Instead, I carried the burden of our species’ capacity for cruelty and inhumanity. Renoir is my favourite painter – such joy. But Goya ruled that day. Another old master with a different message – those poor people. When will we ever learn – at such moments the mind tends to cliché. I liked the poem so much – a very accurate snapshot of a moment – that I used it as the title of my latest collection released earlier this year.

The British Isles

In the NE corner of our section there is a tree fern grotto. Underneath the upright ferns with their unfurling koru fronds are snowdrops, helabores and foxglove seedlings, creating an unusual mixture of indigenous and the Old Country.

I learnt a lot about the British Isles in my early years. My first books were Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows and the William books. In School Cert Geography I learn to draw a cross section from Lancaster across the Penines to York. At university the concentration was on English history. I taught its literature, 'gathering swallows' and 'hearts of oak'.

On my first visit to England I was delighted to see a robin in a rural garden. It was so tame – sitting on a wall close to me. Those childhood books had robins, red squirrels, foxes galore. My mental warehouse was full of the flora and fauna of the British Isle. I have never seen a puffin but the book trade meant I had a clear vision of what one looked like. Nor have I seen a pine martin, a relation of stoats and weasels.

I’m watching a DVD series ‘The Natural History of the British Isles’ narrated by Alan Titchmarsh. It began with a robin with its prominent red breast. They like humans gardening. Apparently they became associated with wild pigs in the large wood that covered the Isles several thousand tears ago. The pigs turning over the soil presented prey to the insect-eating birds.

Titchmarsh took us back in time to the formation of what is now those islands. He pointed out the formation of the Atlantic Ocean. Edinburgh Castle is built on an old volcanic plug – I’d seen it but not made the connection. Coral fossils on the Yorkshire dales reveal it was once a tropical sea.

And so to the last great Ice Age. Grey seal pups are still born white. High in the Cairngorms they’ve found polar bear bones in a cave. Large boulders carried hundreds of miles from their origin were deposited by the retreating glaciers litter the countryside. And from the North Sea trawlers they get mammoth tusks and bones. Ireland split off early, hence no weasels or snakes. Britain separated from France later. As the ice retreated the vegetation shifted – birch, Scots pine and juniper went north as the deciduous trees colonised the south.

Entertaining, informative, the series is giving me great pleasure as it fills in gaps in my knowledge of the British Isles.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Since my Burma blog (13 August)  there have been several queries about the poem ‘Mandalay’. In 1886 Colonial Secretary Randolph Churchill (father of Winston) presented Burma as the ‘latest jewel in the Crown’ to Queen Victoria. It was the height of the Empire. The British rule lasted till 1947.

Not only was Kipling an Imperial poet. He also wrote about work and working men, soldiers in particular. In its day this was a highly popular poem highlighting the lure of the Orient and the soldier’s dissatisfaction at being home in drizzly weather. The poem was abridged and turned into a song. My stepfather’s dowry included a wind-up gramaphone and a conmsiderable number of records. One was Australian born bass-baritone Peter Dawson singing ‘On the Road to Mandalay.” The poem's dated but it records a vanished era well. It should be recalled that Kipling also wrote 'Recssional'. The arrogance of empire does not always last long.


By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat -- jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:
Bloomin' idol made o'mud --
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd --
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,
She'd git 'er little banjo an' she'd sing "~Kulla-lo-lo!~"
With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin' my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an' the ~hathis~ pilin' teak.
Elephints a-pilin' teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that's all shove be'ind me -- long ago an' fur away,
An' there ain't no 'busses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;
An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."
No! you won't 'eed nothin' else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an' grubby 'and --
Law! wot do they understand?
I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be --
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

Rudyard Kipling

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Anne made pancakes for our brunch this morning. One of life’s pleasures, a simple dish yet tasty. In the days when I was doing half the cooking it was one of my favourites. I preferred treacle to maple syrup but better than both is plain sugar with lots of fresh lemon juice, the sweet and sour mixture contrasting with the rather bland background of flour, egg, milk and melted butter.

In last Wednesday’s blog I wrote about the pleasure of preparing and sharing food. . Here is a line from Ian Wedde’s ‘The Commonplace Odes’: ‘A good cookbook is as good as a book of poems’. Like any line wrenched from context it loses meaning as it takes on a life of its own. I like it, however, as a stand-alone comment.

During Anne’s recent Melbourne visit she went to a bookshop called Books for Cooks. She bought several books.  One was Donna Hay’s ‘Flavours (“Marie Clare” Style)’. I’ve been dipping in to it. I see Amazon rate it 4.75 on a five-point scale. It’s easier to rank cookbooks than schoolchildren. It certainly is a ‘beaut’ book. Recipes and photographs are thematically arranged in flavours, vanilla, chocolate, lemon and lime, garlic, chilli, basil, etc. Eye-catching and mouth-watering, the ideal combination for the arm-chair cook which is what I’ve become.

Details of the origins of the flavouring and suggestions for its use add further interest. I’ll take one example, the chapter on garlic and onions Native to Asia this plant family has been cultivated since pre-historic times. Anne’s already tried out a white bean with garlic dip as an entrée. Both roast garlic and onion soup and a pork roast garlic smeared look easy, while the balsamic chicken on garlic couscous looks an interesting combination. There is a fantastic Chinese dish, which begs experimentation.

I used to sometimes get the wok down to stir-fry. Garlic, spring onion and ginger in oil nearly always was my starting point. The trouble with occasional Chinese cooking is the various specialist sauces. They were not being used fast enough. So we did less than  we kept planning to. And now we another excuse, a good Chinese takeaway very near our apartment. .

When I was cooking I used garlic a whale of a lot. Whenever Mum visited she’d say “I don’t want any of that garlic muck’. The casserole finished she’d say ‘that was lovely. What did you put in it. I’d tell her ‘red wine and crab apple jelly’ and leave it at that. It had scuds of garlic. How could you people would say? My response, she’d told me about the tooth fairy.

Hay’s book has leeks as an entrée. I added red wine for this dish. I especially grew autumn leeks to have in early winter, fresh green stalks. In a small frying pan I’d combine with the wine, a dash of olive oil, salt and pepper and some chicken stock. The wine bubbles down to a nice jus. Delicious. I also used to pickle onions. I used to like them hot and fiery, eye-watering territory to the uninitiated.

Part of the book’s appeal is that it is basically a cook-book rather than a cake-baking guide though it has a very good lemon tart. I was a cook rather than a baker, though as well as pancakes I used to make pikelets.

Drooling through the book I bring my own background information. Anne bought a basil plant the other day. It’s in a trough on the kitchen windowsill. Usually she waits till the days are warmer. Basil originally came from India, so it’s not hardy and has to be grown fresh each year in temperate climates. Basil and tomato are a culinary delight, pairing together like wine and cheese. The French call it herb royale and it’s one of the ingredients of Chartreuse liqueur. I can imagine the brothers of the Carthusian order in their garden, picking and drying the basil, lemon balm and all the other ingredients as they have done for centuries. I am sure they enjoy the scent of the soil and warmth of the sun as much as I used to.

Even though I no longer cook I can read. It’s like travel. I cannot go down the Mississippi but I can accompany Jonathan Raban on his solo voyage. I can’t go to restaurants in Switzerland but M.F.K.Fisher can take me to them and share her pleasure. I regard Fisher’s ‘Art of Eating’ as one of the great books of the 20th century. Auden stated that she was the best  prose writer in America. .

Today’s cookbooks often combine travel and recipes – an irresistible combination. Coffee table books at their best. Though I have one gripe. The designers often take over. Recipes in red on grey may look nice but can be hell to read especially if one is trying to juggle book and ingredients in a small kitchen.

Of course TV brings cooking and travel together superbly well. I am appreciating Rick Stein’s Eastern Odyssey at present. I can’t savour the smells but I can see the landscape and the process of making the meal. I like Thai food. There’s a delicate fragrance there that other cuisine does not seem to have. Watching Stein’s visit charms the taste-buds.

I don’t like the cooking programme that put down other contestants or staff. Ramsay’s paucity of language is on a par with his respect for other people. Food is not an enemy and should not be treated as such. Whereas the enthusiasm of Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver is contagious. I know the programmes are commercial but they’re respectful to their audience and the components of the meal. .

On our coffee table at present is the latest copy of Cuisine magazine. Two friends of Anne gave her a subscription to it for her birthday – a very sensible gift. It gives her ideas and I can make suggestions about its recipes. The latest edition talks about our best restaurants. It’s a long way to Oamaru. Home cooking for me. I hope the whitebait start running soon. I can at least still experience gourmet meals at home.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Respiratory Check-Up

Yesterday I went to the public hospital for my six-monthly respiratory check-up. Before I left my caregiver Susanna said ‘they’ll find your oxygen levels are OK though your muscles are getting weaker.’ Prescient woman!

I enjoyed the taxi drive over. Spring! First kowhai, japonica galore and quite a bit of cherry blossom. With the walker I made good progress in to the waiting room. They weighed me – weight the same as last time. Blood test, two go’s to locate a vein. They should hire a vampire. Then a puff machine – at least this time I did not need to enter the time machine to blow into it. They examined the data on my CPAP machine. The apnea is still concerning them. They gave me a new mask.

Then a long wait to see the specialist. He looked exhausted as it was the end of the day. Good system - overworked people. Susanna was right- the oxygen levels were high. He decided to alter the CPAP settings. A technician lowered the pressure. This will decrease the possibility of leaks. Suits me. I was fed up at night waking up to the mask blurting air everywhere.

In our haste to get away we left the machine in its bag in the doctor’s office. The taxi had to reverse direction after we’d gone less than a quarter of the way home. Safely back, Anne reassembled the mask and machine before pouring a glass of wine to join me in my stiff whiskey. It had been a draining afternoon. I felt exhausted. I admit it - being a bear of a very nervous disposition turns such afternoons into harrowing events. Not for the first time I wish I were less anxious on such occasions.

I had an early night. Twice I woke up with a start. Had the machine stopped? It was so quiet and peaceful. But no, the machine was still working away and out in the hall the oxygen converter carried on its merry way. This morning, denying the weather forecast's predicition, there was full sunshine.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


As I was guest editor for the Tuesday Poem I selected this one two days ago from among my favourites. I put it and my commentary up today on my own blog now for the record's sake.


‘Established’ is a good word, much used in garden books,
‘The plant, when established’ . . .
Oh, become established quickly, quickly, garden
For I am fugitive, I am very fugitive – – –

Those that come after me will gather these roses,
And watch, as I do now, the white wistaria
Burst, in the sunshine, from its pale green sheath.

Planned. Planted. Established. Then neglected,
Till at last the loiterer by the gate will wonder
At the old, old cottage, the old wooden cottage,
And say ‘One might build here, the view is glorious;
This must have been a pretty garden once.’

Ursula Bethell

From a Garden in the Antipodes (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1929)

This poem is very representative of Ursula Bethell, (1874-1945), New Zealand’s foremost garden poet. She knew first-hand the enjoyment and satisfaction of digging the soil, of cultivating and tendering plants. But it was more than practical or aesthetic. Above all, her interest was driven by a sense of the enormity of time and space. Her poems have the backdrop of the sublime. In her poems she stops work every now and then to look at the mountains, serene and timeless, backdrop for her labour.

A contemporary D’Arcy Cresswell said, ‘New Zealand poetry wasn’t truly discovered until [she], “very earnestly digging”, raised her head to look at the mountains.’ For a brief spell – ten years - the serenity and comfort of Rise Cottage on the Port Hills above Christchurch inspired Bethell to create many fine poems. Cresswell’s comment reflects the fact that unlike many of her contemporaries she searched for meaning and identity in New Zealand. The tensions between her English origins and her antipodean existence were resolved by her stewardship of her small spot of soil. Unfortunately, when her companion, Effie Pollen, suddenly died, her ‘small fond human enclosure’ was destroyed and her poetic voice became silent.

The poem is aptly titled ‘Time’, which has been a poetic theme down the decades. Sometimes it’s the enemy. Keats’ ‘when I hbe fears that I may cease to be’ springs to mind. But he’s a Romantic. Bethell’s a convinced Christian. Unlike Baxter or Hopkins her poems are not about spiritual wrestling. They rest in a certainty I envy but do not possess. Time is usually approached metaphorically. The rise and fall of nations is one. More common is the human life span – Shakespeare’s seven ages of man from ‘As You Like It’ from ‘mewling and puking infant’ to adult who procreates, plans, works hopes, prays and fights before the person fades away ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything’. This process makes room for new generations – the continuity of the species, the rule of nature. The seasons are another. obvious measurement of time.

Bethell in this poem uses the garden to present the passage of time. I love the use of the word ‘fugitive’. It’s so apt. It puts us in our place. Then the lovely ‘ripeness is all’ of the white wisteria in the sunshine. And so to the abandonment and the suggestion that someone else will restart and remodel the garden. All in good time. Much has happened since Bethell wrote this poem in the1920s. But it still rings bells in my soul.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Horace, Athill & Wedde

The world wags on, despite my cares and concerns. I exist in the body of the senses with the limits of my language. Other people enrich that existence, some by their presence but most through the images they create and the words they use.

Amongst the books I’m reading is an old favourite, Ian Wedde’s poems ‘The Commonplace Odes'. Ian had done what poets often do, take an old form and adapt it. The Latin poet Horace was some sort of Treasury official but his love was his farm in the Sabine hills, 35 miles northeast of Rome. Horace is lauded for his ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and vice versa. Augustus in power, it was a time when Rome’s power seemed endless. Horace said long after his words had ceased to be the Vestal Virgins would remain. The damsels have long departed; institution and the empire long gone, his words live on.

Ian explores the same territory as that old master. One line in particular from Ian's introductory piece struck me. ‘The nibbled winter ejects itself like birdsong’ The arrival of spring. It’s all around me at present – bursting flowers, courting birds, lengthening sunlight .

I’ve just finished a memoir about the opposite season, late autumn. It’s Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Near the End’. I quote: ‘Book after book has been written about being young , and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, [that puts love in an unusual perspective, HMcQ], but there is not much on record about our falling away.’ 

It is a timely book for me. I’d read at some stage Athill’s ‘Stet’ her memoir about her career working as an editor for English publisher Andre DeutschLtd. Her prose was excellent, indeed memorable. It was an excellent book There was a touching honesty about it. This later book is in the same class. ‘What filled him [her brother] as death approached was not fear of what physical battering he would have to endure (in fact there weas not, at the end, any of that). but grief at having to say good-bye to what he never could have enough of.’ She describes the last time the pair went sailing together in which they experienced that empathy without words which just occasionally happens between two human beings and is treasured in memory.

In the 19th century sex was the taboo subject. Today, death, and to a lesser extent old age, takes on that status. Athill faces both squarely. Death’s a fact, it’s there unavoidable and unmistakable. As I stagger around with my walker it looms increasingly as friend rather than foe. Athill faces the issue of old age with integrity without remorse, indeed there are elements of satisfaction in her present circumstances. Athill’s strength is that she doesn’t give us well-intentioned homilies, instead it’s an accurate account of circumstances.

‘My own belief – that we on our short[-lived planet, are part of a simultaneously … ordinary … and incalculably mysterious … does not feel like believing in nothing and would never make me recruit anyone for slaughter. It feels like a state of infinite possibility, stimulating and enjoyable – not exactly comforting but acceptable because true.’ Precisely! A timely perspective! I will perish. My species will perish. Creation will continue. My puny will is but a speck on the galaxy so small it does not register Except to me. And those for whom I care.

As her physical vigour waned she cultivated other pursuits – gardening was one. There was the gradual giving up of things – the realisation that she shouldn’t have another dog. I found the book useful, thought-provoking and encouraging. Grief, regret, loss, sadness have their place. The senses do weaken.  In my case, taste is the one that has surprisingly gone. This not only affects appetite. It is part of a larger decline,  the inability to cook not just for myself but for others, for one of the great arts of humanity is hospitality.

I’ll let Ian have the last word
‘And then they are gone again, Quintus Horatius,

The green young dogs* from the house, the fragrant rice
From its green pepper womb, what I wanted to say
From this ode, the world from words that burst
Open, and this awful sadness spilling
Even so from the rapture that contains everything. .

*Previously he’d described these half-grown large puppies

Rarely is the last word the last word:
Postscript 1
An unanticipated bonus. Looking up Athill on Wiki.I found a short video of her and Alice Munro being interviewed. [Munro is one of my favourite authors]. That site led me to more Munro and then Atwood. Two great Canadians. Riches galore. Its better being old and frail if one has access to world-wide technology. Millions still haven’t.
Postscript 2
A final two sentences from Atill. ‘I have heard people bewailing man’s landing on the moon, as though before it was touched by an astronaut’s foot it was made of silver or mother-of-pearl, and that footprint turned it into gray dust. But the moon was never made of mother-of-pearl, and it still shines as if so made.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tuesday Poem

As I am editor for this week's Tuesday Poem my choice is the frontpiece for today's collection. Click the quill alongside to enter and read 'Time' by Urusla Bethell and my comments about this deligtful poem. And then I suggest browse the othter entries.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Travelling Thoughts

So the Australian election has turned into a cliff-hanger. Predictable! Reading Julius Caesar yesterday was escapist and uplifting. But it was a bucket of cold water to return to the TV world to watch Gillard and Abbott mouthing electoral fodder, nutritionally deficient on issues and vision.

In a world in which caricature all too often is presented as the truth – the frightening fact is that the presenter all too often perceives it as the truth – complicated and complex issues are reduced to sound bites and prejudice. So 18% of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. I know 9/11 was traumatic. But I find myself saying America stop applying a 'them and us' philosophy to everything and experience the world, things are not as simple as they look in Colorado, California or Connecticut when you’ve been to Lahore, Lagos and Lima.

I have not been to those three places either. But I shall never forget the courtesy and hospitality of hosts in Ishfahan, Indianapolis and Istanbul, Bangkok, Berlin and Beppu. Alas, my travelling days are over. Anne has just been to Melbourne. She says she understands now my habit on arrival of taking a brief stroll to get my bearings – newsagent, coffee shop, chemist and nearest tube or bus stop. It’s like a dog in a strange place, you claim and mark territory and orientate oneself, a form of sniffing the breeze. 

But always such orientation’s with the excitement of encountering a different culture, fascinating and in its own terms valid. (Even America and I include Britain). I suppose I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve not felt hostility or experienced violence. (I discount snobby Parisians who scorned my lack of their language in my first visit. They improved with age, or maybe it was my confidence).

Of course I regret that my travelling has now finished.. But memory remains a great asset. And the changing scene outside is invaluable. Yesterday, watching a DVD, Ken Burns’ documentary on The West, the slaughter of the buffalo following the building of the railroads. I became aware of movement through the window. I turned off the machine and watched. A tui sought nectar in the red camelia – a lovely close-up view of his white throat-tuff. On the lawn two rosella searched and scratched for the last abandoned acorns. They found a few – colourful Australian larrikins on our section - hoeing into the nuts. They departed and a chaffinch pair landed on a search and rescue mission. Rosella are messy eaters, so the chaffinches did well. Peace and quiet descended. I went back to the impact of the rail, settlers and cattle droves and Indian displacement.

On a different tack, officially, the Iraq war is over, ‘mission accomplished’. Saddam’s vile rule was ended but at what cost. Well, I don’t see it as an end. 50,000 troops remain remain, some of whom will die as they continue to fight against the 'insurgency'. The invasion has been a catastrophe. Up to a million Iraqi are dead. It can not be called a victory.

And nearly 20% of Americans think their president is a Muslim. The whole Middle East including Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Iran is involved. But so is much of Africa and South East Asia. America is involved because of its oil interests, power interests and its belief about the export of its version of democracy. (I've been watching on The West the same determination to Anglocize the Indians). The more America and the Muslim World misunderstand each other, the more the fundamentalists blog the airwaves, the more hate is fostered, the more likehood is that this powder keg will ignite again. And Pakistan, possessing the nuclear deterrent, is flood stricken with threats of political instability.

I’ve finished my course of anti-biotics. They make me depressed I realise. Which probably tends this blog to the pessimistic. Coherence has escaped me as thoughts have scuttled around. But the see-saw was balanced when I had a look at the Tuesday Poem blogsite. (See my quill). An American member T Clear has posted an amusing prose piece called ‘What happened to my Car’. Embedded in the piece is this description of Obama, (she’d attended a dinner at which he had spoken).

‘The man is polished, gracious, intelligent, witty, articulate and certainly knows just to tell a joke. Comfortable in his skin (and his skin colour), he seems to be genuinely happy and not beaten down by the fact that every moment there are untold numbers of people on the planet who look down on him (to put it politely) just because his skin tone is different from theirs. ‘

Thank you T Clear. You help restore some faith in America. The West is about vision and hope as well as destruction. And we have old American friends coming to dinner tonight. They’visited us several times, Kristin has worked here and loves the place and Anne stayed with them in their Phoenix home. I've been to Grand Canyon. What an achievement it was to push rail through those mountains and link coast to coast. The technology that helped wiped out the buffalo also enabled great change. The human spirit triumphant means casualties along the way. I tell myself I must try to savour the tui, rosella and chaffinch more and worry less about incompatible factors beyond my control. Deep down I know I won’t follow my own advice. The historian and citizen in me worries foolishly about the future.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Exactly a year ago I finished my blog thus: ‘The thought did cross my mind that I would not teach Shakespeare again. After a few years history teaching the origins of the second world war lost their freshness. But every reading of Hamlet opened up new vistas, new thoughts, plus the sheer miracle of the language. Across the centuries Shakespeare remains a miracle of language and plot. No one has ever strung human dreams together. It was a privilege to bring his texts and students together.’

That blog was about leaving secondary teaching to become an inspector of schools – a major change of direction in my educational career. As it turns out I did teach Shakespeare again. For two years I did a little part-time tutoring in the English Department at Victoria University. Othello was one of the set texts. And in 1987 I did a term’s relieving at Wellington East Girl’s College. ‘As You Like It’ was part of the syllabus. What an endearing heroine Rosalind is.

Watching from afar two political fights I thought all politiicans should be forced to read Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caeser once a year. Hubris, naievity, narcism, ambition, the search for power – they are all there in the play. Also honour, good people, sincere people caught in the machinations of the system

‘Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.’

'Shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes.?’

‘We must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.’

Having climbed the ladder those at the top try to kick it away. And others keep aiming for higher rungs. I thought the break-up of the Alliance in 2002 was spectacular. At least it was over a cause. This week’s discord in ACT, while equally dramatic appears personal. One thing looks clear. There will be fall-out.

Across the Tasman the Australian general election is the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. Was the political assassination of Kevin Rudd a disaster? Would they have won under him? History will not answer the second question. The first is in the hands of the Australian electorate. It’s been a messy affair. From this distance few of the players seemed to have performed well. Those who live by the sword, often die from the sword. And as Shakespeare says in another play 'a plague on both your houses.'

Friday, August 20, 2010

About 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.

In the late 1970s my first marriage broke up – a sad event for all concerned. This is a poem I wrote at the time recording  the stress and the pain. The house I left was at Papakowhai overlooking the inlet across to Titahi Bay.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tomrrow's Schools (2)

Some further background and random thoughts to last week’s blog on Tomttow’s Schools.

Resigning from the old Department of Education, I set up my own education consultancy in 1986. Now such people are plentiful, but back then it was a brave step. I became a regular commentator on education issues in the National Business Review. Late in 1987 there was a ring from the Beehive: would I like to come in and talk about working as an education aide for Prime Minister David Lange, in his capacity as Minister of Education? I would, and I did. There was a strip search of ideas and prejudices. A few days later I was invited to meet the Minister and his associate, Phil Goff. They offered me the position.

By the time I began work in early 1988, David Lange had publicly backed away from the idea of a flat tax. The dispute between him and his Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, erupted into the public arena. I had shaken hands on an education job; instead I had entered a war zone. The conflict between the two men dominated the political scene for the next two years.

That, as the novelist says. is another story; yet it is part of the background to the implementation of Tomorrow’s Schools. It sapped Lange’s energy and attention. However, I was still amazed at his stamina, commitment and enthusiasm, despite ill-health as well. My good luck was furthered in that his chief aides decided he should go walkabout, first to get feedback on the proposed reforms, and later to sell them. So instead of a desk-job, I found myself accompanying the Prime Minister up and down the country.

One submission on the Picot Report, released in early May 1988, began with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate power of the society but the people themselves and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.” I suggested to the Prime Minister that it would make a good beginning to the Tomorrow’s Schools document, as it summed up his attitude. He enthusiastically agreed.

Regrettably, one important Picot recommendation was not implemented. That was for an overarching Council, with the heads of the Ministry of Education, the National Qualifications Authority and the Education Review Office, plus three other prominent New Zealanders appointed by the Government. This Council would be charged with co-ordinating policies from the various agencies, and looking at long-term effects of educational decisions. That idea never got out of the hangar. Treasury claimed that it added another bureaucratic layer, and was unnecessary. The Education Ministry didn’t want conflicting advice being offered to Government. The result has been an on-going lack of co-ordination between the agencies, and outright competition in some instances.

The central hands-off approach on daily management advocated by Picot has been lost sight of, as the Ministry of Education and other agencies have reacted to policy directives or local inadequacies or failures. At its heart, the Picot report called for a top-down attempt to enable empowerment. Maybe that ‘top-down’ was an underlying flaw in the proposal. Or it could be that the attempt to delegate responsible ownership was never honoured. Instead, that old top-down approach remains, whether it be assessing achievement or producing the national curriculum. It also lacks one component that the Picot model possessed to a considerable degree – professional participation.

The administrative reforms, while massive in the primary sector had much less impact on the secondary. In 1996 I visited a German university and observed the horror of an elderly professor of teacher education when I explained that in New Zealand, the local school appointed its own staff. “How can you trust them to make the right choice?” he asked. When I said our secondary schools had always done this, he shepherded me away from his junior staff in case such heretical ideas might prove contagious.

Nearly 97 percent of our schools are state schools. Teachers have long enjoyed autonomy in their classroom, in the sense that they choose the resources and teaching methods to deliver the curriculum. But prior to 1990, especially in primary schools, they were very much under the control of central bureaucracies. Tomorrow’s Schools was an opportunity to move them from that dependency to greater self-sufficiency.

Teachers know their task is to try to move their charges along the same path. They know it is difficult. They know it takes time. They also know it operates best on a system of trust. Trust is a two-way process. It means accepting you cannot win every time. It means accepting that the person with whom you differ is sincere. It means not just digging in to retain the status quo. The reverse is that if you are not trusted and are treated as if you were out of the loop, you will tend not be open to such acceptances. Negative criticisms compound into distrust.

Government cannot change education by itself. Teachers know that without good will, exhortation rarely works. Charges of ‘provider capture’ should be dropped from the vocabulary. People in glass-houses shouldn’t heave bricks. As teachers have to accept that parents expect good learning for their children, so government has to accept that teachers possess professional expertise.

I saying this, I am well aware that some individuals bring the profession into disrepute. It must be the profession’s responsibility to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure such people are dealt with appropriately. Unless this is seen as working well, the profession itself will continue to face a lack of trust from the other stakeholders.

I had always envisaged a strong Teachers’ Council – of the teachers, for the teachers, by the teachers – as a way of empowering the profession. But then maybe I was naïve in denying political realities. As funder, government is always going to be intimately involved. The tax-payers’ dollar is at stake.

Moreover. teachers have to accept that government always has competing claims for resources. It is impossible to deliver on all demands. But unless one is involved somehow in the drawing up of priorities, one does not take ownership of them. improved education system.

At present the education debate is mainly about ways and means. It should be primarily about purpose, vision, and goals. It should be about issues such as how to balance choice and flexibility alongside equity and justice. It should be about how to enhance the learning of the nation’s young people. Unless we can lift education debate to that level, we shall see little change in the next decade as we stagger from one policy reversal to the next.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thoughts On A Dream

New Zealand Books asked me to review ‘Beyond the Scene’, a book compiled by Otago University academics about our identity and images of landscape. The deadline was mid-July. I delivered on time. Yesterday I received an email saying my review would not be published in the forthcoming issue but carried over to the summer print-run. Disappointing but not unexpected – par for the course.

Last night I had a two-fold dream. My first recollection is having a shower. It was at our previous home – and there was no caregiver or stool, I was managing very capably on my own. Indeed it did not seem a big deal. Savouring the sting of the water jets I revelled in the sensation. After drying and dressing I hopped in the car and drove to a coffee shop to have morning tea.

A friend joined me He had just bought ‘The Listener’. ‘I see you’ve got a review in it’ he said. I looked at it – a piece on education - and it was completely garbled. They’ve edited it so much they’d distorted all my meaning. I drove home angrily. I know it was to the old house by the vegetation I went past. I bounded up the steps.

The scene changed. How I have no idea. But now I had the walker and a laptop. I’d left the house and was sitting in the park at the end of the road, tapping in a letter to the editor about the alterations to my text. Realising it was getting chill I trundled uphill towards home. Puffed I reached the steps and suddenly the thought bounded into my head that it was no longer ours. It now belonged to Amanda. There was no way I could get up the steps to ring the bell.

At this point my ejector button cut in. I came awake and lay there confusedly wondering about it. Had I written a piece on education for 'The Listener'? It should be noted I did do one for the blog last weekend. It took a while to realise that it was not for real.

My sub-conscious was looking back in nostalgia. Anne and I had been happy in that house. (We’d left three years ago). Our decision to downsize as it turns out was very sensible. But it was more than happiness. We shared command in the garden, kitchen and house, I had mobility and therefore lots more choice.. Our holidays were a change of scene. There were freedoms I now lack. The evening we left that place I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. It’s been downhill health-wise ever since. Dramatic, but we now know was inevitable, sooner or later my illness needed attention. .

Well, all I can do is smoke that particular pipe dream. I’m fed up with the new age books for oldies that burble on saying the best is yet to be. That’s rubbish. The best has passed. Be grateful it was a good best. What is necessary is to make the best of what’s happening. But the vividness of the separate parts of last night’s dream lingers clearly in my conscious mind.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tuesday Poem: After the Service

After the Service

wrestling with
sin & evil & what’s in between
additions to the illumination of brilliance

stained glass patterns light
we would be pure of heart but
history happens notwithstanding anguish.

outside, a gracious breeze
sways a gigantic pohutakawa
as it drops blood-red spikes upon  the strewn confetti

a jet laden with anonymous
people hastens overhead while
a car alarm rackets away any suggestion of peace

great is Diana of Ephusus
a daily sacrifice will raise the sun
tax cuts & we must never be envious.

Harvey McQueen

A recently finished poem, political, religious, personal, as are most of mine.

The Mikado

Yesterday midday I felt depressed. A foot infection has meant a course of antibiotics. That in turn has caused a stomach upset. Plus lousy weather.

But we watched a DVD – The Mikado, a production from the Sydney Opera House. Such joyful music. It was made in 1988 – I twigged that by the in-jokes about Hawke and Peacock before I saw the credits. Magnificent staging, costuming, and use of props. Such richness is hard to describe – three little maids from school acted like girls from St Trinians. There were comic hall variations. Umbrellas were used to great effect. Boxing stances were part of the action. Add in lovely lyrics – ‘a wandering minstrel I’, ‘briad the raven hair’ ‘tit-willow’. It was a heady brew, a spirit-lifting occasion – 19th century comic opera, 20th century production, presented by 21st century technology. I felt cheerful at the end of it. The show had come to me.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tomorrow's Schools

Each education minister has to relearn a lesson, which their predecessors have already learnt the hard way. You can make education policy in offices in the Capital, but you cannot implement it without the cooperation of teachers. Therefore in some way, the politicians and the teachers have to establish a working relationship.

It was one of David Lange's tragedies that he had insufficient time to attempt that relationship. Education is too large a portfolio to give to the Prime Minister. Twenty-two years ago, however, he launched the ‘Tomorrow’s Schools” education administration reforms. It was my good fortune to be one of his aides at the time. The reforms were based on a premise of trust. Lange kept talking about a covenant. He deliberately used it in a legal sense. The community should be able to know that the school had the necessary resources and teachers to deliver the required education. The State had that responsibility. It was a clear vision - underpinned no doubt by his Methodist upbringing. He saw it as a three-way partnership: school, community and government.

He also wanted to ensure that the changeover disrupted young people’s schooling as little as possible. The process was like refitting a ship while it was sailing. To this end, he appointed four well-known educators and charged them with making sure the refit did not disadvantage students. It seemed to me then, and does now, that this is a good consultative model. It worked well.

Two decades on from the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools, it is interesting to reflect that of the three partners, the parents and their community, the teaching profession, and Government and its agencies, the boards of trustees are now probably the smoothest running part of that trio. There have been personality and/or ideological hiccups in some schools; but on the whole, the trustees have got on with their job with energy, enthusiasm and competence.

Admittedly, there are schools which have struggled and Government has had to intervene. At first glance, this makes it appear as if the Picot proposal of self-management that led to Tomorrow’s Schools was not a good model. Not seen in that glance is the removal of the safeguards Picot envisaged, such as a Parents Advocacy Council and Community Forums. The removal of such safeguards has seen the imposition of centralist policies – often developed without professional input – and a return to the old stop-go model that Picot condemned.

This brings me to the third group of the partnership, teachers. They feel sidelined. They are engaged in a complex and challenging task, spurring, maintaining, and facilitating learning and the motivation to learn with a diverse group of young people. They have knowledge and expertise. They believe they are engaged in an essential task. Unless they do their job well, the knowledge society demanded by our policy-makers will remain a mirage. Yet this sense of strong marginalisation remains. The administrative reforms envisaged the empowering of the profession as well as the local community through self-managing schools. That has not happened. And unless it happens, many an impasse in the system will remain.

The 1988 education reforms were about the administrative delivery of education. It is worth recalling that Lange claimed they were only the first leg of the double. The second leg was to be curriculum, the what, why and how of teaching and how learning was evaluated. In various ways his successors and their officers have wrestled with this issue.

International studies reveal that our top students do well. They also reveal, as in other countries, a big tail. That is, rightly and necessarily, of concern. But politicians have to accept that education alone cannot solve this problem. The widening poverty gap in society has a huge educational impact. An unhealthy child, a malnourished child, a battered child, an emotionally disturbed child will not learn well. A weekend of booze and drugs is not a good background for educational success. School cannot be divorced from society. Government policies have impact. The educational consequences of decisions made in the Beehive need careful consideration.

The term 'Tomrrow's Schools' has become a ragbag for all sorts of education changes and initiatives. It's time we dropped it and started talking about 'Today's Schools'.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Adam's Floating Around Somewhere

Book marks and ball point pens have one thing in common. I mislay them. All the time. Down the years I’ve lost and found more bookmarks than I can count. I’ve been prodigal with them. They come and go. Not that it matters much. I seize whatever’s at hand, used envelope, ATM receipt, any odd piece of paper.

I pick a favourite book from the shelf and with delight find lurking in its pages a long forgotten bookmark. I recently found going through a drawer two matching bookmarks bought in the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence during my 1989 visit. They are Cranach’s famous paintings of Adam and Eve. So I’ve been using them. Naked, except for a decorous use of fig leaves.

Eve had been keeping tabs of my reading of Fraser’s memoir of the Burma campaign. The book placed back in the borrowed shelf, books lent to me, either unread or waiting to be returned. Eve was left face up beside my chair. A visitor made a facetious remark about my having a naked lady to keep me company. I replied ‘Adam’s floating around somewhere’. .

It struck me as a good opening line for a poem. For a couple of weeks I’ve been experimenting but unsatisfactorily – nothing rewarding as yet. I keep getting lost in the metaphysics. ‘Floating’ seems apt. For in Paradise Adam could not be fidgeting or fooling or fighting around. I was back to Milton’s dilemma. Plus I don’t see sex as sin. In the paintings they both have belly buttons.


There is a snippet in this morning’s paper that sounds science fiction. In America an x-ray of a man’s lung revealed a spot, so they operated. They found a pea, which he’d swallowed the wrong way. The wonder of it is, it had sprouted. It’s hard to believe, but it is claimed to be true. The life-force is at times miraculous.

Today in 1040 Macbeth killed Duncan to take the throne of Scotland. He ruled for seventeen years. Watching Shakespeare’s play the audience sees a piece of collapsed time – events seem to happen fairly quickly one after other. Some historians claim Shakespeare gave Macbeth a bad press. Never mind, it made good drama.

Today in 1945 was VJ Day. The guns fell silent over the Pacific and Asia. Re-building could start again. One lot of bloodshed was over.

Today in 1947 India and Pakistan (which included Bangladesh) were partitioned. There were massacres, and bloodshed has continued to the present day. It is idle speculation but if partition had not gone ahead?  India is an emerging super-power. Would it have been stronger as one country on the sub-continent? Or would it have been so riven by religious strife as to be relatively non-functional. The historian can only go on what happened.

Pakistan reels from massive floods caused by the heaviest monsoon rain for ages. The poor people. Those up in the mountains face slips and flash-foods as torrents of water rush through the ravines. Many inhabitants are refugees. And the rain continues. Down on the plains and especially in the low-lying Sind area the waters slowly rise.

In the uplands the danger is swift in arrival and non-predictable. Mud, bough and rock are unforgiving. People on the lowlands face a different danger. Death is there in the upward creep of water. The impoverished peasants watch home, village, livestock go under. TV has footage of people unwilling to leave their homes. Understandable. It’s all they’ve got. It’s being claimed that corruption has channelled away much of the money set aside for stop-banks.

And to top it all off there is a war going on just across the border and in the NW hills and mountains and the dispute with India over Kashmir has flared yet again into conflict. On top of nature’s neutrality, we have human cruelty and helplessness. Homelessness, hunger and disease will be around for some considerable time.. That sprouting pea may be symbolic but it is of little comfort in contemplating a disaster of this scale. Recovery will be a slow process. It is ironic that the army raised for fighting is able to assist with damage control and recovery.

Political instability is a worry. Duncan’s killing by an ambitious war-lord is not just the pattern of medieval Scotland.

Friday, August 13, 2010


On my fist visit to Britain we stayed with my first wife’s aged relative in Hanslope, a little village in NE Buckinghamshire – thatched cottages and a high-steepled church. It has now been swallowed up into the new city of Milton Keynes. They were cutting wheat in the paddock across from the house, there were mole-hills in the lawn and in a shed at the bottom of the garden potent cobwebbed bottles of cowslip, elderberry and dandelion wine. The England of my expectations.

A neighbour and close friend had fought in Burma, now Myanmar. He said ‘It was hell. I’ve seen the world and I didn’t like it.’ He refused to elaborate and was amazed that we’d think nothing of going to London for a night to see a show or even motoring over to Stratford-on-Avon to take in a Shakespeare play. He had worked in the Wolverhampton workshops on the royal carriages from his army discharge to his retirement. He had never left this environment since his return from action.

His comment questioned my concept of Burma. Rudyard Kipling’s poem – used as a song ‘On the Road to Mandalay’ shaped my early view of that country. George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant’ added another dimension to the picture. But the basic image was one of gold pagodas, the worship of Buddha, naïve peasants, an atmosphere of luxuriant tranquillity, lotus land - India without its disadvantages. .

I knew nothing about the fighting in Burma. I’d read Russell Braddon’s book ‘The Naked Island’ about the fall of Singapore. I’d seen the movies ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘A Town Like Alice’. Elsewhere in this blog I’ve written about my visits to Japan and enjoyment and fascination with its culture. .

So it was with interest I read a book Oliver lent me ‘Quartered Safe Out Here’. It’s by George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the Flashman novels. (Which I’ve never read). Only nineteen years old he served in Burma in the last year of the Second World War. It’s a vivid account of the conditions, camaraderie, horrors, fears, and boredom. VE Day happened. But even after that they had to slog on.

Fraser focuses on the ten-man infantry section of the 14th Army in which he ended up lance corporal. He is novelist so he writes with narrative power and uses the device of an earthy, pithy dialogue to convey the sense of being there coping with raids, patrols, snipers, booby-traps. The reader feels the bullets flying past, sees the effect of artillery fire. He never uses the term Japanese. It was always ‘Japs’. Some of his comrades die, once by friendly fire.

Even in battle the mutual ,earthy  ribbing of matesmanhip continues. These hard-bitten Cumbrians are presented heroically in action in the combat zone. Their stoic professionalism shows them coping with danger, heat and monotony. The villagers are presented as sullenly neutral. (Why shouldn’t they be – their land is being fought over by two would-be distant conquerors). There are moments of comedy.

Coming back from a patrol, water-bottles near empty, the section discovered a deserted well. They had anti-diarrhoea tablets in their kit. But how to get the water is a problem. It was decided Fraser as the lightest would be lowered head first down and use his helmet as a scoop. An ambush! They dropped him. Floundering around with heavy boots he thought he’d drown. But no; they came back and rescued him. Shortly after he got his promotion and they found themselves in a dicey situation the most grizzled grumbler of the section said if he were in charge this is what he would do but fat chance that the brass would consider that?

‘I was glad to have come out of it, but even then I felt what I feel now, and what every old soldier feels; a gratitude for having been there and an abiding admiration amounting to awe for the sheer ability of my comrades. Nowadays the highest praise a soldier can get is the word ‘professional’. Fourteenth Army weren't professional. They were experts.’

Do I glory in these records of brutality? No! But they fascinate me – accounts of the forces around during my formative years. They reveal the adaptability of the human spirit to circumstances beyond control and the ways in which people respond to their lot. Down the centuries soldiers grumble and gamble, it is their nature.

Discovering Fraser had been reading Henry V a superior officer asked if he could borrow it. When he returned the book he claimed Shakespeare must have been a soldier. He knew how they felt. George Bernard Shaw was never a soldier. But his foot soldiers in ‘Saint Joan’ accurately spoke the lingo and knew the way of life. Fraser might be a novelist looking back at his experience. But his book has a ring of authenticity. I enjoyed it. And I know that in time, as Fraser does, the hatred eases though matesmanship doesn’t.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Dream

My mornings like most I suppose are ritualistic. One of the most dangerous things I do each day is take the mask off and get out of bed. Balance is unsteady so I move very cautiously. Putting on my dressing gown proves more and more difficult - Buster Keaton slapstick except it’s for real. The walker is now essential for I’m getting increasingly tottery. I feel very unsteady with just a stick. Of course, it is a chicken and egg argument.

National radio background, a computer check comes first - emails, blog and internet headlines - before I go the lounge. There, my comfortable chair as I repair the fracture between sleep and being awake. There is fortisip – a nutritional supplement – the paper, tea, porridge, pills, a mandarin and time to catch up with Anne as we discuss the day’s news and prospects.

That early period is often fallow time. The scene is ever changing . More camellia are coming into flower. At one stage this morning the garden was alive with birds. A thrush and a pair of blackbirds were foraging on the lawn. A gaggle of sparrows waited hopeful for some stale bread or other offering. Wax-eyes compete for the fat-ball on the fence. That native pigeon squats atop the neighbour’s kowhai eating buds drat it. I’m pleased to see it but I’d like to see the kowhai in all its glory. Ten minutes later it was a deserted village – not a bird in sight.

We often share dreams. I had a vivid one last night. A little bit of background. Yesterday, Anne took Dorothy our 18-year old cat to the vet for a claw cut and check up. Booting up my computer I heard this distress cat call. Using the walker I went exploring, wondering if Anne had accidentally shut her in the garage. She hadn’t. Sensible lady, she’d seized the opportunity to put the unsuspecting animal in to its catbox. In the evening I’d watched an old film 'Marian and Robin', Audrey Hepburn and Sean Connery as Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Two old pros in action in a mildly amusing movie, plenty of action, satisfactory entertainment.

Most of my dreams have me able-bodied, lithe and supple as I once was. I wake up to the disillusionment of my present body captive to its disease. But last night’s was different. Anne and I were visiting a strange town. I was in a wheel chair and she was pushing me around new suburban streets. We came to a golf course, (Tiger Woods had been on the TV news) so she took me in. The chair got stuck in the rough and there was no one around. We were both distressed.

By a series of eclipses (of which I have only dim recollection) I was out on my own in our lane wheeling my walker round like a medieval knight while Dorothy cowered in the doorway and I kept at bay a large dog. It circled me. I recall thinking that dumb cat should be searching for Anne. The dog leapt. I usually have an eject button for when the dream merges into panic. (Hilarity is a rare dream, fear is far too common). This one worked. I woke up in a lather of sweat and the machine thumping away, the alarm showing 5 00. I wondered about getting up to make a cup of tea but I drifted off again and dozed through the alarm to emerge later than usual this morning.

I think I’d sooner have dreams that have the able-bodied Harvey. We all want to be heroes. Not the villain. Robert Shaw’s portrayal of the sheriff of Nottingham was not the usual sneering typecast villain. As a result he’s a much more interesting character. Not that I meant to write about a second-rate film. It was the one of the three DVD I have out from Fatso the rental company to which I subscribe. The other two were the French film 'Germinal' – Zola’s novel about coal-mining in north-east France is horrifyingly grim – and 'The Mikado' – Sydney Opera company. They were longer. Would my dream have been different if I’d watched them. On such trivial decisions are our actions and reactions determined.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The arrival of ‘proofs’ for an author is a sharpsweet moment. Sweet in that it’s exciting – the labour of years coming to fruition. Sharp in that it means the writer is on the verge of letting go, it’s no longer his or her baby. Soon it will be out there in the market-place subject to the whims of readers, reviewers and the recession.

Yesterday I received the proofs of my anthology ‘These I Have Loved’. It is a selection of a hundred New Zealand poems that I’ve enjoyed over the years. There are a couple I learnt at school. Several I’ve taught. Lots I’ve anthologised. Some I’ve heard the poet read. Others I have read in the poet’s own or other collection that have to the best of my knowledge never been anthologised.. There is one previously unpublished.

As I say in my introduction it’s a moveable feast. Sooner or later the anthologist has to say ‘curtain call’. This final selection goes to the publisher, the point of no return has been passed. I anticipated some rejections from the poets or their estates. I am delighted there were none though I’ve regrets that one or two emergencies I’d lined up remain on the sidelines.

The number one hundred was arbitrary. Rationale for choice was needed. My enjoyment was crucial. There are some great poems. There isn’t a bad poem. I admit the inclusion of more than several for idiosyncratic reasons. For example, when I was young when my adults went to town (Christchurch) they often brought saveloys home. In a steady diet of farm mutton – people ask wasn’t it monotonous; at the time it wasn’t, merely normal – they were a colourful change. Elizabeth Smither has a poem about going to the butcher’s and ordering quite a large amount of meat, ‘and just casually, like childhood, a saveloy.’ She’ll probably be surprised, indeed horrified, at this choice – I have included others of hers – but in context it’s well-entitled to be included. For childhood’s sake!

Likewise when I was a student in Dunedin I walked past Frame’s upside-down kea daily. I remember being awe-struck when I saw Kampala the elephant close-up in Wellington zoo so Louis Johnson’s poem reminded me of that moment.. Curnow’s moa skeletons in the Canterbury museum were part of my childhood. I give reasons for my selection of each poem so this anthology is a unique mixture of memoir and poetry.

Another arbitrary decision was to not abridge larger poems. Baughan, Stead, Wedde, Bornholt all have long poems I like very much. Excerpts do not do justice to the overall poem. So they’ve been left out. Also not considered were any poems that I'd included in my recent garden anthology ‘The Earth’s Deep Breathing.’ This means I’m light on Bethell for she is our garden poet par excellence. But that very choice represents the freedom of this selection. There was no external standard of excellence or reference except my own preference and judgement.

So begins the laborious task of final checking. It’s like the dress rehearsal of a play – the last chance to get things as near right as possible. The good thing about a quick flick through is that I am happy with my selection. That’s satisfactory. If I find a poem I like I want to share it. That’s why I enjoyed teaching poetry I think. As the time of closure I was at ease with my selection. I still am. And I wish I could be in the classroom to use it – to sell my love for the craft.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tuesday Poem:Pierced Ears


I hoped you would not pierce your perfect skin.
I thought you were too young to do it, to barter pain
for beauty. I spoke – too late – of mutilation.

It turned out that I loved the sight of them,
the hoops and drops, the shells and cupules hugging
your lobes with the aid of a slim gold pin;

and anyway the punctures were no more than that.
Now you have battle scars and wear them like a hero
under his breastplate. Powerless as Demeter

to protect, I watch you these days as you reach out
for your daughter, for whom you’d barter
anything in life…your beauty, if you were asked.

Diana Bridge

A mother’s love for her daughter and in turn that person’s love for her daughter. The continuity of it all; an age-old poetic theme. Diana sent me this unpublished poem for my interest. I liked it so much I asked her permission to post it on the Tuesday Poem blog. .

The Tuesday Poem website is


Early August. Wax-eyes queue up to take their turn at the fatball hanging from our fence. A southerly blast grips the country, snow has closed southern and the Desert roads. John Key turns 49 today. It is 65 years since the atomic bomb was dropped on Ngasaki. Elena Kagan was sworn in as the fourth woman to be appointed to the American Supreme Court. 43 were killed in a massive bomb blast in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and in Afghanistan 10 humanitarian aide workers were massacred. Pakistan has colossal monsoon floods. Ghastly pictures of ruin and devastation. China and Poland also have people-killing floods.

Awesome is the power of nature. And the variety of life on our planet. I’ve had out the first disc of David Attenborough’s documentary DVD ‘Life in the Undergrowth’ about invertebrates. Fascinating viewing! For every one of us there are 200 million of them. Without them life as we know it would be unsustainable. The quantity as well as the variety is amazing. The emergence of so many mayfly in one day from a Hungarian river was striking viewing. They mate and die on that day.

The episode that appealed most was the one I least anticipated – spiders. The skill of cobweb construction is impressive. In some species the male has to be careful not to become the prey of the female. The one shown didn’t get away, though it was noted she waited till he’d impregnated her - Attenborough making an evolutionary point. I liked the little wolf spider, a simpler courtship and the young clustering on their mother’s back.

The glow-worms of the Waitomo Caves were shown – one of the loveliest sights I’ve ever seen. I wondered about the insect life for the illuminated larvae to feed on. Apparently it is available because the streams bring in mayfly and other insect larvae from the outside and when they hatch they fall prey to a glow-worm larva.

Last night’s TV showed a thorny devil, an Australian desert lizard, a most unusual animal which relies on camouflage as well as its prickly skin. In the evening it turns olive-green but in the sunshine it’s a mixture of yellow and red, perfect for blending into a desert background.

The one shown was taken off a smuggler in Darwin. The poor animal was suffering in the humidity for they are conditioned to a desert climate. They flew it back to Alice Springs. In the ranger’s house the poor animal laid its eggs. He took the mother out to the desert and let her free and incubated the eggs. His plan was to return them to the wild when they were ready. Her task was done, in the wild her eggs would be left while the young on hatching had to fend for themselves. The spider by our standards was a better mother.

Their skin is completely impervious. To get water they have a series of channels in their skin. These all lead to the mouth. By gulping which creates capillary action it draws the water to its mouth to be swallowed. Mainly morning dew gives the lizard enough to survive. The first thing the ranger did was to spray it with fine water. The animal looked contented as it squatted there absorbing water through its mouth.

According to this morning’s Guardian there is concern in America over a fungus that is affecting bats. Bats destroy an immense number of insects each evening. Scientists think that the fungus was introduced into the continent by travellers. The interconnectedness of things continues to amaze.

Last night’s TV viewing also had a once-over-lightly documentary about science – Galileo, striking shots of Venice, Newton, Hubble. The immensity of space. The complexity of it all, not just out there, but also down here. The Guardian also has a column about scientists talking on the increased awareness of Sahara minerals fertilising the Amazon basin. Up till now they couldn’t understand how the water did not leach out the minerals.

Science enabled the atomic bomb. It also uncovered so many facets of nature. As a species we have an awesome capacity for destruction. We also have an awesome aptitude for kindness and generosity. Pity, the see-saw seems unbalanced.


Science enabled the Ngasaki bomb – a sardine compared with the monster possibilities of today’s weaponry. It also enabled the plane that flew the horny devil to Darwin and back again. As a species we have an awesome capacity for destruction. We also have an awesome aptitude for kindness and generosity. Pity, the see-saw seems so unbalanced.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


This week my blog became a hassle. I quite often get comments on it in Chinese, frustrating in that I can’t read them. Are they comment, criticism or praise? So after a recent comment upon the tui I tried to transcribe. My efforts failed. What I did do was turn my homepage into Chinese. I could read nothing on my screen. Triple frustration.

I have direct entry. So access wasn’t a problem. Once in, despite the Chinese characters I knew the locations for 'edit' and 'publish post' which, thanks to the powers that be, once in came through in English. So the blog was still usable. I used what skills I had to try to undo the switch, but I was scared of getting deeper in, like a fly caught in a cobweb, struggling only compounds the entrapment.

I emailed Geoff who is a Seniornet adviser. He sent through instructions. But I didn’t have a clue where items like ‘dashboard’ were. My computer I drive using the habits I have developed. (I know there are huge capacities into which I have never tried to tap. It’s hard to teach an old bear new tricks). Geoff’s wife Pam went to a Chinese dairy and got the symbols for the English language. Despite the helpful advice I still couldn’t find my way through the maze.

So Geoff came in to see me. He led, I followed, he’s a good teacher. It took us a while but eventually we got the screen into French and hey presto one step into English. I now know what the dashboard is and have filed it away in my memory banks. But my transcription experiments are over. From now on, comments can remain as Chinese, (they could be Japanese or Korean for all this old panda knows), unread by me.

The relief! The comfort of the known. It depends on perspective. I pull back the curtains in the morning and if I’m lying in my bed all I can see is the gaunt outline of oak boughs. I sit up and there through the window is the scarlet-flowered camellia on the verge of full bloom. Transformation!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Week In December

‘Somehow money had become the only thing that mattered. When had this happened? When had educated people stopped looking down on money and its acquisition? When had the civilised man stopped viewing money as a means to various enjoyable ends and started to view it as the end itself? When had respectable people given themselves over full-time to counting zeroes? And, when this defining moment came, why had nobody bloody well told him?’

So muses Gabriel Northwood at a dinner party near the end of "A Week in December', the latest novel from Sebastian Faulkes. Some reviewers criticise it for its preachiness. I don’t. It’s in the morality novel tradition, Dickens springs to mind but also Tom Wolfe. Satire, comedy, pathos, sentimentality, all wrapped up with good prose in a compelling narrative. How will it end? Will the girl get the bloke? Who is the prowler? Will the son be saved? Will it end in tragedy? Real life enlarged and therefore better as well as more painful.

In one week in December 2007 the novel explores modern, multicultural London. It covers a lot of ground. It looks at Islam and the reasons and rationale for the radicalism of some of the young faithful. Football uses imported players and coaches and is played on stadiums named after overseas airlines. The tube operates under the theatres and dining rooms of the rich and would-be rich. There is the back-biting world of the literati, including a magnificently funny prize-giving function sponsored by a pizza chain.

Reality TV, broadband, cyber porn and drugs form part of the scene. There’s a whack at education. ‘I was lucky enough to be educated at a time when teachers still thought children could handle knowledge.’ There is an investiture at Buckingham Palace where the Pakistani lime-pickle merchant from Glasgow receives his ‘gong’. His son has delayed the planned bombing to attend the ceremony. And believe it or not - there usually is, Hollywood may be reading - a glamorous model also struts the scene; though this isn’t the ‘swinging London of the 60s’.

Above all it is a scathing indictment of the financial practices that led to the recent collapse and still flourish. A few blogs ago I wrote about the cornering of the cocoa trade. This is pre-figured in the novel. Indeed the heresy crossed my mind that it could even have given the idea to those who successfully engineered the coup. What is frightening is the amorality of those involved – no sense of guilt, of sin, or of concern about the impact of their illegal and unethical practices. John Veals the hedge fund operator who engineers a financial killing is a villain of Dickensian stature.

Vanessa, John’s wife has her own musings. “Bankers had detached their activities from the real world. Instead of being a service industry – helping companies who had a function in the life of their society – banking became a closed system. Profit was no longer related to growth or increase, but became self-sustaining and in this semi-virtual world, the amount of money to be made by financiers also became detached from normal logic. …Cause and effect could be uncoupled. To her, this social change, the result of decades of assault on the long-accepted norms, was far more interesting than the quasi-autistic intellects of people, like John, who worked in the new finance.' An 'anticipatory' rebel in the ranks.

Northwood, the diffident barrister, very well-read and one of the more likeable characters is another Dickensian character. But contemporary! He wonders about the love of his life – a married woman. ‘This desperate passion … was it such an enviable way to live, always at the edge of panic, desperate for a cellphone beep, all your judgements skewed.’ He has a disarming gentleness that made him stand out for this reader. In a crazy world he represented sanity.  

I will not spoil it for the reader with any more account. Faulkes kept wrong-footing me so it would be unfair to give away too much of his skilfully-woven plot. All I can say is he presents a picture not only of alienation and atomisation but also of the human spirit. There are life-changing experiences as the week goes on. One of the least likeable characters suddenly and unexpectedly becomes noble. A rotter receives an undeserved break. A mother realises her neglect. A father ignores his. The love affairs are sweet. And honest. The dinner party is as usual shrill and shallow. But on the whole it’s not a nice world these characters inhabit – ignorance triumphs over knowledge, sensation is used as sedation, cynicism is rampant. But it is our world. And I’ll give you one clue. Faulkes knows that Hope exists at the bottom of Pandora’ box.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mastering the Art

Almost every day I look at Beattie’s Bookman blog. It keeps me abreast with the literary scene, aware of new publications and processes, and is thought-provoking - a good site. Of late there have been many cookbooks mentioned. I sometimes have a grumble how cook-books are inclined to dominate the non-fiction sales lists but I have to admit they sell well. They are also often good reading – anticipation and ideas.

Further, they also a social phenomenon. As fast food outlets proliferate and obesity concerns health professionals in many countries there has been a swing back to home cooking. The popularity of cooking programmes on TV is another illustration of this trend.

Preparing food for friends, colleagues, partners and even for oneself is a very human activity. It involves the act of giving. I regret that my illness has meant that I have had to give cooking away. Preparation of a meal was fun. (I acknowledge, though, it can also be a chore, a daily grind).

Anne recently asked me did I have a hankering for something. I said it’s been a while since we had lamb shanks. So she slow-cooked two for last night’s evening meal. Superb, in flavour and texture! We are dining royally tonight again, rock oyster entrée, followed by salmon fillets.

Anne’s been looking at Julia Child’s culinary masterpiece ‘Mastering The Art of French Cooking’. Last evening after our meal we watched a DVD of ‘Julie and Julia’, a 2009 movie. Child frequently mentioned her first French meal in Rouen, oysters, sole meuniere and fine wine, a culinary revelation. The film began with that meal. I recall two lovely rabbit meals during our brief visit to Rouen and of course duck.

The movie was based upon a book written by Julie Powell. Powell, a frustrated cubicle office worker, decided to write a blog for a year in which she would cook all of Child’s recipes. She turned it into a book. Which in turn became the movie – one of those wholesome, feel-good films which leaves you with the sense that you are all the better for having seen it.

The scenes alternated between Child’s Parisian life and Powell’s New York existence. Child was six foot two inches. Meryl Streep, whose impersonation was brilliant, played the part. The gawky awkwardness combined with ebullience and an unusual accent are well-captured. Streep wore high heels and small people were cast for the other parts to accentuate her height enabling her to tower over them. The film followed her  career very faithfully; boredom obvious until her passion for fine food was unleashed, along with a desire to share it with ‘servantless housewives’. Probably too much butter for today’s health-anxious cooks.

Julia was lucky; as portrayed Paul, her diplomat husband was a lovely man. The one occasion the story strayed from the culinary in her career was to show him being grilled by McCarthy – a chilling cameo.

The critics while praising Streep’s performance find more fault with Amy Adams who plays Julie’s part; not of Adams, but of the script. I was less disconcerted. Different lifestyles, relaxed Parisian and a joyful acceptance of sensory experience contrasted with hectic New York with its haste and bustle. All that, plus, modern tensions with her husband. One cause I can understand. Blogging is a self-centred activity. Several times Anne has said 'you’re not listening'. True! My mind was elsewhere composing thoughts for the blog. Compositon is self-absorbing.

But who would not be worried about how to kill a lobster? Or bone a duck? But the end result – fine food. That’s what this delightful film was about. Yum!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Geoff sent this email yesterday. He and his wife Pam life in Lower Hutt. Geoff and I roomed together for a year in Rolleston House hostel when we were at Canterbury University.

'Yesterday we had a flock of tui playing tag in the gum tree in the front of our house. They were vigorously dashing about in and out of the tree and adjacent totara and kauri for some time. Impossible to count as they didn't stay still long enough but we are confident that there were more than ten.

At one point a group of them raced off to the puriri over the back fence and continued the game of tag but then came hurtling back having realised, I think, that it was much more fun when they were all in one place. A bit like kids in a school playground when they have just been let out. The image came to mind of Harry Potter and quidditch.

A marvellous sight that we had not seen before. When we first came here we never expected to see a tui in our tree, let alone a sizeable group enjoying a mad game of tag. As I write this I can see two in the puriri quietly feeding. I am not surprised that they are hungry.'

I've been watching a similar though smaller group in our neighbour's kowhai. It is a spectacular sight. I give thanks to the sanctuary. I wonder if the Lower Hutt increase arises from the same source or is it the planned eradication of possum from the local area. It's spring - maybe tag is courting, a form of pre-nuptial behaviour or establishing territory and pecking order. I've just watched our resident blackbird divebombed by a tui. No rivals allowed.  

PS Geoff taught me how to use italics in my blog.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Just So: A Love Poem of Sorts

Just So: A Love Poem of Sorts

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

Harvey McQueen

This Tuesday poem follows follows logically from the previous blog.

The Tuesday poem website is

Inclusion Body Myositis

A few blogs ago I explained how a group of IBM sufferers had approached me re joining their group. They asked for a brief summary of the development of my condition. Here it is. Other followers of my blog have likewise asked about my condition. So I decided to make it available.

Over the last few days I’ve had friends, Geoff, Pam, Brian and Colin call. All have said ‘I look well’. Colin added ‘indeed cheerful.’ I preface this account with this fact for when I read it through it is gloomy.

For nearly a decade I kept a diary. Here’s an excerpt from 8 July 2003: ‘The causes are many but I find my energy and stamina alarmingly reduced. I have never bounced back properly from the pneumonia and last year’s stressful job didn’t help. [The job - eleven months as Interim Director of the newly formed Teachers Council]. I found the last [European] trip so demanding in terms of energy and stress. People age differently. I regret the loss of my physical strength very much but it is happening.’

It is the first indication of the onset of my muscular degenerative condition. I find increasing references after that. My assumption at the time was that this was old age. It seemed premature but it was happening. I found it harder to visit friends who lived up steep paths and when gardening frequently rested because of a lack of energy.

Visiting Auckland I went swimming with friends in Brown’s Bay. A few strokes and I pulled up puffing. Out of practice and old age onset I decided so I paddled around rather than swam. I’m told water resistance is an early indicator of the disease.

Then in 2005 I began experiencing dizzy spells. They played round with my blood pressure medication but in time diagnosed that I needed a pacemaker. That was implanted in October of that year. With an adjustment of medication the dizziness stopped. But a medical side-effect was an irritating eczema on my back, arms and legs. I have had to put a cream on daily ever since.

I became increasingly concerned at how hard it was to garden. I also had three falls, which I put down to carelessness and clumsiness. Anne and I talked it over – the section was getting too big for me, so we would down-size. We bought a townhouse with a small section – I still envisaged pottering in the garden – and put our place on the market.

We went off to a family wedding in Rotorua. For the first time I found country driving wearing. [I’ve loved country driving all my adult life]. We went to the hot pools and I found it alarmingly difficult to move when fully immersed. That scared me. We went on to Ohope for a beach holiday. Energy levels were so low I merely sat on the beach, read and watched cricket on TV. On the drive home on the Foxton straight I sensed it would be the last time I would drive along that stretch. And so it has proved.

The house sold, we made arrangements to stay with friends until our townhouse became available. I found the process of packing very stressful. On the last day I did not feel well. That evening a severe nose bleed suddenly began. It wouldn’t stop, so alarmed, we rang for an ambulance. As we drove away the medic took my blood pressure and couldn’t believe how high it was. Very soon I was in emergency, where they managed to stop the nose bleed and stabilised the blood pressure, which they think caused the bleed. But they also discovered that my oxygen level was dramatically low.

In the long run, traumatic, dramatic as all that was, it put me into the system. They explained to me that I was indeed short of oxygen – “It’s as if you were doing everything at the top of Everest with no oxygen”, a doctor said. But they gave me tests of every shape and size and I became aware that they were focusing on arm and leg muscles as well as lung capacity.

Further stints in hospital and further tests resulted in a two-fold diagnosis. There were two problems. The odds were that they were linked. There were a few instances overseas of the linkage and of course if the muscles are not getting enough oxygen it affects their functioning. A muscle biopsy revealed inclusion body myositis (IBM) – a rare incurable muscular degenerative disease. Bowen Sleep Clinic tests revealed a form of apnoea whereby I stopped breathing. They gave me a CPAP machine to assist me to breathe when sleeping and an oxygen converter to make sure I got extra oxygen at night.

It took a while to get accustomed to the mask. I had to learn to sleep on my back. In my third stint in hospital a nurse put the mask on too forcibly and broke the skin on the bridge of my nose. That became infected and the bacteria resisted the anti-biotic that was being prescribed. This meant a skin graft. Now that this has settled down I am having a satisfactory night’s sleep and the six monthly checks show the oxygen level is normal. But my lungs operate about 40% below capacity.

The IBM progresses slowly. During my first stint in hospital they taught me to walk with a stick. I’ve had five falls since diagnosis. No bones broken. Skin peeled back. Confidence weakened and body left all shaken. District Nurses and physiotherapists marvellous. I now have a walker. That helps confidence for I am very frail and tottery. Eventually a wheel-chair - that will be another concession or progression, it depends on how you look at it. It feels like a creeping second childhood. I am increasingly dependent upon others. I don’t like that. But beggars can’t be choosers.

Occupational therapists have made arrangements for a wet shower to be put it in some time soon. Nutritionists have looked at my swallowing problems. They have prescribed high fibre Fortisip a nutritional supplement to make sure I’m getting sufficient vitamins etc. Indeed, my weight has gone up a little with this addition to my diet. Orthotics have given me a simple device to assist the foot drop of my right foot. It’s helped my confidence

A caregiver comes to shower me and to assist me to go for a walk. I cannot put on socks or shoes and of course cannot put the ointment on my back. Dressing the rest of me on my own takes ages. I do undress at night but that’s a slow process. I gave up driving at the end of 2008 – a huge wrench but an essential safety decision. The day I found my leg muscles did not respond to the brain’s orders quickly enough was frightening. I do not cook – I don’t trust muscles to carry weight, especially hot dishes, but anything, I suddenly lose power. [We used to do week and week about cooking]. I can’t put out the rubbish. I can’t feed the cat. I can’t use scissors. I find visiting friends difficult – access, chairs and toilet seats too low and I cannot get out of them. Even putting on my dressing gown leaves me huffing and puffing. So far I’ve managed that task each morning. If I drop something on the floor I have a grabber to recover it for I cannot reach that low. I cannot reach the top book shelves.

My problems are compounded by the fact that all my life I’ve suffered from a form of irritable bowel syndrome. Nervous in origin. Over the years I’d learnt to manage it but since the onset of the other problems it’s got worst again. It’s another reason why I’m reluctant to visit or to take a car trip around Wellington.

It’s been very tough on my wife and partner Anne. She has had to become sole cook and bottle washer, and of necessity a caregiver. Moreover, she has lost a travelling companion, and someone to dine out or go to shows and movies with. We used to be invited out as a twosome. Somehow, someone solo, but with a dependent, is treated differently.

Early on I realised I had two alternatives. One was to turn sour and grumpy, life’s unfair. The other, was to try to utilise what facilities and faculties I could. The computer’s marvellous. DVDs bring entertainment into my life. Friends have been marvellously generous with time. Reading is a solace, Bird-watching, (the rosella pair were eating acorns on the lawn yesterday), nature watching (camellias budding up and daphne flower-heads pinkening), sky-watching. Over the years I have become a writer – that has become a great help, creativity and contact. As Mum said, ‘you can only play with the cards you’ve been dealt.’

After my diagnosis my niece Jenny who was living in Wellington helped me fly to Christchurch. She drove me to Ashburton to see my 95 year-old mother. It was my last visit to the mainland and the last time I saw Mum. She died last year aged 97. We had agreed neither of us would go to the other’s funeral. Anne represented me. But a trivial memory of that plane trip is that when somebody opened the overhead locker my stick fell out. My reflex action was instantaneous. My right arm shot up and I caught it steadily. Jenny, a very co-ordinated young woman was impressed. So was I. The human body is a strange organism.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Anything New


The face must languish behind the dungeon grill:
     Mussolini’s upside down on a butcher’s hook.

The fortress must posses one gate to breach:
     a bomb bursts open the Czar’s rib cage.

The younger bull must fight to take the herd:
     Savonarola flares like the Maid of Orleans.

The polar bear must stalk his frozen ‘berg:
     Viking blood stains rock in Labrador.

The axe must hack the rimu and the oak:
     the tides crash back on Pharaoh’s frenzied men.

I’ve been slowly putting up poems from my first volume ‘Against the Maelstrom’ – poems written more than forty years ago, by a guy who in some respects seems a stranger but in other respects is extremely readily identifiable. The poem is evidence of his state of mind at the time.

My first marriage was disintegrating and I was threshing around in bureauctatic middle management. I seemed to be lost in a legalistic maze. The best years lay ahead but I didn’t know it at the time. Life at that stage seemed rather pointless. What I didn’t understand was that new compass bearings were being set.

As a rule of thumb it used to be when I was unhappy I read a lot of non-fiction, fiction when I was happy. Now, I read a mixture of both – whether that’s maturity or not I leave to the jury; I wouldn’t make the claim.

At the time I was reading a life of Savonarola. History-Life seemed to be a record of conflict and stress. Nature, red in tooth and claw, included human nature. The poem rests its case.