Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dingo and Dog

Last evening’s TV news ended with a delightful shot of Wellington zoo’s new dingo pup and a labrador cross slightly older pup from the SPCA romping in their pen. The idea is to socialise the young dingo into canine ways. The young of most animals are cute. Pup’s playfulness is especially charming. But play is learning.

The theory is that the Australian dingo evolved from dogs brought across from Indonesia. They filled a niche and have flourished. Unlike their marsupial brethren they are an introduced species, however.

It has been said the past is elusive. The ‘Harvey that once was’ is so. But the ‘Harvey that is’ retains clear memories of what was There were always pups in my childhood. My grandfather, Pop, would give those he intended to keep – he was a dog-trial enthusiast – to widowed Mum to raise. My brother and I played with them. One was called Rag, we spent hours with an old blankets tug-a-warring him. Hence his name. Being a huntaway he made a lot of noise.

But my favourite was Sandy. A half-grown pup we were raising was run over by a neighbour. I saw the accident. I was told the following morning he had died in the night. I knew better. I’d heard the sound of the shot-gun. The charades that adults and children play. The neighbour had a new litter. He gave me this male huntaway pup. Pop wasn’t keen, he was not of good stock. But he’d taken Rag away now he was a mature dog; he was earning his keep as a working dog. So I was left with Sandy as we called the new addition..

When Mum married my stepfather Dick Sandy transferred his affections to him. Dick was obviously leader of the pack. Sandy adored Dick. Pop on his death-bed divided up his dogs, he gave Rag and a young heading pup called Meg. to Dick. Meg honed her sheep-dog skills on the chooks – eyeing and heading them. To my delight Sandy turned out to be a successful dog – Dick won many a trial with him and he was a godsend out in the farm.

Sandy was in heaven when Dick bought a small Dodge triuck, a car converted for farm use. When let loose from their chains the dogs would go for a run to the woolshed and back. Having done that several times they’d make a beeline for the truck. Quick leaps and they were all there on the back,.tails thumping waiting hopefully and expectantly for Dick to appear. If he walked towards the truck Sandy would bark his pleasure. Dick would growl ‘shaddup’ but Sandy knew the depths of emotion. This was an affectionate admonition. Even better when Dick was on his own. Sandy could sit in the other front seat of the cab, obviously 2i/c of the pack. The other dogs never challenged this position.

Dick and Mum by their labour turned a broken-down old farm into a good production unit. Sandy, Rag, Meg and their cohorts helped greatly in that process. The farm house had clear spheres of interest. The house and vegetable garden proper had a netting fence. Woe-betide the person who left the gate open.

Out the back gate was the yard, a place for dogs and chooks. The ducks couldn’t get through the next fence and gate. In season there were pet lambs there. At the north end there was a big macrocapa hedge gone to trees. Under this there was a line of dog kennels. On most days the dogs were loose all the time. If necessary they were tied up. There was a further fence and gate. Beyond it was the fowl-house, duck pond, cow bail and pig sty. The dogs had free range. The duck-pond meant fresh water was available.

Once or twice there were piglets. When little they had the run of pond area and the yard. The dogs tolerated chooks, piglets, lambs surprising well. I think they saw them as lesser animals in the pecking order. When Mum had twin boys I was surprised to see Rag when his ear was pulled mercilessly, gently take the child’s hand in his jaw and disengage it. I sensed the dogs realised the young humans were not yet fully responsible.for their actions.

I’ve read the claim that the early domestication of dogs, (almost certainly from wolf pups) meant that humanity lost its sense of hearing and smell to a considerable extent. The tribe could rely upon the dogs for warning in those spheres. What did the dogs give up in return? Protection and a guaranteed supply of food! There is another aspect of the partnership abhorent to the Anglo-Saxon mind, dog as food. Amundsen knew the value. My memory of Sandy does not permit the possibility. He and his peers laid down the memory-banks that go all ga-ga at the sight of two young pups cavorting around.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Last night while Anne went to WOW (Wearable Arts in Wellington) Jenn from next door elder-sat with me. She grew up in the Caitlins. On a beach there after a big storm had washed away a large totara log she and her sister discovered a cache of Maori adzes and flints on the beach where the log would have been. The find was given to the Otago museum.
The early intermarriage of the southern Maori to the best of my knowledge has meant we no longer have large amounts of knowledge of their way of life and world view before the Pakeha arrived. Obviously seals and mutton birds in season would have provided protein but it must have been a hard existence compared say with those living in the Bay of Plenty or Bay of Islands.

That thought arises from my reading about Elsdon Best. Most people look bewildered whern I say I’m reading about him. Jenn didn’t. She’d had studied his works when she did anthropology at Otago university.. I was fascinated when she told me about anthropological digs during the summer vacation.

As a young man I sought truth in books. History in which I majored was supposed to instill a sense of critical thinking. It didn’t work that way. Books were still the guru, they would provide the answer Just as in poetry Baxter provided meaning in his observations so Best seemed the best source for information about early Maori.

With my Canterbury background I found myself teaching in the Waikato. There was a big deficiency about Maori history in my background so in my way I set out to remedy it. Michael King in the same situation went and talked to the elders. I didn’t have his common sense. I was regional president of PPTA, he was education reporter for the Waikato Times. We met several times a year over a beer to chew the fat. I noticed we quickly diverted off education, he enthusiastic about his research into the life of Te Puea, I into my delight in teaching New Zealand writing.

At that stage I didn't make the obvious connection from Michael’s interest. As far as I was concerned. Sinclair and Oliver had delivered the sermon on the mount on New Zealand history. Over time Michael’s work along with others would erode that edifice. Just as Bellich showed the complexity of the New Zealand wars. Since then I’ve read accounts of Te Kooti, Te Whiti and Ratana and have become aware of the spiritual underpinning of their movements.

Holman talks about ‘the spread of an indigenous Christianity, controlled by Maori, for Maori, based on Old Testament metaphors of a chosen people, persecuted by remote authority, exiled tribes, warrior kings and prophets.’ It’s a succinct summary of an important historical force in our past that I was completely unaware of when I left university.

Elsewhere he writes, ‘Maori were managing their entrance into the modern world through the door best was exiting: Christian literacy and biblical anthropology. He missed the significance of contemporary Maori experience in his search for an essentialised ‘Maori mind’ – a supposed mysterious and primeval psychology existing prior to European contact, persisting right through to his own day, untouched by half a century of Pakeha influence.’

I’m enjoying the Holman book. It’s pulling together many threads I’ve observed and read about since that young man started teaching.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tuesday Poem: We Are Getting To The End

We Are Getting to the End

We are getting to the end of visioning
The impossible within this universe,
Such as that better whiles may follow worse,
And that our race may mend by reasoning.

We know that even as larks in cages sing
Unthoughtful of deliverance from the curse
That holds them lifelong in a latticed hearse,
We ply spasmodically our pleasuring.

And that when nations set them to lay waste
Their neighbours' heritage by foot and horse,
And hack their pleasant plains in festering seams,
They may again, - not warily, or from taste,
But tickled mad by some demonic force. -
Yes. We are getting to the end of dreams!

Thomas Hardy

As a young man I read this poem about the same time as I read H.G.Wells’ last book ‘Mind at the End of its Tether’. Wells’s bouncy optimism of his youth long gone, he felt disillusionment and despair as the world he knew seemed to be collapsing into chaos. Hardy’s emotions are more complex. This is one of his last poems. The idea of progress is on the outer. Rage is obvious. Yet there is hope in some strange if ‘demonic’ form. The tortured syntax reflects and refracts meaning.

Down the centuries old people have bewailed the end of civilisation. (Not all, I acknowledge). But on the whole, age, experience, regret, nostalgia, guilt increase a sense of helplessness and failure. (Some may say, wisdom). The idealistic young are certain in their prime, as I once was, that they are captains of their fate.

Now! I understand Hardy better. Wells too. But Hardy carries an extra dimension – we repeat the tragic failures of our predecessors. A bleak vision? Before discarding it, it warrants consideration, the record of the 20th century is its measure. As  are all preceeding centuries. 

And what a magnificent second stanza! Four great lines!

No Italian Siesta

Just when life appears to be returning to normality something disruptive seems to happen. Last night when we came to put me to bed we discovered the little plastic failsafe plug in my face-mask was missing. [Failsafe; it’s meant to pop out if the power suddenly cuts out]

A frantic search of bed and room failed to find it. So we had to revert to plan B. A new untried mask, different shape.. At first it fitted snugly, but very soon as the machine ramped up it started hissing – a sign of leakage. Anne had several goes to settle it. We settled on the best we could and she went off upstairs.

After two hours without sleep – the mask’s noise and the blast of cold air on my throat was too troublesome I rang the bell awaking her from her sleep. She tried to get it on properly but it remained not on a good seal. So we tried again for second best.

This time I dozed off but came awake to the machine hissing. I sat on the edge of the bed and tried to adjust the mask. I managed to get a good fit. Very gingerly I put off the touch lamp and lowered myself back into bed. [I have to sleep on my back with the equipment]. It worked and in the quietness I fell asleep. But I must have turned and twisted a bit for I woke up about four with the mask hissing again. I took it off and made a cup of tea. The advantage of daylight saving is that morning will come earlier.

But at least I had some sleep and oxygen delivered for over six hours. It was no Italian siesta though.

I had meant to blog about the DVD ‘Letters to Juliet’ which we watched on Saturday evening. The earthquake aftershocks intervened yesterday. It is a delightful romance, a comedy of the heart. I’ve always been a fan of Vanessa Redgrave. But above all the attraction was the Tuscan landscape and the shots of Sienna itself. .

My visit to Verona was brief. Anne and I took the overnight train from Nice to Venice. It was autumn. There was a heavy frost and mist down the Po Valley. After the stop at Milan I’d had trouble going back to sleep and as it was morning and we had the compartment to ourselves we put up the blinds and watched the bleak landscape. We stopped at ome stage and reading the station sign realised we were in Verona. It did not look appealing. Indeed, the very opposite of romantic, icicles hanging from the station roof.

But the film shots of the country around Sienna in summer sunshine were idyllic – a travelogue with romance. It’s a pretty strong combination.

I’ve been to Italy twice. With my first wife in 1970 enroute to France and Britain. A day in Rome, a four day excursion to Florence via Assisi on the way and Siena on the return. After such a brief glimpse I wanted to go back

When I finished working for David Lange I said to Anne I need a holiday, let’s have that Italian trip I’ve often talked about. So we went – hence the rail stop at Verona. I’ll never forget stepping out of the railway station at Venice and seeing the Grand Canal. It was real. We’d made no bookings. At the stations there were good information centres that arranged accommodation in the area you which to stay in.

I won’t rave about Venice, or Ferrara (with a side-trip to Ravenna and its eye-boggling mosiacs) or Florence (with side trips to Sienna and Pisa) but I fell in love with Santa Margherita a fishing town and tourist centre not far from Portofino on the Italian Riveria. It was charming and ordinary after the excitement, art and architecture of the larger centres. We both had hair-cuts in establishments where not a word of English was spoken. We ate at the taxi-driver’s cafĂ©. We wandered around the port and watched the fishing boats come in. Being a tourist can become wearisome.

And so on Lake Como for Christmas the one booking we’d made ahead.

I’ve always wanted to go back. I wanted to show Anne Rome and explore it more myself. We’ve talked about renting a Tuscan villa. Talk without action meant delay and now my ill-health has put the kibosh on such plans. So the DVD involved both nostalgia and regret. I enjoyed watching it immensely. There’s a full circle here. In my younger days cinema fuelled my dreams. It does so again.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Poor Christchurch! Three big aftershocks yesterday! When will they end?

When I was a boy, just across the road lived Uncle Charlie (Mum’s brother) and Auntie Thora his wife. Their three  daughters, Marlene, Robin and Judy played with my younger brother Doug and I throughout those wartime years.

I had a letter from Marlene yesterday: ‘My mind doesn’t seem to e functioning properly since the big earthquake. Can’t seem to think of much else. It’s a strange feeling having the ground trembling under you most of the day, every day, with bigger shakes every now and then just to remind you that it’s not over yet.’

‘The bigger aftershocks always wake me at night so I lack sleep and feel like a walking zombie. I’m not the only one and we try to carry on as normal but its very trying. I suppose the time will come when the ground under us stops moving. It’s like living on a boat, and women seem to notice it more than men.’

‘My cupboard doors are still tied up and big ornaments lie on the floor or on chairs, and all crystal and glass vases are packed away. We had another 4.6 quake last night, which jangled our nerves again.’

‘Ron and Robin lost many possessions, a chimney and damage to cars etc. They were hit pretty hard. Judy and Barry lost a chimney and some glass ware and their lawn is still sopping wet caused by water coming up from below. Every home will have something broken I’m sure. Even TVs and fridges were thrown over. The noise and shaking had to be heard and seen to be believed. Very frightening indeed.’

‘Nearly every house lost a chimney in Sumner and at least 10 houses are no longer liveable, probably more by now. Everyone thought my place would be history but by some miracle it was spared. A few things broken inside but nothing of great value. I’d taken down my chimneys so no worry there. Sorry my news is all about the earthquakes but nothing else exciting has happened in my life recently.’

Saturday, September 25, 2010


A million dollar question at present is whether the Commonwealth Games will go ahead. My hunch is that they will – but it will be a bit like the Moscow Olympics, in a truncated form.

We were discussing it last evening. Apparently one of the Welsh cyclists who has pulled out had his spleen removed after a fall. This leaves him very prone to disease and he does not wish to expose himself to unnecessary health risks such as denge fever. Who can blame him.

This led to a discussion about spleen – the organ and the use of the word to denote anger; ‘to vent one’s spleen’. Anne got out my trusty Onion. Onion’s Dictionary of Etymology, a standard reference book for scholars, which has long been one of my well-loved books, large and on the bottom shelf. When I was teaching it was the source of many a lesson and established a life-long habit of pursuing word origins – a sort of lazy intellectual’s crossword puzzle.

But of late the books got too heavy to lift with my muscular condition. But I’ve discovered the internet serves the same purpose. Chasing the origins of words and how meanings have altered over time heightens my awareness of my cultural background.

For example, the simple word, ‘onion’. It derives from Anglo-Norman which of course came from Old French ‘oignon’ which in turn came from rustic Latin ‘unio’. The old Germanic word ‘ramsyn’ was replaced after the Norman Conquest. (Gentle critic! I summarise complicated explanations for my own use).

In 1066 on this date Harold the Angl-Saxon king of England defeated a Norwegian invasion force at Stamford bridge near York. He promptly had to march south to face the forces of William of Normandy, not yet known as the Conqueror. With Harold’s defeat, William’s feat changed nomenclature.

The same conquest added a two-fold vocabulary to the English meat diet. On the nobleman’s table ‘deer’ became ‘venison’, ‘pig’ became ‘pork’, ‘sheep’ became ‘mutton’ and ‘cattle’ became ‘beef’. Obviously ‘rabbit’ remained the peasant’s fodder because ‘lapin’ did not enter English.

Back to ‘spleen’. It too came from Old French from Latin from Greek. Definitely the organ ‘spleen’. But as to the feeling – that varies. One site says ‘regarded in medieval physiology as the seat of morose feelings and bad temper.’ Another goes back to ancient Greek medicine. But the linkage is clearly old. The water is further muddied by another Greek meaning, ‘mirth’. These are depths clearly over my head but I glimpse a sense of well-being behind this linkage.

But Onion the book has an advantage that the internet does not. The word ‘spleen’ is on a page with dozens of other words. The roving eye sees these and goes contentedly wandering and wondering. Last night the word ‘spitchcock’ attracted my attention. It is to split an eel and cook it. I’d heard of ‘spatchcock’, a fowl split and grilled. The derivation of both is from Old English. A hasty killing and a hasty cooking seems the common link. Both suggest a tasty meal.

I was just going to leave the ‘spatchcock’ search when I made one last hit. It can also mean in military usage to insert or interpolate. The example given is General Buller writing in The Times 11 October 1901. ‘I therefore spatchcocked into the middle of that telegram a sentence in which I suggested it would be necessary to surrender.’

Friday, September 24, 2010


Yesterday I read about the birth of a zebra at Auckland zoo during a violent storm. Apparently that’s usual. On the veldt stormy weather lowers the odds of a predator finding and killing the newly born foal. Zoo staff were surprised how quickly the youngster got his balance and could run.

This morning’s news has an item about scientific research into the odours of our native birds. Apparently some, especially the kakapo and kiwi, have considerably more than imported forest birds. Before human settlement there was less need for protection from ground predators. The scientists hope that by learning more about those scents they can produce baits that will lure stoats and rats into traps more easily.

Last evening we watched a DVD, ‘Creation’ – a BBC biographical drama about Charles Darwin. It was good drama, not great or compelling but interesting and well worth while. I accept the convention that drama adapts historical figures for its own use. But I’m interested to know whether the portrayal of his religious wife’s demand that he publish ‘The Origins of the Species’ is factual or made up. The ideas of the book certainly put a ferret into the warren.

At one time I’ve have gone to the library. We have the novel ‘Mr Darwin’s Shooter’ on our shelves but it is of little help in this instance though a good read. But I’ve been searching the net. Not much joy on the particular question. Lots of fascinating material re Darwin’s life and work. Before he proposed he drew up two columns – one for marriage, one against. The Anglican wedding service had already done this job for him but Darwin liked to follow his own thoughts.

I’ve begun reading Holman’s ‘The Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau’. It’s decades since I read Best. While I was researching 19th century New Zealand poetry a life of Edward Tregear came out. I read it with interest – especially the application of ideas of race and evolution. I put this down to Tregear and author Howe’s own interests.

Here are some lines I wrote after reading Howe’s book.
… All that talk of racial purity,
19th century gobbledegook, spilling into
the next. Maori appeared Aryan. They
fought well. Just as a boy sorts marbles,
so do scholars sort races, creeds, rank
them good or bad. People from an isle
considered blessed seek another isle also
to be blessed, another seat for Mars.

Holman’s book draws attention to an obvious link I’d missed. Sinclair’s idea of ‘ideas as a minefield’ for Maori was not confined to Christianity. The evolution of the species theory created an intellectual ferment throughout the literate world. New Zealand was not exempt. Holman makes another obvious point. Maori by this stage were literate. There was cross-fertilisation between cultures. Maybe osmosis may be a more accurate term scientifically. Anyway I’ve not advanced into the Holman enough to comment further.

The natural selection of the zebra and the kakapo is a miraculous story. The history of ideas is as always a stimulating study. Story and Study combine this morning in a creative way. The human mind at search is a marvellous occurrence. Would it be pride to admit admiration. When I was teaching this internal monitor ran all the time - good question, bad question, why are the boys not responding, this isn't working, that girl's upset. Of late that monitor has been dormant. Maybe I should try to activate it more often? I might write more poems if I did.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Isa and May

Novelists usually write about relationships. Margaret Forster, in her non-fiction as well as her fiction, concentrates on one aspect – family relationships. She does it very well.

I’ve just finished reading Forster’s 'Isa and May'. It’s a novel polarised around Isamay’s (heroine/narrator) account of her two grandmothers - middle-class Isa, determined to shape the world to her bidding, working class May, stoical in every way. Flesh and blood from different generations, the interplay between them, the hopes and tribulations, all the stuff and matter of family life, are grist to Forster’s mill.

She adheres to the Jane Austen formula, men are discussed and described offstage but they do not take place in scenes where there are no women present. If I say this is a woman’s book I do Forster a disservice. As a man I found it fascinating. It’s about inheritance, genetic above all else. And that is finally the woman’s ultimate reality. And the book is from this perspective. But the men in it remain shadowy figures.  Even Ian the reluctant father of Isamay's child.

Whereas the woman characters seem vital and real – even when they are dissembling. When I was at university my grandmother asked me why did I like reading novels so much. I replied with the confidence of youth. ‘I am not a Catholic but I can read ‘The Power and the Glory’ and gain an understanding. Likewise ‘Jane Eyre’ and being a woman. Or Quiet Flows the Don, and being a communist.’

It’s more complicated than that. But I feel that way about this novel. It reminded me of Lauris Edmond’s ‘Late Poems’ with their lovely descriptions of her grandchildren and the continuity of the line. Her Kiwi experience though did not have the class-consciousness that hovers still over writing from England.

I won’t tell you more about ‘Isa and May’. It would be a shame to spoil the plot. But I enjoyed it so much it’s kept my birthday books at bay. And I realise now that I never did talk to my grandparents about their younger years. I did ask my mother those questions. I’m pleased I did for it built up a bigger picture – a sensitive, sensuous, shy young woman, a tomboy at heart, undereducated and under-estimated. Interesting. I put Forster down – a novel about connections - and started thinking about my mother.

And my father. Killed, when I was five. I basically lost touch with his family. I had Mum's father as mentor for seven years and then Dick my stepfather until my maturity. They were good role models. But I realise I missed out on learning about half the genetic stock from which I've emerged. I further realise my lot is also the lot of many humans down the ages. Forster's novel assumes a family. Or does it?

Connections rather than relationships – that’s its theme. And it's different.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tui Again

When I woke up this morning there was much condensation on the windows – a sure sign of outside cold. As the taxi took us to hospital I realised there was a dusting of snow on the Orongorongas. Apparently down to relatively low levels in the Wairarapa. I haven’t seen snow on those ranges for some time.

We took my VPAP machine in to respiratory to have it checked, a follow-up to my visit a month ago. They are pleased with its fit and lack of leakage and apparently I’ve been sleeping well and at length. So that’s good news. But I still find such visits nerve-wracking.

I’ve taken another step away from responsibility – the keeping of my hospital appointments. Anne has to make necessary arrangements so it makes sense to hand over the complete task to her. But as I say it’s a move backwards from being an independent adult.

Another example of this retreat. I envy several blogers on the Tuesday Poem site who post lovely photos they take themselves or have others take for them. Not only can I not get around to take them I lack the muscular control to operate the camera properly. Still, I retain the capacity to admire the work of others.

The garden reflects the confusion of the equinoctial season and the constant rainfall. The mock-orange blossom is budding flowers and the medlar new leaves. Kowhai is in full bloom. Camellias are past it. Roses resent the wind. The French lavender in its pot has fresh flowers and promises a lazy summer ahead. The first bumble bee appeared yesterday. With sense it’ll stay out of sight today.

My Tuesday poem this week attracted lovely comments. Deborah’s in particular struck a chord. She points out that Australians love the sound of the magpie which to us Kiwis are raucous calls. There was a large belt of pine trees on the knoll where our Okuti farmhouse was. They shaded the veranda from the westerly sun so Dick, my stepfather, arranged for them to be cut down.

He stopped the process half-way through because there were magpies nesting in the south end. ‘Keeps the hawks away from the chickens and ducklings’ he said. True! Several times I saw a hawk grounded after combat in the skies. Mum, however, always said he was a bigger ‘softie’ than she was.. During their nesting season they were a menace, dive-bombing humans getting too close.

As the pines fell, my brother Doug and I, after school or in the weekends would knock the cones off the fallen branches with the blunt end of a tomahawk and barrow them to the woodshed. That summer Mum cooked many a meal with the heat from those cones. When I mention this now people mutter child labour. We didn’t see it as such at the time. It was doing our bit to contribute to the economy of the farm, like ringbarking poisonous ngaio or getting the kindling ready each evening.

Anyway, back to the magpies. Their ‘Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle’ call was part of my boyhood. It’s a sound I associate with Canterbury. There were tui in the Okuti bush but they were few and their singing was obscured by the louder magpies who were in proximity to the house. It was not till I lived in Wellington and since the Karori Wild Life Sanctuary was started that I’ve heard much tui.

Scientists report that since the bellbird began to prosper in the sanctuary the tui call has improved. Tuis are great mimics. That’s why the early European settlers caged them and taught them to whistle. The neighbour’s son in our previous house whistled a certain tune to the tui that used to come and feed in their banksia. They seemed to pick it up very quickly.

So my delight in the tui song is a recent addition to my mental establishment. It seems the embodiment of the indigenous – uniquely ours. I get great delight in their presence as I watch them flirt, feed and fight in the kowhai across the fence.

I understand that in the central North Island pine forests they’ve learnt to imitate chain saws. We once stayed in our friend Rosemary’s Browns Bay bush-surrounded house to cat-sit while she went on holiday. Just after we arrived and before Rosemary left I said ‘I see you’ve a resident tui.” She replied she could wring its neck. I was shocked. But by the time we left I sympathised. That darned tui had grown up near mynahs. It grated their calls all day – a very unmelodious noise.

The dawn chorus that Banks, Cook and co rave about would have been based on the bellbird and the tui singing the bellbird’s song. It must have been a great sound – they write about it at length. I’ve heard its echo at both Waikaremoana and Franz Josef enough to appreciate its glory. Ichabod!

Monday, September 20, 2010



To my knowledge
    I have never heard
        a nightingale

As a boy
    on the Okuti farm
        moreporks mourned nightly

Last night
    in the darkened city
        an unexpected tui sang

clear & loud in moonlight.
     Keats keep your nightingale 
        amidst the alien corn

for I’ve heard a tui
    toll midnight
        in the hills of home.

Harvey McQueen

I was surprised last summer to hear a tui singing in the middle of the night. Admittedly it was full moon. Research on the net the following day told me that this was not unusual. Indeed early Pakeha scientist Buller rhapsodises about hearing one.

At the time I was reading Keats. He’s a poet to whom I keep returning. His ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of my lodestars.  .As my poem says I’ve never to my knowledge heard a nightingale; despite stays in Iran, France and Britain and sitting outside in these countries on balmy evening nights.

When this poem was published in Broadsheet 5 I had an indignant letter from a lady living in Wadestown, Wellington. She’s spent most of er life in England. How dare I compare a tui’s song to a nightingale singing. All I can plead is ignorance, and my sheer delight of my own experience hearing such lucid and sweet sound in a quiet night.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Complete and Utter Blackness

I was in the Beehive bunker the day Peter Button was killed. For a few seconds complete and utter blackness. I felt completely disoriented.

For overseas readers: Our Parliament consists of three buildings. A circular one, commonly called The Beehive has the Prime Minister's and major ministerial offices. In the basement is a civil emergency bunker. It was recently fully activated during the recent Canterbury earthquake.

I was there because I have been contracted as an education consultant to give advice to Civil Defence on a kit they were preparing for the upper primary school. We had met before in the bunker to work at it, two officers from Internal Affairs, two teachers trialling the material and myself and someone obviously on duty all the time in the facility. I didn’t like it as a working space. It felt claustrophobic with its artificial light. .

Peter Button was an admired, well-known Wellington helicopter pilot, renowned for his search and rescue flights. That day he was on a photographic mission when the police diverted him to help them look for a fugitive somewhere in the scrub between Johnsonville and Tawa. He got too close to or didn’t see the the high frequency power lines in the gully. The helicopter hit them and crashed killing all occupants. An unnecessary tragedy!

In the bunker the lights suddenly went off and the computers shut down. As I say it was pitch black. I was amazed at the speed of my panic attack for almost instantaneously a pale light came on. A phone rang. The duty officer picked it up. ‘Helicopter down’ he said to his colleagues. He turned to us, ‘I’m sorry but you’ll have to leave.’ We quickly picked up our papers and left. As we went through the door I heard him briefing people down the phone. I overheard the name Peter Button. I was impressed at the smooth reaction to an unknown crisis.

Out in the corridors of power there was chaos. Power was out over the entire city. And in Parliament. The lifts had all defaulted to the lowest floor. Scary for those in them. People were evacuating upper offices. “Bloody hell’ one staffer said as he rushed disconsolately past, ‘I’ve lost three hour’s work.’ ‘That’ll teach you to back-up'  a smug colleague told him. At this stage I had little idea of what was happening or its scale. But I recall thinking about the human mind's capacity to trivialise matters. At this stage, my own 18 months stint in the:Prime Minister’s office was a year ahead.

Out in Bowen St there was further chaos. Traffic lights were out so cars were manoeuvring cautiously. A fire engine, siren blasting eased its way through to turn into The Terrace. There were fire and lift alarms ringing everywhere. Trolley buses were out. Northland buses weren’t electric so I waited for one but none appeared. A taxi pulled up and disgorged its passengers so I hailed it to go home. The driver told me what had happened. Back home I turned on the transistor radio and boiled a kettle on the gas stove for a cup of tea.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Two Sparrows Dead


Two sparrows dead
navigational error
involving clear glass
a cock & hen
or hen & cock
either way
one must come first
female and male
she created them

Wrong turning
start again

Old Bede explained it all
by a metaphor involving sparrows
but though atoms
from the Venerable’s
rotted carcase
could well be in them
these two have finished
this part of the journey
through the dim-lit Hall
they’re in the dark again

most things work but not for long.

Harvey McQueen

Every now and then I put on my blog an early poem. Hindsight is interesting. Questions hover. Why did that early self write that? Did I really feel that way? Do I want to own that younger self? What has changed?

Since the poem’s creation so many things have happened that shaped and developed the person I am now. When I wrote that poem I was still living in Hamilton. I left there in 1977. I didn’t realise it at the time but my marriage was increasingly shakier. It was a calm sunny Spring day when I heard two little explosions. A sparrow pair had rammed into the large plate glass French door. Both lay dead on the patio. A sad ending to what was probably a courting flight.

I’d been reading a life of Bede – a recent trip to Britain had seen us visiting Durham where the venerable man’s tomb was in the cathedral. At that stage (I was in my forties) I was still wrestling with issues of meaning. Feminism had burst upon this masculine consciousness. Theological heresies were free-floating in my mind. I was all set to make a career change. Looking back it was a mid-life crisis – of a very mild form, typical of my nature. Philosophical and linguistic issues were also part and parcel of my mental landscape.

So the poem! A capsule of being from a long ago moment. Interestingly I didn’t write about burying them in a corner of the veggie garden. There was another stanza, segment, whatever, more scientific and philosophical. I discarded that piece when I selected the poem to go into my first published volume, 'Against the Maelstrom'.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Really, Really Happy

I was woken at Bowen hospital by the Asian technician this moning about 7 30 telling me she was 'really, really happy' about my overnight sleep. She'd woken me several times during the night to adjust pressure and prevent leakage from my face mask and VPAP machine. Apparently there'd been no leakage and no apnoea, which is good.

The whole experience was nerve-wracking though. General frailty is not conducive to sleep tests. Most pateints are people with snoring problems. My condition creates challenges with matters such as toilet use when you are wired up with umpteen-dozen cords. Still, its over and I can go back to normal living.

Five years ago Anne and I potted some daffodil bulbs for our friend Jane's birthday. Jane took this photo of them this week. They've come up annually. The shot shows Wellington's weather at present. The drive to and from the hospital revealed spring blooms everywhere, the most pleasant part of the adventure. .

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nesting Time

Next door is the largest koromiko tree I've seen. I've been sitting in my study watching a tui collecting twigs from the die-back of some of the lower limbs. Nesting time. It's obviously Spring.

Bowen Hospital

Tonight I go into Bowen Hospital’s Sleep Unit for the night. I’m not looking forward to it. Last time I went there for  monitoring I ended up in the public hospital for five days. They’d discovered that apparently my apnoea (stopping breathing while I’m sleeping) was life-threatening. So if the blog goes off the air for a while it will be a reasonable assumption that something similar has happened.

Friday is not a good day to go into hospital. Week-end is a quiet time. Life support is maintained, testing and diagnosis are at a minimum. Still with the country facing a savage equinox storm it could be a safe place. We had planned to take me tonight in pyjamas and dressing gown but that may need to be rethought.

What a joy-germ I appear. I’ve rarely slept well in strange beds. I have routines to help me wind-down. I need help to change my socks. Will I be able to get out of the chair? There are times when I wish my imagination did not range around my frailty.

I’ve just received an email from Margaret my sister-in-law. describing her first visit to Christchurch. Personal descriptions of the devastation bring home the extent of the disaster. But she ends her email ‘Hope you enjoyed the rest of your holiday, Harvey. .I had 3 merino stud lambs born that day – future show fleeces! New little pigs in the sty – two chocolate-coloured with stripes running length-wise. Very cute. Spring is here.’ The promised gale will probably affect them more than me.

Post Script

Having written it I hesitated about putting up this blog. I published it as it was. As I ate my breakfast I decided to withdraw it. But when I got back there was already a comment. So I’ve left it. But I’m twitchy. Part of that is the fact that I’m even less in control than I normally am. Others are setting the timetable, circumstances and details. I can but accept what has been planned. What should be seen as a challenge is perceived as a loss. Nature will run its course. Roll round tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


I am a news junkie. Habitually, my whole life,  I want to know what’s going on. Narrative and information, news and views,  jostle for attention. When I was young my mentor was Pop my grandfather. Up early he’d milk the cow before walking to the shop to buy the ‘The Press’ brought out early by the morning train. It didn’t run on Sunday, nor was ‘The Press’ published. Pop read the paper as he ate his breakfast. It was a ritual. He also listened to the BBC news on the radio. ‘This is London Calling’.  It was war-time - how were we doing?

When I started teaching at Morrinsville in the Waikato I boarded with a butcher and his family. He had subscriptions to the ‘Herald’ morning delivery and ‘Waikato Times’ evening delivery. He read them both as I did.

Now we have the ‘Dominion Post delivered during the week and the Sunday Star Times on the Sabbath. The alarm goes off on the radio clock so the National Radio station comes on air in the morning. So before I read the day’s paper I’ve heard the news and usually seen the headlines of ‘Stuff’ for I look at my emails and blog first thing. If I have time I usually browse the New York Times. Later in the day I often check out Economist, Time, Guardian, New Yorker etc. In the evening I usually watch Prime news, followed by either TV3 or TV1. The ranking order of coverage is in itself interesting. Ask the politicians and their spin-doctors about the importance of this one.

You can see I don’t do ‘talk-back radio’ or face-book. I do surf the net a lot.

Especially at present with with our TV set away at the repair shop. I’ve three DVD lined up waiting for its return. Still, we probably would not have watched the news last night. We had further visitors with birthday gifts. Gene and Kristen returning to Arizona have given me a red (my favourite colour) azalea. David and Ali’s present is a pot of tulips – too soon to say what colour but the red ones that Anne planted in our pot are in that blowsy last-legs stage of flowering. So to have tulips fresh off the bench is a coach's bonus. Jen and Barry our next door neighbours came over with a spray of forsythia and a large bunch of hellabore, (mixed colour) Not surprisingly, the bottle of Bowmore malt became empty.

Today’s copy of the Dom Post has the usual amount of information and trivia.  But four items in particular captured my attention.

The first was changing bird song. Scientists in the Karori Bird Sanctuary, (stupidly I believe renamed Zealandia) have established that blackbird and thrush are singing there more like bellbirds and that the tui also under the same influence are making that raucous throat-clearing sound less often. Fascinating!

Second: the vanishing ice floe means that walrus are resting on the Alaskan shore. Imagine the pong. It’s a scary signal of global warming. The world wiould be a less interesting place without walrus. Such strange creatures.

There is a frightening article about poverty in America. The global experiment of the ‘trickle-down theory’ is still not being seen as a failure. In some quarters there is a clamour that it’s Obama’s fault for not allowing it to run its course. As far as I can see few are advocating a reverse course. The theorists still argue despite the obvious failure that we need to advance further and quicker down that street. We will see.

The new Health Ministry boss has made a name for himself slashing services in Scotland. Fewer doctors and nurses! Well as our health problems rise from increasing poverty here it’ll be cold comfort to say I told you that’s not the way to go. Both Merv Wellington and Lockwood Smith were under pressure to cut teacher numbers, especially trainees. Thank goodness they didn’t. But I read in today’s ‘Dom. Post’ how the outgoing chief executive of Capital and Coast Health Board claims we cannot afford more health cuts.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Poem I Invite You To Read.

I've never done this before. I know some readers of my blog follow the Tuesday Poem site. Other's don't. I accept some of my friends like poetry and others do not. That's life. But if you haven't I suggest you explore it one day. And I draw attention to one poem today in particular. it's by Melissa Shook. To me it's a mind-exploding poem, so many reverberations.

I was 10 years old when Hitler took his own life in a Berlin bunker. The war he'd unleashed dominated my early years. Films about it dominated my movie-going. History was centred on it. The psychologists had a field-day on the experiences. The marriage of Eva Braun and Hitler like the death of Mussolini and his mistress were part and parcel of the sexuality of the time. Above all, hovered the holocaust.

The power of Shook's poem lies in its understatement.

If you wish to enter the Tuesday Poem site hit the quill (feather) at the left-handtop of my page

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Garden Lion


O Michael, you are at once the enemy
And the chief ornament of our garden,
Scrambling up rose-posts, nibbling at nepeta,
Making your lair where tender plants should flourish,
Or proudly couchant on a sun-warmed stone.

What do you do all night there,
When we seek our soft beds’
And you, old roisterer,
Away in the dark?

I think you play at leopards and panthers
I think you wander on to foreign properties:
But on winter mornings you are a lost orphan
Pitifully wailing underneath our windows;
And in summer by the open doorway,
You come in pad, pad, lazily, to breakfast,
Plumy tail waving with a fine swagger.
Like a drum major, or a parish beadle,
Like a rich rajah, or a grand mogul.

Ursula Bethell

At the time of a major earthquake it is hard to find an appropriate poem. At times of crisis I seek solace in the garden. Gardens to me should always have a cat. They add a feel to the place. So I turn to Ursula Bethell whose poems reflect a tranquility that reflects my memory of Christchurch. Contentment in a Canterbury home.

Birthday Books

Today is my 76th birthday. When I turned 70 I said to my mother I didn’t think I’d make it this far.’ She replied ‘I didn’t expect you to reach it either.’ So six more years. A bonus? I’m alive and life’s interesting, if stressful.

Yesterday, six friends came for late afternoon drinks. Despite being told not to, all three couples brought presents, very complementary in their nature and in their different spheres reflective of my three great interests, reading, gardening and cooking. The book was Alison Wong’s award winning ‘As the Moon turns Silver’ – a splendid choice for I’d been getting impatient. It had been ordered from the public library long ago and there must be a massive queue.

The garden present was produce placed in a box labelled ‘From Our Piece of Earth’ - homegrown tamarillos, lemons, parsley, walnuts, (in the shell and cracked) and two lovely florets of sweet-scented freesia. As I haven’t grown freesia since we left Farm Rd I was delighted to have this bunch. The final present was a generous amount of saffron with a promise to cook and bring a meal using it. Thoughtful presents all. Much appreciated.

This morning saw a bounty of books. Anne and I have evolved a system for Christmas and birthdays. The recipient orders some books they would like while Dorothy, the cat, makes a selection of something unexpected. The latter device has been surprisingly successful. It gives an unexpected flexibility in choice. The time I was given a life of Elizabeth David I thought the cat’s bombed out this year. She hadn’t. I enjoyed the life and it added two whole new dimensions to my cooking world – French recipes, (her’s were so much more simple compared with the complex Julia Childs ones) and books about cooking as literature, worth reading for their own sake. .

I had asked for Kathleen Jones’, one of the Tuesday Poets, life of Katherine Mansfield. By happenchance it turned up under other circumstances so we had a copy. Anne’s reading it first. I told her to choose a replacement. She made a decision to purchase Franzen’s ‘Freedom’, which has been rapturously greeted in America. It’s a big book. There’s a lot of reading there. Comparisons with Mansfield’s concise prose spring to mind before I even begin. But then as a wise teacher said to me sixty-odd years ago when I was ploughing excitedly through ‘Moby Dick’ ‘you don’t need to understand a book to like it.’ Block-buster carry their own appeal, it's like travel for a long time in vast new country..

The other order was for another Tuesday Poet, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s recent book, ‘Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau’. In my younger days I uncritically accepted Best as the interpreter of the old Maori, especially Tuhoe. As I’ve grown older I’ve become increasingly aware how that interpretation needs scrutiny.

I look forward to having Holman as my guide as I re-enter territory not visited for ages. Both geographically and intellectually. I’ve seen Lake Waikaremoa four times, each visit lasting a few days. It is the loveliest spot in the North Island. But the reviews of Holman’s book are clear that it is more than just about Tuhoe country – it is about the nature of our colonial history. That is a discourse that holds fascination. I noticed when I dipped into the books this morning this was the one I lingered over longest. It begins with a striking quote. ‘We use media to destroy cultures, but first we use media to create a false record of what we are about to destroy.’ .

Also in the book pile were the latest poetry collections from Kate Camp and Ingrid Horrocks. Not only  have they both had good reviews whetting my appetite I’ve enjoyed their previous work. And so to Dorothy’s two surprises. She couldn’t go to Melbourne so she sent a proxy. Anne, who in the Books for Cooks shop found two books that Dorothy thought were bang-on. I do too. Both involve M.F.K.Fisher the great American food writer. There is a reprint of one of her works and a book about her.

The reprint is ‘As They Were’, a collection of essays and articles that form a sort of autobiography. The cover has a reproduction of Cezanne painting, rosy apples, one green apple and a coffeepot, an appealing gem of an introduction. Book covers count. In earlier blogs I’ve sung the praise of Fisher’s prose. I dipped into one essay called ‘The Changeover’. A dip turned into a devour. I emerged envious, touched, in awe and felt I had been in Reno and been offered a coyote pup. Wow!

The cover blurb says ‘in a properly run country, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher would be recognised as on of the great writers this country has produced this century.’ The New York Times Review.

The last Dorothy gift looks a gem. Joan Reardon has written a book called ‘M.F.K. Fisher among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating her Kitchen’. Reardon is a culinary historian - now that would be a fascinating occupation. I look forward to reading it with relish.

To complicate matters I’m half-way through Margaret Forster’s ‘Isa and May’ It’s the usual Forster country, a novel that reads as an autobiography it’s so real - female relationships, in this case a young woman and her two widely different grandmothers. Gradually family secrets tumble out. In novels they usually do. Being my mother’s son I’ll finish it – a satisfactory read - before I raid the new treasures now burdening my ‘to read’ shelf.

I can almost forgive the TV for going on the blink last night. But that’s another story.

Despite such minor harsh realities it's a time for celebration. Whitebait for dinner tonight. 76 seems today to be reasonable. Cheers! .

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ox-tails & Credit

The paper delivery man leaves the Sunday Star-Times on the front door-step. This means I can get it with my grabber. By long usage our Sundays are our days of leisure so I spend more time reading the paper and its columnists, including Steve Braunias.

In today’s paper Steve makes an obvious point about the literary awards. Al Brown won the pictorial non-fiction award for his Go Fish. I really cannot comment about this year’s award but I do recollect my anger a few years ago when Philip Temple’s life of the Wakefields was beaten by a wine book. If ever a book deserved recognition the Temple book did. It represented years of devoted research and was a major contribution to our cultural, economic and political history.

Today’s cooking column has an article about oxtail soup. I used to make it a lot during the winter months when it was my turn to cook. It has a unique flavour. Today’s recipe is close to how I used to make it but it was a moveable feast. Whatever was at hand if reasonable could be added. Some recipes have tomato but I found that flavour tends to distract from the distinctive beef taste. There is a gelatinous thickening of the liquid from the oxtail.

I’m talking of such ingredients as half a used lemon or left-over veggies. Carrot, onion, thyme were essentials. Celery if in season. Other herbs, parsley, bay leaf, coriander seeds, cloves. Garlic, I put in almost everything. A beef-stock cube and water. Salt and pepper of course, like oil to brown the meat. Once we had a few deep frozen peas left in a packet. I added them, considerably sweetening the flavour.

I never bothered to flour the oxtail pieces. But I always boiled it twice. After simmering for some considerable time I take the pieces out, and lift the meat off the bone, cutting it finely. I also made sure the marrow was kept with the meat. I’d put the meat back into the liquid and put it in the fridge for the night. The following day I’d remove the fat – no matter how carefully you try to remove it before the first boil up there’ll always be considerable amounts left. Then re-boil slowly; result, a tasty, nutritional broth most suitable for a chill winter’s day.

Another article to catch my eye was a forthcoming book ‘Crisis’ by Alan Bollard the Governor of the Reserve Bank. It reveals how worried the government was during the recession that one of the big Australian banks with branches in New Zealand could fall over. That could have triggered a chain reaction. That’s why there was bipartisan support for the legislation giving the guarantee that has been used in the South Canterbury Finance state of affairs. For the same reasons Obama propped up the car manufacturing business in the USA. Governments get the blame when things go wrong. We often fail to give them credit when they helped save us from even worse situations.

That’s one of the reasons governments in New Zealand in the 19th century created institutions like State Insurance and Public Trust – it helped keep others in the business honest. The buy-out of the Bank of New Zealand was based on the same justification. The USA rail system may have been developed by private companies. They were given government support. The rebuilding of Christchurch and surrounding areas will require similar provision. Infrastructure needs national support, not just local and private.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Every now and then I see a movie which disappoints. This week’s ‘Boy’ on DVD was one such. I’d looked forward to seeing it. Which maybe was the problem. Hype leads to disappointment be it Obama, be is Boy.

Superb acting from the young Maori, lovely East Coast scenery (Waihau Bay), and good music are the plus points. But I did not see it as the comedy it is billed as. The father acted by Taika Waititi, who wrote the script and directed, is a tragic figure. He comes across as a buffoon small-time hoodlum undeserving of the devotion and loyalty of his eldest son. The father’s lack of understanding and carelessness could have been frightening. But this viewer did not feel that involved.

There are funny moments such as his attempted entry into his car through the open window. But they reveal his incompetence as a human being. His hit and run killing of his son’s pet goat was tragic. For the son. I think the teacher in me found the role-modelling distressing.

Unlike ‘Whale Rider’ which I found uplifting this one left me dispirited. There was a sense of hopelessness about it that I found bleak. It was a film I found that teetered on the brink of greatness and failed to make it for me. Shame! Its box office success suggests I am the one who is wrong. It could be my present mood. But I found the accumulation of disappointment for Boy hurtful. Maybe the return of Grannie is a signal of a better life. But the Boy who could put crayfish on the table for his siblings deserved better.

My pennyworth is that it wavered between cult and reality. It would have been better if it had gone either way. And I found continuity a problem. Before I sound too grumpy remember I did give it three pluses. And Anne liked it more than I did.

Friday, September 10, 2010


I’ve seen monuments in many places. One of the most chilling is in Berlin, underground in a large square. As it is covered with glass bricks people can walk over it and stare down into it. It consists of book shelves. Empty!

It is the site of the book burning of the Third Reich.

As a book lover I deplore their burning. Surprisingly this is less about the destruction of the book than about its implications. Burning books is a step along the way to burning people for their ideas, beliefs or activities. It is the exact opposite of civilisation.

I know it’s happened through the ages. I only learnt yesterday that British troops in the 19th century burnt books in Maori that they uncovered. Nothing to be proud of or pleased about.

So I am appalled to find that a Florida religious fascist fanatic plans to burn 50 Koran on 9/11. I have no excuse for the fanatics who flew those planes that destroyed the lives of ordinary people. But in the name of Jesus who urges forgiveness to act in a manner that’s going to inflame Muslim fervour..Somebody from that faith will burn a 100 Bibles. And the fat will really be in the fire. The poor planet and its peoples. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Do not burn books I say. It’s a waste of time. It will not stop ideas. It will not stop evil. It will not enhance righteousness. And the innocent will suffer.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


My reaction to the Canterbury earthquake has been rather bewildering. Nonplussed from afar is one thought. I can appreciate, understand and sympathise for the residents of city and environs in terms of their fear, alarm and shock. I’ve seen enough flood, fire, storm and slip to know nature’s power. But an earthquake of that magnitude is hard to imagine. For the secure earth has let you down, wrecked home and livelihood and added doubt about the future.

My yesterday’s blog has Cochrane’s brief poem about his elderly father watching cricket at a time of death. How could he? Well, that’s what people do. We never know till the crisis comes how we will react. Previous actions are not always a reliable predictor though Conrad’s character Lord Jim having been a coward once is driven by circumstances beyond his control not to be so again.

I did not intend to use this image. On such occasions my mind raids the storehouse of literary examples that have survived life’s quakes and nestled into the subconscious. So in times of stress I pick up a book. Reading cricket poems is a relaxation from the free-floating anxieties and concerns in my mind.

Not that much for I can read a poem and think about it and let my mind meander off to the Christchurch, Banks Peninsula and Plains that exists in my memory banks. For this little country lad that city was his first experience of the big smoke. The university was in the centre – town and gown intertwined. The garden city with its stone and brick buildings provided a sense of stability and strength. Now parts of that city from my past have been destroyed or are being pulled down.

The stone Catholic church at the bottom of our road at Little River is badly damaged. For several years I saw it daily. When we came home from Christchurch it's sighting signalled the begining of the township. (The Anglicans had a wooden church, the Presbyterians used the Masonic hall).The road to Pigeon Bay is badly blocked where my parents farmed and my father killed when thrown off his horse. How is the late boyhood Okuti farm? I’d like to know but probably never will.

Rocks can be cleared and roads diverted. But I grieve particularly for those old familiar city buildings. And feel guilt for doing so. They are the past, my past. Such grief is understandable. But the guilt is a waste of time. I keep telling myself that. But feelings will out. Those citizens who live in the region have had their lives shattered. While I experience unnecessary grief. I can’t help except make a monetary donation and phone calls have established the well-being of those for whom I was concerned.

I realise I’m grieving for several things. Youth, the city in which I became a man, familiar places and the realisation that I’ll never see them again, not only are some destroyed but the fact I cannot visit. The disaster has shaken a unacknowledged fault-line of loyalty. That is the basis of my guilt. Misplaced but I feel the better for admitting it. And trying to analyse it. The loss of landscape for me is a memory, for those in Canterbury it is an actuality. 

There is another strand – the possibility of the same thing happening here. Part of my grief is for things that have not yet happened. In the cracks that feeling opens up guilt seeps through. The mind says ‘what will be, will be’. The ‘spirit’ says the most helpful thing you do for Christchurch is to live life as successfully as you can. In times of turmoil grief is understandable but guilt is a luxury I can do without.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's Just Not Cricket

I’ve been reading and enjoying Mark Pirie’s ‘A Tingling Catch: a Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems 1864-2009'. I’ve enjoyed watching the game down the decades, Lancaster Park, Seddon Park, the Basin Reserve. I’ve seen Walter Hadlee, Sutcliffe, Burtt, Motz, Richard Hadlee, Turner, Crowe et al down the years. Test matches are tests – of character, will, skill and ability.

It’s a hard game to explain though Harry Ricketts ‘How to Watch a Cricket Match’ does a fine job. In cricketing terms I’d call it a fine cover drive. Pirie begins with a poem from Brian Turner:
‘A game about which
you can know very little
and say anything
and be right sooner or later’

While Cyril Childs describes the progress of a cover drive.
'the speeding ball
rearranges the pigeons
         but slightly'

Geoff Cochrane’s poem “My Elderly Father Watching Cricket’ rang very appropriately:
“How can he sit there enjoying the cricket.
when there’s death to think about?’

The Canterbury earthquake dominates the nation’s thinking. The lack of casualties is miraculous. The consequences are mind-boggling. The whole infrastructure of a city fractured, home and work patterns shattered, nature’s insecurity revealing how fragile civilisation is. The State of Emergency has been extended for a week. But people pull together and will rebuild. I spoke too soon when I said the Cathedral was secure. Apparently there are doubts now. And this morning aftershock based on Lyttelton is scary. Poor people!

Cousin Sally lives in Darfield. Telegraph Rd runs from the township to the Main South Rd. About two/thirds of the way down the road the middle white line is now at the edge of the road where the fracture went through. Half a road is a measure of the shift.

Sally also reports that the stone Catholic church at Little River is badly damaged as the bell tower fell through the roof. It was a lovely old building not far from the cottage in which I grew up. It looked so solid and permanent. That bell was symbol of a country Sunday and the occasional wedding and funeral.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tuesday's Poem: A Song of Spring


(to Anne)

in the bouncing kowhai
tui court, the snowball
tree sprouts green shoots
daphne scents the section
cat spends more time
outside, tulips sway in
their pots.

                a hurtle of wings
ignoring the gale, tui cavort

          it is the season
for swings and flings,
a ballerina dancing
to applause as off stage
an old troubadour expires

Harvey McQueen

I planned put up for today’s Tuesday Poem the previous blog. But re-reading it in ‘Goya Rules’ I came across this one, which I wrote last Sepember. It seemed apposite.

Things are the same outside but different. Tulips sway in their pots, change of colour but there’ve been tulips in those pots each spring for over twenty years. Bloom laden are the two daphne bushes. And tui drama on in the kowhai tree. Strong winds still blow. Minstrel winter is as ever reluctant to shuffle off the stage.

I’m a year older – that’s the big change. But as usual for this time of the year there is this sense of hope, joy and returning vitality.

Next spring? Ah! That’s another question.

The Last Lecture of the Semester


The energy revolutions at the end
of the fifth millennium ushered in
a strange aberration, democracy,
they themselves labelled it, ignoring
the norm that nearly all humans are
destined to be serfs. The very origin of
the word democracy reveals its fallacy.
It comes from the antique Greek meaning
People, but ignores Plato’s teaching of
the need for a rational elite. Equally
forgotten was that other ancient seer
Thomas Hobbes. Our own philosophers
rightly place due stress upon authority.
The idea that common people know
what is good for them quickly revealed
its flaws. As the millennium ended
the elite increasingly used the rhetoric
of democracy to hide their necessary
use of power. Fear of fanaticism led
to the mob’s acquiescence. The idea of
people power was quietly dropped. What
is interesting is how teachers turned to
the example of primitive Rome when
the serfs lost the instinct of discipline.
As you know when they realised they
couldn’t defeat the Chinese Empire
their leaders resorted to military force
with great destruction & chaos. Some-
one had to step in to ensure rationality
prevailed. We did. You needn’t bother
to study anything political in this period
after Louis XIV. However, there will be
a question on the impact of technological
changes upon society in that period.

For those returning we will pick up
the distributive restoration of law &
the scientific breakthroughs that
underpin our constitution. For those
of you - yet to be determined -
joining the contingent to deal with
the frontier problems I wish you well.

In the review of ‘Goya Rules’ in Poetry New Zealand 41 this poem is mentioned. The reviewer, Nicholas Reid said 'You think you've got the measure of McQueen as a miniaturist: a man who likes the pithy, concise statement. And then he throws fantastic curve-balls at you. The long poem 'Return' could be read as one of the great science fiction (or at least alternative reality) poems; and as for 'The Last Lecture of the Semester', irony and all, it takes a long view of history to its limit.'

When I showed the review to a friend he asked ‘What made you write it?’ Good questions deserve an answer. Compiling their science fiction anthology Tim Jones and Mark Pirie called for possible entries. I had written some. But I sat down and wrote a couple more. One, ‘The Return' they accepted. It is more SF than the other, this futuristic/historic one..

‘Last Lecture’ reflects historian Harvey. Ever since I read H.G.Wells’ ‘Short History of the World’and his ‘Time Machine’ I’ve been interested in the vast sweeps of history. What state will the planet be in at the end of this millennium? Historical trends can be perceived in hindsight. It’s easier to do this than predict the future. Futurists can overlook the obvious and there is always the unpredictable.

For the poem’s theme I took a possible trend and teased out its implications. Humanity wavers between two forms of governance, absolutism and what we call democracy. The poem assumes the cyclic nature of power, sometimes it’s the few, sometimes it’s the many. I agree with English novelist E.M.Forster who said ‘two cheers for democracy.’ Sometimes the ‘many’ can be wrong But I’d sooner live with that than in a tyranny.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Poor Canterbury. Understandably shattered. And lousy weather predicted for today.

I have fond memories of Christchurch. I enjoyed my time at university there in the 1950s. Town and gown intermingled. For my last three years I boarded at Rolleston House just across the road from the click-tower, damaged in yestwerday’s quake.

Across the avenue were the Botanic Gardens. I didn’t swot there, I did that in the hostel, but during breaks I’d meandered there. The circular rose-garden was a source of peace, the archery lawn a sense of grace, the glass-house a sense of the exotic. They were in their full glory in spring-time. Then at the far-end there was a fiery blaze of azaleas. But most spectacular would be the daffodils across the Avon.

I courted there, I mused there, I wandered there. Cherry blossom and later rhododendron added to the season’s sense of burgeoning bounty and magnificent colour. Alas, this catastrophe will create not that sense, but rather one of foreboding and dismay. The so-solid earth is not so stable after all. Even from this distance (both in time and space) I feel rather shell-shocked myself.

The cathedral still stands. It was my childhood symbol of the city. It lorded over the trams, Godley’s statue, Warners Hotel, the Press office, the Post Office and the various picture theatres. Mum used to park my brother and me in the Grand (continuous movies) while she’d go off for her own shopping. The idea of going to the city centre to see a movie is long gone.

In later visits I’ll confess to irritation at the intrusion of high rise buildings around the cathedral. The quake has demolished several nearby buildings that were there in my student days. I biked past them, not only during my student years, but for a subsequent two more years after I’d finished university. During this time I flatted in Avonside an area hard hit by the shake.

Mum’s retirement to Burnside in 1965 meant many visits so I saw the city change – a process like speeded-up-film. I realise my mood is akin to grief. And like all grief it has components of the loss of one’s own past. But also the knowledge of the human capacity to respond to a challenge. I wish all well who grapple for the city’s future.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Nature's Power

The forecasters had warned us of a severe southerly buster arriving late yesterday afternoon. Right on cue it arrived just after 6 p.m.. The TV news suddenly cut out, there was an immense clap of thunder. I turned the TV off and Anne closed down our two computers. There were further flashes and rumbles and then the hail came down. Within seconds the lawn was white. Spectacular! The drum-roll of sound of it hitting the corrugated iron roof prohibited conversation. Within an hour the storm had passed over.

This morning I woke up to use the commode just after 4 a.m. I can do this without taking the mask off. I’d just got back into bed and put off the touch lamp when I heard the rattle of books, pictures and equipment. It’s an earthquake. Well, I was in bed and it passed. I dozed off. When I woke up after seven I wondered about getting up and putting the radio on to see if the quake was mentioned and where it had occurred. .The alarm was set for 7 30 so I lay abed.

Having pulled the curtain I could watch the rising sun edge down the oak tree trunk next door. It was a serene scene. Shakespeare’s lines sprang to mind.
‘Look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill’.

The news came on shattering the quiet mood that I’d developed .The quake – a relatively big one - had struck Christchurch and surrounding countryside at 4.35 a.m.. Epicentre 30 kilometres west of the city, near Darfield where cousin Sally lives. [She lost a chimney] Buildings down in the central city. Water out. Power out. Sewerage out. At such moments Radio New Zealand comes into its own. Kim Hill and Mary Wilson interviewing experts and ordinary citizens around the area.

At such moments one wonders about loved ones. They were asking us not to clog the phone lines. By mid-morning a state of emergency had been imposed. By a miracle there had been no loss of life though two people were in hospital with life-threatening injuries. In one way the timing was fortunate. People were at home, mostly in bed.

Every now and then the thought goes through my head – how vulnerable I’d be if a major quake struck Wellington. And I know it’s a question not if but when. No power. No water. We have an emergency kit. I have a torch in the drawer beside my bed. We have water in plastic bottles in the shed though accessibility could be a problem. I couldn't dig a hole or light a fire. Well, we’ll have to cross that bridge if it comes to it. We’ve good neighbours. Hardship can bring communities together.

All I can do is listen to the radio, emphasise and sympathise with the people of Christchurch and acknowledge that today’s cloudless sky has followed on one of the heaviest downpours I’ve ever seen. We're such puny self-centred creatures when it comes to Nature's Power.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Long Story

It’s been a good couple of days. The tulips in their pot have suddenly budded up. In a fortnight’s time they should be out in their glory. And I had an email from John Barnett, ex –editor at Penguin Books who’d just learnt of my illness. It’s a lovely email. It ends ‘it was one of my life’s satisfactions to have worked on the Penguin [Book of New Zealand Verse] with you and Ian.' I’m chuffed. That book was one of my pinnacles and John was a great editor.

Someone recently said ‘you must have plenty of time on your hands.’ I suspect my denial was perceived as bravado. It wasn’t. There is depression occasionally. Regret sometimes. But boredom remains absent, not that I desire it. One major reason; there are still so many books to read and now blogs. My mind’s not only got its own thoughts to live with, there is idea and image galore from the word combination of others.

This morning I’ve been reading the 'Economist' on line. Tony Blair’s autobiography figures large. I don’t think I’ll read it – sounds too self-serving by all accounts. Though he’s honest enough to admit apparently he lusted after Princess Di – he and many more ‘fella’. Now a good biography about Blair would be a different kettle of fish. I’d welcome that. The man who would not admit hubris.

People’s life-stories in themselves carry their own fascinations. This morning I was in the local medical centre for a blood test. (I shut my eyes. I can’t bear the sight of the syringe filling). One such occasion Anne reads. I look at other patients and mentally compose little stories about them. This morning a four generation Sri Lankan family, the younger woman fluent in her English, the grandmother fairly broken but so proud of her great-granddaughter. A very pregnant woman had a nasty cough – I hoped she was all right. That old man obviously had had a stroke. That young man’s mate nervously twiddling a rugby ball – they both looked rather stunned – ill-health can ambush. A frail old lady being looked after attentively by it looked like her frail old brother. The brisk receptionists keeping tabs, dealing with apprehension and quelling the youth with the football with a glare when he started tossing it. Every now and then a doctor would emerge – pick up a folder, call out a name and someone would stand up from the pack and dutifully follow him or her back along the corridor. I was almost disappointed – my musing interrupted – when the nurse called my name. Soon, I was home. Enough excitement for the day.

I meant to blog about my reading. My second paragraph transferred the points to another track. I realise I’m writing about another activity – my mind at work observing, creating, recording. Like reading when this mood’s in control I forget aches and pains, worries and fears. I’ve several times times seen what I thought was a yellow hammer on our lawn. Jenn, our neighbour, says it calls at their place too but she thinks it’s a yellowhead a rare New Zealand bird. Anne asked me to tell her when the bird next appeared. When we got back from the blood test I called her. ‘The bird’s here’. She stepped quietly to the window and was enthralled by the striking appearance of the little creature. I’ve been researching. I think my diagnosis is correct but I’ve love to be wrong.

Back to reading. On top of all the books I planned to read two more have just arrived. Mark Pirie called last night with his anthology of New Zealand poems about cricket. Mark’s earlier anthology of science fiction poems, co-edited with Tim Jones, (one of the Tuesday Poem poets) has just won an award. I flicked the cricket collection. It looks good. I look forward to reading it more carefully.

This morning’s mail brought the latest Poetry New Zealand volume. Nicholas Reid is guest editor, Richard Reeve, the featured poet. Again, it looks an interesting read. Reid reviews briefly recent poetry books. One was my ‘Goya Rules’ released last March. It’s a sympathetic review commenting upon my style and what I was attempting to do. He draws attention to the two science fiction poems, ‘The Return’ and ‘The Last Lecture of the Seminar.’ Of the latter, he says ‘brilliant’. That’s another bonus point for the day. .

And so at long last I come to the book I wanted to talk about, Andrea Levy’s ‘The Long Song’. Despite its frightful subject it has really helped cheer me up. I’d loved her last book,‘The Small Island’, the trials and difficulties of West Indian immigrants in England but also the lower class indigenous with whom they were mingling. A skilfully constructed novel I respected the honest portrayal of her characters as they battled the circumstances in which they found themselves. As an author she was treated them all tenderly, even the unlikeable ones.

The human spirit triumphant is even more obvious in ‘The Long Song’.This is a word I rarely use but it fits here; it’s a ‘humdinger’ of a book The setting is a sugar plantation in Jamaica before and after the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. The narrator is an old mulatto lady, rescued from penury by her son who bullies and cajoles her into writing an account of her experiences.

I’ve read 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin' and the novels of Toni Morrison. But somehow this account put a realistic face upon the institution of slavery. The language and situations carry a ring of authenticity. Events and conversations ring true, sordid but not sentimental, heartless but not romantically so, atrocious conditions and behaviour, but credible. Treat people brutally and they’ll react as far as they can. What whites see as dumbness is wilful disobedience, a form of passive retaliation.

July the narrator is a tease. She gives us alternative accounts which we like her son have to weigh up as to credibility. Did she see her mother hung. The description is so vivid the reader feels there. But in his heart he knows she wasn’t. But story-telling is an art-form for these folk. July’s crude and bawdy, a pain to her missionary-educated son, but then with her amoral upbringing it would be surprising if she wrote in a refined manner. The coarseness does not repel. The cheekiness attracts. She is more sinned against than sinner. Helpless but human in her situation!

Levy portrays good men, good men changing into bad men or vice-versa, bad men, and all those in between from both races. All placed by happen-chance on a plantation and nearby town in a time of turbulence. Levy doesn’t make judgement. She tells a story – what happened. Or didn’t.

July’s mistress, the narrator’s been plucked from her mother to be trained as a maid, organises a large feast for her white guests. The chat is revealing as the house-slaves prepare the table and the room. The meal is never finished. It was the night the rebellion broke out. July was in the process of stealing grog for her fellow slaves. All hell was let loose. July’s life would never be the same again. The novel pulled me along – slow down Harvey, you can’t trust this narrator.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot. There are moments of farce. There are moments of cruelty. There is sympathy and hopelessness. The strangest thing to explain is that I was left was a feeling of a strong sense of pride. July, a slave, proud! Some achievement!

‘Mansfield Park’ will never read quite the same again.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Snell & Halberg

Fifty years ago, I started teaching. During the school holidays I was home on the farm. I went out in the morning to the kitchen where Dick my step-father – always first up – was sitting with his roll-your-own cigarette and cup of strong tea at the table listening to the news. ‘Did Halberg win?’ I eagerly asked.

He nodded to the radio – ‘they’re passing to Rome in a minute.’ When the switch was made the announced burbled on about New Zealand having two men running that day. The first was Snell in the 800 metres. ‘Blow that’ I said, ‘I want to know how Halberg got on.’ Dick took a puff and kept a poker face. Snell won. A runner I’d taken no notice of. He’d come from nowhere to cross the finishing line first. I listened to ‘God Save the Queen’ being played with amazement and considerable impatience. How had Halberg performed?

He won the 5,000. He out-guiled his opponents. The anthem was played again. It was a double triumph. It was good to be a New Zealander that day.

Four years later I was teaching at Thames. A group of us went up to Auckland to watch Snell break the world mile record at Western Springs. On the car radio on the drive home we heard ‘This is London Calling’. The BBC News! Snell’s time was the first item. The only time in my life I’ve been at an event which was commented upon that world service.

Four years later I was living in Hamilton. Midnight! In bed I listened to Olympics from Munich. Our rowing eight had won. For the first time ‘God Defend New Zealand’ was played. My body didn’t stand to attention but my soul did. Crappy words but the tune is uniquely ours. It was at that moment I left the British Empire.

Though two yeas later when I was in London for the first time I felt a swell of imperial pride when I saw Big Ben and heard it strike. Nostalgia is not enough. The more I saw of Britain the more I realised I was a Kiwi. Snell and Halberg helped shape that sense.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Last year a pair of thrushes nested in the scarlet camellia just outside my window. They dive-bombed at tui coming to seek nectar. To my surprise they were successful, driving them away – the power of parent-love and the survival of the species. This morning September began with a tui content in the tree when I pulled back the curtsins. Underneath it the daphne is out in all its scented glory. Not a thrush in sight.

Last week’s hospital check-up of my CPAP machine [to help regulate and control my breathing] revealed that my apnoea was causing some problems. On Monday evening Bowen Hospital’s sleep unit lent me a more sophisticated machine to record sleep patterns. The nurse arrived early yesterday morning to take it away.

Bowen rang at the bog end of the afternoon. They’d like me to come in for an evening’s sleep in their laboratory. I probably need a smarter machine. The booking is for 16 September. It is not something I look forward to. Indeed, it is all rather despondency-making .

The powers-that-be suspect that my two major health problems, the musucular degeneration and apnoea are connected. But there is no conclusive evidence. Either way they certainly interact.

The danger of the apnoea is that I stop breathing for periods while I sleep. This increases risk of stroke or heart attack. Every morning is a moment of amazement when I wake up. Accepting it would be a hell of a shock for Anne if I died in my sleep it would not be a bad way to go. But the strong likelihood is I’d be more disabled thus increasing the burden upon her (and myself).

The frustrating thing about this health problem is its hidden nature. Mentally, I can cope better with the neurological issue. Cause and effect are understandable. The other is beyond my conscious control. Damn!

And the winter chill has given me a chilblain in my right little toe. Anne’s brought new shoes home for me to try on. They fit fine. Some things work. The romantic will add ‘but not for long.’ But the realist says ‘for the present’. I watch the tui enjoy his nectar. While I wait for my caregiver to arrive I continue. reading ‘The Long Song’ a crackerjack novel by Andrea Levy. My birthday’s coming up before the Bowen visit. A treat of whitebait! New books! And an ascending sun!