Sunday, October 31, 2010

Romeo and Juliet

Earlier this week I watched on DVD the 1968 Zeffirelli famous film of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a sumptuous sensual treat, language and scenery, narrative and romance, and fatal love.

Romeo’s cry “I am fortune’s fool” wrenches the heart. Like a Hardy novel the odds are stacked against the young lovers. Zeffirelli is at his best when he presents the placid bearer of Friar Lawrence’s message wending his slow way with a donkey while Romeo’s servant gallops past on his horse having watched Juliet's apparent corpse laid to rest in the family tomb. With horror the audience anticipates the approaching tragic ending.

Zeffirelli does three things superbly – First, those bored Veronese young bucks with their swords. Today’s under-engaged hoons swoon round in souped-up cars, just as lethal as swords. In either case a risk to life and limb, not only to themselves but to the citizenry at large. Zeffirelli's riot scene illustrated the potential - water melons and chickens at risk.

Second, the ball scene. The Renaissance splendour, the colour, the pageantry and the breathless enchantment of the young lovers. It is a scene to savour. Most historical film smacks of the modern contemporary. This scene didn't.

Third, the balcony scene. Rarely has romance been more erotically portrayed. It makes the audience believe in that ‘enchanted evening’. ‘I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’. ‘It is the east and Juliet is the sun’. Enchanting words.

The nurse is superb – bawdy, worldly, in love with her charge, protective of her interests.

Once I produced an abridged version of the play at school. I used a girl as Romeo. We badly bruised her legs during a rehearsal when she forgot to jump during the sword fight. [Large flat wooden swords] The boy playing Tybalt was mortified. His comforting embrace of a wounded classmate was worthy of the balcony scene. I mused about my casting.

Then during dress rehearsal one of the girls in charge of props arrived along with a lot of candles. She wanted to dot them around Juliet's tomb. I was aware of Juliet’s gown and the hall curtains. The last thing I wanted was a charred heroine. So I vetoed the candles. Tears, tantrums, a producer’s nightmare. A compromise - a lone candle burning on the other side of the stage. The only thing, Paris knocked it over during his sword fight. No candles! The whole production was a glorious experience. I cherish it. Kids, enthusiasm, a timeless great story, Shakespeare's language, what more could you want.

Back to the film. I’d forgotten and was disappointed at how Zeffirelli glossed over Juliet’s agonising before she took the friar’s lotion. It seems to me one of the most human moments of the play. It wasn’t Hamlet’s doubts but it dabbled in the same field.

Paris does not appear in the final scene of the film. As Zeffirelli portrays it the emphasis is upon the two star-crossed lovers. Fair enough. But I think Paris is a portrayal of another aspect of love. Romeo’s despatch of him not only adds to the body-count, it tells of desperation overcoming common-sense.

I’ll let Mercutio have the last word: ‘A plague on both your houses! They’ve made worm’s meat of me.’ All the world’s a stage – Verona’s a mere model for that larger theatre.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Twice a week my caregiver walks me – I using my walker - to the shops at the end of our lane. I sit on a seat outside the grocers and watch cars, trucks and pedestrians pass by. Girls from Marsden school come down in their lunch hour.

This week as I teetered back across the pedestrian crossing I heard a girl say ‘that poor old man’. I could have turned and wheeled back to say ‘thank you’. One is not supposed to hug school girls. I didn’t. I ploughed on.

Every now and then I indulge in the grumping of the aged down the ages. There is less compassion in the young than there used to be. What that unsolicited expression of sympathy did was to restore my faith that certain human attributes are timeless. Probably the sociologist would scoff but allow me my remnants of dignity.

I hope that lass has a long and happy life. Little will she know how her casual comment gave comfort to an old fool.

Off on a completely different track. Gary Harris, artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet Company returns to Britain at the end of this year. One of my regrets is giving up going to the ballet. Harris’s choreography of ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ placing it in a hospital setting was superb. I recall seeing it with great pleasure. They are dancing it this month as his swansong. (See blog 20th November 2009) I’m pleased to have seen so many of his productions.

An afterword for yesterday’s blog. I forgot to mention the mock orange blossom hedge, which is on our north side of the house. It’s in full bloom, a burst of striking white running the length of the section.

There's a review of Antonia Fraser's memoir about her husband Harold Pinter's death 'Must You Go' in the New York Times today. About a month before Pinter died he said 'Life is beatitful but the world is hell'.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Dull Is Not The Right Word

Someone said on the phone yesterday ‘your life must be dull’.

Next door’s crabapple is ablaze with blossom. The southerly wind is blowing it like confetti across our lawn. A splendid sight.

The antique pansies that Anne planted over Labour Day weekend has its first bloom, a striking purple.

The large copper beech over the fence is in full glory – that sheen that is part of a deciduous cycle. It stands superb against a dull, grey sky.

Dorothy our cat is licking a clean-up of her stomach – such a fastidious process.

Last evening I shouted Anne and a friend Amy to a special Provencal meal at La Cloche. I would loved to have gone but it is so difficult. So they were my proxies. Anne has a very descriptive turn of phrase. When she got in I savoured the goat’s cheese tart entrée and the hare for the main. Mental taste-buds worked overtime.

I watched while they were out a DVD ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’. Made in 1939 it has a youthful James Stewart, the gangly, naive idealist plucked from obscurity to represent his state in the Senate. Capra directed. It’s dated but I enjoyed it for what it was – especially in the light of the Congressional elections very soon – the American dream.

The excellent black and white camera effects of the Lincoln memorial reminded me of our visit there. It was Veteran’s Day – the Viet Nam memorial wall was bedecked with wreaths and floral tributes. Lincoln’s statue and words were awe-inspiring – the American ideal at its best – while the Viet Nam one was sobering and saddening.

On that same trip I spent a day in Philadelphia. I was toured round the famous Independence Hall but what really struck me was the cracked Liberty Bell. A young Black woman national guide introduced it – I was one of a few adults in a large crowd of school kids. ‘Did the bell ring?’ she asked. A boy volunteered it couldn’t, it was cracked. Not so, she argued listing the occasions it had rung – when Lincoln freed the slaves, when Pearl Harbour happened, when Nelson Mandela visited. The crowd took up her refrain. I experienced the American dream first hand. It was very moving. To move on from there to negotiate over teacher exchanges was an emotional let-down. It remains a red-letter event in my memory-banks.

Wordsworth's right. Memory can provide satisfaction

Anne was out today. Oliver brought whitebait. Under my supervision he made the batter and then cooked them, only the second time he has done that. It was a challenge to both of us. He did a great job. We had a lovely lunch.

I finished ‘No Fretful Sleeper’. I’m still waiting to be convinced of Pearson’s overall importance but I’m pleased to have read the life. The last half involves people I know or have heard about. [Noeline Chapman was my first wife’s half-sister. I met Pearson once or twice at their house].

After dithering and in light of the biography I’ve decided to re-read Pearson's novel 'Coal Flat'. It’ll be interesting to see what I make of it at this removed stage of my life. It was a hard choice, the life of Katherine Mansfield waits impatient on the shelf.

‘Dull’ is not the right word.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Anne cracked with laughter this morning when I asked her how to spell dyslexia. ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Well, you always say I suffer from a sort of’. I do. A mild form.

I suspect it goes back to being left-handed. Or am I? I naturally picked up axe, hammer and cricket bat in the right hand. But I picked up pencil and pen in the left. It’s not so much a question of being ambidextrous as being clumsy and untidy.

Until my illness set in I had more power in my left leg and arm than my right. When rock-hopping at the beach I always led with the left. But when dressing I put my right leg through my trousers first.

Anyway when I began school they tried to make me write right-handed. I began to stutter – quite badly Mum said. Eventually common sense prevailed and I was allowed to continue. The world is built around the needs of right-handed people.

Anne learnt long ago to avoid using the terms left and right. They confuse me. In the car she’d point, ‘turn here’. When I went to Christchurch Boys’ in the sixth form I encountered cadets for the first time. I stood out taller than the third formers around me in the squad. At the command ‘left turn’ I was busy trying to work out which was left while the group wheeled. The result was confusion. The masters did not believe I was not doing it deliberately. To them it was sabotage. I did a lot of square-bashing. I did not like cadets.

I had no trouble driving – indeed I’ll say it, I was a good driver. And I have only ever been completely lost once in my life. Ravenna. I foolishly made the assumption that the railway station was at the south end of the city. Once I got that sorted out everything was OK. I had a good bump of direction. I never ceased to amaze Anne how I would arrive at the correct destination.

This background is an entry to an increasing concern – an irritating habit of compounding an initial silly error. Yesterday was an example. I wrote a blog about Bill Pearson and his biographer. Just before I wrote it I’d been talking about the writer Jan Morris. When I drafted the blog I wrote Paul Morris instead of Paul Millar. Right through – several times. I did not pick up my mistake.

Last night over dinner I made a comment about Paul Morris. Editor Anne picked up the error straight away. As soon as the meal was over I made a beeline to the computer cursing my carelessness. Alas, my machine was down, for two (censored) hours. Frustration! Back on line I discovered Paparoa had discovered my mistake and gently made a comment. Thanks! I corrected my text.

So gentle reader if you find similar errors be compassionate. I found myself writing Graham Henry when I meant Paul Henry several blogs back. My filters saved me that time. Let’s hope they continue to operate well. I’d hate to give up the blog because of continuing carelessness

After giving me the correct spelling Anne reminded me of the old joke about the dyslexic agnostic who lay awake all night worrying about the existence of ‘dog’.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bill Pearson

I read Bill Pearson’s novel ‘Coal Flat’ when it was first published in the 1960s. I found it a strange book - brilliant observation and perception, with ideas galore but they did not intertwine always well with the character or scene. Somehow it all seemed rather pointless. I sensed unease but couldn’t put my finger on it.

I knew that Blackball area where the novel is set on the West Coast relatively well. My first wife’s married sister lived in Greymouth. We’d explored the coal and gold mining hinterland pretty thoroughly, even attending the opening of Shantytown the local tourist attraction. So I felt Pearson’s descriptions of place were accurate.

It must be recalled it was an era in which we were waiting for the great New Zealand novel. A foolish thought now. But at the time a pressing issue. Hilliard’s ‘Maori Girl’ was good but it wasn’t gold medal class. Neither was ‘Coal Flat’.

On a weekend visit to Auckland shortly after I’d read the novel I found myself at a party with a group of Auckland academics. I learnt that Pearson was a homosexual and had greatly altered the novel to remove traces of that sexual orientation. The debate about the merits of the novel raged and ranged over me as I sat thinking about this missing piece of the jig-saw, re-assessing the evidence. I was a rather naïve young man.

In today’s more tolerant society it’s hard to recall the intolerance and homophobia of those far-away days. I’m reading at present Paul Millar’s ‘No Fretful Sleeper’ a life of Pearson. I’ve just read a chilling piece. Pearson saw a psychiatrist in London who told him to accept his homosexuality and get on with his life. The reply, he was on the verge of returning to a very puritan society. I’ve learnt of the great pains Pearson took not to reveal his sexual orientation. What a hell of a strain that must have been.

I’m only half-way through. It is one of those biographical reads that leaves me ambivalent. The plough has been put in very deeply. The facts need winnowing. For example, at the beginning I felt I did not need to know all the detail about the numerous uncles and aunts – family traits and origins yes, but this bewildering array caused confusion. The opening chapter was definitely not a prologue to grab my attention.

Why would I want to read about Pearson? The conflict between the individual and the society in which he found himself is in itself an enthralling narrative. I felt Millar could have spent less time on the detail – there is huge amount of it – of the life and present a wider perspective.

For a younger reader the nature of that puritan society needs spelling out. Even to me it seems an alien society and I took part in the six-o-clock swill. It was an era of double standards. [The historian in me asks was there ever an era which didn’t have them]. Culturally it might have been dour but I recollect we laughed a lot. But then I saw the fear beneath the veneer with the Parker/Hulme murder case. I can understand Pearson’s paranoia.

Having had my gripe about the book I enjoyed reading about Pearson’s boyhood and education in Greymouth. It’s a vanished era. The Protestant/Catholic rivalry on the time was a huge force to be reckoned with. Then his army experiences, J force after the Pacific and the Middle East with its strange soldier camaraderie. I’m left with the feeling Millar finds this hard to understand. I suspect it’s an experience that’s hard to grasp unless you are actually been there.

Millar's descriptions of the Canterbury University English department in the late 1940s - a decade before I studied there – ring true; as does his account of the same department in Auckland a decade later. He captures well the feeling of that bunch of academic prima donnas. It was a time when academics prided themselves on being idiosyncratic.

I sense happiness of a sort ahead – I’m just up to Pearson joining the Maori club where I understand his acceptance gave him a community. But up till now the loneliness of the man is the thing that strikes this reader. I think that needs more teasing out but I accept I could be wrong.

Most people seem to like this life. I still wait to be persuaded of Pearson’s importance. But maybe I’m committing the criticism I've complained about in the past – of reviewing the book that I wanted, not the book that is. And I go back to an old argument, which I use to justify my periodic biographical binges. Any life has its own interest.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tuesday Poem: To Autumn by Ian Wedde


How to prepare stuffed green peppers:
In plenty of green olive oil, cook
Garlic and onions, with a couple of red chilies.
Add the arborio rice and give it a stir.
Some cans of cheap Italian tomatoes are good.

A glass of red wine, and a huge handful
Of chopped parsley. Stuff the partly cooked
Rice into capped green peppers, and let
The rest stew slowly in the pot with the dolma.
When you life the lid praise the commonplace world

Where everything ends and then starts again –
Where are the songs of spring? I heard them at the end
Of last winter, they were starting to struggle out
Of the wet paddocks, they were choking on unpruned trellises.
And now a year later, like a good bourgeois,

Like the Sabine farm’s wry proprietor, turning
My back on landscape, I approach with sharp secateurs
The yellowed vine that runs round the verandah
Above the deck stained with summer’s libations.
Smoke from the house-fire blows away

Into the rainy mist on Mount Victoria, the place
I take my bursting heart on autumn mornings
So gorgeous I almost believe that beauty’s
All I need to know on earth, that my song
Can be without weariness, fever and fret.

Ian Wedde  from The Commonplace Odes

Ian’s poem can stand in its own right. Or it can be placed in a larger context. Poets, like musicians and artists, weave strands from their predecessors into their current works. This poem pays particular homage to Horace and Keats, but it contains echos and associations to other poets. I love it for its own integrity and for its reverberations.

Ian’s ‘The Commonplace Odes’ was published in 2001. The whole series is based on a Horace collection with the same title. Horace was a Roman poet who lived from 65 to 8 BC. During his lifetime he bragged that his poetry would live as long as there were Vestal Virgins in Rome. Those ladies are long gone, but his poems, including 103 odes, are still read.

They cover a great number of themes, agriculture, dinner invitations, wine, woman, song, holiday celebrations, and patriotic hymns. Many are about his beloved farm in the Sabine hills not far from Rome.

One of English poet Keats famous odes is ‘To Autumn’. Ian borrows the title. Further, he even borrows a line “where are the songs of spring.” In his poem he talks of ‘the vines that round the thatch-eves run’. And in the last few lines there are generous genuflection to Keats’ other great odes, ‘To a Nightingale’ and “To a Grecian Urn.’

Such rapture about food. I’m sure Ovid and Keats would be at ease. Sensuous men both. Such a good Italian dish too. Rome and Hampstead Heath at home in Mount Victoria. Poetry can span the centuries as well as the senses.

In my previous blog I told how Tennyson adapted an old narrative poem. Ian has adapted old moods, modifying, codifying and modernising them. All part of the rich feast that is poetry.

The poem is published with the author's permission.

Tennyson's honeysuckle

A regret that I have in living here is that in our last place we had a little sheltered nook I called ‘honeysuckle corner’. Facing north-west it had walls behind it to the south and east. There was several stands of sweet-scented honeysuckle. It was our favourite spot all summer and autumn, a lovely place to sit and read on a lazy sun-lit day under the filtered shade of the judas tree, the buzz of bees browsing the borage and chive flowers as background. .

On a still evening we would go out at night to sit and savour the honeysuckle’s fragrance in the moonlight. Some lines from Tennyson spring to mind.

‘Good Lord, how sweetly smells the honeysuckle
In the hush of night, as if the world were one
Of utter peace and love and gentleness.’

The lines come from ‘Gareth and Lynette’ which is a scene from the lengthy series ‘Idylls of the King’. Gareth’s mother, a noble’s widow doesn’t want him to leave home to serve as a knight at the court of King Arthur. She says she’ll release him only if he works as a kitchen hand at the court. He calls her bluff and goes off.

His mother sends a message to Arthur who immediately, but anonymously, makes Gareth a knight. A beautiful maiden - Tennyson’s maidens are either very beautiful or very ugly – Lynette, comes with a tale of distress. Her sister, Lady Lyonors is being besieged by four bad knights, the last of whom seems likely as the model for Tolkein’s Black Riders.

‘A huge man beast of boundless savagery.
He names himself the Night and oftener Death,
And wears a helmet mounted with a skull’.

Despite her request for Lancelot, when Gareth volunteers, Arthur accepts. Lynette refuses to accept this kitchen servant as a knight which takes up quite a length of verse.

Despite Gareth killing the first two villains, Lynette still refuses to accept his knightly status. Eventually Lancelot appears and gives Gareth his horse, his armour and his sword for the third encounter. Gareth is successful. Whereupon Lynette has a change of heart – hence the lines I quote. He successfully goes on to defeat the fourth and most dangerous rogue.

I’ve always admired Tennyson’s word music. Indeed, he is without peer. And I find myself forgiving him much for his conclusion to this episode. It's bang-on.

'And he that told the tale in older times
Says that Sir Gareth wedded Lynors
But he, that told it later, says Lynette.’

In terms of the story as Tennyson tells it had to be so. Well done the Bard.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sage Butter

There is an old Scotch proverb that if the sage bush flourishes than the woman rules the roost. Sexist yes! But there is probably a climatic basis. Sage doesn’t like wet feet. My own experience of Scotland is that it rains a lot. (Hence the lovely rhododendrons of the west coast) Therefore the sage is unlikely to be happy.

I also question the veracity of the proverb. We had three houses before we shifted here. In two the sage did well. In the other it struggled. Same aspect, same care, different microclimate. As far as I could tell there was no change in our relationship. Here, Anne is now the gardener. The bush grows well. That’s all I can say.

The herb sage is of Mediterranean origin used from the beginning for culinary and medical purposes. The Ancient Egyptians applied it as a fertility drug. Now with its light peppery flavour it is mainly used in the kitchen though I think it adds colour and character to the garden. Certainly it is one the first essentials I’d plant in a new herb garden. It needs replacing every four or five years.

Its main use is in stuffing but while accepting its strong flavour I think its too good to be used only for that purpose. I used to marinade chicken breasts in a mixture of lemon juice, garlic and sage before cooking. Quick-fried whole sage leaves go well with sausage and fried potato.

A recipe that Anne and I have used for a long time now is sage butter on steak or lamb. It is simple to make. To butter add finely chopped fresh sage leaves and a little onion oil. (We get this by placing a few pieces of onion in a garlic press and squeezing). Mix throughly. The recipe can be adapted to use parsley and garlic instead.

Earlier this week Anne bought four little fillet steaks. On Friday night she cooked two which we had with a lavish spread of freshly made sage butter, asparagus (what a lovely seasonal treat), mashed potato and fried mushrooms. I cut my steak in half to have space to allow the addition of more of the special butter.

Last night she cooked the other two. The little sliced mushrooms again, a few potato slices baked in the oven and a fresh vegetable salsa (cucumber, onion, yellow pepper and parsley). Yum again!

She asked what I would like tonight. ‘Old-fashioned mince on toast’ I said. From the superb to the comfortable. That’s not a bad switch.

I add for the benefit of any new reader we used to take cooking week and week about. Now with my ill-health I’ve had to give that away.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


I see there is going to be a funeral service for Joan Sutherland in the Sydney Opera House. I saw and heard her sing Aida in that Opera House – one of those highlights of my life, spectacle and sound combining into glamorous glory.

The Opera House is situated on Bennelong Point. The next point to the east is Mrs Macquaries Chair. The view from there to the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge beyond is one of the most attractive sights on the planet. The striking structure of the theatre contrasts with the bare steel bones of the bridge – beauty and power. Ships and ferries on sparkling Sydney Harbour add to the scene.

I’ve seen other shows in that building. The first time I took Anne – Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte – I gave her a glass of champagne in the interval on the balcony overlooking the harbour. Boats with their lights glided past on the reflective water. It was magic – I’ll never forget the gleam in her eyes.

We also saw a production of Hamlet during that visit. A conducted tour backstage preceeded a meal at the Bennelong restaurant. And then the play. We were stuck behind a group of elderly Americans, obviously a package tour. They grumbled ‘what’s this all about’, complained about the lack of action. After interval most of them had disappeared. We had a great view of the stage and settled down to watch the remainder of the play in peace. It is the only time I’ve seen a live production.

Anne and I had another visit. Her son Patrick was now living there so we caught up. During both visits we explored Sydney’s restaurants and enjoyed gourmet meals. I loved the bookshops and the zoo while a ferry trip to Manly was always fun. I saw Patrick in a later visit. But then he was killed in an accident. Sydney lost its appeal.

Anne won a raffle years later – a trip to Sydney to hear Pavarotti sing. That was stupendous. And we did our homework food-wise. A highlight was a visit to Tetsuya’s restaurant in an outer suburb. Even then he had a great reputation. I remember I had ox-tail. Now Tetsuya runs a large restaurant in the centre of the city – it used to be run by Suntory, I’d taken Anne there for her first Japanese meal during the early visit. We enjoyed the two events. But our overall mood was one of sadness, of promise unfulfilled.  I'm pleased we had the opportunity - it gave a sense of the closing of a chapter.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Twilight Within

The tui comes daily to the abutilon outside our French doors. I take him for granted but visitors are entranced. One said the other evening ‘I’ve never been so close’. The delicacy of such a large bird has to be seen to be believed. It makes the blackbird look clumsy.

Beside the abutilon the camellia, still a blaze of flower, has new shoots galore. We had it pruned last year after flowering. Judging by the new growth it looks like an even better display next year. I wonder will I be here to see it?

I am enjoying the community of the Tuesday poem group. I follow the individual blogs and comments, disparate lives with one common interest. One member wrote asking me if if a knew the poem which contained the line ‘I was nine at the time and a coward by fate’. I didn’t and a search failed to find it. So I confessed failure. But the miracle of the internet. Someone else knew and blogged the information. Here is the poem. :


I was driving the cows and the frogs were soothsaying,
‘Woe, land and water! All, all is lost!’
It was winter full-grown and my bones were black in me.
The tussocks were brittling from dew into frost.

The earth looked at me, ears up in stillness.
I was nine at the time and a coward by fate:
The willow-trees humping into cringing old swaggers,
And the cows lunged up unicorns, passing the gate.

A sudden wind clouted the nose of our chimney,
It rumbled and bellowed its sparks in a spray;
I took to my heels in the terrible twilight,
For I thought the sky was blowing away.

Eileen Duggan

Shades of Walter de la Mare! The fears of a nine-year old! Thanks Alexia. Well done.

I sit in my chair and look out to the garden – green, lush, fecund, the promise of summer. I go into my study and sit at the computer and a miraculous world of information and communication opens. Ali has lent Anne a recipe book, Nigel Slater’s 'The Kitchen Diaries'. I dipped into it as I ate my lunch. His theory is that food should be seasonal. He’s correct. Asparagus started, whitebait ending, gooseberries soon, then peaches, plums and cherries, water-cress, Bluff oysters ahead. The supermarket coddles us from the reality of existence.

Trivial? No! The nature of existence - life, communication, food, and fear.

I often count my good fortune. I was born into a land lucky – was it luck? - enough not to know famine or to have war rage over the land. Reading a book review this morning I learnt that 14 million non-combatants were killed in Eastern Europe in the middle of the 20th century. What a tragic waste! The mind boggles at the enormity of the murderous totalitarian regimes led by Hitler and Stalin. Hang on to our human rights – they are a bulwark against fear and intimidation and slaughter.

The contrast between my quiet haven and the Warsaw ghetto beggars belief. When I was teaching and attempting to explain the size of the number ‘one million’ I used to say ‘Jesus Christ walked, lived and preached in Palestine less than a million days ago’. Some kids would try mental arithmetic, others surreptitiously scribbled the multiplication on a scrap of paper, one or two would brazenly pull out pocket calculators. Sooner or later someone would say ‘you’re right, sir’. The enormity of the number! 14 million souls destroyed, it’s inconceivable..

I would like to think I live in a kinder, gentler land. I’m afraid the jury’s out. The bogeyman that scared that young girl is still there. But it’s within us – not out there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Paula Green

I’ve been reading Paula Green’s latest poetry collection, ‘Slip Stream’. It’s a very moving collection. Diagnosed with breast cancer – ‘nothing feels solid enough to walk upon’ - the poet goes through the various stages of treatment – mammogram, biopsy, operation and radiation treatment. Each poem is untitled but describes a step along the experience of living with the illness. Hope jostles with anxiety - 'she never likes the way people/ say I know you’ll be fine when/ the future is unpredictable, as random as love.’

I had enjoyed Green’s previous collection, ‘Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins.’ As art was the unifying factor in that collection, music is in this one. Indeed there is a list of ‘Songs for the Treatment Room’ at the end of the poems. What I particularly enjoyed was the craftsmanship of the poems - the writer at work. ‘As random as love’ – what an accurate phrase.

The succeeding line is equally superb – ‘or the way birds shit on her car roof.’ True! The randomness of people in a waiting room – the convergerce of a few lifetimes for a brief moment of sharing unarticulated fears. Paula has done this well. I commend the book.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Secondary Teacher Strikes

I’ll approach the subject of the secondary teachers’ strike obliquely. A while ago some bright spark in Treasury had an idea. Why should Government Departments be housed in Government property? Especially as they were on prime real estate sites. (That is, close to their political masters). Why not lease or sell them off and let the departments rent the required office space.

So the powers-that-be went ahead with gusto to implement that idea. Offices and officers were uprooted. New premises were modified to meet the department’s requirements. But over time market rentals were seen as another drain on government expenditure. So offices were again relocated.

Often to more rundown areas of the capital. Often to areas with few bus routes nearby and limited parking. Old, frail, ill, poor people have difficulty accessing these places. Government saved some money. But it has been at the expense of service and accessibility. Each upheaval has its one-off cost. It is symptomatic of change in the nature of the public service. And politicians still rail about the bureaucracy. I notice they have not cut parliamentary services.

I know the ‘Yes Minister’ arguments. I’ve seen them in action. I have seen the various departments acting like baronial kingdoms, conflict without the armour and therefore less lethal. But present day suits still have the capacity to engage in civil warfare. It’s a question of common sense and balance.

I can’t enter the secondary pay argument. I’m not up with present salaries. But I suspect what really bugs the teachers has been the gradual erosion of their professional status.

The New Zealand school system is unique. About 97% of our children attend state schools (this figure includes integrated schools). Unlike the medical profession where many doctors work in both the private and the state sector teachers are entirely dependent upon the state for their income. As governments down the years have tried to balance the books teacher incomes remain an issue. Not just pay, conditions of service.

Muldoon asked his ministers for an overall cut of 3% from their departments. I watched Merv Wellington wiggle and squirm to avoid making those cuts. To his credit he never reached the magic figure. Unpopular with teachers I understand he got a rocket from his Boss.

A popular Minister of Education is an oxymoron. Successive ministers have been at the receiving end of teacher anger. 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.

It seems fair comment to say teaching as a profession has been steadily devalued. Everyone has been through school. Not only is there nostalgia, things are different now, but everyone has ideas about what must be taught and how. It’s hard work encouraging learning with so many distractions out there. It’s always been stressful. It’s more so now. Changes like NCEA have increased the workload. Respect is now something to be gained. 

Which is why I come back to conditions of service. Class size, resources, support, all the myriad of things that assist and improve the teacher’s task. I get very angry when I hear people arguing class size doesn’t matter. I know from experience it does.

Last night’s poll showed 49% supported the strikes, 51% didn’t. In other words the country’s very divided on this issue. And when that happens there is no clear winner. Which is why Government and teachers shouldn’t retreat to trench warfare. Sooner or later they will have to sit around the negotiating table. Teachers need to beware that they do not lose any more popular support. The government needs to be aware that turmoil in the sector will undermine it’s own credibility. An all-out attempt to smash PPTA will do the nation great harm.

What’s the link to Government property. Cost reduction does not necessarily improve service. To tell teachers that class size is a matter for the local school trustees and staff is a cop-out. It’s Government’s baby. There's the National interest at stake.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Fool and Grateful

The fecundity of late spring has always brought a sense of joy to me. Anne drove me to the doctor’s place last week. The wildflowers that litter Wellington’s roadside banks and verges come into their own at this time. One forgets how green and colourful Wellington is. As a city it has lots of trees. They add to the character of the place.

But they are undisciplined in contrast with Christchurch. Poor Christchurch, another massive aftershock this morning. My memory is of willows strikingly weeping into the Avon River, a guarantee to its reputation as the Garden City. I loved my time at varsity there in the ‘50s. But its gardens are less English now than they were then.

For three years I lived in Rolleston House, (RH) the student hostel just across Worcester Street from the main university entrance now damaged in the quake. Across the road were the magnificent botanic gardens where I strolled, swotted and courted. The exotic splendours of the hothouse and the formality of the rose garden were overshadowed each spring when they look their best - as does the whole city - cherry blossom, daffodils along the river, and rhododendrons. Indeed, one spot near the azaleas brings back memories of my first real kiss.

Shortly after the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York I had time between meetings to walk through these gardens. There on that bench where that kiss took place a young mother sat breast-feeding her baby, her toddler at her feet throwing clumsy bread to a duck and her ducklings. The scene was idyllic. I suddenly realised she might think I was being voyeuristic but she looked up and smiled and I said something to the effect of what a beautiful scene. She asked her daughter to give the nice man some bread to feed the ducks. Tears sprung to my eyes, for my youth, for the dead in New York, for humanity. I felt a fool and grateful.

Tears are near now as I remember the city I loved living in shudders yet again. One feels so helpless. We are such foolish creatures.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Reading Janet Frame


Where the first pear slug hasn’t won,
the first frost has. Gaunt
the hawthorn’s lichened boughs
rise to cloudless skies and
for once no mower clamours loud.
Day? It’s a cracker. Just right
for worship, celebration, carousel
and the planting of jonquils.

Reading Janet’s poems…
the pocket mirror shows jaw
and bone under a Sunday stubble.
Next spring the bare hedge will bloom again;
but at present all too clear is its gaunt frame.

Harvey McQueen

Sunday week back Fiona Kidman launched my new poetry anthology ‘These I Have Loved’. During her speech she said she’d thought of reading ‘this poem’, it was her favourite Harvey McQueen poem. It was a bit bleak for the occasion she decided. So she read another. I was chuffed. To have someone say they had a favourite out of my canon gave a sense of acceptance.

It’s an old poem, written in the late 1960s. I was teaching in Hamilton. My home there was in a new sub-division. Across the road behind the bulldozed sections was this neglected old hawthorn hedge, a remnant of a vanished dairy farm. On a winter weekend I read my newly-purchased Janet Frame’s poetry collection ‘The Pocket Mirror’. I was blown away. Such power. Such word magic.

I sat down and wrote this poem. I think I can truthfully say it is the only poem I’ve written that required no revision. My hunch is that it’s unity appeals to Fiona as much as the subject matter.

At the time I was working on 'Ten Modern New Zealand Poets', my first poetry anthology, I included a selection from Janet Frame all taken from her 'The Pocket Mirror'. A teacher caustically said he supposed I’d included her to make up the women’s numbers. He didn’t believe my reply that she was amongst the first I selected for I believed her to be our wordsmith par excellence.

I knew that she had been writing poems ever since 'The Pocket Mirror' and hoped they would see the light of day sometime. The posthumous collection 'The Goose Bath Poems' which appeared in 2007 has some of them. I hope there will be many more for they’re great. It also should be said, they are more celebratory than the first collection.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


We each see life through different lens.

Anne says ‘it’s war out there’. She’s speaking of the garden. Last week she planted out some petunia seedlings in a pot, interspersed with white alyssum. The following day I pointed out that snails had had a field day on the petunias and suggested she put out some snail bait. She did so. Next morning when she pulled back the curtains there were sluggish, dying snails galore in or around the pot. Even I was surprised by how many. Winter hibernation over they were on the prowl for tasty titbits.

It’s part of the process. It is in the nature of snails to eat certain plants and ignore others. It’s in the nature of a gardener to either not plant those that will be eaten or engage in combat with the enemy. Anne bewails the fact that the gardener must be constantly vigilant. It was an aspect I revelled in. Because I have done it for most of our time together she’s a late comer to the trade as my health has declined. It takes time to adjust. She’s made leaps and bounds. She’s now hopefully nursing the frail petunias. And turning into a snail-disliker.

In my gardening prime I used to set out beer traps in the garden, especially near lettuces, to snare the molluscs. At least they died happy I consoled myself. I prefer not to use bait but in this instance it was either petunias or snails. Sometimes other animals, dogs or more rarely cats will eat the bait and a sad sight is to see thrushes consuming snails killed by bait. I also always liked hedgehogs around the garden- they eat snails.

Last summer Helen my school-girl gardener uncovered a nest of snails. What do I do with them she asked? Crush them, I replied. She shuddered. She couldn’t. So I sent her away and tottering over to the pile brought my foot down on the heap. Satisfaction! For me! I could tell Helen did not approve.

In years ago school biology l learnt that snails are hemaphrodite – that is each snail has both male and female reproductive organs. But despite this interesting fact I must say of all creation they are to me one of the least appealing 'critters'.

I have never looked on snails as a source of food. I did try them once in France. I love garlic so I ate them enjoying the strong garlic flavour of the sauce they were cooked in. But as a taste sensation, forget it. Unlike frog’s legs, Yum! Apparently, the ancient Romans relished them as a delicacy. I also understand that their flavour depends upon what they have been eating. That makes sense. Well, to each his own.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why Blog?

Why Blog?

It’a question I quite frequently ask myself. It’s a form of social networking. Gossip to put it crudely. I can’t get out and about so I interrelate by blogging. People can comment or ignore. I get emails from strangers and friends commenting upon what I’ve written.

There is another level. Speaking of poetry Auden once said he didn’t know what he was going to write until he’d written it. A blog is an ordering of thoughts, ideas, scraps of information. It can be a heat-seeking missile homing in on a target or a thistledown wafting where the breezes take it. It’s me. And it’s not me. There is considerable self-censorship. I try not to be hurtful. I try not to be bitter. I try not to be indecent. I try to be fair. That in itself is a form of discipline. Or is it self-indulgence?. Either way it’s creative.

I’m having these thoughts because Howard Jacobson in an interview in Time magazine talks about novels and the blogs about them. ‘I wasn’t brought up to intepret literature such as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Great Expectations’ as something I should agree with.’Of course he’s right. ‘Sons and Lovers” for another example is an entity in itself, an opinion about it is merely that, an opinion.

I have a neighbour who considers Alison Wong’s novel ‘As the Earth Turns Silver’, which I blogged about yesterday, is spoilt by too much historical research. I disagree. It’s one of the strengths of the book. I consider her material well-digested and the Chinese background is obviously familial. So my friend and I disagree. That’s life. Our dialogue, discussion, chinwag, is an age-old human custom.

When I was cooking I found I wanted to share recipes, share triumphs and swap anecdotes over disasters. It’s part of a learning process. If I see a film I want to talk about it, to share experiences and discover how others perceived the story-line, camera work, music etc. Why we liked it or didn’t like it. Part of the reason I enjoyed teaching was this sense of sharing Curiosity is a very human characteristic.

So my blog meets a personal need. At random, on 10 May 2009 I put up a blog called ‘Rididulous Rhinos’. That morning there had been an item about rhino on the radio. It aroused my curiosity and I went on to the internet. A few hours later I emerged having been down all sorts of byways and highways about rhinos, hippos, elephants and ancient Rome. I switched to Microsoft and typed out the blog.

Friends ask does it become a chore. Not yet! The day it does maybe I’ll consider giving it away. But I value it as a lifeline to the world, and to sanity. Though once or twice when I’ve missed a day I’ve had emails asking me if I’m all right. The lack of a blog could be caused by many factors. One lurking dread is a computer crash. I’d be bereft without it.

To put it bluntly ‘I’m a contented blogger.

Friday, October 15, 2010


I have just finished a splendid book, Alison Wong’s novel ‘As The Earth Turns Silver’

‘lovers are light
on the earth
they do not understand

These lovely lines are from a poem in Wong’s ‘Cup’ her first book of poems published in 2006. Three years later her first novel ‘was published to considerable applause. Indeed in the recent awards it was declared the best Kiwi novel of that year.

To my regret, indeed shame, I did not get round to reading it until recently. I always intended to. I had read and greatly enjoyed the novels of Maxine Hong Kingston. Born in California she’d written a series about the experiences of Chinese immigrants to the States. Those books helped me understand the opening sentence of Wong’s novel. ‘It is a lonely place where the Jesus-ghosts preach.’

There’s a powerful haunting sadness about the novel. Part of that sadness is the radiance of the central love affair, a cross-cultural relationship. From its beginning the reader knows it will end in tragedy. The Jesus-ghosts ‘preach about love … yet in the street the people sneer and call out and spit.’

Is this the lot of the immigrant? Curnow’s lines spring to mind
'Bloodily or tenderly striven
To rearrange the given,
It was something different, something
Nobody counted on.'

There are books I read and books I burn through in which I want to know what happens. The trouble with the race through approach is that it leaves less time to appreciate in this instance the liquid prose. I kept telling myself to slow down and savour the language.

There is a brief chapter called ‘The Cable Car’. It is one of the crux chapters of the novel. There is quite a lengthy setting for the chapter. The actual ride up and down and what happened at the top is not described. But in the sudden concluding paragraph there is a major resolution. The author’s understatement leaves it to the reader’s imagination to understand the events of that eventful journey.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of old Wellington. That had that ring of fictional truth that is convincing. Yes, that was the way it was. I felt the same about relationship of the immigrants with their counterparts back in China – bonds and ties under strain - but maybe that was fascination at glimpses into another culture, another way of perceiving existence.

I felt Wong got the flavour of the period – the anti Chinese sentiment, the suffragettes, Truby King, the approach to the First World War. This authenticity gives the book strength. But I return to the centrality of the clandestine love affair. The strains of such a relationship! The effects of such a relationship! Gentleness finds it hard to survive in a world of hate and bitterness. The world can turn silver. But not always!

When I finished the book I realised there were some flaws. ‘War and Peace’ has more and my favourite note Hardy’s ‘Tess’ has dozens. But I intend to read Wong’s novel again soon and more slowly. It’s a good read.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I Take It Back

I take back my earlier comment about the Commonwealth Games. This afternoon I watched on TV the two marathons, won by Kenyans, though Australia got a silver in the men’s and a bronze in the women’s.

The marathon has always intrigued me. From its Greek origins to its present day ascendancy. Close friends Roger Robinson and Kathrine Switzer have written a marvelous history of the event.It has often been the highlight of the Olympic Games.

Today’s two races were as usual mixtures of skill and stamina, fortune and preparation. The jockeying for position, the judgement of pace, the cat and mouse tactics and the decision as to when to make the decisive burst, it was all there. I sat riveted as watched the race proceed.

But I had one disappointment. The race did not finish in front of the packed athletic stadium. I am a ritual person. That is customary. I accept Delhi’s heat warrants early starts but somehow it took away the glamour of the event.

I realise that has been my problem all week. Because of my own needs I’ve only been watching preliminary heats and events. These have taken place before empty stadiums. The crowd’s hype is part of the occasion. I’ve missed the rest of the athletics. That’s my loss.

I also watched live on my computer the last miner loaded into the capsule to arrive safely on the surface. What a feat. But the BBC commentator kept talking about the last person. There were three rescue people still down in the mine. Not till they came out was the task finalised it seemed to me. How did the last man lcok himself into the capsule? It worried me. The worries we have that are wasted energy. Someone had obviously worked it out. But I would like the media to acknowledge it. Those three men who went down to assist the trapped miners were brave. They deserve praise. The headlinees talk of 33 heroes. I say 36.

Postscript. two hours later. I also take back the last paragraph. TV3 tonight did talk about the rescuers left behind. And there were six of them.The last one entered the capsule and shut it internally.



Yesterday I saw the first honey bees of the season. They were enjoying the lavender. More disappointing I also saw my first white butterfly.

So Wellington has a new mayor. I thought the specials would tend to go to the incumbent. But it did not happen that way.

Anne took me to the optician. I need new computer glasses rather than the old heavy ones I am using. (A relic from the days when I first needed reading glasses). After the battery of tests we selected a frame for a new pair. Except for needing them for reading my eyes are in good shape. Pleased something’s working reasonably well.

In Chile they’ve begun rescuing the miners one by one from deep underground. While the world watches. It is a feel good news story for a change.

Somehow I cannot get involved in the Commonwealth Games. It’s partly time zones and my need to have oxygen every night. But somehow there’s a lack of excitement. But then I’d missed the sevens finals and will the netball tonight. And the athletics are also out of kilter for my needs.

Anne bought and cooked turbot for our dinner. I enjoy fish and turbot is one of the tastiest flavours. I put up these comments because I'm grateful for Anne's care and attention to my needs and wants. My worry is her needs and wants for which I can do so little.

Anne also  planted petunias in one of the pots in front of our French doors. Of all the things I miss, gardening is one of the highest. Writing this sentence aroused a long dormant memory of an embarrassing moment.

I had welcomed a visiting Chinese education delegation. In return they hosted us for a meal. There was a floral misunderstanding.. Through the interpreter, the Chinese minister asked about my hobbies. When I said I loved gardening, the minister looked baffled. So I added ‘growing flowers”, and then indeed he looked surprised. When they had gone, the Chinese language adviser gave me some advice: ‘Don’t ever say that. Flowers mean “pretty women.’’ He tapped his nose knowingly.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Early Childhood

It is very satisfying watching a young child learning to walk and talk. The development is so rapid and so miraculous. Both skills involve trial and error. We learn by making mistakes. Teachers know you dwell on the positive, not the failure.

Infant teachers know, however, the wide division that exists in their new infant classes between those who have extensive stimulation and those whose development has been left to chance and nature. That gap is very hard to close.

Which is why I am so critical of the Key Government’s early childhood policy. During David Lange’s stint as Minister of Education the report 'Before Five' charted a course for early childhood care and education. Those in the sector were enthusiastic. The Cinderella of the education sector was at last getting recognition.

Under the succeeding regime, however, much of that programme was not implemented. Helen Clark’s Government returned to it, improving it and setting definite goals. One of those was to have qualified teachers in the various centres.

Now that goal has been abandoned. Last night, I watched Minister Anne Tolley being interviewed by John Campbell. She is the best non-answerer I’ve seen for a long time. She puts her head down like a rhinoceros and charges with her prepared answer. Her mind is made up.

One of her statements was that you don’t need qualifications to take care of young children. That's the point. The word education goes alongside care. Taking care of is more than wiping noses and bums. It involves encouraging curiosity, seeking language development, improving motor skills.

A qualified teacher is more apt to meet those needs. I am not knocking the hundreds of dedicated people who’ve worked in the early childhood sector. I speak from experience. When I was teaching I took part in an experiment. To cope with an acute shortage of secondary teachers a ‘pressure-cooker’ scheme was devised. Local people with degrees were engaged to work in schools under a master-teacher to learn the trade.

The scheme was enlarged to include graduates from England. I enjoyed the task of training these people as teachers. But when I became an inspector of schools I saw many of them in action. They had learnt a trade but they lacked the theory to underpin their programmes. They taught my style rather than develop their own to meet the needs of the actual students in front of them. They had been trained rather than educated. It was a chastening lesson.

The sad thing about the pulling out of the resource rug from the early childhood sector is that it is an essential component of the knowledge society. Our pre-schoolers need the best opportunity they can get. Not only for their own sake, but for the nation’s.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Worth A Chance


When I planted Iceland poppies
in the clay
                               of the new section
exposed to the autumn winds
                               it seemed unlikely
they’d survive
                              but they have.

Now another calyx
                              is burst by petals
           if left
                             will quickly fall
but if gathered will be replaced
                             by others.

And if the stems are burnt
                            the blooms will last
a little longer
                            in time, new commitments
involvements, but at present
                           a flourish of colour.

Harvey McQueen

A the launch of my anthology of favourite New Zealand poems on Suinday Fiona Kidman chose this early poem of mine to read – it is not in the collection I hasten to add. I only chose one of mine,in the dedication to Anne my wife.

What Fiona did not realise is that it was one of the earliest poems I ever gave to Anne. It arouses memories in both of us. The only problem is that Anne swears that the original I gave her had in the last line ‘a flourish of orange’. .From this vantage I cannot adjudicate. What Fiona read is what is printed in my first collection of poems. All I can say ‘is good  choice Fiona’. And thanks

Tingling Catch

Today's Tingling Catch blog (11/10/2010) from Mark Pirie has comment about 'These I Have Loved'. It also has an old poem of mine that Mark considered for his cricket book but did not use.  See my bloglist

Thanks Mark


Fiona Kidman on 'These I Have Loved'

Yesterday, Fiona Kidman launched my latest anthology. 'These I Have Loved'. Here is her address.

'For Harvey
There’s something marvelous and exhilarating and absolutely special about gathering with friends for the 10th day of the 10th month of the 10th year of the century. It feels like a unique moment in time. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras saw 10 as the symbol of the universe and of expressing the whole of human knowledge.

As it happens I’ve got a passion for the synchronicity of numbers. I’m a failed mathematician, who might have been better but for a change of schools when I was growing up. And I don’t have any deep hindsight into what numbers might or might not signify in our lives. But it does seem to me that this idea of the whole of human knowledge rings one or two bells here as, on this 10th day,, we launch a collection of one man’s poetic human knowledge, distilled into those poems he loves the best.

‘These I Have Loved’ are poems loved by the poet and educator, our friend Harvey McQueen, 100 New Zealand poems that have caught his attention, lingered in his memory, and stayed there as lasting sentinels, totem poles if you like, to his life long love of language and poetry. Or to put it another way, as a beacon to the wider life of the mind, a way into learning and understanding that which is important.

It’s no real surprise to those of us who love poetry that, although poetry falls on hard times, it never dies. The voice of the poet is always with us, the singing words that resonate in our heads, are carried like emblems of grief and happiness, there to sustain us in good times and bad. The music pf poetry embedded in our subconscious simply never leaves us, or not the best of it, those which we love the most.

Indeed, in his introduction to this book, Harvey writes “These are poems which, down the years or in some cases only recently, have settled in my mental household, comfortable and available, a satisfying source of reflection and contemplation. To a considerable extent they represent who I am, or maybe, the person I would hope to be. They reflect my temperament and my interests. There are long poems and short poems, some simple, others difficult, some well-known, others not. I, that is Harvey still speaking here, used to tell my students, you don’t need to understand a poem to fully like it. Love has the capacity to astonish. Like relationships, you think you’ve grasped the essence, only to find there are previously unplumbed depths and surprises.’

Well, I get all of that, because the kind of poems that Harvey loves are often the ones I love too and I guess that that shared delight, as well as our long friendship, something I will return to, is the reason Harvey asked me to launch this book today. Like Harvey, I love Ruth Dallas’s poem ‘Milking Before Dawn’ which is one of the great pastoral poems of New Zealand’s or any, poetry. It has a great resonance for me, who milked many a cow before dawn, with chilblains on my fingers. Then there’s the countryside of poets like Brian Turner, Denis Glover, the different landscapes of Mark Pirie, Pat White and Janet Frame, and of course the poetry of his own beloved Little River territory on Banks Peninsula where he grew up. So landscape, and family and childhood, love and loss, food and its preparation- witness Ian Wedde’s lovely poem ‘To Autumn’ – for instance, and gardening, are some of the great themes that Harvey explores.

How does he put it all together? Well, he has divided his loves into several sections” Love the World, I’m in Love with you, You know the place , Books and paddocks endure, This much I have learned, are just some of them. In so arranging the poems, Harvey does indeed create symbols of the universe. Each section includes a generous introductory note that creates an order and context for the poems.

The book includes a wide ranging, eclectic mix of poets. But I think it no random act that has brought James K. Baxter into the center of his mix. This centrality signals a particular kind of voice, and again I return to a musicality of language, a yearning beyond the obvious things of life, to those of the spirit. We know, because the voice of Baxter at the heart of Harvey’s choices, mean that the poems he has chosen will reflect a certain quality of music and rhythm, plus expressions of social comment and concern. You could say here, perhaps, that for Harvey Baxter represents a centrifugal force from the past 50 or 60 odd years, similar to that of that Dylan Thomas in Welsh poetry, or Seamus Heaney does for in Ireland, or, if one dare mention him in the same breath, Leonard Cohen does for Canada. Baxter, then, is an indicator, of what we might expect from Harvey’s choices of poem, his view of what constitutes new Zealand poetry.

There are several recent poems by newly emerging poets, and also many who spring from a group of their time, people who were seriously writing poetry in the 1960s and 1970s, a time where my own modest poetic history began. Vincent O’Sullivan, Lauris Edmond, Alistair Campbell, Louis Johnson, Sam Hunt, Elizabeth Smither, Rachel McAlpine, Tony Beyer, Bill Manhire, to name just a few. In many ways it’s a meeting of minds amongst friends. Vincent O’Sullivan said to me the other day, and I hope he’ll forgive me for quoting him, that this book is significant in the wide range, the broad and generous tone of this selection. I echo that, the selection doesn’t live by any rule book about what’s good and what’s not. Harvey has simply chosen what he wants without fear or favour.

We do, it seems to me, have a wide poetic mainstream in New Zealand today, but we also have individual voices and events, fringes and movements which wax and wane, and may not last forever, but leave in their wake memorable poems. Several of Harvey’s books have been published by Mark Pirie’s Headworx Press, just one example of a publisher and poet working at the edges of the mainstream, not altogether recognized by it, yet made the richer by its contribution. Michael O’Leary at the Earl of Seaclyff Press is another.

And I should of course place Roger Steele, publisher of this book in this context, -if that causes Roger a ripple of unease, I’m saying here that these are risk takers, and risk in poetry publication is something to be hailed and celebrated. Sometimes, as we saw with Roger’s publication of the poet Glen Colquhoun, there are results beyond all expectations. I should add too Roger, that this is a delightful production of Harvey’s book and you’ve done it proud. Bravo.

I mentioned my friendship with Harvey. I don’t really remember when it began, but I’ve been aware of him as a poet since his first book ‘Against the Maelstrom’ appeared in 1981. He moved to Wellington in 1977, and it was somewhere in the space of those years, when he was moving amongst my friends, those several poets of the 70s, I’ve mentioned as appearing in this book, that we got to know each other. He’s been a school teacher, a school inspector and an education aide to former Prime Minister David Lange, and most of all a poet of whom it has been written that his poems often contain a very simple action that becomes a symbol for a universal human truth. He is above all a constant friend to many, and a mentor of other poets. And to Anne Else to whom he dedicates a poem of his own at the beginning of the book,he is a loving companion, friend and husband. Many thanks are owed to Anne for her help in arranging today’s gathering.

All in all, and almost the last thing I have to say is that this is a generous, energetic, imaginative and very enjoyable anthology, full of unexpected surprises which I hope many will own (That means buy the book) But there is just one more thing : Harvey asked me if I would like to read a poem of my own from the book, but on reflection I decided that I would like to read one of Harvey’s because, apart from the opening poem for Anne, in typically modest fashion, there are none of his own in the book. I was torn between two, one is ‘Reading Janet Frame’, which is perhaps my favourite of Harvey’s poems, and ‘Worth a Chance’. The first ends on a slightly bleak note, and as today is a day of celebration of Harvey and of this book, ‘Worth a Chance’ won out.'

PS  I will post 'Worth A Chance' as my Tuesday Poem for this week

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Waiting for a Launch

It’s a strange day. So many things to write about.

Last night about 2 am the doorbell rang. Anne didn’t hear it upstairs so I pushed my walker to the door. It was a policewoman. There had been a fracas down the lane she said. Had I heard anything? Sorry to disturb you sir.

Book launch .this afternoon. I’m trying to husband my energy prior to the event. It’s hard to keep excitement corralled.

I haven’t mentioned this on my blog before but during the adventuresome night when I slept with a different and temporary mask I broke the skin on the bridge of my nose. Despite dressing with anti-bacteria ointment and manuka honey (my caregiver swears by this remedy) it hasn’t we took it to the doctor’s on Friday. So anti-biotics.

I finished the Holman book. It has not been the best of times to be reading such a densely packed account. It’s a book demanding reflection and consideration. The history of pre-Pakeha New Zealand that I was fed in my school-days and indeed taught in my early teaching career has long been superseded by new research and fresh understandings. ‘Our Nation’s Story’ needed considerable modification. Holman’s done a good job pulling together so many different strands. I am pleased to have read it.

What to read next? I dithered between Alison Wong’s novel ‘As the Earth Turns Silver’ and the new biography of Katherine Mansfield. Mary McCallum’s blog expressed delight in the novel and expressed regret at not reading it earlier. The comment tipped the scale so I’ll read the Wong. Getting lost in a good novel is probably the best way to forget about the launch.

The local body elections held a few surprises. When the super-city Auckland was created I thought John Banks would continue on his merry way. I was wrong. I thought Kerry Prendergast was a shoo-in as our mayor. I was nearly wrong. Lower Hutt, Hamilton and Dunedin replaced existing mayors, though Tim Shadbolt continued on smiles and all, though Southland lost the Ranfurly Shiled, In New Plymouth Harry Duynhoven ex Labour MP swept in. It’s hard to pick trends but I suspect the overall trend is a left swing.

Last night we watched a DVD ‘Home By Christmas’. When I shifted to Wellington and the Head Office of the old department of Education there was a younger officer Ted Preston. He introduced me to his sister Gaylene the film producer. Gaylene has made this film about her father Edward and mother Tui. Young man goes off to war, captured, in an Italian POW camp, escaped to Switzerland. Meanwhile his wife having had their child, Ted, falls in love with someone else.

It’s a moving memoir. Old Ted played by Martin Barry has that laconic Kiwi language that I associate with my stepfather and the other returned servicemen of that era. The restraint of the movie is part of its appeal. The painful adjustment of the soldier and his wife on his return four years late for Christmas is left to our imagination. We know there are two more children. Preston's camera captured a slice of Kiwi life very well.

In Chile, the miners trapped deep in the mine, have had a rescue shaft reach them. It'll still take a few days before the actual rescue attempt will be made. It's a story of courage and technology. As I say often, the human spirit is amazing. Or maybe that is the life force, the blasted oak I wrote about last week is budding up.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Beattie's Book Blog

I was absolutely thrilled to open Beattie's Book Blog and find Graham Beattie's wonderful long post on my new anthology.  Graham writes:

"Harvey McQueen spent his adult lifetime in education. I had known of him for a long while before I finally met him back in the mid-1980's when I had the great joy and privilege of publishing The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse which he and Ian Wedde edited. That was but one of the books he anthologised in a long and illustrious career.'

"Now he has another anthology, published just this week by enterprising Wellington publisher Steele Roberts, a company which provides great support to poetry publishing in this country. In fact outside of AUP and VUP Steele Roberts is probably our leading poetry publisher."

"Harvey's new book, and he tells me it will probably be his last, is These I Have Loved - my favourite New Zealand poems, and it is an absolute gem. It is a marvellous, eclectic collection as you would expect of course from one whom I suspect has poetry running in his veins.Then there is his eight pages of Introduction where he talks of life and explains just how poetry got to be in those veins in the first place, then scattered throughout the book there are his thoughtful comments on the poems he has selected.... Thanks Harvey, These I Have Loved is a must-have for all who love poetry or would like to love poetry.A wonderful addition to my poetry bookshelf. Thanks too for all you have done for NZ poets and NZ poetry over your life. I salute you."

Thank you too, Graham. You can read the whole post here.


Contentment is not a word I use much for it is rarely a state of being that I now inhabit. It is getting harder and harder to put on my dressing gown each morning, somehow shoulders seem reluctant to engage with sleeves.

Earlier this week Anne’s niece called with her two month old baby. Childhood helplessness. In the cycle that is existence I can see the approach of my second childhood. It’s not a pleasing prospect.

But yesterday I felt contentment. I had spent some time signing books for my launch this weekend. I browsed happily as I signed. Poetry books are immensely dippable.

It was lovely and sunny so I suggested afternoon tea out on the lawn. With the recently-bought second-hand walker I went out the front door and around the house to the east side to sit in garden chair. I sat facing the house, sun-hat protecting my face and soaking up the warmth. Bruce had mowed the lawn the day before. Life felt good.

From that vantage I could see the two oaks side by side on the west side of the house. One is a burst of fresh green leaves. The other, shattered by last March’s storm has hardly a promise of buds.

The storm merely winnowed what was already happening. Last Spring the healthy one had the same green canopy of splendour, the other a few leaves as it struggled for survival. It was sick and frail before the gale did its damage. I imagine it had little sap flow. When I was young I reveled in challenging the storm. Now, I feel at its mercy.

The two oaks are a metaphor for my life – the green one my mind, alert and active, (albeit frustrated), whereas the ailing one is my body.

Strange to have that thought while in a state of contentment. The sight of new leaves on the lovely weeping elm to the north helped. As did the snowdrops, they’ve been flowering for ages. (A search on the internet reveals that deer do not eat them). The lavender’s looking majestic, the roses are vigorous in growth and Anne had planted out lettuce seedlings for summer salads.

Don't catalogue Harvey. Like all such moods it vanished. Musing about contenment destroyed the moment. It's lesson Keats taught us. It's a lesson we never learn. Though we yearn for its return that instance is over and life flows on.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Helen of Troy

Last night we watched a DVD ‘Helen of Troy’. Historian Bettany Hughes toured the viewer around the historic sites of the Greek World in 1,300 BC in search of the facts behind ‘the face that launched a thousand ships.

The legends of the Trojan war are fascinating. Ever since I studied Greek History, Art and Culture it has been a source of interest to me. Homer immortalised what was probably a minor skirmish into a masterpiece with interplay between gods and humans.

I’ve been to Mycanae twice. The Lion Gate, two lions rampant carved into a massive stone, is an imposing entrance to the ruins of what is claimed to be Agamemnon’s citadel. I’ve seen the gold and other treasures in Athens museum taken from the site indicating the wealth and power of the military fortress.

It was not only Homer. The ancient playwrights highlighted the passions and actions of the ruling family at Mycanae. I drew upon them when I wrote this poem about Helen. I have never been to the ruins of Sparta and the nearest I got to Troy was in a plane aloft over the Dardanelles enroute from Istanbul to Athens. Hughes stresses the Hittite influence. Subsequent reading has widened my picture of the influences shaping that ancient Greek society but at the time I wrote the poem I was very much in full flight of pan-Hellenic glory. I should further add the poem was written during an idyllic week’s summer holiday in Paihia.


I can’t sleep. Spartan
nights are warm in August.
Illustrious Menelaus roisters
again with his cronies; clattering
around in harsh armour they boast
of burnt and blackened Troy.

It’s my fate to share this unheroic age.
The gods alone know when some
tall singer of tales will blindly
celebrate that savage raid: Hector’s
corpse mutilated by vain Achilles..
He’ll ignore my beloved Paris,
already the butt, the blamed,

the cause; boot-licking Odysseus
saw to that before he vanished
into the tempestuous sea and
that’s the last we’ll hear of him.
I remember my father Tyndareus
once saying as we collected honey

from smoke-dazed bees, ‘likely lass
they’ll not remember us: fame
is mainly chance.’ My husband
spreads nursery stories, ravishing
great swans, my real self spirited
away for ten years, deep-bosomed
goddesses offering gifts – a futile

attempt to save his sweat-stained
reputation. My rustic maidenhood,
olive harvest frolics, sufficed
the fox-souled son of Atreus,
I could milk ewes, churn soft-white
cheeses, render lard, was comely,

of fertile stock, (he wanted sons
so overlooked my meagre dowry).
It was so long ago, grey flecks
now in my raven locks. His family
was always quarrelling –witness
the massacre at Mycanae. Those
who malign me forget his cruelty.

He was mean also, counting
quinces for our guests. Those
same ill-tongues claim that Paris
was effeminate. They are wrong.
He was cedar-wood and stone, a royal
city, battle-furious when aroused.

When desire (that uninvited stranger)
struck I resisted, in fact we both
resisted for some while, until
Menelaus left us (for boar-hunting
so he claimed). The rest you know.
Such passion demands obedience.
Now beside the weeping Scamander

fallen masonry beds the fugitive
cyclamen and scarlet poppy;
badgers burrow in the ruins
where we once loved so tightly.
Women curse me; I am the whore
who led their men, sons, lovers,

husbands, direct to that
nonsensical cavern of dark and
lonely Hades. It was not my intent.
Nothing is what it once was.
Released, I am captive in my
own country. Even the rain
is different, it falls with much

less force: little affection
or tenderness here. My critics
forget that I also have reason
to weep over my embroidery.
Let it all be said, but also
recall our sturdy ship

cresting the rollers of
the wind-swept Aegean, for
royal escort diving gannets,
leaping dolphins; the strength
and delight of oak-hearted Paris.
Remembering that brief joy
I do not regret what I have done.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A New Zealander

Today, in 1769 Captain Cook sighted New Zealand. A lot has happened on our shores since that sighting.

Which is why the racist remark of Paul Henry’s in incredible. In prime time on our television he chose to criticise the Governor-General for not looking like a New Zealander. Hells bells! What does a New Zealander look like? The statement was worse than poor taste. There are steps on the path to the final solution. This was one..

He insulted the Queen’s representative in front of the Prime Minister. I can only go on replays and therefore the producer’s selection. But John Key didn’t seem to be that affronted, indeed he seemed to joke about the matter. It was a leadership opportunity missed. There are MPs from both major parties who do not fit Henry’s category of looking like a New Zealander. Should they be excluded? TVNZ authorities tried to stare the issue down by saying Henry's comments reflected what others were thinking and saying. They do not reflect my thoughts.

I was delighted to see a SouthAfrican born athlete carry our flag at the Commonwealth Games. Should she be precluded from such an honour because of her birth-place? Or does she look and sound like a New Zealander? Maybe Henry’s prejudice is about pigmentation. If so he’ll exclude thoudands of peoople I’d call New Zealanders

I draw attention to Renee Liang’s blog on the subject in the Tuesday Poem site. We have too few political poems in Kiwiland.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Patrick


Nine years have passed
since that telephone call.

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

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

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

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

In October 1987, Patrick, my 18 year-old stepson was killed in an accident in Sydney. I put this poem on the Tuesday Poem site twenty-three years later in his memory.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book Launch

I have with pleasure been following fellow Tuesday poet Helen Lowe’s blog as she radiates excitement at the launch of her science fantasy novel The Heir of Night [fantastic title]. I understand her feeling. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first launch or twenty-first. Each brings its own mixture of delight and apprehension. All those months of labour resulting in a book which you now hold in your hands – your words, ideas, thoughts, images in print, the feel of the book, its weight, its smell, its appearance, its cover. What will friends think? And strangers? It’s no longer solely yours. It’s out in the marketplace.

Tomorrow I am receiving advance copies of my new poetry anthology These I Have Loved: My Favourite New Zealand Poems. It will be launched next Sunday by Fiona Kidman here in Wellington. Kate Camp and Vince O’Sullivan will read a poem apiece. I am excited, indeed thrilled. It represents over five years' work. In some respects it represents a lifetime of teaching and reading poetry.

The book has 100 New Zealand poems that I have loved - a selection of poems which (as I say in the Introduction), 'down the years or in some cases only recently, have settled in my mental household, comfortable and available, a satisfactory source of reflection and contemplation. To a considerable extent they represent who I am, or maybe, more honestly, the person I would like to be. They represent my upbringing, my temperament, my interests, and my hopes.’

As well as the poems I have linking descriptions as to why I’ve chosen them. For example, Ruth Dallas’s ‘Milking Before Dawn’ represents an early school lesson from 1960, a success that shaped my career. As a school-boy myself I had three idyllic years at Akaroa District High School. So for the cover I helped select an aerial photograph of Akaroa Harbour with Onawe peninsula. The volcanic plug on the old weathered crater was the subject of the first New Zealand poem I was ever introduced to. And so on. With my ill-health it is likely to be my swan-song collection. I am delighted to have compiled it.

At one stage Helen expressed thoughts about reviews – every author has such hopes and fears; though many deny it. I was going to comment on her blog and then I decided to wait and write about reviews on my own. Reviews can make or break a book. They can have immense power. I’ve had bad reviews and good reviews. When my first collection of my own poetry, Against the Maelstrom, came out, one reviewer said ‘I should stick to school inspectoring’. That stung. It was advice I ignored. Had I accepted it the rest of my life would have been different. Had I been more diffident and followed it would I have had such a good life? Such questions are unanswerable. But just raising them shows the power of a review.
John Weir, reviewing the same volume, wrote something wise. Which is the best poem in a first collection? Seek it out, praise it, for it represents the poet’s potential - a sentiment I have tried to follow in my own reviewing.  (He chose my poem 'Helen' as illustrating that potential. It's on my blog 17 Nov 2009).

I have one main request of any reviewer. Please review the book that is – not the book that you wanted it to have been or thought it should have been. Apart from that, in your judgement remember the author is also human, a creature of flesh and blood. It is easier to destroy than create. Criticism can be positive as well as negative.

These I Have Loved will be available after 10 October, published by Steele Roberts. For more information email

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Tony Curtis et al

Wellington’s September saw double the rainfall on the monthly average. At the same time there was slightly more sunshine than usual. It was a topsy-turvy month. October’s beginning with fine sunny weather.

I’ve mentioned the IBM group, the twenty-odd people who suffer from our particular form of muscular degeration. Two have had bad falls this week, one requiring five stiches in his head and the other two breaks in her leg. Their accidents put my concerns in perspective.

Anne made the same comment last night. We were eating our dinner when there was an almighty crash in the kitchen. The large wall clock had fallen off the wall, obviously not secured when taken down to alter for daylight saving. Its glass face was smashed on the tile floor. On the way down it broke the porcelain salt tub that has always sat on the kitchen bench. Anne bought the clock at Auckland farmer’s closing down sale and the salt piece when she was first newly married. Compared with the losses in the Canterbury earthquake these two were mere trivia, but the human capacity to invest meaning to possessions is very strong.

I’ve bought a second-hand walker for use outside. With summer coming on I want to be able to go out and enjoy the sunshine. But I didn’t want to use the good one on the lawn – moisture and mud. Helen, our school-girl gardener, is coming this afternoon, so I’ll supervise her weeding and planting from the garden chairs, decamping with the walker between sites.

I was ashamed to be a New Zealander when I read this morning that one of our TV reporters smeared mud on the wall of the athlete’s quarters at the Commonwealth Games village. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same reporter made a big hue and cry about drug cheating if there is a case. Talk of double standards.

There was a surprising comment on my blog site this morning. Someone had goggled the last line of the short poem ‘Last Run’ – ‘he thought it was fun/ when I lifted the gun.’ He was directed to my Stoatspring site 6/6/09. He commented on that long ago site.

Tony Curtis the heart-throb Hollywood actor died yesterday. ‘Some Like It Hot’ is in my opinion the best comedy film ever made. Curtis and Lemmon’s acting and delivery of lines are superb. ‘City Lights’ runs second but is streets behind. Curtis apparently complained that the director took Marilyn Monroe’s best takes ahead of his. That man knew his audience. I can recollect a group of young men enviously talking about the opportunity that Curtis had in kissing Monroe. ‘I wonder how many rehearsals they had’ one of the group mused. Years later I read Curtis had said it was like kissing Adolf Hitler.

Curtis was at the time married to Janet Leigh. ‘Psycho’ came out the following year. Again, I would rank it high in the list of films I’ve seen. I was teaching at Morrinsville College. Carless, I was negotiating to buy my own wheels. Jack Archibald, the head of the primary section, asked what I would do when I got the car. Go to Hamilton to see ‘Psycho’ I said.

Jack’s wife had just had their first baby in Hamilton hospital. Jack was going across to see her and had planned to go on and take in the movie. So I went with him that night. We had a fish and chips meal beside Hamilton Lake. He went and saw his wife and child while I read in the car. And we saw the movie. W drove home silently, two loquacious men shaken by what they’d just seen. Fifty years on ' Psycho' has spawned thousands of horror films. It’s pioneering impact was great. It has a thousand imitators but none reach its level.

Only once again did I see an audience completely silenced. It was ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ which I saw in Christchurch. The audience spilled out into the Square without a word. From the film’s beginning with Faye Dunnaway’s Bonnie boredly hitting her pillow with her hand until its end when her lifeless arm collapses out of the bullet-ridden car it was a gripping ride. Arthur Penn, its director also died yesterday.

Friday, October 1, 2010


‘The era of written history for all Maori, including Tuhoe, was well under way in the years immediately prior to Best’s arrival in the Urewera in 1895. While oral records of both the distant and recent past were still powerful, a new form of literary consciousness had been transforming their world and was about to be laid over the Urewera; the surveyor’s map. Ever since Cook had touched these shores with his phenomenal ability to chart the uncharted and map the unmapped –and later the treaty of Waitangi had laid out the assumption of the sovereign power to purchase the new lands thus presented – Maori found themselves facing not just the new technology of the book and the gun, but the intellectual universe out of which had emerged the theodolite.’

I have read on much further from this striking opening to the seventh chapter of Holman’s ‘Best of Both Worlds’. Best and Tutakangahau have crossed Lake Waikaremoana and Best is recording the elder man’s chants and accounts.

I have been to Waikaremoana four times. The first was for a week before I began teaching at Morrinsville College. I attended a wedding in Hamilton and had over a week to kill before I began work. Hearing of this one of my fellow students at Teachers’ College suggested I visit her at Tuai. Her father was in charge of the hydroelectricity plant at Waikaremoana. I was pleased to accept.

The bus trip was fascinating – the never-ending pine forests suddenly gave way to miles and miles of native bush. To my eye it looked unlogged. The drive around the lake was breath-taking. Judith’s mother saw me as a suitor. She insisted we take the family car for the day. To her surprise Judith took along her younger siblings. We had a great time exploring the shores of the Lake. I knew nothing of its history. But I sensed history and glimpsed the romanticism that 19th Europeans would have felt.

The second time was my honeymoon. We camped on the shores of the lake. Kiwi called at night. It was so quiet and peaceful. Civilization had ceased to exist. Before we went I’d read Best. That added meaning to the visit.

The third we stayed in the Tourist Hotel. A day rambling in the bush followed by French cuisine – a perfect combination.

On the fourth visit I took Anne and her two sons to see such beauty. The hotel had burnt down and had not been replaced. We stayed in the cabins that had been built down by the lakeside.

Each trip I tramped  to Waikareiti – each time tranquility personified.

But apart from the Best I knew little about the area. I wish I knew what I know now when I inspected Ruatoki school.

What Holman is doing is bringing together all sorts of intellectual strands in my mind and linking them. I’m up to Seddon and Carroll trying to cajole Tuhoe into opening up their land. The information adds a whole fresh dimension to the foreshore debate. I have never regarded myself as a scholar but I enjoy thinking about the fruits of scholarship. And realising though it was not written then I wish I’d read this book a long time ago.