Monday, November 29, 2010

Tuesday Poem; Anne Rutledge by Lee Masters

There are two poems on this blog today

Anne Rutledge

Out of me unworthy and unknown
The vibrations of deathless music;
'With malice toward none, with charity for all.'
Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions,
And the beneficient face of a nation
Shining with justice and truth.
I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,
Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union,
But through separation.
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!

Edgar Lee Masters

There is a traditional story that Anne Rutledge was Abraham Lincoln’s first sweetheart. She died young, leaving him so the legend says heart-broken. Historians argue over the facts. But on her Illinois grave this poem of Lee Masters has been engraved on the granite monument.

For years I found it hard to understand the reverence that Americans had for Abe. That is until I read Jan Morris’s life of the great man during the summer of 2000/2001. We were house-sitting in a place with a lovely garden in Ponsonby. Here’s a poem I wrote after reading the book.

Reading Jan Morris' Life Of Lincoln In Anglesea Street, January 2001

The Herald has two pages of world
news and six of sport. Each morning
I dehead Jill & David's Mutabilis
rose & savour the serenity of their
bougainvillaea-shrouded veranda
(Scarlet O'Hara), very distant the city's
hum. Morris toyed with calling the book
Grape Jelly, one of her first two dislikes
in the USA, the other, the extensive
reverence for Abe. Now she too
embraces the Gettysburg greatness.
Mythical might be the log cabin but
that address endures from a man
kind to kittens & his dim-witted son;
a gawky, laconic politician, who took
courage for granted, whose time saw
one of the bloodiest combats ever.
The prose glitters in praise of his prowess.
Their lettuce & parsley have run to seed.
A person rather uncomfortable with himself
but at ease with his mission. Apparently,
at present the Earth rushes away
from the sun at 108,000 kilometres an
hour. An unconvincing fact to someone 
at ease in a cane chair in peaceful Ponsonby.
He fastened in the America psyche the idea
that right has might and is therefore invincible.
Historians now reappraise, Viet Nam
napalmed doubt into the nation, but
someone better tell George W. for
Roman heroics still brawl on Capitol Hill.
Midday sun and I'm in the shade with
this gem of a book hurling the brain
out of its neutral summer lassitude
while leaving the body still in a
state of contented disengagement. .

At the Gettysburg opening of the war cemetery the speaker before Lincoln spoke for nearly two hours. When Lincoln got up to speak the cameraman took his time to get organised. Lincoln had finished his 147 words before the man had his mechanism lined up. So no photo exists of the famous occasion.

A moving moment in my life was a visit to the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC on Veteran’s Day. It’s a blot on our education system that our kids leave school knowing about Stalin and Hitler, Gladstone and Disraeli but very little about Lincoln. That combination of ‘might’ and ‘right’ seems to me crucial in understanding modern America.


It used to grate when people said ‘isn't it nice you have a hobby’. I didn’t see my gardening as a hobby. It was more than a pastime, an amusement, a diversion. It was a way of being involved with life itself. While there were always new possibilities in the garden, ultimately it was shaped by forces beyond my control, natural forces both generous and frightening. I was only a tenant, fortunate enough to dwell upon that particular spot for a while.

And now I can but onlook. And admire other people’s handiwork. Such is life.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Mixed Bag

A bonus of the recent fine mornings has been dew-spangled spider-webs. As the sun warms up the moisture evaporates. But for a spell the garden is draped with the glittering evidence of effort.

Yesterday I watched a sparrow through my bedroom window. It was obviously pecking spiders from under the guttering. I’d seen either it or one of its mates at a similar task a few weeks back. Nature’s checks and balances.

During the Cultural Revolution the Chinese went on an anti-sparrow campaign. They got rid of them in millions. And the insects multiplied. Sparrows are like rats and dogs, the co-existence with humans is built into their societies.

Yesterday, they put in the vinyl for my wet shower. Anne took this "outdoor toilet" photo, the bowl which they'd temporarily removed looking forlorn on the shady side of the garage. The tap looming over it suggests temporary plumbing. Close examination reveals the garden seat facing east, a good spot to sit on a sunny morning.

But yesterday I waited to go outside until later in the day. Anne had been gardening most of the afternoon. Ali had given her some herbs for transplanting, sorrel, lemon balm, lovage and chervil. As well she put in lettuce and rocket seedlings. We're now having a green salad daily as a result of her labour. The smell of crushed coriander leaves dominated the scene. On the table beside me was some mint she'd saved for use after pulling it out. I ate some of the succlent top shoots, a hangover from my gardening days. I was always crushing rosemary or nibbling lemon balm or chives.

I sat with my pre-dinner whisky savouring the scene. The two lavender bushes she'd potted are in full flower - to the delight of bees, bumble and honey. Pansies and petunias are magnificent. Roses everywhere. One of my contributions, foxgloves, add their unique shape to the area. I'd planted their forebears under the two tree-ferns in the NE corner. Self-sown progeny now sway colourfully in that territory. a mixture of white or pink spears.

We dined well. Anne made watercress and potato soup for starters and then lovely lamb cutlets - just the right shade of pink - for mains. A bottle of French bordeaux - a splash out, all the better for being rare - added a touch to a good meal for the last Saturday in November.

I then watched 'Hobson's Choice', a DVD of a David Lean movie from the 1950s. I'd seen it then but didn't appreciate it. The English class system was beyond my ken then as was life in Salford, Manchester. I think too the concept of an offer of a choice when there really is no choice was too complicated for an unphilosophical young man. I can see now why the critics raved about it.

Charles Laughton and John Mills were superb. But it was Hobson's daughter Brenda De Banzie who stole the show. Described by her father 'as a bit on the ripe side' for marriage she sets out to show him how wrong he is. The other delight was to see a young Prunella Scales who later made her name in 'Fawlty Towers'.

It was a good day after a rugged week. I understood Voltaire's desire to work in his own garden while the world goes on its restless way. But welfare reform concerns me - co-inciding with the Pike Creek tragedy occupying the nation's attention, the working group's latest report has slipped under the radar.

Dependency-bashing is easy. I accept a dilemma. Too small a mesh in the safety-net and the lazy, cunning, cheating people get supported. But if the mesh is too wide some who deserve assistance slip through. I would prefer to live in a society that errs on the side of compassion. But these issues are mighty - they need rigorous and careful consideration rather than adversial and pre-judged dogma. I fear the timelines are too tight for any satisfactory resolution.

Also concerning is the Korean Peninsula. I don't take heart from Sarah Palin's comment that the North Koreans are our allies. All politicians make slips of the tongue. She makes them all the time. Gung ho on top of ignorance does not inspire confidence.

But America faces a dilemma. North Korea is acting confrontational. Why? That is my question. But America will have to act. Can it afford another war. Especially one with China waiting in the wings. If the North is not careful it'll find itself on the slippery slope of no return and so heaven help the poor people caught up in the conflagration.

I sat in the restful lawn last evening and considered these things.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Memories of LM

‘I loved Rhodesia and the lazy yet vibrant life of the untouched land with its few people and miles and miles of peace. In the moonlight the plantations of eucalyptus trees shone like still moonstones: in the early dawn the tall grasses swayed in the light breeze, heavy with dewdrops, till suddenly the sun rose and in one half hour the world was once more a hard, dry gold. Then, dotted all over the fields, fine spirals of blue smoke began to curl up from the fires of early workers, while across the wide valley soft, white blankets of cloud rolled up and toppled over the slopes in a hurry to get down to the river before the hot sun licked them up.’

The passage is from LM, as Ida Baker, Katherine Mansfield’s devoted friend and helpmate, was known. The year is 1916. In Europe ‘the ghastly war raged’. LM was returning to Europe from her father’s place in Africa.

In light of what’s happening in present day Zimbabwe it reads sadly. But as I read it in quotation in Kathleen Jones’s biography of Mansfield the thought struck me that Ida Baker was not to be lightly dismissed.

So the life finished I took ‘Katherine Mansfield: The Memories of LM’ off the shelf to reread. I see I gave the book to Anne for her birthday in 1986. Fourteen years ago, two houses back for us. I’d read it at the time. But since then I’ve read a lot more about Mansfield including her journals and letters.

I read it this time with the benefit of just completing the Jones. She has used LM’s memories judiciously and sensitively. I’m no expert but it seems to me as biographer she places this relationship in a fair and accurate context. LM’s account is guarded and cautious. But she was there for Katherine’s two early pregnancies, unwise marriage, and towards the end as the writer’s health deteriorated as menial support.

LM made many perceptive comments about Mansfield. Here’s one which I think is a good description. ‘She was both a creator and an extrovert. She looked at life and saw it; then she took it into herself and created.’

The letters from Katherine to her friend reveal an interesting relationship. It was based on devotion and trust rather than equality. LM knew her place. Her prime loyalty was to her friend. I’m pleased to have read her memories again – this time with much greater understanding – and am grateful for her dedication. It helped Katherine to create and survive as long as she did.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Red Carnations

Anne likes flowers in the living room. For over a fortnight we’ve had a bunch of dark pink alstroemeria from our own little garden. I planted them the year we arrived. They were at their end yesterday so Anne bought some bright red carnations (for me, because she knows I like them).

They sit there, jaunty, in a vase beside me. She also picked two red roses, Dublin Bay, from the climber we’d planted. She bruised the stem and placed an aspro in the water, time-honoured customs to preserve shape, scent and longevity. A kind neighbour had brought some little pink carnations of the kind described by Shakespeare. So the room looks colourful.

Part of the appeal of red carnations is that in season when he dressed to go out my grandfather, Pop, always wore one in his button-hole. A keen Labour man, it displayed his conviction and loyalty. He in his turn probably got the habit from his mother whose Sumner garden always had carnations, pink, red and white. I was six when great-granny Barclay died died in 1940, aged 98.

Here is a poem I wrote about her years ago.

how environment has shaped me
protocol, parameter & precedent
I wonder about Mum’s paternal
grandmother. “Lyttelton was like
coming home, laddie, coming home,”
easterly drizzle, ochre hills, or
just the look of land after the
rough charter voyage from Dundee?

Then a clean apron among the burnt
stumps & butter churns at Pigeon
Bay. I am told her husband though
a tartar was good at felling totara
& on the County Council. When they
shifted to Okuti her many children
walked over the hill to the native
school; from their studybooks she
taught herself to read.

I recall lavender
& camphor clothes, thick glasses,
carnations along her fence, lapses
into Gaelic, tram rides into town,
& the time her son a cabinet minister
brought Peter Fraser home, I watched
her pour tea from a pot I had never
seen before & to the nodding great
man describe me as a future politician.

She would not have understood
the theologian’s ”politics is the sad
business of dispensing justice in a
sinful world,” everything except John
A Lee or her shortbread could be perfect.

How I have failed her.

Once apparently
they asked,”did you never want to go
back? & she replied, “such a long way.”

When I had a sore throat, she mixed
aspro, honey, told me to stop crying &
sat up all the night to share the pain.

A devout Presbyterian she went to church every Sunday. A devout teetotaller she had a strong conviction that a hot toddy was good for colds. She seemed to have a lot of colds. Pop’s brother, Jim Barclay, a Cabinet Minister in the first Labour Government, brought Peter Fraser to see her when she was dying. Of course I did not know that, such things were not talked about in those days. Mum was nursing her. Great-Granny called out from the bed-room for me to come and meet the great man. He was quietly spoken, this was not the booming voice Pop listened to on the radio. Gravely, he shook my hand and told me to be kind to my mother.

Apparently the comment about ‘such a long way’ is a family mythology. Cousin Sally’s research unearthed the information that Great-Granny and her husband had gone back to Dundee in the late 1920s. They were not impressed, the town had shrunk and was grimy. (The Depression was beginning to bite). When I taxed Mum about it she told me that the remark was in response to her question about them going back again. I know Great-Granny hated the sea, despite living by it. She did tell me about the crowded conditions of the first voyage out. Children died of a measles epidemic on board.

With the wet shower being installed, Susanna my caregiver is washing and dressing me in the lounge. ‘Lovely carnations’ she said this morning. They were her parent’s favourite flower. Susanna hails from Germany. Something satisfying about a shared connection over a flower.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


29 men dead. The news, families, a community and a nation feared announced at last. The first blast looked horrendous. The second was devastating. Hope, that great human characteristic, finally had to be relinquished. At such times other things seem trivial. The rivetting power of TV brought a nation to mourning.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Take On A Fantail

Several years ago I wrote this piece.

A Saturday morning routine is cleaning my electric razor in the courtyard. I tamp it down on the arm of the bench. On Wednesday the fluff is still there, mist-spangled, so for four days there has not been enough breeze to shift it. I remember reading somewhere that hair clippings can be added to compost.

As I drop this tiny contribution into the bin, a fantail appears, flitting and jerking about. I freeze, and suddenly it lands on my old garden sweat-stained hat. It hardly stays a second, then takes off, snaps an insect or two, and lands back on the hat. When it flies off again, it seems so tame I decide to help it.

Gently I shake an akeake bough. The fantail goes frantic as it chases insects loosened by my movement a few inches from my face wheeling and turning, twittering all the time. Its body is so small, it appears to be just a fluff of feathers with a very smart tail. It’s so close I can see the white strip above its eyes, another round its throat, and the chestnut brown of its undercarriage.

Postscript 1 Now I lack the motor skills to clean the razor. It's now one of Anne's chores.
Postscript 2 On the subject of birds, the nearby Karori Wildlife Sanctuary has a problem. A morepork family have nested in a kaka box. Clever birds, a built-to-measure residence.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Piwakaka


Waka jumper, feather box of tricks on
springs, tree-hopper, handbrake-turn show-stopper,
fantastic tail-spreader, full-house tree-clown
two flits short of coming a bad cropper.
Pathetic fallacy! For one moment
my heart jumped out and into you: beyond
the window’s glass you snatch up joy. Insects
actually: heaven sent by the fat
season’s purblind hand smack
into your squeaky trap’s sweet reflex.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

It seems to me appropriate to put up a Tuesday poem by a Tuesday poet. Holman’s collection of poems ‘Fly Boy’ was recently released. (I reviewed it in ‘Stoatspring’ on 2 November). There were many powerful poems about planes. There is also a delightful section about birds and their flight capability. One that particularly caught my attention was ‘Piwakaka’, the Maori word for the bird the colonists called fantail. It is an enchanting jaunty little insect-eater. The poem sums up very well my reaction also to this little jewel/clown of a bird.

Out of Action?2

Workmen began this morning to put a wet shower in my bathroom. When finished it will make my life less complicated. But the process of renovation will be noisy, dusty, smelly and time-consuming. It'll also mean limited access to my computer. So for a few days there may be few blogs. I'll put tomorrow's Tuesday Poem up this evening. So over and out.

Cheers to all


Sunday, November 21, 2010


The first Australian city I visited and stayed in was Perth. We stayed with my first wife’s cousin. It was a stepping stone to a round the world jaunt – Bangkok, Teheran, Istanbul, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles and places in between.

Many of my acquaintances did their overseas experience when they finished their varsity courses. I didn’t. I caught the travel bug later. I visited many places, but the one I felt most at home and comfortable in was Sydney. Several visits confirmed its charm. I was lucky, always sunny weather, a sparkling harbour.

The sails of the Opera House and the strength of the Harbour Bridge were eye-catching. The history of the Rocks area was appealing. The zoo was fascinating. The ferries were adventure. The Blue Mountains were different from our mountains. The city was containable, walkaround was easy and the bookshops were treasure troves. Shows at the Opera House were exciting.

Patrick, Anne’s youngest son, shifted to Sydney. We visited him. He planned a career in the hospitality industry. Later, I on an education visit, took him to Doyle’s famous fish restaurant for a midday meal. It was the last time I saw him for he died in an accident a few months later.

Sydney suddenly became a no-go area. And then Anne won a raffle – a thing she rarely does – a trip to Sydney to hear Pavarotti sing. It was almost as if we were meant to go back.

Pavorotti was superb. It was a glamour evening.

The other thing about that trip was I’d been given a year’s subscription to Gourmet Traveller magazine. It was at the beginning of my cooking phase. Just before we went to Sydney there was a cover article about the restaurants of Sydney.  We did our research.

There was an article about Tetsuya’s, a new restaurant in the suburb of Rozelle. Tetsuya was Japanese. He’d arrived in Sydney at the age of 22 years and started work as a cafĂ© dishwasher. He'd progressed to his own place. The day we arrived in Sydney we rang up. We were lucky, there’d been a cancellation so we fluked a booking.

The place was so obscure the taxi-driver got lost. I map-read him to the place. I wish I’d kept a diary. It was the nicest meal I’ve ever had. My main was ox-tail wrapped in won-tons. Dessert was a mango and gorgonzola mascarpone tart. It was BYO. I’d bought a bottle of good Australian red. The waiter treated it deferentially. I’m sure he thought ‘cheapskate’.

Anne forgets what she had. But she recalls scrumptious flavours. There was a mouthwatering sorbet between courses. It was a meal to remember. We did not realise it at the time. But we had dined at the establishment of one of the great chefs of our era.

Later, Tetsuya bought the Suntory resturant in Kent Street in the heart of the city. There are now huge waiting lists.

We dined well for the rest of that short visit. I am pleased we made it. My lasting memories of Sydney now include the finest singing I’ve been privileged to hear and the finest meal it's been my joy to eat. After that visit we had no desire to go back.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Katherine Mansfield

I’ve finished reading Kathleen Jones’ life of Katherine Mansfield. It’s a big book. The subject deserves that size. It’s a very readable book. Jones’ sub-title is ‘the story-teller. She herself is a story teller. Her ample selection of quotations, illustrations and anecdotes fill in the picture of an age, a set as well as a life..

Katherine casts a long shadow. Her husband Middleton Murry tried to shape that shadow. From childhood’s windy Wellington to the lonely last few days in a French chateau Jones led me to think more widely about their relationship. Murry was with her when she died. She’d been talking about a life together. She loved him despite his selfishness and stupidity. So did other women. Maybe that was his appeal – the need to be loved. His hopelessness, helplessness and clumsiness called for protection. He obviously had charm. She adored him even as she was frustrated by him. I find his meanness unforgivable.

This is an example of what the book has done for me. I find myself emotionally involved. I want to say to Katherine ‘for goodness sake stop moving around all the time. Look after yourself. Settle somewhere and write.’ She was not the cautious Kiwi that I am. And her ill-health was different. She was young and talented with a whole world still ahead. The comparison with Keats is apt.

She expressed the world so vividly. Ida Baker complained that Alpers, one of her first serious biographers missed the laughter and the joy. But the word I use to describe her is ‘sadness’. The cover photo has a sad downcast look in the eyes. In almost all her stories there is a sense of unfulfilment, of glimpses of a better world. Of unobtainable hopes and longings! There might have been mirth. But beneath it there is an abyss.

‘The Fly’ was a story that had a huge emotional impact upon me. When I first read it I was willing that little insect to struggle on. When it gave up the struggle I felt cheated.

I finish the biography with the same huge sense of regret – what could have been. In a world full of bluff and bluster Mansfield portrays an immediate and intimate reality that is moving and perceptive. This is the stuff of everyday existence – elusive, mysterious, gorgeous; and it doesn’t last.

I can see in her conversation the same capacity meant she could be cruel in a impish and/or malicious sort of way. Katherine was no saint. Murry’s mistake was to attempt to deify her. It wrecked his life. It wrecked his four children’s lives. And it distorted our picture of her. Virginia Woolf described her as a ‘civet cat’. Jones presents her warts and all and I find myself loving her more than I did before I read this account. Indeed, I’m bowled over – an unusual admission from a 77 year-old. If she’d lived what would she have produced? As it is, there is heaps to relish.

When I compiled my anthology of 19th century New Zealand poetry I put in a couple of Mansfield’s prose poems. But I was struck with a strange Gothic one called ‘Study: The Death Of A Rose’ which I left out. It begins ‘It is a sensation that can never be forgotten, to sit in solitude, in semi-darkness, and to watch the slow, sweet, shadowful death of a Rose.’ I’ll put the whole poem up on a later blog. I remember thinking at the time, this person is more complicated than I realised. .

Jones quotes William Orton who in 1910 said all her writing ‘was a kind of poetry, not so much in respect to form or context as in its extreme intensity and accuracy of realisation.’ Rightly so! I realise I’ve not been reading any poetry while reading the life. There was not need for that nutrient.

I wonder if that sadness and sense of loss, reflects in some sense a colonial upbringing. Home is always somewhere else. Curnow’s poetry and much of our film-making carries the same ethos. I suspect that colonial origin also gave her an edge in Edwardian England. Her peers didn’t quite know how to place her.

In Europe she felt the tug of her childhood birthplace. When she was here she felt the lure of Home.

Auden’s poem about the fall of Icarus begins
‘About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’
These lines came to mind as I reflected on the luxury of writing about a book while West Coasters anxiously await news of their loved ones. But such is life.

And I face a further quandry. What to read next. I’m tempted to read LM’s account of life with Mansfield. There’s Mansfield's own stories. There’s a life of Emily Dickinson. There’s Franzen’s large new novel Freedom and I should re-read Coal Flat. The one good thing. I’m a winner which ever way I go. And verifying the Auden quote has meant a happy half hour reading that master’s poems. ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ is a gem.

Pike River

I know enough of the Greymouth community to appreciate the alarm and consternation caused by the Pike River coal mine explosion. My thoughts and hopes go out to them.

Friday, November 19, 2010


The letter looked official – from Capital and Coast District Health Board. A new appointment or suggestion? No! It was a questionnaire, to be filled in and forwarded to an Auckland company for processing.

It was a yes/no five point scale ranking questionnaire. About visiting outpatients at the public hospital. Easily filled in. And a waste of time.

The last visit was great. Anne and I knew the ropes. The specialist was on time. She dealt with me well and quickly. We departed happy.

Other visits have been rugged. Sometimes through no fault of the staff or the system. Other times because someone has fluffed an appointment time or an emergency has arisen. At all times staff have been courteous, even though in some instances harassed.

It’s impossible – well maybe incredibly difficult – to generalise.

In some visits I see several people. Some are helpful, some go out of their way to assist, others appear to be going through the motions. Again, it’s hard to generalise.

I found offensive the question ‘degree to which your condition has improved as much as expected’. My disease they tell me is incurable. So how the hell can it improve? Indeed, the question borders on the obscene.

This visit I saw the neurology specialist and no one else. The previous visit was to see cardiology. A technician checked my pacemaker, competently. Whereas in respiratory visits I see radiology, (for an X-ray), a nurse (for a blood test), technicians for my machine and the specialist who is excellent at explanation and advice. Indeed I look forward to meeting him twice a year

There is a question about my confidence in the skill of the provider. I might have feelings but I have no capacity to make a judgement. I rely upon the system to keep charlatans out.

There is a question about comfort. Waiting rooms are waiting rooms. The larger they are the more impersonal they are. They’re clean and respectable and all I ask is a chair with arms that I can lever myself up from. I dislike commercial radio burbling in the background. When I've complained I've been told others like it.

I understand the desire for feedback. But the design and processing of this questionnaire has a cost. I wonder how many hip operations to take an example at random could be met by that same expenditure.

And to what purpose? To enable the Miniser of Health to rise to his/her feet in Parliament and ponderously tell the nation that the level of satisfaction is such and such? Which really tells you little.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


My youngest brother Bruce and his wife Margaret visited me yesterday. He’s a keen duck-shooter. We now have three wild ducks in our freezer. Years ago another brother Rick gave our widowed mother several wild duck – more than she wanted. She gave one to a friend who put it in the microwave to cook. The lead shot exploded, destroying duck and machine.

Bruce and I got reminiscing about Mum who died last year’s winter aged 97. Mum had a country contempt for those she called ‘Townies’. He told me a story I’d never heard before.

Mum’s next door neighbour was given some bantams. They got clucky as bantams do. After six weeks or so the neighbour commented to Mum their eggs weren't hatching. Mum said, ‘well, you don’t have a rooster’. “What difference does that make?’ asked the neighbour.

I remember Mum scornfully telling me another story about the same lady. Her husband had a good garden. Mum found her buying carrots at the local greengrocer’s. She asked why, (Mum was a busybody), to be told the lady in question did not like to get her hands dirty. ‘What do you think of that?’ Mum’s statement had a triumphant ring to it.

For a long time Mum kept a few chooks in her Christchurch backyard. They ate the kitchen scraps, gave her company and purpose, and supplied her with eggs. She grew silver beet for them and spread the ‘poo’ from their roosting area back on to the garden. To grow more silver beet.

On my boyhood farm, Dick, my stepfather, built a small concrete dam across the small creek that ran past the house to provide a pool for our ducks and geese to swim in. Princess Grace, our sow (so christened by Dick because of her outstanding beauty - she was the ugliest pig ever seen), used to wallow in it.

She developed a game of lying still, only snout and eyes showing, while the ducks or geese settled. With a snort she'd jump up, sending the birds flying in panic, her pig-eyes gleaming in triumph. She'd settle down, they'd return, the whole performance repeated. Ducks are slow learners.

There were turkeys and bantams as well as chooks. As the ducks didn't brood their young well, Mum put their eggs under the bantams. The little hens strutted round followed by a gaggle of awkward looking youngsters tangling over their feet chasing flies. Sooner or later the ducklings would discover the pond and paddle away, leaving their mother frantic on the bank.

Once Princess Grace startled the ducklings. The mother bantam stormed across into the water right into the pig's face. Astounded, the sow gave ground. We had to rescue the bedraggled hen.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wake-Up Meanderings

An uninterrupted night’s sleep – no 2 a.m.cup of tea and back to bed. Instead, I woke up at 6 a.m., pulled back the curtain I could reach and lay there looking at the oak tree outside. It’s old and battered but covered in fresh lime-green leaves. I toyed with metaphor. A deciduous tree goes through an annual cycle - catkins, new leaves, acorn, browning leaves. But the leafless stage is not death. It’s dormancy.

Although I like our native evergreens I’ve always appreciated the winter shape of the imported deciduous – gaunt skeletons against the sky, the bare shape of its being. Summer leaves give life and bulk, and hide the outline. Such trees lead a double life.

On the window sill I could see photos of Mum, Anne, my niece Janine and her daughter Taylor. Four generations. The oak tree was once young and now is aged, rather shattered by last March’s storm. The cycles of the tree occur around a more basic rhythm, youth, growth, maturity and decay. It is the rhythm of all living things.

The tree ferns on the other side of the apartment follow a different cycle of renewal. Fresh fronds uncurl and spread graceful. They provide a dappled shade that’s great to sit under. Over time, having shed their spores, they droop and die. In my gardening days I used to pull them off and take them to the tip. I now get Bruce our lawn mower man to do this The fern’s trunk shows from where each frond once swayed though other plants now sprout parasitical up it.

As I lay there my mind chased another thought. During the night I’d had a dream, I was back relief teaching. The irritating thing about these dreams is that often I’m in full health, the strong and agile young man I once was. In the school library unpacking new books I was blissfully happy – excited pupil librarians and fresh books, a great combination. Ichabod!

It was with reluctance that I got out of bed and turned off my two machines. Another day. Drat! I've dropped my medicines into my porridge plate. The reality of washing them restored other rhythms. And when I'd done that I was off with Mansfield on her second stay in Bandol. I find my self wishing the poor lass had had better health. Am I a born romantic or are we all. I still want to amend the world. Just as well I can't. I'd have made a lousy dictator.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Today I read the Tuesday Blog

Someone recently asked what was a typical day for me. That’s a hard one. Most days are atypical. Take today. I was up early for an appointment at neurology in the public hospital for my six-monthly check-up. The taxi-ride over was under a grey sky as we scudded past cabbage tree and rhododendron in full flower and pohutakawa budding everywhere – a typical November day.

For once, there was no waiting, instead questions and tests, a relatively cheerful interview. The verdict – as I anticipated, muscular degeneration continues but slowly – more strength in shoulders and arms than legs and feet, I knew that. While I waited in the foyer with my walker while Anne went to get a taxi to come home a lady going past said ‘be careful out there; the wind gusts are getting stronger. It was a Wellington gale.

Home in time for Anne to go shopping. The result a delicious lunch – duck and walnut terrine on fresh bread and fresh water-cress leaves. And the inevitable fortisip, my nutritional food supplement. In my youth we used to harvest water-cress from the back-waters of the creek that ran past our house. My memory of that freshly gathered green was its strong flavour. Apparently the sugar in vegetables is turned to starch the longer they are harvested and stored.

In the afternoon I explored this week’s The Tuesday Poem. I enjoy being a member of this community. It is always a stimulating selection, but this time it was one of the best. There is a editor who choses the first-up poem. This week’s guest was Jennifer Compton who put forward Australian poet Chris Mansell ‘Cow Poem’. She is a poet whom I‘ve never read. I must try to obtain more of her work. A delight in being part of the group is the introduction to poems and poets I did not know.

A highlight this week was Alicia Ponder’s choice of the Kipling poem ‘The Smuggler’s Song’. “Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.’ I’d learnt that poem in primary school. But Ponder’s unearthed a video of Kipling reading it. The visual video is not too hot but Kipling’s voice is strong and unique. And he reads with a Devonshire accent and slang that presents the poem a fresh light. It’s a real treat.

Two other listings have American poets William Carlos Williams and Billy Collins reading the selected poems. There’s an Emily Dickinson poem I’d never come across. And a surprise, a poem by Margaret Cavendish born in 1623 about atoms – science fiction in the 17th century. Apparently she became a member of the Royal Society.

Mary Mc Callum, the mastermind behind the Tuesday Poem, re-discovered a poem of hers on an old hard-drive. How many masterpieces languish in discarded technology.
"A poem strings
the heart beats together
and is a small throat
to let out the sighs’

There’s a poem by Tim Jones that speaks of the ‘indefinite promise of summer’. Jeffrey Paparoa Holman describes the impact of a kamikaze plane ‘a burning comet’ on the deck of an aircraft carrier a few days before the war ended. His father survived. Hence Holman’s existence.

And another highlight - the selection includes a favourite poem of mine, Roma Potiki’s ‘And My Heart Goes Swimming’ - one of New Zealand’s loveliest love poems. There’s lot’s more. The site’s well worth exploring. Just hit the quill on the left hand side of my blog.

I read and commented on the selections while my computer audio played a disk of Nat King Cole. “It was just one of those things’. My vintage shows – nostalgia as background. A stimulating afternoon! I’ll let Cavendish have the last word on the poems. ’So Atomes, as they dance, finde places fit’. We know more about atoms than that good lady. But we remain human on the same planet,

That activity finished I cuddled down again with the life of Katherine Mansfield. Tomorrow’s biographers will not have the luxury of the written word that is available for her vintage. Email, facebook and text will not leave the detail of anguish and the glory that is obtainable from that generation.

TV News – the big wide world increasing remote. Dinner, tarakihi –Anne discovered a tempura recipe for the batter, white wine instead of sake – and watercress. I am tired, the morning was stressful, the afternoon was full. TV sog, the Canadian Arctic – lovely polar bear cubs, Nigella cooking, River Cottage self-sufficency – a man kind to mice but willing to kill a deer for food is a puzzling beast - and so I am ready for bed and the oxygen machine.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Life Sentence

Life Sentence

Eden, created for our expulsion
We inhabit its garden for such a short spell.

The brevity of pleasure
I survive in the kingdom of the frail

Personality simplified to enjoyment 
of foxgloves under tree fern

And a tui’s daily interview
At the abutilon, swaying under its weight

In the past there was delight
In outwitting expected defeat

Now, the wait for the next appointment
‘’You’ve gone down hill, you know’

As if I didn’t, we’re all speechless
About the obvious, formulaic words prevail

Hard to be premature about the inevitable end
The dread, the fear, the foolish hope, they survive

Harvey McQueen

This poem rattled about and out over last weekend. Normally I leave them for a while. This one I decided could be released from the holding pen straight away.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Stroll in Familiar Terrain

‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’. Keats. The mind is its own territory. In it, while we're alive, we move and landscape our existence. My sources of stimulation are now of necessity limited. The flow of nutrients has to be cultivated, otherwise nostalgia and old anecdote rampage like ragwort across the scene.

Where do I go from here?

In the computer I hold a ragbag of jottings as possible blogs. This paragraph has lurked there for some time. Maybe the metaphor’s impossible? Maybe I lack the skills to cope with it? Maybe it’s the right idea in the wrong time? Or is that vice versa? Maybe the whole concept is old hat? Maybe the thought’s a waste of time? Anyway, as an idea it keeps going nowhere.

Fortunate are those who can work at what their mind is inclined to do. For most adults in our society mental skills are for hire. That is why we admire the young – the shades of the workplace are not full-blown.

At the moment there is a fuss over the length of a school-girl’s dress. Ever since I started teaching this issue has waxed and waned. It’s partly an age-old issue – the growing one bucking the system. As she grows older she’ll either accept the rules (most do) or become a rebel and a drop-out. It's an age-old conflict.

Following the career of Katherine Mansfield I see that tension. She’s on the verge of the ‘Blooms Berries’ set. She’ll never make full acceptance. The British class system is not resilient.

Writers seek freedom to do their own thing. But they need some sort of security. Precariously scratching a subsistence existence may be the stuff of Hollywood dreams. But it's pretty rugged and assumes good health and  energy. Economic independence is a bonus.

And there’s enough of a puritan in me to say discipline is needed.

I realise I’m chasing a growl at myself. Lately, I’ve been mooning mentally around. For several months I’ve hardly written a poem. It’s time to get cracking. It’s time not just to meander haphazardly around that mental terrain but to seek some structures and create some forms that give verbal shape to those vague longings. I think reading about Mansfield is shaping this sense. Gardens just do not happen. Meals have to be prepared. Poems need to be written.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Biographer's Dilemma

A colonial – and therefore unusual - amidst the Edwardian intelligentsia, or should it be artistic circles – such was Katherine Mansfield’s lot.

Here’s a paragraph from Jones’s biography. ‘There seems no way out of it. John is determined to go to Lawrence though he has misgivings about whether Katherine will be able to endure it. She reluctantly agrees to spend the summer in Cornwall, leaving Bandol at the end of April. She tells a friend that her book "won’t be old enough to travel until then." ‘The Aloe’ seems doomed to be stunted by transplantation, just as it began to grow and flourish.’

I admire that last sentence. It carries a novelist’s assurance. It puts a template upon that particular period of Katherine’s life. It reflects the great strength of this account of her life. And yet; it reflects the biographer’s dilemma.

Anyone’s life is a narrative in itself. Only the inhabitant of that particular assortment of cells and atoms can know the ins and outs of that life and even then there are forces over which the ‘I’ has little understanding or knowledge.

Any autobiography is a selection. I’ve recently read reviews of Bush and Blair’s memoirs. Both men present the best picture possible of their actions. Even doubts are winnowed for audience reaction.

Any biography is a selection. Further though, the biographer is one removed. She or he has to make do from letters, diaries, recollections if available, contemporary material in whatever form it is available.

Jones is fortunate. Not only was Mansfield in the chattering class of her era she was also a member of a scribbling class. They wrote all the time, to one another, for posterity, for the record, for themselves, for fame and recognition.

How to present this material is any biographer’s problem. Too much speculation annoys the reader. On the one hand, on the other hand, slows the narrative. But often the biographer can only present the facts and offer a hypothesis. How that thesis is delivered is the issue. Jones’s narrative is clear – this is what happened.

Jones’ strength is she goes squarely for the positive. I get a clear picture. Mansfield, in reasonable shape health-wise for a while is happy writing in Bandol on the French Mediterranean coast. She has discovered a rich gold vein to excavate, childhood memories. It is a chance to exorcise some of the ghosts and doubts that have pursued her for ages. And now Murry wants her to up sticks and take her to the Lawrence’s in Cornwall. I as onlooker want to shout ‘don’t go’. But this is biography and she went.

I give this illustration because it reveals the enthusiasm and delight I’m having in reading the book. It’s really engaging me. Some might say too much detail but I’m reveling in the description. But Jones's very strength as a biographer is also a handicap sometimes. Have I read too many accounts of Mansfield? Possibly! But for example, almost universally Murry is called ‘Jack’

Up till now Jones has not I think ever mentioned the word ‘gonorrhea’. [I'm about two-thirds through the book]. Most accounts discuss this as one of the probable reasons for Katherine’s ill-health. Jones states categorically that the illness is ‘rheumatism’. No argument! No discussion!. Maybe that’s fair enough. But it leaves me with a niggle of doubt about the rest of the account.

Having expressed this reservation I’ll return to the book. Apart from ‘Sons and Lovers’ and his poetry I’ve never been a Lawrence fan. I’ve always regarded him as a bully. So I accept Jones’s account of his relationship with Katherine and Murry. What I’m probably trying to say is that I’ve read too much about Mansfield to approach any book about her without prior prejudices. But it drove me to reread ‘The Prelude’. And to give thanks to the writer who could create such a gem. The novel ‘The Aloe’ never appeared. Instead it was turned into this masterpiece of interlocking pieces that resonate with an emotional intensity rarely equaled

‘Pooh! She [Kezia] didn’t care! A tear rolled down her cheek, but she wasn’t crying. She couldn’t have cried in front of those awful Samuel Josephs. She sat with her head bent, and as the tear dripped slowly down, she caught it with a neat little whisk of her tongue and ate it before any of them had seen.’


And again! Linda this time.

‘Yes, everything had come alive to the minutest, tiniest particle, and she did not feel her bed, she floated, held up in the air. Only she seemed to be listening with her wide open watchful eyes, waiting for someone to come who just did not come, watching for something to happen that just did not happen.’

So thanks Kathleen Jones. Your biography gives me two-fold pleasure. In itself. (The cut and paste approach reminds me of ‘The Prelude’). And in re-reading Katherine.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield is elusive. In her best stories there lingers this sense of yearning for something unattainable even in moments of great happiness and bliss. 'The story-teller' – to use Kathleen Jones’s subtitle – is secretive. Reading Jones’s account I’m up to the period of her life where she and Middleton Murry are with the Lawrences. DH and Frieda are extremely frank about their life, especially sexual. Murry can’t see what there is discuss. Katherine according to Jones is not very revealing.

A master craftsman as coy – no, that’s not a contradiction in terms. Mansfield was both. One trouble was that on her death Murry tried to develop a picture of her by a controlled publication of selected writings. Almost the sanctified victim, dying like Keats, young with unrecognised genius.

I’m confident that’s the woman Alpers began to write his biography about; but as he learnt more and more about her life the puritan that he was became repelled at her passionate randiness and in his terms loose living. Meyers wrote a pedestrian biography. Tomalin weighed in with a feminist perspective – timely and useful. Gil Body’s shorter, photographic essay is a good overview, particularly so of the Wellington years.

We have quite a large Mansfield section on our book shelves. I’ve enjoyed reading the Scott/O’Sullivan editions of her letters. Jones has dwelt amongst this memorabilia much more than I have. The result is a richer account of Mansfield’s life than the previous attempts. But I still feel the actual woman remains fugitive. That may appear a critical remark, it is rather a comment about Mansfield’s nature.

Ida Baker gets a better press. That’s good. And deserved it seems to me. Murry doesn’t emerge well. That’s also deserved. If it hadn’t been for Mansfield we’d hardly remember him. It’s an egg and chicken argument. If he hadn’t pushed her into the foreground we may not have noticed her.

I was intrigued to read of his treatment of his second wife, Violet. Jones’s account rings true. He was attempting to recreate Katherine. The fact Violet also died of TB is chilling. The descriptions of their desolate life on Chesil Beach are equally chilling, history repeating itself.

Yet Murry must have had some attractive features. Obviously Katherine adored him but I get the sense she found him exasperating and selfish. I, as Kiwi, of course, male chivalry as well, am on Katherine’s side. He didn’t know how to look after her. But then he didn’t know how to look after himself. To have aspirations and to be poor in Edwardian England and Europe couldn’t have been much fun.

I even feel sympathy for Katherine’s parents. By their standards they’d done well. This exasperating daughter seemed nothing but trouble. Interior life should remain just that, not exposed to the scorn and pity of the outside world.

You’ve not writing about Jones’s account I can hear you saying. I will. But I wanted to share with you at this stage - I'm half-way through - some of the myriad of thoughts her biography have aroused. They alone illustrate how much I’m enjoying the read.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Change of Plan

A phone call late this morning changed next week’s plans. The reconstruction of my bathroom has been delayed a week. Fingers crossed for that date. So normal blogging services next week. Cheers!

Out of Action?

Everything seems to be happening at once. Anne goes off to Tauranga today for five days. Jo is coming to house-sit – or more accurately Harvey-sit. Jo will take me to the doctor’s this afternoon for my three-monthly check-up.

On Monday workmen will arrive to transform the present enclosed shower in my en-suite into a wet shower. That means clearing everything out of my bathroom. The room will be out of action for about a fortnight. So no showers in that time – just washes in the drawing room. Susanna, my usual care-giver has been on leave for a fortnight. She resumes on Monday.

During the day these renovations will mean limited access to my study-cum-bedroom, indeed possibly not available. So there may be no or few blogs for a fortnight. I find my energy flags during the day and in the evenings I‘m only good for being soggy in front of the TV. It will also probably mean no Tuesday Poem for a couple of weeks.

Most of my exercise consists in wheeling the walker from study to lounge and vice versa. I’ll have to make sure I do some exercises over the period though now the weather is more settled I may be able to walk more down the lane to the shops.

It’ll be good to have the shower fixed. It has been awkward for my care-givers and extra bars near the loo will also be of assistance.

Dorothy the cat hates workmen. It’s going to be more disruption in her life. I can accept it as a little addition of excitement in my life, her little cat-brain sees it as a pain. She’s in for a rough time. Noise and strange smells!

I’m half-way through reading Kathleen Jones’s life of Katherine Mansfield. It’s a big book. It’s a very readable book. I’m enjoying it. So with little access to the computer I see myself settling in to read it in larger chunks. That and watching DVD’s.

Jo is an artist. I have out at present to watch with her two art DVDs from the Palette Collection: 'The Age of the Titans' and 'The Golden Age of the Netherlands'. I should add Jo is of Dutch origin. Also in the queue is the Attenborough series 'The Life of Mammals'. That’ll be good viewing to take my mind off the banging and biffing through the wall.

Anne gets back mid-afternoon on Monday to the chaos. Then on Tuesday she takes me to hospital for a neurology check-up. Routine carries on regardless.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

National Political Standards

As I listened to Parliamentary Questions yesterday on TV the thought struck me – if the Government is so keen on national standards in education why doesn’t it apply the same criteria to politics. Let’s measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the Government of the day against agreed criteria.

I suppose John Key’s comparison with Australia is a crude attempt at that but politicians of any party always leave themselves wriggle-room. The Reserve Bank has to operate within certain prescribed conditions. But on the whole the Government has little ultimate measurement or assessment except the ballot box which is a crude form. [Necessary though].

But if kids are expected to measure up to certain standards, why not politicians. If one begins to think about measurement of such standards the pitfalls of a too simplistic approach become increasingly clear.

Certain measurements are obvious. GDP is one. Longevity? Income? Taxes? Economic criteria and averages are relatively clear-cut.

But what about Freedom? Happiness? Security? Fresh Air? Clean Water? Access to Medical Services? Mobility? Living Conditions? Civilised Debate? Equality? Rule of Law?

Maths, writing and reading are specific tasks the critics will respond. They narrow education down if they argue so. Can, and should, government be similarly narrowed down? If not, why not? As a citizen I want answers to the questions in the paragraph above.

I don’t want to live in a country with a few gated mansions and miles of slums. But let’s not define national standards in politics in terms of negatives. I would like to live in a country that’s fair, compassionate, prosperous and exciting. I’m well aware that means compromise. Can one measure selfishness as one can measure reading ability?

The more I get into the thought the more complicated it becomes. Hence, my sympathy for teachers having to implement a half-baked standards scheme. Not that I approve of teachers comparing the policy with Hitler's regime. That's counter-productive, indeed downright stupid, if not verging on the dangerous.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Elsa Wertman

Elsa Wertman

I was a peasant girl from Germany,
Blue-eyed, rosy, happy and strong.
And the first place I worked was at Thomas Greene's.
On a summer's day when she was away
He stole into the kitchen and took me
Right in his arms and kissed me on my throat,
I turning my head. Then neither of us
Seemed to know what happened.
And I cried for what would become of me.
And cried and cried as my secret began to show.
One day Mrs. Greene said she understood,
And would make no trouble for me,
And, being childless, would adopt it.
(He had given her a farm to be still. )
So she hid in the house and sent out rumors,
As if it were going to happen to her.
And all went well and the child was born --
They were so kind to me.
Later I married Gus Wertman, and years passed.
But -- at political rallies when sitters-by thought I was crying
At the eloquence of Hamilton Greene --
That was not it.
No! I wanted to say:
That's my son!
That's my son!

Edgar Lee Masters

I harbour a heresy that poems that tell a story have a place in the canon. Just a place, they are not the be-all and end-all. Mid-Western American poet Lee Masters (1869-1950) is one of those unsung poets who worked at the craft, did it well, were accepted in their time and are now under-estimated. .

The story it tells was I’m sure a common frontier experience. The wife and the mother, both have their unhappiness and longings . And it’s very American – the power of the orator on the hustings. That simple eloquence is shadowed in the poem.


The battle at Marathon took place in 490 BC. A Persian invasion of Greece, led by the mighty king Darius was repulsed by a small Athenian army. Legend has it that at the successful conclusion of the battle a runner called Philippides ran back to Athens to spread news of the victory. The approaching larger Spartan army would not be needed to oppose the invaders. Apparently Philippides dropped dead of exhaustion at the end of his run.

There is confusion over the legends for there is another account that a runner with the same name was despatched to Sparta with a call for help when it was realised the Persians were approaching. Hence, the march of the Spartans to the rescue.

Whatever the story the fact remains that the Persians suffered a great loss. Greek civilisation entered into a flowering cultural period which formed the basis of what we call Western civilisation. It was one of history’s great turning points.

Now in the modern Olympics the distance that Philippides apparently ran has become the classic event.

We had a jubilant email recently from Kathrine who had just run in the Athens classic marathon. In her words, ‘to finish in the great Panathenaic Stadium on the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon was an ultimate running experience. For me, it was my first road marathon in 34 years (I did an off-road marathon in March in New Zealand) and was extremely validating from the point of view of being able to just finish a marathon at the age of 63 on an unforgiving road surface after 50 years of running.’ Her time was 4 hours 48 minutes.

Kathrine is world-renowned for being the first woman to run a marathon. She crashed the Boston marathon to do this. She describes this and a life devoted to running in her autobiography 'Marathon Woman'. (I’ve always had a scholarly interest in athletics, a highlight was to see the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh 40 years ago but Anne is one of the least sports-intersted people I’ve ever met. Kathrine’s book gripped her). Katherine's blog is  She and her husband, Roger Robinson have written another excellent book ’26.2 Marathon Stories’ about that distance race. His blog is

I’ve got a different take on Marathon. I wrote this poem when I worked as an aide to David Lange. It was the height of the feud between him and Roger Douglas There had been a stormy press conference, even disrespectful I thought in that the media had on the whole swallowed the Douglas line. [It was partisan times] In my bitterness I penned the outline of this poem. History is about the lessons of the past and the present.


Before Marathon
Darius would have summoned a press conference
cameras pan entrance, egress
recorders click on & off.
disrespectful like this lot
quoting unreliable sources & the spin-doctor’s latest handout.

the disintegrating army streaming back to the departing ships
laptop copy to be faxed back to Sardis
hacked corpses videoed for deadline viewing
they’d have questioned more robustly.

In the end the other side did little better
Miltiades prosecuted because the polls went down
those who fall by the sword have one advantage
they remain courageous – those left behind
linger, fodder for pen, pulpit & processor.

In time bleached bones reveal the arrowheads.

Harvey McQueen

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Lemon Tree

Last night Anne and I watched the movie ‘Lemon Tree’ on DVD. I’ve seen some cracker movies recently. This was one of the best. Absorbing! Strong emotions, not the vague desires of ordinary lives, not the happy Disney ending, but an ideological clash, convincing personalities, subtle plot sensitively portrayed, all combined with clever camera work left me at its ending both satisfied and dissatisfied. But moved! It was a film that involved me emotionally.

A Palestinian widow tries to stop her neighbour the Israeli Defence Minister cutting down her lemon tree orchard, a family inheritance. He claims it is necessary for security reasons. Despite going all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court she is unsuccessful. But along the way she gains an unlikely ally – the Minister’s wife. Not that the two women speak, they acknowledge one another but that’s all. The wife leaves her husband. The widow’s left with her stumps.

Both women are subject to the patriarchy. The widow’s elders advise her to give in and accept the offered compensation. The wife is expected to go along with her husband’s wishes. It sounds simple. But the film portrayed it with more complexity. There are subtle hints of sexuality on both sides, the wife has suspicions about her husband’s relationship with his secretary, the widow has thoughts about the handsome lawyer assisting her.

The film is not a polemic. It is more about character. But the geopolitical background cannot be ignored. The power structure is one-sided. And the symbolism of the wall is powerful. What an ugly thing. In the long run walls don’t work. Hadrian’s wall and the Great Wall of China are now tourist attractions. I recall the excitement around the world when the Berlin Wall came down.

What I found most thought-provoking is that the situation looks so insolvable. Both sides are locked into world-views that are hard to budge and appear almost irreconcilable. ‘An eye for an eye’ is embedded in both cultures. The film showed the consequences of such attitudes. The weakening of Obama in the recent American elections will not help the intransigence of both sides. The poor people caught up in events. Ultimately, there are only losers in such situations.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Yesterday I had my nine-monthly pacemaker check up. It’s working fine. It was a shame to spend a glorious warm sunny day in the cardiology waiting room but at least one aspect of my health care is functioning well.

I received the pacemaker in 2005. Earlier that year I began to have an occasional dizzy spell. After routine checks my doctor decided he was over-medicating me for my blood pressure so he lowered the dosage. But the spells continued. He gave me new medication and made arrangements for me to have a check-up at Wellington hospital.

I got an appointment, centuries ahead. After a particularly bad turn, I went to the doctor again – his surgery was just around the corner – and very quickly I found myself on a stretcher in the emergency ward. But even as I lay there I felt the spell passing. By the time they’d wheeled me through to see the doctor all systems were back to normal. So I was sent home.

But by being admitted temporarily I was now on the administrative conveyor belt. The cardiac unit strapped a 24 hours monitor on to my chest. It revealed a problem that had not been picked up before - my heart was having slow-down periods and for that I needed a pacemaker. The operation would not fix the dizzy spells, originating from the electical circuitry. The medication I needed could not be prescribed until a pacemaker was in place.

While I waited for the operation I had increasingly more and more dizzy spells. The hospital advised me not to drive. I felt grounded and frustrated and my productive life seemed to be grinding to a halt. I smiled wryly at an email from Roger in New York with an attached cutting about a gorilla in an American zoo, being given a pacemaker.

To my surprise I enjoyed the experience of the operation. I never dreamt I’d ever say that but it proved an interesting event. Up early, feeling hungry, we were at the hospital by 7 30 but I had a wait for I was the second up that morning. A nurse prepared me, blood pressure check, ECG, a rapid shave of the left side of my chest - (“you’re not very hairy are you?” Was that criticism or merely factual. The mind is an amazing thing. To consider being affronted not long before the surgeon takes a knife to you.) - and then the insertion of a needle in the left arm. It was comforting to have Anne sitting beside me reading the paper. I developed cramp in my right foot so I had to hobble around the corridor to restore circulation.

I was wheeled to the theatre at 10. Anne went home. Careful explanations and information were given from all concerned. I was very definite that I didn’t want to watch on closed circuit TV. The first injection was a mild sedative. Then antibiotic. Then local anasthetic. Then theatre - soothing music, banter of the team, further explanation (“you’ll feel me pushing”), a further sedative, (“you’re too chirpy”). While we waited for that to kick in we discussed Labour Day holiday arrangements. Most of the team were going away. Obviously I wouldn’t be.

I liked the way the surgeon explained every step as he did it. When the two wires were inserted through the veins into the heart he put the battery in. I was back at the ward at 12 20. After a while they brought me lunch, two sandwiches and a cup of tea. My room-mate hadn’t liked the surgeon telling him what was happening. “Rather not know”, he muttered. I didn’t argue but I felt pleased – at least I knew what was happening and why.

I rang Anne to her surprise at 1 30. They wheeled me down to have an. X-ray. Anne arrived at 4 30. I got home in time to watch the TV news. The day before we’d discussed what I wanted to eat on such a night. I asked for simple, comfort food, tarakahi, asparagus and mashed potato, followed by raspberry jelly and ice-cream. No wine. Nothing like hunger to sharpen the taste buds. The next day the pain kicked in, but not as bad as I’d anticipated.

As anticipated the dizzy turns continued even though I was pleased how quickly my body bounced back from surgery. When the pacemaker was checked it was working well, indeed even recording the time when I had my dizzy spells. In consultation with the surgeon they decided I should go on to betablocker tablets straight away. When I complained to the young doctor prescribing them that I felt I was a walking pharmacy he said if he got to my age and was only taking five tablets a day he would count himself lucky. The medication worked. Thanks to the wonders of modern science I was able continue my life productively again. What I didn’t know was my muscular degenerative illness was already lurking in the shadows.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cairo & Other Things

Nice! I’ve had a comment on my cherry blog from London. Cyberspace continues to amaze. It still seems incredible.

Part of the same miracle, niece Jenny, also living in London has sent photos of her recent Egyptian visit by email. I envy her the opportunity to go further south than Cairo. My time there was brief.

In 1994 I was a member of an education mission to Kuwait. The cheapest way to get there was via Cairo. The Singapore Airways plane landed early in the morning. We were met by a burly bodyguard at the airport and whisked away, via picking up our guide, a lady lecturer from the university, to see the pyramids.

Awesome? The labour that went into them. The size of the blocks. I rode a camel as part of the tourist attraction. It’s a long way up to that height.

On to the Sphinx. Equally magnificent but the city’s encroachment removed the Ozymandias feeling.

Via the customary tourist retail venues, I did buy two papyrus painted scrolls and a bottle of perfume, after lunch we went to the museum with main attention to the treasures of the Pharaoh Tutunkhamen. That was mind-boggling.

My other memory of the visit was the traffic. And I thought Bangkok was chaotic.

The business in Kuwait finished we returned to Cairo for a night. As we flew with Egypt Airlines we landed at the domestic airport. There, the entry fee could only be paid in American dollars. I had a strap around my stomach with a hidden hoard of that currency, it’s been my established insurance policy when travelling. So off to the loo and partial disrobe to enable me to pay for the rest of the party as well as myself.

At the hotel, in the lift up eleven floors, the bell boy offered me a woman, a boy or a shoe shine – in that order.

But my room had a balcony overlooking the Nile. Tourist dhows were out in the evening light. I sat nursing a whiskey savouring the scene. [Kuwait had been dry]. Rarely has a whiskey been more appreciated.

Guy Fawkes Day today. I covered the issues on 4 and 5 November last year so I leave them alone this year.

And I see New Zealand is rated third best country in the world in which to live, Norway and Australia are ahead. When I saw the headline I thought no wonder John Key is sitting pretty but then I read the USA is fourth so that theory does not hold up. Political gridlock looms there. The Republicans want to cut expenditure and taxes at the same time. A contradiction.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Barbecues & Elections

Hillary Clinton has arrived in windy Wellington. It’s a cloudy day. There’s to be a barbecue for her this evening at Premier House. Wild boar sausages, whitebait fritters, pavlova, catered for by Logan Brown the city’s premier restaurant. Fit food for a Secretary of State and the most powerful woman in the world.

A barbecue in Wellington is always an iffy thing. In Auckland one can usually plan and count on warm weather. Likewise in Canterbury, the large sky gives ample warning of an approaching gale. But Wellington? In my salad days I got tired of standing around on chill evenings, dodging smoke, pretending to enjoy charred steak and sausages with uncooked central entrails. Once in a blue moon the host strikes it lucky. Successful barbecues in the capital city are usually impromptu affairs.

At Farm Rd we had the best of both worlds, large French doors opening onto the patio – the steak could be cooked inside and consumed outside. I make a confession. I’ve never been at ease standing up and eating – it seems an unnatural pose. And now, it is no longer an issue.

John Key got a photo opportunity earlier this year worth thousands of votes. Prince William, aproned, cooking sausages on the barbie, while the PM had a can of beer in his hand as he oversaw proceedings. I’m sure something similar will be attempted this evening.

Two and half years ago Mrs Clinton was locked in a huge struggle with Obama. For what it is worth I was backing Hillary. More experience I believed. Obama won that titanic struggle. At the time I believed that having bested the Clintons he’d hold his own against McCain. And so it proved. America had its first Black president.

I suspect many Americans have had trouble coming to terms with that. As I suspect many Americans would have had trouble accepting the first woman president. And Hillary did carry some baggage of her own as well as her husband’s.

But I wonder if she ever says to Bill ‘I could’ve done a better job’. We are not privy to such pillow talk. She is a pro – she knows what to say and what not to say. She has been loyal. And she is on the other side of the world while Obama has taken an electoral whipping.

He inherited a financial crisis and two wars. He has carried through into law a far-reaching health reform. He is stuck with a constitution that is unique and in many ways cuts across its own first principles plus he’s been subject to an ideological campaign of vitriolic proportions. The next two years will measure his calibre. I do not doubt his idealism. I still have reservations about his ability.

If he should stumble badly I wonder what Bill’s wife will do. I’ve always had a hunch that she’s a better politician than her husband. And ironically, his charm and charisma are her biggest assets.

I’m sure she’ll smile a lot at tonight’s barbecue. Indeed, I’d bet on it. And I'm sure John Key will also have a grin. The tide that turned against Obama almost from day one has not happened here. His opposition is huff and puff compared with that across the Pacific.

But a lot can happen in a year, let alone two years. Mayor Wade-Brown greeted Clinton this morning. Who'd have dreamnt that happening a few months ago.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Chairs and Cherries

Sitting has become a problem. A too low seat or sofa gives me great difficulty in getting up. In some instances I just cannot make it. Having to be manhandled to my feet is not an enjoyable experience. Especially when it is a strange loo – one of the several reasons why I’ve stopped going out and calling on friends.

Years ago a young friend had bought a new sleek sports car, very low-slung. I carefully manoeuvred myself down into it. I confess I did not enjoy the drive – I felt too low on the road and therefore vulnerable. Unlike being cox of a rowing four when the craft glides over the water with its thin shell – a lovely sensation – I felt unease and was pleased when we stopped. But even then I couldn’t make it (my illnes in its early stages). I recall the embarrassment of admitting that I needed assistance.

So I’m careful where I sit. I have a favourite chair in the apartment. It faces the N/E garden with its potted plants, roses, abutilon (the tui still calls daily) and camellias. Beyond cabbage trees and a copper beech. This morning after breakfast from that chair I watched several honey bee working over the lavender bush.

Baxter’s line about ‘passionless industry’ sprang to mind. It’s from his poem ‘Wild Bees’. He wrote many poems about mankind’s fall from grace. Rarely better than in this poem which is why I selected it as one of my choices for ‘These I Have Loved’. The word ‘purposeful’ might be more accurate than ‘passionless’ But I understand what he means, ‘blind instinct’ whereas the marauders raiding the nest did it by choice. We ‘fall’ by choice.

Of course I could argue if we were set up to ‘fall’ is that a choice. Don’t go down this side-alley, Harvey.

I turn the chair around to watch TV. Visitors express concern at seeing me labour at this task and rush to help. I wave them away. It’s good for me to have a little exercise and if I’m puffed too much I can always collapse into the chair and until I get my breath back. Yesterday I watched the DVD ‘The Last Station’ – Tolstoy’s last days. [That murky Russian consciousness with dramatics]

This afternoon I’ll watch or should I say listen to Verdi’s opera Don Carlos at Milan’s La Scala, produced by Zeffirelli with Pavarotti singing. I look forward to that.

The neighbour’s crabapple tree has a splendid blossom crop this year. I presume the bees fertilise the flowers. It has hardly borne fruit the last two years. Maybe this year.

I also included another Baxter poem about a peach tree, so laden it broke.

A bonus in my childhood was Aitken's orchard which in summer and autumn was full of ripe fruit trees. In the early days the peach trees there were covered, Pop Aitken used to prop up the boughs. But then leaf curl arrived and the peach trees stopped flourishing. As he didn’t spray, suddenly the annual peach crop was greatly curtailed.

Between Aitken’s place and widowed Mum’s cottage was this orchard. - the second best in Little River. Coops who'd early established the mill to cut the local totara had the best. As well as peaches it had large apricot and plum trees and apples and pears galore,

It was the perfect place for children - lush grass to burrow through, well-established trees to climb, make-believe tigers to stalk or be stalked by; furthermore Pop Aitken didn't mind our playing in it or picking the fruit. “Help yourself,” he’d say. There was more fruit than his household or ours could eat, all summer the aroma of decaying fruit wafted from the orchard through our house.

Several large plum trees grew close to our fence. In the fork of most gigantic, one could sit and gorge, the fresh juice sticky as it ran down one's chin. The quinces we left for the adults to deal with. Mum’s brother Charlie lived across the road with his wife Thora and their three daughters. Mum and Thora would bottle and bottle, while us five kids {my younger brother Douglas brought up the number) would play, climb and gorge and assist in the harvesting.

The only place we had to ask permission and get the key for was the cherry cage - about twenty trees surrounded by wire-mesh. Balancing near the top of a cherry tree, my face streaked with red, marvelling at the miracle that could turn sap and sunshine into such a delicacy, the ripe fruit all around me, is a grand childhood memory. We could eat our fill and take away buckets full. We did both. It’s the nearest thing to heaven I’ve experienced.

Part of the joy of cherries is their brief season. The fruit from wild cherries was eaten in the Middle East and Europe right from the beginning of civilisation. Turkey is at present the world’s biggest producer. I recall buying a bunch in a market in central Greece. The old Latin tag ‘Et in Arcadia est’ [I am in Arcadia] rang true as we ate cherries and the bus bounced on towards Olympia.

I used to time visits to see Mum prior to Christmas in time to buy cherries at Marlborough as I passed through. My drive south could be traced by the cherry stones thrown through the open window as I went. A big box for Mum. And on the return trip a big box for us – a pre-festive treat.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fly Boy

Before the blog – the first rose of summer in our garden has burst into bloom from its bud. One sole Leander flower proclaims summer’s almost here.

Being in the Tuesday Poets group is sort of belonging to a new family. I say partially, the very voluntary nature of the participation gives an extra spin. But one learns foibles, hopes and habits, grumps and dislikes of a number of people brought together by a common purpose. Often the dislikes are shown by silence rather than dissent. Of course, we each apply our own template as we look at other’s poems.

I’ve enjoyed the poems posted on the site by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. There’s a working class twist to his verse that appeals, but it is more than that, he has a way with words that shows a poet’s reflection and consideration. He’s established his own burrow.

I’d probably have bought ‘Fly Boy’ the latest volume of his poems anyway without the incentive of belonging to the group. The striking cover shows a Sunderland flying boat over a dimpled ocean. That appealed. The British symbols on the warplane aroused nostalgia.

But before I began to read the heresy flashed across my mind, ‘what do I say if I don’t like them.’ ‘Nothing!’ said Jiminy Cricket the ever-present observer of my actions, conscience is too strong a word. I need not have worried. I like them and have no hesitation in commending them.

The reason for my doubt was my technological illiteracy. As a boy I was interested in what things did – not how they worked. Cars and cameras have their enthusiasts. I use them, enjoy them but don’t worry or think about their ‘innards’. Planes are the same. But there’s a difference, which Holman has exposed.

As hinted above, the Second World War was formative in my development. It was there in my childhood larger than an elephant in the room. Words like radar lurked on the airwaves. And prominent on and in radio, film, newspaper and comic were terms like Spitfire, Messersschmitt and Flying Fortress. I didn’t know or heed the make of tanks. The royal navy had lost its glamour. Planes had not.- they were the future They were the winning of the conflict. That was my war.

The war concluded, ‘the fangs/ of battle shone in film and books.’ Flight dominated the newsreels. Words like Vulcan and Fokkers Friendship entered our vocabulary. Words like Tiger Moth had already been well-established.

Holman’s war-time love of books about planes struck an unexpected chord. The Icarus dream of soaring high about the earth is planted deep in our psyche. I found myself responding and understanding. ‘I kicked the chooks and clambered in.’ ‘Brownings blazing, black iron crosses, smoke and murder.’ Holman’s humanity appeals. He can be victor. He can also be victim as enemy fire rakes his craft. This was how it was presented, black and white and simple. Kill and be killed. The odds are on both. I live now in a contradictory world – in the 1940s it was more simple.

From his books he knew ‘the shape and the shadow/ cast on my heart by everything in there that flew.’ The excitement of the boy shows in the verse of a man. ‘off by heart I was flying solo/ through all those worlds of sheer excitement.’. Doodle-bugs spooked Nanny, ‘she talked bombs to me till the day she died.’ The intimacy is contagious.

That was only the first part of the collection. The second called ‘Fly Past’ has a photo of a Sunderland over an uncompleted Auckland Harbour Bridge. ‘The white weight/ of the bird-boat dropping on Hobsonville.’ The fly boy’s growing up. The aerial combat over Germany he realised was ‘skyways of slaughter’. ‘Heaven/ is tumbling as hell to earth.’ These two lines are from a very effective poem called ‘Nightfighter’. The whole section ends ‘We/ need to ask them but never do, what/ it was like to hover above the earth – and die?’

The third section is flight of a different sort. Birds! There is a poem to ‘Piwakawaka’ which I would have loved to have included in “These I Have Loved’ had it been available. It captures the essence of fantail ‘feather box of tricks on/ springs’. The joy of the bird and its antics. Indeed, this whole section is jam-packed with goodies, ending in the powerful last poem ‘Call me Icarus’.

It’s in the final section ‘Flight Path’ that the collection soars to fresh heights. Holman has taken possession of a poetic form that allows him full range to his voice and interests. It’s very difficult, indeed almost impossible to summarise. The photo shows a Sunderland over a Pacific island, bits of coconut studded earth scattered across miles of ocean. It’s over this route that the godwits fly, ‘burning fat fresh from the estuary/ down to the bone.’

Holman shuttles between California and New Zealand, newscaster Wendy Petrie and Executed German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, ‘all of knowledge/ resides in light’. Each reading reveals extra complexities. And the godwits carry the sense of a return to Aotearoa; and grounding. And yet – they do not stay, they’ll fly away again, earth-bound humanity reaching for the stars. I put down the volume and look at our new lovely little rose. I’m at home again, enriched by Holman’s enthusiasm, rapture, questioning, explanation. His volume is an example of why I like poetry and poets who make it. .

Monday, November 1, 2010

Tuesday Poem: The Pensioner

The Pensioner

A whiff of treachery, the body’s reluctance
to get out of bed in the morning. There is
reason to feel nervous about the outcome.

Not death, that is certain, but the trip to it.
Even cautious encouragement, the promise of
bacon and creamed mushroom on toast,

takes time to override its resistance. Recall
misty autumn mornings out early with bucket
& knife, picking field mushrooms, & the awe

at rings, fairies don’t exist they said, … but still…
the sun a pale corona through the fog. The jaunt
through the asphalt world has had its moments,

exotic brilliances & conspiracy corridors, but.
finally, feet, recognising the opportunity while
the mind’s woolgathering, swing over & out.

Lights, camera, we have action. Trousers etc.
It’s the loss of poise that irritates. Against that,
all that bother about face is of much less concern.

Harvey McQueen

I wrote this poem several years ago. My illness was already progressing but it had not been diagnosed – I thought this was merely the onset of old age. So I sought comfort in what positives I could find in the circumstances.

Why ‘asphalt’ people have asked. Derived from oil the symbol of mobility of my generation. Roads, runways, tennis courts, school grounds, it’s defined my life. Film has also assisted that process. Hence the true comedy of trousers. It merged on slapstick. Plus, ‘asphalt’ is a harsh word, a contrast to the fantasies of childhood – mushrooms, nothing in the paddock yesterday, suddenly in the morning March mist there are dozens. My stepfather, Dick, insisted we leave a few to spore for another season.