Monday, December 20, 2010


Along with a chocolate tree and peas, straight from the pod, for throwing at people, an essential for Christmas dinner is brandy butter, aka hard sauce. When you pour brandy over a hot Christmas pudding and set fire to it, and pass round portions still flickering with blue flames, brandy butter should melt into the pudding, releasing heady fumes that can bring tears to the eye.

You need butter, caster sugar and brandy. You also need a wooden spoon and a good-sized bowl. Not an electric mixer – you can’t make brandy sauce the easy way. And no, you don’t need help – you will have to elbow the help out of the way.

Let the butter soften. No, no, not in the microwave – you will end up with a yellow mess. Beat the softened butter with the wooden spoon. Go on, more. Beat harder. When it’s creamy and light tip sugar into it and beat some more. Keep adding sugar and beating until your arm starts to ache.

Unscrew the brandy bottle and slurp some into the mixture. That makes it easier and you can carry on beating. Leave bottle open, you aren’t finished with it yet. If you accidentally spill brandy onto the bench, you can use your finger to sort of lift it up. Lick your finger. Repeat the process: add sugar, beat. Slosh in brandy, beat. Taste mixture. Careful with that brandy, it’s going all over the bench.

Fumes getting up nose? Taste mixture. Finger scraped round inside of whatsit, bowl, ish good way. Thish recipe’s been handed down from … shomeone. Aunt? Hmmm. Needs more sauce – er, brandy. Beat. Getting a bit sloppy – more sugar. Whaddaya mean shloppy? I been making thish for ever, know how to do – gerroff. Maste tixture. No you can’t lick spoon, not finished with … More brandy …

When really, really tired, pile stuff into fancy thingy, cover and put into refri – regif – frater … cold place. Lick wooden spoon. Lick bench. Lick fingers. Lick bowl. Have nice nap.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


In the old days of sailing ships there was a great to-do when crossing the equator. King Neptune, the lord of the sea, had to be appeased by anyone, passengers or crew, who had not trespassed on his domain before. The ceremony of crossing the line was a rite of passage, and could involve anything from a splashing of water to no-holds-barred. In the sailing ship Euterpe, on the voyage of 1879, almost no one escaped.

The ship’s newspaper, The Euterpe Times, stuck its tongue firmly in its cheek and declared that several of the passengers were anxious about crossing the line, not on account of any shaving by Neptune or other pranks by the sailors but the consequences to the ship and themselves. Would it, for example, cause the Euterpe to bump violently? Some expressed their determination not to sleep until the line was safely passed, for fear it should be crossed in the night and they should be pitched out of bed. Others expected to actually see the line, “something of the nature of a clothesline we presume”.

At about 9pm on 30 September Neptune was heard bellowing from under the bowsprit, demanding to come aboard. He was dressed in an old coat and long whiskers made of towed flax, and his arrival triggered “a jolly spree at water throwing.” The lifeboats had been secretly filled with water beforehand and everyone on deck, including the captain, got a soaking. “Even the ladies joined in the water fight” wrote one passenger, and only the women who were below decks escaped. A few men who tried to hide in their cabin were hauled on deck for a good wetting.

In the climax of the entertainment the sailors “shaved” three of their comrades who had not crossed the line before, by lathering their faces with tar and dirt and then scraping it off with a large wooden “razor”. If the victim opened his mouth to yell or protest (and who could help it?) he got a mouthful of tar and dirt, and buckets of water were thrown over him. All but one of the passengers were spared this treatment – Captain Phillips would not allow it – but “as for water, we were all thoroughly drenched” wrote one.

The unlucky passenger was a young man called Peck who had rashly declared that he would “fell the first one who touched him”. A diarist described how three figures emerged from behind the after hatch, seized him and threw him violently on his back, and “in less [time] than it takes to write these words he was bedaubed with a compound of molasses and dirt and dowsed with a few buckets of water.” It didn’t end there. “He had returned to the forward part of the ship and was busy cleaning the dirt off his face and neck when someone threw a pailful of tar from one of the boats right on to his head, nearly suffocating him and covering his hair with the nastiness.”

At the end of the festivities there was dancing on deck and “altogether a night of a queer sort was enjoyed very much” by crew and passengers – except possibly young Peck.

Friday, December 3, 2010


Here is a subversive, disloyal and provocative question that is likely to bring me a heap of trouble: Why buy books – specially novels – that you are going to read only once?

For obvious reasons, the idea of not buying books is anathema to bookish people, including writers, of which I am one (although I am not a writer of books). If people didn’t buy books, the trade would collapse, writers would starve and we would have nothing new to read. But (I’m already hunting for a flak-jacket and taking cover) the fact is that many books are read only once, unless they contain material that can be studied, consulted or otherwise needed for on-going use. This usually, although not always, means non-fiction. Novels, unless they seem destined for classic status, are once-onlies.

In our house there were always too many books and not enough shelf space, so once in a while we had a clear-out. The books that ended up in the discard pile were those we had read and were never going to read again. These were usually novels of the ephemeral kind (do I hear the whine of bullets coming my way?) and other books which didn’t measure up for any reason. Sometimes we made more weighty, fraught decisions that were like sawing off a limb: did we really want to keep that old set of Dickens, and the Foresters? What about the Trollopes and Hardys? The sorting process was painful and conducted in loud voices, with much squabbling and snatching backwards and forwards.

If possible we passed the books on, free to a good home. We tried giving boxes of the better sort of books to schools, but they only wanted ones with bright covers. (What was that about judging a book by its cover?) We thought of stealing around in the night and leaving boxes outside libraries but that seemed as wicked as abandoning babies. The second-hand shops, once the source of pocket money, became unaccountably empty of staff when we appeared with bulging boxes.

I look at the shelves now and see too many books. They have stretched and multiplied again. There is a shelf over there with other people’s books – they must be returned. There are another two shelves, where the books I don’t want are jammed in tight, and something will have to be done. Perhaps a trip to the tip? Apart from these, there are no books in the house that I can do without. Not without angst anyway.

But if I, and people like me, don’t buy books that we won’t want to keep, if we only buy novels as presents for other people to read once and pass on, if we depend on public libraries, the libraries of friends, and the second-hand markets, for our more ephemeral reading matter, who will write them, and who will publish them?

Friday, November 26, 2010


Weeks into the voyage of 1879, London to Lyttelton, the passengers of the sailing ship Euterpe began to be seriously troubled by rats which were starting to get hungry. “We are getting swarmed with rats” wrote one passenger, “they being a little more sociable than we like, having through the night got into my bunk.” Another passenger reported that “the rats ate part of my boot last night.”

The wife of the editor of the ship’s newspaper was one night alarmed by a large rat tumbling off the top of her bunk on to her head. “She shrieked in horror” the paper noted gleefully, “and springing from her bunk seized a shawl which she hurriedly wrapped around her and jumped on the table in the centre of the Cabin. Here she sat perched up like an Hindoo Goddess, her eyes almost startling out of her head with fright and declared she would never go to bed again in the Horrid Ship” (Euterpe Times No. 14).

The same edition of the paper reported on a new and exciting sport that had sprung up on the ship: rat hunting. Some of the passengers set to work making snares, and others took to throwing belaying pins at them, the daily kill being exhibited on deck with the largest sporting a triumphal ribbon. “There were all sizes of them from the infant … to the aged and grey bearded depredator and hardened criminal” went the report. One young man wrote in his diary that he had got up at 3.30am and had caught ten.

The squeamish should stop reading here, because there were thousands of rats, and the food on the ship was running low. A few of the passengers began to supplement their rations with rat pies. They skinned them and put the shoulders and legs into a dish and put a piece of pastry over it, wrote one diarist. The Euterpe Times (no. 14) gave a well-bred shudder but, under the heading “Rats a la Paris”, reported that “Rat pie has been in great demand during the last 2 weeks by a few of those who are not over fastidious in their tastes and are wishful for a change of diet. We are told by the bon-vivants they possess the flavour of a young pigeon and that they are nice and tender. Perhaps it is so but we should prefer an Albatross, or any of the numerous birds caught to the most dainty dish of vermin than can be served up on board the Euterpe.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


A while ago I was lucky enough – in fact astounded – to receive a letter from the El Gordo Spanish Sweepstake Lottery S.A.

The letter was from the desk of Don Javier Perez, the Managing Director of International Promotions/Prize Award Department, and he informed me that I had won US$960,000 – nearly NZ1.38 million. Senor Perez said that my name was attached to ticket number 025-11464992-750, serial number 2113-05, which drew the lucky numbers 19576 (it was getting quite complicated, don’t you think?) and won the lottery in the second category, whatever that was. Whoopee! I said.

I was therefore approved for a lump sum payout in cash, reference number blah blah – part of a total kitty of US$7,680,000 shared among eight international winners. The eight of us, out of 25,000 people from Europe, America, Australia, Asia and North America (did I live in Australia or Asia I wondered) had scooped this massive pool and my money was safely deposited to a special account in my name, waiting for me to claim it. Wow! I said. Senor Perez begged me not to tell anyone until the transaction had been completed, but he hoped that I would take part in the end of year highstake US$1.3 billion international lottery. You bet! I said. When you’re on a roll …

There was a Payment Processing Form attached to the letter. It required a lot of sensitive information including occupation, marital status, bank account number, date of birth and other details. I could choose to have the money transferred to my own bank account or, my goodness, I could pick it up personally! My eyes lit up. It so happened that I knew someone who lived in Spain. Perhaps he would be so kind as to pop along to see Senor Antonio Molina, the Foreign Services Manager of General Seguros S.A. in Barcelona and pick up the cheque for me. I would gladly give him half the money for his trouble.

Senor Perez was so excited to be able to tell me all this good news, offered me the congratulations of his staff, and thanked me for being part of their promotions program. But there was a niggle in the back of my mind – just a tiny niggle really. I didn’t actually remember buying a ticket in the El Gordo Spanish Sweepstake Lottery S.A.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


I voted in the recent local body elections, but only for a mayor. Faced with long lists of candidates for other positions my head began to ache. Who were all these people? How did I know what they could do and how they might perform on my behalf? Apparently thousands of people, like me, left those pages blank.

People have fought and died to win me the right to vote. I honour them. Much is made of this right – it’s called democracy, and we must continue to defend it fiercely. But as Dean Inge pointed out a century or so ago, democracy is only an experiment in government and merely counts votes instead of weighing them. Unless we know something about the people we vote for, the process is meaningless – particularly for local body elections. And – let me be provocative – it could even be considered irresponsible.

The theory sounds great: let the people decide who they want to run their cities. But the people have a duty to ensure that those we elect do their jobs wisely. And by and large we can’t do that, unless we live in small towns with large community halls and a busy, healthy social life. In parish pump politics everyone knows where the bodies are buried and can choose accordingly.

For all I know, those who have now won seats to local bodies and can proceed to wield civic power have been voted in by family and friends, plus handfuls of people who made random selections with a pin. These people exercised their democratic right to vote but how did they decide where to put their ticks of approval?

Councils and boards are just committees writ large. And my idea of a successful, well-run committee is one headed by a good-hearted, intelligent, sensible, energetic, benign dictator with a band of willing and able human worker-bees ready to do his or her bidding. Failing that we must either cross our fingers and vote for those with the highest profiles, the best PR teams, the winningest television smiles – or abstain.

Name recognition is everything and nothing in local body elections. Candidates could change their names to Mickey Mouse and would romp home, with Bilbo Baggins close behind.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Sunny morning. Turned on washing machine. Had shower, dressed, drank coffee. Hung out laundry. Tripped over Sweet Cicely. Fetched secateurs from garage. Pruned Sweet Cicely.

Noticed Pseudopanax sweeping ground. Snipped at Pseudopanax. Mound of prunings getting messy. Fetched bucket from garage. Filled bucket with prunings. Couldn’t find secateurs. Emptied bucket. Found secateurs at bottom. Re-filled bucket. Large no-name shrub poked me in eye. Nearly lost glasses. Attacked no-name with secateurs. No-name too big. Put secateurs in pocket. Fetched long loppers from garage. No-name no match for loppers.

Spied neighbour’s grapevine snaking across fence. Tried to kill it for years. Hacked through shrubbery to fence. Collected leaves, twigs, spiders in hair and clothes. Slashed at grapevine with loppers. Everything fought back. Even Euphorbia. Sticky white stuff all over face, arms, trousers.

Why didn’t I change before doing all this? Why did I start all this?

Bucket now full. Prunings all over lawn. Fetched rake from garage. Good rake. Has useful hook on top for hanging up in garage. Raked prunings into heaps. Hook also catches on Pseudopanax, no-name, roots, branches, glasses, clothesline. Leaned rake against fence.

Stumbled back and forth carrying rubbish to green bin. Green bin now full. Piled excess against garage wall. More leaves, twigs, clippings, debris all over lawn. Fetched mower from garage. Mowed lawn. Now tiny shreds of leaves, twigs, clippings, debris all over lawn.

Found rake and raked lawn. Saw pittosporum had sprouted a diseased limb. Like acne. Hunted for loppers. Found them under Pseudopanax. Applied to diseased limb. Too thick. Fetched small saw from garage. Sawed off limb. Wiped brow. Rubbed sawdust from eyes.

Returned rake, loppers, bucket, saw, mower to garage. Where secateurs?

Collapsed on sofa on deck. Felt sharp twinge. Found secateurs in pocket. Laundry dry.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Recently I took the family history to be bound – for the second time. The first time was a few years ago when I thought it was done. But family history doesn’t let you go, doesn’t let you walk away just like that. Once you start looking back at who and where you came from, you can’t resist the tempting lure of a juicy piece of new information that fits into the jigsaw puzzle that is the story of the people who lived before you.

Why bother with all that old stuff? I’m not sure. There is a need to connect yourself to something – a web of belonging. There is a sense of history, both personal and social, that you want to explore. There is the mystery, and the thrill of the chase, following clues, building up pictures of people and events that become clearer through the mist of time. Fanciful? Oh yes. Romantic? Certainly. Deranged? Some would say so.

Many years ago someone sent me a hand-written family tree. Although the first ancestor shown lived in the sixteenth century I was not moved, and filed the document somewhere safe and forgot about it. Much later I was walking along South Brighton beach in Christchurch (New Zealand) and I realised that the headlands in front of me flanked Lyttelton harbour. A thread of memory drifted to the surface: my great-grandfather had guided his sailing ship Euterpe safely to port, not once but many times, between those headlands. My great-grandfather had been there. He had stood on the deck of the ship and looked through his spy-glass at those same headlands. A century ago.

That was the moment. I was hooked. I wanted to know about this man, these people, and I wanted to write about them, tell my family about them. They will not be interested for years yet, as I was not interested, but one day some of them – perhaps only one of them – will care. The book has been written, expanded and bound – again – because more information keeps coming to light. It is, I fear, an obsession.

The photograph is of the ship Euterpe in San Diego harbour.

Monday, September 27, 2010


The following gem appeared in my email inbox recently, sent by a fluffy old bat called Agatha. (It’s alright, she’s a sort of friend of a friend, and she can look after herself.)

If writers of internet blogs
Would keep those blogs updated
Their loyal reading public
Might not feel so frustrated
Or provoked to silly banter
Like this one.
(Signed) A. Ranter

I laughed, and was going to scrunch it up, virtually speaking. But a fan letter – or a fan poem – is not to be sneezed at. (Random thought: why should anyone sneeze at anything?) People sometimes leave comments on blogs, but to go to the trouble of composing a poem is to go the extra mile.

But is it a poem or a pome? Poems come in all grades, from lyric to doggerel, verse or worse. Pomes are something else. The word was coined by accident, a typo during the process of editing a manuscript, but soon came to be applied to a poem that is not quite right, when it is over-written or sentimental, when it stutters or strikes the wrong note, or simply doesn’t measure up. Pomes are pretentious, coy or clich├ęd. They make you wrinkle the brow, click the tongue.

Poems can only be pomes if they are trying to be poems (are you getting confused?). Agatha’s, of course, was not trying to do any such thing. It was just a bit of fun.

Friday, September 24, 2010


So many men, so many opinions, sighed the old Roman poet Terence - and he had never imagined Twitter, Facebook or talk-back radio.

Night-time radio is the refuge and the consolation of the sleepless in Seattle or almost anywhere else on Earth. My preference is for Radio New Zealand National, but after eleven p.m. they play far too much music. And the trouble with music selected for an audience with a wide range of tastes is that most of it is not to anyone's taste. I turn to talk-back radio until either it sends me to sleep or the BBC World Service kicks in at midnight on Plains FM and I can switch over.

Talk-back is people having their say. It is mostly harmless enough. Callers may be inarticulate, and their thoughts awkwardly expressed. but it is a forum for those who an ex-host once described as lost, lonely, loony or liquored - and awake. They have "a rage for saying something, when there's nothing to be said" as Dr Johnson remarked in his wise old way.

By eleven p.m. a few have clearly been on the sauce for a while. Others have been asleep, but woken to hear the tail-end of the discussion and want to add their two cents' worth. Some don't listen at all but want to talk. People um, you know, like and yeah their way through half-sentences that meander hopelessly until they peter out. To paraphrase P. J. O'Rourke, one thing talk-back can't seem to accomplish is communicate, because everybody's talking too much to pay attention to what anyone else is saying.

Night-time talk-back radio is not notable for information or wit - two qualities that Stephen Leacock said ordinary people dislike in conversation. Articulate and well-informed callers are rare, but I remember one night when the topic was Israel and Palestine. One woman had recently lived on the West Bank for two years and knew first-hand about the situation there. The host had never been near the place but had read a bit and knew which side he was on. Another caller had strong opinions on the subject but admitted she never watched the news or read newspapers. Guess which two people congratulated each other on knowing best about the tensions on the West Bank and poured scorn on the third after she had been summarily cut off?

Public opinion is a messy thing - fickle, sweeping, amorphous and based on attitudes, mis-information and sentiment. But anybody, these days, can express an opinion on talk-back radio. Or for that matter in a blog.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Our television is pathetic. It is pathetic because it has been commercialised to death.

I'm grumpy because the mute button on the TV remote has stopped working. I can't turn off the trash. And most of what is on our screens is trash, not just the advertisements but what surrounds them. That is because in commercially driven television the advertisers influence what we see. Our news, current affairs and political messages are dominated by press releases, celebrity culture, news trivia and heart-string tugging. Good business but bad journalism.

It is bad for business - i.e. too expensive - to provide quality material. What we get is cheap rather than good. What we get is not driven by public demand but by the suppliers of information and merchandise. What we get is not what we ask for but what the advertisers ask for. Hands up those who want more reality television. The old Roman satirist Juvenal wrote that "the people long eagerly for just two things - bread and circuses". In television terms that means programmes with sex, violence and lots of excitable noise, which advertisers believe to be the quickest ways to catch and hold the attention of an audience. Maybe so, and that's fine - within reason. However, if all we get is cheap programming we eventually develop a taste for it, just as we do for too much sugar and salt.

If we got what most of us really want, there would be better quality television and no advertisements. But this is not Utopia and it is not that simple.

Commercial interests do not want a public that thinks, debates, questions and makes up its own mind. They want a public that consumes. Nor do they worry about quality. They are profit driven and are happily dumbing us down. We all whine about what's on the telly, but that doesn't change anything. We should be deeply and loudly resenting the assumption that we are morons.

The market rules, private enterprise wins. Let the market decide, they say. If the people don't like the messages, they won't listen or watch and we won't be able to sell any advertising. I suggest that they walk a very fine line sometimes. People already hate the advertising, and more and more people are turning off the trash that helps to push it.

In a healthy democracy, what the people demand, the people get. My mute button may not work, but the off button does. Thank goodness for DVDs. And books.

Friday, September 10, 2010


The other day a younger man confessed that he wouldn't want to drive around in my car. It wasn't cool, and he rather wished that he didn't feel like that about the car, but admitted that he liked cool cars.

There is nothing wrong with my car. True, it is old and boxy, and doesn't have a quivering boom-box. Or mag wheels. The air-con doesn't work any more. It doesn't have a bossy GPS or an on-board computer. It has most of the essentials though: wheels, windscreen, an engine, the everyday wires and tubes and other stuff under the whatsit - the bonnet. The ignition key is just a regular old key - it doesn't tweet and make the lights go on and off. The car usually allows me to drive it from A to B, it doesn't care whether I clean it or not, and I ask nothing else of it.

It's just a car, dammit, not a life-style statement. Why does this bother some people but not me? Some people have a sense of coolness or un-coolness and I don't. I don't even understand how it might matter. There isn't even consensus about it anyway - just watch Jeremy Clarkson and his crowd on "Top Gear". They squabble endlessly about the coolness or otherwise of cars and never reach an agreement.

It's not just cars either, it's clothes and colours and words and furniture and mobile phones and even plants. Even I know that it is un-cool to have an avocado bathroom suite, or a stupid frill around the bed base, or pittosporums and iceberg roses in the garden. But we've stopped laughing at men who used to wear flared trousers because they have come back but are called something else and they are now cool. I think - I can't keep up. I wanted to buy curtains a few months ago but left the shop in despair because all the colours were gloomy greys and muddy greens and bronzy browns - so cool but oh so dull and depressing.

So, my car is un-cool. And I don't care. But at least I don't have fluffy dice dangling over the dash or a garfield stuck on the window. So last century.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


On the morning of Saturday, 4th September, 2010, when the Christchurch (New Zealand) earthquake struck, my family, without power, water or phone but otherwise unscathed, turned up at my house with breakfast and a shovel. Ten minutes later there was a large hole in my garden.

Without power or water we are, these days, almost helpless. Nothing that we are accustomed to using works. And when it comes to emergencies, our needs become very simple indeed. A loo, a toilet, a little girls'/boys' room, a W.C., a bog or a latrine - call it what you will - comes near the top of the list. I had no water but I now had a hole in the garden - an emergency latrine.

There is much coyness about toilets. In Australia during world war II my mother rented a cottage from a woman who apologised because the toilet was inside instead of outside as, apparently, she thought proper. In England there was a discreet shed at the bottom of the garden in many old properties, and potties under beds for during the night. Yes, the thought is quease-inducing for us, accustomed as we now are to mod. cons.

Parents of young children know all about holding out a desperate, urgent child who has to go now behind a handy bush - and know too about the warm splashing over an unfortunately placed foot that is all too often a result. What does a desperate, urgent adult do in these circumstances?

In New Zealand the old long-drop has something going for it. Well, darn it, we had a post-hole borer once but I've lost track of it. It would have been useful on Saturday. There's always an old bucket lying around, but some of us (I shall put this as delicately as possible) are way past being able to squat that far down without an unseemly scramble, with the added possibility of accidents, back up again. Stand the bucket on something sturdy? Hmmm - perhaps not - a bit wobbly.

May I introduce the wonderfully named thunder-box? I am reasonably familiar with this contraption, which we used when we were children in Teheran. Think of a large strong wooden box with a hinged lid. The lid had a suitable hole in the middle. Strategically placed underneath stood a large bucket. Beside the wooden box was another bucket containing sand and a small spade. The procedure for making use of this simple and essential piece of furniture - and it was furniture rather than a fitting - will be obvious.

Thought for today, as the aftershocks continue to shake the house sixty hours after the first roar, crack and rumble: it wouldn't be so difficult to construct a thunder-box for future emergencies.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I'm with that great writer and philosopher Voltaire, who declared that work banishes the three great evils of boredom, vice and poverty. Especially boredom. Never mind the lucrative, fancy-sounding but boring jobs, just leave me the perilous and satisfying ones. All the jobs I've really enjoyed, and stayed in longest, have been busy, stressful, unpredictable, full of variety, crisis-ridden, exhilarating and challenging. Bookselling for example.

Anyone looking for a cosy little job should look somewhere other than a bookshop. There might be an air of quiet busy-ness, and outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that bookselling is a genteel trade, that no one gets their hands dirty, that the most strenuous part of the day might be wafting a feather duster over the shelves. Ha.

It is not a soft option. It takes stamina, an ability to hold a colossal amount of information in your head, and the constitution of a stevedore. The art of balancing leaning towers of books on each arm while running up and down stairs is in the job description. Multi-tasking was probably invented in a bookshop. Everyone, except possibly the packer, is expected to be able to step into any job if necessary.

Books are heavy and do not arrange themselves neatly on the shelves. They come literally by the truck-load and unpacking them is hard, dusty work. A proper bookseller's eyes light up at the whump of huge sacks thudding onto the loading dock. Booksellers are identified instantly by the tough rubber bands - essential tools of the trade, for snapping around bundles of books - on each wrist instead of bling.

They are greedy readers, and Solomons of bookish wisdom. They are expected to know all the answers, or at least how to find out. Catalogues are practically bedtime reading so that customers are given good advice. For example grandparents, invariably beaming with pride because their toddling grandchildren are streets ahead of the pack when it comes to reading, are congratulated and guided towards The Cat in the Hat. People who have seen a book advertised but can't remember the title or the author must be pressed a little further until the problem is solved. Proper booksellers know that "Doctor Zhivago" does not belong in the medical section.

Wobblies are optional but in my experience rather frequent. We used to say that if you could last a week, you were at least on the way to becoming a proper bookseller. They tend to be articulate, opinionated and given to meaningful discussions in the tea-room or, in emergencies in one place I worked, in a cupboard under the stairs with the brooms, dusters and cardboard boxes. I remember some monumental scenes with people who couldn't control their tempers. One Irish girl, in her first week, didn't appreciate being asked to dust the shelves. "I'm not a skivvy!" she screamed, and there was a very public row - no question of retreating to the cupboard first - and she stomped out, never to return.

As a bookseller I don't remember ever being bored. As Noel Coward observed, work was much more fun than fun.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Wasn't there a world-wide scientific survey a few years back to find the smartest creature on Earth? And didn't they conclude that our own New Zealand kea came out on top, heading off octopuses, squirrels, ravens and border collies? An octopus has recently done its species proud and might have to be inched up the smartness ladder a bit but the obvious creatures - the dogs, pigs, monkeys and horses - were left standing at the gate.

There is something wrong here. What about cats?

Question: If we are so smart and they are so dumb, how come I have just come home with the shopping, the bulk of which seems to be cat food, to find them still asleep on the bed with their noses tucked under their tails?

They do nothing around the house except sleep or sit on windowsills. They find the most inconvenient times - just after I've vacuumed - to smack each other's ears and set the fur to flying. They always come inside to sick up on the carpet. They know where the cat-flap is but demand to be let in at the front door. They are always on the wrong side of doors.

They jump on the kitchen bench, but only when disapproving visitors turn up. They sit between me and the computer screen. They know that extending a paw towards wallpaper or table legs gets them instant attention, even if it's noisy and violent. They don't give a tinker's about disapproval but are themselves experts at the death stare. They can even do it, elegantly, with a hind leg hooked behind an ear.

They have no conception of gratitude. We provide them with jellimeat and laps, and in return they offer us dribbles, cat hairs and vet bills. They have ordered the world to suit themselves, so why weren't they at the top of that smart list? Because they didn't deign to take part in the survey, that's why.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Never mind the Tour de France, those guys don't know the half of it. They should ride a tandem. When I die I should have my sweaty ashes sprinkled at the side of the road at that point, about three quarters of the way up the hill to Mount Biggs, where I wanted to throw up.

As a hill it was no big deal. Cars whizzed up it. On a tandem it was a different story. Grinding up that hill always made me wonder why we rode a tandem at all. It was hard work. The wind was "variable" which was Met-speak for "always in your face". We made children laugh, frightened the fetlocks off horses, and could scatter livestock faster than a pack of rogue dogs.

The approach to Mount Biggs was along bush-lined roads that rolled upwards so gently that we hardly noticed. Paddocks on either side were fiercely green and lumpy, and soggy with standing water. Sheep, which never looked up when trucks and motorbikes snarled past, clacked away in panicky mobs through the mud when we swished by. Fences climbed impossibly steep banks, and baby trees planted in neat rows looked like new hair transplants.

There was a hysterical bitser that rushed out from the house with the twee windmill in the garden, and together we bellowed at him: "Get out of it!" It was well-enough trained and hauled itself up with a screech of brakes, but it was scary to be threatened by forty kilos of roaring muscle and teeth.

We coasted through goat alley; more tethered goats cropping the verge than there were fence posts. Swooped down towards the pig farm with its rich, pungent smells. We passed a council truck parked by the roadside. Two men in the cab were smoking and reading the paper, too late for smoko and too early for lunch. One of them shouted, "Hey, she's not pedalling!" Somebody always did.

Motorists barped horns as they twisted past, too fast and too close. The captain - the one on the front of the tandem - dared not take his hands off the handlebars. A truck full of leaking cattle skimmed by, creating a dangerous vacuum and we slipped back so we could pick our way through the smelly mess left on the road. The stoker - that was me, the one on the back sobbing - saw more of the back of the captain's neck than the scenery. "Look at that!" he might shout as we sailed past a paddock full of calves in blue plastic jackets, gambolling like huge puppies. Or perhaps "A-a-a-h!" at a covered heap of tiny, still, frail bodies, the night's bleak casualties waiting for the knacker's ute.

At the foot of Mount Biggs there was a field of Joseph's sheep - many-coloured and haughty, as though aware of their rarity. The captain, with an evil chuckle, announced a serious gear change downwards. The back of his neck was impervious to the blistering looks I directed at it.

The hill started deceptively, but a quarter of the way up the captain's communications degenerated into grunts, with the occasional bark: "Have you stopped pedalling or what?" Halfway up and the tandem moved so slowly that it yawed from side to side as we pushed down on the pedals. Every few metres I looked up at the mop-headed cabbage trees apparently leaning back as the road tipped crazily upwards. We reached the steepest part. The tandem was hardly moving.
Three quarters up the hill I could hear the children shrieking in the playground at the top. I was still pedalling although my contribution was minimal. But as we rounded the bend we gathered up the remaining shreds of will and sinew and sprinted the last twenty metres. The children rushed to the fence, pointed and laughed.

At the top, as we caught our breath and began to glide along the rim of the hills with rolling green slopes falling away beside the road, and the big, big sky all around us - we knew why we rode a tandem and we shouted out: "We knocked the bastard off - again!"

Monday, July 19, 2010


There is a bottom drawer in every writer's life. It might be a box. Or a suitcase. Or a file, or a pile of envelopes, or a plastic bag under the bed. It can be a folder in the computer labelled "drafts" or "possible pieces". It can even be a corner of the mind, a dusty place where half-finished fragments of discarded stories, poems and articles have been abandoned but not quite forgotten. And sometimes, when all the assignments have been completed, there is nothing in the "to do" basket, and it's still only two o'clock in the afternoon, the temptation is to trawl through the bottom drawer to see if there is anything there with possibilities.

There is a reason that all those fragments are in there. There is a reason for the abandonment. I have just opened my bottom drawer and found that a terrible fate has overtaken the contents while they languished there. Nearly everything has grown old-fashioned: the language, the style, the content, the themes, even the names of characters. There are two half-finished novels and both, after all that effort, are well-crafted but pedestrian narratives for which I couldn't see a future. Well-crafted is not nearly good enough. There must also be life and movement and suspense of one kind or another.

The contents of the drawer all petered out because they wandered into a dead-end alley, or had no purpose or point, or seemed too boring to complete, or the task was too intimidating. But there is a difference between the contents of the bottom drawer and the writing that is undertaken, struggled through, revised, polished, and delivered to a client or market for which it is designed. The difference is perseverance. The bottom drawer is full of fragments because nobody, including me, cared whether they were finished or not. It was too easy to give up.

I opened the drawer this afternoon because I have just read Fiona Kidman's "Beside the Dark Pool" in which she lists some rules for writers, including the following: "Learn to finish things. When you rush from one project to another thinking the next will be better, you never find out how good the one you're working on really is." Yes!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Once upon a time my cousin and I used to take the dog for midnight walkies and search the sky for UFOs. We hoped to catch sight of the mother ships - the huge, cigar-shaped ones that hover while flying saucers whizzed around them. Cigars and saucers - that was it. No self-respecting UFO seekers expected to see any other shapes. The fact that we never saw any shapes at all didn't dampen our enthusiasm for the possibility that we might.

Since then, and usually in the holiday season, when newspapers haven't much to write about and people have more time to gaze upwards, there are occasional reports of mysterious objects in the sky. Like the time some people in Adelaide declared they had been dive-bombed by what looked like a large, dusty boiled egg. Before the spoilsports ruin it all, before the lights and shapes are proved to be weather balloons, mutton birds, high-flying squid boats, pieces of old satellites, or reflected images of Venus, please let us romantics dream a little longer.

From the ranks of romantics come the inventors, the writers, the painters, the poets, the dreamers, the eccentrics - and the crackpots. Sometimes it isn't easy to make the distinction. For example, people who accept whimsical possibilities might talk to their cabbages and chrysanthemums and insist that as a result, they grow bigger and better vegetables and flowers than people who don't.

We know that space ships and their passengers belong to fantasy-land. Sensible people do not accept them for a moment. Sensible people did not accept germs and aeroplanes and splitting atoms either - it took crackpots and romantics to follow those idiotic ideas through. Romantics are capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast any day. And while there is some doubt, some beguiling possibility, we prefer to let our imaginations run wild.

Adults who welcome the idea of UFOs being space ships were probably once children who saw the man on the moon long before there really was a man on the moon. They confidently wrote to Santa Claus. They played with invisible friends. They seriously, and tremblingly, considered the idea of there being a ghost at the top of the stairs. They were wary of the tiger in the shrubbery. And those children grew up to be the sort of people who would prefer to think of a UFO as a space ship rather than a weather balloon, simply because that is the more enchanting possibility.

Romantics are enthralled by "true" stories of ghosts and would be charmed as well as scared witless if they met something on the stairs that was transparent and rattled its chains. They would rather not know for sure that there are no such things as ghosts, because then they can slip back into that beguiling childhood state where there are no boundaries, and they are limited only by their imagination.

Some people don't grow out of this need to over-paint life, but hold fast to their magical worlds. There was a woman in England some years ago who was convinced that pixies lived on a piece of vacant land that she owned, and she refused to sell it to a property developer. Now there was someone who truly believed that there were fairies at the bottom of her garden. Many practical, down-to-earth people were outraged at this absurdity, pressing for high-rise flats instead. But there are plenty of practical, down-to-earth people in the world, and more than enough high-rise flats, but not nearly enough eccentrics. I'm glad the eccentric won that particular battle.

An imaginative child who hides at the bottom of the garden with a book keeps one eye on the nearby toadstools in case the fairy who lives there chooses that day to materialise. Everybody knows that a fairy standing on a toadstool might - just might - show herself, like Tinkerbell, to a human child if that child believes hard enough. But if the tiny personage doesn't appear, there is still another world within the pages of the book to excite the imagination. And without boundaries it is just as easy to roam through the skies exploring space as it is to enter the world of ghosts or fairies or small green persons from another planet.

Why should we on Earth be so special anyway? It has been argued that it is at least theoretically and statistically possible that there is life on other planets, in other galaxies. Some of those civilisations could be smarter than we are, technologically speaking. The smallest leap of the imagination brings us to the idea that when people here on Earth see mysterious objects whizzing overhead it might be because the occupants are interested in us, disturbed about us, or simply flying over us on their way to somewhere else.

But here's a spooky thought: where are they going?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


One of the first difficulties to surface in a writing class is unrealistic expectations. People want to learn how to write - meaning how to write stories or poems or articles or essays. They want to know how to start and how to keep going. They want formulas, tips, short-cuts. What they really want is someone to wave a magic wand so that they can be writers.

The woman I already think of as Dutch sweeps her arms wide in a dramatic gesture. "I want the words to flow on to the page, perfect from the beginning - I want to be inspired!" she says. She reminds me of that voluptuously flamboyant old-time movie star Mae West who said "Let Shakespeare do it his way, I'll do mine, and we'll see who comes out better." I don't think Dutch has a sense of humour, unlike Ms West, so I just say that most writers probably want that too but it doesn't happen often. Writing takes work and persistence - inspiration is a bonus.

The Charmer says that he doesn't have much time for that sort of caper, yeah, but. This is the university student whose efforts so far have been insultingly scrappy, on one occasion scribbled on a half sheet of paper in the time it had taken me to set out my books and papers. How does he expect to learn how to write acceptable essays with that sort of attitude? The Poet sighs and gazes poetically at the ceiling.

When the Letter-Writer asks "But how do you start?" I tell her that in one sense it is easy enough. She already has the hang of it. Think of a word and write it down. Think of another and write that down next to the first word. Keep going, one word after another. I see a roomful of dubious stares. Think about it, I say. When you write a letter to a friend, you don't spend hours gazing at the wall. You warm up the PC, type Dear Polly, and jump into it. You rattle on. At some point you read what you've written, change a word or two, add a phrase, correct the spelling and grammar, sit back and evaluate the tone, the colour, the sense, and then you press 'send' and it's done. You have written a letter, and you didn't bang your head on your fist even once.

The looks on their faces say that it can't be that easy. No it's not. But it's a start. That's OK for letters to friends. And here's the thing: it's even OK for the first draft of something more significant. The next step is what makes the difference between a writer and everyone else. That's what we have to learn: how to make that first draft into something exciting, beautiful, powerful, amusing or profound, something that other people want to read. That is what takes effort, judgment and practice.

Writers have to learn the trade one way or another. There are no short-cuts. There is no magic wand. We have to provide our own motivation, our own persistence, our own power. Batteries are not included.

Reminder: The characters in the writing class pieces are imaginary

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I like cats. I like mice. When we were at boarding school my brother once lent me one of his. I tucked it into the sleeve of my blazer, and then it disappeared. I wept, and my brother was not pleased. I've read Beatrix Potter. I lift spiders and beetles and even flies out of puddles.

My cat likes mice. It is said that if you have a cat, you won't have mice in the house. This is not quite true. You probably won't have mice living-in, unless you're Beatrix Potter, but it is no accident that the words "cat" and "mouse" go together.

Last night my cat, which is gentle, well-fed, and never lifts a paw in anger, brought a mouse inside to play with. It was tiny. Nose to tail it was no longer than my finger. It got loose and ran along the skirting board and squeezed between books on the lowest shelf of the bookcase. The cat clawed the books out onto the floor and managed to catch the mouse. I grabbed the cat, whose mouth held the whole mouse apart from its tiny tail, which twitched anxiously. We were all on the floor, with urgent questions about life and death quivering in the air.

My instinct, right or wrong, is to rescue rather than to let nature takes its course. Nature can do its sometimes cruel work outside where I don't have to watch, but not on my living-room carpet. The mouse, loose again, fled here and there, including snuggled beside the instep on my furry slipper. I couldn't quite twist around to pick it up, and it streaked across the carpet and under the sofa. There it stayed, while the cat prowled around the perimeter poking his paw underneath in dangerous, sweeping strokes.

He gave up eventually and went outside, while I settled down with my book, one eye on the page and the other on the sofa. I felt ridiculously uneasy. I couldn't do anything, and arguably it was pointless to try. The mouse was probably injured, although it seemed fast and frisky, and a merciful death was the best outcome. I have more than once delivered that merciful death for a small and mortally wounded creature, but I couldn't get near this one to see what condition it was in. I went to bed troubled.

This morning the books were scattered over the floor again, and the cat was ready to pounce. This time I was quicker and snatched the mouse before he did. It seemed undamaged so I took it outside and dropped it into the shrubbery, where it blinked once and slipped under the euphorbia. The cat went out in a huff.

Several hours later a mouse (the mouse?) lay dead on the back doorstep. I buried it. That's life - and death.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Part way through the writing course people are settling in comfortably. That's when the questions start coming, and one of the first - a question writers are often asked - is, how did I start writing.

Writers have a variety of answers, ranging from the I-just-had-to of the wracked poet in a garret, to Barry Crump's dedication on the title page of one of his novels: "For L.S.D." * Many women like me, stuck in dreary suburbs with small children, lurching between self-pity, trying to make the best of things, and dreaming of escape by means of impossible riches, begin writing because it doesn't involve housework and babies.

The writing that I tried to do back then was of the kind that Malcolm Muggeridge, when he was editor of Punch, loftily dismissed as of the "Celia and the Washing-up" school. It depended on taking some domestic situation (the washing-up, the teething baby, the kitchen disasters) and turning it over to see the funny side. The reader was expected to laugh, and get a warm fellow-feeling about it as well. This must be done superbly well if it is to succeed, and I didn't do it nearly well enough. I sent my wretched, heavy-handed pieces off to magazines and they came thudding back insultingly quickly. I was always half relieved, because I knew, in that deep place where you know uncomfortable things, that they were awful.

Other people, mostly women, were doing it very well indeed. Betty MacDonald had made a fortune writing about chicken farming in The Egg and I. Jean Kerr (Please Don't Eat the Daisies), Irma Bombeck and countless others were writing sharp, funny books and articles turning the trials of domesticity on their heads. Even a few men wrote that sort of thing, usually about DIY - like trying to change a tap-washer and flooding the basement.

The tone was rueful yet upbeat, down-to-earth but bracing, and we were cheered as we struggled with our own small domestic dramas. Hey, we're not alone, we said and shovelled another spoonful of moulied spinach into another protesting baby mouth. We understood that our problems were shared, and that some of them at least could even be solved. And we could laugh at them. As T S Eliot observed, humour can be a way of saying something serious.

The next wave - women like Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Marilyn French - put some muscle into a movement that became the second (or was it the third?) wave of feminism. There, I've used the F-word. Because writings by women, about women and their perceived place in society, and the questions they asked, and the demands they made for equality and respect and justice, were and are part of the (on-going) feminist movement. Celia acquired a little sophistication and style, and moved away from the kitchen sink. Domestic humour, quietly and not so quietly, became a political tool, even a weapon. Women wrote about anything they wanted to, risking public scorn and private battles. Rebecca West once snapped back that people called her a feminist whenever she expressed sentiments that differentiated her from a doormat or a prostitute.

Trailing behind those forthright women, I began to see that writing could be about more than domestic matters. My articles started appearing in newspapers and magazines - it was a rosy time, when freelance writers could expect a kind reception if they offered pieces that were timely, and competently written. If they had style and personality as well, all the better. Journalists were out chasing real news and didn't have time for the more leisurely kind of writing that freelancers do.

It is different now. Columns are syndicated, and not so many are written by people in our own communities, about things that other people can relate to.

Celia is getting older, and out of date. Washing-up is done by a dish-washer. What's funny about a dish-washer?

Painting is "Begonias" (detail)

* money

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


The frequent flyers (fliers?) in the letter-box are usually scrappy things. Sometimes hand-written and photocopied on A5 paper, they are from Kev or Dave, who have no surnames or addresses, offering to prune trees or clear sections or take away rubbish or fix leaking taps. All you have to do, they say, is ring their mobiles and they'll be round to give you a quote. Somehow these messages don't inspire confidence, even when the services offered are useful and necessary, and you would, on principle, prefer to employ local people to do those jobs you can't or don't want to do yourself. Kev and Dave are anonymous. They could be eighteen or eighty. They could be cowboys or con-men. They could be anybody. My address-book is filled with these scraps of paper, filed under "gardening" or "handyman", and I have never called any of them.

The other day I found in my letter-box a sheet of A4 paper in an envelope with my address (but not my name) on it, clearly hand-delivered. The paper introduced a local carpenter and odd-job man offering to do small building jobs, repairs and household problem-fixing. In a photograph of him, wearing a hard-hat, he looked like somebody's granddad, and his full name was printed underneath. A short paragraph told me that he had lived locally for "most of me life" and had recently started a small business practising is trade. Already I was looking around the house wondering what he could do for me first.

"How can I help you?" he asked. Seven bullet points told me what I needed to know, including a promise to turn up when he says he will, and an undertaking to recommend reliable tradespeople for work he couldn't do. The third part was headed "What work can I do?" and here were fourteen bullet points which set out an impressive range of work he was prepared, and qualified, to handle. He promised to take on only work he could do on his own - clearly a man who knows his trade and is responsible enough not to get out of his depth and beyond his capacity to cope. Finally he included his phone number so I could, and did, look him up in the telephone book and locate his street address.

That flyer was a model of advertising: clear, concise and informative, reassuring and helpful, straightforward and inspiring confidence. The personality of this man was all over that unassuming piece of A4 paper and he will no doubt be overwhelmed by offers of work by now. His name is my secret; I might need his services because I have thrown out all the Kevs and Daves in my address-book.
The painting is "Green Apples & Carafe"

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Many would agree with Sam Goldwyn, who thought that no-one should write their autobiography until they were dead. However new writers, searching anxiously for something to write about, have a subject always accessible - themselves. Early in the course - when people ask where to get ideas from as they always do - I suggest that they might like to start on their autobiographies. The Poet looks worried and says that she hasn't done anything to write about. The Farmer is scornful: "Who would read it?" he bellows. The Charmer declares that biographies are only about important people. I disagree. Some great biographies have been about ordinary people.

However, an autobiography is not necessarily for public consumption. It can be a private indulgence, a way of loosening up, sorting out who we are, what we think, and how we became who we are. And - my trump card - what about your descendants, I ask. They would be enchanted to find your life story tucked away in your desk drawer after you've gone. That goes down well with the Genealogist, who is almost certainly beavering away on family history research, while Mr Hong Kong wakes up for a moment when his wife nods too briskly in agreement.
It takes a certain kind of self-indulgence to write about yourself, to believe that you might be an interesting person who has a right to an opinion, a person who has a life, who has done things, been places, learned a few things along the way. Suggesting that people use their lives and experiences as material is perfectly valid, because that is what writers do all the time. They observe, listen, store up information, use their imaginations, ask questions. They gather facts and ideas, order them, think about them, apply them. And the one subject that we all know everything about is ourselves. You never run out of material and you can't complain that you have nothing to write about.

Last time I had suggested to the class that they go home and write about themselves from the point of view of another person or thing. Doing this serves two purposes: it is first a basic lesson on using and controlling the narrative voice, and second it allows people to see themselves as interesting subjects without being self-conscious about it. When we meet again, about half had done the exercise and half had not - that's about par for the course. Those who had, reported that they had found it difficult to distance themselves from themselves, that the exercise was somehow unnerving. In the event, cats, dogs and a budgie had written about their owners, as had telephones, a mirror and a check-out chick. This last was a surprise and showed imagination on the part of the Letter-Writer who comes across as a woman with a healthy, self-deprecating sense of humour. (Letter-writing is an excellent way to flex the writing muscles in a free-form and unthreatening way.) The check-out chick as the narrator was clearly a bored girl rapidly losing patience with the fumbling, indecisive customer holding up the line, and the Letter-Writer has amused herself, and us, by poking fun at herself in the role of the customer.

Several other pieces are read aloud to hoots and chuckles. That first exercise - I never call it homework after one woman complained that it made her think of school - is usually safe enough for people to read aloud if they are brave enough to do so. (Later, I usually found it prudent to read the offerings first, for a variety of reasons.) It is an effective ice-breaker and gives people confidence to expose their work in a safe environment. It doesn't hurt to allow a measure of theatre in a class, and the person standing at the front pontificating is not the only one with a contribution to make. Comments from the class are usually generous, and the exercise is, as they always are, designed to illustrate a technique or press home a point. The class is warming up nicely and beginning to relax.

The painting is a triptych called "Impatiens"

Thursday, March 25, 2010


... big bloke, extra long arms, because the picture rail was way up there out of the reach of regular sized people. Couldn't find one, so a friend stepped in, and onto household steps he had thoughtfully brought for the purpose. He was wonderfully patient, juggling each picture and obediently moving two inches to the right or half a brick left as instructed from the floor, while the rest of us attached hooks and threaded nearly invisible, recalcitrant, mind-of-its-own fishing line. A charming American tourist watched proceedings and became involved, offering comments and suggestions.

The helpers went home, leaving two of us to attach labels to each painting and mind the store. We agonised over prices. It had been an on-going discussion, starting weeks earlier with everyone chipping in, from those who favoured the Mercedes principle (big price tag equals quality merchandise) to those, including me, who leaned towards boot-sale prices. I compromised and put ones in front of the prices I first thought of instead of noughts after - I was wrong.

Minding the store was generally tedious. There was a trickle of visitors but mostly we gossiped, kept a tally of numbers, nibbled at sandwiches and slurped coffee from a thermos. We watched seagulls squabbling by the pond in the quad outside, and sometimes the pond filters became blocked with autumn leaves and spluttered and sucked crossly until the man with the vacuum pump came to help out. Overhead, after school, baby ballet dancers thundered to a tinkly piano. Outside, pretty Japanese brides posed in their wedding finery, and once we watched a troupe of Bollywood dancers rehearsing on the grass. We realised that we needed books and puzzles and newspapers to keep us occupied.

Visitors included a middle-aged couple who spoke in Yorkshire accents but lived in Cyprus, and a deeply tanned Austrian couple who had parked their catamaran in the Bay of Islands and were doing New Zealand by road and rail. A couple in a campervan bought "Canterbury Plains" - it was flat and thin and easy to slip into the bottom of a suitcase. Talks with people who were members of book discussion groups were always interesting because note-writers like me don't often get the chance to meet the end users of the essays we write about the books they read and discuss. Four cheerful, generous women who were all painters swept in and enthused about the show. They were old hands and were booked into the gallery later in the year. They scolded me for not charging enough, and suggested that I have cards of the paintings made and sell them as well. So I went home that night and printed off as many as possible before the printer ran out of ink.

One afternoon I was alone except for a dozy, late summer bee that drifted sleepily overhead until it found its way back out into the sunshine. I had time to sort out my thoughts on the venue and the visitors it attracted. They were mostly tourists - Japanese, American, Australian and a few Europeans. Too many walked in, glanced about, strolled clock-wise around and walked out again. The Japanese always bowed politely as they left. Someone told me that they are given little time to linger anywhere and were so rushed that as soon as they climbed into their buses they fell asleep until they were chivvied out at their next stop. I was tempted to say "Kobe kara" (from Kobe, meaning me) but thought I might be overwhelmed by a torrent of rapid Japanese which I would not have understood, so long is it since I spoke the language.

As for the venue, attractive as it was, it probably wasn't the right environment for selling pictures in short-term exhibitions. Permanent shops and galleries are set up for credit card sales, for packing and shipping, advertising and so on, unlike someone exhibiting for a week. The foot traffic consists mainly of tourists who travel light; they have no space for paintings in their luggage and they can't lug pictures and cameras around town while they sight-see. On the other hand, locals looking for Art go to galleries for the Mercedes end of the market. The rest probably don't normally set out to buy pictures at all, but might see something that catches the eye in craft shops or weekend markets, something that might go nicely over the fireplace (absolutely the wrong place for pictures, by the way, at least if they are valuable).

Not all visitors came to see my pictures that week. A woman asked where the cinemas were. A man from Melbourne enquired about New Zealand's home of ballet and opera. Another man wanted to buy fudge. A woman wanted a scarf from an exhibitor from three weeks back. Another asked whether the Arts Centre had once been a monastery (it hadn't). And where was the Museum? We collected a wad of pamphlets from the information centre and boned up on the facts and figures in the spirit of friendly tourism.

At the weekend I was on my own but there was plenty to do: Saturday newspaper, Killer sudoku, a book of Keith Waterhouse columns. Friends popped in. I sold "Harbour 2". An American woman asked me a convoluted question which I couldn't decipher easily as her accent was unusual and she was referring obliquely to the title of the exhibition "Now and Then". She was asking whether the abstracts were "now" or "then" (recent or early) - yes, I was a bit slow there. She asked "do you ship?" Then she went out, saying that the pictures were rather good "for a hobby". Why didn't this trouble me?

On the last day we sat outside on a bench in the sun with one eye on the gallery when two men from Bangkok wandered past. They stopped, smiled and nodded, and one asked if he could sit down. The other snapped a picture, which included us. They swapped places and the other snapped more pictures before they thanked us and moved off, looking for more local colour. We now know how the natives in Mandalay, Mogadishu, Uttar Pradesh must feel when tourists appear flashing cameras, and we imagined those Thai men showing off their holiday snaps when they get home: "this one is Choy Bok with two native women in the beautiful Arts Centre in Christchurch!"
Why did I have an exhibition? Mainly to have a go and see what happened. And a more trivial reason? There were 34 paintings in that show, counting the triptych as one. Frankly, I was running out of wall space at home.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


The exhibition - how grand that sounds, and how it sets the nerves twanging with fear - is a little less than three weeks away. We have been talking, my friends and I, about logistics. How shall I survive seven long hard days manning the store? How do we transport all those pictures safely from here to there? How are we going to arrange them - mix them up or group them according to styles, colours, themes? That sounds pretentious and not at all how the pictures were made in the first place - more likely higgledy piggledy. I have decided to mix subjects and styles so that visitors will find contrasts and maybe some surprises.

Will there be music? No, there won't. I have been troubled by music in public places so often that I don't wish to make visitors feel uncomfortable. Although I rather fancied Johnny Cash burbling in the background, or Meade "Lux" Lewis if I wanted people to shift into boogie mood. And Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" could have been appropriate should I have to slip away for a couple of minutes.

When I first started painting it was trial and error. I used oil paints, and the errors and over-paintings made pictures look muddy - it was quite depressing, and the techniques didn't suit my impatient nature. How-to books were full of Old Masters-type pictures, carefully built up in layers with days of drying time in-between, and presented at the end as beautiful examples of landscapes, pots, portraits and flowers. Mine were simply incompetent and oh-so-ordinary. As well, there was the problem of trying to paint pictures that the people around me liked, or at least tolerated. I didn't have the confidence to trust my own judgment, so I painted carefully and worriedly in a mist of turpentine.

Then I discovered acrylic paint. It dries quickly, keeps its brightness, the brushes wash out in water and, unlike watercolour, the paint is inert - when dry it doesn't come off unless it's sanded off. I soon swapped the Old Masters for Kandinsky, Picasso and Jackson Pollock (they dubbed him "Jack the Dripper") abandoned the inhibitions and started throwing paint around in splashes and dribbles. Instead of, or as well as, brushes I used bits of cardboard and rags and paper towels, chopsticks and straws and cotton buds. And I stopped worrying about what it was supposed to be and started enjoying myself.

About seven years ago an old friend gave me a large canvas and said, "go on, paint it!" That canvas stood behind the armchair in the spare bedroom while I listened to my friend, who died two years ago but continued to nag in my head after her death: "What are you waiting for?" A month ago I dragged the canvas out to the garage, picked up the largest house-painting brush I had, splurted a giant wodge of paint out of the tube ... and went for it. I think that's the picture which will be facing visitors as they walk through the door of the Cloisters Gallery at the Arts Centre between 16-22 March. You will be most welcome.

This picture is "Reeds" - it's not the one discussed above.

Friday, February 5, 2010

One Bite at a Time

The chairs, normally in wobbly rows facing front, have been moved into a circle. Several people are trying to manage their bags, folders and elbows in the cramped spaces between the chairs, and a fortyish woman is pushing the last one into place, declaring that this arrangement is much more suitable for "participant interaction". It reminds me that she is a social worker. I personally dislike the circle format; it's too close for comfort and there's too much craning of heads, but I keep this to myself. That's fine, I say, whatever makes you all happy. From the front, I look at backs, profiles and faces, and see that the Social Worker's head is twisted awkwardly in my direction. Soon, one by one, the chairs are turned around.

The Poet tells us that the quickie exercise about the insignificant object has already borne fruit. She had focussed on a button, started wondering about how they were made, visited the public library and researched the history and manufacture of buttons. We applaud; as the Social Worker might have said, there's nothing like positive reinforcement. [NB: months later the article the Poet wrote on the subject of buttons was published in a craft magazine.]

See, I say - the insignificant object can lead to something bigger, and like bicycles and hula hoops, the hardest thing about writing is getting started. And one of the easiest subjects to write about is yourself but ... for your first home assignment, try it from the point of view of another person or object. There are puzzled looks, so I elaborate. You could describe yourself from the perspective of your mother or your employer, your best friend or worst enemy. You could get whimsical and imagine what your cat thinks of you. Your mirror might have something interesting to say. How about your telephone? The important thing, I explain, is to take the viewpoint of the employer, enemy, cat or mirror. He, she or it is doing the writing and the subject is you from their perspective. It's fun, I tell them - you'll enjoy it, and no one will read it unless you want them to, so let rip. Writing should be enjoyable, otherwise why do it at all?

About half of them do the exercise at home and the rest have excuses - mostly the same excuses that writers have been using ever since someone first picked up a goose quill. Mrs Hong Kong bobs her head to the side and says that her English is not good enough. Miss Taiwan looks relieved and says yes, yes! The Charmer laughs and pleads that he was busy with lectures, yeah, no, and he meant to, you know - looked interesting, yeah. The Genealogist sighs and complains that she'd had so many people in the house she hadn't had a minute. Mr Hong Kong has already nodded off and the Farmer grunts. He is, I fear, going to be difficult. I remind them of Dr Johnson's remark that nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome. My word, the old boy had an answer for everything.

Writers applaud Evelyn Waugh for grumbling that anyone could write a novel given six weeks, pen, paper, and no telephone or wife, but in our hearts we know that he was wrong. Not everyone can write a novel, especially with a pencil, however much time they have, and wives of writers are quite useful sometimes, looking after the children, cooking meals, and creeping in with coffee at frequent intervals. [Boring feminist interjection here: wives who are writers must do all these things and write as well - how fair is that?] But as well as time, novel writing takes doggedness, imagination, skill, confidence, and even the quirky but generally harmless requirements that some writers invent to excuse their lack of progress: yellow paper; twelve pencils sharpened to a perfect point, a sound-proof room, a writing hat. Most novelists take much longer than six weeks - although Georges Simenon apparently shut himself away for eleven days for each of his Maigret novels and emerged afterwards pale and trembling but finished.

Lack of time is an excuse. If we want to do something we can always find time. The scale of a writing project is irrelevant: you can eat an elephant if you do so one bite at a time, and writing is after all one word after another. The quality of those words is something else. This is a message that I hammer home one way or another over the duration of a course, and one that I remind myself of time and again as I contemplate the half-finished novels in the bottom drawer of my desk.

The picture is "Reflections"

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Charmer, the Farmer and Miss Taiwan

I perch on the edge of a table at the front of the room where the whiteboards are. In front of me there are fourteen people who look at me hopefully. Well, I say briskly, here we are. Shall we get to know each other? I already know what they will say, but we go through the motions while I watch their faces, listen to their voices, note their choice of words. They tell me who they are and why they have come to a creative writing class, and I hear fourteen ways of saying that they have always wanted to write but haven't had the time, the skills or the confidence to do it.

I say, bracingly, that's what you're here for - to learn how to write. There is a murmur of agreement, but I know they are hoping that I could wave a magic wand that will turn them into writers. They look at me expectantly, nervously, challengingly. I look at them with the hope that triumphs over experience. (Who said that? Ah, Dr Johnson - only he was talking about second marriages.)

I decide to find out what these people are made of. Something simple to start with, something that they can do right here, something that will not frighten them off. I suggest they look around the room and write a short piece about an insignificant object: a doorknob perhaps, or a pencil, a light bulb or a zipper.

A man in the back row puts down his pen with a clatter and leans back. A bit silly isn't it? he says. Who wants to read about a doorknob? He is in his sixties, big, grey-haired, with the tanned, leathery face that indicates a life spent outdoors. He is a rugby-mad farmer from a small country town and he has told us that he wants to write about club rugby games for his local throw-away newspaper. He doesn't want to write stories or anything fancy like that. I explain that writing involves observation and imagination among other things, and that a writer need never run out of subjects because they are all around us. I also suggest that a lively report of a rugby game should include more than just a bald account of muddy men romping around a paddock with a ball. He looks doubtful and I wonder how much of the course is going to be relevant to this man's expectations.

Also in the back row a youngish man sprawls in his seat. His attitude says go on, show me! He has told us that he is American but the accent seems dodgy and I suspect that the nearest he's been to Albuquerque is the local Hoyt's. Ah well, perhaps he has the gift of invention, but I suspect he will turn out to contain mostly hot air. He flaps his hand to catch my attention: he has not thought to bring pen and paper (he's not the only one) but luckily I have brought plenty of both.

A grandmotherly woman with glasses on a pearly loop around her neck says that she wants to write her family history and that she has been collecting material for many years. She pats the folder which rests on the table in front of her and which bulges ominously, and I guess that later I may have to curb over-enthusiastic recitals of family trees, historical anecdotes and happy discoveries which are of interest only to the families concerned.

The woman next to her has a loud, slightly accented voice - perhaps Dutch - who says she would like to start by writing stories for children. There is a murmur of agreement through the class which she over-rides. She has lots of ideas, and her friends think she should write some of them down. And when she has learned to create stories for children, she would like to write for adults and perhaps even tackle a novel. She beams. I point out, mildly enough, that writing for children is just as demanding as any other kind of writing, that writing is hard work, and that there are no easy options. It is a message that I will repeat, one way or another, many times in the weeks to come.

The woman next to Dutch also has friends - friends all over the world who tell her that she writes wonderful letters and that she should try her hand at some stories. This is encouraging, because it indicates that this woman is productive and not afraid of putting something of herself on paper. I tell her that keeping in touch with friends and relations is a great way to exercise writing skills, and that it's also a useful strategy for working through the dreaded writer's block which, I hasten to add, is all in the mind. Saying that you have writer's block is almost as ridiculous as saying that you have been struck dumb. You can always scribble some words down; the difficulty is only in the quality of those words.

Before I am tempted to launch into a discussion of writer's block and how to beat it, I ask the next woman to tell us about herself. This one is in her early twenties and looks alert. She gazes at me intently, her notebook open on her knee and her pen at the ready. She fiddles with it as she tells us that she is a solo mother and really, really wants to get a job as a writer so she can support herself and her son. Great -I applaud enthusiasm because it generates momentum. Enthusiasm coupled with persistence gets more writing done than the latest computer, the perfect time and place, and even inspiration. Unless, I add, you can follow the example of that industrious writer Somerset Maugham, who declared that he arranged to be inspired every morning at nine sharp. There is a small gust of laughter and I sense that the group is warming up.

A middle-aged Chinese couple sit together near the front. The wife, beautifuly made up, her skin like porcelain, tells us in slow, careful English, that she would like to write about life in Hong Kong so that her New Zealand grand-children will know about their culture. Beside her, Mr Hong Kong nods and smiles but says nothing. A young man, arriving late, has slipped into a seat at the side. He apologises charmingly and grins around at the group. Several of the women smile back and forgive him instantly. He's just started at university, he tells us, he has to write essays and hasn't a clue how to start. They don't teach people how to do that at school, yeah, no. A woman near the front turns round and glares at him; it depends, she says tartly, on where you go to school. Oooops, a teacher, and defensive with it. Never mind, I say, perhaps we can give you a bit of a hand. Right on, says the Charmer.

Another woman whispers that she writes a little poetry and would like to learn how to do it properly. I remind her that the class doesn't cover poetry because it is such a personal field and it seems inappropriate for anyone else to interfere in, or attempt to guide, the particular creative process required to produce it. On the other hand, all writers can benefit from the pleasures and disciplines of writing poetry, even if the results are not destined for publication. Writing poetry concentrates the mind, and teaches descrimination, precision, and economy of style. I offer her the chance to withdraw from the class but the Poet decides to stay and see what she can learn. In the front row an Asian girl, rimless glasses perched uncertainly on her nose, says she is from Taiwan and is in New Zealand to study. She is hard to understand, and I fear she is in the class to learn English, not writing. Miss Taiwan will be wasting her time and money but, experience tells me, she will sit through the whole course and she will understand about one word in ten.

People are begining to look around the room, searching for an insignificant object to write about. The assignment has caught the interest of the group and I suggest that it is time to start. There is a scuffle of paper, a chuckle here and there, a flurry of scribbling. Except that, in a patch of late morning sunshine, next to his diligent wife, Mr Hong Kong is asleep.
The picture is "Flax" 2008
NB: These are composite characters, based on many years of teaching basic writing skills. All identifying traits have been changed.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Reviewing

You've heard the jingle: big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em; and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. With apologies to my fellow book reviewers, most of whom are much grander than I, hovering as they do somewhere among the big flea brigade, I thought it might be of interest to talk about how someone whose status is nearer the infinitesimal does the job.

I stumbled into book reviewing more than thirty years ago. Qualifications? The informal, ephemeral kind. I had been reading non-stop since the day I found out that I could, and now it is a bad day if at least part of it is not spent reading. I started working in bookshops in my early twenties and treated them like libraries. It was good for customer relations because they got informed advice and opinions, and good for me because I learned the business and could read a lot. And by the way, don't let anyone suggest that working in a bookshop is a soft option. It's not about flicking a feather duster over the shelves, although that does come into it. It's hard work. Books are heavy, they arrive on the loading dock in very large boxes, and they must be unpacked and shifted around constantly. Much later I worked for the Booksellers' Association and figured out some of the politics behind the business.

When I discovered how books were made and sold, I though that the best job in the world would be as a publisher's reader. I imagined spending my days lying on a sofa reading manuscripts to decide whether or not they should be accepted. But those manuscripts made up slush piles, containing all the hopeful but hopeless efforts of too many would-be writers, with perhaps one in a hundred worth publishing. Now I have found a much better way to read all day, because other people have weeded out the dross and I get to read the ones that got through the process.

My approach to book reviewing has always been that of the general reader, writing for the general reading public. And I disagree with that old grump Samuel Taylor Coleridge who said that reviewers "are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers ... if they could; they have tried their talents at one or at the other, and have failed; therefore they turn critics". Some of the best writers have also been reviewers.

There is a difference between "noticing" a book, reviewing it, and doing a critique of it. A notice simply requires someone to report that the book has been published, or that there is a new edition of it, and to give brief details of its subject, style and purpose. A critique requires an in-dept analysis, including a critical assessment of the book's qualities, discussion of the author's previous work, and placing it in the context of other works of its kind.

A review is something in-between. It is more comprehensive than a notice but doesn't need a degree in literary criticism to do it justice. It requires that the reviewer knows enough about books to discuss them in print in a readable style. The purpose of a review is to tell people enough about the book to let them decide whether or not to buy a copy or to borrow it. A review should not, in my mind, be a precis of the plot, nor should it be a re-hash of the jacket blurb.

There are some unwritten rules: be honest about the book, be fair to both author and public, don't do the unforgivable by giving away any of the surprises, be objective and leave any axe-grinding to another forum, and treat first time writers gently and if possible kindly. Discuss the book in terms of what it is, rather than what you think it could or should be. And it helps to have read the book. Unlike Sam Goldwyn, that fount of cock-eyed wisdom who said "I read part of it all the way through", I always read a book from beginning to end, even if it's sometimes a bit of a scamper, before I write a review of it. It's only fair to all parties.

In Mary Ann Shaffer's engaging novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a character remarks that reading good books spoils you for enjoying bad books. I think it depends on the definition of bad books. There is bad literature that can still be a jolly good read, and good books which are worthy but dull, and a reviewer can perch firmly on the fence and give readers the chance to decide for themselves.

Approaching a new book for review is always a pleasure. And I hope that I never become jaded enough to say, as George Orwell did in Confessions of a Book Reviewer, that "prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books involves constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever". Then I would have to give it up, and even the smallest flea has to eat.

The picture is "Reef". Come and see more pictures at my exhibition at the Cloisters Gallery, Arts Centre, Christchurch, 16 - 22 March, 2010.