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.