Sunday, August 28, 2011


One hot, becalmed day James Martin, from Bissoe in Cornwall, wrote in his diary: “Oh this uncertainty there is about a sailing ship. We may be stuck here for a month or gone in an hour.”

He was a passenger in the sailing ship Euterpe on her way from London to Lyttelton in 1879. The ship was commanded by my great-grandfather Captain Thomas Eddes Phillips, and the voyage lasted a long, uncomfortable 134 days. Apart from the important matter of the weather – “rain, everyone busy catching water” – James Martin’s diary contains descriptions of that voyage and the people who were his companions.

He comes across as an agreeable young man who enjoyed music and dancing, and there was plenty of both on board. He was probably pious – he helped to run Sunday school classes for the children, and his brother David preached at Bible meetings. He may have been a little priggish – he lectured his mess-mates about the virtues of total abstinence, although he didn’t seem too put out by one Hartley, who came in drunk one night and started kicking up James’s bunk boards from below. And he didn’t miss much – “Mrs Davies is in love with Middleton” he wrote, without further comment.

But mostly James Martin made himself useful. Watches needed attention – perhaps it was the salt air. One Friday he earned a shilling for repairing Mr Tichbon’s gold watch. Mr Tichbon must have been pleased, because he returned with a locket that needed mending, for which James charged him sixpence. He put a new mainspring in Mr Foat’s watch and altered another’s, and soon James was kept busy with a steady stream of clients wanting their watches, earrings and other jewellery cleaned and repaired.

His reputation was spreading and he was certainly versatile. He stopped a leak in a water can, and mended a lamp. He made a grater so that he could grate the rock-hard ship’s biscuits into flour for making puddings. He made a mustard spoon - why, we wonder. He even dabbled in dentistry and “pulled out Bealy’s tooth.”

He could cook, or at least was willing to try. When Annie (his sister?) became unwell he made a nice pudding, a “very fair attempt for the first” and later he and David made a pie. Their attempt at baked potatoes and a pudding was not so successful: James thought the “baked pudding wasn't very nice since I don't think it was soaked [enough]”. They helped with the laundry – no easy matter when it had to be done on deck and in salt water. Towards the end of the voyage James wrote that Annie was “going to have, we hope, the last wash on board and we shall have to help.”

Peace was hard to find in a small ship carrying 166 passengers plus crew. James travelled steerage, in one of the narrow bunks pictured here, and seemed to have shared his bunk with tin pails, tea, sugar and other supplies which were “pitched out of the bed” in rough weather. No surprise that he often slept on deck if the weather permitted. Some afternoons he retreated into a life-boat where he could marvel at phosphorescence glittering on the wave tops, or admire an albatross with its “white plumage, slight tails of primrose” and once “sat long time watching the lightning. It was grand.” One day he climbed the rigging and “had a good quiet read all the afternoon” and enjoyed the sight of thousands of flying fish and the “vast expanse and nothing but water, water”.

On Christmas Eve, 1879, Euterpe sailed into Lyttelton harbour. James’s last note said – was there a wisp of sadness here? – that other passengers had “friends meeting, but none to greet us”. I wonder how he got on in the new, can-do, will-do country.

Photo of steerage accommodation, with belated acknowledgements and grateful thanks to Mike Wood Photography

Monday, August 8, 2011


I assumed that to write a blog would be to write for a few people: my friend, my other friend, my eleven official followers, a clutch of kith and kin in a handful of countries, the people who happen to catch the message on my Facebook wall before the page whizzes downwards, chased by more urgent messages, and some bewildered people who stumble onto the site by accident.

I check the stat counter now and then, to see if anyone is paying attention. Once in a while someone posts a comment – much appreciated, thank you. The hit graph swoops upwards briefly and then fades like the proverbial candle in the wind as the days pass, much like the blog itself. I expect nothing spectacular in the way of reactions, and indeed receive none.

However, the other day I happened upon a way of looking at where in the world the hits were coming from. That particular stat counter has only been operating for about six months, but I found the results incredible. Literally.

The bulk of the hits originated, predictably enough, from New Zealand. Most of the people I know live in this country. Another good handful were from the United Kingdom – several friends and family live there. The same for Australia – about a quarter of the UK figures but the numbers were about right. Canada (436) and the United States (486) accounted for a colossal number, considering that I know about four people in each country. So, if I am to believe this information, roughly eight people have read my blogs 922 times between them. There are fewer than 50 blogs so far so either that’s pretty good going, or those readers are gratifyingly dedicated followers. Of course, some people visit blog sites on the off chance that there has been another posting – I do it myself often enough – and that would account for many recorded hits, so it doesn’t do to get carried away.

Then we come to the incredible part. The other countries, in ascending order, were: Poland (40), France (55), Germany (67), Netherlands (81) and Russia (94). I know a very few people in Germany so, just perhaps, 67 is not too unlikely. But the other four results are astounding. Why would anyone in Russia read my blog? What could I possibly say to interest 40 people (or even one person reading forty blogs) in Poland? It would be remotely possible for young Kiwis doing their OE through Europe to tell 55 French citizens to take a look at a New Zealand blog – but surely they would select a travel blog, or an educational blog, or a … I can’t think of any other sensible possibility.

And where, I ask myself, are my South American visitors, my African public, my Asian and Middle Eastern readers? No one in Sweden or Norway interested? And what about Spain and Portugal? Italy, Greece, Afghanistan …? Not a single hit from any of those places. It’s true, I don’t know anyone who lives anywhere there either (except Spain) but that doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to hit counting.

It is, as the King of Siam said (in The King and I) a puzzlement.

The picture is "Summer Garden"

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


I started putting things away in the spare room chest of drawers after earthquake #1, way back in September. The things at first consisted mainly of objects that had been standing on various surfaces and had fallen down or over but not broken. The only valuable and irreplaceable thing was “the heirloom” – a Satsuma vase, a wedding present to my parents. It once stood on the brick mantelpiece and had fallen onto the brick hearth into a thousand tiny pieces.

The things that I then began looking at with a steely glint in my eye had been around for rather a long time being decorative, or amusing, or a little bit useful, or carrying sentimental value. Since earthquake #2 (Boxing Day), #3 (22 February) and especially #4 (13 June) and all the thousands of after-shocks in between, I have felt an urge to reduce, sort out, discard, tidy up.

I dislike clutter, but clutter sometimes has connotations. And clutter can be found lying around connotating* for far longer than is sensible, like the Christmas tree-shaped candle that a very small child had given me one year. It was never lit – the wick was not at the top as would be logical and even cute, but in the middle, so the tree had to lie down if anyone wanted to light it, which no one did particularly – because, you see, it had connotations. The child has grown up and would be amazed to hear that the candle was still a treasure. Into the drawer it went, with the papier mache cat, the chopstick holders and the pretty but leaking pottery vase from the two dollar shop.

The stones now – they have connotations of a different kind. They were acquired on a trip to Birdling’s Flat with my brother and his wife on their last trip to New Zealand. Some were tiny but interestingly marked, others were smooth with delicate colours, and we pounced on each with happy cries on a happy day. My brother took a small selection back home and I kept the rest to connotate in a platter or piled into a glass bowl. A few of the large stones were placed in the garden beside baby shrubs to anchor them against fitful breezes. Others, in kitschy fits, I painted.

The spare room chest of drawers is now full. The contents are ready to go into the rubbish bin because I have discovered that connotations fade quite rapidly when the objects of our devotion are out of sight. But the stones … they can’t go into the chest, they are merely stones.

Paperweights anyone?

* Yes, I know there’s no such word.