Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The master of a sailing ship had to be a special kind of man. He was responsible for the ship, its crew, the passengers and the cargo. He was at sea for months at a time without benefit of wireless or radar and had to depend on his skills and experience to cope with unexpected situations. He had to know the seas, understand the weather, navigate by the stars, and still keep his mind on the practicalities of sails, spars and sheets (i.e. ropes) as well as the routines of a ship at sea.

In daily life the master had to be brave and decisive, firm but gentle, wise and insightful. He had the lives of hundreds of people in his hands. They had to work and play and survive together no matter what the circumstances, and the master was expected to bring the ship safely to her destination and answer to all for his actions. It is not surprising that a ship’s captain was sometimes a religious man, and often a philosopher and psychologist as well. Such a man was my great grandfather (pictured), Captain Thomas Eddes Phillips, for twelve years master of the sailing ship Euterpe.

Captain Phillips was twenty nine when he first became involved in bringing immigrants to New Zealand. It was, however, as the master of Euterpe that he was best known. Thousands of descendants of those early immigrants have cause to be grateful for his skill and care. The ship was named after the Greek muse of music and lyric poetry, and the muse’s figure has gazed out across the water from the bow for more than a century, as she still does today. Her face is handsome, perhaps a little aloof, and she has watched over the fortunes of the ship since she was launched in 1863.

Euterpe was one of the slowest boats afloat. Her best run out to New Zealand was 103 days to Dunedin with the wind behind her. But she was an extraordinarily happy ship, and Captain Phillips was one of her most respected masters. Alone in quiet moments in his cabin, with its single bed, small bureau and neat closet, he might have contemplated a sampler which still hangs on the bulkhead which says “Do Right and Fear Not”.

The captain was responsible for everything. He was the ship’s pastor if no minister was travelling, and conducted services on Sundays with hymns and readings from the Bible. A death meant a burial at sea, with the captain reading the burial service over the body, wrapped in its weighted canvas shroud, before it was tipped overboard. “It put a damper on the whole ship" reported one diarist.

The captain was disciplinarian when tempers flared in the cramped quarters on board, and he would have to wade in and restore order. Drunkenness was another problem: “drinking was carried on to a large extent so that the serving out of beer & spirits had to be stopped by order of the Captain” wrote a passenger. Another reported that “many of the crew and passengers were drunk” but assured his family back home that "the captain was quite sober".

Captain Phillips was no killjoy though, he could celebrate with the best of them. When his 44th birthday came round on the voyage of 1879 the Euterpe Times reported “We have great pleasure in recording the fact that our esteemed Master Captain Phillips met a number of his friends in the Saloon on Thursday evening last the 2nd inst when by toast and sentiment the anniversary of his birth was duly celebrated.”

The captain helped bail out the sleeping quarters when rough seas swamped the ship: “The captain with a body of sailors were quickly on the spot & covered the hatch tray over with canvas to prevent any more water from coming down and then we all set to work in bailing out the water for it was touching the bottom bunks in our cabin and the ship rolling caused the water to flow from one side to the other and washed away everything that was loose."

It was the captain who noticed that the bowsprit was damaged and had it secured with chains and spars and made safe to carry sail, “a work which did his ingenuity credit, and saved not only the bowsprit, but prevented a much more serious delay in bringing the ship to her destination.” It was the captain who wrote up the mileages on a blackboard so the passengers knew how far they had progressed each day. It was the captain who prevented the sailors from daubing passengers with tar and molasses during the ceremony of “Crossing the Line” although he allowed water to be freely sloshed over anyone who ventured on deck. And it was the captain who arranged for those passengers who had nowhere to go on arrival at Lyttelton to be accommodated in the Immigration Barracks.

It is no surprise that Captain Phillips received warm testimonials from grateful passengers. They praised him for the “kind and considerate manner in which you have discharged your duties and the readiness you have displayed to make our voyage to New Zealand as pleasant as possible” and declared that “in our opinion the care and attention shown for the welfare of the ship is beyond all praise”.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Writing is like painting, something which doesn't exist at all until somebody creates it. And then it must be found a kind and appreciative home.

To (very loosely) paraphrase Andy Warhol, writing, like any other art, is something that people don't know they need unless they can be persuaded otherwise. Hardly anybody needs what writers (and picture makers) do. At first glance it is not an essential service, like growing vegetables or baking bread or healing the sick or driving a bus or building a house or rescuing people from the raging surf.

People don't take writers seriously. When asked a normal everyday question like "what do you do?" people who write sometimes try to wriggle out of actually saying "I write". And if they do admit to being a writer, the next question, too often, is a version of "but what do you do for a real job?"

I once read about a couple, famous American writers, going through an airport check-out. The wife went first, and had put on her customs card, in the box marked "occupation", the word "poet". The customs official frowned, crossed out "poet" and scribbled "housewife" instead. (That couldn't happen today, the man would have been lynched on the spot.) The husband, seeing this and having also put "poet" in that box, crossed it out and inserted "housewife". Times have changed, but not that much.

However, if nobody wrote the world would be a poverty-stricken place. There would be no stories, no movies, no essays or articles, no dissemination or exploration of ideas, no ways to find out what other people were saying and thinking. There would be no television, no documentaries, no newspapers. There would be no stories or poetry, no magic world of the imagination.

Writing is practised by all kinds of people, many of whom don’t actually want to do it. Or so they say. Often. Usually when things are going wrong with their work. But still they struggle on. They would rather do anything else, and everything else is more vitally important than writing. I, for example, have just swept out the garage, vacuumed the carpets in the car, and washed its windows instead of writing. This is not something I do for fun, and I don't do it as often as I should. Only when I'm trying to avoid the blinking cursor on the computer screen.

However, I know that, like other writers, I must write. Even if no one wanted what I do. Like Edward Gibbon, who carried on even when an 18th century Duke of Gloucester apparently complained: "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbon?"

At the end of the day – literally, each day – if I haven't written something, I feel unfulfilled, fretful and disappointed. Especially if I know, deep down, that I haven't written anything because I've put it off, ducked, made excuses for not doing it. Writing makes me what I am, in my own small way.

The painting is "Tsunami", 2010