Saturday, December 24, 2011


Last evening, Saturday, I was watching Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List – again. There was nothing else on television for grown-ups or for anyone allergic to sugar, and I only had one eye on what was going on. The other eye was grappling with killer sudoku (can an eye grapple?) when I heard a sort of metallic giggle from the kitchen.

My heart leapt. Yes, leapt!

I abandoned Jack and Morgan without a thought. I flew into the kitchen. I crossed my fingers and turned on the tap. It spat and gurgled and shook itself. And then – glory be! Water flowed! I warbled as I filled the sink and washed the dirty dishes that had been accumulating all day. Never had washing up been such a pleasure.

Of such small mercies is joy unconfined. As I said, it was Saturday. No water had flowed from the taps since Friday afternoon. Since the earthquakes had started up again in fact, with three big rolling bangs and more than sixty (and still counting) reminders that Nature has not finished with us yet.

Luckily I still had water stored in bottles, a couple of plastic fruit juice containers, a 20-litre container and even in a bucket in the garage (I had planned to do some painting out there). A neighbour was more creative – and quick off the mark. At the first big bang he had rushed inside and filled the bath. At the second big bang half of that sloshed out on to the floor, but still he had a lot of water left. Just as well, because that's about when the pipe in the street burst and left us water-less.

Most of us take water on tap for granted. Twenty four hours without it reminded me that a large percentage of people around the globe are not so lucky. I feel a little squishy inside today – it's Christmas day here in New Zealand after all. What's that saying – saw it on Facebook just yesterday? Ah yes: Gratitude is what makes what I have enough.

Painting: Abstract

Friday, December 23, 2011


Nineteenth century voyages could be tedious. Passengers and crew spent long months at sea in a too-small ship with too many people, and any excuse for kicking up their heels was welcomed. The diarists in the sailing ship Euterpe on the voyage of 1879 have left us many anecdotes about what they got up to.

One occasion was Dead Horse day, so-called because sailors were paid a month's wages in advance on signing on for the voyage. They worked that month "for nought" and called it working for the dead horse. When the month was up they celebrated by making a horse out of straw, "about the size of a donkey and very like a goat only it had a long tail" reported diarist George Lister. It was put up for auction, netting about fifteen shillings which was shared among the crew.

Then one of the sailors appeared, dressed like an old man with a long white coat and a long beard made of towed rope. He climbed onto the horse, which was led in procession around the deck, after which a rope was fastened around both man and horse and threaded through a pulley on the end of the lower yard on the main mast. They were then "drawn over the side of the ship and swung about for a while", no doubt to cheers from the onlookers. The rider then loosed the horse from under him and it fell into the sea. Throughout the whole ceremony a blue light was kept burning and the sailors sang the song of the Dead Horse, after which "all sorts of amusements were carried on until very late."

Amusements came in many guises. There was dancing most nights to music provided by the passengers themselves. There were sports and concerts. Practical jokes were popular, if a little juvenile sometimes. One night passengers in the fore-cabin were woken at 3.30am by "someone rolling a large biscuit barrel down the fore hatchway into the cabin below, when they all thought the masts had gone by the board. They turned out in a great hurry but when they saw the trick they went back to their bunks in better spirits." (Better than mine would have been in the circumstances.)

Birthdays were celebrated in cabins or in the saloon, sometimes with too much drink. Joshua Charlesworth wrote that "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." And James Martin complained that "just after I got in bed, Hartley came in drunk and after a good pulling about got into bed and began lifting the boards of my bunk [with his feet]. Several others were nearly drunk, one with whom I was arguing total abstinence with about a fortnight since, and," James continued virtuously, "he said then that no one ever saw him the worse for drink." A month later James reported that at about midnight he was disturbed by [cabin mates] who were drunk and making a noise which woke Beecroft, and a row ensued. I thought there would be a fight but it quelled."

Photo of Euterpe's wheel courtesy of Mike Wood Photography

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Big question: What is art? Hmmm – too big. It would take a book, several books, to discuss that and I'm nowhere near competent enough to tackle it even in a small space like this. But from down here at my level I can offer my two cents' worth, inspired by how I reacted when I saw this mural.

Art can be many things. Challenging. Disturbing. Delicate. Bold. Intriguing. Magnificent. Enigmatic. Art can make you laugh or cry. It can make you think. Or worship. Someone who makes art may not set out to do any of these things, but they sometimes happen.

I don't think that my friend, the one who made this mural, set out to do any of those things either. He may or may not have ever painted a picture before in his life – I don't know. This mural was quite simply a response. A response to a situation that finally spurred him to action. And the situation developed because of the earthquake in Christchurch on 22nd February 2011.

On that day the wall of my friend's living room fell down. The wall was patched to keep out the weather, and stayed like that for six months. He became tired of looking at the ugly patched wall, and one day decided to paint it. Not just paint it, but to paint a mural. He was thinking Mondrian, and I flippantly suggested Jackson Pollock instead as being easier and not so wasteful of masking tape – all those neat squares.

It was a decidedly bold and challenging enterprise. The wall is 210cm high and 390cmm wide (7ft x 13ft), there were bulges here and there, and the patches were wayward and uneven, to say the least. My friend was not deterred. The design was initially dictated by the pieces of hardboard and plywood which stood proud of the torn plaster board edges they covered, so my friend started near the centre of the wall and set about disguising or emphasising the edges. The rest followed, shape by shape, line by line and colour by colour.

To my mind the result is art. Why? Because it was a gloriously creative, defiant reaction to a situation that was caused by the malice of nature. Because it was made in the spirit that we have come to understand that the people of Christchurch have shown over and over again, battered and torn as the city has been over the last year and more. Because the mural itself insists that we explore it for clues: is it a whale? is it a barrage balloon? is that a mountain, complete with ski slope? is that water, gorse rampant? can I see the bare brown Canterbury Plains in there?

My friend didn't do a Mondrian or a Jackson Pollock. I think it's more Picasso myself.