Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Mr Tichbon was a second-class passenger in the ship Euterpe on the voyage of 1879. He was a leading light at Sunday prayers. But Mr Tichbon fell from grace.

The Euterpe Times #10 reported that there had been "great excitement during the past week by a discovery that the passengers in the 2nd Cabin had by some mysterious means become possessed of a quantity of real potatoes." A lively contribution in verse also appeared, called "The Great Potatoe Tragedy (Comedy) in Five Acts & Epilogue" and beginning

"Like Oliver Twist who asked for some more
The "Seconds" had harboured a wish
To eat fresh potatoes and not the preserved
And on Monday collared a dish."

It seems that the fellows from the second cabin, led by Mr Tichbon, saw that a case of real potatoes had broken open and spilled its contents, so they scooped up several and melted away before anyone noticed. They prepared a potful of spuds and sent it to the galley for boiling. The cook, however, was suspicious: how, he asked, did they get these potatoes? Mr Tichbon made matters worse – he offered the cook half a crown to look the other way. The cook refused and told the steward, and

"The Steward said, Keep them mind, don't give them up
I'll go and speak to the Captain
The Cook smole a smile as he locked up the dish
The Seconds were spudless again."

The captain was a genial man and thought that since real potatoes were on the list of provisions that passengers were in fact entitled to, he would let them have their treat.

"The Captain discussed it & said "It looks bad"
They're either hungry or greedy
I'm sure they'd not trouble to collar the stuff
Unless their affairs were needy."

The cook took to scrutinising all dishes carefully, so next time Tichbon and co conceived a bold and cunning plan. They put the rest of the stolen potatoes in a deep dish, covered them with meat, and put pastry over the top before sending the dish to the galley. They got away with it because

"Said the cook to his mate "It's hardly worth while
To examine the dishes today
With the row yesterday they're just now afraid
To try to delude me this way."

Four cartoons were posted on deck poking fun at poor Mr Tichbon: In #1 he was stealing the potatoes and taking them to the galley. In #2 the cook was asking questions and he was offering the cook a bribe. #3 was a trial by jury. In #4 pious Mr Tichbon was at Sunday prayers.

And it seems that even in 1879 people were worrying about the Russians. The last verse summed up:

"No question at home, not even the Eastern
Has caused more heated discussions
About the potatoes there's been so much talk
As probable war with the Russians."

Photo: Second class cabin courtesy (c) Mike Wood Photography

Thursday, February 23, 2012


The doctor on board the sailing ship Euterpe on the voyage of 1879 was Dr W. R. Davies. His responsibilities for the health and safety of the passengers and crew began early in the voyage when a "gentleman in the saloon had a fit but recovered nicely".

Soon afterwards Charles Brown, the engineer, lost his forefinger in the cog wheels of the condensing engine. The ship's newspaper "The Euterpe Times" reported the accident and scolded the management for negligence: "These wheels not only were not protected by a shield ... but they were even deficient of means to throw them out of gear. We understand that ... the carpenter is busy making a screen or shield for these same cog wheels." One of the passengers volunteered to take over running the engine so that all could continue to enjoy fresh water.

On a stormy Wednesday a lad called Taylor fell down the fo'csle steps and dislocated his elbow, and Mrs Todnor slipped on the deck, fell heavily on her side and was badly bruised. On Saturday 25th October Mrs Owen, sailing to New Zealand to join her husband, fell out of her bunk and broke her leg. Dr Davies consigned her to her cabin in the care of her four young sons, all of whom grew up to lead successful and productive lives in New Zealand.

The doctor attended Mrs Fairhurst when she gave birth to a daughter, to be christened Euterpe, on 14th September. Later he was sorry to report that the health of another passenger – a bit of a drama queen perhaps – had been in a very "precautious" (precarious?) state and was consequently suffering from excessive exhaustion. He had thought it proper to admit her into the hospital.

The doctor had a sense of humour. When he didn't have anything to report, he made much of what he had. He expressed his regret that Captain Phillips had suffered considerably "during the last few days from a somewhat small but protracted abscess of the arm. The inflammation has however disappeared and he is now almost convalescent."

He made a great to-do over the affair of scratched thumb. "I also regret that our much respected Chief Officer Mr Algernon Back had the mishap to have his right thumb scratched whilst playing with the large black retriever dog on the poop last Thursday. With that presence of mind which is characteristic of the English sailor, he promptly applied the gunpowder remedy & thereby probably saved his life. Should this happily prove to be the case nothing more will be necessary to effect a "cure" but absolute repose for a week or more from the cares and responsibilities of his arduous duties."

Picture: The doctor's quarters, courtesy (c) Mike Wood Photography, with thanks

Friday, February 17, 2012


Book publishers have a problem – one among many. In a marketing tactic called "bundling", two or more products are packaged and sold at a single price. The problem is, how should publishers price a package that contains a print book and the e-book version of it? Should the price be some combination of the price of the print edition plus the digital edition, or should the e-book be free?

However, it seems to me that the first question should be, why would anyone want to buy a print edition plus a digital edition of the same book?

With most books, once you've read it, that's it. You might keep it in case you, or someone else, might want to read it, or read it again. But you hardly ever do read it again. So it sits there, gathering dust. And one day you give it away or throw it out.

So why have an e-book version as well?

And why might anyone consider it worthwhile paying extra for it?

In the past year I have probably read thirty books and haven't bought any of them. Some have been for work, some were borrowed, and some were old friends that live here permanently.

Once the work aspect is taken care of, I have decisions to make. First, is there anyone else I know who would enjoy this book? If so, shall I give it away or lend it? If not, I throw it away. This high-handed attitude is recent, and arose because I no longer wish to live in unreasonable clutter. Useful clutter is fine – that's homey. But I have learned to be tough about having stuff around that is not earning the space it occupies. A print book has to be something special to warrant consideration. And perhaps only one or two of the non-resident print books I've read in the past year have made it past the barrier, given the choice. (Sometimes the "work" books must be returned.)

An e-book reader can contain hundreds of books. A book can be bought, usually more cheaply than the print edition, so the decision to buy is easier. The book can be read, very conveniently, and kept for re-reading or erased. If erased, it can still be retrieved from the personal cloud that e-book owners maintain somewhere out there in the ether.

So why would anyone buy a print edition of that book as well?

Bundling two versions of the same product doesn't make a lot of sense to me, at whatever price.

Monday, February 13, 2012


I had never heard of Valentine's Day until I was eleven years old. Young enough to be charmed and old enough to be disenchanted, in one easy lesson.

When I was eleven our maths teacher was an Armenian woman whose teaching style involved barks and growls. She loathed all of us, except for smartypants Evelyn who was a maths genius. This teacher came into the classroom on Valentine's Day with an enormous red paper heart. Inside were lots of small paper hearts, each with a personal message which began: I love you because ... These were clearly ground out between metaphorically gritted teeth, and said things like I love you because you have blue eyes, or I love you because you have neat handwriting. Mine said, I love you because you have nice skin. Evelyn's said, I love you very much because you are really good at maths.

The idea is simple enough, and even admirable: show someone that you love him/her. But that isn't simple enough any more. Nowadays the message is, on one day of the year, show someone that you love him/her and buy him/her something expensive to prove it.

It's sad. Sad if you feel you have to do it, and sad if you expect a diamond and get a txtmsge.

If love needs proving, you aren't doing it right. If it takes something expensive to prove it, you are probably in trouble. Flowers, chocolates and a soppy card don't make up for barks and growls on the other 364 days of the year. And it's a scientific fact that a man bringing home flowers has been up to no good.

However let's not be cynical – February 14th is supposed to be a day when women turn soggy-eyed at the drop of a rose on a breakfast tray. But what about the rest of the year? Where's the romance? Where's the gallantry? Valentine's Day doesn't sit well with how things normally are these days. As Alan Ayckbourn, in Round and Round the Garden, wrote: "Woe betide the man who dares to pay a woman a compliment today ... Forget the flowers, the chocolates, the soft word – rather woo her with a self-defence manual in one hand and a family planning leaflet in the other."

Today's woman is more likely to say, open the damn door for me once in a while, and not only when I'm carrying a load of groceries.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


We used to keep the cats’ bowls in the cupboard with the rest of the crockery, until I saw my brother eating his breakfast cereal out of one. At least it was Crown Lynn. He came to no harm, but the cats’ bowls stayed in the laundry thereafter. Small adjustments like that were necessary when living near the bottom of Earth and taking in casual visitors, many of whom we didn’t even know. They arrived not with myrrh and frankincense but with bulging suitcases or saddlebags and sometimes, bless them, duty free scotch.

In spite of worries about whether the hot water would last, and searching for stray mugs under chairs, we were almost always charmed and entertained by house guests over many years. They came from everywhere. AJ used to come across cyclists from Canada or Germany or Holland looking lost by the roadside, heavily laden bikes propped against trees, and maps spread over handlebars. He always scooped them up and brought them home. They ate ravenously, emptied saddlebags into the washing-machine, and slept like the dead wherever they fell.

Friends and relatives, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends were always welcome. My mother sent us a jillaroo from Oz who turned out to be a Cordon Bleu cook but appreciated spag bol and ice cream for dinner. And she said I made great cheese scones. A friend met a rangy English woman on the Cook Strait ferry and brought her down to us for the night. I found her the next day bent over, peering into a neglected patch of the garden. I screeched, aaargh, don't look! but she turned out to be a professional gardening person and said that she was fascinated by the weeds, some of which she’d never seen before.

The house was tiny but we managed to entertain seventeen English cycling tourists two days before Christmas one year. They had arrived by plane with luggage but no bikes, which had been left in Bangkok. Until the bikes turned up the cyclists filled our house and needed food. Luckily I had already cooked a large turkey ready for Christmas Day, but it wasn’t big enough for seventeen unexpected guests. AJ dashed out for extra supplies including lots of carbs – cyclists will eat anything but they wolf down the carbs. I hacked what I could from the freezer, made a ginormous trifle, tossed loads of salads, peeled a bucketful of potatoes, unveiled the turkey, and stood back.

We enjoyed all our guests, except the drongo travelling north who dropped in for a night and stayed for two weeks, drove us mad, and broke the ceiling light in the spare bedroom by whirling a cricket bat round his head. As G. K. Chesterton nearly remarked, travel may broaden the mind, but first you must have the mind.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


It's very sixties, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. It goes with pot, headbands and the Beatles. It is also comfortable, perhaps a trifle dusty, and probably unhygienic.

Years ago we dumped our mattress on the floor and went looking for a new bed. Our old one – a couple of hundred dollars worth of kitset pine – had become creaky and bent. Sleeping on the floor was a distinct improvement and we wanted a bed that would give us the same conditions: a level surface, absolute solidity and none of that dreaded roll-together.

Even ignoring all the fat, wobbly, pink and blue inner-sprung mattresses on their fat, wobbly matching inner-sprung bases, and concentrating on the clean lines of the Japanese-style wooden beds, the range was bewildering. We wandered through several shops before coming to a huge specialist bed emporium and met James. He was eager to please and followed us about, even when we said that we were just looking, we'd manage, we'd ask if we had any questions.

If he heard us mention "mattress" he rushed over to a mattress and explained that it was made of latex and springs and wool. He prodded it and showed us a diagram of its insides, as proudly as though he'd made it himself. If we murmured "slats" he would abandon mattresses, and show us the slats they were resting on, demonstrating their flexibility. And every time we settled down to discuss the merits of this one or that, we'd find helpful James sitting on the next bed, listening and watching. Really, salesmen should back off and give customers a chance to discuss matters which are none of their business.

We wanted a straightforward sturdy frame with strong wooden slats. At last we thought we'd found one, in black wrought iron, although the frame, with its fancy ironwork, was a little tacky. But we were getting tired, and assumed that iron would be strong and not give when anyone sat on the edge.

So yes, we'd have it but in glossy white paint please. James was delighted and rushed off to do the paperwork. I sat on the side of the bed and it groaned and sank several millimetres. When James came back we had to tell him we had changed our minds. Before leaving we gave the black iron bed a last glance. In white? said James hopefully. No thanks, though we might be back, we said, knowing that we wouldn't.

At home we took another look at the el cheapo bed. We flipped it over and decided that all it needed was a couple of extra screws, a brace under the middle from headboard to the foot, an extra leg halfway down each side and another one right in the middle (yes, that's seven legs altogether) and a fresh coat of paint. We saved ourselves a couple of thousand dollars and made ourselves a bed that was exactly what we wanted: just like sleeping on the floor.

Painting: Sunset at low tide (2009)