Friday, April 27, 2012


You know that child who is given a toy but is found playing with the box it came in instead? That was probably me.

I acquired a new box today. Lovely big one, sturdy. I took it out to the garage and was delighted to find that I could put two other boxes that were out there into it, nesting comfortably. Room for more, but they would have to be increasingly smaller – squashing is not an option. A squashed box is no use at all.

I couldn't put them up into the garage roof because the other day when I was rummaging about up there I discovered a box marked "boxes and plastic cartons". They must have been there for years. I had a quick look. Shoe boxes mostly, and loads of ice cream containers, some with lids, and a few screw-top plastic jars that had once held honey and peanut butter. They were piled into the ice cream containers, and it was great to know that they were there. So useful.

Whaddaya mean, hoarder? Certainly not. Except for stationery, that I admit. I can't walk past a special on reams of copy paper without buying a few. There have been as many as twelve reams stored in my stationery cupboard but even I agree that's too many. I don't let the stock go down too far though. That's hardly hoarding, I'm a writer, I need paper. Of all kinds, like scribble pads and notebooks and jotters handy to the La-z-boy for when I have a stray thought. Yes I know, with computers there's not so much call for actual writing, with a pen ... ah yes, pens. I have quite a number of pens too, from the fat Mont Blanc that guzzles real ink to the el cheapo ballpoints with other people's logos on them. Where do they come from?

No, I'm not a hoarder. You can walk around the house and see no clutter – none at all. But boxes contain things, so they're handy to have around. In my so-called office there is a high cupboard which is a real treasure trove. Box files, old wine boxes, and boxes that things came in, all sizes. The bigger boxes have little boxes inside them. That's what boxes are for – to put things in. You never know when you might need a good box.

The painting is "Lost"

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Voyages in old sailing ships were long and lonely. The sea was vast, and empty for days at a time. What must it have been like to see a hazy blob on the horizon that might have been a sail, and to watch it get bigger and more distinct. At last, another ship! Euterpe diarist Joshua Charlesworth wrote that "you can't possibly have a prettier sight than seeing a ... ship with all sail set, her tall mast bending to the breeze, cutting the dark blue waves with her prow & leaving a long white streak of foam in her wake."

But passing ships were much more important to voyagers than the pleasure of seeing a beautiful vessel and watching her sail by. Those were the days before radio, and the sight of a ship meant communication. It meant contact of a sort with other travellers after days of vast emptiness all around. It meant checking up on each other, reassurance that all was well. It sometimes meant being able to swap messages and letters and supplies. There was time to write letters on sighting a ship on the horizon because it took a while for the space between two ships to close.

Sometimes, on the regular routes where the traffic was steady, there might be several sightings, always greeted with tremendous excitement by passengers and crew alike. There was competition too. Another diarist reported that they "overtook a barque today, the Mary Bowen of Swansea. and had the pleasure of leaving her behind". My mother remembered being told stories of her father and both grandfathers racing their clipper ships between ports.

Ships depended on signal flags for "speaking" to each other, unless they were passing close enough for the crews to call across. George Lister described the process when one evening they saw coming towards them the masts and spars of a large steamer. "As she came nearer we observed through the ship's telescope that in addition to the white ensign at the peak, which proved her to be a British Man-of-War, she had also signal flags flying below, representing the letters GCVJ."

The signal code book revealed that the ship was the Tenedos, a twelve-gun screw steamer, and a signal flag "conversation" began. The captain ordered the Euterpe's letters VPJL to be hoisted, thereby introducing herself. The Tenedos asked "where from?" to be answered with "London 20 days out". "Where bound" came next, and Euterpe replied "Canterbury" followed by "please report us well". The Tenedos promised to do so and wished Euterpe a pleasant voyage. "We thanked her" Lister wrote, "and saluted her by dipping our ensign three times. The distance at which we passed each other was probably about 5 miles, and our gallant ship was no doubt reported all well the following day at Plymouth or some other Channel port."

As Longfellow so eloquently put it, "Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing; only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness".

Photo courtesy of Mike Wood Photography - thanks again

Saturday, April 7, 2012

GREG, 1970 - 1990

The motor cycle accident that nearly tore Greg's leg off happened in April 1986, just before his 16th birthday. Nearly five years later he took his own life.

That was two days after Christmas 1990. He had spent too long in hospital, fighting to live, as surgeons sliced more and more pieces of dead and dying tissue off his body. But he lost hope. He was too young to bear the thought of having only one leg. He was too damned young to die.

"Surviving Suicide" is the story of Greg's last five years as told by his mother. And it is Heather Hapeta's story of how she coped with the massive, complex problems during the long months by Greg's hospital bedside, and the years since her son died. It is also a practical, down to earth book about coping with grief, for the bereaved, their friends and supporters. Like Heather herself, the book is no-nonsense, tell-it-how-it-was.

I didn't know Greg, but I have come to know Heather in the years since his death. I know her to have had a colourful and rebellious past, that she is a recovering alcoholic, and that her husband died of cancer. All these things she tells us in this book, without dwelling on any of it.

She tells us more about her gratitude for the people who donated the blood that Greg needed. About how his vital signs, pulse and heart rate were slower and more even when she was beside his bed, holding his hand, massaging his foot, rubbing his back. About spending 23 hours a day just being there, because it helped. About raging at finding a minister praying over her son, because it sounded like the last rites – there was no room for negativity in Heather's mind. About making sure that medication, blood tests, monitoring, all were done properly and on time. She tells how Greg sucking ice was cause for celebration, and how "breathe me" was a plea for help in performing the most basic of human instincts because he had forgotten how to breathe alone.

Then, "Greg is healed" said the doctors, and he came home. And later, after Christmas, he hanged himself.

Heather's "grief was not tidy. It was a messy, confusing and strange time." But she learned to live with Greg's death. And as she learned to remember his life rather than his suicide, it seemed that letting him go gave him back to her. Heather describes herself as bossy, determined, pushy, protective. Yes, she is all of those, thank goodness. Many similar words crowded my mind as I was reading this book, including raw, fierce and honest. It hurt to read it, but I also cheered Heather's courage in writing it.

For details of the book visit or

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


... there won't be any problem looking the part.

I already have old clothes. Really, really old clothes. Some of them qualify as heirlooms, especially the coats. A lilac-and-white knitted jacket has been in my cupboard for fifty-four years. Fifty four years! It is of very good quality. It will last fifty four more years if I could find someone to give it to. But not yet – winter is on its way.

I once had a black and blue, gender unspecific, Canadian lumber-jacket type of coat. This, you will not believe, had been in my family for generations. It had belonged to my aunt. She gave it to my mother, who eventually gave it to me. I lent it to my brother, who wore it for a while, got tired of it and gave it back. I let my son wear it for years until he grew too big and gave it back. I wore it for a few more years, until AJ made me throw it out. And there was nothing wrong with it.

The family teddy-bear coat is still going strong. It is the colour of an old camel with the same feel about it – rough and furry. My mother was wearing it when she visited us half a century ago. Next time she came she had cut it down to hip-length, left it with me when she went home, and it is still in my cupboard. This will do quite well when I'm a baglady because it is toasty and enveloping.

This sartorial preservation has nothing to do with penny-pinching. I come from generations of make-do-and-menders. But even I throw things out sometimes. When my mother handed on her mink coat, saying it was too hot in Oz to wear it, I put it away, even tried to give it away. Eventually I dropped it off at the Salvation Army shop and walked off without a second thought. I didn't like it, wouldn't be seen dead in it, and believe that fur looks a whole lot better on the animal it came from.

Perhaps I should have kept it. It would have been great as padding on a park bench. And on second thoughts I'd better keep the knitted jacket too. Bagladies have to keep warm.

The painting was inspired by Lake Brunner, 2009