Tuesday, May 29, 2012


I recently celebrated the umpteenth anniversary of my 39th birthday. Tempus fugit (time flies, for those who abandoned their Latin classes even earlier than I did) at a helluva rate these days. Other people have birthdays around now too, and I typed in my Facebook password and wandered around looking at the happy wishes for those I knew. It made me think: what happens if I should, say, fall under a bus? How is anyone going to untangle what a friend has called the spaghetti of social units and other internet connections that I, like millions of others, have forged in the past decade or so?

Once upon a time, when an accident happened, people would be telephoned or written to with the news. Wheels would turn. Papers would be drawn up and signed. Property might be transferred. There could be a tiny paragraph in the newspaper recording an accident to some unnamed person who was careless crossing the road. But what about the internet?

Without a password, no one can go into my Facebook account and, as it were, cancel my subscription. It wouldn't matter with Facebook. My page would simply remain in the state I left it. But there are more than twenty sites that I visit fairly regularly that require passwords – and I'll bet that this is modest by most people's internet experiences. Some, like Facebook, can be abandoned. But others are important. I have, for example, three e-books on the virtual market, and there are passwords so that I can access information about them. At present only I can see the numbers of people who view and sample and even actually buy the books, only I can hear the occasional lonely chink of dollars dropping into my account. E-books presumably continue to be on sale, perhaps for ever, long after the authors have gone.

In case of my demise all sorts of complications could arise. Legal matters like copyright, and the management of accounts. As far as I know there is no provision for cancelling, or transferring, ownership of an internet identity. No one else can close those virtual accounts that I have been opening all over the ether with such careless abandon.

I guess that is a kind of immortality. In the meantime, roll on the next anniversary of my 39th birthday. At the rate tempus fugit it won't be long.

Painting: Girl in Red Dress

Thursday, May 24, 2012


On these chilly mornings, instead of getting out of bed with glad cries, I lean over and open the curtain before snuggling back. My neighbours, you see, are kind enough to glance over and check that I've made it through the night before they go to work and I don't want them to worry.

So, if it's cold, I lie in bed and look at the sky-line for a while before getting up. Check the weather. Do the clouds look angry? There is a sort of forest between my house and the estuary of two rivers, and sometimes the view is soothing to contemplate, with just a breeze to stir the heads of the big old pine trees. Other times the south-westerly bustles across from the Southern Alps and makes the trees dance. That's when the poodle in the sky becomes agitated. It tosses its head, puffs out its chest and yaps excitedly, as poodles do.

If I stand at the window and look out I don't see the poodle up there. It is simply part of the whispering sky-line. In fact, when I went out this morning to take a picture of it, I couldn't, at first, find it. It is only when I am recumbent, lying on my side, in bed, being lazy, that I see it properly. It is like watching clouds drifting by and seeing faces, objects, constantly changing – the imagination has to work a little and the mind must be receptive. The poodle, however, is not a cloud, it is fixed and always there. For the moment.

Since the earthquakes started – 10,600 plus and still counting – the estuary has risen and the forest floor has sunk. At high tide the water now seeps across towards us and makes the ground swampy. The pine trees don't like wet feet and they are dying. If they should fall – and some are leaning dangerously – they could damage houses and even kill someone. It has been decreed that the pines must come down and chainsaws have begun, from the far end, to roar and screech their way towards us, bringing down the mighty pine trees as they come.

There are more than a thousand trees to be felled. It is not all bad news. New plantings will take the place of the old – trees and shrubs which prefer the new wet and slightly salty habitat. Although the men started work three weeks ago, I couldn't hear the chainsaws at first. Now I can just hear them in the distance, and it won't be long before the sky-line that I can see from my bed will be changed forever. The poodle in the sky will see that coming before I do. No wonder it seemed so agitated this morning.

P.S. (dated 30th May) The poodle has gone.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Two hundred or so people packed into Euterpe, a 19th century sailing ship that was sixty one metres long (less than two thirds the length of a rugby field) and a smidgen more than ten metres wide. They set off from London on a voyage lasting five months without stopping anywhere until they reached New Zealand.

All those people had to eat, sleep, wash themselves and their clothes, amuse themselves and stay healthy. Their quarters were cramped, and there wasn't much room on deck either. There was no bathroom, although there were the "dunnikins" which were "atrocious contrivances" and only constant attention from those in charge ensured that they didn't become pestilential spots on board. Part of the duties of Euterpe's Doctor Davies was to see that everyone landed safe and well, so that the ship was awarded a "clean bill of health".

On the voyage of 1879 the passengers were glad to find that the Captain had arranged for a temporary bath on the main deck so that passengers could wash. The bath may have been a canvas cubicle with a hose – sea water of course. (Anyone who wanted fresh water had to collect it themselves any way they could, when it rained.) Diarist Joshua Charlesworth noted that it was a pleasure to get up early on a hot morning and have a shower bath on deck, throwing buckets of water at each other, or having the hose played over.

"The Euterpe Times" sometimes contained messages from the doctor (a man inclined to big words) in which he gave advice on keeping well. A ship at sea, he declared, "has the solitary advantage of being surrounded by air free from injurious terrestrial emanations. In all other respects it is placed in unfavourable circumstances, for it combines inadequate space for passengers and crew with ventilation liable to frequent interruptions, and often followed by the outbreak of infectious diseases".

He stressed the importance of cleanliness, orderly habits, fresh air, healthy recreation and exercise "so as to avoid as far as possible the dangers which are liable to arise from a superaccumulation of filth". He urged passengers to take part in activities to aid blood circulation, call the abdominal muscles into play, and promote the action of the bowels, thus counteracting "any tendency to gastric derangements and intestinal torpidity" (i.e. stomach bugs and constipation). No chance of anything like that with Dr Davies in charge, and Euterpe reached Lyttelton without a single case of sickness to report to the port Health Officer.

It's hardly a surprise that the accounts of Euterpe's voyage of 1879 contained so much about games and athletics, music and dancing. But that story will have to wait for another day.

The photo is courtesy of Mike Wood Photography – what would I do without his pictures

Monday, May 7, 2012


How do they get it so wrong so often? And why, given the dodgy nature of the information, do they spend so much time during the evening news babbling about it?

I'm on about the weather of course. Because I'm freezing. Because "they" told me that we would have 19 degrees today and, silly me, I planned to do the laundry and get a bit of gardening done. Instead it's nowhere near 19 degrees. More like 10 degrees, dark grey, and it's midday already. The indoor thermometer in the unheated room in the house has struggled up to 12 and it's warmer inside than out I can tell you, because I've been out.

They spend more news time on the weather forecasts than they do on real news, such as troubles in the Middle East or famine in central Africa. Almost as much time as they do on sports. They go to town on clever graphics, with golden suns, leaky clouds and wind moving across a virtual landscape so we can see what might be going to happen. Pretty but pointless.

I wouldn't mind if the weather person stood in front of the camera and said s/he thought it might rain in some places, but other places would get some sun, if they were lucky. But maybe not. And the wind would be a bit frisky here and there, but unless the tropical cyclone bashing around some of the islands north of us came down too close we should be alright. Better keep an eye out for the unexpected though, and be prepared.

All that would take a minute, tops. The weather person could even do it off-camera so s/he wouldn't need fancy clothes, especially the women. And it would reflect the actual state of the circumstances, weather-wise, that might be expected the following day. Some of the words could be changed around for the next forecast for a bit of variety but no one would notice. And it wouldn't make a skerrick of difference to our knowledge of what the weather was really going to do in the next twenty four hours.

P.S. That'll teach me not to rush into print before the day's out: I now have egg on my face. It seems that at last, around 4pm yesterday, the temperature climbed to 19 degrees – exactly as forecast. My apologies to weather forecasters everywhere.

The painting is "Waterfront"

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I can't imagine not liking work. I can't imagine spending forty-eight weeks of every year hating what you do and only four weeks being happy. Why should anyone leave school at, say, sixteen thinking that the next half century or so was likely to be that kind of hell?

It's all wrong. What we do for forty-eight weeks a year should make us happy. If it doesn't, we should change what we do, if possible. Not everyone has the luxury to manage this, I know. It takes planning, education, forethought. Otherwise we risk leading those lives of quiet desperation that Henry Thoreau wrote about.

There's much talk about work/life balance. It's supposed to be a good thing. I suspect it's a kind of bumper-sticker jolly-up. As though "life" is something that happens outside work, that ideally we should do less work and have, or do, more of something else. Pleasure perhaps. Fulfilment. Joy. I'm all for that – who wouldn't be?

But if time spent working is boring and/or hateful, what part of the equation is the fun part, the fulfilling, adrenalin-rushing part, the worth-living part? Anonymous, that indefatigable and often cynical composer of wise sayings, said that the human race is faced with a cruel choice: work, or daytime television. S/he could have added housework, cleaning the car, taking out the garbage and painting the roof. I remember an old friend fretting that her real life – the bit that made her life worth living – was conducted in left-over spaces, the tiny pockets of time between work and the chores, in which she tried to fit what she really wanted to do. Chores, by definition, are boring and tend to fill the not-at-work time.

By and large people who like work are happy. They even do it when they aren't paid. The weekends are short enough to be tolerable, and Mondays roll around not a moment too soon. The chores are relegated to the left-over spaces, and quite right too.

I don't plan to retire. I don't ever want to ask myself, with T. S. Eliot, "Where is the life we have lost in living?"

The painting is "Long, Hot Summer" (which we didn't have this year)