Saturday, September 29, 2012


A painting can come together in a whole lot of different ways. It can begin with an idea or an image, a colour or a design, an arrangement of elements or a feeling. It can even begin with a mistake.

This painting was begun on the evening before my first, and so far only, exhibition of March 2010. It was a whim: there was a tempting blank canvas, there were paints and brushes, and there was panic. Did I have enough pictures to hang? Were any of them any good?  What was "good" anyway? Would anyone come to see them?  What was I thinking of, to hold an exhibition at all?

Panic can cause either a total freeze or a frenzy. I squeezed out a blurt of blue direct from the tube onto the canvas and then splashed some water at it. The water caused a swirl to develop which I encouraged by tipping the canvas about.  A splodge of white paint helped to create a foamy look, a squiggle or two of black gave depth and focus and, I thought, watery interest. Wateriness.

Then I made a mistake. On the so far blank right side I applied a broad stroke with a brush loaded with red paint. I was immediately appalled.  What had I done?  Gone was the loose, watery look and there was a huge thick patch of red.  Rude words filled the air –  &%^*#@ and &%$+*.

Well, goodness me, I'd been selling the bromide for ever that mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process. If you never make mistakes, you'll never make anything. Mistakes must be used, dealt with, worked around, incorporated or in some way overcome. I decided to throw water at this one too and as chance would have it, I tipped the canvas down to the right and allowed several dribbles to form. A bit more splashing around and swirling and brushing and the canvas was more or less covered. I left it to dry overnight.

In the morning, in the bustle of packing up nearly forty paintings, I called the still damp canvas "Abstract".  A friend saw it and said "Shrimp!" Another threatened to bring her own offering to the exhibition – a placard warning of "WET PAINT!" A Japanese tourist saw the painting and laughed delightedly. I was content.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


My flickering career as Jane Adams, cub reporter, started well enough. The editor of one of Rangoon's two daily newspapers asked me to write a Sunday column. His thinking seemed to be that I was young, probably literate, and socially out-and-about.  He wanted a column about parties and dances and visiting dignitaries and anything that might be going on that his reporters weren't in a position to hear about.

Painting: White Water
Great idea.  I could babble on about this and that, have a little fun. Had I known about Rupert Murdoch I would have elbowed him out of the way.

I can't remember whose idea it was to appear under a nom de plume.  Perhaps it was my father's – nervous as he probably was at the thought of what I might write. Indeed, looking back, I'm surprised that he went along with the idea at all. However, I invented "Jane Adams", set up the old portable typewriter on a desk on the veranda, and hammered out my first piece. 

On Sunday it appeared, headed "Rangoon Diary". It wasn't bad for a beginner. There were descriptions of a glittering evening at the Strand Hotel and a grand reception attended by everyone who was anyone and many who weren't.  I went to town on clothes and atmosphere, and tried to give an impression of sophistication. And there was a jolly anecdote about my friend Leo falling out of a dinghy after a long curry and lager lunch.  

There was quite a to-do about the column in the next few days. It was a change from world news, shipping arrivals and departures, and the activities of insurgents up-country. And – buzz, buzz – who was Jane Adams?  Leo was puzzled: who had seen him in the lake? In fact plenty of people – and many more heard the story afterwards, so I was safely anonymous. Jane Adams was busy gathering material for her next column, keeping her eyes open and her mouth shut.

Column two: Jane Adams had been to the theatre for a performance of an Agatha Christie play and also reported on a visit by a British Navy ship and a dance hosted by the Caledonian Society. Crucially, she mentioned Leo again because he had been ya-hooing his way around Rangoon hot-spots.  Leo's boss was furious and had him on the carpet first thing Monday morning. Leo, and soon everyone else, had worked out who Jane Adams was.

Jane Adams was mortified. Without realising it, she – I – had become that pathetic, despicable creature, a gossip columnist, although that term was probably not yet in common use. I didn't have the hide for the job, thank goodness. All yours, Mr Murdoch.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012


I attended a meeting the other day to talk about what I could and couldn't do about my quake-damaged house. We talked about the options, two of which were to re-build where I am or move elsewhere. I like this area. I like the people around me. It is a proper neighbourhood, the kind which took time to develop, where people look out for each other in a special way. There's a difference between friends and neighbours.

Landscape (detail)

Friends live all over town, not just around your place. They meet for lunch or meetings, shopping or coffee. They ring to chat. They come in many different guises: some know everything about you, and others hardly anything. Some remember your birthday, others stand beside you no matter what. So, deciding to move, and deciding where to move, doesn't depend on where your friends are.

Neighbours, on the other hand, are people who are around on a daily, informal basis - a wave as you walk past, a cheery hi across the fence. They check your bedroom curtains are open, or at least twitching, before they leave for work, and notice your lights going on and off at appropriate times. They bring your rubbish bin up from the bottom of the drive if they see it languishing there late in the day. They check after earthquakes to see if you're OK. They borrow an egg or a cup of sugar because they are making muffins for the kids. They leave bags of apples or beans or corn-cobs on the doorstep. They feed your pets when you're away. They come to the rescue when a fuse blows or the gutters overflow or a tree needs pruning. Neighbours are the people you ring if your power or water goes off, to see if theirs is off too and to offer candles. Neighbours are part of your life, the people who are there.

The easy answer to the dilemma, therefore, seems obvious: stay where I am and have the house re-built. But it's not that simple. The neighbourhood is changing in subtle ways and it may not be the same for ever. Or even until next year. Someone said love your neighbour – but don't pull down the fences. Our fences are looking gap-toothed, drunk and disorderly these days but they are still standing. So are the neighbourhood values. For now.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Two years ago on this day, 4th September 2010, we here in Christchurch, New Zealand, were woken at 4.35am by a terrifying, booming, rolling noise. Our houses were rocking. Chimneys were crashing down. Roads were cracking. Walls were crumbling. Houses were splitting open. Underground pipes were bursting. Liquefaction bubbled out of the ground and spread. Power poles toppled over. Our city was falling down.

Watercolour: Flowers
We didn't know all that at first. In fact I woke up, noted with sleepy interest that everything was rattling about. Ah, earthquake I thought. When it eventually stopped, believe it or not, I went back to sleep.

It wasn't until I woke an hour or so later and turned on the radio (yes, I had power – most didn't) that I learned that Christchurch had been hit by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake and several after-shocks. Gradually the extent of the damage was revealed, and as the day dawned and the stories began coming through, the seriousness of the situation grew clearer.

Amazingly, nobody died that day, and only one person was seriously injured by, I think, a falling ceiling. The damage was dreadful, but nobody died. What we didn't know then is that that was just the beginning. After-shocks continued. The experts said that they would go on, maybe for months. They did. And, unbelievably, they still do. I checked this morning to find that there have been six after-shocks in the last twenty-four hours, and the total is now 11,929.

Some of the after-shocks have been severe enough to be deemed "new events": Boxing Day 2010 and 22 February 2011 and 13 June 2011 and 23 December 2011. The February "event" was a truly black one because it was far more destructive and 185 people died that day when buildings collapsed on and around them.

Today, two years later, we look at our ruined city – and it really is ruined. The central business district is full of empty spaces where 1600 buildings once stood. There is also much to be done rebuilding people's houses, and mending the land and the pipes and the roads and the bridges, and people's lives and livelihoods. If we had known all that, two years ago today, our hearts might have failed us. But we have learned to deal with it all, day by day.

And now there is a new plan to rebuild the city, brighter and better. It will take a long time, and it looks as though it will be beautiful. Kia kaha, Christchurch.