Thursday, November 29, 2012


It has been said that paintings in exhibitions hear more ridiculous opinions than anything else. Including "Call that art?  Bottom of a parrot cage, more like!" Mind you, if elephants and monkeys can be roped in to produce daubs that sell for thousands, parrots can't be far behind.  

Years ago, when I first started painting, a neighbour who was a keen gardener gave me a sheaf of arum lilies, complete with bulbs.  I planted the bulbs and painted a picture of the flowers, using a bold, free, extravagant treatment and lashings of paint. When shown the result, the woman gazed for a long moment. "Those lilies were certainly past their best, weren't they?" she said. "Never mind, I'll find you some better ones."

That didn't stop me, although it took time to understand that in all the arts the first person you should please is yourself. It takes a thick skin to paint what you want and damn the consequences. It is very liberating, splashing about in a kindergarten, who-cares way and it is a relief from our everyday, practical selves. While we are painting we are not mowing the lawn or hanging out the laundry, and people are not pestering us for lunch, cups of coffee or demands that we hold the ladder while they get on with some important job like clearing out the gutters.

One of the difficulties faced by those who paint for fun but aspire to higher things is graduating from the chocolate box school of art. We don’t want to churn out pretty landscapes to please other people, we want to make Art with a capital A. However, we crave appreciation. Say something, dammit. We would prefer honest praise, but lie if you must, gracefully and convincingly. Warning: paintings are often like kittens, free to a good home, so too much enthusiasm and you could find yourself lugging one home and having to decide whether to hang it on the living room wall or behind the garage door.

These days the house is full of paintings, several others have been sold, and now that the weather is warming up I am looking forward to moving the easel out to the garage where I can work without bothering about making a mess. All those elephants, monkeys and parrots had better move aside, I'm on my way.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Woody Allen said that he didn't want to achieve immortality through his work, he wanted to achieve it through not dying. Given that the second option is beyond current scientific possibility, we're left with our work, and perhaps our descendants, to carry on after we're gone.

Virginia Woolf, who had no children, used to make notes about her own sayings, especially if they were a little out of the ordinary. It was, said Harold Laski, like watching someone organise her own immortality. Shakespeare's Cleopatra, who lies dying, murmurs "I have immortal longings in me". Don't we all? All that hand-wringing, all those regrets about not fulfilling one's destiny, all those opportunities missed. Then there was Kilroy.

In England during the second world war Kilroy was everywhere. In cartoon form, the drawings appeared on walls with the scrawl: "Kilroy was here". No one knew for sure how he came into being although there were plenty of theories. No one really knew what it meant – anything or nothing – but millions of people even today remember Kilroy. Not exactly immortality but fairly long-lived for a cartoon character who said and did nothing except declare that he was here.

That's not the case for most of us. The 18th century essayist Joseph Addison used to wander through Westminster Abbey and think about the tombstones and inscriptions, many of which recorded only that the departed persons had been born and then died. He reflected that, as was "finely described in holy writ", many lives were like the path of an arrow – gone in a flash and its path immediately closed up and lost. That's us.

Those who have done great or spectacular things can safely leave it to others to record the milestones, the successes and failures, the trials and dramas of their lives. But the need to be remembered is present in ordinary people too. I think that is why some of us, not just writers, have the urge to record our lives so that others might know that there has been more to us than birth then death. Whether we do it for ourselves, the family or the world, we want to leave a record, to explain ourselves, and show that we have left some mark as we have blundered onwards, not like an arrow but more like a machete. Or a bulldozer. To say, like Kilroy, I was here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


In my family there are sailors and ship-wrecks, pirates and bandits, some splendid characters, and always, everywhere, the sea. So many threads, so many stories – who could imagine that family history is dull?

I think about the fisherman who was born in 1658 into a family teeming with masters and commanders – was he overwhelmed? There was the tragedy of Baker Phillips, a Royal Navy lieutenant who was unfairly court martialled for negligence during the War of the Austrian Succession when a French gun-ship attacked unexpectedly at short range. He was only twenty seven when he was ceremoniously shot on the forecastle of the Princess Royal at Spithead in 1745.

Dr Maitland King

 Great great grandfather Samuel Gibson, master mariner, was part of New Zealand history when he brought the Egmont carrying Bishop Harper to Christchurch in 1856.  Nine years later he sailed from Sydney in the Margaret Mitchell and lost the ship and his life, it was assumed to pirates, in the South China seas.

My grandmother sailed from England to Japan to marry her cousin, another master mariner, in 1895 and remained there until the beginning of the second world war. Widowed only twenty years after the wedding and raising four children without much money, she never learned the language, although all her children and grandchildren were bi-lingual.

Her up-for-anything daughter drove a Studebaker hell-for-leather through the Malayan jungle with bullets whining all around her, visited the burning ghats of India, and dressed in men's clothes to explore the red light district of Hong Kong. During world war II she ran almost single-handedly the lifeboat rescue service, and one night fended off a drunken soldier when her flat was bombed open by telling him that she was too busy entertaining his commanding officer.

Great grandfather Robert Aurelius King commanded an opium ship and might have been an old wretch with a sense of humour. He once wrote "retired opium smuggler" on a census form and seemed, in retirement, to have dabbled in various ventures including the Imperial Salt Company, the National Provincial Bank of England, and a strange matter regarding the patent for improvements to circular saws. He was in court more than once.

So was his wife, Dr Maitland King. She met and married Captain King in Shanghai in 1856 and had eight children. She called herself a doctor and ran a clinic near Grosvenor Square for "upper and wealthy classes", offering electro-medicated baths and treatments for corpulence. She bustled her way into royal circles, told whopping lies about her age and background, and was described as "the most interesting woman in London". One of her grandchildren remembered her in old age fishing from a dinghy on the Thames, smoking cigars and swigging rum.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Take it from me – one forget-me-not plant has 482 flowers on it. Each plant also has 2759 small, furry pods. The pods stick to t-shirt, trousers, hair, shoes and the cat. When they break open, oh so easily, each pod has 1057 tiny, glittering black seeds. Every one of those seeds is determined to put itself about, which is why I have a million forget-me-not plants in the garden, now podding and seeding all over the place.


As Dr Samuel Johnson observed to James Boswell, who had passed his law exams and offered his thesis to the great man for comment, "activity pursued vigorously and constantly" helps one to "gain ... security from those troublesome and wearisome discontents, which are always obtruding themselves upon a mind vacant, unemployed and undetermined".

That's me, vigorously and constantly pursuing activity to banish the wearisome discontents. Which is partly because I have no work to do. The courier can't get to me with a book I'm expecting to work on – there are roadworks and the courier would have to park in the adjoining street and walk perhaps fifty metres, and couriers have no time for that. There is also screeching and clanging two properties away where a giant yellow grabber is clawing at a house that must have been too damaged by the earthquakes to save. I can see the articulated neck of the monster swooping over the remains. I won't want to watch my house suffer the same fate when the time comes.

Having no work makes me pace the floor and bother people on the phone. So I've been outside attending to the forget-me-nots, yanking out the dead and dying, and covering myself with seed pods. Then I sat on the sofa on the deck and plucked the pods off my clothes and my person, one by clinging one – they are not called forget-me-nots for nothing. Memo to self: listen dummy, if you throw the seeds over the deck railing and back into the garden they will grow. The birds, mice and other scurrying creatures will carry them around and drop them everywhere.

Oh well, they fill up masses of space and they are gorgeous when in full flower. I'm always happy to see them, and they give me employment in times like these when I'm vacant and undetermined.


Saturday, November 3, 2012


There are writers who approach what they do with furrowed brow and gritted teeth. They are afraid to start, and make excuses not to. I met many of them in my creative writing classes, and their stories were pretty much always the same.

Painting: Cottage Garden Mix

They developed bad old ways long ago, when they were children, perhaps in primary school, perhaps in secondary. Some teacher, determined that this child will learn how to read and write no matter how long it took, squeezed the joy out of the process of story-telling or essay-writing. That child could build up a mighty, lifelong dread, not just about reading and writing but sometimes about education as a whole. Repeat after me, the teacher said: I am going to write a story. I must work out what I want to say before I pick up the pencil. I must not make a mistake. I must sit here until I have written three sentences perfectly.

When those children became adults and turned up in a creative writing class, they said they wanted to write. When asked why don't they then, they said they didn't know how to start. So, what was the problem? How about putting one word down, then another, and another? But no – that wasn't allowed at school. They were told what to write about. They had to decide what they wanted to say first.

Well, that's not usually the way it works. I suspect that perfection – or rather the striving for perfection – can drain the life out of what we do as writers. It causes literary constipation. That's the problem.

Perfection is all very well, but it begins with mistakes and mis-steps. Perfection is what you aim for, not what you start with, and it comes, not with luck but with perseverance and many attempts, at the end of the process, not at the beginning. You can't make something perfect if you haven't anything to make perfect. It is too much to ask of anyone, but especially a child, to get it perfect before they even begin.

You start with something hesitant and messy and scrambled and awkward and dull and misjudged, and you make it as perfect as possible. Or as perfect as the finished piece warrants. The degree of perfect-ness (you can't have degrees in perfection) is up to us, and also depends on the purpose of the final version. An email requires very little and you're allowed to be sloppy. An essay for a university paper requires a lot.

And The Great New Zealand Novel? Heaps. As long as it doesn't lose the vigour and spark of life.