Tuesday, December 24, 2013

ROUND ROBINS – Jake and Lizzie, Grandad, the twins and the dog

Christmas cards still occasionally drop into the letterbox, although they are clearly endangered. Sometimes they include the Christmas letter. But now that emails have become ubiquitous, these round robin letters appear in ever-increasing numbers through the ether. This is both a good thing and a bad thing.

It is a good thing because a cheerful, newsy letter from anybody is welcome, but especially if you only hear from them once a year and relish the catching up. Some people have the knack of producing a bumper edition, carefully crafted for maximum entertainment, that lingers in the mind. It is full of the doings of Jake, Lizzie and the twins, and even the cat or the budgie, and because these are people you know and care about, you want to read about them.

It is, however, a bad thing when the round robins grow fat with absurdity. People are human, with all the usual failings, but you would never know it from the relentless catalogue of family puffery, the chest-beating, the one-upmanship that, yes, we all indulge in throughout the year – but in mercifully small doses. These are gathered in a single, jolly, crowing letter decorated with santas and holly, and are aimed at the widest possible circulation that includes everyone in the composer’s email contact list. No longer just about Jake and Lizzie but also about hordes of strangers.

In a book called “The Cat That Could Open the Fridge” (Atlantic Books, 2004) Simon Hoggart collected the best bits of the best of these letters, sent in by people all over the world. It contains, among other gems, news of wonderfully gifted children, exotic holidays, the joys of trading railway ephemera, and playing the flute on Hadrian’s Wall. Hoggart also delves into why people feel compelled to write about “Roger’s decision to cycle to work … Jeremy’s trip to Tasmania or the replacement pet rabbit” (from the book jacket). The book is laugh-out-loud funny but may deter some from composing their own Christmas round robin letter.

I won’t be doing it. I don’t even send cards overseas now, partly because here downunder we have to post before the middle of October and who is thinking of Christmas that early?  However, it suddenly occurs to me that a blog is not unlike a round robin letter – a permanent one that goes on for weeks and months and is full of faults and failings, self-puffery and absurdities, crafted for maximum entertainment, and yes, aimed at the widest possible circulation.

So please consider this blog as my personal, year-round-robin letter to everyone, with my very best wishes for Christmas and the new year.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


Now, just in case, I have to fluff up my hair and smudge on a trace of lippy before I sit down at my desk. Won’t hurt to get properly dressed either. Oh, and put on my other glasses. They make me look more intelligent than the old ones.

Painting: Forest
I hadn’t bothered with Skype before, figuring that there’s nothing wrong with a phone for talking to people on this half of the planet, and people on the other half are asleep when I’m awake and wouldn’t appreciate being woken for a chat. But – move with the times, join the masses, embrace the technology, and Skype is now installed. Sort of.

But – it doesn’t work too well. There are bits missing – notably, and crucially, some kind of menu for navigation purposes. There is no way to, for example, upload a profile photo, adjust settings, delete a contact. I have, by mistake, invited a stranger with the same name as a friend, to connect with me.  She, presumably also by mistake, has accepted. She may, by now, realise that we don’t know each other and has not made contact. I wish she would delete me, because I can’t delete her.

There was much confusion over passwords too. During the installation process I was asked for my Microsoft password. Which I didn’t even know I had. When did I acquire it? What was it? Did I write it down somewhere? Yes, I know I shouldn’t, but how else can you remember a gazillion passwords to all the sites you have signed up to? No, you can’t have the same password for everything, because it doesn’t have the requisite number of characters, or a mix of upper and lower case, special characters and/or numbers. So you invent another password that complies, and write it down while you remember it. Then you lose the piece of paper. Then you forget that you had the paper in the first place, and that you have a new password to add to all the others acquired along the way.

Trying to come to grips with Skype led to a consultation begun over a landline with a friend. That in turn saw us both peering into our Skype screens still babbling into our phones until we realised how ridiculous that was and fell about laughing. Didn’t solve the problem with the navigation though – she has a row of functions at the top of her screen and I don’t. So where are mine? Here I am, dressed, coiffed and painted, waiting to chat…

Sunday, December 15, 2013


For many, the twelve days of Christmas often mean too much shopping with too little money and time, rather than the gracious acceptance of leaping lords, gold rings, French hens and other assorted birds. The law of the jingle prevails. As New Yorker essayist E B White put it, to perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year.

The wrapping can be the best part of a present. When my aged aunt died, her dresser revealed a hoard of gaudy parcels, carefully re-wrapped, containing bath cubes and handkerchiefs which must have destroyed auntie's faith in Santa. The family got the whole lot back, and she is probably still chuckling somewhere out there with the herald angels.

It is not easy to find the right present, especially for a non-shopper like me who makes hasty decisions when the sleigh bells are already tinkling in the sky. Although even planning goes awry at times. I once gave AJ a fancy tool-bench contraption when he really wanted a saw horse. There was the oddly-shaped sweater I spent months knitting. Another time I bought him the green leather jacket which he kept going into a Wellington department store to try on, but it turned out to be unwearable. It felt clammy, he said, and slippery.

No matter how grubby the crayoned card or how cobbled the beaded purse, home-made presents usually win hands down. However it is safest to give these to people who can be trusted to receive them graciously. And you can forgive almost anything while bathed, or preferably soaked, in Christmas spirits. Unfortunately I was sober when given salt and pepper shakers in the form of wooden dolls with holes in their heads kissing on a matchwood bench. The donor said "I think they’re revolting but I hope you like them" and I had to decide quickly whether to exhibit taste or grace.

For he or she who has everything, the choice is hardest of all. There is nothing which can be given to fill a void, nothing which doesn't duplicate what is already possessed. There are two solutions, for couples anyway. One is to agree not to bother (big sigh of relief from both parties). The other is for each to buy the other what s/he wants.  He can give her a train set and she can give him a hefty chunk of bling.

Friday, December 6, 2013


It’s been a long time - thirty seven years in fact.

That’s how long I’ve been reviewing books for The Press in Christchurch.  Before I threw them away in a fit of de-cluttering (which I now regret) there were seven scrapbooks of cuttings to show for all the work. That’s seven books of 52 big pages, each containing maybe three reviews.  Say 1000 books read and reported on. That’s an average of thirty books a year. 

It’s also 1000 books that helped to fill my shelves at home, at least until I decided whether to keep them.  Throwing out books was not something I did lightly.  It’s different now. Some books are rubbish and don’t deserve shelf space at all – into the bin with them. Others are okay but not for me. I will never read them again and that means out they go – but if possible to good homes somewhere else.  Some are special; they are keepers and they join the books AJ and I have collected over time. There are enough of these on the shelves to keep me reading or re-reading for several lifetimes.

In nearly four decades of reviewing I have read books that I might not have chosen. Books that wouldn’t have appealed had I seen them on sale, or in the library. Books that I scoffed at before finding that they had merit after all. Reviewing taught me that you certainly can’t judge a book by its cover, and that giving it a fair chance can sometimes be rewarding, however unlikely it may seem at first. 

Reviewing made me more critical than I might have been, more tolerant of different styles, more willing to be charmed by the unfamiliar, more kind to writers who showed promise but perhaps hadn’t quite got there.  I have read more in depth and breadth than I might have, left to my own lazy devices, and have discovered that yes, reading broadens the mind. And the more one knows, the more one searches for things to find out.  Not just knowledge but thoughts and experiences, ideas and perspectives, and especially the voices of those who have written.

Reviewing also made me less inclined to excuse the slapdash, the blow-hards and the downright stupid. I tried not to let my occasional crankiness show in what I wrote, unless the book was outrageously awful – and then I usually let the book speak for, and betray, itself.  There weren’t many of those, thank goodness. On the whole publishers really do weed out the very bad and publish only the reasonably good.

I have now given up book reviewing for The Press. It has been long enough and there are other things to do and more time to do them.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Such excitement! No sooner had I written a blogpost about the purple crosses and the prospect of having holes drilled around the house when a pair of hi-vis vests appeared. They brought rods and clipboards and other equipment and assured me that they were going to work manually rather than mechanically. They proposed to drill down no more than three metres – less if they found sand and/or water. Oh joy, that wouldn’t take long, the water under the house was high enough to sustain the hydrangea beside the deck – a bush that has never known rain and has always been watered by hand but is now flourishing and growing like Topsy without any help from me. Shame it will have to go once the demolition begins.

While those fellows were busy poking rods into the ground all over the place, another big van drew up outside and a very tall hi-vis vest wearing an akubra hat and glasses on a string appeared. He called me Elaine – a change from what people who don’t know me usually call me, and which I much preferred to what they usually call me – and said he had come to measure floor levels. It required line-of-sight for his theodolite, and that proved difficult. He even went next door, braving their hysterical dog, to try from there.  He ended up with his head in my pseudopanax, smacking at its big leathery leaves, while trying to focus on the calibrated stick his mate was holding steady just inside the front door.

One furry had sloped off into my wardrobe where she hides curled up on my slippers at the first sign of danger, especially if it shakes, bangs or fizzes. The other barely opened an eye from his morning nap. My head was snapping left and right, waiting for a geyser* to blow if the first two hi-vis vests struck water.  It didn’t happen, although before they went away they reported that there was both liquefaction and water underneath the house at a high level – like I didn’t know that already. It’s why the carpet in the back bedroom gets soaked sometimes. Foundations for the new build could be tricky: perhaps I will end up with a pole house.

The vest in the akubra hat was still peering through the pseudopanax and I suggested he break off a branch or two – it needed pruning anyway. He smiled gently and said he could manage, and eventually he and his mate packed up and went away too. One furry emerged from the wardrobe and the other opened an eye, blinked and went back to sleep.

*geyser: column of water (usually boiling hot) gushing from the ground in this part of the world

Monday, November 25, 2013


Within two days three things happened:  (1) I finished clearing the long-time weedy mess of the shrubbery at the front of the house.  (2) A young woman arrived with a bleeping machine and cans of spray paint.  (3) Earthquake no. 13,811 woke me up.

After weeding the shrubbery it looked tidy but bare. I padded around the garden trilling, and rescued self-seeded baby foxgloves from cracks and crevices to re-plant in the empty space. I watered them in and stood back with a vision of  a dozen or so majestic, colourful flowers in my mind’s eye.  Overdue job well done, even if doing anything to or around the house is spitting in the wind, given its short-term and uncertain future.

Next day the young woman who brought the hi-tech machine wandered around the outside of the house with it.  There was a-squeaking and a-bleeping, and soon there were red lines where the power lines are buried, and purple crosses showing where it was possible and safe to drill holes. The drilling is to determine the nature of the ground, and what kind of foundations will be required when the house is eventually re-built because of earthquake damage. After the woman had gone there was a purple cross in the grass at the back of the house, and another at the side.  A third had been made unobtrusively outside the living room window.  The fourth was in the middle of the patch of baby foxgloves, now trampled into the newly friable earth, and right across the biggest, bravest seedling of them all. Awww!

The quake that shook me awake was 4.6 on the scale, severe enough to rattle my wardrobe doors.  There have in fact been twelve quakes in the last week, most of them unnoticed by those who have become accustomed to the ground moving after three years and 13,800+ quakes. With all the disasters and mayhem around the world right now, a few minor “events” as they have come to be called are very small beer indeed. But a quake that strong, after all this time, was a finger-wagging reminder that weeding and planting are pointless here while we wait for our city, our houses, to be rebuilt.

How petty of me to care.  That I had bothered to weed at all. That I had spent all day clearing the space and filling it with new life.  That when people come back to drill in the spots marked by purple crosses there will be more than a few baby flowers trampled underfoot.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013


All voyages come to an end, although the last two weeks of this one were as frustrating and hard as the first two. The dangerous rocks of The Snares, south of New Zealand, were sighted on 12th December but four days later diarist James Martin wrote that there was still a headwind and they had not got far. They caught sight of Stewart Island’s lighthouse that evening but drifted too close to the Traps, and had to retreat again. Two days later a stiff breeze sent the ship bowling up the coast but that didn’t last, and Euterpe bounced around off the coast for several more days at the mercy of the currents and hard winds that blew and blew.

The passengers caught tantalising glimpses of their future home but it took the ship twelve days to reach harbour after the first sighting of land. The South Island appeared and disappeared “like a cloud” and “some say they can see land from the rigging” although Martin didn’t climb up to check it out. On Monday 22nd December they sighted Timaru, halfway up the coast, and the next day, in spite of the wind still blowing in their faces, there was Banks Peninsula, with Lyttelton harbour tucked around the corner. On Wednesday the battered but gallant little ship beat around the headland and into the safety of the harbour where she dropped anchor at about four o’clock. It was Christmas Eve, 1879.

The passengers’ diaries all end with the arrival of the ship in the beautiful Lyttelton harbour. What would I have done without the three diligent diarists who brought this voyage to life for us, 130+ years later, so we could read about it and marvel at the courage and perseverance of all those thousands of people who made the voyage down-under from the other side of the world to start new lives.

Practical Joshua Charlesworth noted the welcome sight of small boats which "brought us fresh provisions including meat, potatoes (fresh), vegetables, milk etc for our sea stores were just about being finished and in some instances were finished. You may judge that living for 20 weeks on sea fare (biscuits, salt junk, preserved potatoes, pea soup, burgoo, rice & mollasses) we heartily enjoyed the above addition of New Zealand beef & mutton for the first time very much."

Prosaic George Lister thought that the “land seemed very pleasant and it was very warm. It is the warmest Xmas Eve I ever felt, for it is the middle of summer. The Harbour is a fine inlet but I had to ask where Port Lyttelton was for we only could see a few houses and they looked very pretty on the side of a hill and plenty of trees around them.”

Sometimes lyrical James Martin reported that "the scenery today has been more like a panorama than a reality with the sun shining warm and a gentle cooling breeze.  On our left, slopes of sheep-rearing land. Before us and on our right the snow-capped Southern Alps.  It seems just like entering a little heaven. Wild ducks and divers just like a young duck with a long neck. The water very tranquil." 

This is only the end of this voyage. There are more sailing stories to tell – of this ship’s other voyages and of her captain. And there are other masters – my great-great grandfathers Captain Samuel Clarke Gibson and Captain Robert Aurelius King.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Gordius is a piece of cake.  Rufus is a breeze.  Paul is growing on me. Pasquale, Orlando and Arachne are only slightly tooth-grindingly infuriating. I’ve nearly tamed Bonxie.  Chifonie is a sweetie – I think she might be a woman, and kindly. Brummie and Qaos? Hmmm, not too sure of them yet.  I thought Araucaria was a witch at first but, like Crucible and Tramp, she (surely a she?) turned out to be challenging but fair. Brendan is diabolical. He goes for the jugular and has so far got the best of me although I came close to knocking him off recently.

Painting: Garden Wall (detail)
Only occasionally have I actually completed a cryptic crossword puzzle set by one of these evil, chortling demons, with or without the help of dictionaries, encyclopaedias, thesauri, atlases and books of quotations. The demons inhabit lairs at, or within a broomstick ride of, the Guardian newspaper headquarters and spend their time thinking of ways to tease, mislead and scramble the minds of cryptic crossword addicts.

As time-wasting activities go, it’s reasonable to claim that cryptics are good for the brain if not for the temper. My mother, who did the Times puzzles over lunch in her day and lived past 92, used to remark that you needed a twisted mind to do cryptics. Not for her the easy, one word, definition type of puzzle – she liked to think through and around the quirky traps set by the compilers and emerge triumphant.

That’s what the Guardian demons do – set traps, and plait clues into other clues, and skate close to unfair without crossing the line. They can be downright sneaky and mean. And unlike most other puzzles, foreign words and phrases are allowed, as one might expect from an English newspaper in these European Union times.  French, German and Italian are presumably lingua franca over there now, but it’s surprising how much Latin appears. My pocket Latin dictionary is becoming well-thumbed after years of neglect and resident silverfish have had to migrate elsewhere. Another surprise is that even non-words are allowed. For example, the answer to an “expression of cold British basic school skills” was “brrr”.

Some clues are crisp and clever: “Range popular – range popular?” (again).  Some are easy, like “I’m flipping plugging the blessed lecture!” (homily).  Some are convoluted, intertwined or scattered around the grid:  "Oriental leaves circuit, having chanted verses about painful outburst” (lapsang souchong, i.e. lap sang s (ouch) ong = oriental leaves = tea). 

Is my mind twisted?  More like spaghetti, mushy and limp. Do I cheat? Yes, occasionally, if I can’t bear not to know the answer. More often I scrunch up the paper and hurl it at the wall. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


The Euterpe Times recorded that a testimonial, and an engraved silver cup (pictured), were presented to Captain Phillips on 4th December by a deputation. They wished to thank him for the care and attention he had shown for the welfare of all which, they assured him, was “beyond all praise.” The testimonial had been “very beautifully illuminated” by diarist Joshua Charlesworth and read as follows:

“To Captain Phillips: We passengers of the Euterpe wish to testify to the kind and considerate manner in which you have discharged your duties and the readiness you have displayed to make our voyage to New Zealand as pleasant as possible. Now that we are close to port we beg to tender you our hearty thanks for your kind and obliging conduct and our good wishes for you and yours in the future.” 

Captain Phillips received the deputation in his quarters, apparently without enough warning to make himself presentable because he apologised, saying, “I am only sorry I was not on deck to receive it. If I had known, I should not have been in the deshabille in which you see me.” He was, however, accustomed to the ceremony because he went on: “It is very gratifying indeed to me to receive the testimonial at the end of a somewhat long passage … It will add one more to the many testimonials which I have received since the year 1864 as since then I have taken nearly 2000 passengers to New Zealand.  Many who have gone out there to settle permanently make it their business to come down to port when they know I have arrived.”

He had some advice: “I hope you will all succeed in whatever you undertake and will never regret, for I do not think anyone will have cause to regret if he is only willing to work and able to do so.” He thanked them for their good wishes and hoped they had enjoyed their long journey: “Sea life at the best is very different to shore experience.  We have been favoured with fine weather in this part of the world, for it is not always that we have such a run of fine weather & such good winds as we have been favoured with lately.” He spoke too soon. They thought they were close to the end of their journey but they still had twenty days of frustrated sailing ahead because of blustery headwinds.

Mr Duff spoke on behalf of the deputation. He hoped his own family would come out to New Zealand under Captain Phillips’ care and that he would “always sail under the great Captain of our Salvation”.  He added that he hoped the captain’s son, Master Aleck (then aged 14 and on board for this voyage) would follow the example of his father*. The captain replied, “I hope he will not!” to laughter from the company. According to Joshua Charlesworth, the evening ended with eating, drinking, merry-making and fine conversation.

*Master Aleck – my great-uncle – did not grow up to be a master mariner but certainly went into the shipping business and, like his father, travelled the world.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


This is a giraffe.  Yes it is, I assure you. Look, it’s smiling.  It probably even had ears but all that’s left is the picture so I can’t be sure. But I bet it did – a giraffe without ears would be unimaginable.

This amazing construction was presented to me for my birthday twenty years ago by my grandchildren. I went wobbly at the knees, and they were beaming, and so proud. They made the cards too.  Together these formed an “Installation” as they are known in art circles, and stood splendidly on show for days before they succumbed to breezes and other destructive forces.

I was reminded of this giraffe the other day when I failed a riddle set by one of my contacts on Facebook.  If I had the right answer, fine. If not, I was was dared to change my Facebook profile picture to that of a giraffe and leave it there for three days. The consequences of not doing this were not revealed, but hey, how bad could they be? This is the riddle:

3:00 am: the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It's your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?

Hmmm. My answer was judged to be wrong – but I demand a commission of enquiry. I submit that the “right” answer is the wrong answer because … well, for a very good reason which I can’t actually say because that would spoil the fun for everyone else. So, in the meantime, my giraffe stays here, as a fond memory.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013


This is Hoover. 

She is called Kitty at home – her home, that is.  She is an everyday sort of cat: longish fur, shortish legs, ears, a tail, a bit scruffy, round green eyes … you know the kind.

One day about sixteen years ago she appeared on our roof. She was about the size of a loosely curled fist. She squeaked, we said hello and she came in and went to sleep on AJ’s lap.  That was him conquered.  She belongs next door, but from day one she has treated both our properties as hers. Both gardens are jungly and explorable, moggy heaven, full of mysterious corners and dancing shadows.

She rules her world, and she’s the smallest one in it.  She lives with a large exuberant dog that she ignores.  She takes no nonsense from any creature on Earth, including the aged griffon who is the bravest dog in the neighbourhood.  She marches over here and stalks past my two resident furries, who let her do anything she wants. She’s always in the sunniest patch, the shadiest corner, the softest chair.

We called her Hoover because she eats anything, and can hear a tin being opened within fifty metres. She is responsible for the death of at least two baby rabbits and most of the mice around here – everyone knows because she makes a song and dance about it. She catches the occasional bird, even though they post sentries.  She is careless of rain and can usually be seen perched on roof or fence, sopping wet.  She dries herself on whatever I’m wearing.

Hoover has never been fed in this house but is always hopeful. After breakfast at home, she scoots over here wafting whatever scent her owners have hugged over her.  She still sits on my kitchen bench waiting for the single drop of milk that AJ allowed her, although he knew milk was bad for cats. No milk here now, and she complains gently when I toss her out before feeding my two.

She’s still fast, smart, can leap two metres up and into a forgotten window, and she never gives up.  She makes sorties at all hours of the day or night to hoover up stray cat biscuits or anything else she might detect.  At night she sits outside on the deck unblinking, watching me watch television. I harden my heart. The second I turn off the set and get up to go to bed it’s a race to the back door – me from the inside to snatch up left-overs before unlocking the cat-flap, and Hoover all round the house on the outside.  As always, ever hopeful.

Monday, October 14, 2013


To continue with the topic of writers getting published somehow, anyhow – there are other ways of doing it. For example there is the do-it-yourself way, and writers have taken to indie-publishing in ever-increasing numbers – more of that elsewhere. Then there is the co-operative way.

Co-operative publishing is an appealing idea. And in the digital age it’s also simple enough: a few writers get together, sort out some ground rules, create a brand and a website, and wait for customers (writers and book buyers) to find it. No staff, no warehousing, no overheads. How does it work?

First, decisions have to be made about whose books to accept. Members only? Any and all submissions, of whatever quality, without consideration of the market, the content, style, presentation? If so, then the imprint would rapidly become debased because, as any publisher can tell you, barely one submission in a hundred is good enough to publish. That way lies heartache and damaged reputations, including that of the brand, the co-operative itself. (We have to get away from the idea that just because we write something, we have a God-given right to have it published, appreciated, and paid for. That’s not how the real world works.)          

So, select and publish the best? That requires an editorial panel to filter out the one good book out of a hundred not so good. Assessing the viability of books takes expertise and experience of the trade as well as a sound understanding of the market. And it takes a lot of reading. Who has the time when they have their own writing to do?

Co-operative publishing can still be done, but I suggest that it is more likely to be successful for books that can be clearly targeted towards a specific readership: rose growers, spaniel breeders, vegetarians, mountain climbers – anyone with special interests. The advertising can be narrowly focussed and therefore effective. The market is specific and keen, even obsessed. Aficionados never have too many books about their particular interests.

General books, poetry, short stories and novels are much harder to sell. The market for fiction has many divisions and sub-divisions, and a knowledge of the current climate and trends is essential for successful promotions. Marketing involves all kinds of specialised techniques including the very basic one of presentation of the book itself. It has to attract the browsing book buyer, which at least means quality bindings, colourful jackets and eye-catching titles. Self-published books tend to look more modest and distributors and booksellers are not easily impressed.

Plunging into the general books market is therefore probably not a wise move for a co-operative venture. But I’m all for the niche groups because they offer more options in an increasingly diverse marketplace. Indie authors need indie publishers – it’s another way to go.      

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


I’ve been looking at houses. No, I don’t want to move, but time and circumstances are conspiring to make me think about the situation. My house is earthquake-damaged and is to be re-built – maybe next year – and it will be re-built to its current size and specifications. That suits me, I like it, and I’m happy here. However …

Pre-earthquakes outlook
A woman of advancing years and living alone doesn’t need a good-sized three-bedroomed house in an increasingly unmanageable garden. She doesn’t need it, but she wants it. Or more accurately she wants the feeling of it.  I am accustomed to space, light, airiness.  Three-bedroomed houses and gardens are for families – quite rightly – and people like me are expected, in due course, to move into something more suitable, such as what is known as over-sixties housing.

Dear oh dear. So depressing.  This seems to mean a standard-shaped, conventionally outfitted, two-bedroomed house that has been shrunk to hovel proportions. Most of the features are there but they are crowded into smaller spaces. The result is cramped, awkward and mean.

Myth: an old person living alone doesn’t need three bedrooms – two little ones will do, one for themselves and one for visitors.  Fact: one bedroom is enough. The second would be used so infrequently that it is wasted space. Any visitor who needed a bed could sleep on the couch but preferably in a nearby motel, or even at someone else’s place. The OP’s bedroom could then be bigger, and so could the living area.

Myth: OPs living alone need a proper kitchen. Fact: probably not. They almost certainly don’t need the full facilities of a family kitchen because most OPs don’t bother so much. Yes, they have to eat, and may indeed cook, but everything is simpler when it’s only for one. Personally – and admittedly I am rather undomesticated – I could probably manage with a kitchen-in-a-cupboard, the kind you close the doors on when you’re done. Wrap-around benches, islands and floor-to-ceiling cupboards would be unnecessary – OPs don’t have so many mugs and plates and pots and labour-saving devices to find space for.  Result – more space for living.

Myth: OPs don’t have a life. Fact: they do. And they would like to live some of it at home, in comfort and with pleasure. A large studio apartment with a generous deck beside an easy-care courtyard sounds perfect to me.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


There are book publishers, there are printers, there are hybrids (publishers who also print) – and then there are vanity presses (not to be confused with the indie scene).  It’s important that people wanting to show the world their work should understand the differences. Here, in brief, is what they all do.
Publishers consider your manuscript and accept or reject it as a commercial proposition. If they accept it, they will tidy it up, have it printed, and then publish it at their expense. They will manage the marketing and will expect the writer to co-operate with any publicity arrangements. They will offer the writer royalties – an agreed percentage of the selling price – which may be modest because publishing is an expensive business.

Printers print. That’s all they do. They print anything from business cards to cafĂ© menus to books. They will print your book. They do not check the spelling, they do not assess the manuscript for quality, they don’t care if it’s about world peace or your kitten, they just ask “how many copies?” The writer is responsible for everything else, including the crucial business of marketing and distribution.

The hybrids are publishers who operate in the traditional way, but who also make their services and expertise available to those who are willing to pay to have their work published. They ensure quality, help with advertising and distribution, they allow their imprint to be used, and they stand by the product; they don’t endorse any old rubbish.

Then there are the vanity presses.  The only people who know about vanity presses are writers – and the unfortunates who have been sucked into their webs. Those outside the industry have no reason to know about them until they write a book. Then they look for someone to publish it and fall for the tempting offers of the vanity presses.

These people offer to publish your book. They declare that they are connected to reputable publishers (which they often name). They promise world-wide distribution and unbelievable riches. They demand that you assign your copyright to them: never do this. They ask for money up-front (quite a lot) and then they “accept” the manuscript. They always accept the manuscript, whatever its quality. They ask for more money (a lot more) so that they can go ahead and print this amazing number of copies of the book from which you are sure to make a fortune.

This is a scam.

How can you refuse such fame and fortune?  Easily. Say no. To everything. Do not relinquish your copyright. Do not send any money. Do not send any more money. Do not believe a word they say.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


The squeaking, hissing and groaning has stopped at last - and that’s just me.  In San Francisco the America’s Cup is over for now and Team USA have retained the Cup, after a titanic and almost unbelievable struggle against early odds. The big beautiful catamarans have also gone quiet and are being put away, perhaps for ever – because who can afford to enter another America’s Cup regatta with such super-sized, super-fast, super-expensive yachts.

At least that’s what we here down-under in New Zealand thought a week or so ago. Because we were 8 – 1 up and only needed one more win to get our hands back on the Cup.  We were already polishing its plinth.  How could we lose?  Chicken-counting seemed harmless enough, although some cautioned against it.  We told ourselves comfortably that we could even afford to lose a race or two.  We only needed one win, they needed eight without losing a single one.  We were already planning the next regatta, back here, with smaller, more affordable, more accessible boats when everyone could join in rather than the three who challenged the Cup holders Team USA this time.

George and Zoe, my resident furries, had become accustomed to a daily nap between eight and ten a.m. on my blanketed lap, but I watched the racing with increasing alarm. The days passed and Team USA, astonishingly, won five races on the trot. Yesterday, trailing 8 – 6, they brushed Team NZ aside before race one even properly started and, coming from behind, finished the job spectacularly with race two. The day ended at 8 all, with one race to go. 

That was today. We tried, we really tried.  Like the rest of the four million-plus Kiwis I wore my red socks.  I blew the wind till my cheeks exploded.  I whistled.  I yelled at the television, watched through my fingers the relentless, triumphant progress of Team USA up and down the course. They came from behind – again – and roared home. The regatta – all nineteen races of it – has been described as the most staggering upset win in the history of sport. And it was hugely exciting, even for someone like me who knows nothing about sailing and, usually, cares less.

George and Zoe napped on, mindless of the carnage on the water way over there in San Francisco. They are going to be decidedly put out tomorrow morning when they have to find somewhere else to sleep the morning away.  The sun will still rise. There is, after all, life after The America’s Cup and I have work to do.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Until recently, here in New Zealand, it wasn’t acceptable to stand out.  Everyone was equal, no one was better or worse, Jack was as good as his master.  Not so long ago children tried not to win prizes at school – oh, the shame of it.  Growing up, they were discouraged from pushing themselves forward, blowing their own trumpets, showing off. Even now adults who are suspected of skiting receive the curled-lip treatment.

Oh alright, I exaggerate – but tall poppies still tend to get their heads chopped off.  Tall poppies are of course those who dare to raise their heads above the parapet, and are therefore targets for everyone else. I’ve been here long enough to be wary and, like any hopeful immigrant, have done my best to fit in,  although anyone with half an eye could see that it was nonsense.  How would anything get done if everybody ducked down in case they became successful, invented things, found new continents, discovered cures for this and antidotes for that? What good are a lot of decapitated poppies?

But things change. We have embraced the personality culture that has infected the rest of the world, although we still only revere celebs from elsewhere – even from Australia if we’re desperate. Our own? Not so much. Apart from sporting heroes, we tend to dismiss our over-achievers as being somehow not quite up to scratch.  They are not as good as the overseas ones. They are obviously skiting, showing off, and probably up themselves. So we still chop their heads off – if we can catch them before they disappear overseas to continue their stellar careers.

We indie writers are therefore in a quandary. We are uncomfortable with self-puffery. We can’t hide behind a publisher who does our marketing for us while we simper modestly in the background, because we are the publisher.  But now smashwords.com, the conduit and distributor for thousands of us, have a new section for personal interviews, and the indie authors, including me, have leapt in and, rather quaintly, interviewed themselves. We can use the supplied questions as is, modify them, delete them, or generate our own. We can go back any number of times and change anything, add anything. It means that the power is in our hands – and so is the responsibility.

It also means sticking our heads above the parapet. So please put the swords away if you just happen upon these personal interviews. They are almost the only way we can tell the world about our works, even if it does seem like showing off.  I’ve hidden the link for mine up there on the left, under The Books.  


Tuesday, September 10, 2013


(I wonder what would happen if I could interview my redoubtable great-grandmother …)

Dr Muriel Maitland King settles herself and smooths the pale grey silk over her knees. “So, we meet at last.” She indicates a spindly-legged chair and I sit down nervously.

“You have been very – elusive, but I’m beginning to see you more clearly,” I say.

Muriel’s eyebrows rise. “Absurd! I could not have been difficult to find. I was – and I quote from one of the quality newspapers – ‘one of the most interesting personalities in London’.  Why have you been looking for me?”

“I want to write a novel about you.  I would like to find out more about you and your life. ”

Muriel frowns. “That would not be appropriate. My life is private, and nothing to do with you.”

“That’s not quite true,” I say.  “You were my great-grandmother. You were also a doctor – or so you claimed …”

“Claimed? Claimed? All London attended my clinics. My lectures were famous in England and America. My books were read by thousands.”  Muriel leans forward and glares. “The Princess Christian herself summoned me to Cumberland Lodge to ask my advice!”

“The Princess Christian being Queen Victoria’s daughter – yes I know, I found the newspaper reports - in the quality papers of course.  You certainly made a significant impression on the London of your day. Wouldn’t you like the world to know more about you?”  Muriel’s eyes glitter and – do I detect a smirk beginning to appear on her face?  I press on. “Think of the interest from people in the world of today, the 21st century, the world of your many descendants – my world?”

“Do you think so?” she says thoughtfully.  (Aha, gotcha!) “And you propose to write about me in a novel?”

“I would really like to write your biography, but two centuries on it is almost impossible to find enough information about you that I haven’t found already, and what I have is patchy.  So, I will have to fill in the gaps from my imagination, in what we today call faction, which is a novel based on facts but with fiction mixed in.”

“And what makes you the person to write this – faction?”

Good question, and I choose my words carefully.  “I have researched your life and feel I not only know you but that we have much in common. The generations that have come between us – your children, their children and grandchildren – have carried some of your genes and I can recognise those, in them and in me.  I find that very interesting and, at times, alarming.  And if I am successful you could become even more famous than you were in your time.”

Muriel nods graciously. “Perhaps,” she says, “it would be appropriate. Very well, you have my permission.”
(I wish - oh how I wish!)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Some time ago I read an article by someone who had, one year, been a volunteer delivering Christmas hampers to the poor, the old and the needy. It was a light-hearted piece, and the hearts of the writer and his fellow volunteers were clearly in the right place. They set out, a few days before Christmas, wanting to spread cheer to those who, they felt, were going to be short of it. How they selected recipients was not revealed. Enough to say that they knocked on doors, and presented hampers with beaming smiles and a "merry Christmas!"  They were met with a variety of reactions that the writer of the article found puzzling. 

Some people were taken aback but accepted the goods. These were usually women with young children trying to manage on their own in difficult circumstances. But many of the others, but most especially the older ones, were  more inclined to react with a more or less civil "no thank you" to an angry "how dare you!" before slamming the door.

It made me ponder the problem of people – old, poor, needy, disadvantaged, you-name-it – who live in uncomfortable circumstances and may, or may not, need help. Other people feel a need to provide that help. But kindness can be embarrassing. Help can seem like interference. Charity can be taken for condescension, and is acceptable only if it involves worthy causes in broad terms rather than people directly: world hunger, cystic fibrosis or saving the planet. 

On the surface it seems simple enough. Here are some people who don't have enough to eat, here are others who are sick and need help, and here are still others who are cold or lonely. Our hearts bleed. What can we do? Well, lots of things. But the real question is, what should we do?

We can leave it to the government. There – done.  But governments are clumsy giants, unable to operate with finesse. Instead there are armies of bureaucrats who do their best but must stick to the rules and not be influenced by feelings. They do not tramp the streets with hampers looking for anyone who might need one. But welfare charities do, apparently. I am uncomfortable with dishing out largesse to people who haven't asked for it and may be embarrassed, humiliated, hurt or angry by the gesture. A Christmas hamper, however generous and well-meant, is no substitute for a chat, a cup of tea or a stiff gin and tonic with an actual friend.

The writer of the article said that some of those people were eventually persuaded to accept what was kindly meant. I suspect that the recipients had more delicacy than the givers, and graciously allowed them to do the good that they clearly wished to do.

Monday, August 26, 2013


On Euterpe’s voyage of 1879 the ship had to carry all the food for nearly 200 passengers and crew for many months at sea. Aside from the dry goods, which were stored in tins, sacks and barrels, they carried their meat live, on the hoof or claw, to be slaughtered on the way. Animals and poultry were housed on the deck in crates and pens and would have endured conditions which were uncomfortable and crowded.  They were not always safe even there, not even the pets – one family in the saloon cabin lost their “fine Russian cat” overboard and their prize cock died during the voyage and was eaten by the occupants of No. 1 Mess – "a most beastly piece of business" said diarist Joshua Charlesworth with a shudder.

Three pigs that died unexpectedly six weeks after the ship left London were also eaten, apparently without anybody worrying unduly about the cause of death. They may simply have found shipboard life not to their liking. Two of the three pigs were dressed for the first-class passengers and the first edition of the ship's newspaper The Euterpe Times contained a poem about the tragedy entitled “The First to Fall”.  The poet, who called himself “Euterpian” and was a frequent contributor of verse to the ship’s newspaper, made what he could of the phrase “latter end”, used in various ways to mean different things. 

(Thanks to Mike Wood for the picture.)


Weep Euterpians, rent your grief
For Porker's dead, his life was brief
And sad was his latter end.

While in the dock his health seemed good
He grunted loud in cage of wood
Not knowing his latter end. 

But fiends had marked him for their own
One fell disease soon brought him down
And nearer his latter end.

Another for fear he'd loose his prey
His tail did grip at close of day
And pulled at his latter end.

Stuck with the blade both sharp & keen
Porker gave up the ghost I ween
And meat was his latter end.
The pork would not have gained the prize
At Smithfield show for fat or size
For thin was his latter end.

That's all, for each Euterpian sinner
Knows how the Firsts had pork for dinner
And ate his latter end.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Editors – who needs them? Writers do. They really, really do. But – only after the writing is done.

We can self-edit of course, and we do it all the time. Writers have built-in editors who can get maddeningly bossy and too big for their boots. They muscle in when they’re not wanted and in fact can stop us writing altogether by being too critical too soon.  Striving for literary perfection, especially in the early stages, is confidence-sapping and can be the end of a good story before it’s properly begun - smothered to death. 

There is a time for an internal editor to sharpen the red pencils, and it’s not while the work is being created. That’s when writers need the freedom to make mistakes, dart off in unexpected directions, change characters’ names in mid-dialogue, transform a cosy English village murder mystery into a vampire thriller, toss in a couple of bombshells or move the setting from Amsterdam to Zanzibar – by spaceship. No editor, whether in-built or helpful friend, would tolerate such rampant slap-dashery.

For fiction at least, and to some extent non-fiction too, slap-dashery is close to essential. It’s one of the best ways to get any writing done. It’s afterwards, when the mess has been sorted out and tidied up, that the editorial self – the one in our heads – can be cut loose to start polishing. After that, most of us depend on an eagle-eyed, reasonably patient friend to catch the misplaced commas, the spelling mistakes, the lapses of taste and sometimes even the glaring holes in the plot, because we are too close to our own work to see it properly.

Only a few will ask for help from professional editors. The work is time-consuming and can be fiddly, and therefore too expensive for most writers.  An editor is a kind of literary whistle-blowing policeman who blocks the way, scrutinises the work, pats it down in search of concealed pitfalls, warns against going down this ill-advised road or that. The scope is spelling, punctuation and grammar at one end, right through to re-shaping whole books at the other. 

It’s an editor’s job to keep writers out of literary trouble. It is not, however, to mess with an individual writer’s style or tone. Those writing in language born out of texting, tweeting and Twilight-talk, extravagant and spiky with !!! and apostrophes in the wrong places but oh so alive, have a right to do their own thing and be safe from that disapproving red pencil when it comes to style. It follows that writer and editor should be sympathetically paired and work together, otherwise advice from one will be ignored by the other. Result: a waste of time, and hissy fits all round.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013


What’s the Spanish for “what do you think I am?”  And why do some people in Spain again think that I could be conned?

A few years ago I received a letter from the El Gordo Spanish Sweepstake Lottery S.A., whatever that was, telling me that I had won a share of $960,000 in a lottery for which I hadn’t actually bought a ticket. (See the blogpost “Million Dollars – Maybe” of 10 November, 2010.)

Today I have received a letter from a Luis Davis, of Calle Polo Medina, No4, 3B, CQ 304 Murcia, Espana, tel. 00-34-631126213. He describes himself as an attorney with EDL LEGAL, representing Mrs Rosemary Curry, a business magnate, who died “along with her family in a car accident along Madrid express road” in December 2004. Before this tragic event she had fortuitously deposited $9.5 million with a finance company in Spain. (Now wouldn’t you think that a business woman with $9.5 million would a) have the sense to make a proper Will including contingencies and b) have a lot of eager heirs? But never mind, let’s move on.)

Senor Davis tells me that he has been searching for any relatives to whom he could give the money, without success. So he has trawled through public records to find someone with the same last name and would like me to stand as next of kin to the unfortunate Mrs Curry. Wow - how lucky am I! (But - questions: how many other people with the same last name have received letters from Senor Davis? Do I have to share with all of them?) If I agree, Senor Davis will “prepare every legal document that will assist [my] claim, and facilitate the release of the fund to [me].” He adds that the transaction is 100% risk-free and legal, because he has kindly “worked out all the modalities to complete the transaction successfully” so would I please reply to his private email address or telephone him for more information.

Oh double wow! I can’t see any problems with any of that, can you? Senor Davis clearly has everything covered. My goodness, I’m about to become rich! But I see there’s a small catch. Once the fund is released to me, he proposes that we share it, 50/50.  But still, half of $9.5 million isn’t bad, I could scrape along on that, for a while anyway. It’s a lot better than what the measly El Gordo lot offered.

No thanks, Senor. You must think I’m a halfwit if you think I might believe that load of codswallop, and an idiot and a crook if you think I might go along with what would clearly be fraud on a grand scale if I agreed to your stupid proposal.

Friday, August 9, 2013


On the voyage of 1879, London to Lyttelton, New Zealand, the sailing ship Euterpe’s emigrant passengers had to endure many weeks at sea with not a great deal to do. True, they had to wash their own clothes, prepare and cook their own meals and keep their sleeping accommodation clean and habitable. The ship was small even by the standards of the time, and there was not much space, but they managed to amuse themselves in a variety of ways. They danced on the hatch covers, raced each other around the deck, played music, ran Sunday school classes in the lifeboats, and – proof that buying and selling is embedded in the human DNA – held sales, auctions and raffles at the drop of a dice.

On Tuesday 16th September passenger Mr Middleton played auctioneer at the first session of the Euterpe Auction Mart. Diarist George Lister noted that “the articles were of a miscellaneous character consisting of potted meats, salmon, lobsters, sardines, preserved milk, tobacco, candles, dishes, tins, woollen and linen jackets, hats and caps, cheese, lemons, marmalade, sugar and leather laces.” The bidders were keen, especially for the milk and potted fish which went for four times their value.  Some passengers wanting cash to buy the very expensive liquor available on board even sold some of their clothes – a good suit went for a few shillings. Others parted with their bread ration and a piece the size of a hand could fetch sixpence.

Sales and raffles also took place on deck as the voyage proceeded. James Martin bought a bottle of lime juice, a tin kettle and knife, fork and spoons at one sale, and his sister-in-law Annie won a ring in a raffle. These were conducted by charging an entry fee of perhaps a shilling, and the contestants then threw dice against each other until the winner was found. On one occasion Mr Skinner’s watch was raffled, Mr Hopkins won the contest, and immediately sold the watch back to Mr Skinner for £1. Everyone enjoyed the occasion, Mr Hopkins made a profit and Mr Skinner got his watch back.

NB: This may be one of the last Euterpe blogposts because the voyage is nearly over and the documentary sources are all but exhausted. Some of the passengers and crew have become familiar, others remain just names. For me it’s personal. The captain was my great-grandfather. On board on that voyage was his son, my great-uncle, whom I met just once in his old age without, of course, knowing or caring about his history. I wish – oh how I wish! – that I could talk to them both now.
Photo courtesy Mike Wood Photography - with thanks as always