Friday, May 31, 2013


Painting: Grasses
There are nine Muses, the daughters of  the Roman gods Zeus and Mnemosyne, and they are expected to inspire those of us struggling with poetry, music, drama and everything else that requires effort of the creative kind. Most of us find that they do a lousy job and it doesn’t do to depend on these wilful misses. Sometimes – often – they take the day off.  They are flibbertigibbets, too busy simpering, gazing at their reflections in ponds and combing their hair.

Mind you, they are a bit precious about their responsibilities. For heaven’s sake, it takes three of them to look after poets. Calliope, for example, only troubles herself about epic poetry, the really long kind that goes on for pages. She could set a poet on that sort of journey and she wouldn’t have to check on him more than, say, once a month at most. Erato is the love goddess, looking after love poems, with a sideline in mime. Not many people go in for mime these days, and people in love can burst into rhyme at the drop of a come-hither eyelid, so Erato isn’t exactly taxed. As for Euterpe, she’s rather up-market with the responsibility for lyric poetry.

What about the rest of us, I ask? What about story-tellers and historians and memoirists, essayists and bloggers? We need help too, and we are always fretting that the Muse has left us.  Well, come to think of it, we aren’t forgotten, but we have to stretch a point or two. Clio could help if we argue that history is involved. Humourists have Thalia in their corner, and her sister Melpomeme wallows in tragedy. That leaves Polyhymnia (sacred song), Terpsichore (dancing) and Urania  (astronomy) – none of whom are a lot of help to writers.

We have to find other ways of getting the job done. Luckily there are heaps of ways that writers can cope with the times when the brain isn’t too responsive and the will is weak. Who’s in charge here anyway? Us or those nine useless young women who are never around when you need them?

Friday, May 24, 2013


... and they will take unpardonable liberties. Now I know how Lemuel Gulliver felt in Lilliput.

I was catching the last of the sun on the deck, gazing at nothing in particular. After a productive few hours work, it was great to sit on the old sofa, warm from the sun, there was cranberry juice at my elbow and there was shimmering in the air.

Shimmering? The sun was glinting on something ... invisible. Many somethings. The flimsiest of filaments, floating between me and the wooden railing of the deck. They were so fine I could hardly see them except when the sun caught them. As they moved, whatever they were rippled and swayed, and I watched, idly at first then closer, with deepening interest.

Spiders. Tiny spiders, babies, so small they looked like grey flecks, were attached to the filaments and drifting with the soft breeze. They were scurrying along the invisible threads, sometimes meeting another speck, conferring, leaving a minute silver dot smaller than a full stop behind, and trapezing away again.

I moved my foot sideways. A long silvery line stretched and drifted sideways too, revealing more threads further along in an untidy cluster. While I had been sitting and watching, those cheeky little bleepers had attached a thread to my shoe and started connecting me to the railing. And – there – another thread to one of the posts of the deck, complete with floating attachments. What a nerve. Give them a kindly glance and a place to live, and they start lashing me to the deck like Gulliver.

But the sun was setting and I had to move. I reached down and detached most of the threads from my person and attached them carefully elsewhere before going inside.

Friday, May 17, 2013


Today is May 18th – well, it is here in New Zealand. Everywhere else it's only the 17th. But here, where I am, it's the 18th and it is my birthday.

Today in history, according to my Book of Days, Napoleon was proclaimed the Emperor of France in 1804. In 1944 the Polish Army captured Cassino, and in 1151 Saint Eric the King of Sweden was martyred. The Order of the Bath was founded in 1725 – that was the ceremony for creating knights, and involved actual bathing as a symbol of purification. Only the Brits could create a chivalrous order named after a bath.

Some significant people died on 18th May. Among them, in 1703, was Charles Perrault, whom we must thank for Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and many other fairy tales. Novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Meredith died in 1864 and 1909 respectively, and Bishop Nicolas Longespee died in 1297. Yes, Longespee. I don't know what the Bishop did to deserve his place in the Book of Days, except possibly thump those who enquired what the record was, and whether anyone could enter.

However, according to the book, no one of note was born on this day. It was published in the fifties, well before celebrity culture devalued everything, so there are no film stars and sports persons mentioned. The day is therefore mine alone. It has usually slipped by unremarked, but occasionally it has been special, and sometimes unexpected.

For example, this day in history, on my tenth birthday, I woke up in Baghdad, in a hotel overlooking the mighty Euphrates river that roared muddily past the windows. That morning my mother, two brothers and I climbed into a rackety aeroplane and leaned against the icy fuselage – there was no heating or air-conditioning, no trolley dollies, no seats, only benches along the sides – for the flight to Teheran, where we would live for two years.

My eighteenth birthday was spent in the misty hills of Sri Lanka. My parents and I were sailing to England from Rangoon, there was engine trouble, we had disembarked in Colombo, and decided to spend a few days up-country away from the humid heat. On my thirtieth-something birthday I was in Kangaroo Valley (London) surrounded by Aussies and Kiwis and the Indians from the flat upstairs. We all went to a real Indian restaurant for a celebratory curry dinner.

On this day perhaps three decades later I was taken to Jade Stadium and handed a can of beer while cheering the Canterbury Crusaders as they beat the Wellington Hurricanes at rugby. I understood etiquette demanded that I throw the empty can at a policeman after the match, but decided instead to leave it in a corner with several others.

Today – memorable or slipping by? Who knows. All together now: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!

Sunday, May 12, 2013


I have been shouting at the television again. I've got to give it up, lie down with a damp cloth on my forehead, unclench my teeth, count to ten v-e-r-y slowly.

The latest cause for angst is all about Me. That is, the Me that bustles to the beginning of sentences where it has no business to be. The Me that something happens to, rather than does. The Me that small children use interchangeably with I until they learn better. The Me that too many people who are no longer children still use in places where they shouldn't.
You hear it all the time. "Me and Frank went to the pictures." "Me and the girls went out for dinner." It happens with we and us too, as in "Us girls had a great night out." There is also the confusion between her and him, and they and them, and much, many, fewer and less.

It's illogical, because the funny thing is that none of the people who are confused, if they are grown-up, repeat the mistake by saying, "Me and Frank went to the pictures. Frank had a coke and me had an ice cream." Neither do they say, if they should go out alone, that "Me went out to dinner and the waiter tipped the soup over I." If Me does something by herself, she never says Me, she says I, as in "I went out to dinner." And if something happens to Me, she says "and the waiter tipped the soup over me." As for "Us girls had a great night out" they don't go on to say, "and us ended up in the cells."

It's simple. I do things. We do things. Things happen to me or us.

We pedants – not us pedants because we are doing something – are fighting a losing battle. We are gibbering in corners over such horrors as "Her and her husband went to Bali" and "there has been much delays" and "I've got less apples than you". If you can, theoretically, count the objects it's fewer, or many. Otherwise it's less or much. As in, less money, fewer dollars. Many delays, much delay. Fewer potatoes, less mash. Less ice, fewer ice cubes. Much rain, many rain drops.

There are anomalies – this is the English language after all. Take rice: much rice, many kilos of rice, much rice pudding, but while you could theoretically count rice grains, you can't have fewer or many rice. But the basics are clear.

However, I've yet to hear anyone say that he has fewer apple juice. But give it time. Things will undoubtedly get worse. Where's that damp cloth ...