Friday, July 26, 2013


It's said that children acquire the knowledge they need for adult life at their mother's knee. Such a cosy picture: mother sitting comfortably in an armchair, perhaps knitting or sewing and looking – motherly. There is a small child sitting on the floor at her feet, head tilted sideways and resting against mother's knee.

That's where little boys learn that they are not supposed to cry, that they should share their toys, and that kicking their sisters on the shin is not gentlemanly. Little girls learn to bake cookies, put nappies on their dolls, and listen to wise sayings about men. What we learn at our mothers' knees is what is supposed to guide us when we grow up and have to cope and make decisions and deal with important matters.

That’s all very well for people who grow up in quiet, stable countries, live in one place for long enough to acquire memories and history, can name their classmates from primary school onwards, and can answer the questions like those so insistently posed by Facebook: What is your home town? Where did you grow up? Anyone who can answer those questions probably learned all sorts of useful things at their mothers’ knees.

By the time I was twelve I had lived in ten cities or towns in six countries, briefly attended nine schools, spoken three languages and pretty much forgotten two of them. I was saved from ignorance and illiteracy at twelve by being parked in boarding school. From then on I found ways to muddle along and find things out for myself. The girls at boarding school after lights helped out by telling jokes that I couldn't make sense of until – big break-through – I began to understand that they were about s-e-x. Never mind the bike sheds, they don’t know the half of it. Let me tell you, girls in boarding school have the real oil.

Those girls weren’t around when I found myself at twenty three, married for over a year, in a kitchen stabbing at a block of frozen mince and faced for the first time with a saucepan and a hotplate and the urgent need to provide dinner. Or when I carried home the first baby I had ever seen – my own.

Where was mother’s knee all that time?  It was usually in some other part of the planet, attached to mother.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


I have this manuscript novel.  Well, half a manuscript. It has been around a long, long time – years. It lurks in the cyber version of a writer’s bottom drawer where abandoned projects gather to whimper and suck their thumbs. It is so old that there is even a paper version in a ring-binder. The only thing that keeps this manuscript alive and out of the dustbin is that somewhere in the back of my mind is the feeling that there is a spark still glowing.  

It is a murder mystery story, set in Burma. That much is certain.  I have re-written just about everything else, several times. I have changed names. Moved the action decades back and forth. Which meant changing clothes, manners, scenes, language, even cars.  In my dreams I imagined the book to be optioned by Merchant Ivory, so I planned beautiful people, elegance, glitter and romance. Of course the writing style had to match that kind of book.  But perhaps it should be more James Bond-ish?  Zippier and action-packed, something like what my uncle Buzz used to call “bang bang, kiss kiss” – although Buzz didn’t mean what that expression has probably changed to mean today. Although – hmm, there are possibilities in that. 

I have a victim – the diplomatic corpse of the title. There’s a detective and he has a name and a history of sorts. There are thirteen chapters, 40,000+ words. It’s way past time for another victim, so perhaps I should kill someone off back a bit, at around 20,000 words  – but who? And why?  The story has been stuck there so long, more or less forgotten, that it’s become ridiculous, a joke. Call myself a writer? Baaah. But now I have been confronted by a challenge. 

An on-line organisation called Kiwi Writers has challenged members to finish a languishing, stalled project during August. I’m thinking about it – perhaps another 40,000 words would be about right. That’s 1,300 words a day, every day, for a month.  It should be a doddle (fingers crossed behind my back).  And if I get a move on and finish the must-do jobs currently on hand, I should be ready by August 1 to start hauling The Diplomatic Corpse back to life in some form or another.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Bunky-Doodle (that's her in the picture) and Gurgle were my mother and her sister. They were also variously known as Binny, Gunny, Gertrude, Trudy, Harry or Adelaide. They each had a second official name which no one ever used.

They would have been astonished if someone they didn’t know had addressed them by any of those names, even the “real” ones, in person, by mail or on the phone. Were they alive today, the steely, quiet one would have pursed her lips and blanked her face. The stroppy one would have glared sparks and said “how rude”.

Some of those were pet names, childhood names, names that evolved out of long-forgotten incidents or family fights. Little Adelaide once yelled that her sister looked like a gunny-sack. Little Gertrude screamed that Adelaide looked like a binny-bottle. Gunny and Binny emerged from the debris, leaving Gertrude and Adelaide way, way behind, only to surface again seven decades later.

Binny soon became Harry, because her second name was Henrietta. Everyone knew her as Harry for most of her life, but she ended up choosing not to be called that because there was hardly anyone left alive to be privileged to do so. That’s how she thought of it, it was the way things were in their day. First names, and especially nicknames, were for special people.

Gunny remained Gunny for most of her life too, but in her eighties she tried to discourage it, except for her own special people. Gertrude she insisted, or Trudy. Both women would have considered the modern practice of everyone calling everyone else by their first names on casual acquaintance to be impertinent.

I now understand how they felt. Perhaps, as we grow older, we become tetchy about this, even if we weren’t before. Those who have been known by diminutives of their real names, the Elizabeths who have always been Lizzie, Beth or Betty, cringe. Those addressed by names they don’t use feel like spitting their dummies. They must a) choose to correct the error and appear to condone the policy, or b) protest at the policy and demand the more formal Mrs Smith. Either way they feel aggrieved and appear churlish.

As for those nicknames, they are waiting to trip us up as more of our secrets are stored in the clouds. Think of all the crotchety octogenarians out there who are getting ready to be outraged that someone could turn up one day and address them as Popsy, Topsy, Dotty or Bubbles.