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