Wednesday, December 31, 2014


As you may have guessed, I have been at a bit of a loss for something to contribute to the blog lately. My mind is a blank, my head in a whirl, so much has happened in the past year and I have been lurching from drama to angst and back. Did it show? I hope not. Some doors closed, but others opened. The blog has been both a respite and a distraction. So here are a few more examples of howlers caught by eagle-eyed grammar police – just think of them as stocking-fillers for grown-ups.

Completing the launching ceremony, the Admiral's lovely daughter smashed a bottle of champagne over her stern as she slid gracefully down the slipway.

The marriage suffered a setback in 1965 when the husband was killed by the wife.

If you asked six friends to name the commonest birds in Britain, the odds are that nine out of ten of them would say the sparrow.

Mr George Dobbs is very proud of the fact that he walked 50 kilometres on a sausage sandwich at the weekend.

Hammers:  Bulk purchase.  Would suit home handymen with claw heads

Sir:  The first time I heard the cuckoo was on April 12th.  Flying overhead from the garden, my husband heard it before that date.

You could have a portrait of yourself or your child taken at the convenience of your own home.

Amid the cheers of their many friends in the farming community, the bride and groom cut the wedding cake made by Mrs Robertson, shaped like a haystack on stilts.

A sub-committee is to consider the question of alterations at the village hall so that the toilets can be used for football matches.

Drama at the concert:  The violinist bravely extinguished the blaze while the conductor pulled the orchestra through a difficult passage.

Headline in local paper:  Peer's seat burns all night. Ancient pile destroyed.

A fixture that has brought nothing but defeat since 1949 was won at last by the shooting of two football league forwards.

She sat huddled in a chair covering her ears with crossed legs.

The colonel scurried up a tree while the dog attacked the bear and killed him with four well-placed bullets.

Three shots rang out. Two men fell dead, and the third went through his hat.

The importance of a comma:  A roading contractor who combines business with a passion for wildlife last evening, presented the NZ branch of the World Wildlife Fund with a cheque for $17,500.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


In a family teeming with colourful characters, one of my favourites was my uncle Buster. He was a Geordie who went to Japan and married my aunt. He was an enthusiastic social drinker, loved sports, parties and dancing. He once went to a fancy dress party dressed as a potato. If asked to say grace before dinner he would be likely to bellow: "Thank God! Food!"

Once in Kobe, after a boisterous party, he and my father stole a tram and drove it all round town before abandoning it. (I wish I’d known that while Dad was alive!) He raced motor cars. He was an excellent rugby player – he claimed to have taught the Japanese to play – and passable at other games, but he was a dud at tennis. One year he was one of two entrants in the lowest grade of a competition and Buster lost to the other guy – who had a wooden leg.

In New Zealand in retirement, Buster would dress up in a black outfit with long black gloves and straw plaits, and my aunt would darken his eyebrows and redden his cheeks and lips. Then Buster would play "Mary Christmas" for the neighbourhood children. One child, confused by the disguise, told her mother later that she had held hands with a horse.

Towards the end of his life Buster became frail but he never lost his sense of humour. He was cheeky, and once went to a liquor store, sat down on a crate of empties and crooked his finger at one of the women in the shop. He handed her his list, and she scurried round getting everything he wanted. Later, Buster was in hospital in intensive care. Friends visiting him for, as they thought, the last time, watched him heave at an oxygen mask with his eyes rolling. He lifted the mask and muttered, "Great gin!" Appalled glances were exchanged. There was another deep breath, then a huge smile: "Oxy-gin!" He came home black and blue because of several falls owing to his tottery condition and told a strait-laced neighbour that he had been booted out because he had tried to rape the matron.         

Buster had unusual solutions to small domestic problems, most of them involving a stapler, drawing pins or sellotape. If he lost a button off his shirt sleeve he stapled the cuff together. The indicator lever in his car broke off and was replaced with a pink toothbrush handle. Wallpaper peeling off the wall was fixed with drawing pins. Or sellotape: anything you can imagine could be mended with it, and a whole lot of things you would never imagine were wrapped or stuck together with sellotape, like the lock on the door between their unit and the garage.

Thanks for the memories, Bus!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Contrary to popular opinion, there are good reasons for being picky about grammar, punctuation and the tiresome business of editing one’s writing. We who do this kind of work are often referred to – not always in fun – as nit-pickers or worse, grammar nazis. On the other hand, we who do this work – which most of us enjoy otherwise we wouldn’t do it – can rescue those of you who don’t or can’t do it yourselves from becoming laughing stocks.

On the third hand, those of you who not only don’t do it yourselves but can’t see any reason for it to be done at all should read the following examples, taken from actual published sources, although a few have been slightly changed or tidied up. In some cases it might be necessary to think about them, or re-read them, because that’s what editors do – they read carefully and look out for howlers amongst other sins and omissions. Here we go:

Her eyes lit up, fluttered, met his, dropped to the floor, went back to the jewels. He picked them up, held them for a moment, then handed them back to her with a tender smile.

My husband took an accident policy with your company and in less than a month he was accidentally drowned. I consider it a good investment.

The government were strongly urged to take steps to put a stop to the growing evil of methylated spirits drinking by the Liverpool Justices at their quarterly meeting.

The font so generously presented by Mrs Smith will be set in position at the east end of the church.  Babies may now be baptised at both ends.

He had been aware from the first that she was unusually attractive. Now, in her dark green dress with the low-cut, rounded neckline, he saw that she had lovely legs.

"Good" muttered Pierre to himself, hiding a smile beneath the false black beard which he always carried in his suitcase in case of emergency.

Across a broad stubborn nose he carried a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, a neat grey lounge suit and a blue shirt with collar to match.

Like Susan, he had dark brown hair with enormous black eyebrows, a moustache and a short beard.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Dilettante, n:  lover of the fine arts; amateur; one who toys with the subject, or studies it without seriousness. Dilettantish, adj:  trifling, not thorough.

Hmm, that sounds like me – a dabbler.  But so what?  I believe that everyone should try things, even if they stuff up.  How else can we find out what we might be good at, or what’s fun to do?  Even babies know that – we could learn a lesson or two from them.  At least when we get past the baby stage we stop sampling slugs to find out what they taste like. If we don’t know whether we would enjoy doing something, we are less likely to be intimidated by the challenge. 

There was the matter of the violin lessons when I was about nine. The teacher was very kind, but I was never able to produce any of those piercingly beautiful violinish sounds and soon lost heart. My mother was made of stronger stuff. She wrote in her diary that “Joanie is making gawdawful noises but I’m sure she’ll do better soon.”  As it happened, no chance. Twenty years later however, during the folk song years with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and everyone else strumming and singing about peace and flowers, I learned how to play a guitar – sort of – by buying one, acquiring a couple of how-to books, learning some basic chords, and setting off at a cheerful canter.  It’s only one of the benefits of not knowing what you don’t know but wanting to find out.

Soon a banjo in a music shop caught my eye – twelve strings and a satisfyingly chunky, out-in-the-boondocks sound. But the steel strings hurt my finger pads, so it wasn’t long before it was bye bye banjo and hello to an old piano and Bach’s notebook of easy pieces for Anna Magdalena. Luckily nobody told me that Anna Magdalena was deceptively difficult, and anyway there didn’t seem to be too many notes bunched up together (all you real musicians out there are wincing already).  I just wanted the notes to sound more or less in the right order, with both hands co-operating. When I had knocked off Bach there was Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff to look forward to, and who knows what else – next stop La Scala? There is no limit to the expectations of an inveterate dabbler.

That didn’t happen either. But the thing about dabbling is that sooner or later something gels. With me it was painting and writing.  It could have been worse; I could now be playing the violin very badly.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


The arrival of more and more cruise ships to New Zealand ports as we approach our summer reminds me that there’s a difference between travelling by sea and going for a cruise on a ship. I have never been on a cruise but know of plenty of people who have. The idea is not at all tempting. To me a cruise ship seems like something between Las Vegas, Disneyland and a Butlin’s holiday camp – twinkle, glitter and ra-ra-ra.

Most of my long-distance travelling has been by sea.  In ships.  Big, old-fashioned hotels that float.  I’ve been from Nagasaki to Dairen.  Kobe to Sydney via Shanghai. Sydney to Durban via Adelaide and Perth.  Durban to Port Said.  Glasgow to Rangoon. Rangoon to Colombo and on to London via Suez. London to Auckland via the Panama canal. Auckland to London via Miami and Bermuda, and back.  There was leisure, style and grace, even the bargain-basement travel.

Those sea voyages took a long time – weeks rather than hours or days – but they were memorable. Apart from the voyages to and from Dairen, I remember them all. Not just the times on the ships but the bits in-between – which is more than one can say of any flight in an aeroplane.

Sydney to Durban in a convoy of ships for example. That meant Christmas at sea; a Japanese submarine torpedoed by one of the destroyers protecting our convoy; loading wheat and coal at Perth so that we were all covered in black and white dust. A few months later we climbed aboard the Reina del Pacifico to sail for Suez in another convoy. My brother, aged six, spent most of his time with the sailors swinging in the rigging and my mother spent hers on the bridge on lookout because she could see forever.

I celebrated a birthday during a ten-day stopover in Colombo.  The ship had engine trouble – no calling up another ship in emergencies in those days. That was where my escort – the fourth officer of the ship – had gone to fetch cold drinks at Mount Lavinia and I was offered a lewd invitation while I waited under a tree. You don’t get that just anywhere.

It has to be said however that some people found travelling by sea tedious. On the way to New Zealand AJ, who had finished reading War and Peace, got so bored by the time we reached Panama that he threatened to jump off the ship into the canal and swim the rest of the way.

Those were the days. Since then, for me, it has been aeroplanes – hedge-hopping around the country or across The Ditch.  However, it was Robert Louis Stevenson who reflected that, old and young, we are all on our last cruise.


Sunday, November 30, 2014


On this day, minus two, many years ago, Josef Stalin looked at me and I looked at him.

It was in Teheran, in the British embassy compound.  My father said I wasn't to go to school. He didn't say why, only that it was a very important secret. Soldiers had previously set up tents on the lawns and marched through the compound in heavy boots, or stood at corners, at ease but watchful, with their rifles slanted beside them. They drove growling armoured vehicles. Everyone going in and out of the compound had to have a special pass, scrutinised by the Ghurkhas on the gate. Even the old man at the back gate stood smartly on guard instead of sleeping in the shade as he usually did.

On this day, minus two, my father and I were the only people, apart from the old man, who watched the back gate of the embassy open. A black car drove into our compound from the Russian embassy opposite. The old man saluted - surely his finest moment.

"Watch" said my father. "This is history happening. One day you'll be glad you saw this.  The man in the back of that car is the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.  His name is Josef Stalin."

I watched the car move slowly by, the back windows covered with blinds.  As it passed us Josef Stalin zapped up the blind and he stared out at us as we stared back.

On this day, 30th November, 1943, my father stood beside me in the small crowd of people in the sunshine outside the chancery. The soldiers were there too, at attention, eyes staring straight ahead, rifles bristling, brasses glinting. There was an atmosphere that fizzed and I felt it, head to toe.

"Watch" said my father. "The man sitting there with the fat cigar is Winston Churchill, who is the man making the decisions about this war for Britain. He is having his photograph taken because today is his sixty-ninth birthday." The photo­graphers snapped and flashed. Then two other men came out and joined Mr Churchill, and the photographers snapped and flashed again.

"Josef Stalin is the man in the uniform" said my father. "Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the suit, is the president of the United States. Watch carefully, because this is history too. These three men are the most important people in the world right now, and what they talk about and decide at the conference here will affect the course of history for a long time to come."

After the conference the soldiers went away, taking their tents and guns and growly vehicles away with them.  It was winter, and soon deep drifts of snow covered everything.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Definition 1: A screamer is a large raucous bird with a goose-like body, chicken-like head, a short, hooked bill and a harsh, honking call.

Definition 2: A screamer is someone who talks in a very loud voice.

Definition 3: A screamer is an exclamation mark, especially in newspapers, posters and the like. They are used to emphasise, draw attention, reinforce something said; to indicate excitement, surprise, astonishment, or strong emotion. These marks are called exclamation marks because they exclaim!!!!!!  In a very loud voice.  Raucously.

Definition 4: A screamer is one of my pet hates – and I use them all the time. Can’t help it, they spill out, littering the landscape and having to be swept away. They can add punch but need to be used with discretion if they are not to overwhelm the text. It is, however, the lazy way to write. Instead of finding strong words to beef up what I’m writing, it’s too easy to end a sentence with ! In the revision process they are firmly deleted.

Splattering (and they do splatter, just look at them) exclamation marks like confetti all over text is frowned upon by anyone of discernment. Dear old Fowler (Modern English Usage, although no longer so modern) wrote that “excessive use of exclamation marks is, like that of italics, one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.” To my mind, exclaiming after every sentence is like talking to someone and constantly poking him in the ribs and honking. Writing a sentence with a cluster of exclamation marks at the end is more like whacking someone on the back hard enough to dislodge a chicken bone.  

Yes, times change and rules are made to be broken, but the pesky things must be used sparingly if they are to have any effect. Exclamation marks are not full stops.  However, sometimes they are used as full stops – after every sentence!  We bang down two, three or more of them, even when one by itself is inappropriate!!!!  Along with typing in CAPITAL LETTERS, which comes across as shouting and is considered rude, bossy or in-your-face, and using italics or underlining, exclamation marks can lend emphasis but, if over-used, lose that emphasis and become annoying.

There are, obviously, good reasons for them – in their place. They can be used in direct speech to indicate strong feelings: “My goodness!”  Or excitement, urgency: "No!" he bellowed. "It’s going to blow up!  Generally speaking, exclamation marks have no place in narrative prose, as opposed to conversational or informal prose. And even when they are used, it should only be one at a time.  After all, no one would put two or three commas or question marks instead of one – would they?  Just too silly.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014


I often wonder.  I’m me of course. Except when I’m the person whose first name isn’t Joan but which people who don’t know me use. Or when I use my maiden name. And then there are the aliases.

Inventing an on-line alias would be a great way to stay anonymous. To write a blog without having to answer to anyone. To become a member of this or that site without clenching my teeth and grrring when people nag me to reply, or follow, or like, or connect. To say what I think without people assuming I meant them specifically and having to grovel and explain myself. To express some of those opinions that are blurted on an impulse but, with hindsight, reflect badly on me. To wander around those sites that won’t let you past the first page without signing in, and then having to endure a stream of urgent emails trying to sell me stuff.

I became Topsy once so I could play a little. She was useful for one of those excessively pushy genealogy sites briefly, but she had to extricate herself before the site constructed any more of her entirely fictitious family tree and threw hints and suggestions at her ad nauseum. She was very hard to kill off but I was more persistent than they were, which is saying something. Then Flopsy was created to join another site where I had once been a member and had left in a huff. Flopsy was put there to keep an eye on things but she felt really guilty about it and quietly resigned. Spying was clearly not her style. As for Mopsy, I can’t find her any more, she came and went rather quickly and didn’t leave a trace. She couldn’t remember her password and the messages telling her that she had tried too many times to sign in became sinister, so she quit.

My confusions with the aliases arose from the fact that I started with Hotmail, which unknown to me morphed into Outlook and changed its look and layout. When I tried to gather all the “people” into one basket I got in a terrific muddle and deleted everyone I could actually find and catch. Now only Flopsy still works, although for a while there she looked very like me and I realised that people would find her out if they wanted to. Now Flopsy has an anonymous black‘n’white pic.

I suspect the way to go would be to tell no one – no one – because the temptation to smirk or look alarmed or spill coffee when the blog (or whatever) is mentioned or criticised would be one’s undoing. And one can’t be undone, can one – what would the neighbours think?


Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Frank (not his real name) and I (not my real name) are connected. I have never met Frank. I don’t know where he lives, what he looks like, what he does and how he does it. Frank doesn’t know me either, obviously. But we are connected because we both subscribe to one of those social/professional on-line networks that are designed to group people so that we can together expand our profiles, add to our connections, and help each other become rich and famous. We’d all like that, wouldn’t we?

Frank is a newbie on the network and has apparently been seduced into recommending me for my skills. He has leapt wholeheartedly into the job and has endorsed me in more categories than is credible. He has done his best to raise my modest profile by a factor of five at least, and it will never be possible to live up to it.  And how did he miss my dragon-slaying, my cure for Ebola and my devilish knack for snail-training?

I am aware of the strategies of the network in question and know that it sends urgent and peremptory emails to people demanding that they recommend their connections for this and that without any prompting from the endorsee himself/herself. It has already suggested that I endorse the unknown Frank for skills he may never have heard of and couldn’t claim, and that I certainly can’t attest to. And it’s doubtful if any of my “connections” initiated any of the endorsements I’ve been urged to make for them but have, perhaps rudely, ignored. Which probably accounts for the shrinking-violet status of my own public profile.

Anyone who succumbs to the pressure and starts the process should be prepared to sit at the computer till the end of time. Faces appear on the screen as on a conveyor belt and you are invited to endorse them and their myriad accomplishments one at a time until you realise it isn’t going to stop, ever, until the whole world has passed by your glazing eyes. It’s all a wondrous mirage, designed to kid us into thinking how successful and connected we people are who are clever enough and successful enough to join the elite.

Except of course that it is nothing of the sort. Endorsements so easily obtained are worthless, I say loftily. But – sneaky thought: might they work?  As in “fake it till you make it”?

Thursday, November 6, 2014


… My name is Joan Curry and I have a problem …  Yes indeed, Tracey, I hope you can help me, and this is not the first time I’ve called … No I can’t remember who I spoke to the last time … I think it was in October, round about the … Very well, I’ll tell you what the problem is.  You see, I bought a … um, date of birth is 21st of February, nineteen mumble  … as I was saying I bought … address? 92 Something Street – and … oh for heaven’s sake, the phone number is 123-456-7808. Where was I? Three months ago I bought this Wunda-Washa-Moppa from you and charged it to my account … no, no, the product is fine, so far anyway … Yes, I do have an account with you … yes, I do have my customer number handy, it’s 9876XY34.

The problem, Tracey, is that I paid the full amount of $170.00 for the Wunda-Washa-Moppa way back in September, when you sent me the first account… no, not by cheque, I paid on-line and on time … yes do that, look it up on your computer, because we’ll get along a whole lot better if you have … I can’t help what it says there, Tracey, I assure you that I paid $170 and I can prove it … That’s why I’m ringing you, I know your computer says I paid you $2.86 because that’s what it says here on the statement I’ve just received from you – the third statement by the way, this is getting ridiculous – it says $2.86 paid, balance outstanding = $167.14. That adds up to $170.00 which is what I paid.  What I want to know is, where has the rest of my payment gone?

Excuse me – as far as I know I have never paid anyone $2.86, especially on-line. I might be a silly old chook, and I might one day slip the decimal point to one side or the other of the figure by accident and pay $17.00 or $1700.00 instead of $170.00. And if I did that I would be deeply embarrassed and fix the error as soon as I could.  But never in a million years would I pay $2.86 when I’m trying to pay $170.00.

Yes I’ve checked my bank statement on-line and that confirms what I’ve said. What do you want – a screen-shot? … I have rung the bank. They have not made a mistake, and they are willing to send you a confirmation of payment. Is there any way to talk to a person with enough clout to deal with what is wrong here?

Thursday, October 30, 2014


This is something of a milestone. I am in the middle of working on the one-hundredth book for the NZ WEA Book Discussion Scheme (BDS). It might even be a record, but not one that generates much excitement except in my own beating heart. The book is “I am Malala” – by and about the amazing young woman who survived being shot by the Taliban and, on her sixteenth birthday, stood up and lectured the United Nations general assembly with poise and passion.

So, what is the Book Discussion Scheme?  It is a New Zealand-wide, non-profit, adult education scheme in which, each month, groups of people are supplied with books, with accompanying notes, for the purpose of reading and discussion. Currently there are about a thousand groups with an average of ten members per group. That’s a lot of people reading and discussing, not just books but other subjects that arise from their reading. There are 800 plus titles in the BDS catalogue and that’s a lot of books circulating throughout the country.

Established in 1973, the BDS was born in a small garage at the back of the WEA building. Now it is run from mainstreet Christchurch with a small staff and several volunteers. They don’t need to advertise, it’s all word of mouth – and they have a waiting list of people looking to join, or start, groups. It’s enough to warm the heart – all those people getting together to read and think and talk and argue and broaden minds.

I am one of the BDS note-writers and get as much, if not more, than the readers do out of the process. I’ve been doing the job for nearly four decades and believe whole-heartedly in the cause – the encouragement of enhanced, guided reading by as many people as possible, as affordably as possible. Also I read a lot of books that I might not have chosen, and am rarely disappointed. That also applies to group members – choosing the books for the group is a democratic process which enriches everybody one way or another.

As a note-writer I must read and research especially carefully so that the notes are helpful and, with a bit of luck, illuminating. The notes are essentially informal essays, followed by questions designed to help discussion about the book, rather than to test the reader’s understanding of it. There is no right or wrong way to talk about a book, and each group does it – or not – any way they like. They can also comment freely about their experiences – including the quality or otherwise of the notes supplied. Believe me, that keeps us note-writers on our toes.  I guess that’s democracy too.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Today I wrote a letter to an unknown person living in a house across The Ditch in New South Wales. It was like the proverbial message in a bottle, washed up on a beach years after it had been thrown into the sea. My letter, and two old photographs, should arrive in Armidale some time next week. Let me explain.

A while ago I wandered around Google Earth looking for places I’d been. I found Armidale! The street! And the house! Not, of course, the house we had lived in (pictured) but a smart new one. On a whim, today, I decided to write to the owners or occupiers of this new house and tell them about the old one, and about the people who, for a year or so, lived there once.

In early 1941 mother, my two brothers and I were evacuated from Japan to Sydney. Later that year we moved up to Armidale with another woman and her two young boys. All of us shared this old house – two women, five children. The house was fairly primitive by today’s standards and neither mother was accustomed to cooking, managing a house, or looking after their children full-time, and in war-time. But they learned, and they managed, while their husbands were who-knows-where.

The house had four bedrooms and an inside toilet – a fact that the landlady apologised for. It seems that in those days toilets were relegated to the back porch or even the garden, and having one inside the house was cause for shame. The water was heated by a wood-fired copper, and I remember that my mother chopped the kindling for it. We kids were bathed in the laundry tub. The back garden contained this massive old willow tree which gave us shade and something to climb into and fall out of. There was an old shed containing firewood and junk, and my brother and I used the roof as a snail garden – yes, a snail garden, with paths and everything. Did we really think that keeping snails as pets was a good idea, and that they might co-operate by slithering along a path we had made for them?  My brother pushed me off the roof one day and I’ve never let him forget it.

At some point, as the war heated up and Japanese midget submarines were seen in Sydney harbour, men arrived to dig an air-raid shelter at the back of the garden, half-underground with steps going down and a domed top covered with earth. Luckily we never had to shelter from bombs but we often used it as a playhouse.

The house was old then and has long gone. I remember it though, and I wanted the owners of the new house to know that the place had a history. Of sorts.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


One good thing about being a writer is not having to retire. Writers hardy ever want to retire. They keep scribbling away, and piling up the paper. Anything sets them off, they are always reaching for an ever-handy pen.

The fox on the fence
The other morning for instance, I was lying in bed listening to the radio and gazing at the windows draped with their unexceptional Warehouse curtains. The light was shining through them – a nice day was promised. The abstract pattern of the curtains is of nothing in particular but in tasteful smokey colours of pink, grey and the palest ochre.

While thinking vaguely about getting up I have often seen images in those curtains. Among other identifiable shapes there is a large figure 2 zooming along with a trail of exhaust fumes, and the head of a Japanese boy-child. How do I know it’s a boy-child? Something about the haircut. I see these often, so it must be something about the way the folds hang. This morning, however, there was something new: a chimpanzee. Almost a whole one, head, shoulders and belly and looking a little apprehensive. It was so clear that I wondered why I hadn’t seen it before.

In order to see shapes in curtains – and for that matter in wallpaper and shrubbery, a skyline of trees (see "Poodle in the Sky" posted May 2012), fences, clouds … ah, clouds! Even as a small child I remember lying on my back on the grass watching clouds scud past, trying to catch the images before they dissolved, billowed and morphed into other images. I still do that, but more sedately, from the comfort of the sofa on the deck.

Where was I? Oh yes, lying in bed looking at the curtains, seeing a chimp and trying to explain what is necessary to see shapes where none are supposed to be. I suppose, like writing, it requires imagination and a willingness to drift into a watchful, receptive state of slightly unfocussed attention. Like those magic eye pictures which look ordinary until you relax and glaze over, when the images swell and deepen and appear three-dimensional.

The most unlikely patch of curtain can morph into an unexpected image. The most prosaic area of a garden can reveal a surprise. The most insignificant object can trigger a story, an essay, a poem. Lolling about, not-quite-thinking, can be very productive. Often that’s when the best ideas appear, the ones that turn out to be the most productive, the most interesting, the most urgent, or the most unexpected.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Those who remember an old blogpost of mine from a couple of years ago (15 October, 2012) will know that I am a fully paid up member of the Fukawi tribe.  We are a strange breed, greatly misunderstood by those outside the tribe because of our inability to find our way around like other people. If someone tries to tell us how to get from here to there, they assume that we can retain any instructions that follow “turn left at the first set of traffic lights”. If they burble on about landmarks, even very big landmarks, we nod cheerfully because it’s no use trying to explain that we are already lost, even before we’ve set out.

On foot we are more capable. Perhaps it’s something to do with having more time to take in our surroundings. And street maps are really useful – we rarely go out without one.  Even so, we can make mistakes. For example, we lived in Wellington for two years, in a house that was perhaps three blocks from the supermarket. Sometimes I would emerge from the supermarket and head for home, only to wonder, three blocks on, why I wasn’t there yet. And why the houses looked unfamiliar. I had come out of a different exit from the supermarket and marched confidently up the wrong street – again.

Now it seems that some of us are missing a personal GPS in our brains. A team of scientists has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.” They had attached tiny devices to the heads of mice and watched them run around. When they came to some place they had been before, a light came on – “bingo! I know where I am,” they squeak. I know the feeling.

Well, that’s a relief – we have a condition. But wait, there’s more.  According to the television news report, there’s a suggestion that the lack of these vital positioning cells might mean that we are headed for early dementia. Oh, come on. I bet that’s just newsroom dramatising. I’ve been like this all my life, it’s just a matter of dealing with the realities and working around it. My mother was the same, and she died at 92 with all her faculties except for the trifling matter of her short term memory. If she can do it, in spite of her lack of positioning cells, so can I.

Perhaps someone could design a person-sized contraption to attach to our heads like the ones the mice have. Then we of the Fukawi tribe would know where we are too.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


Being temporarily between jobs – a condition I only enjoy for half a day or so before I start climbing walls – I began looking through an old folder of cuttings that had caught my eye and which I had used for teaching creative writing. Some of these were letters to the editor: often absurd ones – cranky, rambling, repetitive, illogical – that were useful for illustrating how not to write and made people laugh at the same time.  One, a rare example of the admirably direct, reads:

Impatiens (detail)
“If all the staff of [big company] walked out the business would collapse. If all the chiefs of [big company] walked out the business could continue to tick over quite happily. So who deserves the big pay packets?”

I can relate to this from experience, albeit in microcosm. For a couple of years (quite a while ago) I worked in a small bureau of three people. There was the director. He had a telephone on the big desk in the big office, looking out over the city and, in the distance, the harbour. The director attended meetings and he received the biggest pay packet.

I had the smaller office and a window which looked out over some buildings. I also had a telephone, filing cabinets, an electric typewriter, a fax, a calculator, a stationery cupboard. My office was somewhat crowded and I was responsible for looking after correspondence, the account books for three organisations and paying bills. I received a medium-sized pay packet.

Outside in the lobby sat our receptionist Rosie. She coped with the telephone mini-exchange and was responsible for dealing with visitors and mail – quite a lot of mail because we were headquarters for nation-wide organisations. When Rosie went out to lunch, or to collect the mail, or even to the loo, I had to deal with the phone and the visitors. In really busy times even the director had to emerge and help. Rosie was indispensable but received the smallest pay packet.

My mother came over from Oz and I took two weeks off to entertain her. Before leaving I left cheques for the wages and the urgent accounts, and cleared my desk. Even so there were several phone calls while I was away, but still in town and available. The office stumbled on without me but my desk was heaped when I returned.

Came the day when the director wished to go on holiday. He went abroad. For six months. Six months. Nothing changed, except that Rosie had to tramp around town to get other signatures on the cheques.


Thursday, September 25, 2014


In the last four years, since that first earthquake on 4th September, 2010, I have become accustomed to seeing many people wearing hi-viz vests and hard hats appear at the door clutching clipboards and assorted instruments and telling me that they have come to measure this or inspect that.

Once or twice I’ve wondered. There was a young pair who appeared without notice and asked permission to make an inspection. They would not need to come inside, they said. I watched as they walked around outside but they made no notes and took no measurements. Since then I’ve taken mental notes, checked IDs, collected dozens of business cards, looked carefully into many pairs of eyes – just in case. 

Yesterday a young man, who had made an appointment, was due at eleven. He was to check for the dreaded asbestos, commonly found in older houses but now of course outlawed. Whatever he had to do had to be done alone – I was required to go out and leave him to it.  Alarm bells clanged. Leave a stranger in the house alone? It might all be a hoax, designed to get me out of the house while villains backed up a truck and cleared the place out. My pictures! My Collected Works! My Jools! My Notes! My Autographed Books! My Work in Progress! My Laptop! My Kindle!

That was all really, no one was going to get rich on what they found here. However, I spent time trying to find the strange Chinese key for the strange Chinese padlock for the Chinese chest so that I could hide small treasures in there. Then I looked for the ordinary key to the Chinese desk so I could lock the Chinese key and the Japanese camera in the desk. But wait! I couldn’t put the Japanese camera in the Chinese chest because I had decided to take a photo of the young man. Why? In case he turned out to be a gang, of course, and I would later be able to show the Police a photo.

He was charming. How could I mistrust this open faced fellow? I took his picture, babbling about how I was recording all the quake experiences, and he stood there and grinned happily. I explained that he shouldn’t try to go out the back door because it was stuck fast and the glass would break. I told him where the manholes were. I gave him a key and told him to lock up and – such creative thinking – hide the key under the doormat when he was done. Then, fingers crossed, I left him to it.

My trust was not misplaced - this time.



Thursday, September 18, 2014


Having read hundreds of books as a book reviewer, and hundreds more for my personal pleasure, I have come to understand something about what, and why, I read. And to think about what I don’t read.

The books for review have been a mix of fiction and non-fiction. The subject matter of the non-fiction has ranged widely in both scope and depth, and has sometimes been challenging but almost always rewarding. There are no drawbacks to learning something new or seeing a different point of view.  And having to consider what to write about a given book not only focuses the mind but furnishes it too.

landscape (detail)
The fiction – novels and short stories – has included books that I might never have chosen for myself. In fact, in real life I rarely choose fiction. I’m one of those people who normally, in libraries and shops, scan the first page and only turn to the second if the author has managed to catch my interest. But as a reviewer I read right through, critically but, I hope, fairly. Doing so taught me that the first page doesn’t always offer reliable indications about the rest of the book, and I was often pleasantly surprised.

That held true for full-length novels and books of short stories, although sometimes I felt cheated that a book plugged as a novel turned out to be a book of short stories so thinly connected that you could hardly see the stitches. When I worked in the trade the prevailing opinion was that books of short stories were unpopular, and only established writers could risk cobbling together enough shorts to fill the space between the covers. I used to wonder why that should be. After all, people have always enjoyed stories from babyhood onwards, and the length has always varied to match both subjects and attention spans.

Now there is a fashion for what are called, among other things, short-shorts, flash fiction, micro-fiction, drabbles and the wonderfully quirky Chinese “palm-sized”.  Shorts can be anything from six words (for example the often quoted “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn”) to about 300 words – and telling a story within that limit is a challenge.  But – there isn’t time to savour them.  

I’ve just glanced at a new batch of flash fiction, published with a common theme, on-line at  Twenty-six of them, one after the other. Obviously they are of mixed quality, but all are worth reading. But they remind me why I am not drawn to short fiction, even though I have written some and will continue to do so.  For me, a story has to be long, structured, elegant, thoughtful, gripping, satisfying. Something with depth. Something that lingers in the mind. Something at around 200 pages.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014


When I was working at the Minerva Book Shop in Auckland back in the sixties I came across a newly published and runaway best-selling book called “Let Stalk Strine” by Afferbeck Lauder*.  I was immediately taken back in my mind a couple of decades or more to another country. I was a recent arrival from Japan where I spoke only Japanese and English, but suddenly, in the new country, I was having to cope with a new, strange language – Australian.

I was used to culture shock, and to adapting to my surroundings. After all, at seven I had already lived in several towns and cities in two different countries and had attended at least four schools. How hard could it be to pay attention and deal with the new surroundings and the new language? It wasn’t long before the reality hit. In the first of three Australian schools I came up against a young student teacher who, under supervision, was let loose on our class with a spelling test.

No problem – I was good at spelling, mainly because I was already an avid reader.  All went well enough with most of the kids until Miss Thing pointed at me, smiled a hopeful smile, and said “Tible.”  Assuming that this was an unknown Australian word, I fell back on phonetics and spelt out “T-I-B-L-E.” 

“Wrong!” said Miss Thing. 

I was furious. “You said tible so I spelt tible!” How else, after all?

“Oy didn’t sigh toible, Oy said tible!”
A battle ensued as they say (probably somewhere in a Shakespeare play) and I went home bewildered and in a roaring temper. Of course, as children do, I soon learned to speak Strine, and even now, when I pop across The Ditch, I drift seamlessly into Strine when in the company of other Strine speakers.

Mr Lauder would have understood my problem. He published other books including “Nose Tone Unturned” and a couple of books that made fun of poncy upper class English: “Fraffly Well Spoken” and “Fraffly Suite”.  He even wrote a song: “With Air Chew” (as in “I can't win, I can't reign, I will never win this game, with air chew…”).  He was an Australian himself and he knew how Australians talk. He was responsible for the introduction of several Strinisms that have lasted the distance, such as “dismal guernsey” “egg nishner” and “Emma Chisit” – reputedly the reply of a woman asked by a writer at a book signing what her name was so he could personalise the autograph.

Where was Afferbeck Lauder way back then, when I really needed him?

*The confused should try reading the Strine examples aloud

Friday, September 5, 2014


I’m a rooster, according to the Chinese zodiac charts. This only recently occurred to me, because for some reason the memory of an old napkin ring, which I haven’t seen or even thought of for decades, surfaced. Not, in fact, a ring but a triangle. It was silver, my name was engraved on it, and on the apex stood a rooster. It would have been a christening present and the significance of the rooster came back to me. I was born in Japan in one of the years of the rooster. So I googled it.

We roosters are fine-feathered (we like loud, fancy clothes), observant (beady-eyed), outspoken (stamp on people’s toes), enjoy the limelight (and become cranky if we don’t get it), hold the stage on all possible occasions (and expect everyone to pay attention) and we talk a lot. We can brag for Africa and are forever banging on about our accomplishments, which annoys the dickens out of those who can’t escape. Oooops.

Roosters are hard-working and multi-talented – hell, we can do anything if we put our minds to it.  We are active, amusing, charming, attractive and beautiful. Yes, that’s what it says here, I’m only repeating what it says, and anyway I was the most beautiful baby in the world. Promises, promises … 

Roosters are rarely sick but we can be sensitive and get moody and stressed at times. Not surprising, having to be all the above, all the time, there’s so much to live up to. We apparently enjoy sports such as hiking (ha, what do they know!) and swimming (yep, can do that, mother made sure of it). We grow up to be newsreaders, sales persons, restaurant owners, hairdressers, public relations officers, farmers, athletes, teachers, waiters, journalists, travel writers, dentists, surgeons, soldiers, firemen, security guards, and police officers.

Ah well, it’s too late for all that now. I clearly made the wrong choices, and anyway I hardly recognise myself in all that up there. What about predictions for the future? Oh goodie, new admirers are lining up – hope they can dance, like to mow lawns and are handy with hammers. But there’s a warning too: given a choice, I’m advised to lean more towards business and career rather than romance. Hmmm.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014


May I introduce Captain Robert Aurelius King? Master mariner and commander of the Emily Jane. Opium smuggler. An “old wretch” according to a contemporary diarist, a woman who met him in Shanghai and didn’t like him. My great grandfather.

Captain King has been in my mind lately because I have been writing discussion notes for Jung Chang’s fascinating biography of the Empress Dowager Cixi. The year that the then concubine Cixi gave birth to the next emperor of China was 1856, which was also the year that my great grandmother Muriel, aged eighteen, arrived in Shanghai in her father’s ship Egmont and met great-grandpa. According to the diarist quoted earlier, Muriel “saw Captain King on a Sunday, he proposed on Monday, she accepted on Tuesday, and they were married soon after.”

The Emily Jane was in Shanghai loading opium. This was four years before the opium trade was legalised by China although it was legal in the United Kingdom and opium was widely used there for medicinal purposes. However, Shanghai was one of the so-called Treaty Ports – Western settlements subject to Western rather than Chinese law – and the illegal cargo was ferried out to the mouth of the Wang Poo River and the waiting ships by pirates – yes, pirates. So romantic! So exotic!

And apparently so fragrant! It seems that the “very wicked Emily Jane” was “crammed with opium, and the odour of the drug [was] strong in her spacious cabins” according to journalist George Wingrove Cooke at around that time. He went on to report that he lunched on board at the invitation of the “frank and hospitable commander” and enjoyed a meal with “well cooled sauterne, a joint of capital Shanghai mutton and a successfully concocted ice pudding”* before making his way seven miles back up the Wang Poo River to his accommodation.

Captain King and his new wife spent some months in Shanghai while the Emily Jane was being loaded. They must have been exciting, even dangerous, times for the pair because later that same year, 1856, a pirate ship called Arrow was arrested by Chinese authorities and the Second Opium War broke out. It was to last four years, during which time the Kings marked time in England. They returned to China afterwards, and at least two of their children were born in Shanghai.

Captain King couldn’t have been such an old wretch really. George Cooke found him amiable enough after all. And he must have had a sense of humour, because in the UK census of 1881 he gave his occupation as “retired opium smuggler”.

* from “China: The Times Special Correspondence from China in the Years 1857-58” by George Wingrove Cooke  pp94-95


Tuesday, August 19, 2014


There is an old joke which asks how one should comfort grammar Nazis: pat them on the shoulder and say “their, they’re, there.” People who don’t know the difference between these three words, which sound the same so the joke has to be written down, won’t get it. The rest of us smile ruefully and sigh deep inside. We pedants do a lot of sighing these days.

Recently I read how guests had been served pastry’s and ham roll’s at a picnic. This person is proposing to set up a small business as an editor. Oh please … don’t. Editors have to know about editing, which means knowing about grammar, spelling, punctuation and all those nuts-and-bolts things as well as something about literature of many kinds. Editors are not necessarily required to correct a manuscript, or yank it into some kind of standard mould, or even to groom it into a shape they may think it should take. But they should know how and where to wrestle a manuscript into the kind of shape that they understand the writer wants to end up with.

And that’s the point. It’s the writer’s work to write, and the editor’s job to see that the work turns out the way the writer wants it, with guidance. So it’s important that an editor finds out before starting the job exactly what the writer wants her to do. And there are basically three ways to go.

First, does the writer simply want an honest opinion on the worthiness of the manuscript? Might a publisher take it on? Will it make a fortune? The answer to all of these questions is “who knows?” An editor can only read the manuscript, assess it against his or her knowledge of other works in roughly the same genre, and give an honest but guarded opinion. And point out that it is only an opinion, and that the publishing world is full of stories of the times when even the most trusted and reliable readers have been spectacularly wrong.

Second, does the writer want the editor to take the manuscript apart and haul it into shape?  This is a structural edit; it requires careful thought and the author’s input and co-operation. It takes time and therefore can be expensive. Misunderstandings can occur, and feelings can be hurt. The language should be the writer’s language, but the editor has to ensure that it is literate, flows well, reflects the appropriate style and mood, and doesn’t make the writer seem incompetent or stupid.

Third, does the writer just want someone to check the manuscript over for spelling and grammar mistakes and make corrections? This is proof-reading, and is finicky, painstaking work – and the mistakes still get through, usually from sheer fatigue. Even grammar Nazis like me can make mistakes proof-reading and frankly, you’d have to twist my arm really hard before I’d do it anyway.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014


As if we needed reminding, quake no 14,234 interrupted my bedtime radio listening the other night at 11.18pm.  It rattled the wardrobe doors – always a sign that it was of significance, probably close by and shallow. Later, in the small hours, no. 14,235 did not wake me. It was only a little one, and we here in Christchurch don’t even blink at those these days, let alone allow them to interrupt our sleep.

We have long ago stopped telling each other our quake stories. Been there, done that, and probably there are t-shirts out there to prove it. Now there is a government website that offers us a forum in which to tell the rest of the world what it was like for us. So far 434 people have jumped at the chance, including me, and I have been astonished at how different those stories can be. Anyone who hasn’t experienced earthquakes would probably imagine that there aren’t too many variations of “the Earth moved, walls fell down, crockery broke, pipes burst, it was awful.”

However, when people take time to put their experiences down in writing they come across as individuals, with personal takes on situations that nevertheless affect thousands of people. Their stories can be dramatic, astonishing, brave, moving, quirky, funny. They are written by people who have gone through something extraordinary, reacted in a variety of ways, and have been moved to share their thoughts and impressions. We have all been changed, we look at the world differently because the world – indeed the landscape – has changed.

The earthquakes that struck Canterbury in 2010 and 2011 are among the most significant events in New Zealand history. The piece I submitted was written in response to a general call by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in partnership with NV Interactive. The project is part of the University of Canterbury CEISMIC consortium (which includes Christchurch City Libraries and the National Library) – a long-term project dedicated to the preservation and study of information relating to the Canterbury earthquakes. The piece is from a much longer essay written during the days after the 22 February 2011 earthquake.  The piece, and hundreds of others, can be viewed at


Thursday, July 31, 2014


I was recently delighted, and honoured, to be given a copy of friend Jennifer Barrer’s sumptuous book “New Zealand Made – After the Earthquake”.  It is copy no. 40 of a limited edition of 200, which practically makes it a collector’s piece – but woe betide any collector who lays a hand on it.

The book is part memoir, part history of the Canterbury Port Hills, and part the before-and-after story of the Christchurch earthquakes as seen by a woman who is artistic, gifted and eloquent. The result is rather special: a book full of colour (paintings and photographs), poems (sensual, sometimes quirky, not at all arty-farty and very accessible) and anecdotes (both personal and professional). Jennifer’s grandmother was the painter Grace Butler, and her parents created “Four Winds”, a family home for five generations, out of seven acres of bare land near the top of the Port Hills.

Jennifer herself is a poet, a painter, an actress with a long and varied career behind her, and she is a passionate and committed gardener. There is scarcely a page of this book that hasn’t at least one gorgeous painting or photograph on it. She hasn’t loaded the text with earnest accounts of births, marriages and deaths either, but uses (mostly) poems to reflect on what she sees and thinks. The whole project has taken eight years to put together, a task that underwent a radical change of direction and tone when the earthquakes began to rock Christchurch in 2010 and continue, albeit with considerably reduced force, to this day.

The earthquakes rocked not only the foundations and buildings of the city but also the lives of its inhabitants. Nothing has been the same since. We have changed the way we look at ourselves, our plans, our lives, our surroundings, our values. Jennifer Barrer has here paid tribute to the “gritty, brave, tolerant, innovative and now rather weary people of Christchurch” with a beautiful book that is definitely a keeper.

"New Zealand Made" is available from the author: Jennifer Barrer, 1 Barrer Lane, Cashmere, Christchurch 8022, phone 332-4915.

Monday, July 21, 2014


I have this cauldron. For 364 days of the year it lurks at the bottom of the cupboard, behind the kitchen tidy, along with the empty preserving jars, the remains of a bottle of rum I bought when my brother came, the dust-bunnies and the mouse droppings.

Once a year I shiver and look out at a grey sky and think about soup. Hot, tasty, comforting soup. The freezer needs stocking, last year’s soup has been exhausted, and the empty plastic containers have been piling up waiting to be re-filled. It’s time to make soup.

There is no recipe for this soup, which I have made for years. It is essentially vegetable soup, anything goes, it’s cheap and it’s made wholesale. I buy a selection of all the vegetables I can find in the supermarket, except (eeugh!) celery, swedes, parsnips or turnips. I chop them roughly, stalks, leaves and all, and tip the lot into the cauldron. I add a large packet of assorted pulses, some herbs and spices and a generous shake of rock salt. In goes the water, nearly to the brim.

With an occasional stir the cauldron will bubble away on a low heat for a couple of hours until everything is mushy and a sort of carroty pumpkin colour. When it’s cool enough, it gets blitzed in the blender and poured into lidded containers (old but tough yogurt containers in fact) and stacked in the freezer. There’s enough for perhaps twenty containers, the mixture is thick and, when defrosted for use, can be thinned down with milk or water, and each container would feed two people as is, and three or even four at a pinch and with additions.

The soup is tasty by itself, but it’s the possible additions that make it so useful. Noodles perhaps – they bulk it out no end. A can of sweet corn – delicious. A dash of curry powder and some red lentils – hearty.  No one need starve with home-made soup handy. Here is Lewis Carroll’s Mock Turtle, singing mournfully about it:

Beautiful soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Once upon a time there were four sisters, all beautiful. Their mother did her best to teach them to look after their skins and applied cream after their baths because otherwise, she said, they would end up with skin like turtles. Two of the sisters were born 18 months apart and, as children, were always close but often fought like alley cats. One of these was my aunt, the other my mother.

My aunt (pictured, at 21) clearly took her mother’s advice to heart. She had no children so she was able to spend time and money on her skin. She even took a course with a world-wide make-up and beauty company and learned how to clean and cream, massage and paint so that she would remain beautiful. By the time she was fifty her skin was beginning to wrinkle. She spent an hour or more at both ends of the day working on her face, arms and hands. She believed in the magical properties of creams and lotions and would have bought a stratospherically expensive, all natural and organic, tiny tub of caterpillar poo if anyone had thought to market it as a beauty aid.  

In her eighties my aunt was still beautiful because she had style, taste, great bone structure and the confidence of a woman who had been admired all her life. The skin – not so good. “No, no, I look like a lizard!” she’d say ruefully if someone pointed a camera at her in too strong a light. At the very end of her life I saw her without any makeup at all for several weeks. The skin had softened to a gentle bloom and, old though she was, to my mind she was more beautiful that way.  

My mother couldn’t be bothered with all that. A smudge of lipstick and a judicious pruning of wayward eyebrows was about all she did. She spent her life in different countries all over the world, busily on show beside her husband, and died at 92 with scarcely a line on her smooth and still beautiful face. It's all a mystery to me, but I'm with Mum on this. I'm a loofah and soapless soap person myself.