Friday, February 21, 2014


Three years ago today, on 22nd February, 2011, I was sitting in an upstairs movie theatre in a shopping mall watching “The King’s Speech” with a friend.

Halfway through the film, at 12.51pm, there was a mighty roar and BOOM! The lights went out. The world rocked and rolled, sideways and up and down, on and on.  Sirens started whooping. We held on to our seats because the force of the angry earth was lifting us up and hurling us down again.

We began making our way out of the theatre. There was no screaming or crying, just people walking quietly towards – what? We had no idea. We found a staircase going down but when we reached the bottom the door was locked.  Or jammed. We went up again, through to the car park, where we joined slowly moving vehicles and pedestrians, all making for the outside, somehow.

At ground level we picked our way through rubble, glass, debris. By the time we got outside the road was a river of muddy water, ankle-deep and flowing steadily. We took off our shoes and started wading. We couldn’t see beneath the water so had no idea where the kerbs and hazards were. We waded three blocks to my friend’s house, passing knots of shocked, shattered people. We stopped and talked to them all.

By the time we reached the house the water was knee-deep and there were fountains of water gushing out of burst water mains.  We saw a bewildered labrador, water up to its belly, just standing there. We saw an old Chinese man marching resolutely down the middle of the road pushing an empty supermarket trolley. The only way we could tell if it was safe to cross was to look for somewhere the water wasn’t swirling around a hole that we couldn’t see.

At the kerb my car was already axle-deep in mud. The house was a mess of fallen debris but still standing. There was no power. The only news came through a battery-powered transistor radio. That was just the beginning.

Not quite the beginning. The beginning was five months earlier with the first quake. But that one, hefty though it was, did little damage and killed no one. Other quakes followed that we hardly noticed. But 22nd February 2011 was the beginning of three years of catastrophic damage to our city and 185 deaths.

This morning, at 2.12am, we had earthquake no 13,991.  It was tiny, and no one would have noticed. We still have a small quake roughly once a day.  Dear Lord, enough is enough!


Wednesday, February 19, 2014


The world is becoming a frustrating place for us pedants.  We cringe and grind our teeth at the wrecking of the English language but it makes no difference. And while I have yet to see my family referred to as the Curries* as though we were takeaways, the day will surely come.

No, I’m not going to bang on about mistakes people make. Well, I might, but only to make a point here and there. After all, I make mistakes too, and people are always quite rightly crowing when they point them out.  Nobody’s perfect.

What I’m thinking about is how people are writing novels that other people want to read, and popping them up on Amazon and Smashwords as e-books. Nothing wrong with that – go for it, I say. It’s been done for centuries, one way or another. In 19th century England (and I’m not making quality judgments here, simply drawing a parallel) they were called  “penny dreadfuls” – cheap fiction, printed in corner shops and devoured by thousands. The market was there and still is, the writers were there and still are, and all they have to do is find each other. The quality may be patchy – in fact it is bound to be, given the sheer volume of the trade and the fact that the books don’t go through a rigorous selection process – but I have reluctantly decided that this may not be a bad thing after all. At least people are reading books.

We pedants might throw up our hands in despair at sloppy writing, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure, but here’s the thing: people no longer know the rules, and what’s more they don’t care. They don’t notice the mistakes, so they don’t care. Their world is full of the same quirky constructions and erratically sprinkled apostrophes and they don’t care.  They enjoy the stories so they don’t care.  The writers like writing so they don’t care.

Thirty years ago, for the first edition of my writing manual (A Beginner’s Guide to Practical Writing) I constructed something like this exaggeratedly awful paragraph to illustrate the need for writing to be right, in grammar, spelling, punctuation and tone:  “A paragraph with comma’s in the, wrong place or Capital Letters’ where they aren’t needed, brackets (where there shouldn’t be any) and sentences that stop or start. In illogical place’s. Not to mention the use of those “pesky” quotation mark’s or exclamation mark’s to show that your joking or worse being cute!!!”

The world has caught up. The other day I read that “Joel wiped the blood off his hand’s, and looked at her, Belle’s were clasped tightly around the cricket bat.” Oh dear.

(*It should of course be Currys.)


Friday, February 14, 2014


As promised, here’s the update on the mail order catalogue saga. The courier has arrived. The parcel has been opened. And on the whole it has not disappointed.

Oh, those of ye who showed little faith: it’s true I did not win the $25,000, which is a shame. However I did win the quartz watch. It’s fine: a little clunky perhaps but if I didn’t already have a watch I’d certainly wear it. The food chopper is about the right size for one or two people, feels sturdy enough to cope with anything I might use it for, and is neat and unfussy. The diamond nail file is just what I’ve wanted for years.

The handbags now: they are what tempted me to look at the catalogue more closely in the first place because the strap on my only, very old bag had come away. Loath them as I do, a handbag is an absolute necessity when going about, so I had to have a new one. And there was the offer I couldn’t refuse: two for the price of one.

So: one black and one pale beige, go-with-anything bags have arrived. Just the thing for someone who simply needs some way to carry stuff. These have adjustable straps and pockets both inside and out that I can put things in and then forget which pockets they’re in. And the bonus free small leather pouch – well, I’m sure I’ll find a use for it. Probably put something in it and then put it in one of the pockets of one of the handbags, and then forget where I put it and throw a tantrum.

Trouble is, the parcel came with another tempting catalogue which shouted CONGRATULATIONS! at me because I had definitely WON one of the prizes shown on the front cover: cash, or a ruby and diamond bangle or a garnet pendant. Don’t want either of those – just the cash would be good, please. As an aside, how bizarre that you can win a prize but you don't get it unless you order more stuff.  

However, and more sinisterly, the new catalogue was over-full of things aimed at the elderly and infirm – non-slip mats for the shower, comfort cushions, telephone amplifiers, pill organisers - and twinkly, shimmery items like polyester wind-spinners and glowing butterflies. I began to feel quite frail and quavery. What do they imagine that they know about me?

No, enough is enough. I am content.  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Customer relations: some people never learn. These people won’t get a next time:

1. I won’t go back to any shop where staff cruise around accosting me with “Hi there, how are you?” I invent babbling answers too late: “I’m great – and you? How are the twins?” Or “Funny you should ask – I’ve just come out of hospital and you wouldn’t believe what they found!”

2. No one I’ve warned should be going to the diner where I ordered coffee and a muffin. It was eleven in the morning and there was no one in the place except for a waitress who hadn't bothered to clean any of the tables until I sat down at one, which she then wiped right under my nose. When it came the coffee was fine – hot and rich. The muffin was disgusting. It had been split, and clearly toasted on the same smelly, greasy hot plate as burgers. When I went to pay, the waitress said "everything OK?" I explained why I hadn’t eaten the muffin, but she wasn't listening, because she said “that's good!” as she took my money and rang it up. Yes, I paid, but I shouldn’t have.

3. I wonder what the kitchen's like at the fairly expensive restaurant where someone at a neighbouring table dropped a knife on the floor and a passing waitress picked it up and placed it back on the table, albeit with a smile.

4. The staff at the soft furnishing store where I went to buy some curtains, or have them made, need to brush up on customer relations. While I was looking at ready-mades, a middle-aged assistant appeared at my elbow. She asked the measurements of the windows. I told her and she said “Too wide. You’ll just have to have them made, won’t you!” and stalked off. So did I, right out the door.

5. I was shocked by the waste disposal people who were incandescent with rage at the new city council rubbish collection service. They took it out on their customers by posting an answerphone message so vitriolic that when I rang to arrange a pick-up, my phone nearly melted before I hung up without speaking. They went bust.

6. We couldn’t believe the shop where no one would tell us how much a photocopier was. “It depends” the man kept saying. “On what?" we said. "We want to buy one of those, how much is it?” He eventually said he would send us a brochure, but it never came. We bought elsewhere. Then came clever printers attached to computers that did everything and we didn't need a photocopier at all.


Thursday, February 6, 2014


Pick up a ballpoint, grab a piece of paper, start: “milk; bread; cheese; sausages; cat food; loo paper; lettuce, toms etc …” Easy. I can do that. Try something a little harder: “I’ll be back about ten – dinner’s in the oven.”  That’s a whole sentence, no problem. Maybe I can manage two sentences – you know, joined up, one after the other, making sense: “Molly stumbled over the crossing. The heel of her shoe caught in the tracks and she heard a sudden urgent blare as the train swept around the corner.” Easy peasy.

Estuary (detail)
But I don’t care about Molly and her stupid shoe, I want to get started on this much more enticing business of writing about this book, or that event, or this story, or that project. But four decades of writing, hundreds of thousands of mostly published words behind me, and I can still approach a writing task with a thumb between the teeth and a ridiculous sense of inadequacy. I know I can do it, and the proof is there in black and white, literally. So what’s the problem?

It’s a problem that writers and artists of all kinds know very well: self-doubt, and a conviction that, in spite of past achievements, this time it’s not going to work. That isn’t logical, but we all do it, even the best. New Zealand painter Dick Frizzell has said that he still has to trick himself out of self-doubt: “At least, after all these years, I’ve figured out how to do it – how to ambush myself into picking up the brush and having another go.”

All this angst has arisen because I had a hard time getting started on a job I have done 94 times before. I write notes for a nation-wide book discussion scheme. It involves reading the book, then writing a kind of essay making the book more accessible, or expanding upon its themes, or explaining the background, or discussing the characters, or anything else that might make the reading experience more enjoyable, interesting and meaningful.

Maybe it was the aftermath of Christmas but it took me ages to get started on this latest job. I have now finished the rough draft of the notes; in fact I romped home after struggling so much at the beginning. I’m wallowing in that “it’s OK, I can manage the rest” feeling that all writers know when the summit has been reached and overcome, and the rest is a joyful canter downhill. It’s such a relief. And it happens every time. Um, nearly every time. Mostly.

In future I must remember Ray Bradbury’s dictum: Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.