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.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


Several things came together yesterday.  Problems have arisen regarding the re-build of my house.  Knick-knacks littering the house seem to have multiplied themselves while I wasn’t looking, even though I’ve distributed armfuls via the freecycle network and kept only those of sentimental value. And there was the rather gorgeous rhododendron that my brother and his wife gave me when AJ died.

I decided to exorcise the frets caused by these niggles by some rough gardening. There’s nothing like lashing about with spade, clippers and pruning saw to banish frets.  The rhodo was the obvious starting point. In spite of being nearly buried in the stinking liquefaction from the earthquakes, it has grown vibrantly red against the fence and will survive the bulldozer because it is well out of the way.  (Stray thought: is liquefaction acidic? That would account for the vigour of the acid-loving rhodo.)  But it is now too big to move, so it will have to be protected if/when I move out and others move in. Whatever else is tidied up around it by other hands after the demolition process, the rhodo must stand up and assert itself:  whoa there, watch where you’re stepping.

I started with bricks: a circle around the base. What next?  The pebbles! My other brother and his wife visited us years ago and we had made a trip to Birdling’s Flat, coming home clanking with pebbles.  They were selected for their markings and colours, and with four of us bent double filling our pockets, we had lots of pebbles.

My brother took only a few back home, and the rest were heaped around a variety of potted shrubs back here. I painted some of the bigger, flattish stones and these lay around in odd places looking sheepish. Neither fish nor fowl, neither stone nor ornament, they just were. Now the problem of what to do with all the pebbles was solved. I scooped them into a bucket and tipped them into the circle made by the bricks.

The effect is, frankly, kitsch.  Like a child’s tribute to the final resting pace of her beloved hamster but without the awww factor.  There are indeed several places in this garden where bodies are buried: birds and mice, lizards, and yes, a couple of cats – but well out of the way and, I promise, none under the rhododendron. True, it is there in memory of AJ, but he is elsewhere, at the top of the port hills, looking over the ocean.