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 http://www.quakestories.govt.nz/