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.