Wednesday, July 8, 2015

DOES AN EDITOR NEED AN EDITOR? - my last post (maybe) - but see note below

Interesting question. Like many interesting questions, it has several answers. The short answer is: it depends. The long answer is that it depends on the work, its purpose, and its importance. It also depends on what one means by “editor”.

For example, I don’t often seek advice for any post here before I publish it. When I do, it’s usually because of matters of taste, or with querulous questions like “does it make sense?” when it no longer makes sense to me because I’ve been scrabbling around with it for too long.

An eagle-eyed friend lurks, thank goodness, to pounce on spelling or grammar mistakes – I can be careless. The friend acts as proof-reader. But the blog is important only to me. It’s a personal indulgence, a place for me, as a writer, to experiment. If I make mistakes nobody suffers except me. I have welcomed comments and even criticism from readers but this rarely happened. Hallo-o-o – is anybody out there …?

I am both writer and editor. Both roles are self-assigned: I have no diplomas, attended no courses (but taught many), there are no letters after my name. I write because I want to, and read and even edit other people’s writing because they ask me to do it. But – and it’s a big but – it is necessary to make sure what exactly they are expecting me to do. Editing is a wide field. It can mean simply proof-reading. It can mean checking grammar, sentences, punctuation, characterisation, plot development, internal logic, narrative structure and all the other elements that make a story or a book a cohesive whole. And people can get really ratty if they don’t like, or agree with, the assessment. As Somerset Maugham said, “people ask you for criticism but they only want praise”.

Most of my writing is non-fiction. And it is possible to write like a writer, and then read, with editorial pen in hand, as an editor. But fiction is another matter. And in today’s world of e-books, boutique publishers and do-it-yourselfers, the problem most face is not finding writers to write, printers to print and editors to edit. The problem is quality control.

So, the answer to the question posed above is yes, sometimes editors need editors, especially for something as important as a novel. If I ever get “The Diplomatic Corpse” finished I will be looking for someone to cast a beady and critical eye over it before I send it out into the world. 

*   *   *   *   *

I had decided to discontinue this blog (after 237 posts) and get down to some less self-indulgent writing. The break has been refreshing, but I am changing gear again and might just return to this page - perhaps with a change of focus. As they say - watch this space!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Once upon a time – for about 37 years in fact – I was a book reviewer. This was a dream job for someone who lives and breathes books of all kinds. All that was missing in the amenities department were the sofa and the chocolates. The pay was derisory, and only those who would rather read than eat would contemplate working for a very few dollars and a free copy of a book – and not care. 

Clive James is one of my favourite writers.  Mostly he writes essays (perhaps my favourite non-fiction genre) on a wide variety of topics, and when I was sent “The Revolt of the Pendulum” (Picador) to review, I fell on it with glee.  It is, to quote from the blurb, “part memoir, part conversation, part performance and part state-of-the-nation address”. It’s a real treat.

He puts book reviewers, including himself, in their place, according them what he calls the tiny immortality of termites, and sometimes helps his fellow book reviewers out by reminding them of some small but pertinent detail they have unaccountably forgotten to mention.  Unlike many of us termites, James is also a poet, novelist, essayist, media celebrity, tango dancer and literary journalist. Astonishingly well-read, he is sublimely, unrepentantly opinionated, and he can be forgiven because what he has to say about anything is said with such crackling style and wit that we have to laugh even while questioning our own wishy-washy opinions.

In this book, among other matters, he frets about the decline of literary standards, discusses detective novels as travel books, takes six pages to fillet a single very bad sentence written by a hapless sports reporter, and discusses racing drivers, a bag lady, and the business of being a celebrity.

I’ve been clearing out my bookshelves for months now, preparing for the demolition of the house and my removal to somewhere else as yet unknown but almost certainly with less room than I currently enjoy. Throwing out books – any books – really hurts. But Clive James is safe. He is eminently re-readable and he will be going with me no matter what.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


There is nothing worse than finding myself at the end of the day and knowing that I haven’t tried.  What did Sylvia Plath say?  The worst enemy to creativity is self doubt.

There are days like that.  You start with good intentions – but you must tidy the workplace before you can get going.  First step towards a tidy mind is a tidy desk, somebody smug probably said.  (Empty desk = empty mind?)  Another cup of coffee perhaps.  Mmm, nice. The novel isn’t going well and I’m bored with James – no, I’ve changed his name, it’s Peter now – does that sound OK? Does it go with whatever his surname is? Forgotten it already.  Bad sign.

Why am I bored with James/Peter?  He isn’t alive yet, that’s why. He doesn’t have a personality at all, let alone a personality that’s interesting. He doesn’t do anything unless I push him, he’s just there. I’ve written 40,000 words and he’s still hanging about in the shadows, lurking.

Perhaps it might be an idea to do a bit more to the family history – get that anecdote about the dotty aunt done. Easy (boring?) mechanical sort of job, not too much thinking or imagination involved, just the facts. But first, see if the postie’s been.  Ah, goodie – the Listener!  Make a sandwich – too early but hey, early lunch, bit of a read, maybe do the sudoku, then I can really get down to some work.

Two hours later, sudoku and crossword done: Dammit the lawn needs mowing. Should have done it yesterday, better do it now, it’ll probably rain tomorrow.  There, that’s better.  Thirsty.  Juice.  A little rest, sit down on the sofa on the deck.

Heavens, look at the time! Too late for any work now.  Tomorrow – yes tomorrow, I really will get down to it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


There is a chest of drawers in the garage that is more or less inaccessible all winter because the drawers stick fast. AJ – an enthusiastic do-it-yourselfer as long as the doing involved a big hammer and six inch nails – kept his treasures in there. Some of the contents related to his precious bicycles, which had special tools a brain surgeon might envy, but the rest is eclectic and collected over the years.

 It was a terrifying sight to see AJ load an electric drill, press the trigger, and advance on a helpless piece of timber.  He had no truck with the dictum to measure twice and cut once. His idea of measuring something was to flap a tape over it and decide that he needed to drill the hole six and a half centimetres – and a little bit more – round about there. His saw-cuts were never quite straight. There have been more holes in walls in our house than were ever necessary to hang the pictures and mirrors.

AJ’s one-offs are legendary. The house is full of bookcases and tables, all different – that’s why they are one-offs. Few have legs, most have slab sides. Some have shelves. Some do just as well as seats. They more or less stand up straight and are sturdy, even through earthquakes. All are painted with dark brown timbacryl which is really designed for outdoors – fences and the like. If anything got a little scratched and battered AJ simply hosed them down, opened the vat of paint and splashed another coat over them. The word for AJ’s one-offs was “rustic”. He was always delighted with his handiwork, and we were never short of somewhere to sit, or to rest a cup or a plate.

Back to the chest of drawers, which is due for a clear-out. The top drawer is the only one I have really needed access to, because it contains the hammers, the pliers, all the screwdrivers and a few other assorted metal things. I’ve been keeping that drawer well candle-waxed so I could access what I needed. The other drawers have been ignored. Around November last year (that’s spring for northern hemisphere readers), knowing that I would need to start clearing out ready to move, I began to heave at the handles and slowly, slowly over the next weeks each drawer gave up the struggle and let me pull it open.

OMG. Electric things. Gloves. Cables. Plugs. A grease gun. Bits for the drill. Boxes of – what exactly? Jars that rattle. Oh well, seeing that I have had no use for any of them in the last few years, I won’t miss them. Out they go. Nothing like a good clear out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Few writers would remain sanguine at the thought of their notes, fleeting memoirs, scraps of working ideas and literary experiments being published. And even fewer writers would reveal such power and passion as was found in four notebooks hidden in a cupboard after the death of Marguerite Duras.

She was French, born in Indochina where she spent her childhood, and became a novelist and playwright, notably for the screenplay of Hiroshima, Mon Amour.  During the second world war, she was involved with the French Resistance, pretended to collaborate with the occupying Germans, became a member of the Communist Party, and later took part in the interrogation of suspected informers. 

Duras filled these notebooks in the years during and just after the war, and they contain sketches and rough drafts of what later became stories and novels, unmistakably informed by what was happening in her time and place. As well, and more visceral, there are intensely personal diary-like entries which she wrote instinctively during times of danger and emotional crisis. These were far from being self-indulgent rants, they arose from an icy rage at what people in wartime France had to endure. 

It is tempting to think that Duras was aware of what she was doing, that for example she was observing and recording while she waited through desperately long, agonised weeks before her emaciated husband was rescued from Dachau. Afterwards, his condition remained so pitiful that she had to stand back a little, writing not of “his” neck but of “the” neck which was so thin that the fingers of one hand could encircle it, and “the” hand from which the nails had fallen off.  The wife could hardly bear to see, but the writer could observe.

There are examples of notes written at the time of an event, then a roughed-out story of the same event turned into fiction. The birth and death of her first baby centres on the cruelty of an evil sister/nun who, Duras says viciously, was one of the three or four people she would have liked to gut, although the story that resulted was more objective while still allowing the reader to come to the same conclusion. 

Some pieces are mere fragments: a holiday in Italy with friends; resigned musings of a woman who is only a wife; a scene on the Rue de la Gaieté; six lines on the difficulties of writing at a round table. These are of writerly interest, small gems that reveal Marguerite Duras’s mind and eye at work.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015


There is good mess and bad mess, creative mess, debatable mess and scary mess. There is mess that is counter productive and mess that saves lives. In a book called A Perfect Mess that I reviewed (with some glee) a while ago, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman questioned everything about the messes that we live with and sometimes try to control, from kitchen cupboards tottering with tins to corporations, cities, airlines and nuclear power plants.

To some people, the idea that mess might be interesting, helpful or constructive is maddening. They fret if linen in the closet is not stacked properly. They yell at children to tidy their rooms. They circulate memos demanding that office desks be cleared of clutter. They write reports, instructions, rules and schedules. They require order.

Abrahamson and Freedman sided with us slobs who don’t go along with this. They suggested that fussy housekeeping made other people uncomfortable. That too much cleanliness can cause allergies in children and breed heartier bugs with a resistance to antibacterial cleansers. What works for bugs works for children, went the theory. Let children develop their own resistance to the bugs and allergens because the world is a dirty, messy place and they might as well get used to it.

Like self-improvement books, this one had an epiphany on practically every page.  Neatness can be limiting, argued the authors as they described how a hospital was organised in response to suggestions from patients; how an architect designed a building but refused to supply blueprints so the builders had to think their way through the job; how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because his laboratory was grubby enough to grow mould in a petri dish.

Companies waste resources trying to impose order because they miss opportunities to stumble upon innovations, while their more slap-dash but creative employees become anxious and unproductive. Forward planning is just crystal-gazing; remember how, in 1943, the chairman of IBM declared that the world market for computers would peak at five.

Abrahamson and Freedman made provocative comments about many things, including speed bumps (they cause accidents), voice-menus (inefficient and they make customers ratty), and fancy filing systems (waste of time and money).  Mess, they said, can lead to creative thinking and the magic of serendipity. Painters, writers and musicians couldn’t function without it. Flexibility is more useful for dealing with unexpected situations, and solutions to problems sometimes come out of the blue if there isn’t a rule book to get in the way.

The authors’ message was that life is hopelessly messy so why waste time trying to clear it up? Relax and everyone would be more productive and happier – except of course for the neat-freaks.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


The old sofa has been on the verandah for twenty years, rain, hail, snow or sunshine. It was second-hand when we got it, and its two armchairs are long gone, but the sofa was spared. It has been shifted a couple of times – once when the roof above it began leaking, and once when I decided, in an uncharacteristic fit of house-beautiful-itis, to clean up and re-coat the decking. The rest of the time it has stood against the wall, peacefully subsiding into decrepitude.

Its upholstery has faded from a cheerful chintz (how old-fashioned that sounds) to a sun-bleached nothingness. It doesn’t seem to have absorbed much of the coffee, or wine, that has been spilt over it, although lifting the cushions reveals old sandwich crumbs along with the dried leaves and the crisp remains of insects. The stuffing has been escaping through various holes in the fabric for some time now but it is a slow process.

It has been alleged, but never proved, that a family of mice has lived in, behind or under the sofa, undisturbed for generations, safe from marauding cats and fussy housekeeping. Fanciful stories have been woven about the mice but they know their place, keep themselves to themselves and don’t bother me.

Sometimes a neighbouring cat – Hoover or Scratty – curls up in a corner of the sofa. I welcome either, no longer having any of my own. Stinky was another matter – a dirty aggressive tom that hung around the neighbourhood until his people moved away. One morning I found old Max there – the large black dog from further down who was miserably tied up most of the time, and must have got loose somehow. He looked sheepish when I sat down beside him, and when his owner turned up after my phone call, Max was clearly unwilling to leave with her. I was relieved when, a short time later, he was given a very good home elsewhere.

Twice I have tried to give the sofa away to young people who were going off to university in Dunedin. Students there have a tradition of burning old sofas in the streets while celebrating and I was willing to sacrifice mine in a good cause. Luckily my offers were rejected, and I have continued to spend time on the deck in dreamy contemplation of nothing much while waiting for the inspiration that poet Carolyn McCurdie says hides “in shadows of ploughed furrows” (1)

Not for long now, though. The bulldozer is lurking. The mice will have to move house. Hoover and Scratty must find other places to visit. The sofa must soon be carted away. Where is a student when you want one?
(1) Carolyn McCurdie: Where do ideas come from?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


People attend writing classes for many reasons – one of which is the arrival of grand-children. Suddenly there is an end-reader who is close to home, eager and captive.  Best of all, one of the surest ways of encouraging children to read is if the stories feature the children themselves as leading characters.

Small persons are the best readers of – or listeners to – stories, especially those told or written by someone they know. My grand-children were showered with a variety of hand-made, cobbled together books – more like magazines sometimes – containing stories and poems for their birthdays and articles for Halloween or Valentine’s Day (on a heart-shaped piece of red paper). In spite of their limitations, the offerings usually went down well. Some were even taken to school to show the teacher, and there’s nothing more gratifying to a writer than that.

Children's book specialists declare that writing for children is not the easy option. That it isn’t a matter of practising on the small fry before tackling the important books for grown-ups. There is a list of must-haves: That children's books must have charm, magic, impact and appeal. They must have a worth-while idea. They must be structured well with a beginning, middle and end. The language must be appropriate for the subject and the age group, and the story must be credible to the readers. They should have an up-beat ending, no matter how grisly or sad the main part of the text may be. The children who are the subject of the stories should be the leading characters, rather than the adults who may also appear in them.

All true. But they are talking about proper publishing – the commercial field of children’s books. We who are parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles as well as writers can take note of all that, but we can relax a bit and write stories especially for our own children and grand-children, using their own names, and describing fictional or real adventures in which they have leading parts. Even hard-to-tempt young readers are thrilled to find stories about themselves in their Christmas stockings.

The stories can be illustrated by simple drawings – even stick figures like the pictures children themselves do. Images cut from glossy magazines can be used or, more fun, created by the collage process, built up from bits of coloured paper. This is something that children can do too, thereby developing their own creative instincts.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015


When I was sixteen, I drove a car for the first time. Dad sat beside me: “That’s the clutch, that’s the brake, and that’s the accelerator,” he said, more or less. “Let’s go.” I drove round the block and grazed noisily past the porch pillar which had unaccountably grown fatter.

Ten years ago I was whizzing home along the empty road beside the sea, and saw (and heard) a police car heading towards me, siren screeching. I assumed it was after a criminal. It was. Till then I didn’t know that the police could monitor the speed of an oncoming vehicle.

My next birthday is fast approaching and that is to be the end of it – I have now driven a car for the last time. I went to the supermarket to stock up and was setting off back home when the railing of the empty-trolley collection area in the carpark lurched sideways into the car without warning and there was a fretful squawk of metal on metal. Oh well, the new dent would match the one on the other side – the one that was not down to me as far as I know. 

I didn’t bother to get out and look at the damage. It’s an old car – an oldie but a goodie – and whoever is going to get it cheap probably isn’t going to worry about a few dents. It will be someone who wants to strip it down for spares, needs a runabout, wants to take it apart and put it together again just for fun – or needs practice in panel-beating.

On my extra careful way home along that empty road beside the sea I pondered that two dents plus one speeding ticket wasn’t too bad for all these years on the road. Not that I haven’t made mistakes. There have been plenty – many as a result of getting lost. I have surely exceeded the speed limit sometimes without noticing. There have been some stupid decisions – the ones that give you a jolt to the heart and make you tell yourself not to do that again. And I’ve shaken my head at the stupid decisions made by others, right in front of my nose, while smugly forgetting my own. I’ve deserved more tickets than I have received: mea culpa.

So – it’s time to get off the road and leave the rogue pillars and capricious railings to leap out and dent other people’s cars.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015


One of my favourite humour writers is Miles Kington, who seems to have started life as a very knowing baby. In his book Someone Like Me readers are asked to believe that even in his pram he knew the difference between “Hoochy coochy coochy!” and his brother’s “I’m going to kill you, you little ...!”  And that on his first day at kindergarten he amazed the teacher with a deeply philosophical remark, although he soon reverted to childish pursuits like sticking dried pasta shapes onto paper.

In this memoir of his early life, Miles Kington describes many things about the Kington family, some of which could even be true.  In a series of short pieces he launches into anecdotes that start ordinarily enough but develop into vivid, quirky accounts of family doings guaranteed to make readers laugh and to wish the Kingtons would invite you to dinner. 

Kington’s father, the subject of many of the pieces and clearly an intellectually curious and lateral thinking man, used to rehearse tongue-twisters like “The Leith police dismisseth us” in case he was ever pulled over by a traffic policeman and suspected of being drunk in charge.  He used to take his own sausages when staying in hotels.  As a result of reading the Narnia stories he was convinced that terrible things happened to people in wardrobes and he refused to go near them.

He invented things, among them a gadget designed to pull a hot water bottle slowly out of a bed while the occupant slept. (Why?) The experiment was abandoned when Mr Kington’s big toe became entangled in the string. He also built a bird feeder which was burgled by squirrels, so he and his son invented a squirrel feeder like a lazy machine gun that fired nuts one at a time. The birds got their own back and found a way to help themselves without triggering the mechanism. 

This was a man who made insurance history when he was involved in a two-car traffic accident in which he was legally in charge of both cars.  He was delighted with the resulting confusion, although both insurance companies weren’t, at least until they saw the funny side of it and the case became an urban legend.

These were people who, over dinner, could argue fiercely about liquorice allsorts, and finally decide that the ones with little multi-coloured beads stuck all over the outside had been inspired by a French impressionist painter, to become the first pointilliste sweet.  It is no surprise that Miles Kington grew up to become a popular humorous columnist who invented the fractured French/English language known as Franglais. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


I have been tidying up archives, both physical and digital, while looking for CDs that could be reformatted and used for storage. Trawling through old files, I was struck by how much my writing style has changed over the years.

Style is a personal matter. Oscar Wilde said that “one’s style is one’s signature” but, like a signature, it can change over time. Early works, even published ones, can look embarrassing a couple of decades on, and it’s as well that most of mine have disappeared into that great re-cycling bin in the sky.

Style can and must also be adapted to accommodate the requirements of a given magazine, newspaper or publisher. Standard advice to newbie writers has always been to tailor submissions to fit in with the voice and content of the publication you propose sending it to.  An aw-shucks story about puppies would not fit comfortably into the Wall Street Journal and it is a basic rule that, when ignored, ends in tears.

In the golden olden days as a part-time freelance writer my market was mainly newspapers and occasionally magazines.  And yes, newspaper editors actually read, and sometimes even published, freelance offerings then because readers had the time and inclination to read them. But even newspapers differed, one from another, from stuffy and old-school to chatty and informal.

From my old files it is only too clear that in those days I tended towards the stuffy end of the spectrum. No spotty sub-editor was going to catch me out with spelling, grammar and punctuation. I put my apostrophes in the right place and probably could still parse* a sentence accurately. I would never have ended a sentence with a preposition as I have done in the third paragraph above. The archive is full of perfectly formed but creaky, dusty and even pompous articles that wouldn’t have a show of getting published now.  But everyone else was writing like that too.

Times have changed, thank goodness. I like the casual, informal tone of most of today’s writing. If nothing else, blogging has taught me to let go, to take a chance, to make mistakes, to experiment.  Literary critic and writer Cyril Connolly said that a writer arrives at a good style when his language performs what is required of it without shyness. I will always be a pedant when it comes to grammar but at least I am learning to discard stuffy old school teaching and perhaps even how not to be shy.

*Parsing: to break a sentence into its component parts and describe them in terms of grammar

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Isn’t it weird that, in spite of so much screeching from our television sets urging us to buy this or that and go in the draw to win some amazing prize, we never hear of anyone winning anything?  Is selling stuff so difficult that they have to bribe us to buy? Wouldn’t you think that there would be trumpetings as each winner was handed a year’s supply of petrol vouchers, free house insulation or a new car?

There must be thousands of lucky people who have won prizes big and small just for buying something, signing up for something, or joining something. Imagine it: there could be a 24-hour TV channel solely devoted to the prize-giving ceremonies. Wonderful publicity, if you like that sort of thing. No, come to think of it, it wouldn’t.  It would be a colossal bore.

Such idle musings have arisen because I have here in my hand, addressed to me personally, a piece of paper from a mail order company assuring me that the enclosed ticket is guaranteed to be a winner. Yes! I have definitely won! It’s a promise! But wait, there’s more. I can’t have my prize. Nope. To get it, I would have to send an order to these people, and then they would decide which one of several prizes to send me.

I was content with my previous dealing with this particular company. I ordered, and received, several items that I needed – oh alright, fell for – and received the “prize” of a watch which, in spite of not being the $25,000 top prize which I really, really wanted, was acceptable. Indeed, I ended up wearing the watch all winter because my good one was stuck in summer time (long story, but it’s fixed now). So, it was a fair result and I had no complaint.*

The company is still trying to tempt me with catalogues though. In the latest one the top prize is $20,000 cash, which would be very nice, thank you – but I don’t rate my chances. The other prizes are of no interest, and I’m not falling for the hype. I’ve cottoned on to their cunning scheme. They are dangling glittering baubles in front of my eyes to tempt me into the never-ending, circular process of buying, and receiving a little something extra, but never getting my sticky paws on that magic pot of big money.  

But isn’t it weird that it’s OK to tell someone, by name and in writing, that she has won a prize but, essentially, that she can’t have it unless she buys more stuff?

* I blogged that story on 28 January and 14 February, 2014, for anyone who wants to wander back and have a look.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


In the small collection of poetry books on my shelves is Dear Heart, a book of 150 New Zealand poems by many poets about the things that love is, and some of the ways that we can know it. They date from the 1930s to the present and while some are romantic, none can be called mushy. Like the song says, love is all around. It takes many shapes, comes in many moods. It can be fleeting and ephemeral or constant and reliable. It can overwhelm the unwary, ebb away unnoticed, grow and change like the seasons.

There are poems to make you linger, and poems to skim through and, unexpectedly, return to because they have stirred a memory or an insight. The New Zealand landscape is here, as the light in the background, or nudging forward as the focal point, demanding to be noticed. There is beauty of course, and the prosaic, like Sam Hunt's Letter Home: "row out and catch the tide, / our blue dinghy stacked with beer; / ride the drift whichever way / as long as that long tide and half / the cold brown bottles last; / don't fear you'll ever be lost."

Some are deceptively simple, as though any one of us could have written them, given a shaft of sunlight or a glimpse of a swan on water. But of course we couldn't have, it only looks easy.  Some are almost narratives, like Fiona Kidman's The Ngaio Tree, which begins: "So here come the kids, skidding their school bags / across the floor, blazers flung awry on the chairs ..." and takes us back with the old ngaio tree to those who played in its branches or gathered beneath it.

Others seem like fragments, only a couple of lines but perfectly formed. There are poems that make me smile, like Harry Ricketts' Free Fall, recalling a telephone conversation that ends with an unexpected intergenerational about-turn. There are one or two that puzzled me, even when explained, but that's alright, poems should make us think, and these do. Some are almost jolly, like the tumpety-tum of Kevin Ireland's The Wish: "She asked me what / I might desire / her flesh, her mind / her eyes of fire?" while others bury their rhythms in lyrical lines that look like prose.

The New Zealand voice is clear as a bellbird throughout this book, as in Diana Bridge's Life Eternal, here in its entirety, with the cheery down-home Kiwi-ness of the last line:  "the silver of / his whistling / her singing / from the kitchen / Schubert's Impromptu / though neither / knew it /  life eternal / good as."

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


A couple of years ago I reviewed a book by Michael Bywater titled Big Babies, or, Why Can’t We Just Grow Up? It was a gloriously subversive, middle-aged, book-length rant from a self-confessed Big Baby, banging on the bars of his play-pen.

Michael Bywater declared that people out there are meddling with us and he went after them with a shot-gun. They included politicians, law-enforcers, industrialists, television programmers, advertisers, credit-controllers, celebrities, sign-writers. They tell us what to eat, what to think, how to dress. They invent medical conditions and then sell us the cures.

They write articles that unsettle us, create new doubts, new scares and tweak old ones so that we end up depressed and envious, sure that everyone else has more money, raunchier sex, bigger houses, fancier cars, flatter stomachs, more exciting social lives.

Other people in the firing line were those who, every time something bad happens, demand laws to prevent it happening again. Yes, fireworks can injure, pools have water in them and children could drown, dogs can be dangerous, old gravestones sometimes lean and fall over, people can drop into open manholes or trip over paving stones, smoking does injure our health, and if we eat too much we get fat. 

All true, but what Bywater found so infuriating, and made him shout from the page, sometimes in capital letters, was that the architects of the mummy state believe we aren’t capable of dealing with this terrible, dangerous world on our own. They make silly laws, protect us, nag, scold, scare and bully us – in short, they infantilise us. 

They warn us about dangers, just like mummies do, by sticking notices on toasters which say be careful, you’ll burn your fingers. They try to ban junk food and fizzy drinks, knives, smoking, even New Year’s Eve, because there will be too many people and you could be crushed. Everywhere it’s mummy-speak: we’re watching you, do as you’re told, we know best.

They serve childish programmes on television where advertisers try to make us buy things to make us happy. Goodies are dangled in front of our eyes: see what baby can have!  Buy what you want, have it now and pay later.  Bywater, having reached the age beyond which advertisers are no longer interested in him (that is, anyone over forty), was maddened by the language used to tempt us to watch, to spend.  And he fairly gibbered at the very thought of political correctness.  Is this, he roared, the way to treat grown ups?

Bywater’s next stage must be that of a grumpy old man, and I hope to read the book he’ll surely write then. It took me twice as long to read this one as it should have because I was laughing, cheering and shaking my rattle so hard.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015


(with thanks to whoever sussed this out - sorry to say, not me)

In ancient Israel, it came to pass that a trader by the name of Abraham Com did take unto himself a young wife by the name of Dorothy. And Dot Com was a comely woman, broad of shoulder and long of leg. Indeed, she was often called Amazon Dot Com.

And she said unto Abraham, "Why dost thou travel so far from town to town with thy goods when thou canst trade without ever leaving thy tent?"

And Abraham did look at her as though she were several saddle bags short of a camel load, but simply said, "How, dear?"

And Dot replied, "I will place drums in all the towns and drums in between to send messages saying what you have for sale, and they will reply telling you who hath the best price. The sale can be made on the drums and delivery made by Uriah's Pony Stable (UPS)."

Abraham thought long and decided he would let Dot have her way with the drums. And the drums rang out and were an immediate success. Abraham sold all the goods he had at the top price, without ever having to move from his tent.

To prevent neighbouring countries from overhearing what the drums were saying, Dot devised a system that only she and the drummers knew. It was known as Must Send Drum Over Sound (MSDOS), and she also developed a language to transmit ideas and pictures - Hebrew To The People (HTTP).

And the young men did take to Dot Com's trading as doth the greedy horsefly take to camel dung. They were called Nomadic Ecclesiastical Rich Dominican Sybarites, or NERDS.

And lo, the land was so feverish with joy at the new riches and the deafening sound of drums that no one noticed that the real riches were going to that enterprising drum dealer, Brother William of Gates, who bought off every drum maker in the land. Indeed he did insist on drums to be made that would work only with Brother Gates' drumheads and drumsticks.

And Dot did say, "Oh, Abraham, what we have started is being taken over by others."

And Abraham looked out over the Bay of Ezekiel, or eBay as it came to be known and said, ”We need a name that reflects what we are."

And Dot replied, "Young Ambitious Hebrew Owner Operators." 

"YAHOO," said Abraham. And because it was Dot's idea, they named it YAHOO Dot Com.

Abraham's cousin, Joshua, being the young Gregarious Energetic Educated Kid (GEEK) that he was, soon started using Dot's drums to locate things around the countryside. It soon became known as God's Own Official Guide to Locating Everything (GOOGLE).


Wednesday, March 25, 2015


I remember the bow of the fizz-boat lifting as we set off across the lake from Moana, on the wet side of the Southern Alps. The biscuit, like a large, sturdy inner tube with a rubber floor, skimmed behind us, bounced across the wake of the boat as the tow rope snapped taut. All I could see of the children in the biscuit were arms and legs, and all I could hear above the singing of the outboard were their screams. The signal to slow down, their father said, was an up and down movement of a hand. "And" he added casually, "you'd better tell me if one of them falls out."

The chillibin nestled under tote-bags bulging with wet-suits, towels, spare clothes. Water skis and kneeboard were wedged behind our feet. The glove box held sunnies, hats, chapstick, bottles of SPF30, ready for a day on, in and beside Lake Brunner. We were headed for the family's favourite secluded beach.

The lake is what makes Moana special. It's huge. Magnificent. Tempting. The bush tumbles down the slopes of the embracing hills to the water's edge and many of its beaches are accessible only by boat. Choose one and stake your claim by unloading the gear. No one will trouble you – there are plenty of other beaches. There will almost certainly be driftwood – enough to build a small fire to char the sausages by anyway. Even in wet weather Lake Brunner can be magical in the mist. And although a beach isn't much fun when it's cold, a night-time barbecue beside a driftwood fire with freshly caught trout smoking nearby is an experience which, even in winter time, is unforgettably precious. 

Wekas, wise in the ways of picnickers, gather in the nearby bushes, ready to help themselves to anything edible. We watched once as a determined bird pounced on half a loaf of bread and hauled it backwards inch by inch into the bush. Wekas have learned to lift towels, rummage in plastic bags and knock off any lids not screwed down tight. 

In a good mood the surface of the lake is silky. Floating in a metre or so of clear water you can peer at the pebbly bottom and, if you're lucky, see the sinuous shadow of a trout. Turn over onto your back and the ringing calls of bellbird and tui will fill your heart. Gazing at the dense, billowing green of the bush you can drift into a trance-like state – like staring into one of those magic eye pictures.

Magic indeed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Most of the time, trying to teach creative writing to a disparate group of adults was rewarding, challenging, frustrating and sometimes eye-poppingly weird.

Their reasons for enrolling in a writing class were varied, but they were all there because they chose to be, and wanted to find out how to write. Whether writing can be taught at all is a subject often debated; I am firmly in the “sometimes” and the “it all depends” camps. But there is a basic level at which someone who wants to write can be given a gentle shove in the right direction. There are so many ways to show people how to start, and then to keep going, and the rest is confidence. We all have to start somewhere, and we all need help sometimes, at whatever stage we find ourselves.

Light No Fires
The first session of any course was illuminating. During the let’s-get-acquainted stage now almost universally expected at meetings, there would be several “I’ve always wanted to write but never had the time” people. There might be a couple of new grandmas who had developed a sudden desire to write stories for children. I remember an earnest young woman who wanted to earn her living as a writer – I managed not to blurt that she should take her place in the line. She took copious notes but did none of the assignments, and bustled up to me at the end of the course to ask “now, where do I go for a job as a writer?” And once there was a young woman who seemed determined to write porn, although she never actually said so.

It dawned on me slowly, as the weeks passed. There were hints of salaciousness in the most unlikely assignments. A word or phrase that I first thought was simply ill-chosen was carefully dropped into a sentence. There were hints of nudge-nudge, wink-wink developments to come. A description seemed over-blown and unnecessarily suggestive. Alarm bells began pealing in my head and I stopped inviting people in the class to read aloud what they had written. I wanted to be sure that the budding porn queen didn’t take the chance and suddenly burst full-blown into lurid prose in front of the unprepared and possibly shockable audience.

I’m all for doing one’s own thing, but not in my class. Once that cat had flown the perch there would be no picking up the pieces. However the porn queen did unwittingly give me the opportunity to mould a session around an important message without once mentioning porn: write what you know and like, but then aim it squarely at the appropriate readership.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Rummaging through a cupboard looking for reading matter while cat- and house-sitting recently, I came across a book by Dawn French called “Dear Fatty”.  It was in the form of a series of letters to friends and family, and was ideal for dipping into while I was working, trying to work, or sometimes only “working” (there is a difference).

Summer Garden
In one piece French describes how her being famous spoilt a children’s athletics event she was attending.  Her daughter was competing, and French was there as a mother, but when she was spotted, the loud-speaker system burst into life and blared with the tinny, excited voice of someone announcing that the celebrity DAWN FRENCH! was present, “sitting over there on the grass … with all the normal mums and dads.”  She was furious for herself, and distressed for her daughter whose achievements on the field were lost in the resulting glare.

French accepted that she has benefitted from the fame she has acquired through her professional activities and didn’t apologise for that. But, she asked (and I paraphrase here) how have we found ourselves in a world in which footballers and singers and comedians are celebrated when teachers and doctors and carers languish in the shadows? Why should someone who fronts a television game show attract more attention than those who slog away day after day, unnoticed and unsung? How, she asked, have we come to the point where we mistake lustre for importance?

On reflection, I don’t think that we do. We cheer the fellow who can kick a ball because he does it well, and preferably for the team we support. We admire the actors who bring stories to life on stage and screen. We enjoy the comedians and dancers and musicians because what they do is done in public, to entertain us. We acknowledge these achievements by cheering and clapping in return. They need it to survive, and we are willing to provide it. I think that we also admire and appreciate those who teach our children, tend our wounds, build our cities and fight our fires.

What is naff is to gawp at people when they aren’t on show. What is despicable is to prey on people in their private lives. What is demeaning to all concerned is to inflate the significance of people whose only claim to fame is having a public face by, for example, being on television, and treat them as important. We have pushed the idea that “any publicity is good publicity” to absurd lengths. It has taken celebrity appreciation to the point where both the gawped at and the gawpee look tacky.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Henry Ford said that you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do. Unfortunately, many writers haven’t heard the news or refuse to believe it. We are always declaring that we are going to write a book and, like St Augustine before he became saintly, neglecting to add “… but not yet.” 1  

What we do is talk about it – writing, that is. We join groups and discuss the problems we are having about characters and plots, settings, themes and ideas. Our poems are all in our heads. Our novels (three or four in various early stages of construction) are stuck at around chapter seven. Sometimes we begin another novel with fresh characters and hope that this time it will work (breaking news: it doesn’t). Our short stories have lost their way, or their point, or their ooomph. Our articles waffle. But – we can talk for Africa when we get together with other would-be writers who have all got their fists clamped (metaphorically) to their foreheads and whingeing, just like us.

What’s so hard about writing? Nothing really. Not about writing as such, assuming that we have paid attention in school and learned how to make marks on paper that become words and sentences and paragraphs. A little more difficult is making those words mean something. Words that, put together with other words, are interesting enough for other people to read. Words that, in the order that we put them, have never been put together in quite that way before by anyone else. Words that tell a story, convey a feeling, reflect a mood, describe an event, explore a character, clarify a thought, or tackle a problem.

So far, not too difficult. In fact we can all do this. It’s what we do when we phone a friend or meet someone over coffee, and babble on about this and that without a thought for the words we use and the way we use them. Words tumble out, we hum and ha, we stop in mid-sentence and change tack, we muddle up our tenses and drift off course –and we don’t care.  And that, I think, is the point.

Very few of us speak in measured phrases and carefully considered sentences and paragraphs when we are talking informally. We don’t generally think ahead and work out what we want to say and how to say it, unless exceptional circumstances demand it. And we don’t care. It isn’t important. We are at ease, relaxed. We are just doing what people do when they meet: we talk.  In the end, that’s what writing is: talking on paper. How hard is that? 

1 St Augustine of Hippo: “Lord, grant me chastity and continence – but not yet.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


A recent run of hot weather has meant wakeful nights flapping the duvet out of the way and sighing. The holiday season here down-under means that there is nothing worthwhile on radio as well as nothing worth watching on telly, which is a given at this time of year. The music on radio during the night is way worse than the talking. Sleep is not an option in the heat. Which has meant, as a last resort, listening to some of the unbelievably tedious opinions of those who spend the nights calling talk-back radio and droning on.

They have never been to see “Hamlet” and heard Polonius declare that

“… day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes …”

The people who access talk-back radio and can express themselves articulately and, if possible, briefly are welcome but only too rare. The nights are currently filled with the other kind, full of “limbs and outward flourishes”. Why do people think that by saying something three times over, and at great length, punctuated with ums and you-knows, it is more interesting than saying it once, succinctly? The smart talk-show hosts can, if they are paying attention, swiftly cut off anyone who utters the words “as I was saying …” because they would know that the wretched caller has re-wound himself and is preparing to say it again.

If the host is not smart, has dozed off, or is watching international sport on the studio TV, we helpless and sleepless listeners end up grinding our teeth while we endure the tortuous and garbled ramblings of Tom, Dick or Mary. I don’t blame the host (well, yes I actually do) because even I would rather be watching cricket being played in Mumbai.

Those dreary callers should listen to Polonius, who could offer them some sound, pithy advice – he was good at it. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” he counselled Laertes briskly. And he didn’t mess about sparing Queen Gertrude’s feelings with burbles and soft soap to dress up his opinion that Hamlet was off his head. He told her that “… I will be brief: your noble son is mad.” Good for you, my lord.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


You gotta love someone who has decided to love you with every squirming inch of her tiny frame.

This is Stella. She is a griffon, with all the absurd features that griffons possess: liquid, bulgy eyes, floppy ears, a flat monkey nose, a jutting jaw, a small sturdy body and four matchstick legs. In Stella’s case the legs have become stiff with age and she walks as though she were a dog-doll and some invisible child is “walking” her in a sort of rolling gait. On occasion, when excited, Stella breaks into a run – comical, but also alarming, because she is really old.

Soon after we met Stella decided to love me. Since then she has been faithful, even when I was sharing my house with a couple of cats who glared at her.  She is the smallest and bravest dog in the neighbourhood, and has more than once stood squarely at the front of her pack and ticked off the big sook of a labrador from next door. He wouldn’t have hurt her but she didn’t know that, and she gave him an earful.

Now, when she sees me, her ears smooth down and her silly little face breaks into a smile – yes, it does so. She breaks into a rickety trot and follows me home – her people know where to find her. We spend a little time together on the deck or ambling around exploring my garden before we stagger back to her place nearby – two old girls who understand each other.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


We arrive at it quite late in our lives. We see the small persons who are newly hatched but at one remove. We hardly dare touch them because we have forgotten how. We become instantly besotted. We are grandparents. As they say, it’s complicated.

It feels responsible, because these new persons are part of you, but only as far as they, and you, want them to be – they are individuals. The responsibility is not necessarily that you have to deal with their requirements day to day – that, thank goodness, is a parent's job and we can hand them back –  but that who and what you are becomes part of their knowledge base, their experience, and their reference points.  

It feels privileged, because grandchildren can offer warmth and attention and respect as well as love and worries. When they end a message with a casual "miss u, luv u" it can melt your heart. Over the growing years we can have skirmishes, and times when connections feel lost – but there is at base mutual respect as well.

It feels frightening, because they are facing a world that can be dangerous in ways that we never knew (although our world was also dangerous, in other ways). They have to learn how to cope – and we fear that they might fail. We watch them make mistakes and we bite our tongues – unless we are asked for advice, which we give freely and – we hope – wisely, while understanding that we don't always know how their world really is, and whether our opinion, and indeed our experience, is appropriate for their situation.

It feels prideful, because we know that our grandchildren are the most beautiful, handsome, intelligent, charming and talented creatures the world has ever known. It feels humbling and privileged, because we have discovered the giving of unconditional love – again.  First for our own children and now for theirs.

It feels lonely sometimes, because the children grow – and grow away from us because they no longer need us, and we no longer matter as much as perhaps we did. This is natural and we know that perfectly well. It is also irrational, because we don't actually want them around all the time, they can be tiring and noisy and messy and silly.  But there again we would rather have the noise and mess and silliness because –well, just because.

It feels hopeful that we as grandparents may have contributed something valuable to the children's lives and that we will be remembered with affection. So, I suppose in the end grandparenthood is a matter of personality and circumstance and individual attitude. Every relationship is different, and that goes for grandparenthood as well as any other.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


I have had a manuscript languishing in my virtual bottom drawer for years. It is so old that it was once a couple of pages typed on real paper, crumpled and scribbled over. Now it is in my computer, and once in a while I open it, stare at it, shuffle a paragraph from one place to another, change a name, take out an adjective or add a sentence. Then I file it away again, defeated.

It has been a short story – failed. It has been a biographical anecdote – failed. It has been humour – failed miserably. It was the subject of a blogpost called “The last time I took fashion advice from a monkey” (August 2012) – no idea how it was received by my loyal readers and anyone else who might have happened upon it.  I tried introducing one or two characters into the mix to see if anything developed – nope, didn’t work.

The monkey at the centre of this writerly problem – I call him Jefferson for literary purposes – was a big angry chimp in a zoo in London. He was not the cute little fellow in the picture here, who was called Rastus, joined me and some friends for a Sunday curry lunch beside a lake in Rangoon, and was urgently but politely interested in what he might discover in the tangle of my hair.  By contrast, Jefferson the chimp in the zoo was raucous, ill-bred, deeply offended by my bilious green sweater and threw his lunch at me. Nothing personal, he didn’t know me, and I didn’t blame him.  I didn’t like the sweater either. And who hasn’t wanted to throw things at times, especially if they lived in a zoo?  

It should be promising material, based on a real event like so much that writers write about, and I should be able to make something of it. I keep stumbling across it in the computer and stubbornly having another lash at it.  As Henry Ford said, failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Mention the name Georgette Heyer (1902 – 1974) to any reading woman over a certain age and you will be met with a dreamy look and a sigh of recognition. They will immediately be reminded of when they were twelve or so, devouring delicious novels set in Regency times that promised strong, dashing, young (and not quite so young) men who sweep around a bend in the road driving a phaeton with four perfectly matched horses to rescue lovely young (and sometimes not quite so young) women from a variety of pickles that they had managed to get themselves into. There was an absolute certainty that, after several dramas, the story would end well for everyone because love conquers all.

Ladies, don’t go back there. You might be sorry.

It is rare nowadays for one of Heyer’s novels to be found on library shelves but I happened to be browsing through the recently returned section the other day and saw a copy of “The Nonesuch”. It was a large print copy – a sop to the likely potential reader which tells you something – but I snatched it up. A dollop of old-time romance was just the thing for the weekend and I had fond memories.

I was about fourteen when I gulped down probably all of Georgette Heyer’s historical novels. Then, I was entirely uncritical of style or quality and cared only for romance. And Heyer was skilful at creating colourful storylines that allowed attractive people to meet, connect, misunderstand each other and finally, inevitably, draw together. That is what every young girl expects of love, marriage and happy-ever-after, guaranteed, and we got it in spades.

Now? I have spent decades evaluating books. I no longer believe in fairy tales. And while I now appreciate Georgette Heyer’s diligent and well respected attention to the historical details of atmosphere, dress, social pursuits, language, and even the slang used by her characters, I found “The Nonesuch” disappointingly clunky. There was a lack of style, of grace, and Jane Austen, whose novels were also set in the Regency period, had already raised the bar way out of reach.

The large print didn’t help. It seemed to accentuate the use of capital letters, frequent italics (which were in a different, and larger, font) and the explosive exclamation marks, all of which combined to cause irritation. There was, for example, the following:

“Told him – Mr Mickleby! You did not! Eat his mutton with us - ! Of all the vulgar, shabby-genteel – What did he say?”

So, my retrospective dip into the dashing blades and maids-in-peril style of fiction has been disappointing. Better to leave Ms Heyer in the stacks at the library where she has presumably been languishing all these years.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Occasionally the tsunami warning siren recently installed on our beach is tested. The first time it went off, with plenty of advance notice, people complained that it was too loud and woke them up. Um – isn’t it supposed to?
In March 2010 there was no siren installed and we were warned by TV and radio that there was a tsunami heading our way. Living as I do, at near sea level with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the estuary of two rivers on the other, I am vulnerable on two fronts.  I had to take it seriously, especially as a young houseguest was staying with me. She was heading overseas, needed to bunk down temporarily, and had arrived with everything she owned, which ended up in, on or under the bed in the spare room.

So, early on that Sunday morning in 2010 Ange was fast asleep in the debris of her bed after a night out. I found the what-to-do-in-an-emergency information in the kitchen drawer, collected what to take if we had to, and listened to the radio for the latest news.

The warnings became more urgent and eventually I had to wake Ange, who wasn't pleased. We packed up treasures – an interesting selection which turned out to be minimal. The only items that we would not abandon to the coming deluge amounted to photographs, documents, my collected works, and a 21st birthday scrapbook, which says something for life's deep down values.

Ange piled everything from the floor of her room onto the bed in a mountainous shambles, hoping that the water wouldn't rise that far, although the nature of tsunamis indicated otherwise. We filled the car with containers of water, blankets and extra clothes, and whatever food we could find that didn’t need cooking. We were ready to head for the hills. 

What about the cats? They would have to fend for themselves, we couldn’t put all three in one cage. And they would disappear if we let them out, and we couldn’t keep them shut up for what could be two or three days. Perhaps much longer if the waves had really pounded over and destroyed the house. We couldn’t put leads on them either, we didn’t have any. I said that they could shelter on the roof, and if they drowned, so be it.

The wave came rushing in and then out, all five centimetres of it. We unpacked the car and Ange went back to sleep on top of the detritus she had piled on her bed.  A bit of an anti-climax then.

But here’s the thing: all those people grizzling about the noise of the siren being tested might be glad of it when the real thing happens.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


(by guest blogger Margaret)

It is flattering to be asked to write a guest blog for a friend. But then reality sets in.  Panic. What to write about? Or perhaps even more importantly, how to write it? A blog is a unique form of self-expression and one with which I’m unfamiliar. In my past employment life I have written dozens of academic essays, papers and policy documents, several of them in my second language, but blogging is a whole new challenge. 

Why is it that some of us, normally quite literate and articulate, develop paralysing symptoms of tongue-tie or writer’s block when asked to speak or write? It does not necessarily equate to shyness, lack of confidence, or an inability to express oneself. Is it caused by fear of failure? I don’t know. But I do know that for the afflicted individual, the prospect can be daunting.

My earliest memory of ‘word failure’ took place early in my first year at primary school, when I was five years old. A traffic officer had visited and spoken to us about road safety. At the end of his talk, our teacher asked me to stand up and thank him on behalf of the assembled junior school. I cringed in terror.

“I can’t do it. I can’t, I really can’t” I protested. I was usually regarded as the class chatterbox with too much to say for myself, but this request was terrifying. I felt totally inadequate. I blushed and hung my head in shame.

“Why can’t you do it?” the teacher asked, not unkindly.

“Because I haven’t got the words,” I replied.

To my relief the teacher excused me, but told me firmly that next time she asked me to speak, I should oblige. Sure enough, a few days afterwards, I found myself called upon to give a Morning Talk to our class.  Determined to do better, I struggled to conquer my nerves as I clambered up off the mat and took my place in front of the blackboard.

“Good morning, boys and girls” I began. This was the standard Morning Talk introduction.

“Good mor-ning, Mar-garet” they replied, in that singsong style so beloved of small children.

I braced myself, ready to deliver my first-ever formal speech. I realised I was being tested and I did not want to disappoint. This time, I knew I had to find the words, it really was now or never, so I took a deep breath and gazed bravely down at my classmates. I was blissfully unaware that my Morning Talk would reverberate merrily around our family for decades, and that the occupants of the school staffroom would all enjoy it too.

When I began to speak, the words came out effortlessly, loud and clear. I kept things short and to the point.

“This morning, on my way to school, I saw a dead hedgehog.  Are there any questions?”