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?”

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


I am having a wholesale clear-out of items large and small as I prepare for a down-sizing move in the new year. At first it was easy to weed out stuff I didn't need, didn't want, didn't like. Now it's getting harder to decide what else can go. I am looking at this sculpture with a calculating eye.

As a youngster in London AJ was a keen touring cyclist. When we came out to New Zealand and he became a family man with a wife, children, a house and garden, and a job with terrible hours, the only biking he did was the kilometre or so up the road to the bus stop. He forgot all about cycling (which, note, is different from biking to the bus stop).

Fast-forward three decades, a few changes of occupation and a move from the North to the South Island of the country and arrival in Christchurch, the then city of bicycles. AJ joined the Canterbury Recreational Cycling Club (CRCC) and soon became a stalwart of the club, eventually becoming its captain, magazine editor and general go-to guy and elder statesman.

He was especially kind to cycling tourists from all over the world whom he usually found standing by the roadside looking anxiously at maps spread over handlebars. He would arrive home followed by two or three of these lost souls and before they had peeled off their outer gear I would have opened the freezer and worked out what I could defrost.  Cyclists are ravenous creatures and eat whatever can be chipped loose from the bowels of the freezer provided it can be defrosted and buttered, grilled, stewed or ladled over steaming macaroni. I could dispose of anything remotely edible simply by heaping plates with it and standing well back out of the way.

Those were invigorating times when we had streams of such visitors who filled up our small cottage and wolfed down our food, pitched tents on our lawn or unrolled their sleeping bags and curled up in corners, and then went home and sent us postcards from all over the world.  Eventually AJ retired from the CRCC and they gave him the sculpture which was constructed entirely from bicycle bits by some club members. And now I am looking at it.

Pablo Picasso made a bull’s head from two bicycle bits, it is probably worth an eye-watering number of millions of dollars, and you have to go to Paris to see it. You know what?  I like ours better. It stays.