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.