Saturday, December 24, 2011

A METALLIC GIGGLE


Last evening, Saturday, I was watching Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List – again. There was nothing else on television for grown-ups or for anyone allergic to sugar, and I only had one eye on what was going on. The other eye was grappling with killer sudoku (can an eye grapple?) when I heard a sort of metallic giggle from the kitchen.

My heart leapt. Yes, leapt!

I abandoned Jack and Morgan without a thought. I flew into the kitchen. I crossed my fingers and turned on the tap. It spat and gurgled and shook itself. And then – glory be! Water flowed! I warbled as I filled the sink and washed the dirty dishes that had been accumulating all day. Never had washing up been such a pleasure.

Of such small mercies is joy unconfined. As I said, it was Saturday. No water had flowed from the taps since Friday afternoon. Since the earthquakes had started up again in fact, with three big rolling bangs and more than sixty (and still counting) reminders that Nature has not finished with us yet.

Luckily I still had water stored in bottles, a couple of plastic fruit juice containers, a 20-litre container and even in a bucket in the garage (I had planned to do some painting out there). A neighbour was more creative – and quick off the mark. At the first big bang he had rushed inside and filled the bath. At the second big bang half of that sloshed out on to the floor, but still he had a lot of water left. Just as well, because that's about when the pipe in the street burst and left us water-less.

Most of us take water on tap for granted. Twenty four hours without it reminded me that a large percentage of people around the globe are not so lucky. I feel a little squishy inside today – it's Christmas day here in New Zealand after all. What's that saying – saw it on Facebook just yesterday? Ah yes: Gratitude is what makes what I have enough.

Painting: Abstract

Friday, December 23, 2011

EUTERPE - DEAD HORSE DAY


Nineteenth century voyages could be tedious. Passengers and crew spent long months at sea in a too-small ship with too many people, and any excuse for kicking up their heels was welcomed. The diarists in the sailing ship Euterpe on the voyage of 1879 have left us many anecdotes about what they got up to.

One occasion was Dead Horse day, so-called because sailors were paid a month's wages in advance on signing on for the voyage. They worked that month "for nought" and called it working for the dead horse. When the month was up they celebrated by making a horse out of straw, "about the size of a donkey and very like a goat only it had a long tail" reported diarist George Lister. It was put up for auction, netting about fifteen shillings which was shared among the crew.

Then one of the sailors appeared, dressed like an old man with a long white coat and a long beard made of towed rope. He climbed onto the horse, which was led in procession around the deck, after which a rope was fastened around both man and horse and threaded through a pulley on the end of the lower yard on the main mast. They were then "drawn over the side of the ship and swung about for a while", no doubt to cheers from the onlookers. The rider then loosed the horse from under him and it fell into the sea. Throughout the whole ceremony a blue light was kept burning and the sailors sang the song of the Dead Horse, after which "all sorts of amusements were carried on until very late."

Amusements came in many guises. There was dancing most nights to music provided by the passengers themselves. There were sports and concerts. Practical jokes were popular, if a little juvenile sometimes. One night passengers in the fore-cabin were woken at 3.30am by "someone rolling a large biscuit barrel down the fore hatchway into the cabin below, when they all thought the masts had gone by the board. They turned out in a great hurry but when they saw the trick they went back to their bunks in better spirits." (Better than mine would have been in the circumstances.)

Birthdays were celebrated in cabins or in the saloon, sometimes with too much drink. Joshua Charlesworth wrote that "drinking was carried on to a large extent so that the serving out of beer & spirits had to be stopped by order of the Captain." And James Martin complained that "just after I got in bed, Hartley came in drunk and after a good pulling about got into bed and began lifting the boards of my bunk [with his feet]. Several others were nearly drunk, one with whom I was arguing total abstinence with about a fortnight since, and," James continued virtuously, "he said then that no one ever saw him the worse for drink." A month later James reported that at about midnight he was disturbed by [cabin mates] who were drunk and making a noise which woke Beecroft, and a row ensued. I thought there would be a fight but it quelled."

Photo of Euterpe's wheel courtesy of Mike Wood Photography

Thursday, December 8, 2011

THE BEFORE AND AFTER WALL


Big question: What is art? Hmmm – too big. It would take a book, several books, to discuss that and I'm nowhere near competent enough to tackle it even in a small space like this. But from down here at my level I can offer my two cents' worth, inspired by how I reacted when I saw this mural.

Art can be many things. Challenging. Disturbing. Delicate. Bold. Intriguing. Magnificent. Enigmatic. Art can make you laugh or cry. It can make you think. Or worship. Someone who makes art may not set out to do any of these things, but they sometimes happen.

I don't think that my friend, the one who made this mural, set out to do any of those things either. He may or may not have ever painted a picture before in his life – I don't know. This mural was quite simply a response. A response to a situation that finally spurred him to action. And the situation developed because of the earthquake in Christchurch on 22nd February 2011.



On that day the wall of my friend's living room fell down. The wall was patched to keep out the weather, and stayed like that for six months. He became tired of looking at the ugly patched wall, and one day decided to paint it. Not just paint it, but to paint a mural. He was thinking Mondrian, and I flippantly suggested Jackson Pollock instead as being easier and not so wasteful of masking tape – all those neat squares.

It was a decidedly bold and challenging enterprise. The wall is 210cm high and 390cmm wide (7ft x 13ft), there were bulges here and there, and the patches were wayward and uneven, to say the least. My friend was not deterred. The design was initially dictated by the pieces of hardboard and plywood which stood proud of the torn plaster board edges they covered, so my friend started near the centre of the wall and set about disguising or emphasising the edges. The rest followed, shape by shape, line by line and colour by colour.

To my mind the result is art. Why? Because it was a gloriously creative, defiant reaction to a situation that was caused by the malice of nature. Because it was made in the spirit that we have come to understand that the people of Christchurch have shown over and over again, battered and torn as the city has been over the last year and more. Because the mural itself insists that we explore it for clues: is it a whale? is it a barrage balloon? is that a mountain, complete with ski slope? is that water, gorse rampant? can I see the bare brown Canterbury Plains in there?

My friend didn't do a Mondrian or a Jackson Pollock. I think it's more Picasso myself.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

AN ESTEEMED MASTER


The master of a sailing ship had to be a special kind of man. He was responsible for the ship, its crew, the passengers and the cargo. He was at sea for months at a time without benefit of wireless or radar and had to depend on his skills and experience to cope with unexpected situations. He had to know the seas, understand the weather, navigate by the stars, and still keep his mind on the practicalities of sails, spars and sheets (i.e. ropes) as well as the routines of a ship at sea.

In daily life the master had to be brave and decisive, firm but gentle, wise and insightful. He had the lives of hundreds of people in his hands. They had to work and play and survive together no matter what the circumstances, and the master was expected to bring the ship safely to her destination and answer to all for his actions. It is not surprising that a ship’s captain was sometimes a religious man, and often a philosopher and psychologist as well. Such a man was my great grandfather (pictured), Captain Thomas Eddes Phillips, for twelve years master of the sailing ship Euterpe.

Captain Phillips was twenty nine when he first became involved in bringing immigrants to New Zealand. It was, however, as the master of Euterpe that he was best known. Thousands of descendants of those early immigrants have cause to be grateful for his skill and care. The ship was named after the Greek muse of music and lyric poetry, and the muse’s figure has gazed out across the water from the bow for more than a century, as she still does today. Her face is handsome, perhaps a little aloof, and she has watched over the fortunes of the ship since she was launched in 1863.

Euterpe was one of the slowest boats afloat. Her best run out to New Zealand was 103 days to Dunedin with the wind behind her. But she was an extraordinarily happy ship, and Captain Phillips was one of her most respected masters. Alone in quiet moments in his cabin, with its single bed, small bureau and neat closet, he might have contemplated a sampler which still hangs on the bulkhead which says “Do Right and Fear Not”.

The captain was responsible for everything. He was the ship’s pastor if no minister was travelling, and conducted services on Sundays with hymns and readings from the Bible. A death meant a burial at sea, with the captain reading the burial service over the body, wrapped in its weighted canvas shroud, before it was tipped overboard. “It put a damper on the whole ship" reported one diarist.

The captain was disciplinarian when tempers flared in the cramped quarters on board, and he would have to wade in and restore order. Drunkenness was another problem: “drinking was carried on to a large extent so that the serving out of beer & spirits had to be stopped by order of the Captain” wrote a passenger. Another reported that “many of the crew and passengers were drunk” but assured his family back home that "the captain was quite sober".

Captain Phillips was no killjoy though, he could celebrate with the best of them. When his 44th birthday came round on the voyage of 1879 the Euterpe Times reported “We have great pleasure in recording the fact that our esteemed Master Captain Phillips met a number of his friends in the Saloon on Thursday evening last the 2nd inst when by toast and sentiment the anniversary of his birth was duly celebrated.”

The captain helped bail out the sleeping quarters when rough seas swamped the ship: “The captain with a body of sailors were quickly on the spot & covered the hatch tray over with canvas to prevent any more water from coming down and then we all set to work in bailing out the water for it was touching the bottom bunks in our cabin and the ship rolling caused the water to flow from one side to the other and washed away everything that was loose."

It was the captain who noticed that the bowsprit was damaged and had it secured with chains and spars and made safe to carry sail, “a work which did his ingenuity credit, and saved not only the bowsprit, but prevented a much more serious delay in bringing the ship to her destination.” It was the captain who wrote up the mileages on a blackboard so the passengers knew how far they had progressed each day. It was the captain who prevented the sailors from daubing passengers with tar and molasses during the ceremony of “Crossing the Line” although he allowed water to be freely sloshed over anyone who ventured on deck. And it was the captain who arranged for those passengers who had nowhere to go on arrival at Lyttelton to be accommodated in the Immigration Barracks.

It is no surprise that Captain Phillips received warm testimonials from grateful passengers. They praised him for the “kind and considerate manner in which you have discharged your duties and the readiness you have displayed to make our voyage to New Zealand as pleasant as possible” and declared that “in our opinion the care and attention shown for the welfare of the ship is beyond all praise”.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE


Writing is like painting, something which doesn't exist at all until somebody creates it. And then it must be found a kind and appreciative home.

To (very loosely) paraphrase Andy Warhol, writing, like any other art, is something that people don't know they need unless they can be persuaded otherwise. Hardly anybody needs what writers (and picture makers) do. At first glance it is not an essential service, like growing vegetables or baking bread or healing the sick or driving a bus or building a house or rescuing people from the raging surf.

People don't take writers seriously. When asked a normal everyday question like "what do you do?" people who write sometimes try to wriggle out of actually saying "I write". And if they do admit to being a writer, the next question, too often, is a version of "but what do you do for a real job?"

I once read about a couple, famous American writers, going through an airport check-out. The wife went first, and had put on her customs card, in the box marked "occupation", the word "poet". The customs official frowned, crossed out "poet" and scribbled "housewife" instead. (That couldn't happen today, the man would have been lynched on the spot.) The husband, seeing this and having also put "poet" in that box, crossed it out and inserted "housewife". Times have changed, but not that much.

However, if nobody wrote the world would be a poverty-stricken place. There would be no stories, no movies, no essays or articles, no dissemination or exploration of ideas, no ways to find out what other people were saying and thinking. There would be no television, no documentaries, no newspapers. There would be no stories or poetry, no magic world of the imagination.

Writing is practised by all kinds of people, many of whom don’t actually want to do it. Or so they say. Often. Usually when things are going wrong with their work. But still they struggle on. They would rather do anything else, and everything else is more vitally important than writing. I, for example, have just swept out the garage, vacuumed the carpets in the car, and washed its windows instead of writing. This is not something I do for fun, and I don't do it as often as I should. Only when I'm trying to avoid the blinking cursor on the computer screen.

However, I know that, like other writers, I must write. Even if no one wanted what I do. Like Edward Gibbon, who carried on even when an 18th century Duke of Gloucester apparently complained: "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbon?"

At the end of the day – literally, each day – if I haven't written something, I feel unfulfilled, fretful and disappointed. Especially if I know, deep down, that I haven't written anything because I've put it off, ducked, made excuses for not doing it. Writing makes me what I am, in my own small way.

The painting is "Tsunami", 2010

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

SINGING TOMATOES AND A YELLOW-EYED FROG


The New Zealand writer Joy Cowley remarks in her recent memoir “Navigation” that the way to teach children to read and write was through story, and that the best way to do that was for them to read stories featuring them as the main characters.

Writers, if they have children and grandchildren, have a captive audience. My small people learned from an early age that a flexible rectangular parcel amongst their birthday presents or under the Christmas tree contained another story book. Usually that book was about them in all sorts of adventures. They bounced so high on trampolines that they landed on a cloud and found themselves talking to birds. They cycled to a nearby park and were accosted by a grumpy beetle and serenaded by singing tomatoes. They were woken by a blue moon and got out of bed to watch chairs dancing in the moonlit garden.

On their birthdays they opened cards which were home-made and contained poems or stories that were about them and their world. One Valentine's Day the postman brought them a large envelope with a card showing a huge red heart with the story of St Valentine written inside it.

The books and cards were modest, simple things, made with love. They were written or typed on coloured paper and the books were sewn together at the spines with wool or Christmas string. The illustrations were often of the kind that they might have done themselves. Stick figures for example, drawn with crayons or felt-tip pens, houses with two windows, a door, a wobbly path and curly smoke coming out of the chimney. Dogs that were all eyes, tail and teeth. Sometimes there were collages, put together with shiny coloured paper shapes cut from magazines.

Those books and cards, poems and stories were joyfully received, and sometimes taken to school to show the teacher. My small people are not so small now, and have probably forgotten those book and cards and stories. But they can read really, really well.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

EPIPHANY #2

There must be something in the coffee – or the earthquakes have shaken up the neurons in my brain as well as the stonework of my house, but I have had an epiphany. Another one, following closely after the one about new literary personas. (I'm still trying on Lavinia's over-stated hats and TraCee's skimpy skirts and have yet to decide which way to go.)

Anyway, it has dawned on me that sometimes we writers might struggle down the wrong track, literarily speaking. That is, the wrong track for us. Those who have grown up with books acquire knowledge, taste and discernment. When we start writing, we probably aim towards the high end of the field, because that is the ultimate goal – to be a good writer. Even if we read all kinds of books and enjoy them for what they are, when we write, I suspect that we try to write at a level, or in a genre, that doesn't suit us. And that probably makes us tense and anxious.

I must have read thousands of books since I learned to read at age four or so. As well, I've been a book reviewer for forty years. That must be close to a thousand books which I have read and commented on as a professional. I know what I like – but that doesn't affect my published opinions of a given book, because there is a difference between "I like it" (or not) and "this is good" (or not). Yes, I know that my opinion of what's good or bad can differ from someone else's, but that's another matter.

What I like is mostly personal and subjective. When I read for myself, for pleasure, I enjoy books that range from literary to pot-boiler. I automatically adjust my taste buds to suit the genre, the style and the content. I ask only to be entertained, and that the authors don't infuriate me in some way, specially by lapses in the internal logic of the work.

I have preferences within genres. For example, with detective stories I would rather read Agatha Christie than Ngaio Marsh, not because she is a better writer (she isn't) but because she is a better plotter, and because Ngaio Marsh's style can seem fairly stuffy by comparison. For thrillers I would rather read Dan Brown and Lee Child, who write novels which fairly gallop along, before John le Carre, who can be heavy going but worthy in the long run.

So, as writers, the first thing we should probably do is to sort out what kind of book we would be comfortable and happy writing. And that may not be the kind of book that we admire from afar, and that attracts critical approval. It is more likely that it should be the kind of book that we want to curl up in an armchair with and find satisfying. To both read and to write.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

LAVINIA OR TRACEE?


I feel a new persona coming on.

I should have thought of it years ago. As a writer I've been this me for a long time. That is, the careful, responsible, married me. When I started writing, I did so without imagining x number of years ahead to the time when I might be a famous author with a dozen well-received works to my name, a name that echoed around the world. A name that bestowed gravitas. Or a name that went with the phrase "... the best-selling novelist". So it never occurred to me to use another name to write under that was not the same as the married one. A name that was my own and could do what I wanted with.

You need foresight to adopt a pen-name. You have to figure out well ahead of time that you might need one, because you don't want to start with one name and change it later, thereby throwing out the reputation and credibility that you've built up so far. This particularly applies to women if they are already married and using their new names when they start publishing, but can apply to anyone if, for example, they have a day job that requires them to be respectable and upstanding, and they want to write the kind of books that don't fit the corporate image. Such people, if they want to get down and dirty, will probably simply adopt a pen-name and get on with it.

The name I've been using all this time was shared. It belonged to us as a couple. It meant that whatever one of us did or said was ipso facto connected to us both. And that meant that we were each mindful of the fact that what we did or said could reflect on the other in some way. Not that this mattered. We were both, by and large, respectable and upstanding and I, as a writer, didn't make a total prat of myself as far as I know.

Sharing a name, and by association a reputation, can however act as a restraining influence. Risk-taking is not an option. Co-operation, consideration and consultation are the norm. As a writer I have generally confined myself to a well-worn path without even thinking about it. How sensible. How dull.

I have been thinking of changing direction though, literarily speaking. Or rather, I have been thinking of adding a new string to my bow. And the advent of ebooks has given so many writers, including me, the nudge to take a risk or two. So is it time to break out? Shall I become Lavinia Peabody or TraCee Comewotmay and kick up my heels a bit?

I think so.

Picture: cover of a book of short stories at Smashwords.com

Friday, September 9, 2011

SMASHING WORDS

Ebooks. They are beginning to scare the dickens out of publishers and book stores. Librarians are biting their nails. What is going to happen to books – real books? The kind with stiff covers that you hold in your hands, the kind which require you to turn the pages. The kind that take up shelf space in your house and have to be dusted. The kind which harbour silverfish that blink and slither out when you take down a book that hasn’t been touched for months or years.

When Sir Allen Lane invented Penguins he was at a railway station with nothing to read. He wanted portable, affordable books accessible to anyone, and the paperback was born. Booksellers probably quivered then too, but real books didn’t die. Now there are ebooks – portable, accessible and affordable, and I have just clambered onto the band-wagon because ebooks make it possible for writers to be their own publishers.

I have spent the last week revising and reformatting the writing manual I wrote two decades ago, so that I could publish it as an ebook. The manual was out of date, and a bit creaky here and there. It mentioned pens and paper and tape-recorders and sticky tape, and barely acknowledged the existence of the personal computer. There was advice that was no longer relevant, and there were also, shame on me, typos. So I read the formatting guidelines from smashwords.com and set about bringing the manual into the 21st century.

My eyes glazed over chasing up the spelling mistakes. I went cross-eyed sorting out the curly quotes, the straight quotes, the single and the double quotes, and trying to maintain consistency. Removing inappropriate material sometimes meant that the sense went with it, and I had to rewrite whole passages. Deleted text boxes and page numbers – can’t have those when ebooks are read on so many different gadgets including phones. Hyphens – so old-fashioned – poxed the text and had to be grubbed out. Took out the screamers (exclamation marks) – not one of my regular guilty habits but there were one or two just the same. The patient friend who helped to proof-read found more faults. We sometimes bickered about them but arrived at a consensus.

That wasn’t however the end of it. While reading through one more time before uploading to smashwords.com I kept finding things I wanted to change, including the beginning of chapter three. At last, I was done. I designed a cover and pressed the upload button. But when my patient friend inspected the product on screen for the world to see, there, near the beginning of chapter three, was a bleeping “b;ank”.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE

One hot, becalmed day James Martin, from Bissoe in Cornwall, wrote in his diary: “Oh this uncertainty there is about a sailing ship. We may be stuck here for a month or gone in an hour.”


He was a passenger in the sailing ship Euterpe on her way from London to Lyttelton in 1879. The ship was commanded by my great-grandfather Captain Thomas Eddes Phillips, and the voyage lasted a long, uncomfortable 134 days. Apart from the important matter of the weather – “rain, everyone busy catching water” – James Martin’s diary contains descriptions of that voyage and the people who were his companions.

He comes across as an agreeable young man who enjoyed music and dancing, and there was plenty of both on board. He was probably pious – he helped to run Sunday school classes for the children, and his brother David preached at Bible meetings. He may have been a little priggish – he lectured his mess-mates about the virtues of total abstinence, although he didn’t seem too put out by one Hartley, who came in drunk one night and started kicking up James’s bunk boards from below. And he didn’t miss much – “Mrs Davies is in love with Middleton” he wrote, without further comment.

But mostly James Martin made himself useful. Watches needed attention – perhaps it was the salt air. One Friday he earned a shilling for repairing Mr Tichbon’s gold watch. Mr Tichbon must have been pleased, because he returned with a locket that needed mending, for which James charged him sixpence. He put a new mainspring in Mr Foat’s watch and altered another’s, and soon James was kept busy with a steady stream of clients wanting their watches, earrings and other jewellery cleaned and repaired.

His reputation was spreading and he was certainly versatile. He stopped a leak in a water can, and mended a lamp. He made a grater so that he could grate the rock-hard ship’s biscuits into flour for making puddings. He made a mustard spoon - why, we wonder. He even dabbled in dentistry and “pulled out Bealy’s tooth.”

He could cook, or at least was willing to try. When Annie (his sister?) became unwell he made a nice pudding, a “very fair attempt for the first” and later he and David made a pie. Their attempt at baked potatoes and a pudding was not so successful: James thought the “baked pudding wasn't very nice since I don't think it was soaked [enough]”. They helped with the laundry – no easy matter when it had to be done on deck and in salt water. Towards the end of the voyage James wrote that Annie was “going to have, we hope, the last wash on board and we shall have to help.”

Peace was hard to find in a small ship carrying 166 passengers plus crew. James travelled steerage, in one of the narrow bunks pictured here, and seemed to have shared his bunk with tin pails, tea, sugar and other supplies which were “pitched out of the bed” in rough weather. No surprise that he often slept on deck if the weather permitted. Some afternoons he retreated into a life-boat where he could marvel at phosphorescence glittering on the wave tops, or admire an albatross with its “white plumage, slight tails of primrose” and once “sat long time watching the lightning. It was grand.” One day he climbed the rigging and “had a good quiet read all the afternoon” and enjoyed the sight of thousands of flying fish and the “vast expanse and nothing but water, water”.

On Christmas Eve, 1879, Euterpe sailed into Lyttelton harbour. James’s last note said – was there a wisp of sadness here? – that other passengers had “friends meeting, but none to greet us”. I wonder how he got on in the new, can-do, will-do country.

Photo of steerage accommodation, with belated acknowledgements and grateful thanks to Mike Wood Photography

Monday, August 8, 2011

THE HIT LIST


I assumed that to write a blog would be to write for a few people: my friend, my other friend, my eleven official followers, a clutch of kith and kin in a handful of countries, the people who happen to catch the message on my Facebook wall before the page whizzes downwards, chased by more urgent messages, and some bewildered people who stumble onto the site by accident.

I check the stat counter now and then, to see if anyone is paying attention. Once in a while someone posts a comment – much appreciated, thank you. The hit graph swoops upwards briefly and then fades like the proverbial candle in the wind as the days pass, much like the blog itself. I expect nothing spectacular in the way of reactions, and indeed receive none.

However, the other day I happened upon a way of looking at where in the world the hits were coming from. That particular stat counter has only been operating for about six months, but I found the results incredible. Literally.

The bulk of the hits originated, predictably enough, from New Zealand. Most of the people I know live in this country. Another good handful were from the United Kingdom – several friends and family live there. The same for Australia – about a quarter of the UK figures but the numbers were about right. Canada (436) and the United States (486) accounted for a colossal number, considering that I know about four people in each country. So, if I am to believe this information, roughly eight people have read my blogs 922 times between them. There are fewer than 50 blogs so far so either that’s pretty good going, or those readers are gratifyingly dedicated followers. Of course, some people visit blog sites on the off chance that there has been another posting – I do it myself often enough – and that would account for many recorded hits, so it doesn’t do to get carried away.

Then we come to the incredible part. The other countries, in ascending order, were: Poland (40), France (55), Germany (67), Netherlands (81) and Russia (94). I know a very few people in Germany so, just perhaps, 67 is not too unlikely. But the other four results are astounding. Why would anyone in Russia read my blog? What could I possibly say to interest 40 people (or even one person reading forty blogs) in Poland? It would be remotely possible for young Kiwis doing their OE through Europe to tell 55 French citizens to take a look at a New Zealand blog – but surely they would select a travel blog, or an educational blog, or a … I can’t think of any other sensible possibility.

And where, I ask myself, are my South American visitors, my African public, my Asian and Middle Eastern readers? No one in Sweden or Norway interested? And what about Spain and Portugal? Italy, Greece, Afghanistan …? Not a single hit from any of those places. It’s true, I don’t know anyone who lives anywhere there either (except Spain) but that doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to hit counting.

It is, as the King of Siam said (in The King and I) a puzzlement.

The picture is "Summer Garden"

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

PAPERWEIGHTS

I started putting things away in the spare room chest of drawers after earthquake #1, way back in September. The things at first consisted mainly of objects that had been standing on various surfaces and had fallen down or over but not broken. The only valuable and irreplaceable thing was “the heirloom” – a Satsuma vase, a wedding present to my parents. It once stood on the brick mantelpiece and had fallen onto the brick hearth into a thousand tiny pieces.

The things that I then began looking at with a steely glint in my eye had been around for rather a long time being decorative, or amusing, or a little bit useful, or carrying sentimental value. Since earthquake #2 (Boxing Day), #3 (22 February) and especially #4 (13 June) and all the thousands of after-shocks in between, I have felt an urge to reduce, sort out, discard, tidy up.

I dislike clutter, but clutter sometimes has connotations. And clutter can be found lying around connotating* for far longer than is sensible, like the Christmas tree-shaped candle that a very small child had given me one year. It was never lit – the wick was not at the top as would be logical and even cute, but in the middle, so the tree had to lie down if anyone wanted to light it, which no one did particularly – because, you see, it had connotations. The child has grown up and would be amazed to hear that the candle was still a treasure. Into the drawer it went, with the papier mache cat, the chopstick holders and the pretty but leaking pottery vase from the two dollar shop.

The stones now – they have connotations of a different kind. They were acquired on a trip to Birdling’s Flat with my brother and his wife on their last trip to New Zealand. Some were tiny but interestingly marked, others were smooth with delicate colours, and we pounced on each with happy cries on a happy day. My brother took a small selection back home and I kept the rest to connotate in a platter or piled into a glass bowl. A few of the large stones were placed in the garden beside baby shrubs to anchor them against fitful breezes. Others, in kitschy fits, I painted.

The spare room chest of drawers is now full. The contents are ready to go into the rubbish bin because I have discovered that connotations fade quite rapidly when the objects of our devotion are out of sight. But the stones … they can’t go into the chest, they are merely stones.

Paperweights anyone?

* Yes, I know there’s no such word.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

IMPERFECT RECOLLECTIONS


As no one else is likely to write my biography, I have done it myself. It’s there in black, white and even colour, all 200-plus pages of it. Hardly anyone except perhaps the family (who may come across it one rainy day when they are trawling through the Collected Works) will read it. However, writing it has been an absorbing, self-indulgent occupation that has taken, on and off, years to complete. And I keep adding to it, expanding it and tidying it up.

Biographies are usually about the great and/or famous. They give us access to vistas of experience, a world of ideas, all the knowledge there has ever been. An old friend, keen to make up for an indifferent education, agreed. He refused to read fiction because education, he said, could only be based on facts and real events, not the fairy tales and imaginations of fiction writers. He didn’t accept that novelists could describe truths about people and the human condition as well as, and often better than, historians. Once, over some very good merlot, we discussed this. Unwisely, we suggested that biographies and histories were full of inventions, false memories, political spin or downright lies. He got quite huffy.

Biographies of ordinary people have some value as historical documents. At the basic level – family readership for example – they tell us how people worked and played, how they managed their lives, how they coped with everyday dramas, how they saw the world they inhabited. That world would look very different to those reading about it two or three generations down the line. I wish that my forebears had written their stories and saved me having to scratch them out from the meagre resources of the past – although that’s an addictive, tantalising occupation in itself.

Having just handed over my autobiography to a friend who expressed an interest in reading it, I am nervously aware that whoever said that he preferred “the autobiography and the memoir, prone as they are to exaggeration, imperfect recollection, blatant prejudice and unashamed untruths” knew what he was talking about.

Alright, I might have exaggerated a bit, here and there. As my mother declared, you have to tweak things to make them more interesting. She was a firm believer in narrative embroidery, and every time she told a story, the details became more fanciful and improbable.

Imperfect recollection? Very likely. It is never safe to assume, in books purporting to be about facts, that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth has been told because the chances are they haven’t. Not because the writers mean to lie but because memories are fickle.

Blatant prejudice: almost no one will admit to being prejudiced about anything. Opinionated maybe, but prejudiced - never. Unashamed untruths? I haven’t knowingly told lies, ashamed or otherwise, but sometimes I have slithered around the facts, skated over the details, drawn a veil over a secret or two.

But it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Errors and omissions excepted. At least my grandchildren won’t have to listen to me in my dotage babbling on – they can read it for themselves if they want to.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

FOR BONNIE - R.I.P.

I am not a poet. Apart from the odd bits of doggerel composed for birthday cards and special occasions, I leave poetry to others more talented. But sometimes I am moved, or inspired, and only poetry will serve. This one tempted a competition judge into assuming I had higher – or deeper – thoughts in mind than was really the case.

I used to take the neighbours’ dog for walks through the bush, and I would say "walk with me" when I wanted her to keep close by in some of the darker, denser parts of the bush, for both her safety and mine. Once, after such a walk, on a day when a local poetry competition entry was due, I wrote this. It won, to the fury of the real poets who had entered the same competition. Just goes to show … something or other.


WALK WITH ME
Frost crackles a warning
underfoot

The path ahead
unknown
untrodden
obscured by shadows

Walk with me

towards the estuary
shimmering
hiding - who knows what

Walk with me

into glades
boney, fingering trees
and menacing shapes

The nor-west arch
gleams like a promise

Walk with me

Monday, June 20, 2011

THE DAY THE BOOKCASE FELL OVER - AGAIN


The first time the big bookcase fell over was on 22nd February, 2011. That was during the 6.3 magnitude earthquake and the aftershocks that continued to buck and roll under our feet that day and on the days that followed.

I had been at the movies with a friend when the first shock hit. I had come home after dark and crunched over CDs and stumbled over books which were all over the floor, together with the blue and white china elephant (still intact), the pottery bowl containing unwanted Singaporean money left by a departing visitor, and dainty matching vases (all broken). The other bookcases had also fallen over. So had chests of drawers, the contents of the pantry, most of the pictures on the walls and some of the crockery and glasses. There was no power, no water, and there was chaos everywhere in my city, already smashed by the thousands of earthquakes that had begun five months earlier.

The second time the big bookcase fell over was last week, on 13th June, 2011. I was sitting in the armchair directly in front of it, except that there was another armchair, and a table, between me and it. I watched it shudder, tip, lean, and then fall towards me in slow motion, spilling its contents as it came. The house was leaping, crackling and grumbling, the armchair was bouncing underneath me, and I watched the landslide of CDs and books tumble slowly to the floor.

That was during another 6.3 magnitude earthquake and the aftershocks that continued to buck and roll under our feet that day and on the days that followed.

It could only have taken seconds but it seemed longer. It was long enough for me to think, dammit, that I had only the week before finished sorting out the CDs and books into reasonable order after February’s big shake. So many books. I looked behind me, to the dining area. Another bookcase. More books on the floor. In the office, still more books.

The next day I made a decision. I was going to sort and discard: any books I wasn’t going to read again; any books that no one else was going to read, ever; any books that I hadn’t read but that I surely wasn’t going to live long enough to read; any books that the family wouldn’t even consider reading. And by “discard” I meant – gulp – throw away. In the bin.

I felt dreadful piling the unwanteds on the dining-room table. I had lived with those books for years, decades. I tipped armfuls into the bin and filled it to the brim, and lugged it down the drive just in time for the truck to collect in the darkness of the next morning.

Then I felt relief. The big bookcase is back against the wall and now, for the first time, it is screwed to the wall. There isn’t one book that I now wish I had kept. It’s too late anyway. R.I.P.

Friday, May 13, 2011

MONARCHY OR WHAT ?

Perhaps sometimes when the Queen is settling down to an evening of telly with a mug of cocoa she might harbour a wistful thought or two about the good old days when she had subjects.

The only time you hear the word “subjects” in the context of the monarchy these days is when otherwise sensible people declare that they want to be citizens rather than subjects, meaning subjects of the monarch. Therefore they would like the monarchy to be quietly retired to the country somewhere out of the way. Why, for heaven’s sake?

The British monarchs of the past were above the law, they could do what they liked, their subjects didn’t know the half of what they did, and they could be stopped only by revolutions. They chopped people’s heads off with impunity, and it was only when the people chopped off one of theirs that the tide started to turn. It’s taken the Brits centuries to tame them so they are now house-trained and powerless, the Americans are jealous and probably wish they hadn’t declared war on them in 1775, and they are magnificent on special occasions. They are the most successful, long-running soap opera in the world.

Think of the alternatives. Republican models don’t have a great record when you think about it, and many of them are corrupt or dangerous, or both. Rulers (usually presidents) in a democracy are elected by only some of the citizens, they spend buckets of money in the process, they come to office owing too many favours, they wield enough power to start wars, and they sometimes morph into dictators and tyrants supported by military force. Look around at the countries headed by presidents – there are more republics than monarchies with down-trodden citizens. As the saying goes, we should be careful what we wish for.

On the other hand, those countries which have retained monarchies but in a modernised, modified form, have found ways of accommodating both royalists and republicans. The Dutch for example. Britain is now fairly close to the Dutch model. Indeed the younger British royals may already be cycling through Hyde Park or shopping at Tescos – we would never know because most of them would blend into the crowd. We know that they are ordinary, flawed human beings, they have jobs and probably live pretty normal lives, just like the rest of us.

In a modern democratic monarchy it really is the people who have the power – why would we want to change that after all the trouble we’ve gone to? It may be a curious traditional system which has been reduced to symbolic status, a ceremonial relic, but it works. And those who fret at being “subjects” should know that if they don’t wish to bend the knee on ceremonial occasions they don’t actually have to. The Queen can no longer have them beheaded. The worst she can do is to cross them off the party list. And she won’t be choking over her cocoa about that.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

KEEPER AT THE GATE


She got me in the face again. She does it every time I walk through the front gate, under the over-arching greenery. I forget that she would have been busy all night and would now be lying in wait for the unwary. Excuse me, lady, I live here! I have a right to walk through this gateway whenever I want to.

Oh well, she lives here too. She and her friends. Inside and outside. The one outside the back door has a harder job – more space to spin that first critical filament across from one side to the other and then to create the beautiful, intricate web that is her daily life’s work. But she doesn’t catch me so often because I can see it when I open the door and I duck.

The one that lives behind the brickwork of the hearth behind the log-burner is pretty safe. She’s messy, she leaves her corpses for me to clean up, and her web is one of those indeterminate ones – smallish, dense, dusty and squashy – but she doesn’t have to keep building it because I leave her alone. In earlier times she didn’t even have to do much catching either because my other half used to toss her the dead flies from the windowsills. She would dart out and snatch them as he flicked them at the web. She would have got a fright in the recent earthquakes though because the brickwork has been shaken loose from the wall. I hope that the re-decorators will leave her space to emerge when they’re done plugging up the cracks and crevices.

In the beachy suburb where I live we are accustomed to sharing our houses with spiders. I remember when we did some major renovations to another house a few years back and the builders “broke the house” – that is, exposed its innards. The wild life that emerged, blinking, from the dust and debris was amazing. And big. And very black. But not as big and black as the Huntsman with whom I once shared a shower in Oz. We stared at each other, she in the corner above the door and I, scrubbing as fast as I could, in the shower box.

But mostly the spiders that live in my house are regular sized and harmless enough. They catch flies. I make sure there aren’t any webs above my bed. I’d prefer they didn’t occupy my standard reading lamp, although they try. But that persistent, determined, patient arachnid at the front gate is taxing my patience. I’m tired of facefuls of sticky, invisible fibres. Every day.

Perhaps I should tack a warning to the gate to remind me of what’s lurking outside. Everyone has to eat. And that’s the only way she knows how to catch lunch.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

SO LADY DOCKER

It’s an age thing. Or a generation thing. One person’s trendy is another person’s tacky. Taste, fashion, style, manners, even language – all have movable boundaries, are endlessly flexible, surge in and out like the tides.

At sixteen I painted my fingernails scarlet and my grandmother, had she known, might have raised a disapproving eyebrow. Much later when nail polish went from all shades of red to all shades of any colour you can think of, my own eyebrows rose a trifle. Later still, to my surprise, I chose blue when a grand-daughter wanted to paint my nails a couple of Christmases ago. If red is OK, why shouldn’t blue, green or purple be OK?

In my youth grannies had noticeably blue rinses through their stiffly permanent-waved white hair. So quaint. But recently on television I saw middle-aged women with screamingly blue and pink hair, and what’s more they were wearing really silly hats, and even worse, it was after dark. So not done a generation ago. They must have been yesterday’s punks, I decided, with a superior smirk. Punkhood does not age well. But neither do most of the fashions of the past, except when they return only slightly modified and masquerading under another label.

Mention “leopard print” and my mind flies back to 1950s London and the notorious Lady Docker. Once a dance hall hostess, she out-lived two husbands before she married Sir Bernard Docker and set off on an extravagant and ostentatious life-style that had the press and public permanently drop-jawed. Sir Bernard was chairman of this and director of that, and apparently had a cavalier way with company funds. Lady Docker had no taste but she had a glorious time with shareholders’ money and everything she did was splattered all over the nation’s newspapers. Her cars were gold-plated and upholstered with fur and skins flayed off animals. She bought the real thing and made it seem trashy.

Leopard skin looks better on leopards, and leopard print, in 1950, equalled cheap and was worn only by ageing, busty barmaids (surely an extinct species). Now it’s trendy, and I am ready to be converted. After all, I changed my mind about fake fur when – briefly – it came in day-glo colours and was made of nylon. It wasn’t pretending to be something it wasn’t, and it was fun. I also changed my mind about wearing high heels and jewelry with pants – why not, I said, and piled on the bling. Perhaps there is a pinch of Lady Docker in most of us.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

THE SNAKE RING


My snake ring is not valuable but it is precious. It is not beautiful but it is eye-catching, quirky, unusual. It is made of heavy silver, and the snake’s head peers over its tail with beady eyes that may or may not be sapphires. The ring is a little too big for my finger, and recently I wore it at a family lunch – our second, very late, Christmas lunch complete with turkey and presents – and went home without it.

I suspected that it had dropped off into the box of paper rubbish that we collected after we had opened our glittery parcels. The rubbish had then been piled into the yellow bin – a large, rather full bin – for recycling and by the time I realised this, I was home and the family had scattered. I resigned myself to the idea that the ring was lost.

It had been given to me by my Significant Other who, unlike me, loved shopping. I wouldn’t notice a tempting article even if it was highlighted in a shop window with stars twinkling around it shouting “buy me!” My Significant Other was made of more discerning stuff and had an eye for interesting things. He also had great taste.

We had progressed beyond exchanging presents on birthdays or at Christmas, but the Significant Other didn’t let that stop him shopping. One of his pleasures was to come home with something, unexpectedly and for no particular reason, that he thought would please me. Usually it did, although once it was a particularly ugly two dollar teddy bear with its tongue hanging out. He saw it in his mind’s eye with a stud in that lolling tongue and couldn’t resist it. I often threatened to throw it out but never could – and now I never would. It sits on my bedroom sofa with its insolent tongue still studless and sometimes I poke mine out in return as I pass.

However the Significant Other was particularly tempted by rings. Not diamonds or rubies, but rings that caught his eye in junk shops. Every one is precious because of the thought behind it, and the snake ring was one of these. But it was lost in a heap of bright paper – or so I thought.

Then one day it appeared on top of the family’s letterbox – distorted and flattened. Clearly it had slipped off on the drive and been run over, unnoticed, and found later by a neighbour. It has now been carefully, meticulously restored to roundness – not quite perfect, but its imperfections are honourable scars that I wouldn’t be without. They are partly what makes it precious.

Friday, April 8, 2011

'WHAT'S IN A NAME? ...

… That which we call a rose, by any other name …” would be inappropriate, seeing that I am casting about for a name for a male character. Not just any male character but the leading man. In my half-finished novel. Which has been in the bottom drawer for, oh, ten years or so. Abandoned. Derelict. Bo-o-o-ring. Rather like the character’s current name.

(Think. How about Adam? Boris? Charles? Dougal? Edwin? …) The four people who read the first thirteen chapters have stopped nagging me to finish the novel. No stamina. A fifth reader has recently popped up, read all thirteen chapters in one go, and has taken over the nagging. I feel a stirring of interest and I’m tempted. But, ten years on, everything needs changing: the style, the pace, the language – and the name of the leading character.

(… Malcolm? Norman? Odin? …) Reading through the manuscript so far, and after so long, I can see that the story itself has a fairly decent basic structure. Alright, it needs kicking along a bit but that sort of tinkering can come later with the revision process. And I happen to like tinkering. As long as there is plenty of material to play with, I can make adjustments, cut and polish until the manuscript is gleaming. And the plot, so far, holds up – yes, there is a plot in this novel, there has to be, it’s that kind of novel. But if I am to re-activate it, and believe in it enough to finish it, I have to start in a small way, by giving the wretched leading man a new name. It’s a bit like changing one’s hair colour, or buying a new pair of shoes – a fillip (… Philip? …), something to ginger things up and get me going in a fresh new direction.

I don’t know yet if this manuscript is any good, but I’ll never find out if I don’t finish it. The leading man (Thomas? Ullrich? …) has to wake up and assert his authority, get a move on, do something. Maybe that’s the problem – he’s not very alive yet. The name of the leading character in a work of fiction is important in that respect. It has to reflect the persona that has been created for him or her, and the character has to stand out and be significantly alive. The name has to sound right in context and not clash with other names. And it can’t be anything like, say, Adolph or Hannibal, that might carry unfortunate connotations. Connor? Now there’s a thought. Yes – I think – Connor! Connor Page. That’s a definite maybe, as Sam Goldwyn may or may not have said.

P.S. Fifth Reader has vetoed "Connor" for a variety of very good reasons and the new name for the character is Daniel - I think - at the moment - unless ...

Thursday, March 31, 2011

ALL HANDS AND KNEES ON DECK



… fingernails too, they came in useful, although I found an old kitchen knife with a broken blade that worked better. That was for digging along the cracks between the boards to clear out the sand, fur, feathers, grit, leaves, twigs, crumbs, cobwebs and dead insects that had accumulated in the decade or more since the deck was last stained or even, if I’m honest, swept. My excuse is that the breezes take care of any loose detritus and everything else simply lodges where it will.

The deck is more of a veranda because it has a roof, and it is shady in the summer and sunny in the winter. There is, yes, indoor/outdoor flow – essential for true deck-worthiness. It is a place to loll with the newspapers or a book and a cup of coffee, to soak up the warmth, or catch a cool breeze, or just to think.

The deck is appropriately furnished. First, that essential on all proper New Zealand decks – a sofa. It is old. And shabby, a bit scuffed, with the pattern faded out of it. There are breadcrumbs embedded in its upholstery. It is for putting feet up on, or spilling drinks on, without worrying about the consequences. There are cushions, although not quite squashy enough for my taste. There are a couple of rustic tables, five plants in pots, two concrete cats painted in uncat-like colours and patterns, one ceramic bowl containing clothes pegs (don’t ask) and an old bedspread ready for covering the sofa in windy weather – the nor-wester brings leaves and twigs scudding across from the forest behind the house.

Once in a while the deck has to be flossied up, just a little, and recently I decided to do it. I moved everything off, except the sofa, and piled it against the garage wall. I got to work on my hands and knees, scratching and probing, brushing and vacuuming. In fact the vacuum cleaner hardly stopped for two days, its cord permanently stretched across the living room floor. Opening the new and unnervingly large tin of brown deck stain I wondered how I could possibly paint that vast empty acreage of boards. And goodness, I could see through the gaps into the newly lit wild life sanctuary below, which was now carpeted with sand, fur, feathers, grit, leaves, twigs, crumbs, cobwebs and dead insects.

When I finished at last, the deck looked quite smart but not too smart – as was proper. The furniture was back in place. My shoes had acquired brown freckles. OMG, so had my feet.

Three days later: another earthquake. The deck shifted sideways, and was covered in silty footprints. @%&*@#!

Monday, March 28, 2011

SHIVERING TIMBERS




The man with the chainsaw came the other day and cut down my peach tree. The earthquakes had loosened its toe-hold on the ground and it was leaning towards the house, its higher branches sweeping the gutters. The tree was laden with fruit – its best year – and I was sad to see it fall.

As the chainsaw bit into the branches the tree took its revenge by showering us both with hundreds of fat, ruby-red fruit, ripe enough to splatter us with scarlet slush. It was indeed a massacre (apologies, couldn’t resist that) but we weren’t finished. Seeing that the chainsaw was whining on I suggested that another tree, grown too big at the front of the house, could come down. No sooner said than done – the tall timber fell. There was now a heap of loppings, and the man with the chainsaw said he would be back with the trailer later.

He left me with a brand new saw – a small, sturdy thing to replace the rusty old tenon saw that I used for odd jobs around the place. Yes I know, a tenon saw does a specific task and is not designed for all the jobs that I found for it, but I can’t handle the great big push‘n’pull thing with teeth like Jaws, or the slightly smaller one that wobbles enough to be played with a violin bow (some may be too young to know about those). I hate the spiteful, curved pruning saw which snags and bites, and even I know better than to use a hacksaw on a tree. So, here was a new, sharp, easily handled saw, and several bushes that were getting too big for their boots. Maybe the man with the trailer wouldn’t notice a few more branches on top of the heap.

On the other side of the drive the liquefaction had dealt rather horribly with a couple of small trees. I pulled on gumboots, squelched into the silt and hacked off first one then the other at their bases. The beautiful little saw worked a treat. I eyed the nearby trees which quivered in shock, but perhaps that was a little too ambitious – yet. Back across the drive there were more shrubs restricting the light from the front windows of the house. Could I? Yes I could. Like the Red Queen, I shouted “Off with their heads!” Like Boudicca butchering Romans, I slashed through foliage. Like Excalibur, my new saw was invincible – no tree or shrub was safe.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

KIA KAHA, CHRISTCHURCH

It is tempting to write a blog about the earthquake in Christchurch on 22 February, 2011. There are probably half a million stories that could be told by the people who were here on that day, and some of those stories have already been told. Mine is unexceptional by comparison, and I don’t propose to tell it here.

However, to write a blog about anything else seems bizarre. Trivial. Everything has changed. There is a sense of “before and after” when life as we knew it has shifted into another dimension. Our perspectives have changed in so many ways, both subtle and not so subtle. What was important before no longer matters. What is important now has been reduced to a handful of personally essential elements, once the basics of water, food, shelter and medical attention have been met.

The pioneer spirit has come to the surface. Instead of spending idle hours reading a book or watching television an instinct for survival and preservation has kicked in. There is an urge to go out and shovel silt, or salt down some beef, boil water, bottle fruit, dig a latrine. Neighbours have become friends, communities are pulling together. News is passed around by word of mouth about a local supermarket re-opening, roads and bridges becoming accessible, the arrival of a portaloo.

Practical safety measures are now routinely taken. Ornaments, important enough to care about and not already smashed, are displayed in safer places, blu-tacked to shelves, or wrapped up and put away in drawers. Bottles are now stored on the floor of the pantry. A bag of freshly picked peaches, left on the bench temporarily, is tied so that when another shake happens (and they happen several times per day) the fruit – touch wood – won’t spill out over the carpet. These are the sort of everyday, just-in-case things that we now do, if we can, that we didn’t think to do before.

What is precious to each and every one instantly becomes clear in an emergency. Those they love, obviously – and that often includes pets. Then come the photographs. So often people are seen after a disaster mourning the loss of the photographs, the record of their lives. Next, the box of valuables and family documents – birth, marriage and death certificates, passports, Wills. After that, nearly everything else is meaningless when deciding, if there is time, what to save and what to leave behind. The small handful of essentials is all that really matters.

Here in New Zealand we have adopted a short and simple phrase from the Maori language meaning “be strong”. Kia kaha, Christchurch.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

HEARTS, FLOWERS AND ALL THAT STUFF

Valentine's Day is an optional extra in our calendar of "days". Unlike Christmas, you can ignore it. You can walk past the rack of cards with scarlet hearts and frilly lace edges without feeling guilty. People can be fond of each other without making a tawdry, commercially-driven, once a year fuss about it.

It used to be taken seriously, with a pagan festival of the (northern) spring celebrating the mating of birds and, by extension, the courtship of lovers. Somehow a priest called Valentine got involved. He infuriated the Roman emperor Claudius II by trying to protect Christians who were being persecuted, so Claudius had him rather nastily clubbed and beheaded. In due course Valentine was declared a saint – the patron saint not of lovers but of epileptics.

In Britain the names of the girls in a village were placed in a box and drawn out by young men in a kind of lottery. The couples remained "Valentines" for the year but were not necessarily expected to marry each other. It wasn’t just rustics either. People of all social classes made something of it – although not everybody joined in. A nobleman wrote sniffily that "a lady of wit and quality ... would never put herself to the chance of a Valentine, saying she would never couple herself but by choice."

In the seventeenth century it wasn't choice but chance: your Valentine was the first person of the opposite sex you saw on February 14th. In his diary Samuel Pepys recorded his intention not to visit a particular friend on that day in case he was claimed by the daughter of the family. On another occasion he remarked that he had painters in the house and was obliged to keep Mrs Pepys busy in case she met one of them by chance.

There was a practical reason for this. Gentlemen were expected to give their Valentines presents of gloves, stockings, garters or trinkets. The custom died out, perhaps because men resented having to give presents to women they hardly knew. True lovers continued the practice, however. Women composed poems and embroidered pieces of silk with messages, and men gave presents of books, jewellery and pottery. Sailors at sea carved bone and ivory into corset stiffeners and bobbins for making lace, decorating them with lovers' knots, flowers and sweet words.

Nowadays the age of romance has been replaced by bumper-sticker philosophy, and instead of hearts and flowers we find "Make love not war" sprayed on walls, foot-noted perhaps by pithy additions: "I'm married, I do both" or possibly, for those who remember their Latin, "amo, amas, amat it again". There is more cynicism. "It begins when you sink into his arms and ends with your arms in his sink" has acquired the status of an aphorism. Not that this view is new. Two centuries ago Jane Austen was clear-eyed about romantic expectations: "Happiness in marriage” she said, “is entirely a matter of chance".

But St Valentine's Day is not dead. Caring but undemonstrative chaps can sidle home to their wives or girlfriends with some small token of love without having to say anything mushy. It is still a day for flowers, chocolates and soppy cards. A picklepuss might point out that it is easy enough to send a card on one day of the year but what really counts is how the sender behaves the rest of the time.

For those who cheerfully ignore Mother's Day and Father's Day as commercial rip-offs, and would ignore Christmas if it weren't for the children, St Valentine's Day will pass by unnoticed. But there will be a few romantics who will wake with a leap of the heart and watch for the postie with more than usual eagerness on February fourteenth.

Friday, February 4, 2011

ASK THE EXPERT



The other night a man on the phone doing a survey wanted to know my views on the national economy. I suspected that the “survey” was a ruse to sell me something. Probably a cheaper mortgage, or an opportunity to invest in something that required me to attend a meeting and be harangued by excited young men brimming with positive thinking. By question three I was laughing and we agreed that the survey was possibly the most ridiculously useless exercise devised by people running out of ideas, and we could stop wasting my time on it. My opinion was valueless as I was not an economist. And anyway, remember that George Bernard Shaw observed that if all the economists were laid end to end they still would not reach a conclusion. My golden rule of economics is based on the Micawber theory: spend less than you earn and save the difference.

However, lack of knowledge doesn’t stop people being an expert on everything. You only have to listen to talk-back radio. (No don’t – it will drive you mad.) Therefore, to save other surveyors bothering me, here are my views on a few subjects that I, like everyone else, have expert views about.

Teenagers scrambling their brains with alcohol
Stop telling them that they are having the best time of their lives. Grown-ups say make the most of it, soon you will be settling down with a job and family responsibilities. Can you imagine being seventeen and thinking that life isn’t going to get any better? Can you imagine contemplating the dreary prospect of the next sixty or so years all being downhill? No wonder they take to booze and look for cops to taunt into chasing them down motorways. I bet they’re whooping and hollering all the time until they smack into that power pole. How can we let this happen?

Smoke detectors
We know they save lives. Against that, we know that we are driven nuts when they go off every time we make toast and we have to flap at them with something flappable to make the racket stop. So maybe we take out the batteries. Until yesterday, I didn’t know that the new ones come with hush buttons. That single piece of information could save even more lives. And while we’re on the subject …

Smoking
I tried for years to stop smoking. None of the usual tactics worked. This one did, like magic. Cancel the counselling session. Throw away the pills and patches. Don’t throw away the half-empty packet of cigarettes. Put it in a drawer, handy and available. You can stop smoking easily if you know you can have a cigarette if you really must – so you don’t. You just keep putting it off.

Another time I may offer advice on how to fix leaky houses, the best way to lose weight, the most effective beauty treatments, and how to coach the Black Caps to victory.

The picture is "Harbour"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

BOOT SCOOT'N BOOGIE



There are dancers and there are trudgers. The trudgers march stodgily around the floor, or jiggle and hop on the spot as though dislodging spiders. They are dragged to a lesson two days before their weddings. The dancers – ah the dancers!

There was the Cypriot boy I was in love with at boarding school who, judging by the glint in his eye, probably grew up wicked and embroiled with the Turkish mafia – or at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea wearing concrete boots. He was a dancer. When I was seventeen, there was the lonely teak-man in Rangoon waiting for his wife to come out and join him. Except when we danced once with each of the other people in the party as custom then demanded, he and I danced together all night and said not a word. He was a divine dancer.

Real dancers are not necessarily people who have learned steps and know the difference between a waltz and a rugby scrum. They are people whose bodies feel the rhythm and respond instinctively. They don’t care whether it’s ballet, dirty dancing, strictly ballroom, rock ‘n roll, black bottom, frug, robot or the twist – they just do it.

Down here at my level – love to dance, feel the rhythm, a bit past zumba (I would kill to be young enough to try zumba) – there’s always line-dancing. Along with the morris and rain variety, admitting to enjoying line dancing brings about a dizzying whirr of rolling eyes and muffled laughter. So what? Any dancing is for the fit and frisky, and is thought to keep dementia at bay – well, whatever helps is OK by me.

You can do it any time, by yourself, up and down the hall at home. But it’s more fun in a group and you don’t have to drag along an unwilling partner, who is probably busy at home with more urgent matters involving the remote control. There is no need to be under thirty. Or skinny. Fancy dress is optional, but forget the lycra. However there is a look: thumbs hooked into the belt or jeans pockets, maybe a fringed leather waistcoat with dangling hardware in the form of buckles and chains, a cool stare.

However, you can go too far. Cowboy hats look ridiculous. Dressing up like Calamity Jane is unwise. Boots are fine – they make the properly crisp noises – but spurs are not encouraged. Community centre caretakers get ratty when too much scoot’n scratches their floors. Now there’s a clue to line-dancing’s jokey image: proper dancing doesn’t often happen in community centres. Another clue: Howard and Raj in The Big Bang Theory go line-dancing on Saturday afternoons and that IS a bit of a worry.

With half a chance line-dancers might even have given the great Sir Thomas Beecham a run for his money. He once said, after conducting a spirited performance of the Diaghilev Ballet, that he’d “made the little buggers hop!” Contrary to popular belief, a couple of hours of boot scoot’n boogie is not for sissies, as Bette Davis once said about old age. Nor is it for anyone with two left feet. The moves start from simple and go through to intricate, and must be learned and put together in the right order. Not everyone does this – there is always someone in front – or behind or to left or right – doing it wrong.

Line-dancing is not ballet, so anyone who’s got rhythm can do it. For those past ballet – or zumba – it’s an option not to be laughed at.