Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Who says that plants don't have feelings? The Prince of Wales and I are as one on this matter.

Never let it be said that plants can't be grateful. They really, really care. Take foxgloves for example. They look fragile and elegant, as if even a breeze would lay them low. And after December's big quake mine were in trouble.

The liquefaction around my house from that quake amounted to about twelve moderate barrow loads and I had shovelled some down the apparently bottomless holes and trenches around the place and tipped the rest onto a large bare part of the garden. There it lay, a grey and horrible silty desert. Elsewhere foxgloves had scattered their seeds into inhospitable cracks and crevices and there were baby foxgloves everywhere, struggling but determined. I figured that if they could fight for their lives in rubble they might survive in silt.

In one of my rescue-everything moods rather than my usual off-with-its-head mood I collected the seedlings and filled the silty desert with them, murmuring encouragement and happy thoughts. The plants grew like Topsy. So did intruders. A couple of weeks ago I waded into the sea of plants and began yanking left, right and centre at weeds. One minute I was leaning across a rhododendron reaching for a stubborn thingy and the next I was full-length and face down in foxgloves, still with glasses perched safely on my nose.

When I scrambled inelegantly out of that patch you could hardly see where I'd been, so soft, cushiony and protective the growth. And far from retiring hurt the foxgloves are now sprouting beautiful tall, pink and white heads. They are tougher than they look, they know who their friends are, and believe that one good turn deserves another. HRH would understand.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Five months at sea in a small sailing ship was a very long time. Nearly 200 people, packed into tight spaces, had to find their own amusements, and the passengers of the ship Euterpe managed to entertain themselves during their voyage to New Zealand in 1879 with nothing but ingenuity and high spirits to help them.

There was music and dancing in the evenings, and George Lister wrote in his diary that "You will think that the time passes away dull on board ship but it is not on board the Euterpe, for at nights are Concertinas, Tin Plates, Bone Rattlers, Fiddles and Fifes." The passengers had formed the Tin Plate Band using, among other "found" objects, tambourines made out of the skylight reflectors off the top of the hatch which had been carried away in a storm. "So" wrote Lister, "there are playing, singing and drumming going on until about twelve o'clock. I am sure if we were on land they would think we were all heathens."

It wasn't long before things became more orderly, partly due to the tireless Mr Tichbon who had apparently taken charge. The first concert was held on deck at the end of August with a proper programme pinned up so all could see what was on offer. A week later Lister commented that the second concert was held but "tune had left a good many of the singers".

Nobody cared. The decks rang with song: Oh the Fairies, Welcome my Bonnie Lad, Gorging Jack and Guzzling Jimmy, Won't you buy my pretty flowers, and If we only had the holding of the reins. And when Mrs Foat let rip with Come where my love lies dreaming, it "brought forth a wild encore". Recitations were given, including Miss Atreed with The Old Clock on the Stairs, and Mr Skinner declaiming about The Maniac – oh to have heard those! Anyone who could sing, fiddle, shake a tambourine, blow through a harmonica or bang a drum was welcome to join in, and the concerts ended, as they did in those days, with God Save the Queen.

Enthusiasm might have waned a little because Mr Tichbon got tetchy. He said he had heard a jolly chorus swelling out from near the fo'csle late one night, evidence that there were a number of singers aboard who had not yet offered their services. He asked them to come forward. A huffy notice in the next issue of the ship's newspaper reported that Mr Tichbon had decided not to hold an entertainment that week because so few persons had volunteered.

Thanks to Mike Wood Photography for the picture

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I want to paint some more, and have cleared space in the garage in readiness, but there are already too many pictures in the house.

At my exhibition two years ago I sold four to strangers and gave away four to friends who were unwise enough to show interest – oh please, take it, I insist. Two more have since been given a good home with family. That made a bit of a dent in the stock, and there was room enough at home to hang nearly everything that was left.

The earthquakes brought down some of those, and they were not put up again, just in case. They have been stored in a wardrobe for months, but three days ago, with nothing better or more urgent to do, I put half a dozen up for auction on TradeMe.

I have sold other items on TradeMe but never a painting. Not one, although I have tried several times. Obviously the right people, the discerning people, the people who do not agree with Oscar Wilde that all art is quite useless, are simply not visiting the site at the right time. That is, in the seven days that my paintings are available.

What usually happens is, I wake up each morning and rush to the website to check on progress. The critical figures are views, watchlists and of course bids. The first two mount up day by day and things start to look promising. Then exciting. Then positively thrilling. Alas, it turns to custard. The auction ends. There are lots of views and several watchlist indications, but no bids. I retire hurt and disappointed.

So, three days ago I started the process again. Six paintings. Leap out of bed, check the site, start getting excited. Currently, "Grasses" (shown here) is ahead by a nose, but "Abstract" and "Autumn" are not far behind, with "Apples and carafe" making a move on the outside. Maybe this time ...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


My mother wasn’t the hugs, smacks and apple-pie kind of person, but she could catch flies on the wing. She couldn’t bake a cake but she carved beautiful wooden lamp stands and book-rests and tables. She didn’t teach us how to swim, she threw us into the pool at the deep end and said "swim!" She spoke several languages, often in the same sentence, and once asked, in Spanish, for a kilo of vultures instead of biscuits.

She was over thirty, with three children, before she was suddenly thrust into the mothering business. And the cooking, cleaning, shopping and housework business. That was when we were hustled onto a ship sailing out of Kobe and decanted onto the docks in Sydney to fend for ourselves. There we were, with a mother who didn’t do domesticity.

But she learned. By golly she learned. She found somewhere for us to live. She dug a vegetable garden. She chopped wood. She figured out how to cook and clean, how to light the copper, and bucketed hot water into the laundry sink so she could bath us. For a birthday party she scorned the idea of a donkey to pin the tail on. We were in Australia, so what else but a kangaroo? She drew a huge one wearing boots, and tacked it to the wall. The kangaroo had a worried look on its face because of course, she explained, it had no tail.

She took us from Sydney to Durban, to Cairo, to Haifa, to Damascus, to Baghdad, to Teheran, in wartime. She learned to knit and sew and make her own clothes. I only saw her cry once, way back when that ship sailed out of Kobe.

My father's career was also in effect her career, and she played her part with style and charm all over the world. And when she and Dad retired to England, my mother once again set to and did all the practical things around the place: the housework, the painting, the wallpapering, the gardening. She once painted an old carpet with potsful of different coloured fabric paint because it was faded and she was sick of it. She made curtains and cushions and loose covers for furniture. I don't think she was ever daunted. By anything.

When Dad died she emigrated to Australia, back to the sunshine. She lived and worked at a residential home looking after the oldies, some of whom were younger than she was. Then someone found out that she was ten years older than they thought and made her retire, but she went on helping, as a volunteer. In fact she never stopped until she died, aged ninety two. My mother was amazing.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


By halfway through any writing course I would have pretty much sorted out who had a chance of getting ahead and who hadn’t. Those who brought completed assignments to class, no matter what, might make it. For the rest, what with funerals, unexpected visitors, and dogs that had acquired a taste for chewing up homework, the excuses multiplied. The problem with writing is too often a fear of starting.

I always tried to reassure the hopeful that most writers probably never outgrow the empty mind stage. The panic-stricken stage. The OMG what happens next stage. They just have to crawl doggedly across the barren landscape towards a distant horizon. I once ended a chapter in mid-stream, after a day spent wondering what I was going to do with the lumpish characters I had created, with "then they all ran down to the water's edge, upon which a tsunami reared its menacing head over the horizon and engulfed every single one – THE END." A horrible sentence like that was a sign of desperation, but it got rid of all the characters in one go. [N.B. Next day they miraculously survived and stumbled on.]

Novels, articles and poems do not spring full-blown from our heads so that we can write them down, like dictation. Writing doesn’t just happen, we have to start with something. Preferably an idea. Faced with a blank computer screen and a blinking cursor, the mind – empty – is in lock-down.

So, sometimes I doodle – mess about, wasting time, but purposefully. I start with a word that's relevant to the task at hand and write it in the middle of a piece of paper. I don't think, just react, and write down any word triggered by the first: RED – ANGER – ROSE – BLOOD – BULL FIGHT – BLUSHING – LIPSTICK. I might begin with a word that reflects a mood, feeling, memory, fear, ambition, drive, a problem. For non-fiction (my primary field) I might begin with a heading, purpose, a theme, an argument, points, facts.

I don't censor or select, I discard nothing, throw everything into the mix. It's wonderfully messy, like playing in sand. Each word suggests another, going off on tangents, in all directions, until I get a grip on where I want to go. One thing leads to another. It is simply a matter of choosing which of all those words, ideas and their satellites to pursue. Spoilt for choice, and no excuses necessary. The dog can sleep in peace.

Paiting: Waterfront, 2010