Monday, June 25, 2012

FINNYGAN'S WAKE* HAS BEEN POSTPONED

There is a quotation from Sylvia Plath tacked to the wall above my computer. It says that "everything is writable about" and that "the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt". It being a lean week for creativity, I was casting about for an idea – big mistake by the way, ideas skitter away like mice if someone is looking for them – when George, the resident thief, brought one in and dropped it on the carpet.  It was a goldfish and it glittered.

After finding a shark on my lawn last week – another story and I haven't yet found a way to burrow into it – a goldfish seemed like a fairly broad hint. No idea where George found it; as far as I know there isn't a goldfish pond within cooee except the one six houses down, guarded by two large dogs. 

I gave George a sour look and asked him if he wanted fries with that. He smirked. I picked up the fish, which immediately came to life with a leap and a wriggle. Waah! Where's a BOWL when you want one in a hurry.  I found one and filled it with water, dropped the fish into it and waited.  It flicked a fin.  It waggled its tail. It bobbled a bit but stayed upright. If it died, fine, I could hold a wake – any excuse for a party.  If it lived – well, I didn't want a goldfish, but friends have a pond which is the domain of a turtle with attitude. It doesn't tolerate anything smaller than itself in its habitat and while it moves ponderously on dry land, in water it's apparently lethal. No, it's not called Ninja but it probably should be.

I rang the friends. The turtle was asleep under a bush somewhere and would be for the next couple of months, so yes, it would be safe to put the goldfish in its pond.  We tipped it out and watched while it thought about life and its astonishing twists and turns. After all, within an hour or so that fish had been places and seen things beyond its ken.  Although if it's true that goldfish have an attention span of only seconds, perhaps life passes them by without making much impression.

Reports indicated that, after a quiet time presumably recovering from shock, the goldfish had begun to explore. The next day it was positively chirpy and had acquired a name. Now, four days on, we are uncrossing our fingers. Finny is apparently fine, and its wake has been postponed.

* With a nod to James Joyce - and the painting is part of "Estuary"

Saturday, June 16, 2012

WRESTLING WITH A MOA

There is a tableau in the Canterbury museum that stops my terminally soft heart every time I see it. It shows a gloomy bush scene with a large moa (mow-ah for non-New Zealand speakers) on a nest trying to protect the egg, and another facing down a Maori and his dog. The man is about to fling a spear.

Once upon a time, more than three hundred years ago, New Zealand was home to the moa – a species of large, flightless, and indeed wingless, birds. The largest could weigh 230 kilos and stood taller than a man when the head was up, although normally they walked with their heads poking forward as they foraged in the bush. Until the Maori came, the moa's only predator was the Haast eagle. But the Maori came, and they hunted the moa to extinction.

Or did they?

In 1994 traces might have been found near the Bealey River, up in the Southern Alps. There was a flurry of interest, round about the time that the staff of the Bealey Hotel in Arthur's Pass, wondering how they could drum up business in a slow year, went tramping in the Avoca Valley. They saw something strange. It looked like a moa. They took a blurry photograph. Wow! If it was a moa, it would be of enormous interest to science, a huge boost to the tourist industry, and wouldn't do the Bealey Hotel any harm either.

The news spread. Everyone got excited. The Department of Conservation inspected the photograph and declared that they really couldn't say but the thing looked more like the rear end of a red deer. Too late. Moa clawprints were seen everywhere, even in the city. I remember prints in the snow going all round the roundabout near my house. Sightings of moas were recorded and passed on, growing wings as they went. People rang up radio stations to say that they had moas in their garages, good condition, just needing a bit of oil and a tidy-up, going cheap. Others said bleeping moas, making a dickens of a din on Sunday mornings and waking the neighbours.

I myself, only the other day, had a helluva job wrestling my moa into the boot of the car so I could take it to the man for sharpening.

Monday, June 11, 2012

THE QUEEN, ROLF HARRIS AND I

Rolf Harris, OOA* (or should it be just OA?) and I once spent a night together. It was June but it was chilly and it was going to be a long night. He brought a blanket. So did I. He also brought his piano accordion. We went into the park and sat down on the damp grass right beside the avenue going through the park – we were young and didn't care about catching colds or anything like that, we were caught up in the moment.

So there was music and singing and stalls selling hot things to eat, and there were lots of people strolling about in the park. I know that I slept a bit, although it wasn't very comfortable. Or warm, even with my blanket wrapped around me. I don't know if Rolf got a wink – he says that he was playing Waltzing Matilda on his accordion to anyone who would listen, and even in those days he was ever the showman.

In the grey dawn we could see that the crowds had thickened and the mood was lifting in spite of the cold drizzle that was falling. And before long the avenue through the park began filling up with soldiers lining the route. Then the carriages started trundling past – prime ministers, presidents and majesties everywhere. Queen Salote of Tonga – she would have been majestic even if she hadn't been a majesty – went by, and sitting beside her was a small man. Someone nearby asked "who's that?" and someone else said "lunch".

Then Queen Elizabeth came rolling around Hyde Park Corner – tiny in her golden coach and waving at Rolf Harris and me and thousands and thousands of cheering, happy, cold, wet citizens. Sixty years ago. Rolf Harris was deeply impressed – he said so on the radio this morning. I wouldn't know – I never saw him at all.

* Officer of the Order of Australia, recently bestowed

Painting is "Reef"

Saturday, June 9, 2012

UNFRIENDING - SO LAST CENTURY

Ambrose Bierce, American journalist, short story writer and grumpy old cynic, was way ahead of his time. More than a century ago, he became horrified at what he saw as "the characteristic American custom of promiscuous, unsought and unauthorised introductions". People were introducing just anybody whether they were suitable or not. He invented unfriending, although he didn't call it that.


Ambrose Bierce lived in gentler times, when the world had social rules and everyone knew what those rules were. The way people developed their personal connections was no exception. There was none of today's "Hi, I'm Debbie – and you are ...?" There was family, the people they were stuck with because they were attached by blood or marriage. There were friends, who were acquired through mutual friends and were properly introduced and therefore, by implication, vouched for. The mutual friend would say something like "Mr Darcy, may I introduce to you Mr Collins?" and theoretically Mr Darcy could decline the connection, although it would be insulting to do so.

After friends came the acquaintances, people who might become friends but who had not yet reached that level of intimacy. Outside of these circles (hmmm, a bit like Facebook, trying to prod us into groups) were other people who were known but not considered friends: business associates, members of the same club, people encountered at weddings and the like. These people would not be so presumptuous as to, for example, use first names in conversation until invited to do so.

However the conventions of Ambrose Bierce's time must have been getting a bit lax and he didn't approve. In 1902 he published an essay* in which he laid about him with a rapier. He grumbled about the decline of social standards owing to the regrettable rise of democracy, especially in countries populated by those "of no consequence and no pretensions to respectability". Things had become so serious, he thought, that "men of sense who wish to know as few persons as possible can no longer depend on the discretion of their friends".

He offered a solution. He proposed a system of disintroductions. Instead of introducing one friend to another, an intermediary would undo what had already been done. "Mr Darcy, I have the honour to disintroduce you from Mr Collins."

Once he had recovered from the sheer impertinence of the whole Facebook culture with its "promiscuous, unsought and unauthorised introductions" Bierce, were he alive today, would probably have approved of its unfriending facility. No need for an intermediary – a simple click of the mouse and the job is done.

* Disintroductions, published 1902
Painting is "Begonias" (detail)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

EUTERPE: STORMY WEATHER Part II Screaming, running & jumping over tables

The old sailing ship was not out of trouble. In early November 1879 James Martin complained about the persistent head winds that kept the ship struggling up around The Snares and northwards towards Lyttelton. The winds, he declared, were so fierce that the ship was in danger of being pushed back towards Australia. So close and yet so far – because of adverse winds the ship didn't in fact reach Lyttelton until 24th December 1879. In mid November another storm hit Euterpe.



Joshua Charlesworth reported breathlessly that the main hatchway and part of the bulwarks were carried away by a heavy sea coming over the ship. The next big sea rushed down the open hatchway and ventilators in streams and "flooded the 'tween decks, coming through the store room into our cabins after and going into the young mens cabin for'ard. 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 into one cabin & another opposite to each other. The main bulk was quickly turned out but it came into our cabin all night through & we had to retire to bed with the cabin floor flooded. The ship rolling & everything miserable. You may judge the excitement which prevailed especially in the married people's quarters, even the galley was flooded & the pans & dishes were swimming about the deck & put the fire out so that for a long time we were deprived of our necessary eating or grub."

James Martin recorded more drama: "... there was no less than two feet of water in the old maids' retreat. Several were in bed who came out wading through it in a great state of alarm. The screaming, running and jumping over the tables was fearful. The boxes, water cans etc were swimming about the lower deck. The Captain and sailors ... kicked a hole through to the young men's place and all hands began passing pails." Four days later Martin thought that "another good sea will carry [away] the sheep pen".

However the passengers were becoming philosophical about their situation after four months at sea. Charlesworth wrote: "I managed to crawl on deck & got on the top of Saloon steps with a friend of mine & fellow passenger when a large sea came over the ship & caught us nicely, wetting us right through and very near fetched us off the steps. We however got safely down below & retired to sleep for the night not much the worse for our dowsing." Others copped it too. On 30 November Charlesworth recorded that "A large sea came over the port beam and dowsed a good number of passengers while sitting on the spare spars" and, he adds, "they had their best clothes on."

Photograph (c) Mike Wood Photography

Saturday, June 2, 2012

EUTERPE: STORMY WEATHER - Part I The captain was anxious

Weather in an old sailing ship was hugely significant. The wind drove the ship forwards, held it back and tossed it around. It could make the passengers sick, it could destroy their possessions and even kill them. Sails were ripped, fittings broke, hatch covers blew off. And there was no escaping the rain, it bucketed down, water ran in the scuppers and flooded not only the holds but the sleeping accommodation as well.

So it was on board the sailing ship Euterpe in 1879. All were affected, including the passengers, who were roped in to help with emergencies – and indeed, it must have often been a relief to have something worthwhile to do. Anyone who could help did so.

One spectacularly severe storm started threatening on a Tuesday in late October. Diarist Joshua Charlesworth who, early in the voyage, wrote: "I sleep athwart ship or cross the ship so that when there is any rough weather & rolling I have to pack myself in my bunk, sometimes on my head & and then on my feet" saw the signs of an approaching storm. He noted laconically: "Cat washed overboard, ship pitching heavily".

Three days later George Lister wrote a vivid account of what happened: "A strong breeze with rain. In the evening came a gale. All sails were taken in but the sea ran mountains high and the ship sailing heavily so that the mainyards were tipping in the waves. In the night it was awful. We could not get a wink of sleep. Boxes, tins and boots were rolling about. Some Messes lost all their week's stores. The hatches were closed but the water came through fast so we were in a nice mess. No one could stand without having hold of something. We scarce could go on deck for the sea was coming over like mountains and we often got wet through. Saturday morning .... some of us went up on deck to wash as usual but while we were washing she rolled down on one side and we all went rolling about the deck. There are no exceptions between passengers and sailors for falling. One woman was carried near the length of the ship with a wave and another named Mrs Owen fell and broke her leg in the cabin, coming out of her bunk."

Charlesworth added: "Storm last night, very high sea running & shipping tons of water every minute especially on the quarter deck. Sometimes it came over the ship and went down the ventilators & into our cabins. Not sleeped a wink last night, engaged swabbing out as quick as possible. Ship rolled tremendously, sometimes going over 40 degrees and very slow in regaining her position on account of her bad loading. The Captain was very anxious about her I'll assure you."

The photograph was, as so often, kindly provided by Mike Wood Photography