Tuesday, April 15, 2014


I have given away, or thrown away, a lot of books in the last couple of years. I can’t take them with me as the saying goes – there’s only so much space and goodwill where I’m going, and anyway too many books turn out to be once-only experiences when I really thought about them. They were ditched without much angst, and many found good homes. Not so the books of knowledge.

If I put them all together there are probably two generous shelves of such books that I am not prepared to part with. They include the obvious, such as dictionaries (English, French, German, Latin and Italian) and thesauri (I like Roget but generally find myself reaching for the Oxford – have to keep both). There are the specialist dictionaries too – of biography, of English synonyms and antonyms, of phrase and fable, of proverbs, of foreign words and phrases. 

Then there are the books of quotations – biographical, humorous, modern, Shakespearean and even New Zealand. There are histories and compendiums of all kinds of literature, and handbooks of grammar and style and usage, with dear old Fowler (Modern English Usage) still hanging in there like the old fogey that he is, but standing next to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style which may never date. And there are quirky oddments, like The Originals: Who’s Really Who in Fiction in which one can identify the real models for fictional characters – fascinating.

There is only one encyclopedia on the shelves though – the Penguin Encyclopedia, published 1965, priced at 12/6 ($1.25). It is, of course, almost useless now. You can imagine how the world has changed since 1965. And now it is so much easier – and more reliable – not to reach for a book but for the phone. The other night at a small family dinner, we needed to know several diverse things, including information about schipperkes, the relative populations of Port Macquarie and Timaru, and the weather for the next day.  No encyclopedia would have told us anything up-to-date about any of those things.

The august Encyclopedia Britannica has given up trying. After two and a half centuries the EB is now an on-line, constantly updated, publication.  First published in 1768 in three volumes, the last print edition came out in 2010 in 32 volumes.  Billy Connolly (among other comedians) will no longer be able to recycle that old joke: For sale: Encyclopedia Britannica, brand new, no longer required – wife knows everything.

My modest Penguin Encyclopedia is also no longer required. Out it goes. But the other books of knowledge still have their uses and can stay where they are – for now.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


My mother hadn’t finished roping the family into her efforts to foster Anglo-Iranian relations on behalf of the British Council in Teheran (see previous blogpost).  She got us all in the end, even my father – twice.

Dad was stiff-necked – literally. As a young man in Japan he and some friends were reported to have commandeered a tram and driven it all around Kobe. Dad ended up in a ditch where he spent the night, waking up in the morning with what turned out to be a permanent injury to his neck. As a result Dad had an air of being stiff-necked in personality as well – a haughty look that could wither but didn’t reflect the man inside – unless he wanted it to.

Mother found just the vehicle for him. She talked him into the starring role as the king who wanted a little bit of butter on his bread.  The King’s Breakfast, A. A. Milne’s jolly, bouncy poem, began:

“The King asked the Queen /And the Queen asked the dairymaid: / Could we have some butter for / The Royal slice of bread? / The Queen asked the Dairymaid /The Dairymaid said Certainly / I’ll go and tell the cow, now / Before she goes to bed. / The dairymaid she curtsied / And went and told the Alderney: / Don’t forget the butter for / The Royal slice of bread.”  The cow, it seems, was too sleepy to oblige.

I think I was the dairymaid but can’t be sure.  I was too enthralled by the sight of my father as he capered around to gales of laughter from the audience when he threw a hissy fit:  “Nobody,” he  whimpered / “Could call me a fussy man; / I only want a little bit / Of butter for my bread!”  The cow eventually relented and provided both milk and butter.  “The Queen took the butter / And brought it to His Majesty / The King said,  “Butter, eh?” / And bounced out of bed.”  And so on.

Mother wasn’t done yet. The British Council staged “Twelfth Night” and Dad was a hit in the ridiculous yellow stockings and cross-garters of the buffoon Malvolio.  He must then have said “enough!” – after all, he had a career to consider – so Mother had to make do with us three children for the outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  She was therefore responsible for turning my brothers and me into fairies.  And I never let the boys forget it.


Thursday, April 3, 2014


Curious how the various strands of one’s life can come together in unexpected ways.

When I was eleven years old, my mother – who worked for the British Council in Teheran – volunteered my services as a child actor for a radio play. The child had to be able to read a script and also sing, unaccompanied. This, mother said, I could do.

I was taken to the studio where all the other (volunteer) actors, including my mother, were grown-up. We stood around a single microphone with scripts in our hands and, after a quick read-through, we were live on air, broadcasting an English language drama to the no doubt bewildered Iranian audience.  I had been warned not to flutter or scrunch the script because the mike would pick up every tiny sound. Each page was to be allowed to drift quietly to the floor when done with.  Also, if I made a mistake or stumbled over my words, I was to carry on regardless. There was, you see, no recording tape in those days. It was live, with no second chances.

Jump forwards a few decades and I found myself in New Zealand with a sideline job as a commentator on radio. “Community Comment” went out every weekday morning just before (or just after?) the eight o’clock news. There was quite a stable of commentators and my turn came round every six weeks or so. Now there was recording tape, and I would go into the studio the day before with my script and record it, knowing that fluffs and stumbles could be corrected, erased, recorded over.

Another strand: after nearly four decades of reviewing books I severed the tie that bound me and looked around for other things to fill the gap. Those happened to include writing short fiction – flash fiction, or 250s (that is, stories that are 250 words or under).  Not my usual genre, which is non-fiction, but how hard could it be? I started writing 250s for fun and sent a couple off to Flash Frontier (http://flash-frontier.com/ ).

As a direct result, I was asked to read one of the stories on radio.  On Monday I will be going into town with a script, ready to record it for PlainsFM, a local radio station that supports books and reading, writing and writers. I expect to feel very much at home.