Monthly Archives: August 2013

Palmiers For Something That Shouldn’t Be


Non-jam palmiers.

This morning I made palmiers for the fourth time. I seem to be getting the knack. They’re the easiest of pastries, a child could make them. I guess that’s why our French teacher taught us when we were in Form One at South Intermediate. It was a gentle path into the language. Songs, verbs, some words, no text books. A taster, if you will, as opposed to an academic meal. It was fun cooking in the classroom, even if it was just rolling out pastry, spreading it with jam, folding them up so that they look like pastry hearts. That’s what I remember them as, ‘French pastry hearts’.

When I googled that term looking for simple things to make with my young daughter I came up with ‘palmiers or elephant ears’. Maybe we knew them as palmiers at the time but I had forgotten the word. I would never forget a name like elephant ears.

When I made them for the first time since my childhood, I had hoped my daughter would share the magic and wonder of that chaotic day in French class. But she was very uncertain, as were the kids at the late-afternoon soiree where I took those palmiers. They picked them up, looked at them, asked their parents what they were, put them back. I said they were elephant ears hoping to undercut their neo-phobia but the kids (six-year olds and under) were rather distrusting. It wasn’t until everything else was gone that the foreign pastries were attempted and devoured.

My daughter, despite a highly evolved sweet-tooth, failed to join the brave ones. I couldn’t understand it, but persevered making two more batches which I ate alone while my daughter refused them, even when I cut down the options in her lunch-box. It wasn’t until there were only two left of the third batch that I managed to get her to try one. After she ate it, she hunted me down, gave me a big hug on the toilet and said they were ‘delicious’.

I made palmiers this morning not to taunt children with my nostalgia (although that may happen), but because there is a funeral at my daughter’s school and we’ve been asked to bring a plate.

My daughter is very excited about going. She thinks funerals are great fun. Her mother had to quell her excited cheering when I said that I could take her. Over the phone I heard her tell her mother that she had been to three, so this would be her fourth. At five, she remembers more funerals than Christmases.

Catering for a funeral is hard. You never really know how many hungry people will show up. It is disheartening throwing out food when you over-cater, like you have over-estimated how much people care.

We learned that lesson with the first funeral. For, the next one, four months later, we got the numbers right but people who talked too long in the sun missed out to those who had loaded up their plates, maybe noticing there was less to be had.

Both those funerals were for my parents. Four months apart. I remember so much but ate no food. I drank wine, delicious wine, slowly, continuously, happy to see people gathered, to feel relief descending, glad of beautiful weather. There was so much to do it was great that my daughter (who was 3 and then 4) was happy to run around with the other kids, fill her plate with whatever she wanted, leaving me to talk to people, to be both amongst it and absent.

Then, a few months after that, an old friend suddenly died. It was a shock and I had to go, taking my daughter with me up to Auckland as her mother was overseas. My daughter was excited. She wore the bright floral dress she wore at her grandparents’ funerals. But this was a different flavour. Dad was not going to be standing up the front of everyone talking into the microphone, welcoming them, pointing to the toilets, making calming jokes.

At the end of the service she insisted on viewing the body. This hadn’t happened with her grandparents although she had seen plenty of photos (it wasn’t deliberate, but a consequence of geography: they were cremated by the time of each service). Quite randomly, I had been given a guitar pick while working in a school hall the day before. I carried it up there in my pocket just as I used to when I played guitar. When we saw Stephen lying there in his suit, I lifted her up and she dropped the grey Jim Dunlop .73mm into his coffin.

It was 25 years since we had played in halls and pubs around the country. He looked so much older.

It was harder than looking at the bodies of my parents.

At the after-match, my girl resorted to form filling her plate in a room full of strangers, checking in with me now and then. There were no other small children but she knew the drill, was happy just to be, squeezing through the press of mourners. What she ate, I do not know. Probably any sweet treats she could recognize.

I made palmiers this morning because of the number four: a random thing to grasp onto. I did not really know the girl who died the other night, but she was in the class next to my daughter, another new entrant. She always gave me a friendly smile.

It tears at me to think of her parents and family. A funeral for a child just seems to be something that should not be.

But in two hours I will go with my daughter and sit in the hall with those from the school and community. To her, a funeral is like Christmas without presents. A party without a cake. That thought used to concern me. Shouldn’t I be providing weddings and christenings, celebrations of life?

Parents always fret, no matter what.

If there’s something that I’ve learned to adore in this run of funerals, it’s the joy of life. That it is to be cherished, every which way: that its noise belongs everywhere, in all corners of the room.

The kids have been encouraged to wear bright colours, and I shall, too. We will remember Lucy, even those who did not know her.

I may cry and my daughter will hug me. She will have a lot of fun.

Just Imagine

The other morning as I was diverting myself from writing by flicking through my favourite history magazine I indulged my procrastination further by skipping through Facebook which has become, amongst other things, the modern version of a last cigarette or pressing inspection of navel lint.

As I fingered the face of my phone (an almost unconscious action likened by others to the comforting caress of a rosary) I noticed this cartoon posted by a friend.

Shuttle cartoon

It got me thinking. While I sympathized with the sentiment involved, I felt it was dishonest and messy.

Yes, it is sad to see the great feat of engineering and endeavour that was the Space Shuttle Program consigned to a footnote in history, but that’s the way of all great vehicles of state power.

The article in History Today I was intending to read before I diverted myself was about the ornate ships of the line that won dominance of the seas for the British in the 18th century.

Vue du debarquement anglais pour l'attaque de Louisbourg 1745  The article started with this engraving of The Capture of Louisbourg in 1745.

I could look at it for ages, marveling at the skill and craft of those that made the magnificent ship, wondering what it was like inside, how all the parts went together, how an assault was carried out by those garish and impractically-dressed soldiers and, on a more mundane level, how it functioned day-to-day.

But as mind-blowing as these war ships were that wrestled dominance of the seas off the French 250 years ago, they in turn would have been dwarfed by the massive Chinese fleets of exploration led by Zheng He that reached India, the Middle East and Africa 300 years before that.

A comparison of Columbus’ ship of 1492 with Zheng He’s of 1405.

A comparison of Columbus’ ship of 1492 with Zheng He’s of 1405.

The Chinese fleets put the much-vaunted European endeavour to shame. They had supply ships covered in soil growing fresh produce while the Europeans were blindly dying of scurvy for centuries to come. The first Chinese fleet had 317 ships and 28,000 men. Europe had nothing to compare until D-Day, long after the Wright brothers took to the air.

So what happened to this astounding realisation of humanities’ drive towards trade and exploration? Like all such undertakings of incredible cost and organisation they relied on political will and state funds to continue (just like the shuttle programme) and, as always, times change, as do priorities. The fleets of Zheng He ended when a new emperor came in and eunuchs like Zheng He lost power to the Confucian bureaucracy.

Am I lover of war and arcane technology? NO! to the former and YES! to the latter. But more correctly, I am a lover of history and pre-history, knowledge and the unknown. A natural philosopher, if you will (to use a term from the 18th century) who sees science, the arts and religious belief not in opposition but as part of a continuum. I am no follower of the Manichaeism that so infects the present discourse in politics and the media. For me, the world does not divide neatly into black and white, like it does for some. It is full of colour. And even when it gets dark, there are always shades of grey, contrasting intensities of darkness, something glowing in the corner to be inspected.

There can be no loss that offers no gain. No gain that does not involve some loss.

What has the space shuttle got to do with war and philosophy? A lot.

I can never celebrate war.

Edwin Starr was right to claim war was good for ‘absolutely nothing’ in 1969 as the groovy pop culture stance was needed in the face of the Vietnam War. But it was a song of the moment and the greater truth is that while war achieves very little that is good no evil passes without the opportunity for some advantage to society.

Wars are:

1. Good for certain interested sections of the economy of the victors.

2. Drivers of scientific research and innovation which can have applications outside the military.

History is littered with examples of 1.

In, fact, I was talking to a military contractor the other day who said that the US economy needs a large-scale war every 15 years to stay afloat. An easy statement to make but he had just spent the last 15 years helping organize the clean-up of mines left as a result of the various imperial adventures in South East Asia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. As always, it is women and children who face the relics of this aggression while they go about the mundane tasks of seeking water and wood. The producers of the land mines and the politicians who demanded their deployment, as well as the combatants who placed them in the ground where they remain till this day, are all absent from the clean-up. No glory to be had there.

We also talked of the present absurdity of the US Army being forced by politicians to take orders of new, more technologically advanced tanks when they are quite happy with their present ones.

Naturally, examples of 2 are a little less depressing (I use that small qualifier not because I live in a land where understatement is an understatement but because the innovations come on the back of making it ever-easier to kill people).

Florence Nightingale pioneered nursing care in the inanity of the Crimean War not for the benefit of civilians, but to stop soldiers from dying from the wounds and disease that were seeing them off at a greater rate than the enemy ever could. After they were healed they were sent back to the task of killing the Russians in an aggressive, pointless war far from home.

We continue to benefit from that awful situation with modern health-care.

New Zealander Sir Harold Gillies, ‘the father of plastic surgery’, pioneered facial reconstruction during The Great War (the one fought to end all wars) so that those who had put themselves on the line so there would no more need to fight could be better accepted back into the society of those who, for whatever reason, had not made that sacrifice. The predicament of the half-faced veteran, Richard Harrow, in Boardwalk Empire says a lot about this appalling situation.

Sir Archibald McIndoe  (also from Dunedin) worked for his cousin, Gillies, in the 1930s, learning the trade before achieving medical breakthroughs working with RAF burn victims (the famous Guinea Pig Club) in World War II.

Another great benefit derived from World War II is international travel. Jet planes were relatively ineffective during the war but the technology was soon parlayed into the cheap travel we enjoy today.

It still amazes me to think how far air travel has developed from the Wright Brothers’ first flight 110 years ago. But to link their achievement on a continuum with the space shuttle is disingenuous.

An apple and a pig are food for some and may even be found in the same shop or dinner plate. But the one does not proceed from the other.

Likewise, powered flight is similar to space travel in that they both leave the ground, but the shuttle programme was born of a rather different impulse.

We all know that the Wright brothers weren’t the first to imagine how we might fly. There had been countless attempts throughout history, amongst them New Zealand’s great challenger from Temuka, Richard Pearse, who some still claim to have beaten the Wright’s by 9 months.

Medal struck by NZ Mint claiming Pearse flew first.

Medal struck by NZ Mint claiming Pearse flew first.

The Wright Brothers were bicycle makers working away by themselves while the U.S. War Department (yes, the War department) and the Smithsonian Institution combined resources and scientific expertise to ‘conquer the air’.

How did the Wrights’ compete with that? There’s a fascinating and gripping book about it called ‘To Conquer The Air’ by James Tobin.

But basically, to quote a(nother) great New Zealander, Lord Rutherford, ‘the father of nuclear physics.’

“…we don’t have much money, so we have to think”.

I must mention that, despite popular opinion, Rutherford didn’t split the atom. He cleverly, and cheaply, worked out an experiment to demonstrate what was inside. If the atom had been split then Manchester would have gone *bang!* well before the ‘80s dance craze.

Rutherford and his "Number 8 Wire" gold leaf experiment that 'split the atom'.

Rutherford and his “Number 8 Wire” gold leaf experiment that ‘split the atom’.

The Wright brothers won the race against the War Department et al. because, like Rutherford, they employed the imagination and skill that the state, for whatever reason, seemed to ignore. It wasn’t mere chance they got there first.

In contrast, the race into space was a very different game. It was born directly of the ballistic missile technology developed by the Germans and realised in their V2 terror attacks on London.

V2 on its way to London.

V2 on its way to London.

The V2 was the first rocket to go into space. Fans of Tintin will recognize its form from ‘Destination Moon’ published in 1953.

We're going to the moon!

We’re going to the moon!

While these ‘terror weapons’ (as Hitler called them, in his hodgepodge German accent) killed many Londoners a much greater number of slave labourers and concentration camp ‘workers’ died making them.

When the Allies overrun the launch site at Pennemunde they grabbed the technology and the developers in order to initiate their own ballistic missile programmes. Amongst them was the leader of the V2 programme, Wernher von Braun who was secretly taken to the U.S. where he ended up starting the Space Program which became NASA.

First photo from space taken by a US V2

First photo from space. Taken by a US V2

Yes, it could be argued that he should have stood trial at Nuremburg, not so much for killing the Londoners, but for the deaths of the slaves and concentration camp victims forced to build his terror weapons while hidden deep in dangerous caves, but isn’t it best to be pragmatic and take advantage of a bad situation?

Like a lot of what happened at the end of WWII, motives were driven by concerns about erstwhile allies, soon to be regarded as enemies. The Americans were desperate for the Soviets not to get hold of the technology (that the Soviets developed their own space programme out of the bits and pieces left scattered at Pennemunde is testament to a great resourcefulness).

This situation only added to the so-called “shock of the century” felt by the U.S. when the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit in 1957. Sputnik sent the Space race ballistic (pun intended).

Stamp issued to celebrate Sputnik.

Stamp issued to celebrate Sputnik.

Eisenhower wouldn’t be outdone and it was no mean feat that 3 months later a team led by von Braun, James van Allen, and Wellington boy William Pickering (yes, a Kiwi was in charge of the Jet Propulsion Unit) sent Explorer 1 into space. It was a great propaganda moment for the U.S. which NASA acknowledged at the 50th anniversary of the launch with this article on their site.

At the time the 3 scientists were (reluctantly) flown from the launch site to Washington for the staged press conference where this iconic image was created.

Pickering, van Allen, von Braun celebrating the launch.

Pickering, van Allen, von Braun celebrating the launch for the cameras.

The Space Race took off not because it benefited humanity or exploration, but because it benefited those who had their hands on the purse-strings. Perceptions of hegemony had to be maintained.

When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the Americans hit back with Alan Shepard the following month. The Soviets put the first woman up in 1963. Notably, she was also the first civilian (the U.S. didn’t feel it necessary to send a woman into space until Sally Ride went up in the Challenger in 1983).

The so-called ‘exploration of space’ has been an overwhelmingly military operation.

JFK only committed the U.S. to sending a man to the moon to get one over the Soviets. He saw no other value (he wrote and said this in private many times).

In fact, he is on tape (the same White House taping system that would prove Nixon’s downfall) regretting making the commitment to going to the moon, worrying that the public would realise it was “just a stunt… a waste of money…. why didn’t I say something useful…like ridding the sea of salt?”

Having campaigned on being ahead in the “missile-gap” his presidency depended on being in the lead. Gagarin went up 2 months into JFK’s presidency so he had to come up with something, anything, to top them (hence, the famous speech filled with lofty ideals).

Once JFK was assassinated in 1963 his commitment became sacrosanct. Yes, it was a marvellous feat and achievement, but it had little to do with the spirit of exploration and invention that motivated the Wright brothers into the air in 1903, or sent Lindbergh across the Atlantic in 1927.

Yes, the Soviets had their own missions to send a man to the moon, but once the U.S. set foot there there was simply no propaganda value in throwing any more money at it.

The Apollo missions quietly suffered the same fate 3 years after Neil Armstrong fluffed his famous lines from the moon (or did he?).

As I child, I followed the development of the shuttle program with great interest. The test flights from the back of Jumbo jets were played on the news in NZ. The programme, started by Nixon in the ’60s, wasn’t about human endeavour, but creating a fast turn-around vehicle to set up a space station.

The so-called “space-truck” was also intended to capture Soviet satellites (Nixon approved the funding for NASA on these grounds). Yet again, it was about the Space Race.

The Soviets had their own Buran shuttle programme that went up only once in 1988 but was soon abandoned as the Soviet Union fell apart.

Like the landing on the moon, I watched the shuttle launches (and landings) beamed live on the telly. I am sad to see these great machines put to rest. But like the magnificent ships of the line that won Spain, then France, and finally Britain an empire, or the great fleets of exploration of Zheng He, their time has passed and there is no need to replace them. No one needs to ‘conquer’ space.

The shuttle was a product of a world I am glad to see the end of. Overall, the Cold War was an obscene waste of money that may have given the bulk of society some little benefits, maybe, but they are way out of proportion to the lives and capital spent.

The space-truck put some satellites up, maintained a broken telescope and provided a taxi service to the International Space Station. There was a lot of compelling live telly for those, like me, excited by such things and there are still infomercials selling products that claim to benefit from technology developed by the space programme. But I think we deserve something better than non-stick fry pans.

Let me be clear, space exploration continues to excite me.

When the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars last year I shared the effusive excitement of my 4 year-old daughter who squealed with wonder and delight as we watched it land. She was so intrigued when I explained what was happening that I got a poster of the solar system for her bedroom wall and a set of glow-in-the-dark planets to hang above her bed. A year later she still knows the names and special qualities of each planet. They have not been replaced by Dora or Disney or any other marker of social acceptance. Each night as I carry her to bed on my shoulders she turns out the lights so that we enter her room in darkness, with only the glowing planets to guide us.

Like the Wrights tinkering away by themselves or the Dotcom giants who started off in anonymous garages and faceless dorms, the wonders of the future will come from the minds of girls and boys chipping away in mundane surroundings.

Likewise, the future for space exploration lies in innovation and imagination, not in bellicose projections of state power, or ‘great (or even giant) leaps forward’.

Right now a myriad of small private companies are pioneering fast turnaround re-usable craft to take the shuttle’s place servicing satellites and the space station.

Dragon 6

Dragon 6

And, as always, the future belongs to those like the young stick figure in the cartoon who dare to imagine. It is not a bigger, louder extrapolation of what has gone before. As the saying goes, nothing dates faster than the future. Leave such whimsy to the realms of the Jetsons (food in a pill!), steam-punk (I heart steam-punk!) and other fancies of a future hobbled by the past.

There’s no need to grieve the passing of an imagined future. Let’s feel happy and confident enough to celebrate what has been achieved, warts and all, to take what is useful, understand what is not, and not cling to the gunships, space-trucks and eunuchs of yesteryear.

Let’s sit on the shoulders of giants, imagining what may be flying overhead, in reality and in our imaginations.

(Oh, and happy birthday to Orville Wright who would be 142 today, if one of the imagined futures of my childhood had come true and he was still alive).

The Space Station zooming over my home.

The Space Station zooming over my home.

Death of a King

Today comes to New Zealand while much of the world is still stuck in yesterday. Last Friday, a friend mentioned it was 36 years since Elvis died. He qualified this statement by pointing out that while it was Friday 16th August when The King of Rock and Roll had his heart attack on the dunny it would actually have been the 17th in NZ when we got the news.

Not that we are slow here. Yes, it was the ‘70s, well before the internet and cell-phones, but even back then such news travelled fast.

In a similar fashion, another friend insists on referring to 9/11 as September 12th as, through our eyes, that’s when the murderous attacks happened. The same events mean different things to different people. Everyone has their own reaction.

I was ten years old when the world lost the great, tortured talent that was Elvis Aaron Presley. I was in Standard 4 at Somerfield School, a few months away from moving up to Intermediate: we were the ‘seniors’ of the school.

We had just come in from lunch on a sunny late-winter day. It must have been a mild winter as we had been playing on the field, something that wasn’t allowed if it was sodden by rain (the caretaker would put a red flag in the corner if the grass was too wet). I’m not sure what we had been playing, but my favourites were bull-rush (or barbadour, as we often called it) and forcing back, which we played with an ice-cream tub lid as no one had a Frisbee at school (I got one “from overseas” a year or two later. It glowed in the dark and was called a moon disc. I tested out the glow-in-the-dark feature only once. It was a good way to get a Frisbee in the face).

If my memory is false (and that can be the way of memory as each time we access them they are tweaked in favour of present concerns) and the red flag was out, then we would have been playing on the asphalt courts in front of the big brick building that dominated my small school.

In winter it was 4-square or pat-a-tennis or various games of our own devising. We had a seasonal love of marbles which was much more free-form than the traditional version where the action is confined to a circle. We played for keeps, like-for-like: bonkers, jumbos, cat’s eyes, ball bearings. It was like a form of chasing where you had a crack at hitting and winning your friend’s marbles. Some kids ended up with bags bulging with booty.

One day a friend lost his wee rubber bouncy ball after seeing how high it would go. To find it, I suggested bouncing mine on the same spot, at the same angle. The second ball landed beside the lost one. I felt as clever as Sherlock Hemlock.

Whatever it was we had been playing I was hot and sweaty when I made it back to my desk in Room 4 (or 14… whichever it was). I was right by the corner, surrounded by girls. My position was the result of a ‘70s attempt at streaming where they put the cleverest kids in the back two rows on the left. I’m not sure if they told us this, but if we were clever then we would have worked it out. Either that or my mother told me after I complained about not getting to sit with my friends.

So I sat there, separated from those I had been playing with (and no, I did not just play with boys. I was a child who always had good friends of both flavours. In retrospect, this clearly un-nerved some fathers who suddenly had me uninvited on more than one occasion. Mothers never seemed to mind).

Each classroom had a small, yellow wooden radio box in the corner where messages could be played. I don’t remember it ever being used for anything except for the news after lunch, but it may have been. There certainly were no ‘ding-dung-dong!’ xylophone tones announcing any announcements.

When the news came on at 1pm on 17 Aug 1977, the first words were ‘The King is Dead”.

I was shocked. Although my parents, being of the pre-rock generation, were older than most they admired his great voice and we had watched his last live performance on TV a few months before. He looked awful: bloated, sweaty, the magic dull in his eyes. My uncle said they actually had to pay people to clap. I thought this would have been very, very expensive but Elvis was a rich man, so who knows? My scepticism for such teasing statements clearly yet to form I heard what I wanted to hear, kept questioning unsaid.

In another classroom at the same school my younger sisters would have heard the same news. The youngest, just turned seven, reacted by saying “but we don’t have a king.”

I thought that was both clever and funny.

I would react in a similarly disassociated way three years later. It was a spring evening in early November and I was sitting in the lounge on our grey Conroy heater waiting for tea. Mum rushed in from the kitchen where she had been listening to the radio.

“They’ve shot Lennon!”

That I recognized her distress may be why I failed to understand what she had said. In my head I thought, but Lenin died years ago… (I have always been a history nerd).

So much steps forward when you remember the past. In my first blog I wrote about the fear of cannibalizing my fiction (which, after all, is full of real life). But a story will always take the form it demands. And if you write nothing, nothing ends up on the page.

I started writing this piece about the day Elvis died with the intention of posting it on that anniversary last Friday (or Saturday). Blogs are of the moment, I wanted it to fit tightly to that moment with the counterpoint of my sister’s reaction and my subsequent echo three years later.

But as I started writing about Somerfield School so much came back: how I ate jam sandwiches every day for a year, proudly wore shoes that had more holes than canvas, got called fly-shit face and sonny-bubbles, heard my first dirty joke from my childhood crush while sitting on a jungle gym behind the big brick building.

However, what stepped forward was my first friend who had I unwittingly insulted by the urinal on my first day. He lived in a house that had giant corgis painted on the garage door. Why did he start to dominate my memories? He wasn’t my closest or most enduring friend. He lived on Milton Street. Was I writing about a paradise lost?

It could only be because of his tragic death. He died in his first race as he joined the sport of Kings. The writer in me was wrestling a memoir into a short story. It promised to be a good one (at least, one with literary possibilities), if I did it right. So I googled his name, and even though he died long before that search giant took its first steps towards dominating the world (and became a verb) there he was, for reasons more poignant than I knew. I could not touch this piece for four days.

Maybe I have spilled all the water from this jug of memories. Maybe this blog is enough. Maybe the story of the death of a king is yet to come.

Another young NZ rider died yesterday. The connections are uncanny. Such is the nature of life and fiction.

However you name the day, Elvis died 36 years and four days ago. It was very sad. Hunter was 16. What more needs to be said?

A Post-Rugby Post

Last night I went with friends to the local RSA (Returned Services Association) to watch the opening game of the Bledisloe Cup. I hadn’t intended to go there, even though I had been talking about it for all of the six years I’ve lived in Titahi Bay.


In fact, I hadn’t intended to go out at all as the game was in Sydney (which is two hours – and twenty years – behind New Zealand), so the All Blacks weren’t taking on the Wallabies until 10:05pm (which is after the bedtime imposed by my present job).

But my friends were keen and even though I was on a roll with my writing, I decided to get away from the screen and be sociable… especially as we were meeting up for beers and dice beforehand.

I’m rather fond of Zilch! I used to play it a lot in Christchurch in the ’80s. It has a gambling thrill as you chose whether to bank your score or risk all on a throw. There’s nothing like trying to feel what is in the dice, shaking them in time to the music, hearing the six dice rattle across the table, watching the last one spin, willing it to go the way you want.

There were four of us playing, all rather competitive gamers, so there was plenty of commentary as players tried to get each other to blow their throw.

Throwing badly from the start I decided to bank low and keep scoring.

To use a rugby analogy, I was taking every penalty kick offered rather going for the heroic try.

I took a bit of flak for this inglorious strategy. However, as kick-off time for the rugby approached I had got myself within cooee of the bolters who had used up all of their good luck.

My final throw was my best and I was just as shocked as everyone else to win.

With ten minutes to kick-off we were off to ‘the Flying Jug’ (it’s actually called the Mariner. Titai, as the locals call Titahi Bay, is a sea-side community with a colourful past).

Most unusual for a Saturday night the car park was chocka and groups of people were milling about, smoking in circles. I could hear a band playing inside but I couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t be showing the rugby so we filed in.

It didn’t seem the usual pub crowd and there were no seats anywhere. Very unusal. The band was groovy, but not too loud. Before approaching the bar we had a peek in the side lounge…it was also packed.

I felt a bit self-conscious but put it down to paranoia born of pre-loading.

That’s when I saw the cake in the shape of a bikini-clad woman with enormous nipples poking through.

I got a feeling just like I had late one Sunday night many years ago when, after several long days working in the pits at the Aussie V8 Supercars at Pukekohe, I had gone with a few workmates to find a pub that was open near TVNZ (I used to be a TV soundman). As it was after 9pm on a Sunday all the usual options were closed. We ended up finding one we had never been to before.

We got our beers and sat down, oblivious to the surroundings due to exhilaration and over-tiredness (and several ‘travellers’ on the bus back to Auckland).

The six of us were getting sideways looks. That’s when I clicked. My female colleagues were the only women in the bar. We had stumbled into gay night and were making the regulars uncomfortable.

Likewise, last night after looking around I realised we were the only pakeha (white-fullahs) in the place. Not entirely unusual as we live in the heart of Ngati Toa territory. It’s a good chunk of what I like about living here. But there was something else going on and the spread laid out on the tables behind the bawdy cake confirmed it.

I suggested we head for the RSA, and as we filed back out I saw the photo of the uncle who the party was for.

As I pushed through the door I read the ‘Closed for Private Function’ sign.

I’ve been to a various RSAs around the country, usually in the company of former soldiers I was working with at the time (SAS guys who fought in Vietnam or Malaya like directing TV, so it seems) – they’re a good place to get a feed and a pint when you’re in the wops and there’s little else to be had.

You don’t have to have served in the armed forces, but you need a member to sign you in. And not being an aggressive nation, the stock of old soldiers is dying off so civilians have been encouraged to join.

It’s a funny building: old lounge bar style inside with a faux Spanish ‘el rancho’ makeover outside (plaster arches and heavily-trowelled exterior surfaces).

I’ve stood outside it for two ANZAC Day Dawn Services, each time with my daughter.

The first was three years ago. My girl was two years-old, waking early, as two-year olds do, so I took the opportunity to give her mother a sleep-in while I attended my first Dawn Service.

While I’m pretty liberal and open-minded about most things, I’m a staunch pacifist at heart so a lot of what gets said at these services riles the pacifist (and historian) in me. That said, I’m no puritan. I’m open to experiencing things I don’t necessarily agree with. And there’s nowt wrong with remembering the dead.

As I pushed my daughter in her pram along the beach it was still dark and a gentle rain was falling through the mist. I told her where we going: everything is new and exciting to a two year-old, even when they have limited comprehension. In the distance behind me I could hear the distinctive thunk thunk thunk of Huey’s hugging the coast on their way to fly-overs at the various ceremonies around Wellington.

ANZAC Day is the busiest day for the NZ Armed Forces, and I am both glad and proud of that.

Assuming they would go over the top of us, I stopped and turned the pram around to watch them approach from the Kapiti Coast. With the low mist we would get a very close fly-over. I got out my camera and switched it to night shot. Then, the chopper noise stopped.

No one knows exactly what happened, but the Air Force lost an aging Iroquois and three flight officers that day. it was an important day but they shouldn’t have been flying.

Three years later my girl had started school and was well aware about the meaning of ANZAC Day, so she lobbied hard to attend the Dawn Service. I felt I had ‘done’ ANZAC Day but her best friend, the boy next door, wanted to go, too, so we all walked down to listen to the speeches about sacrifice and freedom, all as one listening to the bugle wobble through the Last Post (at least it was live, so many have to play recordings these days).


It was great to see the old soldiers (and their descendents) march up the main street and watch the volleys of rifle fire make people cover their ears.

Last night we got inside the RSA just as the teams were about to take the field in Australia. And although there was only about a dozen people there, the screen and sound was way better than the pub.

We got our beers (after being instructed to get our own glasses from the fridge by the frosty bar maid) and took up pews at the leaner by the wall which was covered with medals and memorabilia. As the teams lined up for the national anthems I looked at the medals.

Titai has a strong military connection. The pub we had gate-crashed is in the middle of what was in WWII a camp of 1,500 US Marines. They rested here after Guadalcanal, practiced landings for Tarawa and Iwo Jima on the beach where my daughter plays, and introduced the locals to big swing bands (amongst other things).


After the war, a lot of de-mobbed NZ soldiers who had been fighting the Nazis in Europe made their homes in Titai (the Marines had been here because the NZ forces wanted to head back to defend their homeland when the Japanese entered the war).

The sound of our national anthem pulled my attention away from the old medals on the wall, and I wondered if I should stand in respect.

I looked around the room. The only people standing were the two guys playing pool.

Always in two minds I felt both proud and sad.

Then it was time for the haka.

And it was good one, too. Rousing and passionate. What else is there like it in the world of sport and popular culture?

The sound was beautiful, too, which isn’t always the case outside NZ where overseas broadcasters often fail to cover the audio with enough mics. I have been out in the middle of the pitch on many occasions, cowering with a fluffy mic. It’s an awesome experience. The audience deserves to feel the full power of the challenge being laid down and not just see close-ups of big men pulling funny faces.

The All Black haka had added meaning for me in that near-empty room last night as it was composed by the great Ngati Toa (“brave men”) chief, Te Rauparaha, who brought his people to settle here after taking a hiding in the Musket Wars.

And it wasn’t just me. The punters who had just ignored the national anthem cheered and clapped the haka.

It felt great to be in the RSA.

If you expected this post to be a report on the game, I hope you’re not disappointed.

Needless-to-say, the ABs won well (as they were expected to). The new players excelled and the young kicker with so much on his shoulders after he replaced the injured best-player-in-the-world had a wonderful game full of aggression, cleverness and luck, even though he hit the posts twice (three times if you count the one that rebounded down onto the cross-bar).

When the Marines left Titahi Bay they gifted their Recreation Hall to the locals who turned it into a successful Repertory Theatre where I once took my young girl to see a terrific (and, for her, terrifying) production of Jack & the Beanstalk.

It was closed last year and condemned due to water damage. There is a strong lobby to save this last relic of history.


The Marines dumped all the equipment they couldn’t take with them in a big pit; jeeps, machinery, clothing, utensils and all. It was hard for the locals to see such wastage after so many years of war-time rations. Apparently the Marines guarding the pit were understanding of the situation and turned a blind eye to those taking what was useful.

We lose so much when we discard the past, risk it all on a gamble for future glory.

You never know which way the dice will fall. Will the kick go through or is it best to give it to the forwards to monster it over… or maybe spin it to the backs to fly into the corner?

Te Rauparaha took a gamble leading his wounded people to the area I now live. But he smashed the local iwi and became supreme, for a time, composing the words of his famous haka after hiding in a pit from an enemy who would kill him if he was uncovered.


Nearly two centuries later, those battles are long over but his words are recognized and repeated around the world.

I have seen many different haka over the years. I have received the challenge and even laid it down. It’s something you can’t be half-arsed about (especially if you’re a pasty-skinned pakeha like me).

You have to feel the spirit and the strength, believe in your right to be there, let those you are facing know you have something worth protecting, that they must prepare themselves to face you.

A sideways look can be a threat or a sign of fear, or merely an indication that you missed the sign on the door.

It’s all good, as they say.

I think about what the Marines buried in that pit: what is sitting in the dirt of Titahi Bay.

It’s just down the road from here. I would love to dig it up.

My First Blog: a blog on blogging. Or… to blog or not to blog?

I have been attempting to blog for some time.

In fact, I have been doing more than that, I have been telling people I intend to blog after years of continually responding to those who ask me if I have a blog that I have no intention to write one… as I am a writer.

Yes, I know all writers are expected to blog but I’m a writer of fiction who follows the school of thought shared by Mike Johnson on the last writing course I attended 10 years ago (yikes!).

“Confucius say, very hard to pour spilled water back into jug.” (Yes, he said it with a comic accent… as I do as I write it).

The point being, the more you talk about something (whatever accent you use) the less likely you are to do it.

Of course, the opposing view can be made that the more you talk about something the stronger your commitment is to realizing the activity, or action, through the engendering of peer pressure.

While that might work with giving up cigarettes or taking up exercise, with fiction (or any creative activity) the danger is that the precious energy that goes into getting the story on the page is dissipated into hot air. Or, even worse, some fool will respond to your ideas by trying to poke holes in them before they are fully formed. Even more deflating is the blank response of those who don’t share your excitement.

Some journalists, in particular, often fail to understand this danger, under pressure as they are to make the fish & chip wrappers of tomorrow. However, writers who care about craft aren’t just typing. They need the words and ideas to stand up to more than the passing scrutiny of the moment.

Even good interviewers like Kim Hill will routinely try and get an author to talk about what they are writing at the moment. In the last such interview she sneered at the author, “can you tell me what is about it…or are you too… superstitious?”

Maybe some are happy to talk about what they are trying to wrestle out of their brain but there are good, practical reasons not to subject unformed ideas to such threats before they are able to stand up.

Would you pull a baby from the womb just to show it off, to see if it was pretty and strong?

I once saw Ariana Huffington, the queen of blogs, try to convince Jon Stewart on the Daily Show to start blogging for her. He laughed and put a similar argument to the one I am making.

Aren’t blogs first drafts, the things you do on the way to making something fully-realized…the stuff you ultimately throw away?

He is a writer who sits in a room full of writers sharing the ideas they have worked on by themselves, deciding which ones deserve working-up until they are strong enough to see the light of day. Blogs seem to be something you toss off for the thrill of the moment.

Ariana said, no, they are about the heat of that moment, that is their point (I guess that is why so many blogs are about self-stimulation or merely lonely grizzles).

For me, here has to be something more.  And there are many, many good blogs. My favourites, with the most meaning, are by friends.

But if they’re just on an on-line journal or diary… well, I have been writing in journals and diaries for decades (all of my, rants, fears, grizzles, stories, songs, letters, ideas, sketches, doodles, portraits, music videos, poems et al. start, or end, there).

But they are genesis, not genius. A starting point that needs hard work to become meaningful to others.

There lies the conundrum for me.

If something is good, then it deserves to go full term, to learn to walk, to run, to dance, to fly…

If it could be something very good, like fiction or memoir, then you risk cutting its (or your) throat as most publishers won’t look at anything that has appeared somewhere else.

There is also a more base reality.

I love Ariana but she wanted Jon to write for nothing  (as bloggers do). That’s how she makes her money.  Jon makes his living off writing. She would be making $$ from his craft (and celebrity) by pilfering his ‘voice’.

Such is the bind for writers who are expected to blog if their work is to be published.

While I call this my first blog, it is my actually my third.

My first attempt last Friday (a reaction to a simple cartoon a friend put up on Facebook) sprawled to 2, 600 words covering history, imagination and philosophy. It is as an essay I am proud of, but it is probably a bit daunting to put up here as a first blog.

My second attempt yesterday (a memoir about the death of Elvis 36 years ago, today) is threatening to turn into my first short story in over a year. I was composing prose for it as I woke up this morning (something that hasn’t happened in many years).

So this, for better or worse – a blog about blogging – shall be my first blog (even though it is my third).

I wrote it straight out of bed this morning after a night of insomnia (which has been going on for months) where, after waking at 1am, I read 2 short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald (an author I have only just heard about, gee she is wonderful). But as I still could not sleep I got up at 2am to re-watch the latest episode of Breaking Bad (such compelling story-telling, so beautiful, so wonderfully acted. And, like Penelope Fitzgerald, totally inspirational).

My thoughts may be a tad messy or manic as a result. If you’ve read this far, I thank you for your time and interest.

Shortly, I will add links to my published fiction and less wordy stuff like my music videos and photos.

It’s nice to have a place to put them other than the box by my bed, or the corners of my head.

But for now, it is time for coffee and breakfast, and to maybe finish the first 2 blogs, if it is possible.