Monthly Archives: July 2014

My Left Foot

This morning was delicious, lingering in bed with my favourite companion, the magazine History Today – which isn’t to say that there isn’t another companion I would prefer to dandle but I have to say I find lazing and exploring this trove of pictures and articles far more satisfying than… well, I would say the proverbial but as an amateur historian and writer I find it hard to

1. Employ tired cliché

2. Believe in simplistic statements.

Cliché may be a trope of hacks of every ilk, an easy and lazy shorthand, but like tired and repetitive intimacy it communicates little and must always be subverted and extended otherwise any engagement will be unsatisfying and brief.

So how shall I put it? History Today: better than bad sex, almost as satisfying as good sex.


Mmm, such sweet pleasure

Why do I believe this? Because I always learn something new and the experience invariably leaves me inspired to share and create.

This morning, after a late night at work I have escaped my warm bed (and reliable lover) to jump on the computer because of an article about events that took place on Good Friday in Dublin earlier this year which commemorated (celebrated?) the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles in Irish history. Medieval monks characterised it as Christian Irish seeing off pagan Vikings, but like all history (and story, and life) it was more nuanced than that and modern historians characterise it as Celt-on-Celt with high-king of Munster, Brian Boru, fighting the rebel king of Munster, with paid Vikings employed on both sides.

I had never heard of Clontarf, but I have certainly heard of Brian Boru, having seen pubs named after him around the world. What struck me about the story from 1,000 years ago is that Brian Boru, that great hero of Irish nationalism, took no part in the battle as he was in his mid-60s by then, too old to swing an axe. Instead, he waited in his tent for events to unfold.


Just to be safe, Brian sits out the battle

At this point I will say that I consider myself totally un-Irish. My grandparents were English and Scots. I’m not hostile, my position is more of a friendly rivalry, like that which exists between my home, New Zealand and our (to others) nearly indistinguishable neighbour, Australia.

I fervently resist the lazy sentimentality that seeks to claim Irish descent in everyone’s blood. I despise the compulsion to get pissed on St Patrick’s Day and kiss a spotty Irishman. It’s all far too McDonaldsy for me.


Definitely not Ireland

That said, the historian in me knows this isn’t a defensible position. There was a huge amount of back and forward migration between Ireland and Britain, both individual and tribal, with the Scots coming across from Ireland to lowland Scotland to displace the Picts to the north. And Irish, Scots (and English) all have Viking blood in them.

I only learned this when I went to Scotland to visit my roots. I asked a Scottish relative how come there were Irish pubs all round the world but no Scottish ones. She said it was because the Scots like to get on with things rather than sitting around whinging (or words to that effect).

Ireland 2013 - Brian Boru Pub in Portland, Maine

Irishy pub in Maine

Once, a friend of my long-term partner claimed to have a psychic premonition that I would one day marry an Irish girl. She was quite insistent. It amused my (Dutch) partner greatly. I don’t really believe in such things but when we subsequently broke up (we were together, then not, over many years) and I travelled alone through Europe, I couldn’t help thinking that I should avoid visiting Ireland, just in case (my heart, for better or worse, was set on that Dutch girl).

Lately, it has occurred to me that I have never kissed an Irish girl. Wow, what a sad thought, I thought. But what a great opening line for a story, it would make.

I promised myself I would write fiction today, but as I sat in my cosy bed on a cold, cold morning reading about the pathetic death of Brian Boru I wondered if I would ever visit Ireland.

I want to. Just as much as I want to hear an Irish girl whisper warm words in my ear.

About a month ago I had an interesting encounter at a cafe in Petone. Things had been very busy (aren’t they always?) so I took the opportunity to sit and think over a coffee, scrawling my thoughts, lyrics and ideas in the journal I always carry.

As I left an old man sitting alone with a glass of wine, touched my arm and stopped me. He apologised but said he wanted to say that he had noticed me sitting there and that there was something… something… something about my eyes, and that if I wasn’t in a rush and if I didn’t mind, would I sit with him and tell him about myself… if he bought me a drink?


Irish gal in the cafe where I met Harry

Well-dressed in a suit and tie, maybe in his 80s with a white, white beard, Harry was well-spoken, Irish: eloquently drunk.

Harry Midgely

Harry’s Dad

His flattery worked. I sat with him for maybe an hour, as he told me of his fascinating life punctuating it with constant apologies for going on instead of me. From Belfast, his father had helped build the Titanic, and the other one, ah? Britannic? Yes, yes… he was a politician for many, many years, instrumental in organizing volunteers to go and fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. They had meetings in our house. Really, Harry? Really? Wow. Wow.

His father was also on the board of the local football team, Linfield; had a field named after him. I was transfixed. Was it true or the ramblings of a natural storyteller? Every question I asked was plausibly answered. I told him that I too played soccer, that although I was right-footed, I had a great left foot (better than a leftie) and always played left back. This amused him greatly as a ‘left-footer’ was a term for a catholic (Linfield being, of course, a protestant team).


Heroes of Linfield

When I said I had to leave to pick up my girl from school, he held my hand and gave me his card saying I must come to his place to meet his wife, she is much younger than me, he smiled, she would love to meet you, just love to… she doesn’t drink, he laughed. I left him, sitting alone with another glass of white.

Later that night, with my daughter tucked up in bed, I googled Harry’s name. I had resisted, not wanting to deflate any of his tales or charm, to believe that there was indeed something special in my eyes. Why reduce him to a drunk left alone by a wife tired of his stories, who used a line to get some company?

Lately, I’ve been thinking I am a loner at heart, happiest worshipping at the temple of solitude. My reasons are many, but like all identity, it is fluid and open to challenge.

When my last long-term relationship ended 4 years ago I bought a box of condoms. Back on the market after so many years. I threw out the last of them the other week as they are now past their use-by date.

Says a lot, I guess. Yes, there have been encounters but, clearly, not that many.

Brian Boru was killed by a fleeing Viking mercenary as he sat waiting in his tent: a seemingly sad end for a great warrior.



Brian harping on

But like all things, there is more than one reading. 1,000 years later his name is known around the word, his harp the symbol of Ireland.

I would never kiss an Irish girl, just because she is Irish. And I hope my bed will see more excitement than increasingly vague historical conquests.

I have been back to Petone (it’s a bit out of my way) but Harry wasn’t there. I’m uncertain if he would remember me, but I would like to see him again. I carry his card in my wallet but I would never call, I’m just not built that way.


The charming Harry

As the Chinese saying goes, no co-incidence, no story.

If the fleeing Viking had not bumped into (and bumped off) Brian Boru on Good Friday Ireland would be a different place.

If I had not stopped to talk to Harry, there would be no words on this page.

The future is unwritten, the past always open to new discovery.


Visitors to Dublin



On a Sandy Shore


This morning I woke at 4 am. Not unusual, especially on a full moon. It was so bright and my mind was active, writing narratives that will never see the light of day. It’s been a couple of long, challenging days at work with overtime and 4 hours travel each day, a situation exacerbated by the short-staffing that the health service routinely endures, further compounded by the panic that occurs when sickness and injury removes any meat from a workplace already shaved clean to the bone.

And while I tend to thrive on the adrenaline of panic (it’s how my shy character once found a comforting home on the stage), I am still only 8 months into a 2 year recovery from surgery on my ankle, and I tire easily. Yes, it’s a long recovery. If I knew it would take so long, I’m not sure I would have done it. Especially given that it’s only in the last few weeks that I could say there has been an improvement in my condition. That said, my general fitness is a lot worse than it ever was. I try not to think about it. I do exercises and stretches every day, and go for short walks, training my heel, ankle and knees to walk again. Who would have thought that shaving a 9mm spur off the ankle would have such an impact?

Given that situation, you may think I would be glad of a lie-in. But there is too much to do, and I have a mind that never rests. Often when I sleep I dream of running (something I have done all my life until Haglund’s Deformity knocked me on my arse and on to crutches). Last night I had an incredibly vivid dream where I was about to play a match with the Warriors (the only sports team I love). It felt great to be moving, running, passing the ball but I soon realised that I was about to take the field in the hardest professional Rugby League competition in the world and the Australian opposition was bound to target me. I got very, very anxious, afraid for my bones and life, waking suddenly at 1am, relieved (and a little disappointed).



None of this is what got me out of bed at 4am on a day when I have no work or child to tend to. I got up because I wanted to write about my grandfather.

It is his birthday tomorrow, and, were he alive, he would be 111 years old. Crikey, that’s quite a number. Apparently, when the New Zealand cricket team is on 111 runs, the players in the shed all lift their feet off the floor to avoid losing a wicket. (I had a girlfriend once who was a great cricket fan and she always insisted we did the same. I can’t recall if it worked).

On a more personal level, my mother, my grandfather’s first daughter (who he always called ‘hen’), died on 11.11.11: Remembrance Day (as if I could forget). Once, during those impossibly short, endless months as we waited for the unthinkable, I told her she had to make it to that date. But, then, many things are said as you wait, wait, wait.

My grandfather, Sandy (the Scots shortening of Alexander), was born in 1903, and though he left Scotland in the 1920s, he never lost his sing-song Scots accent. I have, by chance, a quick snippet of it recorded 4 days before he died in 1985. I treasure those few seconds of audio.

He was a lovely, gentle man who, like most of his generation had a hard life. He married my grandmother, Flo’, in Forth in 1926 and they had my uncle, Alex (my mother’s big brother who passed in January), in the historic ironworks town of Wilsontown.


An imagining of Wisontown in its heyday

A significant player in the Industrial Revolution (the first use of coke instead of charcoal, the first hot blast form of the blast furnace) it was in decline by the mid 1800s.


Long demolished housing, Wilsontown, Scotland

My wider family worked the coal mines that remained and my grandparents and wee Alex escaped the soon-to-be demolished insanitary slum in the late 1920s, on a boat that took them to the coal mines at Dobson, on the West Coast of New Zealand, where my mother was born on the kitchen table, to the sound of my granddad’s squeaking boots. (“Will ye no stop that dreedful pacing, Sandy?!)

When I visited Wilsontown (now a Scheduled Ancient Monument) in 2000 it was beautiful, a wild field of flowers and forest with a few ruins. Annie, the elderly cousin of my mother, her husband Bill, and their daughter, Rae walked me around the ruins and I picked up a piece of slate from the place where my grandparents lived.

Annie & Bill

Annie & Bill attacked by midgies, Wilsontown 2000

Bill, in his 90s, recalled living there, pointing out the spot where, as a child, he had gone to see silent movies (!?!) They also took me to the place where my grandfather had taken my grandmother by motorbike when they were courting, impressing her not with the red Panther, but with his skill on the cornet.

When I lay in bed at 4am this morning, eyes closed, willing myself to rest, I started to grasp for a verse Bill had recited when we went to see my grandfather’s old school. They asked if I wanted to get out the car to take a photo. I didn’t. This was the pre-digital era and, unlike now, photos were rationed (more space in the backpack, more expense).

But I have the picture in my head because Bill pointed to a hill; a Marilyn (a hill of 150m) named Tinto, and recited a verse. It seemed to me that whenever a subject came up Bill would burst into a relevant song or verse. I only heard it once, but it is a much stronger image than any photo.


Tinto in Lanark (the verse is at the end of the blog)

My grandfather, ‘Sandy’ Alexander, died 4 days after my father’s 60th birthday, his lungs drowned in fluid caused by all those years down the mines (helped on by the fags). Long-widowed he was living with us at the time, that’s why I have a (brief) recording of his wonderful voice (“like a set of bloody bagpipes”, my Uncle Alex would say). In his last week he would call out in the night, “I’m coming mother, I’m coming”. We weren’t sure if was calling to his actual mother, or to Flo’, who he missed dearly and called ‘mother’ (or ‘hen’).

Sandy had escaped the rapid decay of Scotland with his young family for the promise of New Zealand, but ended up smack-bang in the Great Depression, and WW2 Christchurch.


Sandy, ever-present rollie in mouth, Christchurch c.1930s

He worked for the railways and helped build the causeway to Sumner to provide for the ever-increasing brood of my uncles and aunties. Flo’, with my mother’s help, fed the kids and whoever else needed a feed (like a lot of the now-despised poor, they were always generous with what they had).


Sandy, Mum, Flo’, Alex and new baby Anne, Lyttleton c1930s

As a child, my mother used to sit on his knee as he taught her the old songs.

He died in my bed in the dark of night in my mother’s arms, struggling for breath as she sang him the old lullabies, one of which, Sandman Grey, I sang to my daughter when she was a restless baby.

We sang the same song with my dying mother, the last time I saw her. It was agonising saying goodbye. With Mum in one arm, my infant daughter in the other, my sisters beside me, it was the hardest day of my life. I will hear the pain in her tears forever.

But what can you do?

Life is hard. Death is harder. But amongst both, there is immeasurable beauty.

It’s a long time till I will walk with ease again, let alone run. At the moment I head to the beach whenever I can to march up and down the loose sand, working on unstable movement, gentling increasing impact and stress to my withered muscles, tendons and ligaments, helping them to get stronger.

I cannot believe my grandfather was born 111 years ago tomorrow, 2 years after the death of Queen bloody Victoria. I sometimes wonder if my relatively long roots (Antipodean pun intended) have fed my hunger for history and memoir.

I shall sing the songs and stories that made me, each verse and chorus of love, lust and loss for as long as I breathe.

But now it is light, the full moon outshone by day.

I need to head to the beach in search of loose sand to test me.




‘On Tintock tap, there is a mist,

And in that mist, there is a kist,

And in that kist, there is a cup,

And in that cup, there is a drap.

Tak’ up that cup, and drink that drap, that’s in yon kist, on Tintock tap!’

A Bit of Pottyry

Is it really over two months since my last blog? Really? Truly? Has time devoured my mind and our southern winter huddled my thoughts?
That’s nuts.
Collected and squirreled, not to share.

I have been writing in that time, of a sort, but it’s been back with my first love, fiction. More precisely: speculative fiction*. One set in the distant past amongst pre-lingual humans, the other in the near future in a post-relationship society. My journal writing has been cracking along, too, at a rate not seen since the turn of the century (when I did my first proper writing course).

As it is with a lot of writing, I have little to show for it. Nothing put away to sustain me through the dark days, or to lure a lover to my hoard. What a frigid beast is the desire to scribble.

Last night I received another rejection, for a story of ‘science and the erotic’. Like all rejections, it hurts, but there’s nothing to be gained by not barring up and putting your nuts on the line once more.

I’m doing just that at the moment, taking an online poetry course through the University of Iowa. As you can see from the purple prose and tortured imagery above, I’m no great shakes as a poet, but as a lover of knowledge, and a constant writer of prose, I’m keen to engage in the unknown and learn, fail, learn.

There’s over 7,000 poets around the world doing this free course, so while I feel rather naked posting my exercises/poems online for others to sniff, prod and nibble, I’m able not to attract too many eyes.

That said there’s nothing worse than getting up on stage to dance around and show off your goods to the sound of a deafening silence.

Which is the bind of plucking up the courage to reveal yourself. It hurts when you attempt allure and grace, and fall flat on your face.

It stings just as bad when the tip tucked into your g-string is unearned, unthinking sympathy.

I’ve always written verse. For better or worse (stop it!) Throughout childhood and my teen years, when I played in bands, never has it ceased. It slowed for a time, when I abandoned rhyme (oi! what did I say?)

Ah. Ok, now I’m extracting the Michael (as the saying goes). Time to stop. View the next lecture. Nut out some words (grrr…)

* I have two first loves, but they never meet, so they cannot get jealous of one other. The other love is literary fiction, but please don’t tell, you’ll ruin everything.