Category Archives: Family

The Lockdown by Numbers

49 Number of days at/in Level 4 lockdown.

3 Number of times I commented about adding an extra day, just to crack the half century, before eye-rolls commenced.

1 Number of times I asked whether we are ‘at’ or ‘in’ Level 4 before my question appeared to cause physical pain.

7 Number of novels grabbed from the school library shelves the day before lockdown.

7 Number of novels returned unread 49 days later.

2 Number of novels read! Discrepancy attributable to the fine Murakami novel that’s been sitting on my shelf, unread, for 14 years (and 7 house shifts). And the library book, loaned by the wife.

6 Number of whacky family activities devised to pass the time.

0 Number of times we played charades in French or cards in Te Reo. Or, indeed, passed a fine evening reading Dickens aloud to one another.

0 Number of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals I had watched pre-lockdown.

6.001 Number watched during lockdown. Because they were streaming on YouTube, and it was a bit of a Sunday night treat with dinner on your lap. Don’t judge me!

0.001 Number of viewings of Lloyd Webber’s ‘By Jeeves’ required to prove it is absolutely unwatchable.

27 Number of times the wife or I shouted at the kids to stop blooding singing bloody ‘Phantom’ tunes while they did the dishes.

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2 Number of birthdays celebrated with a nice walk and homemade takeaways. The lack of consumerism produced two songs, and one dance, in celebration. And one spookily accurate portrait built in Lego.

3 Number of nights out toasting marshmallows under the stars, watching Elon Musk’s dumb satellites whizz overhead.

16 Number of sudden, inexplicable emotional outbursts or meltdowns. Because… yeah.

6 Number of family kick arounds at the park followed by lining the kids up against a wall and throwing a small ball at them.

9 Number of times we wondered what the hell we were doing, and swore to tell no one.

2 Number of times someone in our bubble had to get ‘the tickle’ because they may have the Rona, maybe.

12 Number of various types of rashes, aches, tingles and sudden lumps on the neck that manifested while waiting for the (negative) results.

1 Number of times I called my friends, just to ‘check-in’.

57 Number of times I felt fucking useless for not calling friends or family.

270kms Distance biked or run up and down the river, so I stopped feeling fucking useless, according to my exercise app.

38 Number of times I felt weirdly excited seeing unfamiliar faces when I exercised.

Withheld Number of chocolate bars I didn’t need to buy, or eat, but did. So there.

52 Number of feature stones transported from the river up to our garden, as a direct result of family walks down to the river.

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49 x 3 Number of vigorous tummy rubs demanded (and received) by Thomas the cat.

4 Number of times Thomas the cat bit me because I was ignoring his demands.

2 Number of unfinished novels I finally had a chance to work on with all this spare time.

2 Number of such novels totally untouched due to carrying rocks and worrying about strange tingles and odd lumps.

6 Number of new stories written and submitted to competitions here and abroad.

1400 Total number of words in those 6 ridiculously short stories.

Heaps Number of times I suddenly hugged a family member, just because.

Slightly less than heaps Number of times I got a ‘what are you doing?’ look in response.

1 Number of songs I wrote!

60 Number of times I practiced the song over 2 days, because I was so nervous. Singing and playing guitar at the same time? Gah!!!

321 Number of times I said ‘What are you doing?’ during home schooling when the child was ‘just checking’ something on the computer.

321 Number of times a child was ‘arsing about’ on the computer, with good reason.

321 Number of times I asked myself ‘What am I doing?’ by even attempting to keep them on task.

1 Number of times I wore a mask at the supermarket. Felt such a dick.

4 Number of times I held my breath, and awkwardly burst bubbles with a stranger, in the narrow underpass out of Kelson before deciding to use the scuzzy horse underpass instead (even though it seems like a great place to get knifed and lie unfound for days).

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36 Number of cut-price Easter eggs purchased and scoffed in the month after Easter.

25 Number of days I wrote in my daily lockdown diary over the 49 days.

0 Number of insightful observations about life under lockdown in said diary.

100% Percentage of days where I just list what I ate and what we watched.

18 Number of times I did an online BodyBalance class with the wife and felt 100% happier, healthier and infinitely more chill.

Withheld Number of times I reached out in the darkness of the night to my beautiful, kind and patient wife just to feel the reassurance of her warmth.

Also withheld Number of times I reached out in the darkness of the night for a slightly different reason.

45 Number of times I got up in the middle of the night to read countless in-depth articles about what was going on.

4 Number of times I shared my half-baked recollections of what I had read.

3 Number of times I watched the daily 1pm briefing from Cindy & Ashley. Daily numbers tell you little.

580 Number of screws and nails and gap-fillers of various sizes and types bought in the mad chaos of Mitre 10 the day before lockdown.

6 Number of long-term maintenance projects I could now complete with all the spare time and 580 screws and nails etc.

580 Number of screws and nails etc still unused 49 days later. But who’s counting?

37 Number of history podcasts about historical plagues/pandemics listened to that gave me a greater understanding about what’s happening (and what will follow).

23 Number of ‘More or Less’ podcasts on COVID statistics that underline the countless words wasted trying to describe the numbers.

2 Number of times I stayed in bed in the morning. It just felt too depressing and devoid of luxury.

99% Number of nights I stayed up way too late, avoiding the prospect of another day being positive and undaunted.

Zero Number I times I wanted be somewhere else.

Incalculable Number I’ve been thankful to face all this with the patient, kind, loving people I have.

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Coming Soon!


Imagination is tricky. I live with 3 kids so what-ifs are a constant.

Last night we talked about time travel over dinner. We were discussing Matariki and how long it would take to reach the stars. I said it would take 100, 000 years to reach our nearest neighbour, Alpha Centauri, if you travelled at the speed of light.

Since some sort of time trickery would be needed, the girls started coming up with ways it might work. Magic and machines. Science and Mr Peabody. The wife chipped in that time is ‘bendy’ as you can sometimes achieve a task when you simply don’t have enough time. Which is a version of the Dr Who’s “wibbley-wobbley timey-wimey” stuff.

One of the 11 year-olds added that déjà vu was proof that you had visited a particular point before.

It was a fun discussion. But I steered it towards an aspect that had really blown my mind.

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Historians of Time Travel claim that there were no such stories until HG Wells wrote The Time Machine. None. There were stories about people falling asleep and waking long in their future, but none with travel as we think of it. Forward and back. Here and there. Checking out the sights.

This blows my mind. All cultures are full of fanciful tales of imagination. But HG Wells had a novel idea that was so attractive that it is viewed as a possibility, only slightly out of reach.

So why did this idea pop up in the 1890s?

Historians believe it’s because an age of unprecedented change in technology and society had begun. Electricity, trains, telephones and telegraphs. All unimaginable to their parents’ generation. What rapid change lay ahead? Moving pictures, radio communication and flight; all within reach. The reliable constants of life were no more.

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Some things are impossible to imagine. Time travel was one of them. Now it seems impossible to unimagine.

Somehow it must work. Each one of us around the dinner table last night agreed.

Somewhere all our pasts continue, awaiting our benign intervention to put things right. While multiple futures sit before us full of disaster, glory, dystopia and lotto wins.

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Stories have power.

China recently banned time travel stories as they undermine the status quo.

What is must be.

What isn’t. Is unthinkable.

 

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Get On Up, Y’all!

As the first to rise in the house I’ve taken to blasting big bad tunes to rouse the house while we establish the unfamiliar routines of new schools and new house.

The wife, never an early riser, tends to resist alarms and gentle entreaties. Which is only fair, as she makes all the school lunches and sorts out her work clothes the night before.

So when I get up at 06:15, I use the quiet to placate the squawking cat and get the porridge on the stove. Then I walk in circles, tidying dishes and mess, prepping my gears for work or school. I sometimes take the wife a cuppa, but that almost never gets drunk.

By 6:45 it’s time for all to get up. In the past, to avoid shouting like a fishwife or knocking on doors, I used to blast their favourite grooves to entice them to the table. But this week, the first one back at school, I have decided to play brash old music to stir them to action.

Big, bad 1970s Glam rock, to be precise.

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The whole week has all been about The Sweet. Ballroom Blitz and Hellraiser. Poppa Joe and Little Willy. But it has got a bit much, even for me.

Today, I switched in Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody followed by Under Pressure (technically not Glam, but both songs are full of diva dramatics and sequined strutting).

And I can push my voice loud and raunchy on both songs.

Likewise, Sugar Baby Love by The Rubettes. I can rise from the low-pitched verses to the trilling falsetto while inexpertly pumping out the Bump-sha-waddy, Bump sha-waddy-waddy backing vocals, kicking it along like the power house drums.

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No one came up to complain.

It was time for Elvis If I Can Dream. Not Glam but big and bold, dramatic; just as out-of-reach as Freddie Mercury or The Rubettes. But oh, how I tried.

Still no go.

So I paused the music and shouted at the top of the stairs, Time to arise and dress for school, sweet sleepers! I will keep singing awful songs until you stop me!

On went Gary Glitter. Hello, Hello… The wife popped her lovely head into the kitchen, mid make-up, and said that song feels different these days. Yes, I said, making a joke I can’t repeat regarding the erstwhile Mr Bucket’s early placing in the pantheon of fallen idols.

By now it was after 7:00AM.

I slammed on Rocks by Primal Scream. A song I can strut, and gravel, and holler to. Big, leery, retro-rock boogie; a nice bridge between all the styles. An ever-popular (with me) go-to number on SingStar.

That’s when the wife appeared, hair perfectly tousled, looking glamorous and understated as always. These aren’t awful songs, she said, smiling.

Ok.

I shall have to try harder tomorrow.

 

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Camping by Numbers: A Listicle of 48 Numbers. Derived in Caravan and Tent. At Beach, upon Mountain and by River

 

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47 Number of times I will hit my head on the caravan door frame before I punch the caravan (or devise a cunning way to stop doing it).

9 Number of $2 coins the wife will ask for to do one load of washing, as it’s still not dry.

36 Number of snarky/comic names bestowed on fellow campers to amuse the wife. Like Damon and Jemima, who parked their giant motor home in the middle of our sea view and proceeded to cook mussels and sear broccolini for young Tarquin and Sapphire.

99 Number of times the hunting enthusiasts next door shout ‘Logan! Mason!’ each morning as the toddlers shoot at us with their new toy guns.

Zero Total number of segments of Terry’s Chocolate Orange I can successfully sneak from each of our 3 kids.

360 Average number of minutes chocolate is safe in the fridge before it mysteriously disappears.

7 Maximum number of minutes I get to write before someone wants or needs something.

Like $2 for the machine, or to account for some missing chocolate.

4 Number of days before the kids stop wearing sandals, jandals, kicks or scuffs whenever they walk on any sand or grass, and are happy with bare feet.

3 Number of days I can go without a shower, by swimming in the sea instead.

2 Number of minutes I can handle the shower going cold before cracking open the door to press the button for more hot water.

4 Number of mothers and small children sitting outside, staring impatiently at the crack.

0.25 Number of places I can safely change into my togs without flashing someone, somewhere.

9 Number of bum cracks visible at any one time within a thirty metre radius as beach folk adjust and strut.

3 Number of tubby kids who can squish onto a tiny camp chair to stare at a phone while their mothers do the dishes.

∞ Amount of entertainment possible to derive watching other campers set up and pack down.

13 Number of times the wife tells me to shush! each day in case the neighbours hear me making up fake dialogue for them.

You can’t park that there.

That’s never level.

The awning’s fine, it’s my groundsheet that’s fucked.

I see you have the Classic. Mind if I have a look inside?

0.75 Maximum number of intimate acts achievable before the caravan starts to wobble (or a child appears).

58 Number of times I covet the food the Chinese campers are cooking by the ablution block with theatrical flair and giant flames.

3.5 Number of days in a row you can eat sausages before you reach peak sausage.

5 Number of books taken away to read.

0 Number of books read.

4² Number of books the kids have read (factor due to them rereading their books with glee).

9 Number of days unable to locate the can of CRC you are sure you packed in the fixit kit.

9 Number of minutes it takes to locate the old can of CRC after buying an overpriced new one.

19 Number of times I can smile at the same person on the way to the ablution block without saying a word.

17 Number of times I can mention the weather when forced to talk to a stranger before having to find a different topic.

6 Number of hours between the Christmas Eve ‘weather event’ and the Christmas day thunder storm.

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36 Number of minutes it takes for a web page to load on the camp site Wi-Fi when it’s raining.

5 Maximum number of hours I can hold off going to the toilet in my last set of dry clothes when the rain is still horizontal and my raincoat is still soaked.

4 Number of incredibly loud farts the smallest child can release in her sleep after being rescued from her tent during the Christmas Eve storm, and snuggled down into the caravan.

5-6 Number of days it takes to forget how many days you’ve been on holiday.

6-7 Number of days before you start counting how many days remain.

19 Number of different exercises the two blonde twins in front of us do in perfect unison each morning.

3 Number of minutes before the wife realizes what I’m counting.

364 Number of little coloured bits of rubber strewn across the campsite after sudden water bomb fights.

363 Number of bits of rubber that remain on the grass two hours later.

1 Number of people sitting on the ‘occupied’ chairs by the pool.

180 Number of seconds a mother sitting down with a good book by the pool will look at the book before picking up her phone to check something.

88 Percentage of particulates in the pool that are not water or chlorine. Or leaves. Or rubber.

1 Number of times I have banged my head on the door frame of the caravan since writing In and Out on the caravan step in order to aid traffic flow.

2 Number of people who suddenly appear out of the shadows after I fart loudly on the way to the ablution block at 5 am.

7 Number of times the wife and I suspect we’ve been approached with the secret campground swinger’s code.

She’s in good nick.

I see you’ve got the Classic.

Have you been to the end of the beach? There’s a lovely spot in the dunes.

I had the beef. The wife prefers the fish.

You’re very good with your morning stretches.

7 Number of invitations to socialize, or have a wee drink, the wife and I have non-committedly dodged in order to sit in the caravan and look at people.

Nice. Lovely. We’ll have to see. I’ll ask the wife.

1.5 Number of snoozes desired each day.

0 Number of snoozes achieved after 15 days of rest.

1 Number of days remaining before wondering if we can extend the holiday.

24 Number of seconds it takes to decide that we can do another day. Yay!

1 Number of nights left before we pack up and head home. Boo 🙂

 

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A Night at the Opera

Tonight I am going to the opera. It will be my fourth.

The first was 25 years ago in Christchurch. Tosca at the Theatre Royal, the wonderful venue where I saw Basil Brush, Sonic Youth, Rowan Atkinson, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Del La Sol, Hot Gossip and the Violent Femmes. As that list might suggest, I don’t attend many operas.

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My first was Tosca with my mother, a fan of light opera. She wasn’t that keen, but I was balls deep in theatre in those days, seeing every kind of performance I could. Mum adored Gilbert and Sullivan and saw The Phantom of the Opera several times. Sang Yum Yum in the Mikado at the Theatre Royal.

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When the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company came to Chch when she was young, Mum camped outside the Theatre Royal to get tickets. No one did G&S better than D’Oyly Carte. In fact, at the time, they had an exclusive contract. When they went bust after the copyright lapsed we were plagued by endless touring Australian versions. I worked on their Pirates of Penzance with John English when I lived in Auckland. I was a wee bit star struck.

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The second opera I saw was Boris Godunov at the Aotea Centre. Not a popular opera, but my brilliant flatmate, Simon, still knew it was Mussorgsky, so happily came along. I loved the story. Medieval Russian history sung in something other than Italian. While I couldn’t whistle a single note of Puccini’s Tosca, I often sing ‘Slava, slava, slava’ in that stunning sequence when the slaves sing of glory.

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My third opera was ten years ago in Wellington, at the St James. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a story I knew well. I love the film by Ralph Fiennes, adore Pushkin’s original poetic novel, and often find it resonating in my life. Not that I have ever fought a duel, or been a Francophile aristocrat, but these themes are a constant in our home now that the musical genius of Hamilton has infected my family. Honour, snobbery, the danger of wasted opportunity. All find purchase in Titahi Bay as easily as Broadway and Tsarist Russia.

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Tonight I am going to La bohème, and the wife is quite excited. She never thought she would get to see it; operas are rare and hard to put on. Which is why I always try to catch them when I can. The productions are huge; so much theatre, so many players. I can’t say that I know anything about this show, so it will be a bit of a surprise. The sur-titles will help (I must remember to take my glasses). Needless to say, I know Puccini is one of the most popular composers. When I stayed in Lucca, the small Italian town where he was born, I tried to visit his house but it was closed for renovations.

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Tonight’s performance is at the Opera House in Wellington. The St James, where I saw the Tchaikovsky, is closed for earthquake strengthening. The Opera House is okay. It’s where I saw Courtney Barnett and Grease. Adam and the Ants and A Dead Dog in a Suitcase; a modern version of the first real musical from 1728, The Beggars Opera, itself a satire of Italian Opera . It was a brilliant show, more engaging than any opera. I wanted to see it again and again.

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Which is the sign of a good show, for me.

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But why compare? Is it the music or the theatre, the performance or the spectacle that draws you to a show? Do you just need something to hum, as the brilliant Sondheim likes to poke at? It’s an ever-changing mix, surely. And not knowing can be the best part.

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Opera thrives on tragedy, there is something about the nature of music that allows the emotion to reach out and touch the heart. I once lived next door, unknowingly, to a house where a Chinese Opera was set. It was about a famous poet who had to flee after the Tiananmen Square massacre. When I found out about the tragic incident next door, I was glad that I knew so little. Some things just don’t need to be spelled out. Let the music do the work.

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And so, on a spring day in Wellington, as the city is battered by hail, I await my fourth opera, and wonder about my fifth. I have done two Russian, two Italian; it is time for a change. Will it be German, French or English? Chinese?

 

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We shall see, we shall see.

A Voyage around My Mother: The Story of a Notebook II

Why do we need to write words? Is it to entertain ourselves or others? Is it to display or to conceal? Why spend so much time presenting an acceptable image, while hiding in plain sight? These are the questions I ask myself as an infrequent diarist living in a time of constant over-sharing.

The gap between our public and private thoughts is made clear when the top three words women use on Facebook to describe their husbands are compared to those used in Google searches (on FB my husband is “loyal” “amazing” “best-friend” vs. “annoying” “mean” “gay” on Google).

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I was thinking about this the other night while scribbling mundane descriptions in my diary. Why bother? Lists of routine events. Dinners made for the family, housework done, writing projects chipped away at. My words lacked insight or reflection. I would never want to read them. I sought distraction, remembering my mother’s travel journal, My Trip Book. My sister had been looking through it when she visited recently, discovering it held more than I had seen.

I glanced at it when Mum died several years ago, reading the first few pages of her boat trip out to Britain with Dad in 1957. But the death of a parent is a fraught time; deciding what to keep hold of, and what to let go. I was disappointed by all the blank pages. Why had she stopped after the first few days? Had she got seasick, lost the thrill of the journey?

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But my sister, Sonya, saw more. The journal takes an unusual format. You note departures at the front, the journey later on, places visited and people met at the back.

Mum’s beautiful, flowing script written in fountain pen by her 24 year-old hand, describes her journey with her husband of four years out from Christchurch to his English homeland, and to that of her Scottish parents.

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She visits places I have seen and those I have not. Pitcairn Island, Panama, Curacao. London, Edinburgh, the Isle of Wight. Enjoys Harry Secombe and Terry Thomas at the Palladium. Gets a job sewing electric-blankets. Suffers the disappointment of photos not coming out, and has such fun on the Underground.

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It is a treasure, but I want more. Descriptions, not lists. Reflections as opposed to generalities. What were the people like? What did she feel? But she was 24, and there are reasons most journals are like this.

I am a deliberately boring diarist. I have been burnt more than once. My ill-formed words snatched in secret and thrown against me. It’s a betrayal I struggle to forgive. Words written in private cannot match the expectations of the world.

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The other night, reading Mum’s words, I found the unsaid I craved. Amongst many blank pages, there was a random list written in red pen; cuts of meat and prices paid. More blank pages, then March 1964 Leaving for Sydney to-night at 7:30. I remember Mum telling me that she went with her younger sister, Lynette. There is a photo from the trip, somewhere in Mum’s box of old photos. But how long were they away? Days, weeks? Nothing is noted, even though she clearly took the journal with her. Maybe it was too much fun to find time to write. After many more blank pages there is a list of gifts to get. Cousin Lesley got a koala.

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Over the page is a more detailed list. Money spent: drinks on the plane 1s 9d, hotels in Sydney ₤3 2s 10d, Surfers’ Paradise ₤5 15 s, grapes 2s, drinks in Bondi 4s 6d, magazines 1s, drinks 6s, coat ₤ 12 12s, drinks & sandwich 2s 9d, excess baggage of ₤1. There is a note to keep ₤22 for hotels, leaving ₤104.

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But what of the ₤6 5s Val, ₤62 10s Joe. Val is my aunty. Was it a gift or to get something? And who was Joe? 62 quid? In 1964 the average wage for the job Mum was doing was ₤9 a week. ‘Joe’ had given her seven weeks’ wages. For what? I sat wishing Mum had written more detail. Searched every page, going through the contacts at the back of the journal, most of them crossed out as people shifted or moved on.

I found Val ₤6 5s fawn twinset, 34” size 14. If no fawn, then pale blue. NZ was a heavily controlled economy back then. Everything was cheaper overseas. And there was more choice.

And then, Joe ₤61 10s (₤61 with Traveller’s Cheques) 25yds Wenzell, Batty & McGrath, 865 York St, Sydney. Mum noted the exact cost and change, deducting the taxi fare. Twenty-five yards of cloth is a lot of fabric. That explains the ₤1 excess baggage.

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Because Mum left gaps, I can fit a story around the words. Maybe they were smuggling expensive fabrics into NZ’s controlled economy, drinking their way through the hotels of Bondi and Surfers’ as part of the plan. I can think this because she doesn’t say any different.

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For the first time in decades, I remember a possible Joe. A cutter who worked for her boss at Zenith tailoring. I recall her talking to a man called something like that. I was about four years old, playing hide and seek with my wee sisters amongst the endless rows of jackets and coats. He was friendly, funny, had a big black moustache and was leaving to join the police force. Mum didn’t work there anymore, but did out-work from home, sewing up menswear while looking after us. Mum told me that when Joe was at Police school he was instructed, along with all the new recruits, to tell everyone that Arthur Allan Thomas was guilty. Mum repeated this over the years as the fabrication, and Thomas’s innocence, was revealed.

Maybe that man was Joe. It doesn’t really matter. I have pictures in my head. Words that lead to more. I have searched out the photo of Mum and Aunty Lynette in Australia in 1964. Holding ice-creams, wearing jandals at night, they look tanned and happy. Mum said they took a train up to Queensland and that some locals refused to share a cabin with them, because they looked Italian.

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I have also found the passenger lists of the trip to England in 1957, a photo and a menu from the fancy dress ball on board. Mum and Dad dressed up in their finest on the deck. Like married women of the time, Mum is listed simply as Mrs. Taylor (no initial). All the men, mothers, unmarried women and children have initials.

 

That omission says something, does it not?

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What we say, and what we do not, matters. The unsaid can speak more clearly than any strongly voiced comment. This is why I write. To be read and to be ignored. It is a process of discovery; remarkable, mundane. It is an identity, cut from a pattern, worn to cover any naked shame.

 

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The Story of a Notebook

 

 

 

Absolutely Wedded

I got married in the weekend. It was quite a lot of fun. More than I expected. But now I’m buggered. Beyond buggered. Exhausted.

I still have the bounce of the thrill, the buoyancy of happiness, so many special moments fondly remembered. But my body feels wrecked, like I could sleep for a week or come down with a cold.

I guess that’s why people honeymoon straight after the wedding. It’s not just about rooting yourself silly on a tropical beach, doing your best to fill the proverbial jar with as many jellybeans as possible*. It’s also about letting go of the constant state of stress and anticipation, the endless need to organise and decide.

And the organising hasn’t finished. Wonderful photos are being shared to our save-the-date, and they’re lovely, but they need to be viewed, liked and loved.

There’s also thank you cards to be written, emails to be sent, feedback to be posted.

But, most of all, there’s a honeymoon to be planned in the not-too-distant.

It’s not a hardship. It’s a joy. The thought of heading off somewhere new with the wife. A road trip without the darling kids, free of the need to get on top of the washing pile or the endless renovations.

But, for now, I am tired. I need to close my eyes and rest.

Getting married takes it out of you.

I’m so glad you only have to do it once.

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*1 jellybean placed in the jar for every marital act during the first year. One out each time over the following years. Received wisdom claims it will never empty.

Beyond Doubt

It’s hard to accept absence as loss. There is no way to mark the grief of the inexplicable. You seek multiple explanations and none satisfies, or offers true relief.

You can bury a squashed cat or one that doesn’t come back from the vet. You can cry and move on.

But a cat that just disappears, leaving no hint or trace, stays curled up like a knot.

Thomas disappeared five and half weeks ago. The girls have wandered the neighbourhood and left notices in letter boxes. The have lit candles in the window each night to guide him home. We have all been a bit scratchy, unable to grieve.

At first, I told the girls that he may have found a nice old lady, who would give him too much food whenever he squawked. They liked that.

Once he was gone a month, the tears started. Hope was gone. We decided that we needed a wee ceremony, to bid him farewell. But when?

This weekend, we stayed with good friends out of town. They have dogs and a cat, pigs, sheep and chooks. I had intended to bring our huge bag of cat food that sat in the cupboard, waiting for Thomas to return.

I remembered it when Polly, their fluffy cat, rubbed against me. That led to talk of Thomas. Theories of what happened. Bad dogs. Bad kids. A fast car slept in to far-far away.

I repeated my theory that he hadn’t been well for weeks. The exceptionally hot summer had hit him hard, he constantly complained, unable to settle; had begun to look like a crooked old cat.

From the start, I believed that he had crawled under a bush and gone to sleep, searching for peace from whatever ailment was going on inside.

This morning, five and a half weeks after he vanished, the unimaginable happened. Thomas emerged from a bush, unable to shut-up, squawking and loud, ready to take command of the house once more. I filled his bowl with the biscuits I forgot to re-gift and he gobbled them between screaming meows.

It is unbelievable. I am so glad we didn’t say good-bye.

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Doubting Thomas

Last night I did something I never do. I posted a photo of our cat on social media. He was curled up in the way-too-small box he’s been trying to sit in all week. He has attempted resting his chin on the flimsy flaps but his head tips over when he falls asleep. He has twisted and folded trying to tuck in his head, but his tail or a shoulder always popped out.

It’s been very entertaining. What did cats do before boxes? Which came first, the cat or the box? The philosophical enquiry has been endless.

Thomas loves boxes. But each affair has only ever lasted a few days before the claws came out and rough-love was applied, shredding the cardboard; un-boxing the box.

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I’ve always loved cats. They seem to love me. Sometimes a bit too much. Cats want to chat with me, jump on my back, or sit on my lap. It’s been a point of repeated jealousy from friends and lovers. I always say it’s because I’m part cat. Or some sort of very cat-like dog. Maybe I was a can of sardines in a past life.

When I posted the picture of Thomas, stubbornly content in his box, my partner said, “You will get lots of likes for that”. I did. In bed I showed her the pictures two friends had posted of their cats who had recently moved on. They were great final portraits.

20180302_085132Cats are funny things. Two weeks ago, on the last full moon, the witchy-poos I live with put all their crystals outside on a bed of salt in order to soak up the moon’s energy. Thomas spent the whole day sleeping below them on a hard wooden bench he had never favoured.

 

Over the week me and my sisters sat with our dying father, we repeatedly tried to get the facility’s so-called ‘Death Cat’ to come into the room to help Dad find peace. After five nights it finally did; to sit on my lap.

This morning, after my fiancé left for work, she sent a text saying Thomas had not come in for his breakfast. That is unusual. He is always at our bedroom door by 5am, demanding a fussing, or in the kitchen screaming at her feet for food.

It made me worried. He has never wandered. He only went missing when he got hit by a car, using up eight lives. His head was so misshapen he couldn’t eat for a long time, and we thought his handsome good looks were gone and he would never be right.

But Thomas is Thomas, a cat like no other. After escaping, and losing, three ‘cones of shame’ he was once more boss of the house, seeing off every other wandering cat in the neighbourhood so that he could stalk birds, mice, lizards and rats in peace.

As soon as the girls got up this morning I asked Alice, Thomas’s proud ‘wife’, to press the button to open the garage door below us, not saying why. I knew that if he had been trapped downstairs we all would have heard about it but, nevertheless, I still hoped to hear him barrel through the cat-flap straight after the button was pressed.

I said nothing about his absence as the three girls ate their porridge. But as Alice was washing her bowl she said, “There’s Thomas!”

I looked out the window and said, “Where?” masking the panic and relief in my voice. I couldn’t see him. “Where, Alice?”

“The birds. What are they?” She pointed at a sudden cloud of sparrows. I had shown her how the cleverer birds warn the flock of his lurking presence. Sparrows flap up and cheep. Starlings swoop and squawk. Seagulls fuss.

“They’re sparrows, Al. Did you see him, did you actually see Thomas?”

“No. But the birds mean he’s there. In the bushes.”

I turned away and began to dry the dishes.

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After the girls headed off to school, happily unaware, I began to feel superstitious. His obsession with the box was a foreshadowing. I had empowered it by sharing a photo of him and his box, accompanying it with too-cute words in his voice. And by showing my fiancé the two final portraits I had seen. Two.

All writers are superstitious. Even atheists. Especially spiritual atheists.

Like my favourite author, John Irving, I often put my greatest fears on the page in order to rob them of actualization. Saying things out loud can defuse the trapped, amplified rattle of the head.

Before I sat to write, I replied to my fiancé’s worried text with a cheery ‘Will do!’ (Smiley face). She called back straight away, asking if it was time to call the vets. “Why, what can they do?” I asked.

“In case any cats have been brought in. He wasn’t on the road as I left…” That had been my worry. That the girls would find him as they walked down the hill.

“He’s only been missing for a few hours. That’s not enough even for a human.” She laughed, reassured.

I started to write.

 

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Five Lions (and an almost King)

­1977

The first time I saw the Lions was in a smoky little bar at Mt. Cook. I didn’t know it, but it’s where I was conceived. Presumably not at the bar (though people do funny things at high altitude). This humorous anecdote popped out at my mother’s funeral a few years ago. It got a big laugh.

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Back in 1977 I was 10. Unaware. I didn’t really know who the Lions were, I was a soccer player. However I liked the name and loved the animal, which I got to cuddle at Barrington Mall that same year. It was a promotion for Orana Park where you could drive through the lion enclosure and watch as they ate chunks of meat on your car. Even though I was 10 I knew that the All Blacks were better than everyone else. It was a great source of pride in our tiny nation.

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I was staying at Mt. Cook with family, and family friends, in a little A-frame chalet with no TV. So Dad and me, ‘Uncle’ John and his son, Michael, left the girls in the chalet while we males sloped off to watch the game. It was exciting being a kid in a bar. Against the law! But it was a Test. A very rare Lions Test, as my English dad, Dennis, explained. The four great Home nations against our little one. The dads drank beer (Lion or DB; the only choices back then) while Michael and me ate chips and drank Coke, talked quietly and messed about, watching little rugby.

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1983

The next tour took place in the aftermath of the civil unrest of the1981 Springbok Tour. Dad had taken me to the 2nd Test at Lancaster Park. It was the last rugby game I ever went to (unless paid to go). Riot police jogging in formation. Barbed wire and pitch invasions. Broken glass. Baton charges. People baying for blood. A shared bag of Mackintosh’s toffees with Dad.

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Like a lot of New Zealanders, my opinion of rugby was poisoned by the national trauma of 1981. Families split, flour bombs and beatings, teachers ranting at you to support! Oppose! All took a toll. So I watched none of the 1983 Lions Tour. Rugby culture turned me off. It seemed braying, violent. Ignorant. Racist. I found a welcoming counter-culture in music. It was years before rugby rehabilitated itself in the eyes of many NZers by winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987 (everyone loves a winner).

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1993

With the next Lions tour I was immersed in theatre, acting in shows up and down the country. Touring, touring, performing, writing, learning about the great diversity that plays into our complex national identity. I watched no games. It wasn’t something anyone I knew did.

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Lions 1971

 

2005

By 2005 the world had ‘changed’. And so had rugby. It was now a professional package. It was hustled into professionalism when I started working in TV in 1995. I hid outside hotels with TV crews as the highly sensitive negotiations took place spending long hours talking shit, doing nothing, which is the nature of stake-outs.

At the 2005 game I was working on the ref communication system the officials now use to make decisions. The Lions Tour was the biggest rugby event the country had ever seen. Prince William was there listening to my mix. I was a little nervous.

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Half an hour before kick-off the police let us know that a bomb threat had been phoned in. Evacuation was being considered. 9/11 and the invasion of Iraqi still filled the news and the 2nd in line to the British throne was there. With 45,000 people in the stadium eagerly anticipating a rugby game full evacuation would disrupt the match, and international broadcasting. Satellite bookings and advertising windows would be sent into disarray. The police decided the threat was a hoax.

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2017

Tonight I’m working on the 2nd Lions Test in Wellington. Packs of Lions supporters have been roaming the streets all week. They seem a good-natured bunch. It’s hard to reflect in anticipation. While I am the same person who watched games in 1977 and 2005 (and ignored them in 1983 and 1993), I’ve viewed each one quite differently. The same eyes see both less and more.

 

 

I expect to stay wrapped–up high in the media box I work in, with heaters and Wi-Fi cranked, doing my job and keeping warm. Trying not to scoff my stash of liquorice allsorts too quickly.

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No one expects the Lions to win, not even them. The All Blacks are 5-1 favourites. All I can say for certain is that I (probably) won’t be watching the next tour in 2029. And the British (probably) will have a new king.

 

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Fire!

Last night, in the early hours of the morning, I thought I heard the fire siren go off in the Bay. It’s one of those old air-raid type sirens used by volunteer brigades, with a reassuring whine that winds up to its peak and down through its decay. Half asleep, it played into my dream until my partner said, smoke! …I smell smoke!

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Suddenly awake, I jumped up, expecting to smell a haze I couldn’t see. I paced the room before pulling on yesterday’s undies to check the house (who knows what I would find or where I would end up?) None of my home alarms were going. There was no visible smoke. But back in the bedroom I could smell something. Or was it just my partner’s suggestion?

 

 

Maybe we were both on edge from the day before when, while waiting for a table at the front of a long queue that snaked down the stairs at the wonderfully eccentric Seashore Cabaret café in Petone, I noticed that the coffee roaster across the other side of the room was sending out clouds of coffee-flavoured smoke.

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I looked down at our children patiently amusing themselves with a retro French Love Meter (hoping they didn’t ask for another dollar to test their Sexy Amour! rating), then back up at the roaster as it seemed to swell then belch flames from several vents. Was it for effect? It was a quirky/retro place. No. No. Flames engulfed the black iron bulk, leaping towards the ceiling.

The room was filled with the clatter of chairs thrown backwards and lunchtime diners rushing towards us while our three small children continued to stare at the flames. My partner cried out! out! out! in her commanding English tone as we turned towards the stagnant crush on the stairs.

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As the people moved slow, so slow, too slow, I flashed back 30 years to a house fire at a Christmas party in Christchurch where gate-crashing skinheads set fire to a papier mache Xmas tree, turning the room into an instant inferno. The sudden intensity of heat on my face remains, as does the panic of seeing the stairs clogged in a drunken jam. I decided to turn and head into an unknown emptiness, looking for another way out. I have not forgotten the relief of fresh air and the building terror and guilt as I searched for my girlfriend amongst the startled, unfamiliar faces outside.

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Yesterday, as we walked away from the building to the sound of approaching sirens, our youngest complained that I had poked her in the eye as I kept her moving down the stairs. I laughed, apologised, and took the ‘learning opportunity’ to say we would talk about fire safety and exit plans at home.

 

This morning, as I wandered the dark house in a daze, angry at myself for not following up the exit plan, I wondered what I could smell, and if I should wake the children.

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 3)

No Escape

It was hard to prise myself out my funky room at BreakFree on Saturday morning. I was four floors up, isolated from any noise with a generous (for NZ) 500MG of data.

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I opened the blind and saw the sun rising in the east as a steady stream of fluro-jacketed re-construction workers walked into the CBD through the empty waste of Cashel Street. Apparently their request for parking privileges as they rebuild the city has been declined.

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After some quick stretches (often hard to achieve in a studio room) I went down to the gym to do 15 minutes on a bike. I have a torn meniscus at the moment (cartilage in the knee) and can’t run (or sleep or sit or stand without discomfort), so low impact is the only option. It was great to get the heart going and to stretch the tendon on the same leg that was operated on 3 years ago to correct Haglund’s deformity. The Achilles’ takes a long time to heel. A 7mm bone spur was shaved off and the tendon scraped clean. I haven’t been able to run properly since and when in bare feet have the disconcerting sensation of feeling the cup of the Achilles’ on my heel. It’s not painful. Tendons are just slow to re-align. If I press on the scar on my heel an electric shock fires to the other side. It’s because tendons are piezoelectric, like a crystal in a turntable stylus or the starter for a bbq. The cells all line up and fire as one.

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After a shower in the coolly opaque en-suite I took my bags to the lockers at the bus exchange ($2 a locker for 24hrs). It was warm and sunny (in the sun) but the cool Easterly meant many people were in jackets (especially the South African rugby fans in town for the game against the All Blacks). I regretted wearing shorts. But that’s spring in Christchurch. I headed to the Pop-Up ReStart shops by the Bridge of Remembrance to look for a pressie for my mate who’s just turned 50.

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I went straight to Hapa and found the perfect thing as soon as I walked in the door, a pretty-as solar-powered retro Kiwi caravan nightlight. Lumilight is a UK company that does Alpine chalet lights, and a (surprisingly random) selection of NZ ones (Wool Shed, Otago Hotel!? etc).

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Then it was off to C1. Being a sunny Saturday morning it was packed with a long queue at the counter. On a tight schedule I nearly went somewhere else but I love the place (and food) so much. A group of Merivale/Rangi girls behind me whined about the wait, fussed over their friends who weren’t saving their table right, gushed about things on their phones, and repeatedly pushed into me trying to make the line go faster.

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I didn’t really want a big breakfast but I still chose the Super Choice Bro. Because I had to travel the city. Backwards and forwards. And because of the name.

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As I sat outside scribbling in my journal, ready for a half hour wait, I watched groups of mums rush to grab tables and big-bellied rugby fans look at the café with confusion.

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My pretty-as macchiato appeared after 3 minutes. My killer kai took 7. I was amazed. So fast, so beautiful. Not a hulking pile of fried stodge. The matching oblongs of smoked bacon belly and hash brown were almost too stylish to eat. Almost.

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Then down to South City to the only florist that seems to be open in the CBD, stopping briefly to drool over a couple of bass guitars in the window of CJs music store (where I bought two basses in the ‘80s). I wanted flowers to take to my grandparents. I hadn’t been in a long time. It’s tricky when you don’t live in town any more. I used to go with my mother but it’s nearly five years since she went to ashes, too.

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Tempted by the garish multi-coloured chrysanthemums at the door I settled on simple daffodils (they’re up everywhere in Chch). The florist said she hates the chrysanthemums and laughed. They’re dyed in Japan and people love them but they’re impossible to make an arrangement with.

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I headed back up Colombo St with my three bunches on daffys to catch the bus out east. The driver said I didn’t need to buy him flowers, and laughed. And then three tourists got onto the otherwise empty bus and sat right in front of me making me even more self-conscious. It was the refs for the All Blacks vs Springboks test that night (I do comms for rugby in Wellington and had worked with them a couple of weeks ago). They were sightseeing, killing time before the game, but didn’t recognize me.

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Feeling amused, and slightly aggrieved that I couldn’t escape work, I listened to the Australian video ref school the French officials how to speak NZild English. It was funny and awkward but I didn’t want to surrender my anonymity (or explain the flowers). When they expressed amusement/bemusement at the 185 white chairs lined up on Manchester Street as a memorial for the victims of the 2011 earthquake I spoke up, becoming a tour guide for a block or two before saying gidday (and explaining the flowers).

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I’ve been going to the crem in Linwood since the early ‘70s after my grandmother died when I was 6. My grandfather, Sandy, finally joined his Flo’ in the mid ‘80s. Immigrants from Scotland, they escaped the post-WWI slump in the 1920s. With most of the large family they had in Christchurch now moved on themselves I expected their stone to be untended. But there were flowers. It made me happy. As I kneeled and cut the stems of enough flowers to jam into the plastic vase a small boy ran up to me. “Don’t run in here, Latham!” his grandmother called out behind him. “Do you have a granddad Russell, too?” he asked.

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It’s hard knowing how to remember the past. I try to always think well of it. After touching the stone 3 times, feeling the loss a little less each time, I took the remaining flowers to look for the memorial of close family friends I had yet to pay my respects to. They had loomed large in my life. Throughout my childhood and teens I had spent many holidays with Aunty Marie and Uncle John. Their metal vase had no flowers, and 13 holes. Exactly the number of flowers I had left.

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It was now noon. Time to bus back to town, retrieve my bags and head out to New Brighton to listen to music, drink and laugh, escape and remember the past.

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 7)

Postscript

I started writing this blog on the flight to Christchurch. I intended to write fast, as things happened, on a 4 day visit to my home town. It was easy at first, when I had time to wander and play stranger in a strange land. But then I started catching up with friends. Devouring the experience rather than commenting on it.

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Once back onto the treadmill of Wellington I started posting a section each week. But life took over. And there was still more to say. More images to share. Then working through the rush of Christmas, and then two weeks away in a caravan, attempting to relax and unwind the tightened coil of the uncertain purgatory I had returned to.

It’s now 2016. My holiday is over. I am back at work, (hopefully) free of the stress that saw me make unprecedented cock-ups, and receive a call from my manager enquiring about my health/life.

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I have relaxed. But I am still living with the uncertainty that greeted my return from Christchurch.

That week I received the report on my fiction portfolio from Victoria University. It was a strong selection of stories. Better than I have ever written. NZ$2,600 well spent (on fiction and creative non-fiction).

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I was confident they may well get me accepted onto the MA fiction programme (one of the best regarded fiction programmes in the world). It is the third time I have applied. There are only 10 places.

The trip to Chch was as much reward for my hard work as distraction from the impending result. I wanted to do all the things I have mentioned in the previous posts but I also wanted to escape the imminent decision on my future. The day it turned up (report and MA decision) a massive cold sore erupted from my bottom lip; the first since the death of my father 3 years ago.

 

Uncertainty. Stress. Acceptance of loss. Understanding the past. Desire for a new future. All these played into my 4 days in Chch.

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The day before I headed to Chch I received a wonderful package from Scotland. A trove of several hundred slides taken on a world trip by my grandfather Sandy’s sister, Rachel, in 1968. It’s a wonderful trove I am yet to explore. She came out to NZ just after I was born. I grew up hearing stories of the visit. Fortuitously, the slides are meticulously indexed. Often still in order.

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I have used several in the posts but I am yet to find the time to go through them all as slides aren’t that easy to view or transfer. But I will. Amongst the few I have looked at I found a picture of Aunty Rachel with my grandparents, Sandy and Flo’, standing on the banks of the Avon with Aunty Lynette and my cousin Robyn. Treasure from the past.

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I could say much more about Chch. The wonderful art on the streets. The NZ flag flying everywhere at a time when the country is being offered a dubious new flag.

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How happy I felt seeing the statue of Godley (the visionary leader of the settlement) back on his plinth for the first time post-quake. How I sat every day listening to the resolute balladeer outside Ballantynes belting out ballads, rocking back and forth as if on a boat, eyes closed, tin whistle in hand. How amongst the 19th century tales he sang the wonderfully cheesy 1960s/70s song I have only heard once before, about a man in prison who will never see his home again.

Christchurch City is mighty pretty, when the lights are all a-glow

Christchurch City is mighty pretty, where the river Avon flows

I did not get accepted for the MA. But I have been shortlisted. At any moment before March I may be offered a place if someone can’t take it.

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The fate of the decaying carcass of Christchurch Cathedral was to be decided just before Christmas. The Anglican Church wants to pull it down but doesn’t have the guts. Or enough support.

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I’m not sure how I feel about any of this. Conflicted and uncertain. Certainly. Positives and negatives both ways.

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What does the future hold? Uncertainty. Again. And again.

But there will be holidays. And I will write about them.

And I shall keep writing fiction.

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 6)

Accidental Monday

I woke early on Monday morning having kipped solidly through the night on a solidly comfy squab, shared a family breakfast of vegemite on toast then walked through the dunes with my friend and his son to his school in South Brighton. Threading through the regenerating native trees and scrub my feet and jandals got covered in sticky wet sand. Even better was watching his nine-year-old scramble up steps to a treehouse hidden in a macrocarpa. A pure hit of childhood.

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After a bit of relaxing in the shed with music and chat I headed for my rent-a-dent. Turned the ignition. Nothing. Checked the lights. Had I accidentally left them on? Er… Hadn’t turned them on. Had I? Tried again. Dead as. I called the AA. Friendly Trevor spotted the problem straight off. Not a flat battery. A connector worked loose by the corrugated, eternally pot-holed roads of a post-‘quake city. “Welcome to Christchurch. You got an authentic experience there, mate.”

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Bit shagged, Sumner 2012

 

 

 

He advised a 30 minute drive, just in case. I headed around the estuary to Sumner. With Trevor’s advice in mind I couldn’t stop and wander about the imposing wall of containers retaining the cliff face, or the sad pile of rocks that used to be Shag rock.

 

 

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Unshagged 1968

 

One of the reasons I got the car was to head to south Christchurch. I wanted to walk the streets of Somerfield/Spreydon where I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Kids were sitting outside eating their lunch at my old primary school. There were new buildings but the classrooms where I spent my initial years hadn’t changed at all. At least from the outside. Concrete and brick with tall white wooden windows. I felt somewhat strange sitting outside staring at them.

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The ‘Big field’

I drove down Stanbury Ave remembering moment after moment on the seemingly endless childhood journey to my home at the end of the street. I stopped outside the red brick house my parents built in the 1950s. The surrounding streets and park were named to mark the centennial of the founding of Christchurch in 1850.

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Lord Lyttelton. Visited Chch once. Went home & killed himself

Pioneer Stadium, Centennial Park. Stanbury Ave sits between Lyttelton and Barrington streets (both acknowledge the grumpy depressive peer, Lord Lyttelton, who chaired the Canterbury Association that put together the first four ships of ‘pilgrims’ who founded the settlement). I did a bit of research about this during the sesquicentennial in 2000. The motives. The aims. What actually happened over the ensuing 150 years. I set out to explore the utopian tensions in a novel set in an alternative Christchurch. It was humorous. Iconoclastic. But then nature offered up its own icon-smashing alternative.

 

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Centennial 1st 4 ships float 1950 (photo by Dad, the year he came to Chch)

That 3-bedroom house in Stanbury Ave contains all my founding memories. Infancy, childhood, adolescence, the start of adulthood. My sisters. My parents. Grandparents. Cousins, aunties, uncles, friends. Bootsy, Tiger, Casomi, Norma Jean, Angus, Kiri, Cyril, Sid, Otto, Alf. Too many to categorize or name.

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But as I sat in the car with the engine running (in case it wouldn’t start), it wasn’t the old nest that drew my eye, it was the houses across the street, the ones I looked out to day after day, year after year, imagining what my future held.

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I left home when I was 19. South Christchurch was too far away from where my life was. University in Ilam. Friends in St Albans and squats in the CBD. Band practices and gigs, theatre rehearsals and plays in the city. I lived in five different places before I headed to Auckland eight years later. I drove past the most historic one in Redcliffs that afternoon. Mother Hubbard’s was built in the 1860s.

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Ma Hubbard’s, Redcliffs

Along with Shand’s Emporium it’s one of the oldest surviving buildings in Christchurch. It was already at its second location (on Armagh Street) when I lived there in 1989. A bit of dive with huge character. It got its name from the 2nd hand shop that used to occupy it. I still have bits of furniture the shop left when they moved on. A desk. An iron chair. One night a girlfriend saw an old lady standing in my bedroom. That moment made it into my first published story, a grab bag of ghost ‘encounters’ sold as short fiction. I guess it’s actually creative non-fiction.

 

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Ma Hubbard’s kitchen

After we shifted out it was threatened with demolition. There was a story in the paper outlining its history. A sub-editor made prominent note of the fossilised pieces of white bread I had impulsively pinned to the cupboard doors the night I had a few drinks pre-loading before an Art School party. It was nice to see my artistic statement (whatever it was) recognised.

 

 

 

 

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Hereford Street

Back in town, I was happy to see my old flat in Hereford Street still occupied. I lived there in 1993 when doing drama at University. The landlord was a scion of one of the great squatter families that grabbed the high country for themselves in the 19th century. The Canterbury settlement was an attempt to halt such rapacious greed. My Uncle Barrie made friends with a kid of the same name when in hospital as a child. Got invited to the estate. My grandmother had too much working class pride to let him go. I had the prime bedroom in our upstairs flat. Facing the sun, with my own deck. I could lie in my hammock learning lines, keeping an eye on the hubbub at the Arts’s Centre and Dux de Lux across the road. I felt like I was living in the centre of the world. I was.

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Arts’ Centre 1980s

After dropping off the car I headed back to C1 for a final meal where I ate my first ever risotto cake. Wow. It was a revelation. Walnut, mushroom and sundried tomato. The crispy edges! So unbelievably delicious I can still taste it. My next risotto is destined for cake-hood. The sweet to accompany my macchiato was a challenge. The display case was full of IMG_9908enticing variations. Chocolate eggs (filled with flowing marshmallow!) Lollie-cake on a stick (with allsorts!) Espresso mousse served in Agee jars (with screw-top lids!) White chocolate lamingtons (with a syringe of jam to self-inject)! I wanted them all. Yes, I have sweet tooth. It’s genetic. I had no choice. I chose the lamington. Not because I like white chocolate (I don’t), but because lamingtons were my favourite Nana Flo’ treat when I was a nipper. Also, I couldn’t resist the irony of injecting blood-red jam into a sweet treat on an unplanned day off from phlebotomy.

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Content, ready for home, I caught the bus to the airport. I sat at the back looking for photos to pick off for to the blog. Was I writing travel or memoir? Both? Whichever, I was entertaining my mind at the end of a wonderful, and unsettling, trip.

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And then the most unnerving thing of all happened. An awkward confrontation that made me feel threatened, and a bit sick. Whether it was due to the day, or something from the past, I will never know. The people of Christchurch have been through an unimaginable amount of stress. I don’t mean to be coy but the encounter is so rich it is best explored in fiction.

When I booked my long weekend in Christchurch, I had planned to have three days, Fri to Sunday, returning for work in Wellington on Monday. Somehow I messed up my bookings leaving the cheapest resolution having four days. While I saw a fair bit in that time, caught up with friends, had interesting encounters, there are so many old friends, whanau and faces from the past I did not get to see.

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I shall return. Again. And again. And again.

Christchurch is my hometown. Since the ‘quakes I have ached to live there once more. But my roots are set across this land. I am pulled towards a lifetime of memories, and possible futures.

The homes of an internal migrant are many. Their unresolved tensions continue to jostle me about these shaky isles.

 

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Cathedral Square

 

 

Flo

One of my earliest memories is from 1969. I was 2. Nana Flo walks through the door from the kitchen towards me. I am tiny. On the floor, maybe standing. Either way, she looms over me. She is carrying a sponge cake. I am excited. Unsure. Is it really for me? I loved Nana’s baking. Everyone did. Lamingtons were my favourite. But on this day, my birthday, there is a sponge cake because I am 2.

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I don’t have many memories from that time. Who does? But I vividly remember going to see my new-born sister, Michelle, at the hospital nursery when I was 3. The babies were lined up behind a glass window. Dad lifted me up to point out Michelle who was by the wall on the right. As I looked at the rows upon rows of babies I remember thinking, I have seen this before. I saw my sister Sonya here when I was 2.

This is snapshot of the few memories I carry of Nana Flo, my mother’s mother. This tiny woman was a giant of my infancy, the matriarch of a large immigrant family who gathered every Sunday to eat food and tell stories.

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Flo as a girl (back right) with her Mum & Dad, sisters & brothers

I remember little of these times. Young as I was the world was an exciting blur of the new and the familiar. I never knew what to take note of so tried to soak everything up. At a family gathering at Nana and Grandad’s, I was about 3. Surrounded by various aunts and uncles relaxing by the fire, Uncle Robert was showing us his guitar. So small I still lived on the floor, I reached up to take the pick he held out to me. Not knowing exactly what to do, I popped it into the round hole behind the strings, treating the instrument like a slot machine, expecting to hear music. The laughter that erupted both startled and unnerved me. I thought I had broken it.

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By the fire, Morley St

My grandparents, Sandy and Flo, lived in a council flat in Bryndwr on the other side of Christchurch from where I grew up. Once, Mum walked us there. With my sisters in the pram (Michelle in the seat, Sonya sitting up on the hood, bags underneath), I tootled along beside them on my blue trike as we covered the 8 kms from Stanbury Ave to Morley St, sometimes dubbing Sonya in the tray of my trike to give Mum a rest. It was a great trip. We stopped at every dairy on the way, rewarded with sweets for good behaviour. Dad picked us up later in our little Morris 1100.

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Morley St. No shed or wood-box down the driveway today

One of the most enduring memories I have of my grandparents is them sitting together on the wood-box in front of the shed at the end of the driveway, smiling and waving to us as we stood on the back seat of the 1100, waving back. They seemed so happy and content. Pleased with the visit. Happy to be alone with each other.

Sandy and Flo, Cathedral Square Chch

Nana also features in my only memory of turning 5. I was running out of the front door at Stanbury Ave when she called to me from the lounge. Had I done something naughty? I could see through the window that she was waving a parcel. For me. Why was she growling? Inside the uncertain package was a book about ponies. I loved it. I grew up loving horses. Race tracks, stables, paddocks, training tracks with family friends. I have an early memory of watching a foal being born. Being told to be very quiet or the mother may get a fright and kill it. It was an extraordinary sight.

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The book of Ponies

The year I turned 5 Nana got sick. I remember going to visit her in 2 different hospitals, Christchurch (very dark) and Princess Margaret (very sunny). Outside her room I was instructed to be quiet. Told that the doctors couldn’t make her better. I found it difficult to understand. Years later, when I was an adult, Mum talked about the shock of seeing her mother lose confidence in simple things. Cooking, looking after kids. I saw this in a vivid event at Stanbury Ave. No birthday cake or presents, guitars or epic journeys; it was a fire in our kitchen. I was sitting with my sisters watching the old B&W TV in the dining room when I heard Nana scream. I turned to see a pot of oil on fire. The flames taller than Nana. Flickering light. She was panicking, calling for Mum, who rushed in and sorted it out.

After one of the hospital stints Nana came to live with us for a week or two. It was pretty exciting as a bed was set up for her in the lounge, and she got to use a yellow wooden stool in the shower. I really wanted to do both of those things, too.

Nana died the month I turned 6. She wasn’t old, still in her 60s. I remember going to Morley Street to see Grandad when it happened. There was shouting between Mum and her brother, Alex, both hurting from the loss of their mother. Mum crying. Me scared, behind the table. So much tension in those moments of grief. I instantly recognized, and relived, such raw ill-directed pain when my parents died less than 4 years ago.

Flo’s wedding and engagement rings, cut off in hospital

I don’t think I went to Nana’s funeral service, I was considered too young. But afterwards everyone came back to our place at Stanbury Ave to eat food and remember Flo. There were a lot of mourners, too many for our house. Flo had 6 brothers and sisters, 7 adult children. A sprawling, ever-growing clan. On that sunny day in April, a white canvas tent was set up in our back lawn for the tables heavy with food. I thought that was pretty exciting at the time.

It’s funny what sticks in your memory. Of all the countless hours I spent with Nana these are the few I recall. I wish there were more, that she had been part of our lives for longer. But this tiny lady was too big a presence to entirely disappear. I have heard stories of her for the rest of my life.

Nana’s swans sit where I write

Earlier this year I attended a workshop in Creative Non-fiction intending to write the stories Mum told me about Nana and her Scottish family. What brought them to Christchurch. It’s quite a tale. Trying to write it down was a great exercise, I’m proud of what I wrote. But it still needs a lot of work. You can’t do such stories justice in 7,000-12,000 words. No single thread can be teased out without pulling on so many others. Me, my parents. My sisters, my daughter. My aunties and uncles and cousins.

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A party at Morley St

Florence Hall was born in 1905, 110 years ago today. I have thought about her most days for the last year. Not just because I was writing about her, but because 1 year ago today, on the day of her 109th birthday, major renovations started on my house. Walls disappeared, floors vanished. Ceilings came down, windows popped out. Through the turmoil and renewal I have kept a small arrangement of old photos as a constant among the dust and grime. This photo of the patron saint of the rebuild used to sit by my mother’s bed.

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It is Nana (now Flo Boyd) taken just after her first child, Alex, was born in Scotland. Her long hair has just been cut short in a 1920’s bob. In the clench of her lips and nearly-smiling eyes I see my mother, my sisters my daughter and me.

Happy birthday, Flo. Your memory endures.

The End of a Story

I see it is 6 weeks since my last post. That’s way too long. I have composed many in my head but as spring has kicked into gear life has become way too hectic to find time to explore my thoughts. I guess I’m still too much of a writer to just bash something out and post it. It must be more than mere typing or letting off steam to warrant the effort of crafting something worth reading.

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Life’s a beach, dress appropriately

Everyone has a life to live so what have I been doing that has sucked up my time? Basically, the spare time I would have devoted to writing has been…

1. pushed into a gym membership to take up aqua-jogging and gentle treadmill running as I work on a slow recovery from an operation I had on my heel to correct my Haglund’s Deformity in November last year. The results are very encouraging but if I don’t go a few times a week my recovering fitness drops off fast… a sign I’m a lot older than I think I am. Still, must be patient, it’s a 2 year road back to being 100%, so I’m told.

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Looking forward to getting my dancing shoes back on

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My living room

2. prepping the house for major renovations that started 3 weeks ago. As I write this interior and exterior walls are out, ceilings gone, there’s a giant hole in the floor, and I am protected from a near gale and heavy rain by some impressive looking building paper. It’s not as dire a picture as those words may paint. I actually find the sound of loud rain on a tin roof cosy and reassuring. But there are piles of crap everywhere that need sorting, shifting and resorting.

3. after over 3 years of estrangement from serious engagement with writing fiction, I have started an online course, going deeper than just banging out partial first drafts (I started blogging a year ago to try and find a path back to fiction). In fact, the momentum has allowed me to delve into unfinished stories untouched since I lost the heart for fiction when my mother got sick in May 2011.

But the actual reason I’ve been motivated to write this is that a story I dearly love is about to end tonight. I’m referring to Boardwalk Empire, the HBO costume drama set during the US Prohibition.2926045-boardwalk_empire_season_2_sezonul_2_wallpaper_cast

In case you watch the show, let me reassure you that I will not be giving away any of the story, but I will be referring to aspects of it.

I credit my mother with giving me a love of costume drama. Yes, my fascination with history plays into it. I find it physically thrilling to see the unseen recreated. I vividly remember my excitement at being allowed to stay up late to watch BBC period dramas with exotic clothes and adult themes like Therese Raquin, I, Claudius, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or the Australian Against the Wind, For The Term of His Natural Life, and the US mini-series Roots and Shogun. (Not forgetting New Zealand’s, The Governor). So much to marvel at, learn and enjoy. And BE excels in that it recreates a time much overlooked by television, the 1920s. The obvious reason for this neglect is that it costs a lot more to make a drama that needs all its sets and costumes made from scratch. Of course, product placement, that major funder of TV drama has no obvious place in the past, making it yet more expensive to produce.

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Margaret and Nucky ruling the Empire

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Naughty old 1931 Margaret

I watched the Martin Scorsese-directed first episode when visiting my mother in Ashburton in 2010. Despite my love of the genre, I hadn’t been intending to watch it, but my mother was keen so I watched it with her. To be honest, I was kind of bored by the brooding slowness but in her quietly perceptive way Mum unpicked the story and guessed what was happening from the first shot of Margaret Shroeder.

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Miss Lucy Danziger takes the cake (and has some of the best lines)

When I returned to Wellington, I kept up with the show, slowly becoming a major fan of so many aspects of the production. The stories, the acting, the music, the recreations of real people (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Myer Lansky, Jack Dempsey, Eddie Cantor, Joe Kennedy etc etc). It is full of what my mother called ‘character actors’ i.e. not the best looking actors. It’s something she always admired about English drama, which avoided the commercial pressure to to turn everything into a love story between beautiful people (or a battle between goodies and baddies). And the casting of non-leading man Steve Buscemi as the protagonist, Nucky Thompson (a good-ish baddie), shows that the US has finally caught up during this so-called ‘Golden Age’ of TV drama (Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones etc).

Now, during the 5th and final season, I have gone back to the start and watched every episode again as the final (short season of) 8 episodes play, and I am loving it even more. Like a great novel, it rewards repeated engagement. The layers of each season all relate to each other and nothing is out of place. It’s all about lost boys and naughty girls, powerful women and powerless tough guys. Broken families and the power of family.

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Van Alden and Sigrid, comedy gold

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Gillian and Jimmy. Ever-loving mother and son

At the same time I have been following the fan reaction on the BE Facebook page and it has been totally intriguing. Like 90% of the internet, there are a lot of grumpy people totally missing the point.

A great bug-bear seems to be the heavy use of flash-backs in this final season. People keep saying that they should have been at the start, that they are boring. That the writers don’t know what they are doing. I couldn’t disagree more.

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Nucky and Eli in 1884

I’m with the 10% who believe the flashbacks are sublime, opening up the story in a way that is both hugely entertaining and rewarding.

Not only have all the previous story-lines taken on a richer tone, but it has been simply astounding to see how well the young actors inhabit Nucky, Gillian, the Commodore et al, going beyond simple mimicry to adding unexpected understanding to the story.

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Richard and Emma. Some of the most intriguing acting I have ever seen

I could rave on and on, how I loved all the music, Chalky White and his night club. The laugh-out-loud deadpan comedy of Van Alden (and wife). Half-faced WWI veteran Richard Harrow and his stunningly weird twin sister…

The thing is, all good things must end and nothing worthwhile goes on forever. The characters look old and tired. The perky optimism of the early 1920s has given way to the the darkness of the early ’30s.

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Van Alden, funniest deadpan since Buster Keaton

Mirroring the fate of many viewer’s favourite character, Jimmy (the broken, impatient lost boy), my mother died at the end of series 2. My father joined her 4 months later. That 1-2 punch, so close together, has made the last few years a time of constant reevaluation of my life. There has been no room for writing fiction when all I do is question life. Like Nucky in this final season, everything plays through a lens of constant flashbacks and reassessment.

On the last night I spent with my mother we watched a costume drama, Reese Witherspoon’s Vanity Fair. It was lush, sumptuous with a lot of money on the screen. There was a heap of great acting but everything good came from the novel and we both agreed it wasn’t a patch on the BBC adaptation. They had gone too Hollywood, attempting to make the awful protagonist Becky Sharpe (Reese) a misunderstood American striver. It killed the story.

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Corrupt ‘family man’ Eli makes a point

As I anticipate the final show I can’t help wishing my mother was here to watch it with me, so I could have the benefit of her opinion.

In a way, I believe she will be in the form of the love she gave me for wonderful drama.

Like all the fans, I don’t want BE to end. But the story has played out. It remains beautiful and clever. Rich and deep, funny and perceptive.

And that will never change.

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Songs of September

Motivated by my 6 year-olds recent statement that she… hates spring… because I love winter so much… I’ve had September songs on my mind.

While most of the 4 songs in my pocket come from a hemisphere where that month falls in autumn, signalling the approach of winter, I live in New Zealand where it means warmth and light, daffodils and lambs.

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Waikiki

Waikiki

The September song foremost in my head is Here Comes September by Waikiki. I know it from the Triple J Hottest 100 collection my Australian sister sent me in 2003. Triple_J_Hottest_100_Volume_10They’re a great way to hear vaguely alt popular music that doesn’t necessarily get noticed in New Zealand. It was a great mix that year and I remember only ever needing to skip the odd track. While this wasn’t my initial fav I was soon skipping back to repeatedly sing along. Its hooky jangly pop seemed to exude the hope of September. Never having heard of them I assumed they were Australian (the singer tries to sing ‘American’ at times, as is the fashion/compunction for many vocalists, but broad Aussie vowels give her away).

The song is about an ended relationship, being positive and remembering the good stuff.

Though there were others, you never left me at all

Here comes September, and we both know what that means

Sometimes it’s out of our grasp, not everything is made to last

If that’s the way you wanna remember, then that’s the way you gotta remember

But I won’t cry now, here comes September

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A Fender Jazz Bass, much like the beauty I once played

And although I was seduced by the lack of bitterness in her delivery, I didn’t focus on that when I sang along in 2003, being more captivated by the harmonic vocal hooks, the ringing of the Rickenbacker and the rich low rumble of the Fender bass; instruments I grew up knowing intimately.

Of course, 2003 was a weird time. Across the world we were repeatedly told that the world had changed forever (as if it doesn’t every day). I was actively angry and resistant to the warmongering narrative of fear. Refusing to march to that duplicitous beat, I was living a life infused with hope.

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Paris 2000. The Japanese tourist said she couldn’t fit in the tip of the tower. Just relax tourist, san, and tilt up

In 2000 I had left my job in television to tour around Europe, embracing the roots of my immigrant parents before eventually realising that it was time to embrace my desire to write. So in 2001 I bit the bullet and attended a 6 month fiction writing course in Timaru. It was amazing, I literally felt like I was Harry Potter: that my life had gone from dark containment to light-filled expansion.

Of course, despite my first short story being accepted for publication within a week of sending it off, the world wasn’t waiting to be entertained by me and the pile of rejections I studiously kept (to remind me of my early struggle) got ever bigger. And bigger. And bigger.

So I headed back to Auckland to freelance in a TV industry pumped up with the phoney money of pre-Credit Crunch NZ. I didn’t need to find work, it found me. While I continued to compulsively write and submit fiction, certain in my abilities, I socialised in a heady media scene awash with the social lubricants of the day (booze, pot, P and E).

It was a fun time, but I wanted more out of life. Yes, I craved success as a writer but most of all I had begun to seriously yearn for a committed relationship. And to be a father.

My desire was so strong that on 3 of the 5 following Christmases (’03, ’05, ’07) I found myself ‘expecting’ with a different woman (which may indicate a very casual attitude, but I would say it illustrates a certain commitment).

Yes, I admit, my taste in women has been questioned by friends and family, but that’s only ever after things go pear-shaped (and isn’t everyone wise after the fact?)

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Blending into a tight spot, Paris 2005

In heart and head I’m never-endingly fascinated by women, considering myself more of a woman’s man than a man’s man. I will choose their company (platonic or not) over men any day. It’s been that way since I was a child growing up surrounded by sisters and female cousins, the only boy in girl town.

And who really fully understands the drivers of their own desires? I can’t say I’m attracted to the same thing: it’s usually a certain strength of character, and something indefinable in the eye and mind.

However, given what’s gone on in my life in the 11 years since 2003, I have lost a lot of confidence in my desires, leading to the celibate phase of the last couple of years. At the start of this phase, in a reflective moment, I said to a good friend that I always like strong women, to which he replied… you like bossy women…When I mentioned this to a sister she said… you like bitches!

I thought that was rather harsh. But very funny.

Which leads to another song from my September playlist: Miss September by Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band. Bulldoggin'

They were a family favourite on the NZBC TV talent show ‘New Faces’ in 1973. Their bouncy feel and eccentric look featured tea-chest bass, washboard and kazoo and their song about a pinup picture (naughty!) got them into the finals. Yes, they were hugely derivative (Sgt. Pepper’s, anyone?…Pictures of Lily by The Who?), but as a 6 year old I found them far more entertaining than the syrupy/sombre crooners and balladeers, and frowning girls with acoustic guitars the show was lumbered with.

Now the article that came with your picture, says you hail from Illinois

Now I know Illinois-a-noise an oyster, but an oyster will only bring me joy bulldog2

The lyrics were wonderfully silly (how is Illinois an oyster?) while still appealing to popular music’s reliable workhorse of unrequited romantic yearning.

Miss September, Miss September, I know I’m gonna meet you some day

Miss September, Miss September, though you’re 12,000 miles away-hay-hay-hay

The allusions to masturbation (of course) were lost on me.

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Spot the Rickenbacker

Such things were more apparent in my (short) encounter with The Bangles’ cover of Big Star’s September Gurls in 1986. I never liked them as much as the Go-Gos (much more flaccid, musically). Maybe it’s unfair to compare them but both bands were sold directly to pubescent boys (for obvious reasons), and rock/pop is never shy of such subjects. I liked that Susanna Hoffs played a Rickenbacker (John Lennon played one!), and that the bass player sang this song (I was playing bass in a jangly-pop band by this stage).

By the 1990s I was much more familiar with the original version by Alex Chilton/Big Star. While his version has a lot more life to it (his delivery is heavily nuanced, maybe to counterpoint the bland lyrics: the Bangle delivers with dead-eyed ‘80’s coldness), the song is the least favourite of the September songs I know. I just don’t find much meaning in the lyrics. RVM-Big-Star_16x9_620x350(What’s a September Gurl? A Virgo? I dunno). But maybe you don’t have to. Lyrical clarity is an overrated part of music, especially when compared to the open and inclusive reading of poetic imagery.

September gurls do so much…

December boy’s got it bad…

That said, it’s clearly got something going for it in that a female vocalist can sing it without feeling the need to change the respective genders of the lyrics (something that always irritates me, especially when the P.O.V of any song is all over the place).

Which leaves the September song that had the biggest impact on me. Wake Me Up, When September Ends by Green Day. A song that became intimately associated with both my very personal experience of September 2005, and an awful ‘Act of God’ that affected countless lives. green_day_04_original

Catching up with a beloved ex-lover for coffee in 2003 had resulted in the first of the 3 Christmas pregnancies. That one ended on New Year’s Eve. I got the text while dancing with strangers, high on a mix of P and E. Although at the time I saw it as lucky escape, it was an incredibly lonely moment and I eventually came to grieve deeply for the unborn child and the unfulfilled relationship with his/her mother. But back then my heart was set on a come here/go away long term flame, and by 2004 I had moved in with her, happy in a relationship I imagined lasting forever.

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Waiting for my partner to finish work, the first thing I visited in Paris was Diana’s tunnel. People still left tributes 8 years later

Which is why, at the end of August 2005, I flew to Paris to accompany her on a work trip she had left for the week before.

When you fly to Europe from NZ you tend to fly through the night so I arrived in Paris on a hot, sunny autumn morning. As I checked into our hotel, the first English I heard being spoken was two clearly shocked Americans, reading a newspaper at the check-in desk… They’re shooting each other… looting the place… Animals… Once I got up to my partner’s room and turned on the telly (this was before the internet became something you carried in your pocket) I realised who they were and that a hurricane had devastated New Orleans.

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When September Ends by Green Day wasn’t my favourite track on American Idiot, an album I loved thinking it both entertaining and brave (especially in a time when there was little push back in popular culture against the proponents for war), and I played it many times before I headed to Europe in 2005. Sept green Day

The song didn’t fit my particular concept of September, speaking of rain/winter/loss. I was embracing the future, heading for a hot month in Europe with the woman I wanted to spend my life with. And we had decided to make a baby.

I now know the song is about the vocalist losing his father at the age of 7, which explains much of the lyrical imagery.

Ring out the bells again, like we did when spring began

Wake me up, when September ends

It’s testament to the strength of the very personal lyrics that the single, released August 2005, became the unofficial anthem for Hurricane Katrina, which hit as I arrived in Paris.

It has the poetic/fluid nature of good lyrics in that the video for the song ignores Billy Joe Armstrong’s intimate meaning to take on the blustering pomposity of sacrifice and war that many American videos were plastered with at the time. Sept lyric

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A rainy night in Brussels and a very fine, boozy meal

But that song was not in my head as I flitted from Paris to Florence to Lucca to Pisa to Brussels to Maastricht to Amsterdam to London and back to Paris: exploring, being, loving.

And it wasn’t all fun and games. I was also doing some research for a historical novel I was writing about the founding of my hometown of Christchurch, which was set up after the formation of the Canterbury Association in London in 1848.

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Place of the first meeting to found Canterbury. Spot the three lambs in the shield

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Communards at the barricades

Due to the utopian ideals of a group of graduates of Christ Church College, Oxford (yip, Harry Potter’s school) who sent the ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’ to found Christchurch, I was making a study of the Paris Commune of 1871, established when the decadent, corrupt government of Napoleon III let the invading Prussian’s get within a humiliating cooee of Paris (WW1, 40 years later, was a replay of this schmozzle).

At the most famous bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, Shake I bought a history of that incredible event which, when the city was retaken by government forces, saw the slaughter of more Parisians than the Great Terror of the Revolution and The German Occupation of WWII combined.

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Dead Communards on the cover of the book I bought

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Tomb of Oscar Wilde

I read that book throughout our travels around Europe, finishing it at the end of the trip when we returned to Paris, making a special pilgrimage to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, pushing past the tourists at Jim Morrison’s grave, stopping to take a photo of my partner kissing the toes of the lip-stick covered Jacob Epstein statue on Oscar Wilde’s grave, making a beeline for the wall at the back of the graveyard where a great many Communards were lined up and shot.

Returning to NZ at the end of the month, and still in travel mode, I flew down to a good friend’s 40th.

Towards the end of that early spring party, standing on the threshold of his back door, my friend, who I had known since my early 20s, tapped the neck of his beer bottle to mine and said… to the barren knights… It took me a second to realise that he wasn’t talking about humorous British pop group, the Barron Knights, Barron-Knights-Best-of-the-Barron-Knightsbut about us having avoided parenthood. He was clearly wistful, having married 5 years before, just before I headed to Europe for the first time.

But that poignancy became ironic when 6 weeks later I was back, escaping an awful argument that erupted after my partner found out she had got pregnant on that last weekend in Paris. She was not happy with the situation (but we planned it?), and in her bitter reasoning she was carrying the spirit of a Communard murdered at that wall. I felt betrayed and used.

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The photo we took at the wall in Pere Lachaise. 134 years later, people still leave flowers for the victims

A lot went on in the next few months; too much for here. Suffice to say that my partner eventually found her peace with the child growing inside her, and we announced it to her gathered family on Christmas Day 2005. Which underlined a greater and more painful irony when, late on Boxing Day, after a hurried and tortured helicopter flight off our island home she delivered a tiny, perfectly formed boy with eyelids closed. Fingernails, clearly forming on the hand resting across his chest.

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Paris, beneath the rewarewa we planted

In a strange way, the experience brought us closer, and we were happy for most of the next year. I listened to Green Day a lot as I worked in the wild, extensive garden, clearing and landscaping the area where we buried the boy we called Paris on New Year’s Eve. I loved the album; it was a journey, more than its constituent parts.

But When September Ends took on a new meaning for me, as did the month. It became a personal anthem of loss and each year I was anxious for the month to pass.

Which gets at the reason I have written this blog.

Because when my daughter said that she hated spring, my first thought wasn’t of Green Day, it was Waikiki.

Two months after I shifted out in Dec 2006, following my erstwhile partner announcing… actually, I do want a baby. But not with you… I met my daughter’s mother. Four months later she was (unexpectedly) pregnant.

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Exiting the apartment in Paris

My friend and his wife, who had provided refuge in that awful time in 2005, did so again (along with his baby boy, born earlier that year) in 2007 when we shifted down to his town just before Christmas.

I ended up buying the house next door and our children grew up as brother and sister. My friends moved far away just before last Christmas but I continue to live next door to that threshold where we toasted the barren knights. I have my daughter every other week as her mother and I are no longer together (having a child with someone is not the best way to establish a relationship).

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The dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, where the founders of Christchurch (and Harry Potter) went to school.

There’s been a shit-load of loss in my life over the last few years (I have referred to aspects of it in past blogs). Paris, and the woman I was convinced I loved. My vibrant life in the media. My home town, smashed (and the novel I was writing with it). Both parents, straight afterwards. My sister, briefly here, now back to Australia. My other sister and family now following.

It seems like I’m on a beach watching an ever-receding tide, wondering if it will ever flow back.

But it is September, and I am full of hope. My girl is the greatest joy. I try not to cling but she is growing so fast. There is increasing warmth in the air, greater light in the days, the garden is growing and in 2 months it will be a year since the surgery on my ankle so I will be able to start running (gently) once more.

Like songs and seasons, we are filled with memories and meanings both personal and shared: as immutable as the ever-changing seasons, nothing is certain except for change.

I do not seek an encounter with any woman pinned above my bed. I do not hanker for the lost, or yearn for the future (well, not too much).

But I have a confession. There are boxes of baby toys and paraphernalia under the house I am struggling to let go of. It may seem a trifle sad but I would counter they are a guard against the unexpected.

I am no longer a young man, but if I pass these things on to charity do I not invite Murphy’s Law to inject a mischievous twinkle into my eye? To put a song in my heart, a spring in my step, to turn my mind to… ?

Well, it is September.

And we both know what that means…

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It Was 30 Years Ago Today… A Month In The Life, oh Boy!

I always say I was born in the Summer of Love; a deliberately wry comment as I was born in the middle of a Christchurch Autumn at the bottom of the South Pacific far from Haight Ashbury, of parents not just of a generation before the hippies, but even before Elvis et al influenced the infant Beatles.

That said, as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released a month after my birth giving me a(n admittedly) wishful spiritual connection to that album I’ve decided to look back at my life 30 years ago today.

Yes, I know Paul sings …it was 20 years ago today… but I’m choosing 30 years as that was when I started a (nearly) daily writing habit.

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Barrington Park Mall with Port Hills behind, where I biked with Sonya to buy vogarts, black felt and 50c mixtures

In August 1984 I was a 17, in my last months of school, living in south Christchurch at the bottom of the Port Hills with my parents, 2 younger sisters, dog and a pet mouse called Alf (named after Alison Moyet, who was still in Yazoo). As that last comment would indicate, music was a big part of my life: Rip It Up, NME, The Face were all regularly consumed and I spent a fair amount of time trawling through record bins and buying records (Planet Records, Radar Records, Record Factory). I had a part-time job at a bakery in Sydenham, Coupland’s Hot Bread Shop* (CHBS, not to be confused with my school, CBHS) where I worked in the early hours of Saturday morning earning $14 an hour (you got double time working weekends back then) to spend on ($10?) records or musical equipment (at the start of the year the school boy garage band I had joined/formed the year before had gone ‘professional’ playing in pubs).

Okay, to say we were professional is a stretch, we were endearingly enthusiastic amateurs, but we were getting paid as much as we were not…often the standard $50 fee given to support acts at the Star & Garter or Gladstone. Quite a cool feeling for a cocky/unconfident schoolboy aged 16 at his first gig. I never drank alcohol, hated the taste, plus I was also terrified of the intimidating police who marched into the pubs looking for people like me.

All this I can write off the top of my head without looking back into what I wrote at the time. I could write a heck of a lot more, after all I decided I was writer as a child in the 70s, but I want to keep this focussed: it’s about August 1984, for no other reason than it is August 2014.

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What I did in August

At the start of that year I bought a calendar filled with cartoons by New Zealand cartoonists raising money for Amnesty International. For some reason (the inherent writer/historian/memoirist in me?) I started writing down odd things that happened each day. On Jan 1st I apparently got a postcard from my mother and read Animal Farm. That’s all I wrote, but why did I get a postcard? Reading ahead I see her and Dad were visting Perth whanau and me and my sisters were staying in Whitby with cuzzies, just up the road from where I now live…going to Porirua Mall and Petone to buy vogarts…crazy…but stick to THIS story, boy!)

Vogarts: ball-point tubes of fabric ink, $7 each. Tricky to draw with as material stretched (and no such thing as white-out). Detail of band t-shirt.

Like all writing, once you start, it’s hard to stop and the days quickly filled with as much as I could fit in. By August each wee square is chokka block with detail. Which isn’t to say that it is interesting detail; no secret crushes, pashes, binge-drinking or school boy hi-jinks, but what I’ve come to believe as a historian is that it is often the mundane that is most ignored and absent. I always wonder, but what did people do with all their time? And if we know, how did they do it? What’s missing? It tends to be the BIG things that get written down.

Which isn’t to say nothing happened in August ’84; the month starts with the L.A. Olympics and there seems to be day after day of NZ winning gold or silver in something or other (it was our greatest haul, shitting-off the Aussies no-end, who got nowt causing them to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into sport to fix that politically/socially important situation). The All Blacks whopped the poor old Wallabies, too, thanks to Robbie Deans being at full back, I note (I recall a rivalry with the walrus-moustached, pantyhose-wearing Wellington full back Allan Hewson).

On the 28th Stan Ogden died (never a big Corrie fan, this was none-the-less worthy of note). On the 21st I ate my first piece of quiche (prompted by the popular book of the time about what real men did/didn’t do).

And, rather quietly, with nothing else said, on Tues 7th there was a 5.0 earthquake at 4am.

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Colour TVs were big$$. Phillips K9 rented for $7 a week for 8 years before this snap of RTR 11 Aug when Bob Marley was # 1

On the mundane level, I appeared to watch a lot of television (an indicator of my life working in TV, maybe?): MASH, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, Bewitched, Love Boat, Eight Is Enough, One Day At A Time, Fresh Fields, Little House On The Prairie, The Old Men At The Zoo, What Now?, Flipper, Capt. Scarlett, Return To Eden, Gliding On, The Smurfs, Me & My Girl, The Mainland Touch, Beauty and The Beast, It’s Academic, Shazam, Kids from O.W.L, Benson, Bad News Tour, Ready to Roll and Radio with Pictures all get a mention.

The last two were the most important by far, being the only place to see music videos in a pre-MTV, YouTube world. RTR was a countdown of the Top 20 which played at 6 pm on a Saturday night so was essential viewing before going out. RWP was more cutting edge; at 9:30 pm on Sunday night, giving a coda to the weekend, a peek at what is to come, something to be discussed on Monday morning. I watched it every Sunday. On the 5th they played The Verlaines and Joy Division (that morning: snow on the front lawn, listened to Children’s Requests on 3ZB 07:20 to 08:00 – not very good).

Of course, I aspired to be on RWP (and managed it 3 years later) which is why, in my memory, All Fall Down, practised incessantly (no girlfriend, eh?) throughout those years.

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Pretty poster, possibly by Hamish Kilgour?

But if I look at that August, there were only 7 practices, and, goodness, 5 gigs!!?! That’s a pretty good ratio, I doubt if it got any better. The first was on the 3rd at the Gladstone with The Great Unwashed. I was pretty over-awed, The Clean (their precursor) were heroes/gods of the Flying Nun scene who I had watched on RWP and Dropa Kulcha (and maybe Shazam) and when David Kilgour jumped off stage at the sound check to shake my hand, saying ‘Hi, I’m David’, I had to stop myself from saying ‘I n-n-know’. I remember none of the gig but we must have done okay as we were asked to support them in Wellington at the end of the year (on the road…with The Great Unwashed?! sort of…wow).

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My cool Maton semi-acoustic bass looked better than it sounded, but was only $250

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My effort, for the Senior Common Room, doodled in Applied Maths

Next was a lunchtime gig in my school hall at CBHS on the 14th where we had assemblies or were entertained by Hey, Wow! type Christian groups or blind organist Richard Hore and has Farfisa (why did he have to wear slippers?) It was quite a thing to organise as Blair was now working, Jason went to Cashmere, Esther to Linwood and there was some sort of rivalry between the principals to be negotiated in these pre-Rock Quest days when any music other than orchestra or jazz was seen as a rather sketchy activity, educationally. To top it off, drummer Brett was required to go AWOL from the army (we were a ‘dangerous’ band..ho ho). All I remember is that it was wonderfully loud and I took off my school tie to play (I went to a rather formal school). What I’ve noticed from my calendar is lots of mentions of Miss Heinz…Miss Heinz called re. gig…gave posters to Miss Heinz…borrowed PA from Miss Heinz’s boyfriend…returned mic stand we mistakenly took to Miss Heinz…got $31 from Miss Heinz from door (minus $11 Esther’s taxi = $20 profit). I cannot remember what she looked like or what she taught, but I was clearly in want of a girlfriend.

The next two gigs were at the Bill Direen’s Blue Ladder in Cashel Mall on the 23rd & 24th. There’s a lot I want to write about this place so I will keep this short (I wanted this blog to be 700 words, tops, and am already at 1,443…sigh). The Blue ladder was an informal ‘warehouse’ venue with plays, alt music performance and recording. On the 2nd night we ‘head-lined’ playing at midnight after Vague Secrets, A Fragile Line, a play, a film, and a duo.

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Bad puns do not suit a man of arts and letters like Bill Direen. But, hell, we got in the Press!

Then on the Sunday afternoon (3 gigs in a row, wow!) we played a Christchurch crusty hall gig (lots of such informal gigs in those days) at England Street Hall with lots of scary/friendly alt. types smoking and drinking. I remember cowering around the edges, not drinking alcohol. I went to the dairy and got a can of coke after the McGoohans played (apparently).

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Wonderful England St poster

But apart from all the music guff (20th tried out Michael Dalzell on vox… rejected because of ‘musical differences’…no memory of that!… 12th student radio station, Radio U, finished transmission with The The’s ‘This Is The Day’, the same song they started with) what sticks out from all my tiny, scrawled words is all the food. In fact, I felt a bit sick reading it. Every Sunday I walked the dog, Angus, to Johnny Marten’s Food Mart (a charmer of the ladies, lots of young lads helping out…a police raid) with my sister Michelle to get the Sunday News and ‘skulls’ (white choc, er, skulls with red liquid inside; bite them right and blood squishes out their eyes). Many mentions of Mary Gray green apple lollies, Krispy Chips, chips & vinegar from Deb’s, Paddy’s Food Lane, banana milkshakes from Gloucester Food Bar, Beaver Bars (pineapple?!), KFC Video Box (no McD’s or BK in ’84 Chch), and Big Garry’s cheeseburgers from Selwyn Street on a Thursday night (best ever…the way he crisped the melted cheese..mmm, can still taste it).

But it wasn’t just the junk that got noted. On the 25th sister Sonya made her and me porterhouse steak as Mum and Dad had gone to Glen Poad’s wedding. 29 Aug we played French cricket on the front lawn when our good friends the Wagtevelds came to dinner where we had fried rice, wontons, garlic ginger chicken and sponge cake (all home-made). The meal was followed by ‘Benson’ then us kids (me, my sisters and Michael) played knucklebones and 4-handed patience (a family fav.) listening to Monty Python records from the library (the adults would have sat at the table with a little alcohol, many cigarettes and much talking). On the 31st Michael came round having got his driving licence the day before (funny he waited till he was 17 while his father taught me how to drive when I was 15) and we had chips and donuts from Milton Street. Later I made pork fried rice for Mt.Cook and helped Mum pack for the trip (it was the school holidays and we were about to head off on one of our excellent occasional holidays amongst the Southern Alps at Mt. Cook, this one where ‘Uncle’ John shouted us kids a flight up in a helicopter into the mountains which made him rather green).

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Uncle John looking forward to landing at Glentanner

Over all, a funny month; I appeared to sleep into near noon each day as we had time off to do test exams for the end of year exams…something I couldn’t get my head around so it was quite a waste of time. Of course, all the late night gigs plus working in the bakery in the wee smalls didn’t help (and I was 17). On the colder days when I biked to school for said test exams (a distance of about 6 kms) I wore gloves, scarf and oilskin. You don’t see many oilskins these days: must be something to do with peak oil. Then, later in the month it was the school holidays, hence the trip to Mt Cook.

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Lake Pukaki, heading to Mt Cook. Clearly, I’m struggling with the weird viewfinder. Knitted jerseys de rigueur for the mountains.

On the 11th, one of my other great passions was fed when Dad passed on to me the Zeiss Ikon camera he had used since the early 1950s. A good camera, but a bit of a beast, it was fully manual with a peep-hole viewfinder which explained why he often took badly-framed photos.

It also had an external light meter which I thought was pretty cool. I note that he showed me how to use it, but that on the 20th I went to Fox Talbot in town to get some pointers from a professional.

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The Mighty Zeiss Ikon

I was soon shooting a roll of 24 a month (kids take more selfies going to the dunny these days), and, unsatisfied with the patchy results, I soon made my first big-ticket non-musical instrument purchase buying a 2nd hand Nikon EM SLR from Fox Talbot under the Canterbury Centre for $499.

So, what became of all that, the hopes and dreams of a 17 year old?

On the 3rd Mr Fitzgerald gave me an application for Teachers’ College, but I never filled it in – I had had enough of school. But I hadn’t had enough of learning and on the 16th I went to an open day at the University of Canterbury and, liking what I saw, the following year I went to do Religious Studies, History and Classics (it’s all about story for me).

Big surprise, I didn’t become a rock star, even though I tried (to a certain degree). That said, when my daughter said to me last year, ‘Dad, the best thing in the world to be is a rock star’ I replied, gilding the lily a tad, ‘Daddy used to be a rock star’. She was so impressed she told everyone at school (so her teacher said). I’m not sure squealing school girls chasing you for autographs in Chancery Lane on the Friday night after we played at Hillmorton High counts, although I think it’s enough for me.

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Back of my Applied Maths book. Clearly more interested in writing and drawing, I got 16% on the mock test.

I continue to be an obsessive photographer…I have a collection of many cameras. It’s how I see the world, and the internet (and Facebook) have been wonderful for indulging that passion. However, I don’t draw anywhere near as much as I once did, which is a shame. I want to remedy that.

I’m not entirely lost to music but my last ‘rock’ gig was in Auckland in the late ‘90s. Being in a band was like being married to several people at once and I just don’t have the oats for that any more. However, I have a guitar I occasionally play, knocking out satirical ditties to salve perceived wrongs in the world, and, best of all, I have joined a local singing group which I thoroughly enjoy. Amongst others, we’re learning Bill Wither’s Lovely Day and I am astounded to be only one who can hit and hold the 7-bar ‘Daaaaaaaay’ in the chorus…it feels as transcendent as flying without wings.

But my main engagement with music is intellectual; I listen to it, think about it a lot and could write about it till a cow jumps over the moon.

But hell, this was meant to be 700 words and here are 2,500…far more than a blog should be. My next will be shorter, and about music, I promise.

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4 days in August ’85… getting wordier

I will finish on something mundane, yet important, I discovered reading my calendar. On the 29th I picked up sister Michelle from the bus station (where the Casino now is) from a holiday with whanau in Oamaru. She gave me a present of lollies and a diary. It was my first diary and my obsession with filling it with words grew ever bigger, as you can see.

The following diaries would have a page for each day, with at least 1,000 words (at a guess).

I’m a bit scared to look at them. Imagine what I could unpack from those mundane rambles?

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My first selfie

 

 

 

 

 

* A lot of the what happened at the Hot Bread Shop is in this short story The Baker’s Boy published in Takahe Magazine 69 (somewhat unsurprisingly, not my only story about food)

A Curious Thing

Last night I dreamed of my father. We were sitting together on the couch, talking. He was sharp, warm, funny: it lasted for several minutes before a part of me observed how wonderful it was to hear his voice, and that awareness triggered the realisation that I was dreaming as Dad has been dead for over two years.

Maybe I’ve been listening to Kate Bush a bit too much lately. Wiley, windy moors and a dead loved one at the window. Loved you, hated you. Bad dreams in the night.

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It’s been two weeks, every day. The mind is a curious thing.

I so looked forward to today. So much to do, so much time to do it without the distraction of work (or my wonderful child) but I am distracted beyond any possible focus: anxious/unsettled, unable to complete the simplest of tasks.

I have just joined a gym and love the exercise which is aiding the recovery from my Achilles surgery. I have a challenging musical poem to write for the online course I am doing. Also a piece of original speculative fiction that has been percolating for an age until last week, while aqua-jogging in the pool, I found the change of voice and perspective that has sent it forward to where it needs to be, waiting with great promise. And, most pressingly of all, my computer continues to splutter and freeze, threatening to give up the ghost so I really need to go and replace it ASAP.

But I can’t get the words from my dream out of my head.

dreams2To top it off I am also being plagued by an earworm, waking the last two mornings to Joan Baez’s version of the Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. I heard it the other day on the awful radio station they constantly play at work, the music so tired it reminds me of being locked in a rest home waiting for the inevitable. It’s a format beloved by decaying Baby Boomers; ‘the Breeze’, songs you’ve heard at least a million times played in a never-changing purgatory of ‘60s/’70s smaltz. Yes, there’s good stuff and ‘classics’ amongst it but every Monday they play ‘Monday, Monday’…stopped into a church, alooong the wayyyyy…sigh. There’s always Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, Abba, Paul Simon etc et al. Resigned sigh. No escape from the tired familiarity.

Yes, all fine music but it’s the lack of surprise that saps my will.

That said, I’m obsessed with my earworm today as it’s the only way to escape the uneasiness of last night’s dream. I’ve never had any interest in the Baez version; too much syrup for a song which plays to racist sentiment (as I saw it). I have heard the Band do the original and it seemed to be more honest and nuanced/less of a celebration of a society founded on exploitation, oppression and hate.

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But like all great music, it has a surface reading and an unfathomable depth. The lines about choppin’ wood that finishes with “but they should never have taken the best” is what has won me over. I’m playing the song again and again just to revel in the poetry of the image.

About six weeks ago I met a man who could have been my father’s twin. Not as he was, confined with all the others to a secure facility waiting for the Alzheimer’s to end. Nor as he was in the ten or so years before that as he was consumed from inside, forced to avoid direct questions to conceal the growing confusion. But as he was twenty years ago when he was sharp and funny, engaged, playful. This doppelganger had my father’s eyes, face, hair, skin, manner of speaking…a distinctive mix echoed nowhere in the family or anyone I have met. We struck up a marvellous conversation as waves of (hidden) emotion surged through me. I hoped I wasn’t being creepy but grief is often an unexpected ride, and not having had a good chat with my Dad in many, many years I clung on for as long as I could.

I wouldn’t have thought too much of this encounter if not less than an hour later I had met someone whose address was on a street bearing my father’s name: Christian and surname, spelt just the same as Dad’s. At the time, it was hard not to laugh, to feel a little touched. I wished Dad had been alive to tell him there was street named after him.

Later, when work had finished, I googled the address just to make sure I wasn’t being totally wishful. Dad’s street was a cul-de-sac, around the corner from where I was working, attached to a street with, er… my name. Yip.

I was very amused: a playful joke worthy of my father.

Today we are experiencing mad, extreme winds. I can see the white horses galloping across the Bay from my salt-caked windows.

It is time to walk down to the water, listening to the ghost of Cathy and the death of Dixie, and make good my escape.

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On a Sandy Shore

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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).

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Ouchie!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

 

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‘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!’