Category Archives: Family

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.

Sept tumbler

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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