Category Archives: Fiction

Love Is

What is love? It is an English word. A very old, Old English word. So how is French the language of love? These are things I have thinking about lately thanks to some of my favourite podcasts and a bit of reality TV.

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The TV show I’ve become addicted to is First Dates, where people with similar interests meet for the first time on a discretely filmed dinner-date. It makes me smile and feel good about life. These people often have very certain ideas about what love is. They just haven’t found it yet.

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So what is love? That is a question that can be answered in any number of ways, in film, story, song or life. But what it wasn’t when love (lufu) was used in Old English was romantic. It was a feeling of wanting, lusting for food or hunting. It wasn’t applied to romance in English until Eleanor of Aquitaine married the English king Henry II in the 1100s, bringing her favoured troubadours over to entertain her court with songs of devotion and unrequited love (themes that define our idea of love to this day).

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But where did Eleanor’s entertainers get this new-fangled idea of love? From her grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, who loved to pursue women, married or not, and wrote verse about it (his most famous love was Dangereuse… pronounced “Danger-Rosa”!)Dangerosa

Aquitaine, being in the warm south of France, was free of constant fighting so they had time to contemplate love while the cold war-like north (like England) favoured heroic tales of battle and sacrifice.

Romantic literature was around before this, of course, just not in Western Europe. The Ancient Greeks wrote extensively about erotic love, as did the Roman poet Ovid (Shakespeare’s favourite), but it was banned by the time of Caesar c.60BC as people feared it promoted adultery and loose morals. So for 1000 years it was absent from Western culture.

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The south of France was also close to Muslim Andalusia where the great princess and poet, Wallada, held poetry salons in the early 11th century. gran_wallada2ce3She had a long, famously tortured romance with Spanish poet-philosopher Ibn Zaydun. After they met she wrote, “Wait for darkness, then visit me, for I believe that night is the best keeper of secrets”. From rival families, the Muslim Romeo and Juliet exchanged long love letters written in verse, where the gallant suitor humbled himself before his superior lover. Their poems were loved in Aquitaine influencing the idea of ‘courtly love’.

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This is the concept of love we inherited from Eleanor. An instant attraction. The fear of rejection. Longing. Unrequited lust. Devotion.

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These ideas permeate pop songs, rock songs, country music, opera, movies, television, books, blogs, our minds and hearts to this day. It’s certainly what the would-be suitors talk of in First Dates. How they decide if they want to see each other again. But what are they looking for? Big shoulders, nice teeth, blonde hair, a bald head? These are merely initial visual preferences based on what they have liked before. But what drives what they are feeling?

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We are visual creatures with huge visual cortices. When you see someone and go “wow, who’s that?” your brain has a massive hit of oxytocin, the drug of attraction. If you then talk to them you are rewarded with a blast of dopamine, which makes you feel pretty darn good. If you kiss technique is involved, but you are also tasting their MHC (major histocompatibility complex) which indicates if their genetic make-up is the same, or different, to yours. The more different the genes, the better they taste, indicating any ensuing offspring will be stronger with better immunity than if your genes are similar.

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But oxytocin degrades fast and those first hours/days/months of “wow!” do not last. At its max you have 18 months, probably less, to step up to beta endorphins, the natural opiates that take over in long-term relationships where you miss each other when apart and feel better in one another’s company.

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So which of these things is love? The wow of lust or comfort of companionship? The blind-daters, young and old, gay and straight, all seem to be looking for the later while gauging it by the former. They seem beholden to ideas of love born 1,000 years ago that make wonderful entertainment but often lead to poor choices.

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I’m no expert. But watching First Dates (while listening to podcasts about attraction and the history of love) has made me suspect that I have employed medieval ideas of love while holding tight to the original Old English idea of love as lust/desire, loving the thrill and excitement of a successful hunt.

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Once, in my 20s and working in television, a well-known TV presenter asked me if I was in love. We were alone in a rose garden, shooting a segment for Valentine’s Day. It was a sharp question. I had been in a relationship for 6 months but that thought had never occurred to me. I realised the answer was no. She then told me that her friends talked about “boing” (that moment of wow), and how it is not really love. It’s taken me decades to understand what that meant, to realise that entertainment may reflect life but it should not lead it.

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Finally I can recognise, and find, true love.

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So, what is love?

It is for you to decide.

Enamorados

 

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Mission Cleopatra

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I’m watching Mission Cleopatra with my 8 year-old daughter. It’s a funny film. Her choice. She plucked it from the plethora available, avoiding the usual Simpsons or the good/awful Grammy performances we’ve been making our way through.

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I recently turned her on to the Asterix books I loved as a child, so I thought it might be fun to see the film. But I must say it seems to lack the magic of the original Goscinny and Uderzo books. Maybe it’s because I’m not French, or because it’s live action (filled with seemingly-hammy French actors) that it seems a bit flat. The fact that the fine comic French actors are over-dubbed with dry American voices close mic-ed in a dull/dead studio certainly doesn’t help. There seems little atmosphere, no charm. The wonderfully barrel-chested Gerard Depardieu/Obelix voiced by an empty US teenage voice just sounds weird.

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But my 8 year-old thinks it’s ‘great’. She loves the original book. Likes things French. Has a francophone mother. Is fascinated by Egypt. Adores the Egyptians in Horrible Histories. Often dances to their Lady Gaga-themed Rah-Rah-Cleopatra song. Is slowly making her way through an Older Fiction ‘autobiography’ of Cleopatra from the library, saying names like Berenice and Ptolomy in her own 8-year old way.

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Last week we started watching a cool BBC documentary called ‘Immortal Egypt’ which has made ancient Egypt a lot clearer to me than it has ever been. I finally understand the difference between Upper and Lower Egypt, and the three different kingdoms, thanks to the captivatingly passionate professor who has to shade her pasty Brit skin from the Egyptian sun with an umbrella employed for its proper purpose.

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Me, I’ve always been much more into the Romans. And, to a lesser degree, the Greeks. Which may be why I have always had more of a taste for the Ptolomys, the Greco/Egyptian dynasty founded by Alexander’s general, Ptolomy, who started the line that ended when Cleopatra went out with a bang with Mark Antony having moved on from lover #1, Mr. Caesar (who every Asterix fan knows is a big-nosed pompous arse).

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But enough history.

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The film is full of gags. While Starkius and Hutchkis racing off in a chariot is wasted on my girl, she gets the Star Wars references about an evil empire. And the Gluteus Maximus gag.

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Yes. It’s fun. Bang crash. Very French. Yes, my girl loves it. Has asked to get the Asterix book out from the library again.

But, again, enough history. I am having bean bags thrown at me. I shall stop tapping away on the tablet.

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Time to play Asterix and Obelix. Gauls fighting Romans. Egyptians on the side.

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By George

I started blogging two years to find a way back to the joy of writing fiction. The pattern of success and rejection that writers face in their empty room had become too much, especially as life was swelling up around me with such persistence that making up stories seemed a futile dance in front of the inevitable.

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I wanted to exercise my writing muscle, clear my mind; find that joy. I found it crafting pieces I was happy enough to share with whoever cared to read them.

This year I applied for an undergrad workshop in creative non-fiction at Victoria University, using some of my blog posts as examples of my writing. They got me in, and I loved it. So much so that I applied for the short fiction workshop. I’m reading great stories; loving talking about writing with writers.

writingAfter three weeks of exercises it has become even more apparent that non-fiction and fiction are not mutually exclusive. Two of my pieces have been drawn straight from life. One has been made up. My classmates are writing a similar mix.

On Sunday I had a crack at our latest exercise, ‘Negotiating With the Dead’; an exercise reflecting on the hypothesis that writing is motivated by a fear of, and fascination with, mortality. We had to write a 1st-person piece of prose where the dead are given voice via audio technology (a phone, a computer, radio or stereo). Given my run of writing about the subject (“love your writing but less about death, please” said one comment) I wanted to make it purely fictional. And fun.

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That morning I read a wonderful story for class by George Saunders about a hapless old man trying to off himself so he doesn’t end up shitting the bed/being a bother due to Alzheimer’s. It was inspiring in its approach, and humour. It also resonated given my father’s suffering from the disease. I was party to many conversations about ‘exit-strategies’ as we waited for his undignified end.

writI decided to write a help-desk story with the voice of the operator as the only prose. As I wrote it I wasn’t sure if it was people trying to reach the dead, or the dead trying to reach the living, but once I had milked all the gags and Kafkaesque frustrations I could think of it became clear that The Helpless Desk is about a help desk for helpless ghosts.

I was very pleased with it. Even more so to have pulled it completely out of the air.

Elated, as I always am after writing, I went to bed and did something I try not to do; I checked out Facebook. An old friend had died. As I read through the tributes it became evident that it was the type of death that has begun to plague my various peer groups. I was so sad. George was a well-liked person, a true character. A lot of people were hurting across the digital ether.

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I thought back to our many conversations in our youth, when we were student-radio DJs, and live music fans; the memorable night we had to flee a massive house fire just as our private conversation was getting life-definingly interesting. WCBN_main_FM_studio,_University_of_Michigan_student_radio_stationAnd, more recently (around the time I started this blog), when in great despair about whether I would qualify to get my Haglund’s Deformity corrected, he PM-ed me regarding my bleak post-assessment status (stuck in a carpark, crying behind sunglasses… eek! Not like me to be like that, or communicate it without self-deprecating humour). It was a long message that talked about other things, conversations we had had in the past, things he had wanted to say at the time but hadn’t had the maturity or courage… it was incredibly revealing and encouraging. I was stunned and thankful; diverted from my self-absorption. Reassured that support can come from the most unexpected quarters.

Poster0015As I sat in bed on Sunday night feeling like I had failed him, I looked for that message. Was it as long and interesting as I recalled? Yes. A good 1,000+ words or more. And it was two years ago. To the day.

The co-incidence made me smile and grieve. More so having conquered an unsettled weekend wondering how I would give voice to the dead.

I wish I could be at George’s funeral tomorrow, more so at his wake. I want to be amongst my peer group from those formative years. I ache. But it is in Christchurch and I just cannot get away from Wellington. Life holds me tight as it bleeds into fiction.

In the year that surrounded the 4-month gap when my parents died 3-4 years ago, 7 people I know took their own lives. That’s a lot of pain to go around. At the time I tried hard not to look for connecting meanings and patterns, especially as they were all male and around my age. It felt like a curse I wanted shot of. How could I resolve this with having just watched both my parents struggle for life?

memory-loss-mauro-celottiI cannot be there to celebrate George’s great wit and intellect; his sensitivity, humour and life. The bouncy way he walked, the measured way he talked. But I can write this. And I can, when I feel up to it, listen to his voice on the radio shows people are sharing from Soundcloud on Facebook.

I wish he was still around. The world is a poorer place without him.

Second Thoughts

Today is a special day. I feel caught at the edge of something; marooned in the calm swell between past and approaching waves.

Why? Because I am exhausted and lost.

I have just come back from taking my daughter to the airport to fly off to visit family. She will have a great time, but as she had been with her mother for a week, the brief minutes together have mixed with my bone-wary exhaustion leaving me adrift in a cold, grey sea.

I know why my body is wary and trembling, giving rise to some loneliness and despair. It’s most probably because I have been working non-stop day and night in jobs which require levels of physical exertion I am probably not yet fit for (something I hate to admit).

It’s 5 and a half months since the operation to fix the Haglund’s Deformity on my heel and though I try to be patient and not think about it, there hasn’t been a moment when I could honesty say that I feel less pain and exhaustion than before the operation. No, I lie. I have many times marvelled at the improved movement and lack of pain, but each time that has happened I have had to remind myself that I’m on painkillers so have no real idea.

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Do I regret the procedure? No. I won’t allow that thought. Do I hate my jobs? No, they are enjoyable and rewarding on so many levels. Do I yearn for a relationship? No, not yet. I need time to heel on all levels.

With my girl gone to have fun I decided to do something I haven’t done in ages; wander around town, looking in second-hand bookshops. It’s not like I wanted to buy any books (I have so many still in boxes), but I just wanted to be free of my thoughts and look for the author I am presently obsessed with, Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s a wonderful, but unfashionable, writer and her books are never on the shelves. That, of course, could be read as a sign of the strength of her work; people hold on to books they like.

First, I tried Pegasus Books in the Left Bank of Wellington’s Cuba Mall.

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It is where I walked on crutches in January, finding a copy of The Gate of Angels, which I am reading at the moment. It’s a choice wee book and I am reading it as slowly as possible, savouring each word and image. It has the thing I require of every book I read, a great opening line (“How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril?”).

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But she was not on the shelf, so I went to look for Nicholson Baker, who was also absent, however I did spot a copy of John Banville’s, The Sea, something I read when it won the Booker in 2005. I loved it at the time and something about it has stayed with me. I checked the opening line (“They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”) I wanted it.

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I checked the price, $15, which seemed steep for a second-hand book I had already read. I put it back and kept looking, but returned three times to re-read the opening paragraph. The beauty of the craft was as compelling as Fitzgerald. After turning to glare at the unthinking woman who twice pushed past me while talking to her companion, both times rubbing her backside against mine (if I did it to her, would it not be sexual assault? Never mind, never mind…), I decided that in my fractured state I was being impulsive, so I left the deliciously book-filled shelves and headed for Arty Bees on Manners Street.

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Yet again, no Baker or Fitzgerald. But there was The Sea, in a different (and cheaper) edition. I read the first page again.

I so wanted it. Not just because it sparked my mind, making me want to write, but because I was intent on buying myself something to mark the day; the last day before I became a year older.

As I walked back towards Pegasus Books, reminiscing about how hard it was to cover this distance 3 months ago when I was still on crutches (noting that for all my moments of despair, I was making progress), I spotted a second-hand book shop I had never seen before; The Ferret Bookshop.

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It’s much smaller than the other two but amongst the fiction I found The Sea, in the same edition I read back when I lived overlooking the sea, on a city island north of my present home. While it wasn’t in as good a nick, it was only $10. Score!

As I went to buy it and head home to rest I noticed another book I had read at the same place by the sea, 10 years ago; Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. Like Banville’s novel, this biography had slipped inside me in unexpected ways; partly because of the subject but also, as I have come to realise, because Tomalin is a great biographer who I adore (Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Mansfield, Austen… not to mention a biography of Dickens’ secret lover, now the film The Invisible Woman).

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Pepys is like no other writer. Yes, he was writing (secretly) close to great people and events, but it is his startling emotional honesty that compels interest and keeps him relevant. A man of his times, he wrote in code fearing discovery, joyfully recording his sexual ‘conquests’ which we now read as sexual assaults.

And through this, he wrote and lived with the greatest of pain, enduring a horrific and dangerous operation to remove crippling bladder stones. I think of this often, especially when my relatively minor pain chips away at my resolve.

Through the Great Fire and plagues, Restoration surgery, and the distractions of the court of Charles II, he was compelled to examine himself in a way which is stunningly modern.

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Um, I’ve changed my mind

At $15 I had to have this book, too.

As I have mentioned many times, I am awash in the competing currents of fiction and creative non-fiction, pulled one way, then the other, unsure where I am heading, certain they are part of the same body.

Some writers write for money, and the physical sustenance it gives. But most, I believe, write because it is like breathing, and they don’t want to drown.

$25 has purchased me the greatest of birthday presents, and I couldn’t be happier.

I am no clearer which way I am heading, if I’m caught in a rip or heading for paradise. But sometimes, being at sea is the only place to be.

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Thwarted Action

I woke early this morning with the intention of writing a new short story. It was going to be a fast first-draft 1000 -1500 word ANZAC Day-themed piece of speculative fiction for a competition on a New Zealand SpecFic website for ANZAC Day (the day when Australians and New Zealanders commemorate the loss and sacrifice of war).

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Dawn Service at Gallipoli Cove

Although I have had soul-draining week at work due to cock-ups and short-staffing, and will be working this afternoon and evening on this sacred holiday, (it’s sport, mate, Aussie Rules, so the usual restrictive laws don’t apply here, digger) I wanted to bash out a piece of fiction using the skills I’ve been trying to develop through blogging.

Last night, I was nodding off by 19:30, rousing myself to stay awake so I could get a good night’s kip before rising early to make the most of the time when my mind is most active (I’m definitely a morning writer). Through the night I woke every hour or two from dreams that had nothing to do with the story but seemed to focus on the paradise where I used to live. I was in the house where on my first morning there I saw a pod of orcas swim past my kitchen window, a dream-like vision that actually happened.

In the dreams I was climbing around the coastal rocks of my former island home with sea lions and pups, staying well clear of their teeth. Bumping into my former partner, pretending everything was cool, taking my first run after the operation I had on my Achilles’ and heel 5 months ago, feeling naughty and dangerous.

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An active mind never sleeps

While dreams have been great food for my fiction, none of these played into the story forming in my head. Nevertheless, as I woke from these (for me) startling images, a voice and a story started forming, quickly followed by a tone and a likely plot.

By 06:30 is was up, determined to carve out a narrative of a young girl in South Canterbury setting off to find her brother fighting the Bosch somewhere over the Alps. She had crafted a death ray on her farm, and needed to give it to him before the war ended. I had 3 or 4 hours before I had to be at work. The house was cold but I went straight to the computer and made my fatal mistake.

Writing is a fascinating challenge. For the overwhelming majority of writers, fiction is more pain than reward. But acknowledging that reality is not a ‘poor me’ statement (as anyone who plods away at the craft will know). It’s simply something you just have to do.

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Is there a middle way?

I have said many times that blogging is my attempt to find a way through numerous barriers, across the no-man’s-land to fiction. But like anything involving sacrifice or reward it takes many futile attempts. The more I blog, the more I want to blog. My brain writes them every day. But at the same time, the more passionate becomes my need to explore the truths of fiction.

I wrote my last piece of fiction about a month ago and it made me feel bullet-proof for days. It was a piece of speculative erotic fiction written to order for a NZ ‘zine. I worked on it right up to the deadline, got it strong and polished then went to submit it. As always, I re-checked the publication’s requirements as every publisher has different rules. That’s when I realised that they had cut their word-length by 1000 words since I was published. Man, I felt like sacking my personal assistant on the spot (no matter how good she looked doing the filing… and if I had one). It was too late to take an axe to my story. What a wasted effort.

Of course, no matter how much a writer needs a personal assistant, or an editor, only very few have them. You do it all yourself. Which is both a strength and a weakness.

Despite being well over the word limit I submitted the story anyway. No point in laying down dead in no-man’s-land. Once I got the rejection I would extend it into the bigger story it felt it wanted to be and find a publisher, hopefully off-shore.

So this morning, with this snafu in mind, and as people gathered at Dawn Services across NZ in the cold and dark, I decided that before I carved out my rushed ANZAC tale, I would thoroughly check the competition requirements.

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Happy belated 450th Birthday, Bill!

That was my mistake. If I hadn’t, the story would have got writ. Instead, I grumpily got up, did the washing and vacuuming cursing my constant tiredness and stupidity.

While I had read the deadline as midnight tonight, the stated deadline was “Midnight 25 April NZST”. Not fatal, but questionable. I furiously googled whether that would mean the deadline was to come or had passed. I found no consensus. Like a battle, midnight could be the start or the end of the day.

This did not put me off; resilience is as essential in writing as it is in life. I would write and submit it anyway; taking the same philosophical approach I had with my story last month. After all, unlike many competitions, this one was free to enter and I would get a good wee story out of it. However, as I looked deeper I found that in order to enter you had to join the SpecLit society for a (recurring) fee of $30.

That’s what turned me from that task and towards this blog.

Writing is a battle where, even though the pen is mightier than the sword, no-one dies. Well, there are exceptions, of course. Countless people have been killed or condemned for putting pen to paper. But today, my society remembers those who took up the sword. I chose not to join them but to take up the pen instead.

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I heart fountain pens (much better for stabbing)

Last year I took my daughter to the local Dawn Service and blogged about it in A Post-Rugby Post. It was an interesting day.

I am a committed pacifist who will never kill a stranger in a foreign land just because someone told me to.

But that’s another subject for another day. And there are other stories to tell.

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On the Road to Crikey

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I’m writing this sitting on the bus to Christchurch. I just got on at Ashburton after a lovely family Christmas at Seafield and the sign says my old home town is 87kms away.

I’ve driven this road countless times over the years, it’s as boring and straight as a road across the desert, with only one or two places where the driver needs to turn the steering wheel beyond a few degrees.
For all of the overwhelming straight nature of the road, it is not flat, the surface of the Canterbury Plains are as bumpy as a corrugated roof so any vehicle higher than a car rises and falls like a boat powering through a moderate sea.
This metaphor first came to me over 20 years ago when I was part of a group of actors crossing the country performing plays in schools. We would often be away down South (or up North) for weeks at a time travelling through the varied landscapes of New Zealand in a second-hand Bongo that had used up its life in Japan.
The Bongo was comfy but when we hit the corduroy roads that lead to Chch the van would bounce as if at sea (or, maybe, sitting on the skin of a drum).
It’s over 12 years since I’ve caught a bus on this road. At the time I was living in Timaru doing a fiction writing course. My family still lived up in Crikey and I often came up to see them when I picked up work at the rugby in the weekends.
I loved being on that course. It made me feel like Harry Potter, as if a veil had been lifted on my life and I was doing what I was born to do. I thrived in the environment and, in the following years, wrote short fiction whenever I could, finding some success.
I even started formulating a novel about my town which had a neglected and unique past. I tracked down and read every single original source about the lives and aims of those pilgrims (yes, that’s how they saw themselves) who crossed the oceans to found and settle a well-planned city on the Canterbury Plains.
Although I was working up in Auckland I would fly down regularly to see friends and family and continue my research. It was a fascinating story that needed to be told and the first chapter of the as-yet unfinished novel was included in an anthology of the best writing of the year.

This straight road to Chch is a dangerous one and head-on crashes plague it. We have just been diverted by one such smash. People blame tourists unused to our conditions but it is invariably due to lack of attention and impatience.

Likewise, my novel was diverted by something sudden and unexpected. The terrifying earthquakes that smashed my hometown, killing so many, also put a halt to my novel. How could I create an alternative Christchurch, made strong by an unexpected earthquake, when nature suddenly did just that?

I have not given up on my novel any more than people have given up on Chch. I am heading there now to stay in a hotel in the Square. I want to be there by myself, to sit by the damaged Cathedral that nature couldn’t bring down. It was a central part of the foundation of this utopia on the plains
and it guts me to think that it will be torn down by those with no real knowledge of why it was built.
My novel lives on inside me just as the lost city continues to exist in the memories of many.
This blog, Zildchurch, is a reminder to me of what I must rebuild.
I can’t wait to be alone with my thoughts, a pilgrim seeking a better future.

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Clearing the Decks

I’m quite surprised how quickly blogging has taken over my thoughts. Although I’ve been writing roughly one blog a week since I started a couple of months ago the constant narrative of my mind is repeatedly weaving ideas for blogs in the same way that when I focused on fiction, everything was an opening for a story.

This isn’t surprising. When I worked as an actor I immersed myself in plays and scripts, so the whole world took on this hue. Everyone was either an actor or a liar, darling (to quote the famous quote) and everything played out like a drama.

I used to resist the idea that occupation was identity but it’s pretty clear that what you do shapes how you present yourself, how you engage with people, how you react to and regard the world.

I started this blog as something to do while I was avoiding writing a novel. Life had become a tad overwhelming and while fiction is a great way to escape, process and understand the challenges life throws up the last few years have been of such a nature that real life was all I could think about.

In short, I am trying to beat a passage through memoir back to fiction: clearing the decks of the mind so that I can weather the rocky voyage.

To beach that metaphorical ship, my big challenge of the moment is building a deck. Not a massive challenge in itself. It’s not a huge deck (3m x 5m) but it will make a big difference to the cramped, steep section I live on. It will take the place of a rose garden that had been laid out with pavers, concrete and retaining walls which I’m sure was lovely for the old couple who once lived here but is a waste of valuable space for a solo dad who shares the care of an energetic 5 year-old.

I enjoy the digging and shovelling, and to make the time fly I’m listening to a massive audio book, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It’s a door-stop of a tome at over 800 pages so I have 30+ hours of listening to enjoy. I chose it not out of patriotic duty (the first New Zealander to win the Booker Prize since Keri Hume) but because I always read the Booker winner as they’re invariably enjoyable. I don’t have the time to sit down for 800 pages so listening to it while doing physical labour is the perfect way to consume the narrative.

It’s a great read. I say that as any audio book rests on the performance of the reader of the text, and with 22 major characters this is a BIG challenge.

Mark Meadows, the reader, does a wonderful job with all the accents required (especially as an Englishman navigating pakeha, Maori, Chinese and all the rest), and I often laugh out loud as the melodrama of the dead body and hidden gold twists and turns in a romp that has usefully been described as Deadwood on the West Coast (FYI while New Zealand has two major long islands, only the west coast of the South Island is referred to as the West Coast. The North Island has the East Coast, for some reason).

I have a strong connection to the Coast as my mother was born there to a family of migrating Scots miners. I go there each year with good friends to a rugged bach that hugs the deserted coast that once teemed with the shanties and make-shift hotels that populated the region in the gold rush. The miners and camp-followers have left little trace of their presence but you can certainly feel it.

And, of course, there’s nothing like swinging a pick while hearing a story about miners swinging a pick.

As I began to break up the splintering, rock-like clay underneath the erstwhile rose garden I realised another connection as the last time I was swinging a pick-axe I listened to another novel about West Coast miners, The Colour, by Rose Tremain.

It was about 8 years ago and I was digging a 40 metre trench to connect power to a just-built studio. It was a much bigger job and a much lighter book. The reader made some awful pronunciations of NZ words; real howlers that somehow underlined that the novel had been written by someone who had never visited NZ.

Another connection is that half-way through digging that trench I badly sprained my ankle at work, ending up on crutches for 3 weeks with months of rehab before I could walk freely (and finish the trench).

And this is the crux of why I’m building a deck… ‘to clear the deck’, because in 11 days time I am undergoing a procedure that will put me on my arse (and crutches) for many months.

I have a bony growth on my right heel caused by an old injury which is pushing against my Achilles tendon causing constant pain and discomfort. I have suffered from it for nearly 6 years. It’s been a real battle getting it recognized, treated and seen to. I have had 2 rather uncomfortable ultrasound-guided injections through the Achilles into the inflamed bursar that causes much of the pain but neither sorted the problem.

The surgery was planned to occur in February and I had been working towards that, but suddenly it was changed to the start of November…hence my panic at needing to move heaven and earth on a crowded deck.

Everything that needs to be done in the garden and round the house needs to be done now or yesterday. I know what being on crutches means, and it makes even the little things a challenge. Sure, you can make yourself a cuppa and a sandwich, but how do you carry it to your chair?

So, maybe you can understand why I seek diversion in romping fiction and the physical labour I will shortly be incapable of? There are other reasons but this blog cannot be a rambling catalogue.

I wanted to write about how much it upsets me that I will not be able to walk my daughter to school holding her hand. I love our physical relationship and know that as she grows in age and size she will be less and less inclined to clamber up onto my shoulders so I can carry her to the shower or to her bed. I so adore the way she hooks her big toe into my belt or pocket on the way up, swings her leg over my shoulder with great effort, letting out a relaxed sigh when she achieves her perch.

And, looming large, in 9 days it will be 2 years since my mother died.

It is so much on my mind.

She died on 11.11.11, which is Remembrance Day. Once, as she was waiting to die, I suggested she chose that date. It’s funny what gets said in the face of the unimaginable.

So, 2 years and 2 days after 11.11.11, the surgeon will severe my Achilles, slice a chunk of bone off my heel, staple my tendon together and close me up. It will only take an hour. The recovery will be ‘extensive’.

The irony is not lost on me that my Achilles heel is my Achilles heel.

Should the procedure not work or make things worse (both are possibilities, I have been reading chat-rooms about this operation), then the irony will be even greater. Given how things have played out over the last few years I can see the story going both ways.

But that is the nature of good stories. You never know exactly what will happen.

The Luminaries has that mystery. It both reflects and deflects life. The Colour did not. It was obvious, adding nothing to the world but a way to pass the time.

Writing this blog has taken me over an hour of my time. I could be digging the piles for the deck, mowing the lawns, taking a machete to the jungle in the top garden, clearing the path to the house so my crutches don’t get caught, rearranging the house for my recovery, washing the windows covered in sea-salt, tidying up the planting I did the day Mum died in preparation for her anniversary… but these thoughts need to get out of my mind on to the page (so to speak).

You can’t achieve everything. The inevitable and the unexpected must be faced.

It’s time to go outside and swing the pick, lost in a world created by a gifted writer, free of my pressing concerns.

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