Category Archives: History

Reading Minds

I used to work in a job where people read books. Some read them on their devices, but most brought along actual books. Books they loved.

This wasn’t the distant past. People also chatted, messed around on phones or flicked through magazines. Some preferred to close their eyes and escape the day. But most chose to read books.


As a writer, I always asked what they were reading, and why. It was a good way to relax them, to take their mind off the 16-gauge needle I was about to slide into their arm. It also helped me understand readers better. Were they reading for distraction or passion, to acquire knowledge and understanding, or to simply affirm their beliefs?

Once, a woman proudly said she only read non-fiction, because she didn’t want to waste her time on things that weren’t true. She was reading a book by a famous TV medium. The irony lingered briefly in her eyes before disappearing into enthusiasm.



One of the truisms of reading is that women read more fiction than men, and that men read less fiction as they get older. And even though I was always a big reader (and writer) of fiction, this has happened to me, accelerating with the age of demanding devices and constant distraction. Now, I have to make myself read, to regain the lost joy of reading.

I’m reading a novel about astronauts practicing to go to Mars, and another told by Shakespeare’s little brother. They’re cracking reads, full of exciting science and history, insight and humour, beauty and pain, but my phone constantly lures me away with its tantalising chimera of connection.

This morning, I avoided reading a novel by scanning an article about Quorn. It is set to become the first multi-billion dollar alt-food. It is not meat. It is not even a plant. It is an ultra-processed mould, which is not how it is marketed. I like having an alternative to meat, but anything ultra-processed is not food.


I then read an article about how the human brain has shrunk by 20% in the last 30,000 years, mirroring the process of domestication. Domestic animals don’t need to think, we do it for them, defining their needs. Settling down into civilisation has done the same to us. We don’t need to know how to hunt and gather, so our hungry brains (which take the lion’s share of our blood and energy) have withered.



And it’s not just food that we have outsourced. We all used to sing, tell stories, entertain and attract potential mates. We now leave that to our betters.

Algorithms can predict what we will like before we have had a chance to form an opinion. They know what will engage and enrage us.

Neanderthals had much bigger brains than modern humans. They needed it to thrive in a pretty tough environment, so they were probably cleverer than us. Which goes against our naturally self-aggrandising assumptions, since we see no Neanderthals walking in the street, or on Twitter.


But current estimates reckon about 40% of Neanderthal DNA lives on in us, in different little bits, spread throughout the population. You and I have about 2%, but no one knows exactly what it is doing. Hopefully we possess part of their cleverness. Maybe their love of art or dress sense. Early human cave paintings in Iberia have recently been attributed to them, not us. Maybe they gave us storytelling, music; a sense of the divine. It seemed to suddenly appear in humans 50,000 years ago, when we came face-to-face with our big-brained cousins.


Reading novels increases human empathy. This is a measurable fact. Maybe that is why women read more novels then men. That is my speculation. But I know for a fact that the people I stuck needles into for 7 years read more novels than any other type of media. They gave of their time, body and blood, for people they didn’t know. Because they cared.



I’ve started reading novels again. Because you are what you eat, and fiction matters. Because we live in a world where a semi-literate clown can be elected to great power while spurning truth and novels.

Fiction, like a good meal, makes me feel better about myself and the world. That is something that rarely happens when I stare at a device.


To Think, to Speak

Last night I dreamed I slept with Ellen. We didn’t sleep. We were standing up, face-to-face. Her blue eyes were stunning, invitingly playful, and their beauty almost diverted me from the delicious sensation of how smooth and warm she felt. I was in heaven, I didn’t care that we were standing in the street, I just didn’t want it to end. But then a concern came into her eyes and she said, “I like girls.” I immediately withdrew, and began a flustered apology that ended as I woke.


I’ve never had such thoughts about Ellen. I like her. She is engaging and full of play. The only reason she entered my dream was that she appeared briefly in The History of Comedy. The episode focused on female comics, more specifically, American comedians. It was typically chauvinistic, ignoring the rest of the world, and any form of comedy that isn’t stand-up, TV or film. There was no room for the world of comic literature or theatre. Or actual comics.

But that’s not the point. When you’re trying to sell something like an idea, always talk big; include little, exclude much.


I thought about this the other day as I listened to my partner explain the persecution of witches to our three young daughters. They’re smart girls, but as with all broad subjects, things need to be simplified. However, when my partner said that the witch-craze happened because men were afraid of powerful women, I couldn’t hold my tongue. Yes, there was truth in the statement, a lot, but we had both recently listened to a podcast about witches where a telling point was made. The overwhelmingly majority of accusers were low-status women, and girls.

My partner looked at me with a little anger, and kept going. It was not the time to say that the persecution only took root because those in power (men), listened. And when they stopped listening, the wide-spread persecution of witches ended. Such accusations were once more viewed as vexatious, rather than the work of the devil. Europe had gone from the Early Modern period to the Enlightenment, and the brutal religious turmoil of the Reformation no-longer devastated economies, societies, and beliefs. People felt less disrupted and an accusation did not require a witch-hunt.


Yesterday I read Margaret Atwood’s measured, and well-argued, reflections on the #MeToo movement. It lead to brutal attacks devoid of nuance and reflection. Some women felt betrayed. How could the writer of the Handmaid’s Tale ‘attack’ women in this way? Atwood had done none of the things she was accused of. As always, she was brilliant and insightful. But in the narrow minds of her accusers she was a traitor, siding with the inevitable back-lash.


The world is not black and white. Nuance and shade are important. Questioning voices must be heard rather than dismissed. I learned this studying history where historians hardly ever agree on anything (the collective noun = an argumentation of historians). They constantly qualify every opinion (as I did when I added my voice about the witch-craze the other day).

Sometimes it’s best to say nothing if you want to be heard. As with comedy, timing (and delivery) is everything.


I said this to my partner when she wanted to write an angry letter to the editor about a particularly opinionated, and ignorant, review of a book by a writer we both admire. Knausgaard thrills people because he gets at truth in a unique way. When I finally read the review I saw why it had angered my partner. It was badly argued and dismissive, both confident and clueless, with the self-assured tone of a narrowly clever young woman. Worst of all, the reviewer took pride in not having read his wildly successful, and much-loved, previous works. Just because she didn’t like the title. Sniff!


I could see why my partner wanted to strike back. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of. But I’m a bit of a Stoic and I said whatever my partner wrote would be dismissed with a similar lack of comprehension. No actual communication would take place. She needed to turn her anger into something more creative. That is the point of Stoicism. It’s not about holding your tongue. It’s about not being beholden to pleasure or pain. Hard-felt emotions should be acknowledged, released and turned into gold. That way they cease to damage you, and others may enjoy your efforts.

It is important to speak up, to not be fearful. But it is just as important to measure your words, to make sure they address the whole palette, not just the shades you admire.

I have never lusted after Ellen. But I will remember the sensations I felt and the loving, troubled, look in her eye until my last breath. She didn’t need to say a word.





First of All

Firstly: I think it’s great that our Prime Minister is having a baby. It’s nice. It makes me happy.

Secondly: I love all the discussion it has provoked. Yes, there is plenty of vitriol born of sexism, and a queer sense of betrayal, but that is the nature of social media and the overall discussion is a good one to have.

Thirdly: Why are so many people crowing with pride? Unless you are directly involved (or one of the grandparents-to-be) aren’t you as deluded as those pouring scorn? It is like celebrating the success of a team you didn’t play in. Surely you have to be on the field, or in the bed, to take pride?

Just like a sporting triumph, I believe a lot of people think it says something great about our nation. Yes, I’m tempted to cheer along, but the pregnancy of our PM comes a very distant second to the leader of a troubled, and socially repressive, Muslim state that beat us by 28 years. 28 years!!! A generation ago!? I see no reason for claiming a medal. They were packed away yonks ago. The cheering crowds have gone home to make, and raise, babies (and grandchildren).

Fourthly: New Zealand has always prided itself on being an egalitarian nation. It is one of our most cherished founding myths, an oft-celebrated characteristic of our national identity. Yes, the gap between rich and poor has greatly increased over the last decades, and celebrity worship has crept in, but we still resist deferring to power or authority. We are not required to call police officers ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ (USA), or fawn over our ‘betters’ (UK). When I see a royal or a famous celebrity in the street I do not bow or scream or cry. Like most NZers, I treat them as I would any other human being. I either say gidday, or ignore them.

Fifthly: Jacinda and Clarke (and baby-to-be) are ­not, as reported, the ‘First Family’. This is an unofficial term used to describe the family of the head of state of the USA. Which is a republic. Which we, as yet, are not.

This misnomer seemed to sneak in during the wildly popular terms of John Key as Prime Minister when media darling, Max Key, was repeatedly referred to as the ‘first son’. The fact that this scion of privilege grabbed this mantle with three arms is understandable given a fawning media, his narrow life experience, and the actions of his father in bringing back the archaic titles of Sir and Dame in order to elevate his sporting heroes, and mates, above the hoi polloi.

This may seem all a bit pedantic, but founding myths and national identities are important. They inevitably contain as much self-delusion as truth but, nevertheless, they are the stories that bind us.

I take pride in our egalitarian myth. I enact it and take part. No one stands above me, and I stand over no other. No one should be held back, or elevated, because of gender, race or class.

Last verse (same as the first): I love the fact that our PM is having a baby. But Clarke is not the ‘First Man’, or ‘First Dad’, as he has repeatedly been referred to in our news and social media.

The first family of NZ is actually the family of our Head of State.

If people don’t know who that is, then it’s time to ask questions of our country, our media, and ourselves.




Five Lions (and an almost King)


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

pan room 03 web_Landscape

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



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





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



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

1977 eight_col_Fran_Cotton_mud_16x10



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


Lions 1971



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

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

Prince William

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





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



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


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





3 Days in Samoa (part 2)

Dazed from the heat and humidity, and a 10 hour trip (plus afternoon rums in the Koru lounge in Auckland and Merlot with dinner), I ticked ‘sport’ on the immigration card. When questioned I said, business and sport. The rugby. The Blues and Reds. The referees? The giant official smiled from behind his tiny desk, amended the card, and handed me back my passport.


We picked up our rental and drove to the resort by the airport ‘turn right, drive a few minutes… bump!… first right’. The directions were spot on. The gates to Aggie Grey’s Sheraton Resort were indeed right after a sudden bump.

In my room I fiddled with the telly, trying to decide if I needed food. But it was 10pm. I was exhausted and needed sleep.

I woke with my throat raw. Two flights. Sleeping with air-con. I walked out my patio to the white sands, took a dazed selfie to post on Facebook then joined my workmate for breakfast in the Apolima Fale. It was paradise eating with no walls and such beauty.


Unlike everyone else working on the first Super Rugby game in Samoa we weren’t staying in town, so we had a one hour drive along the coast through village after village, ramshackle and pristine, proud of famous sons The village of David Tua, The village of Joseph Parker etc. I took passing photo after passing photo of open fales, little family stores and concrete swimming holes, all obliterated by bad light or my reflection.


It was as I remembered from 1999, but much tidier. The rubbish scattered everywhere was now all absent. There are stands all along the road where rubbish is left so roaming dogs can’t get at it. Some are homemade. Some are engineered metal with labels saying ‘Australian Aid’.


As we got closer to Apia bunting and flags lined the road. For rugby? Apia was jammed with people. Markets and stalls everywhere. We were funnelled away from our destination by closed roads and police. It was Independence Day. Samoa was celebrating throwing off its New Zealand overlord. NZ likes to think it was a benign ‘administrator’ who liberated Samoa from Germany at the start of WWI. But we didn’t let go and our officials mowed down peaceful marchers when they asked for freedom.


There’s a wonderful Samoan song that remembers that atrocity. I learned it years ago when acting in a Samoan play. I sometimes sing it in the shower, delighting in the onomatopoeic sound of the Samoan word for machine gun. Fanata’avilli. Rat-a-tat-tat.


It was hot and humid at the stadium. With four road cases to carry up the steep concrete steps to our booth at the top of the stand we took it slow, but it was hard going and my colleague soon began to feel faint and unwell. There was an air con unit but no remote control. It took forever to find someone who understood what we needed.

Heat and lack of water aside, it was an easy rig. I had to clamber onto a dodgy rusty, dusty, roof to rig aerials; a challenge with the grade-2 muscle tear I gave myself when I slipped on some rocks last weekend. But I was strapped from crotch to knee with purple tape so I was reasonably mobile. From the breezy, shaded cool of the roof I looked down to the two fullahs mowing the field. With t-shirts tied over their heads to shield them from the sun, they pushed two domestic lawn mowers across the entire pitch; slowly doing a job done by ride-on mowers in NZ. The average hourly rate is $1.50 over here.


By 2pm we were done. I’ve never been so thirsty. Though it seemed wrong we couldn’t face the bustle and heat of Apia in celebration. We weren’t here to tourist, so headed to Frankie Hypermarket to pick up bottled water and drive back to the resort.



After inhaling the plate of fruit left in my room I lay down on the bed to sleep. But as soon as I closed my eyes I felt bad. What a waste. I couldn’t hide in the air-con, no matter how tired I felt, so I put on my togs and headed to the pool. The water was stunning but I couldn’t swim with my torn thigh so I floated about in the empty pool (where was everyone?) before grabbing a sun longer on the beach to watch the ocean breaking on the distant reef.



Four Australians turned up with drinks on the chairs beside me. The pool bar was unattended so I went up the main bar in my wet togs, trying not to feel self-conscious. It was happy hour. For the next 90 minutes! Alone in paradise I slowly made my way through the NZ$8 cocktails. Apolima Sunrise, Midori Splice and Blue Lagoon. Tequila, Midori, Vodka, Malibu, Blue Curacao and Orange Liqueur all went down easy as I skited on Facebook and listened to the Aussies mither about wedding fails.

So I put on a smile and put on the shitty dress. It’s what bridesmaids do. She wanted to arrive in a helicopter. A helicopter. I said, if you do that my hair will be all to shit. To shit. I literally bit my tongue for two weeks. So she dicked the best man to get back at him. Well you would, wouldn’t you? They’re still together. Toronto. Toronto for fuck’s sake.

The man drank beer in silence as his three bikinied companions competitively relived each horror. I guess he had never been to a bad wedding.


A Number of Things


At work yesterday a colleague asked me what 47 and 5 was. I thought it was a trick question. Or, more likely, she was pointing out that I had incorrectly added those numbers. I may have; it was a hot day and I was tired. Hearing the exchange another colleague said to her, you should know that, you’re Chinese! She replied, that’s a stereotype, I can’t do maths!


Maths is a small but crucial part of my job. We’re always having to write down start times and add elapsed durations. It’s pretty easy, most of the time. The only bits that trip me up are when long durations have to be added to the 24 hour clock. Adding 113 minutes to something like 15:46 always causes me to stop and think it through (especially in the fuzz of the mid-afternoon). Some of my older colleagues use a calculator in such instances.



I was asked to check some addition the other day. We then discussed how we did the addition. In that example I rounded up then back. My colleague just added up the bits.

It got us talking. She asked me what my favourite times table was. I looked blankly at the question. Favourite? Most people like something like 11, she said, but I love 9. She then ripped off a piece of paper and showed me a nifty trick that revealed a beautiful symmetry to the 9 x table, writing 1 to 9 down the page, then 8 to zero beside those numbers. Each pair added up to 9 and was an ascending total of the 9 x table. She couldn’t believe I had never seen it.


I can’t wait to show my 9 year old this. She’ll love it. She loves maths and has just started learning algebra. When she told me last week I mentioned that algebra is named after the Arabic mathematician who invented it. Wow, she said, I’ll tell my teacher. Immediately I became unsure. Was it algebra or algorithms?  It’s one of them, I smiled uncertainly. Heard it in a podcast.


After work yesterday I listened to a podcast about Maths in the Early Islamic World. It seemed a good dry subject to get me around the harbour and lagoon on a 30 minute run on a stinking hot day, rehabilitating my knee after a recent arthroscopy.


It was fascinating, full of the stuff I had been trying to tell my daughter. Babylonian and Greek maths were taken up by the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 800s where the great mathematician and astronomer, al-Khwarizmi (Latinized as Algoritmi i.e. algorithm) solved quadratic equations with something he called al-jabr (algebra) using Indian decimal numbers (which later made it to the West in translations of his work).


Algebra was poetry in this world, and fabulously wealthy patrons paid for the House of Wisdom to explore its beauty.

It wasn’t till the 1600s that Descartes replaced the words with symbols giving us the algebra we know today.

And now algorithms rule our lives. Deciding what news we should see, what we should eat, who we should consider loving.


My running app sent me an email this morning saying I ran my fastest 4-6 km run ever yesterday. It’s a handy thing to know.

But it’s the podcast about the House of Wisdom, and the infinite beauty of numbers, that have made me write these words.




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.




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.


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).



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.


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’.

Ibn Zaydn Wallada


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


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Finally I can recognise, and find, true love.


So, what is love?

It is for you to decide.