Category Archives: History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What I did in August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pretty poster, possibly by Hamish Kilgour?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wonderful England St poster

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

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

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Uncle John looking forward to landing at Glentanner

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

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

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

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

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The Mighty Zeiss Ikon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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4 days in August ’85… getting wordier

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

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

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

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My first selfie

 

 

 

 

 

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

A Small Crikey

I remember you. You did me last time. You were a Boys’ High boy, right? I was a Girls’ High girl. Remember?

Ah, Ker-istchurch, I thought. The place where everyone is supposedly obsessed with where you went to school (as if that question is never asked in any other city), but which now, post-‘quakes and stalled rebuild, brings forth very different questions.

Ah, Ch-rist…church, that lame cover-up of a sweary/blasphemy word employed by children from other cities (something I didn’t learn until I left Crikey).

Ah, Ker-ikey, that place I tried to escape 20 years ago, moving to Auckland where every second person seemed to have a link to my hometown causing me to often remark (with a nod to Disney), ah, it’s a small Christchurch…

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Chch Boys’ High

Yes, I remembered you, Miss Bryndwr. You pointedly said that you liked Boys’ High boys, and looked for my reaction. I countered by asking of your home suburb, an area I found hard to place as, like all suburbs in Christchurch, it has no defined boundaries and is a general area (to quote Wikipedia).

Although you were sitting down I could see that you were as tall as an Amazon; ever-smiling, Yarpie-forward, confident and chatty, the dead-spit of another aggressively charming young South African from my past.

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Where I waited with Adele

Adele, who I met on a poetry course 10 years ago, who took a shine like a half a bottle of wine, sent me poems outside the course detailing her perfect man, who asked me to accompany her to long-forgotten foreign movie, who, when the class photo was taken on the final day of the poetry course slipped her arm around my waist, pulled me close, smiling wide with a look of conquest. Adele, who I awkwardly stood beside outside a downtown strip bar waiting for her father, who turned and said, my father, he is very protective of me.

Adele, the last teenager I ever went out with.

Miss Bryndwr, although you could have been Adele’s twin (in looks and manner) you were full of far more interesting conversation. Yesterday, we talked about the school you left for university. You went to a different Girls’ High than the one I knew, whose most noted old girls were heavenly creatures made famous in a film by Peter Jackson (no Hobbits allowed).

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Bad girls contemplate moider

I have so many memories of those old buildings that loomed over Cranmer Square, the solid brick, beautiful and foreboding.

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Old Girls’ High

But we didn’t talk of my visits there in the ‘80s to rehearse plays when I was a Boys’ High boy, or in the ‘90s attending theatre workshops when the school had flitted to flash new grounds at the top of Hagley Park on the banks of the Avon.

I wanted to know about the controversy when the head mistress was sacked by the board and the girls rebelled in support of her. It’s always good to get the story from those involved and not rely on press releases and spin.

I won’t repeat what you told me in confidence but it involved that awful ‘quake, death and hubris. Suffice to say you gave me faith in the power of the young to pick through the rubble and do what is right.

When I was your age, Miss Bryndwr, I had trouble interacting with people old enough to be my parent. They were an enemy to be opposed. Such a silly, puerile dichotomy; your attitude is so refreshing. Even when you looked at me and said with pride, my father, he is very tall, 6 foot 6. A giant!

But this was not the most significant conversation I had yesterday, nor the one that has made me write these words. I had other great interactions (students are so much more interesting than when I was at university) but the one I will sketch was with the last stranger I talked to.

She was also very tall, but thin, and as I gathered my equipment to walk over to her, a colleague said that she was dressed rather like Where’s Wally?

By now I was tired and didn’t really want to talk, but I’m meant to engage as part of customer service so I asked her about the book sitting on her lap. It was about Fukushima and she was reading it because the Japanese have put great resources into studying the psychological/developmental after-effects of the disaster (nuclear, ‘quake and tsunami) on their children.

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Aftermath in Japan

A student of child development with an interest in the effects of the Chch ‘quake, she is stymied by the total neglect of this area in New Zealand, so she looks to Japanese research to get an insight.

Our discussion left my conversations with Miss Bryndwr (and Adele) for dead. As someone who grew up in Chch, I have a lot of despair, anger and grief around the subject and have to check myself whenever it comes up. Yes, there’s a lot of positivity and creativity happening, but you have to fight to bring that forth. So much cliché is trotted out by those with little idea, and so much of the rest of NZ seems to have grown bored with the subject.

I did not unload my stories or frustration onto Ms. Not-Wally (it’s often like that, the hunger to talk, to seek understanding, mixed with a fierce need not to have to engage). Instead, my exhaustion and silence gave her space to say that although she wasn’t from Christchurch, she was in the CBD when the big one hit, one block from the Square, smack bang amongst the worst of it (as if any of it could be graded).

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Seconds after the earthquake

She described none of the event and I asked no questions, instead she told me of the frustration she felt about people’s need to offer up their anecdotes whenever the subject comes up. How she gets tripped to tears by the most unlikely things, loud sounds or unexpected movement which suddenly bring back the panic and fear.

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Japanese rescue worker sent to Chch to help

After I completed my task and our conversation ended I had to leave the floor for a good 10 minutes before I could recompose myself and put away the grief.

Ker-istchurch. I need to be near you, I need to be amongst you. I need to say everything and say nothing. I love the hope. I ache with despair.

As I said to Ms. Not-Wally, as a historian, I know we will have little idea what has happened to Christchurch for a good 20 or 30 years.

There is hope, but not in neglect.

I know children are facing far worse in this world as I write this. Corralled and pounded with explosives throughout the night, or as they play. Unlike an earthquake, it is criminal and deliberate. I can only imagine what will become of them in the future. It is not my home but I feel great anger, despair and compassion.

I have another job, quite different from the one I was doing yesterday. Both were impacted by the ‘quake. When the Tsunami/’quake that devastated Fukushima struck about 3 weeks after the Chch event, I was working in Nelson with a television crew from Christchurch, doing the job of a colleague who never made it out of the collapsed CTV building. I will never forget the looks on their faces as they watched the images off the satellites: the silence and disbelief as they relived their ongoing trauma in the most awful way.

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Collapsed CTV building

The children of Chch were not hit by explosives, but they have lived through thousands upon thousands of aftershocks. It is not over and no one knows when it will end.

Ker-istchurch, my home that still looks like a warzone… full of untold stories and stories untold.

I just don’t know what to say.

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People of Christchurch, filling the gaps

My Left Foot

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

1. Employ tired cliché

2. Believe in simplistic statements.

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

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

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Mmm, such sweet pleasure

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

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

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

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Just to be safe, Brian sits out the battle

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

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

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Definitely not Ireland

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

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

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Irishy pub in Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Irish gal in the cafe where I met Harry

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

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Harry’s Dad

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

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

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Heroes of Linfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brian harping on

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

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

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

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The charming Harry

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

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

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

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

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Visitors to Dublin

 

 

On a Sandy Shore

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

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

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

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Ouchie!

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

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

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

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

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

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An imagining of Wisontown in its heyday

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

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Long demolished housing, Wilsontown, Scotland

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

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

Annie & Bill

Annie & Bill attacked by midgies, Wilsontown 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what can you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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‘On Tintock tap, there is a mist,

And in that mist, there is a kist,

And in that kist, there is a cup,

And in that cup, there is a drap.

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

In the Quiet of the After

Today is Good Friday, it is the morning and it is wonderfully quiet: the quiet after the storm.

Yesterday, the remnants of tropical cyclone Ita battered New Zealand, smashing caravans, flooding rivers, causing slips and toppling giant trees across houses. Here in Wellington we got off easy even though half of April’s rain fell in one day.

I can’t believe how still, warm and nice it is; the perfect time to reflect as I don’t have to be at work for another 6 hours. Yes, it seems nuts working on one of the most sacred of holidays (so sacred, even the temples of greatest worship are closed preventing the eternal pilgrimage to malls and Easter sales).

Where could I possibly be working on this hallowed day? At the biggest cathedral of our age, the local sports stadium: there’s a rugby game on don’t cha know?

It’s the last thing on my mind. I’m rushing around in the quiet trying to get every domestic job done before the rush of going away for two nights with my 6 year-old and getting back for the working week.

But my head is full of this day; what it means.

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21 years ago I was both much younger, and an actor. It was my life, not just pretence or aspiration, I worked around the country, saw every show I could; studied it at varsity. Which is why a lifetime ago on Good Friday I took part in a Passion Play in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square.

It was a bit of a radical production: my good mate played Jesus as a black-jeaned bogan with a Mohawk. I was one of the ‘baddies’ who got to swig beer and abuse the crowd as I dragged him around the various stations placed around the Square. A lot of my close friends from the (for want of a better word) alternative music and theatre scene were involved. We’ve stayed in touch (a minor miracle), I could write a lot of detail but it deserves more space than I can allow right now.

Suffice to say, it was quite something standing inside the foyer of the Cathedral at 9am on a quiet Good Friday, surrounded by my closest friends, listening to the drums beating outside, summoning the crowd, while I nervously opened the can of beer (an official prop) which foamed all over me, sobering me (slightly) from my way-too-stoned-state (as I said, I was a baddie).

As the heavy oak doors creaked open to reveal a daunting crowd, I inspected the NZ Police issue truncheon borrowed from a drummer’s Dad, noticing that the truncheon had ‘Daddy’s Little Naughty Stick’ written on it in biro. My sobriety became even more complete.

It was an exhilarating performance. The crowd loved it. The jokes, clever insight and sharp wit went down well. It was the best review for any show I had been part of.

And though I have studied religion (and am a thorough atheist) crucifying one of my best mate’s in the town square is something I enjoyed beyond belief.

Of course, the shattering earthquake my hometown suffered in 2011 has shined a different light on that morning.

While the earthquake failed to destroy the Cathedral, there has been an unbelievable rush to knock it down, as well as a heartening resistance to this barbarity. That great symbol of a city, and a culture, now sits in a beautiful and horrific limbo.

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Maybe that is apt.

I recently listened to a great podcast about crucifixion. Like all things, there is a lot more to it than I knew. For those at the time it was the act itself that shocked most. It was practiced across many cultures for 1000 years, and the main aim was to humiliate and degrade. Dead bodies were even dug up to be crucified in order to exact that intended purpose.

Good Friday remembers a day nearly 2000 years ago when a much-loved person from history died. But it seems that to the people of the time, it was the manner of execution that would have caused the greatest trauma.

All these things fill my head in the quiet of this morning. But I also know that this is the second Good Friday since I lifted my father’s dead body from the bed where he made his dramatic exit 2 hours before the sacred holiday began.

I knew he would be cold; stiff from rigor mortis. What I wasn’t prepared for was how heavy his wasted body was.

People in the past have weighed bodies before and after death in order to find the weight of the soul. But having carried a ‘lifeless’ Christ from the cross, and my father’s corpse from his bed (both on Good Friday), I know that dead bodies weigh more than the living.

Today, it is warm and quiet. I love it. I’m drinking it in.

Time for some hot-cross buns before the noise of the Hurricanes begins.

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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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Just Imagine

The other morning as I was diverting myself from writing by flicking through my favourite history magazine I indulged my procrastination further by skipping through Facebook which has become, amongst other things, the modern version of a last cigarette or pressing inspection of navel lint.

As I fingered the face of my phone (an almost unconscious action likened by others to the comforting caress of a rosary) I noticed this cartoon posted by a friend.

Shuttle cartoon

It got me thinking. While I sympathized with the sentiment involved, I felt it was dishonest and messy.

Yes, it is sad to see the great feat of engineering and endeavour that was the Space Shuttle Program consigned to a footnote in history, but that’s the way of all great vehicles of state power.

The article in History Today I was intending to read before I diverted myself was about the ornate ships of the line that won dominance of the seas for the British in the 18th century.

Vue du debarquement anglais pour l'attaque de Louisbourg 1745  The article started with this engraving of The Capture of Louisbourg in 1745.

I could look at it for ages, marveling at the skill and craft of those that made the magnificent ship, wondering what it was like inside, how all the parts went together, how an assault was carried out by those garish and impractically-dressed soldiers and, on a more mundane level, how it functioned day-to-day.

But as mind-blowing as these war ships were that wrestled dominance of the seas off the French 250 years ago, they in turn would have been dwarfed by the massive Chinese fleets of exploration led by Zheng He that reached India, the Middle East and Africa 300 years before that.

A comparison of Columbus’ ship of 1492 with Zheng He’s of 1405.

A comparison of Columbus’ ship of 1492 with Zheng He’s of 1405.

The Chinese fleets put the much-vaunted European endeavour to shame. They had supply ships covered in soil growing fresh produce while the Europeans were blindly dying of scurvy for centuries to come. The first Chinese fleet had 317 ships and 28,000 men. Europe had nothing to compare until D-Day, long after the Wright brothers took to the air.

So what happened to this astounding realisation of humanities’ drive towards trade and exploration? Like all such undertakings of incredible cost and organisation they relied on political will and state funds to continue (just like the shuttle programme) and, as always, times change, as do priorities. The fleets of Zheng He ended when a new emperor came in and eunuchs like Zheng He lost power to the Confucian bureaucracy.

Am I lover of war and arcane technology? NO! to the former and YES! to the latter. But more correctly, I am a lover of history and pre-history, knowledge and the unknown. A natural philosopher, if you will (to use a term from the 18th century) who sees science, the arts and religious belief not in opposition but as part of a continuum. I am no follower of the Manichaeism that so infects the present discourse in politics and the media. For me, the world does not divide neatly into black and white, like it does for some. It is full of colour. And even when it gets dark, there are always shades of grey, contrasting intensities of darkness, something glowing in the corner to be inspected.

There can be no loss that offers no gain. No gain that does not involve some loss.

What has the space shuttle got to do with war and philosophy? A lot.

I can never celebrate war.

Edwin Starr was right to claim war was good for ‘absolutely nothing’ in 1969 as the groovy pop culture stance was needed in the face of the Vietnam War. But it was a song of the moment and the greater truth is that while war achieves very little that is good no evil passes without the opportunity for some advantage to society.

Wars are:

1. Good for certain interested sections of the economy of the victors.

2. Drivers of scientific research and innovation which can have applications outside the military.

History is littered with examples of 1.

In, fact, I was talking to a military contractor the other day who said that the US economy needs a large-scale war every 15 years to stay afloat. An easy statement to make but he had just spent the last 15 years helping organize the clean-up of mines left as a result of the various imperial adventures in South East Asia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. As always, it is women and children who face the relics of this aggression while they go about the mundane tasks of seeking water and wood. The producers of the land mines and the politicians who demanded their deployment, as well as the combatants who placed them in the ground where they remain till this day, are all absent from the clean-up. No glory to be had there.

We also talked of the present absurdity of the US Army being forced by politicians to take orders of new, more technologically advanced tanks when they are quite happy with their present ones.

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/congress-forcing-the-army-to-make-tanks-2012-10

Naturally, examples of 2 are a little less depressing (I use that small qualifier not because I live in a land where understatement is an understatement but because the innovations come on the back of making it ever-easier to kill people).

Florence Nightingale pioneered nursing care in the inanity of the Crimean War not for the benefit of civilians, but to stop soldiers from dying from the wounds and disease that were seeing them off at a greater rate than the enemy ever could. After they were healed they were sent back to the task of killing the Russians in an aggressive, pointless war far from home.

We continue to benefit from that awful situation with modern health-care.

New Zealander Sir Harold Gillies, ‘the father of plastic surgery’, pioneered facial reconstruction during The Great War (the one fought to end all wars) so that those who had put themselves on the line so there would no more need to fight could be better accepted back into the society of those who, for whatever reason, had not made that sacrifice. The predicament of the half-faced veteran, Richard Harrow, in Boardwalk Empire says a lot about this appalling situation.

Sir Archibald McIndoe  (also from Dunedin) worked for his cousin, Gillies, in the 1930s, learning the trade before achieving medical breakthroughs working with RAF burn victims (the famous Guinea Pig Club) in World War II.

Another great benefit derived from World War II is international travel. Jet planes were relatively ineffective during the war but the technology was soon parlayed into the cheap travel we enjoy today.

It still amazes me to think how far air travel has developed from the Wright Brothers’ first flight 110 years ago. But to link their achievement on a continuum with the space shuttle is disingenuous.

An apple and a pig are food for some and may even be found in the same shop or dinner plate. But the one does not proceed from the other.

Likewise, powered flight is similar to space travel in that they both leave the ground, but the shuttle programme was born of a rather different impulse.

We all know that the Wright brothers weren’t the first to imagine how we might fly. There had been countless attempts throughout history, amongst them New Zealand’s great challenger from Temuka, Richard Pearse, who some still claim to have beaten the Wright’s by 9 months.

Medal struck by NZ Mint claiming Pearse flew first.

Medal struck by NZ Mint claiming Pearse flew first.

The Wright Brothers were bicycle makers working away by themselves while the U.S. War Department (yes, the War department) and the Smithsonian Institution combined resources and scientific expertise to ‘conquer the air’.

How did the Wrights’ compete with that? There’s a fascinating and gripping book about it called ‘To Conquer The Air’ by James Tobin.

But basically, to quote a(nother) great New Zealander, Lord Rutherford, ‘the father of nuclear physics.’

“…we don’t have much money, so we have to think”.

I must mention that, despite popular opinion, Rutherford didn’t split the atom. He cleverly, and cheaply, worked out an experiment to demonstrate what was inside. If the atom had been split then Manchester would have gone *bang!* well before the ‘80s dance craze.

Rutherford and his "Number 8 Wire" gold leaf experiment that 'split the atom'.

Rutherford and his “Number 8 Wire” gold leaf experiment that ‘split the atom’.

The Wright brothers won the race against the War Department et al. because, like Rutherford, they employed the imagination and skill that the state, for whatever reason, seemed to ignore. It wasn’t mere chance they got there first.

In contrast, the race into space was a very different game. It was born directly of the ballistic missile technology developed by the Germans and realised in their V2 terror attacks on London.

V2 on its way to London.

V2 on its way to London.

The V2 was the first rocket to go into space. Fans of Tintin will recognize its form from ‘Destination Moon’ published in 1953.

We're going to the moon!

We’re going to the moon!

While these ‘terror weapons’ (as Hitler called them, in his hodgepodge German accent) killed many Londoners a much greater number of slave labourers and concentration camp ‘workers’ died making them.

When the Allies overrun the launch site at Pennemunde they grabbed the technology and the developers in order to initiate their own ballistic missile programmes. Amongst them was the leader of the V2 programme, Wernher von Braun who was secretly taken to the U.S. where he ended up starting the Space Program which became NASA.

First photo from space taken by a US V2

First photo from space. Taken by a US V2

Yes, it could be argued that he should have stood trial at Nuremburg, not so much for killing the Londoners, but for the deaths of the slaves and concentration camp victims forced to build his terror weapons while hidden deep in dangerous caves, but isn’t it best to be pragmatic and take advantage of a bad situation?

Like a lot of what happened at the end of WWII, motives were driven by concerns about erstwhile allies, soon to be regarded as enemies. The Americans were desperate for the Soviets not to get hold of the technology (that the Soviets developed their own space programme out of the bits and pieces left scattered at Pennemunde is testament to a great resourcefulness).

This situation only added to the so-called “shock of the century” felt by the U.S. when the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit in 1957. Sputnik sent the Space race ballistic (pun intended).

Stamp issued to celebrate Sputnik.

Stamp issued to celebrate Sputnik.

Eisenhower wouldn’t be outdone and it was no mean feat that 3 months later a team led by von Braun, James van Allen, and Wellington boy William Pickering (yes, a Kiwi was in charge of the Jet Propulsion Unit) sent Explorer 1 into space. It was a great propaganda moment for the U.S. which NASA acknowledged at the 50th anniversary of the launch with this article on their site.

http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/whyweexplore/Why_We_28_prt.htm

At the time the 3 scientists were (reluctantly) flown from the launch site to Washington for the staged press conference where this iconic image was created.

Pickering, van Allen, von Braun celebrating the launch.

Pickering, van Allen, von Braun celebrating the launch for the cameras.

The Space Race took off not because it benefited humanity or exploration, but because it benefited those who had their hands on the purse-strings. Perceptions of hegemony had to be maintained.

When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the Americans hit back with Alan Shepard the following month. The Soviets put the first woman up in 1963. Notably, she was also the first civilian (the U.S. didn’t feel it necessary to send a woman into space until Sally Ride went up in the Challenger in 1983).

The so-called ‘exploration of space’ has been an overwhelmingly military operation.

JFK only committed the U.S. to sending a man to the moon to get one over the Soviets. He saw no other value (he wrote and said this in private many times).

In fact, he is on tape (the same White House taping system that would prove Nixon’s downfall) regretting making the commitment to going to the moon, worrying that the public would realise it was “just a stunt… a waste of money…. why didn’t I say something useful…like ridding the sea of salt?”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1390928/New-tapes-reveal-JFK-fretted-selling-Apollo-moon-mission-US-public.html

Having campaigned on being ahead in the “missile-gap” his presidency depended on being in the lead. Gagarin went up 2 months into JFK’s presidency so he had to come up with something, anything, to top them (hence, the famous speech filled with lofty ideals).

Once JFK was assassinated in 1963 his commitment became sacrosanct. Yes, it was a marvellous feat and achievement, but it had little to do with the spirit of exploration and invention that motivated the Wright brothers into the air in 1903, or sent Lindbergh across the Atlantic in 1927.

Yes, the Soviets had their own missions to send a man to the moon, but once the U.S. set foot there there was simply no propaganda value in throwing any more money at it.

The Apollo missions quietly suffered the same fate 3 years after Neil Armstrong fluffed his famous lines from the moon (or did he?).

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2193749/Neil-Armstrong-speech-Thats-small-step-man-famous-mankind-words-misquoted.html

As I child, I followed the development of the shuttle program with great interest. The test flights from the back of Jumbo jets were played on the news in NZ. The programme, started by Nixon in the ’60s, wasn’t about human endeavour, but creating a fast turn-around vehicle to set up a space station.

The so-called “space-truck” was also intended to capture Soviet satellites (Nixon approved the funding for NASA on these grounds). Yet again, it was about the Space Race.

The Soviets had their own Buran shuttle programme that went up only once in 1988 but was soon abandoned as the Soviet Union fell apart.

Like the landing on the moon, I watched the shuttle launches (and landings) beamed live on the telly. I am sad to see these great machines put to rest. But like the magnificent ships of the line that won Spain, then France, and finally Britain an empire, or the great fleets of exploration of Zheng He, their time has passed and there is no need to replace them. No one needs to ‘conquer’ space.

The shuttle was a product of a world I am glad to see the end of. Overall, the Cold War was an obscene waste of money that may have given the bulk of society some little benefits, maybe, but they are way out of proportion to the lives and capital spent.

The space-truck put some satellites up, maintained a broken telescope and provided a taxi service to the International Space Station. There was a lot of compelling live telly for those, like me, excited by such things and there are still infomercials selling products that claim to benefit from technology developed by the space programme. But I think we deserve something better than non-stick fry pans.

Let me be clear, space exploration continues to excite me.

When the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars last year I shared the effusive excitement of my 4 year-old daughter who squealed with wonder and delight as we watched it land. She was so intrigued when I explained what was happening that I got a poster of the solar system for her bedroom wall and a set of glow-in-the-dark planets to hang above her bed. A year later she still knows the names and special qualities of each planet. They have not been replaced by Dora or Disney or any other marker of social acceptance. Each night as I carry her to bed on my shoulders she turns out the lights so that we enter her room in darkness, with only the glowing planets to guide us.

Like the Wrights tinkering away by themselves or the Dotcom giants who started off in anonymous garages and faceless dorms, the wonders of the future will come from the minds of girls and boys chipping away in mundane surroundings.

Likewise, the future for space exploration lies in innovation and imagination, not in bellicose projections of state power, or ‘great (or even giant) leaps forward’.

Right now a myriad of small private companies are pioneering fast turnaround re-usable craft to take the shuttle’s place servicing satellites and the space station.

Dragon 6

Dragon 6

And, as always, the future belongs to those like the young stick figure in the cartoon who dare to imagine. It is not a bigger, louder extrapolation of what has gone before. As the saying goes, nothing dates faster than the future. Leave such whimsy to the realms of the Jetsons (food in a pill!), steam-punk (I heart steam-punk!) and other fancies of a future hobbled by the past.

There’s no need to grieve the passing of an imagined future. Let’s feel happy and confident enough to celebrate what has been achieved, warts and all, to take what is useful, understand what is not, and not cling to the gunships, space-trucks and eunuchs of yesteryear.

Let’s sit on the shoulders of giants, imagining what may be flying overhead, in reality and in our imaginations.

(Oh, and happy birthday to Orville Wright who would be 142 today, if one of the imagined futures of my childhood had come true and he was still alive).

The Space Station zooming over my home.

The Space Station zooming over my home.