Category Archives: Memoir

Fire!

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 4)

2 Men in a Shed

No one knows what men get up to in their sheds. Books have been written, TV series made, but the mystery remains.

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When I think of a shed I think of (Great) Uncle Willie on the way out to New Brighton. Uncle Willie and (Great) Aunty Lizzie had no children of their own (and ate pan-fried chips every night). When Mum took us out to Breeze’s Road to visit he would usher me and my sisters out to the shed to show off his meticulously tidy tools while Mum talked to Aunt Lizzie in the formal sitting room surrounded by elephants and other nick knacks from their African travels. I was fascinated by the little shadows of each tool painted on the shed wall (so you knew where each tool went). I would lift up each one to look at their shadow. Better still, Uncle Willie had a dart board on the shed door where he taught us to play ‘round the world’. We were under 5 (or thereabouts), very wary of the sharp darts, thrilled to be allowed to chuck them at the numbers on the board while Uncle Willie made a steady stream of funny whistles and duck noises to amuse us while the women talked about who knows what.

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I spent Saturday afternoon and evening in Blair’s shed in New Brighton. We weren’t making wooden toys for the grandkids, fixing a car or boat, inventing the internet or escaping her indoors. We were talking, listening to music, drinking snakebites and eating unsalted peanuts. I’ve known Blair since I was 12. We met on my first day at high school at the dawn of the ‘80s. We were both from the wrong side of town, so to speak, and had to bike across Christchurch to get to the manicured fields of Boys’ High in Fendalton. We started playing music in our first band in the 6th form, practicing several nights a week in Jason’s garage in Ashgrove Terrace, playing our first songs in front of people in Damian’s carport at the end of the year.

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I got my first bass guitar from Blair for $100. A maroon Diplomat copy of a Gibson. I had no idea how to play it. I just hit the stings and hoped no one glared at me. Thud thud thud. Thuddy thud thud.

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A few months after that first party All Fall Down (as we now called ourselves) played our first professional gig at the Star and Garter overlooking the Avon River on a hot summer’s night. I was 16. We were awful. How do I know? Because I recently listened to a tape if it.

We must have had some charm because people kept booking us to support every Flying Nun band that came through town as we relentlessly practiced, practiced, practiced morphing from the (somehow) endearingly-naïve yelled kiwipunk that I played with Jason, Blair and Brett into the crafted ‘60s melodies and harmonies (with a shifty dollop of country twang) that I played with Blair, Esther, Stephen and Bert in the final AFD gigs four years later.

 

Like all bands, there were a lot of drummers, but only Blair and me played all 77 gigs (and countless rehearsals).

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So it was great to sit and reflect. The tapes of the early stuff I had digitized from Damian were as awful as we remembered. Unlistenable. Our on-stage chat failed to charm the audience and the endless tuning killed any flow to the set.

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It’s quite something to peak back at your youth and cringe. Our voices sound the same. But what was encouraging is how good we got. I had no idea. There are many good songs and performances in those final recordings.

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After heading inside for a cracker lasagne with Amanda and their son, Nico, we returned to the shed to listen to some Swim Everything jams (the band I played with Blair and Damian (and Brett) in the early ‘90s). It was a lot more rock than AFD. And so much better with Brett’s drumming, as opposed to the more ubiquitous (and awful) drum machine.

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Blair still plays and records music in his shed, and makes a lot of art. I’m lucky enough to decorate my home (and blog) with several pieces made there over the years. He has recently released a solo record which is bloody good.

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Some local young musos/fans have tracked him down and they’re learning the songs to play live next month.

Late in the evening as we sat in the shed, Blair suggested something I had never considered. That we played some of the old AFD songs. Live. Inconceivable. The logistics and effort. The lack of interest. The death of Stephen 4 years ago. But one of the musos Blair is playing with goes out with Stephen’s niece. So maybe, maybe.

Sheds are like garages. A place to escape. And dream.

Second-hand copies of the AFD EP are selling for $239 online. Next year it will be 30 years since we recorded and released it.

There’s a target to aim at.

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Blair’s album ‘Cardigan Bay’

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 3)

No Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 2)

Hanging in the Square

Working in theatre, television, sound and health I’ve travelled most of my life. Either up and down New Zealand or through bits of the world.

Even when I’m travelling just to see new places I rarely sleep well in hotels. I think it’s the fact I’m always aware of the unfamiliar, waking to check where I am, rather than due to any discomfort.

That said, I’ve slept in lot of noisy, hot or stuffy rooms. Last night was not like that.

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I’m in one of the new hotels that are slowly rising from the rubble of Christchurch. Breakfree on Cashel Street is the fifth different hotel I’ve stayed in post-quake and I think it’s my favourite.

It’s stylish, interesting – fun to be in. My room is a tiny studio but the design makes it seem huge thanks to clever mirrors and a chunky, industrial glass and steel en-suite in the corner of the room. I almost had to pry myself out of it last night to wander the CBD.

I had hoped to catch up with an old friend and drink beer in the air of a warm nor-wester but he had to work on Evita so I took the chance to be in this nice space and write without the pressures of home nagging at me (fix this, sort that, clean the blah blah blah).

That’s the thing about being alone in a town, you can do what you want. It’s one of the great pleasures of solo travel. The biggest drawback is eating. Eating alone can seem a bit empty. That’s why I sat in my room and wrote and wrote, and it wasn’t till 7:30pm that hunger drove me out on to the streets to see what the CBD had to offer.

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Over the past five years there hasn’t been a lot. The temporary food stalls that have popped up tend to close at night (except for the late-night pissed-folk ones that open late). After a stroll through road cones and re-build, and groups of tourists standing outside burger bars, I found a cool wee Japanese place called Hachi Hachi on Hereford Street. It was very appealing. I wanted a ramen but fell for the sushi burger with kumara chips and lychee Mogu Mogu… just because.

It was delicious. The tastes and mix of textures. I slowly savoured it watching a steady stream of locals bringing their kids in for a treat.

I wanted more. Writing and travel always increases my appetite.

But I had to find somewhere different. Resisting the lure of chips at Wendy’s or BurgerFuel next door I decided to head across the Square to New Regent Street where I’ve eaten many times.

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That’s when I discovered what I should have gone straight to. A night food market in the Square. It was wonderful. The food looked great. Exotic and interesting. The people were hanging and happy. I did three circuits of the stalls before I decided on a wrap with 12-hour slow-cooked pork and slaw (the beef cheek was sold out) from a stall run by friendly chaps who called themselves something Horse (sorry, too distracted by the deep-fried Oreos & ice-cream next door to get the name).

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I ate it sitting at the feet of the restored Godley statue (Christchurch’s founder) feeling like I had stepped into some comforting mix of the past and the future. The Square was alive. In use. Not some sad relic full of tourists standing around wondering what to do in a disaster zone. Maybe it was because it was so dark the crumbling carcass of the Cathedral was hidden. You weren’t constantly invited to mourn, unable to move on.

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I grew up hanging in the Square. Waiting for buses. Waiting for friends. Just waiting.

Last night I got to do it once again.

 

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 1)

Christchurch is the town that made me. I was born here. Grew up here. Shambled into adulthood here. And while I have nearly spent more time living away from my home than in it, Otautahi contains my greatest trove of formative memories.

It is the place I look back to as I grope my way through Dante’s darkened forest of middle-age.

Why am I here?

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I am in Christchurch to revisit the past (something that gets ever harder each time). Yes, family and friends have moved on, but so have the physical surroundings.

I’m here as an old friend has just turned 50. We went to school together. Played in a couple of bands around Christchurch and New Zealand in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a time that I’ve never really looked back on until the last few years. I had little desire to wallow in a past that was fun but never golden.

Six months ago I was sent a thumb drive with live recordings of two gigs from 1987. Rob, the sound engineer who mixed us, had recorded the performances. As an avid archivist I appreciated the gesture but the thought of listening to juvenilia held little appeal.

But after a few drinks I gave them a listen. To my surprise I really enjoyed them. Yes, the crowds were often indifferent to our efforts (and talent), but we were (often) tight and the songs were (sometimes) good. It was a revelation. For a couple of weeks it was my favourite music to listen to.

It made me seek out another friend and former school/bandmate who had mixed our gigs (and made home recordings) to see what he had stashed away.

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I sent Damian a text. He sent back a meticulous list of about a dozen gigs and home studio sessions he had on tape.

That was the easy part.

Like me, he no longer had a working cassette player (but many boxes of tapes).

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I got hold of a cassette digitiser from another friend (Fiona, who does transcription services), downloaded some ropey software, and stumbled my way through digitising the tapes. It was quite an effort. Most recordings were indexed on the case but a lot were punched into and recorded over with something different. It is nearly nine years since I worked as a sound man, even longer since I drove any audio software. A lot of trial. Many errors.

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All this faffing about turning arcane ‘80s into shiny 21st century 1010101010101100011s that can be trimmed, indexed, Dropboxed, iPoded and shared lead to the most interesting bit for me – digging out my diaries from their dusty banana box downstairs.

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It’s a funny thing looking back at your teenage self from the vantage point of 50 circles around the sun.

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My diaries are full of details that get more and more… detailed. I first played in a pub as a 16 year-old schoolboy and my ‘diary’ that year was just a few lines scrawled on a calendar. By the end of that year I was jamming about 100 tiny words into the box of each day. Three years later I was churning each day into 800 words of… stuff. Nuggets like 3 pieces of toast for breakfast. Watching the Adrian Mole TV series. Impressed. Waiting for my sisters to have showers. Going to psychology and philosophy lectures.  Getting drunk and talking to girls. Doing radio shows at UFM. Countless band rehearsals. Regular gigs. Occasional insights and surprising hopes for the future. Avoiding writing an essay on morals day after day after day after day. 

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Nearly all the venues All Fall Down played between ‘84-‘87 are gone. Gladstone, Star & Garter, Zetland. All the pubs, social halls, University Ballroom, party-houses, squats, warehouses, flats and garages flattened by earthquakes or history.

I’ve only listened to bits of the recordings, to check the files are okay, but in the spaces between the songs hide golden nuggets. Our teenage voices call out for more fold-back, try to jolly the murmuring crowd, shout-out to mates, complain about the hulking great par can lights burning our legs or hair.

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I can’t wait for to tomorrow. To drink beer with Blair and listen to the past. To look at press clippings and dorky publicity shots. To skim my diary entries, laugh at ourselves and celebrate the amazing feat of still standing in this town after 50 circuits around the sun.

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Game Day

 

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Today is grey and cold.

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Tonight the All Blacks are playing the Wallabies in Wellington.

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I’ve never bought a rugby shirt.

Or a rugby ticket.

 

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Or had a beer at the game.

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But I’ve been to more All Black tests than I can remember.

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Either working for television.

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Or for the match officials.

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I may have eaten a pie.

Or two.

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Spent time relaxing backstage.

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But tonight I wish I was in the crowd.

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My  8-year old is here, seeing her first All Black test.

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It’s a moment I would love to have shared.

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The only Test I wasn’t paid to attend was in 1981 with my father.

The Springboks at Lancaster Park.

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There were riot police with batons and barbed wire on the pitch.

People screaming for blood.

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I’m glad I got to see it.

And my daughter never did.

Love Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finally I can recognise, and find, true love.

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So, what is love?

It is for you to decide.

Enamorados

 

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