Category Archives: Writing

The Iron Chair

The other day, the wife asked, ‘are you sure you’re not gay?’ It was a fair question.

She was making a comment about how I had chosen to tart up an old chair.

I’ve had the iron chair for thirty years. It was left behind in a flat which had once been an Op Shop called Mother Hubbard’s. It was a pretty rough place, rumoured to be among the oldest wooden buildings in Christchurch but, best of all, right in the heart of town.

The nature of our living conditions was wryly commented on by a journalist who went through once Mother Hubbard’s was threatened with demolition, and then relocated to Redcliffs and restored.

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I loved living there, and I loved the chair. It sat downstairs in the lean-to kitchen which had a fridge but no oven. My bedroom upstairs overlooked the Avon River and I often went to sleep to the sound of ducks punctuated by the groans of the old building adjusting itself through the night.

That’s where I started writing, and where a fumble friend once saw a ghost, giving me a big chunk of my first published story.

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I took the chair with me when I shifted out, painstakingly ‘painting’ over the bold white with two gold pens and making a cushion covered in red velvet.

One night, a flatmate decided to add lots of black pen doodles in an act of drunken inspiration. It was pretty fancy.

The iron chair then spent many years stored in garages or under houses as I took up acting and went on the road. I can’t count the number of times I shifted it from one dark place to another, always wondering, ‘do I really need to hold onto this?’

For the last seven years it has sat under the house I have just sold. Always in the corner of my eye as I renovated and emptied the house.

I wanted to spray paint it a bold colour. Give it a cushion so ridiculous that you couldn’t help but sit on it. I didn’t want it shoved in the corner, a place to dump bags and crap.

Once I had stripped all the old white and gold, I painted it with a neon pink purchased years ago to appease my then-six year old. But the tin ran out before all the iron work was covered. And when I went to get more, the people in the paint shops all raised their eyebrows at the very idea of neon pink. It was impossible to get a replacement in enamel.

So I plumped for plum. And went fake fur for the cushion. Icelandic fox, to be exact, possibly a little influenced by the Icelandic novel I had just read where a 49 year old man does up a broken hotel instead of topping himself.

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Hotel Silence is not as bleak as it sounds. It’s very enjoyable. I loved it to bits. It got me reading novels again.

Despite my fears, the Iron Chair has been a big hit in the new house. It sits by a bookcase, looking too fabulous for words, the perfect place to sit with a book or mess about on guitar.

I’m so glad I held onto it.

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Not About Sharks

I’m finding it hard to stop writing. I handed in my final folio for a 6 week summer fiction paper at Victoria University on Friday and the momentum and pressure has left me in daze.

It is Monday, and there are so many other things to do.

Fixing the broken doors, latches and handles in the new house the family moved into 4 weeks ago. Shifting boxes. Unpacking boxes. Sorting piles of things. Putting pictures on walls. Working out what each of the keys do around the place, and if they’re the only copy. Working out how to cook anew now that the wife has gone vegan. Finishing the painting (inside and out) at the old house, which needs to be on the market ASAP because we can barely afford one mortgage let alone two. Arranging tradesmen to do the things I can’t legally do. Exercising my old aching body, that needs large daily doses of anti-inflammatories and stretching until I get a big chop-chop operation on my Achilles. Cleaning this house for the first time since we shifted in. Two bathrooms. Two toilets. Six sinks. Two floors to vacuum. An overgrown garden to tame and explore.

I could go on.

But I need to write. It is a need. Not just the two new stories I wrote for the course. Both of which will not leave my mind alone. One, a story of writing and love. Sharp, clever and funny. The other a dark wee fantasy fable that has mushroomed into the biggest thing I have ever written, and clearly needs to get bigger again. Or the kids’ story I started bashing out in my journal on Saturday as I watched the kids at their gym class. It holds my mind the most, being at that hot and fertile point where you can just keep writing and writing until the tale is told. Which is what you must do because if you stop the momentum is lost and the ink has dried to a hardness that will not take another coat without becoming a different picture altogether. And there are the two novels that need revision so they can seek publication. Plus the letter I promised to forward back in December. A real letter, on paper, that needs to be reconsidered because it involves care and caution. And there is my diary; the beast I started with great hope having re-ignited the habit last year, managing to knock out 200-250 words each day. This year I have been doing 600-700, until the last few weeks when life’s demands left it sadly neglected.

So what do I do?

I write. A blog for 5-10 people to read. I used to get 25-60 readers with every new post but those numbers have passed. The world is awash with words seeking eyes. The ‘attention economy’ places great demands on our time.

So why write, fool? Because I must. Why write this? Because the words came out when I sat down. The muscle needs movement and cannot relax or stay still.

 

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Camping by Numbers: A Listicle of 48 Numbers. Derived in Caravan and Tent. At Beach, upon Mountain and by River

 

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47 Number of times I will hit my head on the caravan door frame before I punch the caravan (or devise a cunning way to stop doing it).

9 Number of $2 coins the wife will ask for to do one load of washing, as it’s still not dry.

36 Number of snarky/comic names bestowed on fellow campers to amuse the wife. Like Damon and Jemima, who parked their giant motor home in the middle of our sea view and proceeded to cook mussels and sear broccolini for young Tarquin and Sapphire.

99 Number of times the hunting enthusiasts next door shout ‘Logan! Mason!’ each morning as the toddlers shoot at us with their new toy guns.

Zero Total number of segments of Terry’s Chocolate Orange I can successfully sneak from each of our 3 kids.

360 Average number of minutes chocolate is safe in the fridge before it mysteriously disappears.

7 Maximum number of minutes I get to write before someone wants or needs something.

Like $2 for the machine, or to account for some missing chocolate.

4 Number of days before the kids stop wearing sandals, jandals, kicks or scuffs whenever they walk on any sand or grass, and are happy with bare feet.

3 Number of days I can go without a shower, by swimming in the sea instead.

2 Number of minutes I can handle the shower going cold before cracking open the door to press the button for more hot water.

4 Number of mothers and small children sitting outside, staring impatiently at the crack.

0.25 Number of places I can safely change into my togs without flashing someone, somewhere.

9 Number of bum cracks visible at any one time within a thirty metre radius as beach folk adjust and strut.

3 Number of tubby kids who can squish onto a tiny camp chair to stare at a phone while their mothers do the dishes.

∞ Amount of entertainment possible to derive watching other campers set up and pack down.

13 Number of times the wife tells me to shush! each day in case the neighbours hear me making up fake dialogue for them.

You can’t park that there.

That’s never level.

The awning’s fine, it’s my groundsheet that’s fucked.

I see you have the Classic. Mind if I have a look inside?

0.75 Maximum number of intimate acts achievable before the caravan starts to wobble (or a child appears).

58 Number of times I covet the food the Chinese campers are cooking by the ablution block with theatrical flair and giant flames.

3.5 Number of days in a row you can eat sausages before you reach peak sausage.

5 Number of books taken away to read.

0 Number of books read.

4² Number of books the kids have read (factor due to them rereading their books with glee).

9 Number of days unable to locate the can of CRC you are sure you packed in the fixit kit.

9 Number of minutes it takes to locate the old can of CRC after buying an overpriced new one.

19 Number of times I can smile at the same person on the way to the ablution block without saying a word.

17 Number of times I can mention the weather when forced to talk to a stranger before having to find a different topic.

6 Number of hours between the Christmas Eve ‘weather event’ and the Christmas day thunder storm.

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36 Number of minutes it takes for a web page to load on the camp site Wi-Fi when it’s raining.

5 Maximum number of hours I can hold off going to the toilet in my last set of dry clothes when the rain is still horizontal and my raincoat is still soaked.

4 Number of incredibly loud farts the smallest child can release in her sleep after being rescued from her tent during the Christmas Eve storm, and snuggled down into the caravan.

5-6 Number of days it takes to forget how many days you’ve been on holiday.

6-7 Number of days before you start counting how many days remain.

19 Number of different exercises the two blonde twins in front of us do in perfect unison each morning.

3 Number of minutes before the wife realizes what I’m counting.

364 Number of little coloured bits of rubber strewn across the campsite after sudden water bomb fights.

363 Number of bits of rubber that remain on the grass two hours later.

1 Number of people sitting on the ‘occupied’ chairs by the pool.

180 Number of seconds a mother sitting down with a good book by the pool will look at the book before picking up her phone to check something.

88 Percentage of particulates in the pool that are not water or chlorine. Or leaves. Or rubber.

1 Number of times I have banged my head on the door frame of the caravan since writing In and Out on the caravan step in order to aid traffic flow.

2 Number of people who suddenly appear out of the shadows after I fart loudly on the way to the ablution block at 5 am.

7 Number of times the wife and I suspect we’ve been approached with the secret campground swinger’s code.

She’s in good nick.

I see you’ve got the Classic.

Have you been to the end of the beach? There’s a lovely spot in the dunes.

I had the beef. The wife prefers the fish.

You’re very good with your morning stretches.

7 Number of invitations to socialize, or have a wee drink, the wife and I have non-committedly dodged in order to sit in the caravan and look at people.

Nice. Lovely. We’ll have to see. I’ll ask the wife.

1.5 Number of snoozes desired each day.

0 Number of snoozes achieved after 15 days of rest.

1 Number of days remaining before wondering if we can extend the holiday.

24 Number of seconds it takes to decide that we can do another day. Yay!

1 Number of nights left before we pack up and head home. Boo 🙂

 

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Fair Vanity

I’m obsessed with words. Big, small. Odd. Not.

How they look, how they sound. Music and meaning.

 

The other night, while waiting in A & E, I picked up a magazine. It was full of articles I found hard to read (they weren’t on a screen, they wouldn’t scroll), but there was a column that showed how the pronunciation of the same word can change if used as a noun or a verb. The same word. What’s more, the change is consistent. Noun, first syllable emphasized. Verb, the second.

 

The symmetry was bewitching, like maths or music. Diverting enough to stick long after I had turned the page.

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But the Words I cannot shake is a song. Sharon O’Neill in my head. The earworm has infected my consciousness. The video is a solid gold dose of 1979. Kiwi pub-rock nostalgia played out in a TV studio. Shaggy perm and shark tooth earing, tight white jeans. Youngies shuffling side-to-side with huge grins. Par-cans glowing overhead red, orange, blue. Moustachioed backing singers, layering their sweet topping over Shazza’s ballsy swagger.

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I know every word. Every line. Every melody. Every hook.

Let me out. Like the new blood at the slaughter.

Who starts a pop song like that? A brutal simile for the kids. Freedom splattered on the abattoir floor.

Words just a breath away from my hand. Breaking into tiny pieces.

When I sing along my voice drops an octave, settling into a country-Elvis croon no one needs to hear.

The day after my visit to A&E I flew to Nelson to work on a rugby game where the result was never in question. Only one team could win. The winningest team. Sport without competition.

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On the way I listened to Words three times in a row, and then tried to kill it with a podcast about a crisis in women’s sport. When does natural advantage make competition unfair? Unusually high levels of testosterone gives some female athletes the advantage usually reserved for males. Larger heart, lungs and muscles. Elite sport is all about a battle of the exceptional, but our society strives to be fair. We want things to be fair. Complain if they’re not. The sexes compete separately to prevent unfair competition.

But how to resolve this need for equity, when a woman with the strength of a man competes against women?

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Fairness is a word that can never be resolved. Is it fair to expect more of some, less of others? To be paid the same for doing less work? To be paid less for doing the same work? To claim success while competing at a lower level?

In Nelson, everyone knew the All Blacks would beat the Pumas. Where is the sport in such a pre-determined outcome?

 

As I flew back from Nelson, still wrapped in Words and fairness, a bigger discussion erupted in women’s sport. The most exceptional tennis player of our time publicly berated an official, claiming it wasn’t fair. She was being paid millions, he was getting $700. Vanity reigned from court and chair. Enough to write a novel.

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This morning, staring at my phone in the midst of insomnia, I saw a new word I had only just learned disappear. Mardy. I knew the Artic Monkeys song Mardy Bum, and thought it was a regional version of Marty. But someone used it on the telly two days ago and the wife told me it meant sulky or moody.

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The Guardian had headlined an interview with Graham Coxon from Blur with ‘I was a mardy brat in my 20s…I’m quite mellow now’. But two hours later it changed. On the front page he was now a ‘moody brat’, and a ‘mardy brat’ in the headline once you clicked on it. A sub-editor had changed the words in his mouth, but only in part, possibly afraid the unfamiliar word would stop people clicking.

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You’re argumentative, and you’ve got the face on

Words should have been a world-wide hit in 1979, but no one outside NZ knows it. Maybe the big record companies didn’t think Sharon O’Neill could compete with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, that no one would understand her. Back then, New Zealand music wasn’t considered good enough to play on the world stage.

It’s a touch, it’s a touch of class. It might not even last.

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Today, anyone can sing a song and show it to the world. You can sell it to anyone. In this way, the music world is fairer than it ever was. But with something like 200,000 songs hitting the internet every day, the chances of your words being heard may be less than ever. It’s much the same with blogging.

When I sing this song, I feel inside of me.

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The thing is, while I remember every lyric of Words, I can’t seem to recall a single example of the pretty words I read in the magazine. I wish I had taken a photo on my phone. Shared them to the digital memory. They were common words. Like re-port and re-port. Noun, verb. Name, action. This is my report. I will report you.

I cannot express how frustrated I am with my memory, and that I can’t access the article online. My brain has been rewired. It’s not fair.

But I have found the chords to Words online, and I can play it. Badly.

And I can write this; a blog of too many words, sent out into the clutter.

Vanity: excessive pride in one’s character or ability e.g. the belief that one can find words to connect an old song, Serena Williams, something you saw on the internet, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sharon O’Neill, a game of rugby, The Arctic Monkeys, that guy from Blur with the glasses, and something you read at the doctor’s but can’t quite remember.

 

 

A Voyage around My Mother: The Story of a Notebook II

Why do we need to write words? Is it to entertain ourselves or others? Is it to display or to conceal? Why spend so much time presenting an acceptable image, while hiding in plain sight? These are the questions I ask myself as an infrequent diarist living in a time of constant over-sharing.

The gap between our public and private thoughts is made clear when the top three words women use on Facebook to describe their husbands are compared to those used in Google searches (on FB my husband is “loyal” “amazing” “best-friend” vs. “annoying” “mean” “gay” on Google).

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I was thinking about this the other night while scribbling mundane descriptions in my diary. Why bother? Lists of routine events. Dinners made for the family, housework done, writing projects chipped away at. My words lacked insight or reflection. I would never want to read them. I sought distraction, remembering my mother’s travel journal, My Trip Book. My sister had been looking through it when she visited recently, discovering it held more than I had seen.

I glanced at it when Mum died several years ago, reading the first few pages of her boat trip out to Britain with Dad in 1957. But the death of a parent is a fraught time; deciding what to keep hold of, and what to let go. I was disappointed by all the blank pages. Why had she stopped after the first few days? Had she got seasick, lost the thrill of the journey?

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But my sister, Sonya, saw more. The journal takes an unusual format. You note departures at the front, the journey later on, places visited and people met at the back.

Mum’s beautiful, flowing script written in fountain pen by her 24 year-old hand, describes her journey with her husband of four years out from Christchurch to his English homeland, and to that of her Scottish parents.

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She visits places I have seen and those I have not. Pitcairn Island, Panama, Curacao. London, Edinburgh, the Isle of Wight. Enjoys Harry Secombe and Terry Thomas at the Palladium. Gets a job sewing electric-blankets. Suffers the disappointment of photos not coming out, and has such fun on the Underground.

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It is a treasure, but I want more. Descriptions, not lists. Reflections as opposed to generalities. What were the people like? What did she feel? But she was 24, and there are reasons most journals are like this.

I am a deliberately boring diarist. I have been burnt more than once. My ill-formed words snatched in secret and thrown against me. It’s a betrayal I struggle to forgive. Words written in private cannot match the expectations of the world.

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The other night, reading Mum’s words, I found the unsaid I craved. Amongst many blank pages, there was a random list written in red pen; cuts of meat and prices paid. More blank pages, then March 1964 Leaving for Sydney to-night at 7:30. I remember Mum telling me that she went with her younger sister, Lynette. There is a photo from the trip, somewhere in Mum’s box of old photos. But how long were they away? Days, weeks? Nothing is noted, even though she clearly took the journal with her. Maybe it was too much fun to find time to write. After many more blank pages there is a list of gifts to get. Cousin Lesley got a koala.

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Over the page is a more detailed list. Money spent: drinks on the plane 1s 9d, hotels in Sydney ₤3 2s 10d, Surfers’ Paradise ₤5 15 s, grapes 2s, drinks in Bondi 4s 6d, magazines 1s, drinks 6s, coat ₤ 12 12s, drinks & sandwich 2s 9d, excess baggage of ₤1. There is a note to keep ₤22 for hotels, leaving ₤104.

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But what of the ₤6 5s Val, ₤62 10s Joe. Val is my aunty. Was it a gift or to get something? And who was Joe? 62 quid? In 1964 the average wage for the job Mum was doing was ₤9 a week. ‘Joe’ had given her seven weeks’ wages. For what? I sat wishing Mum had written more detail. Searched every page, going through the contacts at the back of the journal, most of them crossed out as people shifted or moved on.

I found Val ₤6 5s fawn twinset, 34” size 14. If no fawn, then pale blue. NZ was a heavily controlled economy back then. Everything was cheaper overseas. And there was more choice.

And then, Joe ₤61 10s (₤61 with Traveller’s Cheques) 25yds Wenzell, Batty & McGrath, 865 York St, Sydney. Mum noted the exact cost and change, deducting the taxi fare. Twenty-five yards of cloth is a lot of fabric. That explains the ₤1 excess baggage.

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Because Mum left gaps, I can fit a story around the words. Maybe they were smuggling expensive fabrics into NZ’s controlled economy, drinking their way through the hotels of Bondi and Surfers’ as part of the plan. I can think this because she doesn’t say any different.

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For the first time in decades, I remember a possible Joe. A cutter who worked for her boss at Zenith tailoring. I recall her talking to a man called something like that. I was about four years old, playing hide and seek with my wee sisters amongst the endless rows of jackets and coats. He was friendly, funny, had a big black moustache and was leaving to join the police force. Mum didn’t work there anymore, but did out-work from home, sewing up menswear while looking after us. Mum told me that when Joe was at Police school he was instructed, along with all the new recruits, to tell everyone that Arthur Allan Thomas was guilty. Mum repeated this over the years as the fabrication, and Thomas’s innocence, was revealed.

Maybe that man was Joe. It doesn’t really matter. I have pictures in my head. Words that lead to more. I have searched out the photo of Mum and Aunty Lynette in Australia in 1964. Holding ice-creams, wearing jandals at night, they look tanned and happy. Mum said they took a train up to Queensland and that some locals refused to share a cabin with them, because they looked Italian.

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I have also found the passenger lists of the trip to England in 1957, a photo and a menu from the fancy dress ball on board. Mum and Dad dressed up in their finest on the deck. Like married women of the time, Mum is listed simply as Mrs. Taylor (no initial). All the men, mothers, unmarried women and children have initials.

 

That omission says something, does it not?

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What we say, and what we do not, matters. The unsaid can speak more clearly than any strongly voiced comment. This is why I write. To be read and to be ignored. It is a process of discovery; remarkable, mundane. It is an identity, cut from a pattern, worn to cover any naked shame.

 

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The Story of a Notebook

 

 

 

Unspeakable

The wife-to-be is quite fond of faggots. Me, I’m not so sure. I mean, some things just bring up long-embedded reactions. Thoughts of toffs bullying young fags in Tom Brown’s School Days, or bundles of twigs piled under heretics who will not recant before the flames consume them.

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I know words have several meanings but I can’t quite get my head around the idea that my fiancé finds comfort in little rissoles made of offal and offcuts named after, well…

It turns out they’re a speciality of her homeland, the English Midlands, traditionally eaten with gravy, mash and peas. Like bound twigs, they are bundles of otherwise worthless bits. Pig’s liver, heart and shoulder with herbs and breadcrumbs. A gutless English haggis, if you will.

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The name makes sense. The first printed use was in 1843 when a local paper noted some fat bugger had eaten 20 of them. Clearly some feat.

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The word comes from Latin fascis ‘bundle of wood’ and is related to the Roman symbol of authority and punishment, the fasces; an axe bound in a bundle of rods. The rods for whipping, axe for beheading. The Italian fascists took their name from it believing it showed how the bound cause of the many confers unbreakable strength (which sounds much like an argument of their communist foe.)

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Unlike that other great fascist symbol, the swastika, the fasces did not fall from favour, and is still proudly displayed by the US government.

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Of course, the humble faggot can have other meanings. Facebook has banned English users from talking about their meaty treat because of this. Ads that play on the name have also been supressed.

Words can be tricky. Some people can say them, sometimes. Others cannot. It depends on where you live, who you are. Borders and rules are shifty.

This struck me last month while listening to podcasts about the celebrated Dam Busters raid. It is 75 years since that audacious attack on the heart of Nazi Germany when the leader, Guy Gibson, chose the name of his beloved dog as the code-word for success. It was a common, affectionate name in 1940s England. My English father had a cocker spaniel with the same name at the same time. But the BBC did not dare mention the dog’s name. They simply referred to “Gibson’s dog” or “the dog’s name”.

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The word has an ugly history. Abuse. Reclamation. Suppression. Cultural imperialism and bias. Its use, or absence, is fraught with problems. The great wordsmith Stephen Fry is writing a script for the Peter Jackson remake of the 1955 film. All people can talk about is whether the dog should be named or renamed.

There is no easy answer. History happened, and should not be ignored. Brave young men gave their lives on the raid and thousands of innocents, woman and children and enslaved labourers, died in their beds. Whose story is it?

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The American history of slavery has not ended. The debate in the US over the unspeakable word bleeds into the rest of the world. No one’s hands are clean. I learned this when the UK treasury tweeted that anyone who paid taxes in the UK up to 2015 had helped end slavery!, based on the fact that repayments on reparations paid out in 1835 had just been completed, 180 years later.

It was an appalling twisting of words. The £20 million (£200 billion or US$405 billion today) was paid not to the former slaves, but to their owners. Half went to just 6% of the claimants, a despicable roll-call of Britain’s future elite. To make it worse, the money was clawed back through taxes on everyday goods, making the many pay for the sins of the few.

The fact that every time I had a pint or a pub lunch in the UK before 2015 played into this sick abuse is hard to swallow. It makes me feel angry and ill.

The persistent call in the US for reparations for the victims of slavery is usually met with derision. It cannot be afforded, is undeserved. That is nonsense.

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I have heard the iniquitous use of the unspeakable word, in songs and movies, justified by black musicians as their right in lieu of reparations. I can sing it, say it, but you can’t, is said seriously, and with a smile. I respect that greatly.

But American history is not world history. The imperial reach of their media should not swamp the nuance of different cultures and taste.

Black US forces fought the Nazis in Europe and famously experienced a freedom that did not exist at home, the so-called ‘land of the free’. The British refused to bow to American racism.

The only time they ever did was in the war of 1812 when captured white American sailors demanded they were segregated from their fellow combatants while imprisoned in Britain. It was a foreign concept on British soil. The black prisoners amused themselves while waiting for freedom by staging a production of Romeo and Juliet. There’s a book about it, a film to follow.

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Some things are hard to swallow but Shakespeare, that great Midlands lover of words and nuance, was adept at throwing bits of this and that together to turn the unpalatable and mundane into an experience that transcends the simple definition of words. It is part of his undying genius.

To the Bard, the world was never black and white. And he probably also liked faggots.

 

And hark ye, sirs; because she is a maid,
Spare for no faggots, let there be enough.

                                     -Henry VI Part 1

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Standing Up

I was alone in the house, thinking about something I wanted to write, composing words of little consequence in my head, when something funny happened. I had just stepped outside to check on the washing, riffing away at gags and observations, when I heard a noise behind me that I didn’t recognise. A soft, woody, clicking.

It was the feathers of a fantail, flitting gently around the room. Long tail hanging down below.

Oh, I said. Oh, aloud, following its flight.

I have come to be nervous of birds in the house. They panic, throw themselves against the windows. Shit on the curtains. But the piwakawaka did exactly what fantails do. It calmly flew three circles of the space, aware that windows are not exits, and then it bobbled past me, out into the afternoon sun.

I quickly shut the door.

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It is 17 years since I last saw that. I was starting a writing course in Timaru. A fantail flew into the kitchen, circled the light three times, and headed straight out into the garden. My flatmate, another writer, was uncertain. She thought it meant death. Something to do with their role in the death of Maui when he sought immortality. I swiftly made the point, rightly or not, that such events are also seen as a portent of rebirth, the start of something new. We were to write. Add words to the world.

As I recalled that moment, our recently returned long-lost cat appeared at the door, shouting to get in. Too much. Meke tu meke.

 

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I had wanted to write about the poet I saw last night. The two poets I saw last night. How it was 2/3 performance, 1/3 poetry. How funny they were. John Cooper Clarke and Andrew Fagan. I liked it so much I even bought the Ramones-inspired tour t-shirt and started to write garbled poems in my head, humorous and wry. Words the world is not waiting for, does not need, but I have to express.

 

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I had recently been thinking about giving stand-up a crack. It’s something I haven’t done. Not bucket-list but a bit of a lacuna. I’ve written a set and am trying to pluck up the courage to give it a bash. The thought terrifies me. I’ve often had the urge, having worked on so many live stand-up shows, but felt I was too much of an actor and/or writer, needing control of words.

Last month, when I saw a wonderful young actor do a solo show that was as much stand-up as theatre, I resolved to try my hand. I am nearly 51, how bad can it be?

I have read my ropey poems live, shaking in my boots. It really does happen. The anxiety was worse than theatre or playing in a band. You are totally naked. A performer and writer with no loud music, drama or drums, make-up or guitars to hide behind. Just you and your words. And a mic.

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Maybe that is why both poets last night, 70s punk and 80s pop star, both employed costumes, patter and props, jokes and gags. It wasn’t stand-up, it was funnier than that. I smiled and laughed the whole time as they entertained the beautiful, packed historic church and offended the young.

I don’t know if I have the guts to act like a stand-up comedian. But I can be a funny poet. Maybe I could blend the parts into something new, born of me. A brash bird no longer bashing against windows it cannot see.

I want to flit about new spaces, unafraid of any threat, confident that the door remains exactly where it was when I came in.

 

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Doubting Thomas

Last night I did something I never do. I posted a photo of our cat on social media. He was curled up in the way-too-small box he’s been trying to sit in all week. He has attempted resting his chin on the flimsy flaps but his head tips over when he falls asleep. He has twisted and folded trying to tuck in his head, but his tail or a shoulder always popped out.

It’s been very entertaining. What did cats do before boxes? Which came first, the cat or the box? The philosophical enquiry has been endless.

Thomas loves boxes. But each affair has only ever lasted a few days before the claws came out and rough-love was applied, shredding the cardboard; un-boxing the box.

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I’ve always loved cats. They seem to love me. Sometimes a bit too much. Cats want to chat with me, jump on my back, or sit on my lap. It’s been a point of repeated jealousy from friends and lovers. I always say it’s because I’m part cat. Or some sort of very cat-like dog. Maybe I was a can of sardines in a past life.

When I posted the picture of Thomas, stubbornly content in his box, my partner said, “You will get lots of likes for that”. I did. In bed I showed her the pictures two friends had posted of their cats who had recently moved on. They were great final portraits.

20180302_085132Cats are funny things. Two weeks ago, on the last full moon, the witchy-poos I live with put all their crystals outside on a bed of salt in order to soak up the moon’s energy. Thomas spent the whole day sleeping below them on a hard wooden bench he had never favoured.

 

Over the week me and my sisters sat with our dying father, we repeatedly tried to get the facility’s so-called ‘Death Cat’ to come into the room to help Dad find peace. After five nights it finally did; to sit on my lap.

This morning, after my fiancé left for work, she sent a text saying Thomas had not come in for his breakfast. That is unusual. He is always at our bedroom door by 5am, demanding a fussing, or in the kitchen screaming at her feet for food.

It made me worried. He has never wandered. He only went missing when he got hit by a car, using up eight lives. His head was so misshapen he couldn’t eat for a long time, and we thought his handsome good looks were gone and he would never be right.

But Thomas is Thomas, a cat like no other. After escaping, and losing, three ‘cones of shame’ he was once more boss of the house, seeing off every other wandering cat in the neighbourhood so that he could stalk birds, mice, lizards and rats in peace.

As soon as the girls got up this morning I asked Alice, Thomas’s proud ‘wife’, to press the button to open the garage door below us, not saying why. I knew that if he had been trapped downstairs we all would have heard about it but, nevertheless, I still hoped to hear him barrel through the cat-flap straight after the button was pressed.

I said nothing about his absence as the three girls ate their porridge. But as Alice was washing her bowl she said, “There’s Thomas!”

I looked out the window and said, “Where?” masking the panic and relief in my voice. I couldn’t see him. “Where, Alice?”

“The birds. What are they?” She pointed at a sudden cloud of sparrows. I had shown her how the cleverer birds warn the flock of his lurking presence. Sparrows flap up and cheep. Starlings swoop and squawk. Seagulls fuss.

“They’re sparrows, Al. Did you see him, did you actually see Thomas?”

“No. But the birds mean he’s there. In the bushes.”

I turned away and began to dry the dishes.

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After the girls headed off to school, happily unaware, I began to feel superstitious. His obsession with the box was a foreshadowing. I had empowered it by sharing a photo of him and his box, accompanying it with too-cute words in his voice. And by showing my fiancé the two final portraits I had seen. Two.

All writers are superstitious. Even atheists. Especially spiritual atheists.

Like my favourite author, John Irving, I often put my greatest fears on the page in order to rob them of actualization. Saying things out loud can defuse the trapped, amplified rattle of the head.

Before I sat to write, I replied to my fiancé’s worried text with a cheery ‘Will do!’ (Smiley face). She called back straight away, asking if it was time to call the vets. “Why, what can they do?” I asked.

“In case any cats have been brought in. He wasn’t on the road as I left…” That had been my worry. That the girls would find him as they walked down the hill.

“He’s only been missing for a few hours. That’s not enough even for a human.” She laughed, reassured.

I started to write.

 

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To Think, to Speak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Random Norwegians

On Saturday night I found myself at a party talking to a woman from Norway. As we chatted I had to restrain myself from randomly asking her about every tiny thing I knew about Norway.

I don’t know a lot, but ever since I had a ‘thing’ with a woman who went there as an exchange student I have learned how to flirt in Norse (badly), and noticed all things Norge in the media.

The Daily Show knowingly used the Swedish Chef to illustrate a story about Norway (archly pointing out that it would annoy any Norwegians watching).

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Peggy Olsen in Mad Men told a prospective 1960’s New York flatmate that she was Norwegian, rather than Swedish (the startled young woman replied “Well… we won’t tell my mother.”) Love Peggy so much.

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The arch baddie in Hell on Wheels, known as The Swede, comically protests “but I am Norvegian!” Hate the Swede.

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Van Alden’s babysitter, Sigrid, in Boardwalk Empire showed shocking enterprise by becoming his wife. And a murderer. And a boot-legger, brewing her national drink, Aquavit, to sell to Norwegian immigrants. Really love Sigrid (even though the actress is Danish).

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I first became aware of the Sweden/Norway relationship/history/gag in the film Kitchen Stories from 2003. It illustrates the patronising relationship of Sweden towards Norway through a (real) 1950s study of the kitchen habits of single Norwegian men, where Swedish researchers would silently sit on a high chair in the corner of the room watching the Norwegian bachelor’s every move. It’s a very funny film.

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Growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, I was very aware of the role winning the race to the South Pole played in the burgeoning Norwegian national consciousness. Scott left on his ill-fated journey from Chch in 1912, 7 years after Norway broke away from Sweden. The statue Scott’s wife made of him sat by the Avon until the 2011 earthquake.

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But even though NZ was a British colony, and there are many artefacts from Scott’s attempt in Canterbury museum, the bust of Amundsen seems better loved (going by the way everyone touches his nose, polishing the proud bronze beak).

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I have written about how much I enjoy the TV show Vikings. How I regularly travel to NZ’s own ‘Viking’ settlements of Dannevirke and Norsewood (One day I shall take a hacksaw and free the giant Vikings that adorn Dannevirke from the anachronistic horns sprouting from their helmets).

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I also own a lovely old 2nd-hand book picked up on Waiheke Island 10 years ago. Published in 1949, West Ward Bound is a piece of pure Cold War propaganda that celebrates Norway joining the ‘ring of iron’ surrounding the Atlantic i.e. NATO. I didn’t buy it because of this aspect (ring of iron vs. iron curtain… hilarious!) I wanted the wonderful colour plates that illustrate the mythical/historic Viking past.

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Norway looks like Canterbury High Country

Amongst many cheesy 1950s/Medieval images is the taking of Paris in 885 AD by 700 long-ships (Vikings featured it at the climax of season 3, anticipating the settlement of Normandy by Norsemen).

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I have always wondered how these Vikings became the French Normans who conquered England in 1066, a few generations later. The History of the English Language podcast I listen to recently filled in a lot of the blanks for me. The Norsemen/Normans quickly switched to speaking French. But they also brought some Norman Norse into English. Creek for a small winding stream (crook and crooked have the same root). Wicket for a small gate (now used in cricket). And the name Gary.

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But I didn’t gush any of this  when speaking to the Norwegian woman on Saturday night. Instead, I told her that I was reading the Norwegian publishing sensation, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I am thoroughly enjoying his memoir of being a disaffected teenager in the ‘80s. Playing in shit bands. Pining after the music the English music press wrote about while surrounded by folk and metal. Fumbling encounters with girls. Trying to smuggle beer to a party. Becoming a parent at the same time you lose your own. Struggling to put your art ahead of being a parent/person in the world. His books shouldn’t work. It’s about nothing astounding. But it’s mesmerising. Astounding. Something he wrote while not writing a novel. He has provocatively titled the multi-volume series My Struggle (a knowing echo of Hitler’s Mein Kampf). It has sold so many copies 1 in 10 Norwegians owns it. I’m loving it. Memoir as art. Non-fiction as fiction. The old rules don’t exist. And the reading public approves.

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But the Norse woman had not heard of Knausgaard, that rock star of writing. Which disappointed me, slightly.

 

Nevermind. It was a wonderful evening. One conversation among many.

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It was a friend’s 40th, and as the sun went down we gathered around one of the gifts, a Viking log candle: a 6 foot log cut long-ways several times and rammed into the earth, allowing it to burn down from the top leaving large charcoal spikes pointing at the night while the fire consumed its heart.

 

 

 

By George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Paths, Unsilenced Streams

Every Friday, for the last few months, I have walked a path that hardly ever changed, joining the waves of black-clad commuters ejaculated from the railway station every morning into the narrow pathways of Wellington. It’s quite an experience. Especially as I usually commute to work amongst the impatient, and erratic, cars that bustle their way up the choked motorway of State Highway 1.

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I’ve enjoyed taking the train. It seems so relaxed compared to driving. I would take it to work, given a choice. I took the train on Friday’s because, as described in My Word, I have been attending a workshop in Creative Non-fiction at Victoria University. It has been quite a ride. I loved the readings; loved/struggled with the course (as seems my wont with academia and writing).

The bits I have no mixed feelings about are:

  1. My classmates. Who were of a higher standard than other writing courses I have done (all can write and have something to say.)
  2. The weekly walk up the hill to Vic.

The second of these points has contained a hidden gem for me. At the start of the year, full of nervousness (about the course and the process), I mapped-out logistics. What time to drop my daughter to care so I could catch the train to get the bus to get to Vic in time for class? What bus to catch three hours later to get to the train so I could get to my daughter in time for the end of school?

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But on that first day, with my backpack full of sandwiches, snacks, water, tablet, notebooks and jacket (it was summer back then… but with Wellington you learn to count on treachery) I arrived in town with enough time to check Google, noticing that it only takes 25 minutes to walk up to the campus above the city. Which is an indicator of how little I know Wellington, despite having lived here for nearly 8 years. I guess the old cliché of Welli not being a city so much as a collection of little villages has an air of truth. Of course, I can also give myself a pass as I have been raising a child 20 mins up the line during that time, and your horizons always shrink in that particular boat.

I was so early not only could I walk to Vic, but I could also have a coffee at my favourite café by the station where the friendly barista wears marvellous dresses and cowboy boots, and spreads a deck of cards on the counter so you can attempt to win a free coffee. Unfortunately, the café was gone. Replaced by development and/or reconstruction.

So I walked on, joining the next stream of hustling commuters, looking for a place to replace my favourite spot, rejecting any ‘chain-store’ franchises (why would you?) or ones which had too many people (popular, but the wait may be too long), or too few (a sign of something amiss).

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Cafe Breton

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A menu to devour

After several blocks Café Breton caught my eye. I looked in the window. Not, too busy, not too empty. Unique and authentic. The staff were so French they struggled to understand my attempts to order pain au chocolate in French. I took a seat in the corner, listening to the staff chat in a language I do not understand while I devoured le décor de Brittany (‘scuse my franglais). I have been fascinated with Brittany since I learned it was one of the five Celtic ‘homelands’, settled 1, 500 years ago by Britons fleeing the Anglo-Saxon invaders. And that their ancient native language is still suppressed by the French state.

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Mmm, croque-monsieur

Needless-to-say, I came back week after week, abandoning my attempts at French after hearing how authentico (so to speak) other locals could order en francais, instead heading to my corner to re-read my course readings while awaiting my macchiato, croque-monsieur, croissant or pain perdu.

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Under The Terrace

It is a habit that with the end of the course (and the handing in of my 7,000 word portfolio) has been hard to break. But breaking habits is good, so we are told. I learned that halfway through the trimester when, while following my usual path up the hill from Lambton Quay, I decided to take the non-descript pedestrian tunnel under The Terrace. While it made little difference to the time taken, it did put me on the right side of The Terrace for the climb up to Vic.

It wasn’t until my second time taking this now-favoured path/tunnel/route that I noticed the sound of water in the tunnel. At first, I thought it was an over-flowing pipe. But the next time I spotted something peculiar about the sound; there were birds. Birds of the bush which do not live underground.Kumutoto

It’s a beautiful Kedron Parker sound-scape played from speakers along the tunnel. Made prettier, and more poignant, by the lack of a bush-scape mural in the tunnel. The installation is a tribute to Kumutoto Stream which flows below the tunnel, under the city, and down to the harbour.

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The hidden river speaks

Today, I miss my walk up the hill. I miss the routine as I miss making new discoveries.

What to do? Well, I am writing a post on my much-neglected blog. I have also applied to do the companion paper in fiction which, if I pass the selection, will start in a couple of weeks.

I’m a bit nervous. I started blogging to find a pathway back to fiction, my neglected first love. But I have discovered that non-fiction and fiction are not separate streams, or even tributaries of the same river. They are a contiguous element, mingled like a river of fresh water in an ocean, or a sea-tide pushing far inland, each on the way to becoming the other.

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My Word

I recently started back at university for the first time in, er, 22 years (which means that some of my new classmates were not born when I last studied as a ‘mature student’ at Canterbury in 1993).

There’s a lot I could say about University, it’s a place I both love and hate. I love the seeking of knowledge and discovery, I hate(d) the teeth-grinding torture of being a young male around so many clever and fascinating woman.

MV5BMTMzMTczMzQ3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQ4MzcwMg@@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_Of course, now that I’m in my ‘wise old grey-beard’ years the latter offers little distraction, it’s all about the knowledge and I’m excited as a young buck.

I’m doing a workshop in creative non-fiction, something that has developed out of this blog, started as a pathway back to my first (and eternal) love, fiction. I applied for the course on a whim, needing to be amongst the fertile minds of other writers, seeking challenges and deadlines beyond the eternally flaky self-imposed ones writers give themselves.

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Real writers, writering in Iowa

I had little idea quite what creative non-fiction is/was… but hoped it was like what I have been writing here (memoir, opinion, essays etc) over the last 18 months.

I must have got it part-way right as I am now in the third week of a limited intake course at the IIML at Victoria University with 11 colleagues, inching our way through a field of writing described as ‘non-fiction which is not necessarily true but not consciously untrue’.

They’re a great bunch and like all writing courses I have ever attended, they tend to be older and overwhelmingly female. We sit in a circle in a room with a wonderfully distracting view of Wellington city and the harbour below. Trees surround us and tuis flit back and forth throwing shadows on blinds half-pulled to stop us roasting in the autumn sun.

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Not my class(mates) but the actual classroom (and view)

Given my age (and chequered run at University) I was pretty nervous the first couple of weeks. I sweated constantly and found my voice was too quiet and fractured whenever I forced myself to add comment to the discussion. Also, given the fact that I have deliberately avoided studying English since leaving school in the mid-‘80s I struggle to follow the terms being used in analysis. That said, I am no novice, having read and written forever.

Reading out my first two exercises was torture, I was so unsure I waited to the end getting more and more worked-up in anticipation, resolving to read earlier next time to get the bloody thing over with.

I needn’t have worried; my efforts have gone down well. The tutor and my colleagues laugh at the right bits and say nice things afterwards.

Of course, it is early days, we still have our folio pieces to present (up to 10, 000 words…eek!) Once we are comfortable with each other the workshop feedback may start to resemble the torturous mix of evisceration and defensiveness portrayed so well in Girls when Hannah went to the Iowa Fiction Workshop earlier this season.

HannahWhere this will lead, I am unsure.

I will continue to write non-fiction (I have a big family story to explore for my folio which is full of mystery, and I do not know if it will work). At the same time I am reading fiction with greater gusto (which contains the greater truth, fiction or non-fiction?? There lies an external and irresolvable discussion I am keen to explore).

What I do know is that three weeks into this course I am already a much better (and faster) writer than when I started.

At least, that’s what I think today.

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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)

To What End

Stupid Death, stupid Death,

Hope it doesn’t find you

I started blogging a year ago to clear my head of recurring themes in my life. I wanted to use it like a journal, making sketches of things that take my fancy, to salve recurring fears, to beat a pathway out of the clusterhump of grief that has surrounded my existence in the last few years and stroll back into the arms of fiction.

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I’m loathe to list it all that has happened, it’s all been referred to in various blogs over the year, and I have always intended to (and managed to) write about other things.

But it’s been a funny 10 days or so and some things can’t be avoided.

On Sunday morning, as I lay in the darkness, scrolling through news sites I saw an article about a woman I briefly met about 8 years ago. She’s a very distinctive ex-pat Brazilian model who has just attained a degree in psychology (something she was doing part-time when I met her at a party of Brazilian ex-pats in Auckland, all those years ago).

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Grace on the job

When I met her, I was working in television, doing a programme on Brazilian food. It’s was a great week and I ate many things I had never tried before. But that is not this story, and she wasn’t on Stuff because she had finished a degree. The point was she was familiar to people, and was dedicating her degree to her husband, who died 2 years ago.

Reading that, many parts of my life converged and I immediately wanted to leap out of bed and start writing it out of my head. I knew I would not be able to rest until I did it. But it was 6am on a cold winter morning and my 6 year-old would soon be clambering in to join me.

So I waited and she joined me within minutes, complaining of a nightmare where giants wanted to eat her. I cuddled, listened, diverted by saying it was just a bad dream and could she remember any good dreams? She smiled and said, yeah, she had one where her princess castle had turned into a rocket ship. With a TV! It was AWESOME!!!

But my self-congratulation at diversion was short-lived as she immediately changed back to her sad tone and said her snuggles had bad dreams, too. Gorilla Lilli had dreamed she/he was a baby and …and…a hyena was trying to eat him/her (Gorilla Lilli is a boy AND a girl). While Bucky (a giraffe/something hybrid) had dreamed of being chased by tigers. I kept quiet, a little shocked, letting the story continue, while she danced the two soft toys on the bed singing the song at the top of this blog.

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Bucky and Gorilla Lilli

Stunned, I said I had to get up to go to the toilet and wrote down the musical refrain.

The thing is, 10 days before that I had one of those dreams that affects your whole day. Someone I didn’t recognize had come to me, claiming to be someone I knew who had died in the Christchurch earthquake. She was so sincere, I didn’t want to contradict her. But, even in the dream, I was unsettled.

That day, I worked in a venue that was, likewise, unsettling. The weekend before an adventurous university student had stepped onto a skylight, falling through onto the hard floor 10m below. While he had not died immediately there was still a pall over the place from the stupid, accidental death. The skylight he went through had not yet been replaced, with only a bit of loose plastic keeping the rain and hail from our heads.

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The skylights

Throughout the day, workmates and members of the public quietly looked up to the flapping plastic and down to the floor at a gaffer tape X.

I so wanted to pull it off.

The next day I was working at a different venue, one where the roof, co-incidentally, had just been fixed to remedy persistent leaks. There is no other connection to the previous day. But something happened, linking the narrative in my head.

I had just put the needle in a donor’s arm and gone to the next donor (it was a busy day and we were short-staffed due to illness). When I turned to look at the donor I had just left I saw he had fainted, eyes rolled back, tongue pushed forward, looking like death. I called for help and as soon as I got to him he stared to fit, arms flapping; body flexing. I threw myself on his arm to prevent the needle from doing damage. As my colleagues put themselves on his other limbs I pulled out the needle, doing everything not to be stabbed (or stab him). He has big and there weren’t enough of us, so his arm became loose, spraying blood all around.

Of course, we exuded calm and control, not wanting to distress the other donors, and he soon came round with a smile. However, it was one of the worst faints I have seen in my 5 years as a phlebotomist, and I was wrecked for the rest of the shift.

The following day was a day off. And despite the continually foul stormy weather, I headed to the pool to aqua-jog away the stress. As I waited for the bus, a good friend called who needed to talk. She/he was distressed, facing an awfully mortal health scare, unable to talk to anyone else. I listened to their distress, knowing there was little I could say. Awaiting results from tests, I was sworn to secrecy.

The next day I crashed hard. Exhausted, tonsils swollen, black rings under my eyes, I was certain I was coming down with one of the myriad of ailments that has taken out all my colleagues over the previous month. But with rest, and the news that my friend’s results were clear (plus a bottle of beautifully medicinal cider each day of the weekend) my body rallied and I was not taken by any lurgy.

Nevertheless, on the Monday night after work I fell asleep as soon as my daughter was in bed, waking to the noise of a strange sit-com featuring Sarah Michelle Geller and Robin Williams. It was set in an ad agency and they were trying to re-brand Australia to some densely comic Australians. It was pretty funny. I hadn’t heard of the show and was surprised to see Robin Williams doing TV.

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The Crazy Ones

The next day, as I aqua-jogged in the pool, rehabbing the ankle and Achilles I had surgery on over summer I thought about the challenging 3 days of the previous week. How each illustrated how close we are to not being here. How my friend’s scare was by far the worst. How 2 years ago, as I watched my parents struggle for life (and the release of death) over a few short months, a mix of 6 old colleagues/friends/acquaintances from various past lives had all chosen suicide. How could such a cluster happen? And why…

Though they seemed randomly connected (all male, all around my age), I know that we are built to inject meaning into seemingly-related events.

The next-to-last was the closest, a former bandmate from my formative years. The day before his funeral a colleague had picked up a guitar pick from the floor of the hall where we were working, saying to me, ‘you’re a musician, you must have a use for this.’ I took it with me to Auckland, and when my (then) 4 year-old daughter insisted on viewing Stephen in his coffin, I gave her the guitar pick to place with him.

Later, at his wake, while my daughter played and ate food, I uncovered the final stanza of this inexplicable group. A friend’s partner had lost her fashion-shoot photographer to suicide in the months before. As he said his name I knew that I would know him. What I didn’t know was that Craig had married the Brazilian model I had met at that party in Auckland. Small world. Strange life.

When I got out of the pool last Tuesday after thinking about that strange year, I checked my phone, succumbing to dumb addiction. That’s when I saw that Robin Williams had died.

I felt sad, yet unsurprised. Not because of the co-incidences. More because I had been thinking of that year of loss of those I had known. How it sat in such a strange cluster. Which thankfully ended. Why? Why?!

When I came back to bed and my daughter on Sunday morning, I asked about the Stupid Death song… had she made it up? No, she said, it’s from Horrible Histories! I was so relieved.

Craig was a wild-card, a crack-up, full of life. Stephen was clever and caring; sharing so much beauty with the world.

There’s a Chinese saying I am fond of, ‘no co-incidence, no story’.

I don’t believe that gaffer tape X was marking where the student fell. It was for something else, surely.

People chose death for different reasons. Everyone who expressed pain and loss (or anger) when the beloved Mork left us looked to different, personal explanations.

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Rocket-ship Castle (TV not included)

When, later on Sunday, my daughter went to stay with her mother for the next 2 weeks, I knew what I had to write. As soon as she went I started bashing it out but it was too bleak, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to show this face to the world, it would serve no good. But why did I feel this need, to what end?

Instead I went to the couch and dozed to the bland noise of silence. I awoke feeling awful. The only thing I could do was write or exercise, and as I still could not face this topic, I marched off to the beach to stretch-out my slowly recovering Achilles.

At the top of the path down to the sand, full of anxiety and impotent distress, I found this new piece of graffito.

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At Bay

I think I laughed.

I had something difficult to write. It’s taken a bit. But some things can’t be avoided.

Technology Paralysis

I’ve been suffering from technology paralysis lately…a term I use for the inability to buy new technology as you’re not entirely sure what you want it for (and don’t want to buy something that rapidly becomes redundant).

The problem is that my laptop is now at least 5 years old and giving every sign of giving up the ghost… most worryingly the hard drive starts it do a repetitive clicking followed by a total freeze. Even my 6 year old has begun to recognise the strange blue screen of no-drive-found.

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But what to replace it with? Do people use laptops any more? Has it all gone to tablets? Or do I want to go grunty desktop with sexy large screen for my ever-deteriorating eyes?

My (rare) spare time has been (begrudgingly) wasted on wandering around retail stores looking at all the options. At one point I was convinced that desktop plus tablet would do and headed off to make the purchase only to spot a flaw in the plan and head home empty-handed.

It’s too cold in winter to be stuck at a desk in the office, much better to have something that can be positioned by the fire… my office doubles as a guest room and I would have no access to my computer in such a scenario… laptops are still pretty grunty and it could sit in my office while still being relatively transportable to avoid cold & guests…maybe I should lease rather than buy so I can write off the expense and not lose the capital in an asset that never retains value… etc etc

And while I’m a big fan of technology, I’m not a big fan of shopping… so much time spent doing nothing… unless you impulse spend and live with (possible) regret.

Anyways, after looking at every option I have finally made a tiny (piecemeal) step away from the paralysis and got me a tablet… it’s what I’m writing this on.

I had been going the iPad way (but dislike their many limitations), then Android Samsung tablet (way too many options), but have ended up with a sexy wee Surface 2…mainly as a friend has one, raves about it, and it ticks all my boxes (transportable, rugged, expandable memory, USB etc etc). But most of all, it’s the deliciously soft keyboard cover which means I don’t have to type on unresponsive glass. I have blogged on my iPhone (it was my most-viewed blog)… great for on-the-go but just way too tiny… and glass. This, I am hoping, will let me blog when out-and-about without getting ultra-RSI text thumbs/fingers.

I guess we shall see. Now, what to do about the dying laptop…

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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

 

 

A Bit of Pottyry

Is it really over two months since my last blog? Really? Truly? Has time devoured my mind and our southern winter huddled my thoughts?
That’s nuts.
Collected and squirreled, not to share.

I have been writing in that time, of a sort, but it’s been back with my first love, fiction. More precisely: speculative fiction*. One set in the distant past amongst pre-lingual humans, the other in the near future in a post-relationship society. My journal writing has been cracking along, too, at a rate not seen since the turn of the century (when I did my first proper writing course).

As it is with a lot of writing, I have little to show for it. Nothing put away to sustain me through the dark days, or to lure a lover to my hoard. What a frigid beast is the desire to scribble.

Last night I received another rejection, for a story of ‘science and the erotic’. Like all rejections, it hurts, but there’s nothing to be gained by not barring up and putting your nuts on the line once more.

I’m doing just that at the moment, taking an online poetry course through the University of Iowa. As you can see from the purple prose and tortured imagery above, I’m no great shakes as a poet, but as a lover of knowledge, and a constant writer of prose, I’m keen to engage in the unknown and learn, fail, learn.

There’s over 7,000 poets around the world doing this free course, so while I feel rather naked posting my exercises/poems online for others to sniff, prod and nibble, I’m able not to attract too many eyes.

That said there’s nothing worse than getting up on stage to dance around and show off your goods to the sound of a deafening silence.

Which is the bind of plucking up the courage to reveal yourself. It hurts when you attempt allure and grace, and fall flat on your face.

It stings just as bad when the tip tucked into your g-string is unearned, unthinking sympathy.

I’ve always written verse. For better or worse (stop it!) Throughout childhood and my teen years, when I played in bands, never has it ceased. It slowed for a time, when I abandoned rhyme (oi! what did I say?)

Ah. Ok, now I’m extracting the Michael (as the saying goes). Time to stop. View the next lecture. Nut out some words (grrr…)

* I have two first loves, but they never meet, so they cannot get jealous of one other. The other love is literary fiction, but please don’t tell, you’ll ruin everything.