Reading Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Being a Pain

People love pain. They seek it as entertainment, strive to share their hurt with the world while simultaneously blocking out the agony of those they do not care for. I’m not referring to the action movies and S&M ‘romances’ that dominate the entertainment industry, I’m thinking about the emotional turmoil that fills every story clamouring to hold an audience. Betrayals, failures, conflict and loss all plod along this troubled path to redemption.

Writers are told there is no drama without conflict, even in a humorous romantic comedy.

Beyond the entertainment industry heartfelt blogs create windows into personal pain, grief, the search for love, oncoming death, physical and mental struggle. Everywhere you look people share their pain or the pain of others. Otherwise caring people seem to have no qualms about calling down retribution on those they believe deserve it, clamouring to cast the first stone, share the petition, add volume to the tweet.

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I recently read an article about a prize for thrillers free of the torment of women. It seems a great idea. The Staunch Prize will be awarded to any thriller where no woman is beaten, stalked, raped or murdered.

I generally steer clear of thrillers. As a reader, I have always been repulsed by the infliction of violence. Yes, the device makes the tormentor more evil, ripe for retribution, but I also find the baddie getting their just desserts just as sickening. To me, there is an equivalence that cannot be ignored, and the need for it as entertainment is just as repulsive.

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Many people believe that the depiction of violence towards women in movies and books, games and TV, are the first step towards actual abuse. Study after study has found some linkage, but not for the over-whelming majority. However, for me, it doesn’t matter if little correlation is found between the consumption of violent entertainment and acting it out, the telling point is the deep-seated human need to ‘enjoy’ the fantasy of pain.

One of the quirks of this conundrum is that the victims of violence are the greatest consumers of violent fiction. Women read far more books than men, thrillers included. One explanation is that women like this fiction because it rehearses the real threat they face in society. By reading such thrillers their fear is rehearsed, guarded against, assuaged. That may be true. Maybe there is an untapped market for thrillers where no one is tormented. Or just children, animals and men. Or the environment.

But when you ally emotional pain with physical pain, it is hard not to see the need deeply embedded in all our desires for communication and entertainment.

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Gossip, tweets and status updates. The names of dead loved-ones tattooed on arms and backs, written on cars. Loss is not just consigned to a tombstone or the Day of the Dead, but must be displayed to the world at every moment, anniversary or birthday.

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If you feel pain at the actions or words of others, does sharing that pain increase, or decrease it? It depends.

Catharsis and revenge provide equal amounts of relief and turmoil.

Is watching a movie where a stranger struggles with an emotionally difficult choice any different from watching one where a woman is pursued? Are we any different from those gathering to witness a criminal or heathen torn apart in the Colosseum, or on YouTube?

Yes. And no.

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Thinking Inside the Box

I’m a little bit psychic. At least, that’s what I tell the girls when I see things before they’re revealed. And even though my daughters believe in magic 2-1, they don’t believe me. They understand the nature of the claim.

Lately, I’ve been showing visitors who stay overnight coloured boxes. Coloured boxes that portent the end of times. Green, blue, yellow, pink, orange and red; each opaque, with a dauntingly amorphous shadow. They stand in a crescent, filled with naked men and women hopeful of being chosen for a date.

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Actually, it was my partner who first showed them to her friend. Her guest was horrified, and intrigued. She had never seen so many penises at once. All lined up, eager to find favour; none the same as their neighbour. My mate, last Monday, was just as gob-smacked. He’d seen it all, but he had never seen that. Do guys all shave their pubes these days, he asked? Going by the other dating shows we’ve watched, appearance is much more important in England than in our rough-and-ready colonies.

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Naked Attraction turns dating on its head, getting contestants to choose a date based on physical appearance, bottom to top. The face and voice, those heavy carriers of personality, are the last things revealed. It is counter-intuitive; a counter-narrative that fascinates. It challenges assumptions we hear, repeat, and struggle to accept. Looks matter. And don’t. But do. Be-do.

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Male and female contestants have all rejected a person they clearly find physically attractive on hearing an unappealing accent. I mocked the Home Counties woman who didn’t want to date the naked Adonis she fancied on realising he was from the North. But I have done the same, losing all my desire for a woman I once lusted after on finally hearing how she spoke. Thankfully, you’re only young and dumb once.

Is it the answer to dating? No. Is it the end of civilisation? Many people clearly foresee that future.

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On the morning after we watched Naked Attraction with my friend a story appeared in the media detailing the record number of complaints about the show. Over 500+ people had taken the trouble to express their outrage to the authorities. The Family First Foundation had counted exactly 282 penises and 96 vulvas in one episode alone. They were so outraged at those numbers that they targeted advertising giants like Fonterra and Lotto, causing the gambling behemoth and industrial farming collective to pull their advertising from the show. According to Bob McCoskrie, the ‘state broadcaster’ was showing ‘animalistic’ porn.

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But it is not porn. There is no sex, only mildly titillating nudity. And TVNZ stopped being the state broadcaster many decades ago. I guess the complainers have been too busy counting genitalia to notice.

There is no shame in the human body. It is as beautiful, and awesome, as any other creature in the animal kingdom. Separating us from animals is unscientific, lacking in reason; a clear misreading of what we see before, and around, us. This wilful blindness is at the root of all kinds of abuse.

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I’ve only been to see a psychic once, after my parents died. She read me very well. At one point she opened her eyes, looked directly at me and said, you could do this, couldn’t you? I didn’t know how to respond. She repeated her statement, annoyed at my evasion, then she closed her eyes and continued.

We all see the unseen. Or think we can. Potential lovers, enemies, the future, the past. It sits before us, waiting to be seen, hidden in plain sight.

 

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Yuke-Yuke

I’ve always loved musical jokes.

Q. How do you know if a drummer’s knocking your door.

A. The knocking keeps speeding up and slowing down.

Q. What do you call someone who hangs out with a group of musicians?

A. A drummer.

They never get old. And like most things musical, there’s always a fair bit of snobbery involved. Music is tribal, it affirms identity. “I like this.” “But not if those dicks do.”

This was underlined when I was tracked down by a Canadian gent who is writing a history of one corner of NZ music. It wasn’t an interview, he was just buying me coffee and a muffin while I showed him photos of the mid-‘80s alt. music scene in Christchurch. We bonded over our love of history and DIY culture. But when he asked me what defined ‘real’ Flying Nun music my answer made him whip out his phone and start recording.

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I said music is like religion. It fires up firm beliefs and conflicting passions. Arguments are inevitable and unending, vicious and unbending. Like religion, bands were sneered at for not being ‘real’ Flying Nun while others were allowed into the canon.

In the same way, drummers are the whipping boys (and girls) of rock ‘n’ roll; they will always take a beating. Actually, no one makes jokes about female drummers. They are too cool for words, sexy beyond comprehension. Even the thought has me diverted.

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I first became aware of the ukulele renaissance when I worked on stories about the Play It Strange initiative founded by Mike Chunn in the early 2000s. I did lots of interviews with him as he went into schools helping kids engage with music by replacing the recorder with the ukulele. He was a nice guy, a bass player; the cleverest and sexiest type of musician, according to the ladies (and some gents). He wanted to show kids that writing songs was easy, and fun. The recorder was not easy, or fun. It was painful to play (and listen to), and it killed the love of music in generations of school children.

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The uke is a great starting point; a way into joining a band and developing the craft of composition and performance.

But some people never went beyond it. Soon, hobby groups appeared everywhere, murdering wonderful songs with ham-fisted irony. You and your unmusical mates could have a few drinks and be just like the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Except not as good. Or funny.

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And while I generally love music of all kinds, the ukulele renaissance died for me on the night I saw the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra ‘warming up’ the crowd at a rugby test in Wellington. It was raining, bitterly cold, and while the crowd scoffed chips and drank flat beer, the ‘band’ tried to warm them up by droning their way through Talking Head’s ‘Road To Nowhere’. It was just awful. The sound, the performance, the choice of song: all were poor. It was like bad sex, but worse. Much, much worse.

The ukulele had officially become the 21st century recorder.

But here’s the thing. The other day I picked up a ukulele. Tuned it up and twisted my fingers into the unfamiliar chords. A good song-book had appeared in the house and the selection was appealing. I started on Hunters & Collector’s ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ and couldn’t stop. The beautiful, deep, simplicity of that classic tempered my resolute snobbery. I was soon banging my through AC/DC, Paul Kelly and Nancy Sinatra, switching to guitar when they chords were easier for my big, fat fingers.

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Three days later I’m happy to say I love it.

But don’t tell my muso friends.

Q. What’s the difference between a ukulele and an onion?

A. No one cries if you cut a ukulele in half.

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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First of All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brick by Brick

I guess it’s a question for the AFOL community. How long are you happy to be separated from your bricks?

The question seemed a good one. It came during the first of several presentations at a Well-LUG meeting of AFOLs. My 9 year-old’s membership is controversial. Not all LUGs welcome non-adults. AFOLs are adult fans of Lego but the Wellington LUG (unlike other Lego User Groups) let her join.

How do I get more Lego into my life?

The presenter proposed the LUG made models of civic redevelopments bringing computer visualisations to life (via Lego). Each member would contribute a section to a larger model to be displayed to the public.

 

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Is it going to be insured? You know, after what happened in that mall in Queensland?…. (General muttering). Ah yes, the helicopter thing. (Shaking of heads). Look, worst case scenario it gets tipped over and all the bricks get mixed up.

It was a freezing Saturday in the Hutt. Canterbury and Otago had declared States of Emergency but thirty adults, four teens and three kids were at the meeting to consider Lego. In an adult way.

How do you best photograph your models? SLR or smartphone? Lightbox or in the field?

What is GBC? (The Great Ball Contraption. Engineered models that deliver balls to other contraptions in inventive ways).

 

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LDD vs Stud.io (virtual Lego building programs).

Who still uses LDD?

A show of hands indicated most still used the former.

(Sharp intake of breath).

It won’t be long lads, it won’t be long…

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How do you get the most out of brinklink? (The online trading community akin to eBay or TradeMe). Apparently, the hardest part is describing the brick you want.

Keep it simple. Think like a store man…  Describe it backwards. And don’t order over a glass of wine. Unless cost isn’t an issue.

 

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But it wasn’t all talk. New members introduced themselves, and their passions.

Russell, my 2nd time. I do vehicles. Mustangs, Chevys. But like kids’ cartoons, with over-sized engines.

 A woman speaks for a retired couple with ‘sudden time’ on their hands.

Terry does The Excavator… with added motors (impressed murmur). I do Dr. Who.

 My name’s Brian. I am obsessed with building spaceships.

 Solenne. I think building furniture is what I’m good at.

 Yeah, I do vintage space-ships. 1978-1990.

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It felt like an AA meeting, but with fizzy drink. Lots of fizzy drink. I awkwardly talked to the fans (who were almost as socially awkward as me) while my girl necked a Fanta and admired the models, especially the baby figure. (Very rare, according to those around me).

Look at this figure, Dad. What’s she holding? …Gosh, it’s a bit Baywatch… Yes, (says the proud man) it’s Pamela Anderson. I got her second-hand. (He lets me hold tiny Pam).

 

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And then it was on to the bit that my daughter came for. The competitive group build. Teams of four were given a huge box of blue and green eight-stud blocks and allowed thirty minutes to build four animals (turtle, goat, elephant and duck). Everyone lay on the floor, chatting and building. It looked fun. The models were amazing and varied. When the five minute call came my daughter burst into tears. The pressure, the fizz, the realization that her elephant didn’t have tusks? Maybe that’s why kids aren’t encouraged to join.

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So, the question remains. Am I an AFOL? I’m certainly a fan of Well-LUG. If I had a passion, it would be building overlooked historical events. Like when the Amazon Queen Thalestris turned up to have Alexander the Great’s baby. Or when senior government ministers let down Piggy Muldoon’s tyres so he couldn’t drive drunk. Or when Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe took Laurence Olivier to see Look Back in Anger and he decided he liked the play after all.

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For me, the best fun was watching the AFOLs. Noticing that their passion was for building models as opposed to the imaginative play (with silly voices) my daughter uses when she ‘plays Lego’ with her sisters.

But most of all I loved, loved, loved the bit the AFOLs openly dislike. When, at the end of the meeting, we pulled all the bricks (and models) apart.

 

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Five Lions (and an almost King)

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

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

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

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1983

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

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

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1993

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

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2005

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

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

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

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2017

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

 

 

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

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

 

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At Sea

It’s a strange feeling pretending that you are invisible in the middle of a celebration, silently observing, placidly staring in the opposite direction.

My work life has been peppered with such moments. Some came back to me as I watched Team New Zealand win the America’s Cup on the telly this morning. The moments are fresh, but a lifetime ago.

Like a lot of my scruffy South Island peers I grew up writing off the America’s Cup as an elitist rich man’s game. It’s how I felt when Team NZ won the cup in San Diego in 1995 in my first months of working in TV up in Auckland. There was champagne to celebrate at the rugby game I was covering at Eden Park but I didn’t partake.

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Victory Parade 1995

 

The following week I worked on the parade down Queen St to welcome home the team and the cup. It all seemed a bit rah-rah to me. Not rock ‘n roll. Sharing a success you yourself hadn’t earned. But that’s sport.

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Mayor, PM and Peter Blake, Victory Parade 2000

 

When the defence took place in Auckland in 1999 I got a lot closer, spending every race day on the water chasing the yachts on a camera boat. There were many rough, lumpy days. A lot of hot, becalmed weeks. I read dozens of books and watched people amuse themselves with surfing dogs, dolphins and women in bikinis clambering aboard to say hello to the sailors.

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There were parties. Lots of parties. Prada. Team NZ. Louis Vuitton. Free Moet by the bucket.

Team NZ Victory Party 2000

 

On lay days from racing I did field sound for the billionaire, Bill Koch (youngest of the infamous Koch brothers, shapers of American politics with deep, shady pockets). Bill was great. A big kid. He had won the America’s Cup with America3 and just wanted to interview all his friends for fun. He put on a bbq to thank everyone at the end of the event. It was a little bit Great Gatsby. White linen tables in front of a cliff-top mansion over-looking Rangitoto and the Hauraki Gulf. Silver service and a famous band playing on the rolling lawn. He sat with me to eat his dinner; a nice touch when so many rich and important people in need of schmoozing.

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I wish I had pictures of that night, but all the spectacle became so normal and every day, and, unlike now, everything didn’t need a digital record to exist.

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Victory Parade 2000

 

 

On the day Team NZ successfully defended the cup I was deployed on land, so to speak, bobbing about in the centre of the Viaduct on a pontoon awaiting the arrival of the winners and the presentation of the world’s oldest sporting trophy. I had rigged a radio mic on the podium earlier in the day and had a wired backup concealed within reach.

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As Russell Coutts lifted the Auld Mug with his young apprentice Dean Barker the confetti bombs exploded and thousands cheered. It was deafening. I looked behind me to the camera people held back by security, took a photo of the drunk and excited crowd, and wondered how invisible I could be.

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In shorts, bottom right, taking first photo in this post

 

 

3 Days in Samoa (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3 Days in Samoa (part 1)

I’m flying to Samoa. The last time I went there it was last century, the end of the millennium. To a thirty-something New Zealander Samoa was the island of the day before. Since then the world has changed. More than once. It was 1999. We partied like it was and tried not to fret about Y2K and planes falling from the sky. Now I am 50 and Samoa has jumped the international dateline from yesterday to today. The past is here.

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I’m off for work rather than pleasure. Like the winter of 1999, it’s rugby. There are worse ways to earn a buck.

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Back then I was with a TV crew doing the first live broadcast of a big event from the islands. There was bit of pressure. We came over on the Saturday, did the game between Manu Samoa and USA on the Sunday, and then flew back to Auckland on the Monday. We stayed at Aggie Grey’s in Apia and drank cocktails in the pool. I got the Marlon Brando fale. As a one-time actor I imagined he had once been in the same room and busted out a Stanley Kowalski ‘Stella!” in tribute.

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18 years ago the plane was small. I watched ‘Shakespeare In Love’ and ‘My Favourite Martian”; the best of the few films on offer. This time the entertainment selection is huge, but not enough to drag me off my own devices… tablet, phone, journal.

Last time I took about 6 photos on the whole trip. This time I’d taken twice that before we left the runway.

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To be fair, in 1999 I also shot a 3 minute reel on my vintage 1970s Super 8mm camera. The travelogue was wholly edited in-camera, with titles and funny gags. I dug it out and watched it yesterday. The USA was led out by a man in combat gear jumping up and down, waving the stars and stripes. At the time I couldn’t work out if it was naïve or on point, and wondered what the Americans thought about being represented by this. Were they proud or dismayed? Or just indifferent? Manu Samoa had an oiled-up man carrying two flaming torches. It looked great in the tropical sun.

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That night, after a reception at the embassy, I had a beer on the town with some of the American players. They were just happy to be there; proud of their amateur status against a team full of professionals. ‘We’re builders, and teachers, that’s amazing, ain’t it?’

It is less than an hour until we land. Outside it is dark. No longer the island of the day before, Samoa is now an hour ahead of New Zealand. A balmy 28 degree evening awaits our arrival. It was 12 degrees when I left Wellington this morning. Cold. Windy. Autumn. It’s going to be an interesting few days.

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Into the Night

Last night I went to a pub to see a band. It’s something I haven’t done in a long time. I used to be a regular in my teens and twenties in Christchurch. Thursday, Friday or Saturday. There was always something to see. Local or out of town.

Last night in Wellington was like a Christchurch gig of old. A dancefloor packed with people standing, staring at music, shuffling their feet on the sticky floor. But with no cigarette smoke in the air and a crowd like me; grey, middle-aged. Relaxed. Drinking craft beer. No aggro or thought of conquest.

It was my first time at Meow. It’s a nice venue. Quirky.

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As I walked in John, the old friend I had come to see, shook my hand and apologised as he had to ready his cello to guest with The Bats. I had forgotten the nervousness of pre-gig organising. When I played music I used to leave the venue and march the streets until the last moment. Or share a spliff.

I went to the gig with my old school friend, Damian. We played in a noisy band called Swim Everything in the ‘90s. It was good to catch up. Talk about kids and getting old. His knees recently stopped working after a ski trip with his daughter. He reckons the change in the body from 50 to 60 is the same as from 10 to 20, but in reverse.

The Bats were the same as ever. But older. They’re the nicest people and were very supportive of my first school band, All Fall Down. Flying Nun folk are generally pretty amiable. It’s nearly 30 years since I saw them live (except on the telly at that gig after the first Earthquake).

It wasn’t too loud, either, but I still stuffed in ear plugs half way through the first song. I have such bad tinnitus that I constantly feel like the side of my head has just received an unexpected whack. Rock n roll.

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It finished dead on 11pm (no sirens or flashing lights to shoo us out like the old days) and I caught up with Ruth who managed the student radio station I DJ-ed at in the ‘80s. She was featured in an exhibition at Canterbury Museum last year celebrating 40 years of RDU. Literally a museum piece (I didn’t point that out). I asked Hayden, a muso acquaintance, if he still played music. He laughed and said he just watches TV. I also said gidday to another old muso (name withheld) who runs New Zealand’s spy agency. Funny the connections that weave through a life. Five Eyes everywhere. Watching, accumulating. Leaking. I resisted giving a secret handshake.

As I dropped Damian home he said he’d send me a link to the loops he’s put up on Soundcloud. He is very pleased with them. I said sure, and awkwardly mentioned that his mother had a good raunchy poem in a collection of erotic writing I had failed to get a piece into. He laughed and said she had a play produced last week. She was stunned by the effort, tears and despair required. Surprised how it nevertheless came together on the night. I said there’s nothing harder, and more intimidating, than putting on a play. That a script isn’t like a song or a recipe. The same script never bakes the same cake.

By Night

 

As I write this a script has turned up for a play I’m going to audition for. The thought fills me with excitement. And dread.

“The night is dark and full of terrors, old man, but the fire burns them away.”

A polar front, full of snow, is approaching New Zealand from the Antarctic. I need to get in the ceiling and sort out the insulation I shifted to fix a leak last spring.

Writing, music, theatre. I do not know what draws me to them, when a fire offers such comfort. Too old to be young and stupid I stumble onwards into the night.

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A Number of Things

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Carnival Is

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For the last week I’ve had a very persistent earworm; The Carnival Is Over by The Seekers. It’s because I’m working on the Wellington Sevens and the only story/topic of conversation is who killed the event and how dead is it? I’ve asked strangers, colleagues and rugby enthusiasts all week if they’re going and they either laugh or scornfully say no!

The party is over and no one’s keen to go to something so uncool.

Who killed it? An editorial in the DomPost said ‘don’t blame the fun police’. (I like the idea of fun police… better than un-fun police).


I could give a well-reasoned answer to what’s behind the demise, but as I work on the event my lips are contractually sealed (across all media). But I’m a writer so I must find wiggle room to engage.

This is my 10th event. That’s a lot of being at the centre of 30,000 people in full carnival mode. Dressing up, undressing, cross-dressing (but only males), full mask, partial mask, getting hammered/tweaked, singing, dancing (only females) with work colleagues, friends, family and strangers. I’ve seen it’s at its peak. It was wonderful, and awful.

February 2008 (my first Sevens) was a different world. I was in an empty house in a new city with a pregnant partner I had known for less than a year and the Global Financial Crisis was about to smash into us.


Whatever happens this weekend, as an on-field comms tech I shall continue to get paid to turn off very fit, hot sweaty men (and the occasional woman). I’m an okay de-fluffer. It’s better than having to turn them on, I suppose, but isn’t that the point of Carnival?

The train is passing the stadium. The conductor has just said ‘bing-bong bing-bong!’ on the intercom and welcomed us into Wellington. Everyone is in good humour. Game day is on.

 

Confessions of a De-Fluffer       Ghosts of Sevens Past

Fire!

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Unmovie

Thanks to a sudden operation on my knee I’ve been laid up for the last week, seeking distraction. I’ve needed an arthroscopy on my right knee for most of the year but the hoops I’ve had to jump through (assessment, diagnosis, then rejection by ACC, blood tests to discount arthritis and gout, my first ever MRI and ECG) all showed I had great health, for my age, and a perfect knee. Except for a ‘complex’ tear in my meniscus.

This time last Sunday I was waiting for a letter to either 1. Offer me an operation date sometime next year, or 2. Inform me I could not go on the waiting list as others had a greater need than me. I experienced the latter when I needed a bigger operation three years ago to correct Haglund’s deformity (heel spurs… the chronic condition that deferred Trump from defending democracy in Vietnam). See Post-Op Blog Couched In Cast Away etc

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So it was a total shock to get a call at work last Monday offering me surgery the following day. Somehow I manged to clear the decks and make it happen. Early the next morning I was climbing onto the operating table in a backless gown, talking to the local surgery team about how house prices in Titahi Bay had gone nuts, awaiting my third general anaesthetic. I distinctly remember the process. When I was six I woke in the night to wander the dark wards looking for my mother. Last time I woke to the rhythmic squeeze and hiss of a cuff on my leg guarding against blood clots. This time I took a groggy selfie to post on Facebook while Harry Nilsson’s ‘Spaceman’ ran through my head.

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It was only a 15 minute key-hole procedure and I was out for about an hour. Much quicker than the other times when I had to stay overnight. The lemonade ice-block to sooth my raw throat (breathing tubes) was delicious… I hadn’t eaten since the night before. Then it was on to crutches (easier with a bandage than with a cast) and I was free to go. Just before I left the friendly nurse asked if I wanted something ‘for the road’. I said yes. She smiled, poked her tongue out the side of her mouth, and returned with a little blue pill that, according to my partner, made me a lot of fun for the rest of the day.

Since then it’s been a lot of sitting with my leg up, trying to do nothing. I’m not very good at it. Especially as I’m surrounded by three small children and have no Christmas shopping done.

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Between reading and writing I’ve attempted to make the time between meds and leg exercises disappear by watching movies. It’s something I haven’t done in years. Not since I fell for the general trend towards the elongated 10 hour tales of ‘golden age’ television where, like a novel, you can get to love characters and spend time with them night after night.

Until this week the only movie I’ve watched this year (apart from kids’ movies) was ‘Swiss Army Man’ where Daniel Radcliffe played a dead body washed up on a desert island. What’s not to like? It was a lot of fun. Less one-dimensional than you would imagine.

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On Thursday I watched ‘Hell or High Water’. It’s as good as the reviews say. A pretty-as contemporary bank-robber/western. Languid and laugh-out-loud with wry comments on the post-GFC/Iraq War world. Jeff Bridges is a treat.

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On Friday I watched ‘Green Room’. The most suspenseful thriller I can imagine. A crap punk band gets trapped in a room after playing a dodgy White Power gig. There is violence, but it is sudden and real. A very compelling, fresh blast of the thriller genre. It also has the added fun of watching Capt. Picard and Mr. Chekov trying to outsmart each other (along with John Shelby, from ‘Peaky Blinders’, one of my fav binge-worthy TV shows). That Capt. Kirk is also in ‘Hell or High Water’ suggests a possible theme to my movie choices, but I am resistant to ‘re-boots’ and ‘franchises’, no matter how good they are meant to be. I love movies too much to be tempted by the lurch towards Tim Tam flavoured Capt. Disney-fried Star Wars sausage candy that has attempted to kill-off the strong, original story-telling movies used to glory in.

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Last night I watched the most original of the three films I chose from a list of the best of 2016. ‘The Lobster’ has Colin Farrrell as a bland pudgy single man who must find a partner within 45 days or be turned into a lobster. It feels like early 70s European sci-fi dystopia but is a lot funnier. The cast is great and the humour comes from the mundane way the situation is treated. It makes you laugh and think about the endless pressure to change or justify your ‘status.’

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So, what to watch tonight? I could finish off ‘Westworld’ or continue through ‘The Crown’ or ‘Vikings’ (loving these TV shows) but I’m going to keep with the movie kick. ‘The Invitation’ looks good. A man goes to a dinner party at his ex-wife’s and begins to believe something sinister is planned.

Seems like a good distraction from the endless cycle of ibuprofen, paracetamol, aspirin and leg raises while waiting to be able to move again.

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 4)

2 Men in a Shed

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a target to aim at.

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Blair’s album ‘Cardigan Bay’

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 3)

No Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 2)

Hanging in the Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last night I got to do it once again.

 

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 1)

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

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

Why am I here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the easy part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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