Game Day

 

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Today is grey and cold.

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Tonight the All Blacks are playing the Wallabies in Wellington.

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I’ve never bought a rugby shirt.

Or a rugby ticket.

 

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Or had a beer at the game.

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

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Either working for television.

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Or for the match officials.

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I may have eaten a pie.

Or two.

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Spent time relaxing backstage.

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But tonight I wish I was in the crowd.

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

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

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

The Springboks at Lancaster Park.

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

People screaming for blood.

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I’m glad I got to see it.

And my daughter never did.

Love Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finally I can recognise, and find, true love.

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So, what is love?

It is for you to decide.

Enamorados

 

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3 Days in Auckland (part 4)

5 Hours in Paradise

When I booked my weekend in Auckland, I wasn’t entirely sure if I would make the trip. It was all a bit of a whim, anchored around a 50th. And since I was using Airpoints there was nothing to lose.

But once I got here on Friday, I was in love with my one-time home. It was as comfortable and stimulating as an old lover. The familiar was exciting, the changes intriguing. I didn’t quite know what would happen, and I loved it.

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I woke at 7:30 am on Saturday, a sleep-in for me. Before I pulled out the ear-plugs needed to dull the noise of the city and lodge I rushed to open the blinds. The Sky Tower stood amongst cloudless blue.

 

Okay. Okay. That was a surprise. Grey clouds had been forecast. A cool Easterly. That, plus reports of an awful outbreak of sea lice on the beaches of Waiheke, had made me think twice about zipping across the Gulf to my former island home. But clear skies were enough for me.

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The CBD was Saturday morning-quiet as I headed down the hill, making the trek I had done countless times after spending the night in a cheap hotel after a late finish at work (or a night in town).

Showered and packed for the day-trip (water, journal, camera, towel, tablet, portable power supplies) I found myself rushing, anticipating the phases of the lights, knowing which crossing I had to make to avoid being trapped at an intersection for several precious minutes. Although I was in no real rush (the ferries go every half hour in the weekend), the need to make a 12 minute walk in 8 minutes flat (to avoid being stranded) remained. The phases of the lights, and my memories of them, had not changed.

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The queue for the 9am ferry was Saturday-large. Day-trippers and wedding parties. I got my $36 ticket (not a bad price to visit paradise), and was on board with 10 mins to spare.

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While the day-trippers crowded the open upper deck I headed inside to grab a table out of the sun (and wind to come). With a coffee and a Gulf News (yay, the good old ‘70s-feel local rag is still going!), I pulled out the tablet and started tapping out my post about Friday night.

Maybe I should have been gazing out at the Hauraki Gulf and the islands whizzing past. Rangitoto, Motutapu, Motuihe, Rakino, Bean Rock. The line of terns diving at bait balls of fish. The pods of dolphins or orcas that sometimes slow the commute. But I was back in the forever of the past, where the journey was precious time to read or write, have a beer with friends as the city disappears on the ride home.

I got on the Onetangi bus. I could have gone straight to Palm Beach on the Rocky Bay bus, but I fancied breakfast at the Ostend Market, a regular Saturday ritual when I lived on the Rock.

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The bus was packed. Locals and first-timers. I grinned like a loon as we wobbled and wound our way up the lumpy, bumpy road from Matiatia to Oneroa, ecstatic for no good reason. Behind me an elderly couple narrated every thought and sight. That’s a nice village. Lovely. Oh. A market. Look, a 4 Square. This is a lovely drive through the bush. Very nice. It’s a real holiday place, this. A real holiday place. Yes, I agree, they must have a hospital here. They must.

At first I took them for a rural couple up from the South Island. But when the woman stopped filling in her husband’s words I pegged the slow, slow, drawl of an Aussie bloke. I resisted the urge to turn and correct their assumptions. There is no hospital. You are either ferried or choppered off, depending on urgency.

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I wanted to take in the experience, not play tour guide. But I enjoyed their commentary. Noted it down in my journal. As we approached Ostend they wondered about the vineyards on the slopes of Te Whau. I turned. They’re grapes. It’s a vineyard. Waiheke is world-famous for wine. You should try some.

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The market was wonderful. Full of the familiar. Touches of the new. It was 10am. The sun was hot. I realised I didn’t have a hat.

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It’s very much a local market. Unlike others (in Auckland or Wellington), it’s uneconomic for outsiders to ferry over and set up. Which means you get old 2nd-hand books, bits and pieces, local produce and crafts. Kids sitting on blankets selling off old toys. I wandered it all before deciding what to eat. First up, pizza man. Still here after I first scoffed his crisp, thin bases 10 years ago.

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Then a new one. North African rolls and empanadas (apparently). I had lamb with the works. Wow.

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2nd-hand books were set up in banana boxes. I don’t need any more books. But always explore. I found a Horrible Histories Annual for $5. My daughter will love it. The man asked if it was for me. Called me a good dad.

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After buying a very large jar of Jenny’s Kitchen Tamarind Chutney (best in the world, a constant gift I always passed on to those who didn’t live on the Rock) I decided to look for a hat. The market hats were either too small, or too hippy/old man for me. I wandered along to the Surf shop and found a cap with a large brim. Very street.IMG_0582

After necking a macchiato from a funky van (skulls and antlers, worn out poster decoupage) I decided to head off to Palm Beach. It wasn’t a big walk. 25 minutes of up and down across the back of the island (that maybe looks like a long, thin dog lying west to east). But my bag was now heavy. Loaded with too much chutney, the book, sun screen, market snacks, Waihekean t-shirt bought with the cap. All the rest.

I needed to load up on fluids. Chose a smoothie from Revolution Juices by the war memorial.

 

You must be a visitor with that big bag, the woman making my ‘Pink Love’ berry smoothie said. Yip, just over for the afternoon. You should stay the night. There’s a great band playing. Radio Rebelde. Kind of Latin, ska. My friend is the DJ. She’s good.

I smiled. Wished I was staying.

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3 Days in Auckland (part 3)

Into the Night

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I’ve always felt comfortable in Auckland at night. I’m not sure why. Christchurch always seemed to have an ugly underbelly waiting to slip a knife. Wellington conceals a solid seam of nasty, ready to swing a punch from behind.

Such impressions, valid or not, are hard to shake.

I headed out at 9:30pm having spent more time than I had intended bashing out the last post. Uploading the photos was the worst bit as the Wi-Fi went to shit as the travellers hoovered up the bandwidth with Netflix, or whatever.

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As I walked along the neon darkness of K’ Rd I realised something that made me quite uncomfortable. I was wearing shorts. At night. In town. My bare legs exposed to the pre-loaded revellers piling out of taxis to line up for bars and clubs. It’s not something I had ever done except on random occasions going out for beers after a long day at work in the sun on a big job like golf or cricket or the Aussie V8s. But then I looked at all the women with their bare legs and short skirts and thought, if they can be comfortable being so exposed, why can’t I? Of course, that argument wouldn’t hold sway with any of the bouncers guarding the bars.

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I headed down Queen St looking for something to eat. A Korean place near the top called Nanas looked the best bet. It was the busiest and the menu looked great. But I would be the only person sitting alone. Not a problem. But I wanted to keep walking, consuming the sights and the night.

I wandered along Lorne St to Vulcan Lane, wondering if I would find somewhere funky and appealing. Half of it was roped-off with a long table of revellers listening to a New Orleans-style street brass band playing ‘Happy’.

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I half-considered a pub feed at my old stand-by, the Occidental. It’s a Belgian Bar with nice beer, pomme frittes and buckets of mussels. I would meet 1st dates there back when I was internet dating. It’s where I met the mother of my daughter on Waitangi Day 2007. That was the last time I spent our National Day in Auckland.

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But I didn’t want to sit in a pub of the past. I had a belly full of honey bourbon I needed to soak up/walk off. It’s too easy to drink more than you intend when writing and wrestling with Wi-Fi.

As I turned into Fort Street I was overtaken by the waft of weed. Four Canadians walking behind me copped it, too. That’s pot. No it’s not. Yes it is. Him, in that phone box. Go and ask him.

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Fort Street, like K’ Rd is one of the old sex districts. It has been made over, but the colour and sin remains. I love it. It was so good to see the White Lady parked up. Flipping burgers since 1943. But no, not for me. Not tonight.

Disappointed rugby fans were filling the downtown area, spilling off the trains from Eden Park. The Hurricanes had pipped the Blues in a thriller. I’m not a huge ruggers fan, but I’ve worked on the games for years. I was happy to be a Wellingtonian at that moment.

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By now it was 11pm. I couldn’t face the Viaduct in shorts (more on the Viaduct later). So I headed back up Queen Street past the gaggles of people swarming the gelato shops (they didn’t exist in my day), up to Aotea Square where I spotted a Carls’ Jr. They don’t have those in Welli. I went in, and had a Memphis burger.

It was perfectly fine.

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3 Days in Auckland (part 2)

K’ Road in a Daze. Laxing in Aotea Square

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The afternoon passed by in a pleasantly reassuring haze. I felt like a kid in a candy shop of the familiar and the new. A traveller to the past where everything is just where you left it, but the odd object has been twisted by 23 degrees, or been replaced by something shiny and new.

The most welcoming sight when I got off the plane was a man I had only seen on the telly, a celebrity of sorts, with a notoriety of the highest order.

Standing by himself in a blue suit was one of the most powerful politicians in New Zealand, Steven ‘Dildo’ Joyce, who had warranted the full singing-dancing John Oliver HBO treatment with his resigned ‘oh’ as a pink dildo bounced off his face on our national day. That such an important person could be so unattended by minders or minions surprised me. But this in NZ. We stand on few graces and airs. Maybe they now keep their distance to avoid catching a ricochet.

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Once on the SkyBus into town I logged onto the free Wi-Fi. Yay! Yes, I should have been taking in the sights but I have driven that road countless times, and I wanted to grab images from Google and post the first part of this blog.

The only time I looked up from the screen was on Dominion Road when I spotted this wonderful sculpture.

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Part 1 posted, I got off the bus half way down Queen Street, outside the Classic Comedy bar, and headed off to my lodge. It was humid and hot. Fat drops of rain big enough to hide a goldfish but far enough apart to park a tour bus, splatted around me on the pavement. Classic Auckland weather.

I walked past the Pop-Up Globe, avoiding all the emanating Shakespeare, past the flash hotel I once attended a lunch with Clinton and Putin (and all the rest), past a plethora of nooks and crannies where I had been dragged off by someone or other to do this, or that, or the other, up the wide, wide footpaths under the tunnelling canopy of cicada-filled trees to the City Lodge I had booked on Wotif.

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The City Lodge is an Eco-lodge. Parking is $15 (free if it’s a hybrid!). It’s cheap but nice. Full of foreign travellers and helpful tips. The potted history of NZ by the lift seems quite fair without gushing or glossing over. What sticks out to me is the total lack of any mention of sport, something that many NZers feel defines their national identity. I think that’s why so many want a sporting symbol on our national flag. We’re having a referendum on the flag at the moment. I cast my vote at the airport just after I saw Steven Joyce.

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After unpacking my wee bag into my Spartan room I headed out into Auckland, choosing to head uphill to Karangahape Road as opposed down into the CBD. It’s a walk I have made many times. It’s the way I walked to and from TVNZ when I lived on Symonds Street or in Eden Terrace.

Wow. Just wow. I was suddenly in a time machine. In my 20s and 30s once more. But the street art was better. I was more relaxed. But hungry. Very hungry. I decided to walk both sides of K’ Rd until some place dragged me in. Wow. Just wow. Should I go to Verona, that eternal haunt I so loved? Or St. Kevin’s Arcade, with a view of Myer’s Park? But wait, Flying In, the vinyl shop called with vinyl copies of obscure tapes I had bought in the ‘80s. And Vixen, a retro clothes shop. So much cool to desire. I checked out every menu, and shop, that caught my eye. But I could not stop. What would I miss out on if I sated my hunger too early?

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I was over-stimulated and spoilt for choice.

Outside the redoubtable Verona a TV presenter (and restaurateur) who once told me he had smoked pot every day since 1973 looked up in almost recognition but I kept walking, past the familiar Asian food hall and hipster cafes, past the intriguing new places that were calling me in, noted the pub lunch and a pint with the Jordan Luck Band, stared at the poster for James Reyne and Australian Crawl playing tomorrow night, walked across the overbridge where I was one pursued by a man in a wheelchair selling LSD, stuck my head in the pub where I went with my parents to see Uncle Robert host Karaoke during one of the America’s Cups, gazed down at the giant empty pink cycleway, so hungry, so wow…just wow. I wasn’t in Porirua any more.

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At 3pm, realising I simply couldn’t see it all, I halted my odyssey at Krung Thep for some Thai street food. Great music, cool design, with a glaring view across to Mt. Eden. Not having eaten since 8am I made a safe choice of Pad Thai, but as I sat down and looked up at the Wi-Fi password, I had immediate order-regret wishing I had chosen the featured ‘Choo-Choo Blast Fried Egg’. Great name. Never mind. The kai was great.IMG_0469

Next, coffee. I chose Revel, further back towards Queen Street. The entranceway was blocked by crustys and hipsters chatting in the sun at tables on the footpath. In the narrow dark insides I was the only person, apart from a lone waif plugged into her music, writing in a journal. With my macchiato and peanut butter slice came some middle-aged travellers and a pair of matched WASPish ‘trendies’. Short back and sides, him and her. ‘50s geek glasses. Mirrors of each other they pulled out their Macs and went online. Multiple programs flicked up but they both settled into the silence of Facebook.

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Ready for a lie-down, but not, I headed home via Aotea Square. On the way I watched a Shakespearean death through the open doors of the Globe. Romeo and Juliet, as it would have it. Turns out there’s an Arts’ Festival in Auckland. Who knew? I’ve been enjoying the one in Wellington but never imagined they would be on at the same time.

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Aotea Square is full of tents, bars, deck chairs and bean bags. I sat and looked at the programmes, drooling over shows like Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (a burlesque retelling of Anderson), and the James Plays (3 x 15th century Scottish history plays in full armour). Or Don ‘Dominion Rd’ McGlashan & Shayne Carter in the Spiegeltent, and The Offensive Nipple Show at the Silo.

But going to theatre by yourself isn’t really a goer. Sad and weird as eating/drinking by yourself. I am here to write and think. Remember and observe.

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So I picked up a bottle of sweet honey bourbon, purchased some Wi-Fi at the desk, and headed to my room to write.

Now, time to post this and head out into the night.

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3 Days in Auckland (part 1)

In the air

I first visited Auckland nearly 30 years ago. It was a different city, I was a different person. A fresh-faced 20-year old on the road (in a plane) with the band I had played bass with since I was 16. I wasn’t a great bass player, we weren’t a great band, but we had something; energy, attitude, good tunes and a freshly-pressed EP to promote and sell.

Like a lot of people who had grown up in Christchurch, I was pretty dubious about Auckland, the brash, domineering big brother in the national media and consciousness. The largest city in the North Island, it was a natural rival for the biggest city in the South Island.

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But that wasn’t on my mind so much when I flew in with my four bandmates, it was the gigs and interviews we had lined-up. The boxes of records we hoped to sell, and the crucial uncertainty of whether or not Radio With Pictures would play our video before we left town.

30 years in a long time in the life of any city. It’s the life of a human generation (although desperate marketeers and journalists have been shortening that natural span in the last few decades). Pressed-vinyl EPs are no longer the best way to get music to punters and music videos are available at the swipe of a device (as opposed to being confined to a single showing in a dedicated TV show once or twice a week. Miss the show or fail to programme your VCR correctly and you would have to imagine it from the descriptions of your friends).

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Our first gig was a daytime performance on a stage set up in the grassy quad at Auckland University. We banged and strummed away. The students ate their lunch. Maybe we drank beer. Afterwards we did an interview on BFM, the student radio station, promoting the EP and the pub gigs we were doing with The Letter 5 (was it? was it?! Or the Battling Strings?)

Then it was off to walk into the record shops dotted along Queen Street, trying to sell our wares at $6.99, sale or return. I think we got rid of a pitiful 1 or 2 in a couple of shops.

Queen Street was long, wide and steep to me. Chch is a flat city. I headed off up to explore the famous/infamous K’ Road at the top of Queen Street by myself, fuelled by one or two beers (and the Valium one of the singers had scored from a friendly doctor to calm our nerves).

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Why am I reminiscing about my first visit to Auckland? Because I am flying there now. At the moment we are passing over Kapiti Island, having taken off from Wellington into 120km winds. The take-off was as bumpy as it was sitting on the tarmac, buffeted and battered , waiting to taxi. But I’m a pretty solid traveller, I never feel queasy. Plus I was distracted by being allowed to write this while we were taking off…a first for me as I have been used to the ‘switch off all electronic devices’ rule that has only just been relaxed.

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It’s 3 years since I was last in Auckland. That time I spent little time in the city, heading straight to the ferry and 2 nights on Waiheke, my island home in the Hauraki Gulf I left 8 years ago. I spent that visit swimming at Palm Beach, my favourite bit of paradise. I had hoped to squeak in a visit this time, but I am only in Auckland for a little over 48 hours so it looks a bit tight. Plus I have been alerted by a friend to the fact that Waiheke is experiencing an outbreak of sea lice due to the exceptional, record-breaking summer. I ache to re-visit paradise and swim in the eternity of summers past. But sea lice?! Hmm.

The volcanic rump of Mt. Ruapehu has disappeared from my window and the plane has started to descend. I’m being offered sweets (hooray for the traditions of Air New Zealand which also gave me a snack and a drink without asking for payment).

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What will these (nearly) 3 days in Auckland hold? Memories and observations by the bucket load, I imagine. I lived there for 13 years. Flew into the watery isthmus countless times. As I am travelling alone my only plan is to write and reflect. Walk the old paths. Seek the old favourite eats. I may try and meet friends, I may not. I would be nice but time is short. We are all older with commitments of time and responsibility of all sorts.

The excuse for this trip (taken on a whim and Airpoints) is an old TV colleague’s 50th. I’ve never been to a 50th. It makes me feel old. A bit excited. Curious. Nervous. I hope I don’t bottle out. I’m terrible for that sort of thing.

There will be people there from all those years I worked in telly, including a few who I trained with at the NZ Broadcasting School in Chch 22 years ago. A small reunion of sorts. How did we get this old? What is everyone doing now? Why did we create a dormant group on Facebook?

Questions never end. Nor should they.

How have 30 years passed since I first flew into Auckland?

We are landing. Auckland is here.

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Mission Cleopatra

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I’m watching Mission Cleopatra with my 8 year-old daughter. It’s a funny film. Her choice. She plucked it from the plethora available, avoiding the usual Simpsons or the good/awful Grammy performances we’ve been making our way through.

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I recently turned her on to the Asterix books I loved as a child, so I thought it might be fun to see the film. But I must say it seems to lack the magic of the original Goscinny and Uderzo books. Maybe it’s because I’m not French, or because it’s live action (filled with seemingly-hammy French actors) that it seems a bit flat. The fact that the fine comic French actors are over-dubbed with dry American voices close mic-ed in a dull/dead studio certainly doesn’t help. There seems little atmosphere, no charm. The wonderfully barrel-chested Gerard Depardieu/Obelix voiced by an empty US teenage voice just sounds weird.

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But my 8 year-old thinks it’s ‘great’. She loves the original book. Likes things French. Has a francophone mother. Is fascinated by Egypt. Adores the Egyptians in Horrible Histories. Often dances to their Lady Gaga-themed Rah-Rah-Cleopatra song. Is slowly making her way through an Older Fiction ‘autobiography’ of Cleopatra from the library, saying names like Berenice and Ptolomy in her own 8-year old way.

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Last week we started watching a cool BBC documentary called ‘Immortal Egypt’ which has made ancient Egypt a lot clearer to me than it has ever been. I finally understand the difference between Upper and Lower Egypt, and the three different kingdoms, thanks to the captivatingly passionate professor who has to shade her pasty Brit skin from the Egyptian sun with an umbrella employed for its proper purpose.

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Me, I’ve always been much more into the Romans. And, to a lesser degree, the Greeks. Which may be why I have always had more of a taste for the Ptolomys, the Greco/Egyptian dynasty founded by Alexander’s general, Ptolomy, who started the line that ended when Cleopatra went out with a bang with Mark Antony having moved on from lover #1, Mr. Caesar (who every Asterix fan knows is a big-nosed pompous arse).

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But enough history.

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The film is full of gags. While Starkius and Hutchkis racing off in a chariot is wasted on my girl, she gets the Star Wars references about an evil empire. And the Gluteus Maximus gag.

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Yes. It’s fun. Bang crash. Very French. Yes, my girl loves it. Has asked to get the Asterix book out from the library again.

But, again, enough history. I am having bean bags thrown at me. I shall stop tapping away on the tablet.

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Time to play Asterix and Obelix. Gauls fighting Romans. Egyptians on the side.

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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.

 

 

 

4 Days in Christchurch (part 7)

Postscript

I started writing this blog on the flight to Christchurch. I intended to write fast, as things happened, on a 4 day visit to my home town. It was easy at first, when I had time to wander and play stranger in a strange land. But then I started catching up with friends. Devouring the experience rather than commenting on it.

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Once back onto the treadmill of Wellington I started posting a section each week. But life took over. And there was still more to say. More images to share. Then working through the rush of Christmas, and then two weeks away in a caravan, attempting to relax and unwind the tightened coil of the uncertain purgatory I had returned to.

It’s now 2016. My holiday is over. I am back at work, (hopefully) free of the stress that saw me make unprecedented cock-ups, and receive a call from my manager enquiring about my health/life.

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I have relaxed. But I am still living with the uncertainty that greeted my return from Christchurch.

That week I received the report on my fiction portfolio from Victoria University. It was a strong selection of stories. Better than I have ever written. NZ$2,600 well spent (on fiction and creative non-fiction).

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I was confident they may well get me accepted onto the MA fiction programme (one of the best regarded fiction programmes in the world). It is the third time I have applied. There are only 10 places.

The trip to Chch was as much reward for my hard work as distraction from the impending result. I wanted to do all the things I have mentioned in the previous posts but I also wanted to escape the imminent decision on my future. The day it turned up (report and MA decision) a massive cold sore erupted from my bottom lip; the first since the death of my father 3 years ago.

 

Uncertainty. Stress. Acceptance of loss. Understanding the past. Desire for a new future. All these played into my 4 days in Chch.

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The day before I headed to Chch I received a wonderful package from Scotland. A trove of several hundred slides taken on a world trip by my grandfather Sandy’s sister, Rachel, in 1968. It’s a wonderful trove I am yet to explore. She came out to NZ just after I was born. I grew up hearing stories of the visit. Fortuitously, the slides are meticulously indexed. Often still in order.

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I have used several in the posts but I am yet to find the time to go through them all as slides aren’t that easy to view or transfer. But I will. Amongst the few I have looked at I found a picture of Aunty Rachel with my grandparents, Sandy and Flo’, standing on the banks of the Avon with Aunty Lynette and my cousin Robyn. Treasure from the past.

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I could say much more about Chch. The wonderful art on the streets. The NZ flag flying everywhere at a time when the country is being offered a dubious new flag.

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How happy I felt seeing the statue of Godley (the visionary leader of the settlement) back on his plinth for the first time post-quake. How I sat every day listening to the resolute balladeer outside Ballantynes belting out ballads, rocking back and forth as if on a boat, eyes closed, tin whistle in hand. How amongst the 19th century tales he sang the wonderfully cheesy 1960s/70s song I have only heard once before, about a man in prison who will never see his home again.

Christchurch City is mighty pretty, when the lights are all a-glow

Christchurch City is mighty pretty, where the river Avon flows

I did not get accepted for the MA. But I have been shortlisted. At any moment before March I may be offered a place if someone can’t take it.

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The fate of the decaying carcass of Christchurch Cathedral was to be decided just before Christmas. The Anglican Church wants to pull it down but doesn’t have the guts. Or enough support.

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I’m not sure how I feel about any of this. Conflicted and uncertain. Certainly. Positives and negatives both ways.

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What does the future hold? Uncertainty. Again. And again.

But there will be holidays. And I will write about them.

And I shall keep writing fiction.

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Dressing Up Christmas Past, Boxing On

I like Christmas. Always have. But, like a lot of people, I battle with mixed emotions amongst the happiness and good cheer. It’s no time to dwell, but there has to be a reason I steadfastly resisted the pressure at work this week to dress up in antlers, or a Santa suit. It just made me feel anxious.

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Anyone who knows me knows I love to dress up. IMG_3712I vividly remember waking up to find a cowboy suit on my bed on Christmas morning when I was five. It caused such jealously in the kids across the street they threw my pistol in the river. Later, Mum made me a Zorro cape which I swished about in with a sword made out of sticks. When I was older I walked about the neighbourhood in a home-made spy costume. Moustache. Dark glasses. Cocoa powder on my face. I was pretty conspicuous.

 

 

When I started playing in bands in my teens I would always buy a loud op-shop shirt to achieve the deliberately dressed-down/dress-up effect of the alt. rock scene. All part of getting up on stage.

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When I turned 19 friends threw me a surprise party, giving me a pair of ‘ironic’ leopard skin tights. It’s the last thing I would have worn. But I did.

I loved the dress-up parties my friends threw. Glam-rock (too easy), mask, famous art work (Diane Arbus, kid with grenade), dead famous people (Spot the dog) etc etc. I recognised how it disarmed everyone’s persona. It was liberating. Revealing. Fun.

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The ‘dress-up’ aspect was one of the things that attracted me to acting in my 20s, especially when fast costume changes were required and you needed a ‘dresser’ to get it done in time .

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Dance parties were another excuse to be someone else. I got in the newspaper with one effort (not the one above). Thankfully the Pride dance party where I performed on stage naked except for a few crucial lengths of glad wrap happened before everyone started photographing everything.

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So why didn’t I embrace the chance to get out of my dull work uniform on Christmas Eve? There’s more to it than the options being better suited to my 90% female workplace (antlers make girls look cute/fun/sexy. Guys look silly/neutered. As for bows, sequinned hats and Santa suits… well).

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It’s because it’s 10 years since the whole family I was with dressed up for Christmas.

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It was an ominous day. My partner at the time had chosen it to announce to her family she was pregnant. Her staunch Catholic parents had been arrested outside abortion clinics more than once. But it was fun. And the costumes were great. It was decided I should be a pregnant Mary. In a burka. To mix it up.

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While the stifling burka gave me a headache the day was a great weight off. Which made the irony of Boxing Day so ridiculous. We were flown by helicopter to hospital across a dark, quiet city while my soon-to-be ex miscarried.

 

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Some things can get so far in the past you forget to remember them. I can’t forget that day. What it meant. But I never dwell. My life has moved on to much better things. I have a beautiful daughter who is spending Christmas with her mother. I am well loved. But it wasn’t until Christmas Eve that I remembered the son lost 10 years ago, wondering once more what I could have done differently to nurture his life.

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There is more. Another miscarriage 12 Christmases ago. My mother, gone, four Christmases ago. My daughter so far away on Christmas morning. Sisters now living in a foreign land. But today is for celebration no matter how you dress it up (or not).

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 6)

Accidental Monday

I woke early on Monday morning having kipped solidly through the night on a solidly comfy squab, shared a family breakfast of vegemite on toast then walked through the dunes with my friend and his son to his school in South Brighton. Threading through the regenerating native trees and scrub my feet and jandals got covered in sticky wet sand. Even better was watching his nine-year-old scramble up steps to a treehouse hidden in a macrocarpa. A pure hit of childhood.

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After a bit of relaxing in the shed with music and chat I headed for my rent-a-dent. Turned the ignition. Nothing. Checked the lights. Had I accidentally left them on? Er… Hadn’t turned them on. Had I? Tried again. Dead as. I called the AA. Friendly Trevor spotted the problem straight off. Not a flat battery. A connector worked loose by the corrugated, eternally pot-holed roads of a post-‘quake city. “Welcome to Christchurch. You got an authentic experience there, mate.”

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Bit shagged, Sumner 2012

 

 

 

He advised a 30 minute drive, just in case. I headed around the estuary to Sumner. With Trevor’s advice in mind I couldn’t stop and wander about the imposing wall of containers retaining the cliff face, or the sad pile of rocks that used to be Shag rock.

 

 

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Unshagged 1968

 

One of the reasons I got the car was to head to south Christchurch. I wanted to walk the streets of Somerfield/Spreydon where I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Kids were sitting outside eating their lunch at my old primary school. There were new buildings but the classrooms where I spent my initial years hadn’t changed at all. At least from the outside. Concrete and brick with tall white wooden windows. I felt somewhat strange sitting outside staring at them.

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The ‘Big field’

I drove down Stanbury Ave remembering moment after moment on the seemingly endless childhood journey to my home at the end of the street. I stopped outside the red brick house my parents built in the 1950s. The surrounding streets and park were named to mark the centennial of the founding of Christchurch in 1850.

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Lord Lyttelton. Visited Chch once. Went home & killed himself

Pioneer Stadium, Centennial Park. Stanbury Ave sits between Lyttelton and Barrington streets (both acknowledge the grumpy depressive peer, Lord Lyttelton, who chaired the Canterbury Association that put together the first four ships of ‘pilgrims’ who founded the settlement). I did a bit of research about this during the sesquicentennial in 2000. The motives. The aims. What actually happened over the ensuing 150 years. I set out to explore the utopian tensions in a novel set in an alternative Christchurch. It was humorous. Iconoclastic. But then nature offered up its own icon-smashing alternative.

 

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Centennial 1st 4 ships float 1950 (photo by Dad, the year he came to Chch)

That 3-bedroom house in Stanbury Ave contains all my founding memories. Infancy, childhood, adolescence, the start of adulthood. My sisters. My parents. Grandparents. Cousins, aunties, uncles, friends. Bootsy, Tiger, Casomi, Norma Jean, Angus, Kiri, Cyril, Sid, Otto, Alf. Too many to categorize or name.

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But as I sat in the car with the engine running (in case it wouldn’t start), it wasn’t the old nest that drew my eye, it was the houses across the street, the ones I looked out to day after day, year after year, imagining what my future held.

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I left home when I was 19. South Christchurch was too far away from where my life was. University in Ilam. Friends in St Albans and squats in the CBD. Band practices and gigs, theatre rehearsals and plays in the city. I lived in five different places before I headed to Auckland eight years later. I drove past the most historic one in Redcliffs that afternoon. Mother Hubbard’s was built in the 1860s.

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Ma Hubbard’s, Redcliffs

Along with Shand’s Emporium it’s one of the oldest surviving buildings in Christchurch. It was already at its second location (on Armagh Street) when I lived there in 1989. A bit of dive with huge character. It got its name from the 2nd hand shop that used to occupy it. I still have bits of furniture the shop left when they moved on. A desk. An iron chair. One night a girlfriend saw an old lady standing in my bedroom. That moment made it into my first published story, a grab bag of ghost ‘encounters’ sold as short fiction. I guess it’s actually creative non-fiction.

 

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Ma Hubbard’s kitchen

After we shifted out it was threatened with demolition. There was a story in the paper outlining its history. A sub-editor made prominent note of the fossilised pieces of white bread I had impulsively pinned to the cupboard doors the night I had a few drinks pre-loading before an Art School party. It was nice to see my artistic statement (whatever it was) recognised.

 

 

 

 

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Hereford Street

Back in town, I was happy to see my old flat in Hereford Street still occupied. I lived there in 1993 when doing drama at University. The landlord was a scion of one of the great squatter families that grabbed the high country for themselves in the 19th century. The Canterbury settlement was an attempt to halt such rapacious greed. My Uncle Barrie made friends with a kid of the same name when in hospital as a child. Got invited to the estate. My grandmother had too much working class pride to let him go. I had the prime bedroom in our upstairs flat. Facing the sun, with my own deck. I could lie in my hammock learning lines, keeping an eye on the hubbub at the Arts’s Centre and Dux de Lux across the road. I felt like I was living in the centre of the world. I was.

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Arts’ Centre 1980s

After dropping off the car I headed back to C1 for a final meal where I ate my first ever risotto cake. Wow. It was a revelation. Walnut, mushroom and sundried tomato. The crispy edges! So unbelievably delicious I can still taste it. My next risotto is destined for cake-hood. The sweet to accompany my macchiato was a challenge. The display case was full of IMG_9908enticing variations. Chocolate eggs (filled with flowing marshmallow!) Lollie-cake on a stick (with allsorts!) Espresso mousse served in Agee jars (with screw-top lids!) White chocolate lamingtons (with a syringe of jam to self-inject)! I wanted them all. Yes, I have sweet tooth. It’s genetic. I had no choice. I chose the lamington. Not because I like white chocolate (I don’t), but because lamingtons were my favourite Nana Flo’ treat when I was a nipper. Also, I couldn’t resist the irony of injecting blood-red jam into a sweet treat on an unplanned day off from phlebotomy.

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Content, ready for home, I caught the bus to the airport. I sat at the back looking for photos to pick off for to the blog. Was I writing travel or memoir? Both? Whichever, I was entertaining my mind at the end of a wonderful, and unsettling, trip.

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And then the most unnerving thing of all happened. An awkward confrontation that made me feel threatened, and a bit sick. Whether it was due to the day, or something from the past, I will never know. The people of Christchurch have been through an unimaginable amount of stress. I don’t mean to be coy but the encounter is so rich it is best explored in fiction.

When I booked my long weekend in Christchurch, I had planned to have three days, Fri to Sunday, returning for work in Wellington on Monday. Somehow I messed up my bookings leaving the cheapest resolution having four days. While I saw a fair bit in that time, caught up with friends, had interesting encounters, there are so many old friends, whanau and faces from the past I did not get to see.

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I shall return. Again. And again. And again.

Christchurch is my hometown. Since the ‘quakes I have ached to live there once more. But my roots are set across this land. I am pulled towards a lifetime of memories, and possible futures.

The homes of an internal migrant are many. Their unresolved tensions continue to jostle me about these shaky isles.

 

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Cathedral Square

 

 

4 Days in Christchurch (part 5)

A Run, Sunday Grey

Sunday morning emerged cool, grey. Quiet. The ceaseless sounds of re-build were taking a rest. Up early, as I always am after a drink or two, I headed out for a run. When I was here a year ago I ran around Hagley Park. This time I was at the southern boundary of the Four Aves (Moorhouse, Bealy, Fitzgerald, Deans) that form a square box around the CBD, so I decided to head south along Colombo Street, to Sydenham. It was eerily silent, a misty rain falling. As I ran over the overbridge that seemed so high when I lived in this flat city I looked to the gap where the railway station used to be. Its absence was disconcerting. It’s no exaggeration to say my stomach lurched.

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At first, Sydenham seemed like a gem. The old artisanal village on the southside of Christchurch was covered in wonderful street art. But as I passed empty shop after empty shop I realised that the Colombo, the box mall further down Colombo Street, has sucked all the life out of the area. IMG_9857

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Even the relocated Honey Pot café, one of my old favs from the CBD, had gone bust. I ran towards Beckenham, swimming in memories from my childhood and youth (fairs at the school my mother attended as a child in the 1930s; the band practice room I shot a video for a ‘90s grunge band; the pet shop where I got Alf and Sid, my pet mice; the Hot Bread Shop I had my first job, earning $$ for my music gear and cameras; the snooker hall where I played on full-size tables with comical ineptitude; the church I watched my girlfriend dance covered in oil with $$ stuck to her by parishioners, and so on and so on). All gone.

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By the time I reached Sydenham Park I felt so good I wanted to run all the way to the hills but as soon as that thought hit the calf of the leg where I had my Achilles’ operation two years ago suddenly constricted in pain and I was forced to start walking: 10 minutes into a gentle run. Grrr. Two years to being 100%? Seems it’s going to be more than that. I stretched and tried not to limp all the way back into the CBD.

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After showering (and stretching, and stretching some more), I checked out of my hotel, took my bag to the lockers at the bus station and returned to wandering the CBD, taking photos and writing down my thoughts. Which can get you enquiring looks when you’re travelling by yourself. People can regard you with suspicion, or that’s the way it sometimes seems from the way they look at lone males. Maybe the locals are sick of disaster tourists taking snaps of the corpse. Fair enough. More than once I would stop and point my camera at some piece of rebuild or tumbled pile only to find other wandering tourists suddenly stop and photograph the same thing, as if by obligation. I began to feel I should be leaving a tip for the locals.

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Not fancying the overwhelmingly fried food at the pop-up mall I headed across the Square to the other anchor of normality, New Regent Street. Like last night, it was full of people hanging out and walking by. I overheard some locals complain about the fabulous piece of giant art at the end of the street “How many millions has that cost us?” stopping myself from saying it looks even better when lit up at night. I cruised the overflowing cafes trying to decide where I would have my lunch/breakfast, saw two wizards having coffee (that felt reassuring), then stumped for the only café with no one in it: often a bad sign.

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How many millions?

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Selfie with the Wizard of Chch (& apprentice)

‘Shop Eight’ looked pretty. Stylish, recycled, handcrafted furniture. The menu: sparse. Just half a dozen items for lunch. Handpicked, biodynamic. Served cold. Hmm. I went in. The waitress looked tired, spoke too quietly, saying both my choices (the chicken, and asparagus & egg) were off the menu. Undeterred, I chose the wild pork and rabbit terrine. I sat on the street watching the trams slide by, eerily within reach, listening to the jazz guitarist across the way noodle out gorgeous tunes, and the old ladies at the overflowing muffin shop next door remark “Look, you could imagine you’re in a different country!” while wondering what a terrine was.

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When the waitress brought me my lunch she forcefully pointed to a corner of the plate and said “that’s the chutney!” My $18 open sandwich was fantastic. Tasty, filling, a joy to eat.

 

Sun Comes Out, Head Inside

In the afternoon I did something I have never done in NZ: I rented a holiday car. I have rented heaps for work or when overseas, but there has always been a car available when I had family or friends to visit in Christchurch. I could have caught a bus to visit my friends in New Brighton, but I had an urge to tiki around bits I hadn’t seen in a while. And at $58 for a 24hr cheapie it was a perfect way to experience the pot-holed, dug up, resurfaced, re-dug up and resurfaced (and repeat) again and again, ever-changing roads of Christchurch.

 

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Heading East

I could write heaps about New Brighton, the sea-side suburb on the east of Christchurch. The ‘70s heyday as one of only two place in NZ where you could shop on a Saturday. The excitement and bustle, the treat of going there. The big long beach at the edge of the Pacific. Getting smashed by the surf. Nothing between the horizon and Chile. The whale park. The pier(s). The Shoreline Cabaret where a crooning Val Lamond (who I had only seen on the telly) sang to my father on his 50th. The decline and neglect (post and pre-quake).

 

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Dad’s 50th Shoreline Cabaret 1975

I saw out the day in a garden shed in the company of two good, old friends listening to music, drinking snake-bites mixed from a chilly bin. We have known each other since school, shared a lifetime of experiences. Become parents. Had many holidays at Jonathan’s family bach perched on rocks on a rugged West Coast beach. Made a lot of music and art amongst us. It was reading Blair’s music blog that inspired me to start my blog. He writes a music memoir and posts his art at blairparkes.wordpress.com We were in bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Jonathan made the giant kaleidoscope that stands at the top of New Regent Street (and many other pieces around the city). He organises Greening the Rubble, volunteers installing public spaces on rubble that won’t be rebuilt for some time (they have a Facebook page if you’re interested). We played in a disco covers band in the ‘80s that never made it out of the practice room, even though we had a great name, ‘The Hot’.

 

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Nightshift studio, Beckenham 1985

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The Kaleidoscope, New Regent Street

We talked and talked. Laughed and laughed. There’s nothing like old friends. Time collapses. The past becomes present and the world seems less harsh. I wish we lived closer.

4 Days in Christchurch (part 4)

Saturday in the City

Christchurch is a flat city. Always has been. You can walk or bike around with a lot less effort than every other NZ city where you’re invariably marching up a hill or significant lump.

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I spent Saturday afternoon walking the CBD. I could have cycled. There are bikes you can use for free or a fee via an app. IMG_9831I love riding bikes and they’re a great new addition since I was last here, but it’s not something that appealed. That’s the thing with solo travel. Some activities work better by yourself (setting the agenda, following your nose), while others simply don’t appeal (the Eiffel Tower, roller coasters etc).

With few tall buildings standing there is a serious lack of shade. You can see forever with whole blocks down but it gets hot fast. In Victoria Square a lot of people were lazing on the grass. IMG_9794I had an Ice-cream Charlie, choosing my fav, a mid-size sundae. I have been having them since I was a child. The unique soft ice goes so well with the un-whipped cream, choc chips and raspberry syrup. IMG_9793The young woman in the van said it was a good day to sell ice cream, quickly adding that every day is a good for ice cream, but, actually, she had only worked there for two days.

 

I ate my sundae by the Avon, staring into the gutted shell of the Town Hall, trying to remember all the shows I had seen there. Glen Campbell (twice), Transvision Vamp, Elvis Costello, Devo, Ultravox, The The, From Scratch, Sam Hunt, Peter Ustinov, Pamela Stephenson, The Wombles, Thunderbirds Are Go!, Icehouse, Blam Blam Blam, Coconut Rough, The Exponents. There must be many others hidden in my memory, alongside the ones I wish I had seen. The Clash, The Sweet, The Fall.

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I found more shade at the Canterbury Museum. First time post-‘quake. I grew up amongst the exhibitions and collections. The animals stuffed and skeletal, the insect drawers, the weapons, the colonial street. So many years of familiar. It was like nothing had changed.

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I made a bee-line for the da Vinci exhibition; his drawings and sketches made 3-dimensional. Interesting but somehow a bit weird. Treasures that never really existed.

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The evening was the reason I made the trip; a memorial night of music for a friend who died a couple of months back. I couldn’t make the funeral. Wrote about it in my By George post. I polished off half a bottle of Pinot Gris in the hotel room resting up from all the walking, sun and dust before heading to the Auricle (a wine bar and sonic arts gallery) at the top of New Regent Street. DSC0013It was a gorgeous evening. Summery. People glammed-up to see Swan Lake at the restored Theatre Royal promenaded to and from the show as I drank wine from a stemless glass, talking to the old friends I knew, and others I didn’t. 20 years since I left Chch. 25 years since I did student radio with George, seemingly bumping into him at every gig and party. There was live music upstairs and some via Skype, but I spent most of the evening on the street drinking in the air of a city finding its feet wondering what had changed. Me, my city, my friends.

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Around midnight I headed off. There were so many people around. On Manchester Street a car load of young guys cruised past and one shouted, “Where’s the pussy at bro’?” I stared for a second, wondering if they were trying to provoke something, then slowly pointed at them and smiled. They cracked up saying, “he knows, he knows!”

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At the bottom of High Street where the trams stop before rolling back the way they came I spotted Mr Burger, a wee van parked outside the first night spot to re-open in the city, the Nucleus. It was the best burger and chips I have had in years. I sat watching the taxis and groups of people heading towards the thump of the night club, happy there is now somewhere to go after midnight, content in the feeling that I had no desire to join them.

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 3)

Wandering the Pretty

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After spending an enjoyable morning writing up/posting the night before, I went out to wander the empty landscape and blank blue skies. It is unbelievably beautiful. Yes, there are old facades held up by containers and steel beams awaiting their future. Oceans of empty lots are filled with grey river stones and wire fences. IMG_9764

But there is a trove of art amongst it all. So much I can’t keep my camera(s) in my pocket. This is the land of the unexpected mural. Sides of buildings, yes. But also the unexpectedly exposed arses that haven’t seen daylight in decades. Until the neighbor came down. I love the humorous murals tucked into crannies you may not notice unless you look. I can’t stop smiling.

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I had breakfast in an old remodeled building which is now called Supreme, or Supreme Supreme, or Coffee Supreme (all three are used throughout). It has a great style and feel. Kind of retro modern. A good range on the menu. I chose the pulled corned beef hash. IMG_9752When may sound heavy on a hot day but it was full of fresh herbs and flavour. Perfect after last night’s liquid dinner. I couldn’t help but post a photo on Facebook. I know haters hate, but I have been taking photos of meals forever. Nevertheless, when my waitress sprung me doing it I could only feel like a tool. A saddo sharing a solo moment with no one in particular. But that’s not my reality. Is it? I shan’t look too deep. I am writing a blog about next to nothing.

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Getting sprung meant I decided not to ask the waitress about her intriguing haircut. It’s always tricky commenting on the appearance of younger women. It’s taken me years to be casual and confident about it at work. To not worry if it comes across as sleazy. Or gay (not that I care). The waitress had a short, smart bob but the fringe wasn’t cut straight, it went down at 45 degrees to a point in the middle. I had a flatmate who did that in the ‘90s. It was ‘70s retro back then (in itself an echo of whacky ‘50s, maybe?) Was it just ‘asymmetric’ or did the style have a name? I didn’t ask. I had already indicated I may be a dick.

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After a second macchiato (at what a friend commented on my post was the coolest café in Chch) I set off to wander the pretty.

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4 Days In Christchurch (part 2)

Day 2 (or, the rest of Day 1)

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At the Pop-Up

Day two emerges as the morning after the day before. What time is it? How many beers? It’s a sunny after the gentle southerly that bashed away the nor’wester yesterday afternoon as I was having lunch in the pop-up mall. The change was needed. Big fat raindrops were splatting into the ground filling the air with the smell of hot asphalt. Tourists had their brollies up but there was never enough rain to actually get wet. It was so warm I stepped into the Barkers container shop to look for some shorts. My used-to-be-smart shorts now feature so many holes they haven’t made the trip. The type I wanted were on sale for $60, but as the shop is a container, it only has two changing rooms. The sales assistant was friendly and chatted while I waited, showing great interest in everything I said. She was tall, in some sort of 1-piece pant suit (if that’s what you call it) and heels. We talked eye-to-eye about the changes in Chch, how you are as likely to hear a language other than English on the streets as a NZ accent. How cool that is. How that could make her job hard. Sign language doesn’t always get through. I resolutely ignored her plunging neckline and tanned, prominent side-boob as she made me aware off all the specials on offer.

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Pop-Up Art

 

I love the food area at the Pop-Up. It’s full of interesting food and people. It’s what I miss about the Arts’ Centre and its weekend markets. I had a wee job in the early 1990s setting up the stalls for the Arts’ Centre market with a crew of other young guys. The stories we heard about the tensions between the different stall holders are so good they deserve to be told in detail. Another time. Greek souvlaki vs. Czech potato pancake. With knives. Sellers of scented candles are not as peace-loving as you may think. Drama, conflict, lust, betrayal.

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Town of many Trams

 

Greatly tempted by the Tiki Taco caravan (kiwiana/mex!), but having had a burrito for breakfast, I sidled up the wild game panini hut. Wild pig, venison, ostrich, rabbit. Deliciously too much to choose from. I shuffled sideways to the Thai next door opting for egg noodles with veg and egg. It was delicious. Not too heavy on a hot day. I couple of orange-vested rebuild workers sat down opposite me. A chicken stir-fry and chips. Real worker food. Young, impossibly fit and good looking I took them as Maori. Until they spoke. Spanish. Mexican or South American. Workers from around the world have come to rebuild my hometown. I love this.

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Funky t-shirt from Pop-Up

 

By 2pm I was at my hotel. A studio on the south part of the CBD. Even though the name of the street was familiar, it wasn’t until I got to the strip of apartments (the first new building started post-quake) that I realized it was right next door to the NZ Broadcasting School where I did my TV training in 1994, the year before I left Christchurch. I was a great course. Good people. We have hooked up again on Facebook to mark the 20 years. Shared a few memories. But there are no photos. At least, only one or two. It’s hard to recall the world that existed before everyone carried a camera in their pocket and obsessively recorded their day. Of course, we shot tons of video. VHS and SVHS. I have a large suitcase of tapes slowing falling apart downstairs, unable to be played.

Tidy, cheap and functional my studio apartment is also very hot. Air-con is via a fan I keep going the whole time. You can open the windows (yay!) but then you let in the skill-saws and hammering of the construction all around. It’s the soundtrack of this city. Impossible to resent. (Except at 8am this morning, Saturday, when it pushed me out of bed to write this).

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Yesterday afternoon, after checking in, I made use of the best feature of this apartment. The free Wi-Fi. I posted the first part of this blog, had a shower, watched some of the Thanksgiving NFL games (praise be for football and excess, and TVNZ playing this weapon of cultural imperialism live!), and went to meet an old friend for a beer.

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Back of Smash Palace

 

 

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We met at Smash Palace, a movable garden bar that was one of the first temporary bars to open post-quake over by Victoria Street and Bealy Ave. Wire fences and enclosing white tarps made it impossible to see into from the street. Now it is in a pretty, open location on High Street right across from C1. The bar is an old bus, opened up. There are wooden tables and roses blooming on the fence. At a covered snug around the back I spotted a former mayor of Christchurch sitting with a group of people. I saw him tending this garden when I was here last December. He said gidday. It felt very Christchurch.

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Mmm, Brew Moon

 

From 4:30 to 11:30 pm I sat supping pints of stout with my old mate, watching workers of all descriptions pop in. We had a lot to talk about. I have known him since he played drums in our school boy band in the ‘80s. He had an ad up in CJ’s Music store (Charlie Jemmet is the patron saint of the ChCh music scene). It was 1983. I was 16. We played our first pub, the Star and Garter, months later. He turned 50 earlier this year. I’m not far off. We marveled that we ever got this far. In one of the short stories I wrote for my portfolio this year I used incidents from our rock ‘n’ roll past, including a sad attempt to throw an old TV out a hotel window. It wasn’t a hotel. Or out a window. Or very satisfying. We carried an old heavy B&W telly up a 10-story building that was under construction. It was hard work but we were determined. And a bit drunk. It was the Equity Corp flagship that went bankrupt in the ’87 crash. The re-named building came down after the ‘quake. It’s where the pop-up food stalls now stand.

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Like myself, my old buddy has turned from music to writing. Less noise, more control. But we both miss the instant response of an audience. An audience will always let you know if you suck or have their interest. That said, when I checked my phone I found an alert from WordPress announcing ‘massive’ traffic on my blog. My numbers were greater than they have ever been. I was astounded. Checking to see the new total whenever I bought another round.

Blogging is a funny thing. It can give you something lacking in so much writing, an audience.

Late last night I looked up from our table to examine the crowd. Me and my friend were sitting at a table surrounded by a crescent of 14 women. As I looked around them, many made eye contact. It was a little strange. There were plenty of men and mixed groups around the garden bar, chatting and listening to the wonderful mix of music emanating from the shipping container that housed the DJ, but they were all lurking behind the near circle of young women that surrounded us. I couldn’t help wondering if we were messing with a segregated seating plan. But then a group of men approached the women, there introductions and shaking hands, and they settled into pairs.

It was an odd sight. Unworthy of great note. Nevertheless, I have written it down. Why? Because I am in Christchurch. And it is time to find some breakfast.

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 1)

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DAY ONE

Above Te Wai Pounamu

I’m flying to Christchurch. I didn’t entirely expect to be on this flight. As much as I am looking forward to seeing old friends, and checking out the how the rebuild is going, I’m ambivalent about my excuse to visit my hometown. I feel little excitement.

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Harwood International Airport (Chch)

It is 20 years since I left Christchurch. Through 13 years in Auckland and 7 years in Wellington I have regularly flown down to see family and friends, or to work, at least two or three times a year. Often more. It’s what internal migrants do. Notably, however, this is the first year it has taken till the end of November to find an excuse to get down.

Last night I packed as soon as I got home. Put some washing on then fell asleep in front of NFL on the telly until I stumbled to bed at 12:30am. Up five hours later to be gone by 6:30 in order to beat the morning rush into Wellington. Wading through treacle I got away at 6:50, so it was tight all the way into the queues and reluctantly merging lanes. It was 50/50 I wouldn’t make the flight. I could always book another, or just use the ticket I have for tomorrow morning (to be explained later). After all, I got an email last night saying that the reports on my fiction portfolio (from the writing course I have just completed) are now available. To pick up or post out. I’m gagging to read the result. It’s a big preoccupation in my mind. How nice it would be to go and pick them up and see what I did right, what opportunities I missed.

The van at the Long Term Parking took forever to come. I had 10 minutes until check-in closed. I sat listening to Australian tourists talk about the Eagles wondering what I would do.

I made check-in with two minutes to spare. The friendly lady made me run.

I try not to fly Jetstar. They are Australian. Unforgiving with time and weight limits. But it was the only cheap ticket available to rectify a booking fiasco. They also tend to turn the loading of passengers into an unpleasant affair. This time people were relaxed and orderly. Except for a woman who pushed in front of me to jump the queue. Dressed in head-to-toe traveler wear, she resolutely turned her blonde pony tail away from me and the elderly couple beside me, who I exchanged a bemused smile with. Was it worth saying something? Any words would sound angry or petty. Instead I let her have the full force of my inner wanker, that narrative we all share but few voice. Who could be so self-centred? And rude. In her self-absorbed mid-20s. Israeli or South African? Swiss? I latched onto any stereotype who places themselves above others.

I lost sight of her (and my petty grumbling) as we were funneled along the aisle. When I got there, she was sitting in my seat. Friendly, apologetic, I showed her my ticket, eager to hear her accent.

It was a bumpy flight to Crikey. Rocking side to side, up and down. Nor’westers gusting to 110kms on takeoff and landing. Just enough time to write the above during the short flight. To salve anxiety and dismiss the small victories of the morning.

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Chch Railway Station

 

The Purple Line

I’m on the bus into Chi-cha. It’s warm. Dry warm, unlike the humidity of Wellington. I wish I was wearing shorts. It was 28C yesterday. Hot for late spring. We’re yet to hit 20 in Welli. The bus is full of tourists looking at maps, shuffling their bags and packs out of the way. I have never caught this bus into town before. There has always been someone here to meet me. But the last of my family left New Zealand earlier this year. I look up to see the cemetery where we buried a friend over 10 years ago. Through the familiar flat wide streets of Ilam to my old university. Past the ballroom where I played many times. Riccarton Road. So familiar. Early childhood, teens. Beyond. I went to high school just up the road, often going to Riccarton Tailoring after school where Mum ran an alterations business. And the big-arse mall where on a stinking hot Christmas Eve when I was seven, doing last minute shopping, I suddenly felt sick in the sun. Spent Christmas Day in bed with measles. I got a Big Jim doll who could karate chop wood. I only wanted to sleep.

We’re now heading through Hagley Park, through the two Hagley Parks, which I ran around when I was here last Christmas. A steaming hot morning. One year on from my Haglund’s Deformity operation. My first run off a treadmill. I had a rush of euphoria, went too hard, and paid for it for the next week. It’s two years since my op to take bone off my right heel and scrape my Achilles’. If they had told me at the time it was a two year recovery to being 100% I would have been reluctant to go through with it. Still, as of two weeks ago I’m a 100%. Yay!

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In the CBD

Now at C1, the must-stop place for coffee in Chur/Chur since, er, last century. It’s a new, better building post-quake. The re-vamped old Alice In Videoland (the best video shop on the planet), which used to be a pretty deco Post Office. The building survived the quakes (unlike video shops and post offices which haven’t survived the 21st century). C1 retains the original quirky charm. The water dispenser made out of an old Singer sewing machine is a familiar survivor. The old murder house water dispenser beside me is new. Soda water for those who can work out which knob to press (90% give up and look around until I tell them the trick. Are we all out-of-towners?) The pneumatic overhead food delivery tubes featured on the telly are gorgeous, an anachronistic echo of futures past. It’s too early to get sliders and curly fries delivered through the clear tubes so I settle for a breakfast burrito and short macchiato, to which the perky waitress says “nice!”

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It’s three hours until I can check-in at my hotel (one that didn’t exist when I was here last December). But the city is more together. The new bus exchange is open. It is Euro pretty and efficient. There are lockers to leave my bag (only $2!!!) Quite a change from the open makeshift bus stops and port-a-coms of the last few years.

Right, time to send a few messages to Chich friends, wander the rubble and rebuild. Try and find some Wi-Fi to post this.

Rage Against the Light

I’m thinking of going to see the Buzzcocks. I love their songs. Perfect tunes that sound as fresh as they did in the 1970s. I want to sing along with these legends of the punk/pop pantheon. But it’s a work night. And I’m getting old. No longer able to shake off a late night.

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I used to see everything that came to town. Loved it. Loved the music, the lights, the noise, the people. Two years ago I went see Garbage. It was my first proper concert in many years. I didn’t known they were in town. Saw an ad on telly offering cheap tickets. Went along. Loved it to bits. I was never a fan but the sound was great, the band full of energy and the joy of performance.

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Good Garbage Wellington

Buoyed along by the experience I went to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse a month later. I love his music. He is a major player in the rock pantheon. But the whole thing paled next to Garbage, the rock tiddlers. Neil was good but the band felt tired. Fair enough. They are getting on. Shuffling around like shadows of the past.

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Neil Young & Crazy Horse Wellington

That’s why when an old friend/bandmate asked if wanted to go see The Fall recently I had to yes… but no. Back in the day Mark E. Smith could trot out compellingly crap/good performances. Now he is known to wander around the stage like a grumpy pensioner who can’t find the toilet.

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Angry young man

The first proper concert I saw was Glen Campbell when I was eight. My mother took me to see him at the Christchurch Town Hall.

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Bill & Boyd

Which is wonderfully young for your first proper concert. Yay for Mum. I loved it. We sat upstairs in the front row with my cousin Linda. Bill and Boyd opened the show. I knew them from telly. They were funny. Long hair and droopy moustaches. They sang ‘Put Another Log On the Fire’, which we sang at school. Women’s libbers and male chauvinist pigs. Hee hee. It was 1975.

 

9064625But Glen was the star. Top of his game. Hit after hit with jokes and stories. He played along to a comical silent film of him as a cowboy. Did a great imitation of Vegas dinner-show Elvis.

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The Rhinestone Cowboy

I couldn’t help singing along and was stopped many times by my mother. No photos allowed. No recordings of any kind. How things have changed.

I saw him again in 1991 as an adult at the same venue. This time sitting downstairs with rock band friends, Blair and John. It was good but I remember little. No doubt we pre-loaded in rock ‘n roll fashion. Maybe Glen had, too. He had a dark booze and cocaine period.

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Last week I watched I’ll Be Me, the documentary about Glen Campbell’s final tour and descent into Alzheimer’s. I felt ambivalent about watching it. It’s a pig of a way to go. It took my father. I recognized the same coping methods my father used to deflect the condition. Jokes. Side-steps. Anger. Distress. But what raised the doco above horrorshow was watching the tour. The danger the band felt (which included three of his children) not knowing if Glen could keep it together through the song, through the set. He did. It was astounding. A full-blown Alzheimer’s causality coming alive with lights, music and applause.

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Yes, he was reading the lyrics from an auto-cue, but so did Brian Wilson when I saw him 10 years ago. And Glen could shred up wonderful guitar solos when required. Didn’t need anyone to guide him through every move.

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Tonight Elton John is playing here in Wellington. We’re told it’s our last time to see him. Only $99. I will be a great show. He’s a consummate performer, but doesn’t pique my interest. ilxe9exYesterday I watched a video posted on Facebook of Fleetwood Mac playing in Dunedin two nights ago. They are more to my ‘see-the-gods-of-yore!’ liking. Christine McVie is with them for the first time in years.

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Fleetwood Dunners

In a couple of weeks AC/DC are here at the stadium. The Aussie pub band that done good. But so many of the members have shuffled from the stage (booze/speed/Alzheimer’s) there’s only AC (or DC?) left.

 

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Fun for the whole family

The say all political careers end in failure. It seems to be the same with music. Hits disappear, crowds vanish. Those with commercial success are bitter the critics don’t rate them. Those with acclaim resent the lack of money. So old bands/acts are now coming to your town. It’s how they make money with record sales dead.

Last month I picked up a bass for the first time in over a decade (back when I had randomly jammed with Voom).

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Buzz from Voom!

I was at my friend Mark’s 50th and we were jamming in celebration. A friend has a great band set-up, can play solid drums and snarly blues guitar. We played Sympathy for the Devil for ages and it sounded pretty darn good. Better than the Stones. Of now, not yore. It was energetic, sharp, on the edge of danger. It made me think for the first time in years that I would love to play bass again.

I haven’t played live since the late ‘90s. At the King’s Arms in Auckland. It was awful. A lounge bar on a Sunday afternoon. Two guys with guitars and a drum machine as The Letter 5. No stage to lift you above the indifferent clinking of glass.

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But last month I was astonished by how good it felt playing bass with a punchy rock drummers and guitarists (there was four of us). Maybe it was the snakebites in the sun, or the cookie to top it off, but I felt like I was in my early twenties again.

Playing Shirley Boys'& Marion High School Dance 21 June 1986 (photo by Damian Zelas)

Teenage bass

Somehow I can’t imagine Pete Shelley reading his lyrics from an auto-cue. But if he needs to, that’s what comes with age, I guess. Like a big belly and thinning hair.

 You tried it just the once, found it alright for kicks

But now you found out, that it’s a habit that sticks

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The second time I saw Glen Campbell

Flo

One of my earliest memories is from 1969. I was 2. Nana Flo walks through the door from the kitchen towards me. I am tiny. On the floor, maybe standing. Either way, she looms over me. She is carrying a sponge cake. I am excited. Unsure. Is it really for me? I loved Nana’s baking. Everyone did. Lamingtons were my favourite. But on this day, my birthday, there is a sponge cake because I am 2.

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I don’t have many memories from that time. Who does? But I vividly remember going to see my new-born sister, Michelle, at the hospital nursery when I was 3. The babies were lined up behind a glass window. Dad lifted me up to point out Michelle who was by the wall on the right. As I looked at the rows upon rows of babies I remember thinking, I have seen this before. I saw my sister Sonya here when I was 2.

This is snapshot of the few memories I carry of Nana Flo, my mother’s mother. This tiny woman was a giant of my infancy, the matriarch of a large immigrant family who gathered every Sunday to eat food and tell stories.

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Flo as a girl (back right) with her Mum & Dad, sisters & brothers

I remember little of these times. Young as I was the world was an exciting blur of the new and the familiar. I never knew what to take note of so tried to soak everything up. At a family gathering at Nana and Grandad’s, I was about 3. Surrounded by various aunts and uncles relaxing by the fire, Uncle Robert was showing us his guitar. So small I still lived on the floor, I reached up to take the pick he held out to me. Not knowing exactly what to do, I popped it into the round hole behind the strings, treating the instrument like a slot machine, expecting to hear music. The laughter that erupted both startled and unnerved me. I thought I had broken it.

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By the fire, Morley St

My grandparents, Sandy and Flo, lived in a council flat in Bryndwr on the other side of Christchurch from where I grew up. Once, Mum walked us there. With my sisters in the pram (Michelle in the seat, Sonya sitting up on the hood, bags underneath), I tootled along beside them on my blue trike as we covered the 8 kms from Stanbury Ave to Morley St, sometimes dubbing Sonya in the tray of my trike to give Mum a rest. It was a great trip. We stopped at every dairy on the way, rewarded with sweets for good behaviour. Dad picked us up later in our little Morris 1100.

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Morley St. No shed or wood-box down the driveway today

One of the most enduring memories I have of my grandparents is them sitting together on the wood-box in front of the shed at the end of the driveway, smiling and waving to us as we stood on the back seat of the 1100, waving back. They seemed so happy and content. Pleased with the visit. Happy to be alone with each other.

Sandy and Flo, Cathedral Square Chch

Nana also features in my only memory of turning 5. I was running out of the front door at Stanbury Ave when she called to me from the lounge. Had I done something naughty? I could see through the window that she was waving a parcel. For me. Why was she growling? Inside the uncertain package was a book about ponies. I loved it. I grew up loving horses. Race tracks, stables, paddocks, training tracks with family friends. I have an early memory of watching a foal being born. Being told to be very quiet or the mother may get a fright and kill it. It was an extraordinary sight.

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The book of Ponies

The year I turned 5 Nana got sick. I remember going to visit her in 2 different hospitals, Christchurch (very dark) and Princess Margaret (very sunny). Outside her room I was instructed to be quiet. Told that the doctors couldn’t make her better. I found it difficult to understand. Years later, when I was an adult, Mum talked about the shock of seeing her mother lose confidence in simple things. Cooking, looking after kids. I saw this in a vivid event at Stanbury Ave. No birthday cake or presents, guitars or epic journeys; it was a fire in our kitchen. I was sitting with my sisters watching the old B&W TV in the dining room when I heard Nana scream. I turned to see a pot of oil on fire. The flames taller than Nana. Flickering light. She was panicking, calling for Mum, who rushed in and sorted it out.

After one of the hospital stints Nana came to live with us for a week or two. It was pretty exciting as a bed was set up for her in the lounge, and she got to use a yellow wooden stool in the shower. I really wanted to do both of those things, too.

Nana died the month I turned 6. She wasn’t old, still in her 60s. I remember going to Morley Street to see Grandad when it happened. There was shouting between Mum and her brother, Alex, both hurting from the loss of their mother. Mum crying. Me scared, behind the table. So much tension in those moments of grief. I instantly recognized, and relived, such raw ill-directed pain when my parents died less than 4 years ago.

Flo’s wedding and engagement rings, cut off in hospital

I don’t think I went to Nana’s funeral service, I was considered too young. But afterwards everyone came back to our place at Stanbury Ave to eat food and remember Flo. There were a lot of mourners, too many for our house. Flo had 6 brothers and sisters, 7 adult children. A sprawling, ever-growing clan. On that sunny day in April, a white canvas tent was set up in our back lawn for the tables heavy with food. I thought that was pretty exciting at the time.

It’s funny what sticks in your memory. Of all the countless hours I spent with Nana these are the few I recall. I wish there were more, that she had been part of our lives for longer. But this tiny lady was too big a presence to entirely disappear. I have heard stories of her for the rest of my life.

Nana’s swans sit where I write

Earlier this year I attended a workshop in Creative Non-fiction intending to write the stories Mum told me about Nana and her Scottish family. What brought them to Christchurch. It’s quite a tale. Trying to write it down was a great exercise, I’m proud of what I wrote. But it still needs a lot of work. You can’t do such stories justice in 7,000-12,000 words. No single thread can be teased out without pulling on so many others. Me, my parents. My sisters, my daughter. My aunties and uncles and cousins.

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A party at Morley St

Florence Hall was born in 1905, 110 years ago today. I have thought about her most days for the last year. Not just because I was writing about her, but because 1 year ago today, on the day of her 109th birthday, major renovations started on my house. Walls disappeared, floors vanished. Ceilings came down, windows popped out. Through the turmoil and renewal I have kept a small arrangement of old photos as a constant among the dust and grime. This photo of the patron saint of the rebuild used to sit by my mother’s bed.

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It is Nana (now Flo Boyd) taken just after her first child, Alex, was born in Scotland. Her long hair has just been cut short in a 1920’s bob. In the clench of her lips and nearly-smiling eyes I see my mother, my sisters my daughter and me.

Happy birthday, Flo. Your memory endures.

We, Too, Have Paris

Everyone knows there’s something about Paris, something eternal. 10 years ago today (or thereabouts) I flew to Paris. Which makes it 9 years and 11 months since I was last there. Time flies.

ratatouille-1I first spent a night in the city of light back in the mists of the Millennium. It was very much a

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Paris 2000

stopover as I had no real desire to visit, but somehow the 24 hours I spent wandering around Montmartre and the Champs Elysees, the Place de la Concorde and Napoleon’s tomb got under my skin. The people were colourful, friendly; not at all as rude as the reputation that proceeds them. Like London, it felt international. A city that belonged to the world.

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Euro 2005 Travel plan

Five years later (10 years ago today, or thereabouts) I flew back to Paris, buttressing a month in Europe with two five-day stints. I loved it. Fell for the Ile de St Louis. Saw someone dragged from the Seine. Visited the flowers left at the spot where Diana died. I wrote about it last September in Songs of September if you wish to know more. Suffice to say what happened changed me, for better or worse (I choose better).

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Rescue on the Seine

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A tribute

My seven year old daughter sees something special in Paris. In fact, she recently asked if we could go there one day, together. Of all the places in the world it seems an interesting place for her to fixate on. Better than Disneyland. Excellent. Love my girl.

SouzaMaybe it’s the place Paris holds in popular media. She loves Home (full of Paris). Adores the Triplets of Belleville (not Paris, exactly, but a hybrid of Franco/US excess). Delights in A Monster in Paris (a wonderful film for kids full of cool non-Hollywood music). And last weekend we watched Ratatouille with its representations of Parisian streets so precise I could say to my girl (who has a French name thanks to her Francophone mother), “that is where I sat and ate meringues by the Seine as gendarmes leaped over me and my, er friend, waving pistols to keep us to quiet”.

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It’s not just kids’ movies. On my writing course last week we talked about Midnight In Paris discussing what age we would most like to visit. I had to resist blurting I was watching the third series of Vikings (a series I love so much I wrote about it) where the attack on Paris is so stunningly realised it takes up 3-4 episodes of the 10 part series. To see Medieval Paris, such an unbelievable treat!

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Even Vikings heart Paris

10 years is a long time in any life. Even when it seems like yesterday. I remember almost every meal I ate. Every surprising sight. Every fight. Every reconciliation. Every ridiculously romantic moment.

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Pre-smartphone travel plan 2005

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Meringue by the Seine

I was going to let the anniversary of that September go by without note but this morning I read a great short story by Lorrie Moore called ‘You’re Ugly, Too’. It’s very dark and funny. A history teacher from Maryland tries to teach complacent, uncurious Mid-Westerners in Paris, Illinois about history. Just the idea of there being a place called Paris, Illinois is mind-bendingly awful, and funny.

Today, I remember Paris, and look forward to my next visit when I will go with my girl and we will do whatever the future may hold, be it meringues by the Seine or whatever she may fancy. Paris is like that. Always there. Constantly defying expectations.

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Under the Spell

I believe in magic: the power of language, history, and story. This potent brew whipped-up a perfect storm of understanding and insight when one of my favourite podcasters featured on another of my favs the other day.

littlest_witch___halloween_spell_practice_by_brandrificus-d6qc0o2Both podcasts are in-depth histories by enthusiastic amateurs. One, an Englishman called David, spends weekends in his shed telling a wonderfully good-humoured history of England (in the summer you can hear the birds in the trees). The other is a lawyer called Kevin composing a marvellously detailed history of the English language from somewhere in South Carolina. linguistic-treeBoth have posted over 100 episodes. I have learned so much about the quirks and fun of a gripping story. I now know bits of Indo-European, Old Germanic, Old Norse, Frankish, Old English, Celtic (all which made the killer TV series Vikings more thrilling). It has been a treat to listen to these passionate enthusiasts as I painted the house and pottered away at renovations.Vikings_S02P12,_cast

So when my fav amateur language geek did a guest spot on the latest History of England episode last week (which has just made it to the end of the 100 Years’ War) I was thrilled. His topic? The word ‘spell’. Here’s the magic.

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The Indo-European languages

Spell is derived from Indo-European (the parent language of many Eurasian languages). It originally meant to recite, tell or speak. In Old Germanic it came to mean a tale, fable or saying. The Anglo-Saxons brought it to England in the 400s to refer to ‘story’, especially a good or ‘true’ story (gospel is a contraction of ‘good story’). Over the next few hundred years it slowly applied to short phrases or sayings that held special truth or magic (think how we spout short phrases as if they contain a truth or agency ‘do the crime do the time’, ‘touch wood’, ‘I do’, ‘Go Broncos!’ etc).How-to-Spell-Success

When the Normans invaded in 1066 they brought the same Germanic word via their Norse and Frankish (the Germanic founders of France) roots. Except for them spell meant to break a difficult text or idea into its parts so that it may be understood i.e. to ‘spell it out’ and reveal the truth.

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By the 1400s that meaning was refined to include breaking words down into the letters used to represent it. Dictionaries came later, and the spelling of words lost the fluidity they had always had (even the most educated people routinely varied spelling).MagicSpellBook

Today, all these meanings still exist in English. We refer to truth as gospel even in a non-religious sense. We spell things out to explain them. We break down words into letters to spell them. We talk of being under a spell (albeit of love, an idea, celebrity or charisma, as opposed to magic).

Even those who claim not to believe in magic use the idea in the old Anglo-Saxon sense, repeating phrases they believe hold a power. Think of all the hashtags amended to causes and sent out into the world. Does hash-tagging a phrase, cause, belief, or favourite sports team have a measurable effect on a physical object or outcome? It depends if you believe in magic and the power of language.

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The History of England                                                     The History of English Podcast