Tag Archives: childhood


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Quiet Loud Listen Sing

You know, Dad… I really like songs that go quiet, then loud!

When my 6 year-old daughter said this to me the other week she said it with hand movements, pressing down on the quiet, then going up high for the loud!, just like a conductor. I resisted the immediate urge to say, well, then you need to hear the Pixies, Missy Moo, you’ll love This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven. Instead, I stayed quiet letting her finish the thought that had distracted her from her drawing.

I had put a video on the telly to learn a song I was unfamiliar with for an informal singing group I recently joined, and I took her dramatic statement as a critique of what I saw as quite a laid-back ditty.

I say my singing group is informal as it’s for people who enjoy singing and don’t seek the formal structure of church, choir or barber-shop. While we could be characterized as ‘enthusiastic amateurs’, we’re not as bad as that phrase implies. And while we often have the crazed energy of the Portsmouth Sinfonia (a wonderful orchestra of untrained musicians made famous by Brian Eno), we’re much more ‘on song’ than that deliberately experimental group (which disbanded once they became too competent). William Tell Overture – Portsmouth Sinfonia

The song I was trying to get familiar with was one I had never taken a shine to, I See Fire by Ed Sheeran; a # 1 hit in New Zealand (and Iceland, and Norway, and Sweden… countries that believe in hobbits, I guess). I See Fire


Firey duet

In the few seconds it took me to suppress my urge to whip off the song and put on the Pixies, my daughter looked up from the picture she was working on for her classroom boy-crush, and continued her thought saying, like Roar, Wire, Recover… and this one.

I was a little taken aback; by both the thoughtful analysis of a 6 year-old, and that she placed this movie theme song in her pantheon of great tunes – the ones we regularly sing along to in the car.

When it finished she insisted I played the video again, accompanying my vocals while adding purple to the picture she was drawing for Austin (it’s his favourite colour!) Fascinated by the sheet music I was (patchily) reading (I sing by ear rather than eye), she insisted we went through the tune half a dozen times; slipping into some lovely harmonies (I have always found it hard to stay on my note).


Katy and her little band do a wee Roar

Now, I need to make it clear that despite what I said above, we have never listened to Roar in the car. Nothing against Katy Perry; my daughter loves her. And while she as at the more acceptable end of the ‘stripper-pop’ spectrum, I just don’t need a copy of that song. Don’t get me wrong, I love pop and we listen to heaps of contemporary (and classic) commercial wonderful/awfulness, but I find that particular tune loses its vim fast, quickly becoming a flaccid grind. That said, I did happen to see the (former Mrs.) brand Perry perform the song ‘acoustically’ at the Grammy announcements and was impressed with the live energy (as opposed to the somehow soulless and cold single) so watched that video with my daughter many times.

But the Katy Perry that gets played and sung along to in the car (along with The Wire and Recover) is Dark Horse, as it stands above the rest to me. Dark Horse

  1. Her voice is pitched down in my range 2. I’m a sucker for the wonderfully low 808 drum sound, and in this track it has an addictive reggae-type feel that I just can’t get sick of. Yes, my girl is digging her idol but the lyrics she sings along to most, is Juicy J.’s rap, which kind of surprises me.
    Dark Horse 2

    Dark Horse? Garish filly

We also often dance to the lurid video, as she’s into things Egyptian at the moment. It’s a fun vid which courted controversy when a brain-dead stylist thought it would be cool to burn contemporary religious symbols. It’s not the only dull-skulled element, however, as the lyrics start with make me your Aphrodite… the Greek goddess of love… okay, so let’s make an Egyptian! video. Righto. Sure, Cleopatra, being a Ptolomy, was of Hellenistic stock… I can handle that, I’m not a total pedant (even though I seriously doubt that reference is going on). But what I find grates most of all is the need to put in some gratuitous pole dancing near the end… damn you to hell/Hades/Duat, stripper-pop, I hope Cerberus bites you on each cheek!


Good boy, Cerberus

Still, I can bite my tongue on those bits purely because 1. I enjoy other elements 2. My girl loves it 3. She hasn’t a clue what pole-dancing is 4. I love dancing with my girl.

I like to think I’m pretty liberal when it comes to lyrics, which by their very nature are hard to nail down. You may as well try to confine the wind in a box. But the Aphrodite/Egyptian thing pales when I think of another song I quite enjoyed until some particularly numb-nutted lyrics became apparent.


Awesome Black Skinhead stylings

It’s Kanye West’s Black Skinhead, which is a massively addictive production with some gorgeous sounds (and interestingly provocative lyrics). However, when I realised that in the chorus he was singing/rapping I keep it 300, like the Romans…300 bitches were the Trojans. You WHAT?! They’re Spartans in 300, you gimp… fighting Persians… Sheesh, was Kanye too busy discussing lip gloss with wifey in that bit of the film? I simply can’t find a way to see it as anything but arrogant and dull-headed so it has killed the song for me. Black Skinhead


Alex with the Box Tops

But it doesn’t always have to be the case. For instance, I love Alex Chilton but when in Bangkok he sings… Here’s a little song that’s gonna please ya, about a little town down in Indonesia…Bangkok!… Bangkok! I can’t help but wince. But it doesn’t kill the song for me. Would you honestly expect geographical knowledge from an American? (Especially one who became a star at 16 singing the #1 hit The Letter with the Box Tops. Early success always messes with your head). Bangkok – Alex Chilton  The Letter – The Box Tops

Getting too pedantic about lyrics is a no-win as, like poetry, it’s all about play. But we all have our limits. I love lots of I See Fire but hate the… if we should all die tonight, then we should all go down together… refrain as the glorification of martyrdom just sticks in my craw (especially in what is essentially a kids movie… albeit one for big kids).

And Sex Pistol Steve Jones always says how much he winced when Johnny Rotten forced the rhyme… I am the anti-Christ!, I am an anar-chist!… in their debut single. But it sure made a glorious announcement of intent. Anarchy In the U.K.


Mark Ronson: Producer to the stars, DJ/Musician extraordinaire


Haim employ way better stylists than Katy Perry

But enough of what’s not to like, here’s why I love the other song my daughter mentioned, The Wire by Haim. I came across this by chance, found it didn’t catch me immediately but was soon listening out for little hooks secreted throughout… the organ line that fades up in the chorus, the distorted bass run, the unexpected guitar solo, the big glam drums, the lyrics I can’t quite get a handle on. After hearing it a dozen times I decided it must be a session singer with a DJ/producer mashing up the elements a la Mark Ronson (who I love). But I was wrong: it is 3 sisters from LA with a strong musical pedigree, hence the vocals which blend so you don’t know that the lead vocals have shifted. Having played in a covers band with their parents in L.A. the middle sister became a session guitarist, was picked to play live with Jenny Lewis, then Julian Casablancas, and Cee-Lo Green. The eldest went off and got a musicology degree and then, having learned all the tricks, they dragged in little sis’ to have a proper crack at the scene. The Wire – Haim

Haim Lorde

Haim helping out childe pop star Lorde

Clearly, I’m in love with the results. Whether this first album is all the best stuff of many years of work brushed up beautifully, is yet to be seen/heard. Although they’re nothing like Mark Ronson, they’re akin as he also had a (greater) musical pedigree (his mother married the guitarist in Foreigner and Sean Lennon was a childhood friend).

Somebody To Love Me – Mark Ronson (ft. Boy George)

In case you think I have a crush on Haim, it’s not just about the girls. The often un-featured drummer’s dad was in 3 Dog Night, and the subtle and seductive rhythm tracks are a big part of the overall appeal for me.



Which leaves the other song my girl loves, Recover by Chvrches. They are exactly what I mistook Haim for… a couple of knob twiddlers and a chick singer. They seem okay, but I don’t want to sing along as my daughter does. However, as she can sing pretty much all the words I’m more than happy to play it whenever she asks to hear it. Recover – Chvrches

That’s the thing about music, we all hear different things. The hooks either grab us or make us recoil in pain… or float right through us as if we were made of jelly.

As a child, before I started getting involved in music, I always used to wonder why songs needed verses. After all, I reasoned, the choruses were always the best bits. I was yet to learn the power of dynamic range; quiet and loud. But as I matured I started to find things to love in all parts of songs, even in ones that weren’t to my taste. Be it the sound of the drums, lyrical image or turn of phrase, bewitching melody or power of the bass.

I realise everyone doesn’t feel this way, preferring set styles and actively despising others.


There’s a great Aussie movie called Mullet. It’s about the fish, not haircuts (no Icehouse, as I recall)

My daughter certainly doesn’t like everything I play and will always tell me if she doesn’t like a particular song (for instance, she loves The Flowers/Icehouse We Can Get Together but really dislikes Great Southern Land, no matter how I try).

We Can Get Together – Icehouse       Great Southern Land

Occasionally, when we drive in the garage and I am rushing to get upstairs to light the fire, do homework and make dinner, she will ask if we can hear the song we are listening to through to the end. As a musician, soundman and tireless lover of music, I’m always happy to let the music resolve. (The first time this happened was with John Stewart’s Gold… one of her old favourites… a song I have never tired of since I first heard it in the summer of 1979. The smooth Rhodes piano… Stevie Nick’s backing vocals… pure gold). john stewart Gold – John Stewart

I’m glad my girl has her own opinion and tastes. It’s as it should be.

Quiet, loud, alone, all together.

Wait for it, wait for it…

…And end.


Secret track: Stray Cat Strut – The group I sing with…

Death of a King

Today comes to New Zealand while much of the world is still stuck in yesterday. Last Friday, a friend mentioned it was 36 years since Elvis died. He qualified this statement by pointing out that while it was Friday 16th August when The King of Rock and Roll had his heart attack on the dunny it would actually have been the 17th in NZ when we got the news.

Not that we are slow here. Yes, it was the ‘70s, well before the internet and cell-phones, but even back then such news travelled fast.

In a similar fashion, another friend insists on referring to 9/11 as September 12th as, through our eyes, that’s when the murderous attacks happened. The same events mean different things to different people. Everyone has their own reaction.

I was ten years old when the world lost the great, tortured talent that was Elvis Aaron Presley. I was in Standard 4 at Somerfield School, a few months away from moving up to Intermediate: we were the ‘seniors’ of the school.

We had just come in from lunch on a sunny late-winter day. It must have been a mild winter as we had been playing on the field, something that wasn’t allowed if it was sodden by rain (the caretaker would put a red flag in the corner if the grass was too wet). I’m not sure what we had been playing, but my favourites were bull-rush (or barbadour, as we often called it) and forcing back, which we played with an ice-cream tub lid as no one had a Frisbee at school (I got one “from overseas” a year or two later. It glowed in the dark and was called a moon disc. I tested out the glow-in-the-dark feature only once. It was a good way to get a Frisbee in the face).

If my memory is false (and that can be the way of memory as each time we access them they are tweaked in favour of present concerns) and the red flag was out, then we would have been playing on the asphalt courts in front of the big brick building that dominated my small school.

In winter it was 4-square or pat-a-tennis or various games of our own devising. We had a seasonal love of marbles which was much more free-form than the traditional version where the action is confined to a circle. We played for keeps, like-for-like: bonkers, jumbos, cat’s eyes, ball bearings. It was like a form of chasing where you had a crack at hitting and winning your friend’s marbles. Some kids ended up with bags bulging with booty.

One day a friend lost his wee rubber bouncy ball after seeing how high it would go. To find it, I suggested bouncing mine on the same spot, at the same angle. The second ball landed beside the lost one. I felt as clever as Sherlock Hemlock.

Whatever it was we had been playing I was hot and sweaty when I made it back to my desk in Room 4 (or 14… whichever it was). I was right by the corner, surrounded by girls. My position was the result of a ‘70s attempt at streaming where they put the cleverest kids in the back two rows on the left. I’m not sure if they told us this, but if we were clever then we would have worked it out. Either that or my mother told me after I complained about not getting to sit with my friends.

So I sat there, separated from those I had been playing with (and no, I did not just play with boys. I was a child who always had good friends of both flavours. In retrospect, this clearly un-nerved some fathers who suddenly had me uninvited on more than one occasion. Mothers never seemed to mind).

Each classroom had a small, yellow wooden radio box in the corner where messages could be played. I don’t remember it ever being used for anything except for the news after lunch, but it may have been. There certainly were no ‘ding-dung-dong!’ xylophone tones announcing any announcements.

When the news came on at 1pm on 17 Aug 1977, the first words were ‘The King is Dead”.

I was shocked. Although my parents, being of the pre-rock generation, were older than most they admired his great voice and we had watched his last live performance on TV a few months before. He looked awful: bloated, sweaty, the magic dull in his eyes. My uncle said they actually had to pay people to clap. I thought this would have been very, very expensive but Elvis was a rich man, so who knows? My scepticism for such teasing statements clearly yet to form I heard what I wanted to hear, kept questioning unsaid.

In another classroom at the same school my younger sisters would have heard the same news. The youngest, just turned seven, reacted by saying “but we don’t have a king.”

I thought that was both clever and funny.

I would react in a similarly disassociated way three years later. It was a spring evening in early November and I was sitting in the lounge on our grey Conroy heater waiting for tea. Mum rushed in from the kitchen where she had been listening to the radio.

“They’ve shot Lennon!”

That I recognized her distress may be why I failed to understand what she had said. In my head I thought, but Lenin died years ago… (I have always been a history nerd).

So much steps forward when you remember the past. In my first blog I wrote about the fear of cannibalizing my fiction (which, after all, is full of real life). But a story will always take the form it demands. And if you write nothing, nothing ends up on the page.

I started writing this piece about the day Elvis died with the intention of posting it on that anniversary last Friday (or Saturday). Blogs are of the moment, I wanted it to fit tightly to that moment with the counterpoint of my sister’s reaction and my subsequent echo three years later.

But as I started writing about Somerfield School so much came back: how I ate jam sandwiches every day for a year, proudly wore shoes that had more holes than canvas, got called fly-shit face and sonny-bubbles, heard my first dirty joke from my childhood crush while sitting on a jungle gym behind the big brick building.

However, what stepped forward was my first friend who had I unwittingly insulted by the urinal on my first day. He lived in a house that had giant corgis painted on the garage door. Why did he start to dominate my memories? He wasn’t my closest or most enduring friend. He lived on Milton Street. Was I writing about a paradise lost?

It could only be because of his tragic death. He died in his first race as he joined the sport of Kings. The writer in me was wrestling a memoir into a short story. It promised to be a good one (at least, one with literary possibilities), if I did it right. So I googled his name, and even though he died long before that search giant took its first steps towards dominating the world (and became a verb) there he was, for reasons more poignant than I knew. I could not touch this piece for four days.

Maybe I have spilled all the water from this jug of memories. Maybe this blog is enough. Maybe the story of the death of a king is yet to come.

Another young NZ rider died yesterday. The connections are uncanny. Such is the nature of life and fiction.

However you name the day, Elvis died 36 years and four days ago. It was very sad. Hunter was 16. What more needs to be said?