Tag Archives: Haglund’s Deformity

Unmovie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 3)

No Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

The End of a Story

I see it is 6 weeks since my last post. That’s way too long. I have composed many in my head but as spring has kicked into gear life has become way too hectic to find time to explore my thoughts. I guess I’m still too much of a writer to just bash something out and post it. It must be more than mere typing or letting off steam to warrant the effort of crafting something worth reading.

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Life’s a beach, dress appropriately

Everyone has a life to live so what have I been doing that has sucked up my time? Basically, the spare time I would have devoted to writing has been…

1. pushed into a gym membership to take up aqua-jogging and gentle treadmill running as I work on a slow recovery from an operation I had on my heel to correct my Haglund’s Deformity in November last year. The results are very encouraging but if I don’t go a few times a week my recovering fitness drops off fast… a sign I’m a lot older than I think I am. Still, must be patient, it’s a 2 year road back to being 100%, so I’m told.

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Looking forward to getting my dancing shoes back on

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My living room

2. prepping the house for major renovations that started 3 weeks ago. As I write this interior and exterior walls are out, ceilings gone, there’s a giant hole in the floor, and I am protected from a near gale and heavy rain by some impressive looking building paper. It’s not as dire a picture as those words may paint. I actually find the sound of loud rain on a tin roof cosy and reassuring. But there are piles of crap everywhere that need sorting, shifting and resorting.

3. after over 3 years of estrangement from serious engagement with writing fiction, I have started an online course, going deeper than just banging out partial first drafts (I started blogging a year ago to try and find a path back to fiction). In fact, the momentum has allowed me to delve into unfinished stories untouched since I lost the heart for fiction when my mother got sick in May 2011.

But the actual reason I’ve been motivated to write this is that a story I dearly love is about to end tonight. I’m referring to Boardwalk Empire, the HBO costume drama set during the US Prohibition.2926045-boardwalk_empire_season_2_sezonul_2_wallpaper_cast

In case you watch the show, let me reassure you that I will not be giving away any of the story, but I will be referring to aspects of it.

I credit my mother with giving me a love of costume drama. Yes, my fascination with history plays into it. I find it physically thrilling to see the unseen recreated. I vividly remember my excitement at being allowed to stay up late to watch BBC period dramas with exotic clothes and adult themes like Therese Raquin, I, Claudius, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or the Australian Against the Wind, For The Term of His Natural Life, and the US mini-series Roots and Shogun. (Not forgetting New Zealand’s, The Governor). So much to marvel at, learn and enjoy. And BE excels in that it recreates a time much overlooked by television, the 1920s. The obvious reason for this neglect is that it costs a lot more to make a drama that needs all its sets and costumes made from scratch. Of course, product placement, that major funder of TV drama has no obvious place in the past, making it yet more expensive to produce.

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Margaret and Nucky ruling the Empire

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Naughty old 1931 Margaret

I watched the Martin Scorsese-directed first episode when visiting my mother in Ashburton in 2010. Despite my love of the genre, I hadn’t been intending to watch it, but my mother was keen so I watched it with her. To be honest, I was kind of bored by the brooding slowness but in her quietly perceptive way Mum unpicked the story and guessed what was happening from the first shot of Margaret Shroeder.

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Miss Lucy Danziger takes the cake (and has some of the best lines)

When I returned to Wellington, I kept up with the show, slowly becoming a major fan of so many aspects of the production. The stories, the acting, the music, the recreations of real people (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Myer Lansky, Jack Dempsey, Eddie Cantor, Joe Kennedy etc etc). It is full of what my mother called ‘character actors’ i.e. not the best looking actors. It’s something she always admired about English drama, which avoided the commercial pressure to to turn everything into a love story between beautiful people (or a battle between goodies and baddies). And the casting of non-leading man Steve Buscemi as the protagonist, Nucky Thompson (a good-ish baddie), shows that the US has finally caught up during this so-called ‘Golden Age’ of TV drama (Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones etc).

Now, during the 5th and final season, I have gone back to the start and watched every episode again as the final (short season of) 8 episodes play, and I am loving it even more. Like a great novel, it rewards repeated engagement. The layers of each season all relate to each other and nothing is out of place. It’s all about lost boys and naughty girls, powerful women and powerless tough guys. Broken families and the power of family.

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Van Alden and Sigrid, comedy gold

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Gillian and Jimmy. Ever-loving mother and son

At the same time I have been following the fan reaction on the BE Facebook page and it has been totally intriguing. Like 90% of the internet, there are a lot of grumpy people totally missing the point.

A great bug-bear seems to be the heavy use of flash-backs in this final season. People keep saying that they should have been at the start, that they are boring. That the writers don’t know what they are doing. I couldn’t disagree more.

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Nucky and Eli in 1884

I’m with the 10% who believe the flashbacks are sublime, opening up the story in a way that is both hugely entertaining and rewarding.

Not only have all the previous story-lines taken on a richer tone, but it has been simply astounding to see how well the young actors inhabit Nucky, Gillian, the Commodore et al, going beyond simple mimicry to adding unexpected understanding to the story.

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Richard and Emma. Some of the most intriguing acting I have ever seen

I could rave on and on, how I loved all the music, Chalky White and his night club. The laugh-out-loud deadpan comedy of Van Alden (and wife). Half-faced WWI veteran Richard Harrow and his stunningly weird twin sister…

The thing is, all good things must end and nothing worthwhile goes on forever. The characters look old and tired. The perky optimism of the early 1920s has given way to the the darkness of the early ’30s.

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Van Alden, funniest deadpan since Buster Keaton

Mirroring the fate of many viewer’s favourite character, Jimmy (the broken, impatient lost boy), my mother died at the end of series 2. My father joined her 4 months later. That 1-2 punch, so close together, has made the last few years a time of constant reevaluation of my life. There has been no room for writing fiction when all I do is question life. Like Nucky in this final season, everything plays through a lens of constant flashbacks and reassessment.

On the last night I spent with my mother we watched a costume drama, Reese Witherspoon’s Vanity Fair. It was lush, sumptuous with a lot of money on the screen. There was a heap of great acting but everything good came from the novel and we both agreed it wasn’t a patch on the BBC adaptation. They had gone too Hollywood, attempting to make the awful protagonist Becky Sharpe (Reese) a misunderstood American striver. It killed the story.

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Corrupt ‘family man’ Eli makes a point

As I anticipate the final show I can’t help wishing my mother was here to watch it with me, so I could have the benefit of her opinion.

In a way, I believe she will be in the form of the love she gave me for wonderful drama.

Like all the fans, I don’t want BE to end. But the story has played out. It remains beautiful and clever. Rich and deep, funny and perceptive.

And that will never change.

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On a Sandy Shore

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This morning I woke at 4 am. Not unusual, especially on a full moon. It was so bright and my mind was active, writing narratives that will never see the light of day. It’s been a couple of long, challenging days at work with overtime and 4 hours travel each day, a situation exacerbated by the short-staffing that the health service routinely endures, further compounded by the panic that occurs when sickness and injury removes any meat from a workplace already shaved clean to the bone.

And while I tend to thrive on the adrenaline of panic (it’s how my shy character once found a comforting home on the stage), I am still only 8 months into a 2 year recovery from surgery on my ankle, and I tire easily. Yes, it’s a long recovery. If I knew it would take so long, I’m not sure I would have done it. Especially given that it’s only in the last few weeks that I could say there has been an improvement in my condition. That said, my general fitness is a lot worse than it ever was. I try not to think about it. I do exercises and stretches every day, and go for short walks, training my heel, ankle and knees to walk again. Who would have thought that shaving a 9mm spur off the ankle would have such an impact?

Given that situation, you may think I would be glad of a lie-in. But there is too much to do, and I have a mind that never rests. Often when I sleep I dream of running (something I have done all my life until Haglund’s Deformity knocked me on my arse and on to crutches). Last night I had an incredibly vivid dream where I was about to play a match with the Warriors (the only sports team I love). It felt great to be moving, running, passing the ball but I soon realised that I was about to take the field in the hardest professional Rugby League competition in the world and the Australian opposition was bound to target me. I got very, very anxious, afraid for my bones and life, waking suddenly at 1am, relieved (and a little disappointed).

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Ouchie!

None of this is what got me out of bed at 4am on a day when I have no work or child to tend to. I got up because I wanted to write about my grandfather.

It is his birthday tomorrow, and, were he alive, he would be 111 years old. Crikey, that’s quite a number. Apparently, when the New Zealand cricket team is on 111 runs, the players in the shed all lift their feet off the floor to avoid losing a wicket. (I had a girlfriend once who was a great cricket fan and she always insisted we did the same. I can’t recall if it worked).

On a more personal level, my mother, my grandfather’s first daughter (who he always called ‘hen’), died on 11.11.11: Remembrance Day (as if I could forget). Once, during those impossibly short, endless months as we waited for the unthinkable, I told her she had to make it to that date. But, then, many things are said as you wait, wait, wait.

My grandfather, Sandy (the Scots shortening of Alexander), was born in 1903, and though he left Scotland in the 1920s, he never lost his sing-song Scots accent. I have, by chance, a quick snippet of it recorded 4 days before he died in 1985. I treasure those few seconds of audio.

He was a lovely, gentle man who, like most of his generation had a hard life. He married my grandmother, Flo’, in Forth in 1926 and they had my uncle, Alex (my mother’s big brother who passed in January), in the historic ironworks town of Wilsontown.

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An imagining of Wisontown in its heyday

A significant player in the Industrial Revolution (the first use of coke instead of charcoal, the first hot blast form of the blast furnace) it was in decline by the mid 1800s.

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Long demolished housing, Wilsontown, Scotland

My wider family worked the coal mines that remained and my grandparents and wee Alex escaped the soon-to-be demolished insanitary slum in the late 1920s, on a boat that took them to the coal mines at Dobson, on the West Coast of New Zealand, where my mother was born on the kitchen table, to the sound of my granddad’s squeaking boots. (“Will ye no stop that dreedful pacing, Sandy?!)

When I visited Wilsontown (now a Scheduled Ancient Monument) in 2000 it was beautiful, a wild field of flowers and forest with a few ruins. Annie, the elderly cousin of my mother, her husband Bill, and their daughter, Rae walked me around the ruins and I picked up a piece of slate from the place where my grandparents lived.

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Annie & Bill attacked by midgies, Wilsontown 2000

Bill, in his 90s, recalled living there, pointing out the spot where, as a child, he had gone to see silent movies (!?!) They also took me to the place where my grandfather had taken my grandmother by motorbike when they were courting, impressing her not with the red Panther, but with his skill on the cornet.

When I lay in bed at 4am this morning, eyes closed, willing myself to rest, I started to grasp for a verse Bill had recited when we went to see my grandfather’s old school. They asked if I wanted to get out the car to take a photo. I didn’t. This was the pre-digital era and, unlike now, photos were rationed (more space in the backpack, more expense).

But I have the picture in my head because Bill pointed to a hill; a Marilyn (a hill of 150m) named Tinto, and recited a verse. It seemed to me that whenever a subject came up Bill would burst into a relevant song or verse. I only heard it once, but it is a much stronger image than any photo.

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Tinto in Lanark (the verse is at the end of the blog)

My grandfather, ‘Sandy’ Alexander, died 4 days after my father’s 60th birthday, his lungs drowned in fluid caused by all those years down the mines (helped on by the fags). Long-widowed he was living with us at the time, that’s why I have a (brief) recording of his wonderful voice (“like a set of bloody bagpipes”, my Uncle Alex would say). In his last week he would call out in the night, “I’m coming mother, I’m coming”. We weren’t sure if was calling to his actual mother, or to Flo’, who he missed dearly and called ‘mother’ (or ‘hen’).

Sandy had escaped the rapid decay of Scotland with his young family for the promise of New Zealand, but ended up smack-bang in the Great Depression, and WW2 Christchurch.

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Sandy, ever-present rollie in mouth, Christchurch c.1930s

He worked for the railways and helped build the causeway to Sumner to provide for the ever-increasing brood of my uncles and aunties. Flo’, with my mother’s help, fed the kids and whoever else needed a feed (like a lot of the now-despised poor, they were always generous with what they had).

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Sandy, Mum, Flo’, Alex and new baby Anne, Lyttleton c1930s

As a child, my mother used to sit on his knee as he taught her the old songs.

He died in my bed in the dark of night in my mother’s arms, struggling for breath as she sang him the old lullabies, one of which, Sandman Grey, I sang to my daughter when she was a restless baby.

We sang the same song with my dying mother, the last time I saw her. It was agonising saying goodbye. With Mum in one arm, my infant daughter in the other, my sisters beside me, it was the hardest day of my life. I will hear the pain in her tears forever.

But what can you do?

Life is hard. Death is harder. But amongst both, there is immeasurable beauty.

It’s a long time till I will walk with ease again, let alone run. At the moment I head to the beach whenever I can to march up and down the loose sand, working on unstable movement, gentling increasing impact and stress to my withered muscles, tendons and ligaments, helping them to get stronger.

I cannot believe my grandfather was born 111 years ago tomorrow, 2 years after the death of Queen bloody Victoria. I sometimes wonder if my relatively long roots (Antipodean pun intended) have fed my hunger for history and memoir.

I shall sing the songs and stories that made me, each verse and chorus of love, lust and loss for as long as I breathe.

But now it is light, the full moon outshone by day.

I need to head to the beach in search of loose sand to test me.

 

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‘On Tintock tap, there is a mist,

And in that mist, there is a kist,

And in that kist, there is a cup,

And in that cup, there is a drap.

Tak’ up that cup, and drink that drap, that’s in yon kist, on Tintock tap!’

Second Thoughts

Today is a special day. I feel caught at the edge of something; marooned in the calm swell between past and approaching waves.

Why? Because I am exhausted and lost.

I have just come back from taking my daughter to the airport to fly off to visit family. She will have a great time, but as she had been with her mother for a week, the brief minutes together have mixed with my bone-wary exhaustion leaving me adrift in a cold, grey sea.

I know why my body is wary and trembling, giving rise to some loneliness and despair. It’s most probably because I have been working non-stop day and night in jobs which require levels of physical exertion I am probably not yet fit for (something I hate to admit).

It’s 5 and a half months since the operation to fix the Haglund’s Deformity on my heel and though I try to be patient and not think about it, there hasn’t been a moment when I could honesty say that I feel less pain and exhaustion than before the operation. No, I lie. I have many times marvelled at the improved movement and lack of pain, but each time that has happened I have had to remind myself that I’m on painkillers so have no real idea.

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Do I regret the procedure? No. I won’t allow that thought. Do I hate my jobs? No, they are enjoyable and rewarding on so many levels. Do I yearn for a relationship? No, not yet. I need time to heel on all levels.

With my girl gone to have fun I decided to do something I haven’t done in ages; wander around town, looking in second-hand bookshops. It’s not like I wanted to buy any books (I have so many still in boxes), but I just wanted to be free of my thoughts and look for the author I am presently obsessed with, Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s a wonderful, but unfashionable, writer and her books are never on the shelves. That, of course, could be read as a sign of the strength of her work; people hold on to books they like.

First, I tried Pegasus Books in the Left Bank of Wellington’s Cuba Mall.

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It is where I walked on crutches in January, finding a copy of The Gate of Angels, which I am reading at the moment. It’s a choice wee book and I am reading it as slowly as possible, savouring each word and image. It has the thing I require of every book I read, a great opening line (“How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril?”).

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But she was not on the shelf, so I went to look for Nicholson Baker, who was also absent, however I did spot a copy of John Banville’s, The Sea, something I read when it won the Booker in 2005. I loved it at the time and something about it has stayed with me. I checked the opening line (“They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”) I wanted it.

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I checked the price, $15, which seemed steep for a second-hand book I had already read. I put it back and kept looking, but returned three times to re-read the opening paragraph. The beauty of the craft was as compelling as Fitzgerald. After turning to glare at the unthinking woman who twice pushed past me while talking to her companion, both times rubbing her backside against mine (if I did it to her, would it not be sexual assault? Never mind, never mind…), I decided that in my fractured state I was being impulsive, so I left the deliciously book-filled shelves and headed for Arty Bees on Manners Street.

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Yet again, no Baker or Fitzgerald. But there was The Sea, in a different (and cheaper) edition. I read the first page again.

I so wanted it. Not just because it sparked my mind, making me want to write, but because I was intent on buying myself something to mark the day; the last day before I became a year older.

As I walked back towards Pegasus Books, reminiscing about how hard it was to cover this distance 3 months ago when I was still on crutches (noting that for all my moments of despair, I was making progress), I spotted a second-hand book shop I had never seen before; The Ferret Bookshop.

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It’s much smaller than the other two but amongst the fiction I found The Sea, in the same edition I read back when I lived overlooking the sea, on a city island north of my present home. While it wasn’t in as good a nick, it was only $10. Score!

As I went to buy it and head home to rest I noticed another book I had read at the same place by the sea, 10 years ago; Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. Like Banville’s novel, this biography had slipped inside me in unexpected ways; partly because of the subject but also, as I have come to realise, because Tomalin is a great biographer who I adore (Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Mansfield, Austen… not to mention a biography of Dickens’ secret lover, now the film The Invisible Woman).

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Pepys is like no other writer. Yes, he was writing (secretly) close to great people and events, but it is his startling emotional honesty that compels interest and keeps him relevant. A man of his times, he wrote in code fearing discovery, joyfully recording his sexual ‘conquests’ which we now read as sexual assaults.

And through this, he wrote and lived with the greatest of pain, enduring a horrific and dangerous operation to remove crippling bladder stones. I think of this often, especially when my relatively minor pain chips away at my resolve.

Through the Great Fire and plagues, Restoration surgery, and the distractions of the court of Charles II, he was compelled to examine himself in a way which is stunningly modern.

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Um, I’ve changed my mind

At $15 I had to have this book, too.

As I have mentioned many times, I am awash in the competing currents of fiction and creative non-fiction, pulled one way, then the other, unsure where I am heading, certain they are part of the same body.

Some writers write for money, and the physical sustenance it gives. But most, I believe, write because it is like breathing, and they don’t want to drown.

$25 has purchased me the greatest of birthday presents, and I couldn’t be happier.

I am no clearer which way I am heading, if I’m caught in a rip or heading for paradise. But sometimes, being at sea is the only place to be.

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Hire Aims

It’s a long time since I’ve blogged, and although my internal narrative constructs new ones every day I never seem to find the time to get the words out of my head. Of course, everyone is busy and time has to be found to hurdle the excuses which block any output. My major excuse has been learning to walk after so long on crutches or in a moon-boot (a process I seriously underestimated). My knee wobbles, my ankle is uncertain and my toes feel like they will snap. The physical demands of getting back to work has been hard enough in itself, and any time not working, doing chores or caring for my child has been spent elevating my leg to deal with the inevitable swelling and pain.

That said, for the last three weeks I have been walking down to the beach whenever I can, something that takes 40 minutes and leaves me covered in sweat – quite a comedown, as even with my pre-op Achilles and bone deformity I could easily run for an hour up and down the tracks where I live (well, maybe not so easily but it seems that way compared to now).

Nevertheless, my exercise over the last few weeks has stripped over 3 kgs off my body, and even though I’m always tired and puffing, I feel much better than I have in many months. Not as good as I was pre-op (disabling condition and all) but I try not to think about that. As my CEO said when I expressed frustration with my slow recovery, that’s why we call them patients…because they must be patient.

After I dropped my daughter at school this morning I decided not to rush through my to-do list and stopped for a coffee at my favourite local espresso bar. It’s little more than a hole-in-the-wall and I like that. The owner is friendly and I prefer to support these small enterprises in preference to the awful homogonous franchises that dominate every retail area. It has character (and wonderful homemade caramel slice).

I’ve stopped there in the past chatting with the groovy old Dutch lady who always has New Zealand music playing at a reasonable volume. There’s never anyone else there but this time I was surprised to find it chokka with people waiting for coffee (there were 4 people).

As I happily waited, enjoying the stillness of a hot autumn morning, I noticed a stack of fliers by the ceramic clog on the counter offering a ‘Hubby 4 Hire’ service to do the jobs you either have no time to do (or resent doing).

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I wanted to pick it up because:

1. I hate doing lawns (such a waste of time with no satisfaction).

2. The rate seemed very reasonable.

3. The logo on top was hilarious, while also being a little bit insulting and rather true.

4. I collect ephemera like this if it catches my eye.

But I suddenly felt self-conscious and didn’t want to be adjudged as a lazy, or a somehow deficient, man (a belittling narrative that gets pushed in our culture).

When the other punters got their coffees and went out to enjoy the sun I slipped a flier into my bag. Then another man walked in, and while he waited for his coffee he picked up one of the fliers, looked at me then put it down saying, nah, makes me feel guilty. Yes, I said, but I really hate doing the lawns. True, he said, such a waste of time. Don’t even feel good once it’s done.

We both laughed at ourselves. He was younger than me, a burly Samoan with his lineage tatau-ed on giant fore-arms.

In the minute it took me to sip down my macchiato he asked the barista if she was missing her family who had gone back to Europe. She looked over her glasses and said in her heavy Dutch accent, can I tell the truth?

Well, I have known many Dutchies and been part of more than one Dutch family (in fact, although I am a Scots/English Pakeha I identify as part Dutch), and they will always tell you exactly what they think. She then said that the problem with Dutch Dutchies is that they think that their bloody opinion is how things are. I laughed, knowingly, and she smiled saying, I hope I have been here long enough to lose some of that.

Every moment is full stories to a writer. Whether they are bashed out there-and-then as a blog, or whether they percolate into a piece of fiction; all depends on time.

While I have no Dutch blood, I can swear in Dutch and regularly employ the same guttural ‘ach’ of frustration/contempt that the barista expressed when she made a mistake with one of the punter’s coffees.

I am a man who hated his deformity, and is frustrated with the resulting incapacity; who has little time for any so-called rules about what makes a man a man, or dull stereotypes about shirking husbands and bossy women.

Or so I like to believe.

Which brings me to the real reason I blogged today – I wrote a new piece of fiction in the weekend, something I decided I needed to do before I could allow myself to prattle away in this form.

Whether fiction or memoir is my higher aim comes down to mood and identity. I’m still not exactly sure which I am, but both forms involve storytelling and self-examination.

I will not be employing anyone to mow my lawns. I intended to do so over the summer when I was on crutches, unable to perform my manly duty. Instead, I waited it out until I found a way to do it by hobbling around on one crutch, swinging the weed-eater in circles around me. What could be more like a man?

There is something else to the story of this Hubby 4 Hire flier. The contact number is for a woman called Rachel. Is she the ‘hubby’ looking for work, or is she ‘the wife’ finding things for her man to do?

In these questions lie my own answers.

If I am patient.