Tag Archives: history

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


Shaking Hands with the Past

This a quick rant on a great love. My great love is history, or more precisely, the magazine History Today. It’s a wonderful collection of images and writing put together in a way that thrills and inspires me.

I can think of nothing better than lazing in bed reading articles about something I thought I had minimal interest in, before discovering that it fascinates me to such a degree I want to tell the world about it.

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I’m particularly enraptured with the February 2015 issue which featured a stunning cover of Mosley and his boy band of British Union of Fascists. It’s a great snap made prettier and more poignant by being superimposed over an orange Union Jack.

I have delighted in the picture every time I’ve read the magazine, which I read cover to cover. It’s an aspect that has stopped me from reading the magazine online. Yes online is convenient, but I spend so much time staring at screens… and nothing can match the presence and feel of a well laid-out magazine.

The article was clearly timed to provide context to the (at the time) upcoming UK election where the populist ultra right-wing UKIP party was getting so much support. So often, the articles seem to be about now.

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Before selfies, there were paintings

I have only read about Mosley in his wife’s autobiography ‘A Life of Contrasts’ which, unsurprisingly, has nothing bad to same about him. Diana Mosley was one of the glamorous Mitford sisters. Growing up with the Churchill’s these aristocratic debutantes/socialites/celebrities were the Bright Young Things who wowed inter-war society. Her sister, Nancy Mitford, was the well-known novelist, while Unity Valkyrie Mitford was so in love with Hitler she shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany.

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Unity Mitford & friend

There is a whole shelf-load of books written about these girls.

I always thought Mosley was a bit of a joke; a twit who backed the wrong side in WWII. He and his Blackshirt cronies look like an early ‘80s neo-Goth/New Romantic dad-band in their funny-button shirts and tricky belts.

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The cute one, the tubby one, the scary one, the one that plays the drums

But then, fascism had many fans at the time (Charles Lindbergh loved the Nazis and tried to keep the USA out of WWII).

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British fascist rally

I once did a course with someone who went to a British Fascist rally in the 1930s. His father took him to mock Mosley and see how deluded the fascists were. At the meeting some communists, or anti-fascists, tried to storm the stage (resistance was strong in Britain). They were roughed-up in trademark Blackshirt fashion: gloved fingers shoved up noses to tear blood vessels, disabling without striking.

Co-incidentally, on the same writing course I met the woman who had written the number one book in New Zealand. It was a childhood memoir of her Nazi father, and having strawberries with the Fuhrer. When I held her hand I felt the most incredible dread knowing she had shaken hands with the monster she described as friendly and funny.strawberries_

The past comes close in such moments, and I have always struggled to understand those who do not feel the magic. Is the ignorance wilful? Or is it simply a failure to imagine how things are, were and will be?

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Diana & Unity yuk it up with German chums

When I read these magazines I always wonder who I would most like to meet. It would not be Mosley, the Mitfords or Hitler.

It would be this marvellous woman speaking to an anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in 1933.

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What a woman!

She is striking the most incredible pose, shaking her fist at the crowd, telling them what’s what, what is to come. I know nothing more than what the words say, that she is suffragist called Charlotte Despard.

I can’t wait to learn more.

Profits of the Future

I’ve just finished reading the most wonderful book. It is gripping, funny and thought provoking with a command of narrative and metaphor that has me shaking my head in wonder. It’s a popular history book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and while this is not a review, I urge any thinking person to read it (Sapiens, as in Homo sapiens, means ‘wise’ human).

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Harari says fiction makes us human

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1970’s view of the future

Like all history it addresses the present (we can only understand today by looking at the past). However, in the final chapter it looks ahead making the point that visions of the future are often hopelessly rooted in the past, blind to imagination. He makes this point by saying that in 1948 the future was full of an apocalyptic nuclear WWIII, while visions from the 1960s were all about rockets and colonising space.

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Slow Boat Records

All this was made clear to me the other day when I revisited my past in the most peculiar way. I was in a record shop flicking through LPs, something I had not done in decades. As I was doing it I couldn’t help reflect on how much time I spent in my teens scouring album racks, searching for music I might want to buy. I did it several times a week. What was it all for? With no record player all those albums I bought now sit un-played in crates under the house and all the ones I hunger to hear have been replaced by digital copies I can scroll through on my phone.

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Vinyl Heaven

As I watched the surprising amount of people, young and old, looking through the music I got several messages from the stranger I was waiting to meet. He was delayed, so I started to look for specific albums, ones that I owned, and I was shocked to find that all were worth a lot more than I had imagined. Not just the rare or obscure ones, but the mass-produced commercial ones that I would get from my mother for Christmas were at least three times the original price.

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$10 when I got it for Xmas 1981 …$30 now!

Yes, there has been inflation, so a $10 LP from 1980 may well be worth $30 in 2015… except that is not how it was meant to play out. From the mid ‘80s on we were told by a chorus of media experts and retailers that LPs were worthless relics which needed to be replaced with everlasting CDs. People dumped LPs en masse. A lover of old things, I would often pick them up for a buck or two at charity stores, adding to my neglected, unplayable collection.

So what’s happening? I got a bit of an insight when the person I was meeting turned up, sweating heavily in the mild late summer 22 degrees of Wellington having recently left the -20 degrees of snowbound Toronto.

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Playing a lunchtime school gig Sept ’84

Matt had made contact with me the week before after reading my post from last year, It Was 30 Years Ago, where I reminisced about my final September at school in 1984.

I wasn’t quite sure how to take his interest, but he seemed genuine and I was happy to scour my photo collection for pictures he might use for the book he is writing.

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Midnight Espresso. Nice muffins. Perfect atmosphere

Initially, I assumed he was a New Zealander living in Canada, who else would bother to write a book about the early years of obscure NZ record label Flying Nun? But as we crossed the road to Midnight Espresso I found out he was a historian with an interest in DIY pop culture. He had come across the label while living in London after doing his doctorate, falling in love with the music (and the story). Then, once he began working in publishing, he tried to find a book that charted the history of Flying Nun, finding nothing. Eventually, after talking to NZers at the Frankfurt Book Fair, he decided he had to do it himself.

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Before Garageband, it helped to know someone who could build a mixer from scratch

The historian (and writer) in me was fascinated by this tale. So much so that it was a while before I stopped ‘interviewing’ him and he pulled out his phone and started asking me questions.

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The Flying Nun Xmas Party ’86. There was bath tub full of beer

It was a strange experience. Being bought food and a drink. Talking about the past. That’s the thing, some things are so familiar you take them for granted and have little idea how they appear to others. Yeah, stuff happened. I played in bands in the FN scene. We weren’t famous, successful or noted. So what?

I had been aware that the EP the schoolboy band I played in (which included a girl, and I once found filed under Women’s Music) has fetched ridiculous prices on the internet ($500 in one auction) but I assumed that was an aberration, fuelled by vinyl geeks completing a collection, rather than out of enthusiasm for the obscure 30 year old music of All Fall Down.

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A quick Google finds the EP retailing for $225 today

But Matt’s eyes lit up when he talked about it, how everyone knew about all the big FN bands and how good the music was, how the vinyl was worth big $$ around the world, but AFD was a mysterious lacuna. With only 200 pressed it was hard to get a copy of the EP so the only way to hear the music was to pay way too much money, or watch two videos on YouTube (which he loved).

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Supporting The Great Unwashed in Wellington 1984. All well under-age

The past and the future collapsed for me in that moment.

When I was collecting vinyl in the ‘80s, so much was unavailable. I read Rip It Up, NME et al cover to cover, reading more words than ever listening to the songs. There were only a couple of music video shows a week showing a handful of new stuff. And student radio only broadcast for a few hours a day, a few months a year. Scarcity drove deep interest and if you wanted to hear something obscure or beyond the ken of the corporate masters that ran commercial radio and the pressing plants, you had to read about it, then import it from overseas, hoping like hell you liked it (or found it in a second-hand bin somewhere).

Of course, this is not a dewy-eyed harking back for a past age. I love the 21st Century and the availability of music fuelled by the internet, YouTube, iTunes, Wikipedia, ebay/TradeMe etc. I love that I can edit some photos to a beautiful song by the forgotten band I once played in, purely as a tribute to a lost friend and band mate, and people I do not know can watch it anywhere in the world and find something worthwhile.

Yes, it was heartbreaking in 1987 to put so much time, effort and money into an EP and struggle to get retailers to take it for $6.99 (sale or return). And yes, it is kind of galling to see people paying hundreds of dollars for it now.

But it is also satisfying.

Great Unwashed + AFD 1984It was even more satisfying to see the look on Matt’s face when I gave him a copy of the EP he has only read about, to see him pull out the vinyl to check out the grooves like an enthusiast (like I used to), to have him ask about the engraved matrix which he and his friends have speculated about.

Ironically in this time of constant media and ever-present past, he’s having a tough time finding pictures from back then. People just didn’t take photos at gigs. It was either frowned on or illegal (oh, how times have changed. A friend recently posted a whole song on Facebook of Peter Hook playing a Joy Division song in Auckland… they used to call that bootlegging).

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A clipping from Auckland gig

And the newspaper archives are little use. Apparently the papers don’t think ‘entertainment’ stories were worth keeping so they got dumped at some point or other.

No one knows what the future holds.

But, as a historian, what I do know is that which we unthinkingly discard always accumulates value, and prophets of the future tend to be more concerned with their own profits than anything else.

I can’t wait to see the book Matt’s putting together. To see scant pictures of the past turned into history and story.

It makes this ‘wise’ hominid smile.

AFD (Esther, me Blair) playing the 21st party Feb 1986 Photo taken by Jonathan Hall

Rockin’ on & on in 1986

Vikings

I’m a bit in love with Vikings. No, not the cuddly trainers of dragons or opera-hatted anachronisms used to promote small New Zealand Scandi-towns; I’m referring to the History channel series that has just started its third season. It’s pretty darn good.

vikings_season3_castOf course, it depends what you’re looking for. Me, I have a particular love for what I call period drama, that is, drama set some time in the past. Now, just playing dress ups and talking funny doesn’t do it for me, there is plenty of awful period drama (no need to list them). In order to win my heart it has to be great as a story/show, too (see my Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire raves). And going by these first 2 seasons I would say Vikings looks likely to fit into the pantheon of great TV being produced in this so-called ‘Golden-Age’ of television.

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The Pilgrimage to Uppsala. A stunning episode

It certainly ticks most of the boxes of GA: gorgeous to look it, outstanding sets and costumes, intriguing and strong acting (except for 2 who let the side down), storylines that crack along and don’t wallow in melodrama or soap. It even has that great hallmark of the GA, cracking opening titles which even when you are bingeing (as I do) you have to watch all the way through to enter the world (the sawing cello, pitch-shifted vocals, the undersea shots of the longboats, waves crashing, bodies and loot sinking into the abyss… as tightly edited as a music video).

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Ragnar casually leads another raid

The story centres on Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking celebrated in Norse sagas, and his rise from farmer (who does a bit of raiding on the side) to king leading the historical raids on Lindisfarne, Paris and so on.

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Lagertha in action

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The wonderful Sigi

To be honest, while I have binged both series twice, it took me a couple of attempts to watch the first episode as I’m not so keen on watching a whole lot of action fighting and gore. But that is not the core of Vikings. Like every other good GA show, it is about negotiating family relationships, and Ragnar’s wife, shield-maiden Lagertha, is as kick-arse a character (and actor) as Ragnar. As in the real world, there are strong women involved both fighting at the shield wall and plotting behind it.

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King Ecbert of Wessex. Wonderful character (and actor)

From a historical perspective, it is fantastic to see the interactions with the various English kings like Ecbert of Wessex, Aella of Northumbria and the nasty Mercians. None of it is straightforward; everyone is plotting, making alliances and breaking them. It creates a dramatic tension of a good ‘page-turner’ where you want to flip ahead to see what happens (or just watch one more episode even though you really need to go to bed).

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Sneaky Jarl Borg

It also portrays the Vikings as they probably were, united in convenience, treacherous and jealous when looking for advantage. It is refreshing to see this reality rather than a Hollywood simplicity of goodies versus baddies.

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Rollo leaps the shield wall

And the battles are some of the most realistic I have seen, you get to know what is happening, not just close-ups of grunting men and gore. The geography and narrative of what is happening is never lost and, most of all, there are consequences to action. Hands down, some of the best medieval fighting I have seen filmed.

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Athelstan: Northumbrian monk/Viking slave/Pagan Viking/Priest

It is also very clever in the way it portrays and negotiates the various languages that are spoken. We switch effortlessly from Old Norse to Old English and back via occasional sub-titles and convenient translators in a seamless and entertaining way.

So why do I qualify my love for this series? Because it lacks the sparkling, brilliant dialogue of other GA TV. And, at times, it seems full of explanation. Yes, it is needed to a degree (and the character of the captured priest is a great vehicle for this) but I can’t help but groan when, yet again, I hear someone say “that is a…. we Vikings do that because…”

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Floki the Boatbuilder (and lover of Loki)

It is also somewhat lacking in humour. I don’t expect lots of jokes, but these are meant to be real people, albeit seriously tough nuts. Humour makes us human and even shows as dark as Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Game of Thrones, manage to throw in gems of dialogue and regularly unexpected belly laughs.

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Young Bjorn. Outstanding wee actor (unlike the walking abs that replace him)

There are also some historical howlers which, in their way, are as laughable as opera-inspired Viking hats (I won’t mention them. Like cow horns on a helmet, once you know, it’s impossible to un-see them).how_to_train_your_dragon_2_banner-wide

But, overall, these are minor quibbles. As I said, I am transfixed. The characters are lovable, the story grabs you, it has spectacle, excitement and tenderness.

And maybe like all new loves, it is good to be a little unsettled, to hold something back in reserve.

I can’t wait to see what happens in the third series.

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Farvel Dannevirke!

Peaky Blinders

This is a rave (no spoilers) about Peaky Blinders, the BBC period drama set in post-WW1 Birmingham. It’s a beautiful, brain-tinglingly fresh historical recreation of an over-looked part of history (one which I especially love as it’s the time my grandparents were teenagers).

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The Shelby Brothers

Set around a street gang on the up, it pulls a world of travellers/Gypsies/Tinkers, Fennians/IRA/Loyalists, Anarchists/Communists, London Italian/Jewish underworld (and post-War gender politics) into a strong narrative that is compelling and exciting.

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The family discuss business around the beer bucket

It pits Cillian Murphy as the leader of the Peaky Blinder’s against Sam Neill’s weirdly sinister Ulster copper (complete with weirder accent) who has been sent by Churchill to sort him out (and what a great Churchill, always sitting in a chair and still talking down to everyone).

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Battle of the film actors

It’s part of the BBC’s stated intent to resist continually humping the corpse of Jane Austen (no matter how productive she continues to be), and it works so well as costume drama.

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Illegal bookshop at work

The clothes are just amazing, the sets (virtual and actual) rich and gorgeous, even when they are showing grinding industrial poverty. And the hair cuts… I want one!

As for the soundtrack… wow. Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, Johnny Cash, while anachronistic, all fit perfectly (I believe PJ Harvey and Flood are in charge) both adding to and opening up the story, showing Baz Luhrman how it should be done (his unforgivably ham-fisted butchering of the 1920s classic The Great Gatsby has earned him a special place in period drama hell).

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Industrial horseflesh

The theme song, Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, fits the story/themes/feel in ways which continually unfold as the series progresses, with lyrics and instrumentation that seem to have foreseen the story even though the song is from the 1990s (that the song references Milton’s Paradise Lost is perfect for post-Apocalypse 1919).

With only six episodes per season (there have been two with another coming next year) it cracks along but never feels rushed, and the acting and characters are outstanding.

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Aunt Pol on the pull

As Thomas Shelby, the always wonderful Cillian Murphy leads the show with an impenetrable calm, while Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly (who ran the gang while the boys were at war) is more than a match for his acting chops (and may surpass him).

Tom Hardy as Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons also stands out on the intriguing filmic acting front. I could watch all of the scenes between Aflie and Tommy again and again.

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Alfie Solomons, scary London ‘baker’

And while Sam Neill is mad fun, that accent… I just can’t be sure if it adds or detracts (I suspect it adds).

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Sam cleans up the mean streets

There’s so much more I could rave about/discuss (the love interests are great actors, too) but best you enjoy it yourself.

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The curious Grace

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Horsey-girl Toff and Bit of Rough

Anyways, if, like me, you’re a history buff, love period/costume drama (and great storytelling) then give Peaky Blinders a try.

It’s great fun and you’ll get a killer Brummie accent to boot (probably best to avoid the haircuts).

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Real Peaky Blinders

Songs of September

Motivated by my 6 year-olds recent statement that she… hates spring… because I love winter so much… I’ve had September songs on my mind.

While most of the 4 songs in my pocket come from a hemisphere where that month falls in autumn, signalling the approach of winter, I live in New Zealand where it means warmth and light, daffodils and lambs.

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Waikiki

Waikiki

The September song foremost in my head is Here Comes September by Waikiki. I know it from the Triple J Hottest 100 collection my Australian sister sent me in 2003. Triple_J_Hottest_100_Volume_10They’re a great way to hear vaguely alt popular music that doesn’t necessarily get noticed in New Zealand. It was a great mix that year and I remember only ever needing to skip the odd track. While this wasn’t my initial fav I was soon skipping back to repeatedly sing along. Its hooky jangly pop seemed to exude the hope of September. Never having heard of them I assumed they were Australian (the singer tries to sing ‘American’ at times, as is the fashion/compunction for many vocalists, but broad Aussie vowels give her away).

The song is about an ended relationship, being positive and remembering the good stuff.

Though there were others, you never left me at all

Here comes September, and we both know what that means

Sometimes it’s out of our grasp, not everything is made to last

If that’s the way you wanna remember, then that’s the way you gotta remember

But I won’t cry now, here comes September

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A Fender Jazz Bass, much like the beauty I once played

And although I was seduced by the lack of bitterness in her delivery, I didn’t focus on that when I sang along in 2003, being more captivated by the harmonic vocal hooks, the ringing of the Rickenbacker and the rich low rumble of the Fender bass; instruments I grew up knowing intimately.

Of course, 2003 was a weird time. Across the world we were repeatedly told that the world had changed forever (as if it doesn’t every day). I was actively angry and resistant to the warmongering narrative of fear. Refusing to march to that duplicitous beat, I was living a life infused with hope.

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Paris 2000. The Japanese tourist said she couldn’t fit in the tip of the tower. Just relax tourist, san, and tilt up

In 2000 I had left my job in television to tour around Europe, embracing the roots of my immigrant parents before eventually realising that it was time to embrace my desire to write. So in 2001 I bit the bullet and attended a 6 month fiction writing course in Timaru. It was amazing, I literally felt like I was Harry Potter: that my life had gone from dark containment to light-filled expansion.

Of course, despite my first short story being accepted for publication within a week of sending it off, the world wasn’t waiting to be entertained by me and the pile of rejections I studiously kept (to remind me of my early struggle) got ever bigger. And bigger. And bigger.

So I headed back to Auckland to freelance in a TV industry pumped up with the phoney money of pre-Credit Crunch NZ. I didn’t need to find work, it found me. While I continued to compulsively write and submit fiction, certain in my abilities, I socialised in a heady media scene awash with the social lubricants of the day (booze, pot, P and E).

It was a fun time, but I wanted more out of life. Yes, I craved success as a writer but most of all I had begun to seriously yearn for a committed relationship. And to be a father.

My desire was so strong that on 3 of the 5 following Christmases (’03, ’05, ’07) I found myself ‘expecting’ with a different woman (which may indicate a very casual attitude, but I would say it illustrates a certain commitment).

Yes, I admit, my taste in women has been questioned by friends and family, but that’s only ever after things go pear-shaped (and isn’t everyone wise after the fact?)

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Blending into a tight spot, Paris 2005

In heart and head I’m never-endingly fascinated by women, considering myself more of a woman’s man than a man’s man. I will choose their company (platonic or not) over men any day. It’s been that way since I was a child growing up surrounded by sisters and female cousins, the only boy in girl town.

And who really fully understands the drivers of their own desires? I can’t say I’m attracted to the same thing: it’s usually a certain strength of character, and something indefinable in the eye and mind.

However, given what’s gone on in my life in the 11 years since 2003, I have lost a lot of confidence in my desires, leading to the celibate phase of the last couple of years. At the start of this phase, in a reflective moment, I said to a good friend that I always like strong women, to which he replied… you like bossy women…When I mentioned this to a sister she said… you like bitches!

I thought that was rather harsh. But very funny.

Which leads to another song from my September playlist: Miss September by Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band. Bulldoggin'

They were a family favourite on the NZBC TV talent show ‘New Faces’ in 1973. Their bouncy feel and eccentric look featured tea-chest bass, washboard and kazoo and their song about a pinup picture (naughty!) got them into the finals. Yes, they were hugely derivative (Sgt. Pepper’s, anyone?…Pictures of Lily by The Who?), but as a 6 year old I found them far more entertaining than the syrupy/sombre crooners and balladeers, and frowning girls with acoustic guitars the show was lumbered with.

Now the article that came with your picture, says you hail from Illinois

Now I know Illinois-a-noise an oyster, but an oyster will only bring me joy bulldog2

The lyrics were wonderfully silly (how is Illinois an oyster?) while still appealing to popular music’s reliable workhorse of unrequited romantic yearning.

Miss September, Miss September, I know I’m gonna meet you some day

Miss September, Miss September, though you’re 12,000 miles away-hay-hay-hay

The allusions to masturbation (of course) were lost on me.

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Spot the Rickenbacker

Such things were more apparent in my (short) encounter with The Bangles’ cover of Big Star’s September Gurls in 1986. I never liked them as much as the Go-Gos (much more flaccid, musically). Maybe it’s unfair to compare them but both bands were sold directly to pubescent boys (for obvious reasons), and rock/pop is never shy of such subjects. I liked that Susanna Hoffs played a Rickenbacker (John Lennon played one!), and that the bass player sang this song (I was playing bass in a jangly-pop band by this stage).

By the 1990s I was much more familiar with the original version by Alex Chilton/Big Star. While his version has a lot more life to it (his delivery is heavily nuanced, maybe to counterpoint the bland lyrics: the Bangle delivers with dead-eyed ‘80’s coldness), the song is the least favourite of the September songs I know. I just don’t find much meaning in the lyrics. RVM-Big-Star_16x9_620x350(What’s a September Gurl? A Virgo? I dunno). But maybe you don’t have to. Lyrical clarity is an overrated part of music, especially when compared to the open and inclusive reading of poetic imagery.

September gurls do so much…

December boy’s got it bad…

That said, it’s clearly got something going for it in that a female vocalist can sing it without feeling the need to change the respective genders of the lyrics (something that always irritates me, especially when the P.O.V of any song is all over the place).

Which leaves the September song that had the biggest impact on me. Wake Me Up, When September Ends by Green Day. A song that became intimately associated with both my very personal experience of September 2005, and an awful ‘Act of God’ that affected countless lives. green_day_04_original

Catching up with a beloved ex-lover for coffee in 2003 had resulted in the first of the 3 Christmas pregnancies. That one ended on New Year’s Eve. I got the text while dancing with strangers, high on a mix of P and E. Although at the time I saw it as lucky escape, it was an incredibly lonely moment and I eventually came to grieve deeply for the unborn child and the unfulfilled relationship with his/her mother. But back then my heart was set on a come here/go away long term flame, and by 2004 I had moved in with her, happy in a relationship I imagined lasting forever.

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Waiting for my partner to finish work, the first thing I visited in Paris was Diana’s tunnel. People still left tributes 8 years later

Which is why, at the end of August 2005, I flew to Paris to accompany her on a work trip she had left for the week before.

When you fly to Europe from NZ you tend to fly through the night so I arrived in Paris on a hot, sunny autumn morning. As I checked into our hotel, the first English I heard being spoken was two clearly shocked Americans, reading a newspaper at the check-in desk… They’re shooting each other… looting the place… Animals… Once I got up to my partner’s room and turned on the telly (this was before the internet became something you carried in your pocket) I realised who they were and that a hurricane had devastated New Orleans.

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When September Ends by Green Day wasn’t my favourite track on American Idiot, an album I loved thinking it both entertaining and brave (especially in a time when there was little push back in popular culture against the proponents for war), and I played it many times before I headed to Europe in 2005. Sept green Day

The song didn’t fit my particular concept of September, speaking of rain/winter/loss. I was embracing the future, heading for a hot month in Europe with the woman I wanted to spend my life with. And we had decided to make a baby.

I now know the song is about the vocalist losing his father at the age of 7, which explains much of the lyrical imagery.

Ring out the bells again, like we did when spring began

Wake me up, when September ends

It’s testament to the strength of the very personal lyrics that the single, released August 2005, became the unofficial anthem for Hurricane Katrina, which hit as I arrived in Paris.

It has the poetic/fluid nature of good lyrics in that the video for the song ignores Billy Joe Armstrong’s intimate meaning to take on the blustering pomposity of sacrifice and war that many American videos were plastered with at the time. Sept lyric

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A rainy night in Brussels and a very fine, boozy meal

But that song was not in my head as I flitted from Paris to Florence to Lucca to Pisa to Brussels to Maastricht to Amsterdam to London and back to Paris: exploring, being, loving.

And it wasn’t all fun and games. I was also doing some research for a historical novel I was writing about the founding of my hometown of Christchurch, which was set up after the formation of the Canterbury Association in London in 1848.

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Place of the first meeting to found Canterbury. Spot the three lambs in the shield

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Communards at the barricades

Due to the utopian ideals of a group of graduates of Christ Church College, Oxford (yip, Harry Potter’s school) who sent the ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’ to found Christchurch, I was making a study of the Paris Commune of 1871, established when the decadent, corrupt government of Napoleon III let the invading Prussian’s get within a humiliating cooee of Paris (WW1, 40 years later, was a replay of this schmozzle).

At the most famous bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, Shake I bought a history of that incredible event which, when the city was retaken by government forces, saw the slaughter of more Parisians than the Great Terror of the Revolution and The German Occupation of WWII combined.

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Dead Communards on the cover of the book I bought

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Tomb of Oscar Wilde

I read that book throughout our travels around Europe, finishing it at the end of the trip when we returned to Paris, making a special pilgrimage to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, pushing past the tourists at Jim Morrison’s grave, stopping to take a photo of my partner kissing the toes of the lip-stick covered Jacob Epstein statue on Oscar Wilde’s grave, making a beeline for the wall at the back of the graveyard where a great many Communards were lined up and shot.

Returning to NZ at the end of the month, and still in travel mode, I flew down to a good friend’s 40th.

Towards the end of that early spring party, standing on the threshold of his back door, my friend, who I had known since my early 20s, tapped the neck of his beer bottle to mine and said… to the barren knights… It took me a second to realise that he wasn’t talking about humorous British pop group, the Barron Knights, Barron-Knights-Best-of-the-Barron-Knightsbut about us having avoided parenthood. He was clearly wistful, having married 5 years before, just before I headed to Europe for the first time.

But that poignancy became ironic when 6 weeks later I was back, escaping an awful argument that erupted after my partner found out she had got pregnant on that last weekend in Paris. She was not happy with the situation (but we planned it?), and in her bitter reasoning she was carrying the spirit of a Communard murdered at that wall. I felt betrayed and used.

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The photo we took at the wall in Pere Lachaise. 134 years later, people still leave flowers for the victims

A lot went on in the next few months; too much for here. Suffice to say that my partner eventually found her peace with the child growing inside her, and we announced it to her gathered family on Christmas Day 2005. Which underlined a greater and more painful irony when, late on Boxing Day, after a hurried and tortured helicopter flight off our island home she delivered a tiny, perfectly formed boy with eyelids closed. Fingernails, clearly forming on the hand resting across his chest.

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Paris, beneath the rewarewa we planted

In a strange way, the experience brought us closer, and we were happy for most of the next year. I listened to Green Day a lot as I worked in the wild, extensive garden, clearing and landscaping the area where we buried the boy we called Paris on New Year’s Eve. I loved the album; it was a journey, more than its constituent parts.

But When September Ends took on a new meaning for me, as did the month. It became a personal anthem of loss and each year I was anxious for the month to pass.

Which gets at the reason I have written this blog.

Because when my daughter said that she hated spring, my first thought wasn’t of Green Day, it was Waikiki.

Two months after I shifted out in Dec 2006, following my erstwhile partner announcing… actually, I do want a baby. But not with you… I met my daughter’s mother. Four months later she was (unexpectedly) pregnant.

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Exiting the apartment in Paris

My friend and his wife, who had provided refuge in that awful time in 2005, did so again (along with his baby boy, born earlier that year) in 2007 when we shifted down to his town just before Christmas.

I ended up buying the house next door and our children grew up as brother and sister. My friends moved far away just before last Christmas but I continue to live next door to that threshold where we toasted the barren knights. I have my daughter every other week as her mother and I are no longer together (having a child with someone is not the best way to establish a relationship).

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The dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, where the founders of Christchurch (and Harry Potter) went to school.

There’s been a shit-load of loss in my life over the last few years (I have referred to aspects of it in past blogs). Paris, and the woman I was convinced I loved. My vibrant life in the media. My home town, smashed (and the novel I was writing with it). Both parents, straight afterwards. My sister, briefly here, now back to Australia. My other sister and family now following.

It seems like I’m on a beach watching an ever-receding tide, wondering if it will ever flow back.

But it is September, and I am full of hope. My girl is the greatest joy. I try not to cling but she is growing so fast. There is increasing warmth in the air, greater light in the days, the garden is growing and in 2 months it will be a year since the surgery on my ankle so I will be able to start running (gently) once more.

Like songs and seasons, we are filled with memories and meanings both personal and shared: as immutable as the ever-changing seasons, nothing is certain except for change.

I do not seek an encounter with any woman pinned above my bed. I do not hanker for the lost, or yearn for the future (well, not too much).

But I have a confession. There are boxes of baby toys and paraphernalia under the house I am struggling to let go of. It may seem a trifle sad but I would counter they are a guard against the unexpected.

I am no longer a young man, but if I pass these things on to charity do I not invite Murphy’s Law to inject a mischievous twinkle into my eye? To put a song in my heart, a spring in my step, to turn my mind to… ?

Well, it is September.

And we both know what that means…

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A Small Crikey

I remember you. You did me last time. You were a Boys’ High boy, right? I was a Girls’ High girl. Remember?

Ah, Ker-istchurch, I thought. The place where everyone is supposedly obsessed with where you went to school (as if that question is never asked in any other city), but which now, post-‘quakes and stalled rebuild, brings forth very different questions.

Ah, Ch-rist…church, that lame cover-up of a sweary/blasphemy word employed by children from other cities (something I didn’t learn until I left Crikey).

Ah, Ker-ikey, that place I tried to escape 20 years ago, moving to Auckland where every second person seemed to have a link to my hometown causing me to often remark (with a nod to Disney), ah, it’s a small Christchurch…

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Chch Boys’ High

Yes, I remembered you, Miss Bryndwr. You pointedly said that you liked Boys’ High boys, and looked for my reaction. I countered by asking of your home suburb, an area I found hard to place as, like all suburbs in Christchurch, it has no defined boundaries and is a general area (to quote Wikipedia).

Although you were sitting down I could see that you were as tall as an Amazon; ever-smiling, Yarpie-forward, confident and chatty, the dead-spit of another aggressively charming young South African from my past.

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Where I waited with Adele

Adele, who I met on a poetry course 10 years ago, who took a shine like a half a bottle of wine, sent me poems outside the course detailing her perfect man, who asked me to accompany her to long-forgotten foreign movie, who, when the class photo was taken on the final day of the poetry course slipped her arm around my waist, pulled me close, smiling wide with a look of conquest. Adele, who I awkwardly stood beside outside a downtown strip bar waiting for her father, who turned and said, my father, he is very protective of me.

Adele, the last teenager I ever went out with.

Miss Bryndwr, although you could have been Adele’s twin (in looks and manner) you were full of far more interesting conversation. Yesterday, we talked about the school you left for university. You went to a different Girls’ High than the one I knew, whose most noted old girls were heavenly creatures made famous in a film by Peter Jackson (no Hobbits allowed).

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Bad girls contemplate moider

I have so many memories of those old buildings that loomed over Cranmer Square, the solid brick, beautiful and foreboding.

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Old Girls’ High

But we didn’t talk of my visits there in the ‘80s to rehearse plays when I was a Boys’ High boy, or in the ‘90s attending theatre workshops when the school had flitted to flash new grounds at the top of Hagley Park on the banks of the Avon.

I wanted to know about the controversy when the head mistress was sacked by the board and the girls rebelled in support of her. It’s always good to get the story from those involved and not rely on press releases and spin.

I won’t repeat what you told me in confidence but it involved that awful ‘quake, death and hubris. Suffice to say you gave me faith in the power of the young to pick through the rubble and do what is right.

When I was your age, Miss Bryndwr, I had trouble interacting with people old enough to be my parent. They were an enemy to be opposed. Such a silly, puerile dichotomy; your attitude is so refreshing. Even when you looked at me and said with pride, my father, he is very tall, 6 foot 6. A giant!

But this was not the most significant conversation I had yesterday, nor the one that has made me write these words. I had other great interactions (students are so much more interesting than when I was at university) but the one I will sketch was with the last stranger I talked to.

She was also very tall, but thin, and as I gathered my equipment to walk over to her, a colleague said that she was dressed rather like Where’s Wally?

By now I was tired and didn’t really want to talk, but I’m meant to engage as part of customer service so I asked her about the book sitting on her lap. It was about Fukushima and she was reading it because the Japanese have put great resources into studying the psychological/developmental after-effects of the disaster (nuclear, ‘quake and tsunami) on their children.

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Aftermath in Japan

A student of child development with an interest in the effects of the Chch ‘quake, she is stymied by the total neglect of this area in New Zealand, so she looks to Japanese research to get an insight.

Our discussion left my conversations with Miss Bryndwr (and Adele) for dead. As someone who grew up in Chch, I have a lot of despair, anger and grief around the subject and have to check myself whenever it comes up. Yes, there’s a lot of positivity and creativity happening, but you have to fight to bring that forth. So much cliché is trotted out by those with little idea, and so much of the rest of NZ seems to have grown bored with the subject.

I did not unload my stories or frustration onto Ms. Not-Wally (it’s often like that, the hunger to talk, to seek understanding, mixed with a fierce need not to have to engage). Instead, my exhaustion and silence gave her space to say that although she wasn’t from Christchurch, she was in the CBD when the big one hit, one block from the Square, smack bang amongst the worst of it (as if any of it could be graded).

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Seconds after the earthquake

She described none of the event and I asked no questions, instead she told me of the frustration she felt about people’s need to offer up their anecdotes whenever the subject comes up. How she gets tripped to tears by the most unlikely things, loud sounds or unexpected movement which suddenly bring back the panic and fear.

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Japanese rescue worker sent to Chch to help

After I completed my task and our conversation ended I had to leave the floor for a good 10 minutes before I could recompose myself and put away the grief.

Ker-istchurch. I need to be near you, I need to be amongst you. I need to say everything and say nothing. I love the hope. I ache with despair.

As I said to Ms. Not-Wally, as a historian, I know we will have little idea what has happened to Christchurch for a good 20 or 30 years.

There is hope, but not in neglect.

I know children are facing far worse in this world as I write this. Corralled and pounded with explosives throughout the night, or as they play. Unlike an earthquake, it is criminal and deliberate. I can only imagine what will become of them in the future. It is not my home but I feel great anger, despair and compassion.

I have another job, quite different from the one I was doing yesterday. Both were impacted by the ‘quake. When the Tsunami/’quake that devastated Fukushima struck about 3 weeks after the Chch event, I was working in Nelson with a television crew from Christchurch, doing the job of a colleague who never made it out of the collapsed CTV building. I will never forget the looks on their faces as they watched the images off the satellites: the silence and disbelief as they relived their ongoing trauma in the most awful way.

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Collapsed CTV building

The children of Chch were not hit by explosives, but they have lived through thousands upon thousands of aftershocks. It is not over and no one knows when it will end.

Ker-istchurch, my home that still looks like a warzone… full of untold stories and stories untold.

I just don’t know what to say.

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People of Christchurch, filling the gaps

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!’

On the Road to Crikey

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I’m writing this sitting on the bus to Christchurch. I just got on at Ashburton after a lovely family Christmas at Seafield and the sign says my old home town is 87kms away.

I’ve driven this road countless times over the years, it’s as boring and straight as a road across the desert, with only one or two places where the driver needs to turn the steering wheel beyond a few degrees.
For all of the overwhelming straight nature of the road, it is not flat, the surface of the Canterbury Plains are as bumpy as a corrugated roof so any vehicle higher than a car rises and falls like a boat powering through a moderate sea.
This metaphor first came to me over 20 years ago when I was part of a group of actors crossing the country performing plays in schools. We would often be away down South (or up North) for weeks at a time travelling through the varied landscapes of New Zealand in a second-hand Bongo that had used up its life in Japan.
The Bongo was comfy but when we hit the corduroy roads that lead to Chch the van would bounce as if at sea (or, maybe, sitting on the skin of a drum).
It’s over 12 years since I’ve caught a bus on this road. At the time I was living in Timaru doing a fiction writing course. My family still lived up in Crikey and I often came up to see them when I picked up work at the rugby in the weekends.
I loved being on that course. It made me feel like Harry Potter, as if a veil had been lifted on my life and I was doing what I was born to do. I thrived in the environment and, in the following years, wrote short fiction whenever I could, finding some success.
I even started formulating a novel about my town which had a neglected and unique past. I tracked down and read every single original source about the lives and aims of those pilgrims (yes, that’s how they saw themselves) who crossed the oceans to found and settle a well-planned city on the Canterbury Plains.
Although I was working up in Auckland I would fly down regularly to see friends and family and continue my research. It was a fascinating story that needed to be told and the first chapter of the as-yet unfinished novel was included in an anthology of the best writing of the year.

This straight road to Chch is a dangerous one and head-on crashes plague it. We have just been diverted by one such smash. People blame tourists unused to our conditions but it is invariably due to lack of attention and impatience.

Likewise, my novel was diverted by something sudden and unexpected. The terrifying earthquakes that smashed my hometown, killing so many, also put a halt to my novel. How could I create an alternative Christchurch, made strong by an unexpected earthquake, when nature suddenly did just that?

I have not given up on my novel any more than people have given up on Chch. I am heading there now to stay in a hotel in the Square. I want to be there by myself, to sit by the damaged Cathedral that nature couldn’t bring down. It was a central part of the foundation of this utopia on the plains
and it guts me to think that it will be torn down by those with no real knowledge of why it was built.
My novel lives on inside me just as the lost city continues to exist in the memories of many.
This blog, Zildchurch, is a reminder to me of what I must rebuild.
I can’t wait to be alone with my thoughts, a pilgrim seeking a better future.

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Just Imagine

The other morning as I was diverting myself from writing by flicking through my favourite history magazine I indulged my procrastination further by skipping through Facebook which has become, amongst other things, the modern version of a last cigarette or pressing inspection of navel lint.

As I fingered the face of my phone (an almost unconscious action likened by others to the comforting caress of a rosary) I noticed this cartoon posted by a friend.

Shuttle cartoon

It got me thinking. While I sympathized with the sentiment involved, I felt it was dishonest and messy.

Yes, it is sad to see the great feat of engineering and endeavour that was the Space Shuttle Program consigned to a footnote in history, but that’s the way of all great vehicles of state power.

The article in History Today I was intending to read before I diverted myself was about the ornate ships of the line that won dominance of the seas for the British in the 18th century.

Vue du debarquement anglais pour l'attaque de Louisbourg 1745  The article started with this engraving of The Capture of Louisbourg in 1745.

I could look at it for ages, marveling at the skill and craft of those that made the magnificent ship, wondering what it was like inside, how all the parts went together, how an assault was carried out by those garish and impractically-dressed soldiers and, on a more mundane level, how it functioned day-to-day.

But as mind-blowing as these war ships were that wrestled dominance of the seas off the French 250 years ago, they in turn would have been dwarfed by the massive Chinese fleets of exploration led by Zheng He that reached India, the Middle East and Africa 300 years before that.

A comparison of Columbus’ ship of 1492 with Zheng He’s of 1405.

A comparison of Columbus’ ship of 1492 with Zheng He’s of 1405.

The Chinese fleets put the much-vaunted European endeavour to shame. They had supply ships covered in soil growing fresh produce while the Europeans were blindly dying of scurvy for centuries to come. The first Chinese fleet had 317 ships and 28,000 men. Europe had nothing to compare until D-Day, long after the Wright brothers took to the air.

So what happened to this astounding realisation of humanities’ drive towards trade and exploration? Like all such undertakings of incredible cost and organisation they relied on political will and state funds to continue (just like the shuttle programme) and, as always, times change, as do priorities. The fleets of Zheng He ended when a new emperor came in and eunuchs like Zheng He lost power to the Confucian bureaucracy.

Am I lover of war and arcane technology? NO! to the former and YES! to the latter. But more correctly, I am a lover of history and pre-history, knowledge and the unknown. A natural philosopher, if you will (to use a term from the 18th century) who sees science, the arts and religious belief not in opposition but as part of a continuum. I am no follower of the Manichaeism that so infects the present discourse in politics and the media. For me, the world does not divide neatly into black and white, like it does for some. It is full of colour. And even when it gets dark, there are always shades of grey, contrasting intensities of darkness, something glowing in the corner to be inspected.

There can be no loss that offers no gain. No gain that does not involve some loss.

What has the space shuttle got to do with war and philosophy? A lot.

I can never celebrate war.

Edwin Starr was right to claim war was good for ‘absolutely nothing’ in 1969 as the groovy pop culture stance was needed in the face of the Vietnam War. But it was a song of the moment and the greater truth is that while war achieves very little that is good no evil passes without the opportunity for some advantage to society.

Wars are:

1. Good for certain interested sections of the economy of the victors.

2. Drivers of scientific research and innovation which can have applications outside the military.

History is littered with examples of 1.

In, fact, I was talking to a military contractor the other day who said that the US economy needs a large-scale war every 15 years to stay afloat. An easy statement to make but he had just spent the last 15 years helping organize the clean-up of mines left as a result of the various imperial adventures in South East Asia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. As always, it is women and children who face the relics of this aggression while they go about the mundane tasks of seeking water and wood. The producers of the land mines and the politicians who demanded their deployment, as well as the combatants who placed them in the ground where they remain till this day, are all absent from the clean-up. No glory to be had there.

We also talked of the present absurdity of the US Army being forced by politicians to take orders of new, more technologically advanced tanks when they are quite happy with their present ones.

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/congress-forcing-the-army-to-make-tanks-2012-10

Naturally, examples of 2 are a little less depressing (I use that small qualifier not because I live in a land where understatement is an understatement but because the innovations come on the back of making it ever-easier to kill people).

Florence Nightingale pioneered nursing care in the inanity of the Crimean War not for the benefit of civilians, but to stop soldiers from dying from the wounds and disease that were seeing them off at a greater rate than the enemy ever could. After they were healed they were sent back to the task of killing the Russians in an aggressive, pointless war far from home.

We continue to benefit from that awful situation with modern health-care.

New Zealander Sir Harold Gillies, ‘the father of plastic surgery’, pioneered facial reconstruction during The Great War (the one fought to end all wars) so that those who had put themselves on the line so there would no more need to fight could be better accepted back into the society of those who, for whatever reason, had not made that sacrifice. The predicament of the half-faced veteran, Richard Harrow, in Boardwalk Empire says a lot about this appalling situation.

Sir Archibald McIndoe  (also from Dunedin) worked for his cousin, Gillies, in the 1930s, learning the trade before achieving medical breakthroughs working with RAF burn victims (the famous Guinea Pig Club) in World War II.

Another great benefit derived from World War II is international travel. Jet planes were relatively ineffective during the war but the technology was soon parlayed into the cheap travel we enjoy today.

It still amazes me to think how far air travel has developed from the Wright Brothers’ first flight 110 years ago. But to link their achievement on a continuum with the space shuttle is disingenuous.

An apple and a pig are food for some and may even be found in the same shop or dinner plate. But the one does not proceed from the other.

Likewise, powered flight is similar to space travel in that they both leave the ground, but the shuttle programme was born of a rather different impulse.

We all know that the Wright brothers weren’t the first to imagine how we might fly. There had been countless attempts throughout history, amongst them New Zealand’s great challenger from Temuka, Richard Pearse, who some still claim to have beaten the Wright’s by 9 months.

Medal struck by NZ Mint claiming Pearse flew first.

Medal struck by NZ Mint claiming Pearse flew first.

The Wright Brothers were bicycle makers working away by themselves while the U.S. War Department (yes, the War department) and the Smithsonian Institution combined resources and scientific expertise to ‘conquer the air’.

How did the Wrights’ compete with that? There’s a fascinating and gripping book about it called ‘To Conquer The Air’ by James Tobin.

But basically, to quote a(nother) great New Zealander, Lord Rutherford, ‘the father of nuclear physics.’

“…we don’t have much money, so we have to think”.

I must mention that, despite popular opinion, Rutherford didn’t split the atom. He cleverly, and cheaply, worked out an experiment to demonstrate what was inside. If the atom had been split then Manchester would have gone *bang!* well before the ‘80s dance craze.

Rutherford and his "Number 8 Wire" gold leaf experiment that 'split the atom'.

Rutherford and his “Number 8 Wire” gold leaf experiment that ‘split the atom’.

The Wright brothers won the race against the War Department et al. because, like Rutherford, they employed the imagination and skill that the state, for whatever reason, seemed to ignore. It wasn’t mere chance they got there first.

In contrast, the race into space was a very different game. It was born directly of the ballistic missile technology developed by the Germans and realised in their V2 terror attacks on London.

V2 on its way to London.

V2 on its way to London.

The V2 was the first rocket to go into space. Fans of Tintin will recognize its form from ‘Destination Moon’ published in 1953.

We're going to the moon!

We’re going to the moon!

While these ‘terror weapons’ (as Hitler called them, in his hodgepodge German accent) killed many Londoners a much greater number of slave labourers and concentration camp ‘workers’ died making them.

When the Allies overrun the launch site at Pennemunde they grabbed the technology and the developers in order to initiate their own ballistic missile programmes. Amongst them was the leader of the V2 programme, Wernher von Braun who was secretly taken to the U.S. where he ended up starting the Space Program which became NASA.

First photo from space taken by a US V2

First photo from space. Taken by a US V2

Yes, it could be argued that he should have stood trial at Nuremburg, not so much for killing the Londoners, but for the deaths of the slaves and concentration camp victims forced to build his terror weapons while hidden deep in dangerous caves, but isn’t it best to be pragmatic and take advantage of a bad situation?

Like a lot of what happened at the end of WWII, motives were driven by concerns about erstwhile allies, soon to be regarded as enemies. The Americans were desperate for the Soviets not to get hold of the technology (that the Soviets developed their own space programme out of the bits and pieces left scattered at Pennemunde is testament to a great resourcefulness).

This situation only added to the so-called “shock of the century” felt by the U.S. when the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit in 1957. Sputnik sent the Space race ballistic (pun intended).

Stamp issued to celebrate Sputnik.

Stamp issued to celebrate Sputnik.

Eisenhower wouldn’t be outdone and it was no mean feat that 3 months later a team led by von Braun, James van Allen, and Wellington boy William Pickering (yes, a Kiwi was in charge of the Jet Propulsion Unit) sent Explorer 1 into space. It was a great propaganda moment for the U.S. which NASA acknowledged at the 50th anniversary of the launch with this article on their site.

http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/whyweexplore/Why_We_28_prt.htm

At the time the 3 scientists were (reluctantly) flown from the launch site to Washington for the staged press conference where this iconic image was created.

Pickering, van Allen, von Braun celebrating the launch.

Pickering, van Allen, von Braun celebrating the launch for the cameras.

The Space Race took off not because it benefited humanity or exploration, but because it benefited those who had their hands on the purse-strings. Perceptions of hegemony had to be maintained.

When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the Americans hit back with Alan Shepard the following month. The Soviets put the first woman up in 1963. Notably, she was also the first civilian (the U.S. didn’t feel it necessary to send a woman into space until Sally Ride went up in the Challenger in 1983).

The so-called ‘exploration of space’ has been an overwhelmingly military operation.

JFK only committed the U.S. to sending a man to the moon to get one over the Soviets. He saw no other value (he wrote and said this in private many times).

In fact, he is on tape (the same White House taping system that would prove Nixon’s downfall) regretting making the commitment to going to the moon, worrying that the public would realise it was “just a stunt… a waste of money…. why didn’t I say something useful…like ridding the sea of salt?”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1390928/New-tapes-reveal-JFK-fretted-selling-Apollo-moon-mission-US-public.html

Having campaigned on being ahead in the “missile-gap” his presidency depended on being in the lead. Gagarin went up 2 months into JFK’s presidency so he had to come up with something, anything, to top them (hence, the famous speech filled with lofty ideals).

Once JFK was assassinated in 1963 his commitment became sacrosanct. Yes, it was a marvellous feat and achievement, but it had little to do with the spirit of exploration and invention that motivated the Wright brothers into the air in 1903, or sent Lindbergh across the Atlantic in 1927.

Yes, the Soviets had their own missions to send a man to the moon, but once the U.S. set foot there there was simply no propaganda value in throwing any more money at it.

The Apollo missions quietly suffered the same fate 3 years after Neil Armstrong fluffed his famous lines from the moon (or did he?).

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2193749/Neil-Armstrong-speech-Thats-small-step-man-famous-mankind-words-misquoted.html

As I child, I followed the development of the shuttle program with great interest. The test flights from the back of Jumbo jets were played on the news in NZ. The programme, started by Nixon in the ’60s, wasn’t about human endeavour, but creating a fast turn-around vehicle to set up a space station.

The so-called “space-truck” was also intended to capture Soviet satellites (Nixon approved the funding for NASA on these grounds). Yet again, it was about the Space Race.

The Soviets had their own Buran shuttle programme that went up only once in 1988 but was soon abandoned as the Soviet Union fell apart.

Like the landing on the moon, I watched the shuttle launches (and landings) beamed live on the telly. I am sad to see these great machines put to rest. But like the magnificent ships of the line that won Spain, then France, and finally Britain an empire, or the great fleets of exploration of Zheng He, their time has passed and there is no need to replace them. No one needs to ‘conquer’ space.

The shuttle was a product of a world I am glad to see the end of. Overall, the Cold War was an obscene waste of money that may have given the bulk of society some little benefits, maybe, but they are way out of proportion to the lives and capital spent.

The space-truck put some satellites up, maintained a broken telescope and provided a taxi service to the International Space Station. There was a lot of compelling live telly for those, like me, excited by such things and there are still infomercials selling products that claim to benefit from technology developed by the space programme. But I think we deserve something better than non-stick fry pans.

Let me be clear, space exploration continues to excite me.

When the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars last year I shared the effusive excitement of my 4 year-old daughter who squealed with wonder and delight as we watched it land. She was so intrigued when I explained what was happening that I got a poster of the solar system for her bedroom wall and a set of glow-in-the-dark planets to hang above her bed. A year later she still knows the names and special qualities of each planet. They have not been replaced by Dora or Disney or any other marker of social acceptance. Each night as I carry her to bed on my shoulders she turns out the lights so that we enter her room in darkness, with only the glowing planets to guide us.

Like the Wrights tinkering away by themselves or the Dotcom giants who started off in anonymous garages and faceless dorms, the wonders of the future will come from the minds of girls and boys chipping away in mundane surroundings.

Likewise, the future for space exploration lies in innovation and imagination, not in bellicose projections of state power, or ‘great (or even giant) leaps forward’.

Right now a myriad of small private companies are pioneering fast turnaround re-usable craft to take the shuttle’s place servicing satellites and the space station.

Dragon 6

Dragon 6

And, as always, the future belongs to those like the young stick figure in the cartoon who dare to imagine. It is not a bigger, louder extrapolation of what has gone before. As the saying goes, nothing dates faster than the future. Leave such whimsy to the realms of the Jetsons (food in a pill!), steam-punk (I heart steam-punk!) and other fancies of a future hobbled by the past.

There’s no need to grieve the passing of an imagined future. Let’s feel happy and confident enough to celebrate what has been achieved, warts and all, to take what is useful, understand what is not, and not cling to the gunships, space-trucks and eunuchs of yesteryear.

Let’s sit on the shoulders of giants, imagining what may be flying overhead, in reality and in our imaginations.

(Oh, and happy birthday to Orville Wright who would be 142 today, if one of the imagined futures of my childhood had come true and he was still alive).

The Space Station zooming over my home.

The Space Station zooming over my home.