Naked in Tokyo


It was our first trip to Japan this September. We had planned a trip back on 2011 but the tsunami hit and we felt it was wrong to be a tourist in a country so stricken. On that occasion we made a detour to Cuba, a rather lengthy detour, but unforgettable.

But, the time had come. We were visiting our son in Seoul and Japan is a near neighbour, so it was long overdue. We had ten days which is not long, but long enough to plan an exciting and eventful time. Hubby plotted our course, booked the bullet trains and we managed to cram in Tokyo, Nikko (home of the three wise monkeys), Hiroshima and Kyoto (a highlight).


In Tokyo we tried to do everything that we’d read about. Hubby got up at 4 am to ‘do’ the famous fish market. He left me sleeping and grabbed a cab. Shortly after I had snibbed the lock on the hotel door and fallen into a deep sleep, he returned with a crash and a bang, trying to break down the door. Alas, only the first 100 people who turn up on time are admitted to the market. In spite of his early (as he thought) departure for this event, it wasn’t early enough – it was a Saturday and everyone was there waiting – no bribes taken – just the first 100 in the queue.

We conquered the metro. How easy it is with both the Japanese scripts plural (goodness, and I tell my ESOL students English is difficult) and the English equivalent, easily read and understood. Not only is the metro fast and efficient, it is startlingly clean. We found the Shibuya Crossing made famous by the movie ‘Lost in Translation’. It was fun to cross with all the crazy tourists now perpetuating the myth or reality of this crossing being the busiest on the planet. I have to say, a week or so later, I was in Hongdae and Insadong over Chuseok, in Korea and I’m certain both places were even more crowded that the Shibuya Crossing.


We then, naturally, had to watch a rerun of ‘Lost in Translation’ and to our dismay, saw just how racist and jaded the movie appears, in retrospect. The Japanese characters have stereotypical bit-parts and Tokyo, the city itself doesn’t get to really flaunt its stuff enough.

I was dead keen to see the crazy fashion on Harajuku Street but alas, although we trawled the side streets and followed our map, the extreme street fashion I was hoping to photograph didn’t eventuate. Too we visited the National Museum and I was most eager to view the netsuke collection (having read the memoir of Edmund de Waal ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’).

All this is leading to telling you about my being naked in Tokyo. I’ve always wanted to go to a public bathhouse and naturally Japan seemed like the best place to do this. We read up about the various bath houses and found one on our on-line Lonely Planet guide. It was in a rather ugly shopping mall but we were told to overlook this, because it was a really good bathhouse, the perfect place to experience Onsen.


And it was. Hubby went one way and I went the other. Into the public bathhouse. It was the first time I’ve been naked in public among so many strangers and yet it was simply the loveliest most normal and beautiful thing. What a pity I had to wait until I was in my sixties to experience this.

I might well have been the only non-local, but I can’t confirm this, as once you are there, and naked there is an extraordinary kind of privacy that pervades. I was surrounded by absolute beauty. I will confess to initial shyness and discomfort. This led to me entering the main bathhouse and heading straight towards a small shallow pool in the shape of a semi-circle above which was a TV screen. I headed there because it was empty of people and sat down. It was very shallow and it wasn’t long before I realised I was sitting in a foot bathing pool. Alone, self-conscious, I began to giggle. I looked over at the big pools where the grown-ups were and I lifted myself with dignity from the paddling pool crossed the wet stone floor and descended a ladder into a deep bath with water jets and serious bathers, some chatting, some just luxuriating and one person seriously washing with great care.

I saw what looked like perhaps a grandmother with her granddaughter, young women in their teens, older woman like myself, the whole cross spectrum of naked female beauty in all its dignified glory. But the thing that struck me most was the absolute lack of self-consciousness and complete naturalness in nudity. I compared it to my preconceived ideas of say a nudist camp with mixed genders, which to me seems a bit comedic. Instead, this felt like a celebration of womanhood. I hesitate to add this, but bush was in abundance, beautiful undressed womanhood. No tattoos or piercings are allowed. I wonder if that will change with time, but without being judgmental, I kind of liked the idea. Both my sons have tattoos, so they would be turned away.

Now I’m back home in New Zealand and I’ve thought about what it would be like to go to a local bathhouse here in my own community. I feel all the old barriers rising to tell me it would be awful, embarrassing, and uncomfortable. I wonder was it because I was anonymously naked in Japan that I felt so comfortable, and that no one knew me, or was there some ancient ritual that the bathhouse routines have rendered into the atmosphere, changing what would normally be a socially uncomfortable experience for me, into something very beautiful.

Love as a Stranger


Love as a Stranger


This is vintage Owen Marshall. A contemporary novel about a baby boomer ménage à trois (although that might actually be an exaggeration and perhaps affaire is more accurate). It begins in a cemetery in Auckland where we met Sarah and Hartley, total strangers, who engage in a conversation about a fascinating inscription on a small headstone for a grave that has collapsed in on itself. Emily Mary has been shot on her way to bible class.

Sarah, is a woman in her late 50’s, who hails from Hamilton but who is temporarily domiciled in Auckland in an apartment with her husband Robert while he is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Sarah has time on her hands and as a result, she bumps into Hartley again… and again.All three key characters, Sarah, Hartley and Robert are very ordinary, leading fairly un-extraordinary lives and this is where Marshall shines. He knows how to unwrap the ordinary and show the reader the interiority of what could otherwise be quite banal lives.

The story unfolds gently, the circumstances of how Hartley and Sarah begin a sexual relationship. It seems quite natural and unspectacular. Robert is sick, Sarah has time on her hands, Hartley is widowed and looking for company. It’s not the be all and end all take your breath-away sex, it’s companionship with sexual benefits. But here is where Marshall takes risks. He writes of the whole messy business, details that writers often skip over, and it’s not sordid or prurient, it’s quite charming instead. Or does that mean it is believable?

As always, Marshall’s keen observation of the human condition and people shines through. My first laugh out loud moment came early in the book when we are introduced to Hartley’s ex mother-in-law:

‘Her mother kept the conversation going by listing the features that made Devonport unique, and then the superiority of her own part of Auckland. It was an indication of the sort of woman she was – preoccupied with the instruction of other and the emphasis of her own significance.’

And this
‘Irene was thin and always well dressed, but age ravaged her and although she kept out of the sun her skin darkened and loosened until it seemed as if she wore stockings over her limbs. Towards the end there was so little of her that she appeared in the process of mummification, with only her dark, jewelled eyes glinting from the wrappings.’

My next chuckle came when the author builds a picture of the lovers as they might be observed by an outsider.

‘To others they could pass as husband and wife, except perhaps to the more insightful observer of the close attention they paid each other. A tall, slightly heavy woman in what might tactfully be termed late middle age, well and casually dressed, the colour of her thick brown hair salon reinforced.’

And so an affair begins with Hartley and Sarah that seems to some extent benign in its simplicity and almost inevitability. Sarah’s husband Robert is in the shadows at this stage, as a vague figure who is being treated for cancer. Hilariously, as Hartley becomes more besotted with Sarah, he wants to buy her a frivolous gift and says:

‘I’ll buy you French undies.’ But Sarah is having none of this. ‘Like hell you will. You can buy me slippers. I need a pair. All grandmothers do.’
Hartley becomes curious and wants to meet his ‘rival’ Robert. ‘Robert was a large, intelligent, self-centred man who had run down into needy dependence.’ They do meet, and Sarah doesn’t know they have and Robert doesn’t know who Hartley is either.

As the story progresses, Sarah has to balance the joy of this new affair against her responsibilities as a wife, mother and grandmother. In contrast, Hartley recently widowed with a son living in London, has no such constraints and he begins to imagine a future with Sarah. Hartley begins texting Sarah when she is at home in the apartment with Robert. Sarah is disturbed by this new insistence and it amplifies the deceit as she has to rush to another room to read the text and then to lie about who is texting.

Marshall very cleverly deconstructs the mechanics of a love affair. The various components ‘there’s always an element of vanity in love’, the competing personal imperatives as to why and how an affair might happen and then, the other lives that will be impacted.

It’s a terrific story and builds to an ending that is both gripping and in some strange way on reflection probably inevitable, but I doubt many readers see it coming. I certainly didn’t and I think it is a masterstroke and takes the novel into the literary thriller genre.

Highly recommended.

Did you like my novel?


‘I like your novel. I enjoyed it.’ She says this plainly, a mere fact, but there’s no mistaking the rising inflexion making joy into a query… a statement of surprise.

‘I’m reading your novel.’ Nothing more. Just what should be a reassuring statement. But what does it mean? Has she finished the first chapter, where’s she up to? She doesn’t say.

‘I loved your novel,’ with a notable circumflex. But that’s over the top and you don’t believe her. It’s gushy, can’t be true. And a noted circumflex indicates there’s more to be said, but she says nothing more. What is it she won’t say?

Then there’s the silent friend, who came to the launch and never mentions your novel, ever again. Her silence more potent even than a notable circumflex or rising inflexion.

‘I liked your novel.’ The past tense. You feel robbed somehow. Only liked it.

Then a good friend goes on Goodreads and gives your novel four stars. You’re delighted and then you think… why not five stars? You check other books they gave five stars to. You try not to feel aggrieved. Now the distance between four and five stars becomes the distance between friends.

At last, a critic. You pay careful attention. Someone who read your novel and didn’t like it. They tear it apart skilfully, piece by piece, analyse its flaws. The flaws you already knew about and hoped no one would notice. You are riveted, you read every terrifying thing they write, not once, not twice, but over and over and over. You become greedy and Google your own novel become convinced that none of your friends know half as much as this really negative woman on Amazon. It feels good, you know you deserve this.

Praise is overrated.

In praise of editors


In praise of Editors

Inspired by Stephen Stratford’s recent article ‘The Book didn’t sell…’ I decided to write about my experience of editors from an author’s point of view.

My first novel ‘About turns’ was published by Random House. I had the great good fortune to be assigned Jane Parkin as the editor (arguably NZ’s best editor). I was totally new to this process. Although, most gratefully, the manuscript had been somewhat tamed and shaped through the generous mentoring of Barbara Else of Total Fiction Services, before being offered to Random House.

Jane invited me to her home. We sat at her kitchen table. We chatted like old friends about the characters in my novel. It was a revelation to me. Jane engaged with my characters as if they were ‘real’. She even went so far as to identify one of them as just like her friend from the local tennis club. I was flattered, delighted and excited. The experience was unforgettable. I knew that Jane had worked with the likes of Maurice Gee and Witi Ihimaera and other luminaries. It was my ‘pinch me’ moment.

And then, the edits came back to me, and I was dismayed to see how many things needed my attention – a word order reversal (actually many), a sentence (many sentences) to remove, a paragraph to create, a scene to cut, and queries in the margins of every page. It was daunting and then it was exciting. Jane made me a better writer (well, she made me look like a better writer).
Once my novel was published, I had a coffee with Jane and chatted about the edits and her experience as an editor. Where did I fit on a scale of how bad to how good, I nervously asked? She told me that when she read Maurice Gee, she barely had to touch a thing. She said there were some novels she joked she could have put her own name as author and somewhat hesitantly I asked ‘Where do I sit?’ Perhaps generously, perhaps she fibbed to flatter, but she said ‘somewhere in the middle’… I was relieved – after all, this was my first novel.

Then came my second novel ‘Turbulence’ published by Random House. My assigned editor was in Auckland, so we worked on-line and on the phone. She’d just finished editing the reissue of works of Janet Frame. I felt trepidation that mine was the next manuscript. We developed a working rapport but there was none of the affection and connection to the story or my characters in the same way there had been with my first novel. It felt like more of a ‘technical’ edit. The novel didn’t do so well, although all my male friends preferred it to my first novel and Owen Marshall, who I so admire, felt it was better than my first novel.

My most recent novel ‘Daughters of Messene‘ (7 years in the making) was by far the most stressful and yet the most rewarding editing experience. I had done so many revisions prior to the novel being presented to Makaro, but Mary McCallum, both a writer herself and a publisher, saw where the novel wasn’t working. She pushed me to increase the pace in the first part of the book, to get my central character to Greece where the action would take place. She pestered me for conversation, names of characters, and challenged me constantly. Then work began with the Whitireia students Emma Bryson and Megan Kelly, two very talented young women completing the Publishing Diploma. They became champions for my young character Artemis. They identified with her and took me to task when she wasn’t on track. They pushed me to make her stronger, to give her a backbone. It was thrilling. I revelled in the collaborative nature of this editing – lots of it was on-line and every new query became an opportunity to either stand up for my work or take up the challenge to improve it. Although exhausted, and at times utterly frustrated, it was exhilarating and unforgettable. I always be grateful to Makaro and Whitireia. It is my best piece of work.

Questions about Appropriation – My Greek Novel (The right to write fiction)


It wasn’t until days before the final print run of my Greek novel that any sense of audacity crept in. Up until that moment, I’d been so focussed on the story, certain of it in the way that only an author can be when in the grip of writing fiction. My novel took seven years to be ready and to find the right publisher. The writing of it, the revising of it and finding a publisher, consumed me as a writer. I believed in the story. But now my book is out and about, it’s not doubt that grips me, but the realisation of what I’ve done. You see, I don’t speak Greek. Yes, I travelled to Greece for three months in 2007 to do my research. I was fortunate. There I was, a woman of a certain age, alone in a foreign city, seeking stories from the locals about the Greek Civil War. It’s only now in hindsight that I can see with clarity, the audacity of this venture. I met with resistance as you can imagine and then too through circumstance and happenstance, I stumbled on opportunities, including an extraordinary invitation to the home of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Mani, to celebrate his Name Day, in November that year.

Why did a Kiwi author want to write about the Greek Civil War? It started with my father. He was a lad from Kaikoura who ended up on Crete with the 22nd Battalion during the Second World War. I’ve written an essay about this in Landfall. In the 1980’s the Greek Government offered a Greek Medal to Kiwi veterans still living. My Dad was still alive and with the help of my Greek friend Maria I applied for his medal. At that stage I had a young family and we’d just moved next door to Maria. I had no idea of her own amazing journey from Kalamata to Wellington during the 60’s but I was eventually to find out.I’m a writer, so what did I do? I realised very few people knew about the journey of the young Greek girls (most of them from Crete), to New Zealand in the sixties, as part of a special scheme between the two Governments. The girls had to be under 30, unmarried and work in the hospitality industry. The established local Greek community were less than impressed with this sudden influx – the thought of any scandal.And so, using my imagination, I began to weave a fictional account of a young woman who leaves Greece to live on the other side of the world. I’m a baby boomer, born in 1950, only five years after the end of the Second World War. It’s only now that I recognise the very proximity of that war to my own parents’ lives at the time I was born. Back then, ‘the war’ seemed like a very distant affair. I began to imagine what impact not just the Second World War, but the ongoing Greek Civil War might have had on the lives of some of these young women. My story is purely and simply imagined. It is not any one girl’s particular story. Through research and reading, I’ve woven a story which at the heart is a mother and daughter story. It is a story of immigration. It is a story of war and its aftermath.

My local Greek friends have embraced my story and I am grateful. I’ve had generous feedback. The novel has had very good reviews so far. While writing this novel, I had so much help from the Greek community. My intention was to bring the story of these brave young women to the fore, to honour them and to re-imagine the possible circumstances that might have propelled them to travel so far from home. And yes, it is only now, that my novel is out and about, that any sense of doubt has arisen, that a writer who doesn’t speak Greek, has dared to write a Greek-Kiwi novel. Did I have the right? Have I got it right? Who has the right to write a story? During the editing process, one of the super smart young editors working at Whitireia made the observation that I needed to be careful with the use of the Greek language, the insertion of Greek phrases, lest I strayed into the territory of ‘exoticising’, and thus undermining the integrity of the story.

I recall my book group, reading Alex Miller’s ‘Lovesong’, a story I loved. Two of my book club friends were unhappy that within the story, two male characters had appropriated the story of the main character, a woman from Tunisia. Not that the author had written about a woman from Tunisia, but that he’d allowed two male characters to tell her story.

My second novel ‘Turbulence’ was about a middle-aged man from the suburb of Lower Hutt. He worked in manufacturing. He was a stepfather in a new relationship, with a broken marriage, the result of his child who had died in a tragic accident in his driveway with him at the wheel. Did I know this man? I knew aspects of him, but he is a fictional character. I had worked in recruitment for many years in the Hutt Valley and so I felt I knew this man, an ordinary man, the sort of man who doesn’t always make it into fiction – not an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, but something rather more ordinary – a man running a factory.Did I have the right to write with the voice of a man? It never occurred to me that I didn’t. And I was heartened by the first review on Radio NZ by John McCrystal who felt I’d nailed it. Unfortunately, the ensuing reviews from two younger, academic women, did not concur. We bring to our reading our own experiences. Many of my women friends didn’t enjoy ‘Turbulence’, but almost all my men friends did.

My first novel ‘ About turns’ was about book clubs and marching girls. This is territory that I know well. It was about a sixties working-class childhood. Yes, I mined my own experiences and many people who’d known me during my childhood claimed to recognise characters. But the book was also about a transgender character, female to male. Did I have the right? This book is fiction with experiences rendered to represent truths, both my own and other peoples.

I won’t have got everything right in my Greek novel in spite of all the support from native Greek speakers and spouses of native Greek speakers. But I’m hopeful that being an outsider, has enabled me to write with a different sort of clarity, that of the observer. But this begs the question. Did I have the right to appropriate a foreign language, to use it and many of its sayings, without being a speaker of that language? All the mistakes (if there are any and there must be) of history, time, place, language and ideas of what it is to be Greek, and how to express this, are entirely mine.

Links to reviews of ‘Daughters of Messene’

The simplest words


For Christmas, I bought myself a copy of Alex Miller’s memoir ‘The Simplest Words’, a series of sometimes quite short personal essays. I’m only part way into reading them but was struck to the core by his essay about the death of his elderly mother. He begins with a low-key description of a week they spent together when she was 86 years old. Indeed, he points out, that she pointed out, that this was the first time the two of them had ever spent a week alone together. He lives in Australia and left home aged sixteen to follow his Antipodean dream, and then became a writer. This essay-vignette, one week, ends with Alex and his mother walking home arm in arm from a pub after polishing off a bottle of Spanish wine, ‘Bulls Blood’.


I was reading this sitting at a café overlooking our beautiful local bay. The water unusually calm, one person swimming, a grandmother towelling down her granddaughter, and a motor boat noiselessly edging towards the beach. A woman beside me was talking loudly on her mobile. I frowned first and then decided I would eavesdrop (I’m a writer), but she stopped before anything useful was uttered. I returned to Alex Miller.

Tragically, after spending this memorable week with his mother, a few weeks later when she was dying, he had to choose between returning to the United Kingdom to see her or his commitment to a new job at La Trobe University, Melbourne, teaching creative writing. He explains that he chose to stay with his students who had given him the gift of their unpolished first drafts – and to abandon them would be to betray that trust. He then goes on to say that it took six weeks for his elderly mother to die and when he returned some time later and caught up with his sister, she told him that his mother had been waiting for him to come. It’s quite brutal to read as her death was horrible, her spirit fighting to hang in beyond her physical pain. The sister tells him “It’s all right, you know, Mum understood that writing meant everything to you.”

It revived my own memories of my mother’s death. I was living in Sydney at the time and my aunt phoned to tell me my mother had suffered a heart attack and was in hospital. I’d just moved to a new flat on the North Shore and gone through an emotional romantic break-up. I stayed put. My Aunt phoned again three days later telling me I should come quickly. Reluctantly, I packed up my flat and job in one day and flew home. It took my mother a couple of weeks to die. She wasn’t in a lot of pain as far as I know, but she was very tired. A few years earlier my eldest brother had committed suicide. The last time I saw her, a nurse urged me to stay, but I had a bus to catch and a dinner date, so I said I had to go. I know now that the nurse knew my mother was dying, but she didn’t tell me. I made my dinner date and my mother passed away less than an hour after I said a cheerful goodbye to her. I often revisit this moment and wish the nurse had told me but too, I regret my own callow youth – I was impatient with her – she’d disrupted my adventures, I was anxious to be on my way.

So now there was just my Dad and me. One sibling was dead and the other was missing. As the hearse pulled up outside our modest Jerry-built post war weatherboard house – I was standing in the hallway with a view through the open front door – the phone rang and it was the missing child – not in a position to attend the funeral. I was used to life being askew, and this was just another permutation. We were a small team, my Dad and I and my Aunt and it took me motherhood, teenagers and becoming a grandmother to really know what happened that day. My grief came in unexpected moments over the years, tinged with regrets, and I was grateful, when my father died, that I was encouraged by the hospital to stay close, to sit still, to be there, and I was.

A cracker day


DSC_1172 3(1)

Wellington turned on a cracker day for us. We migrated outside early with our glasses of bubbles and festive spirit. The birds were cheerful, the wind was in abeyance and our harbour sparkled. We had family home from Seoul. Our tree was lit with new LED pretty-coloured lights, the colours a nod to our granddaughter, the lights a nod to our daughter-in-law who is a climate change campaigner with Greenpeace, Korea. We all played our part nicely. The foot of the symmetrical, but authentic Christmas tree (we travelled 28 kilometres to purchase this ‘real Xmas tree’) was strewn with beautifully wrapped presents – too many for certain but chosen with love and affection. It seemed to me that the most fun our granddaughter had, was reading the labels on the gifts and handing out the presents. She was our centre. She was our Santa.
It set me to thinking about what Christmas meant to me as a child. I’ve dredged my heart for memories. Interestingly (and somewhat affirming), it is not the gifts I got that I recall, but the moments when Christmas went a little awry, or wasn’t quite as the script predicted.

My first memory is second-hand and cemented through retelling. It’s the moment one of my siblings woke on Christmas eve and disturbed Santa placing presents on the hearth. To authenticate the moment, our parents knocked the fire screen over and told us that Rudolph had raced away up the chimney in fright.
A second memory, I’ve written about before, but it is a cherished memory. A maiden aunt (such a quaint term but one applicable to the era), who worked at the St George Hotel in Wellington as a waitress and lived in (for almost 40 years I think), gave me my first proper swimsuit. It was covered in pink bon-bons and had a bow that sat neatly at the back where the swimsuit flared into a skirt.

There’s the memory of sunlight, minted peas, roast chicken, or pork, the coal range belching plumes of smoke into the still summer air. My mother barely raised a sweat as she toiled with the back door open, manoeuvering pots from boiling to simmering, checking the crispy roast potatoes, moving her cigarette from lip to stove and back again. The roll your own would rest on the enamel perimeter of the Shacklock. She deftly opened one window and shut one door depending on the oven’s temperature and the meat’s progress.

There was always Mass of course early morning and although I’m not religious now, I can see that going to church brought something bigger into the picture with the gathering of our like-minded community in our finest summer frocks to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the manger always centre-stage. We didn’t have a car, so we would follow our mother in her high heels through the Anglican churchyard, past our primary school to the one true church, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
Even then, before we ate our festive midday dinner, there would be neighbours and friends dropping in to say hello and I often wonder how my mother coped, cutting her Christmas cake, dusting the mince pies (flaky, not short pastry) with icing sugar, while my Dad probably sipped from his flagon, sharing a glass or two with whomever appeared.

The thing is, I don’t remember presents. I know I always got a book. The School Friend Annual was my favourite. And one year I bought my father a bicycle bell from Woolworth’s. I even hold the memory of the moment of purchase. Woolworth’s and McKenzie’s were the two big department stores in Nelson where you took your pea-picking pocket money to purchase presents.

And lastly, I remember Pixie town. It came around at Christmas time and I’ve just googled it to be certain and it seems the first ever Pixie town was created by a Nelson man, Fred Jones in the 1930’s. So, it must have been a long held tradition and one that has obviously faded with the advent of holograms and more sophisticated entertainment. Pixie town was a mechanical animation that intrigued us and all the more because it was only once a year.
This year, my favourite gift is a journal from my husband, with the first page inscribed with love, urging me to write another novel. (If you know how much he suffers when I write – the ups, the downs, the angst, the rejection and the fear… you will know how generous this journal is).