For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

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For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
(Four Quartets, Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot).

I am standing somewhere in Leicester Square. It is either midnight or close to. I am inside a red phone booth. Maybe it reeks of urine, but I do not remember. In my hand is a black receiver with a mouthpiece into which I am speaking. My head is nestled into an earpiece straining to catch the words coming from 12,000 miles away. I can hear my own words echoing back at me over the voice of my mother, and then my father. Just before the three minutes is up, an operator interrupts our stilted conversation to let me know that if I wish to continue, I need to insert more coins. Three minutes is all I can afford and all it affords me, is a series of frantic hellos and goodbyes echoing into the night. It is 1972, phone calls are expensive.

Christmas that same year, I am in Edinburgh living in a neoclassical (now historic A listed) building in Leith, on the edge of respectability. My flat is dark, bitterly cold and has a bold red street facing front door. A telegram arrives to wish me Merry Christmas Stop and a Happy New Year Stop. Each word costs my parents a small fortune, the two stops included. We are not on Viber, we cannot see each other and my blue aerogrammes take a week or two to cross the dateline homewards. My Dad drinks at the local pub after work every night. He is good friends with the local postman. Sometimes, if an aerogramme has arrived before delivery the next day, the postman will take my letter and deliver it in person to my Dad at the pub.

I grew up in a modest post-war Jerry-built wooden bungalow. Ostensibly we were working-class but New Zealand was more egalitarian back then. In our street including my Dad, a carpenter, were the butcher, a baker, a painter, a chemist, a doctor, three schoolteachers, and eventually, years after I left, a Prime Minister. Most women back then were not in paid work, well not in our street. We had no telephone. If we wanted to call my grandmother we needed to walk to the top of our street, up a small hill, to a phone booth. I was born in a cottage hospital at the top of that hill. My father and I received the news of my grandmother’s death in that phone booth. My mother was with my dying grandmother. Dad and I walked up the hill to the phone booth to call for news. I recall I screamed. A man passing by in his car, heard me scream, stopped and came to rescue me – seeing me in a phone booth with my Dad, and not knowing quite what was going on. This same man, when he learned our sad news, that my grandmother had just died, drove us up to my grandmothers.

When I lived at home, I woke each morning to the sound of the BBC News, as my father washed himself in the bathroom and sang. We had a tin bath but no shower. His ablutions were a ritual of running water and a lot of sloshing. Big Ben would chime before the news over shortwave radio and the news reader had a gravitas that brooked no doubt. No one speaking in such a well-bred, carefully modulated timbre could possibly be telling other than the truth. The Cuban Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, and his funeral, all came to us from the blue Bakelite radio above the small green fridge. The fridge I might add, was a modern wonder that had replaced but not entirely, the safe above the kitchen sink near the coal range.

My eldest brother left school to join the Merchant Navy and was travelling as a teenager to the Pacific Islands specifically Nauru for phosphate and up to Hong Kong and Japan. He returned from a trip with a portable tape recorder as a gift for me. It had a small microphone for recording and tiny reel to reel tapes. My best friend and I would visit the local shops and record our conversations with the fruiterer or the local bookshop. I would secrete the tape recorder, uncomfortably under my cardigan. I would disguise the microphone which hung around my neck with a daphne cutting from my mother’s garden. We felt like spies and thought ourselves entirely clandestine. I cannot recall any of the recordings, but I smile now to think that we thought we fooled anyone.

Many families back in the 60’s owned stylish stereograms, which appeared to be as much about furniture as about music. Some cabinets that housed the turntable also converted into a drinks cabinet. Our very first musical turntable was a wind-up gramophone and from memory, we had two records. One was Mario Lanza which may well have been quite hi-brow and the other played the Irish song The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door. The gramophone was in a case that sat on the floor in the front room when it was played and then it was put away in the big cupboard in Mum and Dad’s bedroom. Unless you wound the handle sufficiently, the record would slow right down and that is my memory of the final refrain of the song which repeats the title, in a slow motion sound as the gramophone wound down. Many years later, an older sibling purchased a full-size ACME reel to reel tape recorder. We taped from the radio and had everything from Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Simon and Garfunkel, Sandie Shaw, Helen Shapiro, Diana Ross and Cilla Black. When I look back, we were lucky with so many outstanding female singers to listen to back then. Our influences were very much persuaded by the English pop charts early on, rather more than the American.

Then in the early 70’s, travelling by myself, I took my music with me on a small cassette player, listening to Carole King, Cat Stevens, Donovan, Neil Young and Blood Sweat and Tears, mostly American music. Later, in the mid 70’s, travelling with my now husband, we would make recordings of ourselves talking to our families on small cassettes and post these small cassette tapes home. The cassette would then be recorded over by the recipient, my husband’s brother, or my Dad, as by then my mother had died. I still recall our laughter, as we sat in a Norsk hytter surrounded by metres of snow, as my future brother-in-law back in New Zealand with a young family, regaled us with the woes of the newly instigated daylight saving. The entire one-way conversation was meticulous detail of the complications of old time and new time, the impact it was having. It made no sense to us that someone could be so disturbed by a one-hour difference in their lives. We’d just hitch-hiked to Lapland to observe the Midnight Sun. It wasn’t until we had our own family in the late 70’s and very early 80’s, that that one-hour difference when putting a toddler to bed, finally registered with us.

All my photos taken when travelling by myself in the early 70’s, including a solo Greyhound Bus trip around the USA, living in London, Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh and Norway, were recorded on slides. When I returned for the first time from overseas, a friend of my dear maiden aunt’s, invited me to her house along with her local friends and neighbours to show my slides. I recall how amateur my slides were, so dark and different from the instantly captured high resolution photos that an iPhone can capture. We were all in her front room, the lights out, a slide projector was whirring as photos of me in a purple midi coat standing by Cleopatras Needle on the Thames finally came into focus upon a white bed-sheet on the wall. The audience were all appreciative and I was the feted returning traveller. London, our Colonial homeland, and I had been there, although both my mother and father were born in New Zealand. Watching Helen Mirren before she was famous, at Stratford on Avon in a Royal Shakespeare production which from memory was performed outdoors by the river. But memory fails me on which particular play.
For a short time during my OE, I was staying in Nazareth Pa, USA having fallen in love with an American Coastguard sailor who had dodged the Vietnam Draft by signing up for seven years on the Icebreakers. We met at the Downtown Club in Wellington in the late 60’s and I ended up staying for some weeks with his family who were bemused by this girl from Downunder. I recall Polaroid photographs were the technology of that time, an instant image rolling out from the camera in technicolour. I kept a couple from that era, but they have faded. Then, more recently, my daughter-in-law purchased a brand-new super-duper Polaroid camera which had a brief moment in our lives, but not for very long. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, the list continues and images of sunsets and sunrises so ubiquitous as to be rendered schmaltzy. Everyone is a photographer, and everyone can communicate almost instantly with almost anyone in the world. We are blinded by sunsets, sunrises, and airbrushed joy.

When I returned from my travels in the mid to late 1970’s, I was employed for a while with the Time Life Magazine Sales Office in Auckland. These were heady days when triple page spreads for Rothmans or some Liquor brand, kept the magazine viable. The Sales Team at Time simply wined and dined the advertising agencies at such places as Antoine’s, Le Brie or Clichy’s ensuring ongoing advertising placements. It was a time of lavish expense accounts and too, the emergence in Auckland of trendy fine dining. Time Magazine had prestige and clout back then. Possibly a time of general naivety without the Twitter trail of fact checking. I recall an issue of Time Magazine dedicated to South East Asia when Muldoon and some sheep were on the front cover. Advertising was easy to sell with a front-page story about New Zealand. Journalists and a famous photographer, Rick Smolan, fresh from his filming of Robyn Davidson trekking across Australia on a camel, came to New Zealand for about three days. Nowadays, Robyn Davidson would be more likely instagramming her own journey on a camel. I recall Rick Smolan travelling light with a camera slung across his shoulder and the straps of the camera festooned with baggage tags. Baggage tags back then were an overt status symbol. Those of us who travelled, left the tags on our suitcases, proof of our international adventures. The photographer and a couple of Time Life journalists travelled to Taupo. They stayed at Huka Lodge and wrote romantically about Zane Grey and fishing in Lake Taupo. I saw the expense account. For the price paid, I envisaged scuba divers in the lake putting trout onto the fishing lines of the journalists… but worse than that, the statistics in the primary piece about New Zealand, specifically about child mortality were somehow grossly over misrepresented. There were other factual errors and my faith in the 4th Estate began to wane.

I recall the heady afternoon, when one of the Time Life Sales Team brought in a fax machine. It was I think 1977 and the fax didn’t really take off for everyday use commercially until the 80’s. We may well have been the very first commercial companies in New Zealand to receive a fax. A small group of us waited in the boardroom with the Sales Team, our eyes glued to a compact machine on the coffee table. A fax came through from the Time Life Sydney office. Prior to that, the communications had been by telex. Back in the sixties, when I joined the Post Office as a shorthand typist, we would use up to six carbon sheets when typing a single memorandum, so that it could be circulated around the branch office. I was also responsible on shifts, for a small switchboard answering incoming phone calls and plugging the phones in manually to the extensions required.

About ten or fifteen years ago, we rented a holiday house in the Marlborough Sounds. The house had its own private beach reached by boat from Picton. We were somewhat surprised to read the instructions left by the owner of the house regarding phone calls. The house was on a party line and we were told not to answer the phone unless it was (for example, as I no longer recall exactly), long short long. Throughout the long weekend, the phone rang and rang incessantly. It was the same number (not ours) over, and over again. Finally, in frustration, my friend answered the phone. The caller was from London and furious that we had answered the phone, thus incurring her the cost of the call. She did, however, stop phoning, thank goodness, as it seemed obvious to all of us that whomever she was calling was not at home that weekend.

I contrast all of this with my solo adventures around the USA in 1972, doing a Greyhound bus trip from Vancouver Canada down the West Coast and up the East Coast including forays to Las Vegas (in those days, merely a strip and a few pokie machines). I even naively and yet safely, hitch-hiked on several occasions. Thankfully, my mother and father back in New Zealand, knew nothing of my adventures, apart from postcards that probably arrived, long after any perilous adventures. Too, there were broken hearts that I healed by myself, without recourse to instant contact with close friends and family back in New Zealand. My adventures were frequently about romance and idealised love, and I am glad in retrospect to have had these challenges to myself, made mistakes that only I know of, and poured my heart out into a diary, from which several pages have been torn and destroyed. The short few weeks when I was certain I was pregnant after unprotected sex. My mother back in New Zealand didn’t need to know and I had no one to tell. When I bled, it was a great relief. I’m glad I wasn’t in daily contact with my mother during these times. Too, when I ended up at the clinic for sexually transmitted diseases after my first sexual experience. This was a solo adventure, the penicillin worked and to be honest I was mortally ashamed. I imagine nowdays, that it might even be Twitter worthy news. That same first experience spawned a successful poem, fifty years later.

I’m on Twitter nowadays and mostly for the political links that I find. I’m fascinated by the banal, trivial and outright nasty comments that people I admire are prepared to post. Most recently Neil Gaman and his partner Amanda Palmer, stranded here in New Zealand during lockdown, enacted the early stages of a relationship breakdown, live on Twitter. My thoughts were for the innocent child in the middle of this so very personal muddle. Oh, I judged them, I did, but I could see that most people responded with empathy and compassion. And as happens on Twitter, many took sides, alas. It all seemed odd to be washing their laundry in public as my mother might have said.

I compare the use of Twitter and contrast this with the gravitas of the BBC News on shortwave radio. At least now I can verify facts, double check with several sources and make informed decisions. So I’m not wishing to go back to a time of censorship. A time when I idolised JFK and Jackie Kennedy and knew nothing really of American Politics. A time when I loved the Royal Family and went eight miles on the suburban bus to the picture theatre to watch the film of Princes Margaret’s wedding. Innocence indeed, and we also stood at the local Picture Theatre for God Save the Queen. A few dissidents in the more expensive seats at the back, often protested by sitting down, but we kids in the cheap front three rows knew nothing of politics. We were in thrall to the Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s and Paramount Pictures. Enchanted by the raising of the rich velvet scallop shaped curtain as it rose from the stage to expose the white screen. Billy Vaughan’s Sail Along Silvery Moon can still transport me to the magic of the Saturday Matinee, a sense of wonder. Yet nowadays I’m more likely to watch foreign films and arthouse movies than blockbuster Hollywood releases.

I started work as a sixteen-year-old at the Post Office, working on an Imperial 66 manual typewriter pounding the keys with up to five or six carbon copies. And today I write this essay from my brain to the screen on a Surface Pro that is so light, I carry it like a clutch bag. My travel in the 70’s was not documented on Instagram or Facebook. I have barely any photographic record of this adventure and instead I must retrieve these memories from my own internal memory bank without Facebook to prompt me, or photos from my phone. I can switch screens to check Facebook, check my phone for updates from Radio New Zealand about Covid-19 cases, use Google to verify the spelling of Rick Smolan the famous photographer I met briefly in 1977 and return with ease to place my thoughts on a screen that allows me to justify, spellcheck, delete and importantly to ‘save’, ready for emailing my entry to the Landfall Essay Competition. No doubt Instagram will remind me of the looming deadline.

Saintly Passions

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Saintly Passions

They say she biked in her ballgown
possibly in a brace, and her with just
one kidney and a ciggie dangling from
the corner of her marvellous mouth

The black sheep of the family, we
thought, a scandal for daring to dance
but then it turned out, her quiet older
sister had a baby out of wedlock

The lock on wed is worth scrutiny in
retrospect, possibly related to the
Death do us part people mentioned
when marrying back then

Another sibling, a younger brother
managed to impregnate a married
woman twice, before she died in
childbirth and he married another

Thank God for adoption everyone
thought back then, and the locals
conspired to contain the secrets
known as the fabric of society

We think of weaving, stitching and
the spinning of yarns, and that’s
just what they did, they hid knots
it was all more warp than weft

And we were left to unpick the
pieces, years later when grown
men arrived in the image of once
unknown fathers to surprise us

Including the girl whose family
won the Golden Kiwi and who
grew to look remarkably like
the Parish Priest who relocated

Where documentation fails, we
have our own imaginations, on-line
DNA matching and curiosity to
rewrite our family histories

Saintly mothers with secrets
that speak of wild passions to
inspire their granddaughters

Typewriters

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Typewriters

I loved you my Hermes Rocket
Portable in your beautiful case
Those black keys, the clatter
Your smooth black platen
The gentle smack of carriage
Returning… returning…
My unfamiliar fingers practising
For School Cert, in the front
Room on the carpet square
No chair clakkity clakkity clack.

I left you for an Imperial 66
sturdy, upright, dark grey metal
Weighing a ton or more I’m sure
Requiring a new dexterity
Depressing heavy metal keys
Oh what a squeeze it was, each
Internal memo needing six copies
Carbon paper sandwiched in
Between, and how to keep
Each copy clean, clack, clack.

And then you, my flash Corona
With darling cream keys indented
Each finger knew its place upon
Your keyboard both chunky and light
So modern and bright by
Comparison and portable too
I think you were deluxe, but it is
So long ago, I can’t be sure
I know I loved you though
Your softer clakkity-clack.

I learned to type at school
With an apron over the keys
Each finger knew its place
And there was a certain grace
A ballet to the position of the
Fingers, so light and yet so heavy
Too. There was backspace but no
Button for delete. When Twink
Arrived we were surprised, although
Nothing can compete with accuracy

The golf ball electric, was my first
IBM Selectric, and I missed the rise
And fall, the gentle arc of metal
Arms reaching to the platen the
Falling clatter clatten sound and
Now this ceaseless whirring
No ribbons to replace, no keys
To catch each other in a momentary
Embrace, a chance to stop and breathe
With carbon running up my sleeve

It wasn’t long before the typewriter
Got a memory and all my skills of
Pound and pace were lost upon the
pretty face, of lightness and technology

Lockdown Poetry (I was there)

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This poem is not actually about lockdown, but written during lockdown after watching a video by Billy Collins… I am pretentiously channelling Walt Whitman.

 

 

I too sat in Noble’s barber shop

with my siblings for a haircut

high up on the swivel chair

 

although my hair has now turned grey

I recall the shape of my cut to this day

the nape of my neck exposed

 

A cowlick caused the problem

my fringe could not be restrained

but the feel of clippers I do not regret

 

I drank milkshakes in the Tea Kiosk

through many a paper straw

often so quickly, my head was sore

 

I queued at the War Memorial

for the Saturday Matinee on sunny

days but my friends were not allowed

 

I was called out of class

to the Murder House mid lesson

to face the consequences

 

Of too many toffee bars at

half time, the slow sweet decay

that I have paid for to this day

 

I remember Richmond Drapery

cinnamon seamless hosiery

the smell of bolts of cloth

 

Was it you and I who lay on the

hot asphalt by the school pool

peeing our maps of the world?

 

Was it you or me drinking

Cona Coffee, candles dripping

wax from empty wine bottles?

 

Were you there?

 

I climbed those blue hills with my lover

lay in those grasses upon which

the flash new subdivisions grew

 

Valhalla seemed grandiose for a

working class suburb, but the

new mall put paid to that

 

There’s a Mall my mother wrote

to me on a flimsy blue aerogramme

to my flat in Shepherds Bush

 

We all had our school feet measured

at Taylors at one time or another

secretly longing for patent leather

 

Herb was the Chemist who carefully

dispensed the avalanche of post war

Valium and sedatives to everyone

 

And everyone was married at one

time or another at the Church

of the Holy Trinity on the hill

 

Except us Catholics who of course

required a Papal dispensation

If we were wishing to deviate

 

I too was there each Anzac

and many after that too

In the bright light of Autumn

 

Where were you?

  
   

Homage to the Conray Heater

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Homage to the Conray Heater

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Recently, a group of women friends were chatting at my place.  We had gathered because we are part of a Philosophy Group that has been meeting together for over twenty years. This conversation was after the more philosophical and over cups of tea and home-made cream-filled choux pastry.  All of us are what would be classed as middle-class. We are all in our mid to late 60’s and we all grew up in New Zealand.  We got onto the topic of warm houses, underfloor heating, heat pumps etc.

Although all of us are now middle-class, some of us grew up working class.  Talking about heating our homes back in the 50’s and 60’s we all recalled leaping into cold beds, hot water bottles, chilblains and some of us recalled coats being laid across the bed on extra cold nights. Our experiences were mostly very similar.  Nobody had a home that was fully insulated or evenly heated.  Most of us knew about chilblains, frosty lawns and frozen puddles.

My childhood home was heated by a coal range in the kitchen and on Sunday evenings in the front room, in winter, we lit the open fire. School mornings, we kids would race into the kitchen (Mum or Dad would have been up much earlier to light and stoke the fire to warm the room up).  We would dress in front of the stove. I once dropped my pyjamas and lent back to scorch my backside on the oven door (skin left on the circular metal thermostat). Others recalled being scorched by two-bar heaters.

What we all recalled was the advent of the Conray heater.   It arrived I suspect in every home in New Zealand as the new high-tech heating miracle.  It was stylish in wood veneer, it had three settings from low to medium to high. People sat on them, dried clothes on them, and in general they were worshipped.  The Conray heater sat in pride of place in our front room in front of the now discarded and hardly used brick fireplace.   You could move the Conray closer to you or leave it in the centre of the room to radiate. It glowed in three shades of red.

In recent months we’ve been glamping in our garage with a Breville bench-top oven that is more efficient than any full-sized oven I’ve ever owned.  I’ve been using two Induction plates purchased from The Warehouse that are also more efficient than any gas hob I’ve ever cooked on.  My life in the garage (we are waiting for a house build), is modern, efficient and fun. I think of my Mum who needed to get up in a cold weatherboard home, with bare wooden floors, carry the coal bucket, chop the kindling, light the fire, and cook us a hot breakfast… oh yes, she did, most mornings. 

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I had whipped the cream for the profiterole supper in my 41-year-old Kenwood Chef cake mixer.  Two days later, making more profiteroles (they are my signature dish), and whipping cream for friends coming for lunch, my Kenwood began to smoke.  We rescued the cream and completed the whipping by hand.  My mother who was a country pub cook before she married, always beat her cakes and cream by hand. She never owned a kitchen whiz, cake mixer, rolling pin, nor did she ever have an electric oven.  It seems by dear old Kenwood Chef can have its burnt-out motor replaced!  I am greatly relieved to hear this.

I can see her now, in the front room on the new mustard lounge suite, with the room newly carpeted, a ciggie in one hand, one foot tucked under her bum, possibly watching Coronation Street (we finally got a TV when I was 16) and the Conray is glowing in front of her, purring luxury.  She will still need to light the fire, as our hot water supply depends on this.

A Way of Talking

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We don’t talk like that down here.

These are the words of a caller to Newstalk ZB talking to Marcus Lush. The recording has gone viral. It began with a conversation between Marcus and an 83-year-old woman who refused to accept the correct Maori pronunciation for her hometown of Ōpoho. Another caller phoned to berate Marcus for the way he spoke to this older woman and continued to insist that there was no such thing as the Taieri Plain, only the Tyree Plain.  When asked by Marcus about how they pronounced Camembert cheese, they both appeared indignant at the idea they might say burt instead of bear, one of them adding, because she was ‘educated’. I was reminded of Patricia Grace’s iconic short story A way of talking. This story challenges us all to step up, and to stand up, something that in the Kiwi tradition has not always been easy.

On hearing this recording, I was reminded of my upbringing in the fifties and sixties in post war small town New Zealand.  We regularly mispronounced Maori names, not willfully, but ignorantly. The one I particularly think about is, Mot-you-acre… which when spoken correctly is so much more beautiful as Motueka. Roll forward to 2019, and as a teacher of ESOL to migrants and refugees, I am dedicated to pronouncing the correct vowel sounds for Te Reo and teach Tikanga.

I feel robbed. I try to imagine my life, at primary school in Richmond and the enrichment of my education, if Te Reo had been taught alongside English. For some years, I was a volunteer at Arohata Prison running a book group and some creative writing classes.  I was confronted with many names that I found difficult to pronounce correctly, so I enrolled at Victoria University to do an introductory Te Reo course. The course tutor told me to practise rolling my ‘r’s in the shower, as I had never been able to do this. I’d accepted somehow, that it was impossible.  Faced with my role as a volunteer wishing to connect with women whose names and place names required rolled ‘r’s… I found that yes, with focus and attention and quite a bit of practise, I could roll my r’s’.  Some of the women at Arohata supportive of my efforts, told me to try using a ‘d’ instead of the ‘r’ until I had mastered it. They were encouraging and happy to see me trying.  I also met women who had beautiful Maori names (Rangimarie, one example) who seemed almost ashamed by the difficulty of their name to be pronounced and used correctly, so they preferred shortened nicknames.  In this very paragraph lies a whole other essay as to why there were so many young Maori women in our prison system. As a middle class Pakeha volunteer I was aware of my privilege being there and felt gratitude for the warmth, and at times genuine affection with which I was treated. I wasn’t there to make change, to patronise or to preach. I simply went armed with my newfound love of literature and my passion for New Zealand short stories and authors like Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Alice Tawhai, along with Owen Marshall, and Janet Frame.  Writers I had only newly encountered in my 50’s doing a BA (English Literature).

I grew up in post war New Zealand. A time we considered egalitarian. In my street alone, were the butcher, the baker, the chemist, two school headmasters, and eventually, after I’d left home, a Prime Minister. We are talking suburban Richmond, Nelson. At my Richmond primary school there were two Burmese boys and our next-door neighbours in my early childhood years, were a mixed-race Maori family.  Interestingly, this idea of race, didn’t enter my thoughts and it’s only in retrospect remembering their beautiful names, Arana, Tui and Rangi that I realise, of course, these were Maori names.  I don’t think it crossed our minds as kids to separate friends on ethnic or racial grounds.

The mother of the two Burmese boys was the nurse at our local medical centre. She was a widow, a very attractive woman, and held in high esteem within our community. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop my Dad calling her Bamboo Annie, although not to her face.  I realise now how racist this was, but at the time, I didn’t. My Dad also called her the Iron Curtain because she also acted as a receptionist for our GP and the joke was, you couldn’t get past her to get to the doctor. Obviously, she was doing a grand job.  In my memory (memory is faulty I know), my Dad and whole family had high regard for this woman. The epithets with which she was labelled would seem to dispute this. Again, ‘A Way of Talking’, something we didn’t as kids, challenge.  That my first kiss, was on our front doorstep, from the youngest one of those Burmese brothers, an old school friend, is now, on reflection, quite interesting, when you consider how mono cultural our small town was.

My Dad also spoke of the Yellow Peril and Reds Under the Bed which were prevailing themes post war in suburban New Zealand. Interestingly, although having been a POW, my Dad spoke with a kind of jocular affection for the Jerries.  Was he racist?  In his day to day life as a carpenter, working on building sites, he worked with and drank with a wide range of men, and from my childhood lens… I don’t think he was racist.  I think he was a man of his time, this was ‘a way of talking’. How I loved that story by Patricia Grace when I encountered it.   Yes, all this stuff should have been challenged, and I was in a sense ‘uneducated’.

An uncle on my mother’s side, was in the Korean war in the 50’s and with the Allied Troops in Hiroshima after the war. We grew up with lacquered trinket boxes from Korea on my mother’s dressing table, a beautiful embroidered kimono in her wardrobe while in our sitting room was a picture of two stalking tigers on printed silk.  What a surprise it was for me, when our youngest son moved to live in South Korea, and I encountered those tigers at the Seoul War Museum… my tigers!  We are now a multi-cultural family with a South Korean-Kiwi granddaughter, and I know if my Dad was alive, he would love and embrace this.  I sense the 83 year old woman calling Marcus Lusk and claiming her Ōpoho was the way she pronounced it, may not see herself as racist, but as Marcus put it, wilfully ignorant… and this takes me on a circular argument to my deep regret that we were robbed of a bi-lingual education.  I’m 70 next year, so this woman who has lived all her life in Ōpoho, will have grown up in an even more conservative educational environment than I did.  The whole England is home and Colonial viewpoint. It’s never too late to change, but she does I suspect, represent a way of talking. I am not attempting to defend this, but to examine it.

And there’s something else going on here, I believe. Once I became aware of how to pronounce our Maori place names more correctly, I also became self-conscious about doing this. An example is when we began going up the East Coast to stay at Anaura Bay.  I loved pronouncing this bay correctly, but I began to feel ‘pretentious’ as nobody else I knew said it correctly. Too, my husband’s family used to regularly stay at Matarangi, and we would join them. Alas, they still call it Matter-rang-ee, and again, I feel uncomfortable asserting the correct pronunciation. I’m not a meek and shy kind of woman, but I am able to be a bit of a chameleon when it comes to fitting into different social situations… is this traitorous of me, should I insist on the correct Maori pronunciation?  I remember vividly being corrected by an elderly neighbour as I was packing our car to take our then teenage sons skiing. He asked where we were off to and I replied ‘Awakoonee’… he replied with slightly raised eyebrows saying Ohakune in perfectly pronounced Te Reo, startling me into never forgetting to say it correctly again.

When I first left home in the late 60’s to work in Wellington at the Chief Post Office, I was living at a Post Office hostel in Oriental Bay and almost three quarters of the young women I lived with were Maori girls. Coming from mostly mono cultural Richmond, Nelson, this was my first encounter with so many Maori women. I envied the Maori girls, most (or all) of whom were from the North Island, their sense of camaraderie and belonging… something that I lacked.  Indeed, it wasn’t until many years later that I recognised the shy young man who would come calling at Berkeley House to meet with the girls from the hostel who formed part of a Maori Concert Party to greet incoming cruise ships in nearby Oriental Bay… none other than Witi Ihimaera, who worked I think at the Herd Street Post Office in telecommunications. I don’t recall the use of Te Reo in the hostel, but of course, these girls would have been singing in Te Reo, something I now regret, never going to listen to.

In my retirement, I retrained as an ESOL teacher working with migrants and refugees and have had the greatest privilege of working with students from so many different ethnicities and religions… unimaginable back in 1950’s New Zealand.  What has fascinated me, is the strength and bonds of family with so many of my students and I have encountered a sense of envy.  Many of the migrants and refugees have family spread over many countries with whom they are in regular contact thanks to the use of social media and mobile phones. I contrast this with my recent discovery that my father’s father was a sixteen-year-old Irish orphan immigrant to New Zealand, who never acknowledged paternity. I grew up with almost no contact with my father’s family, until recently.

I love that Lower Hutt, where I live, is now a melting pot of multiculturism. I think of the now banned song by Blue Mink (the lyrics, unpalatable in 2019), Melting Pot which at the time, was a song of optimism for racial integration and harmony. I saw Blue Mink live in Manchester in the early 1970’s and the song resonated, but I understand why it has been banned.  A way of talking, no longer acceptable.

A special experience in my role as an ESOL teacher was our school being invited to Takapūwāhia Marae in Titahi Bay, where our students were welcomed onto the marae and enjoyed a hangi (our Muslim students honoured with a halal hangi and vegetarian options for other religions and I think from memory, even gluten free options). It was also interesting, returning to the classroom to hear the feedback among the Indian and Sri Lankan students who related to the stories of British Colonialism, as told to them on the marae. Most of the ESOL students I have worked with, have no problem with Te Reo vowel sounds and find learning Te Reo alongside English almost effortless.  They are unencumbered with the past. I do warn them though, that the place in the middle of the North Island called Taupo, still presents many Kiwis with a challenge.  Even those who are committed to Te Reo seem to find slightly different ways to say it.

Now, as officially an ‘elderly’ Kiwi, I have a granddaughter, born in South Korea, and at fifteen months, she adores the haka.  And not any old haka will do.  It has to be the 2019 World Cup opening game against South Africa when TJ Perenara on you tube, appears from out of the assembled men in black, his face a picture of expressions.  She becomes mesmerised, goes very quiet and becomes entranced. She understands instructions in English and Korean and her bedtime song is Te Aroha.  After watching the haka with TJ, her next favourite You Tube clip is Ma is White by the Poppets.  I envy her this fluidity of sound and language in which she is immersed. My granddaughter’s name is Emma Aroha. At her day-care in Seoul, they call her Arawa… which is their version of Aroha. She answers to Emma and to Arawa and one day will know that the song Te Aroha which we sing to her, is how to pronounce her name.

I see a new New Zealand emerging from the Colonial English traditions and we hear Te Reo now daily on the radio and on TV. We are absorbing Te Reo words into our everyday parlance and so this, to me is Aotearoa, 2019, English and Te Reo, spoken with confidence by people from almost all corners of the earth. Kia ora it seems beginning to outclass Gidday.

A new way of talking.

Shut One Eye – Cycling the Otago Rail Trail

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Shut One Eye

This is the advice given to us from a stranger. We were seated at an outdoor café in Alexandra.  It was the first day of our cycling the Otago Rail Trail. Already, in our lodgings at Clyde, we had encountered the warmth of southern hospitality. Then, at the start of the trail, as we entered the first stretch of gravel and dirt, a couple about our age, coming the other way, (locals biking from Alexandra to Clyde), ambushed us with hellos and endless chit-chat about the trail.  I was itching to be on my bike but fascinated too with the friendliness.

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Shut One Eye.  By this stage, we had cycled the short distance from Clyde to Alexandra and we were enjoying a coffee in the sunshine. First one, then another, local, stopped to chat about our e-bikes, our cycling and where did we come from.  The man who told us to shut one eye before we entered the Poolburn Gorge tunnels on our bikes, was full of advice about recharging electric bikes and cars. He regaled us with his mileage on both his bike and in his car and where to plug in.

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And this was how I ended up cycling with one eye shut for half a kilometre prior to the tunnels. Precarious, but persevering, as I am a stickler for following advice. Whereas John, less worried than me about night blindness, shut his eye about half a minute before. We both sailed through the tunnels yelling and laughing and it was around the middle of the longest tunnel that I suddenly found myself slightly panicked with no idea of left, right, backwards or forwards – and then a light emerged at the end and John’s voice beckoned.

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It was afterwards, we read the sign advising us to walk and not cycle through the tunnels. Chatting with other cyclists that evening, we realised we’d been a bit foolhardy, as perhaps a cyclist coming the other way (who maybe hadn’t shut their one eye for a whole kilometre) would be cycling blind towards us.

It was stinking hot on this, the most scenic part of the trail. We left Omakau early, had coffee in Lauder which was 32 degrees in the shade and then found ourselves hurtling as fast as we could to create a breeze in the stifling, scorching, windless Central Otago. We passed young families, not on e-bikes, not all that well prepared, standing practically hugging an almost hedge, pretending it was shade. One of the kids was crying, the mother looked distressed and Dad with another toddler, was all decked out like a veteran cyclist.

We also noted a hierarchy and a bit of snobbery around e-bikes. You get the feeling from people who are not on e-bikes, that somehow you might be cheating.  We had a wee chuckle when heard that the Otago Rail Trail committee had a meeting to decide if they would allow e-bikes on the trail!  Er, yes, well, as imagine the baby boomer business they might have missed out on.

Apart from the cycling and the spectacular scenery, the revelation was the southern hospitality. From our first night’s accommodation in Clyde when a wine was foisted upon us, to the several locals in Alexandra who stopped to chat proffering advice and the wonderful fact, that everywhere we stayed, the homes remained unlocked.  In Omakau we had a large lodge with several rooms all to ourselves – the note on the table when we arrived, said pick a room.  When our host arrived to chat to us, I asked her for a key and she replied.

There is no key – this house has never had a key – when I bought it from the old couple who used to own it, there wasn’t a key.

 

Then in Oturehua, we stayed at ‘The Mill’.  A beautiful, historic and utterly charming, quarried stone building. Our host was yet another Aucklander in retreat.  We met so many people who’d left Auckland to come to live in Central Otago. Driving us down to the local pub, our host pointed out houses along the way. One house was owned by the woman who bought firewood to our host as a welcoming gift when she first moved there and another house belonged to the people who own a trailer that is out the back and able to be borrowed at any time.

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At the Oturehua store, I bought a signed copy of Brian Turner’s Elemental and just love the earthy, wise and unpretentious poems. He lives somewhere nearby evidently.

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And finally, we met Basil Fawlty.  I guess it had to happen.   It was after the most generous and welcoming stay at the Waipiata Country Pub. We were the only people staying there.  This was so at all our accommodation. It seems we picked a week between seasons (end of Christmas summer holidays and just before the back to school crowd). The owner let us park our bikes in a spare bedroom to recharge. He let us use the washing machine for no extra cost and within half an hour on the old rotary clothesline, everything was bone dry.

So, it was, we rose early the next morning for the last part of the trail. 52 kilometres on a gentle downhill slope all the way to Middlemarch. We were told there were no cafes on this stretch and the pub owner made us a giant salad sandwich, bacon and egg pie and a muffin each.  John was certain there must be a café en route.  We reached Hyde.  A small country pub with a pop-up café. The pop-up café had hot water, coffee bags and various refreshments with an honesty box.  Alas, John’s bike hadn’t recharged the night before. It seemed it hadn’t been properly connected. John, ever pro-active, wheeled his cycle into the pop-up café, and plugged it in.

Well… within a few minutes, a man whom John has affectionately nicknamed Wal from Footrot Flats, appeared

You’re taking the piss.  

Pardon.

I said, you’re taking the piss.

He was outraged that John had brought his bike into the small pop-up café to plug it in.

John politely explained he was recharging and the conversation went back and forth about why couldn’t John take the battery off the bike (which he couldn’t as his adaptor was in his suitcase en route to Middlemarch)… Wal, was livid.   I was outside drinking my coffee and rushed in with my five dollars to pay for the coffee in case Wal thought not only were we stealing power, we were not going to pay for our coffee.  I couldn’t locate the honesty box, so I asked him where it was.

I’m not going to tell you – find it!

In a fluster, as he watched, I rushed around the room hunting for the honesty box which turned out to be a Cadbury Roses chocolate tin.

Then Wal decided he wanted a photo of John recharging the bike and insisted John stand beside the bike while he took a photo.  John, ever determined to keep the bike charging, agreed.  Alas, Wal couldn’t work his phone camera and seem to be appealing to us for help…. needless to say, no photo ensued. It was evidently stuck on panorama.

We enquired if the pop-up café was temporary and was there to be a new café?  And no, he wasn’t about to open another café, as in spite of all the glowing comments over the past several years about the wonderful food and coffee at the Hyde Café, he’d seen the books, and none of the owners made any profit whatsoever.  And, then he added, for good measure…

Anyway, we’re not latte types.

John kept Wal chatting and said that eventually he’d have to accept that e-bikes were here for good and they’d need to be charged.  And what about electric cars, wouldn’t he have to have charging stations for electric cars at his hotel?

Well, that was the last straw for Wal who said that out here in this part of the world no one was going to be driving an electric car.  Basil Fawlty himself would have agreed we are certain.

But don’t be put off – the Hyde Country Pub looks a darling place to stay and I do think this chap is probably a genuinely lovely southern man who just hasn’t quite got the hang of pushy city folks who wish to charge their e-bikes.

We rounded off our holiday with two days at Little River to be with old friends, and home along the amazing new Kaikoura road. Such pride and joy to see the extraordinary work done on the road and yet to be done. Passing young men and women in hard hats, waving to us, proudly controlling the flow of traffic. Gobsmacking to see the uplifted seabed, the tons of earth that tumbled across the rail lines, the incredible engineering that has seen the Irongate bridge installed, the stunning depth of colour that is the Kaikoura coastline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A colander, a Christmas cloth and cupcakes

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A Facebook friend has recently posted a beautiful update about a breadboard. He’s writing with great candour about a recent cancer diagnosis and heading towards chemotherapy. Because he is a writer, he is expressing his present pain, both physical and spiritual, most eloquently. His post has inspired me to write about, not a breadboard, but a colander, a mixing bowl, two tablecloths and a wedding ring.

 

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The colander, a beaten aluminum, was my mother’s. When I wash fruit, or rinse salad leaves, I am reminded of her. It’s just another household object, tossed into a very disorganised drawer of mismatched pots.  But this colander, carries the memory of a coal range, a small green fridge and a time when salads were chopped, like ribbons of crepe paper. When salads were an art form in a leaf shaped piece of Carlton Ware. Hard boiled eggs were halved and placed on the outer edge, carrot was grated atop, radishes, and tomatoes for a splash of colour. I think I can smell a whiff of mint that grew by the grace of the dripping outside tap. And the pièces de résistance would be the Highlander mayonnaise dressing – in a separate equally beautiful, possibly Carlton Ware jug. There would be the hot summer sun from the open back door, competing with the fire of the Shacklock. A delicate balance of opening and closing doors while the new potatoes boiled, regulating the temperature. A crochet cloth would be thrown over the beautifully set table to keep the flies at bay.

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Uncle’s Gripstand mixing bowl (that might well have been my grandmothers)

Then, there is my uncle’s mixing bowl. I’ve spoken of this before. I use it once a year to make my Christmas cake, my mother’s recipe. It brings back memories of my favourite bachelor uncle, who taught me to swim. His bowl sits on the top shelf above the pantry and whenever I see it in passing, I am reminded of him. It has a small chip now which I ignore.  I was swimming in the Golden Bay in the late afternoon when word came that he had died. I had decided to go swimming on a whim, just prior to having guests for dinner.

Two days before Christmas, our youngest son got married in our garden. We’ve lived in our house for thirty years. The old house groaned with the pleasure. Every door was open to the outdoors and the garden chose to sparkle.  Listening to the wedding video, as the couple make their vows, unnoticed at the time, we can hear the birds chirping agreement. The house whispered loving secrets too, reminding us of wild teenage parties, old loves, new loves, friendships too. We all loved anew.

I found an old white tablecloth that I had purchased when I first left home and moved to Wellington. I was in a post office hostel and the Irish Linen man called. Back then I was in love with a faithless sailor. But the tablecloth survived.  My mother’s old white tablecloth, now a little worse for wear, but good quality linen was retrieved from obscurity –  the one that came out every Christmas during my childhood. A wedding loves a white tablecloth, but even more the mother of the groom loved the history of the two white tablecloths. When regaling my sons briefly with their history, the guffaws at the thought of a glory box sometimes known as a hope chest, overshadowed my romantic notions.

I’m posting a photo of the wedding cake, because it too is filled with precious ingredients. My granddaughter, my new daughter-in-law and I, made the cupcakes together. We had a batch failure which threw us into disarray. An over-beating of the mixture. We started again – three batches in all, and as happens when love is in the air, a friend of the groom, with a flair for decorating, iced the cakes for us.

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And then we have the bride’s wedding ring. From family rings, a new and modern ring was fashioned at short notice, by a local jeweller. It is beautiful, contemporary and a melding of family history. The groom too wears a family ring. Thehappy couple have left New Zealand leaving us with memories and carrying these physical objects that represent both their love and ours. Together they are growing their love and our next grandchild.

 

 

Is it Fiction?

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Is it Fiction?

I was confronted with an extract from my second novel recently. The husband of an old friend who recently died, had just read my novel. He noticed a cameo appearance by his wife. We were out to dinner and he presented me with the extract, photocopied onto a plain piece of paper. Alone it stood, a piece of fiction, and he had a quibble with but one word.  I’d used the word ‘hefty’.  She wasn’t hefty, he said with a touch of regret or perhaps chastisement. He looked across at someone else at the table who knew my friend better than me, almost as well as he. She wasn’t hefty, was she, he asked again? No, she wasn’t hefty, and for a moment I had to interrogate myself as a friend, and then as a writer.

What had I done?  I’d written about a femme fatale, a woman who fitted physically (apart from hefty) the deceased wife. I’d also used her Baltic State ethnic origin, so that if you knew her, which most of my readers would not have, you would have known who it was.  The thing is, I was using my friend to disguise a completely different woman, who once again none of my readers would have known.  Indeed, a woman I barely knew myself, but not wishing to use a ‘real’ person, I’d stolen the character and looks (apart from hefty), of an old friend… not ever thinking I’d be held to account.

And there it was, more than ten years after my novel was published, the paragraph or two (a cameo character only), was placed before me, not accusingly as you might think, but with great delight and recognition.  But I was being held to account.  She wasn’t hefty.

How to clarify that I was using my friend, to disguise a woman I hardly knew, to create a fictional character?  Better still, my cameo character’s name seemed far from the name of either my friend or the woman I hardly knew. But that didn’t matter.  Her bereaved husband, decided, that the name was close to the spelling of his wife’s name backwards.  And I looked, and wondered, and perhaps it was… maybe inadvertently I’d done this, without realising. But my memory tells me that I simply googled the Baltic State country my friend had originated from and looked at possible names… attempting to disassociate the actual from the fictional.

The good news is that I haven’t offended anyone, as my friend’s husband loves this description of his wife. The scenario in which she appears is entirely fictional I say. But I realise this isn’t entirely true. It is an event that I have recreated, fictionalised, and reimagined, giving it more weight and intrigue than there ever was in the actual. But the truth is, his wife wasn’t part of this event.  Why this event stayed in my mind from the 1970’s until the new millennium and emerged as a fictional truth, I’ve no idea. But it has reminded me of my first novel, when a neighbour told another friend after reading my novel ‘well, that never happened’… the thing that never happened, was me the author having an illicit sexual encounter with the neighbour…   It seemed hilarious at the time, that the neighbour assumed my protagonist was indeed, myself, the author and another character was… goodness me… himself.  But too, I know an old school friend wrote to my publisher after my first novel came out to say he knew me and many of the characters (oh goodness me) in my novel.  Err… what to say.

After the publication of my third novel ‘Daughters of Messene’, I was stopped in the street by a neighbour who told me ‘I’ve just read your book.’  It was said in an ambiguous tone that implied ‘can you believe it, both that I’ve read your book and that you’ve written one’.  And then the best part. ‘I couldn’t find you anywhere in the novel… you really are a good writer.’

I’ll take the compliment and be glad that he hadn’t found his wife, or himself…

 

Defending Mothers’ Day

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Once a year, in mostly the Western (capitalist) world, we are bombarded for a couple of weeks with promotions about what to purchase for our mothers… pyjamas, chocolates, electric kettles or nowadays, maybe even a diamond or two. Many men find themselves not only having to think about their own mother but to consider their wives as mothers, and eek, how to get that balance right!

I grew up working class in the 50’s when working class was pretty much like any other class in New Zealand. The pay gaps between the chief executives and the humble carpenter like my dad, were probably big, but nothing compared to nowadays. We had a home, food on the table and support from the government when my dad couldn’t work. My mum didn’t work.  That’s not true. She cut kindling, filled the coal bucket, cooked the dinner on the coal range, keeping the damper at just the right angle to crisp the potatoes but not burn the meat and did the washing in a copper until she got a flash new Pallo agitator.

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So back then, each Mothers’ Day, as kids, we clubbed together with our money earned from picking fruit over summer, and bought our mum something useful for the kitchen… such as one year, an electric fry pan.  It was really a gift for all of us, but we convinced ourselves it was revolutionary for our mum – she could cook pikelets perhaps, or fry a chop without lighting the fire.

Similar to Zip frypan

Then, I married, had a family and moved to the middle classes. I raised middle class intelligent young men and my youngest son began to scorn Mothers’ Day as a capitalist conspiracy. He didn’t stop making me arty funny and heart-warming cards, but he let me know, he didn’t believe in this nonsense.

The same son now lives in Korea and they celebrate Parents Day. He embraced Parents Day and we shared one of these with him and his partner at the time and her family. So, although on the one hand Mothers’ Day was a Capitalist Consumer Conspiracy, somehow Parents Day was a lovely shared family time. This year, he almost forgot Mothers’ Day and now, older, knowing how much it matters to me, in haste, he made a heart-warming video in a shopping centre, in public, declaring his affection for his mum. I appreciated this. He put my feelings above his political convictions.

Some of my Facebook feed in May had comments from feisty younger feminists disparaging Mothers’ Day, scorning it in fact. And I found myself yet again, interrogating my own attachment to this day (the way I once interrogated my attachment to Anzac Day).  And I’ve come to a similar conclusion, although I’m sure many will find it faulty.

I work with migrants and refugees from a wide variety of countries and I’ve watched the joy as a group of my Nepalese students celebrated Shiva – fasting for the health and prosperity of their…wait for it… husbands. Then seen photos of them dressed in their finest red saris having fun when the fasting ends.  I don’t ever intend to fast for my husband’s health and prosperity but I admire and enjoyed their enjoyment of this ritual. Should I, as a feminist denigrate their fasting for their husbands?  I did joke when do their husbands fast for them, and they laughed with me, joyfully.

In our secular society we have so few rituals.  I used to go to Mass and that was a Sunday ritual.  My life as a middle class, secular, older woman, is bereft of ritual in many ways.  Mothers’ Day for me is a ritual from my childhood, which I enjoy.  I like that my sons, even if they secretly think it is a consumer conspiracy, will still contact me, knowing it matters to me. Usually, nowadays, I share this day with my granddaughter and her Mother. Sure, we share other weekends together, but it is still somehow a special day, a ritual, small gifts, maybe just a card, but I would feel sad if it wasn’t acknowledged.

I recall many years ago when I finally ‘lost my faith’.  My mother was deceased but I had a beloved single aunt who was a devout Catholic. When I first returned from overseas, all grown-up, having abandoned Catholicism, I refused to attend Mass with her when I went to visit my hometown. I didn’t want anyone to think I still believed. I think this hurt her, but I didn’t care, because my convictions were much more important.

But then I had children and settled into family life and began to see that what mattered more than my convictions, was my affection for my beloved aunt.  So, I compromised and went to mass with her when I was in town, but refused to genuflect.  That was a step too far.  Looking back, I can see I was foolish – what harm for me to genuflect and enjoy the ritual and share this moment. My own personal beliefs would not be tarnished, and too, I knew it irked her.

Am I right, or am I wrong… I saw one smart young woman on Facebook say she thought she’d forgotten Mother’s Day and would probably get a passive aggressive text from her mum – I wanted to say, just pretend for your mum – what harm can it do, but imagine how happy it will make her?  I’m all for a bit of sentimental ritual, and honouring Mums if that’s what they would like. My own mum never met her grandchildren and I’m glad we bought her an electric fry pan. I even dare to say, that the divide between those who believe and those who don’t is often socioeconomic.  And I hear the scoffs already. The system, the oppression, the Patriarchal tree, but you can’t overthrow all these things by being scornful of less informed people who enjoy buying chocolates or pyjamas for their mother…

A postscript to this essay, as I am about to go to print… with great joy last week, I attended the Auckland Writers Festival and my first session ‘Portholes to the Past‘ was listening to 99-year-old Lloyd Geering in conversation with John Campbell.  What a treat. I’d never heard Lloyd Geering speak before and to add to that, he spoke with such eloquence about the lack of ritual in our secular society and mentioned both Mothers’ Day and Anzac Day in discussing the importance of ritual.  He told us how he became a Christian and it was more about fellowship than faith it seems… which I found most interesting.