Dark Empire

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I was supposed to launch this novel a week or so ago, but due to being in ‘self isolation’ I missed the launch.

Maggie’s Launch Speech for John’s novel ‘Dark Empire’

Dark Empire is the work of a Katherine Mansfield devotee.  I can’t imagine anyone here today who has not read or heard of ‘At the Bay’, undoubtedly Mansfield’s most well-known short story. Famed not just for its location, but what have become the legendary characters, the Burnell Family (arguably Mansfield’s own family fictionalised), and too the malevolent, mysterious, Mr and Mrs Harry Kember.  If you listen out this afternoon, you may hear Jonathan Trout shouting out in the bay or perhaps he’s here with you all.

John Horrocks has had the audacity to take some of these iconic characters, and forge new lives for them beyond Mansfield’s imaginings, out of the bay and into the seedy heart of Wellington in the early 20th century.  The narrator is straight from the classical, laconic, Chandler book, except rather than hardboiled, we have returned Boer War serviceman turned detective. A farmer at heart, tall, possibly handsome (sound a wee bit familiar?), who is shacking up with a feisty red headed journalist who writes for Truth (thoughts of Robin Hyde)…

Together, if not fearlessly, then between cups of tea and the occasional slug of whisky, they set out to solve the mystery of the man who drowned just off Somes Island. I’m not giving anything away as this is the opening compelling prologue.  In their scoop, come politicians, brothel owners, a local gym, dodgy financial investments, corrupt police, prisoners on Somes Island, the well-respected (oh no) Burnell family and the dastardly Kembers. Lots of hat tips to Katherine Mansfield for the discerning and endless fascinating social and historical facts woven in to enlighten and enliven.  This is not downtown Cuba Street with a bucket fountain, and Jamie Lee Ross is beginning to look like a lightweight.

The origins of this dark and seedy story began with the author’s keen interest in local history and he’s cleverly combined his passion for KM along with his fascination with therapeutic spas (his poetry collection) to craft a compelling and entertaining crime novel.  So many interesting details woven in, relating to the boys overseas and the men who stayed behind, and the men interned on Somes.   It is the early 1900’s and this is Wellington, warts and all. I’m certain Katherine Mansfield would be chuckling and applauding, although possibly she might take umbrage about Stanley Burnell being caught up in the scandal.

I’m so disappointed not to be here today to read these words and to congratulate John and wish his novel well.

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.

BBC on Frosty Mornings

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Inspired by an article on Stuff today… I’ve decided to post my poem.

 

BBC on frosty mornings

 

If only we’d had Twitter

to combat history’s fictions

multiple sources of fake news

instead of just the BBC

 

when the fire was lit, the

coal bucket set back on

the hearth, Big Ben crackled

through on short wave

 

and we believed from

our beds, our father

donning his balaclava

ready to bike to work

 

we knew that Kennedy

called Khrushchev’s bluff

that annihilation was

averted, we believed

 

because we were Catholic

that Kennedy was the

good man and Khrushchev

the bad man, it was

 

of course, all in black

and white and plain

for all to see, coming

as it did from the BBC

 

Never mind that we lived

at the bottom end of the

earth near the South Pole

possibly safely nuclear free

 

should someone blink

press the both metaphorical

and real button, Armageddon

loomed rather large

 

making it seemed, all the

sacrifices of our war heroes

perhaps a little pointless

if this was indeed ‘it’

 

Now we see all sides of

the binary spectrum

fake news depending

on our political leanings

 

and thus, it probably

always was, but back then

in our Commonwealth

bubble of post war bliss

 

we believed the BBC

through the Bakelite radio

on the shelf above the fridge

news was often cataclysmic

 

I now roam from tweet

to tweet, sipping my coffee

taking a bite or two to eat

digesting all sides of the story

 

hoping Kim and Donald

are really friends, that

the peace train will

leave the station

 

shake my head at kids in

cages, but double check

the photo on the front of

TIME, the ensuing by-line

 

scoff at Trump’s ridiculously

long ties, small hands, awful,

awful hair and this means of

course, that I really do care

 

cheer and yet also despair

when the Saudi King allows

women to drive but jails

the activists who fought for it

 

I rage against the dying of

the journalistic light but I’m

more informed than ever …

or so I tell myself

 

Now and then, I’d like to be

(briefly) safe in my bed, on a

frosty morning, believing still

truth was all, from the BBC

 

Our seduction is complete

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Pedestrians share the roads
in Yeonsinnae
tea houses have given way
to every sort of latte
gutters run with rain
in the monsoon
Sundays are an avalanche
of cigarette butts
trash collectors come at dusk
to separate the plastic
in the alleys, chopsticks sing
at night, the neon lights
bedazzle, ragged roads
transform to enchant
every doorway beckons while
our phones translate the menu
our seduction is complete
 
Sundays are for bing-su
Saturdays for steamed mandu
on any day a scooter will
turn up at your door with food
depending on your mood
fried chicken's pretty good
but mostly we love spicy broths
meats falling from their bones
and every sort of banchan
the complimentary kimchi
 
our Kiwi kitchen's far
from here, we wonder
how we'll cope, back home
to cook each night
a knife and fork, a spoon
perhaps
starting from scratch
 
 
 
 
 
 

Ride like a local

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I walk my granddaughter
up the hill to Daycare
over grates, cigarette butts
past plastic trash bags
 
she finds the asphalt
mesmerising, examines
every glinting thing
with perfect purpose
 
We wave to the lady with
the dog wearing boots
on all four paws and she
stops and waves back
 
people respond to a one
year old who cares that much
about them and they break
into wide happy smiles
 
Later on, I board the bus and
become angry at the teenager
head down on his phone
in the seat for the elderly
 
 
I shame this young man
when someone even older
than I am, boards, but all
I do is shame myself
 
the old woman doesn’t
want this young man’s seat
she’d rather stand than
lose her dignity to rage
 
At the pedestrian crossing
I am the only one fuming
as a man in a white sedan
edges over the painted lines
 
I swear at him, actually
out loud but no one hears
or cares least of all him
as he roars to the next lights
 
As a visitor in this city
I am the elderly anomaly
carrying the luggage of
my own petty prejudice
 
I’m learning to contain my
expectations of others, to
tilt my parasol to the sun
ride the bus like a local
an eye out for the glinting
 
 
 
 

Life in Yeonsinnae

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The women of Yeonsinnae.  I wrote about them last year when we were visiting for a few months over summer. We are back. Our granddaughter has turned one year old. Indeed, here in Korea, that is considered to be two. Confusing but true. So, we are back in our old stomping ground enjoying the contrast between our quiet (possibly sedate) life in the bay back home, compared to the teeming liveliness of this place.

It’s not difficult to imagine the contrast when you consider the population of New Zealand and the concentration of people who live in Seoul alone. Population of the wider metropolis of this area is estimated to be 25 million and the concentration in Seoul city around 10.5 million.  Yeonsinnae is about 15 minutes on the metro from downtown Seoul. We love this place. I can’t find up to date population statistics for this area, but it is in the wider area of Eunpyeong, an upcoming and rapidly expanding district of Seoul.

What I have observed since our visit last year, is the constant change happening here. Our favourite café or restaurant might still be here, but it’s menu will have changed, or it has new owners, or the time of opening and closing is now different. It feels like a small wave of ‘gentrification’ beginning as new apartment buildings are springing up.

But Yeonsinnae street market, in the heart of this place, is the same. The women who sit on the pavement, some on cardboard and some on more comfy chairs, are the same. I recognise them. There is one, tall, elegant older woman who has the loveliest smile. She is near to the station. I’ve now become embarrassed by my privilege of being able to walk past her so frequently, footloose, fancy-free, going where I wish, as she sits day after day in the same spot. I’ve taken to taking side streets now to avoid having to smile at her, as it has begun to feel patronising. I’m not assuming she’s unhappy, but I am made uncomfortable. In contrast, there are older women, more doubled over, less able, and sadder looking who I observe with less guilt, because I haven’t made a personal connection.

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The thing about being in a thriving, ostensibly ‘working class’ area of Seoul (compared to downtown where glamour abounds) is you are confronted with both the glorious immediacy of human activity as well as many of the tragedies. I’ve come to notice more and more the extraordinary tenacity of the disabled in this community. It’s inevitable in a community with such a wide cross section of people from grandmothers to young families to working executives, that too there will be the less able. A city this size does not bend for the less able, they bend to it. I am always amazed at the extraordinary resilience and independence of the less able negotiating this busy place. In particular, the metro takes no prisoners. Nobody waits should you stumble and the rush to the elevators by young mums and the elderly is a stampede with no regard for age or infirmity.

We have often chuckled as we are elbowed out of the way at the elevator (my daughter-in-law and me) by feisty old men and women, only to find when we finally squeeze into the tiny space left, that these aggressive old people, turn into clucking loving chucking under the chin baby admirers… who feel free to practically pinch the cheeks of my granddaughter (although her mother is certain they will not)… our eyes meet across the baby buggy in delightful recognition of the dichotomy.

The sky here is not the bright blue of home, and the air at times questionable. But what is not in question, is the pulsing, lively, fascinating hum of humanity.  We’ve been watching a Korean political drama about the gentrification of districts, removing local markets, and indeed, we were visiting Hongdae the other day (now quite gentrified)…. It’s sad to see big shopping malls with generic labels and big glass shopfronts, repeating themselves…. Whereas the colour and vibrancy of Yeonsinnae and nearby Bulgwang markets are unsurpassed.

Daughters of Messene

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Daughters of Messene (now in translation and for sale in Greece)

I’ve talked about this before.  The tricky balance between self-promotion and total modesty. As a writer, total modesty probably no longer does the trick. It’s a shame. It would be amazing if our work stood on its own merit. And indeed, it should. But it also needs a little push/shove along.  The trouble is, if you shout too often, people become averse to your shouting. And if you don’t shout out at all, your writing achievements (however modest in the scheme of things) may not reach all their possible audience.

So, here I am to bask once more in the glow and delight of having my third novel, a story with a strong Greek flavour, that sprang out from a not very well known true story of the migration of young Greek women to New Zealand in the sixties… now translated and on sale in Greece through Kedros Publishers Athens (to whom I am most grateful).

One of the lovely serendipitous moments researching this novel in 2007, I have written about before. It was my lucky encounter with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor at his splendid home in the Mani on his Name Day. To be there, with the ‘local’s and to share this magical moment, was unforgettable.  On that day, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, generously signed my copy of his book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. I had found and read the book while in Greece and was bedazzled by his magical flights of language and historical observations, the marvellous segues.  He signed my copy of his book with his usual motif of a small flock of flying birds.

A reader of my blog, Diana Wright, managed to decipher the inscription as I was unable to. It says ‘with all goodness’.

To my great delight, the cover for the Greek translation of ‘Daughters of Messene’ includes a similar flock of birds.  This is pure coincidence and a lovely one at that. Indeed, my novel includes a moment of migrating birds, so these links are quite perfect.

So, here is the very splendid cover for you to admire and hopefully if you speak and read Greek to tempt you to buy the book.  Plus a picture of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s inscription in my copy of his book.