Sunday, August 2, 2015

The winter of our discontent

It's far too long since I posted here. Partly it's because, while I think of Harvey a great deal, the acute feelings of loss have diminished. But also I have my son staying with me, so I'm not actually living alone, and that makes a big difference - someone completely familiar to cook for and have dinner with and talk to and watch TV with (fortunately we have quite similar tastes, on the whole).
       The other thing getting in the way of posting is my general feeling of angry impotence in relation to what's going on in New Zealand. Just one example: last week the front page of the DomPost featured a photo of a young child's teeth savagely eroded by sugary drink.

The accompanying story detailed the extraordinary damage these drinks are doing, resulting not only in bad health but also in extremely costly hospital care. Rob Beaglehole, principal dental officer for Nelson Marlborough District Health Board, faced with the huge increase in such cases, said that junk food advertising has "huge sway over children's diet":
      "Our kids are watching their sporting heroes slugging back bottles of sports drinks containing three days' worth of a child's daily recommended amount of sugar. If we want to protect our kids and address this health crisis, the first step needs to be restricting advertising of junk food directly to our children."
        Carrick Graham (if you don't know who he is, read Dirty Politics and the Metro article mentioned below) had the gall to comment, "What do you say to the parents of the babies that you have to extract teeth from? Why aren't they held responsible?" Beaglehole replied, "I say to the parents please don't give your child any more sugary drinks. They say 'but the All Blacks drink them...'"  (Just like runner John Walker for FreshUp - "It's got to be good for you".)
       Taxes are another effective way to cut consumption. Yet earlier this month, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman ruled out taxing sugar-laden products, saying exercise and education should be the focus in efforts to reduce obesity. He now says that over the next two months, he plans to recommend "a set of actions to address the nation's sugar problem".
       Beaglehole said the minister should look to introduce measures to tackle the marketing of sugary drinks and junk food, in the same way tobacco and alcohol were treated.Yet so far the government has adamantly refused even to consider any such measures. (They've also refused to take effective steps on the price and availability of alcohol.)
        On the second page there was an article about Labour's data on the steady decline in health funding in real terms, amounting to a cut of $1.7 billion since 2010. In response, Jonathan Coleman said - this deserves bold type:
        "We want to move funding away from expensive hospitals and into communities so we have early intervention, we have preventative measures so we keep people out of hospitals, and prevent them from getting really unwell in the first place."
          If that's so, Minister, why not start with taking the steps all the experts are calling for to prevent further expensive damage to children's teeth?  And why all the stalling over an even bigger and more expensive cause of ill-health in children - cold, damp, rotten rental housing?
          We've heard the awful reports on killer state houses, but private ones are even worse. As Rebecca Macfie's recent Listener article makes clear, people rent these houses not because they don't think damp matters (they do), or because these houses are cheap (they aren't), but because they have no choice - they must have somewhere to live and they have to take whatever they can find. The government pays accommodation supplements for 60% of rental housing, so it's directly subsidising hundreds of landlords providing dangerously bad housing.
           Every day, there's clear new evidence that the current government is much more concerned with not upsetting its big business supporters than with minor issues like children's health. As Professor Doug Sellman, head of the National Addiction Centre, said in a recent article in Metro:
           "Current economic models are not sufficiently accounting for the harm to ordinary people from certain big businesses – ‘addictionogenic’ big businesses... They’re headed up by people who hide behind the mantra we so often hear: ‘It’s all about individual responsibility.’ However, they know very well how risky their products are to ordinary people, how much harm is being caused, and how deviously clever their marketing and government lobbying is to maintain their grip on the New Zealand population and their profit flow." (To see what he's talking about, go and see "Merchants of Doubt", showing in the film festival.)
            So far it looks very much as if, despite the best efforts of the best qualified people, children will go on suffering and this government will go on letting them suffer, for the sake of protecting profits.  It's going to be a long winter.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

After Anzac Day

I don't know who wrote the speech delivered by John Key at Gallipoli on Saturday, but they did a superb job. Steadily focused on what happened there 100 years ago, recognising that it was an invasion ending in defeat, thanking the Turks for their generous friendship. Carefully avoiding the foolish, false cliches that have persisted in surfacing all too often in recent weeks, such as the claim that the First World War was about "fighting for our freedom". And above all, stressing that:
"while this was a place of courage and heroism and duty, it was also a place of fear and waste and loss ... a place of unspeakable suffering on both sides of the fighting." 

I didn't go to the parade through Wellington last Friday. To me it seemed too much like boys' obsessive war games - look, real uniforms and trucks! (Or at least meticulous recreations of them.) I saw it as far too likely to conjure up the jaunty enthusiasm of those early weeks, when men were waved off to war by oblivious crowds convinced they would be triumphing home by Christmas. 

But it's always more complicated than it seems, and that certainly wasn't true for everyone watching last Friday, any more than it mulst have been back in 1915. A friend who was there told me what she saw: a middle aged woman with tears in her eyes as the young volunteers marched past in their stiff, scratchy khaki. "My great-uncle was only eighteen," she was saying. "He must have looked just like that."

Harvey was born in 1934. He grew up convinced that he, too, would have to go off overseas, like the two waves of men before him, to fight and quite possibly die at his country's bidding - if not in battle, then in the long aftermath of war, as his apparently strong stepfather had done at the age of 59. From the few stories Dick had told him, he knew only too well what a shambles war usually was. When Suez erupted, he thought, "this is it." But he was lucky, he lived out his 76 years in peace. 

When the commemoration came at 10 am on Saturday on the radio, I thought of the mothers. Unlike me, they lost their sons - and sometimes their daughters - alongside so many others, and supposedly for good cause. But I don't think that would have made it any less searing a loss. 

       August 1914

       What in our lives is burnt
       In the fire of this?
       The heart's dear granary?
       The much we shall miss?

       Three lives hath one life –
       Iron, honey, gold.
       The gold, the honey gone –
        Left is the hard and cold.

        Iron are our lives
        Molten right through our youth.
        A burnt space through ripe fields,
        A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

                Isaac Rosenberg, 1890-1918

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ireland's best loved

 Seamus Heaney's "While all the others were away at mass" has been chosen as Ireland's best loved poem in a poll. From Clearances III - In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984, it recalls a morning he shared with his mother, peeling potatoes. 
Harvey loved Heaney's work and he would have thoroughly approved of this choice. I'm posting this as a belated tribute for St Patrick's Day, in memory of my two mothers. One was connected with Ireland by birth and one by marriage.
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Feminists: Why are we still here?

Recently I was asked to contribute to "Why are we still here?", a Commonwealth Writers blog about feminism for International Women's Day on 8 March.

My post went up on the day itself, with a new one going up every day since. More will go up over the next week, including:

Maori academic Ella Henry on indigenous women’s rights, and the need for women to re-politicise their personal lives.

Right now you can read:

- Poet and playwright Sitawa Namwalie on the incremental fight against deep-rooted gender equality in Kenya

Urvashi Butalia, founder of India’s Zubaan Books, on the changing landscape of feminist publishing and its relevance today

- Writer and academic Martine Delvaux on the importance of feminist writing in countering the erasure of women in Canada

- Film activist Marian Evans on the deficit of complex female protagonists in New Zealand’s film industry

- Trinidadian activist and artist Ellen O’Malley Camps on carnival theatre, working in a maximum security prison and fifty years of feminist activism.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Thirty years on

Summer and some other things got in the way of blogging for a couple of months. For the first time I embarked on the revival of our Christmas-with-friends tradition by myself, and on the whole it went very well, though I felt - wistful, I think, best describes it, for past times and the beloved company I no longer have.  Then I went away to stay with various friends in various lovely places, spent a lot of time eating (and cooking) and basking in warm shade with a book, and by the time I got home I felt very relaxed indeed.
          This Monday it was thirty years since Harvey and I married in our garden, on 2 March 1985, and had a joyful party at home afterwards.

Without him, it didn't feel right saying to people that it was our wedding anniversary (though dear Ali remembered and phoned me). Celebration didn't seem in order either. Instead I marked it by walking down to his plaque in the cemetery rose garden with a friend and leaving a spray of white lilies given to me by my neighbour. Then we went home for a glass of wine.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Another year

I see that I haven't posted here since I was in New York. I do seem to have been exceptionally occupied since I got back, but I think it's more than that. I don't know what I want to write, and I think that's because I don't know where I am at the moment, in terms of learning to live alone - or perhaps simply how to live. Like Scrooge, I need to change my way.
       At the moment I have plenty of things to do, at least during the day, including bits of writing; but I don't have a major piece of writing on hand. People keep asking me what I'm going to write next (now that The Colour of Food is out in print), or worse, what I'm actually writing now, and I have no answer. So I brush them off politely, and go and do the next thing on my list instead.
       Almost every day, there's another warm response to the memoir - in a letter, an email, a phone call, or a chance encounter with someone I haven't seen for a while. So I'm getting plenty of encouragement to embark on something.But what? I don't write fiction - I can't make things up, or transform experience into something new. And I don't yet seem to have any coherent idea to build on.         I'm toying with the idea of writing pieces on this blog, just to play around with some very vague ideas. In the meantime, I'm hoping to be as happy and as I can over Christmas and New Year, and I hope the same for you too.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Crusader Bible - seeing others in our own image

Yesterday I saw one of the great treasures of the Morgan Library: the Crusader Bible.  I was lucky - the exhibition opened on 17 October. It isn't really a bible at all, because originally there was no text, just 283 incredibly detailed, gold-laden images of successive scenes from the Old Testament. The book is thought to have been originally made around 1250 for King Louis IX of France, who later became St Louis. He commissioned the glorious Sainte Chapelle In Paris.

But like other rulers of our own time, he was also obsessed with waging war in the East, mounting seven crusades, the last of which killed him. (In those days rulers did at least lead their own troops, and knew at first hand what carnage ensued, though that didn't put them off doing it over and over again.) 

The Crusader Bible was designed to shore up Louis' reputation as a Christian crusader against the infidel, I.e. the Muslims. So every Old Testament story is shown in contemporary terms, with the Israelites depicted as Crusaders endlessly battling the Philistines, etc, etc. this makes it a remarkable record of 13th century life. 

This book has had almost as eventful a history as the Sarajevo Haggadah (discussed recently on National Radio, and the subject of Geraldine Brooks' extraordinary novel, People of the Book). Over the centuries it travelled from France to Italy, Poland, Persia, Egypt, England, and finally New York. Various owners added captions and wrote notes in the margins. 

It's about to be rebound, and this means the library has been able, for the first time, to put 40 of the pictures on display. My favourites - a welcome relief from men fighting each other - were the ones showing the story of Ruth. 

But looking at all of them again, I was struck by how each ideology and each side involved in violent conflict has confidently portrayed alien "others" in their own image, only an utterly mistaken or evil version, needing to be either wiped out or shown the right path, regardless of the deep cultural and historical gulfs between them. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Memories at the Met

Today I got up the courage to tackle the Metropolitan Museum. The queue wasn't too bad, only about 10 minutes' wait (I knew better than to try checking my coat), and I had a somewhat limited but sensible plan: head straight for he Impressionists (the purple bits on the map).

I had already had a goodly sample of other periods:  medieval art at the Cloisters, Old Masters at the Frick, and Expressionism at the Neue Galerie, with MOMA to come next week. (Cubism at the Met opens to the public then too.) So as one does at giant museums, I strode purposefully past assorted wonders until I got to Degas in Room 810, with only a couple of stops to check I was going the right way.

It's not only the marvellously rich, warm, human paintings themselves - It's the associations they have. So there was one of Monet's many studies of Rouen Cathedral, this time bathed in midday sun. Harvey and I saw the cathedral in Rouen in 1999. We'd seen a group of these paintings before then, I think in Paris.

There were Giverny paintings too - one of the earlier water lily pictures, two very late almost abstract ones, and a path bordered with irises. Plus a vase of chrysanthemums. Thanks to our English friends who brought their car across to join us in Rouen, we managed to get to Giverny on the last day it was open, when the summer flowers had gone but the water lilies were still there - and swathes of chrysanthemums. 

I am so fortunate to have seen all this, and to have shared so much of it with Harvey. He had been to the Met himself earlier, and I know he went to see these paintings. Such pleasure.