Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Very Good Day

Despite my previous carry-on about Christmas, I did in fact enjoy it very much. We spent it as we almost always do, with each other and family (by phone) in the morning, and very dear friends in the afternoon and evening, plus my son phoning from China and a call to my birth mother. Bill and Donna were so kind and helpful that I never felt overwhelmed and all the food worked out well.

I have to make a list the day before with times set out, to make sure I don't forget things, especially after I've had a few glasses of wine. One year I completely forgot that the pudding has to be steamed for at least another two hours on Christmas Day, and we ended up eating it at 10 o'clock at night. Harvey was not amused - he loves his pudding (though he doesn't care much about Christmas cake, and I never make one).

I use the Rich Christmas Pudding recipe from an old edition of the Edmonds Cookery Book (it doesn't appear in the newer ones). The proper time to eat it is straight after the Queen's Message (watched, I must admit, in a somewhat irreverent spirit - we still have the book of Royal photos to which we used to add scurrilous new captions every year, until there was no room left).

It's always the last course in a long slow dinner which this year began at 2 pm with a sort of deconstructed 1950s version of antipasta, using my mother's little coloured plastic sword toothpicks, and moved gently on through beef fillet and salads, cheese, light fruit dessert, and little goodies (mainly for the benefit of droppers-in, of whom we had two this year, though one had already had two meals and understandably didn't want to eat anything else at all).

The pudding had its sprig of holly in the top, picked from the shrubbery by the church up the road during the Afternoon Holly Walk - a much more sedate version of what used to be known as the Drunken Holly Expedition. It was successfully flamed and came with home-made brandy sauce (not, this year, the incredibly alcoholic version I sometimes accidentally produced in the past, when I misjudged the brandy slosh required). And it tasted pretty good, though I did think it was slightly drier than usual, maybe because I didn't make it early enough, or steamed it a bit too long... That's one of the most interesting, if often dismaying, things about cooking - you can never guarantee exactly how things are going to turn out, there are too many variables.

But it didn't matter. The main thing was that everyone had a Very Good Day.

For Harvey's take on our Christmas, see

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Invisible Mother Christmas

As a PS to my last post, in Your Weekend magazine for 19 December, Mike Crean wrote a nostalgic piece about "The Roast of Christmas Past". He recalled the drama of his dad killing the chook or the sheep for their Christmas dinner, and went on to describe the meals they ate.

All good stuff, and I enjoyed it. But I couldn't help noticing that the huge amount of work his mother did to produce it all was completely invisible. She got mentioned only once, near the end, but not in connection with making the dinner itself. That was all described as though invisible hands had created it.

I know he most likely never noticed at the time, because, unlike the killing dramas, what his mother did for Christmas was probably pretty much what she always did, only more so. But I would have thought that, looking back, he might have made some comment about how much effort she put in to produce that magnificent feast every year?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bah, humbug

I haven't sent a single Christmas card yet. I have the cards, and the stamps. I even have at least six cards from other people. Every single one of them has been sent by a woman, in most cases on behalf of not only herself, but the other members of her family.

Why do women have to produce Christmas - the thinking, shopping, wrapping, writing, posting, cooking? On top of all the other regular routine, none of which goes away or, in most cases, even diminishes in the lead-up to Christmas? I can understand them doing it for their children, but why should they do it for everyone else? Especially since so much of it does nothing except keep the tills ringing - oh, and destroy a bit more of the planet to produce all that stuff? Next year maybe we could all just go on Christmas strike.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Great work, guys

It was fantastic to see the story in this morning's Dom-Post about the men running through town at lunchtime yesterday - White Ribbon Day - on behalf of the campaign against domestic violence. For the first time, significant numbers of men seem to be taking on this issue and seeing it as their responsibility to do everything they can to stop other men beating up women. And ultimately that's the only way things will change.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Taking pets to work is NOT work-life balance!

I'm really happy for the staff at CWA New Media in Wellington. The Dom-Post says they get to take their pets to work on Thursdays. Fine - though I'm not sure I'd be thrilled to have a blue-tongued skink wandering around the office in search of cuddles...

But here comes the catch:
"Their bosses say it's a way for modern workplaces to address work/life balance, by bringing people's favourite part of home into the office."

Well, no, not exactly. "Work/life balance" is a stupid phrase, but what it's supposed to mean is being able to fit together your paid work and all the other stuff you need to do without becoming totally stressed out. For most of the women I know, it's more about "paid work/unpaid work balance".

What we call "full-time work" means the amount of paid work someone [being very gender-neutral here] can do when they have someone else at home to do all that other stuff. It wasn't ever meant to be done by the people who DO all that other stuff.

But now all these people, usually known as women, have moved en masse into paid work, and even into full-time jobs. What to do? Introduce work/life balance. We mustn't go too far, of course. Pets at work, maybe. Kids at work - definitely not.

But wait, there's more. In a new book of essays just out from Victoria University Press, Rethinking Women and Politics, Tania Domett looks at the reality of this great new idea. The news isn't good: those who make use of such policies are generally seen as not really committed to their work.

These policies, she says, are a "band-aid" remedy for what is fundamentally an issue of gender injustice. While they do "facilitate women's dual roles and allow them at least limited access to the labour market", they also mask and perpetuate existing gender inequalities.

She quotes Philippa Hall of the [now dismantled] Pay and Employment Equity Unit: "Women have got to get more money and men have to get more time. Men have to work less [for pay] and women have to get paid more for things to change."

Sorry, but it's not about the pets.

Declaration of interest: I have an essay in Rethinking Women and Politics.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Julie and Julia/Elizabeth and me

I've just been to see "Julie and Julia" and I loved it. Meryl Streep is magnificent. Not ever having seen Julia Child's TV programmes, I've never paid much attention to her - not that I noticed, anyway. In fact I did buy the two volume Penguin edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking about thirty years ago, without particularly observing that Julia was one of the authors, as her name meant nothing to me then. I use it, too, from time to time. Well, Volume I, that is. I don't think I've ever gone so far as to tackle anything from Volume II, Advanced.

There are a clutch of easy recipes I make quite often, such as the leek (or watercress) and potato soup, or the mayonnaise. I occasionally make the hollandaise instead, but I quail at the quantity of butter it contains. The oil in the mayonnaise seems healthier, though given the quantity I eat once I've made it, it's probably not. I make it with a processor (I haven't got a blender, but the processor works fine). Julia, Simone and Louisette (though according to the film, she didn't contribute much) point out that the amount of butter the yolks will absorb if you use a liquidizer - 4 ounces (115 grams) - is only half as much as if you make it by hand! I love the way the difference is discussed:

"It is extremely easy and almost foolproof to make in an electric liquidizer, and we give the recipe on page 100. But we feel it is of great importance that you learn how to make hollandaise by hand, for part of every good cook's general knowledge is a thorough familiarity with the vagaries of egg yolk under all conditions..."

"If you are used to hand-made hollandaise, you may find the liquidizer variety lacks something in quality; this is perhaps due to complete homogenization. But as the technique is well within the capabilities of an eight-year-old child, it has much to recommend it."

Indeed. Julia spent a long time converting all the measurements to imperial - here, now, of course, it would be better if they were metric. Maybe newer editions give both. I should look for one - the print in the Penguin, beautifully set though it is in Monotype Bembo, is getting a bit small.

Every so often I tackle another classic recipe properly. This year I've made the boeuf bourguignon that figures prominently in the movie, as well as the blanquette de veau a l'ancienne ( a slow cooker is excellent for poaching the veal). One Christmas I started well ahead of time and worked my way through the recipe for duck a l'orange. It's always worth it.

Valuable though this precise masterpiece is, it doesn't get the same response from me as Elizabeth David's collected works, and I use them much more often. I also love her two collections of articles (and some recipes), An Omelette and a Glass of Wine and Is There a Nutmeg in the House?

It was Elizabeth who said "Authenticity is the only true luxury", and she's right. In these books she often protested (very wittily) against nasty commercial imitations of, e.g., mayonnaise.

If she could come back, she'd be appalled at the way the industrial food manufacturers bandy about the names of honest dishes. They know this will appeal to people who've heard of them and maybe eaten them in a restaurant. And unlike champagne, these names aren't protected, because no one owns them. So they stick them all over concoctions that bear about as much relation to the real thing as those old bottles of Camp Coffee and Chicory did to carefully roasted beans.

A while ago I was looking for fine cracked wheat in the supermarket to make tabbouleh, the extremely simple and very good Middle Eastern salad made with lots of fresh parsley and lemon juice. You can get it at Mediterranean Foods in Newtown, Wellington, but I was short of time. The supermarket used to have it, very cheaply, in the large help-yourself bin section, but that must have been too unprofitable and is long gone. All I could find was horrible and incredibly expensive boxes of what claimed to be "Instant Tabbouleh".

The makers of all this rubbish should be locked up and force fed on it until they promise never to besmirch the real thing again.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The personal life?

"My great hope is that......women would remember that one of the gifts that they have is that they remained so very close to the personal life, and that the qualities that were discovered in the personal life, the value of human life, the value of tenderness, the attentiveness to others' moods, the need for compassion and pity and understanding, the things that women practice every day in their daily lives, in their small kingdoms, are enormously important." Anais Nin

A friend sent me this quote. I think it goes to the heart of the dilemmas still facing women. We do value these things - don't we? We know they're not really "personal" at all, they're what keeps everything else going. But as things stand, if we hang on to practising them and want to do them well, we put ourselves at risk.

For all the guff about "family friendly" workplaces, the world of what we call "work" pays no heed to this "gift" at all. You're supposed to have women doing all that for you! In countries like ours, the jobs that actually require this "gift" to be done well are at the bottom of every heap going.

What's more, this "gift" is not and should not be seen as confined to women! Men are perfectly able to exercise it too, and many do, brilliantly. But all too often our "small kingdoms" are just that - what he says goes, or else. In the Dom-Post this morning: male partners or former partners kill 14 women each year, and are involved in 3500 convictions for assault on women. So far, no amount of compassion, pity and understanding has managed to stop them.
[cross-posted to The Hand Mirror]

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The earth in her hands: Doreen Blumhardt, 1914-2009

From 1981 to 2007 we lived in the Wellington suburb of Northland, a few streets away from the distinguished potter and art educator Doreen Blumhardt, who died on 17 October. In 2000, I interviewed Doreen for an article, but it was never published. I'm posting it here in memory of her.

The Earth in Her Hands

Doreen Blumhardt leads me into her sitting room. It’s very hard to believe that this dynamic, vibrant woman is now 86 years old. A wall of windows gives a breath-taking view across Wellington harbour to the Orongorongo hills. The blues, greens, browns and reds outside are echoed in the glazes of the pottery lining the room - great platters, vases, superbly shaped sculptural pieces.

As a first-generation New Zealander, Doreen spoke only German for her first five years. “It’s so strange to me that anyone can ever forget their first language.” Her father, David, was born in Bad Boll, near Goppingen, where his family had a small estate (Hof). The beautiful 18th century Kurhaus that belonged to her great grandfather Johann Christoph, a pastor and healer, is now run by the Moravian Society. In the churchyard, there are Blumhardt headstones dating back to 1500. Doreen has visited several times, and her German relations have become friends.

David was 20 when he came to New Zealand in 1895, with his father, three brothers and a sister. His mother and the other seven children stayed in Germany until she was safely past child-bearing - a drastic early form of birth control! After years of hard work on the stony family farm near Kamo, in the north of the North Island, his father sent David back to Germany to find a wife. He chose a young governess, Minna Hartdegen, and brought her to a small farm near Whangarei. Doreen, the last of her three children, was born there in 1914.

“I always spoke German to my mother. Her great desire in life was to get back to Germany. She tried to save enough to go, but it never happened. It must have been so difficult for her - she was an educated, musical young woman, she played the zither and loved the opera. She had no idea what she was coming to - washing in an open-air copper, cooking on a rusty old wood-burning stove, and a seat over a hole in the ground for a toilet. She had to work morning and evening in the cowshed, helping to milk 40 cows.”

Despite their hard life, both parents passed their love of music and books to their children. Her father taught Doreen to play the violin; her mother sang lieder as she milked, and wearing her heavy workboots, she showed the children how to waltz.

Even as a little girl, Doreen had to do her full share of the farm work - feeding animals, making hay, picking grapes and strawberries for sale, and scraping the bristles from slaughtered pigs. All that hard work, she says, gave her a real advantage. It not only taught her how to use her hands, but also gave her the courage to break new ground as an artist and art educator.

She still gets up early and works nearly every day in her neatly organised studio, with its two potters’ wheels, a slab roller for large press-moulded dishes and wall panels, jars of glazes, brushes, and a big tray of leafy green plants. In the garage below stands her electric kiln and her gas kiln for stoneware. Her friend and handyman, Michael Austin, comes in to help her handle the larger pieces and move the heavy sacks of clay, which come up from Nelson.

“Even though I’ve been potting for so long - nearly 60 years now - I still find it enormously exciting to open the kiln after a firing. What I get such a thrill out of, as I think many potters do, is the unexpected.”

“Although you do have a certain amount of control, and you aim at getting particular effects, fire has a mind of its own. Stoneware is fired at up to 1300 degrees Celsius. In the gas kiln, you adjust the balance of gas and air throughout the 12 hours of firing. That changes what happens to the glazes on the clay. Lots of gas makes the atmosphere smoky, and turns a copper oxide glaze to pinks and reds. With more air, the glaze turns green.”

“But it also depends on what you use for the underglaze. The range of possible effects is endless. So you’re never quite sure how your work will turn out. Of course, things can go wrong, and sometimes you’re absolutely devastated by the results. But sometimes they’re amazing.”

Although Doreen continues to sell smaller domestic and decorative ware from the showroom in her home, today she spends much of her time on work commissioned by people who are eager to have a large Blumhardt piece for their home or garden.

“I always have to make some smaller pieces to put in the kiln around the big ones, so as not to waste the space. The small pieces sell more quickly, but there’s a presence to a big piece.”

At her own front door stands a golden wall of tiles modelled from coastal rock formations. Doreen’s method of moulding slabs of clay directly onto the rock preserves the original folds and cracks. She first used this technique for a large tiled wall in the Christian Science Church in Wellington, where water runs continuously down over the wall into a tranquil pool, creating a constant play of reflected light and colour.

In 1992, Doreen was asked to work with 24 students to create a wall for the entrance to the Wellington teachers’ college, where she had previously been head of the art department for 21 years. She wanted all the ideas to come from the students themselves.

“They had never touched clay before, but it worked very well. One girl put together a multi-ethnic face representing the different groups of students at the college. The Maori students came up with the idea of showing the traditional concept of the baskets of knowledge. They made long sausages of clay and wove them together, just like real flax baskets.”

That same year she was asked to create a memorial to the American Antarctic explorer, Admiral Byrd. For this landmark, Doreen glazed commercially made tiles in a myriad of colours, then fitted them together to make a triangular canopy showing the spectacular Aurora Australis of the southern skies. It stands in one of Wellington’s most popular visitor sites - the summit of Mount Victoria, with the intricate patchwork of the city spread out below.

The commissions have grown since Doreen retired from full-time work in art education, her first love. Right now, she’s working on a smaller private commission.

“I just have to be careful that I don’t get overloaded. But I’ve got lots of ideas for things I want to carry out in ceramics. I hope I’ll be given the strength. There are so many different directions you can take - domestic ware, individual pieces, sculptural pieces. That brown pot there, for example - it’s halfway between a pot and a sculpture.”

“I think I’ve been lucky that I’ve never had to earn my living by my pottery. The work has to be valued, and that means charging the right price. If you undervalue your own work, it affects what other people receive for theirs. In Japan, the prices for fine pottery and ceramics far outstrip the prices for paintings.”

“The Japanese don’t even have a word for craft. Why do we draw a line between art and craft in Western culture? The professors and the art critics try to come up with reasons. They say it’s the materials, or the techniques, or the fact that craft pieces are made to be used. I think that’s crazy. What’s the difference? There isn’t any.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

For wrath, fury, etc., read anger

[cross-posted to the Hand Mirror]
Italy's worst advertisement, Brain-dead Berlusconi, is at it again, this time with what Reuters reporter Deepa Babington calls his "cutting remark about a female rival's lack of beauty": that she is "more beautiful than intelligent". Rosy Bindi is a senior left-wing politician, but Ms Babington can't rely on us getting Berlusconi's point from her photo - she has to describe her immediately as "matronly, bespectacled", nudge nudge.Italian women have reacted strongly to this "insult", with 97,000 signing the "Women offended by the premier" appeal, Facebook sites and protests. Bindi's response, "I'm not a woman at your disposal" has appeared on T-shirts and placards.So how is this anger described? As a "rare public backlash/feminist backlash" - a term much more accurately used for right-wing attacks on feminism.Reporters must have a handy little compenidum of well-worn phrases lurking somewhere on their computers, ready to leap to their fingers as soon as the words "women", "feminist" and "protest" appear. Women objecting to sexism never, you understand, express justifiable anger -no, behaviour such as Berlusconi's always "unleashes their fury", or, as here, "opens the floodgates of female wrath".And for good measure, Ms Babington (who clearly knows what her bosses want) saw fit to end the story by reminding us of S.B.'s earlier "swipe" at Bindi (which I won't deign to repeat here). The Dom-Post subs liked it so much that they used it as the large boldface caption for the PM's photo, even though it was months old and had little to do with the current story.

Posted by AnneE at 8:06 PM 0 comments.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I've just been welcomed as a contributor to Newzild's premiere feminista blogspot, The Hand Mirror. So from now on I'll cross-post the more stroppy, political (in the broadest sense) comment over there, plus some new things just for them, and fit in a bit more whatever-takes-my-fancy and personal ramblings over here.

We're in a state of general upheaval, with books all over the place and every drawer being reorganised, because Harvey's increasing infirmity (due to his rare muscular illness) has meant he's had to move downstairs. (He gives his account of it all on his blog.) It feels very strange being upstairs all by myself.

To cheer myself up (not him, unfortunately, unlike me he never eats rubbish between meals) and have something easy to offer our many visitors, given that I'm so not into baking, I've invented a new taste treat - and what's more, it's gluten-free! (I'm not, but increasing numbers of my friends are.)

Buy a packet of small chocolate meringues (made by Select, the Woollies house brand), and a jar of Nutella. Open the packet and the jar. Sandwich the requisite number of pairs of meringues together with generous dabs of Nutella. The pale beige and brown combination is very appealing on a pretty plate. Has to be eaten straight away, so don't overdo it. (On the other hand, any leftover slightly soggy ones at bedtime aren't bad at all...)

Keep the spare meringues in a really airtight container and you'll have an instant, elegant afternoon tea or even a little dessert on hand for as long as they last. You could drizzle a bit of melted chocolate on top, but that would probably be gilding the lily. Of course, real home-made chocolate meringues would be better, and I do have three spare egg-whites in the fridge, so we'll see...

Friday, October 2, 2009

World Peace March starts in Wellington

Today, 2 October, the anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi (see Google's heading), is the UN International Day of Non-Violence.

This morning in Wellington it was marked by the start of a World Peace March. Over the next 90 days, it will wind its way through 90 countries on six continents, ending in the Andes Mountains (Punta de Vacas, Aconcagua, Argentina) on January 2, 2010. Along the way, it will involve millions of people.

In Wellington the march also marked the opening of the Peace Heritage Walk. That's where I came in. I'm one of the group of women who set up and raised money for the Peace Award commemorating the life and work of Sonja Davies.

Starting at Gandhi's statue at the Railway Station, the march moved past Pou Whenua (Wai-titi landing markers) and into Parliament's grounds. Rosemary Barrington, the group's chair, and I were waiting beside the kowhai tree planted in honour of Sonja. It's in the native plant garden on the right of the path winding up from the lower gates near the Cenotaph.

The plaque beneath it records her years as an MP and her lifelong commitment to peace and social justice. Unfortunately the website on the March doesn't mention that Sonja's tree is part of the Walk - we'll have to make sure that's changed.

I just happen to be reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Experience, about the aftermath of the first world war (which took her brother and fiance), her commitment to the peace movement, the devastating outbreak of the second world war, her attempts to keep the cause of peace alive through the carnage, and what happened to her and her friends as a result.

The gallant but not very large band of marchers this morning, climbing determinedly up the path against the surging gusts of wind, linked straight back through Sonja to Vera and all the women and men standing alongside them, insisting that there has to be a better way.

The Peace Heritage Walk was continuing this afternoon, after a concert at St Andrew's on the Terrace. It visits the Museum of City and Sea's exhibition on the Wellington Nuclear Weapon free Zone and ends at the waterfront monument for child refugees from the second world war.

At 4 pm (just coming up as I write this) there's a commemoration at the Parihaka memorial in Buckle Street of the nonviolent struggle of the Parihaka people for justice. Tonight there's a public forum with the international walkers at Tapu te Ranga marae, 7pm-9pm.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sad to see Sue go

I'm really sorry to see that Sue Bradford is leaving the House. She's made an immensely valuable contribution to Parliament, the Greens, the Left and the country. Her departure will leave the Greens without any obvious replacement as a champion of social justice. Yet social justice is absolutely fundamental to the success of the environmental cause. It's impossible to have a sustainable world without it. Thank you, Sue. We'll miss you.

Who killed the calves? Getting the full story

This morning I read a very small item in the Dom-Post about large numbers of calves having to be shot by MAF on a farm owned by the Crafars, who've been in the news a lot lately for dirty dairying.

CraFarms, now up for sale, is New Zealand’s biggest privately-owned dairying group and produces 0.5% of Fonterra’s total output. It runs 20,000 milking cows and 10,000 other stock, and it has 200 staff and around NZ$200 million of debt.

A MAF spokeswoman said "The farm manager had had a serious accident and was unable to care for and manage the calves". That's odd, I thought. Then, looking for something else, I came across a Herald article which told a very different story.

"Poor management and the pressures of massive debts obtained during rapid expansion meant this farm was so poorly managed that none of the staff trained the calves to drink milk, allowing them to die of dehydration in a muddy pen even though their trough was often full. MAF's inspectors were called in to this farm and others in the Crafar Farms group many times in recent years, yet this and others like it were allowed to keep operating."

The farm manager had indeed had an accident, breaking both his legs, but this happened the day the MAF inspector arrived. His visit was prompted by a concerned local farmer who asked MAF to look into the conditions on the property.

According to the Herald, MAF gave farm staff advance notice, "prompting an impromptu slaughtering of those calves closest to death by workers who bludgeoned them to death with hammers or slit their throats." The MAF inspector shot the others. MAF has not yet determined whether it will take any further action.

A video of the starving calves was "obtained" by, the site that ran the original story. This "news and opinion" site is sponsored by RaboBank and edited by Bernard Hickey, a veteran journalist and editor. He and his producer were attacked when they visited the farm.

Comments on the story are flooding in - a few in support of the Crafars. Many draw attention to the fact that the move to enormous dairy holdings (run by hired, often poorly paid staff) has been lauded by Fonterra.

There is no route back to a norm of smaller, owner-operated farms. But surely it's vital for NZ's reputation and its whole economic future - not to mention humane, sustainable practices and safe food - that such appalling abuses are swiftly picked up and severely dealt with.

Our animal welfare standards are said to be "world-class". But as MAF's replies to Hickey's queries show, it is "currently resourced" for precisely five animal welfare inspectors, with "part time assistance...utilised as required."

And despite all the concerns and fines, Fonterra has gone right on accepting Crafar Farms milk.

Apparently there'll be more on TV One's Close-Up tonight. Meanwhile the Dom-Post should be ashamed of itself for running such a pathetic apology for a story.

Friday, September 18, 2009

It's not about the balls, Chris

18 September 2009

According to Chris Trotter in today's Dom-Post, it's high time Labour got back to its male working class, er, roots. Labour, he says, now has to reconnect with "the dream of thousands of young and idealistic working class men. To conquer, if not the world, then at least the social evils which disfigure it. To protect and defend the weak and oppressed - and to earn the love and respect of their female comrades in the process....Can Labour, once again, become a party with balls?"

He must be joking. Surely. If, as I fear, he isn't, then that ominous noise beneath his feet is Elsie Locke turning in her grave. Ironically, tonight (on the eve of Suffrage Day) her biography (Looking for Answers, A Life of Elsie Locke, by Maureen Birchfield, Canterbury University Press) was launched in Parliament's Grand Hall.

By the time Chris was born, Elsie had been fighting social evils for a couple of decades. All too often, she had to put enormous energy and effort into persuading her male comrades that women were able to do more than keeping the home fires burning and bestowing love and respect.

Chris makes great play with the idea of Labour under Helen Clark as a reincarnation of the upper-crust "ladies on the hill", talking down to their inferiors. This is very odd, because it was the Right who cast Labour, so conveniently led by a woman, as running a nanny state.

Apparently, protecting the weak and poor is an exclusively masculine role which women are unable to claim as their own, despite them doing most of the actual caring and protecting. No, they have to stay in the background, patting their menfolk on the back with one hand while serving dinner with the other.

It's fine for the "female comrades" to be unpaid or grossly underpaid caregivers, or even fund-raisers and tea-makers. But woe betide them if they try to usurp men's sacred territory and work directly for change through a union or a political party - let alone rise (through enough hard work and talent to overcome the huge handicap of not having balls) to lead that party.

But Chris's history is badly astray. The party Phil Goff's grandparents voted for wasn't a "feminine construct" (any more than the last Labour-led government was), but it wasn't exactly hyper-masculine either (unlike the Fascists NZ would soon be fighting). If it had been, it wouldn't have survived.

In his haste to rescue Labour from the dreaded (ball-less, ball-breaking) women (who can't possibly be true defenders of the faith), Chris is completely ignoring early stalwarts like Elizabeth McCombs. The DNZB says, "Elizabeth supported [her husband] James in his leadership of the Woolston branch of the Social Democratic Party, which he founded in 1913. When he became the first president of the second New Zealand Labour Party in 1916, she was elected a member of the executive. Elizabeth McCombs became a political figure in her own right in 1921 as the second woman to be elected to the Christchurch City Council."

But she was also flat out protecting and defending the poor and the weak, as a member of the hospital board's benevolent committee from 1926 to 1934, and on the committee administering the Mayor's Relief of Distress Fund. "As a member of the North Canterbury Hospital Board from 1925 to 1934, she insisted on hygiene and nutritious meals for patients and nurses and campaigned to improve nurses' working conditions." In 1926 she was one of the first women in New Zealand to be made a justice of the peace. Doesn't sound like a lady on the hill to me.

She was also the first woman to be endorsed as a candidate by the Labour Party, standing unsuccessfully for Kaiapoi in 1928. (If Chris has been there he would no doubt have tried to stop her from polluting the party's pure manly construct.)

"Elizabeth was conscious that her sex was an obstacle, and in her second attempt to win a seat, at Christchurch North in 1931, she faced the issue squarely by using as her slogan: 'Vote the first Woman to the New Zealand Parliament'; she admitted publicly that this distinction was, indeed, her ambition." Poor misguided creature - she obviously didn't understand what the party was really about and who it was really for. Chris could have put her straight.

Her husband James McCombs, MP for Lyttelton, died in August 1933. But "Labour leaders had reservations about Elizabeth's replacing him because he won with only a slender majority. Women's groups backed her, and although one of her opponents [a Trotter forebear, no doubt] argued that 'the difficulties of the country are too great for women to grapple with', she was elected with an overwhelming majority and took her seat in the House in September 1933." Sadly, she died two years later, but her son Terence succeeded her.

So on Suffrage Day tomorrow, 19 September - in case you'd forgotten, it commemorates the day when NZ finally became a true democracy by allowing women to vote - spare a thought for Elizabeth McCombs and Elsie Locke. They had nothing at all against balls - they just didn't think that having or not having them had anything to do with standing up for social justice.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ginger Crunch

We're getting ready for Harvey's 75th birthday - we're having a small family group to lunch on Saturday. I decided I'd better have something on offer to go with tea and coffee, so I embarked on a rare bit of baking. It's not that I don't like baking (though I certainly don't enjoy it as much as cooking proper meals); but I'm not very good at it, and also, if it's there I'll eat it (because Harvey hardly ever touches cakes and biscuits, he just doesn't want them).

However, as it's his birthday I thought I might as well make something he might have a tiny bit of, and something nearly everyone likes, so I opted for ginger crunch. Simple enough, you might think. But I don't have a very good history with ginger crunch.

Every time I've made it in the past, using the Edmonds Cookbook recipe, it hasn't worked very well. The base has been too hard and the icing has been too runny and too thin over the base. (Shop-bought ones are no good either - they're enormous, have a base that's too thick and stodgy, are too sweet and don't use enough ginger.)

So this time I consulted the internet first. Most of the recipes were the Edmonds one, but I did manage to find a slightly different one. It used the food processor, thank goodness.

It's turned out much better than usual, and I think I know why. I used the processor very carefully to cream the butter and sugar and mix the dry stuff in, and I heeded the useful warning to be very gentle pressing the base into the tin, so it wouldn't set like concrete.

The icing recipe had much more icing sugar in it than the Edmonds one (which has only half a cup - maybe this is a mistake?), so it was the right consistency. Even so, I didn't think it was enough to cover the base properly, so I mixed up another half-batch to finish the job.

Inevitably I got some crumbs from the base in the icing, so it isn't the beautiful smooth top I was after, but too bad. Lastly, I had a sharp enough knife (one of those little plastic-handled carbon steel ones) to cut it firmly into squares without making too much of a mess. You have to do this while it's still warm or it doesn't work.

I still couldn't manage straight, even lines of cutting, so some pieces ended up bigger than others (my mother, who had a wonderful "eye" and could cut everything perfectly straight, despaired of me). But it tastes great, and that's really all that matters. Now I just have to leave it alone (except for the tiniest piece in the corner, which of course I had to try to make sure it was okay) until everyone arrives.

PS: I never had any reply from Mr Key to my email (see below). Maybe he never got it?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thanking John Key

I've just emailed John Key. Here's what I said:

Dear Mr Key

I am writing to thank you for your determined stand on the issue of child "discipline" and for refusing to repeal or alter the current law. I imagine that you are likely to get many more messages attacking this stand than supporting it. But it is very heartening to see you refusing to bow to pressure from those who insist that we should reinstate the right to hit children - and thereby reopen the loophole which, in the past, allowed some seriously abusive adults to escape conviction. Your support for Sue Bradford's Bill in the House was admirable, and so is your current stance.

It would be a good idea if lots of people who support the legislation write in - Key and National are bound to be getting gazillions of messages attacking it. They need to know that they are not only doing the right thing, but that despite the referendum, there is plenty of support for retaining the law out there.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Wellington on a plate

Great piles of paid work have been keeping me too busy for blogging, but now it's 10.30 pm and I thought I'd just fit in a post before bedtime. Wellington is having its first Wellington on a Plate food festival and for once I've actually managed to get to a few things.

On Sunday I went with my friend Lesley to high tea at Finc, which has a lovely old interior with an original black and white tiled floor. They did it beautifully with waitresses in little black dresses (much lower cut and shorter than they would have been in the 20s/30s, but too bad), starched white frilly aprons and lovely headbands of broderie anglais with black velvet ribbon.

The customers - it was packed, with lots of young as well as older - got dressed up too, mostly 1920s, but Lesley and I did vaguely 30s with bias-cut skirts, as it's much more flattering for the mature woman! We listened to the jazz band, people-watched and slowly, happily ate our way through a completely over the top afternoon tea: club sammies, scones, eclairs, raspberry tartlets, mini lemon meringue tarts, and finally (honestly) little freshly made doughnuts. All washed down with a glass of elderflower bubbly and a giant pretty flowered china pot of Earl Grey.

It was Really Good, and the setting was perfect, you really could imagine you were back in the right era. I personally think it would be better to drop the doughnuts and have one more savoury thing, maybe a tiny hot vol-au-vent? Or something with cheese? But otherwise, mmmm. Too much of a good thing is definitely wonderful.

Then today I went to lunch at Capitol, next to the Embassy, with a wonderful friend I haven't caught up with for far too long. They were one of the many restaurants doing a special lunch deal, two courses -either entree and main or main and dessert - for $19.50, plus a glass of wine for another $5.50, a very pleasant riesling (forgot to see what it was). In effect I had two lunches - a generous plate (I wondered if I'd got the mains-size by mistake) of beautifully tender squid rings with aioli and green salad; followed by Neapolitan baked eggs, two poached eggs in a gratin dish with beans, tomato, spicy sausage, topped with grilled cheese, plus two large pieces of toasted bread which I didn't eat. Well, only a tiny bit. To mop up.

The desserts, which we didn't have (well, you have to draw the line somewhere), were orange rice pudding with rhubarb and vanilla cheesecake with cherries. Maybe I'll have to go back and do main and dessert instead...

On Friday I'm going to food comedienne Jan Maree and a three course dinner at Sandwiches. I can only hope she approaches being as good as Prue Langbein, whose legendary "Condom Cookery" show was one of the most hilarious pieces of brilliance I have ever seen.

She cooked scrambled eggs in a condom, in a microwave. And, of course, Spotted Dick. Talking very nicely to us all the while about what convenient receptacles they were, in a lovely professional chef doing demo sort of way, she would fill the condom, knot it, put it in the microwave and keep on talking while it swelled and swelled. Just it was obviously about to burst, she would casually hit the stop button. I talked to her and she said it exploded only once. Sheer genius.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Consumer power works

It was very satisfying to see the big headline on this morning: "Cadbury stops using palm oil in chocolate". Buyers of chocolate, including Auckland Zoo, were so offended by the revelation that Cadbury's had started using palm oil (presented as "vegetable fat") in its chocolate that they (a) stopped buying it and (b) made their outrage known all over the media and the net. So now Cadbury's has backed down and apologised.

Now for some time, ever since I saw China Blue, I have had a little fantasy going about starting up a campaign to encourage mail-order sellers of cheap clothing to avoid using exploitative sub-contractors. But my lack of tech-savvy gets in the way. If anyone has any brilliant ideas about how this could be done, get in touch.

PS: Thanks very much for all the warm comments on my skiting!

There's a new Letter from Elsewhere up on Scoop at

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I'm about to break a Great New Zealand Taboo here - I'm going to Skite. So if you can't cope, stop reading now.

Earlier this year, I did the course in creative non-fiction writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. It was, like, OMG, SO awesome! No, really, it was, I loved every minute of it.

What I didn't know was that there is a prize for original composition, awarded each year in memory of Victoria University Press's first editor, Pamela Tomlinson, to one of the students either in this course or in short fiction writing. Today I opened a letter telling me I'd won it.

[Here you have to imagine a prolonged but inarticulate noise expressing enormous surprise, joy and excitement.]

There is just one tiny problem. I now have absolutely no excuse whatsoever for not addressing myself seriously to the writing project I focused on while I was doing the course. If there are long gaps in this blog, that may be because I am finally (after not just years, but decades of dithering around) Getting On With It.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Business Roundtable discovers new contraceptive

I see the Business Roundtable is at it again. They've commissioned a report from one Lindsay Mitchell, who is well known for being a virulent opponent of 'welfare' in general and the DPB in particular. The best way to stop young women - especially young Maori women - getting pregnant is to axe the DPB, she says.

Now I just happen to have been looking up teenage pregnancy statistics recently. Births to teenage women (aged under 20) climbed from 5,315 in 1962 to a high of 9,150 in 1972. That's an increase of 72 percent.

The DPB wasn't introduced until 1973. That was the year teenage births started to fall. By 1982, they had more than halved, to less than 4,500 - well below the 1962 number.

Of course, the number of births is related to the number of teenagers. So let's look at this another way. In the early 1970s, before the DPB, 70 out of every 1,000 female teenagers were having a child. By the mid-1980s, this was down to 30 per 1,000. It stayed between 30 and 35 until the late 1990s, then it trended down again. By 2002, the rate was at its lowest in our recorded history, at 25.6 per 1,000 female teenagers.

That's still high compared with all other developed countries except for the USA and UK. But there's no way you can argue that the DPB is responsible - or that axing it would lower the rate.

Business Roundtable members head up major companies. If this report represents what they consider to be inteligent analysis, it's a bit of a worry, eh.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Need cash for your hobby? Hire out women for sex!

The news flabbergasts me on a daily basis, but I plumbed new depths of flabbergastry on Sunday when I read about the former Olympic featherweight boxer who has set up a brothel to earn money for his sporting career.

Logan Campbell, according to the report, did get $15,000 funding from SPARC, but lost it because he hasn't been competing. Now he has his sights set on getting $300,000 from his "high class gentlemen's club", with its "smart, attractive girls".

"Some people on the team will not think highly of me for doing this," Campbell said. "If they saw this place and how it's operated, they'd change their mind...We don't treat them like pieces of meat."

Too right - he sells the whole live female animal.

If you're short of cash too, ladies, maybe for your education or your kids, don't rush to apply. It's not exactly a safe occupation, and class has nothing to do with it.

The classiest brothel in Melbourne, the Daily Planet, has alarm buttons in the rooms that women can press to call the bouncer. Unfortunately women only press these once they have been hit (which is not uncommon). By then the damage has already been done. There's no way to prevent women being hit even in the best run (and most expensive) brothels.

Of course, there doesn't seem to be any way to prevent them being hit in their own homes, either.

(My new Letter from Elsewhere, posted 13 July on Scoop, looks at Judge Russell Johnson's comments on "family violence".)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How to destroy jobs

I see yet another bunch of public service jobs is being eliminated - 60 jobs are to go in biosecurity because the volume of work is currently down, due to recession. (Great post on this at The Standard.)

Now I've always understood that one of the very few ways the gummint can make a real difference in a recession is by (a) employing more people - so cheap insulation is a really good idea - and (b) keeping on the people they already employ.

But no, it seems Mr Key and Co know better - they believe it's more important to slash public spending by cutting programmes and axing jobs all over the show.

Quite how this helps, I'm not at all sure, because all those public servants were spending the money they earnt buying things and paying taxes will now have to stop all that and instead get by on the less-than-subsistence level income provided by their former employers (if they can get it, that is - two-income families are the norm, but if one becomes unemployed the other is pretty unlikely to get a cracker).

Isn't that exactly what helped make the Great Depression so bad???

Friday, July 3, 2009

still asking after all these years

I went to the demo in Parliament's grounds for pay equity on Tuesday. It was cold, of course, and damp rather than wet, but there was a great turn-out of angry women, and men, of all ages and stages. I enjoyed meeting up with two die-hard feminists of my vintage, with their equally staunch daughters alongside them. But we did wonder whether, in another twenty years' time, they'd be standing there again with THEIR daughters, still demanding equal pay for work of equal value.

The lack of this is the biggest reason for women getting paid less than men for similar levels of work. One woman who spoke was a teacher's aide, helping children with special needs in the classroom. She does an absolutely essential, highly skilled, demanding job - but unlike the teachers she works with, she is employed on an annual basis, gets no pay in the holidays, and gets precisely 44 cents an hour above the minimum wage. (See her whole speech here - in post for last Tuesday.)

Teacher aides were one of the groups the axed Pay and Employment Equity Unit had been working on. But just as they got to the point of proving precisely how underpaid these women were, it was all stopped. Can't raise women's wages, eh. There's a recession on. Well, as Green MP Catherine Delahunty said: recession is no excuse for oppression.

Still, it was heartening to see the Dominion Post run a photo of a protestor about my age on its front page. She was holding up a placard with a classic feminist cartoon (I wonder if the photographer was so taken with it because he'd never seen it before? Come to think of it, I haven't seen any women's by-lines under photos, ever). It shows a little girl and boy peering into their nappies, and saying, "Oh, that explains the difference in our wages!"

Sunday, June 28, 2009

From the earth

When I visited my friend Kath on Thursday, her husband gave me a bag of fresh veges from their garden - baby sprouting broccoli stems, a cos lettuce, and some baby beetroot. I served the broccoli on Thursday with a beef casserole and mashed potatoes - we had Rae to dinner. The cos lettuce made a delicious little Caesar salad for my dinner on Saturday - Harvey had a cheese omelette. Today I cooked and peeled the beetroot and am about to turn it into soup - as luck would have it, there's a very good recipe in the latest Cuisine, which friends gave me for my birthday. It gives me great satisfaction to make this gift of veges into such nice food. Harvey used to grow a good range of fresh stuff for us, but that was at Farm Road, when he was well. We don't have the scope here, and anyway he's not able to garden any more. I do have a few pots of salad and herbs, but I'm not very good at keeping them going. Right now they're almost all in need of replanting, but it's been too cold and miserable to get out there. I'm obviously not a real gardener like Harvey - which makes me all the more appreciative of bounty from people who are real gardeners.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Do children need breakfast?

This post sits oddly beside the last one about eating in Melbourne, but here it is.

A startling headline appeared in my inbox this week: "Providing breakfast in primary schools – is it the right way to start the day?"

The Health Research Council is helping to fund a study into "the effect of a free healthy breakfast on primary school students and their learning ability, academic performance, and nutrition".

It will look at the Red Cross Breakfast in Schools programme operated by New Zealand Red Cross and Progressive Enterprises. It's been running for two years now, and it gives all decile one primary schools in the country (the schools in the poorest areas) the opportunity to offer their students a healthy breakfast at the start of the school day.

In 2002, a National Children’s Nutrition Survey showed that almost one in five children aged 5-14 years did not regularly eat or drink at home before leaving for school. I know some teenagers hate eating breakfast, even though they need it so much - partly because it means they have to get up slightly earlier. But younger kids both need and want breakfast. The prospect of so many kids trying to cope with school without anything to eat first is awful.

Dozens of other surveys ram home the real problem: not enough money for food, after paying for the inflexible basics of rent and power (and we all know how much that's gone up by). In 2002 one in five households with children said they could only sometimes afford to eat properly.

And that was before the recession and the huge rise in unemployment.

That's why the programme is aimed at the poorest schools. The research team hope that if they can come up with clear proof that the breakfast programme is good for children's learning, this will back up "wider implementation of breakfast programmes as a means to improve the school achievement and health of vulnerable New Zealand children".

It's incredibly sad that in a country which is supposed to be such a great place to bring up children, there are so many poor kids that the Red Cross and a supermarket chain have to come up with school breakfast programmes.

But it's even sadder that precious health research funds have to be spent on proving that children do better at school when they get breakfast than when they don't - yes, really! - in the hope that this programme will get the funds it needs to reach all poor kids.

Why isn't it good enough just to prove that they aren't getting breakfast because they're too poor?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Eating my way round Melbourne

I've just had five days' holiday in Melbourne, thanks to the kindness and generosity of three friends - one of whom gave me the airpoints, one of whom came to stay with Harvey while I was away, and one of whom had me to stay in St Kilda and took me with her and her little dog (in a doggie pushchair - don't laugh, it meant she could take the dog into the markets and on the trams, and it was amazing how many people came up to talk about it!) to all her favourite food haunts.

I'd already been to the Queen Victoria market. This time we went to Prahran Market (almond croissants, prawns, ham on the bone, Tuscan bread), and South Melbourne Market (dim sum, Greek honey cakes, ready-to-cook kofta, a huge Turkish bread for $2, two cheeses for $5, paella for lunch). We ate at Kamel (modern Turkish), the George at St Kilda (modern Italian - cauliflower pannacotta - trust me, it was superb), Richmond Hill Cafe (Venetian custard fritters with poached quince and cinnamon icecream), and the inimitable Brunetti, the original one in Carlton, a huge, bustling, heartwarming pasticceria.

It wasn't quite as indulgent as it sounds, we shared most things (cheaper, plus it meant we could try five of Brunetti's tiny sampler cakes for $1.80 each). Why, oh why, did the blinkered NZ Governments of the 1950s keep out Italians, Greeks and anyone else who didn't meet their rigid criteria for immigrants who would "fit in"?

Never mind, a new Sunday City Market has just opened down on Wellington's waterfront, alongside the existing fruit and vege (and excellent lamb, bread, sausage, cake, jam, etc) market next to Te Papa. It'll make the already dire parking hassles even worse, so I think I'll haul my faithful shopping trundler (naff, but a necessity) onto the bus when I get the chance to go and explore it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Clean Dish Indicator Option

I have been doing my bit for the New Zealand economy - I've just bought a new dishwasher. Yes, I do use one, I've been using one for years. Yes, I know they are not very green. No, I never run it until it's full. And I always used to set it for the eco option in our old house. But the machine kept breaking down, and on his third visit the repairman took pity on me and told me the eco programme temperature on that model was set too low, so I shouldn't use it.

In our new house we moved up a notch on the washer and dryer (both much greener models than our old ones, and they do a better (though slower) job too). But we went backwards on the dishwasher, a cheap Italian eleven-year-old that just didn't wash the dishes very well.

So now I have the one with the drawers, and I can shove most of the pots in it as well as the china and cutlery. The glasses and big plates don't fit, but as every appliance-user knows, you can never have it all. And even on the eco setting, it washes and dries everything properly. So far.

The only problem is the manual. I have a master's degree in English, and a PhD, but I can barely understand it. It's not the English - that appears to be impeccable. The real issue is the determination of the manufacturers to (a) ensure that the user understands every possible issue that could arise and (b) provide as wide a range of options as possible to cover every conceivable dishwashing contingency.

The first three pages consist of important safety precautions. For a start, when using the DishDrawer, I am to keep no less than 13 guidelines in mind. For example, I am to load sharp knives with the handles up to reduce the risk of cut type injuries. Not only am I not to allow children to play in or on the DishDrawer, but I myself am not to abuse, sit on, stand in or on the drawer or dish rack. (My mind immediately sprang to improbable scenarios involving the DishDrawer and the Kama Sutra.)

My favourite page is the one showing How NOT to load your DishDrawer. I especially like the first picture: it shows a mad jumble of dishes thrown in by some despairing houseperson pushed to the limits of endurance.

The pages showing the controls are, as usual, fascinating. I was puzzled by the fact that there were only three tiny buttons on the outside, but the manual also shows a wash programme selector that I couldn't locate. It took me a while to discover that this is actually inside the dishwasher. You would think the manual writers might mention this, since they mention absolutely everything else.

In all my old dishwashers you poured in a bit of rinse-aid from time to time, and that was that. In my new one, there are five possible levels at which the Rinse Agent can be dispensed. But I am taking no notice of this. The instructions for changing the dispensing level run to an entire page, with diagrams.

Just putting in the Rinse Agent is quite tricky, because you have to pour it awkwardly towards you into a hole (sorry, circular opening) on the inside of the drawer front, after turning the plug anti-clockwise. The manual includes a stern warning about not spilling any Rinse Agent into the actual DishDrawer and wiping up spillages to prevent excess foaming. Failure to do this may result in a service call which will not be covered by warranty.

The most puzzling features are the Closed Drawer Option and the Clean Dish Indicator option. The first locks the DishDrawer when the drawer is closed. This is in addition to the Child Lock and the Key Lock options, as well as the very clear warning not to open the DishDrawer while it is operating, so I can't see why you would need it - unless you have a mad kitchen appliance fetishist on the loose, determined to abuse the racks.

The Clean Dish Indicator option is rather more of a worry. The manual helpfully explains when it might (I like that) be useful: when dishes have been left in the DishDrawer and you cannot remember if they have been washed (it does not say why you cannot tell just by looking at them, which implies either very inferior dishwashing performance, or frightening levels of compliance with the earlier instruction to rinse everything before it goes in). The second possibility is in situations where household members regularly remove only a few clean dishes without emptying the drawer. Ah, yes, I see.

But there is one problem: just in case this temptation occurs to you, they do not recommend using the Clean Dish Indicator option in conjunction with the Closed Drawer option.

Yes, I think I can understand that. After all, if the drawer was locked, and you couldn't get into it, it wouldn't matter if the dishes were clean or not.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Making a pig of myself

I eat pigs, and sheep, and cattle, and large birds, and fish, and shellfish, and occasionally snails and frogs. I draw the line at rodents and insects and small birds. But I want the animals I eat to be treated as humanely as possible, before and during their necessary deaths. (I can't cope with eating them while they're still alive.)

So I'm right behind campaigns to do away with appalling practices like keeping pigs in crates, even though I haven't done anything about it except try not to buy pork produced under those conditions. And even then, I'm well aware that because we (a) eat only small amounts these days and (b) have more income, relative to our food needs, than many other people, this is a bit of a luxury.

When I was feeding hungry kids on a small budget, I was ignorant of any of these issues. But that was so long ago that there was probably much less factory farming around anyway.

I've noticed how cunningly the caged-hen egg producers have responded to the push for free-range: they've simply made their product cheaper, selling you 15 eggs for the same price as 12. Kids versus hens? Fast healthy food versus not having enough money left for the power bill? No contest.

Mothers shouldn't have to face these dilemmas. There's something gravely wrong with the way we produce food now, and it's not the consumers' fault.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Deja Vu All Over Again

Christine Rankin has some scary supporters, if comments on the MENZ website are anything to go by. Her appointment to the Families Commission is being hailed there ("This should put a bomb under the woofters. That only leaves the childrens commission and MWA!") by people who, like Rankin, object to the removal of the legal loophole allowing children to be hit. They also object to the current campaign against domestic violence, and to the existence of women's refuges.

Putting not just one but two dedicated supporters of the legal right to hit children (Rankin and Bruce Pilbrow, CEO of Parents Inc) onto the Families Commission looks like a clear message from National: it does not believe in the legislation it supported, and it will backtrack as soon as it gets the chance.

It was, of course, the Nats who appointed Rankin as head of WINZ, back in the heady days when Jenny Shipley was intent on getting us all to sign up to the Code Of Social Responsibility (which, strangely, did not include the government).

In another curious case of Deja Vu All Over Again, the Nats this week took the axe to the tiny (seven people) Pay and Employment Equity Unit. Back in 1990, the new National government's first act in office was to repeal Labour's pay equity legislation.

This bit of news was also about women. But it had none of the "sexy" appeal of the Christine Rankin fiasco, so it got almost no publicity. I mean, pay equity - equal pay for work of equal value! Like, say, social workers (mostly women) getting paid at similar levels to other people (mostly men) doing jobs that require similar skills and responsibilities - but are currently paid quite a lot more.

Who could possibly be interested in that? Well, me, for a start. You can read all about it in my new Letter from Elsewhere on Scoop. Then you can write to My Key and ask him what on earth his government thinks it's doing.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Swine flu and factory farming

Amazing how quickly swine flu became the top news story nationwide. Here and there I've spotted a few mentions of the huge industrial pig farms linked with the earliest cases in Mexico, but this hasn't figured very prominently.

On Scoop today there was a much more detailed account of these pig farms and their probable role in generating this new hybrid virus. We know that bird flu developed as a result of humans and birds living in very close proximity in Asia. Those were small family enterprises. The pig farms at the centre of the advent of swine flu are a very different story.

What caught my eye was this sentence: "a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms." Those flies certainly would have had plenty of waste to breed in: the manure lagoons around the LaGloria factory pig farm in the area where swine flu appears to have begun are the dumping grounds for the feces and urine waste from at least 950,000 pigs a year.

Meanwhile up in Canada, a Mexican worker has apparently transmitted swine flu to pigs...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Anzac Day - Finding out who you are

On Anzac Day today (ignore the stupid Google US date system) I had hoped to watch some of the excellent documentaries being screened on Maori TV. But I've been away in Auckland, and by the time I'd caught up with the washing and other odd jobs like cleaning the heat pump filter and the cat's tray, it was 3 pm. That was okay, because I had time to watch the one I most wanted to catch - Sisters Reunited. It made me very teary.

During the second world war, Bill, described only as Maori and from the South Island (it was made by the BBC, so they weren't good on his whakapapa) was stationed in Britain as a wireless operator on Lancaster bombers. He was already married, but he met and fell in love with a Scottish nurse, Jeannie. He survived the war and returned to New Zealand, where he had six children. But Jeannie had become pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, whom she called Jeannette. With no other option, she gave her up for adoption, and the girl's name was changed to Jennifer. She had lovely parents, but was badly bullied at school because of her dark skin, and always longed to know where she came from.

The documentary tells the story of how, after her own efforts had come to nothing, her New Zealand family was able to trace her, thanks to the help of a Scottish woman who met them by chance when she was visiting this country.

Because I'm adopted myself, I find programmes like this intensely moving. But I think anyone seeing it would have really responded to the story it told so well. It was the very best kind of "reality TV".

What I can't understand is why on earth we haven't already had the chance to see it on TVNZ. It was, of course, particularly suitable for Anzac Day, but it would have gone down so well on any night in prime time. But I don't think programmes like this even appear on the radar of the blinkered blokes in charge of TVNZ programming.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Where the jobs aren't

This week we got the unemployment rate confirmed for December 2008 as 4.7 percent. But this overall figure doesn't give the full picture. Pakeha women have the lowest unemployment rate of any ethnic/gender group, at 3 percent. But Maori women have the highest rate, with 9.7 percent, closely followed by Pacific women, with 9.5 percent. So where are the urgent moves targeting job retention in these two most vulnerable groups?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Twinkle toes

Okay, so like everyone else I've just watched the final of Dancing with the Stars. I have just one question. Why, oh why, did Barbara Kendall have to wear not one, not two, but three incredibly tacky, hideous costumes, from faux cavewoman to black vinyl to Christmas tinsel? Do they do it on purpose?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Oh, those wonderful males

“The challenge is not just to understand how we develop as women or men, but to also comprehend why the male population encompasses the warrior, the poet, the scientist and wonderful blends of these extremes.”

Oh, okay - so no need, then, to comprehend more about the female population, since (setting aside Helen Clark, I guess) all it encompasses is the housewife, the callgirl, the nurse/teacher/secretary, and distinctly unwonderful blends of these dull norms?

(Quote from Associate Professor Ian McLennan of Otago University, co-author with Dr Kyoko Koishi of a study which found that male mice lacking a hormone called Müllerian Inhibiting Substance (MIS) show subtle changes in their brain anatomy, and behave in ways more akin to female mouse behaviour. I wonder if they get food and water for the other less defective male mice...)

Shutting up shop on Good Friday

I see the annual chorus of protest about (most) shops having to close on Good Friday has started up again. I'm in some trouble here. I think it's a really good idea to have a few days a year when the shops are shut. In Europe they make no bones about shutting regularly - for two half days a week and all day Sunday, as well as a solid clutch of holidays, sacred and profane.

So what do people do when they can't shop? They visit their families and friends. They go for walks and visit museums and art galleries. Some of them go to church. On Sundays they go out to lunch (it's a big day for restaurants, but they close Sunday evenings and often one other weekday too). New Zealanders used to do all these things too, until shopping took over.

On the other hand, I am so profoundly off the Catholic Church right now that I'd rather the shops stayed closed on secular holidays - Anzac Day, Waitangi Day - instead of religious ones.

Any institution that can proclaim that the man who raped a nine year old girl and got her pregnant with twins was committing a lesser sin than she and her mother did when they obtained an abortion - even though carrying the foetuses to term would have killed her - is unworthy of any sane person's support. To ram its point home, the church excommunicated the mother and girl and their doctor - but not the rapist.

Visiting the USA one Easter, I was amazed to find that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are not officially observed there. On the other hand, they have an impressive line-up of thoroughly civic holidays (though being America, they probably don't close up shop).

In Massey University's latest survey, 40 per cent of respondents say they have no religious affiliation, up from 29 per cent 17 years ago. Just over a third of New Zealanders describe themselves as religious, and although 53 percent say they believe in God, half of those have doubts. So clinging to Christian religious observances as almost our only form of time out from commerce doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. But the time out itself is invaluable, and the clamour of a few self-interested shopkeepers should not be allowed to drive it to extinction.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Weekend at the Metropole

I thought you might enjoy this piece - it's a slightly edited version of one I've just done for my writing course.

We’ve been staying with relatives in Christchurch, but this morning we’re going to Akaroa. On our own. We drive guiltily off straight after breakfast under a vast blue Canterbury sky. We can spend all day negotiating the hairpin bends of steep gravel roads leading down to gloriously deserted bays, because, as always, we’ve sensibly booked ahead. And this time, instead of a perfectly functional but entirely predictable motel, I’ve managed to talk Harvey into staying at the Metropole, one of those wonderful old country pubs I’ve been longing to try for years.

It’s nearly five when we pull into the carpark, looking out over the silky waters of Akaroa Harbour. “It’ll be even better from upstairs”, I say confidently. Murmuring about Scarlett O’Hara, I climb the stunning kauri staircase sweeping up to the centre of the first floor, and turn the key to our room.

Two sagging wirewove single beds, spread with limp pink candlewick. One narrow window, too high to see the harbour unless you’re standing right in front of it. A rickety oak wardrobe and a chest of drawers. One dim plastic shaded light-bulb hanging plumb in the middle of the ceiling.
In the corner beside the window, one cold tap drips slowly into the washbasin. A neatly typed notice on the wall informs us the toilet is next to the bathroom at the end of the landing.

Harvey’s face has an odd expression, but all he says is, “It’s only one night – and these places always do a great breakfast.” We go out and spend much more than we meant to on a consoling crayfish dinner and enough wine to send us both straight into snoring oblivion, blotting out the noise from the bar below.

The sun wakes us too early, flashing in through the gaps between the unpullable brocade curtains and the brown holland blind. Neither of us feels up to trekking along the landing and clambering in and out of the bath for a shower. So we make do with a few swipes of cold flannel at the basin, go for a walk to clear our heads, and turn back to ask about breakfast. The landlord’s behind the bar counting up the night’s takings. “Just through there,” he says, pointing to a carved archway.

Starched white tablecloths cover four tables, but only one is set for two, with thick white hotel china, napkins in silver rings, and neat ranks of heavy old silver knives, forks and spoons. Any minute now, he’ll arrive to take our order. Fruit, definitely bacon and eggs, maybe toast with home-made jam? “This is more like it,” I say.

Ten minutes later, I notice the narrow table against the back wall. Lined up on it are three boxes – weetbix, cornflakes, puffed wheat. In front stand a bowl of tinned peaches, a jug of milk and another of what looks like well-diluted Raro. They’re flanked by a toaster, a loaf of white sliced bread, and a saucer with four little foil-topped packets of butter, two of Vegemite and two of honey. “I think this is it,” says Harvey.

The landlord comes in with a kettle and a small wicker basket full of teabags and sachets of instant coffee and sugar. “Sorry, forgot these,” he says. “Got everything you want?”

Monday, March 2, 2009

Back to school

I'm going back to school - well, university. I've enrolled for a course in writing Creative Non-Fiction, and it starts this coming Friday. So I might post the pieces I need to write for it - we'll see.

I've been asked for details of the course - it's CREW 257 at Victoria University of Wellington. It will be run again next year, so look at Victoria's website for details - applications for the 12 places available usually close in early December.

In the meantime, here's a marvellous column by Michele A'Court which appeared in Your Weekend a few weeks ago on 24 January (she gave me permission to reproduce it here). I agree with every word of it, and it's superbly expressed.

When I’m angry, I tend to express myself in similes. Right now, I am as cross as two sticks. The delightful, intelligent, charming men in my close circle of friends just held a stag party for our groom-to-be. Cricket, poker, pizza... and strippers.

You could call the stripper-at-the-stag-do “a tradition”. Or take the new view that you can watch strippers “in an ironic way”. Or maybe you think it’s just “a bit lame.” Whichever chorus my friends joined, I was certainly the lone voice growling, “sexist and offensive”.

I thought the smart people worked out in the 70s that paying women to take their clothes off objectified them, reducing them to less than the sum of their rude parts; that financial desperation led to sexual exploitation. I’m pretty sure I still have the memo.

And we’re still doing this? Here come the similes. I feel like an African-American discovering that all my white friends are off to see a black-and-white-minstrel show. Or a pacifist finding out my buddies spent Friday night knitting jumpers at a hanging.

My view of strip clubs is a bit like my attitude towards haggis – heard it described, thought it sounded awful, tried it and discovered I was right. Years ago, an actor friend was researching her role as a stripper and I trotted along to a lunchtime show to keep her company. I hated it – bad decor, ghastly music, furtive behaviour and the absolute lack of fun or joy in any of it. Isabelle Allende says, “Erotica is using a feather, pornography is using the whole chicken.” That felt like being thumped with a frozen chook.

Maybe I went to the wrong gig. Because I like a bit of Burlesque – spoil me with great skill, saucy costumes and a bit of narrative. I’ll look out for some at the Buskers Festival in Christchurch this week. If my daughter told me she wanted to take up Burlesque, I’d learn how to sew on sequins. If she told me she wanted to be a stripper, I’d lock her in a cupboard till she was 45.

This new wave of lad-ism is equal opportunity – there’s a whisper the hens want a stripper too, for the irony of it. I worry that your ironically-booked stripper isn’t even being objectified properly anymore with good, old-fashioned, honest leering. Surely that’s like a Society of Skeptics hiring a psychic for their Christmas function, just so they can laugh behind their hands and feel smug. And say the psychic should have seen it coming.

Once, after an awful corporate gig, I found out I’d been hired by someone specifically because she knew her audience would hate my comedy. She was leaving the firm and wanted me to be her parting shot. I never knew how to describe how dreadful that night felt. Now I do. I felt like an ironic stripper at a post-modern stag do.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Apricot summer

Every year when the apricots are really ripe - not straight after they arrive, but a little later - I make a dessert I found in a Penguin book I've had for years: Cordon Bleu Desserts and Puddings, by Rosemary Hume and Muriel Downes (1976).

It takes a while to put it together but none of it is difficult. However, all the measurements are the old imperial ones so I have to be approximate here.

Apricot Suedoise

just over 3/4 cup sugar (it's 6 ounces in the original)
1 1/2 cups water
a few strips of lemon zest

Boil together in a large saucepan for a few minutes to make syrup.

just under 1 kilogram of fresh ripe apricots
12 or more skinned almonds

Halve apricots and remove stones and any bits of stalk at the top. Poach gently in the syrup, cut side up (but put them in cut side down first and then turn them over), until cooked through. (I find it easier to do this in two batches. The idea is to end up with 10-12 halves that have kept their shape well. The rest can be a bit mushy.) Leave it all to cool down.

juice of 1/2 large or 1 whole small lemon, made up to 5 tablespoons with water
25 grams gelatine

Mix juice/water and gelatine in a bowl that you can then sit over a small saucepan of boiling water. Stir the gelatine mixture over the simmering water until it is well dissolved.

Arrange the firmer apricot halves, cut side down, into a round flat-bottomed glass or china dish of some kind, not too shallow - a souffle dish, for example. If you're feeling clever you can fit an almond or two under each one so it sits in the space where the stone was. If not, just scatter the almonds among the halves.

Put the rest of the apricots and the sieved syrup into a food processor and turn it into puree. Add the gelatine mixture and whizz it all together.

Gently pour the puree over the apricot halves so they stay in place. Cover and leave to set in the fridge for at least half a day.

To turn out the suedoise, dip the outside of the dish briefly into hot water. Hold a serving plate over the top (preferably one with a bit of a curve around the edge) and turn the dish upside down. With any luck, the suedoise will turn out neatly onto the plate with its apricot halves looking pretty on the top.

(Or you can just whizz up all the apricots and set and serve the suedoise in its original dish, or set it in individual glass dishes.)

Whipped cream is good with this, and little almond biscuits are very good too.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Not getting it

Gremlins are all around us. Both my son (back from overseas) and I had important applications for courses vanish without trace. I emailed mine, as instructed, in late January and had an email confirming I'd done everything correctly and it was all taken care of. Then I found it had never reached the right person. Fortunately I had just enough time to do it all again. He posted his last week, then suddenly realised he hadn't sent a photo with it. So he phoned up, only to be told it had never arrived. He spent the day doing it all again, and faxing it this time. Both of us could so easily have missed out completely, never knowing our vital communications hadn't got there until it was too late. We did everything right, but systems let us down.

That must be what thousands of New Zealanders are thinking, as they watch their jobs disappear from under them. They've done everything right, so how come they're suddenly out of work? Today the Stats people came up with some numbers: 105,000 unemployed, the highest number since September 2002.

I hope this time around we'll at least be spared the finger-wagging rubbish about people not wanting to work and being eager to bludge off the state instead. I could never understand how politicians such as Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley were so sure that the appalling unemployment levels of the early 1990s were due to a sudden mass collapse of moral fibre, and that the only remedy was to slash already far from generous benefits.

Labour never saw fit to restore them, though it tinkered around the edges a bit, and did at least fix the worst problem: ludicrously high state house rents. But there's been no serious attempt to work out whether the amounts paid are actually capable of covering the most basic levels of current family living costs. The foodbanks have learnt the answer: they're not. And soon large numbers of shell-shocked people will learn it too.

A new film about "the David Dougherty case" screens this weekend. I've put a Letter from Elsewhere about it - "The invisible victim" - up on Scoop this week at

Monday, January 12, 2009

There goes the New Year

Thanks to his new daily intake of Fortisip, everything went very well for my husband over Christmas and New Year - well, New Year's Day, anyway. He felt so much better that he got a bit over-confident, and on 2 January he decided to bend over and pick up something from the floor. Sounds easy enough, doesn't it - but he is not supposed to do any such thing, he's supposed to use his grabber instead. Sure enough, he started to topple forwards, managed to right himself, but overdid it and fell backwards instead, crashing full-length onto the floor. In the process he strained his sacroiliac (?) ligament. It will heal, but slowly, and in the meantime it hurts, a lot. So instead of building his strength up a bit with walks during these nice fine days, he's been too sore to move much at all, poor man. "I was only trying to help" he said. "Please don't" I replied, through gritted teeth.

Oh well, at least he has the Christmas books to read - Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant (see Book of the Week) and Marilynne Robinson's Home; Jenny Bornholdt's The Rocky Shore (it's usually Harvey who reads poetry, not me, but this is brilliant); Obama's Dreams of My Father; and David Veart's First Catch Your Weka (charming and beautifully designed social history of New Zealand cooking, seen through recipe books). Plus we got lent the DVDs of Lost in Austen, which half my friends loved and the other half loathed. Just as well, as the summer flush of TV movies seems to be over. The one we liked most (apart from Ballet Shoes) was - gulp - Wallis and Grommit and the Curse of the Were Rabbit. Where was Grommit when Harvey needed him?