Thursday, October 27, 2011

Leaps and bounds

This week I've been involved in two things that look entirely different but are really closely related.

First there was the rugby. I've written before about my complete ignorance of Our National Game, and throughout the WC the most I ran to was knowing who was playing whom in the quarters and semis, and the results. Oh, and Dan Carter's groin problem. No one in New Zealand could have missed hearing about that.

But when Sunday was looming, I thought that if I didn't watch the final I would feel sort of isolated and Left Out. Also, completely irrationally, I got the idea that I ought to watch it for Harvey's sake. So I asked my 86-year-old neighbour Frances if I could watch it with her. I knew she'd be only too happy to explain whatever I needed to know about the rules. It would be the very first rugby match I'd ever watched all the way through.
           The camerawork was so good even I could see that the French were playing well and the All Blacks - not so well. In the end they didn't so much win as not lose. Anyway, at least it was anything but boring and they did carry off the coveted cup. So I guess Harvey would have been happy. And I could join in all the post-match conversations.

From rugby to ballet is not all that big a leap. They have a lot in common - both require supreme fitness, flexibility, physical skills and teamwork. I'd love to see as much fuss made of our outstanding national ballet company as of our national rugby team.
          Harvey loved ballet as much as he loved rugby, and we always used to go, but I hadn't been since he became ill. A party of friends were going and had a spare ticket, but I was booked up for that evening. So when Logan Brown's email newsletter arrived with a competition to win two tickets, I thought I might as well have a go. I wasn't at all hopeful, because I'm just not one of those people who win things.
          But lo and behold, on Tuesday an email arrived from Steve Logan telling me I'd won and the tickets were mine! I couldn't have been more thrilled. I'm going to take Jenn, who came with me to the Catlins. She and her husband Barrie have been incredibly kind to us both, and as Jenn broke her arm recently she needed a boost. We're having LB's pre-theatre dinner first, and Mr Logan is shouting us a couple of glasses of champagne. Salut!

Saturday, October 22, 2011


It's 24 years today since my younger son, Patrick, died at 18. I wasn't sure if there'd be any messages from friends, but there were, and it made all the difference.

Harvey and I always went to visit his tree in the Botanic Gardens on his birthday, his anniversary, and Christmas Eve, but of course in recent years I've asked a friend to come with me instead, and I did that again this year.

I took a posy from the garden - a camellia for this house he never saw, forget-me-nots, hearts-ease, rosemary for remembrance, lemon balm for his love of good food, a sturdy stock, and mock orange blosson for the wedding he never had.

The tree is so tall now,
I have to reach up
to lodge the flowers
between its branches.

Later another friend, who has the knack of always turning up at the right time, came round with lilacs from her garden and bread from her oven. So I was very well looked after.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Painters and parrots

It's been a busy week, with several meetings, book group, visitors, outings, book reviews, a phone call to my son in China (he's been very good since Harvey died, he makes sure to be home at a set time so I can phone him - much easier and cheaper for me to do it, and the line's much better than it used to be), and in among all this, sometimes successful efforts to get on with finishing my book. There isn't much to do - only one short chapter to write, another to finish, and a lot of tidying up. But I'm a superb procrastinator. Still, once I set a deadline I usually manage to meet it, and I've set myself to finish this by the end of November at the latest. If it runs any longer it will collide with other commitments, Christmas, travel, etc, and get pushed out much too far. So there may not be much blog posting going on for a little while, or at least just brief ones.
            Today a friend and I went to Pataka in Porirua and saw Grahame Sydney’s exhibition ‘Down South', with 27 recent paintings. There are also 25 prints of photos from his new book, 'Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago'. I can't show you any, as of course they're all copyright, but the paintings took me back to the one trip Harvey and I had to Central, in the summer of 1980. We always meant to go back in the autumn, but never did.
             As well as Sydney's more familiar landscapes, with gold hills and wide skies, there's a brilliant series of winter paintings. Some are of Antarctica, others are his beloved Central Otago in the depths of winter, almost empty of any human trace, with the horizon of the whited-out land disappearing into the sky. They were incredibly bleak and chilling, but I liked them - they seemed to me to be expressions of my worst times, only with a timeless, more-than-human sweep which transcended individual feeling. If you get the chance, go and see them. The exhibition runs until 6 February 2012.
            Nothing could have been less bleak than Sirocco at Zealandia - I had the great pleasure of going to see him the week before. Of course he's nothing like a wild kakapo, as his custodian was at pains to point out, because he's been hand-reared since he was a tiny chick - the wild ones don't want anything to do with humans, whereas he clearly loves us and revels in all the attention. He's a parrot, after all, and if they start young they bond very strongly with us. I know it's an illusion, but he does look incredibly wise and benign.

I loved handling the little bag of incredibly soft feathers she handed round, but couldn't pick up the famed musky odour we were supposed to detect by sniffing the bag of his poo. (That's what happens when there are only 129 of you left.) And as it was night time, and no flash was allowed (it would damage his eyes), you'll have to make do with this little photo from the Zealandia website. To make up for it, here's one of my friend Camille's parrot Claude. Sirocco may be famous for humping Mark Cawardine's head, but Claude regularly humps Camille's hand - that's how she discovered he was indeed Claude and not Claudine.

Of course I've been doing this post instead of my book, and now I've run out of diversions, so I'd better get on with it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Time travel

I had a free trip to Auckland last week - my old school, Auckland Girls' Grammar, invited me to speak at Founding Day. Strange to remember what I was like then - my mother used to say I had "no brains for anything but schoolwork", and she was right. I enjoyed going back through the beautiful old building where we had almost all our classes and assemblies, though now it houses the staffroom and various utility centres - the 1400 girls and the library have moved to a much bigger smart modern block next door. Here's what I said - they laughed in all the right places:
           "Half a century ago, in 1961, I was here at school in what was then the lower sixth. My classmates then are still my closest friends. Our class already had a dreadful reputation. In the fifth form we weren’t allowed to be called 5A1, and were known instead as 5X. (X didn’t have the X-rated associations it does today.) In the lower sixth we had to be allowed our proper name of 6B. One striking difference between my day and yours is the impressively large numbers in the senior school now. When I was here, although it was already a big school when , there was only one small lower sixth and one very small upper sixth. Very few girls went on to the upper forms, let alone to university. But we were not allowed to occupy 6B’s traditional home, the tower room.

6B, 1961 - I'm in front, reading

Why were the teachers so concerned about our class? Because we were irritatingly different. When we disapproved of a teacher, we united in silence strikes, refusing to answer any questions. Quite a few of us were unusually independent and strong-minded, finding creative ways to subvert what we considered petty rules, for example about uniforms and hair. Some of us wore black underwear, as required – but it was black lace. Yes, there were underwear inspections in those days.
         I see the senior girls can today wear pretty much what they like, presumably underneath as well as on top. You owe my class some thanks for that. In the lower sixth we fought for, and won, for the very first time, the right for senior girls to wear a different uniform. [Spontaneous applause broke out here!]You would have found it very weird – white blouse, straight navy skirt, and ordinary brown stockings instead of black ones – but it was the principle that mattered.
         We can’t have been all that bad. Members of our class went on to become, for example, a prominent journalist, a pioneer of women’s and patients’ rights who is now an Auckland city councillor, an internationally recognised economist, and the human rights commissioner. Being such a generally stroppy class had something to do with this. We listened and learnt, but we also thought for ourselves. And of course our teachers had a lot to do with it too. They gave us an excellent education and were obviously perfectly capable of running the place.
          But the example they set us also had one disadvantage – it stopped us noticing that in the world outside, women rarely ran anything except girls’ schools. When my friend went to the Herald to ask about becoming a cub reporter, she was told, “Oh no, dear! We don’t take girls!” When I was at Auckland University, I dreamt of an academic career. Foolishly I failed to notice that there was only one woman in the English department. All my other lecturers were men. Although I got first class honours, not one of my university teachers ever said anything to me about my future prospects – because in fact they were virtually nil. Not only was I a woman, I had married at 19 and had my first child at 20. So I just didn’t count.
           New Zealand has fortunately changed a great deal since then. And it has changed thanks, in part, to the most annoying girls in my class, and the teachers who gave them the idea that it was perfectly normal for women to use their brains and run things. It was my generation of women who started making this a reality – not just for a few exceptional women, but for all the women you now see around you everywhere, flying planes and working on the tarmac, running their own businesses, prosecuting, defending and judging cases in court, heading co-ed schools, a few boys’ schools, even the Ministry of Education. Or the women like my engineering geologist niece in London, who told me that on her new project site she’s the youngest, the smallest, the only New Zealander and the only woman – and she’s in charge.
           A study I did a few years ago shows that about a quarter of all men and women now work in jobs where they’re in roughly equal numbers – jobs like industrial designer, optometrist, accountant, finance manager, radiologist, pharmacist. But it’s not all good. There’s a whole layer of jobs that are still very strongly divided by gender, and by pay. About half of all men and women work in these jobs – exactly as they did when I left school. Men are drivers, mechanics, tradesmen. Women are caregivers, office workers, nurses. Equally skilled work, but they earn a lot less. And at the bottom, there’s another layer where men and women compete for necessary, useful, but very low-paid jobs, like cleaner and packer.
           There are two ways to fix this. Girls can do very well in the trades, and they’re badly needed. But we also urgently need better pay for socalled “women’s jobs”, the jobs that involve taking care of people, the jobs we can’t do without. If you do this kind of highly skilled, vital job, you shouldn’t have to pay the price in lower wages. And everyone deserves a living wage for a decent day’s work. Running through all this is the big problem that still faces women, and increasingly, men too: how do you combine taking care of a family with doing the kind of paid work you want to do? If you want to make a really important contribution to New Zealand, please focus on solving this one.
           We did our best to change the world for the better when we left school. Now it’s your turn. I’m sure you’ll be fantastic – and you’ll have a great time doing it."