Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A sestina on housing

The writing group I belong to sets difficult challenges. Since I joined quite recently, we've been required to write a pantoum, a triolet, and now a sestina. In the wake of the election, mine turned out to be about housing (see the links at the end for just a few of the stories exposing what far too people are trying to cope with - not to mention the families living in cars and garages).
       The pattern of use for the six repeated end words is correct except for the ending, where I have only two lines instead of the usual three.

Housing crisis

Anne Else

Desperate to escape the broken hovels
where all day long their children lived in darkness
packed into courts and lanes not far from mansions
where clever men drew landscapes bathed in sunlight
they sailed for months packed beside their neighbours
and built their new flimsy wooden houses.

No wonder we are still obsessed with houses.
We turn away from streets of broken hovels
where garages are full of extra neighbours.
We hear that no one needs to live in darkness
since landscapes here are always bathed in sunlight
and fields are filling up with brand new mansions.

Across the harbour in their warm dry mansions
the owners never venture near their houses
where cold and damp rise up despite the sunlight.
Their tenants write new histories of hovels
lighting the gas to keep away the darkness
sleeping in one room just like their neighbours.

Owners quarrel with their neighbours
danger cannot be divorced from mansions
driveway lights cannot dispel the darkness.
Hidden fissures eat into big houses
turning them into different kinds of hovels
worming the walls and letting in the sunlight.

There must be cities where the sunlight
is warm enough to go round all the neighbours
where only history books remember hovels
and families fill the few remaining mansions
where streets are lined with sound and sheltering houses
and no one lights the gas against the darkness.

Here and now the landscape fills with darkness
where coughing children play in sunlight.
The rest of us stay quietly in our houses
too scared to gather up our neighbours
and show them how precariously those mansions
perch on the shaky roofs and walls of hovels.

Houses grow warm when sunlight follows darkness.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

How Princess Diana saved my mother's life

Yes, I do know exactly where I was and what I was doing when the news of Diana's death reached New Zealand. For the last month we've been seeing endless footage of her, and her charitable work has featured prominently. But few people know that even in death, she managed to perform one last gracious service. This seems a fitting time to tell the true story of how Princess Diana saved my mother's life.

It’s hard to think of what to give my mother. When I was young she had a weekly women’s magazine order – the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, of course, as well as the English Woman’s Weekly and the glamorous US Ladies’ Home Journal – along with comics for me. So for a few years I give her magazine subs for Christmas, until she says they’re full of stars she’s never heard of. 
      When I lived at home, I never saw her reading books; but one day she tells me that when she was alone all day, wanting to keep up with me, she secretly read my English schoolbooks. Then she started in on Dad’s collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. 
      I buy her Catherine Cookson romances, where deprived but determined girls break free of their past. At first she loves them, but after the fifth one she says they do all seem a bit the same. So I track down classics from her youth – Forever Amber, Precious Bane. And memoirs of women she knows – Aunt Daisy, Cookson herself, the illegitimate laundry-hand turned rich and famous author. 
      Her favourite is the story of an ordinary 1950s housewife: Journey from Stranger's Rest, by Dorothy Alice Ford. When you’re reading something good, she says, you forget everything else.
      At ninety, she falls. The doctors say she’s got the hip of a seventy-year-old. They patch her up and send her home, telling her she must get moving. I fly up to Auckland to spell off my sister. Mum lies there with her awkward catheter, resisting all my ploys, refusing to get out of bed. 
      On the third day the phone rings. It’s her grand-daughter Rebecca: “Princess Diana’s been in a car accident.” Soon she calls again: “Diana’s dead!” My mother hauls herself up, teeters into the living room and turns on the television. She eats her dinner in front of it on a tray. Next morning she gets dressed. 
      For her ninety-first birthday, I bring her Diana: Her True Story - In Her Own Words. Mum can’t wait. For the first time in our lives, we sit across from each other at the table, reading. 

My mother, Frances Ryda Matthews, in 1995 when she was 88, 
with me and my sister Susan

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Who will prevail?

My last post here was on 6 November, and I know why there have been none since. Three days later, on 9 November, Donald Trump won the US presidential election with 306 electoral college votes, compared with 232 for Hillary Clinton - a shift of 100 votes from the 2012 election, when Barack Obama won with 332 to Mitt Romney's 206. But Clinton won 2.8 million more popular votes than Trump, reflecting the greater support for her in the states with most people.

You can tell I'm retreating into the numbers here, to avoid fronting up to the reality of Trump's victory; but I think I need to write about it in order to be able to write about anything else. I see it as one of those rare historical tipping points (like the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand in 1914, or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour) that are not inevitable, but once they take place have a vast impact on the world's future. But we can't yet know what that impact will be.

The future is even murkier than usual because Trump is the first President never to have held either public or military office. As his first weeks in office have very clearly revealed, this means he has no real understanding of what is involved in heading a nation within the constraints of a democratic system.

He knows that Obama resorted to executive orders when Congress and the Senate blocked his initiatives, so that is how he is now putting his campaign slogans into practice. His orders appear to be worded with little grasp of the complex realities of government, let alone of whether they clash with the Constitution he has just sworn to uphold.

Apart from golf (cue Bill English's canny mention of Bob Charles), the one area where he does have experience and can claim expertise is in business. (Exactly how successful he has been in terms of making more money out of the money he inherited is unclear, and it's made more opaque by his refusal to release his tax returns as all previous Presidential candidates have done - apparently it's not actually a legal requirement.)

So it makes perfect sense that his only genuine guiding principle seems to be freeing up business, including the finance sector, to make as much money as possible. 

Though he's paid lip service to making companies keep jobs in the US, this is unlikely to mean much in practice.  Judging by his advisers and his nominees, we're likely to see wide-ranging attacks on employee protections, from anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws to minimum wages and benefits for the unemployed.

In the name of freedom and growth, he is intent on cutting the taxes paid by big businesses and those who run them, massively reducing the funds available for public services. He's reportedly preparing a budget requiring drastic cuts to these services, and he is appointing people who believe in shifting as large a share of them as possible to private enterprise and religious groups. 

His campaign rhetoric repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton for being in thrall to Wall Street. But as Will Hutton points out, this charge fits him perfectly: 
"Goldman Sachs’ number two, Gary Cohn, is to be Trump’s chief economic adviser; his Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was 20 years at Goldman Sachs before running OneWest Bank, which made a fortune by improperly foreclosing on mortgages in ethnic minority communities after the financial crisis...         Cohn has promised to attack 'all aspects of Dodd-Frank', the partially effective regulatory framework that Obama laboriously passed into law in 2010, in the teeth of Republican and Wall Street opposition… [Trump is calling] Dodd-Franks a 'disaster' on which he aims to do 'a big number'. There is only one end: to regulate the links in the financial network so they have even less oversight than they do now."
The consequences of this election are likely to be even worse than those of 2008's Great Financial Crisis for ordinary Americans, including many of those who voted for this president and many more of the disaffected, disillusioned 45 percent who didn't vote at all.

The consequences for the planet we must all live on are even more serious, because they are almost certain to be irreversible. The president and his henchmen seem prepared not only to permit but to actively encourage more harm to an already perilously endangered environment. He is already removing regulations designed to stop fossil fuel corporations causing damage, and his nominee for head of the Environmental Protection Agency has a record of opposing environmental protection.

There are two clear signs of hope: the huge surge of opposition and resistance, led by women of all races, creeds and classes; and the checks and balances built into the US system, which have already resulted in firm judicial rulings against the president's chaotic immigration edict. But right now, no one can say who will prevail.