Thursday, December 29, 2011

Getting through

Thanks to friends and family, I can say that I had pretty much as good a Christmas as possible this year.  I didn't realise until I got to Saturday that for me, it would feel like the day Harvey died, rather than Christmas Day itself, because the 25th was a Saturday last year. Fortunately a dear friend who has troubles of her own invited me to join her, and we took very good care of each other.
          The astonishingly fine weather helped a lot too - it lasted from Thursday to Wednesday, which must be some kind of record for Christmas in Wellington.  On the Sunday I was with people from 9.30 in the morning until 10 at night, and then I talked to my sister on the phone for another hour and three-quarters. By the time I'd finished clearing up and got to bed, it was after midnight.
           I had been dreading Boxing Day, thinking everyone would be occupied with their own affairs, but again I was taken care of for most of the day. And so it's gone on all week, I've always had something else to look forward to, enabling me to get through the patches of time on my own without going under. (And all the wonderful food has been a great pleasure and distraction too - see my other blog.) So although I couldn't quite manage it for myself, I've been able to wish others a happy Christmas, and mean it.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Getting ready

Since my little rant last week (which everyone was so nice about!), quite a lot has happened. Harvey's plaque ceremony went very well indeed. After dire forecasts for rain and gale force winds earlier in the week, it was cold but, thank heaven, fine. We read poems and spoke about him and walked home to have lunch together, and I thought "what a great group of friends". Here are the two poems I read. The first one, by Harvey, came at the beginning. It's the final one from his book "Room", which had a poem for each room in the first house we bought together.

Beyond the laundry clutter, out the back
patio, pumpkin, borage, ginger lily,
compost, worms, bees, snails,
cats, sparrows,
the bank held temporary by ivy and convolvulus
once a tui called to check the flax.

There is room for everything.

“Patrick, Jonathan, Ina, Rae & Colin,
we are gathered today at Anne & Harvey’s
home to witness & celebrate their marriage.”

Folly, magnificence the whole thing,
dew on cobwebs,
paint peeling off the house,
mortared brick,
any fresh start
spinning satellites defying common sense,
The embrace of a place
                              & one another.

The second one, by Janet Frame, I read at the end. The evening before, I had picked up Harvey's last anthology, These I Have Loved, and the book just seemed to fall open at this poem.

Janet Frame

If poets die young
they bequeath two thirds of their life to the critics
to graze and grow fat in
visionary grass

If poets die in old age
they live their own lives
they write their own poems
they are their own might-have-beens.

Young dead poets are prized comets.
The critics queue with their empty wagons ready for hitching.

Old living poets
stay faithfully camouflaged in their own sky.
It may even be forgotten they have been shining for so long.
The reminder comes upon their falling
extinguished into the earth.
The sky is empty, the sun and moon have gone away,
there are not enough street bulbs, glow-worms, fireflies to give light

and for a time it seems there will be no more stars.

Since Sunday, I have remembered that Harvey loved Christmas, and I'll do my best to enjoy it as much as possible. So now the house is full of flowers, and tomorrow night I'll put up the crib with the figures my son painted for me years ago. Here's how it was for Harvey's last Christmas in 2009. Thank you for reading my blog this year, and I hope that over the next week, you all have the best time you possibly can, with the people you love.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Helpful hints

Just a little over a week to go until Christmas, but right now I'm focusing on this Sunday, because we're having a small gathering then to "unveil" Harvey's plaque.  Of course it isn't really an unveiling, more of an unplasticking, because we'll peel back a piece of black plastic. I keep making lists of all the things I need to do before then, in case I forget something vital. Unfortunately the forecast isn't good, but I'm hoping it will just be showers and not settled rain. I think I'll feel both better and worse when it's over - I'm pleased to have the plaque completed, but it also feels like the last thing I can do for him; after that, there's nothing for it but just to carry on alone, through Christmas and beyond.
           It's been, well, interesting over the last week or so, as the cards have started to arrive and the get-togethers have got under way. In a spirit of pure helpfulness (what else?) I thought it would be good to set down a few insider's hints on how and how not to deal with people like me at this time of year.

1. Cards require more thought than usual. Try not to send your bereaved friends and relations Christmas cards that are overly cheerful and upbeat. Jolly Santas etc. should be avoided in favour of something a little more soothing - doves or other birds are good. 

2. Cards that feature messages urging the recipient to have a "merry", "jolly" or "wonderful" Christmas/holiday/festive season/New Year, when that is the last thing they'll be doing, will not go down well. A simple "Season's Greetings" is fine. Writing something inside that shows you've remembered what's happened since last Christmas, and know merriness is off this year, will be greatly appreciated.

3. At seasonal gatherings, try not to wax too eloquent about the happy holiday you're about to have with your partner. On the other hand, don't go in for arch complaints about having your partner around either. Doing either of these things will just hammer home the fact of partnerlessness.

4. Don't ask the bereaved person what he/she is doing at Christmas unless you really want to know. And don't make vague noises along the lines of "must have you round some time after Christmas" (often followed by "Of course we're away for two weeks, but maybe after that...") If you really do want and intend to have them round, come up with an actual day/night they can put in their (often alarmingly blank) post-Christmas diaries - the details can be sorted out later.

5. Please don't try to buck the person up by pointing out that there are many worse off than them, and/or helping some of these people out would be a great way to take their minds off themselves and their own troubles. They probably won't tell you to sod off, but they will want to.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The ghosts of Christmas past

As I'm sure everyone who reads this blog will understand, I'm not exactly looking forward to Christmas this year. I'll be with friends on the day itself, of course, but that still leaves Christmas Eve, and Boxing Day, and all the rest of it. We used to love Boxing Day, we would sit around and nibble on leftovers and read our Christmas books, outside in the sunny garden if we were lucky, with a glass of Harvey's home-made ginger beer.
          Of course I'll Manage, as other widows and widowers do. I'll Take Steps to make sure I've got things to do and people to see. But the ghosts of Christmas past will inevitably come crowding in, all the same.
           Meanwhile the roses are out. My own Remember Me rose, the one we planted two gardens ago for Patrick, has definitely survived last summer's ordeal by weedkiller, but it's not going to do much in the way of flowering this year. On Monday my heighbour Jenn came over to bring me the first bud from hers. Now it's gone from its deep russet early colour to full salmony bloom. Here it is with a photo from Farm Road days.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The day after the night before

I won't get started on what was depressing about last night, quite apart from the fact that Harvey, who was a total political junkie, wasn't there to sit through it with me - I did have two good friends to keep me company. One small mercy is that Don Brash didn't get in on John Banks' coat-tails, and looks likely to at last stop trying. One larger mercy is that MMP will stay. Just as well, because the results proved yet again that without it, women fare badly - they now hold only 18 of the 70 electorate seats.
         Today, with my friends from last night plus Ali, I took refuge in a glorious Karori garden tour. One of the houses we went to was originally the farm cottage for the 150 acre dairy farm which existed in Parkvale Road until 1904. Katherine Mansfield wrote about visiting it as a child, and I found it oddly comforting to think she had been there. I'm so sorry Harvey couldn't have seen it - but of course I think that about something at least once a week.

And here's a beautiful kiwi sculpture from another garden - somewhat subdued, but still standing...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Something to think about for election day tomorrow

I think child poverty is the most crucial issue facing our country - I hope you saw the documentary shown on TV3 this week. This is my last post before the election tomorrow, so I've decided to pass on a short version of what the Child Poverty Action Group has to say about the idea that solving child poverty is sole parents' responsibility - all they have to do is get paid work. You can read the full statement on the CPAG website . If you missed the documentary, it's being replayed by TV3 on Sunday at 1 pm, or you can watch it here

According to the 2010 General Social Survey, sole parents with children are the poorest family group in New Zealand. 70% have incomes of $30,000 or less – the highest percentage of any group – while only 4% have incomes over $70,000 (the lowest of any group). Well over a third, 38%, describe themselves as not having enough to get by, more than double the next highest group (17% of those ‘not in a family’). Almost half report living in a house or flat with ‘a major problem’ (like the mouldy houses in the TV programme), a much higher proportion than the general population (37%). Sole parents are more likely than any other group to feel ‘unsafe/very unsafe’ walking alone in their neighbourhoods at night. Not surprisingly, one in seven sole parents, a higher proportion than any other group, report their general health status as ‘poor/fair’.
So this economically depressed group, more likely to be suffering poor health than the rest of the population, with an even chance of living in shabby housing in a neighbourhood in which they will feel unsafe walking home from the night shift, will be required to find 15 hours per week of paid work when their eldest child turns 5. When the children are attending school, 15 hours work per week hardly sounds onerous, and many sole parents (usually those with good support networks) manage this. But imagine living in a suburb some distance from family, with poor public transport, few childcare facilities, and the nearest employment hub is only offering jobs for night shift workers. Does Work and Income cut a mother’s benefit for turning down that ‘suitable’ employment at the local massage parlour (and there is mounting anecdotal evidence that this is happening)? Suppose the 5 year-old gets sick and needs hospital care (as shown in the TV programme)? Suddenly that 15 hours is a lot of time and effort.

Sole parents whose youngest child is 14 will be expected to look for full-time paid work. In the language of the government, they will be ‘encouraged’ to do so by being put onto what will be called a Jobseeker Allowance, which will replace the unemployment benefit (UB) and sickness benefit. At present sole parents on either UB or SB are paid the same rate as sole parents on a Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB). It is not clear at this stage if it is intended for these rates to remain in place, or if parents with children aged 14 and over will be moved onto the lower single person’s benefit rate. If so, this would equate to a benefit cut of over $80 per week.

Many sole parents with older children already work full time, but evidence suggests it can be difficult. There is often a small army of family and neighbours supporting the in-work project and it takes little to disrupt the smooth operation of the household. Radio New Zealand’s Mary Wilson suggested to the Minister of Social Development, Paula Bennett, that 14 year olds required even more supervision than younger children. The Minister replied that it was legal to leave 14 year olds home alone. Arguing that something is appropriate because it is legal shows a profound lack of ethics or understanding (or both) on the Minister’s part

There is nothing about the state of the labour market to suggest that changes to social assistance will improve the lives of those on a benefit, notwithstanding claims that work is the way out of poverty. Rather, although the government claimed its policies were aimed at closing New Zealand’s income gap with Australia (although that policy appeared to be formally abandoned in early 2011), the widening gap suggests that increasing the pool of cheap, desperate labour is in reality a strategy to reduce labour costs for employers. With a median hourly income for part-time female workers being just $16 per hour (bear in mind that the median means half earn less than this), a sole parent working 15 hours would receive just $135 of her gross wages of $240 after taxes and loss of benefit, hardly enough to cover transport and childcare costs.

For sickness beneficiaries, their returns from work are even less as they lose their benefit at a rate of 70c in the dollar from earned income over $80. Indeed, with little or no job creation occurring in the economy, and some beneficiaries facing effective marginal tax rates approaching 90 cents in the dollar, it is difficult to see what purpose the government has in mind for its welfare reforms to achieve, other than increasing the pool of low-skilled labour.

Job growth is sluggish, and well short of the 170,000 jobs the government claimed (in both the 2010 and 2011 budgets) would be created. Those jobs will be required just to absorb those currently unemployed, let alone a new cohort of harassed sole parents, as well as school leavers and university graduates. Work will not be the way out of poverty. Wages for unskilled occupations are low, and increase well below the rate of inflation...
National has been selling its economic plan as one that will produce a skilled, innovative economy. So far it looks more like one designed to produce an unskilled, low wage workforce, with the child poverty that inevitably seems to go with such backward policies.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Two books

Reading has always been absolutely central for me, and in difficult times it's my constant solace. When Harvey was taken to hospital after his last fall, I knew I'd probably be there for hours, so I grabbed Jonathan Franzen's Freedom - I'd given it to Harvey for his birthday but neither of us had read it yet. It saw me through that night and on through the gruelling days and nights that followed, into the New Year.
          So while I finish off my new book, instead of a proper post this week (and thinking ahead to Christmas), I want to rave about two great new books I've recently reviewed.

The first is Fiona Farrell's The Broken Book (Auckland University Press, $34.99). It's her first non-fiction book - she had planned a book about walking, but the Christchurch earthquake broke into it and changed its shape. It begins with the neatly titled “Preamble”. Four long essays follow, each built around a walk: two in France, one in Dunedin with her granddaughter, and “A walk on shaky ground” covering the earthquakes from September to February. It ends with an Epilogue. Throughout the book, 21 earthquake poems interrupt the prose. In my review for the Sunday Star-Times (20 October).  I said:
       "This is some of the finest writing of its kind that I’ve ever read, and it made me jealous. The essays move apparently effortlessly back and forth through time and place, and other writing on walking and on earthquakes, from Mansfield in Menton, to R.L. Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey (Farrell followed his path), Voltaire on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and the mental promenades of Rousseau, cut short by his death. The interpolated poems enable Farrell to shift gear and convey meaning in a different way...."
        "The two forms work impressively with and against each other. Farrell is not a flashy writer, and she doesn’t go in for showy effects. The words on the page speak quietly and effectively, getting across what she is thinking and feeling in finely paced, crystal clear words that add up to something of great depth and beauty... The transitions are especially well done, never feeling forced or contrived. And the poems cutting into the essays do give the sense of interruption, rupture, disturbance, that the earthquakes must have caused, both physically and mentally. They force you to stop and read them more than once, before you pick up the thread of the prose again. At the same time, their full sense becomes clear only once you have read to the end and know, for example, that the bagel shop in “Black and white” no longer exists."
          "Farrell didn’t lose anyone close to her in the earthquakes – if she had, she could probably not have written this book. But what she does do is take you into what it was like to have the familiar world so shaken and broken. And she does more than that – the walking she writes about, both real and metaphorical, moves you on through human existence, the best and the worst, in a way that leaves you feeling immensely enriched, as only very good books can do, enabling you to see things differently and better than you did before."
On Nine to Noon this week, I reviewed Pam Ayres' memoir, The Necessary Aptitude (Ebury Press, $39.99). It's funny, of course, very funny in parts, but it's also a stunning evocation of what it was like to grow up as a bright working class girl in a post-war English village  where class boundaries were still firmly enforced.
You can find and listen to my review here. Happy reading.

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."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Drunken Woman Fringed Head

I am not a drunken woman with a fringed head, though I sometimes wish I were (I've never been any good at getting more than mildly tipsy). This is the brilliant full name of the lettuce Ali found for me to plant on Wednesday, when she came to give me my monthly gardening day.

"Italian Heirloom. Attractive bright green leaves with ruffled almost frizzy edges in deep bronze. Leaf lettuce type with dense centre that is very showy and slow to bolt."

Now that does sound like me, at least the slow to bolt part. And here's what they look like now.

They will grow. We put in Cos, too, for Caesar salads, and replaced the one casualty of the snow, the pansies. I know you're supposed to plant everything when it's NOT flowering, Harvey was adamant on that point; but I did that, and after weeks of waiting, when they were just starting to get buds, they were reduced to a sad brown mess. This time I crammed in five little pots in full flower. So there.

I needed them to cheer me up - as I half expected, I collapsed a bit after Harvey's birthday events were over, and wasn't helped by having to go down the road this week to the very nice people at Guardian Memorials and finalise the wording for his plaque. Still, it had to be done, and now it's settled, and I've had a very helpful talk with a friend about the draft of the latest book chapter, I've got through and done some good work. What happens, I think, is that a succession of small upsets accumulate, wihtout you quite realising it, to push you back down for a while. But then it passes and you cope better. And I'm really looking forward to eating the Drunken Woman, leaf by leaf.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Thank you

I ran away for a couple of nights this week, to stay with a friend in Nelson, and just got back, so that's why some comments have gone unposted until now. I'll do a proper post later, but I wanted to say how very much I value everyone's responses over the last nine months, it's been such a help and support for me. I'll be feeling down, as I was tonight when I got home (it's always difficult, that re-entry to a silent house with no one here to welcome me back, even when I've been genuinely enjoying myself as I was this time)) - then I find a warm comment in my inbox and I feel better. So thank you, all of you, for finding the time to read, then write.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A birthday

Next week it's Harvey's birthday. He would have been 77. He never thought he'd make 70, even, because none of the three most important men in his life - his father, grandfather, stepfather - had got that far.
             Over his last couple of years, the special days - birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas and Easter - were always bittersweet for me. Somehow they seemed to bring forcibly home to me how much had changed in our lives because of his illness, and I found it hard to muster up the energy to celebrate them properly. This year I don't know how I'll feel, but I've made sure I've got plenty to do, and people to mark his birthday week with me. We have two very longstanding friends with birthdays close to Harvey's, so we always used to get together around this time, and we're doing it again on Sunday.
               This week, too, I received a kind of gift I've been waiting for: the DVD of his public memorial service, made by the National Library for its archives. I haven't watched it yet, I want to wait until I've got people who were there around me. I wish I had a DVD of him when he was alive.
               At least I've got photos. Strange how once upon a time, no one even had those, and only the well-to-do left any kind of image behind them; it must have made loss even harder to bear. I've just finished reading the excellent  Claire Tomalin biography of Jane Austen. There's only one image of her, a sketch by her sister, which is known not to be a good likeness. Jane was the only member of her family to have no portrait done, not even a silhouette, and of course she's the one we most want to see.         
              Harvey, like me, loved her books - Emma was his favourite, whereas mine is Persuasion, partly because the heroine is called Anne (and has a late happy marriage). He would have enjoyed this account of her life too. The story it tells drives home the iron facts of middle-class women's lives then: absolute dependence on their male relatives for every penny, with only a tiny handful of acceptable ways to earn any money of their own: governessing, running a school - and writing. She was only 41 when she died, but if she had married and been subject to the same almost constant child-bearing as her sisters-in-law, she could well have died sooner, as several of them did. And she might not have written at all.
              Another woman died this year at the age of 41. She was Melissa Neale of Christchurch, and she died in the earthquake on 22 February. Melissa's family chose to honour her memory by asking for donations to the Christchurch Women's Refuge, which has named one of the bedrooms in their safe house in her honour.
               Traditionally the rooms have been named after women who have championed women's rights, including Christchurch's Ettie Rout and suffrage campaigner Kate Sheppard. This month, on 19 September, it will be the 118th anniversary of New Zealand women winning the vote. You might like to mark the day, and think of Jane Austen, Melissa Neale and Harvey McQueen, another Cantabrian, as you do so, by making a donation to the Christchurch Women's Refuge here. It's the kind of birthday present he would have liked.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

No wet pours here, thanks

I tried to post earlier today but my connection was down - it's been very unreliable lately - and of course, I then couldn't post until now because I had to watch Rage on TVOne. It's ironic that just when TVNZ has its charter cancelled, so it's no longer obliged or expected to do anything at all except make money for the government, it suddenly comes up with a superb Sunday night series of four outstanding New Zealand dramas. Given my earlier complaints about free-to-air programmes, it's been a real pleasure to have such fantastic TV to look forward to for the last month - fine scripts, brilliant acting, classy productions all round. Thanks, everyone, you've given me four great evenings.
              On the other hand - if this is what our TV makers can do when they get the chance, how come we've had to wait so long for them to get it, and how many other great dramas have we missed out on in the process?
              AND none of it had anything to do with the W.C., though I suppose you could see tonight's one, about the Springbok tour, as distantly connected with it. (I only recently found out what "off-side" means - I vaguely thought it was when some guy got too far over on the side, but my 86-year-old neighbour recently explained that it's when someone gets too far in front of everyone else on their team or "side". Which sounds more like "in-front" or "far-out" to me.)
               It was probably just a brief respite. Overall the W.C. quotient in the media is steadily going up. Today the Sunday Star-Times reported on the vitally important question of how beer will be served at Eden Park. The Alcoholic Liquor Advisory Council  (Alac) is concerned about caterers being able to serve four beers at once, and also about the fact that they will be cans, because cans can be thrown. So one caterer said in its liquor licence application that it would "reduce the 'high' risk of injury to fans from flying cans by ensuring staff opened the vessels [sic]  before giving them to customers". No wonder Harvey long ago gave up going to live rugby games....
                But now another caterer is complaining, because "the time taken to open all beer cans to stop them being used as missiles will 'negatively impact the experience for fans'." Though presumably not as much as being hit by a full can would. Translated, I think this means: 'If we have to open the cans it'll take longer and we won't be able to sell as many" - and at a reputed $8 a pop, no wonder the caterer is concerned.
                Alac would have much preferred what is known, I have now learnt, as a "wet pour" - serving beer in plastic cups, which can't cause injuries - but the park's $320 milion makeover didn't allow for this. Here's the unforgettable way David Allott, Eden Park Catering's venue manager, explained the problem:
                "Eden Park does not have the infrastructure to wet pour beer into the public areas of the stadium."
                 What a shame. It would have been so much quicker just to hose it straight in.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The quiet house

The house is utterly quiet again, because Julio left today. He loved Wellington and had a great time, and so did I - I'll miss him. But having him here has, I feel, sort of shifted me along to another standing-place where I'm more able to cope wth my new state, even though I'm on my own again. I'm still not at all sure what the point is, but the feeling of pointlessness is diminishing, and I spend less time staring blankly out the window.
         At the same time, I can't help grieving because having Julio here has also emphasised that the distance between Harvey and me is widening. It's as though we'd been travelling together for a long time and then he suddenly had to stop where he was, while I have to move on and away into new territory and new experiences he can't share, leaving him further and further behind.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I'd looked forward to a lovely week, with my friend Rosemary coming down for Wellington on a Plate (foodies go here). We were lucky - she was on a reasonably early plane, so she just caught the fine clear patch before our second lot of snow arrived, settling on top of the first lot. I know I'm turning into a snowbore, but it was all so astonishing I had to take more photos.

On Monday night the power nearly went off - the one remaining transformer (out of four) was hit by lightning.
By then even the drive was covered in snow.
On Tuesday night it was white again, so we caught a taxi to friends for dinner - only a ten-minute drive, but it was up a reasonably steep hill and I was too chicken to take the car out. They had a big snowman across the road, but it was too dark to take his photo.

It was great having Rosemary here - I wouldn't have fared nearly as well without her, especially when the snow gave way to freezing wind and rain. Despite being an Aucklander, she was completely unfazed by Wellington's worst weather for decades. The faithful heat pump kept us warm, helped by three layers of underwear and two of merino, and her company thoroughly cheered me up.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Weeping waters

It's Sunday evening. Julio is talking to his wife on Skype, and I'm very weepy because I can't talk to my husband and I've just watched Tangiwai: A Love Story. Harvey would have absolutely loved it, it had everything - romance, cricket, tragedy, and a superb portrayal of a slice of New Zealand history he would have remembered so clearly - including the divide that used to exist between Catholics and Protestants. So I'm crying partly because he couldn't be here to share it with me, and partly because those poor people died, as he did, at Christmas, and the grief of those who loved them was so movingly conveyed.
              And the other reason I'm feeling his loss so keenly tonight is that this afternoon, astonishingly, it snowed in Karori, and not just on the hills but in my own backyard. It wasn't a few flakes melting when they hit the ground, as happened twice in the twenty-seven years we lived in Northland - it was real snow, falling for long enough to cover the grass and trees in white. And he wasn't here to see that either.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Looking and being looked after

It's over four years since I went on a long car journey, so it was a great treat to be driven halfway up the island. The mountains were more thickly covered with snow than I'd ever seen them - they looked as if they were wrapped in shiny plastic, gleaming grey in the shadows. We talked all the way, of course, so the trip went very quickly, and both sisters looked after me so warmly and kindly, especially as it was a busy time for them both - one teaches, and one grows orchids.

I saw my mother twice, and it went as well as could be expected. I think the unfailingly kind and considerate people who work there are saints. As I expected, she didn't say anything to me about Harvey, but she didn't ask how he was either, as she's done every other time. My son had sent a special email for her from China, all about his life there, and she enjoyed hearing it.  On Sunday I showed her this photo, taken on a walk near my sister's (as you can see, it was a brilliant day), and instead of her usual response of  "How lovely!" she said, "Idesia."

But I came home newly resolved to Get On With It - in this case, my book - while I still can. And this week I did make what feels like some real progress.
         There's been progress in the garden, too. Ali came round on Tuesday to give me the first go of my birthday present - a day a month working in it with me. We planted the big purple violets she brought me from her garden (like the ones Harvey grew in abundance and picked for me in Farm Road); two new shrubs to fill a gap in the mulched garden (at this stage the labels look much more interesting than the plants)... 

...and a new tree in the far corner, a kind of magnolia with a splendid name fit for a Victorian heroine - Michelia Maudiae.
         Ali also presented me with a beautiful old-fashioned badge which I wear with totally undeserved pride. It's green, with gold lettering, and it says "HEAD GARDENER".

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Out of town

Just a quick post, because shortly I'm off to see my birth mother and sisters up the island. Julio will take care of the house while I'm gone. I've known my mother for close to thirty years, and she's now 91 and in a rest home, so visits have to be carefully organised - she gets tired after about an hour. my sisters will lok after me very well, it's always good to see them. Then on Sunday night I'll stay with a dear friend whom I haven't seen for ages, so all in all it should work out very well.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

So many books

This weekend the Downtown Community Ministry held its famous Bookfair. For a bookaholic like me it's a major event. Every year I had to decide how to resist buying ridiculous numbers of books - given that I just didn't have any room for more, unless I removed some first (though I've sometimes resorted to buying them one year, reading them, and taking them back the next year.) This year, with the gaps left by Harvey's poetry collection, I knew the temptation would be even worse than usual.
          For some years, too, I've been wanting to go down and help sort the books beforehand. Of course I really did want to help this brilliant organisation with tis biggest fundraising drive of the year, and I knew I'd be pretty good at sorting. But also - I thought that if I was helping in this way, I would get an early look at what was available and maybe just confine myself to one or two books I really couldn't live without...
          Harvey's illness put this idea on hold, because I couldn't help for long enough to be useful. But this year there was nothing to stop me. Unfortunately I offered my services too late - they already had enough sorters. They did want help, though, on the weekend itself. I thought about it, and said yes. After all, I figured, if I was helping I wouldn't be exposed to nearly as much temptation - but I would still get to look at the books for a little while at least.
            It all worked out perfectly. I got myself down there early on a wet, cold Saturday, met loads of lovely people I knew, and managed to be useful handing out plastic bags, pointing people in the right direction, and above all, giving free rein to my inner librarian by going round picking up piles of discarded books and returning them not just to their correct table, but to the right section. (I even rescued one of my own books from "Women's Health" and moved it to its rightful place in "Women and Politics".)
             And at lunchtime, when the crowd thinned out a bit, I did have a quick browse, confining myself to biography and picking up just five books - such restraint!

The other news of the week (and the reason this post is a bit late, sorry) is that my first paying guest has arrived. I advertised with the universities for short-stay visiting academics, and Julio replied. He's a young mathematician from Brazil, and we're getting on very well indeed (see Something Else to Eat). I'm so pleased I got up the courage to do this. As I told him today, he's setting a very high standard for anyone who comes after him.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Parrots, plaques and prose

As someone who spends a lot of time with words, I really enjoy getting away from them - drawing and painting or, much more frequently, cooking and sewing. This week I did my first sewing for a long time. I had a friend of over fifty years coming to stay, and a week ago I found a remnant of furnishing fabric that I knew she'd love - brilliant tropical flowers, leaves, and parrots.
        Her house is full of bright Pacific artwork, cushions, etc, and she actually has her very own parrot, the devilishly clever Claude. (Parrots are notoriously hard to sex, but she knows he's a boy because he likes to hump her hand.) Whenever he does anything wrong, he tries to blame the cat by shrieking "Puss!" He lives on the verandah, and when a sudden gust of wind toppled the clothes airer, full of washing, he screeched endlessly. When she came out to see what the fuss was about, he was lying on the floor of his cage with his claws in the air to show her what had happened.
         I found a couple of bright red cushion covers and stitched on squares of parrots and flowers. There was just enough left over for a table mat. She loved them, and I loved making them.

I've never felt nervous sleeping in the house on my own, but I'm always just that little bit more relaxed when I have someone staying here. So by the time she left, I was well set up for my next undertaking - going to Guardian Memorials to look at the options for Harvey's plaque. I didn't go alone, I had a steadfast friend with me, and it also helped immensely that the person who dealt with us was a warm, empathetic young woman.
         From a quick look at other plaques in Karori Cemetery, I'd thought black granite was the only option (I didn't want bronze). But you can get different colours, and we chose a lovely dark green that looks like pounamu, a good fit for Harvey's love of nature and gardening. Now I just need to work out the wording, and later we'll get together for an unveiling (I don't think that's at all the right word, but there doesn't seem to be another one).
         And earlier this week, I finally managed to begin work on the next chapter of my food memoir, after a nine-month drought. I used a trick I've often taught to other people: you turn off the computer screen, so you can't see what you're writing and have to concentrate on the words in your head. Two hours later I had 2,500 words, not all of them useful, of course, but still - it's a good start.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Getting there

I'm never quite sure what people mean when they're in difficult circumstances, you ask them how they are, and they say, "Oh, we're getting there". But this week I did feel as if I was getting there too, at least as far as the house is concerned.
         First, I've been moving books around, filling up the shelves which once held Harvey's magnificent collection of New Zealand poetry, amd making room upstairs for a better arrangement of my own books, papers, notebooks, sewing things, cards, photos...
         Today I also managed to deal with a pile of Harvey's files and folders, keeping all the important things, such as his references right back to when he left his first teaching job at Morrinsville (as a writer and former bureaucrat, he kept his paper history in very good order), and throwing away the rest, such as the letters and forms and instructions sent to us by the many, many agencies we had to deal with because of his health problems, from the three different hospitals which took care of him to the people who lent him vital equipment like walkers, grabbers and shower seats. I didn't enjoy any of this, but there was a sort of sad satisfaction in getting it done.
         And on Monday Ali and David came and added the top layer of mulch to my new garden bed. I thought it would be just that dull plain brown stuff, but I was wrong. They brought eight bags of their own mulch, made of trees and trimmings from their section, all ground up and left to mature for a while. Instead of being dull brown, it was a gorgeous rich many-shaded chestnut. The garden looked as if a great pile of autumn leaves had drifted down and miraculously landed neatly in exactly the right place. I keep forgetting to take a photo before the rain and wind come back, but as soon as I get one, I'll add it. (Done!)
        So that was very satisfying too. I'm sure Harvey would have been delighted. And I got Jan's comment (see "Six months", below). All in all, it was a good week.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Six months

It's exactly six months today since Harvey died on Christmas Day, and once again it's a Saturday. I knew I'd need to be occupied, so it was good when a couple who'd known Harvey for a very long time, and visited faithfully when he was ill, invited me for lunch. Geoff was at Canterbury University with him, and they'd often been taken for brothers.
         The sun helped too. I took Geoff and Pam a pot of hyacinths, and on the way home I bought one for myself. Harvey loved them and always used to plant a bowl of them for me, then for a couple of years I did it, but last year I bought them instead. Only three, instead of the six or eight we used to grow, but they'll be beautiful.
Last Sunday I got through another of the things that had to be done - handing most of Harvey's superb library of New Zealand poetry over to Mark Pirie, who published Harvey's poetry from 1999. Harvey wanted him to have the books, knowing he would fully appreciate them and make very good use of them.

But the empty bookshelves look bereft - "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang". Looking back to last year, the sadness of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 seems to fit perfectly.

  That time of year thou mayst in me behold
  When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
  Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
  Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang
  In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
  As after sunset fadeth in the west;
  Which by and by black night doth take away,
  Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
  In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
  That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
  As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
  Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.

  This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
  To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Yes. Except that he did manage to sing a little almost to the end, and I need to show the same spirit and courage. Here he is at about 50, looking wonderfully Shakespearian.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Out of it

Only a short post, as it's 11.21 pm. But I wanted to write briefly about what happens when I get completely absorbed in a longish and demanding piece of writing, as I did tonight. I know all the experts tell you to start writing first thing in the morning, but I've rarely done that; mostly I start in the evening, often after 8, and carry on till rather too late. I couldn't follow this pattern while Harvey was ill, as I had to be on deck for him in the morning, but it's how I naturally work. The danger is that I'll get distracted or tired or find some other excuse not to start at all, but providing I can overcome the resistance to sistting down and getting on with it, I'm away for the next few hours. And for that time, I forget everything else.

I remember reading that happiness is a by-product of absorption. (Thanks to Google and Clive James, I can tell you that it was T.E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - who wrote this.) Writing is the most absorbing thing I do. I'm not sure that it makes me happy, exactly, but it occupies my attention so completely that I become unaware of anything else. We set up a bell for Harvey to ring when I was upstairs and he needed me, but every so often when I was writing, I would not hear even that. (I sometimes used to wake suddenly from a deep sleep because I seemed to hear it ringing; even now, this still happens at times.)

This deep absorption in writing is somehow necessary to me; if I haven't experienced it for a while because I've been evading writing (and it is evasion, rather than simply avoidance, especially now, when I have no valid excuse for not doing it), I start to feel the way I imagine runners feel when they haven't been running. It's what Tillie Olsen meant when she wrote about the importance of a woman writer working "to the fullest extent of her powers". I don't think I'm doing that yet, but every time I write in a way that takes me "out of it" - completely away from my everyday life - I feel I'm getting there.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Not bad eh

I'm quite pleased with myself. Thanks to the company of friends, I've had one long (for me - maybe an hour?) walk through a bush reserve on Sunday; all the way from Courtenay Place back through town on Wednesday (don't laugh); and along the waterfront today. The weather has had a lot to do with it - still remarkably good for June.
         One of the many advantages of living where I do is that the wonderful Marsden Books is so close. On Tuesday evening I went there to hear sisters Atka Reid and Hana Schofield talk about their book on the war in Bosnia, Goodbye Sarajevo. (New Zealand is such a small place - turns out that Atka is married to a good friend's husband's cousin... )
          Something Atka said struck me as applying very well to my own situation, even though what she and her family went through is of course incomparably more harrowing. She said that during the siege of Sarajevo, "we just had to get on and work out some structure for our life, based on the things we could control".
           I thought, yes, that's exactly what I have to do too. I couldn't control Harvey's becoming ill and then dying and not being here, and I can't entirely control the sadness that wells up in me because of that. I just have to accept those things as a given. But I can control pretty much everything else in my daily life, and that does give me plenty of scope for working out how to live.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Have advice, will try

Thank you very much to all the helpful people who sent me ideas for exercise - though some had more potential than others (I haven't been able to wear even very low heels for years and I don't think they make orthotic-friendly tango shoes). Visitors are about to appear, so apologies for this short post, but I will ponder the exercise question further - and at least I'll have someone to go for walks with this weekend. I like the idea of the rebounder, and they're easy to buy on Trade Me - except that they all have ads that go like this: "My partner used it a few (maybe half a dozen?) times and it's been stored away carefully so it's in perfect condition. I'm only selling it because she doesn't use it anymore." Which is a bit of a worry.... Anyway, just writing about it is a spur to getting on with it, as it would be great to be able to report how well I'm doing!

PS: Today's post over on Something Else to Eat is about another aspect of living alone - the difficulty of deciding what I want to eat now that there's only me to consider.