Thursday, December 19, 2013

Too many deaths - a poem for forestry workers

Another death this week, this time of a 20-year-old. Here is a poem by New Zealand poet Eileen Duggan, written in the 1930s. It's appalling that eighty years on, it is still utterly relevant for today's forestry workers and their families.

The Bushfeller 
Lord, mind your trees today!
My man is out there clearing.
God send the chips fly safe.
My heart is always fearing. 
And let the axehead hold!
My dreams are all of felling.
He earns our bread far back.
And then there is no telling. 
If he came home at nights
We'd know, but it is only –
We might not even hear –
A man could lie there lonely. 
God, let the trunks fall clear.
He did not choose his calling.
He's young and full of life –
A tree is heavy, falling.
                                    Eileen Duggan

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Harvey's weta hotels

When Harvey died, I asked people to make donations in his name to Zealandia. Those in charge talked to me and we decided to use the money for weta hotels. Harvey much preferred birds to wetas, but I wanted something relatively permanent that could have his name on it. For various reasons I didn't get to see the finished hotels until today, and they're terrific. There are two of them, standing beside a path through the bush - they're always set up in pairs, close to tree trunks, and there are only six pairs of hotels in the sanctuary. They're made from macrocarpa logs, neatly split and hinged down the middle, so you can open them to see the oblong "rooms" inside, neatly covered with plastic windows. (But please close them again quickly - wetas don't like light.) The wetas get in through holes bored through from the outside, and there were two large ones and a little junior one in residence. (The warmer it gets, the more wetas seem to arrive.) One hotel has a plaque about Harvey, while the other has a very appropriate quote from one of his late poems. Today's brilliant sunshine made taking photos a bit tricky, but we did our best.

And here's the whole poem that quote comes from. It was the last one we read at his public memorial service.
Thomas Hardy  
      I notice how finches bend delicate
      dandelion stalks to get at the seeds.

      I notice how the cat sniffs the air 
      before she ventures outside.

      I notice the oak sheds more & more leaves
      & how the wind whirls them into patterns

      I notice the sun 
      rises later each morning

      I know that soon the sun will reverse track.
      I know that one day I will not be here to see that

      But let it be known
      here was another man who noticed things. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembering Sonja Davies

Today, 11 November, is Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I. It's also Sonja Davies' birthday. I was a member of the group which got together, near the end of her life, to organise and raise funds for the Sonja Davies Peace Award. Sonja is the only MP to have her own memorial tree and plaque in the grounds of Parliament. Every year the available members of the group gather by the tree on her birthday to remember and celebrate her life and achievements. Today there were only three of us. When we got to the tree we found that someone had already left yellow roses there.

                   Rae Julian (right), Barbara Mabbett (centre) and me.

Sonja would have been appalled by what is happening to so many people in New Zealand today. A Salvation Army report earlier this year shows child poverty stuck at 22%. Unemployment has doubled in the past five years and there is a severe shortage of safe affordable houses to rent or own. Food poverty has increased dramatically, not only among beneficiaries but among pensioners and the growing number of employees on wages too low to make ends meet. 
          Wages used to make up 55 percent of GDP; now they are only 44 percent. This is not because GDP has been growing rapidly; it's because wages have been so badly eroded, especially for those earning the least. The current campaign for a living wage is making headway, but so are policies designed to eat away at conditions and job security. Sonja's son, Mark, was killed at work. As the spate of forestry deaths have shown, New Zealand continues to have one of the worst workplace death and injury records in the developed world.
           But in contrast to the early 1990s, when the plight of the poor and the rapid rise in inequality spurred national outrage, today's bland government whitewash and facade of concern seems to be keeping outrage at bay. The consequences will be like climate change - inescapable and affecting us all.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mourning the orange Chinese lantern

Harvey called it Chinese bells, I call it Chinese lantern, and in the USA it's known as flowering maple, but its proper name is abutilon.  We planted a beautiful crimson one at Farm Road, and it flourished. Soon after we came here, our neighbours Julie and Rob were redoing their garden and offered us a well-grown orange one - exactly the colour I wanted. Rob planted it for us and at first it did very well. But by autumn 2009 it was in trouble. Harvey wrote about it in his blog, Stoat Spring, on 16 October:

In our own garden the orange abutilon (Chinese bells) is looking very sick. A shame. Last autumn it was vigorously healthy and covered in flowers. Bruce, our lawn mower man and heavy gardener, thinks it has a virus. Sad, if so, we’ll have to get rid of it. Which leaves the question, do we plant another abutilon there?

When we throw bread out the sparrows don’t worry about the health of the abutilon. They crowd its branches deliberating whether it’s safe to land on the lawn. Sooner or later one brave soul ventures down. Straight away its mates join the fray. 

Everything else looks healthy. The roses all have fresh shoots and new buds though the equinox winds have done damage. The lovely-scented Jude the Obscure has had its main new shoot broken off. As the camellias finish flowering new shoots galore emerge. 

In fact the abutilon survived - all it seemed to need was regular watering, surrounded as it was then by thirsty grass - and Jude was fine too. After Harvey had died, Ali created the new garden bed and the abutilon, like the roses, flourished. This year it was covered with flowers, and the birds flocked to them. Every evening at least one and sometimes two or three tui hung upside down from its branches, sticking their beaks up inside the orange bells to get the nectar.
         But in early spring, before I went overseas, it seemed slow to get its new leaves. When I came home last week it was looking very ill indeed. There were new flowers and leaves at the very tips of some branches, but they quickly withered and turned brown.
         Today Ali came to work with me in the garden. I showed her the tree and she pointed out the big borer holes in its trunk. She sawed through some side branches to check. No good - the whole tree had been attacked. No wonder the flowers were dying. It would have to come out.
         I know that's how a garden works - plants die, new ones take their place - but I hate losing anything that Harvey knew, especially plants he loved. I'll plant a new Chinese lantern, as he thought we might, but it won't really fill the gap. At least Jude is still here - we moved it to a new place, where it looks perfectly happy.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Vanessa and Virginia

For years I have wanted to go to Charleston, the richly decorated country home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from 1916, and Monk's House, which Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought in 1919. Last week I saw them both. I couldn't take photos in Charleston, but you can see it at
     it's not a solid or comfortable house - it had served to house farm labourers before they rented it - and it's quite dark, not ideal for painters. Eventually they built on a large studio. Grant lived on there until 1978, and that was probably what kept the contents intact. The decorated furnishings are inexpressibly touching - light, playful, improvised, recycled, never made to last, and yet they have.
       Monk's House is much more liveable. Unlike Charleston it's not isolated, it sits snugly in the village of Rodmell. You can see the living rooms, part of the kitchen, Virginia's bedroom and her writing room, in a separate summerhouse at the back of the garden.


too has furnishings decorated by Bell and Grant - including the lighthouse motif on the bedroom fireplace.

The writing room has a broad view over the South Downs. You can't go in (or everyone would want to sit at the desk), so it has to be photographed through the window,

And of course I couldn't resist having a photo of me, looking soulful, taken in front of it, and another outside her bedroom. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

When Lyon was Lugdunum

Lyon was the most important Provincial centre in the Roman Empire. Roman Lyon began up on Fourviere hill - the name comes from Forum Vetera, the Old Forum. Julius Caesar ran his campaign in Gaul from there. Here's the men who won Gaul for him.

And here's a Roman sword. 

It made me think straight away of R.A.K. Mason's poem:

This short straight sword
I got in Rome
when Gaul's new lord
came tramping home

It did that grim
old rake to a T
if it did him
well it does me

Leave the thing of pearls
with silken tassels
to priests and girls
and currish vassals

Here's no fine cluster
on the hilt, this drab
blade lacks lustre
but it can stab.

In the years after Caesar's assassination the Romans built a whole new city, Lugdunum, down on the flat where the Rhone and Saone rivers met. The Emperor Claudius of "I, Claudius" fame (Harvey loved the book and the series, but he'd also read all the serious history around them) was born in Lyon. The treasure of the Gallo-Roman museum is the Claudius Tablet, where he granted local Gallic dignitaries (but no freedman, slaves or women, of course) the higher status they wanted. The whole thing, made of black basalt, weighed hundreds of tons - only two pieces of it were found. Isn't the lettering beautiful.

And to redress th balance and bring in some women, here's a rare funerary portrait of a Lugdunum mother and daughter, around the 3rd century of our era - they can be dated by their hairstyles. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Leaving the Loire

It seems impossible that our stay in the Loire Valley is nearly over. I'm sitting in the lovely enclosed garden of our gite ( the wifi can't make it through the thick walls, so I need to use it outside), beforewe set   off on our last little local expedition to the baker, the butcher and he cafe. We can walk there along the Loire, and we have, but it takes 45 minutes each way so today we're driving. Here's the river at the end of our lane. Cour sur Loire is, according to the Unesco sign on the riverbank, the exact centre of the Loire Valley world heritage site - a nice thing to know.

We've been to five chateaux, including the one in Blois, and one tiny one, Troussay, the smallest of them all. In Blois (heavily bombed in 1940) we saw a striking war memorial - it included not only soldiers (militants)' but also civilians, resistants, and deportees, and noted that the government of the day had been complicit in what took place. Chenonceau, the graceful "Ladies' Chateau", sat on the Cher river on the border of occupied France, and the owners smuggled people out through its passageways.

There are sometimes odd lacunae in the official leaflets. Our last and most distant chateau, Villandry, was said to have been completely restored - including the fabulous gardens - by a Spanish scientist. But not until we got inside did we discover that all the money and half the enthusiasm came from his American wife, Ann Coleman, also a scientist and the heir to an industrial fortune, who defiantly married him when the US was at war with Spain. Here's part of heir legacy, I'm so pleased to have seen it. These are the gardens of love - romantic, affectionate, flirtatious and tragic ( the dagger shapes). They were restored according to ancient accounts of hem and the archaeological traces they had left in the earth. And of course Harvey would have been fascinated by them.

So, off soon to new adventures ( this time by myself) in Tours and Lyon. Mostly when I speak French, people respond with perfect equanimity, so I expect I will manage without too many dramas.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

At Oxymoron

In October 2002 we made our way through a completely unseasonal snowstorm to the Hackescher Hofe, a whole complex of shops and restaurants in a splendid Art Deco building in Rosenthaler Strasse.  We took refuge in Oxymoron. When we finished our morning coffee and cake it was still snowing. We looked at each other and decided to stay on for lunch. Later we brought Ulrike and Lisa back for breakfast. I was determined to go back this time, and today I managed it. It's exactly the same, with its odd-one-out lamps in the chandeliers and the big red sofa. I sat at the same table by the window and had a glass of Gruner Veltliner (they've started growing it in Nelson now) in Harvey's honour, and a slice of Florentiner Kirschtorte - cherry cake. And I had a discreet little cry.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

In Berlin 2

I'm trying to work out how to add iPad photos to a post and I think I've just solved it. Here's what I wanted to put in the previous post - Ulrike at Charlottenburg. The boat let us off for a walk in the lovely formal gardens.

In Berlin

Harvey and I first came to Berlin in 2002, after he retired for the third and final time. We stayed with Ulrike. She had come to Wellington in 1996, with her husband and daughter, as the German language schools advisor; at that time the teachers' college council oversaw the advisors, so Harvey was her boss (she said he was the best she ever had). The family spent five years in New Zealand and we became close friends.
      Being a historian, Harvey was totally gripped by this city. Our  first visit to Europe together had been in 1989, and we were in London when the wall came down. On a train two months later, we met a Berlin businessman who was keen to talk to us. He had grown up with the wall, and after it fell he started working in East Germany to help them overcome the immense gap with the West in computerisation. For two hours we listened as this sensitive, intelligent man spoke frankly of what this profound change meant for him and his country.
      So now here we were, and we could go everywhere: to the synagogue, the Kathe Kollwitz house, the new Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. We saw the last remaining scrap of the medieval city wall, and the long piece of the 20th century one by Checkpoint Charlie. If you go to Harvey's blog at and search for Berlin Diary, you can read his account of two days in our time there.
       I came again on my own in 2006, straight after I got my PhD. I saw the museums that had reopened since 2002, and recovered from them at our favourite cafes, the Einstein and the Oxymoron.   I went to the market with Ulrike and carried home fat buds of pfingstrosen, "Pentecost roses", as the Germans call peonies, to decorate the house for the public holiday. And I emailed Harvey to tell him my adventures.
        As his illness worsened,  I told Ulrike I would come to her after he died. I waited till she retired and their new house was ready, and now I'm here. Yesterday we cruised the river, past so many of the landmarks I'd seen with Harvey - it was such a calm, easy way to pay my respects to our shared past. For the hundredth time this trip, I told Ulrike how much he would have loved being with us. What I meant, of course, was how much I would have loved him to be there.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Flying away

I've cleaned everything in sight ready for the housesitters, and I've ticked off  everything on the list except the last scraps of packing tomorrow - those awkward things you have to wait to the very end to stow away, like your glasses and make-up, because you need them at the last minute.
       By Sunday evening NZ time I'll be in Berlin. I know I'm really lucky to be going, and I intend to enjoy it thoroughly. But I still can't help feeling Harvey's absence intensely when I get to the point of leaving home on my own for a major expedition like this. We travelled very well together. Still, I'm going to see some really good friends who knew him well
        This will be the first time I've gone away without taking any actual books. I have six new ones in my iPad instead. And when I come back I'll look forward to reading this year's NZ Post Book Awards fiction winner, Kirsty Gunn's The Big Music. It also won book of the year, the first time a work of fiction has won since 2009. The full list is here.
          Meanwhile I've been reading a book Harvey rated very highly and wanted me to read too - only I didn't get around to it until now: Hugo Young's biography of Margaret Thatcher, One of Us. It seems strongly suited to the times, given the abject failure of the policies she drove through, which were then copied here, to deliver anything more than a minimum-wage existence to so many people, while a small proportion grow every richer. Overall, according to Statistics New Zealand, employees’ compensation as a proportion of GDP fell from about 55% in the early 1980s to about 45% in the 2000s (it was 46% in 2009). And that was surely the whole point - to reduce wages and increase profits. To them that hath shall be given even more. I wonder what the reaction will be to tonight's documentary, Mind the Gap, which focused on inequality. Is it too much to hope that there may be some kind of tide-turning going on?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A night at the Grand

We're always being urged to "follow your dream" - but sometimes it doesn't turn out quite how you expected. Note that I'm carefully not saying where this hotel was - and I have no idea (if it's still there) what it's like now.

My mother-in-law has just finished telling us, for the 329th time, the story of not being invited to her great-niece’s christening. I can’t help myself: “That was 25 years ago, wasn’t it, Joan?” “Oh no,” she says sternly, “it was 27!” I retreat early to the bedroom. Tomorrow we’re going away on our own.
We drive off straight after breakfast (“It’s not that far, what’s the rush?”) 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 usual, we’ve booked ahead. And this time, instead of a perfectly functional but entirely predictable motel, I’ve managed to talk Harvey into staying at 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, with its view out over the silky waters of the harbour. “It’ll be even better from upstairs”, I say confidently. Murmuring about Gone With the Wind, 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.
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 china, white napkins in silver rings, and neat ranks of heavy old silver knives, forks and spoons. Any minute now, he’ll come 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 two little foil-topped packets of butter, two of Vegemite and two of marmalade. “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?” 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

How to live

I thought I would post some short pieces of writing here. This one is about someone whose writing has been particularly important to me, though it took me years to appreciate her true worth.

How to live 
A dark-haired, fine-boned girl sits at the table in her drab English twinset and neat skirt,  silent with shyness, not quite sure how to behave or what to expect. She can follow most of what Madame and Monsieur and their daughter Denise are saying to each other, because her French is already quite serviceable; but she is making the disturbing discovery that knowing how to speak French is one thing, actually speaking it to French people in France is quite another.
          She is sixteen, and this is her first trip abroad. Her widowed mother has taken her difficult, intense second daughter away early from the Tunbridge Wells school where she was becoming “too hockey-stickish”, and has instead packed her off to live with a French family and attend the Sorbonne for eighteen months. Having her at home was impossible, and it seemed as good a way as any to fill the awkward gap between leaving school and making a suitable marriage.
It’s been a long day in the train, and she’s hungry. She glances down at the soup the maid has just ladled into her wide, shallow plate. It looks nothing like the soup she is used to at home – smelling vaguely of fat, always too thick or too thin, and no matter what it’s called, almost always brown.
This is pale apricot, with tiny green specks, and tastes – what does it taste of? Cream, yes – and butter. Potatoes. Tomatoes. Onions? In fact, as she will later find out, it’s leeks. And the green bits? She doesn’t know, she has never eaten chervil before. But for the time it takes to finish her plateful, she becomes completely absorbed in an almost entirely new sensation: the pleasure of eating superbly simple, perfectly cooked food.


It will take her years to learn how to make that soup, with its honest name: potage crème de tomates et de pommes de terre. At eighteen, in her first job, she is still so ignorant of anything to do with the kitchen that she has to be shown how to make a pot of tea.
But three decades later, when she is 47 and has invented a whole new way of writing about food, Elizabeth David will recreate that first experience of French cooking in the “exceptionally greedy and exceptionally well fed” family she calls the Robertots, and salute it as the turning point of her life:

What had stuck was the taste for a kind of food quite ideally unlike anything I had known before…beautifully prepared vegetables…egg dishes, and soups delicately coloured like summer dresses, coral, ivory, or pale green…chocolate and apricot soufflés…

By this time she knows exactly what eating that food meant, and she is determined her readers will understand it well enough to be able to experience its essence for themselves. Rather than “elaborate sauces or sensational puddings”, this is:

the kind of food…which constitutes the core of genuine French cookery, but which to us [she means, of course, the benighted British - and here comes the subtle sting in the tail that salts her writing] seems so remarkable because it implies that excellent ingredients and high standards are taken for granted day by day…

She is writing not just about how to cook and eat; she is writing about how to live.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Far from home: Monet and Mansfield

This is an 1884 painting by Claude Monet: Cap Martin, near Menton. It's currently on display in Wellington as part of the "Colour and Light" exhibition from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
    When I went to this French coast, I was struck by its resemblance to part of the Wellington coast, especially the piece that runs along beneath the Massey memorial, looking back to the city. I didn't know about the memorial and the path up to it until Harvey showed it to me. By that time we'd already been to the coast Monet painted. Walking up the path and seeing the intensely blue-green sea through the trees, I thought that when Katharine Mansfield first went to Menton in 1920, three years before her death, perhaps she took comfort from this resemblance. She wrote some of her finest stories there.

PS: I had forgotten that the last post Harvey wrote for his blog, Stoatspring, on 22 December 2010 was about Katherine Mansfield. You can read it here. I came across it when I was looking at his blog today. Stoatspring has been chosen to feature in a new exhibition on diaries, opening at the Alexander Turnbull Library on Monday.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dear Lord Pearson

Last week a form letter arrived in my letterbox. It came from the Auckland-based New Zealand branch of Pearson Education, the giant international publisher which states on its website that it is "the world's leading education company. From pre-school to high school, early learning to professional certification, our curriculum materials, multimedia learning tools and testing programmes help to educate millions of people worldwide - more than any other private enterprise."
        The letter confirmed that Pearson's education business in New Zealand - that is, its substantial local education publishing operation - will close at the end of August. It ended, "For further information, please contact [name of unfortunate staffer given this task] at [email address]."
         I used to work as an editor for this company, back in the days when it was no longer Longman Paul, just Longman. But I never wrote books for it, and the letter was not addressed to me. Here's what I wrote in reply:

Dear ... Lord Pearson [I didn't write that, but I wanted to]
Thank you for your information about Pearson closing down its New Zealand education business. I already knew this, but it is very sad news, both for Pearson's talented and loyal staff, and for New Zealand education. Evidently Pearson no longer sees the production of specific resources for New Zealand
schools as worth doing.
        My husband, Harvey McQueen, was a pioneer in creating anthologies of New Zealand poetry for New Zealand schools and had a very long association with Pearson and its predecessors, right back to the days of Longman Paul (though there was, of course, no mention of this in the form letter addressed to him,
and headed "Media External Stakeholder Statement").
         Harvey died on 25 December 2010. Your royalties department knows this, because it has since been paying his royalties to me as his widow. I would prefer not to receive any more letters addressed to Harvey years after his death. As I'm sure you will appreciate, this is distressing. Could you therefore please ensure that this information is clearly recorded in every list of authors kept by Pearson, so that it does not happen again.

Yours sincerely
Anne Else

In fact, except for the occasional royalty statement, I don't expect to hear from Pearson ever again. But after writing this letter, I felt better.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Into the future

My e-book memoir, The Colour of Food, published by Awa Press, is being launched this Sunday by Lois Daish, but it's already available online (see below). It feels very odd to be putting out a new book which Harvey will never read, even though a goodly portion of it is about living with him. If he had lived, of course, it would be a very different book.
     As it happens, I am reading Julian Barnes' Levels of Life, which is about the sudden death of his wife (they too had been together for 30 years). She was "the heart of my life and the life of my heart". His account of his experience after she died rings so true for me.
      It's available in print, but I'm reading it on my iPad. Like many readers now, I move between print and e-books, though I still tend to depend on conventional print reviews (often read online), as well as friends' recommendations, to decide what to look for. I think it will be that way for a long time.
       So now I hope lots of people will discover my book, and when they do, tell other people about it - especially, of course, online. Reviewing it for Amazon, etc is a huge help too (I am brazenly assuming you will like it). Here's how to get it:

For Kindle, you can find it on Amazon here. Or else go to Amazon and put this in the search box:

For Kobo, you can find it here. Or else go to Unity Books Online, find their ebook section and search for Anne Else.

And here's how it begins:
To start with
I’m three, and I’m sitting in the sun on the grass beside the narrow strip of garden in our long skinny backyard. Before Mum sees me I reach out for a handful of rich dark soil and fill my mouth with its crunchy, crumbly, satisfying warmth.Now I’m four, watching Mum as she cuts a neat square plug out of an apple. She hides sugar in the hole for me to find and puts back the plug, the cut-lines invisible in the green skin. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Speaking quietly

In the supermarket today, I was once again being shouted at by someone trying to tell me what to buy. A shop assistant was filling up the bin of oranges, so I (very unfairly) told him how much I disliked being hectored by this disembodied voice while I was shopping. He said, with great feeling, that he hated it too - and I immediately realised that it's so much worse for the people who work there, they have to put up with it for hours.
        I hate being shouted at in writing even more. Fortunately there seems to be a wealth of quietly spoken, deeply considered writing on offer. I'm now reading The Burgess Boys, the new novel by Elizabeth Strout (the author of Olive Kitteridge). It concerns a family of two boys and a girl who grew up in Shirley Falls, Maine. Only the girl, Susan, has stayed there; Jim and Bob have both moved to New York. A peculiarly contemporary crisis with Susan's son, involving the town's new Somali community, brings them back one autumn:
"In Shirley Falls the days were short now, the sun never climbing very high in the sky, and when a blanket of clouds sat over the small city it seemed as though twilight began as soon as people finished their lunch, and when darkness came it was a full darkness. Most of the people who lived there had lived there all their lives, and they were used to the darkness this time of year, but that did not mean they  liked it. It was spoken of when neighbours met in grocery stores, or on the steps of the post office, often with an added phrase of what was felt about the holiday season to come; some liked the holidays, many did not. Fuel prices were high, and holidays cost money."
The whole book is perfectly balanced, and all the more moving for its calm, quiet, comprehending voice.

Friday, May 3, 2013

May Day: moving on

Well, just after - I meant to write this on 1 May, but have been languishing in bed with a pesky cold. I've decided that from now on I'll move the focus a little for this blog, so that it's mainly about reading and writing, two pursuits that were central to Harvey's life, as they are to mine. So it's fitting that this post centres on a wonderful children's book, A Great Cake by Tina Matthews.

I heard Tina talking about it to Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon. Apart from the fact that it sounded such fun, what caught my attention and made me go  to Unity Books and buy it next day was the name of the little boy: Harvey. It's the first New Zealand picture book I'd heard of which features that name.

Both the words and the pictures are by Tina, and she's come up with the most realistic family I ever saw in a kid's book - piles of washing, authentically messy kitchen and living room - as well as an enviably patient and creative mother. I'll be posting it soon to Taylor and Ryan, with a line inside that they won't understand yet, but their mother will appreciate: "From your great-auntie Anne, in memory of your great-uncle Harvey, who loved books."

Monday, April 1, 2013

The end of summer

I put the heater on today, the first time for weeks. Only a few sprinkles of rain, though the four days' quiet steady drizzle a while ago helped a lot. I've been keeping the important plants - lemon tree, rhubarb, geraniums - alive with water from a bucket in the shower, the clothes dryer (it cleverly collects the water), cleanish kitchen water, and the earthquake bottles in the garage (all well past their use-by date, but not being refilled till the drought's over, so no earthquakes before then, please!)
          The long gap since I wrote here last shows partly how busy I've been, especially with my food memoir, but also how far I've come over the last two and a quarter years. I still sometimes catch myself far away from the present, thinking about Harvey, but not nearly as often or for as long as I used to. For the first time, I feel as if I once again have my own life and am getting on with it. Most of the time, anyway. More book news soon. For now, I hope your Easter was as absorbing and pleasant as mine was, thanks to my work and my friends. And some very good hot cross buns and chocolate.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Home again home again jiggety jig

Safely back from Guangzhou, where the weather was astonishing - 27C the day I arrived, a couple of colder days and hovering around 22+ the rest of the time. It was great for us and for all the people who get their one decent holiday at this Spring Festival, but it certainly felt like global warming. It's such as enormous roaring city (at least 9 million people), and I did find it quite tiring, though the chaps did their very best to look after me. We went to a lot of lovely peaceful parks - and the food was great (more on Something Else to Eat soon). Now I'm flat out dealing with my memoir's edited manuscript, I need to get through at least  a chapter a day, and each one takes me 4-5 hours. A week should do it...meanwhile, some cheerful Chinese photos for you: a quiet corner of old Guangzhou that looked and felt like Paris; umbrellas made of recycled drink bottles; and the boy with the fish on his head who signifies wealth for the New Year..

Monday, February 4, 2013

China time

On Waitangi Day I fly off to China to visit my son, who teaches English there, while an American friend looks after the house. So unless I can master the intricacies of posting from afar, there'll be a gap until I get back. Here's one of the wondrous Terracotta Warriors from last year, with a marvellous hair-do:

We're not going to travel around this year, we'll just stay in Guangzhou in his new apartment and he can show me his neighbourhood. It's such an enormous city, every time I go he has something he's recently discovered to show me. He's an artist and art history buff, and this is his year, the Year of the Snake. John F. Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn were snakes too. It's said to be "an opportune year for change, growth, and transformation on many levels. You'll start a new fortunate 12-year life cycle. The energy of this Snake year matches your steady, wise, and unhurried pace."

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Poetry in motion

As I mentioned on my Facebook page, I recently had an email about one of Harvey's poems from Ruth Arnison, of Poems in the Waiting Room. It's an arts in health charity, based in Dunedin.
     "Our aim is to provide a free source of well-chosen poetry for patients waiting for medical appointments, rest home residents waiting for meals, outings or appointments, hospice patients and their families and prison inmates. The poetry cards, A4 sized three-fold cards, feature between eight and ten poems. New editions of the cards are printed and distributed every season. Poems include those from contemporary poets (especially New Zealand writers), older poems, a haiku, and poems for children. They are selected for readers’ enjoyment and are in no way a vehicle for delivering any social/health messages. The cards may be read and left on site or taken away for sharing or further reading."
      Ruth wanted to use "Giverny in Autumn" for a new card. Of course I immediately said yes - Harvey would have been delighted. She wrote back telling me why she'd chosen it: "I spent a month in Italy and France two years ago and Giverny was the highlight of my trip. When I came across Harvey's poem I was immediately back on that famous green bridge - how poetry can transport one."
      We went to France in 1999. Staying in Rouen, we'd arranged to meet two English friends, who came all the way from London to see us for the weekend. They had their car, and suggested going to Giverny on the Sunday. We were so lucky - it was 31 October, the last day Monet's house and garden was open to the public. But it was fine, and we wandered around hardly believing we were actually there. Our friends took our photo on the bridge.

I wrote an article about Giverny later for Next magazine, and Harvey wrote his poem.

     Giverny in Autumn 

     This boy knew
     the grace of willows
     weeping light into the Avon.

     At Giverny similar
     willows trail fluent
     through quiescent water 
     flecked by a few  late water-lilies.

     A frog on a pad.
     no princess to hand
     the figure's disappearance
     from the artist's canvas.

     Up close, mere daubs
     of paint - tactile texture -
     but in vista how they shape
     into a space, a green bridge
     reflections, clouds as they
     were at the turn of the century
     as they are now at its end.

     The calligraphy of a place
     the copious confusion of autumn leaves.

                        from Recessional, 2004

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Another year

How long is it since Harvey died? I know, of course, that it was two years ago and that today I began my third year without him; but at some times it feels like yesterday and at others it feels as if I've been without him for a very long time. 
          People keep telling me how well I'm doing, and on the whole I think I am. Going to Auckland for Christmas resulted, as I thought it would, in my being too caught up in the full-on family Christmas at my sister's to sink into sadness, though at the same time I knew they were conscious what this time of year meant for me, and intent on taking care of me. And as soon as I got back I had the great pleasure of a visit from my niece (well, Harvey's niece really, but I always think of her as mine) and her fiance. This time next year I'll be on my way down south for their wedding. In the meantime, I've got plenty of other absorbing things to look forward to - including the launch in March of my food memoir e-book, which is partly a tribute to Harvey and our life together.
           So as this new year begins, I hope that anyone reading this who has experienced the loss of a beloved partner recently will take heart from knowing that it does slowly become easier to cope with, and that simply staying alive gives way (for most of the time, at least) to living your life as best you can.