Saturday, December 20, 2014

Another year

I see that I haven't posted here since I was in New York. I do seem to have been exceptionally occupied since I got back, but I think it's more than that. I don't know what I want to write, and I think that's because I don't know where I am at the moment, in terms of learning to live alone - or perhaps simply how to live. Like Scrooge, I need to change my way.
       At the moment I have plenty of things to do, at least during the day, including bits of writing; but I don't have a major piece of writing on hand. People keep asking me what I'm going to write next (now that The Colour of Food is out in print), or worse, what I'm actually writing now, and I have no answer. So I brush them off politely, and go and do the next thing on my list instead.
       Almost every day, there's another warm response to the memoir - in a letter, an email, a phone call, or a chance encounter with someone I haven't seen for a while. So I'm getting plenty of encouragement to embark on something.But what? I don't write fiction - I can't make things up, or transform experience into something new. And I don't yet seem to have any coherent idea to build on.         I'm toying with the idea of writing pieces on this blog, just to play around with some very vague ideas. In the meantime, I'm hoping to be as happy and as I can over Christmas and New Year, and I hope the same for you too.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Crusader Bible - seeing others in our own image

Yesterday I saw one of the great treasures of the Morgan Library: the Crusader Bible.  I was lucky - the exhibition opened on 17 October. It isn't really a bible at all, because originally there was no text, just 283 incredibly detailed, gold-laden images of successive scenes from the Old Testament. The book is thought to have been originally made around 1250 for King Louis IX of France, who later became St Louis. He commissioned the glorious Sainte Chapelle In Paris.

But like other rulers of our own time, he was also obsessed with waging war in the East, mounting seven crusades, the last of which killed him. (In those days rulers did at least lead their own troops, and knew at first hand what carnage ensued, though that didn't put them off doing it over and over again.) 

The Crusader Bible was designed to shore up Louis' reputation as a Christian crusader against the infidel, I.e. the Muslims. So every Old Testament story is shown in contemporary terms, with the Israelites depicted as Crusaders endlessly battling the Philistines, etc, etc. this makes it a remarkable record of 13th century life. 

This book has had almost as eventful a history as the Sarajevo Haggadah (discussed recently on National Radio, and the subject of Geraldine Brooks' extraordinary novel, People of the Book). Over the centuries it travelled from France to Italy, Poland, Persia, Egypt, England, and finally New York. Various owners added captions and wrote notes in the margins. 

It's about to be rebound, and this means the library has been able, for the first time, to put 40 of the pictures on display. My favourites - a welcome relief from men fighting each other - were the ones showing the story of Ruth. 

But looking at all of them again, I was struck by how each ideology and each side involved in violent conflict has confidently portrayed alien "others" in their own image, only an utterly mistaken or evil version, needing to be either wiped out or shown the right path, regardless of the deep cultural and historical gulfs between them. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Memories at the Met

Today I got up the courage to tackle the Metropolitan Museum. The queue wasn't too bad, only about 10 minutes' wait (I knew better than to try checking my coat), and I had a somewhat limited but sensible plan: head straight for he Impressionists (the purple bits on the map).

I had already had a goodly sample of other periods:  medieval art at the Cloisters, Old Masters at the Frick, and Expressionism at the Neue Galerie, with MOMA to come next week. (Cubism at the Met opens to the public then too.) So as one does at giant museums, I strode purposefully past assorted wonders until I got to Degas in Room 810, with only a couple of stops to check I was going the right way.

It's not only the marvellously rich, warm, human paintings themselves - It's the associations they have. So there was one of Monet's many studies of Rouen Cathedral, this time bathed in midday sun. Harvey and I saw the cathedral in Rouen in 1999. We'd seen a group of these paintings before then, I think in Paris.

There were Giverny paintings too - one of the earlier water lily pictures, two very late almost abstract ones, and a path bordered with irises. Plus a vase of chrysanthemums. Thanks to our English friends who brought their car across to join us in Rouen, we managed to get to Giverny on the last day it was open, when the summer flowers had gone but the water lilies were still there - and swathes of chrysanthemums. 

I am so fortunate to have seen all this, and to have shared so much of it with Harvey. He had been to the Met himself earlier, and I know he went to see these paintings. Such pleasure.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A book in the hand without Harvey

 The print edition of my memoir has arrived. I talked to Kathryn Ryan about it on Monday, and yesterday it was launched with a lunchtime talk at Unity. It was the first time I'd ever had a lengthy queue form for me to sign books.

And next Wednesday (Heaven help me) I'm going to be simultaneously cooking and talking about my book on Good Morning at 9am. Live. For seven minutes. I just need to get through without (a) burning or dropping something, which happens frequently in my own kitchen, or (b) forgetting the name of my book. If the leaders of political parties can manage this (though some have definitely been better at it than others), surely I can.

I ought to be feeling really happy about all this - and of course I am. But not entirely, and I know why. I hadn't even thought about it beforehand, but this is the first book I've had published without Harvey at my side. Of course the e-book came out last year, but somehow that wasn't quite the same. Having the memoir in print suddenly brought home to me the fact that for every other book either he or I published, we were there to cheer each other on.

But in another sense he is here, because he figures so largely in the book. So I just have to hang on to that and be grateful that I had him by my side for all those years. Still - I do wish he could have been here to welcome me home next week from my TV cooking session, regardless of how it goes, with a wide, warm grin, a large gin and tonic and a good dinner.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

More on reading

"It’s a common and easy enough distinction, this separation of books into those we read because we want to and those we read because we have to, and it serves as a useful marketing trope for publishers, especially when they are trying to get readers to take this book rather than that one to the beach. But it’s a flawed and pernicious division. This linking of pleasure and guilt is intended as an enticement, not as an admonition: reading for guilty pleasure is like letting one’s diet slide for a day—naughty but relatively harmless. The distinction partakes of a debased cultural Puritanism, which insists that the only fun to be had with a book is the frivolous kind, or that it’s necessarily a pleasure to read something accessible and easy. Associating pleasure and guilt in this way presumes an anterior, scolding authority—one which insists that reading must be work."
         But of course, most of the time it isn't. This is from a fine New Yorker piece by Rebecca Mead, who wrote a splendid book about reading Middlemarch. You can find it at
         I was thinking about this distinction at the book fair today. There were scores of copies of recent mass market best sellers, from Philippa Gregory to Stephen King, but there were also plenty of copies of the "classics" of every era - books that people have so consistently responded to that they have embedded themselves in the life of readers in English everywhere.

Never too many books

DCM Bookfair 2014

Today was the first day of the annual DCM Bookfair. It's been a milestone in my life for as long as I've lived in Wellington. Like everything else, it's been affected by change. For years, Harvey and I went together, then I went alone. After he died I started volunteering there, mainly because I wanted to help DCM - but also because I thought working at the fair would prevent me from buying too many books.
       There is, of course, no such thing. I've yet to see a reality show about people who can barely move in their house because of their hoards of books. I reckon books make great wall insulation, too...
       Anyway, this year I had my son home for a holiday from his teaching job in China.  His timing was perfect, because for years I've had to hunt out books for him and then post them to him at exorbitant cost, since NZ Post has stubbornly refused to recognise the vital importance of having a special rate for books. This year he could choose his own, and carry them back himself. Meanwhile I would do my morning stint, followed by a brief bout of shopping.
        I was very good. While I was channelling my inner librarian - floor-walking, answering questions ("Where is the chicklit?"), tidying up the tables, and (my favourite thing) relocating misplaced titles - I saw more than a few books I wanted, but I didn't collect any until I was free. Of course, by then some of the ones I'd spotted had gone, but that was the luck of the game - I just wasn't meant to have those particular books.  After all, there were plenty of others to choose from.
         I reckon you could get an entire lifetime's education, as well as vast amounts of pleasure, from what turns up at the fair. Of course I saw quite a few that Harvey would have liked, but never mind, he certainly never went short of books. Here's what I ended up with.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

So far, so good

The walking plan is going quite well - better, as you can see, than the blogging plan. I keep getting distracted by books to read and review, friends to phone and see, lunches and dinners to cook, the fact that it's warmer down in the living room than it is up here at the computer - and a mild winter addiction to House Rules.
         I'm well aware that such programmes are carefully designed to hook you in. The contestants are obviously hand-picked to be compared and contrasted - the older couple, the parents of seven kids, the rough-and-ready ones ... though I come a bit unstuck on the two very similar-looking young blonde women and their handsome husbands, I tend to get them and their "zones" confused.
          Like most TV contest series, this one has a subtle and uncomfortable affinity with the appalling Depression-era marathon dance competitions so effectively captured in Sydney Pollack's 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don't They. In those contests, too, the audience was manipulated along with the contestants. It's a hymn to conspicuous consumption, too - this week the couples have been hard at work tearing down the bits of their renovated houses they don't like and replacing brand new stuff with another lot of new stuff.
           But I keep coming back for more. I started watching while I was organising the bathroom reno. That one room took me a couple of months to plan and it took my nice tradesmen weeks to complete. They didn't work slowly, they were just fitting my small job in with all their other, larger jobs, waiting for things to arrive or dry properly, and so on. (Only in TV-land do tradesmen appear instantly and either all at once, or immediately after each other, and heaven knows when or if anything gets to dry or set or whatever.)
          Of course, a good part of the appeal was that what the HR couples were expected to cope with every week made my bathroom seem a piece of cake. And I didn't have to suffer inspection by two snooty designers at the end. (Maybe I should have asked my viewing friends to fill out little score-cards.)
           The baser aspect of HR's hold on me has to do with my own pretensions to home decor expertise. I like watching what everyone comes up with as they wrestle with a swarm of trendy "house rule" style concepts from "junkshop chic" to "modern rustic" to "vintage luxe", while dealing with the untrendy realities of rotten framing, asbestos linings and cockroach infestations. I have no idea myself exactly what such phrases mean, but it is a mean kind of fun to watch obviously awful  choices being made (the hideous wall-art, the sacking ceiling...)
            What really interests me most, though, is the whole notion that it's fine for complete strangers to come charging into your home, turf out pretty much everything you own, and replace it with stuff they have chosen that has no history or meaning for you apart from its newness and trendiness. I remember when I wanted to replace some of our kitchen plates and bowls because I'd seen some really pretty Hooker's Fruit ones on sale at Briscoe's (and I needed the right size bowls for microwaving Harvey's porridge).
             Harvey looked hurt and said, in a puzzled sort of way, "Aren't you loyal to the old china?" He agreed only when I pointed out that we hadn't actually chosen the ones I wanted to replace, he had won them by buying a bottle of brandy at the local liquor shop. The  were thick and white and we'd never liked them all that much, but we'd felt we shouldn't look gift china in the mouth, so to speak.
              He had been born into the Depression. I grew up in better post-war times, but even so, when I first got married there was very little around in the way of affordable, attractive household goods. So we both had  a tendency to hang on to and hoard things once we got them, even if we really didn't need or want them any more. But we also both cherished things harking back to our respective pasts and our lives together - books and pictures, inevitably, but also familiar pieces of furniture, pottery, china, even kitchen tools (I wrote about some of these in my memoir). And now Harvey is gone, they mean even more to me. I can't help hoping (almost certainly in vain) that somehow it will be my son, not me, who will have to deal with their disposal.
            Meanwhile I can enjoy shifting them around into new lights. The bathroom has at last provided me with a place to put the collection of small Crown Lynn vases that I've stubbornly hung on to since we moved here seven years ago. And in case you're wondering, I've called the bathroom concept I was working with "upstyled '50s retro". Just so you know.  You may have missed them on Facebook, so here they are again, for your viewing pleasure. 


Saturday, June 7, 2014


I see my last post here was the end of April. It hasn't been a good time for writing anything much since, but I think something's shifting now.
        Just for completion's sake, I'll post a couple of bathroom photos here. Is it finished? Yes, and no. Something strange has surfaced in the vinyl floor, so I'm waiting to see what happens about that before all the final details can be finished off. Anyway, in the meantime I can use it and I'm enjoying it very much, especially the brightness of the blind I made for it. (If you read me on Facebook you'll have seen this already, but Facebook just flows on forever and everything drifts past and away. I'm kidding myself, I know, but a blog has at least the illusion of being more lasting.)

So now I need another project. I've been agonising over what it might be, and getting depressed in the process. Something had to be done, so I decided that until I got a good idea, I'd make one small simple change that I knew would be good for me and, more importantly, would instantly make me feel better - I would go for a walk every day.
       On the whole I've managed to do it, helped by a spell of fairly fine weather, and I do feel more cheerful, or rather, perhaps, more hopeful (a good friend has pointed me to the notion of "reasonable hope" espoused by Kaethe Weingarten). I'm also getting a new hard drive made for me by my excellent computer expert, so now I urgently need to start clearing out the vast cupboard full of obsolete documents and emails that my computer has become over the years. And my third change is to return to posting on both my blogs more regularly, instead of endlessly deferring it and making do with Facebook instead, which is not at all the same thing. All good for wintering.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Roses from my builder

This is another post related to my bathroom, but in a tangential way. Larry, the builder working on it, has been sorting out our houses for a long time. He goes right back to the first house Harvey and I bought together, in Woburn Road, Northland, not far from Larry's own home.
         When we moved to Karori, he came round to build us a deck at the end of the garden. This required taking out a pretty pink rose planted by the previous owner. By that time Larry was building himself and his wife Chris a new house in Waikanae. If we didn't want the rose, he said, he'd like it for his new garden. So he carried it off and it flourished. He and Chris named it the Harvey rose, and told Harvey how well it was doing.
           When he arrived on Monday morning, he presented me with two beautiful buds from it. In the warm room, they've opened up into my favourite rose shape: a round cup with a cluster of whorled petals in the middle. I've had a look at a website showing the different forms, and I think this is a rosette shape - but I'm not entirely sure, it might be a quartered shape. If anyone knows, please tell me.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Going, going, gone

Tomorrow my plumber and builder start work on renovating the bathroom. My back bedroom is full of mysterious cardboard boxes holding all the fittings, and beside me on the landing is a gleaming new bathroom sinkbench and lovely long drawers. (I've decided I'm not going to use the stupid work "vanity" any longer. What's vain about cleaning your teeth, washing your hands and combing your hair?)
      This is the first (and will probably be the only) major house project I've tackled since Harvey died. I know this is really silly, but although I'm looking forward to the new bathroom and I know I'll enjoy it, I can't help feeling a bit sad. It's partly because the old bathroom was here when Harvey and I moved in, and for the first two and a half years, until he had to move downstairs, we both used it. I don't like doing away even with household things he used, let alone surroundings he knew and lived in. But also, it feels very strange to be making changes to the house that I can't consult him about and he'll never see.
       We were lucky - we always agreed exactly on the houses we bought, three of them altogether. There wasn't quite the same concord about doing them up. Like many men, Harvey wasn't very keen on changing things, and he couldn't visualise colours and shapes in spaces the way I can. I once left him alone to work in the garden with a builder (not the lovely one we found later). Big mistake. Between them they constructed a hideous over-sized Fort-Knox-like structure of half-round logs right along the side of the top lawn in Woburn Road. On the other hand, when I found a wonderful stripey velvet to recover our old armchairs, Harvey was sure it would look awful. But I was so convinced it would work that I told him I was going ahead anyway. I promised he would like the result - and he did.
        He would certainly have agreed that the bathroom needed upgrading - the old fittings are falling to bits - but goodness knows what he would have thought of my choices. Oh well, of course it's entirely up to me now and I can have exactly what I want. But it's not as much fun doing it all by myself. Much nicer to have someone to discuss it with, even if it means having to work out what would suit you both.
         I did try to think very practically, as he was good at doing, as well as about what would look good. I think he would have liked it all. But he might have been a bit bemused by the two vases I just bought on Trade Me (amazing how clever you feel when you put in the winning bid for something you really want).  A friend's getting the red one, and the white one's perfect for the bathroom.

Set of 2 vases

Monday, March 24, 2014

A birthday

Today, 24 March, is Patrick's birthday. He would have been 45 - he was 18 when he died in 1987. His friend wrote to me, and I had phone calls from Ali and my sister. Here's the piece from my book about his birthday.
We placed his ashes under a pōhutukawa tree we planted in the Botanic Gardens, on a rise with a view over the city he knew and enjoyed so much. Although the tree is now so tall it’s hard to reach the lower branches, on Patrick’s birthday, on the day he died and on Christmas Eve I still reach up and leave a posy wedged there. One of his roses if they’re flowering, and a few forget-me-nots. Mock orange blossom, for the wedding he never had. Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme. And a chocolate in the middle.
Of course I used to go with Harvey, but now I ask Lesley, the oldest friend I have in Wellington, to come with me. It helps when the sun is out, as it was this morning.
       The mock orange blossom has finished flowering. His rose, the original Remember Me, has died, and its replacement isn't doing at all well. So I took two other late roses, a red Dublin Bay for Harvey, and a creamy Jude the Obscure, as well as the herbs - and the chocolate.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Writing Women

On International Women’s Day, it was a great pleasure to hear two enormously impressive women speaking with great clarity and insight on two very differently scaled tragedies which could both have been avoided: Rebecca Macfie on the trail of corporate and government mistakes, oversights, incompetence and carelessness (in the full sense of the word) that led to Pike River; and Oxford University’s Margaret MacMillan on the complex mixture of politics and personalities that led to World War I. It’s hard to think of two more traditionally masculine topics than war and mining. This morning demonstrated, in the most effective way possible, how much the world has changed since women here rediscovered feminism in the 1970s. And in the afternoon, Eleanor Catton (the second New Zealand woman to win the Booker) in lucid and often very funny conversation about editing with her Granta editor, Max Porter - who looked, I have to say, only a few years older than her. The literary future is in very good hands.

Rebecca Macfie: Tragedy at Pike River Mine, Awa Press
Margaret MacMillan: The War that Ended Peace:  How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War, Random House

Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries, VUP/Granta

Posted on Beattie's Book Blog this morning.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wild thyme

It's been a strange start to the New Year. First I went to my niece's wedding near Queenstown. After going to another recent wedding on my own where I knew no one except the immediate family, who were all of course totally occupied, I made sure that this time I had someone with me - my lovely neighbour Jenn, who knows my niece and her parents. It made a huge difference, and she was a big hit - she grew up on an Otago farm, so she was completely at home with the bride's farming parents and their friends, in a way a townie like me can never quite manage. Harvey used to tease me about it, in the nicest possible way. I was terribly impressed (and so were the boys) the time he stopped the car, hopped over a fence and set a cast ewe on her feet again. (In case you're even more ignorant than me, a cast ewe has managed to get herself onto her back and can't get up.)
           After the very beautiful wedding, Jenn and I set off for a few days in Central Otago. I hadn't been back since Harvey took me and the boys there for our first summer holiday together, in January 1980. It was amazing how little I could recognise, but when I did it was both comforting and sad. Arrowtown, still so charming but so much more upmarket now. The road along what is now the dam that drowned Cromwell, but in those days was still the river bordered by old gold workings and the best apricot orchards in the country. Butler's Dam, where I took a photo of Jonathan being a dinosaur and Patrick being a caveman with a spear. They were good kids to take away - put them into an interesting landscape, especially one with water and big rocks, and they were off, making up their own world.
             Back then we had perfect weather every day. This time it was mostly showery, sometimes really wet, and even cold. But we did manage to wander round the hills, and I filled my pockets with stalks of the wild thyme that grows everywhere. I didn't think to do that thirty-four years ago.

I know this isn't my food blog, but for me food comes into everything. I took it back to the bach and used it to make two things: Nigel Slater's sticky chicken wings, and a very simple pasta sauce with garlic, tinned tomatoes and white wine.

It had a much stronger and yet more smoky, subtle flavour than garden thyme. I felt as if I was eating the essence of Central as it was, with all the memories, and as it still is.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Looking backward and forward

So, a new year begins - the fourth since Harvey died. I still miss him immensely. Reading through Circa's impressive programme of plays for the coming year, I kept thinking how much he would have enjoyed them. But I'm determined to get to more of them. I see Circa has a Meetup group, so I might try that, and in any case just make sure I go anyway, even if it is by myself. I enjoy good theatre more than any other kind of formal entertainment.
           This year has been markedly different from 2011 and 2012, mainly because I've spent so much time with other people, rather than on my own. But once they had all gone, the silence and the doubt came back - how do I manage this?
            It's partly that I need a new writing project, and I'm thinking about what it could be. I was quite proud of myself for finishing my memoir after Harvey died, and I'm very pleased it's doing so well. But what next? I'm in awe of prolific writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, who seems to turn out a stunning new novel every year or so, even though she's now in her seventies. (Listen to this morning's striking interview with her here.) She too lost her husband, and her grief was overpowering, but then she acquired a new one eleven months later (and good on her - a happy marriage is much more likely than an unhappy one to lead to another successful partnership). And she kept writing.
              Thank you very much to everyone who has read and commented on this blog in 2013. It means a great deal to every blogger, but perhaps even more to those who, like me, do not have that reliable, constant support and back-up on tap at home. The kindness of friends, and of strangers too, is immensely important.