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.

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
      happen.

      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.