Archive for April, 2009

Answering the call

Saturday, April 25th, 2009


I grew up in New Zealand in a family where Anzac Day was honoured without question: back then most people did that. For me and my sisters it meant watching Dad marching in a solemn parade, with his World War II medals displayed across the chest of his slightly-too-tight shiny blue suit, and then standing with Mum outside the RSA Hall, listening to the Last Post and the Reveille, and making it through the challenge of a whole minute’s silence.

Today, on Waiheke Island, I watched another Anzac Day parade, listened again to the Last Post and the Reveille in the local RSA Hall, and saw veterans of more recent wars laying wreaths. The mood is different these days, more of a proud national thanksgiving than a sad remembrance, and it’s more inclusive than it used to be, too, but one thing’s the same: it’s still profoundly moving.

World War I memories always move me to tears, but the Anzacs’ doomed assault on the Gallipoli peninsula has to be one of the Allied Command’s most disastrous mistakes of a heartbreaking time. The Command’s big idea, according to an article in today’s New Zealand Herald, was to capture Istanbul and secure a sea route to Russia. Instead, more than 2,700 young New Zealanders were killed in ten days of hell: as Eric Bogle’s song has it, they were “butchered like lambs at the slaughter”.

What I loved about today’s ceremony was the large number of ordinary people who turned up in the rain for it, bringing their kids and their friends and neighbours, to honour memories of courage and the people who display that in – for civilians – almost unimaginable circumstances. We sang together (not very well); we listened (we did that better); and we promised out loud to remember the dead. And we will, and we do.

And all today the words of Eric Bogle’s song – ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ has run through my mind. It commemorates the Australian part of Anzac memories (50,000 Australian troops died at Gallipoli) and it’s an angry, grief-stricken and very moving song. Eric Bogle’s website says he was a particularly annoying, whiney little child, but he certainly came good with this one.

You can hear him sing it on YouTube, but don’t click on it until you have a tissue ready.

I can’t seem to set up a straight-through connection to the YouTube site from my laptop, but here’s the url:-

And speaking of pohutukawa …

Monday, April 20th, 2009

… which I was in the last blog post (see below).

Pohutukawa, in case you don’t know, are New Zealand’s most iconic tree. They grow impressively large with a spreading canopy, and produce glorious red flowers around Christmas time and during the rest of the summer months. The trees hold an important place in Maori culture, most notably among them being the small wind- and weather-beaten tree, about 800 years old, which clings to the cliff face near Cape Reinga, at northern tip of the country where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. This pohutukawa guards the entrance to a sacred cave, through which spirits pass on their way to the ancestral land of Hawaiiki. But all pohutukawa have a spiritual significance, and the trees are protected throughout the country.

The trees are very impressive with their dark leaves and twisting branches, and humans have used them in many ways – the timber was used by Maori for paddles and mauls, and by Pakeha for boatbuilding, firewood and furniture. The juice, the honey, and the inner bark of several species have medicinal qualities, and parts of the plants contain tannin, and ellagic and gallic acid: you can even make a dye from dried pohutukawa stamens.

Pohutukawa have been studied and written about by botanists, ecologists, entomologists, ornithologists, horticulturalists, zoologists, biochemists, conservationists, medical herbalists and anthropologists. They have also been written about by my friend Pam Gould, who found living with one in her garden a distinct trial. Here’s her poem, with loving thanks to her for allowing me to share it with the world. (Patuone, mentioned in the poem, was a famous Maori warrior.)

POHUTUKAWA, by Pam Gould

We shouldn’t live together you and I
You’ve always known it and
been prepared to tough it out.

In Patuone’s day you drew a warrior line
and lay in wait,
eager to deflower
our bitumen, our lawns,
our dainty English gardens.
Attrition, a smarter choice of weapon.

Patiently you drip unwanted bits
all day all night
the scatter battle, aerial attack
of leaves so leathery
they’ll long outlive me.
Placed exquisitely
to clog
and block
and suffocate.

If all this seems too tame
march out more roots
a new battalion,
pincer movement moles
to toss the driveway onto grass
and strangle anything herbaceous.

Pre-Christian heretic you enter into Christian rites
offering blood-stained petal
as your Magi gift
to cling and dye
those puny souls below
whilst from on high
you play an older god.

Your need to procreate sends swarms of seed
to prickle unsuspecting feet;
ingratiate and irritate inside and out
through shoes and washing, books and cars
anywhere the wind will take your sperm.

As modern malcontent you infiltrate
use us to blast your seed in air-conditioned fury;
or settle into rough-cast fissures
exploding bits of house
which join with driveway
on the lawn.

Outrageously you have enlisted
Law to be your friend – my law
(or so I thought) and finally
your sticks and stones have won -
although with one last playground taunt
I use my children’s voice
to change your name
and shout my parting battle cry



Saturday, April 18th, 2009

I flew from London to Auckland a week ago – about 12,000 miles, give or take the odd mile. And as always in the past few years, when I get about half way – in this case, on the Hong Kong to Auckland stretch – I am struck by the deep emotional connections to New Zealand that start to awake in my mind. It’s like being slowly reeled into a web of connections that I’ve forgotten about, or like finding myself at the centre of something I haven’t even been noticing, and that comes slowly into focus. It’s part of me that doesn’t usually get much space or air time, but when it kicks in again I recognise it like an old friend.

The analogy would be walking across a field at twilight, and as your stride lengthens you start to hear music playing in a house across on the far side. Then you catch the sound of familiar voices talking in the back garden, and you start to smile with the pleasure of anticipation. There’s soup heating on the stove, and a lamp lit in the window, guiding you in.

You’re home again. And here’s the pohutukawa tree to prove it.

Those new blog intro page photos

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

And about time, too, you might say, because the old photos have been up for almost a year and I don’t know about you, but I’d stopped seeing them. So at last it’s a whole new view. And I want to say something about each one in time, but now I’ll start with just two of them.

This one first.

We met these two Australians in Kerala last Christmas/New Year, when we did a full day walk in the Periyar National Park. It was called a Tiger Trail Trek, and it was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done, as well as the most exciting. We were escorted by two guides and an armed guard – with the rifle not so much, I think, in case of hungry tigers or rampaging elephants, but more in case we met poachers. (In Periyar, it seems that the poachers are after the sandalwood trees. Which makes it sound like the poachers might mistake sweaty panting ecotourists for sandalwood trees, but that’s not quite what I mean. )

The walk – which in my case included occasional slides into rivers and streams – took all day, and we covered about 18 kilometres, much of it very steep. But the experience and the views were sensational, and the company was terrific, including the two in the photo: Ninu and Tim. Ninu’s family came from northern India, although she grew up in Australia, and so for her the trip was a reconnection with India, while Tim, like me, was visiting for the first time. They were lovely to be with and I’m sorry we lost their email address, so if anyone recognises either of them, please let me (or them) know! As I recall, they live somewhere south of Sydney.

And this one next.

This is the view from the little cottage I’m renting on Waiheke Island, in Auckland, during the rest of April and May. I plan to hide away and try to write – which will involve revising the last book yet again, planning the next one, and thinking about an entirely new idea that’s started to tug at my imagination. So lots to do, and a very beautiful place in which to do it.

Wish me luck!