Remembering, still

Jessie Knigge(left)  & Jean Parr, Wellington, 1938

Jessie Knigge(left) & Jean Parr, Wellington, 1938. Photo by “Leicagraph,”

Last week I wrote about my friend E. and scanning old photographs to show her. Here’s a photograph I came across while I was doing this. I love the photo  – two women, friends, stepping out in unison down Lambton Quay (in a larger version you can read the sign for Plimmer Steps) in 1938. (The date is on the back, along with the information that they were in Wellington for the weekend, explaining the small suitcases.) I wonder what they were looking at. They would have ridden from Ohakune on the train.The photo was taken by a street photographer.

My Grandmother, Jean Isobel Parr (née Donald) died when I was about twelve (1954). I remember I liked her, though she was known as “no nonsense.” I think I thought she was kind along with that. Sensible. You knew where you stood.

The back of the photograph

The back of the photograph

I found out as an adult that at the time she died she was losing mobility with bad knees and unable to continue to live alone with a coal range and an outdoor toilet. She took “heart pills.” It was being decided that she would have to come and live with us in Masterton: two girls and their parents in a two-bedroom state house. My parents would have had to put up a bed in the living room every night. I think my father was no longer working night shifts by then.

As my mother told it, she was called to Ohakune, via a phone message to my father’s workplace, because her mother was dying. She noticed an empty heart pills bottle on a shelf and asked where the pills were. The answer she got was, “I tipped them down the long drop.” Anything rather than be an imposition on her daughter and family.

I adapted this, along with some other more-or-less true tales, into a short story. It’s called “Family Saga,” and is in my ebook collection Stones Gathered Together. Sudden death has been a real theme in my family. As I have in a number of other ways over the years, I’m working on changing the pattern.

What We Remember

I remember when my friends and I were having sixtieth birthdays. Now many of us are having, or have had, a seventieth. One of the things we talk about is the decay of bodies and minds, in almost universal agreement that the diminishing of our mind is what we fear most.

I see this happening, this diminishing, in my friend E., who I visit regularly. When I re-engage with her in a conversation we had ten minutes ago, or show her photographs she has seen before and has no memory of, or realise she has no memory of seeing her family a few days ago, I feel a great sadness. It must be so much worse for her family. I often come away from visiting and go to a film; something about taking my mind to a different place.

But E. and I also have fun together. We can be in the middle of a conversation – and she retains a sharp sense of humour – when she will quote a line of poetry that the conversation has reminded her of. When this happens, I whip out my iPhone, google the line of poetry and almost always find the poet and the poem. We both enjoy this immensely, and read the poem together, and she tells me about her older sister who wrote poetry and read it to her a lot when she was a child.

Frances Darwin Cornford

Frances Darwin Cornford

During a recent visit, the line that came up was, “O why do you walk through the fields in gloves.” I found it on my phone, it’s by Frances Darwin Cornford, grand-daughter of the famous Charles and married to a Francis Cornford. (We enjoy these snippets.)

We read the poem together and later, at home, I typed it  and posted it to her, along with the photo of Frances I found on the internet, reminding her of finding it. It’s a poem previously unknown to me, but when I mentioned it to my partner, Prue, she straight away came out with a couple more lines. Prue had no idea she knew that poem, but assumed she had met it at school in London. This is a story that E. will enjoy.

E. also likes family photographs, which is prompting me to scan some more of my parents and other family members so I can put them on my phone to show her. People tell me I am kind to visit E. regularly. That’s as maybe; to me it’s an exchange, of what I am not sure, but I get from my visits something I don’t get in any other way. When E. says she is tired of life and would like to go to sleep and not wake up in the morning, I tell her I would miss her. And I will.

Here’s the rather strange Frances Darwin Cornford poem:

To a Lady Seen From the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves.
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?


Death of a Puppy

This poem was written by Liu Xiaobo in 1998. The “Xia” referred to was his wife. Between the early 1950s and into the 2000s in China, from time to time, orders would be given to kill all the dogs in parts of the country.

No Enemies, No Hatred

My Puppy Died
To my beloved Pinky

My love, my puppy died
while I was out one afternoon
killed with Dad’s belt
and Red lies

My love, its name was Tiger
my closest childhood friend
it brought me far more joy and sorrow
than anything

That afternoon was special
Dad bought me a movie ticket
always making revolution
he’d never touched my heart before

I only got ninety minutes
then cruel lies ripped me to shreds
my puppy died
while I was first feeling a father’s love

Its flesh handed out to the neighbour boys
its hide nailed to the back of our door
Tiger, once so full of life
now splayed across the stiff cold wood

With its death
my childhood vanished
my only words for this dark world:
I’ll never believe any more

My darling Xia, can you
bring back my puppy?
I believe: you can
I’m sure you can. I’m sure!

This poem is from a book called No Enemies No Hatred, a collection of essays and poems published in the US in 2013. The over-riding and passionate call throughout the collection is that all people without power should – must, in a just world – be treated with respect and humanity.

A Chinese intellectual, Liu Xiaobo is highly critical of many of his fellows and admires a few. He has a sharp turn of phrase and is a pleasure to read (translated into English). In his writings he is trying to determine how people can live a just life, reminding me at times of Montaigne. He admires some aspects of Western democracies, criticises others and notes that Westerners have a pervasive sense of superiority: “Even when criticizing themselves, they become besotted with their own courage and sincerity.”

I’m loving this book.

Thorbjørn Jagland awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010

Thorbjørn Jagland awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010

Liu Xiaobo is 58. He was involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests that were crushed by the army. (He criticises himself for not being more involved.) Liu Xiaobo was gaoled in 2009, sentenced to 11 years in prison for on subversion charges for organising a petition against one-party rule in China.

For more information and an opportunity to protest against Liu Xiaobo’s incarceration, go to: 


“What did you think …?”

A friend (A… ) and I had a conversation recently about two prizewinning books, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Both are long, in the region of 800 pages. Both have won major prizes this year: The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; The Luminaries won the Man Booker.

The Luminaries

I really liked The Luminaries, and wrote about it here. A… didn’t like it at all, found the characters unmemorable and the story repetitive – it ended back where it had begun, she said, reprising what was told in the beginning. The most positive thing she said about it was that she learnt a bit about gold-mining.

I didn’t take to the protagonist in The Goldfinch, found the descriptions of both settings and drug use overdone to the point of tediousness and thought it redeemed only by some interesting discussion near the end about the endurance of art (as distinct from a human life) and how it can make us see beauty in the world where we hadn’t seen it before. On the other hand A… thought it was a terrific, widely-encompassing book with a number of compelling scenes that endured well beyond the reading.

The GoldfinchWe both read a lot. I respect A…’s opinions (she has taught English literature, I have not). We neither of us changed our opinions about the books.

The conversation reminded me of times when I have felt like a minority opinion in liking – or not – a film/ book/ television show that everyone around me had an opposing view of. What I really liked, though, was that talking about why I admired one book and not the other with someone who disagreed made me articulate what I based my opinion on. That happens when my partner Prue and I talk about a book we have both read, too. And it’s one of the things I like about being in a book group.

Talking about books can be just about as much fun as reading them.

“Enter a messenger”

This is how they get the news in a Shakespearean play; a minor character comes in, with good news or bad, false tidings or true and the plot moves along with an exchange or soliloquy involving major players.

From the internet, artist unknown

From the internet, artist unknown

Nowadays, of course, messages are carried electronically and conveyed instantaneously and continuously. The soldier running in from the battlefield or the maid from the boudoir has been replaced by the journalist standing in the rain by the mudslide or the blogger/ tweeter/ texter/ face-booker tapping the story out on their mobile device. With pictures, of course.

I’m thinking about this because my friend Sylvia and I have just finished our reading aloud together of all the Shakespearean plays, along with the blog I wrote about this here. We noticed early on that “Enter a messenger” was the most commonly used stage direction. (It came with variations, the most gruesome of which was, “Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand,” from Titus Andronicus.) Apart from the occasional fight or murder, a lot of the action in Shakespeare’s plays occurs off stage. It’s a demonstration of the dramatist’s genius that this doesn’t matter. (Some modern film makers could take note.)


I can’t say I remember every play, but I’ve been reminded of ones I’d studied at school or seen performed and gained a few more favorites, such as Henry IV, Part II. It’s pretty commonly known that Shakespeare is the source of many phrases and quotes in common use, but just how many we recognised as we read was extraordinary. Who remembers that “to the manor born,” comes from Hamlet? Or knew that “one fell swoop” is in Macbeth? Now I wish I’d taken note, or at least tallied a count.

Sylvia and I are both sorry to have come to the end of these readings. I’m planning to read along with the new project by Dennis Abrams covering several books (in English) by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami at I’m sure I’ll have something to say about this in due course.

Middlemarch, or, George Eliot is a woman

Mary Ann Evans was a novelist, journalist and translator, and is described in Wikepedia and other places, as “one of the leading writers of the Victorian era.” Of her seven novels Middlemarch is the best known, and of course the author is known as George Eliot. Mary Ann thought her work would be taken more seriously if it was thought to be written by a man; she did not want to be stereotyped as a writer of lighthearted romances. She may also have been shielding herself from scandal about her twenty year relationship with George Henry Lewes, who was married to someone else.


Middlemarch is one of those books that is described as “one of the best books you have never read.” It first appeared in 1871-2 in episodes and was published as a book in 1874. It’s long, and requires attention and is a terrific book. The main protagonist, Dorothea, wants to “lead a grand life here — now — in England.” She envies the men around her their access to education and is desperate to find a means of doing good. (Her idea of a grand life has nothing to do with fame and fortune. She has plenty of money.) Industrialisation and the rise of science is changing every aspect of the world around her.

Interesting, if not always likeable, characters, male and female, abound. The writing is serious and engaging and there’s a kind of authorial commentary on the state of society from time to time. People — both their appearance and character — are described in detail, as are domestic, social and outdoor settings.

George Eliot at 30, painted by Francois d'Albert Durade

George Eliot at 30, painted by Francois d’Albert Durade

I can see that Middlemarch would not be to everyone’s reading taste, but I found it fun and rewarding. George Eliot is pretty perceptive about people and many of her character descriptions had me laughing out loud as I thought of contemporary figures they could apply to.


Painting by Frederick WIlliam Burton, 1864

Painting by Frederick WIlliam Burton, 1864

I Read it in the London Review of Books: Translating Finnegans Wake — the Not Quite so Famous Book by James Joyce — Into Chinese

LRBThere’s a woman on the job
who’s translated the first third
and vague about when she’ll finish
what with family and work.

This other woman – me – is ploughing on.
I’ve written a first draft of the first third
of a novel about saving the world
one small step at a time
in many different places.

I went to a dinner at the Chinese Embassy
here in Wellington
where people from both countries
congratulated each other on two exhibitions
from China
at Te Papa Tongarewa

and kept saying – everyone said it –
the exhibitions are a cultural thing –
important in themselves
not to do with trade,
although the exposure will help with that.
Of course.

Some of ‘our’ taonga are over there
travelling about. Being good exposure.
Maori items are good for that, we know.

Don’t miss the paintings of Shi Lu.
The one of Mao on the cliff made me laugh;
It would have taken only a little push.
Shi Lu was sent to prison.
The flowers with calligraphy
are so so beautiful
there’s nothing to say.

I’ll finish my book. I guess the woman
who is translating a book no-one
understands in English into Chinese
will finish some time.
The first third is published and is,
they say, a best-seller.

A Thought on Aging

I’ve got a cold and am feeling blah, so went to my file of “scraps,” which consists of occasional thoughts scribbled down in random moments, for this week’s piece.

One of my favourite sights in Wellington City

One of my favourite sights in Wellington City

There’s realizing that the fantasies
won’t come to pass.

You’ll never be good enough at calligraphy
You’ll never be able to read Proust in French
You’ll never be skilled enough at drawing to     make cartoons
You’ll never be able to follow a music score.
You’ll never design and make a website.

You know in a whole new way that there’s not enough life span left
for these things to become.

Who you are, what you can do now, are it.
You might become a better reader of poetry
write something you are truly proud of
help a friend
experience joy, contentment, transcendence even.

And that must be enough.

Write On!

Earlier this year I resolved to get back into writing the novel I was working on last year. To this end I’ve been organising the materials I’ve gathered, reading what I’ve already written and thinking about ways to carry the story forward to where I want it to go. I’m also thinking about how to convey a setting, later in the story, In a place I have never been. Lonely Planet and internet here I come.


Where the writing mostly happens. I have a notebook, of course, for ideas and thoughts that occur when I’m out and about or in bed.

There are really no excuses left to stop me adding new words in the coming weeks.

I’ve got thirty thousand words, so I’m not starting from the very beginning. The story is building up to a Dramatic Event and after that there are some developments I’m not at all sure about leading up to the finale, which takes place in the year 2023.

So, get writing, I say to myself. One word after another.

“‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief—”


For Sally.

The whole Emily Dickinson poem from which the title of this blog entry comes is here. Unlike some of her other, and some say better, poems on grief, it offers a little comfort. Kind of. Why I like the poem is that it suggests that all grief is grief (“They’re Water — equally —”), none diminishes or elevates another.

My daughter Helen died in January 1996. This week, on April 9, she would have turned fifty. I don’t know what to make of this. Who would she be at fifty? Would she have had children? Where in the world would she be living? How would we get on together? What relationship would she have with her brother? With my partner? These questions, and others like them, encapsulate my loss. So this is what becomes of raw, angry grief, this absence, this not-knowing, this Helen-shaped hole in my world.

There’s nothing sentimental about loss, it’s a hard, sharp thing. And universal. In everyone’s life, sooner or later, one way or another. I’ve just finished reading Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman. Protagonist Adamine is born in a leper colony in Jamaica and her mother dies at the birth. And she is a warner woman, warning of impending disasters. When she goes to England – and what young person from Jamaica hasn’t gone somewhere? – warnings are understood as mental illness.

The Last Warner Woman

Adamine’s life is one loss after another, she even has to fight to keep her name, her birth having been accidentally registered using her mother’s name. She tells her story to Writer Man, who turns out to be … no, I’m not telling … and who ponders on stories and where they begin and what books are for and writes, “… here is the sad truth: Books end, and pages thin, and every word is pulling us towards that last, climactic full stop.”