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Sunday, December 28, 2008


The birthday feast. Lunch all over by 7pm.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

but wiser?

Fresh this morning is this portrait of me as an older man.

Today I turn 49 and am thinking about age and the past. This is my grandfather, Bill, on the left and his three brothers. He and Dot had eight children. The family moved from Rangiwahia to Kairanga and one of my uncles kept the dairy farm until he retired.
These are Bill's parents, Jack and Lavinia. Jack had moved to a new settlement at Rangiwahia following the ffrench-Pemberton family who his father worked for. He married Lavinia in 1898.

Bill's father's parents, Hugh and Margaret.
Donald Duff and Grace Low who arrived in NZ in 1861 from Perthshire. They both pretended to be younger than they were to meet migration rules. Their Grand daughter Margaret married Hugh Carr.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

“He ao! He ao! He ao tea roa!”

Looking at Glebe from Te Horo and looking at Te Horo from Glebe, or the points on the coast that are the closest.

In Sydney we live on the fringe and yet constantly show we don't, most of us, understand the sea. It is, like all pre-1788 Australia, there to be conquered. Having once been caught in an undertow in a relatively benign bay I now am wary of the power of volumes of water. Each year Australians and visitors to Oz drown when they're ripped away when not being mindful of their surroundings. Respect would be the starting point.

We, the post-26 January 1788 arrivistes, are tourists trying to make our new land home by seeing it as a version of home. We remain "fresh off the boat" despite our claims to be local.

What must the traditional owners think when people with roots less than 220 years old or deep squabble over which mob is really Australian? Like gatecrashers scrapping over a plundered beer cache?

And what must the land feel? Formations 200,000,000 years old in the guardianship of one group for the last 40 or 60,000 years or so and scrabbled over by dozens of others for the last 220 years.

There's a story about an elderly Aboriginal man and a gubba or Anglo woman stepping up to a counter in a bank at the same time. Their eyes met and the woman said "I think you were here first". After a pause the man said "I think I was". They both smiled an old smile of recognition and acknowledgement.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Big mac

My coffee shop of choice is Sappho's across the road from the Glebe Public School. Usually I drink a macchiato.

After discovering this small but perfectly formed beverage in a coffee shop in Wgtn fifteen years ago I'd been disappointed by every one I'd had in Sydney until I ordered one at Sappho's in its new location. My daughter, now eight, was attending a preparation for big school programme at Glebe PS called Head Start. After we settled her in my younger daughter and I would go to Sappho's. On the first day I ordered a macchiato - a short that most places get wrong in a perplexing variety of ways. Buying one is always a leap of faith.

But this was liquid heaven - smooth, bitter, sweet, sharp, hot, warm, shocking and relaxing. The barrista of the day, Toby, restored my faith in Sydney coffee making. In a glass with a tiny amount of milk and a stain of froth. After seven years of mediocre or just plain bad macs I was instantly reminded of why it's my favourite drink.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Store of family memorabilia is 'a unique record'

My email to and chats with a journo from The Glebe made it into print yesterday. The local state MP has organised a petition with her photo and contact details prominent asking the council to protect the home.

Her government has just rushed through legislation to allow two story properties to be built without any public previewing of the development plans or any local council involvement in the approval process. In a state ridden with shonks and greedniks this is dangerous and casts further doubt on the ethics and real interests of the current administration.

The NSW Labor government is a lame duck which has almost no chance of retaining power in the next election. The Premier is in the same situation as George Bush but the changeover won't occur for years (2011 perhaps ?)

Regrettably the Liberals should sail in on a "We can't be any worse but" or "Anything but the ALP" ticket. Providing BO'F can keep the weirdo religious and fascist cabals hidden away till then and the ALP keeps letting its loons off the leash. Bizarrely Smilin' Bob Carr, the ALP's Dr Doolittle, is looking better and better in hindsight.

It's a toss up between the treasonous military landgrabbers/alcohol-spruikers who overthrew Bligh, Robyn "What's the cash price?" Askin's crooks and the Carr/Iemma/whoever's left era for the dodgiest period of NSW governance. Probably still Askin by a nose this week but the current regime will be stumbling on for a while yet coughing up blood. What's that the Fench say? The more things change the more they stay the same?

At federal level the brown coal industry is once again dictating the country's environment policies.

Check out:

Remember Peter Garrett? Singer of "How can you sleep while the planet is burning?" I think he's now in a covers band that finishes each night with a medley of "It ain't easy being green", "Always look on the bright side", "Don't worry, be happy" and "Shaddup you face". Either that or working out how to get more government subsidies for companies that put asbestos into ethanol-flavoured cigarettes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Safe landing/Home from home

I am sitting at a window seat. We've landed and are waiting. I see a luggage train. I recognise the bags. They're mine - all of them. I see the ones I bought with me but either recognise the others or know they're mine as well - every piece of baggage is mine. I'm roused from my thoughtfulness by the sight of two children standing on the tarmac.

They stand silently staring and I know and they know that the luggage train is heading for them. They wait stoically. I watch in horror. I know these children - girls aged eight and four - my daughters, our daughters standing calmly and confidently. The train travels recklessly as they often seem to.

The plane is one of those shared flights from Wellington to Sydney, the passengers a mix of AirNew Zealand and Qantas customers. I seem to be the only one on board although the flight is full. I am alone with too many people too close. I see the speeding luggage train. I see the waiting girls. I anticipate the impact.

The train with all my baggage, accumulated over almost 49 years, hits them. They almost don't notice. Luggage and pieces of the train fly everywhere. The contents of the cases and boxes and bags blow around. My daughters see me through the plane window and start waving.

Later at home I tell the story of the crash. The eight year old rolls her eyes and accuses me of being an extremist. The four year has moved on to other better more four-year-old centric stories mainly about kindy friends and candy canes.

It's good to be home.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Tully Mathews

This brick was once part of a chimney in a cottage built for Tamati Waka Nene at Russell/Kororareka.

For the last decade or so I've been researching brickmaking in NSW - I got on to this because an unsourced remark in a book on trades in NZ referred to Samuel Marsden training young Maori men in brickmaking at Parramatta ca.1819. Much pottering about led me to Tully Mathews, a convict from Louth, who worked for the CMS at Oihi or Rangihoua making bricks in 1816.

There was a Terry Mathews of Glebe who died in 1847 who may have been the same man.

The brick research fed into a friend and mentor's Samuel Marsden biography which was discussed today on Chris Laidlaw's Sunday Morning show on Radio New Zealand:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No country for old men

Grief is like an ocean. And as in Solaris we're never certain how deep, how fast moving or how near the shore we are. Lately I've been led to think about death and dying, those that die young and those that die too soon. I find myself at sea at odd moments.

The first time I was aware of this happening as an adult was at a performance of 'Boy from Oz' - twelve years ago, pre-Huge Ackman with a more talented but less photogenic and less marketable lead. I come from a musical family - musicals rather than musical, one brother met his wife when he was a Nazi and she a nun in The Sound of Music. Perhaps simply as a point of difference I don't like them, Gang Shows, Hair, JC Superstar, Bye Bye Birdy, Cats etc, I do not like them, green rooms and ham.

But a parent and a sibling were in town when Boy from Oz was on so we went - I was promised Boy from Oz maraccas if I behaved. I only knew Peter Allen's smashhits and didn't know the Judy Garland/Liza with a Z back story. Oh and Peter Allen was gay! There's a Peter Allen song Tenterfield Sadler about his grandfather, a sadler from Tenterfield. I'd never heard it before but it threw me into the ocean. A wave of grief reached out and dragged me in.

My father's father died when I was about eight. He was a dairy farmer with huge strong hands. He died of some heart and lung thing when he was about 67. When he was too weak to milk he worked at a milk treatment station which was where I thought he made the Milky Bars he always semed to have. Years later I discovered the factory made milk powder and those compressed milk powder biscuits - no chocolate - he must've bought them from a dairy.

So I'm sitting in a darkened theatre in Chinatown sobbing for my lost grandfather because of Peter Allen's music.

I think too of my mother's father - he drowned when she was about 15. He was a lawyer but also an outdoorsy bloke, a-huntin' and a-fishin'. At the later notorious McLaren's Falls he slid off a rock, hit his head on another and drowned. At my mother's boarding school the gels were lined up:

"All those gels with two parents step forward, you gel, where do you think you're going? Your father drowned an hour ago, as you were, gels"

"Thanks, ma'am"
or something along those lines.

This lawyer/angler has been a spectral presence ever since. The tall rich grandfather who left us with lesser lives. My grandmother's descent into madness may have not happened or may have happened differently if he'd been more careful with his feet. The gloom of the English farm labourer has had Irish and Scottish melancholy and dourness added to it and so we're small sad people given to mawkish sentiment in tawdry spaces.

And when the ocean reaches out for us we're drawn back into the depths - the overwhelming "S/He is gone-ness" of our loss and losses and the losses of others. Another day when you go to bed a different person than who you woke up as. A sadder lonelier person - not waving but drowning and much much too far out. Some lifelines are attached to rock and some to driftwood. You don't know until the tide tightens the rope and you feel a solid end, an answer, the rope sings like a guitar string or bowstring and you are attached. Or like Ahab you are tethered to your own White Whale and drown chasing yourself.

Alone we are born and die alone, but if by chance we find each other and our love becomes a warm embrace or a safe harbour, 'Arisaig' in language, and not a funeral pyre then we can be whole for a time. I'm learning about transmutation and the clensing creative power of flame.

Old brickmen would talk about firings "answering". They'd taste the brick earth to determine if it was likely to answer and then tend the flame feeding and starving it through the burn. The clamp kiln would heat up and be held at the soak temp for as long as necessary. Then the waiting. Only when the kiln was unpacked would you know how many underfired bricks (doughboys in Sydney) you'd have and how many overfired ones (clinkers). If you'd hired an itinerant brickmaker he may have long gone before the kiln was cool enough to touch. You'd hope for at least a third usable bricks but a skilled stacker and burner, with an eye for the weather could get you more. If the clay answered.

There were critical periods in the production process. The moulded bricks would need to dry stacked in rows or hacks, inclement weather could destroy them if no shelter was available. This assumes that time, energy and means were available to process the clay- a year exposed to the rain and frost in England - then pugging by foot or horse powered mill, removal or grinding of extraneous matter, the addition of sand or water when necessary - a complex process requiring the skills of an alchemist. The tasting of the earth led to many old brickmen getting mouth or throat cancer.

The transmutation of earth and water to treasure through fire is seen to replicate the pathway to spiritual growth - I found out on Monday. Base metal to gold = the psychotherapeutic journey or dance. Clay to brick, or porcelain. And who doesn't love the wheel-throwing scene in 'Ghost'?

My grandmother lived at Takapuna years later. My youngest uncle was at home with her until boarding school. She was fascinated by the sea and one night took him by the hand to walk across to Rangitoto over the silvery yellow path laid by the moon. He didn't go. She didn't do the physical walk but all her life has had moments too far from the shore and with her path less substantial than it seemed when she set out.

She's done the full catalogue of NZ mental health from being an "odd child", having "turns", "nervous breakdowns", depression, manic depression, bi-polar disorder, pre-senile dementia but now is in the protective cocoon of dementia. Lost to the present she enjoys bright colours and pretty things and, I hear, always welcomes visits from stangers. Some real, some she gave birth to 60 or more years ago but she's mostly meeting them anew. When I last saw her she was mostly connected to the present and to the past in the usual ways. I did find out that the local community assumed she was drunk all the time though she rarely drank. I met a man who worked in her bank where she was a figure of fun. A newly discovered distant relative hoped my uncle wasn't related to the drunken old woman with the same surname, his mother actually.

My sense is that she is now happy in a way that she wasn't for the first 35 years I knew her.

When someone descends into madness there is grief in those left behind and sometimes in the mad there is grief for the road not travelled and the plans not fulfilled.

I've been told it's all fear, fear of the past is sadness or guilt, fear of the present is anger and fear of the future is fear. Mad, bad, scared, sad and glad. More glad would be good.

Back to Martin Luther King:
  • Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.
    • Stride Toward Freedom : the Montgomery Story (1958)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hawkesbury Sandstone

The interpretive sign above the cliffs at Coogee gives a brief description of the rock on and of which Sydney is built.

A more comprehensive explanation of the first 200,000,000 years of Sydney's history can be found here:

or more specifically here:

There's a bloke, Ralph Hawkins, who told me that though bricks are interesting you could only approach a true understanding of human activity from a study of timber roof shingles. I caught up with Ralph down the Wentworth Park dog track on Sunday morning and briefly discussed 'Altar Ego' Richard Quinn's Samuel Marsden biography.

Ralph had some interesting ideas about Tristan the Aboriginal boy the Marsdens "adopted" who later jumped ship in Rio and finally found near death living outside Sydney.

It was a shabby sequence of events and does the Marsdens no credit. Tristan seemed both son and servant and Flogger Sam's attitude towards him reflected his general contempt for Aboriginal people.

I have the car radio set to the Koori station - less disposable music and banal grandstanding than most stations and oftentimes fascinating material. There's more Maori hip-hop on air in Redfern than on most NZ stations. Gearing up for Australia/Invasion Day on January 26th at the present.

I often try to work out where indigenous/non-indigenous relations stand in Straya compared to NZ. My current thinking is that Oz is about where NZ was before WWI - in terms of the emergence of an indigenous middle class, acceptance across broader society, engagement with the education system etc.

When I was working in an adolescent rehab unit here I went to an Aboriginal health training session. It was run by a Aboriginal man named Paul Newman and he, in his late 30s in 1998, was the first Aboriginal person to have graduated with an economics degree ever. I couldn't help but compare this with the Young Maori Party.

When I was in Smellingtown last Xmas all the people sleeping rough were Maori. My mate Kenny the electrician from the Hutt taught English in Japan for a while in the early 1980s. He had a particularly reluctant student and asked her why she seemed unteachable. She replied "You are from New Zealand and I don't like people from countries which practise Apartheid".

I don't think she was speaking metaphorically. Five or six years later I was buying some shoe laces in rasta colours from a black African hawker in a Paris Metro subway. When I told him I was from NZ he shook my hand in thanks as he wanted to acknowledge how supported he felt, as a black man, by New Zealanders. As if the place was some kind of multi-cultural utopia and champion of people of colour all over the world.

So NZrace relations lie somewhere between apartheid and paradise and perhaps 90 years nearer utopia than Oz.

Foucault's Pendulum

There's a short video here:

Unberto Eco's book appeared a decade or so before 'Da Vinci Code' which is often compared to it.

Asked whether he'd read the Brown novel, Eco replied:

"I was obliged to read it because everybody was asking me about it. My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.

- But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel.

No. In Foucault’s Pendulum I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures."


I presumably am also one of Eco's creatures as I went to Paris after reading the book to see the location of the opening sequence involving Casaubon one of the three main characters.

For a time there were, and maybe still are, Da Vinci Code tours in the UK. Can't imagine the same for Eco's novel but then again Ruth is stranger than Richard.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Property is theft

I'm not proudhon of myself for stealing the title - indeed I have no title to it.

I've been involved in the distributing of unwanted stuff from a deceased estate - two doors down the hill from me. The house and adjacent lot are variously said to be worth somewhere between $A500,000 and $A2,000,000.

The detritus, the objects abandoned were only of nuisance value to the estate. I organised to have some of it cleaned and sold to raise money for the school my daughters attend - a lot of time and effort for a relatively small return. For my efforts I was bailed up in the Kauri Foreshore Hotel and accused of fraud.

The Mitchell Library has accessioned the family papers and photos which I think is better than them going into landfill. The Glebe Society has accepted a small number of objects into its collection and some has been included in a digital database of textile design. All good, I'd have thought.

I also forwarded on mail at the request of the last occupant of the house and the wife of the executor - seemed the neighbourly think to do. The result? - the executor now states that my redirecting of mail is a criminal act under some vague law relating to the carriage of postal items and that my touching the letter box is an act of trespass. It'll be a frosty night at Executor Mansions when the Post Office police drag me and his missus off on conspiracy charges.

Don't know the man, never met him, know nothing about him. Well, now I'm getting a sense of him. Up to a point I'd blame grief but this seems more like gold fever.

I think the whiff of free money brings out the creeps.

I also think that when someone makes a bizarre accusation against someone else it's usually a confession of a personal weakness and can be motivated by guilt and shame. Some kind of Jungian thing.

I accuse you of that which I am most disgusted of in my own character! You are the fraudster not me! You are the criminal, thief and unwelcome one, not me!

My bad resides in you, not me! I am good and you? You are bad! To the core!

It'll all blow over - bullies dissipate - little men shrink away - the greedy eat their young.

What is becoming more apparent is that my ex-neighbour's code of treating all people with patience, tolerance and respect has resulted in the assembling of a motley crew of dependents who display none of these attributes.

He was patient with the impatient, tolerant of the intolerable and acted with respect towards the unrespectable. His property going on the market was like a rock being lifted off a dark damp place.

I'm almost hoping the wreckers come through, pave it and put up a parking lot. Maybe we only get one good neighbour.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The final tidy up

Yesterday the Field Librarian from the Mitchell came and collected all the family papers and photos I'd salvaged from next door. He also took a few of the objects that fit in with the papers.

The items he thought the Powerhouse Museum would want were two pairs of handmade shoes and an artificial leg.

The story behind these wee shoes may be contained in the papers.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā

A pogo-ing Maori celebrates the dawn at Coogee.


A relative died in France yesterday- not completely unexpected but still unwelcome. She was about 90 and had been poorly for some years.

By now the French whanaunga will have conveyed the news to her husband of 70 years. I almost can't think it - seventy years is about how long some of the men of my grandfather's generation lived. It's a lifetime not a relationship. Perhaps, if you're lucky they're the same thing.


"We are such sad small people," she wrote, "standing, each alone in a circle, trying to forget that death and terror are near. But death comes, and terror comes, and then we join hands and the circle is really magic. We have the strength then to face terror and death, even to laugh and make fun of being alive, and after that even to make more music and writing and dancing. But always, deep down, we are small sad people standing humanly alone. Oh for the hands to be joined for ever and the magic circle never to be broken..."

I can't remember where that came from - something to do with Janet Frame I think.