Storm Warning

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I’d seen it before. His face darkening. Glowering. I don’t mean in the theatrical sense. There were no histrionics involved. No actor could build the layers, manufacture the almost imperceptible tautness at the edges of the mouth, flex and purse the bottom lip in ways that suggested appraisal. Critical appraisal.
The eyes worked in tandem with the nostrils. The black, necromancer’s pupils pulsing in time to the sibilant breathing. The long mesomorphic levers – his arms – resting on the seat in front of him, somehow creating a perfectly balanced composition. He was both beautiful and dread in his stillness.
I’d seen it before. I knew what would happen. The first recognition of unbidden intrusion met with calm civility. A friendly smile and a suggestion of equanimity. All the while, the eyes appraising, the gestures encouraging.
Some time passes. Enough time for his words to be either heeded or ignored. He looks over at me. There is concern there but also resolve. And by now the darkening has wrought an almost metaphysical change. Then it happens. He’s out of his seat and turned to face his tormentors in a single movement. ‘I only ever ask once’, he says quietly to the man he holds in mid-air by his coat lapels.
I’m shaking – scared. But the man and his companions leave and they’re not waiting outside the cinema as I worried they might.
‘I think Bob Mitchum would have approved’, he says to me. ‘And Charles Laughton too.‘ He smiled as he guided me onto the bus home. ‘We won’t tell mum though, eh?

Author’s Note
When I was about 11 or 12 years old, my father took me on a long bus ride to a cinema to see ‘Night of the Hunter’ – a movie he had keenly anticipated seeing. Shortly after we had taken our seats, a half-dozen or so ‘teddy boys’ came and sat behind us. Dad dealt with the situation.

Widow’s Walk

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I knew her as Mrs Wraith. Winsome Wraith was her name. She came in the night while I slept and saw to it that I knew of her distress. It seemed to me that her great sorrow defined her existence rather more than her Nantucket provinciality. Living on an island that the native Algonquian people  called ‘a faraway place’ was one thing – but mourning for a man, a mysterious man, who had sacrificed himself to Mishibijiw, the Water Panther, was quite another.

Walter Wraith had courted and married Winsome Coffin in the summer of 1830. Walter was a newcomer and Winsome was old money. Her ancestor, Tristram Coffin, was one of the island’s original owners. A friend of John Smith’s. But Walter had a shaman’s ways and soon convinced his bride to fund the building from live oak of a 300 ton whaler, ‘The Starbuck’ – of which he would be the master.
How do I know this? Winsome has told me of it on those many occasions while I stared up at her from my narrow bed. Stared into those spectral, eternal eyes, framed by a glowing yellow moon. Listened as she paces around the belvedere at the top of the harbourside mansion where I have been transported in my dreams. Listened as she beats her breast and cries Walter’s name. Watched as she arches her body, thrusts back her head and entreats the moon, the unforgiving sea, the dissembling breeze to return her errant husband; restore him to her arms, to her cold bed.

And then she returns. Implores me. Holds out those wasted, pitiful hands. The anguish in her voice cannot be borne. She recounts once more the story of her lost child, William. She describes Walter’s despair. His rage. How he took ‘The Starbuck’ out into the fury of a New England storm. And how she is consigned now to stand duty each night, hopelessly staring at an unyielding horizon, waiting for her love’s return. Her only companion, her dead son, William.

The Best Way to Kill Bernie

Puffing and staggering my uncertain way through 20 or so lengths at the Hydrotherapy Pool this morning, a couple of fellow travellers, thrashing around, caught my eye. ‘I can’t keep my balance,’ one of them said to me, winsomely I thought. I smiled at her, wolfishly I thought. ‘Then you should put more water in it’, I countered. Given our location and the 8am showing on the Pool clock, I estimated this piece of wry irony might elicit a smile – or possibly a chuckle. The singular absence of such a reaction, I took as either a sign of no sense of humour or a sign of a very well-developed sense of humour. My equanimity, at least, was firmly in place.

And that’s what I’ve been working on. Balance. For the last month or so, I’ve been turning up at the Wellington Regional Aquatic Centre in Kilbirnie, 3 or 4 times a week, and doing things in water that I can’t do on land. That sounds a bit Benny Hillish, I know – but what I mean is walking, running on the spot, star jumps and a range of other movements not possible for me to achieve out of the water.  I have a condition called peripheral neuropathy  and my legs contain only the fond memory of full mobility. I’m trying to help my body recover those memories and maybe, just maybe, be able to take a few steps without sticks, or a handrail, or a helping hand. To do, even if only for a few seconds, what I did, thoughtlessly, just 10 years ago. If I can do that, who knows where it may lead? A walk around an art exhibition and then back here to write a damning review perhaps? A walk over to the Lighthouse to see a movie and then back here to write a damning review perhaps? A walk through to Cuba Street for a meal in a posh restaurant and then back here to…no wait. Just a walk will do, thanks. That would be okay.

I’m getting lots of help and encouragement getting to, in and from the Pool. Pat, Josh and Hannah are all involved and one of them is always with me to ensure I don’t do a Mr Bean. There are many others at the Pool that succumb to its 34 degree pleasures, pursuing a sense, maybe a hope of well-being. It’s a community asset. A taonga. Certainly worth writing about.

Splat

 

In Praise of Dishonesty

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I’m not painfully honest. I’m serenely dishonest. I have to be – there’s a lot riding on it.
Imagine what might happen if I told you the truth. Before I examine that ludicrous proposition – do you even know what the truth is? And before I examine that ludicrous proposition – do you even know what a lie is? An untruth; a mendacity; a porky; a fib; a load of cobblers. Or shades thereof? Obfuscation; dissembling; weasel words; deception; disinformation.
You see? Dishonesty comes in many guises. Dishonesty has evolved in a way Darwin would have understood. If you’re an advanced thinker, like me, you’ll understand that language is cognitive – a survival tool. Shielding others from harmful facts, for example, has become an obligation that may only be discharged by the most noble and wise amongst us. We’re willing, even content, to assume the burden of disapproval and rejection in order to ensure that you – yes, I mean you – are able to lay your head on the pillow at night and pull the wool over your own eyes. Suspecting everything but knowing nothing. Confident that your ignorance, your very unknowingness, will provide the fuel to light not just otherwise meaningless lives but entire industries. Every train-home discussion, every pub argument, every social media thread, every public service meeting has a symbiotic relationship with the radio, with the television, with the press, with the government, with the public relations spinners, with the marketing Buddhas, with the advertising creatives, with the Internet. And therefore with Bloggers like me. Can you trust me? Trust what I say? What I’m saying now? Is it true?
Which brings me back to where I started. What is the truth? Is it what you see, what you hear, what you smell –  when you walk into a room? What about the others that walked in with you? They’ll all have a different agenda. They will all be liars. Maybe just mistaken. But that’s pretty much the same thing, isn’t it? And what if each one of them believes that their experience was the truth? And that your experience – and all the others – was untrue. A lie. What then?
Don’t worry. I can answer that.
The aggregate of all those untruthful, mistaken ideas, opinions, points of view far outweighs the one objective truth that can, by definition, exist only in the abstract. But there is a mutual dependency which is an immutable law of nature. We need the myriad lies in order to identify that singular truth. Entire economies, whole nations, established belief systems – our continued existence as a species – is dependant upon our ability, individually and severally, to lie at every opportunity. To strive to raise the levels of dishonesty in every facet of our lives. Not only lying to others but to ourselves. Even to our pets. The more successful we become at that, the more we will cherish that elusive, single truth. Not just the idea of the truth but the reality of the idea of the truth.

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Spectres, Socialism & Salami

 

We’d been to Blackball before. About 20 years ago when Josh and Hannah were 13 and 8 and family holidays were a big part of our lives. Pat’s sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, John, had bought the old Police Station there and offered it to us for a week in summer. We had taken the ferry and driven down the West Coast from Picton before turning left at Greymouth.

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There are a number of townships in this part of the world, around the West Coast and Buller, that were once thriving and bustling communities. Some, like Lyell, a gold town, have completely disappeared – leaving only a commemorative plaque and some interpretive information to mark their former glory. Back in the day, when the coal was a needful staple of life, Blackball was something of a magnet for the men who could wrench it from the earth. And right behind the Police Station, I discovered a Rugby League pitch, still marked out, complete with a small stand. Blackball, it turned out, had had a champion League side and supplied several of the players for the New Zealand team. Mining and League had developed a symbiotic relationship here just as it had done in the UK. Not surprising then that the Labour Party has its origins in the Blackball of 1908 and that in the mid-1920s, The New Zealand Communist Party shifted its HQ there also.

Exploring the town in the 1990s, the years of neglect and the population of only 300 or so were ample evidence of how history had treated Blackball. Even so, closer inspection revealed a community that somehow reflected a spirit that shunned the mainstream and the conservative but embraced the alternatives; The Blackball Hilton was the perfect embodiment of how that worked. The local hotel, situated close by Hilton Street, adopting the name of the international hotel chain and attracting threats of legal actions that served to create the kind of notoriety much admired in New Zealand. Today, somewhat sadly  – but with a touch of pride – the sign outside the hotel refers to ‘Formerly the Blackball Hilton’.

The whānau had warned us that the Police Station was haunted. Not rumoured to be haunted, you understand. But haunted. Family members had experienced unnatural phenomena. Things had gone bump in the night. Their accounts were so detailed, so earnest that my Catholic training almost had me packing bell, book and candle. But my rationalist persona was scornful of such nonsense. And so it was that on our second evening, around 10pm, reading in bed, we were startled by the sound of heavy furniture being dragged across the wooden floor of the bedroom adjacent to ours which was occupied by Josh. Pausing only to reassure each other that we’d both heard the noise, we dashed across the hall and opened the door to the bedroom. Josh was sleeping soundly and his bed and the Edwardian wardrobe were undisturbed also. But it was a warm summer evening and the temperature in that room had dropped sufficiently to cause me to shiver. We checked the rest of the house and the immediate environs but could find nothing that might explain what we’d experienced.  Well, you know, maybe there are more things in heaven and earth…….

And so, last week, Josh and I were back in Blackball. It was a must see on our South Island Adventure and we dropped by on our way to Greymouth. First stop was the Police Station which seemed hardly to have changed. But the pitch markings and the stand were no longer in the field behind the house.  Looking around, there are some signs of gentrification. Sewage has been connected and some of the old miners’ cottages have been bought up by Mainlanders looking for holiday homes. The swimming pool and bowling green are still there. And, of course, The Hilton, somehow enshrining the spirit of Barry Crump and every Good Keen Man wanting pavlova on the menu. The big success story, though, the Blackball Salami Company continues to flourish and our purchases added to its $1m annual turnover. An achievement made all the more astounding knowing that the previous owner, Peter Lamont, had murdered his wife in 2009.  But communal resilience is something that West Coasters are noted for. I wish Blackball and its residents well. It’s not just the salami that has a unique flavour.

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Ali The Killer

He came dancing across the canvas
With his poems and his puns
Fighting for the new world
And a place to share the sun

On the floor lay the Draft Board
With their orders and their laws
By himself he often wondered
About their secret world

And his followers stood round him
Some sat at his knee
He saw their many colours
More than the Gods could see

And the ideas all were beautiful
And the principles were strong
His freedom would be sacrifice
So others could go on

So hate might be a legend
And war be never known
That peoples work together
And together lift the stone

The fight he took to many lands
Some died along the way
He built up with his gloved hands
What can’t be built today

But I hope he’ll be remembered
For what he did that day
When he killed the men who wanted
To send him on his way

He came dancing across the canvas
Ali, Ali
What a killer

Splat

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mean Mistreater – Blues For John

You’re a mean mistreater Johnny
Don’t got no place to live
You’re a wife beater Johnny
My wife beat so bad
She ain’t got no more to give

You’re a blot on the landscape
See your city from the Moon
A political date rape
My people beat so bad
They come looking for you soon

You wear a black hat John boy
You the villain of the piece
You use a black jack John boy
You need my life so bad
I’d like to give you peace

You just lying where you stand man
The truth ain’t got no use
Count the fingers on my hand man
When you shake it so bad
My only change is loose

You’re a mean mistreater Johnny
Nothing deader than your eyes
But you’re on the meter Johnny
It’s really not so bad
If nothing lives then nothing dies

Splat