Thursday, 28 February 2013

From Paradise to Shit-ville

Things haven’t gone according to plan in Cambodia.  We had expected to spend a couple of weeks out on the islands with our grandchildren, doing a bit of snorkelling on the coral reefs, perhaps learning more about diving, playing on the beach with the children and generally chilling out.  But, 24 hours later we were back on the mainland.
Going to the island
The first inkling that things were going to be tricky was when the boat approached the village jetty.  There was a notice tied to a bamboo pole and three policemen waiting for us.  We weren’t going to be allowed to land.  After some furious negotiation, the boat was finally allowed to dock and we got off.  

Eventually we learned what it was all about.  There was conflict in the village between pro-conservationists and anti-conservationists.  Eco-tourism has given the villagers a taste of the benefits you can get from making money out of tourists and a section of the village want to develop that.  Entrepreneurs want to create a resort.  Others oppose it and want to keep the status quo. The previous evening Neil’s son had been beaten up in the village bar. He had a broken nose and a lot of bruises.  The atmosphere was very tense.

We checked into our palm thatched hut, had an afternoon siesta and watched the sun set in the sea.  It was very beautiful. We happily settled in for two weeks of peace and quiet.  But the following morning it was decided that it might be safer for Neil’s son to take his wife and children back to the mainland, so we had to go with them on the afternoon boat to Sihanoukhville.  It was a very sad little group on the boat.

It’s still high season here, so all the reasonably priced ‘european’ hotels near the beach were full and we wanted to be near Neil’s son’s house in order to see the children.  So we booked into a Khmer guest house at the ‘wrong’ end of town.  This is not touristville - this is the ‘real’ Cambodia that visitors rarely see.
An expanding city. The view opposite our guest house.
The guest house costs 15$ US a night, but it’s quiet and clean.  The family are very friendly. We have a huge room with two king-size beds and a shower room - though no hot water.  There’s nowhere to eat and no wi-fi, so we have to go out for every meal.  It’s staggeringly hot and humid.

This is the laundry -  two women with a plastic bowl!  It costs 75 cents a kilo.

The Boulangerie - the 'Asian Baguettes' are a legacy of French colonial occupation.  They are nothing like the French equivalent!

This is the taxi rank.

And this is the local filling station - you can buy fuel here by the litre in pepsi cola bottles!

These are the local restaurants and, believe me, you wouldn’t want to eat here unless you had iron-clad intestines!

Sihanoukville has got much, much worse in the three years since I’ve been here. The local residents call it Shit-ville - and for a reason.  It’s the biggest rubbish dump in the world - there is stinking refuse, food waste (human waste too) and plastic and paper litter everywhere.  The rats here live well! 

Plastic waste blows everywhere
 Add to that rolling power cuts that last for hours every day and life can be difficult.  Almost every business has it’s own generator to run essential services (though not the airconditioning).  You simply have to if you want to stay in business.  As the tourist industry has expanded here so has the demand for electricity.  Apparently a Chinese, coal-fired, power station is being built but is months behind schedule and god knows what it will do to the atmosphere when it’s finally commissioned.

This is what the third world looks like.   If you stay in one of the resorts - what I call ‘Tourist Fictions’, you won’t see it.  I confess that I’m well out of my comfort zone - what I see on the streets every day makes my stomach churn, but this is the reality of life for a large sector of the world’s population and it makes me feel guilty for the privileges I take for granted.  And guilty for enjoying a life-style that's ruining the planet.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Tuesday Poem: DH Lawrence and a Whale’s Tail

They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains
the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.
All the whales in the wider deeps, hot are they, as they urge
on an on, and dive beneath the icebergs.
The right whales, the sperm-whales, the hammer-heads, the killers
there they blow, there they blow, hot wild white breath out of the sea.

And they rock, and they rock, through the sensual ageless ages
on the depths of the seven seas,
and through the salt they reel with drunk delight
and in the tropics tremble they with love
and roll with massive, strong desire, like gods.

DH Lawrence, Whales Weep Not

To read the whole poem - click here.

In 1922 DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda found themselves in Wellington, New Zealand, and they sent Katherine Mansfield a post card of two Maori in bush to remind her of her homeland.  ‘We thought very hard of you here!’  Frieda wrote, mending an estrangement that had lasted for years, ever since DHL had sent a letter telling KM to rot in her own tuberculosis.  Miraculously, she forgave him. 

Somewhere on his visit to the southern hemisphere DH must have seen the whales that pass on their migration routes every year, north from the antarctic, and then south on a long pilgrimage to breed and feed.  New Zealand is regularly visited by the southern Right Whale, Humpbacks, Blue whales and Orca, and the 3,000 metre deep trench off the Pacific coast is home to a number of bachelor Sperm whales who feed on the giant squid that lurk in the darkness.   Squid specimens up to 33 metres long have been found by fishermen - one only the day before we went out in the whale boats at Kaikoura, on our way back to Christchurch.

This is Tutu, a 50 ton Sperm whale who obliged us with a view of his ‘wild white breath’ twice on the same morning.  And two separate displays of his tail.

I like to think that DH Lawrence and Frieda shared a similar experience.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Wellington and the Katherine Mansfield Conference

I’m in Cambodia at the moment, but things aren’t going exactly to plan - so (sadly) I’m not on the island for reasons I can’t write about yet.

Camped out in a back-packers’ hostel in Sihanoukhville (not the best experience) and fondly remembering Wellington and the Katherine Mansfield Conference, which now seems very remote and civilised in comparison to what’s around me here! Wellington is a fantastic city. We had three wonderful days of packed activity and intense discussions carried on over some great meals
 before a final dinner as guests of the Minister for Culture in the NZ Parliament building.

Neil and I were staying in the historic Shepherd’s Arms on Tinakori Road close to the house where Katherine was born, and walked every morning over to the university through the Botanic Gardens.  They are very beautiful and the views of the city and the harbour are genuinely breathtaking.  We got lost walking back on the first night we were there and ended up stumbling around in the dark gardens at midnight trying to find a way out! 
Botanic Gardens at Thornden
A highlight of the conference was the New Zealand launch of a new collected edition of the complete stories of Katherine Mansfield - including some recent discoveries.  It’s a very impressive piece of work, edited by Professor Vincent O’Sullivan (himself a fine writer) and KM scholar Gerri Kimber.   This is the Edinburgh University Press editor Jackie Jones with Vincent at the Parliamentary dinner.

Another highlight was a performance of cello music by one of New Zealand’s earliest composers - Arnold Trowell - the twin brother of Garnett, who was the father of Katherine’s illegitimate baby.
It was very exciting for me to be able to have another look at the Katherine Mansfield manuscripts previously owned by the family of John Middleton Murry.  Last time I saw them they were in storage boxes and it was a great privilege to be allowed access to them for the biography.  I was also able to draw up a rough catalogue for the family to help them decide what to do with the collection.  I’m so happy that they chose the Alexander Turnbull Library as the best resting place for these precious papers - it was very pleasing to see how much they are valued there.  This is just some of the manuscripts being shown off with pride to delegates at the conference.
One of my favourites is Katherine’s passport - a sad record of how many times she changed countries in the last couple of years of her life in her desperate search for health.

We tried to stay on in Wellington for an extra day to fit in all the things we hadn’t managed to do while we were there, but the hotel couldn’t give us another night.  So we decided to go back to Christchurch via ferry and train, slipping out of the harbour on a cloudy Monday morning aboard the Kaitaki, which used to be a cross-channel ferry called the Pride of Cherbourg and is now plying the Cook Strait instead!  I felt quite sad as I watched the city disappear over the horizon and wondered when I'd manage to get back there again.

Monday, 18 February 2013

A Brief Blog-break!

I am currently in Cambodia, on a remote island without internet access.  A retreat from the world of technology, blogging, tweeting and googling.  I will be back on the 2nd of March, but will pop up a postcard or two if I get the chance of a visit to civilisation!

Paradise looks like this:

and this:

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Wonderful Windy Wellington!

A brief return to Christchurch, playing with my lovely grandsons, and then off to Wellington for the Katherine Mansfield Conference.  It's called 'Masked and Unmasked' and concentrates on Katherine's love of playing parts - not just in her fiction. Katherine changed her name frequently when she was young, experimenting with different identities.  She once wrote to a friend that sometimes she felt like the proprietor of a small hotel, giving out keys to all the guests!

KM's mother of pearl brooch
 One of the reasons to be here is also to hand over the Katherine Mansfield mother-of-pearl brooch that I was given when I first started the research for the book.  It's acted like a talisman;  every time I was tempted to give up, it looked at me from the drawer and made giving up impossible.  While I had it, I had to write the biography.  The gift created an obligation.  But the book is written and out in the world now and I don't feel comfortable being in possession of such a valuable and historic object - it would also have to be sold when I die, as I have four children.  So I felt that the right thing to do was to hand it over to a museum in New Zealand that would look after it properly.  I chose the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Trust, because they are willing to put it on display, rather than just show it to people who come along and ask.  It will be accessible to the general public, in the house on Tinakori Road where Katherine was born,  and I like that.

The next thing was to meet a group of Tuesday Poets who live in Wellington - a great evening in the Library Bar!  I'd met Tim Jones and Mary McCallum before, but it was the first time for Janis Freegard, Harvey Molloy and Helen Rickerby (who has just posted a Katherine Mansfield poem!).
Tim Jones, Janis Freegard, Harvey Molloy, Mary McCallum, Helen Rickerby, and me.
 I had a lovely time - and that was only Day One!  We got rather lost finding our way back to our room on Tinakori Road later on and were wandering around the Botanic Gardens, trying to find a way out, at midnight because we didn't have a map of Wellington.  Something for tomorrow!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Writers' Walk in Dunedin

 Dunedin seems to be a city dedicated to poets and writers - not just in the past.  One of NZ's finest contemporary writers, Vincent O'Sullivan lives here now and there are lots of others.  Sitting at a street cafe, I found myself ear-wigging a forceful conversation at the adjoining table, involving an author who was writing a book about Amundsen, who died on a fateful rescue mission that killed more rescuers than the party they were trying to rescue.  It sounded as if it was going to be a very interesting book. Then I had a great evening with two of the Tuesday Poets who live there - Claire Beynon (who is a wonderful artist as well as a poet) and Orchid Tierney.  We've been exchanging poetry every Tuesday for two years, but this is the first time we've been able to meet.
Claire, Orchid and Kathleen

Dunedin is a very Scottish city.  The architecture is very familiar to anyone from the northern part of Britain - the cathedral in particular looks very Scottish.
 Unlike NZ generally, it seems to have been socially unequal from the beginning.  One writer said that it was 'a city where the rich inhabited the hills and looked out to sea and the poor inhabited the flat and looked at each other'.   And it still has a reputation for parochialism.  In 1983 author and editor Dennis McEldowney wrote that 'Dunedin is a place where it is front page headline news if someone has a fire in their wardrobe'!

But it has a very good university - Otago - that fosters writers through the Robert Burns Fellowship.  It has very high ideals, formulated by another of NZ's big authors, Charles Brasch, 'Part of a university's proper business is to act as nurse to the arts, or, more exactly, to the imagination. . .  Imagination may flourish anywhere.  But it should flourish as a matter of course in the university, for it is only through imaginative thinking that society grows, materially and intellectually.'  I felt like shouting 'if only'!  Imagination often seems the last thing our education system nurtures.

The Scots brought  the poetry of Robert Burns to the city - his nephew, the Rev Thomas Burns co-founded the settlement in 1848 and was minister of the first church.  Rabbie's statue has pride of place (and provides a good roost!) in the centre of town.

Many of New Zealand's most famous writers have held the fellowship and are commemorated on the 'writer's walk' marked by bronze plaques in the pavement.  They include Janet Frame:

The 'gifted, bawdy and religious poet' James K. Baxter (check him out)
Lauris Edmond (memoirist and poet), Fleur Adcock and  the Mauri author of Whale Rider, Witi Ihimaera  who's work I didn't really know at all, though I have seen the film. But I suppose that's the purpose of a Writers' Walk - to introduce you to writers you might not have come across.

 I really like this city and the surrounding landscape.  I could live here!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Down to Dunedin: Albatross and Moeraki Boulders

 I haven't been on the blog much - it's all been too hectic here, but in a good way.  So many beautiful things to see, so many interesting things to do.  Falling into bed exhausted at the end of the day.  One of the things we've done this time, is travel down to Dunedin at the bottom end of South Island.  People told me that it was rather grey and scottish and the weather was bad, but although it was cooler than Christchurch, we found it really interesting. 

On the way down we stopped to see the Moeraki boulders on the beach.   Giant, stone cannon balls.

These are strange, geological phenomena - quite eerie, a little like geodes, but perfectly circular.

Some of them had broken open and formed rock pools.
We  stayed in a little weekend cottage beside the sea - known as a 'bach' (pronounced batch over here) - with roses round the door - and almost everywhere else!

The beaches are wonderful here, with cliffs and stacks and big sand dunes.  This is tunnel beach from the cliffs at the top.

You can only get to it through a tunnel in the rock after a long climb down the cliff path.

When you get there, the cliffs have been carved into strange shapes by the wind and water.  This remind you of anyone?

Walking along the beaches we almost fell over a big sea lion playing dead in the sand.

And we managed to see Albatross - both nesting and flying (too high and fast for a photo).   This is the best I could do with my tiny camera - an Albatross on the nest with a chick under it.

It really is quite magical to get so close to wildlife like this.

Will try to put up some more pics tomorrow.  Dunedin itself is a city dedicated to poets!  And there are apparently more pipe bands here than in Scotland!

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Tuesday Poem: Blue Disremembered Hills by Tim Jones

It was nice, but the town is so small now, the people so old, the main street as wide as time.  When the bus arrived, Mum and Dad were waiting for you.  You got fish and chips from the Main Street Fish Supply, went home and ate them round the old formica table.  They still tasted good.  You found out some more abut the war, when Mum made Rolls Royce engines for the planes.  You played golf with Dad, like a good son should.  You ran the rule over the garden.  Then it was time to leave.

There's always that wait at the station, that anxious will-it-come I-hope-it-comes about the bus, and never an announcement.  At last it turns up.  Last hugs, last kisses, you climb aboard.  You're in your seat and they're already receding.  Sliding into the past.  Sure you love them, but there's a distance there. 'Cos you're a big boy now, almost a man.

Read a book, take a nap, have a pie and a piss at Clinton.  Rattle on through the Taieri Plains.  Dunedin's getting closer.  Woo-hoo!  The Verlaines at the Empire, Sneaky Feelings at the Ori.  What more could a young man want?

One last climb before you hit Dunedin, past those blue disremembered hills.  Two peaks:  one still whole, one torn apart for gravel to make the streets, to make the motorways, to make the roads to bear you home.  As you#ve grown bigger, it's grown smaller.

you travel up to the saddle, your self-image puffing up around you.  It shrinks to nothing when you hit the other side.

Tim Jones:  Men Briefly Explained
Interactive Press, Brisbane

I really enjoyed Tim Jones' latest collection, Men Briefly Explained, and keep going back to it.  Every time I do, I find something new that somehow didn't get noticed last time.  This piece of prose-poetry really does convey that feeling of going back home for a visit once you've left and finding that you've left in more ways than you realised. Men Briefly Explained is available in both paperback and Kindle formats.  Tim is also a writer of speculative fiction and has a very good blog called Books in the Trees.

Please visit the Tuesday Poem Hub for more exciting poetry from around the world posted by the Tuesday Poets.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Tuesday Poem: 'A Little Pneumonia' by Jan Kemp

A little pneumonia
to Katherine Mansfield

The German for lung is Lungenfl├╝gel - lungwing -
clever you, Katy, calling it your ‘wing’ to fly. Now,

one of mine’s infected too & antibiotics will kill
all those bacteria, well, on the wing. Also cures

gonorrhoea, would have cured your TB & you’d
have had more life, looking in death's face at 34:

‘shall I try to get up, if I do will I cough,
if I cough I can’t breathe,’ ‘lift my head Ida,’

‘say it pathetically, please’ (you quote yourself)
into the pillow. ‘I’ve got to try.’ Your will, that steel.

Lunch over, having to lie down again, (know what
you mean & me a swimmer. Lungs!), then,

all those stories like mist off the land
lifting up to your pen; then, all that quick,

fine, flying work till they found
their places: your children of the sun.

Jan Kemp: Voicetracks, Puriri Press (Auckland)
 & Tranzlit (Kronberg im Taunus) (2012)

I'm currently in New Zealand and I thought it would be really good to feature some NZ poets while I'm over here.  The first was Helen Lowe and the second is Jan Kemp.  I loved this poem when she first published it in the Katherine Mansfield Society Newsletter.  Jan's just been over to the UK to record some of her poems for the Poetry Archive.  A Little Pneumonia is now included in Jan's latest collection of poetry, Voicetracks, which can be ordered from the publisher below.  Also her previous collection Dante's Heaven.  The title poem is here the subject of a painting by Richard Bavin - beautiful! 
Tranzlit, Kronberg im Taunus, Germany
<> <>
email: <>

For those who haven't yet read Jan's work.  She was born in Hamilton, New Zealand, in 1949. She was the sole woman anthologized in The Young New Zealand Poets (1973), and in 1979 co-starred with Alistair Campbell, Hone Tuwhare, and Sam Hunt on a national poetry-reading tour. During the next two decades, while the gender balance among New Zealand poets spectacularly changed, she taught in universities in the South Pacific, Asia, and Europe. For nine years she was based at the National University of Singapore. More recently, married to eminent professor and analyst of postcolonial literature in English, Dieter Riemenschneider, she and her husband shuttled between the two hemispheres, with bases in Frankfurt and Auckland, finally settling outside Frankfurt in September 2007.

For more Tuesday Poems, please pop over to the Tuesday Poem Hub and see what the other members are posting. 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

At Lake Coleridge

Lake Coleridge
 As a native of the English Lake District, I just had to visit Lake Coleridge  - a spectacular stretch of water in the mountains of South Island New Zealand.  It was named in 1848 after nephews of the poet surveyed the area for settlement.  It's Mauri name is Whakamatua and it's situated within sight of Mt Hutt.  You can see the mountains rising towards you out of the flat Canterbury Plain as you drive out of Christchurch.

It was a scorching day, bouncing the hire car (don't tell them!) down gravel tracks that generate a trail of dust.   Down and round, through the mountains until an impossibly blue lake began to glare through the gaps. 

It was very windy and there were real waves smashing on the shore.  Apart from a few wader birds, we had it all to ourselves.

We also stopped at Rakaia Gorge, where the river narrows and becomes very deep.  We had this to ourselves too.
The 'narrow' version of the river!

Rivers in New Zealand can be a mile wide channel of gravel, flood debris and threads of that glacial blue that is startling and somehow almost artificial.  They are not tame, peaceful affairs as they are in England, but wild torrents even in summer, blitzing their way through the banks of gravel and rock.  In spate they must be genuinely awesome!
One of New Zealand's big rivers.

We went for a short walk around the shore-line (all we could take in the 30+ heat) and then I sat beside the lake for a couple of hours, feeling very peaceful and very lucky to be there.  The world, however bad things are economically and politically, is so stunningly beautiful.
One of Lake Coleridge's lagoons.