Monday, 30 August 2010

The Tuesday Poem: Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21

Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21

The final call for boarding
hand-luggage scanned,
the last, forgotten,
canned drink binned.
I watch him through the glass
walk to the door and hand
over his printed pass.

He waves, makes the clown’s face
that means ‘Cheer up, this time, I won’t
be gone for long’. He turns,
then turns back, puts his hand
on the terrorist-proof glass. I place
mine, palm to palm on the cold surface.

Abruptly, not looking back, like Orpheus
he peels off towards the waiting plane.
I watch the swerve of his head, his coat flap.
The screen says ‘Gate closed. Boarded.’
And I walk away with his absence.

I haven't completely finished this poem yet - it's still pretty raw. I'm tinkering with the line endings and not happy with some of the images. But I haven't got anything else to post for the Tuesday Poem and it does sum up my situation at the moment. I seem to have been waving Neil off all year, with no end in sight. We spend our lives in airports.

The Tuesday Poets.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Waiting for reviews

Leaving Kaikoura
So now it's back to Christchurch - my short holiday is over and I have to go back to the real world.  I chose to go by bus this time and enjoyed it very much.  Public transport in New Zealand is efficient, and very pleasant.  Now I'm staying with my daughter and two little grandchildren - Freddie and Jack.  They are really cute, but I can't show photos for obvious reasons.  Isn't it sad? 
I've been promised reviews of the book in New Zealand this weekend, but the Listener seems to have held theirs over until next week, which is maddening.  However, there was one in the Herald on Sunday, by Sarah Sandley and it was very pleasing.  It's always nail biting, waiting for press reviews, but this was one of those you treasure, that make you feel better about writing.  There are so many knock-backs for an author, so many people out there just waiting to criticise, you need the good reviews to keep you going.   Sarah said:
'Jones has brought to the work a scholar's regard for fact, a novelist's regard for form, and a poet's regard for cadence.  The test of a good literary biography is whether it makes you want to reacquaint yourself with the author's writing.  This biography does just that.'  So she liked it!   Time to open a bottle of something - but I might just keep it until the Listener comes out next week! Then I can either celebrate or drown my sorrows with equal efficiency.

Friday, 27 August 2010


The Kaikoura ranges from the motel
Up this morning to a fine, crisp day.  I get up and look out across the bay and the view is almost too good to be true.   Kaikoura is beautiful - not just the coastline and the mountains, but also some of the old buildings that remain.  Do the people who live here know how lucky they are?

Art deco cinema

All I know is that, although everyone here is  quiet and friendly and welcoming, there is  apparently another side to it.  At the peak of the tourist season the town is packed out by tourists and travellers and young people back-packing and - coming from a tourist area myself - I know how that tips the balance of a place.  So, perhaps I wouldn't like to be here in summer.   The day I arrived, the old courthouse - one of the few historic wooden buildings in Kaikoura - was a smouldering ruin, still being damped down by the fire brigade, having been set on fire during the previous night, probably by vandals.  Now, very little of it remains.   So even paradise has its problems.

All that's left of the District Courthouse

Still thinking about whales.  It wasn't a romantic experience yesterday, but sobering.  It made me think a lot about how we interact with our fellow mammals on the planet, and a lot of what I thought was uncomfortable.

Pub in Kaikoura

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Whale Watching

Whale with Kaikoura mountains
Because of the deep ocean trenches just offshore, Kaikoura used to be a big whaling port. But (thankfully) an archway of whales’ jawbones along the seafront is all that’s left of the trade.

Now the emphasis is on conservation. Sperm whales feed here all year round, humpbacks visit regularly on their way from the antarctic to their tropical breeding grounds, and orcas also appear a few times a year. Very occasionally, maybe once in a lifetime, someone sees a blue whale. So the main tourist trade here is whale watching.
I rang up on my first morning to ask about going out on the boat and was told that I’d have to be quick because the weather was due to worsen and further trips were likely to be cancelled. So I swallowed my breakfast and went straight up to the centre. The fee wasn’t cheap, and I did think twice - how likely were we to see a whale at all, I asked myself? Knowing my luck I probably wouldn’t see any of the assorted wildlife on the postcards.
I was herded onto a big catamaran with about twenty other people of all ages and sizes. The weather was cool and bright, but a brisk wind was beginning to come in off the sea. We went a couple of miles out watching (on the echo sounder) the sea floor drop away into the canyon - going from 80 metres depth to about a 1,000, then up to 3,000 in the space of a few minutes. Then the boat stopped and the captain began to use a hydrophone to pick up the whales. The sound they make is eerie - first of all like someone turning over a reluctant engine, then a chattering and clicking, then silence. The boat took us to where they believed a whale was under the surface and we waited. Whales come up for breath every forty five minutes or so and it can be a long wait.

Whale no 1
The flick of the tail
Then suddenly there it was, my first whale. A long shape, rather like a floating log with a dorsal fin, occasionally blowing steam at one end. A male sperm-whale. Nothing much to see, but it was a REAL WHALE! Then, spectacularly, after about ten minutes, the body began to curve and up came the tail as the whale slid back into the depths.

 I managed to get photographs and was so intent on getting it focussed that I didn’t have time to really look. But I had actually seen a whale. Then, suddenly, the boat was racing for the horizon because someone had spotted another one out there. Unfortunately it dived before we arrived, but as we turned back another, rather bigger, whale surfaced. This time we got a longer, closer look and some more photographs.

whale no 2

It wasn’t the emotional experience I’d expected. I had thought that proximity to the largest mammal on earth would have a spiritual quality to it. But perhaps being with so many other people precludes this, and the urge to take photographs doesn’t allow you time to experience anything very deeply. But I’m glad that I went. All my life I’ve wanted to see a whale, close up, living and breathing in the water, and that’s what I got.

whale no 2 waving goodbye
A big bonus was the pod of very rare Hector’s dolphins playing round the boat on the way back.

Hector's Dolphins
Since I arrived here I’ve been reading Mary McCallum’s novel The Blue, (her first novel published by penguin in 2007) which is about a south island whaling community in 1938. I’ve found it fascinating. It begins a little uncertainly, but soon had me gripped by the lives of the characters. How glad I am that the whaling industry no longer exists here.
Some whale-populations will recover. Sperm whales apparently now number about half a million, but there are only around 400 of the northern right whale - too small a gene pool to survive and the humpback and the blue whale are also on the brink of extinction. Apparently, we were told, the major causes of whale death are hunting, abandoned deep water fishing nets, ship’s sonar devices which interfere with a whale’s own navigation, and pollution which affects breeding. All generated by human beings. It makes one feel ashamed, and I also felt sad to think that perhaps my grandchildren won’t get to see whales in the ocean at all. I’d love to go out again and this time just look and listen, but the weather has worsened and tomorrow’s trips are cancelled.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Up-side

A writer’s life doesn’t get much better than this; a small chalet just across from the beach, and a full moon edging out of the sea. The snow-covered peaks, illuminated by the moon, are floating like a ghostly fringe in the sky around the bay.
I’m at Kaikoura, about a quarter of the way down the south island’s Pacific coast. The town is in a sheltered bay, but just offshore is a deep ocean trench used by whales as a fuelling station when travelling either north or south. It used to be a whaling port, dedicated to killing these cetaceans, now it makes a good living showing them off as a tourist attraction.
But it’s the off-season and the motels and back-packer hostels are almost empty - a lot of them closed for the winter. You can rent a unit here for as little as 50nz$ - about £25. I’ve got a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and patio with tables and chairs and can sit out (you couldn’t do this on a winter’s night in England!) to eat your supper. I’ve got a glass of Marlborough Pino Noir in one hand and a plate of olives (also New Zealand), pitta bread and locally smoked salmon in front of me.
So, ok, I can’t afford to eat in the only restaurant that’s open, with crayfish at an undisclosed price and everything else starting from $34 a throw. But it doesn’t matter. The wine and the food are delicious, the waves are breaking over the black volcanic sand a few yards away and there’s a lovely silence in my head I’ve been pining for after weeks of travelling and socialising. If Neil was here with me, this would be bliss, but he’s in an airbus 380 somewhere in the stratosphere heading for Singapore. That’s the down side. Things aren’t quite so much fun on one’s own.
Tomorrow I’m going in search of whales, weather permitting. There’s a big north-easterly blowing in, apparently, and the boats may be cancelled.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The Tuesday Poem: No harm in hoping

I’m putting the Tuesday Poem up early because I’m going to be travelling for the next 24 hours. Neil has flown off to Singapore, (tempted to put a sad emoticon in here) en route for Cambodia and I’m heading south to Kaikoura on the ferry.

The poem I’ve chosen is by Vincent O’Sullivan, from his collection ‘Further Convictions Pending’ published in 2009.

No harm in hoping

At the end of the story I want you
to say, ‘I’ve forgotten the plot entirely.
It’s no use asking which character was which,
what name she used, what his job was.
Or where the bridge crossed the canal.’

At the end of the story I want you
to remember only the important things
that walk between the congregations of print
like a bride you’ve read of between the torches
of the story you thought you read.

I first met Vincent O’Sullivan when I began researching the Katherine Mansfield biography, because he’s one of the foremost Mansfield scholars and editor (with Margaret Scott) of all five volumes of Mansfield’s letters, author of many eminent academic papers, as well as the editor of numerous editions of New Zealand literature. It was only after that first meeting I realised that Vincent himself was a formidable poet and author of fiction. I began reading his work and it quickly became apparent that he was one of New Zealand’s most gifted authors. I felt quite embarrassed that I had regarded him initially as a scholar and not as a poet and author in his own right. This is one of the problems in New Zealand - authors here don’t always get the exposure they deserve on the other side of the world. Vincent’s work should be much, much better known.

I chose this poem because it seems to be about reading. To me it says ‘forget the detail, immerse yourself, live in it, to the point that it becomes your own story’. I’ve never agreed with the notion of ‘the death of the author’, but I believe absolutely that every reader reads a different version of a poem or story. The best stories for me are the ones where I go through a door into a virtual world that is utterly real until the last page.
I particularly love the image of ‘congregations of print’ and the reader walking like a bride down the torch-lit aisle between them.

For more Tuesday poems, click on the link.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Of Books and Mussels

Wellington from Thornden
It’s been a very busy couple of days. First there was an interview with Lynn Freeman for a Radio New Zealand arts programme 'Arts on Sunday'. I love radio - mainly because of the anonymity. No-one can see you, there's only the voice. And it was a delight to be interviewed by someone who really knew the subject and wasn’t just reading from a list of questions prepared by a researcher.

This weekend there was a second hand book fair in Wellington and it was book-browser’s heaven. If only I wasn’t travelling with a luggage allowance! There were books I’ve always wanted to read as well as a good selection of New Zealand literature we don’t get in England.  I've never seen so many books under one roof.

At 2 nz$ per book every one was a bargain and I bought quite a lot. I will try to read them all before leaving NZ and then release them into the wild! New books are so expensive here (a very sobering reality check for a writer) I’m sure I will have no shortage of takers when I leave.

After the book fair I met up with Mary McCallum for coffee. She runs the Tuesday Poets’ blog and is herself a very fine novelist and poet (see her novel The Blue, published by penguin). She is absolutely fizzing with energy and, like most people I’ve met here, incredibly welcoming and friendly.

Then to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace, where KM was born and which is now a beautiful museum.

Katherine Mansfield Birthplace
On my first visit to New Zealand ten years ago I met its founder Oroya Day and over the intervening years have become friends with the curators, Laurel Harris and Mary Morris. Today, they had a film unit there making a documentary about Katherine Mansfield and toys, centred about the Dolls House - a treasured childhood toy that became one of her most famous short stories. So, unexpectedly, I found myself sitting in a chair in front of a camera (my least favourite position!) talking about KM for the tv.

Now, it’s off for dinner. The seafood here is miraculous - the green-lipped mussels are the size of mobile phones!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Windy Wellington

So here I am in the windy city - there always seems to be a gale blowing when I’m in Wellington. But it’s a very friendly place, which makes up for the weather. Wellington has a very distinct identity. The houses, hotels and office blocks are crowded around a succession of bays, and climb precariously up the slopes of the surrounding hills. The views are spectacular. There are also lots of coffee shops, wine bars, tempting restaurants and little boutiques - you need to keep a grip on the wallet!
Thorndon, Wellington
Wellington was Katherine Mansfield’s birthplace, where she grew up and went to school. Her father was an entrepreneur, banker and leading figure in Wellington society - knighted for his services to New Zealand. Thorndon, the area where the family lived, is still surprisingly recognisable, with its brightly painted timbered houses and the botanical gardens they often visited. It’s possible to walk around and get a feel for Katherine’s childhood experiences. There are still gorse bushes blooming on what she called the ‘gorse-golden hills’ above the streets and you can run into the wind down to Lambton Quay where she bought the paper with her first published story in and read it propped against a lamp-post.
Last night there was an event hosted by the New Zealand Book Council - an informal discussion about Katherine Mansfield and the book. The interviewer was Elizabeth Alley, a very experienced broadcaster and chairperson, who steered me through the subject brilliantly. I get so nervous at these events I lose all sense of place and time. But the audience seemed to enjoy it and they bought quite a few books.
Kathleen pretending to be a Real Author

I also got the chance to meet New Zealand writer and blogger Tim Jones (Books in the Trees) and we went for a drink afterwards and had a very entertaining evening discussing the differences in the publishing scene here and in England.  Tim is one of the other writers who contributes to the Tuesday Poem blog here in New Zealand. 

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Travelling in New Zealand

There comes a point in travelling when you don’t know where you are, and I seem to have reached it. If it’s Tuesday, it must be Wellington. And yes, yesterday was Tuesday. I got up at 5.45am to catch the Trans-coastal train from Christchurch to Picton, to connect with the Inter-Islander ferry to Wellington.
A dark, foggy start in Christchurch soon became a sunny, clear winter day on the Pacific coast. New Zealand never fails to amaze. The scenery is almost too picture-postcard perfect to be real.
The Cook Strait was its usual self - a deep swell running through the channel from ocean to ocean, and the wind ‘blowing like buggery’ as  I overheard someone say on deck behind me.

I’ve missed the Tuesday poem deadline, but I’m struggling to keep up with deadlines of any kind. Everything is upside down here, the night sky, maps, time, my life. It was my birthday on Sunday and you suddenly get a feeling of time slipping away behind you. Yesterday I was interviewed over the telephone by a journalist for a New Zealand magazine (Eleanor Black for Next) and I was barely able to be coherent!

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Christchurch and the southern alps

I've just exchanged the rain forest and beaches of  the North Island for the mountains and rivers of South Island.  Christchurch is one of my favourite NZ cities - small enough to feel homely, but big enough to have good shops and facilities, including a wonderful art gallery.
Today we drove out of the city for about an hour towards Arthur's pass into the centre of the snow covered peaks along the Waimakariri river.  I love the rivers here - they are about a mile wide with multiple channels of  turquoise snow melt, running fast and cold.   The mountains were amazing - freshly covered with snow.  Only the night before over a thousand people had been stranded on Mount Hutt because of the blizzard.  No sign of it today - only sunshine and glittering snow fields.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Book Launch in Auckland

There is nothing more satisfying for an author than seeing their books piled in a bookshop window!  In this case it was the Women's Bookshop in Auckland, run by Carole Bleu -  just one of those fabulous independent bookshops run by dedicated owners passionate about books.   The booktrade has been hit in New Zealand like everywhere else and bookchains are teetering on the brink of extinction.  As an author, I hope that the independents are going to survive because they put in so much hard work and they really care.

Carole organised a wonderful evening with wine and nibbles and a good crowd of book-lovers.  I've never had to give a talk perched on a table behind the counter before (just as well I'd only had orange juice!) but it was great fun and Carole was behind me to make sure I didn't fall off.  The talk was chaired by the brilliant Sarah Sandley, publisher and chief executive of New Zealand Magazines and one of the founders of the Katherine Mansfield Society, which now has an international membership.  It was a lovely evening.

Then it was off for fish and chips - the fish here is unbelievably good -  and the glittering lights of Auckland City.

The Tuesday Poem

Katherine Mansfield on New Zealand

From the other side of the world,
From a little island cradled in the giant sea bosom,
From a little land with no history,
(Making its own history, slowly and clumsily
Piecing together this and that, finding the pattern, solving the problem,
Like a child with a box of bricks),
I, a woman, with the taint of the pioneer in my blood,
Full of a youthful strength that wars with itself and is lawless,
I sing your praises, Magnificent warrior; I proclaim your triumphant battle.

This is from a poem that Katherine wrote to the Polish poet Stanislaw Wyspianski, when she was only 21. Her hymn of praise to the poet became an elegy for her birth country - she wrote most of it while in Germany after her baby was born prematurely and died. I think she was probably homesick.  She wrote the poem in the style of Walt Whitman, with long, declamatory lines and a lyrical rhythm.  It was translated into Polish by her lover Floryan Sobienowski and published in Poland.

For more poems go to  The Tuesday Poem blog.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Katherine Mansfield in Auckland

I'm now in Auckland, staying in a budget hotel in Grey Lynn, because tomorrow evening - Tuesday 10th August - I have to do a talk and Q and A session at the Women's Bookshop to promote my new biography of Katherine Mansfield.  Penguin have produced a lovely design for the book, which looks like this:

Tonight Neil and I are going out to dinner to celebrate publication with the publisher, a couple of friends, and Sarah Sandley, who is going to introduce me tomorrow night and chair the discussion.  I'm really looking forward to this evening, because so far contact  with everyone at Penguin has been  by email which is very impersonal and it's great to meet the people behind the names.  Contrary to public perception, it's not the normal thing these days for publishers to wine and dine their authors.  Unless you're Lee Childs or J.K. Rowling, they can't afford to do it! 

Auckland is a big, sprawling city, spread out around the various inlets from the oceans on both sides of the north island.   We've been lost several times just finding our way round.  I have also, unfortunately, had my email account hacked and so my entire data base has been receiving spam purporting to come from me.  Ugh!   But this is one of the penalties of using WiFi on the move  - many of the networks have poor security, but what can you do?  I will have to find time to change my mail address which is a bit of a pain, but can't be helped.  What I need is a nice glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to cheer me up!

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Welcome to New Zealand

This must be one of the friendliest countries in the world. Something to do with the fact that although it’s bigger than Britain, only about 4 million people live in the whole of it, whereas Britain now has a population of about 70 million. Here in NZ people still feel like talking to you and they’re very glad to see a new face.

I’ve almost recovered from the jet-lag, except that at 6pm promptly, my legs turn to jelly and my head disconnects from the rest of my body. Last night I stayed awake until 9pm, and tonight I hope to manage 10pm.

One of the wonderful things about New Zealand is the ocean. It has some of the wildest and most beautiful beaches in the world. Ninety mile beach (actually only about 60 miles long) is the most famous, but around every corner there is another stretch of rock and sand. The sea has an uninterrupted run round the southern hemisphere before fetching up on the land here, so the surf can be spectacular. Is there anything better than walking, alone, for miles along the sand listening to the sea? I’m currently at a place called Baylis Beach, somewhere north of Auckland, where the surf is amazing and there’s a wonderful little bar and bistro called the Funky Fish. It’s raining, but then it is winter here and it’s not much different from the northern English summer!

One of the least wonderful things about New Zealand is the infra-structure. It can be very difficult to find internet access once you’re out in the back-blocks. Apparently McDonalds have free WiFi, but I haven’t found a McDonalds yet. So that explains why I haven’t been able to put anything up on the blog for few days. A small population means a small consumer base and fewer people to pay for things - so New Zealand struggles to provide services that are taken for granted elsewhere. Decent television being one of them. NZ TV is one of the most boring I’ve ever seen. Apart from the programmes they import from elsewhere, there’s very little you’d want to watch. And anything decent gets exported pretty quickly - like the Flight of the Conchords - leaving a big gap.

The three days I allowed myself to recover from the flight are almost over and tomorrow I have to start work - preparing for the talks and interviews that Penguin have arranged for me here. I’m never very confident about them, and the only way I cope is by doing as much preparation as possible.  In the meantime, I'm going to take another walk along the beach and see what the ocean has washed up.  Some strange and wonderful things floating in from the Tasman sea.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Travelling Jazz

This has been a very busy week, with no time for blogging at all. On Monday, authors Wendy Robertson and Avril Joy  (both wonderful bloggers) came over to interview me for their excellent new writing programme on Bishop FM. I was so nervous I forgot to take a photograph, but we became engrossed in talking about writing and books over lunch and it was a lovely afternoon.

On Tuesday I headed off to Italy by air to meet up with Neil, pick up all our belongings and drive the car north through Europe, back to Cumbria. We stayed overnight in Dijon, in the heart of the Bourgogne wine country. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how many wines you can taste in one night! (In my case, about two)

Bit of wishful thinking in Dijon
Back in England we queued for hours on the M25 (for non-brits this is London’s orbital parking lot), aiming for Herefordshire and the Titley Jazz Festival, where some of Neil’s friends were playing. Neil used to organise the now legendary Appleby Jazz Festival, until funding fell through, so he has frequent cravings for a jazz fix, and Titley proved a convenient stopping off point on the way home. It also has a small steam railway, and the festival takes place in a marquee almost on the platform.

We were lucky to find a bed and breakfast cancellation for the night, but last night we spent in the car driving north on the motorway, arriving here at 4am. Just time to throw the washing in the machine and the rest of our clothes into suitcases in order to leave for New Zealand tomorrow for the book launch. I’ve done about three thousand miles already this week, only another eleven thousand to go!!