Breaking the silence

Breaking the silence


I walk about with ideas in my head, a vague imperative to Leave My Mark On The World, and little to show for it. Until the Ghost of Authorship Past gives me a glimpse of what being a dead famous author might be like.

It’s a shock to me how long this blog has gone without an update. So long, in fact, that the WordPress dashboard has changed, and I can’t even remember what the two drafts sitting here were ever supposed to turn into.

I’ve spent the past few months settling into a new job, which takes a lot of energy even if it’s a good one (which it is).  The past year involved a lot of change – a pay rise followed rapidly by redundancy,  a short stint of teaching, literal bones-of-the-arse panicking, and an employment reprieve – and some new habits.  Kick-starting myself back into a schedule of writing practice has not been one of them.  I walk about, as always, with ideas in my head, a vague imperative to Leave My Mark On The World, and little to show for it.

Late last year the poet David Howard contacted me with an idea for a retrospective look at some of the poetry I used to write 20-odd years ago. It was a intriguing exercise, and also a bit like being dead. You never know what kind of old rubbish might end up being your legacy.  You can read the poems, my commentary, some scene-setting from James Norcliffe and the analysis by Orchid Tierney and David here.

It was enormously humbling, and heartening, to be included in this series.  It’s an odd experience, seeing yourself through strangers’ eyes.

An aspect of the analysis that startled me was the emphasis on sound; I never thought of myself as a spoken-word poet. Like everyone else, I just read the pieces aloud. To be considered a spoken-word artist is particularly weird, because throughout much of my childhood I struggled with speech. I could talk, all right, but far too fast. If I had a dollar for every time a teacher “wittily” told me to slow down, “it’s not a race, you’re not a train”, I’d have – well, nothing, because I’d have spent the kernel of a house deposit on Sante bars and vintage fashion magazines, but you get the idea. I wrote all the time, but I never read aloud. I didn’t think about sound. At least, I didn’t THINK I did.

Somewhere along the line I must have started thinking about cadence. I’ve recommended reading essays and articles aloud for a long time. It’s a great way to pick up awkward transitions and wordy chunks. In retrospect I realise that, up till about 10 years ago, I spent most of my life in jobs where I had to talk to strangers. Something I once hated and feared became pretty easy. Especially when I was writing radio ad copy – the fastest route to client approval is an enthusiastic, rapid read-through over the phone while approximating a radio voice. It sounds like a real ad so they think it must be all right.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. I don’t have much desire to revisit poetry in any serious way, but I do want to start producing words. Time to get back into the daily practice, I think.




Shoppin’ in the summertime: SHOPWATCH special food n’beverage edition

Shoppin’ in the summertime: SHOPWATCH special food n’beverage edition
With Christmas and New Year excess abandoned and a healthy, dry January stretching ahead – oh, who are we kidding? Whether you’re planning a virtuous fruity detox or still polishing off the last of the cake and biscuits with no end in sight, you’ve still got to eat and drink, right? Check out a few of the goodies around town right now that are sure to make summer drinking and dining that little bit more fun.
Mmmm, ginny.

Sours are slowly infiltrating the beer mainstream, and there’s not much more refreshingly, er, sour on a summer’s day than one of these. If you’re not used to them, they take some lateral thinking. Less beer, more sauvignon blanc, but without that grapey, winey quality one would naturally expect from wine. Tuatara’s special release GnT Citrus Summer Sour is an accessible starting point; cloudy and quaffable, with echoes of its spirituous namesake, but nowhere near as boozy. Trust me: sours are great.

Heading up a mountain but unwilling to face life without cocktails? Has vacuum flask inventor Stanley got the product for  you! The Stanley Adventure Happy Hour System – available at good old Ballys  – comprises a sturdy cocktail shaker, jigger, citrus reamer and two steel rocks glasses, meaning you can toast your triumphs in style, provided you leave enough space in your backpack for the scads of booze you’ll require to build your drinks with. The cups are doublewalled, so I guess theoretically you could use them for hot drinks as well.

Ballantynes also stocks ruggedly styled Stanley hip flasks – for emergencies, naturally -and rather cool steel shot glasses in a case that you can clip to your pack with a carabiner. As to how sensible it is to get cracking into the shots in the wilderness, I cannot possibly say, but these are certainly good looking sets.


For the tramper who has everything, and possibly also a drinking problem.

Refreshed and ready for use at last, Carlton Courts is gearing up to house several new hospitality spots. Sun Dog Diner’s appealing logo and promise of “hoity toity comfort food” caught my eye in particular: it’s run by the owners of Mamacita’s Mexican food truck and looks set to be worth checking out. Like a lot of new businesses, it  has a gorgeous website without much actual information on it yet, so for updates, visit the Sun Dog Facebook page. Plans are to open later this month.

Also refreshed in that area is Kanniga Thai. now known as Mama Ree Thai Street Food. I’m yet to try it since it changed names, bur new customers are raving about it on TripAdvisor, and its new signage is certainly cute. Street food seems to be the hot thing in Christchurch at present, which is why I also urge you to visit Delhi Belly in Victoria St, which is worth it for the starters alone – and not pricey, either. Like the decor, the food’s a little different to what we’re generally used to in Indian restaurants, but it’s very worth expanding your horizons.

It’s become almost obligatory for cafes to serve a pile of ingredients so you can put your own sandwich together – deconstructionism is so mainstream now – and sometimes it is a bit annoying. But Vespa, beside Strange’s Lane, is getting it right when it comes to serving its (delicious) affogato. If there’s one thing you do want to control, it’s the moment the hot espresso hits the cold icecream.

Coffee poured and ready to scoff.

Speaking of affogato, you can make it with gelato too. Jed and co at  Rollickin do. You can enjoy their superior gelati, coffees and  other dessert delights late into the evenings now at their cute cafe in the former Auricle space on New Regent St. What better excuse?

Stay tuned!

Shopwatch is an occasional shopping column focused on the central city of Christchurch, New Zealand. All reviews are independent and unsolicited. Any WordPress advertising is unrelated to content.

I Shopped With A Zombie: the return of SHOPWATCH

I Shopped With A Zombie: the return of SHOPWATCH
Legendary (snigger) Christchurch shopping column SHOPWATCH is back from the dead and gone all internetty for the new millennium, a full decade after everyone else. Didja miss me?

About six years ago I wrote what was to be my last shopping column for Presto magazine. It never went to print, due to the massive earthquake of February 22 2011, which put paid to the publication’s usual source of advertising – Christchurch’s small CBD retailers. Presto, like town, was dust, and Shopwatch had nowhere to go.

I considered taking it online, but then  Neat Places  appeared, doing such a good job of profiling Christchurch’s quirker retailers that I couldn’t really see the point. By then, too, it had become clear that writing for publication outside my place of employment was frowned upon. 

Now I think it’s time to bring it back. Still independent and unrepentantly underperforming on SEO, here’s Shopwatch!

Beer-loving friends of the internet! Do you love a tasty, hoppy brew, but fear all the horrid headaches you’re bound to wake up with after all the obligatory annual get-togethers with old buddies for backyard cricket and beers this season? Then let me recommend Garage Project’s Fugazi. Flavoursome and delicious, but clocking in at a mere 2 per cent alcohol, it’s excellent for the long session. It’s on tap at Pomeroy’s and may still be available to buy in a can at  The Beer Library  in Sydenham. Or you could order online.

Smoke with your beer? There’s not much nicer than a apple-scented shisha of a summer evening, the Middle East’s finest invention since hummus. However, if you’re a fan of the hubbly  bubbly but not wild about the attendant mess and fuss, why not get it delivered direct to your home or party by Shisha 2 Go? Nicotine and nicotine-free options are available by the hour, with all the setup and cleanup carried out by staff onsite. For restaurant shisha you can’t do better than Boteco  in Kilmore St – the food is variable but the dancer’s great and a shisha in the garden there is just lovely.

Surreptitious cellphone snaps do not do these Plush garments justice.

Fans of Carolyn Barker’s late-lamented Plush – rejoice! The last of Carolyn’s stock – including her covetable coats – is on sale at Paua of the Pacific in Re:Start, a newish shop with an abundance of wearables, alongside its core product of paua prints. It also stocks the most delicious glitter jelly shoes seen since I* brought my silver pair home from London in 1995. They are a perfect frivolous match for Hapa’s frivolous fairy dust necklaces.

Glittering prizes for your feet at Paua of the Pacific.


Hapa remains a favourite, although The General Store often nips at its heels for giftware and random stuff for your house. When you’re looking for gifts for the world’s coolest infants, though, Hapa is hard to beat. Recently spotted gems include onesies with Oma Rapiti on them, snuggly little Ewoks complete with hooded cloaks, and adorable felt tiger booties.

I said ADORABLE! Even out of focus, am I right?


Meanwhile, Cosmic Corner has pulled out a few more fashion stops with the addition of some Hell Bunny wear for the pin-up crowd, and reborn 90s “global traveller” threads for everyone else. With the 90s being largely a reworked 70s, it’s therefore somehow appropriate that Cosmic is also a spot where you can still buy Kama Indian Love Oil, to give you that authentic hippy miasma. Rather than share my scuzzy cellphone snaps, I’ll  let Moses and pal alert you to Cosmic’s general fashion coolness in this slick promo:

Also spied and worth pursuing:

  • Anodised aluminium pendant lights with a 70s vibe, LED clip lights for displaying photos and chalkboard tape at South City ‘s Just Incredible
  • Brightly coloured fish-shaped bags, fresh casual summer frocks in every shade, and utilitarian but always useful Thai fisherman’s pants in camel, at a South City stall
  • Moana Rd gift/decor products at Paper Plus, including an LED string light nestled in a lightbulb inside a mason jar, which surely takes Airspace styling to new heights
  • Plain black suede-look ballet-style slip-ons with black and white heart lining at the Warehouse, which will allow you to run around pretending to be Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face on a serious budget
  • Victoria St’s new 24-hour convenience store, Symrose’s Superfresh, which claims to contain a “Cafetaria”. This obvious bit of ESL in the heart of the fancy  rebuild makes me happy, because it’s nice to see something so clearly not corporate in the city alongside the big money options.

In the last, never published, Shopwatch column for Presto, I made reference to post-quake chic, unaware that we were about to get a belting that would knock our charming “dinner party under the table” stories into a chasm. It seems only fitting, therefore, that I dutifully point out the remnants of this fad spied at Merivale’s Corso di Fiore: mismatched dinnerware that suggests two differently-sized items have been glued together. It’s a love-it or hate-it product. There are glasses, too.


Stay tuned for more Shopwatch whenever the mood takes me, probably shorter and more link/pic heavy as ye olde print shopping column creaks its way into the 21st century!

Till next time, some time….

Shopwatch is not supported by advertising and all products and stores mentioned here are included because I like them, think other people will like them, or occasionally find them hilarious. From time to time advertisements appear below this content: this is supplied by WordPress and is not related to Shopwatch in any way.

*I’ve given up calling  myself Shopwatch. You know who I am, right?

No. We will not sit down 

I was planning the usual tale of where I was during Monday’s quake flurry and how it’s impacted on me as a Chch person, but in the interim something has come up. And it’s made me so angry that I am uncharacteristically thumbing this post sans images or links, on the bus.
There’s a  cry from Civil Defence. Or perhaps a.head pat. Sit down, Chch, it says. We’ve got the pros on the case now. Don’t act. Don’t help. Just hand your cash to the Red Cross because they know better than you what it’s like to be quake hit and shut off.

Six years ago the people of this city lost control of their lives. The simplest things became impossible. Flushing the toilet. Shutting the door properly. Trusting in the ground below to be where you left it in the morning. Many of us found ourselves in strangers’ homes, being handed comforts while our friends dug silt out of their living rooms. 

At that time, people who lived north of here stuffed buses full of goods and brought them to our worst affected places. And yes, the Red Cross helped. And armies and doctors and passionate individuals.

It was grassroots action that saved our city and smoothed our torn-up paths out of chaos and trauma. It was grassroots action that kept us singing and dancing and gave us beauty to look at. Grassroots actions have kept us on the map. It was other people who made us cups of tea and dug our long drops, not the Red Cross. The SVA, the Farmy Army were not international organisations with, unfortunately, form in messing up in cases of natural disaster. I do not want to denigrate the Red Cross. It did some good work and is probably doing so now. But I am not putting in money that might just go to advertising and wages when I can actually help.

We are experts in being quake affected New Zealanders. And we want to pay back. To tell us now that our grassroots actions are unwanted, that our expertise is nothing, is like having our power removed all over again.

So no, I will not, this time, donate to the Red Cross. I’m putting tea bags and wet wipes and sanitary pads and rubbish bags in a chopper already bound for Kaikoura. And if they don’t go there they will go to quake refugees like the one I was in 2011. Because I know how this works. This is our thing. This is personal.

Sense and sensibility: or, the importance of being edited

Sense and sensibility: or, the importance of being edited

Language is a beautiful, shifting thing, but every tongue on the planet comes with rules you simply can’t break, and when you use  words the wrong way you can end up looking like a dummy. That dilutes your argument and undermines your message. After all, isn’t communicating something the whole point?


It can be a singular act of bravery to hand your precious written work to another person and ask them to tell you what’s wrong with it. The more you love it, the harder it feels – but unless you never want it read, it’s got to be done. One of the great lessons I learned from journalism is that editing is a good thing. Writing is work, and like all workers, writers get tired, and make mistakes, and have off days. Sometimes that additional pair of eyes can tweak your laborious metaphor and make it sing. Sometimes just a quick scan will save you from legal action. Sometimes a grumpy old subeditor will frown at you so grumpily that you will never misspell “manoeuvre” again.

Even when you don’t have an extra pair of eyes on hand, it’s worth taking a break – a day is good if you can stretch to it – and looking at your work again before you send it off. Here are a few places where it’s easy to trip up

But it’s art

Recently I was contacted by an old connection, asking me to consider digging out some writing from about 20 years ago, when I fancied myself a poet. It was a fairly excruciating experience, but since I have been tentatively stretching my creative muscles again, I found myself doodling the odd new verse. I started writing poetry about the time I stopped being a newspaper reporter and found I had to add things like adjectives. This time, with seven years’ newspaper editing under my belt, it was even worse.

Poet me: “The wind sets shifting borders.”

Editor me: “No it doesn’t. If they’re shifting they’re not set. If they’re set, they’re not shifting.”

Poet me: “But I like the alliteration!”

Editor me: “Well, it’s your poem. I mean, don’t let me stop you. It’s not like I pointed out that wind is made of air and therefore can’t create a border anyway. If you want to say “sets shifting” because you think it’s all poetical, then do carry on.”

Poet me: *side-eyes, grumbles, rewrites*

But it’s in the dictionary

I once hung out with a man who read dictionaries for fun. This led to  heated discussions about correct usage from time to time, followed by look-ups. But most people do not stash dictionaries all around their houses. Quite a few don’t even use the one that comes with their word processing packages. If they did, fewer embarrassments would arise. However, there can be drawbacks to uncritical use of that big book.

I did French at high school. Whenever I found out there was more than one French word for something, I’d pick whichever one I liked the look of best and use that. I was later to realise how dumb that approach was when I met people new to English who spoke of making their ablutions in the morning, or swooned over the beautiful stench of a perfume. When you speak a language really well, you understand subtleties of meaning, context and tone that are often lost on people who don’t. Which leads me to…

I thought I read it somewhere

I’ve been marking a lot of undergraduate university essays lately, and I’ve found that for all their grammatical errors, if there’s one set of students who seldom get basic meaning wrong, it’s the second language speakers. It was the same when I was editing newspapers – the second-language writers were frequently better than the local ones. Kiwis, bizarrely, are shockingly bad for using words they think mean one thing that actually mean something else – “portray” for exemplify, “enforce” for reinforce or support – just throwing any old preposition where one is needed, and for tripping up over homonyms (“chicken coup*”, “poured over journals”). We speak our own languages with great sophistication, but when we try to get sophisticated, we frequently fail.

I think I’ve worked out the reason. It’s because we don’t read all that much. Sure, we’re constantly online now, but we’re mostly skimming chatty blog posts, giggling at gifs or listening to audio. Most of us spend a lot less time with our noses in a book, and the breadth and depth of the things we read is vastly reduced on a day to day basis. When we come to write something, it seems that we try to emulate what we think we’ve read – but without that ongoing practice, our skills are unformed or rusty. Add to that the regular appearance in print of these errors, and it’s a vicious circle.

But Spellcheck, tho

One of these days I’m going to have to accept “loosing” weight to fit into some new “flaired” pants as legitimate usage, so common have these misspellings become. I’m hoping I am in my grave before that happens. Spellcheck does not speak English. Spellcheck does nothing more than pass over words it recognises, and highlight words that it doesn’t. This is why chickens stage coups, academics pour themselves onto pages and you never know which two/too/to is going to turn up. You should always, always run a spellcheck. But don’t expect it to catch those errors.

Of course, there’s another thing you can do after you’ve done all of this, and that’s find a beta reader, or hire an editor. Don’t fear that second set of eyes. It’s the difference between writing that’s loose, and writing that loses.



*Yes, I know coop and coup are not homonyms, but I’m guessing these error-makers didn’t prance about making fools of themselves using ill-chosen words in sixth form French, either.

Making an old skill new

Making an old skill new

Knitting Nana’s way has served me well – but trying Granny’s style is reconnecting me with the way it feels to learn  something from the ground up. As an unseasonably warm winter shifts into an unpredictable spring, I am taking comfort and inspiration from revisiting previous skills and passions, and making my old ways new.

My father used to laugh at what he called my “Kiwi knitting”. Mum’s mother – my nana – taught me, and all three of us would hold both needles in a loose fist and loop the wool round the left-hand needle in a motion Dad called “lassooing”. This was the normal mode of knitting as far as we were concerned. But for him, it was wildly flamboyant and uneconomical. He had grown up with the click of his mother’s needles in the dark at night, any light revealing that the only thing that seemed to move were her fingers.

My Irish grandmother was born in Donegal and learned to knit from infancy. By the time I met her, aged eleven, she had long since stopped doing it, her hands bent with arthritis, but her knitting skills were still legendary in our house. It was the 70s and handcrafts were the norm. Everyone’s mother could knit or crochet. Handmade jerseys and cardigans were still affordable options to mass-produced versions from the shops. They were probably cheaper.

Granny famously made everything for her family with her knitting needles, including socks. Traditional Aran designs were the norm. She never used a pattern. She usually used four needles and her work had no seams. We had a chance to test this story when she sent us some cardigans in the 70s (great big cream-coloured things with leather buttons) knitted by her and a friend. Just as we’d been told, Granny’s had no seams. Mum could not work out how she’d attached the sleeves.


I like to knit, though I don’t do it often – I get bored with plain knitting and can’t wear complex bulky patterns. But I often find myself breaking out needles and yarn at times of transition and stress. The feel of the wool and the needles, and the repetitive movements, are soothing. When I was made redundant in July this year, I fortunately managed to pick up a short-term contract right away, but the work was very different, and my working future remains a bit uncertain. It was no surprise, therefore, that I found myself wanting to knit over the winter. First I made a cushion (in Egyptian cotton – so gorgeous to work with), then a woollen throw, which is nearly finished. The pattern is simple, but has enough changes in it not to bore me. I pick it up and do a few rows on the bus or while watching TV. My mind drifts as I do it; I think about old school friends poking fun at their English mothers knitting with elbows tight by their sides, of the excitement of knitting with fashionable new yarns as a teen, of making baby clothes for family friends, of my late maternal aunt, who was a skilful and respected knitter in a “Kiwi” style. Memories of anything I’m watching get knitted into the fabric, too.

My dad is old and when we spend time together I often talk to him about his childhood. That, and the preponderance of tutorials on YouTube has sent me searching for Granny’s knitting style. It turns out there are a lot – but I think this is most likely to be the way she did it, based on Dad’s descriptions of her needles barely moving and being held high on the body. Periodically now I have tried to take up my needles this way. It’s hard. My knitting becomes slow and awkward. Usually I have to stop and return to my usual style, especially on a purl row. It’s too frustrating, relearning how to knit. But I think it’s good for my brain. Learning new things is something we can continue to do for life, even if it does become harder to learn quite so quickly as in the past.

When I first started knitting I used my left hand to throw the wool, confounding observers who dubbed what I was doing “Continental” (it wasn’t really). Over time I learned to use my right hand like everybody else. I can learn to hold my working needle like a pencil and tension my wool on my right hand, too. It just takes commitment.




Christchurch, remixed

Christchurch, remixed
 I don’t need statistics to tell me Christchurch is not monocultural. I see evidence to the contrary every day, and it fills me with hope for the future.

When a city is rebuilt, the wanderer’s eye is particularly drawn to artists’ renderings of what will stand where now, there is bare land or rising steel. Onsite billboards present an idealised vision of what to expect; a permanently cloudless summer sky, gleaming glass, pristine walls untouched by tags or lichen. Little clusters of people hang around these perfect buildings, often a little translucent, like future ghosts.  As we walk through patches of wilderness to reach these little islands of growth, we search, sometimes hopelessly, for the familiar, and examine the new.

I started paying particular attention to who populated artists’ renderings – spoiler: white folks – not long after an outcry over a campaign designed to promote living in the CBD, which featured almost exclusively white or white-appearing professional people.  Some time before that, my then-employers had released a series of posters that sought to depict the exciting variety of typical local newspaper readers: several white people and a dog.  Between the two of these events – which I found people generally responded to with some variation on “but Christchurch really is super white and monocultural, it’s just reality”-  I began counting obviously non-white faces as I went about my day in the CBD.  I’d usually hit between nine and 15 in a 10-minute walk, before I got bored with counting and started thinking about something else.

When I say “CBD”, mind you, I’m not talking about a bustling metropolis, or even the moderately active small city that Christchurch used to be before the 2011 earthquake. I’m talking about a still fairly sparsely populated part of town. It’s a place tourists visit, and it’s a place where international students and new migrants gather to study English. Many of them, it’s true, may not live within the Four Avenues.  But they work or study here. And many would live here, given the option.

I am a white person from a largely white family. Growing up, I really did live in a largely white town. It’s not any more. It hasn’t been particularly homogenous for at least 20 years. Not if you look around. Christchurch may statistically remain overwhelmingly “European” – 83.9 percent of Christchurch city residents surveyed in the 2013 census identified as such, though some of them probably also identified as something else – but it is changing. More of us are Maori. More of us are Chinese, or Indian, or come from the Philippines. More of us are a mixture of all kinds of things. There have always been Kiwis whose ancestry traced to neither the British Isles nor Hawaiki. They’re just more noticeable now.

I don’t need statistics to tell me Christchurch is not monocultural. I see evidence to the contrary every day. Hazara women in sludgy greens and browns examine bargains at the Warehouse. Sweet-faced young Sikh men sporting winter-weight turbans step back to let me on the bus ahead of them. Taxi drivers come from Africa or Afghanistan. People whose origins I can’t readily identify are everywhere, speaking languages I don’t know, and some that I do. The homeless guys who line the streets behind cardboard signs – most of them aren’t white.  While it makes me sad and frustrated to see the latter, and while I fear the rebuilt city will exclude the non-monied majority, I love the rising diversity of my town.

The streets, the map, even the land beneath them have changed. When the ghostly figures who stride around the fantasy version of our future take flesh, they’ll be Kiwis with many lines of ancestry. And that’s a good thing.