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.

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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?

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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.

Seven tips to tackle* writer’s block

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When your words are getting stuck somewhere behind your frontal lobe, and your fingers just won’t produce prose, there are options. Grab them.
1) Research is important. Dive into Google and look up stuff related to your novel. For instance, your 19th century dining room scene may need fleshing out with, well, flesh (on the plates) and napkin ring details. What WAS happening on January 25, 1874? What might your characters have been wearing? Before you know it you’ll have spent hours collating valuable information in your head, and probably taken in some fantastic cat videos to boot.
2) Listen to your muse(s). Some writers insist that their characters talk to them. So perhaps your inability to write is simply the voice of your muse telling you what you need to know. Your character doesn’t want to sit at a desk. Your character wants to go to Burgerfuel and eat a Hamburgini with cheese and a milkshake and maybe grab some doughnuts to eat on the way home. Yes, even if your character IS a vampire and normally unable to dine on anything but human blood. Listen to it. Listen to its voice! Feed the muse!
3) Get some fresh air: It’s not healthy to sit at your desk all the time, and a brisk walk in the outdoors is bound to kick-start ideas anew. Get out there into the nature. Marvel at the subtle beauty of a grey day. Splash in puddles. Get your socks soaked through with icy winter water. Go to the shop to buy new, dry socks to stave off any possible pneumonia or frostbite complications.
4) Read. The only way anybody learns to write well is to read a lot. If the words are getting stuck somewhere behind your frontal lobe then clearly you haven’t read enough. Read a book. Read twenty. Read a best seller AND a critically lauded new release. Compare. What features led to these books’ success? Read some old rubbish just so you know what really bad writing looks like. Read the Daily Mail. Feel superior to anybody who writes for the Daily Mail. Wish you could get a gig writing for the Daily Mail, which you know you could do better while drunk and asleep. Cleanse your Mail-tainted mind with a graphic novel or seven. Now watch the telly because you’re too tired to do any writing today.
5) Feed your mind. Those muses above (see 2) might be your characters talking to you, or they could just be manifestations of your body’s need for fuel. A hungry brain is not a creative brain. Your brain needs toast. No, wait. Your brain  needs ice cream. Don’t stint. Give it the finest gourmet ice cream. Give it several kinds. Use the flavours to inspire you. Jot down descriptions of your ice cream for later. Who know when you might need a character to eat ice cream?
6) Artificial stimulants. Look, loads of famous authors took tons of drugs and/or drank like fish. Burroughs. Coleridge. Bukowski. Behan. They lived hard and they wrote hard. If it worked for them it will surely work for you, right? Take your laptop to a bar or opium den right now and get stuck in. (CAVEAT: none of these writers had access to the internet. It’s conceivable that if they had not been confined to pens and typewriters, they might just have been really good trolls.)
7) Exercise. Nothing makes the ideas flow like a structured movement class. I’ve been writing a blog post about my yoga class for MONTHS. It’s still in my draft folder and so far comprises the phrase “I should go to yoga more often”, but I’ll totally get round to finishing it one day soon.
 For some genuinely useful tips on how to beat procrastination and other writerly woes, check out Susie Lindau’s Wild Rider Magazine.
* I said tackle. I didn’t say CURE.

 

In which I Smash up my free time

I had a plan. I was going to sit down and write a bunch of thoughtful, sometimes elegiac, sometimes funny, sometimes just plain useful things, and post them on this blog while I had the time. Instead I sat down, opened up Lightbox and started watching ALL THE TV I have missed in the past few years of night work and no cable.

I’m still not free. I may never be free. The worst part of it is, I keep having awesome thoughts about shows nobody cares about any more.

I started by watching the breathtakingly good Breaking Bad, in as near to a single sitting as was physically possible, and then went out and bought the first two seasons on DVD even though I’m supposed to be watching my budget. I may share my thoughts about that some time, but not today. No. You see, the thing is, I like brilliant, brainy, complex television. But I love trash more.

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Tread the boards – lightly. Breaking Bad fanart: Jens K Styve

So my next binge was Smash. An all-singing, all-dancing, cameo-encrusted story of Broadway and the battle between two would-be stars for a career-creating leading role in Bombshell, a musical about Marilyn Monroe. One, Ivy: a theatre-seasoned triple threat with a decade of hard graft behind her, but inexplicably, no big break. Played by Megan Hilty, an actual theatre person who is pretty amazing. The other, Karen: that one really pretty girl who was on American Idol  a few years back. No, wait – I mean, a bland ingenue from Iowa whose raw talent and fine cheekbones inexplicably captivate all who see her. Played by that one really pretty girl who was on American Idol a few years back.

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Why do I care about these people? SMASH — Season:1 — Pictured: (l-r) Jaime Cepero as depraved assistant Ellis, Anjelica Huston as sassy producer Eileen, Jack Davenport as snide director Derek, Katharine McPhee as Mary Sue Karen, Megan Hilty as Ivy, Debra Messing as housewife show writer Julia, Christian Borle as Julia’s BFF and writing partner  Tom. — Photo by: Mark Seliger/NBC

Smash was by all accounts a critical failure, which I learned after watching two episodes then succumbing to the urge to Google. I could see why. I could see the dropped and overstuffed storylines, the irritating Mary Sueishness of Karen, the increasingly wacky and at times straight-up embarrassing nature of the non-stage musical numbers. The overuse of quirky woodwind. The awkward cameo appearances by Real Theatre People. But there is plenty to love. The singing! The dancing! The Marilyn impersonations! The tiny insights into how musicals are made, and how much of what ends up on a stage is about commerce and making things work, rather than some pure and lofty vision. There’s Debra Messing, who I’ll watch in anything. Anjelica Houston! Bernadette Peters! Jack Davenport! Pretty much all of the cast, even Katharine McPhee, are enjoyable. The  numerous gay characters are just there being humans, instead of providing Teaching Moments (although it would be hard to have  a show about Broadway without them, let’s face it.)

And there are so many more things about Smash that are terrible, and yet somehow glorious. Things like  Anjelica Houston’s over-soignee Broadway producer falling for rugged, martini-making crim-with-a-heart-of-gold Thorsten Kaye, who more importantly is also New Ridge on The Bold and the Beautiful. Kaye is so radically different in look to Original Ridge (Ronn Moss, who looks like a waxwork Paul Stanley in 80s fashion drawing form) that there is no way one can accept him as the same character. Now, in my mind, when Ridge left Forrester Creations for a year or so he worked in NYC, moonlighting as a bartender and gaining criminal connections. And was murderered and replaced by a guy whose $7 martinis, when thrown in people’s faces by Anjelica Houston, have the power to  alter perception. (Houston throws martinis a lot.In one episode alone she does it three times.By season 2, she’s doing it in the opening credits.)

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Megan Hilty: nothing like Marilyn at all. Image: Shutterstock

And there are things like how people bizarrely decide that tall, thin, brunette Katharine McPhee could be better at pretending to be Marilyn Monroe, in a Broadway musical, than Megan Hilty. “She’s got something …. like TV audience recognition.” And, that a Rent-lite musical made up largely of what sound like Shania Twain songs, with a Lady Gaga-style “Diva” added to create something resembling dramatic tension, will end up a) being described as “edgy”, b) playing on Broadway ten times faster than Bombshell did, and c) both sweeping the Tonys AND being a “cult hit” because its book writer conveniently got hit by a car while bemoaning the songwriter’s betrayals. In song. And, that the “bad boy” songwriter From The Streets™ composes on a piano. For musical theatre. Because when you are On The Run® from your abusive family and gritty drug-dealing past, you can count on there at least being a piano lying round the place on which you can Expunge Your Angst In Song™ and think about staging.

Yes, there’s a lot to mock about Smash, and it was cancelled after two seasons, but everyone can sing (OK except Huston), most can dance, and who doesn’t adore a bit of theatrical escapism of a winter’s night? Like [spoiler] poor, deceased season 2 Kyle, I’ve got a soft spot for a flop. Roll on my next trashy binge!

Why this is a terrible blog

Blogging properly is not just about writing some stuff and putting it on the internet in a handy WordPress template. Here, BRIGID KELLY tells you exactly what is wrong with THIS blog … and why!

1) It lacks a clear focus.

OK that’s not strictly true. This blog is all about ME. ME ME ME. But more importantly, this blog was largely intended to be a space where I could stretch my writing muscles again, and/or post examples of the kind of work I can do. Part of the reason for that is because most of my archives were lost in those damn quakes.  As a result, it’s all over the place – listicle here, schmoozy self-plug there, colour piece ici, vaguely political pontificiation la. A good blog can be varied… but it needs things to hold it together. To wit:

2) There are not enough pictures, pull quotes or subheads.

Nobody wants to read a wall o’text. And this blog is one mighty wall.

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A random picture of my fave boots.

When I set it up, I was still working in my day-night job as a newspaper subeditor and the very LAST thing I wanted to do while sitting up in bed of a night was more layout. Also, I was sitting up in bed with a blanky across my knees, tippity-typing in a dimly lit room, longing to go to sleep and eager to press “publish” rather than delay till I had time to make the post look all beautiful and ensure it was SEO-ready and stuff.

3) The articles are mostly too long.

See above. People mostly don’t read past what fits on their screen when they browse the interwebs. In fact you may not even be reading this far right now. Not unless the picture of my boots drew your eye down further. That is why high-impact web content is generally pretty bite-sized (or is that BYTE-sized? AHAH. I’ll wait till you’ve stitched your sides back together.)

4) Nobody can find it.

Actually, that’s not strictly true either. Google my name and “flaneuse” and you’ll find one entry.

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Not Original Brand Brigid Kelly, despite also being a lefty with great brows and a penchant for green.

Google “flaneuse antipodienne” and you’ll find more, including a place where my content has been cheerily copy-pasted to some random dating site.  But unless you know what you’re looking for, the chances of finding content by ME ME ME sinks beneath the waves, and also the growing profile of a (hopefully) nice Democrat lady in Ohio. I had this name first by the way, lady. It’s about time I started using it on everything, am I right? It could also do with better keywords and  categorisation that’s less personal, more designed to get others a-clicking.

5) It’s a snob.

This blog would do much better if it just got off its arse and talked to the people, you know? Like that Ohio hopeful lady probably does all the time, because she is a politician. This blog should be commenting on other blogs and inviting interaction by offering polls and other fun clicky things. This blog has not gone on its ceilidh for quite some time. It’s acting like it has agoraphobia, which it assuredly has NOT. It needs to get itself out there.

6) It is updated infrequently.

No one likes a blowhard, but similarly, no one remembers a one-hit wonder. Blogs need regular updating for two reasons: one, to keep your readers engaged, and two, to ensure there is lots of older content on it to entice new readers to stay and look around.

7) It is a wuss.

This blog has been too scared to just jump in there and bash out a few lines, even though those are precisely the sorts of entries that readers appear to like the best (according to WordPress’ handy stats feature). It has been all “oh no I better not blog now, I am tired and do not have time to make it super cool and perfect enough for potential employers to see. It might not paint me in a good enough light. Mopey mope mope.” It has been told in no uncertain terms that this is no kind of strategy for living, and that it should just own itself and jump out there, warts and all. After all, what is my brand if not… eclectic?

What do you like in a blog, readers? What mistakes have you made when creating yours?