Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I may be some time.

I may be absent until mid-January as I do summer holiday type things and other activities that aren't so pleasant but will take up an awful lot of time.

I promise to take things up again then, and hopefully I will have gathered lots of interesting thoughts to blog about.

Have a great summer (or winter for you Northern hemisphere readers).

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I have recently been reading Nigel Cox’s posthumous collection Phone Home Berlin, a fantastic assortment of essays, articles and musings. Nigel’s non-fiction is so eminently readable and it’s easy to dip into it and end up getting lost. I have now read his story about his early writing experiences and encounter with a mentor-figure twice and enjoyed it just as much the second time around. It reminds me of a very good novel or short story by one of those incredibly smart British male authors of yesteryear, with characters that are so interesting and perfect, it’s hard to believe they’re not actually made up. But that is the secret to engaging non-fiction – the ability to turn real events into a bloody good yarn.

I wouldn’t even mind if I’d heard that he’d embellished it somewhat, like Paul Theroux embellished a lunch party at VS Naipaul’s that was attended by my old English lecturer, Michael Neill. CK Stead wrote a wonderful article comparing the two events, reported and actual, which unfortunately is not available online, but let’s just say that Neill didn’t recognise himself or the events, and Stead’s article is easily as entertaining as the chapter, (from Theroux’s Sir Vidia's Shadow, a memoir of his friendship and rivalry with VS Naipaul) that it criticises.

It just goes to show though, that people can, and do, and perhaps even should, fiddle with the ‘facts’ a little bit for the sake of some good reading.

But back to Phone Home Berlin – reading the Berlin chapters transported me to my own time in Berlin last year on my honeymoon. A strange destination for a honeymoon, people have told me, but I’d been wanting to go for a little while (German was my best subject at school and despite having been to Europe four times, I’d never been to Germany); my husband had been there and loved it, and when we decided to go happened to coincide with getting married, so presto! It became our honeymoon. We had been planning to do a whiskey tour of Scotland as part of the same trip, but pregnancy dealt with that little dream.

Berlin is a blast. Especially if you are young and like going out to bars, and even more especially if you like smoking in bars. I have been known to do both of these things, and if I had gone there even as recently as three years ago I know I would have had a much different (yes, probably better) experience. But being four months pregnant is not the best state to be in to visit Berlin. The bars were fantastic, the best I have seen… homely and shabby and characterful and full of interesting people you’d like to get drunk with… but I wasn’t drinking and to make things worse the bars were all so smoky I nearly gagged when I walked into them. And by about ten, when people were just starting to go out, I was tired and ready for bed. I had an overwhelming feeling that I had come to Berlin just too late.

Of course there were other aspects of interest there, but I have to admit that the things that draw me to a foreign country are its romance factor, its art, its food, its drink. And the reason I had never been to Germany before was because I had never felt that it would quite provide what I was looking for in those departments. While I like sausage as much as the next person (unless that person is vegetarian), I can’t really get excited about three weeks of sausage and Spargel (white asparagus). When I went to Thailand a few years ago, I would wake up very morning excited thinking – what will I eat today?

So with no exciting food and no bar action, we just did the usual tourist things and looked at lots of castles and war memorials. Now I’m not saying that German history isn’t interesting – it most certainly is fascinating – it just doesn’t inspire a sort of languid dreaminess like, say, Spain.

There were a couple of places in Berlin, however, that did blow me away, and those were the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum that Nigel Cox worked at and that he talks about in the book. Again, being pregnant made it not quite the experience I would have hoped for (being attacked by a sudden and voracious hunger when I was in the middle of the museum which takes about 15 minutes to walk through – designed so you have to go past every single bit of it, no shortcuts. I wanted to grab the nearest staff member and say in my seventh form German that was last spoken 20 years ago: “Achtung! Wissen Sie nicht, ich schwanger sein! Geben Sie mir Essen!”) but it was moving and fascinating and upsetting and beautiful and exhausting nonetheless.

I read and enjoyed Nigel’s novel Responsibility last year and was taken back to those Berlin trams, with the incredibly sexy recorded announcements (“Alexanderplatz” had never sounded so much like foreplay), and now I get to read the real life experience of the city as well as the fictional one.

I’ve talked more about me than the book of course. I never pretended to be writing reviews on this blog, I just bring up books when they get me thinking about things I want to write about (OK, ramble might be a more accurate word). But Phone Home Berlin is a great book, and just so sad that it’s the last we’ll hear from a unique New Zealand voice. I wish he’d got to write all those books he would have written.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Grant Smithies’ wonderful new book Soundtrack - 118 New Zealand Albums has recently been published by Craig Potton, and what a great piece of work it is. Beautiful production and sublime writing from Grant and assorted other contributors such as Shayne Carter, Hamish McDouall, Jolisa Gracewood, Chad Taylor, Damien Wilkins, Duncan Sarkies and Chris Knox. A true celebration of some great New Zealand music, including many of my personal favourites: the 3Ds (but sorry Grant, that’s not me on the recording of Hellzapoppin’ – I just came up with the opening bass riff during my short stint with them), Life in One Chord by the Straitjacket Fits, JPSE, Bressa Creeting Cake and my favourite band of the last few years, The Phoenix Foundation.

What I love about it is that it’s not just about the artists and the music – after all there have been plenty of words written on NZ music – but about the writers who are describing them, with these 118 albums as the soundtrack to some important moments in their lives. Grant’s story about The Jean Paul Sartre Experience and the death of a friend’s baby had me weeping into my decaf.

Actually, Grant asked me to contribute to the book, and I now deeply regret not doing it. I was a bit busy at the time, being pregnant, publicising my own book, giving birth and looking after a newborn baby. I wrote a story in my head though, so thought I might put it down on paper (well, on screen, anyway) now. It was about The Phoenix Foundation’s Horsepower being the soundtrack to my son’s birth.

Our baby was a week overdue and we went in for some routine tests – a heart and movement monitor. We’d had the same tests two days prior and everything was looking good. It had been a model pregnancy up until then. The baby was in the right position and good to go whenever he felt the urge to pop out.

Then we had some scary news – I won’t go into it in too much detail because it’s a bit too personal to share the feelings, on the internet, of what we went through at the time. The gist of it is that the baby’s heart was beating too fast and the doctors wanted to take him out that afternoon by caesarean to treat the problem.

After several false starts I was finally wheeled into the operating theatre. We had been told that we were welcome to take our own CDs with us, but my husband had forgotten to bring our selection of music, and it was too late to go back and get it. Crowded House were playing on the stereo as they sat me down to begin the process of putting in the epidural (which was a lot more unpleasant than I had prepared myself for!). I put my foot down. I was not going to bring my baby into the world to Crowded House. So they skipped to the next CD. Dave Dobbyn. Even worse. So the procedure was put on hold while they brought me over a box of CDs to look through. We browsed through the most mediocre selection of music I could have possibly hoped for, and just when I was about to give up and let them play some so-so compilation, my husband found a gem: Horsepower. My mood instantly lifted.

As they slid a needle into my spine while I sat hunched over, holding the hands of my husband and midwife, trying not to cry, I let the opening trill of 'Sister Risk' wash over me. Yes, sometimes it does bloody “get so hard”. I can’t explain how it felt to have that familiar sound around me while that most unnatural procedure was performed on me. A mixture of sweet anticipation and fear, instead of just fear.

After my legs had filled up with warm liquid ('Let Me Die a Woman' - the video for this is spookily apt for how I was feeling) then gone numb, and after I was laid down, and the initial wave of nausea caused by my dropping blood pressure had passed ('This Charming Van'), it all went remarkably quickly. At some point – I don’t remember if it was before or after the babe was out – I was paying enough attention to the music to make my husband get up and skip track six, the only blight on the landscape of Horse Power, the only song I didn’t want in the room with me to share that moment.

Once the baby was out (and I will spare you the details), I didn’t really pay much attention to the music, for obvious reasons. Instead I had something new to think about: a kicking, squashed, mewling bundle that was rushed off to the neo-natal ward to have an emergency ECG, where he stayed for a week while the doctors worked out what to do with him. I was wheeled into recovery and I don’t know whether it was the morphine or the endorphins, but I think I cracked jokes while the nurses did whatever they had to do to me, and I don’t remember much except looking at my green pearl-lustre toenails (thanks to a last minute pedicure from my five-year-old niece) and not being able to move them, and wondering when I would be able to eat something since they had starved me all day in preparation for the operation (my friends will read this and think ‘typical Rachael, thinking about food when she has just witnessed the miracle of birth’).

I would like to report that it has a happy ending – one year on, our son has come off his heart medication, and he has grown out of whatever it was that was causing his heart to beat twice as fast as it should.

But back to the book – a gorgeous present for any New Zealand music lover, full of stories much more well thought out than this one. I didn’t even talk about what the album Horsepower means to me, how it is my summer, my winter, my grief, my freedom. And now it’s the birth of my son.

Monday, December 03, 2007

More Coincidence.

Please excuse the absence of late – I’ve had more than the usual amount of work to do, having taken on various quick (or so I thought) projects that I don’t seem to be able to perform quickly at all. I have some juicy blog posts lined up in my head, but they will just have to wait until this run is over and I can get back to selfishly thinking about nothing but my own work.

In the meantime a few things: the wind took my broadband again and I can’t blame Telstra this time – a tree beside my office, which is on council land (the tree not my office), has numerous cables running through its very bushy branches, including our power and phone. We’re lucky it’s only been our broadband affected so far – a really big storm could take it all out in one gust. I’m about to see if I can get the council to cut the offending tree down, which seems a shame, but I promise to plant another somewhere else to make up for it.

Speaking of trees, the cabbage trees were in full bloom in South Canterbury where I was in the weekend, and our splendid and miraculous kauri tree (supposedly they don’t grow this far south very easily) is sprouting fabulous new leaves and looking very happy with itself.

Finally a note about one of my previous posts The Serendipity of Writing: not two days before I made that post, probably because I had been thinking about the Pan Bookshop, I wondered to myself what might have happened to a friend I met when I was working there. Alexander worked in another bookshop (Books Etc I think) and we met over champagne at the Ritz for the launch of a racy Dick Francis novel, a shop girl and shop boy slightly at odds with the surroundings (though I do recall he had made an effort to dress up in a suit while I was still in my rags).

I tried unsuccessfully to find him on Facebook, and I googled him, but didn’t trust that the email address I found for him was current, so left it at that.

Then lo and behold, a post appears on my blog from an Alexander. It couldn’t be, I thought. It was. It seems serendipity isn’t just at play in my writing at the moment. We had decided at almost the exact same time to track each other down more than ten years later.