Sunday, September 30, 2012

Moby Dickens

Reading back to when I was last writing about Moby Dick I found there were three previous references to it on this blog. I decided I'd give Moby Dick one last go, as it's being broadcast, chapter by chapter, on a site called Moby Dick Big Read.  Various readers, including New Zealand's Witi Ihimaera, are reading a chapter at a time, so there's quite a variety of accents and dialects coming through.  Today's chapter, number 15, is read by a laconic-sounding bloke called Peter Burgess, who doesn't distinguish in any way the different characters in the story (in this particular chapter only Ishmael the narrator, and the lady who runs the inn where chowder is the only thing on the menu).  Tilda Swinton reads the opening chapter, so we have that famous opening line, Call me Ishmael, read by a female voice.  Her accent, of course, is clean, clear Brit.  

Anyway, by this means Moby Dick might still get 'read' through before the end of this year, which will be something of an achievement.  My aim to read some Dickens this year became a bit of a fizzer, for a patch, because Little Dorrit turned out to be a little boring, which surprised me.  I think it's that the long-winded love relationship between Dorrit and Clennam is rather tedious. And Dorrit's self-centred father, while a brilliant portrait in its own way, presents a character who we can barely sympathise with.   Anyway, I got about half way through before giving up.  

I decided I couldn't let the rest of the year go by without giving Dickens some more reading room, so I embarked upon one of his shorter novels, A Tale of Two Cities. My best memory of this book, when I read it as a youngish man, was that I couldn't put it down over the last hundred or more pages.  And certainly it has suspense that I don't think any other Dickens has. Even my re-reading of it over the last month brought back that feeling of what's going to happen next?  I knew that at the end Carton gave up his life for Darnay; it wasn't that aspect that was suspenseful, but the escape of the family, along with Mr Lorry, Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher. This section has an unusually breathless feel about it, all the better for being taken at a cracking pace. (Why didn't Hitchcock film this story instead of one or two of the other historical films he made?)

Tale of Two Cities is probably unusual in two other ways, when compared to most of Dickens' books.  Firstly, there's the lack of comic characters, and secondly there's the reasonably well-constructed plot.  Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher verge on being comic creations (though Cruncher's tiresome tirades at his praying wife aren't in the least bit amusing), but neither of them can compete with the pantheon of real comics who appear elsewhere in the Dickens' canon. This story is strikingly serious. Yes, I know, most of Dickens' later works are more serious in tone - Two Cities comes between Little Dorrit and Great Expectations - but there are still comic characters in them; here, such characters don't even get a look in.

A still from the 1935 film version of Dickens' book.  
The characters in this book are still Dickensian, but they're Dickensian with some element missing. If they'd appeared in a different book, they would perhaps have had more room to expand. Here they seem to be so subject to the exigencies of the plot, that they have to get on and be their basic selves without any humorous element. The main female character, Lucie, is of course the same as most of Dickens' young female characters: totally bland and almost lifeless.  Dickens can tell us as much as he likes about how faithful and true and loving and perfect in every way she is, but we never actually believe it because she's never alive. The man who becomes her husband, isn't much better: he has a short scene early in the piece when he confronts his wicked uncle, but beyond that he does little of note.  Sydney Carton, the erstwhile hero, lazes around most of the book being a man without any ambition in life, and suddenly finds himself late in the book doing something honourable.  Though why he decides to come to Paris isn't ever quite explained.  Lucie's father is somewhat improbable: he's spent twenty years in prison and has lost his mind (and loses it occasionally after being freed) but he then manages to go back to his old life as a doctor in the midst of the French Revolution, safe as houses from being touched by the revolutionaries and clear as a bell in his mind. 

The two strongest characters are Monsieur and Madame Defarge.  Defarge is a man of few words, but his bulk and strength is palpable throughout the book; Madame Defarge says even less, but is terrifying.  She's the one who wears the pantaloons, the one who runs the pub, the one who secretly signals to the innumerable revolutionaries (who all go by the name of Jacques) when there's a spy in their midst, and the one who comes close to bringing ruin on Darnay and his family.   Dickens achieves the impossible in Madame Defarge's final scene, in which she struggles against Miss Pross who's guarding the door that may be hiding Lucie and her child.  He has both of them speaking their native tongue (except of course that we read Madame Defarge's words in a slightly unusual English), neither of them understanding the other's words, but both aware of the other's intent.  The achievement is that this scene is both comic and horrific at the same time; Dickens plays with the language barrier and with what each speaks while at the same time keeping us on tenterhooks as to how Miss Pross will prevent Madame from discovering that Lucie and Co have already escaped. It's one of the best scenes in the book.  

If the plot has any failing, it's that it's spread over rather a long period.  It begins a number of years before the French revolution and gradually works its way towards that awful event in a series of leaps of time.  However, this is a minor matter, really, given how everything in the book is racing towards those last wonderful hundred or so pages.   

Two Cities has a great deal in common with Barnaby Rudge, which is the other Dickens book that I did actually finish this year.  Both are focused around a period in history that wasn't contemporary with Dickens' own day, and both are exceedingly violent.  I'm not sure which is worse in this regard - perhaps Barnaby.  The difference with Two Cities, I think, is that the violence is in the fibre of the book from early on, and when it explodes with its full force, it's all the more sickening for it.  There's no doubt that Dickens could describe violent scenes with considerable skill; some of his strongest writing occurs in both these books in the scenes of mob rule.  By contrast, both books offer too many pages of purple prose: in Barnaby these occur whenever Barnaby himself appears; in Two Cities they occur whenever Lucie appears.  It's a Dickens failing; you just have to start skimming when these appear.

So what next for Mr Dickens?  Can I get through something else before the end of 2012?  It would be good to try one of the books I haven't actually read...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Evenly matched

Last weekend we had a lamb staying with us.  A two-week-old lamb.   It had been abandoned and wound up living with my daughter and her family.  We had to babysit it while its new family went off to a birthday party that had been planned for some time, in Gore - a couple of hours drive away.

The lamb, Rocko,was surprisingly good, really, considering that it didn't know us, and might have felt abandoned for the second time, by its new family.  He bleated a bit the first night, but once it was dark he settled down on his mat in our glasshouse without any further problem.  Didn't even wake us up the next morning.

Our dog Marley, a two-year-old, was very interested in it.  We thought it was the usual dog curiosity which can turn a bit sour if you don't watch out, but in fact Marley just wanted to play.  The lamb was just the right size for him (the dog, as you'll see, is pretty small) and on the Saturday they got on like a house on fire.  We caught some of their long-lasting game on video.  It involves Marley chasing madly around, exhausting himself (he tries to have a little rest in the middle, but the lamb doesn't let him), and the lamb practicing his head-butting skills.  I think there's a moment of contact, but it's hard to tell, and obviously Marley wasn't troubled by it if there was.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Heard You Singing

Back in July, I wrote a blog post about whiskey and colds, and mentioned the New Zealand Opera Quartet.  I was accompanist for this group at one point in the sixties, and toured the country with the four singers presenting 45 minute concerts to secondary school pupils.  To great enthusiasm, surprisingly!

As a result of the blog post, one of the surviving Quartet members, Corinne Bridge-Opie, sent me a copy of her book, I Heard You Singing, in which the Quartet gets a whole chapter to itself.  It turns out it had a longer life than I knew about - I was just one of several accompanists who worked with it at different times.

I Heard You Singing is an autobiography/memoir that covers the careers of both Corinne and her husband, Ramon Opie.  Ramon was actually Raymond, which isn't quite so exotic, but as a result of a broadcasting error, Ramon became his performance name.  An announcer had mispronounced his name as Raymon Dopie.  It was quickly decided to change it to make future mistakes avoidable.

Ray was New Zealand-born and a Kiwi through and through.  He was very down-to-earth and a man of the people, you might say.  He was musical from an early age, and by the time he was a late teenager was gifted with a superb tenor voice. Even before he got some professional vocal training he was known as an outstanding singer. His voice was regarded as unique in Australasia, and like many other New Zealand singers he could easily have become famous well beyond our shores.  He learned all his roles (and the innumerable songs he sang) by ear.  He auditioned at  Covent Garden when he and Corinne spent a few years in England, but was turned down.  It may have been because of his age - he was in his fifties at that point - and the fact that he didn't know any of the operatic roles in their original languages.

Corinne was also born in New Zealand, but her parents were from England, and she spent some of her childhood there and some here.  Her parents were musical, and she sang and performed with them from a very early age.  By the time I knew her she had trained in London and worked professionally as a singer in the UK.  A call from the fledgling New Zealand Opera Company brought her back to New Zealand, and the Opera Quartet was formed a little later to give four singers work between NZOC productions.  That company offered more work than you might think; not only did they put on full-scale productions, some of which toured the country (Die Fledermaus was one that I was involved in), but they also presented Piano Tours, in which an opera would be performed by as small a cast as possible, accompanied by a pianist/musical director.  (I played for two of these, doing La Boheme, prior to the Opera Quartet tour.)  In these piano tours the cast would also act as stage crew, props and costume organisers, and shifters of scenery.  Even the bus driver who took the unit around the country would get involved backstage with the performances.

I lost touch with Corinne and Ray after the Quartet tour because I went to London to study and work. Strangely enough it turns out they went and worked in London a couple of years later, but our paths never crossed, which was a pity.  They were trying to get work with the opera companies over there, and had some success, but in the end it was decided that New Zealand offered better prospects for them, especially as Ray had some health issues that curtailed their stay.

Corinne's book is detailed and brings back memories of a wide range of people with whom I've had some association, or whose names were familiar to me from the 60s onwards.  In this respect it's like Edmund Bohan's recent book, Singing Historian, which covers much of the same time-period and includes many of the same names.

I Heard You Singing highlights the difficulties of being a full-time singer (or musician of any kind) in New Zealand.  The population is too small to support singers all year round, and the choice is either to pursue a career overseas (as Bohan did) or be content with juggling a job in the 'ordinary' world while working only part-time as a performer.  Corinne mentions innumerable occasions when she goes out and finds a job in order to make ends meet.  Sometimes this job fits in nicely with singing work; at other times the singing has to take a second place.  This increasingly became the case as Corinne and Ray grew older.  It requires considerable stamina (and an understanding family) to cope with the erratic nature of available work, and sometimes it's just easier to do your singing in your spare time.

Corinne's book is a welcome addition to the growing number of books on the work of New Zealand singers and musicians in the second half of last century.  I enjoyed it greatly.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Get a life!

Once again the American Civil Liberties Union has stomped all over a host of people's rights in favour of a complaint from one person.  Seemingly in the States, 'father-daughter' dances have been popular for decades, along with 'mother-son' baseball games.   But a single mother came up with the idea that this was somehow discriminatory (to her and her child) and as a result, in one school district these popular events have been banned.  No discussion, no thought as to creative ways to make a single parent feel included, but banned.  Yup, that's the way to go.  It's Political Correctness as its intolerant best.

Got lots of people enjoying something?  Ban it: it must be upsetting someone.

In the Otago Daily Times this morning we had a tongue-in-cheek opinion piece on a similar piece of PC-ness that occurred last week, when a couple of city councillors (themselves not young people, by any means) called themselves (and fellow councillors) slightly derogatory names.  One male councillor referred to himself and others as 'us old fellas', while a female councillor referred to herself and them as 'old farts.'  World-shattering.

In spite of neither of them causing any offence to other councillors, someone at Age Concern Otago got herself into a knot and complained about the 'deprecating comments' - they were insulting old people (sorry, chronologically challenged people) she claimed.  Unbelievably, the female councillor apologised (that's the way these PC folk get you on the downward slide: making you apologise for something that wasn't offensive in the first place), while the male councillor wisely told the ACO person to get a life.

The ACO person said the phrases were ageist.  Yup, that's right: anything with the word 'old' in it is likely to appear on the ageist indicator.  But curiously enough, old people are old.  I call myself old all the time - because I am. That doesn't stop me from behaving like a twenty-year-old when I want.  So what?

We're so concerned about upsetting someone these days that we've lost our sense of humour (and all those great jokes that include three people of different nationalities, or mothers-in-law, or Irishmen, or Australians).  These things aren't insulting: they're part of life.  The ACLU is a group that's widely known for its total inability to see anything as funny; seems like the lady from ACO is leaning in the same direction.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Chesterton on education

I'm reading G K Chesterton's The Common Man at the moment.  It's a book of essays that were collected together quite some time after his death.  As always there is an abundance of wit, and sound thinking, of paradoxes and satire.  And dozens of sentences and paragraphs that could be quoted here.

For today, however, just one quote, from an essay called The New Case for Catholic Schools, in which Chesterton shows how foolish it is to think that well-rounded people are produced by schools who choose to cut religion out of their curricula.  

You can have an education that teaches atheism because atheism is true, and it can be, from its own point of view, a complete education.  But you cannot have an education claiming to teach all truth, and then refusing to discuss whether atheism is true. 

We're still having this argument put to us today almost a century after this was written.  We're asked to be tolerant of people's whose views aren't Christian, or aren't religious, but then we're asked to be intolerant of people who do have a religion.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Who was Donald Ford?

I'm due to play for a young singer tomorrow at the Dunedin Singing Competitions.  We've got half a dozen songs up our sleeves, so it's going to be a reasonably busy day.

One of the songs is a lovely piece called To Daffodils.  The words are by Robert Herrick and the music is by Donald Ford.  Herrick, of course, is a reasonably well-known poet from the 17th century, a vicar by calling and the writer of some 2,500 poems.   His career as a clergyman was interrupted for fourteen years during the English Civil War, and used the interim to write and publish some of his poetry.  His clergy status was restored in 1662, but it seems that much of the focus of his life resided in his poetic work, even though in his time he was not widely acknowledged.  He died an old man of 83.

There's a good deal known about Herrick.  Donald Ford, however, is a mystery.  A friend had thought that he'd written another song,  A Soft Day, which has a similar warmth and feeling, but it turns out this is by Charles Stanford.   Ford is credited with writing He is Tender with the Beasts, Nod, and Romance, to words by Wilfred Gibson, Walter de la Mare and Robert Stevenson respectively.   There's also a list of ten pieces that appear to be for children on this site which may or may not be by him, though it's probable it's the same composer.

Other than that he seems invisible.  I'd be really interested to find out more about him, but even Google seems flummoxed by this request.

Top ten and coincidences

I haven't caught up with my HitTail results for a while, so, having had a reminder from them yesterday, I thought I'd check out what's hot in regard to the top ten keywords.  These top ten words are apparently 15.6% of all my search traffic.

HitTail suggests only one phrase as a keyword this week: random film free, a rather odd phrase, you'd think.  But apparently people have picked this blog up as a result. I tried it, and this blog didn't get listed until the third page - admittedly there were only ten results per page, so that's probably not bad.

Apart from that, and the fact that putting in random film free might not have helped the searcher a great deal when he or she came across my blog, here are the top ten results.  Nine of them are old favourites; only one is a bit out of left field, and that's number four on the list, which comes up as  Now I can't imagine anyone putting that in as a search, so it's plainly something a machine has done.  Good luck to it; when I put it in as a search I get the brush-off from Google.  

Zirka Circus review tops the list this time around, with Zirka Circus coming second.  I must be one of the few people to have written about the Zirka Circus, which is why I'm so popular!

Athlete's hand comes third, and bingo! Mike Crowl comes fifth.  The Great Divorce notes comes sixth - people still picking up something I wrote about C S Lewis' Great Divorce at some point and Google matching it up with the title of my blog.  Chrissy Popadics is, as always, on the list, followed by Frederick Buechner marriage.  Penultimately there's James Berardinelli, whom I haven't written about for more months than there are in a year, and probably longer; in fact, I haven't even read much of Berardinelli in the same time.   And finally there's another old favourite: skinny tie (skinny ties is thirteenth on the list.)  It's interesting that the image for the skinny ties post and a photo of Berardinelli appear in the 'Popular Posts' list down the right hand column.  Zirka Circus is there too, and Buechner, so I guess these are there because there are so many searches for them.  Chrissy Popadics appears under her married name of Johnson in this list.  It's kind of a circle really, isn't it?  People search for the thing so the posts become popular, and the popular posts get searched.  Hmm.  

That's just my top ten list, of course.  The list goes on forever, whittling its way down from nearly 300 hits for each search item to just one.  HitTail's reason for existing is to point out the little words that people search for so that you can make more of these; it's the counter approach to the way most SOEs work.  I could look up all these little words, but I thought I'd stick to a simpler task and check out what words or phrases have been searched for today that brought the searcher in touch with my blog.  There are four: betty boop on stage, oscar wilde on art, into the open air sheet music, charles horton cooley.  Charles Horton Who?  

I didn't think I'd ever written about this bloke, but I have.  Considering that I don't appear anywhere near the top on the search results it's surprising anyone found this site, and it's surprising that HitTail says they did.  But there you go.  I remember writing about Betty Boop, but again she doesn't appear in the search results unless I put some connector, like mike crowl.  

The Oscar Wilde reference is there, again requiring some additional input, but into the open air sheet music turns up easily without additional words; fourth on the list, in fact.  And here's a nice coincidence.  Years ago I wrote a post on Boise, which happened to mention Chrissy Popadics.  Boise doesn't turn up in my HitTail results very readily, but Chrissy does all the time.  The coincidence is that my daughter-in-law comes from Boise, and now lives in Minneapolis with my son.  The post that turns up in relation to open air sheet music tells me that the sheet music in question - painted onto a building - is in Minneapolis. 

First sentences

While looking up the subject of cowboys in order to introduce the idea of Stetson Cowboy hats, I came across this quote by Larry McMurtry, the writer.  Several of his books were turned into films, and these stories are probably best known now by their movie titles: Hud, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove. 

The quote from McMurtry below is one of several listed in my clipping, but this one particularly relates to writers and the art of writing...

"You expect far too much of a first sentence. Think of it as analogous to a good country breakfast: what we want is something simple, but nourishing to the imagination. Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and a verb and perhaps a wholesome, non-fattening adverb or two."

Many books on writing make an enormous fuss about the first sentence, and will quote famous first sentences as though the authors of them knew somehow that these same first sentences would become famous in their own right.  Some of them ignore McMurtry's advice and land us with a piece of philosophy: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife [Pride and Prejudice] or, Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. [Anna Karenina]

But without the rest of the book, these first sentences would never have survived.  Neither of these two sentences is so remarkable that it makes us necessarily want to read further.  What these two sentences tend to do is sum up the theme of the book that follows.  

That isn't the way most books begin.  Here's an example I've pinched from Ben Myer's blog.  (You can also find a quiz on first sentences out of children's books, here.)   This one engages the reader (which is what McMurtry had in mind) without telling the reader how it will all work out.   

‘High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.’ [David Lodge: Changing Places]

Or another example from Ben Myer, this time Flannery O'Connor in full throttle: Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.’

What that sentence does is tell you that you're about to enter a world that's pretty extraordinary and so hold onto your braces.  

I'm not going to repeat everything here that Ben Myers has included in his survey of first sentences, but, since I'm once again reading G K Chesterton (The Common Man, this time), I'm going to leave this topic with this wonderful opening sentence - and the one following.  It comes from Chesterton's Autobiography, which is, in some places, almost as much a book of fiction as fact.  

‘Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgement, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.’

Remembering and forgetting

I'm working my way slowly through Charles Spurgeon's excellent commentary on the Psalms, a book he wrote while he was ill, and needed something to occupy his mind.  (There are three large volumes of it in the original version.) Not only does he comment on every Psalm but he also includes comments from contemporary, and earlier, writers.  Some of these exceed Spurgeon's own comments in wisdom and insight.   But it's not a book you can skim through.  Its value is in taking time to discover the Psalms afresh through the eyes of men who were Godly and experience in the ways of God.  I've given myself approximately a week for each Psalm, because there's plenty to chew over.  Obviously some of the shorter Psalms may take a little less time, but they'll be compensated for by ones like Psalm 119 and its ilk.

I'm including a number of the comments over on my other blog, The Daily Writer, but this particularly paragraph struck me as being apt to mention in this blog, because of its application to life in general.

Verse 18. This shall be written. Nothing is more tenacious than man's memory when he suffers an injury; nothing more lax if a benefit is conferred. For this reason God desires lest his gifts should fall out of mind, to have them committed to writing. Le Blanc.

(Spurgeon doesn't tell us who Le Blanc was, but I suspect it was Thomas le BlancS. J., (sometimes written LeBlanc) Professor of Divinity at Rheims and Dijonauthor of a Commentary on the Latin Vulgate (the longstanding Roman Catholic translation of the Bible). I could be wrong.  This Le Blanc lived in the 1700s.)

The comment by Le Blanc is interesting because it reminds us that we have an extreme ability to remember wrongs done to us, but little ability to remember things that have been done rightly for us.  I barely need to reflect for a moment on this without a welter of wrongdoings coming to mind, wrongdoings that other people have done to me over the years, or even single sentence statements that hurt me at the time.  I try to forgive and forget these but it's a major task.  The brain doesn't like leaving rubbish behind, yet it's happy to forget about good things.  

Think about any incident you've had in a restaurant or a shop where you've felt hard done by, even to a small extent.  We chew these things over, tell our family and friends, build them up into a long-winded story that gets more and more detailed as time goes on.   It's a well-known fact in business that if someone has a complaint about your service you'd better get onto it quickly, because that complaint will have turned into a full-scale onslaught against your company before nightfall.  The only way you can nip such a problem in the bud is by outdoing yourself with something that says to the customer that you really do care about them.  And it has to be genuine.  Anything else will only leave a worse taste in their mouth.  

But Le Blanc, of course, isn't talking about retail, or dining out.   He has more important things in mind: he wants us not only to forget injuries, as God does (as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us, as it says in one of the Psalms, ) he wants us to remember the good things that God does (and even the good things that other people do).  It seems the only way we'll do this is by writing them down.  Injuries cause longstanding wounds; gifts and benefits somehow seem to slide over us like water over a rock.   But it's far more important to remember the gifts and benefits than the injuries.  And far healthier.  

PS. There's also a comment about this from Spurgeon himself in his notes on Psalm 103.

Monday, September 17, 2012


In an article on liberalism in Western politics, John Pilger quotes Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State in Bill Clinton's liberal administration: 

“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”  

Pilger comments: How succinctly she defines modern, violent liberalism. 

Northanger Abbey

There have been times when the BBC has made something of a hash of televising the classics (King Lear was one example), but rarely have they made such as hash as their version of Northanger Abbey, made in 1987 with Peter Firth and Katharine Schlesinger.  Robert Hardy and Googie Withers also appear; Withers is fine in a truncated role as Mrs Allen, but Hardy seems totally ill-at-ease, as though he's either not sure what the role is all about (he plays General Tilney) or he's found that the production wasn't living up to his expectations and he is trying in part to sink it.   That's probably unkind; most actors do their best not to assist productions to sink, and anyway this one is sinking from the opening scenes without any further help from the actors.

The script adds and subtracts, seldom adding to any advantage and often subtracting to great disadvantage.  It loses the point that Catherine Morland (Schlesinger, all googly-eyed as though her eyelids were permanently stuck wide-open) is so enamoured of the Gothic romance novels of the period that she views everything about her as though it was coloured in the same way.  Instead, we have crazy inserts of the Gothic stuff she sees as though it was some kind of reality, and these are never really explained.  She never actually grows from being obsessed with the romances to seeing real life.

Firth isn't too bad as Henry Tilney, one of Jane Austen's regular older and wiser men whose role it is to bring a young woman into a place where she's not so self-obsessed and flighty.  He's charming, though not particularly handsome.  Why Catherine would fall in love with him at first sight is a bit difficult to understand (or he with her, if it comes to that).  His worst moment however is when he's required to sing some Italian duet with a woman who's role in the film is never clarified.  Firth isn't dubbed by someone who can sing; instead we have to endure a couple of minutes of him singing with a voice that has little vocal quality whatsoever.  Its main blessing is that it's in tune.

The Thorpe brother and sister are presented as plain awful: Jonathan Coy plays John Thorpe as one of those brusque characters out to win a bride to fund his ongoing living.  He at least knows the style of the thing.  Cassie Stuart, however, has no idea of the style or period.  Her speech has no quality to it, she's forever giggling and gushing, and her only moment of truth is when she's dumped by Catherine's brother because she's been giggling and gushing at Henry's brother.  On top of this she's dressed like someone who has no sense about her clothing at all.  Not that she's alone in this; this TV play must be one of the worst dressed on record for both men and women.

And then there's the music: for a start there's too much of it, blowing its way into scenes where it isn't needed, and at other times so anachronistic that it breaks any mood it's trying to convey.  The user reviews on, which seldom agree with each other, here universally decry the music, especially the use of a saxophone and some wailing woman that occurs on more than one occasion.  The reviewers in this instance dislike the play almost entirely, in fact, which again must be unusual both for IMDb and for the BBC.

For some reason this particular film doesn't show up in IMDb's search engine.  You can find it via Google, where the additional tag, 'Screen Two' is added; this appears to have been some series that the BBC produced around that time that were intended both for TV broadcast and theatrical release.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Accompanying at the Comps

I used to accompany young singers (from beginners right up to seniors) in the local singing Competitions.  I did this for quite a number of years until I just couldn't take it anymore.  It's hard work: you have to keep the tempi of dozens of songs in your head, and have to remember any changes that have been made to what's on the page, and often you'd go straight from accompanying one child to accompanying another without any time to think about what the piece was that you were playing.  And in some cases you'd have the singing teacher hissing at you from the wings if the tempo wasn't quite up to scratch, or if you didn't seem to be doing quite what they wanted...

Of course you had a rehearsal with all these kids.  One rehearsal for each child and for each piece.   You'd  also have the music in hand a week or two before so you could practice it.  And truth to be told, most of the pieces were a doddle to play, since they were geared at little kids.

The seniors' music was a different kettle of fish, though usually things weren't quite so pressurised with their competitions. You didn't feel constantly rushed.  On the other hand the music could be quite complicated, and required you to actually practise the stuff.  That was no problem, and enjoyable, and often very satisfying.   I accompanied some very fine young singers over the years, a number of whom have gone on to much bigger things.

Anyway, I haven't done the singing comps for some time, apart from maybe playing for one or two singers who happened to come my way for some particular reason.  I'm due to accompany a young fellow next week, for instance, at the senior comps.  Just one person.

I've very rarely accompanied instrumentalists in the instrumental comps.  This is a different kettle of fish again.  (That's three kettles so far.)  I think the last time I did I accompanied an instrumentalist (apart from the Brass Band competitions, which are a fourth kettle of fish) was more than twenty years ago.  I can't even remember now who I accompanied, or what instrument they played.

However, I got asked recently if I'd accompany a young clarinettist (she's in Year 13 at school) for this year's comps.  The connection was that she'd been in the orchestra for Grimhilda! (as had her mother).  Only in that orchestra this talented young lady had played the violin while her mother played the clarinet!  (Confused?)

I was happy to do this.  And then I saw the music.   One of the pieces was fairly straightforward: a movement from a Weber clarinet concerto with an orchestral reduction.  The reduction was, overall, readable and manageable.  I just needed to do some work on the scales that ran helter-skelter down the keyboard in a couple of places, and do a bit of jiggling with a bar which would be fine if you were a string player, but which doesn't fit under pianistic hands at all.  So I rewrote it in a way that I could actually manage without falling over.

But then there were two of the Gershwin Preludes for Piano transcribed as pieces for Clarinet and Piano.  Do they let the pianist off the hook?  Not at all.  Perhaps there are fewer notes, but there are some real 'moments' when you're leaping about the place or trying to fit a tricky rhythm into what seems to be an inordinately short space of time.  I have really, really had to practice these.  And they last less than a couple of minutes each.

Then there was the Jazz Variations on a theme of Paganini by Michael Garson.  This is easy, overall - for the pianist - the clarinettist has notes going off in every direction. Check out these two youngsters playing it with insouciance.  The jazz rhythms aren't anything to get your hair in a frizz about.  But one stretch of about eight bars when the clarinet and the pianist's right hand play exactly the same thing is a bit of a killer: sixteen semiquavers to the bar, at speed, involving some really interesting turns and twists. (I have practised this five thousand times. I'm sure I have.) This actually came off very well in our performance.  We stayed together beautifully - although I don't know when the clarinettist breathed.  I'm not sure that I breathed either.

Finally there was another Weber: the first movement of his Grand Duo Concertant.  When I first looked at this I thought, this is (sort of) okay.  It probably doesn't go very fast.  And then I watched a video on You Tube and discovered that it does go very fast. [Here's one example of several.] And keeps on going fast except for a few bars when either the clarinettist or the pianist take a slight breather.  (There are more of these moments for the clarinettist than the pianist.)

I had to work.  My fingers felt as though they'd gone back to the 50s or 60s when they were practising for a major exam.  The only difference was that they're no longer as flexible as they were, and the brain doesn't fire as fast as it once did, and what, in the past, would happen almost without me thinking about it, doesn't happen any more.  I have to think.  I have to tell the fingers what to do (they seem to have lost their ability to just get on with it.)  I have to say, Yes, we will practise this bit until you get it right.  And even then, having got it right, they forget what they did yesterday and we have to start all over again.

They respond (a little sarcastically) that it's good for me.  I haven't been impressed with anyone telling me this since I was a youth, when my best friend used to say it regularly.  But they're right; it has been good for me to do some real solid practise, as I haven't been playing anything that stretched me since we finished the Grimhilda! rehearsals, apart from four piano pieces I wrote after the production was over that have sections in them that require me to do some work.

Besides the young artist I was playing for, there were a number of other talented musicians: one violinist was the sister of the young man who conducted Grimhilda!; deservedly, she won both the sections I saw her perform in.  Another violinist was the young man who played the Parrot in Grimhilda! - connections all over.  (And this morning the young man who did the lighting for the show turned up at the competitions, even though he was supposed to be in Australia.)

There was a pianist who played one of his own compositions - a theme and variations from his piano sonata.  It a very good piece, full of intricacies, fun, jazz, noise, crashes and bangs and such huge chords towards the end that I didn't think there'd be anything left of the piano for me to play when it came to my turn.  And he played it with enormous verve and confidence.  I'd be happy to have half the confidence he's got, but sadly my confidence just has to gird its loins these days and do its utmost.  It isn't there like it was in the old days.

There were also a couple of boys of Asian parentage (both brought up in New Zealand by the sound of it) who played the piano.  One played a piece called Cat and Mouse, by Aaron Copland.  This was a delight, though I'm not sure if the mouse survived or not.  The other boy played a piece by a Japanese composer (I think - I didn't have a programme).  This was a seemingly simple piece, halting and emotional, and wonderfully played.

The worst thing about the competitions is how few people attend.  The audiences while I was there consisted mostly of parents, some relatives, and a few teachers.  At one point there were no more than ten people in the audience.  This is a crying shame, because not only are the ticket prices very reasonable, you get to hear some excellent performances by young people on their way up in the music world.  And you get to hear some music that's unfamiliar.  Even if I'm not playing for anyone next year, I think I'll go along just to hear what the local kids are doing.  It's well worth it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

For the sake of the Green Card

Watched a movie called Crossing Over on DVD last night, and kept thinking about my son, who's living in the US these days all the time - on a Green Card.   The film is a drama about immigration in the States, about deportations and illegal immigrants and people who aren't legal themselves but have children born in the country who are automatically citizens and so on.  Harrison Ford is in it as an immigration policeman, Cliff Curtis (an Arab this time) is his partner, and there are a host of other bodies, including Ray Liotta (looking curiously seedy throughout), Ashley Judd and Jim Sturgess in smaller roles.  It's one of those films where several stories are begun and then gradually begin to intersect; not always without coincidence.

There's an underlying sense of violence in it, though the occasion on which this really shows up is when an Asian youth caught up with a gang doing a liquor store robbery nearly kills a female customer - his mate has already shot the store owner, and none of the gang apart from the boy survive the incident.  And there are some unnecessary (to my mind) sex scenes: not just the usual we-have-to-show-you-the-characters-at-it but conversations held with the characters in the nude, and a later scene in which two lovers are shot while in flagrante delicto  (which I've just learned means in blazing offence, something I'd never known before).  To my mind forcing actors to converse with each other while they're naked does nothing for their ability to put the scene across successfully.  There was a terrible scene in an otherwise very good TV play quite a few years ago in which the woman was astride the man, in bed, and they had a conversation about politics throughout the we-have-to-show-you-the-characters-at-it scene.  For me, it's just an embarrassment to watch scenes shot in this way, and the fast forward on the remote is very handy.  We-have-to-show-you-the-characters-at-it scene are like those ones that take place in men's toilets, in front of the urinals; that idea, perhaps novel when it was first done, seems to me to have been well and truly overdone, and was probably never very effective in the first place.  (In my experience, men don't tend to linger around urinals having conversations, but maybe New Zealanders are different.)

Anyway, apart from all this, there are some very emotional moments in this movie: a family split apart, another made new; a young man wounded by his girlfriend's casual attitude to prostituting herself in order to get a Green Card, and the scene in which Cliff Curtis faces up to what his brother has done - for the sake of 'family.'   There's also one funny scene in which Jim Sturgess, trying to convince an immigration person that he's Jewish enough to work at a Jewish school (he isn't), is rescued by an elderly Rabbi, in a moment of grace.

In fact there's a good deal of grace exhibited throughout the movie: Harrison Ford is a man who does his job but hates what it does to the people, and he attempts to reunite a Mexican woman and her child when they've become separated by the system.  It's way beyond the call of duty, but he has that kind of integrity as a person.  (It's what Ford does well, of course.)  Grace is given in enormous measure by Cliff Curtis to the Asian boy, a grace that he not only doesn't deserve, but almost throws away.  Quite a picture of the sort of redemption each of us receives from God, if we're willing to take Him up on it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Listening - or not - to Cage

After hearing quite a decent piece of music by John Cage yesterday when we were driving to the supermarket, something that had lots of fun arpeggios on the piano and people clapping rhythmically at other times, I thought I'd give Cage another go and listen to today's episode in the series the Concert programme is running. 

So far I'm remaining almost complete underwhelmed. It was interesting to hear in the introductory talk about this series that Schoenberg thought Cage had little sense of harmonic structure.  Certainly in the piece playing now (Concerto for prepared piano & chamber orchestrahe just seems to add note after note without any obvious musical connection: though of course he was into music constructed by maths/graphs and whatever, so perhaps that explains why it sounds like it does...

And you can hear the music of his followers echoed in every bar: the long held notes crescendoing and descrecendoing but going nowhere in particular; the burps and sudden interruptions from the brass, always in dissonance; the percussion sounding as though they've lost one of their mallets and are banging their way around amongst the instruments trying to find it; the sudden squeaks from the high instruments as though someone had pinched their bottoms; the modified ('prepared') piano making various interesting but unconnected noises. (I bet some pianos aren't prepared for the indignities that are 'performed' upon them!) The only thing missing are plucked notes from an Ovation guitar - perhaps it hadn't been invented when Cage was writing. 

The current piece has been going on in this vein for several minutes.  It must be very unsatisfying to play.   I can't quite figure out where the concerto element comes into it: the piano doesn't seem to be doing anything more or less than the other instruments.  They're all being as random as each other.  According to the link above, the piano and orchestra never play together in parts one and two of the three parts, and the thing as a whole was originally worked out from a 14 x 16 chart.  You need to read the explanation - and hopefully you can make more sense of the phrase towards the end: 'thus the prepared piano is released from its hunger for self-expression.'   Apparently self-expression was banned from Cage's later works. 

The Concert programme is just about to start playing Hector Berlioz' Requiem.  This is a wonderful piece of music, and I've seen/heard it performed live twice, once in the Dunedin Town Hall way back in the sixties, and once in St Paul's Cathedral in London - only a few years later.  The walls of St Paul's were reverberating with the vibrations coming from the multiple timpani.  

I wonder what Berlioz would think of Cage's mechanically-made music? 

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Going by what some reviewers say, you either love The Men Who Stare at Goats to bits, or you just plain hate it, you either think it's very funny in a screwball sort of way, or you think it's sort of funny, funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha.

I enjoyed it.  It doesn't have any sort of real plot, or even much of a story, but it gives George Clooney the chance to play an absolute goofball in the most serious way possible, and that's worth the price of admission alone (although it has to be admitted I watched it at home after recording it off the TV).   Clooney co-produced this movie, as he did the last film I saw him in, The American.  The contrast is extreme.  The American seemed to have wandered off whatever the planet it started on (apart from making a total hash of the book it was adapted from); Goats was never on this planet, in a sense; the book it's based on isn't a novel anyway, so it doesn't actually have much of a story, and it's played for laughs - something The American might well have benefited from.  The American took itself utterly seriously and fell flat on its face.  Goats has no reason to be serious about anything, so if it falls over it doesn't in the least bit matter.

I don't think it does fall over: it has two excellent performances at its head from Clooney and Ewan McGregor - an actor who's been cast in some roles that were totally wrong for him (think Moulin Rouge).  McGregor played the young Obi Wan Kenobi and seemed to me to make a mess of it; he seemed permanently uncomfortable when he should have been confident.  Here he plays someone who is permanently uncomfortable, and plays it superbly.

Both Clooney and McEwan know when to go a little crazy and when to hold back.  Jeff Bridges is here too, thoroughly enjoying himself as a rather too mature hippy, and Kevin Spacey has a relatively small role in which he makes no bones about the fact that he's the villain of the piece (whatever that actually means in this context).

The basic premise of the film is that the US Army somehow managed to acquire a unit (under Bridges) who claimed they could use New Age techniques to win wars.  That leaves the film wide open to show all sorts of nonsense being performed with every degree of seriousness.   The men in the unit believe with all their hearts that they're onto something.  We think they're barmy; they don't know the word barmy exists.

Jon Ronson's book, on which the movie is based, is a different kettle of fish.  The humour is still there, but it's all too close to the tortures of Guantanamo Bay to laugh at very much.  For better or worse, the movie takes a different tack altogether.  The elements are the same, but the tone is different.  I think we know enough of what has gone on at Guantanamo and other torture places not to want to see it played out on the screen in violent realism.  For once it's good to laugh instead of crying....

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Tim Minchin and Prejudice

I don't know many people who were born in Northampton, in the UK, but apparently Tim Minchin (who's generally regarded as an Aussie) was.  I'd never heard of him till tonight, but it's not unusual for me to be way behind the eight ball when it comes to catching up with singers and musicians and artists in general.  (I've actually been in Northampton more than once, because I have relatives on my wife's side who live there.  I was actually born in Australia,  so does that makes me a kind of reverse Tim Minchin, a kind of Nihcnim Mit?  And did you know that Tim Minchin is an anagram of Ninth Mimic?)

Enough of that.  Tim Minchin is a talented musician who can play piano and sing. His songs (if the one in the video is anything to go by) are very clever and amusing.   The song has a longish opening that leads you down a completely different track (especially if, as a New Zealander, you've heard about the word Hone Harawira used in Facebook recently) and then it gives you a lovely surprise by turning out to be about something else altogether.  

Great stuff...

Contactless cards and Taps

Some innovations exclude commonsense.  The contactless card is one such: it has tiny transmitters in it that mean a machine can read it without you taking it out of your pocket or wallet.  While my own credit cards aren't like this, the GO cards we use for the buses seem to be similar, as people can just put their wallet on the machine on the bus and the card gets read.  However the GO cards I've had don't seem to like this system much and after a while have refused to cooperate, meaning I've had to replace them.  That's a bit of a pain, because you lose the money you've got stored on them, usually.

However, credit cards that can be read without you doing anything at all are a considerable liability.  Who came up with such an idea?  At this point around 200 million credit cards are contactless, and more and more of them will be in due course.

Which means even less security for the cardholder.  You would have thought that with all the problems we already have with credit card theft that adding a way that makes it even easier for thieves would have been rejected at the first post.  Nope.  Someone obviously thought the benefits outweighed the liabilities, and went ahead with the plan.

There are ways to make contactless cards more secure, but that requires forking out for yet more stuff in order to overcome problems you never asked to have in the first place.  Secure card cases and wallets that block information from being taken from the card are available.  But wouldn't it just have been easier to have thought about the consequences of contactless cards back at the beginning?

I remember reading an article years ago which said that innovation didn't always amount to improvement.  The writer was talking about taps (faucets) and the way in which they were being redesigned to look more modern - but they were also more complicated to use and less convenient in many ways.  (Don't get me started on those taps in men's rooms at airports that are supposed to turn on when you put your hand under them - and never do.)

I saw a programme on TV recently in which a man had designed and built this extraordinary house with all sorts of inventive and innovative design features, many of which were environmentally-friendly and practical and a delight to live with.  But the taps...!  They weren't visible at all: you had to pass your hand over three or four little indents in the wall above the basin in order to start or stop the tap, or to specify hot or cold.  The person doing the programme got himself unexpectedly wet by turning on the shower when he was trying to turn on the basin tap.  The ones in the kitchen of the house were not in the least intuitive - rather like some programmes when they're transferred from PC or Macs onto iPads and iPhones.

You don't have to be a Luddite to be a person who wants to stay without some innovations.  Unfortunately we live in a world where business idolises the god of innovation, and idols - as the Bible frequently reminds us -  couldn't give two hoots about those who worship them, or about those who have to do with business with them.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Christchurch trip: third post

Yesterday, we got an email from the woman who was coordinating our work in Christchurch.  She listed what we'd achieved while we were there, and it was more than any of us realised, I suspect.  We visited 356 homes (in some cases that meant only that we'd noted the house was still there, or that there was no one at home that day); we delivered firewood to five people; we took baking to quite a few more; at least one lawn was mowed; we invited people to a meal on the Saturday night; some of the team helped pack up a house in preparation for the inside being repaired (it was a house belonging to a couple of people who had a tendency to hoard!); another two took a woman to see her mother who's in a rest home and has Alzheimer's - the woman hadn't been able to do this on her own due to her own health issues; we delivered 60 'snuggle packs' to one particular street; and we made arrangements for around a dozen people to be followed up by the CCR team because of further needs.  That's quite a bit!

On the Saturday morning, in Christchurch, our team was having its usual prayer/discussion/debriefing meeting before we set out for the day.  We'd already done most of what we would contribute during the time, and we were going to be putting on a meal in the evening for some guests.  Originally, Parklands Church had been going to host a 'shindig' (as one person called it) for us, but the person organising it had a nasty fall down some steps (breaking a couple of fingers and badly injuring his knee) and so the idea was put into reverse: we would host the meal instead.  We'd been using Parklands' kitchen facilities for our own meals.

We were expecting some of the leadership team from Parklands (including the guy who'd had the fall), but our own leader had the idea that it would also be good to invite some of those we'd had particular contact with during the week, people from the area where we'd been door-knocking, and people who'd assisted us by providing showers in their homes.  The idea was met with enthusiasm by the team, though personally I was a bit concerned about the logistics - but then I'm a person who likes to have every i dotted, and every t crossed.  The others were a lot more flexible - I learnt a bit about flexibility during the week.

Anyway, various ones headed over to the St Ambrose area again (Aranui and Wainoni) and re-visited some likely guests.  It took a good deal longer to do the rounds of the houses than we expected, but we came away with the possibility of several people attending the meal.  As might be anticipated some of those didn't come in the end, but two women did, and they seemed to enjoy themselves.  One of our team provided the transport for them; they wouldn't have got there otherwise.  All in all we had at least a dozen guests, possibly fifteen.

The meal was a virtual feast.  I mentioned in another post the enthusiasm two of the team in particular brought to cooking and baking.  For this meal, several of the young people got involved as well, and we had a couple of crock-pots of sausages in a sauce, a curry, various roasted vegetables and pumpkin soup.  And there was almost as much pudding or dessert as there was mains: chocolate cheese cake (very rich; quite an indulgent sort of thing!), two choices of ice cream, and more. (The meals we had during the week are blending together in my head a bit, so I can't be as specific as I'd like.)  We even tried to turn some rice that had been left over from a previous meal into a rice pudding (the students in the group had never tried this old-fashioned dessert and weren't desperately keen to start) but something went a bit awry with this.  Perhaps it needed longer in the oven, or needed more milk, or the jam was put in too early.  Suffice to say, it wound up as a left over twice over...

On Sunday morning we completed our time in Christchurch by splitting into two groups.  Five of us went over to St Ambrose's Church and as well as attending their 10 am service, we shared with the congregation a bit of what we'd done during the week.  The other eight stayed at Parklands, and were involved in their service.  

And so home.  The long five/six hour drive back to Dunedin confirmed that I was very tired, even though up until then I was doing pretty well in terms of energy.  When you're doing something different like this, and it requires some rethinking and flexibility (see above), you seem to pull in energy that you might not normally have.  But it catches up on you, of course.  I got home, cleared out the car, had some tea (which my daughter had ready for us) and got in the bath, where I nearly fell asleep while reading.  It might have been a bit of an anticlimax to have drowned in the bath, but so far I've never even dropped a book in the bath, let alone drowned in it....

Monday, September 03, 2012

More on Christchurch: doors and old people

This is another post on my recent Christchurch trip, the one we didn't go on in order to sell Bulova watches door-to-door.  See the previous post regarding what we gave away door-to-door, rather than sold.

I actually enjoyed going door-knocking.  I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, and one or two of the group found it a bit hard, I think, but that's part of the training, and the gaining of confidence.  I've probably had plenty of experience with other people's doors, over the years.  I was a Bon Brush salesman at one time, which involved a lot of door-knocking, some of it more successful than others.   (Bon Brush is now gone the way of many good firms, unfortunately.)  And I was a postman, which occasionally meant you had to knock at someone's door to get them to sign for a registered parcel, or to take something that wouldn't fit in the postbox.  And I've done surveys which required going door-to-door until you got enough people to fill your quota.  They had to be willing to answer your questions, and had to be the right sort of age, and right gender and so on in order to fit the criteria required.  That could be tough.  I remember one long, long day trailing up and down streets in Abbotsford and struggling to fill my quota because so few people were interested in responding.  Nothing to do with the fact that I was in Abbotsford; it was just one of those days.

So door-knocking is no problem to me.  And talking to strangers is something I don't have a hassle with either.  Furthermore, because we had a particular reason for being there, people were quite content to stop and talk and answer some questions about the state of things.  And in some cases that even led to conversations about God and church and such, which was fine.

I particularly enjoyed the conversations we had with old people: there was a man and a woman (in separate places) who were both 93 and had plenty to tell us about life and their histories.  The man had a boat, and a number of fairly serious ailments.  At one point he looked rather wistfully at the boat sitting in his backyard and said, "I probably won't be going out on her again."  I agreed, thinking that the fact that he had problems with his knees (he had a fall in one of the quakes) wouldn't allow him to climb up into the thing for a start.  But he was still driving to the supermarket...

The old lady was a delight even though she'd been quite badly injured in one of the early quakes: the fireplace had blown out.  She'd received singeing to her fingers, but that was just the start.  She'd been hit by something heavy and had almost lost sight in her left eye, had had a damaged hip, cracked some ribs and more.  She'd been in and out of hospital several times since.   She would have kept us talking all day, if we'd wanted to stay.  She told us how she used to have a sleep-out at the back of the house - she'd put mates of her son, who was a soldier, up in there overnight, so they didn't have to drive back to the barracks under the influence.  Sadly, people had been stealing the wood from the sleep-out after it got damaged in the quake.

Another old man had so many ailments that just when you thought he'd run out, he'd produce another one: several heart attacks, including one when he was on the operating table having something else attended to, blood in his urine, possible cancer, diabetes (which was a bit ironic, because he was one of the ones we took biscuits bake too - he said he'd sneak a bite or two in every now and then) and arthritis in his hands.  The latter had been made worse by some medication he'd been given a decade or more ago - given by someone who's now a top medical person - and which one of the other staff had noted was basically poison.  Not only did it not do anything for his arthritis, is left his hands looking as though they'd been burnt.  He was given some antidote, but that hadn't helped much.

These three people all lived on their own, which is a bit worrying when you think of the illnesses and disabilities they have.  They seemed remarkably resilient.  Another woman had had her house fall apart around her, and had been taken quickly to her daughter's home where she now lives.  She said all she could remember was grabbing some underwear out of one of the drawers.   She couldn't even recall what time of day it was that the first earthquake occurred; we reminded her that it had been in the early hours of the morning.  She told about her brothers and sisters - she had had eight or nine of them - and how one of them (it sounded as though he'd been one of her favourite brothers) had been killed, along with his daughter, when he ran into a train....                       To be continued....

What I was doing in Christchurch

I've been in Christchurch for the last five or six days (arrived there last Tuesday, around tea-time, and left Sunday lunchtime).  Christchurch, site of New Zealand's most famous earthquakes, considerably outranking the huge ones that flattened the smaller city of Napier back in the thirties.

I didn't go into central Christchurch, an area I previously knew better than anywhere else in the city, because I couldn't bear to see live what I'd already seen on television: the devastation of fine heritage buildings would have been more than I wanted to handle, I think.  Apart from that, I didn't have any real time to go exploring, or sightseeing.  The area I was working in had enough of its own visual demonstration of the effects of the earthquake: a suburban area on the East side of the city where much of the worst damage happened.  Houses here have been demolished completely, are due to be demolished, are boarded up, have boards up to protect them until they're repaired, have wonky paths and driveways, and are situated on streets where your car's suspension is likely to get a hammering.  In fact, the roads are one of the most obvious factors in terms of gauging the city's overall damage: everywhere you go there are roadworks, and changes being made to the layout of roads, and this constant feeling that you're going over a lot more bumps than you're used to.

When you go inside the houses, even the ones that look okay, you see the cracks in the plaster, the corners where wallpaper and plaster has pulled away, the gaps between ceilings and walls, the floors that aren't quite flat.  We were in St Ambrose's Anglican Church yesterday for a service: the building itself doesn't seem too bad - at least not to look at - but the floor is all over the place.  Our base during the week was Parklands Baptist Church, and again, while the building seems pretty much okay, there's a  fair amount of taping up of large cracks in the flooring.

To my great relief, we didn't have any tremors while we were there.   People are still on edge, however; they've more than once got to the point where they've thought quakes and tremors had come to a standstill, only to have another large quake, the sort that's big enough to upset you all over again, bring back all the tensions and fears.

I went up to ChCh with a team of 12 other people from our church, Dunedin City Baptist.  The church has done these local mission trips before in a variety of places, including our home town, and while the leader has remained the same for all of them (they happen once or twice a year), the remainder of the team varies considerably from trip to trip.  They almost always stay in a hall connected to the local church they're working with, and they cook meals together and have prayer times together and 'debriefings.'  They go out in pairs, usually, knocking on doors and asking if the people would be willing to answer a few questions on a survey.  Being a Christian group, the survey naturally leads onto discussing what people feel about church, and about Jesus.  But that's only part of it: they're also looking out for people in need within the area, and once these needs are identified, the local church follows up and does their best to alleviate the situation.  In the process, of course, it makes contact with the people and hopefully they feel comfortable enough with these church people to want to get to know them better.

Of course it has an evangelistic bent; there are enough plain social workers out there without us primarily doing social work as well (although it was the church that began 'social work' to a great extent, two millennia ago.

This trip, however, had a number of differences: firstly we were going to a church that had already done a great deal of door-knocking.  Secondly the door-knocking in question was primarily to find out how people were doing as a result of the ongoing earthquakes, and to put them in touch with people and organisations who could assist them further.  The group overseeing our visit, CCR (Christchurch Community Response) has been up and running for some time, and has a good relationship with groups like the Red Cross.  It has a number of volunteers who are able to assist more quickly than some of the bigger, more official organisations, as well.

Thirdly we were there to help out CCR (it doesn't stand for Creedence Clearwater Revival, or Revisited, by the way) in any way we could.  So, on and off for two days we did door-knocking, and completed some of the streets that CCR wanted covered.  We also assisted at St Ambrose's in such tasks as dropping off free firewood, or taking round care packs and such.  On top of this two of our team got themselves into Bake-a-thon mode, and not only gave away a good deal of the baking we'd brought up from Dunedin, baking that was intended to be part of our in-house food, they made a great deal more and gave that away too.

In fact giving things away was a delight: the leader and I, on Friday morning, went round one long street giving away some sixty fleecy blankets, the sort that you wrap around yourself if you're watching TV, or reading a book in your chair.  The Warehouse used to sell them a great deal, and may still do so.  The sixty blankets we gave away had been donated to the CCR people, but no one had had time to dispose of them.  So we walked from house to the next, and wherever people were home, gave the blankets a new home.  There's nothing quite like someone knocking at your door and asking if you want something free, something which is obviously of use to you.  It's warmed up in ChCh, but it's still not the hottest, so I suspect those blankets will already be coming in handy.   To be continued....