Saturday, November 29, 2014

Not a winner this time round....

Didn't win the Gallipoli Songs competition organised by ABC Classic FM radio and our own Radio NZ Concert. But a young fellow called Andrew Baldwin was one of the six winners. (Now if 119 of the other 124 entrants hadn't entered, I might have had a fighting chance.

Andrew Baldwin is fairly well-established as a young composer; I've twice heard his music on the radio in the last couple of weeks. When I knew him first he was only a skinny little lad with a very good boy soprano voice. He performed in the local singing competitions and frequently won, or got placed. And then his voice broke - it was breaking during the last lot of competitions I remember seeing him in, to his embarrassment and everyone else's sympathy. But at that point Andrew was already composing, and I can remember him playing something he'd written way back then. I've also got a piano piece that I enjoy playing that he wrote some years ago, although his style has changed since then.

The breaking of the voice usually means boys have to take a couple of years off singing in competitions, or anywhere else. Some boys, like my younger son, manage to shift that gear in the voice without much problem, but my son had never really been a boy soprano in the accepted sense. The young fellow who played Toby in the musical, Grimhilda!, that I wrote two or three years ago, Max Beal, is currently in the same boat. He was in the most recent lot of competitions, this year, but will have to take a bit of time off to grow into his new voice.

So, I didn't win the Gallipoli Songs Competition. Well, I knew I'd be in heavy duty company, and I'll get over it. Eventually.

I spoke to one of my daughters on the phone the other night. We were talking about what I'd been doing and she was asking how my latest book is going (The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret). I said sales were pretty sluggish. Her comment was that I'll probably be one of those writers who becomes famous after I'm dead. I agreed. She went on to say that then my children will get all the handsome profits.

It would be nice to think so!

Interview with Jim Heskett

I've been doing some promotional work on Google+, getting to know some other writers and interacting with them. It's been fruitful for me, and hopefully for them. I asked a few of them if they would like to read my latest book, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, and give me some feedback. 
Some have responded, and the first one to read it, Jim Heskett, who's published a book of poetry recently, Love Poems, Hate Poems, was the first to come back to me. I gave him a list of questions that I thought he might like to answer, and here are the unadulterated responses. 

Me: Did the book entertain you, keep you wanting to know what happened next?

Jim: It did. The first chapter had a nice mystery hook with the blood-taking barber. The suspense had a nice ramp-up over the first half of the book.

Me: Did the characters come across as real people for you?

Jim: Hard to gauge, since I’m not too familiar with children’s literature. It felt like a fairy tale, a bit like Neil Gaiman.

Me: Were any of the lines or situations amusing to you?

Jim: The banter between Olivia and Billy was pretty clever.

Me: Did you find the situations plausible, given that there’s an element of fantasy in it?

Jim: I did, but it seemed odd to me that Jerry wouldn’t recognize his own parents after only twenty years. Also, that Billy thought of his dad as “jerry” and not “dad.”

Me: Did you feel that the language was at a suitable level for younger readers (given that it’s intended for kids from 6 - 12, roughly)

Jim: I think so, it seemed comparable to the first couple Harry Potter books.

Me: Did you enjoy it as an adult reader? Would you read it to your kids? (Well, when he’s ready...)

Jim: I did enjoy it! Good suspense, fun situations, and a satisfying ending.

Me: Did you find there were any cultural differences that you queried while reading it?

Jim: A little, but I lived in Australia, so I was able to puzzle out most of the slight language differences. Referring to the skateboarders as Ninjas was a new one to me.

Me: This is intended to be a stand-alone story, but it has links back to the first book in the series. Did it make you want to find out what the first book was about?

Jim: Since I knew nothing about the first book, I didn’t know what any of those links back to the first book were. Maybe adding some mystery by making vague references to things that happened before might help.

Me: Was there anything that really irritated you...?

Jim: I found some POV problems that stuck out to me… the POV seemed mostly in Billy’s head, but occasionally it would jump into another person’s head for a few sentences here and there. That’s a small quibble but those things always pull me out of the story.

You can also buy The Blood Secret on Smashwords, Kobo and iTunes

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Revolving Secret Santa gifts

The other night my wife's workplace had their Christmas meal together, and during the course of the evening (which was held at the home of one of the senior staff) we played a form of Secret Santa which apparently was originated on the TV series, The Office. It's rather complicated to explain but basically the first person whose name is drawn out of a hat goes to the pile of little gifts, picks one, and then draws the next name. 

If the person who's drawn second thinks he or she would like the first person's gift, they're entitled to take it off them (!), or they can go and get a new present from the pile. And then the third person comes into the game, and again can choose someone else's gift or get a new one. It's gets quite complicated once a number of gifts have been opened, because things start to move around the room quite rapidly, especially if they have appeal to more than one person. 

The gift I got didn't have appeal to anyone else, so I wound up with it, and couldn't snaffle anyone else's gift. My wife, on the other hand, managed to get something she wanted from someone else, lost it, got it again and finished up losing it completely before winding up with a jar of tamarillo chutney.

My gift was a box of three little scented candles. Maybe we'll find a use for them sometime, or else we'll put them in someone else's Secret Santa parcel if the occasion arises...

Unlike these Diptyque candles shown in the picture, mine were modest little fellers. The left hand one of the three in the picture is called Feu de Bois or firewood, the one on the right, Figuier, means fig tree. The middle one doesn't appear to have a translation. While the site where these candles are advertised talks about how the company came into existence, it doesn't give any indication as to how the name came about, with its curious spelling, easily mispronounced. However, good old Wikipedia tells us that the word is related to the Greek diptykos, and relates to a painting or sculpture composed of two panels or parts. I'm not sure how that connects to the candles, but I'm sure there's someone out there who'll know.

Dunedin wins gigatown

To immense jubilation on the part of the supporters, Dunedin won the Chorus gigatown competition last night. I wasn't among the crowd in the Dunedin headquarters (formerly the National Bank in George St) but watched the live streaming from Wellington in which the announcement was made, and then saw the gradual build up of tweets and Facebook comments and photos and videos as people got sufficiently over their initial excitement and shedding of tears and began to digitally announce to the world that we are Australasia's first giga-city.

It's a huge achievement. There were times when it seemed as though Dunedin didn't have a hope. We were well down the board in the earlier stages of the competition, and then did a major leap as a result of one particular effort. After that we remained pretty much in the top five. Thankfully.

I was involved from about March, mostly tweeting, but some had been competing since late last year when the competition started, tweeting day after day and putting up photos and so on. A massive effort from the long-haul people.

But then, when the tweeting/FB side of it came into the last stage, hundreds of people came out of the woodwork, it seemed, and some of them spent a phenomenal amount of time tweeting and retweeting and commenting, until, on the last day for that side of the competition we nearly managed to break Twitter in NZ. It got so overwhelmed that it couldn't keep up. That was extraordinary.

It was at that point that I discovered there were people who'd been involved from early on that I'd never encountered. Which was strange considering how much retweeting had been going on for months.

My only unique contribution to the thing was that I seem to have introduced the word 'twibe' to describe those who were tweeting faithfully day after day in Dunedin. I'd borrowed it from a blog post I wrote some years back, in 2009 in fact, and it took off. Last night a number of my friends on FB were congratulating me on how much I'd done in the competition. I had to remind them that the reality is that I was one of the minor players, especially towards the end, when some people easily outshone me as the sun easily outshines the earth. It was good to know I contributed something, but let's not go overboard, people!

Of course now the gig thing will gradually come to pass in the city. Home users probably won't see any difference for some time since many parts of the city aren't yet connected to fibre, and won't be until 2015, 2016 (in our case) or even 2018, which officially the discounted price will be over and done with. Hopefully businesses will be enabled to get on and use it in the more central parts of the city. That's certainly going to be a plus for many of them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A neuroscientist debunked...

Sometime ago I read Proust was aneuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. The review below is what I wrote for the local paper at the time. I've just come across this book again in an article in the latest NZ Listener, which is discussing a much more recent book on neuroscience by Christian Jarrett, called Great Myths of the Brain, which I hope to read at some point soon. 

Apparently, Lehrer has had a major fall from grace. " 2012...Lehrer was accused of recycling his own work and plagiarising the work of others. Two books were recalled, the New Yorker sacked him and he has largely disappeared from view...much of Lehrer's plagiarism was from Jarrett's British Psychological Society digest."

Here's what I wrote about that first book, back in 2011.

Lehrer’s idea for this book is to compare the thinking of various artists (Walt Whitman, Virginia Wolff, Gertrude Stein and Paul Cezanne to name just a few) with the discoveries science has been making about the brain. In relation to each artist he focuses on a particular aspect of the way (we think) the brain works and shows that often an artist has already ‘gone ahead’ and intuitively understood these things. 

It’s an intriguing idea and one that comes off well in some chapters and not so well in others. As a musician I found the chapter on Stravinsky less than satisfactory. He insists on calling The Rite of Spring a symphony and writes as though all (actual) symphonies before this composition appeared were classical in structure. And while Stravinsky was certainly an iconoclast, he was by no means the only person changing the shape of music around that time. Nor did he suddenly begin his musical career with a work that was completely off-the-wall. 

That quibble aside, the book is full of fascinating stuff, both scientifically and artistically. As always, we meet scientists who would rather cling to a theory than allow someone else to prove them wrong, and inevitably their goal becomes the quashing of the younger scientist’s findings. We read about all manner of discoveries in relation to the brain, in areas as varied as the memory, how we perceive feeling, taste, sight, language and what the self is...or isn’t. Many of these discussions are fascinating, and, for the most part, quite accessible.

Lehrer’s book is one of a number on neuroscience that have come out in the last short while. V S Ramachandran , Iain McGilchrist and Nicholas Hum­phrey have all written on the subject. Consequently, while Lehrer often convinces in his discussion of the brain and the mind, it needs to be remembered that what he’s saying is by no means the last word on the topic.  Our current state of neuroscientific thinking is in an extraordinary state of forward movement on one hand and dismay at how little we know on the other.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Doing the nanowrimo

At the beginning of the month I suddenly decided to take up the National Novel Writing Month challenge, normally abbreviated to nanowrimo, an abbreviation I have to look up every time because I can't remember it.

For those who don't know about this challenge, the idea is that you write what is basically the draft of a 50,000 word novel from the 1st to 30th of November (inclusive). That's the goal. I'm sure a lot of people start off intending to get there, and wind up some 1000s of words short. Or give up.

Having started I decided I'd be content with doing a thousand words a day, since that's about the length of my two previous children's novels. But now that I'm close to the finishing mark, with 34845 words in the can, I'm inclined to want to get to the 50,000 word mark just to prove I can do it. Tonight has been a real slog; the characters have no idea how they're going to get past the latest problem (well, actually it's a problem that's been looming for a while because I wrote a section the other day that came much later in the story, and now I'm trying to work out how we got there.)

This has been a common issue throughout the book. Because you're not supposed to plan or do a structure in advance, you're writing blind, and while this means things arrive out of the blue that you wouldn't have otherwise thought of, it also means you put your characters in situations they struggle to work their way out of. It doesn't help that two of the characters seem to be intermingling, and we're never quite sure which one is which. (By 'we' I mean 'me', of course.)

The story is a kind of prequel to the other two books I've published this year, Grimhilda! and The Blood Secret. And that's also meant that there has to be a scene in it in which two of the characters (a married couple) wind up permanently attached to each other - attached in the literal sense, unable to separate themselves. Quite why this should happen, how it's going to happen, and what will be the consequences, is all in the future at this point.

Ah well.

An official Goodreads author!

I've just been promoted to an official 'author' over at Goodreads. I hadn't realised until yesterday, when I was reading Goodreads for authors by Michelle Campbell-Scott that this was an option. Useful little book, but the 'helps' on Goodreads themselves, once you actually take the trouble to investigate them, are also very useful. In fact, possibly more detailed than those in Campbell-Scott's book. That's not to decry her book, which, as I say put me onto things on Goodreads I didn't know about.

Incidentally, since I became an official author, it turns out that I'm also on the various NZ lists that show up on my author's page: I'm apparently the 15th top librarian, the 59th top reviewer, and the 87th best reviewer. If I was any of these things yesterday, before I became official, then I hadn't noticed. But there is a lot on each Goodreads page, and you have to keep your eyes peeled.

How I got into the librarians' list I have no idea. Must have got there by default.

Some other authors I've met recently on Google+ and I have been thinking about doing a 'blog tour' in relation to our work. The Goodreads book came up kind out of left field, in relation to this idea, and sidetracked me somewhat yesterday. (I read most of the book yesterday: it's only a littlely.) However, the blog tour idea hasn't gone away yet, and we'll no doubt keep discussing it.

Meantime, I need to go and get ready for a concert I'm playing at this afternoon (accompanying singers and NZ's top cornet player, John Lewis). Time to move!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Debbie Howell - author

One of the people who tweeted for the longest time in the gigatown competition was Debbie Howell. She started tweeting for the competition back in 2013, which meant she was doing it for virtually a year. 

I came into the competition quite a bit later, in March 2014, and during the course of tweeting back and forth discovered that Debbie was also a writer. I've just bought a copy of her first book, Healer's Touch, a gritty fantasy novel that I began to read a few months ago, and now need to get on and read properly.  It's available as both an ebook and a print title. (I'll explain where you can access it shortly.)

I apparently introduced the word 'twibe' during the competition after rediscovering it on a blog post I'd written back in 2009! Unfortunately, the blog, Webitz,net, appears to be having trouble loading at the moment. I'm hoping it isn't about to vanish off the face of the Internet as the companion blog I used to have with the same provider recently did.

The twibe, that is some of the people tweeting for the competition, got together regularly during the last several months for 'tweet-ups' and social face-to-face contact. I didn't attend many of these meetings, which always involved coffee and food, but I did meet Deb, and discovered an interview that the Time Warriors site had done with her in October this year. It makes interesting reader as it reveals the evolution of the book (and its sequels), her methods of working and more. It also shows her delightful sense of humour. 

Check it out. It's given me the idea of doing something similar with people from the Self-Publishing community on Google+. 

The Blood Secret uploaded

I've been very neglectful in not telling people who read this blog that my latest e-book, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, is now available from Kindle, and Smashwords. I'd love to say it was also available in print, but that's not the case at the moment, although it's a possibility. One of the many options I've explored that haven't quite got off the ground yet.

Anyway, last Saturday the book was uploaded online, and is sitting waiting for people to buy it....

The Blood Secret is the sequel to Grimhilda! the story that began life back in the late 70s, and finally turned into the musical which we presented in Dunedin in 2012. And then it became the book. At the time some of the cast asked when the sequel was going to happen. They were thinking of another musical but such a venture is fairly overwhelming, even with a good team behind you, and so the sequel, now that it's finally arrived, is also in story form rather than musical.

It would be interesting to adapt The Blood Secret for the stage, however: though it has a number of challenges that might be tricky to overcome: a car that changes its colour, skateboarders whizzing around at impossible speed, a huge door that doesn't want to be a door, and something special that wants to remain invisible.

Only a few minor technical problems...!

I'd have loved to have given the four actors Grimhilda! the chance to fly, as they were supposed to do in the script, but in the end the audience had to imagine this. Another production, however, might achieve it. It would certainly add a Wow factor to the stage version. There's one moment of 'flying' in The Blood Secret too, but that would be a challenge even greater than the one in the musical...

Read it and see what I'm talking about!

Sunday, November 09, 2014


I've been involved in the #gigatown competition since March 2014. Some people have been involved since November last year, I think. That's a horrendously long time to compete at something.

Most of my involvement has been on the tweeting side, sending dozens, sometimes hundreds of tweets on many days with the hashtag #gigatowndun. In the process I've gradually lost track of the people I've been following on Twitter who aren't involved in the competition. Which is a pity.

Some of them gave up because they got swamped themselves with #gigatowndun tweets. And fair enough. Even people on Facebook, where all of my original tweets get sent, eventually reacted in the same way.

In the early stages it was a fun way to get to know other local people and write some crazy tweets as well as some sensible ones. Certain weird themes came through about baths, and two people being the same person and such. Innocuous, but quite entertaining, especially if a conversation got going between participants.

In the latter stage when things really got serious, we weren't able to be quite so facetious: the rules changed and we had to spend time tweeting or FaceBooking about things that #gigatowndun would do for the city if we won. That became limiting, especially when a whole pile of new people got involved and basically began tweeting about the same things that had been tweeted about time and time again. Not quite so inspiring.

I've had a few days on Twitter since the later part of the competition, but have found myself struggling to be very creative anymore, and I think there may be a few longstanding Tweeters who've come to the same place. Exhausted with dealing with the same topic over and over.

Yes, I know we should remain enthusiastic, because we're nearly there, and there's every possibility that we may win. I know we should keep the idea of a marathon before us and be thankful that in the last stage a whole pile more supporters have got on board. That is terrific, and kudos to those who've worked hard to get them there.

But I had some other things I wanted to do, and #gigatowndun-ing all day chews up the hours that could be spent productively on other stuff, such as finishing a book - The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, which was published on Kindle yesterday. And then there's the marketing of the other two books I've published this year, and the work on a fourth....

I'm sure, if Dunedin wins the giga comp, it'll make a huge difference over a period of time. But much and all as I'd like to spend the last couple of days plugging away at it, I think I've just plain run out of steam.

Friday, November 07, 2014

High priests of intellectualism

In two different books I've been reading recently, I've found the same unpleasant idea turning up. 

From Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, page 199

[Bertrand Russell] wrote: 'I like mathematics because it is not human.' In his essay, 'The Study of Mathematics', he rejoiced: 'Mathematics possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty - a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, sublimely pure and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.' 

Russell never believed that the populace could or should be encouraged to penetrate the frontiers of knowledge. His professional work in mathematics was carried out in a highly technical manner, making not the smallest concession to the non-specialist. Philosophical speculations, he argued, should be conducted in a special language and he fought not only to retain but to strengthen this hieratic code. He was a high priest of the intellect, forbidding outsiders to penetrate the arcana. He disagreed strongly with those of his philosophical colleagues, like G.E. Moore, who wanted to debate problems in ordinary, commonsense language, insisting: 'common sense embodies the metaphysics of savages.'

From the Introduction to The Critic's Part: Wystan Curnow Art Writings 1971-2013. The Introduction is by one of the editors, Robert Leonard:

In [his essay] ‘High Culture’, Curnow complained that New Zealand’s cultural middlemen (its critics and commentators) dragged art down by seeking to reduce the distance between art and the public, when they should be seeking to increase that distance by generating the ‘psychic insulation’ that would enable artists to be ambitious, free of the restraints placed on them by an uninformed, unappreciative society. 

Johnson's book, Intellectuals, looks at a number of highly-regarded intellectuals who frequently placed themselves above the 'people'. They supposedly loved the 'people' as long as they were en masse. People who actually came into face to face contact with these intellectuals were usually treated with disdain, bruised, battered and thrown on the heap when no longer cared about. While Curnow doesn't appear to go quite that far, his insistence on artists distancing themselves from the public in order to do their work, is yet another example of this idea that certain people are above the run of the general populace. 

Incidentally, Russell did write for the mass, often. He wrote about a wide range of topics, many of which he hadn't the least idea about. And he would write with passion about something one year and claim he'd never done so some time later. 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The joy of new words

Much of the joy of writing comes from shopping from the hundreds of thousands of words that English makes available, and it’s good to remember that each of them was a neologism in its day. The new entries in AHD 5* are a showcase for the linguistic exuberance and recent cultural history of the Anglosphere: Abrahamic, air rage, amuse-bouche, backward-compatible, brain freeze, butterfly effect, carbon footprint, camel toe, community policing, crowdsourcing, Disneyfication, dispensationalism, dream catcher, earbud, emo, encephalization, farklempt, fashionista, fast-twitch, Goldilocks zone, grayscale, Grinch, hall of mirrors, hat hair, heterochrony, infographics, interoperable, Islamofascism, jelly sandal, jiggy, judicial activism, ka-ching, kegger, kerfuffle, leet, liminal, lipstick lesbian, manboob, McMansion, metabolic syndrome, nanobot, neuroethics, nonperforming, off the grid, Onesie, overdiagnosis, parkour, patriline, phish, quantum entanglement, queer theory, quilling, race-bait, recursive, rope-a-dope, scattergram, semifreddo, sexting, tag-team, time-suck, tranche, ubuntu, unfunny, universal Turing machine, vacuum energy, velociraptor, vocal percussion, waterboard, webmistress, wetware, Xanax, xenoestrogen, x-ray fish, yadda yadda yadda, yellow dog, yutz, Zelig, zettabyte, zipline If I were allowed to take just one book to the proverbial desert island, it might be a dictionary.\

Stephen Pinker, in The Sense of Style, page 56 (Kindle edition)

*The American Heritage Dictionary: 5th edition. 

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Urine Test

In a recent edition of the Otago Daily Times, there was a reprint of an essay Chris Harris wrote on the need to find a better method of detecting prostate cancer.

At present one of the prime methods used is a biopsy in which a needle is pushed up into the man's anus, and then through the wall dividing the bowel and the prostate. Tiny pieces of his prostate are chipped off and then sent to the lab for examination. This is the examination I had back in late 2008. There were complications as a result of this biopsy which I describe in some detail in my ebook, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. [This ebook is currently available at half-price at Smashwords to support Movember, the prostate cancer month.]

The problem with this biopsy - the transrectal method - is that infection can easily occur. In fact, men are routinely given antibiotics after the biopsy because it's assumed there will be infections. It's hardly surprising that there are, because the wall between two parts of the body - one of them intended to deal with faecal matter - is pierced and broken open. It's a bit like sticking your hand in a toilet, then using your hand straightaway to put food in your mouth. If you don't get infected, it'll be surprising.

Chris Harris wrote about a new option that's being looked at to avoid this biopsy. Currently several PSA blood tests are done before a biopsy is considered, in tandem with the unpleasant finger up the bum approach that shows whether the prostate is unduly enlarged or not. Chris says the PSA test was never designed to do what it's being used for now, and writes: 'We aim to take a more direct approach by analysing small amounts of prostate cells exfoliated in urine. There is evidence that very small amounts of prostate cancer cells, between one and a few dozen, are shed normally into the urine at an early stage of the disease. Our aim is to pick out these cancer cells and extract molecular information from them to predict if a tumour is going to become a malignant monster or a benign wimp.'

It's normal for men's prostates to enlarge as they get older. Most of the time this isn't anything to do with cancer; it's a common problem many men will have to deal with - as I did. Surgery is performed to decrease the size of the prostate, thus allowing the urinary tract to function properly. (The urinary tract gets blocked by the prostate rather like a large stone in a small river bed.)

There is hope that the urine test will be readily available soon - possibly within months. In the UK, trial tests of the urine samples were accurate in about 70% of cases. However Chris warns that there is still work to be done to ensure thorough accuracy. And of course, as always, funding is a problem.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Supporting the Movember cause

Expect to see lots of facial hair on the faces of men who normally go facially bald. (Sorry, clean-shaven.)

Why? It's Movember, the month when there's a big focus on that horrible killer of men: prostate cancer. Apparently those who join in the Movember cause are only allowed to grow moustaches (or mustaches, as our North American friends put it). No beards, and no goatees. And you're not allowed to start in advance of November the 1st. The moustache has to gradually make its appearance from November the 1st onwards.

I won't be joining the men who are growing moustaches, of course, since I'm a permanent beard/moustache wearer. The only couple of times I've taken this facial hair off was when I surprised my wife after she'd been overseas, and when I performed in the play, The Magician's Nephew, back in the early part of this century. I don't look good without a beard, and so I'm sorry, it won't be coming off.

On the other hand, to show that I'm not without sympathy to the Movember cause, I'm offering my book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp, at half-price on Smashwords for this month. If you order it on that site (it's available for a variety of ebook devices, including Kindle) all you need to do is add in the coupon number - VB48P - when you're ordering, and you'll get the discount.

Why should men read Prostate Wimp? Firstly because most men will face some sort of prostate issue at some point in their lives. The majority won't get prostate cancer, thankfully, but they still have to deal with some difficulties in an area that men prefer to keep private.

The book helps men understand what the prostate does and what happens to it normally as men get older - it's very common for it to enlarge. This may not cause any problem at all; it may affect urination; it may have other side effects. Better to be forewarned about what may happen.

And it helps men to be better informed when they go to the doctor as these problems start to occur. Doctors aren't always as open and frank about prostates as they might be. Knowing what sorts of questions to ask is useful.

Nobody Birds

The following piece was one of many I wrote for the weekly column, Column Eight. The pieces appeared in the Dunedin Star Midweeker in the early 1990s. I've edited it very slightly; there were also a couple of typos in the printed version. A now-deceased friend, Gaynor Smith, had cut it out of the paper and kept it with a host of other material. Her sister found it while going through Gaynor's multitude of papers.

Nobody Birds ˗ Column Eight ˗ November 8 1995

On one of several mornings lately when I haven’t been able to sleep through until a civilised hour, I got up and went for a walk. The day was overcast, the sun barely pinking the clouds. The cool air kept my hands in my pockets.

After wending my way round streets familiar to me through all my born days, I came across a blackbird sitting on a garage roof, singing his heart out.

I’d been aware of the birds all around me waking the day with their singing. I couldn’t help being aware of it, just as at night, if I happen to be in the Octagon or the Queens Gardens as the sun’s going down, I can’t help but notice thousands of sparrows setting themselves for the night by shouting and chattering all at once.

It’s as if they’re trying to hold back sleep ˗ or night ˗ like tired and boisterous children unwilling to go to bed, wearing their parents out with their caterwauling.

It’s easy to think that it’s only out in the open, in the country, that you really hear birds singing.

I remember lying in bed one morning in a place on Banks Peninsula, listening to a bellbird (so I called it, though it may not have been). Time after time he dropped his perfectly-formed notes into the still air, with the regularity of a tap dripping into a bath.

That morning is a glorious moment fixed in my memory.

But this blackbird, this particular morning, was a bird of a different feather ˗ of course. Not for him the hypnotically-repeated, fragrant full-formed notes.

No, he sat there and opened his throat, like a jazz singer in full flight, and the only consistent thing about his song was the regular pause between phrases when he took, I guess, a necessary breath.

He soared up and down the scales, he trilled, he twittered, he laughed, he sang a moment of beauty and topped it off with a scratch across a blackboard. He gave little screams interspersed with fragments from his favourite operas. He choked notes in mid-stream, and coughed. He threw music off the top of his head and caught it again, gave it a shake and a rattle and a roll, and turned it into a thing of beauty forever. He was an avian coloratura.

Across the road, oscillating on an electric wire, was another blackbird. He was doing some trapeze work with his song, swinging it back and forth in a much more regular pattern. Down the road another bird kept hitting his top note and sliding down the scale on a toboggan.

The French composer, Olivier Messiaen, spent a life-time recording bird songs and turning them, unaltered, into compositions for the piano and orchestra. (Personally, I think they lose something in the transition, though the attempt is admirable.)

But I think Messiaen would have found it impossible to cap
ture the wonder of this plain old blackbird’s song. I could only stand in awe as this minuscule scrap of creation gave forth praise to his Creator.

We’ve had a cockatiel in our house for many years. He’s lost whatever little bit of English he could speak, and he’s decided that chattering and squawking is sufficient to make his needs known. (Though he likes to join in when human singers come for a practice.)

Once in a blue moon, however, our cockatiel allows us to hear what he can really do with his voice. He opens his throat and puts Ella Fitzgerald to shame. Then with a casual cough he settles down and becomes just a nobody-cockatiel again.

Thinking entrepreneurially, I could see our cockatiel and that morning blackbird making a great duo. Borrowing a little, maybe, they could call themselves Bee Bee and Cee Cee Tee Winans, or the Daytime Nightingales, or even, Birds Blow the Whistle.